The Dr Johnson of New Zealand literature, Michael Hulse

Book Self
C K Stead
Auckland University Press, $38.99, 
ISBN 9781869404123

It isn’t in the spirit of the age that a Goethe will still attract his Eckermann, or a Dr Johnson his Boswell. A companion free of all other commitments, and equipped not only with the patience, the endurance, the ability to listen, and the stamina to sit up long after the evening’s talking and drinking are done to set it all down, but also with so powerful a conviction of the other’s importance that it overrides his own sense of self, strikes the modern taste as being not merely a prodigious friend but also somehow less (not more) than human, not merely rich in modesty but actually displaying a pathetic self-abnegation. No amanuensis will follow the writers of our times around, recording their every insight and bon mot into the small hours. Publishers provide a minder, fellow writers tell anecdotes at dinner (Stead tells a good one of Peter Porter’s about Allen Curnow) and in doing so remind us that we too will be modified in the guts of the living, over a glass of wine – but that’s about it. Until the critical biographies come along, there’s no one to look after the record but oneself.

Karl Stead – who has a fair claim to be thought, not the Goethe, but the Dr Johnson of New Zealand literature – has long since accepted the rationale this prompts. Embracing rather than fighting the inevitable, he’s become his own press agent, recording angel, and blogger, tying up loose ends, glossing his own meanings, setting the record straight. The space given to ancillary material (travel notes, interviews, etc) in his hold-all gatherings of reviews and lectures, of which Book Self is the latest and largest, has grown steadily, and now occupies (depending on how you read some of the pieces here) roughly half of the book. For one whose mind was additionally concentrated by a stroke not so long ago, as we know, this has a further dimension: the Stead who swims out to the yellow buoy at Kohimarama, counting the times in a notebook here, is of a piece with the Stead who is putting his house, or at least his papers, in order. The principle behind both actions is one of responsibility.

Book Self is an avowedly personal book and doesn’t claim to be fresh as criticism (it revisits the same writers and aesthetic issues that Stead has often written on before, and says much the same about them, sometimes even referring us to what he wrote earlier). Nor, for all its straight-talking firmness, does it affect to offer argument more sustained than what a Dr Johnson would have considered table-talk (even the lectures reprinted here have a high component of anecdote and memoir). As always, there are asides that impress by their crisp justice. A S Byatt’s novel A Whistling Woman is a “badly packed parcel”. Salman Rushdie in Shalimar the Clown is trying to escape from the “cartoon quality that gave his early writing its characteristic quality”, but “the escapes are into journalism and anger”. Stead relishes Robert Lowell’s irony in putting into the mouth of Ezra Pound, who “broke” the iambic pentameter, a perfect example of one: “Who’s left alive to understand my jokes?” Enjoying Elizabeth Knox’s Billie’s Kiss, written to sound Edwardian, he has a reservation: “the style is not florid enough, not sufficiently oblique, upholstered or subjunctified.” (That “upholstered” is surely the perfect word. For that matter, “oblique, upholstered or subjunctified” isn’t a bad pentameter either – it has a whiff of “unhouseled, disappointed, unaneled” to it.)

Alternative ways of plotting a course through Book Self could be envisaged, if we’re not reading for an overarching critical position. Let’s try one. Stead professes the orthodox scepticism about creative writing courses, but here he is adopting the creative writing tutor tone: “Minor characters reappear after they have been forgotten,” he writes in connection with Elizabeth Knox, “and the reader has to go back and quarry for them. […] A good story-teller should not make this mistake; and should resist the temptation to run away up every side-track that presents itself.” This same air of the work table, of the professional writer’s habit of mind, is there in a remark on Mulgan’s Man Alone: “Its human relations are wooden, as if characters interact by thought rather than feeling.”

A different entertainment in Book Self might be to track his observations on women. Here he is on Elizabeth Knox again: “When I was in Washington with Elizabeth she wore long skirts all the time and I wondered what her legs were like – whether she was hiding them. For the record, now that I’ve seen her swimming: they are very good legs.” Seeing the movie Dogville, he writes: “Kidman proves again that she is not just a pretty face on long beautiful legs. She is an actress with huge talent.” Meeting Australian novelist and poet Peter Goldsworthy, Stead notes only the writer’s name but takes a few more words to record “Peter’s tall beautiful intelligent daughter Anna, a pianist”. In London for the launch of My Name Was Judas, he tells us: “All the lovely Harvill young women were there […] What a skill MacLehose had for discovering beauty and talent in single packages.”

Noticing that Stead had revised his old landmark essay of 1979, “From Wystan to Carlos”, I dug out my old copy of In the Glass Case and compared texts. One difference is that Wallace Stevens has been admitted to his canon of Modernism, first in his list of “great texts” and then, even more strikingly, in his mention of “Allen Curnow’s course on Wallace Stevens” as one of the “significant influences” that the Auckland University English Department had (so he now asserts) on the emerging poets of the late Sixties and early Seventies. Among several minor changes with larger implications, one that’s especially telling occurs in the contrast of Curnow’s “perfection” and Baxter’s “beautifully judged approximations”: where the old account of Curnow reads, “it is the perfections which shut the reader out, rendering him spectator”, the new text has, “it’s the perfections which shut readers out, rendering us spectators”, which not only makes a plural commonalty of the experience, to replace the old-style singular male reader, but also, significantly, more specifically includes Stead, through that “us”, among those who feel excluded.

It was two sentences in that old essay, which Stead has placed last in this fat new book, that brought me up short. “Life does not order itself into narrative, or into logical argument; so in the degree to which the poem organises itself in that way, it falsifies. Life does not explain itself or point a moral; so in the degree to which a poem does these things, it is artificial.” He’s trying to describe what we mean by “open form” in poetry, and his terms are easily recognised in the context of that aesthetic debate, but the words struck me as richly ironic coming from a writer who has put all his energy into narrative, into logical argument, and into explaining (though not, it’s true, pointing morals).

I’ve said that Stead has a fair claim to be thought the Dr Johnson of New Zealand literature. What I mean is that Stead’s mind, like Dr Johnson’s, is first and foremost a critical intelligence. His fiction and his poetry, like Johnson’s, spring from the one habit of mind. That habit is always to inquire, examine, scrutinise, analyse, conclude, pronounce; he inhabits an Age of Reason; he knows his mind and speaks it unmistakably; he is a writer of Johnsonian assertiveness, professionalism, conviction, and self-esteem. His fiction proceeds from a confidence that clear narrative, expressed in lucid syntax, can offer an account of human relations. He’s right; but the point is that that conviction depends on logical, explicatory, narrative principles. Somewhere in his thinking he evidently has an unacknowledged classical ideal. By that I don’t mean the borrowed Catullan voice, the plain Roman candour of address, that produced his strongest poems; Stead’s classical canon, which affords the Platonic shape behind all his thinking on literature, is of course the Modernism of Pound and Eliot. Quick to perceive conservatism in Auden and others, he seems unaware that his abiding insistence on viewing modern writing through the prism of high Modernism is itself profoundly conservative. “If Pope be not a poet,” demanded Johnson, “where is poetry to be found?” In Stead’s poetics, for Pope read Pound.

Those who know Stead only by reputation or on the page may be surprised to learn that he describes himself in passing here as a shy person. From my knowledge of him, I’d agree with that. But I’d have to add the rider that all reticence vanishes when he has to speak in public, as it does when he marshals his thoughts for the page. A shy Dr Johnson? Now there’s a notion.


Michael Hulse, whose Empires and Holy Lands: Poems 1976-2000 was published by Salt in 2002, is a judge for the Günter Grass Foundation’s Albatross Prize.

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