Beyond the Breakwater: Stories 1948-1998
O E Middleton (ed Lawrence Jones)
Otago University Press, $49.95,
This large collection of O E Middleton’s short fiction spans 50 years of the author’s career and yet, on the surface, the style and subject matter of these stories appears to remain fairly static over this time. Middleton’s 1990s stories read much the same as his stories from the 1950s: unassuming, understated and uncompromisingly plain and clear in their depictions of a particular impression of New Zealand life. In Middleton’s stories we see him consistently return to a fairly narrow set of preoccupations; working men in rural and urban settings, New Zealand life in the 1940s and 50s, WWII, poverty, economic and social injustice, and the importance of various forms of community playing off against the frequent isolation of his characters.
In his excellent introduction to this collection, Lawrence Jones suggests that Middleton is best understood as a “writer developing his own mode, ignoring the vagaries of fashion”. Middleton’s literary career, he goes on to argue, has been one of continuity and development within a “male social realist tradition”. This tradition clearly reaches back to what Jones describes as “first generation” New Zealand writers such as Charles Brasch, Allen Curnow and, above all else, Frank Sargeson, to whom Middleton’s work would seem to hold its clearest debt. Indeed, Ian Richards reviewing Middleton’s last story collection in 1998 said that the stories had “something of a time capsule quality” and could be seen as a continuation, or a contemporary refinement, of the social realist tradition of the 1950s. But what does the continuation of this tradition offer 21st century readers? And what can these uncompromising, unchanging and unfashionable stories tell us about the current form of the New Zealand short story?
Initially I was uncertain if they could offer anything of value at all, and it was tempting to dismiss these stories as dusty curiosities, but that opinion soon changed as I got deeper into the collection. Middleton is a New Zealand writer I had not come across in a long while, but one whom I vaguely remembered from high school English classes. Short stories often seemed to make up the bulk of the mandatory New Zealand literature component in high school, and there must have been a piece or two by Middleton tucked away in there somewhere, a brief diversion from all the Katherine Mansfield and Frank Sargeson one might have expected. I remembered them as the sort of thing a well-meaning teacher might slip into the curriculum in the hope that they might appeal to a class of restless boys: “day on the farm” stories, rural, anecdotal, stoic and masculine, depicting an impression of New Zealand life that I found difficult to reconcile with my own sense of the highly urbanised and internationally focused country that I had grown up in.
Coming back to Middleton’s short fiction, however, has been a different experience. His work benefits from being read consistently and chronologically, revealing depths and nuances within what appears at first to be quite a limited and unchanging approach to New Zealand life and culture. The earliest stories in the collection (such as “My Thanksgiving”, “Cooper’s Christmas”, “A Bit of Bad Luck”) do feel very much like anecdotes, but Middleton’s ability and confidence as a writer builds quite tangibly over the course of the collection, and his later stories, while often dealing with similar themes and subjects, feel more rounded, subtle and complete. There is a stark contrast, for instance, between Middleton’s brief vignette about imprisonment in an American jail (“My Thanksgiving”) at the start of the collection, and the witty, affecting and detailed exploration of prison life (“The Collector”) that follows some pages (and years) later. After an early succession of rather blunt (and, to my mind, bland) rural, “man-alone” stories, the extended, moving portrait of a couple dealing with a failed pregnancy in “A Married Man” comes as a surprise. The story marks a turning point in Middleton’s career, signalling that he was a writer of greater capacity and emotional range than his earlier work might have indicated.
With “A Married Man” and the stories that follow, it becomes clear that while critics have been correct in typing Middleton as a “masculine” writer of the 1950s mode (with regard to both style and subject matter), he is never uncomplicatedly or uncritically masculine in his writing. His men are frequently alone, but are seldom alone by choice. Rather, as we see in excellent stories such as “The Greaser’s Story”, “The Duchess and the Doss House”, and “The Loners”, they are isolated through circumstance, poverty or prejudice, and are often depicted as searching for a point of connection or a sense of belonging, while at the same time finding some solace in the temporary communities formed by workers and the indignant. With consistent reading, Middleton’s wry, understated sense of humour also becomes more apparent. The ironically verbose opening to the “The Duchess and the Doss House” stands out as an example, as does the dry depiction of the narrator’s obsession with postal chess in “The Will to Win”, which segues seamlessly into a profound and affecting sadness later in the story.
As can be seen by his two American jailhouse stories, Middleton does occasionally experiment with stories that reach beyond his usual milieu of 1940s-50s New Zealand, but with the exception of “The Collector”, these often feel unsuccessful in comparison. With the two stories that are set exclusively in Europe (“The Crows” and “For Once in Your Life”), the faint thread of didacticism that runs through all of Middleton’s work becomes more unpleasantly apparent, and he indulges in forms of stereotype and caricature that are beneath a writer of his ability. His best work definitely comes out of his resolute focus on his New Zealand settings, and this focus is seldom limited or parochial in its outlook.
WWII looms large in many stories, offering Middleton’s characters the chance to realign their perspectives on their surroundings and place in the world at large, even as it disrupts their lives. The backdrop of the war allows the characters in “A Means of Soaring” to experience surprising change and cultural enrichment, and it also feeds into Middleton’s subtle depiction of 1940s shifts in Maori-Pakeha relations in his complex and interconnected stories towards the end of the collection. Particular mention needs to be made of “Killers”, a story from the 1960s, where in five brief, exquisite pages all the elements of Middleton’s style come together. Here he is able to display the power of his emotion as a writer without indulging in sentimentality, the depth of his morality without any recourse to didacticism. It is the best story in this collection, and one of the finest I have ever read.
In a recent essay, “Trickster in a Suit of Lights: Thoughts on the Modern Short Story”, the American writer Michael Chabon laments the current dominance of what he describes as “the contemporary, quotidian, plotless, moment-of-truth revelatory story”, to the exclusion of all other potential forms of short fiction. Chabon is talking principally about the short story in the American context, but looking back at the last 20 years or so, I think it would be fair to say that the essentially epiphanal type of story he describes has arguably become the dominant form in New Zealand as well. This is not necessarily as bad a thing as Chabon makes out in his essay, but this timely collection of unfashionable, uncompromising, “time-capsule” stories reminds us that the short story is capable of operating in more modes than its current form would suggest, that it can serve different functions and filter different interests. No one would suggest that it would be profitable for New Zealand writers to substantially return to the social realism of the 1950s, but Middleton’s determined preservation of this style of writing across his long career can help us to see that the short story as a literary form has been (and still can be) more versatile than it may seem at present. This is an occasionally frustrating but ultimately rewarding collection from an accomplished and still surprising New Zealand writer.
Julian Novitz is a writer and reviewer who now lives in Melbourne.