Writing frankly, Hugh Roberts

Frank Sargeson’s Stories
Janet Wilson (ed)
Cape Catley, $47.99,
ISBN 9781877340284


The Dictionary of New Zealand Biography tells us that “Frank Sargeson’s major achievement was to introduce the rhythms and idiom of everyday New Zealand speech to literature”, and in saying so it accurately summarises the conventional wisdom. Janet Wilson, the editor of this new, comprehensive, collection of Sargeson’s short stories doesn’t stray far from this template in her useful introduction when she refers to his “mastery of the idioms and rhythms of the Kiwi vernacular”. Janet Frame in An Angel at My Table recalls the publication of Sargeson’s 1945 collection of New Zealand short stories, Speaking for Ourselves, as an epoch in her own literary development, a revelation that it was possible to write about the New Zealand of her own experience in her own language: “the stories overwhelmed me by the fact of their belonging.”

There is, however, a remarkable irony in conceiving of Sargeson as the man through whom we discover ourselves to be “at home” in New Zealand, linguistically or otherwise. Has any writer, in fact, been so obsessed with dépaysement as Sargeson? The locus classicus of a Sargeson short story is a boarding-house, or failing that a pub; his characters chafe and bristle against any attempt to tie them down to even as much as a straight answer, let alone any enduring relationship. The few real and permanent homes that appear in his stories figure as ghastly straightjackets of puritan conformity.

In fact, Sargeson’s relationship to New Zealand is from the start a profoundly conflicted one. After less than a year’s practice as a solicitor in the mid- 1920s, the young Sargeson (or Norris Davey, as he was then) found he had “a tremendous yen to get to the Old World [while] I was young and had the money”; the lure of the Old World was “the music I couldn’t hear, the theatre I couldn’t see”. But a year’s travelling in Europe left him feeling “the intolerable weight of so much civilisation”; if New Zealand was a cultural desert, it was at least his own: “I knew that I was only indirectly a part of it all [European culture] … for better or worse, and for life, I belonged to the new world.”

“For better or worse”: the marriage Sargeson was to make with his homeland would never be entirely happy. If he had found himself essentially alienated from the cultural fecundity of the Old World, he still railed against the narrow-minded conservatism of the New. The terrible blow of being prosecuted for having sex with another man not long after his return from Europe (the event that precipitated his withdrawal from a conventional professional life and gave birth to his new identity as Frank Sargeson) must have confirmed for him his sense of being an outsider in the only country he could call “home”.

Sargeson’s turn, then, to the New Zealand vernacular is not a confident assertion of a nascent New Zealand identity, and nor is it the striking innovation that some seem to think. A decade before Sargeson began to publish, Frank S Anthony’s Me and Gus stories had brought the “rhythms and idiom” of New Zealand working men’s speech firmly, and self-confidently, into the national consciousness. What is innovative in Sargeson’s stories is not the appearance of the language itself, but the role that it plays as an index of Sargeson’s troubled relationship to his country. Sargeson is not the first to adopt this language, but he’s the first to put it to more than representational use.

New Zealand working-class idioms are, for Sargeson, an escape from the stultifying world of middle-class Puritanism, to be sure; the typical Sargeson narrator is not actually working-class but the victim of a middle-class upbringing who looks with envy at the easy give and take of working-class banter (see, for example, “Chaucerian”). But they are simultaneously an acknowledgment of New Zealand’s terrifying limitedness, its lack of any rich outlet for creative or emotional expression (the music we don’t hear, the theatre we don’t see). The clearest example of this, and also the best of Sargeson’s short stories, is “The Hole that Jack Dug”. While we side entirely, as we’re meant to do, with Tom’s and Jack’s easygoing mateship (“for a cobber you couldn’t pick on a finer bloke”) against the tea-drinking, Hugh Walpole-reading, soul-crushing pretensions of Jack’s wife and her friends, the real drama of the story lies in what neither Tom nor Jack has the language to say. Tom cannot speak, act upon or even acknowledge his physical desire for Jack. The language of mateship can easily express its disdain for women (and the misogyny of Sargeson’s fictional world is rather tiresomely insistent), but it has no outlet for love between men. And Jack’s act of digging his hole is above all a desperate act of expression by a man who can find no effective means to express his frustration at the life he’s fallen into, at the loss of his wife’s love, and at his impotence to stop the coming war that will eventually claim the life of his son.

An act of expression, yes; a work, indeed, of art — one perfectly in accord with Kant’s definition of the aesthetic work as purposefulness without purpose — but one which stands as a perfect analogy to Sargeson’s own work of art and his own deliberately impoverished language: it expresses by taking away, by digging a hole; it expresses through absence rather than plenitude. It gestures towards the gaping hole in the New Zealand cultural fabric that first drove Sargeson out of these islands and then drew him reluctantly back. It is the perfect expression of Jack’s, and the New Zealand vernacular’s, incapacity for expression.

We find the language of Kiwi mateship playing a similar role in Sargeson’s masterful novella, That Summer, where Bill’s easygoing demotic style allows him rapidly to strike up relationships, but where he is tragically incapable of finding the words to express anything that falls outside of his limited frame of reference. His dogged refusal to see that his neighbour Mavis is a transvestite, for example, or his inability to name his own overwhelming love for the dying Terry are gaping holes in that story akin to the literalised one of “The Hole that Jack Dug”. The boarding-house setting of the novella, too, speaks of a shallow-rooted community incapable of forming more lasting bonds.

In the same vein, the unnamed narrator of “The Making of a New Zealander” finds it easy to strike up a friendly conversation with Nick, the Dalmatian immigrant who is reluctantly reconciling himself to his new identity as a “New Zealander”. But there is something in Nick’s willingness, and ability, to express his longing for Dalmatia’s “deep and sweet” soil, his dedication to his “mate” (“If his mate died, he said, he would die too”), his general Weltschmerz (“You think that you and me are born too soon? What do you think?”) that simply exceeds the narrator’s limited capacity for empathetic understanding. At the story’s end, he ducks out on his invitation to join Nick and his mate in drinking their (Old World) wine, too uncomfortable with the way Nick has stretched the boundaries of his (New) worldview: “I wanted to get Nick out of my mind. He knew what he was talking about, but maybe it’s best for a man to hang on.”

The aching, inchoate need for expression without any suitable outlet afflicts almost everyone in Sargeson’s stories before 1950. The loudest voice in all these stories is the unsaid; often the reader is left unsure what, exactly, the characters would say if they could, but that something seethes unspoken just below Sargeson’s always reticent surface is certain. It is no surprise, then, although it seems not to have been incorporated into the conventional Sargeson mythos, that violence so often erupts in these stories. In “Sale Day” a cat is tossed into a cooking fire as Victor’s sexual frustrations boil over. In “A Great Day” Fred leaves the non-swimmer Ken to an almost certain death out at sea from envy for his superior physique and financial success. In “A Good Boy” the narrator kills his girlfriend for cheating on him and feels “better and cleaner than I’ve ever felt in my life” for doing so. In “I’ve Lost My Pal”, George strangles a dog because its barking annoys him, and kills Tom in part, it seems, because of Tom’s moralistic response to George’s (implied) homosexuality. The narrator, Tom’s “pal” who has been attracted to George and his “corker body”, ends the story with the chilling lines:

I’m sore at losing Tom. I am that. But I have to admit that he’d sometimes get on your nerves and make you feel tired by arguing silly. Haven’t you ever felt like that with anyone? Own up. I bet you have.


These appalling acts of violence are also a kind of “purposefulness without purpose”, also a kind of “art” like Jack’s hole; it would be easy to imagine a version of “The Hole that Jack Dug” in which the hole was dug in a person rather than the garden. They speak again to the nature of Sargeson’s own art, which is itself often a violent one that leaves readers unsettled and unsure where to place their sympathies (“Haven’t you ever felt like that with anyone?”). It is a perfect vehicle to convey Sargeson’s own artistic dilemma: how to express the cultural condition of being incapable of expression, how to generate a national literature that captures the condition of being unready for a literature, how, finally, to talk about love and relationship in a land in which your own form of love is literally outlawed.

Conventional wisdom has it that Sargeson’s later short stories lose the edge of the earlier ones, and I can’t really disagree. One can understand his desire to escape from his self-created “Sargeson” mythos, but the baroquely over-precise and often prolix language of the later stories is simply fatiguing: for instance, a sentence like “Such unceremonious untidy eating might well have tried Edward’s patience if it had gone unaccompanied by the interest of their conversation” in “Just Trespassing, Thanks”.

There are 13 previously uncollected stories in this collection, mostly from the early, Tomorrow period. These are interesting to read, and a boon for scholarly completists, but for the most part one can see why they remained uncollected before now. “Three Women”, indeed, is an early draft of the long-collected “Three Men” and the later version, which switches third person to first, is in every way more compelling. “Conversation with a Landlady” is another repressed-middle-class-wowser-learns-about-the-world story, although it has a nice loopy humour to it: “You see, Harry’s young; he’s read things in sentimental novels, and he spends all day dipping mop handles down a long pipe full of paint, and they’d been telling him things in Methodist Bible Class to dampen him down a bit.” “Alma Mater” is a rather tedious attack on the “second hand” knowledge of “modern young university professors” who need to know more about “raw life”. “From a Lady Editor’s Notebook” is a summum of Sargesonian misogyny: “A lavender bit for next week: ‘Aren’t these lovely summer mornings so lovely? Oh, the dew-diamonds and the pearly mists!’” Women, Methodists and young university professors are all constitutionally incapable of coming to grips with the “raw life” of the real New Zealand.

The most interesting of these stories is “It Shows Sinatra Can be a Good Influence” in which a young soldier on leave, a preux chevalier in every particular, sings snatches of Sammy Cahn’s and Jule Styne’s “I’ll Walk Alone” while, in a radically unSargesonian fashion, preventing (or chastising) eruptions of violence in the more typically Sargesonian Kiwis around him at the “arcade” where he’s waiting for his girl. The interweaving of an American pop-culture text into raw Kiwi life is without parallel in Sargeson’s other stories: “ ‘Listen mate,’ the soldier said, ‘never lift your hand against a fellow-man. I’ll be lonely…’ ” One can only assume that the “good influence” of Sinatra is intended ironically, that this saintly young soldier (he doesn’t drink, he expresses disdain for the fleshpots of Cairo, he preaches harmony between man and animal) represents the irreality – and irrelevance to raw Kiwi life – of the sentimental pop-cultural world of the song. But the vision of an American pop-cultural escape hatch from the Raw New World/Overcooked Old World tension that drives Sargeson’s storytelling elsewhere suggests tantalising possibilities of a road not to be properly explored in New Zealand literature until the Freed generation of the 1960s.


Hugh Roberts teaches at the University of California, Irvine.

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