Life in the bush, by the bay, Dougal McNeill

Speaking Frankly: The Frank Sargeson Memorial Lectures 2003-2010
Sarah Shieff (ed)
Cape Catley, $31.99,
ISBN 9781877340277


Celebrating Katherine Mansfield: A Centenary Volume of Essays
Gerri Kimber and Janet Wilson (eds)
Palgrave Macmillan, $162.00,
ISBN 9780230277731


It was a situation of the kind that prompted Harold Bloom to come up with his grand, batty notions of the anxiety of influence and the strong misreading. Frank Sargeson, giving a radio talk on Katherine Mansfield in 1948, announced that her fame placed him in an “unhappy situation”; the fact Mansfield’s stories are “the most famous in the country” led Sargeson to admit that he didn’t “feel it to be altogether an advantage that I myself have written short stories”. Seeking, with no little anxiety, to contain this threatening presence, Sargeson dealt to her by offering praise which, following a fairly standard male practice, put her in her place. Mansfield is “in the feminine tradition”, Sargeson announced. This is nothing to snort at, to be sure – Richardson was the tradition’s instigator – but, with Austen and Forster, Mansfield is a figure in literature’s 2nd XI: “I think it is fair to go on and say that the feminine tradition is the minor tradition.” Having got this piece of posturing out of the way, Sargeson spent the rest of the address praising Mansfield in ways which led one to yearn for the masculine tradition as exemplified in his own stories.

Sargeson’s radio talk seemed, when I first came across it in Conversation in a Train, a fairly standard piece of sexist strategising, recognising in it the typical dismissive gesture that had done so much to belittle women’s writing through the last century. Indeed, reading practices picked up from school English had got me into the habit of reading Sargeson and Mansfield as opposites and contrasts, with Sargeson, the constrained, sparse, meagre – so it felt to me then – realist wilting before the intelligence and display of Mansfield’s best stories. Reading these lines about the feminine tradition a decade on, though, I wonder if it might not fit, in new ways, for them both: aren’t we, after all, in an historical moment that delights in the minor and the fragmentary? When every ambitious postgraduate has a copy of Deleuze’s and Guattari’s Kafka, or, Towards a Minor Literature positioned prominently on their coffee tables, and when blogging and electronic publication re-fashion our notions of completion and wholeness in literary texts, assigning a writer to “minor” status is one way of establishing that they speak to contemporary concerns.

Sargeson and Mansfield are both “minor” in other ways, too: they are masters in the short-story form, itself much taken with the fleeting, the impression, and the passing moment. Ricardo Piglia calls the short story a “tale that encloses a secret tale”, and this emphasis on secrecy fits Sargeson’s and Mansfield’s shared obsessions with the hidden, the deviant and the destructive. “Chaucerian”, Sargeson’s creepy little tale of Puritanism transformed by paedophilia, could, on this reading, be seen as something of a companion piece to “Je Ne Parle Pas Français”, both being among the best studies of male sexuality and self-deceit we have.

Modernist scholarship – and, I suspect, general readers’ habits too – has, in recent years, tried to fit the big names we all know – Eliot, Joyce, Yeats, Pound – into their wider context, and has found, in the “big, buzzing, blooming confusion” of political chaos and anti-imperialist energy coursing through inter-war London a much richer field of writers and texts than we’d once been led to expect. Mansfield and Sargeson both fit this expanded sense of modernism, as they both make language strange and new to capture the difficulties of colonial experience; are drawn to representations of social outcasts; and stretch the short-story form to make it at once more capacious and more precise, determined as they both are to register areas of the social world not much given to public view. Both prove themselves master modernists in their ingenious use of extended, and ironic, free indirect style, producing stories in which one’s longing for a stable site for fantasy projection and sympathy is forever frustrated by unwelcome revelation and unsettling reversals. If modernism is a response to incomplete modernity and the sometimes violent juxtapositions between old world and new, both live their modernism in their contrasts of country and city, the “taint of the pioneer” mixing uneasily with dreams of life by the bay or in the bush. Both, as part of this creative energy, are driven by something like an anti-narrative impulse, too, a distrust of literature, a longing for life and its richness, expressed via the promise of sexuality or the apparent honesty of vagabond existence. One of the ways this distrust expresses itself is in recurrent images of waste, too, from epiphany-producing cow-pats to that embarrassing moment in “Prelude” when the Grandma blurts out: “Don’t forget to tell Mrs Samuel Josephs when you want to … .”

The texts that draw both writers closest together in the “minor” and “feminine” tradition are Sargeson’s novels, those marvellous, scandalously under-read triumphs of late modernist wit and invention. It is in the density and self-conscious artistry of the Memoirs of a Peon’s prose or in the brash displays of technical mastery that hold each sentence in The Hangover taut and eerie that Sargeson’s prose finds its parallels with Mansfield. The focus of his late style is to do with the extremities of both experience and representation, and it is here that most of our ways of approaching and incorporating Sargeson fall silent. The excesses of the Memoirs of a Peon not only break up our picture of Sargeson formed from the early stories in A Man and His Wife. They also inject into the reading experience something of the uncanny, the chaotic and the destructive (all elements we recognise as part of the Gothic, something I’ve learnt to recognise in Sargeson from Tim Jones’s reading of The Hangover). Rosamund Miles, reviewing Memoirs in the radical journal Dispute, called Sargeson’s “attitude to sex … both prurient and sick by our Alex Comfort-enlightened standards.” The Enlightenment of 1965 seems like something else to our contemporary sense, and Sargeson’s prurient sickness sits alongside Mansfield’s “civet cat” instinct for keen awareness and shocking insight. Most criticism, though, and Sarah Shieff’s carefully edited and welcome collection of lectures Speaking Frankly is typical in this sense, does its best to pretend the late Sargeson never happened or doesn’t need discussing. There is much exploring left to do.

The standard way of praising Sargeson is to announce, as the sign outside 14 Esmonde Road does, that it was “here a truly New Zealand literature had its beginnings”. This particular piety has never convinced me, though: how is the account of Beryl’s feelings for Mrs Harry Kember in “At the Bay” any less a “truly New Zealand literature” (whatever that might be) than the ventriloquism of working-class men in “A Great Day” or “A Pair of Socks”? How are any of these less or more of New Zealand than Mander’s Story of a New Zealand River or, for that matter, the bizarre genius of Guthrie-Smith’s Tutira? There’s a bullying, Lukacsian prescriptive finger-wagging to nationalist talk of “truly New Zealand literatures”; as Brecht said of Lukacs, it’s talk that’s frightened of production. Sargeson seems more alive when the range and difficulty of his prose is placed before us, not in order for us to reconstruct a pioneer, but so that his contradictory, entangled and varied intellectual ambitions and achievements may come into view.

Some of the lectures reprinted in Speaking Frankly set out on something like this task: Peter Wells, in the collection’s outstanding contribution, offers a fascinating set of reflections on “landscape and the fragility of memory”, using his own encounters with Sargeson to think more widely on place and historical memory in New Zealand. Plenty of good thinking on place and celebration is one of Speaking Frankly’s strengths. Whereas Wellington, with all the smugness of a provincial capital, has been content to celebrate its Mansfield connection without paying much attention to its more ridiculous side, Hamilton (a place Sargeson loathed) stirs the memorial lecturers into productive self-consciousness.

Speaking Frankly is a mixture of the informative (Lawrence Jones), the entertaining and moving (Michael King, Christine Cole Catley), and the forgettable. Owen Marshall’s self-satisfied piece on the virtues of us “true readers” was the only one that proved properly irritating; surely Sargeson’s stories ought to cause doubt? What if all this praise for reading and books is just a way for people like us – readers, in my case, before we were defenders of reading – to avoid examining the unbalance in our lives, the way reading allows us to hide from engagement, difficulty, decisions, from what Mansfield would capitalise as Life?

Celebrating Katherine Mansfield is a collection of essays from a London conference in 2008, held to celebrate the centenary of Mansfield’s arrival there. The contributions are learned, curious and, for the most part, rewarding, with interesting essays on Mansfield and music, Mansfield and cinema and Mansfield and Dickens prompting me to turn to her stories with a new sense of excitement. The worst academic tics and habits are avoided, although there are a few psychoanalytical essays that over-promise and under-deliver. At the price of 10 bottles of good wine, though, Celebrating Mansfield has been produced without the general reader in mind. It will be mined for insights and specific essays by researchers working in university libraries, not purchased and read through. No bad thing, perhaps, but not much of a celebration either.

For all their virtues, a dishonesty characterises both collections. There is very little frank speaking in Speaking Frankly, and hardly any celebrating in Celebrating Mansfield. Vincent O’Sullivan and C K Stead offer something in the way of joy in the latter collection, both carrying out performances typical of their strengths (O’Sullivan: “a word in passing on literary malice”) and weaknesses (Stead: “I’d like to mention now a mild spat”). The lecturers gathered together in Speaking Frankly took as their task memorialising Sargeson, so it’s no surprise that none of them attempt any daring sort of reconsideration of his legacy. This is a pity. Few writers seem less suited to piety and politeness than Sargeson or Mansfield. In their wildness, their sexual and social dissidence (Woolf on Mansfield: she “stank like a civet cat that has taken to street walking”) and their inspired, uneven, impassioned innovations, both writers offer points of reflection for literary theory and practice today. The “minor”, “feminine” tradition of modernism could live on through them both, were we prepared to approach them with, perhaps, a little more celebration on one side, and a little more speaking frankly on the other. Neither of these collections has set that as their task, though, and, perhaps the current critical situation is hardly in a position to encourage these developments. Still, where else is there? “One may as well rot here as anywhere else”!


Dougal McNeill teaches in the English Programme at Victoria University of Wellington.


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