The Lonely and the Alone: The Poetics of Isolation in New Zealand Fiction
Doreen D’Cruz and John C Ross
Loneliness holds a special place in New Zealand literature. If there is a single image that casts a shadow over all others in the field, it is the man alone, battling indifferent landscapes, unforgiving social hierarchies, and, as often as not, himself. Mulgan’s Johnson, Curnow’s foundering settlers, Sargeson’s loners, are all, to some extent, estranged, and perhaps just a little strange too. In this new study, Doreen D’Cruz and John C Ross set about extending the parameters of this familiar parochial trope, so that it moves beyond simple representations of men alone, uncomfortable and struggling, and extends to all manner of representations of the isolated individual in New Zealand literature: women alone, the marginalised, confused and deracinated. Although hardly a new idea – Robin Hyde published “The Singers of Loneliness” in the 1930s – The Lonely and the Alone places its flag in the ground as the first substantial study of the idea.
D’Cruz and Ross follow Margaret Atwood’s suggestion that each literature has, at its heart, a symbol that, once grasped, offers readers a vantage point from which to survey much of that literature. Of course this symbol will be generalised, but it ought to remain useful. That the frontier is central to American literature is well-established, and Atwood suggested survival as a similar key to the literature of Canada. D’Cruz and Ross suggest isolation, including both literal remoteness and a more general disconnection and loneliness, as a similarly informing symbol in the New Zealand context. For the authors, isolation is more than simply the gloomy result of colonial or postcolonial exile, but emerges as a necessary corollary to the formation of new societies; we cannot become a new group without first separating ourselves from the old. This isolation also provides a position from which to offer a critique of existing hierarchies. D’Cruz and Ross invoke Miles Fairburn’s atomised society, although they extend their vision of a fractured culture well beyond the later 19th-century malaise that Fairburn diagnosed.
The challenge facing a book like this one, which treads a well-established path, is how it might still make new observations while doing so. Often, D’Cruz and Ross succeed simply through the enormous range of their project. In making its points, The Lonely and the Alone surveys a local literary terrain, taking routes that are both panoramic and idiosyncratic, offering the familiar scenic viewing-platforms alongside lesser-known detours. Frame and Gee are considered in substantial depth, meriting a chapter each, but other chapters include three, five or more writers, necessarily in less depth, and organised by theme as much as history. Many of these sit at the centre of the local canon – Mansfield, Sargeson, Hilliard, Grace, Ihimaera and others – although there are a handful that are less obvious too, including Graham Billing’s 1965 novel of the Antarctic, Forbush and the Penguins, George Chamier’s Philosopher Dick: Adventures and Contemplations of a New Zealand Shepherd (1891), Vincent Pyke’s goldfield yarns, and G B Lancaster’s “In Tinlay’s Whare” (1904), which emerges as early New Zealand Gothic.
In many ways, the less familiar material here is the most exciting, even if it is not always developed in the same depth that other writers receive. Like many readers unfamiliar with the nearly invisible traceries of much of our colonial-era literature, I have presumed this stuff must exist, but outside of the odd bit of Satchell or Baughan, haven’t actually encountered much of it. That our literature is possessed of goldfield narratives and a semi-romantic philosophic novel of animal husbandry might not be a surprise, but it feels reassuring to see these texts identified and introduced. D’Cruz and Ross contribute to the ongoing recovery of the country’s colonial literature, following in the path of Jane Stafford’s and Mark Williams’s Maoriland (2000), and drawing on the resources opened up by the Electronic Text Centre; this is surely one of the most productive fields in local literary studies at present.
The readings offered by D’Cruz and Ross sometimes shift us away from rote postcolonial arguments that congeal around texts. The Lonely and the Alone suggests that Man Alone’s Johnson cannot really be understood as a colonial figure, as other studies have. He is anything but a conqueror, and the authors emphasise his fragility, the brute facts of going bush, and a landscape that is simply inimical to human, rather than specifically Pakeha, occupation.
At other points, the discussion stays a little too close to the beaten track. The discussion of Frame carries on the present critical preference for seeing her novels as serious philosophic investigations, especially within Platonic and Kantian traditions, although, interestingly, D’Cruz and Ross read her novels together as a coherent project, so that the movement from Owls Do Cry (1957) through to The Carpathians (1989) is part of a wider procession of thought. Still, I wonder what the authors would make of Jan Cronin’s arguments in The Frame Function (2011). Cronin understands Frame within the scope of the same traditions, but suggests that, sometimes, Frame makes discursive feints; she teases her readers by hinting at the kinds of meanings that sit inside serious philosophic traditions, but often refuses to yield that meaning with substantial certainty.
A sustained discussion of Gee is a little rarer than one of Frame, and further extends the boundaries of loneliness; Gee’s Plumb books (1981-3) – indeed most of his works – are about the strain and disconnects of family rather than simple isolation. This idea is further teased out in the treatment of Ihimaera’s The Matriarch (1986), where the authors are interested in the loneliness Tamatea experiences, ostensibly at home, on the marae.
While the close attention brought to a handful of overlooked texts is laudable, and the fine distinctions drawn between isolated subjects across a wide range of narratives are sensible, The Lonely and the Alone does not really offer a historical narrative of literary loneliness. Where does the trope of the isolate come from, and how does one version of the loneliness described transform into another? D’Cruz and Ross tend to present aloneness as a fact of New Zealand literature; they are less interested in tracing the trope’s development or looking towards its future. But a literary trope is not some kind of Jungian archetype, a nebulous and a historical detail of our psychic landscape, part of an “impersonal, possibly pre-symbolic domain”, as the authors claim; it is historically constructed and historically variable. D’Cruz and Ross are good at differentiating between distinct types of isolation, but how do these different lonelinesses connect? Given the odd bifurcation of New Zealand literature – where the brave young men of the 30s created a literary ground zero, and it is only recently we have begun to look back to the preceding period in any depth – is the loneliness of the colonial writers, some of whom have been almost completely forgotten, really uncomplicatedly continuous with that described in later literature? Is the isolation of Frame’s Istina Mavet, confined to an institution, of the same stuff as that of Pyke’s hapless goldfield prospectors? It could be, but The Lonely and the Alone does not make these connections explicit.
These questions emerge between the chapters, each of which focuses closely on the texts it treats. While this yields close and careful readings of the immediate landscape of the texts, it doesn’t provide a view that might let us survey the wider scene of New Zealand literature. This isn’t helped by the brevity of the introduction and conclusion – indeed, in place of a conclusion, the authors prefer a few words of “ritual leave-taking”.
In The Fire and the Anvil (1955), Baxter asked why “cannot a New Zealand poet say We as readily as I?” It’s a fair question to ask of the prose writers treated in The Lonely and the Alone too, and D’Cruz and Ross identify the many different lonely Is in the fictions they treat, even if the connections between these isolates remain unclear. It’s a curious tension to have sitting at the heart of our national literature; the body of writing we ask to describe our community imagines a country populated by shut-ins, runaways and the permanently awkward. Uneasiness becomes a lens, a window, and readers and writers are caught on the outside, looking in on ourselves. Still, with the sheer number of characters, writers and critics treating this problem of isolation, as readers, when we encounter this national loneliness, we’re in good company.
Timothy G Jones is a Wellington reviewer.