A pleasing oddness, Dougal McNeill

Letters of Frank Sargeson
Sarah Shieff (ed)
Vintage, $50.00,
ISBN 9781869793333

Karatani Kojin, announcing the “end of modern Japanese literature” in 2004, caused some alarm amongst readers, despite Japan’s (for us, and comparatively) philosophically open-minded and expansive literary culture. Weren’t publishers still putting out signs for the latest novels, and queues forming at literary festivals? The “end of modern literature”, though, was always about literature’s social standing. Once central to the project of national consciousness, literature in Japanese culture is now, for Karatani, something consumed by a plethora of minor subcultures, without its old world-shaping powers. Each way you look at it you lose: having created a language and a set of imaginary situations adequate for narrating what Japan means, literature’s very success secures a kind of deeper obsolescence, as the old questions, still perfectly usable, now, upon being asked, show us how little we would know what to do with any possible answers.

Reading Karatani the first time, I thought of Sargeson. Sargeson the writer, certainly, amongst whose canon many of the wittiest and most moving of the letters collected here – small prose masterpieces themselves – must now be included. But also Sargeson the projects, from the suffocating cape labelled “Son of Sargeson” (success coming only once it could get shucked off, as Maurice Duggan shows us), to its more-or-less dreary and realist academic camp followers, to the impish Boy Wondering of the now not-so-young revisions of local critical habits fostered around And. We may have seen the “end of modern New Zealand literature”. If it is possible, in the era of Laing and Leggott, Adam and Avia, to avoid tiresome questions of national identity altogether, this is possible only because Sargeson, through bloody-minded ambition and effort, forged the creation called New Zealand literature. Nationalism is something to work through rather than around. Revisions need something to revise.

Sargeson’s presence was strong enough that it called for strong misreadings to move us along, and cannier, more suspiciously minded critics in the last decades have unpacked a good deal of what goes on in the myths of origins around him. “It all began with Frank Sargeson,” the latest edition of his stories announces; worrying less now about what that “it” might be, a wider sense of Sargeson’s achievement becomes possible. “Speaking for ourselves”, it turns out, lets us hear how little we have in common; productive dissension proliferates.

We have King’s biography, and other writers’ testaments, to help us appreciate the extraordinary effort and creative stamina involved in what became the forging of an intellectually viable space for New Zealand literature; what Sarah Shieff’s collection adds, when read through, is some greater sense of the personal dimension to this. Fifty years, more or less, of working, with little money and, until the final years, meagre social recognition, towards a literary culture. “The life of the writer in England where writing can be part of the social pattern is I imagine miserable enough,” Sargeson writes to Alec Pickard in 1941. “Out here it is just plain hell.” Pickard discovered that, killing his nom de plume A P Gaskell in the process. Sargeson persisted, driven, he tells a correspondent towards the end of his life, “on and on [by] the wish to do my part in creating what might come to be recognised as a valid kind of Enzed language for the stories I had to tell.”

Sargeson’s project was wider than the imposition of a particular aesthetic style; his own was “a valid kind of Enzed language”, whatever the positions of his epigones. “We want a body of literature,” he tells Pickard in 1944, and whatever builds this body is welcome. These letters are relentless in their pursuit of whatever might grow the New Zealand literature garden and, if the pressure involved for younger writer correspondents must have been difficult, the persona Sargeson fashions is fair-minded and expansive, surprisingly so, given his notorious waspishness. Even exasperated asides are given with a view to the project: “Oh of course, Curnow is terrific, but bugger him!” Freed is offered, via a note to Murray Edmond, “good luck” alongside openly acknowledged incomprehension.

Many letters survive, and this generous selection will send researchers back to the Turnbull and other holdings with an eye to new patterns and connections. General readers can be contented with Shieff’s balanced, thoughtful selection. “A good part of the significance of the Sargeson archive lies in its completeness in terms of its historical range,” she writes, “in the number and complexity of the relationships it charts, and by virtue of the fact that both sides of so many conversations appear to have survived almost intact. This selection can only hint at its significance.” Those hints offer pleasure and stimulation aplenty. Sargeson’s letters are witty, impassioned, informative and, taken together, splendidly readable. Tracing those numerous, complex relationships is a way of tracing the formation of New Zealand literature itself.

One of the many pleasures this collection offers is the chance to read Sargeson with our hindsight but without his own; loose ends and difficulties can be experienced here alongside the writer’s own struggles with them. Many letters document Sargeson’s hopes for his plays – all, to my mind, side-roads, but scenic ones placed as part of this wider historical mapping. A pleasing oddness emerges, too, as with the, quite serious, plans in the 1950s for a theatre-and-farm business operation.

The work that went in to building and sustaining the networks and structures – a shed, most importantly – from which New Zealand literature could be produced carries on alongside Sargeson’s own writing as part of the same project. The “symbolic realism” of the pre-war short fiction saw personal aesthetic and wider literary project fuse; if his later works on the “new average – the latter-day common man, the runner among the ruck in the urban rat race” (the phrase is from “City and Suburban”) work best when they express dislocation and bewilderment in this new environment, that very bewilderment disconnects Sargeson’s critical intelligence from the sociability and community-building of his networks and structures.

This disconnection is clearest, and most painful, in Sargeson’s letters to and about Janet Frame. His generosity – life-saving, on some accounts – is clear enough, as is his affection and regard for Frame. But the narrowing of his post-war views – he sets into reading habits and stances just as Frame hints at the “end of modern New Zealand literature” – make him unable to respond to Frame’s work fully. He is unequipped, intellectually, for her experimental, playful, late-modernist innovations, and betrays more than a little anxiety in avuncular attempts to get her measure through that old chauvinist favourite, the complimentary put-down: “with a pair of dark glasses and the standard NZ florals she wears she can get away with simply anything. A marvellous girl and companion.” Sargeson’s inability to appreciate Patrick White is symptomatic here, too, and makes some of his hopes and enthusiasms seem all the more bizarre. “A much more remarkable book is Jack Kerouac’s On the Road – a wonderfully illuminating & moving novel about the American bodgies,” he wrote to Charles Brasch in 1958. “It irks me that with a little more luck somebody such as Kevin Ireland might have written this story in a New Zealand setting.”

Speaking for ourselves never, across the letters collected here, extends to local non-white writers, and Sargeson’s stubborn “scepticism for grass-hut grass-skirt culture” (his phrase from a letter of 1980) delineates “New Zealand literature”; those who continue to talk of his foundational status would do well to read these passages carefully. Appeals to attitudes of the time do not help much, once we bring the efforts of Bill Pearson into view; Sargeson’s summary that Pacific Islanders “drink and fight and rob and from time to time murder” (to Plomer, 1967) and that “the Indonesians Chinese or Japs will be here within the next 50 years” (to Plomer a decade before) show real limits to his own imaginative generosity.

However, generosity and joy are, for all the usual writer’s fussing, the dominant tone in these letters. Sargeson’s letters of appreciation and love can be astonishingly moving, and his celebration of sexuality (“yes, the answer is yes, yes”) and companionship take on particular poignancy and pain for their necessarily constrained and careful phrasing.

This is a lovely collection, handsomely produced, and helpfully and unobtrusively annotated and ordered. It has sent me back to Sargeson’s stories and novels, and set me thinking about all manner of local details and connections in literary history. Vintage have given this edition good sturdy binding, and this is certain to be essential, given how often Shieff’s fine collection will be used in the years to come.


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


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Posted in Letters, Non-fiction, Review
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