Maurice Gee: Life and Work
Victoria University Press, $60.00
When I was young, New Zealand fiction had three Maurices. Duggan (“Maurice”) was the maestro, Gee (“Moss”) the dependable tradesman, and Shadbolt (“Morrie”) the showman. The maestro wrote mostly very slowly and with difficulty; the tradesman was more fluent and produced new work with what appeared to be near regularity; the showman was always ahead of the pack, prolific and catching the public eye, but was felt by some to be a bit of a sham. All three were in varying degrees neurotic – to be a writer in the 1950s, you had to be. If you were male, you were supposed to have a trade or profession. Especially if there was going to be a wife and family you needed employment – lawyer, doctor, plumber, builder. But what was a “writer”? It was no more than a claim for yourself. Even now, a product of my time, I can’t fill in “Occupation: writer” (though I do it) without it seeming to look back at me saying, “Occupation: bullshit”. We were also trying to escape from colonial dependence, and consequently were caught on the hook of literary nationalism – Curnow’s “the New Zealand thing, the regional thing, the real thing”. We wanted to make it happen here, but (lacking cheap jet-travel and instant communication) were always aware of the inconceivably distant there, and of the range of opportunities it offered. All three Maurices went there (the long way, by sea) for a brief time; all three came back (by sea).
My friend Rob Dyer and I were the first to publish Gee – in the Auckland University literary annual Kiwi in 1955. Shadbolt was the first to find himself a London publisher – Gollancz. A few years later, Gee, Duggan and I found one in Hutchinson’s collection, Short Story One, along with Diana Athill, latterly famous as autobiographer-editor. This led on to the publication of Gee’s first two novels with the same firm.
In 1965, Maurice, Moss and Morrie went (and I with them) into The Oxford Book of New Zealand Stories (2nd series). I wrote a sonnet, parodying the famous Macbeth “Tomorrow and tomorrow …” speech, which began
To Maurice and to Maurice and to Maurice
Duggan, Shadbolt, Gee, how they load us down
And all our yesterdays maybe have lighted fools
The way to Dostoevsky.
Equally volatile, Shadbolt and I fell regularly in and out of friendship. With the darkly equable Gee that was not possible. Duggan, 10 years older, was a steady comrade, and when he died I edited his Collected Stories. When Shadbolt died, I lamented missed opportunities.
Simply as writing, Gee’s fiction had strength and authority right from the start. Sargeson commended his “sentences”; and wrote to him later, after reading Plumb, “I kiss your hand if you will let me.” Brasch wrote of his stories, “the tone is so beautifully judged that form, language and content fit perfectly”. He had made Gee one of Landfall’s “new writers of the ’50s”. Robin Dudding, founder of Mate, and then Brasch’s successor at Landfall, helped build and sustain his reputation, which was already solid in the literary community before press and public began to notice him. It seems from the perspective of now that Gee’s future was never in doubt. There was nothing else he could do so well as write, and nothing he wanted to do, or felt at home doing. Yet he told a PEN group in 1984 that he was “not a natural writer”. He could construct a novel, write chapters and paragraphs, find words and make phrases, “but with sentences I just can’t seem to get on” – which was why he kept them short.
Was he right – or was Sargeson, who could scarcely look past the excellence of the sentences? Both, I think. Gee had difficulty with sentences because he had to work hard at them to make them not only say what he wanted them to say, but achieve their special tone and flavour. He was conscious of the labour; Sargeson was conscious of the reward.
When, after many vicissitudes, including the long and rocky relationship with Hera Smith, the mother of his son Nigel, and varying employment as teacher and librarian, none of it enjoyed or satisfying, he finally settled in Nelson and began work on what was to be his masterwork, the first volume of the Plumb trilogy, it “felt great,” he told his biographer. “I felt as if I had come home … I felt that at last I was doing what I was meant to be doing.”
Gee’s quality as a writer was less in his treatment of subjects (which is what is most noticed and written about) than in the writing itself – both structure and texture. It is as if the sensitivity of the writer mother, Lyndahl Chapple Gee, and the authority of the formidable Chapple grandfather (the model for Plumb), combine there. But there is a downside, too. Right from the start he has had to contend with (and has resented) complaints that his New Zealand is joyless and dingy; that he does not love his characters; and more, that he has an excessive appetite for violence. Gee was inclined (understandably) to dispute this. Wasn’t it the real New Zealand his fiction offered – the same you found in Sargeson and Frame? And wasn’t the world full of evil (a word he didn’t resile from) and violence?
The murder of the girl in In My Father’s Den struck me as so horrible when I first read it, I found, on a later, second reading, I had remembered it as worse than it was. There were details I had imagined that simply were not there in what Gee had written. To me, this was an illustration of how powerfully suggestive the writing is; and Barrowman offers an example of the kind of extreme reaction his writing can produce, in Janet Paul, thinking of publishing a collection of his stories, but writing to Brasch that “the violence done to the horse at the end of ‘The Losers’ was so unbearably graphic…almost sadistically inflicted on the reader” that she “wouldn’t want to read the story again even in proof.”
There is also Ted’s drowning of his pregnant wife and two little daughters in Going West; and numbers of other scenes in which, not just the events, but the writing, is electric with vicious and destructive energy. In a 1976 interview, Gee told Ian Wedde that he found himself more and more obsessed with “pain and cruelty and violent acts” to the point where if it were not relieved by family life and the act of writing, “I could possibly go over the edge.” Writing was “a way of holding on to sanity”. In conversation once, he told me he had embarked on what was meant to be a regular police procedural and felt he had to give it up, his imagination had thrown up such horrors.
I remember discussing this “Gee problem” with Sargeson and concluding that the word “sadistic” (the one used by Janet Paul, and she was not alone) was wrong. Gee identifies, not with the perpetrator of violence but with the victim. The feeling is indignation; the intention is protest.
Did that make him a masochist? I wondered. “Not necessarily,” Sargeson said – “but perhaps a moralist.” When I last wrote about him, I headed my piece, “Maurice Gee, moralist”. He responded by making the subtitle of his next novel, The Scornful Moon, “a moralist’s tale”. I saw this as a kind of shrug – a “Whatever” – by one who would carry right on doing it his way, however others chose to characterise it. That, it seemed to me, was an example of civilised literary discourse.
James K Baxter says somewhere that for him (and he thought for most writers – poets, anyway) there was a place, a location you had to go back to in your mind to recover lost inspiration. Baxter’s was a small cave high above the sea, a childhood memory from South Dunedin. For Gee, it was a creek in Henderson (which he calls Loomis in his fiction) west of Auckland. “It has a life,” he told Wedde, “in a way no other place I’ve ever lived has.” Barrowman’s biography begins there in its opening sentence and ends there in its last. Loomis is the setting for Plumb and its sequels, Meg and Sole Survivor. Also of In My Father’s Den and of Going West, which could have been called “a tale of two cities”, Auckland and Wellington, but is the prototype Westie novel, and contains the famous account of three kinds of public transport in and out to Henderson, rail, bus and tram. Others of his novels begin, or touch ground, there, as do several of his stories for children.
Gee’s life, as told here, in effect divides between before and after Margaretha, the woman he married in 1970 at the age of 39. The “before” includes the somewhat idyllic childhood, the “agonising” teenage years, graduation from the Auckland University English Department, problems with sex which he blames partly on his mother’s puritan influence, and the relationship with Hera Smith. There was also the brief period in London and Europe; and through all of these years there were periods of employment, including teaching, which he disliked and wasn’t good at, and library training and work, which he found boring and unrewarding. There is quite a lot of grumbling, mainly on his behalf by sympathetic colleagues, Shadbolt and Kevin Ireland especially, writing one another concerned letters about “poor Moss”. But, somehow, through all of this period, and heroically, he kept writing – not without breaks, doubts and blocks, poverty and bad times, but as if it was what he was meant to do, and must find ways to keep doing.
Plumb gave his reputation the leg-up it needed and deserved, and the beginnings of a living wage for literary work. The fact that it won an international award (the James Tait Black Memorial Prize) was especially important. This had what might be called “the Booker effect” – always a disruption of the marketplace, and especially so down here in the “colony”; but it was what he needed – at last he was being attended to and widely read. He had become what Strindberg calls “a Name”.
It also opened doors to other kinds of earning. He began to write for television, which he did well and, not whole-heartedly but intermittently, appears to have enjoyed. Movie options were taken on his work, and though these did not always lead to a movie being made, they sometimes did, and in either case provided extra income. Children’s books – Under the Mountain, and later The Halfmen of O and The Fat Man – widened his readership. His public persona, declining honours and disliking attention, without “side” or intellectual pretence, must have been at the very least incomplete, but made him, according to Ireland, “New Zealand’s most loved man of literature”.
In later life, he has travelled abroad from time to time, but never, it seems, happily or comfortably, which makes him in one sense the most Kiwi of New Zealand writers, in another the least, since, in the present hiatus (if that is what it is) between colonial distance and whatever climate change may bring in the way of future restrictions, travel seems to be one of the things we do.
Barrowman is a conscientious and capable researcher. This is a thorough account of Gee’s life and work, of considerable interest to those who have read him and already know something about the New Zealand literary scene; but it is hardly a book for the general reader. I admire her diligence and thoroughness; but there is something less than gripping about a solid slog through one book after another, recounting in order the genesis, the problems and how they were solved, and the reception. It is a story Moss, with his talent for narrative, could have told better, though it’s clear he would not have wanted to do that for fear of dipping too far and too soon into the memory bank and depleting its savings.
Barrowman’s separating characters in the life from the identities they take in the fiction is informative but sometimes (in effect) tedious; and the difficulties of the task hardly help the quality of the writing. “When he confided their feelings for each other in Lyndahl – where Plumb confides a mix of confusion and concern: he looks on Wendy as a daughter – Lyndahl warned Muriel off.” This is hardly elegant writing. And later in the book there are sometimes three levels to be distinguished – the facts, the fiction, and the movie version.
Auden has a sonnet that begins:
A shilling life will give you all the facts:
How Father beat him, how he ran away,
What were the struggles of his youth, what acts
Made him the greatest figure of his day …
It’s a poem, I think, about the pointlessness of biography – how few and small the basic truths can be compared to the welter of detail that makes a life. Gee’s story could be reduced to a “shilling life”. There is the family’s intellectual and moral inheritance, the boxer-builder father, the writer-mother whose puritanism is blamed for what was probably no more than a genetic quirk; there is Henderson, Falls Park, the creek, sex and death. There is the before and after marker-line of Margaretha who, he said, “saved him” when he was “going under”; and there is finally Moss in his trademark cardy, scratching away at the “intolerable neural itch” (another Auden phrase), avoiding the limelight while half-happily producing a remarkable sequence of light-dark images of New Zealand as we all recognise it, don’t want to recognise it, love it and hate it … .
Stendhal, the realist in fiction, has someone say, in Le Rouge et le Noir, that a novel is “a mirror taking a walk down the highroad: if it reflects the mire, don’t blame the mirror – blame the road!” There is an entirely relevant truth here; but, on the other hand, each novelist’s mirror has the unique colours and tones of its author’s style and temperament. Barrowman’s account tells us where and how these characteristics evolved in the man who, if he is not our “most loved” novelist, is almost certainly our most read.
C K Stead is our new poet laureate, 2015-17.