Unthawing, Hugh Roberts

Hard Frost: Structures of Feeling in New Zealand Literature 1908-1945
John Newton
Victoria University Press, $40.00,
ISBN 9781776561629

Telling the Real Story: Genre and New Zealand Literature
Erin Mercer
Victoria University Press, $40.00,
ISBN 9781776560851

If there is a better book on New Zealand literature than John Newton’s Hard Frost: Structures of Feeling in New Zealand Literature 1908-1945, I have not read it. Rarely, indeed, have I read a work of literary history in any field of its calibre. Wise, human, witty and compassionate, this is that rare – oh, too rare – book of literary scholarship one would unhesitatingly recommend to the non-specialist reader: to anyone interested in New Zealand literature, obviously, but anyone with an interest in New Zealand history, the history of modernism, cultural developments in the West in the mid-20th century, the history of feminism; the list could go on. I live in the United States and have already begun to enthusiastically recommend the book to friends who I know have barely heard of New Zealand and could not name a New Zealand author to save their lives. Wearing his impressive learning lightly, Newton has managed to find a critical voice that addresses the reader as an equal, acknowledges the possibility – the desirability, indeed – of alternative hypotheses, lays his own enthusiasms and biases on the table, and honours the complexity and integrity of the authors he discusses, even when he radically disagrees with them. If more literary critics could write in this way, one would be far more sanguine about the future of the profession.

The critical project of Hard Frost is one that requires precisely such an empathetic and capacious critical engagement. Newton is revisiting perhaps the most storied and critically explored moment in New Zealand literary history: the so-called “nationalist” turn of the 1930s. The “hard frost” of the title refers, of course, to Charles Brasch’s description of the effect of Curnow’s Book of New Zealand Verse 1923-45 which, to Brasch, had the salutary effect of “kill[ing] off weeds, and promot[ing] sound growth”. It is Newton’s contention, and a persuasive one, that despite the barrels of ink that have been spilled on this period, and on the various key players in it, we have not really managed to come to terms with it, to understand what was really at stake in that key cultural moment. Newton recognises, in particular, that we have been so intent in recent decades on exposing the limitations and failures of those Dead White Males – their misogyny, their insensitivity to Māori, their humourless self-importance – that we have reduced them to a caricature which fails entirely to account for the power and cultural significance of their project. His title points to a telling hinge in the critical response to the “nationalist” generation: what to Brasch was admiring recognition of a salutary winnowing that revealed the true path for a meaningful New Zealand literature has come in retrospect to be a kind of shorthand for Curnow’s putatively mean-spirited and narrow-minded rejection of any writing that didn’t conform to his particular desiderata.

The central gesture of Newton’s study is “Yes, but.” Yes, there were real limitations in the “nationalist” project; yes, there were real victims of its blind spots and prejudices; but it was also a more capacious, more daring and more intellectually challenging – and rewarding – project than critics of the last half century have, for the most part, been willing to recognise. Newton begins his book with the dramatic, though defensible, claim that the project of “New Zealand literature” is now dead, that it was an idea born in the nationalist era and which has ceased to be intelligible in the globalised, digital, post-everything present. His account, then, is a post-NZLit one, one in which there is no longer any oedipal pressure to slay Daddy-Curnow because we no longer have a stake in redefining his project. 

Building on Alex Calder’s key insight that Curnow’s project was a “critical nationalism”, Newton suggests that the generative crux of what Curnow was attempting was to yoke literary modernism to a nationalist agenda. While we might quibble with Newton’s insistence on the uniqueness of this mixture (one could cite the Scottish modernists as a parallel case, among many others), he is absolutely persuasive that this imparts an inherent tension to Curnow’s critical framework, with the modernist imperative profoundly sceptical of any nationalist gestures which would frame the nation as Romantic second-self or the ground of a stable identity of any kind. 

Acknowledging, then, that Curnov-ian nationalism was never the easy, escapist myth-making that its detractors would have it – that it allows for a sustained and subtle engagement with real and pressing intellectual problems – the other part of Newton’s project is to account for the “frost” of his title. Why did this subtle, probing and intellectually engaged “movement” accompany and apparently promote a near eradication of writing by women; why did it allow for such a restricted range of literary excellence? Newton’s answer (signalled in his subtitle) rests in a concept he borrows from Raymond Williams: “structures of feeling”. He acknowledges that this is a critical concept which Williams himself never found entirely satisfactory, nor could fully theorise. “Structures of feeling” are historically emergent ways of being in, understanding and responding to the world; one might think of the culture of sensibility of the late 18th century, or the widespread sense of a universal liberation of values in the 1960s. They are experienced as simply private beliefs, attitudes and practices but, retrospectively, we see a generational logic and consistency to them that suggests something culturally and historically determined. 

As an explanatory concept, it risks collapsing into circularity: people thought or felt this way because that’s the way people felt or thought at that time. Nonetheless, it points us towards an inescapable and profound truth of cultural history. Each generation operates within a slowly but constantly changing horizon of possible ways of thinking, feeling and acting which seems at once given and open to reinvention and rebellion. The key point of Newton’s argument, though, is to situate the “nationalist” generation within a development of “structures of feeling” which is international in scope. He points out that the “hard frost” that weeded so many women writers out of the mid-century literary scene in New Zealand descended on America and the United Kingdom with the same severity. To recognise this is to demand some other, broader explanation than the asperity of Curnow’s critical tone. Here, Newton is at his best. In tour de force readings of the lives and work of Katherine Mansfield, Ursula Bethell and Robin Hyde – readings which keep a constant eye out for parallel developments in the lives of women writers across the anglophone literary world – he traces the ways in which changes in the structures of feeling across the period of the nationalist generation undermined the position of women writers. He links this, again persuasively, to developments in broader cultural understandings of female sexuality which we would normally see as broadly “progressive” in nature. Newton’s remarkable achievement here is to rigorously eschew the temptations of what has been called “the culture of reprimand” – that self-congratulatory desire to scold the past for its failure to share the values of the present. With extraordinary tact and sympathy, Newton shows us both the damage done (to New Zealand, and world, literature and to the individual women who tried to play a losing hand in a game rigged against them) and the ways in which these effects stemmed from something much deeper than mere misogynist prejudice. A superb chapter on Mansfield, for example, simultaneously makes the case that her neglect by the “nationalists” debilitated New Zealand prose writing for decades and that it made perfect sense that she would be unuseable for them. Newton suggests in his introduction that this book is the first of a projected three-volume opus magnus tracing New Zealand Literature’s rise and fall. I eagerly await the subsequent volumes.

Erin Mercer’s Telling the Real Story: Genre and New Zealand Literature is a useful corrective to the oft-repeated claim that New Zealand prose fiction is hopelessly stuck in a realist mode (another crime often imputed to the “nationalists”), to the exclusion of all other literary genres. Mercer’s two-fold – and occasionally contradictory – goal is to show both that the novels and short stories we have prized (or derided) as “realist” contain more generic play than has hitherto been recognised (she finds overtones of the gothic in Mansfield and Sargeson, of romance and the Western in Mulgan’s Man Alone, gothic again in Hulme’s The Bone People, and so forth) and that New Zealand writers have consistently pushed against the restrictions of realist orthodoxy, but that when they have done so they have been marginalised and undervalued by critics and readers (she cites, among others, Hyde’s Wednesday’s Children,  Sylvia Ashton-Warner’s Spinster, M K Joseph’s The Hole in the Zero and David Ballantyne’s Sydney Bridge Upside Down as examples). 

This is a useful book for anyone interested in New Zealand fiction, but it suffers from an under-theorised account of “genre”, its central subject. Mercer, in fact, makes no attempt to define or explain the concept; she simply knows it when she sees it. Too often she seems to conflate events or settings with the generic frames in which we might typically encounter them. We might accept, for example, that “the hero of a Western escapes the corruption, unnaturalness and mechanisation of modernity in favour of a landscape that offers a new way of living close to the land”, but that doesn’t mean that any book with those features falls into the genre of the Western. Thoreau’s Walden is not a Western. Worse, it is simply a poor and inattentive reading of Mulgan’s Man Alone that would suggest that Johnson, Mulgan’s protagonist, becomes “increasingly at one with the natural world”, shedding his “immigrant identity” and earning a “natural occupancy” of New Zealand’s landscape as a “skilled” bushman. Mulgan insists, in fact, on Johnson’s ineptitude as a bushman, the fact that he’s a poor shot with his rifle and is incapable of “living off the land”. Johnson comes close to starving to death during his time on the run and, far from entering into symbolic possession of the New Zealand bush as a “natural occupant”, flees New Zealand permanently by the next available boat.

A clearer account of what genre is and does would have helped avoid the “contradictory” element in Mercer’s study. Mercer is keen to show us that classic works of New Zealand prose fiction frequently stray from the straight and narrow path of realism, but the more we are persuaded by that side of her argument the harder it is to accept the other side: that non-realist works which failed to meet critical or public success were being punished for anti-realist apostasy. If Janet Frame’s Owls Do Cry, Ronald Hugh Morrieson’s The Scarecrow, and C K Stead’s Smith’s Dream (this last ignored, surprisingly, by Mercer) were all accepted inside the “NZ Lit” tent, could generic wandering really have been the sole cause that Ballantyne’s Sydney Bridge Upside Down met with some resistance? Mercer’s answer would be that readers ignored the “non-realist” aspects of these works to concentrate on the light they shed on New Zealand realities, but this opens one further problem with her argument.

What, in the end, do we gain from non-realist genres? Mercer writes at times as if anti-realism is an inherent good. Her counter to criticisms of, for example, Elizabeth Catton’s The Luminaries (Mercer has to strain a little here to find evidence of pro-realist prejudice undermining that Booker Prize winner’s acclaim) is simply to assert that it is non-realist. But Catton’s critics are aware of that; they just think the book unrewarding on its own terms. When Mercer does occasionally venture specific claims about the rewards of non-realist genre writing, though, it is hard to distinguish her position from those of the “realist” critics she deprecates. Ashton-Warner’s “melodrama” in Spinster gives us access to truths about female subjectivity that are unavailable to conventional realist accounts, the fantastic elements of Ihimaera’s The Matriarch allow for salutary correctives to Pākehā-centric historicisms and so forth. Perhaps all generic roads lead to the “real” after all?

Hugh Roberts is a New Zealander who teaches at Irvine, University of California.

Tagged with: , , , , ,
Posted in Literature, Review
Search the archive
Search by category