Making it and making it up, C K Stead

Life as a Novel – A Biography of Maurice Shadbolt, Volume I, 1932-1973
Philip Temple
David Ling, $45.00,
ISBN 9781927305447

Recently, I have been writing an autobiography and consequently hunting out old letters. One I found, written to Kay from London in 1984, told her about getting started on a new novel, the one that would be called The Death of the Body: 

4½ pages written. I’m away – a start. Probably now I won’t run into trouble for 40 or 50 or with a bit of luck 60 pages. We’ll see. What a strange and dangerous business it is, writing fiction. So much investment of self in a leaking ship. No wonder Shadbolt goes around the bend with the effort. I ought to have been kinder to him. I have been a merciless sibling rival (even if it’s true he’s not much of a writer).

Shadbolt was a presence to be reckoned with. When I was ungenerous about his first book of stories being accepted for publication by Gollancz, Sargeson accused me of jealousy, and Philip Temple quotes me replying, “You are right about Maurice. No doubt there was a fair whack of jealousy in my bitchiness.” There was; but the crucial question was the one implied in the parenthesis at the end of the quotation from my letter to Kay: “even if it’s true he’s not much of a writer”. Was it true?

Clearly I thought so at the time. What I do say in defence of my younger self is that, if I’d believed he was the writer he thought he was, I would have envied his successes – yes, for sure; but I would not have pretended to think his work was “no good”. In fact, I would have been happy to claim him as a contemporary and fellow-writer. 

I first registered my dislike of Shadbolt’s work in the now absurd and notorious “K of Henderson” letter to the Listener – absurd, because why would one bother to write negatively about a young writer’s first publication? Notorious, because the old gossip Sargeson had a hand in it, and word got out. Frank was not especially interested in whacking Shadbolt, of whom none of us knew anything at the time; his target was Monte Holcroft, editor of the Listener, one of his bêtes noirs, who had accepted the story. So I drafted the letter encouraged by Frank, and Kay (who also thought the story crappy) signed it and used her Henderson address. But Holcroft cut the last sentence which had made it clear he rather than Shadbolt was the real target and added an editor’s footnote making it appear his cut had been to protect a young writer from even worse. It was a literary nothing which should have been forgotten. But, by the time Maurice and I met some years later he knew where the letter had come from and chose to think the fault was all Sargeson’s. It was never mentioned, and it appears he didn’t take it too seriously; but it has surfaced in discussions of his life and work ever since.

To some extent, my role in this story is the bad fairy. Maurice and I got to know each other well and, with our wives, were quite close friends in London in 1958-9. He and I enjoyed one another’s company, argued a great deal about politics (though both from the Left), and worried together about returning or not returning to New Zealand. I read through and annotated the typescript of his first book, The New Zealanders, before it went to Gollancz. I encouraged him, but was surprised when it was accepted for publication. Shortly afterwards, back in New Zealand, I gave one of the lectures in Auckland University’s first Winter Lectures series. Mine was about New Zealand literature, and I took from one or two of Maurice’s stories examples of a kind of florid romantic writing (“longing to walk barefoot, clean-limbed, through green forests where clear waters fell”) which tries to make the place that should be home exotic and do for you the work you didn’t have the talent, or mind, or imagination, to do for yourself. This was the literary critic at work – not wrong as critic, but a failure as friend.

Thereafter, the friendship couldn’t entirely recover; but we were often allies. I acted as a referee when he applied for the Burns Fellowship; and when I fell out with the writers’ organisation PEN over the London flat for writers he supported me by joining me in resigning. But all this was with the constraint of knowing that each did not quite enjoy or admire the work of the other. We could have pretended, which would have worked; Maurice lived on pretence – and I suspect it was the basis of Kevin Ireland’s loyalty to him. But I had gone too far, said too much, and could not take it back. I could like Maurice, but I could never entirely admire his writing.

Given that this was the reality, surprisingly civil exchanges between us emerge in Temple’s biography. Maurice defended his florid prose, and I tried to shrug my complaint about it off as “just a lecture – I give them all the time” – as if I had not known it would be published – in the same letter inviting him and Gill to stay with us if they needed a bed over Christmas. Temple comments: “If Maurice was careless or unaware of the effect on others of his boasting and self-publicity, Stead seemed equally unaware or careless of his public dissections of others’ work.”

Maurice had his revenge with his first novel, Among the Cinders, in which I am caricatured as D K Flinders, the balding academic brother of the narrator, and author of absurd and unintelligible critical analyses. Once again, Temple records civil exchanges. From London, I told Maurice I had read “impatiently through the bits where D.K.F. did not appear, and rather irritably through the parts where he did.” I wondered whether “the element of spleen (quite justified in personal terms no doubt)” might throw the whole thing out of balance. But then I added, about the difficulties of getting a substantial piece of writing done: “The important – and difficult – thing is to keep going isn’t it? – whatever the bastards (me in your case, you in mine) say.” Maurice replied: “D.F.K’s solemnity about literature seemed to be mine too …; I often felt I was satirizing myself. There is something of him in most New Zealand writers.”

I was not alone, far from it, in finding Maurice’s prose overwritten and lacking in subtlety or refinement. The other Maurice, Gee, whom Shadbolt considered a loyal friend and supporter, was in fact writing (of The New Zealanders): “There’s a faint phoniness about it all, a faint flavour of literariness in the relationship of his characters, and I’m afraid he’s not really sensitive to language.” Gee, of course, wrote this only to his mother. I had said much the same, but aloud and in a public place.

This excellent, critically measured, even-handed biography recounts Shadbolt’s successes as a writer, which were considerable, while at the same time letting the negative critical notes be heard. And there is a parallel balancing act to be done in dealing with his personal life, which again Temple treats carefully, while not concealing some feelings of distaste. The many women who found Maurice an attractive companion and bedmate were like the editors and reviewers who lauded his work – not stupid or lacking in discrimination. But it is hard, when considering Maurice’s private life, to avoid a judgement which parallels Gee’s on his writing. As he was insensitive and sometimes blundering in matters of language, so he was in personal relationships. 

Maurice could be good company, but he seemed to me to be constantly on the brink of hysteria. Everything was overstated; reactions were overblown. His arms were waved about a lot, and his voice went up into a curious falsetto. There was something endearing in this. He was, to use the Yeats phrase, a “foolish, passionate man”, and not always scrupulous. Temple describes his financial dealings with Brian Brake in securing purchase of the Arapito Road house as “disingenuous”. A less charitable biographer might call them dishonest; yet one recognises that the legal question was murky, that Shadbolt’s need at the time was great, and Brake was by comparison comfortably placed. 

Then there’s the matter of the novel he called An Ear of the Dragon. I remember at the time realising (and tut tutting) that there was material in there that Maurice could not have known from his own experience and could only have got from the unpublished work of his friend Renato Amato who had died recently, whose stories he had edited and whose wife he may have borrowed. So plagiarism? Yes – but then when I read how the old aunties of New Zealand Lit, Jim Bertram, Joan Stevens, Ken Arvidson, turned on that novel, my sympathies are with Maurice. He made something of that material which Amato could not have done. “The lofty chastisements of Bertram and Stevens,” Temple writes, “killed [the novel] stone dead both in the marketplace and on prospective prize lists. Yet it remains, as Dave Ballantyne accurately commented, a novel ‘of considerable power’ ”.  That is so much a New Zealand literary story!

Where Maurice’s behaviour seems at its worst is in his treatment of his first wife Gill. During the separation, when everything is complicated and difficult, he keeps her from seeing the children because her visits “upset them”; but at the same time is telling his friends that she had simply “walked out on them”. However, even here, there’s room for sympathy on both sides. After nearly 15 years of marriage, Gill was in charge of four children, and Maurice was the breadwinner – the old dispensation, which put great strain on them both. Gill was by nature a hippy, and Maurice was a conventional Kiwi bloke who liked basic cleanliness and an orderly house. He couldn’t stand, and complained about, the dirt, the mess, which she seemed not to notice. Before they had children, she mothered him, pampered him, prepared his lunch before she went off to work, took his hypochondria (which was manifest and often ridiculous) seriously. Once there was a real child, real children, he had to look after himself – so he went looking for other mothers and found them – everywhere! His dedications could hardly keep up with them and became a kind of inadvertent comic verse. The one for An Ear of the Dragon reads:

To Sheena for living
to Beverley for loving
and Barbara for caring.

The two Bs had each a turn as wife, and it seems the S only narrowly missed. There is no dedication anywhere to Marilyn Duckworth, but she certainly aspired to marriage with Maurice, which would have meant combining her four children with his four. She was the inspiration for what I thought one of Maurice’s more successful pieces of fiction, the novella Figures in Light. 

Marilyn has an important part in the most turbulent marital episode, out of which Barbara Magner emerges “victorious” – if the conjunction of marriage and Maurice was ever anything more than an alliteration. Anyone possessing copies of his autobiographical From the Edge of the Sky and Marilyn’s Camping on the Faultline can go backward and forward between them, comparing their accounts of this disaster.

You could hardly be in the literary scene of those times without feeling the backwash of the Shadbolt turbulence. I first met Irene Adcock, mother of Marilyn and Fleur, at a Colin McCahon opening at the RKS Gallery in Auckland. She was there with Maurice and, never having met Marilyn but having heard she was coming to Auckland to replace Gill, I scored points with Irene by supposing she must be her daughter. Later, at a writers’ conference in Palmerston North, by which time Marilyn and I were friends, I told her (not realising what painful news this would be) that Barbara Magner’s child to Maurice had been born. “I cried at him,” Marilyn records in her memoir.

If I were to find fault with Temple’s book, it would only be that he seems sometimes too willing to accept Shadbolt’s own account of how things happened. Maurice may not be a liar, but he is a gross exaggerator, a flamboyant romantic, always putting a colourful spin on his own doings. His ambition, before the role of writer took hold, was to be a magician – a conjurer. This book includes a shot of the teenager dressed for the part, in top hat and cloak; and Ireland reports that it was a pretty good act. Maurice always seemed to me to be essentially a conjurer, acting the part of the writer, producing books like rabbits out of his hat. And this feeling was increased, not diminished, when, late in his career, he took to writing autobiography with what seemed an almost total disregard for truth or accuracy – and all in a swaggering prose that seemed to say “Look at me! This is how it’s done!”, with intermittent snarls and growls about those who had refused to give him his due as the writer who had “carried on where Mansfield left off” and “caused the world to take New Zealand seriously”.

I am reporting my problem with Maurice here, not asserting that I was right or that I ever did him justice. Only time will tell, though neither he nor I will be around to hear the verdict. To me he remains a puzzle, reinforced by this excellent biography, which takes us only to 1973. Ahead lie more marriages and liaisons, more novels, more self-promotion. I can’t wait for Volume II. 

C K Stead swims daily at Kohimarama; his That Derrida Whom I Derided Died: Poems 2013-2017 came out last year from Auckland University Press.

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