One evening in 1990, when I was working as a janitor in a small town under the Forth bridges, I went to see An Angel at My Table, Jane Campion’s film about her fellow New Zealander, the writer Janet Frame. In the film we see Frame, played by Kerry Fox, recently released from a long spell in a mental hospital, given shelter and support by a white-goateed older writer called Frank Sargeson, played by Martyn Sanderson. She lives and types in his garden shed, finishes a novel, and sends it off to a publisher he has recommended. The novel is accepted and Sargeson waves at the garden gate as Frame leaves for Europe on a literary scholarship.
I knew nothing of New Zealand literature, still less that Sargeson was said to have created it. I read some Frame, but it was the image of Sargeson that kept coming back to me. It was hard to find Frame’s books in Scotland in the 1990s, but it was almost impossible to find Sargeson’s. It took me years to find half a dozen, including two of his novels, Memoirs of a Peon and Joy of the Worm. I was transfixed by the voice, which, particularly in his earlier stories, reminded me stylistically of some of the Scottish writers I admired, like James Kelman, Lewis Grassic Gibbon and Janice Galloway. In the best of his work, the narrative is fragmented; there are sudden ellipses and omissions. He shifts aim slightly, deliberately missing the obvious dramatic bullseye: in ‘They Gave Her a Rise’, the explosion at the ammunition factory has just happened; in ‘An Affair of the Heart’ the prodigal son doesn’t return.
I thought of Sargeson as a gritty realist, a chronicler of the experience of the ordinary people of New Zealand during the long depression of the 1920s and 1930s. It was an inadequate reading, but widely shared. For years his work was read as a celebration of socially conservative men: inarticulate road-diggers and sheep-shearers, jokers who liked a handle or two of beer. It was always said that he wrote from the world of these men, and in their language. But Michael King’s biography, Frank Sargeson: A Life, published in 1995, told a different story.
In 1929, Norris Davey, a junior government clerk, was convicted under New Zealand’s anti-homosexuality laws. To avoid prison, he denied his sexuality, and gave evidence in court against the older man he’d been briefly involved with, Leonard Hollobin. Davey received a suspended sentence, but Hollobin was given five years’ hard labour. Davey gave up his job, moved to his bachelor uncle’s farm and hid himself away there for nearly two years. The man who eventually emerged was neither a law clerk nor a farmer, but a writer called Frank Sargeson. From the moment he walked off the farm – with a few books, a typewriter and £2 in cash in the sugar sack over his shoulder – he didn’t waver from the course he’d set himself: to become a published writer, and to make a living, however meagre, from that writing.
In the light of King’s book, the homosexuality of Sargeson’s characters comes into focus. In the novella That Summer (1943), the culmination of his early development, a young farm worker called Bill moves to the city at the depths of the Depression. He stays afloat in his emotional life, first with Ted, a ‘nuggety’ youth he swims naked and ‘fools about’ with, then with an older man, Terry, whom he chums to the races, and the pub, and job-hunting.
I’d look at him lying there.
Terry, I’d say.
What is it boy? he’d say.
Nothing, I’d say.
And then I’d say, Terry.
And instead of answering he’d just have a sort of faint grin on his face.
Terry, I’d say.
But I never could get any further than just saying Terry.
I wanted to say something but I didn’t know what it was, and I couldn’t say it.
Terry, I’d say.
And he’d sort of grin. And sometimes I’d take his hand and hold it tight, and he’d let it stay in my hand, and there’d be the faint grin on his face.
Terry, I’d say.
I’m all right boy, he’d say.
Shortly after its completion, Sargeson wrote about That Summer to Alec Pickard: ‘Mainly I suppose it could be described as a story about love – I suppose an attempt at demonstrating something of the faith trust responsibility confidence & belief that is the sine qua non of such relationships. But what will puzzle many readers and enrage some is the complete absence of heterosexuality in the thing.’ The emotion struggling for expression seems unmistakable now, but thousands of readers (though not E.M. Forster) missed it for decades.
Anyone who wants to visit Sargeson’s house in the suburbs of Auckland can pick up the key from Takapuna Library and walk the short distance to 14a Esmonde Road. When Sargeson’s stolidly puritan parents bought their holiday bach in 1923, Takapuna was a small, untidy collection of cottages and huts on the north shore of Waitematā Harbour. Eight years later, when Sargeson left his uncle’s farm, he decided he was going to make a permanent home there; by then, an improved ferry service to the city on the south shore meant it was becoming a respectable commuter suburb. Ignoring the gentrification, Sargeson dug a large vegetable garden, signed up for unemployment benefit, and dedicated himself to the writing life.
When I went there with Graeme Lay, a novelist and friend of Sargeson’s, he pointed over the garden fence to show me where the vegetables used to grow: the plot was sold shortly after Sargeson’s death in 1982 to raise funds to preserve the bach and its contents. When he died, Sargeson had $25.93 in the bank.
I looked at the grey unpainted walls. The house is built of Fibrolite, which sounds like breakfast cereal, but is actually asbestos sheeting. I stood on tiptoe, and peered through the window next to the door: a small dim room, with bare chipboard walls. A few old coats and hats on pegs, gardening tools leaning against one wall, and a small table with a tiny manual typewriter on it.
That room was a lobby-cum-tool store: the typewriter had been placed there anachronistically to welcome literary pilgrims. Sargeson lived in another, not much larger room. Under a long window was a narrow single bed with a patchwork blanket made for him by Janet Frame. There was a fireplace, a couple of rickety armchairs, a huge homemade wooden radio, and a waist-high counter separating a sink and a miniature electric cooker from the living area.
Lay picked up a brown bottle from the counter, held it up to the window for a moment and unscrewed the lid. ‘Lemora,’ he said. ‘Frank’s favourite tipple. Though actually I think half the reason he liked it was because everyone else hated it.’ He poured two fingers of viscous yellow liquid into a small glass tumbler. It wasn’t as bad as I’d expected, sweet and brassy. Lemora is a fortified wine made from grapefruit and lemon; everyone who visited Sargeson complained about how disgusting it was, but drinking it was the price you had to pay for being in his company.
Among what remained of Sargeson’s book collection, which included a copy of Ulysses bought in Paris in the late 1920s during his only visit to Europe, was a shelf of New Zealand writers he encouraged or helped get into print: Frame, Lay, C.K. Stead, Dan Davin, Maurice Duggan, Kevin Ireland. ‘The Great Irrigation Scheme of New Zealand literature is having marvellous results,’ Frame wrote to him in 1978. ‘Remember the narrow channel you made, all alone, into that part of the land where everyone said nothing would grow? And remember the struggle you had to get people to accept that it was necessary? You can look at all those creeks and canals that followed … and see the orchard. What an orchard.’ From one of the other shelves I pulled out a book called Early English Organs, a history of church music. Folded inside were some pages torn from a magazine: beefcake photos of musclemen in swimsuits and shorts, or nothing at all.
Outside in the garden, Lay pointed out a hatch that led to a crawl space underneath the house. ‘After Frank’s death, one of my kids found his certificate to practise as a solicitor in there, from back in 1928 or thereabouts. He’d obviously thrown it under the bach in disgust at some point. Of course, the name on the certificate wasn’t Frank Sargeson, it was Norris Davey.’ Sargeson maintained his new identity until his death. Only close friends knew his real name, and even they didn’t know his reasons for abandoning it.
Close to the loquat tree where Sargeson’s ashes were scattered is a hedge facing Esmonde Road. There’s a sign proclaiming the house to be the birthplace of New Zealand literature but the hedge is so overgrown the sign is invisible.
A fortnight later I was in Wellington, drinking craft beer in a pub with Hera Lindsay Bird, the most successful young poet in New Zealand. Her work is funny, vivid and provocative, and flows like a late-night conversation. Surely she must have drawn on the example of Sargeson and his demotic narration?
‘I know virtually nothing about Sargeson,’ she told me. ‘I’ve never read him. I’ve always been more interested in American writers – Frank O’Hara, Chelsey Minnis. I never found a lot I loved in New Zealand literature.’
I thought about her poem ‘Planet of the Apes’: ‘I tell you the story about my dead aunt/who spent her sixteenth birthday digging a giant hole//in the field behind her house and never said why.’ Surely that was a reference to Sargeson’s story ‘The Hole that Jack Dug’, in which Jack digs a giant hole in his back garden, and then fills it in again, for no reason that anyone can say, including himself? ‘No, it’s about my aunt, who dug a hole in her garden.’ She drank her beer. ‘I’m sorry, I know Sargeson’s revered abroad, but I rarely hear him mentioned here. Almost never.’