In the Forties, a New Zealand schoolboy writing my first poems and fictions, I didn’t know there were any living New Zealand writers. My literary excitements came mostly from British but also from American writers, past and present. I was not of a generation that looked to England as ‘Home’. ‘Colonial’ was a word I would have resented. But my (and I mean our) situation, which seemed to me perfectly ordinary, seems unordinary enough, when looked back upon, to need a descriptive term. ‘Post-colonial’, perhaps – but in what degree ‘post’? I belonged to one of what I think V.S. Naipaul has called the client cultures.
In my last year at school I discovered Allen Curnow’s poetry and his 1945 anthology, A Book of New Zealand Verse, which historians often use as a marker in the establishment of a distinct and self-reliant New Zealand literature. In 1951, the year Curnow, then aged 39, moved to Auckland to take up a lectureship at the university, I enrolled as a student. I remember my first sight of him, walking through Albert Park – and of course his lectures and tutorials. In the years that followed I got to know him well.
Another influence of that time was the fiction writer Frank Sargeson, who distrusted the university and warned me against an academic career. By 1955 I was married and living on Auckland’s North Shore close to the Sargeson house, at the back of which Janet Frame, recently released from years of incarceration in mental institutions, was living in an old army hut and writing her first novel, Owls do cry. Frame discusses that time in the second volume of her autobiography, An Angel at my Table, and it figures in the Jane Campion movie of that name which last year won awards at Cannes.
After graduating I lectured for most of two years in Australia, then crossed into the Northern Hemisphere for the first time. I embarked on a PhD (the thesis later published as The New Poetic) at Bristol University, and by I959, was facing a minor crisis – stay (opportunities were offering) or return home. I remember visiting the cottage somewhere out of Oxford where Dan Davin, Rhodes Scholar, officer, military historian and novelist, got away from his work at the Clarendon Press to do his writing. Propped around his desk were New Zealand maps, newspaper clippings, reference books. Here was an expatriate writer losing his grip on what he still conceived to be his proper subject.
But what brought me home was something more positive. It was the example especially of those Auckland mentors, and the sense (naive? enthusiastic, anyway) of a new literature in the making. In my time away I had never engaged with a literary mind keener than Curnow’s or met a poet whose work impressed me more; and I had never encountered anyone who lived the literary life so whole-heartedly as Sargeson.
So the launch at Auckland’s Pan Pacific Hotel in April 1991 of the Oxford History of New Zealand Literature in English,[*] edited by Terry Sturm, was an occasion for retrospection, made more notable by the fact that Allen Curnow, now in his 80th year and still writing, was there to make the principal speech. Curnow welcomed the book, describing it as ‘serious, scholarly and comprehensive’. But it was also, he went on, ‘a product of the age’. If you knocked on a university lecturer’s door these days, you would be lucky to find someone to talk to about what was in a book, or about the person who wrote it. More likely you would find ‘a disciple of Barthes or Derrida, who would tell you that books don’t really have authors’. In this way Curnow politely signalled his distance from, and difference with, the book’s editorial principles.
A week or so ago I talked to Niels Barfoed, President of Danish PEN, a poet and journalist who, while travelling in the Pacific, was looking for copy for the literary paper that employs him. He’d intended to go to Wellington to interview Yvonne du Fresne, whose Danish immigrant forebears feature in her fiction, but fog had closed the airport. With only a day left he rang me, his attention drawn by the fact that I had a Swedish grandfather and that one of my novels, The Death of the Body, had just been published in a Swedish translation. Such travellers always want one to sum up New Zealand – something as difficult as being asked to sum up oneself. Only a day or so earlier an English-born Auckland entrepreneur who has converted our local shopping-centre into a quaint tourist spot of restored settler-style weatherboard shops had been telling me that New Zealanders were ‘a pack of lazy bastards’. It was Sunday morning and most of his leasees’ shops were shut. ‘They grumble about rent,’ he said, ‘and then don’t take advantage of the new legislation’ – referring to a recent relaxation of the laws on Sunday trading.
It’s true that New Zealand was a very early example of the modern forty-hour-week Welfare State, and that we haven’t quite made the adjustment to the new ‘realities of the marketplace’. But I found myself telling Niels Barfoed that when I tried to stand imaginatively offshore and say something about New Zealand that was truthful and worth saying, what I thought of was hard work – that, and the anxieties that have promoted it.
Imagine a country about the land-area of the British Isles, once largely covered with dense forest and occupied by a tribespeople fierce in war and given to cannibalism, and now, when you drive through or fly over, seen to be cleared and farmed, swamps drained, rivers dammed for hydro-electricity, lakes created, harbours and cities and roads and airports built – all orderly and productive, most of this work having been done as hard physical labour by a total population which had reached only one and a half million after the first century of settlement, and has now reached three and a half. You may deplore the damage done to the cultural life and social organisation of the Maori, to the forests, to the local fauna. But if the popular wisdom, at home and abroad, now considers such a history reprehensible, there’s another view, no less reasonable, which would offer it as an example of human courage, energy, diligence and success against the odds.
In fact, there’s something almost neurotic, and pitiable, about work on such a scale. Our forebears travelled as far as it was possible to go from their homeland. In every settler family, I’m sure, there was a deep anxiety, lasting two or three generations, and a consequent determination, first to make a ‘home away from Home’, and latterly to make something new, different, worthy of respect. Remoteness used to be part of the anxiety. That has largely gone, but the question of identity remains.
National pride used to hang on the pegs of soldiering (including the exploits of the Maori Battalion) and rugby; also on being ‘the social laboratory of the world’, and on offering a model of good race relations. When 1990 brought the 150th anniversary of the signing of the Treaty of Waitangi between the Maori tribes and the Crown, it seemed none of these pegs remained, or was felt to be significant. It was impossible to feel, underneath the usual public speeches, any real sense of pride or confidence. What was real was the bickering and breast-beating. Had the treaty been honoured? Had we established true independence and an identity in the South Pacific? The contrast with Australia’s brassy celebrations of its double centenary was painful; and when it was over, most New Zealanders seemed hardly to have noticed that 1990 had also been, and rather more significantly, the year when the Wall came down and the 20th century changed its face.
Individual works of literature, and individual writers, may be studied each for a different reason, and with different motives and emphasis. But a ‘History of New Zealand Literature’ can hardly exist separate from considerations of the state of the nation. I should say at once that though I respect the editor, Professor Terry Sturm, I think his History is useful just insofar as it hasn’t been possible for him to impose his own editorial principles on the work as a whole. Sturm is interested, he tells us, in contexts rather than texts and authors. He’s also anti-élitist, with that combination of old-fashioned Marxism and (am I right in thinking?) just-now-becoming-unfashionable theorising which requires an established literary canon to be seen as both a class crime and a critical fiction. Add to that the view that a literature such as ours has been one further imposition by the colonisers on the colonised – not to mention the preserve of the patriarchy – and it’s difficult to see how pressing to death with a volume of 750 close-packed pages is enough. A general book-burning would have been more appropriate.
‘The main model’ for New Zealand criticism, Sturm tells us, has been ‘formalist academic criticism overseas’, and the effect has been ‘to consolidate a smallish canon of perhaps a dozen of New Zealand’s “best” writers grouped around Katherine Mansfield, Allen Curnow, Frank Sargeson, James K. Baxter and Janet Frame’. Serious fiction and poetry have been ‘privileged’ over other genres, which have been ‘marginalised’. All this needs correction, ‘Even the notion of “literature” itself,’ he continues, ‘must come under scrutiny. Does it privilege the written over the oral? If so, was not the introduction of writing itself into “New Zealand” one of the main acts of colonisation?’
Sturm does his best to organise the kind of recognitions he feels are proper. Leading from the front, he writes the chapter on popular fiction. ‘High-cultural dismissals of popular culture,’ he tells us, ‘have been very powerful in New Zealand (one of the most visible signs, in fact, of our colonial consciousness).’ So his fifty pages on mystery, adventure, crime fiction and romance attempt to be merely descriptive, but fall from time to time, as concentration lapses, into these very ‘high-cultural’ dismissives (‘hoariest colonial clichés,’ ‘tear-jerking’, ‘complications crudely evaded’, ‘cheating’, ‘crude plot expedient’, ‘banality’, ‘overwriting’, sentimentalising’, ‘utterly implausible’, ‘transparently artificial’) which have been powerful, one might think, not because they represent a ‘colonial consciousness’ subordinate to imported notions of excellence, but because they fit the bill.
Another category needing rescue is children’s literature, which has been neglected, Sturm tells us, because it has ‘always been written mainly by women’ (not true in my experience), and in order to correct this we have forty pages on the subject by Betty Gilderdale, who seems, however, relatively indifferent to the sex of the authors she’s dealing with.
But in Eagleton-eyed Peter Gibbons, who wrote the chapter on non-fiction, Sturm found someone in tune with his editorial song. ‘Writing,’ Gibbons tells us, ‘like Marx’s capital, arrives in New Zealand “dripping from head to foot, from every pore, with blood and dirt”. Writing in and about New Zealand was ... involved in the processes of colonisation, in the implementation of European power ... and in the simultaneous implicit or explicit production of the indigenous peoples as alien or marginal. At the same time writing was instrumental in classifying, mythologising and gendering experience within New Zealand.’
You know where you are? Now write on ...
But this is not a review, and if it were, it would no doubt have to concede that most of Sturm’s troops seem to watch him go over the top (‘There he goes again!’ to quote an American President) and then get on with the job on a traditional way, describing historical developments and making tentative discriminations. It is, in other words, for all Sturm’s brave words, a literary history much like any other. The jacket is pink, not sackcloth, with an illustration from a watercolour by Olivia Spencer Bower of a verandah in the sun with a table covered in fruit and flowers. Among the leaves and leaf shadow can be seen a basket, a pot-plant, a watering can. If you were standing there, what would you hear coming from indoors?
There might be Mozart on the stereo – or Douglas Lilburn: or the CBS or BBC News on Sky television, direct from New York or London; or a conversation deploring, or approving, or arguing about, the latest Maori separatist statement; or a discussion of market economics and the collapse of the Welfare State. Someone – it’s possible – might even be complaining that the London Review of Books hasn’t arrived. What I’m suggesting is that the jacket illustration, chosen, I think, only because OUP in New Zealand has a policy of decorating its publications with works by women painters, inadvertently puts the book in its place – among those leisurely and civilised pursuits middle-class people occupy themselves with when there are no longer more urgent tasks like clearing bush, draining swamps and fighting local wars. I approve of those pursuits – indeed I live by them – and for that reason reject all glib moralising over, all pretence at disengagement from, the exciting and painful history which made them possible in the first place.
[*] Oxford, 767 pp., £30, 26 September, 0 19 558211 X