Apocalyptic Opacity

Frank Kermode

  • The End of the Century at the End of the World by C.K. Stead
    Harvill, 220 pp, £14.99, September 1992, ISBN 0 00 272662 9

The title sounds apocalyptic, but all it means on the face of it is that this novel is set in New Zealand now. Doubtless it could be interpreted as having other implications, and there is some reason to believe the author would encourage his readers to discover or invent them.

C.K. Stead is a poet and an academic critic as well as a novelist. As a critic, he has written a lot about Modernism, and what he admires about the writers he thinks worthy of the appellation ‘Modernist’ – Ezra Pound above all – is a habit or quality of ‘openness’. ‘The “meaning” is not the poem,’ and it is presumably not the novel, either; novels, though for various reasons subject to more constraint than poems, can also eschew simple ‘discursive progression’, and work instead ‘by means of an aggregation of fragments arranged as within a mosaic or a field of force’. Readers of fiction as well as readers of poetry can therefore expect ‘a rough, memorable ride’ over open territory, and must contribute their own share to the apprehension of senses that remain, under the openness, ‘laconic or opaque’.

It is a reasonable inference that Professor Stead admires and might wish, mutatis mutandis, to work in something like the manners of Ford and Conrad, and indeed many of the things he does are such as might have interested those authors. He goes in for time-shifting, though not as demandingly as Conrad; he is, like Ford, keen to arrange and bend everything to the complication and elucidation of a many-sided central ‘affair’. In short, he would agree with Ford that his ‘scenes’ should ‘suggest – of course with precision – far more than they actually express or project’. By using different narrators and different reports of the same events, he can achieve a sort of overlapping that suggests that something else, opaque, laconic, may be hidden under the overlaps.

This isn’t obscurantism – simply a moderate and skilful exercise in Modernist narrative techniques by someone who thinks them appropriate to what he wants to do – not to his ‘meaning’, which is not, on his view, something he needs to convey and explain or even, in any ordinary sense, fully understand. Yet no more than Conrad does he want the reader to feel frustrated; so his novel does indeed tell a story, though not straightforwardly, and always with a suggestion that there is more to it than telling a story, if you will undertake the agreeable labour of discovering what that might, from your point of view, be.

Any novel so conscious of its own techniques will always be candidly putting a question, or teasing the reader to put it, about the relations of fact to fiction, with special consideration for the degree to which all coherent reports of fact are themselves inevitably in some degree fictive. If you wanted to ignore this problem-posing you could probably do so, reading this book as a novel about aspects of the social history of modern New Zealand, or as a study of some aspects of New Zealand literary history. New Zealand is very persistently presented, in topographical and linguistic detail. It seems that a good many Maori words are in common Pakeha use – hangi, hongi, maluka, morepork, toi toi. After looking many such words up in the OED, of which the most recent editor was by good fortune a New Zealander, I discovered that there was in fact a page of glossary hidden at the back of Stead’s book. Perhaps unreasonably, I regretted this; all those kokopus, pohutukawas and kauris surely made for opacity. Would Pound have glossed them?

Laura is an ex-tennis champion, a mother of three and married to a rather tedious Tory lawyer called Roger. A notable figure in her past is Dan, now a not very secure minister in a not very secure right-wing Labour government, and still in touch, though it is a long time since he was Laura’s lover and Roger’s favoured rival. Laura is now a mature university student writing a thesis about a New Zealand novelist called Hilda Tapler, a pseudonym (and an unfortunate one for anybody old enough to remember Henry Reed’s Hilda Tablet). Hilda was really Dan’s aunt Amelia. Interested in possible connections between the life and the fiction of Hildamelia, Laura uncovers, among other things, a relationship between Amelia and Dan’s father, her brother-in-law.

Deeper in the texture of the novel, there is a piece by Hilda that may be fiction or a report of fact, which suggests that Katherine Mansfield did not die, as reported, at Gurdjieff’s Fontainebleau Institute for the Harmonious Development of Man, but faked her death with Middleton Murry’s collusion. Returning to New Zealand under the name Katya Lawrence, she became friendly with Hilda.

Katherine Mansfield in fact called herself by a variety of names, and this one sounds quite like what she would have chosen for such a pseudo-posthumous escapade. And there are apparently some puzzles about her last days, and also about her epitaph, which is the same quotation from I Henry IV later chosen by Chamberlain when he got his bit of paper from Hitler, though given more fully on the tombstone. To explain how ingeniously all this is managed would be to violate the opaque and laconic, but it has to be mentioned since New Zealand writing is inescapably offered to the reader’s attention, and rightly or wrongly, Katherine Mansfield means, for many people, New Zealand literature.

There is a lot more going on – for example, the reminiscences of an older generation, of men who fought in the Mediterranean during the war, or even before that in Spain – and there is much about the anarchic Sixties and Vietnam. The present date of the narrative shifts back and forward between 1970 and 1990. Even the story of how Dan met Laura is told separately and discrepantly by each of them, and to compound the narrative mix Laura has an unfinished novel in which she describes those early days fictionally. And there is also an ‘omniscient’ voice that occasionally takes over the tale.

It is hinted that in New Zealand as elsewhere things aren’t, at the end of the millennium, quite what they used to be. The son of one of the most admirable of the older characters runs a television programme, and by means of dishonest cutting treacherously endangers Dan’s political career. At the same time, he contrives to ruin an innocent literary project: Dan, with support from Laura and her husband, had sought to acquire Hilda’s house as a national memorial. Since Hilda was his aunt, and Laura a former girlfriend, the plan was easily represented as corrupt. As in Ford, a quite limited ‘affair’ suggests large historical disturbances.

The End of the Century at the End of the World is an interesting book, not only because of the skill and honesty of its half-open, half-closed structure, but because it is well enough written to remind one that Stead is a poet. This is apparent not only in momentary flashing phrases but in much evidence that he has what poets need if they are also to be novelists, the ability to do New Zealanders, or whatever community is selected, in different voices. If the book can also offer some laconic, possibly apocalyptic opacity, so much the better, even if this makes it that rather old-fashioned thing, a serious Modernist novel.