Monday, April 30, 2012
We feature each week Nicholas Reid's reviews and comments on new and recent books
“LETTERS OF FRANK SARGESON” Selected and edited by Sarah Shieff (Vintage/Random House, $NZ 49:99)
Dr Sarah Shieff, of the University of Waikato in Hamilton, has edited a selection of letters by Hamilton’s best-known literary son, Norris Davey dit Frank Sargeson (1903-1982).
The volume is judiciously entitled Letters of Frank Sargeson, not The Letters… because even an expansive 600-plus pages like this can represent only a fraction of Sargeson’s letter-writing. For most of his adult life he worked at his own writing in the morning and then answered letters in the afternoon – to friends, publishers, fellow writers, protégés, family etc. So, as Shieff explains in her introduction, there are in this volume “just under 500 letters to 107 recipients, drawn from an archive of nearly 6000 letters to around 450 people.” The letters published here span 54 years, from 1927 to 1981.
Sarah Shieff speaks of the selection process in which she whittled the original 6000 letters down to a chosen 2000, her selection criteria being “biographical interest, historical interest, literary interest in terms of Sargeson’s career, general literary interest and liveliness.” She then, multa gemens, made her final selection of 500. I can only assume that these are the most lively and most interesting letters, and that among those not selected were more routine letters and purely business ones.
Of Shieff’s editorial work, apart from the selection itself, I must note what a very exacting piece of scholarship it must have been. To make many letters comprehensible to the reader, she has had to provide very precise explanations of things referred to in the text of the letters – especially obscure, ephemeral things like book reviews and topical quarrels that have long since been forgotten. In many cases, this must have required considerable and lengthy detective work.
So how do you make critical comment on a volume of personal correspondence?
I read Letters of Frank Sargeson over many weeks, dipping in and out of it, alternately amused and annoyed by the egotistical, touchy, manipulative and sometimes dishonest man they reveal. It goes without saying that this book will be a regular port of call for NZ Lit scholars from now on. At the very least, it presents half a century of opinion, news, gossip and rumour about New Zealand’s literary scene. Sargeson wrote to (or about) nearly every New Zealand writer who mattered. (There is, however, an odd distortion that Sarah Shieff notes. Living in Auckland, Sargeson hardly ever wrote to those Auckanders with whom he often met and conversed – so there are virtually no letters to acquaintances or friends like Allen Curnow, R.A.K.Mason or Kendrick Smithyman).
As a general comment, I’d say that these are workaday, gossipy letters. They are not finely-styled pieces of prose and they are not really the place to look for witticisms and bons mots, unless you mistake Sargeson’s laboured (and often dead-obvious) literary jokes for such.
Over so many years, the variety of the letters is real.
Some of the earlier ones (when he was still getting established and was not yet in a position to lord it over other people) are endearing. A letter he drafted in 1935 to Sherwood Anderson is a giddy fan letter – and why not? In both the style and the attitudes of his short stories, young Sargeson obviously learned much from the author of Winesburg, Ohio. So he gushes “Why should the words you have written come into my life as they have, come right deep into my life, & why should the words of other writers never have come so deep?”
Earlier on he has a blokey, matey correspondence with Denis Glover (with whom he tended not to associate in later years), and uses it as a platform for one of his most consistent pastimes – slagging off other people’s writing. In a January 1937 letter to Glover, Sargeson complains that Robin Hyde’s Passport to Hell is an “obscene” book and accuses her of “bad prose” and of lacking the ability to give her book resonance. In a later letter he calls her a “silly bitch”. Glover actually brings out the grubby schoolboy in Sargeson – in a rare late letter to Glover (August 1973), Sargeson is having the sort of snicker that we all had in the 6th Form about the long “s” in earlier editions of Shakespeare (“where the bee fucks there fuck I” etc.).
The tone is quite different with other correspondents. He is more matter-of-fact and earnest to the short-story writer Alec Pickard (“A.P.Gaskell”), to whom he offers much advice. He is sometimes heart-on-sleeve, and as frank as the times allowed, in his camp remarks to his lesbian friend E.P.(“Peter”) Dawson. Chatty and catty rather than blokey and jokey. When it comes to Important Overseas People, like John Lehmann, he tends to be friendly but more businesslike, sticking to publishing and writing news. After all, Important Overseas People are less likely to be impressed with him. He can go positively obsequious to the likes of William Plomer and E.M.Forster. They had their homosexuality in common, but Sargeson didn’t make it a matter for their correspondence and there’s only a little of the coded ponce talk between them.
Some of Sargeson’s judgements and interests are peculiar. There’s an odd letter to Glover in which he describes Joyce’s Ulysses as “a powerful argument for Catholicism.” There’s the genuine eccentricity of his exchanges with Ralph Bodle (struggling to collate editions of The Swiss Family Robinson). And there’s the rashness of a 1973 letter in which he presumes to offer Arthur Allan Thomas’s defence lawyer advice on how to present evidence.
Obviously there are changes of focus in these letters as Sargeson’s circumstances change. From the 1950s on, there’s plenty of Machiavellian angling-for-literary-grants stuff, often accompanied by sneers when other people get the grants. At the same time, there are accounts of Sargeson’s attempts (and ultimate failure) to become a real playwright. There are agonising letters from the middle 1950s about Janet Frame and the state of her mental health. There is much fussing about Bill Pearson at the time his one novel, Coal Flat, was published.
You do have to take breaks for fresh air in reading all this, though. So much of it is the gossip of a small literary community and inevitably much of that gossip is malicious. Sargeson prided himself on picking and nurturing new literary talent (see his comments in 1944 on young Maurice Duggan); but he often soured on people he expected either to be his protégés or to defer to him. And the catty comments on other writers are fairly relentless.
In a bitchy 1957 letter to the playwright manqué John Graham, he describes Bruce Mason’s The Pohutukawa Tree as a pioneering play and says “nobody else will have to do that sort of thing now” – in other words, The Pohutukawa Tree is not up to the standard of the great theatrical works that the likes of Sargeson will presumably produce.There’s much bollixing of Maurice Shadbolt in Sargeson’s letters in the 1960s (well, fair enough – I kind of agree with him on that one). In 1971, Sargeson says James McNeish wrote his Mackenzie with the novels of Patrick White “propped open in front of him.” (Miaouw! Miaouw!). His attitude towards James K.Baxter (with whom he sometimes corresponded) moves from early puzzlement to later contempt. In a 1952 letter to Dan Davin, he says of Baxter “that drunken young Calvinist is a genius compounded of obscenity and religious mania.” By 1971, writing to Fr John Weir (who had just written a short book about Baxter’s poetry), Sargeson says “I don’t much go along with these Celtic talents which throw off masterpieces between pub-crawls…. There is and always has been something dismayingly provincial about Baxter.”
I think that word “provincial” is a giveaway to many of Sargeson’s ingrained attitudes. He pictured himself as the great writer of international repute, camped among these lesser talents who did not have his lordly breadth of vision. Yet, as an autodidact, he nursed ongoing resentment towards anybody who might have more intellectual clout than he. His venom towards university people was severe, and there are amusing evidences in these letters of his attempts to turn young C.K.Stead away from pursuing an academic career.
I could witter on at considerably more length. But having said all the above, it would be thoroughly dishonest of me if I did not declare a personal interest in this collection of letters.
Speaking of her editorial procedures, Sarah Shieff says in her introduction that “I have been tempted to censor Sargeson’s opinions where they are obviously cruel or unfair, but in the end decided to leave them in the interest of presenting a full sense of his character. I apologise for any offence they might give.”
I approve of this editorial procedure and congratulate her on her delicacy of feeling. Nevertheless, there are at least some letters here that I find distressing.
It is well-known to the literati (and will be plain to anybody who reads Michael King’s biography of Sargeson) that Frank Sargeson loathed and detested my father, Professor John Cowie Reid (1916-72) of the University of Auckland. It all began with a brief review of Sargeson’s work which my father, as a young man, included in a general survey of New Zealand literature, in 1946. Dad said Sargeson’s early short stories lacked “health”. For reasons too complex to go into here, I would endorse this judgement. (In November 2010, reviewing in the Sunday Star-Times the latest edition of Sargeson’s collected short stories, edited by Janet Wilson, I noted how many of them had a smirking, sardonic tone which reminded me of nothing so much as a series of Tui ads all saying “Yeah, right”.) However, from 1946 on, my father was targeted by Sargeson for nasty comment in his letters and elsewhere. Speaking of people who didn’t review his work enthusiastically, he wrote of “stinkers like J.C.Reid”.
I am not claiming that my father was a major preoccupation of Frank Sargeson, but the tone Sargeson adopted was always negative and sometimes close to paranoid. What is sometimes grimly amusing (from my perspective) is Sargeson’s tendency to put the worst possible construction even on statements by my father that were meant to be complimentary.
In Sargeson’s novel Memoirs of a Peon, some minor characters are “revenge” versions of people Sargeson knew. One such is a puerile caricature of my father (presented in the novel as a wife-beater). A lot seems to have been invested in this by Sargeson. Not only did he resent, and consistently display envy of, people with a university education and an academic post; but as a closeted homosexual, whose stories often present women as domineering and controlling bitches, he had little in common with a married Catholic academic who had a larger-than-average family. Showing great forbearance, and fully aware of the caricature, my father broadcast a positive review of the novel, praising its “delicious ironies”. In this collection of letters, I find a letter to H.Winston Rhodes dated 19 February 1966 in which Sargeson says J. C. Reid “went to town” on radio about Memoirs of a Peon and adds “I suspect what he said was one way of dealing with a book in which one finds oneself figuring.” Later that same year, Sargeson expresses annoyance that my father signed a public tribute to Charles Brasch upon his retirement from Landfall. (Apparently Dad wasn’t worthy to be admitted into the exclusive boys’ club of serious NZ Lit.). In a letter of 14 April 1968 he bitches that J. C. Reid is raising money for an Auckland theatre (what was to become the Mercury Theatre) when he (Sargeson) believes that he himself and others should really get the credit for introducing theatre to Auckland. (Damned if I can see why.) The most vindictive (and factually inaccurate) letter is one Sargeson wrote to C.K.Stead on 30 April 1972 , after my father had just had a heart-attack. This was one month before my father died.
Naturally, I do not expect other people to react in the same way that I do. I know that the essence of private correspondence is its privacy. It’s the place where we can say to trusted friends and correspondents things that we wouldn’t care or dare to say in public. This includes the cheerful belittling of third parties and the trashing of their reputations. In the highly unlikely event that anyone wanted to collect and publish my own private correspondence (or your’s) they would find much of this sort of jocular nastiness in play.
Having noted these truisms, however, I still feel I’m making an objective statement when I note that this selection of letters confirms what I already suspected about Sargeson.
When he chose to be, he could be a real arsehole.
There is another letter in which I have a personal interest, but only because its viewpoint amuses me. On 26 September 1965 Sargeson wrote to Bill Pearson: “For hours the other day Ronald Holloway and I continued our Great Debate which has been going on for more than 30 years. The question? – how can one sanctify one’s personal and private life in these times of religious breakdown? Ronald said only by adhering to the Church, and I said only by a private invocation of Charity. Many things have kept this Debate going, many things in common such as periods of grotesque poverty – and we still go our different ways. For Ronald when we continue to debate, it is like the relief of a holiday off from heaven – my hell is very attractive to him still – and so is his heaven to me. Is is strange that we both recognize clearly how certainly we both in a sense missed our vocations – we should have been priests. Anyhow he went off back to a wife and six surviving children (out of 8) holiday-happy on a bottle and a half of wine….”
The craft printer Ronald Holloway (1909-2003) was my next-door neighbour for the first 22 years of my life (before I got married and moved out of my parents’ home). My parents had in fact bought the land on which they built the family home from the Holloways; and for years Reid offspring and Holloway offspring played together and wandered in and out of one another’s houses. Though they were over 40 years older than me, I regarded Ron and his wife Kay as personal friends and visited them often for long afternoon chats (and some free-loading) up to the time they died. I spoke at both Kay’s and Ron’s funerals and wrote two obituaries for Ron – one for the NZ Herald (from whose website you can easily retrieve it) and one for NZ Books.
Apart from his devout medievalism, one of Ron’s most endearing characteristics was his refusal to gossip, even though he had crossed the paths of most of Auckland’s literary figures between the 1920s and the 1970s. More than once, eager young doctoral students, armed with tape-recorders, were turned away empty-handed when they came expecting to get anecdote-filled interviews about Bob Lowry or R.A.K.Mason or Robin Hyde or Frank Sargeson. Ron didn’t want to play that game and preferred to let the dead bury their dead. Yet, inevitably, over so many years I heard, piecemeal, some of his stories and many of his opinions.
More than once, at the mention of Frank Sargeson’s name, I recall Ron shaking his head, heaving a sigh, and saying “Sarge could be difficult.” Their relationship was often cordial enough – and apparently pretty much as Sargeson’s letter suggests – but Ron tired of Sargeson’s tantrums, and was particularly repulsed by Sargeson’s attempts to jolly conversations along by smutty stories laced with four-lettered words. Ron was no prude (I heard more than one bawdy story from him), but there’s smut and there’s smut and Sargeson’s variety didn’t appeal.
Yep. “Sarge could be difficult.”
This well-edited selection of his letters proves it.