Monday, June 11, 2018

Something New


We feature each week Nicholas Reid's reviews and comments on new and recent books.

“THE EXPATRIATE MYTH” by Helen Bones (Otago University Press, $NZ35)

In the second century AD, the usually-reasonable Roman emperor Hadrian banished the poet Juvenal from Rome because Juvenal had dared to write a lampoon of one of the emperor’s favourite actors. This was real exile. If Juvenal returned to Rome before his time of banishment was up, he could be put to death. In the 20th and 21st centuries, many writers have been exiles from totalitarian regimes – Hitler’s, Stalin’s, Mao’s etc. Their life or liberty would be in danger should they return to their home country. These people were real exiles. But what of those writers who leave their country of origin simply because they want to gain new experiences or advance their writing careers? Can they, in any meaningful sense, really be called exiles?

Okay, I know the term “exile” can be used metaphorically and I know Jimmy Joyce spoke of using “silence, exile and cunning” as stratagems when he wished to leave Ireland. Even so, I think the word has now been overused in this metaphorical sense, to the point where it has become almost meaningless. Would any New Zealand writer have faced death or jail had he or she remained in New Zealand? Nope. Therefore none were ever exiles in any real sense. This is why I bridled 14 years ago when the late James McNeish produced his typically myth-promoting volume Dance of the Peacocks, pretentiously subtitled “New Zealanders in exile at the time of Hitler and Mao Tse-Tung”. Not one of the writers with whom McNeish dealt was genuinely in exile, and one or two (like Charles Brasch) returned easily to New Zealand when what amounted to their extended OE was over. Okay, there have been New Zealand writers like Katherine Mansfield, Dan Davin and James Courage who left New Zealand and never returned (apart from brief visits in one case). And there have been even more writers who have felt that New Zealand (or at least New Zealand some decades ago) was stifling, limited and isolated from the real centres of culture, and who yearned for the bigger picture. But my point about none of this being true exile still stands.

You may imagine my delight, therefore, when I first caught sight of Helen Bones’ The Expatriate Myth, written as her doctoral thesis and subtitled “New Zealand writers and the colonial world”. At last, I thought, someone will take down this New Zealand myth of “exile”. And indeed there are places in The Expatriate Myth where Bones does just that. Bones notes in her introduction:

The term ‘expatriate’ is often commingled with the category of ‘exile’, a character or idea that occurs frequently within the field of literary criticism. Such criticism represents literary exiles as grappling with dislocation and loss, focusing on the creative inspiration or hindrance that this provides. A common assumption arising from the perceived necessity of expatriation is that expatriate writers were overseas against their will: they were compelled to leave their ‘home’ place, resulting in dislocation and exile.” (Introduction, p.14)

Much later, she suggests that many literary ‘exiles’ were poseurs, acting out a drama to make themselves seem more interesting:

If the idea of a writer was automatically equated with the idea of exile… it is not too difficult to imagine that some people played up to this trope. There were those who chose to reject colonial ties and emphasise the cultural deprivation they had overcome. The idea of literary exile was a part of European modernism to the extent that it might have been seen as a desirable situation… The usual persona of an exile, however, involved conscious ‘self-fashioning’, and living out the life of a tortured artist, which was a fashionable pursuit in Europe.” She then instances the fashionable ‘lost generation’ of Americans in Paris after the First World War. (Chapter 5, p.110)

Most forcefully, she differentiates real exile from self-chosen expatriation, and shows how the term has become diluted:

The term ‘exile’ originally meant ‘banishment to a foreign country’, often as a kind of punishment. It is commonly used much more broadly than this: according to the Oxford English Dictionary’s longer definition, it can mean ‘prolonged absence from one’s native country or a place regarded as home, endured by force of circumstances or voluntarily undergone… for some purpose’. The term gets even more diluted when applied to literary exiles, to refer to anyone writing from a marginalised perspective, rendering the term somewhat meaningless… Thus the writing industry of London was people heavily with ‘exiles’. Virtually everyone was marginalised – if not foreign, they were the wrong class or the wrong gender.”  (Chapter 7, pp.148-149)

Yet, while it is clearly rejected, the myth of ‘exile’ is not Bones’ main focus. She is most concerned to counter what she sees as a falsehood that was propounded by New Zealand’s literary “nationalists” in the 1930s (the generation of Curnow, Fairburn, Mason, Sargeson, Glover et al) and that has been repeated frequently since. This was the idea that there was no real literary culture in New Zealand before the 1930s and no networks of writers, and that therefore writers were compelled to flee overseas (meaning mainly to Britain) to find circles of like-minded literary people. The “nationalists” saw themselves as the first generation to be grounded in New Zealand and capable of reflecting this country in worthwhile literature. Therefore they tended to despise the ‘exiles’ (even Katherine Mansfield) as people who had succumbed to a British rather than a New Zealand viewpoint and therefore could not be counted as truly representing this country. They also tended to see New Zealand writers before their time as producing an ureal, romanticised “Maoriland” image of New Zealand, designed to tickle the British taste for the exotic.

As Bones says in her introduction:

This book will examine the expatriate myth from two main angles. The first is the widely accepted idea that expatriation was necessary for New Zealand writers in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries because of the country’s supposed dearth of opportunities, a result of both the perceived lack of publishing outlets and the absence of a community of like-minded artistic people” … “The second focus… is an investigation into the nature and effects of New Zealand expatriatism when it did occur.” (Introduction, pp.11-12)

Bones’ method is to argue, often with the help of tabulated statistics, that there was a literary culture in New Zealand before the literary “nationalists” came along; that there were literary networks; and that only a minority of New Zealand writers settled permanently overseas. Most of those who did go overseas did so for a short time only.

The distinction between “nationalist” writing and “Maoriland” (or “colonial”) writing is, she says (Chapter 1) artificial. There were continuities. Most immigrants to New Zealand in the 19th century were literate, giving New Zealand higher rates of (Pakeha) literacy than any other British colony with, per capita, more theatrical groups and music societies than in any other colony. There were strong international links with the rest of the Anglo-world and New Zealand readers were more au fait with modern literary trends than is often assumed. Before the 1930s crowd came along, it was no contradiction in New Zealand to be both “nationalist” and “imperialist”, given continuing strong links with the imperial centre. (Making this point, Bones frequently references Felicity Barnes’ New Zealand’s London – A Colony and Its Metropolis, reviewed on this blog six years ago; and Stafford and Williams’ Maoriland, also noticed on this blog.)

Before the 1930s, there was a thriving literary culture in terms of much poetry being printed in newspapers and some (short-lived) literary magazines.(Chapter 2). Here Bones sometimes references Chris Hilliard’s The Bookmen’s Dominion (reviewed in Landfall magazine, November 2006), and herself sides with the “bookmen” (Alan Mulgan, O. N. Gillespie, Charles Marris, Pat Lawlor) in the way they encouraged local writers, did not sneer at expatriates like Katherine Mansfield, and addressed a wide audience. The new “nationalists” regarded the “bookmen” as dictating popular taste, but Bones sides with the “bookmen” for their accessibility, noting:

The earlier group of bookmen were no more tyrannical than their successors, and had broader interests over several genres. The newspaper-based literary culture was more democratic and accessible, particularly for women, than later literary circles, which tended to be based in universities. This division caused genre to be more of an issue, as the university-based scholars favoured realist and modernist modes of expression (excluding genres like popular writing). The contribution of newspapers to local writing was not acknowledged because they became less popular as the medium for ‘serious’ writing as time went on: later writers were not so interested in this kind of exposure.” (Chapter 2, p.53)

Denying that pre-1930s New Zealand writers were linked slavishly to England, Bones chronicles the strong Trans-Tasman connections (Chapter 3) and the importance of the Australian Bulletin as a site for publication by New Zealand authors in the early 20th century. She gives many examples of writers who moved from New Zealand to Australia – or vice versa – and notes how often both groups were happy to identify themselves as “Australasians”. Next, she notes (Chapter 4) that, between 1890 and 1935, while most poetry by New Zealanders was published in New Zealand, the great majority of novels by New Zealanders, most of whom stayed in New Zealand, were published in Britain. In other words, it was not necessary to become an ‘exile’ in order to write.

However, the 1930s literary nationalists built up the legend that becoming an expatriate meant lacking “authenticity” as a New Zealand writer, and they saw publication overseas as a sort of betrayal. (Chapter 5) Bones counters this by saying (a.) Permanent expatriates like Mansfield were the exception rather than the rule for pre-1930s New Zealand writers. (b.) There was a “cultural cringe” assumption in New Zealand that literary work published overseas was more worthy of respect than literary work published in New Zealand. BUT (c.) There was much self-interest in the “nationalists” decrying overseas publication, as some of them (like Denis Glover) were intent on promoting their own New Zealand-based printing and publishing enterprises.

Furthermore (Chapter 6) New Zealand writers who stayed overseas (Mansfield, John Mulgan) did not cease to be authentically New Zealanders and wrote much about this country. Besides which, as a recently-settled colony, considerable numbers of New Zealand’s general population were always travelling to and fro between New Zealand and Britain, and not just writers. There were many writers who, like other New Zealanders, simply made a brief trip to Britain and returned (e.g. Jessie Mackay). Others initially went overseas to study, not to write (Dan Davin, John Mulgan, J.C.Beaglehole, James Courage). In the case of New Zealand journalists, travelling overseas was an inevitable part of their trade.

As for the great metropolis of London (Chapter 7), some who left New Zealand believed naïvely that literary success would be more easily attainable there than in New Zealand – in which assumption they were sorely mistaken. Few were able to get “introductions” to publishers and many noted the sordor and unpleasantness of London. Monte Holcroft, A.R.D. Fairburn and Frank Sargeson all made brief forays into England before realising they were better off as writers in New Zealand and heading home. In the end, opines Bones (Chapter 8), it did not matter where New Zealand writers wrote. While a few New Zealand writers made it into British literary circles, and many were themselves “insiders” in England, others were snubbed as “colonials”. She remarks that “talent, tenacity and good luck” (p.158) were required for New Zealand authors to succeed in both New Zealand and Britain.

So far, I have simply stated Helen Bones’ case. On the whole it is a good one, but it is not watertight. Not only are “nationalists” rebuked in nearly every chapter, but there is a great deal of repetition (as there is in this overlong review), with the same examples being cited numerous times in the text. The case could have been stated more concisely. There is also often a scolding tone. Katherine Mansfield is roundly upbraided for not being more grateful to New Zealand:

 “Katherine Mansfield enjoyed every material and educational advantage available to her in New Zealand but preferred to emphasise the deprivations of colonial life. Widely accepted without question, these attitudes further reinforced ideas about New Zealand as a cultural desert.” (Chapter 5, p.111) [Emphasis added]. This sounds like a grumpy parent saying “After everything I’ve done for you…”

Sometimes, too, Bones seems to undercut her own case, although these may be seen as intentional “concessions” for the sake of balance. Thus, after just having referenced the homosexuals Hector Bolitho, D’Arcy Cresswell, James Courage and Charles Brasch, she remarks:

 “The ‘strictures of society’ did inspire some people to go overseas, but this is often wrongly confused with literary reasons for leaving. The two are entirely separate issues, as the social constraints did not necessarily prevent people from writing.” (Chapter 6, p.131)

Entirely separate issues”? Possibly. But the experiences of these people do suggest that they felt happier writing outside New Zealand (even if Brasch returned).

Similarly, speaking of good postal systems and personal networks of writers in New Zealand, she says: “Although numbers were too few to allow a fringe or bohemian subculture to form and encourage avant-garde literary innovation, there were fledgling literary networks.” (Chapter 2, p.48) [Emphasis added]

Again, this suggests the real need to leave the country which some writers felt.

Bones’ presentation and style are logical, orderly and more than a little bloodless, perhaps because this is a doctoral thesis meeting academic requirements. I did delight, however, at a few amusing exempla, such as the story of the Aussie Bulletin editor who sent the following curt replies to New Zealand authors “[Your story] creaks like a cattle truck.” “Your effort is not worth the blow it strikes at the national ink supply” “As your poem was neatly typewritten we restrain our wrath.” (all quoted Chapter 3, p.61). Them wuz the days when editors spoke their minds.

Yet my main criticism of The Expatriate Myth is this. Even if she is to be applauded for challenging the myth of “exile”, isn’t Bones in fact flogging a dead horse when she attacks the “nationalists”? For at least the past forty years, it has been one of the great indoor sports of Academe to point out the shortcomings of our old literary nationalists. Indeed this has become the new orthodoxy. We’ve already read Stuart Murray’s Never a Soul at Home (VUP 1998) and Lawrence Jones’ Picking Up the Traces (VUP 2003) and have seen New Zealand literary nationalism dissected by modern sensibilities. We have looked at the left-wing side of things with Rachel Barrowman’s A Popular Vision (VUP 1991) and have heard Fairburn’s and Glover’s generation being scolded for their misogyny and homophobia in Kai Jensen’s Whole Men (AUP 1996). Then there is John Newton’s recent A Hard Frost (VUP 2017), my review of which may be found on Landfall-Review-on-Line, December 2017, at this link https://www.landfallreview.com/a-language-of-subterfuge/#more-3452

My chief impression was that Newton was executing a sort of push-back against the current orthodoxy by noting that, for all their perceived masculinism, mysogyny and (possibly) parochialism, the nationalists did bring about some sort of literary renewal in New Zealand. It remains true, after all, that more New Zealand poetry and prose after the 1920s can still be read as living statements and live literature than the poetry and prose before that time, most of which reads as period pieces.

Perhaps the modernists exaggerated the concept of necessary ‘exile’ before their time, but it also remains true (as Bones’ own evidence shows) that many New Zealand writers felt uncomfortable in New Zealand and wanted to at least taste the wider world. And perhaps we should be reminded how much smaller New Zealand’s population was back then (less than one third as large in the 1920s as it is now) and how much longer overseas travel (exclusively by ship) took then than it does now. It was not a case of easily accessing metropolitan culture by instant electronic links, and it was not a case of hopping over to London in a day or two. To leave New Zealand promised a long absence – perhaps permanent – and to stay in New Zealand meant the prospect of missing much international literary culture. The modernists exaggerated and mythologised – but perhaps there is something to be said for their case after all.

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