Monday, May 11, 2020
We feature each fortnight Nicholas Reid's reviews and comments on new and recent books.
“THE GORSE BLOOMS PALE – DAN DAVIN’s Southland Stories” Edited by Janet Wilson (Otago University Press, $NZ45); “THE GENERAL AND THE NIGHTINGALE – DAN DAVIN’s War Stories” Edited by Janet Wilson (Otago University Press, $NZ45)
Here’s a problem for me. Should I be including these two collections of short stories in the “Something New” section of this blog? After all, the great majority of the stories presented here have long been available in print, and their author died thirty years ago. What’s more, the first of these two books, The Gorse Blooms Pale – Dan Davin’s Southland Stories, edited by Janet Wilson, was first published in 2007 and has now (in 2020) been reprinted. The second book The General and the Nightingale – Dan Davin’s War Stories, also edited by Janet Wilson, has now (in 2020) been published for the first time.
Yet there is value in seeing these two collections as new books rather than old. There is the new form of their presentation – the long scholarly introduction that Janet Wilson gives to each volume and her detailed apparatus criticus. In both volumes, Wilson has arranged the stories in a different order from their appearance in earlier collections. For example, only some of the stories from Davin’s collection The Gorse Blooms Pale (published in 1947) are in The Gorse Blooms Pale – Dan Davin’s Southland Stories, the rest being now placed in The General and the Nightingale – Dan Davin’s War Stories. Wilson’s editions also include some previously uncollected stories as well as one or two that were never published even in magazines. So let’s consider these as two new books and worthy of close reading, especially as together they comprise all Dan Davin’s short fiction.
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First, The Gorse Blooms Pale – Dan Davin’s Southland Stories. It includes a selection of stories from The Gorse Blooms Pale (1947), a selection of stories from Davin’s next collection Breathing Spaces (1975) and six previously uncollected stories.
Janet Wilson’s long (26-page) introduction gives a detailed biographical account of Dan Davin (1913-1990), son of Irish-Catholic parents, who grew up in a large family in Southland (mainly Invercargill) in the 1920s and early 1930s. His father was a railwayman who also tended a small farm. In his first collection of stories, Davin fictionalised his family as the Connolly family and himself as young Mick Connolly. Later Davin attended a school in Auckland for one year, studied at the University of Otago in Dunedin, won a scholarship to Oxford, excelled as a scholar in Classics, had extensive military experience in the Second World War, but spent the rest of his life in England as an academic publisher and (apart from a few brief visits) never return to New Zealand. He had left New Zealand in 1936 when he was 23. It is interesting to reflect that nearly all his Southland stories were written when he was far away from New Zealand, on the other side of the world. Janet Wilson repeatedly tells us that he is part of “diasporic” writing. Like James Joyce, he wrote obsessively about the country where he was born, but hardly ever wrote about the country where he spent most of his life.
Wilson’s style of editing is very fastidious. Every story has many end-notes, sometimes advising us of the meaning of now-dated slang or Irish words, but for the Southland ones more commonly connecting every road, address, hill, farm, stream, school or public business to their originals in Gore, Invercargill or Dunedin. She thus more firmly advises us how much of Davin’s short fiction is really thinly-disguised autobiography based on observation of real places and people. I should add that it might be better to read the introduction after reading the stories themselves, as Janet Wilson does analyse many of them and in the process imposes an interpretation on some of them.
So to the stories. After all, they the main reason that I have – with much appreciation – read my way through these two volumes, sometimes remembering stories I read years ago in earlier editions, but just as often coming across stories that were new to me.
First, The Gorse Blooms Pale – Dan Davin’s Southland Stories. They are very much depictions of a lost world and part of their interest is their documentary details. We are in a very different society from the present when, coming from the family’s milking shed, a little boy has to deliver milk in cans to neighbours on a cold, windy night; and it is made clear that the customers he visits come from different social classes and some look down on him and his family (“Milk Round”). We are frequently made aware of chronic poverty in the semi-rural setting, as in a story focusing on a poor old woman who comes regularly to the Connolly home to wheedle and cadge for food (“The Basket”). Many stories remind us of the social divide between (often working-class) Irish Catholics and their (sometimes middle-class) Protestant neighbours.
However, Davin is not only documenting a way of life. The stories about Mick Connolly also chart a pattern of growing-up and maturation. The young Mick early feels a form of alienation when he is annoyed with his family and has typical death-bed fantasies (in “The Vigil”). He learns about death and the grimmer side of farm life when he and his brothers discover baby rabbits dead in the snow (“Late Snow”). He also witnesses his father killing a new-born bull, of no use to dairying (“Growing Up”). Cruelty, an awareness of death and a sense of personal betrayal combine in one of the better-known stories “Death of a Dog”, where Mick’s father kills the boys’ favourite dog Jack, on the pretext that the dog has taken to biting people.
There is a considerable change of tone in a story of Dunedin university-student life, where a student feels both triumph and apprehension at losing his virginity, and finds a that Presbyterian professor’s interpretation of the poet Catullus is at odds with his own erotic impulses (“That Golden Time”). Indeed, there is a different stylistic approach in the later stories from the original The Gorse Blooms Pale. The earlier stories are spare and not over-written (although I did detect a nudge of purple prose in the description of a vegetable garden in “The Basket”). But in the later stories there is a tendency to overstate a moral or to add a twist ending. “A Happy New Year” contrasts convincingly two separate celebrations going on simultaneously – the refined party in the house and the rough rouseabouts’ booze-up out the back. With its complex cast of characters and clear indication of class tensions, this could have been one of Davin’s greatest stories – but it comes down with the clunk of a twist ending that seems to have strayed from another story. So too in “A Meeting Halfway”, which sets up the credible situation of a refined wife at odds with her coarser-grained husband, and then crunches melodramatically into a shock ending
The childhood stories from Davin’s later collection Breathing Spaces (1975) are less clearly focused. With just a slight tweak, some of them would resemble the type of country yarns found in Frank S. Antony’s Me and Gus. Little Mick Connolly (i.e. Dan Davin) and his brothers play at parachuting off the roof in “Roof of the World”. Two gangs of kids play at war and stage fights in “Goosey’s Gallic War” - but, dammit, the story is stymied by a cutesie punchline about reconciling with your enemies. Mick and his brother cut down a tree their father didn’t want them to cut down (“The Tree”). You see the potential these stories had for pure knockabout? But then Davin always has a sort of moral undertone and often implicit social commentary. “Presents” seems a careless anecdote but implies the family’s poverty. On the whole, these stories from Breathing Spaces suggest an author much further removed from his childhood than he was when he wrote The Gorse Blooms Pale and now more prone to categorising his youthful experience and drawing neat lessons from it. Nevertheless, one story of adolescence remains one of Davin’s best. “The Quiet One” presents a teenager who tags along with two more experienced youths, looking for girls on a Saturday night in Invercargill. He feels mainly a sense of inadequacy until, on his own, he encounters a loner whose own erotic adventure has come to a grisly end. This really is a story about growing-up.
“A Return” and “First Flight”, both written in first person, read like straight autobiography or reportage of Davin’s brief return to Invercargill in 1948.
Of the six previously uncollected stories included in The Gorse Blooms Pale – Dan Davin’s Southland Stories, one is an early piece Davin wrote as a student (“Prometheus”) but four were first publshed in the NZ Listener and another New Zealand magazine in the 1970s and 1980s. All are written in the first-person and all, regrettably, are prone to preaching an obvious moral with the use of simple symbolism. A damaged fighter pilot nurses a damaged bird in “The Albatross” and likens his solitariness to the bird’s. In “Black Diamond”, Davin pairs the black diamond insignia of the New Zealand Division in the Western Desert with the black diamond coal that the boys stole from a railway yard when he was a kid. “Gardens of Exile”, concerning racial prejudice against Chinese market gardeners in old Southland, morphs into a homily on tolerance and good race relations. Wilson’s introduction says of these hitherto unpublished stories that “Distance from his homeland becomes a cipher for a more universal sense of alienation.” (p.34). Possibly so, but I am more aware of distance and the passing years making the older expatriate writer simplify and schematise the society he had earlier depicted more vividly.
There is one aspect of Davin’s outlook that deserves special mention. As Janet Wilson notes, Davin left behind his Catholic upbringing in early manhood, and was a confirmed agnostic. She says “In these stories Davin charts the development of an essentially secular outlook predicated on harsh moral realism.” (p.19) But there is no strident anti-religion polemic in these stories. It is more an assumed undertone. In the opening story of this collection “The Apostate”, little Mick Connolly becomes disillusioned with God because he can’t get his lost pencil back even though he prayed for it. In “First Flight”, recounting his brief return journey to New Zealand in 1948, Davin gives his father a polite excuse for not going to mass, which his old father accepts agreeably enough. The story “Saturday Night” does suggest puritanical hypocrisy when a friend of Mrs Connolly deplores a saucy film which she has obviously enjoyed, but this seems to reflect the general puritanism of society at that time. The story which most directly protests at the behaviour of religious figures is the never-previously-published one that closes this collection, “Failed Exorcism”, and even this is a relatively mild account of a Marist Brother humiliating young Davin and his brothers in front of a class. Davin’s dislike of church and dogma is often implied, but it is rarely as dramatised in detail as it is in some of Davin's novels.
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Now turning to the second of these two books, published this year for the first time in this format, The General and the Nightingale – Dan Davin’s War Stories. Once again Janet Wilson’s endnotes to each story are both copious and scrupulous. This time, however, she does not deal with slang so much as with showing non-military people where and when during the Second World War each story takes place, and how each story draws closely on the diaries Davin kept while on service. As in the earlier volume, this shows us how most of Davin’s short fiction is lightly disguised autobiography. Wilson calls the stories “fictionalised accounts rather than imaginative fiction” (p.17) She also notes that while other New Zealanders who have served as soldiers have written fictional versions of their experiences after the war is over (John A. Lee for example, or M.K.Joseph), Davin was unique is writing some of his stories when the war was still in progress. There is a very extensive glossary, originally devised by Davin himself and now enlarged, explaining place names, designations of military units and, of course, Kiwi soldiers’ slang. Though it is not discussed in this edition, I find it interesting that the title story “The General and the Nightingale” was obviously one of Davin’s own favourites. At any rate, it was one of his two stories (the other one was “Saturday Night”) which he chose to include in the much-reprinted Oxford University Press anthology New Zealand Short Stories which Davin edited in 1953.
This time, before it discusses indivdual stories, Wilson’s introduction focuses on Davin’s life just before and during the Second World War. At Oxford, he had won a First in Greats (Classics) in 1939 and might have looked forward to an academic career; but in 1940 he volunteered for officer training with a British regiment. He had himself transferred to the New Zealand Division (the “Div” or 2NZEF), with which he stayed for the rest of the war, first as a platoon commander. He saw action in the retreat through Greece and then in Crete. He was wounded and evacuated to convalesce in Cairo. Then he was transferred to Military Intelligence (as many intelligent Oxbridge-educated chaps were) where he served with Paddy Costello, Angus Ross, Geoffrey Cox and others who, like Davin himself, feature under fictionalised names in some of his stories. This group of Intelligence officers were always in close contact with their general Bernard Freyberg, who also features in stories, though usually just as “the General”. Davin was not a man to idolise people, but he liked Freyberg and the title story is really a celebration of the chief officer’s sang froid under fire. It is clear that Davin, who had been away from New Zealand for four years before his war service, was glad to find himself from 1940 to 1944 in the company of New Zealanders whom he respected and admired.
All of the stories in this new edition have been published before, some in Davin’s original The Gorse Blooms Pale (1947), some in Breathing Spaces (1975), and nearly all of them in a compendium of his war stories which Davin called The Salamander and the Fire (1986). However, the stories are not presented here in the order in which they were first published. They are presented in the order of the historical events they recall. Thus the first of the 20 stories, “Below the Heavens”, takes place in April 1941, during the retreat through Greece, when Davin was first under fire. The last story, “Not Substantial Things”, is set in Italy in June 1944 when the shooting war in Europe is nearly over for New Zealanders and the author is reflecting on what the post-war will be like. In between we go through nearly every phase of the war that Davin experienced.
Janet Wilson remarks that the stories Davin wrote during the war are often terse and brief, whereas those he wrote in the 1970s and 1980s tend to be longer, more detailed and more analytic. As a generalisation this is true. Certainly the very first war stories Davin had published (in magazines early in the war) are both impressionistic sketches – “Under the Bridge” about terrified Cretan civilians trying to find shelter during a bombing raid; and “Danger’s Flower” about Kiwi soldiers in Crete going through the same sort of torment. But apart from style, I think there is another distinction between the war stories Davin wrote in the 1940s and those he wrote in later years.
The later stories tend to be a little more critical of officers and a little more ready to note the shortcomings of some New Zealand soldiers.
Take this sequence of four stories, all first published in the 1970s and 1980s and all dealing with the Italian campaign – mainly the battles around Monte Cassino. “North of the Sangro” has an overconfident young intelligence officer thinking he can encourage Germans to desert after he had interrogated just one prisoner – but his plan ends in farce. “Psychological Warfare at Cassino” is one of Davin’s very best stories, at once sad and funny and with a carefully layered sense of what “psychological wafare” means. It ridicules mercilessly an American OSS officer who has a foolish plan to demoralise the determined German troops they are facing. But, while it is told with good humour, we are also made aware of the jockeying for favour among the New Zealand intelligence officers. “Cassino Casualty” is a study in “battle fatigue”, or PTSD as we would now say, showing how a competent and brave New Zealand soldier is on the point of burning himself out and mentally destroying himself. “When Mum Died” is a less succesful story, told in the first-person by a batman who had just received the news that his mother has died. Davin has this working-class narrator speak in what seems a forced and stylised slang which does not quite convince. Even so, the batman’s understated grief is compared with an officer mourning the death of a dog. I’m aware that Davin was sensitive about dogs, as in his Southland story “Death of a Dog”; and elsewhere in The General and the Nightingale – Dan Davin’s War Stories there is the story “The Dog and the Dead”, set just after the second battle of El Alamein, which has a soldier deciding to shoot a dog howling for its dead master. Even so, in “When Mum Died” the death of a dog is clearly a small thing compared with the death of a mother.
Other stories written in the 1970s and 1980s have a negative tone about some officers and men.”The Persian’s Grave” (Athens, May 1941) has a soldier, left behind after the British evacuation of Greece, getting drunk and accidentally giving away the Greek family who are hiding him from the Germans – although he does redeem himself a little at the end. “East is West” (the chaotic retreat to Egypt late in 1941) has an arrogant officer foolishly forcing his driver to go through a minefield. “Coming and Going” (the Western Desert 1942) presents a commander committing suicide after he has deserted his troops in battle. And while it is mainly a semi-humorous sketch of an awkward situation, “Finders and Losers’ touches on the matter of soldiers’ infidelity to their wives faraway in New Zealand, and wives’ infidelity to to their faraway soldier husbands.
None of this is to suggest that Davin was squeamish in the war stories he wrote in the 1940s. “Bourbons”, first published in 1945, is a very unflattering portrait of complacent and snobbish British officers. “Unwrung Withers” has a British orator in Palestine ostensibly expressing solidarity with the Jewish people and their aspirations while in private revealing his casual anti-semitism. “In Transit” shows a generous Maori soldier in Italy feeling pity for poor ragged Italian children who are refugees, and giving them anything he can to help… while at the same time American MPs beat with batons Italians who linger around railway station and exploit impoverished Italian women for sex. But note that the main targets of Davin’s scorn in these earlier stories are mainly British and American, not New Zealanders.
The only story, written in the 1940s, that dramatises something reprehensible about New Zealand soldiers is “Liberation”. A pregnant and starving young Italian woman offers her body in exchange for food. At first the Kiwis give her food generously, without understanding what her offer is. But when they do understand what she is offering, some take her up on it. Possibly, but only possibly, there is also a tiny undertone of disapproval in the closing story, “Not Substantial Things” (published in 1947), where three Kiwis “liberate” a small Italian town long after the Germans have retreated, get drunk on vino, and one of them (based on Davin himself) makes a bombastic speech to the gathered populace. But, apart from its very elegaic ending, most of this a represented as uproarious nonsense.
Even if he was an uncommon soldier in some ways (how many other soldiers would while away their time during the second batlle of El Alamein by reading the Aeneid in the original Latin?), Davin was obviously at home with his fellow New Zealanders. To read these stories in one collection is to sense that for four years, the “Div” was a substitute for the Irish-Catholic family whom he had left behind in New Zealand and whom he only very rarely ever saw again. He had left his religion in New Zealand too. In The General and the Nightingale – Dan Davin’s War Stories, there are only two stories that address his staunch agnosticism. One, “Jaundiced”, is simply the sketch of a Catholic chaplain whom Davin didn’t like, presented as a fellow who spouts useless cliches. The sketch contains one paragraph questioning the role of all military chaplains. The other, a much more nuanced story, is “Mortal”, which questions and rejects a Catholic chaplain’s assumption that men will always turn to God in the face of crisis and death. There is an interesting ambiguity to this story. The chaplain is dedicated to his task and no fool, even if Davin rejects what he is offering. More interesting, the fictitious chaplain is based on the real Catholc priest Father “Ted” Forsman, who remained a lifelong friend of Davin’s and had been through the same North African campaigns as Davin. Perhaps it was part of Davin’s bonding with his own “tribe” even if he had no use for its received ideas.
Oops. I’m slipping into cheap psychological analysis here. Maybe Davin just liked this particular bloke.
I hope in all this long assessment that I have made it clear what an enriching experience it was to read, over a couple of weeks, all of Dan Davin’s short fiction in these two handsomely-produced volumes. The definitive edition I would say.