Tuesday, July 19, 2011
“THE SETTLER’S PLOT – How Stories Take Place in New Zealand” Alex Calder (Auckland University Press, $45:99)
A good book of essays is one that you want to argue with. This is one of those truisms that I’ll probably repeat often and often on this blog.
If you nod your head in agreement with everything a book of essays says, chances are (a.) that you are half-asleep; or (b.) that the book is not challenging you enough.
I’m saying this very carefully at the outset because I think Alex Calder’s is a book of outstandingly good socio-literary essays. I loved it. And the proof is that I really want to shake my fist and argue with some of the essays.
Let’s clear the ground and say what it’s about.
I can spot good postmodernist punning as well as the next reader, and there are puns in both the title and the sub-title. It’s The Settler’s Plot where “plot” means equally “piece of land” and “fictitious intrigue” in all senses of the word “intrigue”. And in the sub-title, How Stories Take Place in New Zealand, the phrase “take place” means “are enacted” as it usually does. But it also means how stories “take” (that is, “understand”) the “place” in which they are set. You take my meaning?
So this is a book of essays about how a sense of place is reflected in works by New Zealand writers and how it informs those works, consciously or unconsciously.
Keen eyes will note that the cover illustration links the multiple meanings. It’s an idealised diagram-map of Takapuna on Auckland’s North Shore, drawn for a real-estate firm one hundred years ago, and prominently featuring the road where Frank Sargeson later lived.
These essays walk the ground between literary study and diagnosis of society. They are case studies of specific novels, stories, poems and other writings, analysing them for what they reveal about each writer’s reaction to New Zealand land and its ownership, and how this reflects more generally the mentality of New Zealanders. The essays were written over a number of years and some of them have appeared, in different form, in academic journals.
After a more general essay on the whole question of “belonging” in New Zealand, Alex Calder divides his essays into three sections. “Landing” deals with the nineteenth century and early Pakeha writings. “Settling” considers the whole twentieth century march from breaking in farm-land to taking suburbia almost for granted. “Looming”, however, concerns the continuing pull of “overseas” for New Zealand writers, and the unavoidable fact that even the most grounded New Zealanders have mental furnishings partly built thousands of miles away. Calder is well beyond the “nationalist” views of NZ critics in the 1940s and 1950s. But divided cultural loyalties are an ongoing part of our literary story. If the essential question for writers in Britain is “What have we come to?”, in New Zealand the question still is “Who are we?” As Calder fully understands, the question isn’t answered by glibly saying that we’re all postcolonial now.
There is so much to like in this collection that I can offer only a few hints.
I like the way Calder clearly respects the nineteenth century writers he analyses, even as he dissects their meaning. There may be many cultural misreadings in the way Augustus Earle reported Maori cannibalism, or F.E.Maning described Maori spirit divination. But, fully aware that all encounters with a new culture are fraught with misunderstandings, Calder doesn’t assume Earle and Maning were imperceptive dopes, or less capable of factual recall than later interpreters of the same phenomena. I think he’s particularly subtle in the way he deals with the early twentieth century novelist William Satchell. He knows that on one level Satchell’s ‘historical’ novel of inter-racial conflict, The Greenstone Door, is an appalling piece of mystification and sentimentality. But through all that, he can discern the real and difficult strategies Satchell had to adopt to come to terms with the New Zealand he knew.
The essay on Guthrie-Smith’s classic of natural history, Tutira, is remarkable for the way Calder teases out national themes from Guthrie-Smith’s specific observations. The one about the progress of suburbia in literary consciousness focuses mainly on Maurice Gee. It notes that a progressive sense of belonging has taken place at a time when urban New Zealand society has become more fragmented. It ends with the killer punch-line “the characters in Going West do belong in their suburbs, but their suburb is starting to look like a gated community.”
When Calder deals with New Zealand writers over whom the foreign world “looms” he is courageous to point out the purple prose blemishes of Robin Hyde’s work, even as he praises her Starkie books and her probing of male mentalities. He is acute about the unexamined relationship of Wild West mythology to John Mulgan’s Man Alone.
So, having babbled on enthusiastically like this, what about those arguments that I mentioned at the beginning of this blog?
I know critical fashion has almost de-canonised him, but I’m a little uneasy at the way James K. Baxter is so quickly swatted aside in some essays, like an unwelcome horse-fly. Apart from references to the poetry of the novelist Janet Frame, the only poet who is considered at length here is Allen Curnow. Personally, I would put quite a different construction on the Curnow poem-cycle that Calder analyses, and the political situation that informed it.
As for his analysis of Frank Sargeson’s Memoirs of a Peon as the representation of a New Zealand bohemia, I would argue more strenuously that bohemia is really the safety-valve of suburbia and is economically always dependent on it. There’s nothing more suburban than being a bohemian. This is why, for me, the smell of the fake lingers over much of Sargeson’s work. And his representations of suburbia are at least as stereotypical as those by Baxter which Calder swats away.
But you see what I’m doing here? I’m rebuking Calder for not writing the book that I would have written – and for not producing a comprehensive account of all New Zealand literature, which this book never set out to be.
Pretty dumb things to do for such a good book. But then you do have to argue.