Monday, May 10, 2021

Something New

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

“WHAT YOU MADE OF IT – A Memoir 1987-2020” by C.K. Stead (Auckland University Press, $NZ49:99)

            I really do play the game of running with the hares and hunting with the hounds as I review the third volume of C.K.Stead’s autobiography. But it’s hard for me not to do so. When I reviewed on this blog the second volume You Have a Lot to Lose, I found myself methodically drawing up a list of things I admired and things I found a little repellent – or, as I put it, things where C.K.Stead’s opinions and prejudices coincided with mine, and things where they didn’t. You Have a Lot to Lose covered the thirty years from 1956 to 1986 when Stead had a career as an academic. What You Made of It covers the 34 or so years after he decided to leave academe and be a full-time writer. And again I weigh up the pros and cons.

            There are many things in this book to enjoy and savour. There are Stead’s various encomia on France (Chapter 2 and elsewhere); and his vivid account of the impact movies had on him as a youngster and his desciptions of California while discussing the genesis of his novel Sister Hollywood (Chapter 4). His version of his long-lasting friendship with Allen Curnow (Chapter 10) is fair, balanced and affectionate, though he doesn’t fail to note the cantankerous and crotchety side of the man, which was probably downplayed by Terry Sturm in his Curnow biography Simply By Sailing in a New Direction. His account of visits to South America are vivid and exemplary in evoking the heat, culture and alienness of the place. His recall of physical trials after having a stroke, and his awareness of ageing, are convincing insights into what it is to be a near-nonagenarian.

            Then there are the arguments Stead proposes which seem to me sane and well-considered.

            I find it hard not to agree with his robust argument that the worth of a poet should be judged by the quality of the poetry and not by the political or social beliefs of the poet – as in his discussion of anti-semitic Ezra Pound and sort-of anti-semitic T.S.Eliot (Chapter 3 pp.52 ff. ). In chapter 6 there’s more detail on Pound in relation to Stead’s book Pound, Yeats, Eliot and the Modernist Movement.  The issue is raised again in a disagreement he had with his friend Craig Raine (in Chapter 14). On a related topic, broadly speaking I agree with Stead that criticism of the actions of the state of Israel is not the same as being anti-semitic. This is sounded in Chapter 12, where Stead has a disagreement with his long-time friend the photographer Marti Friedlander.

             When he writes of the importance of our inherited European culture  - though he is mainly at this point talking of France  - he argues that being in Europe gives “locations and states of being that make one reflect on the human spirit, and what it is enriched by, and how places have grown in value by human occupation – how history and culture and nature have developed in unison there, and how we New Zealanders are inextricably linked to, and enriched by, our European past, and foolish if we try to sever inherited connections.” (p.49) Quite so.

            As a one-time high-school teacher I endorse most of this statement, relating to the 1970s and 1980s: “I was resistant to ideas strongly prevalent at the time that it was wrong to correct the written language of the schoolyard because that undermined the confidence of vulnerable youngsters who needed self-belief. I favoured an education system that exposed young people to the best in literature, and the streaming of classes according to ability, so that those with real talent would not be held back by those who lacked it.” (p.55) My quibble here would be that some schools streamed too rigorously and in effect created a rigid caste system.

            I sympathise with his views on the flawed nature of the Treaty of Waitangi and its subsequent fetishisation (see p.64 and also p.201). Related to this I agree, a propos controversies surrounding his novel The Singing Whakapapa, that to present a Pakeha viewpoint was not the same as being anti-Maori, though he was aware that some of the things he wrote “put me sometimes in unwholesome company and in places I would prefer not to be” (p.189) Elsewhere he refers to presenting the argument that welfare should be distributed on the basis of need rather than of race, he knowing that the need was greatest in Maori communites and that therefore Maori would benefit most. But his argument was taken up by those (like the politician Don Brash) who wished to promote the fiction that Maori were being unfairly favoured in terms of welfare. This is not, and was not, Stead’s view at any time.

            When he comes to Witi Ihimaera, he notes that his earlier work was “simple, direct, authentic… before he developed a tendency to overwriting and the grandiose” (p.211). Again, I endorse this critique. But I do note that, waspishly, (on p.210), Stead has to tell us that Ihimaera, as a student, wasn’t able to cope with the Maori language and managed to get a degree by avoiding it; and Stead clearly resents the fact that both Ihimaera and Albert Wendt were able to be given high academic positions when they quite simply didn’t have the qualifications for them (pp.211-212).

            And, of course, I can’t deny the argument that the literary world can be a fractious, bitchy, competitive place. Stead endorses an essay by Karl Miller. Speaking of spite, he says “the literary world was full of it, and it was important that it should be recognised and ignored, walked around rather than confronted” (p.179).

            I could add much more in the same vein. There is much admire in Stead as poet, novelist, essayist and controversialist, and I hope that what I am writing here is not seen as part of a calculated mission to denigrate him. 

            But having run with the hares I now have to hunt with the hounds. There is a downside to much of What You Made of It.

            It is only fair that Stead discusses his own books in some detail. After all, he did say at the beginning of You Have a Lot to Lose that he was intent on writing about books and the making of books. But he has the awkward habit of not only telling us about the real characters and events that fed into his novels. He tends also to synopsise his own novels in laborious detail, as with Talking About O’Dwyer in Chapter One (where he insists the novel is clearly not [only] about a version of Dan Davin);  or Villa Vittoria in Chapter 7; or The Secret History of Modernism in Chapter 12. In each case, it is as if he is offering us a primer to pre-empt other possible interpretations and readings of his work. I turn rebellious. Ultimately the biographical and autobiographical detail he attaches to each of his novels is a distraction from the novels themselves which (like all books) should be judged by “the words on the page”.

            There are moments when he shows a certain blindness to the reason for social movements in his time. There were controversies related to his novel The Death of the Body. Stead asserts that the novel was not “anti-women” and goes on to say that “the radical feminists of the time were less liberators of oppressed women and more accurately seen as manifestations of sexual puritanism.” (p.61) But where did this “sexual puritanism” come from? Wasn’t it in great part an inevitable reaction against the “sexual revolution” of the 1960s when it was men who mainly benefitted from the notion that casual affairs were there for the taking and  bliss was it in that dawn to be alive”?

            Much heavier to bear is, alas, Stead’s propensity for self praise. Of his own essays on social and cultural issues in New Zealand he writes “how refreshing those essays now look, how clear-eyed and sharp and truthful. I was one voice and a good one” (p.56). On a short story he wrote, which caused some controversy, he says “it still strikes me as full of charm and cleverness and humour” (p.269). Once again I have to say that judgments like these might reasonably be made by other people who read his work, but it’s embarrassing to see them made by the author himself. “I have been chastised for quoting favourable reviews” Stead notes (p.299) before quoting some favourable reviews. He rarely quotes unfavourable ones, and then only to dismiss them.

            Then there is Stead’s desire to prove that he was right in every debate in which he has been involved. His intent here appears to be to nail down definitively what he sees as the facts. And often this involves calling out, as dishonest or conspiratorial, anyone who has criticised him.  In Chapter 3 he claims that he was subject to attack by interested parties in the media and that he was right in the biffo about having a flat in London as a retreat for New Zealand writers. He attempts a veritable hatchet-job on Vincent O’Sullivan (pp.74-77) describing him as the cunning eminence grise of New Zealand literature always plotting to undermine him. (I’m tempted to comment “Look who’s talking, mate!”)  Later, after presenting a reasonable case for his view of Maori matters, he blots it (central paragraph p.189) by descending to virtual conspiracy theory as he berates those who criticised him on these matters. And when he does more-or-less apologise for something,  he does so in a very roundabout, ambiguous way. I refer to his take (Chapter 7) on his part in the sending of a foolish letter to a national magazine when he was a young man.

            Stead, according to this memoir, was right about everything, and apparently more perceptive then anyone else. He quotes A.S.Byatt telling him “You see very clearly, Karl, but sometimes there are things you don’t see.” Stead replies “What I don’t see is usually the Emperor’s clothes.” (p.103)

            Oddly enough, the self-righteousness and the self-praise come with a large sense of grievance.

            While Stead has sometimes reasonably noted the commercial nonsense involved with book awards, there’s a strong smell of sour grapes when he fails to win at the New Zealand Book Awards: “I didn’t win either category, and tried to suppress the feeling that the whole distracting and disappointing business was a commercial matter we (or I) might be better without.” (p.346) Later (p.380) he consoles his son for not winning an award by saying “The Montanas are like that - homely and idiotic.” He is upset that one of his novels, Villa Vittoria, was well reviewed in New Zealand but ignored in the UK (Chapter 7).  He notes that “In the years around 2007 honours seemed to pour upon me and it felt (however it appeared from the outside) that the more I was rewarded in New Zealand the more I was punished.” (p.365) He continues to be angry that his novels Mansfield and My Name was Judas didn’t win Montana Awards and “I swore that that was the last time I would attend one of those ghastly events, which were more about commerce and hype than literary quality.” (p.366 ) I sympathise with some of his views on book awards – they are never definitive guides to the worth of any book – but these really are the grumbles of somebody who wanted more applause. And he wanted more applause for a few friends. He notes that there was the (distant) possibility that Janet Frame could win the Nobel Prize for Literature. But J.M.Coetzee won that year. Stead of course tells us that Coetzee was a writer “whose work I disliked and thought hugely overrated” (p.337). So that puts him in his place.

            Pace Janet Frame, Allen Curnow and perhaps a few selected others, there is the pervasive sense that Stead sees most New Zealand literati as a poor lot in comparison with those illustrious people he has befriended and socialised with in England, America and Europe, and of whom he tells many (generally not particularly enlightening) anecdotes. In his introduction Stead describes What You Made of It as “the report of one who consistently reflects, looking out rather than in and reporting what he sees.” (pg. x) Perhaps he should have done a little more “looking in” – a little more self-questioning. Then he might have reflected that self-praise tends to alienate readers and make him look like the smartest kid in the class who keeps telling us dullards how smart he is.

            Yet here’s the Stead paradox. In many respects he IS the smartest kid in the room, through his commentary, poetry and novels. Perhaps he should have left these real achievements to speak for themselves without puffing them.

*   *   *   *   *   *   *   *   *  *   *   *   *   *   *   *   *   *   *   *   *   *   *   *   *

Here endeth my review, except for…

A Necessary Footnote: I apologise for stating the bleeding obvious, but the hard fact is that C.K.Stead’s autobiographies (or “memoirs” if he prefers)  will now be read in the light of his novelist daughter Charlotte Grimshaw’s very different memoir The Mirror Book, which deals with many things Karl Stead has not mentioned. The Mirror Book has been noted and dissected on many platforms over the last couple of months. It was the (long) cover story of one issue of the Listener (issue of 3 April, 2021), and drew letters to the editor (some applauding the memoir, some reproving) over the following two weeks. A couple of on-line reviews by women uncritically applauded The Mirror Book as evidence of a woman bravely telling the truth. One “reviewer” seemed to spend his column proving to us how well he knew the Stead family. Another condemned Stead both pere et fille for (in his interpretation) living privileged lives. Then, some weeks after the original feature article in the Listener, which reproduced Charlotte Grimshaw's view of things, there was another, shorter, feature in the Listener (issue of 8 May 2021) giving the view of Grimshaw's younger sister Margaret. Her account of her parents was far more benign than Charlotte's, though she did not address any of the specific issues Charlotte had raised. I come from a larger familiy than the Stead family, and I'm pretty sure that if any of my siblings were to write an account of the familiy it would be very different from what I would write. Even people who grow up in the same house can have very different perspectives. Be that as it may, Margaret Stead's article couldn't help looking like an exercise in damage control.

            In his introduction to What You Made of It, Karl Stead explains “my family are mostly background to a literary life – but to treat them otherwise always threatened to expand the memoir beyond reasonable limits” (p. xi) On page 277 he says of his children “there have been only glimpses of them, and they will have their own stories to tell.” You betcha, as The Mirror Book focuses on the dynamics of the Stead family and says some harsh things about Karl and Kay Stead.

            In at least one post-publication interview (with Catherine Ryan on Radio New Zealand  National, Thursday 8 April), Charlotte Grimshaw made many positive remarks about her parents, saying her memoir presented “no blame, only explanation” and that it could be read as a tribute to her mother. But her tone was more combative in a Newsroom post headed “My literary family were too busy deciding whether to sue” (posted 14 April 2021). Here she said her parents tried to dissuade her from having The Mirror Book published at this time.  Kay pointed out to me and others… Karl was about to publish his third autobiography, in which he drove a nail into the arguments of X, and put readers straight on the issue of Y, and made sure the question of Z was put to rest, and now I’d got in the way of this with my appalling self-indulgence…” The phrasing of this suggests an awareness of Karl Stead’s strong desire to have the last word on every controversy in which he has been involved. Meanwhile I’m left wondering if the Croatian woman Stead discusses in Chapter 11 of What You Made of It is the same person to whom Charlotte Grimshaw refers in The Mirror Book on p.149. I think many people will be playing similar intertextual games with these two very different memoirs.

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