Monday, November 21, 2022

Something New


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

“RODERICK FINLAYSON – a Man from Another World” by Roger Hickin (Cold Hub Press, $NZ43); “TINY UNCERTAIN MIRACLES” by Michelle Johnston (Harper-Collins, $NZ38)

            Whenever I think of Roderick Finlayson (1904 -1992) , I think of that cynical aphorism “No good deed goes unpunished.” As I noted when reviewing Roger Hickin’s selection of Finlayson’s writings A Roderick Finlayson Reader, from the 1930s to the 1950s, Finlayson was virtually the only Pakeha who wrote sympathetically about Maori, shared the Maori way of life, did not caricature Maori, and protested regularly about the expropriation of Maori land. But as the years passed, and as Maori writers emerged, Finlayson began to be condemned as a Pakeha who shouldn’t write about Maori matters and who reported Maori speech inaccurately.

In his preface to this biography Roderick Finlayson – a Man from Another World, Roger Hickin addresses these matters directly: “While nowadays some may look upon Finlayson’s Maori stories as a form of cultural appropriation – a Pakeha presuming to write about colonised Maori as simply another manifestation of colonialism – the fact remains that most were written out of his own experience of rural Maori life several decades before Maori took up fiction-writing, and without them we (Maori included) would have a less complete and less vivid picture of Maoridom between the two world wars..” He continues: “As this is not a critical biography, still less a post-colonial assessment, I leave it to others to judge him according to post-colonial prescription. My aim has been to present Finlayson ‘in his time’.

            Roderick Finlayson – a Man from Another World draws very heavily on Finlayson’s own unpublished autobiographies and letters from friends and fellow writers such as Frank Sargeson, D’Arcy Cresswell, O. E. Middleton, R. A. K. Mason and others -  though as often has not Finlayson’s half of each correspondence was lost or destroyed by the recipient. Roger Hickin also quotes generously from Finlayson’s essays and fictions.

            Young Finlayson was raised in (then) working-class Ponsonby in a house of women – his mother, his grandmother and an aunt. When Roderick was a tot, his father had scarpered off to America and never returned. His mother got a divorce. The boy went first to a bad elementary school, then to Seddon Tech where, surprisingly, he liked military drill but mentally sided with the Irish in their wars of independence against England. This was at a time when virtually no Maori lived in cities. But when Finlayson was a teenager, his uncle and aunt introduced him to the Bay of Plenty, and very soon he was informally “adopted” into the family of Honi Ngawhika, of the Arawa people, and lived at Pukehina. His visits were frequent and often long. Honi Ngawhika told him “Roddy, I don’t know how it is, but I know you are not a Pakeha, Roddy. You are a Maori.” (p.29) The Depression fortified Finlayson’s respect for Maori ways of life. He began to write newspaper articles on Maori life, and in an unpublished thesis wrote “I saw a generation of the Pakeha devoured by the monster of his own making. In country and in cities hundreds, thousands, suffered defeat, ruin, abject poverty in ‘the great slump’. The Maori people, already used to poverty, lived off their communal lands and the coastal seas as they always had. Their world proved to be more enduring. As the Pakeha’s superiority waned the vitality of the Maori began to spring.” (p.31)

Was this a simplistic view? Hickin doesn’t argue the case, but it is clear that Finlayson’s long sojourns with Maori shaped his writing for the rest of his life. It is also possible that, in his twenties, Finlayson fell in love with a young Maori woman and probably hoped to marry her; but such a marriage never happened, either because the woman in question was promised elsewhere or because Finlayson’s mother would have disapproved of a “mixed” marriage. He seems to have suffered from regret over this for years.

After dropping his plans to become an architect, and after visiting Rarotonga a couple of times, Finlayson married Ruth Taylor in 1936. They were to stay married until Finlayson’s death in 1992, and were to have six children, but not without some ruptures in their relationship. And in 1937, they moved to a humble house in Weymouth, on the north side of Manukau Harbour, and lived a semi-rural life, often (at least in their early years) feeding themselves on fish and shellfish gathered from the as-yet-unpolluted harbour. And Finlayson set about writing in earnest. He also connected more frequently with Auckland’s small literary fraternity, particularly taking advice from Sargeson and Cresswell, whose criticism he took seriously as he was weened away from writing in the abstract and pointed in the direction of material reality in his stories.

Roger Hickin accounts for all Finlayson’s work, charting the genesis of each of his short-story collections and his novels (which were mainly loose and episodic in structure and could easily be read as short-stories connected). These included his first two short-story collections Brown Man’s Burden (1938), Sweet Beulah Land (1942) and the “novel” The Schooner Came to Atia (1952) – all published by Ron and Kay Holloway’s Griffin Press -  as well as the “novel” Tidal Creek, published in Australia in 1948. Finlayson was aware that some of his writing might have had succes d’estime with discerning critics, but it was not widely known. “At times Rod felt his isolation at Weymouth aggravated his lack of readership”. (p.108). He had had a nervous breakdown in 1946 when his mother died and by the mid-1950s he had a full family to provide for. For some years he made a modest income writing for the school bulletins and by the later 1950s, to make ends meet, he took a job at a municipal government printing press in central Auckland. Later he made a modest amount by writing a commissioned book about D’Arcy Cresswell for the Twayne author series.

One of the most puzzling chapters in this biography is Chapter 8, which gives an account of Finlayson’s conversion to Catholicism. The family into which he was born was (more-or-less) Presbyterian, as befits one whose ancestors were mostly Scots. The person he most consulted about taking this step was the more performative, and less modest, convert James K. Baxter, 22 years Finlayson’s junior. The puzzle is that Baxter eventually disposed of the letters Finlayson had written to him, so we have only the letters that Baxter wrote back, filled with angels and visions. Finlayson’s own thoughts about converting remain obscure. This reader also wonders how much Finlayson might have been encouraged by Ron and Kay Holloway, so often his publishers, who were also converts to Catholicism. There is another matter that Hickin broaches. He says that Finlayson, like Baxter, had “some difficulty separating agape and eros when binding the wounds of young female travellers” (p.144). Baxter’s sexual affairs are now well known. There is no evidence that Finlayson ever transgressed his marriage vows, but he appears to have been strongly attracted to one younger woman to the point of enraging his wife Ruth. She remained upset about this for many years. Connected with all this, as Roger Hickin points out, is the fact that in some of his later writings – and especially in his short-story collection Other Lovers (1976) – Finlayson dwelt on the erotic attraction of men to women.

Finlayson continued to the last to be an advocate for Maori. He supported the protests against the New Zealand Rugby Union for inviting an apartheid South African team to New Zealand in 1982. Frequently, and especially in the Catholic press, he chastised priests who did not embrace fully the papal encyclicals that advocated social justice. He and his wife did also often take in waifs and stays who seem to have lost their way or were in straitened circumstances.  But criticism of his work grew. In the late 1950s, the critic E. H. McCormack suggested that Finlayson’s accounts of Maori life “at times betrayed the author into a condescending attitude that was far removed from his intentions” (p.190). By the 1970s, Maori writers like Patricia Grace were levelling the same sort of criticism, focussing especially on what they saw as a distorted version of rural Maori speech as reported in Finlayson’ stories.

Yet, to the end, nobody criticised Finlayson as a man. His sincerity, dedication to his vision and charity were well-known. [Not referenced by Roger Hickin, it’s interesting to note that Kevin Ireland, in his 2022 poetry collection Just Like That, has a poem about attending Finlayson’s funeral in 1992 and declaring that nobody deserved more to be in heaven than Roderick.]

If I had one small criticism, it would be that this biography is very sparing in talking about Finlayson’s family. (For the record, only one of his six children followed him into Catholicism.) Any negative feelings I have about Finlayson have to do with Finlayson himself, and not with this book. Like many charitable and idealistic people, he could be na├»ve – as when he refused to believe that his good friend Frank Sargeson was also a procurer of [then illegal] abortions. While D’Arcy Cresswell helped him to get going as a writer, many of Cresswell’s ideas and theories were so poorly conceived that it is odd Finlayson took them so seriously. And, when it came to his own polemics, Finlayson could too easily preach a vague and untenable Utopianism. This is especially true of his 1940 pamphlet Our Life in This Land. But all this is just me nit-picking at Finlayson’s weaknesses.

Hickin has produced an admirable biography that brings us to the heart of what Finlayson was about. Well-illustrated and well-proportioned, it does the man proud. An essential New Zealand text.

  *.  *.  *.  *.  *.  *.  *.  *. *.  *.  *.  *.  *.  *.  *.  *.  *.  *.  *. 

In essence, the Australian author Michelle Johnston’s novel Tiny Uncertain Miracles is a book about hope in the face of despair.

Marick is divorced from his wife Diane and separated from his daughter Claudia as his ex-wife has custody of the girl. When his marriage broke up, he had a sort of crisis of faith. He left his job to take a degree in theology, desperately trying to find meaning in his life. But he remains a broken man, still uncertain of his faith and doubting God. “When he attempted prayer in the inked hours, his words were little more than argument.” (p.15) Worse, he is depressed and lonely. “His phone book was empty. His meals were eaten alone. It had taken the divorce to admit he had no friends of his own.” (p.22) Largely because nobody else will take the job, Marick accepts the post of chaplain in a large hospital. His job is to comfort the sick, the dying and the bereaved, even though his heart is not fully in the job. Officially Anglican, yet really half-way towards being agnostic, Marick is not ordained, but patients still assume he is a priest and routinely call him “Father”.

All this may seem bleak, yet Michelle Johnston injects a certain buoyancy in her prose. Despite everything, Marick is a perceptive man and the balance of faith and scepticism makes him very observant as he questions everything. His humour may be sour, but it is humour nevertheless. And there is much for him to question – for down in the basement of the hospital works Hugo, a microbiologist who is secretly conducting experiments on bacteria. He believes the bacteria he is treating are generating gold. Pure metallic gold. When he invites Marick to look through his microscope, Marick is sure he sees gold too. So do some eminent academics in the institution where Hugo once worked. Is this charlatanry and bogus alchemy? Or is this a miracle?

Like me, you might at once think that this conjuration of gold is one of the “tiny uncertain miracles” of the title, and certainly Marick’s involvement with Hugo’s experiment is one of the main threads of plot. But Michelle Johnston is much more subtle than that. We may eventually get an explanation of Hugo’s work (I don’t give any spoilers here), but as the story progresses, we understand that the real “tiny uncertain miracles” are Marick’s interactions with other people that bring him back to life. Friendship, understanding , the need he has for others and the need others have for him bring him bit my bit back to a qualified happiness. It might be his casual joking relationship with the hospital’s cheery front-of-house woman Dolly. It may be his insight into other people’s flawed marriage when he befriends and dines with Hugo and his wife Vivian – and sees the strife that often occurs between them. It may be his search for renewed love. It may even be his awareness that, despite his doubts, his prayers with the sick, dying and bereaved are actually doing them some good. His life is neither useless nor pointless.

Does this sound simplistic and Pollyanna-ish? I hope not. It takes a long time for Marick to reach his reawakening. Michelle Johnston structures her novel in alternating chapters, where we get Marick’s “present” life in one chapter and flashbacks to Marick’s disintegrating marriage in the next. Marick’s problems with his wife Diane are both credible and wrenching and the novel’s final optimism is earned only after much real strife. While the novel’s denouement is positive, it is hard-won.

The blurb tells me that Michelle Johnston, as well as being a novelist, is an emergency physician and a Staff Specialist at the Royal Perth Hospital Emergency Department. Her vivid account of how a hospital works, the daily crises the emergency staff have to face, the trauma that has to be dealt with, the unexpected and extreme cases, the black humour doctors sometimes adopt to buoy themselves up - all this can only have been gleaned from the author’s own experience. It’s very believable.

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