Sunday, 19 November 2006

Kin of Place: Essays on 20 New Zealand Writers, by C. K. Stead, 2002

KIN OF PLACE, Essays on 20 New Zealand Writers, by C.K. Stead, Auckland University Press, Auckland, New Zealand, 2002, 386 pages, paperback, NZ$39.95. ISBN 1 86940 272 3

Labouring to Achieve Clarity

There are two C.K.Steads. One is the literary colossus, penning poetry, novels, reviews, critical analyses, essays and short stories of awe-inspiring excellence. This Stead (that nice Dr Banner) has written some 98% of this marvellous book. Then, there is the other Stead, the Green Hulk. Triggered by sudden rage, the green goliath of New Zealand literary criticism smashes tables over his opponents’ heads. Kin of Place has green blood stains on some 2% of its pages. His victims may not be happy but the reader gains access to some interesting brawls across the literary teacups.

Kin of Place contains twenty-eight essays on the work of twenty New Zealand authors; nineteen of them reprinted from earlier books and the remainder written last year. They range in time from Mansfield, Sargeson and Fairburn to Hulme, Wedde and Knox. Some, like Curnow and Frame are detailed studies; others like Ihimaera and Gee are briefer studies in the context of a single work. All of them are well worth reading if only for the pleasure of watching a powerful critical intelligence articulating his views from the conservative corner.

C.K.Stead, examining his own writing, was interested to find that, while his letters flow, his critical writing ‘inches painfully’. This, he concludes, is because ‘I am labouring to achieve clarity…by trying hard you can achieve greater clarity’. It is this clarity which is the triumph of this volume. Allowing for the different periods of original composition, there is never any doubt about Stead’s meaning. Hard writing makes easy reading.

This is a compulsively readable book. Even Stead’s bad judgements are interesting. Take his wrong-headed dismissal of Maurice Gee:
“Reading Gee can make one feel like packing one’s bags.
‘Is this really us? Yes it is. Goodbye!’”

But what is so great about Stead is the way that he explains something that has been a puzzle. Those dense endings in James K. Baxter’s ‘Rocket Show’ and ‘Wild Bees’, those ‘orotund Baxterian roundings-off,’ Stead says are just ‘the concluding seal at the bottom of the parchment, a stylistic habit like the ending of a Beethoven symphony’. Perfect.

Another pleasure in reading Stead is the sheer wealth, almost extravagance, of comparisons he makes. In a bravura example Kendrick Smithyman is ‘more Pound then Eliot, more Browning than Tennyson, more Byron than Keats, more Dryden than Milton, more Donne than Marvell’ and if you’re still not clear, Stead explains further. With Ronald Morrieson’s reader-nudging technique, Stead has a perfect image. ‘Reading Morrieson’s novels is like dining with the chef. He has excelled himself and doesn’t want you to miss a thing.’ Then comes another splendid list, this time of other ‘nudgers who are likely to lose their cool at the onset of another bright idea’: Fielding, Smollet, Sterne and Dickens.

A mixed blessing is Stead’s conviction that it is important to get the facts right in a poem. When Allen Curnow wrote of ‘A scarlet geranium wild on a wet bank’, a niggly Wellington letter-writer had to be reassured that the poet could see just such a bank from his Auckland window. Curnow felt the truth of the experience was important. Yet, in his last days, Curnow had to put up with Stead’s niggling doubts, in letter after letter, about a poem where Katherine Mansfield crossed a railway line in Menton. ‘I’m almost certain those railtracks through to Italy were not there at that time’ For Curnow, death must have been a relief; certainly his dedication “To Karl, always Somewhere in earshot…" has a double edge.

Incidentally this attention to detail raises a problem with the Sylvia Ashton-Warner essay. It was, of course, written two decades ago but the absence of notes referring to passages such as the burning of her readers, suggests that he has not read Lynley Hood’s biography or that he has read it and prefers not to mention it. Or that he just likes that line about the Department of Education burning her book. Whatever the reason, it does not sit well with his complaints about Kim Hill [see below].

Every so often Stead is overcome by some ancient blood-lust, and attacks furiously. When the berserker rage fades, the good professor removes his horned helmet and is mildly surprised to find that some of his victims are resentful of his axe-strokes. Thus he guiltily eyes his 1959 review of ‘In Fires of No Return’ by James K. Baxter. ‘It has weighed on me since…because of a certain sourness of tone.’ He adds ‘Of course I had always admired Baxter. That, perhaps, is what was wrong with my 1959 review – that I neglected to say so.’

Some of Stead’s axe-waving is justified. ‘Like so many of our reviewers she was ill-equipped for the job and much too busy to do any background reading’ That should scare the lazy into doing more work. But then the green gorilla breaks free and also attacks friends of literature. Busy Kim Hill does massive reading but she gets zapped anyway for pretending ‘to have read books discussed on her programme which clearly at times she has only skimmed or glanced at?’ This is simply not true, but the lawyers can sort it out.
Stead – having returned from his Hulk body – insisted he had given Hill a compliment in the sentence before the insult. True, but ludicrous. We will just have to accept that, every so often, Stead admirers will have to apologise for the damage done by the Hulk, as the price of his clarity of prose the rest of the time. The section on Lauris Edmond’s work would be an example.

Actually Stead, who likes a good joke, zaps himself for his own crimes, in what must be the funniest account of the unjust critic getting his just desserts. He had accused Ian Wedde’s ‘Sonnets for Carlos’ of being ‘open’ but had failed to check the rhymes and missed the syllable count. ‘I had not even got out of the door before I learned my mistake…Wedde was waiting for me at the back of the hall, bristling. My compliments, if he had noticed them, weren’t going to save me…I was abashed.’
Beware of Steads bearing compliments.

But why does Stead make these forays? Some aren’t worth the bother. He admits himself that he forgets some completely. So completely that he denies writing them until his words are waved beneath his steaming nostrils. Why bother?

Oddest of all is his voluntary declaration of self-censorship in his final essay on Elizabeth Knox, which sings the praises of Black Oxen. Great, but there is a strange omission. ‘I had declined to read her best selling ‘The Vintner’s Luck’. The reason appears to be that reading it would require him to accept the ‘reality’ of an angel equipped with sex organs and wings. Odd, very odd. C.K. Stead has not read it. C.K.Stead is not going to read it. C.K.Stead refuses to read it. What are we to make of this?
The best answer has already been set down:
But we are not (are we?) to decide on the merit of a novel by its subject matter.’
Guess who wrote that.

Trevor Agnew

First published in The Press, Christchurch, New Zealand on September 14th 2006.

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