Swimming With Books

A writer's reading journal, & sundry other notes.

C K Stead’s memoir

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South-West of Eden: A Memoir, 1932-1956South-West of Eden: A Memoir, 1932-1956 by C.K. Stead

I finished this memoir of Stead’s first 24 years and  wished that he would immediately publish a second volume. He won’t, though, because the events he’d need to describe (and his opinions of the people involved) would certainly provoke a stream of letters to the Listener.

I delighted in his sensibilities and insights, and  in his elegant sentences. Having been in general lazy about reading poetry, I am now keen to read his. And the breadth of his reading and literary knowledge has impelled me to further discipline my own reading (including, if I’m really brave and determined, my Arty Bees copy of The New Poetic: Yeats to Eliot). I was touched by Stead’s reflective tone and his generosity to the reader regarding his love for Kay, his wife.

This book made me feel (in a small way) like part of the stream of writing, and of NZ literature. Describing the hen house of his childhood garden, Stead says ‘Being essentially an ear person, I was quick to learn the hen’s language…’. This made me think of being not an ‘ear’ person, but a feelings person, always wandering around making up stories about the psychological states of the people I see.

The poet Vincent O’Sullivan reviews Dear Charles Dear Janet: Frame and Brasch in Correspondence in the Autumn 2011 issue of the excellent New Zealand Books (subscribe if you care about NZ having an independent literary culture). In the review, he quotes Frame as writing,

I’m afraid I breathe metaphors…it is the obsession with images which prompts me to write.

O’Sullivan goes on to say,

Thus she puts her finger on the kind of fabulist she is. The metaphoric is what allows her to change ground, to take herself and her reader from there, where you, they, and the rest of the world, are so in command, to here, where the writer alone rules, imposes, calls the shots. Metaphor to Frame is what logic is to the logician. It is how power is defined, and how it is achieved.

I am fascinated by how different writers’ minds operate, and how a writer’s mind can help or hinder writing.

The hens (in the garden of his early childhood) also feature in Stead’s recurring ‘writing dream’:

“In this dream I am seized with the terrible realisation that it is my job to see the hens fed and given water, and that I have neglected them for many years, so long they must surely be dead…[But he sees them running towards him, ‘alive and well, their feathers glossy in the sun’.]…Twice that dream has been followed by the breaking of a drought in my writing…”

For years I dreamt occasionally of being in a very large old home, with long dark corridors that would sometimes break into enormous halls or dining rooms, and with back staircases that led into hidden stone bedrooms. It is (clearly to me) Tirley Garth, the stately home where I lived with my parents and many other people for about a year and a half in early childhood, even though the interiors in my dreams were even larger and weirder, as though several large hotels had been joined with several ancient monasteries.

Eventually I realised (again clear only to me) that the dreams of exploring these corridors and rooms (equally terrifying and fascinating) were about my need to write. Stead and I must not be the only writers with ‘writing dreams’ but his chicken dream is the only other one I’ve heard of.

(I dreamt last night that Damien Wilkins overheard me say this and mentioned a famous writer who has explored the writing dream idea. In the dream I had a moment of ‘canon inadequacy’, you know, all those important writers you haven’t read. This morning I can’t remember the writer’s name.)

Stead briefly discusses Moral Re-Armament, the group my parents (and maternal grandparents) were involved with,  and that his parents considered for some weeks before deciding against it on the grounds that the MRA plays, which they had been attending in Karangahape Road, were too boring to put up with any more.  Stead suggests that his father, who was a committed socialist, saw MRA as perhaps promising a kind of ‘middle way’:  individual change for the greater good, in a group that seemed to transcend ordinary religion.

I’m fascinated by this connection with my background , and that Stead missed out on an MRA upbringing despite his parents’ idealism, thanks to his mother’s instinct against bad art. My parents were (my father still is) idealists to their fingertips, but the passion for reading that ran through my father’s family skipped him: neither of my parents read fiction.

My step-mother, who is Stead’s contemporary and who is involved with the group (now called Initiatives for Change), agrees with Stead’s mother about the plays.

I was not so much in sympathy with Stead’s comment about his strapping for talking out of turn in class being equivalent to his Maori contemporaries being strapped for speaking their own language in class. To point out the obvious, he was strapped for speaking when he was meant to be silent, whereas speakers of Maori were strapped for using their own, banned-by-legislation language. And it was banned because their people were deemed by those in authority to be dying out. This is one of several comments Stead makes about Maori, or about Maori-Pakeha relations. Another is about a statue of a Maori on Queen Street, which Stead says, has something odd-looking on its shoulder which a friend has suggested ‘may be a chip’. This attitude seems like something of a blind spot in an otherwise extraordinary intelligence.

I was also intrigued by Stead’s closing comment on the story of a fellow pupil, a brilliant girl who was removed early from school by her Closed Brethren parents. He names her, and at the end of the half-page description, he says that he has written her story into the book ‘to record the waste, and to lay the blame’.

Of course, he’s opinionated, but strong opinion and imagination are not mutually exclusive, and that latter clause seems to me like a failure of imagination. Surely it’s clear that the parents were responsible for the decision that wasted their daughter’s potential, without having to spell out their fault in the matter. Stead apparently closes off his own imagining of the parents’ situations and psychology, which doesn’t seem like good practice for a fiction writer.

I enjoyed seeing that Stead and I have ‘met’  over his opinion, in regard to his character of Cecilia Skyways in his brilliant All Visitors Ashore, of whether it’s OK to fictionalise Janet Frame:

The wonderful thing about fiction is that you are not shackled to facts. To truth, yes – but only a general truth, a truth your readers will recognise as humanly possible, even likely, at least credible. In All Visitors Ashore that was the truth I served. Cecilia Skyways is Janet Frame idealised. But who is to say that the fiction is not a better, truer, deeper recall of the ‘real’, the interior, the magical Janet Frame?

Best to end with the master writer’s words. I hope he does write a second volume of memoir. After all, a lot of the controversy is already in the public domain.

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Written by Susan Pearce

March 28, 2011 at 9:21 am

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