Swimming With Books

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

Posts Tagged ‘fictionalising

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.

Written by Susan Pearce

March 28, 2011 at 9:21 am

Patrick Evans: Gifted

with 3 comments

giftedFeb 14th
Below, in my earlier review, you have it: the proof that I was happily persuaded, via a narrative I knew was fictional, that I ‘understood’ Frame more thoroughly than I did before reading Gifted. This type of (in my case willing) delusion is just one of the reasons for the recent outraged and abusive post by Pamela Gordon, Frame’s niece and the executor of her estate.

(2nd May: The part of the post that prompted me to use the adjective ‘abusive’ – a comment Gordon added to it about Fergus Barrowman’s objections to CK Stead’s story ‘Last Season’s Man’ – has been now been taken down, so in regard to the original post, ‘abusive’ no longer stands. )

As a writer and reader, I object to her objections.

I don’t think ‘cultural appropriation’ is a crime, unless the new artefact is devoid of any meaning, for example car manufacturers’ use of Maori designs. What do we now think of any royal objections to Shakespeare’s use of actual kings & princes in his history plays?

Gordon also objects to Frame being ‘only 7 years dead’. I don’t think that makes any difference. Time is a random factor, and apparently much more flexible than we have thought: it’s only time that separates us from ancestors with whom we share nearly all of our genetic code. They are closer to us than we usually consider: does that mean we can’t reinvent them?

Would Gifted be OK if no-one could remember what Frame was ‘really’ like? Would we then be allowed to reinvent her? If yes, then why not now? If no, then what’s the difference between that and being unable to cartoonify the prophet Mohammed?

Gordon accuses Evans of portraying Frame as ‘deceitful, dishonest and inhuman’, which makes me doubt that she has read the book at all. For a start, Evan’s Sargeson is far harder on himself than he is on Janet. He, who knows exactly what he’s writing (a knowingly fallible narrator), shows himself up to be sometimes intellectually and emotionally limited, contradictory, often petty (and despite all that, deeply sympathetic).

What does Frame do, in the novel, that makes Gordon think that Evans has depicted her as such? Hide under the hedge? Give him evasive answers? Tell him that she’s doing something other than going to the shops, then go to the shops? I really fail to see how Gifted is an attack on her integrity. Does Gordon mean that in life, Frame always behaved with utter consistency and reliability? She would have been very boring if that were the case.

And where does ‘inhuman’ come from? Evans’s Frame seems to me much more human than most people: that she knew to her core the difficulties of being human, and that her love of truth often did not allow her to fake normality the way most of us [try to] do. I had the impression, after reading Towards Another Summer, that somehow she knew that if she committed all her energies towards blending into normal society, she would lose the connection to her treasures, as Phillip Thirkettle has. (‘Perhaps he himself had no access to his treasures…’)

And so what if I do feel ‘closer’ to Frame than I did previously, and if my Frame is not the same as the ‘real’ Frame? I *did* realise that Gifted is fiction, and that my ‘understanding’ of Frame is actually in some imaginative world, some kind of mirror city I guess, but (despite the biographical evidence that Frame was keen not to have the facts of her life misrepresented) I do feel that her writer self might have approved of and understood: after all, we all get a deluded idea of who a writer ‘is’ just from reading their books.

Maybe it’s something to do with this: that the ‘self’ of the writer who comes through their novels are generally very different from their day to day ‘selves’; Pamela Gordon knew the day-to-day Janet, and perhaps what Evans has done is to extrapolate from her novels (which he has studied so closely) and has therefore made a Frame from a somewhat different dimension. (My neighbour, who has read Acts of Love, says ‘I never would have guessed that you would have written it…it’s so different from my idea of you.’)

Gordon also states that

‘Actually in an online interview Evans claims his novel is the “culmination” of all that Frame never really achieved (in his opinion)… He calls this her “last novel” and claims to have channeled her in writing it.’

If this is true, then it is a weird claim, but not one worth getting upset about. A work of art stands apart from its maker and the maker’s ego. I reckon it has a separate consciousness and cannot be discussed in relation to the maker himself (which is why interviews with writers of fiction are often such a diverting nonsense).

I do believe that the ego is not very much concerned with creating. If it is, the art it creates usually doesn’t work very well, and / or isn’t very interesting or longlasting. In any case, whatever Evans says about Gifted, and whatever his motives were in writing it, has nothing to do with the merits of the book.

However, if Gordon’s talking about Margo White’s excellent review / interview in the Listener, what Evans actually said there was

“You’re listening to a voice and thinking, ‘What’s the next line?’ It’s the writing that’s doing this … it’s coming out of a part of your brain than is not normally accessible.” After Evans’s decades of teaching and reading “the father of New Zealand fiction”, it seems the man was lurking in his subconscious, just waiting to be channelled. “Yeah, a friend of mine has said, ‘It’s your life’s work. This is what you were put on this planet to do’”

It’s White who uses the word ‘channelled’, and it’s in relation to the Sargeson character, not Frame. I couldn’t find any other online interviews that referred to channeling.


I’m loving being tangled up in this book. It’s as though, even when I’m not reading it, Frank Sargeson is at my side, gossiping and philosophising into my ear. I have to keep reminding myself that it’s fiction (though actually I don’t very often, as I love the delusion) because, probably aided by the knowledge that Frank and Janet were ‘real’, part of my brain does believe the book contains Frank’s memoir.

I’m struck by the difference in my enjoyment of Gifted, and my recent consumption by Franzen’s ‘Freedom’. I haven’t worked through the following thought, but it seems to me something to do with Franzen’s more obvious manipulation of his readers. I’d love to be able to do what he does, but Freedom left me feeling bloated and weighed down. Reading Gifted, I feel light, fizzing with the excitement of such a well-wrought fiction. I suppose it’s not as manic as Freedom’s accumulation of detail. (And as said before, I couldn’t forget about the characters while I was reading Franzen’s book, but they haven’t stayed with me.)

Written by Susan Pearce

March 27, 2011 at 3:48 am