26 April 2013

Michael King: Frank Sargeson: A Life (1995)

The first quarter of Michael King's Frank Sargeson: A Life is called 'Norris Davey', and the rest 'Frank Sargeson' because the writer, born Norris Frank Davey, changed his name at the beginning of the 1930s – when he was in his late twenties – soon after receiving a suspended sentence in Wellington for indecent assault: this had been a single consenting act of mutual homosexual masturbation, although his older casual pick-up Leonard Hollobin – considered a 'corrupter of youth' by the police – received a long prison sentence with hard labour.

Michael King is convinced that this incident is a vital turning point in Sargeson's biography: not only did it lead to Sargeson changing his name, but it lost him his job (and therefore destroyed his professional career as a solicitor), and led him into a kind of denial, a retreat from his past. He had learned one lesson: that the homosexual subculture he'd discovered in London couldn't with impunity be as freely indulged in back home in New Zealand.

Nevertheless, and although there is no mention of the court case in Sargeson's three-part autobiography, homosexuality is used in his stories as a encrypted emblem of difference, the reader is often introduced to a world in which the male body is celebrated, and where marriage is often a source of considerable discord. The codes Sargeson uses remind me – no matter how different it may be – of the work of his British contemporary Rhys Davies, the homosexual writer who left his native Wales for London, where he was free from the asphyxiation of the chapel mentality.

Frank Sargeson, born in Hamilton, was certainly asphyxiated by the religious constraints of his puritanical, strict Methodist parents, and his life – decades of poverty during which he forsook the trap of comfort and security in exchange for devotion to reading and writing – was very much a rebellion against his parents' conformist ethos, and by extension conformity to social norms themselves: against the easy, automatic responses of the people he was surrounded by.

If Michael King's biography frequently depicts an almost monk-like ascetic figure, this is in no way a hagiography, and Sargeson's self-denial – almost self-effacement – sometimes gives way to jealousy, prickliness and senseless bitchiness, mockery, neo-Luddism, a grumpy old man mentality (even before he grew old). He nevertheless comes shining through the negatives: generally, he is without hypocrisy (as an anti-monarchist, he admirably refuses the OBE), he gives a voice to the outsider, he is religiously devoted to his craft, and abundantly generous both materially and psychologically.

Sargeson's famous bach at 14 Esmonde Road, Takapuna, Auckland (now a museum preserving his memory), is perhaps best known for its old army hut at the back (now gone), where Janet Frame (also an innocent victim, but of victim of psychiatry) stayed and wrote her first novel Owls Do Cry (1957), although it also temporarily housed, for instance, 'Peter' (Edith Pudsey Dawson), Kevin Ireland, and Renate Prince, an architectural student.

The bach, in its three incarnations (the last one a one-room extension of the first), was also – on and off – a home for over forty years to the itinerant horse-obsessed Harry Doyle, Sargeson's (typically) older and working-class friend and lover.

More importantly – at least for literary history – 14 Esmonde Road is where Sargeson tended his words with the same love and attention as he gave to his vegetables or Harry Doyle, where – initially influenced by, for example, Hemingway and Saroyan – he hewed his literary creations into a spare style, the spartan, vernacular reportage of the narrators blending seamlessly with the reported speech (which was unreported by inverted commas). It is where Frank Sargeson self-consciously (but with a whisper) heralded the birth of the new voice of New Zealand literature: a new world that refused to look back to the motherland, that at last refused to mimic the style of writers who lived on the other side of the world. And, entranced by the innovation, many other New Zealand writers followed him, many of whom had previously been personally encouraged by him.

Tucked inside my secondhand book (which was not easy to find, not even in New Zealand, and has remainder marks on the bottom edge) is an cut-out review of Frank Sargeson: A Life by Tim Upperton in the New Zealand Herald (24 February 1996, s.7, p.9) Upperton is quite right to praise this scholarly work that is Michael King's 478-page biography of Sargeson, and quite right to argue against anyone suggesting that the writer is now a little old-fashioned. Yes, Sargeson was right too in not toeing any political party line, right in having his narrator in 'Conversation with My Uncle' ask how many bananas the bowler-hatted walking dead man would take from the social picnic.

The question is even more urgent now, when politicians incessantly turn the screws on the poor rather than the rich, and the electorate is merely expected to shrug its shoulders and accept rather than rebel, to agree with what it is told and not to question the status quo. Frank Sargeson wasn't frightened to question the status quo. As opposed to what (Australia's) Patrick White said when he called Sargeson's writing 'Not for export', it is for export and for the whole world, although it is most unfortunate that his name is scarcely known outside New Zealand: we desperately need more voices against conformity. We need Frank Sargeson.

Link to another Sargeson post:

Frank Sargeson in Takapuna, Auckland, New Zealand

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