17 April 2013

Graeme Lay: The Mentor (1978)

The Mentor is Graeme Lay's first novel, and was published by Cape Catley, the publishing company owned by Christine Cole Catley (1922–2011), who was encouraged to publish it by Frank Sargeson.
Lay's novel is told in a flashback sandwiched between a very brief beginning and very brief ending set (at the time of publication) fifteen years in the future, in 1993. It follows the development of New Zealander Paul Hopkins through university in Wellington and through three years in England as a(n unqualified) teacher, to a reluctant return to New Zealand.

The vast bulk of this relatively short book is concentrated on the time after this return, when Paul begins casual work in a restaurant but is developing a serious interest in writing. He has previously written articles about English life for the Kiwi magazine Libra, the editor of which is (the nice?) Guy Foreman, who would welcome a feature article from Paul on the elusive/reclusive writer James Paterson.

Graeme Lay bases Paul Hopkins on himself, and James Paterson on Frank Sargeson: Hopkins writes letters (including his short story attempts) to the well known author Paterson, who writes his criticisms back and makes suggestions for improvement. Eventually, Hopkins is invited to the rather isolated island where Paterson (unlike Sargeson) lives (but where he's surrounded by books, has an old radio, etc, much like Sargeson) and the two socially gel to the extent that Hopkins spends three nights there in the company of his genial host.

Whilst at Paterson's home, Hopkins discovers that Foreman, for whom he is ostensibly working, is using him as a stooge to pursue a personal vendetta against the writer. Hopkins then refuses to be led into Foreman's unscrupulous (and ultimately infernal) game. But he's already caught up in it.

This is a surprisingly arresting narrative about the teaching and the learning of the art of writing (and of life and integrity) which is frequently interrupted by stories within stories.

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