Journey into a rich treasure trove

By Steve Scott

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C.K. Stead has compiled a stunning four-part literary odyssey that traverses not only our literary past, but also his own personal journey from the 50s to the present. We join him as he tackles everything from literary criticism and Auckland's traffic to the changing landscape of New Zealand literature and his own hopes and fears for its future.

He may polarise opinion, but one thing is for sure: he is not afraid to voice his own. Stead's literary career began in the company of Janet Frame, Frank Sargeson, Charles Brasch and Allen Curnow. Part one of his book highlights their drive to achieve a New Zealand literature during the middle of the 20th century. These writers all helped Stead in one way or another and he shares his gratitude here.

He also laments the ongoing globalisation of our literature and is cautious about the influence of the creative writing school - Stead is not altogether satisfied with either the overly polished writing produced in these programmes or what he sees as the abandonment of New Zealand as a subject - something that he and the above-mentioned fought hard to establish all those years ago. In the second part, Stead shows some of his best literary criticism, discussing everyone from Michael King to Elizabeth Knox.

This is a real treasure trove of work, where one can dip in and out at will. While some critics and writers have, at times, railed against Stead's frank appraisal of their writing (and that of their colleagues), one cannot fault him on his sharp and perceptive insights into the books he reviews - he says it as he sees it, and this, surely, is far better than smoothing egos by giving praise where none is due.

Once again, in his review of Knox's Billie's Kiss, Stead can't help but wonder what someone of Knox's immense talent could do for New Zealand literature if her work focused on themes and locations closer to home rather than those of distant lands. But, in the same breath, he also acknowledges that it is virtually impossible for New Zealand writers to make a living if they do not publish their work abroad. At this juncture, Stead puts his well-polished essays aside and takes us deep into his own personal musings.

Here, he opens up his private journals for the first time and lets us be privy to his innermost thoughts - granting us an unfiltered glimpse into the life of Stead the man rather than Stead the writer. Not only does he reveal his full and busy life, punctuated by annual treks to the northern hemisphere, but also his true affection for the land of his birth.

Thus, we join him at dinner, at book launches, accompany him as he continues to swim around the yellow buoy at Kohimarama Bay, eavesdrop on his conversations with some of the best writers on the planet, and follow him on his ever optimistic hope of reaching the beach on his regular stops in Los Angeles.

In this section, Stead also sheds new light on some controversial issues he has been party to over the years. This is by far the most satisfying part of the book and really is compulsive reading for anyone even remotely interested in New Zealand literature. Stead rounds off the work, and regathers his composure, with a return to literary criticism and history.

This collection of work allows the reader to take a journey with a man who has been at the centre of New Zealand literature for half a century. Those who are passionate about our stories, and their place within the ever-shrinking global village, will find this volume accessible, highly entertaining and authoritative - it's a must-read.

Book Self
By C.K. Stead (Auckland University Press $39.99)

* Steve Scott is an Auckland reviewer.

- NZ Herald

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