Book Review: Frank Sargeson's Stories

By Gordon McLauchlan

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Frank Sargeson's Stories
Cape Catley, $48

Book cover of Frank Sargeson's Stories. Photo / Supplied
Book cover of Frank Sargeson's Stories. Photo / Supplied

When Frank Sargeson was 78 years old, not long before he died, I interviewed him for a half-hour television documentary. He began with: "In a way, I wonder that you bother to do this with me. It's very kind of you to do so, but I've written all those books and I think they might have their quality and all that but deep in myself I feel that they had their day when they were published, and I think they will have their day, ultimately, in the history of our literature.

"But I feel at the moment that they don't have any sort of day at all. I think I'm quite right about that."

He was pensive, as though talking to himself. Then, alert, he said: "You see, why should young people or anyone else nowadays read a bloody book?"

I said: "Well, why shouldn't they?" "I agree, but, on the other hand, answer my question, 'Why should they?"' He gave a characteristic giggle and we tacitly agreed to leave it at that.

Now that his classic short stories have been brought out again, in a handsome new edition by Cape Catley, perhaps we'll get some answers. The stories have been out of print for some years so this is a timely edition. Will people - young or old - bother to read them?

They'll miss something if they don't. Where will they stand in the history of our literature? Their place is secure in my opinion. When we first read them, my generation that is, New Zealand literature was as thin as the tissues we used to roll our cigarettes with and they were as satisfying, in their own way, as a good smoke was then. They were a kind of awakening really. They evoked explicitly what we all knew vaguely and thus connected us with each other and the lives we lived.

The language, with its steady, downbeat lilt, seems now to evoke a quieter, perhaps duller, country but that doesn't mean the stories are irrelevant by being about other people in another time. There are no general national characters any more than there are universal or global characters, but countries have a cultural tone, an ambience. Sargeson, in his time and place, got it absolutely right. When that local ambience is wholly true it touches universal impulses, just as in yet another time and place Mark Twain did with Huckleberry Finn.

For me, dipping back into the stories is rather like yarning with an old friend. Yet there is a lot in this book of what we still are. An Affair of the Heart, for example. I wrote a small play two or three years ago and included this story. The professional actor who had to recite it almost broke down in tears the first time he rehearsed it. Afterwards, he was a bit startled at how it had got to him.

And the magic is still there in the novella That Summer, and in the slender fables Conversation With My Uncle, Cats By The Tail, Good Samaritan, Toothache and others. I've read them all before - well, almost all of them because 13 have been resurrected that have never been collected. Among them are some gems and you wonder how they were previously overlooked.

In Noblesse Oblige, Sargeson describes a character thus: "Charles can't help his artistic temperament any more than he can help being the languid arum lily, cut a week ago, that he is physically."

Another new story, Alma Mater, is a pearler. After referring to "University College" as a "big second-hand shop", he describes a professor giving a public lecture: "Very wordy. Well, it reminded me of one of those fogs that you see in Elioth Gruner's painting. A sort of lyric fog, with quite a lot of poetic suggestions, but still a fog. I mean you can't see clearly, but in the fog things are pretty and sparkling enough for you not to care much about seeing clearly." [Elioth Gruner was a famous Gisborne-born, Australian painter.]

One thing that struck me again is the gentle didactic tone, the broad moral connection with human behaviour, something lost, I think, in contemporary short stories and novels which seem absorbed in wary, neurotic combat among young and middle-aged members of the middle-class, unconscious of the wider world around them.

An introduction by Janet Wilson, Professor of English and Post-colonial Studies at the University of Northampton, will give thoughtful, perceptive help to anyone new to Sargeson, and included in this volume are dedicatory poems by two of his longtime friends, C.K. Stead and Kevin Ireland.

And then there is the glossary - seven pages long - which displays the brusque metaphors of our laconic past and will be a source of enormous interest to those for whom the words and phrases of our vernacular carry the freight of history. Australians have kept more of their linguistic heritage in everyday contemporary speech than we have, and this is a reminder of some of the expressions we have lost.

Gordon McLauchlan is an Auckland writer

- NZ Herald

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