Book review: Shelf Life, C K Stead

By David Hill

C K Stead, New Zealand author, writer, poet.  Photo / Brett Phibbs
C K Stead, New Zealand author, writer, poet. Photo / Brett Phibbs

Karl Stead is like a grand old sideboard in the dining room of New Zealand literature: well-stocked, stylishly set, scratched in a few places, polished in a lot more, a go-to place for when you want a savoury, occasionally tart dish.

I won't call him prolific; the word suggests glibness, an assembly-line ease. Productive seems a more apposite term, and these 50-plus "reviews, replies and reminiscences" (that second word always brings an intake of breath when it involves CKS), are products of his Afternoon Writing over the past quarter-century. Mornings are reserved for his abundant, often acclaimed fiction and poetry.

"Language is what distinguishes us on our planet," he notes of Homo sapiens, and that language here is considered, lucid, emphatic. If "reading academic writing can sometimes feel like eating blotting paper", Stead's paper is indubitably crisp and white, with the odd scorch mark. You meet the same clarity in the several interview transcripts - and Stead is unfailingly courteous, even with the silly questions, though you can sense those famous mouth corners about to draw down on occasions.

A wide spectrum of Mansfield recollections and analyses includes a timeline of his own preoccupation with her, from Weetbix cards to his 2004 novel. We get Janet Frame's ambivalent, acid reaction to the Menton Fellowship, T. S. Eliot's "distrustful, even apprehensive" attitude, Philip Larkin's admiration.

There's a section of Poet Laureate Blogs. Stead pricks Auden for his faulty grammar; discusses Ezra Pound, deep in the Cantos and in his prison cell; makes a splendidly compact appraisal of Allen Curnow's early "grief ... loss ... deprivation".

There are reviews, a few of which don't seem all that topical now. We move from William Golding to Patrick Evans; from Bill Pearson to Eliot's "conspicuously intelligent" letters.

There are affectionate tributes to Chris Cole Catley and Mansfield transcriber Margaret Scott. And there are non-literary matters: doubts of David Bain's innocence; travels in Italy; a Parnell half-century in his "kit-set house".

We get some engaging incidentals. Stead joined the Labour Party at 7 years old. Poetry made its "surprising intrusion" into his life at high school. He learns how Stephen Spender was on Hitler's death list, and he reminds his wife of Don Quixote.

An elitist? He claims the term, though he's a bit startled to find it being used as an accusation. But his work is enormously accessible - and personal: he insists on "the life of the author" in the text; he believes his criticism is strengthened by his immersion in the writing process; he writes of the "true satisfaction, a sort of peace to the spirit" that writing well brings him.

I'll pervert Bacon and Marmite. This is a book to be digested slowly, appreciatively. Too much doesn't spoil the flavour, though, and flavour is always there. If it contains the odd fragment to threaten your fillings, then what else would you expect from CKS?

SHELF LIFE
(Auckland University Press, $45)
by C K Stead

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