Book Review: Letters of Frank Sargeson

By Peter Simpson

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Letters of Frank Sargeson selected & ed by Sarah Shieff
Vintage $49.99

Book cover of Letters of Frank Sargeson. Photo / Supplied
Book cover of Letters of Frank Sargeson. Photo / Supplied

There are some 500 items in this fascinating selection of Frank Sargeson's letters - a number that nevertheless represents only about a quarter of the more than 6000 which survive. Those were the days. Sargeson would often sit down on a Sunday afternoon and write up to eight letters at a stretch. This selection ranges from a postcard written from Paris in 1927 (on Sargeson's one and only overseas trip) to a note to Janet Frame in 1981, signed "much love (& reverence)" - he had just read Living in the Maniototo. In between comes more than half a century of commentary on the literary life.

Nevertheless, Sargeson remains something of an enigma in our literary culture.
On the one hand he is revered; his house in Takapuna is preserved as a museum; a writers' residency and public lecture series bear his name; students in universities study his early stories; he is the subject of a major biography by Michael King; his reputation as one of the key foundation figures of our literature, especially as the creator of a New Zealand idiom for fiction, is intact.

And yet who, apart from students and aficionados, reads Sargeson these days? Until recently, when a new edition of his stories was released, none of his books was in print; his novels (except for That Summer, which is printed with the stories), including his favourite, Joy of the Worm, languish largely unread. He is in danger of becoming that sad phenomenon - an unread (or at least under-read) classic.

Charles Brasch once wrote a poem about Sargeson entitled Walking Invisible, referring (in part) to the fact that in his fiction at least Sargeson is hard to find, mostly because of his technique of hiding his persona behind that of his fictional narrators, often barely articulate youths, or, in later years, garrulous old codgers.

But in his letters at last we hear the real Sargeson. It is not always the same voice. The tone he adopts when reporting salacious rumours or telling smutty anecdotes to old friends is not the same as that of the dedicated practitioner offering sage advice to would-be young writers. Taken altogether, though, they present the whole man in all his complexity - including his flaws and weaknesses - and marvellously complement King's biography (in which, of course, many are quoted).

In his letters Sargeson is often delightfully unbuttoned. He loves gossip, both kindly and (sometimes) malicious. He offers sweeping and even hilarious opinions of his fellow writers.

Take, for example, this passage from a 1952 letter to William Plomer, a South African-born English writer with whom Sargeson corresponded for decades, about

James K. Baxter, then in his 20s: "The highlight recently was Baxter's public reading of his own poetry. A drunken Calvinist - or a Calvinist drunk, whichever you like: he is a genius or the nearest thing to it I have ever struck: but he'll either be dead, or else locked up for either obscenity or religious mania within the next five years ..."

Sargeson was mainly so entertainingly outspoken when he was addressing old friends, with whom he had few inhibitions - people like Plomer, Dan Davin, Charles Brasch, Denis Glover, Roderick Finlayson, E.H. McCormick, Dennis McEldowney, Janet Frame, C.K. Stead - each the recipient of dozens of lively missives.

A different style of letter is when he is responding to requests for advice from young writers (which he did frequently). To them he is invariably courteous, patient, encouraging and opinionated.

Among the younger writers to benefit from his care were David Ballantyne,
John Reece Cole, A.P. Gaskell, Maurice Duggan, Maurice Gee, Bill Pearson.

The complexities of his involvements with people such as Frame, Duggan, Stead and Pearson unfold over several years, giving the book something of the richness and complexity of a many-layered novel.

Sargeson also engaged in a number of lively feuds with which he entertained his friends. Examples of people who aroused his ire (not always fairly) were M.H. Holcroft (as editor of the Listener), Maurice Shadbolt, academics such as J.C. Reid and Ian Gordon and publisher Blackwood Paul.

Sarah Shieff has made an impeccable job of editing the book. She provides notes on key correspondents and often precedes or follows particular letters with helpful information.

The book is also well supplied with indexes and other aids to the reader. A solid hardback more than 600 pages in length, this engaging book should be on the shelf of anyone with a serious interest in New Zealand writing.
Peter Simpson is an Auckland reviewer.

- NZ Herald

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