Book reviews: A life searching for the New Zealand Man

By Sean Damer

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John Mulgan: Journey To Oxford ed by Peter Whiteford
Victoria University Press $30

A Good Mail: Letters Of John Mulgan ed by Peter Whiteford
Victoria University Press $50

John Mulgan was part-British and part-New Zealander, a dualism he never resolved. Photo / Alexander Turnbull Library
John Mulgan was part-British and part-New Zealander, a dualism he never resolved. Photo / Alexander Turnbull Library

The recent publication of these two books has led to a brief epidemic of Mulgan-mania. Variously, his character is "enigmatic", his suicide "inexplicable", and, in the words of James McNeish in a Listener review, "... after Katherine Mansfield and Janet Frame, one of the two or three literary figures in this country who matter".

On the face of it, this appears to be a startling claim for, as we know, Mulgan wrote precisely one novel, Man Alone, frequently described as "classic". This is a roundabout way of saying its importance is historical rather than literary. It was the first novel in which a Kiwi novelist tackled the theme of what it was to be a New Zealander. So these two new books should permit a further assessment of Mulgan's literary skills.

The first is a hitherto unpublished memoir of Mulgan's time at Oxford University; the second a collection of his letters to his parents from Oxford, and to them and his wife and young son in New Zealand during World War II.

There can be no doubt his writing is articulate. But for me, it is the self-conscious articulacy of the university man. In actual fact, his prose is over-egged with literary allusions. This might be acceptable if he had something original to say about what he observed, some penetrating Orwellian insights into British culture and politics in the grim days of the 1930s.

For example, in both books Mulgan makes it clear that he was appalled by the class distinctions and snobbery he encountered in England.

In his letters, he says: "The feeling of class distinctions in this country is at times intolerable to me." But where are the examples of this intolerance, the anecdotes which could make such distinctions come alive? They simply aren't there. His prose is pedestrian and impersonal, demonstrating an irritating even-handedness; in a word, it is boring. There is no crackle, no figures of speech, no celebration of language, and he appears completely unaware of the literary maxim: show, don't tell.

But at a more profound level, one can deduce from both books that Mulgan is trying to work out his personal and national identity. He was plainly influenced deeply by his father's English form of liberalism, but his liberal values were shaken to the core when he arrived among the dreaming spires of Oxford.

There, the class privilege, snobbery, and condescending attitudes towards the working class that he encountered were quite alien to a New Zealander of his generation. The sense of community in the "Mother Country" which he expected to find did not exist; his father's "Merrie England" was a myth.

As Vincent O'Sullivan demonstrates in his brilliant biography, Long Journey To The Border, Mulgan and his Kiwi contemporaries were quick to assert that in terms of identity, they were New Zealanders, and definitely not British. But as Pakeha New Zealand identity in those days was based on being British, Mulgan was part-British and part-New Zealander, a dualism which, arguably, he never resolved.

Mulgan was a patently good man who was almost pathologically devoted to seeing both sides of an argument. But he was no writer - and I think he knew it. In the Letters, he says at one point: "To people like myself - knowing that one isn't an artist of any kind ..." And at another: "I've very little imaginative ability."

Both self-assessments are correct, in my opinion; he wasn't in the same league as Frame and Mansfield. Had Mulgan lived, he would have made a highly competent, if boring, lecturer in English literature in some New Zealand university, or an equally competent - and equally boring - editor at the Oxford University Press, or some such.

When I did my MA in creative writing at the University of Auckland in 2006, I discussed Mulgan frequently with my classmate and friend, John MacKinven. In subsequent correspondence, MacKinven said, "if one man could be said to provide the key to the vexed question of Europe's wars and New Zealand national identity, he's John Mulgan. This has been my feeling for a long time. In fact, if he hadn't existed we'd have had to invent him. It's less about Mulgan himself - however interesting he was - than about a particular confluence of historical streams, a specific colonial moment, if you like. His death - as death has a way of doing - makes and seals the myth."

I think this is the most insightful comment on Mulgan I have read. His life and death - and writing - was a continuous struggle to establish what is was to be a "New Zealand Man".

These two books tell us nothing about Mulgan's life that has not already been covered by O'Sullivan. They confirm the impression that Mulgan was an intelligent, idealistic, likeable and decent man. But they also confirm the impression that his literary status is important only to a handful of New Zealand academics like Peter Whiteford, who has done an excellent job of editing both books.

As to Mulgan's suicide, I do not find it "inexplicable" at all. I think he found the cause he was looking for throughout his adult life with the left-wing Andartes (guerrillas, partisans) in the mountains of wartime Greece, and their peasant supporters. But when Churchill turned the British Army on them in Athens in December 1944, fearing a Communist takeover, it was as if Mulgan's 13 months of pitched fighting in atrocious conditions had been betrayed utterly. My feeling is that this was the last straw for a courageous and idealistic man, who took his own life.

Sean Damer is a Glasgow-based writer who has lived in New Zealand and is working on a film about John Mulgan.

- NZ Herald

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