ANZL Round Table: Literary Legacies
A discussion on the strange world of the biographies, letters and memoirs of New Zealand writers, with Rachael King, Paula Morris, Sarah Shieff—editor of the letters of Frank Sargeson and Denis Glover—and Philip Temple, biographer of Maurice Shadbolt.
Rachael King………………….Paula Morris……………………Philip Temple………………..Sarah Shieff
Paula: This has been a big year for New Zealand writers’ memoirs (Patricia Grace, Charlotte Grimshaw, C.K. Stead). In the Ockhams era of our national book awards, four of the six winners of the General Nonfiction category have been life stories: memoirs by Witi Ihimaera, Diana Wichtel and Shayne Carter, and essays by Ashleigh Young. This year the winner was Vincent O’Sullivan’s ‘biographical portrait’ of artist Ralph Hotere. Are the lives of artists and writers in NZ having a moment?
Philip: Memoirs and essays—the personal ‘me’ stories—are in, but literary biographies have not been attracting anything like the same interest over the past few years. Vince’s biography of Ralph is of a leading artist who wrote nothing about himself, and Vince’s power and skill produced a work of distinction and wide interest. The other people you mention are still alive and kicking, so perhaps the attraction there for readers is of learning of their life and work in the moment.
Paula: Why do you think there’s less interest in biographies? Is it because we lose touch so quickly with writers who were considered important in NZ lit say, thirty years ago?
Sarah: I’m not sure if there’s less interest in biography, necessarily: the shelves of my local bookshop are crammed with biographies of New Zealanders in popular culture, the media, sport, the armed services, politics. As Philip says, though, it could be that at least some of the space previously occupied by literary biography is now taken up by the memoir. Last year’s GNF category had some stunners—the second volume of C.K. Stead’s memoir; Alison Jones’s This Pākehā Life and Madison Hamill’s Specimen, a marvellous collection of personal essays that won the E.H. McCormick Best First Book award.
But memoir isn’t taking up all the available space: just off the top of my head, there’s Philip’s work on Maurice Shadbolt, Margot Schwass’s Greville Texidor biography, and Redmer Yska’s Katherine Mansfield’s Wellington which sheds fresh light on a familiar biographical subject. We’ve also got biographies of Charles Brasch and Ruth Dallas to look forward to.
Philip: Yes, biography in its different forms and different subject matter will always be on the shelves, and be of varying levels of quality and interest. I’ve always thought that there were three ‘stages of truth’ if you like. First, memoir, which is essentially what the author wants to tell you about the myth or developed story about themselves. Readers are being let into the secrets and lies and find connections with their own.
Secondly, there’s autobiography which is at least expected to have a full life form and whose facts and figures resemble something close to the truth but which is still not entirely trustworthy. Finally, there is the biography which, at its best, tells a fully researched, balanced and objective story of a subject’s life and, ideally, within the social/political/cultural fabric of their times. Sarah’s work on collected letters is even more objective, and valuable in that it allows a reader to come to their own conclusions without the judgment of the biographical author.
An anecdote about memoir and biography: once when I returned from London, after research for my Shadbolt biography, a customs guy at Auckland airport asked me what I did for a living. I told him, and waited for the usual rejoinder about what I really did for work, but instead he asked what I was currently writing about. When I told him, he said, ‘Well, I think Maurice Shadbolt’s One of Ben’s [memoir] is the best New Zealand book ever written.’ I was so taken aback I had nothing to say because, of course, I was discovering that much of it was fiction.
Rachael: I confess that I am not a biography reader. I don’t generally read thick tomes of history either. There, I’ve said it. My father would be so disappointed in me. However, I am attracted to memoir and personal essays. I’m less interested in the facts of a person’s life than what they are thinking and observing about it, and the world around them. I used to read exclusively fiction, so perhaps it is the tools of fiction employed in non-fiction that I appreciate, that feeling of falling into a world that the author has created.
When I read Charlotte Grimshaw’s The Mirror Book, it didn’t really matter to me as a reader whether what she was writing was the objective ‘truth’—I was fascinated by her internal story, of working it out for herself. Of course she also wrote great narrative and dramatic set pieces. The way she circled family myths and kept coming back to them again and again, and repeated family mantras, was so interesting, and almost hypnotic. I’m not sure reading the same story in a biography about her in years to come would be as interesting.
Paula: One exception to the memoir preceding the biography is Maurice Gee. His book Memory Pieces was published in 2018, three years after Rachel Barrowman’s Maurice Gee: Life and Work came out. (The biography was a finalist in the 2016 Ockham NZ Book Awards, and the memoir was a finalist in 2019.) I suppose that’s what happens when a biographical subject is still alive: they can still get a final word!
Gee’s memoir is in three parts: the first and longest about his parents, Lyndahl and Len, and the third about his wife Margareta from birth in wartime Sweden to meeting him in Wellington in the 60s. The second section, ‘Blind Road’, about his coming of age in West Auckland got most of the publicity at the time. He chose to omit almost everything about his relationship with Hera Smith (and its dissolution), saying there was no need to repeat what Barrowman had explored in the biography. At the beginning of the book Gee writes: ‘In writing these pieces I’ve relied on memory, mine and other people’s, rather than research. Where the two conflict I’ve usually gone with memory.’
Barrowman’s biography is superb, but I agree with Rachael: the book I enjoyed more, and return to more, is Memory Pieces.
Philip: The Grimshaw book is a superb example of the secrets and lies memoir as it bounces off what Stead had to say in his second memoir—what was really going on, who is telling the truth? Both are excellent writers, of course, and public figures and that makes it all the more engaging. Having reviewed both for Landfall, I came to the conclusion re the Grimshaw that, ‘In the end, Grimshaw’s story will be different to that of any other Stead family member and what matters is whether, to an outsider, her story is authentic. It is.’
But a chastening reminder about the importance or otherwise of literary memoir came when I sent it to a close, well-read relative whom I thought would gain something from reading about fraught parent/child relationships and she came back and said, ‘Yeah, it was interesting but—who gives a shit?’ Meaning, I guess, that she saw this as a storm inside a literary bubble.
Barrowman’s biography of Maurice Gee is extremely thorough but constrained by what he could not or would not speak of. That’s fair enough when the subject and close relatives are still around and also tangentially reflects on the issue of whether or not Grimshaw should have spilled the oil on Mum and Dad while they are still alive. I tend to think that while literary memoir can be stimulating and thought-provoking, coming up with the full, balanced story will really depend on some future biographer untangling the threads of thrust and counter thrust when they are all gone. Finding authenticity is a key role of a biographer, I think. As well as analysing the writer’s actual work which we seem to have lost sight of.
Sarah: One of the challenges of editing writers’ letters is presenting ‘the full balanced story’. This involves crafting a strong biographical arc, giving enough space to important friendships and enmities, and not air-brushing. The latter can be a problem. It’s not hard showing a person at their best—but what about at their cruellest? Or spreading gossip that might hurt living relations? My own test is that if I can alert a living relation to a piece of nastiness, then I must. Ancient animus rarely comes as a surprise to family members. Very occasionally I come across something that I couldn’t or wouldn’t raise with family—some bits of gossip remain radioactive for generations. Those are clear cuts.
Denis Glover’s biographer Gordon Ogilvie had the goal of a full, balanced story in mind when he wrote to Allen Curnow to ask for anecdotes, photographs, and personal ‘warts and all’ reflections. Curnow was dubious. ‘I know, ‘warts and all’ sounds so brave and right-minded–any fool can spot warts, but ‘and all’ is a job for Socrates, not Mr Pecksniff, isn’t it?’
I’d be interested in hearing from Paula about her approach to her subject in Shining Land: Looking for Robin Hyde.
Paula: Shining Land was a personal essay—or two, because it was a collaboration with Haru Sameshima, and his photography is its own meditation on Robin Hyde’s life rather than an illustration of mine. We both drew on Hyde’s autobiographical writing and the massive biography written by her son, the late Derek Challis, building on initial work by Gloria Rawlinson. That book—The Book of Iris: A Life of Robin Hyde (AUP 2002)—was ‘warts and all’, I suppose, in that it gave a clear and detailed account of Hyde’s periods of depression and hospitalisation, for example.
But a biography published more than sixty years after the subject’s death has limited access to her peers. The fathers of her two sons were dead by the time the biography was written, so could not be interviewed, and although Hyde’s closest friend, Gwen Mitcalfe, was interviewed, she could or would not share the many letters she’d received. (Derek thought that Gwen burned them.) Most of Hyde’s literary circle were long dead, as well: Frank Sargeson, Denis Glover, D’Arcy Cresswell, Charles Brasch. And, as you know, Sarah, from editing the letters of Sargeson and Glover, letters between writers dry up when they end up in the same city.
In Shining Land we were exploring Hyde’s life through the prism of place—the family home in Wellington, the ‘Grey Lodge’ on the grounds of the old Avondale Mental Hospital (which we managed to infiltrate), Whangaroa Harbour where she worked on edits to The Godwits Fly, Queen Mary Hospital in Hanmer Springs, the thermal baths in Rotorua, the old Wanganui Chronicle building. We were interested in ghosts, I suppose, and the atmosphere of time and place; sometimes we were imagining rather than chronicling.
This doesn’t mean I didn’t get obsessed with facts and dates, particularly military records. Almost every man in her life fought in the Boer War or World War I (or both).
Philip: Yes, Sarah, the ‘full balanced story’ and making choices, selections. Whether a memoirist (when I mis-typed this, it came up with the option of ‘terrorist’!) or biographer, one is always making judgement calls. I have found with both my Wakefield biography and the Shadbolt, after reaching a critical mass with research and interviews that, while the overall story and the main characters were evident, what and how one chose to tell it was an unfolding process, letting the developing story and the character’s voices (in the form of quotes from letters, diaries or interview statements) lead the way, rather in the way a novel does. This led to constant surprises when bringing together archival information, printed evidence and what the characters were telling me. I have always borne in mind the tenets of accuracy, balance and fairness and I attempt to remain dispassionate. For me, this means avoiding the pressures of current social or cultural memes and expectations and trying to place the subjects within the context of their times.
With regard to being fair and sensitive to those once close to the subject but still alive, I think that one’s antennae have to be flickering at all times but also one must keep the bullshit detector on. Did that really happen? Did they really say that? How could that be? Here it always helps to have more than one piece of evidence to arrive at what seems authentic, another watchword of mine. At a guess, for the Shadbolt, only about 10% of all I had gathered was used so that the other 90% helped as compost for authenticity (sorry—I’ve been doing quite a bit of gardening lately). This also means, of course, that I know so much more about people than I couldn’t possibly use, or even bother referring to them. It helped that the Shadbolt family was supportive (and a helpful QC who looked over the manuscript).
Paula: Philip, what do you think Shadbolt would make of your two volumes of biography? Sarah, what would Sargeson and Glover have to say about your letter selections?
Philip: A curly one. I think he might be pleased that someone had actually written them, despite the author’s (and many of his peers’) reservations, and would deny or justify much of what I had written about his personal relationships. He might be happy that his lifelong depression and late dementia had been written about with some understanding. Whatever he might think, I’m reassured by a number of those who knew him who tell me that this was the man they knew.
I think he would be glad someone had taken the trouble to look at how his books had come to be written and to critique them objectively. But then the justification for any literary biography is that the subject author produced a body of work that was well-regarded or influential at the time it appeared; and that some of it is of lasting worth, not necessarily the same thing. For example, Shadbolt’s novel Season of the Jew is most often touted as his most enduring work but I think that is because he was the first to tackle the NZ Wars with clear sympathy for the Māori protagonists. But, in my opinion, the second of the trilogy, Monday’s Warriors, was much more successful and gives Titokowaru his full due when his often successful attempts to thwart settlers is obscured by the overwhelming radiance of Te Whiti Rongomai as martyr.
Maurice might also have been pleased that I examined his books within the context, not only of his own life and experience, but also of his times. He has been dismissed as ‘just a journalist’ who wrote some popular novels; but this judgement will have been partly sparked by envy of his often spectacular sales. Journalism, and early film-making, gave him a nose for what was current and what people wanted to read about. And his wide-ranging journalism and research for his successful non-fiction books fed directly into his historical fiction, none more so than the vastly under-rated The Lovelock Version. So, overall, I think, I hope, he would approve.
Sarah: It’s a bit less of a curly one for Sargeson and Glover. They were both aware that their letters would eventually find their way to publication, so they were very careful about preserving their correspondence. This rather cuts against the grain of the myths about both their lifestyles. Some of Sargeson’s letters were probably lost to the mice and damp in the old bach at 14 Esmonde Rd—unfortunately, some letters from Glover from the 1930s and early 40s seem to have succumbed. In Glover’s case, it’s easy to assume that his alcoholism may have led to disarray in his papers, but he was a meticulous keeper of his own and other people’s letters. They both made sure that their letters were properly archived in public collections.
Despite the archival impulse, Glover in particular was ambivalent about the person who might finally get the job of working on his letters. He had a horror of what he called ‘the pimply scratcher after a PhD’. Lauris Edmond had offered to do it, and he’d looked forward to working with her. He said as much to the Turnbull chief Jim Traue in the process of arranging yet another funded deposit of his papers, in November 1979. ‘We shall have many agreeable discussions. If the project is worth doing; though I think my letters better than most things I essay, because I can aim at an audience of one at a time.…The grin would fade from my skull if some PhD head-hunter raked over my bones. It would be a grace-stroke if you felt like coughing up for what you already have. Not that I am out of ammunition, but I descry the fighting-top of OHMS Inland Revenue just lifting the horizon.’ That letter didn’t make the final cut—it’s a fairly ordinary business letter, and he talks about posterity elsewhere. But it’s warm and lively—and shows how hard it can be, making editorial decisions. In fact, Lauris wasn’t able to work on Glover’s letters: she was still tied up with the Fairburn letters. And I believe Michael had hoped to work on Sargeson’s letters, but the Frame biography supervened.
It’s impossible to know what they might have made of my editions. I think they’d have been pleased with the look and feel of the books: they’re both handsome, beautifully produced volumes, which is down to the vision of their publishers, Harriet Allen and Rachel Scott. In terms of the content—who knows. They’re selected editions rather than complete, which may have disappointed them, but they were both consummate professionals, and would have understood the advantages, for readers, of a single volume. They might have hoped for fewer notes, or more notes—who knows. My goal was to keep out of the way as much as possible as an editor, and to keep the focus where it belongs, which is on their own writing.
Philip: This prompts me to think more closely about what Shadbolt thought or intended. I have no evidence that he had any clear views about their fate, except to put them in the Turnbull but then he might have been more interested in the payment for them, at the time, than what would happen with them. Over the last six years of his life he was not in a fit mental state to make any decisions. His eldest son, Sean and youngest daughter, Brigid, were/are his literary executors but it was left to Sean to sort through the chaos of his studio long after he had left it. Sean did not pick and choose but filed letters and documents as best he could and sent them to the Turnbull. Even he did not look into the exercise books that contained Maurice’s hand-written journals, so that I became the first to read all 900 pages. (Here I have to praise the wonders of modern technology. Living in Dunedin, I could only afford a limited number of extended trips to Wellington so spent tedious—but productive—times copying them all with the iPhone camera and transferring them to my laptop. Masses of letters that way, too).
Probably Maurice thought enough of the value of his work that his letters should be preserved for posterity. Most authors do, I think, though some select and burn. He had written two memoirs, not so much to betray the secrets of the dead and living, but to tell the story of his life as he wanted readers to know it, and half is myth and fiction. I feel that is what any reader of memoir should bear in mind: this is the writer in his/her own image. What should we believe? What conclusions should we draw? And Sarah, do you know if either Sargeson or Glover destroyed certain letters?
Sarah: All we’ve got to go on is what the writers say they’ve done with letters, and even that isn’t necessarily reliable. Early in the research for the Sargeson it became obvious that letters to Bill Pearson would be very important: Sargeson had fallen in love with Bill, but Bill couldn’t reciprocate, and returned all Frank’s letters, leaving it to him to decide what to do with them. Imagine my dismay when I came across a letter from Frank to Bill saying that he’d destroyed those letters, and his own carbon copies. I subsequently unearthed over sixty letters from Frank to Bill, larded through both their papers in the Turnbull. All one can do is shrug and be grateful. Pearson’s biographer Paul Millar thinks that Sargeson destroyed no more than five letters.
As far as it’s possible to tell, Glover was a very good keeper of letters. There seemed to be no significant gaps in his own archive—although not all his correspondents were as careful. His letters to Bob Lowry don’t appear to have survived, which was a major disappointment: they’d have had much to say to each other about printing and typography. And I wasn’t able to track down his letters to his good friend–and later sworn enemy–Dennis Donovan, who had in effect sacked Glover from the Caxton Press at the end of 1951. There’s a tantalizing trace of those letters: Glover told his biographer John Thomson that he’d had a lot of ‘very private’ letters from Donovan which he had destroyed, and told Donovan he had done so. But ‘Master Steerpike’ had apparently preserved all of Glover’s. I hunted high and low. Maybe they’ll come to light one day.
I think it’s more usual for good keepers to place letters under a long embargo rather than destroy them—but who knows what’s been lost, either deliberately or accidentally. Absence of evidence is often just that.
Paula: I asked Adam Dudding about writing My Father’s Island, his memoir of growing up with writer and literary editor Robin Dudding. (It won best first book/nonfiction in the 2018 Ockham NZ Book Awards.) He said he couldn’t have written it while Robin was still alive:
‘He was very private, and quite shy in his way, and wouldn’t have appreciated his tragedies and triumphs being made public in this way. It’s something I agonised about a little, but in the end I gave myself permission: partly because I think he’d have been quite happy to see me write a book (though obviously not this book); partly because he was actually very proud of his literary achievements even though he struggled to enjoy them as much as he might have, which meant it felt like a good thing to stand up and talk about those parts of his life; and partly because betraying the secrets of the dead (and the living) is a time-honoured tradition within memoir and in fiction, and was, of course, practised by many of the people Dad published in his time. And yeah, I know this third reason feels rather slippery and excessively self-forgiving, but it’s still true.’
Betraying the secrets of the dead and living: is that part of what Karl Stead and Charlotte Grimshaw are doing in their memoirs? (Karl published the third volume of his this year.) I don’t think Patricia Grace’s memoir, From the Centre, does this, but she’s a different kind of writer, and person, perhaps.
Rachael: I was interested in what Charlotte says in her memoir about getting the creeping sense that as she and Karl are exchanging emails, he is steering the conversation with one eye on the archives, perhaps a finely-honed manipulation of their correspondence to present himself in a favourable light to anyone who comes across them later. Dad was very good at keeping letters—he often photocopied them and put them in several different folders, and he had a whole box called ‘writers’ letters’ which no doubt holds some gems. He also printed off most of his emails to and from anyone important and filed them in ringbinders ordered by date. He used his correspondence in lieu of keeping a journal I think.
I do worry for my generation and what future literary archives will look like. We tend to communicate increasingly in text messages, tweets, Facebook threads and What’s App groups. Short, sharp messages more akin to verbal conversation than correspondence, and all that will be lost. It is very convenient, for example, that Dad’s archives hold not only all the letters to various authors sent through various publications on the letters pages, such as in the Listener or Metro, but also all the letters sent privately at the same time which are more personal, less precise, which show a different version of what was playing out in public. We (my peers and I) don’t really have that sort of material, unless it’s recorded by a third party. Steve Braunias enjoys reporting on literary feuds and maybe it’s just as well or they get forgotten.
Your comment, Sarah, about Denis Glover and his fear of ‘the pimply scratcher after a PhD’ reminds me of the time I asked Dad who he would like to write his biography and he said ‘nobody—I don’t want someone poking about in my business’ and yet he left his papers in the order he probably wished many of his subjects would leave theirs—very neat and methodical. I know that he left a lot out though. (And speaking of finding things in letters that are unflattering, he said something quite mean about me in a letter to my grandfather when I was about 21 and I always planned to excise it from the archives but I think I forgot.)
Paula: I must write a list of people who are banned from writing my biography or attending my funeral. After The Mirror Book came out, by the way, my sister made me promise not to write a memoir.
Patricia Grace’s memoir is so different from the various volumes of Karl Stead’s, though she also presents it as ‘a writer’s life’. On reviews for her novel Potiki, she writes:
Potiki had a mixed reception. When I first began writing, I knew I wanted to write about the ordinary lives of ordinary people who were Māori, who I knew hadn’t been written about before in fiction—or who were only beginning to be written about. So a sentence in one mostly positive review which ended with a statement that I could write a ‘truly New Zealand’ book one day was puzzling. Others called it a ‘political’ novel, a description I didn’t understand at the time—written to ‘incite racial hatred and create social disharmony’, according to an irate parent whose child had been given the book to read as part of his school programme. Another of his complaints was that it didn’t use proper language. [From the Centre pp. 193–194]
By contrast, Karl quotes a number of favourable reviews of his books, especially by non-New Zealand reviewers. I wonder if both writers feel bitten, in some way, by some of the local reception of their work, but address it in different ways.
Philip: On authors ‘feeling bitten’ by critical reviews and taking an opportunity to ‘set the record straight’, ain’t that the truth? I reviewed CK Stead’s first two memoirs for the Landfall Review Online but gave up on the third because I felt his need to continually ‘set the record straight’, because he really knew best, became tiresome and also counter-productive as one began to suspect, as with every memoir writer, that, yeah, only half the truth has made it through here. In that respect, Charlotte’s did us a service but then, hang on, which bits are missing there, too? All good for gossip though , eh?
Rachael: Just as an aside, it seems to have become very unfashionable for writers these days to bite back at negative reviews of their work. You used to see letters to the editor all the time from disgruntled writers complaining that reviewers had got it wrong, or had some grudge against them. Now I think it’s seen as a bit unseemly, and indeed, when the reviews are ignored, they do tend to just fade away, whereas as soon as you point out a negative review online, everyone races to read it.
Philip: One area we have not explored with literary biography is the relationship between the life and the work, or do we take for granted that the two are always interlinked? I think with Maurice Shadbolt, where his life was too close to the work, both in time and detail, the result was often bad, such as in A Touch of Clay. Greater distance to felt experience could prove successful, as in Among the Cinders, where he drew on his childhood relationship with his grandfather, and the Te Kuiti environment. Or in the much-anthologised short story ‘After the Depression’ where he vividly expressed the plight of his father’s generation, desperate to find work and achieve social justice. Maurice’s increasing preoccupation with family and ancestors created the characters for The Lovelock Version and was also the foundation for his first memoir One of Ben’s.
The question of the life versus the work has been raised again for me as I read Colm Toibin’s novel The Magician. The facts and events of Thomas Mann’s life, family and relationships seem pretty accurate and are likely to be, given the list of secondary sources at the end of the book. He also, for example, details the circumstances and Mann’s experiences in Venice that are reflected in his short, and probably most enduring novel, Death in Venice.
Fictionalising a life allows greater choice for what is included, as well as for constructing dialogue and deciding on narrative structure. It also allows for an imaginative depiction of contemporary life and times, which is where I don’t think Toibin has succeeded (so far) in his latest. (With my novel about the sculptor Herman Blumenthal and his writer wife Maria, I Am Always With You, I walked the ground, so to speak, to the extent that it was seen there as a successful evocation of 1930s Berlin).
Paula: I’d go for Buddenbrooks as the Mann novel of choice, but that’s another discussion. Robin Hyde’s The Godwits Fly is very much a roman à clef, as we know from the autobiographical writing she left. Many fiction writers, here and elsewhere, poach from their own lives. In her review of Grimshaw’s The Mirror Book, Rachael has identified connections between the memoir, the novel Mazarine and the short story ‘The Black Monk’.
Thanks very much to you all for participating in this round table on literary legacies.
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This round table took place in late November and early December 2021, with Paula Morris and Sarah Shieff in Auckland, Rachael King in Christchurch and Philip Temple in Dunedin.