The Interview – C.K. Stead
Mark Broatch writes:
‘It is strange,’ Vladimir Nabokov once wrote in a study of Nikolai Gogol, ‘the morbid inclination we have to derive satisfaction from the fact (generally false and always irrelevant) that a work of art is traceable to a ‘true story’.’
Yet satisfaction we do seek, particularly from some authors, who seem to draw deeply on autobiographical elements in their work. CK Stead is one of those.
Christian Karlson Stead is a novelist, poet and literary critic. An emeritus professor of English, he has gathered in his 86 years an Order of New Zealand honour and a CBE, is one of only two New Zealanders to be appointed a Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature, has been our Poet Laureate, and has received a swag of critical awards and accolades, not least the Prime Minister’s Award for fiction and the Katherine Mansfield Menton Fellowship.
His bestselling 1964 work The New Poetic: Yeats to Eliot, a survey of modernist English poetry, established his critical reputation, but he is perhaps best known here for his novels. These include the 1971 dystopia Smith’s Dream, made into the breakout film Sleeping Dogs with national treasure Sam Neill, All Visitors Ashore from 1984 and The Singing Whakapapa, both of which won the fiction section of the NZ Book Awards. In 2009 he released Collected Poems: 1951-2006.
Often positively reviewed overseas, Stead has sometimes been more coolly received in his home country. While the work is always up for (re)appraisal, it is not difficult to suspect that his frequently unvarnished and refusing-to-toe-the-line criticism, both literary and of the wider cultural and social world, often put him offside with his peers. A 1990 article in Metro was headlined ‘Blaspheming against the Pieties: why the literati hate CK Stead’.
Subsequent public squabbles and the perception that the fictional work sometimes echoed the motifs of real life only reinforce this idea. Many of his novels, such as All Visitors Ashore and The Death of the Body, are accused by critics of containing central characters not too dissimilar from Stead himself, or of peddling the author’s preoccupations and irritations. His fiction has been called sensuously lucid, metafictional, yet fundamentally realist and confessional. Says The Oxford Companion to New Zealand Literature: ‘Stead’s early friendship with Frank Sargeson, his academic career, his marriage, an apparent extra-marital affair which recurs in various poems and two novels, and difficulties surrounding women and their claims: all these matters are presented to us under a veil of fiction that is at times alarmingly diaphanous.’
But as Stead himself says, ‘Stories are stories and create their own reality’. And ‘with fiction the border between what really happened and what is invented is always open, and if the writer doesn’t put it on record, there’s no way of knowing when and where it is crossed’.
Conducted over the course of several weeks by way of emails, our interview traversed many of these questions: autobiography in his fiction and ‘literary revenge’, the role of the novelist and critic in NZ, his not being ‘particularly inventive’, his favourite works, the state of his health, and whether he’s mellowed with age.
How is your health now – still feeling ‘a box of birds’, as you’ve said, despite the diffuse heart disease? Still swimming?
I feel my age – 86 – and I’m told (and Kay is warned) I may have a serious, likely lethal, heart attack at any moment; but the heart is still pumping strongly. So I have heart disease, not heart failure, and am consequently quite fit – don’t pant going up hills, and am still swimming almost daily to the yellow buoy. I was offered heart by-pass surgery but decided against it. The medication has been adjusted and I carry on.
MB: I’d like to start on the perceived duality. Your 2007 poem ‘C.K.’ contrasts C.K. Stead with Karl. The literary biography Plume of Bees (2009) says the first is the man he is reputed to be, the second the person he believes himself to be. It starts:
‘There’s a Stead I / recognise only by / his picture // in the papers’
The voice in the poem suggests the poet is modest, not unsmiling or difficult, but ends with Karl promising to introduce himself to C.K., ‘ ‘Hullo, C.K. / I’m Karl. We haven’t / met’ – ‘Let’s / keep it like that’,’ / he says, unfriendly, / and turns away.’
Who is the real CK Stead? Or are you both ‘the brusque, prickly intellectual’ – sometimes – and the ‘the quietly spoken, personable fellow’ mostly?
KS: I don’t think the voice in the poem suggests ‘Karl’ is modest – but rather that he’s affable, good humoured, whereas ‘C.K.’ is unsmiling – ‘brusque, prickly’ as you say, and even dangerous. I think there must be a bit of both in me; but the smiling, affable person is (I’m pretty sure) the predominant one. I’m basically cheerful. Capable of stringent criticism, however, and fairly stern in arguing I’m right.
MB: Plume of Bees suggests your reception in NZ has also had contrasting extremes. It suggests your lack of a covert approach in fiction, not hiding behind allegory, parody or personae, and being forthright in criticism may have contributed to it. Kevin Ireland has said, ‘I think he’s wrong quite often, but he’s never unprincipled.’ Not many fiction writers and poets are critics – is this part of it? James McNeish said: ‘I’ve always been an outsider, and I’m quite comfortable with that. To retain your critical sense in a small society like New Zealand, you have to stand apart’. True, and true for you?
KS: This is more than one question, I think.
The best critics in English language literary history, the only ones who are still read, have all been poets. All writing, poetry or prose, is the exercise of practical criticism. It involves making continuous critical choices.
My ‘lack of a covert approach in fiction’ is a different matter – if it’s true. I think my writing often has an immediacy which makes readers feel as if they know me – so they assume they are reading scarcely disguised autobiography, even when it’s not.
Jim McNeish’s comment is right.
MB: You have said about your own writing, ‘Why have I annoyed people here? Partly because I don’t have many brakes … If I see something I feel inclined to criticise, I tend not to think very carefully about who is going to be offended’. Has this inclination dissipated over time? Have you become more mellow, more forgiving, in recent decades, as some who know you perceive, and if so, it is just age, or something else? Has it changed the work?
KS: I came to intellectual maturity (like Martin Amis, who says the same about himself) at a time when literary criticism was taken immensely seriously. It was a moral and intellectual duty to say what you thought honestly. Of course you learn slowly that tact is often necessary – and that one’s opinions change, so it’s not good to be too confident about them. I have learned to be less frank, or to avoid taking on tasks that might involve unwelcome judgements. This is partly age, partly ‘wisdom’, partly a mellowing, not always for the best.
MB: Do you think you are generally reviewed more harshly in NZ than elsewhere? Do you think critics here find it harder to separate the man from the work? How often have you thought the criticism justified?
KS: I haven’t had much of my work discussed at any length by serious literary critics here, though there was a very good one about The Death of the Body by Reginald Berry in Landfall 163, September 1987. I’ve more often felt ignored – overlooked – than given close and searching attention. And so much reviewing is amateurish. In the UK and Ireland there have been critical analyses at a level I seldom get here – see for example the LRB review by Frank Kermode cited below [in the ‘lucidity’ question]. Or these quotes from overseas reviews – for books, incidentally, which I don’t think even made the short-lists for New Zealand fiction prizes:
Talking about O’Dwyer (1999)
Talking about O’Dwyer’s intellectual force is inseparable from its narrative force: the drive towards the core event is gripping … Ranking writers is an invidious enterprise but, fresh from my binge [of his novels], it seems incontestable to me that C.K. Stead is among the very best contemporary novelists.
John de Falbe, The Spectator, 27/5/2000
I don’t know why everyone isn’t talking about Talking about O’Dwyer, C.K. Stead’s intricately worked and compelling novel which, most creatively, links middle-class New Zealand with contemporary Oxford and Croatia, and all of these with Crete during the Second World War. Extremely moving, and burning with a fierce charity for the inarticulate and marginalised, Stead’s achievement is also, through its central consciousness, a plea for uncompromising use of the intelligence.
Paul Binding, Times Literary Supplement, 1/12/2000
The Secret History of Modernism (2001)
Engrossing yet delicately understated, this is fiction of the highest order: gracefully intelligent, emotionally probing, politically sharp. While it lacks some of the narrative compulsion of its immediate predecessor, Talking about O’Dwyer, it is an even subtler, more reflective work, whose antipodean perspective is a healthy and at times astonishing corrective to the European self-centredness of so much historical evaluation.
Rosemary Goring, Sunday Tribune (Dublin), 13/1/2002
With deft, sure touch, Stead interweaves three strands of narrative: the reflections and peregrinations of middle-aged Lazlo; the mildly comic adventures of young Lazlo and friends; and the harrowing story of the Goldsteins … Much of the poignancy of this novel resides in the contrast between the leisurely, cultivated lives of Lazlo and his friends and the brutal, unthinkable realities that the equally cultivated Goldsteins were forced to confront just one generation earlier. Like Lazlo, Stead recognises that his ability to comprehend the century’s history is limited by the sheltered life he’s been lucky enough to lead. But in this novel, he has found a way to elucidate those aspects of the story he knows best.
Merle Rubin, Los Angeles Times, 1/9/2002
His characters are believable as well as likable. Stead’s handling of this student life of uncertainty and confused sexuality is far more graceful and humane than V.S. Naipaul’s sour handling of similar material in his recent novel Half a Life … The Secret History of Modernism is as subtle as Jane Austen and as fatalistic as Thomas Hardy. Life is largely improvisation. Stead appears to have made the need for answers redundant in this minor miracle of a novel that studies life, love and the long regret caused by a moment’s hesitation. There are no questions either, just a profound sense of understanding, and many truths.
Eileen Battersby, The Irish Times, 10/2/2002
C.K. Stead has served us the most delicious, exquisitely prepared, delicately spiced Katherine Mansfield one could ever wish for, and the gourmet in me is immensely grateful… After finishing Mansfield I went back through its 246 pages trying to see ‘how it is done’ and, I must confess, I have no idea. A dearth of adjectives, an extraordinary accuracy of description merely through the use of verbs and nouns, the right intuition of when to comment and when to leave good enough alone, a taste for the right anecdote and a certain Mansfieldean humour that permeates the entire story from choice beginning to measured end: all these things no doubt contribute to build the moving truthful core of this novel, but they hardly explain its perfect workings.
Alberto Manguel, The Spectator, 5/6/2004
And then there’s a strange New Zealand phenomenon whereby certain writers become revered and others marked with a cross on the brow, and these predetermine the tone in which the writer is reviewed.
MB: You have said, ‘Being the Britain of the South Seas was the NZ identity I’d grown up with … the writers, artists and intellectuals stood apart from that, criticised it, and so making common cause with them for me was temperamentally acceptable and desirable’. You’ve also said you have shifted on your concept of New Zealand’s literary culture as fundamentally Western with a dash of local atmosphere. How has that changed the work? You have long been in the thick of New Zealand literary history and life – did you ever wish to have been born in the British one?
KS: The basis of literary nationalism when I was young was in large part an effort to detach ourselves from the old Empire – hence the importance of Curnow. I was always a loyal New Zealander and never wanted to be anything else, but I did think we were unfortunately placed, inheriting European culture and so far from its centres. The world has shrunk astonishingly in my lifetime – not just jet travel (we used to go by sea) but instant communication and the internet. And we have begun to recognise and accommodate as never before our indigenous culture. This has involved some inauthentic behaviour, but on the whole it has been necessary and beneficial.
MB: You have an Order of NZ honour and a CBE, are a Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature, you’ve been Poet Laureate, have had all number of medals and awards including the Prime Minister’s and Katherine Mansfield Menton Fellowship. It’s a softball question, but what do you consider your greatest achievement?
KS: The awards are not achievements in themselves, though I suppose they are signals of, or rewards for, achievements. I don’t know how to answer the question. I guess the big Collected Poems taken as a single work representing a large part of a lifetime’s work gives me a very considerable sense of satisfaction.
MB: Your publications now take up an entire page in the front of your books in 6-point type. If it’s not the same question, do you have a favourite? Any you’d like to do over again?
KS: Apart from the Collected Poems, I like All Visitors Ashore. I think The Death of the Body is probably my cleverest novel. And My Name was Judas probably my most original – I mean the idea of it, and the execution – a complete revision of the meaning of the Story Western Civilisation has tried to live by for centuries. The best of my Lit Crit is pretty good for those interested and intellectually up for it.
MB: When you were younger, your head was ‘full of novels’. In 2010 in your memoir, South-West of Eden, you said you lacked a compelling idea for a new novel. Yet you have since written two more, and two collections of poetry. How is the ideas well now?
KS: Now I’m trying to write a further autobiography, an entirely literary one, going from the end of South West of Eden to 1986 when I left the university and became a full-time writer. I can’t imagine writing another novel – but I tinker with poems constantly.
MB: The novelist ‘must become the whole of boredom’, you quote Auden as saying, while poets ‘dash forward like hussars’. Damien Wilkins argues that, for you, ‘to poetry’s angel, prose is the necessary donkey … Look at how much envy this novel [The End of the Century at the End of the World] displays for poetry’. Think that’s true in any sense? Clive James has said the critical essay and the poem are closely related forms. Craig Raine says (in My Grandmother’s Glass Eye) that the best poetry and prose share ‘brilliant accuracies and intensity’. How do the three forms relate and inform each other for you?
KS: Damien Wilkins’ review was very clever, and not altogether damning. He was right I’m sometimes impatient with the business which Virginia Woolf says makes fiction so hard – of getting your characters out of one room and into another. But every kind of writing stands or falls by being visibly alive. Too many sentences, or paragraphs, or pages without some spark, some shock or surprise, means whatever it is you’re writing is unwell and may soon die. This goes for literary criticism quite as much as for fiction or poetry. My collections of literary essays are published and sell because people find them readable, enjoyable. Critics are not remembered for being right but for being intellectually lively and for writing well!
MB: Damien Wilkins has said your fictional work has ‘a surfeit of lucidity’, suggesting it has a lack of depth. Have you responded other than through the poem ‘By the back door’ (Derrida) – ‘no regrets’ rather than the ‘opaque – and delay’ approach? Does this lucidity and not infrequent autobiographical plot similarities make more problematic claims such as fictional revenge? (Harris says about All Visitors Ashore: ‘Biographical details are hard to exclude from an assessment of what Stead is doing with the novel.’) How do you interpret Wilkins’ charges of ‘self-loathing’ in your novels?
KS: Revenge for what, against whom? Wilkins? I didn’t mind his review at all. It was so much more interesting than most. I didn’t think the ‘surfeit of lucidity’ suggested lack of depth. I thought it suggested lack of mystery – ie that, however ‘deep’, all was made clear – and sometimes too clear too soon, so the fiction did not force you to work hard, and you could glide through it effortlessly. Also that I’m slightly bored by the necessary mechanics of fiction.
Wilkins doesn’t accuse me of ‘self loathing’ but my novels (or rather the one he was reviewing) of loathing itself for not being a poem. I don’t mind that. It’s an interesting idea, though it would not be difficult to mount a strong critical rebuttal. A.S. Byatt says I write a poet’s novels which probably means much the same thing.
Certainly I have no ambition to write the kind of George Eliot-ish fiction she writes (though admire it and enjoy reading it). Frank Kermode says in an LRB review ‘The end of the century at the end of the world is an interesting novel, not only because of the skill and honesty of its half-open half-closed structure, but because it is well-written enough to remind one that Stead is a poet. This is apparent not only in momentary flashing phrases but much evidence that he has what poets need if they are to be novelists, the ability to ‘do’ New Zealanders, or whatever community is selected, in different voices. If the book can also offer some laconic, possibly apocalyptic opacity, so much the better.’
I think this review in part answers Wilkins’ objections (if that’s what they are). These reviews, Wilkins’ no less than Kermode’s, seem to me ways of defining, or describing, rather than condemning, my fiction.
MB: If you had been allowed by the Czar of the Arts to write only one thing, namely poetry, novels or criticism, which would you have chosen?
KS: Probably whatever the Czar least wanted from me.
MB: You have said, in Landfall, ‘I would say since [about 13] poetry has really been the centre of my intellectual life.’ Can you explain what you mean by poetry being ‘my second-best art’ in the poem ‘Crossing the bar’? Eugenio Montale said the poem was ‘a dream in the presence of reason’. What is a poem for you?
KS: In ‘Crossing the bar’, high jumping represents life, and living is one’s ‘first art’. Literature serves life but is not life itself – so poetry is ‘my second best art’. ‘Only the whole man / Jumps his own height.’ In that sense poetry has been the centre of my intellectual life – and not just my own poems, but poetry by others, including the history of poetry in the English language.
MB: How have you changed as a poet? What sorts of changes did you make to your early poems for the Collected? What are you obsessed about now that you weren’t then? How have your topics and classical touchpoints changed? Does your late line soften?
KS: I used to be much more dependent on ‘the Muse’, ‘inspiration’ – in other words, on elements from within or outside myself which were not in my control. Since my fifties I’ve been much more able to put myself deliberately into what I think of as ‘poetry mode’. I’ve been less interested in the idea of poetic movements and fashions, more self-governing. I think one has a certain brilliance in youth which is lost, but is replaced by other qualities almost equally important and valuable – wisdom, experience, cunning, knowledge, stamina. Youthful brilliance at its best short circuits them all of course, but it’s short of breath, short-sighted, and tends to be short-lived. But at its best it can’t be beaten. In putting together my I didn’t allow myself (with just one exception) to significantly revise my earlier poems. I think that’s a mistake Yeats and Auden make – of trying to make rough youthful poems smooth older poems – which is replacing the authentic rough with the inauthentic smooth.
MB: Which poets do you go back to again and again? Which have most influenced you? Which poem(s) of anyone do you most wish you had written?
KS: Donne, Yeats (but critically), Pound (at widely spaced intervals, and always with mixed feelings), Shakespeare, Curnow, Baxter (picking among the debris), Eliot, Auden, Larkin, Raine, Muldoon, Paulin, Reading, Whitman … But this is pointless. I read poetry often – I have masses of it at hand, and read it constantly. Preferences keep shifting. All are important to me, though for a great variety of reasons.
MB: You’ve played with form, but seem not to have been tempted by surreal or outrageous style. I was thinking there were no prose poems in the Collected but there’s one in Derrida: ‘My contemporaries across the ditch’. A particular aversion or does the poem dictate the form? How do you compose a poem? Longhand? From notes? Over a period of time typically? Who is your ideal reader?
KS: One does what is a natural expression of one’s temperament. I guess there’s a bit of the surrealist in everyone, but in me the realist predominates.
‘My contemporaries across the ditch’ is almost verse – the blocks are shaped to appear matching; they are stanzas in effect, one for each person discussed – so somewhat formal. But yes, essentially prose. I guess I think poems need form – that’s what makes them poems, even though the ‘subject’, the occasion, the whatever it is that triggers it, is what determines the form, ie the poem very often discovers the form as it goes, but it doesn’t (for me) discover no form at all.
I always write poems first in long-hand and try not to type them too early in the process. On the other hand, prose for me is composed straight on to the computer.
My ideal reader is an intelligent person sensitive to language who reads a lot and so is experienced in whatever it is that’s being read. If poetry, then they should have read a lot of poetry. Fiction likewise.
MB: You say (in the Foreword to Collected Poems) that: ‘poetry is … more closely related to music than to anything else’. Fleur Adcock has written two librettos (for NZ composer Gillian Whitehead), Vincent O’Sullivan has done several works with NZ composer Ross Harris. Kevin Ireland has written a couple. You are musical – were you ever tempted? Or by plays, done by your contemporaries Maurice Shadbolt (Once on Chunuk Bair), O’Sullivan and James McNeish?
KS: I’ve always intended to write a play, and in fact as a student did a modern version in verse of Racine’s Andromaque. I’m sorry I haven’t done more because I enjoy writing dialogue. I wrote a screenplay for my novel Villa Vittoria when Roger Donaldson wanted to make it as a movie, but money was lacking and the project didn’t go forward. It was a good script – Roger liked it. And I did one for The Death of the Body.
I was asked once to write a libretto for an opera by Robin Maconie and feel very guilty that too much else intervened and I did nothing. I let him down. But my talent for music is present I hope in my sense of the music of poetry.
MB: When you were Poet Laureate you wrote that there may be too many poets and not enough readers of poetry. Do you agree with Vincent O’Sullivan, that maybe there should be Poets Anonymous, who will send someone around with a couple of bottles of wine till the urge to write poetry goes away?
KS: It’s a good joke, but of course poetry belongs to the human condition, as language does, and cannot be stopped. There will always be people writing it, most of them doing it very badly – but the appetite is there as long as language is there. It’s an attempt to reach into the language box and make it work for us, say things we feel must be said, speak beautifully or tersely, or brilliantly; invoke the gods and penetrate the mysteries of love and death.
But what the uneducated amateur doesn’t know, or can’t act upon, is that it’s an art, and thus a discipline, which means it has a history. The poets who matter make themselves aware of that history; they learn it, and ultimately become part of it. I’ve always said – You can’t do it on your own. You must put yourself into the stream to be part of it. Those early youthful brilliant poems (Keats died at 26) don’t come out of nothing. They are the moments when the young poet touches briefly the live wire of the tradition, and is made electric. The truly talented are conductors. They can make the electrical connection. Creative writing classes can’t do it for you. But once it has happened, then the work of lifetime begins.
MB: Do you feel your humour is underplayed by critics – in your novels and in poems like ‘The Advance of English – Lang and Lit?’
KS: It’s often overlooked, or not mentioned. But wit, which is humour with an intellectual edge, is part of the great poetic tradition. It’s also part of my temperament. I’ve made the point somewhere that the ability to be born, procreate and die we share with the animals. We are the only creatures that can laugh.
MB: You have said (to Matthew Harris for his PhD thesis) that autobiography and fiction are closer than most people admit. Jonathan Franzen wrote: ‘The most purely autobiographical fiction requires pure invention. Nobody ever wrote a more autobiographical story than The Metamorphosis.’ And in the foreword to South-West of Eden you say that ‘… I did not want to mark off areas that were fact in my life from those that might yet be invented. Fiction likes to move, disguised and without a passport, back and forth across that border, and prefers it should be unmarked and without check-points.’ I once asked the married Geoff Dyer about apparent longing and desire for others in what seemed to be essays – he said he knew exactly where the fictional line was drawn. You have poems like ‘Amsterdam: The movie’ (in That Derrida Whom I Derided Died), a seemingly autobiographical account of desire in Regensburg. That border remains open?
KS: Poems in the first person like ‘Amsterdam: The Movie’ appear to be autobiographical usually because they are. But with fiction the border between what really happened and what is invented is always open, and if the writer doesn’t put it on record, there’s no way of knowing when and where it is crossed. In All Visitors Ashore, for example, it’s usually assumed, and not without reason, that Melior Fabro is drawn partly from Frank Sargeson, and Cecelia Skyways partly from Janet Frame. Curl Skidmore is partly drawn from CKS – and people who knew the times and places I was writing about saw Nathan and Felice Stockman as versions of Felix and Hazel Miller (violinist and singer).
It contains an entirely invented, very juicy, and I think comic, sex scene (which, incidentally, shocked and embarrassed my mother-in-law). Years after the novel was published an elderly Hazel Miller rang me. She had read the novel and loved it – went on at great length about how vivid it was and how moving. I thanked her and said it was a novel people mostly do like. Hazel said, ‘But Karl …’ Long pause. ‘…Did we really do that?’ I thought if she wasn’t sure she must have had a very lively private life; but I thought it might be disappointing if I told her that I was rather timid in those days and, though sorely tempted by what seemed a clear invitation into her bed, I had scuttled off up the drive – ie that that scene was invented. So I evaded the question. But who would know the truth except the author? – and even Hazel wasn’t sure.
MB: Anyone in the NZ literary world knows it can be quite vicious, though revenge is often exacted behind closed doors. Because your work appears to have many autobiographical elements you’ve been accused of revenge, and even admitted to giving the odd ‘stiletto in the front’.
You have explained the parallels of a Nigel Cox Quote Unquote piece in the 1990s and a character in your winning EFG Sunday Times short story ‘Last Season’s Man’ as ‘a connection everyone has made. But I can’t and won’t affirm that’ and that you ‘did not accept any moral responsibility for mistakes that other people make in reading my work’. VUP publisher Fergus Barrowman, one of Cox’s literary executors – Cox died of cancer in 2006 – said it was a piece of ‘cold- hearted triumphalism’. You have suggested critics are sore losers, as it won £25,000. Do you have any literary regrets? Given the occasional acknowledged ‘frontal stiletto’, would you accept that revenge is a dish served cold?
KS: First let’s be precise. In an interview, Adam Dudding said my poem about Lauris Edmond was ‘a stiletto in the back’. I interrupted and said it was a stiletto in the front – because a stab in the back suggests something sneaky and surreptitious, whereas the poem about Lauris is quite frank and up front. She was often less than honest – as the poem says,
good company, wordy and witty,
but when backs were to the wall and guns blazing
truth was a stranger.
When her autobiography was praised for its ‘honesty’ two of her children wrote to the paper saying she was not honest at all. But I quite liked her, and that gets into the poem – triggered by my passing Grass Street and finding the phrase ‘intolerable Lauris’ coming into my head – so perfectly euphonious, and catching my mixed feelings about her. This focus on stilettos and revenge is crude journalism. Literature is full of subtleties, and needs careful, intelligent reading.
About the story ‘Last Season’s Man’: Fergus Barrowman’s description of it suggests he hasn’t really read it. Mario’s relations with the Virgin are comic; and the ending is wise, even-handed, generous – has no feel of revenge about it at all.
Explaining ‘where a fiction comes from’, even if it were possible to do that, is not the same as analysing what it means. As I’ve said more than once, just as there are people in New Zealand who think this story must be based on my relations with Nigel Cox, so there are people in the theatre world of Croatia who believe they know who it is based on there! Fortunately the distinguished panel of judges in London had no such distractions. They read it as fiction, which is what it is, and awarded it the world’s largest prize for the short story.
So regrets about this? No – none at all. Just impatience at idiocy and irrelevance.
MB: You ‘cruelly satirised’ Janet Frame as Cecilia Skyways in All Visitors Ashore, said Cox in the magazine Quote Unquote, though he allowed that she claimed no foul and liked the novel (Her quote of ‘A masterpiece’ is on the cover of some editions). Does the fact that she didn’t mind so much ease any guilt, leave you unaffected, or perhaps make you wonder if the portrayal was tough enough? How have your feelings changed on such matters? Matthew Harris notes that she created an unflattering, careeristic character resembling you years before in The Reservoir (1963). Yet your poem to her (‘Takapuna’) contains warmth and admiration, and also regret for ill-chosen words.
KS: The idea that Janet is ‘cruelly satirised as Cecelia Skyways’ is total misrepresentation – truly extraordinary! She’s represented as beautiful (which she was not) and brilliant and inventive (which she was). The whole novel is made up of characters who are almost like kindly caricatures (Curl’s mother has a Katzenjammer German accent) – but all lovable. Readers also find it moving. Allen Curnow reported catching his wife Jeny moved to tears at the end – and that has not been in the least unusual. It’s such an amiable novel. No one so far as I know (except, if what you say is true, Nigel Cox) has seen it as an act of malice, or revenge.
Incidentally I proposed to Janet that we write this novel together, taking turn and turn about to write 20 pages. She agreed enthusiastically. But when I’d done the first 20 pages I went on to the second – and so on; so she never got her turn. Janet called it ‘a masterpiece of creative writing’, which seemed a way of saying it wasn’t to be taken as ‘what happened really’. By that time she was guilty about the malicious story she’d written during her darkest time in London, which seemed to be about Karl and Kay Stead. Sargeson was appalled – and felt she’d ‘had a go at him’ too in Daughter Buffalo.
She seemed puzzled by her own motives when challenged about these fictions. There must have been wells of burning resentment under the brilliance. But she probably hoped that these fictions too would be read as ‘masterpieces of creative writing’. She later of course wrote lovingly about us in An Angel at My Table, which she dedicated to Karl and Kay and to Frank.
MB: I didn’t find it cruel at all, though Cecelia does come across as bonkers. Clearly you still don’t mind having the odd swipe at people, it seems. In ‘2013 New Year cartoons’: Prince Harry’s ‘small royal brain’; and Hilary Mantel, ‘whose / body clearly wasn’t [designed by committee] / but whose novels / might have been’. You have suggested that if the work – poem or novel – is good, a scathing or brutally honest approach can be worth it. Is that the price of being an honest artist/writer? Can I ask what has been the response of your wife and family to your artistic honesty?
KS: These are cartoons. What does the cartoonist do? He exaggerates what he considers to be, and others recognise as, the foibles and failings of his subjects.
Kay has always been totally loyal and supportive. My children have given me great support too, though Charlotte rebuked me publicly, once, for something that contravened her idea of propriety. I didn’t agree but I didn’t argue. On the other hand, you should read the lovely piece she wrote about my inauguration as Laureate at the Matahiwi marae. But I shouldn’t speak for my family.
MB: In The Death of the Body philandering philosophy professor Harry Butler is assailed by his department’s Women’s Collective for his affairs. This, points out Harris, was around the same time as your fellow lecturer Mervyn Thompson ‘was kidnapped and tortured by masked women after unsubstantiated claims of rape and sexual harassment’. Did you ever fear you might be next on the list?
KS: The case of Mervyn Thompson has often been cited as connected with The Death of the Body. I had a lot of sympathy for Mervyn who was judged without trial by the theatre community and treated very badly. But in my mind there’s not much connection with my novel, except that it does represent something of the atmosphere of the time – a curious mix of sexual liberalism (the professor’s relations with a post-graduate student are unabashed) and the sexual Puritanism that was beginning and became dominant as the AIDS scare developed. I suppose it could be seen as the period of transition from the sunshine of ‘the Sixties’ to the shadow of ‘the Eighties’. No, I never had any reason to fear that I might be next on the list. In a way Mervyn brought the whole thing on himself by keeping company with some really tough radical feminists. He wanted to be their friend, ally and supporter and of course they turned on him as a male.
The Professor of Philosophy in Auckland by the time I was writing the novel was a very proper Swede, Krister Segerberg, but I probably had in mind the one who preceded him from 1964 to 1970, Ray Bradley, militant atheist, driver of fast cars, and champion skier. Ray told me he saw a good deal of himself in the character of Harry Butler and seemed to be quite flattered. Michael Gifkins, reviewing it in the Listener, complained that university professors did not drive Porsches, but Ray did.
MB: You left university life in 1986. What do you make of university life now? Could you survive and thrive in the identity politics/#metoo/trigger warnings/microaggressions era?
KS: I very much dislike the current flavour of the university which seems given over to calculating the profits to be earned by the number of students enrolled. This in turn discourages rigorous academic standards. Also the managers, who used to be minor functionaries, now seem senior in status to the academics, and make many important decisions which should not be their business. At the age of 86 that world is alien to me. Of course if I had been born into it I would have coped with it and made my way through it, as young people have to do now. Every ‘world’ has its imperfections. The young learn to cope with it (or fail trying) and the old grow beyond it and look back with horror.
MB: You’re a scholar of a number of writers, including Ezra Pound, who held fascist and anti-Semitic views. Do you have a view on separating the work from the thoughts and deeds of flawed artists?
KS: This is a subject I’ve written a lot about, especially in the case of Pound, who is a serious challenge – but my other two ‘specialities’, Yeats and Eliot, are not a lot better. It’s very important first to acknowledge what one deplores about a poet like Pound. I have an ongoing dispute with Craig Raine (otherwise we are friends) about Eliot, whom Raine won’t concede was anti-Semitic.
There’s no dispute with anyone about how deplorable Pound was – he supported Mussolini and made anti-Semitic and pro-Fascist broadcasts from Radio Roma during the War. He was also a Social Credit freak. But once that is acknowledged there is still gold to be found in Pound’s work. He’s a poet of genius, but spasmodic and desperately flawed – a fascinating challenge for that reason.
MB: You protested Vietnam and were thrown in a cell during the Springbok tour (and wrote poems about this and Bastion Point and the Rainbow Warrior, and novels that include the 1951 waterfront dispute – All Visitors Ashore – and totalitarian governments – Smith’s Dream). How liberal do you consider yourself in this era of the rise of identity politics and the populist far-right? Do you still feel clear in your criticism and poetry and life about political friends and foes?
KS: Politically I’m still what I have always been, a supporter of the Left, a Labour voter – but that’s an allegiance that throws up challenges from time to time – Roger Douglas, for example, or Tony Blair. At present we need prison reform and it’s clear Labour is held up by the populist Winston – but without Winston they wouldn’t be in government, so they have to proceed pragmatically. We also need higher wages and lower salaries to CEOs and their type. And maybe it’s time to ask whether medical specialists and dental surgeons and top lawyers should be able to earn millions – ie whether the tax system needs to be reformed. I still prefer the old Welfare State, but how do we get back to it after the dismantling and privatisations of the past 50 years? I have faith in Jacinda, Grant Robertson, David Parker, Andrew Little and the team. One would love a more radical programme, but for the moment democracy says no to that, alas.
If by ‘identity politics’ you mean letting your own identity (as woman, gay, trans, Catholic, Protestant, gun-enthusiast) determine who I support politically – no I’m not affected by that at all. I think the political issues that matter most are broad and should affect everyone, whatever their ‘identity’ in that narrower sense.
MB: ‘A flash in the pan’ (in Derrida) begins ‘The occasionally / mad writer’ and is a recognisable figure. The poem concerns life and legacy, his concern that he had 10 years only to achieve something brilliant, but also is returning serve on a bad review he gave your Collected, saying all your books had failed since your first. It does seem to leave the possibility hanging, as if the voice is considering it, yes? Do you recognise the need among some writers, probably a few poets, to move on quickly, to be focused on the next book?
KS: I’m not sure I understand this question. I don’t think I’m anxious to move on to the next book because I think there’s something wrong with the previous one. If I feel there’s something wrong I don’t want to move on – I want to fix it. But probably you mean something else?
MB: In Derrida there’s ‘The angels of science and compassion’, in which an older patient has unspoken thoughts about his female doctor. Not your present GP, you say in the notes. What do you make of Craig Raine’s 2015 poem ‘Gatwick’, which ‘is a fantasy about a young official at passport control’, says the Guardian, and which spawned a Twitter storm and mocking parodies? ‘She is maybe 22 / like a snake in a zoo,’ … ‘I want / to give her a kiss / But I can’t… I want to say I like your big bust. Which you try to disguise with a scarf.’… ‘I can say these things, I say, because I’m a poet and getting old. / But of course, I can’t / and I won’t. I’ll be silent. / Nothing said, but thought and told.’
KS: I caught a whiff of the fuss about Raine’s poem and I’m sure the Twitter storm must have been full of silliness. But I didn’t much like his poem and don’t think it’s much like mine about the rectal examination for prostate. Mine is more comic than his and has a lighter touch. I suppose it’s like his in that both are about not doing or saying what you may not do or say. But I thought his lines about the mother were needless and gross.
MB: Quite apart from their other virtues, your novels have zip. You have said, ‘In writing fiction I’m certain only of two things – that I want to keep the story moving, and that I want to generalise a society’; Professor Mac Jackson has said, ‘Stead is a master at maintaining the reader’s curiosity in ‘what happens next’ ‘; and in The Necessary Angel you write (in the context of Martin Amis): ‘The big question was always the same: What happens next? And how does it end?’ How do you do it, and why?
KS: Telling stories is a skill some people have and some don’t. Listen to an anecdote around the dinner table and you know at once whether the teller has that required basic skill or not. It’s not enough alone to make a novelist – and some writers who gain considerable reputations as fiction writers don’t have it. Norman Mailer has it in spades; I’m not sure that James Joyce does. Henry James is a natural storyteller even though his prose can be an undergrowth you have to fight your way through. Critics have puzzled over the success of Wordsworth’s The Lyrical Ballads, when they are such banal rhymes. But you read on because each is a human story, cleverly told, with the information released in the right order and the punch-line withheld until the end.
Why does one do it? Because it’s such a fundamental human activity, it brings satisfaction, and I suppose even a sense of power. You tell and they listen.
MB: Did you ever suffer what James Wood calls ‘the ordeal of choice’ – the fact that the author of a novel can do anything and is thus agonised by all the possible paths?
KS: No, I don’t remember being afflicted by this problem of excess of possibilities – maybe because I’m not all that inventive; but I think more because I’m temperamentally a realist, and so many things that present themselves as possible directions a human situation might take, when explored imaginatively, seem unlikely – difficult to make plausible. Plausibility is a major test for me, both as reader and as writer. I wonder whether Wood (an excellent critic) writes novels. [MB: He does.] I don’t think I would be likely to admire a novel by a writer who thought there were just so many possibilities it was difficult to decide which to take. At any one moment in a typical human situation the viable possibilities are few – though a choice between two, equally attractive, is very common. Two is not a lot.
MB: What’s it like having a child who is a novelist, Charlotte Grimshaw? Do you read each other and/or offer feedback?
KS: A source of great pride, of course, and interest to see where her talent will take her next. I think it’s true to say that a few decades back I used to have three regular readers – Kay, Charlotte and Margaret. All three would read and comment on my fiction before it went to publisher. Now I have only one – Kay. Kay and I used to read Charlotte’s fiction before it was offered, but not in recent years – though Charlotte still often sends us reviews or articles before they’re offered. Of course we all comment on and discuss one another’s work after publication. On the whole we have a been a close literary family (Margaret is in publishing in London, and Oliver writes on art history subjects and is a curator at the Turnbull Library) with a lot of interchange of ideas and opinions – but less so now our children are middle aged and Kay and I are almost beyond our use-by date.
MB: You had a stroke in 2005 – ‘how i love the world / and will be sad / to see it go’ (from ‘S-T-R-O-K-E’). How how does a thought like that gel with your saying you have no fear of death. Did your style or focus or attitude to life change after the stroke?
KS: I’m more than 10 years older now, and feel I have reached, or am very close to reaching, my ‘use by’ date. I don’t want to hang around losing cognitive and physical function just for the sake of staying alive.
MB: To return to the duality, you do share some similarity with Michael Frayn (‘Really’ in Derrida): ‘ ‘Mr Stead, I do admire your novels,’ / or even, ‘Karl, you cock’ … No – / we’re worlds apart really. Let’s keep it so.’ It’s flattering to be taken for someone else famous, but also suggests at heart you have no desire to be confused with anyone else?
KS: This is not something I feel strongly about, either way. The likeness, and being mistaken for Frayn, is just an amusing fact, serving an (I hope) amusing poem. The story about the Hay-on-Wye conversation and Frayn’s reaction is entirely truthful.
MB: You asked about this Q&A: ‘What will happen to it? Where does it go?’ You are working on a sequel to South-West, but it will only reach 1986, when you left university. Surely there will be a full biography. How much do you care about your legacy?
KS: I suppose there might be a biography, but/and unfortunately/fortunately I won’t be around to read it.
Mark Broatch is an author, a journalist, a writer of fiction and poetry who has been the recipient of Buddle Findlay Sargeson and Michael King Writers Centre fellowships, and a stay-at-home father to a preschooler who gets the rest of his undivided attention. His fourth book, Word to the Wise, a guide to misused and misunderstood language, was published last year.