Tuesday, March 6, 2007

Frank Sargeson's "More Than Enough": Review

Frank Sargeson’s prose style is efficient, direct and self-effacing, and it is well-suited to the man. I have gleaned this from the second book in his autobiographical writings, which is called “More Then Enough”, was written between 1971 and 1973, and chronicles his life and work from the early 30s to the 1970s (or thereabouts), during which time he worked and lived primarily at his borrowed bach on the Auckland’s North Shore. Having approached this book after a sustained bout of Dickens reading, I was particularly struck by the plainness of Sargeson’s style. He tends to avoid punctuation, sometimes in a manner that would invite disapproval from English teachers, and as well as being long his sentences are swift and unmannered, like this one:

It is perhaps remarkable that despite the stream of rejection slips I became accustomed to, and despite my applying a rigorous self-scrutiny to every page of the stories I wrote and finding all of them without any exception falling short of the standards I had set for myself, I never over at least four years doubted that if I would if I persisted at last succeed in writing something which would be clearly marked by a quality special to myself.

If Dickens were to express the same information in a single sentence, it would probably run something more like this:

It is perhaps remarkable, that despite the stream of rejection slips I had become accustomed to; and despite my applying a rigorous self-scrutiny to every page of the stories I wrote; and despite finding that all of those pages, without any exception, fell short of the standards I set myself: I never at once doubted, over at least four years, that if I persisted I would at last succeed in writing something, which would be clearly marked by a quality that was special to myself.

To say that Sargeson’s writing is swift and unmannered is not to say, of course, that it is careless and crude. I imagine that it is pretty hard to find a writing style that allows one to write a hundred and fifty pages of narrative prose without boring or irritating the reader: it would need, for a start, to be even without being monotonous, and varied without being erratic. And to my admittedly untrained ear, it looks as if Sargeson’s style achieves both of those goals while at the same time causing the reader to concentrate rather on the things that he writes than the way in which he writes them. His rhythm, like other distinctive rhythms, is such that after spending a reasonable amount of time in its company the reader starts to discover that rhythm in other writing she reads, whether it be in letters to the editor or other novels: it is as if the reading faculty has been so clearly impressed by this particular mood and pace and style that the imprint has struck down into a deeper tissue than usual, and so that mood and pace and style is still present and active when one goes and reads something else, in a kind of literary after-image. And so in that sense it is a striking style of writing; but for some reason this does not make it an intrusive style. Rather the reverse is true: something in the swiftness of Sargeson’s prose means that he is able to convey a lot of matter clearly and directly and without any interference from the manner of its presentation. At one point Sargeson hints that this directness was an ideal to which he consciously aimed. He writes about one particular afternoon that is very heavily impressed on his memory, for the reason that it brought him a kind of epiphany of style, a discovery that one particular style, which appeared seemingly by accident in a prose piece he was writing that afternoon, was the one for him:

For the time being I was done with elaboration and complexity, with involved and decorated prose which I had hoped would express what I had to say, and by its very complication prove to the reader that what I had to say was valuable. What especially delighted me was that despite the simplicity of my sentences, they could in a page-long sketch achieve an unexpected totality not to be compared with the meagre sum of parts. I remember exactly my day of discovery, a Saturday afternoon when, with speed and sureness never before known to me I wrote the five hundred or so words required for ‘Conversation with my Uncle.’ (51)
Of course it was not quite as easy and immediate as all that. It looks as if Sargeson continued to ask and answer questions about the proper style to adopt well into his writing career, as I suppose most writers do, and it seems like it was a long time before this perfectionist settled upon a style that he could comfortably regard, if not as perfect, at least as satisfactory.

Was language merely the tool the novelist worked with, or was it part of the raw material of life he worked upon? Or was it a complex and difficult combination of both? If language was only a tool then the less attention it attracted to itself the better, and all fine writing and delight in words for their own sake had better be done without. But things of that kind might very well be permitted if language was part of the raw material…And there was no end to the number of questions, all so difficult and complicated I felt I must collapse under their burden. (94)

And other, more specific questions were also in need of answers, one related to the questions about place and identity that Sargeson (as anyone, I am sure) was interested in, and which I want to write about later on: “It made me uncomfortable to remember that I had myself aimed at a kind of Galsworthian prose style. [Does anyone know Galsworth?] So the question became inevitable: whether their might not be an appropriate language to deal with the material of New Zealand life?” (93)

The style that Sargeson finally settled upon (at least as it appears in this book) is distinctive not only for the structure of his sentences; and perhaps his unerring directness might be more easily traced to his language rather than his syntax. Sargeson repeatedly mentions his great admiration for poets, and his even greater admiration for Poets, and considers that, in light of the relative lack of renown enjoyed by this fine species, it might be a good idea if prose writers put more poetry into their writing, so that society in general was properly imbued with their subtle and fragrant art. If he takes up is own advice, however, he does so with enough subtlety that it is hard to find passages that are poetic in any obvious way. His diction is spare, as his use of the more recognisable poetic devices. As far as I can tell this is not, however, a fault, and the absence of any “delight in words for the sake of it”, or metaphor for the sake of it, means both that the “raw material” of his writing comes more directly to the reader, and that the poetic passages are more striking and effective when they do arrive. On the seventeenth page of the book he writes about his response to the news that he most probably should leave his uncle’s farm, saying that he “experienced a kind of shattering.” The figure would be innocuous and uninteresting if it were not that the previous seventeen pages had been written without aid from such devices: his discipline generates a poetry of its own.

The discipline of the prose has its counterpart in the discipline of the man, who had not only to bear the trials that face anyone who wishes to write fiction books prolifically and well, but also the various extra hardships that face an ill person who wished to pursue that vocation in New Zealand in the middle decades of the twentieth century. Only a person who has made a sustained attempt to write good novels will know what are the difficulties involved in such a task, but Sargeson does well to convey them to the normal reader.

This is the true core and essence of the matter: nothing on the paper to begin with, and within a couple of hours, or three or four…there must be words made into sentences, everything scrawled, corrected, deleted, interlined, word kites flying in the margins; yet all with life breathed in, with the heat of energy manifest as wit and humour, pain and tragedy, comedy and laughter, maybe just plain narrative line – all hanging together, fitted to the pattern of what has already appeared upon a hundred pages of two hundred yesterdays, and will appear upon another hundred of many more tomorrows. (77)

…but I knew well that the sort of writing I was attempting could be achieved only by the exercise of a rigorous discipline; that there must be the daily facing up to a blank sheet of paper, on which after so many hours there would be words and sentences – which any intelligent person of good-will might find interesting to read. (31)

Writing too was a mighty consumer of energy, besides a task one often went to with reluctance-not solely on account of its difficulty, but because every problem had to be wrestled with in solitude. (22)

To keep all of this up day after day required not only a great love for literature and a strong hope of eventually succeeding artistically and perhaps also critically, but also a great resolve. Even Sargeson, successful though he eventually became, had times when his interest in writing and his self-belief became frayed, and needed either outside help or mulish resolve to stop them from falling apart altogether. He was told at one point by Denis Glover (New Zealand poet, printer and soldier) that he and his writing were “pre-war”, and that accordingly he should forget about ever getting anything decent published (113); he was, as any writer must be, dismayed and overawed by the genius of past artists (95), and despaired of ever achieving what they had; his work was frequently rejected by his London publishers. And Sargeson’s need to work hard was heightened, at least in his own eyes, by his perceived lack of any great natural talent. He affirms quite blandly and openly that he really was not overly gifted at all, and hence that “everything over many years had to be learned.” And learning meant forcing oneself to learn, especially when disillusion or hardship made learning an unnatural process: at such times “there could be no room for excuses, for any elasticity of discipline, and even a touch of brutality might well be an advantage.” (131) Success requires hard work: somehow I think that has been said before, but it is worth repeating, and Sargesons’ case is interesting not only for the resistance he received from his human limitations (however large they really were), but from the environment in which he lived.

Sargeson’s environment was New Zealand in the middle years of the twentieth century. His relationship with this environment is complex and interesting, and the various shades and changes of that relationship may be regarded as one of the main themes of the book, as I expect they are a theme of Sargeson’s fiction. At its best, Sargeson’s connection with the New Zealand of his time is deep and innate, an aspect of the relationship that is clearest in his devotion to his uncle and his work on a farm somewhere in New Zealand (I don’t think a place-name is given). He writes feelingly about life on the land:

…it was a profound satisfaction to be exhausted at the end of a long day: the work had been its own sufficient reward, and I am sure it was the same with my uncle quite regardless of repetition year after year. Nothing, I told myself, could be more attractive than full stretch of wits and body followed by rest renewal repetition – in other words the prolongation of human life from day to day at a level which kept one right in touch with the commonest elements of human history and experiences. (14)

He writes just as feelingly of his uncle, who like Sargeson lives a life devoted to doing the kind of work in which “every problem encountered had to be wrestled with in solitude” (22), and who was to Sargeson a man of such fine quality that he (Sargeson) hesitated to represent him in fiction, afraid that his art could not do justice to the original.

Unfortunately, and despite this love for the land and for some of the people on it, Sargeson discovered many fellow citizens who were much more likely to fail in doing justice to Sargeson’s art, rather than the other way around. This is not to say that the locals were hostile or indifferent to Sargeson’s particular kind of literature, and that Sargeson resented their criticism; rather, that they were either hostile or indifferent to any kind of literature at all. He is not infrequently nagged by his parents to go and do something useful (law, for example, in which Sargeosn had a qualification and professional experience), instead of “wasting his time” with his literary work. He fields many suggestions, sometimes explicit and sometimes not, sometimes amiable and sometimes not, that his literary work is not really work at all, but a rather frivolous kind of holiday. He is very grateful for the company of Rex Fairburn, partly because the poet and lobbyist was a genuinely witty and learned person, and he gave “conversation which could be as fruitful as it was various as it was always possible”; but also because this intellectual vitality was, in Sargeson’s experience, “a rare kind of thing to encounter in my own country.” (49) When the German poet and scholar Karl Wolfskehl (I do not know this person) arrived in New Zealand, venerable in body and mind, and apparently named by Thomas Mann as “the last European man” (105), Sargeson often found cause to feel pained and embarrassed by how the Auckland response to his presence compared so unflatteringly to the response, say, of Venice; and at such times he “blushed for my country and its inhabitants.” (107) Even Rex Fairburn sometimes dismays Sargeson by setting his clumsy antipodean boot among the subtleties of European cultural life. And, overcome by his “momentous literary discovery” on that unforgettable Saturday afternoon, Sargeson did not expect that the significance of the event would be appreciated by his living companion, a “moderately literate” former sailor who responds to Sargesons’ excitement (“I had just discovered a new way of writing”) by clearing his throat and rustling his paper and doing not much else: and Sargeson writes resignedly that this man was “as good an index as any to the public reception I must expect from the environment I inhabited.” (51) Sargeson’s position is mirrored in that of another of his literary companions, Walter D’Arcy Cresswell; who, despite giving radio talks and readings that Sargeson describes as unsurpassed in New Zealand broadcasting, is deeply in debt with the green-grocer and is frequently in a state of uncertainty (more so than Sargeson) as to the source of his next meal. Meanwhile, Sargeson relies for the material for his weekly radio commentaries on snatches of broadcasts that he overhears while standing in shops or loitering in the evenings outside other people’s homes. (83)

So Sargeson found his own country a source of difficulty and doubt, especially when he compared its cultural achievements with those of England and Europe. But he also doubted his own capacities for the same reason. In the presence of Wolfskehl he is sometimes “weighed down by all that civilisation,” as he was when he walked the streets of England and the continent. For Sargeson, however, this awkwardness is as much an affirmation of his identity as it is a criticism, a reminder that he had in Europe “discovered myself to be truly a New Zealander, with my most truly spiritual place my uncle’s farm.” (111) It is worth looking at two more instances in the book in which Sargeson shows himself to be “truly a New Zealander,” before this essay comes to its belated conclusion: firstly, his garden; next, a man called Harry. These are interesting for their New-Zealandness, but also for other reasons.

For a long time Sargeson’s garden is for him not only a healthy-minded pastime but also one of his primary sources of physical nourishment. Wolfskehl regards this as a mark of his nationality: not only is this fellow able to write books, but he can also “grow his cabbage with his own hand.” (109) Sargeson’s garden is one of the more reticent characters in the book, but it is also one of the most important. As mentioned, it is a continuation of the earthy labour that he carried out at his uncle’s farm. And, as a very time-consuming task that is necessitated partly by his lack of money, it is a symbol of the lowly status in their own society of literary people, and the extra discipline that was required to sustain a writer’s life. But it is representative of the writing process itself, and although Sargeson does not make explicit the resemblance between his writing and his gardening (his style is too spare), the two activities make good companions. They both require some sort of raw matter before their important products can spring into growth. One of the things that I find astounding about anyone who writes fiction prolifically, is where they get their ideas from. To be sure, their material is the thoughts and doings of human beings, and those thoughts and doings are all around us; but one needs so many thoughts and doings to fill up a novel, and many more to fill up a life of novels, and surely such an abundance of output makes the amount of readily available input seem small and inadequate to the task. By way of comparison, arguments are all around us in the same way that thoughts and doings are: but how much more argumentation one must need, how much raw material one must have to collect, before one can write a book on philosophy, and how much more to fill up a lifetime of philosophising. Sargeson’s case is especially interesting, because he seems to have lived in such an isolated manner, detached from the thoughts and doings that he would seem to need in order to form a good base for literature. At times he had qualms about this sort of thing: he reports at one point becoming distressed by the “monstrous” need to question himself about “what exactly was this material of life.” (94)

Most of the time, however, Sargeson seems to have been quite well equipped with this raw stuff, the compost of literature, and perhaps he gained possession of it in much the same way he gained possession of the dead leaves, vegetable waste and manure (left by the horses and carts on his street) that he used as a base for his garden, a necessary grounding and a useful stimulant for the rich and varied produce that, like writing, comes forth in its best and fullest form only after years and years of “arduous and exacting compost-making.” (70) And, as with his compost, so with his writing: the trick, if you want to get enough raw stuff to spawn a novel or a garden, is to pick up the stuff that other people ignore or dislike or miss through the lack of effort. Sargeson loitered out on the road in the hope of some passing horse-shit much as he loitered outside other people’s houses so that (as well as getting his weekly radio broadcasts) he could gather up the manners and habits and phrases and symbols which those people let drop without knowing, and which they would not want to know about even if they could. A collector of other people’s waste does not look like a very salubrious individual: there is something eccentric and anti-social about collecting other people’s horse-shit, and there is the same unhealthy look about someone who makes living out of collecting other people’s habits and vices. But the other trick, to writing as to gardening, is to discover what is rich and healthy and pungent in the dropped waste of others, and to let those virtues feed a growth that will in the end be more palatable and enriching to the people who would not have the mind or the time to discover the same qualities in the original matter: and so Sargeson takes a conversation with an uncle and turns it into a symbol or a lesson, a parable of some kind; and so also writes about the “conforming people” who were “more or less the rule in my environment,” but does so in such a way as to bring forth what is healthy about their way of life, to “show them in their common humanity despite their occupational and household trappings.” (132)

One who benefits from Sargeson’s diligent collection and application of manure, is a man called Harry. Harry has a great fondness for horses, but he has through an underhand manoeuvre from the authorities been banned from the racecourse, and is left to find other work for himself where he can. He lives at Sargeson’s bach for a good thirty years, impressing the writer with a devotion to reading the racing pages that is as steady and unflinching as Sargeson’s devotion to writing his pages of fiction. Sargeson admires Harry for a number of reasons, but most relevant here is his affinity with horses, an affinity that recalls the close link between Sargeson’s uncle and his farm. He writes:

When however I for the first time saw him on the horse, my revision of all previous notions about possible relationships between human beings and horseflesh was instant. I think I reacted much as the American Indians are said to have when they first saw a mounted Spaniard, and supposed that man and beast were blended into a non-divisible entity never before known to him. (66)

Harry’s horse dies, unfortunately, and because of the horseman’s reticence Sargeson is left to imagine how things transpired, an activity that of course was, along with his discipline and his constant collecting of local detail, a vital part of his novel-writing process: a writer, like a gardener, has not only to collect more raw matter than the normal person, but also to work on that matter with a special skill and intensity, so that as much as possible of its natural richness is used to the advantage of its products, and Sargeson’s evocative gifts ensured that he drew as much life as he could out of the seeds he was given: “Great areas of his life and character remained inscrutable to me, but for that very reason he was constantly stimulating my imagination. (71)” And of course there was also his profound interest in the lives of human beings, his “insatiable curiosity about every manifestation of natural life which has never in a life-time deserted me.” (57)

Harry was not a deeply learned German poet, but Sargeson found him both personally attractive and imaginatively fertile; and perhaps this is a sign of his fondness for his own country, and his willingness to call it his own. Of his relationship with Harry Sargeson writes:

Never when I had found myself moved by sympathy and compassion for the universal individual universally caught in the universal fate had I become involved to the point of saturation: that is to say some part of myself remained detached, resting in a state of reticence and reserve. Now I was to know what it was to be totally committed to another person.

Perhaps More Than Enough can be regarded as the story of Sargeson developing a broader commitment of a similar kind, a commitment to his own country. If not, it may without injustice be regarded as the story of his growing commitment to writing; and in that story one can find an account of the universal writer universally caught in the universal fate. One can find his struggles with his work, not only in his search for the right style and the right material, but also in his occasional questioning of his very desire to spend his life writing a page of creative literature a day, and of his ability to succeed at such an undertaking. And in the hostility and indifference of many of the people around him one can find the struggles that occurred between his chosen work and his environment, an environment which he did not choose but which he came to an intimate relation with, in fiction and in life.