Norris Frank Davey, who would in adult life change his name to Frank Sargeson, was born in Hamilton on 23 March 1903, the second of four children. His father, Edwin John Davey, had taken over his father's general store after marrying Rachel Sargeson in 1897. In 1906 Edwin Davey sold his business to study accountancy and was the following year appointed Hamilton town clerk. He and his wife were stalwarts of the local Methodist congregation; according to his son, he was 'one of the town's worst wowsers in a town that was run by the wowsers'. Norris was subsequently to see his father's puritanism and work ethic and his mother's materialism and slavery to convention as a reflection of 'little Bethel' – the world of the Methodist chapel. And that expression came to represent for him all that was narrow and repressive in his upbringing.
Davey was educated at Hamilton West School and from 1917 to 1920 at Hamilton High School, where he excelled at cricket, hockey and debating and showed promise in English and history. From 1921 he worked in solicitors' offices by day and studied for his legal qualifications at night.
At Easter 1921 he went to stay with an uncle, Oakley Sargeson, on his sheepfarm at Ōkahukura in the King Country. Oakley, only 16 years older than Norris, was gentle, generous and non-judgemental. He quietly debunked the Daveys' religious beliefs, displayed an anarchic sense of humour, and worked to the rhythms of the seasons. For Norris, the farm became the spiritual centre of his life until the death of his uncle in 1948: 'a stationary point in time where one was released from all personal and social disorder, a point from which one could get a marvellously dispassionate view of one's affairs, besides those of human society.'
In mid 1925, after chequered examination results and a major argument with his mother, Davey moved to Auckland to board at the YMCA hostel. There he began a period of intensive study to qualify as a solicitor in 1926. He also attended concerts and plays in the city and read the classics of European literature in the Auckland Public Library. After practising as a solicitor in Auckland for less than a year, Davey discovered in himself 'a tremendous yen to get to the Old World [while] I was young and had the money…It was the music I couldn't hear, the theatre I couldn't see'. The money would come from the sale of a Hamilton section, given to him by his father when he turned 21. He bought a return ticket to England and sailed from Auckland late in February 1927.
In London Davey began a frenetic round of art galleries, museums, concert halls and theatres. He sought out relations in London, Sidmouth and Lincolnshire. In June 1927 he undertook a two-week hike through Devon, Cornwall and Somerset, then an eight-week walking and train tour in France, Switzerland and Italy. Davey would write subsequently about a homosexual encounter on this journey with an Italian stonemason. But it was not his first. In New Zealand he had been in love with a fellow Hamilton Bible class member. And in London he had had his first sexually consummated relationship, with an interior decorator 14 years his senior.
Back in London Davey moved to a room in Bloomsbury and began a five-month period of writing in the mornings (an account of his Continental tour and an attempted novel called 'Journal of a suicide') and reading in the British Museum Library in the afternoons (an 'all-out endeavour, to discover what religion, philosophy, science and the arts had made of human life'). Both ventures bogged down. He decided that the novel was 'dull and lifeless', and his reading programme served only to remind him of 'the intolerable weight of so much civilisation'; 'I knew that I was only indirectly a part of it all…for better or worse, and for life, I belonged to the new world'.
Back in New Zealand in March 1928 Davey failed to find work as a journalist or solicitor. Instead he was hired as an estates clerk by the Public Trust Office in Wellington. For the next 15 months he boarded in the capital, worked by day and wrote poetry and stories in the evenings and weekends. None of this writing was published. A series of homosexual encounters ended with Davey's arrest. He was given a two-year suspended sentence on the condition that he live with his uncle at Ōkahukura.
For 18 months from October 1929 Davey worked on Oakley Sargeson's farm. He continued to write fiction and poetry in the mornings and helped with farm chores in the afternoons. He refined his account of his European walking tour and succeeded in getting one instalment, 'In France, along the road', published in the New Zealand Herald in May 1930. His major project was the completion of a novel, 'Blind alleys', based on the life of a girl on whom he had had a crush at school. It was eventually turned down by a succession of London publishers.
In May 1931 Davey left the farm to live and write in the family bach in Esmonde Road, Takapuna. He was determined to produce work 'which would be marked by an individual flavour: there would be a certain quality which would be recognised as my own and nobody else's.' He registered as unemployed so as to be eligible for relief work and payments, and he began to grow fruit and vegetables on a large scale. He also befriended social derelicts, whom he referred to as the 'odds-and-ends kind of people I tend naturally to cherish and try to comfort'. One of these, Harry Doyle, a suspended horse trainer 10 years his senior, became his partner and a friend for life. Doyle came and went from Esmonde Road for more than 30 years and lived there from 1967 until 1971, the year he died.
Norris now called himself Frank Sargeson. This was partly a rejection of what he saw as the bourgeois values of his immediate family, partly a tribute to his uncle, and partly an attempt to conceal his criminal conviction of 1929. Although he had one story published in the Australian Woman's Mirror in 1933 and articles in the Auckland newspapers, he made what he called his 'first real beginning' in a 500-word fictional sketch published in Tomorrow on 24 July 1935. Called 'Conversation with my uncle', its style was influenced by the compressed prose of the American writer Sherwood Anderson, whose stories Sargeson had been reading. It also made use of the language and rhythms of everyday speech: what Sargeson had been seeking as 'an appropriate language to deal with the material of New Zealand life'.
Excited by his own judgement of the success of the story, Sargeson quickly wrote a dozen more in the same vein; Tomorrow had published nine by the end of 1935. In mid 1936 Bob Lowry's Unicorn Press printed Sargeson's first book, Conversation with my uncle, and other sketches. Sargeson now began to meet other New Zealand writers: D'Arcy Cresswell, A. R. D. Fairburn, Roderick Finlayson, Robin Hyde and Jane Mander in Auckland; Eric McCormick and Oliver Duff in Wellington; Denis Glover of the Caxton Press in Christchurch. He continued to write fiction and journalism and had had more than 40 stories published by 1940. That same year his 'The making of a New Zealander' won first-equal place in the story section of the centennial literary competitions; and Caxton published his second story collection, A man and his wife, which went into three printings in less than four years.
By this time, too, he was being published in journals in Sydney, London and the United States. In the 1940s further work appeared in John Lehmann's influential anthologies. The novella 'That summer' was published in Penguin New Writing (1943–44), and as a book in Paris in 1946. The fruits of Sargeson's wartime writing were also seen in the novella When the wind blows (1945), and in That summer, and other stories (1946). Sargeson had also edited a collection of stories by contemporary New Zealand writers, Speaking for ourselves (1945).
Throughout the war Sargeson was troubled by surgical tuberculosis, which protected him from conscription and qualified him for an invalid's benefit. He was cured when antibiotics became available in the late 1940s. He also met and corresponded with a new generation of writers, chiefly of fiction. He developed a close friendship by letter with the expatriate South African writer William Plomer. In the late 1940s, however, he had a major falling-out with A. R. D. Fairburn over the issues of homosexuality and state patronage of the arts.
In February 1946 he formally changed his name by deed poll to Frank Sargeson so that his father could transfer ownership of the Takapuna property to him. The following year the under-secretary of internal affairs, Joseph Heenan, converted his invalid's benefit into a literary pension of £4 a week, which continued until he was eligible for the old-age pension. This allowed him to raise money for a new bach, built in 1948. In 1949 a productive decade closed with the publication in London of Sargeson's first full-length novel, I saw in my dream.
Apart from one novella, I for one, finished in 1950 and published in 1956, Sargeson's major preoccupation in the 1950s and early 1960s was the writing and production of plays. The first, written in 1953–54, was a comedy, The cradle and the egg. Immediately afterwards he wrote A time for sowing, a drama based on the fall from grace of the nineteenth century Anglican missionary Thomas Kendall. They were produced in Auckland in 1961 and 1962. The effort of both productions exhausted Sargeson and critical reception of the plays was insufficiently enthusiastic to persuade him to continue working in this genre.
Meanwhile he had continued to collect protégés. Janet Frame had lived in an army hut on the Esmonde Road section in 1955 and 1956, where she wrote Owls do cry; and Sargeson had formed friendships with other young writers. In the late 1950s he wrote a long picaresque novel set largely in Auckland in the early years of the twentieth century, Memoirs of a peon, but failed to find a publisher for it.
The 1960s brought an extraordinary revival of Sargeson's career. This began with publication of his Collected stories, 1935–1963 in New Zealand (1964) and London (1965). His plays were published in 1964 under the single title Wrestling with the angel. Memoirs of a peon was published in 1965, the same year he won the Bank of New Zealand Katherine Mansfield Memorial Award for his new short story 'Just trespassing, thanks'. His short novel The hangover was published in London in 1967, followed in 1969 by Joy of the worm. This late florescence of fiction came to a close in 1972 with the publication of three more short novels in one volume, Man of England now.
Sargeson devoted much of the 1970s to the writing of three volumes of autobiography. Once is enough appeared in 1973; More than enough and Never enough! followed in 1975 and 1977. Sargeson also wrote his final works of fiction in this period: the short novel Sunset village, published in 1976, and the novella 'En route', which appeared in Wellington in 1979 as one half of the book Tandem.
Sargeson's daily walks around Takapuna had made him a familiar figure – stooped, bearded and bespectacled, wearing a beret and carrying a canvas haversack over his shoulder. By 1980 he was suffering from diabetes and congestive heart failure, and he had a mild stroke shortly before his 77th birthday. '[The] curtain comes down', he told a friend, 'and now I have the grim foretaste of how it comes down.' The onset of senile dementia and cancer of the prostate in 1981 added momentum to his physical and mental deterioration. He was admitted to the geriatric ward of North Shore Hospital in December 1981 and died there on 1 March 1982. His last book, Conversation in a train, a collection of his critical writings, was published in 1983.
Frank Sargeson's major achievement was to introduce the rhythms and idiom of everyday New Zealand speech to literature, although his technical sophistication makes even the short stories of the 1930s and 1940s much more than the mere transcription of reality for which they were sometimes mistaken. While his first stories were about the constricting effects of a puritan and materialistic society, many of his later writings celebrated the freedom of those who had escaped from it. His work also revealed a gradual shift from a colloquial and laconic manner to something closer to a more elaborate style in his later novels and memoirs. His early style influenced a generation of younger New Zealand writers.