Daniel Marcus Davin was born in Invercargill on 1 September 1913, the second son and fourth child of Mary Magdalene Sullivan and her husband, Patrick Davin, a railway guard. His parents were working-class Irish Catholics, and Dan grew up immersed in their culture: its love of language, story-telling and song, its religious faith, family life and belief in hard work, its fondness for drink, wit and conviviality.
From 1914 the family lived in Gore, where his father was posted by New Zealand Railways. Here, at the age of four, though the family home had no books to speak of, he taught himself to read. In 1920 they returned to Invercargill. Davin attended the Marist brothers’ school, where his natural intelligence marked him out, and he plundered both the public and railwaymen’s libraries. Even so, most of what he took forward from childhood into adult life was connected with the countryside: his father’s garden, with its crops, animals and chores; the freedom of the fields and the bush; ferreting expeditions with his beloved dog. These experiences were later to yield some of his best short fiction.
He was too precociously intelligent for the Invercargill Marists, so in 1930 a place was found for him at Sacred Heart College in Auckland. Here he was in the same class as a number of talented boys, including Michael Joseph, and he was later to credit one of his teachers with giving him an ordered sense of literature. But he was homesick for Southland, and the freedom of its fields and skies (nostalgia played a significant part in his literary and emotional life), and the suppression of awakening adolescent desires was torture. To escape he immersed himself in work, and after only one year of sixth-form study won a national scholarship that took him to the University of Otago in 1931.
Davin took an arts degree in Classics, English, French and history, and taught himself German. He fell in love with Winifred Kathleen Joan Gonley, who helped shape what was still a raw intelligence, and he acquired a bewildering array of reputations, from aesthete to pub fighter. He became a slightly dangerous man to know: arrogant, moody, impetuous and difficult, in revolt against family, religion and society; but he was also loving, witty, generous and loyal. He completed a first-class honours degree in English in 1934, the year that he failed, through cheap scandal and worse gossip, to be awarded a Rhodes Scholarship. In 1935, when he gained a first-class honours degree in Latin, the injustice was rectified.
He took up his scholarship in October 1936 at Balliol College, Oxford, where he read Greats. While there he crystallised his ambition to be a writer, beginning work on his first novel and publishing (in New Zealand) a few of his best poems. He also made a lifelong friend of his contemporary, Gordon Craig, the American historian, and fell in love with Paris. Winnie Gonley joined him in Europe in the summer of 1937, and they travelled together in France, Italy, Germany and Ireland. They married in Oxford on 22 July 1939, just after he graduated, again with first-class honours. The couple were to have three daughters.
On the outbreak of war Davin joined the British Army and was assigned to the Royal Warwickshire Regiment. After training in Aldershot, he applied for a transfer to the Second New Zealand Expeditionary Force and took up his commission as a second lieutenant with the 23rd Battalion at Mytchett, Surrey, on 20 July 1940. War took him on a Mediterranean odyssey: to Greece in the spring of 1941, where he saw action on Mt Olympus, and then to Crete, where he was wounded in action and evacuated to Egypt.
After surgery and convalescence, he was seconded as an intelligence officer to the headquarters of the Eighth Army in Cairo, where he formed several of his closest friendships, notably with fellow New Zealanders Desmond (Paddy) Costello and Geoffrey Cox. His experiences at this time informed his war novel, For the rest of our lives (1947), and he wrote many of the pieces that were to form his first collection of short stories, The gorse blooms pale (1947). He also had a love affair with Elizabeth Berndt; an expatriate, stateless Dane of German origins, she bore him a daughter whom both he and Winnie later welcomed into their family. Further military intelligence posts followed, including service in the El Alamein and Cassino campaigns. He spent the last year of the war with the Control Commission for Germany in London, where he was reunited with his growing family.
Meanwhile, Winnie had found an English publisher for his first novel, Cliffs of fall (1945) – a dark tale of passionate Dunedin – and with this, and a number of stories in magazines, he became a figure in Fitzrovia, the centre of London’s bohemian society. In this milieu, with its connections to literary periodicals and the BBC, he forged friendships with many writers, artists and other personalities who scrambled for attention in the pubs and cafés of literary London, a world whose New Zealand inhabitants he resurrected in his novel The sullen bell (1956).
Davin, by then a major, resigned his commission as soon as the war in Europe ended; he had been mentioned in dispatches three times and was made an MBE (military division). He was recruited to Oxford University Press (OUP) by Kenneth Sisam, another New Zealander. This was to be his professional home for the next 33 years, in the course of which he rose to be academic publisher, a pre-eminent figure in international scholarly publishing. It was, however, only half a career for a man of energy and determination. In the 11 years to 1956 he published four novels, a volume of short stories, an introduction to English literature (begun by John Mulgan), and the brilliant Crete volume (1953) in the New Zealand official war history series.
The novel Roads from home (1949) – an evocation of Catholic provincial life in Southland – is generally thought to be Davin’s best long fiction, and was later republished in paperback (1976). Some of the short stories – notably the Connolly sequence, ‘The general and the nightingale’ and ‘In transit’ – are outstanding. At this time he also edited two collections of New Zealand short stories, and contributed countless items to journals, magazines, papers and BBC radio programmes.
At their house at 103 Southmoor Road, Oxford, Dan, Winnie and their lively daughters entertained close friends such as Enid Starkie and Joyce Cary, and many travelling New Zealand writers and scholars. Here, and later at their thatched cottage at Dorchester-on-Thame, they welcomed countless other visitors who shared the Davin taste for pubs, literature, scholarship and gossip. As obligations at OUP grew, and age slowed him, his literary output declined. He continued to write short stories, however, mainly for publication in Landfall , and he contributed numerous reviews to the Times Literary Supplement , introducing New Zealand literature to a wider international audience. In the late 1960s he composed a set of memoirs of friends, Closing times (1975), which may be his best book, though it is the only one that is unconnected with New Zealand.
During these years there were three more novels, No remittance (1959), Not here, not now (1970) and Brides of price (1972), and a second collection of short stories, Breathing spaces (1975). He also produced a steady output of literary criticism which combined insight and analysis with great humility, best illustrated in his 1976 lecture on Anthony Powell’s novel sequence, A dance to the music of time. Davin admired this work profoundly, and his reading of it is the key to his own sensibilities.
He retired from OUP in 1978, intending to devote himself to writing. In this he was largely thwarted by illness, and by a preference for companionship that displaced literary ambition. He was much sought after as an expert on aspects of the Second World War, as a reader of manuscripts for a new generation of young, mainly New Zealand writers, and as a source of shrewd and always generous advice both to his expanding family and to his many friends and acquaintances. His capacity for love and friendship was unrivalled. Though he characterised himself as an ‘intimate stranger’ to his country of birth, he remained a staunch and loyal New Zealander to the end of his life, and made a number of return visits. He was particularly delighted by the award of an honorary doctorate from Otago in 1984, and was appointed a CBE in the New Zealand list in 1987.
Dan Davin died at his home in Oxford on 28 September 1990; he was survived by Winnie and their three daughters. There are two bronze heads by Tony Stones (one in the Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington) and a number of pencil and crayon portraits by Laura Buxton. His collection of New Zealand books went to the University of Exeter and his papers to the Turnbull Library.