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Joseph, Michael Kennedy

1914–1981

English lecturer, novelist, poet

This biography, written by Roger Robinson, was first published in the Dictionary of New Zealand Biography in 2023.

M. K. Joseph was a novelist, poet, and literary academic of the 1940s–1970s, best known for the powerful short novel, A soldier’s tale. Outwardly conservative, with a professorship, scholarly publications, a stable marriage, and Roman Catholic convictions, Joseph as novelist and poet was original and unpredictable. Combining intellectual challenge, moral complexity, literary versatility, and popular appeal, his work was ground-breaking as well as accomplished across several forms. He produced innovative war writing, science fiction, university campus fiction, and historical, time-travel, and counterfactual fiction. He ‘achieved perfection time after time ... many future tracers of trends and categories will have to start at or near M. K. Joseph,’ wrote critic Dennis McEldowney.1

Childhood

He was born Michael Kennedy Joseph on 9 July 1914, at Chingford, Essex, a leafy north-east London suburb bordering Epping Forest, the son of Ernestine Kennedy and her husband George Frederick Joseph. His birth came one month before the outbreak of the First World War, and his early childhood left him with ‘sharp but disconnected’ memories, including seeing a German Zeppelin airship in flames. He had ‘a highly retentive visual memory’ that enabled him to transpose many images into his vividly graphic fiction and poetry, and also gave him a lasting interest in cinema.2 He called his unpublished memoir ‘A private movie,’ taking the phrase from Denis Glover’s poem ‘Sings Harry.’

Both parents were educated Catholics, his mother a teacher and his father a businessman and talented polyglot. After the war, in 1920, they moved to Belgium, then lived in various places in France and Belgium over the next three years. Joseph attended local schools and learned French. He recalled his year in Rouen, 1922, in a memoir in the School Journal, and in the poem ‘Fragment of an autobiography.’

This lived knowledge of France, in peace and later war, gave depth to Joseph’s many accounts of the country. These childhood years as an outsider, and his itinerant later schooling in New Zealand, may have helped position Joseph as a novelist. His narrators or central figures are typically observers more than protagonists, thoughtful visitors from another culture or time, often bringing a ‘spectator’s eye,’ with ‘a power of remaining apart.’3 This semi-detached perspective places Joseph, for all his cultural eclecticism, in a main strand of New Zealand writing.

The family returned to London in 1923, and Joseph spent a year at St Aloysius’ College, run by the Brothers of Our Lady of Mercy, a five-minute walk from Highgate Cemetery. Joseph later used that location for the climax of his novel The time of Achamoth, with the 1956 addition of the famous large bust on the tomb of Karl Marx.

Migration to New Zealand

In 1924, the family emigrated to New Zealand, settling in Bethlehem, near Tauranga. There Joseph’s father became a founder of the fruit industry, while his aptitude in languages made possible some close friendships with Māori. Joseph went to Tauranga District High School and Te Puke High School before winning a scholarship to Sacred Heart College in Auckland. Already a voracious reader, he progressed from Jules Verne to H. G. Wells and became a devotee of early science fiction magazines like Amazing Stories. At Sacred Heart he also formed lasting literary friendships with Dan Davin and J. C. Reid.

Joseph studied law at Auckland University College for two years from 1931 before switching to English and graduating MA with first-class honours in 1934. He served as a special constable during the 1932 Queen Street riots, along with John Mulgan and James Bertram, but subsequently attended meetings of the Friends of the Soviet Union. His student activities included literary journalism as secretary of Phoenix, although he later viewed his involvement as naïve, preferring a more open-minded political stance. He distanced himself from the magazine’s transformation into a vehicle for the doctrinaire communist beliefs of R. A. K. Mason, Clifton Firth and Bob Lowry. Appointed junior lecturer in English 1934, he travelled to Oxford in 1936 with financial assistance from a grandmother and great-uncle, and entered Merton College.

Second World War and Auckland University College

When Joseph successfully completed work for his Oxford BLitt, the outbreak of the Second World War was imminent. He joined the Royal Field Artillery in 1940 and served for the duration, seeing action during the advance into Germany in 1944–45. Reputedly, he declined promotion above the non-commissioned rank of bombardier. His military experience became the basis of his first novel, I’ll soldier no more, and entered deeply into his consciousness, poetry and fiction. He wrote later that he was profoundly affected by the terrible sufferings of the German people, while serving as a member of the army of occupation ‘in the cold sad hungry winter of 1945–6.’4

When peace came, he returned in 1946 to Auckland University College as a lecturer in English, remaining there for the rest of his career. As a teacher he was lucid if not charismatic, with wide literary sympathies, and an amiable, peacemaking colleague in a sometimes contentious work environment. As an aspiring writer, however, Joseph found himself not much better off than he had been as an artilleryman, faced with ‘absurd burdens of lecturing and marking,’ and free to write only ‘in random scraps of time.’5 He married Mary (Molly) Julia Antonovich in St Patrick’s Cathedral, Auckland, on 23 August 1947, and they had five children together.

Joseph the poet

Joseph began to write poetry in about 1943, with a prolific period in the early 1950s before his output tailed off and then ceased altogether in the 1960s. His work appeared frequently in the New Zealand Listener, Landfall, and the Arts in New Zealand Yearbook during the 1950s. In 1950, he published privately a collection of 61 poems as Imaginary islands: poems. It included pieces inspired by his war experience, some ingenious literary pastiches, poems derived from painters such as Matisse and Braque, and the satiric ‘Secular litany,’ a critique of New Zealand’s arid post-war culture that anticipated his colleague Bill Pearson’s 1952 essay, ‘Fretful sleepers’.

He produced several subsequent collections: The living countries (Paul’s Book Arcade, 1959), A selection of poetry (Wellington Teachers’ College, 1965), and Inscription on a paper dart: selected poems 1945–72 (some previously unpublished, Auckland/Oxford University Press, 1974). Joseph rejected the 1930s idea that poetry comes ‘out of the subconscious mind,’ and dismissed ‘Poetry that is written only as a relief for the poet’s emotions.’ ‘Good poetry’, he insisted, ‘comes far more from thought than from feeling ... A poem should open a window ... and enable us to see something that we had not seen before.’ He viewed New Zealand as a new country despite its long Māori history, making the country itself ‘one of the important things that poetry will be about.’ He argued that the modern poet must write of modern cities, ‘as naturally and feelingly of airports and motorways as Wordsworth did of lakes and mountains.’6

Joseph has often been classed as an ‘academic’ poet, of word-play and erudite meditation, yet Ken Arvidson identified ‘a certain richness,’7 and MacD. P. Jackson justly argued that Joseph can be ‘brilliant and urbane ...[with a] strong sense of public events, of the wide world in which poets as well as ordinary men and women lived.’8 Jackson asked, ‘What other New Zealand poet could conduct a philosophical argument ... to the point where the bland voice of the logician rises to something akin to passion?’9 The metaphysical poem of marital love, ‘Meditation on a time-piece’, often anthologised, typifies this mix of intellect and passion. One line is engraved on the Josephs’ shared grave.

His allusions are wide-ranging, linking Botticelli with radio’s space-hero Jet Morgan (‘Mars ascending’), Samuel Johnson with television’s Gunsmoke (‘The rosy cats of Paracelsus’), or Plato’s Republic with a movie matinee (‘Cinema’). He used popular culture, reflexivity (circular relationships between cause and effect), metafiction (fiction about fiction) and inter-textuality (the shaping of a text’s meaning by another text) decades before these approaches became fashionable. Like his fiction, Joseph’s poems often confront the moral complexities of cruelty and mercy, destruction and hope, philistinism and art, yet they can also create also a filmic sense of grander scale, as in the awesome Wellsian montage of past, present, and future under the innocent title, ‘Epitaph to a poetry reading.’

First novels and scholarly work

That capacity to reach to the cosmic and visionary makes his first novel, I’ll soldier no more (1958), much more than the ‘low-key semi-documentary’ of his own modest description. He began to write it as ‘a series of sketches’ of actual life near the front.10 It became a totally authentic war novel with almost no violent close-up action, yet giving sensitive impressions of war’s impact on the interior lives of civilians as well as his utterly unstereotyped soldiers. A resonant overview of the world at war on Christmas Day 1943 acts as an apocalyptic centrepiece to the novel, and a near-nightmare scene of revivified corpses in no man’s land, repellently realistic, creates a horror deepened by Joseph’s expert knowledge of eighteenth-century Gothic. He used the same location in the poem ‘Elegy on the unburied dead’, which is a variant on the graveyard poetry of the mid-1700s.

The period 1750 to 1830 was Joseph’s main area of academic teaching and research. His most important scholarly publications were Byron the poet (1964) and a seminal edition of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein (1969). He also wrote quite often for local periodicals on New Zealand topics, such as a discerning study of the artist John Weeks (1955) and substantial reviews of new works by James K. Baxter, Allen Curnow, Janet Frame, Denis Glover, Robin Hyde, and others. He wrote for Here and Now about film as a serious art form as early as 1949.

He gives an ambivalent view of academic life in his 1962 Auckland University novel, A pound of saffron (the title comes from Webster’s The white devil). Joseph denied that any of his characters were based on real people, but many readers have seen his ambitiously manipulative main character as a version of one English Department colleague. Less often noticed is his remarkably early assertion of the right of Māori culture to stand alongside the best of Europe’s, in a scene where a Māori observer at a performance of Antony and Cleopatra transposes Shakespeare’s language into his own equally resonant metaphoric idiom. The effect is unprecedented in imaginative literature in English, and again indicative of Joseph’s originality and open-mindedness.

In The hole in the zero (1967), Joseph gave to New Zealand’s predominantly realist literature its first major fantasy since Samuel Butler’s Erewhon (1872), and Julius Vogel’s Anno Domini 2000 (1889). Joseph’s book, an ingenious, perplexing narrative of shifting realities and alternative possibilities, comes out of his lifelong enthusiasm for cutting-edge science-fiction. Phillip Mann found it remarkable for its intensity, the variety of its episodes, and ‘its informing moral vision, which seems to focus on the question of the nature of goodness in a universe without absolute values.’11

A soldier's tale and the morality of war

This conundrum became the moral crux of Joseph’s next and best novel, A soldier’s tale (1976), a too-credible tragic wartime love story that ends with an act of merciful cruelty that has made it one of the most controversial New Zealand fictions. Its flawlessly sustained multiple narrative makes it outstanding as a short novel, and a distinguished contribution to the international literature of war.

Joseph stands as New Zealand’s most versatile and important war writer, with two major war novels, and episodes from many historical and imagined wars in The hole in the zero, The time of Achamoth, Kaspar’s journey, and several poems. Illumination of his own war writing can be found in his commentary on Byron’s. Citing Byron’s description of the siege of Izmail in Don Juan, Joseph argues that the cruelty of war has to be fully and realistically recorded in order to understand its essential injustice and reveal its moral wrong. He dismisses writers who only condemn war ‘on mainly personal grounds’, who ‘record their personal horror and disgust’ without that closer and deeper judgment.12 His own fiction is full of such confrontations with war’s horror in search of true morality.

Later novels, retirement, and death

Joseph’s later novels all have compelling vividness of episode and character: the time-travel fantasy The time of Achamoth (1977), the medieval Kaspar’s journey (1988), and the counter-factual Tomorrow the world (2021), which presents Great Britain under Nazi rule, as well as the unpublished, ‘The gentle dynamiters’ (a title that again shows the conflict between good intentions and destructive violence that so occupied Joseph creatively). All also contain episodes showing great movements of the human spirit coexisting with venom and violence. They probe the central creative question of Joseph’s life: how to reconcile the compassionate moral values of his Catholic faith with his experience of the cruel realities of war.

‘The lovers and the city’ won Joseph the Landfall Poetry Award for 1953, jointly with Keith Sinclair. The time of Achamoth won the New Zealand Book Award for fiction in 1977. Joseph was given the title of emeritus professor on his retirement as full professor in 1980. He died of pancreatic cancer on 4 October 1981, aged 67. His family supported the posthumous publication of Kaspar’s journey and Tomorrow the world. A feature film version of A soldier’s tale, released in 1988, mainly reveals how crucial Joseph’s nuanced narrative layers are to the disturbing moral challenge of the original story.

Footnotes:
  1. D. McEldowney. ‘M. K. Joseph (1914–1981)’. New Zealand Listener. 14 November 1981: 33. Back
  2. M. K. Joseph. ‘A private movie’. M.K. Joseph papers, MS-Papers-6678-058. Alexander Turnbull Library: 1. Back
  3. M.K. Joseph. Kaspar’s Journey. Auckland, 1988: 36. Back
  4. M.K. Joseph. ‘Beginnings’. Islands 27, November 1979: 514. Back
  5. Ibid: 514–15. Back
  6. M.K. Joseph. Introductory note to A selection of poetry. Wellington, 1965: 1–2. Back
  7. K. Arvidson. ‘Lightning or music.’ Islands 10, Summer 1974: 445. Back
  8. MacD. P. Jackson. ‘Poetry: part one: beginnings to 1945.’ The Oxford history of New Zealand literature. Ed. T. Sturm. Auckland, 1998: 462. Back
  9. Quoted in R. Robinson and N. Wattie. The Oxford companion to New Zealand literature. Melbourne, 1998: 275. Back
  10. Joseph. ‘Beginnings’: 515. Back
  11. Robinson and Wattie. The Oxford companion to New Zealand literature: 242. Back
  12. M.K. Joseph. Byron the poet. London, Auckland and Hamilton, 1964: 280. Back
How to cite this page:

Roger Robinson. 'Joseph, Michael Kennedy', Dictionary of New Zealand Biography, first published in 2023. Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, https://teara.govt.nz/en/biographies/6j3/joseph-michael-kennedy (accessed 1 October 2023)