Frank Sargeson’s first sketches were published in Tomorrow, a left-wing Christchurch journal, in the 1930s. The brief stories in his collection Conversation with my uncle and other stories (1936) were praised for their social realism and distinctive New Zealand idiom and mood. Mostly about single men, they depict a puritanical society full of semi-articulate people, like the laconic, working-class homosexual narrator of his novella That summer (1946). Sargeson’s Kiwi vernacular was much imitated by later male writers.
Change of voice
In the 1960s Sargeson wrote Memoirs of a peon (1965), Joy of the worm (1969) and The hangover (1967) in a more ornate style about articulate middle-class people. These novels are very dark comedies and their protagonists are submerged in failure and defeat.
In 1945 a collection of short stories edited by Frank Sargeson called Speaking for ourselves was published. It marked a new moment of literary self-confidence about a distinctive New Zealand voice. Janet Frame, then a patient in hospital, said that the stories in the collection ‘overwhelmed me by the fact of their belonging.’1
The short story became the dominant form of fiction in New Zealand after the Second World War. Maurice Duggan, A. P. Gaskill, John Reece Cole, Greville Texidor, James Courage, Roderick Finlayson, Dan Davin, O. E. Middleton and G. R. Gilbert all adopted the short story as their preferred fictional form. This is partly attributable to the impact of Sargeson’s stories, though it is notable that the impact was not as visible on women writers.
James Courage’s 1959 novel A way of love was banned in New Zealand because of its depiction of homosexual love. Courage’s writing was circumspect, but the basic subject was enough for censors to deem the book indecent. It was the first New Zealand novel to overtly deal with same-sex love, and given this, Courage’s name is apt. His grandmother, Sarah Amelia Courage, published a warts-and-all account of pioneering around 1896, and many of the privately circulated copies of her book were burned by irate neighbours.
Many male writers focused on masculine environments – the rugby club, racecourse, manual labour, army and pub – or on families seen from the point of view of a male child. Sargeson’s stories questioned the social assumptions of New Zealand culture, but the work of his successors was less questioning. The exception is Maurice Duggan, whose stylish poetic and literary language sits in contrast to the colloquial style and social realism of his contemporaries.
John Mulgan’s Man alone (1939) is a classic of New Zealand fiction. More influential than any other single book, it describes what has become a powerful cultural stereotype, the Kiwi bloke who is alienated from a repressive and hostile society and goes it alone.
Mulgan’s antihero, Johnson, comes to New Zealand during the economic depression of the 1930s, is caught up in rioting in Auckland and leaves the city to work on farms. After his boss is accidentally killed, he flees to the Kaimanawa Mountains and survives a winter crossing the mountains before leaving New Zealand for the Spanish Civil War. Johnson exemplifies qualities of resilience and toughness which have become part of a New Zealand myth of identity, but Mulgan’s novel is a hard look at the more unattractive aspects of New Zealand society.
The perils of love
Barry Crump’s Sam Cash described women as ‘[h]ard to catch as a new-calved heifer and harder to get rid of than a wind-broken gelding. Get a man into more trouble than a wool-chasing dog. Spend all your dough, keep you in a steady job so you have to crawl to the boss, and bust you up with all your mates. Lever promises out of you that you can’t keep and then call you a liar. Next thing they get you so you can’t think and before you know where you are, you’re married.’2
Lighter-hearted chroniclers of the man-alone culture in New Zealand became immensely popular in the 1950s and 1960s. Following on from the success of Frank S. Anthony’s comic rural yarns ‘Me and Gus’ (written in the 1920s and published in book form in 1936 and 1938), Barry Crump entrenched the popular version of the man alone, on the run from domestic and social responsibilities, in more than 20 comic novels, which began with A good keen man (1960).