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Fretful Sleepers and Other Essays

A Self-Exacting Writer

page 43

A Self-Exacting Writer

This essay appeared in Here and Now, September 1957, as a review of Maurice Duggan's Immanuel's Land (The Pilgrim Press). Originally written for radio.

Maurice Duggan's Immanuel's Land, a handsomely produced volume, is a collection of ten short stories and a travel diary. It is an event in New Zealand writing because—apart from the Oxford anthology—it is only the third volume of New Zealand stories to appear in the fifties. In the forties there were eight, as well as Frank Sargeson's anthology.

Some of the writers of the forties produced one volume and no more; and we could have done with more, in particular, from A. P. Gaskell and John Reece Cole, whose clean, confident prose added something distinct to our understanding of life in this country.

Mr Duggan's course has been different. In 1945 Mr Sargeson called it 'an unusual line of development for a New Zealander'. Mr Duggan seemed to be trying to get at some core of experience, something at the heart of our sensations for which words are scarcely adequate: and perhaps this is why his writing could become florid and wordy.

Now his prose is more disciplined. It is hard, calculated and precise—it shows him to be the most painstaking writer of short stories this country has had. He has turned over every experience in his mind, till he has found for it the only words that satisfy him. For example, we often hear someone in mock hysteria use a certain tone of voice—in this case a teacher speaking to a pupil—'Get on!' But how would we indicate the tone itself in writing? Mr Duggan calls it 'whinnying in frenzy': and we know just what it sounds like. Again: 'Miss Mackintosh walked past, and with a look of bitter satisfaction cut him dead'. It is true, and right, and touches a memory in all of us. But I don't think his prose is so assured, for all its carefulness, as that of Mr Gaskell or Mr Cole.

Mr Duggan merits serious critical attention; but if he is to be given it, it must be in a different spirit from, say, the effusive praise of James Bertram in the Listener, who called his writing 'clean, firm and sinewy in page 44 the notation of the most elusive nuances', or the log-rolling tone of Maurice Shadbolt in the Evening Post.

I think 'Voyage' has been overpraised: it is a diary of travel to England, Italy and Spain, and it is detailed, observant and sometimes witty, but it is shot through with metaphysical comments that strike me as half-baked and pretentious. The unsigned telegram he gets, 'Do not let yourself be imposed on by reality'—what does it mean? Or, 'Man is altogether an Evil'? There is the odd and profitless speculation on the consequences to the earth if a boy takes a globe apart and puts it together again with India touching America; the rather precious pose behind the comments, the prose that seems to owe something to Cyril Connolly and the back pages of the New Statesman, to those mannered contributors Edward Hyams, G. W. Stonier and V. S. Pritchett. Some of the constructions are hardly English: 'if she had ever given him a moment of curiosity, her eye withered now the gift.' 'Shall fervour, shall it save us?' 'The woman behind me prods me ungently awake.' In fact some of the manner has become mannerism: verbs that call attention to themselves come to be repeated—buses and trains bore, sunlight and car-lights rake what is in their path. It is a pity that some of the writing is so self-conscious because in his early story 'Six Place Names and a Girl' there is some beautiful writing, about the hero and Pelly, a Maori girl.

The stories themselves are better. There are a number of stories of an Irish Catholic family, the Lenihans, and one of them, about the children being told that the new maid is now their stepmother, is poignant. There are two stories of life in a Catholic boys' boarding school, and one of the best is of a journey through Northland. Mr Duggan is a detached writer. It is as if, like one of his characters, he is seeing life through binoculars, seeing a vision from which 'silence has taken all but the charm', and the sounds are as remote and muted as shouts from a distant playing-field; or, like another of his characters, watching a woman crying from behind the window of a passing train and never knowing why; or, like another, searching anonymous love-letters in the hope of an explanation. He is apart from his situations, and not involved in them except when there is no solution and he can look down, pity and understand. It is an injustice that a boy is expelled when his teacher has baited him to the point of revenge, but nothing can be done about it, the boy has to go. There is unresolved tension, too, in the situation of old Brother Ignatius, tired of trying to quell the sin in the boys, yet the boys will go on sinning and Brother Ignatius will continue to fret. The Lenihans farewelling their son don't feel as much as they pretend, but that is the way of things and nothing will change. The magistrate doesn't understand why the youth shooting goats fired at another youth, nor do their parents, but you can't expect them to, and yet the youth isn't to blame.

In Mr Duggan's stories things don't change or develop. Something is revealed, perhaps, or someone is disillusioned, but things stay the same. His page 45 vision is static, held still by adjectives and a painter's interest in colour and patterns of colour. Sometimes he intensifies beyond plausibility—what seems to be a hot, treeless desert turns out after all to have been a little flat between scrub country north of Whangarei. The tired static vision avoids dramatic incidents. It gives a certain lack of perspective and direction to the collection: they don't seem to add up to a recreation of New Zealand: they remain a collection of experiences, only slightly connected. I feel that the author, like one of his characters, is afraid of being involved. After all, a writer cannot hope always to possess experience, sometimes the experience possesses him, and he sees things more clearly as a result, and gains a deeper assurance. Reality does impose itself, though not impose on you, whether you try to steer clear of it or not; and you can't ask: 'Am I real?' You have to accept yourself as real before you can look at reality.

I have been forced by the default of some other reviewers to spend too much time on the weaknesses. But for all these Mr Duggan is an important and dedicated writer who will continue and strengthen. His view of some aspects of life in this country is worth sharing, not only because of his patient and detailed observation, but also because life in New Zealand has changed a good deal since Mr Gaskell and Mr Cole were writing.