Master of the literary memoir

Lawrence Jones reviews South-West of Eden.

A memoir 1932-1956 C. K.Stead
Auckland University Press, $45, hbk

In his foreword, C. K. Stead recounts how although he had often insisted that he would not write an autobiography, "age and the lack of a compelling idea for a new novel" together with the positive response to the autobiographical sections of Book Self (Auckland University Press, 2008) led him to write this memoir.

The resulting book deals with some of the materials that Judith Dell Panny discussed in the first 40 pages of her recent "literary biography" of Stead, Plume of Bees (Cape Catley, 2009), but in an entirely different way from hers.

She drew on what is publicly known of the life to cast light on the full body of the writing, while for Stead the early life is the focus and the writing is seen as part of it.

While her book can be viewed as a useful adjunct to his writings, his is a work of literature in its own right, revealing the author's mastery of yet another mode, the literary memoir.

The book "was conceived ... as a self-contained narrative" starting with Stead's earliest memories and ending with his "first departure from New Zealand at the age of 23".

Whatever followed those years, "whether in the way of achievement or misdemeanour", he considers to be "inherent" in what he had been and done then.

He was "a product of [his] genes in concord and combat with mid-century Auckland, New Zealand", and the book is "a way - one way - of telling the story of [his] time and [his] place".

In telling this story, he uses well the retrospective double-vision of the memoirist, often contrasting what he remembers as his view at the time of an event with his present understanding, as in his juxtaposition of his childhood view of his maternal grandmother as "the unconsidered one, the one taken for granted" to his present sense that "her love and generosity were constant and total".

As in his fiction, Stead evokes a strong sense of place, especially the Mt Eden house and garden built by the Swedish maternal grandfather after whom he was named, the Kaiwaka farm owned by his father's relatives where he spent much holiday time, and the flat on the beach at Takapuna, where he and his wife Kay spent the first year of their marriage.

Again, as in the fiction, he also suggestively sketches the changing socio-historical environment - the relatively rapid movement "from Depression through wartime austerity to post-war affluence", the traditional empire loyalty typified by the response to the new Queen's visit in 1953, the puritan sexual mores, the attitude to authority typified by the 1951 waterfront strike/lockout.

In reaction to this conservative social environment was the literary world that the young Stead was discovering, building on the "salutary, sanitary, necessary" literary nationalism of the writers of the 1930s and '40s that was well represented in Auckland: for example, Stead describes a Literary Society event that he organised at the university at which Bill Pearson read a section from the draft of his yet unpublished Coal Flat to an audience that included Allen Curnow, Frank Sargeson and Robert Chapman from the previous two generations, and Maurice Gee and Margaret Mahy, as well as Stead himself, from among the students.


Stead's own story takes place within this world.

The first section focuses on childhood within a family culture that was musical and political, not literary, and that was strongly coloured by the sometimes difficult relationship between his parents: "What made me anxious, and often deeply unhappy, was that these two, my parents, whom I loved and who loved me and loved one another, could inflict on one another so much pain."

The second section takes him through adolescence, during which the "parental warfare" deepened while he found escape and satisfaction in sport and literature: "... in this period my life found, in poetry, and in the mysterious richness and power of language, its focus, purpose, direction".

Stead's third section focuses on 1951-55, his university years, a time of intense growth.

At university, he met Diane Henderson, daughter of painter Louise Henderson, and through the Hendersons got to know the world of the Auckland intelligentsia.

"It would be hard to exaggerate what an expansion of my consciousness the Henderson household was."

He studied under and eventually became colleague and friend of Curnow, and he met Sargeson and Brasch and published his first poems.

The climax of the book is the annus mirabilis of 1955, the year in which he and Kay, newly married, were Takapuna neighbours of Sargeson and Janet Frame, who was staying in Sargeson's garden hut and writing Owls Do Cry.

Their "strange friendship" has been immortalised in Frame's An Angel at my Table, the second volume of her autobiography, and Jane Campion's film of the same name, and has been fictionalised in Stead's 1984 novel, All Visitors Ashore.

Readers of that novel will recognise from Stead's account here just how much he transformed reality for the purposes of the novel in such sequences as the seduction of Curl Skidmore by a neighbour, the meeting between Curl and Cecelia Skyways in the garden hut, the abortion, and the ending.

This excellent memoir ends most appropriately with the Steads sailing out through "the Gateway to the World" to Australia and ultimately England, "and another life", a nice contrast to the ending of All Visitors Ashore where Curl is left alone on shore watching his lost lover's ship depart, and of Janet Frame's An Angel at my Table, in which she leaves New Zealand (from Wellington) for the first time, beginning her very different voyage as an international writer.

Lawrence Jones is an emeritus professor of English.


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