‘Nobody could equal’ him: Sir Vincent dead

Sir Vincent O’Sullivan. PHOTO: SUPPLIED
Sir Vincent O’Sullivan. PHOTO: SUPPLIED
The New Zealand literary community is mourning the death of one of its greatest writers, Sir Vincent O’Sullivan.

Sir Vincent, who combined an academic career with that of a prolific writer and editor, died on Saturday in Dunedin.

He was 86.

Dunedin writer and friend Philip Temple said Sir Vincent had a strong claim to being New Zealand’s greatest writer.

"Nobody could equal what he has done — he won the national book awards in each category: poetry, fiction and non-fiction. And he did it more than once.

"On top of that, he wrote all of those plays, which were landmark New Zealand theatre.

"Other writers tended to be more widely known, but that’s partly because he was a more private person."

Dr Temple was astonished by Sir Vincent’s productivity.

"Only a few months ago he had just completed another collection of poetry.

"He just wrote and wrote.

"He had this amazing faculty to keep writing terrific poems and fascinating stories."

Sir Vincent concentrated mainly on poetry in his earlier years, beginning with Our Burning Time in 1965.

But in the 1970s, he turned increasingly to short stories, which have been published in seven collections, starting with The Boy, The Bridge, The River.

His novel Let the River Stand won the Montana Book Award in 1994.

His other novels were Miracle: A Romance (1976) and All This By Chance (2018).

He edited eight volumes of writing by Katherine Mansfield, and several anthologies of New Zealand poetry, and wrote studies of James K. Baxter, Ralph Hotere and John Mulgan.

He also wrote nine plays and 10 librettos.

He took up residencies and fellowships at universities in New Zealand and Australia.

He was knighted in 2021 for his services to literature.

Death and other forms of loss, deprivation and betrayal were central themes to Sir Vincent’s work, Dr Temple said.

"There was often quite an in memoriam aspect of his writing.

"He would look at the impulses and preoccupations that tend to govern people’s lives and actions."

Sir Vincent was also a "remarkable" literary critic, who "encouraged those who would have otherwise been ignored by the Wellington establishment".

"He would operate quite a bit behind the scenes.

"He had quite an acerbic touch at times.

"He was a serious writer — he was dedicated to the craft and the idea of excellence, and he could be very critical of what he saw as inferior writing.

"To me, he was one of those who kept up the standard."

But above all, Dr Temple said he would miss Sir Vincent as a friend.

"We would meet up frequently, he would always bring a book with him.

"... There’s another good man gone, and someone I can’t talk to any more." — Additional reporting RNZ

An obituary will follow.