Monday, May 17, 2010

South-West of Eden: A Memoir 1932–1956
Auckland University Press - Hardback - $45

 The Bookman wasn't able to get into An Hour in the Life of C.K.Stead at the Festival but I was fortunate enough to be able to attend the launch of his new book, the autobiographical work he said he would never write! Stead is one of NZ's few truly international litearay figures, he has won awards for fiction in both long and short forms, and for his poetry and he has a substantial body of well-regraded literary criticism as well. He is of course also something of a polemicist and never seems to be far from the literary headlines. However on Saturday night there was no sign of controversy and all present to whom I spoke who had already read his memoir were uniform in their praise of its stylishness, frankness and of its importance as a piece of literary social history.And with that assessment I totally agree.

The book was formally launched by Macdonald Jackson, Emeritus Professor of English at the University of Auckland., a leading Shakespeare scholar he is working now on completing the late Terry Sturm's biography of Allen Curnow. Professor Jackson made a splendid address and he has most kindly made his notes available to me to post here on the blog. It is well worth a read:

John Steinbeck’s novel East of Eden was published in 1952 and three years later, just before Karl’s memoir ends, there was a movie, loosely based on it and directed by Elia Kazan. It was to the east that Adam and Eve were expelled from the biblical Garden of Eden, and Steinbeck’s is certainly a fallen world, with its counterparts to Cain and Abel. Karl, however, had his boyhood home in Kensington Avenue, to the south-west of Mt Eden. He explains that two other volcanic cones could be seen from the house, One Tree Hill and Mt Albert.

I think we’re especially interested in writers’ ‘beginnings’, before they become established in their careers and their poetry, fiction, or drama commands our attention. What in their backgrounds led to their being poets, novelists, or playwrights? Did they grow up within a literary household? In Karl’s case, no. His mother taught the piano, while his father read the New Statesman and Nation and Das Kapital and aspired to become a Member of Parliament. So he ‘came to poetry not by the first door of family culture, but the second, education; or perhaps it would be more accurate to say education combined with accident and appetite’.

Karl’s memoir is extraordinarily evocative of a whole era – of the personal, family, and institutional life of a boy, teenager, young man growing up in suburban Auckland and spending holidays, when young, in his ‘favourite place on earth’, his ‘Paradiso’, his great-uncle’s farm at Kaiwaka, north of Wellsford. This is autobiography, but because individual lives are led within their times and places it is also social and political, regional and national history. And a contribution to literary history too, of course: Allen Curnow, Frank Sargeson, and Janet Frame are among writers who figure prominently in anecdotes towards the end.

Because both his parents, were passionate Socialists, Karl was aware of political issues from an early age, and even joined the Labour Party at the age of seven. Even before he was born he was briefly present at the Queen Street riots of 1932 – in his mother’s womb. His boyhood coincided with the Second World War. His Father took him to town to see Prime Minister Mickey Savage’s funeral cortege. Much later, as a university student, he distributed pamphlets on behalf of the workers during the Waterfront Strike of 1951. One of his chapter headings derives from the poet W. H. Auden’s saying ‘We are lived by History’. Karl’s book is a marvellous portrayal of a self as it is formed within a changing environment.

Having also grown up mainly in Auckland, I found that reading Karl’s memoirs constantly brought back to me the city as it was and my own experiences in it. As young boys, my brother and I, like Karl and his Wheturangi Rd friend Jack used to run wild, or at least free, around Cornwall Park. The first few chapters name familiar haunts that have long disappeared, such as the Victory Cinema in Greenlane and the New American Milk Bar (where there is now a Starbucks) in Newmarket. Karl mentions many books that I also read: Richmal Crompton’s William series and R. M. Ballantyne’s Coral Island, for example. Before possessing Ballantyne’s book I heard it serialized on ‘the wireless’, and can still recall the adventures of Jack, Ralph, and Peterkin. Karl gives vivid descriptions of the trams, with notices on the end platforms: ‘Seven standing if full inside’. Like him, I recall the Fun Doctor who used to visit primary schools and entertain the children once a year. For me his most memorable trick was playing the piano with his nose, because, as he said ‘my nose knows’. There were the home-made air-raid shelters, fortunately never put to the test, during the War: Karl dug a trench as a child, and so did my father, in our back yard when I was about three, and, because it rapidly acquired several inches of water, it was there that I saw my first frog. Karl’s description of a normal suburban home’s ‘wash-house’ facilities (‘copper’, three concrete tubs, ‘wringer’) are exactly as I remember them, before we all got primitive washing-machines during what he calls ‘The New Affluence’ after the War, and refrigerators obviated the need for eggs preserved (more or less) in Ovaline.

Later, I rode my bike to and from Auckland Grammar School, as Karl rode his to and from Mount Albert Grammar School. He explains that his home was equidistant from those two schools, and his parents allowed him to choose which he would go to. He opted for MAGS on the grounds that the ride was downhill to MAGS, uphill to AGS, and speed was more crucial for getting to school on time than for making his way back home. Poetry, sport, girls, vacation jobs, compulsory military training, dances, student life at Auckland University College, MA English ….  South-West of Eden is a wonderful prompt to memory and septuagenarian nostalgia.

But of course Karl’s is the memoir of a poet, novelist, and short-story writer. So there is the fascination of tracing the gradual emergence of his creative talent and sense of literary vocation. And Karl is forthcoming about the relation between real-life experiences and persons and how they have been transformed in his fiction. The book is beautifully written and organized. Karl recalls that in 6A he rediscovered his gift, as ‘Tusitala to Standard Two’, for story-telling, when he related to his classmates some historical or biographical incident or the plot of a novel or movie. This skill, well-honed since his schooldays, is abundantly on display in South-West of Eden, in the shaping of episodes, chapters, and the book as a whole.

In Karl’s memoir you can read how the romantic token he gave in primary school to a little Mona Lisa called Merle was angrily rejected; how he bought a new bike with the help of a fast-finishing Alexandra Park pacer called Benghazi; about the supererogatory ‘health checks’ to which the Head of Physical Education at MAGS subjected all the boys; how, after winning the MAGS senior high jump in his fourth year, in his fifth he did not, but came second to Les Mills in the discus; about Karl’s reasons for his urge, happily controlled, to douse in petrol and set fire to a special seat in a courtyard outside the University of Auckland’s Arts Building: it has a memorial plaque to a former lecturer in the French Department; how during a summer job as an orderly at Auckland City Hospital, before beginning his MA year, he developed the single most fruitful perception of his influential critical study, The New Poetic—while taking time off between duties to read T. S. Eliot’s critical prose in the bathroom of the geriatric ward; how, to explore the resources of the so-called ‘Glass Case’ containing the University’s New Zealand literature books, you had to ask at the desk for the keys, and were handed them, if you were lucky by Kay Roberts, ‘the dark beautiful one among the library staff’, the one whose face, like her husband Karl’s, is pictured on the memoir’s dust-jacket.  ‘All this and much more’, as they say on TV—in this engaging, revealing, and, as it speaks of love and death, very moving book.

Mac Jackson

Thanks Mac and congratulations to C.K.Stead on another fine book, and to AUP for a handsome hardback

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