Frank Sargeson 1903–1982
New Zealand novelist, short story writer, nonfiction writer, and dramatist.
Sargeson's fiction focuses on alienation and isolation among New Zealand's lower classes. His characters are often uneducated, inarticulate, and frustrated male drifters and deviants who cannot conform to the standards and expectations of society. Many of his protagonists seek comfort in "mateship," a relationship in which they are dependent upon other men for support and affection. Sargeson usually portrays his heterosexual characters as discontented, having found females to be either insensitive or inconsequential. Sargeson's works that concern homosexuality include the highly acclaimed long story "That Summer" (1943) and the novellas "A Game of Hide and Seek" and "I for One," collected with the title story in Man of England Now (1972). Other works which promote the idea of male primacy are the narcissistic tales of Michael Newhouse, a latter-day Casanova recounted in Memoirs of a Peon (1965), and Joy of the Worm (1969), a novel in which the Reverend James Bohun and his son Jeremy discard a succession of submissive women in order to reserve their true admiration for themselves.
Sargeson began to comment on society in the stories of his first collection, Conversation with My Uncle and Other Sketches (1936), which are restricted in their focus upon certain people in certain circumstances. Later, though Sargeson continued his social criticism, his tone and approach became more relaxed. He began to inject humor and tolerance into his work and, though he continued to use New Zealand life as its basis he began to broaden his themes. Among the more prominent themes in Sargeson's fiction is the individual's search for freedom in a repressive, puritanical society. Sargeson's own renunciation of unnatural, guilt-producing tenets is reflected in his autobiographical novel When the Wind Blows (1945) and its sequel, I Saw in My Dream (1949). Repression often finds an outlet in violence, as in the short story "Sale Day" and in the novel The Hangover (1967), in which the protagonist cannot reconcile with reality the messages of inflexible Puritan ideology.
Because of the inability of his narrators to express themselves in any but elementary terms, Sargeson's stories are sometimes limited in character development, point of view, and language. Many of them are episodic or anecdotal; as a result, much commentary has been devoted to the brevity of Sargeson's work. Most critics consider his writing to be exceptionally realistic, in part because of his ability to assume "masks," or the personae of his narrators. Many caution that his is still an artistic interpretation, however, and should not be taken as representative of the people and conditions in New Zealand.
In addition to his stories and novels, Sargeson also wrote two plays, A Time for Sowing (1961) and The Cradle and the Egg (1962), and three highly praised volumes of memoirs: Once Is Enough (1972), More than Enough (1975), and Never Enough! (1977).
(See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 25-28, rev. ed., Vol. 106 [obituary].)
H. Winston Rhodes
[This excerpt is part of an essay which was originally published in Landfall in 1955.]
New Zealand criticism has been chiefly concerned with the vain and unrewarding attempt to discover signs of national characteristics and the influence of local environment in our literature, rather than with the search for meaning and the examination of the moral climate which may be related more to Western man than to the accident of locality. It has fastened its attention on problems connected with the mental and geographical isolation of New Zealanders, on the literary consequences of the struggle to break in a new country, and the implications of a high level of material prosperity; but it has less frequently occupied itself with the way in which the loss of social meaning and religious faith in Western society has produced a climate of opinion that has been having profound effects on writers whether they live in London or New York, in Dublin or in Auckland.
And yet it is this moral climate which is of primary importance in the writing of Frank Sargeson. It is this rather than the treatment of local character, scene, or idiom that provides a solid core of meaning to his work and gives it cohesion. It is this that determines his angle of approach to the life around him, that dictates much of the form in which his stories are cast, and the strict economy he has cultivated in the use of words. Plot and personality,...
(The entire section is 3051 words.)
E. H. McCORMICK
If one speaks of art in reference to contemporary New Zealand fiction, that is largely due to the achievement of Frank Sargeson. More than two decades have now passed since there appeared in [the periodical] Tomorrow a series of sketches later collected in Conversation with my Uncle (1936). The contents of that small pamphlet bore the clear imprint of their time and first place of publication: superficially they were 'radical' in their purport, attacking or questioning the assumptions of bourgeois society. But where Tomorrow's contributors usually made a frontal assault on war or capitalist economics or middle-class morality, Sargeson approached them by a method of indirection. An issue was reduced to the simplest terms and set forth in a kind of dramatic monologue; in the title sketch, for instance, monopoly capitalism was presented through the homely image of bananas at a picnic. Besides the moral and political fables, there were two sketches more closely resembling normal 'stories', 'Sketch from Life' (later retitled 'A Good Boy') and 'I've Lost my Pal'. The first introduced one of Sargeson's recurring characters, the 'good', well brought up boy who breaks away from his respectable parents; the second entered the society of rural workers and shearers, the 'proletariat', here bearing little resemblance to the noble abstraction of intellectual debate…. As a medium for his deceptively naïve approach, he used a simple, colloquial...
(The entire section is 813 words.)
Frank Sargeson's Collected Stories really are worth reading. Unlike so many of his Australian neighbours, Mr Sargeson, a New Zealander, eschews the Wild West figures of the antipodean past, and substitutes for the cracker-barrel philosophy of the outback a rare and welcome gentleness. With the speed of the real short-story man, and with unpretentious efficiency, he can snap his characters into life in the sort of introduction that doesn't let you go: 'Mrs Clegg was quite a decent sort, but she had a glass eye that was cracked right down the middle, and it was funny the way she sort of looked out at you through the crack'. Though writing in a contemporary manner, Mr Sargeson belongs with the traditional mainstream of the short story. He tries no modish tricks: he is far too good for that. Mr E. M. Forster remarks in his introduction to this volume: 'I like him because he believes in the unsmart, the unregulated and the affectionate, and can believe in them without advertising them'. One need hardly say more, except to register enthusiastic agreement.
William Trevor, in a review of "Collected Stories," in The Listener, Vol. LXXIII, No. 1879, April 1, 1965, p. 497.
(The entire section is 196 words.)
Frank Sargeson's Collected Stories are perhaps dangerously recommended if one calls them distinctive sketches of New Zealand life and character. But these extremely accomplished pieces, mostly very short and wry, one of them long and picaresque, are neither provincial nor exotic but simply human. They are mostly told as first-person narratives, and are adept at evoking character through voice and turn of phrase. Maoris and immigrants, farmers and layabouts, beaches and baches, betting and beer-drinking and trotting sheilas, going crook or feeling like a box of birds—the subjects and the language build up a whole way of life complete with beliefs and attitudes ('good cobbers' being better than 'good people'). The weaker stories tend to make their comments too explicit, but in the best of them, like "Toothache', 'Three Men', 'In the Department', 'A Man and his Wife', or 'The Hole that Jack Dug', the human relationships speak for themselves in an almost Chekhovian sort of way. (p. 538)
Edwin Morgan, "West Coast Scottish," in New Statesman, Vol. LXIX, No. 1777, April 2, 1965, pp. 538-39.∗
(The entire section is 173 words.)
Sargeson's material is that of growing-up in the depression years in New Zealand. He writes in a colloquial style that, despite its simplicity, I found mannered, and with a tendency to be monotonous….
The shorter pieces [in his Collected Stories] are often just sketches of particular individuals who were part of his growing-up…. It is interesting to see that from his earliest stories to his last the style doesn't change. And that he relies almost entirely on the inventiveness existing in life for him to tell his stories. When he tries to write one in the more conventional way like 'A Great Day' … he is not very effective. But these are small criticisms. He has made something recognisable as Sargeson from his material—which is about all one can ask of a writer.
His best story is 'An Attempt at an Explanation.' How when he was hungry his mother tried to pawn the family Bible. Not being able to, they go to the park, sit on a bench, take in the sun. Then they see their Methodist minister coming along looking at the flowers; he says a few words to them and goes away. And the boy watches birds looking for worms. Then people come into the park to eat their sandwiches, and throw away the crusts in their bags. The boy retrieves and shares the crusts with his mother. Then he does somersaults on the grass and his mother laughs. From this material Sargeson not only makes something very poignant, but he concentrates...
(The entire section is 280 words.)
Memoirs of a Peon, set in New Zealand early this century, works by creating a character in the first person through a highly idiosyncratic style. The reader is apt to concern himself with how cunningly the style is kept up, regardless of what it is meant to express. Here it is an absurdly pompous Latinate diction, long-winded and devious, and presumably it is meant to create the persona of a man who has taken refuge from the squalors, embarrassments and rebuffs of everyday life … in a pose of pedantic detachment. It is clearly a serious effort of literary art that is being made; but it fails, it is generally not different enough from quite inadvertent longwindedness, because little means is found of suggesting what the 'hero' would have been like objectively.
David Craig, "American Families," in New Statesman, Vol. LXX, No. 1802, September 24, 1965, pp. 448, 450.∗
(The entire section is 143 words.)
Memoirs of a Peon is a frank and a literary re-creation of the traditional picaresque novel….
Frank Sargeson lives in and writes about New Zealand, and perhaps this in part explains the strange sense of survival one has in reading this carefully structured narrative of a young innocent who sets out on intellectual and sexual adventures, covering a fair amount of his society in the process. Sargeson, in his earlier work in English periodicals, has shown himself a sharp social commentator and a sophisticated literary craftsman; and his adaptation of the eighteenth-century picaresque manner, of the Tom Jones and Candide conventions, to presentday New Zealand is done with the greatest literary assurance, as if this were the ideal form for an essentially provincial and raw society. And so it works out. The old principle of procrastinated rape sustains the main structural interest, which is appropriate enough in a society dubious about its sexual ethics, suspended between bourgeois and proletarian values. It is an essentially episodic novel, but since Sargeson is not only a sharp social observer but a writer with an eye for the witty, revealing scene this works superbly. Michael Newhouse, too educated and aristocratic to be at home in New Zealand life, makes a valuable innocent, and gives the book its most striking quality—it is intellectually lively and convincing.
(The entire section is 235 words.)
As in much of his work, Frank Sargeson [in The Hangover] directs his unblinking but not uncompassionate eye towards an adolescent struggling to reconcile the disturbing facts of his widening experience with the assumptions derived from a narrow religious upbringing. It is a matter of special interest in The Hangover that this familiarity of the subject-matter is offset by the novelty of its narrative technique. Previously Mr. Sargeson has either written in the first person or adopted a limited third person stance which still keeps within one character's experience; but here the narrative perspective shifts, and although much that happens is refracted through the consciousness of the central figure, we often leave him to follow some other person's thoughts or doings. I'm not happy with this way of telling the story. Its scale and basic structure seem to me to call for the concentrated narrative method which he has used to such effect in earlier work. As it is, this novel lacks for me the coherence of Memoirs of a Peon, say, or That Summer.
Having stated these reservations I must redress the balance by saying that nevertheless The Hangover is a piquant story told with sensitivity. I recommend it; but I point out that in some respects it is untypical of Sargeson so that if you read it and are dissatisfied you won't dismiss his work without sampling further. (pp. 110-11)
(The entire section is 246 words.)
While the Great War goes on, and wives desert and die, a father and son, deep in the New Zealand 'backblocks,' exchange letters in the style of Gibbon, Hooker and Sir Thomas Browne on the advisability of investment in the cinema business, on the decay of the English language, on Love (17th-century style) and on the intricacies of theology. The Reverend Bohun makes small-hours trips in his nightgown to the bedrooms of successive housekeepers, while his son Jeremy pilfers the petty cash from the local council office where he is employed as County Clerk and assaults his frigid wife with lyrical hymns on the poetry of true love. Lapped in the luxury of a literary style they can't afford, the two central characters in Frank Sargeson's new novel Joy of the Worm, become so possessed by their pretensions that they entirely blot out the scrawny realities of the external world. Provinciality becomes a mode of consciousness; a counterfeit style and surface supplant the dismal details of an arid civic and domestic life. Joy of the Worm is an idiosyncratic masterpiece; elegant, formal, deliciously ironic.
The Bohuns' favourite tag, lovingly exchanged in their correspondence, is 'cucullus non facit monachum'; but for both of them the hood does indeed make the monk, style makes the man. At the beginning of the novel Jeremy Bohun timidly moves away from his father's domination to find a job and a wife and to ponder the meaning of the...
(The entire section is 582 words.)
I do think that because of its attenuated quality—whether deliberate or not—Joy of the Worm falls between two stools. Material that might have made a fine sketch has been inflated … without acquiring real amplitude in the process. The author has attempted something very difficult: to sustain our interest in two bores, the Rev. James Bohun and his son Jeremy. Bohun senior is a bookworm whose chief joy is savouring Gibbon and Hooker—and reproducing their cadences in flatulent discourse of his own…. Bohun junior is a nonentity. There is something inert about the narrative: the inner action is as uneventful as the external. The relationship between father and son and the marital relationships of each are examined at some length without anything very noteworthy being elicited…. In a recent interview, Sargeson said he intended the book to be "a celebration of the Bohun vitality"; but this quality doesn't come through dramatically enough to convince me. In case I appear to be dismissing the novel as wholly tedious, let me add that there is much in it to enjoy: Sargeson's mimic gift is amusingly displayed in the numerous letters, from various hands, that carry much of the story, and the reader who knows his Catullus and Vergil will relish some incidental allusions. But such things only thicken the texture of the narrative slightly without giving it a full-bodied flavour. (p. 337)
Ian Reid, "The Pattern...
(The entire section is 248 words.)
H. Winston Rhodes
['Man of England now'] consists of three short novels, each of which is more involved and more suggestive than a bare summary of its episodic plot would indicate. 'Man of England now' is a tragi-comedy of migration, a foreshortened historical study of social change from the early twenties to the emergence of the so-called affluent society, a condensed account of vicissitudes in the life of a young English migrant whose sturdy endeavours and sunny disposition do not lead to more than an insecure foothold in the little Eden of the South Pacific. From scrub-cutter to suburban dustman does not provide the formula for the usual success-story, but Sargeson's ironic contemplation of life and progress in New Zealand destroys more than it fosters illusions. (p. 260)
Unlike so many of Sargeson's stories 'Man of England now' is not told in the first person, nor has it an identifiable narrator, and yet there is a running commentary implied by the language, the manner of narration and sometimes by the intrusion of an unknown voice. It is the title of the third story in the present volume 'A Game of Hide and Seek', that draws attention to one of the characteristic qualities of Sargeson, for no New Zealand writer is more fascinated by the literary game of hide and seek, that is to say the game of 'find the author'. He has always been a man of many masks who conceals himself behind his varied personae, who is never quite there however often the first...
(The entire section is 841 words.)
H. Winston Rhodes
[Apart] from its intrinsic merits and continued relevance to enduring human habits, I Saw in My Dream has considerable historical value for those who wish to trace the contours of social behaviour.
Sargeson's 'dream' of a twentieth century, New Zealand pilgrim's progress is no allegory and is less a visionary search for a heavenly goal than a curiously patterned but dramatic portrayal of adolescent deprivation culminating in the pursuit of wholeness and the quest for fulfilment. Christian left the City of Destruction behind him, and at the end of the first part of I Saw in My Dream so does Henry; but neither the destructiveness of the City nor the reason for departure bears much resemblance to The Pilgrim's Progress. They have slightly more relationship to Stephen's leave-taking from Dublin in A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. Stephen became aware that 'when the soul of a man is born in this country there are nets flung at it to hold it back from flight' and soon escaped to Paris. Henry/Dave [Sargeson's protagonist] also recognizes the existence of nets, but they are the nets woven and cast by self-righteous conformers to a secular rather than a spiritual creed of prohibitions, bent on holding their victims in protective custody and enclosing the mental traveller in a prison of their own devising. Henry/Dave seeks and finds both a temporary refuge and the prospect of regeneration, not abroad but in...
(The entire section is 1547 words.)
This exploration of his own formative years [Once is Enough] is conducted by Sargeson with a smiling ease made possible not only by his complete assimilation of the material he deals with but by the mastery of his prose medium. Having throughout his career as a narrator practised the impersonation of his characters, he appears here to come 'down again' to his own personal voice. This is not to say, however, that either the tale he tells or the manner in which he tells it is to be taken as 'perfectly true' or 'perfectly natural', if indeed such things can ever be. This 'memoir' must be regarded as a portrait of the artist by the same artist as has fashioned the stories and the novels. (p. 70)
The second half of the book has been fully prepared for. Sargeson's story passes by the lightest of movements from accounts of life on his uncle's farm to descriptions of his relations and other personalities he has met. He provides searching and sometimes highly diverting portraits, the one which emerges most memorably being that of his appalling paternal grandmother…. None of the grandparents displays the puritanism and narrow propriety that his parents imposed upon the author. It was, perhaps by necessity, the parents' business 'to become well and respectably established in a growing and pushing community'. They perfectly represent their time and place; and Sargeson's deep attention to his own origins and his assessment of...
(The entire section is 634 words.)
It is hard to know where to begin praising this little memoir [More Than Enough]. I think it will be read for two important reasons—for its accounts of the many people Sargeson knew well, such as Rex Fairburn and D'Arcy Cresswell, and for its depiction of the growth of Sargeson's art in the inhospitable environment of New Zealand. This second theme is one which could stand for every New Zealand artist's struggle—against frequent ill health (luridly described), undying poverty (a Catch-22 situation, Sargeson having to earn money by writing on a typewriter which was all too often in the pawnshop to earn money) and the friendship of such people as a Cockney named Jock, whose monumental indecisiveness itself became a sort of art form. And above all there was the indifference or enmity of the Right-Thinking Public, nowhere better represented than within his own family…. Out of all this, and against what he claims to be a natural inability in writing, Sargeson teased the stories and short novels which marked the first twenty years of his career, usually at the rate of a page a day.
His recollections of personalities of our literary past are entertaining and important as a record. (pp. 159-60)
The most moving account in More Than Enough is of the author's friendship with the distinguished German poet, Karl Wolfskehl, whom Thomas Mann called 'the last European'. Wolfskehl became a refugee from Nazi...
(The entire section is 393 words.)
Reading Sunset Village I was reminded of D'Arcy Cresswell's reaction to Sargeson's first book Conversation With My Uncle when it appeared in the mid-thirties: 'it was as though the first wasp had arrived, a bright aggressive little thing with a new and menacing buzz'. Sargeson has retained the wasp quality (no pun intended) in Sunset Village but oh what a delicate sting it now possesses. How tenderly he explores the idiosyncrasies of his characters, how elegantly makes manifest their foibles. (p. 316)
Loosely speaking Sunset Village is a murder story, a thriller, but to leave it at that would be very loose speaking indeed. Although it contains the essential ingredients: a murder, an intrigue, a faded but glamorous corpse, two painstaking detectives, plenty of suspects and even (a master stroke) the piquancy of an event involving a macabre and mysterious doll, these do not add up to a dish which would satisfy the aficionado of crime fiction. The murder, or at least the long trail towards the solution of the murder, staple diet of any true addict, is simply not of all-absorbing interest. It is a convenient narrative locus in which Sargeson places his characters: although discussion about the murder involves much of the novel there is no breathtaking dash to the finish, no lengthy explanation of the brilliant deductive powers of the hero, not even an apprehension of the murderer. Poor stuff, if one were...
(The entire section is 706 words.)
R. A. Copland
A very high proportion of Sargeson's [earliest] stories are told in the first person. The degree to which the narrator is aware of the implication of what he tells varies widely from story to story: thus the tone may lie anywhere between the extremes of puzzled uneasiness and full consciousness. The physical elements of a story, however, are usually carefully contrived to enable the reader himself to contribute the appropriate response—compassion, a sense of irony, or of shock.
In 'Chaucerian' these elements provide a severely simple contrast between a humane physicality (as found in The Canterbury Tales) and a pinched moralism (as found in certain religious sects)…. Through surprise … the implications of the story are widened and the sense of consciousness behind the narrator increased. In 'Chaucerian' these effects are substantiated, for the narrator's own horizons do become larger, and his own mature consciousness of the moral burden of his tale is precisely the point of the story…. (p. 11)
Elsewhere, however, this 'knowingness' in the narrator is an irreparable flaw. In another story, 'In the Midst of Life', … the usual 'I' can remain an acceptable person (and hence earn the reader's endorsement of his values) only so long as he writes in innocence of his superiority over 'Frances'. But in sentence after sentence he reports on the narrowness of her ways and the triviality of her mind…....
(The entire section is 1084 words.)
Frank Sargeson's third volume of memoirs [Never Enough!] is subtitled 'Places and People Mainly'—but the choice is in no way random. Looking back over more than 70 years, he wants us to understand his life, see the justification of it. At the centre, as he describes it, there is a paradox—that he was never likely to become the sort of writer who would be much read by the New Zealanders he most liked….
A romantic feeling for the land, and for people who work it, which he, better than other New Zealand writers, got into his fiction, appears in this book as something existing in a compartment. The never-realised dream of living in some sort of rural co-operative would perhaps have been a reconciliation of the two sorts of living—the natural and the intellectual….
In his life as a writer, he never gave up hope that the intractable ground of New Zealand society would thaw enough for him to flourish. It is one of the pleasures of this book that he is able to record something of this sort happening in the Sixties when, after a rather bleak decade, Memoirs of a Peon was published and plays produced. His decision to stay at home, not to try to build something in London on the reputation he gained [with the publication of] … That Summer and I Saw in My Dream, was a recognition of his need for New Zealand.
What New Zealand had for him, if it stopped short of financial...
(The entire section is 390 words.)
In a colonial situation where English middle-class social values are inappropriate, the first really believable characters in fiction are usually the eccentrics and outcasts. It was Frank Sargeson who made such types representative of an authentic New Zealand…. Sargeson follows a pattern often noticeable in Commonwealth writers: rebellion against a stodgy middle-class background, expatriation, discovery abroad that one is not British, return to the native land both as a critic of its colonial bourgeoisie and with a new awareness of it as home.
During the 1930s and '40s Sargeson worked towards creating a fictional style appropriate for his country. The result was a small body of sketches and short stories, in which language, subject, attitude, characters and form capture representative qualities of New Zealand life. Drawing upon the depression concern with the down-and-out, the out-of-work, the poor, he wrote realistically of the attitudes and world of the social underdog, the disappointed immigrant, the drifters, wanderers and rootless. While the stories imply sympathy and compassion, the tone is flat, objective and tinged with irony in comparison to the idealising of the poor often found in 'protest' writing. The stories often indirectly attack the middle class and capitalism by quietly bringing into prominence callousness, exploitation and social conformity.
Sargeson showed how realism could be used to portray...
(The entire section is 2056 words.)
Murray S. Martin
[Frank Sargeson] shows a refined sensitivity of ear and a careful precision in writing, qualities that enhance his ability to portray the society he knows. No biography, however, can show the impact of Sargeson both as a writer and as a man upon New Zealanders. The story of the impact, which this article endeavors to demonstrate, carries with it a moral to all critics, a moral of which Sargeson himself was conscious: one must not allow one's image of a writer to conceal the real writer. (p. 123)
The lasting themes of [Sargeson's] writing are the same as appeared in his earliest stories. One of his recurrent themes is isolation, the lack of communication among people…. [One] may sense, from the reiteration of the phrase "It's difficult to have a talk with my uncle," in the sketch "Conversation With My Uncle," that the reader is being forced to face the irony of isolation in what should be a context for sharing. Talking with someone who can't imagine or "suppose," and who doesn't like risky subjects, is unproductive…. A person with imagination, without intellectual speculation, without the ability to share ideas, is a "dead man" even if he continues to walk around and wear his bowler hat. The theme is reiterated in "In the Midst of Life," where the narrator is unable to penetrate his cousin Frances' closed world, a strange world created by her excessive reading of the romantic novels of Ethel M. Dell…. In these stories one can...
(The entire section is 2287 words.)