I for One . . . Critical Context
by Norris Frank Davey

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Critical Context

(Critical Guide to British Fiction)

Frank Sargeson has been credited with giving New Zealand literature new life. The path he cleared was for the return home of many expatriates who, as he did, had fled the vast separateness of life which they had perceived in New Zealand for what was hoped to be the rich intellectual life of England and Europe. What Sargeson discovered and encouraged others to recognize was that, as New Zealanders, they could not deny the unique nature of life in their island nation, nor could they write of it in borrowed forms and language. Sargeson wanted to set himself and his countrymen to writing about New Zealand life in a more familiar idiom.

The early years of Sargeson’s career were marked by his success as a writer of short stories. An avid reader of the works of Nathaniel Hawthorne and Mark Twain, Sargeson observed how effectively one might approach the heart of a culture or region by way of its curious rather than respectable characters. What emerged was a fiction that seemed to peer at New Zealand life from the dark corners and lonely hearts of the nation. There was no self-conscious posing, nor was an accommodation made for overseas readers. In short, what Sargeson began was the self-examination of the psyche of a small nation, with little regard for what a larger audience might think.

Sargeson’s earliest stories are like parables. He wrote about his waiflike protagonists with insight and concern, often using them to deliver some thinly disguised message. Later stories obtain the oblique perspectives and rich characterization while becoming less didactic.

When Sargeson began writing novellas and novels, he brought his short-story skills with him. His longer works are almost invariably episodic or picaresque. Some of the novels suffer for this. I for One, however, does not. As a story told through a series of diary entries, an episodic narrative is not only inevitable but preferable. The narrative device works especially well because Sargeson is able to maintain his fictional female’s point of view credibly throughout.

After I for One Sargeson began to experiment in drama, with limited success. He continued writing fiction as well, and his themes remained essentially the same. Although he produced a satire of some note in Memoirs of a Peon (1965) and a disturbing examination of human nature in The Hangover (1967), few among his longer works rival the masterly craftsmanship and intuitive understanding of I for One.