Frank Sargeson Sargeson, Frank - Essay


(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[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, background and dialogue are important only in so far as they contribute to his theme, to his whole meaning, to the figure in the carpet—the morality which is implicit in his work. His craftsmanship is not an end in itself, but a means. Consciously or unconsciously he has organized his material and selected fragments of human experience in order to form a pattern, the outlines of which begin to emerge immediately his stories are examined together and attention paid to the 'value' judgments implied in them.

The world of Sargeson's stories is one inhabited by casual workers and rouseabouts, by station hands and street loungers, by the misfits, the dispirited and the lonely. Because of their mental attitudes and habits they are isolated from the smug conventionalities of the garden suburb. They are separated from social groups and organized communities by their anarchic behaviour, by their inability to accept the recognized prescriptions for achieving respectability and a comfortable bank balance. (pp. 413-14)

The subtleties of human relationships in a sophisticated society with its aesthetic teas and cultured prattling have no place in Sargeson's stories. 'I've only got a sort of polite interest in Jack's missus and those friends of hers' the narrator of 'The Hole That Jack Dug' comments. 'They're always talking about books and writers, but never any I know anything about.' His characters are uninterested in such matters not only because the cultivated social life of a Jamesian novel is not well developed in New Zealand, but also because their creator is bent on exploring that primitive moral code which is all that remains after the veneer of respectability and conventional behaviour has been stripped off. They live outside the domestic circle, outside the social group, either of which, by its traditional customs, its established laws and regulations, may provide for its members a temporary substitute for life's meaning. In Sargeson's writing, however, it is a substitute destructive to those natural instincts, those primitive feelings and ideas which are the residue left to us by chaos.

Both women and men,… the toughs and the unsuccessful on farm and racecourse and waterfront, in the bar-room and dingy lodging-house, are separated from human society because there is no human society capable of giving meaning to their lives. Their loneliness has nothing to do with the physical isolation of the back country or with the geographical isolation of New Zealand. It is a loneliness that is bred in the soul when both social meaning and religious meaning have been lost…. (p. 415)

The pattern that weaves its way through Sargeson's stories is one of the pathos of isolation. It is something more profound than the misery of solitary confinement which may lead to despair; something that is not merely the result of a frustrated life made empty by lost opportunities…. On a different social level and in a different social environment it is the same isolation that led Virginia Woolf to ponder on the darkness at the core of the human personality and the darkness of a civilization in which men and women have 'dispersed', unsustained by any robust faith that their lives are part of a social organism or that their actions contribute to the whole meaning of life. It is the same isolation that led Ernest Hemingway to describe man as a fighting, lusting animal, only vaguely aware that the exercise of his primitive instincts could not provide any permanent satisfaction or offer more than a temporary relief from the gnawing pain of an existence without hope or meaning. (p. 416)

Where [the characters] live and where they go are unimportant except in relation to Sargeson's ability to describe a local scene. What is important is the world in which they live; and the reader is soon made aware that however the sun may shine, whatever the degree of physical satisfaction that can be obtained from the mere fact of existence, it is a world of poverty and hunger, cruelty and oppression, loneliness and death. Neither traditional religious belief nor any coherent political philosophy gives meaning to the lives of his forgotten men and women, his voluntary or involuntary outcasts from society…. It is a world in which the 'Good Samaritan' has become an anachronism, and Jones can do the right thing only by doing the wrong thing, and the boy who never wanted to be a good boy is condemned because he has an attack of righteousness 'just like father and mother'. Sex is either Lawrence's 'dirty little secret' as it is in When the Wind Blows or a casual encounter after the flicks. Social and religious convention have bred cruelty and sadism, the twisted and the sullen life. Miserable or happy, victims or outcasts,… without faith to sustain them, and only a primitive instinct for survival and affection to guide them, they live their lives, failing even to give complete utterance to what is truest in themselves. (pp. 417-18)

And yet chaotic as it is, the world that emerges from, rather than is described in, Sargeson's stories has vivid patches of sunlight in the midst of the surrounding gloom. When the worst has been said, when the cruelty, the lust, the poverty, the sordidness have been acknowledged, when conventional social behaviour has been seen for what it is, when religious hypocrisy has been unmasked, and the accumulation of rags and tatters and false finery has been stripped from the moral life of man, there is still a residue. That residue, that irreducible minimum, without which man would cease to be man and become one of the lower animals, can be detected and revealed more readily, Sargeson seems to suggest, among the failures, the rejects, the forgotten men and women, among the toughs and the wanderers and those who cannot conform. Isolated from civilized society though they may be, unaccustomed to the exchange of ideas and unable to do more than him at the emotional life within them, unanchored by any creed or accepted code of...

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(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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William Trevor

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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.

Edwin Morgan

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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.∗

Norman Levine

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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 an intensity of feeling which is absent in most of his other stories.

Norman Levine, "Places and People," in The Spectator, Vol. 214, No. 7139, April 23, 1965, p. 538.∗

David Craig

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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.∗

Malcolm Bradbury

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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.

Malcolm Bradbury, "A Farewell to Fiction," in Punch, Vol. CCXLIX, No. 6525, September 29, 1965, p. 475.∗

Ian Reid

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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Jonathan Raban

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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Ian Reid

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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H. Winston Rhodes

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

['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...

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H. Winston Rhodes

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[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...

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Ray Copland

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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)...

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Patrick Evans

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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Lydia Wevers

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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R. A. Copland

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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 …...

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Peter Campbell

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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Bruce King

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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Murray S. Martin

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[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...

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