Life as a Novel: A biography of Maurice Shadbolt by Philip Temple (David Ling Publishing, 2018), 328pp., $44.99
Would anyone under 60 be interested in a two-volume life of Maurice Shadbolt? Should they be? One volume sufficed for Maurice Gee. On the other hand, the other Maurice led a startlingly rackety life, so there is much gossip. Between the sheets, and also two sheets to the wind.
I had thought my generation was pretty frisky but we were nothing like this lot – at it like knives, all of them. For example, ‘earlier in the year Maurice and [then girlfriend] Beverly Richards had witnessed [Dick] Scott in bed with his wife-to-be and with the relieved co-operation of her current husband’. What complicated lives they led. ‘Maurice,’ notes Temple, ‘was never short of sexual partners, temporary, medium or long-term.’ The Barbara Magner/Marilyn Duckworth overlap of 1969 is dizzying, with girlfriend Beverly and wife Gill still part of his life.
It is an extraordinary story, but what makes this first volume a great literary biography is that Philip Temple has uncovered so much new material to correct the record as presented by Shadbolt in his mendacious memoirs One of Ben’s and From the Edge of the Sky – and he tells the story so well.
What is also striking is that Shadbolt and other writers – friends, mostly, but also rivals – kept their letters to each other. Much of the material consists of letters between Shadbolt, Kevin Ireland, Maurice Gee, C.K. Stead and others. When Shadbolt showed Stead an early draft of his debut short-story collection The New Zealanders, Stead wrote a seven-page critique which Temple quotes from – so at least one of them kept it. I bet both did.
I remarked on this archiving of letters to one of the group’s contemporaries, who replied drily, ‘They obviously recognised their significance to New Zealand literature early on.’
When World War II started the left-wing Shadbolts were living in Te Kuiti: ‘Maurice was beaten up at school because his father was a “fifth columnist” and a traitor.’ The family split when his father was caught kissing Doris, a chain-smoking Marxist-Leninist; his maternal grandfather, a sailor, had at least one girl in every port. The apple falls not far from the tree. Young Maurice learned to become a conjuror – ‘in more ways than one’ says Temple, quoting him in Islands as writing, ‘it taught me that cunning and craft can go a long way’. No wonder he became a journalist.
Next stop, Avondale College, where he got 83 per cent in School Certificate English. (I got 93 per cent, just saying.) He was a year behind Maurice Gee, and here we get the biographer’s problem in a nutshell. In that Islands piece Shadbolt ‘claimed friendship with Moss Gee’, but Temple says that Gee ‘has no clear memories’ of him other than ‘he seemed always to be laughing’. In One of Ben’s Shadbolt wrote, ‘For some reason I loathed every hour of my schooldays.’ Which Maurice to believe? I’m going with Gee.
Shadbolt on Gee again: ‘There was a pact of sorts between us.’ Gee on Shadbolt: ‘There was not any solemn pact or understanding that I remember, just lots of talk – lots of fun, too.’ And there would have been – Shadbolt was good company, I always found, and as many here attest.
At school there were no New Zealand books, no references to the country in history books: ‘Some years would pass before Maurice would “identify the lack”, understand the cultural servitude. In 1949 he could not have imagined there would come a time when he might become part of the solution.’
The university days are amusing. Carl Freeman takes him to the Young People’s Club, ‘a fertile recruiting base for the Communist Party’, but Shadbolt, characteristically, was more impressed by the presence of ‘unattached and lively-eyed girls’. He failed English Stage I three times: ‘All his energies were poured into political activities, sexual “endeavour” and … his first attempts at writing.’
A typical correction to One of Ben’s deals with its account of Shadbolt’s bohemian student days with their ‘slum rooms, unmade beds, cheap wine and impromptu parties’. In fact, says Temple, ‘for much of the time Maurice was still comfortable enough living at home, looked after by Mum; and weekends brought healthy YPC tramps and camps and revolutionary songs around log fires in bush huts’.
Shadbolt got a job in journalism at the Hawera office of the Taranaki Daily News with George Koea – oddly, Temple doesn’t mention Koea’s wife Shonagh, who would become a significant novelist. Then came the National Film Unit where he ‘learned to see New Zealand, to think visually’. Invaluable training for a novelist, but all this time he was writing poetry, which Ireland dismisses as ‘just preposterous rhetoric’.
Eventually came the fiction, beginning with The New Zealanders, published in 1959 in England. The blurb said it would ‘prove to be one of the most important books of our time’. That would turn anyone’s head. It had negative reviews here (Ireland had told him the title ‘is going to piss people off’) but was sold to publishers in Italy, Germany and the US. For a debut short-story collection this is an astonishing achievement. The New Yorker bought one story for ‘about £6000 today’. That would be more than $11,000 in our money. As the gambler says, read ’em and weep.
There is a lowering blokiness to some of the male writers’ congratulatory comments on that first book: James K. Baxter wrote to him, ‘You have managed to piss higher over the wall than any of the other boys’; Barry Mitcalfe tells him, ‘A couple of your stories gave me an erection.’
The business material is fascinating. Talk about autres temps. Gift of the Sea (with Brian Brake) sold 60,000 copies. The German edition of Shadbolt’s first novel, Among the Cinders, sold 20,000 copies in hardback in its first six months. Later we learn that ‘his London agent had drunk away almost all the royalties he was due’. I hope the next volume covers the film rights to Season of the Jew: Shadbolt told me that he had made more money from selling and reselling the rights than he ever made from the book. (Given One of Ben’s, this was possibly not true.)
On Among the Cinders Temple comments, ‘The ancillary theme of Maurice’s feud with C.K. Stead and the literati may continue to amuse those in the literary know.’ Oh yes. A note adds: ‘This section was excluded from later editions of the novel.’ Fortunately I have the first edition.
One thing that separated Shadbolt from many of his generation was his ‘sympathies for the disadvantaged place of Maori’ that were ‘rooted in his Te Kuiti childhood but enlarged during his sojourn at Ahipara and in the Hokianga’. In the Listener in 1968 he asked, ‘Are we ever going to have Maori taught in our schools? Are we ever going to encourage the Maori in the arts – and not just in crafts suitable for exploitation by the tourist industry? And are we Pakeha to continue murdering the place-names of Polynesia?’ Commonplace views now, they were anything but at the time.
The book ends with the publication of the massive novel Strangers and Journeys (tl;dnr), Shadbolt at 40 with two marriages, five children, eight books and an international reputation. Would he, Temple asks, ‘be able to manage the separation in future between his creative work and the journalism that too often dogged construction and style in his fiction?’
Temple’s comments elsewhere on Shadbolt’s writing are similarly judicious. He conveys the man’s charm but is not blind to his faults. It’s not just the mendacity and self-mythologising of the memoirs: ‘self-dramatisation as the misunderstood victim of an artistic temperament seamed his letters’. He wrote to his first wife, ‘You might as well face it now – my emotional landscape is one vast, devastated, smoking ruin. I am entirely incapable of what you call love.’ That ‘what you call’ is good, isn’t it. He was 26 at the time, but ‘a sickness of discontent which makes me incapable of building any enduring relationship’ is simply adolescent. Temple identifies in Strangers and Journeys ‘a seam of misogyny [that] could now be traced back through almost all Maurice’s work published up to that time’.
Temple must be a superb interviewer, for his sessions with Shadbolt’s surviving friends and lovers have turned up much new information that corrects the record and produces some great lines. Kevin Ireland is consistently sharp and funny, as is Marilyn Duckworth: on the Magner marriage she says, ‘He wasn’t happy. He didn’t believe Barbara understood marriage and all that it meant. He hadn’t been able to find any socks that morning.’
One sentence about financial negotiations begins, ‘It seems Maurice was being disingenuous …’ I bet there are many more sentences like that in Volume Two, which will cover the later novels, and the third and fourth marriages and accompanying infidelity. I look forward to reading about that – but not the sad decline of his last years.
Diane Lowther’s index is outstanding.
STEPHEN STRATFORD is an editor and author. His most recent book is New Zealand’s Gift to the World: The youth justice family group conference. His next, for VUP, will be a selection of Vincent O’Sullivan’s short stories.