In Fifteen Minutes You Can Say a Lot: Selected fiction by Greville Texidor (Victoria University Press, 2019), 304 pp., $30
There’s a story in this collection of short fiction by Greville Texidor called, simply, ‘Elegy’. That it’s set in an actual country churchyard appeals disproportionately to my sense of humour, as does the story itself, which is an arch observation of the bohemian left in mid-twentieth century New Zealand, with a possible whiff of Glover’s magpies. Another line from Thomas Gray’s poem could be applied to Texidor: the one about the flowers that blush unseen. Texidor’s literary bloom was brief and barely acknowledged at the time, but literature has a lot of one-hit wonders.
As published as In Fifteen Minutes You Can Say a Lot, the selected works of Greville Texidor (rediscovered) amounts to fourteen stories, about half of which were published in her lifetime (1902–1964), the rest selected by Kendrick Smithyman in 1987 from Texidor’s papers. Smithyman knew Texidor during the few years she lived in New Zealand in the 1940s, and one of the two introductions in this edition is his, from the original 1987 publication. This second edition is further prefaced by Margot Schwass, author of the 2018 biography of Texidor. It’s quite a burden of seriousness for this small amount of work.
Despite all the noise around her now, Texidor’s signal emerges clearly. She’s a woman of the mid-twentieth century who sits within a line of women that runs from the late nineteenth: earlier writers she may or may not have read, later writers who almost certainly didn’t read her. Upper middle Anglo; leaning boho, Europhile and political; smart and sharp in every way; diffident in some ways, blasé in others; independent but fragile. The precursor of the now-risible manic pixie dream girl is the femme du monde, no longer the object of the male gaze, but free to be her own subject and agent, and cognisant of the price of this freedom.
The woman in exile is the focus of several of the collection’s stories, but especially the two long works at either end, the polished complete novella ‘These Dark Glasses’, and the work-in-progress ‘Goodbye Forever’. Both concern matters of history, particularly the toll on individuals of the cataclysms of her age from the perspective of the displaced woman. ‘These Dark Glasses’ is a well-constructed miniature in which ‘Comrade Ruth Brown’ turns up, alone, in a Riviera town overrun by the kinds of left-wing English and American types who have not been treated kindly by time. Ruth has a tragic past, a precarious present, and a mysterious future. This story is a revenge on the condescension inflicted on women like her.
Throughout her work, Texidor varies this theme of overlooked women and children, weary and disillusioned idealists. There are chronicles of urgency, and others of mental exhaustion and distress. Texidor’s characters are living in unhealthy times, and you fear for them: for Ruth, friendless even among the comrades, especially once you understand the purpose of her trip; for the Cristinas (there are more than one); for Pachi, who signed the paper of her own free will, ‘being an orphan and fourteen years of age’, returning to her home after spending the war in Bloomsbury. Yet even the most vulnerable of these characters retains a sense of self, an instinct for survival that isn’t easily undermined. In the face of constantly being patronised, they coolly patronise right back. The official cliché for this sort of thing is barely suppressed rage, but it’s more a subtle and insistent eye-rolling.
The European stories cover the 1930s and early part of the war before the collection shifts to New Zealand settings. Here, Texidor includes more stories of men, but these men too are often dislocated. There is an English soldier visiting the family of a fallen comrade, with the possibility of work and a place to live, and a misunderstanding of what story he should be recounting. Then there’s a returned serviceman making a ghastly visit to his girlfriend and her family, who appear to be obsessed with her teeth (which are in the process of being removed, as per the bizarre custom of the day) and who have no idea why he isn’t just picking up his old life as if he’s never been away. Even if we observe a shift in content from story to story, the mood of alienation remains dominant.
Except for ‘Elegy’, the New Zealand stories don’t have the same sense of connection as the earlier work. The narrator is less embedded and more an observer in the action. Texidor’s heart isn’t in this place, though she seems to be having a crack at what John Clarke once satirised as ‘the crushing heartlessness of the post-war fusion of urban and rural society’. This small clutch of work is mid-period New Zealand writing by numbers, interchangeable with much of other local work of the same vintage.
The two strands of New Zealand and Europe come together in ‘Goodbye Forever’, the hot mess of an unfinished story that Smithyman perplexingly chooses to conclude the collection. It provides some further understanding of what Texidor was up against: her main character, Lili, is a Viennese refugee in Auckland, trying to find herself a place to fit in but struggling, even unravelling. Because it’s so clearly unfinished, it’s a navigational nightmare, and its concerns and insights are sufficiently familiar that it adds little beyond a tidy symmetry. Comrade Ruth is unhappy in Calfanques, but it’s still her world; Lili is a ‘bloody refugee’, culturally adrift and aghast in Auckland.
Between Smithyman’s excellent sequencing of the stories and Texidor’s own style, there’s a lot of internal reference and revelation. Deliberately or otherwise, Texidor is an inveterate dropper of clues, perhaps the most resonant being the insight from ‘These Dark Glasses’: ‘Everybody had a wound and people were waiting to pour out acid. They actually searched for occasions.’ In this case, while it’s Ruth’s observation of how she’s being treated, she herself is unsparing of both the rest of the comrades and herself. This unsentimental astringency is a constant presence throughout the collection.
Texidor’s writing is typically mid-century modernist: lots of stream-of-consciousness, which can be downright obscure, and much allusion and hinting at what might be significant and deliberate. Self-editing isn’t her strength, but there’s definite craft and nicely turned phrasing, her cadence betraying her as a reader and a listener, familiar with both canonical and contemporary writing. Nevertheless, it always comes back to her base, what she had to say.
This new edition has incidentally become particularly timely. With so much of it set around World War 2, there’s extra resonance to reading Texidor in light of the commemorations of the war’s end, and at a time of international turmoil. In 2020, the very good ‘Reconstruction’ is as unsettling for the ‘good antifascists’ as for the paternalistic British officer, while the title story’s epiphany concerns a conscientious objector’s monomania. Polemic is easy when you’re on the side of the angels, but authorial ambivalence makes it stronger, more honest.
If ‘Elegy’ offers one tenuous metaphor for Texidor’s life and literary career, ‘In Fifteen Minutes You Can Say a Lot’ takes it to another level. It turns out you don’t need to write a doorstopper of a book; in fifteen minutes, or a mere fourteen stories, you can tell your life without calling it a memoir. In the first character presented to us, Comrade Ruth Brown ‘is not the clinging type’ but she’s instantly recognisable as a serious modern woman: activist, witness, archetype.
Greville Texidor’s literary output was slim, and her connection to New Zealand so fleeting that she could quite easily have disappeared from view completely. The introductions provide some context for her trajectory, and include some lively anecdotes because, as the glowing glamour of the cover’s portrait suggests, Texidor’s life was quite exotic by our standards. Of this material, the publication chronology is helpful; the rest is barely necessary. Credit is due to a sensitive selection and arrangement, and a dignified production, but the content is a cohesive body of work that speaks both for itself and its author, and as a marker of its time.
KARIN WARNAAR lives in Dunedin. She has a degree in English from Otago, and has reviewed for newspapers across New Zealand.
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