You Have a Lot to Lose: A memoir 1956–1986 by C.K. Stead (Auckland University Press, 2020), 403 pp., $49.99
Mark Twain first popularised the saying: ‘There are three kinds of lies: lies, damned lies, and statistics.’ Its origins may have derived from an earlier statement by an American judge who grouped witnesses into three classes: simple liars, damned liars and experts. The expert, he believed, did not state things he knew to be untrue, but through emphasis on certain parts of his narrative practised clever and effective evasion to present his version of the truth. This is germane to assessing any work of autobiography, in pursuit of understanding the realities of an author’s life and work, and what motives propel the narrative they want us to believe.
But statistics may come into it: how much does the autobiographer want us to know; how much do they think we should know? Scale tells us something about an author’s self-estimation. Grahame Greene’s autobiography, A Sort of Life (1971), amounts to about 60,000 words, but only covers his life until he had become an established novelist. He thought, ‘An autobiography is only “a sort of life”—it may contain less errors of fact than a biography, but it is of necessity even more selective: it begins later and it ends prematurely.’
Karl Stead decided he would begin earlier than Greene, be less selective and even end not too prematurely. He began with volume one, South-West of Eden, which covered his first twenty-three years; this second volume covers his next thirty and volume three, already completed, will cover the next thirty or so. If volume three is about the same length as volume one then the entire project will amount to 400,000 words, perhaps more. Yet, in 1987, he told Greg O’Brien he would not be writing an autobiography because he did not ‘believe in the ability of the memory and the creative writing faculty to reproduce facts about the past’.1
By way of contrast, Janet Frame’s three volumes of autobiography amounted to around 235,000 words; no work of New Zealand literary biography or autobiography has much exceeded that. Yet, in You Have a Lot to Lose, Stead includes clues and reference information for a future biographer to add more. He describes his books as memoirs, but there is enough biography to pre-empt any posthumous assessor.
You Have a Lot to Lose covers Stead’s academic career from his first overseas appointment at the University of New England in 1956 to his resignation as a professor of English from the University of Auckland at the end of 1986, as well as his writing career from the publication of his first volume of poetry, Whether the Will is Free and his influential study of modernist poetry, The New Poetic (both 1964), to publication of his fourth novel, Death of the Body (1986). Anyone with an interest in or connection to New Zealand poetry and fiction will find much to enjoy and engage with in this readable narrative. But only literary academics will enjoy the—often digressive—details of friendships, debates or conflicts with past colleagues long dead or retired.
It is not possible to discuss, within the span of a review, one percent of this book’s length, the many relationships, events and issues (and its occasional mistakes) that populate its 400 pages. It is also not the place to discuss the merits of Stead’s work. But in drawing out the main threads, one might conclude that perhaps the chief one is that Stead wishes to leave us in no doubt about how good he thinks his work is. He quotes the praise of reviewers and literary friends (‘You were magnificent’), snarls at those who don’t get it, and looks back approvingly at what he has written. Of his Pound, Yeats, Eliot and the Modernist Movement (1986), he tells us that he had a ‘special talent’ for literary criticism and that the book was ‘uncommonly good’. On re-reading his novel Death of the Body more than thirty years later, he writes that it ‘still strikes me as exceptionally clever and entertaining’.
Stead understood this about his work from the beginning. He tells of his regular correspondence, over many years, with Frank Sargeson, but does not include in this memoir an illuminating exchange from 1964. In it he told Sargeson that he had written three critical essays ‘which may last in N.Z. as long as Dr Johnson’s have in England’ and that four of his poems would ‘prove truly durable’. He was not boasting but just believed it ‘to be true’. ‘Well I’m 32. Could you say you had done better at that age?’ Sargeson replied with gentle mockery, imagining Stead’s virgin birth as his mother sat on Mount Eden and Apollo appeared before her. When he ‘came within a yard of her his side suddenly opened right down its entire length as though the unseen hand of Zeus had operated a zip fastener—and who should emerge, clasping a portable Olivetti against his embryonic bosom but YOU!!’2
Stead’s relationships with Sargeson and Allen Curnow were mostly cordial; as his elder mentors, they were to be treated with care and respect. But not his competing contemporaries: in one way or another he attempts to lower their ranking in order to boost the status some have given him as the ‘Titan of New Zealand Literature’ (though one might ask: if this is so, who are the Olympians?). This is most prominently shown in his views about Janet Frame and Maurice Shadbolt.
Stead was deeply offended by a Frame short story, ‘The Triumph of Poetry’, in which the characters, their friends and work were so clearly drawn from the Steads’ lives, saying ‘there could be no doubt about the source’. Frame asked for his forgiveness, but when it was not forthcoming she told Stead he ‘could no doubt find consolation with “novelettish” Kay [his wife]’. He writes, ‘The hurt passed, though the wound left a scar.’ In a later letter to Frank Sargeson he described meeting Iris Murdoch, with whom he thought Frame had something in common: ‘I detected the same disbelief in the world round her, the same dislike of being the subject of attention and dislike of not being it, the same apparent diffidence covering an enormous self-consuming ego.’ Elsewhere Stead expresses sympathy for Frame but does not neglect to note her shortcomings. One wonders how, in volume three, Stead will rationalise the alleged employment of Nigel Cox’s character and life in a short story of his own, which caused much distress to that late writer’s family.
Shadbolt and Stead seemed to enjoy each other’s company, at least early on, but Stead admits that he was a ‘merciless sibling rival’. As early as 1959 he critiqued for Shadbolt the stories in his first book, The New Zealanders: ‘I told him that I thought the book would be accepted, which was not true. I would not have accepted it.’ But Victor Gollancz in London did, and it was a critical and commercial success. The envy of the ‘sibling’ becomes apparent and he mercilessly lacerated Shadbolt’s writing in a university lecture a few years later. When Stead was writing his first novel, Smith’s Dream, he was anxious to avoid what he thought of as ‘conventional fiction’, epitomised for him by Shadbolt’s work, which he saw as a ‘kind of cruising, a default mode which it was easy for competent writers to put themselves into …’ This was far from the reality of Shadbolt’s working mode, but Stead never changed his view of Shadbolt’s writing.
A full half of the book is devoted to Stead’s study, work and travel overseas—and here he writes of contacts and friendships, often to place himself as walking with giants. At times this becomes something of a stretch: three pages are devoted to the Sylvia Plath–Ted Hughes story, hung on facts that the Steads flatted not far from where Plath killed herself and knew the ‘phone box … from which she tried to call Ted on the fatal night’. At least it led to a sequence of poems thirty years later.
During his first stay in England, Stead became aware that if he left it too long, he might never return to New Zealand and might become another ‘[Dan] Davin’: an expatriate Oxbridge scholar and writer forever dragging the anchor of home. This division of the book into home and away fixtures reveals the compromise he reached to be the expatriate who never left home. ‘London was never out of the picture’ and he became devoted to those ‘classical landscapes’, especially of southern France, which ‘can still seem (and perhaps not only to the Eurocentric mind) the real centre of the civilised world’. Stead clearly felt it necessary, just a few pages from the end, to reassure the reader that, ‘all my life I have been a loyal Pākehā New Zealander, with deep and abiding attachments to Tāmaki-makau-rau’. And here’s a certain rub, because one never feels there is any New Zealand for him south of the Bombay Hills. From the evidence of his memoirs so far, Stead holds to a world of Auckland and those regions everywhere far to the north-east, where homage and devotion may be counted on.
- Moments of Invention by Greg O’Brien and Robert Cross (Auckland: Heinemann Reed, 1988), p. 80
- Letters of Frank Sargeson, selected and edited by Sarah Shieff (Auckland: Vintage, 2012), pp. 350–51
PHILIP TEMPLE’s latest book is Life as a Novel: A biography of Maurice Shadbolt, Volume One 1932–1973 (David Ling, 2018). Volume Two 1973–2004 will appear early next year. He lives in Dunedin.