Maurice Gee: Life and work, by Rachel Barrowman (Victoria University Press, 2015), 543 pp., $60
The biographer’s job is not an easy one. For a literary biographer it’s even harder. He or she is expected not only to dish up the dirt, but to see into the mind of the artist, to illuminate the magical process by which the imagination is transformed into a literary artefact. By carefully relating his early life and his struggle to live and work as a writer, Rachel Barrowman’s Maurice Gee: Life and Work nearly achieves this. Her biography succeeds in both casting light on his fictional world and revealing, behind his well-documented reserve, Gee’s heroic perseverance and self-belief. We discover that Gee was not a precocious talent – and never claimed to be – but a late-blooming craftsman who held onto his dream resolutely.
In his review of Barrowman’s biography in the magazine North and South, Paul Little states, ‘… those undercurrents in [Gee’s] fiction are not so much his artistic vision as the way the world is’. This statement is at odds with the biography, which shows instead that Gee’s literary world is his world, written – often directly – from experience and personal observation. Little’s assertion – this is the way the world is – reflects the claustrophobic closed-circuit in mainstream New Zealand literary culture, whereby white middle-class post-Protestant critics write about white middle-class post-Protestant writers who write about white middle-class post-Protestants. A vision that is necessarily narrow has become normative; a specific experience in a particular part of the world has become universal for being a ‘New Zealander’. And while Barrowman’s biography exposes the extent to which Gee draws on personal experience for his material, its location in this persistent cycle of author/critic/national identity is a fundamental problem. Despite this, the book deftly recounts Gee’s path from the Henderson ‘creek and kitchen’, to an unhappy and confused early adulthood, to finding love and security and taking his place as one of New Zealand’s best known and most admired authors.
Barrowman acknowledges her most valuable source was Maurice Gee himself. Access to a living writer removes the difficulties for biographers who take on the life of a writer long dead, but those biographers have greater room to move. Claire Tomalin’s life of Samuel Pepys, based on his unreliable diaries that covered a relatively short period of his life, and Richard Green’s biography of Edith Sitwell that takes an unusually compassionate view of her difficulties, are examples of where the biographer has licence to guess. There are different challenges when the subject is still among us. The approach must be tactful and tactical. There is little room or justification for speculation in a serious biography, and this is especially true when the subject is a willing accomplice.
When surveying the life of a writer with a long and successful career such as Gee’s, how does the biographer select what goes in and what stays out? The French novelist Colette, a prolific author, traveller, socialite and sensualist, who was still pulling in all-nighters well into her 60s, was so famous and attention-seeking that her life was almost permanently on show. Her biographer’s task was to somehow ‘edit’ her extraordinary life so that it could fit into a few hundred pages. Maurice Gee is a different kettle of fish. Just how does one write about this private and, dare I say, sedate personality? The strategy that Barrowman seems to have taken is to leave out nothing. Data about Gee’s somewhat pedestrian life, and later publishing details – which could only be of interest to people in the book trade – is detailed in the extreme. She does reveal some gems. Her lively descriptions of Wellington parties expose the petty rivalries and beery blokiness of NZ’s literary scene of the 1950s. And it is delightful to learn from his, mostly disastrous, travels abroad that his obsession with waterways extended to the Thames, which he described as ‘flat and greasy’ and to the Seine, described as ‘a pretty stream’.
Where did all the data come from? If Gee was able to recall the minutiae of much of his long life, this needed to be acknowledged, for his memory must be prodigious. The information is sometimes confusing as to its source. Quotes from letters are often not referred to as correspondence and the reader has to make many trips to the notes when the source could easily have been included in, and in many cases enhanced, the text. Relationships are everything – even to a man as intensely private as Gee – but the family links Barrowman provides are convoluted and frequently hard to make sense of. A family tree would have helped. Too many points were made in parentheses, which were an annoying intrusion. The information within them was often extraneous or it deserved greater attention, such as the reason why The Fire-Raiser was the last in-house drama made by Television New Zealand. The wordy synopses of his short stories and later novels were also unnecessary. Anyone who has read them knows the plots and for anyone who hasn’t they are spoilers.
It is almost a given that any biographer writing on Gee must discuss his muse, his mother Lyndahl Chapple Gee. His honesty about her influence on both his career choice and his sexuality is brave, if unfairly negative at times. The sense remains that it was his mother’s cloying love that caused his problems, and not his macho and attractive father (or Gee himself for that matter). Barrowman avoids discussing his mother’s sexuality, but her pregnancy at the time of her marriage seems at odds with her favourite son’s overpowering sense of her purity and goodness. Why was Gee so captured by his mother’s attitudes to love and sex when others – including his brothers and some of his most memorable characters – are not? Gee himself asks this question, yet it is not answered. It would have been good to understand from the subject how he created such characters – not stock villains like Duggie Plumb, but a character like Rex Petley who is capable of being loving, creative and masculine: the type of man that Gee perhaps aspired to be and became via his relationships with his wife and children. His ambivalence towards his mother is not adequately explained and the book is disappointingly brief on his reaction to her death. The contradictions that Barrowman does hint at do, however, go a long way towards an understanding his fictional depictions of women.
Gee’s childhood also provides us with insights into his stock characterisations. His grotesqueries could be read as reflections of his early and groundless self-disgust. Real-life neighbours, ‘the wild Catholic Flynns’, inspired a series of insouciant and marginalised characters that recur throughout his oeuvre. This projected vision of the self-proclaimed middle-class post-puritan looms large over the ‘other’ in New Zealand literature of Gee’s generation, reinforcing an unconscious, or perhaps conscious, elect/reprobate dichotomy. The caricatures are symptoms of the narrowness of that vision that is not adequately explained by most critics. Neither does Barrowman pick up on the irony that Gee’s parents were themselves serious drinkers and his father prone to violence – or perhaps she was being polite.
The biography implicitly captures the envy and competition among Gee’s male peers – especially the undignified scramble for various grants, awards and fellowships. Gee’s lengthy apprenticeship is recognised by longtime friend and rival Maurice Shadbolt when Shadbolt concedes, ‘… he’s the professional in the practice of our craft’. Shadbolt’s comment was well-timed since Plumb had been recently completed and not yet published. But his bitchy comment to Kevin Ireland about the Gees’ ‘hints of prosperity’ at a later time in their lives exposes the same type of toxic male rivalry that Gee explores in his novels.
Financial worries often feature in literary biographies since writing is a famously unreliable source of income, forcing writers to make decisions they might otherwise not make and impeding their literary output. Robin Hyde for one was beset by money problems throughout her short life, but Gee was spared the journalistic hack work she needed to do to stay afloat. The book spends too much time discussing Gee’s finances, as it does book sales and real estate, placing unnecessary commercial emphasis on his creative output. It goes without saying that most people who give up paid employment to be a full-time writer will suffer the consequences financially.
Just like his novels, Gee’s mystique lies in his apparent ordinariness. His work describes the things that many people experience but he sees beneath the veneer of an apparently functional and peaceful society to an underbelly. In Gee’s world everything is not alright. As novelistic life-drawings his characters have a brilliant and repugnant Francis Baconesque quality, but the outsider – the type of person whom Gee might not have encountered closely – is less skilfully portrayed. Barrowman acknowledges this as a flaw in his first published novel, The Big Season. Gee’s admission of avoiding unhappy places also explains gaps in his fiction, most notably Ellie and the Shadow Man. Ellie’s self-imposed exile to Europe is intended to represent a time in the lives of Pākehā women whose journey to the European centre is a journey towards self-knowledge, and cultural and sexual freedom. Gee’s reluctance to travel in his mind back to London is understandable, but the hole in Ellie’s narrative weakened the novel and detracts from her authenticity.
The similarity between Gee’s troubled twenties and those of his narrators – Jack Skeat, Raymond Sole and Paul Prior, in particular – was a shock; characters whom I believed to be entirely products of the imagination are much closer to the real thing than I could have imagined. Yet it was Gee’s experiences, and his bravery in confronting and analysing them, that enabled him to construct those vulnerable and unlikeable characters. His narrative compassion comes through too. After his unhappy time as Napier’s librarian, his story about the very type of person who made his working life there so miserable shows his kindness and gallantry, in addition to his uncanny ability to see and write beneath the surface.
The biography allows the reader to admire Gee as a craftsman and as a person; one who never took the easy road but whose tribulations paid off in the end. His difficult path is an inspiration to any late-developing artist. Barrowman’s descriptions of Gee’s early emotional and professional struggles are a compelling testament to his perseverance and quiet confidence in his future as writer, buoyed up by good friends like Nigel Cook and Robin Dudding, and Charles Brasch’s loyal support. Yet I am not convinced she discovers what drove Gee’s almost neurotic need to be a writer and only a writer, against the odds.
While the book is too big and too detailed, most of it is worth reading closely – not necessarily in page order but by dipping into a chapter at a time, named after the titles of work written during that period of Gee’s life. This structure provides fans with background to their favourite stories and novels, and provides scholars with insight into the workings of Gee’s imagination at particular times in his career. Maurice Gee: Life and Work is an ambitious and important piece of New Zealand literary biography and history. But a different structure might have enhanced the story of this enigmatic man. A thematic rather than Barrowman’s conventional and strictly chronological arrangement would have added richness. There are plenty of themes to choose from: the anxiety of influence – his mother, the Chapple family history and the Old Guard of Sargeson et al; friends and family; places and homes; rivals and mentors; women and children; war and peace; love and acceptance. This approach might have transformed the book from a competent study to a tour de force.
Barrowman is a reliable narrator but as with all biography, gaps remain. There is little account of Gee’s relationships in adulthood with his brothers and their families for instance. Attention to the wider political and economic contexts of Gee’s life is also missing. Despite its flaws, Rachel Barrowman’s study proves she is a skilled biographer. She presents the facts in an often compelling way that allows the reader the space to form his or her own conclusions about Maurice Gee’s life experiences and his literary output.
PATRICIA McLEAN is a freelance writer and editor based in Dunedin. Her PhD from Victoria University was on constructions of masculinity in the novels of Maurice Gee.