Andrew Paul Wood
The Name on the Door is not Mine: Stories new and selected by C.K. Stead (Allen & Unwin, 2016), 304 pp., $39.99
New Zealand’s doyen of literary criticism, senior poet and writer of fiction, C.K. Stead, now in his eighth decade, needs very little introduction, though reviewing his books is not without a certain trepidation given his reputation. In my defence, I declare myself a provincial nobody. If Cheever is, as Elmore Leonard put it, ‘the Chekhov of the suburbs’, then Stead is the ex-pat Cheever of taking tea with Mrs Phlaccus and Professor Channing-Cheetah, not without the faint and fading cologne of cultural cringe. This will be served up with the sort of witty banter that we all aspire to but never quite pull off in real life, and a thick sauce of awkwardly showy quotes that even the most well-stocked gazofilacio will trip on.
It is, I think, fair to say that Stead’s short fiction has a certain inevitability of narrative to it. Steadland: a white middle-aged man, probably from this part of the world, a self-doubting academic or writer or something literary (vaguely autobiographical); in the UK, Europe, US, Australia; has a momentary detour, perhaps reminiscent of a cultural anecdote familiar to those in the know, an excuse for a vignette; there will likely be a woman considerably younger than he, inexplicably and fatally attracted to him, and largely disposable; Katherine Mansfield or Frame might get a mention to annoy certain people; nothing much else happens. This is not necessarily a bad thing, and it’s very much the metier of The Name on the Door is not Mine: Stories new & selected, twelve stories written over the last sixty years.
The repetitive themes can be put down to when they were written or a certain amount of inertia since, and rather than contribute to the orgy of bashing the stale, the male and the pale, I’m just going to consider it a formal motif, a recognisable scaffolding to hang the prose on (and, of course, to play little games with the goldfish bowl of Aotearoa’s literati). The same characters across parallel universes. And it’s glorious prose: supple, sharp, deft, charming, comfortable and elegant as a piece of Dresden china, lacking in observational irony, and tending to get bogged down in its cultured name-dropping.
The apotheosis of this tendency is the first story in the collection, ‘A Small Apartment in the Rue Parrot’ – the title suggests its nature, a vignette, a bittersweet comedy of morals. So far, so French. Paris-based New Zealand academic (the butchly half-rhymed Max Jackson) attempts a fling with a bookish English fan (brush with mental illness) at awkwardly modern point in his marriage. Wife (French editor of a Pléiade edition of Flaubert – of course) phones from the upstairs flat about a footnote, intuitively grasps the situation, and hubby has remorse and ditches his would-be mistress. Very straightforward, a variation on Madame Bovary, and the title alludes to Monsieur F’s stuffed ex-parrot immortalised by Julian Barnes. There is a lot of stream of consciousness quoting, Gerard Manley Hopkins, Henry Newbolt, and some bits about Mansfield and Gurdjieff which felt like gratuitous New Zealandising.
The story that follows, ‘It was the Best of Times, It was the Worst of Times’ (the title is tin-eared – the first half of quote/cliché would have sufficed, illustrating Stead’s issues with irony) is mercifully free of the complusion to show off. New Zealand author, divorced, writing a novel about Auckland and Los Angeles (a tale of two cities, boom boom), staying somewhere just outside Sydney. It’s 1988, bicentennial of white occupation of Australia, and an old friend of the narrator’s is dying. It’s a sweet, poignant story with vivid, often lyrical descriptions of lorikeets and fireworks. The dying friend is very much Aussie-battler-larrikin in type, a caricature, but it works. There is some fun dialogue, at which Stead excels, though I’m undecided whether he nails the authenticity of coarse-casual tone. There is a modest twist, and the intimation of romance with the dying man’s daughter. It’s easily my favourite story in the collection.
‘Sex in America’ breaks the mould, somewhat, in that the protagonist is an unusually literate salesman, rather than academic or writer, so Stead deliberately doesn’t aim higher brow than referencing Henry Miller (I refuse to draw attention to the obvious joke). This restraint makes it all the more readable, and the sex (with an enigmatic Frenchwoman, Catherine) is by far the least risible in the entire collection, though Catherine remains a passive prop to dangle sexy description from throughout, but as it turns out, in more ways than one, so this may be an intentional (if a tad sexist) device.
‘A Fitting Tribute’ is probably familiar, certainly the most anthologised, filmed in 1985, and a good bit of fun – a snapshot of mid-1960s Auckland and the closest Stead gets to outright fantasy in the collection. The female narrator is a credit to Stead’s cocky flexibility, though not without assumptions that mark it as of its time, and certainly one of the most accessible stories in the book – indeed, it has a syllabus-ready feel to it in the tropes and techniques it ticks off.
Stead files the serial numbers off Ted Hughes and Sylvia Plath in ‘Determined Things to Destiny’. The narrator recounts the story of Claudia Strange, a Cambridge scientist who commits suicide while her hearty scientist lover, Jack Gibbs, goes on to be hugely successful. In a move calculated to annoy feminist critics, it questions the popular mythology that painted Plath/Strange as feminist martyr and Hughes/Gibbs as selfish villain – a debate not without some merit – but Stead pushes the wheelbarrow over it with a Stead-surrogate narrator that could have saved her with a good revenge seeing-to had he not chivalrously denied her, which is about where I rolled my eyes and put the book down for a couple of days.
After that is the notorious, nay, infamous 2010 UK Sunday Times/EFG Private Bank Short Story Award-winning ‘Last Season’s Man’ – with Stead at the apex (or nadir) of score settling. In 1994 the late Nigel Cox went after Stead in Quote Unquote, prematurely declaring the latter past it as a writer. It was, in fairness, a hatchet job, but when ‘Last Season’s Man’ touched down fifteen years later (Cox died in 2006), jaws dropped back in NZ at what was seen, reading between the lines, as thinly veiled revenge in dubious taste. Reminiscent of early Nabokov’s aesthetic distance, narrated at second-hand and loosely camouflaged by a Croatian setting, an older writer beds and marries the widow of a younger writer who had skewered him in print. That the literary reputation is one of Stead’s perennial themes, offers a modest fig leaf of deniability.
Stead has never been one to be patient with the culture wars, which provides much of the padding for the otherwise Maugham-esque ‘Class, Race, Gender: A post-colonial yarn’, a fairly traditional anecdotal-style sex/revenge story deliberately stuffed with stereotypes as if trying to prove an anachronistic point (written, I think in the 1990s – not providing clear dates is a real let down in the book), with just a little too much strain for my tastes.
The final story, furnishing the collection’s title, long and chaptered in such a way as to make one suspect it the sketch for an aborted novel, takes us full circle to the meretricious literary persiflage of the first, hamstringing an otherwise delightful narrative. An Auckland scholar at a Canadian university occupies the English department office of an academic poet with the Byatt-esque name Albie Ashtree (parts could be interpreted as poking the borax at Possession, but I may be projecting). The Elizabethan poet Thomas Nashe and Edgar Allan Poe are quoted. Ashtree has vanished in the Austrian Alps and the Kiwi becomes the suddenly famous expert on his work. There is a delicious, though not entirely original twist, which I won’t spoil, but someone should probably buy the movie rights.
Throughout, what strikes me is how inseparably this is a part of New Zealand modernist literature. The Steadland protagonist, for all his erudition and polished angst, is still Mulgan’s ‘Man Alone’ character with knobs on, or as E.H. McCormick put it, ‘the solitary, rootless nonconformist’ – late colonial literature, but for all that, an enjoyable read of solid, recreational story-telling with comfortably familiar tropes by a remarkable mind. What it is crying out for, however, is an author’s preface contextualising it all.
ANDREW PAUL WOOD is an independent cultural historian, curator, consultant and critic. His most recent book was a translated collection of the poetry of the German-Jewish refugee poet Karl Wolfskehl, and he is currently working on a book on Fiona Pardington’s Still Life work. He holds a PhD from the University of Canterbury.