This review was originally published in Landfall 242 and is republished here in memory of Stephen Stratford (1953–2021). A fine editor and reviewer, Stratford made an invaluable contribution to Aotearoa literature over many years.
Life as a Novel: A biography of Maurice Shadbolt, Volume 2 1973–2004 by Philip Temple (David Ling Publishing Limited, 2021), 352pp, $44.99
Another marvellous performance from Philip Temple with multiple plots and time-lines expertly interwoven. As with Volume 1, it is a triumph of research and narrative skill. But what is missing is a subtitle. Perhaps this quote from Shadbolt: ‘What a human muddle I leave in my wake.’
God, this book is grim reading. Not the author’s fault—it is entirely the subject’s. There are many upsetting passages but none more so than when Shadbolt’s daughter Tui came up from Wellington by train, on her own, and he refused to see her. She was twelve.
Volume 1 seemed at times a bonk-buster, and Volume 2 does not disappoint in this regard. At the launch of A Touch of Clay, Temple tells us, a young English lecturer asked Shadbolt ‘how he was feeling. “Lonely,” he said.’ It worked: ‘The young lecturer, one of several moths to the flame, attended to his loneliness over the days following the launch.’
At one point in London Shadbolt was entangled with three women, none of whom seemed to know the other relationships were going on. When he was with Fleur Adcock she told him he ‘was a shit’ after he made advances to Bridget Armstrong. His engagement to Armstrong was news to his then partner, who ‘was devastated’ when the Herald reported it. When he was married to Armstrong, they went to spend the weekend with ‘actor Bruce Purchase and his wife, Elspeth Sandys’, and my heart sank because I knew what was coming:
[H]e began to make up to her while Purchase and Bridget were drinking hard together in another room … Maurice followed this encounter by writing romantic overtures to Sandys until she told him to stop.
After Armstrong had left the marriage and was living again in London, Shadbolt went to Europe on Reader’s Digest assignments and let himself into Armstrong’s house, ‘causing her shock and fury when he opened the door on her return home’. Her friend Caroline Ireland threatened to go round with an axe if he came back. (She would have, too.)
After Armstrong was out forever, Shadbolt wrote to Sandys: ‘I fell in love with you years ago … The other women, the wives, they were all substitutes for you.’ Temple, who has an excellent bullshit-detector, comments: ‘Successfully capturing a new wife was like resolving the structural problems of a novel. Could he make it work? Could he sell it?’ At the same time, Shadbolt was writing to and phoning ex-lover Beverley Bergen. It all seems a bit pathetic, this inability to live without a woman in the house (‘I am frighteningly dependent on females’).
Later, when Shadbolt had successfully captured Sandys and she wanted to spend half the year in England, where her career was, Temple notes his protest: ‘But you must be with me.’ Temple adds drily that after writing the first 150,000 words of The Lovelock Version ‘he had to take a break, it was time to get married again’. Early on,
To his closest male friends he would boast about his endless conquests, claiming that the difference between an ordinary fornicator and him was that he made women fall in love with him … It had become an addiction to seduction.
I found all these bad-behaviour stories very lowering. Fortunately, there is much more to the book than this gossipy who’s-had-who stuff. The wider cultural context makes the book as much a social history as a life of a writer. There is the baleful long-term effect of cost overruns of the television series The Governor, PM Robert Muldoon’s subsequent refusal to raise the licence fee and the knock-on effect of that on Ian Cross’s vision for TV One and TV Two (we are still suffering the consequences); how that ‘sounded the death knell for serious drama’, including the projected television adaptation of Shadbolt’s novel Strangers and Journeys, which was a major financial blow; and the sheer amount of work that goes into making a TV documentary.
Temple is outstanding on the business side of the writing life. He is a good guide to the Authors’ Fund since he knows as much about it as anyone, and how precarious it was in the early days—it was subject to the iron whims of Muldoon. There are sales figures; inventories of publishers’ and booksellers’ stock; how Shadbolt’s Shell Guide was not selling because of Diana and Jeremy Pope’s rival Mobil Guide (well, theirs was much better); and fees from Reader’s Digest articles and books. The money is astonishing: Shadbolt received $65,000 for the text for the 1988 Reader’s Digest Guide to New Zealand (which is many times what I was paid for the 1998 edition). In 1984 he wrote 9000 words about the Erebus Inquiry for Reader’s Digest ($8000) and a script for a Gallipoli doco ($12,000); he also sold the film rights to Among the Cinders ($2000 or so). These are all in 1984 dollars.
‘Money rolls in, but what for?’ he wrote then. ‘Unless to keep me going as a novelist, there’s no sense.’ There’s no pleasing some people.
Journalism wasn’t just useful for the money: ‘In that age of post-Pill and pre-AIDS he could look forward to frequent amatory encounters as he travelled Europe for Reader’s Digest, all expenses paid.’ Yet despite these apparent successes, there are many phrases in this account along the lines of ‘tumultuous personal life’, ‘Maurice’s equilibrium was fragile’, ‘the recurrent chaos of his domestic life’, ‘a refuge from the slowly collapsing domestic environment beyond his bush studio’. Did I mention that this was grim reading? But Temple is remarkably non-judgmental: he describes one journal entry as ‘almost histrionic self-pity’, the kindest use of ‘almost’ I have seen.
Meanwhile, Shadbolt’s drama was not only with women and matters of money. In a rehearsal for the play Once on Chunuk Bair, director Ian Mune wanted cuts. Mune later wrote, Temple tells us: ‘If challenged, [Maurice] will explain in excruciating detail why every word was essential.’ In the Shadbolt version: ‘Ian and I had marvellous rapport in cutting.’ It was the same with the Gallipoli television documentary where, Chris Pugsley says, they would debate a word for ‘what seemed like hours’. Shadbolt seems to have been writing for the page, not the stage; actors and directors saw scripts as words that were to be spoken—they had to work that way. Very different propositions.
Then there are the mental health issues. There is a lot of depression but also a fair bit of what seems its flipside: mania. Each new relationship/marriage is, at last, the one. Here, Temple captures Shadbolt’s giddiness at new love: ‘The marvellous thing about B[ridget] is that I can talk to her about my work—the first time this has truly been so.’ To which I would respond: ‘Bollocks.’ Armstrong is as sharp as anyone I know, but he had already had relationships with Marilyn Duckworth and Fleur Adcock, both of whom know quite a bit about writing.
Temple also deftly tackles Shadbolt’s verdicts on his books: ‘As usual he thought [The Lovelock Version] was by far the best thing he had written.’ He quotes Shadbolt himself: ‘[I]t should be magnificent—something the like of which literature has never seen.’ And: ‘I make bold to say that no one has written a novel like it.’ Temple points out the heavy influence of Marquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude, but concedes it was something new in Australasian fiction. As for Season of the Jew, it was ‘ready to walk out into the world and what a book! No one can take this triumph from me.’
Ah yes, Season of the Jew. As Temple lays out, When the War is Over by Shadbolt’s American friend Stephen Becker was a model for it; unforgivably, Shadbolt did not acknowledge this. When he and Armstrong visited Becker, she started reading the American novel and ‘soon exclaimed to Maurice, “It’s exactly the same as Season of the Jew. It’s exactly the same book. The same language!” He grabbed the book and said, “Don’t you dare mention it, don’t you dare!”’
There is an injection of fizz whenever Temple quotes Armstrong. One can hear her marvellous voice—she is our own Joan Greenwood. Take, for example, this moment, when she
recounts that, on the ’plane from London, Maurice asked about her taste in music and, when she hesitated, told her, ‘Well I only like Mahler and Sibelius.’ ‘Oh Christ,’ she thought.
At times Shadbolt’s notorious hypochondria looks suspiciously like dodging his financial obligations. He was slippery with money, especially with his Reader’s Digest commissions: ‘The magazine met the costs of intra-European travel. To magnify his income, he claimed those European expenses against income in his tax returns; but kept the Digest expense payments in a separate bank account and did not declare them.’
When Shadbolt pleaded poverty, Temple records his net income for that year as $87,000, which put him ‘in the top five per cent of all income earners’.
Then there is the weird relationship with Michael King, who as a hustling freelance historian tried to get in on Shadbolt’s book of the television documentary about Gallipoli. There are four major spats. The first was over King’s Listener review of A Touch of Clay, which Temple sees as ‘a thorough and fair review, but brutally honest’. Next, King objected to Shadbolt’s version of Lt-Col William Malone in The Lovelock Version and wrote a negative review for Metro of Voices of Gallipoli. Then, Shadbolt assumed that King wrote a ‘wretched little paragraph’ critical of him in Metro’s ‘Felicity Ferret’ column. He didn’t—I did—but the information in it came from King, who was adept at lobbing hand grenades and being some distance away whistling innocently when they exploded.
The worst spat was when King got the page proofs to review One of Ben’s for Metro and showed CK Stead the page where Shadbolt described him as ‘elderly, bitter and bald’ (Stead was sixty). Temple says, quite rightly, ‘King’s action was utterly unethical; especially since he had already told [publisher David] Ling the phrase might be inflammatory and he and Maurice decided to remove it. King was not invited to the launch.’
King’s subsequent Landfall review of One of Ben’s quoted the passage deleted from the book. I don’t know of a shabbier episode in our literary life.
For my taste there is a bit much showing of the author’s political views. There is a snark about Muldoon winning an FPP election he wouldn’t have under MMP (voting systems are an enthusiasm of the author’s); the destruction of an Auckland theatre is blamed on Roger Douglas when it was under Labour mayor Cath Tizard; and an endnote to a paragraph about academics disparaging professional writers says, ‘More recently, writers who wish to enter the halls of literary recognition should complete a degree in creative writing from an approved institution.’ Still, in a seven-year project an author may be forgiven the occasional tiny indulgence.
The Epilogue is a superb summary of Shadbolt’s oeuvre—the fiction, nonfiction, journalism, drama, TV docos, the lot. The bibliography is as much information as one would want; discussions of the novels that occur throughout this volume are as illuminating as one would expect from a writer and reader as thoughtful as Temple. Publisher David Ling’s contribution must be applauded too, not least his provision, as in Volume 1, of an exemplary index by Diane Lowther.
This is often an awful story, but it is an outstanding book.
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