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‘I was lying naked in the big bed, just awake, and Javine beside me was running her hands over her thighs’: sex and CK Stead

Philip Matthews reviews CK Stead’s new short story collection, which has been longlisted for the 2017 Ockham national book awards. 

To review CK Stead is to negotiate personal and political minefields. Let’s cover the personal first. Every reviewer of Stead worries that they might be poking a bear with a stick and cautiously expects a response. Ten years ago I wrote a fairly negative piece in the Listener about the novel My Name is Judas and some covert emails came in after publication. That was brave, other reviewers said in secret. Brave? Why do you say that? Then the emails from Stead arrived.

Actually, they weren’t so bad. But it was an unusual thing to have a review questioned like that. It was as though the student had dared to criticise the teacher. His emails had that tone of the master feeling disgruntled. But I wondered, why do that? Where does it get him? In an interview at The Spinoff a few months ago, Stead said much the same thing: “It takes a long time to learn, if you ever do learn it, not to respond to negative reviews – unless you can do it at length and with withering wit!” The emails were neither long nor withering, but I didn’t really mind them either. There was something almost touching about the anxiety he must have felt and tried to disguise.

156410719As for the political minefield, there are examples throughout the new short story collection The Name on the Door is Not Mine. These 12 stories, written between the 1960s and this decade, can seem like amusing provocations of his critics, and not just the literary ones but those who took exception to Stead’s position, in the 1980s and 1990s more than now, as a stern opponent of intellectual faddishness. He was against philosophers with French names, feminists, politically correct “good boys” and so on. Race was in there as well. You still find people who can quote from his review of The Bone People.

This is all history, part of the complex mix that makes up Stead and his public image. Alongside the provocations, there is the sense or perhaps fear that you are sometimes getting disguised gossip or revenge served cold, often with a version of Stead narrating the story or receiving it from an eyewitness. It’s metafiction that is more complex than it first appears and it serves a biographical purpose, existing in the margins of his work as a poet, academic critic, social critic and novelist.

The most notorious example of all this – the story as revenge, the story as a dark, complicated joke about biography and reputation – is “Last season’s man”, which won the Sunday Times EFG Short Story Award in 2010. It created a typically Stead-ish uproar back home when it was widely understood to be a response to a legendary dissing by the late Nigel Cox. Cox’s essay, “Leading with his Chin”, ran in Quote Unquote magazine in 1994 and argued that Stead was a spent force as a writer – an idea that has been contradicted by his output over the 22 years since – and that he had maintained his central place in New Zealand culture by picking fights and acting innocent when the attacked answered back. He was a master of the spat or the feud. In “Last season’s man”, which is set in the Croatian literary scene to disguise the source, an older writer sleeps with and then marries the widow of a younger, dead writer who had destroyed him in print. For some of Cox’s friends, this was in bad taste and Stead confirmed one of Cox’s original points by doing his “who, me?” act when accused.

A YOUNGER AND MORE HIRSUTE CK STEAD IN 1977 SURROUNDED BY SOME COOL LOOKING DUDES

A YOUNGER AND MORE HIRSUTE CK STEAD IN 1977 SURROUNDED BY SOME COOL LOOKING DUDES

Again, this is history. Six years later, after the outrage has cooled, you can appreciate and maybe even admire “Last season’s man” as a daring and unusually cruel treatment of one of Stead’s great themes, which is how literary reputations are made and maintained. This is Stead as contrarian or skeptic, or possibly as academic critic. How many literary reputations have been built on a dark secret or even a lie? How often are great writers fashionable simply because of politics?

And when we talk about politics, we’re mostly talking about race and feminism. So it’s fitting that the story “Determined things to Destiny” is a variation on the legend of Ted Hughes and Sylvia Plath, with Stead wondering if Hughes deserves to be remembered as the villain and Plath as the martyr. The story is more complicated than that but those political questions animate it. The narrator of the story knew the fictional scientist Claudia Strange at Cambridge. She killed herself and her scientist boyfriend Jack Gibbs, “the hulk of her dreams”, went on to become successful and famous.

Change the names and this could be an opinion on the way people have talked about Hughes and Plath: “I have thought about her often in the intervening decades, and what strikes me always are the ironies – that the woman who demanded brawn, and died for love of a man, should have become a hero of radical feminism; that the man who made the world aware of her genius should be represented as the thief of her fame; that the survivor, Jack, should be silenced by the death which has given her a public voice … It is not just traditional literature that asks for heroes and villains. Ideology clamours for them even more, while perhaps reality, if we can only see it clearly, permits of neither.”

Stead pushes it even further, and inserts himself into the Hughes and Plath story as a bystander who could have kept Plath/Claudia alive if he had slept with her: “She wanted me to fuck her; and not for her pleasure, nor for mine. At that moment I did not exist except as an instrument of revenge against Jack Gibbs.”

The Hughes/Plath parallels seem obvious, but I think I wouldn’t have spotted the connection to Nigel Cox in “Last season’s man” if it hadn’t been pointed out in 2010. Which means you wonder who the writers in other stories might be. The New Zealander in Paris who gave up poetry for the academic life and married a smart French woman but is having an affair with a troubled student. Is that someone we know? How about the New Zealander in Sydney, estranged from his wife and struggling with a novel set in Auckland and Los Angeles? Or the would-be writer in the south of France in the early 1970s, caught up in a La Dolce Vita-ish scene and sleeping with a local woman while also keen on the wife of another New Zealand writer on a residency? Parts of these stories intersect with Stead’s biography – he could be the writer doing the French residency rather than the philandering journalist who tries to write fiction – and reveal another lasting theme, which is the lure of other places.

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The typical hero or narrator is an academic or writer working or studying abroad or reflecting wistfully on the time he spent in more sophisticated countries. One discovers “the secret charm of Paris”. Another thinks Sydney is like “a first taste of Europe”. A third remembers “the charm of rural England … a charm which, for one of my colonial background and education, was always powerful”. Writers of Stead’s generation were torn between the pull of overseas and the desire to make a literary culture here. Stead stayed but you can sense that he plays out some of the what-ifs in his stories. It leads to a melancholy reflectiveness that you might not expect.

Sex is part of the lure of overseas. There is even a story called “Sex in America” which contains the unforgettable image of our hero – a salesman this time, not a writer – enjoying vigorous sex with a French woman against the window of a San Francisco hotel room at night as the hotel next door burns in front of them. “The vaguely diffused light from the night city gleams on the perfect white curve of her buttocks … She is like some lovely animal.” Sex is pretty good in France too: “I was lying naked in the big bed, just awake, and Javine beside me was running her hands over her thighs and telling me she was a good Catholic.” Meanwhile in exotic Croatia: “Two nights later they were lying together naked on his bed holding hands and staring at the ceiling. The sliding doors were open on to the terrace.” In snowy Canada, he fantasises about a student on the bus spilling the contents of her bag across his lap but he settles for the feminist literature professor: “I’m wondering where in her life sexual politics, as she calls it, ceases to be political and is permitted to re-inhabit its long social and biological history.”

That last story was a product of the 1990s that would be as relevant on North American campuses today. “Class, race, gender: a post-colonial yarn” comes from the same era. It’s an identity politics joke with a surprising punchline and some pretty creaky stereotypes of posh and working-class Brits. But stereotypes are the point of it.

You can’t fault his skill or control of language. The writing is elegant throughout. It feels unforced, often funny, nearly always intelligent. As meditations on Stead’s interests in literature, politics and identity, the stories add up to a fascinating and original project and the sequencing is clever. But the story I thought about the most is the one that broke with his conventions. “A Fitting Tribute” goes back to the 1960s (a short film was made of it in the 1980s). It’s fair to say it’s a classic New Zealand short story that suggests another what-if or path not taken by Stead. It is about reputation, but in a different way to the later stories about writers and academic politics. A cult has sprung up around the mysterious Julian Harp who flew one day in the Auckland Domain using wings he made himself. There is a lot in this story about our desires for homemade heroes and New Zealand non-conformity and eccentricity, but there is no trace of bitterness and the imaginative leap that Stead took seems to have been so much greater.


The Name on the Door is Not Mine: Stories new and selected (Allen & Unwin, $36.99) by CK Stead is available at Unity Books.

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