BooksJune 28, 2016

Eleanor Catton’s nightmare: CK Stead interviewed by Steve Braunias


God almighty! It’s the return of the Spinoff live email interview, and the special guest is CK Stead, on the occasion of his new book of reviews and literary criticism.

Christian Karlson Stead turns 84 years old this year, and he’s probably fitter than you – the dude routinely swims out to a distant yellow buoy at Kohi in all weathers – and plainly smarter than you, his mind kept sharp partly due to his continuing practise as a literary critic par excellence. He’s in a class of his own as a reviewer in this country. He’s world class, with his critical writing regularly appearing in a range of journals such as the London Review of Books, the Financial Times, and, giddyingly, last year, the Spinoff Review of Books.

A selection appears in his typically lively and thoughtful new book Shelf Life, with its expository sub-title, “Reviews, replies and reminiscences”. Stead on Catton, Stead on Mansfield, Stead on Frame; also, Stead on Bain, and Stead on himself. It’s full of good writing and plain speaking, and argument and thinking; and it called for the return of the Spinoff live email interview, the practise that is revolutionising and maybe even saving journalism.

The interview took place last night (Monday, June 27) from 8pm to a little after 11pm. Stead was in his Parnell home, which he and his wife Kay bought in 1963: “It was small, run-down, and ridiculously cheap,” he notes in Shelf Life. They winter abroad. He allows that perhaps his favourite place in the world is the Cote d’Azur. Lunch at chez Stead is liable to be cheese, bread, cold meat, lettuce, tomato, and a glass of wine. There are a lot of paintings and books, and a shack out the back, where he has written most of his 14 novels and 12 books of verse. The legacy also includes nine books of criticism and literary thought. Too few writers work across the disciplines; there’s a foolish mistaken notion of poachers and gamekeepers, that the free-floating creative spirit mustn’t dabble in the dirt of marking other people’s work. But as Stead wrote in a previous collection, Book Self (2008): “It has never at any time seemed to me that there is a conflict between the role of poet and that of critic.”


Karl, welcome to the Spinoff live email interview, the practise that  some say is revolutionising and maybe even saving journalism. As a reader primarily of non-fiction, and as someone who loves anthologies of reviews and such, I really welcome this new book and find much to admire about it; and of course it allows an opportunity to see how your mind works.

One thing I liked was your introductory remark about the occasional pleasure or satisfaction to be had from writing and how that was superior to any loot earned from it, that it gave a “sort of peace to the spirit”, and you mention by example the pleasure of “an insightful paragraph of critical analysis”. That’s a reminder how seriously you take reviewing and critical thinking, which has occupied a lot of your writing over the years, and isn’t just something you write left-handed, as it were, between fiction and poetry.  Reviewing, too, like fiction and verse, has its epiphanies, and moments of something resembling inspiration. And it’s true you take reviewing seriously, isn’t it? It’s a responsibility, almost.

The idea I grew up with, or in to, was that literary criticism was almost a moral responsibility. You had to be clear in your mind about what you considered to be good and less good and perhaps even bad, in literary writing, and make it clear to yourself, and on occasion (either teaching or writing) to others.

When I became a writer, the major figure was TS Eliot who was both poet and critic – and a critic who had shifted the whole overview of literary history in the English language. It was also the time when FR Leavis was a dominating academic figure.  Leavis of course wasn’t liked because he had a messianic temperament and wanted devotees and acolytes – and had very little flexibility. He said in the ideal literary discourse one listened and then said, “Yes, but…” and tried to qualify what the other person had said.  But in practice Leavis didn’t say “Yes, but…” He said “NO, AND…”

Still he was a brilliant analyst of how poems worked and how they failed. He was a power. Eliot was subtler and more persuasive; but as time went by his literary judgments could be seen to shade off more and more into right-wing politics and Christian dogmatism. But I learned a lot from both of them – and especially that literary judgments mattered and that arriving at them, and explaining them, could and should demand the highest mental exercise you were capable of. Martin Amis who is quite a few years younger than I am says somewhere that he inherited the same seriousness about lit crit.

FR Leavis! I wish he were still around, or someone like him – domineering, vocal, disputatious, because literary criticism doesn’t seem such high stakes no more. The circus has moved on or something, and one of the things we’re left with is in-brief review columns and star ratings and Amazon recommends and shit like that. But Shelf Life holds the line! Books, and literature, taken seriously, and at length; and sometimes there’s that sense of relief, you know, where a reader can say: “Thank God someone has come out and said this.” By which I mean a critical remark of something fawned over, perhaps, and I guess I am thinking of the review of The Luminaries. “The story is shamelessly implausible… an untidy tangle of loose ends.” And this terrific line, which is given a paragraph unto itself, all the more to isolate its comedy: “All of this massive narrative has an astrological structure which I have allowed myself to pass over.”

The author wasn’t best pleased. What did you make of her comments about your review, with its “shitty headline”, and her general remarks about there being “no reviewing culture in NZ”, and that critics of The Luminaries were just a gang of old geezers?

Well Catton’s response was not unnatural or unusual, though it was not wise. 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! I was struck by the fact that Wallace Chapman (the Sunday Morning man) pointed out that I had reviewed The Luninaries less than favourably, and then it won the Booker! Did I regret my review he asked – with the implication that the Booker prize had proved me wrong and I must surely have been embarrassed. Naïve Wallace!

People don’t understand that books are no better or worse for the prizes they win. They are the same book, but with a prize – which means that six assorted people on a jury liked it.

Catton is right that there’s not a “reviewing culture” in NZ in the sense that there’s not one anywhere – not in the old sense of the mid 20th century when the “better class” of newspapers and journals had copious and serious book pages and very few illustrations. It was a literary age – ours now is a visual one.

Also I was not simply and only negative about Catton’s book. I found good things in it. Her talent is beyond dispute. But she complained about the headline [“All that glistens”] which was not mine. If she knew much about reviewing for London papers (my review was written for the Financial Times) she would know that the editor almost always chooses the headline. My own was the one I use in Shelf Life – “Virginia Woolf’s nightmare”.

Wallace Chapman! He seems constantly astonished by the world. It must be an act.

Further to “old geezers”, there’s a generous review of Kevin Ireland’s poetry in Shelf Life. You can’t be accused of nepotism or whatever because even though you two are the same vintage, you and Kevin have so little in common. You describe meeting him in Paris once, at something literary, and how the two of you were “cagey” with one another. He’s a bon vivant, and although you’re hardly a recluse neither are you one of the boys, and Kevin likes all that – men drinking, growing old disgracefully, etc.

But it’s also like you two are the last men standing from The Age of Frank. Both of you knew Frank Sargeson, very well in fact; both of you went to Esmonde Rd in the 50s, probably drank his famously awful wine; and it seems like another age, another epoch – there was hardly a New Zealand literature then. It’s such an appealing myth, too, isn’t it, that Takapuna scene, with Janet Frame in the hut out the back. You wrote a novel about that whole time, and Patrick Evans did, too.

If they were alive, Frank and Janet, and you and I were to go over tonight to Takapuna and paid a visit, what would it be like – I mean, what did they look like? What did their voices sound like? Would we be there for hours, was he a monologist, and would Frame be sitting quietly, observing?

No Kevin and I are not old mates. He was always one of the boys and suspicious of me as an academic I think. And he spent a large part of his adult life in the UK. But we get on well these days – and he was probably surprised to find me writing affirmatively about his poetry.

The Sargeson myth is nice because it’s more than a myth. Frank was a magic person (and a lot else – like a bastard at times, and paranoid – though not always without reason). That year when he and Janet and Kay and I spent so much of our leisure time together was a very rich year, which planted in my mind the ambition, not just to write, but to “be a New Zealand writer”. Of course it was (I was) naïve – a romantic dream. But Frank’s little fibro house and the big garden around it (now gone) and his sitting room-kitchen full of books and tomatoes and red peppers and salad and sophisticated cooking and (ghastly) Lemora wine – it has been described so often, but it was a knock-out for a young product of the Auckland suburbs. Frank was not really a monologist – not like Curnow (or Baxter) who was one. He liked to hold the floor sometimes, but he liked to listen too – especially to how you answered his boldly probing questions, about your sex life, your anxieties, your writing, everything except money which none of us had.

Janet was immensely shy at first – and her voice was always a small bird-voice. The 1950s Marilyn Monroe voice; but once she’d relaxed and trusted us she was good company, witty and clever; but not at all the strong clear-eyed and definitive personality that Patrick Evans makes her in his (nonetheless interesting) novel, Gifted.

It’s very hard to imagine going there now because he belongs to then. The now-ness of “now” would have horrified him, and the horror had begun already before he died – nearly 40 years ago. But you would have been entertained, for sure, and you would have put up with the Lemora and pretended to like it.


Okay we’ve gone over to Takapuna and pretended to enjoy that wine with Sargeson and Frame – let us now go to Italy, and hang with Ezra Pound! You write fascinatingly about “Old Ez” in Shelf Life, about the work, the poetry, also the Life. You mention that amazing thing he said late in life: “At 70 I realised that instead of being a lunatic I was a moron.” But maybe he was both and maybe he really ought to have been locked up in the asylum.

The thing I wanted to ask you though about Pound was where and when he made that remark – when Allen Ginsberg came to see him. I read that incredible account, by Ginsberg, in an obscure book of his which I bought from John Quilter’s second-hand bookstore in Plimmer Steps in like 1981 or something. I’ve never seen a single reference to it until now. It’s such a strange read. Ginsberg in the throes of cosmic bullshit, visiting old, resigned Pound – I read that, and thought, “Poor old guy! I bet he can’t wait for him to fucking leave.” Because Ginsberg was chanting, and talking the most appalling mystic rubbish, and Pound was confined to a wheelchair – he couldn’t just get up and go. Who was madder, do you think?

The problem with Ezra in old age was that he went largely silent, having been the talker-of-all-time, the know-all smart-arse unsilenceable anti-Semite literary raver.  How did his visitors cope with a silence out of which emerged, at widely spaced intervals, utterances of defeat and despair.  He was right that the Cantos were a botched job – but even a botched job by a genius has moments, and whole sections, of brilliance and beauty. What fascinates me is that he is the rare case of an Anglophone who experienced World War II from the other side – who took the side of the Axis and experienced the defeat – and then was locked away for 12 years only to save him from execution for treason. His politics and his anti-Semiticism were appalling – at their worst, disgusting – and yet he knew what Beauty (I give it a capital B) was and sometimes how to create it; and at least he was honest and open about it, unlike Eliot, who was sneaky and dishonest and took all the prizes (including the Nobel) after the War, but had really been a right-wing anti-Semite himself.

And yes the thought of Ezra having to listen to Ginsberg rave is comic, or tragic. Ez might have thought “Jesus, this is what I was like when I was young – mad!  I’d better listen and suffer as a kind of penance.”

I wonder if, in turn, someone visited Ginsberg when he was in old age, and bored him senseless – hang on, is this what’s playing out here, between us, in the Spinoff live email interview? Surely not!

A final inquiry. I really liked the Chianti diary section in Shelf Life and its glimpse into your life and who you are. I love the critical writings but equally I like the way a diary takes you backstage, as it were, ferrets around at the back of the shop. And you mention going to see your quack, and saying to her: “The time must come when one has to think about finding the door.”

How do you feel about that remark now? And, before you get to that door, are you thinking of writing another autobiographical book-length work – after the age of 23, when your 2010 memoir South West of Eden finishes? Because at 23, you were a fairly blameless individual, stumbling hither and tither in the usual nature of youth. After 23, there is the adult world, and adult mistakes to make – is there a revelatory work to come?

Glad you liked the Chianti diary – that would be because I liked being there and it shows in the writing. And yes from time to time I go to a file which contains a continuation of my life after the age of 23, the point it reached at the end of South West of Eden, where my “blameless life” ceased to be quite blameless and continued abroad and back and abroad again – and so on. I don’t know how it will proceed and how much truth it will tell. I just go where it leads and think, well, it may reach an end (as distinct from The End) and be published, or it may still be lying there, finished or not, when I die, a problem for someone else to deal with. All I can say at the moment is that I think it will not be without interest, and publishable.

The clever doctor to whom I spoke about “finding the door” replied “Yes, but it must be the right door” – a good response, except that she wasn’t offering to help me find it – and I was probably regretting I was too old to invite her for lunch. People of my age think often about that door, and mostly don’t fear it but do fear disablement and protracted dying. I think one should be allowed to have a pill in the bathroom cupboard, as in the State of Oregon, to see oneself off.

Meanwhile, I go on writing…

Shelf Life (Auckland University Press, $45) by CK Stead is available at Unity Books.

The Spinoff Review of Books is proudly brought to you by Unity Books, recently named 2020 International Book Store of the Year, London Book Fair, and Creative New Zealand. Visit Unity Books Wellington or Unity Books Auckland online stores today. 

Mad Chapman, Editor
Aotearoa continues to adapt to a new reality and The Spinoff is right there, sorting fact from fiction to bring you the latest updates and biggest stories. Help us continue this coverage, and so much more, by supporting The Spinoff Members.Madeleine Chapman, EditorJoin Members

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