Vincent O’Sullivan at Verb Readers & Writers Festival 2022 (Photo: Rebecca McMillan)
Vincent O’Sullivan at Verb Readers & Writers Festival 2022 (Photo: Rebecca McMillan)

BooksApril 29, 2024

‘Sheer glitter ringing about’: Emma Neale remembers Vincent O’Sullivan

Vincent O’Sullivan at Verb Readers & Writers Festival 2022 (Photo: Rebecca McMillan)
Vincent O’Sullivan at Verb Readers & Writers Festival 2022 (Photo: Rebecca McMillan)

News that the great writer Vincent O’Sullivan has died has spurred a wave of tributes. Here, fellow writer Emma Neale remembers her friend and colleague.

I have a bright string of memories of Vince. The earliest moments are of sitting as a young student in his lectures on Katherine Mansfield, where his own prose style seemed as gem hard, incisive yet subtle as hers, and where he unfolded the intricate mechanisms of her writing in a way that taught me how to let a reading plumb well below the surface gleam of a story.

Just after my honours year, when I was about 21, I worked with Vince as part of the editorial committee on the very early issues of New Zealand Booksin an apprenticeship I was approached for because they felt they needed a younger perspective. They also wanted to foster new critical voices, a new generation of literary editors. Vince had a role in selecting me: he was HOD English at Victoria University Wellington during my undergraduate degree. It was a quiet and powerful act of generosity and a really significant training period for me.

During those New Zealand Books meetings, we talked about the nature of a literary periodical and reviews; the committee asked me to write some fiction reviews, and trialled me in proof-reading and copy-editing. Yet in the ill-disciplined, random way of memory, one of the most vivid things I remember isn’t, say, the details of one debate about a particularly vicious letter in response to a review, and how to handle it (for I can’t remember the exact book, the letter writer, nor the reviewer in question), but a day when three committee members – the musicologist and editor John Thomson, the poet Lauris Edmond, and Vince himself – all watched me unchain my bike from a lamp post, and climb back onto it after a long meeting. I was mortified to have spectators, just wanted them all to get into their cars and drive away: but they stood back as if to watch the wonder of an unlikely lift-off, the elderly John shaking his head and saying something like, “Goodness me, are you sure?” Then Vince cracked a comment about the technique I’d hit on for tucking up my skirt between my legs and into my waistband as temporary culottes. “Ah, rational dress!” he said. “Mansfield and the New Woman would approve.”

When I was working on my PhD in London, at UCL, Vincent’s literary criticism, and his co-editions (with Margaret Scott) of Mansfield’s Collected Letters, were lamps on a dark, winding path. The gorgeous clarity and readability of his prose, the balance of intellect and feeling, were something that kept me oriented and steady when faced with a vast and choppy sea of recondite, rebarbative, often poorly-expressed theory and criticism. Vince’s work as a scholar was the main thing that convinced me to try a shot at academia: I never achieved the grace and ease he wielded. (He also set an astonishing example in sustaining his own creative work in multiple genres over such a long career: an extraordinary achievement.)

Vincent O’Sullivan’s work has spanned decades.

From the past seven to eight years, I have memories of coffees and lunches here in Dunedin, all full of his warm literary talk, his sharp insights, encouragement and mischief. I particularly loved the subversive, honed one-liners he’d say sotto voce to me (and to many others, I’m sure) at book launches. They felt like notes passed from the most intelligent tearaway in the class: they often skewered hypocrisy, pomposity and blaggards.

One more specific anecdote: when Vince, Sue Wootton, Lynley Edmeades and I were all long-listed at the Ockham New Zealand Books Awards in 2017, I organised a drink for we three Dunendites to celebrate, squeezing some shared joy in together, before whatever the next phase of culling in the awards process would bring. We all invited partners; and my husband and I took along our children. Our youngest son, then aged six, was going through a phase where he liked to ask any gathered company what was the worst, naughtiest thing they had ever done. My memory is that Vince said he certainly wouldn’t be able to tell him that. So our son said, “Well, the naughtiest one you can share.” And Vince leaned both elbows on the table and said, “Sometimes, when small children have wanted to play with me, I’ve told them I was busy, when I wasn’t. That was very bad of me, I think.” After which he and our son shared a long thoughtful look and they both took a slow careful pull at their drinks.

I might not have his phrasing exact, but it was a show-stopper. So many angles glint there – comic, wry, sad, sly, dark, regretful – in that one clear answer, designed for both a young boy and the assorted adult listeners.

It sits alongside lines of his poetry I have in my head:

“The child consoles the cup of woven air”

“A single high buzzard / slips in the raw sky / its flaw through glass”

“Yet a day when you don’t expect it,
sheer glitter ringing about
as if all the cutlery drawers of Kelburn
had been tipped out”

“The smile that opens simply as a dove’s wings
and what is in flight is everything, everything.”

“This is the way it should be,
looking at things together,
the word that shimmers, simply.”

Vince’s intelligence, erudition, scholarship, creativity, his professional encouragement and generosity are already sorely missed. My heart hurts for Helen and the rest of his family.

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