A Sort of Mental Pinch: some thoughts on
Conversation in a Train and other critical writing by Frank Sargeson
Selected and edited by Kevin Cunningham
Auckland University Press and Oxford University Press 1983
Published with the assistance of the New Zealand Literary Fund
Printed at the University of Auckland Bindery
Typographical design by Neysa Moss
This book is a collection of Frank Sargeson’s critical, autobiographical and occasional writing, over forty-five years. Some of the work was delivered as radio broadcasts or as addresses to literary groups. Some was in the form of reviews of particular books, published in the Listener, Landfall, or Tomorrow. Sargeson’s original titles have been replaced with descriptive titles, such as ‘D. H. Lawrence’ or ‘Can a New Zealand Writer Live by his Writing’? Interestingly, the selection is presented in chronological order, the first from 1935, when Sargeson was thirty two, and the latest from 1980, two years before he died.
Being a rather shallow person with a fondness for trains, I chose the book for its title, although it also fits within my current enthusiasm for reading New Zealand writers from before my own conscious reading time. I am very glad to have found it. The chronological order of the chapters did not catch my eye on first reading, but now that it has, I will probably go back and consider the treatment of some of the ideas over time.
About five years ago it dawned on me that my own writing, and probably thinking, fits into the preoccupations of the time in New Zealand when writers were consciously or unconsciously constructing, or at least thinking about whether they could or should construct, an ‘identity’ for themselves, as whatever comes next after settlers and soldiers, in colonial activity. Not that I feel I am English. Far from it. But I know I do not and will never have the unquestioned belonging that might come from knowing where your ancestors were buried or even what their names were.
Brasch describes this state of mind in his poem ‘The Land and the People III’ from his 1939 book The Land and the People and Other Poems:
And the newcomer heart
Needing slow-paced generations, the shock
Of recognition after long heedlessness,
Routine and ripening memory,
To make of new air, new earth, part
Of its own rhythm and impetus,
Moves gauchely still, half alien.
Sargeson has much to say about what problems face a writer in New Zealand. Today I am just going to pick out three ideas from ‘Writing a Novel’, Chapter 11 of the collection and point to them as things I think I need to think about more.
The first is his question about what kind of English language should be used to write about New Zealand life. Would there be somewhere a kind of language which did not copy the way English writers described English lives? He thought there needed to be, and if it couldn’t be found, then it was his job to create it. Would it be plain or visual or auditory or all the above? He thought that each time he wrote a new short story, this was as much his task as the story.
The second question he introduces like this:
‘…we New Zealanders are European, and the great majority of us have our recent origins in some part of the British Isles – but we live at the other end of the world. I imagine I can hear listeners saying, How obvious!, and How tedious to listen to what is so obvious! Yet it must be repeated again and again – a sort of mental pinch as it were, to wake ourselves up – otherwise we shall go on to the end of time, representing snow storms in our shop windows at Christmas, when the sun is melting the asphalt pavement… I fancy that one of the very first things the New Zealand novelist must be aware of, is the large number of distortions which he has to deal with.’
From today you could not write ‘we New Zealanders are European’, because it is so clearly excludes indigenous New Zealanders, and there is the masculine pronoun to mentally erase and replace, but the idea of the pinch and the distortions feel to me very worth pursuing.
The third question that fascinated me was this one:
‘What was the European doing in this country? Had he the right to be here? What were the ideas and ways of life that he had brought with him, and how had they developed? Was a society being built up that could flourish, or was the European’s occupation of these islands a sort of tenancy, which would eventually be terminated?
It is probably just lack of knowledge of the period, but I was surprised to see this possibility of a European ‘tenancy’ sitting in the middle of a 1950 radio broadcast.
That might be the next topic for my blog.