C. K. Stead
The Name on the Door Is Not Mine
Karl Stead is in his 80s now and for as long as anyone can remember he has been New Zealand’s leading literary critic. It was in the 1960s that he wrote The New Poetic, a book that shed light on T. S. Eliot by suggesting that The Waste Land was a poetry of breakdown and Four Quartets was a very uneven work not simply amenable to recuperation by the suggestion that it was deliberately so.
And he could nail what he didn’t like in a Peter Carey novel and talk with gravity and clear-mindedness about any literary thing under the sun.
Stead is also a writer. This new and selected volume of his stories testifies to the charm and elegance he brings to this secondary profession, but it doesn’t persuade us that fiction, in the firmament of C. K. Stead’s talents, is anything other than a second fiddle.
These stories will soothe the mind with their ease and their companionable charm, and they’re witty and literate in a let-me-tell-you-the-one-about-Ode-on-a-Grecian-Urn way, but they are bland without brilliance, they charm with their mildness, and they exist – amiably and commendably – in the suburbs of literary pleasure. The city, when it’s taken by storm, never mind if it’s by some barbarian such as Christos Tsiolkas, is something else again.
None of which is to deny Stead’s readability or his reliability. This is also, for what it’s worth, a fiction that will appeal to anyone who’s attracted to the literary side of literacy. There’s nothing wrong with a storyteller who will quote Nashe’s “Brightness falls from the air”, from one of the greatest lyric poems in the language, “A Litany in Time of Plague”. It’s just that if you compare this habit of mind with a great short story writer such as Helen Simpson when she evokes Donne’s “A Nocturnal Upon St. Lucy’s Day”, you’ll see the difference: she does it functionally and she’s competitive with Donne, Stead just can’t resist a quote.
But he can be quite good fun. A British girl who has had her hassles with mental affliction and has been on lithium goes out in Paris with a New Zealand professor married to a great French scholar of Flaubert. They’re far from the centre of the city when the wife – who no longer has much intimate time for him – rings about a reference she wants for her Pléiade edition of the great Gustave. She twigs to the girl, and the academic hack with a bit of a heart has no further contact with her.
That’s the opening over in this match and it’s better than average because the savoir faire of the central figure at least turns round and looks at itself, or fails to, with a degree of self-doubt, and we’re left wondering. The “rue Parrot” of its title is nice, too, in a Julian Barnes world.
Though it’s precisely that Barnesian quality, of variation and contour, of sheen and irony, that Stead tends to lack. In the prototypical C. K. Stead story, a middle-aged academic or writer, almost certainly from New Zealand, certainly tied up with English literature, does something or other – probably small and off-centre – far from home.
There’s a story about this recurrent type writing a novel, a tale of two cities, about Los Angeles and Auckland, within cooee of that lustrously beautiful other place, Sydney – harbourside Sydney in particular.
It’s the year of the bicentenary and an old Australian mate – a man of amiable coarseness who loathes Poms and bludgers and Kiwis, or affects to – lies dying and arranges for the Stead figure to place bets for him, or so he thinks. It’s a good story because the old Aussie mongrel gets weaker by the day and Stead pays homage to this in a way that’s alert and poignant.
He’s at his best when he writes dialogue and when he conjures drama, generally of a limited and local kind, rather than in his more sweeping and summarising strategies.
The latter tendency gets in the way of the longish story with which the volume ends and that gives it its title. The Kiwi who quotes Nashe is in Canada, occupying the office of an academic poet who’s a legend only in his own locality. The poet-professor disappears in the mountains of Austria, and the Aucklander becomes a world authority on his work and gains a much bigger audience for it. Then there’s a big surprise.
But the story indicates the relative weakness of the collection – it’s the sketch of a novel Stead can’t quite be bothered writing. The outline it preserves has its interest, though again you get a strong whiff of the sulphur of some circle of hell whenever, as ever, the protagonist or central observing intelligence of a Stead story takes his bearings from an English department. It’s not that he does so offensively, or that they’re the object of irrational loathing – or, in fact, anything as hilarious or loathsome as they are in real life – but they represent such a natural locale for the complacency and cultivation of a narrator like this.
Is it that he’s never looked out too far or leaned in too deep? Of course not. These stories testify to admirable enough moral qualities, it’s just that literature gets in his way, a bit self-abortingly.
As a critic, Stead is penetrating, wise, with a wild side to his wit that can savage as it sparkles.
But it’s a pity that he didn’t, like the sage and stylish J. I. M. Stewart (the Scot who was professor in Adelaide at the time of Ern Malley), turn his writerly foibles to popular fiction. As Michael Innes, Stewart created the detective Sir John Appleby of Scotland Yard, who quotes Aeschylus in Greek and Byron by the barrel load. The opulence of those stories leads some people to discover the sober terse economy of his criticism – sensitive to psychoanalysis, alert to weaknesses of plotting, with no element of excess. QSS
Allen & Unwin, 304pp, $32.99
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Feb 25, 2017 as "C. K. Stead, The Name on the Door Is Not Mine". Subscribe here.