- - Monday, February 13, 2017



By C.K. Stead

Auckland University Press/IPG, $44.99, 446 pages

For a country with a population of only a little more than four-and-a-half million, New Zealand has produced more than its fair share of notable writers, starting a century ago with Katherine Mansfield, whose short stories are rightly considered some of the best in the English language. In the second half of the 20th century, there was Janet Frame and more recently, the poet and short story writer Keri Hulme, whose only novel, “The Bone People,” won Britain’s prestigious Booker Prize in 1985.

The 84-year old Christian Karlson Stead, called Karl and published under the name C.K. Stead, has not received quite the worldwide renown of these other writers, but he has produced a much larger body of work and is highly esteemed in his own nation, where he is currently its poet laureate and is one of only two writers to hold its most esteemed honor, The Order of New Zealand. Professor of English for decades at the University of Auckland, he thinks of himself primarily as a poet. But he is also a prolific critic in essays and book reviews and retired from his academic post in 1985 in order to write more novels, something he had managed to do anyway from his 20s. He has provided New Zealand literature with bulk, all of it of high quality, and “Shelf Life: Reviews, Replies, and Reminiscences,” as its subtitle indicates, gives us a glimpse of the man behind all those works.

Of course, writing in the English language and doing graduate work in England has helped to establish this writer’s solid reputation in what has been called the most British of Dominion’s mother country’s literary scene. He would bridle, I think, at that maternal locution, being a critic of what he saw as for too long a reflexive, uncritical adherence to home, hearth and empire. But although he is no monarchist, he did accept the C.B.E. (Commander of the Order of the British Empire) from the crown and, while an enthusiast for a distinctly New Zealand literature amid the larger culture, he is no narrow nationalist and wary of political posturing.

Mr. Stead’s direct, honest, reflective style, his voice if you will, is apparent right from the start: “Putting together a collection of this kind makes me more aware than I usually am of the categories in which I have worked.” And he goes on to say that it is not the many diverse opportunities for travel and laurels he has received that really matter to him: “But the real rewards came when you knew, on your own internal scale of things, that you had written something not just good, but uniquely your own. A poem, a short story or chapter — even a page — of fiction; a witty review or an insightful paragraph of critical analysis: whatever it happened to be, if the internal monitor told you it was good, that was where true satisfaction, a sort of peace to the spirit, was to be found.”

It is apparent in this statement — and throughout this book — that here is that rare critic who is as astute about himself as he is about his fellow craftsmen.

Unsurprisingly, there is a lot about Katherine Mansfield and his other compatriots here, but also valuable assessments of British writers like Stephen Spender, whom he knew well, and others like T.S. Eliot and Virginia Woolf whom he did not. As an academic critic, he was no admirer of the increasing hegemony of the theoretical and could be fiercely devastating in his critiques, as indeed he was when puncturing enduring myths and nostrums about literary icons.

He thinks that he has become somewhat kinder and gentler in the more recent pieces represented here, but you can still see flashes of the old fire. What is perhaps most interesting to me about Mr. Stead is that, although a lifelong leftist, he is impatient with political correctness and emphasis on affirmative action, particularly when these infringe on his beloved literary turf: “Having in my writings marked myself out as a political liberal, I discovered that to then question any part of the liberal package could bring down on one’s head the wrath reserved for the apostate.”

He is far too independent and free a spirit to follow blindly any line and is staunch in adhering to his individualism and its consequent worldview.

The measure of the man is strikingly on display in a choice of words about his writing here — and elsewhere — that few others would so phrase: “Here the voice is neither academic nor abstract, nor the voice of God nor of a committee, but of a writer whose confidence and competence come with a history and a name, and are always open to challenge.”

The mix of pride, satisfaction and awareness of fallibility is quintessential Stead and this collection will, I hope, introduce many American readers to a writer with whom they will not always agree but who is deserving of their admiration and respect.

• Martin Rubin is a writer and critic in Pasadena, California.

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