R. A. K. Mason & Maurice Duggan (2004)

Jack Ross, ed.: brief 29 (April 2004)

R. A. K. Mason, Four Short Stories 1931-35. With an Afterword by Rachel Barrowman. Auckland: The Holloway Press, 2003. ISBN 0-9582313-4-6. 43 pp. RRP $75 / Maurice Duggan, A Voice for the Minotaur: Selected Poems. Edited by Ian Richards. Auckland: The Holloway Press, 2001. ISBN 0-9582313-1-1. 53 pp. RRP $100.

R. A. K. Mason: Four Short Stories 1931-35 (2003)

It seems entirely typical of the Holloway Press that it should have issued a collection of poems by a celebrated writer of short stories, and then have followed that with a collection of short stories by a celebrated poet. Both books include contextualising information by their (respective) authors’ biographers; both have a (detachable) photograph as frontispiece; both are (expensive) lovingly produced objets d’art

And are the results worth all that time and trouble (and your money?) Well, that’s an interesting question. I don’t think that either could be said to demand any substantial critical repositioning. Mason’s gifts were as clearly for poetry as Duggan’s were for prose. If one compares “Along Rideout Road that Summer” with, say, “Calypso” (“She sought in thronged sandals to match his stride” [14]), or “Dialogue after Midnight” (“She: But after this, what then? / After this night and springing day / What next?” … “He: No more of talk and tears, / I am sick of tears and talk.” [17]), one is still as struck by the intensely conventional sense of genre and language in the latter, as by the exuberant inventiveness of the former.

The same, unfortunately, proves to be true of Mason’s short stories. “The Meth Fiend” is a brilliant title, but the story reads more like pastiche Jack London than any kind of “tribute to Joyce.” “The Mountain of the Gods” is embarrassing doctrinaire tosh in the form of an Audenesque fable. “His End was Peace,” however, is a little more ambitious. Mason here has a coherent fictional objective: portraying a mind’s moment of breakdown. And, to be fair, he does it well. His prose is clear and expressive, the characterisation at least adequate. One might object that the same thing had been done better by Galsworthy in The Forsyte Saga (which is true), but that’s scarcely a criticism. The real problem is that the story’s too short – that it leads nowhere. It would make a good chapter in a novel, but by itself really has too little to say. Such a novel, if it existed, would (I suspect) resemble the work of H. G. Wells or Arnold Bennett more than that of Joyce or Conrad, but that’s probably no bad thing. The critical eclipse of the great Edwardian novelists has already endured far too long.

Mason’s fourth story, “Spring-time and the Sick-bed” is in many ways the best. In it, a man decides to go bush instead of staying to look after his invalid wife. It’s a simple idea (rather like Jack London’s classic “The Apostate,” in fact). Rachel Barrowman, in her short (but indispensable) Afterword, reveals that:
When he showed [it] to his friend Marie Gaudin …. she remarked, “I didn’t know you felt that way about your mother’, to which Mason replied, ‘I didn’t know you were so clever.’ [38]

It’s hard to believe that any great acuity was required. The story reminds me very strongly of the one written by an earnest henpecked creative writing student (played by Danny de Vito) in the Billy Crystal comedy Throw Momma from the Train. That story ran (from memory) something like:
He walked into the room. She was sitting at the table. The axe felt cold in his hand. He moved towards her. She looked up. The axe descended again and again and again and again

‘There’s no suspense, no motivation … It’d be nice to at least know why he wants to kill her … It lacks pretty much everything that constitutes a story,” as Billy Crystal (playing the professor) remarks. Mason’s story is a bit more subtle than that, but not much – and that’s why I like it. I’d like to read more of the same sort, in fact: less ventroiloquising and more naked self-expression (it could scarcely be said to qualify as self-analysis).

It might be objected that it was a bad idea to interleaf the stories with facsimiles of various of Mason’s canonical poems (“On the Swag,” “Youth at the Dance,” and so on). It does have the effect of showing up the (comparative) clumsiness of the stories, but more importantly I think it shows the fundamental consistency of Mason’s work in both genres. If one had ever thought of Mason as any kind of a stylist or craftsman, this book has the effect of reminding us that it’s bitter honesty that actually constitutes his strength. The Throw Momma from the Train story is not likely to please many readers, or be commercially successful (or to be published, for that matter), but it is powerful, heartfelt writing. All those Mason poems about wanking and moaning and lusting after the unattainable were put together better than “Spring-time and the Sick-bed,” but not by much. He clearly had a knack for verse (and a more useful model, in A. E. Housman) which was stronger than his knack for prose, but I feel, nevertheless, that he could have become a novelist. All that rage and passion had to find an outlet somehow. I think he made the right choice in sticking to poetry, but this book does intimate an intriguing might-have-been: a New Zealand Jack London instead of our Kiwi Housman.

In conclusion, I guess this goes to show just how important it is to have the Holloway Press. Who else would have taken on these stories? Because, after all, they’re not all that good in a conventional sense. But that only serves to make them a better mirror of their creator’s mind. The Duggan book, it must be admitted, is both less revealing and requires less justification. Duggan’s poems are accomplished and (at times) moving. He clearly intended to issue them out in book form, which makes them far more guarded than Mason’s shadow-puppet stories. One can see the influence of Smithyman, in particular, in some of the more ambitious poems collected here: “Landscape with Figures” [12-13], say, or “In the Territory” [49], but the strongest are the simplest: the pain in his Sargeson poem “Calling on F. S. (1945)” [46] or the rather lovely “In Residence: Auckland 1974,” written as he lay dying in hospital:
We are an axis a pivot here
upon which the winds turn
boring up naked from the pole –
nor’easters peppery and moist
. [46]

In short, they’re something of a gift.

Maurice Duggan: A Voice for the Minotaur (2001)


brief 29 (2004): 87-88

[1100 wds]

brief 29 (2004)

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