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Maurice (Gough) Gee Biography

auckland zealand plumb university

Nationality: New Zealander. Born: Whakatane, 1931. Education: Avondale College, Auckland, 1945-49; University of Auckland, 1950-53, M.A. in English 1953; Auckland Teachers College, 1954. Career: School-teacher, 1955-57; held various jobs, 1958-66; assistant librarian, Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington, 1967-69; city librarian, Napier Public Library, 1970-72; deputy librarian, Teachers Colleges Library, Auckland, 1974-76. Since 1976 full-time writer; writing fellow, Victoria University of Wellington, 1989. Awards: New Zealand Literary Fund scholarship, 1962, 1976, 1986, 1987, and Award of Achievement, 1967, 1973; University of Otago Robert Burns fellowship, 1964; Hubert Church Prose award, 1973; New Zealand Book award, 1976, 1979, 1982, 1991; James Tait Black Memorial prize, 1979; Wattie award, 1979, 1993; New Zealand Children's Book of the Year award, 1984; New Zealand Library Association Esther Glen Medal, 1986. D. Litt.: Victoria University of Wellington, 1987. Agent: Richards Literary Agency, P.O. Box 31240, Milford, Auckland 9.

PUBLICATIONS

Novels

The Big Season. London, Hutchinson, 1962.

A Special Flower. London, Hutchinson, 1965.

In My Father's Den. London, Faber, 1972.

Games of Choice. London, Faber, 1976.

Prowlers. London, Faber, 1987.

The Burning Boy. London, Faber, 1990.

Going West. London, Faber, 1992.

Crime Story. Auckland, Viking, 1994; London, Faber, 1995.

Loving Ways. Auckland and New York, Penguin, 1996.

Live Bodies. Auckland, Penguin, 1998.

Orchard Street. Auckland, Viking, 1998.

Short Stories

A Glorious Morning, Comrade. Auckland, Auckland UniversityPress-Oxford University Press, 1975.

Collected Short Stories. Auckland and London, Penguin, 1986; NewYork, Penguin, 1987.

Fiction (for children)

Plumb. London, Faber, 1978.

Under the Mountain. Wellington, London, and New York, OxfordUniversity Press, 1979.

The World Around the Corner. Wellington, Oxford University Press, 1980; Oxford and New York, Oxford University Press, 1981.

Meg. London, Faber, 1981; New York, St. Martin's Press, 1982.

The Halfmen of O. Auckland and Oxford, Oxford University Press, 1982; New York, Oxford University Press, 1983.

Sole Survivor. London, Faber, and New York, St. Martin's Press, 1983.

The Priests of Ferris. Auckland and Oxford, Oxford University Press, 1984; New York, Oxford University Press, 1985.

Motherstone. Auckland and Oxford, Oxford University Press, 1985.

The Fire-Raiser. Auckland, Oxford University Press, 1986.

The Champion. Auckland, Oxford University Press, 1989.

The Fat Man. Auckland, Viking, 1994; New York, Simon & Schuster, 1997.

Plays

Television Series: Mortimer's Patch, 1980; The Fire-Raiser, from his own story, 1986; The Champion, from his own story, 1989.

Other

Nelson Central School: A History. Nelson, Nelson Central SchoolCentennial Committee, 1978.

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Bibliography:

"Maurice Gee: A Bibliography" by Cathe Giffuni, in Australian and New Zealand Studies in Canada (London, Ontario), no. 3, Spring 1990.

Critical Studies:

"Beginnings" by Gee, in Islands (Auckland), March 1977; Introducing Maurice Gee by David Hill, Auckland, Longman Paul, 1981; Trevor James, in World Literature Written in English (Guelph, Ontario), vol. 23, no. 1, 1984; Lawrence Jones, in Landfall (Christchurch), September 1984; Maurice Gee by Bill Manhire, Auckland, Oxford University Press, 1986; Leaving the Highway: Six Contemporary New Zealand Novelists by Mark Williams, Auckland, Auckland University Press, 1990.

* * *

Maurice Gee established himself as one of New Zealand's best writers with the trilogy of novels comprising Plumb, Meg, and Sole Survivor, published between 1978 and 1983. In his adult and juvenile fiction, he examines provincial and small-town mores, realistically evoking life in New Zealand. Favorite themes include isolation and loneliness framed in stories that discuss the effects of aging, the conflict between conformity and nonconformity, the emotional/spiritual claustrophobia of a middle-class society underscored by philistine aggression, and the moral wisdom of his youthful heroes. His style reverberates with subtle implications that transcend the surface realism and the immediate situations toward a universal symbolism.

Gee first attracted attention in the late 1950s with short stories published in New Zealand's major literary periodical, Landfall, and was highly praised by British reviewers for two stories, "The Losers" (1959) and the even more memorable "Eleventh Holiday" (1961). Gee's initial success with the publication of his short stories was followed by a bildungsroman, The Big Season, about protagonist Rob Andrews's search for identity in a stifling environment. A rebellious streak disturbs Rob's progress in rugby, his father's business, a future marriage, and his family's anticipation that he will become a pillar in their blinkered community. The short prologue, set in 1946 and 1947, describes Rob's voyeuristic interest as a child in a local boarding house, a den of iniquity and vice. Rob's involvement with ex-convict Bill Walters, a boarding-house resident, leads to the eventual rejection of his childhood values with a public act of defiance.

Structurally and technically Gee's second novel, A Special Flower, is more complex and adventurous than the straightforward prose of The Big Season. Gee uses shifting perspectives among characters from chapter to chapter in the overall third-person narration and an unconventional handling of time to tell the story of Donald Pinnock's failed marriage to Coralie Marsh, and her relationship with his family after his death. The ending optimistically reconciles the misunderstandings caused by Coralie's lower social status and lack of propriety as she awaits the birth of her baby in the inhibiting confines of New Zealand's middle-class with Donald's mother and sister.

The parent-child relationship plays a prominent part in Gee's third novel, In My Father's Den, which opens with a murder and ends with the identification of the killer, but is only incidentally a story of mystery and detection. After a prologue in the form of a newspaper cutting about the 1969 killing of Celia Inverarity, a schoolgirl at Wadesville College near Auckland, the novel intercuts two narrative strands as told by Paul Prior, an unmarried teacher at Celia's school, who is a prime suspect. One narration describes a few days during the time of the murder, while the other tells his life story in biographic slices such as "1928-1937." The crime prompts Paul to review his entire life and the effects of returning to his small town as a literary intellectual and stranger. Even though the town suspects Paul because he has become an outsider, the killer is Paul's conventional brother, Andrew, stunted by his Oedipal relationship with his mother and by the pressures of New Zealand society.

Games of Choice is Gee's examination of a family as it disintegrates during a few days over Christmas, acquiring something of the intensity of Greek tragedy. The events are much less bloody and extreme than those tragedies, despite the brutal killing of a pet cat with a garden fork. The sham marriage of Kingsley Pratt, a provincial bookseller, and his wife, Alison, dissolves after their two children leave home. Kingsley's wife leaves him for another man, his student daughter has an affair with a much older lecturer, and his son chooses to join the army in defiance of the family's commitment to pacifism. Kingsley remains with his elderly father, Harry, whose memories describe his political activities as a youthful idealist and socialist.

Since the late 1970s, Gee has written a substantial body of fiction for adolescents. His principal imaginative undertaking has been the extremely ambitious trilogy of novels about the Plumb family, Plumb, Meg, and Sole Survivor. Many of the ingredients of the trilogy are present in his earlier novels: the emotional complexity of family life with its blend of loyalty and antagonism; the relationships between individual and community and between private and public life; and the relativity of viewpoint. Gee expands his scale to a saga that covers a century, from the late nineteenth century to the 1980s, and including six generations while concentrating on three. Because the trilogy incorporates so much of New Zealand's short history since British colonization and includes a number of real-life politicians and major events, it takes on the air of a national epic.

As in earlier novels, the narrators survey their lives from the vantage point of a fictional present, providing a framework to reconsider the past. Approximately twenty years separate the time lines of the three novels. Plumb covers the 1940s, while Sole Survivor brings the cycle to a conclusion in the early 1980s. Gee acknowledges that his family history was an important source of inspiration, especially for the first novel, in which the eponymous narrator, George Plumb, is partly based on Gee's maternal grandfather. In a trilogy containing a number of memorable characters, George Plumb is certainly the most extraordinary and interesting. He is a flawed hero, a failed saint, a dedicated idealist of religious and political vision whose moral integrity and over-active conscience blind him to the truth about himself and the world he inhabits. His quest for absolutes and his desire to build a New Jerusalem in New Zealand are undermined by the fanaticism that motivates him. Although not a tragic novel, Plumb is full of tragic irony.

After the spiritual and ideological crises of Plumb, Meg seems restrained, but, in its own way, is equally panoramic. The narrator, Meg Sole Plumb, is the youngest of George and Edith's twelve children and very much her father's favorite. A considerable part of her narrative overlaps chronologically with her father's in Plumb; however, Meg offers her own view of events previously mentioned while introducing a wide range of new material. The enormous size of the Plumb family does, of course, mean that there are many parallel strands, only a few of which can be given prominence in any one novel. By the end of her memoir, which Meg accurately calls "a tale of deaths," the novel conveys a characteristically mid-and late twentieth-century sense of entropy in contrast to the passionate nineteenth-century romanticism and utopianism Plumb embodies in the earlier novel, although that too runs down as the century advances.

Just as George Plumb's death is reported in Meg, Meg's horrific death by fire in a domestic accident is described in Sole Survivor as narrated by one of her three children, the journalist Raymond Sole. This is another "tale of deaths," triggered by the murder of Douglas Plumb, a cabinet minister and George's grandson, making him one of Raymond's numerous cousins. If Plumb is the most religious of the three novels and Meg the most domestic, Sole Survivor is the most political, occasioned by Douglas's membership in Muldoon's National Government.

In Sole Survivor, Raymond interweaves a selective account of his own life from childhood to middle age with a parallel account of Douglas's career. Raymond recalls his cousin's ruthless pursuit of advantage and power, from the sexual to the political. Douglas's opportunism perverts his grandfather's high-minded dedication, and the ascent to prominence, almost to the premiership, becomes, paradoxically, a story of decline—the collapse of George Plumb's unrealistic, yet noble, ideals. The ending of Sole Survivor and the trilogy as a whole is open-ended rather than pessimistic, but the emphasis is on the failure to realize the New Zealand dream, the slide from heroic vision to debased materialism. The trilogy's major arc may be the universal story of the twentieth century.

Two adult novels Gee has published since the trilogy, Prowlers and The Burning Boy, draw on his home town of Nelson. Prowlers, a family saga, spans much of the twentieth century and is narrated by a distinguished scientist and public servant, the octogenarian Sir Noel Papps. His grandniece Kate researches the past in order to write a biography about Noel's equally famous sister, Kitty, a leading figure in the Labor Party for many years. In their different ways Noel and Kate prowl through history and memory, focusing on aspects of their private lives. What emerges is a series of interrelated vignettes and episodes cohering into a panoramic tapestry of Jessop, the fictional town modeled on Nelson.

In both the trilogy and Prowlers, Gee offers a broad historical overview of his characters' lives. In The Burning Boy, he orchestrates his narrative around the four elements of fire, water, air, and earth in sections titled "Spring Rain," "Dry Times," and "Fire." A devastating bush fire, which threatens the town of Saxton and kills one of the main characters, concludes the story, which begins with the burned boy of the title, a badly scarred victim of an accident in which another boy dies.

During the 1980s, Gee also wrote several works in the fantasy science-fiction genre for his juvenile readers, including the "O" trilogy. Most of his latest novels, including Fat Man, The Champion, and The Fire-Raiser, all published in the 1990s, are for young adults. Fat Man, set during the Great Depression, is a disturbing psychological thriller with its young hero, Colin Potter, rescuing his family and town from the revenge of a sadistic bully, the fat man, who returns from a life of crime in the United States. Gee's young characters prove themselves against the likes of cunning and unbalanced adults like Muskie, the fat man. Once Colin's disillusionment is replaced with a steely courage, he assists Muskie to his own doom by helping him fall into a gorge.

The Champion evaluates racism when an African-American soldier, Private Jackson Coop, recuperates in Kettle Creek during World War II. When twelve-year-old Rex compares Jackson's brand of heroic conduct with the racism the soldier's presence causes among the adults, he allies with New Zealand blacks to help Jack. Gee's juvenile fiction teaches impressionable readers about the superficiality of social status and the unjust evaluations of individuals created by such arbitrary designations of status as race.

The Fire-Raiser takes place during World War I and tells the story of four children who unravel the mystery of arson in their town. Kitty Wix, Irene, Noel, and Phil try to stop the arsonist after seeing him flee the scene of a fire at Dargie's stables. Gee's enthralling pageturner highlights the sick thoughts inside the arsonist's mind while shedding light on wartime attitudes in 1915 New Zealand. As with all of Gee's novels, whether written for adult or juvenile readers, the well-rounded characters are genuine and inhabit a vividly painted community.

Gee's novels offer the post-colonial world a gateway into New Zealand, a mysterious land to most because of its relatively brief history of independence from Britain. Cultural awareness about the network of islands that comprise New Zealand is often superceded by stereotypes based on Australian culture. Gee's fiction often presents cross-sections of the towns in which the stories take place through a variety of characters struggling with the contradictions inherited from the puritanical British and the realities of the ancient island life they claim. The complexity of the situation is reflected in the complexity of Gee's characters. Their inner conflicts and interpersonal tensions, which are analyzed in his fiction, illustrate New Zealand's specific culture while linking the country to the mainstream of the twentieth-century struggle typical in all Western societies.

—Peter Lewis

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Hedwig Gorski

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