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Vincent (Gerard) O'sullivan Biography

oxford university press zealand

Nationality: New Zealander. Born: Auckland, 1937. Education: University of Auckland, M.A. 1959; Lincoln College, Oxford, B. Litt. 1962. Career: Editor, Comment, Wellington, 1963-66; lecturer, Victoria University of Wellington; senior lecturer, Waikato University, Hamilton. Literary editor, New Zealand Listener, 1978-79. Awards: Commonwealth scholarship, 1960; Macmillan Brown prize, 1961; Jessie Mackay award, 1965, for Our Burning Time; Farmers Poetry prize, 1967.

PUBLICATIONS

Novels

Miracle: A Romance. Dunedin, McIndoe, 1976.

The Boy, the Bridge, the River. Dunedin, McIndoe, 1978.

Let the River Stand. Auckland and Oxford, Oxford University Press, n.d.

Believers to the Bright Coast. Auckland, Penguin, 1998.

Short Stories

Dandy Edison for Lunch, and Other Stories. Dunedin, McIndoe, 1981.

The Snow in Spain. Wellington, Allen and Unwin, 1990.

Palms and Minarets: Selected Stories. Wellington, Victoria University Press, 1992.

Poetry

Our Burning Time. N.p., Prometheus, 1965.

Revenants. N.p., Prometheus, 1969.

Bearings. Wellington and London, Oxford University Press, 1973.

From the Indian Funeral. Dunedin, McIndoe, 1976.

Butcher and Co. Auckland and Oxford, Oxford University Press, 1977.

Brother Jonathan, Brother Kafka, with prints by John Drawbridge. Wellington and Oxford, Oxford University Press, 1980.

The Butcher Papers. Auckland and Oxford, Oxford University Press, 1982.

The Pilate Tapes. Auckland and Oxford, Oxford University Press, 1986.

Selected Poems. Auckland, Oxford University Press, 1992.

The Houses of Sin; with Poems. New York, Woodstock Books, 1995.

Seeing You Asked. Wellington, Victoria University Press, 1998.

Other

New Zealand Poetry in the Sixties. Wellington, Wellington Department of Education, 1973.

Katherine Mansfield's New Zealand. London, Muller, 1975.

James K. Baxter. Wellington and London, Oxford University Press, 1977.

Finding the Pattern, Solving the Problem: Katherine Mansfield, the New Zealand European. Wellington, Victoria University Press, 1989.

Editor, An Anthology of Twentieth-Century New Zealand Poetry. Auckland and London, Oxford University Press, 1970.

Editor, New Zealand Short Stories: Third Series. Wellington andLondon, Oxford University Press, 1975.

Editor, The Aloe; with Prelude, by Katherine Mansfield. Manchester, Carcanet, 1983.

Editor, with Margaret Scott, The Collected Letters of Katherine Mansfield. Volume 1: 1903-1917. Oxford, Clarendon Press, 1985.

Editor, Collected Poems, by Ursula Bethell. Auckland and Oxford, Oxford University Press, 1985.

Editor, with S.C. Harrex. Kamala Das: A Selection with Essays on Her Work. Adelaide, Centre for Research in the New Literature in English, 1986.

Editor, with Margaret Scott, The Collected Letters of Katherine Mansfield. Volume 2: 1918-1919. Oxford, Clarendon Press, 1987.

Editor, The Unsparing Scourge: Australian Satirical Texts 1845-1860. Nedlands, Western Australia, Centre for Studies in Australian Literature, University of Western Australia, 1988.

Editor, Katherine Mansfield: Selected Letters. Oxford, ClarendonPress, 1989.

Editor, The Poems of Katherine Mansfield. Auckland and Oxford, Oxford University Press, 1990.

Editor, with Margaret Scott, The Collected Letters of Katherine Mansfield. Volume 3: 1919-1920. Oxford, Clarendon Press, 1993.

Editor, The Oxford Book of New Zealand Short Stories. Auckland andNew York, Oxford University Press, 1994.

Editor, New Zealand Stories. Auckland and New York, OxfordUniversity Press, 1997.

*

Critical Studies:

Two Wellington Poets: W.H. Oliver and Vincent O'Sullivan: A Critique by F.W. Nielsen Wright, Wellington, Cultural and Political Booklets, 1997.

* * *

Vincent O'Sullivan's versatility as short story writer, poet, playwright, scholar, and editor makes him perhaps New Zealand's most literary "man for all seasons." He is not to be confused with the Aesthetic Movement's author of the same name: the Vincent O'Sullivan who was friend to Oscar Wilde and master of macabre British fiction. There is a connection, however, in that New Zealand's Vincent O'Sullivan wrote his M.A. thesis on Oscar Wilde for the University of New Zealand in 1959. He undoubtedly became aware of his predecessor during his scholarly research on Wilde, and often used a shortened version of his name, "Vince," to avoid confusion. Vince O'Sullivan was born in Auckland in 1937, a year prior to the death of Oscar Wilde's friend. His scholarly work on Wilde, Katherine Mansfield, and other New Zealand and Australian writers quantitatively surpasses the number of novels he wrote. His reputation as a novelist rests largely on one great book, Let the River Stand, a classic of New Zealand literature.

Let the River Stand has been acclaimed for the sustained excellence of the writing, its perceptive characterization, and its teasing, jigsaw structure. Ostensibly a historical, social-realist fiction of rural New Zealand society between the 1920s and 1950s, it moves from Waikato during the Depression to Tasmania and Spain with a complex narrative structure that has been compared to the work of James Joyce. Images resonate with exacting observations of events, places, and people to evoke feelings and memories that are layered with meaning over time and which invite symbolic interpretation. Through his hero, Alex McLeod, O'Sullivan revisits the masculine world of his short stories and verse, and through the mind of Collins/Schwarz, a failed boxer turned pig-raiser, he investigates the bleakly limited world of the besieged, marginal man.

Drawing from several local literary traditions and models, but predominantly from John Mulgan's archetypal motif of "man alone," O'Sullivan apotheosizes the fate of the outsider with Schwarz's death. At one point in the narrative, O'Sullivan introduces a character by the name of Johnson, who originated in John Mulgan's fiction. Other images of isolation reverberate throughout the novel. Alex is a loner whose youthful idealism drives him and his cousin, Rory, to fight in the Spanish Civil War. Later he and his communist wife, Bet, are ostracized by the rural community because of their socialist beliefs.

O'Sullivan's original treatment of a favorite Decadent Movement theme used by Wilde's friend, Vincent, adds an erotically charged element to the image of female purity in Let the River Stand. In the story, Barbara Trevaskis wears her white dress, which symbolizes female purity, to school instead of the regulation gym tunic. The maelstrom of repression and desire resulting from the white dress and its stimulation of masculine obsessions leads to tragedy due to a displaced romanticism. Images of the river, sunlight, and water described in the hospital scenes reinforce the theme of repressed sexual passion that has gone out of control.

O'Sullivan creates a discontinuous narrative of anticipation and deferral in which several stories and memories interact. He sustains the dramatic tension by playing with reader expectation of a linear, causal sequence. His technique of hinting at a central tragedy while sharply delineating contingent and peripheral events, as James Joyce did, is essential to the realism O'Sullivan's great novel achieves. The meanings of some episodes emerge like a film running backwards. The juxtaposition of time past against time present contributes to the novel's lyrical, sensuous texture. The subtle irony resulting from the mysterious silence of the accident victim in Let the River Stand, is a refinement of his lifelong fascination with literary wit and satire.

The social satire, Miracle: A Romance, predates the accomplishment of his masterpiece, which was completed relatively late in life—Let the River Stand was published in 1993. Miracle: A Romance satirizes major political and cultural icons in New Zealand society, including its politicians and its passion for rugby. O'Sullivan mocks national vices through the grotesque ruler, Mr. Sagwheel, and Stumpy Smith, a barman-turned-sports-ambassador to South Africa. By equating popular responses to the sporting success of the rugby champion, Miracle Hornbeam, with Ranfruly Shield's heralded accomplishment of renewed virginity despite nightly rape, he overlaps satire with fantasy.

In the introduction to a collection of nineteenth-century Australian satirical texts which he edited titled The Unsparing Scourge, O'Sullivan reveals how important the use of satire and Wilde-like wit is to his writing. He states that moral energy supplies the various strategies of wit, and that this type of wit, when "brought to bear on instances of depravity," gives literary texts their vigor and interest. Wit and satire, particularly in O'Sullivan's writing, often supply the comic elements in literature that permit reader acceptance of the fantastic and an open discussion of social taboos. This lively style of discourse circumvents the somewhat repressed nature attributed to New Zealanders.

Like his forebears, authors Maurice Duggan and Dan Davin, O'Sullivan has flavored the predominantly puritan, Protestant ethic of New Zealand social realism with an Irish-Catholic sensibility and wit. In Miracle: A Romance, O'Sullivan tries to merge a macabre humor with a story about Catholic miracles. To accomplish the seamless connections of the improbable, the incomprehensible, and the impossible, he utilizes an interlaced narrative technique in a novel which can be called a comedy of obsession, its momentum derived from a decentered, bizarre vision of society.

The techniques that constitute O'Sullivan's impressive style in the novels were honed in his numerous collections of short stories, including Dandy Edison for Lunch, and Other Stories, written while he was a creative writing fellow at Victoria University of Wellington. The short stories range across different cultures with diverse characters; yet O'Sullivan's focus on middle-class hypocrisy and his dispassionate portrayals of the underprivileged are both distinctive and convincing. Precise observation correlated to a low-key emotional register and an understated social vision bordering on the satiric are his hallmarks. Epiphanies are rare, and metaphor, when it occurs, functions as a principle of structure rather than of style. In his early stories, confrontations between his misfit heroes and the pretensions of bourgeois New Zealand society are underpinned by a recognition of loss or the hint of an alternative world view; in his later stories, he turns to social satire or black comedy.

One gets the sense that O'Sullivan makes distinctions in his aesthetic requirements for each genre he practices. For example, he does not impose a lyrical poetic style upon his fiction, despite numerous collections of poetry such as Seeing You Asked, published the same year as his latest novel, Believers to the Bright Coast, in 1998. His fictional themes of emotional repression, estrangement, and betrayal usually work by implication and by insight into motive and character. Pervasive images of concealment, lying, and dissimulation, which contrast to his narrators' masks of literal-minded obtuseness, derive from fiction writers he has studied rather than from an amalgam of inter-genre stylistics. New Zealand's literary "man for all seasons" is master of all precisely because he does not blur the boundaries between the genres he practices.

Janet Wilson

updated by Hedwig Gorski

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