C(hristian) K(arlson) Stead Biography
C.K. Stead comments:
Nationality: New Zealander. Born: Auckland, 1932. Education: Balmoral Intermediate School; Mount Albert Grammar School; Auckland University, B.A. 1954, M.A. (honors) 1955; Bristol University (Michael Hiatt Baker Scholar), Ph.D. 1961. Career: Lecturer in English, University of New England, New South Wales, 1956-57; lecturer, 1960-61, senior lecturer, 1962-64, associate professor, 1964-67, professor of English, 1967-86, and emeritus professor since 1986, University of Auckland. Visiting fellow, University of Oxford, England, since 1996. Chair, New Zealand Literary Fund, 1972-75, and 1988-90, New Zealand Authors Fund. Awards: Poetry Awards Incorporated prize (U.S.A.), 1955; Readers award (Landfall), 1959; Katherine Mansfield award, for fiction and for essay, 1961, and fellowship, 1972; Nuffield traveling fellowship, 1965; Jessie Mackay poetry award, 1973; New Zealand Book award, for poetry, 1976, for fiction, 1986; New Zealand Arts Council scholarship, 1987, 1992; Queen's Medal, 1990. D. Litt.: University of Auckland, 1981. C.B.E. (Commander, Order of the British Empire), 1985. Fellow, Royal Society of Literature, 1996.
Smith's Dream. Auckland, Longman Paul, 1971; revised edition, 1973.
All Visitors Ashore. Auckland, Collins, and London, Harvill Press, 1984.
The Death of the Body. London, Collins, 1986.
Sister Hollywood. London, Collins, 1989; New York, St. Martin'sPress, 1990.
The End of the Century at the End of the World. London, HarvillPress, 1992.
The Singing Whakapapa. Auckland, Penguin Books, 1994.
Villa Vittoria. New York, Penguin Books, 1997.
Five for the Symbol. Auckland, Longman Paul, 1981.
The Blind Blonde with Candles in Her Hair: Stories. Auckland, Penguin Books, 1998.
Uncollected Short Stories
"Concerning Alban Ashtree," in London Magazine, December 1983-January 1984.
"Ludwig and Jack," in Rambling Jack 2, August 1986.
"The Last Life of Clarry," in Vital Writing: New Zealand Poems and Stories 1989-90, edited by Andrew Mason. N.p., Godwit Press, 1990.
"A Short History of New Zealand," Sport (Wellington), May 1992.
"Sex in America," Sport (Wellington), March 1994.
"Of Angels and Oystercatchers," in The Inward Sun, edited byElizabeth Alley. Wellington, Daphne Brasell Press, 1994.
Whether the Will Is Free: Poems 1954-62. Auckland, Paul's BookArcade, 1964.
Crossing the Bar. Auckland, Auckland University Press-OxfordUniversity Press, 1972.
Quesada: Poems 1972-74. Auckland, The Shed, 1975.
Walking Westward. Auckland, The Shed, 1979.
Geographies. Auckland, Auckland University Press-Oxford University Press, 1982.
Poems of a Decade. Dunedin, Pilgrims South Press, 1983.
Paris. Auckland, Auckland University Press-Oxford University Press, 1984.
Between. Auckland, Auckland University Press, 1988.
Voices. Wellington, Government Printing Office, 1990.
Straw into Gold: Poems New and Selected. Auckland, AucklandUniversity Press, 1997.
The New Poetic: Yeats to Eliot. London, Hutchinson, 1964; NewYork, Harper, 1966.
In the Glass Case: Essays on New Zealand Literature. Auckland, Auckland University Press-Oxford University Press, 1981.
Pound, Yeats, Eliot and the Modernist Movement. London, Macmillan, and New Brunswick, New Jersey, Rutgers University Press, 1986.
Answering to the Language: Essays on Modern Writers. Auckland, Auckland University Press, 1989.
Editor, New Zealand Short Stories: Second Series. London, OxfordUniversity Press, 1966.
Editor, Measure for Measure: A Casebook. London, Macmillan, 1971.
Editor, The Letters and Journals of Katherine Mansfield: A Selection. London, Allen Lane, 1977.
Editor, Collected Stories, by Maurice Duggan. Auckland, AucklandUniversity Press-Oxford University Press, 1981.
Editor, with Elizabeth Smither and Kendrick Smithyman, The New Gramophone Room: Poetry and Fiction. Auckland, University of Auckland, 1985.
Editor, The Faber Book of Contemporary South Pacific Stories. London, Faber and Faber, 1994.
Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington.
Ken Arvidson, in Journal of New Zealand Literature 1, 1983; interview with Michael Harlow, in Landfall 132 (Christchurch), 1983; "A Deckchair of Words" in Landfall 159 (Christchurch), September 1986, and "Stead's Dream" in Landfall 163 (Christchurch), September 1987, both by Reginald Berry; "Modernist Making and Self-Making" by A. Walton Litz, in Times Literary Supplement (London), 10 October 1986; interview in Talking About Ourselves, edited by Harry Ricketts, Wellington, Mallinson Rendel, 1986; Barbed Wire and Mirrors: Essays on New Zealand Prose by Lawrence Jones, Dunedin, Otago University Press, 1987; The Writer Written by Jean-Pierre Durix, New York, Greenwood Press, 1987; Leaving the Highway: Six Contemporary New Zealand Novelists by Mark Williams, Auckland, Auckland University Press, 1990; The Penguin History of New Zealand Literature edited by Patrick Evans, Auckland, Penguin, 1990; The Oxford History of New Zealand Literature edited by Terry Stern, Oxford, 1991.
For a good part of my writing life in New Zealand I have been known as a poet and critic who occasionally ventures into short stories; but in my own mind, since I began writing at the age of fourteen, I have thought of myself as a writer. It has never seemed to me that one had to choose between poetry and fiction (and there are honorable precedents—Goldsmith, for example, who also wrote plays; Thomas Hardy; and D.H. Lawrence). But novels require time; and until 1986, when I gave up my position as professor of English at the University of Auckland, my time was limited. As an academic I made poetry, in particular 20th-century poetry, my special field with the consequence that I could see my own work as a poet on a broad historical map. As a fiction writer I possess no such map and have proceeded more by instinct, or intuition, with the possible consequence that in fiction I may have been more original, or individual, or peculiar, than I have been as a poet.
Of my first two significant experiments in fiction, one "A Race Apart," is a Mandarin comedy set in rural England, and the other, "A Fitting Tribute," is a New Zealand fantasy and social satire about a man who achieves engineless flight and vanishes. Both have female first-person narrators. Both were published outside New Zealand, the first in England, the second in America (and the latter was almost at once translated into Spanish and Hungarian). These stories indicate, I think, an early preoccupation with the question of narrative voice and "point of view." I was troubled (without knowing that this was a current preoccupation of theorists of fiction) about the question of the authority of the information fiction offers. Not its authenticity, or its truth; but rather the question, Who is supposed to be giving us this supposed information; what is its provenance? I was not much interested in current British and American fiction; but I read, for example, in translation, everything by the Italian Alberto Moravia and the Argentinian Jorge Luis Borges, writers whose approach to fiction seemed clever enough to overcome this problem of authority—Moravia by his intense clarity of "seeing" (in the sense both of visualizing and understanding) through the eyes of a single character, and Borges by signalling in various ways that fiction was a game with rules, an agreement between writer and reader to pretend that the story was true. These were sophistications I had already found in Fielding, Sterne, Emily Brontë, and Dickens, but which modern fiction writers in English (or those I tried to read in the 1950s and 1960s) had largely forgotten.
But it would be wrong to say that I thought clearly and historically about all this. I can now see, though I would not have seen it at the time, that what I wanted to do was to make the voice which gave the story its authority a part of the fiction; and the simplest—though certainly not the only, or always the best—way to do this, was first person narration. This is a problem which grows larger as the fiction expands in size, because it involves consistency of tone, of persona, of style, of manner; and a mercurial, or anyway protean temperament, such as suits the writer of lyric poems, must be damped down and made dependable and consistent in the writer of novels.
My other strong impulse in fiction has been the simple one towards narrative. I enjoy telling stories, and hearing stories well told, and admire narrative management, especially in places (such as Wordsworth's poems in The Lyrical Ballads) where it does its work largely unnoticed. The difference between Borges and his many recent imitators is that most of them acquire something of his sophistication without possessing any of his native skill as a storyteller.
I offer these remarks only as background, which the reader may find ways of applying to my novels and stories.
* * *
C.K. Stead quickly established himself as one of New Zealand's finest poets and also as a distinguished literary critic; his The New Poetic is a definitive account of the modernist movement in poetry that won for him an international reputation. However, he had always been interested in fiction as well. The stories in Five for the Symbol, for instance, range between 1959 and 1979 in composition. Since retiring from academic life in 1986 in order to devote himself full-time to writing he has continued to produce poetry and literary criticism as well as edit a number of volumes, but his output of fiction has increased considerably.
Stead has declared that he has always been concerned with "the question of the information fiction offers … Who is supposed to be giving us this supposed information, what is its provenance?" After some fairly conventional stories such as "A Race Apart" and fantasies such as "A Fitting Tribute," which anticipates his first novel Smith's Dream, Stead ventured into a highly self-conscious, often self-referential kind of postmodernist fiction that questions the nature of fiction and storytelling itself. Most of his fiction is written in the first person, by narrators of doubtful integrity or who are simply bewildered or unsure, and very often goes back into a distant past to investigate the truth of accepted interpretations of events. In the story "The Town," Stead begins to play games, cutting between past and present, and employing the self-consciousness that characterizes much of his later fiction: "My name is Miller, Rod Miller," the narrator tells his audience. "Age thirty-eight, divorced, nationality New Zealander. And I am in France because …" "A Quality of Life" concerns a well-known writer (his narrators are often writers) on the tiny Pacific island of Nova who decides to burn his most recent book, rather than publish it. He then sets out to explain why. The story is about himself as a student, falling in love for the first time with a young girl. She falls in love too easily, we are told: "I could sweep her off her feet in the course of an evening. But so could any young man who was reasonably presentable and sufficiently determined." But eventually, owing to mistakes that the narrator makes and that he recognizes now only retrospectively, she marries a rich but nondescript man.
Much of Stead's work is highly political, if only by implication; he is too intelligent a writer to hector his readers. The 1951 Wharfies' strike and the Holland government's declaration of emergency feature in several of his works, but in none more so than All Visitors Ashore. This is again the story of a young man's first ventures into love. Curl Skidmore is a third year arts student, a budding writer, perhaps to some extent a portrait of the author himself. He becomes involved in different ways with three women before losing all of them. The novel is a highly self-conscious act of recollection, moving from character to character, never staying with any one of them for long. There is a consciously cinematic quality to it, which would become even more pronounced in Stead's next novel, The Death of the Body. It is like a succession of pan shots, or perhaps sideways tracking shots as the novel shifts from scene to scene. A painter named Melior Farbro talks with the poet Rex Fairbain but each of them conducts a private monologue, oblivious of what the other person is saying. There are question and answer sections, direct addresses to both the characters and the reader. Slowly we learn the eventual fates of the characters. Melio's cartoon sequence is a failure, Curl becomes professor, like several of Stead's protagonists, Felice achieves fame as a singer, and Pat sails for London. It is a satiric but also affectionate portrait of the art scene in Auckland in 1951.
The Death of the Body is on the surface a comparatively conventional, enjoyable novel that combines two themes: that of the older, powerful academic who is having an affair with a post-graduate student, and a group of people who are running drugs. The two stories come together when police ask the professor, Harry Butler, if they can use his house in order survey their targets next door and he agrees—until he finds that he knows two of them personally. But Stead juxtaposes these against the idea of the narrator (who is also one of the characters) having difficulty writing the novel, or The Story as he calls it, breaking down often, and needing to call on his Muse, who turns out to be Uta, the wife of a Scandinavian Consul. This, in turn, allows Stead to make playful speculations about the nature of reality and its relationship to fiction. But Uta complicates further by being constitutionally unable to distinguish between fact and invention, so that she constantly imputes attitudes of the characters which she finds offensive to Harry himself. The narrative is frequently interrupted by the narrator's account of the difficulties he is having in continuing the narrative. The author makes it clear that he is inventing the characters and therefore that they could just as easily have taken quite different forms. The Story, as he calls it, at times assumes a life of its own and dictates events to the author. Even more consciously than he did in his previous novel, Stead employs cinematic techniques: "I've sometimes thought how you would begin if you were making a movie." He talks about his problems to the reader: "We have now to bring Larson Snow and Harry Butler together in the same room." He speculates, asks questions about his characters. Stead is, like most academics, very partial to puns and literary parodies. In this novel, one of his characters writes an undergraduate essay with the title "O Henry James Joyce Carey." In another, one of his characters says, "Wake drunken with thy knocking? I wouldst thou could."
Sister Hollywood is one of Stead's most attractive novels, as well as one of his most straightforward, though even here there are some tricks. It is the story of a young New Zealand woman named Edie Harper who suddenly and without explanation deserts her family, making no subsequent attempt to contact them. Again the story is told in the first person, by a narrator looking back many years later. In this case it is Edie's retired brother Bill, who sees her in two small parts in Hollywood films and finally looks her up. Bill's chapters are juxtaposed against those dealing with Edie, or Arlene as she has become in the late forties in Hollywood. Arlene has married a young Australian actor named Rocky Tamworth, and they go to Hollywood to pursue Rocky's career. However, he finds it impossible to gain a contract, partly due to difficulties with his accent, and though he becomes a good friend of Humphrey Bogart his frustration leads him into alcoholism. In contrast, Arlene becomes a big success without even trying. A job as secretary leads to a well-paid position as senior secretary to the famous producer Jesse Fischer, then to the brief screen appearances, scriptwriting, and an affair with Jesse. She does a good deal of work on a film called "Shooting" that stars Bogart and sounds remarkably like Nicholas Ray's "In a Lonely Place"—which had not yet been made. Shortly after she tells Rocky, in dramatic circumstances, that she is pregnant, he is killed and she breaks off the affair. The story is mostly that of Arlene—Sister Hollywood—though we slowly learn that Bill too in a different way had a successful career, as Professor of English, becoming an expert in Keats. The novel takes in the activities of the House of Un-American Activities Committee and the execution of the Rosenbergs as well as the father's aspirations to become a Labour member of parliament, but otherwise the novel is largely a love story, lively, interesting, if fairly structureless. There are cameo appearances of real-life figures like Bogart, Grace Kelly, and "Bert" Brecht.
The Singing Whakapapa is probably Stead's most ambitious novel. It is an attempt to look at the history of one family over one hundred and fifty years and in that way to document much of New Zealand's history and especially the history of the complex relationship between the whites and the Maoris. The central character is Hugo Wolf Grady, married to Harriet ("Hat") Enverson, and now a retired historian. In one of the novel's few jokes, Hugo or Hugh is married to Hat and has a passionate affair with a woman called Lid. Assisted by a young librarian, Jean-Anne Devantier, who he eventually discovers is his daughter by Lid, Hugh sets out to explore his family story, his "singing whakapapa," going as far back to 1835 to the story of John Flatt, his great-great-great-grandfather. The novel is predictably skeptical about the notion of historical "causes" but offers the idea that a young girl Tarore, who was murdered by a Maori tribe, and with whom Flatt, we learn at the end, had an affair, is the cause of peace between warring Maori tribes. Stead uses (or invents) historical documents, has his two historians speculate and hypothesize, and in general reconstructs the history of the family over five generations.
Stead is an interesting and intelligent novelist whose experiments with form do not interfere with his determination to supply lively and gripping narratives.
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