Book of the Week: Karl Stead, combatively

Fleur Adcock reviews the new memoir by CK Stead

I opened CK [Karl] Stead's memoir eagerly, torn between wanting him to have behaved disgracefully so that I could expose him in an entertaining fashion, and not wanting to incur his lasting displeasure. After all, I regard him as a friend, and falling out with friends is something he is well known for. The word ‘combative’ is almost permanently stapled to his name. The fact that he is so argumentative has the effect of making me want to join in, to take sides, to disagree with him just for the hell of it, and I imagine others feel the same.

In the first instalment of his memoirs, South-West of Eden, Stead covered the first 23 years of his life, most of it spent in Auckland. The present book deals with the following 30 years, up to the time when he retired from his academic career to become a full-time writer. In his introductory note he writes, "This is a literary biography – a story of books and how they come about … It is a truthful account of my experience … nothing is deliberately misrepresented. But I have left things out … There are significant people in my life who don't figure in these pages. I claim to be a truthful recorder, not a comprehensive one." Hmm; pause for thought here.

Amiable though he may be in everyday life, it is the job of a critic to criticise, and upsetting people is an inevitable part of it. In 1956, for example, he reviewed for Landfall the third edition of Alistair Campbell's exceptionally successful collection of poems Mine Eyes Dazzle. His analysis is immediately convincing. How could we not have noticed that beautiful and seductive though the poems are they rely on a limited range of words and techniques for their effects? – abstract nouns like "grace, pride, agony"; violent adjectives like "desolate, piteous, wild"; Tennysonian participles like "glimmering". He admits that concrete objects such as trees, water, stones, cliffs and hawks work against the "tonnage of abstraction", but fans of Campbell's youthful poetry were surely disillusioned.

Looking back on this after many decades, in Chapter 1 of this memoir, Stead has the good grace to admit that his criticism was not wrong, perhaps, or even unfair, but unkind: "It would have been better if I could have somehow also built into it an acknowledgement that, before cool analysis set in, I had been charmed and moved by the poems I was now taking apart." This is the mature writer regretting the heartlessness of his youth, for which it would perhaps be unfair to judge him now.

At the time, though, there were sometimes repercussions. The account of how he offended Maurice Shadbolt in 1961 led me to his essay in Distance Looks Our Way, a book that has sat on my shelves for half a century. Discussing ‘The Woman's Story’ in Shadbolt's first collection The New Zealanders, he wrote: "At the climax of the story, after some obscure emotional experiences involving a rather unconvincing Maori girl, Bridget discovers her true identity. She is a New Zealander, a native of a country…of thick bush, kauri, rimu, kahikitea, supple jack. ..It is this Tarzanesque setting that the girl comes to identify herself with… Mr Shadbolt has been driven to the very worst kinds of cliché." And so on.

Obviously this wouldn't go unpunished; for the sequel I dusted off my copy of Shadbolt's revenge novel Among the Cinders.  Rather shoddily written, once again, with a 16-year-old Holden Caulfield-type narrator and several standard tropes of mid-20th century NZ fiction (old man and grandson bonding together in the bush, sexual awakening on beach, etc), it includes a vicious caricature of Karl Stead, in the teenage narrator's voice. He is describing his older brother Derek: "He's got this big long mournful face… His glasses are always sliding down his nose, and he looks at you over the top of them half the time. He's lost almost all his hair down the middle of his head already, and what's left comes out in a big bush on each side." The target is unmistakable.

Later there is what he calls the "unpleasantness" with Vincent O'Sullivan, which seems to have had its beginnings when they disagreed over the merits of Kendrick Smithyman, continued through differences over Curnow, and went on and on ("not entirely without substance, but hugely exaggerated") right up until the year 2009, when they met in Menton at an anniversary celebration of the Katherine Mansfield Fellowship and were photographed together, two senior experts on Mansfield. At last they were able to joke about themselves.

He accuses [Katherine Mansfield's biographer] Claire Tomalin of slipping into "the clichés and trigger words of the feminist movement."

He meets Claire Tomalin, who is working on a life of Katherine Mansfield, and they have a friendly correspondence for some years. When the book eventually comes out Stead reviews it favourably on the whole, but objects to Tomalin's description of KM as "sexually ambiguous, with a husband and a wife, and lovers of both sexes". He accuses her of slipping into "the clichés and trigger words of the feminist movement." Later they have "a spirited exchange, neither backing down". No surprise there.

Back to chronology: home again in Auckland in 1959, he settled into the English Department, with Allen Curnow as professor.  Stead found him "an unstoppable monologist", impossible to shake off when in the grip of his obsessions. Apart from his private life, with wife Betty at home and future wife Jeny waiting in the wings, there was the attempt by Wellington poets James K Baxter, Louis Johnson and Alistair Campbell to sabotage Curnow's Penguin A Book of New Zealand Verse, complaining that the younger generation was grossly underrepresented.

For many years Curnow lived directly opposite the Stead house in Parnell. After he retired, he developed the habit of secretly abstracting Stead's airmail copy of the New Statesman from his letterbox, sliding it out of its wrapper to get first read of the literary pages at the end, and then sneaking it back, slightly crumpled, into the correct box. Caught in the act once by Kay, he pretended the paper had been delivered to the wrong address. Nothing else was ever said about it.

This proximity was also convenient for social interaction, such as the dinner party given by the Steads for Denis Glover when he visited Auckland. Getting him there from the Curnows’ house was no problem, but after a highly convivial evening it took several strong people to push the overweight, exceedingly drunk Denis on his wobbly legs up the steps from one garden, across the road, and all the way uphill to his bed. Denis Glover was by this time ‘New Zealand writing's court jester’, but Stead records a letter he received from Lauris Edmond describing an occasion when Denis proved himself to be not just a drunk and a fool but a man with great human insight and subtlety. The letter, he said, reflected well on both Glover and Lauris.

Papa Stead in Menton, 1972, with daughters Margaret and (right, in adorable two-piece) the future novelist Charlotte Grimshaw.

This being a literary biography, quantities of writers appear in its pages: Maurice and Barbara Duggan, Keith Sinclair, Kendrick Smithyman, Eric McCormick were all local to Auckland, and others visited. With no index, you have to wait for them to pop up in the narrative. Stead’s old friend and mentor Frank Sargeson in Takapuna was still a permanent part of his emotional landscape, always forgiven no matter how bitchy; they kept in touch by notes and letters back and forth across the harbour, with occasional visits. 

In 1960 Stead met Barry Humphries, and they became friends for life: "Sometimes I felt like Dame Edna's Kiwi suburban bridesmaid, Madge, and yet we always got on well." In Auckland he took Humphries to dine at the Duggans’, where the two semi-alcoholic anecdotalists competed to cap each other's stories, the famous visitor coming out on top with a brilliant improvisation while the host, stunned back into sobriety, fell into a sulk. In London Barry took Karl to lunch at the Garrick club.

Then there was the 20-year-old student babysitter and 1960s ‘flower child’, Jenny, who preoccupied her enchanted tutor on and off for years. I wouldn’t be without his long poem ‘Quesada’, but for me it is not enhanced by knowing the model for its author’s Dulcinea. It's probably not a good idea to try and justify an extramarital affair by describing the extraordinary charm and allure of the young woman concerned; such qualities inevitably fall flat on the page, and the reader fails to see what all the fuss was about. The same might be said about the "incandescent Dane" Ulla, in a later period of Stead’s life, who apparently contributed her personal characteristics to one of his novels, The Death of the Body.

For some seven years from the mid-60s, politics, and in particular opposition to the Vietnam War, were at the forefront of his mind. His political fantasy novel Smith’s Dream was published in 1971, and was unlike anything he had written before – such a contrast, for example, to the work of scholarship that had made his name, The New Poetic.  People were puzzled, and opinions differed. Charles Brasch’s reaction, not revealed until his journals were published after his death, was patrician contempt: "Smith's Dream is an affront, a stone for bread… How can I be interested in Stead after this?"  But others were; in 1977 the novel was filmed as Sleeping Dogs, the first full-length NZ feature film, starring Sam Neill. Stead became rather famous.

Some might say that his finest hour was the one spent in police custody after being arrested at the 1981 Springbok tour protest in Hamilton. He wrote on the wall of the holding cell, "CK Stead, author of Smith's Dream, was here." He told this to journalists afterwards and it went into legend. His son Ollie was also arrested, but released as under age, and his 15-year-old daughter, the future novelist Charlotte Grimshaw, later wrote an account of the tour that found its way into a national archive. But the most heroic behaviour was that of Kay, at a later protest in Auckland, who witnessed a foreshadowing of the George Floyd scenario of 2020 but managed to save the life of a Niuean man who was being carried off by police in such a way that he couldn't breathe. When her shouts were ignored she tipped the helmet of the nearest cop so that it fell forward over his face, causing him to loosen his hold. She too was instantly hustled to the van, but when the case came to trial the police evidence was that no one had been carried to the van that day. Kay was found guilty but discharged.

It's probably not a good idea to try and justify an extramarital affair by describing the extraordinary charm and allure of the young woman concerned.

In 1979 Stead wrote to Janet Frame, then in Dunedin, with his idea that he and she should write a novel together about their shared experience of Sargeson in 1955: "I would write the first 20 pages and send it to you and then you would write the next 20 and so on." That September they were both in Wellington for a writers’ conference, and he took her out for dinner, pleased that they were still friends even if rather shy and awkward together. In October, however, he sat straight down at the typewriter – not his usual way of working – and found the book simply racing away with him, until by January he had finished the first draft of what would become All Visitors Ashore. It alarmed him so much – "so unfamiliar, an aberration" – that he put it away in a drawer for years. It appeared in 1984, to deserved acclaim.

There is plenty more gossip in this well-made and frequently entertaining narrative, and plenty more to argue with, if you think it will get you anywhere. Dan Davin was outraged by a piece about John Mulgan ("Is he going off his chump?"); Lady Dorothy Turner, Mulgan‘s sister, asked Keith Sinclair to prove "Jesus K. Stead" was wrong, which Sinclair was unable to do. Stead’s excessive regard for Sylvia Ashton-Warner, author of one work of genius in Spinster and a whole lot of novelettish trash, made me feel rather as Davin had: why couldn't Karl see it?

You won’t shake the author’s often justified but not infallible good opinion of himself. The only sensible response to his bewilderment at the ‘inexplicable’ decision of the judges, in 1983, to ignore his own latest volume of poems and divide the NZ Book Award for Poetry between Curnow’s latest and Cilla McQueen's excellent and keenly awaited first collection ("frothy and blowaway", he calls it) is a slightly exasperated smile.

Karl Stead is now 87, and has long since qualified for ‘national treasure’ status. Sometimes it was touch and go – he survived a road accident in France (described in this book), a stroke in 2005 that temporarily separated him from written language, and various scary medical diagnoses, which he has taken in his stride. None prevented him from writing as well as ever. We are lucky to have him.

You Have a Lot to Lose: a Memoir 1956-1986 by CK Stead (Auckland University Press, $49.99) is available in bookstores nationwide.

* For more new reviews of NZ books, visit,dpr_auto,f_auto,fl_lossy,q_auto,w_1200/j49wqyjbqhpbexvgcjcy

Help us create a sustainable future for independent local journalism

As New Zealand moves from crisis to recovery mode the need to support local industry has been brought into sharp relief.

As our journalists work to ask the hard questions about our recovery, we also look to you, our readers for support. Reader donations are critical to what we do. If you can help us, please click the button to ensure we can continue to provide quality independent journalism you can trust.

With thanks to our partners