Week in Review

Profile: CK Stead, by Diana Wichtel & Jane Ussher

We begin a new series of author profiles with the support of the Copyright Licensing Fund. Today: the classic Listener team of Diana Wichtel (words) and Jane Ussher (photos) profile CK Stead.

When we first speak, it’s by phone. We’re in the iron grip of the Covid-19 Level 4 and Christian Karlson Stead is where’s he’s lived almost forever, Parnell, passing lockdown doing what he does: writing and acting up. He and his wife, Kay, have been “working around the cops”, making kamikaze dashes for their forbidden Kohimarama swim. He swims out to the yellow buoy.

By our second conversation, he’s thrown in the illicitly-dampened beach towel. “We went down to Kohi one day and a woman cop emerged from behind the bush and said, ‘No you don’t’. A few days previous to that we had a woman photograph us as we walked down to the sea. I thought that’s sure to go somewhere official, so finally we gave up.”

Fairly minor, as civil disobedience goes. But this is CK Stead. In his latest book, You Have a Lot to Lose, the second volume of his autobiography, he recounts again the story of when he was banged up in jail, after anti-Apartheid protesters stopped the Hamilton game during the 1981 Springbok tour. He scrawled on the cell wall, “C. K. Stead, author of Smith’s Dream, was here”. That first novel became the film Sleeping Dogs, with Sam Neill, reluctant revolutionary, smoking moodily in a New Zealand turned police state. Was he thinking of that as he dodged the law on the beach? “Somebody mentioned it to me and I thought of it then.” As for his rebellion, “I was quite sure it was harmless to us and other people.” This is classic Stead, leading with his pugnacious-looking chin, full of passionate certainty. Sorry not sorry.

You can see why the yellow buoy beckons. He’s 87 and has an increasingly intimate relationship with mortality. A couple of years ago tests revealed severe heart disease. “Kay was told by the cardiologist, ’Now, you have to be prepared for waking up one morning and finding your husband dead in the bed beside you.’ We crept around waiting for me to die.” He’s still here. The new book is not yet launched and he’s just finished writing the third, final volume he never thought he would live to write. He’s ridden through other issues, including a stroke. If anyone could keep his arteries open by sheer force of will… “I have ridden through other issues but I don’t think there’s any riding through this one.”

Perhaps the yellow buoy, like the green light on the dock in The Great Gatsby, a book Stead has cited as formative, represents a stubborn faith in the future, regardless. “In a way I kind of regret that I had the inspection and the verdict,” he says. “Except that it made me hurry to finish writing the book you’ve been looking at.” You Have a Lot to Lose is a coolly-told, quietly amused, sometimes tetchy slice of literary history. The title takes on added resonance in his situation. Stead bats away as “shallow psychology” an interviewer’s paltry attempts to analyse him. “It came out of a poem which has this quotation: ‘The path is narrow/ the tide is beginning to run/ and the sun/ makes light of it.’ Which is supposed to be an image of the path I’m on. God knows what it means.”

"I’ve always been under some kind on internal pressure from myself.”

The house, when we meet in Level 2, is down a winding street that runs to the sea. Allen Curnow lived across the road. The two poets left no doubt erudite notes in each other’s letter boxes. The presence of an eminent author is indicated on approach by the sight of rows of books in the front addition to which we retreat for Nescafe in the wintery sun. Kay Stead - a welcoming, and, if some of the revelations in You Have a Lot to Lose are any indication, remarkably forbearing woman – is off, leaving us with the handsome, talkative cat who moved in one day and seems to have the measure of the Steads.

Stead is always a less combative figure in person. His voice is light, his laugh quite shy. When I was tutoring at the University of Auckland’s English department in the 80s, he used to clink along the corridor to make his tea in proper porcelain. He worked standing up, for his back. On his office wall there was a stunning blown-up Marti Friedlander photo of his baby daughter, now the novelist Charlotte Grimshaw. The department then was stocked with men who had known Sargeson, Fairburn, Curnow, the great New Zealand writers. Some of them – Bill Pearson, Stead – were the great New Zealand writers.

These days words like “titan” get used. He published his first book of poetry in 1964 and also The New Poetic: Yeats to Eliot, which brought international recognition. His 1984 autobiographical novel, All Visitors Ashore, a great, vivid New Zealand novel, features the adventures of Cecilia Skyways (Janet Frame), Melior Fabro (Frank Sargeson) and Curl Skidmore (guess who) and captures the Bloomsbury-lite bohemian ambiance of the literary scene on Auckland’s North Shore in the 50s.

You might call him a national treasure if he hadn’t been quite so abrasive. “I really annoyed people a lot and it has to be partly my fault,” he says, with a mystified air. “The word controversial was always attached to me and what it amounted to, really, was I put an edge of opinion on virtually everything.” 

Indeed. In an interview with RNZ National’s Jesse Mulligan, he picked a fight over Frank Sinatra. The session included music chosen by Stead. Cue extended blast of Wagner. He had also requested Kurt Weill’s beautiful, elegiac September Song: “It’s a long, long while from May to September…” Mulligan played the Sinatra version. Stead was unimpressed. “As a singer he was awful,” he declared. Couldn’t hit the note. “Didn’t hold his career back much,” noted Mulligan brightly.

Stead writes about anxiety. “I’ve never been seriously depressed in a sense of feeling suicidal or anything,” he says. “I think my anxiety has always been being in a hurry. It’s very hard for me to relax and just enjoy the moment. I’ve always been under some kind on internal pressure from myself.” That sort of relentless forward momentum has no doubt driven the production of his extraordinary body of work: poetry, essays, novels... And has the added advantage of leaving little time for introspection over the fights and fallings-out. “Probably they did bother me at times but I was always in a hurry to get on with the next thing. I was very conscious from time to time of behaving badly, usually over an issue that mattered to me terribly. That was fine as long as it wasn’t at a party and I was drinking. Everything simplified with a bit of alcohol and became absolutely clear that I was right and anybody who disagreed with me was stupid. I always regretted those episodes but most of the stuff in writing? Not really.”

Frank Sargeson once told him, "I can’t imagine a worse fate than to be reviewed by you."

You Have a Lot to Lose covers the period from 1956, when the young Steads packed up their idyllic flat on Takapuna beach and headed off to Australia, to 1986, when Stead left academia for fulltime writing. At the University of New England in Armidale he takes up Scottish country dancing – difficult to imagine – and experiences culture shock at Australian race relations. “Awareness of ‘the problem of the Aboriginal’ in those days took mainly the form of embarrassment and avoidance – and I was guilty of both, telling myself it was their (Australians’) problem, not mine.”

He turned down the chance to do a PhD at the University of Cambridge – home of legendary critic FR Leavis - in favour of Bristol, where his supervisor was LC Knights, who teased him about smoking working class Woodbines. They exchange letters - “My dear Stead”, “My dear Knights”. It was a world where literary criticism was not for wimps and that suited him fine. As Frank Sargeson once told him, “I can’t imagine a worse fate than to be reviewed by you.” He does take himself to task: “Indeed, the somewhat ruthlessly analytical reviews I had been sending home to Charles Brasch for Landfall were taking it, or myself, perhaps too seriously,” he writes. “It was not that my breakdown, for example, of the elements in Alistair Campbell’s poems was wrong, or even unfair; but it was unkind.”

Not wrong: you get the sense that Stead was born with an arsenal of steely opinions. “I could see where something failed and could say so tersely and in effect cruelly. I had to learn not just to be so excited by my clever ability to explain it but also to keep in mind that there was a recipient at the other end. I got better and better at that, I think,” he says hopefully. To be fair, the book reveals a gift for friendship: novelist AS Byatt, poet Craig Raine, genius Barry Humphries, whose “long hair and bizarre behaviour” informed the character Julian Harp in Stead’s magnificent short story, A Fitting Tribute. “Sometimes in Barry’s company I felt like Dame Edna’s Kiwi suburban bridesmaid, Madge Allsop,” writes Stead. The badge, Madge, the badge.

There’s always Frank Sargeson, fretting over what he saw as Stead’s indentured servitude - “your supermarket apron around your legs” – at the university. “Oh yeah, he didn’t like that aspect of the way I’d chosen to live my life. A really successful writer wouldn’t be living in what he called a bourgeois house like ours became as we gradually upgraded it from the crummy little dump it was.” The tables turned when Sargeson came into family money. “He was acutely embarrassed and had the greatest difficulty in living up to his reputation of poverty. He gave a lot of money away, to quite worthless people at times.”

The most infamous literary shitstorms must wait for the next books but we talk about them. Let the record show his 1985 review of Keri Hulme’s The Bone People, in which he questioned whether Hulme was Māori enough to win a prize for  Māori writing. His 2013 review of Eleanor Catton’s The Luminaries offers praise but finds the writing old fashioned: “It is, you might say, Virginia Woolf’s nightmare of how many steps back a woman might take the form if given her head and a room of her own.” A woman given her head. He can’t help himself.

On Hulme, now: “One just has to acknowledge that if she has that Māori connection, even if in terms of the blood line it’s fairly remote, it’s none of my business to question it. It’s not a question one would ask now.” His thinking has changed? “Yeah. Or is it feeling? My feeling has changed with the times, really.”

The times regularly have a go at him. Also, sometimes, his daughter. Grimshaw has written of difficult family dynamics. “The only time I can remember she did rebuke me was when I came back from overseas and found the whole country in a turmoil over some lads who had had sex with underage girls and filmed them or something.” The Roast Busters case. “This embarrassing delirium,” he called the outrage. Catton accused him on Twitter of wanting to shut down the conversation about rape. Grimshaw commented on a website: “The issue is not, as he describes it, a moral panic about teenagers having sex… The issue is consent. Sex without consent is not simply bad teenage behaviour, it is rape.” Outgunned, Stead retreated. “Why did I have to have an opinion about it?” he sighs. “For some reason I was irritated by what seemed to me a lot of fuss about not very much and wrote to the paper saying so and that was a stupid thing to do and she rebuked me. Because she thought it was not a fuss about nothing. It was a very important matter.” There was an exchange between them at a Going West festival event. “She said family life was chaos and I said, ‘You were the chaos’ and that went on record.” She has written of failed attempts to communicate with parents and siblings “in a spirit of truth and reconciliation”. He says, “Yes, well, I think her memory of her childhood and my memory of her childhood are somewhat at odds.” People can have completely different experiences of being in the same family. Has his grim prognosis made him more open to understanding hers? “The answer to that could be very complicated. I don’t know if you saw a piece Charlotte wrote when I was made poet laureate.” Yes. Terrific, honest writing. “That’s such a beautiful lyrical piece and I think that really represents the kind of feeling that exists between Charlotte and me. But there are these other things that seem to be surfacing in which, as far as I can see, she’s revising her view of her childhood. Well, she just has to get on with that and when I’m dead write her version.”  Does the thought of that worry him? “Not at all.”

They seem very alike in many ways, apart from, obviously, talent to burn. Stead was accused of “revenge fiction” for a story, Last Season’s Man, about artistic rivalry and revenge. It was read by many here as aimed at the late writer, Nigel Cox, who in the 90s wrote a blistering critique of Stead. “…it’s sad to catch a sense that despite the rage there is a dying of the light, or at least a movement from a bang to something surprisingly close to a whimper,” wrote Cox. “Cox more or less wrote my literary obituary,” wrote Stead.  Stead has steadfastly maintained that the story is fiction. Grimshaw’s story, The Black Monk, also reads with a whiff of autobiography. The narrator: “My father had told me he’d admired my last novel, but the things it implied about our family were false.”

"Life rolls on and becomes history."

Everything is material. In the new book Stead mentions that Janet Frame once wrote a story which seemed to cast the Steads in an unflattering light. “Kay was convinced it was jealousy and thwarted love, and the story was a kind of revenge.” The friendship survived. He writes of seeing Frame in London and speaking to her doctor. “[He] didn’t think she was classifiable at all; that she was just a sensitive artist who would always respond to kindness and the opportunity to use her talent.” He doesn’t quote from Frame’s letters to him this time. He did for the first volume, South-West of Eden. Frame’s estate objected. “It cost me virtually all my royalties on that book.”

Life and art. A Lot to Lose heads into a different sort of tricky territory. Stead has written, in a poem, to Kay, it seems, “Forgive my trespasses. / Stay close. / Hold my hand.” Now he addresses one of the trespasses. She was 20. He was 38. She was a student and the Steads’ babysitter. The book quotes lines from a poem invoking, “a wild sweet self-consuming passion.” Describing the beginning of the affair sends him quite lune-y: “the sexual rapport which had been simmering took us the next small step for a man and the giant step for mankind of a moon-landing.” She was “a flower child… sexually liberated by the Pill” and into meditation. “She was not a vegan, thank goodness,” he muses romantically.

A difficult decision to write about that? “Yes, of course.” Why do it? “Because it was important and it was related to a poem that is possibly the best I’ve ever written.” The account begins with a disclaimer, “in the light and shadow of the ‘Me Too’ movement”, which says, in part, “…it would be as wrong to say that I exploited age and status as that she exploited youth and beauty.” But does that equation quite add up? Youth and beauty, you have no control over. Status comes freighted with social power. “Well, that is the argument that will be directed against it, I’m sure, and obviously it’s not one that I accept but I won’t be surprised, as I’m not surprised hearing it from you.” There’s a hint of frost in the front room. “Life rolls on and becomes history. There’s nothing you can do about that once it’s happened. You can be moralistic about it if you like but that’s boring and unhelpful.” It’s not about being moralistic. It’s that his take on sexual politics is so interestingly old school for an otherwise very political man. But he’s over it. In the chapter about the affair he writes of the “tears and anguish” of his wife. “…not a faithful husband, but certainly a loyal and committed one,” is the serene moral judgment he passes on himself.

“I had wanted to be ‘a New Zealand writer’,” he writes. ‘Frank had warned me in effect to be careful what I wished for.” As with All Visitors Ashore, You Have a Lot to Lose is about the lure of escape. Stead might have had a less fractious career overseas. “Ha, well, yes - the problem you mention of the smallness here and the consequences of that. However, I made the choice and I’m not regretting that.” Though this is the first year in more than 30 that the Steads will have spent the entire winter here. They’re not likely to travel far again. “It’s not so much I might die on the plane, it’s just that if I’m going to die somewhere I don’t want to die there. I want to die here.”

Before we say goodbye, I get a tour of the office he had built when he left the University at 53. He made the bookshelves himself. There’s the Friedlander photograph of Charlotte. Marti’s memoir speaks of sadness at a rift between the two families. When I spoke to her in 2013 she mentioned painful dinner party arguments over Israel. Stead sees it differently. “She was always ringing and saying, ‘I can see some beautiful light and could get such a good shot of you’.” His book is embraced by her photographs, one on the cover, one on the back.

As for now, is he hurrying on to the next thing? “I wouldn’t mind finishing with a little book, a dozen poems. Who knows, I’ll probably never get there.” He’s okay with that. He indicates, on the table, a fresh manuscript, finished, waiting for Kay’s final read. “I think even if I die at this moment, there will be a third volume of autobiography.” Don’t die just at this moment if you can help it, I say. He laughs his shy laugh. “I’ll do my best.”

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

* Created with the support of the Copyright Licensing Fund NZ *

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