Hard Frost - launch speech by Philip Armstrong

Scorpio Books in Christchurch hosted a launch for Hard Frost: Structures of Feeling in New Zealand Literature 1908–1945 by John Newton and Salt Picnic by Patrick Evans. Thanks to Philip Armstrong for launching Hard Frost and allowing us to reproduce it here.

As a poet, teacher and scholar, John has always been known for the precision and incisiveness of his thinking and writing. His work calls to my mind a phrase from James K. Baxter that appeared on the cover of the old Penguin edition of Frank Sargeson’s stories – the edition we used to set for our students. Sargeson, proclaimed Baxter, ‘writes with a diamond on glass.’ To me that phrase applies equally to John Newton, more than to any other scholar – or indeed any other poet – in NZ today.

The book I’m launching today demonstrates that quality in the way it manages, repeatedly, to encompass intricate networks of concept or history within a few paragraphs of gem-like prose. I’ll give just one example, but it’s a particularly important one. John’s accountof Raymond Williams’ term ‘structure of feeling’ is the best I have ever read, by some distance. It is more lucid, cogent, and technically serviceable than anything Williams himself wrote about the term, or anything said about it by anyone else in the 70 years since he introduced it. I have every intention of making this passage required reading for my stage one Cultural Studies students next year and it gives me additional pleasure to see John writhe with dismay at the thought of what they’ll do with it.

I’m not going to quote Hard Frost at length – you all need to read it carefully in your own time. But I do want to pick out a few one-line excerpts, so that you can appreciate the rare blend of brio, memorability, and sheer spot-on-ness that John’s prose often achieves. This is his description of masculinity in the 20s and 30s:

‘Threatened … by suffrage feminism, and unmanned too by the carnage of the war, an embattled masculinity bulked itself up and evolved new forms of gendered behaviour.’ (30-1)

Now that’s how you do a thesis statement, kids!

Referring to the Phoenix writers’ determination to ignore Katherine Mansfield, John writes: ‘… turning their backs on Mansfield …. leaves a kind of scar tissue embedded in nationalist writing, something dull and insensate where Mansfield’s intelligence has been excised.’ (41)

And that’s how you ensure an important and original argument makes a lasting impact on your reader.

Alluding to literary value judgements (his own, but by implication anyone’s) he says: ‘Far from affirming my own authority, I suspect they do the opposite: they declare things I “have a weakness for”’ (37)

(How often does a literary scholar summon up both the guts and the humility required to admit that?)

What makes these epigrammatic moments so Newtonian is that they are not merely epigrams – they’re not throwaway lines. They are witty, apothegmatic, and compelling, but each one arises out of, and memorably summarises, a sustained passage of concentrated analysis. Each fits perfectly into place as capstone and ornament to a structure of argument built on deep and wide foundations. It’s because of the scholarly work underlying it that the argument can be expressed with such sprezzatura – with that kind of grace and poise that seem natural and unaffected, because they have been so painstakingly achieved.

So, now, what about this book’s argument? Or perhaps it’s more accurate to speak of its narrative? I’ve been studying NZ literature for 30 years, but even so I find the story as John tells it fresh, invigorating, enlightening – even at times revelatory. Of course I knew John well enough to expect an excellent book, but I didn’t expect it to be quite so engrossing. I read it in just a few sittings – something I never usually do with scholarly works – not just because I had to speak about it tonight(!), but because I just wanted to keep reading.

Thinking about the qualities in the book that engaged me so effectively, I realised that Hard Frost has the virtues of a really good novel. In the first place, it has narrative drive. It’s intricately but clearly plotted, and it’s pacey. There are sub-plots that generate suspense: John often mentions something intriguing but says we’ll have to wait to hear more about it. There are mysteries set up that need to be figured out: Why can’t our literary modernists see how remarkable Mansfield is? Where do the women writers go in the 40s? Why does D’Arcy Cresswell keep ‘photo-bombing our literary history’? Why is Curnow’s poetry, for all its virtuosity, so very hard to love? What is it with Rex Fairburn, anyway? There are some narrative arcs here that are heroic or tragic (Robin Hyde’s story is both) and others that are comic (as when Sargeson’s stories commit outrages against homophobic orthodoxy in full view of its muscle-bound myrmidons). And of course – since this is Pakeha culture, after all – there’s quite a bit of bathos (thank you, once again, D’Arcy Cresswell). In short, John’s a terrific storyteller.

The second novelistic aspect that makes the book so gripping is its characterisation. Because it’s a story more about feelings than events. And what brings it to life is the ever-present psychological acuity, the deep understanding of disposition and behaviour. Blanche Baughan, Ursula Bethell, Denis Glover, Rex Fairburn, Robin Hyde, Frank Sargeson: all these familiar names come to life as three-dimensional personalities, in their lives and their texts. Even Allen Curnow, that most aloof of our literary greats – a man whose personality still eludes the reader who traverses all 700 pages of AUP’s new biography – even this unapproachable SOB becomes visible in the subtle but revealing light of John’s investigation.

Having said that, I must emphasise that the writers are not actually the main characters in Hard Frost. The real protagonists, those who make important things happen, those whose psychologies John wants us to understand, are the structures of feeling that the book introduces. These include the ‘friendships and domestic alliances’ amongst women from the suffrage years to the end of the 1930s; the masculinist self-consciousness and sex-consciousness of the 1930s and 40s; the closeted gay love discernible in Sargeson’s best work. It is the biographies and personalities of these structures of feeling that propel the cultural narrative. And this is John’s most important and original contribution in Hard Frost: he tells a new story about our literary history because he introduces us to a set of characters we didn’t know before, and he narrates their adventures in a new way.

As he does this, too, John keeps reminding us – again, like a great novelist – that what matters is not the judgements we pass on these characters, but our capacity to understand them in the context of the story they’re caught up in. The characters in Hard Frost are never straw men or women. On the contrary, they demand acceptance as complex figures who have to make their choices within conditions not of their own making.

The sensibility at work in this book, then, manages to be both exacting and generous at the same time. And that’s the final thing I want to praise about Hard Frost: its achievement of a remarkable narrative voice and persona: judicious without being judgemental, incisive without being cutting; demonstrating perfect pitch in its expression and elicitation of various responses: sympathy, admiration, humour, exasperation, regret, delight. As I’ve said, all the characters in this book are interesting, but the one who makes you want to stay with the story is the character of the storyteller himself: he is, in a word, just very good company.

Hard Frost tells a story that many of us, and Pakeha NZers in particular, need to hear. Both that story and the new way John finds to tell are major contributions to our cultural genealogy.

All we need now is the rest of the story told as well as this part is. Fortunately for us, John is up to that task, and up for it.

Me he korokoro tūī, me he toroa ngunungunu

As eloquent as the tui, as shapely as the nesting albatross.

And so for this wonderful book, e hoa,

Ngā mihi nui,

Tēnā rawa atu koe.

back row from left: Patrick Evans, Rachel Eadie, John Newton, Fergus Barrowman, Holly Hunter. Front from left: Jo Hewitson, Philip Armstrong, Nicholas Wright.