Eldred-Grigg, Stevan (Treleaven) 1952-
ELDRED-GRIGG, Stevan (Treleaven) 1952-
PERSONAL: Born October 5, 1952, in Grey Valley, New Zealand; divorced; children: three sons. Ethnicity: "European." Education: University of Canterbury, M.A. (with honors), 1975; Australian National University, Ph.D., 1978.
CAREER: Writer and historian. University of Canterbury, postdoctoral fellow, 1981; Victoria University of Wellington, writing fellow, 1986, scholar in letters, 1991; University of Iowa, Iowa City, New Zealand writing fellow, 1992. New Zealand Book Awards, judge, 1984; judge for other writing competitions; Canterbury Provincial Committee, committee member.
MEMBER: New Zealand Society of Authors.
AWARDS, HONORS: Writing grant, Literature Board, Australia Council, 1978; grants from New Zealand Literary Fund, 1982, 1983, 1985; A. V. Reed Memorial Book Award, 1984; second prize, Goodman Fielder Wattie Award, Book Publishers Association of New Zealand, 1988; cowinner for Southeast Asia and the South Pacific, Commonwealth Writers Prize, 1988; Queen Elizabeth II Arts Council, writing grant, 1990, scholarship in letters, 1991; New Zealand Arts Council, scholar in letters, 1991, arts scholar, 1997; Arts Excellence Award, Trust Bank Canterbury Community Trust, 1996; writing scholar, Foreign Ministry of Germany, 1997.
Oracles and Miracles, Penguin New Zealand (Auckland, New Zealand), 1987.
The Siren Celia, Penguin New Zealand (Auckland, New Zealand), 1989.
The Shining City, Penguin New Zealand (Auckland, New Zealand), 1991.
Gardens of Fire, Penguin New Zealand (Auckland, New Zealand), 1993.
My History, I Think, Penguin New Zealand (Auckland, New Zealand), 1994.
Mum, Penguin New Zealand (Auckland, New Zealand), 1995.
Blue Blood, Penguin New Zealand (Auckland, New Zealand), 1997.
Kaput!, 1stBooks Library (Bloomington, IN), 2001.
The novel Oracles and Miracles has been published in China.
A Southern Gentry: New Zealanders Who Inherited the Earth, A. H. and A. W. Reed (Wellington, New Zealand), 1980.
A New History of Canterbury, John McIndoe (Dunedin, New Zealand), 1982.
Pleasures of the Flesh, Reed Methuen (Wellington, New Zealand), 1984.
New Zealand Working People, 1890-1990, Dunmore Press (Palmerston North, New Zealand), 1990.
The Rich: A New Zealand History, Penguin New Zealand (Auckland, New Zealand), 1996.
Also author of the novella "Of Ivory Accents." Contributor of short stories, historical essays, and literary and critical essays to periodicals in New Zealand and elsewhere, including Islands, Landfall, New Zealand Listener, New Zealand Geographic, New Zealand Sexologist, Sites, Ming Dao Literature and Arts, New Zealand Books, New Zealand Journal of History, and Journal of the Royal Australian Historical Society.
ADAPTATIONS: Oracles and Miracles was adapted as a radio play by Radio New Zealand, 1989; by Australian Broadcasting Corp., 1990; and by playwright Norelle Scott as a stage play, produced by Playmarket New Zealand, 1990.
SIDELIGHTS: New Zealand historian Stevan Eldred-Grigg became a well-known novelist in his native land with the publication of Oracles and Miracles, his first full-length work of fiction. In Contemporary Novelists, Dick Corballis compared Eldred-Grigg's technique in Oracles and Miracles to that of Arnold Bennett in The Old Wives' Tale, which follows two sisters down their separate paths in life. Corballis singled out Ginnie's working-class dialogue as "particularly well realized." Fag, on the other hand, is a character who is able to see her early environment from the outside, thus casting new light on it for the reader and highlighting the author's view that working-class culture is being destroyed by middle-class consumerism. Some critics, according to Corballis, took Eldred-Grigg to task for suggesting that working-class people ought to remain within their accustomed socioeconomic stations; but Eldred-Grigg denied that intention, asserting that both Fag and Ginnie lived tragic lives because of love. The sequel to Oracles and Miracles, The Shining City, deals with a later and more well-heeled generation in the same family.
Eldred-Grigg also wrote The Siren Celia, a postmodernist novel that attempted to shed light on Victorian society; in Corballis's words, the novelist had "done to Chamier precisely what [George Bernard] Shaw's Plays Unpleasant did to the Victorian well-made play."
Eldred-Grigg's preoccupation with class and gender in his fiction had been presaged by his historical writings, which deal with the landed gentry of New Zealand—in A Southern Gentry: New Zealanders Who Inherited the Earth and in Pleasures of the Flesh—and with the working class—in New Zealand Working People, 1890-1990. In Contemporary Novelists, Eldred-Grigg, a socialist by inclination, explained that he consciously set out, in his fiction, to correct the image of the working class that had prevailed in male-dominated New Zealand fiction to that time, in which itinerant loners and casual workers were commonplace. He commented: "I'm a provincial writer, a writer of social comedy. My province is Canterbury, centred on the city of Christchurch. It's the comedy of a little white world, a small society, a very precise place. . . . A province civil, sociable, not unconcerned with style."
Eldred-Grigg told CA: "Storytelling held deadly power over my mind during the whole of my childhood and youth. My first few years of wandering about and wondering why were spent in a small town lost in the forested mountains of Westland, New Zealand. My mother and my aunts yarned away, day in, day out, telling the tales of their lives and the lives of their forebears. There were tales about a slum childhood far away in the city of Christchurch, tales about leaking houses and tight landladies. Laughing, leering, belching, the ignorant yet witty women of my family scoffed at men, schoolteachers, politicians, kids. Folktales were told by others in the town, too. It was a town of miners and timber millers, proud of its history of working folk fighting quartz, granite, coal falls, weather, shipping companies, mining companies, cops, armies, governments. It was a war of waggery and hard graft against the forces of capital. Songs were sung, stories told: goldfields ballads, for example, adapted during colonial days from still older songs passed down through the centuries in Ireland and Scotland. Townsfolk would gather around a piano, hammering at the keyboard, bellowing at the top of their voices, belting out a ballad, beating time with boots or spoons. Folk yarns and mass media followed my family across the alpine ranges of New Zealand when we abandoned the town in the forest to start life in the leafy suburbs of Christchurch.
"Christchurch during the twentieth century was widely defined by copywriters as 'the most English city outside England.' The city had been scripted as a story during the middle decades of the nineteenth century, was told as a tale before a single brick was laid. It was a serious, ceremonious story drafted by Anglican gentry who came together to found a model city, an old city in a new world. My growing years in those leafy suburbs were alive with the sound of cars and movies and motor lawnmowers—and also, still, with the sound of the vibrant voices of my mother and my aunts, those garrulous women keeping up their stories full of energy, satire, comedy.
"Public schools in the meantime were drilling their bells, lining up the limbs of kids in rows, while opening doors, closing windows in young minds, herding us toward the world of guaranteed work with dockets or trade tools or documents in triplicate. As for me, a small boy shuttling back and forth inside a bungalow, a garden, a cul-de-sac, a suburb: not until the age of eleven did I make up my mind that my life was to be the life of a storyteller. My class mistress at that time was a canny woman, a bit of a tartar who wore drab cardigans and sensible heels and at all times had an eye out for any kid who might need a leg up. Never before had I found myself, and never again would I find myself, under the eye of a teacher who wished to nurture my knack with words. Denise Blackman believed in kids, in education, in language.
"Christchurch seemed to need writers, too. Few writers anywhere in my part of the world were writing about suburbs with any real sensibility. My worry often was that the suburbs were not conceivable as a true story. A suburbanite must be either some dumb dope whose mind was so limited as to allow her or him to feel at home in a silly bungalow, or else some tender soul who felt profoundly out of place. A typewriter was given me by my parents as a reward. I loved it. I flailed away at the keyboard. My personal library, heavily thumbed, by the end of my high school years amount to about one hundred titles.
"Writers had always been nurtured by the University of Canterbury. There, my academic papers amounted to no more than a carelessly selected array of liberal arts, though French literature aroused my imagination for a year. Claudel's L'annonce faite à Marie, for instance, yielded metaphors which later would be turned to my own purpose in my novel The Siren Celia. Writing novels had already become a sort of slightly corrupt addiction that seemed compelling and yet seemed also to be holding me back from a prudential real life in a real world. 'No novel writing till after exams,' I instructed myself in my diary. It was a moratorium never observed, needless to say.
"A series of small experimental stories, playing with the sound and color of language and trying at the same time for some sort of social and psychological insight, were my first pieces to be published. New Zealand Listener, from 1978, and shortly afterwards Landfall and Islands, were my main outlets. A career as a social historian followed, more or less willynilly. My academic theses had dealt with the history of social class, and consequently my first commercially published book was a portrait of wealthy colonial landowners called A Southern Gentry: New Zealanders Who Inherited the Earth. An immediate succès de scandale, the book provoked controversy because it challenged a basic belief among academics and the wider public that New Zealand society was free, open, and egalitarian. My subsequent histories also looked at the themes of class, status, and power in colonial and contemporary New Zealand.
"My career as a published novelist began in 1987 with Oracles and Miracles, followed by the sequels The Shining City and Mum. The trilogy was originally planned as a work of oral history that would depict the lives of the working class in their own words, but evolved into a sequence of novels about two sisters, Ginnie and Fag, and their children, nieces, and nephews during the middle decades of the twentieth century. Dick Corballis in Contemporary Novelists has compared my technique in Oracles and Miracles with that of Arnold Bennett in The Old Wives' Tale. Corballis is astute, for that work was one of the key novels I discovered during my teen years.
"Three other novels were published by me during the same period, dealing with much the same themes but in different social, historical, or psychological circumstances, all, like the trilogy, focused closely on the city of Christchurch and its hinterland, the province of Canterbury. All six works are social satire, often tending toward black comedy. All are a portrait of a little, white world, a small society, a very precise place: a province civil, sociable, not unconcerned with style. The Siren Celia was a postmodern reworking of two novels of the 1890s, A South-Sea Siren and Philosopher Dick by George Chamier, with additional material from colonial diarist Sarah Amelia Courage. Gardens of Fire went back to the world of Oracles and Miracles and looked closely at the true story of the 1947 destruction by fire of Ballantynes, the smartest department store in postwar Christchurch. Blue Blood was a murder mystery set in the 1920s, which sought to probe the life and mind of a leading writer of crime fiction, Ngaio Marsh. Marsh herself was the leading suspect in the story.
"A change in the focus of my work came in 1994 with the publication of My History, I Think, a postmodern memoir which blended the techniques of history, fiction, and autobiography to ask questions about the nature and meaning of story and history, and also geography. The narrator of the book roams the world, touching down in places as far apart as Argentina, Iowa, and New Caledonia, though returning always to circle with false resolution above Canterbury. A clean break from my home province occurred in 2001 with the publication of Kaput!, which sought to explore the lives of ordinary 'Aryan' women in Nazi Berlin. Betty Mohr is the protagonist, a dutiful housewife whose thoughts and feelings are followed from the first triumphs of conquest at the start of World War II to the final rendering of her city into rubble by the bombs of the Allies.
"Always in my work my aim is to write about the things we wish not to remember, because what we wish not to remember is what we must never forget."
BIOGRAPHICAL AND CRITICAL SOURCES:
Contemporary Novelists, 7th edition, St. James Press (Detroit, MI), 2001.
Age (Melbourne, Australia), May 5, 1990, article by Andrew Peek.
Australian, February 3, 1990, article by Dennis Davison; November 27, 1993, article by Joanna Murray-Smith.
Australian and New Zealand Studies in Canada, fall, 1990, article by Mark Williams.
Canadian Literature, fall, 1994, p. 254.
Dominion Sunday Times, October 25, 1987, article by Patrick Evans.
Journal of New Zealand Literature, summer, 1996, article by Patrick Evans; summer, 1996, article by Roger Robinson.
Landfall, March, 1990, article by Richard Matthews; autumn, 1995, article by Shelagh Duckham Cox.
New Zealand Books, October, 1991, article by Vincent O'Sullivan; December, 1995, article by Chris Prentice; August, 1997, article by Jane Stafford.
New Zealand Herald, August 25, 2001, David Hill, review of Kaput!
New Zealand Listener, October 10, 1987, article by
Laurie Edmond; December 2, 1995, article by Heather Murray; April 5, 1997, article by Luke Strongman; July 28, 2001, Heather Murray, review of Kaput!
Publishers Weekly, May 6, 1988, p. 102.
Sydney Morning Herald, March 17, 1990, article by Geoffrey Dutton.
Stevan Eldred-Grigg: Novelist, Essayist, Historian, http://www.eldred-grigg.com/ (September 9, 2004).