Davin, Dan (iel Marcus)

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DAVIN, Dan (iel Marcus)

Nationality: British. Born: Invercargill, New Zealand, 1 September 1913. Education: Marist Brothers' School, Invercargill; Sacred Heart College, Auckland; University of Otago, Dunedin, M.A. in English, Dip. M.A. in Latin, 1935; Balliol College, Oxford (Rhodes scholar), 1936-39, B.A. in classics 1939, M.A. 1945. Military Service: Served in the Royal Warwickshire Regiment, 1939-40; served in the New Zealand Division, 1940-45: major;M.B.E. (Member, Order of the British Empire), 1945. Family: Married Winifred Gonley in 1939; three daughters. Career: Junior assistant secretary, 1946-48, and assistant secretary, 1948-69, Clarendon Press, Oxford; deputy secretary to the delegates, 1970-78; director of the Academic Division, 1974-78, Oxford University Press (retired 1978.) Fellow of Balliol College, 1965, emeritus since 1978. D.Litt.: University of Otago, 1984. Fellow, Royal Society of Arts. C.B.E. (Commander, Order of the British Empire), 1987. Died: 28 September 1990.


Short Stories

The Gorse Blooms Pale. 1947.

Breathing Spaces. 1975.

Selected Stories. 1981.

The Salamander and the Fire: Collected War Stories. 1986.


Cliffs of Fall. 1945.

For the Rest of Our Lives. 1947; revised edition, 1965.

Roads from Home. 1949; edited by Lawrence Jones, 1976.

The Sullen Bell. 1956.

No Remittance. 1959.

Not Here, Not Now. 1970.

Brides of Price. 1972.


An Introduction to English Literature, with John Mulgan. 1947.

Crete. 1953.

Writing in New Zealand: The New Zealand Novel, with W. K. Davin. 2 vols., 1956.

Katherine Mansfield in Her Letters. 1959.

Closing Times (memoirs). 1975.

Snow upon Fire: A Dance to the Music of Time: Anthony Powell(lecture). 1976.

Editor, New Zealand Short Stories. 1953; as The Making of a New Zealander, 1989.

Editor, Selected Stories, by Katherine Mansfield. 1953.

Editor, English Short Stories of Today, second series. 1958; as The Killing Bottle: Classic English Short Stories, 1988.

Editor, Short Stories from the Second World War. 1982.


Critical Studies:

"Davin's Roads from Home" by H. Winston Rhodes, in Critical Essays on the New Zealand Novel edited by Cherry Hankin, 1976; Davin by James Bertram, 1983; Barbed Wire and Mirrors: Essays on New Zealand Prose by Lawrence Jones, 1987; A Fighting Withdrawal: The Life of Dan Davin, Writer, Soldier, Publisher by Keith Ovenden, 1996.

* * *

Although in his lifetime Dan Davin was known primarily as a novelist, it may well be that he ultimately will be remembered more for his short stories. Written in the intervals of a busy life over more than 40 years, Davin's stories are more accomplished as narratives than are his novels, whether they are Joycean epiphany stories such as "The Apostate," more plot-centered yarns such as "Cassino Casualty," or more complex, longer narratives such as "The Wall of Doors." And, while the social canvas of any single story is necessarily more restricted than that of the novels, taken together the stories provide a fuller, more balanced picture of his expatriate New Zealand generation than do the novels.

The stories divide into three main historical or biographical groups. The first consists of stories of growing up, many of them dealing with the development of Mick Connolly within the Irish Catholic subculture of Invercargill in the far south of New Zealand. These stories trace Mick from his first religious experience ("The Apostate"), through a series of childhood learning experiences ("Death of a Dog" and "Presents"), through his (or a similar character's) adolescence ("Saturday Night" and "The Quiet One"), and finally to university life and his sexual initiation ("That Golden Time"). A few other stories, such as "The Hydra" or "Boarding-House Episode," take similar young New Zealand protagonists through disillusioning learning experiences in Oxford or London.

The largest group of stories is that dealing with the New Zealand Division in World War II. The Salamander and the Fire: Collected War Stories collects the war stories from the earlier volumes, and also includes five war stories written in the 1980s, and arranges them as an historical sequence. Thus they present moments in the lives of men in the campaigns in Greece and Crete, in North Africa, and finally in Italy. Some of these stories, such as "Below the Heavens," focus on the initiation of the young man into the horrors of war. Others, such as "The Persian's Grave," focus on the testing of more grizzled veterans in difficult situations. Such stories as "North of the Sangro" are more historically oriented survivor's yarns, usually told from the point of view of an intelligence officer (which was Davin's role through much of the war).

Davin entitled his war novel For the Rest of Our Lives, and in the story "Not Substantial Things" the narrator similarly muses that "we'd never give anything again what we'd given the Div…. We'd used up what we had and we'd spend the rest of our lives looking over our shoulders." Certainly Davin kept looking back over his shoulder at this war experience, returning to it in his last stories. As a result of this self-confessed obsession with the war, the third group of his stories, those set after the war, are neither as numerous nor as powerful as the war stories. A few, such as "First Flight," deal with the expatriate's return visit to New Zealand. Others, such as "Growing," deal with the family man in England, and a few, such as "The Saloon Bar," deal with English public life.

The three groups of stories come together to make a kind of personal social history, but they are more than that. In his introduction to Selected Stories Davin lists his three requirements for a successful story: "a passion for the exact, the authentic, detail; some intellectual power which can organise the form and weight it with a central, though not necessarily explicit, thought; and a power of feeling, a spirit, which means that the story, while avoiding a moral, is fundamentally moral." The authentic detail is there in all of the stories, with a Joycean sharpness if not a Joycean economy, whether it is the image of baby rabbits drowning in the thaw of a late snow in Invercargill, the silence of olive trees with the dead in a gully beneath them after a battle in Crete, or the sound of a motorbike disturbing the evening in an Oxford street. The intellectual power is provided by Davin, the skeptical philosopher, with his rejection of Catholicism for a bleak naturalistic vision of humans as conscious creatures in an unconscious universe, victims of the indifferent forces of sex, time, and death. That skeptical naturalism blends with the skeptical liberalism of his literary generation, a generation that learned through the betrayals of the 1930s and the horrors of World War II that no cause is to be trusted entirely, that while God does not exist, original sin does, that to live in the world and act is to dirty (not to say bloody) one's hands, that nothing in the self, others, or society is ever really simple. That intellectual force is combined in the stories with an underlying moral vision, a vision involving an armed truce with reality, an ironic and unillusioned awareness and acceptance of the complexities and imperfections of world, society, and self.

In the best stories, such as "The Quiet One," authentic detail, intellectual power, and moral vision combine to produce a powerful effect. In that story Ned, the young protagonist, learns something about sexuality and human relations through his encounter with his cousin Marty, seeing Marty's pain and remorse over the death of his girl from an abortion. Ned, himself on the brink of adolescent sexuality, playing Friday night games primarily for social approval and companionship, has a premature glimpse into what it all means, seeing the difficulties of sexuality and the terrible tangle of human relationships and human nature. The story, a classic example of the epiphany story, with the central discovery turning on moral complexity, rich in detail, with an implicit intellectual power, is a strong argument for the staying power of Davin's stories.

—Lawrence Jones

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