Duggan, Maurice (Noel)

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DUGGAN, Maurice (Noel)

Nationality: New Zealander. Born: Auckland, 25 November 1922. Education: The University of Auckland. Family: Married Barbara Platts in 1945; one child. Career: Worked in advertising from 1961, J. English Wright (Advertising) Ltd. Auckland, 1965-72. Awards: Hubert Church Prose award, 1957; New Zealand Library Association Esther Glen award, for children's book, 1959; Katherine Mansfield Memorial award, for short story, 1959; University of Otago Robert Burns fellowship, 1960; New Zealand Literary Fund scholarship, 1966; Buckland award, 1969. Died: 11 December 1974.



Collected Stories, edited by C. K. Stead. 1981.

Short Stories

Immanuel's Land. 1956.

Summer in the Gravel Pit. 1965.

O'Leary's Orchard and Other Stories. 1970.

Other (for children)

Falter Tom and the Water Boy. 1957.

The Fabulous McFanes and Other Children's Stories. 1974.


Critical Studies:

"The Short Stories of Duggan" by Terry Sturm, in Landfall 97, March 1971; "Duggan's Summer in the Gravel Pit" by Dan Davin, in Critical Essays in the New Zealand Short Story, edited by Cherry Hankin, 1982; "Coming of Age in New Zealand: Buster O'Leary Among STC, Rhett Butler, Hell's Angels, and Others" by Neil Besner, in Ariel, January 1987.

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Although Maurice Duggan spent much of his life trying to write a novel, none was ever completed to his satisfaction and it is almost exclusively for his short fiction, only 30 published stories, that this most self-exacting of New Zealand writers is known. Duggan was born in Auckland in 1922 and it was the loss of his leg in 1940 through osteomyelitis that seems to have generated his desire to write. The amputation ended his all-absorbing interest in sports and prevented him from following his friends into the army during World War II. By 1944 he had made contact with Frank Sargeson, New Zealand's most famous writer of the time, and the older man quickly became his mentor. Duggan evokes this period movingly in "Beginnings," which appeared in the magazine Landfall in 1966 as part of a series on how New Zealanders started writing.

Duggan was encouraged by Sargeson, but he never really adopted the other writer's colloquial style. From the beginning his early stories, such as "Sunbrown" and "Notes on an Abstract Arachnid," displayed a wordiness and a disinterest in conventional forms. His first attempts were weakened by what Duggan himself described as "a habit of rhetoric," but as he developed his stories showed a stylishness and sophistication previously unknown in New Zealand fiction. "Six Place Names and a Girl," to which Sargeson contributed the title, proved a breakthrough with its almost minimal plot and its brief, evocative descriptions of areas on the Hauraki Plains. At the time of publication its one-word sentences and composite words seemed technically very daring.

In 1950 Duggan traveled to England. During his two years in Europe he attempted to write a full-length book and became more interested in concatenated prose. Parts of the uncompleted work were eventually refashioned into short stories built around the lives of the Lenihans, an Irish immigrant family living in Auckland. "Guardian" and "In Youth Is Pleasure" depict and condemn the harsh treatment meted out to boys in a Catholic boarding school. "Race Day" describes some children watching a horse race in the distance from the porch of their house, and their parents' unconcern over a fatal accident. "The Deposition" chronicles the madness and death of the same children's mother and the sudden remarriage of Mr. Lenihan to the much younger Grace Malloy. "A Small Story" goes on to make explicit the children's rejection of their new step-mother. Its rigorous, spare prose style, and the motif of the gate the children swing on reflecting the futility of all action are typical of the stories of this period.

With some allowance for artistic licence, many of the events in these stories mirror Duggan's own early life. Despite the obvious influence of Joyce's Dubliners, the Lenihan stories are some of the finest series written by a New Zealander. They have been compared favorably to Katherine Mansfield's Karori works on the Burnell family, which were written under similar circumstances. The Lenihan stories were mostly published in Duggan's first book, Immanuel's Land, and have remained among the most popular of his works. However, he noted thereafter that "I ceased to be subject."

At the same time that Duggan was writing the Lenihan stories he was also working on a travel diary entitled "Voyage," which in three parts describes his journey by ship to England, a holiday through Italy, and adventure in Spain. It was widely admired when published in New Zealand for its lyric power and the virtuosity of its mandarin style. For the next few years Duggan seems, at least in retrospect, to be trying to bring this richness into the New Zealand realist tradition. "The Wits of Willie Graves" is the story of a debt collector's journey into the outer reaches of the New Zealand countryside, his meeting with a hillbilly family, and his slow sense of collusion with the father's incestuous attitude to his eldest daughter. The descriptions of the isolated landscape and of the harsh lifestyle of the family blend effectively with the tale of corruption. "Blues for Miss Laverty" is a story of loneliness told in a prose evocative of urban desolation. Mary May Laverty, a spinsterish classical music teacher, is bedeviled by a nameless man who plays a record of the St. Louis Blues over and over again in her boarding house. Eventually, after a failed attempt at an affair with the father of one of her pupils, she confronts the nameless man briefly and they recognize the impossibility in life of "a little human warmth."

"Blues for Miss Laverty" was written during Duggan's year as Burns Fellow at Otago University, and it is during this fertile period that he produced two long monologues that effectively pushed the New Zealand short story out of its social realist rut. "Riley's Handbook" consists of the ravings of an artist named Fowler who has escaped his wife and family to become a bar-man and caretaker in a sprawling rural hotel. His attempt to revise his identity requires a new name, Riley, but "disguise and sudden departure have not been enough." Riley forms a sexual relationship with Myra, another worker in the hotel, and rails bitterly against the absurdity of both his former and adopted lives. The story's atmosphere of utter despair would be hard to take were it not for the comic exuberance of its language, its sense of reveling in melancholy, and the skill with which its characters are drawn. "Along Rideout Road That Summer," a story told by a young man who has run away from home, plays with many of the themes of conventional New Zealand fiction.

In the remaining 14 years of his life Duggan completed only three further stories. Each attracted great attention when it appeared. "O'Leary's Orchard" is the often touching story of the relationship between an older man and a younger woman, and "An Appetite for Flowers" describes the tug-of-love between a divorced couple for the affections of their child. "The Magsman Miscellany," which was published in 1975, one year after Duggan's death, managed to cause a sensation with its skillful use of metafictional form, the story of Ben McGoldrick's relationship to his wife and of them both to fiction. This is testament, no doubt, to Duggan's ability to stay ahead of his contemporaries, to develop continually the possibilities of style, and never to be happy with less than the perfect phrase. Despite the paucity of his output he ranks with Mansfield and Sargeson as one of New Zealand's greatest exponents of short fiction.

—Ian Richards

See the essay on "Along Rideout Road That Summer."