Sargeson, Frank

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Nationality: New Zealander. Born: Hamilton, 23 March 1903. Education: Hamilton High School; University of New Zealand; admitted as solicitor of the Supreme Court of New Zealand, 1926. Career: Estates clerk, New Zealand Public Trust, Wellington, 1928-29; also journalist. Awards: Centennial Literary Competition prize, 1940; New Zealand Government literary pension, 1947-68; Hubert Church Prose award, 1951, 1968, 1972; Katherine Mansfield award, 1965; New Zealand scholarship in letters, 1974, and award for achievement, 1978. Litt.D.: University of Auckland, 1974. Died: 1 March 1982.


Short Stories

Conversation with My Uncle and Other Sketches. 1936.

A Man and His Wife. 1940.

That Summer and Other Stories. 1946.

I for One… (novella). 1954.

Collected Stories 1935-1963, edited by Bill Pearson. 1964; revised edition, as The Stories 1935-1973, 1973.

Man of England Now (includes Game of Hide and Seek and I for One…). 1972.


When the Wind Blows. 1945.

I Saw in My Dream. 1949.

Memoirs of a Peon. 1965.

The Hangover. 1967.

Joy of the Worm. 1969.

Sunset Village. 1976.

En Route, in Tandem, with Edith Campion. 1979.


A Time for Sowing (produced 1961). In Wrestling with the Angel, 1964.

The Cradle and the Egg (produced 1962). In Wrestling with the Angel, 1964.

Wrestling with the Angel: Two Plays: A Time for Sowing and The Cradle and the Egg. 1964.


Once Is Enough: A Memoir. 1972.

More Than Enough: A Memoir. 1975.

Never Enough! Places and People Mainly. 1977.

Conversation in a Train and Other Critical Writing, edited by Kevin Cunningham. 1983.

Editor, Speaking for Ourselves: A Collection of New Zealand Stories. 1945.



in The Stories 1935-1973, 1973.

Critical Studies:

The Puritan and the Wolf: A Symposium of Critical Essays on the Work of Sargeson edited by Helen Shaw, 1955; Sargeson by H. Winston Rhodes, 1969; Sargeson in His Time by Dennis McEldowney, 1977; Sargeson by R. A. Copland, 1977; Barbed Wire and Mirrors: Essays on New Zealand Prose by Lawrence Jones, 1987; Frank Sargeson: A Life by Michael King, 1995.

* * *

Frank Sargeson shares with Katherine Mansfield the place of greatest honor in the history of the short story in twentieth-century New Zealand. Though he also wrote four full-length novels, at least seven novellas and short novels, two plays, and three volumes of autobiography, it is with nearly 50 short stories and sketches, which he began writing for the radical periodical Tomorrow in the mid-1930s, that he was to establish and dominate the genre of the naturalistic short story in New Zealand. The formal antecedents from which he took his models were American rather than British, but he was to identify and locate his stories indisputably in his own country, revealing the society and the landscape, both urban and rural, in an economical and subtly ironic prose of great precision.

Most of the stories that Sargeson wrote between 1935 and 1945 are set in a materially and emotionally depressed society, where economic and spiritual limitations unite to confine the characters to such an extent that joy, love, and even speech itself seem stunted. The characters often seem to be only semiarticulate, whether they narrate the stories or simply take part in the action that the authorial voice describes. The stories in which they are involved will tell of their tangible worlds and experiences, but the characters will seldom speak of the emotions that might be detected beneath the narrative surface, perhaps because the articulation of these emotions might force upon them recognitions too painful to be borne.

They are characters who are solitary and vulnerable, usually either men alone or children observing a future that seems to promise that same isolation. They inhabit a world of potential or actual violence, as exemplified in the stories "Sale Day" and "A Great Day"; they see domesticity as a fate to be avoided, as in "The Hole that Jack Dug"; and, like the antihero of "A Man of Good Will," they will find no fruitful rewards for whatever honest endeavors they may labor at. Sargeson's vision, though compassionate and occasionally sentimental, seems finally an idiosyncratic and highly personal one in its view of social reality. Yet from his writings, and in particular from his short stories, a tradition of social realism in New Zealand fiction can be traced. It says much that is disturbing about his country that Sargeson's vision was accepted by a generation of readers as a naturalistic and inherently truthful vision of the experiences of a male working class in New Zealand. Part of this acceptance involved the recognition that Sargeson had an unerring skill with dialogue. His recording of the New Zealand working-class vernacular has not been surpassed and has seldom been matched by later writers. The idiomatic speech, with its flattened cadences, its laconic and sometimes wry ironies, and its cautious and limited vocabulary, became intimately associated with his distinctive sketches and stories.

Many of the works take the form of casually told yarns where the story is ostensibly being narrated to the listener-reader but where the personality and character of the narrator become important elements. Sometimes, as in "An Affair of the Heart," an evidently insightful narrator recalls both a childhood experience and an adult's attempt to recapture it in the full recognition of its beauty and terror. More often the classic Sargeson narrator, in stories such as "A Man and His Wife" and "The Making of a New Zealander," finds himself verbally if not emotionally limited, telling a story whose full significance may elude him.

In the Sargeson world relationships between men and women and between parents and children seem almost always unsatisfactory. A strong tone of misogyny seems to permeate many of the stories, perhaps because of the narrators' half-recognized prejudices rather than from any overt authorial antipathy, but the stories are expressive of a limited and sometimes fearful view of human relationships. Often the only effective emotional reality for the characters seems to be the uneasy camaraderie of "mateship" between the men in the stories. In this world marriages are too often blighted, as in the comic but grotesque depiction of Mr. and Mrs. Crump in "The Making of a New Zealander," or stretched to the breaking point, as in "A Man and His Wife," or non-existent, as in "An Affair of the Heart" or "An Attempt at an Explanation"; in each case the absence of the husband/father is never alluded to though it is always apparent.

Arguably the finest sustained narrative that adopts the style of the semiarticulate narrator inhabiting this emotional twilight world is the extended story "That Summer," first published by John Lehmann in Penguin New Writing (1943-44). It is a story that tells in the first person singular the experience of two unemployed men in a New Zealand city during the depression. They form a platonic bond, as caring and mutually supportive as any orthodox "marriage," during one golden summer. The protagonist is innocently unaware of the moral and sexual darkness that surrounds him and his more worldly "mate," and the poignancy of his ultimate loss is the more touching for its being only half-recognized. The story is among Sargeson's most subtly underwritten and among his finest.

In the 15 years after his 60th birthday Sargeson published three new novels and several novellas, as well as half a dozen more short stories, most of the latter published between 1964 and 1969. In these later fictions Sargeson used a more eloquent style than he formerly had, with a frequently self-mocking urbanity that suggested the influence of Smollett. He now examined the lives of characters who differed from his earlier creations in being seemingly more materially secure (or bourgeois), more articulate, and more susceptible to pain. Generally now they were no longer limited by the constrictions of language that had been imposed on the earlier narrators through limited education or social opportunity. But perhaps the fact that they could speak more confidently meant only that they could recognize and articulate more clearly a vision that is still at least metaphorically "unspeakable." The later stories, such as "City and Suburban" and "Just Trespassing, Thanks," seem still to express a vision that is bleak and melancholy, with little joy or optimism finally able to be derived from the material improvement of society. The ultimate condition of humanity in Sargeson's world seems always to be loneliness, lightened only by the compassion of the author's vision.

—William Broughton

See the essay on "The Making of a New Zealander."