Christian Karlson Stead

‘Reading T. S. Eliot and reading about T. S. Eliot were equally formative experiences for my generation. One of the books about him which greatly appealed to me when I first read it … was The New Poetic by the New Zealand poet and critic, C. K. Stead…’

Seamus Heaney, The Government of the Tongue (1986)

Over their lifetimes, most writers tend to specialise in a single genre. A number, (Thomas Hardy included), move between different types of fiction, employing poetry, novels and short-stories to a lesser or greater degree, but tending to favour one over the other. One modern writer, however, who has managed to traverse the line between fiction in its many guises, and non-fiction, is C.K. Stead, New Zealand’s foremost living writer.

From a distinguished academic career as Professor of English at AucklandUniversity and as a writer, Stead has been in print for more than fifty years. In 1964, Stead wrote ‘The New Polemic’ a book that sealed his academic reputation and was highly regarded by British academics. Since then he has grown his repetoire as a writer of literary criticism, essays, novels, short stories and poetry in an extraordinarily fertile career. Perhaps most impressive was his annus mirabilis in 2010 when, at the age of 78, he won the first Sunday Times EFG Private Bank Short Story Award and a prize of £25,000 – the largest prize in the world to date for a short story followed almost immediately by the inaugural 2010 International Hippocrates Prize for Poetry and Medicine, with a prize of £5,000 for his poem ‘Ischemia’.

Over the years, I have read most of Stead’s work including his criticisms of New Zealand literature and, most recently, his autobiography. Not
surprisingly, given the subject of my own writing, from his canon I would whole-heartedly recommend ‘Mansfield’ (2004), a novel spanning three years of the life of Katherine Mansfield. Apart from the excellence of the story telling, I was nourished by the New Zealand voice that talked to the exile. In conversation with Bertrand Russell, the subject turns to Mansfield and the difference in her upbringing and education.

“Your mind, my dear Mansfield,” he told her once, “is uncluttered. There’s not the usual lumber – religious, political, social.”

They were having lunch together in a restaurant not far from the BritishMuseum.

 “This is the nicest possible way of telling me I’m empty headed.”

“I would say unspoiled.”

“An empty vessel into which you can pour . . . “

“No. A rational creature, to whom I can offer . . . “

 “Well . . .” She smiled her gratitude for a compliment gracefully delivered. “I’m not sure it’s true, but if it is, it’s because I’m a citizen of nowhere. I learned very little in New Zealand; but because that’s where I began, what I’m taught here I don’t always accept or believe. Nothing ever seems gospel, you know?’

 “The social imprint is thin.” His eyes were bright, eager. “People of my sort – Ottoline, Brett, Huxley – we have a lot to unlearn. Too much is laid on  us too early. We grow up fettered.”

I was fortunate to meet C K Stead several years ago when back in Wairoa, a rather remote town on the East Coast of the North Island. He was there as part of a programme to promote New Zealand writing, funded by the Government’s literary fund and I was one of an audience of a mere half dozen privileged to sit in the local library listening to C K Stead and three other writers who were travelling with him, talk of their craft and of the national idiom. He did not disappoint.

By Peter Tait

A retired teacher and head for 17 years, now focusing on writing, both on education and further fiction and non-fiction (previously having published two novels and a non-fiction book on Thomas Hardy's wives and other women, a biography, poetry and numerous articles on education).