NZ literature at Turnbull: looking back, looking forward

At the Alexander Turnbull Library we were over the moon when we learned that Eleanor Catton had won the Man Booker prize. Our feelings of national pride and inexplicable personal elation (we had not, after all, won the prize ourselves) were possibly equivalent to those felt by the more sporty among us should New Zealand have won the tennis at Wimbledon.

We were not alone in our delight; a festive atmosphere filled the cafes that day, and Unity Books gave away glasses of champagne to those lining up to buy the book. However, to try and pick up a copy in bookshops now is futile until more are printed.

Blog Luminaries Cover Cover of The Luminaries, by Eleanor Catton.

Like a number of recent, acclaimed New Zealand novels ( Rangatira and Wulf , for example), Catton’s concerns itself with this country’s history. It’s a Victorian pastiche, a murder-mystery set during the gold rush in Hokitika, in the mid-1860s. The plot is an elaborate puzzle; the structure a postmodern experiment in control. The twelve main characters or ‘luminaries’ each represent a sign of the zodiac; the twelve parts of the book wane like the moon – each part is half the length of the one before it.

The Booker judges were so drawn into the world of the novel that their effusive praise was couched in mining and astrological metaphor: it was ‘as tightly structured as an orrery’; ‘we read it three times and each time we dug into it the yields were extraordinary, its dividends astronomical’.

Eleanor spent two years researching before she started to write, and notes her indebtedness to the National Library’s Papers Past website:

By far the most helpful non-fictional resource was the National Library of New Zealand’s newspaper archives, which has digital copies of every edition of the West Coast Times, the Lyttelton Times, and Otago Witness, among a great many other newspapers and periodicals. I was able to see how much everything cost; what kinds of foods and wares were available to buy and sell; what entertainments were on offer; and, most importantly for The Luminaries, I was able to read transcripts of actual court trials from the period. The trials are extraordinarily vivid in their detail.

The Alexander Turnbull Library holds a great many of the newspapers digitised for Papers Past, and co-ordinates with other institutions to ensure a broad coverage of titles and full runs. It also collects every work of New Zealand literature ever published. Despite this country’s relatively short literary history, that group of works is huge and diverse, spanning the earliest printed volume of poetry (self-published by William Golder in 1852), the first creaking attempt at local fiction (Major B. Stoney's Taranaki: A Tale of the War, 1861), through to avant-garde zines, bestselling romance and crime novels (in which this country excels), and internationally acclaimed literary fiction. The rapidly growing collection charts the maturing of our literary self-expression. Catton’s high-profile success promises to be an inspiration and encouraging shot in the arm for our writers and the book industry that supports them – continuing the evolution of an increasingly multifarious national literature.

Tait Brothers: Digger's Arms Hotel in Hokitika, Westland, 1867. Tait Brothers: Digger's Arms Hotel in Hokitika, Westland, 1867. Ref: PAColl-7489-46, Alexander Turnbull Library.

It is said that a new work of fiction or poetry is a conversation with its predecessors, with the tradition that goes before it. It is also, in the light of the current fashion for history, a discussion with the mysteries of our ostensibly true stories. In the vast vaults of the Turnbull stacks is a living corpus which both informs new works and is enlarged by them. In that sense the collection is both historical and futuristic, and an invaluable resource for both readers and writers.

By Fiona Oliver

Fiona is Curator of New Zealand and Pacific Publications at the Alexander Turnbull Library.

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