Reading the reader

Reading an odd fish

Books of letters are odd fish - part biography and autobiography, part memoir, part history. They require huge amounts of work from the editor, and yet are made up of someone else's creative output. They have little narrative aside from the writer's life trajectory.

Frank Sargeson inside his house, 1947. Frank Sargeson inside his house, 1947. 1/2-003138-F

They are gold mines for historians wanting to know the everyday details of a writer's life and yet are wonderfully ambiguous – especially letters from a writer such as Frank Sargeson, who could have reasonably expected for most of his working life that his letters may be someday published. As he said, his letters (if kept in N.Z.) could be “Fascinating materials for hopeful P.H.ds” (to William Plomer, 1970, p 435). How would this have changed what he had put down in a letter?

Books of letters offer up this lie to their reader – by reading a person’s letters you could then know what they thought about something. What you know is the writer’s opinion, as they chose to express it to a particular person – and to history.

Reading his letters, I enjoyed Frank's complex attitude toward money, his subtle allusions to the global changes in attitudes to homosexuality, and his vehement support of fellow writers. But I can’t know just how much of was written for the letter’s recipient, and how much was written for me.

Your guide and fellow reader

The selector and editor of Letters of Frank Sargeson , Sarah Shieff, draws heavily from the Frank Sargeson Papers and others in the Alexander Turnbull Library manuscripts collections, as well as private collections and other collecting institutions in N.Z and internationally.

As the editor, Sarah stands at your elbow while you read, gently pointing out what happened before this letter was written, or giving you just enough of the reply to turn on the light in your brain and make sure you don't miss out on anything.

These little interjections – and the subtle 'easing' of Frank's letter writing style without losing any of it's eccentricity – makes going from letter to letter effortless and joyful. What I was really thrilled to see was the interjections by writers who have obviously been in email correspondence with Shieff during the process of selection and editing – such as Kevin Ireland and C. K. Stead.

Sixty feet of bookshelves

Frank strongly believed that to write well, you had to read well. And a lot!

Every day he included time for reading, usually in the very early morning, and he ran like wildfire through the classics, current New Zealand writing including drafts from friends, poetry, plays, modern writers such as Jack Kerouac and Tennessee Williams.

He loved to give his opinion of what he was reading - though he almost snobbishly left the classics well alone in this regard. He wasn’t above changing his mind, also – in a letter to Denis McEldowney he said “I have fallen for Katherine Mansfield at last. What I mean is, I… had never read An Indiscreet Journey until the other evening. I was fascinated – it seems the best thing she has ever wrote” (to Denis McEldowney, 1954, p173).

He also despaired of ever getting his books sold and read as so many wonderful books already existed and demanded the time of readers, saying “with my sixty feet of book shelves and my books all up on them I wonder who in hell wants to write books when there are so many to read” (to John Reece Cole, 1948, p 72).

Poorly shelved books, 1972. Poorly shelved books, 1972. 1/2-224555-F

From reading to writing and back again

I am a voracious reader of pretty much anything, myself, and have a particular love of writing where people talk about themselves or people they have known, and what they have personally experienced. Frank's letters, with constant references to what he has been reading, what books he has sent to friends for them to read, and what he has been encouraging his fellow authors to publish (or not!) made me want to immediately compile a list of every scrap of literature that he referenced, and start reading at the top of it.

And I may do just that. I’m sure that Frank would have approved.

By Amy Watling

Amy is the Online Research Services Leader for the Alexander Turnbull Library.

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