All the juicy pastures: Greville Texidor, Frank Sargeson and New Zealand literary culture in the 1940s
The cultural nationalist narrative, and the myths of origin and invention associated with it, cast a long shadow over the mid-twentieth century literary landscape. But since at least the 1980s, scholars have turned their attention to what was happening at the margins of that dominant narrative, revealing untold stories and evidence of unexpected literary meeting points, disruptions and contradictions. The nationalist frame has thus lost purchase as the only way to understand the era’s literature. The 1940s in particular have emerged as a time of cultural recalibration in which subtle shifts were being nourished by various sources, not least the émigré and exilic artists who came to New Zealand from war-torn Europe. They included not only refugees but also a group of less classifiable wanderers and nomads. Among them was Greville Texidor, the peripatetic Englishwoman who transformed herself into a writer and produced a small body of fiction here, including what Frank Sargeson would call “one of the most beautiful prose works ever achieved in this country” (“Greville Texidor” 135). The Sargeson-Texidor encounter, and the larger exilic-nationalist meeting it signifies, is the focus of this thesis.
By the early 1940s, Sargeson was the acknowledged master of the New Zealand short story, feted for his ‘authentic’ vision of local reality and for the vernacular idiom and economical form he had developed to render it. Yet he was at a turning point, increasingly constricted by the very tradition he had created. This thesis proposes that, in Texidor, he found the ideal reader for the writer he wished to become. More than merely a mentor-protégée relationship, this was an exchange that left its imprint on Sargeson’s work as much as Texidor’s. Moreover, their meeting enacted the moment at which international influences and modernist modes of expression collided with the literary nationalist project – refashioning, complicating and enlarging it in the process.
Combining literary analysis, cultural and literary history, and biography, this thesis is divided into three parts. The first examines the narrative of invention and indigeneity constructed around the dominant Phoenix-Caxton writers, and the scholarship challenging that narrative and its totalising claims. Turning to the arrival of exilic artists from Europe and elsewhere, it argues that the nationalist and the exilic operated as unexpectedly compatible mentalities in 1940s New Zealand. The second part considers the sources of Sargeson’s literary dilemma in the 1940s, his quest for artistic reinvention, and his problematic role as mentor to a generation of emerging writers. The final part comprises a close reading of Texidor’s published fiction and also (for the first time) her unpublished work. Her fiction is read not only as a record of a writer’s development, but also through the lens of intermodernist theory, suggesting an affinity with writers elsewhere using modernist methods to register the personal and social consequences of political commitment and war.
This thesis is informed by extensive archival research, the author’s interviews with Texidor’s two daughters, and visits to significant locations in Spain. In the absence of any other significant literary or biographical accounts of Texidor, it seeks to reassess an author whose place in the New Zealand literary canon has been contested and whose influence on her contemporaries is little recognised.