C.K. Stead’s The Name on the Door Is Not Mine. Michael Sala’s The Re­storer. Paul Croucher’s The Land­ing.

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Karl Stead is in his 80s now and for as long as any­one can re­mem­ber he has been New Zealand’s lead­ing lit­er­ary critic. It was in the 1960s that he wrote The New Po­etic, a book that shed light on T. S. Eliot by sug­gest­ing that The Waste Land was a po­etry of break­down and Four Quar­tets was a very un­even work not sim­ply amenable to re­cu­per­a­tion by the sug­ges­tion that it was de­lib­er­ately so.

And he could nail what he didn’t like in a Peter Carey novel and talk with grav­ity and clear-mind­ed­ness about any lit­er­ary thing un­der the sun.

Stead is also a writer. This new and se­lected vol­ume of his sto­ries tes­ti­fies to the charm and el­e­gance he brings to this sec­ondary pro­fes­sion, but it doesn’t per­suade us that fic­tion, in the fir­ma­ment of C. K. Stead’s tal­ents, is any­thing other than a sec­ond fid­dle.

These sto­ries will soothe the mind with their ease and their com­pan­ion­able charm, and they’re witty and lit­er­ate in a let-me-tell-you-the-one-about- Ode-ona-Gre­cian-Urn way, but they are bland with­out bril­liance, they charm with their mild­ness, and they ex­ist – ami­ably and com­mend­ably – in the sub­urbs of lit­er­ary plea­sure. The city, when it’s taken by storm, never mind if it’s by some bar­bar­ian such as Chris­tos Tsi­olkas, is some­thing else again.

None of which is to deny Stead’s read­abil­ity or his re­li­a­bil­ity. This is also, for what it’s worth, a fic­tion that will ap­peal to any­one who’s at­tracted to the lit­er­ary side of lit­er­acy. There’s noth­ing wrong with a sto­ry­teller who will quote Nashe’s “Bright­ness falls from the air”, from one of the great­est lyric po­ems in the lan­guage, “A Li­tany in Time of Plague”. It’s just that if you com­pare this habit of mind with a great short story writer such as He­len Simp­son when she evokes Donne’s “A Noc­tur­nal Upon St. Lucy’s Day”, you’ll see the dif­fer­ence: she does it func­tion­ally and she’s com­pet­i­tive with Donne, Stead just can’t re­sist a quote.

But he can be quite good fun. A Bri­tish girl who has had her has­sles with men­tal af­flic­tion and has been on lithium goes out in Paris with a New Zealand pro­fes­sor mar­ried to a great French scholar of Flaubert. They’re far from the cen­tre of the city when the wife – who no longer has much in­ti­mate time for him – rings about a ref­er­ence she wants for her Pléi­ade edi­tion of the great Gus­tave. She twigs to the girl, and the aca­demic hack with a bit of a heart has no fur­ther con­tact with her.

That’s the open­ing over in this match and it’s bet­ter than av­er­age be­cause the savoir faire of the cen­tral fig­ure at least turns round and looks at it­self, or fails to, with a de­gree of self-doubt, and we’re left won­der­ing. The “rue Par­rot” of its ti­tle is nice, too, in a Ju­lian Barnes world.

Though it’s pre­cisely that Bar­ne­sian qual­ity, of vari­a­tion and con­tour, of sheen and irony, that Stead tends to lack. In the pro­to­typ­i­cal C. K. Stead story, a mid­dleaged aca­demic or writer, al­most cer­tainly from New Zealand, cer­tainly tied up with English lit­er­a­ture, does some­thing or other – prob­a­bly small and off-cen­tre – far from home.

There’s a story about this re­cur­rent type writ­ing a novel, a tale of two cities, about Los An­ge­les and Auck­land, within cooee of that lus­trously beau­ti­ful other place, Syd­ney – har­bour­side Syd­ney in par­tic­u­lar.

It’s the year of the bi­cen­te­nary and an old Aus­tralian mate – a man of ami­able coarse­ness who loathes Poms and bludgers and Ki­wis, or af­fects to – lies dy­ing and ar­ranges for the Stead fig­ure to place bets for him, or so he thinks. It’s a good story be­cause the old Aussie mon­grel gets weaker by the day and Stead pays homage to this in a way that’s alert and poignant.

He’s at his best when he writes di­a­logue and when he con­jures drama, gen­er­ally of a lim­ited and lo­cal kind, rather than in his more sweep­ing and sum­maris­ing strate­gies.

The lat­ter ten­dency gets in the way of the longish story with which the vol­ume ends and that gives it its ti­tle. The Kiwi who quotes Nashe is in Canada, oc­cu­py­ing the of­fice of an aca­demic poet who’s a leg­end only in his own lo­cal­ity. The poet-pro­fes­sor dis­ap­pears in the moun­tains of Aus­tria, and the Auck­lan­der be­comes a world author­ity on his work and gains a much big­ger au­di­ence for it. Then there’s a big sur­prise.

But the story in­di­cates the rel­a­tive weak­ness of the col­lec­tion – it’s the sketch of a novel Stead can’t quite be both­ered writ­ing. The out­line it pre­serves has its in­ter­est, though again you get a strong whiff of the sul­phur of some cir­cle of hell when­ever, as ever, the pro­tag­o­nist or cen­tral ob­serv­ing in­tel­li­gence of a Stead story takes his bear­ings from an English de­part­ment. It’s not that he does so of­fen­sively, or that they’re the ob­ject of ir­ra­tional loathing – or, in fact, any­thing as hi­lar­i­ous or loath­some as they are in real life – but they rep­re­sent such a nat­u­ral lo­cale for the com­pla­cency and cul­ti­va­tion of a nar­ra­tor like this.

Is it that he’s never looked out too far or leaned in too deep? Of course not. These sto­ries tes­tify to ad­mirable enough moral qual­i­ties, it’s just that lit­er­a­ture gets in his way, a bit self-abort­ingly.

As a critic, Stead is pen­e­trat­ing, wise, with a wild side to his wit that can sav­age as it sparkles.

But it’s a pity that he didn’t, like the sage and stylish J.I.M. Ste­wart (the Scot who was pro­fes­sor in Ade­laide at the time of Ern Mal­ley), turn his writerly foibles to pop­u­lar fic­tion. As Michael Innes, Ste­wart cre­ated the de­tec­tive Sir John Ap­pleby of Scot­land Yard, who quotes Aeschy­lus in Greek and By­ron by the bar­rel load. The op­u­lence of those sto­ries leads some peo­ple to dis­cover the sober terse econ­omy of his crit­i­cism – sen­si­tive to psy­cho­anal­y­sis, alert to weak­nesses of plot­ting, with no el­e­ment of ex­cess. QSS

Allen & Un­win, 304pp, $32.99

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