North & South - - Contents - BY MIKE WHITE

One of New Zealand’s most cel­e­brated writ­ers, Vin­cent O’sul­li­van has pub­lished his first novel in 20 years, at the age of 80.

Vin­cent O’sul­li­van is one of New Zealand’s most cel­e­brated writ­ers, but his new novel, All This by Chance, is just the third of his il­lus­tri­ous ca­reer. Mike White dis­cov­ers why it’s been 20 years since O’sul­li­van’s last novel, the things he re­grets, and why he’ll never write his au­to­bi­og­ra­phy.

They lived at the end of his street, yet Vin­cent O’sul­li­van knew nearly noth­ing about them. “They just seemed or­di­nary peo­ple, ex­cept we knew they were Jewish,” he says. “And at that time, at the end of the war, when all the aw­ful things were com­ing out, you couldn’t help but have a fas­ci­na­tion – not for the grotesque­ness of his­tory it­self – but there could be peo­ple who vir­tu­ally lived next door who were part of that mas­sive story that seemed light years from where you were your­self.”

As a school­boy liv­ing in West­mere, O’sul­li­van was in­trigued by the Jewish fam­ily, their Euro­pean con­nec­tions as strange and foreign as the cries of coy­otes he’d hear at night, drift­ing from nearby Auck­land Zoo.

He never found out where the fam­ily had come from or what hap­pened to them. But 70 years later, he be­gan imag­in­ing what might have brought them across the world to his neigh­bour­hood, and what life might have been like for them. Thus be­gan the process that led to O’sul­li­van’s novel, All This by Chance, re­leased ear­lier this year. Plau­dits have flowed rapidly, with Stuff re­viewer Ni­cholas Reid call­ing it “as out­stand­ing a novel as has been pro­duced in this coun­try in the last 10 years”.

The story sprawls across three con­ti­nents and four gen­er­a­tions of a fam­ily with its se­creted his­to­ries and un­cer­tain fu­tures. It en­com­passes the war, Holo­caust camps, and those who sur­vived them. There are char­ac­ters who es­cape Europe for peace­ful New Zealand, and their off­spring who see Europe as an es­cape from stul­ti­fy­ing New Zealand. There are questions of painful pasts and whether it’s bet­ter to for­get.

Pub­lisher Fer­gus Bar­row­man, of Vic­to­ria Uni­ver­sity Press, says the novel is as fine as any­thing he’s read in­ter­na­tion­ally in re­cent years. “I think it’s one of the land­mark books for New Zealand lit­er­a­ture, not just for Vin­cent’s ca­reer.”

It’s only 80-year- old O’sul­li­van’s

third novel, with 20 years hav­ing passed since his pre­vi­ous one, but the poet, play­wright, bi­og­ra­pher, li­bret­tist and short- story writer in­sists that’s largely been a func­tion of find­ing the right genre to match the ideas he has.

“I think of my­self as a writer, not a nov­el­ist or poet or what­ever, so I don’t ever have that feel­ing, ‘Oh, I’ve got to do an­other novel or get an­other vol­ume of sto­ries out.’ For me, it’s what­ever hap­pens to in­ter­est me at the time, and I have a go at that. Frankly, I do think I’ve got a con­sid­er­able gift for bug­ger­ing around. And I don’t think that hurts, for a writer. I haven’t got the tem­per­a­ment to just be at the work­face, the coal­face, ev­ery day.”

But if you glance back over his ca­reer, from pre­ma­ture po­ems as a uni­ver­sity stu­dent to All This by Chance – a span of 60 years and more than 40 ti­tles – most would con­sider him pro­lific.

“I’d just use the word, spas­modic,” says O’sul­li­van. “I can some­times go ages with­out writ­ing.”

In truth, O’sul­li­van wishes he’d writ­ten fewer books, with some he’s long ago lost any love for. “That’s putting it mildly. A cou­ple of my ear­lier vol­umes of poetry, I wouldn’t mind see­ing ac­ci­den­tally pulped.

“There was a stu­dent, a num­ber of years ago, who was rather broke and I said to her, ‘Ev­ery copy of that book of mine, Revenants, that you can see in a book­shop or get from any­where, I’ll give you $ 5 for.’ I think she ac­tu­ally nicked them from li­braries and god knows where. But I think I did both lit­er­a­ture and a stu­dent a good turn. It’s one of the few events in my life I’m quite proud of – the ser­vice I did.

“A friend of mine, with­out much in­ter­est in poetry, got it ab­so­lutely right when he saw it was called Revenants and said, ‘ I saw that book of yours called Rem­nants.’

“I think the les­son is, not to be too ea­ger to get into print, too early. Now, I’m not say­ing that as a gen­eral rule, be­cause it would be a dread­ful thing to say these days, when you go straight from Janet and John to your first novel. But just per­son­ally, I think it was silly, or ill-ad­vised of me, to pub­lish po­ems be­fore they were prop­erly cooked.”

O’Sul­li­van in­ter­spersed his writ­ing with an aca­demic ca­reer. “What you might call hav­ing a foot in two graves at once,” he sug­gests. “Some­times I think the thing I most re­gret about my life, ac­tu­ally, is the way I went from school to uni­ver­sity, and then to an­other uni­ver­sity, and then went into teach­ing, and it was get­ting on to a pretty com­fort­able, and in some ways pretty dull, es­ca­la­tor.

“But once you’re on it, you couldn’t stop it. And by chance, rather than will, you kept pro­ceed­ing to the place that was ap­pointed at the end of the es­ca­la­tor. I’m not at all den­i­grat­ing the aca­demic life, but it’s one where you’re al­ways in the sec­ond’s cor­ner – you’re never out there in the ring.”

That said, he’s hasty to stress he’s not wish­ing a dif­fer­ent life.

“I just think ev­ery­body, at a cer­tain age, thinks – it’s like the Robert Frost poem, ‘Two roads di­verged in a yel­low wood...’ – and did you ac­tu­ally take the right one?

“My clos­est friend went to Paris in his 20s, not know­ing any French, and has lived in Paris for more than 50 years. He’s one of the few peo­ple I envy in the most ad­mirable way, with­out any hint of jeal­ousy, but true envy for the life he had the courage to choose for him­self.”

Of course, O’sul­li­van has roamed and of­ten lived abroad. He stud­ied at Ox­ford, taught English in Greece un­til a coup cur­tailed the Mediter­ranean idyll, had fel­low­ships in Aus­tralia and France. But he’s al­ways come back to New Zealand, as­sured of his global place, at ease with the knowl­edge that “the ground we stand on seeps into what we write”.

He’s grad­u­ally moved south, and south again, from the Auck­land of his child­hood – to the Waikato, Welling­ton and now Dunedin. He and wife He­len have just shifted a bit fur­ther from town, to Port Chalmers, for­go­ing their pre­vi­ous hill­top views of Otago’s har­bour for the prac­ti­cal­ity of life on the flat.

O’sul­li­van likes Dunedin, copes with the win­ters, and doesn’t miss Welling­ton’s lit­er­ary co­ter­ies that left him feel­ing claus­tro­pho­bic.

“One of the ad­van­tages of liv­ing in a com­par­a­tively re­mote place is that you’re ut­terly free,” he says. “That ge­o­graphic dis­tance gives you an in­tel­lec­tual in­de­pen­dence. If you’re be­hav­ing as an in­di­vid­ual, the mis­takes or the qual­i­ties in your writ­ing are equally your own. But if you’re writ­ing in or­der to grat­ify a par­tic­u­lar group or ap­proach, I think you’re just cre­at­ing un­nec­es­sary prob­lems.

“To me, writ­ing is a soli­tary vice, re­ally. You lock your­self in a room and don’t like any­one find­ing you do­ing it.”

If you sift all O’sul­li­van’s work, you’ll find pre­cious lit­tle of O’sul­li­van him­self. Of course, all the words and ideas are his, but they’re not a mir­ror of his life, a con­fes­sional, each page a plat­form for per­sonal wal­low­ing or emit­ting. Sub­tlety tri­umphs over the cen­so­ri­ous. Con­text out­weighs cant.

“I don’t like poetry that says, ‘Oh, you’re go­ing to be re­ally in­ter­ested in this be­cause this is about me,’” says the for­mer Poet Lau­re­ate.

“I don’t like poetry that car­ries a ban­ner, or poetry that says, ‘You’d be bet­ter off if you thought this.’ It seems to me, that’s not how poetry should work. But what you can do in a poem, and in a story too, is ex­press the val­ues that are im­por­tant to you. But there’s no fin­ger-wag­ging about it, there’s no say­ing, ‘This is how it should be done.’”

Some­times O’sul­li­van won­ders whether too much poetry is be­ing writ­ten in New Zealand.

“A friend sug­gested there should be some­thing called Poets Anony­mous. And on a Satur­day morn­ing when you feel the urge com­ing on to write a poem, you get in touch with Poets Anony­mous and they send some­one around with a cou­ple of bot­tles of wine, till the urge goes away.”

And he also won­ders about how se­ri­ously poets some­times take them­selves. “Of course it’s spe­cial to you. And it’s some­thing you can do, and you want to do it well – but don’t take it much fur­ther than that.”

Not that his work is flip­pant or facile. As poet and friend Brian Turner says, “There’s noth­ing slight, triv­ial, fatu­ous or shal­low about what Vince pro­duces.” Turner hails O’sul­li­van’s abil­ity to write lyri­cally and satir­i­cally, and to chal­lenge read­ers, but re­main ac­ces­si­ble be­cause he’s witty and wry.

O’sul­li­van’s work can stand on any in­ter­na­tional stage with­out shrink­ing, Turner in­sists. “Oh shit, yeah. For me, he’d be in the top half- dozen of our writ­ers.”

Au­thor Dame Fiona Kid­man says she was in awe of O’sul­li­van when she first met him in the 70s, and re­mains a huge ad­mirer of his writ­ing, in­clud­ing All This by Chance.

“I think it’s an ex­tra­or­di­nary work. It’s a beau­ti­ful, sus­tained, po­etic voice, but it’s also en­thralling. It’s got in­sights into fam­i­lies, and it’s kind of a thriller as well. When it got to the part where [a cer­tain char­ac­ter] dies, it was like a John le Carré novel. I was blown away by it. I think it’s a bril­liant, bril­liant novel.”

Dame Fiona says all O’sul­li­van’s work “is in­ci­sive and in­ter­est­ing, and it’s writ­ers like that who are yard­sticks for the rest of us”.

She notes O’sul­li­van has no ar­ti­fi­cial­ity or airs, is self- dep­re­cat­ing and mod­est, but also “has a fine in­stinct for a fool and doesn’t suf­fer them gladly. On the other hand, he makes an art form of friend­ship. Friend­ship with Vince means one gains his con­stancy, loy­alty and im­mense gen­eros­ity.”

And Dame Fiona also points to O’sul­li­van’s wit. “He has the most ex­tra­or­di­nary com­mand of the one- liner, which is ab­so­lutely hi­lar­i­ous and sums up a sit­u­a­tion so adeptly.”

How­ever, O’sul­li­van says some crit­ics la­bel his writ­ing melan­choly, a shade dark. “And I think that’s true. But also, I sim­ply don’t know how you can be a con­tem­po­rary writer, or just a con­tem­po­rary hu­man be­ing, and have much of an el­e­vat­ing sense of op­ti­mism. One of my favourite lines of Ber­tolt Brecht, the Ger­man poet, is, ‘The laugh­ing man has not yet heard the news.’”

A cou­ple of pub­lish­ers have sug­gested O’sul­li­van write his au­to­bi­og­ra­phy. “But I’m not in the least in­ter­ested – I’m not in­ter­ested enough in the main char­ac­ter. To spend years think­ing about your­self and writ­ing about your­self, for god­sake. And I don’t know if I could tell the truth for that long.”

How­ever, there are other writ­ing plans and projects, in­cip­i­ent ideas, frag­ments to mull and form.

“But noth­ing of great im­por­tance. Noth­ing is, while you’re work­ing on it. But then, by luck, some turn out to be bet­ter than oth­ers.” +

Vin­cent O’sul­li­van, at the Marl­bor­ough Book Fes­ti­val in July.

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