Not Talking About O’Dwyer

The other night C K Stead came to me in a dream. Or perhaps I should say I came to him. He was a ninety year old man, with pale blue eyes that were slightly rheumy but he was still tall and straight and, so far as I could tell, compos mentis. It was some sort of gathering, a party or a launch or something of that sort. I went up to talk to him because I wanted to tell him I’d just read two of his books. Oh, he said, immediately interested. And which books were those? And I could not remember their titles. Nor could I, when it came to the point, say enough about either of them for him to recognise which ones they were. This absurd conversation went on, without rancour, for some time and then I woke up.

I don’t usually dream about C K Stead. In fact, this was probably the first time. He isn’t much in my thoughts either ― but as it happened I had just read a book of his, and a single chapter of another. The book was Talking about O’Dwyer (1999) and the chapter the first of the third volume of his memoirs What You Made Of It (2021), which for some reason is online. It deals with the matter of the novel in some detail and so constitutes a kind of a gloss upon it. Dan Davin, Oxford, the Māori Battalion, Crete, Croatia, Henderson in West Auckland, Up North, all get a look in.

I don’t usually read C K Stead either; but a friend had asked me to write something about the Hall of Memories at Waitaki College, of which he is an old boy, and along with several books about the school, he lent me Talking about O’Dwyer. We’d been yarning off and on about the war and he’d previously given me to read a self-published memoir his uncle wrote which included a personal narrative of the advance, in 1944 and 45, of the New Zealanders up the Italian Peninsula to Trieste. So I guess he was offering me the novel in order to continue the conversation.

Stead is nothing if not readable, the book is not long and I got through it in a weekend. It is a highly accomplished piece of work, both in terms of the quality of the writing and the excellence of the story-telling ― so much so that after a while I began to think it resembled a supremely engineered piece of machinery, which had been taken apart and oiled and put back together several times and now purred immaculately towards its destination without once missing a beat. At the same time, and especially after I finished reading it, that destination seemed somehow nugatory and the whole enterprise as heartless, or perhaps I mean as soulless, as, say, a Jaguar engine. Of course for some people a car engine does have a soul but I’m not one of them.

I did have a couple of other thoughts about the book, neither of which I would have been able to say to Stead if I were in conversation with him, which I’m not. Indeed I’ve only met Karl on one occasion, over the weekend of a literary festival in Hastings a decade or more ago now and he was perfectly charming company. Urbane, witty, sharp, generous and expansive. His one fault, so far as I am concerned, was that he hit on my girlfriend on every single occasion she appeared before him, with the insouciance and the enthusiasm and the over-weening vanity of a seventeen year old boy who thinks he is the goods. She was flattered I guess but also just as bemused as I was.

Anyway, back to the book. The first thing about it is that the hero, Mike Newell, a retired or retiring academic, is clearly a version of Stead himself. Nothing wrong with that of course; except that it means, on a certain level, he is indulged by his author. In other words he can do no wrong. A philosopher and Wittgenstein scholar, he remembers easily outwitting his now estranged wife when it came to questions of metaphysics and the existence of God ― she is a Christian whereas he is Zen, if you can be Zen without practising Zen, which you probably can’t.

Mike also has an eye for the ladies and, naturally, they do for him too. He has a delectable affair as a very young man with his best friend’s cousin and though his friend’s sudden death queers that pitch, the lovers meet up again, many years later, as mature adults, and have mature and adult (and celibate) conversations about the past, the present and the future. There’s another mature and very adult affair, not celibate, in Croatia which, mercifully, isn’t described in the sort of lubricious detail that the young love is.

Both of these ― or perhaps all three, if you include the marriage ― relationships are seen more or less exclusively from the male point of view and that point of view is so close to the author’s that you end up feeling that what you’re really reading is, if not sexual boasting, then a peculiar kind of wish fulfillment. On the other hand, I’m quite sure that Stead would be able to provide an account of each relationship ‘in real life’, showing how and where and when it happened exactly as he’s telling it, with just a few changes here and there for the sake of economy or to protect the unwitting.

The exegesis of the sources of the novel in the chapter of the memoir is, in its own way, an extraordinary piece of exculpatory prose. Just as Stead can’t bear to give his hero any negative or even ambiguous character traits, so he can’t admit to any form of error or wrong-doing or dereliction of duty in his use of sources ― which include the notebook of the father of a friend of his, which he deploys without the friend’s permission (it’s in an archive) and in such a way that they ultimately stop being friends. Then he delivers a few low blows to his former friend, making the appropriation of his friend’s father’s story seem even creepier. Various other people are also despatched in the course of Stead’s exegesis. He just can’t be wrong about anything.

However, even if I’d been able to speak in the dream, I wouldn’t have said any of this to him either. I might, however, have been tempted to say something about what I found most offensive in the book: its use of other people’s lives, particularly those of certain individuals from the 28th (Māori) Battalion. One of these people is Humphrey Dwyer, an officer. Another is Parata Heta Thompson, an NCO, to whom Stead dedicates the book: a man he never knew and, so far as I can tell, he never bothered to get to know his family either. To say these characters are caricatures is unnecessary. Like the hero, they are seen only from the author’s point of view, that is, of an unreconstructed retired Pakeha academic in his declining years.

At the heart of the plot is a curse which has been placed upon the eponymous O’Dwyer by the family of the man he killed. There is no mention of a source for this device in the exegesis; it may have been, clunky as it is, an invention. The knock in the diff of the engineering of the plot perhaps. What I did want to say to Karl was this: these were real people who you turned into ciphers in the service of a story that fed, ultimately, your own vanity. And also: he who invents curses upon others will himself in time be cursed. In the event, in the dream, I could only stammer out a few fragments of sentences that did not cohere.

It doesn’t matter. C K Stead probably doesn’t believe in curses and even if he did, would never consider himself to be cursed, would he? Or would he? I actually think he is cursed, but not in the way you might think. I think he’s cursed to mediocrity and obscurity. I think, alas, for all of his vaulting ambition, his eloquent self-justifications, and his genuine achievements, he will not be remembered in the way he so earnestly and even painfully wishes to be. But what would be the point of telling an old man that?


The real O’Dwyer:

Humphrey Goring Dwyer

The Exegesis:

What You Made Of It

Damien Wilkins:

The Self Loathing of a Stead Novel


Stead with cigarettes c 1960



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2 responses to “Not Talking About O’Dwyer

  1. fascinating exegesis, Martin — I like that well-engineered Jaguar analogy very much

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