The Secret History of Modernism
By CK Stead
HARVILL pounds 14.99
"We had homes, children, roots of kinds," admits New Zealand writer Laszlo Winter after talking to an old, yet all-but-forgotten friend. "But we were also, or had become over the years, sky- riders, continent-crossers, citizens, if not quite of the world, at least of the world of the 747- 400 and economy-class." Though Laszlo's terminology is of the present - he's reviewing his life in the year 2000, during a writer's block - the situation adumbrated has a long enough pedigree.
For several generations the adventurous-spirited have felt nothing less than an obligation to extend their experience beyond the society into which they were born - and nowhere have they done so more acutely, more passionately, than in geographically isolated New Zealand. An earlier novel of Stead's, All Visitors Ashore (l984; Harvill pounds 6.99), appropriately now reissued, has this psychically nurtured sense of obligation as its subject. Its very title tells us as much. The "fortunate ones" are those passengers on board ships about to edge away from Auckland, bound for Europe, above all for Britain, with its longed-for galvanising complexities; the "unfortunates" are those who after their envious farewells have to get off, go down the gang-plank to dock, city, mundane life, to frustrations, hopes and tangled dreams.
Yet - though in their ardour for escape they may deny this, even to themselves - for New Zealanders of Stead's generation the desirable complexities have extremely undesirable constituents. It was this world beyond New Zealand that produced the two great wars in which their own compatriots suffered and died; Europe, for all its magical culture, spawned anti-Semitism and the Holocaust, anti- humane idealisms, the cruel decrees of power. Though New Zealand may not be quite the social model of its self-congratulations (All Visitors Ashore is set during a dishonestly handled workers' strike of l951), it knows these great blights on the human race only from outside itself. But this fact does not diminish the hunger for travel, for enlargement of Weltanschauung, that possesses Stead's heroes, like the two here, deliberately presented to be identified with himself: Curl in the earlier novel (his name is virtually Stead's own, Carl), and Laszlo in The Secret History of Modernism. Both have close familial relations to Europe, both are aspiring writers - indeed, both enjoy a sustained affair of the heart with literature, shared with their closest companions.
If take-off in a 747 has replaced for such "emigrants" the slow quitting by ship of Auckland's beautiful harbour, the internet has usurped the place of slow, circuitous letter-writing when we want to find out what's become of someone once important in our life but now absent from it. The blocked Laszlo, realising that re-appreciation of his own past will probably be the means of creative …