Magazine article The Spectator

Talking about C. K. Stead

Magazine article The Spectator

Talking about C. K. Stead

Article excerpt


Harvill, (14.99, pp. 245

AIl habitual readers know the pleasores of bingeing on an author previously unknown to them. First, the thrill of discovery, then delight as your impressions from one book are confirmed by a second, followed by hunger, greed, addiction - and at last misery because you have exhausted the supply. The process is usually accompanied, and outlived, by noisy evangelism. Such is the case with me. My feasting has been on the work of C. K. Stead, and the start of it was his dazzling new novel, TalkingAbout O'Dwyer.

The narrator is Mike Newall, a New Zealand-born Oxford philosophy don. He has just been to the funeral of another expat Kiwi don called O'Dwyer (who has a passing resemblance to Dan Davin). Afterwards, he tells their amiable, elderly colleague, Bertie Winterstoke, about a curse that was put on O'Dwyer following the death of Joe Panapa, a Maori soldier under his command during the battle of Crete. Dissolute but entertaining, popular among undergraduates and an incorrigible womaniser, O'Dwyer has kept this curse and its cause secret from everyone except the narrator. As the story unfolds, we see how the distant event has reverberated in O'Dwyer's life right to the end.

Entwined with this is Newall's own story. He was a neighbour of the Pampas, having grown up with Joe's son, Franc. As a young boy, he witnessed Franc's Auntie Pixie dancing in the rain as she put the fearsome `makutu' on Captain O'Dwyer, although he did not understand its implications. He too carries a burden of guilt, arising from a teenage affair with Frano's Croatian cousin, Marica, of which Frano was bitterly jealous. Although nobody put a curse on him, Newall ended up in Oxford, like O'Dwyer. As a disciple of Wittgenstein, he cannot allow authority to a `makutu', nor can he quite convince himself that his exile is self-imposed.

Through these complementary stories, Stead gives expression to questions about personal identity with great artistry and philosophical dexterity. Memory, history, love and intention affect how the characters think about themselves, about one another, and how we think about them. But it is part of the irony pervading Stead's work that while they may think it is the ideas that identify them, to us, the readers, it is the way in which they respond to those ideas that gives them their own vitality. The novel's intellectual force is inseparable from its narrative force: the drive towards the core event is gripping, but it is no accident that it concerns consciousness.

Two other novels by Stead are currently available. The Death of the Body also has a philosophy professor for narrator, Harry Butler. He has a particular interest in the mind/body question. …

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