Elizabeth Knox is one of New Zealand’s most renowned and internationally recognised novelists. She recently received the 2014 Michael King Writer’s Fellowship at the Prime Minister’s Awards for Literary Achievement and this month republishes her first novel, After Z-Hour (Victoria University Press, 1987/2014). Anna Smaill considers the hunger for narrative, strangeness and human ties that shine through in Elizabeth’s writing.
Elizabeth Knox’s brain is an engine that runs on narrative. To date she has published twelve novels. Two of these, Wake and Mortal Fire, emerged in a formidable 2013 double-header. Knox currently has two more novels on the boil, not to mention the memoir project for which she was recently awarded the Michael King Writer’s Fellowship. But it was only while talking to her recently – to time with the reissue of her first published novel, After Z-Hour – that I registered the full extent of her commitment to story.
I, like most readers of Elizabeth Knox, have a passing familiarity with the storytelling game she played with her two sisters while growing up. I understood the game as a sort of literary sourdough. Tended and fed in childhood, it then provided the germ for several of Elizabeth’s novels, as well as those of her sister Sara. What I hadn’t realised is that the game is alive and well and sprawling in its complexity even now. At home, Knox tells me, she has years’ and years’ worth of Skype recordings of ‘game’ conversations with Sara. The recordings span the entire history of Voice over IP technology and more than a decade of Elizabeth’s family life and career. The sound files, she explains, are variously interrupted by life: a son seeking assistance with his own pursuits, queries from her husband Fergus, her sister’s swift exodus to deal to escaped chickens, a Sydney hailstorm. The sheer size of that personal archive – which she will dip back into ‘in her old age, to entertain myself’ – is a clue to Knox’s immense and astounding output.
Which is what makes it all the more arresting when, in the Inaugural Margaret Mahy Lecture – presented to huge impact at WORD Christchurch Literary Festival in August and released in pamphlet form by Victoria University Press in November – Knox describes the experience of being abandoned by narrative. She writes, ‘My world view has changed. It had been heroic, by which I mean that everything, obligingly, had shapeliness – everything fell into story – and revealed itself that way, becoming beautiful, and habitable for heroes. Then I got sad; sad for such a sustained period of time that my world view became an abject one.’ The lecture is an intricate and deeply personal account of personal tragedy. It is also about how it feels to be out of control of one’s own story, perhaps for a time even crushed beneath it. Yet the resounding message of the lecture – that left so many speechless and weeping – is that, if you let it, story – even the first germs of story: those shining, distilled seeds of early memory – will come back to save us. Wake and Mortal Fire were written with this new world view and both offer this redemption.
The reissue of After Z-Hour – Knox’s disarming and moving first novel – is timely, then, in more ways than one. A ghost story that reanimates the voice of a WWI soldier, its re-release coincides with this year’s WWI centenary commemorations. And for a writer who has recently been forced to question the shapeliness of narrative, to question the source of this seemingly inexhaustible supply, its reissue might feel in some way like returning to the font, a circling around to origins. Reading it now, twenty-seven years after it was originally published, presents a Knoxian kind of doubleness. As a reader, I was immersed in the book’s present, yet keeping an ear out for the developing voice of a novelist who has gone on to become one of New Zealand’s most well known.
After Z-Hour begins with a huge storm, an impassable South Island road and a group of six travellers – Jill, Kelfie, Basil, Simon, Ellen and Hannah – forced to take shelter in an abandoned colonial homestead. Three of these travellers share the narration and as their accounts of the night’s events, and the life events that led them here, deepen, their stories begin to intersect and clash. It is in the magnetism of these first-person accounts that we first recognise Knox as novelist. Her characters reveal densely populated worlds; they have their own vocabularies, their own idiosyncratic observations. They are articulate: self-aware even in grief, even in murder. In fact, the depth and breadth of their realisation gives them, at times, a kind of disconcerting hyperrealism, like a photograph with an uncannily large depth of field. In a keynote address at the Stout Centre in 2001, Knox described an early, influential encounter with Shakespeare via the wonderful, multi-layered artifice of Laurence Olivier’s Henry V. Knox writes of the experience of seeing the film: ‘What I was able to take in was the heroic self-assertion of its characters, and I mean the little people too; they opened their mouths and appeared.’ Knox’s characters, even in their first incarnations, announce themselves, claim their space, with a similar kind of self-assertion. They appear on stage fully formed, relentlessly real.
The human-scale, rather than novel-scale, detail of Knox’s characters and fictive worlds is a key to her entire oeuvre. What stands out also is a passionate guardianship of the unknowable. The events of After Z-Hour are perplexing, terrifying and ultimately unexplainable. As the night goes on and the actual haunting begins, the house becomes a conduit for the voice and memory of Mark Thornton, a New Zealand soldier who served in France in WWI. Yet the unfolding of the travellers’ private, human idiosyncrasies is perhaps even more chilling. Basil reveals that he is plagued by memories of a house encountered on a childhood ramble – a house that hadn’t been there yesterday and would not be there tomorrow. Kelfie, an adolescent of Machiavellian charm and wildness, bares to the reader the wounds of massive parental betrayal and admits an ability to see ghosts. Simon Wrathall attempts, and fails, to hide the dark secret hidden in the boot of his car. For many novelists, such details would be forced to carry symbolic weight or would tip us into a more slippery, supernatural reality. For Knox, however, uncanny detail is swallowed without pause by the novel’s capacious and painstaking stylistic realism. Each is just one strangeness amidst a sea of strangeness. The world is mysterious, it tells us: keep up.
And in fact it is the entrance of Mark Thornton’s voice that anchors the novel and introduces, to my mind, another enduring Knoxian characteristic. Up until this point the novel has been built from tightly held first-person perspectives, a network of competing singularities. Mark’s voice, however, enters slowly, without clear outlines. It is dispersed and broken, with the luminous, porous quality of first memory. From this gradual coalescing of consciousness, the first pronoun Mark employs is not first-person singular, but collective – we. And this is crucial. Mark’s memories are shared memories, proof that war, even at its most tragic and farcical, is a shared experience and responsibility. Mark’s voice is indelibly shaped by friendship and community. As Knox writes: ‘Mark is “we” even as he comes back without his friends.’
Mark’s ‘we’ is a first clue that After Z-Hour, as we’ll come to see of other Knox novels, is driven by the stern, almost unthinking, necessity of communal ties. As much as in Wake, a novel written twenty-six years later, the injunction to act responsibly, to think of the group, to respond with empathy to each other, has in Knox’s work the force of a moral urgency.
When I ask Knox about this and what it means to her, she gives me a very specific antecedent: the filmmaker Howard Hawks.
‘He’s one of the biggest influences on my writing. You have characters and you have ensemble and you give everyone something to do. It’s just what attracts me incredibly in his films. Basically it’s my philosophy . . . I’m interested in people as social beings and I’m interested in people as existential beings. Not in the conflict between that – that hoary old idea – because I don’t see it as a conflict. In the interplay.’
Looking for more insight into these two transfiguring sources – the strangeness and the responsibility – I betray the New Critics and ask about biography. In her lecture Knox described a first awareness of wildly singular individuality – that of her older sister, Mary. She describes her sister’s ‘delightful refusal of what most people agreed on, and her sometimes destructive and self-destructive refusal of the same.’ Knox records her affection and admiration for this originality but she also describes the cost of difference. Her sister’s unique vision does not exist in a vacuum; as well as a justified challenge to entrenched ways of seeing, it is also a ‘blindness to so much of what mattered to others’. And so, again, the doubleness of Knox’s fiction flickers up. We begin to understand perhaps that the provision, the safeguarding, of space for the human idiosyncrasy must be held in balance with the sense of ‘what matter[s] to others’.
‘Yes,’ says Knox. ‘Being able to see both realities matters. If you see someone getting hurt all the time, it becomes a problem. So differences become a problem. With Mary, I became a defender, an explainer.’ She is understandably quick to critique the tendency to ignore or dismiss strangeness, in individuals as in art. When people criticise her work, she explains, often ‘all they’re saying is it’s unusual. And what I write has always been unusual. I’ve been weird, weird, weird all the way through. But all they’re saying is that there’s something here that’s unexpected or undigested. And they don’t mean it’s undigested by the writer; they mean it’s undigested by previous culture.’
And so, the wonderful machine of an Elizabeth Knox novel is born out of these two, apparently contradictory, elements: the ineluctable quality of human strangeness and the painful yet enriching need for human community. After Z-Hour is a first novel and, as is usual with first novels, Knox put everything into it: ‘wonderful stories from my friends, and observations about things they did, and things they felt.’ Yet, to call it a first novel is also, if we are paying attention to Knox’s terms, ‘too teleological’, and therefore ‘not true enough’. Rather than a return to origins, the novel begins to resemble Canny’s internal time-loop in Mortal Fire: a carefully constructed message from the past that might kickstart future memory. Knox’s preoccupations, her metaphoric patterning, is here, fully formed. To quote from the Mahy lecture, ‘What was true is equal to what isn’t any more, even if that’s not the way we experience it.’
In the reissue of After Z-Hour, then, we are offered an earlier version of Elizabeth Knox, who yet is still very much the Elizabeth Knox of 2014. She is driving a narrative that will never stop, that will become thoroughly tangled and implicated in the shape of everyday life, but will plow powerfully through. Already her work betrays its fierce engagement with the ethics of empathy, and already it is – in her own words – weird, weird, weird. Though it is useful to look to Francis Bacon here, for a salutary reminder: ‘There is no excellent beauty that hath not some strangeness in the proportion.’
Anna Smaill is a poet, novelist and academic. Her first book of poetry The Violinist in Spring was published by Victoria University Press in 2005, and her work has appeared widely in journals and anthologies in New Zealand and the United Kingdom. Her debut novel The Chimes will be published by Sceptre UK in February 2015. You can read more about Anna Smaill in her Book Council Writers file.
You can read more about Elizabeth Knox in her Book Council Writers file.
Photograph of Elizabeth Knox by Grant Maiden