FROM THE oxford companion TO new zealand literature
Duggan, Maurice (1922–74), ranks with Katherine Mansfield and Frank Sargeson among New Zealand’s greatest exponents of short fiction, despite his small output. He was born in Auckland and grew up on the North Shore, his father an Irish immigrant who had become manager of an Auckland department store, his mother New Zealand-born but also of Irish extraction. She died suddenly in 1930, and in 1935 Duggan’s father moved with his family to Paeroa to open his own business.
Duggan returned to Auckland a year later to attend Sacred Heart College, but after only nine months he returned to Paeroa to various odd jobs. He continued this lifestyle after settling in Auckland once more in 1938. Duggan displayed no interest in literature or academic pursuits as a child, and it was the loss of his left leg in 1940 through acute osteomyelitis that seems to have generated his desire to write.
The amputation ended an all-absorbing interest in sports and prevented Duggan from following his friends into the army during World War 2. Early in 1944 he made contact with Frank Sargeson at Sargeson’s Takapuna bach, and the older man quickly became his mentor. Through Sargeson he also became friendly with Greville Texidor and other writers and artists living on the North Shore. He married in 1946 and lived on and off for the remainder of his life at Forrest Hill, on the North Shore.
Unlike most of the talented younger writers encouraged by Sargeson, Duggan never adopted his mentor’s famously ‘New Zealand colloquial’ style. Even Duggan’s early stories, such as ‘Sunbrown’ and ‘Notes on an Abstract Arachnid’, display a Joycean wordiness and impatience with conventional form which remained features of his work. These first attempts were weakened by what Duggan himself later described as ‘a habit of rhetoric’.
This developed, however, into a stylishness and sophistication at times closer to poetry than prose, and out of step with the social realist direction of New Zealand fiction. ‘Six Place Names and a Girl’ (Sargeson contributed the title) proved a breakthrough with its almost minimal plot and its brief, evocative descriptions of areas on the Hauraki Plains. Its one-word sentences and composite words then seemed technically very daring. It was published in Landfall in 1949, as was most of Duggan’s later fiction.
From 1950 Duggan and his wife spent two years in London, where he attempted to write a full-length novel. It was the first of several failed novels that would provide material for successfully managed short fiction. Parts of this uncompleted work were eventually refashioned into short stories built around the lives of the Lenihans, an Irish immigrant family living in Auckland. ‘Guardian’ and ‘In Youth is Pleasure’ depict and condemn the harsh treatment meted out to boys in a Catholic boarding school. ‘Race Day’ describes some children watching a horse-race in the distance from the porch of their house, and their parents’ unconcern at a fatal riding accident. ‘A Small Story’ chronicles the same children’s rejection of their new stepmother after the death of Mrs Lenihan.
This story’s rigorous, spare prose style, and effective image of children swinging on a gate to show the futility of all action, are typical of the works of this period. Many of the events in the Lenihan stories to some extent reflect Duggan’s early life. Despite the obvious influence of Joyce’s Dubliners (see Ireland), the stories form one of the finest series written by a New Zealander. They have been compared favourably to Mansfield’s Karori works on the Burnell family, written under similar circumstances (see Prelude, ‘The Doll’s House’). The Lenihan stories have remained among the most popular of Duggan’s works.
During the same period of overseas travel Duggan was also working on a diary entitled ‘Voyage’, which in three parts describes his journey by ship to England, a holiday through Italy and adventure in Spain. It was widely admired in New Zealand for its lyric power and evocativeness. Duggan contracted tuberculosis while in Spain in late 1952 and had to return hurriedly to New Zealand. Most of the Lenihan stories and the ‘Voyage’ sequence were published in his first collection, Immanuel’s Land (1956).
This book established Duggan’s reputation as a literary figure of great talent. During the 1950s he worked on a second autobiographical novel, entitled ‘Along the Poisoned River’, which became a source of further Lenihan stories. He also wrote a children’s book, Falter Tom and the Water Boy (1957), published by Paul’s Book Arcade jointly with Faber and Faber in England and Criterion Books in the United States. It was one of the first internationally successful New Zealand children’s books.
By the end of the decade Duggan had tired of personal experience as a basis for his adult fiction. ‘The Wits of Willie Graves’, the story of a debt collector’s journey into the outer reaches of the New Zealand countryside, marked a new departure. At the same time, in 1960, Duggan was the second recipient of the Burns Fellowship, spending the year on yet another novel, ‘The Burning Miss Bratby’, and writing some of his most famous short stories.
Two of these works are long monologues, the success of which pushed the New Zealand short story out of its social realist rut. ‘Riley’s Handbook’, a novella, consists of the ravings of an artist named Fowler who has escaped his wife and family to become a barman and caretaker in a sprawling rural hotel. The work is devoid of any conventional plot and is heavily influenced by Samuel Beckett’s novels. Its atmosphere of utter despair is occasionally hard to take, in contrast to the comic bravura of ‘Along Rideout Road that Summer’, which Duggan completed in 1961. Duggan’s most reprinted work, and arguably one of the finest in New Zealand literature, this triumphantly parodies and celebrates some dominant themes of conventional New Zealand fiction. Its dense and playful style signposts a distinctly new direction for the New Zealand short story. It appeared with Duggan’s work to date, except for ‘Riley’s Handbook’, in Summer in the Gravel Pit (1965), which sold successfully in New Zealand (Blackwood and Janet Paul) and England (Victor Gollancz).
From 1961 Duggan slowly moved away from writing fiction to become more involved in the Auckland advertising world. Beginning as a copywriter, his skill with language saw him rise at length to the board of directors of the prestigious firm, J. Inglis Wright. He completed only three further stories, two of which were written while he held the Scholarship in Letters in 1966 and had a year free from advertising work.
These long works, ‘O’Leary’s Orchard’ and ‘An Appetite for Flowers’, were published together with ‘Riley’s Handbook’ in O’Leary’s Orchard (1970). The book was respectfully reviewed, but by now it could be said that the enormous complexity and difficulty of Duggan’s work was beyond the range of much of the reading public. A crisis with alcoholism precipitated his resignation from advertising in late 1972, and after a painful recovery he learned in late 1973 that he had contracted cancer.
In his last year he completed one more story, ‘The Magsman Miscellany’, published posthumously in 1975. It caused a small sensation with its skilful use of metafictional form. A series of views of the relationship of Ben McGoldrick, an amateur wordsmith and traveller in pharmaceuticals, with his wife and his creative impulses, the story also contrives to be Duggan’s sly self-portrait. The interest it aroused is testament to Duggan’s ability to develop continually the possibilities of style, and never to be happy with less than the perfect phrase.
His Collected Stories (1981), edited by C.K. Stead, was another publishing event. Ian Richards’s biography, To Bed at Noon: The Life and Art of Maurice Duggan, was published in 1997. IR
Author entry from The Oxford Companion to New Zealand Literature,
edited by Roger Robinson and Nelson Wattie (1998).