FROM THE oxford companion TO new zealand literature
Shadbolt, Maurice (1932–2004), fiction writer and playwright, was born in Auckland and educated at Te Kuiti HS, Avondale College and Auckland University College.
He worked as a journalist for various New Zealand newspapers and as a scriptwriter and director of documentary films for the New Zealand National Film Unit until 1957, when he left for Europe. This period of his life is recorded in One of Ben’s: A New Zealand Medley (1993). Before he returned in 1960 he published his first book, a collection of stories grandly titled The New Zealanders (1959). Although the book brought Shadbolt immediate recognition in Britain, where it was highly praised by such influential reviewers as Alan Sillitoe and Muriel Spark, in New Zealand the critical response was predominantly, and probably unfairly, negative. The eleven stories chronicled New Zealand’s social history during the first half of the twentieth century, introducing themes which have remained important throughout Shadbolt’s oeuvre.
In his next collection of stories, Summer Fires and Winter Country (1963) Shadbolt continues to chronicle the lives of young New Zealanders of his own generation. The impressive opening story, ‘Ben’s Land’, draws on his own family history, and introduces material which would later be reworked in his first novel, Among the Cinders (1965), expanded in The Lovelock Version (1980), and revisited again in his later autobiographical work, One of Ben’s. Among the Cinders, which began as a satire on contemporary New Zealand literature, is best read as a realist novel which explores New Zealand’s history from the pioneering days to the 1950s through the relationship between the adolescent Nick Flinders and his grandfather Hubert. Here Shadbolt found a pattern for treating past and present that he would reuse and develop in later works. He then published another collection of short fiction, The Presence of Music (1967), a triptych of three novellas which deal with the theme of the artist in society, his last collection of new stories for almost thirty years. (Figures in Light: Selected Stories was published in 1978.)
Shadbolt’s next two novels, This Summer’s Dolphin (1969) and An Ear of the Dragon (1971) have been referred to as distractions from the task of completing Strangers and Journeys (1972). This Summer’s Dolphin is a short novel inspired by the story of Opo the dolphin, whose famous sojourn at the beach of Opononi had been the subject of a film Shadbolt made in 1956. The novel focuses on isolated characters whose separate stories are linked only by their tenuous connection to the mysterious dolphin. As the coherence here is in the story of Opo, so the pattern for An Ear of the Dragon is in the life of Renato Amato, and Shadbolt’s blatant reconstruction of Amato’s life generated considerable criticism. The use Shadbolt makes of historical flashbacks in the stories of Pietro Fratta (Amato) and Frank Firth (possibly a persona of the author) is particularly skilful. Strangers and Journeys then followed, a long, ambitious novel, both accomplished and flawed, which took Shadbolt ten years to complete. It draws together many of the themes and characters of his earlier work, in what is essentially a contrast between the lives of two representative fathers and sons (and it is worth noting here the predominant focus on male characters in Shadbolt’s fiction). The earlier sections, which deal with the lives of the fathers as they battle against both the environment and the harsh economic times, are generally recognised as the strongest. As the work moves closer to the present, to the city, and to the lives of the sons it tends to lose its way.
In many respects Strangers and Journeys marked the end of a phase. Shadbolt had largely focused on contemporary New Zealand and explored the position of the artist in society. His next two novels, A Touch of Clay (1974) and Danger Zone (1975), are two parts of an unfinished trilogy of the 1970s, and mark something of a digression. A Touch of Clay focuses on the relationship between an ex-lawyer turned potter and a drug-dependent young woman from a nearby commune. It continues Shadbolt’s interest in the relationship between the artist and society, and between individuals and their environment, but lacks the scope of Strangers and Journeys. Of particular note is the nineteenth-century strand provided by the potter’s grandfather’s diaries, which may have prompted Shadbolt to turn more fully to the past, first in The Lovelock Version and later in the New Zealand Wars trilogy, where he undoubtedly found his métier. Danger Zone sits somewhat incongruously in his oeuvre. Linked to A Touch of Clay only by its focus on the search for inner meaning of its central characters, it focuses on New Zealand’s opposition to nuclear testing the the South Pacific, and is loosely based on Shadbolt’s own voyage to Mururoa on board the protest vessel Tamure in 1972.
In 1980 Shadbolt published his first historical novel, The Lovelock Version, his most exuberant and possibly his finest novel to date, which marked a shift to engagement with nineteenth-century history, the richest seam Shadbolt has thus far explored. In Among the Cinders, A Touch of Clay and Strangers and Journeys, the past, predominantly in the form of family history, has permeated his fiction while nevertheless remaining in the background; here for the first time it is foregrounded in the three pioneering Lovelock brothers and their families, whose stories (and the many digressions those lead into) present the full sweep of early Pakeha history. In this novel Shadbolt skilfully blends the techniques of magic realism and metafiction with the realist mode to present a tragi-comic and above all entertaining version of New Zealand history. It confirms that he is first and foremost a magnificent storyteller. The Gallipoli strand in The Lovelock Version, and Shadbolt’s consuming interest in those events, led to his only published play, Once on Chunuk Bair (1982), and later to a work of non-fiction, Voices of Gallipoli (1988). The play treats the battle as a moment of historical definition when a colonial country realised its postcolonial identity.
Following this excursion into drama Shadbolt returned to the historical novel with the New Zealand Wars trilogy, a triptych of revisionist-historical novels: Season of the Jew (1986), Monday’s Warriors (1990) and The House of Strife (1993). They form perhaps the most important work of historical fiction yet produced by a New Zealand writer. The first focuses on Te Kooti’s Poverty Bay campaigns of the 1860s (and invites comparison with ‘The Song of Te Kooti’ section in Witi Ihimaera’s The Matriarch, also published in 1986). Monday’s Warriors moves to Taranaki, also in the 1860s, and the stories of Titokowaru and the rebel American Kimball Bent. Here Shadbolt is mining ground already cleared in The Lovelock Version where Titokowaru, Kimball Bent and Von Tempsky all appear. The House of Strife moves back in time to the 1845–46 rebellion of Hone Heke, who cut down the flagpole above what is now Russell in the Bay of Islands on four occasions. Common to each novel is a central Pakeha figure—George Fairweather, Kimball Bent and the Ferdinand Wildblood/ Henry Youngman doppelganger—whose sympathies lie more with the Maori side than with the colonisers, and who provide Shadbolt with a detached narrative position. Together the three volumes offer a revised version of the New Zealand Wars. More importantly, they remind us that history is above all else story, and that there are many versions of it. Shadbolt’s work to date now presents a distinctive version of the whole of postcolonisation New Zealand history.
History is also at the heart of his first autobiographical work, One of Ben’s, a family history of national consequence which skilfully mixes the myths and legends of the Shadbolt tribe with those of postcolonisation Pakeha New Zealand. After a gap of almost thirty years Shadbolt returned to the short story with ‘Dove on the Waters’, which won the Bank of New Zealand Katherine Mansfield Memorial Award in 1995. That and two more novella-length stories were published in 1996.
Maurice Shadbolt is a major New Zealand writer, with an impressive body of work which also includes successful non-fiction work such as the Shell Guide to New Zealand (1968). In a writing career which now spans five decades he has won fellowhips and almost every major literary prize, some on more than one occasion: the Landfall Prose Award in 1957, the Scholarship in Letters in 1959, 1970 and 1982, the Katherine Mansfield Memorial Award in 1963, 1967 and 1995, the Burns Fellowship in 1963, the Katherine Mansfield Memorial Fellowship in 1998, the James Wattie Award in 1978, 1981 and 1987, and the New Zealand Book Award in 1981. In 1989 he was made CBE. Above all, however, Shadbolt should be recognised for his storytelling talent. That almost all his books remain in print is testament to his enduring popularity with a wide reading public.
Author entry from The Oxford Companion to New Zealand Literature,
edited by Roger Robinson and Nelson Wattie (1998).