Last reviewed: June 2018
New Zealand novelist, short-story writer, playwright, and memoirist
March 23, 1903
Hamilton, New Zealand
March 1, 1982
Auckland, New Zealand
Frank Sargeson was the creator, and one of the finest exponents, of a distinctly New Zealand tradition of fiction. He was born Norris Frank Davey to middle-class parents with strong religious convictions. After attending Hamilton High School, he enrolled in 1920 at Auckland University College, where he prepared for a law career as a solicitor. For a time, he worked in a Hamilton law office before breaking with his puritanical family and moving to Auckland. There, he was employed briefly as a solicitor. In 1927, he left for a tour of Europe. The highlight of the trip was his extended stay in Bloomsbury, near the British Museum, but his European travels convinced him that he was a displaced person when abroad. He returned to New Zealand in 1928 and entered on a government career in Wellington. Unfitted temperamentally for that life, he suffered a breakdown and went for refuge to the farm of his uncle Oakley Sargeson. He began to use his uncle’s last name and never returned to the conventional life and society that he subsequently satirized in his fiction. In 1931, Frank Sargeson moved to a small cabin that his father owned at Takapuna, on Auckland’s north shore.
During the 1930s he wrote many articles and sketches, some of which began appearing in Tomorrow. In 1936, he published the autobiographical Conversation with My Uncle, and Other Sketches, the first of many literary successes. His growing popularity and literary stature were such that in 1953, he was honored in Landfall on the occasion of his fiftieth birthday by sixteen other New Zealand writers. He was also the subject of a collection of critical essays The Puritan and the Waif (1954), whose title reflects the primary conflict in Sargeson’s fiction. Drawing on his own position outside conventional society, he wrote short stories about outsiders, waifs, social outcasts, and lonely people operating on the fringe of society and the brink of emotional collapse. Aware that they have somehow been hurt by a society they perceive as destructive, these figures are inarticulate or unconscious of the cause or depth of their wounds. Through the use of a vernacular first-person narration, Sargeson suggests his characters’ attitudes and responses to a situation; his focus is on the character, not the situation or plot. His short story “Just Trespassing, Thanks” gained him the Katherine Mansfield Award in 1965.
Sargeson’s novels, which seem episodic, are also more concerned with character than plot. Memories of a Peon, a picaresque, comic novel, concerns the adventures of a nonconformist protagonist. The first part of I Saw in My Dream, titled When the Wind Blows, like James Joyce’s A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man (1916), concerns a young man’s struggle to escape a sexually repressive past and to discover his identity. The frankly experimental novel also reflects Sargeson’s shift from realism to psychological symbolism and to a more fragmented narrative style. Sargeson returned to his study of the disturbed adolescent in The Hangover, which also concerns the passage from youth to maturity.
Although he is known primarily for his fiction, Sargeson also ventured into other literary genres. He turned to drama in the late 1950s with A Time for Sowing and The Cradle and the Egg, works that are tied to his fiction by content and by their experimental style. The story of a fallen missionary who was sexually involved with the Maori he came to serve, A Time for Sowing could easily have been a historical novel about an outsider struggling but failing, the victim of his puritanical past.
Sargeson also wrote several memoirs in the 1970s, whose titles reflect his attitude toward life (as with Never Enough!). He died on March 1, 1982, after suffering from both dementia and prostate cancer, in Auckland, New Zealand, at the age of seventy-eight. Sargeson was an innovative, experimental writer whose work evolved with his own New Zealand society. His identification with New Zealand fiction is reflected in his editing of Speaking for Ourselves, and his work influenced many later writers, among them Janet Frame, who succeeded him as an important New Zealand writer of fiction.