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Vincent O’Sullivan's first novel in 20 years a 'landmark book' for NZ literature

Vincent O’Sullivan, at the Marlborough Book Festival in July. Photo/Jim Tannock.

Vincent O’Sullivan is one of New Zealand’s most celebrated writers, but his new novel, All This by Chance, is just the third of his illustrious career. Mike White discovers why it’s been 20 years since O’Sullivan’s last novel, the things he regrets, and why he’ll never write his autobiography.

They lived at the end of his street, yet Vincent O’Sullivan knew nearly nothing about them. “They just seemed ordinary people, except we knew they were Jewish,” he says. “And at that time, at the end of the war, when all the awful things were coming out, you couldn’t help but have a fascination – not for the grotesqueness of history itself – but there could be people who virtually lived next door who were part of that massive story that seemed light years from where you were yourself.”

As a schoolboy living in Westmere, O’Sullivan was intrigued by the Jewish family, their European connections as strange and foreign as the cries of coyotes he’d hear at night, drifting from nearby Auckland Zoo.

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He never found out where the family had come from or what happened to them. But 70 years later, he began imagining what might have brought them across the world to his neighbourhood, and what life might have been like for them. Thus began the process that led to O’Sullivan’s novel, All This by Chance, released earlier this year. Plaudits have flowed rapidly, with Stuff reviewer Nicholas Reid calling it “as outstanding a novel as has been produced in this country in the last 10 years”.

The story sprawls across three continents and four generations of a family with its secreted histories and uncertain futures. It encompasses the war, Holocaust camps, and those who survived them. There are characters who escape Europe for peaceful New Zealand, and their offspring who see Europe as an escape from stultifying New Zealand. There are questions of painful pasts and whether it’s better to forget.

Publisher Fergus Barrowman, of Victoria University Press, says the novel is as fine as anything he’s read internationally in recent years. “I think it’s one of the landmark books for New Zealand literature, not just for Vincent’s career.” 

It’s only 80-year-old O’Sullivan’s third novel, with 20 years having passed since his previous one, but the poet, playwright, biographer, librettist and short-story writer insists that’s largely been a function of finding the right genre to match the ideas he has.

“I think of myself as a writer, not a novelist or poet or whatever, so I don’t ever have that feeling, ‘Oh, I’ve got to do another novel or get another volume of stories out.’ For me, it’s whatever happens to interest me at the time, and I have a go at that. Frankly, I do think I’ve got a considerable gift for buggering around. And I don’t think that hurts, for a writer. I haven’t got the temperament to just be at the workface, the coalface, every day.”

But if you glance back over his career, from premature poems as a university student to All This by Chance – a span of 60 years and more than 40 titles – most would consider him prolific.

“I’d just use the word, spasmodic,” says O’Sullivan. “I can sometimes go ages without writing.”

In truth, O’Sullivan wishes he’d written fewer books, with some he’s long ago lost any love for. “That’s putting it mildly. A couple of my earlier volumes of poetry, I wouldn’t mind seeing accidentally pulped.

“There was a student, a number of years ago, who was rather broke and I said to her, ‘Every copy of that book of mine, Revenants, that you can see in a bookshop or get from anywhere, I’ll give you $5 for.’ I think she actually nicked them from libraries and god knows where. But I think I did both literature and a student a good turn. It’s one of the few events in my life I’m quite proud of – the service I did.

“A friend of mine, without much interest in poetry, got it absolutely right when he saw it was called Revenants and said, ‘I saw that book of yours called Remnants.’

“I think the lesson is, not to be too eager to get into print, too early. Now, I’m not saying that as a general rule, because it would be a dreadful thing to say these days, when you go straight from Janet and John to your first novel. But just personally, I think it was silly, or ill-advised of me, to publish poems before they were properly cooked.”

O’Sullivan interspersed his writing with an academic career. “What you might call having a foot in two graves at once,” he suggests. “Sometimes I think the thing I most regret about my life, actually, is the way I went from school to university, and then to another university, and then went into teaching, and it was getting on to a pretty comfortable, and in some ways pretty dull, escalator.

“But once you’re on it, you couldn’t stop it. And by chance, rather than will, you kept proceeding to the place that was appointed at the end of the escalator. I’m not at all denigrating the academic life, but it’s one where you’re always in the second’s corner – you’re never out there in the ring.”

That said, he’s hasty to stress he’s not wishing a different life.

“I just think everybody, at a certain age, thinks – it’s like the Robert Frost poem, ‘Two roads diverged in a yellow wood...’ – and did you actually take the right one?

“My closest friend went to Paris in his 20s, not knowing any French, and has lived in Paris for more than 50 years. He’s one of the few people I envy in the most admirable way, without any hint of jealousy, but true envy for the life he had the courage to choose for himself.”

Of course, O’Sullivan has roamed and often lived abroad. He studied at Oxford, taught English in Greece until a coup curtailed the Mediterranean idyll, had fellowships in Australia and France. But he’s always come back to New Zealand, assured of his global place, at ease with the knowledge that “the ground we stand on seeps into what we write”.

He’s gradually moved south, and south again, from the Auckland of his childhood – to the Waikato, Wellington and now Dunedin. He and wife Helen have just shifted a bit further from town, to Port Chalmers, forgoing their previous hilltop views of Otago’s harbour for the practicality of life on the flat.

O’Sullivan likes Dunedin, copes with the winters, and doesn’t miss Wellington’s literary coteries that left him feeling claustrophobic.

“One of the advantages of living in a comparatively remote place is that you’re utterly free,” he says. “That geographic distance gives you an intellectual independence. If you’re behaving as an individual, the mistakes or the qualities in your writing are equally your own. But if you’re writing in order to gratify a particular group or approach, I think you’re just creating unnecessary problems.

“To me, writing is a solitary vice, really. You lock yourself in a room and don’t like anyone finding you doing it.” 

All This by Chance, Victoria University Press.

If you sift all O’Sullivan’s work, you’ll find precious little of O’Sullivan himself. Of course, all the words and ideas are his, but they’re not a mirror of his life, a confessional, each page a platform for personal wallowing or emitting. Subtlety triumphs over the censorious. Context outweighs cant.

“I don’t like poetry that says, ‘Oh, you’re going to be really interested in this because this is about me,’” says the former Poet Laureate.

“I don’t like poetry that carries a banner, or poetry that says, ‘You’d be better off if you thought this.’ It seems to me, that’s not how poetry should work. But what you can do in a poem, and in a story too, is express the values that are important to you. But there’s no finger-wagging about it, there’s no saying, ‘This is how it should be done.’”

Sometimes O’Sullivan wonders whether too much poetry is being written in New Zealand.

“A friend suggested there should be something called Poets Anonymous. And on a Saturday morning when you feel the urge coming on to write a poem, you get in touch with Poets Anonymous and they send someone around with a couple of bottles of wine, till the urge goes away.”

And he also wonders about how seriously poets sometimes take themselves. “Of course it’s special to you. And it’s something you can do, and you want to do it well – but don’t take it much further than that.”

Not that his work is flippant or facile. As poet and friend Brian Turner says, “There’s nothing slight, trivial, fatuous or shallow about what Vince produces.” Turner hails O’Sullivan’s ability to write lyrically and satirically, and to challenge readers, but remain accessible because he’s witty and wry.

O’Sullivan’s work can stand on any international stage without shrinking, Turner insists. “Oh shit, yeah. For me, he’d be in the top half-dozen of our writers.”

Author Dame Fiona Kidman says she was in awe of O’Sullivan when she first met him in the 70s, and remains a huge admirer of his writing, including All This by Chance.

“I think it’s an extraordinary work. It’s a beautiful, sustained, poetic voice, but it’s also enthralling. It’s got insights into families, and it’s kind of a thriller as well. When it got to the part where [a certain character] dies, it was like a John le Carré novel. I was blown away by it. I think it’s a brilliant, brilliant novel.”

Dame Fiona says all O’Sullivan’s work “is incisive and interesting, and it’s writers like that who are yardsticks for the rest of us”.

She notes O’Sullivan has no artificiality or airs, is self-deprecating and modest, but also “has a fine instinct for a fool and doesn’t suffer them gladly. On the other hand, he makes an art form of friendship. Friendship with Vince means one gains his constancy, loyalty and immense generosity.”

And Dame Fiona also points to O’Sullivan’s wit. “He has the most extraordinary command of the one-liner, which is absolutely hilarious and sums up a situation so adeptly.”

However, O’Sullivan says some critics label his writing melancholy, a shade dark. “And I think that’s true. But also, I simply don’t know how you can be a contemporary writer, or just a contemporary human being, and have much of an elevating sense of optimism. One of my favourite lines of Bertolt Brecht, the German poet, is, ‘The laughing man has not yet heard the news.’”

A couple of publishers have suggested O’Sullivan write his autobiography. “But I’m not in the least interested – I’m not interested enough in the main character. To spend years thinking about yourself and writing about yourself, for godsake. And I don’t know if I could tell the truth for that long.”

However, there are other writing plans and projects, incipient ideas, fragments to mull and form.

“But nothing of great importance. Nothing is, while you’re working on it. But then, by luck, some turn out to be better than others.”

This article was first published in the October 2018 issue of North & South.

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