Monday, December 7, 2015

The War Novels of Robin Hyde

From Reid's Reader:
Passport to Hell by Robin Hyde is a book I have been languidly circling for years, always biting my knuckle to read but never quite grasping the nettle and actually reading. Now I have, prompted amongst other things by the hoop-la surrounding a new reprint in June 2015. I acquired my copy about fifteen years ago from a long-vanished second-hand bookshop as a dog-eared 1986 Auckland University Press reprint of the Revised Edition published in 1937. I stuck it on a bookshelf and it gradually disappeared from sight beneath a teetering, avalanche-imminent cairn of other impulse acquisitions.
            The full title of the book is Passport to Hell, the Story of James Douglas Stark, Bomber, Fifth Reinforcement, New Zealand Expeditionary Force, and is about the early life and times of a World War One soldier, and it was first published in Britain in 1936 to considerable acclaim —recognised by reviewers as an exceptional chronicle — so much so that that edition sold out almost immediately, with only a few arriving in New Zealand.
            Actually, the story of James Stark — or 'Starkie' — is told by Robin Hyde in two books. The sequel, Nor the Years Condemn, was published in 1938 and deals with the long aftermath to World War One, the period after Starkie returned to New Zealand, up to and including the Great Depression of the 1930s. I consequently fished out a copy of that book from the waters of Lethe, where it had lain undisturbed these many years, and devoured it whole.
            Starkie is an epic figure by any measure, a man alone, amongst men alone, when that was a dominant trope in New Zealand writing. John Mulgan, Frank Sargeson, John A. Lee were busy producing  'man alone' novels in the Thirties; but arguably Hyde's version was more emblematic than any of them: a mythic New Zealand narrative closely based on a true story. Robin Hyde (Iris Wilkinson) herself was a kind of honorary 'man alone': a 'woman alone' in a very masculinist, conformist society. Certainly she was a marginalised figure — a disabled, drug-addicted, solo mother of piercing verbal eloquence and stunning literary virtuosity. John A. Lee wrote in his diary at the time, that she was: 'A girl without a sanctified contract to breed. Poor girl, worth a dozen corpulent priests or parsons to New Zealand. Within five years she'll be in a madhouse or dead.' (Read more.)

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