Monday, February 11, 2013

Vincent O’Sullivan goes to the dogs

Strictly speaking this is not Quote Unquote material but it’s close. I can’t remember for which newspaper I wrote this profile of Vincent O’Sullivan but it was in 2004, when he was shortlisted in the Montana book awards for his fine Mulgan biography Long Journey to the Border. It’s slightly out of date as he has published several books since then, most recently The Movie May be Slightly Different in 2011, as covered previously here, but as with any interview with Vincent, there are some great quotes:
“I see myself as someone who buggers around a lot,” says Vincent O’Sullivan, emeritus professor English at Victoria University. “I can go for weeks without writing a line, then work hard for a week or so.”
Imagine what he’d have produced if he’d really applied himself to his writing instead of concentrating on an academic career that has brought him international renown. His poetry collection (there are now 14) Seeing You Asked won Best Book of Poetry at the 1999 Montana NZ Book Awards. That year his novel Believers to the Bright Coast was runner-up in the fiction; its predecessor Let the River Stand had won the 1994 award. This year, Long Journey to the Border is shortlisted in the biography section.
He was joint editor of the five-volume Letters of Katherine Mansfield. An Anthology of Twentieth-Century New Zealand Poetry was a standard text for a quarter of a century. There are five collections of short stories. His play Shuriken was performed in Japan. He won the 1993 Mobil Radio Drama Award.
He has excelled, then, in every literary form apart from the sports biography and the cookbook. It’s only a matter of time…
As fellow poet and novelist Kevin Ireland says, “Through all his work he has maintained the highest creative standards. It’s not often appreciated that some of his short stories are among the finest written here. The only academic near him to straddle the two worlds of critical and creative writing is CK Stead, who for all his merits hasn’t achieved the same breadth.
“The poetry is not confessional and he has been tough on poets who write like that – hanging out all their washing. His poetry is about observation, reflection and commentary – it’s not a public laundry.”
His poem “The Grieving Process”, in which the narrator remembers his late father, has the marvellous line, “He’s a big sunset still fading the curtains.” O’Sullivan admits that, while the poem is not about his own father, that line certainly is. It’s a rare instance of the poem’s “I” meaning I.
There have been gaps between the poetry books – 1998’s Seeing You Asked was the first entirely new collection since The Pilate Tapes in 1986. Some poets get distressed when the well runs dry, but his view is that “there’s no point worrying about it. Worrying is a form of vanity – is the world being robbed of anything? But I’m quite glad and grateful when I am writing. It’s important that you take the work seriously but not yourself seriously.”
Does he regret not starting earlier and writing more novels? “I think of myself as a writer, not a poet or playwright or whatever,” he says. “A sportsman may be good at one but be interested in others. The game factor is important – writing is a game, variously serious and trivial, where you get satisfaction from operating within the constraints.”
O’Sullivan knows a lot about rugby and other sports – he has written about racing and as director of the Stout Centre organised a conference on sport. It features in his fiction, too. Let the River Stand has a lot about boxing which, he says, “is a bit repellent but quite attractive, like a lot of things in life”.
A sporting highlight must have been the night of 20 September 2002, when he presented the Professor Vincent O’Sullivan Stakes – the prize was a pewter tankard and £185 – to the trainer of Sourcey Number at London’s Walthamstow Stadium greyhound races. O’Sullivan had backed General Karl for a win, but the dog failed to place.
This was a surprise organised by his former PhD student Sarah Sandley, now publisher/CEO of NZ Magazines, who says of him, “He’s a great wit and raconteur. He never repeats himself – you’ll always hear new stories. As a thesis supervisor where things were obviously profoundly wrong he’d be very tactful.”
Which is not quite how Graeme Lay remembers him: “As a tutor he was a bit scary because he could be scathing, but he was one of the few Victoria University staff members one came across on the rough end of the party circuit. He had another life outside the tutorial room, which made him unique. He could be devastating in his comments on the essays. I didn’t appreciate it at the time, but I’ve greatly enjoyed getting to know him over the years – he’s very irreverent.
“His great virtue is that he has always mixed with people who are disreputable, not just academics. He and Harry Orsman used to drink at the back bar of DeBretts or at the Duke of Edinburgh, where all the subversive people used to get together in the 60s and 70s. He’s not an ivory-tower person, even though he’s so scholarly. He gets his feet dirty.”
Which may be why his characters can be so wonderfully vulgar: in the hilarious story “Putting Bob Down”, one says that “to root above one’s station is the first step to the stars”. The best joke in Believers is unprintable in a newspaper.
Lay recalls his favourite moment at the Auckland Writers and Readers Festival: “Vincent was reading his poems to the worshipful multitudes after lunch at the top of the Hyatt hotel, then immediately urged me, after he sat down, ‘Now let’s get the hell out of here and watch the rugby.’ We absconded, took the lift down to his room and watched the Super 12 final live on TV, in the company of Maurice Gee, Kevin Ireland, yourself and other writers who love rugby as much as poetry.”
The scathing comments Lay recalls haven’t been confined to student essays. As Sandley says, “He can’t resist an aphorism, but is never mean-spirited.” True, but you really don’t want to get on the wrong side of him. His verdict on a former Listener editor: “a waterbed in a three-piece suit”. On a female academic: “She defined a book as what she had to read, alas,/ prior to saying something of significance about it.” On a politician named Richard: “a head badly carved from grey soap,/ its complexion a pocked carpet”.
As books editor at the Listener in 1979, he grumbled when a particularly inept review came in that he would get better results if he just handed out the books at random on the Wadestown bus. The subeditors were never certain that he didn’t do exactly that.
In his play Jones & Jones, he has Katherine Mansfield say, “I’m an artist… Our vocation is to tell the truth as only the born liar can.” That sounds like a Wilde pastiche but actually is typical O’Sullivan: he talks like this. Asked at the 2004 Writers and Readers’ Week whether he was planning to write an autobiography, he said, “Oh, I don’t have the imagination for that.”
On being Catholic: ‘It’s similar to being a Pakeha or a New Zealander because that’s what I am. It doesn’t mean I go along with every absurdity, but if you try to dissociate yourself from it, it becomes an exercise in self-castration – and I have no ambition to be the boy soprano of New Zealand literature.”
Of the projects he is currently working on, he’s reluctant to say more than “a book of short stories and a couple of pieces of long fiction”. No poems? “You can’t predict that,” he says. “Only a prosaic writer could be certain about the next book of poems.”

UPDATE: On Saturday the Economist reported that England’s greyhound racing industry has been in decline for decades and now internet gambling looks likely to finish it off. Walthamstow closed in August 2008, Oxford on 29 December last year. I fear that we shall never see the Professor Vincent O’Sullivan Stakes again. On the other hand, we still have greyhound racing here in Cambridge, where Vincent used to live and still occasionally visits. Is it to much to hope?


Steve said...

Who was the watery editor, por favor?

Stephen Stratford said...

Email me and I'll tell. Not here in front of all these people.