I ARRIVED on the inaugural flight of Hawaiian Airlines from Honolulu to Auckland, where we were greeted by two border agents spraying our cabin with aerosol cans of disinfectant and at the gate by a band of Maoris, whose bloodcurdling war cries gradually dissolved into a song of welcome.
The next morning, I rode a bus across the gleaming Harbour Bridge from the city center to the once rural North Shore and the first stop on my Janet Frame tour. On the side of busy Esmonde Road, lightly masked by a thinning hedge, was the former home of author Frank Sargeson, considered the godfather of New Zealand literature.
It was here in 1955, shortly after her release from Seacliff Lunatic Asylum, that Janet Frame had taken refuge, beginning the long, difficult transition from fearful mental patient to self-sufficient artist.
With the subtropical sun in my eyes, I circled the house, a simple gray box with a patchy lawn, until a local librarian arrived with the key. Inside, the home consisted of three tight brown rooms, the walls blooming with water stains. My hands trembled and my eyes watered. I felt as if I were stepping into an old, favorite fairy tale.
There was a knock at the back door. Martin Cole, Sargeson’s godson, had dropped by to say hello. “You couldn’t build a house like this today,” he said. “It’s all asbestos.”
Cole told us that his godfather had been a solicitor until his arrest for indecency (i.e., gay sex) in a public toilet. After the arrest, Sargeson gave up his career, lifestyle, and even his old name and moved to his family’s “bach” — New Zealand slang for a summer home — to write fiction full-time. Here, in this tiny spartan house, he lived until his death in 1982, surviving on his meager writing income as well as his vegetable garden, where he grew such exotic European plants as tomatoes and zucchini.
Cole went on to explain that before the opening of the Harbour Bridge in 1959, the North Shore had been a sleepy farming area mostly cut off from the main city of Auckland, and Esmonde Road a quiet cul-de-sac terminating in a mangrove swamp. This cheap, isolated area attracted a community of writers eager to live the bohemian life free from the constraints of New Zealand’s strict middle-class conventions.
Also, as an openly gay man in a country where homosexuality was criminalized until 1986, Sargeson carried an additional burden. “I remember once there was a heavy knock at the door and his face went all white,” said Cole. “He was afraid it was the police.”
In Janet Frame, Frank Sargeson saw a fellow misfit, an artist who could thrive only by surviving on society’s margins. He invited her to live in a shack (now demolished) in his garden to work on her writing undisturbed.
During the 16 months that she lived with Sargeson, he introduced her to other writers, helped her apply for government benefits, and encouraged her by example to treat her writing as a daily practice. In fact, in her Autobiography, Frame recounts feeling so anxious about getting work done that if she heard Sargeson walking by, she’d rush to her typewriter and bang out typing exercises.
While living with Sargeson, Frame wrote and sold her first novel, Owls Do Cry. One of the books at the house contained a copy of the strikingly timid cover letter Frame had composed asking her first publisher to consider her novel:
- “Maybe it could be published, though I understand publishing in New Zealand is in a bad way at present. Shall I send it to you?”
Which, I wondered, was in a worse way: publishing in 1950s New Zealand or 2013 New York City?
Eventually, the two writers grew tired of each other. (Perhaps Sargeson felt jealous that Frame’s career was superseding his own, while Frame chafed under her mentor’s sometimes withering criticism.) With Sargeson’s help, Frame won a grant to travel to Europe, and she sailed to England.
After my visit, I strolled up and down the hilly streets of the North Shore, following a route marking homes of noted New Zealand authors, including poet Kevin Ireland, who stayed in the shack after Frame left. I stopped at the beach, where 50 years ago, Janet Frame had sat, staring anxiously at the volcano island of Rangitoto as Sargeson read one of her stories, the moving “An Electric Blanket.” (He damned it with faint praise as “quite good of its kind,” and she never showed him her drafts again.)
In 2013 New Zealand, Sargeson could have been cruising the busy gay bars on Karangahape Road or reading in the newspaper about the upcoming vote in Parliament to legalize same-sex marriage. But in the New Zealand of his time, he paid a heavy price for working and living in his own way, eking out an austere existence, often shunned or ignored by publishers and audiences. His godson told me he’d died with just a few dollars in his bank account.
And yet what little Sargeson had, in terms of money, connections, even property, he eagerly shared with those in need, and as a result earned his own little kingdom of friends and admirers. Every writer on the North Shore had visited that tiny gray house until the author’s passing in 1982.
As I rode a ferry back to downtown Auckland, I contemplated Sargeson’s generosity and tenacity, his drive to serve others and to keep working even when few people knew or cared.
Perhaps by giving away everything he had, he learned how little he really needed. Through sacrifice, he’d found the strength to keep going until the end, when others might have quit the game halfway through.