Steve Braunias on a biography of the constantly fornicating Maurice Shadbolt
Philip Temple’s vastly entertaining and often deeply felt second volume of his biography of writer Maurice Shadbolt is a portrait of the artist as a mad rooter. Constant, anxious, drunken and faithless sex travels through the 300 pages of a life lived in Titirangi, where Shadbolt went about everything busily, always busily – busily moving in new partners, busily freezing old ones out, busily fishing for mullet, busily smoking mullet, busily smoking his pipe, busily hitting up publishers and editors for money, busily avoiding his ex-wife for child maintenance, busily writing good books, busily writing bad books, busily feeling depressed and reaching for his meds. It’s exhausting to read; what the hell was it like to live?
Shadbolt was one of the most well-known and successful novelists in New Zealand for 30, close on 40 years. He was the first to really make a go of things as a professional writer. He won the national book of the year award, twice, and was published in the UK, US and Europe. He died in 2004. He’s already a largely forgotten figure. Temple’s book reads as ancient history; the feuds, the reviews, the awards, the books all feel so long ago, so unimportant. And yet it’s such a lively read. There’s lots of gossip but beyond that Temple is excellent on New Zealand cultural history, and it’s a warm book. Temple and Shadbolt were friends. When Alzheimer’s forced Shadbolt into a rest home in Taumaranui, Temple was there, lifting a child’s beaker of juice to his mouth while Shadbolt tightened his grip on Temple’s wrist.
Temple was there, too, at the launch of A Touch of Clay, published in 1975. “One of his worst books,” he writes. The launch was held at a pottery. Temple looked over and caught sight of the author. “As he stood alone for a while, forlorn and absent, sucking on his pipe, a young Auckland University English lecturer asked Maurice how he was feeling. ‘Lonely,’ he said.” That old pick-up line! It never fails, and the lecturer went home with him.
His life was a bedroom farce with hot and cold running blondes. There’s the story about waiting till his partner was in the shower to phone an old flame for lunch, but the woman heard him make the call and “ran out of the shower dripping all the way down the corridor towards him shouting, ‘No lunch! No lunch!’”
But it all seems so terribly joyless. Worse, it seems cynical. Temple writes, “To his close male friends, he would boast about his endless conquests, claiming that the difference between an ordinary fornicator and himself was that he made women fall in love with him…It was an addiction, not so much to sex, but to the need to bolster his self-confidence.”
The women, the mullet, the books. Much of the biography, rightly, is about Shadbolt’s work. Temple develops a pattern: he gives an exposition of each new book by Shadbolt, then quotes the reviews, then gives his own assessment. He’s especially interesting on Season of the Jew, and The Lovelock Version, two historical novels which Temple places alongside the revisionist New Zealand histories of James Belich. But if Shadbolt was forward-thinking in his approach, Temple also quotes Shadbolt’s distaste for the word Pakeha, that it supposes “white New Zealanders exist only in relation to Maori. We don’t. We exist in relation to the outside world.”
Some of the book, rightly, is about income. Shadbolt made a lot of money as a freelance journalist for Reader’s Digest, and was paid $500 – a small fortune back in 1975 – when the Listener published the longest story in its history, Shadbolt’s 15,000 words on the Sutch trial. His books sometimes earned good coin too; other times, only a few pennies. “Maurice received a modest $2006 in royalties from sales of his four titles with Whitcoulls. The detail from publisher Max Rogers was depressing. Over the previous six months they had sold only 193 copies of The New Zealanders, and, with more than 2000 copies in stock, the retail price would have to be reduced. The third edition of The Shell Guide to New Zealand had sold 455 copies and with 2276 left in the warehouse, it looked like it would be remaindered…”
The books, the mullet, the women, always the women. “She really has no adequate system of values,” he had the gall to write of one of his three wives. He sent another ex a telegram, in shrieking caps: “I HATE YOU. NEVER WANT TO SEE YOU AGAIN.” But this is Shadbolt; what were the women like? There was a TV presenter: “By the end of November, Barbara had lost her television job after being drunk on air.” This is the best sentence in the book: “Beverley was hovering in her turquoise kaftan.”
All the while, his children were left to try and put up with all his shit. His son Sean: “In the space of four years there had been Barbara, Beverley, Andrea and Bridget and I really couldn’t keep up with it all.” Almost as an aside, Temple refers to Shadbolt beating Sean “with a tree branch and leaving him black and blue for a couple of weeks”.
Shadbolt was charismatic and attractive, adventurous and fun, was remembered at his funeral by his first wife Gill as “a marvelous lover”. But the book also reveals Shadbolt as unstable, unreliable, quite capable of behaving like a total asshole. “He changed friends when he changed wives,” sighs Kevin Ireland, who nevertheless hung on in there as a lifelong friend. Shadbolt feuds with CK Stead, and writes of him as “elderly, bitter, and bald”. Shadbolt feuds with Frank Sargeson. He visited him on his 75th birthday, and described it as a total drag: “‘Every story Sargeson told concerned either some slight to him, or some petty triumph – quite incredible, the ego monstrous. One just had to sit quietly & let it all flow out. And all the scheming, politicking.” Temple: “Theirs was a mutual loathing.”
All of which is pretty much the expected condition of New Zealand letters. But an unlikely villain appears: Michael King. Michael King! Seemingly that kindest of men, our great historian, gentle and wise, a good guy – but not in Temple’s book. King comes across as seething, bumptious, petty, distinctly unpleasant, someone who had it in for Shadbolt for years and years, ending with particular spite. In Temple’s words: “Utterly unethical.” And this: “Michael King was not going to let it go.” King was responding to remarks Shadbolt had made about Sargeson. They were unkind and malicious remarks. Temple takes sides in this argument. He’s with Shadbolt. According to Temple, King was pursuing Shadbolt almost to the grave, abusing him in print even when Shadbolt was beginning to lose his mind to Alzheimer’s. But Temple pursues King beyond the grave. There is something graceless and point-scoring about his posthumous feud with King.
The book ends sadly, poignantly; how could it not, with Shadbolt reduced to a lost soul wandering around in the deepening abyss of Alzheimer’s: “He could not judge space and he had to have his food cut up and he didn’t know if he was eating his pipe or his food.” He could no longer write. He could no longer seduce. He was no longer busy. It was a life lived in mess and desire, driven by literary ambition and mood swings; Temple tells it fully, with sympathy and close attention. It’s going to remain one of the best books of 2021.
Life as a Novel: A biography of Maurice Shadbolt, Volume Two 1973-2004 by Philip Temple (David Ling, $44.99) is available in bookstores nationwide.