08 April, 2016

Memoirs of a Peon by Frank Sargeson

In 1931, three years after his arrest for homosexual encounters, illegal in New Zealand, Frank Sargeson took up residence in a small one-roomed hut at 14A Esmonde Road in Takapuna where he remained for the rest of his life. As the roadside sign announces, it is where “a truly New Zealand literature had its beginnings”.

Although mainly recognised as a short story writer capturing a working-class New Zealand bloke, Sargeson depicted an intellectual character in his later widely unread novel Memoirs of a Peon, bringing up his concerns over New Zealand intellectual life and the role of intellectual in the society.

A series of the novel’s fragmented episodes cover the whole range of places and people: Auckland, Hamilton, Rotorua, both rural and urban spaces, bohemian and upper-middle class society. It is a raw and tough environment of the 1920s provincial and puritanical country, hostile to intellectual endeavours and high culture, which can only produce a certain type of an “uncompleted” intellectual.

The protagonist, Michael Newhouse, a suburban Casanova, is a retired insurance executive recalling scholarly aspirations and sexual misadventures of his youth. The mismatch between his highbrow pursuits and bodily desires makes him a tragicomic hero rather than a fully developed round character. His trials and tribulations are narrated vividly and with a good sense of humour.  

I remember telling some hilarious episodes to my friend, while reading. Half listening, he asked if the character is gay. Oh no, he is very much into women! Then, it must be the author who is gay. Less than half a century ago, one could only imply things that hardly surprise anyone in a contemporary society. As Sargeson’s short fiction, the novel is full of hints and implications to keep the reader alert and engaged till the end.

Author: Frank Sargeson

Recommended by Maria M, Central Library

Maria M believes reading is the best way to understand other people and places. She is an avid bilingual reader who is particularly interested in New Zealand fiction.

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