The newly published literary biography of C.K. Stead, Plume of Bees by Judith Dell Panny, is a curious work that is not hagiography but neither is it an incisive, no-holds-barred, critical study. So what is Bees, entomologically speaking?
A look at the back cover blurb perhaps provides a clue. Almost half of Panny’s spiel is about her book on Janet Frame’s writing. Panny quotes Frame as having “a feeling of amazed gratitude” for the approach of that book, which Panny reckons is “reminiscent” of the “insight now provided in this work” on Stead.
But that book on Frame, which industriously treats Frame’s works as allegories containing systematic hidden meanings that all become clear once Panny’s ‘insights’ are applied, is not well regarded in Frame Studies. It is a ludicrous misreading of Frame to claim that a systematic allegorical reading is enlightening. Doubtless Frame, who disdained academic studies of her work, was not endorsing Panny’s template so much as expressing relief that it did not apply an obsessive biographical approach.
So with these credentials, and receipt of a Copyright Licensing Writer’s Award, with the Winner Icon proudly highlighted in the bottom left-hand corner of the back cover, Panny claims that her new book “opens windows to new appreciation” of Stead’s work. She does not employ an allegorical analysis of what she terms “the Stead phenomenon”; it seems there must not be hidden meanings. Of course the man is famously ‘lucid’. So what approach does she take?
Cringingly deferential actually. Though this literary biography is supposedly unauthorized, Stead allowed himself to be interviewed by Panny who references some of the details deriving from their conversation, but not all of them. Quite often Stead’s voice eerily seems to come up from behind Panny’s to sum up a particular passage so that the ‘phenomenon’ remains positive. Is Stead’s input in these cases not being acknowledged, or is Panny censoring herself?
There is no index and therefore it is not so easy to navigate and evaluate the text. There are only endnotes after each chapter and most of them identify citations from Stead or sources related to him. The overall effect of the book is of a plodding secretarial marshalling of reviews and interviews in a mostly chronological manner.
A good example of Panny’s slippery style of presentation that does not methodically explore themes in Stead, or clarify her theoretical position on the relationship between a work and a life, is the way she handles the subject of sex. In two paragraphs in Chapter 12, she describes the way sex is treated in several short stories and hazards no more enlightening a conclusion than: “Sexual activity – the need for it, its quantity and quality – is significant in several stories”. This comment is left in mid-air – no connections are made to the rest of Stead’s oeuvre or to the man himself. She remains close-lipped about his personal life, except for some intriguing facts about his childhood and youth. There are hints, possible inferences the reader might reasonably make, but then Panny coyly changes tack.
In devoting much attention to identifying Stead’s fictional portraits of prominent literary figures (Frame, Plath, Mansfield, Sargeson, Davin, Shadbolt, for example) Panny falls into the very trap Frame praised her for avoiding in her earlier work, that of confusing fiction with biographical fact. Panny is quite sure that Stead successfully "imagines his way into the psyche of Plath"; and that “Stead’s insight into Plath’s life anticipates the sensitive understanding of a fellow writer that he brings to Mansfield”. Yet Stead himself remains strangely immune to such exposure. For example, Panny claims that in All Visitors Ashore “there are similarities between the central character Curl Skidmore and Karl Stead, but the novel provides very little information about Stead’s personal life”.
An especially diagnostic example of Panny’s lobbying rather than analysis comes in the penultimate paragraph of the book. She quotes British journalist Roger Lewis’s comment in the Sunday Express that Stead “on the basis of My Name Was Judas, must surely be a prime candidate for the Nobel Prize”. This reads like a dog-whistle by Panny to Stead’s own (probable) estimation of his achievement.
Stead has found a useful alter ego in Panny whose own marginalized position on the field of New Zealand literary studies leads her to empathise with Stead’s frustrated sense of being under-appreciated in his own country.
According to the famous mathematical thought experiment, Schroedinger's cat is neither dead nor alive. So it's a cool concept if you don't like being locked into binaries. Not so good if you don't like being locked into a lethal booby-trapped box. And from the cat's point of view, there is no ambiguity at all.