“An Affair Of The Heart” is one of New Zealand author Frank Sargeson’s best-known short stories.
Was Sargeson essentially misogynist? Frankly, I think not as there are positive women characters in some of his stories – including the wrenchingly sad one in An Affair of the Heart. But women-as-controlling-bitches is one recurrent motif.
— Review by Nicholas Reid, with introduction by Janet Wilson
I’m lucky coming from New Zealand in that there is a pretty good gender balance when it comes to reading ‘The Local Canon’. Along with Sargeson (and Shakespeare) we read a lot of Patricia Grace, Fiona Kidman, Janet Frame, Keri Hulme and Katherine Mansfield. But as Reid points out, students of New Zealand English may well come away feeling a bit icky about Sargeson’s mid-century attitudes towards women. Whatever you conclude about Frank’s corpus, this short story is one of the most positive in its view of femininity. For this reason, I recommend it.
WHAT HAPPENS IN “AN AFFAIR OF THE HEART”
The narrator is a grown man who has ‘not been what people call a success in life’. He looks back on the days when he would go with his mother and brother to the bach (holiday house) at the beach. There was an old woman, Mrs Crawley, who lived there all year round with her daughters and son, Joe, who she favoured. Once, the narrator’s mother sent them some Christmas cake. It was revealed later that the girls hadn’t received any of it. Joe had eaten it all.
‘An Affair of the Heart’ is a story of two linked sections. The first half finishes with ‘It certainly made us a bit sorry to think that we wouldn’t be seeing the Crawleys that summer, but I don’t think we lost much sleep over it. I remember we talked about sending a letter. But it never got beyond talk.’
The second half begins: ‘What I’m going to tell you about happened last Christmas.’
In the first section, the narrator makes references to the fact that it was a long time ago and that circumstances are different now. ‘It was all very interesting and romantic to me and my brother.’
At the end of the first section is a small intermediary piece which bridges the large time gap between childhood and the present. ‘Anyhow, the next thing was our family left off going to the boy. My brother and I were old enough to go away camping somewhere with our cobbers…’
The second section is full of nostalgic references: ‘The bach was much the same…’ The second part is written in much more recent times, when the narrator visits the beach. He calls in on Mrs Crawley. She says she is waiting for Joe. There are much luxurious Christmas items laid out for his arrival. To satisfy the narrator’s curiosity, the narrator asks the bus-driver what sort of person Joe is. The bus-driver reveals that Joe has recently stopped coming altogether and that only one daughter bothers to keep in touch with Mrs Crawley by writing.
There are two levels in most of Sargeson’s work:
1. Social – this has endeared him greatly to leftist reformers
2. Existential – concerned with people more than ideas. His view is sourly compassionate. At times he probes more deeply than he perhaps realises. An Affair of the Heart leaves no room for anger or judgment. Mrs Crawley’s love for her son, though it eventually destroys her sanity, carries its own terrible justification. Truly hers is an affair of the heart.
CHARACTERS IN “AN AFFAIR OF THE HEART”
Sargeson uses male narrators of limited education, simple vocabylary and sentence structure and is often retrospective, with the narrator looking back to events and people of his youth.
are introspective and capable of considerable compassion
His tolerance extends to all lost men, cranks and sexual perverts. It is the self righteous whom Sargeson most condemns. He is on the side of the ‘down and outer’. In subtle ways he criticises society and its hypocrisy and narrowness.
Essentially lonely men; not men without emotions but men who suffer from a sort of impediment of feeling or who cannot establish a relation where their emotions can be adequately expressed. Incapable of being articulate about a feeling unless it is one which has a gregarious discharge; anger for example, or laughter. The softer feelings they must always keep to themselves, or express obliquely through action.
formed in the hostile environment of the industrial working-class or the subsistence farm.
Frank Sargeson is New Zealand’s first NATIONAL writer. In Katherine Mansfield’s work, for instance, we are not conscious of anything New Zealandish.
LANGUAGE IN “AN AFFAIR OF THE HEART”
- Sargeson has found the perfect language to express each character’s feelings. Is not British nor American English. It is easy, subtle and free of mannerism.
- The special quality of the language lies not only in the bold colloquial tropes or the occasional local usage but informs every intonation and every element of the spoken idiom.
- sea-eggs – sea urchins, kina in Maori
- kumaras – red-skinned sweet potato, with an English plural suffix
- pipis – cockles
- tea-tree bush – a shrub or small tree native to New Zealand and southeast Australia (Melaleuca lanceolata)
- The language spoken by Sargeson’s characters is not the only language spoken in New Zealand, and these are not the only characters.
- The sentence structure must be no more elaborate than his characters’ and no more subtle.
- The spoken language is Sargeson’s chief instrument; if he were interested in characters of another kind, his method would have to be modified.
- The stories are told in first person, from the point of view of semi-articulate characters. This technique illustrates how Sargeson’s method enables him to give us simultaneously:
- the development of the story
- evocation/description of its setting
- information about characters only indirectly portrayed
- emotional reactions of the narrating character to the whole
- He uses punctuation not to reinforce the logical and syntactical divisions of the thought but to mark the places where in fact the narrating voice could have paused.
DRAMATIC IRONY IN “AN AFFAIR OF THE HEART”
The reader realises more than the narrator does because the reader is given clues. Sargeson is a fan of this technique, which can actually make him seem a bit pompous, but as Reid points out, Sargeson was a gay man in the era of antigayness, so he had no choice but to write with smoke and mirrors:
Much depends on Sargeson, the middle-class writer, knowing and perceiving more than the various working-class or hobo characters he invents to tell his tales. This technique is pushed as far as it can go in the longest story (really a novella), That Summer, where, by story’s end, we really have to believe that the invented narrator has been extraordinarily thick, and has not seen what’s under his nose. Such a relief to meet a story where the irony is more self-referential and, as a result, more self-critical, such as the masterly Gods Live in Woods.
Frank Sargeson was friend and mentor to Janet Frame.