In Fifteen Minutes You Can Say a Lot by Greville Texidor
Victoria University Press have recently published a biography of Greville Texidor as well as re-releasing this classic collection of her short stories which was first published in 1987.
So, who was Greville Texidor? I was drawn to her because of her unusual history. Her upbringing was conventional but liberal. Her father was a barrister in a small English town, while her mother was a painter. She briefly starred in early cinema films and performed on stage. There are paintings of her by famous English artists such as Mark Gertler and Augustus John. She was married to a Spaniard and fought in the Spanish Civil in the 1930s. She spent time in prison in the UK, married a German in the late 1930s and in 1940 fled to New Zealand with him. She lived here for 8 years, coming under the influence of the writer Frank Sargeson, who encouraged her to write and helped her to get a book published. It seemed that she wrote mainly in New Zealand and then left for Australia and back to Europe, during which time she published little else and destroyed most of what she did write. She killed herself in 1964.
With that fascinating back story, I really wanted to know what her writing was like. Although it was written in the 1940s, most of it was not collected and published until 1987. There are fourteen stories in this book, one of 71 pages was published as a book called ‘These Dark Glasses’, while another of the stories is 66 pages long. Others are as short as only five pages. Some are set in Spain during the time of the Civil War, while most of the remainder are firmly placed in wartime and post-war New Zealand. It would be fair to say that the New Zealand stories are bleak and parochial. One does not get the sense that Texidor was loving her time here.
Because almost the whole of Texidor’s output was created in New Zealand, she has become classified as a New Zealand writer. There is one small passage among the stories that hints at some of the difficulties of her move around the globe. In ‘Goodbye forever’ the narrator is a writer from England and she describes some of the problems:
“ ‘Have you been writing much?’
‘Not very much.’ On the page in front of me all the lines had been crossed out except the last, ‘The winter is nearly over.’ I must have been thinking of another country. The word winter is cold crisp and definitive. One of those words we’re obliged to use wrongly. At this time of year everyone talks about the end of winter, though they know that changeable weather continues the year round and after two months of drought it will start again. Words like winter, spring, cathedral, the country – the original meaning has nothing to do with us. Yet it pulls so strongly back to the past, the distance. Disorientated by our vocabulary, no wonder we’re rather inarticulate.”
I found the stories set in Spain less successful, but I think that was in part because I was somewhat bored by the characters. But that was intentional. Then suddenly you are confronted by a line that grabs you with its brilliance.
“We carried our breakfast into the untidy salon. It was getting warm. Already the butter was melting. Julian was in bed so we had to be quiet. After we’d finished eating we sat on round the table, knocking ash into empty eggshells and getting on each other’s nerves.”
It perfectly captures the dullness of the situation and the way the characters are bored with each other.
After the Spanish stories there are other from Europe. One of the skills Texidor has as a writer is to be able to sum up a situation and a character within in it. For example, here we encounter an Englishman in Sicily:
“Robert frowned. ‘I asked of course.’ He’s unduly irritated by the suggestion that he might not be just as much at home in a small Sicilian town as he is in his office. Cultured people are at ease on the continent. His French is good – one can always make oneself understood with French. He is not at all the average Britisher, helpless, encased in a cocoon of superiority. He is cultured; believes in freedom of speech and so on. This rock strewn country is the cradle of culture and he feels a certain responsibility towards it. He will assist. He will take the rough with the smooth. He will take what he finds and try to reconstruct it.”
It was enjoyable to read an outsider’s reaction to life in New Zealand in several of the stories. Trips to the beach in the austere war-time period seem rather bleak. The fact that it is raining is mentioned many times. The final story is one about another migrant, this one Lili from Austria, who faces many hurdles in her time in New Zealand, not least being of an ‘enemy’ nationality. Her mental health suffers and she is sent to an institution after attempting suicide. It is a grim tale that stretches through many episodes. The treatment of foreigners, imprisonment and visits from the psychologist were all episodes that Trexidor could draw from personal experience.
Reviewer: Marcus Hobson
Published by Victoria University Press. RRP $30