Maria Mitenkova from the Readers Services team at Central Library reads and studies New Zealand literature, and this wonderful session chaired by Kate De Goldi was her first -- and singularly wise -- choice from the Festival line-up. Here's her report:
Prior to this session, I only knew Patrick Evans for his scholarly work. I might have read a couple of his articles on Janet Frame, and I liked his The Long Forgetting: Post-colonial literary culture in New Zealand, a must-read for the paper on New Zealand Literature I took last semester at Auckland University.
Despite the common stereotype of academics, that they cannot write, there have been enough examples of scholars engaged in writing fiction, and I’m sure a few of them have even done well. For this reason, I was not too surprised to learn that Emeritus Professor Patrick Evans, who taught New Zealand Literature at the University of Canterbury for 46 years, is also an author of novels and plays. It might even be fun and entertaining, I thought, remembering his academic texts as notably accessible and not at all dry or tedious.
It was fun, indeed. The audience could not help but laugh as Patrick Evans read an abstract from his fourth novel The back of his head, a hilarious and troubling satire on literary fame featuring "a white male author behaving badly". Critics have regarded the book as “nasty funny”, the author said modestly but with dignity. As in his fiction, he was smart and funny in his talk, so that the atmosphere of the session quickly livened up.
I really liked his dry intelligent jokes with a blank expressionless face. Especially the ones that I got. As often happens with deadpan humour, at times it is hard to say if the speaker is being serious or not. He is a great storyteller, I thought. His lectures must have been fantastic. Lucky students!
Meanwhile, Patrick Evans seems to be happier outside of academia, enjoying the spare time he can finally devote to his fiction. “An academic career prevents writing”, he smirked in answer to the question on wearing the hats of both a writer and scholar. “University work is stressful, demanding and exhausting, so you cannot really do much.”
When asked to comment on modern New Zealand literature, Patrick Evans said he wished local novels were less middle-class and more based on New Zealand literary tradition. Why should a novel be nice? Why should a character be likeable? Why does one need to get pleasure from reading? What if there is no happy ending?
He encouraged New Zealand authors to be braver in their writing and push the boundaries of what is moral by saying yes to wild, crazy, wonderful stuff. “How do you get people to read such texts?” was a question from the audience. “People’s minds have to be changed”, he replied authoritatively, “their reading habits need to be reassessed.”
Feeling absolutely thrilled after the talk, I immediately bought Patrick Evans's third and possibly most acclaimed novel, The gifted, which, I learned, is loosely based on Frank Sargeson and Janet Frame, two New Zealand classics whose fiction and life stories have both excited me hugely since long ago.
It took me a while to make my way to the author to get the book signed. Not because of a long queue; rather, it was the time Patrick Evans spent talking to each of his readers. I was fully rewarded when he talked to me just as much, quietly responding to my praise of his scholarly work with the same serious face and a wry intelligent smile.