Patrick Evans is a New Zealand writer born in 1944. He was a literature professor at the University of Canterbury until 2015, and also a colleague I occasionally met at work and with whom I have rubbed shoulders in a few evenings. He is a specialist of Janet Frame (Owls do Cry), one of New Zealand’s best writers. He released The Back of His Head (his fourth novel) in 2015 just before he retired, which looks at the dichotomy author / work. It is an interesting topic because of the widespread belief that the quality of a given work is inversely proportional to the character of the author, who often has a questionable morality, an unstable or bizarre character, provoking reactions of all kinds among the readers, who sometimes do not want to read stories written by someone they would not want to mingle with. Evans therefore tackles a subject he has undoubtedly often addressed in his lectures and which is certainly not new. He uses the character of Raymond Lawrence, the fictional first Nobel Prize for literature from New Zealand.
Peter Orr, his adoptive son, one of Raymond’s mistresses, and two other artists are the executors responsible for preserving his heritage. Locating his characters in New Zealand allows Evans, in the first third of the book, to deal with the difficulty of being an artist in a small society. He’s not wrong. It is true that, all things being equal, it is more difficult to be a Nobel prize winner in New Zealand than in Great Britain or Italy. Expectations are higher, perhaps the artist is more likely to take himself a little too seriously, or to be put on a pedestal. Moreover, the legacy of such an author is more difficult to develop and preserve because of distance and financial means. So, when the excutors of Lawrence’s legacy must find money to repair the roof of his house/museum, we learn that the Steinway piano, which would be auctioned for around $ 250,000 in Europe or North America, will only reach $ 50,000 in this part of the world. Evans also takes the opportunity to make fun of the executors’ pretensions to try and preserve the literary heritage of the author, that cannot live up to what is done elsewhere. To better understand this first part of the book, we have to remember that Patrick Evans is a specialist of Janet Frame, one of the best novelists of New Zealand, and that he dealt with her (she did not like him at all) as well as with her executors (who do not like him either, partly because he wrote an unauthorised biography of Frame). There is a lot of bitterness floating between the lines in this part of the book. It helps to know that born from English parents living in India, who came to New Zealand when Patrick was five years old, Evans was a recalcitrant New Zealander (on his own admission) for a long time, which seems to have fed his caustic humour, often coming through the voice of Raymond Lawrence. It is not so surprising that his New Zealand identity may have been difficult to embrace when one knows that University of Canterbury, at the time when Patrick Evans started his career, was resisting the teaching of “local” literature. In any case, tired of his relentless caustic humour et on the point of leaving the book unfinished after a hundred pages or so, I could see the narrative find a new breath and Evans getting into the heart of the matter. The enigma of Raymond Lawrence, the monster, resolves little by little. Evans did not do things halfway. The question of what crime the recipient of the Nobel Prize for Literature did not commit is increasingly at the forefront rather than the reverse. We learn that the rude man despises his readership, his adopted son, and humanity in general. Affected by Parkinson’s disease, he continues to show his disdain for life (and especially that of others) in his choice of death. When it becomes more and more evident that the great master has plagiarized a certain number of authors, Evans makes the question ” to what extent can one forgive an exceptional being?” impossible to avoid. Evans mentions Ernest Hemingway, Lawrence Durrel and, in New Zealand, Maurice Shadbot, as possible inspirations to portray this literary “monster” (It personally reminded me of Picasso).
The best passages come through the voice of Peter Orr, his adopted son, who admires him but can not help but ask himself if the horrible things described in his adopted father’s book happened for real, although he barely can face the answers. In this part of the book, Evans addresses the themes that have undoubtedly preoccupied him throughout his life as an academic and as a writer, in particular the boundary between reality and fiction or the question of whether one can teach writing. The answer of Raymond Lawrence is unequivocal! Who speaks at this point, Lawrence or Evans ? It would be interesting to know because the last restructuring of the University of Canterbury put increasingly literary creation (or how to write a script, a play, a story for children) at the forefront of the department as it attracts more students (although of course nobody would never admit to it), whereas the classics are less and less entitled to mention. Shakespeare, for example, is no longer a full course at UC.
The book is well written, the dialogues well conducted (his experience in plays serves him well) and one can feel the shadow of Janet Frame hovering over numerous passages. The greatest weakness of the book lies in the first two pages, the moment he chooses to present us with an excerpt from the book of the Nobel Prize for Literature: totally boring. I find it very hard to believe that it is Evans’s conception of what a literature worthy of a Nobel Prize is. Finally, his caustic, stripping, squeaky humour is sometimes too much (for me). But it’s probably a book that deserves to go beyond the borders of New Zealand, although it is unlikely to ever happen.