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Elizabeth Knox’s The Vintner’s Luck

April 1, 2013

Okay, so you could hardly call The Vintner’s Luck adolescent fiction, but the way Jane Stafford situates Elizabeth Knox as a New Zealand writer in this essay (on Elizabeth Knox’s The Vintner’s Luck) struck me as interesting and potentially relevant… Stafford writes:

The Vintner's LuckThe Vintner’s Luck stands outside New Zealand literary movements, which since the literary nationalism of the 1930s have worked within the stylistic parameters of realism and social critique. This literature is characterised by anxiety over place and distance, and infused with a distaste for a society conceived as narrow, joyless and puritanical. In effect, it is the literature of self-disgust, implicitly designating the centre as ever elsewhere – here as eternally peripheral. New writers since the 1980s have countered this, celebrating the local without anxiety, as seen in Knox’s early works and in the works of writers such as Catherine Chidgey and Damien Wilkins, and exercising a freedom to set one’s novel anywhere – for example, nineteenth century France, with side excursions to heaven and hell. Patrick Evans has characterised writers such as Knox, Chidgey and Wilkins as signalling ‘the removal or neutralising of the new Zealand referent from fiction written by New Zealanders’. But mimetic realism is not the only way of writing about place. The anxiety of authenticity and in-authenticity, copies and originals, in The Vintner’s Luck is a peculiar preoccupation of New Zealand, new, invented, and postcolonial as she is. Knox herself has pointed to the New Zealand associations of the films Gattaca (1997) and The Truman Show (1998), both intensely concerned with the relationship between the real and the manufactured. And from the late 1990s to 2003 New Zealand was involved in the creation of a large-scale fantasy world in Peter Jackson’s film adaptation of J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings. In a talk given in 2000 Knox suggested that ‘to be an authentic New Zealand artist you are expected to have some sense of a lack of authenticity’.” (p.68)

The Vintner’s Luck is, from the outset, a book which asks its reader to think about the rules – the physical and moral rules of the universe, but also, because it is a text, the literary rules – and which then offers the reader a narrative which overturns those rules.” (p.53)

“The fantastic nature of Xas [the angel in The Vintner’s Luck], [-p.55] his knowledge of and access to heaven and hell, interrupt the normal predictable everyday life of Sobran and the inhabitants of the village in which he lives. [/] But in another way, Xas’s presence disrupts the text of The Vintner’s Luck in that it plays games with the literary conventions with which knowledgeable readers seek to interpret the plot. We are forced to think about our expectations of genre and make room for the unexpected. An angel appearing in nineteenth-century France surprises the literary form as it surprises the characters within the novel. A homosexual affair with an angel disrupts the conventions of romance, as the Gothic elements he introduces into the plot are particularly pure – concerned with absolute evil – and cannot, as conventional Gothic, be interpreted in terms of individual psychology.” (pp.54-55)

“Negotiating a position between the local and the universal has long been on the agenda for New Zealand writers, and Elizabeth Knox’s imaginative ownership of European history and Christian theology in The Vintner’s Luck extends the parameters of the local: new wine in old bottles.” (p.69)

Stafford’s reading of this text is an interesting one (she draws on Milton and Biblical narrative). I liked it.

Ref: (italics in original; emphases in blue bold, mine) Jane Stafford (2009) ‘Antipodean Theologies: Elizabeth Knox’s The Vintner’s Luck‘ pp.52-69 in Eds. Anna Jackson and Jane Stafford Floating Worlds: Essays on Contemporary New Zealand Fiction. Victoria University press: Wellington.

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