At the time of his death in 1982, Frank Sargeson was "the unquestioned doyen of New Zealand letters," a London Times writer commented. The characters of Sargeson's numerous short stories and seven novels are alienated and isolated from their society, often because of their sexual orientation, and strive for freedom from a Puritanical society. Many of his characters are also from the lower classes, inarticulate, and violent. As H. Winston Rhodes noted in Landfall Country: Work from "Landfall," 1947-61, "The world of Sargeson's stories is one inhabited by casual workers and rouseabouts, by station hands and street loungers, by the misfits, the dispirited and the lonely." Rhodes continued, "Because of their mental attitudes and habits they are isolated from the smug conventionalities of the garden suburb. They are separated from social groups and organized communities by their anarchic behaviour, by their inability to accept the recognized prescriptions for achieving respectability and a comfortable bank balance." "Sargeson's attitude is one of pity for people who destroy their own capacity for life," Murray S. Martin explained in the Journal of General Education.
One of Sargeson's typical characters was described by E. H. McCormick in New Zealand Literature: A Survey as "the `good,' well brought up boy who breaks away from his respectable parents." This character type is found in such novels as I Saw in My Dream and The Hangover. I Saw in My Dream follows a middle-class young man, Henry, a.k.a. Dave, as he grows to maturity in the New Zealand of the early part of this century. Rhodes, in his introduction to the novel, compared the story to Pilgrim's Progress: "Sargeson's `dream' of a twentieth century, New Zealand pilgrim's progress is no allegory and is less a visionary search for a heavenly goal than a curiously patterned but dramatic portrayal of adolescent deprivation culminating in the pursuit of wholeness and the quest for fulfillment." In Part I of this novel, Henry finds himself in a world where his middle-class values are challenged by others outside his world. This outside world is the landscape beyond the New Zealand suburbs, where immigrants, the unemployed, and the aboriginal Maoris live and wander. In bringing together these two worlds in I Saw in My Dream, "Puritanism, conventionality, enclosure and middle-class comfort are contrasted to sexual desire, individuality, freedom, the working class and economic insecurity," Bruce King noted in The New English Literatures: Cultural Nationalism in a Changing World. In Part II, Henry takes the name Dave and also takes on new experiences in the New Zealand countryside. "Dave puts up with discomfort, has friends, is more relaxed and in touch with nature, and is open to experience," observed King. This new landscape offers Henry/Dave "a chance to begin again," King pointed out, "a chance to discover [his] authentic self." King concluded that the novel's "blend of symbolist experimental techniques with a kind of realism common to regional literature" makes I Saw in My Dream "a remarkable book."
In Memoirs of a Peon, Sargeson wrote a satirical account of New Zealand middle class respectability. As in his previous books, the focus is on an innocent young character coming of age. There is a "strange sense of survival . . . in reading this carefully structured narrative of a young innocent who sets out on intellectual and sexual adventures, covering a fair amount of his society in the process," observed Malcolm Bradbury in Punch. In Bradbury's opinion, the novel amounts to an "adaptation of the eighteenth-century picaresque manner . . . to present-day New Zealand," and it "is done with the greatest literary assurance, as if this were the ideal form for an essentially provincial and raw society."
In The Hangover, the young character Alan enters the drug world of the hippies and "loses both his innocence and his sense of belonging," as Martin explained. Speaking of The Hangover, Kay Dick once commented that it was "full of fascination and interest, with its straightforward account of a young man gaining maturity through his association with several offbeat characters. Mr. Sargeson is also much concerned to describe the inherent bisexuality of most relationships. He is an expert at tone and mood, and able to switch from conventional illustration . . . to loose philosophical notation." Similarly, Ian Reid of Australian Book Review found that, "as in much of his work, Frank Sargeson [in The Hangover] directs his unblinking but not uncompassionate eye towards an adolescent struggling to reconcile the disturbing facts of his widening experience with the assumptions derived from a narrow religious upbringing."
Joy of the Worm offers the story of the Reverend James Bohun and his son, Jeremy, two men who while away the First World War writing letters to each other, letters steeped in so much style that "they entirely blot out the scrawny realities of the external world," Jonathan Raban observed in the New Statesman. These letters juxtapose with the more mundane letters of their wives, and Sargeson captures the voice of each writer. For Ian Reid, contributor to Australian Book Review, "Sargeson's mimic gift is amusingly displayed in the numerous letters, from various hands, that carry much of the story." In the end, Raban conceded, "a counterfeit style and surface supplant the dismal details of an arid civic and domestic life. Joy of the Worm is an idiosyncratic masterpiece; elegant, formal, deliciously ironic."
Speaking of Sargeson's contribution to New Zealand literature, Bruce King wrote: "in a colonial situation where English middle-class social values are inappropriate, the first really believable characters in fiction are usually the eccentrics and outcasts. It was Frank Sargeson who made such types representative of an authentic New Zealand." Sargeson also captured their voices. "His recording of the New Zealand working class vernacular has not been surpassed and has seldom been matched by later writers," commented William Broughton in Reference Guide to Short Fiction. "The idiomatic speech, with its flattened cadences, its laconic and sometimes wry ironies, and its cautious and limited vocabulary, became intimately associated with his distinctive sketches and stories."
Sargeson once told CA: "Personal data of no interest to anyone except self and half a dozen friends. But my publishers think my longest book, Memoirs of a Peon, is one of the funniest books written anywhere this century. They may be right."
From: "Frank Sargeson." Gale Literature: Contemporary Authors, Gale, 2003.