Monday, November 30, 2009

Mrs. Nellie Cook, a journalist

It was Saturday, a fine March morning. Two women and a man were in the basement front room. Mrs. Nellie Cook, a journalist, Mrs. Camilla Yates, a dressmaker, and Walter, a window cleaner. Mrs. Yates was making a blue dress for Mrs. Cook.

Mrs. Cook said to the window cleaner, "It's fresh today, pet. Did you try on that leather jacket of my brother's? I had a fit of conscience and wrote to him and said, I gave your leather jacket to Walter, do you mind?"

A crisp opening, so careful to label and explain everything that it seems mocking, or ridiculously jaunty, as if the writer is gathering the readers around her knee, eyes wide, saying, "Now children, one morning there was a room, and in that room there were three people: Mrs. Cook, Mrs. Yates, and Walter! And what were they doing? Why, Mrs. Yates was making Mrs. Cook a dress! And then ..." The Mrs-ing doesn't last for long, but it's enough to leave us with the idea that Walter, unMistered, is somehow on the outside of things, and of lower status than the other two, which he is, although at the end of Cotters' England he turns out to be more significant than he seems here, a fateful lumpen fairy or bad spirit. But Stead's attention in this book is directed at Mrs. Cook, or Nellie, or Cushie - her nickname. Cook is her married name, Cotter is her maiden name, and the Cotters of the title are her family.

Nellie is one of Stead's monstrous talkers. She feels vindicated whenever she can coax a miserable person into a worse mood. This, she calls facing reality. "No City of the Future! The here and now of pain!" The author calls her character's view of the world a "hall of mirrors." The tiny bit of speech in the second paragraph of this opening can serve as a sketch of Nellie's method. She starts by observing that something is wrong, searching for agreement, an opening, something she can sympathise with, and use to pry the other person open, "It's fresh today." Everyone receives an endearment, either "pet" or "chick." Stead spent time with a family in the north of England, Nellie's home territory, listening to their speech, before she adapted it. "I can vouch for the fidelity," wrote the Newcastle-born critic Rodney Pybus in the 1980s, praising the book, "with which

the harsh sounds, both guttural and flottal, and sing-song part-Scandinavian rhythms of Tyneside speech have been given form and resonance on the tongues of the Cotters."

Nellie likes to remind people that she's thinking of their welfare ("Did you try on that leather jacket"), and she spends the book fretting about her brother ("I had a fit of conscience and wrote to him"). Someone reading Cotters' England for the second time, knowing her better, is likely to look at the gift of that jacket and guess that what might have seemed an act of generosity at first, was, somewhere in the character's fictional subconscious, a loaded communication between Nellie and Tom. Even on a first reading, there's enough pushiness in her language here to make the reader suspect that the character is inauthentic, a self-deceiver. Several times during this book the plot will offer her a chance to recognise the "hall of mirrors" around her and escape, but she retreats inside. She's a destructive woman, and this is one of Stead's most sinister stories.


(n.b. The book came out in North America under a different title, Dark Places of the Heart.)

Saturday, November 28, 2009

heavily trafficked, north-south, east-west

In lower Manhatten, between 17th and 15th Streets, Second Avenue, running north and south, cuts through Stuyvesant Park; and at this point Second Avenue enters upon the old Lower East Side. The island here is broad between the two rivers and heavily trafficked, north-south, east-west. Here, Third Avenue up to 18th Street is still the Old Bowery, with small rented bedrooms and apartments like ratholes, cheap overnight hotels, flophouses, ginmills, fish palaces, bowling alleys, instant shoe repairers, moneylenders, secondhand clothing stores, struggling cleaning and tailors' places, barber schools, cellers where some old man or woman sells flowers and ice in summer, coal in winter, dance academies up crumbling stairs, accordion and saxophone schools and such businesses as are carried on for very poor people by very poor people and so occupy a very small space in a very old building.

If A Little Tea, A Little Chat is a stark, strict, angry book, then The People With the Dogs is a generous, open one, polar opposite of its predecessor. Stead went from the bare-bones of Peter Hoag's life to this artifact here, all twists, curves, diversions, and abundance. We've jumped from the lone man looking down on the people-fleas to life among the people-fleas themselves, and it turns out that they do a vast number of things that Peter Hoag and the rest of the characters in A Little Tea wouldn't have been interested in for a moment. The Rabelaisian pile-up concludes with the kind of nursery-rhyme repetition that Charles Dickens (king of abundance) used to do so well: "carried on for very poor people by very poor people and so occupy a very small space in a very old building." Earlier there's another near-repetition: "north-south, east-west." She's giving the reader pleasure, she's letting her brain loose after the tight box she locked it in during Tea, she's seducing us. (To put it another way: she appears to be taking pleasure in her own energy, brain, power of invention, and that pleasure is seductive.)

This seduction continues all the way through the book. The characters spend half their time talking in jokes that aren't supposed to be funny to the reader, only evidence of these peoples' jaunty complacency. "H2O or K9P," says one, looking at a pool of liquid on the floor. There are rich passages like this:

The storms of rain passed on the other side, escalading the farther bluffs. Scarcely had they passed but vapors rising in the heat, from hollows and clefts, tall, slowly forming and moving, spirits, savage men, with weapons, daggers, things habited like the Rabbi, question marks especially, and puffs of smoke, rose out of the new wet earth and shaggy heads of trees and clots of water, rags of steam, began to tear themselves out of the woods and vacillating, tried to get up again in the moving air. Meanwhile, the nearer air became purple, the garden flowers took on the flat brilliancy of silks, the lawns changed and precipitated yellow and the trees blew with the strength of the storm: they moved as if frightened, birds were hurled from their boughs …

… and so on. I often see critics talk about Stead's themes, but I don't often see them talk about her language. Diana Brydon takes a moment to say that her prose isn't beautiful and then moves on. But she's a great seductress when she's in the mood and she's in the mood here.

Friday, November 27, 2009

alone in a furnished apartment

Peter Hoag, a Wall Street man, aged fifty-six in March, 1941, led a simple Manhattan life and had regular habits. He lived alone in a furnished apartment, at $110 monthly, on the eighteenth floor of a residential hotel in the lower East Sixties. His apartment was in the corner of the building, with two sets of windows, one set overlooking Madison Avenue, and the other, the cross street. The people below looked so small that they seemed to walk like two-legged fleas, and the cars so small that they were like potato bugs that could be scooped up by the hatful.

A Little Tea, A Little Chat is another book about people who dedicate their lives to money, this time set in early 1940s New York rather than early 1930s Paris. The cast has shrunk. House of All Nations was a happy maelstrom, a book that bubbled with specialist knowledge, with characters, with schemes; this is a furious, sunless piece of writing stamped with a tone of flat anger new to her.

Almost all of the prominent characters in House of All Nations were men, with the exception of, perhaps, one, who urged her husband on like Lady Macbeth, and, who, you're allowed to suspect, might have made a more ruthless banker than he, if only she had been born a man and able to enter that world directly. In A Little Tea, Stead approaches the money-making project from a female angle as well as a male one. The man, Robert Grant, is willing to speculate and cheat, manage the sale of black market goods, anything, really, to make a profit in the business world, while his female counterpart marries men, divorces them for alimony payments, and otherwise lives off them; her mother waits in the background like a pimp. This is her sphere and she exploits it as readily as Grant exploits his.

The Peter Hoag of the first chapter is a minor character who introduces them to one another then drifts out of the story almost entirely. Several of the book's preoccupations are summed up in that opening: people are measured by their monetary worth and the kind of show they can afford to put on. Hoag has his view of Madison Avenue, a different man, later on in the book, has a house in the country. Neither of them seems to enjoy his home, but enjoyment is not the point. Ownership is the point. Stead's language makes these properties sound desperate, utilitarian and shabby: the descriptions are boiled down to their dull bones ("a furnished apartment, at $110 monthly, on the eighteenth floor of a residential hotel") and the domestic arrangements inside them are miserable. Hoag is "alone," the man with the country house has a marriage so uncomfortable that only the author's language saves it from simple caricature, and Grant, who fancies himself a ladies' man, tells the same stale lies to every woman he wants to seduce. The title of the book is a euphemism of his. Inviting someone up to his flat for "a little tea, a little chat," means sex. It's not a joyful sex life - he scurries from lie to lie, whining that nobody loves him.

The people in the street resemble fleas, and the cars resemble bugs, and this is how the characters in this book see the world around them: other people are oblique, uninteresting unless they can be exploited, "scooped up" and played with, then tossed aside. This is not a new idea in fiction, but Stead's repetition gives it a bounce (people so small they're this, cars so small they're that) and I think - or this is how I read it - that she's not trying to tell us her money-making people are powerful, godlike, that is, it's not

As flies to wanton boys are we to th' gods;
They kill us for their sport

rather it's a measure of how limited their imaginations are. Their ideas are ordinary - "Those people down there, they're like little insects!" Their brains go no further. They're easily disinterested. These cash-foxed people, she's telling us, are boring.

Thursday, November 26, 2009

I flung out

Letty Fox: Her Luck:

One hot night last spring, after waiting fruitlessly for a call from my then lover, with whom I had quarreled the same afternoon, and finding one of my black moods on me, I flung out of my lonely room on the ninth floor (unlucky number) in a hotel in lower Fifth Avenue and rushed into the streets of the Village, feeling bad. My first thought was, at any cost, to get company for the evening.

For the first time Stead is telling her story through a first-person narrator. She'll do this again, twenty-seven years later, in The Little Hotel, but that time the perspective won't be sustained for the length of the story. Diana Brydon suggested that the author was turning romantic convention "upside down" in the last book by placing a woman in the traditional male role of the ardent pursuer while a man filled the female role of the coy flirt pursued: I'd argue that Letty Fox does a similar thing, but this time the old male role is a different one: Letty is a bawdy picaresque adventurous rogue. She's Peregrine Pickle. "Men are easily debauched," she says, "because they think of every woman they have had as a conquest, although it is clear that it is a mutual conquest and that each loses what each gains." (This is probably as close as she comes to sharing Teresa Hawkins' belief in mystic mutual union-through-sex.)

She has a rogue's energy and a rogue's cruelty. More than one critic has recoiled at the cruelty. The example Eloise Millar gave in the Guardian is a nice one so I'll quote her:

In the novel's introduction, for instance, we get to watch as Letty hoodwinks a working woman. Seeing the woman outside a flat she's just rented, Letty first squirrels the details out of her ("It's no good asking, I've arranged to take the place ... I've got three kids at home and we're living in two and a half rooms") then, as soon as she rounds the corner, promptly knocks at the door and makes a better offer.

She has a rogue's disadvantages too: insufficient finances, low position, no stability. Letty wants to get ahead in life, as any rogue does, and she wants to get married, which is part of getting ahead. Letty Fox is a quest novel: marriage is the hero's goal. In her view it's a pragmatic goal: the best way to survive and prosper is to play the games society asks for, and as marriage is one of those games, she'll willingly play it. "My supreme idea was to get married and join organized society. I had, always, a shrinking from what was beyond the pale." A moment later she is beating the working woman to her flat.

During the quest there are setbacks. The fruitless waiting for a phonecall in this first paragraph is one example. Letty reacts with action, flinging out of her room, rushing into the streets, preparing to hunt for a new man. It's spring, she's full of life. We learn more about her situation as the book goes on, but this is her in a nutshell: facing disaster and fighting it with a kind of vivid optimism, a belief in the power of perseverance. What do you do if your room isn't bringing you luck? You change it. Where's the right man? He's out there somewhere, and you'll find him one day as long as you've got the strength to turn over enough rocks.

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

consummated with roast beef

In the part of the world Teresa came from, winter is in July, spring brides marry in September, and Christmas is consummated with roast beef, suckling pig, and brandy-laced plum pudding at 100 degrees in the shade, near the tall pine-tree loaded with gifts and tinsel as in the old country, and the old carols have rung out all through the night.

In Australia this is Stead's most popular book behind The Man Who Loved Children. For Love Alone is easy to find in secondhand shops, and it's the only piece of her work to have been turned into a movie, not counting the scraps she contributed to Hollywood during her short and disappointing scriptwriting stint in the 1940s. Sam Neill played good James Quick, Hugo Weaving played bad Jonathan Crow, and the lead role of Teresa Hawkins went to a feral teenager from Mad Max II: Beyond Thunderdome. However the first thing an Australian reader will notice is that it is not addressed to Australians. Or perhaps it is. An Australian should recognise the description immediately. Will a foreigner? Or will they be titillated by the oddness and sit there wondering which country she's talking about until she clarifies it geographically: "her northern neighbours are those of the Timor Sea, the Yellow Sea; to the south is that cold, stormy sea full of earth-wide rollers, which stretches from there, without land, south to the Pole"?

Over the page, bringing this short introductory chapter to a conclusion, following a path already worn for her by past examples of Australian literature, she places the continent in an ancient classical frame: "It is a fruitful island of the sea-world, a great Ithaca, there parched and stony and here trodden by flocks and curly-headed bulls … To this race can be put the famous question: "Oh Australian, have you just come from the harbour? Is your ship in the roadstead? Men of what nation put you down - for I am sure you did not get here on foot?"" O restless Odysseus. O echoes of Barron Field grumbling that Australia in 1819 was "a land without antiquities." The indigenous Australians are forgotten; no hint of them in the Australia she's describing, which is an unusual omission for Stead. Her father, who had such a powerful influence over her childhood and therefore over her adulthood, took a kind of casual but regular pleasure in Aboriginal Australia. In the introduction to Ocean of Story, a posthumous collection of her short fiction, the author says that he sometimes told her bedtime stories about "the outback, the life of the black people whose land it was, though even they were comparative newcomers, come from who knows where, brave canoe-sailors." She remembered this so well that she gave Sam Pollit the same fondness for Native America. One of her stepsisters had an aboriginal word for a middle name. And there's an antecedent to Love Alone's introduction in Seven Poor Men of Sydney when Kol Blout makes a speech descriptive of the "last post of the land world, thence south to the whale land," and its "native youth": "He chased the kangaroo, and the wild turkey from its incubating hill, heard the curlew and the boobook owl in solitude and the deep throbbing of the frogmouth's throat." Stead often drew on past cultures, folklore as well as the European antiquities. So the neglect here is odd.

From this introduction the book passes on to a description of the protagonist's father standing, "Naked, except for a white towel rolled into a loincloth … laughing and shouting" in front of his daughters, boasting about the pleasure women take in the sight of his nude legs. "Poor Mrs. Slops said I had legs like a 'dook'." Ideas about bareness, mental and physical, passion, lust, and honesty run through the story. Teresa wants grandeur, openness, abandon, sex, and love. The world tries to thwart her but she perseveres fiercely. Diana Brydon, in her study of Stead, sums it up as "a voyage to Cythera".

An active seeking of union with the other, the journey toward Cythera [motif, in Stead's fiction] is the opposite of the paralysed drifting of the sons of Clovis toward their deaths.

Jonathan Crow, in Brydon's reading, is la belle dame sans merci in male clothing:

[Teresa] makes a 'cult' of Johnny in the same way men have made cults of the Virgin Mary or the 'Cruel Mistress' of courtly love fantasies. In this scenario, the male, rather than the female, is cast as the great withholder of love. He becomes the passive object of the chase ... For Love Alone turns romantic conventions upside-down, rewriting them from an antipodean point of view - the woman's rather than the man's.

Crow is a coy, cold flirt; Brydon's casting of him as la belle dame is illuminating and perfect.

Reading the book, it's not hard to think of passionate Teresa as another Louisa Pollit, and of her father, with his Sam-Pollit "hair of burning gold", as another Sam. (In interviews and private letters Stead made the connection explicit, but if you've read both books then you don't really need to see her say it - it's clear enough.) The first half of For Love Alone hints at the Man Who Loved Children she could have written if she had set that book in Australia, as she'd intended to, and not in the US, as her American publishers Simon & Schuster preferred.*

I wonder if it was this kind of prompting that made her decide to open the book with this subtextual message to the reader, wait, let me warn you, this is set in Australia, describing her Ithacan homeland in language that makes it sound as exciting and easily-grasped as possible. "Plains heavy with wheat?" the American reader might say, cocking an eye at paragraph three. "They're just like us!" "Outcrops of silver, opal, and gold?" the English cry. "Baroque and fascinating!" She doesn't take similar precautions with her later books, all set in the northern hemisphere, and the story itself really begins with the bare chest and legs of Mr. Hawkins.


* According to Hazel Rowley's biography.

Sunday, November 22, 2009

out late with the naturalists

All the June Sunday afternoon Sam Pollit's children were on the lookout for him as they skated round the dirt sidewalks and seamed old asphalt of R Street and Reservoir Road that bounded the deep-grassed acres of Tohoga House, their home. They were not usually allowed to run helter-skelter about the streets, but Sam was out late with the naturalists looking for lizards and salamanders round the Potomac bluffs. Henrietta, their mother, was in town, Bonnie, their youthful aunt and general servant, had her afternoon off, and they were being minded by Louisa, their half sister, eleven and a half years old, the eldest of their brood.

The opening lines of The Man Who Loved Children mingle the descriptive landscape-focused style of the older books with the character-introducing style of the more recent ones. The characters are part of the landscape, they're not strangers looking at it from the outside (so they're not like the dark woman in The Beauties and Furies), and they're not absent from it (so they're not like the people in Seven Poor Men of Sydney and Salzburg Tales), and they're not uncomfortable intruders (which sets them apart from the Raccamonds in House of All Nations). This is their home. We know that straight away.

That expansive first sentence loops along on its os and us: June, afternoon, lookout, bounded. "All the June Sunday afternoon" - it rolls and bounces. The asphalt, which could have been shiny, new, and unnatural, is relaxed, old, and seamed. The grass is deep. To the children it's a familiar place, and they're having a fine time. Their father sounds as if he's having a fine time as well, lizard-hunting with naturalists who might be friends, colleagues, or a hobby group, and their mother is probably enjoying herself in town. The one awkward note comes at the end. Their aunt is a servant. Why? But even the servant is having time off. So everyone seems comfortable.

As the story goes on even the poorest settings are described with the rapt, sweet attention that belongs to love, a deep D.H. Lawrence feeling for earth, animals, and plants, and the children are self-absorbed, happy or protected on some level, surviving animals, even when things go wrong. Three hundred pages later, while her parents fight, Louisa sees "to her great surprise" that her siblings "seemed not to take the slightest interest in the obscene drama playing daily in their eyes and ears, but like little fish scuttling before the disturbing oar, would disappear mentally and physically into the open air.

When a quarrel started … and elementary truths were spoken, a quiet, a lull, would fall across the house. One would hear, while Henny was gasping for indignant breath, and while Sam was biting his lip in stern scorn, the sparrows chipping, or the startling rattle of the kingfisher, or even an oar dipping past the beach, or even the ferry's hoot."

Nature and family in this book exist together. The family itself is an environment, not a backdrop, but an ecosystem, a thing that encloses the children, feeds them and feeds from them, dirt for roots, or a hothouse, pushing their growth in one direction rather than another. The idea that Man is fictionalised autobiography, or "recreated from real", as the author put it in a letter to her second stepmother, is probably fairly known to anyone who's read the book, so I won't go into that here, although I will pass on this short passage from Hazel Rowley's Christina Stead:

Chapter 6 … contains one of David Stead's original letters virtually verbatim … By placing her father's letter within her novel, Christina Stead had annexed and asserted power over her father's creative product.

Or so it seemed. How must Stead have felt when Clifton Fadiman commented, in his review of The Man Who Loved Children, that the novel as a whole did not come off, but that Sam's letters from Malaya were astounding - "extraordinary writing"?

Saturday, November 21, 2009

in Léon's usual suite

The first lines of House of All Nations.

They were in the Hotel Lotti in the Rue de Castiglione, but not in Léon's usual suite. Léon's medicine case in yellow pigskin lay open, showing its crystal flasks, on a Louis XV chair. The Raccamonds, man and wife, went over this case and poked at it.

"He always travels with it: cowardice of the lion before a common cold, eh?" Aristide reflected.

Marianne sniffed. "He's afraid to lose his money, that's all."

This opening gives us a setting in three swift sentences (the place, the room in the place, the people in the room, starting wide and getting narrower, zooming in) then segues into dialogue, making it even quicker than the start of The Beauties and Furies. Again the reader is prompted to ask questions about the characters. Why is Léon not in his usual suite, who is this couple, and where is Léon while they're looking inside his bag? He must be rich. Look at the room. Look at the chair. Look at the case - not ordinary leather. Look at the flasks - crystal. These are objects he carries around with him, intimate possessions. Who is this man? He's rich or else he puts on a good show. He's possibly proud, extravagant, outgoing, maybe selfish, maybe he likes to see people envy him, a flash façade covering hidden fears? Confident in front, but behind: unreliable, uncertain, therefore dangerous? The Raccamonds are not part of this opulence, they poke around in it, curious and sceptical, perhaps jealous? Perhaps nemeses in embryo? So, plenty of questions.

When House was published in 1938, Time reviewed it like this:

House of All Nations brings up to date the theme of Balzac's La Comedie Humaine. Our epoch, said Balzac, is one in which "money is the lawgiver, socially and politically," when, for money, "people fight and devour one another like spiders in a pot." Running to 795 pages, told in 104 cinematic scenes, House of All Nations takes for its pot the luxurious Paris private bank of Bertillon & Cie. S.A., described by its head, elegant, cynical, lucky, grandly deluded Jules Bertillon, as "a rich man's club: a gambling, deposit and tax-evasion bank ... a society dump"

Stead liked Balzac, and the idea that "money is the lawgiver, socially and politically" runs through her entire oeuvre. Poverty poisons the Pollits - a rich Henny would have been a less desperate Henny - the Massines of The People With the Dogs can afford to be easygoing because they don't have to fret about an income, and even in The Salzburg Tales there is a story about a magical goldfish that makes people rich. The speculator and the socialist are two types that recur in her work: Robert Grant on one hand, Nellie Cotter on the other. In House of All Nations she's at her most money-explicit. Every decision the characters make is coloured by money: making it, or spending it, or working out ways to keep what they have. The idea that a man would value his health because, "He's afraid to lose his money" - the flow of life the same as the flow of cash - is not something she's put here idly. It sets the tone. So does the speed of that introduction. Events in House go past quickly, in a massive hurly-burly, characters enter, are described, argue, make claims, vanish, perform some scheme, reappear, shout, make money, lose money, flee the country, return, make money again ... Bertillon's bank looks solid, respectable, but backstage it's a carnival. Strange, for such a busy book, the net effect is of people treading water.

Friday, November 20, 2009

bristling ponds with deserted boats

More first lines. Now Stead's third book, The Beauties and Furies. This one came out in 1936, two years after Seven Poor Men of Sydney and The Salzburg Tales [see the previous posts].

The express flew towards Paris over the flooded March swamps. In a parlour-car, the melancholy dark young woman looked out persistently at the sand-dunes, cement-mills, pines, the war-cemetary with stone banners like folded umbrellas, the fields under water, the bristling ponds with deserted boats and little naked trees which marked the horizon-searching roads. Her lips moved almost imperceptibly. The sky was clearing after weeks of rain. Opposite to her sat a man she judged to be an Italian; the initials on his tobacco-pouch were A.M. in gilt script, he wore a diamond tiepin and he was about forty.

For the first time Stead has decided to lead the reader into the landscape of the book through the eyes of a single character, a woman we don't know, which makes this opening, I think, more urgent, less leisurely, than the openings of the two books that came before. The Salzburg Tales asked us to rest, stare, meander, and savour, but Beauties and Furies wants us to start worrying about this woman straight away, it wants us to wonder where she is going, why the train needs to fly rather than chug along, what is preoccupying her mind, making her lips move, and so on. We're asked to guess at things happening now, not just anticipate what might happen in our fairytale Salzburg.

By the end of page three the reader should have worked out that the woman is going to meet a man in Paris. "I worship you: I only breathe to make you happy," he tells her in a letter, but the flooded, sullen swamps, cement mills and cemeteries have already kicked off the book in an atmosphere of gloom, and the reader is free to believe that this love affair is not going to be a happy one. The uncomfortable ponds, bristling like Méret Oppenheim's fur-teacup, and the deserted boats, are all bad omens. A.M. tells her that his name is Anabile Marpurgo. Stead's next book will be a managerie of mature European men, described like this, with an omnivore's eye noticing their clothes and ages, but Beauties and Furies is unusual among her early books in that the cast list is intimate, not huge. The style is still Stead's, but the story is something Colette could have borrowed. It is not, like Seven Poor Men of Sydney, Salzburg Tales, and, next, House of All Nations, a mass-ensemble piece.

Thursday, November 19, 2009

baroque pleasure-castles

First lines from Christina Stead again, this time, The Salzburg Tales.

Salzburg, old princely and archiepiscopal city, and its fortress Hohen-Salzburg, lie among the mountains of the Tyrol, in Salzburg Province, in Austria. The river Salzach, swift and yellow from the glaciers and streaming mountains valleys, flows between baroque pleasure-castles standing in glassy lakes, and peasant villages pricked in their vineyards, and winds about to reflect the citadel rising, in its forests, single eminence in the plain. The river divides the city, leaving a wooded mound on either hand, rushes noisily under the bridges between Italian domes and boulevarded banks, and rolls out, placid, fast and deep, towards the Bavarian plain and the rain-burdened evening sky.

This is a storyteller's landscape, all castles, peasants, rustic cottages, quick rivers like tour buses chivvying us here and there, but it's also a real landscape: Salzburg exists, and the geographical details she gives us seem plausible on paper. Why is the Salzach yellow? Because it has travelled through other areas where the colour was picked up. What is the effect of the river running through the city? It leaves a "wooded mound" on either side. The princely city and fortress have an exact location, "in Salzburg Province, in Austria." Again, as in the first lines of Seven Poor Men of Sydney, she mates the mythic with the actual. In this book the mythic is to the fore. With Tales she set out to invent a collection of imaginary folk-stories.

In her biography of the author, Hazel Rowley describes the book's genesis like this:

She needed to produce something fast [because her publisher had asked her for a book], and for some time she had been thinking she would like to write more short stories. She loved bizarre tales … Her plan was extremely ambitious: she would attempt a tale cycle in the variegated manner of Boccacio's Decameron and Chaucer's Canterbury Tales … To have diverse characters telling stories would allow her to experiment with all kinds of narrative modes.

Summing up her subject in the final paragraph of Christina Stead, Rowley writes: "Christina Stead thought of herself as a Scheherazade." Storytelling was a way to assert some control over life, the biographer suggests, a way to push back against the father who had tried to overwhelm her with his own "jaw, jaw." Stead never wrote another book like Salzburg Tales but her characters are compulsive tale-tellers. Louie Pollitt in The Man Who Loved Children is the obvious one, grappling with her father through the medium of Herpes Rom , but the adults do it too, in more subsumed ways, turning the storyteller's instinct to their advantage. Robert Grant in A Little Tea, A Little Chat has a lively line of patter about a different Robert Grant, a concerned socialist; he merges himself with this more charming Robert Grant in order to seduce women. Teresa in For Love Alone keeps an internal self-story running alone inside her, and so does Letty Fox, so do others. Disguised, these stories protect the teller at the expense of the outsider (one of Grant's women commits suicide) but the setting in Salzburg Tales draws their fangs. The characters make it clear that their stories are stories; no one is fooled or harmed. Is any of this real? the opening sentences ask. Well it is and it isn't.

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

hideous low scarred yellow horny and barren

Lisa Hill at the ANZ Litlover's blog has written a series of posts about the first lines of books, and she suggests that I should do the same. "How about starting an opening lines series for Christina Stead’s books," she wrote, and I wrote back: "That’s not a bad idea. I could begin with Seven Poor Men of Sydney and work my way forwards."

The hideous low scarred yellow horny and barren headland lies curled like a scorpion in a blinding sea and sky. At night, house-lamps and ships' lanterns burn with a rousing shine, and the headlights of cars swing over Fisherman's Bay. In the day, the traffic of the village crawls along the skyline, past the lighthouse and signal station, and drops by cleft and volcanic gully to the old village that has a bare footing on the edge of the bay.

This was Stead's first novel, published when she was in her early thirties. It came out in 1934, the same year as The Salzburg Tales. Tales is her Decameron, a series of short stories told by different characters. That book arrived in January and Seven Poor Men in October, but Poor Men was something she had been working on for years, while Salzburg Tales had been written at the request of the publisher who picked up Men, a man named Peter Llewelyn Davies whose family had once been befriended by J.M. Barrie. Seven Poor Men is extravagant, he suggested. Write something normal. We'll introduce you to the world with that.

The author prefaces her opening lines with a chapter-heading description of the action to come - Fisherman's Bay. First days of the first poor man. An October night's dream. A stirring sermon has no effect on an ill-fated hero - and the reader can perceive immediately her energy, her desire to eat up everything and be everything: a teller of folk stories, and a social realist as well, occupying both the realm of story and the realm of the real world - a hugely ambitious writer. October night's dream is a nod to Shakespeare, one of her favourites.

The scene-setting is beautifully done, the bounce of "hideous low scarred yellow horny and barren" is daring, with its absence of commas (in other words, hesitations), and it is rhythmic, springing through the syllables: hah oh rr oh or and then the snap of the b on barren, letting us loose with the low smooth roll of the en. She whips the reader through the landscape with the same certainty that Ann Radcliff shows in The Mysteries of Udolpho - that consuming, roaming eye, searching for contrasts. Here's Radcliff:

To the south, the view was bounded by the majestic Pyrenees, whose summits, veiled in clouds, or exhibiting awful forms, seen, and lost again, as the partial vapours rolled along, were sometimes barren, and gleamed through the blue tinge of air, and sometimes frowned with forests of gloomy pine, that swept downward to their base. These tremendous precipices were contrasted by the soft green of the pastures and woods that hung upon their skirts; among whose flocks, and herds, and simple cottages, the eye, after having scaled the cliffs above, delighted to repose.

Stead gives you day and night, taking in the artificial world and the natural world, not distancing one from the other, as Radcliff does in her books, but mating them. Everything has presence - the headland is a scorpion, waiting for action, and then we get real action: swinging headlights, traffic that crawls (reminding the reader that we started wih scorpions, crawling things) and then a dramatic drop and a vulnerable man-made environment, the "old village" with its "bare footing." Everything here is exciting.

Monday, November 16, 2009

haste thee, nymph

On Saturday I found a collection of old brown paper chapbooks, stained and falling apart at the spine, the ex-property of a girl named Dorothy Snudden, probably dead by now, because the date pencilled inside one of the covers under her name is 6/12/17. Dead Dorothy Snudden.

One of the booklets is Coleridge's Ancient Mariner, one is Henry Longfellow's Evangeline, one is Milton's L'Allegro and Il Penseroso, one is Oliver Goldsmith and The Traveller, and one is Tennyson's Morte d'Arthur and The Lady of Shalott.

Right near "And a thousand thousand slimy things / Lived on and so did I," in the Ancient Mariner the owner has written Alma Duncan but there doesn't seem to be any connection between them besides the placement. I mean, it doesn't look as if she thought Alma Duncan was a slimy thing. She was only looking for a place to write the name. At the back of the book she's pencilled her own name five times with different emphases and decorated it with shapes that might be clouds or jellyfish or only curly doodles, although one of the curly doodles might be turning into the name Lily, emerging from a sort of umbrella or curved awning, and another one perhaps Eileen.

Next to "Like one, that on a lonesome road …" and "… behind him tread" she has drawn ticks and added, very wonderful.

Like one, that on a lonesome road
Doth walk in fear and dread,
And having once turned round walks on,
And turns no more his head ;
Because he knows, a frightful fiend
Doth close behind him tread.

Evangeline is unmarked and the Goldsmith is unmarked. Then you open L'Allegro, expecting it to be unmarked too, but here, only here, the margins are tangly with her pencil lines … sketched butterflies and flowers …

Sunday, November 15, 2009

the severest penalty

I saw, two days ago, for the first time, a copy of Jane Gardam's latest book, The Man With the Wooden Hat, just as we were walking out of the library into the spring evening with its sunshine, shouts, leaves lime-green, pigeons twitching at the tanbark by the play equipment, etc, etc - I borrowed the Wooden Hat and lay on the couch reading while outside spring went on. At the back of this house every evening the sun shines on the top of another house, making it glow like that spot of colour in Proust's Vermeer, the "little patch of yellow wall."

In the Guardian blogs a few days ago, Germaine Greer told people not to read Proust because he uses too many semi-colons and not enough full stops. If I wanted to tell people not to read him, I'd point out that if you have the bad luck to love the book, then every time you finish it you might feel at least partly desolate, as if you've been exiled from a kind of homeland, as if you've stepped out of your kingdom, like the elf prince in Hellboy II, and a confusing situation he was in, I thought, because there were supernatural trolls, fairies, and monsters all over the city where the movie was set, and so I deduced there must be fairies, elves, and trolls all over the Earth, and what, therefore, was he being exiled from? It was a kingdom without any borders. How do you leave your kingdom if it doesn't have a boundary you can step over? "All right, there, now you're in exile. Take one step backwards in our direction and you'll be in the kingdom again, you will have violated the terms of your exile …" there was nothing like that. How did he consider himself outside? All he seemed to have was the word, exile. There you are, I'm exiled. Because I say so. Now I shall be terribly noble and kill people with little insect things. And lo, he does.

Whole parts of that film were strange. In one scene a character looked at a bean near her feet, wailing, It is dangerous! and Someone needs to pick that up immediately or else we will die! without ever bending down herself. Why didn't she bend? If the elf prince loved supernatural creatures, then why did he sacrifice a plant god, "the last of its kind," to the demon he could be fairly sure was going to kill it? How could he bear to put it in danger? Why wasn't he aghast at himself? Either you accept that everyone, even a movie elf, is made up of contradictions or else you ignore these things for the sake of the film, or else you conclude that the scriptwriter, who was also the film's director, wasn't willing to think it through, or else that he was rushed, edited - Guillermo del Toro, I read somewhere, wrote a three-hour script for Hellboy II and had to cut it down to half that length before he was allowed to start shooting. If that's true then it goes some way toward explaining why the movie is all compression, spectacle, isolated gesture, and unsupported assertion, although it doesn't explain why we were being asked to care about the fetishistic loading of a big gun while outside people were being crushed by "the last of its kind."

Last year del Toro turned down an opportunity to direct a version of Wind in the Willows. The studio wanted Toad to carry a skateboard (he reported), and "make him say, 'radical dude' things,'" and he, del Toro, told them no. Over at LibraryThing, one reader-reviewer complains that Wind in the Willows is setting a bad example for her child because Toad doesn't finish his gaol sentence. He should pay his debt to society, she writes. But Toad is a young child in a grown toad's body, he behaves like a toddler who has somehow made it to adulthood without altering his personality, and why would you send a toddler to gaol for twenty years, especially when the court case is a farce?

The Clerk scratched his nose with his pen. 'Some people would consider,' he observed, 'that stealing the motor-car was the worst offence; and so it is. But cheeking the police undoubtedly carries the severest penalty; and so it ought. Supposing you were to say twelve months for the theft, which is mild; and three years for the furious driving, which is lenient; and fifteen years for the cheek, which was pretty bad sort of cheek, judging by what we've heard from the witness-box, even if you only believe one-tenth part of what you heard, and I never believe more myself — those figures, if added together correctly, tot up to nineteen years ——'

'First-rate!' said the Chairman.

'— So you had better make it a round twenty years and be on the safe side,' concluded the Clerk.

Toad was never my favourite part of the book when I was little, even though his personality was the one Kenneth Grahame created for the entertainment of his own young son, Alastair, whose nickname was Mouse. I preferred Badger's underground house, where "the merry firelight flickered and played over everything without distinction," and also Ratty being lured away to sea by the Sea Rat. That staying and that going were two poles of action that the author, in his real life, could never reconcile. Nor can I. If I leave the house and walk south for five minutes, I can see ships. A torment.

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

no reason to be uncivil

The author of The Tanners has his characters explain themselves to one another with long stories that grow sweetly more reasonable and more mad as they go on - reasonable, because the teller follows his thoughts logically step by step as he goes, and mad, because he (in this book it's usually a man named Simon) inevitably, with manic fixation, discovers kindness in everybody, as if he, and as if the author, the over-voice, have decided to will kindness into existence, create it, force it, as if the whole book is a lonely spell concocted in order to replace every bit of anger in the world with wistfulness and tolerance, a self-humbling loving-kindness. One example? Toward the end, Simon, heterosexual, realises that another man, who is not, as he imagined, also heterosexual, is about to kiss him, and he is repelled, because it is 1907 and because the man is not attractive, but he reasons with himself: "What's the harm in it?"

"I see no reason to be uncivil to this Heinrich, who is otherwise so nice, over such a small thing!" And he yielded up his mouth and let himself be kissed.

Simon is always yielding up. He is in a quite deliberate state of abdication. If people won't ask him to abdicate then he abdicates himself. I think, "With the characters making long speeches after short prompts, it's as if Robert Musil had decided to rewrite The Man Without Qualities after receiving a knock on the head. The idea is that all the pieces of your mind that might be devoted to elevating yourself, lowering others, and passing irritable judgment on the world, are instead reversed, and so instead of seeing bad government and cowardly people, you see kindly politicians doing the best they can in a tough position, and wounded individuals acting on emotions they can't avoid. Simon is not Ulrich, but there are similarities, if you twist the characters a little and look at them from another direction …"

The introduction to Susan Bernofsky's English translation of The Tanners was written by W.G. Sebald, who tells us that the author, Robert Walser, made a deep impression on him. In Sebald's books I've noticed a long process of creeping and accumulating similar to Walser's. When I tried to remember something Walser-whimsical in Sebald, the first passage that came to my mind was this, from The Rings of Saturn:

During the summer months we would sit outside on the steps in front of the house as it was getting dark. Father would fire his shotgun at owls, and we children and mother would look across at the black tree tops of the forest

Owls are naturally ludicrous, just the word is ludicrous, as Walser can be ludicrous. 'Owl' opens you up into a long 'ow' and then shuts you up almost immediately with 'l', leaving your 'ow' homeless, as if someone has clipped you across your open mouth, sneering: Did you really think we wanted you to say that syllable? If you were Simon, you would decide that the person had hit you for some very plaintive reason and end up feeling sorry for them. The cornerstone of ludicrous humour is an expectation denied. At the same time an owl has gravity, which is denied to other ludicrous birds, chickens, for example. Francis Kilvert's diary anecdote might have worked with a chicken.

Tuesday, 8 February, 1870

From Wye Cliff to Pont Faen. Miss Child in great force. She showed me her clever drawings of horses and told me the adventures of the brown wood owl 'Ruth' which she took home from here last year. She wanted to call the owl 'Eve' but Mrs. Bridge said it should be called 'Ruth'. She and her sister stranded in London at night went to London Bridge hotel (having missed the last train) with little money and no luggage except the owl in a basket. The owl hooted all night in spite of their putting it up the chimney, before the looking glass, under the bedclothes, and in a circle of lighted candles which they hoped it would mistake for the sun. The owl went on hooting, upset the basket, got out and flew about the room. The chambermaid almost frightened to death dared not come inside the door. Miss Child asked the waiter to get some mice for 'Ruth' but none could be got.

But the same bird could not have done duty both there and in Titus Groan.

His eyes had lost focus. Fuchsia dropped the cone from her hand and came to his side.

"What is it," she said. "Oh father! father! what is it?"

"I am not your father," he replied. "Have you no knowledge of me?" And as he grinned his black eyes widened and in either eye there burned a star, and as the stars grew greater his fingers curled. "I live in the Tower of Flints," he cried. "I am the death owl."

"I am the death chicken," would have been merely funny. On the other hand the Misses Child could have put a chicken in the basket, let it flap around the room, and searched for seed instead of mice.

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

"hello, miss holland, how do I navigate?"

I was working on my list of Christina Stead links when, after adding a few more pages and looking back over the post, I realised that it was getting monstrously long. "Navigation is becoming difficult," I thought. "Split it up." So the different sections have been separated, now, into a series of posts, like so:


The original post.

General Commentary on Christina Stead.

Commentary on The Man Who Loved Children.

Commentary on Letty Fox: Her Luck.

Commentary on miscellaneous other books published by Stead.


The link in the sidebar still leads to the original now-ex-list, which can serve as a springboard to the rest.

I've borrowed the title of this post from The People with the Dogs. Serendipity; I opened the book and there it was.

At the foot of the stairs there was a small heavy press. Miss Waldemeyer said:

"Hello Miss Holland, how do I navigate?"

"What was all that shouting, Waldie?"

"A man stabbed his wife. I guess it was his wife."

This is on page 11 in the Virago edition.

general commentary on christina stead

Note. This post is a part of a series of Christina Stead link-posts. You can find the primary post here. It will connect you to the rest. I've added them to the bottom of this post too, so scroll down if you prefer.


General Commentary on Christina Stead


A biography, and an overview of her work, at

Another overview at the Orlando Project site.

The Christina Stead page at Middlemiss.

An overview of her life and work at Dennis Cooper's blog, DC's.

Her Wikipedia page.

The official webpage of the Christina Stead Prize for Fiction.

Nine essays from the 2003 Christina Stead centenary issue of the Journal of the Association for the Study of Australian Literature.

A Sydney Morning Herald article about "A chance discovery of a box of [Stead's] letters in a Canberra basement."

A guide to the papers of Christina Stead, held at the National Library of Australia.

Graeme Powell, the Manuscript Librarian at the National Library of Australia writes about Stead's papers. [in .pdf format.]

A caricature of her, drawn by David Levine for the New York Review of Books.

A short page about Lyndham Hall, where she lived as a child. The house is now a tourist attraction, more out of respect for the age of the building than for the connection to the author. In her autobiographical piece A Waker and a Dreamer, she describes it as "a cottage built of large sandstone blocks cut in the quarry at the foot of the hill, by convicts in the old days.

The house stood on top of the rise, facing the Pacific Ocean directly through the headlands of Botany Bay; Cape Banks and Cape Solander. The monument to Captain Cook at his landing place at Kurnell was visible from the attic windows. [My father] was very pleased by this; he never failed a Kurnell anniversary."

"Where else have I seen her use the name Solander?" I wondered as I was typing this out. "Oh. Letty Fox's father."

A biography of her father, the naturalist David Stead, and his Wikipedia page.

A 1982 interview with David Stead's third wife, Thistle Harris. "[Christina] has a very strong personality," she says, "and she's very egocentric."

A photograph of Stead's lover and husband, William J. Blake, along with a very short biography. All of the biographies of Blake online, as far as I can discover, are short. On my screen his Wikipedia entry is only two lines and one word long.

An article about the life of Keith Duncan, the model for Jonathan Crow in For Love Alone. [in .pdf]

Hazel Rowley, who wrote a well-regarded biography of Stead, is interviewed on New York Public Radio. Her book is reviewed in the L.A. Times and the New York Times. On her website, she publishes an article, arguing that "Australians [are not] proud of their writers and [do not] read their books," using Stead as an example of a neglected Australian writer.

Yet Stead is not totally neglected for she has a nice round metal plaque on the Writers Walk in Sydney.

"Paris and beyond: the transnational/national in the writing of Christina Stead and Eleanor Dark", by Susan Carson, an essay from a longer book called Transnational Ties: Australian lives in the world.

"The night of which no one speaks: Christina Stead's art as struggle", an essay by Susan Lever.

"A Reconsideration of Christina Stead at Work: Fact into Fiction", an essay by Ann Blake.

"Realigning Christina Stead", an essay by Michael Ackland. ("Michael Ackland argues for a ‘Red Stead’," explains the byline.)

"Writers Behaving Badly: Stead, Bordieu and Australian Literary Culture", an essay by Brigid Rooney.

"Feminism and male chauvinism in the writings of Christina Stead", by Heather Stewart, an essay which includes this interesting observation, attributed to Ken Stewart (who may or may not be related to the essayist, I don't know): "Christina Stead originated the well-known phrase--'male chauvinist'. It is regarded as the first use of this term in English literature. She used it to describe the male lead in her New York novel The People with the Dogs. Her book wasn't published until 1952, but she began writing it in July 1944--a long time before the now common term 'male chauvinist' was taken up in feminist writings."

The passage in the book is this:

Burrows laughed slightly, "Why should a girl with her name in lights cook eggs for an eye-doctor? He's maritally illiterate. He's a male chauvinist."

Ken Stewart wrote an article on the subject, "Male Chauvinism: the Origin of a Phrase", for the Age Monthly Review in December 1986.

A review, by Diana Brydon, of two books, Christina Stead: Satirist, by Anne Pender, and The Enigmatic Christina Stead: A Provocative Re-Reading, by Teresa Petersen. Brydon is the author of a book called Christina Stead, which is part of the Women Writers series published by Macmillan. You can find most of Christina Stead at Google Books.

Jennifer Gribble reviewed Satirist as well, and you can read her review in .pdf format or in html.

Meanwhile, Pender reviewed Peterson. Before her own Satirist was released she wrote an article called "In Search of Christina Stead." [in. pdf]

A review, by Kate Webb, of The Magic Phrase – Critical Essays on Christina Stead, released by Queensland Press, and a sample of the book itself, at Google Books.

Another review of The Magic Phrase, this one by Laurie Hergenhan.

An article about Professor Margaret Harris, who was the editor of The Magic Phrase, and who also edited a collection of letters written by Stead and Blake, Dearest Munx. She discusses the letters [in .pdf].

Bianca Ferguson reviews Dearest Munx.

Stead's short story, The Triskelion, excerpted from The Salzburg Tales, at Google Books.


Commentary on The Man Who Loved Children.

Commentary on Letty Fox: Her Luck.

Commentary on miscellaneous other books published by Stead.


the man who loved children

Note. This post is a part of a series of Christina Stead link-posts. You can find the primary post here. It will connect you to the rest. I've added them to the bottom of this post too, so scroll down if you prefer.


Commentary on The Man Who Loved Children


At Clarissa's Blog.

No amount of numbers, figures and historical data could give a fuller understanding of the tragedy of female existence before reliable birth control.

At the Globe and Mail.

If Sam embodies selfish love, Henny embodies selfish hatred. She comes across as an unentertaining drama queen. She feels entitled to wealth. How awful must that be to live with?

At the Guardian.

Stead was able to do what Dickens did routinely, which was to have two or more of these universes abut and challenge one another. But Stead the sociologist was colder and more honest than Dickens, whose sentimental attachment to a Victorian ideal of family comity was sometimes shaken but never destroyed.

At Cindy Stubbs' blog, Confessions.

… this book has the texture of real life, all the misery of family life that I knew so well. All the same there is great genius in the eldest girl Louie and a great sort of happiness with imagination that I have myself.

At the Tingle Alley blog, a quote from a 1965 article by Randall Jarrell.

A sort of despairing contempt filled the critic’s eyes, and he cried: “But — but — but that’s absurd! That [ie, Man] isn’t a good novel, it couldn’t be! I haven’t read it, but I know the sort of author she is, and it couldn’t be. Why, she’s a Stalinist!”

At anonymous Nige's blog Nigeness, a post that prompted a happy response from Patrick Kurp at Anecdotal Evidence.

… family life doesn't come much more immoderate and insensate than it is in The Man Who Loved Children. I think this is a very great book - I'm amazed it isn't better known - but it is one of the most emotionally lacerating, at times very nearly unbearable, reading experiences I have had.

An article by Jonathan Franzen, who has said that Man is one of his favourite novels.

The novel isn't small enough or one-sided enough to be useful to theorists. The Pollits are too human to fit into a syllabus.

An article by the Australian writer Gregory Day begins with some thoughts about the book.

Did the constraint of having to place her own formative childhood memories into a North American dialect unleash an unexpected alchemy, which served to heighten the universal humanity of the novel? I suspect so. As the experiments in literary form of the OuLiPo movement in Europe has proven time and again, there is often nothing as helpful to an imaginative writer as a good limitation.

A discussion at the Slate Book Club.

So much of what the characters say and do to each other is boundaried by money or its lack (when "butter-hearted Bonnie," Sam's indentured sister, singes Henny's finest blouse, we get a very specific sense of how completely futile is her promise to replace it; hence we get to understand exactly how Henny's fury is deepened by the promise itself) …

An overview of Man, excerpted, by Google books, from Australian classics: 50 great writers and their celebrated works, written by Jane Gleeson-White.

Its three central characters - husband, wife and child - are locked within each other's orbit until the child breaks them free.

A 1965 review at Time magazine.

The tragedy of Sam and Henny is no grand Sophoclean descent into doom. They live like a couple of roaches battling over garbage, and fate simply sluices them down the drain.

A number of reviews by different people at

Read in May, 2007

The man who loves children really, in fact, doesn't love his children at all except for how they make him look to the outside and feel proud of his "accomplishments". He loves himself and sees his children as possessions that only he is qualified to educate and train, even though he is never around to do it. He was an absolute manic ass.


General Commentary on Christina Stead.

Commentary on Letty Fox: Her Luck.

Commentary on miscellaneous other books published by Stead.


letty fox: her luck

Note. This post is a part of a series of Christina Stead link-posts. You can find the primary post here. It will connect you to the rest. I've added them to the bottom of this post too, so scroll down if you prefer.


Commentary on Letty Fox: Her Luck.


At Bookslut.

This is the potential that chick lit has and is constantly squandered by the bestselling authors.

At the Guardian's Book Blog.

The narrative is peppered with barbed comments and humiliations; pleasure is taken in the downfall of others. Plenty have argued that Stead intends this: that the novel remains a timely reminder of the poisonous games society forces its members (particularly women) into playing. To me, however, there's also something unconscious in the cruelties.

At the Scotsman.

Letty's voice leaps off the page with an ultra-modern frankness about her sexual and emotional life. It calls to mind the sensation one has reading Colette, whose books also seem "of the minute", yet were written even earlier.

At that blog called Anecdotal Evidence.

It seems a novel can bee as big and sloppy and life-grabbing as Letty Fox (or Augie [March]) and still be a great work of art. The form is infinitely elastic, and we merely ask that it be interesting.

At a blog called Outmoded Authors.

Also amusing and somewhat surprising was Stead's/Letty's frank talk about horniness.

At a blog called Verity's Virago Venture.

I have read elsewhere on the internet that this book could be read as "early chick-lit", anticipating the concerns of contemporary women, but I feel there are other books of the period which also do that.

At a blog called Underbelly, run by a blogger who calls himself Buce.

Whatever you might think of [Letty's] schemes and aspirations,still her stark vivacity is (I should have thought) something that you couldn't help but find engaging.

Among the Stead-related bits of paraphernalia held at the National Archives of Australia is this report, submitted to the censorship board in 1947 by a man who wondered if Letty Fox should be banned. (It was.)

The poor literary quality of the novel, combined with its salacious nature, is hardly sufficient grounds for banning unless it has passages which are definitely indecent.


General Commentary on Christina Stead.

Commentary on The Man Who Loved Children.

Commentary on miscellaneous other books published by Stead.


miscellaneous christina stead

Note. This post is a part of a series of Christina Stead link-posts. You can find the primary post here. It will connect you to the rest. I've added the same links to the bottom of this post too, so scroll down if you prefer.


Commentary on Miscellaneous Books published by Christina Stead:
not The Man Who Loved Children, not Letty Fox,
in the order they were published
with perhaps some mistakes.


Time reviews Seven Poor Men of Sydney, quite briefly.

Only ordinary character in the book is Joseph, whose very ordinariness lights up the grotesque genius of his companions

Time reviews The Beauties and Furies

Against the realistic but poetically envisaged background of yesterday's Paris, in a political climate heavy with the Stavisky scandals and the riots of Feb. 6, 1934, swarms a crowd of fantastic figures in a kind of Lutetian Lupercalia.

The Neglected Books Page website looks at House of All Nations.

In House of All Nations, it is this very lack of judgment that in collusion with her giddy, caustic humor, allows Stead to probe so deeply.

Time reviews House of All Nations in 1938.

Unlike most novelists of financial high life, Author Stead gives the complex details of shady transactions, banking manipulations, stock transfers, wheat deals, makes brilliant sense of gigantic currency speculations, of how the Bertillons make millions in bear operations on Kreuger stocks.

Time reviews House of All Nations again in 1978 and likes it less.

This is a long, unfathomably static but often exhilarating novel about money. There are 104 chapters, at least as many characters, and dialogue that runs on and on like ticker tape.

In the Australian, Michael Ackland writes about House in an article called, "On Christina Stead and our financial crisis."

Is it still true, as Stead wrote, that "I know, as well as you do, that no banker can afford to have his books looked into"? Certainly leading banks still enjoy considerable leeway in their reporting, and seem to acknowledge risks and losses as they see fit.

The Verity's Virago Venture blog reviews For Love Alone.

... my first Christina Stead was For love alone, an absolutely fantasticly chunky book with an extremely engrossing plot.

Time reviews it too.

Teresa got herself a job and waited. Only after eight more months did she finally come to realize what readers will have decided already. "How stupid he is," she said to herself.

An essay by Jane Marie Frugtneit: "For Love Alone? Anorexia and Teresa's Quest for Love" Click on the .pdf link to download the essay.

I believe that the diagnostic criteria for psychoanalytic disorders such as anorexia offer a unique psycho-theoretical tool to analyse Teresa’s position in For Love Alone (even allowing that diagnostic manuals themselves are texts open to various interpretations).

The imdb page for the film version of For Love Alone.

One sequence supposedly aboard an ocean liner was actually filmed in the foyer of the glorious Wintergarden theater in Rose Bay Sydney, a sensational 1928 movie palace designed by master architect Henry White. Astonishingly and infuriatingly the Wintergarden was demolished in 1987, an urban scandal that still grits teeth today.

A Hugo Weaving website comments on the film. Weaving played Johnathan Crow.

It's not as soppy as it sounds

For Love Alone was turned into a stage play too. The script, by Gillian Berry, was published in 2001. Ten pages of that script are available online in .pdf.


Time reviews A Little Tea, a Little Chat.

The main trouble is that Miss Stead has chosen to write about the most loathsome and amoral characters that can be dredged up from the cocktail bars and brokerage houses of New York.

Time reviews The People With the Dogs.

The best of them, 33-year-old Edward, a kindly fellow of no particular occupation, startles the family by marrying an actress. This kind of thing is just what the Massines need, Novelist Stead implies.

A first-edition copy of The People With the Dogs looked like this.

omoo says:

Library Fashionista: c1951, first edition, Little , Brown and Co.,1952. Jacket design by George Salter. Thank you!

Time reviews Dark Places of the Heart, the new title given to Cotter's England by its U.S. publishers.

Perhaps Christina Stead's latest book should not be reviewed, but exorcised.

The Happy Antipodean blog thinks about Cotter's England.

Creating moments like these requires pages and pages of preparation. Stead, by this time an experienced novelist, knew exactly the effects she wanted and she does it beautifully.

Time reviews The Little Hotel.

It is this pattern of self-inflicted frustration that gives The Little Hotel its coherence and links to earlier Stead novels like The House of All Nations (1938) ... and The Man Who Loved Children (1940), a chronicle of domestic agony that Clifton Fadiman once described as "Little Women rewritten by a demon."

Lisa Hill at the ANZ LitLover's blog reviews The Little Hotel.

Women are cast in a very unflattering light: dependant, inane, trivial and bitchy. Mrs Bonnard wants a friend, but there are none to be had.

The North American Review reviews Miss Herbert (the Suburban Wife).

Like the title of the novel, Eleanor's life is divided. She thinks of herself always enclosed in parentheses.

A Time review of Miss Herbert (the Suburban Wife) that turns into a short overview of the author's career.

Sympathy is not a necessary virtue in an excellent writer. In Miss Herbert, however, Stead reveals a touch of the sadist.

Anne Pender's essay on I'm Dying Laughing: " 'Scorched earth', Washington and the missing manuscript of Christina Stead's I'm Dying Laughing".

Recently, a friend of Stead's showed me an extensive collection of manuscript pages of I'm Dying Laughing. This manuscript material was kept separate from the manuscript in Geering's possession and therefore was not available to him when he was working on the text. The discovery of this new collection represents a very significant development in the history of I'm Dying Laughing, Stead's most radical novel.

The L.A. Times reviews I'm Dying Laughing.

This is wonderful material, wonderfully suited to Stead's great gifts, and much of the scene, extremely difficult to translate into fiction, is wonderfully done.

In its large outline the book falters, however, and since Stead has never failed before, it is reasonable to look for explanations in the book's curious history.

Another review of I'm Dying Laughing. At the Women's Review of Books.

Stead shows Emily and Stephen's tragedy as that of a generation, not of an ideology; this novel condemns corrupt Marxists, not Marxism

Kate Webb's three substantial essays built around I'm Dying Laughing: "The American Dilemma: The Comedy of Life and Death in I’m Dying Laughing", "The Hollywood Background", and "Christina Stead and the Problems of Placing an Author".

The problem, Stead thought, was that the talent Americans had, the passion and drive which had brought them so far, was of little use in the face of the Crash, the Depression and the Cold War


General Commentary on Christina Stead.

Commentary on The Man Who Loved Children.

Commentary on Letty Fox: Her Luck.


Saturday, November 7, 2009

everything surreal there is to know about life

While I was poking around after articles about Christina Stead I came across a post in which the blogger, Susan Wyndham, told her readers that Melbourne University Publishing means to release "next year … new editions of several novels by Christina Stead." I was electric until I looked at the date on the post. Wyndham was writing in 2006, yet nowhere online can I find mention of those new editions actually being published. One of Wyndham's readers pointed out that Australians can't expect other Australians to know about their literary history if almost everything, except the standard popular books, is out of print. Elsewhere on the internet a blogger who collects Virago editions was being praised by a reader; she had discovered a copy of Stead's The People With the Dogs. This was a rare find, the reader said.

In an Australian Book Review essay, published slightly less than a decade ago, the Melbourne author Laurie Clancy wrote:

It took the heroism of Virago Press to introduce us to previously unknown, 'lesser' novels such as A Little Tea, A Little Chat, and The People with the Dogs and the even greater heroism of [Stead's] friend and executor Ron Geering in making available previously unpublished work such as her novel I'm Dying Laughing and her collected stories and letters but now virtually all her work is again unavailable.

If I had scads of extra money I'd like to reissue all of her novels - a matching set. My own copy of The People with the Dogs is a Virago ex-library hardback, the cover is wrinkly with brittle old library plastic. Thanks to this I think of the story as a somehow fragile thing, an object that crackles. This crackle is inextricable from my idea of Dogs, just as ragged softness is inextricable from my idea of The Man Who Loved Children. My copy of Children is held together with tape and the edges of the paperback cover have frayed into white kinks. The spine of Dogs makes a popping sound when I open it.

Is it really "lesser" Stead? She writes the book in three parts, setting the first part in the city, the second in the country, then the third in the city again, and the country parts feel separate from the city parts in a way that doesn't affect, say, Man, when Sam leaves America. In theory the change works - in theory, you can argue that the contrast between the tight bustle of the city and the relaxation of the country is something Stead needed and wanted. If you were asked to write an essay on the book then this contrast would be very useful. "See," you could say, "how Edward's country upbringing affects the way he behaves in the city. Compare the mass of pet dogs in the country to the pet dog in the city. The countrywoman is free to love her mass of dogs without worrying about the dangers faced by the cityman, whose love kills him when he saves his dog from a tram. Her worries are not the same as his.

'See the same character translated into two different settings. See, Stead is showing us a time of migration, in the US, between country and city. Edward is a desultory socialist. Compare Stead's treatment of him to the harder treatment of the country-born citified communist woman in I'm Dying Laughing, which was so neatly described by Kate Webb in her essay, "The American Dilemma"." And so on.

As a reader, though, as someone making their way through the book from one end to the other, I come away feeling that I've read two novellas instead of a single novel. I feel the break between the two settings far more sharply than I felt the break in Man. Sam, overseas, remained connected to his family at home, with letters, and because the book took us back and forth from one setting to the other, where Dogs draws a sharp line between them. Part One is divided from Part Two with a blank page and a heading: Part Two. Whitehouse. Edward in the city talks about his family, but the ideas that preoccupy him there are divorced from the ideas that collect around the country house where they live. He has to stand alone, a landlord, a businessman. The family home is replaced by the buildings where his tenants live. He doesn't come back to the family for good, as Sam comes home from Asia.

Still, I love Dogs in a way that I don't love some of her more congruous books. Most of her stories are set in cities, but the country gives her a chance to unleash her language across all of nature and the outcome is marvellous, even in the asides.

They went to bed early and slept without waking. All through the night in the sky were reefs of stars and shoals of cloud.

There's that wonderful half-fairytale chanting quality - "reefs of stars and shoals of cloud" - that rounds her realism out with the added bulk of myth, giving it the subtext that real, felt landscapes have, the idea that inside this, if you only knew, there is a story. Randall Jarrell, in his introduction to Man, comments on Henny's witchiness, and her private exchanges with the children are like incantations, both sides charming the other, but the author's main eye is on the mother, the head witch.

Writing "reefs of stars and shoals of cloud" reminds me of the American author Marguerite Young and her Miss MacIntosh, My Darling, which is full of stars and clouds and moons, and, also, that incantatory chant, although hers is longer and looser than Stead's. She lacks Stead's cruelty, too, which is the bracing, relishing cruelty of a Roald Dahl. Young tries to hypnotise you, instead, with a repetitive churning rhythm, making a point and then half-repeating it.

…when there was scarcely a memory of her but the snowflake falling through a cloud on a summer's day or perhaps wild diamond horseshoes flashing, glittering on a lonely shore where there were no horses with mother-of-pearl flanks, no bright manes of horses running, and the surf was clouded, the sea burning like a sunken star, almost like a pavement, and the heavens were without a star.

The point of a sentence like that is not to inform you that "the heavens were without a star", but to be a sentence like that. Surely this is why so many reviewers found Miss MacIntosh so irritating. It's not the book to read if you want to know a thing.

One of the other small facts I discovered while I was researching Christina Stead was this: Marguerite Young read her work. When an interviewer asked Young in 1988, seven years before she died, "What other writers do you admire?", she answered,

I loved Dylan Thomas, William Carlos Williams, and Wallace Stevens. I love James Merrill’s poems and his short novels. Ambrose Bierce. Vachel Lindsay, I like, and I knew his sister quite well. I love the work of Kay Boyle and Christina Stead. I once spent a wonderful week in New York with Christina, who knew everything surreal there is to know about life.

Tuesday, November 3, 2009

constantly squandered by the bestselling authors

I was searching for a page of Christina Stead links and couldn't find what I was looking for, so decided to make one, leaving off all the articles that hand you a few hundred words and then tell you to sign up to our site in order to read the rest. This is a shame, because there's a number of them out there, and most of them look potentially interesting. But all those dangled carrots - no, it's not fair to link them.


Later, she adds: Some days after I first made this post, I realised that the list was becoming unwieldy. I kept finding new links and the whole thing grew longer. So I'm going to split it up.

Here, I've separated the lists of links into different posts under these headings:


General Commentary on Christina Stead.

Commentary on The Man Who Loved Children.

Commentary on Letty Fox: Her Luck.

Commentary on miscellaneous other books published by Stead.


Monday, November 2, 2009

a considerable effort of resolution

On Wednesday, after months of guilty neglect, I wrote to M.'s mother. On Thursday, opening Boswell's Life of Johnson, which I'm reading now for the first time, I, almost immediately, came across this letter from the older man to the younger one:

Dear Sir,

You are not to think yourself forgotten, or criminally neglected, that you have had yet no letter from me. I love to see my friends, to hear from them, to talk to them, and to talk of them; but it is not without a considerable effort of resolution that I prevail upon myself to write. I would not, however, gratify my own indolence by the omission of any important duty, or any office of real kindness.

A little later (Boswell reports) Johnson is fretting in his private notes to himself, worried that he is not doing enough, that he is lazy. On Thursday, when I read this, I was doing the same thing, I was saying to myself, "You have this free time, you were going to do such-and-such, you were going to finish so-and-so, but here you are, reading a book, and sometimes wandering off to spray the mould on the grouting in the shower with vinegar and water. Is this the work you told yourself you were going to do? It is not."

Then, on Saturday, after coming to the end of Lisa's post about Adaobi Tricia Nwaubani's I Do Not Come to You By Chance, a book about a Nigerian man tempted by the email scam business, I opened Johnson and found myself looking at this:

The ferocity of our ancestors, as of all other nations, produced not fraud, but rapine. They had not yet learned to cheat, and attempted only to rob. As manners grow more polished, with the knowledge of good, men attain, likewise, dexterity in evil. Open rapine becomes less frequent, and violence gives way to cunning. Those who before invaded pastures and stormed houses, now begin to enrich themselves by unequal contracts and fraudulent intromissions.

It is not against the violence of ferocity, but the circumventions of deceit, that this law was framed; and, I am afraid, the increase of commerce, and the incessant struggle for riches, which commerce excites, give us no prospect of an end speedily to be expected of artifice and fraud.

The theme of spookiness has being doing the rounds of the blogs recently, thanks to the Stateside enthusiasm for Hallowe'en, but none of these coincidences seemed spooky, they were surprising but comforting, or not comforting exactly, but they gave me the impression that I was being spoken to, and being heard. At the same time I knew that I was not, and that I was only noticing these passages because ideas like them were running through my mind. If I'd read them at a different time they would have looked like nothing special. This is not Boswell or Johnson talking to me, this is me talking to myself, through the book, and recognising myself, reframed. Of course it's me. Who else is here? No one. And yet this recognition of solitude, which might have left me melancholy, left me pleased.

Proust once wrote:

In reality every reader is, while he is reading, the reader of his own self. The writer's work is merely a kind of optical instrument which he offers to the reader to enable him to discern what, without this book, he would perhaps never have perceived in himself. And the recognition by the reader in his own self of what the book says is the proof of its veracity …