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.


  1. Thanks for this!

  2. I'm enjoying it. It reminds me of the 10/40/70 rule, although easier, I think, because first lines are less random than "Whatever happens ten minutes in":

    "An experiment in writing about film: select three different, arbitrary time codes (in this case the 10 minute, 40 minute, and 70 minute mark), freeze the frames, and use that as the guide to writing about the film. No compromise: the film must be stopped at these time codes."