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.


  1. Another one to add to the TBR!

  2. I hope you can find it. I remember looking around for a while before I came across a copy.

    Piece of trivia. British editions of Stead's books often quote the Angela Carter line about opening "a book, any book" by Christina Stead and feeling "in the presence of greatness." It's the opening line of the Beauties and Furies review she wrote for the London Review of Books.