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with the Dogs and the even greater heroism of [Stead's] friend and executor Ron Geering in making available previously unpublished work such as her novel I'm Dying Laughing and her collected stories and letters but now virtually all her work is again unavailable.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.

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