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"?

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