Friday, December 11, 2009

some kind of vividness

I've come to the end of Christina Stead's books and thanks are in order. Thanks, first, to Lisa Hill, who suggested the idea of looking at the openings in the first place, and thanks to everyone who has tackled Stead in the past, particularly Hazel Rowley, biographer, and R.G. Geering, her literary executor. Geering seems to be the kind of literary executor every writer might hope for: dedicated, discriminating, and willing to wade through mounds of scratchy typing and spare bits of paper. Thanks to everyone who wrote introductions for the reissued books. I didn't reread all of those introductions, but Angela Carter's essay was formidable. If I ever wrote anything half as neat as that I'd be smug as Henny thinks Pollits are, for weeks. Diana Brydon's idea of Jonathan Crow as a femme fatale in reverse still tickles me.

After that last post I put the books in a row and took a photograph. They look like this:

From left to right, with the reprint details of these editions:

The Salzburg Tales (Angus & Robertson, 1989)
Seven Poor Men of Sydney (Angus & Robertson, 1976)
The Beauties and Furies (Virago, 1982)
House of All Nations (Angus & Robertson, 1974)
The Man Who Loved Children (Penguin, 1979)
For Love Alone (Angus & Robertson, 1979)
Letty Fox: Her Luck (Angus & Robertson, 1974)
A Little Tea, A Little Chat (Virago, 1984)
The People with the Dogs (Virago, 1981)
Cotters' England (Angus & Robertson, 1989)
The Puzzleheaded Girl (Virago, 1984)
The Little Hotel (Angus & Robertson, 1983)
Miss Herbert (the Suburban Wife) (Random House, 1976)
I'm Dying Laughing (Virago, 1986)

Thank you of course to all the people who republished these books and thanks, most of all, to Christina Stead for writing them. There's a lot I haven't looked at. She's a great, visceral chronicler of money, a subject I think I've barely mentioned, and her dialogue is not like anyone else's, it's eccentric yet exact - look at the children speaking in The Man Who Loved Children. The way she adjusts her tone is another thing. It's not only the story that seems picaresque in Letty Fox, there's also an archaic inflection in the phrasing. Letty's directness is the directness of Moll Flanders, whose rapid turnover of husbands is echoed in the other character's rapid turnover of boyfriends.

[I had] a friendly smile for all lewd gestures which was so successful an act that I had many boy friends.

E.M. Forster's assessment of Defoe's book is true here too: "Attractive as she is, the heroine always keeps to the rules of her game, and never tries to capture our sympathy." Stead draws on the literature of the past in order to give the present resonance, liveliness, and force; this connection between Moll and Letty is one example of that, as are the parallels she draws between her Salzburg tourists and the storytellers of the Decameron. She gives her characters their due, so that even her monsters have their good moments, even Sam, even the Miss Herbert she disliked so much, even I'm Dying Laughing's Emily, whose real life counterpart irritated her so profoundly that she spent one Christmas alone at home rather than go to her party. She had too much writerly energy not to see people, life, really, in the round, or some sort of round, anyway, some kind of vividness, with complications, ironies, surprises. She was widely-read, prejudiced in places, but who isn’t? In the end, a humanist. As Dickens liked to say of himself: inimitable.


  1. You know I had no idea that she wrote that much Stuff (with a capital S) and I, for shame, haven't read any, not even The man who loved children. I've enjoyed your intros - though didn't read them all in detail as I like to come at my books fresh but I know they are there when I do read her. I was an avid collector Virago books in the 1980s and early 1990s but never saw any of the three you list here. Harumph!

  2. What a grand collection! I'm going to read The Man Who Loved Children this summer, and I now see that this is an early work though written only 4 years before The Little Hotel - which I found immensely entertaining. (See I must look out for some of the other titles you have here...

  3. I was surprised by the amount of Stuff myself. Turns out it's one thing to look at a row of books on a shelf, another thing to write a piece for each one. When I finished the Letty Fox post, counted up the rest, and discovered I was only half way through, it brought home to me just how prolific she'd been. Angela Carter takes Randall Jarrell to task for writing, in his 1965 TMWLC intro, that "The world's incomprehension" of Man "has robbed it forever of what could have come after," pointing out that the incomprehending world was pretty nicely served by For Love Alone (and Letty Fox, she might have added, and A Little Tea, A Little Chat - it struck me yesterday that the long, repetitive speeches in ALTALC could be compared to the long, long takes in Chantal Ackerman's Jeanne Dielman, or something by Bela Tarr. The viewer/reader is being bored, but it's deliberate boredom - the author is doing this for a reason. So, question: what is the reason? To focus our attention, I think, to rivet us. Now I'm wondering if I should go back and add that, or leave the post as is).

  4. Re. this is an early work

    TMWLC gets brought up so often in connection with Stead that I keep imagining it comes later. Something in me wants her oeuvre to build to a narrative climax. "First, she started at this lowish point, with book X and book Y. Then she got better with books Z, P, and W. Things were looking up with the arrival of book Q. Then - triumph! - The Man Who Loved Children! After that she wound down with two shorter, quieter books, F and M. The end."

  5. I reckon it's always OK to go back an add to a post - original readers may not see it, but those who come later get the benefit of your further thoughts. Do it!
    BTW I like your notion of "deliberate boredom" being there "to rivet us". I think you have a point - the interesting thing though is that what bores one person doesn't necessarily bore another. If I'm rivetted am I really bored? I rarely find slow films for example boring - they tend to make me focus on the details (the faces, the setting, the music) and I am rarely disappointed (if I've chosen the film well in the first place). And this is the point for me - to choose what I read or see well in the first place...and now I'm so off your original point I had better finish.

  6. I think in the case of this deliberate artistically-calibrated boredom, it's there to push us through a barrier, in the way that athletes, long-distance runners, say they come to a point where the pain of exercise erupts into endorphin-ecstasy and they're "in the zone" or however else they want to put it. They break through into a kind of superstate. So, yes, things like faces, setting, music, or any small change - anything like that - becomes momentous - in a way that it wouldn't, if the artist hadn't slowed us down, down, down first, by taking the risk of boring us.