Tuesday, April 13, 2010

her work was, therefore

Delight today. Lisa Hill mentioned the Brotherhood Book site on LitLovers months ago, but it wasn't until last week that I found a book there that made me think, "I do want that." The book was R.G. Geering's study of Christina Stead. I mentioned it to M., and he bought it. Good man. I'd let him read it if he wanted to. I like it when you write about yourself on the blog, he says, not books I haven't read.

The Brotherhood site had it down as the original 1969 Christina Stead, but the book that arrived in the mail today was the expanded 1979 edition, which I'd rather have had anyway. The drawing of Stead on the front cover is ugly, as all drawings of her are ugly, a thing that makes me wince, because it's no secret that she was hurt by her father calling her plain when she was a teenager -- "a lazy fat lump," says Hazel Rowley's biography, quoting the memory of Christina's brother David -- and it would be kind if at least one artist could make her look slightly less foul than her photographs; instead they make her look worse. Here the left eye is drifting up diagonally into her skull. Artists, show her some pity. Stop making me wince.

As for the contents, I've only skimmed them. Geering asserts his Australian perspective from the start and carries it through to the end. Seven Poor Men of Sydney excites him -- "a most unusual novel to appear on the Australian literary scene in 1934." The Beauties and Furies "is her poorest book, but significant in a number of ways." "The color and richness of the prose in the early books has given way" in A Little Tea, a Little Chat "to a spare and chill monochrome." The critic predicts that The Puzzleheaded Girl "could become one of Christina Stead's most popular books," but so far (three decades after this revised edition was published) the prediction hasn't panned out. Someone would have to reprint it before it would stand a chance of becoming popular. In the last chapter he insists that she was not a neglected novelist in 1965, no matter what Randall Jarrell thought. I haven't seen a point of view like this argued so indignantly anywhere else.

Overseas critics who still persist in the 1965 discovery-theory should be told that her early books were being reprinted in Australia at the same time -- Seven Poor Men of Sydney in 1965 and The Salzburg Tales in paperback in 1966. For Love Alone was reissued here in 1966 and in paperback in 1969; Seven Poor Men of Sydney appeared in paperback in 1971 … Perhaps the neglect so often talked about occurred overseas rather than in Australia.

Then he relents.

It is a fact, of course, that Christina Stead's books were out of print for more than two decades and that Australians who read in their histories of the literary importance of her work were for too long unable to read it for themselves. Until the 1960s her work was, therefore, not as widely, let alone deeply, known as it deserved to be and it is rather, in this sense, that we may talk of its neglect.


  1. ...and I still have to read Stead. Shame on me!

  2. She's good, she's very good -- she's one of those rare writers who sound completely like themselves, and completely like writers, as if they're inhabiting a kind of natural medium. They're not people who happen to write, they're writers, in the way that a fish is not just an animal in the water, it's a fish, doing what it's supposed to do in the place it's supposed to do it in, and this thing, this fish-being-a-, is the most perfect existence it could have.