Friday, July 23, 2010

organic unity, and verisimilitude

There's a radio interviewer in the States named Michael Silverblatt, who has a show called Bookworm, and a few weeks ago he interviewed the filmmaker John Waters (Pink Flamingos, Divine, etc), who said that The Man Who Loved Children is one of his five favourite books. He discusses this in a recent memoir called Role Models, which I don't have, but I've transcribed the Man part of the interview. Is it legal to publish transciptions on blogs? I'll start with the disclaimer I've seen on fan transcripts of TV shows: Disclaimer: This transcript is intended for educational and promotional purposes only, and may not be reproduced commercially.

MS: The next one is the magnificent novel, uhm, by Christina Stead ... is it Sted or Steed, do you know?

JW: You know, I think Sted, but I'm not sure. You know, I found out my book came out on audio, and I had to read the whole thing? Never write words you can't pronounce. And you'd be; you don't think of that. I mean, words you've written your whole life, read your whole life, but once you have to say them out loud, think, "God, is that right?"

MS: It's The Man Who Loved Children, which is a title that's sure to give you both the right idea and the wrong idea.

JW: Yup. He thought he loved them, yah, but his love was the most oppressive love, and this is the most angry book about a terrible marriage I've read, ever, I mean it's a true angry feminist ... It is a feminist novel but in a way that women hated this book when it came out too ... no one ... Mary McCarthy hated this book. I mean, this book had very, very little praise until it was released, what twenty or thirty years later, and even then, it's a tough book. I [indistinct] pick difficult books. This -- I love feel-bad books though. They make me feel good. I feel good anyway. Why do I think a novel has to make me feel better?

MS: Well, wonderfully, just recently, the New York Times Book Review had an essay by Johnathan Franzen, who chooses this as one of his books of all time.

JW: I was amazed. It was yesterday. I thought, "Suddenly this is a trend? [laughing] This obscure novel is like on everyone's lips?"

MS: Uh-huh. And, and look, in his description, it's a funny book. In your description it's a book about a terrible marriage. In my description it's a book about a daughter trying to escape her father.

JW: Well that's true too, yeah.

MS: And so, this is the big deal, everyone's experience of a book is different, not book by book, but person by person, you don't all have to agree. Agreement is what they teach you in school.

JW: We all love the books, because it's an extreme book, and we like, that I said we should perform, get, a Hate bookclub, and we should do the tirades of her against her husband. There are pages of venom that she says, that -- I get why he thinks they're funny. They aren't really funny, but they're so well written, and so angry that she can barely ... she flubs words because she can't even speak, she's spitting in rage, so to act these parts out, the neighbours would call the police, definitely, if you were having a book club reading. And if you're trying to escape your father don't you often marry another bad man?

MS: [laughing]: You must.

JW: Yeah. It's a tradition.

MS: That's Christina Stead, The Man Who Loved Children ...

You can listen to the recorded version online at the radio station's website. They start discussing Stead at about 16:30. The "her" who performs the tirades against her husband is Henny, of course. (Looking at this explanation, I realise that I probably would not have felt compelled to provide it if I hadn't written the line down. If, in other words, it had remained spoken. Why do words on the page seem to require more explanation and support, or is this my misunderstanding? How much scaffolding is provided by those ums and ahs and inflections that only really appear spontaneously among speakers?)

As for Waters' other four favourite books, they are Denton Welch's In Youth Is Pleasure, Ivy Compton-Burnett's Darkness and Day, Lionel Shriver's We Need To Talk About Kevin, and Two Serious Ladies, by Jane Bowles.

On the subject of Man's critical reception ("this book had very, very little praise ..."), Margaret Harris in The Magic Phrase: Critical Essays on Christina Stead summarises it like this:

Stead herself was to speak of the novel as a failure: "It was first published during the war, when, of course, it had no relevance. It fell almost dead. The publishers didn't want to print it."


However, Randall Jarrell's comment in 1965 that The Man Who Loved Children had been "a failure both with critics and the public" (MWLC, p.36) does not hold up, for critics recognised the scale of its achievement, even when their praise was qualified. It was as a study in the drama rather than the politics of the family that the book was acclaimed (for example, by Louis B. Salomon in Nation) except in New Masses where Isodor Scheider's review was entitled, "In the Bosom of the Bourgeois Family." He observed that "The Man Who Loved Children may in a sense be considered a novelization of Engels' Origin of the Family, and it is a rare distinction of the book that it should succeed in this without prejudice either to the integrity of the ideas or to the embodying art." There were notable attacks, like that of Mary McCarthy on what she called "this peculiar, breathless, overwritten, incoherent novel." Even Fadiman faltered in his praise, though his criticisms -- including the charge that Stead did not render effectively American idiom and local colour -- were symptomatic of the syndrome identified by Louise Yelin. "The reviewers," she observes, "unable to assimilate the novel into the standards of the literary culture they inhabit, treat it as a grand anomaly, a literary lusus naturae or work of savage genius" which violates the decorum of women's novels, organic unity, and verisimilitude alike.

The Ragged Claws blog says that Melbourne Uni Press is going to reprint "a collection of titles" by Stead, "including her masterpiece, The Man Who Loved Children, and the remarkable novels Letty Fox: Her Luck and For Love Alone." "Including" had better mean more than just those three, I hope, since Man and Love Alone are the easiest to find in the secondhand shops here, and Letty Fox was reprinted by NYRB about, ooh, ten minutes ago. Challenge yourselves, people. Reprint House Of All Nations.

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