Monday, April 25, 2011

its living and its decaying trees

I am about to give away parts of The Man Who Loved Children, so if you haven't read it and you don't want to know what happens, stop now.

Panellists on the ABC's First Tuesday Book Club read Man earlier this month and complained that the author was "relentlessly cruel," that the characters were filled with "cruelty," and that they talked too much. "Unreadable."

It was "suffocating" said Jennifer Byrne: it was all very well reading this before I was a mother (she said) but now I'm distressed at the thought of those children left behind at the end of the book in "that house full of hate and venom" (which is a misreading of the last chapter, in which Stead describes all "hate and venom" receding from the house. Ernie finds five dollars and begins to have "heartening thoughts," while baby Chappy is "learning to punch playfully the large bosom of Hassie." Evie and Tommy occasionally "look a bit downcast" when they remember their mother, but that's all. Above them, the adults who were disagreeing with one another are reconciling and prospering. Angry Henny, lodestar of hate and venom, is sinking into the otherworld of a household myth. If Byrne is worried about the ending from the perspective of a mother, then her concern should not be, "Children are suffering," but, "Christina Stead believes that if I, a mother, died, my resiliant children would get along without me. My son would cheer up and start planning his business career, while my baby would adapt happily to life with my sister").

But we suffocated, groaned Byrne and Luke Davies and Marieke Hardy. It was too much for us! To which: Thoreau: Walden:

We must be refreshed by the sight of inexhaustible vigor, vast and titanic features, the sea-coast with its wrecks, the wilderness with its living and its decaying trees, the thunder-cloud, and the rain which lasts three weeks and produces freshets. We need to witness our own limits transgressed, and some life pasturing freely where we never wander. We are cheered when we observe the vulture feeding on the carrion which disgusts and disheartens us, and deriving health and strength from the repast. There was a dead horse in the hollow by the path to my house, which compelled me sometimes to go out of my way, especially in the night when the air was heavy, but the assurance it gave me of the strong appetite and inviolable health of Nature was my compensation for this.

Christina Stead writes like a natural force, and the Book Club prinks at dead horses and calls in the council. We found a young rattlesnake decapitated in the road yesterday, a corpse that did not make the air "heavy," dessicated as it was, but you could look through a hole in the skin at its poor smashed and crosshatched ribs (each snake a pipe of ribs), and know that you would never wander in that flattened cavern from which the spirit, past pasturing, had departed, banished by one of our neighbours, possibly with the sharp end of a shovel, and then with the weight of a car. Man should be reduced to "A short story perhaps," winces Marieke Hardy, aspiring killer of mysterious snakes, and a young woman in Turgenev's Rudin shouts back at the whole idea of this Book Club: "I am not crying for the reason you think. That is not what hurts me; what hurts me is that I have been deceived in you." This woman has arrived at an assignation prepared to defy her family and run away with her lover, a man she believes is a passionate idealist. She tells him that her mother was upset when she found out about their liason, and the fraud lover quails and baulks. He won't go through with it. "And your mother was so indignant as all that?" he says. The young woman is appalled. "Whom did I meet here? A man of faint heart," unbrave, timorous, easily unsettled. "And how did you know that I am not up to enduring the parting from my family?" She is willing to endure it and he has misjudged her. And Gwen Harwood in A Quartet for Dorothy Hewitt turns her back on the man who says, "It's lovely dear."

I dreamed of soaring passion
as an egg might dream of flight,
while he read my crude sonata.
If he'd said, "That bar's not right,"

or, "Have you thought of a coda,"
or, "What that first repeat,"
or, "Modulate the dominant,"
he'd have had me at his feet

But he shuffled it all together
and said, "That's lovely dear,"
as he put it down on the washstand
in a way that made it clear

that I was no composer.
And I being young and vain
removed my lovely body
from one who'd scorned my brain

Or "you are no mate to me," as the young woman says to the wailing Book Club panellists who wish that fictional characters would be lovely, dear, and shut up a bit so as not to stir them too much. Send her a challenge, send her a muse of fire, don't send her Marieke Hardy or Jennifer Byrne. "Good-by!"

Turgenev translated by Harry Stevens


  1. Why on earth were you wasting your time watching Jennifer Byrne et cetera? The thing is a freak show and utterly without merit. The set says it all - blank non-books lined up on non-existent shelves. They could film it in an actual library, but the programme isn't really about reading; it's about emoting or showing off or shrieking or something. It is ghastly from start to finish. Sorry, is this too vehement?

  2. Are they always like that? I'd never watched the show before, but when I saw Stead's name I downloaded it to find out what they'd say. The Australian academic from the US and the literary editor from the Age were the only people who seemed to want to take the discussion beyond the level of This mean author makes me sad, and they got shouted down. I thought that if you were paying people to come on a show and discuss books, and they thought a book was "cruel," they'd at least want to work out how that cruelty fitted into the book as a whole, what purpose it served, how it might have fed off or into the vitality of the author's writing -- or something, anything -- not just wince, and dismiss the whole novel. It was an opportunity wasted.

  3. Your sentence beginning 'I thought that if' conveys such innocence it is almost heart breaking. My theory - not very original - is that television trivialises; that is its essence.

  4. I'm not convinced that any tool or medium is inherently, irredeemably trivial, but I'd agree that the way television is presented to us doesn't make life easy for anyone who wants to use it for non-trivial purposes. It's like a finicky pet, always asking its owners (the stations) for constant quick feeding, "otherwise," it threatens, "I will die." It seems designed to keep them panicked. "Hurry up! Feed me! Feed me anything!" So triviality is one of its aspects, but I don't know if that's its essence.

  5. I've been wanting to read this for the (probably not very good) reason that Randall Jarrell wrote an introduction to it, and I'm addicted to Jarrell. But this sounds very strong.

  6. Jarrell's introduction is terrific, and if all the books he loved are as good as Man then I want to read them too. It is a strong book, and that's one of the reasons people love it and also one of the reasons they hate it. When I see people writing or speaking against it (the panellists on that show, for example) they often use words like "overwhelmed" or they say, "There was too much dialogue," "It was exhausting," "It was relentless." Jarrell thought it was excessive as well, but he saw that the excessiveness had a purpose, eg:

    "But you remember best about Henny what is worst about Henny: her tirades. These are too much and (to tell the truth) too many for us; but if anything so excessive is to be truthfully represented, that is almost inevitable."

  7. ... and when I try to puzzle out the difference between myself and a person who calls her "unreadable" I wonder if the difference comes down to rhythm. Man has a rhythm, a bounce, a swing, and once I hook into that bounce I can keep reading her forever. Once you're into the bounce she doesn't seem wordy. (When Jeffrey Jones in Amadeus tells Mozart that his music is fine but it has "too many notes" and he could improve it by taking some of them out, the cinema audience scoffs at his misunderstanding of music, and when Marieke Hardy in that show said that Man would be better as "a short story," I thought of that scene. She's Jeffrey Jones, misunderstanding music.)

    The bounce really has to be experienced in a holistic way, but I can sort of explain it by quoting little sets of words that chime together -- "All the June Saturday afternoon" in the first sentence, or Aunt Jo "with her hail-fellow-well-met dental set," a quote that the journalist from the Age brought up in that show, or the way she jumps from h to h in, "They heard Hazel hang the big washbowl on its high nail."