Christina Stead Stead, Christina (Vol. 2) - Essay

Stead, Christina (Vol. 2)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Stead, Christina 1902–

An Australian writer now living in England, Miss Stead is a novelist and short story writer. The Man Who Loved Children, the novel which most critics consider her best work, received almost no recognition for twenty-five years. (See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 15-16.)

The Man Who Loved Children knows as few books have ever known—knows specifically, profoundly, exhaustively—what a family is: if all mankind had been reared in orphan asylums for a thousand years, it could learn to have families again by reading The Man Who Loved Children. Tolstoy said that "each unhappy family is unhappy in a way of its own"—a way that it calls happiness; the Pollits, a very unhappy family, are unhappy in a way almost unbelievably their own. And yet as we read we keep thinking: "How can anything so completely itself, so completely different from me and mine, be, somehow, me and mine?" The book has an almost frightening power of remembrance; and so much of our earlier life is repressed, forgotten, both in the books we read and the memories we have, that this seems friendly of the book, even when what it reminds us of is terrible. A poem says, "O to be a child again, just for tonight!" As you read The Man Who Loved Children it is strange to have the wish come true….

Aristotle speaks of the pleasure of recognition; you read The Man Who Loved Children with an almost ecstatic pleasure of recognition. You get used to saying, "Yes, that's the way it is"; and you say many times, but can never get used to saying, "I didn't know anybody knew that." Henny, Sam, Louie, and the children—not to speak of some of the people outside the family—are entirely real to the reader. This may not seem much of a claim: every year thousands of reviewers say it about hundreds of novels. But what they say is conventional exaggeration—reality is rare in novels….

There is a bewitching rapidity and lack of self-consciousness about Christina Stead's writing; she has much knowledge, extraordinary abilities, but is too engrossed in what she is doing ever to seem conscious of them, so that they do not cut her off from the world but join her to it. How literary she makes most writers seem! Her book is very human, and full of humor of an unusual kind; the spirit behind it doesn't try to be attractive and is attractive. As you read the book's climactic and conclusive pages you are conscious of their genius and of the rightness of that genius: it is as though at these moments Christina Stead's mind held in its grasp the whole action, the essential form, of The Man Who Loved Children….

When Christina Stead is at her worst—in The Man Who Loved Children she never is—you feel that there is just too much of Christina Stead. At its worst her writing has a kind of vivacious, mechanical overabundance: her observation and invention and rhetoric, set into autonomous operation, bring into existence a queer picaresque universe of indiscriminate, slightly disreputable incidents. Reading about them is like listening to two disillusioned old automata gossiping over a cup of tea in the kitchen….

Her books have had varying receptions. House of All Nations was a critical success and a best seller; The Man Who Loved Children was a failure both with critics and with the public. It has been out of print for many years, and Christina Stead herself is remembered by only a few readers. When the world rejects, and then forgets, a writer's most profound and imaginative book, he may unconsciously work in a more limited way in the books that follow it; this has happened, I believe, to Christina Stead. The world's incomprehension has robbed it, for twenty-five years, of The Man Who Loved Children; has robbed it, forever, of what could have come after The Man Who Loved Children….

The Man Who Loved Children … seems to me as plainly good as War and Peace and Crime and Punishment and Remembrance of Things Past are plainly great. A few of its less important parts are bad and all of its more important parts are good: it is a masterpiece with some plain, and plainly negligible, faults.

I call it a good book, but it is a better book, I think, than most of the novels people call great; perhaps it would be fairer to call it great. It has one quality that, ordinarily, only a great book has: it does a single thing better than any other book has ever done it. The Man Who Loved Children makes you a part of one family's immediate existence as no other book quite does. When you have read it you have been, for a few hours, a Pollit; it will take you many years to get the sound of the Pollits out of your ears, the sight of the Pollits out of your eyes, the smell of the Pollits out of your nostrils.

Randall Jarrell, "An Unread Book" (1965), in his The Third Book of Criticism (reprinted with the permission of Farrar, Straus & Giroux, Inc.; © 1941, 1945, 1955, 1956, 1962, 1963, 1965 by Mrs. Randall Jarrell; © 1963, 1965 by Randall Jarrell), Farrar, Straus, 1969.

It may be that the tides of literary fashion have swept past [Miss Stead]. The novel, in her quaint practice, both illumines and entertains. It finds its proper contents in a group of human beings deeply perceived and caught up in a march of events that defines character and generates narrative suspense. Above all, it erupts with life.

Thus, a preoccupation with characters-in-the-round and story-telling must estrange her from the voguish sorts working the genre today … from the Angst-ridden, the message-bearers, the problem solvers, the minority reporters, the petty pornographers, the narcotic screamers-of-unconscious, the avengers, the exposers, the confessors, the oy-vey autobiographers, the puzzle-makers, the black comedians, the hacking romancers.

Eugene Boe, "The Woman Who Loves Writing," in Books (produced by Jerome Agel), August, 1966.

Miss Stead's interest in showing how life is lived—what Randall Jarrell called her ability to imitate perfectly the surface of existence—has grown from book to book, along with her gift for dramatizing ideas. Impervious to literary fashions, she is now in serene possession of a fiction technique that is a perfect crossing (to use literary shorthand) of the Dreiser and James legacies: social documentation in which didacticism and moralizing are so transmuted that they seem almost entirely absent from either the surfaces or depths of her story. She throws reviewers not a single bone, she gives them no handle by which to place her, no text to explicate, no mythology to erect on her work; she seems simply to mark off a considerable chunk of contemporary life and say: This is the way it is.

But she does not do this simply. In [Dark Places of the Heart] she has created a work in which narrative flow, characterizations and the supplest language achieve a classic unity, though she is so modern and original that no contemporary writer comes to mind with whom she can be compared to place her for a new reader. Miss Stead creates so integrated a form in Dark Places of the Heart that it resists paraphrasing or dismemberment for literary or ideological analysis. Throughout her writing career she has been working toward this accomplishment: a novel to which there can be no approach other than total submission….

Miss Stead's insistence on not allowing the reader to make particular judgments is due to the curiosity about, and understanding of life she wants to pass on; it is also, in a cool and tough way, a method of guiding him toward a judgment that is inevitable and more profound. She has earned the right, at the novel's end, to ask the reader to come to some conclusions which should carry over into his own way of living. In this, she is old-fashioned and belongs in the great tradition….

[Because] Miss Stead seems so old-fashioned, she doesn't interest the avant-garde; because her vision is so radical, she disquiets the mass of readers who are middle class; because she is original and tough-minded, left wingers feel no comfort of recognition. Yet for everyone she has one cementing, indispensable attribute: a sensual, deeply joyous appreciation of how life is lived. Once again she gives us another chance. Dark Places of the Heart is a great novel; it should not have to wait twenty-five years for its readers, for in the wings stand eight out-of-print novels which can tell us, as Balzac did for the same period a century ago, how the world has chosen us to live these last thirty, dirty years.

Jose Yglesias, in Nation, October 24, 1966, pp. 420-21.

[Both] novels [Dark Places of the Heart and The Man Who Loved Children] have similar faults, nor is The Man Who Loved Children superior. Longer, it is also more tedious; its political theme is redundant; and Sam Pollit taken as an ironic portrait of self-righteous egoism is more obviously loathesome than Nellie. We have the same reliance on melodrama, and the dialogue is more monotonous. Henny is a more brilliant character than Nellie, but there is too much of her. The Man Who Loved Children is more intensely articulated, but less stringent and spirited.

Charles Thomas Samuels, in The New York Review of Books (reprinted with permission from The New York Review of Books; © 1966 by NYREV, Inc.), December 15, 1966.

[Dark Places of the Heart] is a quite monstrous piece of self-indulgence. There's Nellie who's not quite a lizzy who keeps on sitting up late at night, through the book, smoking numerous cigarettes and telling different girls that they must get to the real meaning of life; there's her husband George who's boozing it up on the Continent in the left-wing cause; there are numerous tramps and down and outs who pop in and out of Nellie's life and houses, receiving odd hand-outs of lolly and advice. I needed a bottle of claret to get through it; but there is one of the most beautiful and simple descriptions of death that I have ever read; the whole thing is "on the side of life," boozy, incoherent, feminine, messy—a real wild piece of provincial backchat: imagine Joan Littlewood with total recall and you have Christina Stead's conception of the novel.

Martin Shuttleworth, in Punch (© Punch, London), May 31, 1967.

The four novelettes which make up this book [The Puzzleheaded Girl] are fresh and new as new leaves at the climbing tip of an ancient ivy, no more and no less than that. Their unlikeness to anything else you will read this year is, nevertheless, overwhelmingly and compellingly familiar. They offer an expansion of consciousness in which the objects and persons of peripheral vision are majestically clarified, where the haze of ill-grasped memory is made articulate and significant….

[Elements of Miss Stead's writing] may remind some readers of Nabokov. Others will be reminded, by the brilliant caprice with which the stories wind and skip through eccentric chronology and edgeless scenes, of Isak Dinesen. If one is so reminded, that is fine, for it is in such company that one must think of Christina Stead.

R. V. Cassill, in Book World (© The Washington Post), September 10, 1967.

Miss Stead sticks to the score. Her best stories give the impression of having reached her imagination at one leap: she has only to transcribe them, as we fancy her transcribing The Man Who Loved Children…. Miss Stead assumes that it is still possible to get things right, the line accurate, the graph precise. She has her own sense of the way things are, and she sees no good reason to give it up now in favor of anyone else's nonsense or the common nonsense.

Denis Donoghue, in The New York Review of Books (reprinted with permission from The New York Review of Books; © 1967 by NYREV, Inc.), September 28, 1967.

[These] are elements recurrent in Christina Stead's writing: poverty, socialism, pressures exerted on its members by a family, intense brother-sister relationship, sexual involvements and exploitations, fantastic anecdotes. Realistic properties—concerns with jobs, with food, with economies—are presented in combination with the grotesque and weird….

Repeating features and concerns from her earlier novels such as Seven Poor Men of Sydney and For Love Alone, Christina Stead's writing here [in Dark Places of the Heart] is much more controlled, more consistent, tauter. Indeed, at times it seems as if chapters present in an earlier longer draft have been excised—the references to the sinister Jago circle of Nellie's and Tom's youth are mysteriously brief—but this gives the writing an urgent spareness. Yet because of the continual talking, and the comparative unimportance of any external action, the book flags a little, as so often with Christina Stead, about two-thirds through. It may be the reader's fault, so used to plot; with Christina Stead, plot is there only in so far as it helps with the establishment of character, and the creation of the total image of the novel. And it is as an image—or group of images—that [Dark Places of the Heart] is remembered….

Michael Wilding, in London Magazine, November, 1967, pp. 98-100.

As she demonstrated with persuasive effect in "The Salzburg Tales" and "The Man Who Loved Children," among other works, Christina Stead is a masterly storyteller. She is able to initiate drama almost from the opening word, and her creative fertility and grasp of motivation and compulsion in her characters are prodigious….

It must be said that with Miss Stead the art of storytelling supersedes any other. The characters, details and sense of place and action are brilliantly right; but the dialogue is sometimes wooden; the style is ungraced by humor, and one never quite experiences the delicious line-by-line pleasure in the writing itself—provided, for instance, by Nabokov, Kafka and Joyce. She is a superior storyteller, well above the common ranks; but she fails, finally, to achieve literature.

Alice Morris, "Female of the Species," in The New York Times Book Review (© 1967 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), December 10, 1967.

Christina Stead is one of those rare and wonderful creatures: a woman who writes fiction like a woman, not in imitation of a man. She rejects as unreal the male tradition of explicit themes, heightened actions and self-expressive characters—resources which in the hands of profound men have been shaped into the greatest literature. Instead, she brings to her work a profound woman's deep sensitivity to the nuances of yearning and suffering for which there are no words, and a fascination with the ways in which decisive changes of personality and relationship occur by almost imperceptible degrees….

But Miss Stead's sensitivity to nuances and her technical mastery in conveying them are only the most obvious aspects of her power. It is her tragic, penetrating vision of the human condition that gives her best novels and novellas their thrust toward greatness.

This vision, which she does not define in words but on which she concentrates obsessively, is that every human being is trapped between cravings for two irreconcilable necessities, personal freedom and love. Without absolute freedom one cannot love, since the least abridgment of freedom makes one feel constrained and resentful. Love, however, requires a vast surrender of freedom and thus makes inevitable, she believes, its own decay into bitterness and hatred. And without love, freedom is merely sterile isolation.

Alan Levensohn, "A Novelist of Deep Sensibility" (excerpted from The Christian Science Monitor; © 1967 by The Christian Science Publishing Society; all rights reserved), in The Christian Science Monitor, December 28, 1967.

Miss Stead is the author of the much celebrated "The Man Who Loved Children." For those who appreciate her style, which is crisp and laconic, but densely laid on—one hard, sharp sentence of description or dialogue after another—her four new novellas [in "The Puzzle-headed Girl"] will be of great interest. The title story is inescapably intriguing: the account of a complex and strange young girl from New York—Honor Lawrence—who spurns the conventions of our society. Miss Stead is a perceptive and broad observer, her style capable of conveying these observations, and her narrative art full of excitement, but there is the continual tendency to think she misses. In "The Puzzleheaded Girl" her descriptions of Wall Street business do not seem true. Her characters tend to sound always like the same character talking…. Yet the talent is a special one and certainly worthy of serious attention, apart from the sheer narrative pleasure she gives.

Virginia Quarterly Review, Vol. 44, No. 1 (Winter, 1968).

[Miss Stead] writes, and I mean this as a compliment, like a grown-up Daisy Ashford. Her naiveties, astonishing, seemingly unconscious, must nevertheless be calculated. Her tangential narrative progress (main characters are dropped, and fresh ones wheeled suddenly on all in the same story), the wayward talk ("I had gloves on and they had a river" says amorous George recounting life with his in-laws)—all this might add up to mannered gimmickry. But she convinces you that this is how it has to be….

David Williams, in Punch (© Punch, London), April 10, 1968.

It is in speech primarily that [Miss Stead's] language is so remarkable. Though the description of the fecund, heavy-aired, insect and vegetation laden setting of the haunted house in The Right-angled Creek shows her talent employed descriptively again as in those marvellous grotesques of Sydney in For Love Alone. She catches, though, most remarkably, the way people talk—and the way, talking, they reveal themselves, their sexual and political involvements and obsessions (though they themselves would never recognize them as obsessions)….

Because she is so unusual, because she is so totally original, it is hard to review Miss Stead. Her work can be summed up in no convenient pre-existent categories, forms, syndromes. The materials, their combination, the flowing bold colours of the writing, are unique. She is a brilliant original whose vision of the world is unlike that of any other writer I've encountered.

Michael Wilding, in London Magazine, June, 1968, pp. 112-13.

Christina Stead's first novel is her only book set entirely in Australia. For Love Alone takes its heroine to England in the second half of the book. Apart, then, from one and a half novels and a few stories with Australian settings among the many that constitute The Salzburg Tales, Christina Stead's work has nothing distinctively Australian about it…. [Her] novels, obviously (and naturally) enough, have grown out of the rather roving life she has led. (pp. 22-3)

House of All Nations is Christina Stead's greatest intellectual achievement—its knowledge of the workings of international finance and its revelation of the fraud, the ruthlessness, the energy, the sheer luck, and the genius that go into money-making, are by any standards remarkable…. [It] is a long and densely packed novel, built on the same scale as, say Pendennis and Bleak House…. It has an intensity that some readers would, no doubt, find disturbing; the novelist has seen so much to support the view of life that she presents and she wants to include all the evidence. House of All Nations is one of those novels which hammer away obsessively at their themes. It is money, money, money on every page…. Christina Stead happens to be this kind of writer—the deeply committed, concentrating, obsessive. And it is this that accounts for the most powerful of her effects in books like House of All Nations, For Love Alone, and The Man Who Loved Children. (pp. 70-81)

The Man Who Loved Children and For Love Alone, mark the peak of Christina Stead's achievement to date and must occupy high places in any ranking of novels by Australian writers. The first, as more and more critics of discernment are coming to realize, is a masterpiece which will outlive much of the highly praised fiction of our time…. In these two novels Christina Stead writes of individuals whose struggles and sufferings come to represent if not those of women in general then those of many women. (pp. 86-7)

Christina Stead has said "the object of the novel is characterization" and she is in this sense a thoroughly traditional novelist, even though her early work was not always naturalistic in its approach. She clearly believes the novelist's task is to present people as they really are—and in ways that will make them acceptable to her readers. Yet the most common criticism of her work (apart from its alleged lack of form) is that, for all her great talents, she does not possess the essential gift of the realistic novelist, the capacity for creating thoroughly credible characters or, as it is sometimes put, "the ability to create character in the round,"… [especially in] the early books. (p. 159)

The world of Christina Stead's fiction is neither a cosy nor a comforting one, but it is certainly the twentieth century seen at a sharp angle of vision and with an unflinching honesty…. The modern city, money, and the lack of money are recurring subjects in Christina Stead's work…. [Her] fiction continually reflects this disturbed and disturbing world as a matter of course, but it does not subordinate the individual to society in any simple, determinist way…. The most memorable of Christina Stead's characters, both the attractive and the unattractive, remain stubbornly unique;… whether succeeding or failing they are, as individuals, bigger and more interesting than the environments that have shaped them. For such apparently old-fashioned literary virtues we may still feel grateful in an age which has made a fetish of novelty and experimentation. (pp. 161-62)

R. G. Geering, in Christina Stead, Twayne, 1969.