Christina Stead Stead, Christina (Vol. 5) - Essay

Stead, Christina (Vol. 5)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Stead, Christina 1902–

Miss Stead is an Australian novelist and short story writer now living in England. Her particular talent, according to one critic, is her ability to create "memorably menacing characters," and to fuse "the commonplace and the bizarre into a single, compelling poetic vision." Christina Stead is best known for The Man Who Loved Children, a novelistic masterpiece. (See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 9-12, rev. ed.)

House of All Nations (first published in 1938 and deservedly re-issued now) … deals with men at their moneymaking, men for whom lust for food and women offers little more than a diversion of excess energies. The book centres on the Banque Mercure, a private merchant-bank in Paris in the early Thirties, directed by the elegant Jules Bertillon, whose financial manipulations and gigantic currency speculations give the book its main narrative thrust…. Essentially, it is a house of illusions, sustained against the onset of gun-fire; what Bertillon provides is the illusion of stability, grandeur, and his own infinite capacity for making money…. Miss Stead gives a shrewd account of a collapsing world, where the soundest financial advice is Bertillon's 'Bet on disaster'; an Australian herself, she worked in Paris for some years in a bank that ultimately sank; and we always have the sense of overhearing and watching from the inside. It has to be said, however, that this is not altogether a virtue in the book. Miss Stead understands the financial repercussions of England going off the gold standard rather better than the political implications of a sinking Europe; and even more sadly, she has fallen victim to her characters' own sense of invulnerability….

[This is] a series of extraordinary set pieces which are, in their own way, magnificent in a range of experience no English-born writer I can think of could, or would, attempt. And it must be added that the entire novel is written with such a pressure of event and diverse personality that even at its huge length it is never less than compulsively readable.

The Little Hotel is an altogether meaner book. The people who inhabit the small Swiss hotel in the late Forties, and indeed the proprietors themselves, are much less sharply delineated…. It may be that the proprietress hears a good deal; but we are given little insight into what she feels, or rather we are led into her curious lack of feeling (not necessarily Miss Stead's) by a bewildering blankness of tone…. This particular difficulty is intensified through her use of a first person narrative structure; though indeed this is not severely maintained. We do not only see through the narrator's eyes, or overhear what she hears. We are even allowed to enter the minds of other characters. This makes the blankness of the central mind all the more disquieting; especially set against a few memorable conversations, ringing true as a tape-recorder, reminding us of the casual cruelties of the age we live in.

Miss Stead has declared in an interview that she finds the English 'tepid'. It may be. In contrast, and in her seventies, Miss Stead seems to have become cold to the point of bleakness. Her reputation will surely rest on the work written 30 years ago (The Man Who Loved Children…); and The House of All Nations for all its flaws, marks out an extraordinary terrain of avarice with as much passion as other novelists have given to the violence of sexual love.

Elaine Feinstein, "Bleak Houses," in New Statesman (© 1974 The Statesman & Nation Publishing Co. Ltd.), June 14, 1974, p. 856.

In her native Australia, Christina Stead's writing has long been valued as part of the national literary treasure. American readers today know her, if they do at all, as a one-book author. The Man Who Loved Children was the only Stead novel in print here until her reputation began growing with the aid of the women's movement, whose support, ironically, she would rather not have. Nevertheless, The Man Who Loved Children is appearing on reading lists for women's studies classes. House of All Nations has just come out in paper. And when The Little Hotel was announced this year, it seemed a good time to look once more at Christina Stead's work in print and to signal what is missing….

Although there are no great themes, no significant events and no literary experiments in The Little Hotel, the guests' own chatter reveals their characters—and their situation as the castaways of European history—with the same merciless accuracy that makes the conversations of Stead's more ambitious novels so riveting. The Little Hotel is an engaging though minor Stead novel.

Stead knew a wealth of people, and she took care to understand their social connections, their politics, their professions and their speech before using them in her fiction. She was as familiar with the Australian milieu of Socialist journalists and working-class women depicted in her first novel, Seven Poor Men of Sydney, as she was with their London counterparts in Dark Places of the Heart. She knew as much about the political import of the great banks in House of All Nations as she did the details of lace making and the lace trade necessary for writing The Beauties and Furies. When she took apart a marriage in The Man Who Loved Children, every detail of family life contributed to the conjugal war of attrition. In short, Christina Stead had and used an exceptionally wide canvas for her fiction….

In most Stead novels, women who do not work waste their lives. Superfluous women cling to a humiliating dependency upon a man when they have no training that will allow them to leave and take a job. In her novels you can see Stead's women struggling, successfully or not, to free themselves from the biological and social roles imposed upon them. (p. 501)

Stead has a very select, piercing set of values. She refuses to take sides in her fiction or in private opinion on the basis of sex. As a political orientation, and a natural choice, she always opts for the exploited over the exploiters, for the poor over the rich, but not because the working people or the women are saintly and unselfish. In her novels, you feel that individual workers, and sometimes women, simply have more spunk, daring and social conscience than those individuals with wealth and power. The hideaway rich, whether bankers in House of All Nations or misers in The Little Hotel, are simply thrown aside by historical circumstances.

Nor does Stead seem to believe that a woman's condition or possibility for success is basically different from a man's. Men without a strong identification through their work are as powerless as women. (p. 502)

Barbara L. Baer, "Castaways of History," in The Nation (copyright 1975 by the Nation Associates, Inc.), April 26, 1975, pp. 501-03.

"The Little Hotel" is a small, daringly perfect novel from which all excess has been elided—a method not usually associated either with its author or our century. Christina Stead is best known here for "The Man Who Loved Children," a book which rocks on the torrential conversation of its hero. Her huge tale of a Paris banking-house, the recently reprinted "House of All Nations," accumulates in telegraphic sentences, like one enormous financial communique. In her other books the style is clear 19th-century England, as a gifted Australian might still hear it sounding across the waters to a broader continent—rambling but precise, baroque with ideas but never obscure in the expression of them, and never mincing into the wrong poetry. Yet in all her work there are two alternative voices, the one a cataract carrying everything before it—or, as some think, a massive garrulity—the other witty, tender or caustic in the small way, shyly interpolated, even exquisite. This latest novel, brief as it is, raises the same questions as the big ones. And the same answers. Why is Stead's originality so hard to define? Because there's so much of it. Does her strange blend of outmoded interest in character and avant-garde sensibility have anything to say to the doctrinaire American novel?

Yes. A lot.

"The Little Hotel" takes almost sly advantage of an age-old convention—various characters reported in the daily events of a milieu where they are almost accidentally confined. The Grand Hotel tradition, is it? The story's narrator takes pains to tell us that the Swiss-Touring, the hotel she runs with her husband, is fourth-rate, the lowest grade in which her patrons can stay without loss of reputation….

Stead has always loved the mixed company of the spa, the restaurant, the party-meeting and the party anywhere—all the high-class lowlife of those who live vivaciously above their income, or greedily below. All these people are recognizably the pension-haunters of a certain kind of literature. When Stead is finished with them, they seem to us the staples of a certain kind of life.

What we get are the echoes of their excess, the hints of their compromise. All comes to us muted, as if we ourselves are in the hotel…. [Scenes] less than a page in length are vivid with presence and flow seamlessly. Stead's narration can remind one of those jugglers who fling an object over the shoulder with the right hand and present it with the left, all the while facing us. The narrator herself all but disappears; only a technician would notice when.

Nor has Stead's notably political conscience become anything but more deft. These rentiers whose income is dubiously expropriated either from the Nazis or from each other, who are forever discussing where to put their money now that America is no longer safe and England tax-rotten—are political without knowing it….

Behind them all in this marvelously stenographic novel is that chaos we all know so well, though sometimes more from books and movies than from our actual lives. Here, our planetary madness is present only by the lightest implication. Stead is a genius at locale (see her Maryland Eastern Shore, her 1930's New York in "Letty Fox, Her Luck," a novel once banned in her homeland)—and chaos localized is less often cliché. Moreover, she has been writing about it for years now, and is above replicating chaos on the page in order to portray it in the world.

No wonder her work has reminded many of Tolstoy, Ibsen, Joyce—any tag to signify that the reader is offered breadth of vision and honest depth of enjoyment, with neither sacrificed to the other. Now in her seventies, she has witnessed much, and used it. Her works bridge the gap between that humanistic preoccupation with character which the novel is said to have lost to the past, and that modern spirit which any novel worthy of its time must have. What her books teach us is that wisdom is the novelist's ultimate requirement. "The Little Hotel" carries that bouquet. (p. 6)

Hortense Calisher, in The New York Times Book Review (© 1975 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), May 11, 1975.

Written by the great author of The Man Who Loved Children—among the most strange and powerful achievements of literary realism in our time—The Little Hotel deals in acidulous miniature with the very large subject of Europe's social transformations following World War II. The residents of Monsieur and Madame Bonnard's impecunious little Swiss residential hotel are baffled, touching, contemptible relics of European colonial administration and the homeless, compromised leisure class it once sustained. Filled with a quaintness based more on absurdity than on charm, they are not attractive people. Besotted with their political paranoia and genteel racism, they numbly live through their heartbreaking, insufferable rituals, clinging to dwindling bank accounts, which, instead of providing them with freedom, lock them all the more tightly into small and hopeless lives. The book describes these lives with a focus that is almost disorienting in its precision.

To say that Christina Stead writes well verges on the impertinent; what is basically the plain style of English expository fiction has rarely been rendered with such originality, given such a continuously absorbing texture. In the age of realism's exhaustion, Stead has sustained herself as a great realist by bringing to bear on the banal an intelligence so closely tuned and penetrating that it renders everything as compelling, eccentric, and bizarre. And though she is the least sentimental of writers, this focus provides her with an almost (she would hate the word) theological comprehension of human pathos and vanity. In passing, one might mention that the feminists' indifference to Stead is slightly baffling. She is, for example, a much more profound—and far more politically aware—writer than the justly rehabilitated, but now vastly overpraised, Jean Rhys. Quite apart from The Man Who Loved Children, one thinks of Stead's overwhelming novella, The Puzzleheaded Girl, standing in a class by itself as a treatment of a young woman in America. In The Little Hotel, as in all her work, Stead's eye is cold indeed, and the trivia she sees terrible indeed. But here, as elsewhere, her intelligence, toughness, and charm also give a strange voice to the even rarer quality that one must call wisdom. (p. 28)

Stephen Koch, in Saturday Review (copyright © 1975 by Saturday Review/World, Inc.; reprinted with permission), May 31, 1975.

Christina Stead … probably will be most honored for her horrifying The Man Who Loved Children. But when that was first published in 1940 it received little attention. Her immediate triumph was House of All Nations, 1938; it won both critical acclaim and, considering how formidable it is, a surprising popular success. It concerned the spectacular Banque Mercure and relentlessly detailed in nearly 800 pages all its intricate financial speculations. The cast of hundreds was made up of the rapacious richissime of several continents and the assorted profiteers who leeched on their vices.

While the House of All Nations was a fashionable though corrupt Paris bank, the Little Hotel is a modest but proper Swiss pension; instead of the decadent international set, the clientele is mainly postwar English of meager means. But the most significant difference is in style and tone. The flamboyant flood of incident and compulsive torrent of language, which even admirer Randall Jarrell criticized for excess and lack of discrimination, has narrowed to a quiet stream of simplicity and restraint. The rage and revulsion, as intense as that of Nathanael West, has simmered down to an almost gentle satire. And even that is peripheral to the portrayal of a major character unthinkable in Stead's earlier novels, a frail, naive, loving woman. (p. 1)

The House of All Nations ended with the fall of the Banque Mercure and the loss of huge fortunes. Attempted murder and suicide conclude The Man Who Loved Children. But neither of these dramas are as sad as [the] death of a long love affair [in The Little Hotel]. One has to regret the loss of the coruscating vitality of Christina Stead's former mordant misanthropy. Yet it is some achievement to have acquired such perfect control of style and material. And it must have taken courage to present to readers avid for wit and vitriol so artless and gentle a heroine, and to record without a flicker of mockery her ingenuous faith: "People suffer and we call them names; but all the time they are suffering. I know I am not clever: it is partly because I cannot believe that life is meant to be ugly." (p. 2)

Audrey C. Foote, "Pensioned Off," in Book World—The Washington Post (© The Washington Post), June 1, 1975, pp. 1-2.