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The great Christina Stead

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Monday, Sep 24, 2007

A reviewer once wrote of Les Murray that he had published no juvenilia. The same can be said of Christina Stead. Her first books, Seven Poor Men of Sydney and The Salzburg Tales, both published in 1934, were massy, thick with the same ferocious, perceptive, satirical personality she showed in her stories until the day she died nearly five decades later. Born in Sydney, she left Australia at 26 and spent the next 45 years travelling between Europe and the United States. Her husband William Blake, or Blech (was the latter, preferred the former), was Marxist and American; she met him during her first week in London. The last part of For Love Alone is a fictionalised account of their courtship.


Stead was inimitable. She had her own way of taking a theme and growing scenes around it, an organic process in which each incident rises up into a suggestive monument, not a punchline but a cumulative climax, as waves surge and die. Stead’s voice is always moving. It’s a difficult voice to categorise—she’s both a fabulist, inventing stories that are something like folk tales (easiest to see this in Salzburg Tales), and a social realist wallowing in the dirt. There is a fairytale ritual quality to the exchange near the end of The Man Who Loved Children when Henny’s son discovers that she has burgled his money box, but the scene itself seems true to life. “Mother will put the money back.” “Will you, will you?” “Yes dear: yes dear.” Henny is described in other parts of the book as a witch, her room a cave of magic. 


Referring to her own writing, Stead, whose father was a naturalist, said that she saw it as a naturalist’s process, examining the behaviour of people instead of animals or fish. In her books, the weak and poor do not inherit the earth. Instead they get dominated by stronger characters in the way that a large animal shoves a smaller one out of the herd or eats it. She is censorious, however, as good naturalists are not supposed to be. There is something of Flannery O’Connor in the pitiless, godlike view that opens her characters out for us to see, exposing them as hypocrites or ninnies. But no matter how scornful she becomes, her prose is always vivacious, never meanly stingy; her monsters are properly monstrous—there is something of D.H. Lawrence in her as well, something of The Virgin and the Gypsy‘s terrible, toadlike grandmother in her characterisations. You could even mention Rabelais and point to her love of lists, fat accumulations of objects or impressions.


Here she is in The People with the Dogs:


“Here, Third Avenue up to 18th Street is still the Old Bowery, with small rented bedrooms and apartments like ratholes, cheap overnight hotels, flophouses, ginmills, fish places, bowling alleys, instant shoe repairers, moneylenders, secondhand clothing stores, struggling cleaning and tailors’ places, barber schools, cellars where some old man or woman sells flowers and ice in summer, coal in winter, dance academies up crumbling stairs, accordion and saxophone schools, and such businesses as are carried on for very poor people by very poor people and so occupy a very small space in a very old building.”


Her lists can bloom into a kind of mythic impressionism. From the same book:


“The storms of rain passed on the other side, escalading the farther bluff. Scarcely had they passed but vapours rising in the heat, from hollows and clefts, tall, slowly forming and moving, spirits, savage men, with weapons, daggers, things habited like the Rabbi, question marks especially, and puffs of smoke, rose out of the new wet earth and shaggy heads of trees and clots of water, rags of steam, began to tear themselves out of the woods and vacillating, tried to get up again in the moving air.”


This is language that writhes and breathes, expands, and also stifles; it creates a world and stuffs it full. (The reviewer at Time missed the mark when they wrote that “Stead’s prose is as hard and cold as a cake of ice.” It was the author’s lack of obvious sympathy for her characters they were responding to, not the prose itself.) She can sound like one of her own huge characters, making universes, issuing nicknames, invoking legends. In real life she was a flirt but also shy, shyer than her husband, a banker and writer whose books have not survived. By the time she died she had a reputation for cantankerous pronouncements, the most notorious ones stating her dislike of feminism, startling in a woman whose books fumed so furiously over women trapped by the social mores of marriage and peer expectation. But not so startling in a person who likes to flirt.


She was in a trap of her own. Travelling with Blake from country to country, she set her books on three different continents, remarked on the society of each, and consequently became famous in none of them. “To open a book, any book, by Christina Stead and read a few pages is to be at once aware that one is in the presence of greatness,” wrote Angela Carter, but Stead can never be entirely claimed. She was not a Great Australian Writer because most of her books weren’t set in Australia, not a Great English Writer (although Carter called Cotter’s England a great novel about England), not a Great American Writer (yet American overviews of her career are always likely to tell us how evident it is from her books that she loved New York), not a Great Marxist Writer (she sympathised openly with the movement and commerce is a constant theme, yet neither the noble worker nor the Marxist character is immune to her criticism), not a Great Feminist Writer (although the majority of critical assessments of her work have probably been written by feminists). In the end she is nothing but a Great: expansive, world-gobbling, oceanlike.


Further Reading:


Nine essays in the 2003 Christina Stead centenary issue of the Journal of the Association for the Study of Australian Literature.


Hazel Rowley, who wrote a well-regarded biography of Stead, is interviewed on New York Public Radio.


A Real Inferno: the life of Christina Stead, an article from The New Criterion, written by Brooke Allen.


The night of which no one speaks: Christina Stead’s art as struggle, an essay by Susan Lever.

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