C.K. Stead writes about Christina Stead

  • Ocean of Story: The Uncollected Stories of Christina Stead edited by R.G. Geering
    Viking, 552 pp, £12.95, April 1986, ISBN 0 670 80996 9
  • The Salzburg Tales by Christina Stead
    498 pp, £4.95, September 1986, ISBN 0 86068 691 4

In 1965, in London, I met Robie Macauley, editor of the Kenyon Review, who had accepted a story of mine. He asked was I related to Christina Stead. I had never heard of her. He told me she had written one of the great novels of the century, The Man Who Loved Children. When my story appeared someone wrote to Janet Frame recommending it. She wrote to say how much she’d enjoyed it but asking why I was now writing as a woman. This confusion was sorted out when I found that the next issue of the Kenyon Review contained Christina Stead’s novella ‘The Puzzle-Headed Girl’. Occasionally since that time I have been sent proof copies of novels by American women, with a letter addressing me as ‘Ms Stead’ and asking for pre-publication comment. Names, of course, are always more significant to their bearers than to anyone else. I like to claim the major Stead as my Great Australian Aunt.

No doubt by the 1960s Stead’s work was becoming known in Australia, but even there her reputation doesn’t seem to have spread far outside of literary circles. It took the 1965 American reissue (1966 in London) of The Man Who Loved Children, with Randall Jarrell’s long introduction describing it as ‘one of those books that their own age neither reads nor praises, but that the next age thinks a masterpiece’, to jolt the Australian consciousness into reading Stead and reclaiming her. By that year she was 62 and had been publishing for more than three decades.

In 1969 she returned briefly to Australia after 41 years away. On her return to London she wrote

Under the soft spotted skies of the North Sea I had forgotten the Australian splendour, the marvellous light ... Everything was like ringing and bright fire and all sharpness. I was at dinner the other night, when someone said: ‘What was Australia like?’ ‘It’s the wonderful light, Bill,’ I said to the Texan next to me. ‘Yes,’ he affirmed; and the Indian lady murmured: ‘Yes.’ Three exiles. No more was said; and the others, Londoners, did not even know what we had understood ... When people ask, I feel like saying ‘It’s a brilliant country; they’re a brilliant people, just at the beginning of the leaps.’

There is no objective truth (or untruth) in such statements: but there is a vast reservoir of energy in what they represent, and one can’t help wondering (as also in the case of Katherine Mansfield) how much is lost when such talents expatriate themselves. It can be argued that it is all gain in that the writing gets done, and whether it would have been done without expatriation can’t ever be known. Also a larger world attends to these international voices as it seldom does to the stay-at-homes. On the other hand, one can see in Stead’s response to Australia in 1969 that this is a writer returning to her primary subject, and correspondingly that some of the fictional subjects she derived from foreign places, though important to her intellectually, touched her less deeply. The Man Who Loved Children is indisputably an Australian novel which only pretends in a very perfunctory way to be set in America; and there seems still to be wide agreement that it is her best book.

Stead’s double strength was that she was a roving observer (or, as she calls herself, a ‘listener’) who at the same time remained an Australian, never striving to become something different. She even felt her national identity was apparent physically. ‘You know I’m Australian,’ she told a London Magazine interviewer in 1970. ‘I walk like an Australian, my attitude toward the British is Australian.’ It’s a curious conjunction of physical and mental, as if the one couldn’t exist without the other. And that Australian walk appears in some of her stories, given to characters with whom she identifies. The secure sense of national identity came from her father: ‘David was an Adam,’ she wrote of him. ‘Australia was his prolific and innocent garden.’

She was forty years away but always on the move, living (to put the places in roughly chronological order), in London, Paris, Spain, Hollywood, New York, Antwerp, Montreux, Bologna, Basle, Brussels, Lausanne and the Hague. In 1953 she returned to London because she was, as she put it, ‘losing her English’.

An Australian, then, but an expatriate; an international writer who insisted she could find subjects anywhere; and the partner of her American-born husband William Blake: these were the ways in which she identified herself. ‘We never thought of having a home: home was where the other was.’ When ‘the other’ died, but not until, she went back to Australia. She arrived back just at the right moment to be claimed by Australia’s new feminist movement, which saw in her the case of a great woman writer ignored, or even suppressed, by the literary patriarchy.

Stead resisted all this, feeling that radical feminist criticism didn’t serve her work but appropriated it for purposes of its own. She liked to acknowledge that her father and then her husband had encouraged her as a writer and had been the first to seek publishers; that her first publisher, Peter Davies, had fostered her talent; and that Randall Jarrell had revived interest in her work. But there was an anger beyond these particular corrections which is well remembered by those who knew her in her last years. One colleague recalls her screwing up a Women Against Rape leaflet, saying: ‘They’re trying to make trouble between women and men. Men are our friends.’ As a leftist she believed there were battles to be fought and that women and men should fight them together. As a writer she insisted she knew and understood men better than women. And when she wrote about the relations of men and women as they had been in the past, she saw, not simply the powerful and the powerless, but rather two kinds of power, one obvious and less interesting than the other, which was covert and, almost, arcane:

Some of this enchantment, foul and fair, comes from our early days when the woman in the home, so weak and ailing, often moneyless, powerless, often anxious, disturbed, wretched, with no status to speak of, no trades union, yet has the awful power of hunger and suck, gives life and holds off death, sets out her law, defies their law for our sake; from whom we obtain cure of night-terrors and the milk of paradise, a magic woman sheltering this small creature, ourselves, obliged to live in the country of the giants. Mothers and fathers can and do maim and kill; and children have their moments of fear with even the kindest of parents. But the man’s power is evident: the woman’s is stranger.

Behind her ferocity with the feminists of those years lay her sense of fairness, her unwillingness to seem predictable or let liberal-left expectations put slogans in her mouth, and at a more personal level, simple loyalty to the memory of William Blake with whom she had lived positively for three decades. In a story in the present collection, ‘Street Idyll’, the meeting of two lovers is described – how they recognise one another at a distance, how they have to suppress their smiles as they get closer, their brief exchange (‘I saw you as you were passing Sainsbury’s.’ ‘I saw you too, way up the hill’), their reluctant parting, though they will be together again in the evening. Only on the final page is it disclosed that they are elderly and have been married for a lifetime.

Stead was, she says,

born into the ocean of story, or on its shores. I was the first child of a lively young scientist who loved his country and his zoology. My mother died – he mothered me. I went to bed early and with the light falling from the street lamp through the open slats of the venetian blind he, with one foot on the rather strange bed I had, told his tales. He meant to talk me to sleep; he talked me awake.

When her father remarried she became the storyteller to her half-brothers and half-sisters. She was also the disengaged observer, seeing a family of which she was part, yet which was not simply or completely her own.

Expatriation in adult life put her in much the same relation to the places that became her homes as she had occupied in relation to her father’s second family. She was never where she had begun: but she was talented at adapting. And her observation, however apparently objective, was never without a sense of history or a moral principle. Few writers can generate so much indignation simply by representing without comment.

But there was something else as well as indignation – a kind of euphoria that gets into the writing especially when something awful is happening, so that at the same time that she deplores it, she seems to partake of it and relish it. In a story called ‘Uncle Morgan at the Nats’ Uncle Morgan plays a game in which his tiny niece is ‘Granny’. Granny must prove her love by putting her hand in the fire.

Trembling and weeping the child put her hand out, felt the heat that surrounds the flame, blindly weeping, unquestioning, while Uncle Morgan, ducking his head and grinning whispered to left and right, ‘She’ll do it,’ gleefully, ‘Granny will do it!’

  ‘Renée!’ shrieked her mother and fell on the baby, pulling the poor thing from the fire.

  ‘She touched the fire, she touched the fire,’ the children shouted, jubilating, dismayed.

  ‘Granny did not al-to-gether touch the fire, Granny let her Uncle down, Granny did not obey her Uncle,’ said Morgan, in a repulsive weeping tone.

Uncle Morgan is another version of Sam Pollitt of The Man Who Loved Children – deplorable, but one of those big mad energetic presences Christina Stead loved to portray.

Her problem was perhaps that she was so naturally a writer she could write anywhere and about anything. Subjects presented themselves constantly. She had a range of styles to draw upon, from the sort of verbal expressionism of The Salzburg Tales – writing that draws attention to itself as writing – through to a plain workmanlike prose that offers nothing but its subject. This range of styles and subjects went together with her restless moving about Europe and America, so that she never acquired a settled reputation and identity in one place. Also it has to be acknowledged that she was a very uneven writer, better at getting an idea down while it was still hot than at working it through to a finished shape.

Ocean of Story offers stories from the whole range of her work. The 35 pieces (18 published in her lifetime, the rest from her papers) are arranged, not according to the chronology of their composition, but to that of their subject-matter as it can be seen to derive from Stead’s life. Of course any arrangement of such disparate material was going to cause problems. The unsatisfactoriness of the present one can be simply illustrated by the fact that the first story in the book, ‘The Old School’, appears to have been the last thing she completed writing.

This strange mixing of early and late writing might not have mattered if R.G. Geering’s ‘Afterword’ and notes had been more precisely informative. His difficulty was no doubt that the manuscripts don’t tell a great deal, and dating even the published stories is difficult. But that he knows more than is offered here can be seen by checking Southerly, 1984, where some of these stories first appeared, and where Geering offered more precise information.

In an interview published in the Sydney Morning Herald in 1982 Stead said she was often asked by readers and by publishers to write an autobiography and that her reply was always that she had written it in all her fiction – a statement which is true and not true. It is true in that one can see very plainly which character she identifies with, and which is modelled on her father, her stepmother, her half-brother, her husband and so on. If one knew more, no doubt more such identifications would be possible. But the peculiarity of fiction, Stead’s no less than anyone else’s, is that every character draws life from its author and is by that altered, however subtly, from the original. Some of the wilder reaches of the character of Sam Pollitt seem to belong more to the daughter than to the father. In becoming the character, she became him more extravagantly than he could ever have been himself, revenging herself, perhaps, on the father-power he had once wielded, but at the same time enjoying it, even celebrating it.

On the other hand, some of the pieces included here as fiction seem to me to belong properly in the final section, ‘Biographical and Autobiographical’, because the writing appears to be governed solely by ‘what happened’ rather than re-imagined into a life and shape of its own. And I feel that that final section belongs in some other book – a collection which could surely be made of Stead’s journalism and interviews.

If I try to abstract the qualities of the writer Christina Stead out of the range of stories offered in this collection I find that mixture of talents, all in a high degree, which prompted Angela Carter (LRB, 16 September 1982) to insist on Stead’s ‘greatness’, but which also explain the widespread uncertainty about what is centrally and typically ‘Stead’. There is her fascination with language, at times almost for its own sake. There is her sense of history, her alertness to politics and social morality. There is her love of character – a kind of vitality that can ride over and through all worthy and proper discriminations. And then there is her impulse towards simple storytelling – not fiction as a story, but fiction as a container for many stories, one following hard upon another, as they do, for example, in a piece called ‘I live in you’, in which the narrator runs together anecdotes told her by Peter, described in the first sentence as ‘a lover, now dead’. He is not the narrator’s lover specifically, but a lover at large, and one of his tales, about an undertaker, is one of those very few things you read and know you won’t ever forget. Stead’s genius here is not in invention: it is in finding a way of using something unspeakable that has come to her second hand.

One story in this collection, ‘UNO 1945’, appeared first in Southerly in 1962 as ‘Chapter One of I’m dying laughing’, a novel about the McCarthy years in the United States. Somewhere I’ve read that it was finished, but not to Stead’s satisfaction, and she kept returning to it. This opening chapter is extraordinary because it offers what is usually fatal to fiction – dialogue in which serious political ideas are exchanged. In this case the success springs from the vividness of the characters, Emily and Stephen, husband and wife who quarrel and love one another with ferocious intensity. Instead of the characters seeming mouthpieces for ideas, ideas become aspects of character. As Stead’s literary executor, R.G. Geering should see that this novel is edited by someone competent and published without delay.