If all the rich people in the world divided up
their money among themselves there
wouldn't be enough to go around.
-- Christina Stead
The Australian-born novelist Christina Stead is an author whose reputation perpetually hovers somewhere between apotheosis and oblivion. As a novelist, she was one of those unfortunates whom critics admire in the abstract but often find distasteful or harsh in reality. She never achieved a popular or even a real critical success; during her lifetime she complained, with justification, that each new novel was greeted with cries of disappointment by reviewers, who accused it of not measuring up to her earlier books—books that themselves had all too often met with indifference, incomprehension, or hostility.
In the American literary climate dominated for so many decades by the stylistic dogma of Hemingwayesque simplicity, Stead’s all-over-the-map excess was viewed with puzzlement if not active annoyance, and Stead herself, much as she desired at least a modicum of popular recognition and the financial rewards that accompany it, never even paid lip service to middle-highbrow tastes: “That brainless pamphlet of monosyllables!” she raged when her publishers suggested that she write more in the style of Steinbeck’s latest best seller. When she edited her work she might throw things away, but by throwing away she emphatically did not mean “what is called ‘paring to the bone.’” Her own style was distinctly unfashionable.
The Man Who Loved Children (1940)
It begins ... 'All the June Saturday afternoon Sam Pollit's children were on the lookout for him as they skated round the dirt sidewalks and seamed old asphalt of R Street and Reservoir Road that bounded the deep-grassed acres of Tohoga House, their home. They were not usually allowed to run helter-skelter about the streets, but Sam was out late with the naturalists looking for lizards and salamanders round the Potomac bluffs, Henrietta, their mother, was in town, Bonnie, their youthful aunt and general servant, had her afternoon off, and they were being minded by Louisa, their half sister, eleven and a half years old, the eldest of their brood. Strict and anxious when their parents were at home, Louisa when left in sole command was benevolent, liking to hear their shouts from a distance while she lay on her belly, reading, at the top of the orchard, or ambled, woolgathering, about the house.
'The sun dropped between reefs of cloud into the Virginia woods a rain frog rattled and the air grew damp. Mother coming home from the Wisconsin Avenue car, with parcels, was seen from various corners by the perspiring young ones, who rushed to meet her, chirring on their skates, and who convoyed her home, doing figures round her, weaving and blowing about her or holding to her skirt, and merry, in spite of her decorous irritations.'
Keith Duncan, Professor of Politics at Adelaide University from 1950 to 1968, was a pioneering Australian social scientist. Despite starting out with high academic hopes, he would by now be forgotten had he not served as the basis for an unpleasant character in a novel by the writer Christina Stead. He had the misfortune to find himself portrayed by an immensely hostile and persuasive story teller. In 1925, he encountered the starry-eyed future novelist Christina Stead. Their ensuing toxic relationship looms large in the accounts of Stead’s life that have since been published, including the 1993 biography by Hazel Rowley. Stead was smitten with Duncan after she enrolled in one of his extramural classes in Sydney. In 1928, fancying herself in love, she followed him to London where her shy advances were met with coldness and disdain. The self-loathing which this produced was not easily forgotten. To exorcise the pain, Stead decided, when she settled down as a professional writer, to use Duncan as the model for a villainous character in one of her novels. In her 1944 tale For Love Alone he featured as a dyspeptic postgraduate student named Jonathan Crow. A ‘dim-witted, dim-faced, bobbing pedant’, Crow spurns the dreamy Stead-like Teresa Hawkins. Duncan’s callousness was now revealed for the entire reading public of the English-speaking world to contemplate. This was a writer’s revenge indeed.
For Love Alone (1944)
It begins ... 'In the part of the world Teresa came from, winter is in July, spring brides marry in September, and Christmas is consummated with roast beef, suckling pig, and brandy-laced plum pudding at 100 degrees in the shade, near the tall pine-tree loaded with gifts and tinsel as in the old country, and old carols have rung out all through the night.
'This island continent lies in the water hemisphere. On the eastern coast, the neighbouring nation is Chile, though it is far, far east, Valparaiso being more than six thousand miles away in a straight line; her northern neighbours are those of the Timor Sea, the Yellow Sea; to the south is that cold, stormy sea full of earth-wide rollers, which stretches from there without land, south to the Pole.'
Excerpt: John Ford's 'They Were Expendable'
Mervyn Leroy's 'Madame Curie' (full movie)
In the late 1920s, Stead met the American broker Wilhelm Blech, who became her lifelong partner. They eventually married in 1952 when Blech was able to get a divorce. Blech was a Communist and Stead adopted his political views. In the early 1940s Stead worked in Hollywood as a screenwriter for Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer studios, contributing to Madame Curie, directed by Mervyn Le Roy, and They Were Expendable, directed by John Ford and starring John Wayne and Robert Montgomery. Many of Hollywood’s writers were Communists, and they formed a community of sorts. Of all these Hollywood Communists, with their luxurious houses and lavish parties, one of the most colorful was Ruth McKenney, famous as the author of My Sister Eileen. McKenney and her husband Richard Bransten were eventually expelled from the Party; the story of their apostasy and downfall fascinated and horrified Stead, and they became the subjects of I’m Dying Laughing, probably her best book along with The Man Who Loved Children. I’m Dying Laughing was not published in Stead’s lifetime. She became overwhelmed with the drafts and revisions, which she lugged around with her for years, apparently incapable of pulling the book into shape.
I'm Dying Laughing (1986)
It begins ... 'The last cable was off, the green lane between ship and dock widened. Emily kept calling and waving to the three below, Ben, a press photographer, her brother Amold and his wife Berry. Amold was twenty- three, two years younger than herself; Berry was twenty-four. Arnold was a dark fleshy man, sensual, self-confident, he fooled around, had never finished high school. From Seattle he came to New York after her and she had helped him out for a while. He now was working on a relief project for the WPA and earning about a hundred dollars a month. Berry was a teacher, soon to have a child. She was a big, fair girl, bolder than Amold. She had already had a child by Amold, when they were going together, had gone to Ireland to some relatives to have it. Arnold had never seen it, but Emily regularly gave them money for it. It was a boy four years old and named Leonard.'
Hazel Rowley, author of Stead's autobiography, notes that “Stead’s fiction, angrier, more relentless than ever, did not appeal to 1950’s war-scarred sensibilities, which celebrated femininity, family and hearth. From now on, her fiction offered neither moral integrity nor hope. Instead, it confronted readers with poverty, corruption and self-deception—things they preferred to forget.” Her late books include A Little Tea, A Little Chat (New York, 1948; London, 1981), Cotter’s England (published in America under the title Dark Places of the Heart— New York, 1966; London, 1967), The People With the Dogs (New York, 1952; London, 1981), The Puzzleheaded Girl (New York, 1967; London, 1968), and Miss Herbert (New York, 1976; London, 1979). None of them was exactly snapped up by publishers; London publishers were even less confident in her marketability than New York ones, and she generally had to shop her manuscripts around for many years.
By the time her husband Bill died in 1966, Stead had herself become an object she had despised in her novels — a lonely, unloved woman. Unattractive, even ugly, in youth, she had cultivated the persona—in which, perhaps, only she believed—of a man’s woman. “I adore men,” she said. “While there is a man left on earth, I’ll never be a feminist.” She always flirted boldly with the attractive men around her. As long as Bill was in the background she had felt secure, but with him gone it became all too evident that she was not sought after by the male sex. The lack of romance in her life prompted her move to Australia, but once there she unsurprisingly found it difficult to make a place for herself within the family she had so decidedly rejected a half-century earlier. Nor had she any really good friends in the country.
The Little Hotel (1973)
It begins ... 'If you knew what happens in the hotel every day! Not a day passes but something happens. Yesterday afternoon a woman rang me up from Geneva and told me her daughter-in-law died. The woman stayed here twice. We became very friendly; though I always felt there was something she was keeping to herself. I never knew whether she was divorced, widowed or separated. The first time, she talked about her son Gerard. Later, Gerard married. There was something; for she used to telephone from Geneva, crying and saying she had to talk to a friend. I was looking for a friend too. I am always looking for one; for I never had one since I lost my girlhood friend Edith, who married a German exile and after the peace went to live in East Berlin with him. But I can't say I felt really friendly with this woman in Geneva; I didn't know enough about her. My girl friend Edith and I never had any secrets from each other; We lived in neighbouring streets. We would telephone each other as soon as we got up in the morning. On Saturdays we rushed through our household jobs to see each other; we rang up all day long and wrote letters to each other when we were separated by the holidays. Oh, I was so happy in those days. When you grow up and marry, there is a shadow over everything; you can never really be happy again, it seems to me. Besides, with the servants to manage, the menus to type out, the marketing to do, the guests to control and keep in good humour, the accounts, I haven't the time to spend half an hour on the telephone, as I used to. I used to dread this telephone call from Geneva. Still, if a person needs me I must talk to her, mustn't I? You never know. People live year after year in a hotel hke this. We have their police papers, we know their sicknesses and family troubles; people come to confide in you. They tell you things they would not tell their own parents and friends, not even their lawyers and doctors.'
Thanks to the efforts of writers like Patrick White, the leading Australian novelist, Stead was welcomed to the Australian literary community rather than resented as “un-Australian,” as had been the case in the past. But she was old, imperious, and difficult: “She had strong views, strong prejudices, some of which she maintained in the teeth of all evidence,” said one acquaintance, and her friends secretly totted up the number of times in an evening she would begin a statement with “My dear, you’re wrong.” White thought her the greatest writer Australia had produced, but her arrogance infuriated him; her family tolerated her, but she hardly went out of her way to be pleasant. She died in 1983, striking out at her long-suffering family even in death by asking that her sisters not attend her funeral. She had few mourners, and no one returned to the crematorium the next day to claim her ashes.
Stead was a judgmental writer. Indeed if there is any dominant motivation for her writing it is rage. But she understood and accepted the unpalatable truths of human relations. “I can’t get over how cruel human beings, not are, but must be, to each other—for ever and ever, I suppose. It is a real inferno we are born into.”
* The above texts were extracted from 'A real inferno: the Life of Christina Stead', by Brooke Allen, Australian Authors @ middlemiss.org, Christina Stead @ Books and Writers, and 'A Steadfast Revenge: Dr. Duncan and Mr. Crow', by Stephen Holt.
p.s. Hey. Surprise. I woke up early, so I decided to do the p.s. after all rather than do a double-header tomorrow. Strasbourg is nice/pretty and freezing cold. The 'sounds of' 'I Apologize' gig with Peter Rehberg went unexpectedly well. Back to Paris in just a short while. Etc. ** Misanthrope, Even less sympathy today from sub-zero Strasbourg, but, nah, I still remember my thinner LA skin, so, hugs. And you got snow! Ours is barely a tiny detail now. Quit complaining, ha ha! I would think that at least explains things, yes. So, which was it, assigned or self-assigned? ** Kyler, Hi, Kyler. I did miss your comment, I guess, oops. I don't know, I guess this place's evil spell on you needs a double down on my end or something. Cool about the Betsey Lerner contest win. BL = legend. Sweet. ** Cobaltfram, Hi, John. Yeah, I guess I do, it's bad, but I also have the lucky habit of knowing a bunch of the happiest people too, so it's a mixed dealt hand or something. (I'm not quite awake yet, btw). Ira didn't force me, he just gave me his expertise and said something like, There'll be more bites, and they'll be bigger if you feel like following some basic rules. So, I kind of did. And, as you know, I got fucked because when the book I proposed and sold on proposal, 'MLT', ended up getting cancelled, and their justification was that the book I wrote didn't match the proposal perfectly. So, for me, for the way I write, it was a slippery slope. Crime writers of the day meaning today? Mm, maybe not. I really hardly ever read straight genre fiction nowadays. Can't tell about the revising. Usually, as you know, the revising is by far my favorite part. I really can't predict right now. It won't be easy, for sure, but I can't tell at the moment how differently difficult it'll be. I'm not in that dark place I was in anymore, at least for now, so it doesn't feel as hugely daunting. See you soon too! ** David Ehrenstein, Hi, D. Yeah, crazy new twist thing in the cop cannibal story. ** Scunnard, Even in France where Haribo is inescapable, I prefer their bags as standard fare litter to Kebab droppings. I mean, the colors are better, and, I don't know, I'm still new enough to France, I guess, to see Haribo candy displays as doggies in the window. ** Empty Frame, Hi, Frame! Things are good. Can't complain, nope. Glad it's the same story plus the Rhys drug effect where you are. ** Hyrule Dungeon, Hi! Thank you, thank you, J! It's weird: right before I came to Strasbourg, I saw that BP's piece is playing at the Pompidou, yum. And then he showed up here! Holy shit! Magic! Everyone, a goof in the links yesterday deprived you of one of the intended destinations -- Menkman's 'Poem to Mister Compression', which is, in fact here. ** Okay, fuck, best laid plans. For whatever fucked up reason, Blogger decided to erase the rest of the p.s., I have no idea how, and now I don't have time to rewrite all of it, so ... all right, I will finish answering the comments from yesterday plus the ones that arrive here today when I will see you again tomorrow morning my time. Fuck. In the meantime, decide if my decision to pull out this Christina Stead post from the archives was a good one or not.