June 2017 re-reading: Christina Stead

In 1982 the number of books I read was a much more healthy 36, according to my records, 26 of which were novels. Quite a few of 1982’s books are worth re-reading – for instance Esther Waters (George Moore), poems by Tony Harrison, or Kafka’s Metamorphosis. But it also seems to have been a year when I went for some out-of-the-mainstream authors: James Hanley, Alexander Herzen and Christina Stead, for example (it was also the year I discovered Anne Tyler – I hope to return to her in a later blog entry). And it is to Stead that I’ve turned for this month’s re-reading.

In fact, I read three Christina Stead books in 1982: The Puzzleheaded Girl, The Man Who Loved Children and Miss Herbert (The Suburban Wife). I’ve no idea why, to start with, I picked up The Puzzleheaded Girl from my local library; but soon after, I bought what is generally agreed to be her best novel, The Man Who Loved Children, and remember being stunned by it, reading it on holiday in West Cork.

Anyway, it’s The Puzzleheaded Girl I re-read this month. While the library copy I first read was a hardback – possibly the original 1967 edition – this time I had the later Virago edition, with an introduction by Angela Carter. The Puzzleheaded Girl is actually four novellas, all either set in the US or featuring Americans in Europe: it wasn’t until later that I realised that Stead wasn’t American herself but Australian, though she and her husband William Blake (described in one biographical summary as a “Marxist banker”, whatever that can mean) travelled widely in Europe and America. The first novella, which gives the collection its title, is perhaps the most memorable: the puzzleheaded girl in question, Honor Lawrence, appears on the first page “a young seventeen, perhaps, dressed like a poor schoolgirl” looking for work at the newly established Farmers Utilities Corporation in New York. She is indeed a puzzle for the men running this firm, and their wives, and that is emphasised by the way the story is told: we never really enter into any character’s thoughts, least of all Honor’s, and have to judge them by what (we are told) they say and do. This can be disconcerting: it’s as if Stead is not so much a novelist telling us readers what she has invented, but rather is working her way through the story with us, finding out about her characters just as we are. Towards the end of the novella’s 60-odd pages Honor apparently disappears for several years: sudden jumps in time seem typical of Stead.

I have to say I wasn’t so impressed by the second story, ‘The Dianas’, which is about Lydia, a young American girl in Paris apparently looking for a husband but unable to decide between various men. Eventually she returns to the US and gets married for no clear reason to “a stately young man of athletic build”. It’s not that I found Lydia unsympathetic (I’m not the kind of reader who needs to find at least one “likeable” character in a story); she was simply not interesting enough, and her conversation – there are pages of it – goes nowhere.

Lydia is linked in Angela Carter’s introduction with Linda, one of the women in the last story, ‘The Girl from the Beach’. Linda, “the child of that lost cause, the American left” (Carter’s words), is also adrift in Paris, but it is the journalist-cum-crimewriter George Paul who is the real centre of that novella. He’s there at the start, talking about himself, his ex-wives and current obsessions, and he’s still at it 100 pages (and several years) later. Stead doesn’t express any judgements – that’s not what she does – but it’s clear he’s irredeemably self-centred and won’t ever change.

Both ‘The Girl from the Beach’ and its predecessor, ‘The Rightangled Creek’ have a curious two-part structure. It’s signalled with two separate headings – “New York: Late Forties” and “Paris: Early Fifties” – in the case of ‘The Girl from the Beach’. With ‘The Rightangled Creek’, set in New Jersey “hill country”, we have only a year between its two halves, but the house that is the centre of the story seems to change. It is a retreat from New York and alcoholism for writer Laban Davies, his wife and precocious son in the first 30 or so pages; then it becomes a summer cottage for Sam Parsons and his wife. They learn from locals about the house’s owners, the Dilleys, and their mad daughter Hilda, which leads to suggestions of a haunting (or is it just mice in the walls? We can’t be sure). And then it rains so much that the house is inundated and the Parsonses have to leave. They come back, talk about turning the place into a writer’s refuge, but nothing seems to come of it. Typical, perhaps, of Stead’s waywardness is the way two brothers, Frederick and Walter Imber, turn up towards the end of the story, ostensibly to help dam the eponymous creek. They first appear on page 177; by page 179 one of them is dead, apparently through ignoring warnings about poison ivy. Yet of all four novellas, this is the story, with all its loose ends, that I remember most from my earlier reading and stays with me again.

Stead died in 1983, the year after I discovered her, and there is a copy of her Times obituary inside my paperback of The Man Who Loved Children. There the (anonymous) obituarist describes her as “one of the century’s outstanding novelists” but also reveals that she and her husband “settled down in a flat in Surbiton” in the 1950s, an unlikely location perhaps. (She returned to Australia in 1969 after Blake’s death.) Incidentally, don’t take my word for the excellence of The Man Who Loved Children: here’s Jonathan Franzen lavishing praise on the novel: http://www.nytimes.com/2010/06/06/books/review/Franzen-t.html)

Was this the best book I read in June? I think so. There was Sartre’s The Age of Reason, which took a while to get through, maybe because it suffered from a less than fluent English translation. By contrast to that very male-centred novel, Lucy Caldwell’s Multitudes, short stories about girls growing up in Northern Ireland, were fluently written; and I was really impressed with The Immigration Handbook, a recent collection of poems by Caroline Smith. I’ve now gone back to the nineteenth century and have started reading another Trollope … while contemplating what to re-read in July.

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