Australian genius Christina Stead showed me what a novel is for.
Only children can see their parents from the inside. This is what novelists never grow out of: sitting quietly in the corner pretending to read, ears aflap getting the inside running on life. I remember my mother having some R-rated conversation sotto voce with her friends ⎯divorce or adultery or babies given up or someone’s outrageous crocheted bikini ‘with holes in all the right places’ ⎯ in any event a conversation that was absolutely, ravenously necessary to me, at eleven. The quieter the women’s voices got, the more necessary I knew it to be. Mum looked up suddenly, surprised to see I was still there, ‘reading’. She smiled across the room. ‘Turn your book around,’ she mouthed, gesturing with one finger. ‘It’s upside down.’ She was teaching me, at the very least, to get my cover straight.
Sometimes I envy promiscuous, or libertine, or simply single authors, whom for some reason I imagine, à la Chekhov or Updike or Roth, always to be male, who can stud their lives with love affairs. I don’t envy them the actual affairs, but I do envy them the shortcut to intimacy they provide, and the psychic re-booting. In the study of human characters, they have the cheat-notes. All I have is a lifetime of eavesdropping and a nuclear chain-reaction imagination fired in the early 1970s and, leaky and dangerous as it may now be, still in commission.
In The Man Who Loved Children Christina Stead gives us the intimate, inside view of everyone. She does it because she’s a genius, equally ruthless and compassionate to all. She does it because she had half a lifetime of listening and watching her family to put into it. And she does it because she understands that that is what a novel is for. That is what it was for 70 years ago, and it is what it is for now. It is to give us the inside running, the intimate view. We have film and TV, YouTube and slap-the-mole on our phones for all kinds of other, diverting, reasons. We have novels, and only novels to get the inside running.
I read this book at school, when I was 14 or 15 and trying hard to listen in to the real life, the censored one that my mother and her friends spoke of, which I knew ran under the visible, bonhomie-and-BBQs life on the surface. I was then, not much older than Louie, Stead’s central character, who is nearly 12. We also read another masterpiece with an awkward adolescent as a central character, Carson McCullers’ The Member of the Wedding. Now, over 30 years later I can see that this was inspired prescribed reading for Australian school students. Stead’s Louie and McCullers’ Frankie have accompanied me my whole life. These books gave me ballast in a lost and drifty adolescence. They gave me the sense that oddness or outsiderdom, even at its most lumpy and banal, is not fatal. It may even be a good vantage point from which, if you can keep your cover straight, to observe the so-called normal. Till you can write about it, catch and pin it, neat as art, like a dead butterfly in a box.
Re-reading The Man Who Loved Children now, I am entering a world I know, that of a dysfunctional family⎯which is to say a completely normal one, for what family is not dysfunctional in its own, special way? I know the monomaniacal narcissist father Sam, whose battle to force his view of the world (with himself as its center) onto his clever, moony daughter Louie ⎯and her titanic counter-struggle to have her own view⎯ is the emotional centre of this book. This is the battle of all tyrants, a microcosm of master narratives from Salem to Stalin, from Honecker to the American Dream: this is what you must believe, and all other views, all independence of mind will be ignored or eradicated. I know the heartbreaking, fantastically fork-tongued wife Henny, Louie’s stepmother, who can shriek operatically and murderously in her desperation to counter her husband’s endless panglossian palaver. When I was 14 I read the book from Louie’s point of view. Now, middle aged harridan myself, I can see it from Henny’s⎯ though she still shocks me. And, a little, from Stead’s: I am thrilled by the architecture of the book, the fine plotting that holds it up. And many, many paragraphs like this one, paragraphs that make me wince and gasp:
Although Louisa was on the way to twelve and almost a woman, Sam had not suspected this veering. He went on confiding in her and laying the head of his trouble on her small breasts. But Henny, creature of wonderful instinct and old campaigner, had divined almost instantly. No, it was deeper. Henny was one of those women who secretly sympathize with all women against all men; life was a rotten deal, with men holding all the aces. The stepmother did nothing extraordinary to bring out Louisa’s sympathy, because she had left too much behind her and gone too far along her road to care about the notions of even the flesh of her own flesh, but this irresistible call of sex seemed now to hang in the air of the house. It was like an invisible animal, which could be nosed, though, lying in wait in one of the corners of this house that was steeped in hidden as well as spoken drama. Sam adored Darwin but was not good at invisible animals. Against him, the intuitions of stepmother and stepdaughter came together and procreated, began to put on carnality, feel blood and form bone, and a heart and brain were coming to the offspring.
This book is one of the most brilliant⎯probably the most brilliant⎯achievement of Australian literature. But it has had a hard life. It suffered a trans-Pacific displacement of setting from Sydney to Washington, DC. And it has suffered from the chronic and, as ever, unacknowledged doubt that something as brilliant could come from a woman.
When a woman writes a magisterial work, huge and powerful and groundbreaking, alive with psychological detail for every disparate character and yet with the broad-view always holding the picture in place, it can – bear with me, I know this is hard to believe⎯ it can tacitly be received as if it must be some kind of accident. Perhaps something personal she had to get off her chest? Some spewing of unmitigated experience, rather than art. As if, because of her gender, and, despite herself really, she’d vomited up a Pollock. (Here author modestly touches hanky to corners of mouth, embarrassed.) It is as if she might not have even known she was brilliant; she might not even have meant to be that brilliant⎯(author shrugs diffidently, ear to shoulder) it just, I dunno, came out that way? Like a furball.
We are never expected to be as chillingly clever as Stead is, as warm and funny, as stupendously, miraculously verbal. We are not expected to have the broad view as well as the narrow, the deft control of plot. Neither, to be fair, are most men ⎯apart from Tolstoy⎯expected to. But in the rare case that a man is and does and can, at least it’s not an accident, or the involuntary expression of a need that might, in other circumstances, have been medicated. Here we have a book that matches Tolstoy in ambition and greatness ⎯and concomitant grand messiness⎯ but it has not, or not yet, been seated at the right hand of the Father.
This book is a mirror in which we see ourselves, and others we know. Richard Ford has said that the purpose of literature is to reveal things to us about life that life itself cannot tell us. To look into a paper mirror, to have our lives so expanded, even as we live them: what greater magic can there possibly be?
*The article has been reproduced here with permission from the author.