#OzFeb, but not quite #ReadIndies: Christina Stead

Christina Stead: The Man Who Loved Children, Capuchin Classics, 2010.

Christina Stead (1902-1983)

I so very nearly had a book for #ReadIndies too, because Capuchin Classics was an independent publisher based in London bringing back or keeping alive forgotten classics. However, they don’t seem to have brought out any books recently or updated their website or Twitter since 2013, so I think they might no longer exist. Alas, such is the fate of far too many small independent publishers, so please support them if you can! The big mammoth publishers have big deals with the chain bookstores and libraries, can afford to pay for promotion at literary festivals or participate in literary prizes, but independents struggle to even be seen by distributors or readers.

But back to Christina Stead, highly respected Australian writer, and her magnum opus, The Man Who Loved Children, which is partly based on her own childhood, although the setting has been (rather unconvincingly at times) transposed to Washington DC for the US publication of the book – and there they remained. The novel was written in 1935 and published in the US in 1940.

It is the portrait of the unravelling of a highly problematic family with six children. Sam Pollit is the self-absorbed and preening scientist and narcisstic and bullying father of the title. Henny is the long-suffering mother, who vents her bitterness and dissatisfaction at her children, her husband, and above all at her step-daughter Louie, Sam’s daughter from the first marriage. Sam uses his children as a shield, confides in them things that he shouldn’t, controls and manipulates them, teases them mercilessly, has developed a secret language with them. They are enchanted by this playful, story-telling figure, who is so much more exciting than their grumpy, self-pitying mother, even when he hurts them.

If you need your characters to be likable, you should definitely not open this book! The warring couple are unbearable and hateful, each in their own way: their quarrels are brutal, nasty and left me as a reader feeling deeply uncomfortable. Personal disclosure here: my own parents were terribly mismatched and fought frequently when I was a child (although their story did not end in tragedy like this one), so it brought back a few traumatic memories.

So that is one reason I struggled with this book. The second was, of course, the way those poor children were treated, although the author presents all this in a matter-of-fact way, as viewed from within the family, so that the full eccentricity or even horror of it only becomes apparent when they receive visitors (for example, when the schoolteacher or a relative comes for dinner). The third reason is that I met leaders of religious cults who behaved in the same apparently charismatic, lovably naive but actually stone-cold manipulative way – and Sam does create a ‘cult’ atmosphere about the Pollits. The fourth reason is that the book is long, chaotic, repetitive, its style deliberately ugly at times. Powerful, yes, but painful to read. For example, here is Henny contemplating the parallels between their rundown house and her marriage:

She belonged to this house and it to her. Though she was a prisoner in it, she possessed it. She and it were her marriage. She was indwelling in every board and stone of it, every fold in the curtains had a meaning… every room was a phial of revelation to be poured out some feverish night in the secret laboratories of her decisions, full of living cancers of insult, leprosies of disillusion, abscesses of grudge, gangrene of nevermore, quintan fevers of divorce, and all the proliferating miseries, the running sores and thick scabs for which (and not for its heavenly joys) the flesh of marriage is so heavily veiled and conventually interned.

Never knowingly simplify a sentence! Make sure you hammer home a certain sentiment by repeating it in every conceivable way! While this works well when uttered by the two main grownup characters, it does feel excessive in third person, especially when it is observed and commented upon by fourteen-year-old Louie. I admire the author’s ability to create such a stifling, horrendous family atmosphere and vile characters, but it proved too relentless for me, and I skim read the last third of the book. I recognised some of the darkness and dysfunctionality that Shirley Jackson also has in her writing, but how much more subtly and succinctly!

Here, for instance, is Sam demonstrating his manipulative misogyny and sneaky ways of winning the children over:

No man could be so cruel, so devilish, as a woman with her weakness, recrimination, convenient ailments, nerves, and tears. We mean are all weak as water before the primitive devices of Eve. I was patient at first, many years. You were too young then, Looloo; you did not see how kind I was, hoping for an improvement: constant dropping wears away a stone, and it was only much later that I found out hardness worked better than love. It broke my heart, nearly, to find it out. It would have broken my heart only that I had other interests.

Another speech that was a little too close to personal experience, to how my ex-husband would talk about me when I was clinically depressed. Although Henny irritated me in lots of ways, I could understand her exasperated, violent outbursts and almost cheer her on when she said:

…boasting and blowing about your success when all the time it was me, my poor body, that was what you took our success out of… I’ve stuffed mattresses for you and your children and cooked dinners for the whole gang of filthy, rotten, ignorant, blowing Pollits that I hate. I’ve had the house stinking like a corpse cellar with your formalin… and had to put up with your vile animals and idiotic collections and your blood-and-bone fertilizer in the garden and everlasting talk, talk, talk, talk, talk, boring me, filling my ears with talk, jaw, jaw, till I thought the only way was to kill myself to escape you and your world of big bluffs and big sticks, saving the whole rotten world with your talk.

But for all her big words, she ends up having another child with her husband, and does not find a sensible way out of the whole situation.

It is an extreme and very dark view of the relationship between the sexes, between parents and children. It may be considered a masterpiece of Australian literature or of 20th century literature more widely, but it left a very bitter taste in my mouth.