I first heard of Christina Stead as a result of my book club’s Patrick White journey. We listened to David Marr speak about Patrick White at the Brisbane Writer’s Festival, read Marr’s biography, Patrick White: A Life and finally all read the Vivisector together. Along the way, someone read that Patrick admired Christina Stead so we finished the journey with The Man Who Loved Children.
About halfway through The Man Who Loved Children, there is a possible gas leak and the family runs around screaming gas leak! gas leak! I remember hoping the house would blow up, the book would end, and I would be finished with it.
Yet, by the end of the book, I was enthralled and I knew that for Christina Stead Week at ANZLitLovers I had to revisit it and understand why it both frustrated and fascinated me.
The Man Who Loved Children was published in 1940 but it seems it was overlooked until reissued in 1965. It is Stead’s fourth book but I think her most well-known.
The book is about the Pollit family living in Washington DC in the late 1930’s. Sam, his wife Henny, Louie (a daughter from Sam’s first marriage) and six more children (or is it seven?) That there are many children is the key thing to know.
This is a dysfunctional family. The scary thing about this dysfunctional family is they seem unaware of their dysfunction in a way that makes you realise all families (even my own) are dysfunctional in some way.
The book was originally set in Sydney but Stead altered it to suit an American audience. Randall Jarrell’s introduction to the book in 1965 is titled “An Unread Book.” I wonder what would have happened if the book remained set in Sydney? Would it have faded into complete obscurity or would Australian’s have taken it into their hearts?
So, first of all, why was I initially so irritated by this book. There are great swaths of text in this book that seem to go nowhere. (The leaking gas for instance!) Conversations, Sam’s silliness with his many children, visits to relatives, experiences on overseas sojourns. My first read I am thinking, what on earth is going on here? Where is this going? Because unconsciously as readers I/we expect narrative drive. We expect every scene is intended to contribute to an overall narrative. That there will be consequences and reactions that are quite soon apparent to the reader. If you are a reader who needs a plot, you will perhaps struggle with this book.
I say seem to go nowhere because by the end of the book many of the asides and tangents come together to a logical and tragic conclusion. I might have thought Louie’s scene with the cat strange and of no consequence, almost irrelevant – but it tells me something about Louie that is paramount to the climax of the book. I just had to wait. I just had to be patient.
Seriously patient. When I say I read this book, I mean I listened to it. It goes for 18 hours and 42 minutes. To give this some perspective, Pride and Prejudice is 12 hours and 4 minutes of listening time.
So, second time around I have no expectation of a plot driven book. I can languish in Stead’s description and language. The downside to listening to a book is being unable to mark text that made me gasp with joy. There is a description of Louie’s prepubescence being like a beast or a dog slowly awakening that is stunning. Also, the second time around I can appreciate the tangents that build ever so subtly to the satisfying end.
I have left the best to last.
Stead’s utmost power in this book is the characters she creates. Henny is careless, loving, spiteful, disgruntled, shrill, violent, vulnerable and so much more. She comes from a rich family. She is forever borrowing money. Sam grew up in less moneyed circumstances. He is ambitious, idealistic, ridiculous, conceited, arrogant, sexist, clueless and clever. He believes that a tenth of the population should be gassed to death because the world would be better and is blind to how this scares his beloved children. Sam and Henny are a poorly matched couple.
They are both tyrants. These are really unlikeable people who in particular are awful to the eldest child Louie. There is a scene where Sam makes fun of twelve-year-old Louie’s dancing, he says of her, “where she walks she wobbles” and I remember the self-consciousness of that age and I am heartbroken for poor Louie.
Louie is awkward, clumsy, solitary and dreamy. She dotes on her step mother in a way that does not seem deserving. By different measures, we see Louie as a product of her father’s cleverness and as a rebellion against her father. We see her both cold and loving like her step mother. Through this complicated and volatile triangle of relationships, it is Louie who changes. Sam and Henny do not change very much. It is only that their violent arguments and silences escalate.
Stead reveals the traits of her characters through their tantrums and dreams and dialogue. The are unlikeable, but they are complicated – and because they are complicated I understand who they are and I can forgive the unforgivable. Perhaps I forgive Henny and Louie. Sam is harder to forgive. I think it is his selfishness that I find so hard to forgive. But then there is his final loyalty to his sister Bonnie … maybe he is forgiven…you see there is a depth to these characters that defies the simplicity of protagonist and antagonist allegiances.
The Man Who Loved Children is rich and textured. The people, the places, the relationships. All its depths are not revealed in two readings. When I have another 18 hours and 42 minutes to spare I am sure I will go back to it.