Christina Stead, The Man Who Loved Children (©1940, Penguin Modern Classics 1970)
Someone on the Internet recently described The Man Who Loved Children as one of the greatest novels ever written. Jonathan Franzen has championed it, with the result that it has recently been republished. The copy I’ve just reread is the 1970 paperback of the edition resulting from the book’s being championed by another USian, poet Randal Jarrell. I ‘did’ Christina Stead’s For Love Alone at university, and remember it vividly, but this book, which I read independently of any study requirements, had faded from memory, leaving only a recollection of having loved the book and hated the eponymous Sam Pollitt. So I was glad when the Book Group picked it. Logically we should have picked Seven Poor Men of Sydney or For Love Alone because we were after something to follow on from Delia Falconer’s Sydney and Ruth Park’s Harp in the South, but evidently those of us who’d read this, combined with those who’d read of Franzen’s enthusiasm, swung the vote.
Before the meeting:
For the first 200 or so pages, as we are taken into the Pollitt family, the book is completely engrossing, though far from simply pleasurable. In fact, it’s a bit like being taken into the implacable embrace of a two-headed boa constrictor. Sam and Henny Pollitt must be among the awfullest parents in literature. Sam is a monumental monster, relentlessly garrulous, playing with the language in elaborate baby-talk with his children, lecturing them endlessly on his own peculiar and increasingly repulsive utopian socialism, turning them against each other by vicious teasing and, whenever anyone takes offence, whining that they have hurt his feelings or defied his authority. Manipulative, narcissistic, brutally sexist and convinced of his own goodness, he makes Henny’s life a misery and is surely giving his children material for decades in therapy. But though we feel for her, Henny is hardly an attractive character. Even when she’s not storming and threatening destruction all round in blind, operatic rage, hardly a word comes out of her mouth that isn’t tinged with venom – against Sam, the children, the world. It’s a horror story. In the first half, there’s little sense of movement or plot progression – just an appalling claustrophobic massing of incident. What makes it readable is the language: both Sam and Henny are intensely verbal, she with an embittered satirical phrase for everyone and everything, he with a pyrotechnicon of silly voices and accents, quotations, nicknames, puns.
As the halfway marks approaches, there’s a blessed reprieve when Sam goes off to Malaya for eight months and Sam and Henny are no longer under one roof. We see Sam’s ebullient, insensitive, visionary self-engrossment outside the claustrophobic confines of his family, and recognise in him a buffoonish version of the ‘obtuse and destructive American innocence and idealism’ (I’m quoting Wikipedia) of Graham Green’s The Quiet American. Then it’s back to the hothouse, and things get worse. But now at least there’s movement, downstream of course, to an overwrought climax. Astonishingly, for all its gut-wrenching quality, I didn’t remember how the book ended. Perhaps when I was 20 I read it completely as a fantasy construct, whereas now, sadly, I’m prepared to entertain the possibility that monsters such as Sam do exist in our world.
At the meeting:
There were seven of us. Only one had finished the book. I was 70 pages from the end (I hadn’t reached the aforementioned climax – I said I guessed that adolescent Louie left home and Henny either killed herself or didn’t, and the one who had finished said, ‘Worse,’ and was right). One who didn’t come, wrote to say he stopped caring about any of the characters when he heard someone on the Book Show talk about how Christina Stead rewrote the book from a Sydney to a DC and Maryland setting at the bidding of a US publisher (which, incidentally, she did with remarkable thoroughness). One had put the book down at page 72, too irritated with Sam and the language to contemplate going further. Others had struggled to return to it, and it’s very long.
We had a terrific discussion, interspersed with reflections on the negative aspects of ensuite bathrooms, the terrible prospects facing us at the State elections this weekend, initiatives for peace in the Middle East, quiche and ice cream. I think I liked the book more than anyone: what was the point of all this wretched misery, what insight did it offer, someone asked. I don’t have an answer to that question, but I do think that almost any paragraph picked at random offers up abundant riches. And it has to mean something that, as I read yesterday on Literati, the book has been included along with The Female Eunuch on at least one university course.
After the meeting:
Last night and today, I finished it. Let me finish by taking up the challenge implied in my comment about ‘any paragraph picked at random’. [Opens at random.] Here’s one. It’s not what I would have chosen, because it’s part of a scene that takes place away from the toxic Pollitt home, but I did say ‘random’. Henny is talking with her sister Hassie and their mother Old Ellen while Louie and Evie, Henny’s two daughters, eavesdrop. Henny has just delivered a self-pitying aria, concluding, ‘Why was I ever born?’
‘It’s too late to ask me that,’ said Old Ellen. ‘But you mightn’t have been.’ She began to laugh. ‘Your old man sent me anonymous letters himself to make me divorce him.’ She rippled with he-hes. ‘I hung on to spite him. I didn’t want him. It’s my only pleasure left.’ She laughed. ‘All I’ve got left is to sit in the sun and watch Barry booze and sometimes give him a kick in the pants. Sit in the sun and watch barflies, huh?’
(Barry is Henny’s alcoholic brother, and after her husband’s death, Old Ellen will indeed be left to look after him.) Out of context, I suppose the most striking thing about this paragraph is the disjunction between Old Ellen’s laughter and the terrible things she is saying. In context, it’s brilliant for what it does with point of view. We are wrenched from Henny’s self-preoccupation to the old woman’s misery, from which she has snatched a kind of bitter, self-destructive victory, and in the process Henny receives yet another blow to her sense of self. When you consider that the underlying point of view is that of the eavesdropping children, the paragraph takes on cataclysmic proportions – or would, except that we suspect they have been hearing things like this all their lives, that Old Ellen has been saying this kind of thing to her own daughters for most of theirs. The only person really appalled by her words is the reader – for everyone else it’s just renaming old pain, adding a further numbing twist to old confusion. Someone at the book group said he found it hard to get into the rhythm of the book; someone else said he thought that was because the point of view kept changing, and no one’s story had room to progress without interference. This little paragraph is a small example of that process at work. And there’s that laughter. Hitler laughed when Ribbentrop gave him a birthday present of an ornate wooden box containing a copy of every treaty he had broken – Old Ellen’s laughter is about as cheering as Hitler’s. The book is full of laughter and smiles that make the blood run cold.
No wonder it’s a neglected classic!