Sunday, July 10, 2016

The Man Who Loved Children by Christina Stead

He himself, Sam, had had the pleasure of being a father, five times already, and imagine the joy when he found that at one birth he had twins!  He could never have it enough.  Each time, he explained to Naden, he felt an immense pride, a belief in a limitless future, in an unfolding universe, a hope for the proliferating human race in that shadow of dust, and infinitesimal corner of dimensionless space, even so.

Oh, man.  Some books are just sui generis--completely in their own category, impossible to ever reproduce, even by the same author.  I can't imagine even Christina Stead writing another book like The Man Who Loved Children.  How could she?  The family that she writes about--a fictionalized version of her own, you're horrified to find out--is so unique and irreproducible that it can only exist once.  It's like Tolstoy's thesis that "every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way," expounded on for 500 pages.

The title character is Sam Pollitt, a low-level bureaucrat in the Fisheries Department of some division of the federal government.  Sam is a classic early-20th century Progressive Rationalist, full of far-flung ideas about the future and mankind, a patronizing attitude toward foreign races and a keenness for eugenics.  Sam loves children, especially his own, and sees them as an extension of his own fine feelings about humanity.  He has a private language with them, a mish-mash of pet names and baby-talk:

'Bring up your tea, Looloo-girl: I'm sick, hot head, nedache [headache]; dot pagans in my stumjack [got pains in my stomach]: want my little fambly around me this morning.  We'll have a corroboree afterwards when I get better.  Mother will make the porridge.'  He was begging her, yearning after her.

This stuff is hard to read, even when Stead gives bracketed translations; but it seems true to life.  All books teach you how to read them, but The Man Who Loved Children requires you to study really hard.  ("Corroboree," by the way, gives away the Australian Stead's scrupulous Americanizing of her own father.)  Sam's child-language, and his childish behavior--indifference toward money, even when it's short, his selfishness and laziness--drive his wife Henrietta to madness.  He calls hims "Sam-the-Bold," she calls him "The Great-I-Am."  For most of the book, they are not on speaking terms, except to shout and claw at each other violently:

As Henny sat before her teacup and the steam rose from it and the treacherous foam gathered, uncollectible round its edge, the thousand storms of her confined life would rise up before here, thinner illusions on the steam.  She did not laugh at the words 'a storm in a teacup.'  Some raucous, cruel words about five cents misspent were as serious in a woman's life as a debate on war appropriations in Congress: all the civil war of ten years roared into their smoky words when they shrieked, maddened, at each other; all the snakes of hate hissed.

And if these two powerful characters weren't enough, Stead adds a third in the child Louisa, or Louie, Sam's daughter from a previous marriage.  Louie is a dark and troubled genius, literary where her father is scientific, gloomy where her father is sanguine, and sensitive to the dismay of others, like Henrietta, when Sam blithely ignores them.

Sam's love for his children is really a kind of narcissism.  He loves them to the extent that they are reflections of himself, and when they fail to live up to his fantastic ideals his fine feeling turn to cruelty.  This happens over and over, in scenes that are funny, grotesque, and vivid.  Louie writes a play in a made-up language called Tragos: Herpes Rom (Tragedy: The Snake-Man) and has the children perform it for her father, with the aid of a translation.  ("Did Euripides write in English?" she asks).  The play is about a father who wants to hug his daughter, but she feels threatened by his constrictor-like embrace, and refuses.  Louie wants desperately to show her father how he mistreats her, and with the play Stead shows cannily how we crave the approval of our parents even as we want to overthrow them.  But Sam cannot hear this, he only sees feminine silliness: "I did not expect you to be so silly," he says, "you were the child of a great love... I never heard so much idiotic drivel in my born days.  Go and put your fat head under the shower."  When another of his sons complains that the smell of the fish they have been boiling for oil is making him sick, Sam forces him to carry the fish's rotting remains to the shed piece-by-piece while he vomits over and over again.

The novel has the downward-hurtling trajectory of a great tragedy.  Halfway through the book, scandal forces Sam out of his job at the Fisheries Department, and he refuses to recognize evil by responding to the accusations.  His idealism forces them into a rundown shack in Annapolis, where they live in increasing squalor and tension.  Henrietta is forced to steal money from her own children to make ends meet, while Sam prattles about the nobility of poverty, until his own petty wants are not addressed:

Sam flushed with anger.  'Why aren't there any bananas?  I don't ask for much.  I work to make the Home Beautiful for one and all, and I don't even get bananas.  Everyone knows I like bananas.  If your mother won't get them, why don't some of you?  Why doesn't anyone think of poor little Dad?'  He continued, looking in a most pathetic way round, at the abashed children, 'It isn't much.  I give you kids a house and a wonderful playground of nature and fish and marlin and everything, and I can't even get a little banana.  And bananas are very healthy.  Who here likes bananas?'

Such selfishness is hard to believe.  And yet, Stead makes us believe it: Sam, Henny, and Louisa are each in their own way fully bizarre, but they are believable in every respect.  Making the absurd seem plausible is one of a writer's great achievements, I think.  At the same time, Sam is not wholly unsympathetic: perhaps he cannot help his ignorance, can never see that his daughter hates him and his household is falling apart; maybe his own private idealistic universe is just too powerful.

When the novel comes to its expected tragic and and grisly end, it seems almost too commonplace.  The Man Who Loved Children is so bizarre, so awful, so fantastical, that there is a double sadness in the ordinariness of its tragic climax.

The Man Who Loved Children is one of those books that was a financial and critical failure when it came out, only to have its reputation resurrected by a single fan, in this case, the poet Randall Jarrell, although Jonathan Franzen has also written about his love for the novel.  In his introduction, Jarrell compares it to Moby Dick, another novel that was unloved at its publication.  And there's something Moby Dick-esque in the fullness and variability of Stead's prose, though that's not the way that Jarrell meant it.  In truth, I can think of very few people that I would recommend this to.  It requires a lot of patience and thick nerves.  The kind of reader who complains about characters not being "relatable" should steer clear.  But for a certain kind of person, this is an unforgettable book.

1 comment:

Brent Waggoner said...

This sounds fantastic. DFW also cited it as one of the books that really influenced him.