Wednesday, May 28, 2014

Madness Immortal

The Man Who Loved Children by Christina Stead

This extraordinary novel is worth buying for the introduction alone. No kidding: you could read it and feel sated; you could read it and feel redeemed—so fine, so telling is the prose. The introduction (some thirty-seven pages short) offers not just a trenchant glimpse of the novel itself, outlining and extolling the story, as it does, in some of the freshest, most surprising language I’ve read in years, but represents a salient example of the deft, demiurgical criticism for which the poet, Randall Jarrell (see photo below), was well if less commonly known.

While titled The Man Who Loved Children, a facetious reference to the man of the house, the vain, happy, puritanical, self-glorious father, ‘Mr. Big-Me,’ Sam Pollit, it is unquestionably around his wife, the neurotic, brilliant, suicidal martyr of a mother, the ‘Great I Am,’ Henrietta Pollit née Collyer, that this astonishing novel turns. As Jarrell himself remarks in his introduction, “…the book’s center of gravity, of tragic weight, is Henny.” Indeed, remarkable as Sam and his daughter Louise are as full-blown eccentrics in their own stupendous rights, they pale in comparison to the “dirty cracked plate” of a woman and mother, the deeply, darkly, monstrously empathetic Henny who haunts Tohoga House:

She was an old fashioned woman. She had the calm of frequentation; 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 (perhaps they were so folded to hide a darn or stain); 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.

To read of Henny’s life, to follow (with an eye to form and coherence) her useless existential flailing is to feel the fate of women and mothers everywhere, if in extremis ad infinitum—the smothered frustrations; the bleak, inchoate rage; the grinding daily theft of autonomy, of self. She is “one of those women who secretly sympathize with all women against all men; life,” she knows in her bones, is “a rotten deal, with men holding all the aces.” She—clam-and-oyster Baltimore belle, now wretched wife and mother—“shares helplessly ‘the natural outlawry of womankind.’” It is through the sieve of her experience, through the fractured lens of her madness, that the entire story is pulled. Yet to feel sorry for her, to reduce her to an object of pity, is simply not possible. “There is something grand and final, indifferent to our pity about Henny,” reflects Jarrell, at one point in his introduction, “one of those immortal beings in whom the tragedy of existence is embodied, she looks unseeingly past her mortal readers.”
Strange feeling, that.  
Set in “Tohoga House” in 1940’s Georgetown, D.C., an overgrown zoo of a place with its teeming Pollit family and their menagerie of rescued creatures, the ramshackle house and garden is an American Eden run riot and abandoned by God—Sam, with his gluttonous naming (or re-naming of everything and everyone) its exasperating Adam, the heart-scarred Henny, its remote and bitter Eve. 

The Man Who Loved Children is one those rare novels that seem to come out of nowhere—starkly original, immaculately, miraculously conceived. You will never read anything like it.  

(Title page of David Foster Wallace’s copy of The Man Who Loved Children.)

Christina Stead, a lifelong Marxist, was the author of over a dozen works of fiction and the recipient of the prestigious Patrick White Prize. She was born in Sydney Australia in 1902, lived in France and Spain and the United States, only to return to Australia where she died in 1983.

*The lead image is a study by Swiss artist, Alberto Giacometti.

Peter Adam Nash

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