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Margaret Harris, ed., The Magic Phrase – Critical Essays on Christina Stead – Southerly


In her introductory essay to this volume of essays on Christina Stead (the first to appear by various hands) Margaret Harris observes that “Quite the most unusual feature of Stead’s career is the separation of its two major phases by a period of thirteen years [between 1952 and 1965] during which she was writing constantly but unable to get published.” But the mid-century hiatus was a common feature of many writer’s lives, particularly for women. Rosamund Lehman spoke of feeling “posthumous” when, after the war, people began to read her books again, and Jean Rhys, perhaps the most celebrated example of this phenomenon, found her career re-ignited by Francis Wyndham, in just the way that Stead’s was resurrected by Stanley Burnshaw and Randall Jarrell when they brought The Man Who Loved Children back into print.

Nor was the thirteen year gap in Stead’s publishing history uncharacteristic of her career: her purchase on the literary world was always precarious. A peripatetic life accounts for some of the problem, never settling into a national canon, endlessly changing publishers. Added to this was the fact that much of what Stead had to say in her novels and stories was deemed unpalatable, their politics and their ferocity often out of step with the prevailing climate, so that, even when they were praised, her books never really took hold and were soon forgotten. As Elizabeth Hardwick noted in 1955, ”The dust seems to…settle rather quickly upon the works of Christina Stead.”

Stead was well aware of the fate of combative writing like her own, and perhaps this is one of the reasons she procrastinated for so long over the publication of I’m Dying Laughing, her tour de force about American politics and the decline of communism, which she continued revising towards the end of her life (it was only finally published after her death). In this brilliant and unconsoling novel, Emily Wilkes – struggling with the collapse of her political and literary idealism – is warned of the fate of writers whose politics offend the mainstream. Their books are condemned to be unread: “Socialist literature was full of the most exquisite masterpieces, sealed in silence, rarely translated.”  (It’s a destiny which eerily anticipates the fate of I’m Dying Laughing.) Emily is advised by a learned comrade to “go back to” those overlooked masters Blake, Voynich, Diderot, Voltaire, Marx and St Just, a novel about August Blanqui, the memoirs of Mademoiselle de l’Epinasse. And, for once, this passionate American, horrified by all ideas of death and defeat, is not put off by the graveyard association of these great works:

…with eager, inflamed face, her hair blowing in the invisible currents of the room, and the breezes of her own ardent life, [Emily] declared she was going to read every one of them, a new life had come to her.

It is a vision of the resilience of literature in the face of censorship and disregard, an assertion that echoes Auden’s assessment of the relationship between writing and politics, that even if “poetry makes nothing happen: it survives…/A way of happening, a mouth.” In an interview with Thomas Keneally in 1977, Stead told him that “the dreadful thing about literature” is that a writer “dies and people forget about him – it doesn’t matter who it is, it takes a hundred years to dig him up.” But if she was not resigned to the idea of her novel being “sealed in silence”, interred in a tomb of neglect, then Stead suggests in her final novel that, like Auden, she had faith in the survival of literature, in the possibility of it being dug up and speaking again to inspire some new rediscoverer like Emily.

For a generation of readers lost literary classics were rediscovered when in the Seventies feminist publishing houses began reissuing their work. Margaret Harris talks of “the systematic recuperation of Stead” at the hands of Virago (who not only republished out of print work but published I’m Dying Laughing for the first time. ) Today, however Virago, like so many independent publishing houses, is a subsidiary of a larger group, Little Brown and Co., themselves a part of the Time Warner empire, and Stead’s canon languishes largely out of print in England. The picture in America is similarly bleak, and even in Australia, where, along with Patrick White, she is considered the country’s most important twentieth century writer, her work is not fully available. It is in this context that Harris’s book makes its appearance.

In an essay from 1982 which concludes the collection, Angela Carter, thinking about Stead’s history of being overlooked and undervalued, suggests that perhaps hers was the kind of talent that thrived on neglect. It’s a characteristically strong and perverse reading; making your meaning out of their disregard, willing yourself out of obscurity and illegitimacy, and is delivered without a hint of the victim mentality that both these writers found repugnant and frequently warned against. Carter quotes Blake to explain the intellectual cast of Stead’s novels: “Pity would be no more/If we did not make somebody poor”. But while it’s possible to argue, as Carter intends to, that if more attention had been paid to Stead’s writing in her lifetime, she may have become a less interesting and transgressive writer, reigning in some of her raw power, vitality and waywardness (“rich and Strange” Barnard Eldershaw call her in their contribution), it has to be countered that, under the pressure of critical dialogue, some of her formal sprawling collapses, the failure of architectonics, might also have been brought under control. More important however is that while Carter’s is an existentially powerful reading, one of Nietzschean overcoming (the kind practised by Stead’s heroine-avatars, Louis and Theresa, in her autobiographical  novels The Man Who Loved Children and For Love Alone), it still goes against the grain of Stead’s most constant theme in her writing: the cost of exclusion, her Marxist view of bohemia not as a place from which one can unilaterally make new meaning, but as rank and deforming, a place of nihilism and eccentricity, lost to the ‘real’ world.

Carter, it has to be said, is the only critic here who seems fully comprehending of Stead’s writing, confidently handling her meaning and mode: no other piece quite holds Stead in her entirety. Perhaps this is as one might expect: one of the most knowing and iconoclastic writers of her generation, Carter read Stead with delight and recognition, finding her a rare progenitor. But the broader failure is important, indicative of the fact that Stead is still not well understood, that critics, even today, labour under the idea that her work is mysterious: uniquely unaccountable and indecipherable. Harris’ s choice of title bears this out; it is taken from Seven Poor Men of Sydney (Stead’s first written, second published novel) in which an inmate in a lunatic asylum believes he can find that magic phrase that will, Harris says, “decode apparently unintelligible hieroglyphic texts.” Approaching Stead in this way courts, if not insanity, then certainly a frustration, she argues, adding that Stead has been best served by “contemporary critical practise which considers a text as a process of signification and erasure that resists closure and denies certainty of unequivocal interpretation. ” This sounds conventional enough in terms of today’s critical parlance but I think it masks a substantial failure, one which this collection – significant and welcome as it is – reflects. Since I believe this is the crux of the matter in the present state of Stead criticism, I want to focus on it here.

Harris’s book concentrates, by and large, on Australia which has generated most Stead criticism. There are contributions from North America, but earlier perspectives from Elizabeth Hardwick and Randall Jarrell are missing, as well as recent work by Edmund White and Vivian Gornick, and, from England, Lorna Sage’s important essay on The Salzburg Tales.  Michael Wilding seems the most obvious Australian omission.  After Harris’s own useful introductory survey of work on Stead to date, the pieces included begin in 1938 with M. Barnard Eldershaw – who are full of insight about Stead’s unmasking of social convention, but confused by, and critical of, the stylistic transition between The Salzburg Tales and The Beauties and Furies. From the Sixties there is a championing essay by R.G. Geering, who became Stead’s literary executor, and a thoughtful analysis of the influence of Nietzsche by Dorothy Green; in the Seventies Terry Sturm argues that Stead created a new form of realism, abolishing the private-public dichotomy inherent in bourgeois and socialist realism, while Susan Sheridan discusses For Love Alone form the perspective of second-wave feminism.

The bulk of the writing, however, is from the last twenty years and in these, critical authority is taken from the usual suspects: Barthes, Foucault, Derrida, Irigary, Deluze and Bakhtin. In Fiona Morrison’s essay on I’m Dying Laughing as menippean satire, Bakhtin works well, and could be made to work harder: he makes sense historically because his writing comes out of the same nexus of concerns: Stead shares his interest in people’s art forms, democratic dialogue, and carnivalistic subversion and excess. But he is not read here in any sense as part of the communist tradition – there is only one contribution which seeks to place Stead in this way, and that, Louise Yelin’s essay on Stead’s banking novel, The House of All Nations, while containing interesting background material on Popular Front politics, suffers at times from a lack of nuance. For example, she is surprised by Stead’s admiration for capitalist production, seeing this, rather simply, as anti-Marxist. Yet in Stead’s impressions of her first visit to America in 1933, she wrote of its brand of capitalism as a rough “scramble for boodle”, which declares itself with a brazenness that any Marxist would find fascinating: “This acute worship of Mammon is something marvellous, incredible as the gold halls of Babylon.”

Diana Brydon, in her essay, asserts that for Stead “context is all”, and yet the influence of communist thought upon Stead’s writing and its interactions with her other interests and antipathies is still underestimated and under-explored: there are nods here in the direction of Marxism – it’s hard to avoid the fact that Stead was a communist who wrote continually about leftwing characters – but these don’t inform enough of the writing at a deep level. No one mentions Zhdanov, whose crude ideas about literature and society were in the hair and heads of most leftish writers of Stead’s generation, or Lukacs, the grandest communist literary critic and, as such, a bearer not of the magic phrase, but someone whose body of work could illuminate many of the issues which exercise Stead critics in these pages, informing questions of style and form – her development from fabulist to what Carter calls, “rough-hewn” realism; her suspicion of interiority and consequent emphasis on (externalising) speech; her attitude to sexuality: Yelin talks of Stead’s “homophobia”, Morrison of her “gynophobia and misogyny”, while Denis Brown, in an essay on Cotter’s England, comes close to collusion with Stead’s prejudice, but none provide the necessary context of prevailing attitudes among the left.

Perhaps the most important way in which a Marxist perspective could help to create a better understanding of Stead, is in her complex attitude to bohemia, the idea of which runs throughout her work: Brown’s essay, for instance, is enlightening on cults and folklore, but fails to show how Stead’s novel treats these – as many communists of the time did – as examples of the kinds of mysticism generated in exclusion, seeing bohemia as a childish and dangerous denial of material ‘reality’. Similarly, Virginia Blain, using Barthes to read A Little Tea, A Little Chat as decadent satire, night have strengthened her argument if she’d been able to relate it to ideas about decadence which were part and parcel of communist ideology. Only a year after Zhdanov’s notorious onslaught on ‘decadent’ bourgeois literature, Stead, reporting from the 1935 International Conference of Writers for the Defence of Culture in Paris, is writing in a similar vein: describing contemporary authors in the West presiding over “the last corruptions of capitalist decay”. Although such ideas were most crudely and forcefully put by Stalinists, they were also an important part of the broader left critique of capitalism. It is perhaps hard for us to understand this now that Barthes’ delight-in-decadence is our common fare, but in order to see the way in which Stead’s writing enacts the drama of the twentieth century, it’s important that both approaches are heard.

To say there is a gap in understanding, of course, is not to call for reductive or rigid Marxist readings, nor is it meant as part of the often reactionary attack upon structuralism and poststructuralism. Indeed, a measure of Stead’s prescience is the degree to which she foresees some of their concerns: for instance her representation of the forceful personalities of both the tyrannical father and the rebellious daughter in The Man Who Loved Children anticipates Foucault’s understanding  that “power…comes from everywhere”; and her hunch about the importance of “creative error” and accident in writing has something in common with Barthes’  ideas about exposing a text’s seams, faults and flaws, just as her suspicion of language in authority prefigures his rejection of grand narrative. But problems arise when critics start with structuralist and poststructuralist insight and read it back into Stead, rather than the other way around: it’s a response which makes her look weak, as if in need of some other, higher authority.

Margaret Harris’s collections of essays contributes in large part to mapping Stead’s critical history, bringing together for the first time pioneering work that sings the praises of a writer others have ignored or dismissed (as well as the essays mentioned there are fine contributions on The Man Who Loved Children from Shirley Walker, Ken Stewart, Judith Kegan Gardiner and Hazel Rowley), but it also reveals how much there is still to be done. More is needed to help us understand why a writer as talented, energetic and intelligent as Stead is still without a secure place in the canon, still slipping from view. Her notion of writing as a place of struggle, a war zone of ideas might inform this: Stead talked of her child’s hand wrapped around a pen and making a fist, and in the middle of her career she wrote that art should “indicate the awful blind strength and the cruelty of the creative impulse.” What’s needed are readings which represent  the precise nature of this struggle, showing how Marxist ideas about “the judgement of history” (I’m Dying Laughing)  coexist and do battle in her writing with the apprehension of a more complex and multifarious world that disperses power and erodes authority, readings which describe the contest in her work between pluralism and commitment, between the individual and history.

This review appeared in Southerly, 61:2, Halstead Press, 2001.

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