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Christina Stead and the Politics of Bohemia 4: I’m Dying Laughing – Europa


i. Europa

The path to Europe taken by Stead and Blake who returned to France after the war – and by the Howard originals, Ruth McKenney and Stephen Bransten, who made their home in Belgium – was a well-beaten one for American writers in the first half of the century: visitors in the early decades included Edith Wharton and Gertrude Stein; and the Twenties and Thirties brought T.S Eliot, Ezra Pound, Ernest Hemingway, Sherwood Anderson, F.Scott Fitzgerald, Malcolm Cowley, Djuna Barnes and Henry Miller.  On her first arrival in Paris at the end of the Twenties, Stead wrote to a friend back home in Australia about the attractions and freedoms of the city she felt represented the future, which was “not so much the French capital as the capital of the modern world’:

Paris is the refuge of most Anglo-Saxon artistic gentry with free minds, who have not been able to support the stupidity and intellectual self-deceit of their countries.  [She mentions “the modesty of Customs Departments in most Anglo-Saxon countries” resulting in the banning of Ulysses.]  England is of course worse off than any: conditions of intellectual life there are most depressing of all: New York produces some good work, but the futurists work over here.  What is there in Paris?  We are looking for the germinal reason of all this turning towards Paris, but it is hard to define in original terms.  It is more than economic, more than traditional; it lies in the fact that in this ‘Police State’ (as they call it) there is a free commune of the mind and senses…

The flow of migrants to this site of intellectual freedom – a paradise of “suavity, intelligence and amiability” Stead thought – had ceased temporarily during the war years, but it quickly resumed when the war ended, swelled now by the numbers fleeing, or ejected by, Senator McCarthy.  But this time these latest arrivals found Europe in the aftermath of war rather “different from the enlightened, modernist playground their earlier compatriots had played and worked in.

In I’m Dying Laughing, Emily’s attitudes towards Europe – her sense of America’s literal and metaphorical childishness in relation to Europe’s much older civilization, her feeling of inferiority before what she believes is its greater cultivation and refinement, but also her fear of its raggedness and gloom, its war-ruined, ghost-ridden landscapes – were common apprehensions for those Americans who crossed the Atlantic in the postwar years.  It was not only Americans who were shocked by Europe’s decimation, when Doris Lessing arrived in London, from South Africa, at the same time, she encountered a similarly dreary, down-beaten country, still traumatized by war.  She recounts the scene in her autobiography, Walking in the Shade:

…it was war-damaged, some areas were all ruins, and under them holes full of dirty water, once cellars, and it was subject to sudden dark fogs…No cafes.  No good restaurants.  Clothes were still ‘austerity’ from the war, dismal and ugly.  Everyone was indoors by ten and the streets were empty…Rationing was still on.  The war still lingered, not only in the bombed places but in people’s minds and behaviour.  Any conversation tended to drift back to the war, like an animal licking a sore place.

Europeans who had been exiled in the States for the duration, having grown accustomed to American plenty, were also appalled by how tatty and rundown things had become.  Christopher Isherwood wrote in ‘Coming to London’: “During my re-exploration of London, I got two strong impressions; of shabbiness and of goodwill.  The Londoners themselves were shabby…and their faces were still wartime faces, lined and tired…Several Londoners I talked to at that time believed it would never recover: ‘This is a dying city,’ one of them told me.” Thirty years later Stead recalled how sapped of energy and precarious the British seemed to her in these immediately post-war years: “England looked terrible.  The men who came to take our bags at the station – we were ashamed to hand them to them, because they all looked as if the wind would blow them away.  They were wisps of men, through starvation of course.

Paris, too, she thought was “in a very sad state,” It was really starving, half starved…”  Her impression of post-war Europe is vividly recorded in I’m Dying Laughing when mid-way through the novel Stead removes Emily and Stephen from their fat and cushioned American lives: “At home, I don’t see the poor,” Stephen rants indignantly about the ragged porters and beggars who greet him at the station in Paris, “I don’t see what’s wrong”.  The Paris to which they return hoping to reassemble their shattered lives is very different from the exciting, festive city they had encountered through the anti-fascist Writer’s Congress, during which, a decade earlier, they had first fallen in love.  Now gaunt and grim – three years after the war’s end, “what’s wrong” with Europe much in evidence – the odour of war still lingered, the landscapes were haunted by their recent fascist occupiers.  In I’m Dying Laughing Stead pictures post-war Europe as a place of “…bleak hungry countries, where coal was scarce, milk blue, baths rusty and houses cold; and where some of the quays, docks, streets, city squares, looked still as they had the day the Nazis left them.

Paris, 1944

Paris, 1944

Despite this, as the Howards soon discover, blame for Europe’s devastation is by no means universally agreed upon.  During their voyage over (so different from their first idealistic foray into Europe), Emily and Stephen, in their bid to keep Christy and the expectation of his inheritance in their grasp, befriend people they hope will impress Stephen’s mother, Anna, who controls his fortune.  Having spent much of their passage dining with business men and ex-collaborators, the Howards find that some of their new acquaintances believe that the real spoiling in Europe is only just beginning, that the decline of the old regime has come about not as a result of war waged from the right, but by the kind of society now being resurrected in its wake by the left.

In England, for instance, a new society encouraged by a radical Labour government is subverting old social orders, upsetting the balance of power.  One woman she meets complains to Emily that the crisis in London is so great that people like herself – “upper-middle-class” and a consul’s wife – feel they are living in poverty: debt-ridden for the first time, having difficulties with maids, governesses and bad schools, facing disloyalty from servants, and insufferable “foreign girls who gave themselves airs”.  Things are so bad, she announces in horror, that “Some of London’s most famous women scrubbed their own floors.”  Even if a Tory government were to be reinstated, the decline, she thinks, is probably irreversible.

In Paris it is the same terminal atmosphere that Emily finds most oppressive, making her pray that she will never see such war-ruined, “blasted souls” in her own country.  As before, the sight of the weak and defeated ignites triumphalism in her.  She is glad to be on the side of the victors, hoping capitalism will survive for at least another fifty years, “even if it is brutal and fascist”:

“Oh, my!  I can hardly stand it!  What they have been through!  And they’re so quiet – the very way they stand in queues for their food breaks my heart.  I used to get furious with the old-time French who quarrelled about everything; but now, this sweet people, who are fair about seats in trains and buses, move their luggage on the rack, move over for you, never quarrel with the post-office clerks.  It’s dreadful.  Because they know they aren’t anymore La Grand Nation; and the English, too, know they’re finished.  Their histories are written down to the last word.”

Like Emily, many Americans and returnees soon found the privations of austerity outweighed the romance of being back in Europe.  Among the disenchanted was Aldous Huxley who found the dismal routines of rationing and queuing too much to bear, and after the self-proclaimed fanfare of his home-coming, quickly and quietly slipped back across the ocean, unable to stand the “…the physical destruction which had made almost the entire population dependent for everything – food, shelter, clothes transportation.” Having left behind the McCarthyite and Communist witch-hunts that beset them in America (and, therefore, unable, like Huxley and others, to leave) what preoccupies Emily most on arriving in Europe, in the wake of its own long Walpurgisnacht, is not, initially, any consideration of the political climate but, true to form, the fear that there will not be enough for her and her family to eat, that like much of the rest of Europe they will have to cut back or go without.  Her misgivings, though, prove groundless: shortly after arriving in the city, “They were living, except for the shortages of milk and coal, better than they had at home,” their larder piled high with the best blackmarket goods, their new cook soon providing sumptuous feasts for them and their guests: ““To think that we imported a water filter from the USA in case we wouldn’t even get good water, here!  Haw-haw!  The master race.  We’ve got food packets coming from three points in the States by every boat.  And we thought we’d have to fill in between the cans with boiled greens and soybean powder, and perhaps surreptitiously catch pigeons on the public squares.”

But their arrival in a position of comfort and security comes only after a worrying period spent as “homeless dogs”, living the “total hell of hotel life”, rushing around Paris and its hinterlands looking for somewhere suitable to live.  This is a difficult task: as an American in Europe Emily feels herself part of a higher caste (coming from a richer, more advanced nation), and her sense of superiority is bolstered further by her determination not to fall into the kind of poverty she witnesses all around her in Paris.  Emily’s idiosyncratic combination of arrogance and anxiety inflates her already grandiose sense of who she is and how she should live: her new home must fit the family’s grand, aristocratic needs (if not their modest bank-balance).

Finally finding such a place, the Howard family settle into their “little house”, equipped with domestic servants, in the Faubourg St Germain, at the heart of Paris’s Bohemian Left Bank, “among the Americans who had already started to come over in thousands and occupied the quarters that their generations had occupied for a hundred years.” They proceed to spend lavishly on household goods to furnish their new home, buying, for example, French linen, “not deoderized, pre-shrunk, previtalized, superduper-quality, all American easy-sleeping cotton, guards your loveliness through the night…just plain linen that will last a lifetime”, says Emily rationalizing the vast expense.

There is a brief moment of euphoria, a respite from the doubts and insecurities that plague the newly exiled couple, in which all the family are engrossed in the business of home-making: a whirlwind of unpacking ensues, together with list-making and furniture-arranging, and generally rushing in and out with packages of flour and butter, hooks and hammers, towel rails and pepper mills.  Finally, triumphantly, they are ready to cook their first meal in their new French home, a resolutely American feast eaten “on wrapping paper…with orange juice, hamburgers and fried potatoes, coffee and cake…”After this sunny, busy, harassed day the happy crew (recalling the jollier episodes of family life inThe Man Who Loved Children,) sing favourite Family Songs and then each weary child is lullabied with their own brand of night-time nonsense, (“Oh-livia, livia, livia livia-livia light!/Methinks she makes the candles to burn bright!”) after which Emily and Stephen empty a bottle of “van ordinary” before bed and (rare for this stormy couple) “tranquil” sleep.

The ebullient mood continues when Stephen makes contact with the Communist Party in Paris.  Despite the Howards’ shipboard fraternising with collaborators and anti-leftists, and despite Emily’s identification with the French aristocracy rather than the “underfed and dispirited”workers, they are not yet able to sever their radical past.  In the Party’s Central Committee rooms in the Rue Lafayette Stephen meets Vittorio – “a celebrated Italian comrade” and resistance hero, a gregarious, friendly man, whose knowledge of the Howards’ books and interest in America lead him to believe that his and Emily’s opposition to the Browder line at home might yet be vindicated by these more sophisticated European comrades.  He thinks, even, that they might be welcomed back into the fold once again, relieving them of their guilt, granting them a life in which they no longer feel like turncoats and “heels”, like “lowdown bastards”.  “I’m glad we came!” Stephen tells Emily, momentarily allowing himself to believe that everything is going to be all right, “Oh to be human beings again; and not enemies of the people!”

The sense of well-being is short-lived, however: the Paris they inhabit is a city divided between those starving and those like the Howards, living high on the hog with the help of racketeers whose black market can, for a price, supply the scarcest provisions: eggs, cream, the best cuts of meat, even good white bread are all available to those who can pay.  Emily may have mocked herself for supposing they would starve, but for many Parisians this was not too far from the truth.  In the autumn of 1947, living in London, Stead received first-hand testimony of the city’s dire straits from Blake’s daughter, Ruth.  From London Stead wrote to friends in New York to pass on the news of France, telling them: “The country is fantastic with blackmarket and corruption,” before going on to quote directly from her aggrieved step-daughter (who, like half of France, was suffering from bread poisoning):

The quality of the bread – if you can use the term quality – is unspeakable.  Not only is the lousy heavy soggy mess full of flour the pigs won’t deign to eat but in addition they’ve stuck rotten corn into it – Ce Soir revealed that about 30 per cent of the corn used is rotten.  Result: rashes, fever, nightmares, running every two mins, etc.  and everyone has it, at one time or another.  We’ve tried canned bread (etc.)…In addition they’ve just reduced the ration of even the lousy stuff we eat…things are really bad: they’ve just cut the meat ration, the bread ration, increased all prices…

Simone de Beauvoir returned to Paris from the country at this time and in a letter to Jean-Paul Sartre boasted that she was looking good: “I’ve just had my hair done, and what’s more I’m stunningly handsome because I’ve a magnificent complexion, all tanned and with my face relaxed,” but she felt incongruous in the city, her appearance was “quite out of keeping in Paris…the hotel has no heating and apparently there is absolutely nothing to eat here.”  A week later, overwhelmed by the gloom of the place she is “…glad to be leaving.  Paris exudes the most unbearable tedium.  It’s not light till 9, there’s no electricity, all the bars close at 10; the people are dismal; and it’s cold.”

ii.     “La Bouchotte”: Conquering and Commodifying Europe

The problems of acclimatization for those returning to Europe after the war were not just ones of adapting to Europe’s pinched condition, its ruins and rations – for Americans who did stay long enough, many found it hard becoming attuned to its distinct tastes and sensibilities.  In I’m Dying Laughing Stead has fun mocking those intellectual insecurities which often led Americans to try and trump their European hosts, to prove themselves always bigger and better.  An English friend of Emily’s and Stephen’s has a phrase for this kind of over-compensatory behaviour – la bouchotte – which, after he explains its meaning, they use to describe all “things American”: “An American noticed a French friend taking a little spray out of his pocket and smelling it.  “What’s that?” “Zat eez ze pubic air from mes amies.  Eet smell so sweet and eet ees so fine.  Eet remind me of many lovely zings.”  The American is very much impressed.  Next time he meets his French friend he hauls out of his pocket a bouquet tied with rope the size of a bunch of leeks.  “You see!  I did like you.”  “What ees zees bouchotte?” “Well, friend, I did like you.  But yours was too small.  I like something I can appreciate.”

Marshall Plan poster

Marshall Plan poster

The American habit of overwhelming, their need to conquer and claim was given full rein following the Allied victory.  Having overrun the Nazis, the Americans were now determined to keep Europe out of the hands of their recent ally, the Soviet Union.  The Marshall Plan, whose ostensible aim was to provide financial aid to rebuild Europe, came with strings attached that would tie Europe in to the American way of life, or at least to its political and economic system.  Irwin M. Wall in his study of the relationship between France and America in the post-war years observes, “behind the Marshall Plan there lurked the image of an American-style, consumer-oriented, government-regulated corporate capitalism which the Americans hoped to impose on their European allies.”  Wall describes how Hollywood and Coca-Cola (a product which particularly appalled Gallic epicureans), were at the forefront of this new commercial war being waged upon France:

Fitting symbols of the consumer society, both were symbols of anti-communism as well.  Hollywood played the role of the repentant sinner, purged itself of radicalism under the pressure of congressional committees in search of ‘anti-Americanism’, and turned to safer, apolitical often mindless forms of entertainment at the same time as it sought to recapture its pre-war export markets.  Coca-cola was ‘the most American thing in America,’ a product marketed by mass advertising, symbolic of high consumption, and tributary to the success of free enterprise; for its president, James Farley, a politically powerful anti-communist, it contained ‘the essence of capitalism’ in every bottle.

For the ten years after the war American influence in France was greater than at any time previously or since in the history of relations between the two countries.  The United States sought “not only to influence French policy but to direct and channel French social and political development.”  And Hollywood played a vital role in this plan to ensure that American values prevailed: in the first half of 1947 American insistence on ‘free trade’ and an end to French protectionism meant that Hollywood was able to swamp the film market, virtually closing down the homegrown cinematic view of the world – 340 American films were licensed for showing in France at this time as opposed to a meagre 40 French ones.

In I’m Dying Laughing, Emily and Stephen, arriving in Paris in 1947 at the onset of the Cold War, find the struggle for power that they had witnessed in America – and which Emily had often characterised in Darwinist terms of ‘the survival of the fittest’ – even more overt in “war-wasted” Europe.  At the first party Stephen and Emily give in their new home, opinions are sharply divided.  Reflecting their confusion about what kind of people they want to be in Europe – still undecided as to whether they want the approval of Stephen’s family or the Party they invite guests of all political shades.  Among them are those, like Madame de la Roche, who support the Americans, admire their economic bullishness and atomic strength, and who look to them to stave off the second French Revolution that they believe communists, members of the Resistance, and the Russians are all intent upon: “it is too much to expect the Americans to do everything for us…[but] one wonders why…your President doesn’t use the bomb now, before it is too late…”  Opposing her are men like Monsieur Valais who doubts that the Americans will find it so easy to achieve hegemony in Europe, and who sarcastically compares the American desire to dominate the continent to that of the Nazis – “I don’t think you can stop Russian progress with biological warfare.  The Germans tried genocide: it seemed so good; and now the French birthrate is going up. ”

Johnny Ledane, a slick American bank manager, argues that the aid America is pumping into Europe buys them the prerogative of political control over those who contest the American way of life – a control of a kind not dissimilar to that being exerted upon its own dissenters back home, at the behest of the House Un-American Activities Committee: “What’s needed [in France] is a house-cleaning and America has the right to demand that of every nation it helps get back on its feet.”  As the evening wears on Emily becomes infected by the rhetoric of power and responds to it by inflicting upon her horrified, “stone-struck guests a tumultuous recording of Beethoven (a choice that reinforces the idea of America inheriting Germany’s mantle).  Her noisy triumphalism denotes America’s technical superiority: the “immense double-cabinet radio-phonograph with automatic changer” encapsulating the idea of cultural and military domination.

When the appalled and deafened guests complain that “it isn’t music!  It’s roaring like Niagara”, Ledane responds with “slow patronage,” in the language of a social Darwinist (Sam Pollit’s idiom) pointing to Europe’s underdeveloped, unevolved state: “Naturally, here in the war, you had to tone down your radios so low that now you’re not adapted to modern systems any more.  It must take a long time to get over that kind of inhibition.  It’s fear of the Germans.” However, later that evening when the guests have all gone home, Emily’s victory symphony  brings to her mind (good dialectician that she is) an antithetical idea: she thinks not of oppressors, but of the Parisian revolutionaries who fought back against them in the last century; and then, hearing the clatter of wagon wheels on the cobbled streets outside her window, she remembers the tumbrils used to convey aristocrats to their execution that once sounded through the Grenelle quarter where she and Stephen now live: “The night was quiet.  An old cart was going past, cloppity-clop, rattle and squeal, drawn by an old horse.  She shivered.  “How sinister!…Jesus!  Tumbrils!  Maybe the Resistance watches those people we had here tonight?…the French revolution really took place.  I guess I understand why some Americans are camping on Lake Geneva, Swiss side; no tumbrils.  It’s an awful thought that we are here like mayflies on a volcano.””

Stephen dismisses Emily’s premonitions about a new “Terror” as superstition, she “read too much Dickens as a child,” he thinks.  But the next day they quarrel over the meaning of their mixed-guest party that brought together “twenty starving [communists] from L’Humanité with conservatives and collaborators – a “pack of wolves, bastards, dogs, villains,” as Stephen later represents them.  Emily’s mood swerves from elation at the thought of their “splendid success…break[ing] into Cold War Society,” to the resentful realisation that as part of the company of conquering – and exploiting – Americans they are probably not liked by the French: ““Here I have no friend, they don’t understand me.  They gloat over me behind my back and they probably hate us because we’re rich Americans, trying to steal their country from under their feet for some miserable handout and Shylocking them all over the place.  I hate it here.  I hate being hated.”

But, as I have argued, an important part of Emily’s psychological make-up is her resilience, her ability to survive by throwing off self-doubt, and this quickly leads her to disassociate herself and Stephen from those “vulgar American[s] who come to Europe for business.  We didn’t…that isn’t us.” Yet with breathtaking bad faith she begins straight away to transform her experiences of the night before into money, vowing that through her writing (she is recording her impressions of post-war France in a Journal of Europe, 1948), “Yesterday evening will pay a profit yet.”

Emily’s demonstration of overpowering Americans adds to Stead’s picture of her as an exemplary native of her country, as a representative, Ur-American.  For the idea of ‘la bouchotte’ was not just a post-war phenomenon but ran deeper in the culture.  It had been noticed earlier by D.H. Lawrence, one of the expatriates who made their home in mainland Europe.  Lawrence was also amused at the American propensity for exploitation and acquisitiveness, and in his short story, ‘Things’, makes similar observations to Stead’s in I’m Dying Laughing (his, rather less risque than la bouchotte but much in the same vein), illustrating the same clash of cultures when Americans seeking to appreciate European culture, end by annexing its creations turning them into the mere ‘things’ of the story’s title.

(Lawrence is the writer to whom critics most often compare the idiosyncratic Stead, but while allowing his “genius” she repeatedly dismissed the idea that he had any impact upon her work, claiming she had not read him in her formative years in Australia, not, in fact, until she came to Europe: “I never imitated him at all” was her sharp response to one interviewer who raised the question of his influence.  To another she responded to a similar probe with equal irritation, stating that the reason she was so often compared to writers like Lawrence and Dickens, was because of the condescension of English critics who could not conceive that someone from Australia, from the colonies, might be just as well versed in the work of other Europeans – the French, the Germans or the Russians, for instance.)

Lawrence and Stead do have much in common, sharing a similar energy in the registration of people and their habitats, near-expressionist intensity and passionate argument, especially in the play of relationships, and more particularly the recurrence of intellectually unfulfilled heroines, sexually repressed heroes, domineering parents and a powerful appreciation of nature.  However, ‘Things’, published in a collection of stories in 1933, is interesting to consider in relation to Stead for other reasons.  Like Stead’s last novel, this story of Lawrence’s depicts the responses of Americans to Europe (albeit an earlier generation than Stead’s) in the process revealing much about the attractions and the difficulties of Europe for the citizens of the new world, exposing the essentially thwarted American nature: caught between high ideals and avid materialism.

For Lawrence, as for Stead in the second half of I’m Dying Laughing, placing Americans in a European setting afforded the opportunity to throw the comparatively nascent American character into stronger relief, highlighting its peculiarities by contrasting them with the more settled patterns of European civilization.  ‘Things’ tracks the movement back and forth between the two continents of a couple of New England idealists, Erasmus and Valerie, on a quest for “beauty”, highlighting en route the same characteristics with which Stead is also preoccupied in her last novel: naivety, immaturity and greed.  Unlike Stead’s couple, Lawrence’s are not political exiles, but expatriates on grounds that are aesthetic and spiritual.  Equipped with an income of three thousand pounds a year, Lawrence’s adventurers turn their back on embryonic American landscapes and head for Europe, because “True beauty takes a long time to mature.”  They settle in Paris, basking in a city lit in a lovely impressionist shimmer.

But something about this life, “seen in terms of pure light, broken and unbroken” is insubstantial, unsatisfying: the insights of modernism and abstraction, Lawrence implies, are anathema to these Americans.  Their idea of a beautiful life is one that requires attachment to something: they are left cold by the “endlessly clever materialism of the French”, and decide to abandon the superficiality of the Parisians in favour of a new home in Italy.  But here, they are forced into the same kind of intellectual accommodation that Emily and Stephen make, when they, too, find their rich lives in Europe at odds with their earlier beliefs.  The couple’s idealised view of attachment to spiritual beauty undergoes a radical transformation as they become increasingly acquisitive, attached (now rather more materially) to the beautiful and precious “things” they gather around them – bronzes, silks and Louis Quinze chairs – in their palazzo on the Arno: “They had become tense, fierce hunters of “things” for their home.  While their souls were climbing up the sun of old European culture or old Indian thought, their passions were running horizontally, clutching at “things”.  Of course they did not buy things for the things’ sakes, but for the sake of “beauty”.

Having acquired their treasure trove, however, the beauty of the “things” begins to fade, the hunter’s heat they had felt in “getting them” dies away.  The couple leave Europe behind (though taking with them as much of it as possible, “Several van-loads, as a matter of fact”) and return to America, where unable to afford a property large enough to house their spoils, they sequester them in a warehouse. America provides no satisfactory solutions for the restless pair, however.  Like Stephen, who loftily dismisses every job Emily proposes to him, believing that his background precludes anything prosaic (“Look at my training, my education, my experience.  I must get a job in which I won’t look ridiculous.  People won’t employ a man like me in subordinate positions.  They feel uncomfortable”), Erasmus, too, remains unwilling to be pinned down by mundane work – even though their income is draining away in the high cost of storage.

So the couple, now considerably older, set out again across the Atlantic.  This time Europe offers nothing to them, it isn’t even cheap anymore, and Erasmus finally resigns himself to taking a teaching post in Cleveland, to a caged life, surrounded by the “things” that, now salaried, they can afford to release from storage.  Like Stead, Lawrence views American behaviour as ultimately determined by the god of consumerism, upon whose altar more rarefied ideals – aesthetic, spiritual or political – will inevitably be sacrificed and betrayed, and as Stead does repeatedly in I’m Dying Laughing, he chooses the metaphor of consuming to make his point: “Europe’s the mayonnaise all right,” Lawrence’s capitulating hero tells his wife, trying to justify their abandonment of a life spent in pursuit of beauty, “but America supplies the good old lobster.”

As in Lawrence’s fable, in I’m Dying Laughing Stead shows how American respect for European history and culture is transmuted by a stronger instinct to conquer and own.  On the first page of the novel we learn that Emily’s brother and sister-in-law are planning yearly trips to Europe to collect their own “things”, hoping to fill a shop in New York with them: “Betty’s idea was to go to Vienna, Berlin, Paris, Florence and Prague to collect new notions and curios.  Wiener Werkstatte, art objects, Kathe Kollwitz dolls, Raymond Duncan batiks, to sell in their store and by catalogue throughout the United States.” From their “rathole in Bleeker Street,” where the couple hatch their plan, Stead draws a picture of Americans contemplating European civilization as a business opportunity, its artefacts as potential merchandise.  Even for those who, unlike Emily’s impecunious relatives, do not need the money, a common attitude to European culture is not to regard it as something precious for any of the customary reasons – because it illuminates life, enlarges sympathy or understanding – but as precious in the material sense, regarded as commodity to be bought and sold, as items to possess.

But without the possibility of returning to America, cut off from their comrades, and yet incapable of thoroughly transmuting their passion for politics into a passion for materialism, for ‘things’, Stephen and Emily are incapable of turning themselves convincingly into collectors like Stephen’s Uncle Maurice or like Lawrence’s characters.  Unable to refashion themselves into something new, they are also, however, no longer recognisable as the people they once were.  Bewildered by the change, Christy tells Emily that he wants to go home: “There are problems here and a sort of anxiety I never did solve.  To be frank, I understood you in America and I do not think I understand you here.”

iii.     Collaborators and Resisters: An Unsentimental Education

The sense that one might lose something in translation, having made the crossing from one country to another, was something Stead had experienced herself.  She remarked upon it in a letter to Ron Geering, telling him of her feelings on finally returning to Australia after so many years in exile: “In the old days before my Australia visit, I always had a visionary country (the ‘other country’) to which I sent letters and packets and where I could, if I wished, go.  I was quite shaken when I realised one day at my desk in Canberra (and I was sending booklets etc.  abroad) that I had no ‘other country’ to send them to – I was in it.  I felt deprived.

In coming to Europe, the Howards have lost their “other country”.  Their escapist dream materializes and – as Emily proclaims near the end of I’m Dying Laughing – with it comes the realization that life is not a dream at all, but a nightmare.  The assurance of a let-out clause from history, of another place to run to (for Europeans to America from fascism, and for Americans to Europe from McCarthyism) is quashed in I’m Dying Laughing, where exiles of both continents have the safety net pulled away, finding that “The place of the imagination” is very different from the reality when you get there.  (Stead’s refusal to allow any release is characteristic of her brand of unremitting, illusionless realism.)

Just as Stephen’s family, representing the American success story, are actually a paradoxical mixture of power and weakness, productivity and sterility, Europe proves for Stephen and Emily not the utopia they had caught a glimpse of at the Paris Writers’ Congress a decade earlier, but now, like the country from which they have fled, another place of black nights and witch-hunts, in which it is equally difficult to separate out the strong from the weak, the good from the bad.  Rather than the vision of a writer’s paradise that Emily had dreamed might one day include her, in post-war Paris her political and artistic betrayals come to mirror those of the company she keeps.  The Howards are still torn between a ‘respectable’ life, blessed by Stephen’s mother and secured by her money, and a faithful one, in the arms of the party, but their desire for a comfortable bourgeois existence soon leads them to seek out successful business people many of whom were collaborators and remain staunchly anti-communist.

After the war, among collaborators it was the writers who were the first to be tried for their intercourse with the fascists: as Herbert R. Lottman notes in his account of the French Resistance and its aftermath, this was because the written proof of their betrayal provided the most immediate and conclusive type of evidence.  On September 4th, 1944, The National Writers Committee (CNE) published a list of traitors, including the names of Robert Brasillach, Louis-Ferdinand Céline, Jacques Chardonne, Jean Giono, Marcel Joullandeau, Charles Maurras, Henry de Montherlant and Paul Morand.

Two subsequent, expanded lists followed, first with 94 names, then, in October, with 158.  PEN voted in favour of the worldwide circulation of these blacklists.  From Emily’s magical democracy of writers, and the sense of hope they engendered in 1935, the post-war years produced only this taxonomy of shame.  For Emily the hard fact is that those she might have expected to stand up against tyranny did not necessarily do so: the Howards’ French teacher, Madame Suzanne, tells her, “Most of the writers I admired before the war, proved to be poor creatures during the occupation…”

Even for a writer like Jean-Paul Sartre, who had been staunchly anti-fascist, working for underground and resistance journals, the occupation of France by the Nazis had contaminated life to a degree which implicated everyone (as later McCarthyism was to “disfigure an entire culture”), and no one, Sartre thought – not even a member of the Resistance – was exempt: “We could not stir an inch, eat or even breathe without becoming the accomplices of our enemy…Not a drop of blood formed in our veins but he took his share of it…The whole country both resisted and collaborated…Everything we did was equivocal.  We never knew whether we were doing right or doing wrong, a subtle poison corrupted even our best actions…

So in Europe the Howards find a turbulent and ambivalent place.  The couple’s lack of resolve and confusion about the path their lives will take is echoed in their new surroundings.  France is on a knife-edge: “The spirit of the resistance was still strong, so, of course, was the spirit of collaboration, active or passive.  It was still uncertain which would win.” Even their youngest child, Giles, is caught up in his parents’ quandary: “I wish I knew who would win.  If I knew, I’d know what to do.” Such prevarication was symptomatic of the time.  Uncertainty inside France about the direction of the country’s political future was reflected in the confusion about her position on the world stage: one speaker to the French Consultative Assembly speculated, “An alliance with the West?  Yes.  How could we do otherwise?  But an alliance with the East as well.”  Others were indignant at the idea of their nation squeezed between the giant powers to its left and right: “Does one believe that France is a pygmy caught between two colossi?’

In June 1946 the American military were put on alert in case of a Communist coup in France, and although this did not materialize the rapid increase in support for the communists (Party membership rose from half to three-quarters of a million in the last six months of 1945; in the first post-war election the PCF gained the highest number of votes) meant that the CIA, lately established, spent much of its time looking to the country in Europe that seemed most precariously balanced: many in the American intelligence community believed that strikes which swept France in Autumn 1948 were not born of indigenous unrest but carried out at Zhdanov’s request.  The irony for Emily and Stephen, “not-in-our-time revolutionists, on-and-off revolutionists, keep the deep-freeze safe revolutionists,” is that their arrival in their new home happens at a moment when, as Stead reports, many expected revolution in Paris.

Because of this France fails to provide the Howards with any respite from political turmoil, and their indecisiveness about which side they should hitch their wagon to is only reinforced by what they begin to discover about Europe’s recent past.  From Vittorio and Madame Suzanne the couple hear stories of the war that horrify them.  More selfishly, they are appalled by these stories because of the way in which the landscape of fascism mirrors the mired political territory they have just escaped.  What they hear reflects back upon their own treachery, adding fuel to Emily’s already strong sense of beleaguerment (“we’re in terrible danger” she warns Stephen), and reinforcing her determination to survive at all costs.  Like Rilke who believed “Überleben ist alles”, Emily proclaims, “The object of life is to survive.  After all, those here are the resisters, the martyrs, the victims aren’t here any more!  The next generation comes from those who survive!”

At first Emily’s fear makes her resist learning about the holocaust, for which Stephen chastises her: “we came here to learn something.  No good shutting your eyes and praying like a maiden aunt.”  But it is Emily who asks Madame Suzanne about her experience in the Resistance, even though she is afraid of how the information will affect her: “I shrink, Suzanne, terribly from this knowledge.  I don’t know what will be the consequences of knowing.”  Stephen, ever the dilettante, quickly finds excuses to abandon his French lessons with Suzanne.  Feeling his teacher judges him harshly, he scorns her for her lack of feminine charm, her “no-doubt-soulful eyes” whose suffering expression so nauseates him, telling Emily that he won’t spend his time in Paris with the poor, the “honest or dumb”: “When I’m with the lousy corrupt subsidised rich and other such depraved humans, I feel safer, they’re not criticising me and I can think, I’m better than you, or at least, not worse.

Emily’s anxiety about the war her – “maiden aunt” squeamishness – is symptomatic of the fact that she is a “supremely American girl,” something that Stead recognised only belatedly, after reading a draft of I’m Dying Laughing she realised the book was about the fate of the American girl for whom knowledge is monstrous: “It’s about Miss America…about the American girl.” The inability to reconcile knowledge of the world with femininity is, as I have argued, an ongoing preoccupation not only for Stead but for many women writers.  Linda Grant’s recent novel about a woman in the Party in the McCarthy years, The Cast Iron Shore (1996), explores this contradiction.  Grant takes as her epigraph a warning from the New Yorker in 1942: “You can’t have charm without women who have learned to conceal the iron in their characters.”  Emily also understands that knowledge and experience might be dangerous to femininity, damaging the innocence and charm with which women are supposed to furnish the world.  Her fear is that simple proximity to a woman with Suzanne’s experience will contaminate her: “It happened to someone whose voice I know, whose eyes are watching me.  My God!  My God!”

In contrast with her own excited response, Suzanne’s stories about her attempts to rescue Jewish children from the Nazis make Emily aware not only of the banality of evil, but of the prosaic nature of goodness.  She has the fleeting perception that rather than her romantic scenario in which valour is the preserve of a small elite, all around her there are people with heroic histories: in Hollywood these would be exceptional, here they are commonplace.  “So this is Europe, 1948”, she keeps repeating, unable to take in the terror and magnitude of it all.  Before long the whole of Paris appears laden with ghosts.  Sitting on a cafe terrace Emily (in one of her truly eloquent moments) despairs of the empty, bomb-damaged buildings that surround her.  Surveying this scene of defeat, she finds McCarthyism, by comparison, positively vibrant:

These unwanted houses make me feel all the terror and horror of the years.  I begin to really hate the Germans and I’m afraid of them, too.  All those outhouses and fences and attics have seen such fear, hideous terror of death, hunger; the dusty boards of such a stage of misery!  I’ve never felt such terror.  Europe is all fear, we have a youthful inquisition, we have the lynch spirit, hale and healthy, and we’ve had to run, but we haven’t got this feeling of blood running cold in old, vacant rooms, these haunted holes in history, through each of which a man or woman fell, shot, starved, self-murdered in despair…Oh, my!  Oh, I can hardly stand it.  What they have been through!

Stephen’s and Emily’s trepidation about their new environment manifests itself in many ways: they fear that those who suffered during the war despise American wealth and might and see them as successors to the Germans because “we too have a lot of that Übermensch psychology, we’re just Nazis with Roosevelt”; they fear being dragged down to the hunger and grief which is the lot of so many Parisians; they fear being regarded as renegades and turncoats by those who resisted the Nazis; but most of all, having fled the political dilemmas that beset them at home, they fear the pattern will repeat itself and they will once again find themselves caught up in the kind of equivocation they experienced in America, and which, after its occupation, Sartre thought now ensnared France.

Stephen’s response to this is to run from anything that acts as a reminder of his own divided allegiances.  He tries to re-establish his sense of superiority by associating with “funny people, some witty, lousy people who backbite and whom I can sneer at and hate.”  In this company he begins on the path that will lead away from equivocation to his bitter end: worried about the amount of money they are spending, and Emily’s lack of productivity, he gambles on lotteries in France, and plays the sweepstakes in Switzerland.  Emily’s tendency, by contrast, is to melodramatic engagement, to read the situation in post-war Paris as if she were living in a gothic horror novel or a romance (genres perfectly suited to Stead’s idea of the innocent/ignorant American girl).  She sees “corpses hanging from every bough,” and develops a childishly romantic view of the new hero in her life, Vittorio (“He’s so pure”), contrasting his vitality with her husband’s enervation, leaving Stephen to whine: “The simple fact is he’s a man of tremendous ability and he fascinates women with his male energy and I have none of that.”

Vittorio’s exploits in the Resistance which make him so attractive to Emily, have also left their mark on him.  He may appear the epitome of bravery, “a man of dangerous charm, guile and success in any world”, but he does not fit the romantic ideal: his face is marked with livid scars cutting into a “blind-blue eye”, and he is balding, fleshy, ugly and – this is what is most repulsive to Emily – although once a wealthy lawyer, now too poor to entertain them in the manner to which they are accustomed: “imagine eating stewed fowl off a one-lung burner,” she complains.

Food becomes increasingly important.  The more horror stories Emily hears, the greater her insatiability, and the contrast between her lavish feasting and the surrounding privation is disconcerting.  This post-war phenomenon of plenty in the midst of great want was remarked upon by Stead in letters to friends: “About 300 new swell restaurants have opened in Paris, with all the people living on this rotten bread and starving and no wine or meat – I only quote this, my dears, to say, je crois que la famine et sa soeur la révolution rôdent en France.”

The strange atmosphere was also captured by the diarist Julien Green – a friend of Cocteau, Gide and Stein – who conveys the vertigo many experienced in post-war society when the talk at parties was still dominated by grim memories of the war, making the act of socialising, drinking and eating seem at worst obscene, at best oddly incongruous among people who were either literally famished, or like Emily, made greedy from fear:

Late this afternoon, I went to see a friend who lives on the boulevard Beáunisejour.  The dining room is packed.  The guests throng the buffet showing all the less shame because the electric light having failed, no one can see them.  A candle or two shed a poor light on all these people chattering unceasingly like children at playtime…I feel a trifle bewildered by all I see, by all I hear.  Can all this be true, can these crows, lit up by flickering candles, be the Paris I used to know?  Isn’t it a dream from which I’ll wake up in a moment?  A young man who was at Buchenwald for months tells me that the prisoners belonged to different categories.  The old ones, those of 1933 or ‘34, had a right to the movies…to the brothels.  The late-comers were regularly ill-treated by the earlier prisoners.  To be told all these horrors in a drawing room has an extraordinary effect upon me.

At a cocktail party the Howards host (still hedging their bets, they invite again a combination of ex-collaborators and “resistance types”), designed to provide new subjects for Emily to write about (she is contemplating “a terrifying book of the concentration camps” for sensation-seeking Americans), she meets a young man whom Suzanne labels “one of the finest men in the Resistance.”  Clapas survived both Dachau and Buchenwald, and like the party-guest camp survivor that Julian Green talked to, he also tells “horrors”, stories aimed at enlightening people as to what really happened in the camps.  In particular, Clapas tries to dispel Emily’s fantasies about Vittorio’s courage and daring (rather as Heathcliff in Wuthering Heights tries to disabuse Cathy’s sister-in-law of her romantic dreams about him): “A perfume, a flower.  Isn’t he?…A Resistant!” he mocks.  “And is there anyone alive today who’s been through [the camps] who isn’t distorted in some hellish way?”

Emily is appalled at his outburst, accusing Clapas of being a cynic and a nihilist, labels he accepts happily.  Looking around the party he denies that anything has improved since the war: “Perhaps everyone here will become an informer, a torturer, a guard in a concentration camp,” an idea Emily finds “too dreadful to [even] think or say”.  Clapas tell her she lives in a “dream-world”, one he tries to attack by explaining that Suzanne’s work saving children was not the matter of unalloyed good Emily had believed.  She was bought, he claims, with “Bribes, money taken by the Resistance from the poor and hunted, from communists and Jews and given to corrupt Nazis”: the cost of saving Suzanne’s “one life” was that “hundreds of babies, hundreds of women were mangled and tortured and buried alive…”

Stead’s discussion of the barbarities of war and its implications for the nature of man are, once again, couched roughly in terms of a dialogue between Nietzsche, Darwin and Marx.  But just as collaborators and resistants are not drawn as entirely distinct groups in I’m Dying Laughing, so these ideas are shown feeding into one another (in the same way that they collide as influences in Stead’s mind) rather than as discrete, opposing discourses.  Here, for instance, a version of the Marxist idea of false consciousness is raised by a Nietzschean character.  Clapas dismisses as fantasy Emily’s naive, idealised view of life in the aftermath of war, divided between heroes and villains, good and evil.  Compared to his nihilism (springing from his experience in the camps) Emily appears wilfully deluded about human nature: her storybook understanding of the heroic Resistants seems hopelessly utopian, as does her communist belief in the essential goodness of human beings and the possibility of progress.

In the face of Clapas’s stories about the brutal system of selection in the camps (“I was chosen to survive because of my services!  Darwinism!  The fittest!”), communism seems as unrealistic a view of mankind as the romance, as incapable of refashioning human beings as the longevity serum Emily once sought in Park Lane.  When Clapas, laughing savagely, tells her of the men and women who held him captive, she protests: ““No, no.  Not men, not women.  Fascists, brutes, unhuman.  In socialism such people, if they exist, will be put away.  Be injected with something to make them better.  With a brotherhood serum, eh?”

Countering Emily’s sentimental reactions to the war, Clapas thinks “cynicism” the only appropriate intellectual response: “One can save but not with emotion,” he admonishes her.  Sceptical about any form of idealism (“Mankind believes in the good and glorious and see!”), he professes himself an anti-capitalist, and while his desire to take revenge upon the system that imprisoned and dehumanised him is expressed with forceful, Nietzschean individualism (“let me destroy it with my own hands, as they tried to tear me apart with their teeth, their nails – their hands!”), his analysis of the root cause of that system looks to the profit motive, pointing to the “plunder” which underpins “…the civilization that produced and tolerated, and is trying to put cosmetics on and forget the concentration camps and meanwhile preparing more…”

Vittorio, too, believes Emily’s emotional response inadequate.  His explanation of what happened in the war focuses not on “the sadism and madness” which excite and perplex her, but on “the meaning of this system”:

“It was a question of calories, kilograms and grams of human resistance, the kind of flesh and fat.  The nutrition problem they calculated was how long a man of a certain type and weight, fat, bone-structure, would keep working on a diminished provision of calories and vitamins.  I saw the books of accounts.  I am serious.  A working-man, road-builder, factory worker, automobile engineer, weighing such and such receiving 1800 calories a day would last so many months, when he would be good for nothing and sent to the gas chambers.”

Comparing Germany and America, Vittorio likens the Nazi system of accountancy which measured the value of flesh in relation to its potential productivity, to the chain-gang system of supply and demand in the American South, “where negroes are arrested to fill new contracts for labour.”  Clapas also sees a connection between the two nations, vowing: “I’ll go to America, I understand the country perfectly.  It’s like Germany under the Nazis, but more force, more power.”  Emily’s illusions are further punctured by Suzanne who, revealed by Clapas to be a more complex figure than Emily had imagined, in turn exposes the tangled character of Vittorio: a great man, but not a saint, she claims, he is a womaniser with a string of lovers, including “a lifelong connection with an infamous Roman society woman.”

The Howards continue to try and “keep our cake and eat it too,” as Emily puts it, appositely.  Their socialising with Resistants and collaborators can be seen in part as an expression of the uncertain place and time in which they live, and in part as the product of Emily’s carnival nature – her predilection for having it all, her desire not to be split in two, to have to choose between the right and left circles she invites to her house: “I want to live in the whole world” she protests to Suzanne.  Her multifaceted personality is reflected in a new book she starts to write, a Rabelasian comedy, The Sorrows of a Really Fat Person Like Me.  In this she lists “Morbid thoughts” (“overeating is a substitute for sex”) opposed by “Counter thoughts” (“but I feel fine when I eat and I don’t mind sex, I like it”) that are characteristic of her speculative mind.  Conveying rapidity of consciousness and the capacity to argue both sides of an argument, their dialogic pattern (morbid thoughts and counter, life-affirming thoughts) is also typical of Stead’s brand of realism, designed for a volatile, exigent, competitive world.  Contrary traits of this kind are also attributed to society at large: America, for instance, is “crazy about” dieting and recipes.

It is for his capacity to recognise the world as similarly various that Emily is attracted to Vittorio: unlike most resistants who are “too damn serious” for her liking, “He knows the world has two sides.”  But, as I argued earlier, while Stead is frequently a celebrator of carnivalistic pluralism and ambivalence, she does not shrink from facing its negative repercussions.  Here, for instance, Emily’s Janus-faced nature leads to difficulty, particularly in the way in which people ‘read’ one another.  Suzanne is bemused as to whether the Howards are “real radicals or the shallowest of parlour pinks”.  And their bright seven year old, Giles, has trouble negotiating the family’s scrambled political loyalties, announcing that he hates communists and arguing with his parents, “But we aren’t workers!  We don’t work!”  Despite their protestations that they are on the side of the workers, the boy concludes, rather pessimistically (expressing Stead’s fear of bohemia), that without steadfast membership of either side the family will stand alone in the world, from where “it looks as if everyone is against us.”

By taking her protagonists to Europe and showing them dining with ex-collaborators, malicious about those ex-Resistants who cannot afford to provide them with a decent dinner (Emily is now herself the insatiable mamma public), Stead not only aligns McCarthyism with fascism and points to their similarities (forced confessions, loss of jobs, betrayals of family, friends and neighbours) but shows how Americans are found wanting by the comparison. What they faced in McCarthy (particularly the Hollywood rich) was not the fate awaiting those who challenged the Nazis, for all Emily’s protestations that Stephen’s “sufferings [are] as real as their bombings and barbed wire.” And the Howards’ mixed response to those who were persecuted – their petulant resentment that others have endured much greater hardship, coupled with their attempts to compare their own situation to that of Nazi victims – only increases the odour of bad faith attached to them.

And yet, even while she is making us see these connections, Stead refuses to turn this into a story of heroes and villains.  The line between collaborators and resisters, the innocent and the guilty, is not watertight.  Stead insists, as Sartre had, that all of society is poisoned by war, no one remains pure or untouched by history.  Just as Christy’s spying on his parents for his grandmother, and Anna’s threats “to investigate” Stephen and Emily’s “situation,” and the letters of accusation and counter-accusation between Emily and her mother-in-law, reflect the ways in which McCarthyism reached deep into the family, so during the occupation, Suzanne tells them, French society also became treacherous.  Husbands and wives denounced one another “to get extra food or the property…or another wife”, landlords denounced tenants, employers denounced “servants if their servants were rude”; neighbours denounced neighbours, and customers denounced shopkeepers “who didn’t give them enough respect”.  Even children were not exempt from the climate of betrayal and deceit:

I’ve told you how parents denounced children who irritated and disobeyed them, or who they thought were thieves or murderers or Resistants.  They denounced their own children to a certain death.  Little children, sweet little girls with long hair and blue eyes and angel faces, but sharp little hearts and hungry bellies and vanity, denounced their parents, because the underground of children told them they’d get chocolate, money or other food or a pretty dress for denunciation.

Unlike Britain, where the victory over fascism led to a period of optimism in which the desire for a caring society where human beings would look after one another ‘from the cradle to the grave’ gave rise to the Welfare State, in France, as a result of the occupation and collaboration, the period after liberation was marked by a profound sense of moral ambiguity.  For writers and intellectuals this was given voice in existential questioning of what was true or false, real or fake.  Dominique Ponchordier in his study of the liberation, Les Pauvres de L’Enfer, argued that this was a moment when nothing was as it seemed: “…the liberation…was, by definition, the era of the false: the false combatant, the false decent man, the false patriot, the false lover, the false brother, the false false.  In the world of false roles, I was one of those whose names was real and it seemed to me, as it did to all the Reals, that in reality we were real cons.

The stock response of many communists to existentialism’s scepticism and iconoclasm was to decry it “as a manifestation of bourgeois culture in the process of decomposition.” Stead’s twin stars of Marx and Nietzsche might have led her to be more sympathetic, particularly to Sartre’s attempt to achieve some synthesis of the two, but this was not to be the case.  In her biography of Stead, Rowley remarks that “in politics she would only ever echo” Bill Blake, arguing “it was difficult to defend” the position they took after 1956, continuing to support the Party, and implicitly criticising Stead for the opinion she gave of Sartre as a “high-rating publicity talent” after he denounced the Soviet invasion of Hungary.  But to view Stead’s antagonism, as Rowley does, simply as the outcome of her deference to Blake in political matters, and as incomprehensible adherence to the Stalinist hard line (Rowley’s standard liberal view is that before 1956 the pro-Soviet position was “understandable,” but not after) does not, I think, explain how these things played out in her writing.

From that perspective, what is more striking than the Stalinist tone of Stead’s implausible attack on Sartre is how clearly it demonstrates the power of her feelings about bohemia (though Stalinist thinking on the subject influenced her, I have argued that the idea of bohemia, and her fear of it, was more deeply rooted in Stead’s personality).  In a letter written in 1952 discussing Camus’s lambasting of Sartre and other Western intellectuals for their refusal to condemn Stalin and the Soviet camps, Stead’s judgment of them derives from her feeling that these writers are renegades, parochial, bohemian.  She felt that the in-fighting and nihilism so “portentously exhibited” in their public quarrel in Les Temps Modernes (Sartre’s monthly revue set up at the end of the war) proved this: it was nothing more than, “a backyard quarrel, inelegant, [typical of] the usual public stripping and whipping into which small movements degenerate.”  And that “The existentialist movement (of France) represent[ed] normal postwar pessimism and [was] similar to black aesthetic movements after other wars…”  She derides it as “a middleclass movement,” forged, at least in part, for venal purposes: “Immensely profitable to both Camus and Sartre…[now] there is perhaps not enough left in the business for the two.  For it was a business and J-P Sartre is known as an acute business man, as well as a prolific, ready worker.

Sartre, Camus and dog

Sartre, Camus and dog

Grotesque as it may seem to band together a writer like Ruth McKenney with one of Sartre’s stature, Stead’s reactions to both have much in common: her evaluation of Sartre as a “smart pedlar” with “varied goods in his pack,” who waits to see “which line takes,” bears remarkable similarities to Stead’s drawing of McKenney in I’m Dying Laughing.  Like Emily, he is fraught with “indecision,” uncertain of which side will win, (“anti-communist Sartre is patronisingly amiable at times, too, towards the U.S.S.R.”) and as a consequence capable of producing only “tears for the poor, home-truths, the wickedness of French colonial policy, Soviet oppression of the Turkmens, and so on, a remarkable stream of bright rubbish.” The accusations that Stead levels against her friend in I’m Dying Laughing are the same as those she makes against Sartre and Camus.  She sees them all as writers who have sold their soul to the devil: “bohemians, compromisers, splitters and traitors” who betray their left commitment from cowardice or avarice, and who, as a consequence, end up in a sterile impasse, full of pettiness and rancour, fighting with friends, turning “towards mysticism or fideism” like Camus, or floundering between communism and anti-communism like Sartre.

Despite Stead’s attack on Sartre, her view of post-war France as a morally ambivalent place had much in common with his.  Although he was a committed anti-fascist and member of the Resistance, Sartre’s Les Temps Modernes was among the first to decry the arbitrary purges of collaborators which ex-Resistants were carrying out, arguing that “It’s only in the universe of Kafka, that one finds such preposterous decisions.”  The Kafkaesque atmosphere in which those who had once fought oppression were now suspected of practising it, was added to by the actions of political opportunists who joined the Resistance at the last minute, only when it was clear that this was the side which was going to win; and by Resistants carrying out arrests without orders, or on the basis of false denunciations (of the kind made under the Nazis).  The Ministry of Justice was aware that even “false resistants were…carrying out searches.”

As early as 1945 Sartre reported in Combat, the resistance magazine he edited, the false denunciation of a hotel employee accused by a woman of shooting at celebrating crowds, and the humiliation of Japanese militiamen when Resistance units allowed “passers-by to remove their trousers and spank them energetically.”  The paradoxical situation became still harder to fathom when criticism of ex-Resistants began coming not just from men of the left like Sartre, but from right-wingers who attacked the validity of collaborators’ arrests with a view, not to the pursuit of justice, but to undermining the credibility of the Resistance altogether.  Lottman gives an example of this:

Beginning in 1950, a monthly magazine called Ecrits de Paris, which was serving as a mouthpiece of purge victims and their advocates, began to publish a regular ‘chronicle’ of alleged purge abuses.  The compiler, one Jean Playher, who revealed not only anti-Gaullist but anti-Jewish feelings, asked his readers to help him by sending clippings from the regional press concerning “crimes committed in 1944 and 1945.”  And so this chronicle was to repeat most of the horror stories which circulated in the aftermath of liberation.  Resistance people were shown to have carried out burglaries, hold-ups, rapes, and the murder of infants.

These largely false, scaremongering accusations took hold because of the element of truth in them: for certain criminals and rebels there had been an inevitable attraction to the Resistance an outlaw organisation.  Richard Cobb in his essay, ‘Experiences of an Anglo-French Historian’, recalls how one such character, “a semi-gangster from Lille, who had done well out of the black market”, took his illegal profits, “and financed the local Resistance.”

Combat, 28.8.1944

Combat, 28.8.1944

In I’m Dying Laughing, just as Stead revealed the sanctimony and hypocrisy of many of the Hollywood communists, so in Europe she reiterates her point about the dangers of creating heroes: many of the resistants, she insists, also had feet of clay.  As Clapas argues, people’s actions during the war were never simply pure or altruistic, but often also motivated by vanity or a desire for the excitements of danger.  And, Suzanne tells Emily, you could never predict who would stand up to evil: probably not the person you expected.  One of the Howards’ friends laughs at the hypocrisy of bourgeois society, glorifying the Resistance but now refusing to acknowledge its members because they are brash and vulgar: “…one of the biggest men in [the Resistance], went into it for the danger and the game, outwitting people he despised.  No one would even talk to him nowadays with his automobile lined with white velvet, his house of Vita glass, his gold plated bathroom and handmade flat silver and his mistress with cuffs of diamond and ebony!  He’s a great heroic monster…”.

iv.     “Glorious, Gorgeous Monster!”

When Emily hears this story she declares the resistant a “glorious, gorgeous monster!” and through him finds a way of vindicating her own divided state (a communist wanting the best for everybody, a Nietzschean determined to fight the competition), while at the same time assailing the puritan mentality of bourgeois and communist alike.  Why should fighters of oppression and injustice be poor and prudish, living in a state of constant self-denial?  Better, Emily thinks, that they should be lifelovers: extravagant, sensualist bon-vivants – men and women who attack life with relish and vigour, taking risks, living large, not like the miserable ascetics of Stephen’s wealthy family, scrimping and saving and eating only tiny amounts; nor the “honest and dumb” witless creatures Stephen and Emily find so boring but invite to their parties to keep up with respectable society and to appease Anna; nor even those communists from Hollywood they meet, who survive in Europe on modest incomes, working hard and keeping the faith.  All of them so unlike the renegade Howards who live far beyond their means, in the lap of luxury.  Trying to accommodate her lavish taste to her radical politics, Emily wonders: ““Can we too perhaps enter the annals of the red register as gorgeous monsters, human, all-too-human, a bit of Lucullus and Petronius, a bit like the Medici or even just like poor Cicero, adoring the fine life; but still faithful in our hearts, dependable, marked down to help in the next Resistance.”

Emily’s loathing of penury and stinginess, her castigation of those who serve her only “titbits” and “poor, sour red wine,” stems not only from her fear of deprivation but from her belief that communism should mean an end to deprivation: after the revolution there should be bouquets and banquets for all.  Her battle-cry, “crêpe flamandes for the masses!…Pressed ducks for the people” is not only, as some critics have argued, a symbol of her bad faith (echoing Marie Antoinette’s famous ignorance) but an expression of her belief that the world should be a more sumptuous place in which everyone could be equally generous and prodigal.

Emily was not alone in this reading of the communist ideal.  Donald Ogden Stewart, one of the Hollywood Ten, describes in his autobiography a similarly optimistic belief in the redistribution of wealth and fun, in which, rather than dismantling palaces, their doors would be opened to all:

Let it be understood…that the romantic “communist” did not beat his Hawes and Curtis stiff dress shirt into a hairy one and set out with begging bowl to Do Good.  I wanted to do something about the problem of seeing to it that a great many people were allowed into the amusement park [he means Hollywood and the playgrounds of the rich].  My new-found philosophy was an affirmation of the good life, not a rejection of it…

Ogden Stewart calls this “romantic” communism, and while, in Emily, we often feel Stead’s attraction to the ideal of plenitude over scarcity (mirrored in her anti-elitist beliefs about art), her idealism is always tempered by material reality, the limitations of the here and now – and in that light romaticism is indeed often revealed as self-deceiving, as the mask of bad faith.  At Sartre’s death, George Steiner commented that he would be remembered as much for living without illusion, for “trying to live life rationally, day in, day out”, as for his writing.  But Emily’s insistence on putting her beliefs about the good life into practice, eating copious amounts at the best Parisian restaurants while people are starving in the city, casts a rather different light upon her communist dream of a cornucopia for all.  At these times her championing of excess seems less egalitarian, becoming a means of rationalising selfishness, a tendentious argument laying claim to the special status of certain great individuals, for whom the usual constraints of society need not apply.

This tendency is particularly marked in Emily’s handling of Christy’s education.  In order to keep Anna’s preying hands off the boy and his money she sets about ensuring that he is properly schooled, helping him to catch up with French children his own age in order to prove that he is being brought up as befits a child of his wealth and class.  But her zealous participation in the project soon becomes overwhelming: “She herself, instead of writing, spent her whole days at his studies.  She made complete preparation herself for every lesson, read ten times the material, wrote ten times the essays, and forced Christy to learn everything by heart.

Embarking on a massive learning programme, Emily is determined to become a serious scholar, and in particular a student of the French Revolution, while at the same time seeing Christy through his baccalaureate.  With the autodidact’s hunger for knowledge, she attacks the books suggested to her by Vittorio and Suzanne displaying the same appetite she has for French food: the sustenance she gains from them reviving temporarily her interest and belief in revolution.  And the conclusions she draws from her reading about the necessity of discipline and rigour in politics, giving no quarter to the opposition and never letting up, are in opposition to the Howards’ slack, compromised life, highlighting, once again, their muddled state.  Reading the autobiography of one communard, Emily recounts to Stephen a funny story (“Only listen to this!  You’ll die laughing”):

“Jules Vallès had shut the mayor in the closet and even the guard pleaded for him, saying there would be a lot of trouble in the closet if he was not allowed to go to the shh!  so Jules Vallès let him out and told him to run along…Big mistake!  A big mistake.  And typical of the gentle revolutionaries they were.  They wanted to prove revolutionists didn’t grab.  Prove to whom, pray?…”

Her assessment of the unyielding qualities required of a revolutionary echo Stead’s feelings about keeping faith with communism, even at times like McCarthy’s witch-hunts or the Soviet invasion of Hungary in 1956, and cast some light upon their genesis.  “Many intellectuals who regard party activities as ‘part of my picaresque life’”, Stead wrote to a friend, “are jumping off the train at this station.  It’s quite a clean-out of the soft element…why are they so immoral?  For they are.  To jump off every time you’re threatened is immoral.”

For Emily, what begins as communist doctrine (an implacable belief in the rightness of your cause and action) transmutes into something more Nietzschean.  Studying the life of Cicero with Christy and his Latin and Ancient History tutor, Monsieur Jean-Claude, she argues that (like the “gentle revolutionaries” of the French Revolution or like Stead’s “soft element” among contemporary communists), Cicero, “a great liberator and a lover of freedom”, brought about his own downfall.  What defeated him, she claims, was his lack of certitude, he was crippled by chronic insecurity, apologising unnecessarily for his debts and his love of luxury:

“Why was he ashamed?  Was there anyone who did not do the same?  It was because he was not an aristocrat, for aristocrats never are sorry or ashamed, they know the rules of conquest and of living better than your neighbour, but because he was at heart a mild, good-natured middle-class man…Oh poor Cicero…brought to an unfortunate end, to shame…”

For Emily, and for her creator, the lessons of history taught that success in politics was born of absolute conviction – will to power practised for the collective good: any wavering from the path meant ruin and shame, failure in bohemia.  Stead’s feelings about Sartre and other intellectuals who reneged on their beliefs are echoed in Emily’s arguments about the “mistakes” of the communards and the “weakness” of Cicero.  And for Emily it is because of this belief that the demands she makes of the tutor swing from one extreme to another.  She tells Jean-Claude that Christy should learn about Cicero because he is “a young communist” who “Must know what his spiritual ancestors said, those who attacked the enemies of freedom.”  But the interpretation Jean-Claude offers of Cicero (taken from a “well-known book by a scholar, Monsieur Jerome Carcopino”) as an odious money-lender, self-centred and weak-willed does not fit Emily’s view of the “magnificent…sublime” orator.  These are mere platitudes, she thinks, bourgeois moralising: she wants Christy to emulate men of passion and “audacity”, like Cicero, Socrates, and Danton (another “lion of courage, attacked because he loved luxury”).  He should be educated to assume their mantle of power, not to inherit whatever frailty or self-doubt plagued them.  Her son, she informs the bemused tutor, is to be inculcated with the self-assurance of an aristocrat: Christy is to be a “milord” not a communist, an übermensch, not a comrade:

“Let us be realists and not schoolmasters who know nothing of the world, Monsieur Jean-Claude.  I want my children to be realists in an age just as difficult and full of crises as Cicero’s, I don’t want you putting into Christy’s head these little middle class, scholarly ideas.  Christy belongs to a patrician society…he must not learn the mawkish, ignoble, sheepish, humble oh so humble and petty comments of a mean little bookworm.  Christy must be trained for his class and his position; that is why he is here…Oh, I hate and despise what is modest forelock-pulling and demeaning…let us have no more of this little fungus-grown pedant, this petty little jealous dominie.  Let us think of the greatness of great men.”

Emily’s teaching of Christy is akin to force-feeding, but what we learn from Stead is much more subtly dealt, never in direct argument but revealed through the process of story-telling; another example of her commitment to her form of realism which shows us ideas in action, never disembodied.  Rather than being told what to think (as Emily teaches Christy by rote) ideas unfold through the drama of Stead’s characters’ lives and, most importantly for this highly oral tale, they come alive as they spill from the lips of her characters’ mouths.

Marcus Tullius Cicero

Marcus Tullius Cicero

Emily’s debate with Christy’s tutor reveals not only contention over historical interpretation, but the different ways in which these debates can be understood.  Initially, Emily’s view holds sway: the scholarly, “miserable mean” response of Monsieur Cacopino, berating Cicero, is bourgeois and reactionary; while hers is an encomium to the glory of brilliant and defiant, revolutionary men.  But when Jean-Claude reads from Cacapino that Cicero’s were “the false moves of a will too weak to overcome the crises in which his generation struggled,” we understand, in a blinding flash, that this is exactly the criticism levelled at Stephen and Emily who have also failed to respond to the challenges that history, in the form of McCarthy, present to them.  This revelation colours the way we regard both points of view, giving greater validity to the scholar’s interpretation and undermining Emily’s as self-serving: but its overall effect is not to cancel out either, rather it adds meaning to the plot.  Stead’s what we might call pluralist realism works in just this way, and critics who complain of the sprawling nature and density of I’m Dying Laughing miss the point: it is through this process of accumulation of different voices, ideas and perceptions that she builds her narrative and enlarges our understanding of complexity, and with it a growing possibility for tension, irony and betrayal.  However, her epiphanies are never final solutions, her characters (and her readers) cannot stand still, and are never released by a new understanding from the burden of living in an abundant, competitive world.

This is the territory in which Stead worked: knowing what we do today her unapologetic fidelity to the communist movement (she was never actually in the Party) may appear unpalatable, irresponsible, naive or stubbornly wrong-headed.  For the critic the problem is that the attempt to illuminate her thinking, to suggest reasons for her beliefs as one examines them in her work, can seem to rationalize and condone Stalinism.  But without confronting these questions there is a danger of missing the fundamental axis upon which her writing is hung, the schism in her identity from which much of her savage, restless creativity flows.

At the heart of Stead’s work, certainly of I’m Dying Laughing, is the tension between her apprehension of a multifarious world where many, possibly contradictory meanings are possible and her desire for fidelity to this diversity, to represent it realistically; and her intellectual and emotional commitment to a political movement which itself struggled with the knowledge that life was legion and yet put forth a monistic vision of how the world should be.  Like Cacapino who thought Cicero’s were “false moves”, the communists, and particularly the Stalinists, believed there were correct moves which would ensure their dream of equality, fraternity and peace and false ones which led to the dark shades of bohemia.  Stead does not resolve these differences between a protean world and a defining belief, for she cannot: she explores them.  In I’m Dying Laughing she examines what it means to have political conviction and artistic integrity in a pluralist, capitalist society and the pressures under which these buckle and fail.

[Emily] was anxious to tell [Stephen] about her new project, the French Revolution novel, featuring perhaps Danton, Marie Antoinette, Robespierre, Camille Desmoulins – she was not sure yet, and she thought it would take some time to get the right angle – an angle to please serious readers, to present something new and yet old for Hollywood, to attract the romantic women who loved court dress and wept for those who died for it and yet to exhibit to their one time companions, to those who had not got off yet from ‘the slow train down from the Finland Station’, that they had the insight of Marxism, still had the discipline.


v.     Unhappy Endings

Emily’s avidity for learning is fuelled by her sense of lack in her own education.  She is dismissive of the paltry, inadequate schooling she received at home, telling her French teacher, “They don’t ever teach you anything in America, Madame Suzanne.  They’re afraid you might question the eternal values, like ice-cream soda.” And the failings of that system are palpable in the Howards’ struggle to learn French, rendered pitiful by comparison with Vittorio’s easy handling of five or six different languages.

But while Emily disparages the American system of education, “their laxity, hatred of the brain and belief in rambling ignorance, their belief that genuine learning distorts the personality” she also manifests its prejudices.  Her childish response to the war, not wanting to know the full horror of what happened in France, is compounded by a wariness of European sophistication.  Such scepticism, however, is not born simply of immaturity or ignorance.  Henry James saw that it was necessary intellectual armour for the citizen of a young country who needed to guard against a sense of inferiority: “It’s a complex fate, being an American, and one of the responsibilities it entails is fighting against a superstitious valuation of Europe.” (Lawrence’s story about Americans in Europe might be thought of as a parable for those who fail to put up this fight.) Quarrelling with the enlightenment belief in knowledge leading to progress and, in particular, Darwin’s theory of evolution, Emily claims that ideas can be lethal: “Nazi tortures…they copied those, they learned them out of books.  Man has always been torturing man.  I don’t believe we came from monkeys.  Monkeys don’t torture each other.”

If, for Emily, the example of the Nazis proves that books are dangerous, as capable of producing harm as good, then she (like Louisa in The Man Who Loved Children and Teresa in For Love Alone) also often finds language redundant.  Her admiration for the great classical orators and their powers of public persuasion is matched by her feeling that in an intimate, domestic realm words are patriarchal and inapt, incapable of satisfying her physical longings as a woman or her need for rapture and joy.  In an image that combines exasperation at desire unmet with the idea of language as falsification, a substitution for the real thing which mocks women’s experience and transforms it into something meaningless and shameful, Emily tells Suzanne that she held her arms open to life but received only, “…wooden dolls!  The big empty parcels a practical joker gives you for your birthday,” with scraps inside covered in indecipherable scribble: “…shavings, bits of dirty paper with the halves of words written on them.”

The sense of self-loathing that her paradoxical state produces – she venerates learning and yet suspects it disenfranchises her – is projected onto the young women that start to appear in Christy’s life.  Emily’s dislike of the part of herself that is the dumb American girl (Stead spoke of America as “dumb, down” long before more recent accusations) is expressed with such heat and contempt because it is felt so personally.  When Anna threatens to dispatch a girl to spend a holiday with Christy in the hope that a marriage can be arranged between them, she suspects her mother-in-law’s scheming and pronounces the girl, Fairfield, “a dirty-minded little wax doll.”  Her horror of the brainless, doll-like female is expressed in the language of Zhdanov and Radek; to Emily she represents the epitome of bohemian waste and immorality, she is “one of the most despicable products of our flyblown excrementitious civilization,” useless, mercenary and sexually corrupt – the things which Emily has fought in herself and yet, as if reverting to type, to which she is returning ineluctably: ““…the grasping and grabbing little smirched toilet-paper ideas of a contaminated little dunghill flower like Fairfield, brought up in corruption and moral squalor to live off others and unite her ill-gotten gains with our money, in a world of abomination.”

In order to avert the arrival of Fairfield, Emily asks to the house a girl that Christy met on the Atlantic crossing (history repeating itself in a shipboard romance that echoes Stephen’s and Emily’s).  Frankie Wilson is, as Emily was once herself, a plump young girl with communist leanings and a desire to do some good in the world, and Emily’s reaction to her is savage.  Attending a class with Christy and his tutor, Emily derides Frankie and her views of European culture:

“What an abysmally stupid opinion, Frankie, if it is an opinion…It’s like a hee-haw from a hippo munching leaves, all muffled by the saliva and sap but no brain-juice in it…This ignorant girl that I would kick to the bottom of the class, she wouldn’t even get ten per cent from me, she’s going into the business righting the wrongs of American society with her fat-jawed, fat-eyed, fat-breasted, fat-waisted, fat-legged, fat-footed intuition and Freudian jargon.  Shut up, Christy!  I know America and she doesn’t.  She’s an ignorant, selfish, vain, little maggot.  Sit up Frankie.  You sit opposite me and I can see all the revolting arrogance in your fat little eye.  You’re a nobody.”

Her disturbed response to the girl is inflated by Stephen’s prolonged periods of absence from the house and anxiety about the state of their marriage: will he abandon her, as he is slowly abandoning his faith?  As Emily immerses herself in the education of her young charges Stephen spends more time away on business trips with Johnny Trefougar.  Of all their acquaintances in Paris this shady character and his hysterical wife, Violet, have fallen farthest from Emily’s pedestal for the heroes of the resistance.  At dinner one night, Violet tells Emily that Johnny is a drunkard, a gambler and a bully whose assaults upon her will end in murder.

Acting out the gothic fantasy which has been her modus operandi since she arrived in Europe, Emily insists that Stephen and she spend the night in their car outside the Trefougars’ flat in case Violet is assaulted (her name, as Freud pointed out, is a homonym for ‘violate’).  This archetypal victim survives, but from their first dreadful encounter the Howards are drawn into the Trefougars’ demi-monde existence, leading them to their respective fates: Johnny – an example of the criminal-resistant Cobb and Lottman had observed – persuades Stephen into smuggling gold in his car (the emblem of his betrayal, in which Stephen eventually commits suicide); and Violet, dependent on drugs, introduces Emily to Doctor Kley (a reincarnation of Dr Park and Dr Coriolis) whose fashionable pills bring her, with corresponding symbolism, to a state of self-abandonment from which she cannot recover.  Signalling the extent of her physical and moral decline, Emily attempts to cover up the vast amounts spent on her addiction, and on money-lenders to buy even more drugs, by claiming that she has sent the money to communist friends in America who are fleeing to Mexico to avoid McCarthy’s investigations: “It’s little enough,” she lies to Stephen, “and it salves a little of our consciences.”

It is from their relationship with the Trefougars that the Howards’ marriage, long wrestled over, finally begins to break apart.  Without Stephen’s constant company and attention Emily grows fretful, dressing in house-gowns all day and hardly leaving home.  Her frustration at being alone is exacerbated by her inability to persuade Vittorio into a romantic liaison with her, and stepping into the shoes of the corrupt, predatory female she accuses Fairfield of being, she turns her sexual energy upon her step-son, fearing he might also desert her, taking his millions with him.  “Remember always that Mamma loves you and most dearly needs you more than anyone else” she coos to him, “So sleep now, my Christy, sleep as if Mother were here beside you all night.”  The teenage boy is excited by the charged and intimate atmosphere Emily creates in their sequestered world, but bewildered, too.  He writes to Anna telling her that he is confused and unhappy and wants to return to America.

Stephen comes home intermittently, and sensing the anomie and disorder in the house lodges Christy with Suzanne in an apartment of his own.  Lonely and isolated, Emily, now consuming vast amounts of pills and alcohol, becomes increasingly deranged, locking herself in the basement and refusing to eat.  Her paranoia is fuelled by rumours from other Hollywood exiles that Stephen wants a divorce and has betrayed her to the authorities.  And in her struggle over Christy she finally perceives she is no longer a communist: when he visits with another rebellious girl, “an agitator” Emily thinks, she also writes to Anna, asking her to send over Fairfield whom she now considers “a clean, lovely fine American girl with real values,” less likely to derail the boy into radical politics.

Anna’s response to the Howards’ apostasy, good McCarthyite that she is, is to demand, before she will loan them money, “a public recantation in the American press” and “an absolute formal, signed guarantee” that they will never see any of their former comrades again.  But their moral and intellectual universes are so far apart that Stephen at first rejects her proposal on the grounds of implausibility: “…we can’t do that.  It’s too soon.  Raise the dust as holier-than-thou anti-Browder communists and four years later we’ve made the well-known turn…I told her we would have to wait for the next station.”  The Howards may repudiate their beliefs but old habits die hard: without the logic of historical events behind them the couple think their local act of betrayal will not seem credible.  Acting alone, away from the Party, their behaviour has an air of unreality, seeming tenuous and whimsical.  Even as they go through the motions of recanting they cannot imagine themselves outside of the movement’s domain, exiled in the “howling wilderness” of bohemia: “Oh, damn it all…If we remain communists in reality, in our hearts, what difference does it make?” But there has been too much water under the bridge and Emily is now for signing anything, doing anything to get Anna’s money.  Ironically, it is Stephen, already embroiled in smuggling gold, who can’t face up to the transaction: ‘No, I wont do it.  It’s my life” he warns Emily, “Otherwise life is death.”

Engrossed as they have been in one another’s lives, they blame themselves for each other’s ruin.  Stephen admits that he prevented Emily from becoming the writer she could have been, censoring whatever was “tragic, heavy, thoughtful, true.” Emily, characteristically, and in keeping with the times, makes her declaration of guilt in public.  Seizing her moment in the limelight, she unburdens herself before an assembled dinner party, telling of the catastrophe that has befallen them (a tree falling across the railway track of their lives).  To Stephen she assigns the deepest hurt and the greatest honour: his writing, unlike her “pork-chop” offerings, was always “only, pure, inevitable, honourable and satisfying.  And all, all rejected.  All, all lost!  All hated.  What injustice!”

To her shocked and fascinated audience Emily proclaims the awful truth: that her husband is an unemployed failure, he has lost all hope and has nowhere to go.  In her inimitable fashion she humiliates Stephen before the company of family and friends by portraying him, ridiculously, as a man of nobility and honour, a fallen hero.  She pictures him locked in a great tragedy for which he bears no responsibility, suffering at the hands of fate: ““It often seemed to me that never had a man more suffered from the blows of fate and injustice more hopelessly!  For how could he extricate himself from the trap he had somehow fallen into?”

The guests are horrified by the performance, but gripped by it too.  Emily is magnificent and appalling.  A drama queen devoid of embarrassment, incapable of sensitivity, a monstrous truth-teller, she is blindly taken up by the moment and yet, a moment later, is capable of cutting herself back down to size, seeing herself not as the grand orator she wishes to be, but as a fat, funny, girl with improbable aspirations to profundity and greatness.  When one guest congratulates Emily on her speech she replies: “You remind me of a film I saw.  A girl wanted to go on the stage and recited Lady Macbeth’s speech.  The talent-scout said she would make a wonderful comic.  Well, that’s me.  Medea in my heart and what comes out of my type-writer is the funny-mediocre.

The reward for the Howards’ break with communism is that Stephen, with the aid of his family, is to be established in business, setting up in publishing (a gentleman’s profession) with the inauspiciously named Mr Dolittle.  Breaking the news to the party, Emily switches genres from the tragedy of their downfall to the effusive finale of a romance novel: “”And Anna really cured him of despair and complete breakdown.  She changed the world.  It’s all over, the blackness; it’s all glorious and new, the morning of our lives, the rosy dawn.”

But as Stead is at pains to point out again and again in I’m Dying Laughing, literary posturing is not going to change material reality or supply happy endings.  And although Emily succumbs momentarily to her own gushing rhetoric (“So we enter upon a new chapter of our lives and may this be a lovely, lovesome, joyful one”) she is still the materialist who punctures illusions.  The world now looks “rosy” to the Howards, but however they try to ignore it, as a communist, she knows they are a part of history, their lives played out against the great drama of the time:

“…it’s shocking to be so happy, as if we were vegetables blooming because it’s spring.  I know people are starving all over this thrice-damned city, the governments are either falling or getting into the clutches of the Marshall Plan or some other steel-jointed claw of the Anglo-Saxon conspiracy to ruin the Western world…In my country, Congress runs nothing but red scares to stampede the crowds…The lamp of Liberty is on the blink, there’s terror reappearing everywhere and the Great Fascist League is springing up fresh like grass from the mouths of a million martyred, doomed stinking bodies and my heart’s singing fit to burst because my husband got a job.  A queer detail.”

The passion of the Howards’ marriage (the thing which Stead wanted to capture in this novel “from fire, to more fiery, to fierier still”) was kindled by their ardent belief in communism, and the disintegration of this belief means the inevitable extinguishing of their relationship.  For all Emily’s attempts to imagine some new brand of revolutionary, a style of being that would accommodate their material extravagance, the couple cannot reinvent themselves or become apostates who are now merely “bystanders to the central passion of the century” (as indeed most Anglo-Saxons have been).  Having renounced their political creed the Howards know they are only going through the motions, engaged in “shadow struggle”.  Unattached to any worldly reality, their rosy dawn is simply false consciousness.  Emily’s public confession allows her to feel, briefly, they have been “let out of a convent”, “let out of prison,” but that night alone with Stephen she cries all the same, saying that other communists would rather have committed suicide than do what they have done: ““…even supposing for a moment that everything we say about the Party is true, to do what we do is worse than death, a filthy and contemptible thing beyond description.”

That betrayal of the Party should be a thing “beyond description” is borne out in the relative scarcity of writing about the experience, making Stead’s novel all the more valuable.  The difficulty lay not just in tackling a subject that generated such intensity of feeling: there was uneasiness about communism’s various appeals to the head and the heart.  The Party stressed the importance of rational thought, through which it was possible to liberate man from brutality, prejudice, shame and oppression.  In an article commemorating the fiftieth anniversary of the black list, Paul Jarrico, another disenfranchised Hollywood scriptwriter, and a friend of Blake and Stead when he was living in exile from McCarthyism in London, explains the logic of communism and the hope it held out to his generation:

…a short hundred and fifty years ago, Marx and Engels came along with a body of theories they called scientific socialism.  Combining a philosophical examination of the nature of reality, an attempt to explain historical development, an economic analysis of capitalism, a political programme of action and a vision of a future in which social justice and individual freedom would coexist…

But others, like Doris Lessing, felt that what motivated attachment to the Party had less to do with an “intellectual standpoint” than with an emotional “sharing of moral fervour”. Stead’s novel does not fight shy of this fervour – the Howards’ passion is what intrigued her – but their dynamic, provocative, argumentative marriage shows, perhaps rather more accurately than Lessing’s tidy separations, the way in which communism injected moral fervour into intellectual debate, making it exciting and vital, endowing it with what Keynes called “its subtle, its almost irresistible attraction”.

And the debate was a worldwide one, making you part of a fraternity.  Communism meant comradeship, solidarity, the possibility of experiencing a “better kind” of love, as Stephen describes it.  What rends Emily above all else, what her renunciation of belief and the prospect of bohemia really mean to her, is the loss of that community and the reinforcement it provided, her dread that now they will be reviled, whereas “…once we were loved by people we respected.”  And yet the morning after her lamentation she sits down and writes a letter to the Oateses in which she describes her and Stephen’s former beliefs as a pathology from which they have at last been “cured”:

“My heavens, every word might be guilty, every action might bring you on the carpet.  How did they invent in these days such a system of crime and punishment?…So what if the world is decrepit; and eventually towards the year 3000 the world will be communist?  My long-mouldy bones will have reached the democracy of dust.  In my life I will have been tarred and feathered and ridden the rail for nothing.”

Emily may see communism as an historical inevitability but it requires martyrs to ride the rail to its final destination.  Stead’s couple, for all their ardour, are not equipped with the discipline and self-negation that such a ride entails.  In I’m Dying Laughing she shows that this was a love affair doomed to failure: that Americanism and communism (despite Earl Browder’s avowals to the contray) were fundamentally incompatible.  The Howards’ native individualism, their selfish instinct for survival (Emily scribbles “$30,000” on the bottom of her apologia to the Oateses – the amount their betrayal will earn them), and their belief in the possibility of transcending the tyrannies of time and place (“the country of the second chance” is how a presidential candidate recently described America), are at odds with the demands of communists for collective action, and a belief in an unremitting material reality from which there can be no escape, suggesting perhaps why so many Americans were only bystanders, uncomprehending of the “passion” that communism invoked elsewhere: “…communists strive to fit themselves into a mould..  It is a good mould, perhaps honourable, perhaps even great.  But people should be free.  A form, a mould is a stereotype, it banishes the person, bleaches personal thought and dyes over it…Most communists…fit…into the mould and perhaps might be called victims of history.

Earl Browder

Earl Browder

Ultimately, however, it is not just communists that Emily thinks of as “victims of history”, trapped by circumstance.  When Stephen leaves her to go to America for an operation, she returns to the basement and begins to work on a book about the last days of Marie Antoinette,Trial and Execution, in which she considers how all human beings, whichever side of the struggle they belong to, are caught up in history: “…man is the pawn of immense forces…carried along on the flood of time, whether he’s in a boat or drowning.”  The cruelty and vagaries of the French Revolution, she thinks, are not unlike today’s:

“So my book is not only about then but about now….we are all being tried and all go to our execution, by their hand or ours, or by time, killed, exiled, living in terror, starving, dirty, frightened of neighbours and old friends that is the terrible time we live in…It’s like brainfever.  The torture is over but we are all tortured.  I dream of being burned, of pains in my body, of barbed wire round my arms and legs.  I dream awful things, Suzanne!”

Her mad, guilty dreams are soon manifested in the derangement of her everyday life.  When Christmas comes and Stephen is still away she invites his business partners, the Dolittles, Des Canby and Suzanne to dine with her, welcoming them all to “Turncoat Hall.”  Emily acts like a travesty of Virginia Woolf’s idea of the perfect hostess (a woman who makes her home a place of order and civility, who is gracious, self-denying and creative in her arrangements of flowers and guests), echoing Stead’s real distaste for Woolf’s decorous sensibility.  She is a kind of anti-hostess, a whirlwind of destruction, wreaking havoc upon her party, drunkenly insulting her visitors and embarrassing her children.  (“It’s Christmas, mother,” Christy pleads with her.)

Her devilish mood continues when, dressing up in expensive bracelets, beads and perfume, she slips out to a cheap bar on the quayside, vowing “I’m going to be myself, like any man would.”  Here she meets with drinking cronies, a medical student and a jockey.  “Very amusing.  Trays amusong,” she titters, inviting the jockey to her room.  When Suzanne discovers her the next morning, nude, prostrate and passed out in the basement, she packs up Olivia and calls Stephen home. For his return Emily designs another of her diabolic feasts.  In the line of devils in the house, rather than angels, she joins the literary canon of mad, unheimlich women: from the verbal incontinence and obscenities of Bertha Mason locked in Bronte’s attic, to the bedroom littered with yellow paper scratched from the walls in Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s nightmare of incarceration, to Emily’s basement, the site of her dissolute seductions, stuffed to the hilt with unfinished manuscripts – the product of her maniacal ambition, and her living-room dinner table decorated profanely with the debris of her marriage:

…rosettes and scrolls of paper, all the long preserved wedding anniversary and valentine cards they had given each other since the day of their marriage, all the jewellery he had given her, and carelessly-tied ribbon bows from many Christmas days…she was no longer the merry oaf she had been, she looked leering and wild, her eyes swam and one half of her face, grey and fallen, seemed many years older than the other.  Of course she was not conscious of this but continued eating and drinking with gusto, hurrahing and talking greedily between bites, her suspicious, greedy eyes watching them all, calling to attention anyone who did not look at her.

With Stephen’s residence in the house re-established, Emily makes a brief recovery, but the respite is temporary: the couple are heading for their “doomsday” reckoning.  Having first blamed themselves, they turn to accusing one another, their fractious, pointless quarrelling subsiding only for a final family outing to Versailles.  Here, in a relaxed mood, strolling arm in arm with a cousin of Stephen’s and flirting with him all the while, Emily is again her carnival self, empathising with everyone’s predicament, seeing all sides of the argument.  Her view of Versailles and the pivotal moment in history it represents is dialectical, dominated by two opposing images: one a “fairytale,” an impossible dream of “…the frightened, beautiful queen who began her days innocent and soft as Fairfield, gentle and full of a girl’s senseless, impossible hopes,” and another of the brute mob who clawed at the palace, tearing it down, angry and bloody, “breaking with hate.”  When these two collide (synthesis) the queen’s dreamworld is lanced and she “comes now to a hideous reality, the reality of monsters and ruffians.”

Stead’s fidelity to the real world augments and complicates the stereotypical view of revolution in which the heroic poor do battle with the degenerate rich, proposing a difficult truth which communists, labelling as decadent and decaying the beauty produced from wealth, have often sought to deny.  Emily (always with an eye for opulence) insists on the value of such beauty, and its life-enhancing qualities.  The rich are surrounded by “the beauties of this life,” their world is an “enchanting” one.  Like Donald Ogden Stewart, the member of the Hollywood Ten, who argued that he wanted the “amusement park” – the world of culture and illusion and riches – open to all, it is the “beautiful life” of the wealthy Emily wants for her son Giles, not the struggling, impoverished existence of the lumpen peasant or proletarian.  However sacred the noble worker may be in the communist pantheon, Emily, ever the iconoclast, attacks this view as a falsely romantic one.  Arguing that only the logic of being determines consciousness, she proposes – what is nevertheless taboo – that wealth produces refinement and that the poor life is not a good one: “For surely their minds and lives are finer than those whose dreams are back streets, garbage cans, vacant lots filled with rubble, howling landlords, roaches in the kitchen!”

It’s a dangerous argument, trembling on the brink of the kind of social Darwinism that Emily, in her more paranoid and selfish moments, has advocated.  But here the contradictions are kept in play and she is able to contemplate this “dilemma,” this “puzzle” in which the rich are beautiful, capable of producing the “elegance” of the palace of Versailles, and yet, as the communist in her argues, immune to the poverty and suffering that surrounds them, they are irretrievably “vulgar,” callous and doomed.  And the poor she sees as similarly Janus-faced: they are “lusting” and “mean,” a “heartless, vicious mob” wielding the “wickedly vulgar” apparatus of revolution (the tumbril, the guillotine and the axe) but, albeit, “justified eventually by history.”

Emily sees, as Dalton Trumbo had, that in moments of great confrontation, everyone is caught up in the force of history.  But unlike Trumbo, who argued that “in the final tally we were all victims”, levelled by the maelstrom of history, Emily recognises that however everyone suffers, and however her greedy imagination induces her to identify with all plights, ultimately there is a moral difference between the two sides.  Although she apprehends that revolution can be destructive, brutal and vulgar, she sees too that the grievances of the poor justify their actions.  But, as always in Stead, the anatomising of power is never purely theoretical or disinterested, Emily’s final sense of the fairness and justice that prevailed in the mob’s victory over the aristocracy at Versailles goes hand in hand with her (Nietzschean) exultation at their overcoming, she revels in the thought of their victory, aligning herself with their mastery: “…I get a fierce sense of triumph from gaping at [Versailles] and thinking, They’re gone!  Just a vulgar Arkansan maid.  But alive and so triumphant.  Ha-ha.”

Reflecting her own paradoxes, Versailles appeals to Emily, inspiring her to another new project, one combining her work on Marie Antoinette with autobiography, explaining her attempt to unify her divided impulses: it will be called “The Monster, my masterpiece.”  But the contradictions prove too great for the Howards, Emily’s failure to produce a book demonstrates that these worldly dilemmas cannot be resolved in text (there is no atopic literary space of the kind imagined by Christopher Isherwood) and having finally chosen for herself the decadence of the rich over the revolutionary vitality of the people, Emily’s last laugh on the steps of the Forum is a dying one, not triumphant, but ghostly and hollow.

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