November 2010

Arts & Letters

‘The Man Who Loved Children’ by Christina Stead

By Michelle de Kretser

It is one of the great ironies of our literature that Christina Stead’s The Man Who Loved Children, a novel steeped in autobiography, should be set in Washington rather than Sydney. The change was imposed by its American publishers, who believed this would make the book more marketable there. Unfortunately, Stead’s deployment of local geography and idiom rang false with many American critics, who saw no further into her novel. Meanwhile Oz Lit’s eternal preoccupation with cultural DNA testing ensured that this ‘un-Australian’ masterwork was ignored here for decades.

Reissued next month to mark the seventieth anniversary of its publication, Stead’s novel is now packaged with an appreciative essay by Jonathan Franzen. Yet even in 1940 perceptive readers noticed what is obvious today. The true setting of Stead’s novel is Pollitland. It maps a family: Stead’s dystopian one transformed through blackly imaginative genius into a monstrous clan. The Pollits orbit around “sun-haired” Sam: at work, an idealistic public servant in the Roosevelt administration; at home, the self-styled “Sam-the-Bold”. Henny, his embittered wife, more accurately calls him “the Great I-Am”; or, in an inspired putdown, “the little, tin Jesus”.

Sam declares that he loves children and proves it by going on fathering them despite the family’s worsening poverty. This is self-love, for Sam is a child. He has the egotism and deluded ambitions of a child, its predilection for nonsense and games. His younger children, recognising this, are delighted by their father. But they fear him, too. Sam is a child with power – which is to say a tyrant. 

The opposition is led by Henny, once a Southern belle, now worn out by child-bearing and the grind to make ends meet. Sam and Henny’s epic fights rage through the novel. Her fury is the greater because, unlike Sam, she sees her situation clearly and resents it. Stead knows very well that oppression breeds cruelty as well as resistance. Henny hits her children, lashes them with words, steals from them.

Louie, the eldest child, is Stead’s autoportrait. Fat and unlovely, Louie longs to shine in her father’s eyes. But she is also starting to pull away from his influence. The poems and plays she writes, even her diaries, demonstrate the independence of her mind. They are ridiculed by Sam, who intuits that books will provide Louie with her passport out of Pollitland.

Stead’s powerful, headlong style carries us through scene after harrowing scene. It creates an impression of sprawl and chaos so close to life it can feel unbearable. Like Louie, forced to endure yet another parental tirade, we silently plead, “Shut up, shut up, shut up—”. But Louie escapes. Her sister, an obedient, pretty child, “browbeaten for life”, remains in domestic slavery. For every liberation, another lock fitted to the door. Evie’s fate is one of the truthfully depicted miseries that torment us long after we have fled Pollitland and this brilliant novel.

Michelle de Kretser
Michelle de Kretser is the author of The Rose Grower, The Hamilton Case and The Lost Dog, which won the NSW Premier’s Book of the Year Award and the Christina Stead Prize for Fiction.

'The Man Who Loved Children' by Christina Stead, Miegunyah Press, 576pp; $24.99
Cover: November 2010

November 2010

From the front page

Labor’s Green energy plan

Bill Shorten makes a $15 billion pitch to end the climate wars

Image from ‘Widows’

The Windy City is wild and weighty in ‘Widows’

Social commentary and thrills struggle for balance in Steve McQueen’s take on the heist genre

Image of Eddie Perfect

Eddie Perfect goes to Broadway

The Australian composer has two musicals – ‘Beetlejuice’ and ‘King Kong’ – opening in New York

Image of Polly Borland’s ‘Untitled (Nick Cave in a blue wig)’

Polly Borland’s x-ray vision

The Australian artist in conversation about ‘Polyverse’ at the NGV, Nick Cave and dress-ups


In This Issue

Words: Shane Maloney | Illustration: Chris Grosz

Rupert Murdoch & Kamahl

Illustration by Jeff Fisher.

Bad old days

'Squirrel Seeks Chipmunk: A Wicked Bestiary' by David Sedaris, Little, Brown, 176pp; $24.95

‘Squirrel Seeks Chipmunk: A Wicked Bestiary’ by David Sedaris

Illustration by Jeff Fisher.

Dancing in the dark


More in Arts & Letters

Still from The Old Man and the Gun

‘The Old Man and the Gun’ and the outlaw Robert Redford

David Lowery’s new film pays too much tribute to the Sundance Kid

Image of Eddie Perfect

Eddie Perfect goes to Broadway

The Australian composer has two musicals – ‘Beetlejuice’ and ‘King Kong’ – opening in New York

Image of Julia Holter

A bigger, shinier cage: Julia Holter’s ‘Aviary’

A classically schooled composer seeks shelter from the cacophony of modern life

Detail of a painting of Barron Field

Barron Field and the myth of terra nullius

How a minor poet made a major historical error


More in Noted

Cover of Killing Commendatore

‘Killing Commendatore’ by Haruki Murakami

Art, music and mystery abound in the Japanese author’s latest novel

Cover of ‘The End’

‘The End’ by Karl Ove Knausgaard

The ‘My Struggle’ series arrives at a typically exhausting conclusion

Cover of ‘Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead’

‘Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead’ by Olga Tokarczuk

Offbeat intrigue from a Booker Prize winner

‘One Hundred Years of Dirt’ by Rick Morton

A social affairs reporter turns the pen on himself


Read on

Image from ‘Widows’

The Windy City is wild and weighty in ‘Widows’

Social commentary and thrills struggle for balance in Steve McQueen’s take on the heist genre

Image of Polly Borland’s ‘Untitled (Nick Cave in a blue wig)’

Polly Borland’s x-ray vision

The Australian artist in conversation about ‘Polyverse’ at the NGV, Nick Cave and dress-ups

Image of Scott Morrison and Mike Pence at APEC 2018

Cooperation takes a back seat at APEC

As tensions between the US and China rise, it’s getting harder for Australia not to take sides

Image from ‘Westwood: Punk, Icon, Activist’

‘Westwood: Punk, Icon, Activist’, an incomplete portrait

This nostalgic documentary about the eminent designer raises more questions than it answers


×
×