Tragedy: The Snake-Man

One of the things I managed to do this year after all was finally read Christina Stead’s The Man Who Loved Children. I’ve owned my copy three years and every year read the first fifty pages or so and stopped. It wasn’t for lack of interest – not at all – but those first fifty pages were so rich and dense and overwhelming, I somehow didn’t dare go on. I needed more time to build up my immunities, perhaps, to get stronger.

A family is a language to itself, but from dumb beginnings and single-syllables any child of the house moves inevitably to perfect fluency. Reading Stead’s book is something like being born yourself as yet another supernumerary child of the Pollit household: you are mesmerized and disoriented by a dialect, a cadence, a register that mysteriously cohere bit by bit to become a world.

Stead’s verbal exuberance and genius for comic invention are just astonishing, of a caliber (I’m tempted to say) with Melville or Shakespeare. Her characters – Sam and Henny and Louie especially – so weigh down the text that the paperback swells to ten times its size, pulpy with flesh and blood. It babbles and complains when left alone on the table. It shouts for tea and sings and sweats and coughs in your face when you open it to read.

If the book has its faults – and there are people glad to point them out to you – I like to agree with those who say that they are nature’s own faults: gratuitous detail, excess vitality, general overabundance. Rather than make a sloppy mess of it all, like a lesser author might, Stead manages to reproduce life where life exceeds art while still fully containing it.

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