Tag Archives: Christina Stead

Marginalia, no.180

It is a case of the clam who wouldn’t be chowder.

~ Christina Stead, The Man Who Loved Children

Monday. The necessity of work offends my leisure.

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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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Celluloid Notes

It’s fun to watch movie stars age along with you.  Last night the wife and I caught a showing of Revolutionary Road and I was pleased to see that Kate Winslet and Leonardo diCaprio (both about my age) are showing the same kinds of lines, the same crow’s feet around the eyes, etc., that I am.  It’s an odd comfort between strangers: we’re all in this together, I guess. 

The movie itself was about as bleak and devastating, and stylishly achieved, as one would expect from Sam Mendes (dir. American Beauty), with strong performances all around but especially from Ms Winslet, who is my Great Film Heroine these days.  Yes, she got a Best Actress nomination for The Reader, which I haven’t seen yet, but Winslet was snubbed by the Academy when she didn’t get a nod for this one too.  Michael Shannon got one for his supporting role as the mentally disturbed grown son of the Wheelers’ realtor (he’s a dead ringer for Robert Lowell circa 1955).  But I find it strange that Mendes, a Brit, should spend so much of his creative energies on the mores and domestic tribulations of middle-class Americans.  I wonder if he’s just pulling a Christina Stead. Stead, of course, was the gifted Australian novelist who set her semi-autobiographical masterpiece, The Man Who Loved Children, in the U.S. so that, one supposes, she’d have more luck cashing in on it.

Overall I’ve done a poor job of keeping up with Oscar-bait films this year.  Sure, I enjoyed Slumdog Millionaire (except for the disfiguring-children scenes) and if Man on Wire doesn’t win for best documentary, I’m going to break something.  But I’m polishing a grudge against Darren Aronofsky and so I’ve delayed seeing The Wrestler, despite all the praise it’s getting.  Aronofsky’s last, The Fountain, was such an abortion of a film and such a waste of a perfectly good Rachel Weisz that I’m still sore about it.

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