Christina Stead, 1902-1983

By her own report, Christina Stead almost never revised. “It just comes out like that,” she said in an interview a year before her death. Christina Stead was then 79 years old, still writing, and the author of 13 books, all relatively obscure until recently, at least one of them a candidate for greatness. When she died at 80, most of Stead’s work was back in print. Even so, the critical status of this Australian original is uncertain, partly because her work is difficult, partly because the claims of her partisans run so high. And partly, we must consider, because of her sex. A woman novelist is more likely to be called eccentric than original. That said, it has to be admitted that stead was an extremely eccentric writer.

A Stead novel is shapeless, chatty, cluttered with unpruned incident. It drums, or drones, or pounds, or patters on. The voice is impatient, vaguely derisive. Many people cannot read a page of even her most likable work, The Man Who Loved Children. This is the best novel I’ve ever read. But I haven’t finished several other Stead books; I just close them suddenly. Something there is about this woman’s prose that can stop a reader cold. In subjects, Stead had a taste for intolerable situations, intolerable people. Like her wretched antiheroine Hennie Pollit, Stead’s language preferred pickles to sweets. Like the Pollit household, it found comfort in dirt, in leavings. Her settings are seedy, her prose unshockable.

Stead had a weakness for wretches, ne’er-do-wells, idealists, bohemians, neurotics, geniuses, slatterns; misinterpretation, oversights, irritation, extremes; deftness, slop, quaintness, baroque blarney, brute directness; physical contraction, mental space. Her sense of the ridiculous was so viselike that when she eased it for a page or sentence the effect was stunning: the conclusion of her last novel, Miss Herbert, six parts snide, one part pure mercy, is like a freefall in a dream. She loved the stuff between categories, and the categories. She was a realist, but her realism concerned meaning. It was a democratic realism, and leftists love her for this, I think, as well as for her ideological ambience. She cared less about the conflict between choice and the inexorables, consequence and inconsequence, pattern and disorder than she did about the mess, and, astonishingly, she caught it. She got it in words.

Stead’s death wasn’t tragic. Hers seems to have been a relatively contented life, its chief disappointment, apparently, her husband’s death in 1968. Perhaps obscurity did hurt her, deeply. But she had a taste for the ridiculous, the intolerable. It’s quite possible that the question of her greatness mattered less to Christina Stead than it does, and will, to us.

Village Voice Literary Supplement, May, 1983