Monday, November 1, 2010

Christina Stead

November, 2010: I suddenly remembered I had Christina Stead's For Love Alone (1945) sitting on my shelf, as yet unread. What a treat!

To me, it's a very detailed depiction of a relationship - I mean, a love-relationship. In many books, any love-relationships between the characters will be part of the background, with the story running across the top. Or a love affair will be an episode, not the story itself. Even love stories - for example, Jane Austen's novels, or D.H.L.'s Lady Chatterley's Lover - tend to depict the act of falling in love, or the meandering way two people got together, rather than the relationship itself, its day-to-day workings. It's almost as if there's an assumption that all relationships are the same from there on. Of course, that's patently untrue. Novels about relationships are hard to write (and read): they're long, gruelling, full of fastidious details, full of what you would call, if you were one of the two in the relationship, "nit-picking". Anna Karenina is a story about a love-relationship. One of the things I remember about it is that where a love-story would end (the two lovers have finally surmounted the obstacles and can be together), Anna Karenina goes on, and on, even past the point where a tragic-love-story would end. Anna Karenina reminded me of Henry Handel Richardson's Maurice Guest (which I had read a couple of years previously): another relentless book documenting the beginning and end of a relationship (of a sort) between two music students in Leipzig.

To be with Johnathon Crow, Teresa Hawkins travels from Sydney to London (between the Wars), having slaved away at a badly-paid (women's wages) job, scrimped, and nearly starved herself to death in order to save up for the passage. The descriptions of Teresa's half-starved existence in 1930s Sydney reminded me of the graphic detail in Knut Hamsun's Hunger(damn! Who did I lend my copy to? A rat had chewed a hole in the cover). On page 445 of For Love Alone (500 pages), Johnathon finally admits, to Teresa's soon-to-be new lover, "I enjoyed her misery." I thought, "That's the sentence this book is about!" It's so hard to understand another person - just one other person. As you enter into a love-relationship with someone, their differences often become increasingly less, not more, fathomable. Perhaps Stead had experienced, close up, a person like Johnathon, who could put a lover through five or six years of pain and unhappiness, and then say, at the end, "I enjoyed her misery." It takes a whole novel to fathom a statement like that; and to fathom how warm-hearted Teresa got herself into a relationship with a cold-hearted sadist, and then got herself out.

Stead's writing reminds me of my flatmate Enrique's painting style: what seems like a busy mass of blobs and quick strokes, drips, mistakes, boot-prints, gradually reveals itself to be a really clearly, precisely executed scene. Enrique hung a painting up in our kitchen - a person drinking a cup of tea, but where? in what setting? Enrique wouldn't tell. After weeks of eyeing the painting, I suddenly saw - it was in our own kitchen! There it all was, the cupboard with the door slightly hanging off its hinges, the window, the noticeboard, the mug I'd bought in Cowra Vinnies. "For Love Alone is as rough around the edges and as messy as a work by a major writer could be," writes Peter Craven in the introduction. After reading that, I didn't bother to read the rest of what Craven had to say, though "very nearly Mills and Boon for serious readers" also unfavourably caught my eye. Just because a novel is about love, doesn't mean it's a romance - jeez! Cormac McCarthy is "Mills and Boon for serious (namely, male) readers". And I mean that in a derogatory way. It's characteristic of a Stead novel that only at the end, or even a few days after finishing it, have I realised what it was about. That's a really satisfying feeling.

Is this romantic, just because it's about love? To me, it's almost terrifying:

Most young women are surprised to find themselves with a lover at all; the oblique remarks and casual slurs of relatives, the naked domestic drama and hate of parent and child, leads them to the belief that love does not exist, that it is a flare-up between the sexes, a fever, or a nugget which must be capitalised as soon as found. They are brought up with the idea that their cousins and aunts do what is next-door to blackmail, robbery, and a confidence trick to get married at all. They secretly agree with the Johnathon Crows that they are failures, freaks, if they don't. They love, but they are taught that their love is ridiculous, old-fashioned, unseemly, and inopportune, an obstacle to their life-game, an actual menace to their family society and to the lives of their children to be, for "show a man you love him and he runs in the opposite direction". This was her aunt's timid belief. A poor woman has only one property, her body; passion destroys all relations and liquidates property. So that open love is a serious stain on her character, even if she is as pure as the Virgin.

I quoted this bit to Bella on the phone the other day, talking about the biological differences between men and women, and what effect that has on us - women have an end, a kind of death, in the middle of their lives, when they can't have children any longer, but men don't have that, their first death is the big one:

Quick bounced up and down the room again, and quoted Jonathan aloud: "Christ gave no hostages to fortune." Then he rushed on: "Woman is haunted - as no man is haunted - by the fear of biological failure. She's desperate! They live contingently! And he knows it, the spider! We are allowed to doubt, they never."

If a man had written that women are desperate, it probably would have raised my hackles.

I liked this speech from a man who tries to pick up Teresa in Sydney:

"Look, wouldn't you go to a movie with me? I don't want anything, only your company. I just want to go to the movies with someone. I never spoke to no one," he said, lapsing suddenly. "I've been here seven days and the girls don't want to talk to you. I'm all right. I'm a counter man in a little ham-and-beef up there, on the other side of the station, in Mortdale. I saved up the whole year to come to Sydney for me holidays. They always say Sydney is lively. I never met nobody here. Yesterday, I took the train up to Arncliffe. I just took any ticket. The day before I went to the Zoo, I spoke to a couple of girls but they wouldn't speak to me. I came back. I've got a room in Darlinghurst."

He depresses the hell out of Teresa and she hurries away. She's too close to being just like him.

And a rape anecdote that Jonathan tells to Teresa, to make himself sound like a man of the world. The nonchalance with which Jonathan retails it is shocking:

"Anyhow, the girl turned back to make the bed and Burton, furious at being answered with his friends there - for I suppose he half-believes that rot of his - brutally pushed her onto the bed and invited one of the chaps to attack her. They were scared of course, so he tried to, but she twisted out of his grasp, although he's a hefty fellow - but shaky just then - and she rushed out of the room, bellowing. What a shindy! Wow! She ran downstairs, crying for the landlady. Do you know what the fellow did? A regular gallow's-bird. You've got to admire his almighty nerve in a way, none of us would have had the brass - it was this gentleman pose - he leaned over the stairhead and shouted to the landlady to send the girl up to do his filthy room, if not he'd leave that very day. That was pushing his gall pretty far, considering what he owed in rent there. What was his pull? The old lady was sweet on him, I imagine. The girl was crying downstairs and telling what was the matter, and Burton yelling upstairs. What a din! Some of the fellows were making a row too. Would you believe it? The landlady wouldn't believe the girl and sent her up, to satisfy him, and he raped her, and a couple of the other fellows did, but we just sat and grinned. What a scene!" he finished reminiscently, but with a sidelong glance at her.

Another woman, Clara, falls in love with Jonathan (I'm working backwards through my dog-eared pages):

"There's something about being a woman. I simply want to be a cave woman when I think of you. I want to work for you, I'd wait on you, I'd wash your feet and dry them with my hair."

"Like Jesus," said Jonathan.

"Yes," she said grudgingly, "like Jesus. As Martha, as Mary - but I wasn't thinking of Jesus."

"No, I know, slavery is a kind of instinct with women."

"We call it love."

"I call it the instinct of the millennial slave."