House of All Nations
by Christina Stead
Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 787 pp., $10.00
by John Barth
Random House, 308 pp., $6.95
The Sunlight Dialogues
by John Gardner. originally scheduled for October; now to be published December 6
Knopf, 656 pp., $10.00
F. W. Dupee once wrote of a character in Henry James as falling out of the world and into the universe. Something of this kind has happened to narrative literature: it has fallen out of the novel and into fiction, out of detailed circumstance and into escalating hypotheses. We no longer have a purchase on the social world which is the ground of the novel, and we respond to this by creating vast, simplifying theories of conspiracy, which put us in touch with a rich universe of speculative myths but will not give us Julien Sorel or Anna Karenina or Balzac’s young men.
The patient and multifarious resistance of reality to our wishes no longer seems a major theme: we are more worried about reality’s designs on us, or about its sheer unintelligibility. It is not a question of regretting our losses, of course, but of understanding our condition—the universe of myth may yet give us an Oedipus or an Odysseus of our own anyway. The three books under review, different as they are, come together well enough to tell us what it feels like to fall, or to have fallen, out of the world.
Christina Stead’s House of All Nations, first published in 1938 and a best seller then, is definitely a novel, and a remarkable one. But it is a novel about a disappearing place, curiously lightweight for all its 800-odd pages, a record of the chatter of Europe as it went under, as the pound sterling went off the gold standard, as the Japanese invaded Manchuria, as Hitler began his menacing, unbelievable ascent. It is a novel suspended in air, the earth pulled out from beneath it, caught by the writer the moment before the crash, both of the old genre and of its home and origin, became complete.
Randall Jarrell, writing about Christina Stead’s next book, The Man Who Loved Children, published, to a poor reception, in 1940 and reprinted, belatedly, as a minor classic in 1965, said that an occasional fault in Miss Stead’s writing was “a kind of vivacious, mechanical over-abundance”:
…the observation and invention and rhetoric, set into autonomous operation, bring into existence a queer picaresque universe of indiscriminate, slightly disreputable incidents. Reading about them is like listening to two disillusioned old automata gossiping over a cup of tea in the kitchen.
This is even truer of House of All Nations than it is of The Man Who Loved Children, but the pejorative note is out of place here. The book is too long, flounders a bit in its profusion somewhere just before the middle, but generally it is just this sense of a world rattling on without any kind of control or supervision that makes the novel work the way it does. If its characters don’t move us and haunt us as those of The Man Who Loved Children do, it crackles with epigrams which evoke a whole civilization awash in its wisecracks: “Life is …