“An Unread Book” is Randall Jarrell’s title for his first-rate Introduction to Christina Stead’s The Man Who Loved Children—so it seems that none of us needs to feel personally ashamed of somehow never quite having heard of the book. The literary world as a whole, though, ought to be ashamed. A few critics, most notably Elizabeth Hardwick, stood up to be counted—on the fingers of one hand. But even now, twenty-five years after its first publication, one can’t help thinking that there is probably as much good luck as good management in its reissue and acclaim. Our grateful excitement at discovering a marvelous neglected novel oughtn’t to relax us into all’s well that ends well. The Man Who Loved Children must now be safely home, but it only scraped there. Who can now be so sure that achievement is bound to win in the end? The history of this one book is a piercing accusation against that part of the literary world which is bemused by modernisms and insatiably demands not that books be kept alive but that more books be born. Et dona ferentes…Continue to beware of publishers even when they come bearing gift-horses.
The Man Who Loved Children is superb as both a telescope and a microscope. It sweeps horizons as confidently and commandingly as it sweeps to bacteria. As Mr. Jarrell says, no other novel makes so scrupulous, so passionate, and so convincing a study of a family—and with such generalizing force that one immediately expands that to the family. Samuel Clemens Pollit, who loved children, and his wife Henny, who often did not love children at all but yet almost always respected them as Sam never does: this marriage is rendered with brilliant specificity and sense of context. The seven children are a living, changing family—not, as so often, an artful background. Instead of “realistic” eruptions of child-life which then relapse (out of sight, out of the author’s mind), Miss Stead shows that the children are the element in which the family lives and moves and has its being. Children should be seen and not heard?—a canny precaution for the mediocre novelist. But here the children are not only seen and heard, they are felt, smelled. We blush for them and we instinctively react as their parents. And all this with wit:
“Ernie’s nuts,” said Little-Sam, “he’s always studyin’; he’s a fairy.”
“What did you say?” cried Henny. Little-Sam grinned foolishly while the other boys (except Ernie) looked pleased. After a devious discussion which revealed that Little-Sam used the word for anyone but a football hero, Henny suddenly cried,
“Now pack up, kids, and go to bed.”
The immediately obvious triumph of the book is its sense of speech. The language or rather languages of childhood are caught with brilliance and humor, with a warm response to what is supple and untamed and yet without that romanticism which believes that only wisdom comes out of the mouths-of babes and sucklings. Not knowing how to use words is one of Miss Stead’s central subjects, and this ranges all the way from our start at “fairy,” up through the sensitive recording of children’s attitudes to metaphor and cliché (Ernie, who lives for money, flinches when his mother speaks of his “bottom dollar”), and culminates in the wheedling rhetoric used by Sam. His blood-chilling jocularity, his simulated baby-talk which we cannot but hear as more a relapse into his true babydom than a simulation, his insane energy (“Bounding Health”): all this is heard by Miss Stead—or rather, listened to, since hers is a much more than the art of the tape-recorder. “Quiet, kids,” said Sam, “perpend, give ear: Jo will play us a toon, a little moozic.” Even more important than this is Miss Stead’s sense of convincing falsities of speech. Like George Meredith at his best, she is fascinated by the way we speak to ourselves in the privacy of our skulls, and she is able to remind us of what we would rather forget—that we are all continually employing, to ourselves and to others, a false rhetoric, overblown, indiscriminately theatrical, and yet indisputably ours. Hard for the novelist to differentiate the two ways in which we might use the word “unconvincing.” But Sam’s words ring true in their very hollowness, whether it is the rhetoric of noble anger (“I will not tolerate this everlasting schism”), or of sentimental idealism:
It is just like our poor little silly, funny human life, but it comes to a good end because they are good people underneath all their poor willfulnesses and blindnesses. They really love each other, although they do show a tendency to scratch out each other’s eyes at moments: and then they find they don’t hate each other as much as they thought. People are like that, my Troglodytes minor…
The endless bitter war between Sam and Henny is one in which we are totally involved not simply because we know and care a great deal about them. Certainly their natures, their circumstances, their common pains and hatreds, are all before us—Miss Stead succeeds amazingly in holding all this not only in her head but in her heart. Yet the quarrels, the vituperations, the lunacies, ripple out to become a clash of two distinct systems of judgment. Henny is in some obvious ways crueler than Sam, and especially in her treatment of her stepdaughter Louie. And yet everything that she says and does, however appalling, is evidence that tragedy and suffering mean something to her, can find a place in her heart. Sam is the opposite: “tragedy itself could not worm its way by any means into his heart. Such a thing would have made him ill or mad, and he was all for health, sanity, success, and human love.” All the words which we want to hurl at him—he is impossible, intolerable—are not quite words of moral judgment, or else they are so total an accusation against his whole being that we hesitate to use them. The Man Who Loved Children is not a title of simple irony, because after we retreat from such a “love,” we still have to concede that Sam really did love children. He was “wonderful” with them, with all the irony and non-irony which the word has to include. His first wife had written of him, gently, “He is such a good young man, he is too good to understand people at all”—and we will underrate both him and the book if we take this too as a simple irony. Sam is a Feiffer character, but living in a fully realized world of tragedy. Not a hypocrite at all, but a classic case of the softly aggressive victim. It is all very well that the meek shall inherit the earth, but Sam, disconcertingly, seems to be doing it here and now, his other cheek turning like a top. Miss Stead catches this in five words: “A smile bared his teeth.” Driven unjustly out of his job, pruriently chaste while his wife commits adultery, steeped in unexpected poverty, he yet responds to it all with an energetic unconcern which is at once superhuman and subhuman. When Henny speaks, we wince; when Sam speaks, we blush. When she is at her worst, we wish she were dead; when he is being most himself, we wish we were dead. She lacerates our heart, he makes our heart turn over. It is not easy to pity his immature insensitivity as much as her morbidity, but Miss Stead manages it—she, odd though it may seem, is the woman who loved the man who loved children.
Everything in the book deserves notice. Its narrative skill; its sense of how much it matters to have money; its creation of locality (Washington, Baltimore); its pained insistence on the rights of women and children; its political acuteness, especially in its feeling for what underlies those people and those moments which protest that they are non-political; its presentation of a religious soft-soaping secularism: these are not extraneous but the fiber of the book. The eldest girl, Louie, is wonderfully drawn, so much so that one ought to invoke The Mill on the Floss. And a real feeling of how a family grows and changes is conveyed by the way in which Louie gradually comes to assume more and more of the family’s life and of the book’s meaning. In its sense of growth and of generations, in its generality and specificity, above all in the central place which it accords to feelings of indignation and embarrassment, The Man Who Loved Children is in the best tradition of the nineteenth-century novel.
Alberto Moravia comes badly out of the juxtaposition with Christina Stead. The Fetish and Other Stories is a disappointing collection, where melodramatic anecdotes are expected to carry far more weight then they possibly can. Forty-one stories in less than three hundred pages, with crispness again and again hardening into slickness. It is not simply that the moments themselves are so contrived; the trouble is that the author himself manifests the deficiencies which he exposes in his characters. “The Automaton” is itself an automaton of a story; “Repetition” is too much repetition of the carnal knowingness which Moravia both scrutinizes and displays. His characters act like machines, show mechanical coldness, make automatic gestures. But these observations themselves now seem automatic, and Moravia’s own art shows little of the spontaneous flexibility which alone could authorize his structures. “You’d treated me like a mere object”—the complaint is itself as mechanical as what it deplores, and yet Moravia doesn’t seem to be making this point about the character who speaks. (Even if he were, one could only wonder why Moravia thinks such emptiness worth his unremitting attention.) Lorenzo looks with some scorn at a beautiful woman in her beautiful car against a fine landscape: “A colored illustration from an American magazine, he thought.” But behind the sleek purr of the story one can hear the sound of stones being thrown in glass houses. The car “ran very smoothly, it is true; but it was a smoothness charged with hidden fury, like that of some sly beast with fearsome muscles.” Itself all too like a colored advertisement from an American magazine.
June 17, 1965