Like The Man Who Loved Children, Miss Stead’s first book in nearly two decades is mainly a set of characterizations developed through resourceful dialogue. Since the earlier novel concentrated on a family a general theme unavoidably materialized, though the willingness of some critics to take the Pollits as the essential modern family can almost be taken as slander. Miss Stead seemed to be raising social issues, both in Sam’s patronizing behavior to the natives on his Malayan trip and in the class warfare lying beneath the Pollit’s horrible mismating. Yet what one remembers from this novel are not its thematic qualities but Henny’s tirades and Sam’s nauseating baby-talk.
Dark Places of the Heart is even foggier conceptually, and may seem, as a consequence, even more aimless. Its heroine, a radical Fleet Street hack with a squalid family in some northern province, has received her education in a frequently mentioned but dimly perceived ambiance of London socialism and promiscuity. But if Miss Stead meant that Nellie Cotter’s history corresponds to an ironic decadence in the welfare state (in Britain the book is called Cotter’s England), she has, once more, been obscure about it. As in the earlier novel, her central characters, a brother and sister this time, overwhelm their background.
Fortunately, Tom and Nellie have considerable force. Though a lady’s man, Tom Cotter is androgynous, self-pitying, and passive. Proclaiming himself a stony-hearted waif, he inspires in the women he conquers and does not love, maternal sentiment and sexual pride. At our first meeting, Tom stands firmly at the side of his dying mistress, but only, we soon surmise, to gain public recognition of his heroic fidelity. For Tom, each woman is a mirror for his charm, or a reward for his wistfulness.
Second-rate in all else, his sister Nellie is a virtuoso of opportunism, who can drain triumph even from self-abasement. She laments her family’s poverty (“I don’t understand those who don’t feel this terrible tender guilt towards their parents. It’s a crushing burden, darling: it is”), but only for the solace in such guilt (“we have known life and love and it was denied to them”). She rails, in and out of print, at the miserable lot of workingmen, but her sympathy subtly flatters her own condition. Not one of Nellie’s attitudes is straight or true to facts. She regards her marriage as “perfection,” but her husband is always in pursuit of humbler pleasures; in Geneva, in Rome, with her servants and boarders: anywhere and with anyone to escape Nellie’s non-stop chain-smoking, drinking, and raving which invariably end in coughing fits.
PRECARIOUSLY BIRD-LIKE, her breasts, as she says, “a bunch of scallions,” Nellie is a frantic woman staving off despair behind a wall of words. Though her self-deceptions are raucous, we and the other characters are deafened to them “by the inner melody of her northern voice and its unexpected cry, its eloquence…Yet eloquence gives her lies the authority of truth only until the deepest lie is exposed. Fiercely feminist, Nellie runs a boarding house for female castaways; but it is also a bawdy house for her secret desires. What her eloquence cannot gild is her lesbian lechery.
So powerful is Nellie that the author can scarcely contain her. The book’s only striking event is also embarrassingly melodramatic: a suicide forced by Nellie on a colorless girl whom she had sought to dominate. The death does not seal Nellie’s lips; Miss Stead maintains her acrid portrayal of a force which reality cannot daunt. But so lurid an episode is ill-suited to establish Miss Stead’s notion of the puniness of tragedy; and Nellie herself has been too well drawn for us to need this demonstration of her viciousness.
The suicide is featured on the jacked blurb for the American edition, which, with a lugubrious sketch of Nellie and the too inclusive title, would indicate that Miss Stead’s American publishers have not been fair to the book. Thus, many reviewers have understandably called the novel obvious (which the suicide is), gratuitous (which the hints of Nellie’s exemplary nature are), and heavy. In fact, Dark Places of the Heart is very funny. One has only to note the ending. Although Nellie’s husband leaves her after the girl’s suicide, he is soon telephoning desperately from Geneva:
“They won’t let me stay as a bachelor, they insist upon wives!… They put beautiful girls in my office and then say, Bring your wife! I was brought here under false pretenses.” “God bless Europe,” said Nellie.
When George dies, Nellie goes back to Cotter’s England, but Miss Stead avoids paying out the wages of sin. Hardy as ever, Nellie turns right face and becomes a spiritualist.
For all its defects, Miss Stead’s book discovers surprising vitality in such human waste. But this impressive novel will not reach the audience it deserves so long as it is compared unfavorably to The Man Who Loved Children. Justice to the present book demands some exposure of its inflated predecessor. Randall Jarrell called it “as plainly good as Crime and Punishment and Remembrance of Things Past are plainly great,” only to announce, in an even more strenuous instance of handover-hand criticism, that “it was better than most of the novels people call great.” But Christina Stead is a minor writer; both novels have similar faults, nor is The Man Who Loved Children superior. Longer, it is also more tedious; its political theme is redundant; and Sam Pollit taken as an ironic portrait of self-righteous egoism is more obviously loathesome than Nellie. We have the same reliance on melodrama, and the dialogue is more monotonous. Henny is a more brilliant character than Nellie, but there is too much of her. The Man Who Loved Children is more intensely articulated, but less stringent and spirited.
AS IMPORTANT A REDISCOVERY as The Man Who Loved Children, The Collected Works of Jane Bowles poses a more serious challenge to the reviewer. Whatever else one might object to in Miss Stead, her writing is not modish. Surrounding Mrs. Bowles’s art is an effluvium of chic despair which will alienate many readers. On the other hand, her work can easily be over-valued since it combines proud idiosyncrasy with a rather startling prescience (her novel, Two Serious Ladies, published in 1943, forecast the current vogue of comic gothicism). When that book first appeared here, reviewers could damn it with a clear conscience: modernism had not yet become an obligatory mass fashion. (On its first English appearance last year, the Times Literary Supplement, marching resolutely backward in its sensible shoes, still stomped it to bits.) Today in the United States, where the cultivated reader feels duty-bound to be affronted. Mrs. Bowles’s controlled derision is likely to seem the definitive force of civilized disgust.
Surely her indictments have an easy inclusiveness. Like her husband, Paul, Mrs. Bowles writes tight little anecdotes about the pull of bestiality, an unexpected form of self-fulfillment. Like her husband’s stories, hers pit the weak against the strong, the righteous against the sensual, only to record a general rout. Though her tales lack his intellectual clarity, they have greater charm.
Two Serious Ladies follows the adventures of two wacky souls. Rich Christina Goering is one of those “fanatics who think of themselves as leaders without once having gained the respect of a single human being.” Seeking salvation, she makes opportunities of other people; when her needle reaches its goal on the spiritual applause meter, her goodness abruptly stops. Fluttery Mrs. Copperfield, downtrodden by a selfish husband, nevertheless has one “sole object in life…to be happy, although people who had observed her behavior over a period of years would have been surprised to discover that this was all.”
Out of strange charitable impulses, Christina takes a female companion, a succession of male lovers, and becomes a Samaritan of polite promiscuity. Mrs. Copperfield is dragged to Panama by her husband, where she discovers in herself a fund of willfulness to match Christina’s. She installs herself in a disreputable hotel and takes up with a native prostitute. Ironically, Mrs. Copperfield gets what she has always wanted. To Christina’s censorious concern in the book’s last scene, she replies, with her fist meanly rapping on the table:
“True enough…I have gone to pieces, which is a thing I’ve wanted to do for years. I know I am as guilty as I can be, but I have my happiness, which I guard like a wolf, and I have authority now and a certain amount of daring, which, if you remember correctly, I never had before.”
Shocked, Christina confirms her chilling logic:
“Certainly I am nearer to becoming a saint,” reflected Miss Goering, “but is it possible that a part of me hidden from my sight is piling sin upon sin as fast as Mrs. Copperfield?” This latter possibility Miss Goering thought to be of considerable interest but of no great importance.
The book’s final sentence reveals that glacial disregard for “significance” which makes Two Serious Ladies wonderfully self-possessed, but elusive. In a novel without recognizable motivation, whose characters do not so much communicate as collide, where all interstices of life and logic are effaced, the parallels in the stories of the two women are too slight to provide the structure and carry the meaning. Nor do the parallel situations support the scrutiny they seem to invite.
To be sure, there are hints of purpose scattered about. “One must allow,” Christina suggests before a tryst, “that a certain amount of carelessness in one’s nature often accomplishes what the will is incapable of doing.” And, as Mrs. Copperfield casually asserts on another occasion, “No one among my friends speaks any longer of character…what interests us most…is finding out what we are like.” But these hints never become more than hints. Too often, Mrs. Bowles is seduced by the bizarre behavior of her characters. And our wish to find life in her shadow play finally becomes mere nervous interest.
Her play, In the Summer House, is more likely to attract the uninitiated—the highlighting of drama is a distinct advantage. Christina reappears as Gertrude Eastman Cuevas, a martinet who “believes in using controls,” and Mrs. Copperfield becomes Mrs. Constable, a quavery-voiced sparrow with reserves of bilious clarity. Their confrontation creates a mood of tormented longing and rough-house comedy which is one of the few native expansions of theatrical emotion. On the stage, in 1954, the play worked splendidly, though the marvelous performances of Judith Anderson, Mildred Dunnock, and Jean Stapleton failed to attract large audiences.
The Collected Works also include some short stories, but most of these are mere moral muckraking. The locales are exotic, the prose is distinctive and the dialogue funny; but the plots are too familiar: repressed eccentrics acknowledging the lure of the flesh. Here too, however, there is one good piece, “A Stick of Green Candy,” an “absurd” variation on the stock theme of awakening adolescence.
CHRISTINA STEAD and Jane Bowles are genuinely quirky writers. Hortense Calisher cultivates her oddness, but she is much too earnest to be more than a soggy sport. Confronted with her banal themes, reviewers customarily praise her style. But why? Her prose is witless, awkwardly shifting in tone, selfcongratulatory. One scene in Textures of Life, in which the heroine, searching for a loft apartment, suffers traumas of class guilt when she must dispossess some starving beatniks, should make anyone immune to Miss Calisher’s inflations.
In her most recent novel, Journal from Ellipsia, she envisages another planet whose inhabitants are so self-sufficient that they lack sex, yet so free from the interesting stresses of earthly life that at least one of them yearns to become earth-bound. This is accomplished when a lady anthropologist working at a “think tank” in the Ramapo Hills decides to exchange places. Most of the novel consists of a journal recording the elliptoid’s education in the ways of humanity. But Miss Calisher is less interested in the methods of interstellar turncoating than in making murky observations about love and woman’s role. In place of plot, we get portentous earth-bound generalities and intergalactic patois.
Neither species speaks very clearly. Miss Calisher is devoted to the unfinished sentence, the cryptic utterance (the book, alas, is elliptical); when illumination threatens, she merely confuses her pronouns. Which is perhaps unavoidable; it’s not only the elliptoids who lack clear sexual differentiation. One of the human males thinks of his mistress as “a jampot for boys,” and in a moment of passion, she expresses herself like this:
“…I’ve been thinking…I-me imperturbable in the world, the universe. But how could he, anybody be, as long as he still admits the I-me part?”
Whereupon her lover, understandably wishing to shut her up, “plant[s] a kiss on the mouth and [seeks] its arch.”
Breaking in on these bizarre erotic rites, Miss Calisher displays and displays her wisdom. A few examples:
A philosopher can know better than to hunt the philosopher’s stone, and yet suspect that the very act of knowing is as sad as it is wise.
Nor is there anybody more humbly expectant of change than a man who despairs of the absolute.
From the elliptoid’s ultimate discovery:
And I said to myself the old message for messiahs that I now say to you. What is humane? The small distance. What is wild? The mortal weight. Wherever there is difference, there—is morality. Where there is brute death, there love flits, the shy observer. I had my feelings now, those mysterious pains which held them to living. And I said a blessing for all those who live in mystery. The wilderness was all before me—and I was glad that I had come.
Compared to such complacency, Nellie’s raving and Mrs. Bowles’s moral lemmings have a certain bright appeal.
December 15, 1966