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Thoughts on Christina Stead’s writing in For love alone

November 3, 2013

I can’t resist writing another post on Christina Stead‘s For love alone, which I reviewed recently. Usually in my reviews I make some comments about the writing, but that review was getting so long that I decided to leave that discussion for another day.

I’m embarrassed to admit that For love alone is my first Stead. I’ve been wanting to get to her for the longest time, but somehow other books kept getting in the way. I’ll admit too that I was a bit nervous – as I’d heard over the years that she was difficult to read, or that her books were too miserable. Fortunately, I found neither of these to be the case with this novel. From the first chapter I was hooked. The book does have a little prologue which I enjoyed, but it was the first chapter that really got me in – and it got me in primarily because of its writing.

I love writing that plays with words and this is what I found in chapter one. Take for example this use of the word “bending” in an exchange between the heroine Teresa and her father (pp. 11-12):

“… I am in love again, with a young woman, a woman of thirty, a – ” His voice dropped. He came towards her, seized her arms and looked into her face without bending. “A wonderful, proud looking woman, pure in soul. “My whole life is wrapping itself around her, so I’m glad you brought it up for you will understand later on -”

She angrily shook her arms free. “Don’t touch me, I don’t like it.”

He sighed and turned his shoulder to her. “That is no way to treat men, men don’t like an unbending woman.”

“I am unbending.”

“You will be sorry for it.”

Then a few sentences down, her father says to her about flirtatious, coaxing behaviour in women:

“If, I say, you should ever be tempted to tricks like that, thinking to please some man, remember that they detest those tricks and see through them. They know they are traps, mean little chicane to bend them to women’s purpose.”

This is such a clever and telling exchange. It immediately tells us something about the father, the daughter and their relationship, about the likely themes of the novel (particularly given the title) and, though we don’t know it, it sets up future exchanges with Jonathan Crow who often talks of women trapping men.

A couple pages on is a another exchange in the family in which the idea of “honour” is played with and twisted. Stead, I sensed, was a writer I was going to like.

This, however, is not all that captured me in the first chapter. There were also several oxymorons (oxymora?) that added to the sense of slipperiness. Teresa’s room is described as “an inviting cell” and her brother, Lance, as “chaste and impure”. In the next chapter, a womanising dockhand is “agreeably sinister”.

It is language like this – ironic, satirical, biting – that keeps me reading, particularly in early stages of books where I’m not sure what is happening. I enjoy this sort of language because it challenges our preconceptions and can set a strong tone. (I do like a strong tone.) Mostly, though, such language tells me that the novel in question is likely to be multi-layered and that I’d better be ready to look beneath the surface.

Stead also writes beautiful, evocative descriptions. Christina Houen, commenting on my review of the book, referred to Stead’s description of Sydney. Stead herself grew up on Sydney Harbour. Here is the description Christina referred to. It occurs as Teresa is returning home after the wedding that opens the book:

It was high tide at nine-thirty that night in February and even after ten o’clock the black tide was glassy, too full for lapping in the gullies. Up on the cliffs, Teresa could see the ocean flooding the reefs outside, choking the headlands and swimming to the landing platforms of jetties in the bays. It was long after ten when Teresa got to the highest point of the seaward cliffs and turning there, dropped down to the pine-grown bay by narrow paths and tree-grown boulders, trailing her long skirt, holding her hat by a ribbon. From every moon-red shadow came the voices of men and women; and in every bush and in the clumps of pine, upon unseen wooden seats and behind rocks, in the grass and even on open ledges, men and women groaned and gave shuddering cries as if they were being beaten. She passed slowly, timidly, but fascinated by the strange battlefield, the bodies stretched out, contorted, with sounds of the dying under the fierce high moon. She did not know what the sounds were, but she knew children would be conceived this night, and some time later women would marry hurriedly, if they could, like one of her cousins who had slept the night with a man in one of these very grottoes; and perhaps one or two would jump into the sea. There were often bodies fished up around here, that had leapt when the heart still beat, from these high ledges into waters washed around these rocks by the moon. (Beginning of Ch. 5)

I won’t even try to unpack all this, but I’m sure you can see how intense and dense it is. It’s ambiguous about love and sex – and this ambiguity underlies the whole book, right through to – and beyond – its resolution.

Oh, and then there’s her facility with dialogue, her imagery, her literary and classical allusions – but again this post is starting to get long. Maybe another day!

24 Comments leave one →
  1. November 4, 2013 2:28 am

    You’re not the only one who’s been meaning to get to Stead. Party of two. Thanks for the nudge.

    • November 4, 2013 8:27 am

      Oh good … But I’m Aussie so I SHOULD have long ago. Have you one in mind, Guy?

      • November 7, 2013 2:54 am

        I’m thinking of The Man Who Loved Children

        • November 7, 2013 8:16 am

          Ah yes, Guy, that would have been my first, but I was more than happy with this as the choice as these two are the best known ones and it’s good sometimes to start with those isn’t it?

  2. November 4, 2013 8:14 am

    Yes, I loved this book. But not as much as The Man Who Loved Children. That was her masterpiece, I believe. Utterly probing and heart-stopping.

    • November 4, 2013 8:29 am

      Thanks, Sara, I do aim to read that one day. It would have been my first but my reading group with whom I read this had read it before when I was living OS. I’ve heard so much about it … Of course.

    • November 7, 2013 1:52 am

      I’d go along with that assessment, “her masterpiece,” “but then,” says a voice in me, “what does that mean for House of All Nations, which is another stunner, which does its thing superbly too, but that thing is less intimate than the family drama in Children, and gets her less attention?” That one should be prescribed to everybody who thinks Stead is “miserable,” because the tone is so racy and so glad and so excited. And The People With the Dogs as well, they should all read that, especially the middle section, which is so mellow and so sunny even though a vine is strangling a house and the dogs are bullying the grocer’s boy.

      • November 7, 2013 8:18 am

        A vine strangling the house and dogs bullying the grocer’s boy. Sounds intriguing, DKS. I do need to read more of her I can see.

        • November 8, 2013 2:20 am

          No responsible reader alive can afford to pass up an opportunity to read about a really good bullied grocer’s boy. Macbeth would have been ten times more tragic if the male lead had delivered a sausage to somebody at some point. The vine’s another one of those big, swelling, self-extrapolating monstrous inventions of hers, like Love’s lapping sea and the high tide (she has so many of these swelling things now that I think of it, and the characters in this regard are treated like things — they swell too), but this time if the reader wanted a metaphor-word for that thing (the vine) they wouldn’t say, “Sex,” or “Lust,” or “Eros,” as they could if they were talking about the sea, they’d say — sloth? Comfort? Good fortune? Pleasure? Abundance. Familiarity. Something like that. (“Edward looked quietly at everything and had no desire to go upstairs or downstairs. Every tree and every acre had a meaning to him: this was his native soil.” Kept still by fullness, an elementary desire is realised.) The family in the house is a bickering but pleasurous family, not like the strangling Laocoön-group families in Love and Children, and yet there’s that idea of the smother. Edward has to go back to the hard-faced city after his time with them and face some romantic hardships so that the book can end.

        • November 8, 2013 7:53 am

          You’re convincing me … Though perhaps I should look at Ocean of story which I actually have here. The writing is so full and delicious. You can wallow in it.

  3. November 4, 2013 8:15 am

    Beautiful, thank you. I love this sort of close textual analysis; and this is a text which richly repays it. We’re agreed on that high scene, it is magnificent. And I’m still haunted by the descriptions of the father in the early scenes; his sinister, manipulative, selfish presence is replaced as the novel progresses by Jonathan Crow. Both men who are cruel and dominatiing, but Crow lacks the father’s magnificence. Stead very well conveys what an attractive man her father was despite his shallowness. I did miss the Sydney scene when we get to London, especially the scenes set around the harbour. It is conveyed in lyrical prose, like a love song.

    • November 4, 2013 8:32 am

      I agree, Christina .. She really did bring Sydney alive. I enjoyed the description of London, Bloomsbury etc but it didn’t zing quite the same way. And that opening chapter … Wow! Yet some of my friends wanted to give up there … They didn’t like it. Different tastes …

  4. November 4, 2013 8:15 am

    I didn’t mean ‘high scene’, I meant night scene!

    • November 4, 2013 8:34 am

      LOL …I’m sure most of us would have guessed. That scene was so vivid. So much to say about it. Teaching it to writing students though may make them want to give up there and then!

  5. November 5, 2013 7:34 pm

    Ahhh beautiful. I shall be ordering a new copy. I think Stead grew up in Watsons Bay so she must have watched many moons over the harbour. It’s the part of Sydney I love the most.

    • November 5, 2013 8:57 pm

      Yes, you’re right, Catherine, she did … there’s been some controversy about plans to change the house. The language is beautiful isn’t it.

  6. ian darling permalink
    November 7, 2013 1:10 am

    I am another who has only read Man Who Loved Children which actually seems such an American book. That was such a brilliant novel – must read some more of Stead.

    • November 7, 2013 8:20 am

      That’s great that you’ve read it, Ian … I think others below have explained the American book business. Such can be the life … More so in the past …of an Australian writer.

  7. November 7, 2013 6:16 am

    Stop it! Stop it! You are near to ruining my November reading plan! The only thing that saved it was my library doesn’t have the book and I will need to get it through interlibrary loan so need to plan for the book. But I fear if you write about Stead one more time I will throw all caution to the wind, you wicked, wicked woman! 🙂

    • November 7, 2013 8:21 am

      I’m thinking of it Stefanie! I love the rhythm in the book too … The changes of pace to match character and mood are wonderful too! More thoughts might just be coming up, if I can find the time!

  8. November 7, 2013 7:16 am

    It wasn’t American. It was set in Chesapeake Bay because that was how she could get it published. But the Sam Pollitt character was based on her father, David Stead, and the novel is highly if not wholly autobiographical. I agree about the others – House of Nations is remarkable. A great Australian writer.

    • November 7, 2013 8:23 am

      Thanks for answering that for me Sara … Depressing that she had to replace the Sydney Harbour with Chesapeake Bay. They are not much like each other, as I recollect anyhow!

  9. November 8, 2013 2:36 am

    … you could even (I posted my last comment and thought of another thing) — you could even imagine a conversation between the middle section of The People with the Dogs and Murry Bail’s speech from the Australian landscape conference. Here’s Stead, an Australian writer, who can very much describe a oneness with “native soil,” and who is going up against the notion that this easy familiarity is somehow an inherent blessed good which is a perspective that Bail and the others seem to have swallowed without question. I’m not rereading the speeches now, but I don’t believe that any of them ever suggest that this dirt-cuddling comfort is anything other than desirable. Is it though? Doesn’t that assumption deserve to be turned over and wondered at? Couldn’t someone be a contrarian and say that this let’s-be-absolutely-comfy-in-our-environment thing is essentially a suburban aspiration?

    • November 8, 2013 8:02 am

      Good questions … I don’t think Bail though was applauding easy familiarity. I think he was saying Australians USE it to define themselves, I think in fact quite a few speakers were suggesting an uneasy familiarity – and historically there’s been a fear – but they were mostly I think wanting something closer. Checking out that aspiration would be an interesting thing to explore further.

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