This is collection of four novellas by the Australian writer Christina Stead. I read her novel The Man who Loved Children last year and loved it. Most of her books are 500 plus pages, so it was nice to find four short ones bundled together.
The Puzzleheaded Girl
This story sort of starts off like an episode of Mad Men with four young business guys breaking off from their old company to form a new company that does….generic business stuff. As they move into the new office, they have need for a file clerk and hire a young woman named Honor Lawrence. She immediately is a kind of unpleasant person to work with, maybe not that good at the job, and otherwise quite needy. When confronted with whether or not to fire her, confusion about one partner wanting to sleep with her (he doesn’t seem to want to) and an allegiance to Socialism in generic terms helps her keep her job. As the company disbands, the four partners go their separate ways, but in the coming years they have a series of run-ins with Honor Lawrence, who is always just on the precipice of making something with her life and just needs a little money and encouragement from them. Whether she’s about to get married, divorced, or go on a trip with an older female benefactor, she only needs a little. Obviously this all breaks down as they try to figure out what to do with her.
Two obvious connections come to mind for this story: Henry James (IE The Beast in the Jungle) and Herman Melville (Bartleby), but something is off about this story, in that it’s clear that the men are the spotlight of the story, but not the focal point. It always seems like Honor is in the periphery, and there’s a real story to be told about her life, but the story just can’t give up these men. It’s an interesting play on whose story gets to be told and what are the effects of privileging one set over the other.
Like the previous novella, this involves a youngish woman trying to figure out how to be herself in a world in which her entire existence is prescribed, thought to be know, told to her, and given as much. She hates it. She is in Paris with her mother having some sort of vacation or convalescence away from a series of family dramas and she is feeling strong pressure to also go ahead and look for a husband. She doesn’t actually seem to like men very much and in her attempts to eschew that part of life’s expectations and maybe just find a job she is both thwarted and ridiculed. She does make a few vain attempts to connect with a man, but she’s so put off by his maleness and his desires that she can barely handle being around him. For his part, he’s “game” but she doesn’t respect that he’s so willing to keep at it with someone who clearly holds him in such strong contempt.
In the end, it’s not clear if she figures out what she wants.
Here’s a sampling:
” “I have never been able to trust a man. It is very foolish of me” she said. “I want a man I can trust always. I want to rest with him and never to be anxious again. Oh, I have had such a wretched life; perhaps I don’t understand men.”
“Have you ever been ill, nervously ill?”
She laughed. “You mean am I crazy? Oh, no Arthur; oh, how ridiculous!”
“I can’t understand it then.” ”
The Rightangled Creek.
America is a weird place because it’s not as “old” as Europe, but only in the sense of cities and cultures. For what it lacks in specific old buildings that go back 1000 years, it more than makes up for it in primeval spaces that seems utterly devoid of life. Yes, you can find wilderness in Europe and Australia, but you can’t as readily find huge swaths of inky forests and open fields and old farms that have given way to dust. Why else would Hawthorne be able to write about the devil’s minions in his neighbors just in the back woods of eastern Massachusetts? Or how else could Westechester County New York be haunted by the headless horseman of Washington Irving’s America?
In this story, it doesn’t take a malignant force to be occupying a house for a family to be utterly unnerved in its rooms. So when this family moves in, just the very presence is enough to disturb them. Christina Stead did not grow up in the US and so the strange landscape so many of us become somewhat inured to through our childhoods has to seem so eerie and strange when it’s not your usual.
Here’s a sampling of this mostly atmospheric story:
“The summer was fat, steamy, heavy-headed, an obsession. Sam went to town to see ‘the boys,’ and Mr. Thornton was busy. Clare was happy in the Dilleys’ place. She put out food for the animals, and pulled up no plants because each plant is a shelter for some living thing. Once or twice when alone, she herself lay down naked in the center of the weed patch, to get all the sun, lay there drowsy thinking of fertility, surrounded by all the life and love of the beast and plant world, part of the earth life.”
Girl from the Beach.
I am always amazed when I read books of certain era (say 1940s-1980s) with how fast people get married, divorced, remarried, and how little time it takes between knowing someone and wanting to marry them. It’s weird that’s there’s a stigma against unmarried relationships (this book calls it an “affair”) but divorce it totally kosher. Got it.
In this novella, a group of emigres of various nationalities living in Europe post war find themselves in and out of relationships, in and out of stable governments, and in and out of work. The constant is there friend George who always seems to be married to some fresh new thing, usually a young American.
As we come to the final stage of his life, the narrative perspective shifts from him to his newest possible charge, Linda, a 22 from the US who is through with the party life and ready to settle back in the US. It seems George might be able to help her out.
This novel plays on the themes of statelessness sort of creating a lack of culture. It should be no surprise how listless and wayward Americans are in Europe after the war, especially since the most stable country in the world (for white people) awaits them back home. So Europe becomes the place to live out that existence. This desire comes in stark contrast and conflict with older values. Through and through I thought this one was a strong version of this story, even though it wasn’t necessarily the most interesting or cohesive of the stories.