Lauris Edmond: (Not) getting to know them

Christina Stead: A Biography
Hazel Rowley
Heinemann Australia, $A49.95

Dennis Lee
Brick Books, Box 38 Station B, London Ontario Canada N6A 4V3

The only way for an Australian writer to make an impression in New Zealand is to come here, to be seen and heard, as in readers and writers week of the International Festival of the Arts. (The situation in reverse is perhaps even worse ‑ for New Zealanders to be seen and known in Australia they have to live there, as Rosie Scott does, Stephanie Johnson, Caroline Macdonald, and others.)

I exaggerate, of course. Patrick White is widely known and respected here ‑ even though when he came here he was old and cross, and would talk only about peace, not literature. And David Malouf was read here before he gave his memorable radio interviews in 1990, when he was at the Wellington festival. I suppose Peter Carey is known to many New Zealand readers too, likewise Albert Facey (A Fortunate Life), Helen Garner, Stephanie Dowrick… But we are still deplorably ignorant about the major literature flourishing next door to us. We tend to look to our parents, culturally speaking, and resist too close a proximity to others of our own generation.

In one notable instance, we share this ignorance with Australians themselves. Christina Stead has sometimes been likened to the great Patrick White himself, in novelist’s insight, breadth of vision, originality and imaginative power; yet she has been grossly neglected in her country of origin. Here she is scarcely known at all.

One of the scholars to set about recovering this lost treasure is Hazel Rowley, who has recently published a long and fascinating biographical study of Christina Stead. It is in the best traditions of biography, the patterns of cause and effect, the illuminating links and contrasts so meticulously developed that to read it is to live through their lives alongside the characters, with the tension and suspense of the novel thrown in.

Christina Stead, like Katherine Mansfield, is one of the tragic heroines of early colonial displacement. Like KM, she could not breathe creatively in the narrow and parochial society of the early years of the century (she was born in 1902, left Australia for Europe in 1928). Instead she chose ‑ in her case through a long life ‑ to work, travel, nourish her creative and social imagination in the cosmopolitan communities of England and Europe. She spent years in America too, enjoying the political and artistic sophistication of New York ‑ until she and her husband were threatened with persecution in the McCarthy era.

She was like Katherine Mansfield, too, in that she depended heavily on the love and loyalty of a husband from whom she continually needed to be apart. Bill Blake, like Middleton Murry, was a writer himself who understood the true quality of his wife’s work, problematical though she might be as a companion. (Stead’s letters to Bill have as many tender and rueful declarations of affection, made from a distance, as Mansfield’s to Murry.) Hazel Rowley’s biography is remarkable on many counts, not least because it is a complex and sensitive portrayal of a marriage.

We expect of literary biography that it will illuminate the subject’s work, bring it to a wider public, in some sense “explain” it. Christina Stead’s novels published in her lifetime aroused conflicting responses. They were brilliant, strange, terrifyingly truthful, too close to the bone. Patrick White said she was Australia’s literary giant, Saul Bellow that his Nobel Prize should have gone to her. Yet publishers were wary, novels which sold out were not reprinted, many readers were shocked by the sharpness of their social criticism and the unfashionable sympathies they expressed. Now, partly thanks to Hazel Rowley’s comprehensive and compelling study, it seems that the novels are receiving a fresh critical focus.

My own view is that though occasionally overwritten, Stead’s writing has a psychological insight and power to match any of the great masters of the fictional form ‑ Henry James, Jane Austen, Katherine Mansfield herself. The Man Who Loved Children, a fictional study of her highly dramatic father, For Love Alone, a hypnotic love story, and Miss Herbert (The Suburban Houswife) are essential reading for anyone who wants to understand the depth and range of the modern novel. All are available in New Zealand; so, with the co‑operation of booksellers, is Christina Stead: A Biography. Governments promote our closer economic relations with big brother across the Tasman; it is left to the readers and thinkers of both countries to attend to the cultural connections. Sibling rivalry shouldn’t prevent our doing so.

Among the readings given at this year’s readers and writers week, the Canadian poet Dennis Lee’s was arguably the most inventive and stylish. A writer of exhilarating nonsense verse for children, as well as deeply serious and thoughtful adult poetry, he was able to conjure up from moment to moment accents and cadences of the clown, mimic, verbal gymnast, the passionate lyricist or eloquent philosopher. The fact that his adult poetry is not really known in New Zealand ‑ and even since the festival not available except by order through bookshops, or a direct approach to Canadian publishers ‑ highlights another gap in New Zealand literary perception.

If we are ignorant about Australian writing and not greatly helped by the publishers who could better inform us, the Canadian case is worse. Yet the Canadian writers whose work has come to us through international channels ‑Michael Ondaatje, Margaret Atwood, Timothy Findley, Alice Munro, Malcolm Lowry, and most recently Carol Shields ‑ have a particularly strong appeal for New Zealand readers.

Poetry has a smaller, slightly more specialised readership than fiction; probably it travels more slowly. That doesn’t stop me wishing that more readers could know the expansive delight there is to be had in reading Dennis Lee’s Riffs.

Riffs as in jazz ‑ the “brief melodic figure improvised by a soloist” ‑ and these short, sometimes explosive, often breathtakingly unexpected poems seem to have in them the very breath of improvisation. If every poet hopes to sound spontaneous, whatever the private labour required, Riffs supremely achieves this impression.

The speaking voice of the poems is so strong, so alive, that even when you are alone with them you seem to be listening rather than reading. There isn’t one voice though, there are several. It’s a verse drama, acting out a love affair through every phase ‑ ecstasy, bravado, disbelief, self‑loathing, eventually a kind of equilibrium. Listen to this:

Some kinda

stunts & wonders? Hocus

focus? Hot cross

nerve ends?

Come on c’mon nice

lady, we ain’t got all

lifetime! … Indefatigablyadored one:

please to

appear on the sheet right nosy, called up by

succulent, shrinkwrapped, whollyrefundable me.

This is splendid, invigorating writing, a cracklingly original use of language, the kind of vitality that makes your own perceptions fresher and clearer than they ever were before. Order Riffs from your bookshop; you won’t be sorry.

Lauris Edmond is a Wellington poet. Other Christina Stead books include: The Man Who Loved Children, Penguin Classics, For Love Alone, Angus & Robertson, Miss Herbert, Virago, Seven Poor Men of Sydney, Angus & Robertson.

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