If I haven't posted much about my reading lately, it's because I have been immersed - I use the word advisedly - in an extraordinary (and very long) novel, Christina Stead's The Man Who Loved Children. This is a book that swallows you whole, and demands in turn that you swallow it whole. The world it throws you into is so entire, and so utterly extraordinary, that there are no half measures, no easy accommodations to be made (in this - and to some extent in subject matter - it resembles the work of Ivy Compton Burnett). Published in 1940 and set in Washington and Indianopolis in the 1930s, it is in fact (in shocking fact) closely based on Stead's own Australian childhood in the 1910s. It is, in a sentence, the portait of an unhappy marriage - unhappy on an epic, a monstrous scale - and of the ways in which the two parties to that disastrous mismatch use, abuse and oppress their children in their own cause. Henny, the wife, has become a raging, ranting harridan, still loved by her young children, capable of tenderness, but capable too of turning on them in her rage, a rage so intense and violent that she frequently passes out from the sheer force of it. Why is she like this? The reason is soon apparent, in the shape of her husband Sam, an overgrown child with no understanding of life but with an absolute, unshakable conviction of his own goodness and the rightness of his ideals (which include more than a dash of eugenics). His goodness is him - and so, tragically, are his children. They are his project, and he sees no boundaries between him and them - a fact which is at its most terrible in his relations with his eldest daughter, Louise, the child of his late first wife. He sees himself as telepathically linked to Louise, who can have no life independent of him, no secrets, and who will be mercilessly, shockingly mocked and humiliated if he discovers signs of independent life - all, of course, for her own good, as Sam can only be good. While relations between husband and wife have broken down, to the point where they communicate only in terse messages passed on by the children or in appalling, epic rows (the word is too weak), Sam - 'the man who loves children' - cultivates his relations with the children with ferocious, unceasing energy, constantly engaging them in merry, loud and messy busyness about the house and in the grounds, even enlisting nieghbourhood children into his loving circle. All are chivvied along in a joshing, wheedling invented language of sickly diminutives and babytalk - used liberally even with the adolescent 'Looloo' (one of half a dozen silly names for her, while Sam is, according to mood, 'Sam-the-great' or 'po' little Sam'). While Sam and his tribe of child helpers crash around, Henny skulks and rages, hurling the vilest insults both at Sam and at the unprepossessing, but smart and perceptive, Louise. So far, so nightmarish. The only glimpses of something like normality come when one or other of the principals is briefly at large in the world outside the family home - most notably when Sam is away in Singapore for eight months. On his return, it seems briefly as if he is not going to slip back into the Sam of old - but alas, he does, and events progress towards the inevitable terrible climax (but one which, mercifully, leaves more than a glimmer of hope for poor Louise).
Outlined like this, The Man Who Loved Children sounds like some exercise in Gothic excess or grand guignol - but it reads like the purest naturalism, however jaw-droppingly appalling the action that is being described (and at times it can even be construed as horribly comic). Stead's touch is so sure, her conviction so absolute, her writing so charged with fierce energy, that this wild, implausible world seems only too plausibly real. Randall Jarrell puts it brilliantly in his prefatory essay, which I am only reading now that I've finished the book. The real life of families, correctly remembered, is implausible: 'There in that warm, dark second womb, the bosom of the family, everything is carried far past plausibility; a family's private life is as immoderate and insensate, compared to its public life, as our thoughts are, compared to our speech.' Quite so - and family life doesn't come much more immoderate and insensate than it is in The Man Who Loved Children. I think this is a very great book - I'm amazed it isn't better known - but it is one of the most emotionally lacerating, at times very nearly unbearable, reading experiences I have had. Like Flannery O'Connor, Stead gives no quarter, she flays the emotions, she appalls. I am still dazed and reeling, and no doubt will be for some time. I recommend it then, wholeheartedly - but not lightly. It is a book to be handled with care.