The Man Who Loved Children by Christina Stead

At the start, those unfamiliar with The Man Who Loved Children by Christina Stead should get any “To Catch a Predator” type associations with the title out of their head. It isn’t meant in that kind of way at all. No one else may have been thinking that, but I kept thinking it any time I picked the book up, so I thought we’d start out by curing that potential misconception. The Man Who Loved Children by Christina Stead is about a father who loves his children and the doom that is inherent within the dysfunction of his family.

(For those following along in The Top Ten: Writers Pick Their Favorite Books, this one was 1st for Robb Forman Dew, 9th for Jonathan Franzen, and 3rd for Jonathan Lethem.)

The Man Who Loved Children by Christina Stead stars Sam and his wife Henny, as well as an entirely too large brood of children. Sam is optimistic and intelligent, but he’s a goof…particularly with his kids (whom he loves and can’t get enough of):

“Loobyloo! Loo-oobyloo! Loozy! Tea!”

Although Louisa did not answer she was at that moment crawling soundlessly out of bed. She heard him urging Evie, “Go on, Womey, call her Loozy.”

“No, Taddy, she doesn’t like it.”

“Go on, when I tahzoo [tells you].”

“No Taddy, she can hear.”

“Loo-hoozy! Loozy! Tea-heehee!”

Out of the tail of her eye Evelyn saw Louisa flash across the landing to the stairs. “She went,” she chanted soothingly, “she went.”

“This Sunday-Funday has come a long way,” said Sam softly: “it’s been coming to us, all day yesterday, all night from the mid-Pacific, from Peking, the Himalayas, from the fishing grounds of the old Leni Lenapes and the deeps of the drowned Susquehanna, over the pond pine ragged in the peat and the lily swamps of Anacostia, by scaffolded marbles and time-bloodied weatherboard, northeast, northwest, Washington Circle, Truxton Circle, Sheridan Circle to Rock Creek and the blunt shoulders of our Georgetown. And what does he find there this morning as every morning, in the midst of the slops, but Tohoga House, the little shanty of Gulliver Sam’s Lilliputian Pollitry­–Gulliver Sam, Mrs. Gulliver Henny, Lugubrious Louisa, whose head is bloody but unbowed, Ernest the calculator, Little-Womey–” Evie laughed. “–Saul and Sam the boy-twins and Thomas-snowshoe-eye, all suntropes that he come galloping to see.”

Sam has all his ideas and his enthusiasm, but he just can’t see when it doesn’t all work. He’s an eternal child trying to raise children, and doing it badly.

His wife, Henny, on the other hand, is a bitter realist. Formerly from money, she runs up debts everywhere but is afraid to let Sam know. She hates him, hates her life, hates everything. She constantly threatens to kill all of her children and herself. Sam too.

“You ought to have had a man to make you wash floors and kick you in the belly when you didn’t hurry up for him,” said Henny with all the hate of a dozen years. “I’m as rotten as she is–I’ve had men too–I’ve gone trailing my draggletail in all sorts of low dives–I’ve taken money from a man to keep his children–I’m a cheat and a liar and a dupe and a weak idiot and there’s nothing too low for me, but I’m still ‘mountains high’ above you and your sickly fawning brother who never grew up–I’m better than you who go to church and him who is too good to go to church, because I’ve done everything. I’ve been dirty and low and done things you’re both too stupid and too cowardly to do, but however low I am, I’m not so filthy crawling in the stench of the butter, I haven’t got a heart of stone, I don’t sniff, sniff, sniff when I see a streetwalker with a ragged blouse, too good to know what she is: I Hate her but I hate myself. I’m sick of the good ones; I’m sick of that stupid staring idiot standing goggling at me who’s going to be as good as you are; nothing’s too good for you, nothing’s too bad for me; I’ll go and walk the streets with that poor miserable brat sister of yours–we’ll both get something to eat and some men to be decent to us, instead of loudmouthed husbands and sisters who want to strangle us–that’s what you said, that’s what you said, you can never go back on that, and in that your whole black cruel cold heart came out of you and you tried to strike her down with it, like a stone as he’d like to strike me down when he gets all he can out of me–and I know you both, I know you all–she’s the only decent one and that’s because she’s like me–no good–good because she’s no good–take your eyes off me, you staring idiot, get out of here, you filthy child–tell your daughter to get out of here–I can’t stand it–” Henny could say no more but began to scream and then fell to the floor, bumping her head hard.

Sam lives his life as he wants to see it, regardless of how it is. He has too many children and is too big on ideals to worry about providing enough for them. Henny is full of hatred and they fight constantly, putting the children in between. Sam browbeats Henny, Henny browbeats Sam, and they both crush their children. It’s a mess.

The Man Who Loved Childrenis a delightfully rich novel, jammed with weird characters set against each other as much as possibly can be. You know it’s all going to go wrong, you just aren’t sure which way until the end. At that point, it’s the only way it could have gone.

I love the vigor and originality in some of the dialogue too, particularly Sam the father. He’s a great one to follow in a book, but I’m sure I’d hate him in real life.

I’m surprised I’d never heard of The Man Who Loved Children before. It’s quite good and I think more people should read it. I don’t know about putting it on my all-time best list, but I’m definitely glad I finally got a chance to read it.


New Grub Street by George Gissing

My overall impression to New Grub Street to George Gissing is one of surprise. First off, I can’t believe that I’ve never heard of either this book or George Gissing. Given all the books I’ve talked to people about and read about, let alone read, I just can’t believe I wasn’t at least aware that this one was out there. However, I wasn’t. Hadn’t heard a single word that I can recall.

(Note, for those following along in The Top Ten: Writers Pick Their Favorite Books, this one was 8th for Jonathan Lethem.)

The next surprise is how modern this book is. It’s modern in tone as well as style. Most surprisingly, I think you could almost lift the literary situation focused on in the novel to present day. There would be relatively few changes necessary to make this convincing. Keep in mind, this book is from 1891.

To actually describe the book a bit, though, New Grub Street focuses a great deal on poverty. More specifically, it focuses on poverty in the literary world. We have a number of authors. Some are believe literature as an end to itself while trying not to starve, some believe the same about literature but don’t care as much about starving, and some acknowledge that they will never contribute anything useful to literature and instead mercenarily seek advantage and position as if literature was only a business:

‘To be sure! To be sure!’ exclaimed their brother. ‘You have no faith. But just understand the difference between a man like Reardon and a man like me. He is the old type of unpractical artist; I am the literary man of 1882. He won’t make concessions, or rather, he can’t make them; he can’t supply the market. I–well, you may say that at present I do nothing; but that’s a great mistake, I am learning my business. Literature nowadays is a trade. Putting aside men of genius, who may succeed by mere cosmic force, your successful man of letters is your skilful tradesman. He thinks first and foremost of the markets; when one kind of goods begins to go off slackly, he is ready with something new and appetising. He knows perfectly all the possible sources of income. Whatever he has to sell he’ll get payment for it from all sorts of various quarters; none of your unpractical selling for a lump sum to a middleman who will make six distinct profits. Now, look you: if I had been in Reardon’s place, I’d have made four hundred at least out of “The Optimist”; I should have gone shrewdly to work with magazines and newspapers and foreign publishers, and–all sorts of people. Reardon can’t do that kind of thing, he’s behind his age; he sells a manuscript as if he lived in Sam Johnson’s Grub Street. But our Grub Street of to-day is quite a different place: it is supplied with telegraphic communication, it knows what literary fare is in demand in every part of the world, its inhabitants are men of business, however seedy.’ 

‘It sounds ignoble,’ said Maud. 

‘I have nothing to do with that, my dear girl. Now, as I tell you, I am slowly, but surely, learning the business. My line won’t be novels; I have failed in that direction, I’m not cut out for the work. It’s a pity, of course; there’s a great deal of money in it. But I have plenty of scope. In ten years, I repeat, I shall be making my thousand a year.’

To sum up the book, being a good writer is no guarantee that someone won’t starve. Connections and money are more important, possibly being enough on their own when even good writing is absent. Literature is a business and has to be run like one to be successful. People are reading less and their reading choices are becoming increasingly banal.

Sound familiar?

Frankly, I think the biggest value in New Grub Street, beyond being an entertaining and clear work of late 19th century English realism, is to provide a reality check for all the literary doomsayers out there. This book says a lot of the things people say now, and it said them about 122 years ago. These trends aren’t new, and I’m guessing that they aren’t proceeding as fast as some people think. The literary situation in this country may not be the most desirable, but literature probably isn’t going to die completely anytime soon.

Of course, that’s just my take.

The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman by Laurence Sterne

I feel that I should begin any review of Sterne’s The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman by indicating that there is very little inside regarding the actual life of Tristram Shandy. At least percentage-wise, the vast majority of the book relates to happenings outside of Tristram Shandy’s direct life, though bearing some relationship to it. In fact, Tristram Shandy isn’t even born until a few hundred pages in. There is a bit more about his opinions, but still. Mind you, this isn’t a problem. However, I just thought that should be clear at the start.

(Note, for those following along in The Top Ten: Writers Pick Their Favorite Books, this one was 10th for Paul Auster, 2nd for Peter Carey, 1st for Percival Everett, 5th for A. L. Kennedy, 9th for Jonathan Lethem, 8th for David Lodge, 2nd for Thomas Mallon, 7th for Jonathan Raban, 8th for Louise D. Rubin Jr., and 4th for George Saunders.)

I can at least confirm that Tristram Shandy is the narrator of The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman. Beyond that, things get hazy.

As I mentioned, he starts out the book addressing his birth…something that does not actually occur for several hundred pages. In between that and the beginning is digression after digression, sometimes returning to the main action as a digression from a digression. His Uncle’s penchant for modeling battles, his father’s quirky approach to things based on ancient learning, direct examples of ancient learning, and so on; the digressions run the gamut. The main unifying force in all of this is Sterne’s wit, and he is witty.

Of course, we should not really be surprised. He addresses the digressions (on more than one occasion) himself. Since trying to provide an example of the digression structure would be too lengthy for this review, I’ll give you some of Shandy’s thoughts on his digressions direct:

For in this long digression which I was accidentally led into, as in all my digressions (one only excepted) there is a master- stroke of digressive skill, the merit of which has all along, I fear, been overlooked by my reader,–not for want of penetration in him,—but because ’tis an excellence seldom looked for, or expected indeed, in a digression;—and it is this: That tho’ my digressions are all fair, as you observe,—and that I fly off from what I am about, as far and as often too as any writer in Great-Britain; yet I constantly take care to order affairs so, that my main business does not stand still in my absence.

I was just going, for example, to have given you the great out-lines of my uncle Toby’s most whimsical character;—when my aunt Dinah and the coachman came a-cross us, and led us a vagary some millions of miles into the very heart of the planetary system: Notwithstanding all this, you perceive that the drawing of my uncle Toby’s character went on gently all the time;— not the great contours of it,—that was impossible,—but some familiar strokes and faint designations of it, were here and there touch’d in, as we went along, so that you are much better acquainted with my uncle Toby now than you was before.

By this contrivance the machinery of my work is of a species by itself; two contrary motions are introduced into it, and reconciled, which were thought to be at variance with each other. In a word, my work is digressive, and it is progressive too,—and at the same time.

This, Sir, is a very different story from that of the earth’s moving round her axis, in her diurnal rotation, with her progress in her elliptick orbit which brings about the year, and constitutes that variety and vicissitude of seasons we enjoy;— though I own it suggested the thought,—as I believe the greatest of our boasted improvements and discoveries have come from some such trifling hints.

Digressions, incontestably, are the sun-shine;——they are the life, the soul of reading;—take them out of this book for instance,–you might as well take the book along with them;— one cold eternal winter would reign in every page of it; restore them to the writer;—–he steps forth like a bridegroom,—bids All hail; brings in variety, and forbids the appetite to fail.

All the dexterity is in the good cookery and management of them, so as to be not only for the advantage of the reader, but also of the author, whose distress, in this matter, is truely pitiable: For, if he begins a digression,—from that moment, I observe, his whole work stands stock-still;—and if he goes on with his main work,—-then there is an end of his digression.

——This is vile work.—For which reason, from the beginning of this, you see, I have constructed the main work and the adventitious parts of it with such intersections, and have so complicated and involved the digressive and progressive movements, one wheel within another, that the whole machine, in general, has been kept a-going;—and, what’s more, it shall be kept a-going these forty years, if it pleases the fountain of health to bless me so long with life and good spirits.

I realize that the digression I just provided is a long one, but that’s just in keeping with the spirit of The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman.

The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman was a bit difficult to read. I admit that. However, I was downright astounded that it was written in the 1760’s. The characters and settings fit and all, but the structure is like nothing else I’ve seen from that time. I wouldn’t bat much of an eye at this and might even expect it modernly, but I’m floored that Sterne attempted this back then…even more that he got away with it.

I didn’t find The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman to be the most enjoyable read, but it’s a landmark in terms of the development of the novel. It’s certainly well worth the look for anyone willing to sit through it all.

Stendhal’s The Red and the Black

When talking about Stendhal’s The Red and The Black, I suppose it wouldn’t be untoward to look first at the actual story. After all, it is a thoroughly developed and interesting story, packed with vivid and human seeming characters.

(Note, for those following along in The Top Ten: Writers Pick Their Favorite Books, this one was 4th for Jonathan Lethem, 8th for Norman Mailer, 6th for Joyce Carol Oates, 5th for Louis D. Rubin, Jr., and 4th for Elizabeth Spencer.)

In The Red and The Black, we have the poor but ambitious carpenter’s son, Julien Sorel. As the story progresses, Julien rises to become a tutor to a rich man’s children, falls in love, flees to study at a seminary, flees the intrigues of the seminary (and rises farther) to become another rich man’s secretary, falls in love again, and eventually falls from grace.

I don’t think I’m exactly giving away spoilers in saying the above. It isn’t like the basic plot of this book isn’t well known. Anyway, that quick summary is really far from giving away anything significant.

Regardless, impressed as I was with the overall story and characters, the most interesting aspect for me is how Stendhal twists human emotion and scheming together. The characters go about their passions in a scheming way at the same time that their passions drive their scheming thoughts.

For example, the wife of the provincial rich man who hired Julien to be his children’s tutor falls in love with Julien. Julien ends up falling desperately in love with her, but his first motivation is not love. Instead, he pursues Madam de Renal out of revenge:

When he went into the garden that evening, Julien was ready to listen
with interest to the thoughts of the fair cousins. They awaited his
coming with impatience. He took his accustomed seat, by Madame de
Renal's side. The darkness soon became intense. He attempted to clasp 
a white hand which for some time he had seen close beside him, resting 
on the back of a chair.  There was some hesitation shown, but finally 
the hand was withdrawn from him in a manner which betokened displeasure. 
Julien was prepared to regard this as final, and to continue the 
conversation in a light tone, when he heard M. de Renal approach.
The rude words of the morning still rang in Julien's ears. 'Would it
not,' he said to himself, 'be a good way of scoring off this creature,
so lavishly endowed with every material advantage, to take possession
of his wife's hand under his very eyes? Yes, I will do it, I, for whom
he has shown such contempt.'

Later, the daughter of the Parisian noble who hired Julien as his secretary decides she is in love with him. She eventually does become as passionate about Julien as she believes, but she initially goes after him out of boredom:

Suddenly an idea dawned upon her: 'I have the good fortune to be in
love,' she told herself one day, with an indescribable transport of
joy. 'I am in love, I am in love, it is quite clear! At my age, a
young girl, beautiful, clever, where can she find sensations, if not
in love? I may do what I like, I shall never feel any love for
Croisenois, Caylus, e tutti quanti.  They are perfect, too perfect
perhaps; in short, they bore me.'

She turned over in her mind all the descriptions of passion which she
had read in  Manon Lescaut, the Nouvelle Heloise, the Letters of a
Portuguese Nun, and so forth. There was no question, of course, of
anything but a grand passion; mere fleeting affection was unworthy of
a girl of her age and birth. She bestowed the name of love only upon
that heroic sentiment which was to be found in France in the days of
Henri IV and Bassompierre. That love never basely succumbed to
obstacles; far from it, it caused great deeds to be done. 'What a
misfortune for me that there is not a real Court like that of
Catherine de' Medici or Louis XIII! I feel that I am equal to
everything that is most daring and great. What should I not do with a
King who was a man of feeling, like Louis XII, sighing at my feet! I
should lead him to the Vendee, as Baron de Tolly is always saying, and 
from there he would reconquer his Kingdom; then no more talk of a 
Charter ...  and Julien would aid me. What is it that he lacks? A
name and a fortune. He would make a name for himself, he would acquire 
a fortune.

Usually writers seem to pick one of these to dominate, but in The Red and The Black all this scheming and passion seems hopelessly intertwined and completely inseparable. Are these people ruled by their scheming, or their passions? Perhaps they can’t stop scheming any more than they can prevent themselves from being ruled by their emotions.

Now, I don’t know if this was Stendhal’s intent. Regardless, this is what made the novel fascinating for me. It was substantially more complex than I had been expecting. The story and characters are wonderfully done, but the interplay between these themes entranced me. It easily kept me reading all the way through The Red and The Black.