Monday, June 7, 2010

Jonathan Franzen on The Man Who Loved Children by Christina Stead

There's a nice essay by Jonathan Franzen on  rereading The Man Who Loved Children by Australian author Christina Stead  in the latest  NYT Book Review. I assume it's a preface to the new edition of the book.

I first came across Franzen through a long rant of an essay about novel writing in the late stages of the twentieth century ( "Perchance to Dream", Harper's, April, 1996, for those who have access to it), so I actually know him first as a  brilliant essayist and only later as a wonderful novelist. It's not easy wearing both these hats so well, but I sincerely believe he does.

I first learned of Stead's The Man Who Loved Children many years ago when I was either just going into college or in some summer hiatus in between. As Franzen says in his article, it has never been widely adopted in college courses, and  I am quite sure that it was through some extracurricular reading that I learned of it and not in the classroom. It's actually a book I've heard endorsed many times over the years and as Franzen says himself, if an intelligent introductory essay by Randall Jarrell in a previous edition at a much more opportune moment in literary history hasn't put it over the top into the classics category, it is probably destined to its outsider status.

I'll admit to having started it once or twice. (Actually, I suddenly remembered that the first reference was a New Yorker article, because I remember quite clearly that there were quotes that I didn't understand the importance of. I was not dissuaded, because I have rarely if ever been wowed by quotes in the New Yorker in reviews. I'm a bit quote  deaf,  I think.) I don't think that at the first stab, I was really old enough to appreciate Stead's effort, but Franzen's essay makes me think I would like it. A lot.

My one quibble with the essay is that it makes out that  Stead was unattractive as a child. That's hard to quite believe from the picture in the review.

Does this mean I'm finally going to get around to tackling it? I would like to say definitely, but I don't know. I'll get back to you on that one.


  1. They chose a flattering picture. After looking at photographs of the younger Stead that have appeared in her biographies, I'd say that "plain" would be a more accurate word than "ugly." Just a blandish oval face, round chin, ordinary hair, the corners of her mouth turned down a little, nothing to make people stare or take notice, and the fat that Louie's parents grumble about in the novel is not much more than a plumpness around the cheeks and under the jaw. Just a face.

  2. Thanks for reading alog, Umbagollah. Yes, that's what Franzen says as well, but I have still have my doubts. Especially as it relates to this particular father. Sometimes one is plain because one is made to feel unlovely. And sometimes flattering pictures bring out unsuspected things, things that have not been allowed to emerge in other ways. Just a hypothesis, and in the end of course it doesn't matter.

  3. Well, no, not any more, not even to her: dead now, and her ashes tossed away. Her father thought her plain, the camera generally thought her plain, her schoolfriends thought her plain (cf. the Chris Williams biography), her biographers believe she was plain ("a rather ruddy complexion, a stubborn-looking jaw and buck teeth" writes Rowley: "She was definitely no beauty"), and, most importantly, from the point of view of her writing, she thought she was plain. No matter how many flattering one-off photographs appear, she will probably stay, in the mind of the world, forever plain.

  4. I think we agree as to the end result, and I also think you know a lot more about this subject than I do. However I will just amend your statement to "the minds of the world, minus one."