The Man Who Loved Children, by Christina Stead

April 12th, 2011 No comments

 

 

It feels appropriate to revive The Daily Sabbatical with a review of a book no one reads. The Man Who Loved Children dropped to a critical and commercial death soon after leaving the womb of its creator, Christina Stead, over seventy years ago. It was pushed back into print in 1965 by the intelligent and eloquent endorsement of critic Randall Jarrell, and has recently been championed by Jonathan Franzen. Still, few know of the book and fewer still actually turn all five hundred of its pages to see if the critical acclaim is justified. It is. But if Franzen and Jarrell can’t bring the book back from obscurity, my recommendation is likely to have less effect than that of a country librarian to an aging spinster destined to leave nothing behind but closets. But so be it. The prose ranks with the best of the language and the depiction of its theme is unmatched. Every additional reader of a book like this is a victory for serious writing.

 

Although to contemporary ears its title suggests a story about a man with unsavory predilections, The Man Who Loved Children is about the life of an American family. It deserves, in fact, that famous opening sentence more than Tolstoy’s dubious classic: “All happy families are alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” The Pollits are, despite—or perhaps because of—their patriarch’s conviction to the contrary, a very unhappy family. And they are unique, as are all families. (The reader should feel free to supplement Tolstoy’s quote with this premise to draw the pessimistic conclusion.) Despite their uniqueness, I doubt any reader will fail to find some of the minerals of her own family life in the Pollit soil.

The Pollit household is a sprawling carnival of kids, seven in all, revolving around Sam and Hennie, a deeply problematic pair of parents. On the face of it, Hennie is simply poisonous. She’s sour at the world and bilious to the core, but the rest of the family, lead by the unflappably optimistic bandleader Sam, has learned to take her unhappiness in affectionate stride. The outlook of the two parents couldn’t be more different. While Sam delights in taking “Shank’s ponies…’into the world of marvels which lies around us, into the highways and byways, into the homes of rich and poor alike, seeking the doorstep of him who loves his fellow man,” Hennie would tell “how, in the streetcar, was ‘a dirty shrimp of a man with a fishy expression who purposefully leaned over me and pressed my bust, and a common vulgar woman beside him, an ogress, big as a hippopotamus, with her bottom sticking out, who grinned like a shark and tried to give him the eye,’ and how this wonderful adventure went on for hours, always with new characters of new horror.” Hennie’s worst foe, though, is Sam himself whom she hates so thoroughly that she will not speak to him directly and almost flinches from her children, the constant reminders of her marital mistake.

Meanwhile, the little children seem not to notice the misery of dear “Mothering” as they run around the lawns with neighboring kids, catching snakes, feeding racoons and chasing around the legs of their dear “Pad,” or “Tad,” or “Dad,” Sam. Old Tad illuminates everything with his humanitarian exuberance, his love of nature, and his nonsense songs and nicknames which send the children into giggles. Everything in Pollitry has at least one nickname, from the home—Tahoga House—to the kids (Louisa: Louie, Looloo-dirl, Loo; Evie: Little-Womey; the twins: Gemini; the infant: Megalops) to the yard’s animals (Procyon). “Sunday’s a funday!” for Sam, and if his dreams of a world of “monoman” or “manunity” seem disturbingly utopian, so much can be forgiven in the name of sanguinity.

Not all the kids are equally engaged in “Pad’s” antics. Louisa, his child from a more romantic—or at least romanticised—first marriage, is on the cusp of adolescence and shows the expected detachment. She bears the load of the housework, neglected by Hennie, and in her idle moments turns to books, from Darwin to Shelley. Unquestionably precocious, she expects one day to be great and waits for the moment she will transcend the mess she perceives at Tahoga house.

It is finally through Louisa’s eyes that we begin to see through the surface of the family. Sam is, in fact, a man who loves children, but not really because they are lovable. He loves them insofar as they love him, insofar as they are his followers, adoring worshipers whose enthusiasm is directed and shaped by his design. As soon as they become old enough to break ranks or to insist upon their own path—as Louisa has—Sam’s gibes turn cruel, and he musters all his cleverness and the earned loyalty of the children to express disdain for the dissident. Though it is never said so clearly, it is clear that Sam is merely a black hole of self-love who is all the more frustrating for thinking himself the sun.

As the book progresses, Sam travels to Singapore for a time—where his love of humanity begins to show its fascistic tinge—and returns to find his fortunes crumbling. With the death of his wealthy stepfather, his lontime benefactor, he must uproot Pollitry from Tahoga house and move it into the disappointing shanty “Spa House.” Lacking a wealthy champion, he loses his job and the respect of his co-workers, and becomes the ever present Father of the House. “Meanwhile, Sam, whistling and singing operas and popular hits, would be leaving his trail of sawdust and brickdust, cement pellets and putty crumbs, and never an experiment in chemistry or physics did he perform, nor ever work with them over a book, but only talked with tender abstraction of ‘great lives’ and ‘great chemists’ and of his own beautiful soul and sympathetic life story.” Nothing, of course, could be worse for Henny who, penniless, no longer has the escape of shopping. The two of them try to avoid each other, but trapped in the futility of their poverty they collide, and the fights worsen, and the rotten core of the family begins to spread. As the book reaches its tragic climax, Henny—the previously inscrutable harridan—gains our sympathy and though she is still a wreck, it is really she who keeps us from dismissing the adults of the family astoo self-involved to stand.

Among this great novel’s many feats is the way it shifts the readers feelings and sympathies so dramatically, but without manipulation. One does wind up loving Louisa and the children, and one does loathe their disastrous parents, but that loathing is not due to any particular bad deeds or mistreatment. Henny does occasionally raise her hand in anger, but that violence is nothing compared to the damage wrought by the oppressiveness of Sam’s personality or the mutually destructive nature of the parental dynamics. And that, in the end, is what the book does better than any book I have read. It conveys the most terrible fact about childhood: that as children, we are totally hostage to the world our parents create. Even at moments when that world seems perfect, it is still not ours, and it is frequently far short of perfect. These Pollit parents, bad as they are, are like most parents: they are flawed, but excusably so. Their personalities and domestic dreams are not really chosen, but they are theirs nonetheless. We can feel sympathy for them. But the world they create for their children is often filled with apparently arbitrary rules, gifts and punishments, unpredictably violent emotional weather, and inexplicable battles that send everyone scurrying to their foxholes. It is a world that resembles nothing so much as a world ruled by jealous and egocentric Greek Gods, a world without haven, where the only option is to hope for the best and occasionally bow in obeisance.

 

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The New Valley, by Josh Weil

November 28th, 2009 No comments

Somewhat ironically The Daily Sabbatical has all but disappeared during my semester long sabbatical in NYC, but I haven’t stopped reading, and I’ve just finished a book that more people should know about. It’s a collection of three novellas, by Josh Weil, grouped under the title The New Valley. Weil recently was named on of the “top five under thirty-five” by the National Book Foundation, and if any of the other four have written books nearly as good, American Letters is in good hands.

Each of Weil’s three stories, which run from 83 to 150 pages, is a well crafted study of a character playing out, in all imperfection, the cards dealt to him in a small valley of rural Virginia. In the first, and shortest tale, “Ridge Weather,” we move with Osby through the days after his father’s suicide as he uneasily discovers that the silent rails set down by his relationship with his father begin to disappear. In some ways, this is a difficult introduction to the collection, as it takes a while before the quiet and awkward Osby begins to take real shape. But in retrospect, it is an important initiation into to the collection because it introduces us so thoroughly to the land and the concerns that seem to grow organically out of the valley itself. This pays huge dividends in the second and third novellas, which occupy neighboring landscapes, as the characters begin to come to the fore more powerfully with the reader having a taste and implicit understanding of the world around them.

The second tale, Stillman Wing, shows the writer beginning to flex his muscles a bit. Stillman Wing, whose name sounds like it could itself designate a brand of farm equipment, is finding his retirement years embodied by the slow, patient reconstruction of a Deutz tractor. The days and years slide by as the concern of his machine is matched only by his concern for his own aging body, while the more human relationships—such as that with his willful obese daughter—fail to yeild to the deliberative tinkering that rebuild the Deutz.

In my opinion, the third novella, “Sarverville Remains” is the book’s masterpiece. Here Weil leaves the sort of stoic, spare description of characters from the outside, and moves into the first-person voice of Geoffrey, who is a man-child of limited intellect but with increasing emotional sophistication. The novella is in the form of an extended letter or diary, written by Geoffrey to the man who has been imprisoned for savagely beating him to near death. As the diary continues, the events slowly filter through Geoffrey’s perceptions until the unsavory circumstances behind the beating are revealed.

All in all, The New Valley is an exceptional book. The novella has trouble finding an audience, nowadays, being too long for The New Yorker and too short for single bound release. It is an art form, every bit as valid as the short story, that for reasons of economy seems to be at risk of extinction. More power, then, to Josh Weil who makes his debut with this collection, earning him comparisons in my mind to Jim Harrison and John Casey, as well as to that champion of the hopeless, George Saunders.

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The Lazarus Project by Aleksander Hemon

August 16th, 2009 No comments

A lot has been said about this book and this writer: it was runner up for the NBA, and he’s received a MacArthur grant and has been compared to Nabokov more times than Nabokov.  So, I’m sorta just adding my voice to the choir: this is a really good novel.  It combines an adventure story, a buddy novel, a historical fiction, and a potent reflection on immigration to the land of the allegedly free.

The book flows from the project and ambition of it’s narrator, Vladimir Brik: a Bosnian/American transplant who wants to write a novel based on a true (in the fiction) story about a Jewish immigrant named Lazarus who in the early 20th century escapes the Russian pogroms only to be shot by a Chicago chief of police.  In pursuit of the facts, our narrator travels to Eastern Europe with his childhood friend Rora, who is, in my humble, the real star of the novel.  Rora’s anecdotes, jokes, and suspiciously elegant personality keep alive a novel that is involved, at least ostensibly, with the past.  The Lazarus Project switches from telling the story of the protagonist of Brik’s novel, to telling the story of Brik and Rora’s trip, to telling the story of Rora’s involvement in the intricate cloaking and daggering of war ravaged Sarajevo.  As a result, it keeps the reader’s interest hooked–I read it in a few sittings–but at the same time has much to say about the role of stories and fictions in helping us process our tragedies, the fragility and the questionable genuineness of the “American Promise”, and the evanescent quality of cultural identity.  Quite a feat.

Despite my admiration for the book and for Hemon, I have to get something off my chest: the comparisons to Nabokov are ridiculous.  I’ve read almost everything the master wrote, much of it more than once, and I just don’t see the comparison.  I hate to contradict James Wood, who sounds on the cover as if he prefers Hemon to Nabokov, but one of these guys is a good story-teller with an insightful, reflective bent, the other is a literary magician.  More apt is the frequent comparison to W.G. Sebold.  It’s an easy comparison in some ways, since LP and most of Sebolds books share the trick of having pictures interjected into the text to lend a sense of authenticity and character, but there is more to it.  Both Sebold and Hemon are interested in roots and journeys to sniff out the origins of culture and person.  Still, there’s something crystalline about Sebold’s prose that is lacking in Hemon.  Hemon learned English, growing up a Ukranian transplanted to Bosnia, only relatively recently, and while it is unfair to say it shows–he’s a splendid writer and outpaces most native english writers easily–it kinda does now and again.  Words are every once in a while made to do work they don’t easily do but that the OED might well suggest they are capable of.  Sentences haven’t yet gotten the rhythm that they have, say, in Joshua Ferris’ work.  Nevertheless, the guy is a top hand and will only get better.

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Nights at the Circus by Angela Carter

August 7th, 2009 4 comments

Nights at the Circus

Angela Carter is one of the lesser known literary wonders.  She’s a sort of British, feminist Thomas Pynchon with a handy dab of Robert Coover mixed in.  I’ve read a few of her short stories, but not until Nights at the Circus has her genius been so apparent to me.  I’m now committed to reading everything she’s written.

Carter’s “Nights” is a sort of hallucinogenic fairy-tale that takes us from London, through Petersburgh, and into the snowy depths of Siberia, all in the warm, oversized company of a winged aerialiste named Fevvers.  Fevvers, along with her protecting witch Liz, guides us through bizarre brothels and the three ringed wonder of Colonal Kearney’s travelling circus–with its prophetic pigs, autodidactic apes, and chaotic clowns–for love of fame, money, and in the end, love itself.  Our proxy is an American Journalist by the name of Walser, who falls for Fevver’s charms, gets blown up in Siberia, and becomes a Shaman constantly tripping on hallucinogenic urine before his love is requited.  Oh, the things we’ll do for the embrace of a winged woman!

Carter is, no doubt, the mother of those young writers who seem to be everywhere these days writing a female inflected sort of fairy-tale.  She has clear kin in Kathyrn Davis, Kelly Link, Sarah Shun-Lien Bynum, Laura Groff, Karen Russell, and many other excellent writers, all of them worth reading, but perhaps none quite so fluent in the medium as the original.  Carter performs verbal acrobatics while telling her tale , and is unashamed of where she lands.  Her death at 52, in the early nineties was a great loss.  She was only gaining steam.  Her legacy is something to savor.

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Cormac McCarthy wins PEN award

May 5th, 2009 No comments

Cormac McCarthy has been awarded the PEN lifetime achievement award, very deservedly.  If you haven’t read much CM, my favorites are Blood Meridian, Suttree, and The Road, but really you can’t go wrong.  This guys one of the best american authors, if not the very best.

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Shogu Tokumaru–Rum Hee

April 29th, 2009 No comments


Thanks to The Yellow Stereo for sharing this.

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Carousel by Adam Berg

April 24th, 2009 No comments

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My Bloody Ears

April 23rd, 2009 No comments

I used to think that people who wore earplugs at shows should just stay home. Not anymore. I should have known when earplugs were being handed out at the door of the My Bloody Valentine show last night that they were meant to be used. I have never, never been to a louder show (and that includes an ear-blistering Dinasaur Jr. show in the early 90s). MBV ripped into about a 15 minute sonic rush at the end of their set, during which people close to the stage reported heat coming from the speakers (which were massive) and I could literally feel air blowing through my hair like the Memorex man. It was an amazing show, I have no regrets, but my ears are ringing with no signs of stopping.

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Close Range

April 7th, 2009 No comments
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The Publishing Howells

March 31st, 2009 2 comments

I admit it. I check in on Amazon every now and again to see if A Dialogue on Consciousness ever rises above the 500,000th best selling book. Usually I enter “Alter Howell” as the search, but just to see, I entered Howell, and found that I appear far behind Hannah Howell who seems to be selling a lot more books.  I wonder, is it the cover?

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