Category Archives: Stead Christina

The Puzzleheaded Girl: Christina Stead

“Once I wrote to an asylum to take me in.”

The Puzzleheaded Girl from Christina Stead is a collection of four novellas, all of which explore that tangled, complicated relationships between men and women. Stead seems to aks if one gender will ever understand the other, and the resounding answer is  …. NO. The first novella in the collection, The Puzzle-Headed Girl is the story of a man, Debrett, an idealist who employs a young woman named Honor Lawrence as a filing clerk. He offers the young woman a job out of pity as she obviously needs money and is poorly dressed. Over a number of years, Honor drifts in and out of Debrett’s life, always with some strange story, sometimes cadging meals or money. Debrett, “a married bachelor,” thinks she has “principles” and admires her, even as he scripts her life with wrappings of romanticism, but as she repeatedly inserts herself into his life, it becomes clear that Honor is unbalanced. Debrett rather dimly asks himself,“Was she just a child; or a free soul?”

For its tone and pacing, The Puzzle-Headed Girl reminded me of A Little Tea, A Little Chat although of course the subject matter is entirely different.  In both books, Christina Stead shows the separate worlds of men and women. Particularly enjoyable is the idea that a lower-level of craziness can pass for quirks or principles in the young (or wealthy).

The puzzleheaded Girl

The Dianas is the tale of Lydia a rather giddy young woman who’s unleashed in Paris. We first see her in a hotel juggling dates with various men and contemplating marrying a Frenchman. While she says she can’t make up her mind which man to go out with that evening, she spies Russell, “someone she recognized, a middle-aged American with a half-bald sandy head and fat sandy face, an upstate professor of psychology,” a friend of her mother’s. Lydia decides to torture and humiliate Russell. It’s fairly easy to see Russell as Lydia’s victim. Perhaps Lydia is giving Russell a taste of his own medicine, or perhaps she’s just practicing on someone she can easily outclass.

The third novella, The Rightangled Creek, is quite different from the rest of the stories: it’s the tale of a ramshackle cottage which is inhabited by a number of couples over the course of a few years. When the story opens, Sam Parsons returns to America and visits Laban and Ruth Davies, a couple he met in Paris. Laban is a writer and a raging alcoholic and the idea of stashing him in the cottage out in the middle of nowhere is essentially to ensure that he will stay dry.

They had been lodging in artists’ colony but spotted this farm and rented it for $12  a month. Laban is writing a book, “a history of European culture,” drinking three or four pots of coffee a day while Ruth grows their food. They invite Sam and his wife Clare to join them. The Davies’ plan is for Laban’s book to sell which will enable them to buy the farm and send their son, Frankie to Princeton.

Ruth is mother, wife, caretaker, nurse,  housekeeper, jailer and general drudge to her husband Laban, and while she realizes his weakness when it comes to alcohol, she will go to any lengths, sacrifice everything, for this man.

“We save money here, I do everything,” she said in her warm round voice in which there was a strident note.

Over the course of the novella, some past incidents reveal how insane Ruth’s relationship is with Laban.

The fourth novella, Girl From the Beach, is the story of a man named George, a womaniser who blames all of the women in his life for his actions. Again his rants led me back to the character of Robert Grant in A Little Tea, A Little Chat. Robert Grant and George are two slightly different versions of the same man. George has a number of ex-wives, a “swarm of little-girl gadflies.” And it’s not easy to nail down how many ex-wives there are but he admits to “three in this country.”

“I wanted to get married. I fell in love with each; and each one,” he said, getting red and shouting, “did not love me; or only as children love. Marriage was an outing. Papa would buy the candy and the ride on the loop-the-loops. I can pay. Don’t worry about my health.”

And:

American girls are bloodthirsty. Their honour is in sucking a man dry; then they throw out the corpse. Why, I have known women here who destroy a man’s happiness and faith in himself, ruin his career, divorce him, turn his children against him, blacken his name to all his friends, suck him dry, and then marry him again to show they own him.

And, of course when George rants about the venal nature of women, he’s trying to persuade another victim to take a trip down the aisle. George eventually meets another woman, Linda who seems to be a prototype of Lydia in The Dianas.

Putting all four novellas together and examining them as a whole, I was struck by the significance of a few things. 1) Paris appears in all four novellas. Stead uses Paris rather as Forster used Italy: people go wild there. Take the saying “what happens in Vegas, stays in Vegas,” and in Stead’s novels it becomes “what happens in Paris, stays in Paris.”

Oh, Paris is an obsession; I feel it like paprika. And then the men fluttering round, so aimless and asking you to decide. 

Male-female relationships dominant here, and it isn’t pretty. One character in The Puzzleheaded Girl brags about his spouse: “My wife’s as good as two hired men”–shades of the much abused Ruth in The Rightangled Creek. I was also struck by the reoccurring character of  Robert (A Little Tea, A Little Chat) George (Girl From the Beach) and even, if we stretch it, Laban (The Rightangled Creek)–men who want the women in their lives to be all aspects of the feminine ideal while they are … well …dickheads.

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A Little Tea, A Little Chat: Christina Stead

“He had suffered too much from women.”

In Christina Stead’s comic novel,  A Little Tea, A Little Chat Robert Grant, a middle-aged businessman, a dealer in cotton, is a despicable, opportunistic predatory male who is always on the lookout for the next sexual encounter. This bombastic braggart spends most of his time scoping out likely women he can invite up to his New York apartment for the euphemistic “a little tea, a little chat.”

The novel opens in 1941, with an introduction of Grant and his repulsive male circle of friends, all “birds of prey” and “each of them loved money and lechery, above all,” so between these men, stories of ripping off widows or seducing them makes good cocktail talk. It’s hard to say which of these men is the most revolting, but the novel concentrates on the philandering career of Grant, and how he subsequently meets his match.

A little tea a little chat

Robert Grant isn’t an interesting man. He’s shallow and “had no hobbies. He could not read more than a few consecutive sentences in any book or newspaper unless they referred immediately to himself or his interests.” Grant’s relentless, pitiless modus operandi geared towards women is the compelling fascination here. He’s a pig, picking up women, stringing them along with false promises, assessing whether or not they’re worth bedding, buying them the cheapest meals possible. and then dumping them when he’s bored or if thing gets complicated.

He had little pleasure out of his real hobby, libertinage; and he gave none. Women fell away from him, but he did not know why; and he retained only the venal.

He claims to be afraid of women, irreparably damaged by a femme fatale in his past. He poses as a free thinker, a “bit of a Marxist,” but considers a woman goes too far when she dances with a “negro fellow.” He’s learned to pose as a Leftie and has convinced himself that he really is one. Again this is just a role for sexual benefit.  Leftist women seem to want to give it away free.

usually his radicalism made his girls trustful and either cheap or for nothing: a radical girl should not take money for love. 

Grant is a practiced seducer who always plays the victim to his prey. Here he is on his wife:

That ‘ooman in Boston, my wife, is no good to me. Never loved me. Now when it’s too late, she tries to make me come back. Just like Barb. It’s a type-stupid. A woman like you could keep a man. I’m looking for an oasis in my desert, a rose on a blasted heath. 

And here he is on what he’s looking for in a woman:

I’m looking for romance. My heart needs a home, a cradle, eh? I’ve used myself up, played too hard. Now I need a woman, a mother, a sister, a sweetheart, a friend. That’s what that cow in Boston doesn’t realize. I need a mother now. She could have me back. But it’s too late now.

Discarding woman as casually and frequently as if they were paper underwear, he finally runs into a woman called Barbara Kent–a woman he eventually nicknames  The Blondine. At first she seems a little drab, no big deal, but he becomes intrigued even though he knows “she’s possessive, she’s greedy, she is from the Land of Grab.” Barbara’s friend, Paula (another of Grant’s conquests) calls Barbara a “tramp.”

She got sick of men so soon. I don’t think she really cares for them. She’s not a gold-digger at heart, but she finished up gold-digging. She has too good a head for figures. She can always calculate the chances. What’s the use of marrying somebody with flat feet, some jerk, and so dying of old age at thirty?

In this darkly, cruelly funny novel, we see Grant perplexed by the languid Barbara, who’s really every bit as boring as he is, and as she slips his grasp, he becomes obsessed with her. Setting, at no small expense, private detectives on her trail, sightings of Barbara with various men serve to fuel his obsession, and eventually, comically, he discovers, or thinks he discovers, Barbara’s secret life.

A Little Tea, A Little Chat is an intense character study of the male predator. After a certain point in the novel, we don’t really learn anything new about Robert, his methods or his tastes, but nonetheless, we follow him through his obsession with Barbara Kent. Grant is a bore, and like most bores, he won’t shut up, has the same speeches, and the same beliefs which he trots out in company. Grant’s speech about how he’s been done wrong by women appears repeatedly, for example, although it’s modified at times to fit his audience. At one point, for example, he has an idea for a book, called All I Want is a Woman, and in another scene he meets a woman “just back from Reno,” who wants to write a thinly veiled novel about her marriage. This meeting morphs into a duel for attention as Grant and the woman wax on about their respective experiences. Both egomaniacs, neither listens to the other. Some readers may be disappointed in the repetitiveness of Grant’s behaviour, but Grant’s boring repetitiveness and insatiable rapaciousness is all part of his shtick.

This is not a perfect novel, and at times Grant’s constant rants can be bludgeoning. But in spite of its flaws, I enjoyed the book thoroughly for its portrayal of a type who finally meets his match.

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A Harmless Affair: Christina Stead

Lisa at ANZ Litlovers announced Christina Stead Week Nov 14-20, and I selected a short story at random from Ocean of Story.  A Harmless Affair takes a look at the ambiguous relationship between the happily married Lydia and a journalist/author/soldier, Paul Charteris. Lydia, married to Tom, is in a strange mood, aware of spring, aware of love, when she is invited to a party full of “distinguished people who had all arrived at their destinations.” Lydia meets Charteris, she owns all of his books, and invites him to meet her husband sometime.  He makes a comment that he didn’t know that she was married and that he has ‘no luck.’

ocean-of-story

A week later, Charteris phones and asks if he can visit sometime. He’s given an open invitation, and a month later, he rings again and says he’s coming over. Tom and Charteris appear to like each other, and gradually a relationship forms–mainly between the two men–although there’s something in the air between Charteris and Lydia. Charteris says things to Lydia that he doesn’t say to Tom, he sends Lydia these “rare golden smiles.”  How is Lydia to interpret the things Charteris says, the looks he sends her?

Lydia and Tom move to another state for two years, but they return to New York and run into Charteris again. There’s something doomed about this man. He seems in a downward spiral, tired, and unkempt. The absence and the reunion forces Lydia to consider that “this is the man I nearly lost my head over,” but the inexplicable enchantment Charteris weaved over Lydia before, begins again.

This twenty-five page story is disturbing, and yet there’s nothing ostensibly that should disturb any reader. Perhaps it’s the way that Stead conveys how Charteris, obviously a damaged soul, burrows under Lydia’s skin. She thinks she’s in love, but is she really? The title “A Harmless Affair” is, like the story, somewhat ambiguous. We are left with the idea that Charteris irrevocably alters Lydia’s life, but is this for the better or for the worst? How much of all this germinates in Lydia or her projection? Stead argues that just a few looks, a few words casually thrown out, can lead to unsettling consequences that have no closure. Anyway, a strangely unsettling story. …

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Christine Stead Week: November 14-20, 2016

Lisa at ANZLITLOVERS organised a week honouring Christina Stead. I’m swamped at the moment, but I ordered Ocean of Story: the Uncollected Stories of Christina Stead. Since it’s OOP, there wasn’t much information out there, but my copy arrived and here’s the contents of this 552 page book:

ocean-of-story

1: The Early Years: Australia

The Old School

The Milk Run

A Little Demon

2: Apprentice Writer

A Night in the Indian Ocean

La Toussaint

O, If I Could But Shiver!

About the House

Uncle Morgan at the Nats

3: Pre-War Europe

The Azhdanov Sailors

Private Matters

Lost American

4: New York

Life is Difficult

A Harmless Affair

I Live in You

My Friend, Lafe Tilly

An Iced Cake with Cherries

UNO

The Fathers

5: Post War Europe

The Captains’ House

Yac, Yac

The Hotel-Keeper’s Story

A Household

The Woman in the Bed

The Boy

Trains

6: England

Street Idyll

1954: Days of the Roomers

A Routine

Accents

7: Biographical and Autobiographical

A Waker and a Dreamer

A Writer’s Friends

Les Amoureux

Another View of the Homestead

Did it Sell?

The Magic Woman and Other Stories

Afterword from R. G. Geering, literary executor and life-long friend.

This post is created for anyone else out there interested in the contents of this book. My review of The Little Hotel is here.

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The Little Hotel by Christina Stead

“Not to explain further, the Mayor began to do a striptease in order to dance an apache dance with Lola, although Lola told him over and over, and I believe this, that the male apache does not have to be naked to dance. She does a strip-tease at the club and ends her dance in nothing but a few beads, as my father used to say.”

Loitering over on Whispering Gums, I became inspired to try a Christina Stead novel, and for the occasion I selected The Little Hotel–mostly because I have a soft spot for stories set in sleazy boarding houses or hotels. These types of settings always throw diverse characters together in interesting ways, and that is certainly true in the very amusing novel, The Little Hotel, and while it’s not considered Christina Stead’s best work, it certainly convinced me to read more of this author.

the little hotelThe setting is a seedy Swiss pension post WWII, and various people have washed up at the Hotel Swiss-Touring which is ostensibly run by a husband and wife team. The husband’s real interest, however, may be a striptease dancer at the Zig-Zag club; he stays mostly in the background while all of the work is left to his patient, tolerant and long-suffering wife. The Hotel Swiss-Touring is almost the cheapest place to stay in the area and is priced only just above various lodgings for workmen. This alone dictates the type of guests and the attitudes of the staff, and that leaves the proprietor stuck in the middle negotiating as she tries to convince the guests to be more reasonable and the staff to not be quite so peevish and vindictive. The opening immediately illustrates how the proprietor becomes dragged in to the personal lives of the hotel guests:

If you knew what happens in the hotel every day! Not a day passes but something happens. Yesterday afternoon a woman rang me up from Geneva and told me her daughter-in-law died. The woman stayed here twice. We became very friendly, though I always felt there was something she was keeping to herself. I never knew whether she was divorced, widowed or separated. The first time, she talked about her son Gerard. Later, Gerard married. There was something; for she used to telephone from Geneva, crying and saying she had to talk to a friend. I was looking for a friend too.

The narrative goes back and forth from the proprietor’s first person narration to the third person as the novel follows the various relationships established between the guests who come and go. Given that the Hotel Swiss-Touring attracts a certain clientele, some of the guests are questionable, but there are also those living on a budget, and also some who’ve seen better days. Our sympathies are with the proprietor who has to juggle all the complaints, the pettiness, the quibbling, the eccentricities, and must wrestle with those who don’t want to pay their bills. If anyone who picks up this book had any romantic notions of starting a dreamy little B&B on the coast, then this book will probably annihilate that idea.

Since the guests of the hotel are out of their natural habitats, we can only suspect what their circumstances and positions in life really are. Some appear to be down on their luck, while others, putting on airs, express loudly that they are used to better accommodations. Most of the guests treat the hotel staff like servants. Miss Abbey-Chillard demands “invalid dishes” but expects them to be cheaper since she’s a vegetarian, while the Admiral, a particularly peevish elderly Englishwoman who is very cheap with the staff, makes peevish demands. This makes her unpopular and because she brings out the worst in the staff, they get their revenge in very subtle ways.

She was poor, yet she complained. She did not like it that the same woman who cleaned her room put her soup in front of her.

Much of the book’s focus is on the bad behaviour of the guests, and how that bad behaviour impacts the other guests and also the proprietor and her husband, Roger, who resorts to “spying,”  using hotel maintenance as an excuse for loitering outside doors and eavesdropping on guests. Many of the hotel guests are either long-term or repeat customers, and because some of these people more or less live at the Hotel Swiss-Touring, they establish relationships with each other. As the book continues, these relationships, rooted in propinquity, lead to  ‘friendships’ that are inherently false and laced with elements of nastiness. Madame Blaise, for example, a “very cunning” woman according to the proprietor, is ‘best friends’ with the British, very troubled  Mrs Trollope, who shares a room with her “cousin” Mr Wilkins. Mrs Trollope is desperate to maintain the fiction that they’re related, but everyone knows the truth. Mr Wilkins is from a middle-class Yorkshire family and is “snubbed and ignored by the resident English, even those drunk or in debt.” There is some underlying issue between the wealthy Madame Blaise and her physician husband who visits every weekend from Basel, and by the time the book concludes, we see Madame Blaise’s friendship for what it really is in a very funny episode when Mrs Trollope and Mr Wilkins host an anniversary dinner.

Then there’s the Mayor of B, obviously a complete lunatic who’s there to attend a clinic and receive shock treatments. He can only behave for a limited amount of time before he explodes into bad behaviour. The Mayor imagines that he see Germans everywhere, but he also wants to avoid Belgians.  One day he walks around the dining room shaking hands with all the guests, and the second day “he began to complain about Germans in the dining room, though there was no one there resembling a German.” Afraid of “germ contact with Germans” he insists on being served in his room. The Mayor makes frequent trips to France bringing back loads of champagne which he drinks with the staff, and the proprietor has to break up impromptu parties in the Mayor’s room where he’s “insisting” the staff stay, drink champagne and watch him do “balancing tricks.” He’s always submitting “memorandums” and numbered “Documents.” Then he begins writing on the towels:

If this is a sample of the towel you give guests in the Hotel Swiss-Touring (and his writing was arranged to take in the woven name, you see) it is no wonder that guests who are short of writing-paper use it; for there is no writing paper supplied in the Hotel Swiss-Touring; so that if guests want to write letters or complain about the GERMANS in the place, they will be sure to look for material and to write on the towels and tablecloths, so take notice. Signed the Mayor of B.

Even though the war is over, shock waves of the aftermath still rock the hotel residents. While the Mayor sees Germans everywhere, other guests are paranoid about the Russians. An elderly American guest advocates dropping the atom bomb on them and when the touchy subject of politics is raised starts shouting: “There are communists even in this country, in Switzerland. Why don’t you get busy and stand them all up against a wall.” Due to the war and the subsequent displacement, it’s not possible to tell if Madame Blaise is telling the truth about the millions she claims she’s fighting the banks for, and in the hotel environment, she could be just another storyteller. The proprietor suspects that Madame Blaise has “enemy alien” property belonging to a German “entrusted” to her. 

The Little Hotel is not a perfect novel. It suffers from a certain lack of focus, but in spite of its flaws, I enjoyed this social comedy very much for its spot on observations of human behaviour. Stead creates a microcosm in a hotel setting, and here we are in the cheapest hotel in the area with the hotel guests mostly behaving very badly. When they’re not complaining about each other, they’re complaining about the staff. It seems to be human nature to complain and pick fault simply because one can, but we also see temperamental staff members fight back in this chronicle of human nature.

I told Papa that nothing can be done when servants have made up their minds to get rid of someone. You see she gave no tips: she paid her ten per cent service, but nothing extra. The servants are very poor and need the little extra. As it is, on their days out, you will find them sitting each by himself eating a roll perhaps, on the seats along the promenade getting a little fresh air and waiting to go home to sleep. We do not feed them on their days out. Very often too they spend the day in bed, eating a little bread or fruit. You see most of the send money home to their families, and their families think of them as the rich ones. Well it is not the business of the guests to worry about that and not mine either; we must all live and eat, and out of the same pot. The way they see it is, there are people living in comfort, doing nothing and eating all day, who deny them a few extra pence. Yet I have seen them very kind to certain guests who do not pay extra; it is a question of luck and personality.

Christina Stead shows the layers of society within the hotel and the clashes of class and culture between the servants and the guests. We also see a world in flux: refugees, people who no longer have homes, collaborators who don’t want to return home, an affluent British couple terrified to return home due to the Labour Government, another who believes her money will only be safe with a dictator in control and people still broken and sensitive to the hostilities between nations.

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