For the next few weeks, I’ll be thinking back through the books I read in 2010 and ranking my favorites in a top 10 list. Today, meet number 8: Christina Stead’s The Man Who Loved Children.
OK, so I realize that the other two books I’ve ranked so far (Adaand One Hundred Years of Solitude) have also been about big, totally crazy families. What can I say? I have a niche.
I picked up The Man Who Loved Children because I’m reading through Francine Prose’s book list, Books to Be Read Immediately. The list appears in her fabulous book, Reading Like a Writer. I’ve been reading through this list for two years now and I think I’m maybe halfway through. I don’t always love the books Prose picks (see William Trevor’s The Children of Dynmouth and stuff by Philip Roth, for example), but this one really got to me.
The Man Who Loved Children is a large, complicated novel that eludes simple categorization. It was the first novel I’ve ever read by an Australian and one of the first I’ve read from 1940. I don’t think a great deal of quality literature was produced in the 1940s, for good reason, and so my knowledge of the period is quite slim. The Man Who Loved Children was also one of the first novels I’d read all year that was completely riveting and yet thoroughly baffling. Even now, looking back on the novel, I can’t say exactly what it is about Stead’s style that is so strange and yet so perfect. Something about the mood she creates in The Man Who Loved Children is eerily enchanting. Her characters are not fantastical, but they are mysterious, even when they appear to be revealing their deepest desires and ambitions.
The novel doesn’t tell the story of a pedophile—which you might unfortunately expect, given my great admiration for Nabokov. Rather, it’s the winding tale of a savagely dysfunctional family, the Pollits. Samuel Pollit is an idealistic, scheming bureaucrat in Washington, D.C. He lives in a squalid home in the Georgetown suburb with his wife and nemesis, Henny. They have six children. Sam and Henny hate each other with such fervor that they haven’t exchanged words in over two years, and instead use their children as messengers to deliver handwritten notes to the other parent. Sam and Henny are so deep in their own worries and domestic agendas that they are consistently unaware of the damage they inflict on their children. The undercurrent of emotional violence is deeply disturbing, made doubly so by the fact that this novel is often hilarious. Sam has crafted a family language through which he communicates with his children, using his own invented jargon to both awe and control them. The children are believably sweet and funny and yet seem precociously capable of seeing through their father’s ruses.
Louisa, or Louie, the eldest child in the Pollit household, is particularly able at calling her father’s bluff. She was Sam’s daughter from his first marriage and Henny despises her with the passion of the archetypal evil stepmother. Sam seems to favor Louie at first, but as Louie grows up and approaches adolescence, it becomes clear that she will not turn out pretty or graceful or sweetly domestic, as her father wishes. Heartbreakingly, Louie recognizes her father’s gradual dissipation of love. But it is Louie’s story that becomes the triumph of this comically ruthless novel.
In a lesser work, this might all read like a grim, abstract feminist parable, but Stead has already devoted most of the book to making the Pollits specific and real and funny, and to establishing them as capable of saying and doing just about anything, and she has particularly established what a problem love is for Louie (how much, in spite of everything, she yearns for her father’s adoration), and so the abstraction becomes inescapably concrete, the warring archetypes are given sympathetic flesh: you can’t help being dragged along through Louisa’s bloody soul-struggle to become her own person, and you can’t help cheering for her triumph. As the narrator remarks, matter-of-factly, “That was family life.” And telling the story of this inner life is what novels, and only novels, are for.
Toward the end of his review, Franzen remarks on how Stead’s masterpiece is largely unknown in the Western canon. (I had never even heard of it until I saw the title in Prose’s list.) He relates a brief anecdote in which his wife found the book at the library and declared to him that it was the best book she had ever read. I don’t know if I would call it that, but it is definitely a book that will stick in my side for many years. Writing out of her own family sorrows—Stead apparently based Sam Pollit directly on her own father, and Louie on herself—the author has plumbed the darkest recesses of the nuclear family and yet emerged with a victory; a victory in the shape of a daughter’s escape and the tragicomedy that accompanies it.
The following is a selection from the diary of thirteen-year-old Louisa Pollit, one of the more central characters in Christina Stead’s beautiful and heart-breaking novel, The Man Who Loved Children. Her father, Sam, is reading her diary when he finds this observation:
“ii. What a strange thing that when a minister or a clerk or a justice of the peace pronounces a few words over a man and a woman a cell begins to develop.”
This caused Sam much consternation and merriment when he finally understood it, though he had given Louie a book, and Henny had given her a talk about marriage, Louie now imagined that marriage was essential to conception and that, provided no powders were administered to the bride and groom (she had made cautious inquiries on this subject–did they eat anything special on their wedding day?), a miraculous or magical event took place during the marriage ceremony. This was confirmed by her reading of various sentimental stories in which, after a hasty wedding, the bridegroom departed leaving the bride at the altar, and yet some months later a baby appeared on the scene.
Christina Stead, The Man Who Loved Children
I include this because this is exactly how I understood procreation when I was a kid. I remember playing with Ken and Barbie and forcing them through a marriage ceremony before they could share a bed and then give birth to a Beanie Baby. Or a My Little Pony, or whatever was on hand. I was positively disgusted when I found out what actually had to happen…
I’ve enjoyed this novel very much, however, as sad as it is. Stead writes with what appears to be terrifying accuracy and honesty. I found out, after doing a little sleuthing, that this novel, widely considered her best, was closely based on her own childhood. All of the characters–essentially just the Pollit family–are so riveting, complex, and pitiful. I haven’t finished the book yet, so I have no idea how it ends, but it’s a long and gripping testament of how deeply parents can screw up their kids. It’s very humbling to read, and it makes me unutterably thankful to have had such sincerely good parents.
One of the moments that caught me particularly this week was a scene in which Louie (Louisa), the eldest Pollit, screams at her father and tells him that he’s a liar and a fool. True observations, but Sam’s self-image is absolutely shattered. Do you remember that moment? That terrifying, maturing moment when you realized that you had the ability to hurt your parents’ feelings? That they weren’t these godlike beings who presided over your life unemotionally? I remember that moment. I think it hits us when we’re perhaps 10 or 11, maybe even younger now. It’s a sad turning point. Stead writes about it well, this pattern we learn of wounding other people.