A love affair is not delicate nor clean, but it is an eye opener!
—Christina Stead to Thistle Harris, 6 April 1942
I rarely feel calm and good,’ Christina Stead wrote to a friend in 1967, just five years before she came back to face the old music in Australia: the cultural cringing she scorned; the family oppression and animus she’d long fled from; the ‘raw, fresh and unhistorical society’. Her garrulous letters of this period are, however, calmer than they’d ever been: less flighty, impressionistic, less strained in their praise and courtesies towards others—less self-conscious, I suppose, than they were before her literary reputation built its solid foundations. But there was still that unfinished novel around her neck that was to be called I’m Dying Laughing—one of her several ironic titles, which was published posthumously in 1986. She saw it as ‘full of anguish’. It would take a lot more work. She knew what she wanted to say. But that would involve ‘cutting down the excitement and drama and conflict’.
Even as we read this promise to herself, it sounds unlikely. It was a left-wing novel about Hollywood. It was set in the 1930s and she had begun to write it in the ominous, disgusting era of Senator McCarthy. How could it not be full of anguish? It was not in Stead’s nature—literary or personal—to write something as composed, as latently pastoral in its grim mood, as the great political novel of that period, The Middle of the Journey by Lionel Trilling. Stead was not a liberal intelligence. She did not yearn for what was calm and good. She was a kind of double agent for what was true to each and every thing: calm and good in spots of time, cruel and alive in others, and the task of writing was akin to the task of being itself: with its derring-do, its courageous ventures into arenas of desire, ambivalence and dispassionate witnessing—of all others, as well as of Eros, and one’s self.
She was, however, a forbidding writer of dense texts. Her novels were hard to finish. The freedom the text and its characters sought was seldom realised. Great promise was there, a welter of it. But the air of full movement was not enabling enough to draw one on. And when one was drawn on, it was for the autobiographical glimpses of the writer, the person so much aware of the ambiguities of freedom—free in the way an intelligent, recently widowed woman is free, even if she is sad and lonely and fading, as Christina Stead felt herself to be and mostly was when she came back to Australia after the death of her communist/banker/writer/Jewish husband, Bill Blake (born Blech), to whom she had been coupled for almost four decades. I wished I’d met her younger, Patrick White remarked, which is what you would expect the old hatchet to say. One imagines the fading gleam of one flinty novelist facing the gleam of the other as the sun went down over their cocktails. Our best writers have not been the kindly ones.
By the time she came back to her country, Australia was learning the ironic lessons of it being lucky. Gutless until the last, we were fighting another atrocious war for empire, the American one, while trying to manage our bad faith, guilt and so on. The same with personal relationships: divorce without responsibility was to be legalised, and love was to be spoken of as candidly as war. Yet tact was still required: realities could be mysteriously hidden. For example, how was one to understand the word that had got out about Stead having had an ‘open marriage’? Adultery had not been her theme, but ‘women’s desire’ had, evidently. From early in her union with Blake, she flaunted her interest in men. Men were more interesting than ‘desperately married women’. In her conspicuously autobiographical novel For Love Alone (1945), her heroine was ‘half mad with love’, especially when she was thinking ‘it does not die in marriage, it is not over once and for all’. Yet there is the short story ‘A Harmless Affair’ (another ironic title, and written much later) where the female protagonist, a woman akin to herself, is rather coy: she thinks of love-making as ‘night business’ and is keen to get dressed in the morning as quickly as possible. Stead’s narratives often skipped along, fuelled with ambivalence.
This at least is the reading of Stead’s biographer, the late and admirable Hazel Rowley, who in her writing was candid and admiring of the free spirits of her subjects (such as the libertines Sartre and de Beauvoir) and in her life boldly fraternised with and was amorous of African-American society during the years when she was working on her biography of the black communist novelist Richard Wright. Some writing, it seems to me, demands that genre distinctions be set alight and rendered as ash so that we can fully occupy the true amorous ground of the various tellings, whether they be fiction or not. ‘I believe last night I dreamed about every eligible man I have ever known’, Stead wrote to Blake in 1942. She named names and added, ‘—all very nice, affectionate, friendly to me, no sex’. But the dreaming was the thing: it was as real as the fictional counterparts of the men she could not get out of her mind, men with powerful bodies and Nietzschean free spirits.
Stead embraced the allure of the tellings themselves, which she indulged with her collection of puppets. ‘Even the Kama Sutra knows’, she wrote to a friend in 1967, that men who tell stories are among ‘the most attractive to women’. Consider what went into the puppet she called Tom. There was ‘the hero of the Rumanian ballad who had his heart torn from his breast’, ‘the Transylvanian man who slowly turned to stone as he looked at himself in the mirror’ and ‘the Clown of folklore, that personage of dubious sex’. She recounts the risks and damage of ancient ‘horseplay’, and the ‘sun-worship of Scandinavian scenes’ where ‘women sit in a circle and in which Tom, with a rose in his ear, crosses the sacred circle, a glass is smashed, blood falls etc.’ Tom was born of bad things, bad fairies and witches. ‘In fact,’ Stead confesses, ‘though Tom was a real man, someone I knew quite well and who confided in me (all those stories!), he became, I suppose with all this legend, something of a puppet.’
But when push came to shove, Stead came down on the side of life. ‘I am opposed to inventing in life,’ she told Thistle Harris back in 1942. ‘Life is so strange and we know it so little, that nothing is needed in that direction …’ And at the same time, life outside fiction never quite lived up to her expectations, which had long made her ‘fretful’. That and, probably, her reticence towards physical desire itself.
My reading about the puppets came on the heels of revisiting Hazel Rowley’s biography of Stead. The book fell open at the Age article I’d written about Stead on the occasion of her eightieth birthday. I met her for the first and only time in September 1982 and the encounter has always loomed ambiguously in my memory, a source of arousal, consternation and, I suppose, shame. It was an honour to meet her. I felt I was in the presence of someone rather great. I have reason to think that Stead enjoyed the meeting also and I have often wondered if she registered the moment between us when the man who had come to meet her and to transcribe her was bursting to tell her of what was still cascading in himself. But like a dumb puppet, he was too beside himself to speak. Rowley, at least, thought it was a good meeting. She wrote that the writer brightened up Stead’s day and that they found each other charming.
We sat in the sunroom. Her sister’s African violets were in bloom. Christina Stead found a shawl, because the radiator had to give its plug to the tape recorder. She was an exquisitely frail woman then, and not at all like those plump, sporty shots of her with her husband, taken on cosmopolitan jaunts. Her fingers in the morning light were translucent and coral pink, like the bow of her blouse.
But when she spoke, the frailty disappeared. Her features sharpened, and the New York timbres of her voice deepened. When she got up to pour vermouth, her step, in the fawn slacks with the black kid pumps, had a snap to it; one could imagine her clicking her heels as she left the room—cocktails, olé.
For all her sadness and loneliness, the old lady put on a lovely show for the youngish man. As you do when you are having the first drink of the day. Mind you, I already felt a political kinship with Stead. My father in Melbourne was an organiser of the metal workers union to which her brother Gilbert had belonged in Sydney. It’s easy to imagine socialists like them featuring in Stead’s early book Seven Poor Men of Sydney (1934), that vitalist novel of the 1920s, where men and women seek to forge their freedoms by ‘the recognition of necessity’, as Marx would have said. The writing in it was brilliantly, youthfully excessive. Its dominant virtue was, as her friend and literary executor Ron Geering judged, its ‘reckless sincerity’.
• • •
She’s been staying with her relatives lately, my father told me, in the early years of her return. Ever met her? ‘Evidently she’s pretty progressive.’ Progressive, but not idealist. That was the thing about the other great autobiographical novel, The Man Who Loved Children. Stead was proud of its ‘intelligent ferocity’, and the way in which ‘the frightful desire in it’ gave it its strength, and even what some might think its ‘inhumanity’. Good novels ‘must have errors of taste and style’. The Times Literary Supplement described her as a ‘kind of dark star among novelists’.
So eventually, when the Age commanded, I made my way up to that louche capital, Sydney. Then, to reach Christina Stead, I took the train down the south coast of New South Wales as far as the great industrial complex of Wollongong, full of fire and iron and dust and authenticity. It is a formidable journey. The deep blue ocean all the way, with the satanic mills to come. The train travels on an escarpment that is as beautiful as nakedness can be. You set off, of course, from Central Station, which has always made me feel I am beginning a journey from some grander metropolis, Rome’s Termini, for instance, or even Grand Central in New York, where the beginnings of journeys are themselves adventurous and mysterious.
I didn’t know, as I got to the platform and wandered along the train, what was in store or what I might be looking for. I only knew, to tell the truth, that my second marriage was as good as over and that something would have to be done about that sometime soon. Once the train started, I went from dog box to dog box, glancing in. ‘I cannot avoid the melodramatic situations in life,’ Stead wrote, in the middle of her journey, when she was 40. I was a year short of 40 myself.
I settled into the window seat facing a honey-coloured woman sitting with a girl in a short denim skirt. She was about 30 and her kid was 13, I’d say, and between them they had a wicker basket. The mother reached into the basket and gave me a peep at the neck of a bottle. She showed enough to reveal that it was chilled and white. She raised a lovely eyebrow of enquiry and I reached out to take the glass she produced from a tea towel.
This is very good, I said, as if I was an insufferable wine-buff. Her black eyes glistened but she was not drunk.
I don’t usually smoke, I said, but would you like one?
A deliriously willing smile.
I passed her one of the joints I had filed into the top pocket of my navy blue jacket. I was also wearing fawn slacks and newly polished tan shoes. Blue checked, button-down shirt. Who would have expected Mister Square to be so well equipped?
I’m all dolled up, I know, I said. But I am going to visit a queen.
A fresh bread stick came out of the basket, along with a small pottery terrine of duck paté.
Are you French?
She laughed. Pearly white were her teeth, in a wide mouth. No lipstick was needed for her full lips. It was hard not to look out the window to escape from such beauty and sureness. She had tucked a hibiscus into her long, heavy, black hair, just above the ear that was furthest from the window.
No, she said.
Do you come from Samoa?
No no no, she said.
Oh well, I am trying.
Oh you are trying, she said.
The bottle came towards me once more. We have plenty here, she said, indicating the tea towel, a red and white check like Yassir Arafat’s head gear.
I don’t mind if I do, madam.
She liked the parody and I lit her another joint. The ocean ran alongside us, with its falling cliffs of foam and ravishing cobalt.
I feel like Captain Cook lost on the Pacific, I said, inanely.
She was looking out the window.
As a navigator, I went on, I lust to know from where you come.
I can imagine, she said, turning back to me.
We carried on towards whatever was ahead of us. No rush. No words wasted. As if guided by the stars invisibly overhead.
They had been visiting friends in Cronulla.
Sharks, I said.
Lots, she said.
I used to surf there once, when I was up in Sydney playing water-polo.
A swimmer, hey, she said, dryly.
You might laugh, I said. I was in California a few years ago, and the black women I was hanging out with subscribed to pin-up magazines for girls. The centrefolds were Aussie blokes in their budgies and whatnot.
Whatnot, she laughed.
Whatnots, we laughed, stoned at last.
As the train slowed and made speed again, you could have sworn it was about to pull in at the satanic mills any minute. But time was plentiful, just as it can be when life is full. We went through a tunnel and were pleased to see each other reappear out of the darkness.
In the next tunnel I reached out and put my hand on her knee, and kept it there until day came back. When her face was suddenly lit, her smile was something that could have fallen from a palm tree.
You have to be Maori, I said.
I have to be Maori, she said, winsomely.
The train clattered and surged on its tracks, and the whistle hooted its way into the carriage, tapering to a scream. As the light broke in I realised the scream was not the train’s. It was the girl with us. At some stage she had slid into the window seat beside her mother and leaned out. Her screaming lasted for the length of the tunnel before she pulled her head in.
You’ll fucking kill yourself, her mother said, and slapped the back of the girl’s thighs as she oiled back into her seat.
What if I fucken do, her mother was told.
Look, her mother said to me, we might as well finish this. Have the dregs. Ignore the little bitch. She always does this.
We were quiet for a while. Thirroul moved past us. I told the Maori about Lawrence and Frieda. I told her about the wave that dumped him, and the painting of them in the surf together, where his hat had flown off and Frieda bobs around, unsinkable in the deep blue. I used the expression aggressive familiarity—DHL’s description of the Australian manner. I said that the great writer I was going to meet had written a novel almost as good as Lawrence’s Kangaroo.
She giggled. Oh yeah, what was it called? Joey in the Pouch?
Seven Poor Men of Sydney, I said.
Poor men, she said. Seven of them … hard times.
But it’s not just about being poor. ‘Everyone is a fountain of passion,’ Christina Stead thought, when she was creating her characters.
I thought my fellow traveller brightened at this, but she added: I don’t read much. I’m dyslexic.
I’m sorry to hear that, I said.
I don’t know why you should be. Not every-one spends their life with their face in books.
We travelled a while on our separate tracks.
I had a husband once, she said, who used to surf at Coromandel.
I knew it! You are a Kiwi.
Men always think they know, she said.
It’s their aggressive familiarity.
You’re all talk, she said. I bet you’re a softie.
Oh, I just remembered.
What? she said, with a crushing touch of boredom.
Look. I’d found the flask of whisky in the overnight bag.
Oh, she laughed, this is the beginning of the end. You’re brilliant.
I know, I said, prepared to say anything.
Any minute we would be there. But it took ages. I could not tell if it was the grass or the whisky that slowed things down. The hardest part, as the train lurched and swayed, was getting the address right: I thought I had it by memory, but kept having to check with her before writing it down. The time we fixed for our rendezvous was 9 p.m. I knew I’d be tired, just as I knew that if I did turn up it would mark the end of my marriage. My wife used to say that if I played around she did not want to know about it. I lived with that until my freedom rendered me a reformed man. No more affairs, I had decided, by the time it was too late. Now what was to stop me from taking everything that came my way?
My new friend’s stop was two before Wollongong and she kissed me on the mouth as she left. Her name was Arataki. See you, she said, and the girl sprang out ahead of her.
• • •
Next morning the man Christina Stead found waiting for her was dehydrated and drained in every way. Wasted. He feared the perspicacious woman of the world would see through him like papier-mâché. When he got back to Victoria, he would receive a postcard. After reading one of his stories, ‘A Bold Headline’, she would write to him: ‘I had in my mind the tall, dark, upstanding, silent, viewing man I saw when I came out of the room to meet you …’ This was one of Stead’s gifts: her mind could go to and fro from life to fiction, each realm as feathered and sharp as the other. He should have told her everything. He should have poured himself out, risking everything.
We had drinks and an hour’s recorded conversation before going out to lunch, and it was the most pleasant of meetings. One must say this because Christina Stead was not renowned for giving interviewers an easy time. If anyone went so far as to think her expatriotism involved a rejection of Australia, or that her work might be read as a feminist tract, or that she has ever written just for publication or money rather than the joy of it, she would bite his head off. In general, interviewers had met a pellucid mind resisting any single interpretation of her work, insisting that analysis be set aside to allow the novels to speak for themselves …
Some of these indiscretions I managed to avoid, but I found the point where we could have started only towards the end of the lunch. She had described herself as an atheist, and to the question whether she had ever not been one, she said, ‘No, never.’ Then later, very quietly and almost out of the blue, she said: ‘I’m a believer in love. That’s really my religion. Why, I don’t know. I think it has something to do with creativity.’
So how does one bring a life to bear on a manifold body of work? How to use one to elucidate the other? Lately Christina Stead had been reading autobiographies—Gide’s, Stanley Burnshaw’s, and the books by her two friends Nugget Coombs and Patrick White. I mentioned the Age review of Flaws in the Glass, which recommended that readers start with the biography, if they had not tackled the novels. What did she think of that? ‘Oh,’ she said:
I don’t read reviews of my own work, because I know, and they don’t, frankly, for the most part. But I’m not being rude and I know reviewers have to do five or six books a week, poor things.
But if reviewers want to have access [to White] they should start with The Aunt’s Story, something like that. This, the autobiography, is the last thing they should read … This is his farewell, his sorrow, and everything that people would not understand unless they had read the whole life.
Several times people have written to me, publishers and so on, saying, will I write my autobiography. So I invariably write back saying that I have written my biography in all of my books. And this is true.
Did the idea attract her at all, perhaps, telling her story another way, since she so loved telling stories? ‘I’d hate to,’ she said. Choosing another form for the telling, perhaps? ‘I couldn’t. I’m not interested in myself. Because I write fluently, when I’m writing, and I don’t think about myself. I think about the character. Well, I don’t think, frankly,’ she chuckled.
‘You don’t think?’
‘I don’t think.’
‘You sense the character and …’
Look, I’m extremely interested in persons, people. This is partly because I was brought up by a scientist, who looked at everything except himself, in a fairly scientific way. And also because I was brought up in a crowd of people, a big family, in which there was too much to do to sit and think of yourself. All the other kids were younger than me. There was a lot to do. The others needed looking after.
In For Love Alone (1944), the story of a Sydney girl who sailed away to London, leaving the fold of brothers and sisters and her father, there is a tall man prone to laughing and shouting and speaking of himself as beautiful, who had ‘thick hair of pale, burning gold’. Teresa is a yearning, sensual creature and in London she lands in an unhappy wrangle with the emotionally craven, pseudo-intellectual Jonathan Crow. Then she meets Quick, the businessman she will marry, and who will show her the world.
Even more pointed is The Man Who Loved Children, which is her masterpiece, and one of the great books of last century. It is set near Washington, but the domestic details are lifted from her childhood in Watsons Bay, Sydney. If For Love Alone turns out to be a reasonably happy story (give or take what the author calls, towards the end, ‘loving mendacity’), this is a saga of love gone wrong. The burden of anguish falls on the stepdaughter, Louisa, the all-seeing eldest child who has already decided to be an artist. Caught between the harridan furies of her stepmother and the loving, strutting talk of her father, a naturalist and socialist, she takes extreme action—on behalf of herself and her brothers and sisters who had been subjected to oblivious cruelty.
In the book, the girl is responsible for her stepmother’s death, and there is no escaping the resulting storm. All the reader can do is be borne aloft, like the author, on the release and self-acceptance that upheavals can bring. In an interview on the ABC, Christina Stead said that while of course she had not tried to kill her stepmother, she has thought a lot about it.
Finally Louisa walks away—off into her own life, leaving her father, Sam, standing. By this time we have come, almost, to love the man, but consider his pickle: he knows so much, he has read everything, he can talk so reasonably, but it is as if he can no longer learn. When the American critic Randall Jarrell came to write his introduction to the novel, he observed: ‘There is an abject reality about the woman, Henny (the stepmother), an abject ideality about the man, Sam: he is so idealistically, hypocritically, transcendentally masculine that a male reader worries, “Ought I to be a man?”’
So with some of this in mind, I was keen to talk about ‘thinking’ and how it fits, or doesn’t, into certain ways of being. Why, in Seven Poor Men of Sydney, composed before Stead was thirty, and which is as much about economic survival as love, there is brilliant passage after brilliant passage of philosophical and political talk … so many ideas in the book! ‘Yes, but those people really talked that way. Those people were like that.’ Were they? ‘Of course. Well, I didn’t invent it.’ And there was no exasperation with the pure intellectuality of some kinds of men?
‘No, I have no dislike of any men at all.’
I still have a clear image of our lunch table: the white cloth, the white wine in its stainless-steel bucket, the napkin Stead had hardly touched, because she was not eating much at that stage of her life: she drank instead, and the doctors were already finding she was wasting away.
When did you first read Nietzsche? I asked.
‘Ah, now you’ve struck the right chord. When I was at high school. I knew Thus Spake Zarathustra by heart, I assure you. I had an exceptionally good memory.’
She went on to say how, years later, when she was in Basel with her husband, he had found her a German edition of the book. She did not read much German, but still she knew the work by heart … Suddenly she looked away from me and into the distance. She began to recite: ‘It is night. Now all dashing fountains speak louder. My heart is a dashing fountain. It is night. Let all songs of the loving ones awake. My heart is also the song of a loving one.’
• • •
I’d taken a taxi out to the edge of what looked like a swamp and Arataki opened the door into a half-lit room. Fish glowed in water tanks, swimming around with full stomachs, their lips agape. Leopard-skin lounge chairs and a settee with a spring spouting out of a cushion at the end. Cane chairs with broken slats in their seats marched into the open kitchen where pasta lolled in a pot of lukewarm water. Not hungry, I had to say, and we stood, hugging and fondling. We sat on the couch for a time. She found her Jim Beam. Incredibly sweet. You’ll ply me with Southern Comfort next. She put on Joplin and hollered. I found Blonde on Blonde and put on ‘Just like a Woman’, remembering a bedroom in London where I wept because I was leaving my first wife. The house reached away into darkness, and the humidity of the night seemed set to last. What was your first wife’s name? I was asked. I don’t remember no more, I said, because just then I did not recall having ever mentioned my first wife. You’re funny, she said, as if I was wondering if we’d thrown the tarot cards and I’d got the Hanged Man. I heard something drop in the next room. That your husband? I whispered. Don’t have one, she said, but I have a boyfriend: he might come round, he might not, she said. Depends on what you want.
I want you, I said.
You’re a good man, she lied, and led me to the bed.
My boyfriend comes, she said, when we find the right girl.
We were naked, and kissing like parrots, but I pulled away to draw breath. Girl?
Okay, woman. A working girl. They come as a job. They don’t mind.
She said the prostitutes don’t mind being tied up, that they liked it in all kinds of ways. She explained in detail, and when I murmured something vague I found that a dildo had appeared from nowhere. The sheets were black satin and the creamy spotty thing seemed to give off light in the dark.
Not my thing, I said.
Not my thing, she twittered, a dusky bird dropping down, out of sight. The hibiscus was in a vase by the bed, with the clock and a glass of stale water. She had rolled me over and I was stretched out like the woman in Bonnard’s Siesta.
Sure? she said, as she popped back up.
The last one we had was pregnant, she said.
Nup, just drunk, and worn out. Sorry.
Kiss me, she said.
• • •
The bottle at our lunch table was nearly empty; I knew we should not get another; I wanted to tell Christina Stead that only last night my marriage had ended in the arms of a beautiful and cruel mother. I wanted to say that I had almost absolutely surrendered to a puppet master or mistress, whatever. Listen to my story, I wanted to say, flowers and flames are lighting up and pouring in and out of each other like waters that have broken their banks.
‘The floor began to talk,’ Stead was telling me. It said, ‘Oh, all those heavy things on me, the dressing table and the bed and this case.’ The door would say, ‘Oh they open and shut me and I could creak.’ Stead paused. ‘I couldn’t speak this English, but I knew it, I knew the language.’
‘And the little corner cabinet with shelves, it said, my shelves don’t fit … I don’t know why everybody was complaining.’
They all felt oppressed, I said.
‘They all felt oppressed, yes.’
• • •
Arataki told me to keep kissing her and I did, even though my lips were numbed by dope and by drink. Hers were still bounteous, nibbly and sucky, her body squirming even when I was hardly touching her as she said again and again that I should surrender to all that she or anyone else had to offer. Then there was the smashing of glass. It came from the gloom of the next room, into which we could see through the bi-folds as we lay on the bed. A violent smashing, followed by tinkling, the sounds of which hung in the air. No light went on. We lay still.
A sea breeze wafted in. You could hear the frogs outside, but you could only just hear the yelps of her daughter as she ploughed through the reeds to the dunes. The waves crashed in relentlessly. It was night, and it was night over the land and far out to sea.
• • •
I don’t know how I got home, I wanted to say to Christina Stead. For I had lingered, disgustingly stayed, on the sheen of the black bed. Some species of wicked self-respect made me finish the night-business with the mother. Only then was I gone.
And here I am now and here is my heart, I would have said, as I put the dead thing on the tablecloth so she could inspect it.
In interviews since returning to Australia, Christina Stead had stressed the habits of mind she learnt from her father, the naturalist. It is a way of emphasising her objectivity. I do not judge or criticise, she said, I set things down as they are, as we might be observed if we were fish in a bowl.
This is an interesting view, but rather misleading. It does not embrace, for instance, her social passions, her interest in poor people, those whose lives have been constricted by the economic order; any more than it takes account of the wit with which she has portrayed the world of high finance. It does not, in short, take account of her sardonic power, an angle of vision inseparable from her cutting edge. That her criticism is not polemical is one thing (an imputation that made her rightly contemptuous). But to insist that her art has no ‘point of view’ is another.
And yet, at the same time, it is true that characters in her novels express many points of view, and that across the span of a few hundred pages the reader experiences multiple views in all their richness. Her work is made of people striving to be true to themselves and it is this—the author’s balancing act of distributing justice—that makes one remember her claim to be a naturalist. Ecologically speaking, she displays the branches of the human tree, in all their horror and glory.
She accepted. It dawned upon me later that this was the atmosphere while we were in the sunroom: an air of acceptance, which continued for the time we spent at lunch. Her intelligence was not necessarily accepting, oh no: and intelligence is not like that. But in her being grace resided in an equanimity, in a composure that seemed to belong to her knowing things as wholes.
She accepted because she had entered the world, in a way that a naturalist need not, but that she, as a living creature, had—ever since feeling compassion for the furniture. It had nothing to do with sentimentality or pity. It had everything to do with being able to see harshly, from the inside out. Maybe that is what she meant by love. Her heart was still a dashing fountain.
• • •
The postcard had two thick-set toucans on it—a woodcut by Lionel Lindsay. Their cruel beaks were to die for. She wrote that I was a novelist ‘by inborn gift and way of viewing’, and that if I ever wrote a novel, and if it was like the stories, especially the one about swimming against the tide, she would be its advocate, if I would allow. To this day I don’t know the full inside out of what drove me to want to spill my beans, and have even less of an idea how she would have responded. I have read letters where she was sardonic about people who said too much too early in an encounter; she had even developed routines for putting people at ease after they had, to her delight, exposed themselves. And I can’t honestly claim that the shame I speak of now substantially existed or fully inhabited me at the time, as distinct from being a disturbing event in the philandering life of a young man whom I would not be interested in meeting today. I can only imagine the horror of that lunch if I’d said enough for her to want to dissect me there and then. A critic in New York once praised Stead’s style for its malice towards butterflies.
But it was an effusive communication, typed on both sides and in the margins. It was as big a normal postcard as can be, and it was late coming, she said, because she had been to Canberra where many old friends gave her a birthday party, which she managed to enjoy. She died only months after the party. She drank heavily until the end, and I wish I’d told her that I had a vision of writing: that it be done in the spirit of one’s best talking at three in the morning. Or talking on a night train, let’s say, fearless talking all the way until mind and heart are splashed by morning light … I imagine she would have liked that idea—better by far than Mark Twain’s advice that before we set out to write at all the pen should be warmed up in hell. •
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