"THE STORY," Christina Stead writes in her essay, "Ocean of Story," "is magical. In mixed company let someone say, 'I'll sing a song,' and who cares? . . . But let someone say, 'Here's a story; it happened to me'; and everyone will listen. . . . It is the hope of recognizing and having explained our own experience." A belief in both the magical properties and the infinite variety of "the story" is strongly evident in this mixed bag of Stead's previously uncollected short fiction.
It is in some ways an inchoate volume, organized according to the settings and content of each story rather than chronologically, and including pieces which are not formally "stories" at all -- snippets of memoir, a couple of articles, a short play, sketches or spin-offs of her major novels, and so on. And yet, together, they do somehow substantiate the definition Stead offers of the story: "It is the million drops of water that are the looking-glasses of all our lives."
Christina Stead is a writer whose reputation remains in eclipse, despite a resurgence of interest 20 years ago when her masterpiece, The Man Who Loved Children (1940), was republished with a glowing introduction by Randall Jarrell. She was born in Australia in 1902, but left that country in 1928, dividing most of the rest of her life between the United States and Europe. Her writings reflect her peripatetic life. As she grew older, she became increasingly politicized. Letty Fox: Her Luck (1946), a profoundly disturbing novel of a woman's life in New York in the '30s and '40s, is played out against a backdrop of the Spanish Civil War, communism, conscription, World War II and Zionism. Her novel of British working-class life in the 1950s, Cotter's England (1967), is a radical classic. But politics do not always sit well with literature. The story "UNO 1945," which is included here and was the projected first chapter of an unpublished novel about the McCarthy era, is an example of political fiction at its worst. Stead died in Australia in 1983, a gifted but demanding and unpopular writer.
Ocean of Story is really a book for the diehard Stead fan. In its necessarily rag-bag form, it is not the book with which to make her acquaintance. There are flashes of brilliant writing but, like diamonds in the rough, most of the pieces need cutting and polishing. One or two, such as "About the House" or "Uncle Morgan at the Nats," are themselves obvious remnants of the cutting and polishing which resulted in The Man Who Loved Children. They have the authentic, horrifying comic fascination of that novel, but give no hint of its sustained intensity or large, harmonious structure.
Indeed, what the Stead aficionado may value most here is the oblique light shed on the writer's life by many of these pieces, some contradicting accepted ideas about the relationship between her life and her work. For instance, the monstrous Sam Pollit of The Man Who Loved Children is known to have been based on Christina Stead's father, the naturalist, David Stead. So what are we to make of the abundance of affection tempering the shrewdness of her portrait of David Stead in "A Waker and Dreamer"? Personally, I was sent back to The Man Who Loved Children with a greater understanding of the depth, the sheer moral complexity, of that under-appreciated work
WHAT IS there in Ocean of Story for the general reader? The answer is: some of Stead's familiar strengths. One is her uncanny empathy with children, apparent here in "The Old School," "The Milk Run," "A Little Demon" and "Uncle Morgan at the Nats." The light, even airy tone of these pieces is deceptive: seeing life at a child's eye-level, they are more often about brutality and injustice, perpetrated by adults and children alike, than they are about remembered idyllic states. "I always thought it strange," comments the narrator in "The Old School," "how profoundly little children are engrossed and stirred by moral debate. They are all the time sharpening their awareness of the lines and frontiers."
There is also the pleasure of talk in these tales, as in all of Stead's best novels. Her characters converse endlessly, argue, observe, describe, reflect, but above all, they tell stories. Sometimes, as in "The Hotel- Keeper's Story," Stead lets them take over the narrative altogether, rambling where they will. This is a method beset with obvious pitfalls, but even here the characters disarm us with self-knowledge. In "A Routine" there is an amusing exchange about, precisely, talk.
"'You said I must make conversation and I made conversation.'
"'Yes, Noel, but why must your conversation be so fishified? You, Noel, always talk on one subject. You are interested in fish and tackle and aquaria and you think everyone is. That, Noel, is the hallmark of the boring companion.'
"'You bore me,' said Noel; 'always talking on and on. You ramble. You ramble for hours and hours -- and -- hours.'"
Indeed, they both do but, for all that, "A Routine" is one of the liveliest stories in the book.
Finally, Ocean of Story reminds us that the best reason for reading Stead is for her prose. She is a master stylist and, though the level of writing is naturally inconsistent in a book which includes so many unrevised pieces, her distinctive voice can be heard here in all its versatility. At once mannered and effortless, her language is as rich and immoderate as a fountain, perhaps unfashionably so. Certainly there are moments when a phrase or sentence seems both dated and affected: "unconscious faint rapture"; "smiling with coquettish cunning." But these are offset by the many small gems of verbal precision: Robert's "pleasant laugh, pulpy, musical"; "the crooked, smooth, silver arms of the fig trees"; Lilette's "little rows of broken brown teeth, like bad dock timbers." On a broader scale, the "bright, touching and philosophical manner" which Christina Stead attributes to one of her old ladies is also her own, that peculiar light tone which can best be described as a cross between Elizabeth Hardwick and Hans Christian Andersen. It can be addictive.
Most people will probably not "recognize and have explained to them their own experience" on a first reading of these stories. The characters may seem too idiosyncratic, the situations too bizarre or exotic, emotions too extreme. But beneath the veneer, Christina Stead suggests, perhaps our lives are idiosyncratic and bizarre. Getting acquainted with Stead, even through a book as uneven as Ocean of Story, is to re-think what our "own experience" means in the first place.