Wednesday, 30 October 2013

Christina Stead's For love alone

It would be fair to say that Christina Stead has not bowled over Minervans. This is the second time the group has read her - the first being The man who loved children when I was overseas. It apparently did not go down well. And her second outing with us this month, For love alone, didn't change minds. Nonetheless, we had a lively discussion: we appreciated that she had something to say, and that she's a significant name in Australian literature. I'll 'fess up here though, before I go any further, and say I loved the book. I felt myself wanting to get back to it ... but that wasn't the universal experience.

Why is this? The book was published in 1945, and set in Sydney and London between 1933 and 1937. It tells the story of 19-year-old Teresa (Tessa) Hawkins, and her determination to find love, and to find it on her terms. She's determined not going to be an "old maid" like her teacher colleagues, but neither will she marry a boy just out of long pants. Enter the aptly named Jonathan Crow, her 23-year-old Latin tutor and, to Teresa, a sophisticated man of the world. Most of the book concerns her desire to get to know him and develop a deeper relationship with him. Her plan is complicated - physically - by the fact that he moves to England to undertake further studies a few months after the book opens and - emotionally - by Jonathan's slippery, to say the least, behaviour. That's the basic story. There's not a lot of plot and the book is long. Most present found it pretty repetitive - and therefore tedious - as the two go on and on about their ideas on life and love. Some felt the writing old-fashioned, and didn't find the major characters engaging.

However, we found lots of things to talk about, such as that the book has an autobiographical element. We also talked about what people liked, such as the wonderful description of a wedding at the opening of the novel: the messiness of the extended family, the silly bouquet throwing scene, the unhappy bride who is marrying because she needs to and not because she's "in love", the discussion about wedding presents (including chamber pots). We liked lively Aunt Bea who's fond of Teresa and tries to take her under her wing, not recognising that Teresa's goals for herself were rather different. We also liked Stead's descriptions of Teresa and James' (the truly loving man she eventually finds) trips into the English countryside, and we thought that Stead had a lovely facility with dialogue. The dialogue sections had real energy.

We discussed Teresa's naivete and her inability to see into Jonathan's real nature, which, as became pretty clear by the second half of the book, is misogynistic and sadistic. He is psychologically cruel to Teresa and cynical about love, but he is also weak, lonely and needy. We wondered whether we were supposed to feel sorry for him, as Teresa does for much of the novel (alongside admiring what she believe is his superior intellect). Some felt in fact that Jonathan is a bit caricatured. Teresa on the other hand might be naive, but she's courageous, loyal and intelligent. Eventually she works out that her love for Jonathan has no future, and that in fact she never really loved him. What a relief. One of the clever things about the book, although its plot isn't its strong point, is that we are kept guessing right until the end about how things will turn out for Teresa. For much of the book, it doesn't look good!

We talked about the novel being a psychological novel, rather than a plot-driven novel or one with a strong narrative. Stead is exploring the self and how it can construct itself, even mould itself, in the face of a tricky world. She talks of social controls on male-female relationships -
Why do men make the laws, say, about marriage, decency and the like, to shackle themselves?
- but her interest is more on the psychological impact of those laws. This made us think of Thomas Hardy's Tess of the d'Urbervilles (and we wondered whether Teresa - Tess's name had this intention) and Edith Wharton's novels, like The house of mirth. But Stead's book is different to both of these, while owing something to them. Stead recognises the economic imperative for women to marry, and explores social conventions which control how people find mates, but her real interest is the psychology.

Consequently, her characters aren't simplistic and Stead doesn't appear to think there is an easy resolution to the human drive to find love. Teresa's maturation is not a simple process. She becomes obsessive in her plan to go to England to see Jonathan again, and almost destroys herself in the process. She becomes gaunt and haggard, and starts fading away. She develops a cough like the tubercular heroines of 19th century novels. As her relationship with Crow reaches its conclusion she returns to this self-destructive behaviour, preferring to die - a martyr for love - than live without love:
But it's not in the conversion of Jonathan that she believed now, but in her coming martyrdom.
One member noted that while the second half of the novel is set in England, two of the main characters are Australian and the other American. The issue of national sensibility and identity is, she said, one of Stead's themes in the book. We could see this, but didn't explore it in detail.

The Miegunyah Modern Library Edition quotes Patrick White as saying: "it's a remarkable book. I feel elated to know it's there". We agreed that Stead's intensity would appeal to White - as would her rebellion against unthinking social mores.

Overall, a good discussion of a challenging book, but methinks it will be our last Stead!

Monday, 21 October 2013

We gamely take on Gaiman

American Gods (by Neil Gaiman)

Six of us met to discuss one of our most controversial book choices: Neil Gaiman's American Gods. A book outside our usual choices. After some initial negative feedback we agreed on an alernative choice: The Ocean at the End of the Road, Gaiman's most recent book. So 3 of us had read American Gods or some of it, and the rest of the group the newer one.

We considered the range of  his writing from graphic novels: The Sandman, short stories and children's books such as the Blueberry Girl and the Wolves in the Walls.

We discussed the rambling novel American Gods, which had a blend of styles from noir to fantasy, sci fi, gothic and maybe even a little David Lynch thrown in. Some of the group found the novel boring, and had trouble finishing it. Others found it confusing and hard to follow. I found it readable, and intriguing, with a few slow patches, and perhaps a bit of confusion of ideas. The concept of the historical gods and mythological figures being personified by a group of characters living shady lives in contemporary society is quite an appealing one. These gods, based on Greek, Norse and similar gods are capricious, powerful but vulmerable, and dependant on people believing in them for their existence. Gaiman was i think contrasting these traditional gods, which have come with the arrival of the Europeans to the continent of America, with the new gods of media, and the somewhat shady CIA agents, which was an interesting but inconsistently developed part of the book.

The main character the Shadow, who gets caught up in all of this, is a typical noir character, a tough guy who goes along with the dark forces around him, while retaining a certain moral heroism, and an ultimate vulnerability. The ghoulish figure of his dead wife appearing as a decaying zombie, was a surreal element which also contained an element of black humour. Likewise the reference to Christian beliefs with Shadow's final sacrifice, death and resurrection was a little heavyhanded. So a fascinating book, somewhat flawed, and obviously not to everyone's taste.

Those who read the Ocean at the End of the Road enjoyed the story, finding it a fairly straightforward narrative, with a real fantasy element, but rather charming nonetheless. As I didn't read this book, I can't comment in depth on it, but it is another side to Gaiman's storytelling, where he tells rather dark fairy tales, exploring parallel realities, and a journey into people's magical alternative lives.

It was a lovely discussion, with wonderful hospitality by Deb, and I think stimulating to read genres outside our usual gamut!