Sunday, November 28, 2010

The first edition

When I learned that Christina Stead's The Man Who Loved Children was being reissued next month to mark the novel's seventieth birthday in October this year I took down my loved, yellow-paged Penguin edition, with the wonderfully hideous cover image from an Alton Picken painting seeping into what has to be a tea stain on the spine and the back under a pocked plastic covering, and was tempted for a moment to reread it at once. The fact that I haven't yet started to do this is not at all to do with the unfortunate state of the book. Like Proust's Marcel, who has his own very personal idea of a first edition library, I have no intention of waiting for the reissued edition whose cover is oddly reminiscent of Quentin Blake's designs for Roald Dahl's children's books, however much Jonathan Franzen's essay in the New York Times might have made me curious about his anticipated introduction. My Penguin edition is the edition in which I first read this extraordinary, unremitting and, as I remember it, disturbing and utterly confirming book in my first or second year at university -- disturbing in the sense of a stick raking the bottom of a muck pool and confirming in the way that, for almost the first time in my life, I could see that there were words that could describe everything that was disturbed, and in the describing lost nothing of its particularity nor the peculiar estranged mood that, but for the words that pinned them, I might never have imagined other people experiencing and so, as the character Louie might have put it, just not believed. Of all Stead's novels it is the earlier ones, and particularly the ones set in Sydney -- Seven Poor Men of Sydney, For Love Alone, and The Man Who Loved Children (which, although it was set at the publisher's insistence in Washington D.C., has the smell of the original location on it) -- these three Sydney books that have this extraordinary combination of mood and articulation, where every word is alive to something that might have been stirred and turned over for the very first time in its existence.

As Jonathan Franzen writes, Christina Stead has been unjustly neglected. When Patrick White, Australia's first and only Nobel laureate of Literature (not counting J. M. Coetzee for the moment) used his prize money to set up an award for under-appreciated writers, she was its first recipient. I can imagine how much that would have stung, no matter how genuinely White had always admired her work.

For me, I hardly dare to turn the pages again. Franzen, near the end of his essay, writes about a similar anxiety, but how after only five pages of rereading The Man Who Loved Children could confirm that he 'wasn't wrong'. I think I'm not so much doubting the quality of the book but fearful that the mood I remember so well might no longer translate -- that by rereading it I might either lose it altogether or see it change as I read and thus disintegrate or become something else. Marcel does not want to reread François le Champi as he is sure that everything it means to him won't be able to withstand the rereading and yet I know from my much more recent reading of Seven Poor Men of Sydney that Stead is a considerably better writer than Sand and, more importantly, surely, it's the book and the experience of reading it that I care about rather than the earlier self it evokes. And so, I tell myself, I shall reread it soon, very soon, if I can dare to do so, but in the first edition, my first edition.

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