Rebecca West described Christina Stead in her early career as ‘insanely ambitious’. Nowhere is this ambition more manifest than in her second novel, ‘The Beauties and Furies’, set in Paris in the mid- 1930s where Stead was living and working. It’s not a long book―‘House of All Nations’ which followed it is over twice its length―nor is the story original, on the contrary: a bored English housewife, Elvira, leaves her dull steady husband, Paul, for an affair in Paris with a younger student, Oliver, all playing out with predictable consequences. There are Stead’s standard leftist political rants, but these are just persiflage; bourgeois values, despite being mocked, seemed to hold up pretty well by the end. Rather, Stead’s ambition is in the extended prose phantasmagorias with which she ‘gussies up’ her familiar tale of ‘illicit’ love.
At one point Oliver opines: ‘All middle-class novels are about the trials of three, all upper-class novels about mass fornication, all revolutionary novels about a bad man turned good by a tractor’. Since this novel is the first, it is almost as though Stead is challenging herself to craft an extraordinary work from ordinary material. ‘The trials of three’ refers not so much to the abandoned husband, who does make a cameo appearance, but rather to a Machiavellian businessman lace-buyer, Marpurgo, whom Elvira meets on the Paris train and acts as an arch manipulator between the lovers. The character dynamic here, and the setting, is recognisably the same as that in Somerset Maugham’s ‘The Magician’, which Stead would have known, however she moves off on a different tack.
There are a few other players in a fairly restricted cast: Marpurgo’s squabbling business partners, an eccentric family of traditional lace makers (capitalism is destroying art and craft), and a Baudelaire reciting actress/grisette, Blanche, mascot of underworld Paris. But largely we are focussed on the trials and tribulations of the Elvira and Oliver and Marpurgo. The characters generally have not the depth and development of those in Stead’s first novel, ‘Seven Poor Men of Sydney’, and this is probably because she has invested less in them.
I mention Maugham but Stead’s literary inspiration here is Joyce’s ‘Ulysses’, very much in writers’ minds at the time, in which, again, an ordinary tale is gussied up in an extraordinary way. Thankfully, Stead does not adopt a stream-of-consciousness technique, so her book is easily readable. Where she takes her cue from Joyce is in the prose flights mentioned above which are surrealist/Freudian ‘trips’ or nightmares, most like the dramatised ‘brothel’ section of Ulysses. Whereas in ‘Ulysses’ all the mythical and Freudian paraphernalia is fully integrated into the text, in Stead’s book it is as though the characters, particularly Marpurgo, occasionally just happen to drop into a ‘Daliesque’ landscape which they proceed to describe in vivid linguistic detail. What these ‘trips’, ‘flights’, have to do with the actual story at hand is not readily apparent, to this reader anyway.
So one’s appreciation here hinges pretty much on whether you take to this, or can get into it in some way. It’s almost as if Stead has placed a kind of surrealist template or transfer over her work, but to what end? The only time it makes direct dramatic sense is when Oliver is actually drugged by Marpurgo so his hallucinations have rational (of sorts) basis. Virtually all of Marpugo’s conversations are in this wild baroque vein, and so completely incredible. Even in Paris cafés people don’t talk like this, and hardly anyone anywhere thinks like this, but if the language employed is brilliant, gorgeous and imaginative enough, does that matter?
While I can hardly ignore that ‘Ulysses’ is one of the touchstones of (relatively) modern literature, it is a work I have never taken to. Despite the unrelenting display of amazing linguistic and imaginative fireworks, to cut short a potentially very long aside, my basic problem is that it is largely about Joyce and not itself. This may be a writer’s rather than a reader’s prejudice or a classicist’s rather than a romantic’s, whatever, but I have always liked to keep, as much as possible, in a literary sense, the object in clear view with minimum clutter. There is an episode in Stead’s novel where the lovers travel to Fontainebleau in winter in which a fantastic landscape is only about themselves, and it is profound and moving.
But let me not knock ambition, and the promise here is evident, however it would find a more powerful and complete expression in Stead’s later works. Still, if this kind of thing is your cup of morphia, don’t let me dissuade you.