Wednesday, March 30, 2011

The Man Who Loved Children by Christina Stead (TLM's New Number Eight)

The Man Who Loved Children: A NovelI've always found it unpredictable to re-read a work that I loved once upon a time.  At different points, I've come away both more certain than ever of my respect (Sometimes A Great Notion) and questioning what I could have so appreciated on the first reading (Moby Dick).  But when Jonathan Franzen wrote a piece in the New York Times championing The Man Who Loved Children by Christina Stead, I decided that this was one favorite worth revisiting.  

I first read The Man Who Loved Children in college some twenty years ago as part of a course on Australian Literature.  That course, by the way, revealed to me some of the best work that I had read to that point (including The Man Who Loved Children), and I took away from it an abiding appreciation of Australian Literature thta survives to this day.  Upon my first reading, I was convinced that The Man Who Loved Children was among the three greatest works of literature that I had read to that point.  Twenty years later, I had only vague recollections of the Pollit family in a constant state of agitation with themselves and one another, along with a healthy respect for Christina Stead's powers of both characterization and creativity based on the relationship between Sam Pollit and his daughter, Louisa. 

My more recent second reading has convinced me that The Man Who Loved Children is one of the greatest tragedies ever written and it deserves a place among TLM's top novels for men.  Not that it is a book for or about men in particular, despite its title.  Rather, The Man Who Loved Children is a book for and about anyone that has ever felt manipulated, repressed, limited, or emotionally dominated by those individuals that are closest to them.  In other words, it is a book for and about everyone.  It reportedly draws heavily from Christina Stead's own life and her relationship with her father, which is undoubtedly part of its genius.

As for the plot, the blind and dysfunctional Sam is the patriarch of the Pollit family, which resides outside of Washington, DC.  At once a dictator and a narcissist, Sam has so alienated his wife, Henny, that they are no longer on speaking terms, communicating only through their children or in written form.  This, of course, leads to constant emotional hostage taking in a house comprised of six (and eventually seven) children.  Toward those children, Sam believes himself a god, demanding their awe and respect for his various projects and achievements, while also digging so deeply into their lives and their brains as to crowd out any notion of privacy or individuality.  Stead does a masterful job of showing each child's reaction to this dominating treatment, as they each struggle to support one another.  And it is largely this sense of mutual support in the face of overwhelming and sinister domination (and I am not being melodramatic here) that gives the book's conclusion its tragic force. 

Christina Stead creates a world--set wholly within the confines of the Pollit home--that is so emotionally deep and complex that the reader has the distinct feeling of having lived among its characters as a passive (though alternately incredulous and furious) observer throughout the time period covered by the book.  I suspect that it is that same gut wrenching emotional journey that has kept The Man Who Loved Children from obtaining the popular acceptance and acclaim that it most certainly deserves.  In any case, I have no problem whatsoever making The Man Who Loved Children TLM's new number eight.

Has anyone out there read The Man Who Loved Children?  More importantly, is there anyone out there that read it and did not absolutely marvel at Stead's skill at characterization?       


  1. I have not read it, but I did read Franzen's piece on it and was compelled enough to buy the book. However, as with many other books, I haven't read it yet. Thank you for your glowing recommendations.

  2. Not only not read, but never heard of, so this is something I will soon have to rectify, thanks for the heads up.

  3. @LBC - Thanks for your comments. I'm right there with you. I think I'll need another lifetime to read everything that I've left sitting on my shelf. But this one is worth putting at the top of the pile!

    @parrish - I'm glad to be the source of new recommendations for you, as you are so often for me. And thanks for letting me know that someone is reading the TLM tweets (dry as they are).