The Man Who Loved Children.

Louie, delighted, ran downstairs. Whenever her irritations got too deep, she mooched in to see her mother. Here, she had learned, without knowing she had learned it, was a brackish well of hate to drink from, and a great passion of gall which could run deep and still, or send up waterspouts, that could fret and boil, or seem silky as young afternoon, something that put iron in her soul and made her strong to resist the depraved healthiness and idle jollity of the Pollit clan.

Christina Stead’s 1940 novel The Man Who Loved Children, a fictionalized memoir of what was apparently a brutal childhood with her famous biologist father, David George Stead, lay virtually unknown for over two decades before a 1965 reprint, featuring an introduction by poet Randall Jarrell, earned critical accolades and established the book in academic circles. The book appeared on the TIME list of the 100 greatest novels since 1923, and Jonathan Franzen has called the book a “masterpiece,” unsurprising given the book’s obvious influence on his own novel of dysfunctional family life, The Corrections.

Whereas Franzen’s book at least had humor, Stead’s novel is a bleak tale of psychological abuse and neglect stemming from an ill-advised marriage between a man, the egomaniacal Samuel Pollit, and his second wife, Henrietta “Henny.” Louisa, Sam’s daughter from his first marriage, is a primary target of Henny’s while suffering under the thumb of her father, while the couple’s six children all suffer more from the couple’s inability to live within their means or otherwise provide for the children.

Sam is a loudmouthed tyrant, a fatuous narcissist who believes himself to be a great philosopher who is destined for greatness, yet is despised by co-workers and loathed by his shrewish wife, not without reason on both counts. He preaches – mostly to his own children – that all men are brothers, and equal, and should be on equal footing, yet has some very peculiar views on who exactly qualifies under those statutes:

Suicide ought to be recognized and permitted, for a person was captain of his own life. Murder of the unfit, incurable, and insane should be permitted. Children born mentally deficient or diseased should be murdered, and none of these murders would really be a crime, for the community was benefited, and the good of the whole was the aim of all, or should be. Murder might be beautiful, a self-sacritifce, a sacrifice of someone near and dear, for the good of others – I can conceive of such a thing, Looloo!

He speaks to his children in a patois of babytalk, fake German accents, and an imitation of poor African-Americans that reads like the verbal equivalent of blackface. He accepts a six-month assignment in southeast Asia, leaving his wife largely to fend for herself during that period, only to return to find that his enemies at work have begun to plot his ouster – a vendetta he refuses to fight, claiming virtue but showing little more than cowardice. He’s a fraud, unaware of his falseness, who takes out his frustrations on his wife and children while feeding his voracious ego on the unquestioning admiration of his offspring.

Henny came from some money, only to find her wasteful husband ready to squander what she brought to the marriage and unable to provide for all of the children he seems to force her to have – yet one of her coping mechanisms is to hurl abuse at Sam, at Louisa, and even sometimes at her own children, including frequent threats to harm herself, Sam, and the children. She should elicit some sympathy as the victim of an emotionally abusive husband, a state that explains some of her behavior (particularly around money, which she remains inept at managing), yet her willingness to empty her well of hatred on the innocent children, especially her stepdaughter, exhausts any compassion the reader might have developed for her earlier in the novel.

Louisa stands in for Stead, who, like Louisa, lost her mother when she was two and lived with a stepmother who (she claims) never liked her. If there’s any positive storyline in the book, it’s the slow emergence of Louisa from the torpor of her home life, which gradually descends into shameful poverty, into a modest awakening and realization that she’d be better off on her own, without her parents. (How she achieves that is one of the book’s few surprises, one I won’t spoil.) Her character is little more than a punching bag for the first half to two-thirds of the book, yet she’s actually the central character; Sam and Henny don’t develop, because they’re long past the point where they might change, and are so blinded by contempt of each other that they have dug into their respective trenches and will engage in grinding warfare until one side capitulates through death. Louisa can and will evolve, thanks to outside influences that help her discover that her father is, indeed, a fraud, even a monster. The oldest of Sam and Henny’s kids, Ernie, comes to a similar realization but plays a supporting character as Louisa takes the lead in the novel’s climactic final two chapters.

As you might imagine from the descriptions above, The Man Who Loved Children is a terribly arduous read. Sam’s affected speech to his children is unreadable, for the difficulty in parsing the gobbledygook but more for the incredible condescension it entails, for how he uses the language to keep the children in his thrall and attempt to deny them their emotional maturity – they can’t grow up if I don’t talk to them like young adults. (For the record, my wife and I have never talked down to our daughter like that; there’s a clear line between being silly and stunting your child’s verbal and emotional growth.) But the arguments, the vile language, the outright abuse – especially that heaped on Louisa – was excruciating to read. This book was work, and I’m not sure the payoff was really worth it.

Next up: Christopher Isherwood’s The Berlin Stories, two short novels in one volume that also served as the inspiration for the film Cabaret.