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Christina Stead: Lost and Not Quite Found : I'M DYING LAUGHING The Humourist by Christina Stead; edited and with a preface by R.G. Geering (Henry Holt & Co.: $19.95; 447 pp.)

October 04, 1987|Helen Yglesias | Yglesias' most recent novel is "The Saviors" (Houghton Mifflin). and

Christina Stead died in Australia in 1983, having created an extraordinary body of published work. Of these, "The Man Who Loved Children" is the most widely acclaimed, but all of Stead's novels command similar attention. Because of the reawakened women's movement, "The Man Who Loved Children" hit a popular nerve particularly after its reissue in the 1960s, but in all her work, Stead displays a similar originality of concept, a brilliant, almost obsessive hold on subject and character and a headlong rush of language, more like a force of nature than a literary process, which is her unique signature. She is a master novelist of our time, for whom a lasting place in the literature of the English language is assured.

What could be more exciting than the appearance of a major new work--never before published--by such an author, now posthumously issued to complete the historical record? "I'm Dying Laughing" is launched in this spirit, but the history of this fascinating work is troubling. Edited by R. G. Geering, Stead's literary executor, from a huge manuscript left behind at her death, the story both within and without that mass of papers complicates the task of evaluation.

The first sketches for "I'm Dying Laughing" go back as far as the late '40s and draw upon Stead's experiences of the 10-year period she had spent living and working in the United States, beginning in the late '30s. Those were her most prolific and successful years. She had even had a best-seller, "House of All Nations," a novel that worked the story of an international banking house into a perfect metaphor for pre-World War II Europe. With her husband, William Blake, a pseudonym for an American-born economist and writer, she moved within circles dominated by Communist party writers, contributors to the pages of the Daily Worker and New Masses as well as highly paid screenwriters for the Hollywood studios, a time in the United States, hard to imagine now, when membership in the party carried little of the stigma it does today. (Not that Christina Stead was subject to any rules not of her own making; she was always her own woman and followed her own individualist bent. It was during this period that she wrote "The Man Who Loved Children," her first fiction to use an American setting, and "For Love Alone," strongly linked to "The Man Who Loved Children" in its powerful delineation of a young girl's emergence into full womanhood and full sexuality.) Three additional American-scene novels followed, but by the early '50s Stead and her husband had returned to Europe, a move undoubtedly triggered by the harassment of the left then in full swing.

It is the turbulent period of the '30s, '40s and early '50s that Stead tackles in "I'm Dying Laughing." In all her books, real-life models existed for the astonishingly alive characters on her pages, and in the case of "I'm Dying Laughing," it is impossible not to recognize, if one goes back that far, the husband-and-wife writers Ruth McKenney and Bruce Minton as the models for Emily Wilkes and Stephen Howard.

In the book, Emily is a best-selling author of endearing and funny Americana. (Ruth McKenney's "My Sister Eileen" may be remembered as a tremendous hit on that genre.) Stephen is a wealthy dropout from his class who yearns to do something useful in life and becomes a political commentator on the economic problems of the period, writing for radical publications, as Minton did in his day. Both are members of the Communist Party. Caught up in one of the most violently convulsive eras of American times, starting out during the Depression, riding the wave of Soviet-American collaboration in World War II and followed by the swift turn to the right in the postwar period, they witness the destruction of their beliefs through the gross injustices perpetrated upon their own--within the left itself--and the gross attacks from without launched under McCarthyism. Emily and Stephen end disastrously, literally ground out of their senses by the immoral choices open to American intellectuals in that dark time. This is wonderful material, wonderfully suited to Stead's great gifts, and much of the scene, extremely difficult to translate into fiction, is wonderfully done.

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