Category Archives: Classic

Christina Stead’s The Salzburg Tales

From time to time I post my thoughts about literary masterworks first encountered a few years back that now seem worth revisiting. This blog has previously carried reflections on Peter Carey’s early fiction and Kate Grenville’s The Idea of Perfection. Now I turn to a book by another celebrated Australian author: Christina Stead’s The Salzburg Tales, published in 1934 and often reprinted with a “classic” label.

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It’s one of the strangest volumes of short fiction produced by any writer from this country. Steeped in the culture of Europe, standing at an oblique angle to the predominant Australian tradition of social realism, The Salzburg Tales is reminiscent of the work of 19th-century romancers and raconteurs like Germany’s Hoffman and Russia’s Gogol, and of much older miscellanies like The Decameron, The Arabian Nights or The Canterbury Tales. As with those story-clusters, what holds Stead’s collection together is not so much the narrative framework (in this case a group of festival visitors taking turns to spin yarns to one another) as a pervasive fascination with the activity of tale-telling itself, with its various roots and ramifications.

In my little critical study The Short Story I’ve described how Stead uses the prefatory sections of her book – Prologue and Personages – to distinguish between different storytelling forms favoured by different individuals. I’ve also remarked that numerous passages in the collection express curiosity about the myriad sources and shapes of fiction. Many of these tales emanate from particular places, particular personalities. A full range is on display, embracing almost every sub-genre of the short story – simple to sophisticated, laconic to grandiloquent.


Storytelling about storytelling: I’ll illustrate Stead’s take on this by discussing “The Marionettist,” the first story of the first day’s round of tales. Its position is significant: it foreshadows distinctive qualities of the forty stories that comprise – along with preliminaries, linking sections and an epilogue – the volume as a whole. (In what follows I’m adapting a commentary I wrote years ago for an encyclopedic tome called Reference Guide to Short Fiction, ed. Noelle Watson.)

Salient in the story’s title, the image of the marionettist aptly represents the kind of literary artist who produces the kinds of stories found in this collection. Overt manipulation of character and plot, free adaptation of traditional narrative motifs, scant regard for psychological realism — these puppeteerings are all recurrent features of Stead’s extraordinary tales.

The narrator who unfolds this opening story is the local Town Councillor. Someone in the group has asked whether “Salzburg always lost its sons to Vienna and the great cities”, and the Councillor’s narrative response begins in a way that seems to situate modern Salzburg in a timeless perspective, as a folktale might: “When winter came round, James’s mother would look out at cloaked figures making tracks in the snow along the Nonnthalgasse beneath black Hohensalzburg, and say: ‘I dreamed last night that Peter and Cornelius knocked at the door on a day like this…’” The iterative implication (“came round … would look out”) suggest that seasonal and narrative cycles are moving in step, and it’s almost as if the tale itself belongs to the mother’s dream trance.

Further affinities with folktale conventions soon appear. We seem close to the familiar three-sons formula when we learn that Peter and Cornelius, the two eldest, have run away from home years before and that the parents fret about the likelihood that James, the remaining one, will soon be lost to them now that he wants to train as a sculptor in Vienna. But the ensuing events give an odd twist to any expectations derived from those seemingly formulaic premises. Although James promises he will return once his studies end, he falls in love with a fellow-student, marries her, stays in Vienna, and is faced before long with parental responsibilities. He makes wooden dolls for his young children, using each new puppet “to tell them a new chapter in an endless story that he made up as he went along, one which sprang naturally out of the events of their daily life, with incidents he read in the newspapers, and memories of his childhood pieced in.” This sounds like a partial account of Stead’s own method of composition — and, again like James, who would recount “ancient themes” from European myth and fantasy, the author of The Salzburg Tales is also fond of the often-told, the legendary, the archetypal.

James eventually decides to establish himself commercially as the operator of a marionette show. The whole family willingly shares the business tasks associated with this. As scripts for his marionettes James invents stories that rework aspects of his family history in extravagant analogies. One of these, “The Pot of Gold” (shades of Hoffmann!), tells how two brothers went out after adventure and were variously reported as lost by accident, or as beggars, while a third brother stayed at home and became an honest butcher” – and so on.

Then, with the kind of abruptness that so often enters Stead’s short fiction, the narrator reports simply: “James left home when he was in his thirty-eighth year.” There’s no warning, no explanation, and no attempt to provide the kind of narratorial meditation that takes up much of Nathaniel Hawthorne’s story “Wakefield”, which tells of a man who leaves home and stays away for years without any evident motive. The family in Stead’s story continues to run the marionette theatre. One of James’s brothers, long-lost Peter, appears briefly on the scene and disappears again. After fifteen years of absence, James casually turns up one day and is surprised that his family is not overjoyed at this reappearance. The story proceeds with a couple more twitches of the narrator’s own marionette strings. This is the first one: “They had no room for James in the house so they rented a small room for him not far away, and he stayed there and did some fancy articles in wood ordered by a shop selling cheap objets d’art. When winter came on he went away from Vienna one morning and his family never heard from him again.” And the second twitch of the marionettist’s strings follows at once, partly repeating the story’s opening sentence (“But James’s mother looked out at the cloaked figures making tracks in the snow …”) and its oneiric motif (she dreams of James’s return) as a prelude to the wanderer’s arrival in his parental home, whereupon he becomes a character in his mother’s tale: repeatedly she “told the women about her son the sculptor who had travelled all over the world.” He, in contrast, continues to withhold any mention of his wife and children “or his marionette theatre, for James knew that she would think a marionette show a come-down for a sculptor”.

In this concluding irony of mild misrepresentation a reader might see again an implicit comment on the narrative method. In a sense, this story wanders just as James does; and although some readers may want to see it as “sculpture” – as immobilised high art – its generic alignment is with the more popular cultural form of the marionettist’s show.

Inventing Literary Classics

Attention quiz-masters! Can you name the innovative book designer and printer who was the very first to publish a series of portable classics? Clue: he died exactly half a millennium ago.

In my recent post What is a Literary Classic? I mentioned several influential sets of books re-issued with a “classic” publication branding – Penguin Classics, Signet Classics, Virago Modern Classics, Classic Comics and so on. This kind of designation gives books a certain status – not an unquestionable status, but one that does carry some weight with most readers, at least subliminally.


Aldine publishing device, from the Great Hall ceiling, Library of Congress

Well, the idea of producing a publication series that makes classic texts available in a convenient format is far from new. It goes back to a period only a few decades after Gutenberg’s introduction  of movable type to Europe. The process of inventing literary classics followed closely on the invention of the printing press.

The entrepreneurial Renaissance humanist who deserves the credit for inventing literary classics was Aldus Manutius (1449-1515), whose Aldine Press in Venice not only devised various innovations in typography (e.g. italics and semi-colons) but also created for the first time a series of inexpensive pocket editions of texts from Greek and Roman antiquity (Aristotle, Plato, Sophocles, Herodotus, Virgil, Ovid, Cicero…) along with Italian poetic masterpieces by writers such as Dante and Petrarch. An extraordinary accomplishment!

Portable, fairly compact – but those Aldine Press books didn’t look cheap. A great deal of care and professional expertise went into their design and production.


From Rylands Library copy of the Aldine Virgil (1501)

Fonts were selected for their aesthetic appeal, and sometimes created in-house. Several modern typefaces derive from those commissioned by Aldus and cut by his employee Francesco Griffo – among them  Bembo, named after one of his contemporaries, the Italian literary scholar Pietro Bembo, whose work Aldus published. (I was delighted to discover the origin of Bembo, an elegant font used for two of my novels – That Untravelled World and the one forthcoming soon, The Mind’s Own Place.)

What’s more, elaborate and colourful illustrations often accompanied the printed text, as in this pictured example: a page from the Aldine Press edition of Virgil’s works. It was the first publication to use italic type, and the first in octavo format.

The significance of Aldus Manutius’s place in cultural history goes beyond his enterprising and skilful work as a book designer and printer. He was an admirable scholarly teacher, epitomising the Renaissance spirit – and in fact his reason for setting up a printing house was that he saw a need for students to have access to classic texts in a convenient format.

Alberto Manguel remarks in his book A History of Reading that Aldus’s home in Venice became a gathering point for eminent humanists from all over Europe, such as the Dutch luminary Erasmus. Together these men would discuss what classic titles should be printed and which manuscripts were the most reliable sources. Manguel records this moving final tribute:

When Aldus died in 1515, the humanists who attended his funeral erected all around his coffin, like erudite sentinels, the books he had so lovingly chosen to print.

What is a Literary Classic?

A classic, said Mark Twain impishly, is something we all want to have read but nobody wants to read. While many book-lovers can never quite find the time to work their way through War and Peace, Paradise Lost, Crime and Punishment or The Divine Comedy, most of us still harbour the idea that there’s a fairly well recognised western literary canon comprising an array of durable masterpieces. Even if we accept the theoretical point that a book’s traditional reputation doesn’t simply reflect its inherent merits, we like to think that certain books have earned a classic status. Where does this notion come from?

Italo Calvino remarks that each of us through our individual reading trajectories will gradually “invent our own ideal libraries of classics.” No doubt that’s true. But for most readers, in our most impressionable years, publishers’ branding is the main source of the notion that some books deserve special prestige. Things may have changed in recent times as the publishing industry evolves, but when I was a teenager, trying to get a handle on what constituted Great Literature, my perception was largely shaped by several series of books that carried the label “Classic.”

There was, for example, the World’s Classics library of pocket-sized hardbacks from Oxford University Press – what could seem more authoritative than that? Other influential lines from British publishers were Penguin Modern Classics (I still have my battered copy of Joyce’s Dubliners in that format), Dent’s Everyman Library (where I met Pater’s Marius the Epicurean and Woolf’s To the Lighthouse) and a bit later Virago Modern Classics devoted to women writers. American publishers offered Signet Classics (I first read Dickens’s Hard Times in that paperback edition), Bantam Literature (including Melville’s Moby Dick – a bantam whale?), Random House’s Modern Library Giants (introducing me to James’s Portrait of a Lady) and books in the Rinehart series such as Fenimore Cooper’s Deerslayer and Twain’s Huckleberry Finn.

Many titles recurred across these lists, so with a number of different publishers agreeing that X was worth inclusion among their selected classics, who was I to doubt its status?

220px-CC_No_01_Three_MusketeersAnd besides, the process of instructing me in what was classic had begun earlier – before I’d opened any of those books. It began with the pictorial adaptations known as Classic Comics (later as Classics Illustrated). These had been appearing since 1941 but they were still flourishing when I was a youngster, and I devoured them.

In those days there was a lot of harrumphing about the reading of comics, with dire forecasts that they would lead to a rapid decline in literacy. Well, I don’t think I was harmed by Walt Disney or Batman comics – and certainly not by Classic Comics, which not only made me aware of wonderful stories from times past, among them such masterpieces as Wuthering Heights and The Woman in White, but also gave me a burning desire to read them eventually in their full big-book form.

250px-CLASSICS_ILLUSTRATED_-10-_ROBINSON_CRUSOEThere’s something else, too, that I remember happily from those days of comic-book reading. As none of us had much pocket money, the pleasures of reading were inseparable from the rituals of exchange: when we’d read our comics, we swapped them for other comics in a system of bartering with friends. So we didn’t read in isolation, like Robinson Crusoe. We were reading in a context of active sociability. Perhaps it was that experience that first sparked my interest in the complex relationships between swapping and storytelling – which eventually led to my venture into literary theory with the (recently reissued) book Narrative Exchanges. I have a lot to be grateful for when I recall Classic Comics.