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.

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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.

4 thoughts on “Christina Stead’s The Salzburg Tales

  1. Thankyou for that insightful commentary. I must read those short stories again as Christina Stead is one of my all time favourite writers. She has to be one of the best that Australia can claim as their own though she spent such a short time in the country.

  2. Hello Fay – thanks for your appreciative comment. I thought perhaps nobody had taken any notice of this post! So it’s good to know I’ve prompted a Stead enthusiast to look again at The Salzburg Tales. Happy reading!

  3. Hi Ian, I’ve just started a Masters degree in literature and am thinking of basing it on The Salzburg Tales. I’m new to this and it’s all scary! I agree that Christina Stead is among the best Australia can offer in the way of literature and have long admired The Man who loved Children. However, I am put off by the sheer cynical macabreness of the tales. But then, on the other hand, I’m comletely seduced by the brilliance of Christina Stead’s prose, her erudition, her deep imagination. So, I’m dithering!

  4. Hi Estie
    That could be a really interesting research topic! I hope you’ll find a way of approaching it that will reward close attention to Stead’s storytelling methods. Macabre at times, yes – but that’s true of many classic short stories, isn’t it? (Poe, for one, comes immediately to mind.) I suppose it’s partly a question of what psychological or other insights can be gained through macabre situations. D.H. Lawrence explores that question (idiosyncratically and provocatively) in his essay on Poe. Cynical? Well, perhaps that’s true of some of the individual narrators within The Salzburg Tales, because Stead links particular kinds of stories to particular kinds of people – so that prefatory section “The Personages” is important in relation to what follows. Anyway. good luck with it all.

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