Tag Archives: Christina Stead

This is nothing like the Great Depression

Lately we’ve often heard that the economic and social dislocation caused by COVID19 has been more disastrous than anything since the Great Depression. It’s sometimes implied that what we’re now experiencing is basically similar to that 1930s global trauma. Not so! In some ways our present plight may seem worse, but for the most part it’s much less serious.

True, the situation we face is shockingly different from the one faced by an earlier generation in that ours is a double whammy, not only disrupting the financial system (therefore jobs etc.) but also bringing sudden sickness and death to many around the world. The health of the international economy and the health of vast numbers of people are simultaneously threatened. For us, it’s almost as if the Great Depression had coincided with the 1918-20 Spanish Flu. In that respect, 2020 is an extraordinarily frightening time. (In contrast, the Depression period actually saw an improvement in average population health: despite widespread malnutrition and an increase in suicide, the death rate was lower than in the prosperous years before and afterwards. An irony worth pondering!)

Yet the serious physical impact of the coronavirus has been far less extensive than that of the Spanish Flu, which killed c. 50 million worldwide and c. 13,000 in Australia, whereas figures for COVID-19 show c. 130,000 deaths worldwide so far, and fewer than 70 in Australia.

Perth, 1931: unemployed men march in protest to the Premier’s office (public domain image). Chap. 10 of That Untravelled World is based on this incident.

So too, the socio-economic impact of the Great Depression went far beyond anything that confronts us now.

Alarming though it is to envisage unemployment in Australia rising (as we’re told it soon will) to 10%, this prospect is still relatively mild. Depression-era unemployment at its peak officially reached 32% — a figure mainly confined to ‘male breadwinners’: the real number desperate for work was higher! Many of the men remained out of work until the end of the decade, when they were able to enlist as soldiers.

To the ‘30s crisis neither Commonwealth nor State governments made any response comparable in speed or scope to what Australia has seen in recent weeks — the Jobseeker payments and other alleviating measures. Back then, support for the unemployed was limited to patchy relief schemes, generally known as the dole or sustenance (‘susso’), which were not available to all. Evictions were common, many families had to live rough on public land, and welfare safety-net provisions of the kind we take for granted did not exist.

Much of what we currently regard as hardship would have seemed the height of luxury to that earlier generation. Although people weren’t constrained by ‘social distancing’ or required to stay at home during the Great Depression, they had very few of the resources we can utilise to pass the time pleasantly. Most households in those days had no access to radio or telephone, let alone TV, internet, email, social media… Much less food was available. Health care was rudimentary.

Statistics and other factual information can hardly convey more than a superficial impression of what it felt like to struggle through the 1930s. The deepest insights come from novels and short stories that help us to imagine being among those whose lives were wrecked by economic and social devastation. A long time ago, in my book Fiction and the Great Depression in Australia and New Zealand, I wrote about the dozens of stories published in the 30s and soon afterwards that recorded and interpreted the traumatic experiences of this decade. There’s a substantial body of Australian work; and while it doesn’t all have lasting value, much of it still deserves attention, especially certain novels by Christina Stead, Kylie Tennant, Leonard Mann and Alan Marshall, and short fiction by Peter Cowan, Dal Stivens and John Morrison. The influence of the Depression on New Zealand literature was also profound.

In our own time, several writers of historical fiction have gone back to that period — and I’m one of them. My novel That Untravelled World is set in Western Australia in the years 1912-39, much of it focusing on the Depression years.

Part of my aim in this book was to suggest how the main character’s vicissitudes reflect a larger national story about the painful transformation that our country endured in that formative period. Young Harry is initially caught up in the exhilarating prospect that technological innovation, especially wireless, will conquer distance and bring progress and prosperity to the young nation. His attitude changes as Australia moves from heady optimism into the hard times of WW1 and the Depression, becoming a sadder and wiser community. In the words of one reviewer,

Harry drifts between places and jobs, never really finding his niche. His tale of early confidence followed by recurrent disappointment is evocative of the period in which it is set…. With its rapid technological change and economic ups and downs, it’s a period that resonates with our own.

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.

9987922                                   Unknown

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.