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Journal of the South Pacific
Association for Commonwealth
Literature and Language Studies
Number 37 (1993)
Anne Brewster, Marion Campbell,
Ann McGuire, Kathryn Trees
"The night of which no one speaks": Christina Stead's art as struggle
In a letter to Thistle Harris Stead in 1942 Christina Stead wrote:
Every work of art should give utterance, or indicate, the dreadful blind strength and the cruelty of the creative impulse, that is why they must all have what are called errors, both of taste and style: in this it is like a love-affair (a book, I mean.) A love affair is not delicate or clean: but it is an eye-opener! The sensuality, delicacy of literature does not exist for me; only the passion, energy and struggle, the night of which no one speaks, the creative act: some people like to see the creative act banished from the book - it should be put behind one and a neatly-groomed little boy in sailor-collar introduced. This is perhaps quite right. But for me it is not right: I like each book to have not only the little boy, not very neat, but also the preceding creative act: then it is only, that it gives me full satisfaction.1
Here is an author quite conscious of the imperfect, disunified nature of her art. In this letter, Stead shows a rather postmodern consciousness of the novel as creation and an interest in exposing the act of creation in the work of art. Without the assistance of poststructuralist critics, Stead points to the importance of 'errors' as indicators to the reader of art's place in life - art as 'struggle', as process rather than as product.
In the letter, Stead develops a female sexual metaphor to convey this idea of the messiness of creation. This identification of writing with the female role in reproduction invites comparison with recent feminist ideas about 'writing the body' and, particularly with Kristeva's adoption of the metaphor of female sexuality as an image of the 'inner discourse' of the mother.2 Stead's position as a writer with Marxist sympathies, committed to realist techniques, who nevertheless did not reject modernist experiment, places her writing at the centre of a mid-century crisis about politics and form in literature. Her (it seems, quite conscious) recognition of the undermining of form as a mimicking of female sexuality also prefigures current arguments that feminism lies not so much in the representation of women's struggles but in the disruption of a literary order which inscribes masculine power.
In this article, I will argue that Stead's novels achieve such formal disruption through a realism which exposes the ways in which characters create their own narratives. While these novels remain within the range of realism, they deny any single narrative structure and continually question the ownership of 'reality'. In this way, Stead's writing offers a politics which resists authority, both sexual authority and the more publicly political forms of it. Stead manages to write a realism which continually slips away from the rigid models of socialist realism promoted by Marxists in the thirties and forties, and this slipping away may be seen as related to metaphors of female sexuality. While The Man Who Loved Children (1940) may provide the most obvious evidence of Stead's multiple realist technique, her brilliant later novels, Cotters' England (1967) and I'm Dying Laughing (posthumously published in 1986), observe characters with Marxist allegiances and make female sexuality, and the woman's body, central elements in a wider politics.3
Stead's novels struggle to represent a reality which is multiple and disordered, and dependent on several levels of representational convention. Her representation of experience resists the liberal humanist confidence in a unified reality, but it also emphasises the ways in which different perceptions of reality may be in conflict through the differing perceptions of her characters. Often, Stead's central characters are writers of some kind - Emily Wilkes writes for Hollywood, Nellie Cook is a journalist, Miss Herbert writes pulp novels, Louie Pollit writes plays and poems - but even those characters who are not writers adopt a range of existing conventions in order to represent themselves to the world. These characters continually define themselves in terms of existing patterns, sometimes literary, sometimes more broadly ideological. Stead's characters are storytellers, structuring their experiences into narratives which provide their lives with meaning.
The Man Who Loved Children is in some ways the most conventionally structured of Stead's novels - its crisis resolved by Henny's death and Louie's striding out into the world. Taking up Terry Sturm's observation that Stead's novels expose a "drama of the person,"4 we might see the novel as a three-act drama in which the complexity of family relationships is played out in specific domestic situations, such as "Sunday funday" or the Pollits' party to welcome Sam home. But the characters in the drama move beyond the mere acting out of family conflicts; they each indicate the way in which the drama is structured in their own imaginations.
The beginning of the novel, in particular, uses the responses of the children to emphasise the way in which adults act within their own narratives. Henny comes home to tell the children one of her wonderful yarns about how she went to town:
" . . . more dead than alive and with only ten cents in my purse and I wanted to crack a safe," and how, in the streetcar, was "a dirty shrimp of a man with a fishy expression who purposely leaned over me and pressed my bust, and a common vulgar woman beside him, an ogress, big as a hippopotamus, with her bottom sticking out, who grinned like a shark and tried to give him the eye," and how this wonderful adventure went on for hours, always with new characters of new horror. It would invariably be a woman with a cowlike expression, a girl looking frightened as a rabbit, a yellow-haired frump with hair like a haystack in a fit, some woman who bored Henny with her silly gassing, and impudent flighty young girls behind counters, and waitresses smelling like a tannery (or a fish market), who gave her lip, which caused her to "go to market and give them more than they bargained for." There were men and women, old acquaintances of hers, or friends of Sam who presumed to know her, to whom she would give the go-by, or the cold shoulder, or a distant bow, or a polite good day, or a black look, or a look black as thunder, and there were silly old roosters, creatures like a dying duck in a thunderstorm, filthy old pawers, and YMCA sick chickens, and women thin as a rail and men fat as a pork barrel, and women with blouses so puffed out that she wanted to stick pins in, and men like coalheavers, and women like boiled owls and women who had fallen into a flour barrel; and all these wonderful creatures, who swarmed in the streets, stores and restaurants of Washington, ogling, leering, pulling, pushing, stinking over-scented, screaming and boasting, turning pale at a black look from Henny, ducking and diving, dodging and returning, were the only creatures that Henny ever saw. (Tmlc: 46-7)
The children accept that these are stories, a revelation of Henny's habitual way of seeing and creating the world, and they enjoy them without objecting that they have little relationship to the world they would see on a trip to town. The children take similar pleasure from Sam's accounts of his heroic rise from poverty to the frontiers of science. Other adults, too, operate within subjective visions which they tell themselves are objective truth. Jo Pollit believes that she has never committed a sin in her life and that the world is full of shiftless, horrible people which she, the sinless, is forced to deal with. If the children have a greater grasp on reality it is because they recognise these stories as stories, and enjoy them for their insight into the secret worlds beyond their own immediate experience. When visitors come:
the children would line up on this bench and hang entranced on the visitor's life story. Visitors looked awkward there, arrayed in the accidents of life's put-together and rough-and-tumble, laughing uncouthly, unexpectedly at imbecile jokes, giving tongue to crackpot idioms; yet they thought themselves important, and it appeared that as they ran about the streets things happened to them. They had knots of relations with whom they argued and sweethearts to whom they cooed; they had false teeth, eyeglasses, and operations. (TMLC: 47)
For the children, adults are storytellers creating fascinating worlds from relatively mundane experiences. They register these accounts of personal experience as being of the same imaginative order as the fairytales which Louie invents for them at night: "this world of tragic faery in which all their adult friends lived."(TMLC: 48)
Readers may feel that, like the children, they are eavesdropping on the personal narratives of the adult characters. But these narratives are not merely idiosyncratic expressions of human individualism; they have ideological implications. The contrast between Henny's "treasure cave" of sensual, secretive experience and Sam's "museum" of scientific fact represents a clash of ideologies as well as personalities. Several critics have explicated Henny's role as the representative of feminine subversion of the masculine patriarchal order represented by Sam. Joy Hooton, for example, has applied Dorothy Dinnerstein's archetypes of the Mermaid and the Minotaur to Henny and Sam, arguing forcefully that these two characters conform to the monstrous interdependence of the dark and magical female world and the greedy, devouring male power.5 Indeed, the Lacanian association of the Law of the Father with the masculine and the natural law with the feminine is stated clearly: "their father was the tables of the law, but their mother was the natural law; Sam was household czar by divine right, but Henny was the czar's everlasting adversary, household anarchist by divine right."(TMLC: 71)
It is not difficult to argue that Sam's world view - innocent, idealistic and oppressive - is taken apart by its opposition to Henny's vision of a corrupt, dirty, secretive existence. There can be no doubt either that Henny's vision is a feminine one fed by "the natural outlawry of women" dragged by their sexual bodies into the mysteries of birth, death and disease. Henny, the keeper of poisons and treasures, challenges the rational daylight world of Sam. Sam carries a mixture of ideas with him - he is a Roosevelt man, a "vague eclectic" state socialist, a Darwinist, a believer in science, an admirer of Thomas Jefferson and Benjamin Franklin, and he is named after Mark Twain. He is also a man who says (and remember the novel was published in 1940) "If I were a Stalin or a Hitler" and suggests the world might be run by a council of scientists who create "a type of eugenic concentration camp" to dispose of the unfit (TMLC: 380). Sam sees himself as "Uncle Sam" the voice of American home values - "the home, the hearth, the family and fatherhood" (TMLC: 479). When he has lost his job, and is desperately poor he is still able to retain his "glorious, messianic belief in himself, the world and other people" (TMLC: 324) complete with its impossibly ideal notion of a family with himself at its head, his children "forever children" and a happy wife.
Sam belongs to the public world while his wife and children remain imprisoned in the domestic. The two central chapters, which may seem irrelevant to the immediate family drama, reinforce the division between public and private by observing Henny on her visit to her mother, and Sam on his scientific government expedition to Singapore. Within the walls of the old house, Monocacy, Henny, her mother and sister discuss pregnancy, suicide, cancer, adultery - the secrets of the body. In Malaya, Sam declares to his Indian secretary his belief in the brotherhood of man, announcing "You are but an ebonized Aryan, Naden, and I am the bleached one that is fashionable at present" (TMLC: 242). So while Henny and the women are submerged in the underworld of female sexuality, Sam demonstrates, with unconscious racism, an ideal of world unity which denies difference. Sam's notion of equality - "My system, which I invented myself, might be called Monoman or Manunity" (TMLC: 85) - rests on the belief that all men are "the same man at heart," that is, Sam himself. "Monomania," responds Louie.
Sam's vision and his power gain authority from the public world of politics and science. In his addled theories, scientific positivism, liberal humanism, American individualism and democracy all contribute to the power of a father over his family, and the power of white men over women, children, and those of other races. The setting of the novel in 1937, in Washington, Singapore and then in sight of the warships at Annapolis, quietly reminds us that a war is about to erupt (though the novel was published before the fall of Singapore). Sam's arguments for eugenics and a brave new world, which on one level serve to create his character as a grown-up child, on the broader level signal the dangers of misuse of power on a world scale.
The Man Who Loved Children is so rich in details of this kind that one could go on elaborating the ways in which Sam is placed within an ideology of patriarchy while his enemy, Henny, expresses a desperate feminine piracy. Other critics have done much to explicate these oppositions and to develop feminist readings of the novel which see it as an enactment of feminist myth, or an attack on patriarchal power.6 Some have emphasised Louie's role as the woman artist emerging from the battleground of male power and female subversion. The novel aligns so strongly with the frames provided by feminists from Cixous to Dinnerstein, that its credentials as a feminist novel seem indisputable.
Yet some feminist readings suggest that the novel is so firmly controlled, so unified in its direction as to deny the author's own declared belief in the importance of errors of taste and style. At the same time, the feminist critique of realism, and naturalism in particular, usually finds an authority in these forms of representation which itself might be called patriarchal.7 Paradoxically, the more the novel is explicated as containing a singular feminist meaning, the more it may be seen as a voice of authority - sharing, if you like, in Sam's habit of seeing the world as a unity.
Indeed, the conflict of narratives within The Man Who Loved Children may be seen as more important as a feminist approach than the resolution offered by a single feminist narrative. Though this novel does display more authorial intrusion and direction than most of Stead's other novels, it nevertheless allows its characters to develop their own narratives, and their own meanings. In the cases of Henny and Sam the conflict between the two narratives serves as its own criticism and deconstruction of them.
Beyond the battle between Sam and Henny, the novel indicates the ways in which literature and literary culture inform the perceptions of its characters. For example, the clash of family cultures, and different ways of perceiving experience, is demonstrated forcefully at the welcome home party for Sam. The Pollits perform their revelries - Grandfather's version of Dickens's Wemmick, Jo's sentimental poem, their songs and rhymes - to the disgust of Louie, who quotes bits of Shelley and Confucius in turn. While the pregnant Henny bridles with impatience, the clan performs its snake-dance into lunch then argues about the claret cup. At the same time, Stead inserts a brief account of the children's view of the dispute:
Before the children were only lemonade glasses, but before the adults were wineglasses. The children suspected that even on this occasion the sherbet of paradise was to be drunk under their dry lips by the loudmouthed, money-pocketed monsters who had them in thrall. Why didn't these giants ravish the table, send the food flying besides, gobble, guff, grab, and gourmandize? To be bestial giants with the power of sherbet and also to exhibit such mean-spirited stinginess towards their own appetites was a conundrum the children could never solve. Let them once be such giants, let them even have the privilege of Louie, and they would not leave a crumb on a plate nor a drop in a bottle. The children sighed internally and ate as hard as they could hoping by their hunger to soften the miserliness of their elders. (TMLC: 279)
So the children, too, informed by fairytales, have their own way of watching the behaviour of adults.
Under the umbrella of Pollitry, various resentments simmer. Yet the party goes on to sing the "Hallelujah Chorus," "Funiculi, funicula" and the "The music goes round" with further performances by Grandfather, as Henny's labour begins. For the Pollits, poetry and music can all be absorbed into their energetic optimism; human suffering, human difference, can be smoothed over in a round of community singing. At the end of this scene, news arrives of the death of Henny's father and she is in the throes of childbirth, but Sam expresses his feelings in a poetic rhetoric which denies her personal suffering:
The great glory of man, the great glory of the flaming forth of new stars, the glory of the expanding universe, which are all expressed in our lives by the mystery, wonder, and tragedy of birth have always thrilled me beyond expression. (TMLC: 298)
Stead makes it clear that literary culture is not a monolithic, uplifting "good." It informs different lives in different ways. For a reader like Sam, literature merely feeds the "wonderful illusion" of his own life. For Louie, it confirms that monstrous relations between husband and wife, parents and children, have been part of other human experience. For the other children, the paradigm of the fairytale informs their sense of their own powerlessness. For the Pollits, songs and stories provide a communal source of sentiment or jolly good-humour which can never disrupt their optimistic view of the world.
The problems of the relationship of literature to life and the expectations of the reader are central to Stead's own art. In this novel, and her other work, there is a balance between the attempt to convey the randomness of life, and its many different stories and viewpoints, and the need of the reader for a satisfying ending, or final meaning. The Man Who Loved Children suggests that readers will find their own meanings for what they read, regardless of the direction of the writer.
It is this acknowledgement of multiple meaning, not her elucidation of the battle between the feminine and the masculine, which constitutes Stead's importance as a model for feminist writing. For, in The Man Who Loved Children, Stead has developed a method by which experience may be represented without submitting it to conventions which reinforce a prevailing authority. The novel does not project itself outside the frame of a realist narrative in the self-conscious postmodern manner, but it insists on the possibility of infinite different versions of every event by demonstrating the intepretative powers of its characters. In this way, the novelist's critique of patriarchal power does not insert a new power - the power of the author - but demonstrates, through numerous examples, the way prevailing patterns of thought influence an individual's understanding of 'reality'.
By comparison the 'feminist' text which offers a single interpretation of experience may be seen to appropriate control over 'reality', and so command a new power over readers. Stead's work resists such a position, whether under feminist or Marxist banners. Her politics are expressed in the close observation of the way narratives construct power and in a refusal to claim that power for the novelist.
Stead's further attempts to achieve this balance may be seen in her later novels, several of which have puzzled readers, or remained for years awaiting publication by unenthusiastic publishers. In Cotters' England Stead refrains from authorial comment, allowing her characters to talk their way through the novel and readers to respond without much in the way of authorial guidance. When Nellie Cook embarks on one of her speeches about the nature of the working class, the reader can only listen and look to the responses of other listeners - characters such as Camilla, Tom or Caroline - for confirmation that Nellie is misguided, excessive and overwhelming. From time to time, we see Nellie's eccentric appearance through the eyes of one of these characters, or follow their thoughts as they try to place Nellie and her passions, but no one character stands in place of the author to direct our judgement and command our sympathies.
Cotters' England offers an even stronger contrast than in The Man Who Loved Children between the mundane events which take place at the surface of the novel and the mysterious, tension-filled, frightening, important events which Stead's characters see taking place. Nellie Cook does little more than sit in the kitchen smoking and drinking tea while she tells her stream of visitors about her own heroic role in the socialist cause, identifying evil around her and advising others to see as she does. Like Sam Pollit these characters claim to have a premium on the understanding of reality. During a discussion of the appropriate material for journalism and fiction, Nellie offers Caroline bits and pieces of socialist realist theory:
Writing's not just a case of self-expression or conscience clearing . . . Now we want something constructive. You see, sweetheart, just to photograph a refuse yard with its rats, that wouldn't help the workers one tiny little bit. It would only be glorifying your own emotions. (CE: 37)
Then she goes on to say "I always knew reality" (CE: 38). Nellie's belief in her own knowledge of reality depends on her credentials as a working class Northerner committed to the labour movement, and gives her the confidence to impose her views on other people. Later in the novel Eliza comments: "Nellie's a thrilling woman! She can make you see things her way, though you know it wasn't so." (CE: 145) This, of course, is the power of the fiction-maker, the novelist, who claims to be presenting 'reality'. While Nellie offers her listeners one reality, Stead offers another by framing that reality in a place, an historical time, and by characterising the fiction-maker and her listeners. In Nellie, Stead mirrors the role of the novelist and warns about the distortions of fiction.
Stead's novels recognise that the rigid paradigms of socialist realism (and, by implication, of 'images of woman' feminism) do not challenge the conservative proprietorship of 'reality', they merely offer a new ownership of it. On the one hand, as a realist novelist, she may be accused of claiming such an authority for herself; on the other, she removes herself from such a position of authority by presenting other storytellers, other claimants to knowledge of 'reality', as the central figures in her narratives. Nellie is not a 'typical', representative Marxist, but an individualist adopting Marxist jargon to obtain her egotistic ends. Feminism, too, is merely a means for Nellie to control other people. When Caroline expresses her desire to be reunited with her husband, Nellie uses feminist platitudes to accuse her of betrayal of her sex. Stead demonstrates how these ideological languages may provide a grab-bag of phrases which contribute to personal power rather than broad political change. Her Marxism, and her feminism, may be found in her critique of the way individuals dominate others by an insistence on the supremacy of their own versions of reality.
In I'm Dying Laughing, Stead's vision moves further inwards to insist not only on the conjunction of the domestic and public worlds but on the way the body itself functions within these spheres. Emily Wilkes Howard's body, not simply her personality or domestic behaviour, becomes a focus of excess. Her laughter emerges uncontrollably from a body which grows larger as the novel progresses. After the Howards move to the East coast, Emily becomes obsessed by her body, taking injections to prolong her life. This obsession, we are told, begins with the birth of her son, Giles, and Emily's first encounter with the "disease-infatuated world of women" (IDL: 133):
She swallowed down all the new woman's world of aching, haunting fantasy and concern with the loins, the bowels, the digestion. She saw, for the first time, the brain as a wet, slippery, red palpitating animal inside her 'thick peasant-shaped skull' and she had suddenly appreciated the difficulty of living, breathing, surviving, the infinite possibilities of death. (IDL: 133)
Before they leave for Europe, Emily finds herself pregnant again but convinces herself that an abortion is right:
And when this operation was over, she and Stephen had a discussion about the inconveniences and embarrassment of her being a woman. She refused to have a hysterectomy, quite a fashionable operation then. She said, 'Without my sex and womb, I'm not a woman, my character would change. I'd be nothing and I wouldn't want to live. I'm a woman all ways. I like it; and I won't have that' . . . 'I know where my feelings spring from, not only the brain, but from everywhere, I am myself everywhere.' (IDL: 187)
Led by her body, Emily throws herself into ridiculous infatuations which Stephen understands to be part of her personality and creativity. Emily's politics, her writing, her relationships and her body function inseparably. Emily's femaleness permeates every aspect of self.
Emily's female body grows larger, just as her personality exceeds the limits of any decorum. The second part of the novel details meal after meal, as Emily enjoys the luxuries of post-war France while the poor French suffer shortages. Stead lists the menus in restaurants as well as the home-cooked food she consumes, so that the reader feels the grossness of Emily's appetite. When Emily recalls her childhood as a fat girl, her enormous body trembles with laughter at the brutality of the fat jokes against herself. Considering the possibility of actually dying of laughter, she says, "and the body gets up like an immense giant and grabs me and balances me over the cliff, threatening to toss me over. Oh, heigh-ho, nothing in my life compares with my physical feelings." (IDL: 305)
By the end of the novel, Emily can hardly move because of the size of her body. She doesn't bother to dress or wash, and spends her life in the basement of the house taking drugs to keep up her energy and writing a novel (about that other female symbol of decadent excess, Marie Antoinette) which she refers to as the Monster. Her voracious appetite for life eventually consumes all around her, until she is found, alone and deranged in the Roman Forum. This novel might be subtitled the story of a woman's body, for Emily's intellectual life is part of her energetic, imaginative appetite for physical life - part, as she says, of her physical feelings. Yet, it is an appetite which breaks all the boundaries of moderation and discipline.
The novel itself shares Emily's energy and excessiveness. Stead gives us the outlines of many of Emily's films, stories and novels, together with her ideas, her fancies and her dreams. As in Stead's earlier novels, every character has a story to tell and she allows each the space to tell it. In its account of various experiences - from Emily's mid-West childhood to those of Nazi collaborators - the novel is encyclopedic.
I'm Dying Laughing offers a number of insights important to feminism. In its focus on the relationship between a woman's body and all other aspects of her life - the domestic, political, social and historical - it insists on the continuity between women's most intimate, physical experience and a political world. Emily's Marxism and her experiences in the postwar crisis of the Cold War lead to an unveiling of the personal corruption behind public political ideals. Stead's own kind of Marxism (as opposed to the idealistic and programmatic official Marxism of the late forties and early fifties) enables her to make the links between political and economic realities and the bodily experience of her character.
Yet this extraordinary linking of the individual, sexed physical life and a vast political universe is not achieved by the techniques of modernism, proposed by some recent theories as the source of understanding of the body and the feminine unconscious. There are no internal monologues, nor a language which disrupts accepted structures at the basic level. Stead's characters act out their dramas by long speeches and extravagant storytelling. The narrative observes them and records their words, and at times appears to be almost gossiping about the interesting or peculiar aspects of their lives. This is not an inner discourse but an external and social one.
Nevertheless, Stead's technique manages to evade the phallogocentric implications of realism, and naturalism in particular. Narrative authority in these novels is continually passed over from 'author' to characters, as they explicate the multiple ways in which they see the world and their own lives in it. This is not to say that there is no 'author', no guiding hand behind the various fictions which Stead's characters present. The ironies of difference, the very focus on sexual, economic and political aspects of experience indicate that a creative and critical mind is at work. Yet the kind of experience Stead presents as evidence defies any programmatic solution to human political problems, whether Marxist or feminist. Its feminism lies in this defiance, rather than in any propositions about the female condition and political action to change it.
Stead's inability to produce "neatly-groomed little boys in sailor collars" in place of her rambling, seemingly random and erratic novels recognises that art which offers perfection operates to impose an authority, and a unifying order on experience. Her novels can be seen to resist such an authority and order, not as a failure of skill but as part of an exploration of experience with all its contradictory mix of idealism and corruption. While male metaphors of creativity suggest the power of the seed, which once implanted may be left to grow, Stead's reference to the "night of which noone speaks" insists on the ongoing struggle of creation. It is a struggle exposed in novels which resist the easy solutions of convention.
University of New South Wales
1 "Letters from Christina Stead," Meridian, vol 8, no 2, 1989:146.
2 Julia Kristeva "Stabat Mater" in The Kristeva Reader edited by Toril Moi, Columbia University Press, New York, 1986, 160-187.
3 References are to The Man Who Loved Children, Penguin, 1970 edition, Cotters' England, A&R, 1974 edition, and I'm Dying Laughing, Penguin, 1989 edition. Henceforth referred to as TMLC, CE, and IDL respectively.
4 Terry Sturm "Christina Stead's New Realism" in Don Anderson and Stephen Knight (eds) Cunning Exiles. A&R, Sydney, 1974, 9-35.
5 Joy Hooton "Mermaid and Minotaur in The Man Who Loved Children" Meridian vol 8 no 2 1989, 127-138.
6 In particular, Susan Sheridan Christina Stead, Harvester Wheatsheaf, London, 1988, and Diana Brydon Christina Stead, Macmillan, London, 1985.
7 For example, Dorothy Kelly in Fictional Genders: Role and Representation in Nineteenth Century French Narrative, Lincoln, University of Nebraska Press, 1989 and Naomi Schor in Breaking the Chain: Women, Theory and French Realist Fiction, New York, Columbia University Press, 1985.
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