Well, it’s finally happened: the honeymoon period is over. I suppose the day had to come when I encountered a Virago Modern Classic for which I didn’t particularly care, and it seems that that day is today. In fact, I’d go so far as to say that I actively disliked The Salzburg Tales by Christina Stead, all the more so because I was looking forward to it so much as it sounds like it should be the ideal book for me, being the lover of Chaucer that I am.
The Salzburg Tales is a 1930′s take on Chaucer’s famous Canterbury Tales, following the same pattern of a group of strangers meeting (in this case they are all attending the opera at the Salzburg Festival) and deciding to tell stories to pass the time. A 1930′s take on The Canterbury Tales? What’s not to love? Well, quite a bit if I’m honest.
For a start, Stead’s characters are nowhere near as diverse and interesting as Chaucer’s are, and I think that’s partly due to the set up of her frame narrative. Chaucer has his characters meet at a pub prior to going on pilgrimage. Boccaccio in his Decameron which follows the same format has his characters fleeing from the black death in Florence. Religion and death are both great levellers of men, but Austrian opera, strangely enough, is not. As a result, Stead’s characters are all the sort of middle class people who might attend an opera festival and so, although she has a keen eye for detail, there are none of the great individuals like the Miller or the Wife of Bath who stand out. Instead, they’re all much of a muchness. I enjoyed the character portraits when reading them, such as the Banker:
He would risk half his fortune on a throw, turn head-over-heels in the air in an aeroplane, tell anyone in the world to go to Hell, laugh at princes and throw tax-collectors out the door, but he suffered excessively from toothache because he feared the dentist’s chair: and he was convinced that his luck depended on numbers, events, persons, odd things he encountered; his head accountant was forced to wear the same tie for six weeks because it preserved a liberal state of min in the Government in a difficult time: his chauffeur was obliged to carry the same umbrella, rain, hail or shine, because the umbrella depressed the market in a stock he had sold short. (pp. 39-40)
Or the Old Lady:
She wore a long gold chain and a lorgnette and an expensive hat made of satin, feathers, straw and tulle, all mixed and mummified together: no one could imagine what antediluvian stock of unfashionable materials had been drawn upon to make her hat. (p. 43)
They have enough interesting quirks to make them interesting without making them too contrived, and this was by far my favourite part of the book. However, the character types are all very similar and so even with these little details it becomes impossible to tell them apart, particularly when they do not behave in any manner distinct to their characters after this introduction.
Because the characters are all very similar, so are their stories. There was none of the variety of tone, dialect, register, interests and agenda which make The Canterbury Tales so great. In fact, I didn’t believe that any of these stories was being told by anyone other than Christina Stead herself. They aren’t the stories of the characters described at the beginning, but merely a short story collection stuffed into an unnecessary framework which adds nothing to the reading and understanding of them. This would have been less of a problem had I found the stories themselves enjoyable, but sadly they really weren’t my cup of tea. Very few of them were satisfying on a narrative level, often feeling either tedious and drawn out or as though a large chunk of the middle were missing in order to leap to a conclusion which didn’t make much sense.
I found this book a very frustrating read because I wanted it to be so good. Has anyone else read this one and had a similar experience? Or have you read it and loved and can explain what I might have missed? I’m a bit disappointed really, not to mention rather intimidated by the other Stead books I have lurking malevolently on my shelves, most of which are worryingly chunky. Are they all going to be like this?
The Salzburg Tales by Christina Stead. Published by Virago, 1986, pp. 498. Originally published in 1934.