by Whispering Gums
Ocean of story: The uncollected stories of Christina Stead is a posthumous collection put together by R.G. Geering, who was a teacher, academic, and, most significantly, Stead’s literary executor. He explained in his Afterword to the book that it “brings together for the first time most of the short prose writings that appeared in various places (journals, magazines and newspapers) outside the thirteen volumes of fiction published during her own life, along with other unpublished pieces found among her personal papers after her death”. He explains that he grouped the pieces “according to their settings and contents rather than chronologically”.
The first piece in the collection is titled “Ocean of story”, and Geering explains that it was her contribution to ‘The International Symposium on the Short Story’ in the Kenyan Review, 1968. He described it as “a highly personal essay, rather than a conventional article”.
He’s right. It is, indeed, a “highly personal essay” that, by its end, provides a “highly personal” understanding of what stories, and particularly short stories, meant to Stead. It starts:
I love Ocean of Story, the name of an Indian treasury of story; that is the way I think of the short story and what is part of it, the sketch, anecdote, jokes cunning, philosophical, and biting, legends and fragments. Where do they come from? Who invents them? Everyone perhaps. Who remembers them so that they pass endlessly across city life? I know some of those marvellous rememberers who pass on their daily earnings in story; and then they are forgotten to become fragments, mysterious indications. Any treasury of story is a residue of the past and a record of the day.
This provides insight into her understanding, her conception, of the short story. It’s a free-flowing one that allows stories to take all forms. She goes on to say that “what is unique about the short story is that we all can tell one, live one, even write one down.”
Then she turns autobiographical, starting with her childhood with her father, the well-recognised marine biologist/zoologist David Stead. She was, she says, “born into the ocean of story, or on its shores”, the daughter of a “lively young scientist”. He
told his tales. He meant to talk me asleep. He talked me awake.
Ah, the impact of stories on an imaginative child, which Stead clearly was. He told her stories drawn from his zoological work, and “stories of the outback…and even a few historic events.” But then comes the important thing – the thing that is important to all who read – which is, what stories do for us. She writes that the thousand stories she heard between two and four and a half
formed my views – an interest in men and nature, a feeling that all were equal, the extinct monster, the coral insect, the black man and us; and another curious feeling in me, of terrestrial eternity, a sun that never set.
This feeling came via her father’s nature-related stories which taught her that while death was necessary, there was always “a frail print” left. However, the storytelling – these times that allowed her “to see the unseen” – ended when she was four and a half and her father remarried. The magic was imprinted by then though.
Indeed, she sees stories as “magical”. You only need for someone to say, she says, “Here’s a story; it happened to me” and all will listen. We seek stories – even those “twisted, inferior, cramped, and sterile stories on TV” – because we hope to recognise and “have explained our own existence”. She’s right – on both superficial (what am I doing) and deeper, more psychological (who am I) levels – don’t you think? She continues:
It isn’t necessary that these stories should be artistic or follow formula or be like Chekhov or the last metropolitan fad, or anything. The virtue of the story is its reality and its meaning for any one person: that is its pungency.
She argues that while the “masterpiece” might be appropriate for professionals, “the essential for us is integrity and what is genuine.” She then, interestingly given she wrote this in 1968, harks back to stories of the 1930s:
not all are memorable (some are) but all record the realities of the days when America was suffering and looking for a way out and thinking about its fate; and – look at those same today – they are a vivid and irreplaceable memento. That is what is best about the short story: it is real life for everyone; and everyone can tell one.
In other words, “the story has a magic necessary to our happiness”! We seek “the powerful story rooted in all things which will explain life to us”. This can surely be extended to be read as an argument for the importance and value of all of the arts.
Stead concludes by telling a story about a group near London that she once joined. All were asked to stand up and tell a story, and
everyone, those stuffy and snug people came to life, became mouths out of which bubbled stories poor and ordinary or before unheard of.
There it was, she says, “the ocean of story”. And this happens everywhere, anytime. So,
The short story can’t wither and, living, can’t be tied to a plan. It is only when the short story is written to a rigid plan, or done as an imitation, that it dies. It dies when it is pinned down, but not elsewhere. It is the million drops of water that are the looking-glasses of all our lives.
This is not so much a review – because such a piece is not really review-fodder. Rather, it describes Stead’s ideas about, or attitude to stories – and to story-making and storytellers.”Ocean of story” tells us a few things about Stead. It shows her to be open about what makes a story. It provides insight into aspects of her style, in this case, chatty, and idiosyncratic. And it shows her to be passionate about the value of stories themselves, regardless of whether they are “poor and ordinary” or, as she describes them, “memorable”. Geering chose well to make this the introduction to his diverse collection of prose writings by Stead, even though not all the writings are, indeed, short stories.
“Introduction: Ocean of story”
in Ocean of story: The uncollected stories of Christina Stead
Ringwood: Penguin Books, 1986
Whispering Gums, aka Sue T, majored in English Literature, before completing her Graduate Diploma in Librarianship, but she spent the majority of her career as an audio-visual archivist. Taking early retirement, she engaged actively in Wikipedia, writing and editing articles about Australian women writers, before turning to litblogging in 2009. Australian women writers have been her main reading interest since the 1980s.