The Marionettist by Christina Stead, 1934
by Christina Stead, 1934
It is significant that the story "The Marionettist" is placed near the beginning of Christina Stead's collection The Salzburg Tales. Being the first story of the first day's round of narration, it serves to prepare readers for some of the most distinctive qualities of the 40 stories that comprise the volume. It also functions to set the scene and to link sections and an epilogue.
The image of the marionettist, made salient by the story's title, has a particular aptness as a figure for the kind of literary artist who produces stories such as those Stead wrote for this collection. The overt manipulation of character and plot, the free adaptation of traditional narrative motifs, and the scant regard for psychological realism—all of this puppetry is a recurrent feature of Stead's extraordinary tales.
The narrator who unfolds this first story to the group of festival visitors is the Salzburg town councillor. He produces the story when one of them asks if "Salzburg always lost its sons to Vienna and the great cities." His 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") may suggest that seasonal and narrative cycles are moving in step, and it is 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 oldest, have run away from home years before and that the parents fret about the likelihood that James, the remaining son, 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 that derive from these seemingly formulaic premises. Although James promises that he will return as soon as 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 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. Further, like James, who would recount "ancient themes" from European myth and fantasy, the author of The Salzburg Tales was also fond of the often told, the legendary, the archetypal.
James eventually decides to establish himself as the operator of a commercial marionette show. The whole family willingly shares the business tasks associated with this. As scripts for his marionette shows, 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."
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 is no warning, no explanation, and no attempt to provide the kind of narrational meditation that, for example, 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 theater. One of James's brothers, long lost Peter, appears briefly on the scene and disappears again. After 15 years of absence James casually turns up one day and is surprised that his family is not overjoyed at his 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." The second twitch of the marionettist's strings follows at once and partly repeats 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. At this point he becomes a character in his mother's tale, for she repeatedly "told the women about her son the sculptor who had travelled all over the world." In contrast, he 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 one might see again an implicitly self-referential narrational comment. In a sense the story wanders just as James does, and although some readers may want to see it as "sculpture"—as immobilized high art—its generic alignment is with the more popular cultural form of the marionettist's show.