The Salzburg Tales by Christina Stead

Fitting, I think, to finish and post a review of a book by an Australian woman author on Australia Day.  Perhaps it’s a little ironic though, because Christina Stead spent so little of her life in Australia.

The Salzburg Tales by Christina Stead

‘Salzburg, old princely and archiepiscopal city, and its fortress Hohen-Salzburg, lie among the mountains of the Tyrol, in Salzburg Province, in Austria.’

A chance meeting at the Salzburg Festival, brings together a group of strangers.    They have some time on their hands, and decide to tell each other stories.  So, over seven days, the members of this group take turns in sharing tales of fantasy and legend, tragedies, parodies and jokes.  A more modern rendition of Bocaccio’s ‘Decameron’ or Chaucer’s ‘The Canterbury Tales’?  Perhaps, although I’ve never read both in full and so cannot make accurate comparisons.

‘When they reached the outlook over the city and sat down, he began, by accident to relate the history of a humble man who had lived in Salzburg and been a friend of his, and that was the first story told.’

While I found most of the stories interesting, and some utterly absorbing, few of the characters telling the story made much impact on me.  They existed, I felt, as vehicles for conveying the story to the reader without themselves being of significance.  Or, perhaps, I was so focussed on the stories being told I didn’t pay enough attention to the story teller.  One day I’ll reread ‘The Salzburg Tales’, and I’ll pay more attention to the storytellers.  I enjoyed Ms Stead’s descriptions of each storyteller (‘The Personages’) but there were so many of them that by the time I’d got to their particular story, I needed to go back.   Some of the descriptions I enjoyed included: ‘After them came the ITALIAN SINGER, a gentleman of fifty years or more, with a ravaged wrinkled face, like a mask of tragedy carved in wood; …’ ,  ‘There came in next the POET.  He was tall, spare and ill, with hollow cheeks and eyes.’, and the SOLICITOR ‘He loved a little chat, with a legal joke and a neat personality, and a little cup of tea.’

As I finished reading it, I wondered whether I’d have enjoyed it more if I’d felt that ‘The Personages’ were somehow more connected to the stories they told?  I’ve read a couple of Ms Stead’s novels, and enjoyed them, and am slowly reading my way through her published work.

Note: My thanks to NetGalley and Melbourne University Publishing for providing me with a free electronic copy of this book, which was first published in 1934, for review purposes.

Jennifer Cameron-Smith

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