Hands up who likes reading books about reading? Yup, I readily confess I am a complete sucker for them too. This past week, I’ve been slowly savoring the delights of Michael Chabon’s remarkable collection of essays, Maps & Legends: Reading and Writing Along the Borderlands, and finding much to entertain and inspire. Chabon is a wonderful reader and a glorious writer, which has made his interpretations of books like Cormac McCarthy’s The Road, Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials trilogy and Conan Doyle’s stories of Sherlock Holmes a real treat. But I’ve particularly enjoyed the more personal pieces, in which he talks about what has moved and inspired him in a lifetime’s devotion to the written word. His account of a childhood love with Norse mythology I found especially intriguing, not least because his tastes as a child were so very different from mine.
By the time Chabon discovered Norse mythology, he was already well versed in the kind of literature that’s red in tooth and claw thanks to the bible and the Greek myths. ‘There were rape and murder in those other books,’ he writes, ‘revenge, cannibalism, folly, madness, incest and deceit. And I thought all that was great stuff.’ The exploration of the dark side appealed not only to something deep within Chabon’s spirit but to the truth as he perceived it of the world around him, subject to its usual catastrophes and terrors. Unadulterated, unmediated menace was something he could relate to; the problem was that all too often, that darkness became co-opted by the prissy, pedantic need to draw moral lessons from it. Chabon comments ruefully that, ‘What remained was a darkness that, while you recognized it in your own heart, obliged you all the same to recognize its disadvantage, its impoliteness, its unacceptability, its being wrong, particularly for eight-year-old boys.’ The Norsemen, and in particular the trickiest, naughtiest, baddest god of them all, Loki, provided unrepentant relief. Loki was troublesome without shame, evil at times and violent too, but funny, self-mocking, ludicrous, a true god of misrule and thus tailor-made for the real incorrigibility of a young boy’s heart.
Not all children react the same, however. I think I must have been ten or eleven before starting on the Greek myths and in retrospect I see that my most serious mistake was attempting to read them in Robert Graves’ version. Even as an adult his accounts confuse and repel me, with their complex footnotes and endless academic lists of variations. But worst of all is the brutal, take-it-or-leave style in which he narrates them; no attempt is made to create a story with its seductions and allusions and charms. Barely have we got past a few creation myths before Cronus is castrating Uranus, grasping his genitals with his left hand (forever more the hand of ill-omen, we are told) and then throwing them along with the sickle into the sea. By this point I closed the book with a shudder of horrified revulsion and never went near Greek mythology again until I was in my thirties, a lecturer and surprised, when listening to a tape I’d bought for my son, how much more entertaining they were than I remembered.
I’m not surprised I was horrified by Graves’ account of the myths, when my staple literary diet up until that point had been Enid Blyton, one of the greatest offenders when it came to the kind of pointedly moralizing aunts of storytelling that Chabon so disliked. I loved Enid Blyton. In her fictional world I felt completely safe, protected from the same internal darkness that the young Michael Chabon felt, and in which I had no desire to glory. Instead, what mattered to me was that good should triumph over evil, that quiet virtue should be recognized over showy performance, that bullies and snarks and the generally unkind should get their comeuppance in a satisfactory manner. I knew there was negativity out there in the world, all right, and what I needed books to do was boundary it, tame it, and then lock the door and throw away the key. Except of course that books did much better than that; they encouraged me to look at what made me so frightened and to insist that whilst it might come back again and again, there were always resources and creativity on hand to thwart it, that no disguise or manipulative trick was any match for the steady march towards a conclusion that was steadfastly a happy ending.
This is narrative in its rescuing function, its most formulaic and artificial side, admittedly, but no less powerful for that. Plot is the great mastermind of narrative’s rescuing pleasures, although beautiful writing can be its able henchman. Have I ever told you Freud’s story of the Fort-Da game and its relation to plot? Well, that’s relevant here. Freud watched his young grandson sitting up in his pram and playing with a cotton reel or some such object. As the child threw it away he called out ‘Fort!’ (away) and then he would haul it back to himself and exclaim ‘Da!’ (here). Freud deduced that by means of this simple game, the child was accustoming itself in fantasy to his mother’s absences. She might go away (‘Fort!’) but she would always return (‘Da!’) and the cotton reel gave the child the pleasing illusion that he might control this process. In other words, the child had discovered the power of conceptualization, that we may use our minds to overcome our physical realities, and that understanding suffering, particularly in the belief that it will not last forever, is an effective way to reduce the pain.
The literary critic, Peter Brooks, picked up Freud’s interpretation of the Fort-Da game and applied it to literary plots. In stories, something is initially posited as lost or missing – it might be something intangible, like justice or love, as much as an object or a person – and the narrative works to restore wholeness and harmony, to pull the missing piece back into place. Or as another commenter, Hanna Segal described it, stories break things in order to put them back together again in even better ways. We turn the pages to see lovers reunited, criminals jailed, buried treasure discovered, secrets revealed. But we also read for the meaning of all this to come clear. Meaning is the extra thing that makes the putting-back-together of narrative pieces so rewarding. The Norse god, Loki, is unusual in this respect; he would rather end with a punchline than a significant quote, he resists the lure of closure and the cozy messages of reassurance it brings, instead he perpetuates trouble and unease and mischief. And there is a truth in that, a truth that is as important and necessary to the world as the comfort of narrative rescue. ‘I took comfort as a kid, in knowing that things had always been as awful and as wonderful as they were now,’ Chabon writes, ‘that the world was always on the edge of total destruction.’ A sensible and sensitive assessment, it seems to me, but about as non-Enid Blyton as you can get. I wish I had seen that perspective myself as a child, but we are always locked into our unique perspectives and stories are busy doing all they can to liberate us from them; we can scarcely ask for more. Chabon and I were fortunate, as children, that stories had a wide enough embrace to comfort both of us in our different ways.