The Consolations of Stories

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.

14 thoughts on “The Consolations of Stories

  1. *puts hand up* BUT my library, which claims to have Maps and Legends, has apparently misplaced their copy. I keep checking back in the hopes that it has been found, but it never has. Grrrrr.

    I think that to get that fundamental, lifelong love of any set of stories, you have to have read them as a kid, preferably in an edition with nice illustrations. Or love isn’t exactly the word I mean. I mean to have those stories be integral to the way your mind works. I have that with Greek myths, because of D’Aulaire’s, and the Bible stories, and Grimm’s fairy tales, but not with Norse myths at all. I always regret it, when I am reading essays or whatever by an author who has gotten Norse myths instilled in them in childhood. If I have kids, they’re having every book of tales I can find. :p

  2. The book sounds wonderful. I love reading books about book slike this especially when they are well written as it seems this one is. I love when you say “we are always locked into our unique perspectives and stories are busy doing all they can to liberate us from them.” So very true! Stories rescue us in more way than one.

  3. Thank you for this. Much food for thought and probably a book that I would like. I tend to get annoyed these days with books which offer too facile a redemption. I crave to be rescued no less than ever, but as the years go by I’m a more and more hardened and cynical case and it takes more and more to make me feel rescued. There are exceptions of course: Jane Eyre, for example, delights and fills me no less than it did when I was 11 or 12 years old and I don’t suppose it ever will. It’s tropes are terribly obvious, but there is so much more…

    I’m just now reading a novel written by a friend I met on the Internet (wonderful, wonderful Internet). I absolutely love it and revel in it and reading it makes me so happy. It is a difficult, dense book whose dominant tone is rather cool. This is not always my kind of thing. Not at all, at all. But I love it. I could say I love it because I love the writer, so of course I’m going to love it. But I don’t think that’s true, actually. I love it because it is written from the writer’s heart and soul and it offers the redemption inherent in who he is and what his writer’s voice has to tell me about his apprehension of life and of the many previous stories that fuel his own. And there definitely is a redemption, although it is not a simple or unchallenging one.

    It is important to me, I think, and more and more important, to be able to think about why I continue to get what I do from stories. So I very much want to read books like Chabon’s and pieces like this one of yours. I don’t think I can any longer avoid going on the intellectural journey I gave up long ago as an disaffected university student of literature.

  4. That was me. Damn WordPress username that I had to get in order to read a members-only blog. Must be very nice to have an unusual name so you can use it as an online username.

  5. The Chabon book sounds very good. I also made the jump from Greco/Roman mythology to Norse; being Swedish-American, I looked forward to it and remember thinking how paltry, unkempt and odd Norse myths were, compared to the Greeks. (Melting ice forms a *cow* that nurses a giant? They believed that?) But Chabon is right, Loki is a glorious character.

    When I read some of American Indian mythologies I’m still baffled by what seems to me bizarre concepts, similar to the Norse myths. And I wonder, is it just I’m too based in Western science and belief systems? I suppose so.

    The Chabon book sounds wonderful; I’ll have to go find it.

  6. I love that idea of breaking things apart to put them back together in a better — or at least more comprehensible — way. I notice that my taste in stories has changed since I was young; I used to like stories about misery and suffering, and now I like stories about redemption. I think back then I needed to know that there were people as unhappy as I was. And now I want to know that there’s some better goal than that in sight.

  7. My needs were much like yours as a kid, Litlove, but I also needed the resolution and redemption of more violent stories than offered by Enid Blyton (though I read her too). Fairy tales did that for me, and when fairy tales were banned by my parents, I turned to myths and legends, which at least still had magic and expressed some of what I experienced but couldn’t put into words. A few years ago I came across a book of Cree stories collected by an anthropologist in the 1920’s: Sacred Stories of the Sweetgrass Cree. It was fascinating. Much more akin to the other myths I’d read than you usually find in the just-so and bowdlerized versions. And there was a hilarious sly story about a folk figure mimicking missionaries in his strategy to outwit animals, making them his prey for their fur.

  8. Jenny – you’re absolutely right. You do have to have the right edition and pictures can be a huge boon. Some gorgeous illustrations (although not of the gory moments) would have been a big help. I really hope you can get hold of the Chabon (I bought a cheap copy on the internet) as I feel quietly confident that you would like it. And then you’d have it to share with your kids along with all those wonderful myths.

    Stefanie – it’s more often than not at your blog that I hear about these sorts of books (and go on to buy them all!). I do think you’d like this one – he writes SO well about books. It’s exactly what we’ve been thinking about lately – how to really bring the personal and the literary together in rich ways.

    Jean – yes, I know what you mean. As you get older and read more, the devices start to creak a bit and show their workings. One can’t succumb with innocent delight. But I’m glad that some novels escape the ravages of time. I confess I have never read Jane Eyre – isn’t that awful? Although I also feel I have to keep something back for the future. And I think what you say about redemption in your friend’s novel is very interesting. I think it’s so often the case that the obvious, orthodox ways of manifesting the big things – love, suffering, redemption – are far less powerful in reality than the small, quirky, unconventional ways. It’s the surprising that really makes a difference. I’m also intrigued to know how you might pick that intellectual journey up (although reading your blog I felt that you’d never really abandoned it). I am in a phase at the moment of wanting to think about books and stories too and have a list of works by popular critics that I want to work through. I’ve got William Gass on it, Michael Dirda, Barbara Kingsolver and lots of others. Mostly American I find because we don’t do popular criticism in the UK (the publishers would say not enough demand). But I’m looking around at anything that will get me deeper into the links that bind us to stories. Shall we share finds as we go along? I’d love to hear about anything that you come across that you admire.

    Ombudsben – I do know what you mean. A while back I was reading Sara Maitland’s Book of Silence and she was exploring all the different creation myths. And most of them felt just plain wrong. I think the story of our origins is drummed into us from childhood forward, and is probably stitched into more cultural events, literature and film than we realise, in figurative and symbolic ways. So it’s no surprise that other myths seem utterly bizarre. It’s probably a quiet reminder to us that our own may look just as strange when taken out of context. I think that sense of being disconcerted is probably rather healthy and useful…even though the experience of it is not comfortable!

    David – there now, that’s a sign of your emotional and mental maturity. I will be really proud of myself when I move beyond the endless moralising I seem to do at the moment with stories. In fact your comment has just made me think that how we respond to narrative is highly redolent of where we are emotionally. I knew that but had forgotten it – thank you for reminding me!

    Lilian – fairy tales would have been a good idea, but strangely enough I didn’t read them. I must have read other authors, not just Blyton, but I simply cannot remember them. I recall borrowing all my brother’s Malcolm Saville books (he wrote adventure stories about groups of friends who solved mysteries – one up from Blyton in terms of daring and risk). I have never heard of Cree (the Cree?) either, but will look into them now. I liked the Greek myths a lot when I came to them as an adult, so on the plus side, it’s never too late to learn!

  9. Well, I certainly love reading your *posts* about reading, LL – especially this one. It’s beautifully written and makes me rather wistful for those days of chums and cherry trees. I definitely sought (and found) comfort in Enid Blyton’s perfectly just vision, but I also liked dark fairy tales, and was always trying to read ahead, I suppose, so encountered much, much seamier narrative scenarios earlier than Enid would have thought wise! I’ve always loved Greek mythology – perhaps that comes of being a Diana – and it’s an interest I would like to develop. I can’t *wait* to rediscover children’s stories once there’s a child in the house.

  10. “Shall we share finds as we go along?”

    That would be wonderful! I am currently reading Marshal Gregory’s book, discovered – like so many – thanks to you.

    ——

    On a different topic (or perhaps not, come to think of it), I was wondering whether you have read or are planning to read Gabriel Josipovici’s controversial new book – another, perhaps the most, wonderful writer that you introduced me to.

  11. Doctordi – oh I loved, loved the reading when my son was little. It was my best part of the day and I read to him at bedtime for an hour or so most nights. I only wish I could read to him still! And yes, I do laugh to think I became a literary critic on a diet of Blyton and then crime fiction. It just goes to show that it really doesn’t matter what you read, growing up, so long as you read. I was always convinced that any book would bring me pleasure, if I paid enough attention to it, and that thought got me through all kinds of experimental fiction and trauma narratives…

    Grad – aw bless you. You are so very kind!

    Jean – marvellous! Do let me know how you get on with the Gregory (and you can always reach me on litlove1 at yahoo dot co dot uk if you don’t end up posting about it). And I very much want to read Josipovici’s latest and have no doubt that the controversy has absolutely nothing to do with what he was actually trying to say. I am hoping to get hold of a cheap copy because it’s still about £17 at the moment, and no doubt I’ll find one eventually. I am so very glad to know that you have enjoyed his work – I really think he’s wonderful and hope to read everything I can by him over time.

  12. Sometimes, when I turn to ancient writings, I am like Chabon: comforted to know that the world has always been so horrible. However, other times, it completely depresses me. I want the story that tells me, “Look how much we’ve evolved. All this horror has been worth it, because so much good has come of it.” Very interesting stuff here. Just added Chabon over at goodreads.com.

  13. I never read Blyton, but I also liked my childhood reading to be comforting. I craved the order that the comforting, sentimentalizing kinds of books created — the main character was always ultimately understood and loved and things worked out okay. It’s interesting how this can change, though — I’m a little more like a Chabon reader now than I was then. His book sounds great!

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