Three Types of Awe

wind in the willowsA couple of weeks ago audible suckered me in with a big sale, and I found myself purchasing The Wind in the Willows for a bargain price. I had never read this book as either a child or a mother, although I must have seen countless bits of adaptations on the television. It did have undeniable charm, with Ratty, Moley, Badger and Toad all as I had gathered they would be from osmosis of the general culture. The rather delightful mash-up of fantasy and reality gave me that frivolous feeling, and I couldn’t help but ponder foolish questions, like, who was manufacturing and supplying small armaments to water rats, and how could Mr Toad brush his hair? But I did realise that was beside the point. If you want to read a rational book, you don’t pick one that features talking animals.

After a while, I realised that Wind in the Willows is essentially made up of two different books, which is why it made no great name for itself until A. A. Milne filleted out the plotline concerning the exploits of Toad and turned it into a successful play. The other side of the story is harder to summarize, but it essentially concerns Rat and Mole as they experience certain iconic emotional states – the experience of friendship, for instance, and the pull of home, as well as the lure of wanderlust. Because I was listening to this book at night when I’d gone to bed, it was inevitable that I should drift at certain points, and so it was with some sense of disorientation that I came to in the middle of the chapter entitled ‘The Piper at the Gates of Dawn’.

In this episode, Ratty and Mole have been searching all night for the otter’s lost son, Portly. They take to the river in their boat, and finally, in the mystical light of dawn, come upon young Portly, curled up asleep at the feet of the great Pan. The narration goes completely bonkers at this point, evoking what I eventually understood was a state of divine awe. And it occurred to me to wonder whether awe of this nature, the experience of the sublime, is ever present in contemporary children’s books? Awe seems so much more secular these days, if it exists at all. I couldn’t help but feel that if Portly had been discovered thus in a more up to date book, Pan would have found himself under a paedophilia charge.

the magus of hayI found myself thinking about awe again, however, whilst reading a very recently published crime fiction novel. Phil Rickman’s The Magus of Hay features Merrily Watkins, a diocesan exorcist working from Hereford cathedral. This is apparently the twelfth novel in a series concerning Merrily, which has an interest in alternative spirituality, paganism, and generally unexplained potentially superstitious religious occurrences. Merrily herself held a somewhat wishy-washy position, a good Christian woman who comes to offer a few prayers for those who feel troubled by the dark side, uncertain herself whether they will do any good or not. However, Phil Rickman’s interest in all matters of the occult and alternative spirituality was clearly heavily researched, respectful, curious and exploratory. He provided a lot of information, and whilst the tone is essentially skeptical, this was a much more serious novel than your average outing into the paranormal.

I’d picked the book up originally because the main story was set in Hay-on-Wye where a couple are opening a secondhand bookshop which turns out to have a disturbing atmosphere. Meanwhile, not far away, an elderly man is found drowned in the pool of a waterfall. The young police detective who finds him admits to the investigating officer that as a kid, they all used to call him a wizard and dare each other to run up to his house. It’s a long and quite complicated story that eventually draws these events together and I enjoyed it, though I’m not sure I’d rush to get another in the series, mostly because Merrily didn’t win my heart. But it was well done, and I did appreciate the treatment of the supernatural.

I don’t think I’ve ever told you about my Uncle Graham, have I? Well, I do love my crime fiction, but Uncle Gray is a good excuse to read a steady stream of it. He is a retired widower and a voracious reader; he’s also a man of economical ways, which see him, in winter, in bed reading every evening and night with his scarf and hat and gloves on. This tickles me, probably because I aspire to much the same sort of retirement myself, only with central heating. Well, once Uncle Gray had worked his way through my dad’s not inconsiderable library of crime fiction, my parents asked me if I had any books I could lend him. Did I have books! So now I keep the crime I read to one side, supplemented by the review copies I’m sent, and goodness knows what Uncle Gray makes of some of them (The Magus of Hay will be a good case in point), but he’s never been known to complain.

this boy's lifeA last burst of awe, of a brief but powerful nature: Tobias Wolff. I’ve been on a reading kick of his writing lately and He. Is. Amazing. I read This Boy’s Life, then some of his short stories. The writing is genius – pure, clean, completely without pretention, but he says so much. And he’s funny too. Why is it so hard to write about the books that make the most impact on you? I have no words, but much awe.

 

On Patrick Modiano

patrick modianoYesterday I put two and two together and realised that the reason I’d seen a lot of brief but extremely unusual mentions of Patrick Modiano online was that he’d just won the Nobel Prize. Yes, I know, let’s put it down to age. But I love Patrick Modiano, he’s a wonderful author whose simply written novels, drawing on – and subverting – the genres of the spy novel, detective fiction and film noir are exquisitely complex and unnerving. I was trying to think how I could possibly describe the experience of reading one of his works and I could only come up with strange metaphors. They are like waking from a vivid dream, straining to catch those last fleeting remnants as they fade away. They are like being involved in a high-speed car chase only to turn the corner and find you are driving in solitary splendour. They are like the moment when Bugs Bunny runs off the edge of the cliff and doesn’t realise that he is pedalling pure air. He writes what I suppose I think of as proper literature – in which the story is perfectly formed, but the questions provoked by it are endless.

rue des boutiquesTake for instance the novel for which he won the Prix Goncourt, Rue des boutiques obscures (Missing Person). This was my first introduction to Modiano and I still recall it today. Guy Roland is a detective who decides, when his partner retires, to turn his skills onto himself. For fifteen years, since an accident left him an amnesiac, he has not known who he is. Armed with a fistful of clues he heads out on the quest for his real self, following a chain of witnesses, each of whom provides him with just enough information to carry on the search, but never enough for answers or closure. The trail of his old self runs out in the Second World War, when he seemed, like others around him, to be escaping the Nazis and the Occupation by fleeing to Switzerland. When Guy tracks down the last surviving person who might be able to help him, he learns that he has gone missing. And now I’m going to give away a massive spoiler, so you can hop to the next paragraph though the spoiler is intrinsic in understanding Modiano’s audacity as a writer… because the story ends with Guy in pursuit of this last witness, the original missing man chasing a missing man. The traces could not be any existentially lighter, and so it is almost as if Guy fades away into oblivion. It’s a shock ending, it was certainly not what I was expecting, and yet I didn’t mind at all; I may even have applauded. It was so original when I first read it, some 15 years ago.

voyage de nocesThe other novel of his I want to tell you about is Voyage de noces (Honeymoon). This concerns the documentary maker, Jean, who learns in a hotel in Milan of the recent suicide there of a woman he once knew. When he returns to Paris, he arranges his own disappearance and sets off on a quest to find out all he can about her. The search for information about Ingrid Teyrson and her husband, Rigaud, takes him back in time to the Occupation in France, when the couple were hiding out on the Côte d’Azur. Ingrid is Jewish and the couple are haunted by the figure of a man in a black raincoat who they feel sure is spying on them, in the hope of turning them in. How does this past match up with the present in which Ingrid has become suicidal? What happened?

So what have we got, then, in terms of preoccupations here? There’s an intriguing quest for identity at work in both novels, in which the hunt for the self is also the hunt for another person. But these quests which drive the narrative forward powerfully and compellingly are always doomed to failure – what’s missing can never be retrieved. There’s also a fascination with the Occupation as a kind of black hole – or maybe the sort of rabbit hole that appears in Alice in Wonderland – down which the experience of France as a nation disappeared, and now only fantastic traces remain that seem surreal and inexplicable. There’s nostalgia for a time when things were not strange and disconnected and wrong. But there’s also a pervasive sense of melancholia and shame. Modiano’s protagonists are not just postmodern, they’re post-lapsarian: guilty until proven guilty. We may not even be sure what they’ve done, but the strong sense of needing to atone, or to piece together a mystery that shows them in a bad light, creates building blocks of the plot that feel like they’re made out of antimatter.

bon voyageOf all the contemporary writers in France that I know of, Modiano is a surprise choice for the Nobel. His novels have a strong family resemblance – I imagine he might be accused of being a one-trick pony (though it’s a good trick). I cannot think he would go down well in America; if as a culture you want to outlaw the passive voice then Modiano’s enigmas of who-did-what and who-am-I-anyway aren’t going to please a lot of people. He’s very postmodern. And I wonder how much you have to understand French history to get the significance of the feeling aroused when it became clear that the myth of France as a nation of resistance fighters was built on shifting sand. But all that being said, I really like him; he’s an original, and his work of sophisticated simplicity is both eminently readable and full of menacing mystique.

If you’re interested in trying Patrick Modiano in his simplest form, then I recommend the film: Bon Voyage. Modiano wrote the screenplay, about the converging lives of a disparate group of people who flee Paris when the Nazis invade. Watching the different storylines dovetail so neatly into one another, you can feel the hand of Modiano guiding the plot.

The Yellow-Lighted Bookshop

In contrast to the modern caricature of the bookseller – in cardigan with cat and tea – for centuries the bookseller was regarded as a rogue, a hell-raiser, someone more than capable of making a few quick bucks off the grief-stricken, or of sowing the seeds of heresy and dissent. From the beginning of the trade, the bookseller existed independently, with little institutional or government sanction or censor, and would act as the conduit for the newest ideas and information of the day.’

YellowLightedBookshopYay for booksellers! Mavericks and subversives one and all! Reading Lewis Buzbee’s charming account of his life as a book addict, bookseller and writer, I felt he had his finger right the pulse of the beautiful double life that obsessive readers so slyly lead. It may look as if we don’t go out much, as if the fascinating people we know are figments of our imagination, as if we take our adventures sitting in an armchair, but we know that opening our minds to all sorts of information is a revolutionary thing to do. To hear the alternative story, to think the different thoughts, these are dangerous practices indeed. It’s only with the cardigan and the mild-mannered air that we can fool others enough to mask our insurrectionist activity; they are necessary props.

Well, maybe I exaggerate a tad. But the history of books and bookselling makes for fascinating reading, and it can’t help but win you over to the great cause of literature. Lewis Buzbee takes us from the first “impulse buy”: the Egyptian Book of the Dead which was considered to be ‘a travel guide to the underworld’ and thus a useful object to be enclosed in the tomb of the deceased, through the library at Alexandria, the first great collection of papyrus scrolls (apparently between 50,000 and 100,000 ‘books’ were held there, as much as your average large bookshop today would hold), to parchment, the Chinese invention of paper, and eventually the Gutenberg press. Meanwhile, the bookshop mutated from a wheeled cart or a blanket on the ground, to a stall, to an enclosed arcade, to the ‘shoebox’ shaped shop we know nowadays, with early shopwindows having little shelves attached to the leading of the panes of glass on which books could rest. At the end of the book, my edition had been updated to include extra chapters on amazon and e-books, although the digital revolution was still in its infancy when Buzbee was writing. For a shop and paper guy like Buzbee, amazon and e-books are pretty much anathema, but he struggles hard to be fair and even-handed, coming up with some advantages of the virtual form, though fighting valiantly against any notion that the world he adores should become obsolete.

For Buzbee’s book is very much about his own participation in a highly particular world with its own ideology and how it has shaped him. He is a passionate advocate for reading, having fallen in love as a teenager with Steinbeck’s Grapes of Wrath and then turned up every week for two years at his local bookshop until they finally hired him. The space of the bookshop is unlike any other for him: ‘Time may be money in the rest of the world but not in the bookstore. There’s little money here so we can all take our time.’ And it provides a vital space for readers to commune with one another the way they like best, ‘alone among others’: ‘It’s a lovely combination, this solitude and gathering, almost as if the bookstore were the antidote for what it sold.’ I particularly enjoyed reading about his experiences as a bookseller, how ringing up a customer’s purchases ‘represents a part of that person’s life. It’s not a mere tally of reading tastes, who likes what authors, it’s a gauge of what concerns people, what occupies them.’ He was also shaken out of his young man’s contempt for his parents’ reading choices, and told by his fellow bookseller that enjoying reading was the point. I have to say my own experience of bookselling was, alas, the opposite, as my let’s-read-it-all approach to books bumped into the delicately graded canon of superiority of which the other booksellers kept careful account. But it didn’t matter; I kept quiet, I learned a lot, and was only very occasionally caught out by someone saying ‘why on earth are you reading that?’

This is a delightful, charming, warm-hearted book, as safe and informative as the bookshops its celebrates. Wherever you perch in the food chain of book production and consumption, there’ll be something to relate to and something new to exclaim over. Lewis Buzbee is an amiable tour guide and enthusiast, the kind of bookseller you’d hope for when you have a fistful of tokens and the desire for a different kind of book, but be warned you might be left with an insatiable desire to go book browsing (and not online) when you’ve reached the end…. Recommended for book lovers of all persuasions.

On Teaching Literature

The following is something I wrote initially for SNB before thinking that it really didn’t suit the magazine at all. And so I thought I might as well stick it up here!

The gradual erasure of literature from UK schools has been going on for some time and now the situation is set to worsen. Reforms to the exam system mean that from 2015 onwards, a new English language exam will make the teaching of literature optional for children up to sixteen years of age. It will be perfectly possible to get through a whole education without ever studying a well-known book in our own mother tongue.

I wonder if this is because the officials who make education policy at government level have an out-of-date impression of how books are taught? For teaching literature can be full of pitfalls. When I was fifteen – a young girl who constantly had her nose stuck in a book at home – I hated the way we did it in school. What I adored was the feeling of being utterly caught up in a different world, lost to the twists and turns of a story. In the classroom we ‘read around the class’ a dull and painful exercise that took all immediacy from the words. Then we chopped the text up into little bits and studied them in a way that removed the natural connection between imagination and emotion. I understood the ambiguity of the stories, but felt too vulnerable myself to appreciate it. I needed a good teacher to stretch my emotional understanding, and that can be hard to do in a class of thirty students, all with different needs. Even all these years later, Shakespeare and Dickens remain two authors I cannot love, destroyed as they were by that old-fashioned teaching process.

When I took up a university post teaching French literature I had to think long and hard about what we’re doing when we ‘teach’ a book or a play or a poem; what do we want out of it, how do we use it, and how best to lead students into an effective understanding? If you don’t ‘get’ literature, it can seem very perplexing and rebarbative. At worst, you can damage a student’s relationship to literature forever; thinking deeply about books can be something they never wish to do again.

Some of the answers came to me as I studied the interactions I had with my students. At first they were shy about expressing what they thought. Too often they felt that loving or hating a book was the end of the matter. And they struggled to manage their tangled and convoluted thoughts in writing. This made sense: studying literature is primarily an exercise in self-awareness. We are never more fully ourselves than in that private place where we read and – inevitably – judge. To protect that private place (and we do so fiercely), it seems right to insist that a personal opinion is obvious and universal, and to sidestep the challenge of alternative interpretations. And a good piece of literature will not provide the straightforward answers we often long for. Literature is not there to solve the problems of the world, but to give us a startling, enlightening glimpse of them in all their awkward complexity. What we feel about this draws on complicated emotions – some provoked by the story, some from personal history – and expressing either can be difficult to do.

For books do not keep us safe. They shake us out of ourselves, loosen our stranglehold on certainties, get us to walk a mile in another’s shoes. My job as a teacher was initially to unclasp my student’s fingers from their cherished narcissism. If they could put themselves to one side – forget themselves in a book, in the way that can be so wonderful – they could experience literature as a protected arena in which all sorts of troubling or paradoxical situations are contained and worked through. They could discover new ideas, new perspectives, and gain new sophistication in their beliefs.

Other problems arose: the students were quickly frustrated by the length of time their studies took. Couldn’t they watch the film adaptation, which would be so much quicker and less demanding? (No, Disney’s Hunchback of Notre Dame is NOT an accurate account of Victor Hugo’s Notre Dame de Paris.) Then they were upset by the troublesome assertion that there were no rules to essay writing, and by the confusion that arose out of differing interpretations. Why was it not so that all interpretations were equally valid? And if there were no rules to organising essays, why were their essays still criticised for structure?

Here they bumped up against the curious combination of creativity and discipline that literature demands. The way it invites us to think all manner of things, but to dismiss the majority in the interests of common sense, logic and emotional veracity. My students had to learn to deduce their conclusions only from the words on the page, not speculate wildly the way all other forms of media encourage them to do. And they had to organise their thought with care and reason to take another person through their argument. These things aren’t easy to do, and they eschew the sensationalism that our culture generally prioritises in stories, to such an extent now that to take the sensible approach sometimes felt wrong and disappointing to them.

This is the thing about studying literature – it stymies both of our main contemporary approaches to knowledge: the test-oriented desire for tickable answers, and the gossipy search for a self-righteous opinion. And so the huge obstacle it presents to the average teenager is the demand for slow thinking, not quick thinking, that pleasurable stab at what ‘everyone’ knows. My students struggled with the open-ended curiosity books required of them, the gentle, patient contemplation, the complete lack of an absolute answer. I told them that learning was most effective when it felt like a trip to a lesser Greek island – a place where there wasn’t much else to do but read and think. They almost preferred their own vision of themselves chained up to a hungry furnace in hell, shovelling in pages of mindless writing while being whipped by pitchfork-wielding devils.

This is why literature is so important. Its study requires very different skills to those demanded by other mainstream subjects. All those issues my students struggled with – self-awareness, creativity, the challenge to established beliefs, the focused contemplation, the juggling of interpretations which had to be backed up by evidence – all exercised their minds in vital ways. And beyond that, stories form the great building block of existence. Whether they are stories we tell about ourselves to create identity, or stories in the news, or stories given to us by the authorities, the form becomes so familiar as to be lost to critique. It’s important to realise how determining stories are, and how we build them to persuade, insist and explain things that are often no more than cherished hopes. We lose a lot of insight if we don’t understand how stories function and the immense underground work they do within a culture.

Teaching literature has changed a lot since I was at school, and teachers nowadays do a fantastic job of finding ways to bring the magic and the subtle power of storytelling to children’s attention. My son, who was only really interested in computers during his schooldays, loved the Shakespeare he studied, and the Steinbeck and George Orwell’s 1984. These were books that if someone had asked me, his mother, I might have said they were too hard for him. But no, with the right teacher, any book is accessible. It gladdened my heart to think this part of him was being nurtured. Literature isn’t an easy option; surely if stories teach us anything, it’s that nothing worthwhile ever came quickly, simply or easily. But they offer us a kind of pleasure that can be intense and long lasting and a way of knowing the world that can’t be gained anywhere else.