Thursday, 20 December 2012

Returning to Hardy part 2 – The Return of the Native

The sky over Egdon Heath is far moodier

I did not read this book. Something far better happened. As if the celestial alignments I’ve never had any truck with suddenly came good, I found an audiobook version of The Return of the Native narrated by Alan Rickman (available on I am far from being the only person to find his voice transfixing; at first it was hard to focus on the meanings of the words rather than just give in to the wolfish growl, but after a couple of hours (and there were 15 in total) I was hooked.

This is a darker novel than The Woodlanders, which I read earlier this year, and dripping with melodrama. I cannot imagine how Hardy’s deliberately overwrought descriptions of the melancholy charisma of Eustacia Vye could ever be translated into a film version, for example – references to Cleopatra and many other exotics burst from the prose like overripe fruit. And yet, as in The Woodlanders, the narrator’s apparent bemusement with her and others who take themselves rather seriously creates a lightness of tone that only makes the tumble into tragedy more affecting when it inevitably arrives. It seems amazing, reading this now against a 21st century backdrop of crime dramas and hard-hitting documentary, that a story in which violence is done only in word and hearts are traumatised through illicit hand-holding can have such a powerful effect.

Another powerful effect for me was the slowness of the listening process. My current reading is almost entirely short stories, which require a different approach – intense reading and then a digesting period, which if forfeited reduces the effect. If I read a whole collection of short stories in one sitting and then try to recall them, many will be lost, and of course the prose is more intense, condensed, too. Being forced to engage with a long, languorous text at slower-than-reading pace was a salve to the mind, and a welcome rhythm.

They (who?) say coincidences may happen in real life but are unacceptable in fiction. Hardy does not rely on too much coincidence, but I was amazed by how much of his plot in The Return of the Native depended on over-hearing. Constantly people lurk in the dark furze on Egdon Heath, or in the hearth nook in The Woman pub, or behind walls or disguises or lanterns, in order to acquire information that will move them to disastrous action. Somehow, though, I was embroiled enough in the story to let each of these incidents go so that I could cringe at the excruciating consequences.

The scene that made me grin most into the faces of strangers as I walked to work, my ears caressed by Rickman’s fricatives, was one in which a game of dice is played on Egdon Heath between the naive Christian, the knave Wildeve, and Diggory Venn the reddleman (who is the quiet catalyst for much of the plot). The stakes are high, but it is the situation that charms: at first they play on a flat stone by lantern light, hundreds of moths fluttering into the light and around their faces. When Wildeve hurls the lantern away in fury but demands to continue the game, they collect handfuls of glow worms from the heath and arrange them in a circle on the stone, stirring them with a stick when their light fades until the reddleman has won all.

If I had to win or lose at dice I’d like to do it by glow worm light, pitted against a man dyed red from head to toe. It will never happen, but listening to this and all the other lost habits of folk conjured in this novel reminded me why Hardy is such a pure pleasure, Rickman notwithstanding.

Wednesday, 12 December 2012

Folk music, story telling and postmodernism

What Manx tales is Uncle John telling with those pipes?

Still brimming with short stories after a wonderful Arvon course that I wrote about a couple of posts ago, I went to see Alasdair Roberts and Richard Dawson play at the Vortex in Dalston. They are folk musicians with completely different styles but both influenced by traditional folk songs; Alasdair Roberts sings in a recognisable, delicate trad style that reminded me of Nic Jones (a big compliment), whereas Richard Dawson’s delivery combines the kind of ear-shattering bawl that would have driven workers in the pre-industrial fields with a surprising, nuanced vocal range and banter to rival a seasoned stand-up comedian.

It would hardly be a new observation to say that many folk songs tell stories, or that ballads often do so explicitly, from start to finish. But what struck me was that, with crystal clear delivery making every word, and therefore every plot twist and turn, discernible, it is much more like listening to a storyteller spinning a novel story than the familiar tales we hear in genres such as pop and rock music. What’s more, these songs have a whole extra register not available to the oral storyteller – that of the music in which they are embedded. I have listened to stories told over an accompanying musician and it is not the same thing at all. When the same person is producing both the music and the words, by singing and sometimes playing an instrument too, there is a further layer of clues available as to interpretation.

Literary subversions of folk tales are nothing new either, though there is a slew of this kind of writing at the moment, some of it brilliant, taking fairy or folk tales and contorting their yarns. When we know the original stories, much of the joy in reading the new versions is in seeing the manipulations. With a folk song, though, the music can do some of the twisting and distorting instead. Many of Alasdair Roberts’ songs started out sounding about as trad as you can get, but about halfway in subtle musical subversions would appear – chords structured in non-folky ways, picking styles that rang other bells, progressions that stepped outside the traditional boundaries. These changes provide clues that he might not be singing a straight story either.

It was in the midst of one of these quiet displays of musical cunning that I thought of that irritating phrase, ‘a writers’ writer.’ This is a description that manages to combine compliment with curse, implying great cleverness whilst putting off the entire non-critical audience. I wondered whether Alasdair Roberts was a folk musicians’ folk musician, choosing a system of signals in his music that could only be detected by those who know the paths from which he slyly deviates. Perhaps this is a form of postmodernism in folk music – an extension of a genre that has to be enjoyed ‘knowingly.'

Richard Dawson’s music at first appeared more straightforward, but then I wondered about his use of storytelling too. Before playing one particular instrumental song on his diminutive guitar he told us it was about the Bamber Beast, a monster that lurked in the field beyond his uncle’s caravan that he described as a ‘land-based squid.’ The music itself would not have conjured this image, but having it planted beforehand rendered the tune so funny that I laughed all the way through. It reminded me of the power of a title in determining our reading of a short story.

I will be wondering, then, about the devices a writer can use to give cues and clues to the reader outside the structure of the story, as if there is music playing, but in a way that does not necessarily rely on literary knowledge – how to be a readers’ writer, but in the cleverest way.

Saturday, 1 December 2012

Marina Warner - Stranger Magic, a talk

Flying is not just for birds

Marina Warner’s talk at Foyles this week on The Arabian Nights – the subject of her new book, Stranger Magic – was itself rather like a magic carpet ride. We took in a rich landscape of ideas, many of them surprising. Marina admitted her own surprise at discovering, on reading the 1,001 tales, that she didn’t know half as many as she had supposed. This made me realise how little I could say about them either, beyond alluding to the genies and flying carpets that have become a modern shorthand for this sprawling collection.

Her main claim stood in opposition to the idea that such exotic flights of fancy provided a kind of escapism for Europeans in the throes of the Enlightenment. It might seem obvious that, for societies interested in empiricism and rational thought, Arabian stories full of magic and fantasy were a way of releasing repressed imaginations. Marina suggested instead that the stories were complementary to this new mode of thought. They provided a space for thought experiments, for example around flight.

In our traditional Celtic tales there is little flying; in old fairy tales and classical myths humans taking to the air are either demonic, or doomed (or in religious stories, must otherwise be angels), viz witches, Icarus. In The Arabian Nights all sorts of things fly, and with no terrible consequences. Most significant in the tales seem to be the flying automata, including both vehicles and a mechanical flying horse amongst others. These hint at human ideas about flight long before we took to the air, and are backed up by other methods of human flying denoted in the tales – being picked up in the claw of something that can fly (becoming a passenger of sorts), for example. Marina seemed to be hinting that the flights of imagination in the tales were appealing during the Enlightenment precisely because of the accord with exploratory, innovative thought.

The reason I found this argument so intriguing was that I had made a similar assumption about the current popularity of fantasy and fairy tale in Western culture. Rather than using these fundamental narratives set in (often) bucolic landscapes as a way to forget the cities of technology in which we live, are they in fact complementary? I began to consider the role of ‘magical thinking’ not only in fairy tales but in our everyday ways of understanding the technologies we use. Most of us don’t even know how radio works, let alone smart phones. I asked Marina what she thought about this. She agreed, saying that in her youth machines were things you could piece back together with your hands, whereas now we have mysterious objects around us that we cannot fix ourselves, powered by djinn-like forces. She went on to complain about many of the current cinematic takes on fairy tales, drily observing that the quality is usually inversely proportional to the budget. Snow White and the Huntsman she despised, but approved of the low budget French film Bluebeard. (I’m still waiting to see it via Lovefilm so will report back here.)

My favourite part of the talk came towards the end when Marina discussed the power of words to change reality, both in tales and real life. She showed images of gorgeous 17th century talismanic clothing, written all over with words to protect the wearer. She also discussed the power of brand names to change the meaning of clothing, and I wondered which words I would choose for protection, or luck. How much lovelier to have a secret line of poetry in the neck of your shirt rather than a name tag or washing instructions...

I hope to read Stranger Magic in its entirety, but to do so might necessitate reading The Arabian Nights too, so a project for 2013 perhaps. In the meantime I’ll be considering the resurgence of fairy tales in contemporary culture in a whole new light.

Wednesday, 3 October 2012

The Woodlanders – Return of the reader to Hardy

Hardy is master of woodland landscapes

A strong but silent woodsman, a flirtatious man of manners, a fickle girl and impending tragedy hinted at in the pathetic fallacy of whispering beech leaves... When I think of Thomas Hardy nowadays I see images from my mother’s favourite film, Far From the Madding Crowd, with Julie Christie as an evenly-tanned Bathsheba and Terence Stamp as the devastatingly dashing Sergeant Troy. I once fell in love with someone who looked a bit like this movie version of Troy, and Stamp is probably partly to blame for that. Nevertheless, it was with some trepidation that I returned to Hardy’s written word.

I read my way through Hardy’s pastoral canon when I was far too young to penetrate either the style or the emotional content. All I really remembered from my early teen readings was that whole pages could be taken up with descriptions of branches creaking and mists descending. This had been overlaid with the repeated assessments of Hardy’s novels as dismal, depressing tomes that serve as reminders that life never turns out how we would wish.

However, I wanted to read a writer who excels at descriptions of the natural world and placing his characters in relation to it, and apart from Laura Beatty and her 2008 novelPollard, which I’ve devoured twice already, Hardy was the main contender. I have begun my reacquaintance by reading The Woodlanders, whose main characters are those listed in the first sentence of this post. They may mirror the key players in Far From the Madding Crowd, playing out their tragedy in a tiny wooded hamlet of the kind Hardy so often pays tribute to, but it still came as a shock.

Firstly, I had forgotten how funny Hardy can be, not always intentionally. He may have had affection for the country folk and their domains on which he based his characters and places, but he also appears unafraid of mocking them, which jarred at first. His narrative voice is knowing, and slides from inner monologue to outsider observations in a way contemporary writers are taught to avoid. In fact, many aspects of his style seemed indigestible against the tenets of modern literary writing. He deploys horribly clunky metaphors inappropriate to the setting, falls back on (then) commonly-known poetry as a shortcut to describing a character’s sentiments, and shifts between the vocabulary of the woodlander and the kind of concepts that would have been unknown to those people. It all implies a sort of superior but inadequate narrator, who is not Hardy but is not anybody, unlike the narrative voices that appear in novels like Wuthering Heights and belong to characters reported by characters reported by characters.

And yet, this sliding from showing to telling, from condensed report to blow by blow accounts of scenes, all adds up to an irresistible tale. Yes, there is melodrama that makes me giggle as a 21st century reader, and some of the more romantic pronouncements of Grace the overeducated daughter of a timberman are overwrought to the point of cliché, but when tragedy strikes (as it must) it is genuinely moving. I baulked at the introduction of an ill-placed man-trap in the final chapters, but I could not stop turning the pages. And while Hardy did not let me down when it came to pastoral description, it never took over in the way I thought I remembered.

Here’s one of my favourite passages, in which Grace’s father and step-mother discuss the perils of marrying off their educated daughter to the local woodsman:

'“But I can’t bear the thought of dragging down to that old level as promising a piece of maidenhood as ever lived – fit to ornament a palace wi’, that I’ve taken so much trouble to lift up. Fancy her white hands getting redder every day, and her tongue losing its pretty up-country curl in talking, and her bounding walk becoming the regular Hintock shail-and-wamble.”
“She may shail; but she’ll never wamble,” replied his wife decisively.'

It’s outrageous, it’s frankly silly, but it is part of Hardy’s charm for a modern reader that these things only contribute to the richness of the read. Next up: Return of the Native.