Archive | January, 2011

Mirrors & Myths.

20 Jan

This is the creature there has never been.

They never knew it, and yet, nonetheless,

they loved the way it moved, its limber

neck, its very gaze, mild and serene.

Not there, because they loved it, it behaved

as though it were. They always left some space.

And in that clear unpeopled space they saved

it lightly reared its head, with scarce a trace

of not being there. They fed it, not with corn,

but only with the possibility

of being. And that was able to confer

such strength, its brow put forth a horn. One horn.

Whitely it stole up to a maid- to be

within the silver mirror, and in her.

— Rilke, Sonnets to Orpheus, II-IV.

One of the great truths about a reading life is that timing matters. When you read something is almost as important as what you read.  Last year, I finally gave up my old standby of reading books in one sitting. What had once been an intense and freewheeling experience was now diffuse and overwhelming. This I justified in many ways: diversity, deadlines, multiple bibliographies, a brain that can never be satisfied with only one of anything. The truth was I simply couldn’t read the way I had all my life any more. It was no longer about the reading, it became about the writing.  To write, one must compress, paraphrase, and excerpt like a librarian on pills. This is as often exhausting and dull as it is exhilarating and refreshing, and books lost their hold upon me.  My nose for them was all nostril and no flair. Where once I had anticipated reading, I now planned it; and in the crossfire I abandoned my visceral love of a good story, the very reason I began this whole writing shebang in the first place.

This past month I have set about trying to recover some of that lost stardust. I read mountains of fiction, usually the most regulated commodity on my reading lists. As with any reader, fiction is my confectionary: curative in small doses, addictive in large. I watched even larger doses of television, to tide over days when the very sight of a book gave me the hives. I did freelance work that was more about a good pitch than a good tale.  I even went dancing. In all, I got me a life. And I detested it. The book that drew me back from the abyss (read in one sitting) was Reckless, by Cornelia Funke. A few weeks later, happily ensconced in my library, I am wondering why this little book managed what so many others could not.

Funke’s ‘Inkworld’ books were skilled at world-building and clumsy with plot; Reckless, weirdly, inverts this equation. The story races along, while the ‘mirror-world’ is drab and populated by stock fairytale types: witches, dwarves, unicorns, fairies, shape-shifters.  The dominant races- humans, and stone-people known as Goyls- are at war. This is the world that Jacob Reckless, our hero, ventures into at age 12. He slips between the worlds for another dozen years; a famous treasure-hunter in one, an absent brother in the other.  Finally, Jacob’s worlds collide, his brother is attacked by Goyls, and Reckless begins. If fur turns to skin, and skin to stone, what remains?

Reckless is an experiment in the tradition of Through the Looking Glass, though it sorely misses the wit and invention of Carroll’s classic. There are no March Hares and singing walruses to be met here, nor do the unicorns declare children to be fabulous monsters. Mirror-worlds have spawned into an enormous sub-genre in recent years, and Reckless is a solid (if not incandescent) sample of the trope. It served, anyhow, to draw me towards an ancient trail, and the road to sanity was littered with glittering mirrors.  Everywhere in my reading, I saw magical mirrors: Denethor’s Palantir; The Mirror of Erised; Lady Shalott, whose mirror crack’d from side to side; Despair of the Endless, locked in her hall of mirrors. Perseus, who turned Medusa’s gaze upon herself; Narcissus, who taught humanity to glance askance. There are enough of them scattered about to garner Diana Wynne Jones’ attention in her Tough Guide to Fantasy Land:

Mirrors are somewhat infrequent, despite the fact that glass is used for windows. Many of them are made of polished metal and are the property of rich people and Enchantresses. Where mirrors exist, of whatever material, they are not commonly used for combing hair. They will be employed for Prophecy or Farseeing, or, less frequently, as the way from our own world to start the Tour, or simply for travel. Glass mirrors are almost exclusively used as a device for spotting Vampires or other Enemies in disguise.

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Field of Magnetic Impulses.

12 Jan

I would like to be Mercutio. Among his virtues, I admire above all his lightness, in a world full of brutality, his dreaming imagination- as the poet of Queen Mab- and at the same time his wisdom, as the voice of reason amid the fanatical hatreds of Capulets and Montagues. He sticks to the old code of chivalry at the price of his life perhaps just for the sake of style but he is a modern man, sceptical and ironic: a Don Quixote who knows very well what dreams are and what reality is, and he lives both with open eyes.

Italo Calvino, A Hermit in Paris.

My debt to Italo Calvino, my shameless plagiarising of his device, will be obvious to anyone who has read The Castle of Crossed Destinies. Over the years, I’ve borrowed many things from him, not least my stock response on dates and parties to nerd ice-breakers such as who is your favourite Shakespeare character? and Don’t you wish some sidekicks would kick their principals off-page? What’s good for Calvino is certainly good enough for me, despite (or perhaps because of) my own lack of opinion/knowledge when it comes to the Grand Bard of Almighty Lit.

I read Castle to write a college-application essay back in high school, and it was my silver lining across a shabby six months. I was supposed to read If on a winter’s night.., which I gave up speedily enough. Castle I could begin to fathom, and I read the book like a talisman across the exam-onslaught that is 12th standard. The only chemistry I remember is my attempted synthesis of the periodic table and sundry arcana.

It was much later I read his description of the calculation behind that collection; in Memos he calls it a “fantastic iconography”, his use of the tarot-imagery within it a “machine for multiplying narratives”. What struck me then was the dexterity of the text, how every story could fold into any other, creating new polarities, new points of tension, alternate realities.

In years since, I continue to drift to him when I need someone to remind me of literature’s redemptive power.

 I’ve dipped into most of his books, but the only ones I claim to understand are Castle and (hopefully) Six Memos for the Next Millennium.

I don’t think I’ll ever “finish” reading Calvino. I don’t think I ever want to.

The artist’s imagination is a world of potentialities that no work will succeed in realising. What we experience by living is another world, answering to other forms of order and disorder. The layers of words that accumulate on the page, like the layers of paint on canvas, are yet another world, so infinite but more easily controlled, less refractory to formulation. The link between the three worlds is the indefinable spoken of by Balzac; or, rather, I would call it the undecidable, the paradox of an infinite whole that contains other infinite wholes. A writer- and I am speaking of a writer with infinite ambitions, like Balzac- carries out operations that involve the infinity of his imagination or the infinity of the contingency that may be attempted, or both, by means of the infinity of linguistic possibilities in writing.

“Visibility”, Six Memos for the Next Millennium.

Six Memos for the Next Millennium, Italo Calvino’s final book, is a catalogue of virtues he would like to see preserved in our millennium. It was intended to be a manual for future generations about the nature of writing: as a skill, a vocation, an enterprise. Hold steady to these questions, he tells us, keep faith in the maelstrom of your world; if these should die the world shall be a fell place indeed. He completed five of the planned six lectures: Lightness, Quickness, Exactitude, Visibility, Multiplicity. Of the last, Consistency, we have only the hints he buried across the span of his literary career.  Calvino was a prolific writer, and fans will know that the concept of “masterpiece” is redundant when it comes to this master of the fable. Calvino’s gift is the vignette, his best work evokes snatches of illustrated tapestry. This is the Calvino of Italian Folktales and Cosmicomics: ironic, precise, detached. Calvino, in his fiction, is an avatar of the weaver Arachne, announced with a faint cackle and the crinkle of old paper in the background.

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