Tuesday, February 17, 2004
Thinking about narrative, which has been preoccupying me more and more. Not only because I spent a large part of last year writing it, and will spend a deal of time this year also, but also because it seems to me that narrative underpins much more of what I do than I realised and much of what I find interesting.
On the one hand, I have been writing fantasy, a mode of narrative which is ancient - mythmaking for modern times. Its contemporary form is inflected through Mediaeval and Renaissance Utopian texts, the 19C realistic novel and also influenced by Romantic poetry. Its origins in poetry - Gilgamesh, Homer - exists now in the obligatory scraps of poems which inhabit, for good or ill, most fantasy novels. Modern fantasy is impure prose, a genre which still maintains its innocence, despite the endless crappiness of sword and sorcery written to satisfy what seems like an endless consumer hunger for escapism: which is a factor, to be sure, but I suspicion it's not so simple as that. Ursula Le Guin's protests against the cheapening of fantasy in her forward to Tales of Earthsea: and she also affirms the power of language in "A Few Words to a Young Writer":
Socrates said, "The misuse of language induces evil in the soul." He wasn’t talking about grammar. To misuse language is to use it the way politicians and advertisers do, for profit, without taking responsibility for what the words mean. Language used as a means to get power or make money goes wrong: it lies. Language used as an end in itself, to sing a poem or tell a story, goes right, goes towards the truth. A writer is a person who cares what words mean, what they say, how they say it. Writers know words are their way towards truth and freedom, and so they use them with care, with thought, with fear, with delight.
Le Guin uses story in a variety of speculative forms to comment on her society. In her fantasy, she doesn't question the basic mode of narrative itself: she writes popular stories which satisfy a basic arc of narrative desire, which draw on archetypes and refashion them for a contemporary world. I have tried to do the same in The Gift and The Riddle: it was very restful to accept a convention and work within it, rather than to question the very basis of the form I was working with. And illuminating as well. Using recognisable tropes rather than going for novelty allows considerable scope for subversion: and I am always pleased when I am told that The Gift is a subversive book. It is deliberately so: though it may be that it is too subversive for its own good, since one of the criticisms that has been made of it is its very lack of "originality".
However, what interests me also is a kind of prose or poetry which also shatters these narrative conventions. I explored a little of that in Navigatio, a short and very formal novel which I conceived partly as a response to demands for "authenticity" in work: what if I worked backwards and provided all the claims for "authenticity" myself and then took that "authenticity" into realms which were clearly not "real"? One response, a slightly disturbing one, was the erasure of all its fantastic elements: I have had several comments on the "historical" aspects of the novel, although quite clearly modern histories do not include angels and Poe-like maelstroms. History as fantasy, fantasy as history: they are not so different. So what exists in between? Is there a gap where an actuality might in fact site itself?
The book which is preoccupying me at the moment, and which I will write one day when I have the space (maybe next year) is one which is sceptical about these narrative conventions, these histories of the real (one of its preoccupations is the retrieving of the "real" from its etymology of economy (the Spanish coin real and the Royal). It will not pretend to be "real" or "authentic", and so perhaps might have some chance of entering a proper authenticity. I have no doubt G.W. Sebald is way ahead of me in his conflation of history, literature, autobiography and dream: I am not sure my baroque imagination can manage such astringency. Ron Halpern's essay Notes Toward (Es)saying "I", Narratively, in which he proposes a narrative which essays the faults of narrativity, an erotics of narrative between a "you" and an uncertain "I", rehearses many of the ideas which are twitching around in my head. Well, there's nothing more fun than thinking about the book one is going to write.