The original attempt to explain why I admire Alan Garner's writing was split over four blog posts. Although it's a work in progress, now it’s hopefully integrated into something more coherent here: Alan Garner. (Clicking on the link will take you to the complete version). I’ve changed the ending so it’s no longer a bad-tempered swipe at current ways of teaching literature but an attempt to explain why the later books are so impressive.
Talking about the household Gods is always difficult. What I think is still missing from both attempts is how entertaining the books are. The story teller is not worth his place by the fire, in the hall or at the kitchen table, if he or she cannot juggle the multiple requirements of his role, and not the least of these is to entertain the audience.
Friday, July 6, 2018
Wednesday, June 20, 2018
WARNING: OPINIONATING IN PROGRESS
Things I learnt.
Should you rush off now and read Alan Garner?
No, he’s my author, find your own.
As I wrote 3 posts ago, the book that shakes your world, and goes on doing so, may put
your best friend to sleep. It’s a valuable lesson. Why a thin book about three teenagers and a set of plates should have been so disturbing, and remain so decades later, after repeated re-readings, is probably unanswerable.
I think there is an objective argument to be made for the quality of his prose and his stature as a stylist. I doubt I would have ‘understood’ Heaney’s ‘Do not waver into Language/ Do not Waver in it’ if it weren’t for Garner’s books. I don’t think I would have been so receptive to Basil Bunting or Geoffrey Hill without him either and I don’t see those two as in anyway superior. I admire the man’s integrity, his willingness to hold his line, to follow the grain in the wood to where it took him. I am grateful for the way he never patronised me as his reader. All of which I suspect goes for Bunting and Hill as well.
In the Smoke that Thunders, Garner claims to have been offered two absolute pieces of advice by his Grandfather: If someone else can do the job better, let them; Take as long as the job needs.
They seem true though difficult to put in practice.
Although initially heading towards a life of classical scholarship, he makes the point in his fiction and in his other writing that Greek rationality and Logic are not the only path to understanding. They are one way, and they are essential in some cases, but at other times stories, myths, songs, the poetry inherent in the texture of language itself, the interaction of story and landscape, are powerful tools for a different kind of understanding, a different, not lesser, way of thinking. The work he did preparing Strandloper may have crystalized this. As long as the myth or the story isn’t trivialised, or made redundant by a desire to please the audience at all costs, the myth, poem and story are ways of thinking through and in language. ‘Through’ here means both ‘by means of’ and ‘by way of travelling through’.
But for this to work, there’s an element of necessary surrender on the part of the reader. An initial humility and a willingness to pay attention which are both unfashionable. And sadly, it’s the opposite to the way reading is taught in most literary programs. There are pragmatic reasons for including books in schools. They are ways of developing the ability to read, write and think in language. But how could you teach the real power and pleasure of reading, if you start by teaching reluctant readers to resist?
The lie that underwrites 'critical literacy', that somehow it empowers readers and protects them from the invidious ideological work of the text, (never the poem, the play or the novel, always the text, as though there was no important difference between The Waste Land and a Macdonald’s advert), is a complete contradiction not only of common sense but of the way people who love and value books, read. It’s a bunker mentality in which critic and student sit in their fox hole sniping at any text that approaches them, having decided in advance what is important and what is acceptable based on their preferred version of the world, or, in the case of students, their teacher or lecturer’s preferred version.
Critical literacy, as often taught and practised, is the arrogant victory of the mindless and unthinking who are too scared to risk the discovery that the world is much more complicated (and interesting) than their own ghetto mentality. It destroys the way story and poem work for reasons based on a ludicrous misunderstanding of the way story and poem work. As a way of reading it is no more admirable or intelligent than the mindless use of badly written books to pass the time and it doesn’t even offer the pleasure of the latter.
The new national Australian Senior English Literature syllabus makes the same mistake. Let us discuss ‘representations’, let us talk about the way ‘Aesthetic’ features ‘position readers’. There is no sense that literature is an art form. Or that ignorance of the history of that art form, a contested and infinitely debatable list of practitioners and products, renders any statement about the value or quality of a work of art instantly irrelevant. It is a little more than an institutionalised, theoretically justified version of the currently fashionable cult of ignorance. In an academic context, it should be unforgiveable.
The new syllabus compounds this by assessing literary knowledge through an ‘unseen exam’ in which students are expected to ‘know’ a book well enough to answer previously unseen questions without having the book present. It should be obvious to anyone that this is a self defeating way of assessing any kind of genuine response to literature. It doesn’t even assess students' memory of the book; it assesses their memory of their teachers’ best guess at what the topics are going to be. And so another generation of student readers will have the oxygen supply cut off to their brains.
Whether literary education has any value in regard to understanding how books works is still a moot point. Which is why there must always be free public libraries. There are always books waiting to be read. Readers will find their way to them, regardless of the way literature is used or abused in educational institutions. Someone is always going to be saying,..’read this’. Literary education is well on its way to becoming redundant and irrelevant and few will mourn its eventual passing.
What did I learn from Alan Garner?
Do not waver into Language
Do not waver in it.
Treasure the texts that rattle your world, not the ones that lull you to sleep by telling you what you already knew or wanted to hear.
Saturday, June 16, 2018
Thursbitch 2003 and Boneland2012.
Because this is about Garner, I am allowed one apparently unbelievable story.
It happened like this. I read The Voice that Thunders, the collection of Garner’s essays and lectures, in the common room in Golant Youth hostel while I was working there as an assistant warden in 1984. It had been left by a passing hosteller on the book shelf. I have a visceral memory of reading the essay Inner time, which begins with the filming of The Owl Service.
I would swear to this in a court of law.
The Voice that Thunders was not published until 1997.
My initial failure to read Strandloper rankled. But then came Thursbitch. The critical part of my brain, before it shut up and left me to the experience of reading, could see the familiar aspects of the novel. Patterns, the past folding into the present, time swirling in complicated eddies around a specific place. Two stories, set in different times, the older story written in mostly untagged dialogue in a bleak dialect. Relationships are awkward: one of the modern characters is slowly dying. And there was that familiar sense of perception being bent, of the sparse carefully placed words opening up areas that had been dusty or unvisited.
Thursbitch made me want to write silly things: ‘Garner is the last surviving British Modernist’. ‘If he weren’t labelled a writer for young adults he’d be acclaimed as one of the best writers of English in the twentieth century’ and so on….fortunately I was too busy enjoying the book to embarrass myself.
What the books had been suggesting since the Owl Service was ‘then is now’…but unlike Bunting’s ‘the star you steer by is gone’, the books suggested not only is the past still present, but the stories reach all the way back to the preverbal, pre-human ancestor.
The early books had divorced the fantasy world from reality, there were portals or spells to get you through. Garner’s excavations since The Owl Servicehad brought to the surface the important fact that dreams are part of the heft of the world, that there is more to life than the purely rational chronological grind. A mind trained in modern rational discourse can accept the mythic and see its value. And in his most recent novel, Boneland, he put this idea front and centre.
Boneland is supposedly the final part of the Weirdstone trilogy. But apart from a character called Colin who has lost his sister, it is light years beyond the ending of The Moon of Gomrath. It’s difficult to imagine any child reading the first two books and then going straight to Boneland, though I hope some will. The distance between the books marks the journey Garner and his readers have made. In this case, the pattern has been quarried right back to that preverbal ancestor, who finally makes his appearance, and it’s hard to believe anyone else could have made such a character convincing.
As an experience, I think Boneland, like Thursbitch, is moving and disturbing. Whether it works as a sequel to the first two books is a moot point and depends on what you expect from a ‘sequel’. Whether it creates such a compelling sense of mystery and impending doom that the ending seems anticlimactic is up to the individual reader. But no reader familiar with Garner’s work could have expected the book to tie up all the narrative threads neatly, and end with the words…’and they lived happily ever after’.
Friday, June 15, 2018
I reread Red shift on a regular basis. But if there are three phrases in Garner’s career then it marks the end of the second. Strandloper either began the most recent phase or hinged the second and third parts.
The first time I tried to read Strandloper I shipwrecked half way through. It’s not possible to convey how abrupt and painful that was. Here was 'my' author, the man I’d grown up reading, and here was a book with his name on it that I couldn’t read.
Garner’s writing had been heading towards an obdurate minimalism. He had faith the reader would make the connections and follow. But in Standloper it felt as though he’d gone into the language and found a layer that was older and richer yet baffling. Whatever he’d pulled up into the daylight made no sense to me. The book tells a story about William Buckley, who is transported to Australia, escapes the penal settlement, attempts to ‘walk home via China’, is adopted by the indigenous peoples and finally makes it ‘home’.
I knew about thieves cant, I knew about historical dialect and slang, I’d read about Songlines but none of it helped.
In retrospect, I went at the book from the wrong direction. As the head of an English department I needed a novel set in Australia, dealing with Indigenous themes, for the work program I was writing. There was a unit to be called Many Voices, and from the publisher’s blurb (this was before Goodreads and the like) this book sounded as though it were exactly what I needed.
Books can resent the attempt to misuse them. I was looking to use it. I was reading it as a teacher, anticipating the assignment that would need to be set, anticipating my students’ reactions. The book shrugged me off.
Garner outlined his relationship with teachers of literature in ‘Hard Cases’, published in The Voice That Thunders. It's an essay every English teacher should read. It makes me want to apologise for my profession and claim we're not all like that. I had fallen into a pattern of thought that whatever its noble or justifiable aims is a use of literature, and like any 'use' reductive.
In retrospect #2, I realise It was a very silly idea, not just over ambitious but thoughtless. I’m glad I never inflicted the book on a class. It is the first of Garner’s books that defies the categories of publishing, and creates a Model reader who has no age or gender. To use a phrase: ‘It takes no prisoners’.
I’ve reread Strandloper several times since that first attempt. It might well be the long narrative poem the Modernist poets never managed to write. Ignore the dubious distinction between verse and prose which is redundant with Garner anyway, read it as though you’re reading a poem with a plot, and it’s a magnificent awkward journey that repays all the effort it requires.
I am so grateful I heard this man's playing. Borrowed tapes, scratched records, then all the way from Australia to Dublin to hear him live.
(Planxty: Dublin 2005)
The high note, held, stretching
the space above the drone;
like wind torn spray
as the great wave, darkening, builds;
wailing like the curve of the bay,
lean as famine, leaning into
the blurred percussion
of Atlantic rollers, coming home
across unfathomable depth,
to crash onto the present
this cargo of raw, wounded memory.
Like a window blasted open,
the music admits the smell of rain
drumming on the shuttered house.
Where the locals never learn to spell
the migrant’s name, the dancers stamp and call,
while by the fire, whiskey and stories
blur in customary gestures.
Laughter and exuberance, suspended
without resolution, above
a strained and ruined loneliness.
Thursday, June 14, 2018
Escaping a Genre.
The Owl Service 1967 and Red Shift 1973.
Reading the novels backwards in chronological sequence, Elidor marks a boundary that’s hard to cross. I can still read the first three books as excellent examples of a genre, but they are books for younger readers, no matter how well written. The Owl Service and Red shift, though aimed by their publishers at ‘Young Adults’, work for Old Adults as well.
If Elidor feels like an ending, what came next was astonishing. Two books, first The Owl Service and then Red Shift. The early books had divorced the fantasy world from reality, there were portals or spells to get you through to ‘the other side’. In the first books he wrote after Elidor he seemed to be trying out different approaches to the technical problem of how to present the idea that myth is integral to reality and exists here and now.
'The Owl Service is set in Wales and is about three teenagers and a set of dinner plates'. I remember the physical experience of reading it. I began complacently. I’d climbed Welsh mountains in Welsh rain. I knew the Mabinogion. I had a festering dislike of anaemic well-off English people which made me initially sympathise with Gwyn.
But Garner had broken free of fairy land. The Owl Service was set in the world, with its problems of class and race. The book works on the premise that we are not free, that we inherit the consequences of our parents’ decisions, and that thought reaches back as far as there are children and parents. There are patterns we are born into, and our attempts to negotiate them are complicated by where we have to start, where we try to go, and where others think we should be. ‘She wants to be flowers but you make her owls’….Hugh Kenner said the mind fondles words not ideas, and the words stick. It’s not a fully worked theory of destiny or individuality, it’s a line in a story opening a space for reflection.
I read a lot. As a teenager I was indiscriminately chain-smoking books from the library. Reading was intense living. I was the protagonist in the story: living an exciting adventurous half-life between the covers of a book and erasing, temporarily, the one I was plodding through.
This didn’t mean I was only reading what my dad would have described as ‘trash’. The great advantage to reading anything that looks remotely interesting, is that it’s impossible not to develop an awareness that some books were much better than others and different books serve different needs. I’d been through Hemingway’s novels before that memorable meeting with The Weirdstone . I was working through Solzhenitsyn’s novels and I’m fairly sure I’d already read The Magus. But The Owl Service was the first book that shook me into realising there was another way of reading fiction. Why that particular book did that remains a mystery.
There was an element of trauma to the experience. There is no cosy ending, no reassurance that effort would be rewarded or the good guys might triumph. But more than that ‘the real world’ was being revisioned. Garner was beginning to map a level below the rational. The divisions between myth, metaphor and 'reality' weren't so much being dissolved as being shown to be illusory. The surface was being quarried to reveal the strata that supported it.
One of Garner’s greatest assets is his understanding that the world of linear time and day to day ‘reality’ includes the mythic and irrational, that dreams and age old stories are just as much a part of daily life as cars and phones.
The Owl Service was a shock: Red Shift was more like an earth quake.
It’s the first book of his I owned. Marketed to a ‘Young Adult’ audience it has a reputation for being ‘difficult’. On the surface, it’s fairly straightforward. Three stories, all revolving around relationships and the same stone artefact. The modern story concerns a highly intelligent adolescent boy whose parents don’t really understand him. The other two are set during the English civil war and sometime during Roman Britain.
It was the latter story that rattled me. Garner had been stripping down his language. Red shift feels like it has been excavated or quarried, rather than written. The reader has become an observer who must work at observing. Large parts of the story are told in untagged dialogue. The minimalism was powerfully attractive. He made those Roman soldiers going native seem real. I may have spent years trying to write the early middle ages, but I have scrapped so much because I still compare every attempt with my memory of Garner’s Romans.
Red Shift builds its patterns by moving from one story to another. The layering of episodes was a format Garner would carry forward into his last two novels.
It felt right that Tom’s relationships were complicated. ‘Love is all you need’ is a lie, but it haunts so many stories. So many stories pretend that relationships are effortless and we are all unembarrassed sexual heroes. Tom’s first ‘love affair’ is an awkward complicated mess. He’s far too intense. His parents are an inherited obstacle; his father well-meaning but helpless, his mother unpleasant, trying to preserve standards while living in a caravan. There is no happy ending. I was not Tom. I was not any of the characters in the novel. But after the initial trauma, the book felt liberating and reassuring.
Years later, Bunting’s, ‘Words!/ Pens are too light./ Take a chisel to write’, evoked Garner first and Bunting second. The chiselled minimalism reaches its apogee in The Stone Book Quartet (1979). I don’t remember when I read this but it was much later and out of sequence. Four stories about four generations, but the stories have been stripped back to bedrock. I am sure that I discovered Modernist poetry after I read Garner, and after his prose a lot of poetry seemed flaccid.
Tuesday, June 12, 2018
Do not waver into language
Do not waver in it.
Or, Treasure the text that rattles your world, not the one that lulls you to sleep by telling you what you already knew or wanted to hear.
Silly game: You can only save one novel. Name it.
I’d struggle to choose one. But change the question to ’you can only save the work of one novelist’ and I would have no hesitation in choosing Alan Garner.
The recent publication of ‘First Light’ (2016), a collection of essays commemorating the man’s work, nudged me into rereading his novels in reverse chronological order and to realise how much I owe him. I was not surprised to read essays where the contributors discussed reactions similar to mine. But at the same time the reactions, memories, praise, were never exactly what I would have said. So here’s my version, personal and lengthy as it is, and split into three sections.
Garner’s novels, or my reaction to them, made it possible for me to believe claims that are made for the power and value of reading fiction. The books opened a space where thinking in and through language became possible, where books were more than things to pass the time.
Other people’s reactions, some critical, some derisory, some dismissive, allowed me to understand that however powerful an individual’s reaction to a text, it’s always unpredictably personal: the book that shakes your world sends someone else to sleep.
His books, or specifically one of them, forced me to confront the contradictions of my profession: I teach English, but teaching literature is a very dubious activity for someone who loves reading and loves literature.
The Weirdstone of Brisingamen(1960). The Moonstone of Gomrath(1963), Elidor(1965).
My initial encounter was, ironically or appropriately, via my English teacher. This would have been in about 1972, second year in a comprehensive school in Coventry, a place for the sons of migrant Catholics. My teacher was grumbling that parents seemed to think that just because he was an English teacher he admired Lord of the Rings. When I admitted I’d read it, nothing happened, but the next day, a Friday, he pulled a paperback out of his briefcase and handed it to me. Read this, he said.
I did. It was The Weirdstone and I read it from when I got home to when I finished it.
I sometimes doubt that story. But the visual memory of the battered briefcase and the paperback emerging is too strong. I do know he leant me his copy of The Weirdstone. But if that isn’t how it happened, and if the why of it still seems a bit vague, it’s certainly how it should have happened.
I think I realised even then that what Garner had done was make a magical world believable by not making it cute or comfortable. If children strayed into a world of warring magical creatures they would be in danger. Garner’s world, even in that first rushed reading, was threatening and difficult. And that made it feel real, which is something I still think neither Tolkien nor Lewis managed.
I went back to school on the Monday, and as I thanked the teacher he handed me the Moonstone….You’ll want this…
Garner’s career has followed a trajectory that can be divided, in my memory at least, into three sections. There’s the ‘Children’s fantasy’ trilogy which runs into the dead end of Elidor. Elidor was, still is, an awkward story. It ends on an absolute note, but that final sentence, ‘The children were alone with the broken window of a slum’ offers no real redemption or escape from the world they live in. with its bombed-out buildings and urban renewal.
There are readers who hated Elidor. In 'Hard Cases' a lecture he delivered in 1985, printed in The Voice that Thunders, Garner gives examples of some of the letters he'd received from school children. They are not complimentary about the book. ELidor is perhaps the one Alan Garner book where the writer feels at odds with his material. The fantasy world, which Roland finds himself in, has been colonised by numerous writers, and some have perhaps done a better job of making their world more credible. Garner’s works on the edges of metaphor and myth, but just this once it feels too gilded, perhaps too unreal set against the reality of the modern city with its bombed-out buildings and post war urban renewal.
Today these first three books are hard to reread. But if Elidor feels like an ending, what came next was astonishing. Two books, first The Owl Service and then Red Shift. If his first three books were interesting these two converted me into a lifelong rereader.