Thursday, June 21, 2018

Alan Garner 4, Learning how to read, the value of reading.


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.

Sunday, June 17, 2018

Alan Garner 3 Thursbitch and Boneland

Phase three:

Sui Generis.
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 Service had 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’. 

Saturday, June 16, 2018

Alan Garner 2a Strandloper

'Becoming difficult'. 
Strandloper 1996.
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. 

Friday, June 15, 2018

Liam O’Flynn, uilleann piper, born 15 April 1945; died 14 March 2018

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.

Alan Garner 2/3 The Owl Service and Red Shift

Part two:
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

Alan Garner 1/3

Do not waver into language
Do not waver in it.
                        Seamus Heaney. 

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[1].

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 Narrative.
Phase one: 
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. 

[1]While claiming with a straight face that since Malory didn’t write ‘a novel’ I can save him too.  

Monday, June 4, 2018

John Kerrigan's 'Shakespeare's Originality' and Robert Graves' 'Poetic Unreason'. 1/2

This started out as a review of John Kerrigan’s Shakespeare’s Originality (2018) and my intention was to compare Kerrigan’s chapter on The Tempest, as an example of his overall argument and approach, with that of Robert Graves in Poetic Unreason (1925). But given how obscure the latter text is, and given that I've been meaning to write about it for a long time, what follows turned into an extended discussion of Graves’, ‘The Tempest, an Analysis’ (pps. 221-232). Thoughts on Kerrigan may or may not follow. This is long so it’s broken into two posts. 

This first is background. I may be guilty of saying water is wet. 

Assume you know about Medieval and Early Modern attitudes towards ‘authorship’ and the practices of those times. You know about the debates leading up to the establishment of ‘copyright’ in the Queen Anne Act of 1710, and how the idea of the original author who creates a unique product coalesced around the Romantic period and lingers still despite all the theoretical assaults that have been launched against it.

Knowing all this, you are aware that applying ‘originality’ to Shakespeare is anachronistic. Kerrigan is also well aware of this, so his title, ‘Shakespeare’s Originality’ is always going grab your attention. 

But having read the book I’m not convinced that all the scholarship and perception isn’t being wasted on trying to make something happen where it obviously doesn’t. Or perhaps, more generously, that he’s asking the wrong question. The great unanswered critical question about Shakespeare the writer, is why him and not Marlow, or Jonson? How did he produce texts which have been constantly admired, often for radically different reasons, for the last four hundred years? And 'originality' is not going to answer that question.


When Roland Barthes wrote ‘All texts are recombinations of pre-existing texts’ he might have rattled some of his readers’ fuzzy concept of ‘originality’ as the sign of the great author, but had he said the same thing to an Anglo-Saxon Scop, Chaucer, Spenser or Shakespeare, they would have wondered why he was telling them water was wet.

For Medieval and Early Modern authors, although they had other words for it,  recombination was their job. They would have pointed out, as any modern reader might, while in no way disagreeing with Barthes’ statement, that what audiences value is the end product of that recombination, and some authors consistently produce texts that are worthier of reading than others.

Shakespeare, certainly, would have wondered what the fuss was about. For centuries now it’s been known that like any medieval or early modern writer he plundered his reading for plots, characters, and lines. He worked with other writers. What mattered to them was the door-take, produced by the success of their end product.

In the history of Shakespearean reception, his reputation has fluctuated depending on current attitudes and understandings of that practice. A book called “Shakespeare’s Originality", appearing in the 21st century, is always going to be worth reading.

It is possible to argue, as Kerrigan doesn’t, that Shakespeare’s ‘orginality’ lies in what he did with his sources. But that’s a circular argument because that assumes we know exactly what those sources were and what Shakespeare himself wrote.

The problems with source analysis are numerous. Two stand out. The first is that it quickly descends into an academic game of discovering increasingly obscure texts that few have heard of and even fewer have read. The doubt that dogs the process is that just because a text existed, and the scholar sees similarities between it and the piece in question, doesn’t establish a link between text and source except in that scholar’s mind: two things can be similar and otherwise unrelated. This is compounded by the equally nagging doubt that proving the author had access to those texts is often impossible.

 There is no agreed methodology to distinguish between ‘reading in’ and ‘reading into’. Kerrigan and the RSC Shakespeare both state categorically that there is no major source for the main plot of The Tempest. Graves, as we'll see in the next post, was equally sure he had identified such a source.

Source analysis used to be explicitly textual. This book linked to that book. Then it became obvious that things other than the kind of texts literary scholars were familiar with were ‘sources’: rather than see texts as passive reflectors of beliefs and attitudes and transmitters of purely literary matter, they began to be seen as participants in a process of circulation, negotiation and exchange. This did wonders for what could be included in a discussion of sources. Kerrigan can talk about clothes and wills and feet as well as Sidney’s Arcadia and Latin authors.

So some of the earlier doubts can now be sidestepped by invoking ‘Julia Kristeva’ and ‘intertextuality’ like a medieval pilgrim invoking the intercession of a favorite saint before setting out on a difficult journey.  However, the doubts continue to nag: even in the most trivialized post-modernism, intertextual links don’t just happen, they need agents. Too often one is left with the suspicion that while the critic can make dazzling connections between clothes, toes and texts, there is no reason to believe the author or the original audience did.

The second problem, perhaps the biggest problem with source analysis of whatever kind is the lingering feeling that it doesn’t contribute a great deal to anyone’s understanding of the final product. 
What does it matter if the sub plot of a play is taken from Sydney’s Acardia or a Latin text you’ve never read, never heard of and are unlikely to find in anything but the best University library? Or that the text is inflected with contemporary sumptuary laws. What can be done with this information?  

And finally, since everyone was recombining with unembarrassed gusto, then the only way to show that Shakespeare was ‘original’ in our modern sense, is to compare his treatments with others and show how his treatment of his sources  was in some way different to everybody else’s. And while that would require an enormous amount of scholarly work, it’s hard to avoid the feeling that it goes in the wrong direction. Looking for ‘originality’ might well be an entertaining dead end.

In 1925 Robert Graves inlcuded in his book ‘Poetic Unreason’  a chapter on The Tempest. Graves and Riding are acknowledged pioneers of ‘Close Reading’, but the chapter on The Tempest pre-empts ‘new historicism’ by about fifty years. Update the references, add in a few later twentieth century theoretical gurus (who I suspect Graves would have viewed with profound distrust, if not disgust) and the only thing that would make it out of place in an anthology called ‘Practising New Historicism’ is Graves’ purpose, which was to illuminate a theory of poetic composition; an orientation that has not been fashionable for some time in critical circles.

Part two to follow.