Sunday, January 18, 2015

Books again

One or two posts elsewhere,  Zhoen pondering the matter of writing in books, library or otherwise, comments left on the last post when I featured the books I had at Christmas, and conversations, started me looking back over certain earlier reading experiences, and thinking about the meaning and value we give books as both concrete and abstract things. Stella too, has been writing about culling things, possessions generally, then books in particular. She dwells on the connections reading creates for us, with other people and with our own history. She mentions H is for Hawk, and how it will connect her with me since she came across it here, which is nice. My finding that book was already part of a long series of occurrences of synchronicity, prompted and giving rise to other memories in turn.

I suppose I tend to be on the lookout for things about falconry. Like Helen Macdonald, the book's author, from my teenage years I wanted to be a falconer. The wish faded, there was little opportunity to explore it hands-on at the time, and the extensive reading and research I made showed me that it would probably demand more time, money, grit, heartbreak and a stronger stomach than I would likely ever be able to manage, but I still love the subject, and very much enjoyed our day at Fauconnerie Bretagne a couple of years ago. One of the first books I found on the subject, and one of the first adult books I remember buying for myself, at the age of about thirteen at a school book fair, I think, was TH White's The Goshawk. This has been on my bookshelves ever since, becoming so familiar that, slender and plain-spined as it is, I had largely ceased to notice it, and even wondered if it were still there. But there it was, between Le Grand Meaulnes and the Mary Renaults, and I was happy about that, not only that I still had it but because of the company it was keeping. My ordering of books on shelves is idiosyncratic and fairly fluid and has developed organically, and I don't necessarily remember exactly where things are, but it is important to me, so when lack of space, appropriate height of shelves, additions which expand certain groups that need to be kept together, and my own acts of culling necessitate changes that force certain volumes into places alongside others where I don't really think they belong, it bothers me a bit.

At about the same time as, or just before, I must have read a review of H is for Hawk, the Sunday afternoon radio dramatisation was of TH White's The Once and Future King. It was quite a good one, using bits of White's own Book of Merlin coda as a device to make the narrative retrospective and non-linear, which meant that the darkening heaviness of story's progress could be lightened and enlightened from time to time by some of the episodes from the first volume. I'm sorry for people who haven't read the book, that the label of 'fantasy novel' might put them off. Not that I want to run down fantasy novels anyway, but I just can't think of it as one. I suppose if I had to I'd describe it as a kind of psychological novel, but on an epic, historical, mythic scale, but also the inward broodings of a brilliant, sad, bitter, hurt, rather twisted man. Not sure if I'm selling it to you yet. It's about love as weakness, evil as power, about betrayal and cruelty, good people doing bad things and bad people doing worse ones, about national and personal mythmaking, and most of all for me it's about terrible, painful loss of innocence.

There's a lot of falconry throughout The Once and Future King, but especially in the first volume The Sword in the Stone, along with many other birds and animals and animistic nature and colour and magic and jokes galore, including lots of ironic anachronism generated from the conceit that Merlin was born and lived backwards through time, an idea entirely White's invention, but which took off so well that many people think it is an original part of the Arthurian myth. There is fun and education and wisdom - I still love the Badger's Dissertation as one of the most satisfying of creation stories - a few sad and worrying moments and a few early intimations of later themes, but overall a completely delightful, joyous, appropriate children's book.  I read it one summer when I was about twelve, I think. I had a comfortable and sheltered childhood and was undergoing an old-fashioned though serious education; I was not a precocious reader, and mostly was still cheerfully consuming Monica Edwards and Arthur Ransome, stories of birds and animals and tomboyish adventure and old legends were my meat and drink. At the end of The Sword in the Stone I was thrilled, I knew this was more substantial fare and wanted more, so I announced I would read the rest of the work. My brother, three years my senior and always more of an intellectual heavyweight, looked somewhat doubtful and warned me that I wouldn't find it as pleasant, which of course made me think he was patronising me and I had to rise to the challenge.

The second volume, The Queen of Air and Darkness, is fairly short, and I did get through it. But the blow to the solar plexus which the two episodes of Morgause's evil which open and close the volume delivered remain with me still. I can remember sitting up in bed with the sick knowledge that I couldn't un-read it. In the first, she boils a cat - 'both woman and cat had black hair and blue eyes' - alive, in some detail, on a whim to make an invisibility charm. The charm fails and she loses interest, throwing out the cauldron of water, skin fur and bones out of the window. This shocked and disgusted me, yet I persevered, and somehow her seduction of Arthur at the end - by means, perhaps, of another charm, a ribbon of skin carefully cut from around the outline of the corpse of a dead soldier - had a deeper and more poignant impact. Arthur, though somewhat blooded and battle hardened by this time, is still the open, energetic, kind-hearted, well-intentioned boy of the first volume, an innocent. Merlin, who has the powers of magic and foresight to protect from and avert evil, for a number of reasons - whether a kind of time-travel directive, the requirement that Arthur and others, should work things out for themselves, simple absent-mindedness or the enchantment (not altogether unwelcome) of his own sorceress Nimuë - cannot or does not intervene. Arthur doesn't know who she is or what he's doing, or what the ultimate cascade of consequences will be, but as TH White concludes, innocence is not enough.

Well he certainly helped me offload quite a bit of mine. But it wasn't the first time this had happened. At a similar kind of cognitive point, when I was beginning to choose and read independently at about seven or eight, there were some little softback collections at pocket money prices that I liked very much as objects, they were small and chunky and had bright, slightly folk-art kind of covers, those for the younger readers had red spines and those for rather older ones dark blue. I'd worked through the red ones and reckoned I was ready for the blue. This turned out to be a collection of stories including Bluebeard, a story my evidently sanitised education in fairy tales so far had omitted to incorporate. As I recall it, the details of the contents of the bloody chamber were not spared. Again, I remember where I was, in the back seat of our estate car on a shopping trip, maybe left there with my brother with our books while our parents finished the shopping, as happened quite frequently in those days. I remember closing the book in horror and not picking it up again. Neither then though, or with the TH White, did I tell anyone about what I'd read and how it had affected me, though I may have muttered something to my brother about 'I see what you meant.' I don't quite know why not; a sense of not wanting to share the distress, protecting my elders from something nasty or a kind of fear that I might get into trouble for messing with nasty things myself, pride, that I ought really to be able to cope with difficult stuff for myself, but also perhaps a sense that what happened between me and my books was my private affair, and a knowledge, underneath, that there was in fact nothing that could be said that would make me feel better; 'it's only a story' wouldn't wash with me, then or now - as if that makes it any less real!

And I don't quite know, in these times when children are both exposed to all kinds of horrors, real and fictive, which make these mild trauma seem very small beer, and yet are also overprotected and overseen and fretted about, so that a child psychology book I've read deplores the Saint Nicholas tradition as trying frighten children into good behaviour and damaging them terribly, and that reading AA Milne's 'James James Morrison Morrison' could create serious anxiety in them, or when a mother I knew, still reading (the early volumes of) Harry Potter aloud to her thirteen year old, used to make off the cuff deletions of things she thought would distress or frighten her, quite how things should be.

Anyway. I don't have a copy of the blue-backed Bluebeard book, in fact I have very few books left from childhood, presumably it was either passed on to jumble or left in the attic of my childhood home when my parents moved, along with all kinds of other put-away childish things to be someone else's problem, or conceivably, in the case of some of the objects, rare collector's items. That's one way to deal with your unwanted clutter. Neither to I have The Once and Future King, though I did until recently. I think the first one I had was a library book, as many of the books we read were. We owned a lot of books, but it wasn't considered needful to do so, and many of those I remember most vividly, in terms of their content and what they looked and felt like, were from the library (and no, we certainly never wrote in them!). It took me many years to read it all, in fact, the long anguish, sordid betrayal, compromise, cruelty and conspiracy of the four-cornered adultery of Lancelot and Guinevere and the revenge of the Orkney clan were also difficult to work through in a different way, but for all that it has been my constant and much loved companion for most of my life. I often wondered about its author, and the consciousness and personality which created it, so humane and imaginative and so sad and bitter, so when I heard about H is for Hawk I was doubly interested.

The copy of it I owned, for at least thirty years, was a paperback which I bought for my first serious boyfriend when I was seventeen, it had a not-too-embarrassing dedication inside the cover, with a date, so I know how old I was, in my very neat small, pointy, just post-childish handwriting. Not quite sure why; he had courted me with a gift of The Mabinogion so perhaps I thought Arthurian might interest him, perhaps it did, perhaps there was something subliminal going on!  I ended up keeping it anyway when we went our separate ways. It began to fall apart, worse than most paperbacks, quite early; another brother borrowed it and said he had a very active relationship with it, in terms of becoming quite obsessive about the content, making notes etc, while wrestling to try to keep the pages in any kind of workable order. Finally, not very long ago, I threw it away completely, and though it was odd to put a book in the bin, especially such a familiar one, I did so without regret; it was unreadable and I can always download it to the Kindle if I do want to read it again, though I feel I probably won't need to.

I still have The Goshawk though, with its ring marked cover and scuffed edgesand would be sorry to part with that. I might read it again too, before or after H is for Hawk, or alongside.

The other book in the picture, Bird of Jove, is also falconry related, but part of another story, a shorter and lighter one, which I'll get onto later.


Avus said...

Glad to see a fellow Mary Renault fan, Lucy. One of our very best historical novelists. (and a sensitive one ,too, vide, "The Charioteer"

Zhoen said...

I remember that passage, with the boiled cat. I certainly read Once & Future King, but only once. A library book, and I rarely read anything twice at that age.

The book that haunted me was The Princess and Curdie, people with hidden motives and natures, darkness and immense pressure.

Catalyst said...

I grew up in a home with many books, also, and I read whatever I chose. But the one volume that always stuck with me was "The Complete Sherlock Holmes" by A. Conan Doyle. I can still see it in my mind's eye, a thick black book with tiny print. It may have contributed to a fairly introduction to eyeglasses!

Lucy said...

Thanks already!

Z - it maybe didn't traumatise you as much as it did me, I was probably a wuss. I'm going to look up The Princess and the Curdie! Childhood reading isn't all idyllic, neither should it be, really.

Avus - I'm a great Mary Renault fan, can read her over and over. 'The Last of the Wine' is a really good history lesson on the period of the Peloponesian wars, and the Alexander trilogy is meaty, informative stuff too. I liked The Charioteer quite well, have you ever read The Friendly Young Ladies? That's an oddity! She seemed to find male homosexuality more worthy and interesting than her own female kind; in that novel, the lesbian central character ends up riding off into the sunset with a man, like poor old Hippolyta in The King Must Die. Though she did say much later she thought that was a stupid ending. She was also a great champion and encourager of Patrick O'Brian.

Bruce - they were very much tactile and visual objects to us then weren't they? Especially the old fashioned bindings. One of the things that came out of the other two's posts is that books simply aren't the precious, permanent objects that they were. That's good in many ways, a bit sad in others, perhaps.

Zhoen said...

The first one was The Princess and the Goblin, George MacDonald.

Roderick Robinson said...

I think I read The Sword in The Stone. Even the possibility surprises me since it falls into the Voodoo category (ie, not my thing). Is it the one where two knights compare fumits from The Questing Beast - their language utterly and intentionally banal? Very funny, that. At least it stuck.

Nah, it was The Once And Future King.

Stella said...

OMG, if I'd read anything about a boiled cat I'd still be quivering incoherently! I was ok with a witch who cooked children because I may have figured that was a reliable fiction......when I think of it, Mother Goose is full of horrors. The first wholly satisfying "big" book I read was 'Anne of Green Gables'. Funnily when I visited Green Gables in PEI as an adult, I fell iinto the delusion that she had actually lived there. Coincidental to your writing about hawks and interest in falconry, I see there is a new doc on tv titled Modern Arabia and the promotional image is of a princely looking guy with two magnificant hooded falcons. Not a cat in sight, I trust.

Jeff said...

Lovely reminiscence. The Once and Future King didn't lead me to an interest in falconry, but it made me aware of it—and a great many other things besides. I think of it when someone in the education biz insists that kids should read books that mirror their own experiences. I want to say no, please—show them something that expands their world...

Rouchswalwe said...

Oh, how nice to read this so soon after having finished The Once and Future King. I've been reading quite a bit lately (a perk of the broken leg). I've just finished re-reading Hans Christian Andersen tales. Grew up with those and wanted to see how they hit me as an adult. Thumbelina is still my favourite and the Matchstick Girl makes me shiver and weep.

Weirdly, the first adult book I remember reading was Dostoevsky's Crime and Punishment, after which I devoured Pasternak's Dr. Zhivago. I was a strange child.

the polish chick said...

this post is taking me down the memory lane - i'm trying to remember what books i read in childhood. i know, for one, i read and reread, and re- reread the entire anne of green gables series. i still go back to it now, but because i am so intensely familiar with it, i now read it for the subtle stylistic differences between the various translators, or reading it simultaneously in polish and english to discover how very different they are in each language (more lyrical in polish; more matter-of-fact in english). i love the kind of play bilingualism affords me.

when i hit my teens, i entered the age of pretension, reading sartre because i thought it made me cool and deep… i can chuckle now.

no literary horrors that scarred me, unless they scarred me so deeply that i forgot.

great post!