Monday 15 March 2010

Big books

Luath have recently published The Book That Changed My Life, a Scottish Book Trust project with contributions from the ubiquitous McCall Smith and Rankin, and the increasingly ubiquitous A.L. Kennedy and Brian Cox, plus a cast of, I think, 60-odd. It's one of those 'of-course' ideas: why hasn't someone done this before? Possibly someone has, but I don't recall ever coming across such a book in my years at Bastardstone's, and lit crit/essays was a section I kept a pretty close eye on.

I should really have proposed the idea myself, given that I compiled my own list of life-changing books some time ago, during one of my frequent mental recaps of what I've read; I've been meaning to post on it for ages and ageses. Here it is: four of 'em, caveat included: these are not necessarily the books which I would first recommend to other people: they simply made a huge impression at the time. In reverse order:

The Voice That Thunders by Alan Garner; at age 28.
"There are good writers, and there are great writers, and then there's Alan Garner."
- Catherine Lockerbie, introducing Garner at the 2004 Edinburgh Book Festival.
It seems odd now, but I can't recall any book with real grip in the four or five years prior to rediscovering Garner. I was certainly reading, and there were books I enjoyed, but none that seemed to me particularly important or resonant. (I read all of United States, and recognised its erudition, but didn't know enough to properly make sense of it.)

I came across The Voice That Thunders by accident. It belonged to my landlady, and I walked past it every day for the best part of a year before noticing or twigging that this was the same Alan Garner whose The Weirdstone of Brisingamen I'd enjoyed as a child, and piles of whose Elidor and The Owl Service lay on shelves at the back of room D in secondary school.

I can't adequately describe the relief, the sense of the door being opened, that I felt when I began reading this collection of essays and speeches by Garner. Here, finally, was...what? An extraordinary degree of intelligence, for a start, but not conveyed in a dry or academic or introverted or self-satisfied way: that was certainly part of it. He was speaking directly, intensely, with immediacy and dedication, and things in me were waking up which had either been laying dormant for far too long or had never been engaged in the first place. It was like being given a licence and the encouragement and the means to recommence my education; like being given one's head, a sensation I hadn't had since my A-levels. Pretty much everything I've read in the past ten years I have done so with the confidence that reading The Voice That Thunders gave me. I began to get aback of my own schooling. Garner's approach, his blend of the head and the heart seemed - and still seems - exactly right; his remarkable intellect, and the benefits of his classical and Oxford education, have been rigorously applied to his heimat of a corner of Cheshire where his family has lived for four hundred years, yet without compromising experience which is intuitively understood.

And what he uncovered! Myth and legend and craftsmanship and oral history and the numinous and psychoanalysis and inner was a treasure chest. So many things I didn't know or knew very little about, but all presented in a way which made them not only relevant but essential. And, crucially, graspable. One didn't feel shut out - quite the reverse - one was pulled in. I was staying up nights to finish it, and yet trying to ration myself. I hadn't done that since:

The Glass Teat by Harlan Ellison; age 18.

Which I really did read under the covers by night, with a torch, five entries per night. And again, it was the blend of the style and the substance which got me. Ellison is best known for screen/teleplays and short stories: the best of the former are, in my opinion, effective and good for their time, but not extraordinary; the short stories are, nine times out of ten, not good. (Then he goes and writes The Deathbird, or Adrift Just Off the Islets of Langerhans, or "Repent, Harlequin!", which are of course brilliant and win prizes.) But he strikes his most consistent highs in essays, where his showmanship, his tremendous ability to tell an anecdote, his incandescent anger at what he perceives as stupidity and injustice, his humour and his skill as a writer all combine to excellent effect. He can make you laugh and curse and argue all at the same time, he can be frustrating but by God, he involves you. Some essayists will take your elbow, and others will invite you to be quiet and pay homage, and others will buttonhole you (Orwell), but Ellison will take you by the lapels and shake you. It's like being arrested by Popeye Doyle.

So much for the style. The substance of The Glass Teat is, nominally, television criticism. The pieces were written for the L.A. Free Press from 1968-70, and while they use the TV programmes of the day as a starting point, what they're really about is all the upheaval of those times in America: the anti-Vietnam protests, the counterculture, Nixon and Agnew and the forces of reaction, and the way TV itself both informs and stultifies - is used, in effect, as a pacifier: hence the title.

It was my first real introduction to the 1960s. We may now think ourselves over-informed about that decade, and therefore able to dismiss books like The Glass Teat as period pieces, but I think this is a real mistake. Oft-repeated TV footage does not constitute genuine knowledge: it's simply churnalism, reinforcing assumptions without provoking thought and reflection. (For more on this, see Ellison's essay The Song the Sixties Sang, which is in large part about how the '60s are misperceived and misrepresented - but of course, you can't, unless you have a copy of the Harlan Ellison Hornbook.) As Hanif Kureishi said, when people like Thatcher and Tebbit start banging on about how horrible the '60s were, you just know they must have been good. But even if it were the case that we know everything we need to know about the '60s, The Glass Teat would still be worth reading for its passion and commitment and righteous anger at the way those with power succeed in controlling and duping most of the public, and at how most of the public is lazy enough to let itself be duped and controlled.

The Lord of the Rings.

Which I received for my 12th birthday from my parents, per my request. Read it solidly for the first time over, I think, the next few months, and then again and again to a point close to obsession for the next two years. But, as Terry Pratchett says, if you don't think The Lord of the Rings is the greatest book ever written when you're 17, there's something wrong with you. (The corollary is that if you still think that when you're 35 - there's something wrong with you.)

The scale of the novel and the power of its narrative are well attested and, if not quite beyond question, beyond demolition. I won't comment on these aspects, other than to say that it's possible I've read novels which were just as involving, but none which were more involving, and certainly none which were so for such a length of time. What I will comment on is landscape: Tolkien is of course very taken up with it, and it's been noted (Pratchett again) that his landscapes have more character than his characters. The endless paragraphs of description drove my wife potty (she read it in her late 20s) but a 12 year-old has much more patience and will read through almost anything; anyway, for me, it worked beautifully. A kind of blurring or melding took place between the landscapes Tolkien was taking me through and the countryside of my own heimat on the south coast of the Moray Firth; I felt he was describing the hills and trees and moors and skies which I saw every day and, as a result, I felt I owned the book, that it belonged not just to my imagined but to my lived experience. (We'll leave aside the philosophical argument which can ensue from this.) If I think about the book not as a piece of literature or simply as a story but as a part of my own life, I cannot divorce it from a real place. The two are wedded; not blended, but tied.

It may be that this is one of the reasons I was disappointed by the films. Several times I heard people say, "It looked exactly how I imagined the book!", which led to gritted teeth and a held tongue on my part, and a reflection on not only how poor, but how generic, some people's imaginations must be; also, it proved once again how often, if you're going to do an adaptation, the pictures are better on radio.

As an aside, over-familiarity with the story and the text now means that I can't get anything more from reading the book, and this too worked against my enjoying the films. The bits which worked best were, on the whole, invented or augmented by the screenwriters. How much better it would have been to take a hammer to the whole edifice and to construct something tighter and more dramatic out of the pieces! Begin with Faramir's dream and the rivalry and resentment between him and his brother and father, for instance, and then follow Boromir and reveal the wonder and strangeness of Middle Earth through his discoveries. "Dreams and legends spring up out of the grass," says Eomer - but the problem with both book and films is that neither seem very wonderful to us, as they have been introduced as normal.

Winnie-the-Pooh. At age 5?

As I was given The House at Pooh Corner for my sixth birthday, I must have become familiar with Winnie-the-Pooh in the previous year at least, and was almost certainly reading it for myself. The first book I remember reading was Green Eggs and Ham; another was Wee Gillis, which informed much of my early impression of my own country (the family was at this time in Canada and I remembered nothing about Scotland). But it was Pooh who really first struck home. As with The Lord of the Rings, I didn't simply read these stories but lived through them. They were and are so totemic that when I opened one of the Pooh books out of curiosity just a few years ago, I quickly put it down after no more than a paragraph with a mild feeling of nausea, and a genuine quiver of fear. It was too close to home - like revisiting somewhere which should be left in memory. But then, I didn't really need to revisit the Pooh stories: they have been so thoroughly absorbed.

A strong part of the original experience was, once again, landscape. One tramps through the Hundred Aker Wood with Pooh and Piglet and climbs trees and discovers the North Pole (which is, brilliantly and perfectly, simply a very long walk away, further than one has ever been before - Milne's understanding of a child's perspective is absolute) and jumps in the sandy place with Roo. I'm convinced that the lucid reading one has as a child is down in part to the contribution one makes oneself to nuance and expression: the writing in the Pooh books is marvellously light and suggestive, and a child fixes his own invented detail to it quite naturally: one reads in as much as one reads out. Hence the feeling of ownership, I suppose.

A few years ago I was on a walk in Bowmont Forest in the Borders; coming to the southern edge of it, and a good view from the top of a rise, I thought of Galleons Lap. Which just goes to show.

My own children are now listening to the Pooh stories more or less happily, depending on mood, but the poems in When We Were Very Young, which are almost completely unknown to me, are a hit with all of us. It's wonderful to see the magic is still there in A. A. Milne's work.