I’ve been listening to an audiobook version of Susanna Clarke’s Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell, an entertaining fantasy set in early nineteenth-century England, and enjoying how the book thinks about magic, in two different ways. First, simply the variety of the magical inventions; second, the way it integrates the essentially unbelievable aspects of the story—the magic—into what otherwise presents itself as a realistic situation, complete with pseudo-scholarly footnotes about the magical texts and personalities. It’s historical fiction, with recognizable figures (e.g. the Duke of Wellington, King George) and situations (the war with France), but it blends these conventions with a matter-of-fact presumption of the existence of magic, so that the characters going about their daily lives in London or at war in Spain take it for granted that magic and magicians are real. The book pulls this off quite well, and part of the pleasure of reading is the amusement in recognizing how it renders such implausible material as if it were completely ordinary.
It struck me this morning, as I was chuckling over it again, that in effect what I’m admiring is how the book sets itself a certain arbitrary constraint—presume the existence of magic—and then finds ways to accommodate that constraint while telling a persuasive story. Continue reading
“Some people,” Miss R said, “run to conceits or wisdom but I hold to the hard, brown, nutlike word. I might point out that there is enough aesthetic excitement here to satisfy anyone but a damned fool.”
–Donald Barthelme, “The Indian Uprising.”
Case in point: The word “plasma.” According to the OED, its meaning in classical Latin was an “affected modulation of the voice.” In post-classical Latin it also meant “creature” and “poetic fiction.”
In English, originally, it meant a pot. Or “anything shaped or molded.” Later, long before it came to be associated with blood or the breath of the sun, it also meant in English “a green variety of chalcedony, valued as a semi-precious stone, and formerly used for carving into intaglios.” In this sense it was short for plasma emerald.
Lying in the hammock on the front porch, looking at the branches of the blue spruce, their craggy shapes against the night sky. They make the shapes whether anyone is there to look at them or not, yet we can only see them with all our preconceptions. Our aesthetic responses, our craving for form, the tension between what is and what we long for, the twanging that the shapes provoke inside us.
Looking at them, thinking about them, I think of the millions of years before human beings existed. Whole continents came and went, rivers cut their way through rock, made canyons, oxbows, alluvial plains, little banks where grasses sheltered crayfish. . . The trees stood up and splayed their branches on the sky. The shapes were there. And then they died, fell into earth, the earth swallowed itself and bent to new shapes we never knew.
There are some ideas here.
Around Christmas and the New Year, everyone in my house got that nasty flu that had been going around. When I recovered, I found I’d slipped into a moderately deep depression. This also had to do with the slow progress on my writing and the perennial doubts that accompany that work, exacerbated by fatigue and lowered defenses from being sick.
Then, for reasons I do not understand, my unconscious lobbed the opening line of To the Lighthouse at me: “Yes, of course, if it’s fine tomorrow.” (The full line is “‘Yes, of course, if it’s fine tomorrow,’ said Mrs. Ramsay.” ‘But you’ll have to be up with the lark,’ she added.”)
I have no idea why this bobbed to the surface just when it did. It had been years since I’d read the book—probably thirty or more, though I might be forgetting something. But Virginia Woolf, and especially The Waves, have been a touchstone for me ever since I first read her in my early twenties. I suppose my unconscious mind, to rescue me from the despair I was feeling, came up with something that has given me immense joy and said, in a weirdly compelling way, “You should read this!”
I’ve decided to make a couple changes to the blog, starting today.
First, I’m going to include posts on political topics, especially having to do with climate change.
Second, I’m going to include more short, personal, spontaneous posts about what I happen to be reading at the moment.
In keeping with the first change, here’s what I wrote to the Port of Seattle Commissioners after attending the hearing on the lease to Foss Maritime, which will sublease to Shell for its Arctic drilling operation.
Reading Yvor Winters on Wallace Stevens (In Defense of Reason. Athens: Swallow/Ohio U. Press, 1987). Finding him wrong-headed, but usefully so, since it’s helping me think out what I think of Stevens.
Recently, in a fit of nostalgia, I re-visited Mervyn Peake’s Gormenghast trilogy, which I had not read since high school. It’s a funny book—both humorous and peculiar. My Ballantine paperback edition from the 70s classes it as “Adult Fantasy,” and I distinctly remember finding it in the fantasy section of the Paperback Booksmith at the New London (CT) Mall, where I spent lots of time as a teenager (the fantasy section, not the mall). The audio version that I listened to recently was classed either as “Science Fiction” or “Science Fiction/Fantasy.” And yet, the book has none of the conventional fantasy elements—no magic, no mythical creatures, no epic battles, none of that stuff. It has an enormous castle, and a host of highly unusual characters, if not caricatures, and an extremely high-flown style. It also has almost none of the conventional science fiction elements—none at all in the first two volumes, and hardly any in the third. The first two books (Titus Groan and Gormenghast) take place entirely within the castle and its immediate environs, which seem to be a world to themselves. With one or two exceptions, like the sunglasses worn by one of the characters, the time could be any time in the past several hundred years. In the third book, Titus Alone, the protagonist ventures beyond the castle to a world that more nearly resembles the world of the author—mid-century Britain—though with a couple of futuristic touches.
The most notable of those is his prescient description, and critique, of drones. Continue reading