Thursday, May 03, 2007

Recent reading

I've just finished George MacDonald's "Phantastes". As we all know, this book had a great influence on C.S. Lewis, helping to turn him away from atheism and materialism. He said in his introduction to it that in everything he wrote, he somehow quoted or was inspired by MacDonald's work.

It's hard for me to see the great attraction, but what touches a person's soul is a very private and subjective matter. Something about this work must have opened to Lewis a window, through which he glimpsed a different, better world. I'm grateful for it, because Lewis is a favourite author. "Phantastes" doesn't work all that well for me, though. I found it very meandering and old-fashioned (hardly surprising; it's from the mid-19th century). Also, it has the decided air of an allegory to which I don't have the key, and am just a bit too tired to go searching for.

One thing I got right away: I knew what the shadow was that appeared and followed him everywhere. But the rest of it - who was the marble lady? What was the singing globe? What was the deal with all the dancing statues? Why was the Ash tree so dangerous? I couldn't immediately see, and I just wasn't involved enough in the story to figure out. One part that I thought worked well was the self-contained little story about the lady who was imprisoned in the mirror. It seemed very E.T.A. Hoffmann-ish, and I liked it.

I did seem to see some traces of influence on Lewis's writing. There's a part near the beginning, where Anodos can understand some squirrels having a conversation:
At times, to my surprise, I found myself listening attentively, as if it were no unusual thing with me, to a conversation between two squirrels or monkeys. The subjects were not very interesting, except as associated with the individual life and necessities of the little creatures: where the best nuts were to be found in the neighbourhood, and who could crack them best, or who had most laid up for the winter, and such like; only they never said where the store was.
I'm sure that must be the origin of the passage in 'Prince Caspian', where Caspian is warned not to watch the squirrel going back to his hole, because it's considered very bad manners to look as if you're interested in where he stores his food.

The other book I've recently read is Beyond Black by Hilary Mantel. I hardly ever read modern fiction - Mantel is the exception. I love her novels. She's a genius writer, and every novel is different.

This one is about an obese, disorganized mild-mannered psychic named Alison, who takes on a frighteningly efficient assistant named Colette, who builds her business into a well-run, profitable enterprise. As the book goes on, we learn more about Alison's hideously abusive childhood, and the nightmarish visitors from the other world who haunt her continuously. What's interesting is that Mantel is quite unsentimental about the business side of spiritualism. It's a shoddy, sleazy life, travelling about to Psychic Fayres in seedy hotels and halls, tailoring messages for the gullible. And there are a lot of frauds in the trade. In her work, Alison is often barely distinguishable from the phoneys, but she's quite clear in her own mind about the difference:
Sometimes the punters would ask, 'What's the difference between a clairaudient and an aura reader, a wotsit and a thing?' and Alison would say, 'No great difference, my dear, it's not the instrument you choose that matters, it's not the method, it's not the technique, it's your attunement to a higher reality.' But what she really wanted to do was lean across the table and say, you know what's the difference, the difference between them and me? Most of them can't do it, and I can.
Her "act" is partly a filtering process, sparing the customers the full horror of what life in the next world is like.

She's followed by the ghosts of horrible men who abused her horribly when she was young; one of them, Morris, is her own Spirit Guide, and she spends a lot of time trying to fend him off and escape from him. Mantel's novels have a curious quality - they're both horrible and hilarious. I always start one with trepidation, wondering if I can really take it, because the horror really seems almost unendurable, until you find yourself laughing at her wry wordplay and detached view. I'm always worried that at some point the humour will fail, and the story will get so ugly that I'll have to stop, and won't be able to forget what I've read, but she hasn't done that yet.

Alison and Colette end up making enough money to buy a house together; Alison wants a brand-new house, because old ones always have ghosts in them. The description of the shoddy workmanship is awful but funny, because you can so easily imagine the frustration of having to live in such surroundings.
Trucks jolted up with glue-on timbers of plastic oak, bound together in bundles like kindling. Swearing men in woolly hats unloaded paper-thin panels of false brickwork, which they pinned to the raw building blocks; they disembarked stick-on anchor motifs, and panels of faux pargeting with dolphin and mermaid designs. The beeping, roaring and drilling began promptly at seven, each morning. Inside the house there were a few mistakes, like a couple of the internal doors being hung the wrong way round, and the Adam-style fireplace being off-centre. Nothing, Al said, that really affected your quality of life.
Of course, when the kitchen ceiling falls in, that does tend to affect your quality of life.
The development progressed piecemal, the houses at the fringes going up before the midle was filled in. They would look over to the opposite ridge, against the screen of pines, and see the householders running out into the streets, or where the streets would be, fleeing from gas leaks, flood and falling masonry. Colette made tea for the next-door neighbours from the Beatty, when their kitchen ceiling came down in its turn...
That's what their whole world is like - crummy cardboard, held together with string and scotch tape, like a professional magician's kit.

As the story progresses, Alison and Colette's relationship sours, and Colette becomes verbally abusive and controlling. Obviously Alison's abusive history is repeating itself. But what I like about Mantel is that she can make Alison a victim, but never JUST a victim. She herself almost seems to wear her victimhood lightly. She never sinks into self-pity or uses her past as an excuse for anything, even though it would be so easy to do so. And in the end, somehow, Mantel pulls off a sort of happy ending, though you'd think it would be impossible. Part of the dread of coming to the end of 'Beyond Black' is knowing that Mantel is quite capable of giving her characters a dark ending. Colette certainly ends up that way, though she doesn't realize it herself. But here the author is kind to her main character, and Alison ends up as happy as she can be in this world, even though we have no reassurance of what will await her in the next.

2 Comments:

Anonymous ellie m said...

Phantastes fascinated me. I had no idea what it was all about, and I still haven't a clue, but oddly it didn't matter to me at the time. I just surrendered to the weird, wonderful narrative and let it take me where it would. To me it was more like having a dream than reading a story: one of those dreams that make absolutely no sense to you on waking, but still fill you with a sense of strange enchantment.

2:32 pm  
Blogger Nicholodeon said...

A propos to nothing...

but when I was doing some research and teaching in New Jersey I stayed in a 200 year old church rectory. Well, in my bedchamber was the original wardrobe that inspired C S Lewis and his 'The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe.'

I am 6'3" and that wardrobe looked HUGE next to me...and I could actually crawl inside it except nothing fun happened to me...but it was of dark varnished wood and all carven with wonderful trailing fantaisies...no phantasmes, however.

4:45 pm  

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