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In this reply by an important writer to her neice's complaint that Jane Austen is boring and irrelevant, Alice is instructed on the difference between Literature and Just Books and the arts of reading and writing.
The City of Invention
Cairns, Australia, October
My dear Alice,
It was good to get your letter. I am a long way from home here; almost in exile. And you ask me for advice, which is warming, and makes me believe I must know something; or at any rate more than you. The impression of knowing less and less, the older one gets, is daunting. The last time I saw you, you were two, blonde and cherubic. Now, I gather, you are eighteen, you dye your hair black and green with vegetable dye, and your mother, my sister, is perturbed. Perhaps your writing to me is a step towards your and her eventual reconciliation? I shall not interfere between the two of you: I shall confine myself to the matters you raise.
Namely, Jane Austen and her books. You tell me, in passing, that you are doing a college course in English Literature, and are obliged to read Jane Austen; that you find her boring, petty and irrelevant and, that as the world is in crisis, and the future catastrophic, you cannot imagine what purpose there can be in your reading her.
My dear child! My dear pretty little Alice, now with black and green hair.
How can I hope to explain Literature to you, with its capital 'L'? You are bright enough. You could read when you were four. But then, sensibly, you turned to television for your window on the world: you slaked your appetite for information, for stories, for beginnings, middles and ends, with the easy tasty substances of the screen in the living room, and (if I remember your mother rightly) no doubt in your bedroom too. You lulled yourself to sleep with visions of violence, and the cruder strokes of human action and reaction; stories in which every simple action has a simple motive, nothing is inexplicable, and even God moves in an un-mysterious way. And now you realize this is not enough: you have an inkling there is something more, that your own feelings and responses are a thousand times more complex than this tinny televisual representation of reality has ever suggested: you have, I suspect and hope, intimations of infinity, of the romance of creation, of the wonder of love, of the glory of existence; you look around for companions in your wild new comprehension, your sudden vision, and you see the same zonked-out stares, the same pale faces and dyed cotton-wool hair, and you turn, at last, to education, to literature, and books — and find them closed to you.
Do not despair, little Alice. Only persist, and thou shalt see, Jane Austen's all in all to thee. A coconut fell from a tree just now, narrowly missing the head of a fellow guest, here at this hotel at the edge of a bright blue tropical sea, where sea-stingers in the mating season (which cannot be clearly defined) and at paddling depth, grow invisible tentacles forty feet long, the merest touch of which will kill a child; and any easily shockable adult too, no doubt. Stay out of the sea, and the coconuts get you!
But there is a copy of Jane Austen's Emma here, in the small bookshelf, and it's well-thumbed. The other books are yet more tattered; they are thrillers and romances, temporary things. These books open a little square window on the world and set the puppets parading outside for you to observe. They bear little resemblance to human beings, to anyone you ever met or are likely to meet. These characters exist for purposes of plot, and the books they appear in do not threaten the reader in any way; they do not suggest that he or she should reflect, let alone change. But then, of course, being so safe, they defeat themselves, they can never enlighten. And because they don't enlighten, they are unimportant. (Unless, of course, they are believed, when they become dangerous. To believe a Mills & Boon novel reflects real life, is to live in perpetual disappointment. You are meant to believe while the reading lasts, and not a moment longer.) These books, the tattered ones, the thrillers and romances, are interchangeable. They get used to light the barbecues, when the sun goes down over the wild hills, and there's a hunger in the air — not just for steak and chilli sauce, but a real human demand for living, sex, experience, change. The pages flare up, turn red, turn black, finish. The steak crackles, thanks to a copy of Gorky Park. Everyone eats. Imperial Caesar, dead and turned to clay, would stop a hole to keep the wind away!
But no one burns Emma. No one would dare. There is too much concentrated here: too much history, too much respect, too much of the very essence of civilization, which is, I must tell you, connected to its Literature. It's Literature, with a capital 'L', as opposed to just books. Hitler, of course, managed to burn Literature as well as Just Books at the Reichstag fire, and his nation's cultural past with it, and no one has ever forgiven or forgotten. You have to be really bad to burn Literature.
How can I explain this phenomenon to you? How can I convince you of the pleasures of a good book, when you have McDonald's around one corner and An American Werewolf in London around the next? I suffer myself from the common nervous dread of literature. When I go on holiday, I read first the thrillers, then the sci-fi, then the instructional books, then War and Peace, or whatever book it is I know I ought to read, ought to have read, half want to read and only when reading want to fully. Of course one dreads it: of course it is overwhelming: one both anticipates and fears the kind of swooning, almost erotic pleasure that a good passage in a good book gives; as something nameless happens. I don't know what it is that happens: is it the pleasure of mind meeting mind, untrammelled by flesh? Of the inchoation of our own experience suddenly given shape and form? Why yes, we cry: yes, yes, that is how it is! But we have to be strong to want to know: if something, suddenly, is going to happen as we encounter the Idea, and discover it adds up to more than the parts which comprise it: understand that Idea is more than the sum of experience. It takes courage, to comprehend not just what we are, but why we are.
Perhaps they will explain it to you better, at your English Literature course. I hope so. I rather doubt it. In such places (or so it seems to me), those in charge are taking something they cannot quite understand but have an intimation is remarkable, and breaking it down into its component parts in an attempt to discover its true nature. As well take a fly to bits, and hope that the bits will explain the creature. You will know more, but understand less. You will have more information, and less wisdom. I do not wish (much) to insult Departments of English Literature, nor to suggest for one moment that you would do better out of their care than in it: I am just saying be careful. And I speak as one studied by Literature Departments (a few) and in Women's Studies Courses (more) and I say 'one' advisedly, because it is not just my novels (legitimate prey, as works of what they care to call the creative imagination) but me they end up wanting to investigate, and it is not a profitable study.
Now, as a writer of novels I am one thing: what you read of mine has gone to third or fourth draft: it is fiction: that is to say, it is a properly formulated vision of the world. But myself living, talking, giving advice, writing this letter, is only, please remember, in first draft. As someone trying to persuade you to read and enjoy Emma, and Persuasion, and Mansfield Park, and Northanger Abbey, and Pride and Prejudice, and (on occasion) Sense and Sensibility, and (quite often) Lady Susan, I am quite another. Believe me or disbelieve me, as you choose. But hear me out.
You must read, Alice, before it's too late. You must fill your mind with the invented images of the past: the more the better. Literary images of Beowulf, and The Wife of Bath, and Falstaff and Sweet Amaryllis in the Shade, and Elizabeth Bennet, and the Girl in the Green Hat — and Rabbit Hazel of Watership Down, if you must. These images, apart from anything else, will help you put the two and twos of life together, and the more images your mind retains, the more wonderful will be the star-studded canopy of experience beneath which you, poor primitive creature that you are, will shelter: the nearer you will creep to the great blazing beacon of the Idea which animates us all.
No? Too rich and embarrassing an image? Would you prefer me to say, more safely, 'Literature stands at the gates of civilization, holding back greed, rage, murder, and savagery of all kinds?' I am not too happy with this myself: I think I am as likely, these days, to be raped and murdered in my bed within the gates of civilization as without. Unless civilization itself is failing, because literature has stepped aside and we now merely stare at images? Unless we watch television, and do not read, and so are losing the power of reflection? In which case it is only Departments of English Literature which stand between us and our doom!
No? I see I am trying to define literature by what it does, not by what it is. By experience, not Idea.
Let's try another way. Let me put to you another notion.
Try this. Frame it in your mind as a TV cameraman frames a shot, getting Sue Ellen nicely centred. Let me give you, let me share with you, the City of Invention. For what novelists do (I have decided, for the purposes of your conversion) is to build Houses of the Imagination, and where houses cluster together there is a city. And what a city this one is, Alice! It is the nearest we poor mortals can get to the Celestial City: it glitters and glances with life, and gossip, and colour, and fantasy: it is brilliant, it is illuminated, by day by the sun of enthusiasm and by night by the moon of inspiration. It has its towers and pinnacles, its commanding heights and its swooning depths: it has public buildings and worthy ancient monuments, which some find boring and others magnificent. It has its central districts and its suburbs, some salubrious, some seedy, some safe, some frightening. Those who founded it, who built it, house by house, are the novelists, the writers, the poets. And it is to this city that the readers come, to admire, to learn, to marvel and explore.
Let us look round the city: become acquainted with it, make it our eternal, our immortal home. Looming over everything, of course, heart of the City, is the great Castle Shakespeare. You see it whichever way you look. It rears its head into the clouds, reaching into the celestial sky, dominating everything around. It's a rather uneven building, frankly. Some complain it's shoddy, and carelessly constructed in parts, others grumble that Shakespeare never built it anyway, and a few say the whole thing ought to be pulled down to make way for the newer and more relevant, and this prime building site released for younger talent: but the Castle keeps standing through the centuries and, build as others may they can never quite achieve the same grandeur; and the visitors keep flocking, and the guides keep training and re-training, finding yet new ways of explaining the old building. It's more than a life's work.
Here in this City of Invention, the readers come and go, by general invitation, sauntering down its leafy avenues, scurrying through its horrider slums, waving to each other across the centuries, up and down the arches of the years. When I say 'the arches of the years' it may well sound strange to you. But I know what I'm doing: it is you who are at fault. This is a phrase used by Francis Thompson — a Catholic poet, late-nineteenth century — in his slightly ridiculous but haunting poem 'The Hound of Heaven':
I fled Him, down the nights and down the days;
I fled Him, down the arches of the years;
The poem is about God pursuing an escaping soul, lurching after him, hound-like. He gets him in the end, as a Mountie gets his man. (Another dusty image, no doubt; and one scarcely worth the taking out and dusting down.) When I refer to 'the arches of the years' I hope to convey the whole feeling-tone (as Freudians say of dreams) of the poem, both the power and the slight absurdity; all the poem in fact, in the five words of his that I choose, for the benefit of my sentence. Call it plagiarism, call it fellowship between writers, or resonance (since you're in a Dept. of Eng. Lit.). I don't suppose it matters much. It is the kind of thing writers used to depend upon in their attempts to get taken seriously, and now no longer can. We talk to an audience (and I say talk advisedly, rather than write: for contemporary authors are left largely with the writing down on paper of what they could as well speak, if only their listeners would stand still for long enough) and a generation which has read so little it understands only the vernacular. I don't think this matters much. I think that writers have to change and adapt. It is no use lamenting a past: people now are as valuable as people then. You will just have to take my word for it, that the words a writer uses, even now, go back and back into a written history. Words are not simple things: they take unto themselves, as they have through time, power and meaning: they did so then, they do so now.
I bet £500 you have not read 'The Hound of Heaven'.
But back to our City of Invention. Let me put it like this — writers create Houses of the Imagination, from whose doors the generations greet each other. You will always hear a great deal of enlivening dissension and discussion. Should Madame Bovary have munched the arsenic? Would Anna Karenina have gone under the train had Tolstoy been a woman, would Darcy have married Elizabeth anywhere else but in the City of Invention, and so on and so forth, in and out of the centuries.
And thus, by such discussion and such shared experience, do we understand ourselves and one another, and our pasts and our futures. It is in the literature, the novels, the fantasy, the fiction of the past, that you find real history, and not in text books. Thomas More's Utopia tells us as much about his own century, his own world, as the one he invented for the delectation of his peers.
Writers are privileged visitors here. They have a house or two of their own in the City, after all. Perhaps even well-thought of, and nicely maintained: or perhaps never much reckoned and falling into disrepair. But to have a house of any kind, even to have brought it only to planning stage, and have given up in despair, is to realize more fully the wonder of the City, and to know how its houses are built: to know also that though one brick may look much like another, and all builders go about their work in much the same way, some buildings will be good, some bad. And a very few, sometimes the least suspected, will last, and not crumble with the decades.
Writers, builders, good or bad, recognizing these things, are usually polite to one another, and a great deal kinder than the people who visit, as outsiders. Builders vary in intellect, aspiration, talent and efficiency; they build well or badly in different suburbs of the City. Some build because they need to, have to, live to, or believe they are appointed to, others to prove a point or to change the world. But to build at all requires courage, persistence, faith and a surplus of animation. A writer's all, Alice, is not taken up by the real world. There is something left over: enough for them to build these alternative, finite realities.
Excerpted from Letters to Alice by Fay Weldon. Copyright © 1984 Fay Weldon. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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Posted April 18, 2013