There Once Lived a Girl Who Seduced Her Sister’s Husband, and He Hanged Himself: Love Stories by Ludmilla Petrushevskaya

16 June 2022

The title suggests lurid gossip and trashy magazines, sensational and outrageous doings, drawing you in like cheap, over-salted food. This short story collection has a lot of that feel, but depth underneath.

The setting is Russia before and after the collapse of the old order in 1989. Grim concrete housing blocks, miniscule apartments in which dwell multiple generations, or what’s left of them after many mishaps. People struggle on very low pay or have no work at all; to move between parts of the country they must go through checkpoints and paperwork. It is a demoralizing world that brings out every kind of meanness; at work and in the home they fight over any scrap of security or comfort. Alcoholism is rife, neurosis the norm and serious mental illness not uncommon.

This is where the author’s heroines, like tender plants coming up through old pavements, seek targets for romantic or motherly love. They are all ages. Many are Jews. Being women adds to their burdens in various ways, though sometimes it is other women doing them in, and they are far from angelic themselves.

Every story was a great read. They come from an author who lived this life and went on listening intently to the voices of ordinary Russian people.

Anne Summers’ introduction is helpful and interesting. At one point however she seems to imply that Russia’s housing crisis emerged from the 1917 revolution and its collectivist policies. If so, that is unfair; I think it came from the civil war imposed on the new society by western powers and their brutal local supporters, and then later from Stalin’s ruination of the peasantry, during the nightmarishly forced pace of industrialization.

Peter Pan and Wendy

2 June 2022

So much can be said about this book; here are a few things I took from it.

The author’s style is arch, even facetious, and often elusive. Emotions and states of mind are concretised: Mrs Darling had a “sweet mocking mouth” with “one kiss on it that Wendy could never get, though there it was, perfectly conspicuous in the right-hand corner”. Mrs Darling also introduces the motif of elusive longing: “Her romantic mind was like the tiny boxes, one within the other, that come from the puzzling East, however many you discover there is always one more”.

Imagination and wonder are the preserve of children, who are free from rational restraints on thought, from social responsibilities and from adult conformist pressures. Though Mrs Darling has a certain mystery and magic about her, it is expressed only in terms of her allure and what she reserves of herself: she sets off longing but does not herself inhabit or visit worlds of wonder, unless through recollections of young girlhood.

Image by Steve Bidmead from Pixabay

Wendy is at the transition point between child and adult (adolescence not then being much of a concept). Her fear of this may be what triggers the arrival of Pan and his entourage, if they can be thought of as summoned by her. (Officially it is Mrs Darling’s story-telling, stories being the stuff of Neverworld lives.)

For Wendy adult life means motherhood and traditional feminine pursuits such as darning, for which she has a natural affinity (since this was first published 1904 as play and 1911 as novel).

Time stalks the characters. For wicked Captain Hook, the ageing man, time is a ticking-clock crocodile that cannot be shaken off. For Wendy it is the approach of womanly status, both wanted and feared for what she will gain and lose. Peter has escaped it at the cost of real world existence.

Romantic love is of course the province of the grown ups. Wendy’s feelings for Peter therefore mark a transition point for her and a crisis for him. For just one magic moment they can have both the wonder-world of childhood and the deep joy of romantic love, then it must fall apart as she moves forward into time and womanhood and he falls back, the eternal boy.

The 2003 film Peter Pan is a sensitive and beautiful evocation of Barrie’s tale – astonishingly so to me, since almost every other depiction of old fantasy is hardened and crass.

A cold hard look at the Grimm tales

1 June 2022

The Hard Facts of the Grimms’ Fairy Tales (First edition, 1987) Maria Tatar
Trigger warning: incest, fratricide, child abandonment, cannibalism

Pearls, apparently, start from the silvery film that oysters wrap around sand grains in their shells. King Arthur may have begun as a run-of-the-mill local warlord, Robin Hood as a small time hoodlum. To me these origins do nothing to undermine the beauty of pearls, or old stories. And there’s no need to recoil when Maria Tatar says that “even the most restrained Freudian interpreter can have a field day” with the psychic origins of Grimms’ fairy tales.

Image by Gordon Johnson from Pixabay

The family romance

Fairy tale plots, Tatar says, are driven by the transgression of taboos: “incest, fratricide, child abandonment, cannibalism and so on”. She quickly dispenses with a crude application of Freud, which sees sexual symbols everywhere: the allegedly “phallic” stick, or sword, or whatever, does not appear in some versions of the story, so cannot be central to the tale. What doesn’t change, she says, is the underlying structure of the Grimm fairy tale: it begins with a family conflict, then reproduces it in supernatural form. Recognising this pattern also debunks political, philosophical, and cosmological interpretations of these tales, which ignore the initial family setting.

The psychological core of the stories is then shaped by wider social conditions. The tales originally accompanied “collective household chores and harvesting activities that had created a forum for oral narration”. They appeared in print “just when folktales were moving out of the barns and into the nursery”. They were soon censored by interpreters and editors, partly due to commercial pressures from the reading public. Harsh realities of former times, such as child abandonment, were culled, as were sexual references deemed inappropriate for children – though violence, transferred to supernatural settings, had free rein for much longer.

Girls and women

In fairy tales siblings are mostly just “pretenders to the throne”. The main drama takes place with parents, particularly the mother, who has good and bad versions. The good mother is concealed, dispersed into creatures aiding the hero or heroine; she becomes Mother Nature. The bad one becomes a stepmother, rescuing motherhood’s reputation.

Initially, the stepmother may present as kindly and maternal. That doesn’t last; she’s the principal agent of enchantment, becoming “an overpowering presence in the tale. She stands as the flesh and blood embodiment of maternity, and it is this figure of manifest evil that is most openly associated with women as mothers.” Such maternal evil represents “the obverse of all the positive qualities associated with mothers. Instead of functioning as nurturers and providers, cannibalistic female villains withhold food and threaten to turn children into their own source of nourishment, reincorporating them into the bodies that gave birth to them.”

Image by 0fjd125gk87 from Pixabay

While sorceresses may harm boys from the background, “they remain visible, palpable presences” in heroines’ lives.

The animosity of stepmothers, alongside a passive, generally harmless father, dovetails with a different type of story in which the father has incestuous desires for the daughter. Seen together, Tatar says, they express an Oedipal desire on the girl-fantasist’s part, and furnish a motive for the stepmother’s hostility. (This is not to downplay real instances of such abuse, rather to say that the fantasy of it may occur independently.) But stories were adapted to suppress the incestuous father and highlight the evil stepmother. The father became hidden, e.g. as the evil queen’s mirror in Snow White, determining who is the fairest of them all.

Even in the early versions of the stories, though, there are sex-stereotyped lessons for the young. The heroines toil away at spinning or other domestic chores for their deliverance, while the boys can rely more often on luck and supernatural helpers. Some girls reappear from the dead to broadcast the harm done to them, but those who survive set up happy families of their own.

Heroine-victims usually preserve their human form and beauty, whereas hero-victims often turned to beasts. Tatar calls this “a telling commentary on women’s attitude toward male sexuality” while the catatonic Snow White or Sleeping Beauty offer “a sobering statement on folklorist visions of the ideal bride.”

Boys and men

Fairy tales are themed on the triumph of the weak over the strong. Contrary to the modern notion of princely dragon-slayers, the young hero tends to be innocent and silly: useless, foolish, simple, guileless. He “acquires intelligence and power by displaying obtuseness and vulnerability… A hero’s stupidity can take such extreme forms that it utterly disarms his antagonists.” But the stories also tend to be ambiguous as to whether he hero is truly foolish or merely pretends to be. (James Branch Cabell’s adaptions of the old tales play on this theme.)

Whereas the heroine tends to be actively humiliated, the hero is more often simply humble. He is also kind: this morally distinguishes him from his brothers, and also furnishes him with magical helpers.

What are the psychological drivers here? Tatar suggests that we all suffer from anxiety and tend to feel more lowly than those around us, but retain hopes that we can yet make good.

For the creator or listener, the story externalises helplessness and anguish: it’s the character in the talewho is helpless, not me. Insofar as we do identify with the character, the tale sets limits to the intensity and duration of our suffering, reassuring us about our plight in real life. Helplessness may also spare us from attack by the all-powerful father figure at the back of our minds, just as a lion cub rolls over before the dominant male. And helplessness can, too, be an appeal to the mother for help, which arrives via the supernatural creatures.

Helpless is one thing, but why should the hero be kind, if as Tatar says these stories stem from the amoral depths of the mind? Perhaps the creator/reader is once again identifying with the weak little animal. I am that helpless creature – and I am helped. Simultaneously, the vulnerability is externalised: it’s not me that’s helpless, it’s that little creature. In fact I am the empowered one, able to do the helping.

I’m not sure that Tatar’s argument explains all fairy stories; some describe only one person, or a couple, for example, though these may be fragments of old family-based tales. But whether or not they can all be traced to such origins, Tatar makes a powerful case: that fairy tales evoke primal fears and desires born in early childhood within the family setting, and retained in the back of our minds.

They hold their power today, but each successive society has adapted the tales to suit prevailing values and interests. Medieval Christians stick priests into the story, then come Victorian moralisers, Disney, ultra-hyped cartoons, and finally modern liberals and feminists, merging with the hard-ass cynicism of today’s entertainment industry and social media. It is like watching a river disperse into swampy rivulets as it nears the sea: each one twisting its own path, each one ever-dependent on the original life-giving river.

Wonder, longing, dread

21 May 2022

Is there any way, any way at all, to bring Faery into the modern world?

When I search online for Faery fae etc. in fiction I mainly find cute stuff, or exotic props for teen romance and plot-driven adventure. Other material – fiction or non – looks at Faery through the prisms of psychology or politics. Any of this might be fine in its own terms, but surely misses the wonder, longing and dread that inhabited the original tales.

Tolkien of course managed it, in The Lord of the Rings and later in Smith of Wootten Major. These were not however in modern settings. Susanna Clarke achieved it in the more or less modern setting of Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell. Leaving these masterpieces aside, probably a number of unknown or little-known authors have tried it and managed it, but have been lost, to me at least, within the flood.

My own With the Fairies is no action-packed page-turner; romance there is, but maybe not as a selling-point. But I have given much thought to what the wonder, longing and dread of Faery would look like in a modern urban setting. I do urge you to have a look, at least at the Goodreads reviews. It is available as Kindle ebook (you can preview the first part) or paperback.

Wyoming stories

19 May 2022

Close Range: Wyoming Stories
by Annie Proulx

Wyoming is the scene for 11 short stories of family and personal life, told in spare but often poetic style.

The wonderful collection sometimes soars up within sight of William Faulker. The idea I took from Faulkner was that the intensity of people’s passions can redeem their dignity and honour, even as they blunder through stunting and degrading conditions, but while the tensions of the deep south are evident in his work, it is fundamentally a terrain of the soul. In Close Range political and economic forces are more visible – vague at first, like the silhouettes of machinery seen through ripples of overheated air, but coming into focus in the latter part of the collection.

In ‘The half skinned steer’ a rather dried-up and nasty man has emerged from his hick Wyoming background to an old age of prosperity, exercise bikes and austere diets. News of his brother’s death and forthcoming funeral entices him on a trip back to the old ranch. In his ornery way, resisting his advanced years, he chooses to drive there. As a result it becomes a spiritual journey into his own childhood and his own heart. The story was inspired by an Icelandic legend.

Image by Jim Black from Pixabay

‘The mud below’ tells of a short young man despised by his mother, who strains to find accomplishment and intense experience. The search is distorted by self-hatred. ‘Job history’ is a personal life trajectory drawing vaguely and mischievously on the form of the career curriculum vitae. It points out how often people get screwed when they take the free-market dream seriously enough to set up small businesses. ‘The blood bay’ is a folksy historical yarn that offers some light relief, before ‘People in Hell just want a drink of water’, where a damaged young man encounters Wyoming at its worst. In ‘The bunchgrass end of the world’ a thickset young woman temporarily goes off her rocker from loneliness and isolation, unless you prefer to see the tale as one of the author’s departures from realism. ‘Pair a spurs’, one of my favourites, has a treasury of characters. It takes up two of the author’s main themes: the growing failure of the small ranch as a business model, and the clash between stupid-yet-knowing rednecks and cashed-up, knowing-yet-stupid city folk (already well explored in her Proulx’s earlier collection of about New England, Heart Songs). After that a group of ageing women, their lives rapidly burning up, work the Wyoming bar scene in ‘A lonely coast’.

Political and economic forces are vague at first, like the silhouettes of machinery seen through ripples of overheated air, but they come into focus in the latter part of the collection. ‘The Governors of Wyoming’ tells the story of the state’s twisted development, as interpreted by a twisted environmentalist and his accomplice. It draws the collection together in terms of its message, but artistically was less satisfying to me than the preceding pieces. ’55 miles to the gas pump’ is darker again. The collection is rounded out by ‘Brokeback Mountain’, of film fame.

Between darkness and the splintered lights of Tolkienian Faery: an interview with Verlyn Flieger — On fairy-stories

19 May 2022

Cristina Casagrande and Eduardo Boheme Leia a entrevista em português. In the pantheon of Tolkien scholars, one can find an experienced professor with an elegant and distinguished bearing. It may well be that, in a playful comparison with Tolkien’s world, she could be called a Maia, perhaps a Fay, since her wisdom dates back to […]

Between darkness and the splintered lights of Tolkienian Faery: an interview with Verlyn Flieger — On fairy-stories

Silence. — Of Olive Trees and Ash Keys

19 May 2022

Photography: Olia Pishchanska. Seeker: My Lady… Spirit: Indeed my dear, I am ever near. I am the presence in the cracks, in between the tracks, I am anything and everything. I am not confined to space and time, I can shapeshift through all, I can exist in all and in all times. But you know […]

Silence. — Of Olive Trees and Ash Keys

The Many-Coloured Land

19 May 2022

The Many-Coloured Land: A Return to Ireland
by Christopher J. Koch

Culture and its erosion, along with poetic sensibility, are examined through descriptions of Ireland, the author’s family history and his experience of the Irish heritage in Australia.

The opening chapters cover Koch’s background and early life in Tasmania. One of his maternal great-great-grandmothers was of patrician Ascendancy stock (he will ultimately find her old family home in ruins, while its name has been given to a new housing estate). Another was a convict: he recounts her passage to and spirited life in the new country, speculating on the unknown details. In the next section, he tells how the harsh legacy of Irish Catholicism flavoured the schooling in life he received from the Christian Brothers. But he was also in touch with his Protestant heritage, and at university discovered the stories of gentlemanly Irish rebels exiled to Tasmania after 1848.

He visited Ireland in his youth, but the book is mainly about his subsequent trip, in mature years, with a musician friend in the year 2000.

By this stage we have already encountered his aversion to manufactured mass culture, such as the “torment of piped music on buses”. This is epitomised in a sad scene during a stop-over in Dubai, where he watches obese children of the rich being the pampered in a huge commercial mall. “The enclosed suburban shopping malls of the West have evolved and flowered on the equator into whole hermetic citadels”, a “machine-chilled hive” that “resounds with American pop music, piped through loud-speakers: here as everywhere on earth… the inescapable accompaniment to life in a public space”.

Dublin on his first trip in the 1950s had been a place of “strange echoing lanes that ran into the dark nineteenth century… urchins in braces and waistcoats and quiet, mysterious little bars” – filled with the spirt of James Joyce, even though this books were frowned on and hard to obtain. In today’s city, he discovers that James Joyce features everywhere – in cardboard cutouts, displays with Ulysses maps of Dublin: a “tourist logo” in a city which his spirit no longer inhabits.

Traditional Ireland, especially in the west, is a besieged bastion against such cultural impoverishment. People in traditional west Ireland pubs “simply sing when the spirit moves them, and are listened to respectfully. This is how it must have been once in England and Australia, until somewhere in the mid-nineteenth century. Then it was lost, as the oral culture was lost.” Such singing in an Australian bar lounge “would cause laughter or embarrassment or both.”

Image by Brin Weins from Pixabay

Ireland also borders, at many points, on Faery. Sometimes even in Dublin itself. “The tide is out; black flats of mud extend below the wall, and the seagulls wheel and squabble there… birds that always seem the same birds, birds that exist outside Time.”

“High, very high, Atlantic gulls wheel in the air above the ridge, and their cold, hungry cries come down to me… here are the territories of the Sidhe. Looking ahead up the road I recognise them immediately.” Certain landscapes seen in Tasmania were “its heralds: its distant, imperfect variations… Now, here is the true rise, and its grass grows with an uncanny tinge of gold… Ireland has a legendary frontier. There, where the real world ends, the four other worlds begin: the world of the Sidhe, the Many-Coloured Land, the Land of Wonder, and the Land of Promise. Here at Howth, I have come to the no-man’s-land between. I know better, though, than to try and cross it.”

Television, radio and IT seal this frontier, offering in instead “the knowledge and pseudo-knowledge and vices and despair of Dublin, London and New York. And the Danaan voices fade.”

“This post-Christian era in the West, despite its desertion of rationalism and its automatic reverence for alien religions, is not one that’s open to Faery, as Yeats and his circle were; as Keats was, and Coleridge, and Shakespeare. The idea of Faery has become absurd: an infantile whimsy, of little interest even to the juveniles of the computer age, who are preoccupied instead by pseudo-legendary warriors fighting and maiming in those screen-bound computer games… Legend, exploited and reinvented in the animation studios Hollywood and Tokyo, is supremely fashionable, and makes money. But not Faery; not those spirits in trees and streams and hills that the Greeks knew, and the Elizabethans, and even the Victorians.” Faery is linked to Beauty, which “as a grail to be pursued is a notion that’s absent from the West’s postmodern salons, and even from poetry, since Beauty and studied irony make poor companions”.

Sidhe is Gaelic for both ‘faery’ and ‘wind’. He quotes Yeats:

The host is riding from Knocknarea
And over the grave of Clooth-na-Bare;
Caoilte tossing his burning hair,
And Niamh calling Away, come away:
Empty your heart of its mortal dream.

“I’d always imagined that the Irish bogs would be dreary,” he writes. “The reverse is true. They’re very beautiful; or rather, they’re beautiful if your spirit is of a kind to be drawn by open, lonely moorland or by waste places that retreat into inscrutable distance. Such places resonate with a high, single note of mystery: a singing that’s only just audible, like wind in a wire. Their melancholy quiet is filled with waiting; with the nearby presence of something remarkable, just beyond the reach of the eye and the mind. Here on the edge of the boglands, I understand why a knowledge of the Otherworld was always so strong among the Irish.” But it is “now in danger of being lost – withered and stunted by the rays of our video machines, and the babble of the global culture.”

Proust on the creative process

18 May 2022

Mention Marcel Proust and you risk setting off an “en garde!” reaction, as though his name can only raised for pretentious reasons. A shame, since there is so much value in discussing him.

His masterwork is In Search of Lost Time (once known as Remembrance of Things Past). It is written in the first person and heavily adapted from his own past. In this quasi-autobio he looks at aesthetics and the artistic process, manners, the games people play, and the nature of love. The novel is one of the foundations of Modernism: demanding but by no means impenetrable, and a lot of fun.

In a famous passage he dips a madeleine cake in lime tea, and finds that it evokes a set of powerful feelings, which lead to rich memories. Another important memory was reawakened by the feel of uneven flagstones under his feet, and intense feelings were also stirred – inexplicably as it first seemed – by the sight of a church spire. Towards the end of the book he discusses these incidents in relation to the creative process. I took the following points from him.

A taste or scent, a particular sight or chance event will sometimes impact us deeply, for reasons that are at first unclear. If we explore that resonance far enough, we will recall a similar sensation, incident or situation from our past: they are a link to it, as a kind of metaphor or “analogy” to something from our earlier life, one with deep feeling attached. Linking to that past something in turn will pull up more rich details about the setting and events from that time. By contrast, purely cerebral recollections are dry, spare and unsatisfying. But it is just as unsatisfying to go back to the physical place where the feelings were set off; the “past” you seek is within yourself. The magic is accomplished by the combination of our memories on one hand, and on the other, the materiality of the scent, sound etc. from the present moment, which has triggered them.

Image by Pete Linforth from Pixabay

Exploring the meaning of such a resonance is likely to take time and effort. Why does that phrase from a song, that picture in a magazine, keeping recurring to us, or stir us up so much? These things are like ‘hieroglyphs’ from a half-forgotten language – one that has meaning for us alone and which only we can decipher.

When we realise what that phrase or picture relates to from our past, a rush of feelings are released, along with further memories. But, however intense they are, they will be fleeting unless we can fix them. The way to do so is by containing them within a work of art or literature that we create; art with a “well wrought style,” able to capture our reality.

Hard work. A writer must “make an impression pass through all the successive stages which will culminate in its fixation, its expression.” The first phrases we put down may be dull or clumsy, giving only a glimpse of what we meant to portray. On we go until the capture is accomplished.

The reality we create, Proust says “resides, as I am now beginning to understand, not in the superficial experience of the subject but at a depth at which that appearance matter little.” A poem, an impressionist or abstract artwork, a scene in our novel with little obvious connection to events from our own life, but which at a deep level crystallise our heartfelt personal experience.

Once captured within our work of art, our experience now becomes assimilable by other people, our readers and audience.

Only to an extent, however. Other people will only engage deeply with our creation when they start to behave artistically themselves, by doing the work of discovering what a it evokes for them. In contrast, he says, many art-lovers focus on the formal feature of a book, a work of architecture etc., missing the point. Their excited talk about art can then have a frenzied, over-wrought quality to it, because it has not given them genuine artistic satisfaction.

Proust on ageing

15 May 2022

I’ve been re-reading my notes on Marcel Proust’s In Search of Lost Time, and how we discusses old age. Seeing old acquaintances after many years, he found them to be like portraits of their former selves painted by a spiteful artist, who omits the bloom in the cheeks of one person, and adds a hunch to the shoulders of another; an artist who works very slowly.

Some people we once knew have been transformed so completely that we have to work hard to find their old self, and sometimes fail to. It is like being told that some complete stranger is a criminal or a crown prince, and straining to find traces of criminality or kingliness in their countenance, without success. Or, put another way, we are like a crime victim who scrutinises the face of a captured suspect in a police line-up: we have to declare in the end, “no, I don’t know this man.” Proust marvels at the “engineering” work that manages such complete changes in someone’s face, more difficult to carry out than the replacement of a spire by a dome.

And yet other old acquaintances, when met once more, are “no more altered than a flower or a fruit that has been dried”. One man he re-met, lively and trivial-minded in his youth, was still so in old age, but the combination of white hair and beard with continued vitality gave him “the inspired air of a prophet”.

By this time, the hair of most of his old friends had gone white, and in general their degree of whiteness aligned with their age, as the varying intensity of whiteness between different mountain peaks attests their differing height, even when they look level to your eye. A few people, however, retained their hair colour even while every other aspect of them had faded, as mosses and other evergreen plants retain their colour at the onset of winter, when the rest of the forest is bare.

He describes how each of us feels ourselves to be the same person we ever were, but we do not extend this generosity to others of our vintage, whom we see only from the outside.

Old age remains an abstraction to us until we reach it; is the last aspect of life to remain abstract to us.