Thursday, January 21, 2010
Feeling sad I went to the sea. With me I had Alice Munro's Selected Stories, which was not the most perfect choice for depressed evenings, I realised, as I read it, for in the space of one hundred and ten pages we had one person dying of cancer, one murder-suicide, one drowning, one near-drowning, one death from a paralytic illness, two children dying of a fever, their mother dying of sorrow, the father dropping dead in his store one morning for undisclosed reasons, the remaining daughter perishing in a chair, and two more miscellaneous deaths.
Everyone who wasn't dead was melancholy or rueful, which seemed fair enough, swamped by corpses as they were, although it wasn't corpses that made them melancholy but ghostishly encroaching thoughts about the muddled complexity of Life. (Munro handles all of this with great & delicate restraint and a stippling effect, that is, an accumulation of discrete incidents not necessarily arranged in chronological order. Elizabeth Jolley stipples too.)
I spent a lot of time in the sea when I was little, and being near it made me think of the books I'd read when I was somewhere under ten; my father gave me Enid Blyton, G.A. Henty, and Henry Treece. Treece's Man with a Sword had the most memorable ending of any book I read when I was that age. I call it memorable because I've remembered it, where I don't remember others. Roald Dahl's endings are easy to remember because the books are being reprinted, talked about, turned into films, and so on, but is anyone reprinting Man with a Sword? I don't think so.
It wasn't until years after Man with a Sword that I came across The Green Man, one of Treece's adult works, and the strangest book he ever wrote - at least I haven't read any that were stranger. Treece was the co-founder of a forgotten 1940s poetry movement named the New Apocalyptics but his fiction was superior to his poetry. (He was responsible for the first book-length assessment of Dylan Thomas, Dylan Thomas: Dog Among the Fairies. Thomas hated it. "Stinking book," he said.) As I sat there on a rock looking at the sea, the sand, a school of small fish, and the usual dead transparent jellies, an idea came to me. "I could write about Green Man in Pykk. What would I say? The Hamlet thing," I thought, "and the Gertrude-character in a cage being eaten by pigs at the end - and the hall on fire - and the tone - that outré combination of realism and over-the-top, that circus garishness told with a straight face. What could I compare it to?" Only one thing, the kitchen scene in Evil Dead II, Bruce Campbell beating himself unconscious with plates and then cutting off his possessed hand with a chainsaw. "Hamlet and Beowulf. Was it Beowulf? A legendary ancient hero. I forget exactly who." Turning it around in my head I wasn't sure if it was Beowulf, but the book wasn't nearby and I couldn't check, so for convenience I thought of this character as Beowulf.
(I am going to tell you all of this from memory.)
So. The Green Man is a book about Hamlet and Beowulf, although neither of them are called by those names. This Hamlet is a tribal prince in an imagined Ancient Denmark, a dark, smelly, coarse place ruled by tribal customs. Shakespeare's prince mucks around in marshes. The author never tells you that this is Hamlet. You're left to notice the similarities yourself, slowly working it out until the penny drops. Once this happens it becomes a joke between the two of you. This is one of the things that makes the book so strange. Treece, who was an excellent history teacher (we have quotes from librarians praising his effect on students), constructs his setting with solemn and bloody fidelity, but you know and he knows that it's built over a monstrous goofy joke.
Beowulf in this story is an Anglo-Saxon (I think) pirate (was he? A brute of some kind: I'll stay with pirate) captain with a lone Roman on his ship. The Hamlet narrative takes up most of the book, but every now and then we read a letter from this Roman to his employers in Rome. Sitting on my rock (igneous, black, and rough with the ghosts of dead bubbles), I tried to remember what led to this part of the story. "Why was he on the ship? I think his masters sent him there. To punish him? Did they owe Beowulf a favour? Did the pirates capture the Roman's ship? No, I think he was there on purpose. It was a punishment. He'd been exiled." At first the Roman is disgusted and disdainful, finicky, a pest, a snob, complaining because he's been sent away to hobnob in the wilderness. Please let me come home, he begs his employer, who seems to be getting a mean pleasure out of his suffering. As the book goes on he finds a purpose for himself - he begins to write heroic verse about this pirate. The Roman becomes a PR man - he creates the legend of Beowulf, or whoever it was, and the pirate rewards him for it. By the end of the book he's fallen so in love with his new role that he sends his employers a big fat gloating up-yours letter and signs off with his new Anglo-Saxon pirate name and a flourish of titles.
There are several jokes in this. (I sat on the rock, sorting them out.) One, a snob embraces the thing he despised. Two, an abused employee turns the tables on his bosses. Three, the man at the end is still the same as he was at the beginning, only now he's a barbarian pirate snob instead of a Roman snob. His lack of moral progress mocks the idea that experience makes a person wiser, and that advancement is the proper reward for wisdom. He advances without improving a bit. Four, the sheer pompous glee of that up-yours I-quit. Five, this failed gentleman had to travel to the outer reaches of civilisation to find himself a job in that most urban of fields, advertising. Six. Anachronisms are funny. Seven, the heroic legend we know today was the creation of a prissy and unheroic moaner. Eight, our hero was a shabby thug. By the time I'd worked all of this out I realised that I'd distracted myself so much that I wasn't miserable any more, so I walked home and read another Munro (a man's head got whisked off by a saw).