Sunday, January 27, 2013

strangely in this strange world

The narrator in Lilith never could have realised that the person who created him did so in order to thwart him and turn him into a liar, since he can't name the things he is looking at and must lie about them; and he describes them like this, "A white leech, a loaf of bread, a princess," when he does not, according to himself, see any of those objects and so he might as well say, "A suction pump, a slice of roast beef, the prime minister," or, "A vampire bat, a bag of chips, my employer," though he has no employer; he is a man of independent money, having inherited a manor house from somebody who dies before the story starts -- dying purely to get this narrator intimately engaged with the necessary housing arrangements; this dead man was destined from the instant of his creation to become a neglected forebear, he is a martyr to storytelling and to George MacDonald's ideas about religion, which, ultimately, he serves with his death, delivering the narrator into allegory.

This narrator, whose name is Mr Vane (vanity, lightness, maybe weathervane-wind), pursues a magical raven-man around the house he has inherited and by following this man-bird or bird-man he discovers the mirror with the magical world on the other side. If he had been employed in a normal business and working regular hours like the people I see on the streets in the morning then would he have had time to involve himself with resurrection-allegories and follow the raven through the mirror or would he have had other things to do, like soap his knees, put on his shoes, and brush mud off his hems, and would he not have spent the whole time he was in the magical country wondering if he was late for work, if he was going to get fired when he went back, what deadline he was missing, what time today's shift ended, whether that other employee had been notified about the problem with the chair in the break room, etc etc, and when he came across the corpse of a woman who maybe or maybe not seemed almost not quite deathly cold and sort of perhaps able to come back to life although that might have been wishful thinking ("Could she be still alive? Might she not? What if she were! Things went very strangely in this strange world"), wouldn't he have hesitated and turned his back on the time-consuming job of trying to resurrect her with river water?

But if he had worried about those things then the book would have been comedy or comic, the adventures would have been shrunk or altered by the contrast, Mr Vane saying, "I can't devote myself to you magical tiny people, I need to go back and put ink in the printer," and the seriousness of the giant-villains shrivelling like snow.

In my imagination George MacDonald feels himself veering in that direction but he doesn't like the idea of a comedy so he makes Mr Vane renounce work. He writes these words: "Suddenly none of that mattered, and I devoted myself joyfully to the wellbeing of these tiny magical children. I disregarded the duty of the printer ink." (He does it in the narrator's voice. I'm just inventing a paraphrase.)

"That's it," George MacDonald says to himself as he finishes that sentence, "now this book is not a comedy," and renunciation becomes another theme in the story.

Now that the idea is there it strikes him that he should extrapolate and so he does, now the idea of work is incredibly important in the manuscript, but in the version of Lilith that I have with me today it was not important, it was invisible, it was banished on page one.

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