Forgive me my absence of these several months. By way of apology, rather than excuses or explanations, I offer the following pages – on the art of storytelling – from last fall’s personal journal. It is only lightly edited.
Saturday, October 14 – It is arguable that the lead character in my friend Marian Allen’s book Shifty: Tales from the World of Sage (2016, Corydon / New Albany, Indiana: Per Bastet Publications. 125 pages) is Farukh, the storyteller, “from the distant land of Sule” (p. 54). He does make an appearance in five of these thirteen stories, and dominates the two mythic tales (“The Mountain Who Loved the Moon” and “How the Tortoise Got His Shell”); that’s more than the next two in line, the members of the Festival Players’ acting troupe. But while Farukh’s presence is made explicit in only two of those five instances, one must imagine that he or someone like him is implicitly there in the others from which he is apparently absent or invisible. Because, at its heart, each of these tales is, in its own way, a study of the art of storytelling. Now that I finally sit down to read them through in their final form – I remember several from her reading of the drafts at our writers’ group meetings – I really take the measure of Marian Allen as a specialist in that art. This only makes me more determined, someday, to read the Sage trilogy of fantasy novels from whose world these new, shorter tales are spun.
“Hear! Hear!” Farukh exclaims at the outset of the second and shortest tale, “The Mountain Who Loved the Moon.”
“Yes, it is I, Farukh Suria’ Apa-Dan , storyteller extraordinaire. Settle upon the cobbles of the marketplace, here, around my rug, and listen.”
And then, his story told, the request for coins: “Please toss them into my hat. If I find enough in there to buy something to soothe my voice, I’ll tell you another” (p. 18). He emerges as something of a rascal, a personality, a presence as permanent as the towns and countryside through which he travels, as vital as the bigger actors who populate the different tales.“There are two people who are always welcome in any village in rural Istok,” we read at the beginning of “The Sweetest Dish”: “a good cook and a good storyteller”; and, further: “Some say that feasts attract storytellers – pratiers, as they’re called in Istok – the way honey attracts badgers, but truth is, when a pratier shows up, forehead crossed by colorful beaded band, a reason for the feast is found” (pp. 85-6).
And, at story’s end, this wonderful line: “Everyone agreed that the sweetest dish is one that comes with a story” (p. 90).
At the end of the brief introduction to “The Warmth of Midwinter,” second to last story, these two paragraphs, which end with a similar sentiment:
“‘This story,’ said the storyteller, ‘ takes place in the land of Layounna, not far from the capital city of Kadasad, on the bank of the Fiddlewood River. The time was in that lean and cheerless passage of the season, and the year was such-and-such.’
“The audience chuckled. Who cared what year a story happened? In the mouth of a good tale-spinner, a story took place around you – to you – even as it was related” (p. 102).
The itinerant acting troupe, in their consecutive tales (“Heart’s Desire”; “The Planting of Evidence”; “Command Performance”) serve a similar function, with their theatrical productions. Though, like roving Gypsies and circus or carnival crews, they were not always trusted after certain hours: “A city supper and beds in an inn were rare treats,” we read early in the latter of these stories.” “Only large towns were sophisticated enough to risk allowing such rascals as actors to linger overnight” (p. 49).
But the open road, the freedom and the risk of the unknown path, are themselves fruit of much popular and even literary narrative. This is certainly the case in these tales, which often bring the protagonist up against the known borders of their worlds, landing them in mortal danger. Will they have the qualities of strength, imagination, and determination necessary to meet and prevail in the face of the uncanny and the shifting tales of fortune?
I remember, in a television production of The Arabian Nights that I really enjoyed, the role of the old, white-bearded storyteller whose crucial task it was to coach an extremely vulnerable Sheherazade in the art of suspense, of leaving the, in her case, lunatic-psychotic listener on the edge of his seat, so that she could gain one more day to entrap him in the healing magic of her fictions. The importance of story was so well articulated there; I used the film to good effect with my English students.
Likewise, from literary writers like Isaac Bashevis Singer and the wonderful Sholom Aleichem, I have learned the extent to which the story is central. It is central even in experimental works like Joyce’s Ulysses, though few readers will be able to get through the artifice to the narrative; Virginia Woolf does it just as artfully, but with a narrative simplicity – even as it flowed on the protagonist’s consciousness, on the stream-of-consciousness on which the larger narrative is woven in Mrs. Dalloway.
Marian has asked me what it is that distinguishes “literary” fiction from the genre fiction that she and other writing group members tend to work in. I don’t know how well I’ve been able to answer that, only to point to some of the techniques that I have used (in A Bride Called Freedom, for instance) to make the historical romance visibly pertinent to our present moment. Explicitly pertinent, I might say, as I do by juxtaposing the modern voice of Viviana whose emails become the frame through which 19th-century Argentine legend is made immediate to both North American past and present. Each work has its own method, which may be more subconscious than conscious. In “Courting Mel,” my romantic comedy that will grace the pages of the anthology that I’m presently struggling to put together, among other things there are a series of allusions to the immediate backdrop of build-up to war in Iraq that gives the romance some of its darker edge. Then there comes the allusion to Twain’s “War Prayer,” which puts (in Cameron’s mind) the story’s dilemma of love won or lost up against the dilemma of the one who prays for victory on his own nation’s field of battle – and, thus, blight and destruction on the enemy’s. Thus and so forth.
But I mention all that because, here, in the simple grace of Marian’s “genre” fantasies, the seriousness and importance and pertinence of the work are implicit in the craft itself. She who has ears, let her hear. There were at least a couple of moments in these stories – I won’t try to pinpoint them now (I read, as I rarely do anymore, without marking up the text!) – where it occurred to me that I wish a certain contemporary politician, not to mention a few of his more reactionary cohorts, could read this and reflect on its teaching. But, of course, some ears are not made for hearing, and I suspect that he is beyond comprehending, incapable of shame or self-revelation. But, there the wisdom lies, in all its simplicity and its nuance.
My present journey amongst Marian and her crew of southern Indiana writers has certainly helped me to push aside whatever snobbery might exist or might have existed in (especially my youthful) ambitions as a distinctly literary artist. Though, in fairness to that idealism, what I really felt a revulsion toward were the cookie-cutter Harlequin Romances and such. And, beyond that, I have always been open to instruction, as when I picked up Louis L’Amour’s memoir – Education of a Wandering Man, I think it was – which led me to take a respectful, if brief, glimpse at the art of his Western fiction. At the same time, I have always been attracted to the populist in literary fiction: John Steinbeck, for instance, read and admired by the common man. And that’s the kind of literary writer I have always wanted to be. Even in my wildest experimentation, I have been at pains to make the experimental form accessible and comprehensible.
A new milestone in this evolving understanding of the subject occurred on Saturday, last week, at the Imaginarium in Louisville, where I attended a panel discussion on which sat Marian’s pseudonymous daughter, “Sara Marian” (well, her flesh-and-blood daughter, who uses that pseudonym). She, like me, had literary pretensions, and has abandoned her early efforts along those lines, viewing them as hopeless failures. But now, with her rather popular (one of Per Bastet’s top two sellers) The Life and Death (but mostly the death) of Erica Flynn, in the writing of which she simply tried to write a good story, she feels that she has expressed a good deal of what she had hoped to say in a more deliberately literary fiction. Inspired, by the way, by the likes of Fyodor Dostoevsky! How could I not love her?
That book, I gave as a gift a couple of Christmases past to my daughter Nadina. Don’t know if she’s read it yet, but someday I must. As for me, while also having moved on from my early efforts, I continue to fashion a more deliberately literary body of work; and, at the same time, I have some faint hope of returning to some of that early but, ultimately, unsuccessful work and crafting something more palatable to a general public. If I succeed at that, I imagine that my present sojourn among so-called genre writers like Marian Allen and her charming daughter will have played a role equal to, if not superior to, my “literary” influences and models. This book – Shifty: Tales from the World of Sage – makes that ever so clear. The proof is not in the pudding so much as in the story, the narrative, dressed up however it might be in literary apparel. I don’t believe there is any need to look down one’s nose at this popular literature, so long as it is finely crafted and imagined. As this work is.