Monday, January 23, 2012

image one: Ivan Bilibin

image two: George Cruikshank

Consider this sentence from 'The Golden Bird' by the Brothers Grimm: "So he sat down, and the fox began to run, and away they went over stock and stone so quick that their hair whistled in the wind."

The image of the fox and its passenger by George Cruikshank, coupled with this sentence from ‘The Golden Bird’ are lodged in my memories of long ago. The book, in a dark blue leather cover with fine gold embossing, was the collected stories of the Brothers Grimm. I received it when I was six and I pored over the images and the narratives for ever after.

What engaged me was the mystery embedded not just in the plots and characters, but also in the language and the rhythms. And in the pictures which seem to lift themselves out of the writing and dance with a life of their own.

My first experience of this book was just after the end of World War Two, when books were rarer and more precious than they have become. I write this at a time when books are on the endangered list, so in my lifetime I have seen them move from rare to very common to rare again. Not as rare as they were in the forties, but not as common as they were a very few years ago. I say this by way of establishing context, placing my personal relationship to the conventions of the fairy tale in time, and also, I realize in place.

For I held the lovely blue book in my hands in a Tasmanian country town, far away from Cruikshank’s London and the German forests of the Grimms. The fairy tales and their illustrations were the entrance to the mysteries of unrealities, yet they were also in many respects parallel to everyday reality. Words and pictures had the power to carry a child’s mind into weird places, to shift a child’s vision to contemplations of beauty and horror, and to move a child’s emotions towards terror and joy and pity. These tales fulfilled the promise that there is something else, somewhere else; that there is mystery.

I see them now as the messengers of the nature of ‘story’. A story, in this context, is a narrative that might have happened somewhere, and that is taken, for the time being, to be true. When you talk about a story in this way, you have belief and disbelief, reality and mystery, running with each other, somewhat like the man and the fox with their hair whistling in the wind. And people who move from reading stories to writing stories are, I think probably always, picking up the magic and setting out to work with it.

Part of the enchantment for children (and adults too) is the incantatory nature of the tales, and it is this element as much as any, I think, that binds the mind of a writer to these stories. ‘Once upon a time’ and ‘there were three brothers’ and ‘happily ever after’ are all implicated in both the stimulus of and the response to the fairy tale. The height of beauty and the murky depths of the grotesque are frankly placed before the reader in a kind of poetry, a kind of sing-song that works its way over and over again into the mind and heart.

You can of course become a novelist without actually reading these stories over and over as a child, but in my own case I am certain that my conviction that I had to write fiction had at least part of its origin in the fairy tales, particularly in the blue book with the Cruikshank illustrations. And those illustrations were black and white lithographs. All the colour they delivered was done by line, by shade, and a kind of leaping confidence in the rightness of the picture’s madness.

Another illustrator who nourished my imagination was Ivan Bilibin, a Russian who died in 1942. It is a mystery to me how Pushkin’s story ‘The Tale of Tsar Saltan’, illustrated by Bilbin, came to be with the other books in the house. There was a strange shelf constructed by my father, stuck rather high on the wall to the right of the fireplace, and shaped like a magazine rack. In this rack there were thin children’s books such as works by Mabel Lucie Atwell, and also the Pushkin.

The pictures are far, far from the black hobgoblins of Cruikshank; they are softly coloured in muted shades, highly patterned, and often contained within formal borders of decorative motifs from Russian folk art. The image here is a dazzling example of the mysterious vision Bilibin’s work brought to my child’s mind. ‘And behold, to his amaze, a great city met his gaze.’ The reader feels she is part of the foreground where the couple are held in soft shadow, feels she can look out at the fabulous walled city on the hillside in the distance, could walk the yellow path that leads through the archway in the wall, and enter the streets of the ‘great city’.

It was many years later, in the seventies, that the Russian picture books Bilibin illustrated became available in Australia and I collected several of them. The pictures are absolutely entrancing to me. I have never written a story bearing any recognizable inspiration from them, but I know they have a powerful and magical effect on me. They are so grand and confident and utterly mysterious. They are highly serene and yet they promise vast journeys, great narratives, deep truths. They use the most wonderful shades of green, for one thing.

I think what the stories mainly express is the human longing for the mystery of what is out of reach, but which must surely exist somewhere behind an invisible membrane of some kind. And I know that I was certainly captivated early on by the promise embedded in the tales, and that my writing is a kind of participation in the search for whatever it is that is concealed. When the strangeness of the tale was bound up with the visual magic of Cruikshank and Bilibin, the lifetime contract between myself and stories, the creation of stories, was sealed. I am overstating the case, for there were other influences, but the fairy stories and these two illustrators were clearly influences on how I now spend my time.

(This memoir is from the catalogue of the Happy Ever After Travelling Exhibition 2011/12 from the Newcastle Library.)

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