Alan Garner: "The numinous as a book"

How quickly time passes, how many days have gone by since I last wrote here. At least by posting today I'll prevent April from slipping away unmarked.

I was lucky enough recently to be at the launch for a wonderful collection of essays in honour of Alan Garner, called First Light, edited by Erica Wagner.  As a teenager I was captivated by Garner's Weirdstone of Brisingamen and I have been in his debt ever since, though have not kept up with all his books through the years. But now I will read all those I missed, and revisit the ones I read when so young that I probably missed a good deal of their complexity.

 A few years ago, I heard him speak at the Cheltenham Literature festival and he was mesmerising. And what a wonderful feeling to be there listening to someone whose work enchanted me so forcefully when I was fourteen; apart from anything else, it made me feel much younger than I am. Or, to put what I mean less flippantly, it gave me a wonderful sense of continuity in my reading life. (A bit like when Madeleine L'Engle, whose Wrinkle in Time was one of the most important books I read as a ten-year-old English child, came three decades later to a conference centre near where I lived in northeastern Pennsylvania, and I met her at last).  

If you don't know the work of Alan Garner, I can't convey his spell here. But contributors to the book include Philip Pullman, Stephen Fry, Robert Macfarlane, Ali Smith, Salley Vickers, Margaret Atwood, Rowan Williams, Michael Wood....he appeals to writers and artists, but also, as Erica Wagner says in her introduction, to scientists, archaeologists, historians. His words "make worlds which connect" with the work of all these different people.

At the afternoon lecture preceding the reception, I found myself sitting next to writer Katherine Langrish. In her contribution to First Light, she says Garner's first four books changed her imagination. "Under the seeing eye, landscapes reveal layers—strata—of history, prehistory, geology and legend. Places are founded in time, time becomes a dimension of place." 

Garner himself, in his talk "The Voice that Thunders" (collected with other lectures and essays in the book of the same name), says he has the combination of "an academic's and a magpie's mind that sees, finds or makes connections and patterns where others do not."  It's this making of connections and patterns that is his magic.

His fictions connect real places in modern England with the life of their past centuries, and with the myths that sleep in their stony underground bones. He does not really write for children, though children are sometimes the protagonists of his books and young readers can enjoy some of them.  Describing the twelve-year-long writing of Strandloper (published 1996) he said it began with a newspaper cutting about a man from a hamlet called Marton, close to Garner's own home, who had been transported to Australia in 1803: "I know instantly that I am pregnant with his story." He begins researching, delighting in what he learns as he collects information, follows many seemingly-unlinked threads; and then becomes "enthralled as the unconnected themes begin to converge....and for me it is the convergence, an elegant and natural simplicity of resolution, that hidden union, which has always been waiting: the numinous as a book."

The "Voice that Thunders," he says, is the name the Aborigines give to the source of inspiration. He has heard it himself. In the writing of Strandloper it commanded: "Go to Marton church." He had known this church all his life,  but now it showed him, in the patterns of its medieval windows, a link with the patterns used in Aboriginal ritual body art, and with the abstract patterns of dot, zig-zag and spiral, the "entoptic lines," used in cave paintings and elsewhere in many different times and places. In this church he found the climax for his story, and his fiction came full circle, back to home ground.

Impossible in this space to give more than a hint of the resonating power of Garner's themes, stories, and images. Or of his language. Or of the way he intertwines myth with reality, making them seem—or showing that they are?—part of the same story. But it was an amazing experience to be with so many other people who had been moved by this writer. It was a testimony to the power of language, of story, of the way books can touch the deepest parts of us. 

As Hugh Lupton writes of Garner in First Light: "At the back of our battered landscapes and our tattered shreds of folklore he gives us story and prayer, the deep culture of England." And David Almond puts it thus: "He helps us touch the extraordinary ordinary objects, helps us experience the sacred places...And we are enthralled by this world made so very real, and by the mystery that lies within and all around it." 



There is balm in Gilead

I'm reading Marilynne Robinson's Lila, third in a sequence of novels after Gilead and Home. These books are extraordinary. Sometimes, reading a brilliant book makes me feel a sort of irritable envy, a "wish I could have done that" resentment. But Robinson's work is beyond that sort of response. It leaves me awed, moved, and full of gratitude that she exists, and that she has made these books.

They do what books should do: illuminate the ordinary moments. ("Oh, I will miss the world!" says dying old John Ames in Gilead). Bring to life, through real, flawed people, the power of kindness, faith, and love ("Nobody deserves anything, good or bad. It's all grace," says Boughton, forgiving the son who has given him endless sorrow, in Home). Show redemption, resurrection even ("Strange as all this is, there might be something to it, thinks Lila in Lila). But never preachingly, never cloying or sentimental, and looking unflinchingly at the hard things too, so the flashes of grace are well-earned. These books may have spiritual implications, but they make you love the very stuff of physical life.

I've always been drawn, in reading and in writing, to matters of the spirit. My background and inclination are Christian, but my beliefs, not that I have anything so firm as to merit the word, are more and more open-ended and wide-ranging, and I flee from dogma. Paul Elie says, of psychiatrist and author Robert Coles, that he "was the very archetype of the secular post-modern pilgrim—not a believer himself, but a person who is attracted to belief, prone to it, often covetous of it in others, and who is brought to the threshold of belief imaginatively through his reading." I recognise something of myself here, though I have done so little with my own pilgrimage. 

That quote is from Paul Elie's fascinating book, The Life you Save May Be Your Own: an American Pilgrimage, which looks at four writers, Thomas Merton, Walker Percy, Dorothy Day, and Flannery O'Connor, and they way the sought the truth in their lives, in their ways of living but also in the way they wrote: "Their writing was the most personal way of all, for in the act of reading and writing one stranger and another go forth to meet in an encounter of the profoundest sort."

Years ago, I was asked to participate in a conference at DeSales University about writing and spirituality. As I listened to the other speakers, I felt an overwhelming sense of homecoming: this is my place, my territory, this intersection of writing with the search for something "beyond", and although I've been forgetting about it, this is where I belong. Similarly, when I read Parabola magazine, which examines "the search for meaning" and explores the world's spiritual traditions, I feel at home and enriched there (and glad three of my essays have contributed to its archive). The writers who excite me often inhabit that borderland where twin yearnings, to make something well with words and to find meaning, flow into each other: Annie Dillard, Madeleine L'Engle, Darcey Steinke, Frederick Buechner, Michael Mayne, Ronald Blythe...

That borderland is my natural habitat, though I could never shed the kind of light on it that they do, and that Robinson does. Apart from anything else, my "faith" in anything "beyond" is at present a feeble and wavering flame. But then, perhaps that is when I most need to spend time there? At any rate, I know that's the territory where I want to walk, and work. 


Note: The reason I'm reading Lila now, and about to re-read the earlier Gilead books, is that my wonderful local independent bookshop, The Suffolk Anthology, is running a seminar on them on March 23rd.