Monday, January 31, 2011

My Mother She Killed Me: An Introduction

"You think...that bad old science made the magic go away?" - Jenny Calendar, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Season 1

I've had my reviewer's copy of My Mother She Killed Me, My Father He Ate Me sitting on my bedside table, unread, for a shamefully long time. Part of the reason for this is that I wished so badly to have something to do with it. The editor, Kate Bernheimer, runs the Fairy Tale Review (along with being a teller of stories in her own right), and it's really no one's fault but my own that I haven't yet contributed. But on to my reading.

I've just begun, truth be told, and I've decided to make dispaches along the way. This is the first. It's going to be all about front matter.

The book is dedicated to Angela Carter as it should be. She is, in some ways, mother to us all. The brilliance with which she wrote both fiction and criticism, much of it pertaining to story telling of all different varieties is very nearly unparalleled. She influenced Salman Rushdie, Margaret Atwood, Kelly Link, Marina Warner, and on and on and on. Warner, formidable novelist and critic in her own right, first met Carter in the London Vogue offices in the 70s. She writes of Carter in her indispensable book From the Beast To the Blonde: on Fairy Tales and Their Tellers:
Her humor was of the unsettling variety, that made it necessary to examine one's own received ideas. It was so very impolite, with its particular idiosyncratic feminism, its blend of the irreverent and the gothic, its dazzling linguistic intricacy and relish for imagery...It is uncomfortable to list to the iambic distych, to know you are identifying yourself as an outsider by what you say, that all the disguises in the wardrobe will never fix identity, all the voices in the repertory will not tell the complete story.
She was a subversive and an intellectual and wore both on her sleeve. She, the greatest writer of the last half of the 20th century mostly worked in the form of the fairy tale. Carter's quote from the front-piece of this collection reads:
Ours is a highly individualized culture, with great faith in the work of art as a one-off, and the artist as an original, a godlike and inspired creator of unique one-offs. But fairy tales are not like that, nor are their makers. Who first invented meatballs? In what country? Is there a definitive recipe for potato soup? Think in terms of domestic arts. "This is how I make potato soup."
In other words fairy tales live in the realm of the folk, of the collaborative, of women and fools and children and magic. I've seen a few bits of writing (supposedly very clever) recently, where people (mostly boys) examine very finely the mechanics of magic. Sometimes there is talk of what could happen, what couldn't happen, and what is real. This, of course, is very stupid indeed, as none of it is real. It's a fun parlor game to wonder how things work, but I've so often seen these sorts of writing serve as a denial or a cursory dismissal of the fictional magical or divine. It's all fiction. The ordinary workaday waiter or firefighter or coal miner could just as easily sprout wings and fly away. The realms of the literal might be more real, but I very much doubt they are more true. Literal mindedness in the face of fictional magic is the province of petty minds.

Kate Bernheimer's introduction made me tear up. It's one of the most passionate and beautifully written defenses of the form that I've read. Her mission, to gather all different kinds of writers to tell fairy tales is a magnificent thing. Along with usual suspects such as Kelly Link and Neil Gaiman who work in the form constantly, she has drafted people like Michael Cunningham and Neil LaBute who seem to be rather unlikely participants in such a project. But then one thinks of that often repeated quote of Nabakov's (which Bernheimer repeats): "All great novels are great fairy tales" and you realize that maybe these unlikely writers aren't so unlikely as they first appeared.

The forward by Gregory Maguire reads as something of a clarion call as well. It calls up the ghosts of Tolkien and Emily Dickinson and Prospero himself; Star Wars and the pre-Raphaelites and nursery rhymes and Hollywood's current little girls lost; Elsinore and Marley's chains and the leopard and his spots; Kensington Gardens and spiderwebs and the illustrations in old psalters and Bob Dylan and Sherwood Forrest. Fairy tales are held as something lesser, partly as Carter says above because there is no clear author in our great age of the individual. As Maguire quotes Hans Christian Andersen's translator: "The fairy tale belongs to the poor. I know of no fairy tale which upholds the tyrant, or takes the part of the strong against the weak. A fascist fairy tale is an absurdity."

Folk tradition is egalitarian by nature, whether they be tales of Baba Yaga or the songs sung by Woody Guthrie or Foolish Jack or The Cat in the Hat - they are subversive by nature, and they are all worth listening to.

As I read my way through this book, I'll be back with more opinions and things to say.


That Fuzzy Bastard said...

"This, of course, is very stupid indeed, as none of it is real." So, so true. Oh, how annoyed I get by those hating on Twilight because "that's not what vampires are like." Based on all the vampires you've met, motherfucker? The whole point of myths is that they can be redefined at will!

That said, I've always thought that fairy tales, with their born-to-nobility kings and constant message about the impossibility of changing your position (as someone who translated The Little Mermaid should know!) are inherently fascist. Or rather, fascism speaks to the same part of us that loves fairy tales---the part that wants the old certainties in place, a world both structured and unreasoning, a society organized along the good old lines. Modern fairy-tale revisionists tease out the subversion where they can find it, but has there ever been a castle as magical as those designed by Wagner and Albert Speer?

Caviglia said...

Nah. The possibility of changing your position are what most fairy tales are all about. Andersen's are a little bit of an anomaly, I think - in that they are actually the work of one person's imagination, so it's a little bit of a different situation.

But they're all full of poor people fantasies. The Goose Girl may be a little problematic in that regard, but look at Puss in Boot, all the Fool's stories, all those beggar maids made princesses through their wiled. I have to disagree strongly with you on that one. And I promise you, I'm working from a larger sample than you are. Go back to Basile and Apuleius - all is mutable. Not to mention all the traditional Nordic ones, they're utter madness.