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November/December 2012
 
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Books
by Elizabeth Hand

Fairy Tales from the Brothers Grimm: A New English Version, by Philip Pullman, Viking, 2012, $27.95.

The Thorn and The Blossom: A Two-Sided Love Story, by Theodora Goss, Quirk Books, 2012, $16.95.

The Night Swimmer, by Matt Bondurant, Scribner, 2012, $25.

A Woman of Mars: The Poems of an early homesteader, by Helen Patrice, Stanza/PS Publishing, 2011, £14.99.

 
THE FOLK, fairy, and religious stories collected by Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm in the early part of the 19th century have become so inextricably entwined within our cultural DNA that it's almost impossible to imagine a time when they didn't exist. Of course, they did exist in oral form, long before their first publication in 1812 as Kinder- und Hausmarchen, Children's and Household Tales, and will no doubt continue to do so for as long as there are children's bedtimes (even if beds themselves disappear, along with printed books).

But the Brothers Grimm left their own imprint upon the works, which inevitably altered the nature of the original tales. There's no such thing as an "original" tale: all tales are twice-told tales, recounted endlessly down the millennia. And, as any student of ethnography knows, the mere presence of an outside observer or interviewer in a particular social setting changes the dynamic of whatever social intercourse ensues.

Still, the received folk wisdom as regards the stories the Grimms recorded is that they were recounted to them by wizened crones in a thatched cottage, with an invisible line of similarly ancient worthies stretching into the darkness behind them, each with her or his own version of the tale, until, presumably, we finally reach a pile of smoldering embers within a cavern in the Dordogne, and the figure of an antlered shaman capering in the firelight. This is the narrative trail that historian Carlo Ginsberg follows in his classic study Ecstasies: Deciphering the Witches' Sabbath, where one of the stories he pursues into the Paleolithic dawn is "Cinderella."

"Cinderella" was also collected by the Grimm brothers from an anonymous female informant in a Marburg hospital. But many of the tales that now bear the Grimms' name came not from rustic storytellers but from educated, middle class or aristocratic young women who recounted them in the Grimms' living room. As noted by Jack Zipes in the introduction to his 1987 translation of The Complete Fairy Tales of the Brothers Grimm, their sources usually heard the stories "from their nursemaids, governesses, and servants." An exception to this bourgeois circle was a tailor's wife, Dorothea Viehmann, who contributed thirty-five stories, including "The Goose Girl," "Hans My Hedgehog," and a prototype of "Puss in Boots." The French-speaking Hassenpflug family, descended from Huguenots, shared forty-one tales that have much in common with those of Charles Perrault. And both "The Fisherman and His Wife" and "The Juniper Tree" (one of the most chilling and influential of all fairy tales) were taken from versions written by Phillip Otto Runge, a noted Romantic painter and friend of Caspar David Friedrich and Goethe. So much for the thatched cottage.

The two Grimm brothers, Wilhelm in particular, edited and even censored later editions of what they called "the childhood of humankind." Their goal was to "create an ideal type for the literary fairy tale, one that sought to be as close to the oral tradition as possible, while incorporating stylistic, formal, and substantial thematic changes to appeal to a growing middle-class audience." [emphasis is Zipes's] This process of selectivity—of narrative genetic manipulation—is what's responsible for the versions of the tales we now know and, as Zipes states, "is generally neglected when critics talk about the effects of the tales and the way they should be conveyed or not conveyed to children."

Today, two hundred years after their initial publication, the tales of the Brothers Grimm have sold about as many copies as the Bible. Scores, perhaps hundreds, of editions and variations exist; the tales have been anthologized, psychoanalyzed, serialized, idealized, trivialized, novelized, and moralized to a fare-thee-well. The Zipes edition probably remains the gold standard for English readers. So, do we really need another version, even one assembled by as able a storyteller as Philip Pullman?

Well, in the case of Grimms, fairy tales, there's probably never enough of a good thing, despite all the tampering with the original DNA evidence. Pullman, author of His Dark Materials, among numerous other works, does a good job in his selection. He chooses fifty tales from the more than 200 included in the seventh 1857 edition, the same one used by Zipes in his translation. All of the old favorites are here, some in versions I was unfamiliar with, and many lesser-known tales as well. Pullman generally does a good job in following the brothers' remit: to keep the narratives clear and succinct; to retain the impression of a sort of overarching narrative consciousness, rather than the imprint of any individual storyteller; and to add psychological motivation where one seems needed, as in his rendition of "Little Brother and Little Sister." For me, his only weakness is an occasional winking tendency to deviate from the Grimms' aim to avoid any writerly frills that would break a tale's spell by changing its rustic tone.

So, the Brave Little Tailor is referred to as "a weapon of mass destruction!" The birds that help Cinderella are identified by species, and her wicked stepsisters are given a few moments of misplaced empathy. Wicked stepsisters should stay wicked, in my opinion.

But overall, Pullman does a stellar job—he's especially good at amusing snippets of dialogue between minor characters. And he provides excellent brief notes at the end of each story, giving its source in Grimm as well as its type according to Aarne/Thompson/Uther's great taxonomy, The Types of International Folktales. He also lists variants of each tale, and provides his own intriguing M.O. when he has added or subtracted from the original text.

I haven't read a substantial collection of fairy tales cover to cover since childhood. Encountering them now, at midlife, I was struck more than ever by the recurring theme of children imperiled: by wild animals, by misfortune or, as is most often the case, by their own parents, siblings, or guardians. Children and loved ones are devoured, disembodied, their bones buried then magically disinterred. "It's a hard world for little things," as Lillian Gish's character, Rachel Cooper, says in Night of the Hunter, director Charles Laughton's eerie noir fairy tale. Yet, as she states in the film's closing lines, "They abide. They endure." Jack Zipes calls Grimms' Fairy Tales "innovative strategies for survival." It's a survival guide that will never go out of style.

 

A different sort of mythmaking takes place in Theodora Goss's novella, The Thorn and the Blossom: A Two-Sided Love Story. A World Fantasy Award winner, author of the story collection In the Forest of Forgetting, Goss here casts a spell with a book that is itself a magical artifact: a slender, accordion-style volume featuring two stories. One is Evelyn's; the other Brendan's. The reader chooses which to read first, and the story literally unfolds from there. The slipcased book is beautifully designed, with gorgeous black-and-white woodcuts by Scott McKowen that are evocative of work by Pre-Raphaelites Edward Burne-Jones and Dante Gabriel Rossetti.

The tale too echoes Pre-Raphaelite themes, as well as (perhaps inevitably) A. S. Byatt's Possession. Evelyn is a young American fleeing her graduate studies at Oxford, where her professor has recently advised her to lay off the fanciful subject matter and write about something more down-to-earth than fairies. So, to clear her head and decide whether she should perhaps follow her father into the legal profession, she takes a brief vacation to Cornwall.

This is perhaps not the best choice for someone of Evelyn's fey temperament, given Cornwall's hammerlock on piskies, giants, mermaids, stone circles, and standing stones, not to mention its history as the crucible of Arthurian legends. Tintagel is also here, legendary site of Arthur's conception, and the setting for many versions of the Tristan cycle of tales.

Still, Evelyn's initial foray into the village of Clews is mundane enough, with a visit to a used bookshop where she meets Brendan, handsome son of the shop's owner, who offers to show her around the countryside. The two share a few intense days together and begin to fall in love, until—in the best and time-honored tradition of starcrossed lovers—a misunderstanding wrenches them apart.

"There is one story and one story only," Robert Graves famously wrote in "To Juan at the Winter Solstice." Even making allowances for, say, half-a-dozen stories, the ancient legend that Theodora Goss recasts here—that of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight—remains one of the best known. I won't give anything away by saying that her version is lyrical and surprisingly touching, no matter where you start. And, like the very best stories, each new encounter brings with it something new and strange and unexpected. An enchanting read.  

A friend who routinely devours half-a-dozen books a week recently thrust Matt Bondurant's The Night Swimmer into my hands. I'd read several reviews of the novel, but only recalled that it was loosely inspired by real events. In Bondurant's tale, a young American couple, Elly and Fred, beat out thousands of contestants to win a contest sponsored by Murphy's (read: Guinness). Their prize? "A pub in Ireland, title and deed." This sounds like the setup for an endearingly eccentric film by Bill Forsyth or John Sayles or Michael Powell, and indeed there are flashes of the work of all three in this dark, beautifully written, deeply unsettling novel. But Bondurant tips his hand with epigraphs from Moby-Dick and John Cheever's journals (Cheever is namechecked throughout by Elly, the book's narrator), as well as in his opening line:

 

"It began with a dart, a pint, and a poem, three elements that seemed to demonstrate the imprecise nature of fate."

 

That first sentence might demonstrate the slippery nature of Bondurant's novel, which seems to have perplexed some critics. Bondurant's first two books, The Wettest Country in the World and The Third Translation, works with feet firmly planted in the mainstream, were well-received and went on to become bestsellers. The Night Swimmer is a more ambitious and far stranger novel. Its opening wouldn't be out of place in one of Isak Dinesen's gothic tales (after making adjustments for Ireland over Denmark), and Bondurant makes no secret of the book's heavy debt to Shakespeare's "The Tempest." But there are also similarities to John Lindqvist's recent supernatural novel, Harbor, not to mention Richard Yates's classic depiction of the flameout of a middle-class marriage, Revolutionary Road.

So, an unusual literary pedigree for this book, which is equal parts ghost story and cautionary tale about the dangers of attempting to breach a stubbornly, and ultimately fatally, remote and insular community. Elly and Fred claim their prize, The Nightjar, in the town of Baltimore, which "tips a fingers of land [into] the wide rock-filled channel known as Roaringwater Bay." Immense cliffs overlook the bay; a few miles inland, though, all is deceptively bucolic farmland. The town "has the immediate aspect of an isolated, rugged outpost and a pedestrian, quaint, domestic town at the same time." It's the kind of place beloved of tourists who like to imagine they've stumbled upon Brigadoon or Tir na n'og, some charmingly eccentric village that's miraculously cut itself off from the twenty-first century while still maintaining good internet service.

Yet nothing can hide or change the fact that Elly and her husband are outsiders. A few of the locals, including the town drunk, Dinny Corrigan, make friendly overtures, and enough tourists drop by The Nightjar to keep the place afloat; but barely. Dinny is more than happy to accept free drinks in exchange for bringing a bit of local color to the pub; he also proves a willing accomplice to Fred, as the latter's drinking begins to spiral out of control.

And there are strained, even sinister relations between various townsfolk—especially those from away—and the close-knit Corrigan clan, whose leader, Kieran, has begun work on a huge development project that will irrevocably alter both the physical and cultural nature of the area.

To escape all this, Elly, a distance swimmer, obsessively begins to swim the channel that separates Baltimore from Cape Clear Island and, more ominously, to set her sights on a nearby lighthouse that stands upon Fastnet, a spire of rock rumored to be accursed. When she's not swimming, she spends more and more time on the island, where she's befriended by several people who, like herself, are from away. These include Patrick Highgate, whose organic goat farm is staffed by sweet-natured stoner WOOFers, and whose disdain for the Corrigans' ancient, feudal control over the region spells almost certain disaster.

Bondurant, himself a distance swimmer, writes extraordinarily well about Elly's nearly supernatural feats of endurance in the cold waters off the Irish coast. These are breathtaking sequences, but even more exceptional is an early scene on Cape Clear that reminds us that Bondurant's literary idol, John Cheever, wrote several masterful stories (including his novella "The Swimmer") that in current parlance would be considered examples of magical realism; a scene so unexpected and beautifully executed that I got gooseflesh.

Occasionally Bondurant struggles to maintain narrative equilibrium. Elly and Fred's backstory is less compelling than their dark sojourn behind the bar at The Nightjar.

 

"There are those who will tell you that the pubs of rural Ireland are these laughing, happy places where strangers are greeted with shouts of good cheer," Elly observes shortly after her arrival on Cape Clear. "These people are blackguards, not to be trusted, plainly insane, or just full of shit. Those notions are fantasies. As in any remote outpost anywhere in the world, particularly in the off-season, the reception is decidedly chilly, even hostile, disinterested if you are lucky."

 

It's the couple's misfortune that the gaze turned upon them by the town is not disinterested but increasingly more acute, as minatory and inescapable as the beacon on Fastnet. The Night Swimmer is a dark and relentless and disturbing novel, and one of the best books I've read this year.

 

Finally, we have A Woman of Mars: The Poems of an early homesteader, a slim, genuinely odd and lovely collection by Helen Patrice, an Australian writer who first composed the work as part of a poem-a-day project on her blog. The poems are framed as letters and observations by a woman who's one of the first settlers on Mars. But there's nothing precious or twee about them: the events depicted are often heartwrenching and carefully observed, chronicling the death of ideals as well as of human beings in the pursuit of the dream of colonization. The late Ray Bradbury contributed a blurb, and Bob Eggleton did the cover and interior artwork to a limited edition of only 300. Well worth tracking down.

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