"Meet Alan Garner"

    Reviews by Cooper Renner

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If Strandloper had been published seventy years ago, I suspect that it would now occupy a place alongside other first-rate works of Modernism--The Trial, Mrs. Dalloway, The Sun Also Rises. But Alan Garner, its author, was not born until 1934 and Strandloper, his only avowedly "adult" novel, appeared only in 1996. What, then, are we to make of it? It must be included, I believe, in the reappraisal of the work of the twentieth century which beckons now that the century has ended. Works like Strandloper, whose tone and narrative stance demand to be labeled "Modernist" even though it was written three quarters of a century after Ulysses, and H.D.'s Pilate's Wife, published three quarters of a century after it was written, must be figured into a continuum with the works most akin to them, and the late appearance of Strandloper--if linked to the writings of Paul Metcalf and Guy Davenport--may demand a re-examination and re-definition of what exactly Modernism was (or is?) and a re-enumeration of the Modernist years. If one wishes to go beyond the English language, then the work of Jorge Luis Borges immediately presents itself. Is Borges after all the consummate post-modernist or an unabashed Modernist? It seems obvious that there is a familial relationship, even if no direct "inspiration" can be traced, between Borges's fictional examinations of non-existent non-fiction and Metcalf's "found" documents in which non-fiction of the past and present is recast as a principal element of new novels (or prose poems, if you prefer). And the distance from the creations of either of these giants to the elegant and equally commanding fictions of Davenport, which contain as much "true" matter as most essays, is not large at all.

Garner eschews all unnecessary baggage by practicing that great Modernist dictum--direct presentation of the thing.

Strandloper, unlike most of the writings mentioned above (Pilate's Wife is an obvious exception, as are many of Davenport's stories set in the past), is heir to the formal conventions of historical fiction: that is, Garner is careful to present historically reliable data in sufficient quantities as to recreate that lost past for the reader. One of Garner's chief divergences from that tradition, a divergence he shares with Davenport and the remarkably dissimilar but equally fine Penelope Fitzgerald, is heft: truly conventional historical novels are bulky items, as overladen with "scene-setting" as Victorian fiction. Garner eschews all unnecessary baggage by practicing that great Modernist dictum--direct presentation of the thing. If a character's clothing is a necessary part of the scene, then Garner will mention it. He will not deliver a four paragraph description. When a chapter begins, "William was wearing his Sunday best," the information is not designed to educate the reader about fashion in rural England in 1800: indeed nothing specific is detailed. It is instead a manner of indicating the seriousness of what William is engaged in, an activity which might otherwise seem inconsequential, and is a foreshadowing of the rest of the chapter. In fact, William's trimming of the oak here continues the parade of events of the previous chapters and leads to the book's first climax: William's arrest and sentence to exile in Australia. The arrest occurs during a church service in which local folk customs are inextricably intertwined with Christian practice--Modernism is, after all, full of mythological focuses--during which William speaks in tongues, echoing the book's opening pages and looking forward to his life among the Australian aborigines. But, remarkably, at no time in these initial chapters does Garner explain or directly point the reader toward the aboriginal connections. They become apparent only after one has entered the aboriginal stage of William's life, and the reader recalls the already referred to names and elements of tribal myth.

One should come to the novel not for what it is about, but rather for what it is: one of the finest narrative achievements of its century.

Garner's reticence--which is cinematographic--forces the reader to leave off intellectualizing and analyzing and to enter the events unfolding in Garner's words. Because much of the time the reader is "seeing" clearly what is happening but with no idea yet what it "means", the reader cannot profitably attempt to waylay Garner's narrative with "application": how can one apply what is not yet understood? Again, this procedure creates, in action, the Modernist call to direct presentation--the reader must maintain his focus exactly where Garner has placed it, or give up and quit. There is no room for the reader's subjectivity and internalization. This is not to say that Garner's tale or its characters lack appeal or fail to create empathy. Nothing could be further from the truth. But because Garner refuses to explain, and because what he is narrating is so unusual and original, the reader's empathy remains squarely with the characters in their sufferings and triumphs and not with the reader's personalization of them. Such pinpoint focus is extraordinarily rare is literature, which normally beats the reader over the head with universality. There are universal themes in Strandloper, but they serve the specific story of William Buckley/Murrangurk rather than demand that he serve them.

I have said little of the plot of Strandloper, which follows the life of William Buckley (a real person) forward from his selection as "Shick-Shack" in his village, but this is appropriate. A reader who comes to Strandloper due to interest in a plot summary is likely to be put off by Garner's narrative brilliance. Rather, one should come to the novel not for what it is about, but rather for what it is: one of the finest narrative achievements of its century.

Interestingly, though Strandloper is Garner's sole adult novel, the mastery of its writing is not unprecedented. Indeed, The Owl Service (1967), which won both the Carnegie Medal and the Guardian Award for fiction for young readers, shares with Strandloper Garner's mythological interests and his Modernist proclivities. Unlike most children's or young adults' fiction (or adult fiction, for that matter), The Owl Service is written almost entirely in dialogue--at least 70 per cent at a rough estimate--and the dialogue therefore conveys the greatest portion of the story. Perhaps because the book is for young readers, Garner allows a bit of explication--but even so, the major instance occurs in a conversation near the end when the wise old man (or is he the fool?) of the Welsh valley in which the story takes place lays open, for one of the teenaged characters, the living heart of the myth which the perceptive reader has already seen through to. Given the book's intended audience, the explication is less objectionable: as a teenager reading the book long ago, I was rather baffled by it, so different from Garner's earlier novels, and probably one of my first experiences with a book in which the narrator was just that, a narrator and not an explanatory guide. Unlike Strandloper, however, in which Garner explores two widely separated but strangely similar folk systems--those of rural England and of aboriginal Australia--in The Owl Service he investigates the manner in which a myth can continue to play itself out in modern life. This makes The Owl Service both explicitly Modernist as well as significantly more sophisticated than his earlier fictions in which mythologized characters were simply still alive and operative in the present, and in which the mythological past was assumed to be real.

The Owl Service is no more a story only for children, because of the age of its characters, than is Romeo and Juliet.

Even so, the great achievement of The Owl Service is not thematic. Theme, after all, is more closely allied to the sociological or psychological nature of a book than to its aesthetic. What makes The Owl Service a novel of the first order (for children or adults) is its artistry. Garner's method is again cinematic, sharply limited to that which could easily be conveyed on film, by which Garner creates the same effect that moves through Strandloper: the reader must attend strictly to the events unfolding before his mind's eye. And just as Strandloper is full of vibrant dialogue, so too does The Owl Service reflect Garner's excellent ear and memory for the often elliptical way people speak when their subject is already established. In both books, this feature can create some confusion on the part of the reader, but in neither case is the overall nature of what is transpiring hidden, and in both cases the effect is often to render the events so much more vivid than they might otherwise be because the reader is grasping at every hint to more fully get everything he can.

I strongly recommend both books because The Owl Service is no more a story only for children, because of the age of its characters, than is Romeo and Juliet. In fact one would not do poorly to read it first, as a warmup to the more demanding Strandloper. Fortunately both are in print and can easily be ordered--since neither is likely to be on the shelves of any but the most discerning independent bookstores. On the other hand, both are fairly likely to be in the holdings of a large public library since both have been favorably reviewed. And after reading these, most readers will, I imagine, look for Garner's other original fictions, the best of which is probably The Stone Book Quartet (The Stone Book, Granny Reardun, The Aimer Gate, and Tom Fobble's Day). (Most of his bibliography consists of retellings and collections of traditional materials.) Recommended reading: Alan Garner: The Owl Service (1967), Strandloper (1996), The Stone Book Quartet (1976-77; 1983) Paul Metcalf: Genoa (1965), Both (1982) Guy Davenport: Da Vinci's Bicycle (1979), A Table of Green Fields (1993) Penelope Fitzgerald: The Bookshop (1979), The Blue Flower (1995) H.D. (Hilda Doolittle): Pilate's Wife (2000)

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About Cooper

Cooper Renner also reviews books and engages in various critical activities for theonline magazine 'elimae', under the name b. renner. He is a published poet and a very eclectic fellow.