I have been away from book reviewing for a while. It has been nearly a month since I wrote my last review. I have been going through a book-reading-slump, and so I have been picking books, reading a few pages, dropping them and getting into another book, without finishing anything. I have a book-reading-slump every year, but it happens sometime during the middle of the year. The timing of this slump was unfortunate, because this is the most productive time of the year for me, reading-wise. So, to try to come out of the slump, sometime back I thought I will pick a book from my bookshelf, which had short pieces which will be easier to read. So, I picked up ‘Lost Classics’.
I discovered ‘Lost Classics’ during one of my random browsings at the bookstore. It had short pieces by writers on their favourite books, which they had loved and lost. It looked like a good book, which will be a good read when I am in the mood for short pieces (or am not in the mood for a long novel). It was the perfect solution when I went through a book-reading-slump, to nurse my reading and get out of the slump. I finished reading it a few days back. Here is the review.
Summary of the book
I am giving below the summary of the book, as given in the back cover.
Lost Classics is a compendium of glittering, witty, thoughtful, wild and wonderful-to-read short essays by some of the world’s finest writers on books that have inspired and influenced them, but are no longer available, are hard to find, or are sadly under-appreciated.
What I think
The essays in this book originally appeared in the literary magazine Brick.
Some facts about this book – it has essays by some well-known literary stars like Margaret Atwood, Jeffrey Eugenides, John Irving, Pico Iyer, David Malouf, Anchee Min, Michael Ondaatje and Colm Toibin. It also has essays by lesser known writers – atleast lesser known to me. There is also an essay by one of my favourite poets W.S.Merwin. He is one of my favourite poets on the strength of one of his poems which was introduced to me by a wise friend of mine. The poem goes like this :
Your absence has gone through me
Like thread through a needle.
Everything I do is stitched with its color.
Around two-thirds of the essay writers featured in the book are Canadian (48 out of 74). Most of the rest are American. There are probably a few Australians and maybe one or two are English. The authors I have heard of, out of the ones featured in the essays were not many – Jawaharlal Nehru, Rudyard Kipling, Jane Smiley, Philip Levine, Mikhail Bulgakov, Arnold Bennett, Stendhal, A.E.Housman, Ford Maddox Ford, James Hilton, Alfred Noyes and William Golding. It is amazing that there are so many favourite books out there whose authors I haven’t even heard of. I feel sad at this – because it is highly probable that we might pass through our whole life without reading or even knowing about a lot of fine literature. One of my favourite books was featured in one of the essays – ‘Lost Horizon’ by James Hilton. Stendhal’s work was featured two times – ‘The Private Diaries of Stendhal’ and ‘The Life of Rossini’. There was an interesting thing about poet Philip Levine – he has written one of the essays on his favourite loved and lost book, while Michael Helm has written a piece featuring one of Philip Levine’s poetry collections 🙂 It looks like the case of the author becoming a character in the book.
One of my favourite essays in the initial part of the book is about a book called ‘Classics Revisited’ by Kenneth Rexroth. This is what the writer Brian Brett says on how he discovered the book.
I first stumbled upon Classics Revisited when I was twenty-two years old, broke and broken-hearted, on my way home in the winter of 1972, having fled a doomed love affair in Oaxaca. I arrived in Santa Barbara. The hitchhiking was bad; clusters of hippies were stranded on a road still blooming with sixties strangeness and wild rumours about Route 101, tales of rednecks seeking longhairs to beat up, or victims getting acid slipped into their food and being used for weird sex. And everyone was searching for Nirvana, or at least fun. The full lusciousness of life lay ahead on that road.
Then I saw the phone booth and remembered that the fabled mountain-climbing anarchist poet, Kenneth Rexroth, lived in Santa Barbara. To my amazement, I found his name in the phone book. I dialled the number. A gruff voice answered : “Hello.”
“Hello, is this Kenneth Rexroth?”
“My name is Brian Brett. I’m a poet from Canada and I just wanted to phone and tell you I’ve read your work and admire it.”
There was a deadly pause, an embarassing silence. Finally, that bear of a voice said : “Waaallllll, c’mon up then.”
I stayed for a week. We discussed T’ang dynasty poets, potato peddling, Hermes Trismegistus, vaudeville techniques, Ezra Pound’s looniness and brilliance, Kropotkin’s theories of mutual aid, Ono Komachi’s love life and the failings of the counter culture. Nearly everything he addressed in Classics Revisited.
I left with my head in the clouds. So this was literature. Sure, he could be a terrible crank with a hiatus hernia and a tendency to grumble, but behind him was a dream, a world literature full of dignity and indignities, surprises and horrors and magic. And elegant dream, indeed.
There is a beautiful essay by Helen Garner in which she describes how she discovered that the author of her childhood favourite ‘The Journey of the Stamp Animals’, Phyllis Hay, is an actual Australian and she is still alive and how the author lends her a last surviving copy of the book and how the childhood magic all comes back when Garner reads the book again.
There is an interesting essay on Barbara Greene’s book ‘Too Late to Turn Back’ by Russell Banks. It describes Barbara Greene thoughts on her journey to Liberia with her cousin Graham Greene. Graham Greene himself wrote an account of the trip in his famous book ‘Journey Without Maps’. Russell Banks calls Barbara Greene’s book the better version and he also quotes Paul Theroux, when he says that Graham Greene mentions his cousin in his book only three eleven times in three hundred pages (while Barbara Greene gives an intimate and complex portrayal of her cousin in her book). It looks like another case where a wonderful woman writer was being ignored in favour of a more a more famous male writer. Russell Banks concludes his essay by saying “The great pleasure is to read them in tandem, his first, then hers.”
There is an essay about a book written by a mother to a son, in the ninth century AD, called ‘Handbook for William’ by Dhuoda, which was very poignant and touched me. A few beautiful lines from this book, which were quoted by the writer of the essay Anne Carson go like this :
And when I am gone, you will have this little book of teaching as a reminder : you will be able to look at me still as into a mirror, reading me with your mind and body and praying to God. Then you will see clearly your duty to me.
Michael Helm says this about the poetry collection ‘They Feed They Lion’ by Philip Levine :
We have the sense of poems proceeding not from imagination, or even memory, which is a trick of the mind, but from remembrance, a state of the being. Levine’s poems show up so much of contemporary literature as lacking a breadth of experience. The lives in these poems are not only intimate but various, and together they lend the book an unusual amplitude.
Helm goes on to say this :
Whatever its place in our times, the best poetry often seems like the last worthwhile form of public utterance. When it’s lost, the mundane encroaches without making the smallest claim on our attention. But regained, in a bit of chance mixed with faith, though nothing’s forgotten, nothing is familiar.
Beautiful passage, isn’t it?
Laird Hunt talks about a book called ‘Some Chinese Ghosts’ by Lafcadio Hearn, which was a case of so near yet so far for him and which he couldn’t read in the end. He says this about the writer –
Some writers one reads to saturation, to exhaustion; others are taken in brief, startling doses. For me, Hearn falls among the latter.
When Wendy Lesser writes about Arnold Bennett’s ‘The Old Wives’ Tale’ she deplores the fact that Bennett isn’t read much anymore, because of Virginia’s Woolf’s essay on Bennett. Lesser then says this :
I find it disturbing that Virginia Woolf, the possessor of an intense but extremely limited form of genius, should have been able, in the course of just sixty or seventy years, to crowd a great novelist like Arnold Bennett right off the literary map. It is as if you had planted a delightfully unusual groundcover in your garden, only to discover some years later that its rampant spread has killed your favoruite oak. (Well, not oak, exactly. Charles Dickens is an oak. Bennett is more like an unruly apple tree: he could use some pruning, but the fruit is delicious.)
I have read two books by Arnold Bennett – ‘The Grand Babylon Hotel’ (one of my alltime favourite books – more about it in a while) and ‘Literary Taste’ (Bennett’s attempt at helping readers acquire literary taste. The book is dated now, but it is fun to discover the names of so many new authors who were regarded highly in a bygone era).
Alan Lightman describes how he discovered his favourite book ‘Far Away and Long Ago’ by W.H.Hudson.
A number of years ago, before the days of amazon.com, I journeyed cross-country to Powell’s bookstore in Portland, Oregon in a last attempt to find a certain long-out-of-print book by W.H.Hudson. I was already a great admirer of Hudson’s more famous Green Mansions, a terribly sad novel about a romance in the green forests of South America that had haunted me for years. After wandering through acres and acres of used books at Powell’s, I entered a small clearing and spotted the relevant shelf. And there, I found five copies of the object of my desire. Out of good sportmanship, I bought only three.
Lightman will be puzzled to discover that Powell’s has also become Powells.com now 🙂
Susan Musgrave, in her essay, quotes this from the book ‘The Name and Nature of Poetry’ by A.E.Housman :
…poetry gives the most pleasure when only generally and not perfectly understood, that perfect understanding will sometimes almost extinguish pleasure.
This is one of my most favourite lines from the book. One of my friends said that music is a beautiful language which sometimes describes things which words can’t. I think that it is true of poetry too, though poetry uses words.
Sam Solecki says these beautiful words, while writing about William Gass’ ‘On Being Blue’ :
…the use of language like a lover…not the language of love but the love of language, not matter, but meaning, not what the tongue touches, but what it forms…
Ronald Wright writes about how William Golding’s ‘Pincher Martin’ is about scary themes :
…the book transcends belief to examine conscience and consciousness; remembrance and destiny; the rise of our personality and our species; and the forces inside ourselves that we have every reason to fear, for behind us are a million years of ruthless victories.
In the afterword to the book, Javier Marias writes about how he discovered an old-fashioned bookstore, during one of his travels. His description goes like this :
During a recent trip to Buenos Aires, a city I was visiting for the first time, I rediscovered a type of dealer in old books whom I thought had disappeared from the face of the earth, except, perhaps, from England, where everything seems to persist in its original or Dickensian state. I mean the type of book dealer who knows absolutely nothing about what he stocks and sells, and therefore doesn’t mark his books with prices, but decides how much to charge on the spot after hearing the prospective buyer’s query, and particularly the tone in which it is made. Such a dealer is guided less by binding, the print run, the date of the edition or the author than by the interest betrayed in the customer’s way of looking at and handling a particular volume. These are people who have been seasoned or, rather, trained by years of experience watching their customers browse. For these men, we buyers must, I suppose, be an open book; our reaction tells them much more about the tome in our hands than that tome could have told them when it was resting on its shelf a minute before. They know nothing about their wares but they do know how to drill into the human psyche; they’ve learned to interpret the slight trembling of fingers that go to the spine of the book, the momentary blinking of someone who can’t believe his eyes are seeing the title they’ve sought for years; they know how to perceive the speed with which you seize this long-wanted but unfindable book…
My Lost Classics
I loved reading ‘Lost Classics’. Each essay in it gave me a lot of pleasure. Reading it made me feel nostalgic and think about the books that I had loved and lost when I was younger. This book also increased the length of my ‘TBR’ list considerably J If you are one of those people who likes reading books on books and who feels nostalgic about books which you loved and lost, you will love this book.
This book also inspired me to make a list of my own lost classics. After some careful thought, I compiled a list. This is what it looks like :
(1) ‘The Grand Babylon Hotel’ by Arnold Bennett
This was a book which my dad read to me and my sister when I was in school. It was one of our favourite stories then. We had borrowed this book from one of my dad’s friends, but the language level was probably too difficult for me to read. Both my sister and I loved the story. My mom read it too. (The story went like this : An American millionaire, Mr.Racksole is dining with his daughter Helen at a London hotel. When his daughter wants something which is not on the menu – a filleted steak – and the hotel chef declines to make that item, because it is a fine-dining restaurant, the millionaire gets annoyed and buys the hotel. This starts a sequence of mysterious and adventurous events and unexpected things happen after that.) Then this book disappeared from the face of the earth. When I remembered about it nostalgically many years later and tried looking for it, it was impossible to find. Bennett’s ‘The Old Wives’ Tale’ was more easily available, but ‘The Grand Babylon Hotel’ was lost. I was extremely disappointed. Then during one of my searches at different bookstores, one of the bookstore managers told me that she could get it for me. She contacted a publishing company which specialized in publishing out-of-print books and they somehow had a copy of this and I got it after a while. I read the book again and it brought back a lot of old fond memories and the book was as good this time as it was the first time I heard the story. It is one of my alltime favourite books and I still treasure my out-of-print copy. If you would like to read this book online, you can find it here
(2) Physics for Entertainment by Ya. Perelman
This was one of the books that I got when I was in school. At that time Russian books published in English, which were in hardbound editions, used to be sold for really low prices. There was a book exhibition in my school where they had Russian books on display, and that is where I got Perelman’s book. It is a classic of its time and explains physics using everyday events and concepts in layman’s language. It covers mostly classical physics and so doesn’t have things like quantum mechanics and string theory. It is a pleasure to read. I lent it to one of my friends during college days and had forgotten about it. Recently, while I was in a bookshop, I saw one volume of this book brought out by an American publisher (the original was published by Progress Publishers, Moscow during the Soviet days). The publisher had mentioned in the edition that the other volume of the book has been lost. I then remembered the copy I had owned. Luckily, the friend to whom I had lent the book, was still my friend. I wrote to him and asked him whether he had it still. It had been so many years since I lent it to him and so I thought it might be possible that it had been lost. But my friend surprised me by saying that he still had it in his parents’ place. The next time he went to his parents’ place, he got it and sent it to me. I was thrilled when I saw it! This was really a lost-and-found treasure.
(3) Peter the Great by Alexei Tolstoy
This was another book by a Russian writer that I got during the old times when the world was a different place. Alexei Tolstoy is related to the more famous Leo Tolstoy, but is lesser known. ‘Peter the Great’ is a novel which is based on the life of the Russian czar, who brought momentous changes to Russia. Alexei Tolstoy’s reputation sunk in later years probably because he supported the Soviet regime and Stalin and probably no one reads his works these days. I am sure all of his books are out-of-print, with only a few copies lying quietly in the back-row of bookshelves of readers like me. It is sad in some ways, because an author’s political work and beliefs sometimes impact the way posterity views his literary work and though sometimes we try to separate a person’s life from his work (for example, Herman Melville was a nasty person in real-life and we recognize that, but we also recognize his genius in ‘Moby Dick’. We sometimes hate Ted Hughes for his shabby treatment of Sylvia Plath, both when he was his wife, and after she died, but that didn’t prevent him from becoming a Poet Laureate), but with respect to Alexei Tolstoy, his political work and beliefs probably resulted in his literary work being sidelined. It is sad because he was a real good writer.
(4) One, Two, Three… Infinity : Facts and Speculations of Science by George Gamov
I saw this book in a pavement bookshop during college days. It was an edition published in the 60s. The bookseller sold it to me at a ridiculously low price. I haven’t heard of George Gamov before. After reading the first page of the book, I got hooked into it. It started with simple descriptions of numbers, delved into infinity and its different types (I didn’t know that there were different types of infinities before), and then goes on to talk about physics, chemistry, astronomy, the origin of the universe, the origin of life and other exciting topics. It is written for the general reader and it is wonderful. I lent my copy to a friend of mine and as it happened many times those days, we moved houses and cities and the book got lost in the cracks. Then a few years back while browsing in a bookstore, to my pleasant surprise, I recognized my old friend in the new arrival section! I immediately got it and read it from the first to the last page. It was as good and fresh as when I read it the first time. It is one of my treasured books in my personal library now 🙂
(5) Manimozhi Nee Ennai Maranthu Vidu (Manimozhi, Do forget me) by Tamilvanan
Tamilvanan was a writer who wrote murder mysteries, thrillers, self-help books and inspiring essays in my mother tongue, Tamil. He was a writer of a bygone era. He was quite famous in the 1960s and the 1970s and his books were all bestsellers. In those days, his novels were ‘hot’ in the library and it was difficult to get one of his books as they were very much in demand. Tamilvanan wrote in pure Tamil and he avoided using English words in his books. So, though the language in his books sounded contrived, they were a pleasure to read. For example, he never used ‘juice’ but used the Tamil equivalent ‘pazharasam’ which literally meant ‘the tasty water squeezed out of a fruit’ – here ‘zh’ is pronounced as ‘l’ but is stressed by folding the tongue. The names of the characters in his books were also quite original and beautiful. For example the name of the main character in this book is Manimozhi which means ‘someone whose voice is melodious like the music of a bell’. The names of some of the characters in his other books were ‘Kayalvizhi’(‘someone who has beautiful eyes in the shape of a fish’), ‘Malarkodi’ (‘someone who has the beautiful thin curving body like a creeper’), ‘Naavalan’(‘someone who is eloquent’). ‘Manimozhi Nee Ennai Marandhu Vidu’ is one of his most famous works. It is a story about a dad, who reveals to his daughter that he is part of a criminal gang and he is going to die soon and he asks her to escape and run away to another city. What happens to the daughter and the interesting adventures she has form the rest of the story. In later years, after I came to work, I went to the office of the publishers which published his books (the publishing company was owned by Tamilvanan and later by his sons) and got all of his novels that they had on display. Most of them were the last copies they had and they said that they were not planning to print them again as the readers’ taste has changed. But ‘Manimozhi Nee Ennai Maranthu Vidu’ was missing and the last copy of the book had been sold out. (One of the reasons given by the bookstore assistant for the company not reissuing Tamilvanan’s novels was that in an earlier era, Tamilvanan described one murder in a book and how an investigator resolved it. But today in TV there are movies and serials which have a lot of murders and so Tamilvanan’s stories had become dated. I didn’t agree with his reasoning, but I did agree with the fact that reading had come down and TV viewing had gone up). When I went to the annual book exhibition in my city last year, I discovered to my surprise that ‘Manimozhi Nee Ennai Marandhu Vidu’ has been re-issued again. I was really thrilled and got a copy. It is one of my treasured possessions in my bookshelf now.
I am happy to say that I have regained all my ‘lost classics’ 🙂
Can you remember books which you had loved and lost? What does your list of ‘Lost Classics’, look like?
Posted in Book Review | Tagged Alexei Tolstoy, Arnold Bennett, Books on books, Brick magazine, George Gamov, Lost Classics, Tamilvanan, Ya Perelman | 25 Comments
AND THE PRODUCTION OF MYTH
George Elliott Clarke
Myth can be read as a synonym for literature and, more particularly, for the archetypal literature that anchors every culture. A glimmer of the latter sense lingers in the contemporary lustre of the former. Michael Ondaatje uses myth to refer to the primeval power of story. In his article on Howard O'Hagan's wilderness novel, Tay John, Ondaatje praises the author for his ability to present the "raw power of myth,"1 noting the paucity of "original myth" with "original rawness"2 in other writing. Tay John is
... powerful because of the way O'Hagan has found it and
retold it.... O'Hagan truly understands where the dramatic
sources of myth lie.3
Indeed, myth is not just story, it is a production that involves the reader. "Myth," Ondaatje writes, "is biblical, surreal, brief, imagistic."4
Moreover, as Northrop Frye observes of The Holy Bible, "a myth takes its place in a mythology, an interconnected group of myths. . . ."5 Ondaatje's works are so alike that each is best read as an adjunct of the others. They form a canon: they must be read in the light and the shadow of each other before their individual illuminations or obscurities can be seen. Hence, in the same manner that characters, events, and metaphors can seem to mirror each other in the Old Testament and the New, they can also seem to mirror each other in the complete works of an author. In this sense, The Dainty Monsters and Secular Love enlighten and inform each other.
Myth is also amoral: a rumour blossoms into truth; a scientific law decays into superstitition; a historical event segues into a novel; fact and fiction haunt, possess, each other. Ondaatje observes that "Somebody tells you a rumour and that becomes a truth. "6 Because myth--as generic structure--treats absolutes like "truth" and "falsehood" as mere words, equally valid, distinctions between genres vanish. History and fiction therefore become one. Hayden White writes that "history is no less a form of fiction than the novel is a form of historical representation." Story arises from fiction; history arises from the fiction of fact.
Furthermore, myth and literature are one corpus: myth is the skeleton; literature, the flesh. To examine syntax, grammar, or punctuation is to discover myth. Frye agrees:
Literature is conscious mythology: as society develops, its
mythical stories become structural principles of story-telling,
its mythical concepts, sun-gods and the like, become habits
of metaphorical thought.8
Literature is, then, the overlay of technique and genre upon myth, its formal basis. It is a secret discourse, hidden in the lilt of the pentameter or the sonorous, stately progression of prose.
If the structure of language creates myth, the process of language fosters drama. Each sentence is its own script; grammar engenders ritual. Frye explains that "ritual, as the content of action, is something continuously latent in the order of words."9 Hence, oratory, gestures and flourishes intact, still cries from the printed page, and the slow, deliberate revelation of narrative is mimed eloquence.
Myth, therefore, is drama, the story of mutability--the tendency of matter to become something other than what it first appears to be. All literature is merely a metaphor of this first myth. Thus, "plot" is action that produces change. Ondaatje's oeuvre chronicles, then, the genesis of myth from structure, the fiction of fact, the generality of genre, the imprecision of definition, and the realization of form as a dramatic forum for the play of metaphor. This article surveys the innate drama of his work.
For Ondaatje, storytelling is the narration of myth. He pursues a dramaturgy employing the tension among different myths, different points of view. From The Dainty Monsters to Secular Love, Ondaatje has transposed his perceptions into a canon that descants upon the dramatic promiscuity of myth. 10
The Dainty Monsters, published in 1967, is a first collection (or rather, bestiary) of poems. The book is divided into two sections. The first, "Over the Garden Wall," features lyrics which treat animals or domestic matters; the second, "Troy Town," features poems which updateGreek myths, two of which are numbered sequences: "Peter" and "Paris." Monsters introduces Ondaatje's notion of myth as exotic, amoral, violent, and recurrent. This idea, which structures all of his work, is expressed concisely in "The Diverse Causes" and "In Another Fashion." These poems provide a study of Ondaatje's myth-making in Monsters and, by extension, his subsequent works.
The recurrence of myth is the principal idea explored in "The Diverse Causes." The poem opens with an epigraph printed in what seems to be Early Modem English, reminding the reader that it is only one more in a long line of poems on married life and domesticity: "lovers callyth to their mynde olde jantylnes and olde servyse, and many kynde dedes that was forgotyn by neclygence." The epigraph is itself the "old gentleness and old service" of such previous writings and illustrates the birth of literature out of myth. In the poem, a dog is reincarnated as "a May god" and the home as "a cell of civilized magic." Indeed, a sense of the past is conveyed by language itself. For instance, verbs such as "clean" and "fetch" derive from old Germanic roots and thus articulate a domestic vision that echoes the past world. Moreover, nouns like "cloud" and "god," verbs like "reflect" and "sleep," and consonantal correspondences such as "window hangs" and "winter hunters" recur, plotting the unfolding drama like a Greek chorus. This practice follows Ondaatje's precept for myth-making: "repeating and building images and so making them more potent."11 In fact, "Myth is . . . achieved by a very careful use of echoes--of phrases and images." 12
"In Another Fashion" addresses the recurrence and the violence of myth. In the lyric, the speaker turns from the spontaneous, backyard performance of a cat "rippling shoulder / on a strip of fence" and declares:
We must build new myths
to wind up the world,
provoke new christs
with our beautiful women,
thin boned birds
to claw carpets
majesty in a sway . . . .
The speaker becomes a critic, moving from observance to prescription, demanding "new myths" to "wind up" or re-order the world and engender new faiths, even one based on regal birds which "betray / majesty in a sway." A prototype of the poem stresses the radical violence of mythical re-creation:
We must provoke new christs with our beautiful women
challenge them to a new mental war
a new consideration . . . . 13
These ambiguous lines can refer to the "christs" and the "women"; most importantly, they attack an ancien régime of myth that has become irrelevant because it has ceased to inspire "consideration" or violent newness of thought. The speaker states that "The heavens bored / leave us to ourselves / kill us by granting our wishes." The speaker challenges the reader to create anew by cultivating the unusual: "Re [sic] establish the exotic: / plumed / thin-boned birds." Myth demands original strangeness.
Moreover, the dramatic nature of myth-making derives partly from the implicit violence of the "exotic." William Righter writes that "the claim of the exotic may be a part of the shock tactics of a writer who consciously uses his mythical material for the effect of contrast."14 Ondaatje employs contrast-by-juxtaposition liberally: in "Diverse Causes," "Stravinsky" accompanies "powdered milk"; in "In Another Fashion," "new christs" appear with "thin-boned birds." Myths address each other in a startling verbal collage. Hence, for Ondaatje, Colombian author Gabriel Garcia Marquez's novel, One Hundred Years of Solitude, is "Excess caught so surely and dreamily that it becomes real."15 Thus, baroque statement, gaudy décors, and grand actions suit the theatre of literature, and myth is fact costumed in an exotic excess of supposition.
Monsters explores, in general, the spontaneous production and reproduction of the artifice of myth, noting its drama, violence, exoticism, and amorality. This latter aspect of myth is demonstrated powerfully in an uncollected poem, published one year after Monsters, on the Vietnam War: "Pictures from the War."16 The "pictures," including one of a child--its "skull drained of liquid / its side unlaced like tennis shoes"--are "Beautiful photography / that holds nomorality." Although an audience may choose to discover a moral in a myth, myth remains amoral. John Berger notes that "A paper like the Sunday Times continues to publish shocking photographs about Vietnam or about Northern Ireland whilst politically supporting the policies responsible for the violence. "17 Indeed, the photographs depoliticize the war: "The picture becomes evidence of the general, human condition."18 Likewise, poetic description, even of America's Vietnam trauma, can be as bleakly precise as "beaches white ... geometry / abstract with oil drums."
The production of dramatic myth achieves its greatest manifestation in The Collected Works of Billy the Kid, published in 1970. The book employs lyrics, prose, photographs, and a shifting point of view to dramatize its story about the murderous consequences of mis-characterization and the tendency of facts to mean different--and even dangerous--things to different people. Works is a fictional history which purports to tell the true story of an event; in this case, the fatal interplay between the opposing myths represented by Billy the Kid and Pat Garrett.
The prose piece that begins with the statement "Not a story about me through their eyes then" (20) affirms the putative author's attempt to create his own myth. The speaker challenges the reader to "Find the beginning, the slight silver key to unlock it, to dig it out" (20), referring tantalizingly perhaps to the text that hides as much as it reveals. This challenge reveals the endlessly allusive elusiveness of myth, where the beginning is never simply the first word of any literary performance but the history and experience of language up to the writing of the first word. Thus, "the maze to begin, be in" (20) describes the center of myth, where thought is free to wander any twisting path to an unforeseen conclusion. The metaphor is just because Ondaatje portrays his artist-characters as maze builders, web spinners, star makers, or net weavers whose nemeses are sleuths or policemen who will do anything to undo the mystery of artists' creations. The speaker asserts "there is nothing of depth, of significant accuracy, of wealth in the image, I know. It is there for a beginning" (20), admitting the difficulty of explanation, portraying the actual silence that rests, like a black hole, in the center of discourse, always threatening to collapse language into an opaque clarity of eloquence, the dense white space of signifiers. The Kid notes:
I have seen pictures of great stars,
wings which show them straining to the centre
That would explode their white. . . . (41)
The trouble with silence is its fearsome tendency to implode or explode into discourse, the terrible center towards which all equilibrium or stasis strains.
Works conveys violence, a concern for immediacy before mediacy, in its form which can be said to create what Robin Mathews terms "protagonists who are usually anti-heroes for whom violence becomes an instrument of self-indulgence."19 These anti-heroes--the Kid, the sensual outlaw, and Garrett, the ascetic hired gun--depict the showdown between the sensory and the abstract. Creators, whether artists or inventors, create violence.
Photography illustrates the same point. The "shootings" that occur are either executed by photographers or by gunmen. Berger argues that such juxtaposition is deliberate:
The word trigger, applied to rifle and camera, reflects a correspondence which does not stop at the purely mechanical. The image seized by the camera is doubly violent and both violences reinforce the same contrast: the contrast between the photographed moment and all others.20
It is the contrast between life and death--and between reality and imagination. To take artistic aim at anything is to fine it up within the cross-hairs of a gun sight. The photographer is thus a dishonest killer. Indeed, the Kidis caught in the radial system of narrative that fans around each photograph, possessing the same dangers as a maze, trap, net, spider web, or star--whether it be Garrett's star-shaped badge or The Texas Star newspaper interview: those of pinning a subject in a morgue of definition where, stiff and frozen, he may be seen, blurred or disfigured.
An adjacent prose piece spotlights the apparent entrance of the hidden author, Ondaatje, onto the stage of his work to discuss the disjuncture between the Kid's death and the persistence of his "legend." Ondaatje presents the skeleton of the man and then the living corpus of his myth:
Imagine if you dug him up and brought him out. You'd see very little. . . . The arms would be cramped on the edge of what was the box. And a pair of handcuffs holding ridiculously the fine anide bones ....
His legend a jungle sleep .... (97)
The work pans immediately from this statement of the Kid's resurrection in the corpus of myth to a comic book excerpt that depicts a bizarre double: a Mexicanzed Kid whose speech is a romanticization of cowboy-gunslinger lingo:
"See them sawtooth peaks, Caballo? There's a little town
yonder with a real cold cerveza and a fat lady who can cook
Mexican food better 'n anybody in the world!" (99)
Although Garrett has managed to box the Kid in a grave (a photographic frame), he is still free to enter and leave history as he wishes because of his protean immortality as a mythic character: "His legend a jungle sleep."
In his acknowledgements in Works, Ondaatje confesses that the just-completed action has not been faithful to history, listing several "basic sources" of the legend that he has "edited, rephrased, and slightly reworked" (110). Only emotions still "belong to their authors" (110).
Rat Jelly , a collection of forty poems published in 1973, focusses, like Monsters, on mythopoeia. Indeed, myth-making, as a subject, distinguishes "Letters & Other Worlds," and "Spider Blues" as important poems. They demonstrate once again the violence and vitality of Ondaatje's mythopoeia.
"Letters & Other Worlds" introduces the seminal mythmaker in Ondaatje; namely, his father, a point underscored in Running in the Family. In the poem, an elegy, the speaker's father is sketched in lyrical anecdotes which recount the production of literature. Thus, the speaker notes: "His letters were a room he seldom lived in / In them the logic of his love could grow." The " room" recalls the maze metaphor pictured in Works (20) and the infinite difficulty of creation and interpretation. The idea that "His letters were a room his body scared" stresses the futility of discourse.
The poem also blurs genres. The first two strophes, in their iambic aspiration, resemble blank verse but convey the nuances of the ballad. Given that the rest of the poem is written in vers libre, their loose blank verse isolates them in meaning as well as music. They compose a dramatic chorus, commenting on action from which they remain apart. Here are the first two lines of the first strophe:
My fá ther's bó / dy wás / a glóbe / of féar
His bó dy wás / a tówn / we név / er knéw . . .
The drama in "Letters & Other Worlds" is the disjuncture between creation--the composition of epistles--and destruction--the drink-induced decomposition of brain and body. This conflict generates the current of metaphor that charges the first three and the last two strophes. A special affinity exists between the third strophe:
He came to death with his mind drowning
. . . . later
fell the length of his body
so that brain blood moved
to new compartments
that never knew the wash of fluid
and he died in minutes of a new equilibrium
and the concluding tenth:
Letters in a dear hand of the most complete empathy
his heart widening and widening and widening
to all manner of change in his children and friends
. . . till he balanced and fell
the length of his body
the blood screaming in
the empty reservoir of bones
the blood searching in his head without metaphor
Metaphoric collusion creates truth. The idea of brain blood moving blind, lost, in the mystery of the skull mirrors the movement of the reader through the "maze" of Works (20): all movement is blind. The radial movement of "his heart widening and widening and widening" recalls similarly the expansionist tendency of myth to absorb and transform--like a photograph, a star, or a spider web--its subject.
The finest example of mythopoeia in Jelly is "Spider Blues," a long poem that presents the artist as spider, spinning "webs" of myths. The strongest link between artist and spider is their patient practice of their disciplines:
I admire the spider, his control classic,
making lines out of the juice in his abdomen.
A kind of writer I suppose.
He thinks a path and travels
the emptiness that was there . . .
The "emptiness" the spider navigates resembles the desert intruded upon by the Kid and his confederates in Works. It is the world bereft of myth--a "desert of facts" (134) like that encountered by police detective Webb in Slaughter. Myth-making turns such deserts into lush jungles: the Kid is resurrected from his and grave through his legend--"a jungle sleep" (97). (The space that surrounds Ondaatje's poems accents the intrusion of text into silence and the transformation of blankness into art.) The invention of the "path" charts the maze that subsequent explorers must recreate with every new encounter. The observation that "Spiders like poets are obsessed with power" reminds the reader of the rational violence that underlies genesis. The power to create is "murderous art."
The final strophe is a myth within a myth. The tale spun by the narrator is that recouped from spiders--"working black architects"--who have borne aloft his wife--"the lady locked in their dream their theme." The scene recalls two episodes in Gàrcia Màrquez's One Hundred Years of Solitude: the ascension of Remedios the Beauty and the dragging off, by his caul, of the last descendant of the Buendias, an infant boy with a pig's tail, by a long line of army ants.21 The spiders are efficient engineers:
They had surpassed themselves this time
and with the white roads
their eight legs built with speed
they carried her up--her whole body
into the dreaming air so gently
did not wake or scream.
What a scene. So many trails
room was a shattered pane of glass.
Everybody clapped, all the flies.
They came and gasped, all everybody cried at the beauty . . .
This act of creation is dramatic. The audience--like flies--applauds the fantastic marvel--the immanent surrealism of gesture becoming sculpture. It is also violent, leaving shattered glass (a major motif in Slaughter). It represents the intrusion of life into art. Coming Through Slaughter, Ondaatje's first novel, published in 1976, employs lyrics, interviews, hospital records, a faded photograph, and a sonograph to tell the story of Buddy Bolden, a founder of jazz. Slaughter features a chorus of metaphor, a parade of events conveyed in a telegraphic style that suspends standard grammar to produce a more immediate narration. Moreover, like Works, the novel translates reality into myth, life into art.
An anonymous narrator opens Slaughter by reviewing the remains of the past, the artifacts of facts, still visible in mid-1970s New Orleans, Louisiana, the cradle of jazz. He notes that Bolden's old district, "the homes and stores, are a mile or so from the streets made marble by jazz" (8). In fact, the narrator reveals that
There are no songs about Gravier Street or Phillips or First or The Mount Ararat Missionary Baptist Church his mother lived next door to, just the names of the streets written vertically on the telephone poles or the letters sunk into pavement that you walkover. (8)
This manifest, natural forgetfulness echoes the vast silence of Bolden's biography, a life performed "away from the recorded history- (10).
This mythicizing of Bolden is appropriate for he is an inveterate myth-maker, who employs the same techniques and practices the same philosophy as Ondaatje. Bolden teaches children "tall tales which they learned to sift down to the real" (13); he edits The Cricket, a catalogue of gossip: "All the information [Bolden] was given [was] put unedited into the broadsheet" (13). Bolden's newspaper is a newsprint collage whose effect is, as Thomas G. Rosenmeyer argues of poetic creation, "not one of information but one of communion."22 Moreover, its inclusiveness mimics the technique of the book itself:
It respected stray facts, manic theories, and well-told lies. . . .
Bolden took all the thick facts and dropped them into his pail of sub-history. (24)
Bolden is the metaphorical antecedent of the narrator in Running in the Family who states, "a well-told lie is worth a thousand facts" (206). And, like the speaker in "Spider Blues," Bolden sees The Cricket as a web-like creation. Thus, his informants and correspondents are "spiders" (24).
Bolden critiques his fellow artists in what can be called Ondaatje terms. Upon hearing the radio broadcast of an indecipherable crisis, Bolden complains that the reporters "were not being dear, they were not giving me the history of it all, and I didn't know who was supposed to be the hero of the story"(93). He desires news as accessible as fiction. Bolden excoriates his rival John Robichaux for the allegedly dictatorial plotting of his music:
I loathed everything he stood for. He dominated his audiences. He put his emotions into patterns which a listening crowd had to follow. (93)
Robichaux's music is an "obvious" as opposed to "well-told" lie. It is too evident. Bolden desires spontaneity and chance. He wants his audience "to be able to come in where they pleased and leave when they pleased and somehow hear the germs of the start and all the possible endings at whatever point in the music I had reached" (94). He wants them to be free to wander in and out of his music as if it were a web or maze. Bolden thus obeys Ondaatje's dictum that "you have to lead the audience into your own perpetual sense, [while] having a responsibility to lead them out again."23 Bolden agrees:
The right ending is an open door you can't see too far out of. It can mean exactly the opposite of what you are thinking. (94)
Spontaneity is all. The artist must be a liberal Pied Piper, allowing his audience to blunder upon surprises, to stumble within vast radii of metaphors for art: stars, nets, mazes, webs, fans, wheels, circles, brains, windows, photographs, cages, rooms, docks, hearts, compasses, skin, blood, snow, rain, sheets, sun, ears, sounds, clouds, or languages, all of which recur in Ondaatje's work.
The artist plays dictator at his peril. The difference between Robichaux and Bolden is that the former desires to dominate, the latter does not. Bolden's ambivalent attitude sounds the climactic scene in which the cornetist translates himself, via his own music, into a heaven of silence. Though he leads an apparently festive parade, Bolden moves, incited by the undulating audience of a girl in a red dress, beyond his fellow musicians (and music itself) into silence:
March is slowing to a stop and as it floats down slow to a thump I take off and wail long notes jerking the squawk into the end of them . . . throw the notes off the walls of people. . . and the girl is alive now mirroring my throat in her lonely, tired dance, the street silent but for us her tired breath I can hear. . .. [I]t comes up flooding past my heart in a mad parade, it is coming through my teeth, it is into the comet, god can't stop god can't stop it can't stop the air the red force ... no intake gasp, so deep blooming it up god I can't choke it the musk still pouring in a roughness I've never hit, watch it, listen it listen it, can't see I CAN'T SEE. Air floating through the blood to the girl red hitting the blind spot I can feel others turning, the silence of the crowd, can't see.... (130-31)
Both Bolden and the girl are lost in the web of his performance. The only exit is silence. Hers is temporary; his, final. The language of this passage suggests the same: the hurtling, tumbling images, impatient with punctuation, falling, pell mell, one atop the other, like a chain reaction of acrobats, end in sudden opacity, the stark. blindness of "can't see," the visual discovery of a silence where nothing need be stated because all is understood.
After this apocalyptic tango, the present-day narrator notes that "The place of his music is totally silent" (133). Yet, in death, Bolden is a "famous musician" (133). Like Billy the Kid, his legend survives his decomposition:
There is the complete absence of him -- even his skeleton has
softened, disintegrated, and been lost in the water under the
earth of Holtz cemetery. (133)
The corpse has become a corpus; the body has become a body of works. Indeed, the life of Bolden has become a collection of myths, as Ondaatje, playing narrator, reveals:
Some saying you went mad trying to play the devil's music and hymns at the same time' and Armstrong telling historians that you went mad by playing too hard and too often drunk too wild too crazy. The excesses cloud up the page. (134)
The "excesses" are myths with which Ondaatje supplants the "desert of facts" (134).
At this juncture, the identification between Ondaatje and Bolden, hinted at throughout the novel, becomes complete. "When he went mad," Ondaatje, the putative narrator, states, "he was the same age as I am now" (133). The elaborate, radial myth that Ondaatje has cast to picture Bolden appears to picture himself instead: "The photograph moves," he notes, "and becomes a mirror" (133). Representation is self-representation:
When I read he stood in front of mirrors and attacked himself, there was the shock of memory. For I had done that. Stood, and with a razor-blade cut into cheeks and forehead, shaved hair. (133)
Discussing the alienating effect of photographs, Berger argues that the only remedy is the re-creation of the milieu from which the photograph--seized time and space--has been separated: "A radial system has to be constructed around the photograph so that it may be seen in terms which are simultaneously personal, political, economic, dramatic, everyday, and historic."24Slaughter is a radial system of myth constructed around the faded photograph of Bolden and his band. Yet, the collage of fictions Ondaatje assembles to portray Bolden reveals himself in the end.
Slaughter closes with an archetypal Ondaatje confession of the origins of story in history and biography:
While I have used real names and characters and historical situations I have also used more personal pieces of friends and fathers. There have been some date changes, some characters brought together, and some facts have been expanded or polished to suit the truth of fiction. (159)
The fictionalization of truth creates "the truth of fiction." Ondaatje maintains that "art is . . . deceit. "25
This artistic stance is exemplified, Eli Mandel asserts, by an informal formalism which employs "The anecdotal as opposed to the syntactical, poetry as story not as form, and as prose; not the line but the paragraph, not the margin but the whole page, not grammar but the list, not style but voice."26Slaughter exploits all of these informalist techniques as illustrated by the passage, quoted earlier, about the "pail of sub-history." The unpunctuated happenstance of anecdote is seen in the passage's rushes of emotive repetition--"god can't stop god can't stop"; the unmetrical flow of imagism infuses the prose with the spontaneity of poetry: "Air floating through the blood to the girl red hitting the blind spot"; the passage is a catalogue of actions separated by commas: "it is coming through my teeth, it is into the comet." The voice is hurried, frenzied, hurtling into silence like a roller coaster that jumps its tracks and smashes into a stone wall. These techniques obscure the deceitfulness of art, the "lies that are obvious." According to Rosenmeyer, "the poet who cites his sources (often, in parodic imitation of the historian, by means of learned notes) does so not to authenticate his link with presumed facts or events, but to sustain the force of his own [mythic] construction. . .27 The poet's work becomes a theatrical production.
There's a Trick with a Knife I'm Learning to Do, a verse collection, spans the years 1963-1978. Published in 1979, the book reprints selected poems from Monsters and Jelly but also features nineteen newer poems grouped in a section entitled "Pig Glass." These poems, in their concern for mythopoesis, echo the earlier mythic dramas. This point is illustrated by "Walking to Bellrock" and "Light."
"Walking to Bellrock" extends the concerns of "Letters & Other Worlds" while anticipating those of "Light." Like these poems, it transmutes autobiography and biography into history and myth. In an attempt to separate discursive from figurative language, the speaker asserts, "There is no metaphor here." Yet, his effort to render "the heat of the water, coldness of the rain, / smell of mud" is one more rhetorical trick with a knife. Indeed, the poem's first line is literally figurative: "Two figures in deep water" (my emphasis). The "figures" represent the narrator and his friend, Stan. The sixth strophe reference to "the silt of history" notes the accretion of detail that is essential to any textand can be compared tothe anarchic clash of facts that constitute the "sub-pail of history" (24) employed in Bolden's Cricket. Verbal trickery is betrayed by the seventh strophe assertion that "there is no history or philosophy or metaphor with us," for the next strophe employs surrealist imagery that manifests history, philosophy, and metaphor:
The problem is the toughness of the Adidas shoe
its three stripes gleaming like fish decoration.
The story is Russel's arm waving out of . . . a field.
The last image suggests that a story is an intrusive and dramatic gesture and reconstitutes nature as art. Thus, the speaker declares in the eighth strophe, 'the plot of the afternoon is to get to Bellrock." The afternoon walk is seen in historic, philosophic, metaphoric, and mythic terms.
"Light," a lustrous paean to family, is reminiscent of "Letters & Other Worlds" and prescient of Running in the Family. It is a photo-induced memory of things past:
Those relatives in my favourite slides
re-shot from old minute photographs so they now stand
complex ambiguous grainy on my wall.
The reference to photographs transforms the poem into a rogues gallery, populated by the same "complex ambiguous grainy" characters who people Works, Slaughter, and Family. The initial reverie introduces a fist of family fictions which, although bizarre, are never developed enough to allow a definitive conclusion. The poem remains a prosaic mosaic of "fragments": "These are their fragments, all I remember, / wanting more knowledge of them. . . ." The last strophe recalls the catalytic role of the photograph: the speaker watches his relatives "parade in my brain and the expanding stories / connect to the grey grainy pictures on the wall." The "expanding stories" represent again the radius of myth. "Light" affirms Ondaatje's view of mythopoeia and develops further the autobiographical perspective which is even more pronounced in his later work.
Indeed, Running in the Family, published in 1982, fulfills and extends the promise of "Light." This biographical novel opens with an account of its genesis that recalls the stage-setting evident in the first strophe of "Light." Complaining about the time his art consumes, the narrator affirms the spill of history through every production of myth: "Half a page--and the morning is already ancient" (17). The persistence of history is pronounced in the narrator's analysis of the word "Asia":
The name was a gasp from a dying mouth. An ancient word that had to be whispered, would never be used as a battle cry. (22)
Indeed, Family is obsessed with history as story:
No story is ever told just once. Whether a memory or funny hideous scandal, we will return to it an hour later and retell the story with additions and this time a few judgments thrown in. In this way history is organized. (26)
History is organized identically in Bolden's ragtime rag, The Cricket. Like Bolden, the narrator asserts that "Truth disappears with history and gossip tells us in the end nothing of personal relationships" (53). History comprises fragments of "torn 100-year-old newspaper clippings that come apart in your hands like wet sand" (69) as well as tales spun by aunts who "knit the story together, each memory a wild thread in the sarong" (110). It is the narrator's task to effect history's collage but with malice toward none: "our job becomes to keep peace with enemy camps, ehminate the chaos at the end of Jacobean tragedies, and with 'the mercy of distance' write the histories" (179). "Honeymoon" illustrates the chaotic juxtaposition of events:
The headlines in the local papers said, "Lindberg's Baby Found--A Corpse!" Fred Astaire's sister, Adele, got married and the 13th President of the French Republic was shot to death by a Russian. (37)
Landscape suffers similar chaos. In "Tabula Asiae," for example, "Old portraits of Ceylon" are deemed "false maps": "The shapes differ so much they seem to be translations--by Ptolemy, Mercator, François Valentyn, Mortier, and Heydt--growing from mythic shapes into eventual accuracy" (63). The idea of Ceylon is suspended: "Ceylon floats on the Indian Ocean and holds its naive mountains, drawings of cassowary and boar who leap without perspective across imagined 'desertum' and plain" (63). Its invented maps mirror the blurred flotation of Bolden and band in the photo-developing sequence in Slaughter (52), and recall that book's opening: "His geography. Float by in a car" (8). In reality, there is only rumour: "The maps reveal rumours of topography" (64). This perpetual chaos is evident in the parade of names given the island-nation: "Serendip, Ratnapida ('island of gems'), Taprobane, Zeloan, Zeilan, Seyllan, Ceilon, and Ceylon [and now, Sri Lanka]" (64). Sri Lanka experiences the same metamorphosis as a photograph in Slaughter: "This pendant, once its shape stood still, became a mirror" (64).
Furthermore, the narrator, juxtaposing the tyrannies that ruled Sri Lanka in the 5th Century B.C. and 1971, conducts a political discussion of myth. He reveals that, during the early tyranny, jailed dissidents scratched "graffiti poems . . . onto the rock face of Sigirlya--the rock fortress of a despot king" (84). The poems were "Short verses to the painted women in the frescoes which spoke of love in all its confusions and brokenness" (84). Similarly, under a recent dictatorship, student dissidents imprisoned on a university campus, wrote "hundreds of poems . . . on walls, ceilings, and in hidden comers of the campus" (84). These poems were "Quatrains and free verse about the struggle, tortures, the unbroken spirit, love of friends who had died for the cause"(84). Under both tyrannies, prisoners became anonymous bards who etched their lines into stone. The similarities between the two tyrannies affirm that history is the recurrence of metaphor.
The communal nature of the Sigirian and Vidyalankaran prison poems mirrors the construction of Family. In his acknowledgements, Ondaatje declares, "A literary work is a communal act" (205). Therefore, while "Women Like You" is "the communal Poem-Sigiri Graffiti, 5th century," Family is a communal work, the child of "confused genealogies and rumour" (205). It is also a drarna, possessing the same theatricality as Shakespeare's histories. Thus, Ondaatje declares, "While all these names may give an air of authenticity, I must confess that the book is not a history but a portrait or 'gesture"' (206). Finally, the text is a radial system that, as in works and Slaughter, pictures others but ultimately reveals the self. The photographs (29,163) and stories of Ondaatje's forebears engender both his childhood photograph (183) and Family, his meditation on the necessity of memory. In the end, the architecture of myth reveals the architect.
The Sigirian frescoes that Ondaatje reveres in Family become the front cover of his next work, Secular Love, published in 1984. This collection of lyrics and prose poems explores Asia too. In fact, not surprisingly, Ondaatje considers Love a novel:
I structured it like one. For me its structure and plot are
novelistic. Each section deals with a specific time period but
the people in them are interrelated.28
Its plot is conveyed through four distinct sections: "Claude Glass," "Tin Roof," "Rock Bottom," and "Skin Boat." Three extracts from the concluding section, "Skin Boat," should illustrate Ondaatje's myth-making in the book.
Because myth recurs, to write is always to quote. This proverb is affirmed by "The River Neighbour," an echo of Ezra Pound's poem "The River Merchant's Wife: A Letter."29 In his acknowledgements (128), Ondaatje states that "The River Neighbour" and "'Pacific Letter" are "not so much translations as relocations into my landscape, the earlier poets making their appearance in these poems." Therefore, mountains range, merging Asia and North America; even continents are only words:
All these rumours. You lodge in the mountains of Hang-
chou, a cabin in Portland township, or in Yüeh-chou for
sure. . . . (93)30
The compass of the whole points in one Zen-like direction: "somewhere in the east" (94). The poem accents the tendency of myth to mythologize the myth-maker, to accord the creator an identity that can appear a non-identity. The speaker states, "this letter paints me / transparent as I am" (93).
"In a Yellow Room" resurrects another jazz artist, Fats Waller, and stresses the interrelationship of myth and human relationships. Thus the speaker's appreciation of Waller is based upon the fraternity Waller's myth-making creates:
I have always loved him but I love him most in the company
of friends. Because his body was a crowd and we desire to
imitate such community. (119)
The likening of Waller's body to a crowd recalls the communal imagery of "Letter & Other Worlds": "My father's body was a ... town we never knew."
Love ends with a final prose piece, "Escarpment," a study of the free metamorphosis of life into literature and vice versa. The speaker and his lover, in conversation, discover "fragments of the past which they piece together" (126). And, amid fragments of ideas, he conducts his search for a name for the river:
It is not a name for a map--he knows the arguments of
imperialism. It is a name for them, something temporary for
their vocabulary, a code. (126)
Myth-making is thus continuous, reflexive, and prophetic.
To conclude, Ondaatje's oeuvre constitutes a mythology which dramatizes the creation and dissolution of myths. In Ondaatje's prose and poetry, myth issues from a landscape or stage of chaos and mirrors the source of its genesis. It is any created thing, being, action, and even the emptiness from which it is formed. It is always in motion, either becoming clearer or fading into chaos. It is eternal, submerging in one work to re-emerge in another. It is free to be--and do--whatever it desires, rendering genres irrelevant. Myth achieves its greatness when its most incredible elements seem authentic and believable. It arises spontaneously from metaphor. Its manifestation implies a concomitant negation. It is vastly inclusive and stringently exclusive; thus, it is symbolized by things that both include and exclude: net, web, maze, photograph, community,mirror, circle, and all other things--such as stars, towns, or cities--that radiate. Like nature, myth is creative and destructive. Provoking violence, it intrudes, camouflaged as text or music, jungle or wilderness, upon blank chaos that is sometimes desert or plain, white space or silence, mist, earth, or fog. Yet myth is also characterized by ambiguity and amorality. It resists definition even as it defines. It exists in a tension of utterance and silence, motion and stillness, reality and dream, never quite being the one without being the other. Its clarity is obfuscation and its obfuscation, clarity. The more it defines an object, the more it defines itself. Composed of fragments of myths (including lies and facts), myth appears in art as collage; in nature, as menagerie. Indeed, being individual and communal, myth incorporates all things. Thus, according to Ondaatje's work, it is truth.
As a private mythology, Ondaatje's works employ the tenets of contemporary poetics, including the notion that principles are relative, that anarchy is order. In his production of myth, Ondaatje follows Haskell Block's thesis that "The anarchy of twentiethcentury culture is the groundwork of personal myth."31 However, the act of creation, though anarchic, issues order. Personal myth redeems contemporary history. Indeed, Sam Solecki, perusing Family, declares that "Two generations from now all postmodern fiction / writing will be read as autobiography."32 Moreover, such writing is actually traditional: "The notion of personal myth is essentially a Romantic attitude," Block asserts. 33 The dream of an encyclopedic creation is a Romantic myth that fosters, in our time, "personal" myths ordering disorder.
Myth produces myth--the creation of one fiction from another. This cataclysm is natural, primitive, and dramatic. It represents the metamorphosis of metaphor. The chaos that precedes and follows creation is merely collapsed myth, an imploded star, a black hole in which everything is shadowy and nothing is certain. Myth is immanent in all things, but mainly, the order and disorder of words: "What remains in myth is," Righter writes, "a series of forms . . . a testimony to inner needs, a language to whose existence we may point, but which in an ultimate sense we can never read."34 Ondaatje's works are a self-conscious realization of the tensions created by the desire to read the inscrutable. From Monsters to Love, Ondaatje conveys the ambiguous effects of his constantly thwarted desire with metaphor which, producing myth, is obsessively dramatic.
1 Michael Ondaatje, "O'Hagan's Rough-Edged Chronicle," Canadian LiteraturE 61(Summer 1974): 24.
2 Ondaatje, "O'Hagan's" 24.
3 Ondaatje, "O'Hagan's" 25.
4 Ondaatje, "O'Hagan's" 25.
5 Northrop Frye, The Great Code. The Bible and Literature (Toronto: Academic Press, 1982) 33.
6Mark Witten, "Billy, Buddy, and Michael," Books in Canada Vol. 6, No.6 (June-July 1977): 9.
7 Hayden White, "The Fictions of Factual Representation," The Literature Of Fact, ed. Angus Fletcher (New York: Columbia University Press, 1976) 23.
8Northrop Frye, "Conclusion to a Literary History of Canada" The Bush Garden: Essays on the Canadian Imagination, ed. Northrop Frye (Toronto: House of Anansi Press Limited,1971) 232.
9Northrop Frye, The Anatomy of Criticism: Four Essays (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1957) 109.
10 In this article, "canon" is used to refer to these principal, Ondaatje texts: The Collected Works of Billy the Kid (Toronto: House of Anansi Press, 1970), Coming Through Slaughter (Toronto: House of Anansi Press, 1970), The Dainty Monsters (Toronto: Coach House Press, 1967), the man with seven toes (Toronto: Coach House Press, 1969), Rat Jelly (Toronto- Coach House Press, 1973), Running in the Family (Toronto: McClelland and Stewart Limited,1982), and Secular Love (Toronto: The Coach House Press, 1984).
11 Sam Solecki, "An Interview with Michael 0ndaatje (1984)," Spider Blues: Essays on Michael Ondaatje, ed. Sam Solecki (Montr6ah Vdhicule Press, 1985) 322.
12Ondaatje, "O'Hagan's" 25.
13Michael Ondaatje, "In Another Fashion," New Wave Canada: The Nezv Explosion in Canadian Poetry, ed. Raymond Souster (Toronto: Contact Press, 1966) 142.
14William Righter, Myth and Literature (London: Routledge & Kegan Paul Limited, 1971) 31.
15 Michael Ondaatje, "Gàrcia Màrquez and the Bus to Aracataca," Figures in a Ground. Canadian: Essays on Modem Literature, ed. Diane Bessai and David Jackel (Saskatoon: Western Producer Prairie Books, 1978) 25.
16 Michael Ondaatje, "Pictures from the War," Queen's Quarterly, Vol. LXXV, No. 2 (Summer 1968): 261.
17 John Berger, About Looking (New York: Pantheon Books, 1980) 38.
18 Berger, About Looking 40.
19 Robin Mathews, "Private Indulgence and Public Discipline: Violence in the English Canadian Novel Since 1960," in Violence in the Canadian Novel Since 1960 / Violence dans le roman canadien depuis 1960, eds. Virginia Harger-Grinling and Terry Goldie (St. John's: Memorial University Printing Services, 19[?]) 40.
20 Berger, About Looking 39.
21 Gabriel Gàrcia. Màquez, One Hundred Years of Solitude [Cien Anos de Soledad (Buenos Aires: Editorial Sudamericana, 1967)], trans. Gregory Rabassa (New York: Harper & Row, 1970) 242-43,420.
22 Thomas G. Rosenmeyer, "History or Poetry? The Example of Herodotus," Clio: A Journal of Literature, History, and the Philosophy History, Vol. 11, No. 3 (Spring 1982): 247.
23 Stephen Scobie and Douglas Barbour, "A Conversation with Michael Ondaatje," White Pelican, Spring 1971: 12.
24 Berger, About Looking 63.
25 Sam Solecki, "An Interview with Michael Ondaatje (1975)," Spider Blues: Essays on Michael Ondaatje, ed. Sam Solecki (Montréal: Véhicule Press, 1985) 23.
26 Eli Mandel, The Family Romance (Winnipeg: Turnstone Press, 1986) 76.
27 Rosenmeyer, "History or Poetry?" 247.
28 Solecki, "Ondaatje (1984)" 324.
29 Ezra Pound's poem, "The River Merchant's Wife: A Letter," is a free translation of "A Song of Ch'Ang-Kan," a poem written by T''ang Dynasty poet Li Po (circa 700-762 A.D.). Pound's version was first published in 1911 in Cathay, his collection of Imagist-influenced translations of Chinese poetry.
30 These lines are derived from the first two lines of a poem by T''ang Dynasty poet Tu Fu, entitled "To my Younger Brother": "Rumours that you lodge in a mountain temple / In Hang-chou, or in Yüeh-chou for sure." Translated by A. C. Graham, the poem appears on page 47 of Poems of the Late T'ang (Middlesex: Penguin, 1977).
31 Haskell M. Block, -The Myth of the Artist,- Literary Criticism and Myth: Yearbook of Comparative Criticism, Vol IX, ed. Joseph P. Strelka (Philadelphia: Pennsylvania State University Press, 1980) 18.
32 Sam Soleckt"Michael. Ondaatje: A Paper Promiscuous and Out of Forme with Several Inlargements and Untutored Narrative," Spider Blues: Essays on Michael Ondaatje, ed. Sam Solecki (Montréal: Véhicule Press, 1985) 341.
33 Block, "The Myth" 3.
34 Righter, Myth and Literature 22.