An Interview with Alan Garner
Introduction: Alan Garner needs interviewing for the readers of elimae for two reasons -- first, because he is quite clearly one of the few great writers of English to emerge after World War II, and second, because most American readers either know nothing about his work or only remember reading his work in childhood. (Worse yet, some may have encountered his novels in paperback in the early '80s, when they were ghettoized as adult science fiction and fantasy.) But while one can fairly easily argue that his first three novels are clearly "children's books," the next three -- The Owl Service (1967), Red Shift (1973) and The Stone Book Quartet (1976-1978) -- are nothing of the sort: they are instead work which share with Alice in Wonderland or Grimm's Fairy Tales the ability to appeal to, and have meaning for, adults as deeply as children. His seventh novel Strandloper (1996) is "officially" an adult novel, but one which is obviously built upon the stylistic foundation of his so-called children's work.
elimae: In one of the lectures collected in The Voice That Thunders (1997), you speak of having written one perfect paragraph (which you rightly refuse to identify). But the statement itself implies both that paragraphs can be perfect and that they can be identified as such. What does it take for a paragraph to be perfect? What about a sentence?
Alan Garner: I have to make some subjective definitions. It is probably impossible for me to transfer to the page what is seen in the head. There is a gap of loss. So, for me, 'bad' is the gap at its widest; and 'good' is that gap made small. However, occasionally I look at what is on the page and find that it contains something unseen and unplanned by the film director in the head (who is not 'me'). That is a degree of 'perfection', because it brings to the text something that I did not know was there. Theoretically, then, a sentence or a word can partake of 'perfection', and since writing the piece from which you have quoted (to be accurate, last week) I find that I have just completed a 'perfect' chapter. Objectively, of course, all such examples may well be rubbish.
elimae: Some critics and theoreticians would say that language itself has added in the unexpected material; that it is the nature of language to mean more than we intend. Would you agree with that, or would you argue for something else -- perhaps an operation of the collective unconscious or even the Muse in the mind of the writer?
Alan Garner: I agree with both. One of the benefits of the aging process is that the collective unconscious becomes less and less a matter for conjecture. And language means more than we intend, because all language is at source not concrete but metaphor. The study of etymology is a voyage into poetry.
elimae: There would seem to be a kinship between your work and the work of the Welsh poet and artist David Jones: a close attention to myth, to the British landscape, to the history that suffuses that landscape. Have you read Jones? If so, can you comment on his work in relation to yours?
Alan Garner: I find no affinity with David Jones. For my taste, he is intentionally opaque and self-referential. He may wish to be so, and I should defend his freedom to the end. We are carving from the same wood, but the artifacts, for me, have nothing else in common.
elimae: I have written, in reviews, of your work as "Modernist". Does such a label disturb or please you in any way? Does it seem at all accurate?
Alan Garner: The French analytical linguistic philosophers irritate me, since I don't like to be defined, and thereby limited, for the reader; but it is no more than that. If they choose to miss the point, or to make the point other, then it is their concern, not mine. What I do object to is when they chastize me for not complying with their (from my view) ossified and prescribed perceptions. It is the old cliché that philately may be the proper occupation of consenting adults, but it has nothing to do with the postman.
elimae: What if I were to define the term "Modernism" more specifically -- which I suppose means that I am simply giving it my own definition -- and suggest that there is in your work (or perhaps I should say "I see in your work") an apparent agreement with such Modernist dicta as "No ideas but in things" or "Direct presentation of the thing"? Arguably this is nothing more than a restatement of classical principles, and maybe -- at the other end of the 20th century -- they were seen most clearly in the early work of H.D.
Alan Garner: My intelligence fails. All I can offer is that I write as few words as possible and describe the minimum of activity. For instance, there is rarely any mention of the physical appearance of a character, nor is dialogue indicated by other than the verb 'to say', if at all. I do not tell the reader what the character is thinking or feeling, unless I enter the character for a moment and speak in the first person. The language draws heavily on the Germanic roots of English, producing short words, with the result that when a Romance root is preferred it has a strong effect on the sentence. Brevity is also the result of a sparse use of adjectives and the all but total exclusion of adverbs. The use of metaphor wherever possible, in place of simile, also focuses the text. In brief, I see my job to be the offerer of an open hand for the reader to look into in order to see what may, or may not, be there. I try never to make that hand closed, with a didactic finger pointing. My job is to show, not tell. The method is, by an evolutionary process, that of a camera. I can speak only from hindsight here. Nothing I've described was a conscious embracing of a technique or linguistic philosophy. However, I think that the direction was determined for me through my Classical education, especially by the strength and directness of the sound of Latin, its economy of structure, and by the subtleties of thought required for the writing of Greek, where the language tends to hint rather than to be explicit, leaving the writer/reader with finer and wider and deeper linguistic possibilities to address, though the words themselves may remain superficially simple. I appear to be converging on your 'Direct presentation of the thing'.
elimae: I suppose one might posit then that Strandloper, as "Modernist" as its surfaces seem, is actually more of a contemporary version of Classical narrative, an epic in prose perhaps, or -- given the heavy usage of dialogue -- a traditional ballad cast as prose. Or is this suggestion utter folly?
Alan Garner: Aaaaaaarggh.
elimae: Is there a line of writers and artists (beyond the writers of the classical world or the Gawain poet) which it would please you to be linked with?
Alan Garner: I find in Russian a colour, a hue, that I should be pleased to see in my own work. But to have the ability to read Latin and Greek in the original, and also to be the natural speaker of the language of the Gawain poet are riches enough. Where there may be an association that is necessary for me to celebrate in my work is in the Gawain language, for the speaking of which I had my mouth washed out with carbolic soap by a well meaning teacher at the age of five. All individuals educated from the working class in England are bilingual. The preservation of that quality has become, in the past two years, Government educational policy. Both modes of speech, the formal and the idiolect, are at last seen to be necessary to the language. What needs to be taught is recognition of when either form is appropriate.
elimae: How literal are you being when you speak of your Cheshire 'dialect' as the language of the Gawain poet? Is it truly fully intelligible over the span of 6 centuries? And how great is the space between that dialect and standard English? I suppose that what I am asking, in some sense, is this -- is the Cheshire dialect closer to standard English or Gawain?
Alan Garner: The language of my childhood and of my native culture is, technically, North-West Mercian Middle English. Of course it has changed, as all living language changes, since the time of the Gawain poet. But when I read sections of the poem aloud to my father, he knew, and used, more than 90% of the vocabulary; and the phonetics of the vowels have scarcely changed. The best way to demonstrate this may be to compare a short passage, taken almost at random. First, the original:
Bot wylde wederez of the worlde wakned theroute,
Now a modern literal version:
But wild weathers of the world wakened outside;
Finally, the difference between the modern literal version and my modern father's natural pronunciation, grammar, syntax and vocabulary:
Bot weeld weders of the world wakened theerout,
Does that make my point? The modern Cheshire English is closer to "Gawain".
elimae: The Owl Service, Red Shift and Strandloper present a chain of the sort that critics like -- each building on the accomplishments of its predecessors, honing and refining the author's skills. But The Stone Book Quartet "seems" to be out of sequence or even the work of another man: narrative rather than conversational; warmly familial rather than both strange and estranging; "simple" rather than psychologically freighted. And yet -- And yet the sensibility of SBQ is identical to the others: a refusal to use unnecessary words and explications, an insistence on finding the right words, an implicit invitation to the reader to step into the story and experience it for himself. How did you come to see that you could apply your skills at one kind of writing to another kind entirely? How did you find your way from Red Shift to Stone Book Quartet? Is there any sense in which SBQ "redeems" earlier, less successful narratives likeThe Weirdstone of Brisingamen?
Alan Garner: I can't answer. From start to finish, I have no conscious control over shape or form or voice, although I know that every word has to fight to prove its need to exist. Subjectively, I record what I observe in the private cinema of the head, with the minimum interference. Subjectively, the book is a pre-existing, autocratic form, over which I have no control, nor should I have. A work of art is a product of the unconscious mind, and 'I' should not try to influence it. The intellect is a drudge that sharpens the focus and edits the shape when the text is out on the page. Then hindsight frequently presents me with alarming vistas. However, in the years of preparation before the projector starts to turn, I read an enormous amount of apparently disconnected material and make volumes of notes -- and scarcely ever refer to them afterwards. The formalizing and concentrating of the discipline of reading appears to be the essential act. I have now moved away from the question I can't answer. What may require to be said is that every piece of work arrives involuntarily. I glimpse a totality, but can't articulate what that is. What I can do is recognize the areas of concern in which I have to become proficient. Hence the eclectic reading and the notes.
elimae: I am hearing, if I don't misunderstand you, an understanding not unlike the old idea of inspiration and the Muses. If the book comes from the unconscious, what is it that forms it there? Is there any way to tell? Another reader might ask, "Why do you have those stories in your head while I don't?" but that seems off the point to me, like asking a gifted musician why he can play by ear but others can't. Is there any manner of approaching this as other than a mystery, perhaps in the medieval sense?
Alan Garner: For the writer, it has to be a Mystery, in the medieval sense. I can't answer your questions, nor, I would argue, would it be wise for me to try.
elimae: One might come at Red Shift and The Stone Book Quartet, your major works of the '70s, through theme rather than narrative stance. Such a look would suggest some rather close links, I think -- for example, in the way one life in one time can be echoed in another life in another time. Was there a conscious decision to use an interweaving technique with the three separate time periods which comprise Red Shift, as opposed to the sequential vignettes that are so striking in The Stone Book Quartet? Or are the forms of these books something that comes from the unconscious, from the initial impetus of creation?
Alan Garner: Unconscious, again, I'm afraid. Although there was a small but important thought in 'Red Shift'. In the historical context, it was commonplace to be run through with a sword, at one time. Now it is possible to destroy a person over the breakfast table without the release of physical death. You are trying to make me approach a novel with a conscious intellectual and and analytical structure in place before I start. That may be possible, and necessary, for others. But, for me, I still have to insist on the vision, the 'dream' as the 'fons et origo' of all.
elimae: In the U.S., there is an enormous emphasis, among certain writers and critics, on "voice", drawing I suppose from the influence of Joyce and Beckett. Your writing, on the other hand, is most frequently conveyed through the voices of your characters -- not your voice at all. But even so, your writing is clearly yours, somewhat like the way in which the early Ezra Pound, before The Cantos, employed dramatic monologue, translation and imitation to create poetry which was clearly his, even when it grew out of an earlier author's work. Is this something you ever think about? Did you struggle to "find" your voice? Did your material dictate that voice?
Alan Garner: NO to everything except perhaps the last, without my knowledge. The previous answer covers this. All that I would add is that it should be clear by now why I slowly shake my head over the possibility of a conscious embracing of any linguistic/stylistic theorizing or ghetto. When writing a piece, my driven desire is to be rid of it, so that next time I may do better.
elimae: Do any of these writers mean anything to you -- Penelope Fitzgerald, Beryl Bainbridge, Guy Davenport?
Alan Garner: I know the names, but I have not read anything of theirs.
elimae: How close is your home county to that immortalized by Houseman in A Shropshire Lad? Is there any connection there? Did you, as a younger man, read Houseman?
Alan Garner: Shropshire is contiguous with Cheshire, to the south, and shares much the same qualities of light, landscape and speech. Houseman and I were both Classicists, and it is in only that capacity that I have read him.
elimae: If the stories hadn't been in your head, would you have become an archaelogist?
Alan Garner: That's a sly and accurate question. The answer is 'Yes'. But then, writing and archaeology have a great deal in common. Think about it.
elimae: Are there three books, other than your own, published in the past 100 years, that you would be proud to have written?
Alan Garner: Not in any necessary order: 'The Spire', by William Golding; 'Waiting for Godot', by Samuel Beckett, 'The Box of Delights', by John Masefield.
elimae: A very interesting series! Is 'Box of Delights' prose or verse? What is its charm?
Alan Garner: 'Charm', forsooth! 'The Box of Delights', subtitled 'or When the Wolves were Running', was the first novel I read where the children bearing the role of protagonist were engaged in a modern England (1932) and were caught up involuntarily in a battle outside Time between two archetypal figures, not Good and Evil but Evil and Not-Good, who interacted with the world of Now and another dimension, drawing on English myth and medieval alchemy and mysticism. The children were seen as tools to be used and disposed of in the battle. John Masefield showed children what others would not allow: that adults could be dangerous (two of the worst were dressed as clergymen; another was a female teacher); that bullies did not always run when confronted; that death was likely at any age; that terror was real and could be creative and constructive (which horror can't be); and that happy endings were not automatic. In this last instance, the text of the novel shows interference, or capitulation. The end, as Masefield wrote it, has the inevitable and positive resolution of a symphony. Then there is tacked on a clumsy paragraph, where the main child protagonist wakes up in the railway carriage where the story begins, and it has all been a dream. Oh no it has not. I was seven years old when I first read it, and I KNEW. I don't have the facts, but the received literary opinion is that the publisher got cold feet and insisted on the addition. Others, more interestingly, say that it was Masefield's wife who added the paragraph. But I knew it was no dream and that everything in it was possible -- indeed, likely. The novel is a quintessentially English use of multlayered meaning, imagery, beauty and fear. The nearest to it I've come across in America is in moments in the film 'The Night of the Hunter'. But then the director, Charles Laughton, was English!
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