On the strangeness of the past

“I wanted to approach Shakespeare as if foreign … The past is another country.” That’s a composer named Thomas Adès in the New Yorker this week, regarding his opera of ‘The Tempest.’

The second part of his quote is the famous L.P. Hartley line (Hartley said, ‘a foreign country’). As I read the piece (in Critic’s Notebook) I wasn’t sure how I felt about what Adès meant by the comment. But the line started me thinking.

We sometimes over-focus, I think, on trying to make history’s people ‘accessible’ or ‘relevant’ in too-obvious ways. This isn’t the same as linking up themes or motifs, it has to do with trying to make it easier for readers to identify with characters. But the truth is, it seems to me, Adès is right … Shakespeare is both universal and remote. (That’s genius for you, yes.)

In my work I think I’m obsessed with trying to show both things … elements of the past that are startlingly similar to concerns today, and other aspects that are just as startlingly alien. And this author-goal can collide with some modern readers’ desire to ‘connect’ with characters (an analogy: the way Presidential candidates do photo-ops drinking Budweiser in bars, or bowling, just folks.)

With Ysabel, as an example, I was surprised by some readers lamenting (mostly younger ones, but not only) that they didn’t ‘get’ or ‘relate to’ the character of Ysabel herself. She seemed remote to them, inexplicable. But that was the point, from the writer’s point of view. She’s a 2500 year-old capricious, doomed, eroticized Celtic goddess-figure returning in an endless cycle. How should we have a beer with her? How should I (or the reader) see her as accessible, readily understood, just like us? To my mind, a writer who makes such figures clear in their nature and motivation is failing his work, even if he or she makes the book ‘easier’.

I love, and often cite, a line from Walter Bagehot: “We must not let in daylight upon magic.” We aren’t supposed to see certain things too clearly, have them explained too precisely. (A reason I have trouble with fantasy derived from dice-rolling games.) But I apply the line to more than the supermatural. It seems to me to resonate also with regard to any work that walks back into the past. Too much daylight, too complete an explanation, is a failure.

Hilary Mantel’s language does a good job of addressing this, even if she’s at pains to present her Cromwell as a ‘new man’, allowing readers to see him as a figure at the doorstep of the modern. Mary Renault was very good at injecting strangeness into her Greek novels. (“There is only one journey that all men make. They go forth from the Mother and do what men are born to do, till she stretches out her hand and calls them home.” That’s from memory, decades ago, and still gives me chills – I may have it a bit wrong. If someone has The King Must Die to hand, do correct me. If you haven’t read it, do!)

My friend Cecelia Holland, especially in her earlier, brilliant historical fictions, is a master of this effect: offering us that feeling of strangeness in the long-ago, in characters with a world-view alien to our own.

I am endlessly wrestling with these issues in my work, looking to balance them. The familiar and the strange, intersecting with each other.

One thought on “On the strangeness of the past

  1. Well, Guy Gavriel Kay, I’m from Spain, 15 years and I love your books. I LOVE THEM. As an author, you probably have received this a lot. But for me, it is always important to say it to you, and to another authors I love. Imagine it, I love so much the Fionavar Trilogy, I’m going to buy the Canadian Omnibus edition ( because I don’t like the spanish covers, and because that cover is awesome), although I’m Spanish, and only midly good at English. And, in the case you didn’t know, your blog is very good and funny, with that problem that, as I know, every author has: the people makes a determinated way of how you are based in the books, and that image is not probably right. Well, there is a problem, the language is complicated for me ( I’ve read some books in english, but this blog is more complicated than them). Now, when I have money and time, either of them are difficult to find now, I will buy your under heaven (in Spain the traductors have done their job, in Spanish the book is called The Heaven Horses). Probably, I will comment more in your blog…

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