Wrong turnings

A clever friend noted that Twitter loves aphorisms, if retweets are any measure. I think it is true, but I think aphorisms ‘work’ in all contexts not just online. They offer a hint of life-solving. Rules. The short summary sells.

That is by way of preamble to something that has bemused me for awhile. By far the most commonly quoted line of mine online seems to be one from Tigana: “There are no wrong turnings. Only paths we had not known we were meant to walk.” And the attribution (usually!)– Guy Gavriel Kay.

So, let’s put it in context. The line occurs as a thought to a sexually and emotionally worn-out young man in the middle of a night in a castle he doesn’t know, as he tries to find his way back to his room in blackness – and realizes he’s lost.

He can’t source his memory of the line for a bit, then it comes to him again and he recalls that it was said to him by a priest when he was very young. I do something a bit sly with the line and the scene, because the young man, taking turns in corridors, somehow ends up in the darkness outside the door of someone else he knows … and enters.

At risk of saddening some people – I don’t believe the line is true. It isn’t how I understand the world. I believe we can and do makes mistakes, take wrong turnings. I’m not especially a believer in predestination that way. (“Meant to take.”) In River of Stars I wrote a little about randomness, how it unsettles us, but how it can and does have such an impact on events. That, I believe.

It is a character in a book who says and believes the line about no wrong turnings (off-stage). I have written, and every novelist I know has written, many things that are not their own beliefs. If you think about it, how else would we create unpleasant figures (assuming, please, that we are not unpleasant figures!), or simply characters who voice different sides of a moral or intellectual argument (say, the debate about art and power – Crispin and Leontes – in the Mosaic, where I try to give value to two sides of a dispute)?

There is nothing startling or wrong about this quoting process. In the course of writing that dispute on art and power, perhaps I might create a phrase that resonates for someone who comes down on one side of that dispute. Perhaps a phrase on the other side works for someone else. What gives me pause is if and when such a line becomes seen or understood as the personal, real life belief of the author who created those characters.

I’m writing about this because it strikes me as another good example of how easily the work and the author can be blurred today, even more so with authors (including me) increasingly ‘present’ in the online world. I do post passages to Twitter, for example, that I like and find worth thinking about. (A Salman Rushdie quote earlier this week, as an example.)

But when lines are taken from the books, it is better (to my mind) if they are understood in context. Sometimes they might legitimately be read as the thoughts of the author, or thoughts the author would stand behind. There are many such in my novels. Others, though, need the setting and framework.

What gets interesting for me in all this is that the way we meant something to resonate or operate in a work of fiction (ironically, critically, contested, embodying a very specific worldview?) is not necessarily how it goes wide. By now, no wrong turnings has a life well beyond Tigana and the painfully confused night in which my character remembers a priest saying it to him as a child. My attitude to the predestination sentiment, or even Devin’s in the book, become irrelevant.

Makes me wonder how many phrases attributed to various novelists from their books are not their own views of the world, but are located in a very specific setting, belonging to created characters in a book we might have never read.

Interesting? I find it so. You can quote me!


6 thoughts on “Wrong turnings

  1. Even if that line does not reflect your views, it’s a very good line, anyhow. I like it.

    I’ll admit that one thing I do subconsciously is trace the contours of ethics and morality in your novels. I said to a friend over drinks one night that, “Kay is all about this compassionate moral relativism full of empathy, understanding, and tolerance.”

    Of course I made the label up, and I don’t really think you’re pushing ethics and morality on us. You’re a storyteller, after all. (A damned good one, too. I finished RIVER not too long ago, and it’s astounding.)

  2. Mr. Kay,
    Is the bemusement of having a quote from your work, attributed to you as a personal belief, out of context, balanced by the success implied by the quote, obviously, having had such an impact?

    Or, do you simply attribute it – as you touched on above – to the coincidental transference of the reader’s beliefs…and leave it at that?

    My own personal moment, as such, was reading Lord of Emperors.

    Once upon a time I wrote a poem – completely unintentionally (the idea had germinated as a novel) – called Swordsinger’s Stringbound Soul.

    Apart from being an unintentional gauntlet, thrown down to anybody with a lisp, it wasn’t much chop. But the idea remained bound to me.

    So, come 2001, while living in a foreign country, I read your book and I got to ‘the Race’. The themes you wrote into the motif you were weaving really struck a chord with me, but then came the passage, which meant so much more.

    “…..would cling to one private image or another…..might be entirely different things, varying moments, for each of us has strings within the soul, and we are played upon in different ways, like instruments, and how could it be otherwise?”

    That – barring any major advance in science that allows the corporeal form to do it – is the purest form of time travel. That passage took me right back to what I was trying to do, what I felt, the very moment I was writing that poem.

    It’s as if a voice was whispering to me through the mist if time. “That’s how you say it.”

    It was the rarest of moments. So good in the present as I read, and so perpetually powerful in its impact, because of the transference it induced in me.

    I’ve never felt more selfish AND aware, all at once. And it gets me EVERY TIME.

    Thank you sir.


  3. There’s a great story about a Soviet censor who tried to get a Russian director to cut parts of his production based on a quotation that he attributed to Chekhov. The director refuted the attribution, saying one of Chekhov’s characters had said it, not the man himself. The story was related to me as an example of courage in the face of repression and censorship, but I think it very much applies in this situation.

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