It is in August, more than at any other time, that Edinburgh lives up to Robert Louis Stevenson’s description, and the name of this blog. Any city dweller suffering from sensory overload, induced by too many stilt wearing, opera singing, juggling, fancy-dress attired performers, would be wise to seek the calm sanctuary of Charlotte Square, home to the Edinburgh International Book Festival.
This year I attended three events, David Mitchell in conversation with Stuart Kelly, the literary editor of Scotland on Sunday, a rehearsed reading of Seamus Heaney’s translation of Beowulf by the Tron Theatre Company and Marina Warner and Kirsty Logan interviewed by Charlotte Higgins of The Guardian.
At University, I struggled with Roland Barthes ‘Death of the Author’ theory, that literary criticism should avoid discussion of the writer’s intentions and influences when interpreting narrative. Whilst it is true that a reader may glean a different meaning from a book than was originally in the mind of its creator, and that this is by no means a bad thing, I am always a little relieved to hear authors talk of their work and be reassured that, to paraphrase Mark Twain, reports of their demise have been exaggerated. Perhaps, as an amateur shuffler of words, it is my own selfish desire for recognition that has brought me to this view of the author’s importance.
However, nothing in the world of literature is black and white. It is part of the joy of the creative process that writers feed off other writers, that readers are inspired by something they’ve read and become writers themselves, that old stories are re-born, that something can be both shockingly new and rooted in the past. The conscious and unconscious use of literature’s canon was a theme across all three events and, interestingly for me and my id hungry ego, the authors each described the moment when the story takes control, when they are writing because the words want to be written, oracles to the gods of story-telling.
I do not believe that this was false modesty on their parts. There is something almost miraculous about the generation of stories, the creation of worlds one word at a time, even to the person from whose pen they have come. I have felt it in my own small way, reading back past writing and wondering ‘how did I think of that’. The imagination is a marvellous, powerful thing. It arrives in a sudden, unannounced, rush of inspiration. It is almost violent in its force, commanding urgent attention before its gifts are forgotten. More than once have I stopped dead in the street, words repeating in incantation in my head less they vanish whilst I seek pen and paper, scribbling furiously before the moment passes.
The ability to tell stories is within all of us. We do it everyday, whether we are describing last night’s television viewing to a work colleague, introducing ourselves to a new acquaintance, or explaining why the dishes haven’t been washed, we are constantly creating the narrative of ourselves. This is what Heaney describes when he writes that Beowulf ‘unlocked his word-hoard’ to explain his troop’s arrival to the watchman on the wall. It is a beautiful analogy, conjuring images of precious stones and finely wrought metal. And it is a truthful one; our language, our stories, are our treasure. They are part of our common humanity, from a mother’s lullaby, to camp-fire tales, to the highest forms of literary fiction. They are all to be cherished, kept safe in our word-hoards to be used again and again, for nothing keeps a story gleaming as much as its re-telling.
The Tron Theatre Company’s reading of the Anglo-Saxon epic was an excellent example of this. Simply staged, three women, all in black, Heaney’s poetry was left, quite literally, to do the talking. Hearing the tale read aloud, in a tent, lights dimmed, candles wicking at the actors’ feet, it was clear that this was how the story was meant to be told, unlocked from the word-hoard, set free to soar beyond the restrictions and conventions of the page. It is common for ‘Classics’ to be avoided, found irrelevant or incomprehensible by the modern reader; the Scots’ accents of the actors brought life and meaning to the words, offering a guide to follow through the foreboding shadows of unfamiliar language and culture.
Strip away the subject matter, the genre, the academic theories, we can all relate to stories. They are, as Kirsty Logan posits in her latest collection of the same name, a portable shelter, offering not only comfort and escapism but also vital life-lessons, morals and folk-law that will keep us safe on our journey. We will hear and read many hundreds, if not thousands, of tales in our time. Some we will choose to add to our personal treasury, some we will discard. Some we will guard jealously, spines unbroken, dust-jackets without crease; some we will bring out and admire repeatedly until they are weathered and worn with a patina of love; some we will choose, when the moment is right, to pass on as heirlooms, as keys to our hearts. No two troves are alike for what is diamond to one is coal to another.
The Festival’s bookshop offered an excellent opportunity to add to my personal word-hoard. What will you be stowing in yours next?