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Don’t be fooled by the fact that Anthony Grooms’s latest novel The Vain Conversation (University of South Carolina press, 2018) is inspired by the 1946 Moore’s Ford Lynchings. Like fantasy and gothic tales, we read historical fiction not just to learn about the past, but also to understand our present lives. The Vain Conversation is especially topical, challenging us on nearly every page to consider just how much progress our society has actually made since then.

Grooms is an immaculately skilful writer. He opens the book with a pastoral scene, portraying the beauty of Georgia with the eye of a naturalist, and employing convincing psychological detail from childhood. Violence quickly shatters the peacefulness, though. Perspectives change, conversations grow more desperate, and the novel winds unrelentingly back upon itself, chasing resolution. This polyphonic work is really a collection of related novellas triangulating around a central question: what does it mean to be human? Is it more human to die for our beliefs, or to stoically suffer inhuman treatment, including death? At what point do those who abet or commit evil themselves become evil, and how far does the responsibility for abhorrent crimes spread throughout society?

The Vain Conversation is social archeology, digging strata by strata below the surface of our modern world, unveiling what we’ve buried in our collective bad consciences. The book is layered with horrific stories: US slavery; the pogrom of black Americans in Rosewood, Florida; the concentration camps of WWII; racial lynchings; post-traunmatic suicide; poverty and prostitution; and towards the end, drugs, crime, workplace-related sickness, and vengeance. Bertrand, one of the main characters, wonders at one point, “What Negro had a happy story to tell?” There is happiness in the book, flashes of friendship and love and true enlightenment –– but thwarted, always. The shorter, final chapter of The Vain Conversation is the most brutally paced for the reader. It shifts genres as the foundations of society itself shift, and brings to mind the urban post-apocalypse of Samuel R. Delany’s Dhalgren.

Reading The Vain Conversation reminds us that the US has in fact been a dystopia for much of its past. I recently read Uncle Tom’s Cabin (why? because it was there, and I couldn’t avoid it any longer); the two books are equally unforgiving in their portrayals of inhumanity, and the folly of believing in providence.  The Vain Conversation is a painfully balanced novel which will hopefully take its rightful place in the ongoing societal discussion of who we think we are.

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About ten years ago I learned the word chronotope from an essay by literature professor Maria Nikolejeva.  Most people talk about setting or milieu in terms of literature, but these both emphasize place over time.  The word chronotope (Greek: chronos/topo, time/place) indicates the interface between time and space, and I like to keep this in mind when I’m writing fiction.  Some authors, especially of fantasy, view their settings as central characters; but the time period is just as important.  Kansas today is not what it was two hundred years ago, nor what it will be in two hundred years, or two thousand.  Present-day Stockholm is not the same as present-day Buenos Aires, Tuvalu or North Philadelphia.

Travelling makes chronotopes more apparent.  I was recently in Pompeii and Venice –– two places that have inspired a great deal of storytelling.  For example Mary Hoffman’s Stravaganza novels take place in a slightly-altered medieval Venice.  They were fascinating to read, but I had the sense that the chronotope was somewhat of a gimmick in the stories.

After spending a rainy day in Venice, I changed my mind.  Venice is a completely different concept regarding how to build a city, and how time leaves its mark on a place.  Pompeii (and nearby Herculaneum) were frozen in time by a volcanic blast, and their stories ended –– again giving us a unique insight into what a chronotope can mean to a story.

The story of Pompeii ended with Vesuvius’s eruption in 79 CE; Venice’s continues.

I was in Rome last week helping dozens of young writers and musicians put together and perform a musical drama based on the lives of Nero and his mother Agrippina. Rome is a city of ruins built on ruins, with buildings from all epochs stepping on each others’ toes.  History is an obstacle in Rome, getting in the way in the form of ancient walls and buildings that can’t be moved or renovated.

But history is also the city’s future, because the story of where it’s headed is forever linked to where it has been.  And it’s not just the physical Rome, it’s also the story of Rome.  You can still visit the ruins of Nero’s pleasure dome the Domus Aurea, but for nearly the same price you can buy a more compelling version of the same visit –– the paperback edition of Robert Graves’s translation of Suetonius’s The Lives of the Caesars, which includes all the contemporary gossip on Nero and his mother Agrippina, who was the real emperor while her psychopathic, megalomaniac son travelled the empire rigging singing contests so he could win.  I always enjoy walking the ruins of Rome, but even more than that, I enjoy wandering them with my well-worn copy of Suetonius in hand, reading stories from two thousand years ago that are still as raw, preposterous, and unfortunately believable as contemporary tabloid articles: Agrippina marrying her uncle the emperor Claudius. Nero poisoning his brother Britannicus, the rightful heir to the throne. Nero the young emperor wandering the streets of Rome at night stabbing people at random.  Nero trying to murder his mother four times before finally succeeding (and then being haunted by her ghost for the remainder of his brief life).

Jorge Luis Borges wrote in This Craft of Verse (1968) that “for many centuries, three stories –– the tale of Troy, the tale of Ulysses, the tale of Jesus –– have been sufficient for mankind.”  He forgot the story of Nero, which has also fascinated us for thousands of years.  The ruins of Rome will always be ruins, but its stories will remain fresh in our imagination, waiting for us to tell them anew.

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Yesterday evening in Östersund I met a dozen engaged English teachers.  We discussed literature and young people, course plans, course books, grading criteria, new ways of working, and fantasy and fairy tales.  I promised to post some fantasy and fairy tale ideas on this blog.  Here goes:

 

Three ideas from Tolkien’s On Faerie Stories:

1 Fairy tales are the oldest, most highly evolved form of literature

2 Most old fairy tales are broken or fragmented; therefore we need new ones

3 Eucatastrophe (‘beneficial death’): Tolkien invented this Greek term for characters dying and coming back to life for a good cause (Gandalf, The Little Mermaid).

 

Modern fantasy evolved from modern fairy tales written by E.T.A. Hoffman (‘Sandman’, ‘The Nutcracker’), H.C. Andersen (‘The Little Mermaid’, ‘The Ugly Duckling’), and others. Many people consider the first fantasy novel to be Phantastes (1858) by the Scottish Christian Socialist George MacDonald.

Fantasy means any story in which the laws of physics are broken. There are three main types:

Fantasy –– magic

Science Fiction –– science

Supernatural Fiction –– religion

 

Fantasy worlds:

High fantasy: stories take pace in another world (Middle Earth). Often social or political, using fantasy worlds to comment on our world.

Low fantasy: stories start in our world, move a secondary world, and return to our world. (The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe). Often psychological, using the journey between worlds as a chance for characters to grow.

Reverse low fantasy: stories start in a secondary world, move to our world, and return to the secondary world. (Monsters Inc,; the book Howl’s Moving Castle, but not the film)

Heterotopia: stories move between multiple worlds. Sometimes we don’t know which is the primary world and which are the secondary worlds. (Harry Potter)

 

Vladimir Propp was a Russian folktale researcher. His ideas were similar to Tolkien’s, but because of the Iron Curtain, Propp’s work was unknown in the West until the 1970s. Propp’s doctoral thesis from the 1920s The Morphology of the Folktale contains several main ideas:

1 It’s what the characters do –– not what a story or its characters are called –– that defines a story. Multiple characters can share the same function, and each character can have multiple functions (The Little Mermaid can be both a hero to the prince, and a villain to herself).

2 There are a limited number of things characters do in folktales.

3 Characters do things in the same order in every story, though not everything happens in every story.

 

Some standard characters in folktales:

  1. Hero (often reluctant)
  2. Helper
  3. Giver/donor
  4. Seeker (the other possible hero, who fails)
  5. Victim
  6. Magician
  7. Villain
  8. Obstructer
  9. Royalty (King, Queen, Prince, Princess)
  10. Family member
  11. Witch
  12. Monster
  13. Princess
  14. Dragon
  15. Horse
  16. Captives

And Propp’s stage props:

  1. Talisman (magical object or idea)
  2. Treasure

The hero and the villain: Propp points out that the hero and the villain usually meet twice: first the villain seeks out the hero; then the hero seeks out the villain.

Brains vs. Brawn:

Another folklore theorist named U.C. Knoepflmacher points out that heroes in African, European, and Asian tales solve problems using their brains; in American tales, heroes use brawn (physical strength).

One of my students recently pointed out that this difference is apparent in the Disney re-write of The Little Mermaid.

For my latest book with the publisher Natur and Kultur in Sweden, I read through primary sources on a wide variety of historical topics –– books such as My Bondage and My Freedom by Frederick Douglass; The South Vindicated from the Treason and Fanaticism of Northern Abolitionists; Cotton Is King and Pro-Slavery Arguments; The Memoirs of the Conquistador Bernal Díaz del Castillo, Written by Himself, Containing a True and Full Account of the Discovery and Conquest of Mexico and New Spain; Captain James Cook’s journals from his 1774 vouage around the world; Britain’s 1832 New Poor Law (a monster of complexity); and the 1857 US Supreme Court’s Dred Scott decision (another monster).

By the way, you can find a lot of useful stuff on the Internet, but that doesn’t mean people are using it.  For instance for another book project, I watched a video yesterday which had 28 million views; My Bondage and My Freedom, by Frederick Douglass, has at last check only been downloaded from Project Gutenberg 1,823 times.

Nonetheless reading through old sources, I’m repeatedly impressed by what they tell us about our world.  For instance buried in the Dred Scott decision, the US Supreme Court candidly admits that Dred Scott is ”one who is held as a slave” –– which is semantically and legally different from being a slave.  Yet the court also indicates it must strike down Congress’s law which otherwise appears to grant him his freedom.

When legislators and courts fail to act courageously, others must.  Here the power of the pen failed humanity.

 

The Dred Scott Decision of 1857

Background: Dred Scott, his wife and their two daughters were taken by their master John Emerson, an army surgeon, from a slave state to a free territory.  Scott claimed this meant they were they free.  However the Supreme Court ruled that Dred Scott and his family were still slaves, which enraged public opinion in the North.  Below is an excerpt from Chief Justice Roger B. Taney’s ruling.  Note the final phrases:

“The act of Congress, upon which the plaintiff Dred Scott relies, declares that slavery and involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime, shall be forever prohibited in all that part of the territory ceded by France, under the name of Louisiana, which lies north of thirty-six degrees thirty minutes north latitude, and not included within the limits of Missouri. And the difficulty which meets us at the threshold of this part of the inquiry is, whether Congress was authorized to pass this law under any of the powers granted to it by the Constitution; for if the authority is not given by that instrument, it is the duty of this court to declare it void and inoperative, and incapable of conferring freedom upon any one who is held as a slave under the laws of any one of the States.”