Last night I gave a talk about my new anthology of Beauty and the Beast stories at the Harvard Bookstore. It’s spring break week at Harvard, and I was expecting just a handful of true believers in fairy tales. But Harvard Bookstore has its own faithfuls, and what a lively, attentive group it was. Afterwards I browsed the tables and shelves and was reminded of what a powerful intellectual and social experience it is to roam around in that bookstore. If you read this, stop by, browse, and buy at least one volume. And if you live elsewhere, go to your local bookstore and do the same.
My purchase last night will make great reading for today’s Nor’easter. It’s Edmund Gordon’s The Invention of Angela Carter (British cover below), and I can hardly wait to plunge into its pages today. Here’s a link to the Guardian’s review
The English novelist Angela Carter is best known for her 1979 book “The Bloody Chamber,” which is a kind of updating of the classic European fairy tales. This does not mean that Carter’s Little Red Riding Hood chews gum or rides a motorcycle but that the strange things in those tales—the werewolves and snow maidens, the cobwebbed caves and liquefying mirrors—are made to live again by means of a prose informed by psychoanalysis and cinema and Symbolist poetry. In Carter’s version of “Beauty and the Beast,” retitled “The Tiger’s Bride,” the beast doesn’t change into a beauty. The beauty is changed into a beast, a beautiful one, by means of one of the more memorable sex acts in twentieth-century fiction. At the end of the tale, the heroine is ushered, naked, into the beast’s chamber. He paces back and forth:
I squatted on the wet straw and stretched out my hand. I was now within the field of force of his golden eyes. He growled at the back of his throat, lowered his head, sank on to his forepaws, snarled, showed me his red gullet, his yellow teeth. I never moved. He snuffed the air, as if to smell my fear; he could not.
Slowly, slowly he began to drag his heavy, gleaming weight across the floor towards me.
A tremendous throbbing, as of the engine that makes the earth turn, filled the little room; he had begun to purr. . . .
He dragged himself closer and closer to me, until I felt the harsh velvet of his head against my hand, then a tongue, abrasive as sandpaper. “He will lick the skin off me!”
And each stroke of his tongue ripped off skin after successive skin, all the skins of a life in the world, and left behind a nascent patina of shiny hairs. My earrings turned back to water and trickled down my shoulders; I shrugged the drops off my beautiful fur.
Fairy tales are like riddles wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma, and that’s what accounts in part for our fierce repetition compulsion when it comes to stories like Sleeping Beauty, Cinderella, or The Frog King. It is always something of a challenge to figure out what makes a fairy tale tick and whir with cultural energy and why each one tends to carry some kind of emotional charge.
Disney’s release of a live-action “Beauty and the Beast” reminds us that fairy tales are not just for the nursery, but also for the older crowd. The “tale as old as time,” as Mrs. Potts sings in the animated “Beauty and the Beast,” has become so familiar to us that the odd couple at its core has been normalized. Yet the many other versions in circulation the world over remind us of just how startling it is to pair humans with animals in courtship rituals that end with “happily ever after” – or not. The tale’s narrative circuits are connected to a global network of storytelling in which young women encounter frogs, condors, muskrats, and snakes, while young men find themselves romantically linked with monkeys, dogs, swans, and toads. Is this what we mean when we refer to fairy-tale romances, and if it is, do why do we long for such a thing?
The anthropologists tell us that animals are good to think with, and in many ways we can imagine that stories about animal brides and animal grooms enabled our ancestors to address complicated issues turning not just on courtship but also on sexuality – in all its beastliness and tenderness. After all, sex stands at the point of intersection between the human and the animal kingdom, and the symbolic always helps us navigate the real. Some have speculated that Beauty and the Beast tales once served some kind of totemic purpose, helping humans to organize and understand their own social worlds. They also surely represented alterity in all its monstrous and terrifying incarnations, challenging humans to find some way of coexisting with lions, tigers, and bears, oh my, along with all the bugbears that haunt our imagination.
Our version of “Beauty and the Beast” derives from Mme de Beaumont’s 1756 story, published in a magazine with designs on the young, teaching them about character and good manners. In that French tale, Beauty not only outshines everyone in looks, she is also “good,” “kind,” “sweet,” and “sincere,” amassing a set of attributes that would be impossible for anyone, let alone most little girls, to replicate. Why does the classically attractive and instinctively generous Beauty settle by marrying a Beast who is grotesquely ugly and desperately needy? In Mme de Beaumont’s tale, Beauty discovers that she feels something more than friendship for the Beast and that she cannot live without him. Three “peaceful” months at the castle, full of “good plain talk,” along with the discovery that Beast is “kind” and has “good qualities,” arouse Beauty’s compassion, so much so that she can agree to marry him when he stops eating and nearly dies of starvation.
What is the social messaging in that story (which we have made our own through picture books and through the Disney film) and how does it differ from what we find in the long ago and far away of the fairy-tale universe? To begin with, we are drawn to Mme de Beaumont’s version of Beauty and the Beast precisely because it enshrines empathy as the greatest of virtues and as the pathway to true love – even if in the most hypocritical sort of way. Who knew that hotness is not at all a factor and that charity, generosity, and pity reign supreme when it comes to romantic alliances? We live in what has been called an age of empathy, with dozens of books on why empathy matters, on the neuroscience of empathy, on the empathy gap, and so on. And so it is no surprise that we instinctively recoil from stories like the Filipino Chonguita, in which an act of defiance or outrage – hurling an animal against the wall – disenchants the animal groom or animal bride. There we are in the arena of brute force and passion rather than compassion.
Yet stories like those, along with the Latin American The Condor and the Shepherdess (with its abducted heroine who has to put up with a dinner of carrion) or the Ghanaian Girl and the Hyena-Man (which ends with a clever ruse used to escape an arranged marriage), remind us that the most satisfying narratives are those that shock and startle us. Counterintuitive finales get us talking about the terms of the story – the cultural contradictions that are so artfully encapsulated in fairy tales and give them their staying power. That’s the self-reflexive genius of the fairy tale and of the mythic imagination, to give us stories about the power of talk (those long dinner conversations between Beauty and the Beast light the spark) and to leave us with something to talk about. In African cultures, a popular genre is the dilemma tale, a story that recounts an extreme situation and ends with a question. For example, a boy is given the choice of executing his cruel biological father or his kind adoptive father – and now you must decide which of the two he should slay. Fairy tales make us wonder and try to find solutions as we wander through their storied precincts.
Disney’s “Beauty and the Beast,” like the many other versions, gave us a vivid, visual grammar for thinking about abstractions: cruelty and compassion, surfaces and essences, hostility and hospitality, predators and victims. Like all fairy tales, it gives us the primal and the mythical, getting us talking in ways that headlines do their cultural work today. And they also lead us to keep hitting the refresh button, as we try to get the story right, even as we know that Beauty and the Beast will always be at odds with each other in an endless struggle to resolve their differences.
Shortly after the publication of The Golden Compass, Philip Pullman gave a reading at the Harvard Coop. My children dragged me to the event–it was only a few months after volume one of His Dark Materials had appeared–and there he was, seated on a kid’s chair, surrounded by a dozen children, ages 6-12. For close to 90 minutes, he talked about stories and what it was like to write them, while answering questions from the band of true believers and diehard fans. It quickly dawned on me that Pullman’s magic derived in part from how seriously he took his readers, talking to them without a touch of condescension. I felt not a touch of embarrassment about being an adult intruder on the enchanted circle, because he treated my question, asked only because there was one awkward pause near the end, with the same respect that he showed for the children. Many years later, I was not at all surprised when I read the following
There are some themes, some subjects, too large for adult fiction; they can only be dealt with adequately in a children’s book. In adult literary fiction, stories are there on sufferance. Other things are felt to be more important: technique, style, literary knowingness… The present-day would-be George Eliots take up their stories as if with a pair of tongs. They’re embarrassed by them. If they could write novels without stories in them, they would. Sometimes they do. We need stories so much that we’re even willing to read bad books to get them, if the good books won’t supply them. We all need stories, but children are more frank about it.
And it also explained why he led the charge against age-banding for books:
Mr Pullman told The Daily Telegraph: “I don’t mind anybody having an opinion about my books. I don’t mind a bookseller deciding they are for this age group or that, or a teacher giving one of my books to a child because they think it is appropriate.
“But I don’t want to see the book itself declaring officially, as if with my approval, that it is for readers of 11 and upwards or whatever. I write books for whoever is interested. When I write a book I don’t have an age group in mind.
“I have had letters from children of seven who say they have read all the way through His Dark Materials and they have an astonishing knowledge of it. But not every child is the same. A child of nine might be tentative and unsure about reading, and to give them a book that says 9+ will reinforce their sense of failure. The book should be suited to the individual child.”
As someone who still tries to read at a 25 year-old-level, I applaud his effort.
Who else but Neil Gaiman could become an accomplice of the gods, using the sorcery of words to make their stories new? The author turns Norse myths into addictive reading for young and old, with high-wattage retellings that preserve the monumental grandeur of the Nordic universe but also turn it into world that is up close and personal, full of antic wit and dark intrigue.
That’s what I wrote after previewing the book last fall, and the pantheon of Nordic gods finally feels familiar to me, after many attempts to try to understand their dark universe. For more on the volume and on Neil Gaiman and his appreciative fans, read Sarah Lyall’s piece in the New York Times on February 13.
“Beauty and the Beast” is simply the next puzzle piece in Disney’s broad-picture plan to reviving its old IP as live-action films. The studio has already ushered six live-action remakes into theaters, including two films from “Alice in Wonderland” and “The Jungle Book.” Disney has had success so far, with only two of the six films not having earned more than $500 million world-wide.
And here’s to the many other Beauty and the Beast stories from around the world
Below the link to Perri Klass’s NYT op-ed on “Banned Books Your Child Should Read,” with its shrewd concluding advice to parents:
When your children read books that have been challenged or banned, you have a double opportunity as a parent; you can discuss the books themselves, and the information they provide, and you can also talk about why people might find them troubling.
This week I have been preparing a talk about Erich Maria Remarque’s All Quiet on the Western Front, 1929, a book that was among the first to be banned by the Nazis. The impulse to write about the novel came from an invitation to an academic conference on Remarque, and it was intensified by Donald Trump’s declaration that Remarque’s book was his favorite novel. When had he read it? I wondered. In high school, no doubt, as many in that generation had. My interest in Remarque’s novel is now driven in part by the question of how it came to be enshrined as required reading in US schools. (I’m hoping to track sales figures for the last 80 years in this country.) All Quiet on the Western Front was high on the list of books banned by the Nazis, and it was among the first to be thrown on the flames created by throwing a match on gas-soaked logs in Berlin on May 10, 1933.
For a list of the American Library Associations’s list of the top 100 banned/challenged books in the first decade of this century, click the link below:
That Mark Twain translated Heinrich Hoffmann’s Der Struwelpeter, a famous German children’s book published in 1845, always comes as a surprise to me. It should not be a surprise at all that this born storyteller made things up for his daughters, and now we can get a glimpse of what he made up in “The Purloining of Prince Oleomargarine.”
One night nearly 140 years ago, Samuel Clemens told his young daughters Clara and Susie a bedtime story about a poor boy who eats a magic flower that gives him the ability to talk to animals.
Storytelling was a nightly ritual in the Clemens home. But something about this particular tale must have stuck with Clemens, better known as Mark Twain, because he decided to jot down some notes about it.
The story might have ended there, lost to history. But decades later, the scholar John Bird was searching the Twain archives at the University of California, Berkeley, when he came across the notes for the story, which Twain titled “Oleomargarine.” Mr. Bird was astonished to find a richly imagined fable, in Twain’s inimitable voice. He and other scholars believe it may be the only written remnant of a children’s fairy tale from Twain, though he told his daughters stories constantly.
Today’s New York Times gives us the best possible valediction for the best possible President. There are so many dense golden nuggets of wisdom in both the article about Obama’s reading and the transcript of the interview with him that it’s something of a challenge to choose. All the things I’ve believed about the radiantly mysterious power of stories to promote curiosity, build bridges, foster empathy, and offer escapes into opportunity are stated here in ways that remind us of just how fortunate we were to have eight years of a President who was thoughtful, compassionate, judicious, and deeply intellectual.
In today’s polarized environment, where the internet has let people increasingly retreat to their own silos (talking only to like-minded folks, who amplify their certainties and biases), the president sees novels and other art (like the musical “Hamilton”) as providing a kind of bridge that might span usual divides and “a reminder of the truths under the surface of what we argue about every day.”
He points out, for instance, that the fiction of Junot Díaz and Jhumpa Lahiri speak “to a very particular contemporary immigration experience,” but at the same time tell stories about “longing for this better place but also feeling displaced” — a theme central to much of American literature, and not unlike books by Philip Roth and Saul Bellow that are “steeped with this sense of being an outsider, longing to get in, not sure what you’re giving up.”
Mr. Obama says he is hoping to eventually use his presidential center website “to widen the audience for good books” — something he’s already done with regular lists of book recommendations — and then encourage a public “conversation about books.”
“At a time,” he says, “when so much of our politics is trying to manage this clash of cultures brought about by globalization and technology and migration, the role of stories to unify — as opposed to divide, to engage rather than to marginalize — is more important than ever.”
In 1993, Maurice Sendak published WE ARE ALL IN THE DUMPS WITH JACK AND GUY, a book that took up the crisis of homelessness. The book never sold well, perhaps because it was marketed to children and had the look of a book for children. As Sendak told Stephen Colbert once, “I don’t write for children. I write. And someone comes along and says ‘That’s for children.'”
We are all in the dumps
For diamonds are trumps
The kittens are gone to St. Paul’s!
The baby is bit
The moon’s in a fit
And the houses are built
Jack and Guy
Went out in the Rye
And they found a little boy
With one black eye
Come says Jack let’s knock
Him on the head
No says Guy
Let’s buy him some bread
You buy one loaf
And I’ll buy two
And we’ll bring him up
As other folk do
Ginia Belafante writes about the new realism in YA fiction, citing works like “All American Boys,” a novel by Jason Reynolds and Brendan Kiely, “The Hate U Give” by Angela Thomas, and “June the Sparrow and the Million-Dollar Penny,” a novel about an orphaned girl forced to move from the Dakota to South Dakota. She adds:
In some sense these new realist novels are even grittier than their predecessors from the 1970s, even though children, especially in New York where crime rates were so high, faced greater perils then. The classic young-adult novel of that period typically dealt with characters managing the fracture of American family life — divorce, a mother’s new boyfriend and so on — but those characters most often enjoyed the comforts of middle-class life. Norma Klein’s Manhattan was as sophisticated as any Woody Allen would devise. Children today may finally be resisting the elusive insulation we crave for them.
It’s fascinating to me that we give children agency, suggesting that they set the agenda when it comes to YA fiction. Possible, but it’s the adults who are writing the books. I’m not persuaded that we “crave” the idea of protecting them from the hard facts once they hit the teen years.