Followers of the blog will know that I have been reading  stories from the nineteenth century and earlier.

Why would we read stories by long dead authors? As living writers we want people to read us while we are alive. Does it matter to us that we might be read after our death? The sculptor, Andy Goldsworthy makes sculptures that might last only long enough for them to be photographed. Are the works of dead writers merely dead stories?

Norman Nicholson, the Cumberland poet whose centenary is being celebrated this year, told me once that he wanted his poems to be like a pot – you could put it on a shelf and it would stand up on its own. Performance by the writer, he said, emphasised the personal, with winks and nudges and nods, and tone of voice. Without the writer, there is only the writing and the reading.

The pot analogy is worth pursuing, and not just for poetry. Short stories too can be that pot. Those of us who have heard our work read aloud by others know how different it can sound when it is truly outside our own heads, how different it can actually be. There are obvious elements to this: tone of voice can nuance meaning, tempo and volume will change what is actually heard. Listening to our own words in someone else’s mouth can show us qualities within it that we were previously unaware of.

It would be absurd, I think, to suggest that when the creator of a pot died we should destroy or stop using the pot. The pot outlives the author, and so does the story, whether he intends it to or not, but like the pottery, the words are likely to deteriorate over time. A pot may chip or crack. The glaze may craze, mould may get in behind it; patinas will come and go, precious metal plating might break down and wear away. In words it is meaning which loses its precision, or its potency, a nice distinction. Words themselves may become tainted by subsequent users, by current usages, random! Wicked even. Meaning leaks away. Birds might have tweeted in Dickens’ time, but not in the way they could do today. Metaphors decay the fastest of all, I suspect, needing us to know the qualities and nuances of both sides of the comparison to be effective.

Some pots and some short stories age better than others. They wear well or ill. And, as is the case with our pots, we probably don’t know, or even think about, whether the writers of the stories we read are dead or alive, unless we restrict ourselves to following the fashions laid down for us by the publishers and reviewers of new books, in whatever format.

If Norman’s pot is the right metaphor for the poem, and for the short story, then it is a vessel for the reader’s imagination, and for so long as the pot survives we may choose to drink from it, and as long as the story holds meaning, we may chose to read it, which is to fill it with our imaginations and understandings and to drink of that. Here’s why it is irrelevant how long ago the stories were made, irrelevant when the writers lived, or if they still live, or how long ago they died. Here’s why we would read the ‘old, old’ stories.

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