Friday, July 27, 2007

The old gods in a climate of modern rationalism

Hilary Mantel has an uncanny piece in the Guardian Review about bringing back the dead:

When I began to write, it was my first ambition to write a good historical novel and my second to write a good ghost story, and I didn't then see that these ambitions were allied. Technically, it's possible that the ghost story is the more difficult. If the author leaves events unexplained, the reader feels cheated. But if you explain too much, you explain away. A ghost story always exists on the brink between sense and nonsense, between order and chaos, between the rules of existence we know and the ones we don't know yet. When I was a child, I lived in a haunted house. I was brought up in a family that not only lived among ghosts but also manufactured its own. When I was 10, I lost my father. He didn't die, but went away, and very little but music remained of him. Forty years later, music helped bring him back.

First of all I used prose. I dusted down a fictional version, in which the narrator says:

"We lived at the top of the village, in a house which I considered to be haunted. My father had disappeared. Perhaps it was his presence, long and pallid, which slid behind the door in sweeps of draught and raised the hackles on the terrier's neck. He had been a clerk; crosswords were his hobby and a little angling: simple card-games and a cigarette card collection. He left at 10 o'clock one blustery March morning, taking his albums and his tweed overcoat, and leaving all his underwear, which my mother washed and gave to a jumble sale. We didn't miss him much, only the little tunes which he used to play on the piano: over and over, Pineapple Rag."

In real life it didn't happen quite so tidily. When I was about seven, my mother took up with an old lover of hers, and my father faded away, still living in the house but just flitting through, silent as a shadow except for increasingly rare hours when he sat down at the piano. The summer I was 11, I went with my mother and my brothers and my stepfather to another town, and my name got changed, and I never saw my father again. In the years that followed I learned that any mention of him would cause more trouble than I was equipped to handle.

As I grew older I was haunted by the thought that, if I passed him in the street, I probably wouldn't recognise him. Also, if he died, I thought my mother would get to hear, but I knew she wouldn't tell me. Perhaps it was after I knew that I wasn't going to have children myself that I thought more about him, but he always lived in some place I couldn't imagine; he inhabited in my mind a halfway house, neither living nor dead, and certainly lost to me. My memoir, published in 2003, was like a message in a bottle. It seemed a long shot that it would find him, but I hoped it might.

Soon after publication I wrote some short plays for Radio 4, for Woman's Hour, based on my story collection Learning to Talk: about someone like me, with a disappearing father like mine. I tried hard to get the music right. We couldn't use "Pineapple Rag" - music so easily evokes a whole era that we were afraid that it would take the listener back to the 1920s, not to the 1950s where we wanted them to be. Instead we opted for jazz and blues from the 50s and 60s, and the producer arranged for a piano in the studio - a suitably battered instrument - and for an actor who would be my father for three days of recording.

Some time later, I had a letter from a stranger, which brought me news. It appeared that my father had married again; he never had any more children of his own, but became stepfather to a family of six, four of whom were daughters. It was the eldest daughter, a woman of my own age, who now wrote to me. He had died, I learned, in 1997. My new stepsister emailed me a photograph of him. A face not seen for 40 years came swimming out of the darkness of the screen. I could see how he had altered, how he had aged, and how features of my brothers' faces, as they had aged, were mixed up in his. Later, when my new stepsister looked out for me the very few things he had left behind, she forwarded to me his army papers, and I saw how my personality was mixed up in his. She gave me a cassette tape, old and scratchy, which she said was a recording of some of his favourite music. It was labelled in the neat sloping capitals that I remember him using to fill in the crossword every evening in the Manchester Evening News. There were the song titles, full of loss and regret: "Canal Street Blues", "How Long Blues", "I Don't Know Why", "Walking Out My Door", and a song named "Calling 'Em Home".

I had called him home, I felt: not through telephone directories and tracing agencies, not by any rational means, but through the exercise of as much art as I had at my disposal. I'd used indirection to bring back the dead. For some years I lived in Africa, in Botswana, and people there used to say that to see ghosts you need to look out of the corners of your eyes. If you turn on them a direct gaze, then, like Eurydice, they vanish.

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