Sunday 14 June 2020

Lockdown Sunday extra: DAEMON VOICES by Philip Pullman, edited by Simon Mason

"In every chapter there are things I want to store away, remember and use to encourage myself and others."

This is the last of our Lockdown Sunday extras. From now on we will return to our weekly Monday posts.

Linda Newbery edits Writers Review. She has published widely for young readers and is currently working on her second novel for adults.

"I find Post-It notes indispensable. They really came into their own when I was preparing to write about this book. The pages of my paperback copy bristle with so many little yellow stickers that its thickness is almost doubled, and it wasn't a slender book to start with." Philip Pullman says this of The Anatomy of Melancholy by Robert Burton, and I could say exactly the same of Daemon Voices, except that this is a handsome hardback. In every chapter there are things I want to store away, remember and use to encourage myself and others.

Full of delights and insights, this is a compilation of various lectures, essays, introductions, conference speeches and articles written over thirty years and for various audiences including the Children's Book Circle, the Sea of Faith Conference, the Richard Hillary Lecture and the Finnconn Science-Fiction Convention. Collectively they cover a wide range of subjects to do with writing, storytelling and the imagination. If you've heard Philip Pullman speak, you will hear his voice, clearly, as you read.

I'd intended to dip in and out of this collection while reading something else alongside, but on finishing each piece I was eager for the next, and the other book had to wait.  Among my favourites are those in which Pullman comments on paintings and illustrations, in which he has a keen interest (his own drawings are used as chapter heads in the His Dark Materials  trilogy). I've never before studied  Walter Trier's line drawings for Erich Kastner's Emil and the Detectives as closely as when directed to them by Pullman, though they come instantly to mind when I think of the book; now I see their clarity of line and their compositional skill. How inextricably stories and illustrations are linked in books for both children and adults! It's impossible to think of Swallows and Amazons without Arthur Ransome's own drawings (which is why, perhaps, TV dramatisations often disappoint - the borderland of that magical combination of words and images is destroyed by realism). Who shares my nostalgia for the Rupert Bear stories and annuals, written and illustrated by Alfred Bestall? His name meant nothing to me as a child, but the world (or worlds) he created were fantastical in his own distinctive style. "Bestall was full of fancy," writes Pullman; "I'm sure that's the right word for the special quality of lightness, delicacy, charm that his landscapes, his stories, embody." This is in a chapter called Reading in the Borderland - Reading, Books and Pictures, in which Pullman looks at where we go when we read, and how personal and private it is: "We are each alone when we enter the borderland and go on to explore what lies in it and beyond it, in the book we're engaged with. True, we can come back and talk about it, and if we talk well and truthfully and interestingly enough we might entice other readers into it, and they too will explore it - but they too will be alone there until they in turn come back and tell us what they found there ... "

Another great pleasure of these pieces is the close attention and respect Pullman gives to writers he admires. Awarded the 'Carnegie of Carnegies' for Northern Lights he said that the honour had been given to "the wrong PP", and that it should have gone to Philippa Pearce for Tom's Midnight Garden, which is the focus of a chapter called Narrative Tact and Other Classical Virtues. Here Pullman looks at the currently prevalent use of first-person present tense. (I have my own reservations about that, too. I've used both present tense and first person, but never together; when they're combined I find myself wondering why this character is earnestly telling me everything she does, thinks and sees, recording every bodily reaction, all as it happens and supposedly unmediated.) Pullman contrasts "what we often get now, the immediate, the up-close, the hectic of the incessant present tense, and what I might call the classical style of Pearce's writing, which has a great deal to do with how the narrator does her work." Particularly he examines the subtle ways in which the narrative handles time, in a novel which is of course all about shifts in time; and (with diversions to Emma and Vanity Fair) the flexibility of the free indirect style. "And this is where it gets really interesting, because if it's done well we hardly notice the moments when the point of view shifts from outside Tom to inside Tom, from Tom then to Tom now, from Tom him to Tom us. The movement is performed so swiftly and lightly that it seems the most natural thing in the world, even though really it's a complicated psychological manouevre." But then, who is the narrator? Philippa Pearce, surely? But no ... the narrator is the invention of the author just as surely as the characters are, "and every time I read a book where the author is so miraculously in charge of this ghostly being, ... so uncanny in its knowledge and so swift and sprite-like in its movement, I feel a delight in possiblity and mystery and make-believe."

Then there's the bit about his reaction to first reading Blake's poems: "I knew they were true in the way I knew that I was alive... " and the several times when he tells us he doesn't like fantasy, and a most intriguing question he poses towards the end, in a piece on The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ ... But I'll have to stop quoting; this is getting ridiculous. You'll just have to read the book for yourself, and see what you find there.

Daemon Voices is published by David Fickling Books.


Celia Rees said...

Lovely review! Couldn’t agree more about fp present tense - it is a narrative style that makes me feel constantly uneasy and not in a good way. And about Phillipa Pearce - we will not see her like again, particularly if authors/publishers/readers insist on first person present tense!

Ann Turnbull said...

I greatly enjoyed this book, and found myself agreeing with the author all the time. But the most wonderful thing that happened was that it led me to read Paradise Lost. Paradise Lost Part One was one of the three set books we studied for GCE, and at 16 I hadn't liked it. But last year, as soon as I'd finished Daemon Voices, I read Paradise Lost, and this time I was completely swept up in it and loved it. This was the right time for me!