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Texts That Talk to Each Other – Some Thoughts

I’ve been thinking a lot recently about texts in conversation with each other. People who know me through my education work will be aware that I’m very keen on an American educationalist called Arthur Applebee – if only I’d been able to meet him or hear him speak before his death in 2015! He writes cogently and persuasively about the way in which conversation is the life-blood of literary traditions and study – people in conversation with each other about texts, texts in conversation with each other. This, he eloquently explains, has to be at the heart of school English and the way the curriculum is conceived – with these conversations developing over time, from one term’s work to the next, each text studied being thought of in terms of its relationship to a tradition, or traditions. His thinking about traditions plural is very important to me. Exploring mainstream, canonical texts in the light of texts from other traditions enriches and expands our thinking not just about the other traditions but about the mainstream texts too. It’s not just about diversifying, or replacing one tradition with another, or being ‘relatable’; it’s about bringing different traditions into conversation with each other in ways that develop our thinking about both.

And it’s also, for me, about recognising that the repository of aesthetic, artistic and cultural value is not in one place; the western canon. One’s starting-point might be canonical, looking for texts, ancient and modern, that connect in some way, whether it be through archetypes of characters, story or genre archetypes (such as epic journeys or rites of passage narratives) or re-writings and re-envisioning old stories for a new audience (what Angela Carter described as pouring ‘old wine into new bottles). Another starting-point, however, might be the other way around. This could involve reading, with students, a text that is contemporary and reflects their own realities, say for instance a young adult novel such as In the Sea There Are Crocodiles, a book about a migrant child’s ‘epic’ journey from Afghanistan to Italy, via Syria and Greece. This can act as a spring-board for reading a little bit of Homer’s Odyssey, or dipping into Great Expectations to consider what use is made of the idea of a rites of passage novel, the exploration of expectations raised and shattered, the child’s-eye view and adult perspectives on growing up. Or what about reading the opening few chapters of the big and brilliant intergenerational saga, Yaa Gyasi’s HomeGoing, an extraordinary collection of narratives about slavery and its origins in Africa, the passage to America and its ongoing impact on contemporary black lives in America? This could be read alongside extracts from other sagas, books about the way historical events impact on the lives of whole families and peoples over time, or other contemporary narratives about slavery, perhaps reading ones that are written for Young Adults such as Underground to Canada, or Roll of Thunder Hear My Cry. What about reading Underground to Canada in full and comparing it with an extract from Colson Whitehead’s use of the metaphor of the underground railroad in his novel of the same name? This could explore not only the treatment of slavery but also the complexity of that metaphor and its use in two different novels and within the struggle for emancipation.

That idea of textual conversation is nowhere more apparent than in books which explicitly draw on others. While every text is entering a dialogue with past literature (through its use, adaptation or subversion of genres or through its acknowledged or subconscious referencing of other texts by other writers), a book like Derek Walcott’s Omeros is a very direct appropriation of a highly influential text, taking Homer’s characters and story and adapting them for a Caribbean context and set of issues and preoccupations. His Helen is a housemaid, his Hector and Achilles, two fishermen. They speak in the tongue of his island, St Lucia. (St Lucia was once known as the ‘Helen of the West Indies’) . Yet their lives and their worlds are as heroic and tragic and fraught with danger and sadness as the lives of Homer’s original characters. Achille imagines a journey to America on a slave ship (echoing Odysseus’ travels). In creating this new text, Walcott not only throws fresh light on the Odyssey but also allows us to consider the possibility of a non-western great epic text. Something new is born out of the juxtaposition of two different times, worlds and ways of writing.

Angela Carter, (already mentioned), is another wonderful example of a writer who is steeped in literary and cultural traditions and uses them to the full, not only to glory in them but also to radically subvert them. Both the fairy tales of Perrault and the gothic conventions of horror are played with, distorted, manipulated and reinvented in the uncanniest of ways, for modern times, and new political and feminist purposes. Carter is the most intertextual of writers.

And Maggie O’Farrell’s wonderful novel Hamnet is clearly and explicitly engaging in a dialogue with all that has been written and thought about Shakespeare and his play Hamlet. O’Farrell in interviews talks about the way in which Anne Hathaway has come down in history, from scant information about her life, as the rather ignorant, provincial older woman whom intellectually superior Shakespeare leaves to make his way in the exciting theatrical world of London. O’Farrell’s Anne (Agnes) is a quite different woman and the author draws on some of the details that we do know of her life by way of justification for this re-envisioning. Her Anne (Agnes) is highly intelligent, skilled in the arts of medicinal herbs and cultivating plants, protective of her children, a woman to be admired in many ways. The last chapter of the novel is a very direct and powerful reflection on the play Hamlet, with a strong thesis about why Shakespeare chose to name the play after his dead son. It makes us think afresh about the play, at the same time as constructing a brilliant and moving ending to the novel. Like Carol Ann Duffy’s The World’s Wife, O’Farrell sees things through the eyes of the wife of one of the most well-known men in history. Yet what O’Farrell also does is to allow us to re-envision Shakespeare and his work at the same time, in the most subtle and delicate of ways. Without ever mentioning his name, or entering his thoughts, she offers the reader acres of space to think about him, who he is, why he acts as he does, what he might be thinking and feeling, without ever trying to give us definitive answers. And that makes perfect sense. Her book is an exploration of possibilities, not a set of answers.

One other important reason for me thinking so much about intertextuality and the way in which texts speak to each other is that I’ve been writing a book of short stories that takes as its spark my reading of a short story by another writer, Chekhov, his iconic short story ‘The Kiss’. I love Chekhov and that story especially. I read it at the time I was doing a Creative Writing MA at Birkbeck, over a decade ago, and the seed of an idea was planted in my mind. Chekhov’s brilliance is to invest a small moment in the life of the main character with huge significance. For a young, modest soldier, an unexpected kiss from a woman, given to him accidently, changes everything. It might be ‘just a kiss’ to us, in our most cynical, worldly, contemporary mood – why get so het up about something so small? But Chekhov’s brilliance is to invest that kiss and the desire for another with so much emotion, with such hope and desire, and then such a yearning sense of loss, suggestive of the character’s view himself as on the cusp of finding something very significant, and then missing out on it. One senses that this is a turning-point in his whole view of himself, as someone who is capable and worthy of valuable things, of happiness, only to have this hope dashed. And as the young soldier is at war, perhaps this will be where things end, with him dying unsatisfied with himself and what he will ever achieve in his life. ‘Just a kiss,’ is entirely the wrong reaction to this story. It got me thinking about kisses and what they mean and how often kisses are more than ‘just a kiss’. I wondered whether there was more to explore here in fiction. In our contemporary literary world, where the expectation is often for full-on sexual scenes and graphic description of acts of sex of every variety, might there be room for something that looks at that – supposedly – smaller act of intimacy? And something that considers it, not only as a sexual act, but also in its other forms, as expressions of other kinds of emotions.

I started writing short stories which involved kisses of all different kinds, in different places, contexts and with different meanings, Chekhov’s short story always there in the back of my mind. And the intertextuality deeply rooted in the initial idea also extended to many other aspects of the stories that I wrote. Some of the stories adopt genres, or elements of genres – one is a science fiction story, another has a kind of rites of passage undercurrent, some have a historical slant. One story has as its spark a well-known poem by Robert Browning, another was conceived through a combination of reading a comment by John Cheever about the nature of fiction and an interest in the work of nineteenth century women novelists. One story was suggested to me by the lasting impact of a powerful film. The stories also, inevitably, show my huge debt to all the writers I have ever read. It must, I’m sure, in unconscious, semi-conscious and even sometimes conscious ways, be influenced by my love of other short story writers, not just Chekhov but also writers like Mary Lavin, Flannery O’ Connor, Raymond Carver, Alice Munro, Elizabeth Strout and others. ‘Kremlinology of Kisses’, like all texts, couldn’t exist without the work of other writers. It comes from all the reading I have ever done.

So, intertextuality has been on my mind. That’s not to say, however, that it is ever not on my mind, nor, I would argue, is it ever not on the mind of any reader, anywhere, reading any text. You only have to start reading a novel or a poem and say to yourself in the most fleeting of ways, ‘Oh that reminds me of…’ or ‘What a strange opening for a novel…’ or ‘I read something like this last year…’ or ‘It’s a bit like a fairytale…’ for you to be reading one text in relation to others. Reading any text is a deeply intertextual act.

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©2020 by Barbara Bleiman

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