Of books and reading and timey-wimey stuff – pt 1

The interesting thing about a novel is, that like the Tardis, it’s much bigger on the inside than on the outside. Books look linear, and we are often tricked, as readers and writers, into making them linear. Novels muck about with time, and time is never as straightforward as it appears. Currently there looks to be great and feverish excitement among readers and others about iPads and Kindles and other plastic American toys, and what they might mean for books and reading and so on. I have just been given a Kindle and it doesn’t exactly scream ‘Revolution!’ to me. Personally I wonder, late into the night when I’ve run out of things to worry about, dreams to have, things to read and my pen is out of ink, what a real revolution in the format of reading might mean and what that might look like for the novel, say. The novel is a very big and weird thing and keeps trying to morph into other things – but is continually hammered back into the shape of The Novel – and whether we have come to the end of the novel or not, I doubt if we have come to the end of storytelling and meaning-making. Well not yet, anyway.

The state of being unpublished has perhaps been understated and undervalued. Who would write a novel, one might think, and not seek to have it published? Once one is published, one cannot become unpublished. Like having a child it could be a state that then begins to haunt you; a state that can’t be undone, that inscribes things about you and within you you’d rather not have known or remembered. Which perhaps explains why families are so adept at rewriting their children’s histories. And makes me wonder why more novelists don’t go back and rewrite their own published novels.

And to this end, a story, possibly untrue in parts, about time, and reading and writing. If you’re sitting comfortably, we’ll begin.

In 1979, the English writer, Robert Westall – a writer much concerned with time and childhood – published his second novel Fathom Five, a book set in the north-east of England during the Second World War. It chronicles the misadventures of working-class schoolboy Chas McGill, the rebellious hero of Westall’s Carnegie Medal-winning first novel, The Machine Gunners. Sometime before my daughter was born, years ago, I lost my copy of Fathom Five, and only found another copy sometime later, when she was five or six, a tattered second-hand first edition published in England by Macmillan. However, when I began to read it again, I discovered that the character of Chas McGill had been completely erased and another schoolboy, Jack Stokoe, substituted in his place. Several other events in the book had been subtly altered to accommodate the change of name. As the 1979 hardback was a first edition, the interpolation of Jack Stokoe was not some strange afterthought on the part of Westall. Yet all the literary histories of Westall’s books I have managed to locate refer to the protagonist as Chas McGill, and of the many editions of Fathom Five I have now seen, my copy is the only one that references Jack Stokoe.

Westall died in 1993 at the age of sixty-four. While trying to research the history of Fathom Five, I discovered that a decade or so after Westall’s death the great Japanese animator, Hayao Miyazaki – an admirer of Westall’s work and the creator of such wonderful films as Porco Rosso and My Neighbour Totoro – journeyed to Westall’s home town Tynemouth in Yorkshire. He wanted to gain firsthand experience of the landscape where so much of Westall’s work is set for a project he had in mind illustrating Westall’s short story Blackham’s Wimpey, about a Wellington bomber haunted by the screams of a dying German airman. In the resulting manga, an illustrated essay A Trip to Tynemouth, in which he depicts himself as a pig, like his animated hero Porco Rosso, Miyazaki describes meeting with Westall, who he portrays as a Scottish terrier. But this is a meeting that could not possibly have taken place, as Westall was dead.

However, shortly after publishing A Trip To Tynemouth in 2006, Miyazaki illustrated a Japanese edition of Fathom Five, which I have unfortunately not yet been able to acquire. The curious nature of this series of events is uncannily like the plot of one of Westall’s novels, with their frequent time-slips and descriptions of the many ways in which the linear nature of time is shown to be a fabrication, indicated by some small disruptive event in daily life that can easily be dismissed as a hallucination, but which is actually evidence of an existing rupture in our lives and in reality. Westall’s writing of two Fathom Fives was odd enough, but the weird and unexpected appearance of Miyazaki in the narrative, whose films take the mysterious and inexplicable in their stride, give this tale an even more uncanny and unsettling aura.

At a mundane level, the problem of Westall’s two Fathom Fives is one that an academic critic might seek to answer while pursuing a PhD on Westall’s work. On the other hand, if we take a more radical and also more sympathetic approach (an approach that makes the uncanny familiar, the approach in fact of a Westall narrative) applying Westall’s metaphors and themes to his own life – and why not; if we do not use our fevered imaginations to construct infinite and fantastic possibilities, how can we ever become writers or readers – it then becomes obvious that there must have been two Robert Westalls, each working in parallel in his own stream of time. And that Hayao Miyazaki inadvertently, or perhaps somehow deliberately (for all I know), moved from one time-stream to the other and did actually meet Robert Westall. But the Westall who was still alive in 2003 in his own time-stream, the Westall who created Jack Stokoe not Chas McGill. And, if that fantastical possibility was so (one that Westall himself would surely not have excluded), perhaps Miyazaki in his mischievous and idiosyncratic way has alluded to it in choosing to illustrate – out of all of Westall’s numerous books – Fathom Five, but covered his tracks by ensuring that it was the Chas McGill version. Of course, as I have not seen the Japanese version of Fathom Five, it’s possible that Miyazaki has blown his cover entirely, and illustrated the Jack Stokoe text. But I suspect not. Miyazaki is a master of disguise.

That was a long way around to be able to say, but say it as fully as I can, that the act of reading exists as a space. And in that space where we live like ghosts of ourselves, many changes and transformations are possible. If they weren’t, we would not be reading. More anon.

Stephen Wright

Stephen Wright’s essays have won the Eureka St Prize, the Nature Conservancy Prize, the Overland NUW Fair Australia Prize and the Scarlett Award, and been shortlisted for several others. In 2017, he won the Viva La Novella Prize. His winning novel, A Second Life, was published by Seizure, and also won the Woollahra Digital Literary Prize for Fiction.

More by Stephen Wright ›

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  1. Hey there Stephen

    This is a magnificent post; I feel as though I’ve circumnavigated your mind. I knew nothing about the Westall/Miyazaki connection. Actually, I knew nothing about Westall either, save some foggy childhood memories. I appreciated all the extrapolation on them, their stories, their meaning-making.

    On another note, I have recently become trapped in this idea: Once one is published, one cannot become unpublished.

    Perhaps books are rarely rewritten because books are corporeal, yet our readings are not. [Aren’t they? Undecided. Does this make reading sound passive, because I don’t think it is?] Even though the reading space exists, it is not a space we can live in; it is a space we haunt, a borrowed space. I wonder what the changes are that can take place there and what they mean for the material world.

    Possibly this is something you’ll address in part 2 (more than likely, it’s irrelevant).

    1. Hola! Jacinda
      Must have been a quick trip. The circumnavigation I mean.
      You’re right, reading isn’t passive at all. From the perspective I am noodling around in, it could be the book-novel-object that is passive. One could argue that lots of writers just write the same book over and over again I suppose, but that still wouldn’t address the idea of the rewriting of the same book.
      The material world isn’t as material as it appears in some ways I suppose, because if it was we’d never be able to change. I think if I read a book and am changed in the encounter, then the world has to be changed too. To me it seems as though the world can’t be a solid thing that stays static while I change.
      I’ve already written Part 2. I’m just holding back to crank up the expectation. Like waiting for the last Harry Potter.

  2. Ooh I loved this article Stephen, thanks. Knowing nothing about Westall or Miyazaki (I am constantly reminded that my ignorance is staggering), I just went along for the ride.

    The space of a novel stays with a person; space inside the soul, the psyche, that you get to own. Real estate in … where? Dreamland. Hell. Oddsville. Nowhere.

    And if its form is stretched and transformed into something else … then isn’t it just that: something else?

    Aldous Huxley’s forward to Brave New World came to mind,so I looked it up and it’s an interesting little rave, perhaps. He writes in 1946 …

    “To pore over the literary shortcomings of twenty years ago, to attempt to patch a faulty work into the perfection it missed at its first execution, to spend one’s middle age in trying to mend the artistic sins committed and bequeathed by that different person who was oneself in youth – all that is surely vain and futile. And that is why this new Brave New World is the same as the old one. Its defects as a work of art are considerable; but in order to correct them I should have to rewrite the book – and in the process of rewriting, as an older, other person, I should probably get rid not only of some of the faults of the story, but also of such merits as it originally possessed. And so, resisting the temptation to wallow in artistic remorse, I prefer to leave both well and ill alone and to think about something else.”

    1. Hi there Clare
      Well I suggest you find a copy of Westall’s ‘Machine Gunners’ and Miyazaki’s ‘Porco Rosso’ or ‘My neighbour Totoro’ right away.
      I have been thinking a lot about the space of reading. it is as you say possibly dreamland/hell/oddsville/nowhere all at once. I’ve addressed a bit in Pt 2 of this post which I’ll send to Overland next wee, but I wonder if it doesn’t need a space and post of its own. I think of it as a kind of transitional or in-between space, and because its like that all kinds of things are possible when we are in it.
      Thanks for the Huxley quote and taking the time to write it up. He seems to be thinking of rewriting a novel in order to improve it or correct it in some way. I have been wondering about rewrites as completely new objects/experiences, wondering why it doesn’t happen and even if its possible, and if not why not. So I could write a novel, lets say about a couple of left-wing editors who are also detectives tracking neo-nazis in the Melbourne underworld. I write it and publish it and it wins me many awards and is made into a film with Robert Downey and Scarlett Johansson. Then I write a novel with the same title that deals with the same events lets say and characters, but If I am rewriting from the germ of my original inspiration it might go anywhere and become anything. What would its reference points be to the ‘original’? Would there be any and why? is it really about re-entering my ‘original’ reverie that gave birth to the book in some way? I can’t remember which writer made the comment about the past always seeming more concrete than the present, but the re-write would be in some sense to play with the past I guess, and time and identity.
      Of course the real question would be could Robert Downey go from playing a wise-cracking cigarillo-smoking editor/detective in the first film, to playing a gloomy Sartre-obsessed absinthe-swilling editor/detective in the ‘remake’? But that thorny question will have to be left for another time.
      Ha! My reCaptcha words are ‘to read’.

      1. Cheers Stephen … I wonder, are we heading into (dare I say it?) Franchise territory? Is there any other seed than ‘I want to tell a story’ – aren’t there only 7 stories (or something)? Hmm, that patter you hear is my feet, running off to find myself some Westall and Miyazaki.

      2. Steven, Mr Huxley did indeed feel that his novel Brave New World was deeply flawed. In summary: “The Savage is offered only two alternatives…At the time the book was written this idea, that human beings are given free will in order to choose between insanity on the one hand and lunacy on the other, was one I found amusing and regarded as quite possibly true…If I were now to rewrite the book, I would offer the Savage a third alternative…In this community economics would be decentralist and Henry-Georgian, politics Kropotkinesque and cooperative. Science and technology would be used as though, like the Sabbath, they had been made for man [sic], not (as at present and still more so in the Brave New World) as though man [sic] were to be adapted and enslaved to them. Religion would be the conscious and intelligent pursuit of man’s [sic] Final End, the unitive knowledge of the immanent Tao or Logos, the transcendent Godhead of Brahman…and the prevailing philosophy of life would be a kind of Higher Utilitarianism…But Brave New World is a book about the future and, whatever its artistic or philosophical qualities, a book about the future can interest us only if its prophecies look as though they might conceivably come true.”

        1. Heavens above. I think I’m happy that Huxley’s future didn’t come to pass. A quote of Huxley’s I have always liked very much is the following from ‘Grey Eminence’perhaps his
          best book: “All of us, I suppose, have woken up all of a sudden from the sleep of everyday living into momentary awareness of the nature of ourselves and our surroundings…suddenly to realise that one is sitting damned among the damned.”
          And then in the tone of a man chilled to the heart he adds, “It’s most disquieting.”

          1. Good heavens indeed! Hmm recaptcha wants me to vote mangy, so I’ll do that … having no free will (not even for madness or lunacy) and being too afraid to wake up, lest I be disquieted. A delicious quote, thank you. And a suitably wibbly wobbly post full of interesting ‘stuff’.

  3. I think a lot about time traveling; or rather space traveling I think ie: the non-linear variety – i guess reading is a version of this as are many other forms of space travel like meditation, or various ‘art’ pursuits which enable your mind to enter into a timeless realm where you come out the other side completely surprised that 5 hours have passed (but as this is a literary journal i understand your use of the novel). The mind is a perfect tardis isn’t it. So much bigger on the inside – able to encompass from here to the other side of the world and back in one single bound – yet very deceptive in appearance from the outside – like where is it at all? The ultimate of tardisi (could that be the plural of tardis, or is it such that it is only ever singular?) …the tardis that doesn’t even exist yet gets into so much trouble!
    So in the infamous words of Sen or Chihiro (what’s in a name?- so much!…)aka Spirited away –
    It’s just…a bad dream! Wake up, wake up…

    1. Thanks for this Kylie. I’m reminded of the Russian writer Viktor Pelevin, who said something along the lines of, that the only topic he was really interested in is ‘what is the mind?’ The mind is probably a perfect tardis – which is one reason why its such a powerful image I guess – especially as it looks like a police box on the outside, an object with all the connotations of mental policing, something at which we generally excel.As you say, the midn is a difficult object to locate, but can cause an awful lot of trouble.

  4. Hi Stephen, great post. It takes me back to my childhood reading. My mum says she’d always find with a torch under the covers reading late into the night, which I only remember from her recollections, because what’s in my mind is the wonderful world I was always in when reading, a private even if borrowed world that only books, I think, can really supply. Something active and absorbing was going on from being between the dust jacket of a book which appears, when you hold it – perhaps even when you start reading it – to be so material and linear.

    Time, space travel – I’d love to re-write a novel of mine that has been published. And, one day, you never know, I might. But I tend to think of Huxley’s wisdom that Clare quoted in her comment and not ruin some of the merit in an effort to create something to appease myself. In some ways, books belong to the reader after they’ve been published and to change them might be to take them back.

    Looking forward to part 2.

    1. Hi Finn. Reading is very much an under-the-covers experience I think, and as you say very much a ‘borrowed’ world. But I’m not sure that anyone owns the novel. But the writer being the instigator of the experience has the privilege of talking about it in a way that the reader can’t.There doesn’t have to be any appeasement involved in rewriting one’s own work. In fact, perhaps its better to come up with another term instead of ‘rewrite’. Perhaps its over-writing or something, like creating a palimpsest. If a completely new version of Macbeth were discovered today, that Shakespeare wrote at the same time as the version we possess, would that ruin or steal my experience of having read it the familiar version?

  5. Stephen

    In digging up the surface of the ball of timey-wimey stuff, I came across Part 2 of your blog post, which, to be honest, was what I was searching for, along with a long lost memory… It was a good read, and I really like the way your resolved some of the tensions present in Part 1, as well as open up one incredibly poetic and potent ambiguity around reading-as-time versus reading-as-space.

    I buried the thing again, but I left the spade nearby as a clue to where I put it.

    Then I searched all day for Part 3, but couldn’t find any trace, so when to sleep in front of the tube, which was airing the latest Miyazaki film that, oddily enough, had Downey Jnr doing the voice over of the Jack Terrier.

  6. Part 3 is locked away in my mind somewhere and may cook for a very long time. So now I know why my copy of Part 2 has grubby fingerprints over all over it.

    My reCaptcha passwords are ‘not zebedee’, which if you are a Magic Roundabout aficionado will be very meaningful. Otherwise not.

  7. Stephen

    I was wondering if this is a matter of wanting the conditions of one format, within the use of another. Ie, wanting the freedom/ability/space to ‘re-write’ within the format of the book.

    My thinking is: in many formats and cultural forms, what you speak of is common place — the music improviser re-playing the same chart, the itinerant installation artist re-mounting the same installation, the advertising company re-mediating the same brand and logo, the potter re-moulding the same pot… the orator and story-telling re-counting the same narrative etc… and on each re-occurrence/re-working, there isthe chance for evolution, change, nuance, shifts, and general change of direction. Some (re-)makers of course are conservative on this front, and others are much more adventurous.

    And some format are predisposed to this re-working. Oral stories are, but the permanence of the novel does not.

    So, you’re wanting the novel to have the space of fluidity and re-puruposing and re-telling that the oral tradition has had for eons?

    That’s where the Kindle might help: you buy an e-book, but the publishers drag more dollars out of us by overs re-visions of the same book – a bit like the ‘director’s cut’ on DVD… not sure if any publishers are thinking like this yet, but modern capitalism is definitely adept at finding new ways of getting more consumer purchases out of the ‘same’ content.

    1. Luke – You wrote;
      “So, you’re wanting the novel to have the space of fluidity and re-puruposing and re-telling that the oral tradition has had for eons?”

      This is exactly what I am thinking. Thanks for coming to the party.
      The Kindle is just a device for selling stuff. It could be a whole lot more, and perhaps one day eBook readers will be more. maybe. But not while they are controlled by Amazon and Apple. Publishers just want to get on with the iPad/kindle so that they (a) don’t ‘get left behind ‘ and (b) can make even shitloads more money than they do now.
      There is something about novel-writing and criticism I don’t get, and I have been turning mental acrobatics trying to get it, and it is around why the novel is so stuck, and has as you say done sweet FA for a very long time except be a novel.

  8. But Stephen, to play devil’s advocate: isn’t wanting for the novel what the oral tradition has, just like wanting painting to be like sculpture, or wanting written music to sound improvised…?

    Are you asking as a maker or historian?

    As a maker, I think the question/s you pose are highly generative — a kind of provocation to shift one’s frame of reference which may lead to new possibilities and away from replicating traditional conventions — the answer is in fact what you make next; something other.

    But as a historian, the answer surely is something way more stayed: once certain ‘formats of presentation’ evolve to a widely-disseminated state, with its own institutions, norms, conventions, economies, audiences and expectations, the sort of innovations we find are no longer revolutionary. Instead we have slight tweaking of established principles. For instance: opera in the 1600s was a radical departure, and now the most radical thing an opera can do is a small variation within its own limits. Anything else isn’t opera. It might be music theatre (Broadway, or minimalist Steve Reich/Philip Glass style) and these things were adventurous decades ago but now they too are fairly set. Pick and choose any other globally disseminated, long-established form, and surely the same holds true.

    So why pick on the novel?
    (And, what has criticism got to do with it?)

    reCaptcha: “riveted to…”

    1. I’m picking on the novel as a maker. I’m not asking for the novel to take on the shape of anything else, just wondering why it’s so static, and what the act of writing one could mean. ‘Tweaking’ as you put it is very common in all forms of artistic endeavour and such tweaking can often be hailed as major artistic transformation. I’m not, one one sense, interested in The Novel. I’m interested in the act of writing, and trying to find a way in to what that is or could be. Its not like the world is short of novels.
      For some reason Harry Partsch is coming to mind.

  9. Oh, and criticism has nothing to do with it. That’s the point of criticism. of the literary kind anyway.

    recaptcha: tipsily interpreted

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