Retelling a Fairy Tale: Bitter Greens, by Kate Forsyth
I don’t review many books here, just a few that chime with my current writing interests. Goes without saying that I read plenty and enjoy many, most recently, Flight Behaviour by Barbara Kingsolver, one the best I’ve read in years.
I’m currently researching folk and fairy tales adaptations as background for my San digital folktales project. That folktales of every culture are transformative, is obvious: across nations, down the generations, storytellers have been tweaking the tale/s they originally heard, whether to better please an audience or to suit their own performance styles . This makes sense. Folktales reflect the social mores of a society. Havelock, in Communications Arts in the Ancient World, (1973) wrote: ‘ …all societies support and strengthen their identity by conserving their mores. Literate societies do this through documentation…’ Early collections of fairy tales such as those initially consulted by the Grimm brothers, are this documentation, we might say. And when these fairy or wonder tales are retold by a modern teller, one finds current values and interpretations woven into the old fabric. For example, feminist writer, Angela Carter, flipped fairy tale to show girls on top during the long post-partum days of Women’s lib. (The Bloody Chamber. 1979. Gollanz)
But what happens when you go behind the gossamer wings of a fairy tale? What are the workings, the conventions and defining features which present challenges and opportunities for a contemporary writer reworking a classic tale? Kate Forsythe’s new novel, Bitter Greens (Allison and Busby, London, 2013) demonstrates a few of these.
Research reveals plot possibilities
Forsythe checked out some earlier versions of the famous story of Rapunzel, so called by the Grimm brothers, which they acknowledge finding in a posthumously published anthology, Il Pentamerone, 1634 by the Neapolitan collector, Giambattista Basile. Even her limited research – there are earlier versions of the tale from Persia, for e.g. – allowed Forsyth to add two new strands to the story of a beauty locked up in the tower by a wicked witch. In so doing, Forsyth interleaves the stories of three related characters, much as Rapunzel was said to have braided her ‘fathoms’–long hair so the witch could climb ‘her golden stair’.
Go for the gaps
The story the Grimms put into their famous collection, Household Tales, is very similar to ‘Persinette’, penned by Mme Charlotte-Rose de Caumont de la Force, a French noble woman banished to a convent by King Louis X1V as punishment for her scandalous life. A foreword in the book – scratching my head over this. I understood a foreword to be an introduction written by someone other than the author – anyhooo, this Foreword mentions a puzzle known to fairy tale scholars: how did Mme de la Force hear the story of Petrosinella, (Little Parsely, the bitter green her mother so craved during her pregnancy that her husband had to steal it from the witch’s garden) when the previous version they know of was told in Neapolitan? It is this tantalizing gap in our knowledge that Forsythe plugs with intriguing characters and some page-turning plot. Here, I imagine, she began the ‘What if’ game, the method many writers use to generate plot ideas. What if the fictional writer, a French noblewoman, learns it from the antagonist herself, the wicked witch?
Voilà, Forsyth creates Selena Leoncelli, the beautiful sorceress. Now she must find a plausible way to bring her into contact with a woman born many, many decades after her, viz. the convent-bound French noblewoman. Easy to slip passed credibility problems in a fairy tale; work the convention. Witches have occult powers so readers readily accept one who knows the secret of longevity.
The three strand story
In Bitter Greens we learn the story of Rapunzel, called Margherita, and how her parents came to give her up to the witch and what her life was like under the control of Selina the sorceress. We are also given a glimpse into her happily-ever-after.
Then we get the tale of Selina, first as a child, then as apprentice witch and famous courtesan in Venice (the artist Tiziano is a bonus historical figure here. Selina is his muse and mistress, though she outlives him by at least 100 years. How? Bleed a virgin and bathe in her blood while incanting spells. Hmmm; Botox sounds easier.)
Braided in, is the imagined life of Charlotte-Rose de la Force, an indomitable woman and the first literary writer of the Rapunzel tale. (She wrote historical novels and other tales too.) Forsythe macknowledges several of the books she used to research the court of the Sun King and life in the France during the 17th century.) These French scenes are vivid and convincing, peopled as they are with real historical figures and events: Madame de Montespan; Louis XIV; the revoke of the Edict of Nantes; the death of Molière, living conditions at Versailles, the restricted roles of women, etc.
Where’s the pull?
It is the plight of young Margherita/Petrosinella/Rapunzel that has one turning the pages faster. Despite knowing her Prince will come, we feel her terror at the discovery of the remains in the bottom of the tower ( a gothic touch worked convincingly into the plot) her fear, dread, longings… even her period pains. For me, the best-written part of this strand of the story ( a bit twee at times) was Margherita’s inability to leave the tower even when her Prince offers her a way out. Couldn't this be more to do with the fear of an institutionalized person than with the magic bonds Forsyth has fettering her? An opportunity missed, I think, as the set-up was already in place. Instead Margherita discovers her own occult power. But hey, it’s a fairy tale. Still, by eschewing character development in favour of a magical cop-out, the writer may disappoint some readers who were buying into the girl-in-the-tower as a real person.
I appreciate that fairy tale characters are not meant to be real, just archetypes, representations of some aspect of humanity. But subjecting them to an established trial, such as the fear of entering the real world after a long period of entrapment, can turn them from a celluloid animation into a 'living, breathing (girl)'. Ask Pinocchio.
But let's not chuck out, with the bloody bath water, other opportunities fairy tale conventions afford a writer. Magic away credibility problems. For example, if you ever wondered why Rapunzel didn’t just cut off her own hair, tie it to the wall hook and abseil to freedom, you’ll learn it was because the hair was enchanted and refused to stay knotted. Abracadabra!
I enjoyed the story, though I think it’s ideal readership is young adult. Unlike me, they may not find the recreation of Charlotte-Rose’s life, the author of ‘Persinette’, to ultimately be the most satisfactory strand of this tale.
Sneaking as a Writer
Have you ever imagined being at your own funeral? Come on, we all have when peeved with the ungrateful world. We’ve wallowed in how pleasurable it would be to hear the things people might say about us.
But what if the eulogies aren’t forthcoming? Ouch! Eina! Uf. I should know; been there, done that, bought the shroud.
How? I skulked incognito among readers unwittingly dissecting my first novel, Salt & Honey. You may be pleased to hear I got what eavesdroppers deserve; an ear-roasting.
Why do such a stupid/reprehensible/brave thing, you might wonder? Several reasons, chief among them, Briony, a creative writing student at the university where I teach. She’s all charm, exuberance and knitting needles. Once upon a tutorial day she bounced in and announced that her mother’s book club were reading my novel and wouldn’t it be ‘bostin’ if I came along to listen? To listen, mind; the ladies of the book club wouldn’t be interested in a talk by the author, she stressed. They’d had one and found it frustrating not being able to say what they really thought about the book. (Not much, as it happens.)
Quicker than you could say knit one, purl one, Briony had me stitched up. I would present myself at the meeting, my presence known only to the librarian, Briony and her mother. It may sound foolish but I looked forward to my undercover adventure. I was, at the time, in the throes of writing the sequel to Salt & Honey, namely Kalahari Passage, and felt some feed forward would be useful. Also, I’m a bit of a masochist. To research the novel I’d traversed the Kalahari desert, suffering scorpions, snakes, veld fires and a furious bull elephant. How bad could a book club meeting in the English shires be?
By the time we got to the opinion of reader number three at Bilston library, I felt I’d been trampled by a whole herd of jumbo. ‘Difficult to get into,’ the first two readers had said. I squirmed.
‘Too much explicit detail’ said the tightly buttoned one. I blushed.
‘One nation thinking themselves superior to another… distasteful.’ I had to agree with her; it’s one of the novel’s themes.
‘I couldn’t identify with any of the characters.’ Ouch, that stung. I saw the librarian try to take cover in her convenor’s chair. Briony, next to me, knitted imperturbably on, Madame Defarge next to the guillotine.
Then my novel found favour. Reader after reader (it was a big group) said they’d found it a worthwhile read: well-written, engrossing, moving. ‘I always say when a book makes me cry it’s really good,’ said one. Most encouraging for me was hearing the group speculate about what might happen next to my protagonist. I felt flattered that intelligent, busy people had devoted hours of their time not just to reading but also to thinking about my story, and at the level of plot projection and character nuance. They demonstrated insight into the technical challenges of compressing a tempestuous era into a few representative incidents. Wow. Why weren’t they writing?
Then it was time for the big reveal. Briony’s mother did the deed, getting surprisingly little flak for it, I thought. ‘Well, I’d have said the same thing had I known who you were’ said one of my critics.
I hope the group believed me when I said what a privilege it had been to hear them speak about my book. Usually my author talks are strictly about the San. People are fascinated and I don’t hold it against them. But that day I learned what an informed reader brings to a book. I hope the next stage of Koba’s journey engaged them. I feel sure they’d have told me if it hadn’t.
A version of this article appeared in newbooks Magazine, Issue no. 65. Sept/Oct. 2011
Triomf by Marlene van Niekerk, translated by Leon De Kok
This novel has been sitting on my bookshelf, unread, for several years.
Originally published in Afrikaans, the mother tongue of the South African Apartheid government, one can regard it as the first literary work of fiction of the new South Africa, published in the language of the former oppressors. (The democratic election which brought Nelson Mandela’s ANC party to power was held in April 1994 and Triomf, which references this historic event, came out a few months later.)
There is a reason for my boycott of this prize-winning book (CNA Literary Award; NOMA Award; M-Net Prize) that I dimly recall was a gift from a well-meaning SA friend. It’s about an ethnic group I, as a voluntary-Apartheid exile had not yet made peace with, namely, my fellow countrymen, the Afrikaners. Also I find sustained sexual abuse makes for a harrowing read and I knew this novel had incest as its central metaphor.
Taboo subjects are a challenge for a writer. There is a thin line between prurience and plot imperative. I tussled with this in my own novel Salt & Honey, eventually reconciling myself to depicting a scene involving the sexual humiliation of a San woman, because her mistreatment triggers (quite literally) the chain of events which leads to my heroine, Koba’s, abduction. And on that pivots a series-long plot.
In Triomf, Marlene van Niekerk goes much further. The opening chapter introduces us to the Benade family, shuffling old Pop with his fly perpetually down, his ‘wife’ Mol who wears a one-button housecoat and no knickers and her mayhem-making brother, Treppie. All three are actually siblings who devote much of their time to either placating or tormenting the other inmate of this chaotic household, violent Lambert, an epileptic and their son. It’s not clear whether Pop or Treppie fathered him, but what is clear is that Mol, a simple, sweet-natured woman in her 60s, is being abused, sexually and verbally, by all the men in her family.
It makes for disturbing reading, initially. The only thing that kept me turning the pages was a professional interest. Why would a writer, one who presumably has wide reading experience of good writing (she teaches Dutch and Afrikaans literature at university) risk alienating the reader so early on in the narrative? And having given the reader just cause to hate her characters, how is she going to move us to empathize with them, as we must if we are to remain in their company for another 460 pages?
Yes, Triomf (which means triumph) is long. Well over a 100 000 words, I’d guess, and yet the narrative seldom moves beyond the shattered walls of 127 Martha Street in this Afrikaans working-class white suburb symbolically built on the ruins of the famous black township, Sophiatown. (The place the British cleric, Trevor Huddleston fought so hard to save from the Apartheid regime’s bulldozers in the 1960s.)
It’s an insular world, with this white trash family (their yard is littered with broken cars, fridges, rubble) despised by their long-suffering neighbours who constantly claim they’d rather be living next door to ‘kaffirs’ (Throwback Afrikaner-speak for blacks.) The Benades just hunker down in their disintegrating house, handed to them decades beforehand by an Afrikaner-government buying votes among poor whites. In the run up to the election the Benades are cynically courted by all the Afrikaner political parties desperate to prove they are relevant in the new South African political landscape.
As the narrative moves towards the equally threatening dates of Lambert’s 40th birthday and the hand-over of power to the ANC, I began to see the incest as a stark symbol of Afrikaner self-reliance. When the world turned against them, the old-school, laager-mentality Afrikaners closed their doors and ‘saw to their own needs.’ (South Africa became the first country to produce oil from coal when international trading bans stopped the supply of crude to the country.) I began to have sympathy for this parody of a nuclear family degraded by poverty and historical circumstance.
I turned the last page of Triomf with a feeling of admiration for Marlene Van Niekerk’s achievement. Her characters are not caricatures of posturing but pathetic Afrikaners who find themselves on the scrap heap of history. This reader did not cheer when they and by symbolic extension, their kind, got their just desserts. Ultimately the Benades are shown as individuals, with humour and humanity. Therefore, with appalling habits and redeeming features. I felt their pain and bewilderment.