27 April 2014

Art as Madness

My column for The Sunday Guardian.

I stood, a few weeks ago, utterly entranced, at the theatre of Dionysius in Athens, crowned gorgeously by the Parthenon, sitting regally in a natural hollow on the southern slopes of the Acropolis complex: a majestic amphitheatre and the birthplace of the European theatrical tradition. Believed to have perfect acoustical properties and capable of seating seventeen thousand people, one first glimpses its semi-circular orchestra as one clambers up towards the Parthenon from the temple of Athena Nike. It is easy to visualise the spectacle from here, the Dionysian festivals, the plays, the theatrical competitions, the great early playwrights – Sophocles, Euripides, Aeschylus, Aristophanes, Menander. It is like breathing into history.

Dionysius’s connection to the theatre seems fragmentary at first. He is the only Olympian god to be born to a mortal. Ovid records the story in Metamorphosis (a brilliant adaptation of this myth is in Tales from Ovid by Ted Hughes): Semele, the princess of Thebes, had an affair with Zeus (Hughes describes it as a rape), the king of the gods, and when Zeus’s jealous queen Hera heard of this, she appeared as an old crone to befriend Semele and plant seeds of doubt in her mind about her lover’s identity. Foolish Semele then demanded that Zeus appear in front of her in all his glory – and when he did, clothed in thunder and lightning and fire, she was so awed by his magnificent presence that her mortal body was set ablaze, consumed and burnt. From her womb, though, an embryo survived and Zeus lodged it in his thigh until a boy was born – Dionysius, the child of fire, the twice-born. Hughes writes: ‘Her eyes opened wide, saw him / And burst into flame. / Her whole body lit up / With the glare / That explodes the lamp – / In that splinter of a second, / Before her blazing shape / Became a silhouette of sooty ashes / The foetus was snatched from her womb.’

Known also as Dithyrambos (‘born of two doors’) – and Bacchus to the Romans – Dionysius was taken by fleet-footed Hermes and left in the care of his aunt Ino, who brought him up as a girl-child according to some versions to hide him from Hera’s fury. Known always for his foreign otherness, Dionysius wandered for many years and was never accepted among the Olympians when he eventually returned. He gave himself, therefore, to wine and other intoxicants, often organising wild revelries and orgiastic debaucheries. Cloaked in mysticism and frenzy, bouts of drug-induced hysteria and self-destructive passion, he was the original hedonist, a fervent lover, a fierce friend, a dancer, a merry-maker, not very much unlike the Hindu god of destruction, Shiva. A cult was formed around him and his beliefs, and a chorus, known as the Dithyrambic Chorus, provided entertainment at Dionysian festivals.

And, dramatically, at one of these, in 534 BC, a young man named Thespis stepped out of the chorus and began to enact the story that the chorus recited. The first thespian came into being. Theatre evolved quickly from Thespis’s early performance, and the first Greek plays were in honour of Dionysius. The dithyramb then gained popularity as the ancient hymn, usually of an ecstatic nature, to Dionysius that was to be sung before every play; and the tragedy, which in ancient Greek means ‘lamentation to a goat’, was originated from Dionysius’s sacrificial goat. The satyrs, meanwhile, a group of performers who had aligned themselves to Dionysius, frolicked and danced and made merry with obscene pranks, lewd jokes, phallic processions, drunken ribaldry and sheer devilry, giving rise to the earliest comedies and satires.

And very soon, in Athens, in the fourth century BCE, the theatre of Dionysius was built at the foot of the Acropolis to host the City Dionysia Festival, where some of the greatest plays of ancient Greek theatre were performed. To win the playwriting competition at the festival was to know immediate critical acclaim. The very first prize was won by Aeschylus – and the prize was a goat.


It serves us well to remember the spirit of the licentious god: it was art that gave him solace when he was not accepted into his Olympian family; his passion, when driven into performance, created beauty and joy; he willingly gave himself to tragedy as easily as to comedy, to poetry as well to prose. According to Dionysian rite, madness is healthy, pleasure and sensuality are vital and art is, above all, sacred. And, if nothing else, his theatre in Athens is breathtaking.

12 April 2014

Declassifying Books for Children

My next two columns for The Sunday Guardian were a two-part series on children's literature, mostly from the western world. Part 1 is here and Part 2 is here. And the whole piece is below.

Our childhoods are composed so thickly of stories that they are often our warmest memories of cold winter nights and our sweetest reminders of the things we most cherish. We tended to find stories in everything, and soon we began to demand them. At one point, we empowered ourselves: we began to read them. And while the concept of a specific genre of literature written exclusively for children has come of age only in the last hundred-odd years, for some reason books written earlier than 1950 – in fact, troublingly, all great classics – somehow automatically come under literature for children, prescribed by schools and libraries. And perhaps this is why, when I was eight, I was handed a copy of Rebecca, the macabre 1938 novel by Daphne du Maurier as part of my extracurricular reading. In these PG-13 days of close policing of content for children, this seems unthinkable. But those were the days when I cheerfully struggled through Wuthering Heights and Jane Eyre, both written in 1847, and simply could not comprehend The Mayor of Casterbridge (1886). Even Shakespeare – abridged as he was by the Lambs – was lost on me. I was, thankfully, wise enough to return to them all when I was old enough to appreciate them.

Other books too, of more ambiguous classification, regularly find themselves on reading lists. Even though Lewis Carroll wrote about a child when he wrote Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland in 1865 and its even more oblique sequel Through the Looking-Glass in 1871, it often seems that he never intended his books to be for children. We often mistake literature about children – and sometimes literature about animals and any literature that involves any sort of fantasy – to be literature for children. But books, for example, like Henry James’s What Maisie Knew (1897), which tells the story of a dysfunctional couple going through a traumatic divorce from the perspective of their young daughter, or even, more recently, Yann Martel’s Life of Pi (2001), which has the distinction of being about a child and about an animal and has elements of fantasy and is yet not a book for children, break that mould; even Dickens’s David Copperfield (1850) and Nicholas Nickleby (1838), which are routinely placed on school syllabi and which both feature young boys growing into men, do not seem particularly to have been aimed at children. Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird (1962), told from the perspective of a precocious young girl, feels far more relevant to the adult than the child.

In 1964, Gore Vidal wrote a short, glowing review of Edith Nesbit’s life and work in the New York Review of Books, where he bemoaned her lack of popularity in the United States. He wrote: ‘In a recent biography, Magic and the Magician, Noel Streatfeild remarks that E. Nesbit did not particularly like children, which may explain why the ones that she created in her books are so entirely human. They are intelligent, vain, aggressive, humorous, witty, cruel, compassionate… in fact, they are like adults, except for one difference.’ Nesbit, perhaps, never really intended to write for children either.

Historians tell us that the idea of childhood is a modern concept and that before the eighteenth century, children were not considered to be significantly different from adults and, therefore, were not treated very differently. John Locke arrived with newfangled notions of the innocence of childhood and began slowly to propagate the idea that young children were, perhaps, not just small-sized human beings.

One man, though, started to think like an entrepreneur. John Newbery, an English publisher who had already published such greats as Samuel Johnson and Oliver Goldsmith, wrote and published the very first children’s book that we know of: A Little Pretty Pocket-Book in 1744. A genre was created and a market that no one knew existed was uncovered.

Although the Irish and the Indians had been telling folktales for centuries before Newbery, these were never considered to be exclusively for children, most often written and told to distract spoilt bratty princelings. Now, though, the goriest, bloodiest tales of Grimm, Aesop, Andersen, and of the Panchatantra and the Jataka, are politely repackaged for children, suitably lined with morals and values.

Maybe the thing to learn, though, from the history of children’s literature is that twenty-first century notions of age-appropriateness are a tad misplaced. These miniature adults do just fine reading whatever they can lay their hands on, even if it’s du Maurier or the Brontes, and although we should write and publish especially for them, perhaps we should never do them the disservice of telling them what to read.

Western children’s literature, especially since the late 1800s, has been through some interesting phases. From the first children’s books that Newbery wrote and published, writing for children came a long way in England (and Scotland). Writers like Dickens and Ballantyne were dubiously classified as writers for children despite an adult readership, much like the French writers Jules Verne and Alexandre Dumas. Thomas Hughes wrote Tom Brown’s Schooldays in 1857 and Charles Kingsley wrote The Water Babies in 1863, but largely the English were floundering when it came to writing for their youngest readers.

It was, in fact, in the very same Americas where writers like Edith Nesbit and George MacDonald were simply not gaining favour (perhaps because of their tendencies towards religious imagery) that children’s writing suddenly took a new turn. Louisa May Alcott charged forth into the literary scene with Little Women in 1868, perhaps unwittingly setting off an entire sisterhood of writing about young girls in North America coming to terms with their worlds – the very earliest all-American girls. Susan Coolidge followed with the What Katy Did series, which began in 1873. L. Frank Baum leapt gloriously into our lives with The Wonderful Wizard of Oz in 1900, and Frances Hodgson Burnett, a British writer who spent her entire adult life in the USA, shot to fame with Little Lord Fauntleroy (1886), A Little Princess (1905), and The Secret Garden (1909).

Kate Douglas Wiggins began what came to be a spate of stories about cheery girls, often orphans, sent to live with strangers when she wrote Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm in 1903. She was followed closely in theme, plot and content by the Anne of Green Gables series by Lucy Maud Montgomery in 1908 and Eleanor H. Porter’s Pollyanna series in 1913. And by 1932, Laura Ingalls Wilder had started writing about the little house in the prairies. For the all-American boys, Tom Sawyer and Huck Finn arrived on the pages of Mark Twain. An entire landscape came alive. Wiggins’s Maine, Porter’s Vermont, Twain’s Missouri, and Wilder’s gorgeous prairies wrote themselves into literary terrain instantly; Montgomery, in particular, wrote evocatively and insistently about Prince Edward Island, off the coast of Canada. We weren’t just in Kansas anymore.

Many of the young heroines had their readers growing up alongside them. Alcott and Montgomery took their readers not just all the way up to the adult lives of their heroines, but up to the adult lives of their children as well. Jo March became Josephine Bhaer, Anne Shirley became Anne Blythe, and before we knew it there were little Bhaers and little Blythes growing up into big Bhaers and big Blythes. Pollyanna and Katy grew into vibrant, interesting women; Wilder took the trouble to tell us about several generations of the family that lived in the prairies. These writers weren’t just giving us childhood stories, they were allowing us to claw right back into childhood even when life wouldn’t permit us that luxury.

Of course, things were hardly quiet back on the other side of the pond. By the time the new century arrived, the English had risen once again. In 1902 alone, Kipling gave us Just So Stories, Nesbit published Five Children and It, and Beatrix Potter published The Tales of Peter Rabbit. J. M. Barrie arrived in 1904 with the little boy who wouldn’t grow up – an antidote every Anne, Rebecca and Jo who did. In Scotland, Kenneth Grahame wrote The Wind in the Willows in 1908.

Children’s writing was coming into its own and an epochal moment occurred when A. A. Milne created Winnie the Pooh in 1926. Enid Blyton took up the baton in 1942 with Five on a Treasure Island, although it wasn’t her first book. In Sweden, where Johanna Spryi had already written Heidi (1884), Astrid Lindgren appeared on the scene with Pippi Longstocking (1945). And very soon, C. S. Lewis, E. B. White, Dr. Seuss, and Roald Dahl were upon us, tearing us into the modern world of children’s literature as we know it. From the 1970s, Judy Blume wrote books about adolescence and puberty in the kind of language that other writers had not toyed with as yet. And of course, history was made when Bloomsbury sent Joanne Rowling a publishing contract.