Archive for November 27th, 2011

November 27, 2011

Lemony Snicket, The Latke Who Couldn’t Stop Screaming

Between us, Aadisht and I wrote only about children’s books in this month’s Left of Cool. This was a complete coincidence for the first three weekends, after which we just went with it. Children’s Day in India is in the middle of November, so it was all quite appropriate. And a McSweeney’s book because they are occasionally gorgeous, and a winter book because it is the loveliest time of the year.

(At the paper’s website, here)

 

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Living in one of the few cities in the country to have real winter has its advantages. Delhi is not quite cold enough yet, but at least we can be reasonably sure it will get there eventually. At around this point every year I start to seek out winter-themed books, for reading under a quilt with mugs of tea or soup within reach.

Many of these books, for obvious reasons, are centred around Christmas. The book that is the subject of this column, is a Christmas story in some ways; it is even subtitled “A Christmas Story”. Lemony Snicket’s The Latke Who Couldn’t Stop Screaming looks like an typical children’s picture book; the sort that has not much text and a (usually quite harmless) moral. In some ways it is all of these things. And yet this is a book by the author of the Series of Unfortunate Events, and moreover, one that is published by McSweeney’s. It is unlikely to be a typical anything.

In a tiny village “more or less covered by snow”, one particular house is looked upon with suspicion because of its lack of Christmas decorations. It is in this house that a latke is made.

The latke is a traditional part of Hanukah. It is made (Lisa Brown’s illustrations depict the process in tantalising detail) of grated potato, onion, salt and beaten egg, and fried in olive oil until it becomes crisp. This particular latke, on being put into the hot oil, begins to scream. As the narrator reminds us, “nearly everything in this world is born screaming”.

The latke jumps out of the pan, out of the house, and runs through the town, still screaming. As it passes, it has short conversations with a number of objects. The first is a string of flashing lights, anxious to know why the latke is, with its screaming, overshadowing their cheerful glow. The latke explains that it was put into boiling oil, and goes on to explain the significance of the oil within the Jewish tradition. Yet the lights dismiss it as a kind of hash brown, possibly to be served alongside a Christmas ham. A candy cane, trying to disperse its peppermint smell through the night air, resents the latke’s delicious aroma and compares its story of persecution to that of Mary and Joseph. A Christmas tree sees no reason the latke should not blend traditions and become part of Christmas – it itself is an originally pagan symbol.

What we have here (if it is your traditional picture-book-with-a-moral) is a story about resisting having your identity subsumed by the majority, and by people who presume to dismiss with your statement of who you are. It’s something most children will face on a regular basis (“it’s just a phase”, “you’ll feel different when you’re older”), as will many adults – readers who have chosen not to have children, for example, will know this all too well. Snicket imitates the tone of a children’s book perfectly: “It is very frustrating not to be understood in this world. If you say one thing and keep being told that you mean something else, it can make you want to scream”. Snicket’s latke is the most inspiring potato-based foodstuff in all my experience of children’s literature.

Of course Snicket can’t allow us something so unqualifiedly inspirational. The latke is discovered by a family who do appreciate its worth, and they take it back home. But this heart-warming tale ends with the latke being eaten, a final scream cut short as it enters someone’s mouth.

But is this a Christmas story or not? The red, green and gold cover says so, and the narrator excuses the story’s unreality by claiming that “this is a Christmas story, in which things tend to happen that would never occur in real life”. So is it a story about not being a Christmas story, since such a story would naturally foreground the idea of Christmas? It’s a little of all of these, and it is rather good.

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[I'm also thinking about the status of those of us in India who would prefer not to use the label "Hindu". As an atheist, I find it irritating that I am considered Hindu by default, and that I can't legally un-link myself from the religion without joining another one (and Christianity and Islam are, I think, my only choices). But even among people who do adhere to some form of faith, a number of smaller religions that historically separated themselves from Hinduism are now considered under the larger 'Hindu' umbrella. I imagine that if I belonged to one of these groups I would be seriously annoyed.]
November 27, 2011

End of Term (AF 4)

(Part of my readthrough of Antonia Forest’s Marlow series)

My first Forest book, as I mentioned in the introduction linked to above. It is also the best school story ever written.

In terms of plot, very little happens in End of Term, and most of it is linked to the school play at the end of the year. Nicola befriends a new girl, falls foul of the sports prefect and unwittingly finds herself cast in the role that Lawrie wants in the play. Lawrie is educated about Christianity and calls on higher powers to do her will. Sprog the comically inept merlin kills a sparrow. But plot is unimportant here.

End of Term is the book that introduces the theme of religion to the series, and it remains there (though as less of a main subject) in the later books. People talk about religious belief throughout. So we know that Ann Marlow believes strongly enough to find her sisters’ joking about the hymns upsetting; that Rowan sometimes believes and sometimes not; that Lawrie is amazed to discover that anyone believes at all. We discover that Miranda is Jewish but not particularly so, and that a minor character comes from a more orthodox Jewish family and is therefore unable to watch the Christmas play. The Merrick family are revealed to be Catholic, and while Nicola Marlow doesn’t seem to quite know what she believes yet, there are the first stirrings of her attraction to the idea of Catholicism. In Nicola’s interest in the Catholic church, in Miranda’s fascination with the Christmas play, and her half-told stories of discrimination and being outside the cultural mainstream, Forest is also portraying religion as a thing that functions socially, that exists in the world, as separate from religious belief. And belief or lack thereof isn’t seen as relevant to the basic decency (or lack of it) in any character.

By the standards of girls school stories, all this is rather astonishing. End of Term was published in 1959, rather later than most of the genre, but this needn’t mean anything. Consider Elinor M Brent-Dyer’s Chalet School books (the school stories I’m most familiar with)which continued until 1970. In this series, the entire range of human belief is represented by the fact that some students are protestant and others catholic – and the only implication this difference has is that they have to take prayers separately. In 1958 (the year before End of Term was published), Brent-Dyer’s Trials for the Chalet School came out. It featured a character who did not believe in god -but still blamed him for all her woes- and her very existence shocked the other characters. The book contains the immortal line “As for not being baptized, Mary-Lou had never met an unbaptized person before”.

Forest herself was from a Jewish family and converted to Catholicism. Which may explain away the presentation of those two faiths – it does not do so for the entirely sensible treatment of atheists and agnostics.

I’ve only read Forest’s work as an agnostic or an atheist. Yet despite the flippancy of the characters when it comes to discussing Things That Matter, she comes closer than most, for me, to getting at the intangible aspects of faith. Nicola is the lead soloist in the play and “Nick makes me feel like cold water down my back” (later, “a little shudder of pleasure shivered like cold water down Patrick’s spine”). And

The organ stopped, which was her cue. She looked ahead to the West Door, past the watching eyes, and took a long breath, as if she were about to dive (which was rather how she felt). ‘Try to sing it with regret,’ Dr. Herrick had said. ‘”Once in Royal David’s City.”‘ Not now, you see. Now we have only been pretending. But once, long ago, if only we’d had the luck to be there, once, just once, this thing really happened.’
She had never been able to do it to his entire satisfaction, rehearsing at school, but at this moment, with the storied centuries of the Minster about her, and the play, complete and entire behind her, she thought, suddenly, she might manage it.

 

I mention above the flippancy with which the characters choose to treat big issues, and their discomfort with discussing religion (which they end up doing anyway) comes in part out of this. There’s a moment where Nicola gets into theological debate with the choirmaster at the local cathedral:

…for surely in the Middle Ages, when people believed properly,they’d have brought their hawks into the Minister with them -

She said something of this, in a rather muddled way, to Dr Herrick, who looked first taken aback, and then amused, and then said that though Nicola might find it hard to believe, there were people who now believed ‘properly’, as she put it, though perhaps a better way of putting it would be ‘without reservation’: didn’t Nicola think so?

and this acknowledgement of self-consciousness/awareness that what one says is mediated by the world around one and not a form of spontaneous expression, is one of the things that so attracted me to the books as a child. I’m reminded of this quote of Umberto Eco’s , though I’m not sure how Forest would feel if I called her a postmodernist writer. Patrick thinks “only the older carols…managed to mean what they said without being embarrassing”. After Nicola, Patrick is the character given the most interiority in this book, and he seems both aware of how he edits his own words, and how others do the same in their heads. “He would – no, he would not tease her about it, come the holidays: it would be fatuous and obvious, quite apart from being unkind; and though, like anyone else, he could be unkind on occasion, he did not care to be fatuous.” and (with regard to Lois Sanger) “How queer. I wonder how she thinks about it?…Well – what does she tell herself? I mean – how does she make it alright for herself? Or doesn’t she? Does she think she’s a heel too?”

Since this post has mostly dealt with Forest’s treatment of belief systems, at this point it seems appropriate to talk about Lawrie. Lawrie does not believe in the Christian religion as it is presented to her, shocking her family with her amazement that people treat it as if it happened rather than as they would treat, say, Norse gods. But she does believe in something, as we learn when she pretends to be Nicola in order to let her twin play in an important netball match.

There were three things she was thinking. The first, the easy one, was what fun it would be for Nick to play, and how nice of Lawrie to let her. The second, less disinterested , one was, that if she let Nick play, Someone would arrange, as a reward, that Somehow, when it came to the performance, Lawrie would play the Shepherd Boy.

And later, “‘I made a bargain. I said if I let Nick have one match, They’d got to let me do the Shepherd Boy -’ [...] ‘Except for one thing, Lawrence. With whom did you make this bargain?’ ‘Who with?’ Lawrie looked surprised and waved her hand vaguely at the ceiling. ‘Well – you know – Them.’”

I find myself wondering if, in the absence of a religion to believe in, what Lawrie is putting her faith in is what Terry Pratchett would call Narrativium – the force that has events go the way they ought to in a story. It would certainly tie into Forest’s genre-awareness (see the Autumn Term post for more on this). And it seems entirely fitting for these books that a character should make bizarre, Faustian bargains with the book itself.

 

 

[The next Forest post will be a while coming. It’s on Peter’s Room, a book that stems from the Brontes’ stories of Angria and Gondal. So I’m hoping to read this book simultaneously, and with that and work deadlines I suspect writing about the book will have to wait a week or so.]