To begin, I was wary, as one often is when an author revisits a beloved book so many years later. But let me say up front, for those of you who might also be a bit hesitant about going back to the Owens family two decades after Practical Magic, that Alice Hoffman’s latest novel, The Rules of Magic, a prequel to her mid-90’s hit, is stunning. In fact, it is probably better than the original. (Though, I should interject here and say maybe I’m not the most best person to make that claim, since I always secretly preferred the movie version of Practical Magic already, based, if nothing else, on thephenomenal casting and the addition of a fantastic lady-powered-PTA-turned-makeshift-coven scene at the end.)
The Rules of Magic follows sisters Franny and Jet (who turn into “the aunts” of Practical Magic) as well as their brother Vincent, romping through New York City of the 1960’s and 70’s, discovering their family’s long-hidden secrets and creating a few skeletons of their own for the Owen’s closet. The novel deals quite closely with the famous “curse” explored in the earlier novel, this being that no Owens woman can fall in love, or the man she loves will soon be tragically (and usually quickly) killed. The source of this curse, as family legend has it, was their ancestor Maria Owens, who was burned as a witch by the man she loved and whose child she bore, none other than (actual person) John Hathorne, notoriously sadistic witch hunter of Salem circa the beginning of the 18th century.
Usually, I cannot abide the claim that a book is “like a love letter to” another book. The expression rarely makes any real sense. And it strikes me as an unnecessarily flowery way to say that one book is like another, or influenced by another, or otherwise responding to another book in some way.
But in this case, there is absolutely no other way to describe The Big Green Tent, the latest novel of contemporary Russian writer Ludmila Ulitskaya, than as a love letter to Russian literature. It is exactly that. It is wonderfully, whimsically, beautifully that.
To read this book is to be stricken around every turn by the ghosts of great writers haunting the pages. It’s as if, in every punctuated pause in the prose, you can hear the whispers of an entire tradition. It is Tolstoy. It is Pasternak. It is Brodsky. If that sounds very masculine, that’s because part of what Ulitskaya is dealing with here is the overall maleness of Russia’s literary history. But there is quite a bit of Anna Akhmatova and Marina Tsvetaeva here as well. And her female characters are, in part, a response to the lack of convincing women in the pages of classic Russian literature. (Not only in this book but particularly in previous works like 2002’s Medea and Her Children, one of my absolute favorite books.)
Appropriately, a helpful list of books covering the subject of motherhood was published the other day…on my due date, in fact… (Which has now past. Clock is ticking people. And seriously, don’t get me started…) I was in the middle of drafting my own list (assuming I am blessed with the kind of magic baby that sleeps every once in a while so that I can keep up with my current pile of novels…) and though there was some overlap, I wasn’t terribly interested in non-fiction. To be fair, I am very rarely interested in the world of non-fiction as it is. But it’s also worth considering how little motherhood makes it into fiction, in any way that is not purely metaphoric. The Oedipal relationship, the Ogresse in the woods, the Wicked Step-Mother, the GoodKindMother who is usually killed off fairly soon…
Very few people seem to really explore things like ambivalence, terror, passion, yearning… That is to say, things that mothers themselves feel rather than things that mothers represent to everyone around them.
And the other day, while trudging through # 5 in E min (which, okay, is kind of difficult…ugh…stay in a *&^% key, Bach!), I realized that I had never encountered ‘invention’ as a musical term anywhere except in reference to this specific collection of short pieces. It did not, as far as I knew, designate a particular form, although, loosely, there seemed to contain an exposition of a melody and then short variations on that theme following two/three different trains of thought, and then a recap at the end.
(Recaps are the Baroque equivalent of a mic drop.)
“I’ve recently started to finish learning Bach’s Two-Part Inventions.”
This awkward sentence nudged itself into some of my written correspondence this morning, and I gagged a little when I reread it before sending. My first impulse was to emphatically land my finger on the delete key, and to retype something a bit more polished sounding. I’m revisiting the Bach Inventions, in the hope of finally learning them all. Nice, right?*
Some more Okpewho for you today…no introduction needed…
Myth in Africa
London: Cambridge, 1983
Here, Okpewho takes the opportunity to drive in the point that he concentrated on in the previous work The Epic in Africa (1979), which is that the practices of oral literature are not solely related to religious ritual. He cites well known and respected anthropologist Ruth Finnegan, who has done quite a bit of work in Africa but, according to Okpewho, still gets it wrong. (And I gotta say, I’m starting to have some stray thoughts of possible misogyny in Okpewho’s work. How are there NO WOMEN in this whole book, despite the fact that Harold Scheub’s extremely influential work concentrates HUGELY on women storytellers in South Africa…? Here we have the ONE female scholar cited, and she is swiftly dismissed. Just saying…it’s something to think about…) Anyway, this beginning put a bit of a bad taste in my mouth, because he seems here to be setting Finnegan up as a kind of straw (wo)man. In fact, these words he seems to feed her are not even her words. The statement she makes, which Okpewho finds so objectionable, is actually someone else’s, with whom Finnegan is only tentatively disagreeing.
Why am I mentioning this? Because I think we don’t often enough take the time to really consider the prejudices and the blind spots of our authors. (And by ‘we’ I mean ‘I’…)
After a fair bit of study during my undergrad and MA (the latter with Harold Scheub who has recently retired), I had almost entirely forgotten the fascinating body of work dedicated to African oral literature.
Oral? Literature? Did I hear you right?
Yes. Yes you did. Because despite not being written down, this rich body of tales, legends, myths, epics, folktales and fables are considered “texts” by those who study them.
Cool thing about oral literature? It has no definitive edition. So it’s like the difference between reading Constance Garnett’s Anna Karenin and Pevear and Volokhonsky’s Anna Karenina. (I prefer Garnett, to be totally honest, if for nothing else than the way she translates Russian peasant speech into London cockney.) Except instead of a different word or phrase here and there that leave academics in fisticuffs, vast swaths of the story can change. There are people who spend oodles of their time (like entire academic careers) comparing these different versions of a story. Frankly, that is not my thing. That is far too frustrating. But I do find the questions arising from these different oral texts fascinating.