Tuesday, February 13, 2007

Why Does the Novel Matter? & A Little Livy

My Mexico City amiga Maria O. urged me to read Karen Armstrong's The Spiral Staircase. I found this memoir so extraordinary, so lucidly written, that when I recently saw Armstrong's new book, A Short History of Myth, I had to read it at once. Here is the part I most want to remember:
"[A novel] can be seen as a form of meditation. Readers have to live with a novel for days or even weeks. It projects them into another world, parallel to but apart from their ordinary lives. They know perfectly well that this fictional realm is not 'real' and yet while they are reading it becomes compelling. A powerful novel becomes part of the backdrop of our lives, long after we have laid the book aside. It is an exercise of make-believe that, like yoga or a religious festival, breaks down the barriers of space and time and extends our sympathies, so that we are able to empathise with other lives and sorrows. It teaches compassion, the ability to 'feel with' others. And, like mythology, an important novel is transformative. If we allow it to do so, it can change us forever."

This afternoon I happened to be reading the Roman historian Livy (because some of the characters in my novel would have read Livy). I want to remember this passage, about Hannibal's men crossing the Alps:

"The dreadful vision was before their eyes; the towering peaks, the snow-clad pinnacles soaring to the sky, the rude huts clinging to the rocks, beasts and cattle shriveled and parched with cold, the people with their wild and ragged hair, all nature, animate and inanimate, stiff with frost... In the narrow pass the marching column was rapidly losing cohesion. There was great confusion and excitement among the men, and still more among the terrified horses, as the tribesmen came swarming down the rocky and precipitous slopes, surefooted as they were from long familiarity with their wild and trackless terrain... Terrified by the din, echoing and re-echoing with the hollow cliffs and woods, the horses were soon out of control, while those which were struck or wounded lashed out in an agony of fear... In the confusion, many non-combatants, and not a few soldiers, were flung over the sheer cliffs which bounded each side of the pass, and fell to their deaths thousands of feet below. But it was worst for the pack-animals. Loads and all, they went tumbling over the edge like falling masonry."