Inverted Commas 19: A sturdy sense of itself
A story is not like a road to follow … it’s more like a house. You go inside and stay there for a while, wandering back and forth and settling where you like and discovering how the room and corridors relate to each other, how the world outside is altered by being viewed from these windows.
Though I’ve yet to read the collection with which this quote is associated — from Alice Munro‘s own introduction to her Selected Stories, 1968-1994 — I’ve always loved the concept of a storied house ever since I came across it, heaven knows when.
Yes, sometimes readers feel their way through a story as though they’re on a journey through a tangled wood or on a path through an unknown country; but I’m someone to whom the image of a narrative like a storey’d edifice appeals very strongly.
Maybe it’s because I’m fairly visual; because I’m drawn to urban and suburban environments, happy to stand outside a building and admire its architecture; because I love gardens with an arrangement of ‘rooms’ where one can pause and take in one’s surroundings.
Maybe it’s also because I can appreciate the process of writing that an author undertakes (even if I’m crap at it myself) that I understand Munro’s simile: while there are writers who can compose a story by starting at a given point and wander, following the clew where it takes them through the labyrinth of their imagination, the process of editing nearly always forces them to consider structuring their narrative in a more ordered way.
But it’s not just the writer who contemplates this construction.
And you, the visitor, the reader, are altered as well by being in this enclosed space, whether it is ample and easy or full of crooked turns, or sparsely or opulently furnished. You can go back again and again, and the house, the story, always contains more than you saw the last time.
And this is why I like being a reader and why I enjoy revisiting particularly engaging novels. I think of a few recent titles I’ve enjoyed that have even featured a building where part of the plot entails exploring its spaces: Sarah Perry’s After Me Comes the Flood, for example, with its decaying house in Thetford Forest; Ann Radcliffe’s Castle of Mazzini hiding secrets in A Sicilian Romance; the New Bookshop off Curzon Street in Garth Nix’s The Left-handed Booksellers of London. (Susanna Clarke’s newly published Piranesi promises all this too.) And if and when I return to them there’ll be features I hadn’t noticed before, or doors I now have the key to.
It also has a sturdy sense of itself of being built out of its own necessity, not just to shelter or beguile you.
In my discussion about Gothick novels I focused on castles and their ilk, noting their likely origins in human psychology and their emergence in dreams: and in fact those dreams born from our unconscious — even when they lack a conclusion (because we often wake up before the moment of resolution or revelation) — really do construct their own edifices as though built out of their own necessity, and not just to shelter or beguile us.
And that’s why the storied houses which we call novels can seem so right to me: they tap into that unconscious that nestles deep inside us; and maybe even into that underground stream that Jung called the Collective Unconscious.
More quotations can be found under the tag Inverted Commas