The recently released Kurt Vonnegut: Letters (public library), which gave us the beloved author’s curious daily routine, is a treasure trove of nuanced insight into Vonnegut’s life and character. Among the seemingly mundane epistolary chronicles lie gems that shimmer with Vonnegut’s reluctant warmth and peculiar brand of sullen optimism — gems like this delightful short untitled poem Vonnegut sent in a letter to his friend Knox Burger in June of 1961:
Two little good girls
Watchful and wise —
Clever little hands
And big kind eyes —
Look for signs that the world is good,
Comport themselves as good folk should.
They wonder at a father
Who is sad and funny strong,
And they wonder at a mother
Like a childhood song.
And what, and what
Do the two think of?
Of the sun
And the moon
And the earth
Complement with Denise Levertov’s poem “The Secret,” which bears a certain resemblance of subject and sensibility.
Reread, rewrite, reread, rewrite. If it still doesn’t work, throw it away. It’s a nice feeling, and you don’t want to be cluttered with the corpses of poems and stories which have everything in them except the life they need.
From Snow White to The Little Red Riding Hood to Cinderella and beyond, into the less familiar fringes of the Grimm legacy, Pullman sees the stories with eyes at once fresh and ancient, masterfully pulling out their essential storyness with equal parts piercing language (“No, no, my lord, it’s just my heart. When you were living in the well, when you were a frog, I suffered such great pain that I bound my heart with iron bands to stop it breaking, for iron is stronger than grief. But love is stronger than iron, and now you’re human again the iron bands are falling off.”) and keen insight (“…the finest of [the tales] have the quality that the great pianist Artur Schnabel attributed to the sonatas of Mozart: they are too easy for children and too difficult for adults.”)
He writes in the introduction:
[M]y main interest has always bee in how the tales worked as stories. All I set out to do in this book was tell the best and most interesting of them, clearing out of the way anything that would prevent them from running freely. I didn’t want to put them in modern settings, or produce personal interpretations or compose poetic variations on the originals; I just wanted to produce a version that was as clear as water. My guiding question has been: ‘How would I tell this story myself, if I’d heard it told by someone else and wanted to pass it on?’ Any changes I’ve made have been for the purpose of helping the story emerge more naturally in my voice. If, as happened occasionally, I thought an improvement was possible, I’ve either made a small change or two in the text itself or suggested a larger one in the note that follows the story.
Pullman zooms in on the flatness of fairy tale characters:
There is no psychology in a fairy tale. The characters have little interior life; their motives are clear and obvious. If people are good, they are good, and if bad, they’re bad. Even when the princess in ‘The Three Snake Leaves’ inexplicably and ungratefully turns against her husband, we know about it from the moment it happens. Nothing of that sort is concealed. The tremors and mysteries of human awareness, the whispers of memory, the promptings of half-understood regret or doubt or desire that are so much part of the subject matter of the modern novel are absent entirely. One might almost say that the characters in a fairy tale are not actually conscious.
The most fitting pictorial representation of fairy-tale characters seems to me to be found not in any of the beautifully illustrated editions of Grimm that have been published over the years, but in the little cardboard cut-out figures that come with the toy theater. They are flat, not round. Only one side of them is visible to the audience but that is the only side we need: the other side is blank. They are depicted in poses of intense activity or passion, so that their part in the drama can be easily read from a distance.
What makes this an asset rather than a detractor is the story’s pace:
Swiftness is a great virtue in the fairy tale. A good tale moves with a dreamlike speed from event to event, pausing only to say as much as is needed and no more.
The speed is exhilarating. You can only go that fast, however, if your’e travelling light; so none of the information you look for in a modern work of fiction — names, appearances, background, social context, etc. — is present. And that, of course, is part of the explanation for the flatness of the characters. The tale is far more interested in what happens to them, or in what they make happen, than in their individuality.
On imagery and description:
There is no imagery in fairy tales apart from the most obvious. As white as snow, as red as blood: that’s about it. Nor is there any close description of the natural world or of individuals. A forest is deep, the princess is beautiful, her hair is golden; there’s no need to say more. When what you want to know is what happens next, beautiful descriptive wordplay can only irritate.
The fairy tale is in a perpetual state of becoming and alteration. To keep to one version or one translation alone is to put a robin redbreast in a cage. If you, the reader, want to tell any of the tales in this book, I hope you will feel free to be no more faithful than you want to be. You are at perfect liberty to invent other details than the ones I’ve passed on on, or invented, here. In fact you’re not only at liberty to do so: you have a positive duty to make the story your own. A fairy tale is not a text.
Before diving into the stories themselves, Pullman offers one final piece of whimsy:
Finally, I’d say to anyone who wants to tell these tales, don’t be afraid to be superstitious. If you have a lucky pen, use it. If you speak with more force and wit when wearing one red sock and one blue one, dress like that. When I’m at work I’m highly superstitious. My own superstition has to do with the voice in which the story comes out. I believe that every story is attended by its own sprite, whose voice we embody when we tell the tale, and that we tell it more successfully if we approach the sprite with a certain degree of respect and courtesy. These sprites are both old and young, male and female, sentimental and cynical, sceptical and credulous, and so on, and what’s more, they’re completely amoral: like the air-spirits who helped Strong Hans escape from the cave, the story-sprites are willing to serve whoever has the ring, whoever is telling the tale. To the accusation that this is nonsense, that all you need to tell a story is a human imagination, I reply, ‘Of course, and this is the way my imagination works.’
On a rant of an aside, as usual, the UK edition has a far more beautiful cover design, by Ohio-based designer Cheong-ah Hwang, and the much more imaginative title Grimm Tales: For Young and Old:
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