Sunday, April 6, 2008

What Larks! -- Terry Griggs

Great Expectations; Dickens, Charles

It’s the late sixties and some of my contemporaries in the big world–lots I suspect–are at this very moment smoking-up and just generally feeling groovy. Me, I’m sitting on a school bus in transit from my wretched new highschool in Strathroy to my wretched new home in Komoka (an embarrassing name that I can’t even say without thinking of grass skirts and Hawaiian guitars). I am not feeling groovy. I am in exile from my sociable, connected, larky life, my big-lake-small-pond existence on Manitoulin Island. My expectations for the move (mad parental decision, don’t ask) had been rube-istically hopeful–an off-island adventure!–but hope had drained rapidly down a sinkhole of Southern Ontario non-joie-de-vivre. It’s only highschool-hell, but I don’t know that yet. Only later do I realize how pitiable are those who cite highschool as being the happiest years of their lives.

So. I’m sitting on the bus, glum and dispirited, with four books on my lap that I’ve ordered from a school book club. This is an unprecedented, possibly desperate, purchase, as to date I’m a casual, take-it-or-leave-it reader, not a besotted one. Ironically, given the situation in which I feel I’m mired, the title of the topmost book on my pile is "Great Expectations". I open this book to the first page and. . . fall. I fall headfirst, headlong, head-over-heels into the rest of my life. A literary life, who would have thought? Which is not to say that I go to lots of parties, conferences, writers’ retreats and pubs (the latter at least is tempting). I don’t, hardly ever. But my life is pretty much defined by a kind of willing captivity, an enchantment, a tumbling into that graveyard with Pip and Magwitch and then not clambering back out, but taking a years-long meander through a purely verbal landscape.

What did I find in Dickens’ work that was so compelling (as opposed to the torture that Dickens apparently was for Evelyn Waugh, subjected as he was to his father’s nightly readings)? I found what was missing: richness, wit, flights of fancy, linguistic prowess, verve, heartfelt and brilliant storytelling. I found an astonishingly lively mind and the absorbing company that mind had so thoughtfully provided. I found what resonated, what mattered most when later I began to try my own hand at getting a few words down. What I’ve written is epigrammatic in comparison with his vast output, puny in accomplishment, but I, too, am much given to extended metaphorical riffs, comic exaggeration, stylistic bravura, and embedding fantasy in language itself.

If, as the Welsh say, English is “the thin language,” Dickens' use of it surely belies the assertion. Even the two words of the title, "Great Expectations", promise a wealth of wordy entertainment for the reader, and worldly education–and grief–for its main character. It’s also one of those books so widely read over the years that it has entered the cultural bloodstream–Miss Havisham in particular, the balked and moldering bride and Pip’s tormentor, has broken free of the text itself and wanders among us. I expect it’s her haunting my own work in the form of a menacing and mysterious elderly female character who determinedly keeps popping up, most recently in a character called Mrs. Havlock (not too obvious, eh). Married at last! Although her husband is suspiciously missing–revenge at last!

I’ve moved a few too many times of late and my library has been shuffled and scrambled and piled here and there. I’m a fairly orderly person, a small-time control freak, but I can’t exactly say where my book club copy of Great Expectations has gotten to. I know it’s buried somewhere in the book midden, a cheap edition with crappy cover-art, the binding held together with masking tape. But it’s one of my treasures, and I would never consider giving it the old heave-ho, as I have, unsentimentally, given many other books during occasional cullings. Would I rip out my own dog-eared and tattered heart?

Kindly Joe Gargery’s catchphrase in the book–“What larks!”–has become something of a catchphrase for me, too, and something of a philosophy. Suits my temperament anyway. I’m all for fun and merriment and for the resilience that an intelligent optimism brings. If one is going to try to wrest a life and a living from writing, then a functioning sense of humour does come in handy. In daily literary practice, business end included, there are of course many expectations that won’t be met, and some that are met in ways one would never expect at all. Not long ago, I discovered that a book of mine was being used as a prop in Sears catalogues. Being the sort of person who always tries to read book titles when they’re used as decorative backdrops in advertisements, I have to admit to being surprised to find my own displayed on chair slipcovers and coffee tables, the colour of the book jacket a perfect match for the décor. Well, books do have their uses, some more prosaic (as it were) than others. Even my younger, bummed-out self might have been amused.

Terry Griggs

Terry Griggs was born and raised on Manitoulin Island, Ontario, and attended the University of Western Ontario, in London. She has published a collection of short stories, two novels, the most recent being Rogues’ Wedding, and the Cat’s Eye Corner series of novels for young readers. Her works have been nominated for various awards, including the Governor General’s Award and the Writers’ Trust Fiction Award, and in 2003, she won the Marion Engel Award. Currently she lives in Stratford, Ontario.

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