Tuesday, July 8, 2008

The Stone Angel

Margaret Laurence made me want to be a writer.

That’s not quite true; I wanted to be a writer a long time before that. I wrote my first short story in Grade 1 – it featured Edward (the name of a kid in my class whose nose dripped perpetually, and whom no one would sit with) who was involved in some sort of tragic mining accident. (Oh, I was an odd, odd six year old.) The books of Margaret Laurence made me realize what good writing could be; she showed me the craft of writing, she made me want to write like she did.

My mom bought me a boxed set of three Margaret Laurence novels for Christmas when I was eleven. The books (I still have them) are the New Canadian Library versions of The Prophet’s Camel-Bell, The Diviners, and The Stone Angel.

Now, one of the things I hold as being absolutely true in my life is that The Diviners is the greatest work of fiction in the history of mankind. Best opening lines, anyway: “The river flowed both ways. The current moved from north to south, but the wind usually came from the south, rippling the bronze-green water in the opposite direction.” A metaphor for the whole book, are those two sentences. Simple but brilliant: the bits that take place here and now (Morag, the main character, awaiting news of her daughter Pique) are told in the past tense, and the story of Morag’s unfolding life, her becoming who she is, is told in the present. Everything flows both ways. Present and past, family and self.

This was, as I’m sure you can imagine, completely lost on me at eleven. But damn, I recognized good writing, and good story telling, and the fact that The Diviners is one of those books that you read over and over again, each time discovering something new.

That’s one of the things I love about Laurence: every reading is richer than the one before. Back in March (book #63) I re-read The Fire-Dwellers and admired Stacy Cameron and that absolutely honest narrative about loneliness. Last week (book #121) I read The Stone Angel again.

This is a book that never made much impression on me, at least not in comparison to Laurence’s others. Lately, though, I’ve been thinking about things like family dynamics, about the things we tell ourselves in order to keep on living and functioning as part of a larger group, and the way we do the most harm to those we love the most. That's what I noticed with this reading.

Hagar is over ninety and she’s dying. She’s losing her short-term memory and her other faculties, but there’s nothing wrong with her long-term memory or her spirit. Her son, in the last words we hear from him in the book, says to a nurse about his mother “She’s a holy terror.”

Hagar is a fabulous character. She can’t see herself clearly (who among us can?) and she damages all the people around her through carelessness and through a complete inability to accept who they are. She is responsible, almost directly, for the death of her favourite son and his fiance. She ignores and dislikes her other son, the one whose wife has cared for her for years. Hagar Shipley is all piss and vinegar, all old Scots and prairie pioneer and purely herself.

I read The Diviners to find out how to be a writer. I read The Fire-Dwellers to learn how to be lonely (or how to accept loneliness). I read The Stone Angel to learn how to live and how to get old. (Amazing that Laurence, who never got that old, was able to summon age and its indignities so clearly.)

I think that we tell stories to discover who we are. I think that we read stories to find little pieces of ourselves; to understand who we have become.

Margaret Laurence told the stories that made me who I am. What better reason for writing could there be than that?

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