Today, I looked like this:
Except when I looked like this:
I spent the entire day revising a hundred and twenty pages of academic prose (including endnotes). Which is probably why my brain no longer seems to be working. I thought about what to write tonight, and could not come up with anything at all.
And then I thought, why not write about one of my favorite stories of all time? It’s John Crowley’s “Missolonghi 1824,” which I have in a collection called Novelties and Souvenirs. It’s a story in which the main character is Lord Byron. I read the story many years ago and then somehow lost track of it. The problem was, for some reason I thought it was by Isak Dinesen, which to my mind is actually a compliment. I would love someone to mistake one of my stories for one of Dinesen’s. She also wrote a story about Byron. I don’t remember the name of her story – I would have to look it up, and honestly I don’t have the energy. It’s actually not as good as Crowley’s, although I think Dinesen is one of the best storytellers ever. In Dinesen’s story, someone tells Byron, close to his death, that he has created one of the best stories ever told. Byron asks what it is, naming various possibilities, and is told that no, it’s not a story he has actually written, but the life of Lord Byron. Or am I making this up? I haven’t read that story for years, so perhaps I’m getting it wrong.
But I finally found “Missolonghi 1824” again, and was very glad to have done so. Now I give it to friends who I think will appreciate it – they have to be the sort of people to whom I would give very fine things, the finest things, and trust them with it. Whom I would trust with a glass vase once owned by the Medicis, or my personal airplane, or a heart. If they understand and appreciate it, I know they’re the right sort.
I’m going to tell you about the story, so if you haven’t read it, go and read it now. I don’t want to spoil it for you.
It starts by introducing us to an English nobleman who is dying. (At Missolonghi in 1824, of course. That’s how we know it’s Byron, who is never named in the story.) He has a companion, a young Greek boy. And he tells that boy a story of how, years ago, he came to Greece for the first time and felt at home there. He says,
“As soon as I set my foot on these shores, I knew I had come home. I was no citizen of England gone abroad. No: this was my land, my clime, my air. I went upon Hymettus and heard the bees. I climbed up to the Acropolis (which Lord Elgin was just conspiring to despoil; he wanted to bring the statues to England, to teach the English sculpture – the English being as capable of sculpture as you, my dear, are of skating). I stood within the grove sacred to Apollo at Claros: except there is no grove there now, it is nothing but dust. You, Loukas, and your fathers have cut down all the trees, and burned them, out of spite or for firewood I know not. I stood in the blowing dust and sun, and I thought: I am come two thousand years too late.”
He was haunted by this sense of belatedness, of having missed things: Homer and Pindar and Sappho.
He went at last into Arcadia. There, at evening, he came to a village. The villagers had captured something that day. Byron asked to see what it was, wanted to intervene, perhaps save it. The village priest tried to dissuade him, talked about a wild man who spoke but was not understood. At night, after having bought many rounds of drinks for the village men, Byron was able to go see for himself. And he saw.
“You know the eyes of your ancestors, Loukas, the eyes pictured on vases and on the ancientest of statues: those enormous almond-shaped eyes, outlined in black, black-pupiled too, and staring, overflowing with some life other than this world’s. Those were his eyes, Greek eyes that no Greek ever had; white at the long corners, with great onyx centers.
“He blinked again, and moved within his cage – his captors had made it too small to stand in, and he must have suffered dreadfully in it – and drew up his legs. He struggled to get some ease, and one foot slid between the bars below, and nearly touched my knee where I knelt in the dust. And then I knew why it was that he spoke but was not understood.”
He put his face to the bars of the cage, and started to say the only lines he remembered in the language this creature must have known: “Sing, Muse, that man of many resources, who traveled far and wide,” the first lines of the Odyssey. And the creature, hairy, with cloven hooves and horns on its head, understood.
Byron thought, “I have not missed it after all: it awaited me here to find.”
And then he cut the ropes that held the door of the cage closed, and Crowley gives us some of the most beautiful lines in the story: “The moon had risen, and he came forth into its light. He was no taller than a boy of eight, and yet how he drew the night to him, as though it were a thing with a piece missing until he stepped out into it, and now was whole.”
I am telling you pieces of the story, but there is so much more. For instance, there are these lines, so beautiful: “No gift was given me, no promise made me. It was like freeing an otter from a fish trap. And that, most strangely, was what gave me joy in it. The difference, child, between the true gods and the imaginary ones is this: that the true gods are not less real than yourself.”
Years ago, inspired by this story, I wrote one myself called “Catherine and the Satyr.” It’s not one of my best stories, and in comparison with Crowley’s, to which I would give five stars, I would probably give it one. (Talk about the anxiety of influence!) The problem with my story is that, while Crowley’s is about the characters, mine is about ideas – about the end of the Enlightenment and the beginning of Romanticism. It’s probably not a good idea to write a story that is about ideas rather than characters. But I won’t make excuses for myself. Sometimes stories work well, and sometimes they work less well.
But what I wanted to end with, really, were three things.
First, my favorite line in the entire story, and one of my favorite lines in literature ever: “But without love, without its wild possibility, he could no longer defend himself against the void: against his black certainty that life mattered not a whit, was a brief compendium of folly and suffering, not worth the stakes.” I think love does that, saves you from the void. Even the knowledge of it, knowing that it is there, saves you.
Second, an idea about fantasy: I never believed the notion that science fiction was about a “sense of wonder.” But I do think that fantasy is about a “sense of longing.” People accuse fantasy of being nostalgic, and sometimes it is, but what we see in this story is a sense of longing for something more than our modern age can provide, for a magic that no longer exists in the world. The story tells us that it still may, in remote corners of it. Fantasy is about that – our sense of longing for more than we have, for a magic that we seem to have lost or never had. At least it is for me.
And third: I really, really want to go to Greece.