le plus loin le plus serré

le plus loin le plus serré
mourning art

in memoriam

"yet I tell you, from the sad knowledge of my older experience, that to every one of you a day will most likely come when sunshine, hope, presents and pleasure will be worth nothing to you in comparison with the unattainable gift of your mother's kiss." (Christina Rossetti, "Speaking Likenesses," 1873)

Friday, April 01, 2011

Related Worlds: Diana Wynne Jones

I can't be as eloquent on this topic as Neil Gaiman; I don't have the same personal connection to DWJ as some people had. I haven't even had a lifelong relationship with her. But I have loved her books - and because I love her books, I love her. The news of her death has made me feel sad, and it has provoked me to re-visit a number of her titles; her books are always great comfort reading. And reading the tributes paid to her by her friends and colleagues and fans make me appreciate anew just what a marvellous writer she was.

I found DWJ via the child_lit listserv, when I was a sad young pup just out of college, working miserable office-assistant jobs in Washington, DC. I was not terribly happy back then; I didn't quite know what I wanted to be doing with my life, but it turned out that - despite my BA in British and American literature - I wasn't qualified to do much of anything at all. Money was tight, I had been temping for almost a year and living partially off my credit card; I had just started an actual administrative assistant job, and didn't really know what I was doing. I didn't have any friends yet in DC area.

But I had found - actually through that admin assistant job, which turned out to be pretty terrible - the child_lit listserv, and all the smart readerly, writerly people on it. And lots of list-serv posters mentioned Howl's Moving Castle, repeatedly; I got intrigued enough to write down the title and author and go to the public library in Arlington, Virginia.
This is the cover of the edition I borrowed. A hardcover, with that protective film, stiffened and crackling and worn with age and use.

I loved this book, from the first time I read it. I ate it up. I ran back to the library for more, and somehow got Dogsbody, which was a slight disappointment. But I persisted; I think I moved on to the Chrestomanci books next, though I can't really recall the specifics. I was lucky enough to have libraries that had shelves full of Diana Wynne Jones's books; I had no extra money for buying books (still don't have much of it). Over time, I've accumulated my own shelf-full of her books - and she has her own shelf, which is packed nearly full when all the books are in their places.

The full shelf is a rare sight, though, because I re-read her books on a very regular basis. There are always a couple that are lying out, near my bed (right now, Time of the Ghost and Black Maria), or perhaps in my living room.

I have kept her books out of my critical, academic life. It isn't that they aren't great material for critical analysis; they are. It's not that they're outside my field; they aren't. It's more that, for me, her books epitomize what great writing does for the reader who isn't a professional reader. It's not just entertainment, or escapism, or amusement; it's far more than that. It's transformative. It's magical, but not in a hokey, pixie-dust kind of way. A great book should both take you right outside yourself and also, simultaneously, make you feel more at home in your own skin, and Diana Wynne Jones's books do that.

I named this blog, where I do write about children's books and YA books and child culture and media, in honor of Howl's Moving Castle. I love the image and the idea of a moving castle; I love Howl's moving castle. But that is as close to "professionalizing" her work as I am going to get, other than teaching it. Analysis doesn't "ruin" a book, but it's important for me to keep her books, which are so gloriously wonderfully readerly and writerly, separate as examples of the magic that happens when a reader and a writer and a book all meet in one place.

When I started teaching, as part of grad school, I was determined to spread the word. I feel, more strongly than about most books, that I must bring the gospel of Diana Wynne Jones. I have recommended Howl's Moving Castle more times than I can count. I once interrupted a dad and his maybe-10-year-old son in a bookstore to recommend it; they were searching for more fantasy titles for the boy to read; he'd gone through all the more recent series. Idiot bookstores here seem to stock very few of her titles, but they can generally be relied upon to carry Howl's Moving Castle. When I worked at one of those bookstores, I made Howl a "bookseller recommendation," and pushed her titles hard.
Naturally, Howl was the DWJ title I first included in one of my syllabi. It wasn't a perfect fit with the theme I had developed - which was journeys; I expanded it to include other-worlds, which gave me the in I needed for Howl - but I was determined to teach it. Then - and ever since then - when I include a DWJ title, it is with a bit of recklessness, a feeling that the book may not actually fit the theme, or do much to advance our thinking on a particular topic; but it's a great book, and it's important for these undergrads to be exposed to great books.

That first class loved Howl, as have a number of classes since then. I've tried teaching a few other of her books - most recently, just two weeks before her death, The Merlin Conspiracy, to an ungrateful batch of serpent's teeth who were confused more than enchanted by the book. But Howl has always been received enthusiastically; many of the students, when they see the publication date (1986) are perplexed and slightly outraged that they didn't know about it sooner.

I love that their joy in discovering the book is so strong that they feel indignant about not knowing it earlier; they feel they have missed out on something.

They tell me, almost wonderingly, that it's better than Harry Potter!

And of course: it is. All of Diana Wynne Jones's books are better than Harry Potter, though I am a Potter fan. But DWJ's books soar, while also keeping at least one foot planted solidly on the ground. Her books bring magic and fantasy and wonder and delight and awe, all while casting a sidelong glance and a bit of a wink at the reader. Even when she takes on Epic Battles Between Good and Evil, she is never working in cliche, or simple tropes. Good and Evil become vastly complex, confusing and confused, complicated people, or ideas, or things. Her characters - and her readers - have to work through the confusion and the complexity, searching for solutions, answers, explanations. Her more intricate books - Hexwood, Time of the Ghost and the one that has stymied me the most, Fire and Hemlock - demand re-reads. You haven't really read the book until you've read it more than once - or for me, half a dozen times, often with mental contortions and an internal monologue of my own that makes me picture Sophie stamping her foot and shouting "Confound it!" while throwing about weed-killer.

On the child_lit listserv, we've talked often about our "comfort" reading: the books we go to again and again and again. Howl's Moving Castle is probably my number-one comfort read; for more than a year of grad school, I was reading it at least once a month. But all of her other titles are in frequent comfort-reading rotation. None of them bore me; none of them get tired, or stale, or old. Even knowing half the text of Howl by heart doesn't keep me from getting caught up in it.

There are many great books in this world, and I've read a respectable number of the ones in English. Really good fantasy - well, any really good book - makes you think but also pulls you into the world of the book. You get lost in the world (or worlds) of the book.

Diana Wynne Jones's books do this, and more, because her books - her characters - are somehow truly alive. I mean this in an almost-literal sense. I don't have to fall into the world of the story; when I open Howl's Moving Castle, at random, the story is there, alive, waiting for me: Calcifer is crackling and refusing to bend down his head; Sophie is snorting at Howl's lies; the streets of Porthaven are visible through the window. Christopher Chant is scrambling through the Place Between, the man with the yellow umbrella has that wonderful chiming stick of bells, the hushed and formal Castle under Gabriel de Witt is industriously and decorously going about its business. Even now, the large families in Caprona are laughing, scolding, joking, singing, spellcasting, squabbling, eating; the wonders of Time City are being enjoyed, used, cared for by the Lees and other inhabitants, and by the many visitors from all the Stable Eras. The white Dragon is asleep in the chalk hills; Jamie is walking the lonely Bounds. Maewen is making her way to Dropwater, where she will (she must!) find Mitt.  All the many animals - all those wonderful cats, and the dogs, Helga the demonic goat, Molly, the unicorn-in-disguise Molly, the quacks, the baby dragon, Mini the lady elephant - they're all going about their business, eating and licking legs unconcernedly and nosing for treats. They are real enough and live enough that even without a reader, they are there. Diana Wynne Jones was a magic-user, and her magic was strong, stronger than most - strong like Venturus, the seventh son; strong like Roddy, whose own gift is enhanced by the hurt lady's knowledge - and Diana Wynne Jones's magic was with words, words that could create and maintain many worlds.

And, as Mrs Fairfax notes at the end of Howl's Moving Castle, "That is the neatest use of words of power I have ever seen."

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