BOOKS & ARTS
Call of Valhalla Lewis Jones Rognarök: The End of the Gods by A.S. Byatt Canongate, £14.99, pp. 177, ISBN 9781847670649
In an appendix to this powerfully poetic and beautifully produced little book, A.S. Byatt explains that when Canongate invited her to write a myth, she knew immediately which one to choose: the myth of the Icelandic sagas and Wagner’s operas — ‘Ragnarök: the myth to end all myths, the myth in which the gods themselves were all destroyed.’
When she began, she realised that she was writing for her childhood self, and the way she thought about the world when she first encountered the myth in her mother’s old copy of Asgard and the Gods, acquired as a crib for exams in Old Icelandic and Ancient Norse: ‘a solid volume, bound in green, with an intriguing, rushing image on the cover, of Odin’s Wild Hunt’. So she introduced to her story about ‘the old Germanic world’ the figure of the ‘thin child in wartime’ — herself, aged three when the war began — growing up in the north of England, Viking country, while modern Germany dropped bombs from the sky.
Byatt thus does lots of things at once in Ragnarök. Mainly she retells the stories of the savage and implacable Nordic gods, Odin, Thor and Loki, of giants, dwarves and monsters, of Valhalla and the hairy tree Yggdrasil, in a crunchy alliterative style reminiscent of Ted Hughes: ‘Beetles were busy in the bark, gnashing and piercing,
breeding and feeding, shining like metals, brown like dead wood.’ Though undeniably, unavoidably appropriate, it is a rather exhausting style at first, heavy with dolorous whimsy, but one soon grows used to it, and as the stories gather momentum it becomes increasingly vivid and thrilling.
She a l so recalls and recreates the ‘intense, uncanny pleasure’ of childhood reading, and meditates on the nature of reading, and writing, and on the differences between myth, fairytale and religion. She remembers Bunyan, and Hans Christian Andersen, and the stone church where she learnt about gentle Jesus and ‘a grandfatherly figure who resented presumption’, and ‘felt rude not to believe’. She preferred the stories of Asgard, which seemed to her far more alive, and appropriate to the times. And she still does.
The Norse gods strike her as peculiarly human, in their cleverness, stupidity, greed and cruelty, and her imagining of their world and its end is ‘haunted by the imagining of a different end of things’, of the way in which we are now ‘bringing about the end of the world we were born into’. The death-ship Nagflar, for example, which is made of dead men’s nails, has become for her an image of ‘what is now known as the trash vortex, the wheeling collection of indestructible plastic in the Pacific, larger than Texas’.
Ragnarök brilliantly combines a retelling of ancient stories — which I recall as repellently alien, but are here magically mysterious — with fascinating fragments of literary autobiography and an urgently suggestive parable. And as an additional treat it includes a number of the marvellous steel engravings that illustrated Asgard and the Gods.
Memories in a world of forgetting John de Falbe
All That I Am by Anna Funder Viking, £18.99, pp. 315, ISBN 9780670920396
It i s several years s ince Anna Funder published Stasiland, her acclaimed book about East Germany. Her new book is a novel concerning a group of German political activists surrounding the writer Ernst Toller, who is now almost forgotten but once was well known and was president of the short-lived Bavarian Republ ic in 1919 for about a week. Funder’s point of entry i s Ruth, who, some 60 years later as a very old lady in Australia, receives in the post a copy of Toller’s autobiography, I Was A German, with some manuscript amendments made by him in the week before he died, in 1939.
Despite the gap in time and place, they are united by their passionate attachment to Ruth’s cousin, Dora Fabian, who was Toller’s amanuensis and the love of his life. Dora was tireless in her resistance to Hitler both in Germany and, after her exile, in London in the early 1930s, where the group attempted to alert the British, and the world, to Hitler’s danger. Impoverished, isolated, caught between fear of Nazi agents operating in London and the disingenuous British requirement that refugees should not engage in political activities, their efforts apparently came to nothing. Although history justified their fears and actions, it has forgotten them.
The novel is structured as a counterpoint between Ruth and Toller in what proves, for each of them, the last week of their life. Intercut with Ruth’s reflections on the events of long ago is her wry, shrewd commentary on her present condition and surroundings. Toller’s part is anchored to a New York hotel room in 1939, where he dictates to another young émigrée the amendments that eventually find their way to Ruth. Perceiving the failure of his political and literary achievements, he is anxious to write Dora into the central position that his published autobiography denied her.
Suspended between these two poles is a brilliant narrative showing how Toller, Dora, Ruth, her husband Hans and various others responded to the aftermath of the first world war, and the terrible difficulties confronting their continued endeavours in London. It is an ambitious structure but it works perfectly. Every part is beautifully rendered and balanced. Although intricately connected, the numerous threads are never confusing: as place, time and point of the spectator | 17 September 2011 | www.spectator.co.uk