In a Greek History class in college, the professor had us read the Iliad and Odyssey, and we’d discuss the cultural clues to Greek life apparent in the text. That class happened to coincide with Latin where we were translating myths and poems and speeches. The overlap was startling. Since it was Latin 101, we were only working with fragments of text: shards of story, and because it was Latin, these were frequently re-interpretations of the Greek myths. At the same time, I read John Steinbeck’s Cannery Row. Steinbeck is tender with his characters, their sad lives, their seeking, and each of their stories is important, interconnected to the others. Another step again.
I began to think of story as it moved from its oral mode—the minstrel, the wandering storyteller, the instructive and theatrical aspect of story—to works like Canterbury Tales and the Decameron, the tales of pilgrimage, and story as entertainment, and the first hints of characterization. Or to make a more drastic time leap: how the Moderns could not have written their books if the Victorians hadn’t written theirs. Writers had to learn that everyone has a story, and each of these stories has some appeal before they could learn to delve so deeply into a particular consciousness that they could examine every aspect of character, identity, self. The part as a sliver of the whole, yes, but you must build the whole first, in order to shatter it.
I am thinking of Murray Bail’s Eucalyptus. Set on a plantation in Australia, the landowner’s beautiful daughter will marry the person that names every species of tree on the property. A degrading venture, and a mythological one. The book is an exploration of the power of language and name and love. How we are bound to place and home, and how we are free to imagine something different. How story will save us.