Reading is easier than writing. No need for research, no searching for ideas and inspiration, no getting into the mood, no agonising over the construction of sentences and the order of events and whether characters, and the plot, are interesting, or even credible. No need to struggle for half an hour before finally admitting that you’re just too tired. Just sit down and do it. Easy. If I sound surprised, it’s because I’d forgotten. I’m embarrassed to admit it, but I hadn’t read a book for many months – I’ve been too busy writing. Over the last week or so I’ve managed to fit one in; just a small one, called ‘Ragnarok, The End of the Gods’ by A. S. Byatt.
I like Byatt’s books; the way she writes. I like her writing style, and she always finds something interesting to write about too. Ragnarok is one of her stranger offerings. It’s based around the mythology of the Norse gods. It has a lack of cohesive narrative, which I found a little bit frustrating, but this is mostly because the mythology she describes doesn’t have much of a sensible narrative – it’s rather rambling and incoherent. I think she has tried to relate the stories faithfully, rather than trying to re-write or re-interpret them, or putting them into a modern context (she discusses her approach in the last chapter; ‘Thoughts on myths’). The mythology is interspersed with passages following a fictional character – a young child who has been evacuated from London to the countryside during the second world war. This character is never fully developed; the author deals only with her (the character’s) feelings about the natural environment and about the book ‘Asgard and the Gods’, in which she has immersed herself. Byatt mentions a number of times how she herself read this book as a child and was very influenced by it, which leads me to think that the character (who is never named, only referred to as ‘The Thin Child’) might be autobiographical. Perhaps this is unfair of me. I don’t know whether Byatt herself was an evacuee, but she would have been the right age, so it’s quite possible. I was interested to see that the book was commissioned (‘when Cannongate invited me to write a myth…‘).
In place of a proper narrative we get a good deal of philosophy and analogy, and some very poetic writing. The book is full of names; strange, Scandinavian sounding names, like Hraesvelgr, Vedrfolnir and Nidhoggr. At times it reads like an IKEA catalogue. In an approach that Dawkins would be proud of, Byatt compares the Asgard myths to modern religion, and in particular to Christianity, and rather boldly makes the point that whilst they both deal with the same subject matter, and neither is credible, the Norse stories are at least interesting and engaging. I wonder if she receives hate mail..?
There is another analogy too. In the stories, the gods are too dense, too greedy, selfish and incompetent to do anything to avert their impending downfall. A parallel is drawn to the behaviour of modern day humanity. It’s clear that our behaviour is driving us (and indeed the planet we inhabit) toward destruction. We’ve known this for decades, and yet we seem incapable of taking action to change our behaviour and avoid disaster. Are we (or at least, are our leaders) just as short-sighted, greedy and stupid as the Norse gods?
Of course, there are many similarities between reading and writing. Both can be incredibly engrossing. Both can keep you up late at night when you should really be trying to get some sleep before the alarm wakes you early the next morning. Writers create worlds in their imagination; readers re-create those worlds using the instructions encrypted in the text. While writing is my priority, I do love reading too. So many books, so little time…