Echo answers back: my first reading of Metamorphoses

(Content warning for frequent references to death, violence and rape.)

*****

Friends, I am in love. This time it’s a poet. As anyone who follows my personal blog may have noticed, Ovid has stolen my heart. It’s rather inconvenient as he was born in 43 BC in the Ancient Roman world, and I followed on two millennia later, but I don’t care. It was meant to be.
To read Ovid’s Metamorphoses at 23, having never read a text like it before, is to have a light switched on in a dark room. No, it’s having the sun come up and illuminate your world. To anyone who loves language and stories, the Metamorphoses are an endless delight and the springboard for endless connections, reflections and ideas. Have you ever wondered about the origin of the word lycanthropy, or the stories behind the words arachnid, hermaphrodite and echo?
Have you ever explained to a child that the whole world is made of atoms, which are constantly shifting and rearranging themselves; about how water dissolves and condenses as cloud and falls as rain? Have you ever thought about how the content of your own human body will one day disintegrate, the atoms in you becoming part of other people. Have you ever felt limited by your own body and have you wondered about the possibility of becoming something greater than or different from yourself? Dickinson wrote that “this quiet dust was gentlemen and ladies” but in The Metamorphoses death (and dust, and decay) is only one direction that a body can take. In this world there are multiple possibilities; people are changed into spiders, wolves, flowers, swans, water, and the whole universe is in a constant state of flux.
You’ve read and seen plenty of retellings of Proserpina’s story – from the references in David Almond’s novel Skellig to Dante Gabriel Rosetti’s iconic painting. But now you read the original tale and its full horror and beauty comes afresh. The story captures the primal anguish of rape, and the terror of a mother who loses a daughter and quite literally tears up heaven and earth to find her:

“[Ceres] had torn up two pine trees,
Kindled both in Etna,
And holding them high
Through the long nights
Lit her path of glittering frost.”
(The Rape of Proserpina)

The stories have a primal, brutal quality, like something that just happened. The word ‘Ovid’ used to conjure up to me a lot of stone statues and dry classical allusions. But read these tales from two thousand years ago and they feel chillingly real. Yes, you think. It happened like that. That’s exactly how I would have felt too.
I discovered Ovid this summer through my usual method of finding new things, which is to chase up references my favourite authors make in their books to other authors. You should also know, if it’s not obvious, that I am basically classically illiterate. I was born a bit early for the Percy Jackson stories, so my primary introduction to the classical world was reading Roger Lancelyn Green’s retellings of Greek and Roman myths at age 8. I found them really dry, and couldn’t identify with heroes like Achilles or Hector or Hercules.  
I didn’t have a classical education at school either, so as a teenager I found initially that Metamorphoses, The Odyssey, The Iliad and The Aeneid were inaccessible to me even in translated form. I didn’t understand the references or who anyone was supposed to be. I was a girl from inner-city Birmingham and felt locked out of this world. “Well,” I thought, “who needs that anyway?” and I went off and read books by basically anyone born after the fall of Rome. I don’t regret that at all, but I do think it’s a shame that I was so put off by this apparent cultural and textual inaccessibility.
A friend of mine and I once discussed the class aspect of classical education, (in Britain it is generally private schools that teach Latin and Greek language and mythology, whilst comprehensives and grammar schools teach modern languages). We spoke about feeling left out of discourse with people from private schools, who were just as smart as us but had access to a frame of reference that we didn’t know about. We agreed it was unfair that knowledge of the classical world should be associated in our country with wealth and intelligence.
Of course, I still don’t think reading Ovid makes one superior to anyone who prefers reading contemporary novels, or reading graphic novels, or not reading at all. But I will say that Metamorphoses was a thousand times more accessible than I expected. Reading Ted Hughes’s brilliantly accessible and gloriously written translation has made an enormous difference for me. It makes me feel included in an ancient mythological tradition which continues to have an enormous impact on Western culture. I’m able to really understand and treasure stories that have influenced storytelling itself. It makes me realise that anyone, regardless of education or background, should be welcome to this mythological tradition.
In writing this essay I hope to share the joy I had in reading Metamorphoses, and also share a few thoughts on what it was like reading the text as a 21st-century woman. I can’t detach my reading of it from the fact that I am a feminist and a woman, nor do I want to.
Before I read Metamorphoses I associated classical mythology with films like Troy and Wrath of the Titans, and always assumed that it was mostly about buff heroic men. Which doesn’t interest me much, frankly, because my primary joy was and is to read well-written stories about women and girls. Of course, what I didn’t know is that Metamorphoses is full of strongly drawn, believable female characters. That there are transformations of gender, like Tiresias’ and the strange fate of Salmacis and Hermaphroditus, which imply that gender has the capability to be utterly fluid. That the stories frequently return to the violent, volatile tensions between powerful men and the women under their control.
The stories often take in other, entirely human transformations of the body and mind. Rape, pregnancy and childbirth are often inextricably linked, as they unfortunately were in Ovid’s Roman world.
Reading Ted Hughes’s version (Tales from Ovid, published by Faber and Faber) I started making notes about the prevalence of rape and its meaning as power play, punishment and manifestation of addiction. In Tereus, quoted below, it’s interesting to note that Tereus’s behaviour is utterly condemned throughout the story.

“‘He’ll explain,’ cried Juno, ‘why you are
Slave to your irresistible addiction
While the poor nymphs you force to share it with you
Do all they can to shun it.’”
(Tiresias)

“She was to blame – her beauty. But more
The King’s uncontrollable body.
Thracians are sexually insatiable…
He was the puppet
Of instant obsession…
Philomela twisted away.
Shame tortured her.
She would not look at her sister –
As if she herself were to blame.

(Tereus)

(Bolding mine).

I also noted the instances of, as we call it now, “speaking truth to power”.
Rape is a manifestation of power. It is the gods, especially Jupiter, who are the most frequent perpetrators, but the men of the stories are often no better. The poet often sympathises with their victims and allows them to speak back, even though doing so is often followed by punishment. For instance, Philomela’s wonderful speech to Tereus – where she declares that “shame will not stop her” – angers Tereus so much that he cuts out her tongue. But although the poem is titled Tereus, we know whose story it really is that we are reading. It was a very strange experience to hear Philomela’s articulate voice ringing out, and to realise the commonality of women’s experiences down the centuries:

“I may be lost.
You have taken whatever life
I might have had, and thrown it in the sewer.
But I have my voice.
And shame will not stop me.
I shall tell everything
To your own people, yes, to all Thrace.
Even if you keep me here
Every leaf in this forest
Will become a tongue to tell my story.”
(Tereus)

Then there is the story of Arachne, the weaver, who believes herself to be better at weaving than the goddess Minerva. (Arachne notes that “I make up my own mind and I think as I always did.”) Minerva challenges Arachne to a competition to find out who is better at weaving. Minerva’s tapestry illustrates “the kind of punishment Arachne could now expect for her impudence” by showing people being turned by the gods into mountains, storks, cranes and stone. Arachne, meanwhile, creates a tapestry which graphically shows Jupiter raping Europa and other women. Minerva’s response, realising that the tapestry is technically perfect, is to tear the tapestry off the loom and “rip it to rags” – censorship at its most primal. Again, the victim is silenced but her story resonates.
The women of Metamorphoses often meet a ghastly fate. Arachne hangs herself, and Minerva takes pity on her and transforms her into a spider. Echo, who defends her friends by telling lies, is turned by Juno into a disembodied echoing voice. Philomela transforms into a nightingale, and in the most horrific of the stories Niobe loses all her children because of her pride. They’re punished for being proud, for being talented, for being vocal, for defying the gods. These characters stand out to me; they feel much more real and more interesting than the gods. I feel that their stories are not closed, they are ambiguous and they open up in the retelling and rereading.
I am thankful every day that I fell in love with Ovid and discovered the stories of the women in Metamorphoses. Their stories resonate endlessly; they don’t win, but God, they are brave. Their stories still exist, and the telling of them (however you choose to retell them) is endlessly powerful. In her story True Short Story, Ali Smith writes about the nymph Echo and asks: “When is a short story a short story? When its echo answers back.”
I’m reminded of Akhmatova’s poem, Lot’s Wife:

Who would mourn this woman, who was thought
To be the least of losses, hardly worth a breath?
Yet I will always hold her in my heart,
Who for a single glance accepted death.
(Lot’s Wife – Anna Akhmatova)

***

Further resources
In Our Time – Metamorphoses
girl meets boy – Ali Smith
Proserpina – Dante Gabriel Rossetti
Abuse Survivor Resources

Can you learn to love reading?

I have a young cousin who doesn’t like reading. She’ll open a book and read it to you, but after a minute you realise she’s making the story up or telling it from memory. Drag her through a text, word after word, and she quickly gets frustrated.
I’ve tutored other kids who felt similarly. They know how to read, but it’s such hard work – whether that’s because of learning disability, bad teaching, or any other reason. They have been taught to read; technically they know how to do it. But ask them questions about what they’ve read, and they go blank and shrug. To them, the page is full of traps. Reading is a horrible, grinding, plodding chore.
You can teach someone to read. But can you teach them to love reading? To read a book and understand and enjoy it? Plenty of people leave school knowing how to read, without learning to love reading. I’ve met educated adults who have never read a book for fun.
The latter always surprises me, but then I can’t remember when I didn’t read for pleasure. I thought reading was for pleasure, even though at school they said it was work.
Once I’d learned to read, I was unstoppable. When I was six my teacher phoned my parents and said wearily “We’ve run out of books for your daughter.” Dad asked if the school had a library. “She’s read the Junior Library,” the teacher replied.
Being a bookworm as a child is probably more fun than being one as an adult, because most adults aren’t really expected to read. No one will give you a gold star if you’ve read twenty books in a month. You don’t have to read for pleasure.
Why should you read for pleasure, anyway?
One could argue that reading is a necessary skill, and it doesn’t matter if you love reading so long as you can do it. You don’t have to love driving to drive a car. You don’t have to love maths to pay a bill. Reading for pleasure is just an extra.
To which my response is: what a drab, dry view of the world, where enjoying art is an extra! Where everyone reads the bare minimum only because they have to!
I think reading for pleasure is one of the best things anyone can do. Reading fiction helps you become more empathetic. Reading for pleasure puts children ahead in the classroom, it develops the mind, the imagination, and the heart.
And in daily life, we are now more than ever surrounded by words. On sites like tumblr and AO3, everyone is writing. Everyone is reading. Almost no one earns money from it. Why are we all doing this, if we’re not getting something out of it?
A love for reading is an advantage – albeit to the soul and not the wallet, although books in any format are less expensive than most hobbies. Capitalism doesn’t reward a love for reading, but then capitalism will only reward what is beneficial to itself, not what is beneficial to you.
Returning to my point: you can be taught how to read, but you can’t be taught how to love reading.
Not directly.
Good teachers can infect you with their enthusiasm for books. You can be put in the vicinity of a lot of books, which always helps.
But you’ve still got to sit down with the book and fight it out. You and the page. You and the author’s voice. You have to go forth and conquer.
To me, it seems people usually learn to love books by being… interested. There is no way to understate the amazing things humans can do if they are very interested in something. Take 
the author Sally Gardner:

I eventually ended up in a school for maladjusted children because there was no other school that would take me… I had been classified as “unteachable” but at the age of fourteen, when everyone had given up hope, I learned to read. The first book I read was “Wuthering Heights” and after that no one could stop me.

Then there’s the author Sue Townsend:

I was afraid of my primary-school teacher because, when we had to read out loud, she’d slap our legs if we got a word wrong. As a result I didn’t learn to read until I was eight, when I stayed at home ill… My mum brought a pile of Just William books home from a rummage sale and I taught myself to read with William—The Outlaw… Once I started to read, I never looked back.

I am not saying that being interested in something can always make you able to do it. What I am saying is that a love for reading cannot be taught, it is something you must discover for yourself. There are no short cuts, but plenty of rewards.
Virginia Woolf wrote:

“However we may wind and wriggle, loiter and dally in our approach to books, a lonely battle awaits us at the end. There is a piece of business to be transacted between writer and reader before any further dealings are possible.”*


*The Common Reader, Robinson Crusoe

Becoming a better reader

For someone who likes reading, I don’t think I’m very good at it. I read too fast – gobbling up reams of words, sometimes without even understanding them. I can only read for about an hour before getting distracted. I sometimes lose track of the story because I’m too busy analysing it in my head as I read it. I talk out loud to the author (“Come on, Hilary, that’s a bit sexist”) and I have been known to throw books across the room or scribble in the margins when they disappoint me.
More frustratingly, I often can’t visualise a story while I’m reading it. I understand most people can do this, but I can’t.
To me, it’s all about the music the words make.
I recently read Lucky Jim and cackled throughout, because God, even the way that book’s written is funny. It’s like a brilliantly told joke: you don’t just laugh at the content, but you laugh because the phrasing, the word choice, even the parentheses, are damn hilarious. It works as a piece of music as much as a piece of comedy. I don’t really visualise the book, I just… hear it.
Sometimes I read a story where I can tell the writer has carefully transcribed a scene which they can see very clearly: but I can only imagine a small bit of the scene at a time (rain on the window, wet fields, the branches of a tree). I can’t hold the whole scene in my head. At this point I feel like apologising to the author: “Sorry! The problem is not with your vision! I just can’t SEE things!”
So, I am trying to attune my senses. Trying to become a better reader.
That doesn’t mean teaching myself to visualise, but it does mean becoming more sensitive to the music of the words: knowing when a phrase is perfect, when a sentence’s cadence is satisfying. Asking myself, why is this sentence funny? What is it about this phrasing that makes this sentence work, while that sentence falls flat on its face? How can you tell one writer’s tone apart from another’s?
It’s difficult, learning to listen. But I know it’s possible, because at the age of eleven I taught myself to play piano.
Before then, music was a language I didn’t understand. I knew sometimes it made me shiver with joy, but didn’t know any more than that. I could hear music without really listening to it – like an English person who goes abroad and doesn’t speak the language.
Once I became more sensitive to music, it began to sound different. Colours and textures emerged from familiar songs: flights of silvery top notes, the bird-like call of a flute. Now I could tell apart the layers of harmony in a piece; I could appreciate the detailed work in a performance, its energy, its power.
But really I am still learning how to listen to music, just as I am learning to become a better reader. Everything is a learning process.
I’ve been reading both series of Virginia Woolf’s The Common Reader, a book which always makes me want to read more deeply and widely. Woolf wrote that it is hard to be a good reader, that “reading is a longer and more complicated process than seeing.”
To Woolf, the ‘common reader’ was someone who is “guided by an instinct to create for himself, out of whatever odds and ends he can come by, some kind of whole – a portrait of a man, a sketch of an age, a theory of the art of writing”. The common reader is not a scholar nor a critic, but someone who reads for pleasure. This “hasty, inaccurate and superficial” reader is a kind of magpie, snatching up odds and ends for their own purpose.
I really don’t know if Woolf thought of herself as a common reader, but she certainly was not one. I think there have been few more imaginative, visionary, informed and responsive readers in the history of the world than Virginia Woolf. Take this, from her essay On Not Knowing Greek:

“Pick up any play by Sophocles… and at once the mind begins to fashion itself surroundings. It makes some background, even of the most provisional sort, for Sophocles; it imagines some village, in a remote part of the country, near the sea. Even nowadays such villages are to be found in the wilder parts of England… [but] If we try to think of Sophocles here, we must annihilate the smoke and the damp and the wet thick mists. We must sharpen the lines of the hills. We must imagine a beauty of stone and earth…”

I could write for pages about Woolf and her clarity of vision in response to books. I am forever envious of such imaginative visual power. But I will close with the thought that there are all kinds of readers; we can never know exactly what happens in someone else’s head when they read. Maybe there is no ideal reader. Maybe reading is as personal as thinking.
How do you read?
How do you think?

Getting out of the woods: the joy of linear storytelling

I discovered Oranges Are Not The Only Fruit when I was seventeen. After I rescued it from the back shelves of the college library, I swiftly realised it was a magic book.
It’s haunted me since, this anarchic little novel. It radically restructured my mind, it opened doors to new vistas. I was absorbed from the first line.
This is despite the fact that I’m really a terrible reader, and back then I was even worse. I read Oranges at lightning speed, occasionally checking how much reading time I had left till my next class. I was like oiky Mr Toad, speeding through a beautiful forest in an obnoxiously noisy car.
The sections which diverted from the main narrative (including the fairytales and the Book of Deuteronomy) were sadly lost on me, as I was too eager to get back to the main story to appreciate them. Why have we strayed over here, into the woods? I don’t want to hear about Winette Stonejar or knights. Where am I? Take me back to the plot.
Everyone creates their own, private version of the books they read. After I inhaled Oranges, it worked away quietly at the back of my mind, changing my thoughts on structure, autobiography, and what a novel could do.
After reading Woolf, Calvino, Winterson, Joyce, and a handful of other authors, I drew the conclusion that books with a straightforward, linear plot were a bit… inferior. Straightforward plots were just unimaginative. (Winterson calls them “written-down television” – as though television plots are incapable of being smart, imaginative or non-linear.) It was around the time that Twilight was popular, so it felt like the smart thing to criticise linear storytelling. I was the educated rebel finding a source of discontent. Books, I told anyone who’d listen, were about more than story. They were also about language, images, ideas.
At seventeen, I drew the conclusion that straightforward plots were “unimaginative” because I hadn’t yet sat down to write and realised that even writing a straightforward plot is as difficult as fitting an entire watermelon in your mouth.
PG Wodehouse said that he wrote about 400 pages of plot notes for each novel and would generally fall into despair halfway through – and his output mostly consists of relatively slim comic novels. Although Wodehouse used similar plot structures and motifs over and over during his career, each plot taken by itself is meticulously put together and executed. That does require imagination, and it’s a craft which should not be overlooked.
I’m glad I can admit now that I like a story. I like a linear plot. It eases my mind to admit it, somehow. Five years later, it’s the story of Oranges – that central relationship between the mother and daughter, the daughter’s quest for love and freedom – that I remember most vividly. In the interim, my mind has stripped away the abstractions.
And I still adore Oranges, of course. There are many books with non-linear or experimental structure that I like and admire very much. I am learning how to read more deeply, to appreciate text more fully. But story is a large part of my reasoning for selecting new books to read. I like to be emotionally engaged, and to me that isn’t possible without a coherent story, preferably told in a linear way.
That doesn’t mean non-linearity is intrinsically incoherent, of course; sometimes it’s the best way to tell a story. I enjoy writers like Ali Smith, who combines a poetic lyrical intensity and subversion of structure with excellent storytelling. Books like How to Be Both prove it is possible to subvert conventional narrative structure and still tell a great story.
On the other hand, I do not enjoy writers like Winterson taking a prescriptive approach to what I should and shouldn’t enjoy as a reader. There is nothing wrong with linearity in itself: the earliest myths and legends are linear tales, after all. Nor does it make you somehow less smart to enjoy a linear story. Stories aren’t for that. Stories open your mind, forge empathy and take you to new worlds. If you become smarter from reading them that’s a by-product, not the end result.
I began to feel less guilty about all this when I read an article by Matthew Haig, which I referenced here in an earlier post. Haig wrote about how books helped to lift him out of his depression: “words help give us the building blocks to build another mind, very often with a better view. My mess of a mind needed shape, and external narratives I found in… books offered hope and became reasons to stay alive.”
Well, exactly.
The great thing about a story is that if you’re a poor kid reading a book in an inner-city library, you’re catapulted out of your world and into another. Stories move you, and not just emotionally. When your world seems mired and rutted, linear storytelling reminds you that movement and change is possible. You follow the line through the labyrinth, and out the other side.
You get all the joy of following Harry Potter away from Privet Drive to the house on the rock, to Diagon Alley, and to Hogwarts. You leave the Shire with a gaggle of hobbits and follow them all the way to Mordor. You can visit Neverwhere, over and over. I can vividly remember being seven years old, lying on a flowered bedspread in a small bedroom in Southampton, and following Lucy through a wardrobe into an unfamiliar snowy world.
These are not just the pleasures of childhood, either. We are allowed to experience the joy of narrative and story for as long as we live. No intellectual snobbery should crush this private splendour: the reader, the page, the story.

Notes

Essay on postmodernism and storytelling: ‘What’s wrong with heroes? – Some thoughts on superhero narratives’
Read Jeanette Winterson’s thoughts on Oranges are Not The Only Fruit here