|learn more at: www.pbs.org/moyers|
Every year Anne Provoost takes one of Han Christian Andersen's lesser-known tales to analyze. In 2006 she chose "The Story of a Mother." Read the story here, and her response below.
Letter to Hans Christian Andersen / Anne Provoost Antwerp, 2 April 2006
Dear Hans Christian Andersen,
This morning I dropped my shopping bag. It was filled with provisions for the next couple of days, including three jars of tomato puree for the Bolognese sauce my children like so much. As I came in, I put the bag on the kitchen table. You're no doubt familiar with this: a moment's inattention - my thoughts elsewhere, as they often are - and the bag slipped off the edge. The jars broke. Chocolate, biscuits, toothpaste, toilet paper, everything was covered.
I made a fuss. I didn't have time for this. Not for cleaning up, nor for thinking of something to replace the Bolognese sauce I had promised the children. When I say "a fuss," I mean that I did something I hadn't done before, and about which I want to write to you. I pronounced an incantation, words of which I didn't know where they came from. "What would I not give to...! What would I not give to...!" I muttered. I rinsed the bananas under the tap, wondering what possessed me. Did this mantra have to do with the money wasted? That seemed unlikely; tomato puree isn't that expensive. I tried to complete the sentence. Then I realized that "What would I not give to...!" is part of an entreaty in your text, "The Story of a Mother". And I knew that the red muck on my hands evoked an association with a moment of powerlessness much greater than that caused by a couple of broken jars.
In "The Story of a Mother" you write about a woman who sits by her sick child, fearing it will die. There is a knock on the door and an old man enters, wrapped in a horse blanket. The man is shivering with cold, and seeing the child has just fallen asleep, the mother fetches a jug of beer for the old man and puts it on the stove to warm it up. "Do you think God will let me keep my child?" she asks him, but she does not get an answer that enlightens her.
Since the mother has not slept a wink for three days and three nights, and at last is not on her own with the child for a moment, she falls asleep. Just for one minute-she wakes again almost immediately. A cold wind passes through the room. Her child is gone, and so is the old man. She realizes that her visitor was Death; he has taken her child.
We are barely one page into your story, and already we witness the Fatal Instant: that moment's inattention, that one incident which proves to be irreversible, and after which - in your words - the lead weight falls out of the clock and time stands still. That is when someone says, what would I not give to go back in time. In a text, this is usually an interesting moment. It is the point when the tide turns, when everything changes and the protagonist is forced into a new direction. After this, the writer has only a limited number of possibilities: the first is that, because of exhaustion or weakness, the decline begins. Another possibility is that the Fatal Instant releases a lot of energy and strength.
In "The Story of a Mother" you opt for the latter. The mother walks into the night, pursuing Death. To find him, she must repeatedly sacrifice parts of herself: she exchanges her black hair for white, she gives up her body's warmth to a thorn bush, she weeps out her eyes. Finally she reaches the greenhouse where God's trees and flowers of life stand. There she demands that Death return her child.
In "The Story of a Mother", you do what is only possible in fiction: you reverse the irreversible. One of the beautiful things about fiction is that it helps us imagine the improbable. What if you could actually wind back the clock? Very briefly, the reader is given an insight into what it would be like if fate could, after all, be averted.
Normally, I am a strong advocate of texts about what hasn't actually happened. For as a writer I am always somewhat worried about fiction being marginalized. You should know, my dear Mr. Andersen, that I live in a time when factuality is highly prized. We have access to lots of information. Schools and libraries are real knowledge banks. That reading to acquire information is useful is beyond dispute. But reading fiction is less easily justified. Isn't reading stories that have not really happened something you do for relaxation, or as an escape, to forget everything else?
I don't usually have a problem with the sliding scale on which fiction moves. You can have stories which are not fictitious, you have some that are a little fictitious, and you have some that are very, very fictitious. There are stories which have not actually happened, but could happen. Further along the scale are the stories which have not actually happened and never can happen. The degree of fictitiousness is what every writer plays around with. That a mother is able to pursue Death to get back her child is highly unlikely, and so sits pretty close to one of the extremes of the scale.
Reading a fictional text demands greater flexibility of mind than reading a text of which you know that everything is meant to be true, proven, researched, argued. Being prepared to go with the writer into the realm of what has not really happened has an undeniable extra value. Because fiction does not primarily present a report of something that has happened, it challenges the reader to re-think the not-real events that are described. In a story that has really happened, the reader is at most faced with the question, "What would I do if I experienced this?" In a fictitious story, the questions can go much further and end up with a much more adventurous exercise: "How could this have happened differently?" Or even, "If this had been my story, how would I have handled it?"
Non-fiction reconciles itself with the irreversible; fiction places question marks around the irreversible, reveals all its angles. In that sense, reading fiction is a more active process than reading non-fiction. A true story stimulates our sense of empathy; a fictitious story stimulates our imagination.
And yet your story bothered me, my dear Mr. Andersen. As I cleaned up the tomato puree, very carefully dealing with the razor-sharp shards, I began to realize why. It had something to do with that sliding scale of fiction. I suddenly had the feeling you had gone too far. To put my finger on it more precisely, I need to go back in time, to the origins of storytelling.
The very first storyteller was, I think, a journalist. He was the man who reported on what was happening "out there." Through the ages it was he who journeyed from village to village to give an account of what was going on in other places. He knew more than his listeners. Chronology was of great importance in his story: Were the cattle speared first, and then the soldiers came, or did the soldiers come first, and then the cattle were found dead? For his listeners, it was important to know. With chronology went compression. It was impossible for the telling of the story to take the same amount of time as the events told. Compression produced a summary, a useful and gripping report about what the listeners had missed.
Compression was the first step towards fiction. The storyteller became aware of the possibility to play around with the form of his story. He could leave some matters unmentioned and simply suggest them. He could add things. He discovered the power of devising storylines. Language was no longer his instrument, it became his material. There was nothing underhand about this. The storyteller went about it quite frankly by starting with "once upon a time...." He could exceed his limits, and the listeners could enjoy the bird's-eye view offered by fiction: to finally have the feeling that here is something you can see as a whole, neatly enclosed within a separate world, with a beginning and a conclusion.
Magic and reality were linked. What people knew, what they believed, what they wanted to believe, all this became part of stories. The boundary between what people knew and what they believed constantly shifted, and with it shifted the boundary between realistic fiction and fiction that was much more fictitious: myths, fables, fairy tales, legends. All along, the stories remained linear. Even when the storytellers jumbled up the chronological sequence of the story, they still gave the reader a foothold in time. Whenever events in the story happened simultaneously, they kept asking themselves, what do I tell first? Stories were still chains of words, continuous texts to be read from cover to cover.
With the passage of time, and more frequently in the years since you died, my dear Mr. Andersen, that linear tradition in fictional literature was intersected by relativity theory, chaos theory, the realization that we acquire and process information which is organized in lines that branch out - the garden of forking paths, as Borges, a writer you are possibly not familiar with, called them. It was argued that our mind is capable of recognizing patterns in an amorphous mass. We gained more and more insight into the complexity of all aspects of our everyday existence. We talked about discontinuity, uncertainty, unpredictability, synchronicity... Stories were written in which time was replayed, ran backwards, or was manipulated some other way. Thick books were written of which you could read the parts in two or three different sequences, novels of which it was said there was no need to read them from beginning to end, because chronology played no part whatever in them.
Nothing in these new developments helps me cope with the broken jars I'm stuck with. No matter how many of those ideas buzz around in the world of the arts, no matter how convinced people are that linearity is an outdated notion, and no matter how much we like interpreting stories in terms of synchronicity, association and dissociation, one thing has not changed: sooner or later in our lives we are confronted by the irreversible. No matter how much we experiment with time and synchronism in novels, theatre, and film, when we juxtapose the arts with real life, we notice time and again that there is something we cannot have any influence over: the implacable running of the hourglass.
People have said that without language we cannot think. I am not sure about that. What I do know with a degree of certainty is that our thinking cannot be disconnected from time. Time is like a train in motion: we cannot get off until it stops. We have no grip on the rising and setting of the sun, the rotation of the earth on its axis. We have proof that time is relative, yet we have not discovered how to gain even one second on the basis of that insight. Time has a deadly constancy, just about the only thing we cannot make relative. We are permeated with that single, unavoidable truth: that we are all subject to the laws of entropy, that we will decay into dust. No matter what we try, what genetic manipulations we carry out, a chick finishes up as a moldy hen, never the other way around. There are some people who experience time differently, but they are rare; their experience of time is considered to be a problem and is described as a clinical syndrome, which proves how exceptional it is.
We live in the present, but, often to our great frustration, we cannot hang on to the present. We experience time as a linear axis, a gigantic second hand hanging over our heads, ticking like a time bomb, powerful and inescapable as a whirlpool. Memory is all that remains. Time serves as a framework for our thinking. Information that comes to us in random order we order in time. And then, and then, and then... seems to be necessary in order to remember anything accurately. In our newspapers there are innumerable background articles with timelines. Historical perspective is a highly valued line of approach in nearly all our thinking. My dear Mr. Andersen, we now have something called a World Wide Web, a system whereby we can click on words in a text. With each click, a new text unfolds and we can read in a sequence which no longer has any connection to linearity or chronology. But it only seems like that, for this World Wide Web, too, is beginning to correct itself. We're slowly realizing that there too the information needs chronology and dating if we don't want the network of texts and images to become completely tangled. After all, clicking on a word means you enter into a text which has appeared either before or after the previous one. Again, the reader attempts to reconstruct the timeline, in search of and then and then and then.
Like me, you write fictional stories. The chronology of our stories is quite independent from the chronologically determined fate of our real lives. We create zones that are outside time and gather all time within them, and we can go to great lengths in this. The mother in your fairy tale is given the chance to wind back the clock and bring her child back from death. That is the kind of story that enthralls me, the kind of story I have written myself.
Yet I cannot escape the impression that in "The Story of a Mother" you have overdone it. You must appreciate, dear Mr. Andersen, that I am standing here up to my hair in tomato puree! The mother in your story is given a second chance, but we both know that once the Fatal Instant arrives, there is no way back. What drives a writer to deviate so far from the only unavoidable reality we experience as true? Suddenly, this game of literature seems such a poor thing, quite inadequate for what life has in store for us. Your "story" reverts to being a "fairy tale." Worse, the term "fairy tale" resumes the pejorative meaning it so often carries. I look at the red muck and all I can think is, how could I ever trust fictional literature? What good is fiction going to be to me when things go wrong and my life falls apart? Wouldn't I be better off relying on the testimony of writers who have actually experienced such things, instead of on this heavily metaphorical story that does not take into account my existential experience of time?
But the day is getting on and I go back to the books on my desk. The children come home from school. They don't mind if we eat something else today and joke affectionately about the broken jars. I tell them your fairy tale. They are amazed by the ending, find it incomprehensible, but fascinating. The mother in your tale does not take advantage of the reversibility. Death makes her look into a deep well, and there she can see the future. She sees the possibility that her son faces a life full of misery, and rather than resisting any longer, she gives in. She makes an about-face. She fears the forces that are too strong for her - God's will, her son's destiny, Death's mockery. She comes closer to the reader again, failing, fearful, unable to cope with reversibility. The fairy tale becomes what it should be: moralizing, pointing out to us that getting a child back from the dead is an illusion. The fault, I realize, was mine: I had hoped that the breaking down of the illusion would give comfort, but of course it does not. Fairy tales, myths and fables are fiction to the nth degree. They do not just tell about what has not happened, they also tell about what cannot happen: they are about the magical and the miraculous. A long time ago, I was told that this kind of story helped us determine our place in the universe. That could be right. Often, they pin us down on the spot where we already stood: in the temporal, the temporary, the transitory. They remind us that our place in the universe cannot be seen separately from our time. They do not teach us trivialities.
A text as fictitious as this fairy tale does not offer me solace, but it does give me a sense of realism, something I had not expected from a story that places itself so ostentatiously outside reality. The character of the mother reconciles me again with the fairy tale as a literary genre. She reconciles me with all stories at the extreme end of the sliding scale of fiction. Fairy tales, myths and legends do not offer another reality, but they do keep the longing for another reality alive. That in itself is a kind of solace. Not a lot, but better than nothing.
But then, Mr. Andersen, something else happened unexpectedly. As I read aloud to the children, I discovered an aspect of the story that had previously escaped my attention. In order to save her child, the mother attempts to blackmail Death. She grasps a life-flower in God's greenhouse in each hand and threatens to uproot them. "Do not touch them," says Death. "You say you are so unhappy, and now you would make another mother just as unhappy!" "Another mother?" the woman replies and immediately lets go of the flowers. It is an inconspicuous moment in the story and you do not dwell on it.
I am fond of this twist. It makes me think that perhaps an allegorical story like yours aspires to do more than confirm us in our feeling of temporalness and impermanence. I read it as a plea to not experience the Fatal Instant in our life as a grey, meaningless moment, but as a moment of transcendence. By transcendence I mean the moment when human beings go beyond their physical and material limitations and feel they can be more than the insignificant playthings of time. A moment of solidarity rather than of ultimate solitariness or barren adversity. I do not know if that is how you meant it, but may I be allowed to read it as the possibility of experiencing our Fatal Instant as something other than the great nothing? May I cherish the desire, or at least the hope, that there is something in the emptiness, even if reality will prove something else altogether? I am not talking about reversibility, nor about immortality, but about connectedness, with companions in hardship, in this time or in the past, in stories and in reality. As mother of three children who are mad about Bolognese sauce, and someone who is always afraid of the Fatal Instant, I will get from that exactly the comfort I expect from fiction.
With thanks, great esteem and kind regards,
Translation: John Nieuwenhuizen