Back when I was nineteen years old and steeped up to my innocent ingenue ears in the Matter of Britain, I dreamed up a story – technically a novel, I guess, seeing as it was over 40,000 words, but not much over. It was a solid chunk of writing, though, pretty much written over a year or so when I was about 18, and it told the story of Queen Guenevere.
In first person. From her own point of view.
It has since been done by several other writers. But at the time I was writing, had not been – and I struggled with it mightily, seeing as the Queen was not present at so much of what was key in the storyline as the legend knew it.
So I twisted things a little, made her a little more… active and independent… holy cow, I only just realized I was writing feminist fantasy when I was a teenager! It wasn’t my first novel at that point but it was really the first one that got looked at by Publishing Professionals. It got handed to an editor of a local publishing house – we were in South Africa at the time – and he handed it to an outside reader for an evaluation.
The reader was Andre P Brink. He wasn’t well known outside South Africa, I guess, and it may be that nobody who reads this has ever heard of him – but he was a Big Deal there, a real novelist with awards hanging from his belt like scalps. But he was quite possibly the last person in the Universe who should have been handed an Arthurian fantasy by a teenager and expected to get anything at all out of it. I hadn’t even known that it had been him that had been tapped to evaluate it, not until the editor who had taken the book to look at came back with a regretful rejection – and, breaking protocol somewhat, gave me a copy of the reader’s report to have a look at.
Andre Brink, South Africa’s pre-eminent novelist, started his report thusly:
“This is an impressive piece of writing, especially if it is taken into account that it was written by a 19-year-old. I have no doubt that this young woman will be a major writer one day.”
You heard the but coming, didn’t you?…
He went on to say that the story was too tame, especially given the subject matter of lust and adultery and multi-layered betrayals. There was plenty of drama, he said, but there was none of… oh, let me quote him again… “…it lacks what Kazantzakis calls ‘madness’.”
Today, I know of this madness. I understand it from within. I take no issue with his comments, not from this side of the bridge of time, because he was probably right – my story was one of innocence rather than guilt and machinations, my Queen was a child caught up in an adult world, much as I was at the time. But when he wrote this report, I had yet to read Kazantzakis. I had heard of Zorba the Greek, but I had not read the book, nor seen the movie at that time.
I have done both, since. In fact, I watched the movie on TiVo recently. I was astonished at how much of it I remembered, verbatim, and how much of the BOOK came flooding back as I saw certain scenes unfold in the film. It is a searing work that celebrates life and presents death in a form as raw and matter-of-fact as I have ever seen it. It is here that the “madness” comes from, Zorba flings it at his staid and strait-laced Englishman, “You have to have some madness in you or you will never be able to cut the strings.”
At its worst, it’s something that can only be learned by living a life – sometimes only when you are ready to leave it. It is a place where there is nothing but choices, and sometimes they all seem equally bad – and picking one means “cutting the strings”. flying solo, doing the high trapeze act without a net, laughing in the face of destiny and thumbing your nose at God.
At its best it’s the fire that tempers the iron in us, the one choice that HAS to be made no matter what, the need to learn to live with consequences.
Someday, ah, someday… I might return to the Guenevere story. I know I held her in my hand once, and it was good, good enough for a real publisher to take an interest even though nothing ever came of it, good enough for my boyfriend at the time to identify me with Camelot’s queen so strongly that he called me Guenevere ever after, even years after, remembering the name and whence it came a quarter of a century after we two were an item in my first year of University.
I’ve grown up. I’ve lived. Out there in the world, it lives too, the “madness”, like a virus – you might lift your face into a gentle rain and a single raindrop will have a potent dose of it, and will come into your eye and burn like acid, and you will cry without having the faintest idea why – and then you might go out and do something you’ve never done before, like write a sonnet, or ride a horse bareback, or fall in love.
I had an enchanted, sheltered, protected childhood, and I was shielded from all this when I was young. But it’s in my blood now, inevitably, as it comes to everyone in their time. Andre Brink is dead now, but I would love to know whether he remembered me, and if he would have been able to sense the “madness” in what I am writing today.
It is by no means certain. Brink had become even more academic than he had been at the time he wrote the original report, and it isn’t too outrageous to wonder whether his own dose of “madness” was still living within him or if it has been quelled by the years that had flowed under the bridge since our initial encounter. He would probably still hate the kind of stuff I write, just as I still find his own style a little too dry, too “advanced”, too pure and distilled and literary, for my own taste.
But still… I wonder. Sometimes I am taken back to being that innocent teenager who sloughed off the rejection and saw only that glowing first sentence, and found in it enough fire to keep a dream alive.