A new year, a new lockdown, a renewed feeling of uncertainty. I’ve been sending off emails the last few days – asking for guidance about returning to university: the replies have not been hugely helpful. I cannot blame them – everyone is being thrown about by this wave of constant new-ness, which feels strangely familiar, and no-one truly has the answers I want. There’s no one I can email and ask – when can I hug gran again? Will I get a graduation ceremony? The Prime Minister has more important things to be doing than talking to me, the principal of my university cannot reply to my emails, the virus itself doesn’t care what I think, or want. It’s a lonely sort of uncertainty, bound up in loss and love and powerlessness.
So, I turn to books.
I’ve been re-reading If On a Winter’s Night a Traveler by Italo Calvino. It’s a book with a rather unusual premise – the main character is you – the reader! In each chapter you find yourself the protagonist of a different narrative: spy story, provincial romance, publishing drama, and so on. Whilst it’s an enjoyable read with an exciting narrative, I always end up frustrated by it. Calvino uses the second person, describing what ‘you’ (the reader and protagonist) will do or are doing – I instinctively rebel: I want to inform him I absolutely would not do that, do not want to do that, refuse to do that. I think: ‘I wouldn’t have left the suitcase there’. I think: ‘I’d have told them I loved them’. I think: ‘I wouldn’t have got into that taxi’. In the book I live many different lives but have no influence, no control, over any of them.
But I can’t tell Italo Calvino any of these things: aside from the fact that he died in 1985, he is completely absent from the novel. The author writes about me, not himself. Reader cannot communicate with writer, even as the writer dictates their actions. It’s a lonely literary life – stumbling from narrative to narrative, rebelling against your character’s journey but unable to change the story, every chapter plunging you away from the companions you found in the last – and no one to turn to; the author aloof, hidden behind the cover of the book, unreachable.
The last year has felt a little like If On A Winter’s Night. We’ve found ourselves plunged from lockdown into normality, into tiers, into bubbles, into lockdown again: losing connections, losing control, losing time. It’s been very easy to feel alone and helpless.
But I’ve also been re-reading the Lord Peter Whimsey detective novels by Dorothy Sayers. Less famous than Agatha Christie, with a less Belgian and less moustached detective, Sayers’ novels are wonderful reads, rich with characters and mystery.
She wrote about a man battling shell-shock, baffled by the unending brutality of the criminals he investigated and stricken lonely in a life riddled with mistakes. Peter’s author was worried about him! He lived in an ugly, real world - she couldn’t suddenly write him a happy ending without making him or the stories less real. But that meant she couldn’t lessen Peter’s pain without something – someone – interfering.
So, she created herself within her own stories. Harriet Vane appeared – an Oxford graduate (like Dorothy), a crime writer (like Dorothy), whose life was crossed by love and loss and loneliness (like Dorothy – well, like all of us, really). Dorothy rescued Peter, wrote herself into her own tale and reached out to touch the face of her creation. She walked the world she had made, felt the pain of Harriet’s losses and saved Peter from his.
Aside from trying to convince you to read Calvino and Sayers’ books, what’s the point of all this talk about stories? Well, newly locked-down, feeling newly-helpless, perhaps you’ve been like me, looking for someone to give you answers but realizing that there isn’t really anyone to offer them. Perhaps you feel a little like I feel whilst reading If On A Winter’s Night – frustrated that your life seems to be written for you, like you’re bound up in a big story written by covid, or fate, or politicians – with no one to shout at about it! But I prefer to see our world, our life, like the Lord Peter Whimsey books. We are not abandoned by our author, instead our author has come to rescue us.
God saw us, in the story He was writing, going round and round in circles, like in If On a Winter’s Night. Confused, trying to write our own narrative, but getting lost along the way. Jesus saw us battling love and loss and loneliness, like Lord Peter. I can’t change what Calvino wrote about my journey without rewriting the whole book, and we people here on earth can’t fix this messy world all on our own. Dorothy Sayers couldn’t snap her fingers, make Lord Peter a bit tougher, or the world a bit kinder, and leave him be, without making him less of himself, less of who she created him to be – and if Jesus had changed us, written our story for us – like Calvino does – wouldn’t that have made us mere spectators, readers of our own lives, playing no part in our own narrative?
So instead, Jesus came into our narrative, as a baby. I’m sure you heard about that over Christmas – or saw it on a Christmas card at least. Jesus is God, but He didn’t leave us alone in our confusing story like Calvino does. He wrote Himself into the story, to walk alongside us, reached into our isolation. Jesus didn’t stay as that baby in the stable – He grew, He lived pain and fear and loneliness, He found himself in situations He didn’t want to be in, and eventually died – and all because of love. All to bring us back to our Author.
Questions for Reflection
· What frustrations are you feeling at the moment?
· How do you cope when you feel helpless?
· What difference could it make to you that Jesus entered our narrative himself?
Ruby Dunn is a second year history student at the University of St Andrews. When she isn’t writing essays and making endless cups of tea, she enjoys going on winter-y walks, reading poetry and crochet.
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