Arthur Schopenhauer wrote that dreaming and wakefulness are the pages of a single book, and that to read them in order is to live, and to leaf through them at random, is to dream. Paintings within paintings and books that branch into other books help us sense this oneness.” Jorge Luis Borges on Flann O’Brien’s At Swim-Two-Birds.

Paintings within paintings: this subject has absorbed much of my attention of late.  The picture within, another story, a hidden treasure, a frame around a frame. Examples include Magritte, Vermeer, Hopper, Velazquez, Gijsbrechts and of particular interest, Francis Bacon. One reason for my absorption is practical – it features in my book (the Final, Absolute Last, No-more-fiddling-about-now draft). But another is the fact that I find my interpretation of these pieces changes.  Trompe d’oeil by Gijsbrechts (left) draws me back time and again, my curiosity still unsatisfied. I want to climb into that picture.

As for books that branch into other books, I originally thought about the experimental narrative structures of Italo Calvino If on a Winter’s Night a Traveller, David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas, Jennifer Egan’s A Visit from the Goon Squad and of course, one of my all-time favourites, At Swim-Two-Birds by Flann O’Brien.

It was probably Colm Tóibín’s exploration of the latter in The London Review of Books which triggered my realisation that Celtic story-telling has always been about the story within the story. Tangents and digressions are part of the storyteller’s skill and indeed built into the stories themselves. Characters launch into lengthy asides; the history of the house, village or amulet interrupts the action and takes on a momentum of its own; the standard narrative is abandoned for leaps forward or backward in time. But even after a digression within a tangent, the storyteller eventually returns to the original, tidies up the loose ends and brings the whole thing to a satisfying conclusion. The audience, trusting the tale-teller, follows him or her along side tracks and down back alleys, confident the detours will make the journey all the richer. And, surprisingly, the technique appeals to every age group.

At a recent writers’ meeting, a friend’s work got a good kicking. Feedback included these criticisms; ‘stick to the point’, ‘stop introducing all these extra characters’, ‘that little vignette has no relevance to the plot’, ‘the scene doesn’t move the story on so it should go’, ‘you’re being self-indulgent’. I was stunned. I’d read the piece and found it rich,  exciting and unpredictable, full of colourful, imaginative detail told in a wry, irreverent tone. I argued and championed D’s right to digress.

Then I read Libby’s post On the Value of Feedback and realised I’d done exactly the same thing to her.

So I wonder – a little flight of fancy does you good? Or keep that story honed, toned and streamlined? Read in order to live, or leaf at random to dream?

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