I finished Neil Gaiman's Fragile Things yesterday. Subtitled "short fictions and wonders," it is indeed. I think Neil Gaiman's short pieces are my favorite of his writing. Of course, The Sandman is first rate, but I'm an old-fashioned prose sort of girl, and the novel I've read (American Gods) was good but not amazing. (Good Omens was much fun, but wasn't a Gaiman solo work, and Coraline is a kids' novel, though it was engrossing and did entirely scare the shit out of me at points.) I read Smoke and Mirrors ("short fictions and illusions") the summer I spent in Italy, doing Commedia and missing home - I read it out of order, starting with the pieces that seemed most interesting, finishing up with the poems (which meant I read one of the best pieces - a haunting retelling of Snow White - last). This time I read straight through in order, the bulk of which is a handful of lines on the provenance of each piece, and I love reading those as much as the stories themselves. I began each story by flipping back to read its segment of introduction. The introduction also has some of the best writing in the book:
As I write this now, it occurs to me that the peculiarity of most things we think of as fragile is how tough they truly are. There were tricks we did with eggs, as children, to show how they were, in reality, tiny load-bearing marble halls...
Stories, like people and butterflies and songbirds' eggs and human hearts and dreams, are also fragile things, made up of nothing stronger or more lasting than twenty-six letters and a handful of punctuation marks. Or they are words on the air, composed of sounds and ideas - abstract, invisible, gone once they've been spoken - and what could be more frail than that? But some stories, small, simple tales of miracles and monsters, have outlasted all the people who told them, and some of them have outlasted the lands in which they were created.
And while I do not believe that any of the stories in this volume will do that, it's nice to collect them together, to find a home for them... I hope you enjoy reading them.
Neil Gaiman's a skilled storyteller, and he also has much love for and interest in the idea of storytelling and its place in the human world. Many of his stories (and larger works) are retellings or reimaginings - Snow White, bits of Narnia, Beowulf, the Bible - and he manages a perfect balance of exploring the ideas of storytelling with the actual telling of stories. Fragile Things ends with a beautiful, sad novella that goes along with (or picks up two years after) his novel, American Gods. It also has to do with Beowulf - Gaiman says it was "influenced by," but the connection is stronger than that. And woven into the story is the idea of history as cycle and story-we-tell and ritual-we-enact, ideas of monsters and the world, of how this thousand-year-old poem is still in the bones of the world, and it's all incredibly beautiful.
So, having finished Fragile Things, it wasn't too much of a leap to go to, finally, reading Beowulf. It's just one of the egregious gaps in my reading education, and this feels like the right time, and like I'm in the right spirit, to fix that omission.now. Of course, I'm reading the megawatt Seamus Heaney translation-- though I just discovered, while trying to remember his name, that Burton Raffel also has a translation (and a Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, which I read in a crap translation, and about eight million other things that I now want to read). I loved his Lancelot and Perceval translations so much in college, energetic, engaging verse that I couldn't put down.
But I'll stick with the Heaney, mostly because I already have it, and everyone loves it, but also because I spent my entire reading of his Beowulf introduction in an intellectual swoon. I never studied Beowulf in college, so all of my understanding of its place in the world is what I've picked up via osmosis or Neil Gaiman. Heaney's introduction is not only beautifully written but deliciously informative, situating and contextualizing the poem and breaking down his translation process. I'm a few pages into the poem proper, but even if it all sucked from here (which it won't) the book would have already been worth it.
(Burton Raffel, maybe I'll entirely geek out for you and read your Das Nibelungenlied. You got me through that Arthurian legends class - I owe you.)