Little, Big (late read-along part 2)

little bigIn my last post on Little, Big, I talked briefly about some of the authors that crowd the pages of the book: Lewis Carroll, A.A. Milne, Giordano Bruno, Kenneth Grahame, George MacDonald, Ovid, and on and on. (Tom at Wuthering Expectations talked about this, too.) In some ways, the novel is like the crazy-quilt that the sisters Tacey, Lily, and Lucy sew together:

The needles they drew through cloth glittered when they pulled them out to the full extension of the thread; each time they pulled them through the threads grew shorter until they were all worked into the fabric, and must be cut, and others slipped through the needles’ eyes. […]

“What a tangle,” Tacey said, and held up for them to see a handful of stuff from her workbox, which a child or a cat had got into: silk thread bright as blood, and black cotton darning-stuff, a hank of sheep-colored wool, a silkpin or two, and a bit of sequined fabric dangling from it all, spinning on a thread-end like a descending spider.

This sewing, or weaving, of allusions is just one of the things that makes Little, Big a story about story. As in Ovid, there are metamorphoses and changes enough for anyone, but the general drift is that lives and people turn not into trees or stars (though that happens, too) but into stories. John Drinkwater can understand the voices of the animals, and he turns their everyday lives into profitable stories for children; we hear one of these stories read aloud. His son Auberon takes the stories of his own family and their neighbors and writes them into scripts for a thriving daytime soap opera called A World Elsewhere. Sophie’s sad, horrible experience with a changeling isn’t presented to us directly, but as a story told by another participant. Charmed Tarot cards fall into one pattern after another — the Least Trumps — telling the small stories and the great, day after day. And at the end, the Drinkwater Mouse Stone Barnable family, and their house that is a door, become a story themselves:

That there was such a house in the world, lit and open and empty, became a story in those days; there were other stories, people were in motion, stories were all they cared to hear, stories were all they believed in, life had got that hard. […]

One by one the bulbs burned out, like long lives come to their expected ends. Then there was a dark house made once of time, made now of weather, and harder to find; impossible to find and not even as easy to dream of as when it was alight. Stories last longer; but only by becoming only stories.

One of the insistent motifs of this book is that there is a Tale being told, and no part of anything that happens can be outside the Tale. But of course the Tale that’s being told is the book we’re holding in our hands, and the house, the door into that world, is also this book, these pages. Story about story about story.

Like all the literature Crowley references, Little, Big is didactic. We are meant to learn something from this book, like Alice repeating “How doth the little crocodile.” What are the lessons we are taught? Let’s see:

What makes us happy makes us wise.

Longing is fatal.

The world is as is is, and not different.

The farther in you go, the bigger it gets.

During the course of the tale, most of the characters work out these lessons in one way or another (certainly if they are not made wise by being happy, they are made foolish by being unhappy.) And since the Tale, as I’ve pointed out, is Little, Big itself, I find that the farther in I go, the bigger it gets. This re-read has convinced me that this book will continue to be dark and deep, beautiful, funny, rewarding, and mysterious, each time I read it. I thank Dolce Bellezza for prompting the read-along (however tardy I was in doing it) and I look forward to another in a few years.

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4 Responses to Little, Big (late read-along part 2)

  1. & those sisters are themselves the Fates or Norns, or will be in the next world. It was amusing, reading Calvino’s Italian Folktales alongside Crowley, randomly coming across folktale motifs and devices – finding the folk tales in Crowley or Crowley in the folk tale, whatever the order might be.

    I finally figured out Crowley’s double-meaning when, at the end, Smoky says the story is behind him. He means the house; Crowley means the book.

    • Jenny says:

      When I read Italian Folktales cover to cover, it was the didactic motifs that interested me there, too: it’s helpful to be beautiful, for instance. Soldiers coming home from wars seldom go unappreciated. Be kind, be generous, be the third son if possible. It’s like that in Greek and Roman myth, too, but it includes the rule never, ever to boast about anything.

  2. I should have persevered, but I gave up this time before I got to the end of the first book. Wrong time for me reading such a deep book.

    • Jenny says:

      Try it again someday. It’s dense — it took me ages to get through it this time — but I do think it’s so well worth it.

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