TMO I’m interested in the literary character of fairy tales in literature. If one were to take Pullman’s distinction between the fairy-tale and ‘literature’, can we conclude that fairy tales are less ‘literature’ and more the objects of anthropology?
MW: You can’t really state that they’re not literature. Even though they began in a way carried by voices, they’ve never been exclusively oral- I mean they’ve always been transmitted in a mixed economy of print or manuscript and voice. But the voices of the story tellers change the script which at some point they were in contact with. Think of the pilgrimage routes – very good travelling routes for stories. Or indeed of Ireland, and how the bards and singers of the ballads know the scripts but recite them – I’ve been to some of those gatherings which are performed orally, but the origin and transmission are also often written versions. I think that’s as much of a model rather than a straight stand-off between orature and literature . Then there’s another effect: do you apply aesthetic judgements to the Grimms as literature? I agree with you in that their stories are rather ill-written. Yet their collection is also the most published book in the world after the Bible , translated into more languages than almost any other work, and so they are de facto essential to literature by any definition!
and when the knowledge is taken over into the public arena and open discourse it tends to change character, and acquire a rather moralising instructive character – its pristine honesty tamed in order to educate and mould the young
TMO Sounds like a perfect paradox?
MW: Yes. In many ways it’s also true of the Bible – some of the most famous passages in the Bible, which everyone knows and loves, are very beautiful, but if you just open the Old Testament at random you will come across absolutely unreadable passages – chapters and descriptions of livestock or anathema on somebody or other. There is also a level of incomprehensibility which very much resembles the Grimms – tremendous numbers of stories that we now accept but are in fact intrinsically baffling.
TMO I’d like to come now to your other artistic interests in image and comparative literature. Am I right in saying that you first came across The Arabian Nights via the image?
MW: Yes – I found father’s copy, which had been his grandmother’s. It was a bit too difficult to read when I first encountered it – it’s in tiny print and though the translation is actually expurgated – it’s the prudish Victorian translation by Lane, it hadn’t been edited with children in mind. So although it doesn’t include scenes of uncouth violence or highl eroticism, it is very small print and very long.But it has over 300 illustrations – by William Harvey – and they’re very fascinating. In black and white- but they transfixed me.
TMO Black and white can of course be hugely effective. Rackham’s silhouettes for instance?
MW In my childhood there weren’t so many picture books as there are now. They were rarer. I had a Rackham fairy book too and it really riveted me. Silhouettes where the trees would come alive and the twigs stretch out their fingers with their nails and grab little children passing by – they terrified me!
TMO Would it be fair to say that different images affect the text- depending on who we have been introduced to first?
MW I don’t think that we experience them separately. The academy has forced distinctions between modes of knowledge in terms of their media- especially now with the internet. You’ve probably seen, with your own site,the use of what might be called an ‘iconotext’ – a web page that has integrated visuals and print. That’s how it reaches the reader.
TMO We are also inundated with vast amounts of information that perhaps this lean toward the visual is no accident?
MW Yes- and we are very very quick at learning to read it. I know this because I no longer watch much television. I always have a lot to read, and as a result I don’t really understand advertisements anymore. Billboard advertisements often refer to ongoing or in-jokes, series or catch phrases. I’ll give you an example from way back: an ad with Jamie Oliver saying “very pukka”. I thought “why on earth is this word floating back from the Indian mutiny? What’s it doing with food?” I then discovered that it is one of his catch-phrases. It is of course well-recognised now, but there is a lot of in-speak in the public sphere. The other place where one sees it is if one goes abroad and one understands nothing – even if you know the language. I know French and Italian but when I first arrive in France or Italy or a French-speaking country, I simply don’t understand the phrases and the headlines or the advertisements or anything because they are all full of internal references to on-going streams of images from various parts of the media – not so much text on its own. The ‘incredible shrinking Clegg” – that’s a good example of a very complicated in-joke, because it’s an old fill that’s been remade.
And also, conversely, this kind of complex and witty use of allusion also moves from the cutting edge of the Avant Garde into the mainstream with astonishing speed. A lot of the artists who used to be young have influenced adverts and protest graphics – for example holding up a placard to protest agains the abduction of the children in Nigeria. Michelle Obama has just joined the campaign saying ‘bring back our girls’. This idea of visualising a slogan for the camera and speaking to the camera in that way began with Gillian Wearing’s performance piece – she is the artist who won the Turner prize in 1997 . She understood then something about media now – that you can communicate silently by holding up placards that establish your identity and your desires.
TMO Who then would be your favourite image maker, then, when it comes to illustrating fairy tales?
MW: In the past or now?
MW: Paula Rego. Oddly enough, I saw her yesterday. Paula has been steeped in the fairy tale tradition, which she first came across during her Portuguese and Francophone childhood, having gone to a French lycée in Portugal. She was given a lot of French fairy tales. She came from a fairly well-off household and they had servants, and she’s always said that she learned so much from the people who were looking after her. They told her things and inculcated lots of ideas about families and the roles of men and women in households especially regarding sex. She’s got a very dark imagination, as you probably know, and has done many series of paintings inspired by tales. She wants to do more.
From the past, I really do admire David Hockney’s steel engravings for the Grimms that he did in the late Sixties – they are laconic and inventive and so frightening – like the ogress holding up her spoon just as she is trying to cook Foundling Bird, the hero! I also like Ivan Bilibin, the Russian who made full-colour incredibly tapestried pages with floral borders- very rich and very dense imagery. His work looks a little like those Russian Lacquered boxes. It’s orientalised -it’s part of that central Asian influence on Russian art.
TMO Not unlike the illustrations of Harry Clarke?
MW: The influence of Persia and Persian miniatures on those luxury editions from the invention of colour printing onwards is very rich. I think the English were actually pioneers in that field of book-making, especially Edmund Evans the printer-publisher, who developed a method of making beautiful deluxe editions. Edmund Dulac did a wonderful edition of The Arabian Nights in this style. That is a great added pleasure of the fairy tale – and in film versions too. Angela Carter developed her baroque style in the tradition of French fairy tale, which flowered in the late 17th and early 18th centuries, and coincides with rococo, with pleasure in ornament, flowers, jewels and fabulous fabrics. This all flows into the illustrative tradition and adds to the sensuous eloquence of fairy tale.
TMO Speaking of French influence can you talk about your own preference for the Galland translation of The Arabian Nights?
MW: It’s the more recent French translation that I love above all _ the 2005 edition by Andre Miquel and Jamel Eddine Bensheikh. I think for some reason, French suits the stories very well. English is a more pragmatic language, and there is such a strong Orientalist tradition in the greatest French writers too- such as Mallarmé and Valery. The new translation of The Arabian Nights draws from a marvellous stream of imagery and phrasing. It’s a bit like music – composers learn from one another.