Andrew Zurcher, Twelve Nights. Puffin Books, 2018. 436 pp. ISBN: 978-0141385549. £12.99 hardcover.
On 15 November 2017, Puffin Books, the publisher of Andrew Zurcher’s novel Twelve Nights, tweeted, ‘Like water, so it is also with stories. If we want to get to the start of this one, we have to go up and into the mountain.’ A link took the reader to the first chapter of Twelve Nights, with ‘No Author, No Context, #JustTheWords’. The image in the tweet, similar to the eventual book cover design, included the words ‘A story that will send shivers up your spine whether you are nine or ninety-nine’. Readers were #Intrigued, and on 29 November Puffin ended the mystery by tweeting the author, title and release date of the book.
This is a clever publicity campaign, yes, but it also represents, I suspect, the heartfelt wish of the author that the publishing world were less a set of narrowcast niches and more like the literary marketplace of the time we Spenserians study, when a serious book might be read by a wide range of readers, a time when the presence of fantastic elements did not automatically doom a book to the ghettos of ‘fantasy’, ‘children’s’, or ‘genre’ fiction. Twelve Nights is serious in the way (and often even in the manner) that The Faerie Queene is serious, but the gig was up from the start, because Puffin Books was always already a publisher of children’s books, and everyone knows that adults read children’s literature—if they do—for pleasure or duty, not for edification.
When the book was published, some readers loved it, and some hated it, and the negative reactions to this so very Spenserian novel track precisely the criticisms levelled at Spenser himself over the centuries: the language is too flowery and the fantastic elements are too much. One ‘Green Jazz Blues’ complains on Goodreads that ‘If the story were written in Shakespeare’s time, I could excuse its oddity because of the time he lived in but this author is in our time and the story is supposed to be in our time so the whole work is a gross anachronism’. Flowery, archaic language? Fantasy locations and fantastic beings that coexist with the map and reality that we know? Treating ancient myths as vitally important to everyday life? Check, check and check: Spenser scholars will recognise how thoroughly Spenser’s method informs each page of this work, but Zurcher has his own ideological project in mind.
And what is that? Something like what C. S. Lewis does in the Narnia series for Christianity or what Philip Pullman does in the His Dark Materials series for humanism, but for the religion of stories—a faith that I share with the readers of Spenser Review, whatever other confessional debts we may owe elsewhere. As in those other books, children on what at first appears to be a personal quest—in this case the journey of Kay and Ell to find their father, who has been ‘removed’ on Christmas Eve not only in body but in every trace that he ever existed, by Removers, wraiths Will O. de Wisp and Philip R. T. Gibbet—discover along the way the epic significance of their journey. Zurcher’s project is no more and no less than to move his reader to perceive how stories are the life of human being and human knowing: ‘For which poet, which teller of stories, is not also a healer? Which ballad-maker is not likewise a priest, who in laying on the hands of a parable brings the dead again to life?’ (431-32).
He does this, not surprisingly, through allegory: allegories of stories, of allegories and of the world we live in. The Honourable Society of Wraiths and Phantasms for millennia created stories through the productive tension between ‘plotters’ and ‘imaginers’ by means of an annual ‘Weave’, where the First Wraith sat at a loom and wove a tapestry that brought together the warp and weft of the plotters and imaginers in the story that developed from their assembly. But the Weaves ended three hundred years ago, with the ascent to power of the wraith Ghast, a squat, ugly and cruel wraith (with small hands: ‘knotted stubs of hands’ (64)) with no talent for making stories, whose rise became possible when the world came to care less about stories, at which point ‘all he required to differentiate himself from and … to prefer himself to the world was his pure ambition. The hunger alone would set him apart’ (427).
With the end of the Weaves, however, story-making did not end. Plotters continue to do their work on ‘plotting boards’, smooth boards with stones that move about in patterns, which the plotters use ‘to reduce to its simplest elements any story, any situation, any narrative, so that we can see its structure and understand … . we just look at the shapes of stories and try to understand the way those shapes work. It’s about probabilities, patterns, habits, the way things tend to fall out’ (60-61). The plotting boards create simplified plots and situations, but allegoresis involves projection, and sometimes there are multiple possibilities, as Kay learns when she offers a tentative interpretation of the motions she has seen on Will’s plotting board. He tells her: ‘There are many ways of seeing any particular movement. And there are many others, of course—countless others… . There are as many interpretations of that structure as you have time to evolve them; but I told you it was Ghast, and so you saw Ghast’ (61). Here Will engages in the classic denials that allegorists have used for cover for centuries; in fact, this reader saw Ghast in the plotting board’s motions well before Will mentioned his name.
Although plotting wraiths have continued to be of use under Ghast’s command (as Removers, for example), imaginers have fared less well. The most important imaginer, Phantastes, hides out in Alexandria, and it is he who offers the most compelling and poetic allegory of allegories in the novel, sitting with Kay in the pre-dawn darkness by the pier of Patras, in Greece: ‘“Sometimes the most compelling images are not the colourful images … but the ones that conceal them. Look at this canvas of black—black-black, blue-black, green-black, star-black, sea-black, cloud-black, tree-black, mountain-black. We know these things are there, that they will shortly awaken, but for now they linger in different qualities of darkness, intense and potent… . What you see beyond the harbour now is a much more powerful thing. I look out on this water and see expectation, promise, as great a significance as I have witnessed… . for me—the image, cloudily wrapped in all its potential meaning, the exalted mist of the present—” He broke off’ (233-34). Much later, looking into darkness out of a train window, Kay thinks again about the meaning of darkness-wrapped images: ‘the skies full of stars, the mountain slopes and peaks seemed to hang richly inaccessible and constant, shrouded in darkness like—she fumbled—like riddles, mysteries, things that were difficult but true’ (337)—that is, like allegories.
The most refreshingly new thing in this book that feels so familiarly Spenserian is the way that Zurcher works against the black-and-white characterisation typical of allegories. Although it is possible to see almost all the characters as personifications, abstractions, representations-of-an-idea at one point or another, each has a bigger and more complicated being than the consistency of a personification. Betrayal, change and the hiddenness of others’ true motives are recurring themes, with three characters changing from apparent friend to apparent foe and back to friend over the course of the novel. By the end, Kay’s efforts to understand loyalty and betrayal lead her to think of some wraiths as betraying themselves, not her or her friends, when they cheer for Ghast. The effort to distinguish friend from foe exhausts Kay: ‘She sat dumb and unmoving—betrayed, reprieved, betrayed again, reprieved again, uncertain whether to collapse in defeat or throw back her shoulders in triumph’ (421). Zurcher does not resolve the tension; unlike Spenser’s personifications, but like persons, these characters cannot be easily classified, and the plot demonstrates an overarching message regarding friendship: ‘To accuse a friend is to forgive him’ (243). To accuse maintains communication, and to accuse implies a willingness to listen to a defense—for these story-tellers, silence is the ultimate and lasting betrayal. Even Ghast is exposed as not evil but small, small in his desire to mechanise story-creation so that his own weaknesses of imagination and creativity will no longer be visible: ‘a greed born of despair that would rather kill the thing it covets than suffer others to enjoy it’ (430). Thus, this allegorical tale offers a different moral universe than readers are accustomed to find in allegories such as Spenser’s, where the moral complexity and ambiguity diminish the farther one moves from the titular knights.
Spenserian Easter eggs abound. I, whose email address has included ‘anamnestes’ for over two decades, yelped with glee when, several pages after Phantastes introduces Kay to Eumnestes in a tower room straight from the Castle of Alma, Anamnestes appears, ‘a lithe, athletic and very serious boy pushing a large crate down the hallway’ (190). Other Spenser Review readers may thrill with delight at Zurcher’s creative reworking of Spenser’s Garden of Adonis in the garden of the House of the Two Modes, where Ontos, the personification of the mode of pure being, moves with the motions of the wraiths who wander the garden as a huge, organic plotting board.
Because of the moment I live in, I saw Donald Trump in the angry little wraith whose emptiness and self-loathing lead him to aspire to kingship, who uses ‘lies, … false stories, alternative histories’ to vanquish his enemies (87), but Zurcher avoids topical references and indeed works against a feeling of contemporaneity by creating a storyworld without cell phones or laptops. Kay and Ell’s professor father, who works late into the night on his academic projects, writes by hand in a notebook instead of typing on a computer. Ell plays with jacks, and Kay spends Christmas Eve amusing herself by keeping one eye shut—there is not a video game or tablet in sight. And yet, the time must be now, because Phantastes speaks to Kay of ‘this age of children, … this time of children who have lost the oldest art, who cannot sit, who cannot close their eyes, who cannot for even a moment surrender their too-cherished selves’ (166). Ghast defends his choice to end the Weaves by arguing that ‘around us, too, the world has changed. Who sits by the fire to drink up the words of the poet? Who pores by weak candlelight over the heavy volumes of the old tales? When was the saga last sung? Who toils through the vedas? … These are the lost preoccupations of lesser ages and the dreams of vanished nights. Who knows them now? Scholars! … . Scholars who would sooner own a story than honour it, who would sooner scorn a tale than have skill in it’ (414). The moment is now, but the setting is as timeless as Zurcher can make it while still maintaining the sharpness of the message he has for this particular moment: ‘Sometimes there are truths and comforts and ways in stories that are not so apparent outside stories. Sometimes stories are answers, or make answers possible. Sometimes they are the mothers of answers’ (94). If we continue to fail in our commitment to this oldest art, and to fail our children by educating them to read expository and technical writing at the expense of poetry and fiction, we will lose not just a way of being, but a way of knowing as well.
Rachel E. Hile
Purdue University Fort Wayne