AL Kennedy on story and magic

AL Kennedy has a regular Guardian column in which she writes about fiction, craft and whatever else is on her mind. This week’s is about story and magic, and the long, deep connection between the two:

I took an evening off when I finally made it home and trotted out to see Derren Brown doing the range of excellent things that he does on stage. Now this is slightly because I have an interest in magic (Grandpop gave me a book about Houdini when I was tiny and it all went downhill from there) but it’s much more because I have an interest, of course, in story – in pure story and how powerful it can be. Why was I actually, in fact, reading The Hobbit in my burrow on Sark? Because the best of the children’s stories are so very, very vigorously themselves – they aim to transport, to suspend reality, and they do. They penetrate and delight and return us to ourselves, slightly altered, slightly more than we thought we could be. I read and believed The Hobbit when I was young – it was company and exercise and joy – and reading it again reminds me of the uncomplicated faith I had in books – a faith which is useful to a writer. It also reminds me of the pleasure in the pages. I always hope (despite the filth and misery of which my narratives consist) to write in the spirit of that first enthusiasm and certainty, and to try and pass on something of that fun to the reader – even though I write for adults and even though I’ll never succeed as I’d wish to.

And Mr Brown? Well – more of the same really – except played out in real time, in a very hot, very full theatre. Professionally speaking, Mr Brown is himself a story – like any very fine magician, he doesn’t throw out a succession of tricks, which, however wonderful, would still be just a number of ways of being clever using more or less layered and skullduggerous means. He tells us a story of himself and a story of where and who we are and of what is occurring, and he tells it so well that we believe it – even though we are all grown-ups and we know we should never, ever believe a magician. And, within the right story, magical effects can sit up and shine and become emotionally charged and personally significant and much more deeply and pleasantly misleading. The hand isn’t quicker than the eye – our eyes are really very quick – but the story makes us misinterpret the hand, forget the hand, assist the hand – whatever’s necessary. The story is both an unlooked-for beauty and a lovely misdirection and – along with many other secretive and sneaky elements – it means that, for a while, we can believe in miracles and people who’ve never existed and a range of exhilarating and puzzling and moving possibilities. As an audience member, this makes me jump up and applaud like a happy sea lion. As a writer, this reminds me that the magical fraternity have rather deftly (and typically) pocketed the term thaumaturgy – the working of wonders – for themselves, when really all the arts should have access to it, including the writers and – for goodness’ sake – shouldn’t I be trying to learn from those stories, from those illusions, when I’m in the business of making my own? I would say so.

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