05 June 2006

E. Nesbit: magical realism before its time

In a discussion of "magic(al) realism" on an email list in March and more recently in another on Child_Lit, I opined that all the traits that define that literary style (aside from continental origin) can be found in E. Nesbit's short story "The Deliverers of Their Country", published in 1899. [Actually, I called that story "The Saviours of Their Country," so proud that I'd spelled the second word in the English way. Oh, well.]

On Child_Lit Leda Schubert posted one definition of "magic realism," from Herbert Kohl's From Archetype to Zeitgeist (1992):

Magic realism is the name given to a style of writing that has emerged in fiction written over the past twenty-five years in Central and South America [i.e., since 1967]. The style is characterized by a jarring juxtaposition of magical and strange occurrences described in ordinary and detailed descriptive language. Magic realism does not try to make the strange seem special or mystical, but rather matter-of-fact and part of everyday reality. The Colombian Gabriel Garcia Marquez (1928-), one of the leading creators of this style, once said in an interview that attention to the concrete details of the magical event created the belief in magic as ordinary and within the world that is essential to this style. He gave an example of elephants flying through the sky, and said that one wrote that there were twenty-two elephants flying by instead of merely that there were elephants flying by, because that detail infused the magic with enough reality to draw the reader in.
Obviously Nesbit wrote in England about a hundred years ago, and not in Latin America forty years ago. But otherwise, how does her story meet this definition's main criterion of making the strange seem "matter-of-fact and part of everyday reality" through "attention to the concrete details"?
It all began with Effie's getting something in her eye. It hurt very much indeed, and it felt something like a red-hot spark--only it seemed to have legs as well, and wings like a fly. Effie rubbed and cried--not real crying, but the kind your eye does all by itself without your being miserable inside your mind--and then she went to her father to have the thing in her eye taken out. Effie's father was a doctor, so of course he knew how to take things out of eyes; he did it very cleverly with a soft paintbrush dipped in castor-oil. When he had got the thing out, he said:--

"This is very curious." Effie had often got things in her eye before, and her father had always seemed to think it was natural--rather tiresome and naughty perhaps, but still natural. He had never before thought it curious. She stood holding her handkerchief to her eye, and said:--

"I don't believe it's out." People always say this when they have had something in their eyes.

"Oh, yes--it's out," said the doctor--"here it is on the brush. This is very interesting."

Effie had never heard her father say that about anything that she had any share in. She said "What!"

The doctor carried the brush very carefully across the room, and held the point of it under his microscope--then he twisted the brass screws of the microscope, and looked through the top with one eye.

"Dear me," he said. "Dear, dear me! Four well-developed limbs; a long caudal appendage; five toes, unequal in length, almost like one of the Lacertidae, yet there are traces of wings." The creature under his eye wriggled a little in the castor-oil, and he went on: "Yes; a bat-like wing. A new specimen, undoubtedly. Effie, run round to the professor and ask him to be kind enough to step in for a few minutes."

"You might give me sixpence, daddy," said Effie, "because I did bring you the new specimen. I took great care of it inside my eye; and my eye does hurt."
Lots of matter-of-fact, concrete detail about what turns out to be a dragon. Enjoy the rest of the story here, or check out the Lisbeth Zwerger picture book.

No comments: