Tales of metamorphosis are not only ancient, says Ali Shaw, but tap into the deepest recesses of human consciousness. Here he picks ten of his favourite transformations, from Ted Hughes’s Ovid to Roald Dahl’s Royal Jelly
‘My position is a very strange one’ … Frederic March as Dr Jekyll
Ali Shaw was born in 1982 and grew up in a small town in Dorset. Earlier this year he won the Desmond Elliott prize with his first novel, The Girl With Glass Feet, which he has described as “a love story about a woman who is turning into glass”. Here he chooses his top ten stories of transformation.
“Stories about people transforming, often agonisingly, from one shape to another are not just ancient, they’re primal. They occupied the earliest storytellers and continue to occupy us now. While they may be old, they’re by no means primitive. At their best, they’re an expression of a more invisible change: a person’s progression into someone better, or their degeneration into someone worse. Here are 10 of my favourites.”
1. The Violoncello by Dan Rhodes, from Don’t Tell Me the Truth About Love
This is a beautifully paced love story about a student in Vietnam who falls so madly in love with a young violoncellist that he submits himself to a process that will transform him from a human being to a violoncello. The moment when the musician and the newborn instrument are first brought together is masterfully sad and sensual.
2. Tales from Ovid by Ted Hughes
Ovid’s Metamorphoses is one long catalogue of transformations, and Hughes’s retelling pulls no punches, restoring in verb-rich poetry all of the sex and violence inherent in the stories. There’s a shapeshift or mutation on nearly every page, but a favourite of mine is Echo and Narcissus, who turn into the disembodied voice and woodland flower they lend their names to.
3. The Wild Swans by Hans Christian Andersen, from Fairy Tales
This is vintage Andersen, swinging back and forth from optimism to pessimism, light to dark. It concerns the trials of a young girl attempting to reverse the transformation of her brothers into beautiful swans. She’s very nearly successful, but can’t quite dispel the magic in time, leaving her youngest brother forever trapped with a white wing instead of an arm.
4. The Curious Case of Benjamin Button by F Scott Fitzgerald
Populised by the recent film, but very different indeed, Fitzgerald’s original story is funny and economical. It reminds me of that old riddle that asks what goes on four legs in the morning, two legs in the afternoon and three legs in the evening, because it makes infancy and old age look like similar things.
5. The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde by Robert Louis Stevenson
The classic story of a man continuously transforming between good and evil incarnations of himself. It finds time to consider the psychological burden of Jekyll’s condition without slowing down the rip-roaring adventure story at the heart of the book.
6. The Cloven Viscount by Italo Calvino, from Our Ancestors
A dual-nature story following in the tradition of Stevenson. Viscount Medardo is blasted in half on a battlefield, after which the two parts of his body are nursed separately back to life. They both recover and later re-encounter each other, whereupon they learn that they have been transformed from a single Medardo with a conflicting nature into two Medardos, one kind and one spiteful. Can they get along?
7. Metamorphosis by Franz Kafka
The daddy of all transformation stories, and for good reason. The opening sentence is dynamite, and Gregor Samsa’s matter-of-fact handling of his overnight transformation from man to giant insect is as horrifying as the metamorphosis itself. Add to this mix Kafka’s meticulous, paranoid prose and you get one of the greatest bits of writing ever committed to paper.
8. Royal Jelly by Roald Dahl, from Tales of the Unexpected
Roald Dahl was, above all else, a horror writer. In his short stories for adults he throws off the shackles of whatever nominal restraint he was maintaining in his children’s work and really let’s rip. This one is about a man who feeds and then overdoses his new-born baby on a jelly secretion harvested from bees. Almost immediately, the infant begins to transform. You are what you eat, as they say … It will get you looking up the real royal jelly before the end.
9. Hans-My-Hedgehog by the Brothers Grimm, from The Complete Fairy Tales
This fairy story is quite a disturbing affair. Hans is a boy born part-hedgehog, part-man, and grows up into a king of pigs who rides a rooster through the woods, followed by an army of swine. He is a wild beast and not a hero, but, thanks to a flourish of magic at the end of the story, his spiny hide is incinerated and he turns into a man. There are countless other such transformations in fairy tales, but the imagery in this one is distinctive enough to stick.
10. The Tiger’s Bride by Angela Carter, from The Bloody Chamber
Angela Carter ripped away all of the patriarchal rubbish that had saddled fairy tales for centuries and in doing so tapped in to something more raw, more in touch with their dreamy vitality. The Tiger’s Bride could be read as a metaphor for doing just that, but it has much more to offer besides. It’s my favourite from The Bloody Chamber, not just because of the exquisite writing but because of the transformation in which it culminates. As the human narrator changes into a tiger, so too the tiger turns away from his imitation of man. Every sentence oozes atmosphere.
Full article and photo: http://www.guardian.co.uk/books/2010/jul/29/ali-shaw-top-10-transformation