Once a Month Book Club link up over at A Permanent Flux. This month's theme is A book from the year you were born.)
"This is true love - you think this happens every day?"
When selecting a book from the year I was born to write about for this month's Once a Month Book Club, I was spoiled for choice. I was born in June 1973, and shared my birth year with the publication of A Wind in the Door (the second book in Madeleine L'Engle's peerless Wrinkle in Time series); Kurt Vonnegut's Breakfast of Champions; Toni Morrison's Sula; Susan Cooper's The Dark is Rising (my favourite book in one of my favourite series ever); James Herriot's endlessly appealing (well, to the daughter of a vet!) All Things Bright and Beautiful; Anne McCaffrey's wonderful To Ride Pegasus; Ursula LeGuin's classic The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas; and Mary Stewart's The Hollow Hills, the second book in her groundbreaking Arthurian cycle. All of these books are very dear to me, and I have read them all more than once.
So to pick out one only was going to be a challenge, until I saw that a certain book was also published in 1973; a book that, for me, is wrapped up inextricably but wonderfully with the film version; a book that has a voice, a verve, and a pleasure unlike anything else I've ever read. That book is, of course, The Princess Bride.
This book is an unusual one for me in that it is the only book I can recall where I saw (and loved) the film a long time before reading the book. I came to the book with images firmly rooted in my mind, pictures of what the main characters looked like and were like. I saw Robin Wright in my head when I read Buttercup's lines; I heard Mandy Patinkin's inimitable voice as I read of Inigo holding his sword. Happily, this predisposition didn't spoil either book or film for me - rather, it enriched both. I think is a testament to the depth of Goldman's involvement in the film that I found no serious disjunction between the two. The book is wittier, more nuanced, and much more cynical than the film, but the essential thread - the humour, the romance and the derring-do - is absolutely consistent between them.
The Princess Bride, in case you are unfamiliar with the plot, is a story within a story. The author, William Goldman, claims to be abridging a longer history written by an historian of the fictional country of Florin, relating the epic tale of Princess Buttercup and her farmboy, Westley - their love, their travails, their adventures and (of course) their happy ending. Goldman inserts a fictionalised version of himself, and his supposed trials in performing the abridgement, into the story, which provides an oddly appealing whiney omniscient voice over the straight fairytale-esque patter of the main plot.
Despite the importance of Buttercup and Westley, this is an ensemble story, and really, it's the supporting cast that make it such a funny, engaging story (especially in the film). Goldman has a gift for drawing vivid characters: Fezzik the Giant, the repulsive Prince Humperdinck, the evil Count Rugen, my personal favourite character Inigo Montoya, ("Hello! My name is Inigo Montoya. You kill my father. Prepare to die...") the clever (but not clever enough) criminial mastermind Vizzini, and of course the wonderful Miracle Max and his wife, Valerie. In both film and book, these characters get some of the best lines - dead zingers, sharp as a needle and very apt to stay lodged in one's subconscious, then recycled out to form part of the cultural context when a group of late Gen Xers get together. I could not count the number of times the one of my friends, crowing over their impending victory in a game of skill, comes out with Vizzini's immortal dying words: "You fell victim to one of the classic blunders - The most famous of which is "never get involved in a land war in Asia" - but only slightly less well-known is this: "Never go against a Sicilian when death is on the line"!"
However, even though it's often considered to be a sweet, funny, fairly simple romantic adventure, I think the book in particular is much, much more complex (and cleverer) than that. Goldman, by interspersing a non-self purporting to be a self into the text, is able to play around in some very interesting ways with not just "history" and "story", but things like "truth", "persona" and "identity". Goldman slyly invites us to believe that when we are reading his commentary, we are engaging with a reality outside the text, when in fact we are simply approaching a different fictional character, with a different voice, who happens to share a name with the author. I find it quite postmodern in its approach, but entirely without the dreariness and self-importance that often characterises self-consciously pomo work; this is funny, entertaining, often light-hearted, AND casually, skilfully, questioning the nature of self and story and received truth.
For all these reasons I love it, and it is a worthy ambassador for 1973 - carrying the flag for humour and subterfuge, self-deprecation and silliness, romance and risk-taking and storytelling. There are worse years to be born :-)
The Orthodox Church of Heinlein
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