Donna Tartt: On Barrie and Stevenson

Written for the Blue Issue The Fairy Tale Review, Donna Tartt’s essay explores the love for books that “one of the great love affairs of [her] life” was focused on: her relationship with her great-grandmother.

I spent a good deal of time with my great-grandmother when I was very small, as had my mother before me. She adored children, and at that time I was the only child in the family, and the fortunate recipient of her undivided attention. Our relationship still stands as one of the great love affairs of my life. I could not bear to be out of her sight, and wept when she left the room; when we said goodbye to each other on the street, before I turned the corner (we lived only a few houses apart) we would call and wave to each other as frantically as if we were being parted by the Atlantic Ocean. Like lovers, we constantly contrived in secret for excuses to spend time together, and (like Paolo and Francesca) our most constant excuse was books. I marvel now at the way she used to read to me—eight hours at a stretch sometimes, whole books in a day, her voice growing hoarse as the shadows lengthened and the room darkened and I sat alongside her in her bedroom listening to her every syllable with desperate attention, dreading the ring of the telephone in the next room (which of course would be my mother, to summon me home to dinner). We read everything—good books, bad books, strange old fashioned books from her own childhood, many of them long out of print, (Billy Whiskers, Little Prudy, Peck’s Bad Boy) as well as more modern books which my great Aunt Frances—head librarian at the town library—ordered in hardcover for me from the publishing companies. (I remember particularly my great-grandmother’s delight in Chitty Chitty Bang-Bang, which was as new to her as it was to me, and in True Grit by Charles Portis).

But a few books we loved especially, and read doggedly again and again, almost as if they were religious texts, and chief among these was Peter Pan. Did I love it so because of the mysterious Scottishness that colored her voice as she read? Because she herself was of Wendy Darling’s generation, and because the book made tangible and comprehensible to me somehow her own lost girlhood? Or because we ourselves—so passionately close—had crosssed paths in time so very strangely: she like Wendy at the end of the book, bent in the back and with white in her hair, and me still a child? (In my edition of Peter Pan, there is a line drawing of Peter standing in the firelit nursery regarding Wendy, who is no longer a child like himself, but an old lady: it might almost be my great-grandmother and me, drawn from the life). I suppose in the end Peter Pan was such an important book to us both because it is ultimately such a dark book, about change, loss, aging, mortality, death: the very questions that hung so heavy between us. She was in her eighties; our days together were short and we knew it, which was why our every goodbye on the corner of Levee Street held within it the vertiginous terror of permanent separation. And when she did actually die I refused—fierce sunburnt little pagan that I was—to direct any prayers Heavenward on her behalf: instead, at her funeral, I silently beseeched Peter, small fitful god of our household religion, to go with her part of the way so that she would not be frightened.

The full text can be found here, on page 66. Enjoy!

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