Last December​ , in Russia for the first time, I saw a small panel painting in the Hermitage showing The Vision of St Augustine: the saint, in full episcopal fig, is sitting on a riverbank near a child who is scooping up water with a spoon and pouring it into a hole in the sand. According to the story, which is usually set on a beach, the saint is asking the little boy what he thinks he’s up to; to which the child replies that he’s trying to empty the sea into the hole. When the saint points out this can’t be done, the child – who reveals himself to be Jesus – ribs him, saying that he, Augustine, is trying something equally intractable and absurd when he tries to comprehend, with his little brain, the mystery of the Trinity. The nuns at my school liked telling stories of this kind, and they shaped my own love of legends and fairy stories and myths. This one is an exemplum, a parable, an anecdote, a bit of hagiography. It’s a ‘likely story’, too, if you stop to think about it.

The artist is Filippo Lippi, and I first came across him in Browning’s rather steamy poem ‘Fra Lippo Lippi’. The Italy of painting and poetry was Italy for me, although my mother was Italian, and we went to her home town, Bari, for the odd summer. But even after I came to know the country I saw it through my Kulturbrille, the lenses reading had provided me with. Literature acts as a map, which connects us ethereally and virtually, provides compass points, crossing national boundaries and often leaping over ethnic and cultural divides. Augustine was a Roman citizen of North Africa (a fellow Maghrebian, Derrida would remind his readers), who was born in the Sahara in an oasis town, before moving to the coast and crossing the Mediterranean, a less patrolled thoroughfare then than today’s bitter cemetery. It is assumed the Bishop of Hippo was white, but it seems a bit unlikely, given his birthplace. The Christ child whom he saw labouring to drain the sea appeared to him on the beach at Civitavecchia near Rome, the port where Stendhal was the French consul 14 centuries later. The story lives on in local memory and is marked by a monument on the beach near an ugly, modern church where the Madonna wept tears of blood for the world in the 1990s.

Augustine, for all the dark and dismal reverberations of his moral theology, can’t be exiled from the territory of literature: whatever you think of him, his Confessions inaugurate auto-fiction in Europe. Ecstatic anguished visions mark his life, his ferocious changes of mind, and his conversion, above all. But this particular vision is not in the Confessions, it turns out. Several citations on the web give The Golden Legend, that 13th-century anthology of feast days behind so many Renaissance paintings, but it is not to be found in my edition (which claims to be complete). An alternative authority suggests St Cyril of Alexandria, the notorious fanatic who stirred up a lynch mob against Hypatia, but in an apocryphal letter only. I was embarked on a paper chase in a strong breeze and so far, the trail has scattered.

It reveals something about the autonomy of stories as artefacts and the delta of literature they course through that I couldn’t find an origin. Like Hamlet, Frankenstein’s creature or Jane Eyre, the persona of Augustine has a life of his own: such figures are figments that become autonomous beings, acting in further conversations between pieces of literature and imagination. ‘The tendency to weave stories where evidence is missing is the human brain’s sustaining feature,’ Nathan Heller warned in a recent issue of the New Yorker, ‘precipitating heroic action, senseless love and mindless hate.’ We are inheritors of worlds that acts of literary imagination have made, often without realising it. The story the Lippi painting tells was remembered and believed and it travelled – it transmigrated, not only with pictures as its vehicle – and you don’t need to have read it to experience it 600 years after it was painted and 1600 years after it supposedly happened to Augustine. Nor do you need to be in St Petersburg to see the picture; you can Google it on your phone.

I was in Russia because the British Council had invited a large group of writers to the Moscow Book Fair, and there is one other thread I want to unspool from my brief encounter with a very old fable about the limits of knowledge: I believe strongly in the British Council’s international work, yet what is called ‘soft power’ – at a time of dramatic tensions with the Kremlin – excites equivocal feelings in me. Even so, this cultural policy clearly provides writers and readers with a powerful weapon to use to get support for literature from governments that have no interest in directly supporting books and libraries, or teaching foreign languages, and which belittle the humanities in general, as well as hobbling the brilliant tradition of public broadcasting. In such a climate, what are the arguments, besides demonstrations of democratic freedoms – of debate, plurality, dissent – for imaginative writing?

It isn’t just saints and visionaries who have dreams and relate them as if they were real events – in a literary sense, as well as a psychological sense, they are real events. Recent findings in the field of cognitive studies tend to show the ways in which thought is interwoven with reality. Memoria and fantasia used to be considered distinct faculties and were assigned to separate chambers of the mind, but it seems the same synapses fire whether you are remembering something that happened to you, recalling something you saw on the news, or inventing it from scratch. The speculative mind generates experience – imagined experience. ‘As if’ is wishful and, sometimes, wistful, but it is a hope.

Terence Cave’s recent book Thinking with Literature argues powerfully that literature and storytelling are capacities of intellect and memory:

Human cognition is alert, attentive, responsive. Above all, it is imaginative: it can think beyond the constraints of immediate experience, do strange things with words, conjure up futures and histories of all kinds, bring to life people who never existed and invent for them plausible stories and environments. Despite the tangible evidence that this is so, the word ‘cognition’ has traditionally been used to refer to the rational knowledge-seeking processes of the mind as opposed to other modes of engagement with the world.

The capacity to make things up is a way of thinking. In Invisible Cities, Italo Calvino says he scrutinises the darkness so he can pick out the pinpricks of light – potential fields of inquiry. Echoing this, Mahmoud Darwish once said that ‘a poem is a throw of dice on a patch of darkness.’ Rebecca Elson, an astronomer who was also a poet, offers this beautiful, precise variation on the theme in a notebook draft called ‘Explaining Dark Matter’: ‘As if, from fireflies one could infer the field.’

The active imagination in literature looks forward as much as it looks backwards, often in a manoeuvre to forestall the worst. Writers keep asking, what might happen? The opening of Beckett’s Malone Dies expresses this stratagem most perfectly, being bleak and comical at the same time: ‘I shall soon be quite dead at last in spite of all.’ It’s striking, as always with Beckett, how the verbal architecture is so exact, adverbs and conjunctions driven in like pilings keeping a building in place, around the simple universal truth, our shared sentence: ‘I shall be dead.’ The poet A.E. Stallings faces up to the unknown in a more tender voice in ‘Another Bedtime Story’:

The tales that start with once and end with ever after,
All, all of the stories are about going to bed,

About coming to terms with the night, alleviating the dread
Of laying the body down, of lying under a cover.

Coming to terms with the night, Stallings writes, is what the storytellers are trying to do. It’s easy to think that retrospection dominates literature, but the future tense and the prospect of what lies ahead preoccupies many writers today, and this mode of dread and clairvoyance increasingly puzzles over ethical questions. Identification and rejection are aroused within a spectrum of values that are shared, and literature matters, again, because sympathy and laughter spring from ideas held in common. Books shape those ideas in the first place and then reinforce them – or undermine them for a group. Think of the way the memoir was deployed in Abolition campaigns: men and women told their stories to change opinion and rouse the public to reject a major source of economic profit.

Think, too, of what has happened since Proust wrote the amazing erotic scene between Jupien and the Baron de Charlus. Proust’s metaphors of the bumblebee and the orchid, following on from an allusion to birds fluffing up their feathers, shift through phases of feeling, as the narrator observes and tracks his own responses to the spontaneous attraction and the consequent behaviour he sees. These subtle passages register voyeuristic astonishment – fascination, repulsion – before opening out into a searching and committed inquiry into the reality of the encounter, and its meaning for the two men he is spying on. The scene takes us into Proust’s understanding, and opened my eyes to what can go on between two men of different ages and class and character:

At that self same instant that M. de Charlus passed through the gateway whistling like a fat bumblebee, another one, a real one this time, entered the courtyard. Who knows whether it was not the one so long awaited by the orchid, that had come to bring her the rare pollen without which she would remain a virgin? But I was distracted from following the insect’s frolics, for, a minute or two later, Jupien … returned, followed by the Baron. The latter, resolved to precipitate matters, asked the waistcoat-maker for a light, but immediately remarked: ‘I’m asking you for a light, but I see I’ve forgotten my cigars.’ The laws of hospitality prevailed over the laws of flirtation. ‘Come inside, you’ll be given everything you want,’ said the waistcoat-maker, on whose face disdain gave way to joy.

For me the scene is deeply intertwined with the ending of persecution for homosexual acts. That may seem a leap, and it is not a point about empathy, or not only. Proust was extremely aware of the boldness of his material, and of the danger he was running regarding the obscenity laws and obloquy in his own social circles. John Sturrock, whose translation this is, points out in his introduction how the First World War had helped lighten persecution and, in turn, gave breathing space to Proust’s quest, not for lost time, but for revealing human complexity. Proust had very mixed-up feelings about his own homosexuality, but it is the mixed-upness that stimulates the reader’s active imagination, that takes me beyond my personal experience, as the novel stages this scene of peeping and observation and sets multiple emotional reverberations running. ‘Vice (I put it thus for the sake of linguistic convenience),’ the narrator says, ‘each person’s vice accompanies him in the same fashion as the genie who was invisible to men for as long as they were unaware of his presence. Kindness, double-dealing, reputation, our social relations do not let themselves be discovered, we carry them concealed.’ Recognition – that some people feel these feelings and do this or that – helps opens the mind, and overcome prejudice, exclusion and punishment. To adapt Hannah Arendt’s view that ‘stories are a form of action, the way we become historical,’ I would say stories are a way of becoming social, of becoming visible to one another. But you can’t embark on this process on purpose; Proust wasn’t imagining the scene because he wanted to change public opinion.

I recently learned that in Arabic, the root of the verb for ‘watering’ – raawa – is the same as for ‘storytelling’ – a storyteller is a raawi. Narration is irrigation. I like the suggestion here that literature is a watershed, carrying its figments on many currents, into many aquifers and wells, because the humanities have been coming under attack: we’re told that they’re not useful, that literary studies and practice are idle and luxurious irrelevances in a modern society driving towards economic growth. The riposte to this is: narratives foster growth, quench thirst, and they make their way like flowing water, unstoppably. Acts of literary imagination belong to readers and listeners; the author doesn’t control the work’s reception or its future meanings. Stories play a part in defining the public sphere, and the shared values of a group. This is not to forget that challenging received ideas will have consequences. The reception of a work of literature, a poem, play, novel, biography, essay, or any other form of literature, can be dangerous and horrible for the author, in the many countries where the state keeps a close watch.

If books and their many kin – on stage and on airwaves – are to live as places of exchange, where thoughts and ideas and feelings build a common ground, they need to make geographical and linguistic journeys, to migrate and cross-pollinate. A.L. Kennedy said last year that if Theresa May thinks that ‘to be a citizen of the world is to be a citizen of Nowhere,’ then Nowhere was the country, the world, to which she was proud to belong. The place of literature is a country of the mind – ‘a country of words’, in Darwish’s phrase. The country of words is a storehouse of old stories – Babylonian, Indian, Greek, Arabic, Latin. The strokes of historical fortune have landed us, here in the UK, in an inestimable position, with an international language.

With the historic complacency of having the leading world language for a mother tongue, we lag behind many other countries in translating. But numbers are not the only indicator. The ways English expression is changing reflect the flourishing throng of writers using it who are in one way or another not from England. This isn’t the start of something, but a development: there has been a marvellous chorale of voices from five continents for decades. New Englishes are instruments to make a new music. For some writers, the new language beats out a no man’s land of English without echoes of the King James Bible or connections to imperial dreams. It’s the imaginative transformation of the liquid capital of English as a world language in an epoch of dislocation. For others, cosmopolitanism has returned as a form of resistance to the dangers of populist nationalism, and it brings interest in other literatures. The translator Mireille Gansel called her memoir Translation as Transhumance. The word refers to the annual migration of nomadic people, when they take their flocks in the spring to new pastures after wintering in the shelter of the valleys. The prefix ‘trans’ captures the experience of indeterminacy of many younger people, their rejection of fixity and concerns with fluidity.

Tim Parks, a translator as well as a writer of fiction, says in The Novel: A Survival Skill that ‘we involve ourselves in ongoing relationships with writers and position ourselves in relation to them and the kind of stories they tell, much as we position ourselves in relation to the people we meet and know. Writing and reading are part of the immensely complex business of being ourselves.’ He draws on the practice of Valeria Ugazio, an Italian psychotherapist whose work focuses on interactions and interdependency between her patients in the light of ‘permitted and forbidden stories’. While Freud turned to myth and to peculiar uncanny tales, she finds illumination in the modern novel, quoting from D.H. Lawrence, Thomas Hardy and Ford Madox Ford.

Meanings for each of us are knotted into the meanings that others find in this novel or that play – a common wealth of thought unimpeded by linguistic borders. Shared stories – from the tragedies of ancient Greece to nursery standards like Bluebeard – are building blocks of this polis (Arendt’s preferred term): in her intricate and playful novel Mr Fox, Helen Oyeyemi uses an English variant of the Bluebeard fairy tale to examine sexual conflict.

I don’t think I’ve ever read a book that I never spoke of to anyone, a work that has not become for me a matter for communication – whether to enthuse about it or express disgust, to write about it or give it to a friend to read so we can talk about it later. Apart from exchanges between ourselves and books, there’s a rise in literary assemblies, where the conversation can go on among strangers as well as friends. Some literary forms need solitude, when making them or reading them. But drama, radio scripts and, increasingly, writing for digital platforms are ways of being social, and oral modes of conveying literature are growing more and more popular: talking books, spoken word events, writers making appearances to talk and read.

Literature isn’t only for the literary-minded or an educated elite. It doesn’t even always need to be read by individuals to be active and influential: because it travels in objects – and in proliferating media, where the original work will be present, like gravity in air, imponderable but active. A director will bring her imagination, formed by her own reading, to the production of a play, which has been created by a playwright after he has read a novel, a work of history, a psychoanalytic case study, a newspaper snippet, a court record, a debt collector’s account book. Literature is a spreading ecosystem, with many tributaries and streams flowing in and then dividing and wandering elsewhere.

In California, there is a longstanding, highly active group of artists and thinkers called the Metabolic Studio. Their axiom is: ‘Artists need to create at the same scale that society has the capacity to destroy.’ Perhaps we might all adopt this as our slogan. ‘The desire for justice is also normal within a global tradition of storytelling that’s much larger than realism,’ Bruce Robbins has argued. ‘Narrative as such poses the broader question of what circle of readers can recognise themselves at any given moment as a political collectivity or community of fate, whether in any given narrative enough guests have been invited.’ The concept of ‘communities of fate’ defines a possibility of imaginative co-existence, a way of dwelling in fractured space and interrupted time. Robbins continues:

But I would also like to think that there exists a narrative, or a possibility of narrative, within ‘world literature’, a narrative in which the emergence of the category of ‘world literature’ would constitute a significant event. Contemplating a seemingly endless series of atrocities receding into the depths of time, atrocities that no longer seem easily divided between modern and ancient, it may seem that meaningful history has become impossible and that literature itself, taken as existing outside of time, is the best refuge from the centuries and centuries and centuries of meaninglessness.

‘In books lies the soul of the whole Past Time,’ Thomas Carlyle wrote, ‘the articulate audible voice of the Past, when the body and material substance of it has altogether vanished like a dream.’ And it is the case that literature carries the only memories of the past that can be fully intelligible narratives: archaeology, art, coins, legal documents and individual live witnesses offer rich evidence, but the record contained by literary works is unsurpassable – revenants speaking directly to us.

A few years ago, Margaret Atwood said that much of the business of writing engages writers in ‘negotiating with the dead’. The historians whose records of the past we remember and can relive in memory are usually storytellers above all: starting with Herodotus. For many of us, Hilary Mantel’s Tudors are the Tudors we know. Imaginative forms of the past become moulds that in turn press out the shape of things to come. In Nicole Krauss’s recent novel Forest Dark, the protagonist, also called Nicole, is in Tel Aviv, where she has met an old Israeli, a mysterious, dishevelled sage:

‘We were speaking about writing,’ Friedman said … ‘Some of us here never forgot its value. That the reason we continue to live on this contested scrap of land today is because of the story we began to write about ourselves in this place nearly three millennia ago … we didn’t invent the idea of a single God; we only wrote a story of our struggle to remain true to Him and in doing so we invented ourselves. We gave ourselves a past and inscribed ourselves into the future.’

Building the country of words involves competing stories and memories – we are going through fierce contests now, not least in the current struggle over statues and legacies. The maps of cities carry, almost unconsciously, an account of the past, as Walter Benjamin said, and he has numerous progeny now in his quest for unearthing the layers of meaning in the streets: Rebecca Solnit has compiled atlases that are albums cum maps of personal experiences in San Francisco, New Orleans and New York. Literary imagination here reconfigures the territory by reviving memories of this site or that. Robert Macfarlane has pointed out that the verb ‘to write’

refers, via the old English Writan, to a kind of incisive track-making. Thus one would originally ‘write’ by drawing a point across a surface of wood, stone or earth: by furrowing a track. In these ways, walkers can be thought of as writers, laying a marked trail on the ground in the form of paths, just as writers can be thought of as walkers, laying a marked trail on the page in the form of print.

One trail may overlay another; or it might revive another that has been lost – a kind of secret garden. Literature’s memory work entails choices of figure and ground: what emerges, what recedes. Invention is important; forgetting too.

Kazuo Ishiguro’s novel The Buried Giant is set in ancient Britain, among dragons and ogres and pixies, with characters from the legends of King Arthur (if some critics found it too Tolkienesque, that’s because, like Tolkien, it draws on Anglo-Saxon literature). A dragon, Querig, has wreathed the country in a miasma of oblivion, and an ageing couple, Axl and Beatrice, are vague, suffering from loss of memory about important things in their lives – their own son, for example – and troubled by holes in their pasts. Towards the close, Axl says to Beatrice:

You and I longed for Querig’s end, thinking only of our own dear memories. Yet who knows what old hatreds will loosen across the land now? We must hope God yet finds a way to preserve the bonds between our peoples, yet custom and suspicion have always divided us. Who knows what will come when quick-tongued men make ancient grievances rhyme with fresh desire for land and conquest?

‘How right to fear it, sir,’ another character says. ‘The giant, once well buried, now stirs.’ A dismal, blood-soaked prophecy follows, a litany of horrors of civil tension and destruction. Ishiguro probes, with sensitive fingers, the balance between the offence of forgetfulness and the pain of memory.

Writers have long perceived the power of words to shape experience, and have responded to the intrinsic ambivalence of this power, creating works in different genres that take that power to the limits and then reveal its dangers: The True History by Lucian of Samosata (second century ad), is a delightful, exuberant concoction which, as its name implies, explodes its own claims with exuberant wit, dreaming up shenanigans, some of which, like the voyage to the moon, have come about, though not in the manner Lucian describes. Then fast-forward to the 16th century, and the cycle of 72 tales, under the overall title of The Heptaméron, which have been attributed to Marguerite de Navarre, the sister of King François I of France: in the introduction, the author mischievously claims that Boccaccio has entertained them all with his wonderful far-fetched farragoes, but hers will all be entirely true, every word. ‘Each of us,’ she says, ‘will tell a story which he or she has either witnessed himself, or heard from somebody worthy of belief.’ The group consists of recognisable historical personae, and the stories, featuring despairing unrequited lovers, gleeful adultery, rapist princes and priests do indeed depict experiences from real life. But they are also raunchy, hyperbolic, dotted with sorcerers and wild coincidences, and belong to dominant literary tradition about the wiles of women, bed tricks, the debauchery of princes, the depravity of clergy, and the need for magnanimity on the part of the powerful. Exaggeration, irony, shared confidences and insights: all play their part in the pleasure that Marguerite’s stories give.

Fairy tales often undercut their own dreams with a sprightly rebelliousness; the cunning and high spirits which buoy these tales of violence and horror often turn against their claims to happiness: after the stock happy ending, the storyteller comments drily on the unlikelihood of it all. ‘As for them, they stayed happy and content,’ goes one of the traditional endings from Sicily. ‘As for us, we sit here picking our teeth.’ (‘Loro rimasero felici e contenti,/E noialtri qua a sfregarci i denti.’)

The internet has changed the world of literature just as it has changed everything, but the internet is a vehicle, and the metaphors of the ‘net’ and the ‘web’ are themselves misleading, because the digital communications system is more precisely a loom, a tool whose processes produce a myriad forms, and weave varieties of fabric – and fabrication. As Nathan Heller wrote in his New Yorker piece, ‘the urgent project at the moment isn’t adding more information to the cultural file. It is understanding how meaning is produced, how stories wrought from narrow data samples seed and grow in the public imagination.’ The web has given us some valuable, imaginative and truly vigorous publishing platforms, which can weave writing with sound and images too. This hasn’t undercut published literature as was feared: more books are being published, and small presses continue to be bold and more bold, in spite of cuts to funding and the decline in independent bookshops. The level of engagement with making literature reveals how much it matters to so many.

I have found that teaching creative writing, something many of us do to make money to be able to write, can be most instructive when it passes on ways of reading, especially ways of listening for irony. It offers a precise tuning fork for the designs a story has on you. The thinking imagination, alert to stories which wish to illuminate as well as those that distort and mislead, practises what Terence Cave calls ‘epistemic vigilance’.

After John Ashbery died in September, his publisher in the UK, Michael Schmidt, wrote: ‘Now that the life is done the work will go on shaping and reshaping language and the ways it makes various worlds real.’ Ashbery’s poetry tracks experiences – the more inconsequential the better – and in sequences of half-seen, half-heard sensory perceptions, he transfigures the banal:

Somebody sends you a bill.
At first you want to laugh. Who said
that everything was going to be a thrill?
Just leave it. The little puffin on the green-
house steps turned around,
annoyed with everything.

OK, let’s cope.

The voice is wry, deliberately casual, it covers over struggles, but we sense them, between the lines. That ‘us’ – elided, but lurking there in ‘let’s’ – is inviting, reciprocal. Ashbery has always refused to allow day-to-day boredom to stay that way. He draws on the dynamics of the demotic and plays with the properties of language that make it an active agent, like phosphorus, a beautiful flare, a firefly of light, explosive, unpredictable. ‘As if, from fireflies, one could infer the field.’

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