“Imagine you can spend a day inside a book,” was the prompt – one of those things going around on Facebook, you know, that a friend passed on to me. “What would you choose?”
My first reaction was one of eager glee – entering books having always been one of my fondest imaginings, together with, or even a little ahead of, time-travel. So this was a game I was most happy to play… or so I thought, until it came to really choosing.
One day, inside one book.
Indeed, what would I choose? Inside what book would I want to live for one day? The first impulse was, of course, Lord Jim – but that was just because it my very favourite book, not because I had considered well. In fact, I wrote a little short story about this, a few years ago: the chance of entering books, unwisely choosing Conrad’s novel, being spirited on the Patna on the fateful night, wanting to interfere – and not doing it, because where would be the story if one did? And so my first person narrator went back in a very bleak state of mind and never wanting to enter a book again.
So much for entering Lord Jim then – but certainly there are books one could enter with a lighter heart?
I was busily considering any of Gerald Durrell‘s books, or J. K. Jerome, or Kidnapped – when another friend answered the prompt by saying that she’d love to enter The Thorn Birds, and be Mary Carson for one day.
Well well well. This I had not considered. I’d thought one entered books as either a neutral observer, or an added character… Now taking on an existing character’s role was quite different. Who would I be in Kidnapped? Not Alan Breck – whom I rather hoped to meet? Never silly David Balfour, surely? And the same went for Jerome: I wanted to meet the Three Men in a Boat, not to be one of them… Well, perhaps I might be Montmorency, but… well.
So I set off in search of a character whose shoes I might like to fill (as opposed to meeting them) in a book I truly wanted to visit. And realised that, for the most part, the trouble is this: either you are the hero (and so you don’t get to meet them), or you may be expected to lose large chunks of the story…
Say, I’d love to meet Anthony Burgess‘ version of Kit Marlowe – or Ros Barber’s, for that matter, or Josephine Preston Peabody‘s – but what other character might I choose who spends enough time in Kit’s company in any give story-day to get to know him?
And, come to think of that: quite what does “one day” mean? One story-day – and in that case do I get to choose the day? Or one day of my life – and then how much time does this cover inside the story? As much as I could read in a day?
If I choose, say, Runciman’s The Last Days of Constantinople – which I did read in a day the first time, would I get to experience the whole siege, or just one day? This is also relevant to what character I choose: there are days when one might want to take the place of the Emperor Constantine himself, others when it would be far more interesting to be the Scottish Engineer John Grant – and while it would be worth while to meet the doomed Ottoman Admiral Balta-Oghlu, this raises another question: suppose I were to choose, say, the admiral’s second in command, where would I be when this officer is neither explicitly present nor implied?
Well, perhaps this last I had better not – considering how seasick I get… Or would I also instantly acquire the Ottoman sailor’s sea-legs?
And no, I’m not quibbling: if I had to had the one chance – one book for one day – the choice would be hard, and I would want to know quite exactly where I stand. How bad would it be to enter War and Peace as Natasha Rostova, and then get the day of Austerlitz, and find myself hopelessly offstage?