Wednesday, 8 May 2013

Top Shelf Books #2 - The Princess Bride by William Goldman

The next book to make it on to The Top Shelf is

The Princess Bride by William Goldman

Or rather
The Princess Bride
S. Morgenstern’s Classic Tale Of True Love And High Adventure
The “Good Parts” Version Abridged By William Goldman

It is here that I would give a brief premise but I just spent five minutes trying and failed.  It’s a fairy tale (about true love, or rather the beautiful Buttercup being forced to marry a man she doesn’t love while there is a plot afoot to have her murdered), but it’s presented as a fake abridgement, so on the one hand it’s an adventure story and on the other it’s a literary satire, or a satire on literature.  Or something.

‘“I am your Prince and you will marry me,” Humperdinck said.
Buttercup whispered, “I am your servant and I refuse.”
“I am your Prince and you cannot refuse.”
“I am your loyal servant and I just did.”
“Refusal means death.”
“Kill me then.”
“I am your Prince and I’m not that bad—how could you rather be dead than married to me?”
“Because,” Buttercup said, “marriage involves love, and that is not a pastime at which I excel.  I tried once, and it went badly, and I am sworn never to love another.”
“Love?” said Prince Humperdinck.  “Who mentioned love?  Not me, I can tell you.  Look: there must always be a male heir to the throne of Florin.  That’s me.  Once my father dies, there won’t be an heir, just a king.  That’s me again.  When that happens, I’ll marry and have children until there is a son.  So you can either marry me and be the richest and most powerful woman in a thousand miles and give turkeys away at Christmas and provide me a son, or you can die in terrible pain in the very near future.  Make up your own mind.”
“I’ll never love you.”
“I wouldn’t want it if I had it.”
“Then by all means let us marry.”’
~ The Princess Bride by William Goldman (1973)

Ah, there’s nothing like a bad proposal.

I first read The Princess Bride back in university, since then I’ve read it once again all the way through and many times just picked it up to read my favourite bits (that seems ironic somehow), I’ve written a recommendation for it in a bookshop and I even helped The Housemate choose a section to use for a reading at a wedding.  And I think I can say with ease that William Goldman is one of my favourite authors/writers.  So it’s easily made its way on to The Top Shelf.

But this is a tricky post to write, because I already wrote a post about William Goldman and The Princess Bride.  I could be sneaky and just repost it, or live up to my L-A-Z-Y self and just stick a link here.  (You should read that post; it had pictures.)

But that post wasn’t specifically about The Princess Bride, because I was also going on about Marathon Man, and that post was focused on The Quest to find a favourite author, whereas the Top Shelf Books series of posts is about great books, which isn’t quite the same thing although hugely connected.  So somehow I have to write a whole new post on why I like this book.

Well, that’s simple.  I like it because it is funny and it is smart.

I like Goldman’s style.  How did I put it last time?
'It's so blunt and fast and slick and clever and irreverent and witty and childish and facetious.  It's magnificent.'

On top of that, the characters are witty, so it’s a pleasure to read them.

And the narration (both ‘Morgenstern’ and ‘Goldman’) has a natural deadpan charm.  It’s amusing, often laugh-out-loud inducing, in moments that seem completely innocuous.  Goldman’s interruptions feel honest, which in a metafictional take on the fantasy genre is pretty amazing.

At the centre of it all is the fairy tale.  The metafictional elements of the story wouldn’t work if the tale at the heart wasn’t something worth reading.  The Princess Bride is presented as a story ‘Billy’ had read to him as a child, and having grown up he wants to share that magic with his own child and the rest of the world and it does retain the charm of a children’s fairy tale.  You have your beautiful princess, your characters who each have one brilliant skill, a quest with trials (of three) to face and even a couple of returns from the dead.

Except it’s better.  One thing I never liked about fairy tales was the lack of detail—characters would often pop in out of the blue to give the hero a vital piece of help or equipment and then vanish while the heroes were all terribly flat.  But the characters in The Princess Bride overflow in details.  We get flashbacks to explain their motivations, verbosely intelligent dialogue that gives away more than it needs to and descriptions and explanations behind all the minor characters.  It’s never clumsy or irrelevant; it’s funny and it’s involving, and you really do care about the characters.  Meanwhile the story is exciting, gripping and interesting too.  One of The Favourite bits is when Westley has to save Buttercup from the Snow Sand.  This is a dramatic, chilling, exciting scene with humour and warmth too that perfectly explores the characters and it is miles away from the wonderfully satirical framing device.  It’s a strong story even before you get to that other stuff, which is why it works so well.  (I’d love to quote the scene, but it’s three pages long.)

Now I come to that other stuff.  But I’m not a literary critic.  I know what I like and I know why I like it, but explaining that kind of analysis isn’t something I enjoy or articulate particularly well and in the case of The Princess Bride is sort of going against the point somewhat.  Isn’t it?

But I can’t not mention this stuff, because this is the stuff that blew The Mind on that first read and elevated The Princess Bride into The Favourites.  Goldman presents us with an abridged version of a fictional book by a fictional author from a fictional country and even the Bill Goldman who comments (interrupts) throughout the book is a fictionalised version of the author. 

Morgenstern’s original novel is supposed to be a historical satire, so Goldman’s abridgement, only keeping what he considers to be the ‘good parts’, means that he cuts all the scholarly literary bits because they are boring.  This is a hilarious idea, particularly if you’ve ever had to sit through a literature class where a book is analysed instead of enjoyed.

He also creates a kind of comradeship with the reader by pretending he isn’t the author, because that puts him on the same level as us and he can share what he thinks as if we’re discussing the book together.

The skill here is delicious but almost too much for me.  Take the ending.  Morgenstern leaves the ending open; our heroes are trying to escape but everything is going wrong.  Then, because Morgenstern’s ending isn’t satisfying enough, Goldman cuts in and gives us what he thinks happens at the end, which has a more finite quality to it.  And the initial reaction is that it doesn’t matter what he thinks because it isn’t his story, but of course it is his story.  So Morgenstern’s ending is overridden by Goldman’s ending.  But even Goldman puts in the ‘life isn’t fair’ angle.  He just gave us two ways to end the story and both of them have a dark, downbeat element, but he also says ‘you can answer it for yourself’ so even then you can take whatever the hell you want from the story. 

And in The End, I think that’s The Point.  If a story makes you happy, that’s what you should take away from it.

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