“How do you steal a story?”
By taking it from its owner and making it your own. Whether it lay in a dusty old box, forgotten until some quirk of fate and time cause them to stumble across it, lift the lid, and remember; or whether it be worn down from innumerable gentle handlings over the years; their stories will have a meaning for them, will have a use for them. And often, when that story finds receptive ears, its meaning changes and the story finds a new owner.
I think here, especially, of Gabriel stealing Gretta’s story, the story of Michael Furey’s mortal love for her, at the end of Joyce’s “The Dead” (last story in Dubiners). “He thought of how she who lay beside him had locked in her heart for so many years that image of her lover’s eyes when he had told her that he did not wish to live.” And now that story of hers becomes for him, perhaps too late, the story that opens his heart, unlocks his own capacity for love at the very moment he becomes acutely aware of mortality — the mortality of the universe, the mortality of his country, the mortality of himself.
“The air of the room chilled his shoulders. He stretched himself cautiously along under the sheets and lay down beside his wife. One by one, they were all becoming shades. Better pass boldly into that other world, in the full glory of some passion, than fade and wither dismally with age. He thought of how she who lay beside him had locked in her heart for so many years that image of her lover’s eyes when he had told her that he did not wish to live.
“Generous tears filled Gabriel’s eyes. He had never felt like that himself towards any woman, but he knew that such a feeling must be love. The tears gathered more thickly in his eyes and in the partial darkness he imagined he saw the form of a young man standing under a dripping tree. Other forms were near. His soul had approached that region where dwell the vast hosts of the dead. He was conscious of, but could not apprehend, their wayward and flickering existence. His own identity was fading out into a grey impalpable world: the solid world itself, which these dead had one time reared and lived in, was dissolving and dwindling.
“A few light taps upon the pane made him turn to the window. It had begun to snow again. He watched sleepily the flakes, silver and dark, falling obliquely against the lamplight. The time had come for him to set out on his journey westward. Yes, the newspapers were right: snow was general all over Ireland. It was falling on every part of the dark central plain, on the treeless hills, falling softly upon the Bog of Allen and, farther westward, softly falling into the dark mutinous Shannon waves. It was falling, too, upon every part of the lonely churchyard on the hill where Michael Furey lay buried. It lay thickly drifted on the crooked crosses and headstones, on the spears of the little gate, on the barren thorns. His soul swooned slowly as he heard the snow falling faintly through the universe and faintly falling, like the descent of their last end, upon all the living and the dead.”
The best form of fabulous theft is like that. The stolen story becomes a sort of grace in the life of the thief. There are other, more mundane, sorts of theft -- a grandmother’s story that becomes grist for cocktail chatter -- but even then, which stories we choose to lift will tell us something about ourselves. And, as we claim them, they claim us and change us. The stolen story becomes ours to tell, to shape, and to change, but to a degree, we also become the story’s, to be changed by it.
P.S. “The Dead” was lovingly crafted into a movie by a dying John Huston, and stars his daughter Angelica. We have a nearly worn-out VHS of the thing, and I eagerly await a Region 1 DVD (so far, there has only been a release in Spain -- region 2).
P.P.S.S. A Region 1 DVD finally hit the market in November of 2009. I snapped it up (at less that $10) and am delighted to find it a wide-screen edition. No scan & pan here.
For comparison sake, here is the final voice-over from the film:
One by one, we’re all becoming shades. Better to pass boldly into that other world, in the full glory of some passion, than fade and wither dismally with age. How long you locked away in your heart the image of your lover’s eyes when he told you that he did not wish to live. I’ve never felt that way myself towards any woman, but I know that such a feeling must be love. Think of all those who ever were, back to the start of time. And me, transient as they, flickering out as well into their grey world. Like everything around me, this solid world itself which they reared and lived in, is dwindling and dissolving. Snow is falling. Falling in that lonely churchyard where Michael Furey lies buried. Falling faintly through the universe and faintly falling, like the descent of their last end, upon all the living, and the dead.