This wasn’t the blog post I was expecting to write today, I was planning a review on Evelyn Waugh’s Decline and Fall (which will have to wait for another time now). However, last night Terry Pratchett: Back in Black was shown on TV, and, once again, I was reminded of his genius.
I have written about Terry Pratchett before, on my old blog, where I marked his passing the best that I could do, with some inelegant words. There I dwelt more on the tragedy of his illness, and his bravery in facing Alzheimer’s. I was devastated when I learnt of his death, and I could write thousands more words on that, but today I want to concentrate more on his writing – it is, after all, his legacy.
I can’t actually remember which Pratchett book I read first. I grew up in a household of books and there were always Discworld novels around, so I am assuming that I just picked one up one day and started reading. I do have memories of specifically choosing Terry Pratchett books (Truckers and Diggers) to take on holiday with me when I was about 13. I also own several of his audio books on tape rather than CD. The point I am trying to make here is that this has not been a short flirtation with his books, but rather a long standing relationship. Whenever I find myself in a book store with no particular book in mind, I gravitate towards the Pratchett section. Only yesterday, I found myself in Foyles (shop of dreams), eyeing up some of the beautiful hardback editions of his work. Not bad for someone that never used chapters, and added footnotes to fiction – breaking every rule in the novelist’s handbook.
So why Pratchett? I am not particularly a fan of fantasy after all – certainly not adult fantasy. I like Harry Potter, and His Dark Materials, but the adult stuff, not so much. I tried to read The Lord of the Rings a while ago and really didn’t get so far, and there is nothing quite so likely as to stop me purchasing a book as it being called ‘the such and such saga’, or having ‘the book of the…’ or ‘the cycle of’ in its title. Prejudiced, perhaps, but life is short and even I can’t read everything in that time.
I think though, that’s exactly the point, with Pratchett. Yes, the Discworld is entirely fantasy. Yes it has mythical creatures in abundance. Yes there is magic. But then there is also DEATH, and his horse, named Binky. For every fantastical element that Pratchett introduces, he brings us back down to earth again with a pithy comment on the human condition. DEATH, for example, in Mort decides he fancies a different sort of career, and toddles off leaving someone else to do the dirty work for a while. And whenever he talks about the wizard academics at the Unseen University, their squabbling could ring true of any other university. They’re naughty, they’re fickle, they play games and indulge in silly academic politics….and their librarian is an orangutan who refuses to be turned back into a wizard.
He also uses discoveries that we’re all familiar in his books. Hollywood, the printing press, Australia, the postal service – everyday things get a second re-examination from Pratchett. Their familiarity allows them to become tropes of fun. He was able to look at things in a different way to the rest of us, to see the silliness behind the scenes, normally with an exasperated character at the centre of things who never asked to be there anyway, thank you very much, and can they please just get back to what they were up to before?
He had a way with words that was truly remarkable too. The way he could write a phrase that not only had you picturing exactly what he meant, but would also have you laughing to yourself, was truly exceptional. It’d be silly to wax lyrical about this, instead I’ll just pop a few examples in so you can see for yourself:
“For an old woman Mistress Weatherwax could move quite fast. She strode over the moors as if distance was a personal insult.”
“She was also, by the standards of other people, lost. She would not see it like that. She knew where she was, it was just that everywhere else didn’t.”
“Some pirates achieved immortality by great deeds of cruelty or derring-do. Some achieved immortality by amassing great wealth. But the captain had long ago decided that he would, on the whole, prefer to achieve immortality by not dying.”
“It would seem that you have no useful skill or talent whatsoever,” he said. “Have you thought of going into teaching?”
“Many people could say things in a cutting way, Nanny knew. But Granny Weatherwax could listen in a cutting way. She could make something sound stupid just by hearing it.”
I could go on… Of course the other thing to note about Pratchett is how brilliant all his names are. Nanny Ogg. Rincewind. Vimes. William de Worde. Mort. Lord Vetinari. Nobby Nobbs. Mustrum Ridcully. They all conjure up a picture, don’t they?
Pratchett is the writer who inspires me the most. I wish, so heartily, that I could write like him, that I could use language and words and wit in the way he did. I know it takes hard work and perseverance, and when I read Pratchett’s novels, I am reminded why it is worth it.
I still have so much of the Discworld series to discover. I am lucky that I’ve been rather slow in reading them, and so after last night’s programme I decided to treat myself to The Night Watch – mentioned specifically last night as being one of Pratchett’s darker, more serious additions to the Discworld. I can’t wait to start it.