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""A story assembled from everyday objects, unassumingly and quietly, that stuns and horrifies by increments...The Canal may look, at first glance, like a love story, but it harnesses the power of parable." John Wray, author of Lowboy.

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Saturday, 2 October 2010

Brutal Myth . . .

I hope this clears up a few things: it's not the symbolic beauty of the swan I find remotely interesting, it's the return of the image of the swan back to butal, violent myth that interests me:

Bookslut: Swans form an important piece of imagery in this novel. Can you talk about the role they play in your book?

Lee Rourke: Oh, I love swans so much. When I see a swan on the Regent’s canal in London it’s quite hard for me not to be affected by the stark juxtaposition of beauty and environment, I mean they are just brilliantly, beautiful creatures and I always want to say to them: what are you doing here? Why here? Of all the places for you to live your life, why the Regent’s canal?

But seriously, swans figure symbolically throughout the novel. I am interested in the myth of Leda and the Swan in its various interpretations (there is much Greek myth interwoven within the structure of The Canal, for instance and returning to your earlier question, if I was to give the woman in The Canal a name it would have to be Cassandra). Apart from the beauty of the swan and Leda’s naked form portrayed in the Hellenistic Reliefs, or da Vinci’s paintings, it is a rather brutal myth, and one that forewarns a major catastrophe (catastrophe is something that hangs above The Canal like a phantasm). Leda was Tyndareus’s wife, a Spartan king, although this was never enough. There was always the suspicion that Leda wanted to transcend this position. When Zeus, in the guise of a swan commits his despicable act upon Leda, she is yielded by him four eggs and is given god-like status. She gives birth to Castor, Polydeukes, Clytemnestra and most importantly Helen. An act of violence, not only rape, but fratricide (many Reliefs depict the siblings attacking each other), begets the bigger catastrophe: the act of genocide committed in the Trojan war. I am interested in Yeats’s reading of this myth in his poem "Leda and the Swan" -- it is a poem that underpins the whole of my writing of The Canal. Yeats’s poem can be read as a completion of image, taking in and re-processing the various iterations of this myth over many epochs. Yeats takes the image back to antiquity, back to the myth. In "Leda and the Swan" Yeats says: "A shudder in the loins engenders there / The broken wall, the burning roof and tower / And Agamemnon dead." Not only is he returning the image back to violence, but also back to myth -- where it belongs -- away from beauty and form.

I wanted to repeat this completion of image in my own iteration of Leda and the Swan as myth within The Canal. There is a sense of the unknown in The Canal, a sense that the actions inside the novel are a signal to an impending catastrophe. The woman is fully aware of this; she forewarns the man right at the beginning when they first meet. It takes the man right up until the dramatic conclusion to work out exactly what it is she means. Like Cassandra she is misunderstood, or more directly he refuses to believe what it is she is saying. Yet, there is always something to reveal. In messing around with this myth in The Canal I am hoping to reveal to the reader a mythical past that is our continual present.

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