The 15-minute book club, #3: The Griffin and Sabine Trilogy by Nick Bantock

The Griffin and Sabine Trilogy by Nick Bantock:

Griffin and Sabine: An Extraordinary Correspondence
Sabine’s Notebook: In Which the Extraordinary Correspondence of Griffin and Sabine Continues
T
he Golden Mean:   In Which the Extraordinary Correspondence of Griffin and Sabine Concludes

 

Last night I had a rare opportunity to get to bed at a reasonable hour.

And I squandered it on the rediscovery of a book.

Though I’ve always been a scribbler, once upon a time I was also a reasonably talented visual artist who dabbled extensively in creating artwork in mixed media, black-and-white film photography, and digital manipulation. Writing and visual art collaborated frequently in my adolescent life, but one day they collided headlong with curiosity and a need for a psychological thrill when I first discovered Griffin and Sabine.

Written, illustrated, and constructed by Nick Bantock, this trilogy is comprised of the unusual correspondence between the broodingly lonely London artist Griffin Moss and the vivaciously mysterious Sabine Strohem, an artist from a chain of tiny islands in the South Pacific. Letters, postcards, and notecards – all exquisitely illustrated and handwritten, some in made-to-match envelopes that you can actually open and rifle through – document this mind-bending tale.

Part love story and part psychological thriller, Griffin and Sabine takes storytelling to another level by telling a story that requires its reader to do more than just turn to the next page. There’s a certain excitement to looking through the private correspondences of other people, and although I’d outgrown trying to break into my sister’s diary by my late teens the act of reading somebody else’s letters was still appealing. And it’s not just reading these intimate pieces of mail: each is a self-contained work of art that simply demands closer scrutiny from the reader, which in turns brings about a deeper appreciation for the concept and plot as well as a greater emotional investment in its outcome.

One of the reasons why I started “The 15-minute Book Club” section of this blog is to discuss the literature that inspired my own creative processes, changed or enhanced my perception, or otherwise impacted my life in a moving and profound fashion. Since closing the final book of the trilogy late last night I’ve been reflecting on what exactly this book means to me, I realized that Griffin and Sabine trilogy did all of these things for me.

As an artistic adolescent, upon the first reading of Griffin and Sabine I learned that art does not have to be perfect or conventional to be beautiful and meaningful: as long as it makes us think critically and opens our minds to a broader understanding of the world then art, to paraphrase Picasso, will always somehow enable us through is lies to comprehend the greater truths. It’s because of Griffin and Sabine that while I might not like or prefer certain kinds of art, I’m still able to appreciate them. For example, it might be hard to believe but you have to trust me when I say that Bantock’s image of a goldfish shattering a wineglass helped me get past my dislike of Warhol just enough to appreciate what a can of Campbell’s did for modern art.

Nick Bantock’s eccentric and raw approach to storytelling in the Griffin and Sabine books influenced my own writing style as well when I first read it in my late teens. Up until this point, my early attempts at writing always crashed and burned, ground to a screeching halt, or otherwise simply stopped because I was constantly getting bogged down in revealing everything all at once in desperate attempts to give my stories some kind of foundation. What Bantock’s style revealed was that the foundations of characters are just the back story – that the present story is what truly matters, and that a writer’s job is to allow the characters to tell the present story instead of trying to take over the main narrative by establishing off the bat what’s already happened to them. Reading the story of Griffin Moss and Sabine Strohem in literal bits and pieces taught me, as both a writer and a reader, to be patient with characters and let them reveal what they will, when they will.

It’s also worthwhile to mention that as far as my actual letter writing is concerned, anyone who’s ever received a letter or card from me will tell you that it’s always meticulously handwritten (and, in the case of the latter, usually handmade), includes hand-drawn illustrations and calligraphy-style quotes, and comes from the heart. While other books most certainly did contribute to my writing style regarding personal correspondence (not to mention my father’s insistence that we write often to our paternal grandmother in the Philippines), Griffin and Sabine definitely taught me a considerable amount about how to turn letter-writing into a true art.

Finally, this unconventional love story between these two artistic souls first came into my life at the end of an overseas long-distance relationship. While the letter-based narrative struck a few raw nerves at the time (this was before international texting was a “thing,” let alone me having my own cellphone, so snail mail was actually a big part of this first relationship) this latest reading of Griffin and Sabine reminded me that deep, intimate connections can and will come up in all kinds of sudden and unexpected ways, and that being open to these kinds of surprises leaves you open to experiencing the rest of life to its fullest.

The best love stories are all different, but they all share a common thread of relentlessly pursuing the most abstract concepts and sorting through the most befuddling emotions, and finding out who you really are in the process. Opening yourself up to another person and to the world, and then reflecting upon those experiences when you’re alone, is how you come into the most complete form of self-understanding and self-awareness. While this might not really be what these books are really about, this is how they spoke to me last night and at this point in my life that’s the main reason why I treasure this story.

So maybe in the end I didn’t totally squander a few preciously rare extra hours of sleep by diving back into the strangely beautiful world of Griffin and Sabine, and maybe in the end I wasn’t just curling up alone in bed with a book. I was diving back into the most confusing, lovely, engrossing, and riveting archive of a relationship that I’ve ever encountered in fiction, and enjoying every unsettlingly bizarre and lovely morsel of it as I discovered more about myself through the extraordinary correspondence of Griffin Moss and Sabine Strohem.

The 15-minute book club, #1: The Icewind Dale Trilogy by RA Salvatore

The Icewind Dale Trilogy by RA Salvatore 

  • The Crystal Shard
  • Streams of Silver
  • The Halfling’s Gem 

One of my brothers brought it home from the public library one day, and less than a week later it was in my hands:  a huge paperback omnibus edition containing an entire trilogy of novels.

Its grey cover, bent and creased by previous borrowers as all popular library books are, depicted four characters on a snow-covered outcropping of rocks.  There was a redheaded woman in a green dress standing next to a long-haired and youthful warrior in a horned helmet holding a giant hammer, and on the ledge below them a dark-skinned elf held an onyx figurine of a cat as a black panther materialized on the snow in front of him.  They were but four of the adventuring party with who my brothers and I would soon become obsessed over the next few years of our young lives:  the Companions of the Hall, a motley band of heroes hailing from the land called Icewind Dale in the Dungeons and Dragons universe.

The first book of the trilogy, and thus the omnibus, opened with a poem that I read over several times before I even thought to turn the page:

Come gather ‘round, hardy men of the steppe
And listen to my tale
Of heroes bold and friendships fast
And the tyrant of Icewind Dale

Of a band of friends, by trick or by deed
Bred legends for the bard
The baneful pride of one poor wretch
And the horror of the Crystal Shard

I remember how that simple poem sparked my curiosity and how, by the third time I read it, that spark had become a small but steadily-growing fire that brought a new life to my imagination.  My brothers could not stop talking about these books, and I wanted to know why — and after reading that opening poem, I knew that this would be something I could share with them that would transcend a mere infantile desire to mimic my older siblings in the hopes they might see me more as a peer and less as a pest.

Our shared love of the fantasy genre had been born in Middle-Earth and Narnia, and now our literary adventures led us to stir up the dust of legends in Faerûn.  I sped through The Icewind Dale Trilogy at lightning speed, enamored with this brave new northern world and entangled happily in the enchanted web RA Salvatore wove in the harsh and forbidding setting.

The Icewind Dale Trilogy came into my life soon after one of my first best friends exited – only a few days after a schoolyard incident had shattered that friendship beyond repair.  A picture of the two of us at my birthday party had been found in a puddle by the long-jump pit, and when I told the boy who found it that it I had given it to the “blonde girl in the picture” he told me, “She’s my class, and when I brought it to her she told me that she didn’t want it anymore.”

My birthday is in August, and during my elementary and high school years that meant hardly anyone would ever be in town to celebrate it.  The picture in question had been taken during the year when that blonde girl had been the only friend from school who hadn’t gone off on vacation or to camp the week of my birthday, and in my juvenile mind the fact that she’d been the only friend at my party meant that she was my best friend.  You can imagine, then, how awful I felt when I heard through the schoolyard grapevine that my apparent best friend in another classroom had denounced our friendship in front of most of our grade.

This was emotional background to my first encounter with RA Salvatore’s beloved character Drizzt Do’Urden and his diverse band of adventurer-warrior friends, and it set the scene perfectly for me to develop a deep attachment to their tale.  Their unfailing loyalty and support for one another, as well as their acceptance of each other despite such stark and obvious differences in their backgrounds, were all things I yearned to find in my peers but had yet to discover.

I longed to be able to slip through some rift in the earth and fall into Icewind Dale – and all the lands the Companions of the Hall subsequently travelled –  so that I could meet this band of heroes and earn my place among them.  I daydreamed of doing so by committing some gigantic act of bravery in the heat of battle following the sudden discovery of some special talent or ability that lay stifled by Earth’s magic-less atmosphere, or perhaps by bringing knowledge from Earth into some dire situation whose impossibility had exhausted all of Faerûn’s own possible solutions.  Though having my own share of their legendary fame was appealing, it was the idea of belonging to a group like that – a group of truly best friends – that committed my heart to the entire Legend of Drizzt saga.

In time, I came to realize that I did have hidden qualities and talents that could be used and shown in fine form in my earthly existence.  It’s true that I fell in love with literature while sitting at the feet of JRR Tolkien and CS Lewis, but it was RA Salvatore who inspired me to make a first real commitment to writing a world of my own. Most important of these cached treasures was my love for writing, which became apparent when I started committing my daydreams to paper.  This secret phase of writing fan-fiction made me realize that if I could insert myself into the existing canon of Forgotten Realms legends, then maybe I could make my own world where all my wildest dreams would find life.

It’s been a long while since I last visited my childhood friends in the Forgotten Realms, but I’ve recently returned.  And I’m glad I came back, for upon reading the opening lines I felt a feeling not unlike the kind I get whenever I am reunited with my brothers and sisters under one roof, or whenever I see a friend whose company I have not shared in a long while:  that wonderfully strange feeling that my heart has somehow arrived home…as if taking it up was like knocking on Drizzt’s door, and reading it was like being admitted to cross his threshold and sit by the fire beside him, Guenhwyvar the astral panther at our feet and the rest of the Companions – Wulfgar, Catti-brie, Bruenor, and Regis – expected to join us at any minute.