“Tell all the truth but tell it slant,” wrote Emily Dickinson. One way to get an oblique angle on today’s truth is to frame it with a narrative borrowed from ancient history, from folklore or myth.
In 1938, in Algeria, Albert Camus wrote the first draft of his play Caligula. Appalled and fascinated by modern dictators’ twinning of brutality with glamour, he turned to first-century Rome for a story to give shape to his response. It was finally performed in 1945, Camus having lived in France under German occupation, working courageously for the resistants’ journal Combat. His Caligula is brilliant and crazy, a despot whose absolute power gives him an absolute licence that frightens him to death. Camus had been expelled from the Communist party for his outspokenness before experiencing Nazi censorship. Only by time-travelling to ancient Rome could he set himself free to explore, with painful clarity, his thoughts on freedom.
Another free spirit, but a happier one, is Dougal Douglas (or perhaps Douglas Dougal – nothing about him, including his name, is pin-downable) the curly haired charmer who makes his disruptive appearance in a suburban small business in Muriel Spark’s scintillating comic take on the Faust legend, The Ballad of Peckham Rye. On Dougal’s forehead there are two bumps – traces, he explains, of his sawn-off horns. Is he teasing? Impossible to tell. Certainly Spark is. She hints that Dougal is the devil, but what he brings is not damnation, but ridicule. Sleazy office romances, venal crime, and all the absurd trivia of working life are raked over in this modern fable. Spark’s wit is acidic, but her story sets the dreary lives of secretaries and salesmen glittering, touched by the uncanny charisma of an early 60s Pan.
While Spark’s protagonist steps out of legend to stir up reality, the young women in Angela Carter’s The Bloody Chamber (sexually curious, wilfully disobedient) step out of 1970s reality into fairytale and turn the old stories inside out. Who wouldn’t (Carter asks the reader) prefer getting into bed with a handsome wolf-man to taking tea with Grandmother? The reversal of traditional moralising is entertaining, but what gives Carter’s stories their potency is that she lovingly celebrates the tradition she’s subverting. Full of jewels and furs, virgin blood and deep dark forests, incantatory sentences that meander from curse to enchantment to voluptuous celebration of sex, her stories are at once parodies of an archaic form, and gorgeous examples of it.
Power, work, eroticism – what’s left? Violence. The Iliad, one of the wellsprings of western literature, is still the saddest, most troubling treatment of warfare. Rewriting it is a way of thinking about humans’ bizarre practice of resolving disputes by slaughtering each other. Christopher Logue, a pacifist imprisoned after the Aldermaston marches, worked for the rest of his life on his poem-sequence War Music, an explosive reworking of Homer’s Trojan war. I’ve tried my hand at it too – my version of Achilles’ rage begins my antiheroic book Heroes. Now everyone is at it. We’ve recently had Michael Hughes transposing the rivalry between Achilles and Agamemnon to an IRA cell, Alice Oswald’s plangent poetic lamentation, Madeline Miller putting homosexuality at the story’s centre, and Pat Barker turning it around to see it from the viewpoint of Briseis, to whom Homer gave no voice.
Sometimes you need to step back to see a picture clearly. To evade censorship, to seek out what’s timeless in modern dilemmas, to chose subtlety over simplistic polemic, writers borrow plotlines from the distant past.
• Lucy Hughes-Hallett’s Fabulous, a collection of short stories set in modern Britain but based on fables from Greek mythology, the bible or folklore, is published by 4th Estate (£12.99). To order a copy go to guardianbookshop.com or call 0330 333 6846. Free UK p&p over £15, online orders only. Phone orders min p&p of £1.99.