I gave a battered silver ring to a new friend, a visitor to our other house -- the one on a fjord in the hills of Western Newfoundland. This was a man whose life was in ruins. He was sick; he could barely speak.
Inscribed into the ring were words from a Greek philosopher, translating roughly to: One must live and not merely exist.
I did this because the man had shown me something that I encountered vividly again in the pages of Emily St. John Mandel’s bewitching novel Station Eleven: When almost all is lost, people with a certain kind of grace can thrive on what is truly best about the world. Our visitor wanted to hear music, to stare at the ocean and, very much, to speak again -- in the theatre, his professional and spiritual home.
Mandel’s characters, living in the ferocious twilight of the end of the world, want to sustain art, to find sweetness where they can, to live in the glow of love.
Mostly, Station Eleven is a tremendous aesthetic experience. It does not put a foot wrong; it carries you to its heart so skillfully that you never wonder about the journey. You never put your pack down on the path and say to yourself, really -- does that fit; does it seem right?
You never check your compass.
It begins in art. King Lear rages in the Elgin Theatre while a deepening snow wraps around Toronto -- while the first few victims of a swiftly-spreading flu lie dying in hospital down the street. The playwright lived in a time of plague. Plagues stalk us.
Trudging through a feral landscape in Year Twenty of the post-pandemic world is Mandel’s vivid creation, the Travelling Symphony, performing Shakespeare and Beethoven in scavenged costumes, playing battered instruments, for teary people in tiny settlements. Storylines are a deeply empathetic mapping of characters’ lives in the Before and the After, meshing in a cross-hatching of plausible coincidence. There is Kirsten, the troupe’s Titania, who carries with her a talisman, an old sci-fi comic titled Station Eleven about what else but the end of the world (who knows what will outlive us?), and a small crowd who hunger for something beyond sheer survival, for the transcendent experience of living with art, through art.
They are on a journey, tracked by a bloodthirsty prophet, toward the Museum of Civilization, born when planes stopped rising in the air, electricity halted in its mysterious conduits, when communications melted from the ether.
What remains? In the museum, a forever-dark iPad, a pair of red stilettos no one will ever wear while hauling brush to the fire pit, a souvenir snow globe. “All objects were beautiful,” a character muses.
What defines, gives purpose to, connects, Mandel’s people? Art does, as does reverence for the best of what we can do for each other. Station Eleven is a call to foster art in its many forms, to appreciate, to be careful with what we have.
It isn’t Shakespeare who gives the Travelling Symphony its motto; or Churchill, who said: If all the West End’s theatres stayed closed during the Blitz, then what would the fight have been for? No, it’s a half-recalled bit from… Star Trek (again, what remains…) That line from a lost entertainment that might as well have been inscribed on my worn silver ring: “Survival is insufficient.”
(Adapted from my "defence" of Station Eleven at Grit Lit's Battle of the Books at Hamilton Public Library in April.)