Tag Archives: Lewis Carroll

Nonsense and dark ripples

"The first child of Mrs Keats-Shelley came to light with its face in its belly; her second was born with a hump and a horn, and her third was as shapeless as jelly." From The Listing Attic by Edward Gorey

I have a little stash of Edward Gorey books that I love for their dark ripples. The first book I ever read of his was The Unstrung Harp, or Mr Earbrass Writes a Novel, which was particularly appealing to me because its main character is an author, at turns amazed by his own brilliance and convinced all he has written is “dreadful, dreadful, DREADFUL. He must be mad to go on enduring the unexquisite agony of writing when it all turns out drivel.” But go on he does, reeling between excitement and disgust right to the day his publishers Scuffle and Dustcough release the book. One day, running errands, he spots it in a bookstore window and stands “carefully reading the title of every other book there in a state of extreme and pointless embarrassment.”

Even years ago, when I was a yet-to-be-published writer, this slim little book held special meaning for me, and it seemed that the words–elegant, spare, funny, touchingly old-fashioned but completely relevant–matched the illustrations perfectly.

Being on that precarious brink of releasing a book myself, I had The Unstrung Harp out the other day and was paging through, chuckling, when N happened along and commented on the illustrations. “Wow,” she said. “He’s a really good drawer.” So I pulled out Amphigorey, a collection of fifteen Gorey books that my husband gave me when N was first born, and I settled in to read her some.

I find Gorey hard to categorize, and so I don’t. But apparently he once said of himself that he was a writer of literary nonsense, like Lewis Carroll and Edward Lear. In a New Yorker interview, he’s quoted as saying, “If you’re doing nonsense it has to be rather awful, because there’d be no point. I’m trying to think if there’s sunny nonsense. Sunny, funny nonsense for children — oh, how boring, boring, boring. As Schubert said, there is no happy music. And that’s true, there really isn’t. And there’s probably no happy nonsense, either.”

I don’t think of Gorey as a children’s writer, but many of his books have great appeal for kids. They’re short and funny, and deliciously macabre, and loaded with pictures of odd-looking people and beings, such as The Doubtful Guest, a curious sort of penguiny creature wearing a scarf and tennis shoes, who shows up at the mansion of a wealthy family and refuses to go away. N loves this little guy, who sleepwalks, chews on plates at breakfast, tears out chapters from books, and protects objects he’s fond of by dropping them into a pond.

But I was curious–was Gorey’s The Gashlycrumb Tinies too macabre for a child? It’s an alphabet book, yes, but of a very different order than the ones N saw in her early childhood. The book features clever little rhymes worthy of Dr. Seuss, and gruesome, hilarious drawings that chronicle the deaths of 26 children, from Amy to Zillah.

I’ll admit she looked a little shocked when we first read it. But then she asked for it again and again. And then she read it aloud herself, and soon enough, she had memorized it.

“S is for Susan who perished of fits
T is for Titus who flew into bits
U is for Una who slipped down a drain
V is for Victor squashed under a train.”

Her favourite (and mine) is Neville, “who died of ennui.” The illustration shows a wall and a large window, and in its bottom corner, Neville’s tiny head from eyes up, peering through the glass into a gloomy day. She was full of questions about the creepy man with black umbrella, which I answered to the best of my ability. And she whispered “ouch” when Kate was struck with an axe. So I asked, “Do you find it scary? Or creepy? Or do you feel sorry for them?”

And she cocked an eyebrow and answered in a very wry tone: “Uh–Mom. They’re just drawings.”

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"What is the use of a book," thought Alice, "without pictures or conversations?"

Oleg Lipchenko's version of Lewis Carroll's Mad Tea Party

You can’t really have too many copies of Lewis Carroll’s Alice stories. At our house, we have Robert Sabuda’s gorgeous big pop-up adaptation, with my favourite page being the one in which Alice outgrows W. Rabbit’s house. Her foot pokes out the chimney, another crashes through glass, her arms burst through the roof and the wall, and a lock of hair escapes where the windows join. If you peer into the house, you can see the White Rabbit’s little floor rugs and his carroty wallpaper and Alice’s huge, terrified face overshadowing all. N got this book from her auntie when she was about three, and it has been a wonderful way to introduce her to to the curious world of Wonderland.

Alice pops up and out, by Robert Sabuda

This Christmas my mom gave her an unabridged new edition, with beautiful illustrations by Oleg Lipchenko. Purists will accept only John Tenniel’s precise and beloved images, cut by Victorian engravers the Brothers Dalziel. But Lipchenko’s illustrations actually suit the story well in a very different way — richly detailed but smokey and muted, warped like the pictures in dreams. I was happy to read he has plans to illustrate Through the Looking Glass as well. Right now he’s at work on Carroll’s Hunting the Snark, which he characterizes as “not really a child’s story, rather for grown up children … illustrated from wall to wall.”

When my mom gave the book to N, she recalled having tried to read Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland herself as a child, but said she could never get through it because of how impossible it all seemed. It is nonsense literature, after all, and not for everyone. But her comment made me think of a time I’d visited N’s school and read some book reports posted on a wall by some of the older students. I don’t remember what book they’d read, but it was a fantasy of some sort, and there were lots of frank comments like, “I didn’t like that book at all. What happened would never happen in real life.” As adults we often assume kids love impossible make-believe (and even that adults do not). I wonder if it’s got more to do with character, or stages a person goes through, or exposure to a wide array of stories, or just what it is that determines these kinds of preferences. A friend recently told me she really disliked Jabberwocky because it was so nonsensical.

John Tenniel's Jabberwocky creatures

Perhaps, as the Knight advises Alice, you need to have your hair “well fastened on” to go for such a ride. “The wind is very strong here,” he warns. “It’s strong as soup.” Personally, I love Jabberwocky. It and The Walrus and the Carpenter (talking of many things) put Through the Looking Glass over and above Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland on my list (if I had to choose, which of course I don’t). There’s a delicious dark ripple in Through the Looking Glass that appeals to my morbid side. I especially like the song the Knight recites to Alice, called Haddocks’ Eyes, in which a man asks an “aged, aged man … how is it you live?” and the aged, aged man gives all sorts of horrible answers that reveal the pathetic details of his life —

He said, “I hunt for haddocks’ eyes

Among the heather bright,

And work them into waistcoat-buttons

In the silent night.”

— details that were not far off for many English paupers in Lewis Carroll’s day. Or should I say Charles Dodgson. I recently read both Alice books back to back, using yet another copy that sits on our shelves, a lovely old edition featuring Tenniel’s illustrations. And then I followed those up with lots of internet reading about Dodgson/Carroll, a weak-chested, half-deaf, stammering, somehow asymmetrical, willowy man who apparently referred to himself as “the dodo.”

And yet he certainly hasn’t gone the way of the dodo, seeing how his books continue to engage new generations, both in their original forms and in endless interpretations. We haven’t seen the Tim Burton Alice movie yet, but by coincidence, when N received her Christmas book, I received A is for Alice, a little gem of an alphabet book by mad woodcutter and printmaker George A. Walker. You can see the book being made at The Porcupine’s Quill press, and George himself hovering in mid-air with anticipation.

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