Wednesday, July 01, 2015

Vacation reading

While traveling in the UK last week, the books that I got to read included Knausgaard Book 1, and a biography of Lewis Carroll / social history of the Alice books by Robert Douglas Fairhurst.

I liked, and more than that respected, the Knausgaard, but it wasn't a super-easy go when one wants to relax, and I'm not in an immediate rush for Book 2.

I am one of those people whose love of the Alice books (and The Hunting of the Snark) goes extremely deep. They are foundational for me, as they are for many others whom I have known. We used to be an enormous tribe. Indeed, for a sense of the books' cultural valence 50 years ago, consider that John Lennon and Grace Slick both wrote canonical 1960s rock songs that were rooted in them. But for some reason our numbers seem to have shrunk comparatively in recent decades. And for once it isn't the movies' fault - the 2010 version, although its wrong-headedness appalled me, can no more diminish it than did the Disney version 60 years ago.  (Cf. the Colin Firth Darcy, which really has knocked Pride and Prejudice out of its prior cultural orbit.)

Where the Alice books "came from" has always been a hard question. They are in a sense so radical, and the level of imagination, daring, creativity, and wit that they display is so extraordinary, that their fit with a pious, shy, stodgy, and in many ways reactionary Oxford don, with a distinctly creepy (whether or not one deems it actually pedophilic) interest in young children, seems inexplicable, even if also inevitable in the sense that no other sort of person could possibly have written them.

Just one small point, they feature a realistically portrayed 7 and then 7-1/2 year old girl - very sweet, but quite conventional, not to mention naive, sheltered, and snobbish - who also functions simultaneously (and, on the author's part, seemingly effortlessly) as (a) one of the great quest heroes in literature, (b) the books' sole spokesman and undiscouragable champion for the values of sanity, proportion, and common sense, and (c) the badly needed "straight man" (so to speak) for one outrageous high-wire performer after another.

Fairhurst's book is a thorough and fair-minded exploration of what's known or can still be learned about the man (Dodgson / Carroll), the work, and for that matter the subsequent life of the historical Alice. One of the interesting things it depicts is how the "Carroll" side lost ground to the "Dodgson" side as he got older. A second pertains to the interest in children that today would be universally (whether rightly or wrongly) viewed as aberrant and criminal. The book shows how more widely shared tropes of that era help to explain where Dodgson was coming from, allowing him to rationalize and perhaps experience it as nonsexual, in a way that would be impossible today. Even during Dodgson's lifetime, however, views of childhood were changing rapidly in a modern direction. By the time of his death in 1898, in just his mid-sixties, the world had wholly passed him by. Darwin he took in stride, but Freud would have been too much for him. Not so for the Alice books, however, which if anything gained force over time.

As has the The Hunting of the Snark, which I regard as not just great fun, but startlingly prophetic in an oddly gnomic way.  E.g., the map that is "a perfect and absolute blank" - "what I tell you three times is true" - "They threatened its life with a railway share, they charmed it with smiles and soap."

1 comment:

goetzkluge said...

As for the Snark, you also may have seen the little tax collector in one of Henry Holiday's illustrations:

Best regards from Munich,