Sunday, June 25, 2017

Alice's Adventures In Wonderland

The most valuable book I own is an 1868 edition of Alice's Adventures in Wonderland that I bought in England twenty-five years ago and presented to my mother as a gift. She loved the book and displayed it in a casual and elegant way on a Shaker table in her living room. It's worth something today, even with the smoke damage. But I'm not inclined to part with it.

For everyday purposes I keep a pretty edition from 1992 that was given to me as a gift. Recently I read the book to my kids, and the experience reminded me what a slog Alice can be.

In praise of the book one can say a lot. How many writers, besides Shakespeare, have contributed permanent figures of speech to English? We could try to count them, but let's not go down that rabbit hole. The anarchy of the book recognizes and respects something deep that Carroll understood about childhood. And the topsy-turvy setting, in which the laws of logic and physics lose their grip, must have been influential in the genesis of some notable twentieth-century art, such as Dada, theater of the absurd, and (who knows?) magical realism.

(Before you ask: I left Borges off the list because, although Borges was very fond of Carroll's work and called it "authentic fantasy," nevertheless in Borges's actual writings, the citations to Carroll were mostly not to Alice. Is there a single specific allusion to Alice's Adventures in Wonderland in Borges's stories or essays?)

Alice's Adventures in Wonderland has effective passages, the best in my view being those involving the Duchess, pictured above. The scene in Chapter VI enacted by the Duchess, her pig/baby, and the violent maid might well be performed today by an avant-garde theater company. A later scene involving the Duchess combines some of the best antics in the book (the Duchess's absurd moralizing) with a claustrophobic creepiness.
[Alice] had quite forgotten the Duchess by this time, and was a little startled when she heard her voice close to her ear. "You're thinking about something, my dear, and that makes you forget to talk. I can't tell you just now what the moral of that is, but I shall remember it in a bit."

"Perhaps it hasn't one," Alice ventured to remark.

"Tut, tut, child!" said the Duchess. "Everything's got a moral, if only you can find it." And she squeezed herself up closer to Alice's side as she spoke.

Alice did not much like her keeping so close to her: first, because the Duchess was very ugly, and secondly, because she was exactly the right height to rest her chin on Alice's shoulder, and it was an uncomfortably sharp chin. However, she did not like to be rude, so she bore it as well as she could.

"I daresay you're wondering why I don't put my arm round your waist," said the Duchess after a pause…
Real literary moments in the book are rare, however—as is fine prose. For purposes of comparison, consider these passages of strong and lovely prose from, respectively, Wind in the WillowsAbel's Island, and Charlotte's Web:

He thought his happiness was complete when, as he meandered aimlessly along, suddenly he stood by the edge of a full-fed river. Never in his life had he seen a river before—this sleek, sinuous, full-bodied animal, chasing and chuckling, gripping things with a gurgle and leaving them with a laugh, to fling itself on fresh playmates that shook themselves free, and were caught and held again.

He became somnolent in his cold cocoon. In his moments of dim-eyed wakefulness he had no idea how much time had passed since he was last awake—whether an hour, a day, or a week. He was cold, but he knew he was as warm as he could get. The water in his clay pot was frozen solid. His mind was frozen. It began to seem it had always been winter and that there was nothing else, just a vague awareness to make note of the fact. The universe was a dreary place, asleep, cold all the way to infinity, and the wind was a separate thing, not part of the winter, but a lost, unloved soul, screaming and moaning and rushing about looking for a place to rest and reckon up its woes.

Then came a quiet morning when Mr. Zuckerman opened a door on the north side. A warm draft of rising air blew softly through the barn cellar. The air smelled of the damp earth, of the spruce woods, of the sweet springtime. The baby spiders felt the warm updraft. One spider climbed to the top of the fence. Then it did something that came as a great surprise to Wilbur. The spider stood on its head, pointed its spinnerets in the air, and let loose a cloud of fine silk. The silk formed a balloon. As Wilbur watched, the spider let go of the fence and rose into the air.

Nowhere does the writing in Alice compare. Here is a typical passage:

Down, down, down. There was nothing else to do, so Alice soon began talking again. "Dinah'll miss me very much to-night, I should think!" (Dinah was the cat.) "I hope they'll remember her saucer of milk at tea-time. Dinah, my dear! I wish you were down here with me! There are no mice in the air, I'm afraid, but you might catch a bat, and that's very like a mouse, you know. But do cats eat bats, I wonder?" And here Alice began to get rather sleepy, and went on saying to herself, in a dreamy sort of way, "Do cats eat bats? Do cats eat bats?" And sometimes, "Do bats eat cats?" for, you see, as she couldn't answer either question, it didn't much matter which way she put it. She felt that she was dozing off, and had just begun to dream that she was walking hand in hand with Dinah, and was saying to her very earnestly, "Now, Dinah, tell me the truth: did you ever eat a bat?" when suddenly, thump! thump! down she came upon a heap of sticks and dry leaves, and the fall was over.

The passage aims to create a sense of amazement or absurdity at the idea of a fall through the air so lengthy that all of the above can take place. But couldn't the fall have been made to seem long by some means other than boring the reader? This passage illustrates how the enormous intellectual merits of Carroll's creation strain against its aesthetic flaws. The place where the book shines aesthetically is in the illustrations by John Tenniel, which are the best reason to own a copy of the book.

Carroll elevated his prose in the book's epilogue, and in particular the book's final two sentences, each about a hundred words long. By this time in the story, Alice herself has gone away but her sister remains on the bank, reflecting dreamily on what Alice had told her:

So she sat on, with closed eyes, and half believed herself in Wonderland, though she knew she had but to open them again and all would change to dull reality—the grass would be only rustling in the wind, and the pool rippling to the waving of the reeds—the rattling teacups would change to tinkling sheep-bells, and the Queen's shrill cries to the voice of the shepherd boy—and the sneeze of the baby, the shriek of the Gryphon, and all the other queer noises, would change (she knew) to the confused clamour of the busy farm-yard—while the lowing of the cattle in the distance would take the place of the Mock Turtle's heavy sobs.

This, the penultimate sentence in the book, is quite a contraption but it's fairly well put together. So far so good, but then sentiment intrudes unforgivably in the final sentence:

Lastly, she pictured to herself how this same little sister of hers would, in the after-time, be herself a grown woman; and how she would keep, through all her riper years, the simple and loving heart of her childhood: and how she would gather about her other little children, and make their eyes bright and eager with many a strange tale, perhaps even with the dream of Wonderland of long-ago: and how she would feel with all their simple sorrows, and find a pleasure in all their simple joys, remembering her own child-life, and the happy summer days.

The reader rejects this not so much because it reads as a maudlin message from Lewis Carroll to Alice Liddell, but rather because within the world of the book its sentiment seems unearned. There's not much evidence in the book that Alice really has a loving character. She's not cold. But she's no Fern Arable, who devotedly stood vigil by the runt whose life she herself saved; she's no Jim Hawkins or Bilbo Baggins, who both acted heroically despite fears. Polite, considerate, and impatient at the way everybody bosses her around, Alice is an Everychild, which is to say she isn't very interesting.

Nor is curious or queer automatically interesting—especially when rendered in the and-then-and-then-and-then format of a bedtime story. Charlotte's Web, The Hobbit, Abel's Island, and newer classics like the Harry Potter books have generous, rounded plots, and they take up enormous themes: the facts of life and death, self-reliance, the emergence from childhood into experience, and society and its sins. Alice is an intermittently delightful fantasy, the work of a highly original mind; but despite its status as a classic of children's literature, I'm not sure it is literature at all.

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