Monthly Archives: September 2011

Utter nonsense

There are those who, when presented with a pun, turn slightly greenish, grimace, or simply cough out a weak and half-hearted non-guffaw. These people are on the road to Folly. The more logical thinkers among us (I happily and expectantly include you, dear reader) know better, of course: is there anything more enlivening than a pun, or better yet, an entire hardcover book filled with pages full of ’em? No! How dare you even ask such a ridiculous question–however, I’ll overlook it for the time being.

Gilbert Adair was previously know to me as the translator of Georges Perec’s magnificent Oulipo novel La Disparition, which in Adair’s capable hands became, in English, A Void. The titular void at its heart is the missing letter E, which spectacularly fails to appear throughout the entire 300-page book. So it makes great sense, in the context of this alphabetical absence, that Adair would put his gigantic mind towards fulfilling another literary gap–this time, the void of a third adventure for Lewis Carroll’s perpetually perplexed heroine, Alice.

Once through the needle’s eye, Adair’s Alice meets with all the sorts of easily offended talking animals and paradoxical situations you might expect, rendered with perfect lightness and spirit. Instead of a pack of cards or animated chess pieces, this time she encounters various alphabestial creatures from A to Z, all with her accustomed blend of curiosity (and curiositier) and nonplus-ability. For example:

“…It shut it eyes and stood for the longest time with one flapper pressed upon its forehead, as if deep in reflection, before asking at last, “When was the Battle of Hastings? Answer me that—if you can.”
It wasn’t at all the question Alice thought the Grampus would ask; and she half hoped the Emu would be unable to answer it, as History was her best school-subject, and she didn’t mind in the least displaying her knowledge of it. But the Emu confidently replied “1066,” for which it received a little round of applause.

“Pooh!” said the Grampus. “There’s no such time of day.”

“Oh, all right,” sighed the Emu: “6 minutes past 11, if you prefer. It was due to begin at 11 o’clock sharp, you know, except that King Harold, better known as Harold the Unready, was not—well, he wasn’t quite ready. Next question!”

Get it?? Get it?? Do ya, huh? Okay, enough of that. Rest assured, however, that anyone who doesn’t appreciate such stupid jokes is a real philistine… and all the rest of us are true connoisseurs.

–Isadora, Distinguished Carrollian*

*anyone who knows me by sight can easily distinguish me from any other Carrollian.**
**apologies to C.L.D.

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Historical fanfiction, pt. II


What explains the thrill of reading (and quite possibly writing) fanfiction? I suggest a good chunk of it comes from seizing the power to revise and devise new adventures in preexisting stories, to reinvent and sometimes rebuild completely from the ground (or below) up certain beloved characters and situations. There’s a strain of historical fiction–not quite a sub-genre, more of a quirk that stops just short of adding “and Vampires” to the end of every new title–that chooses to place real, historical figures in slightly more fantastical worlds, starting by adding new or imagined emotional cadences to their well-known rosters of fact, and ends up in a borderland touching on real-person slash, and frequently with a shared element of uncomfortable salaciousness.

To continue with the theme of my last post, I recently read Melanie Benjamin’s 2010 novel,Alice I Have Been. Very similar in theme to Katie Roiphe’s Still She Haunts Me, both books take a long jump at the infamously short conclusion that Lewis Carroll (aka Charles L. Dodgson) was not only entirely motivated by Alice Liddell, his baby muse, to write his best-known works, but also truly, madly, pedophilically in love with her. The implicit “et ceteras” of that contention are spelled out, with a disconcerting degree of explicitness, in Alice I Have Been which pulls itself back from the brink of Lolita-levels of heavy petting by delving into Alice L.’s later life as former child-friend and pseudo-celebrity fictional character.

Well, I can’t say I don’t understand Benjamin’s desire to Mary Sue her way into one of the most potentially ambiguous literary relationships of the 19th century. Both her and Roiphe’s books share a kind of creepy, kind of romantic, kind of semi-feminist understanding that maybe a girl of Liddell’s temperament, intelligence and class would take more than a passive interest (viz. crushin’) in a man who treated her not as the classic Victorian “angel in the house,” but an equal. Unfortunately, Benjamin’s Alice reads more as a loving dope than a girl who could hold her own against the Queen of Hearts (even if she was just a card).

In the annals of historical inaccuracy, there’s been almost too much space allotted to poor Mr. D. I’m not totally sure what the lure of Humbert Humbertization is, but from a strictly factual perspective, it’s been pretty roundly disproven in Carroll’s case. That has little effect on the creators of further fictions, who will continue returning to the “what ifs” and devising new, queasily erotic interpretations. Aside from that, the main problem I have with Benjamin and Roiphe’s novels (jury’s still out on Lynne Truss’s Tennyson’s Gift as I’ve yet to receive it) is that… they just aren’t funny enough, or grotesque enough (apart from the contortions necessitated by creating a touching-on-pedophilic love story). Expecting fanfiction to also turn into a realistic pastiche of such an inimitable author might be more than a little much, but I don’t think it’s out of the question. Interestingly, tertiary ALice tales, like Gilbert Adair’s Alice Through the Needle’s Eye or Jeff Noon’s Automated Alice, comprise a wholly separate genre from these works of, let’s face it, real-person slash. There’s something in the violent youthfulness and chaotic precision of Carroll’s own writing and thinking that is more or less completely bypassed by slotting him into a vision of Nabokovian dimensions (ie., one).

This post is too long by half (probably by two halves), but unfortunately there’s more 😦 I was recently alerted to the existence of a series of mysteries starring Charles Dodgson AND Arthur Conan Doyle (one of my other Victorian favs), which ought to see this tail getting more and more tangled…

–Isadora, Noted Carrollian

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Authors on authors, books on books

Novels about novelists! There are few things more satisfying than coming across a character in an unrelated book who bears a striking similarity to one’s own favorite writer, whoever that might be. I’m extremely eager to get my paws on a novel by Lynne Truss, Tennyson’s Gift, which, along with the titular poetaster, contains a fictionalized version of my own very favorite author, Lewis Carroll (aka Charles L. Dodgson). Though this book appears to be out of print in the United States, fans of Truss, the “pedant’s pedant,” shouldn’t be surprised to hear she and I share a fav Victorian–grammarians, punsters (what a terrible word), and hyper-critical language mavens alike (often rolled up into one somewhat obsessive personage) tend to be fans of the foremost creep of children’s literature.

There are more fictional depictions of L.C./C.L.D., and I’ve read a couple: Katie Roiphe’s Still She Haunts Me is the hot-house Flowers in the Attic take on things; and Anne Thackeray Ritchie’s slightly forgotten short novel From An Island might contain, in the person of a Mr. Hexham, a more disguised version of the pioneering photographer/writer/mathematician/control freak.

Until someone produces “Finding Wonderland” (starring Johnny Depp, naturally), I remain on the lookout for more literary interpretations…

–Isadora

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