Former leading New Zealand publisher and bookseller, and widely experienced judge of both the Commonwealth Writers Prize and the Montana New Zealand Book Awards, talks about what he is currently reading, what impresses him and what doesn't, along with chat about the international English language book scene, and links to sites of interest to booklovers.
Tuesday, March 02, 2010
There's something about Alice
With its unforgettable creatures, games with language and logic and ever-curious hero, Lewis Carroll's Wonderland is not only vivid but thrillingly different from other imagined worlds.
In the week Tim Burton's film is released, AS Byatt takes another trip down the rabbit hole to celebrate classics she first enjoyed as a child
AS Byatt , The Guardian, Saturday 27 February 2010
As a child, I think, I kept the Alice books in a different box in my brain from other books about imaginary children. I don't think they were read to me – there was "a war on". I think I puzzled them out when I was about seven or eight, younger than Alice Liddell was on the famous "golden afternoon" in 1862 when she and her two sisters rowed from Folly Bridge, Oxford, to Godstow with the 30-year-old Lewis Carroll and his clerical friend Robinson Duckworth, and were told the first version of the story. A child reader's imagination inhabits the world of a book in many different ways, depending on the book.
She walks deep into imaginary forests; she saves desperate beasts; she flirts with brave boys. The Harvard academic Maria Tatar has observed wisely that children do not usually "identify" with fictional children – they stand a little apart inside the fictional world and intensely observe the people and the action.
But Wonderland and the world through the Looking Glass were, I always knew, different from other imagined worlds. Nothing could be changed, although things in the story were always changing. There was, so to speak, nothing going on in the hinterland of the clearing with the Mad Hatter's tea party, or beyond the Red Queen's garden gate. Carroll moves his readers as he moves chess pieces and playing cards. This is not to say that the reader's experience of the world is not vivid, enthralling and entirely memorable. It is just different.
Spaces in these books succeed each other with the arbitrary reality of real dreams, from the long fall through the earth to the hall of locked doors to the pool of tears. There is no other book in which both sizes and distances are so problematic: Alice expands and diminishes; she has to learn to move backwards to go forwards when she is through the looking glass; progress in the looking-glass world is in mad rushes and jumps at inordinate speeds across the chessboard. Even as a child I sensed that this was not surreal nonsense – it was some other kind of order, like the wonderful orders we now see in the fractal geometries of chaos.
Another thing which is odd about reading Alice is that the reader – even a reader aged seven or eight – can never stop thinking about the language. The texture of reading Alice is a series of linguistic puzzles, contradictions and jokes, of which Humpty Dumpty's assertions of his own arbitrary power over words (a word "means what I choose it to mean") are only the most striking. Alice is as much part of this linguistic tissue as the creatures she meets. As she falls through the earth she doesn't feel terror, she thinks, she talks to herself and analyses what is happening and may happen. She is prepared to give as good as she gets in arguments with pigeons, caterpillars, frog footmen, smiling cats and red and white queens. Her main emotion is trying to make sense against increasing odds.