Feeds:
Posts
Comments

Archive for the ‘Children’s Literature’ Category

Biggles’ Big Adventures: Four Classic Stories Starring the British Empire’s Most Fearless Pilot Adventurer, Captain W.E. Johns (Sevenoaks 2007)

Some of the Biggles short stories, particularly those set during the First World War, are excellent and inventive literature. The Biggles novels, on the other hand, are usually formulaic pot-boilers. Reading them can be like watching the same play over and over again with different scenery. That’s certainly true of the four novels collected here: Biggles in the Baltic (1939), Biggles Sees It Through (1940), Biggles Flies North (1941) and Biggles in the Jungle (1942).

Each has the same plot: Biggles and his comrades Algy and Ginger face a ruthless and cunning enemy, are captured and imprisoned, escape, and ultimately triumph. Sometimes they’re captured and escape more than once. Little else varies but for the landscape, the name of their enemy and the nature of his ruthlessness and cunning. In Biggles in the Baltic and Biggles Sees It Through it’s the Nazi Von Stahlhein; in Biggles Flies North it’s a crook called Brindle McBain and in Biggles in the Jungle it’s a crook called The King of the Forest.

I’ve never managed to finished Biggles in the Baltic, because it’s so dull. There’s little memorable in any of the others apart from a bar scene in Biggles Flies North in which McBain puts a bullet through Biggles’ cup of Bovril and Biggles puts a bullet through McBain’s bottle of whiskey. All the same, reading the middle two novels of this collection has been one of the most interesting literary experiences of my life, because I carried out a simple experiment I’d been meaning to try for some time.

What did I do? I read the the novels upside-down. That is, they were upside-down, not me. I simply turned the book through 180° and read the lines of text right-to-left and from the bottom of the page to the top. It was hard work: from being a fluent, fast and careless adult reader I was transformed into a slow and stumbling learner again. I had to spell some words through letter by letter. I made mistakes and jumped to wrong conclusions about the word I was trying to decipher. It was hard work and the stories were a lot more interesting than they would have been if I’d read in the usual way. They were also more frustrating: when Biggles & Co. were captured or otherwise in difficulty, I couldn’t get to the bits where they escaped or overcame the difficulty as quickly as I wanted to.

And I was much more aware of the acting of reading – its strangeness and its power. Or perhaps you could just say that I was aware of the act of reading. It wasn’t easy and automatic any more. But it might have become so if I’d continued the experiment for long enough. My skill at upside-down reading improved even over the course of two Biggles novels. Something was happening inside my brain: I was re-learning to see words as Gestalts and not as sets of individual letters. Would I ever read upside-down as easily as I normally do? In time, perhaps. I doubt I’ll ever try to find out, but it was certainly an interesting experiment and I may try it again if another suitable book comes my way.

Advertisements

Read Full Post »

The Complete Tales of Beatrix Potter, Beatrix Potter (Frederick Warne 1989)

Is Beatrix Potter the greatest of all children’s writers? No, I don’t think so. But she might be the greatest of all children’s authors. She didn’t simply write: she wrote and drew, creating very clever and funny stories that almost have the quality of folk-tales or myths. C.S. Lewis said that Squirrel Nutkin (1902) “troubled me with what I can only describe as the Idea of Autumn.” It was his “second experience” of the bittersweet longing that he described in his autobiography Surprised by Joy (1955).

The other Potter books, although he “loved them all”, he found “merely entertaining”. Squirrel Nutkin is one of my favourites too, but I don’t find the rest “merely entertaining”. There is something epic, on a miniature scale, about Peter Rabbit’s adventures in Mr. McGregor’s garden. Those are in the book that began everything, The Tale of Peter Rabbit (1902). I was disturbed by the fate of Peter’s father – “put into a pie by Mrs. McGregor” – and by the cat staring at the goldfish when I was young, so I’m almost glad that I never read The Tale of Mr. Tod (1912) until I was grown-up. It’s the darkest and deathliest of Potter’s stories and I wonder if she had the German word Tod in mind when she named the eponym, as Evelyn Waugh did when he created a character called Mr. Todd for A Handful of Dust (1934).

The story was certainly meant as something new, as the opening two lines make clear:

I have made many books about well-behaved people. Now, for a change, I am going to make a story about two disagreeable people, called Tommy Brock and Mr. Tod.

Tommy Brock, a “short bristly fat waddling person with a grin”, is a badger and Mr. Tod, “of a wandering habit” and detectable by odour “half a mile off”, is a fox. Mr. Tod wanders through the story too: it’s Tommy Brock who’s on stage more often. His affability and his joke about “not hav[ing] a square meal for a fortnight” disarm a rabbit grandfather called Old Mr. Bouncer, who is looking after his “rabbit-baby” grandchildren while his daughter Flopsy and son-in-law Benjamin are out. Mr. Bouncer invites Tommy into the family rabbit-hole “to taste a slice of seedcake” and a glass of his “daughter Flopsy’s cowslip wine”. But he falls asleep as Tommy smokes a “cabbage leaf” cigar, only to wake and discover that both Tommy and his grandchildren have disappeared.

Tommy has carried them off in a sack. When his daughter gets back: “He was in disgrace; Flopsy wrung her ears, and slapped him.” Benjamin sets off to track Tommy, helped by the deepness of his footprints under the weight of the sack. It turns out that Tommy has carried the babies off to one of Mr. Tod’s many residences: “something between a cave, a prison, and a tumble-down pig-stye” that stands in the middle of a wood. Benjamin and his cousin Cottontail see how the “setting sun made the window panes glow like red flame”. When Benjamin peeps through a window, he sees “preparations upon the kitchen table that made him shudder”: “an immense empty pie-dish of blue willow pattern, and a large carving knife and fork, and a chopper”, plus “a plate, a tumbler, a knife and fork, salt-cellar, mustard” – “in short, preparations for one person’s supper.”

But that one person, Tommy Brock, has gone to bed in Mr. Tod’s bed “in his boots”, leaving the rabbit-babies still alive, but “shut in the oven!” There’s a sinister atmosphere in this story and it’s as close as Potter got to the Brothers Grimm. But the sinister atmosphere is part of the black humour, which gets even stronger when Mr. Tod turns up, not at all pleased to discover that Tommy has, yet again, taken over one of his homes. He decides to take revenge on the loudly snoring – and apparently deeply asleep – Tommy, but his cunning plan backfires. That’s why Benjamin is able to get his children back. He, like Flopsy and Cottontail, had appeared before in a Potter story: she created a world, not just individual stories.

Black humour had appeared before in her stories too, particularly in “The Tale of Samuel Whiskers, or the Roly-Poly Pudding”. It’s about Tom Kitten, who has a narrow escape when he goes exploring the old house he lives in:

All at once he fell head over heels in the dark, down a hole, and landed on a heap of very dirty rags.

When Tom Kitten picked himself up and looked about him – he found himself in a place that he had never seen before, although he had lived all his life in the house.

It was a very small stuffy fusty room, with boards, and rafters, and cobwebs, and lath and plaster.

Opposite to him – as far away as he could sit – was an enormous rat.

“What do you mean by tumbling into my bed all covered with smuts?” said the rat, chattering his teeth.

“Please sir, the chimney wants sweeping,” said poor Tom Kitten.

“Anna Maria! Anna Maria!” squeaked the rat. There was a pattering noise and an old woman rat poked her head round a rafter.

All in a minute she rushed upon Tom Kitten, and before he knew what was happening–

He’s trussed in string and the enormous rat, Samuel Whiskers, is telling Anna Maria “to make me a kitten dumpling roly-poly pudding for my dinner”. The text goes perfectly with the drawings and I can read that single line – “‘Anna Maria! Anna Maria!’ squeaked the rat.” – again and again, because it’s so simple and so funny. Tom Kitten, like the rabbit-babies in The Tale of Mr. Tod, escapes his impending doom, but he gets nearer to it than they did: he’s been rolled in dough, with only his head and tail sticking out, when the terrier John Joiner, called in by his mother to find her missing son, manages to interrupt proceedings by sawing through the floorboards under which the two rats are living.

The rats flee, although Samuel Whiskers has first remarked to Anna Maria that he doubts the pudding would have been good: “I am persuaded that the knots would have proved indigestible, whatever you may urge to the contrary.” That’s funny and formal English, not funny and simple: Potter has the same variety and delicacy of touch in her writing as she has in her drawing. There’s another good example of a funny line in The Tale of Mrs. Tittlemouse (1910), when the toad Mr. Jackson encounters another of Mrs. Tittlemouse’s uninvited guests:

He met Babbity round a corner, and snapped her up, and put her down again.

“I do not like bumble bees. They are all over bristles,” said Mr. Jackson, wiping his mouth with his coat-sleeve.

“Get out, you nasty old toad!” shrieked Babbitty Bumble.

Again the line is perfectly set up and very funny. Potter’s animals are antagonistic as well as amicable. Her stories might sometimes be simply written, but they’re not saccharine or soppy. Even in the first, The Tale of Peter Rabbit (1902), there’s comi-tragedy: remember that Peter’s father was “put in a pie by Mrs. McGregor”. Potter had a sad story herself, as the biographical notes and introductions to each story describe: her parents educated her at home and kept her away from other children. She found consolation in art and animals, then the two brought her success and fame through her books.

Then they seemed to bring her a husband too: her publisher Frederick Warne proposed marriage; she accepted; and they became engaged. But he died only a few weeks later of “pernicious anaemia” and although she did eventually marry, she never had children of her own. Instead, she became perhaps the greatest of children’s authors, combining life and death, sunshine and sadness, in stories that have delighted millions of children for over a century. This collection brings all of those stories together, from the famous to the obscure, from the ones that display literary genius to the ones that aren’t so successful.

Read Full Post »

Le Tour de Gaule d’Asterix, René Goscinny and Albert Uderzo (Hachette 1967)

When I picked up my second Asterix book as a child, I opened it and then put it down again. I thought I had read it before, because it had the same first page: a map of Gaul, transfixed by a Roman eagle but with a magnifying glass on one small unconquered corner in the north-west, the Gaulish village where the pint-sized warrior Asterix lives with his giant friend Obelix.

After I picked up another book in the series, I realized my mistake. The Asterix books all had that first page. Now I realize something more: that the map is important not just to set the scene but also to assuage the humiliation. The Asterix books are ostensibly about clever Gauls getting the better of clumsy Romans, with the Gauls standing in for children and the Romans for adults. But they’re also about the French and the Germans during the Second World War. In fantasy, the Gauls managed to keep one corner of their homeland their own, fighting off and humiliating the Romans every time they tried to conquer it. In reality, France was entirely conquered and the French were the humiliated ones.

The German occupation was no joke. The Roman occupation could be, though. After all, it took place many centuries before Le Tour de Gaule d’Asterix was first published in 1967, when the German occupation was still a vivid memory for millions of French. Asterix was a salve for the psychic wounds of a nation, but its pharmacological recipe works outside l’Hexagone.* The bright colours, constant action, chaotic plots, and visual and linguistic puns of Asterix will make you feel cheerful whether or not you’re French. And whether or not you read them in French. But reading in French is best, of course. As I’ve said before, if you’re learning a language you should do two things: use a monolingual dictionary and read comics.

With comics, you see language illustrated by action and objects, so you absorb meaning without your mother-tongue getting in the way. That happens all through Le Tour de Gaule, which is about a bet Asterix has with a Roman prefect called Lucius Fleurdelotus, who has been sent by Jules César to stop Asterix and the other villagers disturbing the “paix Romaine” of Gaul. Lucius has had the village surrounded by a palisade of stout wood and tells Asterix from a watch-tower that he and the other villagers will have to stay on their own small piece of land and be forgotten. Asterix defiantly disagrees: “ROMAIN! NOUS SOMMES CHEZ NOUS EN GAULE ET NOUS IRONS OÙ BON NOUS SEMBLERA…” – “Roman! Gaul is our home and we’ll go wherever we please…” He bets Lucius that the palisade will prove useless and that he, Asterix, can go on a tour of Gaul, gathering the culinary specialities of every region for a banquet to which Lucius is formally invited.

Lucius accepts the bet, promising to lift the blockade if he loses it. So Asterix and his best friend Obelix set off on their Tour de Gaule. First of all, Asterix needs a new flask of magic strength-potion from “le druide vénérable du village”, Panoramix. Obelix doesn’t need potion, because he fell in the druid’s cauldron when he was a baby. Unlike Asterix, he can knock Romans down like nine-pins without a draught from the flask. There’s always a lot of Roman-bashing in the Asterix books, but there are always good new jokes too. One of the best here is the visit made by Asterix and Obelix to a “Chars d’Occasion”, or “Second-Hand Chariot” dealership, where the beaming owner, dressed in a camel-hair coat, sells them a gleaming chariot and glossy black horse. “VOUS NE LE REGRETTEREZ PAS,” he assures them: “You won’t regret it.”

They set off, but the horse begins to tire very quickly. Then it begins raining. “NOTRE CHEVAL A DÉTEINT!” gasps Asterix: “Our horse has changed colour!” And one of the chariot’s wheels falls off. They’ve been sold a ringer: the horse was painted black and the chariot unfit for the road. But it doesn’t stop the Tour. They simply commandeer the Roman char de dépannage, or “pick-up chariot”, that arrives to tow away their wreck. There are lots more new jokes before the end of the book, plus the running gag that sees them meet a long-suffering pirate ship in the Mediterranean. And Obelix, as usual, reacts badly to the suggestion that he’s fat.

Because images accompany the action, I understood most of the French easily, but there were puns and regional jokes that went over my head. I didn’t understand the end of the book either, when Asterix gives Lucius the village’s own speciality: “LA CHÂTAIGNE!” – “The chestnut!” As he says it, he knocks Lucius – TCHAC! – right out of his sandals and high into the air. That couldn’t be translated literally into English and a lot must be lost when you read Asterix in another language. But the images remain and sometimes the translation works better than the original. The village druid Panoramix is called Getafix in English, the rotund village chief Abraracourcix is Vitalstatistix, and the caterwauling village bard Assurancetourix is Cacophonix.

Cacophonix would work in French too, but those names are a rare example of an outsider improving on the original. In their way, the Asterix books are one of the great products of French civilization, full of charm, cleverness and joie de vivre. I don’t think anything could make them more enjoyable, but that subtext about the German occupation makes them more interesting.


*“The Hexagon”, as France is known because of its roughly six-sided shape on the map.

Read Full Post »

The Water-Babies by Charles KingsleyThe Water-Babies: A Fairy Tale for a Land Baby, Charles Kingsley (1863)

When I first read this as a child, I didn’t realize that it was one of the strangest books ever written. I do now. And the strangeness was heightened by the old edition I’ve re-read it in, because it came as a double volume that started with Kingsley’s The Heroes, or Greek Fairy Tales (1856).

No-one reading The Heroes would guess what awaited them in the second half of the book. The prose plods, the imagery is strictly conventional – “Then Aietes’ rage rushed up like a whirlwind, and his eyes flashed fire” – and Kingsley makes interesting stories dull. I quickly gave up when I tried to read them.

Maybe I was anticipating The Water-Babies too much. It starts almost conventionally, but it has an unconventional hero: “a little chimney-sweep” called Tom. He’s unwashed, unlettered, untaught, and unfairly treated by his master in “a great town in the north country”. But he accepts the hardships of his life, finds fun where he can, and thinks of “the fine times coming, when he would be a man, and a master sweep, and sit in the public-house with a quart of beer and a long pipe, and play cards for silver money, and wear velveteens and ankle-jacks, and keep a white bull-dog with one grey ear, and carry her puppies in his pocket, just like a man.”

That first long paragraph of The Water-Babies is already richer and more vivid than the whole of The Heroes. And the book hasn’t got strange yet. It starts to do so when Tom is taken into the country to sweep the chimneys of Harthover House, the grand home of the squire Sir John Harthover:

[It] had been built at ninety different times, and in nineteen different styles, and looked as if somebody had built a whole street of houses of every imaginable shape, and then stirred them together with a spoon.

For the attics were Anglo-Saxon.

The third door Norman.

The second Cinque-cento.

The first-floor Elizabethan.

The right wing Pure Doric.

The centre Early English, with a huge portico copied from the Parthenon.

The left wing pure Boeotian, which the country folk admired most of all, became it was just like the new barracks in the town, only three times as big.

The grand staircase was copied from the Catacombs at Rome.

The back staircase from the Tajmahal at Agra. […]

The cellars were copied from the caves of Elephanta.

The offices from the Pavilion at Brighton.

And the rest from nothing in heaven, or earth, or under the earth. (The Water-Babies, ch. 1)

That’s an early taste of the eccentric lists and juggling of ideas to come. Tom begins to sweep the chimneys of Harthover House, but accidentally comes down in the bedroom of the squire’s daughter as she lies asleep in bed. She’s the “most beautiful little girl Tom had ever seen”. And she’s completely clean. Then Tom notices someone else in the room: “standing close to him, a little ugly, black, ragged figure, with bleared eyes and grinning white teeth.”

He turns on it angrily, then realizes it’s his own reflection in a “great mirror, the like of which [he] had never seen before.” For the first time in his life, he understands that he is dirty. The knowledge startles and shames him, so he tries to flee up the chimney. But he upsets the fire-irons and wakes the little girl. She screams, thinking he’s a thief; and Tom’s adventures begin. He leaves the little girl’s bedroom by the window, climbing down the magnolia tree outside, and runs off.

Soon the whole house and its staff are chasing him, but he tricks them off his trail, “as cunning as an old Exmoor stag”, and makes off through a wood, then onto the hills of a moor. After the grand catalogue of architectural styles, Kingsley’s descriptions become detailed and naturalistic: “[Tom] saw great spiders there, with crowns and crosses marked on their backs, who sat in the middle of their webs, and when they saw Tom coming, shook them so fast that they became invisible.” But when he disturbs a grouse washing itself in sand, it runs off and tells its wife about the end of the world. Like Tom, the reader has entered a new world where animals think and talk.

But the truly big transformation is still to come. The sun is very hot as Tom climbs the limestone hills and starts down the other side. He grows thirsty and begins to suffer from sun-stroke. When he seeks help at a dame-school, he’s given some milk and a place to rest, but his head is ringing and he wants to be clean. He walks to a stream in a nearby meadow and bathes in it. Then he falls asleep in it:

Ah, now comes the most wonderful part of this wonderful story. Tom, when he woke, for of course he woke — children always wake after they have slept exactly as long as is good for them — found himself swimming about in the stream, being about four inches, or — that I may be accurate — 3.87902 inches long and having round the parotid region of his fauces a set of external gills (I hope you understand all the big words) just like those of a sucking eft, which he mistook for a lace frill, till he pulled at them, found he hurt himself, and made up his mind that they were part of himself, and best left alone. (ch. II)

He’s now a Water-Baby and can begin his amphibious adventures. As the title suggests, water is central to this book: it’s a protean, ever-changing medium, with the power to transform, transport and cleanse. And it has a lot in common with language, which is also protean and transformative.

So Kingsley plays with language as he describes water and its inhabitants. I thought he was making fun of scientific terminology – “3.87902 inches long and having round the parotid region of his fauces a set of external gills” is just the start – but apparently he was a friend of Charles Darwin and accepted Evolution. A lot of that goes on in this book: physical, intellectual and moral. Tom evolves from boy to Water-Baby, but he has a lot of bad habits to unlearn as he travels down the stream and the river into which evolves. As part of his education, he talks with all kind of animals:

And as the creature sat in the warm bright sun, a wonderful change came over it. It grew strong and firm; the most lovely colours began to show on its body, blue and yellow and black, spots and bars and rings; out of its back rose four great wings of bright brown gauze; and its eyes grew so large that they filled all its head, and shone like ten thousand diamonds.

“Oh, you beautiful creature!” said Tom; and he put out his hand to catch it.

But the thing whirred up into the air, and hung poised on its wings a moment, and then settled down again by Tom quite fearless.

“No!” it said, “you cannot catch me. I am a dragon-fly now, the king of all the flies; and I shall dance in the sunshine, and hawk over the river, and catch gnats, and have a beautiful wife like myself. I know what I shall do. Hurrah!” And he flew away into the air, and began catching gnats. (ch. III)

Tom also meets wicked otters and snobbish salmon. Then he reaches the sea, realm of the ever-changing god Proteus, and things get even stranger. He talks with hermit-crabs and lobsters as he searches for other Water-Babies. Words and ideas run and swirl through the story like currents, and so do emotions. Tom experiences both joy and sadness:

And then there came by a beautiful creature, like a ribbon of pure silver with a sharp head and very long teeth; but it seemed very sick and sad. Sometimes it rolled helpless on its side; and then it dashed away glittering like white fire; and then it lay sick again and motionless.

“Where do you come from?” asked Tom. “And why are you so sick and sad?”

“I come from the warm Carolinas, and the sandbanks fringed with pines; where the great owl-rays leap and flap, like giant bats, upon the tide. But I wandered north and north, upon the treacherous warm gulf-stream, till I met with the cold icebergs, afloat in the mid ocean. So I got tangled among the icebergs, and chilled with their frozen breath. But the water-babies helped me from among them, and set me free again. And now I am mending every day; but I am very sick and sad; and perhaps I shall never get home again to play with the owl-rays any more.” (ch. IV)

That’s a description of an oar-fish, I think. When Tom finds the Water-Babies of whom it spoke, he completes his moral education under the guidance of two mother-fairies, the ugly Mrs. Bedonebyasyoudid and the beautiful Mrs. Doasyouwouldbedoneby. But the ugly can become beautiful: Kingsley was a Christian and this is a moralistic story too. The dirt that Tom has to lose is spiritual, not just moral and physical: he saw a crucifix in the little girl’s bedroom and didn’t know what it was.

But there’s too much going on in The Water-Babies for any simple reading of Kingsley’s aims. Or perhaps I’m saying that because I’m not a Christian. Either way, the book certainly isn’t conventional in its Christianity. Like C.S. Lewis’s Narnia or J.R.R. Tolkien’s Middle-earth, Kingsley’s world is big enough for non-believers. But it isn’t as coherent as Narnia or Middle-earth, or as easy to enter as Wonderland. That’s part of why The Water-Babies isn’t as famous or as widely read today. Lewis Carroll played with both logic and language; Kingsley plays with both life and language.

That’s what I like about this book. You’ll find vivid little naturalistic touches like spiders shaking in their webs and words like “Necrobioneopalaeonthydrochthonanthropopithekology”. If Charles Dickens and Lewis Carroll had collaborated on a book, it might have ended up something rather like The Water-Babies. And James Joyce would have been good as a collaborator too. I don’t know if he was influenced by The Water-Babies, but he could have been. He too was obsessed with language and water. Both of them are at the heart of this Fairy Tale for a Land Baby.

Read Full Post »

call-of-the-wild-and-white-fang-by-jack-londonThe Call of the Wild, White Fang, and Other Stories, Jack London (Penguin American Library 1981)

The Call of the Wild (1903) and White Fang (1906) were two of the most powerful books I ever read as a child. I had strong memories of the suffering of the sled-dogs and the cruelty and callousness of the men in the former, of the ruthlessness and viciousness of the dogs in the latter. And I had strong memories of the savage cold and snow of Canada in both.

Re-reading them as an adult, I’ve discovered that Jack London is like J.R.R. Tolkien: his literary talent didn’t match his literary ambition. Mark Twain said that Wagner’s music is better than it sounds. You could say that London’s and Tolkien’s books are better than they read. Their ideas are interesting, their themes massive, but their prose lets them down. Otherwise they might have been among the greatest writers, rather than just among the greatest story-tellers.

The Call of the Wild and White Fang are certainly good stories. They’re complementary, the first telling the story of a tame dog that has to learn to be savage, the other the story of a savage dog that has to learn to be tame. In the first, Buck is a powerful, thick-pelted family pet living “in a big house in the sun-kissed Santa Clara valley”. He doesn’t know that his power and his pelt have suddenly become very valuable:

Buck did not read the newspapers, or he would have known that trouble was brewing, not alone for himself, but for every tide-water dog, strong of muscle and with warm, long hair, from Puget Sound to San Diego. Because men, groping in the Arctic darkness, had found a yellow metal, and because steamship and transportation companies were booming the find, thousands of men were rushing into the Northland. These men wanted dogs, and the dogs they wanted were heavy dogs, with strong muscles by which to toil, and furry coats to protect them from the frost. (The Call of the Wild)

And so Buck is dog-napped, treated cruelly for the first time in his life, and transported to the far north, where he learns “The Law of Club and Fang” as he works pulling a sled. White Fang, the hero of the second book, knows the Law of the Fang from the beginning, because he’s born in the wild, part dog, but mostly wolf:

The aim of life was meat. Life itself was meat. Life lived on life. There were the eaters and the eaten. The law was: EAT OR BE EATEN. (ch. V, “The Law Of Meat”)

Later, when he’s captured by Indians, he learns the Law of the Club. He also learns about cruelty, sadism and hate. Finally, he learns about love, when he acquires a good master and is tamed by kindness.

But he always knew about another kind of love: the kind explored in the short story “Love of Life” (1906), which is also included here. It’s about an injured gold-miner abandoned in the Canadian wilderness who drives himself through “frightful days of snow and rain” to the coast in search of rescue. He nearly starves, he’s nearly killed by a wolf, and his feet become “shapeless lumps of raw meat”, but he’s sustained by “Love of Life”.

The dog Bâtard, in the story of the same name (1904), is sustained by hate and his desire for revenge over his cruel master. Dogs aren’t really dogs in Jack London’s stories: they’re furry humans on four legs, vehicles for London’s Nietzschean ideas about combat, cunning and will. Richard Adams is much more successful at putting himself into the lives of animals, or keeping himself out, but I’m pretty sure that London’s stories were an inspiration for Watership Down (1972).

I’m even surer that they were an inspiration for Conan the Barbarian. I was reminded of Conan a lot as I read and Robert E. Howard was fascinated by the same things: violence, fighting, cruelty, the struggle for survival, and the relation between civilization and savagery. White Fang might have howled in agreement at this, from the Conan story “Beyond the Black River” (1935):

The woodsman sighed and stared at his calloused hand, worn from contact with ax-haft and sword-hilt. Conan reached his long arm for the wine-jug. The forester stared at him, comparing him with the men about them, the men who had died along the lost river, comparing him with those other wild men over that river. Conan did not seem aware of his gaze.

“Barbarism is the natural state of mankind,” the borderer said, still staring somberly at the Cimmerian. “Civilization is unnatural. It is a whim of circumstance. And barbarism must always ultimately triumph.”

Howard was a better writer than London, but I’m not sure that he was as complex and interesting a thinker. He certainly didn’t live as interesting a life. Part of the power of London’s writing comes from the knowledge that he had experienced what he wrote about: life-and-death struggles between man and the elements, between man and man, between man and beast. He was influenced by Nietzsche and may have influenced fascism in his turn. He certainly had racial and social ideas that horrify many people today.

Those ideas aren’t prominent in The Call of the Wild and White Fang, which helps explain why these are now by far his most famous books. That they are animal stories helps even more: they appeal to children and children don’t notice the clumsiness of his prose. But he was a prolific writer, despite dying in 1916 at only the age of forty, and I want to try more of his work.

Read Full Post »

The Plague Dogs by Richard AdamsThe Plague Dogs, Richard Adams (Penguin 1977)

Reading a book in childhood is like visiting an island. You land, you explore, you sail away. That’s when the island starts to sink. Sometimes it sinks quickly, vanishing beneath the sea, swallowed into the subconscious. I’ve completely forgotten a lot of books I read in my childhood. But sometimes a literary island sinks slowly and incompletely, leaving reefs and outcrops. A powerful story can stay with you for life.

The Plague Dogs was like that for me. It’s a long time since I last read it, but parts of it had stayed with me, never sinking into the subconscious. Things that never sank included the sounds and smells of experimental pigeons in a darkened laboratory and old Tyson’s “R.N.K. theory” about the origins of their homing instinct: “Reckon nobody knaws” (pg. 28). Other parts weren’t far underwater and I remembered them as I read, like the monkey kept isolated in a tank until it becomes catatonic. But some of it had sunk beyond recall, like the fox who meets Rowf and Snitter, the dogs of the title who have escaped from a research laboratory in the Lake District. Why did I remember the pigeons and forget the fox, when the pigeons are gone in a couple of pages and the fox – “the tod” – is there chapter after chapter, behaving and talking in a highly memorable way?

“Noo give ower,” said the creature in the dark. “Gan canny. Lez wez aall be marrers, ne need fer barneys. Stick wi’ me and we’ll aall be champion. Else ye’ll be deed seun, like Ah towld yez.” (Fit III, pg. 95)

Tod smells memorable too, particularly to a dog: Snitter and Rowf think that he has a “wild” and “exciting” smell, “a sharp, killing smell, a furtive smell, trotting, preying, slinking through the darkness” (pg. 92). Like Adams’ much more famous Watership Down (1972), this book is good at invoking the sensory world of animals and making you experience the world through their eyes, nose and ears. But Watership Down is much more famous partly because it’s a much better book. It also has an uplifting theme, not a upsetting one. It’s about animals finding new lives, not animals being tortured in the name of science.

And for me the island of Watership Down never sank beneath the waves, because I’ve never stopped re-reading it. It’s a strange, haunting and beautiful book, with more seasons and fewer humans in it than The Plague Dogs. It has more landscapes too. The Plague Dogs takes place from Friday 15th October to Saturday 27th November in the bleak landscape of the Lake District: hills, stones, tarns and occasional trees, as described by Adams and drawn by Alfred Wainwright. The drawings are usually better than the text, because they aren’t experimental or extravagant. Adams has one big experiment in Watership Down and it works: the invention of Lapine, the rabbit-language. Like Lovecraft’s Cthulhu and R’lyeh, Adams’ Thayli and Hlao-roo are anti-anthropocentric, loosening the mind’s hold on the familiar, making us think from a new perspective.

He doesn’t invent a new language for this book, but Snitter the fox-terrier is like Fiver the under-sized rabbit in Watership Down. They’re both visionaries, but Snitter’s visions are wilder and less believable, because he’s had brain-surgery at the laboratory from which he and Rowf have escaped. The laboratory, a “former fell farm on the east side of Coniston Water”, is called “Animal Research, Scientific and Experimental”, or “A.R.S.E”, for short. That kind of crude satire doesn’t go well with high-flown passages like this one, describing the food fed in individual packages to the dogs being experimented on at the laboratory:

It were, as Sir Thomas Browne says, an excellent quaere to consider, privatim et seriatim, what drugs, what charms, what conjuration and what mighty magic these packages contained. They were indeed miracles of rare device. One included, infused with the liver and offal, stimulants able to banish sleep, or to cause the consumer to perform, on the morrow, prodigies of endurance – to fight, to fast, to tear himself, to drink up eisel [vinegar], eat a crocodile. Others contained paralytics which suspended colour perception, hearing, taste, smell; analgesics destroying the ability to feel pain, so that the subject stood wagging his tail while a hot iron was drawn along his ribs; hallucinogens able to fill the eye of the beholder with more devils than vast hell can contain, to transform the strong to weaklings, the resolute to cowards, to plunge the intelligent and alert head over ears into idiocy. (“Fit I”, pg. 17)

Passages like that remind me of what Housman says about Swinburne’s attitude to literature: “he dragged this subject into the midst of all other subjects, and covered earth and sky and man with the dust of the library”. Adams knows a lot about literature, but doesn’t always know how to wear his knowledge lightly. He tries to imitate Dickens too: he crowds the book with characters, many of them supposed to be grotesque, like Digby Driver, an amoral crusading journalist, and Bernard Bugwash, the M.P. for Lakeland Central. But few of them come to life: he doesn’t have Dickens’ vivificative powers.

One human who does come partly to life – Geoffrey Westcott, a bank-clerk from Windermere – ends up being eaten by Rowf and Snitter. That’s something else I’d forgotten. Perhaps it wasn’t memorable because Rowf and Snitter don’t truly come to life themselves. Not for me, at least, but then I didn’t like dogs much when I was young and like them even less now. That’s part of why it’s taken me so long to re-read this book. It’s powerful in patches, despite the occasional silliness and longueurs, and although in some ways it made me think less of Adams as an author, in another way it made me think more. Watership Down was the first book I read by him and I got the impression there that he didn’t think much of dogs. This is from a story about how El-ahrairah, the rabbits’ legendary prince of thieves, tricks a dog called Rowsby Woof:

“I am the Fairy Wogdog, messenger of the great dog-spirit of the East, Queen Dripslobber. Far, far in the East her palace lies. Ah, Rowsby Woof, if only you could see her mighty state, the wonders of her kingdom! The carrion that lies far and wide upon the sands! The manure, Rowsby Woof! The open sewers! Oh, how you would jump for joy and run nosing about!” […]

“Oh, Fairy Wogdog!” cried Rowsby Woof. “What joy it will be to grovel and abase myself before the Queen! How humbly I shall roll upon the ground! How utterly I shall make myself her slave! What menial cringing will be mine! I will show myself a true dog!” (ch. 41, “The Story of Rowsby Woof and the Fairy Wogdog”)

Rowsby Woof is “the most objectionable, malicious, disgusting brute that ever licked a man’s hand”, and he’s rightly deceived by El-ahrairah’s lies about Queen Dripslobber and her two “noble attendants, the fairies Postwiddle and Sniffbottom”. But Adams isn’t expressing his own disdain for dogs: he’s expressing the disdain of rabbits in the story. I realized that when I read The Plague Dogs. It doesn’t satirize dogs, it sympathizes with them. Unfortunately, I’m still with the rabbits. I don’t like dogs and I don’t think this book is half as good as Watership Down. But its flaws make it interesting and it captures something of the Lake District and something of England in a vanished era, the 1970s. And if you like dogs, you’ll probably like it more than me, because there is a happy ending.

Read Full Post »

Treasure Island by Robert Louis Stevenson (French)Treasure Island (1883) and Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1885), Robert Louis Stevenson

These two books contain two of the greatest stories ever written. But they’re curiously different in style, despite the brief time that separates them. Treasure Island has deep pages, Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde has shallow ones – paper-thin, you might say. In the former, the prose vividly evokes the sounds, sights and smells of the eighteenth century: there’s a three-dimensional world beneath the words and you read almost as though you’re looking into an aquarium. When you’ve finished the story, you feel as though you’ve lived it, as though you’ve really met the characters who moved through it, really had the adventures that Jim Hawkins describes. Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde isn’t like that. I read it, I don’t live it, because the words don’t transcend language and I don’t forget the printed page as I do in Treasure Island. The closest the story comes to conjuring a moment of reality is perhaps here:

They mounted the stair in silence, and still with an occasional awe-struck glance at the dead body, proceeded more thoroughly to examine the contents of the cabinet. At one table, there were traces of chemical work, various measured heaps of some white salt being laid on glass saucers, as though for an experiment in which the unhappy man had been prevented.

“That is the same drug that I was always bringing him,” said Poole; and even as he spoke, the kettle with a startling noise boiled over.

This brought them to the fireside, where the easy-chair was drawn cosily up, and the tea-things stood ready to the sitter’s elbow, the very sugar in the cup. (Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, “The Last Night”)

It’s a clever domestic touch amid the horror that has gone before and the horror that is to come. But Treasure Island is full of touches like that, bringing the world of the story before the mind’s eye or ear or nose: the notch in the “big signboard of Admiral Benbow”, left by Bill’s cutlass as he aims a blow at Black Dog; the “five or six curious West Indian shells” in Bill’s sea-trunk and the “piece of pigtail tobacco bitten away at the end” in his pocket; the “smell of sodden leaves and rotting tree trunks” at the Hispaniola’s first anchorage; the death-shriek that sends marsh-birds whirring aloft when a loyal sailor is murdered; O’Brien’s red cap floating on the surface and the baldness of his bare head beneath the rippling water; Long John Silver’s parrot’s “pecking at a piece of bark” in the dark; the “wood ash” on the black spot handed to Silver, which soils Jim’s fingers; the “heavy-scented broom and many flowering shrubs” on Spy-glass Hill; the grass sprouting on the bottom of the “great excavation” where Flint’s treasure had been; the “strange Oriental” coins “stamped with what looked like wisps of string or bits of spider’s web”; and many more.

The characterization is excellent too. Treasure Island is full of memorable figures, cleverly seen from (mostly) a boy’s perspective: Bill, Blind Pew, the Squire, Ben Gunn, Israel Hands and, most memorable of all, Long John Silver, the charming backstabber and affable rogue. They’re good, evil, pathetic, frightening, cunning, stupid, murderous, brave and more. Hands’ mind and motives are captured in a single line: “I want their pickles and wines, and that.” And here’s Ben Gunn’s long exile evoked in tragicomic dialogue: “Well, many’s the long night I’ve dreamed of cheese — toasted, mostly — and woke up again, and here I were.”
Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde by Robert Louis Stevenson
The characters in Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde don’t live on the page like that: Hyde is described as evil, but he isn’t frightening like Blind Pew. Hyde is words on a page; Pew wrenches arms and skips nimbly from the parlour of the Admiral Benbow. His stick goes “tap-tapping” on a “frozen road”. He lives, and dies, before the mind’s eye. But one thing the characters of the two books have in common is that they’re almost all male. There’s a cook and a housemaid in Jekyll and Hyde, Jim’s mother and Silver’s “old Negress” in Treasure Island, and that’s it, unless you count the Hispaniola, Silver’s parrot and the sea.

This paucity of female characters links Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde with Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray (1890) and Herman Melville’s Billy Budd (1924). Those two books also have shallow pages. Billy Budd, in fact, is the shallowest book I’ve ever come across. All I found in it was words conjuring nothing: there were no sounds, sights or smells to the story:

The lieutenants and other commissioned gentlemen forming Captain Vere’s staff it is not necessary here to particularize, nor needs it to make any mention of any of the warrant-officers. But among the petty-officers was one who having much to do with the story, may as well be forthwith introduced. His portrait I essay, but shall never hit it. This was John Claggart, the Master-at-arms. But that sea-title may to landsmen seem somewhat equivocal. Originally, doubtless, that petty-officer’s function was the instruction of the men in the use of arms, sword or cutlas. But very long ago, owing to the advance in gunnery making hand-to-hand encounters less frequent and giving to nitre and sulphur the preeminence over steel, that function ceased; the Master-at-arms of a great war-ship becoming a sort of Chief of Police, charged among other matters with the duty of preserving order on the populous lower gun decks. (Billy Budd, chapter 8)

I found the book boring and a chore to read. That’s not true of Stevenson’s and Wilde’s stories, which are both about temptation and damnation. But the reality conjured by those two authors is almost a theatrical one, as though the characters are on a stage surrounded by props and special effects:

It was a wild, cold, seasonable night of March, with a pale moon, lying on her back as though the wind had tilted her, and a flying wrack of the most diaphanous and lawny texture. The wind made talking difficult, and flecked the blood into the face. It seemed to have swept the streets unusually bare of passengers, besides; for Mr. Utterson thought he had never seen that part of London so deserted. (Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, “The Last Night”)

The wind shook some blossoms from the trees, and the heavy lilac-blooms, with their clustering stars, moved to and fro in the languid air. A grasshopper began to chirrup by the wall, and like a blue thread a long thin dragon-fly floated past on its brown gauze wings. Lord Henry felt as if he could hear Basil Hallward’s heart beating, and wondered what was coming. […] “How horribly unjust of you!” cried Lord Henry, tilting his hat back and looking up at the little clouds that, like ravelled skeins of glossy white silk, were drifting across the hollowed turquoise of the summer sky. […] There was a rustle of chirruping sparrows in the green lacquer leaves of the ivy, and the blue cloud-shadows chased themselves across the grass like swallows. (The Picture of Dorian Gray, chapter 1)

Lord Henry ponders the “subtle magic” of language and asks himself: “Was there anything so real as words?” Yes, I would say, and things more real too, but the attempted paradox is a reminder that Wilde is not striving for realism. I don’t think he could have achieved it as Stevenson could and often did. Stevenson was a better writer, but The Picture of Dorian Gray is a more fully realized book. It’s longer, after all. Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde is as short as the dream or nightmare it resembles: it offers the ingredients for horror, but you have to cook some of them for yourself. Treasure Island isn’t a dream: it’s an aquarium or a magic mirror. All three are books to return to again and again over a lifetime, but for me Stevenson’s literary stature seems to grow, Wilde’s to shrink, each time I do so.

Read Full Post »

Front cover of an Armada edition of William in Trouble by Richmal CromptonWilliam in Trouble, Richmal Crompton (1927)

This may be my favourite William book, which means that it’s very good. Richmal Crompton (1890-1969) had ambitions to be a serious adult writer, but I doubt her books for adults can be as good as her books for children. Which are books for adults too and may even be informed by the classics she studied at university. My theory is that the Outlaws represent the four Greek humours: the gang consists of William Brown and his three chief friends, Ginger, Henry, and Douglas. William is choleric, Ginger sanguine, Henry phlegmatic and Douglas melancholic. Their names seem to reflect this: choleric literally means “bilious” and bile is brown like William’s surname; sanguine literally means “bloody” and Ginger has red hair; melancholic literally means “black-biled” and Douglas is from the Gaelic Dubhghlas, meaning “dark river”:

“We can’t fight him — not if he’s grown-up,” said Douglas gloomily. Douglas was always something of a pessimist. (ch. 10, “William to the Rescue”)

But the Outlaws are also miniature satyrs, lordlings of misrule who introduce chaos into the orderliness and calm of what J.G. Ballard, a fan of the series, called a “curiously empty middle-class world”. I don’t think the emptiness of the world is deliberate: Crompton just doesn’t seem interested in topography and architecture. The homes of William and his friends, the old barn they use as a headquarters, the countryside they roam, the church they reluctantly attend, the shops and high street in their village — they’re just settings for what really interests her: children and their psychology. This, from the slightly earlier More William (1922), is an excellent piece of prose and observation, capturing the fearlessness and skills of early childhood:

He [William] was getting jolly hungry. It must be after lunch-time. But it would spoil it all to go home too early. Here he caught sight of a minute figure regarding him with a steady gaze and holding a paper bag in one hand. William stared down at him.

“Wot you dressed up like that for?” said the apparition, with a touch of scorn in his voice.

William looked down at his sacred uniform and scowled. “I’m a scout,” he said loftily.

“’Cout?” repeated the apparition, with an air of polite boredom. “Wot’s your name?”

“William.”

“Mine’s Thomas. Will you catch me a wopse? Look at my wopses!”

He opened the bag slightly and William caught sight of a crowd of wasps buzzing about inside the bag.

“Want more,” demanded the infant. “Want lots more. Look. Snells!”

He brought out a handful of snails from a miniature pocket, and put them on the ground.

“Watch ’em put their horns out! Watch ’em walk. Look! They’re walkin’. They’re walkin’.”

His voice was a scream of ecstasy. He took them up and returned them to their pocket. From another he drew out a wriggling mass.

“Wood-lice!” he explained, casually. “Got worms in ’nother pocket.”

He returned the wood-lice to his pocket except one, which he held between a finger and thumb laid thoughtfully against his lip. “Want wopses now. You get ’em for me.”

William roused himself from his bewilderment.

“How — how do you catch ’em?” he said.

“Wings,” replied Thomas. “Get hold of their wings an’ they don’t sting. Sometimes they do, though,” he added casually. “Then your hands go big.”

A wasp settled near him, and very neatly the young naturalist picked him up and put him in his paper prison.

“Now you get one,” he ordered William.

William determined not to be outshone by this minute but dauntless stranger. As a wasp obligingly settled on a flower near him, he put out his hand, only to withdraw it with a yell of pain and apply it to his mouth.

“Oo—ou!” he said. “Crumbs!”

Thomas emitted a peal of laughter.

“You stung?” he said. “Did it sting you? Funny!”

William’s expression of rage and pain was exquisite to him. (More William, ch. IX)

William isn’t always triumphant in the series, you see, and in one story (“April Fool’s Day”, I think) he’s even humiliated by a much less formidable figure than Thomas. Crompton doesn’t write a lot about the sadism of childhood, but it’s there all the same, as that extract shows, along with the irrationality, superstition, and love of noise and excitement. William supplies a lot of all those, particularly the last two, being the ugly, dirty, disruptive opposite of his calm mother and beautiful sister Ellen. In “William and the Fairy Daffodil”, the second story in this book, he’s an unauthorized addition to a play being performed by a girls’ school. The audience is shocked and disturbed by a “curious apparition” in “yellow butter muslin”, which delivers its misremembered lines, then sits down, “stern, bored and contemptuous”, until:

…a light as at some happy memory came into its face. It pulled up the butter muslin to its waist, revealing muddy boots, muddy legs and muddy trousers, plunged its hand into its pocket and brought out a nut, which it proceeded to crack with much facial contortion and bared teeth.

William’s mother is in the audience to witness the spectacle, as members of his family so often and improbably are when he breaks the rules. The embarrassment he causes them is always an important part of the stories. So are his chivalry and wayward but strong sense of honour. That’s how Violet Elizabeth Bott, his lisping, iron-willed, six-year-old female admirer, manages to control him and the other Outlaws. She’s not at her best in William in Trouble, but does utter her famous catchphrase when forcing the Outlaws to admit her to the staff of the paper they’ve set up:

Violet Elizabeth dried her tears. She saw that they were useless and she did not believe in wasting her effects.

“All right,” she said calmly. “I’ll thcream then. I’ll thcream, an’ thcream, an’ thcream till I’m thick.”

More than once William had seen the small but redoubtable lady fulfil this threat quite literally. He watched her with fearsome awe. Violet Elizabeth with a look of fiendish determination on her angelic face opened her small mouth.

“’Sall right,” said William brokenly. “Come on — write if you want to.”

The domineering William much prefers the demure and dimpled Joan, who’s happy to let him control events. “The Mammoth Circus” he arranges to welcome her home in this book succeeds in introducing more chaos into the adult world. He hides its star performers in the apparently empty Rose Mount School and they end up driving out the foolish and credulous women who have flocked there to a convention of the Society for the Study of Psychical Philosophy.

Crompton often uses William like that to deflate pretentious, superstitious and self-important adults. Later in the book he’s mistaken for a musical prodigy and produces a “Bacchanalian riot of inharmonious sounds” on the Vicarage piano, which the wives of the vicar and squire compete to praise. Bacchanalian is the mot juste: the eternally youthful William, eleven both when the series began in 1921 and when it ended in 1970, introduces the drunkenness of the irrational and unplanned into middle-class adult sobriety, as some of Saki’s anti-heroes do. Crompton doesn’t have all of Saki’s subtlety or much of his malice, but in her way she’s rebelling against the same conformity and rigidity, while recognizing that rebellion has its own flaws.

She’s one up on Saki in having an excellent illustrator, Thomas Henry, who enhances her books as Tenniel did for Lewis Carroll’s or Quentin Blake did for J.P. Martin’s. Henry obviously enjoyed portraying the ugly, stocky, shockheaded William and although the pictures here aren’t the best I’ve seen by him, one is a classic: William on stage as Fairy Daffodil, confronting the dainty Fairy Bluebell:

“It’s not my turn,” he hissed. “I’ve just spoke.”

That’s William in trouble again.

Read Full Post »