Boyd Tonkin: Through a screen - and back again

The week in books

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The Independent Culture

Photographed in 1870, aged 18, an academic's daughter gazes into the camera set up by the same man who has recorded her over 14 years. Many of his images of her as a small girl suggest a mutinous stroppiness that may be part of her character, or simply the default expression of Victorian kids instructed to stay still for long enough to allow the lenses of the time to capture a stable likeness. Now, as a young woman, Alice Pleasance Liddell looks towards the Oxford mathematician and logician Charles L Dodgson with a defiant, almost accusatory stare. Unasked, he has thrust onto her a kind of immortality. Why should she feel so grateful about that?

The new Alice in Wonderland exhibition at Tate Liverpool (until 25 January) swarms with evocative testimonies to the long-distance stamina of the literary icon. Critics have grumbled that several of its later artworks - Surrealist, Pop or conceptual - betray only a tenuous connection with the funny, puzzling and paradoxical dream-worlds created by "Lewis Carroll" after that Oxford boat-trip with the Liddell sisters on "a golden afternoon" in 1862. But, as an Alice character might say, the less they have to do with books, the closer they're related. "When I use a word," as Humpty Dumpty told us "in rather a scornful tone", "it means just what I choose it to mean". As does a re-created book, or its protean heroine.

Partnered by a catalogue that features incisive essays by Alberto Manguel and Gillian Beer (Alice in Wonderland through the Visual Arts, edited by Gavin Delahunty & Christoph Schulz; Tate Publishing, £24.99), the Liverpool show not only gathers evidence of Alice's wayward artistic afterlife, from Max Ernst and Salvador Dali to Peter Blake, Adrian Piper and Fiona Banner. Items from the era of her birth – the original manuscript, Carroll's notes and drawings, early illustrations and even Victorian merchandise – show how rapidly Alice evolved into a multi-media presence.

The first painting entitled "Alice in Wonderland" (by George Dunlop Leslie) dates from 1879. Stage versions had hit the boards of England earlier in that decade. By the 1890s, Alice toys filled nurseries and Royal Doulton was firing ceramic Cheshire Cats in its Burslem kilns.

Yet Alice's status as an image, icon or idea that steps beyond the text derives from her inky origins. Carroll drew his own pictures to accompany the stories before artist John Tenniel took over with his grotesque but evergreen interpretations. The author's notes reveal how carefully he sought to embed images with words, so that the books themselves act as integrated artworks. Carroll even re-cast a proof sheet of "the mouse's tale" into a collage that mimics that punning appendage – a word-picture assembly that has parallels in earlier poetry (George Herbert, famously) but otherwise became common practice only with the post-Mallarmé avant-garde.

Perhaps we should draw lessons from these experiments in giving a storyteller's fancies substance and endurance, across many different dimensions. Digital publishing, that wonderland or looking-glass world into which all literature now feels obliged to fall, offers its Cheshire Cat smile to readers in the absence of any tangible feline.

Of course, e-books can be enhanced in a dozen directions as pictures, videos, games or soundtracks complement the text. However, the history of Alice indicates just how far the solid volume can reach. On a table in the Tate, a pile of made-over Alices shows how richly artists and writers have reconfigured Miss Liddell and her adventures.

My favourite re-invention comes in Bryan Talbot's extraordinary Alice in Sunderland, in which the graphic novelist puts the tale back into its (little-known) Wearside context. Viewed on an iPad, a digital edition might go some way towards doing justice to the tactile treasures of his enterprise, but on a Kindle? A travesty, at least for now.

So Alice throws up one more paradox. Tales that have opened the minds of generations to the illusory nature of subjective experience – "Life, what is it but a dream?" – turn out to draw their strength from the material qualities of their primary medium. Properly imagined and designed, the printed, illustrated book remains a paper palace for the mind - and no mere house of cards.

Wake up and smell the ink

Whatever their merits, literary prizes pay homage via their title sponsors to fairly prosaic trades: stock-market investment (Man), mobile telephony (Orange), so-so coffee (Costa). Supported by the University of Wales, the Dylan Thomas Prize reminds us via its headline name why this business matters. Worth £30,000, open to English-language writers under 30 in any genre, it was awarded again in Dylan's home of Swansea on Wednesday. The winner is Belfast-born Lucy Caldwell (above) for her Bahrain-set novel of cultural conflict and communion, The Meeting Point. A suggestion: in his bicentenary year, why not re-brand a major fiction award as the Charles Dickens Prize?

Hodder shoots itself in the foot

What's not to love about a juicy plagiarism scandal in the book world? The only detail that denies classic climbdown status to the withdrawal from sale of QR Markham's thriller Assassin of Secrets is that it has happened so fast, and with so little resistance. Published, and then swiftly un-published, by Hodder & Stoughton in the UK and Little, Brown in the US, Markham's spy caper "borrowed" passages on an industrial scale from James Bond novels by John Gardner and Raymond Benson, as well as books by James Bamford, Robert Ludlum and Charles McCarry. See the "Reluctant Habits" site: www.edrants.com/q-r-markham-plagiarist. I blame the corporate publishers, now staffed by ill-read juvenile bunglers who not only fail to spot wholesale extractions from great works (we knew that) but from pop bestsellers too. It was hapless Hodder who, this spring, issued Jeffery Deaver's authorised addition to the 007 canon, Carte Blanche. More fool them that they then granted Markham his licence to drill.

b.tonkin@independent.co.uk

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