Curiouser and curiouser

'Alice's Adventures in Wonderland' has captivated children and adults alike for more than a century. To mark the publication of a new edition, one of Lewis Carroll's literary heirs explains the appeal
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A small boy sits on a beige square of carpet, which sits in turn on a herringbone parquet floor. A vertical flap of window, with uncompromisingly metal mullions, is pushed open into privet suburbia.

A small boy sits on a beige square of carpet, which sits in turn on a herringbone parquet floor. A vertical flap of window, with uncompromisingly metal mullions, is pushed open into privet suburbia. The boy sits among a slew of records, 45s and LPs, some in their sleeves, some out. In front of him is a portable record player, a heavy, foursquare cabinet, with grey cloth stretched over its wooden sides, a black lid, and a rubber mat on the turntable. The speaker is inside the cabinet, covered with a perforated piece of board. The boy has prised this up at one side, so that the staples have come away from their housing. When he plays records, he peeks inside the workings of the record player to see the valves heat up and glow.

The LPs are dramatisations of Treasure Island and The Count of Monte Cristo, there's also a London Symphony Orchestra recording of Prokofiev's Peter and the Wolf, with Peter Ustinov doing the narration. The boy likes to play a 78 of The Songs of Tom Lehrer – he gets a kick from the strident piano and the abandonment of the man's singing, without having the slightest idea of what's being sung about. The boy quite likes the classic dramatisations, but they're wordy and the narrative is drawn out to the point where it's difficult for a four-year-old to follow. He far prefers one of the 45s. This too is a dramatisation, but it's an adapted one. The small boy doesn't know this – any more than he knows who the actors are playing the parts. All he does know is that these few short scenes from Alice's Adventures in Wonderland are wholly ensorcelling.

He lies with Alice on the riverbank, feeling with her the intense, almost sickly torpor of a hot summer afternoon in childhood. He darts with her in pursuit of the White Rabbit – the avatar of all the animals children wish to ensnare. He falls down the White Rabbit's burrow with her, their slow-motion descent echoing the plunge into unconsciousness, into dreams of flying. And once down below, he wanders in her train, through the hypercast of the fervid imagination itself, encountering a talking, disputing animalkind, whose crazy propensity for illogic mirrors his own perception of the adult world.

The 45 lasts only a few minutes – seven on each side. A few short scenes of liberating misrule – and yet they stay with him always. The drenched, avian competitors collapsing beside the pool of tears following the Caucus-Race; the Dodo intoning "Everybody has won and all shall have prizes';' Bill, the poor little lizard, being kicked high into the air by Alice the giantess; the supercilious Caterpillar with its inane inquisition; the Duchess and the Cook singing their sinister song to the pig baby; the playing-card gardeners cravenly slopping paint on the rose bushes in the Queen's garden. And most of all the Mad Hatter's tea party, where time itself has been abandoned, and the demented repartee has a triumphant edge to it, teetering as it does between delirium and hilarity. Every time he plays the record, the small boy feels himself to be walking away from the tea party with Alice, and like her he half hopes that they'll call him back. And along with her, the last thing that he notices are the Mad Hatter and the March Hare trying to put the Dormouse into the teapot.

For the small boy this was his expulsion from Eden. The time spent listening as the Dormouse explained that three sisters who lived in the treacle well drew treacle was for him as golden as treacle itself. Years later, and so uncomfortably grown up that it's as if he has eaten the wrong side of the Caterpillar's mushroom to become upright in a world both workaday and terrifying, the phrase "they drew treacle'' still arises, unbidden, in his inner ear. And when this happens, it always evokes the piquant mood of curiosity he remembers as a child. The pun is no stale joke, it's a numinous fulcrum, well able to lever apart the realms of connotation and perception. For a child, the possibility that the same word can apply to two different states of affairs implies the existence of multiple worlds. And for an adult who can yet again apprehend that mood, the same obtains.

It's this curious form of metempsychosis that a text becomes capable of engineering when it attains the status of a children's classic. If you read The Catcher in the Rye again when you're an adult, it won't manage to reacquaint you with the view of the world you had when you were an adolescent reading it for the first time – and by extension it won't make you feel the intensity of Holden Caulfield's psychic growing pains. By the same token an adult classic, read first when you were immature, and then reread in adulthood, will reveal different facets both of itself and the world. Only the children's classic can plunge you straight back into the timeless and the inchoate, into the realm where imagination is unbounded and curiosity unbridled by disappointment, or cynicism, or both.

I first encountered Alice's Adventures in Wonderland through that 45 record, revolving on its portable player, then I was read the whole book aloud by my mother. Then I read it for myself, leafing through a particularly luxurious edition, replete with the Tenniel illustrations as full-colour plates, each one covered with a sheet of textured tissue paper. In my own childhood such phrases as "drawling, stretching and fainting in coils'' had the status of family shibboleths – if you could pronounce them with the right emphasis it meant that you were one of us. And in the course of time I've come to sing to my own children "Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Bat!'' (which always produces a chorus of dissent), and "Speak Roughly to Your Little Boy'' (which conversely, invariably provokes hilarity, especially if there's a little boy on hand to jiggle unmercifully). And the queries "Do cats eat bats?'' and "Do bats eat cats?'' force such rapid revolutions on my children's imaginations that I can feel them give way to conceptual dizziness. It's another inter-generational epiphany.

I've long been aware of the ever widening torrent of Carrolliana and I've never been unaware of the extent to which Wonderland has marched with other demesnes. The number of writers, artists, musicians and film-makers directly or indirectly influenced by the book is legion: from James Joyce to Jefferson Airplane. In our own era the very name "Wonderland'' has been sinisterly adumbrated by the activities of child abusers on the internet. But it isn't my intention to open up the controversies surrounding the latent or implied sexuality of Alice's creator here (and by extension his creation); although that being noted, it is worth remarking that when Mervyn Peake's illustrations first

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appeared in Britain, in 1954, Graham Greene said of them, "Your Alice is a little bit too much of a gamine.''

No, for me the text itself has always been with me, forming some of the fundamental antinomies that constitute my imagination: the juxtaposition of the quotidian and the fantastic; the transposition of irreconcilable elements; the distortion of scale as a means of renouncing the sensible in favour of the intelligible; and most importantly, abrupt transmogrification conceived of as integral to the human condition. On this reading, I am always falling down a hole, checking the labels on marmalade jars as I float past them; I am constantly trying to draw a muchness; all my life I've been attempting to shinny up the legs of a glass table; and the squeals of babies have – for me – always had a porcine note.

When people ask me (as they often do) what books have influenced me most as a writer I almost always detail the same three: Swift's Gulliver's Travels, Kafka's Metamorphosis and Carroll's Alice's Adventures in Wonderland. What these three share is a marvellous confidence in the primacy of the imagination, and a conviction that the fantastic is anterior to the naturalistic. Swift's masterpiece is a declaration of the polymorphous character of human society, Kafka's of human biology, and Carroll's of reality itself. For me, the revelation at the end of a narrative that it has all been a dream is never unconvincing. A myriad other books have shaped me as a person, and have told me things about the world, but it's these three that have provided a blueprint of what it can be like altogether to subsume the way other people view this world. When a writer tells me that the book that has influenced her most is Ulysses or Madame Bovary or even The Naked Lunch, my suspicions are aroused; for these are texts that are securely located in an adult realm, which take the fact of literary composition as a given. Is it any surprise that the lives of people resemble novels, when those people read too many novels about other people, who in turn read novels?

Having dealt in my own way with the text, a few remarks need to be made about Mervyn Peake's illustrations for Bloomsbury's new edition of Alice's Adventures in Wonderland. It's often said that the illustrated text compromises the imagination, and that, by giving particular form to what's envisioned by a reader, the illustrator vitiates the act of reading. Peake himself remarked on the paradox that the more vivid the scene conjured up by a writer the less in need of illustration it becomes.

However, this is a difficult contention to maintain when it comes to Alice, because Carroll worked closely enough with Tenniel for the text itself to refer the reader specifically to his illustrations. Tenniel's illustrations for Alice were thus a given; and that alone (rather than any intrinsic virtue they may possess) may explain why it is that others have found it so difficult to supplant them. Peake himself recognised this, saying of Tenniel's work, "He is inviolate, for he is embedded in the very fabric of childhood memories. It doesn't seem to matter that his superb powers of invention are to some degree negated by a dreary technique.''

By "dreary'' Peake was undoubtedly referring to the leaden cross-hatching, and the use of undifferentiated planes of colour, which typify Tenniel's work. These are quite distinct from Peake's own fluidity of line, let alone his subtle interpenetrating of stippling and adumbration. The Tenniel illustrations are hieratic – many of them take the form of tableaux. Certainly, Tenniel's Alice is a plangently Victorian miss, a mannish boy-woman, let loose in a crowded, bourgeois drawing room of painfully arranged knick-knacks and taxidermy. Whereas Peake's Alice is more eroticised and more downbeat. In the opening drawing, the curve of her hip acts as an insinuating portal to the netherworld, and her eyes are dilated with dewy astonishment.

Yet Peake's animal characters are more anthropomorphised than Tenniel's; the White Rabbit is trousered, the Caterpillar affects buttons and pantaloons. Only with the Cheshire Cat (who looms over the Red Queen's croquet match like a malevolent, curiously vulpine deity), does his bestiary become remotely beastly.

As for Peake's other human characters, they tend more towards cartoon than Tenniel's. His Red Royalty are asinine fashion victims, potting suspension-bridge headgear; his Mad Hatter is a proto-Bash Street Kids character, distinguished also by a crazy chapeau. Father William's insolent son is an inter-war swell, togged up in a lounge suit. The Duchess – somewhat at variance with the text – is a chinless wonder in an Empire-line dress. But the important thing about Peake's illustrations is their deftness. They're delicately poised at the crossroads where travelling along one carriageway whimsy meets the grotesque, and traversing the other his understated line dips beneath Carroll's hyperboles. What Peake completely understood was that the requirement of fidelity in the realm of the fantastical is entirely supplied by coherence rather than correspondence. His illustrations are all recognisably of the same realm, and therefore they are as valid a depiction of Wonderland as Tenniel's, and arguably the best one achieved since his.

A final word. Curious. Many years of reading many books has led me to a somewhat bizarre literary critical theory, namely that all significant texts are distinguished by the preponderance of a single word. In Alice's Adventures in Wonderland that word is "curious". (In The Brothers Karamazov it's "ecstasy,'' but that needn't concern us here.) The word "curious'' appears so frequently in Carroll's text that it becomes a kind of tocsin awakening us from our reverie. But it isn't the strangeness of Alice's Wonderland that it reminds us of – it's the bizarre incomprehensibility of our own.

This article is taken from Will Self's introduction to the book 'Alice's Adventures in Wonderland', illustrated by Mervyn Peake, to be published by Bloomsbury on 3 September 2001 at £9.99. An exhibition of Mervyn Peake's drawings is being held at Chris Beetles' Gallery, 8 & 10 Ryder Street, London, SW1, from 4 to 18 September.