Wednesday, June 4, 2008

Discovering literary nonsense down the rabbit hole

It’s been almost two decades since I first followed Alice down the rabbit hole.

I recently picked up a cheap copy of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass, repackaged together by Vintage Books, and was curious (and curiouser) how I would find Lewis Carroll’s stories now.

As a child, I remember being fascinated by pipe-smoking caterpillars and rabbits in dinner jackets, and frustrated that nobody seemed to understand each other (yes, even as an eight year old I was apparently preoccupied with clear communication).

Reading the stories as an adult, I was surprised by the violence and dark undertones of the story, but, more than that, I was fascinated by the endless word plays and bizarre conversations based on nuances of conversation and logic.

The two “Alice” works are classified as literary nonsense, a genre I must confess I didn’t even realise existed until I started researching the Alice phenomenon.

Wikipedia defines literary nonsense as “a genre of literature, whether poetry or prose, that plays with conventions of language and logic through a careful balance of sense and non-sense elements. Its strict adherence to structure is balanced by semantic chaos and play with logic. Usually formal diction and tone are balanced with an inherent topsy-turvyness and absurdity. The effect of nonsense is often caused by an excess of meaning, rather than a lack of it”.

Probably the closest relative to literary nonsense is absurdist theatre, best experienced in Samuel Beckett’s classic play Waiting for Godot.

Like Alice, Godot can be frustrating for a reader looking for plot, character develompent resolution. You’ll find neither in either story.

But – particularly in the case of Alice - once I let go of that need for things to make sense, and just enjoyed the language and sheer cleverness of how Carroll (real name Charles Lutwidge Dodgson) uses it, the experience became sublime.

Given the emphasis on altered states (often brought about by magic mushrooms or cookies), it’s easy to understand why readers over the years have assumed Carroll was either a nutter or a heavy drug user.

But there is a pattern and rhythm to his nonsense that I think speaks instead of a writer who has used his grasp of language and logic to create a timeless tale that still resonates with children because of its fantastical nature, and adults for its cleverness and wit (who knew that most flowers don't speak because their beds are too soft and it puts them to sleep?).

Clearly Carroll, who wrote Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland back in 1865, has been an enormous influence on countless stories across many genres, and I’m pretty confident JK Rowling took some inspiration from Alice’s adventures in developing her magical world.

I’m interested to hear anyone else’s thoughts on the topic.

(The Vintage Books version I read included wonderul illustrations by John Tenniel, and the image above is the cover of the 1898 edition.)


the ink-stained toe-poker said...

I love both those books. Apparently the writing also had something to do with explanaing where he went when he or his niece (the one Alice is based on) had an epilectic fit.

It could also have been the opium?

The reason I'm here though is to let you know of the most amazing graphic novel I've read. It's called The Arrival by local boy Shaun Tan. Honestly, its incredible.


Bec said...

Oh Paula, I love this post - but then, I also love these books. And yes, both because of the fantastical nature of them, but also the fabulous wordplay. I guess this is why I also like Douglas Adams so much...I would love to wax lyrical about all this, but my internet is down, and I am catching up on everything via Matt's mobile broadband thingy, and have just ploughed through 60 emails and want to go to bed. Just had to comment on this post though. And also wanted to say hi...I try and send you an email soon. I'd love to hear how you're getting on :) Cheers, Bec

Paula Weston said...

Hi Bec,

I KNEW you wouldn't be able to resist Alice...

Will chat soon. Must be time for another catch up.


BooksPlease said...

I loved the Alice books as a child and re-read Through the Looking Glass quite recently. I still loved it and found that there is so much in it for me as an adult, which probably was over my head as a child. I love Tenniel's illustrations.

Lewis Carroll was a fascinating person. Last year I read Morton Cohen's biography of him. It took me ages to read. Not everyone agrees with Cohen's interpretation of Carroll's (Dodgson's) life and I've been meaning to read an alternative biog ever since. In particular I would like to read "In the Shadow of the Dreamchild" by Karoline Leach.

gautami tripathy said...

My all time favourite book. I re-read it in 2007. Reviewd too.

Linda Jacobs said...

My British Literature students just read it last week and they are convince he was on some kind of drugs. I think he was just plain brilliant!

Gustav said...

I have not read Alice in Wonderland but have watched the cartoon version with my daughter.

Paula I like how you focus on the work and its "rhythm and patterns" among the apparent "nonsense".

There is a similarity between music and great novels, they both sing to you in an intimate way.

D'Arcy said...

Paula, I haven't read Alice either, something I think upon in shame as an English professor! But, the Jabberwocky will forever be something I can recite over and over, sometimes it makes perfect sense, and sometimes it doesn't. I think that is part of the beauty of Carroll!

Bec C said...

Have just realised that Alice & Co are not on my 'must read' list - what an oversight. Having not read any Carroll, but being familiar with the many famous characters, I guess I would have imagined his books being similiar to the likes of Wind in the Willows and The Jungle Book (just read, and loved), however now suspect that I will find something quite different. Being a great fan of Douglas Adams and having seen another comment comparing the styles, I am looking forward to a good read. Let's see if I can remember this blog name and password!