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.)