Today’s post is by Kasia James, the mastermind and book-mother of the anthology The Milk of Female Kindness — An Anthology of Honest Motherhood, of which I was thrilled to be a part.
Occasionally I hit someone who says that they don’t read. Not literally, although I am tempted to slap into them some sense of what they are missing. What I can’t really understand is how anyone can do without the escapism of books. To be absorbed into another world, and one created just as you would wish it to appear, is no small pleasure in the relentlessly attention grabbing world we live in.
When Angélique asked me to write about a book which had been influential to me, I spent a while tangled up in choice. There are many different types of beauty in books, just as there are in people, and the matter is just as subjective.
I thought of John Wyndham’s novels, which are written with sneakily simple language, so that the reader doesn’t realise the complexity of ideas that they are being asked to understand. I thought of Sarah Water’s fabulously twisted dives into history, as detailed and sensory as a tapestry. I thought of The Princess Bride, which my lover read out loud to me on a French riverbank.
Instead, I have chosen The Thirteen Clocks and The Wonderful O by James Thurber. Wait, you say. That’s a kid’s story! And two books to boot! Well, yes, but when I was growing up we had them compiled into one volume. It’s a book which I’ve known since childhood, and yet come back and read every so often, just for the sheer joy of it. It’s possible that I had it as a bedtime story, as my bibliophile parents did make some slightly odd choices at times.
Both stories are fairytales, and that can be refreshing in itself. They are largely free of social commentary, existential angst or complicated relationships – except ones which you know will end happily. I’ve found the same sort of complete retreat in some of Neil Gaiman’s work, and he too is a fan of Thurber. The copy I have on my shelves is introduced by Gaiman as, “probably the best book in the world.” However, they are unlike any fairytale you have read, or ever will read.
They are full of playfulness. The Golux, for example, says of himself:
“I am the Golux,” said the Golux, proudly, “the only Golux in the world, and not a mere Device… Half the places I have been to, never were. I make things up. Half the things I say are there cannot be found. When I was young I told a tale of buried gold, and men from leagues around dug in the woods. I dug myself.”
“I thought the tale of treasure might be true.”
“You said you made it up.”
“I know I did, but then I didn’t know I had. I forget things too.”
Primarily though, their playfulness comes about in the way that Thurber uses language. He juggles it, tickles it, messes about with it in a way that gives you the same feeling as watching a really talented magician. In some ways, they remind me of The Phantom Tollbooth by Norton Juster.
The whole concept of The Wonderful O is to pick out the fancy beads and see what is left of the necklace. A pirate who hated the letter O, “because his mother had become wedged in a porthole and they couldn’t pull her in, so they had to push her out,” sails to the island of Ooroo, and sets about banishing all words with the letter “O.”
“’Dius gre gling mins gress’ meant ‘Odious ogre ogling ominous ogress,’ but only scholars knew it. Spoken words became a hissing and a mumble, or a murmur and a hum. A man named Otto Ott, when asked his name, could only stutter. Ophelia Oliver repeated hers, and vanished from the haunts of men.’
The Thirteen Clocks also produces conjuring tricks like this astonishing snippet of alliteration and onomatopoeia.
“The brambles and the thorns grew thick and thicker in a ticking thicket of bickering crickets. Father along and stronger, bonged the gongs of a throng of frogs, green and vivid on their lily pads. From the sky came the crying of flies, and the pilgrims leapt over bleating sheep creeping knee deep in a sleepy stream, in which swift and slippery snakes slid and slithered silkily, whispering sinful secrets.”
Tell me the author of that wasn’t having fun.
One of the many things which I love about these books, other than the way he plays with language, is that they remind me that it is really not necessary to write within defined genres, which are of course largely constructed by the publishing industry to be able to flog books to readers. It is hard to sell something you can’t define, but that doesn’t mean that it isn’t worth writing.
I know that Thurber did painfully revise and rewrite parts of these books, and had to be told to stop tinkering, but all that work is concealed from the reader, like the clockwork in an automaton. However, there is nothing laboured or mechanical when you read these stories. They flow and tumble into a different, and above all more lightheaded, world. It’s a world well worth the journey.