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Black Lamb


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Wondrous land

Finding Charles Dodgson and Alice Liddell everywhere

June 1st, 2003


I was born a million miles away in a little village on the side of a hill…

(“When you say ‘hill,’” the Queen interrupted, “I could show you hills, in comparison with which you’d call that a valley.”)

alicerunningShe’s right, her boastful Red Majesty, who somehow has followed me from England to the United States. Ben Nevis, Snowdon, the so-called mountains of the English Lakes, all are tiny, benign pimples, mere beauty spots on the face of the earth compared with the roiling, boiling, majestic carbuncles of the High Cascades beyond whose eastern slopes I now make my home. Like Alice, I’m in a constant state of wonder, and not just at the newer, bigger, exhilaratingly more dangerous topography. The flora and fauna bewilder either in their unfamiliarity (for dodos, mock turtles and gryphons, read coyotes, moose, elk and bears) or, more tantalizingly, in an apparent sameness that turns out, looking-glass-like, to be an illusion. Consider the robin; compared to its tiny English cousin, the new world bird is a heavyweight, like Alice’s incongruously huge gnat (“…about the size of a chicken, Alice thought”).

Once sage was just a pungent green herb; now it also stretches over the unending landscape in the shape of a scrubby gray bush. A geyser was a funny old man; a good screw was an impressive salary; to be knocked up was to be awoken early by loud banging at the front door; to keep one’s pecker up was to remain courageous in times of adversity. There, an armed policeman was an exception; here, only an exceptional policeman would dare not tote (and as to the general populace…). There, to wave a Union Jack was to proclaim oneself a National Socialist, right-wing and racist; here, failing to fly Old Glory on high days, holidays and whenever a foreign power cocks a snook, causes the neighbors to brand one almost a traitor. The disconcerting differences and deceptive similarities are endless.

It’s embarrassing to have come so far and done so much yet still to admit that Lewis Carroll springs to mind when I’m asked about life-changing authors. Like most people who think for a living, I have a house full of books, many of which have moved me to tears, inspired me, disgusted me, filled me with rage, tenderness, passion and probably influenced my attitudes. Yet the thread that holds my life together most strongly resembles an Alice band. (As English readers will know, I refer to the flat ribbon Alice wears round her head in the Tenniel drawings; that an American audience needs such explanation goes to prove my earlier point.)
Like most children, I encountered Charles Dodgson’s famous little girl when I was four or five. I adored, empathized, identified. When other small girls pushed dolls in their prams, I wheeled my bound volume of Wonderland and Looking Glass, much to the mystification of strangers. When the pram was impractical, I carried the treasure under my arm. I slept with it , stared myself into the black-and-white Tennielesque illustrations, dreamed my way down rabbit holes, breathed on my mother’s looking glass, desperate to melt and meld.

I loved the heroine, of course, and the animals, poems, games, and stories. But most of all, I loved the language, the cleverness, strangeness, wit and sound of it. At four, my favorite sentence was “Où est ma chatte?” which I repeated fifty times a day, even though the family pet was a dog. A rather lonely, only child, I was intrigued by the notion of Alice’s mysterious brother, and even more so by his strange Latin grammar: “A mouse-of a mouse-to a mouse-a mouse-O mouse!” I laughed aloud at the word play; ‘“Mine is a long and sad tale,” said the Mouse.”’ I couldn’t get enough of it.

When I reached grammar school, I found that I had a head start on my classmates in the subjects I came to love, especially languages, ancient and modern, including my own. The notion of masculine and feminine (and by extension neuter) nouns came easy to me, for example, as did the concept of declension, or the idea of linguistic rules, no matter how apparently arbitrary. As the Queen said, “The rule is, jam tomorrow and jam yesterday—but never jam to-day.” (Iam, in Latin, can be used only for the past and future meanings of “now”; with the present tense, “now” must be nunc.) Wordsworth’s leech gatherer was already known to me through Carroll’s “aged, aged man.” And as to T.S Eliot, I ached with nostalgia for the echoing footsteps “Towards the door we never opened Into the rose-garden” and Alice’s longing for “those beds of bright flowers and those cool fountains.” And what can one say of “An aimless smile that hovers in the air And vanishes along the level of the roofs”? For my class prize, when I was sixteen, I chose a life of Lewis Carroll.

The only university I applied to was Oxford; I chose a college on the river, with a boat house, and spent many hours punting on golden afternoons. I read French and Latin, of course; out of school, my reputation as a punster was well-known among my classmates, as was my love of word puzzles of all kinds, especially cryptic crosswords. I chose Pascal as my special author (a mathematician, whose philosophical Pensées Dodgson particularly admired and which may have inspired the strange flow of objects in the Looking Glass sheep’s shop). Eventually, I became a translator… an obvious choice perhaps for someone who, at five, reveled in, and could recite by heart, both “Jabberwocky” and Humpty Dumpty’s explanation of its first verse.

The dark side of Carroll was there, too. As a sickly child, I spent a great deal of time at home with my grandparents. My grandfather was my companion, my white knight, my playmate; he was endlessly patient, played board games by the hour (checkers, not chess, but still an opportunity for “queening”), read to me, made toys for me, told me stories, recited (and taught me) long, Victorian poetry. His attentions were mostly welcome, though once he dressed up in short trousers and a schoolboy cap and pretended to be a little boy my age, flirting with me; I burst into tears at his loss of dignity… he looked like Tweedledum or Tweedledee.

Worse, he taught me, innocently I’m sure, that older men enjoyed the company of little girls. A man at chapel whose wife was sick looked at me in a way that made me squirm when, obedient to my grandpa’s bidding, I ran up to him and gave him a hug. In Germany once, when I was twelve, the local schoolmaster, a violinist, photographer and painter, gave my grandparents and me a still life of his in oils. “Run after him and give him a kiss,” said my grandfather. I caught up to him around a corner, out of sight. The kiss was different from anything I’d experienced before. And on a later visit, when I was fourteen, the kiss led to other, more disturbing experiences. He wrote to me at home; I was infatuated. My mother, like Mrs Liddell before her, put an end to that relationship; I was relieved and devastated.

Too many parallels, perhaps. And maybe all coincidence. But though other books have stopped me in my tracks, in many of them I find resonances with Alice. I think of the fascinating linguistic explanations of Sir Ernest Gower’s Plain Words (“You seem very clever at explaining words, Sir,” said Alice); the alienated isolation of Gide’s L’Immoraliste or even Camus’ L’Etranger; the rich, mind-altering verses of Baudelaire, or even Keats; the number forty-two in The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy; the fairy fantasy in Lord of the Rings; the Victorian obsessiveness of A.S Byatt’s Possession; the logic ad absurdum of Michael Quoist’s Prayers of Life; even the name Dalziel in the works of one of my favorite mystery writers — and I see that Alice haunts every one. Can I really have run this far only to find myself back at the beginning, in a wondrous land of legendary creatures, false-seeming linguistic friends, ambiguities, geographical mysteries? Is the Red Queen always right?

“Well, in our country,” said Alice, still panting a little, “you’d generally get to somewhere else if you ran very fast for a long time as we’ve been doing.”

“A slow sort of country!” said the Queen. “Now, here, you see, it takes all the running you can do, to keep in the same place.” •

Posted by: The Editors
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