The Cloud of Unknowing

“…But there is a comforting feeling,” said Fyodor Godunov-Cherdyntsev meditatively, “one can borrow on the strength of a legacy. Doesn’t it amuse you to imagine that one day, on this very spot, on this lakeside, beneath this oak tree, a visiting dreamer will come and sit and imagine in his turn that you and I once sat here? Try to experience that strange, future, retrospective thrill…all the hairs on the soul stand on end!”

From ‘The Gift’ by Vladimir Nabokov

If the many layers of a play can be revealed by an intense engagement with that play, doesn’t it follow that a novel must contain layers that a single reading leaves untouched? If a musician plays the same piece of music twice does he or she play it identically? In the same way that choreography and musical notation are charts for the dancer or the musician, the reader is guided by the words on the page amidst an unfolding narrative. Perhaps one day we will recognize the great readers of literature the same way we admire Glenn Gould or Yehudi Menuhin their interpretations of Bach and Mozart.

It is in our childhood reading that our antennae become attuned to the various tricks of the writers’ trade and classic children’s literature is utterly playful; full of flirtations with form and suggestions of the transforming power of the novel, even as it is being read. The rabbit hole, the wardrobe and the cyclone of Carroll, Lewis and Baum stand as sub-structures within the pages of a childhood novel and are all the more magical for it. They are beautiful introductions to altered states; in fact I cannot think of a book that has shaped me more as a person than Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. There was, however, a small corruption at the heart of my initial readings of the book. I had an early 1970s edition published to coincide with the release of a new film adaptation. Instead of the illustrations of the original I had ‘colour’ photographs (back in the days when colour was a selling point) of Fiona Fullerton as Alice and Michael Crawford as the White Rabbit. These are the mental images of the characters I took away from the novel and I sometimes wish, in answer to Alice (‘What is the use of a novel without pictures or conversation?’) that instead of taking my cues from photographs, I had had only Carroll’s language to guide my imagination. Thinking back, my memories of the sequel novel ‘Through the Looking Glass’ are darker, more in tune with an English Grimm brother than the technicolours of the original. We only have to examine the difficulties in reading a novel having already watched its film version to see the effect actors and a film set have on the constructed contents of a novel.

The voraciously reading child is often wrongly compared to an escapist, and the great children’s authors have hung up veils and built labyrinths to separate this world from the worlds on the page. Just the titles themselves are redolent of the unmasking of masks; ‘the Box of Delights’, ‘The Secret Garden’ etc. My feeling is all this searching for ‘queerness’ and ‘curiousness’ is the early unveloping of layers and the gestation of an inner life.

In C.S Lewis’s book, as Lucy makes her way through the sensual delights of fur against her skin, kicking mothballs at her feet, the coats are transformed into something hard, rough andĀ even prickly, they become branches of trees and the mothballs turn to crisp snow. She becomes aware of a second layer; chapter one of A Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe is called ‘Lucy looks in the wardrobe’ and Chapter Two ‘What Lucy finds there’. The suggestion is that looking and finding are two separate actions and what you find depends very much on how you look. The title of Chapter three; ‘Edmund and the Wardrobe’ itemizes Edmund’s discoveries in the same piece of bedroom furniture. Lucy encounters the kind faun Mr Tumnus whilst Edmund is seduced by the sexy Queen of Narnia offering him Turkish delight.