Benjamin Eastham

    Childish things

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    As the publishing industry comes to terms with the latest reports that the book is dead — this time at the hands of a digital revolution — we can count Penguin’s illustrated edition of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland among the reasons to be optimistic for its future. This latest version of Lewis Carroll’s masterpiece, for which Japanese artist Yayoi Kusama has supplied the artwork, makes full use of every advantage the printed book enjoys over its electronic counterpart and, as such, points the way for publishers fearful of the digital age.

     

    The characters and meandering plot of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland will need little introduction to readers of this review, so ingrained into the collective imagination are the heroine’s fantastic escapades. Yet Kusama’s beautifully reproduced surrealist artwork brings a new dimension to the story, reminding us that beneath its reputation as a cut of charming Victoriana is a story about madness, society and estrangement. Carroll’s account of a world without sense is revitalised by the collaboration, cleansed of the patina of respectability that lightly tarnishes any story familiar to several generations.

     

    The contributions of Kusama, currently the subject of a major retrospective at Tate Modern, are not limited to the occasional figurative illustration. Instead, her trademark polka dots trip across the text, while whole pages are devoted to the densely patterned, brightly coloured abstractions that characterise her more recent paintings (she has been making work for over half a century, though is most closely associated with the sixties’ avant-garde). Every page is washed in colour, and almost all have some typographical or illustrative element to distinguish it visually from its neighbours.

     

    The effect is to reconfigure the reader’s approach to the text. We — by which I mean adult readers — are so accustomed to the automatic interpretation of text, the subconscious decoding of a series of marks on a flat surface to realise cognitive images, that it is initially distracting to have that process interrupted. Yet it is equally exhilarating to be made aware again of the interactive nature of reading, looking, translating. Carroll himself sought to draw the reader’s attention to the physical page in the famous ‘Long Tale’ passage: Alice, confused by the tale/tail homonym, experiences the Mouse’s story in the shape of a tail, and the words are set on the page to replicate this effect. The meaning of the words is thus reified on the page.

     

    Being forced to slow down, to re-evaluate the act of reading, is a perfect complement to the project of sensory disorientation undertaken by Carroll. The author’s refusal to take words at face value, his insistent picking at the seams of language, is evident in the constant priority he affords to sound over meaning — “Do cats eat bats? Do bats eat cats? … as she couldn’t answer either question, it didn’t much matter which way she put it”. Similarly, the fidelity of Kusama’s images to the scene described is less important than their combination of pigments and patterns, and the effect directly upon the cortex. We, like Alice, are constantly surprised by the overturning of the logical order, but we enjoy the anarchic brilliance as a liberation from the strictures of literal meaning.

     

    The process of reading this version of Alice is thus similar to that of falling into sleep, with the rational mind initially failing to make sense of the non-linear images and associations of the dream state. Ultimately, however, we come to accept the absurdities that Alice encounters, and to recognise the operation in Wonderland of a twisted internal logic comparable to that which we experience when we dream. Kusama’s surrealist artworks add to the effect: and in this sense they provide a more appropriate accompaniment to the story than the literal interpretations supplied by John Tenniel’s original illustrations. While Tenniel’s much-loved, and beautifully rendered, figurative drawings assist the reader in gaining a foothold in Wonderland, Kusama’s artwork reinforces its bewildering foreignness.

     

    The great pleasure of reading Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland consists in regaining the vividness of experience peculiar to childhood. What we sometimes mistake for naivety in children is often perspicacity, the recognition that simply because something is at is, does not mean that is the way it should be. Kusama is like Carroll faithful to the gaudy strangeness of childhood experience, the sense of exclusion from an adult world organised according to mysterious and arbitrary principles. Everything in her work is new, confusing and lurid. This modern Alice provides a wonderful introduction for children to the transporting possibilities of words and pictures, while it reminds adults of the reasons we first became enthralled by them. As Picasso knew, every child is an artist. The problem is only how to remain one once we grow up.

    Benjamin Eastham is editor of The White Review.