Sunday, January 11, 2009

Lewis Carroll, Alice in Wonderland and Through the Looking-Glass

It's been a long time since I've read these two works, but our monthly Biblioholics Anonymous meeting is next week and this is our first selection for 2009.

The first time I read Lewis Carroll was my first year teaching A.P. English, about twelve years ago. At that time it was merely a book that some of my students were going to do a presentation on, and I didn't think much of Alice and Looking-Glass at the time. They were quaintly absurdist and clever, yet frankly I found myself more smitten with John Tenniel's illustrations than with the "story" itself.

But it's amazing how years and reading experience can change your opinion of a book.

Having immersed myself in more mainstream Victorian literature for the past four years thru my Newberry classes, I can only imagine how innovative the Alice books must have been upon their publication. Although they were considered children's books at the time, each book is replete with social commentary on Victorian-era education, social values and mores, taboos, and authority figures. The puns and wordplay -- not to mention the poems and illustrations -- must have made for fantastic fun amongst readers who were used to the likes of Dickens, Thackeray, and Trollope.

I don't know too much about the development of children's literature, so I am unfamiliar with the extent to which the Alice books maintained or introduced conventions of children's literature. But the matter-of-fact tone Carroll conveys when introducing absurd situations is something I've noticed in Tolkien's The Hobbit or the stories of A.A. Milne, and I wonder if that is a convention of children's literature that started with Alice. I'll have to look into that.

It was fun re-reading this twelve years and dozens of 19th century novels later. Very enjoyable!

Thursday, January 01, 2009

William Shakespeare, Timon of Athens

This is the 2009 selection for our "Obscure Shakespeare Play" reading group, which celebrates its sixth year on Saturday. As you know by now, a few former A.P.ers and I started this tradition in an effort to explore the least-read Shakespeare plays, and we generally meet on the first Saturday of the new year for lunch and discussion. This year, we may have a few more folks at the discussion.

According to scholars, Timon of Athens is possibly one of those plays in which Shakespeare collaborated with a fellow playwright, similar to The Two Noble Kinsmen. It tells a story that is simple enough: Timon is generous with his wealth -- too generous -- doling out loans that he cares not to collect on, and lavishing gifts and feasts upon everyone in Athens until he is literally penniless ... and when he tries to collect on the loans or call upon "friends" to help him out financially, he realizes the hard way that suddenly his friends aren't as quick to reciprocate with generosity. Timon is driven to misanthropy, madness, and death.

Certain aspects of the play remind me of the great tragedies. There is the narrative simplicity of Othello with the self-delusion of Macbeth, coupled with the misanthropic invectives of King Lear in its final acts. At the same time, however, there is a noticeably incomplete quality to the story itself, and even some of the lines break off in mid-meter, left unresolved. Nevertheless, in typical Shakespearean fashion there are plenty of motifs to follow (references abound to "gold," "dogs," "prostitution," and "use" to correspond to the themes of philanthropy and feasting off of others' offerings), and the banquet scenes anchor the symbolism of the story in much the same way the scaffold scenes do in Hawthorne's The Scarlet Letter.

Although it is rarely performed, I did learn of a musical score for a production of Timon of Athens that was composed by Duke Ellington, which is kind of intriguing to me.

As far as Shakespeare goes, Timon of Athens is pretty good ... even if few people read it any more.