Friday, December 14, 2012

The Annotated Alice by Martin Gardner


The Annotated Alice by Martin Gardner was something I read not because it was assigned as part of the Science Fiction & Fantasy course I took through coursera, per se.  You see, the professor did assign Alice's Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass, both of which I had read as a child and again as a teenager, and again as an adult to my own children so I thought it would be more fun for me, and more insightful, to read the annotated text.  After all, it seems obvious that Lewis Carroll would use puns and jokes throughout the two novels. 

If nothing else, I hoped it would allow me to read the novels with fresh eyes and, in being able to do so, I might bring something interesting to my essay for that week’s assignment.

I rather enjoyed some of the insight Gardner brought to the novels.  I was not aware of the close relationship between John Tenniel and Lewis Carroll.  Carroll had a lot of say in the illustrations Tenniel provided for the books, suggesting sources for caricatures hidden within some of the characters.  It is not a coincidence, I’m sure, that Tenniel was a political cartoonist and I was not surprised, once I knew how involved Carroll was in the production of his novels, to learn that he sought out the artist particularly.  

It also helps, no doubt, that Gardner himself is quite fond of mathematics and published many books including one entitled Mathematical Games.  It makes perfect sense, of course, that a man who enjoys math would want to explore, to the fullest, a novel which makes ample use of puns, riddles, mathematics, and even the game of chess.  That Gardner was also unafraid of stirring up controversy suggests that he would be furthermore interested in a man like Carroll who, after his death, had some scrutiny aimed in his direction.

Of course, I am referring to the photographs Carroll was known to have taken, many of children in various states of undress.  After his death, many people have seen salacious implications in knowing that such photographs existed and have suggested that he, himself, was a paedophile and possibly even a sexual predator.  Gardner goes to great length to not merely dismiss these things but to explain them.  To ignore them altogether would weaken rest of the text, frankly.  That he found young children, particularly girls, of aesthetic interest is irrefutable but how far the attraction went has been especially disputed in recent years.  The photographs were taken with parents present so there can be no question of impropriety.  None of the children in the photographs themselves ever suggested that he was anything but a family friend, someone who knew how to make them laugh. 

Gardner defends Carroll’s intentions where Alice Liddell and all other children are concerned.  I am inclined to agree with him because it is unwise to judge Victorian times through modern filters.  Even contemporary photographers, and I am specifically thinking of Sally Mann at the moment as well as others, have been criticized for sharing nude photographs of children.  (In Mann’s case, they were of her own children.)  The flowery language and effusive expressions one reads in letters is no more indicative of romance let alone passion yet modern readers seem eager to sexualize everything.

But I digress.  Anyone who has read Carroll’s novels over and over again will probably take great delight in learning some of the nuances and subtle jokes hidden within the text and images. I am not going to suggest I was blown away by any of the revelations.  It’s one of those nerdy things, the need to know more about a subject, above and beyond the norm.  There’s nothing wrong with that but the people who typically seek out annotated volumes are either already long-time fans of the text or are doing research to learn more about the text before writing a paper or something.  I read this because I fell into both categories in this context.  If you love Alice and her adventures, you’ll enjoy this book.  If not, reading this won’t make you appreciate the novels more. 

And speaking of enjoying the novels, I apparently forgot how these novels ended.  Without giving anything away, the endings are not the least bit satisfying.  In fact, they beg the question, “How can these novels be so popular when the ending is such a disappointment?”  Probably because, although I know I’ve read them many times, I refused to remember the bad ending.  I suppose the silliness, the weirdness, the utter nonsense of the rest of each novel is enough to outweigh the way Carroll chose to end them.  I’d like to believe that, were he writing today, an editor would demand a revision.  However, I realize that he’d probably just self-publish anyway and not worry about what an editor has to say.

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