Discovering Alice – an extract from Joyce Carol Oates’s The Lost Landscape

Here at 4th Estate, we like to spoil our readers with an occasional extract or two, and we’re currently loving Joyce Carol Oates’ new memoir so much that we thought we would share a little bit of it with you. The Lost Landscape is a fascinating look into the life of a prolific writer, and in this extract Oates reveals the book that inspired her prodigious output…

alice

‘The singular book that changed my life—that made me yearn to be a writer, as well as inspired me to “write”— is Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking-Glass. This beautiful, slightly oversized book published by Grosset & Dunlap in 1946 was a gift of my (Jewish) grandmother Blanche Morgenstern for my ninth birthday, in 1947. (My book-loving grandmother, my father’s mother, gave me books for birthdays and Christmas and at other times as well, including Frances Hodgson Burnett’s The Secret Garden. Grandma gave me my first typewriter—a toy typewriter—and she gave me a Remington typewriter at the age of fourteen as if foreseeing how I would need it.) To this day I treasure, and keep prominently on a bookshelf in my study, this gift book with its eerily beautiful quasi-“realistic” illustrations by John Tenniel.

The illustrations of Alice amid her bizarre wonderland world depict her as surprised and sometimes intimidated by that world but never overwhelmed by it. The great illustrator Tenniel gave to Alice a commonsensical gravity and a tender sobriety quite unlike most illustrations of children in American, contemporary children’s books; Alice is recognizably a young girl, but she is not childish. There is something responsibly mature in Alice, an inclination to be skeptical, at times, of the adults who surround her; an unwillingness to be bossed around or frightened into submission. Alice is a girl who “speaks her mind”—as few children are encouraged to do, then or now. When I was nine, I was much too young to comprehend the underlying themes of Alice’s astonishing adventures, which have to do with Darwinian evolutionary theory and the principle of “natural selection through survival of the fittest”— a controversial issue of the Victorian era that represented a challenge to conventional Christian theology, one not entirely resolved in the twenty-first century.

Like any child enraptured with a favorite book, I wanted to be the book’s heroine— wanted to be “Alice.” It must have occurred to me that Alice was very unlike any girl of my acquaintance; she seemed to belong to a foreign, upper-class environment with customs (tea-time, crumpets, queens, kings, footmen) utterly alien to the farming society of Millersport, New York. I think that I learned from Alice to be just slightly bolder than I might have been, to question authority— (that is, adults)—and to look upon life as a possibility for adventures. If I’d taken Alice for a model, I was prepared to recognize fear, even terror, without succumbing to it. There are scenes of nightmare illogic in the Alice books—numerous dramatizations of the anxiety of being eaten, for instance—that suggest the essential gravity of the books, yet Alice never becomes panicked or loses her common sense and dignity.Alice_par_John_Tenniel_25

It did occur to me that Alice is a character in a book—and that Alice was not telling her own story. The author of the book was named in gilt letters on the spine and on the title page: “Lewis Carroll.” Being Lewis Carroll was an aspiration, like being Alice-in- Wonderland, and soon I was drawing stories in the mode of the Tenniel illustrations, not of adults or even children but of cats and red-feathered chickens. These were “novels” on lined tablet paper, that captivated me for long hours as a child. (Decades later I would see facsimiles of the Bronte children’s miniature books, and feel a tug of kinship. The Bronte children may have been lonelier than I was in Reverend Bronte’s remote windswept parsonage in Haworth on the moors of England, though probably they were not more fascinated by storybooks than I was.) Out of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking-Glass have sprung not only much of my enthusiasm for writing but also my sense of the world as an indecipherable, essentially absurd but fascinating spectacle about which it is reasonable to exclaim, with Alice—“Curiouser and curiouser!”’

Joyce Carol Oates’ The Lost Landscape is out now!

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