Monday, June 27, 2005

Honest Fairy Tales

Charlotte’s Web, by E.B. White, Read by The Author, Listening Library, 2002

There are a number of gaps in my childhood reading — things I wish I’d read when I was younger (or things I wish had been read to me, like Shel Silverstein, for instance). One of the best things about being a parent is catching up on these things and rectifying those mistakes for your own children. The first time I ever read Where the Wild Things Are (late last year) will stay with me for a long, long time because it is very, very good, the best thing Maurice Sendak has ever done. I should also have liked to have been introduced to Roald Dahl and Kurt Vonnegut at a much younger age.

The same can be said for Charlotte’s Web, which I got around to reading (or “reading” as my wife would have it) for the very first time just recently. As the middle book of the three children’s books White wrote, it is perhaps his best known and his best book. With the release of the film Stuart Little (bearing only some slight resemblance to the book; the sequel is far more faithful to White) that might change some. After all, how many kids want to watch an old modest cartoon pig from 1973 when they can watch a flashy live-action, talking mouse from 1999?

I didn’t know until afterwards that I’d read the books out of order and should have started with Stuart Little to get the full effect of White’s development as an author. His development as a children’s author is surprisingly dramatic. The first book has its charms and is wry and clever, yet its formlessness and rather aimless plot seems made up as White went along. The book ends and you wonder if that is all there is.

By comparison, Charlotte’s Web and his last children’s book, The Trumpet of the Swan have a narrative wholeness and rounded completeness that makes the two of them more satisfying. In order to manage that, White found each book to be rather longer than the previous one. Stuart clocks in at 131 pages, Charlotte at 184, and Trumpet at 210. Had he continued writing children’s books, White might very well have come to Harry Potter sized epics in the end.

For anyone who grew up on a different planet, Charlotte’s Web tells the story of a little pig named Wilbur who befriends a spider named Charlotte. Eventually, Wilbur gets clued in that the farmer will one day slaughter and eat him, and to prevent this untimely end Charlotte spins webs with phrases in them like “Some Pig!” Even I knew that.

For a child reader, I suspect it is the friendship and the fun of farm animal interaction that might charm. As an adult, you see the keen eye for observation White brings to his story. Once you get past the miracle in the web, the behavior of the animals is sketched as animals do indeed act. The goose’s sort of hyperactive honking about, the rather dirty hoarding of the rat, the cows’ lowing indifference to everything. The brief scene in the beginning when Wilbur first escapes from his pen at Homer L. Zuckerman’s farm could almost be seen demonstrating the proper way to retrieve stray pigs.

As the goose honks out orders “Don’t just stand there, Wilbur! Dodge about, dodge about!…Skip around, run toward me, slip in and out, in and out, in and out! Make for the woods! Twist and turn!” and the hired man Lurvy dives for the errant pig, Mr. Zuckerman shows up, calmly “holding a pail of warm slops…. The smell was delicious warm milk, potato skins, wheat middlings, Kellogg’s Corn Flakes, and a popover left from Zuckerman’s breakfast.

“‘Pig, pig!’ said Mr. Zuckerman in a kind voice, and began walking slowly toward the barnyard, looking about him innocently, as if he didn’t know that a little white pig was following along behind him.”

White presents animal life on the farm matter-of-factly, and when the book was published (1952) it’s a fair bet that many more children were better acquainted with where their food comes from than nowadays. The notion of Wilbur as an entrée later on is seen as unfair but commonplace. Each of the three books tackles a specific aspect of growing up, and it falls to Charlotte’s Web to tackle the thorniest issue of them all, that of death. While the book begins with Wilbur’s temporary reprieve, and the rest of the book moves toward that notion as a more permanent institution, we simultaneously move toward acceptance of death as well. The lifespan of a spider isn’t a long one, only a year, and it is through this much smaller agency of mortality that White presents the idea in an acceptable miniature.

From what I thought I knew about E.B. White prior to listening to these books I rather expected a high, somewhat mousy voice, an earlier David Sedaris. Instead, White has a rather hard voice, East Coast flinty and nasal. He doesn’t go in much for individualized characteristics in his reading, and after over a year of nearly daily listening to audiobooks by professionals his style is a bit jarring. I quickly got used to it, though, and by book’s end it had taken on the reassuring prosaic quality of your gentleman farmer — which is undoubtedly what White was.

Stuart Little, by E.B. White, Read by Julie Harris, Listening Library, 1991

It was a bit strange hearing this book read by Julie Harris after the previous one by White himself. Of the three books, this is the only one that White didn’t read himself oddly enough, and hearing someone else just after getting used to White’s peculiar style forced me to readjust back into typical expectations. Harris, as a professional actress, is quite a bit more theatrical in her reading, providing hissy swishing noises and faraway shouting vocalizations as Stuart pilots the boat The Wasp across the pond in Central Park.

In fact, Harris’ reading was rather a distraction. White is rather a simple author, following the dictates he laid out in The Elements of Style and his prose is fittingly served by his own straightforward rendition, even when the flights of fancy, as in Stuart Little, are far greater than in the other books.

For while Charlotte’s Web peels back life on a farm, as it were, revealing the hidden life of animals in their own society (sort of similar to what he does in Trumpet), here the absurdity of the situation is apparent from the get-go. The book begins, “When Mrs. Frederick C. Little’s second son arrived, everybody noticed that he was not much bigger than a mouse. The truth of the matter was, the baby looked very much like a mouse in every way. He was only about two inches high; and he had a mouse’s sharp nose, a mouse’s tail, a mouse’s whiskers, and the pleasant, shy manner of a mouse.”

What follows is the adventures and tribulations of being a sentient mouse in a human world, in a world that expects you to be both mouse and human simultaneously and doesn’t seem to notice much one way or the other. Unlike Charlotte’s Web, the issues dealt with in Stuart Little are less pressing, less momentous, but also more likely to be the kind of thing that’d feature in daily life. Like Reepicheep, the mouse in the Narnia stories, Stuart often finds himself fighting for simple individual dignity in a world that would write him off for his small stature. A child would surely relate.

At the same time, for pure silly fun, White’s first book remains his best. A child probably wouldn’t be bothered by the book’s rather meandering plot that remains lightly focused on Stuart’s quest to find his absent bird friend Margalo with various odd side journeys at every turn. Best of all is Stuart’s short stint as a substitute teacher in which he teaches the children about rules and why he should be the Chairman of the World. It is high absurdity of the kind appealing to children and adults alike. His later imagined romance with the short girl in Ames Crossing is a bit of a bust and the book comes to a pretty rapid close after that.

Those who dislike books or movies about spiders can be sure of enjoying the film of Stuart Little as it is cutely charming and features none other than the brilliant Hugh Laurie. However, the first movie has little in common with the book save set up, whereas it is its sequel wherein we actually get the bird Margalo and all the rest of what that entails.

The Trumpet of the Swan
, by E.B. White, Read by The Author, Listening Library, 1992

The least known of all the books and the one least likely to be made into a film, either cartoon or live action due to birds’ rather uncuddly and poor cinematic showing (save Winged Migration which is astonishingly beautiful, do go and rent it), The Trumpet of the Swan is both White’s best book and his worst children’s book. While filled with the kind of absurd humor White was known for, Trumpet is not as light and fanciful as the two preceding books and is a much slower book.

As a slow starter, it’s longer than White’s other two children’s books, so he has a little room to spare. Yet the book’s inching early pages with its National Geographic Special-style life and times of swans belie how busy it becomes at the end of the story. Part of what slows down the action too is the father swan, a rather prolix and proud fellow named Cygnet Bucanator who can often be heard speechifying on the noble qualities of the trumpeter swan. All of these are amusing, but in a way to be prized more by White’s adult readers than the younger set.

Louis, the son of Cygnet (or as he is often called in the book, “the cob,” cob being the male name of a swan), is mute, that is, he is unable to trumpet. And so he learns to write at a local school and gains a chalkboard and some chalk with which to communicate with humans. This is helpful, but won’t help him win the love of the beautiful swan Serena who can’t read human writing. To remedy the situation, Cygnet busts a shop window and steals his son a real trumpet. Plagued by guilt over his father’s debt, Louis becomes first bugler for a camp, then a horn for a boat, then an entertainer for paddle boat patrons in a park, then finally a trumpeter in a jazz club, amassing his fortune along the way.

In his travails, Louis is helped by a sensitive young boy Sam Beaver who has known him since he hatched. The two grow together, though through the longish middle part of Louis’ life we lose track of young Sam, only to be reintroduced to him at the story’s conclusion.

Absurd such things are strangely accepted in White’s books, strangely as in not the same way as in other books of the preposterous. There’s something about simply being in the world of absurdity yet at the same time in the world that’s not. Adults raise one objection to the strange thing, then go with it after a reasonable explanation is given. It is as if they recognize the situation is absurd, but they possess remarkably acute adaptability. When the grainman drops off a delivery near where Louis is, the swan has a written conversation with the man who merely remarks, “You must be some bird. Where did you learn to write?” Then later the man decides not to tell anyone else about this conversation for fear they’ll think he’s crazy. He accepts the craziness for its duration, as if under a temporary spell.

In this way, this scene is symbolic of the pact we make with a writer, especially with a writer like White, a writer who asks us not only to suspend our disbelief, but to reorganize our inner logic momentarily to accept all that goes with the initial premise. In many ways, this is the bargain we strike not only with children’s authors, though there the terms of the deal are always more straightforward, but with every author. For a moment in time, we hang suspended, feeling a certain clenching in our hearts at the death of a mere spider, and for that moment, for that crystalline fictional moment out of time, we believe in the patently false and ridiculous. When we later discuss such things, we are like the grainman, rational to the core, unwilling to go so far as to let others think that we really believed such things.

White through his rather simplistic style, pure and without much frippery, precise in its naturalistic details, builds a world out of such fanciful speculation and without you quite knowing how he rather tricks you into believing it. Stuart and Wilbur and Louis all become very real, very full characters, with the kind of authenticity you find hard to shake even if you do find it hard to quite confess your love for later.

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