Vladimir Nabokov

NABOKV-L post 0001115, Tue, 30 Apr 1996 16:13:23 -0700

Slavitt: ALICE
EDITOR'S NOTE. As prelude to the June resumption of the Harington-Slavitt
dialogue on VN, NABOKV-L offers previously published reviews of David
Slavitt's _ALICE AT 80_ and, in the following posting, of Donald
Harington's _EKATERINA_. The opinions expressed are those of the respective
reviewers. The reviews appear here in order to provide background for the
June resumption of the dialogue.

ALICE AT 80 by David R. Slavitt. 257 pp. NY: Doubleday, 1984 ($14.95)
Rev. by Margo Jefferson, 19 Aug. 1984, p. 12

"A girl of about 12 is 'my' ideal of beauty of form," the Rev Charles
Dodgson once wrote, and as a young Oxford tutor who lectured in
mathematics, stammered, had a hearing problem and longed to be a writer,
he found that ideal in Alice Lyddell. The daughter of his college dean,
she was also the first and most loved in a series of child friends
(usually girls ---he disliked boys), whom he amused, instructed and
photographed with lyric precision, sometimes in costume, sometimes (though
he later de stroyed the negatives) "mother-naked." For her he wrote
"Alice's Adventures in Wonderland" and "Through the Looking Glass";
through her he became Lewis Carroll, inventor of a world in which all
ordinary relations are ecstatically reversed, subverted and transformed.
But what about the real Alice? Carroll's photographs show an
alert, quizically beautiful child, more wistful but also more willful than
the celebrated John Tenniel illustration. How did her role as muse,
beloved and archetypal Girl Child on whom (the wor ds are Carroll's) "no
shadow of sin, but the outermost fringe of the shadow of sorrow has yet
fallen" shape her fall into adulthood? What did she feel toward the
gentleman 20 years her senior whose attentions her parents eventually
discouraged and whose letters her mother burned?
That is the question posed in David Slavitt's shrewdly provocative
novel, "Alice at 80," and it's posed in sexual form: Exactly what role did
the erotic, as elusive and haunting in the books as the Chesire's Cat's
grin, play in Alice's friendship with Ca rroll? Mr. Slavitt's answer is
based on historical fact and fictional deduction. He never lets us forget
that Victorian England was a tangle of the spiritual, the sexual and the
salacious, where paeans to childhood innocence coexisted with child
brothels, and where Humpty Dumpty's imperious dictum about words and their
meanings -- "The question is, who's to be master -- that's all" --
perfectly describes the relationship of desire to sublimation.
The story moves back and forth between 1926, the year Alice's
husband, Reginald Hargreaves, dies, and 1932, when she arrives in New York
to receive an honorary degree from Columbia University and to serve as the
most valuable object in its centenary exhibition of Carroll memorabilia.
At 80, she feels that her prosperous, conventional adulthood has been a
life sentence of exclusion from Wonderland. Her kind and rather smug
husband had let his dislike for the man he called "that famous paedophile"
beco me the emotional centerpiece of their marriage, while their only
surviving son, Caryl, lives in the shadow of this curious history.
Important supporting roles are taken by two looking glass images of Alice.
One is Isa Bowman, the actress who actually play ed her onstage, came
closest to succeeding her in Carroll's affections and even wrote a book
about him. The other is Glenda Fenwick, a less socially repectable girl
Carroll befriended on a Sussex beach, and later the madam of the brothel
patronized by Ali ce's husband.
Mr. Slavitt arranges their crossed paths and purposes in order to
examine sex, fantasy and power as well as the emotional ties that bind
them, the rules of the age, gender and class that govern them. He is sure
to be criticized for being crudely literal about Carroll's sexuality,
overly sanguine about its effect on three young girls and for lacking
Carroll's genius. Most of the people who have written about Carroll lack
his genius. But I wish Mr. Slavitt's prose were striking, rather than
competent, and I wish he had avoided a bright, glib English drawing rooom
tone whenever he wants his women to be wise about sex and vulnerable about
love. Still he is an able writer, and his subject, the lesser lives that
surround the Famous Writer, is fascinating. Havi ng lived three lives
himself -- as a scrupulously genteel poet, as a serious minor novelist and
as an exuberantly crass pseudonymous writer of potboilers in which older
men often seduce younger women -- Mr. Slavitt has some astute things to
say about illu sion, desire and hypocrisy.
After having traveling through the looking glass, Alice is
horrified to be told that she exists only in the Red King's dream. When
she wakes up, she is still brooding over "who it was that dreamed it all."
That book ends with Carroll's challenge to the r eader: "Which do _you_
think it was?" Which dreamer, which dream, which price to be paid upon
waking? Mr. Slavitt's anwer is well worth pondering.