César Aira makes a perfect transition to mid-Victorian nonsense. Samples from the Golden Age of Nonsense. Three authors – Lewis Carroll, Edward Lear, and W. S. Gilbert – are surely enough for a Golden Age.
I am using the word “nonsense” loosely. Nonsense is only one of Carroll’s many modes, and Gilbert’s Bab Ballads are only rarely nonsensical. Only Lear provides his nonsense uncut with satire or riddles. Nonsense and nothing but.
Lear’s 1846 A Book of Nonsense, a collection of 112 illustrated limericks, one after the other, hypnotic and numbing consumed in bulk, stood by itself for 25 years, when in 1871 Lear published Nonsense Songs, Stories, Botany and Alphabets – a no-nonsense title, isn’t it? – which was soon followed (1872 and 1877) by two more little books with similar contents. More limericks, of course:
There was an old person of Crowle,
Who lived in the nest of an owl;
When they screamed in the nest, he screamed out with the rest,
That depressing old person of Crowle.
But also, thankfully, longer, varied poems like “The Owl and the Pussy-Cat,” a brilliant bit of nonsense cookery (“Serve up in a clean dish, and throw the whole out of window as fast as possible”), a couple of story-like texts, and the startling botanies:
I find the latter have, like the limericks, a cumulative effect. I also find that I ask myself questions like “Why am I laughing at this?” and “Why is this funny?” There is sometimes so little to Lear. The Nonsense Cookery has recognizable jokes of an absurdist type. The cartoons are obviously essential. I can imagine that owlish fellow screaming, and his screams make him even more owlish, so I laugh. Something like that.
Lear is a bit easier to dissect in prose. A bit of "The Story of the Four Little Children Who Went around the World":
‘It does not quite look like a human being,’ said Violet, doubtfully; nor could they make out what it really was, till the Quangle-Wangle (who had previously been round the world), exclaimed softly in a loud voice, ‘It is the Co-operative Cauliflower!’
And so in truth it was, and they soon found that what they had taken for an immense wig was in reality the top of the cauliflower, and that he had no feet at all, being able to walk tolerably well with a fluctuating and graceful movement on a single cabbage stalk, an accomplishment which naturally saved him the expense of stockings and shoes.
I will defer on jokes, but it seems that the last one does nothing, a cute joke for the kiddies, but that otherwise we see three fundamental types of nonsense here. The reversal “softly in a loud voice” is an undermining of the meaning of words. The business about using the stalk to walk misapplies rhetoric. And the Co-operative Cauliflower itself is freely inventive, but a peculiar kind of invention where the game is to defeat every imaginative expectation of the reader, no matter how unreasonable.
As you can see, my goal for the week is to kill all of the fun in these writers.
The episode ends, by the way, with a remarkable and sublime sight. The Cauliflower “suddenly arose, and in a somewhat plumdomphious manner hurried off towards the setting sun… he finally disappeared on the brink of the western sky in a crystal cloud of sudorific sand.”
I borrowed Lear’s illustrations from the fluctuating and graceful nonsenselit.org.