Friday, June 5, 2015

Sylvie and Bruno, begun and Concluded - It are ever so many other things

Little, Big has a major character named Sylvie.  She has a lookalike brother named Bruno.  Her adventures have some vague resemblance to the title character of Lewis Carroll’s Sylvie and Bruno (188) and Sylvie and Bruno Concluded (1893), the most flummoxing Victorian novels I have ever read.  Perhaps the resemblance is more than vague, but if so I missed it.  As I said, I was flummoxed.

The narrator, a character not so different than Charles Dodgson, falls into dreams and trances that move him back and forth between a crazy Alice in Wonderland-like dream world and a no less unreal world that is like a sentimental Victorian romance, with noble renunciations and temperance pledges and self-sacrificing doctors heroically exposing themselves to the Plague.  Neither of these worlds are especially “real.”  Behind both of them is a vaguely glimpsed Fairyland, the home of the fairies Sylvie and Bruno, which overlaps with the other worlds during “eerie states” distinct from the dreams and trances.  The process is “such as we meet with in ‘Esoteric Buddhism’” (SBC, Preface).

So there is this mode, in which fairies lead a laborer to take a temperance pledge:

I know full well that the taste for this kind of sentimentality thrives today, but some of this stuff feels like kitsch.

“It’s a miserable story!” said Bruno.  “it begins miserably, and it ends miserablier.  I think I shall cry.  Sylvie, please lend me your handkerchief.”

“I haven’t got it with me,” Sylvie whispered.

“Then I wo’n’t cry,” said Bruno manfully.  (SBC, ch. 23).

Bruno is not referring to the melodramatic plot, but to a poem that runs like this:

Little Birds are writing
    Interesting books,
    To be read by cooks:
Read, I say, not roasted –
Letterpress, when toasted,
    Loses its good looks.

I was happier with the ample nonsense of the other plot, when cruel, fat, spoiled boys turning into giant porcupines:

Or when the Gardener recounts his autobiography in verse:

“He thought he saw an Argument
    That proved he was the Pope:
He looked again, and found it was
    A Bar of Mottled Soap.
‘A fact so dread’, he faintly said,
    ‘Extinguishes all hope!’”  (SBC, ch. 20)

Or when the Professor describes the famous 1:1 scale map:

“We very soon got to six yards to the mile.  Then we tried a hundred yards to the mile.  And then came the grandest idea of all!  We actually made a map of the country, on the scale of a mile to the mile!”

“Have you used it much?” I enquired.

“It has never been spread out, yet,” said Mein Herr: “the farmers objected: they said it would cover the whole country, and shut out the sunlight!  So we now use the country itself, as its own map, and I assure you it does nearly as well.”  (SBC, ch. 11)

That map is Carroll’s invention, yes?  I always thought it was; now I have seen it with my own eyes.

Some of the transitions between the “worlds” of the novel are uncanny and surprising.  The puns are incessant and destabilizing, actively interfering with the movement of the plot (I am listing good things about the book now – this is a plus, the element that led James Joyce to wonder if it would be possible to make every single word a pun).  Characters transform in lively and unpredictable ways.  The inset sentimental novel I found so irritating is pretty clearly both what it seems but also a parody of its genre.

“It are ever so many other things,” said Bruno. “Aren’t it, Sylvie?” (SBC, ch. 11)

Bruno’s insufferable cutesy-poo baby talk is another difficulty.  Oh well.  He is right, he has hit the Sylvie and Bruno novels smack on the snout.  I don’t know what they are.


  1. I never think of Lewis Carroll without thinking "weird." Your assessment of his "other" books confirms my thought. However, I had not heard of these "others," so I will sample them -- in spite of my misgivings (i.e., my head hurts just anticipating Carroll's writing).

    1. Note: see article in reviews section of today's Wall Street Journal (I.e., New book out about Lewis Carroll).

  2. Since I've dropped comments here suggesting that you read this appalling mess, I should follow up. I first read it as a child, and it amazed me; I didn't know there were books like that. Alas, I found out that aren't many. It still remains a favorite.

    It overflows with invention, and the fact that it's apparently directed at different readers (or at some strange reader equally interested in social satire, sentimental romance, baby talk, nonsense verse, and dream psychology) makes it even wilder. The life-size map is wonderful (did Korzybski read it?). Joyce took not only the puns for "Finnegans Wake," but the idea of beginning mid-sentence, the fluid characters, the fascination with dreams, and the emphasis on originality.

    As far as I know, only the odd French writer Xavier Forneret anticipated Carroll's use of dreams, publishing dream diaries in 1845 and 1846 that simply presented dreams as fantastic narratives, without prophetic or allegorical trappings.

  3. The 1to1 scale map makes a reappearance in one of Borges's very short stories. In that case, it was opened out, with disastrous effects.

  4. Yes, there is some potential for a hurt head with these books. Thanks for the pointer to the WSJ review. The biography seems sensible.

    I am 95% sure that I first encountered the 1:1 map in Borges, and that most of the subsequent references I have come across have been to Borges. Not all, though, since I knew it was in Sylvie and Bruno somewhere. Don't remember who tipped me off.

    Doug, no, not many! Not at all. The question of the intended reader is a real puzzle to me, although the books have found some good ones, some of the best, so it all worked out somehow. I will read them again. They are aggravating but rich.

    Thanks for the Forneret pointer - never heard of him, or the name never stuck. He's from Beaune - I wish I were form Beaune.

    1. Forneret is best known for his epigrams, but he also wrote bombastic plays and odd short stories. I like his stories best. There has apparently been more scholarly interest in him in recent years.

  5. I wrote an article a while ago looking at the French Surrealists' interest in Carroll, particularly about The Hunting of the Snark, Alice, and Sylvie and Bruno. They claimed him as a sort of porto-surrealist; I'm sure you can see why.

  6. Oh yes. The linguistic games in the book, which would look innocuous published individually, knock the props out from under the novel. Completely transforming, along with the more explicit transformations, more radically than in the the Alice books. Baffling and difficult.

    I was not surprised to learn that S&B was a great favorite of Gilles Deleuze.

  7. These sound fascinating. Maybe they would kick me back to Finnegans Wake? I never went beyond Alice and a few pomes.

  8. Mostly these books do not suggest Joyce or the Wake. But then once in a while they actually do. It is a strange, disorienting effect, and it does not just depend on looking ahead to Joyce.