Sunday, July 25, 2010

Still She Haunts Me by Katie Roiphe

After reading Melanie Benjamin's novel "Alice I Have Been" my curiosity about Lewis Carroll and the mysteries and complexities of his relationship with his child-muse, Alice Liddell, was even more aroused, so I decided to read this earlier novel upon the same subject.

Charles Dodgson (the real name of Lewis Carroll) was a shy stuttering twenty-four-year-old mathematics don at Oxford when he met and fell under the spell of four-year-old Alice Liddell, a dark-haired tomboy, and asked to photograph her. Mr. Dodgson had a passion for taking photographs of little girls, some unclothed and in vaguely erotic poses that disturb even our jaded modern eyes.

To amuse and please Alice, he created the fantastical, nonsensical stories that would eventually become his immortal works of children's literature "Alice in Wonderland" and "Through The Looking Glass."

But when Alice was eleven their friendship was suddenly terminated by Alice's parents and the reason to this day remains unknown. This novel attempts to provide it and explain the peculiar and disturbing relationship between the artist and his muse.

Overall, this is a fascinating psychological drama about obsession, jealousy, and desire, and the emotional turmoil they all cause. The author wonderfully conveys, through her depiction of Lewis Carroll, the pain of trying to hold onto something you can't keep and the sense of relief that comes when it's over and you have let go, either because your grip is forcibly broken, slips, or you just let go. It is the tragic story of a troubled man trying to hold onto his muse, even after he cannot accept that she has grown up, by immortalizing her and making her larger than life in his books as an eternal child, trapping her in a persona and binding her to a fame she can never escape. I also found her portrayal of Alice intriguing, the little girl is aware in her own way of the unique power she has over her admirer and sometimes wields it cruelly, thus increasing his torment and confusion.

Those who may be interested in reading this book but are concerned about the depictions of pedophilia, can, in my opinion, safely read this novel. Although in its pages Lewis Carroll grapples with his desire for Alice, this is not a sexually explicit book, his agony plays out in his head and heart rather than in physical acts. I would not hesitate to recommend this book to those who enjoyed the recent novel by Melanie Benjamin, "Alice I Have Been," as this novel gives a different view of the story.

Sunday, July 11, 2010

Love of Seven Dolls by Paul Gallico

The Love of Seven Dolls the story of Mouche, a scrawny, beaten down girl from the Provinces, who comes up to Paris looking for a better life, but finds only harshness and brutality. She is a stagestruck girl hoping to find stardom, but in reality has no talent, she can't dance, can't sing, and a skin and bones appearance that leads one theatrical manager to call her "that little plucked chicken." She has no appeal to the men either in the audience or behind the curtains, even those who would normally leap at the chance to take advantage of a naive and vulnerable girl don't want her.

Finally Mouche has to face reality. She has three choices--starvation, prostitution, or death. She opts for the latter, but as she is about to throw herself in the Seine a voice speaks to her out of the darkness.

The voice belongs to Carrot Top, a red-haired leprechaun puppet, one of the stars of a street carnival. He coaxes the despondent girl over and engages her in conversation and introduces her to his fellow puppets: Gigi , a spoiled blonde beauty, Reynardo, a sly red fox, Alifanfaron, a gentle, slow-witted giant, Dr. Duclos, a pompous British penguin wearing a pince-nez, Madame Muscat an opinionated old woman, and Monsieur Nicholas, a kindly old toymaker. These are the seven dolls of the title and Mouche, captivated by all these dear and diverse little personalities, forgets her own woes and talks to them like a trusting child, as if they were real people not puppets. This charms the passersby and Mouche is invited to join the troupe. The act goes on to become a popular novelty act that moves off the street into theatres.

But she has to contend with the master puppeteer the tyrannical Capitaine Coq, a.k.a. Michel Peyrot, a cold, cynical, cruel, emotionally-scarred man who has never known or shown love in his life. He hates innocence in anyone or anything and is driven to destroy it whenever he encounters it. Thus, this naive little waif who so enchants his audiences, becomes a prime target, and he comes, drunk and brutal, into the room where she is sleeping after a show and rapes her, taking her virginity without a kind word or caress.

But Mouche remains pure of heart, and when the act is booked into a theatre she attracts the honorable attention of a handsome acrobat and must decide whether to marry him or stay with her beloved puppets and find out whether Capitaine Coq can be redeemed by love.

If all this sounds like a dark, tawdry version of a charming film from the 1950s called "Lili" starring Leslie Caron you are absolutely correct--this novella was indeed the inspiration for that lovely film.