‘Alfred and Guinevere’ by James Schuyler ***

I had not heard of James Schuyler’s debut novel, Alfred and Guinevere, which was out of print for almost fifty years, before I spotted rather a lovely NYRB edition in the Modern Classics section of my local library.  I was immediately entranced by its rather charming blurb, and the strength of the reviews which adorn its back cover.  Kenneth Koch calls the novel ‘witty, truthful, simple, lively, and musical’.  Schuyler, best known for his poetry, is heralded as a ‘remarkable novelist’.

In his introduction to the volume, John Ashbery writes: ‘The reader discovers that beneath the book’s apparently guileless surface lies a sophisticated awareness of the complicated ways in which words work to define the boundaries between fantasy and reality, innocence and knowledge.’  Ashbery believes that Schuyler ‘writes about the past with tenderness and humor’, the result of which is ‘a timelessly idyllic comedy of manners, where English models are inflected by 1930s small-town life in America, as seen through the gauze filters of the movies and children’s literature.’

250405-_uy475_ss475_Alfred and Guinevere are a pair of young siblings, who are sent to spent the summer with their grandmother, Mrs Miller, in the country, after their father travels on a business trip to Europe and their mother is preoccupied with subletting their New York apartment before joining him.  Of the plot of Alfred and Guinevere, Ashbery states that it is ‘insistently ambiguous, lacking in resolution’, with the “grownups” ‘barely characters, barely anything but names.’

There are elements of violence throughout Alfred and Guinevere; Alfred is beaten by his father quite often, and the siblings discover the corpse of a murdered ‘colored’ man in the park.  Regardless, the novel is often filled with childish, but rather lovely conversations, in which the siblings endeavour to make sense of the world in which they live, and their parents’ abandonment of them.  Schuyler pinpoints children’s voices marvellously; in fact, it is the real strength of the book.  When in hospital after having his appendix removed, for instance, Alfred tells another patient: ‘”I have one sister named Guinevere who can draw and do back bends.”‘

The novel is told entirely through ‘snatches of dialogue and passages from Guinevere’s diary’.  The novel proper begins with a series of fanciful stories told by the children, of what they believe their adult lives will be like.  Guinevere fancies herself as ‘one of the leading woman big spenders of her day’, and Alfred see himself becoming a ‘great hunter’ and polar explorer.  Guinevere tends to be quite precocious, but Alfred is endearing from the start.  The relationship depicted between the siblings is surprisingly complex at times; Guinevere says: ‘”It’s so difficult, learning how to behave.  We got along like cats and dogs until he almost died having his appendix out.  It makes him more grown up sometimes.”‘  In a later passage, she writes: ‘Last night Alfred put an egg in my bed.  I almost broke it getting in.  I know he did not think of it all by himself and I will fix both of them.  So far I have been very smart and not said anything.  He kept looking at me at breakfast.  I just smiled and asked him how he felt and if he got a good night’s sleep and so on.  He is getting scared.’

Whilst Alfred and Guinevere is rather a fragmented book, the reader does end up learning a lot about both children, and how they feel about one another.  Alfred provides bursts of amusement, and the differences between the children allow Schuyler to present rather a fascinating character study.  There is some semblance of plot, but those who prefer action-packed novels would probably feel a little disappointed by Schuyler’s debut.  I enjoyed the approach overall, and would have liked a little more substance to pull me in further at times; the novel was not quite as good as I was expecting after reading Ashbery’s introduction, but it is a memorable and well written tome nonetheless.


Reading the World: ‘Feather’ by Cao Wenxuan ***

Cao Wenxuan’s Feather is the only children’s book which I have chosen to include upon my Reading the World list.  It has been translated from its original Chinese by Chloe Garcia-Roberts, and has been written by China’s answer to Hans Christian Andersen.  Feather felt like something a little different, both to read and to write about.

31817594Feather opens with Wenxuan’s inspiration for writing the tale: ‘One day a great wind blew through Beijing.  As I was walking into the gale I suddenly noticed a single white feather on the ground go fluttering and floating up into the sky…  The feather was riding the wind with grace and ease yet at the same time precariously and helplessly.’  He wonders about the fate of the feather, and in his book, has made it visit a whole host of different birds to find out where it comes from.  Whilst this circular structure has been designed for children, Wenxuan writes: ‘Underlying this simply story… are actually the core questions of human thought: where do I come from?  Where do I want to go?  Who do I belong to?’  Essentially, he has decided to emulate the human desire of finding a sense of belonging.

Roger Mello’s illustrations were my favourite part of Feather; they are both beautiful and quirky, and really augment the story.  The writing itself is rather simplistic, as one might expect, but some very nice ideas have been woven into it.  The use of the feather’s own perspective is rather sweet and imaginative: ‘How she longed for the sky!  How she longed to soar!’  Feather is sure to delight children with a love of art and nature.  It is difficult, however, to know which age group makes up the target audience; the text is not advanced enough for a lot of children, but includes too many words to make it accessible to younger readers.

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