Modern Victorian

by Edward Gorey.
Putnam’s. Illustrated. Unpaged. $12.95.

The Awdrey-Gore Legacy.
by Edward Gorey.
Dodd, Mead. Illustrated. Unpaged. $3.95.

The recent rise of the picture-book has paradoxically come about as a result of the decline of book illustration in the past half century. But whether specifically confined to juvenile publishing or to the peripheries of seriousness traced by “non-books,” “art books” (as opposed, of course, to art-historical scholarship), “coffee-table books,” or whatever, the illustrated text has on the whole remained in the realm of childish things. In the 19th century, novels had both pictures and conversations; the secondariness, if not the unseriousness, of books with pictures began to emerge amid a cluster of cultural facts, connected by ways which Marshall McLuhan, Walter Benjamin, and Harold Rosenberg, for example, might variously chart: the spread of still and motion photography, the triumph of Parisian art over academic and illustrative traditions, dogmas of literary modernism about pure and unpropped texts, and so forth.

Central among these, however, would have to be the replacement of wood-engraving, which had served not only book and magazine illustration but the reproduction of painting as well, by modern, “half-tone” processes (by the middle 1850’s, it began to be possible to make photographic prints on the ends of wood-blocks, which could then be cut without need for a drawn design). From the time of Bewick’s discovery of the uses of the wooden block in engraving in 1722, through the end of the 19th century, this process remained the principal means for the dissemination of printed pictures. Its replacement by photomechanical processes, Aldous Huxley once pointed out, put thousands of competent and uninventive engravers out of work and cruelly saddled them with the burden of originality—they all had to become artists—for the translation of pictures into prints was to be accomplished without need of their skills. Even more important, perhaps, was the increased expense of the newer technology—the “half-tone” which demanded heavy, coated paper stock, etc. Illustrations of novels lingered for a while in the frontispiece, and then, after World War I, bowed out completely save in children’s books.

The peculiar pictorial qualities of wood-engraving—adaptable as the process was to so many idioms—took on during the decades following its decline a predictable sequence of auras, evoking by turns the Old Fashioned, the Sentimental, the Grotesque, the Ludicrous. Max Ernst discovered during the 20’s that one of the best ways to make pictures look like bad dreams was by cutting and pasting up bits of old engraved book and magazine illustrations. The frightening metamorphoses which resulted depended upon the viewer’s initial faith in the graphic vocabulary and idioms of the wood-engraving language itself—no nasty or dirty or illogical or truly scary picture could ever appear garbed in such proper uniform.



Ernst could see the black-and-white, the false grays, of wood-engraving as the visual fabric of nightmare. But in our own day, a major graphic artist has been maintaining a deep romantic under-standing with Victorian illustration for nearly twenty years. Edward Gorey is no mere pasticheur, and yet most of his work is trivially or deeply parodic. His pseudo-Victorian fictions and verses provide materials to illustrate in pseudo-Victorian ways, and yet his originality is profound. Gorey’s concerns began to appear in his illustrated covers for Anchor Book editions of Henry James novels in the early 50’s, but even before then, his first illustrated book, The Unstrung Harp, had appeared. Its protagonist was Mr Earbrass, an Edwardian novelist the conception and creation of whose most recent book was narrated and depicted with stern correctness of British contemporary idiom (“hind-side-to” for our “back-side-front,” etc.) and visual detail. But the book’s deep obsession with the agonies of creativity and the imagination’s loneliness made it more than a brilliant exercise in those studied nostalgias that reach too far back in time to have been touched by one’s own memory.

In the subsequent twenty years, Gorey has produced about thirty-five more books, with texts variously in prose and verse. His earlier volumes—such as the collection of limericks (The Listing Attic); the alphabetic horror verses of The Fatal Lozenge and The Gashlycrumb Tinies with its series of Disasters Befalling the Young; that marvelous pseudonymous formal parody, totally devoid of erotic content, of tatty British pornography of the Evelyn Waugh period, The Curious Sofa—have all been unobtainable for some time. Now some fifteen of them have been reprinted in a volume entitled Amphigorey (from “amphigouri,” a Victorian mode of “nonsense” verse of highly-wrought form but with no apparrent meaning). The title makes manifest Gorey’s relation to the whole Victorian “nonsense” tradition—that mode of poetic romance which liberated, when they were dreaming up things for children, the otherwise blocked imaginations of Lewis Carroll and Edward Lear. (Certainly Lear is Gorey’s avowed predecessor.)

This whole collection is invaluable in giving us the heart of the Gorey canon, and in putting together enough of his work to allow his artistic stature and role properly to emerge. Although his genre of text-and-picture is not unlike that of the 19th-century German humorist Wilhelm Busch, his work is neither that popular nor that vulgar; Gorey writes and draws for the educated ear and eye. His petitguignol horrors, born of an ingenuity attentive to the woes of children in Victorian Kitsch, all have as their unwritten epigraph Oscar Wilde’s “One must have a heart of stone not to laugh at the death of Little Nell.” His evocations of loneliness and moral desolation are quite genuine, and his little mock narratives parallel in their hidden layers the personal seriousness of Lear’s Yonghy-Bonghy Bo, and Dong with the Luminous Nose. The Remembered Visit, here reprinted, is totally straightforward.



Some of Gorey’s more abstract works, like The West Wing (unconnected glimpses into various rooms in a deserted west wing of some vast English country house) carry on a line which began with The Object-Lesson, a line that leads to Gorey’s most recent book, The Awdrey-Gore Legacy (the anagrams of his name become more frequent in his later work), a kind of do-it-yourself, early 20’s detective-story kit, devoid of instructions for assembly, let alone plot, and consisting of images alone. The Object-Lesson itself is a most typical work. Its hilariously abstract and paradigmatic vignettes embody the cliches of some Wilkie Collins manqué; these glimpses consist of a page of picture together with its accompanying caption-line of narrative, with the continuity provided by syntax alone, as in some folded-paper writing game; the narrative dissolves into lyric evocation—despite the joking—because of the very lack of logical sequence. Thus: “On the shore a bat, or possibly an umbrella [turn] disengaged itself from the shrubbery [turn] causing those nearby to recollect the miseries of childhood”—which last accompanies one of the canonical Gorey visions: three dark, great-coated, muffled figures stare out across imponderable distances, in an emptied landscape; they seem to be related in some quasi-familial way.

Admirers of Gorey’s work will like to hunt for obsessive themes and presences in his pictures: the little armless black figure to whom he devotes a dedicatory French limerick, an unconsumed bunch of grapes that continues to haunt every frame of The Curious Sofa, and so forth. They may also observe the sad necessities of reduced offset reproduction, which have coarsened the drawn, mock-engraved lines of many of the early books (The Unstrung Harp suffers particularly in this respect), but Gorey has redone the text, letter-press in the original edition, in the calligraphy used throughout the rest of his oeuvre. A second collected Gorey volume, including such central works as The Gilded Bat (about a ballet dancer), The Blue Aspic, and one of my own favorites, The Deranged Cousins, will, when published, help to delineate even more clearly the boundaries of his imaginative domain.



A final word about Gorey’s verse, which derives from Lear, from antithetical and parodic nursery-rhyme traditions like Belloc’s cautionary verses: “The aged Duchess of Athlone/ Remarked in her subacid tone,/ I doubt if he is what we need.’ . . / So no Godolphin is the boy/ Who blacks the boots in the Savoy,” etc. It is quite expert, and almost insanely attentive, like his prose, to historical idiom and vocabulary (“He presented it with a length of string”—length, not piece, etc.). It still seems to me to be at its best in the catalogued nastinesses of The Fatal Lozenge, viz., under P:

The Proctor buys a pupil ices,
And hopes the boy will not resist
When he attempts to practise
Few people even know exist.

He only fails in one way (and I find this rather touching): while his Anglicized spelling is as singularly correct in these verses as elsewhere (e.g., the period-less “Mr” of Mr Earbrass), Gorey’s own Midwestern American ear claims its eminent domain at last; thus he rhymes sherry-fairy, Herridge-marriage, and daring-herring, which no Englishman, nor even a New Yorker, would do.



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