Saturday, April 15, 2017

Alfred and GuinevereAlfred and Guinevere by James Schuyler
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Schuyler has a pitch-perfect ear for children's voices, and the story, told entirely through snatches of dialogue and passages from Guinevere's diary, is a tour de force of comic and poetic invention."
[from an uncredited blurb on the back cover]

James Schuyler's Alfred and Guinevere (1958), "officially" a novel, but a novella volume-wise, comes highly recommended by several literary critics and many readers as a charming story of a summer spent by two children - a bright window into the magical world of pre-adolescent siblings. Alas I am not as enthusiastic about this novel: probably because I have had the pleasure of reading Amelie Nothomb's masterpiece Loving Sabotage (as well as almost equally good The Character of Rain ). I find Ms. Nothomb's depiction of children's universe more insightful; it is in her books that I can find a little bit of the child that I used to be about 60 years ago. Mr. Schuyler's work, clever and charming as it is, does not come across as wonderfully natural and compelling.

The author never exactly states how old Alfred and Guinevere are, except that the boy is clearly younger than his sister. In fact, I find it one of the best aspects of the novel that we, the readers, may choose the kids' age: I chose Alfred to be seven or eight and Guinevere eleven or twelve. Their father leaves for Europe for business reasons, their mother follows him, and the children are left behind to spend the summer at their grandmother's house in the country. The author lets the reader see the adult world only through the children's eyes: the mechanisms of the grown-ups' universe are obviously opaque to the children. They create their own causal structure of events, which is influenced more by views of other people, adults or kids, than by the actual "facts." Mr. Schuyler succeeds in inducing a sense of some menace that lies underneath the innocent story of one summer, but it is we, the readers, who need to select the menace of our choice.

I like the circular structure of the book: it begins and ends with the bedtime talk between the kids, which sets up the axis of this generally plotless novel. The symmetries seem to go even deeper: I am curious about a mysterious piece of conversation between the children that appears on the sixth page: it is explained by the children's dialogue near the end of the book, exactly six pages from the end. I wonder if this was done on purpose by the author noted for his poetry, a genre that requires precision of literary structures.

However, I tend to disagree with the high praise for the author's "pitch-perfect ear for children's voices." True, many passages are indeed written in the way that children think - some of Guinevere's writing and most conversations between the children - yet other fragments sound awkward and too sophisticated even for precocious pre-adolescents or, in some passages, seem to be artificially infantilized.

Certainly a worthy read but - to me - far from a masterpiece that it is purported to be.

Three and a quarter stars.

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