Starting my previous post comparing my habits in selecting men with choosing books seems to have caused a bit of a stir, but unfortunately I have no clever gimmicks this time. Just wait, I’m sure some more horrific personal divulgences will come. But in the meantime, let’s focus on the simple pleasure of having in your hands a delightful little book-shaped package which makes you smile.
I like to think I’m not overly wedded to ‘things’ but give me a cute little hardback filled with wonderful illustrations and a darkly humourous outlook on life and I’m a sucker if ever there was one. Last year, at the pointy-end of things, I stumbled across the works of one Edward Gorey, and my life changed. Not in a monumental we’re-all-moving-to-tahiti kind of way, but it was still a significant experience. It was one of those ‘Where have you been all my life, Author?’ moments.
G is for Gorey, and two books were read for this illustrious posting: The Doubtful Guest and The Iron Tonic (Or A Winter Afternoon in Lonely Valley). ‘Read’ is such a plain verb. They were lovingly caressed, delicately leafed through, pored over with reverence. When I turn the pages of a Gorey story I get that balloon-shaped swell in the top of my chest that I get when I read my favourite authors or a particularly delightful story. McCarthy, Camilleri, Deaver, Dickens, Austen, Bennett, Saunders, Atwood… I get this same feeling with Gorey. It is a mixture of anticipation, wonder, uncertainty, amusement, thought-stirring and simple delight in the joy, yes the joy, of reading something which tickles and turns-about both your mind and soul.
My copy of Iron Tonic (or Lonely Valley, as I think of it) wears a little black sticker proclaiming the book to be ‘the bracingly bleak tale’. The bracingly bleak tale? Seems to me that explains them all. (And it’s just the kind of description Gorey would use – I see figure skaters in the ‘bracingly bleak’ drawing for some reason.) Sad but in such an endearing way; so grey and fittingly morbid one can’t help but, well, smile. And the sloth-like creature in its little white trainers in The Doubtful Guest positively makes me want to leap into the pages of the book and give the old plate-eating, towell-hiding muppet a big ol’ hug.
For me, the Goreys touch that part of the reading-you who occasionally likes to be, well, melancholy. Or at least quiet and a little thoughtful. They speak to that part of you who is secretly pleased when it’s a cold rainy day and you can curl up in a big armchair under a blanket with only the parts of you from your nose up sticking out. The you who occasionally feels like having a day where you don’t have to speak to anyone; who has a weekend where you’re happy to keep to yourself and re-organise your bookshelves.
I don’t usually encourage passivity but one thing I like about the Goreys I have read are how his human-characters have all this ‘stuff’ happen to them. Death, tragedy, annoyance, bizarreness, irony, solitude – it rolls in like a cold fog and … occurs. And that’s it. It’s like the characters are in this permanent state of how we all sometimes feel and how life somehow is.
There’s nothing wrong with exploring ‘the sadness’ within us every now and then. As long as we make room for the quirky side of life as well. And that’s what Edward Gorey’s books do and it’s why I like them so much. It’s the combination of the bleak and the kooky, matched with the wonderful illustrations, which make them so perfect.