Friday, June 27, 2008

Froog's Celebrate Reading Pick: THE WIND IN THE WILLOWS by Kennethe Grahame

Today, we welcome Froog as Celebrate Reading Guest Blogger.

About the Guest Blogger: Froog in his time has flirted with careers as an academic, a schoolteacher, a lawyer, a TV producer and a beachcomber, but was comprehensively spurned by each of them in turn. He is a recovering teetotaller who now lives in Beijing, where he maintains his poverty by writing a cult blog about his misadventures in the city's bars and music clubs. There is a possibility that he may grow up one day, but for now he is rather enjoying letting his inner child run the show.

Darn, this is a tough challenge our Moonie has set us! It seems invidious, impossible to choose just one book to celebrate from a lifetime's reading.

I'd already reviewed a couple of my special favourites over on The BookBook - LIFE IN A SCOTCH SITTING-ROOM, Vol. 2 by Ivor Cutler and THE THIRD POLICEMAN by Flann O'Brien - so I felt I ought to omit them from consideration here.

I've always had a weakness for the 19th classics, and so was sorely tempted to go for one of those - but a little daunted, too, somewhat constrained by a sense of unworthiness. If you really pin me down on what I think is the best book ever written, I have to say ANNA KARENINA; but I don't think I could begin to do it justice. I considered also some of the other great books from that period - and from that period of my life, my most prolific spell of reading, my last years at high school - MADAME BOVARY, SCARLET & BLACK, THERESE RAQUIN, A SENTIMENTAL EDUCATION, CRIME & PUNISHMENT, GREAT EXPECTATIONS, PRIDE & PREJUDICE. Prior to that, I'd had a brief, intense love affair with Melville and Conrad (I dreamed of running away to sea, until I discovered there were no tall ships any more): BILLY BUDD, MOBY DICK, LORD JIM, NOSTROMO, THE SECRET AGENT. Then there were the American greats that I mostly discovered just a bit later: THE GREAT GATSBY, AS I LAY DYING, TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD. And then there were all those more contemporary, more oddball, more risqué bestsellers, many known to me for years only as unfathomable titles from my elder brother's bookshelf: ZEN AND THE ART OF MOTORCYCLE MAINTENANCE, ON THE ROAD, JONATHAN LIVINGSTONE SEAGULL, CATCH-22 (JES has done that one for us now - thanks), LOLITA (god, I hope someone chooses to review LOLITA!), PORTNOY'S COMPLAINT, FEAR AND LOATHING IN LAS VEGAS, SLAUGHTERHOUSE 5.

I even contemplated, as more obscure possibilities, a couple of books that I'd loved using in class when I was, briefly, a schoolteacher in the early years of my working life, two of the greatest adventure novels ever written: ROGUE MALE by Geoffrey Household and THE TREASURE OF THE SIERRA MADRE by B. Traven.

And the 'big three' I was focusing on for a long time - three books that really stimulated me with their ideas, haunted me with their bleakness, turned on its head my conception of what a novel could be - were CAT'S CRADLE, NINETEEN EIGHTY-FOUR, and THE TRIAL.

But you know what? They're all a bit serious, aren't they? Maybe even a bit pretentious? And I'm sure if MR repeats her 'Celebrate Reading' festival once or twice a year from now on, before too long somebody else will cover all of these.

First thoughts are usually best. When MR approached me to ask if I wanted to contribute to this series a month ago, my initial response was, "Oh, I suppose I could do THE WIND IN THE WILLOWS." So be it.

I can't now recall if this was part of the brief MR gave us, but most contributors so far seem to have chosen something that had a big impact on their life, and most particularly on their development as a reader. I'm going way back here. THE WIND IN THE WILLOWS was the first proper book (other than picturebooks and learn-to-read primers) that I can remember my mother reading to me. Though I can't distinctly recollect the very first time I heard it, it was already a familiar story that I was demanding to have read to me again by the time I was 4 or 5 years old. By the time I was 7 or 8 it had become one of the first proper books that I read for myself. It is almost certainly the book that I have re-read most often. It is one of the few books - the only children's book, I think - that I continue to re-read to this day, once every few years or so.

It is also one of the few books from that distant era of my life that I have jealously preserved (although, alas, it is now in storage with a friend; I don't have it here with me in China, and I'm missing it). Even in my childhood, there was a hallowed air of antiquity about this volume: it was a soft-cover paperback of at least '50s vintage, perhaps considerably earlier (I rather suspect, but can't now verify, that it was in fact a '30s edition from my mother's own childhood), the pages yellowed and slightly musty-smelling, desiccated and crisp to the touch. The feel of that book in my hands, and all the memories of home and family and childhood tied up in it are much of the reason that I love it so.

It is some time since I last read it, and I'm not able to consult it now to refresh my memory. I suppose I've never really read it critically, but more for the nostalgia-wallow it induces. I can't really say if it is especially well-written, or if it is a particularly good children's book. It is, however, an undeniably captivating story, one which has stood the test of time (gosh, this year is the centenary!). There is suspense and adventure and plenty of broad humour and the quirky charm of anthropmorphized animals; but it is also a surprisingly adult story: these are adult characters in an adult world, dealing with very adult problems (addictive behaviour, debt, criminal charges, lost children). Children, I always felt, made very dull and irritating protagonists for children's stories; this was much more satisfying.

Above all, the book is - and this, of course, is a prime interest of our beloved Moonrat - the most marvellous celebration of friendship. (Indeed, cynics may carp at the closeness of the affection between Ratty and Mole, suggesting that it smacks of a romantic or sexual attachment; and at least one stage version I've seen transforms the houseproud Mole into a female character, to play up on that tension more openly.) Toad is really not a very nice character: he's pompous, vain, deceitful, undisciplined. Although he does have his more winning qualities - a certain buffoonish charm, a childlike innocence, an acute vulnerability - that earn him endless forgiveness from his long-suffering associates, it's rather difficult to comprehend how they became friends. Yet friends they are, and however much the irresponsible Toad strains that friendship, they loyally stand by him. It is the most touching and inspiring template of male camaraderie I've ever encountered (though the central relationship between Ratty and Mole is a purer, less morally challenging representation of the ideal).

Other key elements of the book's lasting hold on me are: the idyllic picture of rural life, and particularly of a life of leisure on the river ("There is nothing - absolutely NOTHING - half so much fun as simply messing-about in boats," as the Water Rat famously says; I did not learn the overwhelming truth of this adage until I discovered the joys of punting as an undergraduate at Oxford years later); the stark counterpoint of the scary darkness in other areas of life (the depiction of The Wild Wood is utterly, ravishingly terrifying to a small child); the poignancy of a lost world of innocence (I didn't realise this until much later, but the ease and tranquility of the life shown on the riverbank is found also in much of Edwardian literature: it's hard now not to bridle at the naivety of such carefree idylls, not to sense the latent tragedy of the looming World War somewhere between the lines); the finely balanced tension between the allure of a life of travel and adventure on 'the open road' (most powerfully seen in the episode where Ratty meets The Wayfarer, a vagabond sea rat who briefly seduces him with his glamorous tales of world travel) and the comforting familiarity of home (the 'Dulce Domum' chapter, where Mole finally returns to his own house after a long absence, regularly used to make me cry, and probably still would); and, of course, the greatest picnic scene in literature (with the comprehensive list of foods provided rendered stream-of-consciousness style as a single, irresistible word).

I worry, though, if this is perhaps too much of a "man's book". All of the main characters are men. Indeed, all of the main characters are lifelong bachelors. We do get a few glimpses of the cosy domesticity of wife and family as an alternate ideal, but our heroes seem quite happy as they are. Theirs is a world almost entirely without responsibilities, a world of pure leisure. That is certainly the key to the book's fascination for me; but I do get a little concerned sometimes as to how much this may have influenced - corrupted - the course of my adult life. Here I am, approaching middle age still a bachelor, and - despite occasional pangs of dissatisfaction with this status - the dominant obsession of my life is always wondering when I'll be able to get out on the river again.

A micro-anecdote to close. Around the time I first came to know this book - the age of 3 or 4, I guess - there was a 'Wild Wood' which my mother would often take me to for a walk. The wood seemed huge and dark and threatening, and I wouldn't have dared to set foot in it alone. Accompanied by Mum or Dad, I could contain my fear, play with it, savour it. That was a big expedition for me back then. The wood was miles away, across an endless field of corn that stood higher than my head. I returned to that spot ten years ago, for the first time since my childhood. The cornfield, of course, was of a fairly regular size, not limitless as the Russian steppes; and it grew only waist-high, at most. The 'Wild Wood' that had overwhelmed my senses as a small boy was a simple copse of only half a dozen or so trees. The world is so very different when you're 3ft tall.

And yes, I'm still waiting for my t-shirt, MR.


Bernita said...

Lovely, m'dear.
How tall are you now?

Charles Gramlich said...

A lovely little book. I didn't read it until I was grown and feel like I probably missed out.

JES said...

Gosh, what a nice review.

I'm constantly amazed by the number of people who will sneer at something like WitW -- or heck, just disregard it -- simply because "it's a child's book, isn't it?" Which is rather like sneering at a mother or father because "well, honestly, it's only a child's parent": true, but beside the point. That something as "simple" as a child's book can so lodge in the mind that decades later, it births complex ruminations like this... an honest to God miracle, no?

Thanks so much!

[Admin aside: back to commenting as JES -- EdAss's "choose an identity" thingum on the comment form was weird earlier, requiring me to use the Google/Blogger name. Please don't regard me as a shapeshifting spammer. :)]

ChrisEldin said...

The Wind in the Willows!!!
I'll have to come back and read your post.
Just read it to my older son last year (first time for me to read it)

Will be back...

Linda said...

I'd forgotten the WITW. Great review, and I like your little tale of the wild wood.
Funny, I just tucked my daughter into bed and we were looking for a book to read and there, between THE GRINCH WHO STOLE CHRISTMAS and GRIMM'S FAIRY TALES was my old WITW. I've pulled it out to read to her tomorrow... Peace, Linda

Froog said...

Bernita, I peaked at 6'3", but I fear that the beginning of the middle-age-slouch has trimmed me by an inch or so now.

There is some statistical rule, I think, that your height at the age of three-and-a-half (or is it two-and-a-half, or four-and-a-half?) is half of your final height.

I'm glad to have reminded some of the parents amongst of a nice little read for your children.

People usually quibble about the incongruity of the god Pan's appearance, but I don't think I ever had a problem with that. On the contrary, a deus ex machina was a very reassuring way to resolve that episode of the hunt for the missing child.

These days I have more misgivings about the Rambo-ish assault on Toad Hall at the end - although I suppose I found it exciting as a kid.

There's a rather interesting re-telling of the story from a Marxist-socialist perspective - called, I think, Wild Wood, although I forget the name of the author - in which the animals of the Wild Wood are a downtrodden working class, unfairly disdained by the upper-class twits who are the protagonists of WITW and often inadvertently harmed by their selfishing and irresponsibility. When Toad Hall is left abandoned, it seems only right and proper to take it over as a squat and set up an idealistic people's commune in it. Worth checking out for slightly older children....

Froog said...


I have just created a new verb! Of course I meant "selfishness".

I worry that this is not just a run-of-the-mill typo, but evidence of the insidious influence of Mandarin Chinese on the language centres of my brain (and I don't even speak any, really; but I am surrounded by it all the time, and I think that's enough!).