Childish things
The Globe and Mail (subscription), Canada - 6 hours ago
... Of course, childhood is often brilliantly evoked in memoir, in classics such as Maxim Gorky's My Childhood and Nabokov's Speak, Memory, or more recent entries ...
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Childish things

Saturday, September 11, 2004 - Page D21

One of my fondest memories of childhood is that of being read to. Whether listening to my mother intoning Kipling, or snuggled in bed with my father, eating raisins out of a big jar and wrapped in the latest adventure of Scrooge McDuck, the memory of reading -- a synaesthetic memory in which colour, sound, smell and other sense impressions are inseparably woven together -- has never lost its power.

Of course, it never occurred to me to ask whether my parents were enjoying what they read; I assumed they loved whatever it was as much as I did. I only thought to ask the question when I began to read to my younger brother, or to my own children. Then I discovered the books that could be read over and over again without being in the least tiresome: Kipling's Just So Stories, Sherlock Holmes, Maurice Sendak's In the Night Kitchen, anything by William Steig.

But there were also books that were unaccountably (to me) popular: "issues" books that show it's okay for a boy to love dolls, or for a kid to have two mums and no dad instead of the more usual one of each, or stories maudlin, pointless and ill-told. Though not exactly steeped in political correctness, I disliked the Curious George books (which my children liked) not only for their easy colonialist assumption that the man with a yellow hat could simply and without remorse spirit George out of Africa, but for their drab bloodlessness.

As a child, I had, like so many children, a taste for all things bloody and brutal: Dracula and Treasure Island and horror comics. Never quite ready to put away childish things, I began as a young adult to read fiction about childhood, and discovered there a full sense of its awe and, more important, its terror. And no writer has ever better evoked that duality than the man who more or less invented literary childhood: Charles Dickens. Before Dickens, children in literature were either absent or peripheral. In much Victorian literature, they are highly sentimentalized. Even in Dickens, whose own well-chronicled childhood woes made him intensely alert to the plight of children, was not immune from treacle, most obviously in The Old Curiosity Shop, in which the heroine, Little Nell, suffers the most protracted death (virtually all of the novel's many, many pages) in literature. As Oscar Wilde wrote in a slightly later, much less sentimental age, "One mus t have a heart of stone to read the death of Little Nell without laughing."

But, though mawkish, Nell's death is not laughable. In Dickens's world, that of Little Dorrit, Nicholas Nickleby and Oliver Swift, children, though often resourceful and resilient, are terribly vulnerable. His two greatest evocations of childhood are the magnificently autobiographical David Copperfield and Great Expectations, novels in which we experience the world fully through the eyes of children. But here's the rub for all these young Dickensians: They are for the most part alone. Parents cannot be trusted not to die; those assigned to protect them more often become their abusers; and society . . . well, society is either made up of predators and bullies, or doesn't seem much to care.

The aloneness of the perceptive child is also sometimes the subject of another great, very different writer. Henry James, a homosexual, had no children, whereas Dickens had many, but that didn't prevent him from seeing them as touchstones who exposed adult evil or madness, as in the haunting "ghost" story The Turn of the Screw and What Maisie Knew, in which the precocious title character is truly haunted by the corrupt and sinister manipulations of her parents' disintegrating relationship. James's contemporary, Mark Twain, was at the same time creating a world where children were caught perilously between the drive to conform (Tom Sawyer) and the need to escape adult constraints (Huck Finn).

Beginning in the 1950s, and galvanized by J. D. Salinger's The Catcher in the Rye, the novel of adolescence, with its lusts and anxieties and promises, blossomed. Perhaps fuelled by a perpetually adolescent boomer generation, it remains both a critical and popular force in such recent works as Alice Sebold's The Lovely Bones (good girl is raped and murdered, but watches from the afterlife), Niccolo Ammaniti's I'm Not Scared (boy in Italy discovers terrible family secret in sultry summer) and Mark Haddon's multi-award-winning The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time (autistic youth, dead dog, fraught family).

Of course, childhood is often brilliantly evoked in memoir, in classics such as Maxim Gorky's My Childhood and Nabokov's Speak, Memory, or more recent entries such as Jennifer Lauck's Blackbird, Frank McCourt's Angela's Ashes and Ernest Hillen's The Way of a Boy. But it is only in the novel (my sampling is small; readers will have their own favourites) that the side of childhood we're usually happier to deny, with its terror of being abandoned or killed or orphaned or lost, comes fully into its dark own.

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