alexandra alger


Neil Gaiman and The 13 Clocks

Neil Gaiman has lured me into the Wall Street Journal Book Club. He’s chosen, as a guest book-club leader, James Thurber’s “The 13 Clocks.” In an interview with a Journal a few weeks back (where I learned about this book club), Gaiman said he’d loved this book since he was eight and some years back was flabbergasted to find it was out of print in the U.S. He offered to write an introduction if a publisher would reissue it, and in 2008 the New York Review Children’s Collection reprinted it.

I’d never heard of it. But who can resist a book that Neil Gaiman calls “like nothing anyone has ever seen before?”

“The 13 Clocks” is a singular fairy tale, published in 1950. (Gaiman says it isn’t really a fairy tale, even if it takes place in a fairy-tale world. Splitting hairs, surely?) There’s an evil Duke, who could not be more sinister, living in a castle where all 13 clocks have all stopped; a princess whom he’s keeping captive; a wandering minstrel (a prince in disguise) who teams up with a magical being, a Golux, to rescue and marry Princess Saralinda.

Thurber! He’s a master of making dark things funny. On page one, a description of the Duke, who is always cold and therefore always wears gloves: “He wore gloves when he was asleep, and gloves when he was awake, which made it difficult for him to pick up pins or coins or kernels of nuts, or to tear the wings from nightingales.” Wearing gloves to bed—silly, yes? I’m guessing the average kid would think so. And then a sensible list of things that are indeed hard to do when you wear gloves. And then at the end, like a punchline: A horrifying act—no, it sounds like more of a hobby, tearing the wings off nightingales, plural. Horrifying, and yet, because it’s unexpected, at the end of a list that’s otherwise banal, you (I, anyway) end up chortling at the incongruity.

And this: “The Duke limped because his legs were of different lengths. The right one had outgrown the left because, when he was young, he had spent his mornings place-kicking pups and punting kittens. He would say to a suitor, ‘What is the difference in the length of my legs?’ and if the youth replied, ‘Why, one is shorter than the other,’ the Duke would run him through with the sword he carried in his swordcane and feed him to the geese. The suitor was supposed to say, ‘Why, one is longer than the other.’”

Terrible that he’s kicking pups and kittens (no! I can hear a child cry), but for that to be the reason his legs are of different legs…I’m not even sure how to explain how that tickles my funny bone.Some animals lovers may, in fact, not find that part funny.

Gaiman makes much of Thurber’s language, and it is wonderful, alive and zany and mystical all at the same time. I’m not as enamored of his made-up words as Neil is—words like “zatch” for throat and “guggle” for stomach (or possibly the other way around.). The honest reason is, I’m feeling a sense of been-there-done-that because of Roald Dahl and books of his like “The BFG,” overflowing with hilarious made-up words (remember the snozzcumber?) I’m realizing now that “The 13 Clocks” predates “The BFG” by thirty-two years. Thurber should get the credit I’m giving Dahl. If only I’d read Thurber first!
Thurber turns language inside and out in the most delightful and unexpected ways. The Duke commands his men to take the minstrel to the dungeon: “Feed him water without bread, and bread without water.” Saralinda: He doesn’t compare her to a rose, but writes this: “It was not easy to tell her mouth from the rose, or her brow from the white liliac.” The Golux: “The Duke is lamer than I am old, and I am shorter than he is cold, but it comes to you with some surprise that I am wiser than he is wise.”

There’s a woman, Hagga, who weeps jewels. I’d forgotten about the vuluptuous joy of reading about jewels, masses of jewels, jewels in a big heap. I can’t even remember a story with a good heap of jewels. This may be the very best. Hilariously, Hagga can’t be counted on to produce precious stones, which the minstrel-prince must bring to the Duke. “Hagga laughed until she wept, and seven brilliants tricked down her cheek and clattered to the floor. ‘Rhinestones!’ groaned the Golux. “Now she’s weeping costume jewelry!’”

Have I convinced you to run out and buy “The 13 Clocks”?

In mid-July Neil himself will lead a live video discussion of the book. So I have two weeks to think of perceptive things to say.

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