There is something rather wonderful about choosing and reading a book while knowing very little about it. I knew nothing at all about James Schuyler or his 1958 novel Alfred and Guinevere when I picked it up in Hay on Wye last year – all I knew was that I loved NYRB Classics (and this one, from 2001, shows just how timeless their designs are – looking beautifully fresh 14 years later. Even though I can’t find out what the painting is). Not being a poetry buff, I didn’t realise that that was the arena in which Schuyler made his name – but I do now know that he had a knack with words that was rather extraordinary.
The eponymous Alfred and Guinevere are children who are sent to stay with their grandparents. Most of this slim novel is given in their dialogue, excerpts from Guinevere’s diary, and letters that she writes. The novella probably says their ages, but I must have flown past that section. Guinevere is the elder; Alfred is pretty unschooled in reading and writing.
Undoubtedly the greatest achievement in this novel is Schuyler’s ability to capture the cadences of children’s conversation, particularly the back-and-forth of sibling arguments, which leap from battle to truce to battle, weaving in long-standing disagreements, I-know-something-you-don’t-know novelties, and (most beautifully captured of all) snatches stolen from the conversation of adults around them, and novels the children probably shouldn’t be reading. This is a trick Schuyler uses throughout: they borrow idioms and metaphors that sound extremely out of kilter with their childish bickering, because – of course – that is exactly what children do do. Perhaps particularly those who feel adrift from the adults around them, and uncertain of the events that have occurred (more on that soon). Here’s an example from a letter Betty writes to Guinevere, her erstwhile friend:
Dear Guinevere,Thanks for the note. It is a shame boys make so much trouble and go around tattle-taling and spoiling intimate friendships. Of course your knocking me down like that made a permanent wound in my feelings which is slow to heal but it is not you at bottom I blame it is them. It was not me or Lois who told her mother or my mother what my mother told your mother she said you said. It was Stanley who told his mother and she told the other mothers. So you see how it goes.It is a shame what happens but I guess you have to take it as it comes and not spoil your life with vain regrets.More in sadness than in hate,Elizabeth Carolanne House
And there is this…
“You’re scared to walk across the bridge and look. I can tell you’re scared when you try to look like Mother.””I’ll run away and leave you in the gathering gloom at the mercy of reckless drivers and we’ll see who’s scared.””I’ll throw myself in the gutter and get sick and die, then you’ll be sorry.””No I won’t. I’ll go to your funeral and say, ‘Doesn’t he look sweet in his coffin,’ and cry, then everybody will feel sorry for me and give me things. I’ll wear a black dress with black accessories and a hat with a black veil. Black is very becoming and makes you look older. Then I’ll take your insurance money and go on a trip and meet a dark, interesting stranger.”
Lest you think that this is a cutesy book, I should say that – behind the well-observed dialogue – there is an indistinct darkness. I suppose Guinevere’s macabre callousness might already dismiss ideas of Brady Bunch levels of cuteness, but there is a much darker subtext. The children briefly discuss having found a dead body. At one very poignant moment, Guinevere blurts out “I’m sorry Daddy hit you”, but it is not explored further than that. Schuyler gives just enough shade to make clear that all is not sunny.
But, at the same time, this is a very funny book. It is the sort of humour that stems almost entirely from acute observation – and that, if coupled with a slight (slight) heightened tone, is probably the thing I find most amusing. In only 126 pages, Schuyler combines humour and darkness in a really exceptional way.
Alfred and Guinevere is deceptively quick and simple. But, oh, there is an awful lot going on – not least an authorial restraint and style that I heartily applaud. If I had to pick any other novel that it reminded me of, I would pick another NYRB beauty – Skylark by Dezső Kosztolányi.
Have you read this? Do you know anything about James Schuyler? I now want to find out much more!