By Harry Ransom Center
John Crowley, whose archive resides at the Ransom Center, is an American author of fantasy, science fiction, and mainstream fiction. He published his first novel, The Deep, in 1975, and his 14th volume of fiction, Lord Byron’s Novel: The Evening Land, in 2005. He has taught creative writing at Yale University since 1993. A special 25th-anniversary edition of his novel Little, Big will be published this spring. Below, he shares how Lewis Carroll’s classic Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland influenced his own work.
A critical (best sense) reader of my work once wrote an entire essay about allusions to and quotes from Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland books in a novel of mine called Little, Big—a very Alice sort of title in the first place. Some of the quotes and allusions, while certainly there, were unconscious; the turns of phrase and paradoxes and names in those books are so ingrained in me that they simply form part of my vocabulary. I first heard them read aloud: my older sister read them to me when I was about eight years old. I don’t remember my reaction to Alice in Wonderland—except for absorbing it wholly—because for certain books read or heard at certain moments in childhood, there is no first reading: such books enter the mind and soul as though they had always been there. I do remember my reaction to Through the Looking Glass: I found it unsettlingly weird, dark, dreamlike (it is in fact the greatest dream-book ever written). The shop where the shopkeeper becomes a sheep, then dissolves into a pond with Alice rowing and the sheep in the stern knitting (!)—it wasn’t scary, but it was eerie because it so exactly replicated the movements of places and things and people in my own dreams, of which I was then becoming a connoisseur. How did this book know about such things?
Another profound connection I have with Alice I only discovered—in delight—some years ago in (of all places) the Wall Street Journal. In an article about odd cognitive and sensory disorders, it described “Alice in Wonderland syndrome:” “Named after Lewis Carroll’s famous novel, this neurological condition makes objects (including one’s own body parts) seem smaller, larger, closer or more distant than they really are. It’s more common in childhood, often at the onset of sleep, and may disappear by adulthood…”
I have tried to describe this syndrome to people for years, and never once met anyone who recognized it from my descriptions. In my experience it’s more odd a feeling than this, and more ambivalent: I feel (or felt, as a child, almost never any more) as though my hands and feet are billions of miles distant from my head and heart, but at the same time I am enormously, infinitely large, and so those parts are in the same spatial relation to myself as ever, or even monstrously closer. It was awesome in the strict sense, not scary or horrid, uncomfortable but also intriguing. I wonder if Carroll (Dodgson, rather) had this syndrome. I’ve thought of including it on my resume: “John Crowley was born in the appropriately liminal town of Presque Isle, Maine, and as a child suffered from or delighted in Alice in Wonderland syndrome.”
The Ransom Center’s current exhibition Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland is on view through July 6.
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