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January 2001
 
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Books
by James Sallis

L. Frank Baum: Creator of Oz, by Katharine M. Rogers, St. Martin's Press, 2002, $27.95.

Karel Capek—Life and Work, by Ivan Klíma, Catbird Press, 2002, $23.00.

Mervyn Peake: My Eyes Mint Gold, by Malcolm Yorke, The Overlook Press, 2002, $37.50.

Interestingly enough, the first major essay on L. Frank Baum, written by Martin Gardner, appeared in this very magazine under the editorship of co-founder Anthony Boucher in the January and February 1955 issues. Everyone knows Oz from the movie, of course. It's a part of our common mythology, part of America's shabby, patchwork culture. The older among us may dimly recall Tik-Tok the mechanical man, or H. M. Wogglebug, T. E. (whose name Phil Farmer appropriated for his classic The Lovers), or Jack Pumpkinhead. Still, I suspect that Baum has few contemporary readers, that notions of his books are badly amiss, and that even the readers he has, like myself, know little of the author.

Lyman Frank Baum was born on May 15, 1856, near Syracuse, to a wealthy family. His father, a natural entrepreneur, had been by turns a barrel maker, manufacturer of butter and cheese, owner of oil fields, real-estate speculator, and banker. In childhood Baum probably developed rheumatic fever—some ailment, at any rate, that left his heart damaged. Launched into the world, he worked as a cub reporter on the New York World, owned a printing shop and newspaper in Pennsylvania, managed a chain of opera houses, then, manifesting a lifelong interest in theater, acted in various traveling troupes.

In 1881 he had his first success as a writer with The Maid of Arran, an Irish musical comedy for which he created book, music, and lyrics. He also produced, directed, and played the romantic lead. During the first year of the play's long run Baum married Maud Gage, left the cast, and returned with her to Syracuse where he set up as manufacturer of a crude-oil product used to grease axles. Four years later, having lost interest in this enterprise and proven unable to repeat his theatrical success, Baum relocated to a frontier town in South Dakota. Here he opened Baum's Bazaar, a general store on the grand scale. All too ready to grant credit, clinging to the very edge of civilization, and at best commercially challenged, Baum saw this too fail.

Again he turned to journalism, buying the Aberdeen Saturday Pioneer, ultimately another unsuccessful commercial venture though it proved a watershed in Baum's career. In editorials he wrote, and in a column created for the paper, "Our Landlady," Baum honed his skills as a writer. Chicago was the next stop, first as reporter for The Chicago Post, then as travelling salesman for an importing firm. In 1897, the same year that he found success with Show Window, a monthly periodical for window trimmers, Baum published his first children's book, Mother Goose in Prose. Four more followed in quick order.

The Wonderful Wizard of Oz appeared in 1900, selling 90,000 copies in two years. Baum was 44.

It was in Wizard that Baum first came into his own. The narrative looks upon marvels with a child's direct, plain view of things, yet leaves room for a broad range of humor and for investigation of genuine intellectual questions. Grotesque, Dickensian, lovable characters abound. Fantasy grounds itself in realistic detail. Given one or two outrageous premises, all else is logical. The Scarecrow cannot pick up small things with its clumsy padded fingers. A sawhorse is brought to life but cannot follow commands until ears are built for it. Countries are different colors because they're represented that way on maps.

Tremendously prolific, under his own name and seven pseudonyms Baum went on to produce 62 books in 19 years. As Edith Van Dyne he penned 17 novels for teenage girls; as Laura Bancroft, six traditional light fantasies.

Baum died of heart failure in 1919 in Hollywood, where he had built a fabulous house, Ozcot, and formed the largely unsuccessful film production company that occupied his final years. Glinda of Oz was completed, supposedly from his notes, by Ruth Plumly Thompson, who eventually added perhaps 20 more books to the Oz canon. Further volumes came by way of John Rea Neill, Rachel Cosgrove, and Jack Snow.

Much of Baum's work, for all its great appeal to children, proves surprisingly sophisticated. Martin Gardner points out that when Dorothy visits the Kingdom of Utensia, populated by kitchenware, no less than 50 puns occur in eight pages of text. Katharine Rogers in turn underlines the influence of theosophy and the woman's suffrage movement on Baum's imagination.

His mother-in-law, Matilda Gage, was a leader in the suffrage movement, author of the massive Woman, Church and State: A Historical Account of the Status of Woman Through the Christian Ages (1893). Many of Baum's editorials as a newspaperman dealt with suffragist issues. Women are at a preponderance in Oz. The land is defended by Glinda's army of girls. All true power resides in a matriarchy of female witches.

In theosophy Baum found affirmation of a reality beyond the everyday visible world. Equally, his representation of magic as operating by natural if occult laws, and the propensity of his characters to solve problems by virtue of their own courage and enterprise, reflect dearly-held theosophist values.

For the most part Rogers sticks close to the path of standard biography, offering little by way of literary criticism or analysis, though in passages such as the following, comparing Carroll's Alice and Baum's Dorothy, she not only exhibits fine discrimination but also strikes to the very heart of the Oz books' eternal appeal.

The significant difference is that Dorothy is able to make sense of the confusing world she is plunged into and to influence it; people listen to her, and she can act effectively and resist unreasonable authority; her good sense and resolution win the success they deserve; she overcomes all obstacles in her path and gets home. Alice, on the other hand, is always subject to forces she cannot comprehend or control; she is ordered around, expected to follow rules she cannot know, bombarded with questions she cannot answer, driven in directions she has not chosen. . . . Baum's fantasy of an idealized world reassures children that they can solve puzzles and overcome difficulties. Carroll's gives exaggerated, concrete form to the frustrations children face in their everyday lives.

Oz is at heart, of course, deeply conservative, "an American version of the pastoral ideal" where old-fashioned rural values are carefully preserved, people are basically good, all issues simple and straightforward.

Little wonder we enjoy a bus ride through.

Baum died almost at the moment that Virginia Woolf claimed our world, the consciousness of our race, changed forever. Quite aside from their obvious surface delights, which are many and multifarious, I suspect that Baum's books may tell us more about what we once were, or thought ourselves to be—about an America in terminal transition from a rural to an urban society—than any number of naturalist novels or tracts.

*     *     *

Lives overlap here. The years following Baum's death, say 1920 to 1923, were the most important creative period for Karel Capek. In 1918, with the end of World War I, the Czech Republic had come into being. Capek (Chop'-ek), in many ways a bloodless, repressed man, had found his great love, Olga Scheinpflugova. He was artistic director of Prague's Vinohrady Theater. In this period he published Painful Tales, collaborated with brother Josef on From the Life of the Insects, turned out scripts and outlines for a number of screenplays as well as travelogues such as Letters from Italy and well over 200 stories, articles, reviews and feuilletons, wrote R.U.R., The Absolute at Large, The Makropoulos Secret, and, finally, the novel Krakatit.

For much of the Twenties and Thirties, Capek was the leading writer in Czechoslovakia. Nor did his fame end there: routinely his plays opened on Broadway to great success following their premieres in his homeland. By 1936 he'd become a major contender for the Nobel Prize. Hitler, though, was working his magic nearby. And Capek was an outspoken anti-fascist who had just published War with the Newts, a satire on European dictatorships, colonialism, and capitalist greed. Nobel committee members asked if he might not write something a bit less controversial. "I have already written my doctoral dissertation" was his response. For many years his works were banned.

Today he is almost forgotten.

Catbird Press has set out to rectify that. Its recent Cross Roads combines Capek collections written during World War I and just after, one comprising metaphysical fables; the other, tales of characters faced with impossible choices. (I wanted to show, Capek said, "man in humiliation and weakness, without debasing him as a human being.") Cross Roads is Catbird's third volume of Capek stories. These in turn are flanked by a wonderful new translation of War with the Newts and a marvelous anthology titled Toward the Radical Center that includes a new translation of R.U.R. --seven volumes in all.

Now Catbird has commissioned a biography of Capek from contemporary Czech writer Ivan Klíma.

Karel Capek—Life and Work is a marvel and a gift. Lightly written, it has far more the feel of an extended essay than of standard biography. Klíma is not only an immensely gifted writer in his own right, not only a perceptive, disciplined critic, but also a lifelong reader of Capek, on whom he wrote his dissertation. He knows the work intimately, knows the man as well as he can be known, and we as readers are privileged to follow the free play of Klíma's mind across life, work and times. Literary biography does not get any better than this.

For Capek, Klíma posits, mankind is always under siege, from within and without. In The Factory of the Absolute, machines produce infinite quantity of goods without expenditure of energy—a sure trap. The Makropoulos Secret looks at prolonged life and the spiritual toll it would take. Krakatit deals with the invention of an atomic bomb. In R.U.R., of course, the humans are under siege from robots who will replace them.

Here is Capek himself on the origins of R.U.R..

To create a homunculus is a mediaeval idea; to bring it in line with the present century, this creation must be undertaken on the principle of mass production. We are in the grip of industrialism; this terrible machinery must not stop, for if it does it would destroy the lives of thousands. It must, on the contrary, go on faster and faster, even though in the process it destroys thousands and thousands of other lives...A product of the human brain has at last escaped from the control of human hands. That is the comedy of science.

There is then what Capek calls the comedy of truth.

Factory director Domin, claiming that technological progress emancipates man from hard labor, is right. Alquist, who believes this progress dehumanizes him, is also right. The robots are right, Helena, the scientist's daughter who sides with them—everyone is right. All are morally right; they advocate their truths on the basis of ideals. This, Capek said, was the most dramatic element of modern civilization, that one human truth should be pitched so fatally against another.

War with the Newts is Capek's sidelong glance at the worst foibles of mankind and of his age. For 234 pages the novel moves along fairly straightforward satirical lines, here some Swift, there Penguin Island, a seasoning of Rabelais, a touch of Cervantes. Then, in an astonishing final chapter, "The Author Talks to Himself," a sudden cascade of alternative endings.

Don't ask me what I want. Do you suppose I am making the continents crumble into dust, do you suppose I wanted this kind of ending? . . . I did what I could; I warned people in good time . . . The world will probably disintegrate and become inundated—but at least it will do so for universally accepted political and economic reasons, at least it will do so with the aid of science, engineering and public opinion, with the application of all human ingenuity!

It is the newts' world now. Perhaps men will simply go on working in the newts' factories. Perhaps with illness or plague nature will put right what man has messed up. Perhaps eastern newts will take up arms against western newts. Perhaps slogans such as Lemuria is for Lemurians, all foreigners out, will take hold. Perhaps great newt wars will be fought for national glory and greatness—all in the name of Genuine Newtdom.

Those words were written in 1936. Capek died, age 46, on Christmas Day 1938, three months after the Munich Agreement. The following year, Hitler occupied Czechoslovakia.

*     *     *

Lineaments of a life.

Mervyn Peake was born in 1911, in China, to missionary parents. Returned to England at age 12 carrying the experience of China—of the exotic, of poverty and human decay—within him. Carrying also within him, from the epidemic of same that swept China, the encephalitis lethargica or "sleeping sickness" that would lie dormant for thirty years and, combining with Parkinson's, divide him from his life. Attended public schools, then the Royal Academy, first exhibited his paintings in 1931, began teaching art in 1936, the following year met and married Maeve Gilmore. During World War II served in the army and in 1945, as war artist, was among the first to enter the concentration camp at Belsen. Over the next decade worked as teacher, illustrator, painter, poet, playwright, novelist. Then his health began to collapse. The initial diagnosis was of a nervous breakdown; subsequently he underwent electroconvulsive therapy and cranial surgery. By the mid-60s he'd become permanently institutionalized. In November 1968, age 57, he died.

The whole of a human life reduced to a single paragraph. But what a paragraph—when few of us rate more than a sentence.

At the time of his death Mervyn Peake's reputation had long been in severe decline, his books out of print. It was only due to the efforts of Maeve, to the constant support of such as Graham Greene, Angus Wilson, and Anthony Burgess, and to the unremitting championing of his work by admirers like Lang Jones and Mike Moorcock, that the work has not gone missing. Maeve's memoir A World Away, recently reissued by Vintage in tandem with son Sebastian's own memoir, remains a cornerstone.

And now we have this respectful, elegantly researched and written, eminently readable, eminently human biography by Malcolm Yorke.

Burgess believed that the very prolificacy of Peake's genius turned people away. Certainly his work swam upstream of contemporary trends. Into a world of Warhols, Peake brought forth Hogarth and Doré; on a playing field of filigreed fairy tales filled with cute furry creatures and the triumph of good over evil he stepped up to the plate with the greatest gothic work of all time, and one of the darkest. Whether in illustrations, poems, notebook sketches, poems or his triad of great novels, Peake's vision was unique, individual, uncompromising—all of a piece, and bleak as bleak may be.

Of his contemporaries Peake said, "It's not so much their blindness as their love of blinkers." And to Moorcock, in the wrack of his illness, life's work fading away, "It feels like everything's been stolen."

But a few years ago, writing this column, I would have had to provide a summary of the Gormenghast trilogy: to speak at some length about the sprawling castle that's a world unto itself and of the absurd, melancholic, grotesque characters who inhabit it, of the endless, meaningless rituals observed there, of Titus Groan, heir to the throne, born at the beginning of the first novel and come to manhood at the end of the second, striking out from the castle, from his entire known universe, in the last.

That there's now no need to do so is the truest measure of Peake's resurgence and new recognition. His books are back in print in multiple editions.  Younger writers such as M. John Harrison and China Miéville have absorbed his influence and carried it in new, exciting directions.

This—this evocation of worlds beside and behind our own visible, sensible one, the density of detail, this dailyness of the extraordinary into which all humanity's myths nonetheless may be folded—this is what first brought us to the literature of the fantastic. It is also what, whatever the vicissitudes of taste, however widely we read, brings us back.

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