The last time I got a review copy of an Edward Gorey book from librarything, I went on a bit too much about my Gorey-less childhood and how bereft I felt growing up without this incredible talent when my wife, bless her, did. So this means that, no, I didn’t grow up with him as part of my life but it did mean that when I did discover him properly in my mid-twenties I truly appreciated this peculiar, wayward genius that I had found. And I’m proud that the UK has slowly begun to grasp his peculiar – and frequently very British – sense of humour to the collective British heart.
This volume is a collection of letters between Gorey and a collaborator on a series of children’s books, called Peter F Neumeyer. It’s not only fascinating in the way it opens a hitherto unknown window into part of Gorey’s life, but also because the very nature of the friendship between the two men sort of begins to take on Gorey-esque proportions when you look at it closely. But my theory is that once you’ve been touched by the genius of Gorey, you start to look for clues to the central enigma of this curious man even where this is none to find. You look for connections when fundamentally there aren’t any. Yes, Neumeyer’s children’s book was on a housefly (it was called “Donald and…”) and Gorey loved all animals so much (the introduction by Neumeyer pretty much starts with a quotation from one of ‘Ted’s’ letters which says “I am really more and more tolerant to all insect life as life goes on”) that it seems a marriage made in heaven. And then there’s the curious first meeting between the two men: stony silence from Gorey during a day on Neumeyer’s editor’s boat that was only broken by Gorey’s spectacular failure to get out of a dinghy on to dry land. They bonded pretty much in casualty. The thing is, you can imagine a Gorey-esque story which goes along similar lines, but it’s not a very Gorey-esque set up. A bit more like Wodehouse actually. You end up looking for the Gorey in these things, always hunting for possible clues.
But if we’re guilty of reading too much into events in these letters, the correspondence that the meeting ignited is a feast of clues and possible ways into the Gorey enigma. Over a particularly heated period in 1969 this artist and writer and his new found friend the academic bonded over philosophy, art and literature. The book is a catalogue of pointers towards what makes Gorey Gorey, and is also riddled with particular hints as to what made the man tick. And just when you think you’re onto something – like perhaps the Kit Williams’ “Masquerade” books – you suddenly realise the jig is up and Gorey begins to go silent and enigmatic as the letters peter out. It’s one of those rare occasions where a series of letters basically has a form of narrative arc.
So. The book itself…
The best books of letters out there – I’m thinking of Chandler and Wodehouse primarily – are the sort you dip into. Frequently they’re grouped together by theme or correspondent. This book is different because it’s primarily the whole friendship from beginning to end – envelopes included. For the Gorey fan those envelopes are almost worth purchasing the book for in itself. They’re works of art in themselves and its kind of humbling to see Gorey could knock off things this lovely just for letters.
The subjects covered: every time you dip in something new and fascinating takes your fancy. Just a cursory look at the index should give you some idea of the range of subjects covered… Edward Ardizzone. Barbarella. Jorge Luis Borges. Walter de la Mare. Thomas Hardy. Hermann Hesse. Kafka. Flann O’Brien. It’s a quite literary conversation this: high art, cinema, literature, theatre, music. It would be fascinating to see what other correspondences with people who weren’t, say, English academics would be like. I know for a fact Gorey was a massive fan of Doctor Who so a more low art correspondence would be equally as fascinating. Gorey seems like a massive polymath… but then again didn’t the books themselves tell you something of that? Surely part of the enigma of the man is the wealth of peculiar sources that became mingled into this heady of stews.
It’s also a bit unfair that Neumeyer, in any other circumstances, would be a fascinating man in his own right. Fair game of him to take the back seat for Gorey. This is his book and part of the joy is that Neumeyer, whether he did it consciously or not, teases the best out of Gorey. Maybe that’s why Gorey goes silent in the end (there I go myself, looking for clues and patterns where there aren’t any) as he realises how open he’s being and how unlike him it is. I could quote it endlessly and given the time I probably would and each time the essay would be on a different subject: and that seems quite right too.
And then just when you begin to think you’ve worked out the clues, or have gone along with the cliché that there are clues to somehow find, towards the end Gorey starts to almost disappear. The letters are still beautiful, but more enigmatic and distant. They almost remind me of those annoyingly precious “Griffin and Sabine” by Nick Bantock but obviously not so precious. Postcards mostly with tickets and ephemera taped to them. The writing itself becomes spare and fragile, almost like haikus… considering Gorey’s love of Japanese art (which he goes on about repeatedly and at length, with great passion, in the letters) this could almost be deliberate.
A few final thoughts on the volume sent to me by Pomegranate books. Firstly it came in a WHOPPING box which was packaged in so much tape it took about twenty minutes for me to dig into. And when I finally get the book out after all that anticipation… it’s beautiful. Truly beautiful. A lovely, hefty, lovingly illustrated and designed book which – like their single volume Gorey reissues – really the master deserves. And more than just that, even the Pomegranate catalogue is a lovely thing to behold… AND there’s another Gorey postcard. Are they trying to bribe a good review out of me? If so it worked. I’ve had some good books through librarything. I’ve had some bad books through librarything. I’ve had some occasional great books through librarything. This? This was worth me becoming a member alone. It’s gorgeous and glorious and I’ll treasure it forever.
A masterpiece? Yes. Definitely. I cannot recommend it enough.