Thurber's Incredible Fantasy Freezes Time
The 13 Clocks by James Thurber
When I was in high school, I had a speech teacher who was-how shall I put this gently?-eccentric. At least, that was how we students viewed him. Looking back through adult eyes, I would be more harsh and call him screwed up. But I have not walked in his shoes and so will not spend this review lambasting him.
Rather, I bring up the oddities of his character because it explains so perfectly the fascination he had with an author by the name of James Thurber, his idol and model. We spent may class periods listening to him rhapsodize about Thurber's prose and all of us had to do readings from him at one time or another.
So closely did we associated Thurber with this teacher that for a long time, Thurber was banned from our household. My husband and I met in this teacher's class and he was the coach for the forensic team which both of us were on. My husband has long harbored a grudge against this teacher for besmirching what should have been some of our sweetest memories.
The banishment ended recently. I was in our library's used book store and saw James Thurber's The 13 Clocks.
What Is It?Well, it's sort of a children's book. And sort of not.
The back of the book has the publishers equally flummoxed. They write:
It isn't a parable, a fairy story, or a poem, but rather a mixture of all three. It is beautiful and it is comic. It is philosophical and it is cheery. What we are trying fumblingly to say is, in a word, it is Thurber.
How can I do better than that? I would tell you it has 124 pages of beautifully illustrated text, but that would barely scratch the surface. It is a poem in prose form. It is a tale fantastical and lyrical. It is a tale of impossibility.
Okay, So What Is It About?
A princess. A minstrel. An evil Duke. Spies. A prince. A Golux. Oh, and 13 clocks that are frozen because the Duke had murdered time, "slain it with his sword, and wiped his bloody blade upon its beard and left I lying there, bleeding hours and minutes, its springs uncoiled and sprawling, its pendulum disintegrating."
That's the sort of imagery you find on every page-imagery expressed in a way that is fresh even decades after its publication.
One could dismiss the story as a tired retelling of the ancient plot that has the evil ruler holding the beautiful princess captive, setting impossible tasks for her suitors until finally a disguised prince (preferably the youngest son) is able to defeat the ruler through cleverness and fey assistance. One would be mistaken.
It is all that. It is also more. Thurber manages to take element after element of traditional fairy stories and tell them in a way that has never been told before. There is the princess Saralinda (whose name the author borrowed from a four-year-old. The four-year-old later tried to exert editorial control over the flowers in the princess' hair, and the author barely won the argument.). There is a minstrel named Xingu who is really a prince named Zorn. There are spies named Hark and Whisper. There is the evil ruler who is known simply as Duke. There is the Golux who helps the prince and the Todal who is the evil that threatens them all.
Thurber revels in making the evil really icky. We begin hating the Duke on the first page as we learn of his childhood cruelties to animals and helpless beasts. Then we learn of a greater evil, though supposedly the Duke doesn't fear even this evil. Our hero Prince asks one of the guards who the Todal is. Thurber describes him thus:
A lock of the guard's hair turned white and his teeth began to chatter. "The Todal looks like a blob of glub," he said. "It makes a sound like rabbits screaming, and smells of old, unopened rooms. It's waiting for the Duke to fail in some endeavor.It's an agent of the devil, sent to punish evil-doers for having done less evil than they should."
Later, the Duke tries to scare the Prince by threatening to slit him "from your guggle to your zatch, and feed you to the Todal." He adds to the guard's description, "It's made of lips. It feels as if it had been dead at least a dozen days, but it moves about like monkeys and like shadows."
How Was It Written?
The writing is the pure beauty of this book and what makes it so fascinating. It is also why I hesitate to call it a children's book, for I wonder if a child has enough experience to truly delight in the way words and images are created in these pages. Perhaps I should start giving children more credit-certainly most children I know frequently surprise me with their perspicacity. Indeed, I took a peek at Amazon and most of the reviews were written by children singing the praises of this book.
The book starts out in the traditional manner of all fairy tales, and then takes you immediately for a surprising turn. Oh, why try to describe it. Let me show you. This is how the book begins:
Once upon a time, in a gloomy castle on a lonely hill, where there were 13 clocks that wouldn't go, there lived a cold, aggressive Duke, and his niece, the Princess Saralinda. She was warm in every wind and weather, but he was always cold. His hands were as cold as his smile and almost as cold as his heart. He wore gloves when he was asleep, and he wore gloves when he was awake, which made it difficult for him to pick up pins or coins or the kernels of nuts, or to tear the wings from nightingales. He was six feet four, and forty-six and even colder than he thought he was. One eye wore a velvet patch; the other glittered through a monocle, which made half his body seem closer to you than the other half.
To go further might spoil things, though let me assure you that Thurber gives you reasons for why the Duke has an eye patch and one leg longer than the other.
Thurber never lets his readers escape the cadence of the meter any more than the Duke can escape his evil or the princess her captivity.
Is It Any Good?
It seems unfair to measure the book by the same rulers applied to other books. It's different.
It's a ballad.
It's an acid trip.
OK. Perhaps the latter is unfair, for it never loses its clarity or its driving purpose. It throws images at you that-while bizarre-are fully and perfectly formed.
There were parts of the book I found confusing. I was certain that there was something symbolic that I was missing. I still think that. For either Thurber wove layers upon layers of meaning into this story, or he was creating a device by which to drive literary critics loony.
For example, what do you make of this?
"I am the Golux," said the Golux proudly, "the only Golux in the world, and not a mere Device."
"You resemble one," the minstrel said, "as Saralinda resembles the rose."
"I resemble only half the things I say I don't," the Golux said. "The other half resemble me."
Is There Anything Else Like It?
I was reminded while reading this book of The Phantom Tollbooth and parts of Rowling's Harry Potter series. I also thought of Kurt Vonnegut and Terry Pratchett-but without the cynicism and written to delight a younger crowd. Yet, it seems wrong to compare Thurber to anyone but himself. He is unique and I have yet to find another writer like him.
A word about the illustrations and the making of the book
Thurber's words alone are haunting enough to transport you into this strange universe of his. Yet, the task is made all the easier by the accompaniment of Marc Simont's full-color illustrations. The illustrations are vibrant water colors that vary from mood-setting dark blues and greens, to splashes of white against backgrounds of hopeful landscapes. The paintings are simple-keeping a sharp focus on the unusual images and proscribing all distractions.
It may seem strange that a book written by Thurber would have illustrations from someone else, as much of Thurber's fame (apart from that of a humorist) is connected with his art and drawings. Yet, the artwork here achieves a very different feel from that typically invoked by Thurber's artwork.
Marc Simont, by the way, has gone on to write many children's books himself-including one I read recently and disliked The Goose Who Almost Got Cooked. After learning of his association with Thurber, I find some of that book makes a little more sense now. He also won a Caldecott medal in 1957 for his illustrations in A Tree is Nice.
The forward of the book gives a glimpse into the writer and his production of this book. It's a delightfully self-effacing introduction that is worth reprinting here:
I wrote The Thirteen Clocks in Bermuda, where I had gone to finish another book. The shift to this one was an example of escapism and self-indulgence. Unless modern Man (sic) wanders down these byways occasionally, I do not see how he can hope to preserve his sanity. I must apologize to my publishers and to the talented Marc Simont who were forced to keep up with the constant small changes I insisted on making all the time, even in the galley proofs. In the end, they took the book away from me, on the ground that it was finished and that I was just having fun tinkering with clocks and running up and down secret stairs. They had me there.
The book was written in 1950-after Thurber had gone blind in both eyes. It was one of 34 books he wrote (at least six of them being children's books) that included autobiographies, plays, and collections of drawings.
Of himself, Thurber said, "I write humor the way a surgeon operates, because it is a livelihood, because I have a great urge to do it, because many interesting challenges are set up, and because I have the hope it may do some good."
The 13 Clocks is a perfect illustration.--B. Redman