Monday, March 26, 2007

Refinding Neverland

I think it’s fair to say that JM Barrie & the whole Peter Pan/Neverland mythos had precisely zero influence on my childhood. I didn’t even see the Disney film until a year or two ago, & soon afterwards we somehow landed a video of Mary Martin in one of those clumsy early-60s TV filmings of the old Broadway musical (the Native American princess Tiger Lily as a startlingly peroxide-blonde bobby-soxer) – which the girls are inexplicably fond of. It’s like my inability to accept a middle-aged fat guy in a wig playing Parsifal in a Wagner production: I just can’t wrap my head around what’s obviously a late-thirties woman pretending to be the boy who never grew up – my negative capability just isn’t capable.

It was only after seeing the Johnny Depp vehicle Finding Neverland that I decided, no matter how saccharine the movie’d been, I really ought to read the JM Barrie novel & find out what the undiluted, un-Broadway’d, un-Disney’d buzz surrounding Peter Pan etc. was all about. I was pretty intrigued: a beautifully, wittily written book, sunk deep in a certain kind of late-Victorian sentimentality, but with an edge of memorable strangeness and twistedness. All of that is of course wrung out by homogenizing machineries of Broadway & Disney, but it’s strong & rank in Barrie’s original, which – like all the best kids’ book – seems in some ways quite inappropriate for children.

One reads, at times, in parallel to one’s partner. Eric’s written about getting to know his wife’s “six best friends” – Jane Austen’s novels; luckily, J. & I already shared Tolkien when we hookt up, but trying to penetrate the world of children’s literature, which she knows about as well as Eric knows his Haggadah, has been a bit of an effort. We’ve trawled thru the strangely popular seas of Harry Potter, over which we’re agreed we’d choose Kipling’s Stalkey any day; I’m a trifle more enthusiastic about A Series of Unfortunate Events than she; and both of us were ravished by Phillip Pullman’s His Dark Materials. So her obvious Xmas present last year was Geraldine McCaughrean’s Peter Pan in Scarlet, the first “official” sequel to Barrie’s Peter Pan.

One could buy the book with a good conscience, after all. Barrie had left all of the royalties from Peter Pan to a charity, the Great Ormond Street Hospital for Children; but the copyright for that book runs out this year (look for a flood of cheap editions, scholarly editions, internet texts, graphic novels, etc.), and in order to keep their funding stream intact, the Hospital ran a contest for an “authorized” sequel, a contest which was won by McCaughrean, who seems to be a one-woman children’s lit factory.

Now J and I have never read a sequel by someone other than the original author that we liked. But Peter Pan in Scarlet is different – a wonderfully written, beautifully-detailed book that both stays true to the original’s conception, in all its weirdness, and deepens & makes more poignant that strangeness by more pointedly negotiating the borders between Neverland and the “real” world. Michael Darling, it turns out, has died in the Great War, whose shadow, it is suggested, might be part of the reason for the dark changes that have come over Neverland. Those changes are delineated in wonderful, simple but telling prose:
Dawn welled up, and Tootles glimpsed the shifting, oily sheen of the Lagoon. In her* memory, it had been a shining crescent of turquoise water over shoals of white sand. The Lagoon she saw now was darkly heaving: a horse’s flank slick black and streaked with foam. A mane of washed-up seaweed lay among the pebbles, busy with flies. All along the high-water mark lay strange, white containers, like birdcages or crab-pots. On closer inspection they proved to be the skeleton ribcages of mermaids, with here and there a backbone or a hank of yellow hair. Tootles looked nervously around and ran back to the cave.
McCaughrean never sets a foot wrong in Peter Pan in Scarlet, & that’s something I wish I could say for the last half-dozen “adult” novels I’ve read. Long may the Great Ormond Street Hospital stay solvent.

*The “lost boy” Tootles, in returning to Neverland for this sequel, has undergone a very witty sex change.


Brian said...

I'll have to check both of those out, as my experience is about as opposite yours as it can be. I saw the Disney film as a child, and during the one summer my mom decided we were going to get some culture dammit and bought season tickets to the Saenger in New Orleans, the two productions we saw were "Peter Pan" starring Sandy Duncan and "The King and I" with Yul Brynner. And much as I enjoyed the moment when Duncan flies out over the audience (ask me about my Uncle Bee's experience with that sometime), I still imagine I'd like the book even more.

Alex Davis said...

Of Barrie's work I'd recommend the, by today's mores, politically incorrect _My Lady Nicotine: A Study in Smoke_. I doubt it's in print, but Project Gutenberg have it online. It's a fascinating period piece and the humour stills stands up.

Norman Finkelstein said...

Mark, thanks for recommending the McCaughrean, which I will have to check out. Unlike you, I was a total Peter Pan freak as a child; my mother made me a costume based on the Disney version, and I was even sold on the musical when it was on TV. When I finished reading Peter and Wendy to Ann (this was almost 25 years ago), she noticed I was in tears and got quite upset. I also got pretty weepy at the end of Finding Neverland--and then stole an image from it for a poem (which was in the most recent Hambone). All this means is that the uncanny is in play for me big time in the Pan narrative. Fluttering around like Tinkerbell, I guess.

Mark Scroggins said...

Norman, Culture Industry readers demand photographic evidence of the young NF in full Peter Pan regalia!! (I bet a bunch of your colleagues would be happy to see same, as well...)