Thursday, February 16, 2012

The 13 Clocks, by James Thurber

First published in 1950

When I first read James Thurber’s The 13 Clocks, my mind was blown. I was in my first year of Uni and the library had such an amazing collection of children’s books, especially old classics. Many of the books I read in this period have become some of my favourites, and are what really, really, made me have so much love for this genre.

One of these books was The 13 Clocks.

I had never come across anything like it before. I remember marvelling at the cleverness of it, and being delighted and then moved by the characters (especially that most wicked of Dukes), and just being so completely taken in by the ease with which Thurber used language in such creative and challenging ways.

The 13 Clocks is a fractured fairytale. It begins with Once Upon a Time and ends with Happily Ever After but everything that comes in between is about as original as you can get.  Thurber subverts the genre in much the same way as Shrek and The Princess Bride do, but overall I find the irony to have a bit more of a bite.

The Prince, with the help of the Golux, must bring back the evil Duke one thousand jewels within nine and ninety hours or he will be ‘slit from his guggle to his zatch’, fed to the Todal, and lose Princess Saralinda to the wicked ways of the Duke. Sounds straightforward, and indeed, the tale is a good one. But the fun, and the brilliance of the story, can really be found in the wonderfully weird and wacky way Thurber tells it.

I think a love and understanding of fairytales, language and writing helped me develop the huge amount of admiration I have for this book. If a plot device can be exploited, it will be; if a sly aside or knowing wink can be dropped, it will be; if stylistic language choices can be made fun of, or drawn attention to, they will be (A morning glory that had never opened, opened in the courtyard. A cock that never crowed, began to crow. The light of morning stained the windows, and in the walls the cold Duke moaned, “I hear the sound of time;” and if character names can be outrageously self-referential, they will be.

This is why I love The 13 Clocks – because it is, I think, above all about a love of language. Amongst all the sly cleverness there are some lovely thoughts, passages, and imagery – like clocks being murdered and spilling their cogs and springs onto the stairs. The story in itself is also a rollicking adventure, with a few twists and reveals and high stakes. But it is also so gloriously silly, with things happening just because they can. One of my favourites is:

“A purple ball with gold stars on it came slowly bouncing down the iron stairs and winked and twinkled, like a naked child saluting priests. “What insolence is this?” the Duke demanded. “What is that thing?”
“A ball,” said Hark.
“I know that!” screamed the Duke. “But why? What does its ghastly presence signify?”

All sorts of irrelevant objects and happenstances are placed into the story in such an affectionate self-referential way. The story has fun with itself. The language has such fun with itself – for example the story will switch in and out of rhyme, and even when it doesn’t rhyme, there is an obvious metre used, a rhythm to what words are used and when. And all of it just completely sweeps you up and takes you away.

And yet the characters, for all their silliness, and the relative shortness of the book, feel familiar almost straight away. I found myself becoming invested in them and getting sucked into their crazy existence. I think where The 13 Clocks really wowed me was that Thurber, even among all the silliness, can tweak emotions so very subtly. A lot is revealed about the characters through just one line, or thought.

The Duke is particularly well done. He is so very mean and cruel – “We all have flaws ... Mine is being wicked” – his dark humours are hilariously appalling, and he is gloriously tempestuous. But he is also sad. And lonely. Thurber shows this in his obsession with slaying time, his thoughtless repetition of commands, the way he slashes “his sword at silence and at nothing.” Princess Saralinda and the Prince give the books its fun, the Duke’s henchmen give it comic relief, and the Golux gives it all its mischief and silliness. But I have always found, perhaps strangely, the evil Duke to give the book its heart.

I couldn’t love The 13 Clocks more if I tried. It is hard to find these days, but there is a newish wonderful hardback, illustrated edition with an introduction by Neil Gaiman, published by the New York Review Children’s Collection. If you can find it, this book will be well worth your time.

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