You don’t hear much about James Thurber (1894-1961) anymore, and it’s not just because the glory days of the New Yorker as a humor magazine are many decades in the past. His work is perennially in print, and his “Writings and Drawings” have merited a Library of America edition. But Thurber aficionados do not present a united front because usually people are devoted to a single aspect of Thurber’s comic genius: his dogs, noble animals carrying on with dignity in a world gone mad; the stories in his hilarious gem of a Midwestern memoir, “My Life and Hard Times"; his cartoon characters, brilliantly described by Neil Gaiman as “lumpy men and women who looked like they were made of cloth, all puzzled and henpecked and aggrieved.” We Thurberites would need a convention to honor all our different passions.
My own Thurber love is “The 13 Clocks” (illustrated by Marc Simont; New York Review Children’s Collection: $14.95, all ages), an eccentric children’s story that took apart and lovingly reconstructed the fairy tale long before William Steig wrote “Shrek” or William Goldman penned “The Princess Bride.” For years, I gave away copies of a flimsy Dell/Yearling paperback edition that I had bought in bulk. But now, the New York Review Children’s Collection, publishers of a number of fabulous books that had ignominiously fallen out of print, has reissued “The 13 Clocks” in a beautiful hardcover version. It is, if not identical to, then at least reminiscent of the original 1950 Simon & Schuster edition I have. In his introduction to the new edition, Gaiman, himself a writer for impassioned followers of many stripes, calls it “probably the best book in the world.”
Thurber’s other well-known children’s books are “The Wonderful O” and “Many Moons,” neither of which has the panache this book has. “The 13 Clocks” is a real novel, albeit a short novel, of “a length that annoys publishers, I hope,” Thurber wrote to a friend. “I once asked Simon & Schuster what they meant by ‘full length,’ explaining that ‘The Thirteen Clocks’ was not going to run to 60,000 words. Books of a size like ‘Appointment in Samarra’ and ‘The Great Gatsby’ are good-sized books.”
“The 13 Clocks” takes the form of a fairy tale. There are the cold Duke and his niece, the Princess Saralinda, along with assorted suitors aspiring to her hand (“the only warm hand in the castle”). There is a Prince disguised as a minstrel whose story fits the wording of the spell that binds the Princess. There is an impossible task for the Prince to perform and magical help that arrives when needed in the form of the Golux, a little man who makes things up and then falls for his own lies.
After “once upon a time,” however, any child can see that this is no fairy tale. There’s the language, for starters, that’s forever doubling back on itself. The grim Duke is “six feet four and forty-six, and even colder than he thought he was.” Then, when Thurber starts with the rhyming sentences, you just throw up your hands and go along for the ride. As the town’s troublemaker and tosspot says: “You’ll never live to wed his niece. You’ll only die to feed his geese. Goodbye, goodnight, and sorry.” (This last sentence was for years a standard form of affectionate leave-taking in my family.)
“The 13 Clocks” is the first book I remember loving, and it is one of the few books I managed to wrest from my family’s library and preserve through all the mundane disasters of my life. Everything about it is dear to me: The texture of the cover, the cloth spine now in shreds, the gorgeous endpapers with the Duke’s shadowy castle on the hill overlooking the sunlit town. Marc Simont was perhaps the first illustrator whose accomplishments I, ever a word person, admired. Thurber was going blind when he wrote this book, so he did not illustrate it himself. In the story, the Golux has “an indescribable hat,” and lo and behold, there on the page, Simont has drawn just such a hat! Complex, folded, twisted, buttoned -- in a word, indescribable. It amazed me.
The book that was read to me as a child had been a present to my father from a fellow graduate student. They were both Dutchmen in exile at the University of Chicago, and the inscription, in a formal Dutch that sounded grand to my ears accustomed to “kitchen Dutch,” offers the book “in memory of a difficult time in both our lives.” “Get out the rose and take it in your hand,” my father’s friend Hans wrote, misquoting the passage in which the Princess’ rose magically points the way for the Prince through a dark forest. A difficult time in the lives of parents is inconceivable to a small child, and the inscription has retained for me the echo of a whole world of mystery.
Everything about “The 13 Clocks” has a deep familiarity to me from repeated reading, beginning with hearing my father read it aloud. “We all have flaws,” I hear the Duke say in my head at odd times in my life, always in my father’s voice, “and mine is being wicked.” But then comes an answer in another voice -- my own, perhaps? -- “I make mistakes,” says the Golux, “but I am on the side of Good.”
Surely the book’s introduction is the first one I ever read. It taught me that authors make choices when they write. Thurber thanks a little girl, Sara Linda Williams, for allowing him to use her name, though I noticed that for the story Thurber ran it together: Saralinda. A much better princess name, my 8-year-old self thought, already studying to be the critic; how clever of him to have seen that.
And the words! The real and the made-up were equally astonishing. I remember discovering with mingled dismay and delight that “guggle” and “zatch” were not in the dictionary. They refer, convincingly in Thurber’s telling, to the belly and the base of the throat, defining the line where a sword would do most damage, as in the Duke’s threat, “I’ll slit him from his guggle to his zatch.” To discover that a writer has made up a word that is essential to the story gave me a lot to think about; this was different from giggling at “Jabberwocky,” in which the writer makes up words merely because he can. (I am reminded of a friend, raised by a Yiddish-speaking grandmother, who was conversely surprised to discover that “spatula” was not her grandmother’s Old World diminutive for a kitchen utensil, but a word in common English usage. When you’re young, a new understanding of a single word can change the contours of the world you live in.)
When in adulthood I discovered Thurber’s humor writing -- his work for the New Yorker was collected in numerous books, one of which my husband gave me when I first met him -- I realized that Thurber’s genius was for the small character, the timid man who dreams of great things. He wrote “The Secret Life of Walter Mitty,” after all. The minor characters are marvelous in this book, much more than the Prince, who is a cipher, a mere shortlist of princely qualities. The Duke’s spies are brilliant: Hark, Whisper and Listen. There is the horrible Todal, a terrible creature “made of lip” and “sent to punish evil-doers for having done less evil than they should.” At every mention of the Todal, who lurks waiting for the Duke to fail, a lock of the speaker’s hair turns white.
The memorable hero in this book is the Golux, and for one of the greatest humorists of all time, the Golux is a remarkably modest alter ego. (Thurber’s career as a cartoonist famously began when his friend E.B. White found his cartoons in the trash and offered them to the New Yorker.) In order to win the Princess, the Prince must bring the Duke a thousand jewels within 99 hours. The only source of jewels within striking distance of the castle is Hagga, a woman who wept precious stones in her youth, but after many years of hearing the saddest tales ever told, “Hagga weeps no more.” The Golux, discovering that the tears of her laughter also produce gems, tries telling her funny stories. She listens, dry-eyed, until he gives up, then she starts laughing uncontrollably for no apparent reason, as people will. “I wish that she had laughed at something I had said,” the Golux sighs, more wistful than annoyed.
I have found echoes of the phrases I loved here throughout my reading life. When I first heard the Golux introduce himself, “I am the Golux, the only Golux in the world, and not a mere device,” I loved the rhythm of it without getting the joke. Years later, when I first grasped the term “literary device,” I remember thinking instantly of the Golux, and suddenly understanding why the defeated Duke snarls at him: “You mere Device! You platitude! You Golux ex machina!”
In a 1950 letter, Thurber wrote: “Funny thing about reviews of ‘The 13 Clocks’. . . . The Hartford Times finds the story is ‘meaningless,’ apparently because it is innocent of satire or moral. What is the meaning of ' Cinderella’? I think it must be that if you can ride in a pumpkin without catching pneumonia, you are lucky.”
It’s hard to say straight out what the meaning of the book is, but Thurber points the way obliquely when he says in the introduction: “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 wanders down these byways occasionally, I do not see how he can hope to preserve his sanity.”
Preserving one’s sanity; surely I did not understand as a child, the way I do now, the importance of this balancing act, but the phrase seems to assert, as all of Thurber’s work does, that there is, in fact, a meaning to things, a difference between ways that are proper for a human being and ways that lead to chaos and meaningless and despair. One proper way is the telling of stories and, perhaps more important, finding the right words for the telling, words that will resonate, tickle and stick with the reader.
And I wonder: What will be the books that give my son pleasure forever? Will it be books at all? But whatever it is, I am confident that the human brain, even bludgeoned by video games, seeks richness of expression, and possibility. It seeks the preservation of sanity, which means telling stories well and appreciating them deeply.
Sonja Bolle’s Wordplay column appears monthly at latimes.com/books.