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In Goreyland

When he died in 2000 at the age of seventy-five Edward Gorey was well known and widely treasured as a draftsman, a storyteller, an illustrator, a balletomane of long standing, a master of the educated book-jacket, and an inventor of images that were peculiar to himself. Among image-makers, who but he would have made us look with lasting enjoyment at a skeleton that lies reading in a hammock, center front, while a few feet behind him a garden party goes on as if nothing unusual was happening? That particular image was the star in his recent show at the Tibor de Nagy Gallery in New York. Among the other implausible fancies that he at one time or another brought into the circus of the everyday was that of a prodigiously long-haired dog on whose back the words “What Might Have Been” stood out in big letters. This caused many a sensitive observer to pause and reflect, half in grief and half in terror.

The point of many of his drawings and stories is that he didn’t want them to “make sense.” “I have a dumb theory,” he once said, “that a creative piece of art is only interesting if it purports to be about something and is really about something else.” When he works with text and images concurrently, as he does in many of his eighty and more illustrated books, they don’t have to be in step with one another. If we come running after them and manage to catch up, we find ourselves in a place in which nothing is explained but a great deal happens.

When Gorey began the story of the famous ballerina whom he called Maudie Splaytoe, we could not foresee that she would “get lost over the Camargue” when “a great dark bird” flew into her aeroplane. But it did, and she did, and we believed it. Everyone “gets” Gorey to a certain extent, even if they have only watched his logos for Mystery on public television. But to have all of him in focus? That is another matter.

When he wanted to, Gorey could moralize in an immediately legible way. His last show in New York included a large drawing of a young woman bicycling on a tightrope over a rock-strewn abyss. With one hand she was holding on to a very large urn that was perched high on the handlebars. For Gorey, the image was unusually straightforward. But so was the point of it, which he defined as “Innocence, on the Bicycle of Propriety, carrying the Urn of Reputation safely across the Abyss of Indiscretion.”

This could have been hung in a sophisticated schoolroom as a guide to good behavior in adult life. But it helps to know that funerary urns (often shaped like turnips) turn up all over the place in Gorey’s work. As Richard Dyer pointed out in The Boston Globe in 1984, Gorey once published a whole book of them, called Les Urnes Utiles. There had been urns for croquet balls, urns for cartes de visite, urns for suet, urns for vapors, urns for knobs, and even an urn for lint, with a severed arm on the floor behind it. This last conjunction was pure Gorey.

Now that Gorey’s book The Object-Lesson (first published in 1958) is back in print, a new generation can enjoy the apparently offhand manner in which Gorey takes a complicated story of love and loss and tells it in twenty-two picture-pages and just over 250 words. (Edmund Wilson got the point of The Object-Lesson at once, by the way, and he wrote on it in The New Yorker in 1959.) In Gorey’s illustrated books, as in life itself, narratives never plod from moment to moment, as if programmed. They leap from one mysterious convergence to another. Indoors and out, startling things happen which are never again referred to. Strange sights keep us on the lookout for more of them.

At the outset of The Object-Lesson, for instance, we see that an English lord has lost his artificial limb and is dancing in a wild rage, raising his defective leg high in the air. Curious decisions, farther along, are presented without comment. When someone called “Madame O——,” not previously named, throws herself off the top of a tower, it is because she realizes that the “erstwhile cousin” to whom she had been talking was wearing a “moustache [that] was not his own.”

The objects pictured in this little book include a statue of Corrupted Endeavour and a shrubbery from which “a bat, or possibly an umbrella, disengaged itself,…causing those nearby to recollect the miseries of childhood.” And, somehow, somewhere, a vicar has vanished. The search party assembles in a kiosk in open country, only to find that the cakes are “iced a peculiar shade of green” and (a fatal sign) the majestic tea urn is empty. Only at the very end, when the urn is turned upside down and shaken, does a letter fall out “on which was written the single word: Farewell.”

Like many another episode in Gorey’s narratives, the crucial kiosk scene in The Object-Lesson is as much choreographed as drawn. Half a lifetime of going to the New York City Ballet six nights a week (almost always in the same seat) had taught him how to start from a broad empty stage and animate it with human figures of whom we never quite see enough. And when the English lord does his manic pas seul on page two we realize that the dance, whether frantic or stilled, is often fundamental to Gorey’s pictorial narratives.

Just one or two people are all that he needs. Intent as they are upon their own concerns, they do not necessarily advance the action. Their role may be to undermine our status as onlookers. (A key remark of Gorey’s, in this context, is “I think of my books as Victorian novels all scrunched up.”) Over and over again the tall, well-dressed men and women dart back and forth, pantomiming their concern about this or that turn in the story. The men mostly wear full-length fur coats or heavy tweed capes. Paper-thin pumps may be de rigueur. Madame O——comes on in lashings of black fur, and with high heels that may or may not break her fall from the tower. Intimations of impropriety are few or none, and we may think that the situations could best be resolved in a ballet.

Gorey did not really want to give interviews. But when he was no longer among us it occurred to Karen Wilkin, a curator, art critic, and coauthor of The World of Edward Gorey, that between 1973 and 1999 Gorey had given more than seventy interviews in the US, Great Britain, and Germany. At a rate of fewer than three a year, this doesn’t seem like an overload. Nor had Gorey ever quite concealed his sense that interviews were usually a waste of everyone’s time. Even so, would not those interviews contain the ipsissima verba of someone whose every word might be of interest? An interviewer, male or female, is now free to touch on the whole spectrum of socially permissible inquiries, together with others that till lately were taboo.

Ms. Wilken chose twenty-one of the interviews and the publisher did Gorey proud with related illustrations. Interviewers can still be as tame as any tabby. But that is not the current style. Prepped by a ruthless backup team, the superstar interviewer can come on like an independent prosecutor. The interviewers whom Gorey agreed to see had a more humane approach. They included Anna Kisselgoff of The New York Times in 1973, Robert Dahlin in 1977, Stephen Schiff in 1992, Christopher Lydon in 1998, and Steven Heller in January 1999. Gorey liked interviewers to be bright, and if possible to be well prepared. When the tape was running, he behaved as if he were enjoying himself in polite society and not at all as if he were in the witness box.

Given the resources now at our disposal, Ascending Peculiarity should ideally have come with a soundtrack with which the reader could get acquainted with Gorey’s manner of speech. As Stephen Schiff had said in The New Yorker in 1992, “Gorey’s conversation is speckled with whoops and giggles and noisy, theatrical sighs. He can sustain a girlish falsetto for a very long time and then dip into a tone of clogged-sinus skepticism.” Best of all would be a combination of sound and video. The news from Schiff (and from many another) was that “he wears a gold earring in each ear, and there are rings on his fingers—heavy brass and iron ones, arranged in piles. As he talks, he flaps his slender hands, and the rings clank.”

It seems clear that Edward Gorey the talker was, in effect, a performance artist who had left the everyday world behind him. There was in him nothing of the neat little chatterboxes who turn up on talk shows. He talked the way he dressed all his adult life—to define himself, and in so doing to set himself apart. Not to have a record of him in this role is a disservice to posterity.

A videotape could also have preserved some of the most idiosyncratic interiors of their date. In the large living room of his house on Cape Cod—and here Stephen Schiff is our guide—there was by the fireplace “a perfect old toilet, and on the floor, half concealed under the table, lies an enormous old tusk. The ceiling bears a number of deep wounds, partly patched with cardboard, and a vine is growing through one of the walls.”

When you’re reading Chekhov,” Gorey said to David Streitfeld in 1997, “you wonder why you ever read anyone else.” The same is true, for an hour or so, when we are caught up in Gorey’s magical mismating of text and illustration. By his own account, he wrote the texts for his books before beginning to draw the illustrations. Once we know this, it is almost with a shudder that we fall upon a sentence that reads, “They visited the ruins of the Crampton vinegar works, which had been destroyed by a mysterious explosion the previous fall.” If those words make us uneasy, that is his intention. Everybody should be uneasy, as he saw it, because that’s the way the world is.

Ascending Peculiarity, though invaluable to Gorey-ites, has the defect that Gorey had to sit with twenty-one men and women in succession, all of whom wanted to get something and, quite pardonably, to make their own mark. An interview is not a duet for equals, and when one interviewer has asked Gorey, in so many words, “Are you gay?” we know that he will not be the last. (They get nowhere, by the way.) The book is not, therefore, the “free-wheeling autobiography” that the publishers promise us on the dust jacket. But what we dearly need on the subject of this master of the disquieting miniature is a full-length biography. Someone should get to work forthwith, while the friends of Gorey’s youth—among them John Ashbery and Alison Lurie—are still around and the details of his voluminous career can still be sought out.

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