As one of the most popular and enduring writers of children’s fantasy, Lewis Carroll is much revered for his two titanic bestsellers, Alice In Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass, each dealing with a young girl’s journey’s through a bizarre dreamworld. Much less well known, however, is Carroll’s forgotten epic, Sylvie and Bruno, an even odder and more inventive work of literature startlingly ahead of its time.
Boldly experimental, and arguably post-modern, Sylvie and Bruno was too far distant from any ordinary narrative to find much of an audience even at the height of Carroll’s popularity. A strange mashup of Victorian romance, twee fairy tale and theological treatise, the book is narrated by an elderly man who moves to the country for his health, and finds himself caught up between reality and an increasingly lurid lucid dream.
The book begins by alternating between two separate stories observed by the narrator. The initial story is an odd fairy tale set in a strange kingdom called Outland, where the loving and wise king inexplicably disappears, leaving his two precocious children (the eponymous Sylvie and Bruno) in the dubious care of his scheming brother and sister-in-law. That story has barely started, however, when the narrator suddenly awakes into the setting of the other main story, which revolves around the romantic triangle between a young doctor, the beautiful daughter of a local aristocrat, and her dashing but sadly atheistic cousin.
As the story proceeds, the narrator begins to see strange echoes of the dreamworld in the real world. As the line between waking and dreaming grows thinner, the scene begins to shift more erratically, with a sentence begun by one character in one world sometimes being finished by another character in another world. This culminates in the transition of Sylvie and Bruno out of the dreamworld into the real world, where they interact with the other set of characters, before journeying back into their own realm.
Even this summary hardly begins to tap the surface of the weirdness of a novel that was reportedly a key inspiration for James Joyce’s impenetrable classic Finnegan’s Wake. The book begins midsentence, and many chapters begin and end in the middle of a scene. The entire book obeys its own logic and rules, which appear to remain consistent, despite the fact that the author delights in offering insoluble paradoxes. For instance, it’s strongly suggested in the book that the dream characters might be based on the real world characters, just as in the movie version of The Wizard of Oz, all of Dorothy’s dream companions are versions of people from her real world. Yet it is often unclear which character is more primary and which is the imitation. For another instance, it can be easy to read the book as the narrator’s descent into madness and dementia, yet when his dream figures brave the passage into the real world, they interact with the other real life characters in a way that precludes all possibility of them being merely figments of the narrator’s imagination. Then, in the middle of the book, apropos of nothing, a figure appears who bears a startling resemblance to one of the dream figures, yet who might potentially be an alien from outer space. After delivering a series of increasingly satirical tales of his home planet he vanishes from the narrative, never to be seen again.
Through it all run any number of Carrollian idiosyncrasies. First, as with the Alice books, Sylvie and Bruno is filled with a quantity of indelible poems, some of which rival those books’ famous “Jabberwocky”, “Father William” and “Walrus and the Carpenter” in humor and inventiveness. Second, the book is interwoven throughout with any number of weighty monologues and dialogues on morality, Christianity, philosophy, science and mathematics –a true challenge to the book’s supposed juvenile target audience. Third, the narrative combines a treacly sentimentality with a slyly cynical and sardonic sense of humor.
It isn’t the easiest book by any stretch of the imagination, but once encountered it can never be forgotten. Easily one of the most original books ever written, it’s a mind-expanding must read.