Monday, 28 September 2015

Joy of belated recognition - Clémentine Beauvais

One of the most common accusations levelled at children’s books with playful intertextual references is that children ‘won’t get it’. The claim is annoyingly predictable, as much from editors as from (adult) readers. There’s always an underlying sense, in this accusation, that you’re somehow wasting your time if you cram hidden references in children’s books. They won’t know the original, so there’s no point.

No point at all.

There’s two sides to that argument:
  • 1) the child-hating one: pearls before swine, basically: they’re not good enough for your clever references;
  • 2) the child-centred one: they won’t enjoy a passage with a reference they don’t recognise, just like you can’t enjoy a pastiche or parody of a film you haven’t seen, or a book you haven’t read.
There’s also the implicit notion that the author is somehow showing off; worse, that they might be a failed ‘adult’ author, who clearly has to compensate for the shame of writing for children by seducing the adult co-reader. The old ‘talking to the adult above the child’s head’ accusation surfaces here.

I think it’s a huge shame that this antagonistic approach to intertextuality is so common, even among children’s book people; not just because it’s strangely anti-intellectual, but mostly because it’s premised on the notion that intertextual references, in order to function, have to be encountered after the ‘original’. 

There’s an implicit chronology to our basic understanding of intertextuality, especially pastiche or parody: first the original, then the reference; that’s the way to do it. The same rule applies to everyone, but since children have, to put it simply, lived less long, and encountered fewer texts and cultural productions than adults, they’re particularly unlikely to understand most references to films, books, or works of art. This is especially of concern if the pastiched element is part of ‘adult’ culture and literature.

It’s obvious, though, that the intertextual game is much more erratic than that, and for everybody - not just children. Just a few days ago I was reading the slightly obscure 1884 French novel A Rebours, by J.-K. Huysmans. I was staggered when I found in it the gloriously synaesthetic description of a kind of organ which delivers, when played, different kinds of alcohol, forming symphonic cocktails. That description seemed to me to have fallen straight out of another French novel, this time an absolute classic - particularly among teenagers - Boris Vian’s 1947 Foam of the Days (L’écume des jours), which famously features a similar instrument, called a ‘pianocktail’. A quick Google search informed me that indeed, Vian had been inspired by Huysmans’s fictional instrument. The reference, I gather, would have been more obvious to a 1940s audience than to a Millennium one.

someone made a real pianocktail #yolo
So 15 years passed between my discovery of the pianocktail and the entirely accidental encounter with its literary ancestor. And of course I don’t resent, but love, this kind of (very) belated intertextual joy of recognition. It’s happened to me many times, and to you too, I’m sure. With children’s books, the joy is, if anything, even more awesome, because it’s tinged with that special tender hue that memories of childhood reading have. It’s also deeper-buried, so the resurfacing is all the more poignant.

Intertextual references that are ‘not immediately understood’ are not a big deal. It’s not as if you spend years wandering around in utter perplexity, feeling you’d missed out on something crucial, until you finally encounter the ‘key’ that you ‘should’ have had the first time around. You already find it funny and intriguing the first time around; or, quite simply you don’t notice it at all. In Asterix in Britain, everyone Asterix and Obelix meet speaks weirdly - in the original French, they keep saying ‘Je dis!’ before every sentence; and ‘n’est-il pas?’ after each clause.

'Goodness gracious!'

At the time, I thought it was hilarious, because it was so weird and seemed to correspond so well to this odd tribe of red-haired hot-water-drinkers. It’s only much later, in English class, that the revelation hit me: Goscinny and Uderzo were directly translating into French ‘I say!’ and ‘Isn’t it?’. I couldn’t stop giggling. Joy.

My villain in The Royal Babysitters is called King Alaspooryorick. Some schools I go to have gone to great lengths to tell the children where this name comes from. Others haven’t. I like to think that one day, in high school, or at a theatre somewhere, some kids will giggle to themselves when they encounter the phrase for the ‘second’ time. And it’s not as if they’re not giggling now - it’s not as if I’m forcing them to save their giggles for later. Alaspooryorick is a ridiculous enough name to be already funny.

Let’s not be inflexible with chronology when it comes to intertextuality. The ‘wrong order’ is perhaps the best one. It’s not the joy of erudite recognition; the wink, the nod, the handshake between two adults above the head of the child. It’s exactly the opposite: it’s the joy of accidental recognition, in an unpredictable future - the joy of stumbling upon a distant memory, resurfacing in the middle of today’s serious activity - and triggering an unexpected, slightly nostalgic laugh.

Clementine Beauvais writes in French and English. She blogs here about children's literature and academia.


Sue Bursztynski said...

Yes, the Asterix books are full of over-their-heads references, but kids enjoy them anyway. There is simply an extra layer. A children's author called Geoffrey McSkimming had a lot of in-jokes in his Cairo Jim novels that kids - and most adults - wouldn't know. He told me I was the first to have picked up his joke about certain Hollywood dancers of the 1940s. It didn't matter - the books were funny anyway and there was time for kids to pick up the extra layer later.

I read Asterix in English and I have to say the translations are very good, IMO. Of course, I'm not a native French speaker, but considering how many puns had to be translated and turned into English puns they did very well.

Catherine Butler said...

I'm with you, Clementine. I'd add that it's especially generous of children's authors to set these depth charges of pleasure to go off during the reading of someone else's work!

I can't resist quoting what Diana Wynne Jones said in an interview with me once, when I asked her about the many intertextual references in Fire and Hemlock, which include several to Four Quartets.

Me: Does it matter that most of those texts are unlikely to be known to an average child reader? They won’t, for example, have read Eliot’s Four Quartets.

DWJ: No, and why should they? I think this goes back to what I was saying about giving children experience. When they come to read Four Quartets later, if any of them do, it will chime somewhere. I think it’s quite important to give children as many pegs to hang things on as is possible. This is the way you learn. It takes a tremendous effort to grind one fact into your head, but if you’ve got it there already from something you’ve read, then it happens happily and easily – even if you don’t know what that something is. So I never worry about putting in things that are not within children’s capacities, because I don’t think this matters. I think it’s very good for children to notice that there’s something going on that they don’t quite understand. This is a good feeling because it pulls you on to find out.

I concur.

Anne Booth said...

I really like both this post and the comments! I think I might try to smuggle in some 'depth charges of pleasure' in my current work in progress!

Lari Don said...

what a lovely post - full of the joy of reading, rereading and discovering. And reminding us that we should never underestimate our readers, whatever age they are!

Sue Purkiss said...

I absolutely agree - those intertextual references can still be funny, even if you're not aware - or not fully aware - of the original. I can't off the top of my head think of a single example, but I know I've enjoyed this kind of thing. Will be searching through my memory banks all day...

Emma Barnes said...

Agree completely. I loved authors who did this as a child - Helen Cresswell's Bagthorpe Saga (where characters used to quote Shakespeare and then argue about whether they had muddled the quote with Binyon's Anthem to the War Dead), Antonia Forest's Marlow series, and Diana Wynne Jones (already mentioned by Cathy) who based a whole fantasy book (Howl's Moving Castle) around a John Donne poem.

One thing you haven't mentioned here is that I think it actually heightens the realism of the character and the fictional world. In real life, people do have an imaginative life based on things they have watched, seen and read, and they share references with other people, often in a shorthand way. So even if the reader doesn't "get" the reference, it makes the characters they are reading about more real, if they reference other texts. It adds a kind of richness and layer to that fictional world.

As an adult, too, it's huge amounts of fun (for me, anyway) following up all the references in favourite children's books. The Annotated Alice In Wonderland where they contain all the original poems- wonderful!

Clémentine Beauvais said...

Thank you for all the comments! yes, reading Annotated Alice is fantastic - have you seen this, Emma? - it's a public domain annotated Alice where scholars add their contributions and anyone can respond, too...

thank you for the quotation Cathy!

John Dougherty said...

Couldn't agree more, Clémentine - and with the BTL comments, too. I love throwing in a bit of intertextuality, for my own amusement as much as the reader's. One of my books references Dirty Harry; don't think I'd actually want the readers to be familiar with the source material, but maybe one day they'll watch the film and think, "Hang on..."

Joan Lennon said...

Yes! Here's to this kind of playfulness, in all possible directions! Thanks for posting -

Pippa Goodhart said...

And you can have intertextuality that children might get first time. In one of my Winnie the Witch stories she gets a new cat who is actually a baby tiger, and it 'drinks all the water in the tap' at her house ...

Nick Green said...

If any Editor objects to intertextuality in this day and age they quite simply deserve to be sacked. Pixar and Dreamworks have built billion-dollar empires on this approach. Heck, Toy Story alone ushered in a new era of children's films NOT because of its groundbreaking animation, but because of a humour that target adults equally as much as children. It's now hard to find a big children's film that doesn't do this. The recent Paddington was crammed with references that children wouldn't get (including those to ITSELF, the old series), and included some quite risque nudge-nudge moments too.

And only a dribbling simpleton would forget that it's the adult who actually pays for the film and buys the book for the child.

Nick Green said...

BTW, love your Asterix references. What I love about those books is that the translations managed to sustain the pun-based humour, so they were just as funny in English. And yes, it was years before I worked out the joke behind the name of the druid. You grew up knowing him as Panoramix, but in Britain, he was Getafix.

Penny dropped around age 16.

Emma Barnes said...

Clementine, I'd never seen that Alice web-site either - that's going to be a very enjoyable distraction.

Pippa, I bet kids love it when they read about that baby tiger...