reviewed by Paul McRandle
|IN “THE WALRUS AND THE CARPENTER,” Charles Dodgson poses two sentimental gluttons on the beach who put to themselves a problem of tidying:
They wept like anything to see
THE JADE CABINET
But there are no felaheen to do the scrubbing, and the weepy pair take solace in stuffing themselves on sadly naive oysters, the walrus hiding the numbers he’s gorging behind a cascade of tears. Who knows how many children carry in their heads this desolate, equivocal landscape where there are “no birds to fly”? Rikki Ducornet certainly was one, and this comic parable of appetite and absurdity, the monstrous urge for a clean sweep, haunts her novels, rising almost to a retelling in The Jade Cabinet.
From the outside she would appear to have had a childhood to envy: daughter of a Cuban emigre academic, she grew up in the forties and fifties on the campus of Bard College with a library whose windows of green glass suggested a sunken archive and biology labs whose strange bottled contents left her childhood smelling of formaldehyde. Her father took her for a year to Egypt which “stunned” her, and she retains cherished memories of old Havana. She mentions a grandmother, however, a “perverse storyteller,” an anti-Semite who never forgave Ducornet’s father for marrying a Jew, and a figure who has become “the bad wind behind much of my work.”
As an adult, she first made her career in art, though she noted later that she never realized her ambition “to paint the museum scenery behind walruses and saber-toothed tiger.” Dali’s paintings and Cocteau’s Blood of a Poet which she saw at the age of eight, infused her imagination and set her to pursue works by the surrealists, putting Breton’s Nadja in a central place of her adolescence. Her deep sympathies with the surrealists not only influenced her drawing, but went on to fuel her writing as well, first in an outpouring of poetry and short stories then in her Tetralogy of Elements: The Stain, Entering Fire, The Fountains of Neptune, and The Jade Cabinet, and finally her two most recent, yet more historically remote novels, Phosphor in Dreamland, and The Fan-Maker’s Inquisition. There is a persistence of motif and concerns to all of these works, a Manichean quality in their struggles and a sense of Grand Guignol, which suggests a larger whole, even though in terms of events and characters the books refer to one another only once or twice. In its brief span, however, The Jade Cabinet, contains many of her finest moments,
The story of The Jade Cabinet is that of Radulph Tubbs’ pursuit, marriage, and loss of Etheria Sphery, sister of the narrator. Tubbs, pure Walrus, is a wonderful grotesque, an English industrialist who dotes on Stilton cheese and builds a home that is to be a Temple to Industry and Infancy. Etheria, creature of air, is by nature his opposite; unable to speak after an experiment in natural language conducted by her father, she communicates through notes which only aggrandize her distance from the mercantile hubris of Tubbs. Since childhood, she has been a friend of Charles Dodgson, posing naked for him with her sister, and delighting in his native inventiveness which Tubbs can scarcely tolerate, his envy of the man is so great. Yet, while the struggles arise between such antagonistic characters, the story’s narrator, the younger sister Memory Sphery, watches on at a remove which is never chilly, but comes from a basic kindheartedness and concern for all, even including Tubbs, whom she loathed as a girl. For Tubbs, following his loss of Etheria, loses himself in a hunt across Europe, beset upon by people even madder or more loathsome than he is. He arrives in Egypt to buy mummified ibises and grind their corpses to gravel for export to France as fertilizer. The country horrifies him, all the more so as he possesses an unnatural gift for stumbling upon disturbing relicts (“the matted viscera of a princess, the paw of a sacred cat”). Yet it is there that the bizarreness of Ducornet’s vision and her empathy allow her to satirize with sharp effect while retaining the possibility that to know all may indeed be to forgive all. Beauty and pity hold equal sway in The Jade Cabinet.
Throughout her writing career Rikki Ducornet has demonstrated how broad, supple, and penetrating literary surrealism can be, in part by exposing its roots in the humor of Dodgson, Swift, and Rabelais. In her hands, surrealism is no genre but a tool for satire, for intellectual exploration, and for empathizing with the most extreme mental states. If that is the case, it is likely because she, as Dodgson before her, remembers well how charged and enigmatic the world is in the eyes of children.