Ian McMillan: One day, two greats

Ian McMillan
Ian McMillan
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It seems obvious to say it, as the new year bursts from the starting blocks and begins the gallop towards December, but history is built on the scaffolding of individual days, and of course a day is just a fictional construct that we’ve invented to measure time with but that doesn’t stop days being full of significance and resonance.

Take today, for instance, January 14; on one level an ordinary day, on another level a really important day for writing and writers, reading and readers.

This is a random day but it’s the day when Lewis Carroll died, and the day when John Dos Passos was born. Carroll is the better known writer, at least at this side of the Atlantic, but maybe John Dos Passos is the more important.

Let’s start with Lewis Carroll, the pen name of Charles Lutwidge Dodgson, the man who wrote those two great classics of Victorian literature (I was going to write children’s literature, but they’re more than that) Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and Alice Through The Looking Glass, as well as that wonderful hymn to nonsense and adventure, Jabberwocky, and who died on January 14, 1898. As a lad I was a fan of the books, without really understanding them. I liked the surrealism of them, with the dormouse getting in the teapot at the Mad Hatter’s Tea Party and the Cheshire Cat receding until all that was left was his grin; I liked the way that they played with your idea of what a story could be, with the mouse’s story snaking down the page like a real mouse’s tail. If you haven’t read the books, by the way, I hope I’m whetting your appetite for them: they really are something special. I’ve read and reread the Alice books over the years and they still feel like something strange and powerful and they’re certainly books that have influenced me as a reader and a writer.

John Dos Passos was born on January 14, 1896; he was a novelist who, like F.Scott Fitzgerald and John Steinbeck, helped to define America to itself; American literary audiences and creators are obsessed with the idea of The Great American Novel, the one book that will at once pin down and illuminate the idea of the country and it seems to me that Dos Passos comes very close with his trilogy (so it’s not just one novel!) of books which together have the collective title USA. He’s an experimentalist, using a collage technique alongside hard-edged realism. It’s an exhilarating read, but be warned, the trilogy is the size 
of a house brick.

Lewis Carroll and John Dos Passos: two writers brought together through an accident of history and timing and birth and death. Two writers well worth reading at the start of this year, or at any time in the year, come to that. Enjoy!