le plus loin le plus serré

le plus loin le plus serré
mourning art

in memoriam

"yet I tell you, from the sad knowledge of my older experience, that to every one of you a day will most likely come when sunshine, hope, presents and pleasure will be worth nothing to you in comparison with the unattainable gift of your mother's kiss." (Christina Rossetti, "Speaking Likenesses," 1873)

Saturday, April 20, 2013

Vale E.L. Konigsburg

As if this week hasn't had enough bad news in it, word comes today that E.L. Konigsburg has died.

Konigsburg is one of the rare greats of children's literature who I actually read as a child (I don't know what I was reading then, but it was mostly nothing I read now). From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler is probably THE iconic Konigsburg text, and of course it's a great one, but my personal favorite has always been - and still is - Up From Jericho Tel. I taught it once, in a children's lit class (maybe a summer course?), and I was so gratified that the students liked it. It was one of those books they responded to with "Why didn't I know about this book when I was a kid? I wish I had read this sooner."

Journey to an 800 Number is another one of her books I read when I was young, and it really stuck with me. The odd loneliness of the 800-number operator, the way people so easily become faceless and nameless - and the ways they (or people around them) create identities and spaces for themselves, the constant travel of the characters of the book - there's a streak of melancholy to that book that resonated and resonates still with me.

Konigsburg's books draw our attention to the unnoticed: to the people and things, large and small, that we ignore or never see in the first place. She's interested in the real, everyday things that are also completely magical: think of Claudia and the Angel statue, think of Amadeo in The Mysterious Edge of the Heroic World. That title, in fact, seems to be precisely what each of Konigsburg's books is about - seeking, or stumbling upon, that mysterious edge of the heroic, magical, meaningful world.

The View From Saturday is perhaps Konigsburg's masterpiece, if we need to identify any one of her books as such. The multiple narrators, interspersed with the third-person narrated sections focalized by Mrs. Olinski, is an organizational and narrational thing of beauty. The way the stories of the four kids interlock and overlap, and the ways in which those convergences are revealed, is absolutely astonishingly brilliant and wonderfully skillful. It never feels gimmicky, and it never gets old, or becomes obvious. Each new revelation is revelatory, and each segment of the book adds up to an extraordinary whole story, a work of beauty and grace.

Konigsburg's protagonists are a big part of the greatness of her books, and it wasn't until I taught Up From Jericho Tel that I even realized that her characters all share one major thing in common: they are all very smart, slightly (or more-than-slightly) eccentric kids. Realizing this so long after first reading her books, it made me think that in all likelihood, one of the reasons my child-self liked her books so much was because her protagonists were like me: smart, and kind of weird. In children's literature, we get a lot of clever protagonists, and we get a lot of narrators or protagonists who have what seems like more wisdom/understanding than any kid that age should have, but it often goes unremarked in the text. Konigsburg - who herself must have been a smart, odd kid - so wonderfully captures both the challenges and delights of being an outsider because of your intelligence, because of your quirky interests. If the people around you don't recognize that you're a star - as Jeanmarie's classmates don't - you just keep wearing your appliqued Texas vest until you find someone who does recognize a Star when she sees one. The scene on the bus with Jeanmarie's vest is one I remember vividly identifying with as a younger reader: the feeling of being criticized or made fun of for something that you like a lot, or care about intensely, and really do not want to change, the uncertainty that engenders, the contempt for the bullies who don't understand, the desire to be like them even while loathing them - it's all so familiar.

Konigsburg's books make smart kids the main actors, the ones who can see and do and understand things around them in ways not everyone else can. Her kids aren't caricatured nerds, or strange performing monkeys - they are real, complex, intriguing people who live in a world where they are not the norm, and where not being the norm can make you invisible. The trajectory of the narratives are of making the invisible  visible, whether it's your own self or someone else, or some idea, some sense of understanding, some wider way of perceiving the world. The way invisibility works on a metaphoric level in Konigsburg's books makes me rethink the invisibility scenes from Jericho Tel - in some ways, her books function the way those episodes of invisibility work for Jeanmarie and Malcom. Her books let you see that which cannot be seen, uncover that which was previously hidden, understand yourself and the world in ways that make sense.

E.L. Konigsburg worked the best kind of magic with her books: the magic that lets you see the invisible in the world; the magic that lets you see the greatness of yourself, and helps you share that greatness with the world. So thank you, Elaine Konigsburg, for knowing how to see the invisible, and for knowing how to make us see it as well. Requiescat in Pace.

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