I hadn’t read ‘Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland’ since I was myself a child. So it was a great pleasure to rediscover Lewis Carroll’s classic in this new Princeton University Press edition, with marvelous illustrations created by Salvador Dalí for a long out-of-print 1969 Random House edition.
The new publication marks the 150th anniversary of the 1865 novelette, a good enough reason for a new edition. The text is that of the 1897 manuscript, Carroll’s preferred version. It’s got all the chapters and all the verse, and retains his occasional eccentric spellings (“ca’n’t,” for example).
Two introductions place the story in historical and mathematical context. In the first, Mark Burstein, president emeritus of the Lewis Carroll Society of North America, explains the affinity the archetypal Surrealist had for Carroll’s fantastical dreamscapes. Carroll, really Reverend Charles Lutwidge Dodgson (1832-1898), was a mathematician and and early photography enthusiast, both studies that synched with the Surrealist’s.
Burstein writes that for “both Carroll and the surrealists, what some call madness could be perceived by others as wisdom.” Their creative processes also had similarities: “The surrealists practiced automatism [spontaneous/unconscious creation] in their writing and drawing; Carroll called the initial telling of the tale to Alice Liddell and her sisters…’effortless…the jaded Muse was goaded into action more because she had to say something than that she had something to say.'”
Stylistically, Dalí’s illustrations are nothing like his most famous paintings and sculptures, those photo-“realistic” images of drooping pocket watches, stretched and transforming bodies, swans, the Venus de Milo with drawers, and my favorite, “The Architectonic Angelus of Millet” with its colossal bony structures, which presided over my childhood in large poster form from my bedroom wall.
Rather, the images suggest scenes from the story in washes of earth tones. Dispensing with perspective, Dalí scatters forms and figures about in an almost Chagallian way. In each illustration, as Burstein points out, the artist’s own “Alice” figure appears, not a little girl but a young woman skipping rope, an image he had created decades earlier, tying the pictures all together, even though some of them require a bit of study to recognize the relevant imagery.
Meaning and representation aside, they’d be just plain beautiful in any context. And Thomas Banchoff, a professor of mathematics and a friend of the artist’s, provides an additional context in his own introduction: Dalí’s lifelong fascination with geometry and metaphysics. The artist “created many images that were inspired by ideas from science and mathematics as well as literature and philosophy,” another way writer and artist harmonized generations apart. While Banchoff wasn’t privy to the artist’s thinking about his Alice commission, he does give us a peep into Dalí’s remarkable mind before pushing us down that iconic rabbit-hole: “And now, off to Wonderland!”
The hardcover book as a physical object has much to recommend it. Beautifully designed with high-quality paper, it is nonetheless inexpensive enough that parents shouldn’t panic at the prospect of thumbprints and spills if they read or give it to their children. A great gift for children, children-at-heart, and lovers of timeless culture, it will earn a proud place by the bedside, on the bookshelf, or on the coffee table right beside the tiny golden key to the garden of your imagination.