Thursday, 24 February 2011

Review: The Unstrung Harp, Or, Mr. Earbass Writes a Novel

The Unstrung Harp, Or, Mr. Earbass Writes a Novel by Edward Gorey (1953).

Edward Gorey is one of those authors who grows on you–a bit like the moss that accumulates on the shingles of a neglected Victorian Gothic mansion whose owners have fallen on hard times.  His macabre cartoons with their laconic captions provide the reader with a tour of a disturbing, gloomy, decadent world where it is always genteel, the 1920s, and perpetually overcast.  It's therefore fitting that I'm writing this review on a cold February morning when rolling winter storms keep dumping layers of snow, which then collapse in a few hours into mounds of grey slush.  One must be in the proper mood when approaching certain projects.

The Unstrung Harp, Or, Mr. Earbass Writes a Novel is a slim little volume that in words and pictures recounts the efforts of novelist C(lavius) F(rederick) Earbass to come to grips with his latest novel called, for no real reason, The Unstrung Harp.   A Creature of habit, Mr Earbass always starts his new novels on the 18th of November of alternative years, but on 17 November discovers that he hasn't the slightest idea for a plot.  Clad in his favourite sweater, he tries to get stuck into his work, but he soon finds himself wandering about the house or into town in search of inspiration that keeps eluding him.  He's forever waking at night wracked by doubts about the book and it doesn't help that he meets some of his characters wandering about on the landings.  Through rewrites, revisions, and up to publication, Mr Earbass is torn between his desires to change every word he's written or just tossing the manuscript in the Thames.

 It's a strange tale where jam sandwiches have a bizarre significance, secondhand book stalls pose unfathomable mysteries, and where the creative process is fraught with it's "attendant woes: isolation, writer's block, professional jealousy,  and plain boredom".  It's also very funny–not in the laugh out loud sense, but in the quietly amused manner.  It's a book to read on a silent winter's night with a glass of dry sherry.  It's also recommended for any author dealing with the frustrations of writing because it shows that struggling over chapter II or leaving doors open and empty tea cups on the floor is all part of the job.

Though, perhaps, not stuffed fantods under bell jars.

1 comment:

  1. I’ve just read 16 Edward Gorey “stories” today, following my friend, Clare's introduction of me to him yesterday in the form of a "Christmas Card" of sorts, showing his artwork and his nonsensical utterance. I had never heard of Gorey, at least not that I can recall, in my almost 80 years. How could that be? I am forgetful, but not THAT forgetful. In one eye chuckling, grinning, wha-ha-ha day, he has become my favorite macabre writer/illustrator, pushing the best of Charles Adams fast out the door. Most of Gorey's writings (that I've so far read) are not stories, but simply a series of “moments…scenes…themes…” and his detailed etchings are an enjoyable study by themselves. My favorite “story” so far is The Unstrung Harp, the story of the agonies that a conscientious writer of an awful story might suffer during the painful process of knowing that his story is worthless… I love it. And what a truly perfect title! Think about it! In his other writings, I love the names of his characters, the outlandish vocabulary he uses, his rhyming stories. These are stories/scenes/pictures that my siblings and I would have shared, doubled over in hysterical laughter. Unfortunately, they are all deceased now. I don’t know of anyone else who has our macabre sense of humor, so I shall just mutter approving accolades to myself, and order more Gorey books and illustrated books to read until I have digested them all at least thrice.