September 30th, 2008


I did Gulliver's Travels for "O" level. I remember a fat, little hardback with tiny print, an orange cover and no pictures.  I remember understanding it was some sort of satire- and feeling nothing for it whatsoever.

I was discussing it with Judy the other day (she's teaching it at Vandebilt)- but my opinions were too far out of date to be worth anything, which is why I'm reading it again now.

I've finished Book I. Liliput. The most familiar part. Gulliver gets pegged to the ground by the little people. He pisses on the royal palace to put out a fire. He kidnaps the Blefuscan fleet. At first I thought the interest was purely cultural-historical. No doubt this was all very entertaining in its time, but fantasy has moved on.

But Swift is stealthy. It's all in the tone- that affectless tone that runs you smoothly from the reporting of a sea voyage to impossible marvels to a political satire that gets blacker and blacker. You think you're reading one sort of book and it turns into another sort of book and then it turns into yet another. It's like the three stages of a stage illusion- as Christopher Priest names them- the pledge, the turn, the prestige.

And when it comes, the final revelation of the all too human wickedness of the cute little people is like a punch in the solar plexus.

It's a very short book, written with great economy. Swift's 300 year-old prose has such clarity it barely needs annotation.

Gulliver himself is an innocent, indeed a bit of a dope, who tells us more than he knows himself.  It's a hard trick to pull off- and occasionally it's not clear whether he's being very, very simple or very, very ironic, or- to put it another way- whether the voice is Gulliver's or Swift's.  Like most other humorists, Swift  will sometimes sacrifice artistic integrity to a joke.

The best joke- the abiding joke- is that these funny little people presume to manage Gulliver with their proclamations and granting of honours and duplicitous political proceedings- and to a large degree pull it off- when he could so easily kick their towns to pieces and squish them all.