3 August 2017


Carol Mavor. Aurelia. Art and Literature Through the Mouth of the Fairy Tale. reaktion Books 2017.

"An Aurelia is the pupa of an insect, which can reflect a brilliant colour, as the chrysalises of some butterflies do."
"Aurelia is a homonym of 'oralia' a word coined by the literary scholar Michael Moon which is suggestive of both the oral tale and eating. My Aurelia speaks in gold and has much to do with eating."

'Aurelia. Art and Literature through the Mouth of the Fairy Tale' is told with a butterfly tongue that celebrates, warns, swallows, chews and rebels. Aurelia awakens the fairy-tale realm in a wide range of authors, artists, books and objects which fall down its hole."

These are three extracts from Carol Mavor's introduction to Aurelia, describing the intentions of her unconventional take on the fairy-tale. Mavor is a contemporary of two famous fairy-tale scholars, Jack Zipes and Marina Warner, whose influence and assistance she acknowledges. Whilst they chronicle and analyse stories Mavor freely speculates on fairy-tale texts, including her personal choice of related artworks.

All three can be playful in their approach but Mavor's juxtaposition of text and image is of a dark and whimsical kind. She wants to jolt the reader's sensibility. Just when you thought you 'understood' what was going on in the head of The Brothers Grimm or Lewis Carroll other ideas and subsequent offshoots multiply and multiply. This multiplication of meaning, through Mavor's often forced erudition, makes Aurelia both a fascinating and a frustrating book. On nearly every other page there's an over-referential excess. Too many writers, artists, filmmakers etc. are sign-posted. Her show of learning making for chapters that are meandering and self-conscious with only the occasional section where the true creative tap flows. Aurelia's so uneven. Rather than a concept that Mavor wishes to "swallow, chew and rebel" with its subject matter we have ill-digested ideas attempting to hold together an 'experimental' text. She tries too hard to weave an original depiction of a fairy-tale consciousness.

I'm all for intellectual play (Mavor quotes Roland Barthes, that master essayist of impish delight) yet this often results in chapter conclusions that are forced and platitudinous. Take the chapter on the disturbing photographs of Bernard Faucon. His 1960/70's images of beautiful young boys, grouped next to boy mannequins, convey both an innocence and barely suppressed eroticism. Mavor sees them as suggesting the doll of Pinnochio: all delectable boys awaiting enchantment, hoping to loose their woodenness and be transformed:
Faucon's sweet adolescence, preternaturally harboured for a long time through the bodies of boys that infused his work and his own boyish looks. And then, it departed, like a butterfly escaping its chrysalis-skin... Only in fairy tales can a boy live 'happily ever after'.

Nicely expressed but rather obvious once you've glanced at the photographs. And this kind of easy summing up runs throughout her book. An interesting chapter on the famous caves of Lascaux is another example. Coming out of "the big hole in the. Mountain" of a cave in the Pacific Northwest, that Mavor visited with her son, she says "Just as the fairy tale gives us the dream that we have a right to be happy and free, so does darkness." Intelligent conclusions come from deeper writing, but not so here. Yet Mavor is too bright a writer to be consistently shallow or pretentious. On the writings of Lewis Carrol she settles on much stronger, well read (and understood) ground. Here Mavor makes a convincing case for fairy-tale madness and the act of constant eating:
"...the Alice stories present us with plenty of feeding but not much nurturing. Just as the Mad Hatter 'bit a large piece out of his teacup instead of the bread and butter' when you take a bite in Wonderland it is more about reading than eating. Eating - as - reading makes possible all the forgetting."

That's lovely, funny and memorable. The book's title about art and literature being seen "through the mouth of the fairy tale" really clicks. The rabbit hole into which everything (all knowledge) falls to be eventually swallowed up and forgotten.

A Curates Egg book then? Such a term evokes a fairy tale association (though there isn't one.) A bit of good and a bit of bad mixed up in the witches brew experiment that constitutes Aurelia? It's certainly a flawed production. Mavor's considerable learning frequently impairs her narrative, or anti-narrative drive, leaving you with an odd work that fails to deliver enchantment nor disconcert the reader enough to re-think their ideas on the fairy-tale.

On the blurb of this beautifully produced book, a fellow academic declares Aurelia to be "full of magic as its subjects." It isn't. Mavor may have intended it to be "darkly wet coated." Unfortunately Aurelia lacks a real and substantial edge. This book could have been so much more than an interesting curiosity. Aurelia succeeds in sending you back to its ambiguous fairy-tale sources but not to any re-reading of Aurelia itself. – Alan Price

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