#178: WHEN THE CLOCK STRIKES THIRTEEN. It does so, most famously in literature, in the opening sentence of George Orwell’s 1984, yes; but the clock striking thirteen has its older and legendary presence in many places other than Orwell. There’s the story of John Hatfield, who in the eighteenth century defended himself against a charge of having fallen asleep on guard duty by claiming he’d heard the clock in St. Paul Cathedral’s tower strike thirteen; the noose was tightening when several people came forward supporting his claim, and he was released. There actually is a clock that strikes thirteen in England, up in Worsely, near Manchester; it got its unusual chime at the insistence of its owner, a manufacturer who feared that his workers returning from lunch would miss hearing the single strike of one. Proving once again that the reality of England is often as Carrollian as its stories.
The most charming use of the conceit must be in Philippa Pearce’s children’s novel Tom’s Midnight Garden. Tom Long, the protagonist, is sent to stay with an aunt and uncle at the beginning of his summer holiday to prevent his catching measles from his brother Peter (the story, published in 1958, is some five years prior to the measles vaccine; at the time twice as many children died from measles as from polio). The aunt and uncle’s flat is part of an old converted mansion, and one night, a sleepless Tom goes to investigate when a grandfather’s clock in the main hallway strikes…you guessed it. He ventures out through the back door into a beautiful garden; the garden, it turns out is inaccessible during the day, when its place is taken by some dustbins and a non-functioning car under a tarp. Night after night Tom returns to the mysterious garden, invisible and inaudible to the people he sees there; or so he thinks. He eventually befriends a girl named Hatty, who turns out to be, by the end, the pivot between times present and times past, and the source of the novel’s poignant ending. The prose is utterly unrushed and unmannered; the action unfolds through Tom’s eyes and, as his experience of the garden begins to edge out into other people’s senses, and as he comes to understand the preciousness of his friendship for Hatty—even as he and Hatty begin to vanish to each other’s sight—Pearce ever so quietly delights you with her invention and then breaks your heart.
Tom’s Midnight Garden was published in 1958; Erich Kastner’s Emil and the Detectives comes from still further back, 1929, and so is a bit of a thing in amber. (It’s the only older children’s book originally written in German I can think of that’s still widely read—does anyone except nostalgic adults still read Karl May’s Winnetou, I wonder?) Its protagonist, Emil, sets off from the provincial town of Neustadt to visit his aunt and grandmother in the big city, Berlin, and to deliver money to them from his mother. While on the train his pocket is picked; Emil catches sight of the thief, follows him, and in the process is befriended by a gang of street kids who aid him in bringing the thief to justice. It’s as simple as can be imagined, as simple and inspired as Walter Trier’s illustrations, and charming to the nines. The story is all foreground; it’s been pointed out that the Berlin setting is almost incidental. May Massee’s original translation Anglicizes the children madly, using the British slang of its day; in one of the old film versions from 1935 Emil lives in Kent and travels to London. (A later translation by W. Martin has been picked at for overshooting into twenty-first century Americanisms.) But no matter; what matters is Emil and his newfound assistants, their instant characterizations (they combine a genial friendliness with a definite stroppy side), and the determination and ingenuity of a child facing an unfamiliar city. It’s perhaps only after finishing it that you may notice how precisely right the structure of the story is, with its lingering into Emil’s triumph in police headquarters, a newspaper office, and celebratory dinner; the whole book is a jolly and hearty delight.
I am one of the innumerable people keeping their fingers crossed for the continuing health of Philip Pullman, who, at seventy-four, is at work on the third volume of The Book of Dust, the trilogy that will act as both prequel and sequel to his widely read work His Dark Materials, which might well be one of the most wildly ambitious pieces of fiction ever marketed as a children’s book. The situation reminds me of a friend who, after the debacle of George R.R. Martin’s series A Song of Fire and Ice being overtaken and passed (to a widely derided ending) by its dramatization as Game of Thrones, swore he would never again read a book series that hadn’t yet finished publication. By way of keeping the suspense bearable, Pullman has not only published three novellas set in the world of Dark Materials but has also issued Daemon Voices: On Stories and Storytelling (Knopf, 2018), which is a wonderfully entertaining miscellany of talks and essays. We learn much of the world of Lyra, of Pullman’s wide and varied reading, and above all of the art of storytelling, to which he gives his convincing allegiance as well as his passion and expertise. It was this collection that called my attention to Philippa Pearce and Erich Kastner, so a tip of the hat and thanks to Pullman for the flying worlds of his imagining, his talks and essays, and for sending me off as well in new directions.