Ballet, Cats and Violent Ends
By Sarah Ferrel
Published: October 14, 2001
Edward Gorey on Edward Gorey.
Interviews selected and edited
by Karen Wilkin.
Illustrated. 292 pp. New York:
IN his prime, Edward Gorey had made himself a perfect fusion of art and life. The artist and author of more than 100 meticulously hand-lettered, intricately rendered little books had to all intents and purposes become one of his own drawings. He was highly visible during intermissions at the New York State Theater, where for a while he attended every performance of the New York City Ballet. He was hard to miss: tall, slender, long of beard, frequently clad in a full-length fur coat and sneakers. He wore a tasteful gold stud in each ear, and what seemed to be dozens of rings on his long, thin hands. His usually bemused expression might have been the result of the partial deafness that left him oblivious of the little squeals of his surrounding admirers.
How Gorey became Gorey is the heart of the 21 interviews with assorted writers and critics, dated from 1973 to 1999, the year before his death, collected in ''Ascending Peculiarity: Edward Gorey on Edward Gorey,'' edited by Karen Wilkin, an art critic who also contributes a useful introduction.
The short form of a Gorey biography would go something like this: A happy, normal Midwestern childhood, in which he began to draw at 1 1/2 (''very funny little sausagey drawings, which are meant to be railway cars'') and taught himself to read at 3 1/2. The occasional art class at the Art Institute of Chicago, followed by a stint in the Army as a company clerk, stationed at Dugway Proving Ground, the military test site in Utah (''And every time I pick up a paper and see, you know, that 12,000 more sheep died mysteriously out in Utah, I think, 'Oh, they're at it again' ''). Then Harvard, where he majored in French literature, was active in the Poet's Theater and roomed with Frank O'Hara, with whom he largely failed to keep in touch after graduation. Then New York, where he drew covers for Anchor paperback editions of such classics as Henry James's ''What Maisie Knew'' -- the little girl depicted thereon is certainly one of the earliest, if not the very first, of his signature hapless children. (Others of this unfortunate lot are Charlotte Sophia, ''The Hapless Child'' herself, and, in an alphabet book called ''The Gashlycrumb Tinies,'' 26 little victims who range from ''Amy, who fell down the stairs'' to ''Zillah, who drank too much gin.'')
Ballet and cats were among his New York preoccupations, as witnessed by his conversations with the dance critics Tobi Tobias and Anna Kisselgoff and with Jane Merrill Filstrup, to whom, in Cats magazine, he gave a delightful account of his life with his animals. Of the six cats that he kept in a one-room apartment, every one was more than a little weird -- the outstanding example being an Abyssinian, ''all personality and crazed charm,'' that didn't purr until it was 10. Many of his cats were named from classical Japanese literature, one of the myriad subjects upon which he was almost spookily erudite.
Gorey spent half the year on Cape Cod, where he designed the first version of the decor for the ''Dracula'' that was produced on Broadway in 1977. He did not much like the finished sets -- he thought the scale was wrong -- and did not attend the ceremony at which he was awarded a Tony for costume design. In 1986 he moved to the Cape permanently, living first with cousins and cats, then just with cats. In a 1977 interview with Dick Cavett, Gorey explains that a recent book, ''The Deranged Cousins,'' in which three relatives go for a stroll and meet violent and unlikely ends, was taken from life. But, he adds, in the case of the real walk that he took with his own cousins, nothing happened -- they just went home again. On the way, however, he had seen the bed slat, the doorknob and the bottle of vanilla extract that were put to fatal fictional use.
In the same conversation, Gorey addresses his singular appearance: ''But as I began to copy my own drawings, I'd get a little more bizarre. And then, you know, then I'd start copying myself as I looked, as I had, you know, gotten more and more stylized. And you obviously get very self-conscious, eventually, which is, I think, one of the things you have to be aware of.'' In a 1980 interview with Lisa Solod, in Boston magazine, he says: ''Part of me is genuinely eccentric, part of me is a bit of a put-on. But I know what I'm doing.'' Living alone with six cats is, he points out, eccentric.
He also talks to Solod about his books: ''I have a dumb theory that a creative piece of art is only interesting if it purports to be about something and is really about something else. Quite often when I write or draw, my work starts out as a parody and sometimes turns into a parody of something else. In other words, I take some sort of given, but by the time I'm finished with what I wanted it to be about, what I really wanted it to be about has crept into it.'' This would go far toward explaining the mysterious obliqueness of much of his work -- the violent events that take place offstage or, in the self-proclaimed pornographic work ''The Curious Sofa,'' the sexual depravity that is all the more depraved, and much funnier, for being merely suggested (''Still later Gerald did a terrible thing to Elsie with a saucepan'').
The best piece in the collection is Stephen Schiff's ''Edward Gorey and the Tao of Nonsense,'' published in The New Yorker in 1992. Departing from the usual question-and-answer format of the rest of the collection (which gives him a perhaps unfair advantage), Schiff offers a vivid impression of Gorey and his cats (who are described by a friend as abusive) in his oddity-cluttered, cat-scented house on the Cape. His analysis of Gorey's art is exactly right: ''Reading Gorey is like losing your innocence -- except that, as the creepiness mounts, something else takes over. His victims are too vacuous to inspire pity and terror, and his tone is too cool to make you wring your hands. The only recourse is to laugh, and you do.''
The work of art that was the man is no longer with us, but we still, thank the Insect God, to whom the especially hapless Millicent Frastley was sacrificed, have his lovely and disturbing little books.