A little-known classic
Walter de la Mare’s fiction from between the World Wars has long been lost in a lonely, twilight world of half-obscurity. Such a literary fate is somewhat ironic, for his stories and novels consistently depict a lonely, twilight world of half-obscurity—the most haunting of all being the unsettling universe of diminutive Miss M., the midget-heroine-narrator of what surely must be de la Mare’s finest novel.
For the handful of de la Mare’s aficionados in England and the U.S., the reappearance of Memoirs of a Midget 88 years after its first publication will come as both a vindication of his enduring genius and a cause for some alarm. After all, what will a 21st-century readership make of dear old Walter’s art? Will his prose, like a living mosquito caught in the gorgeous amber of Henry James and Marcel Proust, still be able to buzz off the page and bite deep into a reader’s conscience?
As with James and Proust, a central thrill of reading Memoirs belongs to the moment of surrender. In the first chapter or two, the question looms in the reader’s mind: how far am I willing to submit to the discomfiting dream-language of little Miss M., who tells her peculiar life story through prose infused with wonder and wisdom, as well as magnificent emotional detail? But as the pages turn, the revelation comes, and the fearful odyssey of a midget in a full-sized world rings increasingly true as the perfect expression of what every human being—regardless of size—feels throughout life, as both child and adult: that the world does not fit, that we were not meant for it, that every act of love we tender towards the world is met with misunderstanding and rebuff. It is a terrible epiphany, but one whose redemption is the heroic presence of an angel such as Miss M. who can record all these evils of spiritual misalignment.
Michael Alec Rose is a composer who teaches at Vanderbilt University’s Blair School of Music.