Friday, June 18, 2010


THE CHILDREN'S LITERATURE SCHOLAR Selma G. Lanes reviewed Eugène Ionesco's Story Number 3 for The New York Times in a joint review with a book by former Ionesco illustrator Etienne Delessert, and Donald Barthelme's National Book Award winner The Slightly Irregular Fire Engine (a future We Too Were Children, Mr. Barrie entry). She found Delessert's book (a collaboration with Jean Piaget) to be an utter failure. Barthelme's book showed promise but was overall a disappointment. And Ionesco's book?
"With a rare gift for transforming trivia to poetry Ionesco holds us rapt as the tale's papa recites to his small daughter: 'We're going to take a trip in an airplane. So I put on your underpants, I put on your little skirt, I put on your undershirt, I put on your little pink sweater....' How sweet are the commonplaces of everyday existence! And how comforting to a child!"
The lulling rhythm of oral storytelling, complete with call and response between father and daughter, are just as pleasing to an adult. Perhaps it's not surprising that the dramatist Ionesco truly comes alive in his only children's book in the form of a dialogue.

"LITTLE JOSETTE--just as she had done the day before and just as she did every morning--knocked on the door of her parents' bedroom...."

Mama is already awake and in the bath, but Papa, who had gone out the night before for a round of restaurants, movies, and puppet shows, is still in bed. Josette climbs into bed with him, and demands a story.

"'We're going to take a trip in an airplane," Papa begins. And he describes how they will get ready to go out, the tidings Mama will give them, the warnings the maid Jacqueline will provide ("She must not lean out of the window; it's dangerous. She might fall."), and the trip out of the apartment to the street.

On the way out, the superintendant's wife will also warn Josette that she musn't lean out the window, lest she fall out.

They will pass the butcher's shop. "Josette hides her eyes: I don't want to look! Mean butcher!"

They will take the bus. They will arrive at the airport. "'We climb into the airplane. It goes up and up, see, just like my hand: vvrrr...'"

They will look out the window and see the neighbor's house. The cars will be tiny, as will the people, and the animals in the zoo. Papa pretends to be the lion in the zoo, but it scares Josette, so he reassures her that he is not a lion; he is Papa. Then they see friends and fields and the mayor's house and the steeple and the priest and the country, the windmill, the ducks, the fish in the water ("We don't eat nice fish; we eat only the bad fish."), "And then we go up, we go up, we go up...

And reach the moon. They each eat a piece of the moon. "It's delicious; it's made of melon." But they take to the airplane again, and continue on to the sun.

The sun is hot, so very hot. They want to return to earth, but it's so hot the airplane has melted. It's all right though, because they can walk back home just as well. They need to hurry or lunch will be cold.

"At that moment, mama comes in and says: 'Get up, get out of bed and dress yourselves.'"

WHEN STORY NUMBER 3 appeared in Ionesco's memoir Present Past Past Present it, like all four stories, was subtitled "Tale for Children Less Than Three Years Old." But when it appeared in picture book form (illustrated by Philippe Corentin), the subtitle had changed to "For children over three years of age." Why it was decided that Story Number 3 was for an older audience than Story Number 1 or Story Number 2 is unclear. Perhaps it is because Papa says, "If the butcher kills any more calves, I'm going to kill the butcher..." Or the repeated warning that Josette could fall out of the airplane and be hurt. Or simply that the nuance of an imagined story within the story, one that Josette fully participates in as a co-storyteller as well as a character, requires a more mature mind than when Papa tells a simple story as in the earlier two books. In any event, a reader (or listener) of any age will feel comforted (and amused) by Ionesco's masterful dialogue.

Coming Soon: Eugène Ionesco's Story Number 4.

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