Little Sophie And Lanky Flop
My friend Sophie is little. I do not call her Little Sophie, but nobody would think it was unfair if I did. Our entire relationship has consisted of her treating me like a particularly stubborn rockface, gargantuan but still baroque enough that she could most likely find a handhold and someday make it to the top. When we walk along I can see the grain of the various emotions that her hair has been through, most of them hot.
The Lange Wapper, in the original Dutch, seems to have the tatterdelion appearance of the Scarecrow from the Wizard of Oz, but none of his homely edges or dullness; he is at turns witty, charming, deviant, quasi-malevolent, tricksy, handsome, clumsy, devastating and mostly repellent, his apparent monstrous nature enhanced by the very lack of compassion that we expect our monsters to have nowadays. He is a far more elderly figure than Els Pelgrom imagined him in 1984; a giant of 1500s Antwerp, tricking women out of their breast milk and falling into rivers with alarming regularity.
Sophie was given this book by her father, who now lives in Amsterdam and whom she sees only occasionally. There is a beautiful little message to his “Little Sophie” written inside, and perhaps her father knew, considering his own genetics, that she would always be little, and so the comparison would always be apt. She came to visit me a few months ago, and very carefully delivered it for my appraisal. I managed to fight my way through it in a cold afternoon on the sofa, as she had a natter in the opposite corner with Hellboy, an old friend that we happened to share.
In the book, Sophie is very unwell. She slowly melts in bed all day, and her parents tend to tiptoe around the house in feet constantly aching from manning the car’s pedals, driving their little girl back and forth from the hospital. Literature is taxed with ill little boys and girls, who are able to peel back the dusty skin on their head and use it as a kite to drift elsewhere. Sophie seems to take no such action herself, but like so many of her feeble companions invites that elsewhere in. The toys which line her room put on a play, one into which she wordlessly compacts to take a role, and as the scenery begins to trundle on greased runners instead of her stunted imagination she falls into a landscape ordinary yet giddy, barely stopping as she is plunged headfirst into every experience a young girl requires to grow up interesting; she joins a circus, is imprisoned in an orphanage, loses her hair (a serenely beautiful moment which came at me sideways and from which I did not extract the obvious symbolism) and nearly drowns in a storm. The world itself is an oddly furcated monarchy, and the inhabitants of this state all possess similar branches, many of them rotting and ready to break. I thought how ugly it all was, as I was trundling along myself as the afternoon drew its knees up from the sun and so climbed up into evening.
Children’s book characters are not often ugly; ugly in a deep sense, ugly under everything else. They are mysteriously shaved of all those uncomfortable things that people do. Even when they betray and lie there is a grandiose feel to it, a numinous reason which penetrates their whole being. Sophie meets Lanky Flop, Terror, the rich bear, the circusmaster’s wife Arabella with the fat ankles and the velvet tongue, and turning the cranks of the world in which the players stand immobile she is framed by August The Clown and Death. I never questioned, until now, why a little girl so unwell would be given a toy Death. It seems an odd aid to an odd lesson.
They are all fairly unpleasant to each other, at times. Arabella drops and picks up weak men that will be of use to her quicker than the pages can turn, and the rich bear justifies his wealth in ways that any current Chancellor would be proud of. Despite their redeeming qualities (and there are many) they function in much the same way that any group of friends do, and their flaws spark the real tinder of the book – many months for Sophie, and pages for me, are occupied with merely trying to convince these supposed “heroes”to put aside their selfishness and save Lanky Flop from execution.
Lanky Flop is the worst of all. Despite his titular role he is absent for vast swathes of the book, courting unpleasant women and stealing food and tweaking noses everywhere. I didn’t exactly like him – I felt that his treatment of Sophie was bizzare and hurtful at times – but he always wormed his way back into a form of virtue, and felt at least a general warmth towards her. The outstanding example of this is when the group visit Lanky Flop’s mother and father, who are so malnourished they have become a collection of newspaper columns blown into the corners of their hovel. Lanky Flop berates them and ignores them until, in the middle of the night, he slips out to a nearby house to steal a vast meal for them. His help is never given easily, and always seems to be laced with caveats.
I think that the important point here is that Sophie is never coddled. She has spent her entire life in bed, and her parents do not even visit her for fear, I assume, that their presence will finish her off. Terror, the writer of the play and actor within it, becomes the closest to a guide that she can find, but his directions often lead to the conclusion that life is full of mistakes, and regret is more easily accumulated than beauty. Lanky Flop bullies her and punishes her for poor decisions, though Sophie remains a clean, ethereal presence throughout, vulnerable yet persistent, still a child but with more than a big heart, perhaps enlarged by her irrelevant illness. She has a basic kindness as stubborn as a wave.
If you are planning to read the book, I would stop reading this entry now.
This text is only here so that you do not skim past the picture and accidentally read the words that I am about to write. Sophie dies at the end of the book. She manages to escape the evil king; mine and Sophie’s favourite scene, ornamented with Thé Jkong Khing’s tight little pen, is when Arabella jumps naked, beaming, from the king’s banquet, her hips wider than a car, her feet so dainty they are barely drawn at all. Only a few butterflies cover her scattered unmentionables. Arabella and Bear and Lanky Flop and Terror all weather the storm with her, mostly intact. The play ends, the rollers and the toys are mostly put away, and she dies very quietly. There is no fineral of weeping animals; they are just toys, after all. Wherever she went in her own weary little head is unimportant, because the burning embers are the bed for a fire just hot enough to read by at the end of the book. Those toys which took her into herself, into all the fragments of every book she had ever read, and every doll she had ever played with, and every fear that she had ever had, lead her by the hand out of her window, climbing down the front of her house, and into Bear’s car, no doubt bought with offshore funds, and they drive off down a road green and endless. The closing down of the brain that made it all is unimportant; it persists, in the manner of her kindness. I am not going to sit here and analyse the thing, though this is what I have been doing.
I suppose that I just wanted to go through it in my head, and see why it affected me so much. I wish that I had read it as a child, all the dense text and scratchy art and characters that lack anything American about them, that could not be written by somebody who had any agenda other than his own. Sophie, the friend Sophie, told me that she has read it tens of times, but that she did not really understand what it was about until she was older. I suppose there is a question as to what use a children’s book is if a child cannot understand its message. But, like my own childhood, it is the texture that I have wrapped around myself like a cloak, and made my own camouflage.