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8 December 2021updated 09 Dec 2021 1:31pm

Howard Jacobson: How Gulliver’s Travels gave me a taste for satire

I didn’t fully understand Jonathan Swift’s epic at nine years old – that was why reading it made me feel so free.

By Howard Jacobson

Between being taught to recognise three-letter words in wooden picture books and going to grammar school to be shown how a book could be improved with study, reading for me was a sort of daydreaming with words. I spent hours choosing books in libraries and hours more turning pages in bed, but I absorbed little of what I read because little of it interested me. Stories written specifically for children struck me as an affront. I was an adult in waiting, not an idiot. So “Five Got Lost in Mevagissey” – what did I care? And as for secret pathways that led to fascinating adventures – I was nine years old, not nine months.

Then I happened on a volume of Gulliver’s Travels with illustrations by Arthur Rackham which immediately fascinated me because they were simultaneously depictions of the actual and the fantastical – very precise, as in the painting of a giant Gulliver in spectacles, with his sleeves rolled up, tying up the Blefuscudian fleet before towing it back to Lilliput; but also sinister and surreal, as in the diminutive Gulliver fending off monster wasps, or the hideous struldbruggs, cursed to live forever, much like my grandfather, it seemed to me, with the infirmities and peevishness of old age. The story itself was told in the same matter-of-fact style, recording extraordinary events in a way that was both disconcerting and funny. Finally, I felt free from being talked down to because I could understand the apparent story while sensing there was something else going on that was, for the moment at least, beyond me. That cause of friction between Lilliput and Blefuscu, for example – Big-Endians versus Little-Endians. Did countries really go to war over which end of an egg to crack open? Or was the whole thing a great joke about politics and war? Thus did a taste for satire enter my life.

It was only years later, when I came upon an unfamiliar episode of Gulliver extinguishing a fire in the Lilliputian empress’s palace by urinating on it, that I realised the version I first read had been expurgated. Similarly, those passages in Brobdingnag when Gulliver is invited to witness the ablutions of the maids of honour who lay him in their bosoms and don’t scruple to do in his presence what he had done in the empress’s private rooms. I hadn’t noticed the absence of such indecencies, but it was no surprise to me to discover they existed. It was as though I’d always been half aware of their latency, sensing an adult story, a layer of meaning just out of my reach, whose not-quite presence gave savour to my reading.

I can’t pretend I drew an overt lesson from it at the time, but I draw it now. The best books for children are those they don’t fully understand. Adults the same.

Gulliver’s Travels by Jonathan Swift (1726)

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This article is part of our “The children’s books that shaped us” series. Read more reflections from our writers here.

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