Books about minia­ture worlds

The Guardian - Review - - Further Reading - Si­mon Garfield

We need to deal with the two gi­ants of minia­ture at the very start. Gul­liver’s Trav­els and Alice’s Ad­ven­tures in Won­der­land are a shrink’s dream, and these mas­ter­works cast such a long shadow that there’s hardly an imag­i­nary nar­ra­tive of scale (or a mon­ster movie) that doesn’t owe some­thing to them.

The writ­ing that owes most to scale may in­deed be “Scale”, a short story by Will Self. This plays on scale in a ket­tle and scales on a lizard, and an af­fair the nar­ra­tor had with the fam­ily au pair on a set of bath­room scales. Pun­ished and ban­ished, he finds him­self liv­ing in a bun­ga­low on the edge of the real-world Bekon­scot model vil­lage in Buck­ing­hamshire, and dreams that he has en­tered his own minia­ture dwelling within it. He bat­tles wasps the size of zep­pelins and only es­capes with the help of car­pet un­der­lay. Night­mare? Or the best fun you can have in mil­lime­tres? Only the reader can de­cide.

Made wealthy by his tales of Mar­tian in­va­sions and time travel, HG Wells liked noth­ing more than to scram­ble down on his knees and play with model soldiers. He wrote about the ap­peal in Floor Games and its se­quel Lit­tle Wars, two of his least known and short­est works, the first in­flu­en­tial in its play­room diplo­macy and the sec­ond poignant in its re­jec­tion of ac­tual mil­i­tary con­flict. Lit­tle Wars was pub­lished a year be­fore the first world war, and Wells in­cluded a warn­ing: “All of us, in ev­ery coun­try, ex­cept a few dull-wit­ted en­er­getic bores, want to see the man­hood of the world at some­thing bet­ter than ape­ing the lit­tle lead toys our chil­dren buy in boxes.” Fat chance HG.

Jessie Bur­ton had a smash a few years ago with The Minia­tur­ist , a novel both lush and pre­cise, and wholly en­gulf­ing in its sense of place (Am­s­ter­dam, late 17th cen­tury). A woman’s life is mir­rored in the tiny or­nate ob­jects in a beau­ti­ful doll’s house, which is also a model of her own home. Who is the mys­tery pup­pet­mas­ter send­ing her these things, and will they set her free from her sti­fling mar­riage?

The dark­est book on the sub­ject is per­haps The Nut­shell Stud­ies of Un­ex­plained Death , a cof­fee-ta­ble guide to the ex­traor­di­nar­ily un­nerv­ing dio­ra­mas of Frances Gless­ner Lee. The pho­tog­ra­pher Corinne May Botz traces Lee’s jour­ney from a wealthy but lonely child­hood in Chicago to be­com­ing the cre­ator of 18 de­tailed crime scenes de­signed to train po­lice de­tec­tives in the art of long-look­ing and foren­sics. Lee made most of her boxes (blood­ied corpses in moody at­tics and cab­ins formed from wool, felt, pa­per and wood) in the 1940s, but they con­tinue to set the imag­i­na­tion aflame. Just how did a woman’s body end up in the bath with her clothes still on and the tap still run­ning? The an­swer is al­most be­sides the point: the point is that we learn how to look.

But if it’s ob­ses­sion you’re af­ter, look no fur­ther than Jay’s Jour­nal of Anom­alies , the late Ricky Jay’s com­pen­dium of the won­drous and the mag­i­cal. Who wouldn’t be charmed by the trick­sters and huck­sters he de­scribes, not least the flea cir­cus, where Vic­to­rian in­sects such as The Great Her­man per­formed their stunts twice-nightly, pulling a char­iot, jump­ing through hoops. How could such a marvel ever be al­lowed to fade?

Si­mon Garfield’s In Minia­ture: How Small Things Il­lu­mi­nate the World is pub­lished by Canon­gate.

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