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When he was very young

July 29, 2007|David L. Ulin and David L. Ulin is book editor of The Times.

The Sunny Side

Short Stories and Poems for Proper Grown-Ups

A.A. Milne

Ecco: 312 pp., $19.95

ABOUT a third of the way through "The Sunny Side," A.A. Milne's 1921 collection of occasional pieces originally written for the British humor magazine Punch and newly reissued, there's a little essay called "The Perils of Reviewing," in which the author slings some gently pointed arrows at the critic's trade.

"I reviewed a book the other day," he informs us. "It is not often I do this, because before one can review a book one has to, or is supposed to, read it, which wastes a good deal of time. Even that isn't an end of the trouble. The article which follows is not really one's own, for the wretched fellow who wrote the book is always trying to push his way in with his views on matrimony, or the Sussex downs, or whatever his ridiculous subject is. He expects one to say, 'Mr. Blank's treatment of Hilda's relations with her husband is masterly,' whereas what one wants to say is, 'Putting Mr. Blank's book on one side, we may consider the larger question, whether --' and so consider it (alone) to the end of the column."

It's tempting to use Milne's essay as a model, and not just because he explains so well the way reviewers think. In this case, the book at hand is the larger question -- since it opens our perspective on Milne's career. Here we have one of the best-loved authors in English literature, whose Winnie-the-Pooh books have been iconic since they appeared in the 1920s. So ubiquitous are Pooh, Christopher Robin, Tigger, Eeyore and the other inhabitants of the Hundred Acre Wood that it's almost impossible not to take them for granted, to imagine a world in which they didn't exist.

And yet, beginning in 1905, Milne wrote numerous books before he introduced his most famous characters -- and plenty of others afterward. In that regard, "The Sunny Side" offers us a lens through which to see Milne's writing in a larger context, as part of an extended career.

What's interesting about "The Sunny Side" is how well so many of its pieces have aged. The late 1910s and early 1920s in London might as well be another planet for all it has to do with contemporary America, but the minor moments and small domestic dramas that Milne evokes resonate with recognizable grace. The key, of course, is the author's voice -- slightly ironic, witty and wise. It's the same voice with which, in 1924, he would introduce his son Christopher Robin in "When We Were Very Young"; to encounter it here is like renewing the acquaintance of an old friend. In "The Enchanted Castle," Milne describes discovering with his wife a small cottage in the country; "I know a lovely place for hedges," he says, to which she replies, "I know a lovely tin of potted grouse." The language, the very rhythms, are whimsical, as is the main thrust of the narrative, which involves the couple pretending that the cottage is their own.

Other essays parody how-to writing guides or tell us what to do when asked to give a lecture. Many prefigure the New Yorker's "Shouts & Murmurs" section, written with the economy of James Thurber or E.B. White. Indeed, perhaps the most unexpected revelation in these pages is the extent to which "The Sunny Side" suggests a lineage from the British satire magazines through the New Yorker, and on to Spy and more current outlets such as the Onion and "The Colbert Report."

Of course, it's tricky to pair Milne and Stephen Colbert; their sensibilities seem diametrically opposed. But the key to Colbert is a certain child-like glee in poking a culture besotted with its own importance, which is precisely what Milne is after here. "Armageddon" attributes the onset of World War I to an aristocrat named (appropriately) Porkins, who thinks Britain has gone soft; "John Penquarto: A Tale of Literary Life in London," meanwhile, deftly satirizes both modernism and the cultural elite, with its tale of a writer who produces an endless novel in which a succession of novelists produce endless novels in which successions of novelists

well, you get the idea.

How do we reconcile all of this -- the author's whimsy and his engagement, his gentle spirit and his keen eye? In "The Perils of Reviewing," Milne offers a solution of characteristic elegance. "Of course in my review," he writes, "I said all the usual things. I said that Mr. Blank's attitude to life was 'subjective rather than objective'

and a little lower down that it was 'objective rather than subjective.' I pointed out that in his treatment of the major theme he was a neo-romanticist, but I suggested that, on the other hand, he had nothing to learn from the Russians -- or the Russians had nothing to learn from him: I forget which."

So let us say the same. In "The Sunny Side," Milne's attitude to life is subjective rather than objective, or it is objective rather than subjective, or it is both at once. He is a neo-romanticist, but he has nothing to do with the Russians, nor they to do with him. He is charming, although I'm guessing you knew that already. What I didn't know is that in his writing for adults, Milne balances humor, social observation and an instinct for our foibles -- which is, of course, what he did in his stories about Winnie-the-Pooh. •

david.ulin@latimes.com

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