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from the mixed-up files of mrs. basil e. frankweiler

1 may 2011

From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler is not a very promising title. It sounds 1960s-wacky. Yet few things about E.L. Konigsburg's Newbery Medal novel are dated, aside from its wacky title. It's not wacky in the slightest, for instance (nor are its famous files very mixed-up). It's a perceptive story about children's struggles to realize their individuality. Claudia, the protagonist of Mixed-Up Files, wants to be not just individual but special: the word she uses is "different," which here has none of the condescending associations the word would acquire from use as a euphemism for slowness or strangeness. Claudia wants distinction. And she learns, from the title's Mrs. Frankweiler, that the best distinctions are achieved and savored in secret.

Perhaps that's a limiting lesson. Claudia is a very feminized character. She is aesthetic, arbitrary, motivated less by clear goals than by pique. (At one point, Mrs. Frankweiler, who also serves as narrator, says of one of Claudia's actions that the reason for it is "reason": a departure from Claudia's usual caprice.) And Claudia is by nature reticent, which makes her caprice seem even more capricious. By contrast, her little brother Jamie is both calculating and gregarious. His character notes fit the world of business; Claudia's, like Mrs. Frankweiler's, fit the world of businessmen's wives.

I seem to have argued Mixed-Up Files into some very dated territory indeed. But I should qualify my argument with a key distinction. The setting of Mixed-Up Files is limited, it's true. The novel's world is the upper-middle-class territory of Harriet the Spy and It's Like This, Cat. Its female characters are socialized into a world that undervalues their independence and their expertise. Fair enough.

But the women and girls of Mixed-Up Files are as formidable in getting their expertise as they are in hiding it. Mrs. Frankweiler tells Claudia's story – an unusual narrative device in itself. Even more unusual is Konigsburg's use of a narratee. Mrs. Frankweiler tells the story to her lawyer, Saxonberg. Saxonberg underestimates Mrs. Frankweiler. He is also Claudia's grandfather (a fact we learn late in the narrative, because Mrs. Frankweiler, like the calculating Jamie, plays her cards close to her vest). So Saxonberg underestimates Claudia, too. In fact, we get the sense that Saxonberg (who never appears in his own right) has continued to misunderstand his granddaughter even after Claudia has returned from her weeklong adventure in the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Saxonberg doesn't know why Claudia has run away. Perhaps he thinks that Claudia, like Mrs. Frankweiler herself, is just addicted to being the eternal female. Mrs. Frankweiler sets him straight. Claudia, like her narrator/mentor, is all about empowerment. Her only problem is that it's the 1960s, and it's not all that easy to move from skittish girl to self-actualized woman – certainly not in the eyes of a suburban lawyer.

Another element of Mixed-Up Files that now seems dated, but is really one pole of an eternally oscillating discussion, is the novel's concept of genius. The main plot revolves around the identity of the artist who has sculpted the statue of an angel on display in the Metropolitan. It is "the most beautiful, the most graceful little statue [Claudia] had ever seen" (52). Is the sculpture by Michaelangelo?

If it is the most beautiful and graceful statue one has ever seen, who cares if it's by Michaelangelo? Mrs. Frankweiler asserts that Michaelangelo's "name has magic even now; the best kind of magic because it comes from true greatness" (65). Much of the rest of the novel is taken up with Claudia's efforts to determine whether the Angel was the product of this magical greatness, or just some piece of factory hackwork. Supreme beauty is not enough; true greatness must be accompanied by a supreme signature.

There are many ironies here, not least of which is that Claudia's first impression of the statue makes the most sense.

Why did [the angel] seem so important, and why was she so special? Of course, she was beautiful. Graceful. Polished. But so were many other things at the museum. Her sarcophagus, for example, the one in which her violin case was hidden . . . Why was there all that commotion about her? (53)
The statue's authorship and provenance remain a secret between Mrs. Frankweiler and Claudia (and Jamie, though he's incurious and barely counts). While the art world explodes in "commotion" over the identity of the artist, Claudia seems to realize intuitively that the artwork itself is what counts. She and Mrs. Frankweiler collaborate in a complicated distraction so that they alone can look on beauty bare.

It seems appropriate here to remark that the name "E.L. Konigsburg" shares some of the magic that her narrator attributes to Michaelangelo. Konigsburg's name on the title page (as author and illustrator) is a stamp of quality, much like the mason's mark on the underside of the Angel. But one must be careful not to locate quality in some authorial penumbra. From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler would be a very good book no matter who wrote it – and by any other name.

Konigsburg, E.L. From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler. 1967. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1998.