Far and Wide is the Cut’s practical and fantastical series about exploring.
After I read Middlemarch for the first time, I went through a period where all roads led directly to Middlemarch. It was constantly on my mind, and it seemed constantly appropriate to refer to it. This is fine. Middlemarch is a famous book, and the characters and situations are relatable. It’s normal to bring up Dorothea. The same cannot be said of the casual reference to Froggyland. I have yet to find myself in a conversation where the subject matter warrants my saying, “Yes. This reminds me exactly of a small museum I went to in Split, which features 507 little stuffed frogs arranged in what the brochure describes as ‘human life situations,’ such as playing pool, smoking, lying on a bed of nails, and throwing knives in the circus. The frogs were stuffed via a method that the brochure repeatedly describes as ‘mysterious,’ leaving their little frog bodies intact. We must direct our thanks for all this to Hungarian taxidermist Ferenc Mere, who created the collection between 1910 and 1920.” It is always a non sequitur, and always a problem, because Froggyland obsesses me in the same way that Middlemarch once did. I want to talk about it a lot.
It doesn’t act as any great conversational spur, either. I speak of Froggyland, or I bring out the brochure which I am now using as both a bookmark and a daily reminder that Froggyland exists, and people just say stuff like, “That is so weird.” They say, “That seems like the kind of thing you would like.”
They don’t ask enough questions about the frogs or the motivation for the whole enterprise. They don’t even say, “Where did he get all those frogs from and what kind of a man was he, do you think? Did you get the impression that he was a happy man, or rather did you feel like we must read Froggyland as a document of madness and despair?” I get a brief window to speak about it and then we are back to discussing SIM cards or the bank or how worried we are about absolutely every single thing that is happening in the world. I need more. I feel like a motivational speaker. I feel like I want to stand on a brightly lit stage in an otherwise darkened auditorium like Tom Cruise at the beginning of Magnolia, my crowd before me, except instead of saying whatever it is that Tom Cruise says, I open my mouth and I say, “I am here talk about Froggyland.” I just really want to tell you about it. That’s all.
Froggyland sits directly in the centre of a Venn diagram, where the one circle says “Why would I go to Froggyland” and the other circle says “Why would I not go to Froggyland”. There are compelling arguments to be made for both sides. If you don’t go to Froggyland, then you don’t have to see 507 stuffed frogs being at school, hitting each other with rulers, getting kicked out of bars, rowing, smoking, wearing wigs, and beating their wives. This is really just scratching the surface, but you don’t have to see a child frog getting its tooth pulled out, or an older frog sitting at a sewing machine and gazing up at the ceiling with an expression of utter, utter desolation.
Stop me now and say, “Rosie, how do you think he made a frog look so upset?”
“I have no idea, pal,” I reply, “but it had an expression of great suffering and it looked like it knew that life was entirely without meaning.” Then I carry on.
If you don’t go to Froggyland then you don’t have to see frogs boxing or gambling or dancing with great energy and abandon, their heads thrown back in a kind of angry ecstasy. Dionysian. They are enjoying themselves but you sense that it could turn ugly, quickly. You sense that perhaps Hungarian taxidermist Ferenc Mere turned to frogs after one too many run-ins with the dark side of human nature. Maybe. There is not much known about his life. He should be much more famous, and we should know everything about him, but we do not. The one biographical detail that is repeated in what little is written about him online is that his childhood home was spent next to a pond full of frogs, and that every night he would lie in bed listening to their croaks. Picture the young boy lying there every night, thinking, “One day I will be an autonomous adult, able to do whatever I feel like. The thing I will most feel like doing is capturing over 1,000 garden frogs, and then stuffing them mysteriously through the mouth, and then after that arranging 507 of them in human-life situations. There will be 21 dioramas, and the whole thing will be breathtakingly odd, but beautiful in its way.”
Amphibian taxidermy is incredibly difficult. Frogs are little, and slimy, and their skin breaks very easily. To stuff a frog and leave its skin intact requires extraordinary patience and skill, which means that Froggyland is special not only because it is so, so strange, but because it is the work of a master. Ferenc Mere was at the top of his game, taxidermy-wise. There was no one better at stuffing a frog mysteriously through the mouth and putting a tiny guitar in its hands. I only found out how hard frog taxidermy is after my visit to Froggyland, and I do not believe that knowing it at the time would have enhanced my experience in any way, because there is nothing that could have enhanced my experience.
Froggyland is the best. It’s the weirdest thing I’ve ever seen. Frogs’ bodies are like people’s in a way that you only fully appreciate when you see them dancing or hoeing the fields or participating in any number of other human-life situations. Little hands, little legs, little feet. One of the difficulties of amphibian taxidermy is that you can only ever arrange the frog with its head up, staring at the ceiling. They all look so sad. Every last one of the frogs in Froggyland appears to be undergoing a severe and protracted existential crisis.
I defy anyone to go there and not spend a long time afterward feeling haunted about taxidermy and lonely old men and about the countless and meaningless human-life situations that we have devised in order to keep our attention off the ledge. If you don’t go to Froggyland, you will not have to think these things. If you don’t go, then you don’t have to stand outside on the street, waiting for it to open, and listening to a recorded voice describing the nature of what lies inside. Listen. What is that word she is saying at the end? What kind of word is “Fleh”? What kind of a person would do this? Your mind will be free of this madness.
On the other hand, if you do go to Froggyland, then you will see and hear literally all of these things. I think you should go.