July 4th, 2015
Some Penguin Classics have perfect timing. Not many, as you’d expect, since the line deals primarily in works of literature that are specifically timeless – but in some cases, the when can mean a lot even alongside the what, and today is one of those case: a pretty new Penguin Classics edition of Thomas Paine’s quite literally revolutionary 1776 pamphlet “Common Sense,” here reprinted with the first installment of Paine’s “American Crisis” pamphlets, the whole thing edited and introduced by Revolutionary War historian Richard Beeman (whose 2013 book Our Lives, Our Fortunes, Our Sacred Honor was a lively retelling of the saga of American Independence), who rightly reminds us that “the publication of Common Sense would wholly change the debate over America’s relationship with England and with England’s vaunted ‘constitution.’”
The pamphlet spread through the colonies faster than dysentery; the first edition of Common Sense appeared right at the beginning of 1776, and within weeks, it seemed, every colonist was chattering about it, debating it, hashing choice quotes from it back and forth with increasing fervor. Beeman is far from the first to contend that this little booklet was as effective at stirring colonial hearts to rebellion as were any of the more overt physical provocations of the Sons of Liberty, and the contention might just be correct; a man haranguing you in a tavern can be agreed with and then forgotten, but a booklet enters the mind of its readers, where it can stay and work and replicate.
And the pamphlet’s success was of course entirely born of Paine’s ability to write gripping exhortatory prose at white-hot speed. His key device is to make everything immediately personal to his readers (and hearers – this text was much-declaimed in town squares), whether it be his ridicule of the idea that a small island could have pretensions to rule a sprawling continent, or his lampooning of the whole idea of hereditary monarchy, or his hard, squinting look at the various stances colonists took to his incendiary subject:
Though I would carefully avoid giving unnecessary offence, yet I am inclined to believe, that all those who espouse the doctrine of reconciliation, may be included within the following descriptions. Interested men, who are not to be trusted; weak men, who cannot see; prejudiced men, who will not see; and a certain set of moderate men, who think better of the European world than it deserves; and this last class by an ill-judged deliberation, will be the cause of more calamities to this continent, than all the other three.
Re-reading Common Sense is always electrifying, not least because Paine is so uncannily prescient about so many things (although not about everything; is there an American today, for instance, who doesn’t wince a little at the line, “But the most powerful of all arguments, is, that nothing but independence, i.e. a continental form of government, can keep the peace of the continent and preserve it inviolate from civil wars”?). And while I might quibble with Penguin’s decision to include so little of Paine’s writings in this slim volume (adding the rest of The American Crisis would have killed them?), there’s no arguing with how well the skimpy size of the volume cannily echoes the slight, passed-hand-to-hand nature of the original.
I’m hoping there are at least a few copies of Common Sense in the pockets of the many thousands of spectators who’ll gather on Boston’s Charles River this evening to watch the 4th of July fireworks. The pamphlet was an atom bomb in the Patriot arsenal – it would be nice if reading it were a small part of basking in the independence it did so much to bring about.
July 3rd, 2015
Our book today is Old Friends, a 1909 collection of typically syrupy reminiscences put down on paper by the then-legendary drama critic and theater historian William Winter, who immediately sets about answering the charge of a Boston book-critic that he was a “mere maunder, sodden with lazy idolatry for days gone by.” “Let not those readers suppose that I write as a praiser of the Past, in detraction of the present,” he opens his book by writing, “Reverence for that which is old, only because it is old, has often been imputed to me, always without reason or justice.” But the reassured reader can’t go ten steps without stumbling upon passages like this one:
As I think of those times and persons – serene in a halo of poetic distance and reverie – I breathe once more the fragrant syringa and lilac in the half-forgotten springtime that never can return, and hear the patter of the falling leaf in burnished autumn woods of Long Ago.
But for all the highfalutin airs Winter put on as his years lengthened and his career flourished – there were whole decades during which he was always under contract for two or three books at a time – Winter remained at heart what he’d been in his early days in the early 1850s: one of many deadline hacks working for Dan Haskell, the muttery-voiced, utterly fearless managing editor (and then editor) of the dear old Boston Transcript in its glory days, which Haskell did so much to create. The managing editor kept stacks of new and forthcoming books on a shelf in what passed for his office, and smart young reviewers like Winter were encouraged to pick likely volumes and get straight to work (Haskell had already set aside both the volumes he wanted for himself and the garbage he skimmed for sale). And Winter could certainly work: he turned out reviews at a steady clip and over time met and befriended quite a few of the authors he wrote about – hence the germ of this book.
Here he describes the great and near-great literary figures of his day, and like many a professional prose-appraiser, he’s as often wrong as right about which is which. He praises for undying verse and eternal prose men whose entire works have sunk beneath the years without a trace, whether justly – as in the case of Albert Henry Smyth or Arthur Sketchley – or unjustly, as in the case of Bayard Taylor or James Russell Lowell or Thomas Bailey Aldrich or even the great Oliver Wendell Holmes, who’s drawn with wonderful fidelity:
His countenance, pleasingly eccentric rather than conventionally handsome, and more remarkable for intensity and variety of expression than for regularity of feature, would, at such moments, glow with fervency of emotion; his brilliant eyes would blaze, as with interior light; his little, fragile person, quivering with the passionate vitality of his spirit, would tower with intrinsic majesty; and his voice, clear and sympathetic but neither strong nor deep, would tremble, and sometimes momentarily break, with ardor and impetuosity of feeling, while yet he never lost control of either his metrical fabric, his theme, his sensibility, or his hearers. He was a consummate artist, whether in words or in speech.
Precisely because he was sodden with lazy idolatry for days gone by, Winter can often read like a relic-hungry saint on the road to Compostella. The great figures from his literary past – Wilkie Collins, Charles Dickens, and the like – are illuminated in these pages with devotional candles, although even I have to admit two things: a) Winter got very, very good at striking that particular tone, and b) sometimes, just a little, it actually worked:
I worshipped at the shrine of ideal intellect and beauty. It was a lovely night in May. The river Charles, flowing dreamily in burnished darkness under the faint light of the stars. The winds were hushed. The soft air was laden with the fragrance of lilac and woodbine. At some distance the clock in the old church tower was striking midnight; and I stood at the gate of Longfellow, whither I had come, a stranger and a pilgrim, to lay my hand upon the latch that the poet’s hand had touched.
But the best thing about these sketches (and the same is true ten times over for the huge body of writing about the theater that he generated over fifty years – his book Other Days is worth the search for any dyed-in-the-wool theater buff) is Winter’s journalistic – he would have called it poetic – knack for capturing single moments before they vanish like soap bubbles. I’ve noticed how rare such moments are in the big 800-page biographies of some of the more famous men Winter describes here, which just strengthens me in my opinion that Winter’s books are well and truly forgotten (rather than being “imperishable,” as he himself sometimes called them). These unguarded little moments are scattered liberally throughout Old Friends, and to give him credit, Winter is perfectly aware of their value:
Much can be learned, if you have the privilege of looking at a great man when he is alone, wrapt in thought, and unconscious of observation. I once saw Daniel Webster, a little after dawn of a summer morning, pacing to and fro – no other person in sight and no movement anywhere – at the extreme end of the Long Wharf, in Boston; and the image of that noble figure and leonine face, with its gloomy, glorious eyes, has never faded out of my memory.
Nobody saw that moment in Daniel Webster’s life except Winter, and we owe him a real debt for recording it. The wealth of such moments in Old Friends readily makes up for the Great Man’s pomposity, and for his readiness to forget that he was for years just one avid book-reader and equally avid freelance book-reviewer in Dan Haskell’s wonderful little stable, getting great sandwiches at the shop around the corner, being called “Willy” by his disheveled comrades, selling review copies at the Brattle, and crushing a cup of wine on Friday nights over hot food and cheap wine. It’s a shame that young book-hound didn’t think to write a memoir at the time, but Old Friends, though not as good as young friends, are certainly better than no friends at all.
July 1st, 2015
Some Penguin Classics – including this, the final entrant in our little parade this time around – are eye-opening in a way that a single reprint of a single classic seldom is. Medievalists Ad Putter and Myra Stokes have taken one of keystone works of English literature – Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, beloved by generations of students for its sex and gore but above all for its brevity – and built it into a mighty thousand-page volume that would have undergraduates muttering grimly while they popped their Hello Kitty-flavored grey market antidepressants. A thousand pages! This rapturous new Penguin Classic isn’t Sir Gawain and the Green Night – it’s The Works of the Gawain Poet.
The capstone of those works is of course still Sir Gawain and the Green Night, but this volume also includes the dreamy, haunting, oddly sad poems Pearl, Cleanness, and Patience (it doesn’t include the poem St. Erkenwald, because our editors declare “the evidence for common authorship is inconclusive” – but that evidence is a whole lot more conclusive in this case, on the linguistic and stylistic level, than it is for a quarter of the plays routinely ascribed to Shakespeare; I say it should be included in this volume – I think it’s virtually impossible that the Gawain poet didn’t have at the very least a preponderant hand in St.Erkenwald‘s composition – but I’ll count my blessings either way). Putter and Stokes positively load the texts with footnotes and endnotes pitched at such a perfect range that they will simultaneously help the student and intrigue the expert. And at every stage, they’re careful to illuminate the actual working time period of the Gawain poet a thousand years ago:
Of his personal life, he tells us two things, one probably, the other certainly, true. He indicates in Patience that he had known poverty, which would not be surprising for a cleric who could not progress beyond minor orders. The claim functions partly as a captatio benevolentiae [courting the good will of the hearer], for the poet does not want to dis-implicate himself from the patient endurance of adversity which he preaches. But the rhetorical stratagem would sadly backfire if he were known to be in comfortable circumstances. For things at this period were not as they are today, when a dust jacket can give information on an actual author, between whom and the ‘I’ of his fiction there can be wide discrepancies. Such inconsistencies at this time would have caused confusion to no artistic purpose.
All of the poems are presented, rather daringly, in their original Middle English (very slightly cleaned up), and the array of critical materials dart very nimbly around the Gawain poet’s wide reading – though anonymous, this poet was surely one of the best-read writers of his age – and the end-product effect is to provide readers with something very close to a fourteenth century First Folio. It’s a marvelous performance all around.
June 30th, 2015
Some Penguin Classics would infuriate their authors, and that’s almost always a good thing – certainly so in the case of an absolutely lovely and subtly subversive new volume called When You Are Old: Early Poems, Plays, and Fairy Tales by W. B. Yeats, edited by a Yeats scholar who actually has Yeatsian name: Rob Doggett.
Doggett here very rightly reminds is that “we live in the shadow of Yeats the literary critic, who, in his Autobiographies (1916-1935) and extensive critical writings, did more than perhaps any other modern author to define how future readers should approach his works.” No perhaps about it: the older, snowy-faced, slope-eyed Yeats hated his much younger self, the handsome, lively firebrand who so quickly and deeply impressed a Victorian and Edwardian audience that read far more poetry than the modern era and read it more earnestly and better than all but a handful of readers can do today. It’s Doggett’s aim – here splendidly achieved – to give us “a very different Yeats” from that stooped taoiseach of later years:
Not here the bitter elitist railing against the middle classes during the 1910s or the self-assured high modernist of his late phase, but the young aesthete who dressed as a dandy, founded literary societies in Dublin and London, collected Irish folklore, penned dramatic works about ancient Ireland and the fairies, dabbled in magic, and wrote beautiful poems for Maud Gonne – the Yeats that people first came to know, that some loved, and that nearly all admired.
Seamus Heaney once wrote that it was the endeavor of that older Yeats “not only to create an Irish literature independent of the imperial, empirical sway of Britain; it was also an attempt to launch upon the world a vision of reality that possessed no surer basis than the ground of his own imagining.” And you only have to consider such lunacy for a second to know Heaney’s right. In fact, you can take his comments about ‘a vision of reality that possessed no surer basis than the ground of his own imagining’ and translate it into the common phrasing Heaney was too courteous to use: the older Yeats was a loon.
And that older, hangdog-seer Yeats systematically did something older, hangdog-seer authors are so frequently allowed to do without public censure: he revised his earlier published work. The subject of such literary blasphemy is one of the only points on the spectrum of eternity where I find myself agreeing with Stanley Fish: once a text is published, there it is. It doesn’t matter whether you’re its author or not – you can deride it, you can comment on it, you can clarify it, but once it’s been exposed to the reading public, it belongs to the reading public, and you, the author, are just another critic. Authors who go back to their earlier works and change them, offering “authorized versions” and the like, are not only cowards but also vandals. And although Rob Doggett is every bit as courteous as Seamus Heaney and twice as scholarly (he of course points out how much great poetry the older Yeats wrote), the volume he’s crafted here for Penguin Classics stands as a quiet rebuke of such tactics. Here he includes the 1895 version of Poems, the 1899 version of The Wind Among the Reeds, and, delightfully, the 1902 version of The Celtic Twilight. Here we get Yeats in the glorious morning of his talent, when his ear was by and large sharper, and when his voice was unmuffled by mysticism. It’s an amazing breath of fresh air – indispensable reading for any fan of this poet.
It also demonstrates – though I’m sure such was not kindly Doggett’s intent – that writers who go back and try to change their earlier works always worsen them. Take an example that Doggett himself provides, Yeats’ revised version of a stanza from the 1925 edition of “The Sorrow of Love”:
The brawling of a sparrow in the eaves,
The brilliant moon and all the milky sky,
And all that famous harmony of leaves,
Had blotted out man’s image and his cry
About this, Doggett says “The opening gerund is direct and powerful, the images are romantic but rendered with specificity, and the tone is confident, almost urbane …” All very nice and well-chosen euphemisms, but the version of the poem he prints in this volume is from 1895 and leaves very little doubt what the younger Yeats would have thought of “the tone is confident, almost urbane”:
The quarrel of the sparrows in the eaves,
The full round moon in the star-laden sky,
And the loud song of the ever-singing leaves
Had hid away earth’s old and weary cry.
What can even we “poor plodders in prose” (as one of Yeats’ contemporaries so winningly put it) discern from looking at the two versions side-by-side? Why, that the later ‘revised’ version is much worse, of course. A singular sparrow all alone cannot ‘brawl'; the fact that a sky is full of stars doesn’t make it ‘milky’ unless you’ve thought about it much, much too much (and ‘milky’ conflicts with ‘brilliant’ in any case – the moon’s light is white; how can it be ‘brilliant’ against a ‘milky’ background?); the ‘harmony’ of leaves is called ‘famous’ even though no previous poet had commented on it, let alone made it famous – and why is it called that? Because the older Yeats knew that he himself had made it famous – not through an observation of the natural world, but through the success Poems had selling in Dublin bookshops; and the reader is left wondering how a harmony of leaves can blot out an image – when’s the last time you saw a sound blot out an image? I’ll give you a hint: it’s something that happens to old people all the time. The earlier, original version of the stanza is by contrast lovely in all its parts, and the parts make sense because they came hot from the poet’s first imagining. Sparrows quarrel, ‘star-laden’ and ‘hid away’ are pure and evocative (an unthinking song ‘hid away’ a weak old song), the whole thing is, as Doggett points out, languidly sensuous in a way the later “this is what I really meant” elephantine pondering most certainly isn’t.
When You Are Old is a precious gift to readers: it gives them a William Butler Yeats that the older poet would have preferred the forget, or never meet in the first place. This volume would have exasperated that older poet, the pompous bastard, and that’s recommendation enough. As that younger Yeats so clearly put it, “a wolf is better than a carrion crow.”
June 27th, 2015
Some Penguin Classics are themselves every bit as fascinating a tale as anything they reprint. It doesn’t often happen that more provenance will furnish a story worth telling – certainly it doesn’t happen often in the Penguin Classics line, where the typical sequence of events goes something like this: Henry James finishes a nice lunch (soup, of course), boxes up the definitive, can’t-get-any-more-gassy edition of his latest 600-page opus about a well-dressed young woman changing her mind about somethng, hands the box to a trusted (young, comely, male) courier, and shortly thereafter receives a cable from his publisher announcing the safe arrival of the manuscript. It’s then printed without any emendations, duly impresses Edmund Wilson, and is eventually indoctrinated into the Library of the America James abandoned in order to save a few dollars on his taxes. That edition then swims contentedly from Penguin Classic to Penguin Classic, reprint to reprint, sometimes with a John Singer Sargent cover, other times with a J. M. W. Turner cover. For generations of readers (voluntary or in), whatever thrill that edition has will come from James doing his thing for page after page after page. Nobody will be interested in the courier, or the box.
Not so some Penguins, however! Some Penguins feature manuscripts etched in prison darkness or on the surging main, scribbled on clammy beds as a final illness gathers strength, or hammered out on an old typewriter with the sound of warfare on the near horizon. Some books, in other words, come with their own thrilling biographies of chances nearly missed (think of that one surviving copy of Catullus escaping Christian bonfires in a Verona library) or discoveries aided only by the thinnest of serendipities. These volumes elicit an extra sigh of gratitude no work of Henry James will ever hear.
One of the newest Penguin Classics is just such a volume: a collection called The Turnip Princess and Other Newly Discovered Fairly Tales, a group of “new” fairy tales assiduously collected by an amateur folklorist (and fan of the Brothers Grimm) named Franz Xaver von Schonwerth in the 19th century and then found, much later, by a heroically beetling bibliophile named Erika Eichenseer, who found von Schonwerth’s labors locked away in a municipal archive in Regensburg, Germany. She read them, sorted them, organized them, and presented them to the world in a 2010 selection called Prinz Rofzwifl (which translates to Prince Dung Beetle and instantly raises the question of why on Earth the folks at Penguin didn’t go with that absolutely stellar title for this volume).
That collection is now a Penguin Classic: The Turnip Princess here presents seventy-odd items from von Schonwerth’s vast treasure-trove of tales (this book could easily have been three times its present size, which raises another question about its current incarnation), giving fairy tale fans a huge mass of the stuff they like best. It’s like walking into a bookstore and finding an extra volume of Hans Christian Anderson that you’ve never seen before; it’s like a third volume of Homer, suddenly Fed-Exed from Regensburg.
They come with intriguing titles like “Seven With One Blow!” “Learning How to Steal” “What the Moon Tried to Wear” “In the Jaws of the Merman” and yes, “Prince Dung Beetle.” And most of them are intensely reminiscent of the brutal, insanely irrational, merrily bloodthirsty world of the more familiar fairy tales before Disney gets its hands on them. Take as just one example the story “The Wolves,” in which a princess hides from her prince the fact that she’s given birth to a veritable litter of baby boys (she’s worried that he’ll believe he’s been serially cuckolded). She orders her handmaid to dump the babies at the nearest wolf’s lair, but the prince, out hunting, intercepts the woman and has the boys raised with a trusted subject. And then:
Eighteen years went by, and the prince was planning a grand feast. Seven boys with long hair, all equally handsome and dressed alike, appeared at the feast. The princess could feel her heart pounding when she set eyes on the boys, and she began to tremble.
During the meal the prince jokingly asked how to punish a mother who throws her sons to the wolves. “She should dance to death in red-hot iron shoes,” was the answer. And so the princess condemned herself to that very punishment. The prince acknowledged the boys as his legitimate children, and they became known as “the wolves.”
Such a cheery little ditty! And the darkest detail goes unsaid: it was, of course, the boys themselves who suggested the gruesome punishment – a punishment meted out two decades after the original offense, an offense where no harm at all was done. The Grimm Brothers would have been proud.
June 25th, 2015
Some Penguin Classics Deluxe Editions really outdo themselves – in fact, it’s coming to be my impression that most of them do. At first, I tended to bridle at their highly individualistic appearances – specially-commissioned cover illustrations (many of which are highly stylized), French flaps, deckle edges – it all seems like post-Vatican II guitars-in-church low-key heresy committed against the stately grandeur of the traditional simple black spines and classic art-reproduction cover illustrations I knew and loved. But the wonderful work that went into these volumes – the stellar editorial decisions in terms of which books to include (although here, as everywhere, there was the usual bracken of Graham Greene and Jack Kerouac) and also that varied aesthetic itself (if you put a large selection of these books all together on one shelf, you’ll be very pleased with the result – and you’ll be pleased in a very different way than when you put a bunch of the old black spines together on one shelf) – it all gradually won me over. Now I love seeing what the folks at Penguin will “Deluxe” next.
Very recently it was Lewis Carroll’s perennial crowd-pleasers, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking-Glass, together in one eye-catching volume designed by Paul Buckley and featuring cover illustrations by “Bakea” that really capture the frightening edge of books’ familiar fantasies. Seeing these, I feared even so stylish an innovation would be taken too far, but no – I sighed with relief upon seeing that the actual text of the books is still lavished with the great John Tenniel black-and-white illustrations that have become synonymous with these stories.
The stories themselves never worked their magic on me, I must confess, and in true Roman Catholic form, I blamed them for that fact for the longest time. In recent decades, through patient re-reading, I’ve come to appreciate how well-crafted they are and have thus stopped condemning them out of hand – but they still don’t work any magic on me. I consider this a bit strange – to put it mildly, the imaginative flights of the Victorians tend to work their way straight to my heart and stay there, beating in time, year after year; here at Stevereads, I’ve made no secret of my love for Kipling’s The Jungle Books or Tennyson’s Idylls of the King, and if you were to visit Hyde Cottage and crush a cup of wine with me, I wouldn’t require much prodding to confess that I consider Robert Louis Stevenson better than Shakespeare. This kind of idolatry never happened for me with Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, and I suspect it’s a result, fittingly enough, of early exposure: I think I came to these books much too late for them to cast their magic.
Not so Charlie Lovett, who does the Introduction for this volume! The author the wonderful The Bookman’s Tale, he reveals here that he fell in love with Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland as a child, listening to a scratchy recording of the text performed by a British actor. “Thus began a lifelong love of Alice – a book that seemed so suited to me as a child and proved equally suited as I moved through adolescence to adulthood.”
And – again, appropriately enough considering the baroque insanity of the realm Alice encounters – Lovett goes on to describe the happy loss of his own sanity down that deepest rabbit-hole of them all: book collecting:
As a young man I became interested in book collecting, having scouted editions of Robinson Crusoe for my father’s growing collection of that title. Remembering those days spent with Alice, I decided that her adventures might make a good subject for collection. I had never actually read the books – only listened to them – and I knew nothing about their author. I remember reading them for the first time and discovering sentences that had been obscured by skips in my records. Over the past thirty years, my collection has grown to include hundreds of editions of the Alice books, all of Lewis Carroll’s other books, many of his rare pamphlets, playbills, and theater posters, films, and recordings, and a large collection of biographical and critical editions.
“Hundreds of editions of the Alice books” … as Patrick O’Brian’s Jack Aubrey might say, “Mad Hatters ain’t in it …”
June 24th, 2015
Some Penguin Classics hinge on a fantastic, cinema-worthy moment in American oratory and history. You can see it in their volume of the Selected Speeches and Letters of John Quincy Adams, which features his stirring, epic 1841 speech before the Supreme Court on behalf of the African slaves of the Amistad – oh wait, no you can’t, because Penguin doesn’t publish the Selected Speeches and Letters of John Quincy Adams. Well, then, you can turn to the Penguin Classic Speeches and Addresses of Robert Ingersoll, in which the great orator’s thundering denunciations of the evils of organized religion are presented in all their glory … oh wait, no you can’t, because Penguin doesn’t publish the Selected Speeches and Addresses of Robert Ingersoll. Well, lacking such options, you can certainly open the Penguin Classics volume That Man May Be Free: The Collected Writings of William Lloyd Garrison and read there the literally death-defying rhetorical performances Garrison wrought in print for the cause of racial equality … oh wait, no, no – hmmmmm.
But now, thanks to Penguin Classics and editor Mark Perry, readers lacking those volumes (but not at all lacking a wide selection of the literary excrudescences of Graham Greene) can certainly avail themselves of On Slavery and Abolitionism, the essays and letters of Sarah and Angelina Grimke, two 19th century daughters of the Southern slave-owning aristocracy who renounced that heritage, converted to Quakerism, and became passionate and eloquent abolitionists. And at the heart of On Slavery and Abolitionism is one such fantastic, cinema-worthy moment: on 21 February 1838, Angelica Grimke climbed the steps to the Massachusetts Statehouse in order to deliver an address about the evils of slavery. Word of her talk had spread, and a huge crowd had gathered in and around the building one of Boston’s most famous citizens would later dub the “Hub of the solar system.” Grimke – the first woman ever to address such a gathering in Boston – gave her speech (reproduced in full in this volume from newspaper accounts), which was full of impassioned oratory:
I stand before you as a southerner, exiled from the land of my birth by the sound of the lash, and the piteous cry of the slave … I stand before you as a moral being … and as a moral being I feel that I owe it to the suffering slave, and to the deluded master, to my country and the world, to do all that I can to overturn a system of complicated crimes, built up upon the broken hearts and prostrate bodies of my countrymen in chains, and cemented by the blood and sweat and tears of my sisters in bonds.
And as Perry relates it, the aftermath was memorable:
Angelina Grimke spoke for two hours on that February day in 1838. A silence greeted her last words as she defiantly eyed the legislators seated before her. But then, and much to her own surprise, those in the seats behind her, and in the galleries, rose in a thunderous applause.
(Perry’s account leans heavily on Gerda Lerner’s 1967 book The Grimke Sisters from South Carolina, and on the strength of his praise I found a copy and read it – and it’s a true gem)
This important Penguin volume – among other things, it’ll be a godsend in college classes, as will a couple of other items in this week of Penguins on Parade – includes as generous a helping of the writings of the Grimke sisters as has ever appeared in a popular paperback, and of course the interracial tensions they speak to haven’t exactly vanished from the American scene, which can prompt Perry to moments of bathos, as when he tells us, “And so it is, in reading the works of Angelina and Sarah Grimke contained in this volume, we extol their work and beliefs, though not simply because they were southerners and women. But because they were Americans.”
They were indeed, as were their colleagues near and far in the struggle. All those colleagues deserve their own Penguin Classics, but as the Grimke sisters frequently taught, patience is a virtue.
June 23rd, 2015
Some Penguin Classics are so big and so impressive that it’s astounding they’re not better known to the general English-reading public, and surely La Regenta, the massive 1885 Spanish novel by Leopoldo Alas – issued in this big 1984 Penguin trade paperback but still almost entirely unknown to the Republic of Letters. I recently found a copy (you’ll never guess where) and spent an evening re-reading it in this splendid, almost opulently confident John Rutherford translation, starting, of course, with the book’s peculiarly sun-struck opening lines:
The city of heroes was having a nap. The south wind, warm and languid, was coaxing grey-white clouds through the sky and breaking them up as they drifted along. The streets of the city were silent, except for the rasping whispers of whirls of dust, rags, straw and paper on their way from gutter to gutter, pavement to pavement, street corner to street corner, now hovering, now chasing after one another, like butterflies which the air envelops in its invisible folds, draws together, and pulls apart.
The book is the story of that “city of heroes” and its varied, somewhat disreputable inhabitants, including the main character, a frustrated woman whose search for fulfillment in love is what prompted the book’s original critics to compare it to Madame Bovary – and to condemn it accordingly. You’d think such condemnation would have guarantee the book a wider audience than it got, but as far as I can tell, Penguin Classics has only given it two printings – this one and one later one.
Of course, poor Ana isn’t the book’s only standout character, far from it – my own favorite is the hapless and openly Dickensian priest Fermin, who never fails to bring out our author’s best – and most playful – prose:
Don Fermin was not in the habit of contemplating the serene night, although he had been at one time, long ago, in the Jesuits’ College, in the seminary, and during the first years of his life as a priest, when his health had been delicate and he had been prey to that sadness and those scruples which used to eat away at his soul. Later, life made a man of him and he had followed in the footsteps of his mother, a peasant woman who could see in the countryside nothing but the exploitation of the land. That which in books was called poetry had died in him years ago – oh yes, many years ago! The stars? How seldom he contemplated them since he had become a canon!
“La Regenta, rich in wit and humour, is also a work of intense moral seriousness,” Rutherford writes in his Introduction, and it’s true: there are plenty of moods in this big, intensely readable book, and there’s a variety of tones sufficient to warrant the comparisons it’s always received with Don Quixote. But the real comparison to make here – when we’re not being geographically lazy, mind you – is with Anna Karenina.
June 22nd, 2015
Some Penguin Classics feel like perpetual surprises – a bomb in a hymnal, as Sir Kenneth Clark might have written – and that certainly applies to Madame de Lafayette’s 1678 novel The Princess of Cleves, the short but untiringly punchy story of the elegant Mme de Cleves, a fixture at the splendid court of the French king Henri II. It’s a setting our author wastes no time in setting up as almost parody-worthy:
At no time in France were splendour and refinement so brilliantly displayed as in the last years of the reign of Henri II. The monarch was courteous, handsome and fervent in love; though his passion for Diane de Poitiers, Duchesse de Valentinois, had lasted for above twenty years, it was no less ardent, and the tokens he gave of it were no less exquisite.
Since he excelled at every sort of physical exercise, he made that his main occupation. Every day there was hunting and tennis, dancing, tilting at rings or similar pastimes. The colours and ciphers of Mme de Valentinois were everywhere to be seen, as she was herself, attired in a manner that might have befitted her grand-daughter, Mlle de la Marck, who was then of marriageable age.
Reading or re-reading The Princess of Cleves after a setup like that always, as noted, brings surprises. I just recently re-read the book and was struck by this fact over and over; our clever author is forever establishing the tableaux of a proto-romance and then sweeping those tableaux aside with a well-mannered ironic chuckle. The book’s main character, Mme de Cleves, is tormented by her ungovernable passions for a man who’s not her equal nor suitable for her, and both she and her intended husband and the object of her passion, the Duc de Nemours, are politely tortured by Mme de Lafayette for the 150-something pages of a book so quietly unnerving that she found it expedient to deny her authorship rather strenuously.
Some of the textual reasons for the low-boil scandal of the book are hinted at in this Penguin volume’s wonderful Introduction by the great French translator, the late Robin Buss:
The more one considers the moral of this book, the less ‘moral’ it seems. Like affairs of state, which are subject to sudden and disastrous change as the result of a trivial accident such as the death of Henri II, the lives of individuals are tragically determined by fate and by circumstance. Within these constraints, people act, driven by egotism and impulse, rather than by virtue or moral imperatives, and are punished for disregard of social, rather than religious taboos. If Mme de Cleves is heroic, it is not because she is virtuous, but because in the end she chooses the one course that will permit her to preserve her integrity and to remain, relatively, free.
Buss was entirely too eager to draw connection-lines between The Princess of Cleves and the gloppy bouillabaisse of Proust, and there’s a bit of that even in this Introduction – but actually Mme de Lafayette is the progenitor of an entirely different, entirely opposite genealogy of French literature: the bearable branch. And SO much of that starts with this book, plainly writing things that aren’t plain, and calmly developing into things that are entirely predictable and yet continue to surprise.
June 20th, 2015
Our book today is Sebastian Junger’s 2010 book War, which I read at a gallop when it first appeared and which I initially disliked for what I took to be facile grandstanding on the part of the author. I went into the book with the best of dispositions, helped along by the stunning cover photos by the great Tim Hetherington: the front cover showing the eye of a very young man and the back cover showing a bright-sun tangle of muscular American soldiers grappling with each other like a living re-enactment of Leonardo’s The Battle of Anghiari. But something in the tone of Junger’s writing, combined with the ubiquity of his square-jawed mug throughout the book looking just so artfully begrimed, soured the reading experience for me as I went along. I’ve always had a low tolerance for the Christopher Hitchens kind of foreign correspondent, helicoptering to hot spots, roughing it without handlers or hair products for a week, then helicoptering back out to do a four-page spread for the glossies on life in the shit. And as I read War, I kept barking my shins on just these kinds of affectations – until finally I sprinted to the end of the book in a fog of irritation.
I recently found a very cheap copy of the book, however, and I felt a pang of guilt at this over-and-settled reaction, especially since I remembered how amply supplied the book was with Junger’s signature punchy writing, this time in the service of the 173rd Airborne in the very worst part of a bad country:
The Korengal Valley is sort of the Afghanistan of Afghanistan: too remote to conquer, too poor to intimidate, too autonomous to buy off. The Soviets never made it past the mouth of the valley and the Taliban didn’t dare go in there at all. When 10th Mountain rolled into the valley in 2006, they may well have been the first military force ever to reach its southern end. They were only down there a day, but that push gave 10th Mountain some breathing room to finish building the KOP at the site of an old lumber-yard three miles in. The lumberyard was not operational because the Afghan government had imposed a ban on timber exports, in large part because the timber sales were helping fund the insurgency. Out-of-work timber cutters traded their chainsaws for weapons and shot at the Americans from inside bunkers made out of the huge cedar logs they could no longer sell.
And sure enough, this re-reading – done more calmly and more forgivingly than the first – showed me set-piece gems I’d overlooked the first time. Hyperventilating critics hailed the thing as one of the greatest pieces of writing about men in combat ever written (such talk didn’t exactly do wonders for my attitude at the time), but this time around I was able to remind myself that Junger never said that; he just presented what he’d seen while stationed with his platoon. I was struck by how many vivid scenes the book contains:
The men spend the last hours of daylight packing their gear and making sure their ammo racks are correctly rigged. Chuck Berry is playing on someone’s laptop inside the brick-and-mortar. Donoho helps Rice adjust his rack, cinching it down in the back until it’s balanced and snug. Rice’s assault pack weighs seventy pounds and his weapon, ammo, and body armor will be at least another forty or fifty on top of that. Buno has a pack that looks so heavy, Rueda can’t resist coming over and trying to lift it. Moreno bets Hijar ten bucks that Hoyt can’t do twenty pull-ups on one of the steel girders in their barracks. He does, barely. The men paint their faces with greasepaint but Patterson makes them wipe it off and then they just sit and talk and go through the slow, tense countdown until the birds arrive. Some men listen to music. Some just lie on their cots staring at the ceiling. In some ways the anticipation feels worse than whatever may be waiting for them down in Yaka Chine or up on the Abas Ghar, and every man gets through it in his own quietly miserable way.
I often comment that one of the many unsettling things about novels is the way they can shift and squirm in your mind long after you read them, as shards and facets work their way through your imagination. And I often follow up that comment with an exclamation of relief that nonfiction isn’t the same way; you read a book on Subject A, you assess it against all the previous books on Subject A, and you hold it in your mind in preparation for the next book on Subject A. And because Subject A never itself changes, the writing skills of each historian of it come into greater and more easily calibrated light (the process can actually become easier the more well-known the subject is; Stacy Schiff’s forthcoming book on the Salem Witch Trials being a perfect case in point). But War actually shifted and squirmed around on me while I was away from it and certain I knew what I thought about it. There’s a lot more here than I originally credited – and it was a nettlesome pleasure to discover that.