June 27th, 2015

Penguins on Parade: The Turnip Princess!


penguin turnip princessSome 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 lucy reads about the turnip princesswoman 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

Penguins on Parade: The Deluxe Alice in Wonderland!


penguin aliceSome 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 alice flapover. 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 alice pageRoman 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 lucy down the rabbit holeencounters – 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

Penguins on Parade: The Grimke Sisters!


penguin classics grimke sistersSome 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 lucy reads grimkeclasses, 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

Penguins on Parade: La Regenta!


penguin la regentaSome 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 lucy reads la regentaout 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

Penguins on Parade: The Princess de Cleves!


penguin princess of clevesSome 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 lucy reads the princess of clevesRobin 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

Sebastian Junger’s WAR!

junger - warOur 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 hetheringtoncan 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.

June 18th, 2015

Comics! A mixed bag!

superman wonderwoman1Comics this week were a mixed bag as always. I bought issue # 18 of the Superman/Wonder Woman ongoing series mainly based on the stark drama of the cover, on which two young men in Superman and Wonder Woman costumes are regarding each other with grim expressions. On the inside, it turns out the issue takes place in some kind of radical alternate continuity in which a) Superman has no cape and can’t fly (indeed, seems to have largely his 1930s power-set), b) Superman’s secret identity as Clark Kent has been revealed to the entire world, and c) not only has some super-villain stolen the old Kent Family farm house from Smallville, that same somebody has also stolen the buried corpses of Ma and Pa Kent. It’s a wacky what-if story writer Peter Tomasi has concocted (with good but very grim artwork by by Doug Mahnke, depicting Superman as a no-nonsense mid-30s tobacco addict superman3European runway model), and I’ll probably buy the next issue just to see how the whole mess comes out.

The usual arrogant-asshole “New 52” Superman was front and center in the plot of the first issue of Justice League of America, written and drawn by fan-favorite artist Bryan Hitch. The bit of plot revealed in this issue is boringly familiar from the Bryan Hitch/Warren Ellis school of Impossibly Enormous Evil Threats Dreamt Up While High – some evil thing is stalking its way through parallel dimensions wiping them out/enslaving them/popping all their eyeballs, and that evil thing is on its way to our Earth, and only the good guys stand in jla1its way, yadda yadda yadda. How’s Hitch put it this time around? Ah right:

I can tell you that the whole future is going to end. Whatever is coming is going to change everything. The future, the present, and the past. It’s already happening. We are already part of it. Your death is tied up in this, like a fixed beacon in time, across all time. A universal extinction level event and the shockwave reaches back to the beginning of time.

It’s entirely possible that Hitch is the only person left in the comics world who doesn’t realize that you can’t really keep doing this kind of End of Everything EverEverEver thing more than once without it becoming comical. And the gimmick is undercut right in this issue, since some unrelated bad guys spring the old Superman villain the Parasite (he absorbs energies and superpowers on contact) on the Justice League – and he proceeds to mop the floor with them. Just the one Superman villain nearly dismantles the team without really trying – which doesn’t really speak well to the jla2team’s ability to handle a universal extinction level event going back to the beginning of time.

The only Marvel comic I bought this week was a spin-off of the company’s new “Battleworld” continuity-revamping mini-series event. It’s called Thors and features a script by Jason Aaron and artwork by the great Chris Sprouse – and the gimmick is that in this alternate thors 1continuity (I think it’s alternate – who can really tell anymore?) all the various versions of the comic book character Thor that have appeared in Marvel comics over the years. I soaked up the great artwork, but I couldn’t help noticing that one variation of Thor was entirely missing from the issue: the blond, clean-shaven heroic version who starred in Thor comics for fifty years. The Thor I’ve chronicled here at Stevereads for years now. I’d have loved to see Chris Sprouse draw that iconic character – maybe next time.

June 18th, 2015

Tears (of Laughter?) in the Penny Press!

bunch-of-magazines1Sometimes, a New Yorker cartoon captures things just about perfectly:

new yorker

June 16th, 2015

Cordwainer Smith in the Summertime!

cordwainer smithThe beginning of summer’s long-delayed genuine warmth is a strong mnemonic trigger, effortlessly peeling back years and bringing treasured old reading experiences back to the forefront of memory. For me, many moons ago, summer was always a time for science fiction and fantasy – no idea why, since I read ample amounts of it in all other seasons too, but the start of this summer of 2015 randomly reminded me that it’s been a solid forty years since the summer of 1975, when I first encountered the science fiction of Cordwainer Smith.

The guiding lights at Ballantine Books, bless them, were for a short time hell-bent on bringing all the sci-fi of Cordwainer Smith out in colorful paperbacks for, it was certainly hoped, a wider audience than this author had ever had before – maybe in an attempt to elevate him above the “cult” status that was all he’d achieved before then.

Whatever the reasoning behind those wonderful reprint volumes was, I found a littleinstrumentality of mankind blue paperback of The Best of Cordwainer Smith when it first appeared in the metal spinner-rack at Trow’s Stationary, brought it to my favorite summer reading-place, surrounded myself with beagles, and was drawn into the stories so completely that I forgot all about the heat of the day (and read late, late into the night by lantern light). And my own curiosity about this “Cordwainer Smith” person was echoed by Fred Pohl in his Introduction to the 1979 Smith collection The Instrumentality of Mankind:

“Cordwainer Smith” forsooth! The instant question that burned in my mind was who lay behind that disguise. Henry Kuttner had played hide-and-seek games with pennames in those days. So had Robert A. Heinlein, and “Scanners Live in Vain” seemed inventive enough, and good enough, to do credit to either of them. But it wasn’t in the style, or any of the styles, that I had associated with them. Besides, they denied it. Theodore Sturgeon? A. E. van Vogt? No, neither of them. Then who?

the best of c smithThe Introduction to the 1975 volume The Best of Cordwainer Smith opens with a masterful bit of summary and deduction by J. J. Pierce, who pieces together the facts and basic outline of Paul Lineberger, the man who worked under the pen-name of Cordwainer Smith – an author, poet, and Sinologist who was born in 1913 and died in 1966, never sought the limelight, and whose sprawling invented science fiction worlds so obviously hinted at a backstory that, as Pierce points out, readers will never have fully dramatized:

Smith’s universe remains infinitely greater than our knowledge of it – we shall never know what empire once conquered Earth and brought tribute up that fabulous boulevard [in “Alpha Ralpha Boulevard”]; nor the identity of the Robot, the Rat, and the Cop, whose visions are referred to in Norstrilia and elsewhere; nor what ultimately becomes of the cat-people created in “The Crime and Glory of Commander Suzdal.” … The world of Cordwainer Smith will always retain its enigmas. But that is part of its appeal. In reading his stories, we are caught up in experiences as real as life itself – and just as mysterious.

The incompleteness frustrated the hell of out me when I was first eagerly reading these stories (I very much doubt that I’m the only person who’s ever indulged in “Instrumentality” pastiche fiction), but nowadays, at age 28, I tend to agree with Pierce: the hints at some much bigger sense of organization add an allure to these stories.

norstriliaAnd the stories themselves are so bracingly brilliant, from Smith’s standout debut “Scanners Live in Vain” to “Alpha Ralpha Boulevard” to the terrifying “Mother Hitton’s Littul Kittons” to “Think Blue, Count Two” to “The Colonel Came Back from Nothing-at-All” to “The Dead Lady of Clown Town” in which even so far-flung a bastion of humanity as a world orbiting Fomalhaut can still dance to the ancient rhythms of human biology:

Human flesh, older than history, more dogged than culture, has its own wisdom. The bodies of people are marked with the archaic ruses of survival, so that on Fomalhaut III, Elaine herself preserved the skills of ancestors she never even thought about – those ancestors who, in the incredible and remote past, had mastered terrible Earth itself. Elaine was mad. But there was a part of her which suspected she was mad.

The brutally clean, orderly world overseen by the Instrumentality of Mankind (calm,quest of three worlds emotionless super-telepaths) has flourished for thousands of years on the ruins and sub-strata of barbaric previous eras, and the Lords of the Instrumentality very much prefer it that way, as they try to explain to Lord Sto Odin in “Under Old Earth”:

Who can fly anywhere today without seeing that net of enormous highways? Those roads are ruined, but they’re still here. You can see the abominable things quite clearly from the moon. Don’t think about the roads. Think of the millions of vehicles that ran on those roads, the people filled with greed and rage and hate, rushing past each other with their engines on fire. They say that fifty thousand a year were killed on the roads alone, We would call that a war. What people they must have been, to rush day and night and to build things which would help other people to rush even more! They were different from us. They must have been wild, dirty, free. Lusting for life, perhaps, in a way that we do not. We can easily go a thousand times faster than they ever went, but who, nowadays, bothers to go?

In addition to the volumes of short stories, Ballantine also published Cordwainer Smith’s great novel Norstrilia, one of the all-time best science fiction novels ever written – with its attention-commanding opening sections about the unlikely centrality lucy reads cordwainer smithof the rough-and-tumble planet Norstrilia:

The place? That’s Old North Australia. What other place could it be? Where else do the farmers pay ten million credits for a handkerchief, five for a bottle of beer? Where else do people lead peaceful lives, untouched by militarism, on a world which is booby-trapped with death and things worse than death. Old North Australia has stroon – the santaclara drug – and more than a thousand other planets clamor for it. But you can only get stroon from Norstrilia – that’s what they call it, for short – because it is a virus which grows on enormous, gigantic, misshapen sheep. The sheep were taken from Earth to start a pastoral system; they ended up as the greatest of imaginable treasures. The simple farmers became simple billionaires, but they kept their farming ways. They started tough and they got tougher. People get pretty mean if you rob them and hurt them for almost three thousand years. They get obstinate. They avoid strangers, except for sending out spies and a very occasional tourist. They don’t mess with other people, and they’re death, death inside out and turned over twice, if you mess with them.

I recently burrowed through my moldering science fiction paperback collection (not with the kindest of intentions, I admit) and found all over again my trusty handful of Cordwainer Smith paperbacks and indulged myself in re-reading these great stories on a warm evening – no beagles this time, but all the rest of the wonder remained joyfully intact, I found.

June 13th, 2015

Six Compact Lives!


2015 has been blessedly full of whoppingly huge new biographies, and I’ve read as many of them as I could (and I’ve got my lustful eye on the remainder, hoping to devour them before the year ends). I unabashedly love whoppingly huge biographies, but they have one drawback: their printed versions take up a hell of a lot of shelf-space.

When it comes to new books, I increasingly solve this problem in the most effective way possible: I eschew printed versions in favor of electronic ones, which take up no shelf-space, gather no dust, tempt no mice, and fill no crates on moving-day. My trusty e-reader is always with me, fits snugly in my hand, and requires no pen and paper in order to accommodate all the notes I care to write.

But there’s a gap in the e-book world, and it’s a big one, and I doubt anything will ever close it: vast swaths of books printed prior to the digitization of everything never got formatted as e-books and, given their swarms of millions of titles, likely never will. Thanks to Project Gutenberg, thousands and thousands of public-domain titles from Ye Olden Times are available as free and neatly-formatted e-books. And thanks to the demands of the modern market, you can be sure a big new biography of Ronald Reagan or (potato, potahto) Genghis Khan will have a near-simultaneous publication in electronic form. But a 1996 biography of King Alfred the Great? Or a 50-year-old study of historical references in the Sidney Psalter? Digitization requires at least the ghost of a profit motive, and these and countless similar books don’t have one.

So as much as I love a nice full electronic library (I allow myself a discreet $200 a month for e-books), I find my shelves of printed biographies quite full. But one way to manage the space, I’ve found, is to find compact paperbacks of as many mid-range biographies as possible – not the classics, the ones I turn to often, the ones I read as works of literature and not just works of reference, but the ones that fill out a library. Compact lives! Usually printed on cheaper paper and with cheaper bindings, but often representing huge amounts of valuable work on their subjects. Take six examples:

raleighSir Walter Raleigh by Raleigh Trevelyan – This 2002 life of the famed Elizabethan courtier, explorer, and chronic malcontent is one of four Raleigh biographies I currently own; it was published by Penguin, and it’s full of Trevelyan’s spirited evaluations of this staple of historical fiction:

There was nothing effeminate about him. The extravagance and richness of his clothes vastly annoyed his contemporaries, but were part of his attraction for the Queen, who of course could dress far more bizarrely. His armour might be of silver, studded with pearls, diamonds and rubies. He had certainly committed some terrible cruelties in the past, but mostly under orders. He was a byword for vanity and ambition, and was accused of being ‘damnably proud’.

Queen Victoria: A Personal History by Christopher Hibbert – This Harper victoria hibbertCollins 2001 has neither the sardonic wit of Lytton Strachey nor the heft of Stanley Weintraub nor the odd, chatty wisdom of Lady Longford, but I’m a die-hard fan of jack-of-all-trades Hibbert (I have approximately 150 of his 745 books), and I love his zest and his ability to pull great quotes from his encyclopedic lifetime’s reading:

On the evening of the Queen’s death, the novelist, Henry James, had come out of the Reform Club into Pall Mall. The streets around it seemed to him ‘strange and indescribable'; passers-by spoke in hushed tones as though they were frightened. It was, for him, ‘a very curious and unforgettable impression’. He had not expected to be so moved, since it was, after all, ‘a simple running down of the old used up watch’, the death of an old widow who had thrown ‘her good fat weight into the scales of general decency’.

swift nokesJonathan Swift: A Hypocrite Reversed by David Nokes – This 1985 book from Oxford was for years and years my go-to biography of Swift. The appearance of Leo Damrosch’s biography in 2013 changed that, but Nokes’ book is still a treasure-trove of Swiftiana, and the author’s own analyses are of course unchanged in their wonderful rigor:

Throughout his life Swift adhered to an ideal of conservative humanism which saw specialization itself as a first dangerous step towards that distorted simplification of complex human phenomena which characterized the views of all factions and fanatics. I have therefore attempted to present a portrait of the whole man in his multifarious roles as satirist, politician, churchman and friend and, in particular, have sought to re-establish the balance between his public and private lives which has been missing from some other recent biographies.

Caesar by Christian Meier – Fontana Press brought out this version (translated from caesarthe German by David McLintock) in 1995, and it’s something like the eighth or tenth Julius Caesar biography I own – and it’s of course up against some fierce competition, since Caesar is one of those subjects that tends to bring out the best in even the hacks who write about him (a perfect case-in-point being the volume actually titled Caesar in Colleen McCullough’s series of novels set in ancient Rome; it’s the only book in the series that rises to the level of ‘readable’). Meier can be a leaden writer, but even he is often moved to some nifty insights:

Caesar and his opponents thus represented two disparate realities: the old reality, which had once been the whole and was suddenly reduced to a part, and the new, which had detached itself from the old and could hardly have been realigned with it even if war had been avoided – so wide was the gap, so great the mutual alienation. It was this disparity that characterized the situation – not just conflicting interests, mistrust, fear, hatred, or the pathological exaggeration of individual pretensions.

charles IICharles II by Ronald Hutton – This 1989 volume (also from Oxford) doesn’t actually illustrate the above-mentioned rule about keeping the second-tier also-rans around in paperback, since Hutton’s book is by far the best biography of Charles II ever written; no, in this case the only thing that’s illustrated is my inability to find a hardcover copy of the book! I’ve tape-reinforced this paperback as much as I can, but it’s still going to disintegrate on me, since I re-read it in whole or in part on a regular basis, just to bask in the author’s brilliance:

At his core there lay a vacuum, and what emerges most powerfully from the accounts of those who knew him is a feeling of unreachability, a frustrating instinct that the man inside the king eluded the observer. He suffered no apparent fears of inadequacy. Nor was he, as some have thought, a private melancholic, for he genuinely enjoyed his many pleasures with the same carelessness which he brought to much of the business of ruling and to some of his personal relationships. Yet he remains, for us as for contemporaries, a set of strongly marked characteristics with a cold void at the centre of them. He was a monarch who loved masks, whether of ceremony, of role-playing, or of intrigue. Behind those coverings, something was always missing.

Coleridge: Early Visions by Richard Holmes – The same thing applies with this coleridge early visions1989 Penguin paperback: Holmes’ two-volume work is the best thing ever done on Coleridge (in a mighty crowded field), I just haven’t found them both in sturdy hardcovers (nor have they been issued in one big extra-sturdy volume, as they bloody well should). As some of you will know, I have a soft spot for the Romantic poets (and for Lord Byron, the god of their idolatry) and have, over the decades, tried to winnow the really good biographies from the endless gush of titles published every year. When I finally get around to a definitive editions-and-lives Romantics Stevereads post, these volume by Holmes will certainly be on it, complete with the author’s borderline-reverence of his subject (a very common trait in Romantics biographies):

But Coleridge was much more than a Romantic poet: he was also a journalist of genius, a translator, a matchless letter-writer (six volumes), an incomparable autobiographer and self-interrogator in his Notebooks (over sixty surviving between 1794 and his death), a literary critic, a spectacular lecturer, a folklorist, a philosopher, a psychologist (specializing in dreams and creativity), a playwright and dramatic critic, and – that much disputed word – a metaphysician. He was also a travel-writer, a fell-walker, and amateur naturalist with an inspired eye for movement and transformation processes – cloud structures, plant growth, animal activity, light shifts, water changes, wind effects. All these aspects I have tried to bring alive, although Coleridge scholars will know what dreadful chasms … I have perilously skimmed over, in this first volume at any rate.

These little paperback bricks are in some ways the construction-stuff of my entire biography library, so it feels good to give them the praise they deserve! In a little while, I’ll do six more …