Penguins on Parade: The Song of Roland!


Some Penguin Classics, as we’ve noted, become curious little gems in their own right, regardless of the advance of scholarship or textual history, and one of those is the 1957 translation of La Chanson de Roland done by penguin song of rolandrenowned mystery novel author Dorothy Sayers. The Song of Roland, that massively popular medieval verse epic about a heroic knight in the rearguard of Charlemagne fighting against the Muslims, has since been given a spiffy newer translation by Glyn Burgess, and scholarship has moved on – if a graduate student in French medieval literature were to cite Sayers’ translation, that student would be politely told to use more up-to-date material, and there’s probably justice in that.

But it doesn’t change the fact that Sayers’ Chanson is downright wonderful. She was capaciously learned (her Dante – also for Penguin Classics – is a marvel of annotation erudition … and the verse often isn’t bad either) and a fiercely energetic workhorse, and best of all she had a passionate love of the bookcase of revered classics in her London home. It’s every bit as thrilling now to watch her grappling with the works she translates as it was thirty or forty years ago. In the case of the Song of Roland, for instance, she grapples with the central quality of the work:

This is perhaps the right place at which to speak of the essential Christianity of the poem. It is not merely Christian in subject; it is Christian to it very bones. Nowhere does the substratum of an older faith break through the Christian surface, as it does, for example, in Beowulf. There is no supernatural except the Christian supernatural, and that works (as being fully Christian it must) only to influence men’s minds and actions, and not to provide a machinery for the story. And it is a Christianity as naïve and uncomplicated as might be found at any time in the simplest village church.

And she’s a staunch advocate of the poem’s anonymous author, motivated almost entirely out of the loyalty her love of the literature instilled in her, which is also malin reads rolandthrilling to watch in action:

Simplicity does not mean ignorance. The poet is not likely to have been a monk or an ecclesiastic in major orders, but he was “clerky” enough to be acquainted with the lections and liturgy of the Church, and his theology, so far as it goes, is correct. But like most of his Christian contemporaries he has only the vaguest ideas about Moslem religion. For him, Saracens are just “Paynims” (i.e. pagans) and therefore (most inappropriately) idolaters.

And what of the verses themselves? Well, they creak. The main thing that can be said in their defense is that their vigor usually drowns out the creaking (we’ll see if this is true of Burgess’s version in 2045; I have my doubts, but we’ll see). Usually; The Song of Roland tends to bring out the worst in her Prince Valiant-style archaisms. I don’t know many readers today who’d be willing to lucy reads rolandslog through 4000 lines of stuff like this:

Lo, now! There comes a Paynim, Valdebron;

He stands before the King Marsilion,

And gaily laughing he says to Ganelon:

“Here, take my sword, a better blade is none.

A thousand mangons are in the hilt thereof;

‘Tis yours, fair sir, for pure affection,

For help against Roland the champion,

If in the rear-guard we find him as we want.”

Quoth Ganelon to him: “It shall be done.”

They kiss each other the cheek and chin upon.

I myself love it dearly for all its flaws (the main one being the fact that reading it is nothing at all like reading the original), love it far more than far better translations like the one Burgess does. I love its weird, matronly energy and its unabashed theatricality. Of course the very plot at the heart of the poem couldn’t be more fraught with topicality than it is in 2014, and that only adds to the quaint aura of the Sayers version. But her verses bounce along just as briskly as they did half a century ago, but her long Introduction holds up even more strongly, a joy to read as was everything she wrote. I re-read her Song of Roland more often than I do any other version I have – creaking and all.

Penguins on Parade: Jason and the Argonauts!

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Some Penguin Classics, however humbly and unassumingly, make some fairly large claims for themselves, or at least dare to dream big dreams. It’s certainly understandable: after all, the Penguin line has an illustrious history, and several of its editions have gone on to a textual life of their own. These editions are very often used as classroom texts and can thereby gain an enormous second life; as we’ve mentioned more than once in Penguins on Parade, the Penguin Classic edition of some work of literature is often the only version of that work most readers ever know. That’s a pretty brightly-lit stage, and it takes an extra helping of optimism to hope to reach it.

We have an example of that optimism in the new Penguin Classic edition of the Argonautica of the 3rd century BC poet Apollonius of Rhodes. The volume is called Jason and the Argonauts, and it’s edited by Benjamin Acosta-Hughes, and the translator is Aaron Poochigian, whose name was unfamiliar to me before I got my hands on this book. And I admit, I came to his handiwork a bit predisposed against it, mainly because I’ve loved Peter Green’s magisterial edition of this poem since its first edition appeared about twenty years ago.

penguin jason and the argonauts coverAnd Poochigian, in his Translator’s Note, doesn’t start off helping himself! What am I of all people, I, who have loved so many old-time Penguin Classics, to make of this assertion from our translator: “Thus I found justification for a verse translation of the epic within the epic itself – a prose version would have captured the meaning but left out the magic.” Countless close re-readings of some of Penguin’s most popular old prose-renditions of verse classics over the years have revealed to me their surprising beauty – their ample amounts, in other words, of magic. So naturally I was tempted to give the hairy eyeball to any translator who came to his work somehow without having seen that factor in the work of his predecessors. And right after that souring comment came the soaring note of optimism:

For as long as I have known the ancient Greek language, I have been certain that Apollonius is a great poet and that Jason and the Argonauts is a great epic. My translation, a labor of love, is an attempt to convince Greekless readers that this is so. I hope that the poem becomes, like Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey, essential reading for a cultured individual.

I began, of course, to like the chutzpah of this, since when Poochigian says he hope “the poem” finally takes its place on the same shelf as Homer, what he really means is that he hopes “HIS poem” takes that place. And I was surprised to find myself nodding right away at some of his choices. He inserts more stanza-breaks in his rendition of the poem than I’d seen in any other version edition, and right at the outset he puts the names of the various individual Argonauts in boldface, to pluck them out from the mosquito-cloud of collateral names that always surround them. These and similar little decisions are clearly intended not just for those Greekless readers Poochigian mentions but for new readers, people who might be unfamiliar with the way ancient Greek poets tend to rattle on. These little decisions do no violence to Apollonius but immediately lend a very real helping hand to the newcomer to this poem.

So what about the poem itself? Not what Apollonius wrote, mind you (no amount of optimism on Earth can elevate this entertaining but squeaking and shabby affair to the level of Homer), but this new translation of it? Well, before we get to it, let’s look at one of those despised and magic-less prose versions – in this case, the 1993 Oxford World’s Classics translation by Richard Hunter, and we’ll take a good quick juicy speech (one of Apollonius’ few strong suits). The scene is Lemnos, the women of which have recently slaughtered all their men-folk in a fit of pique, and have, after an initial reluctance, decided to offer their slew of new vacancies to the Argonauts, with the Lemnian queen, Hypsipyle, picking out Jason himself, by virtue of his arresting beauty as much as anything else (you’ll look in vain for that arresting beauty on the cover of the new Penguin Classic, where Jason is depicted – heavy sigh – as a neck-bearded and somewhat epicene hipster). While Jason is thus dallying, his most famous shipmate, Hercules, sits down on the beach with the Argo and grouses to a group of fellow malcontents:

Poor fools, does the shedding of kindred blood prevent us from returning home? Have we left our homes to come here in search of brides, scorning the women of our own cities? Do we want to live here and cut up the rich ploughland of Lemnos? We will not win glory shut up here interminably with foreign women. No god is going to hand over the fleece to us in answer to our prayers; we will have to work for it. Let us all return to our own countries and leave him to wallow all day in Hypsipyle’s bed until he has won great renown by filling Lemnos with his sons!”

Now let’s look at how the aforementioned Peter Green does it:

“You wretched creatures, is it murder of kin that keeps us

far from our country? Was it for lack of weddings

that we came thence hither, scorning our native ladies?

Is it our pleasure to dwell here, sharing out rich Lemnian lots?

We’ll not win renown cooped up for all this time

with a passel of foreign women, nor will some deity

grab the Fleece if we beg him to, make us a present of it.

Let us go back each to his own, and leave this fellow

in Hypsipyle’s bed all day, till he’s remanned Lemnos

with his sons, and got himself greatly talked about.”

One thing that’s clear at once is that rendering Apollonius in English prose instead of English verse does virtually nothing to weaken or strengthen his stuff. Hunter and Green both capture the scorn of Hercules’ staccato questions; they both convey the contempt Hercules feels for his captain (this is the first time in the poem that we learn lucy reading the penguin argonauticaof it, and of course our esteemed poet doesn’t see fit to explain it), Hunter with a bare ‘him’ and Green with “this fellow.” Green goes for the alliteration of “Lemnian lots,” where Hunter gives us the more straightforwardly effective “rich ploughland,” and Hunter likewise stresses the human counterpart of Hercules’ taunting scenario (“we will have to work for it”) in a way Green elides. But the approaches even out almost exactly, especially since Green has been so faithful to his author that he’s managed – in this passage and many others – to replicate the bland, third-tier feel of the verse itself, with all those long, wavering lines that all but defy dramatic reading.

So what of Poochigian and his striving for accessibility? Here’s his version:

“Fools, what prevents us from returning home -

what, have we shed our kinsmen’s blood? Have we

set sail to seek fiances in contempt

of ladies on the mainland? Are we planning

to divvy up the fertile fields of Lemnos

and settle here for good? We won’t accrue

glory while cooped up here with foreign girls

for years on end. No deity is going

to nab the fleece in answer to our prayers

and send it flying back to us. Come, then,

let’s each go off and tend to his own affairs.

And as far as that one – leave him to enjoy

Hypsipyle’s bedchamber day and night

until he peoples Lemnos with his sons,

and deathless glory catches up with him.”

You can see some choices right away: the alliteration is back in that one line, for instance, only this time it’s “fertile fields” instead of “Lemnian lots.” And both the noncommittal “him” and the donnish “this fellow” have been dropped in favor of the withering “that one” (you can almost hear Hercules spitting it). And certainly in Poochigian’s version Hercules’ final line has the sound of the malediction it’s certainly meant to be! In Hunter, all Jason’s going to get from rogering the queen all day long, his mission forgotten, is “great renown” – hardly a bad thing! Green brings us closer to the negative with that hilariously mild-mannered bit about Jason getting himself “greatly talked about,” which doesn’t as good as renown, does it? But Poochigian captures it perfectly: it’s not that Jason will win deathless glory, it’s that deathless glory will catch up with him – the element of menace is very skillfully hinted.

I’m pleased to report that such skill is on hand at every point in this new verse translation. At every turn, Poochigian not only subtly improves on every English-language translation of the Argonautica that’s come before him but also subtly improves on poor ridiculous Apollonius himself. Jason and the Argonauts might not be fit to sit on the same shelf as the Iliad and Odyssey, but this translation of it, at any rate, is one for the ages – and that’s a pretty big dream right there.

Six for the Ripper!

Just recently I was asked to recommend “the best books on Jack the Ripper,” and my immediate response, I’m almost ashamed to admit, was unabashedly Clintonian: it really depends on what’s meant by “best.” There’ve been thousands of books about the infamous Victorian serial killer who murdered at least five women in one of the most crowded and wretched sections of 1888 London, and this is red jackunderstandable, considering how endlessly fascinating the whole story is.

Its bare outlines are fairly familiar: in August of 1888, the dead and mutilated body of a woman named Mary Ann Nichols was discovered in the pre-dawn darkness. Her killer had slit her throat, stabbed her, and made what seemed to be tentative moves to disembowel her. A week later the body of Annie Chapman was found – her throat slit, and this time the abdomen had been cut open and the poor woman’s uterus had been removed. Three weeks later, two more victims were found in one night: Elizabeth Stride’s throat had been slit, but there were no other wounds – and only a quarter-hour later, the body of Catherine Eddowes was discovered, its throat slit, its abdomen cut open, the uterus and one kidney missing. The enormous outcry by this point in the public and in the press was only fueled by the many taunting letters sent to London prince jackpolice allegedly by the killer (at least one of the letters came with a bit of human kidney included), and an ominous pattern is clearly developing: the killer is growing more confident in his butchery (the settled theory is that he was interrupted by possible detection before he could mutilate Elizabeth Stride, thus explaining the two killings in one night). A week after the Stride and Eddowes murders, that confidence was given horrifying free reign: unlike the previous victims, the fifth “canonical” murder, that of Mary Kelly, happened in a closed and private room, with nothing to hurry or interrupt the killer. He slit her throat so energetically he nearly decapitated her, and he eviscerated her, and he cut her face off, and he left with her heart. Even after an intervening century of unprecedented violence, the police crime-scene photo still has the power to shock.

Then, according to the official narrative, the killings stopped. Nobody was ever caught for the crimes, and so a social phenomenon was born. when london walked in terrorBooks and articles began pouring from the world’s printing presses, and they’ve never stopped. TV shows, movies, and graphic novels have added to the pile, to the point where “the best books on Jack the Ripper” necessitates clarification: what kind of Ripper book are you looking for?

If you’re looking for lurid storytelling, you’ve certainly come to the right place! The penny dreadful accounts of the Ripper began even before his “canonical” crime wave ended (that persistent word derives from the fact that “Ripperologists” have all but universally agreed that the killer had victims before and after the “canonical” five, and some of their thinking on the matter is quite convincing), and the 20th century saw no shortage of them. The best collection of Jack the Ripper short stories is mammoth book of jack the ripperprobably 1988′s Red Jack edited by Martin Greenberg, Charles Waugh, and Frank McSherry. Red Jack includes stories from the likes of Ellery Queen, Ramsey Campbell, and even Harlan Ellsion, whose thrilling story “The Prowler in the City at the Edge of the World” is the highlight of the book. And in terms of longer fiction, I’d give the prize to The Night of the Ripper, a 1984 novel by the author of Psycho, Robert Bloch. He sticks very close to the official facts of the case, and as he has the dogged Inspector Abberline track down all possible suspects, the net widens to include both former Royal physical Doctor William Gull but also Queen Victoria’s dreamy young grandson, Prince Albert Victor. I re-read Bloch’s novel just this morning as I was ruminating about the Ripper case, and I’m happy to report that the verdict of the august Washington Post Book World back in ’84 is actually correct: it holds up considerably better than Psycho ever has.

Of course, fiction is hardly ever the best way to learn about history (with a few exceptions lucy ripper reading 2that warrant a special Stevereads post of their own!), so the question extends to “what are the best histories of Jack the Ripper?” And even there, the selection is so dauntingly vast that certain specifications have to be added. History-writing, after all, has as broad a spectrum as any other kind of writing. But say you’re up for nonfiction accounts every bit as lurid and purply as anything offered on the fiction side of the ledger – well, if that’s the case, you shouldn’t miss Frank Spiering’s breathlessly hysterical 1978 book Prince Jack, which, as you might guess from the title, puts forward the theory that Jack the Ripper was Queen Victoria’s grandson, known as “Prince Eddy.” And although the theory is absurd on its face (of all the possible candidates, Prince Albert Victor is the least likely – might as well finger Woodrow Wilson), Spiering pursues it with a vigor bordering on mania; you aren’t five pages into his book before you’re encountering offenses against every single one of the canons of ethical history-writing. Wild suppositions are presented as facts, facts themselves are suppressed, misrepresented, or omitted depending on how friendly they are to the author’s pre-conceived theory, and huge swaths of dialogue (spoken and internal) are simply created out of whole cloth. It’s sins like these that have prompted some fuss-potty schoolmarms to give this book only one star on Goodreads, but this isn’t fair: once you grant the underlying ridiculousness of Spiering’s underlying idea and simply read his book for the pure sudsy pleasure of the thing, it’s perfectly possible to have yourself at least a three-star time.

Considerably better than Spiering’s book is Tom Cullen’s 1965 book When London Walked in Terror, which the book-hack lucy ripper reading 3for the dear old Boston Herald Traveler called “a rattling good yarn.” Cullen’s book is a proper, documented history of the entire Ripper case, and despite its grabby title, it’s a good and serious work. And if you’re in the mood for a chorus of historical voices, you can’t do better than 1999′s The Mammoth Book of Jack the Ripper, edited by Maxim Jakubowski and Nathan Braund, part of Carroll & Graf’s generally fantastic “Mammoth Book” library (how much pleasure these books have given me over the years! The Mammoth Book of Historical Detectives, The Mammoth Book of Vampires, The Mammoth Book of Battles, The Mammoth Book of Private Lives, and the list of gems goes on). Here our editors have assembled some first-rate contributions to the Ripper library, from William Beadle’s “The Real Jack the Ripper” to Bruce Paley’s gripping (but clearly mis-titled) “The Facts Speak for Themselves” to Colin Wilson’s lively, terrific “A Life in Ripperology.” Jakubowski and Braund also present a very handy collection of original documents and a well-grounded chronology of the (again mis-titled) ‘undisputed facts of the case.’

And as to the answer to the original question’s most likely meaning – what is the single best history of Jack the Ripper, well, that’s a tough call between some lucy ripper reading 4excellent contenders, like Philip Sugden’s The Complete History of Jack the Ripper and Paul Begg’s Jack the Ripper: The Definitive History, but if pressed for one book and one book only, I’d have to give the prize – for sheer comprehensiveness and a very readable understated prose style – to Donald Rumbelow’s great book The Complete Jack the Ripper.

And who knows what future volumes – of all these types! – are even now making their way to the presses? Jack the Ripper was recently in the news again, with a Ripperologist claiming to have lock-solid DNA evidence (from a shawl allegedly owned by Catherine Eddowes) identifying the killer once and for all. And no matter how convincing that evidence turns out to be under independent analysis, something tells me this case will never actually be closed; in the public mind, Jack the Ripper could always be anybody, and besides, Ripperologists don’t get to be Ripperologists by being easily satisfied. Let the manhunt continue!

Penguins on Parade: Chateaubriand!

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Some Penguin Classics would have been considered by their authors as only fitting, and one clear example of this would have to be Memoires d’outre-tombe by Francois-Rene, Vicomte de Chateaubriand, his “Memoirs from Beyond the Tomb,” which he worked on for the last fifteen years of his life and which were published shortly after his death in 1848. Chateaubriand was noble-born (his brother’s descendants still live in the old family palace) and a consistent though leery champion of the social orders that underpinned the Ancient Regime and the French monarchy. He was commissioned in the army in 1786, but he dreamed of being a writer – and when the French Revolution drove him into exile from France, it also drove him to the systematic use of his pen, and upon his return to France in 1797 he published his first book, a fairly sententious work that was penguin chateaubriandnevertheless received fairly seriously. It was his next book, 1801′s Atala, ou les amours de deux sauvages dans le desert, that hit bookstores like a sirocco wind and sold in heaps.

Atala is a ghastly little work, a hysterical bit of exotic melodrama that’s every bit as unreadable today as it was two hundred years ago, but the rules of bestsellerdom haven’t changed in all that time: people bought the thing in edition after edition, and suddenly Chateaubriand was an established author. He wrote a dozen more books, many of them based at least in part on their author’s various travels (he’s one of the best travel writers you’ll ever read, and you’ll read it all the more easily if Penguin someday gets around to adding some of those books to the Classics line), and – ham that he was – he saved the best for last. For years, while he was writing other things, he was compiling his Memoirs, and in their composition he indulges in a narrative tone visible nowhere else in his collected works, a sharper, more encyclopedic, far less diplomatic tone than anything he expected to be read while he was alive. As Philip Mansel simply but rightly states in his Introduction to the pretty new Penguin Classic of Memoires d’outre-tombe (with the louche portrait on the cover by Anne Louise Girodet de Rousy-Trioson), “Memoirs From Beyond the Tomb combines the autobiography of a great Romantic with the history of a great revolution. The result is a masterpiece.”

It’s an endlessly entertaining masterpiece, like a version of Democracy in America that was written by a worldly-wise raconteur rather than a slightly blockheaded virgin. Reading Chateaubriand, you can never quite predict when his barbed sotto voce sarcasm will pop up. It plays all over his various descriptions of the brawling young America he visited in 1791:

A man arriving like myself in the United States, full of enthusiasm for the peoples of classical antiquity, a colonist looking everywhere for the rigidity of early Roman life, was bound to be shocked at the luxuriousness of the carriages, the frivolity of the conversations, the inequality of fortunes, the immorality of the banks and gaming-house, the noisiness of the ballrooms and theatres. In Philadelphia I might easily have thought myself in Liverpool or Bristol.

The book has a profusion of well-polished anecdotes worthy of Benvenuto Cellini or Charles Greville, like the time our fashionably mordant author has a premature encounter with entombment in Westminster Abbey:

One day, however, it so happened that, wishing to contemplate the interior of the basilica in the twilight, I became lost in admiration of it bold, capricious architecture. Dominated by the sentiment of the sombre vastity of Christian churches (Montaigne), I wandered slowly about and was overtaken by the night: the doors were closed. I tried to find a way out; I called for the usher and beat on the doors; all this noise, spread out in the silence, was lost; I had to resign myself to sleeping among the dead.

Chateaubriand’s most effective bits in the Memoirs are the moments when he brushes up against fame and history. In those bits, he always goes for the frisson of lucy reading chateaubriandreaderly recognition (although usually he still injects a little of his signature snideness – his quick description of meeting George Washington is priceless in this regard), probably nowhere more effectively than when dramatizing how close he came to one of the pinnacles of his century’s historical events:

On 18 June 1815, I left Ghent about noon by the Brussels gate; I was going to finish my walk alone on the highroad. I had taken Caesar’s Commentaries with me and I strolled along, immersed in my reading. I was over two miles from the town when I thought I heard a dull rumbling: I stopped and looked up at the sky, which was fairly cloudy, wondering whether I should walk on or turn back twards Ghent for fear of a storm. I listened; I heard nothing more but the cry of a moorhen in the rushes and the sound of a village clock. I continued on my way: I had not taken thirty steps before the rumbling began again, now short, now drawn out, and at irregular intervals; sometimes it was perceptible only through a trembling of the air, which was so far away that it communicated itself to the ground as it passed over those vast plains …

It turns out the ominous rumblings he was hearing were originating in a nearby battle – and which battle, you may ask? “That great battle, nameless as yet, whose echoes I was listening to at the foot of a poplar, and for whose unknown obsequies a village clock had just struck, was the Battle of Waterloo!” Sacre bleu!

This Penguin Classic of Memoirs from Beyond the Tomb is the sturdy 1961 translation by Robert Baldick, and re-reading it on the occasion of getting this new paperback, I found his work holds up quite well. He doesn’t quite trust himself to Chateaubriand’s more elaborate rococo rhetorical gestures – no translator has yet managed that; but he very effectively carries through the spirit of the man, so wonderfully alive even from beyond the tomb.

Penguins on Parade: Untouchable!

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Some Penguin Classics remain almost as startling on some levels now as they were when they were first published, and surely one such is the slim, darkly 1935 memorable novella Untouchable by the great Indian novelist Mulk Raj Anand, which chronicles the life and personal awakening of the handsome young boy Bakha, a member of India’s scorned “Untouchable” caste. As Ramachandra Guha (author of the magnificent India After Gandhi) points out in his short, stimulating Introduction to this new Penguin paperback, Anand wrote his book at a time when Gandhi was fasting and pleading for a change in the ways his countrymen treat these lowliest among them, who’ve in most cases inherited their professions through many generations, and now, nearly a century later, there’s still a great deal of progress to be made:

Untouchability has been challenged, but by no means ended. Scavengers, sweepers, barbers, washermen and leather-workers still face stigma and discrimination across the country. Locked int their degrading occupations, they are often denied access to the schools, colleges, factories and offices that might help finally to emancipate them.

Such a situation is ripe for an awareness-raising work of fiction, and Anand provides just such a work in Untouchable, where young Bakha is imbued with a both a humanity and a natural sweetness that – as the book opens – make him immediately sympathetic. When he receives a trivial kindness one day, it fills him with a pathetic burst of happiness that Anand contrasts wickedly with the mundane nature of his work:

A soft smile lingered on his lips, the smile of a slave overjoyed at the condescension of his master, more akin to pride than to happiness. And he slowly slipped into a song. The steady heave of his body from one latrine to the another made the whispered refrain a fairly audible note. And he went forwards, with eager step, from job to job, a marvel of movement dancing through his work. Only, the sway of his body was so violent that once the folds of his turban came undone, and the buttons of his overcoat slipped from their worn-out holes. But this did not hinder his work. He clumsily gathered together his loose garments and proceeded with his business.

This new Penguin volume features not only the Introduction by Guha but also, wonderfully, as an Afterword a 1935 appreciation by E. M. Forster, penguin untouchable coverwho enthusiastically delights in the book’s subversive power:

Some readers, especially those who consider themselves all-white, will go purpose in the face with rage before they have finished a dozen pages, and will exclaim that they cannot trust themselves to speak. I cannot trust myself either, though for a different reason: the book seems to me to be indescribably clean and I hesitate for words in which this can be conveyed.

Not nearly enough examples of the massively rich tradition of Indian fiction have made their way to the august Penguin collection, and this new edition of one of the lucky ones is most welcome. It’ll take you an hour to read, and it’s an hour that will change the way you think about all the invisible workers around you every day.

The Oxford Book of Letters!

oxford book of lettersOur book today is the delightful Oxford Book of Letters from the halcyon year 1995, a beautifully-produced and jam-packed thing edited by Frank and Anita Kermode and devoted, of course, to what is now axiomatically referred to as “the lost art” of letter-writing.

Axiomatically, but not, I think, melodramatically; letters were tangible things, after all, capable of surviving floods, fires, and estate sales, whereas our present forms of written communication – email, Facebook, Twitter – are easily deleted (hell, Snapchat deletes itself), and also easily lost: I wrote my first emails twelve years ago (after a ‘snail-mail’ correspondence that you might call voluminous), and as some of you long-time Stevereads readers may imagine, I took to it. Emails poured forth, from a succession of computers – first a hand-me-down, then another hand-me-down, then a bright green transparent Mac, and so on through ten other machines, leading up to my current MacBook, which is technically capable of commandeering NORAD but which I use as the very apotheosis of a word-processor. Vast tranches of emails, all written on those earliest computers (the stationary kind – the mind shudders to recall work that couldn’t be done in bed), and all now completely lost to me. And not just lost in the sense of deleted – no: even if I’d had the presence of mind to save every bit of email correspondence (and every Instant Messenger conversation from MySpace and every other now-forgotten destination site), where would I have saved it all? To some disk that can’t now be read by any new machine? To some master file that today’s master file-opener would garble or mangle or snub? It’s true that if a piece of technology existed that allowed its owner to print out electronic communications on paper, I might have done that, but since even the best tech-companies in the world have never managed to get such printing out to happen more than once under laboratory conditions, there’s not much sense talking about it. And even if such technology some day does exist, I can already hear what the purists will say: that printing-out misses the whole POINT of electronic communication, which is that it need not revert to the sovereignty of print in order to be valid.

This Oxford Book harks back to the centuries when there was no alternative to paper, and the Kermodes fill it with wonders. We get Thomas Sheridan writing to Jonathan Swift in mock-Latin; we get Alexander Pope chiding a correspondent about not hearing from him (even while he’s delivering news of the death of a mutual friend), and our editors makes sure to include the whole range of what letters could convey, from harmless frivolity and quotidian fact-updating to far more serious stuff, as when Mary Wollstonecraft in 1795 sends a stiff reprimand to an acquaintance who’d had the nerve to suggest a husband for her:


It is inexpressibly disagreeable to me to be obliged to enter again on a subject, that has already raised a tumult of indignant emotions in my bosom, which I was labouring to suppress when I received your letter. I shall now condescend to answer your epistle; but let me first tell you, that, in my unprotected situation, I make a point of never forgiving a deliberate insult – and in that light I consider your late officious conduct. It is not according to my nature to mince matters – I will then tell you in plain terms, what I think. I have ever considered you in the light of a civil acquaintance – on the word friend I lay a peculiar emphasis – and, as a mere acquaintance, you were rude and cruel, to step forward to insult a woman, whose conduct and misfortune demand respect. If my friend, Mr Johnson, had made the proposal – I should have been severely hurt – have thought him unkind and unfeeling but not impertinent. – That privilege of intimacy you had no claim to – and should have referred the man to myself – if you had not sufficient discernment to quash it at once. I am, sir, poor and destitute. – Yet I have a spirt that will never bend, or take indirect methods, to obtain the consequence I despise; nay, if to support life it was necessary to act contrary to my principles, the struggle would soon be over. I can bear any thing but my own contempt.

You can see her agitation in her punctuation; you can hear her aggrieved pride in her cadences. Despite the billions of emails being written on Earth every year, it’s hard to imagine such prose occurring in their medium – and it’s hard to imagine the recipient of such a letter not simply deleting it.

That goes double, of course, for the light-hearted stuff. Few correspondents ever excelled at light-hearted stuff like the great letter-writer Sydney Smith (a Penguin Classics collection of his letters is lon overdue), who’d mastered the tricky art of opening his letters with a laugh:

Dear Allen,

Pray tell me something about Lord and Lady Holland as it is several centuries since I have seen them. I heard of Lady Holland on a sofa. I thought she had done with sofas.

There’s more studied – and therefore more startling – humor on hand here too, as in the 1861 letter Anthony Trollope wrote to Dorothea Sankey, a letter about which the Kermodes rather po-facedly relay one scholar’s opinion that we’re “almost certainly right in calling it a joke”:

My Dearest Miss Dorothea Sankey,

My affectionate & most excellent wife is as you are aware still living – and I am proud to say her health is good. Nevertheless it is always well to take time by the forelock and be prepared for all events. Should anything happen to her, will you supply her place, – as soon as the proper period for decent mourning is over.

Till then I am your devoted Servant,

(the “till then” is priceless, I think)

There’s another element of letter-writing that’s missing from emails, of course: the element of public performance. Many of the letters collected in this volume were written by famous people who knew – or at least were willing to gamble – that their correspondence might one day end up in a book just like this one. Accordingly, they wrote with one eye cocked over their shoulder toward eavesdropping posterity, and their letters are the better for it. Whereas the ephemerality of emails – about which I was griping a moment ago – seems to have percolated into the collective consciousness of the form. Who sends an email to somebody thinking it might be preserved? Possibly read out loud at the moment of receipt (if it’s particularly fun or provocative), but beyond that? Centuries beyond that? Such things never occur to emailers (and they write accordingly), whereas in the case of, say, Robert Louis Stevenson, hot off the act of writing Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, the idea is unavoidable. Read this little bit lucy reading the oxford book of lettersfrom a letter he wrote to J. A. Symonds in 1886 and tell me he didn’t expect it to be quoted in 2014:

Raskolnikoff is easily the best book I have read in ten years; I am glad you took to it. Many find it dull: Henry James could not finish it: all I can say is, it nearly finished me. It was like having an illness. James did not care for it because the character of Raskolnikoff was not objective; and at that I divined a great gulf between us, and, on further reflection, the existence of a certain impotence in many minds of to-day, which prevents them from living in a book or a character, and keeps them standing afar off, spectators of a puppet show. To such I suppose the book may seem empty in the centre; to the others it is a room, a house of life, into which they themselves enter, and are tortured and purified.

The Kermodes nicely balance such public stuff with intensely private stuff, and they include a few items that are weirdly, uncomfortably in between, like the razor-sharp note Katherine Mansfield sent in 1921 to a woman having an affair with Mansfield’s husband:

Dear Princess Bibesco,

I am afraid you must stop writing these little love letters to my husband while he and I live together. It is one of the things which is not done in our world.

You are very young. Won’t you ask your husband to explain to you the impossibility of such a situation.

Please do not make me have to write to you again. I do not like scolding people and I simply hate having to teach them manners.

Yours sincerely,

Again I can’t help but wonder: who would write something like that as an email, today? And who would save it? And that’s just the direct one-to-one aspect of writing – the aspect dealing only with writer and sender, which is only a fraction of the aspects on hand in The Oxford Book of Letters. A great many of the letters anthologized here were preserved neither by their senders nor by their recipients – rather, they were found, by scholars, in neutral, dusty archives. Where are those archives, for emails? They don’t exist, and even if they did, how many Apple-cycles would it be before their contents were impossible to open? And without such an archive, how could there ever be an Oxford Book of Emails?

No Poems!

no poems - benchleyOur book today is a carefree little 1932 gem No Poems, Or, Around the World Backwards & Sideways that celebrated Algonquin Club wit and raconteur Robert Benchley. By the point in his career when Benchley was writing the kinds of friendly observational squibs that comprise this volume, he’d carved out a niche for himself doing exactly that, and readers lapped it up (then as now – writers like Dave Barry and David Sedaris would be unimaginable had not Benchley re-invented their genre a generation or two ago). And since the way you get readers to lap something up is to mash it and mush it until it’s a kind of patter-based pabulum, that’s exactly what Benchley did in “essay” after “essay,” year after year, paycheck after paycheck.

It can be the perfect restorative, in limited doses – and since nothing in No Poems is any longer than a couple of pages, limited doses are everywhere. We get quick, hangdog musings on all the little quotidian things that don’t seem to change much from one age to the next (if Benchley were alive today, you can bet your last Algonquin martini he’d be writing about That Wacky Internet) – the travails of hailing a taxi, the decorum of dinner conversation, the tedium of dull conversation, etc. In “The Truth about Thunderstorms,” for gluyas williams 2instance, he does a little bit about how he’s frightened of thunderstorms:

Just where any of us in the human race get off to adopt the Big Man attitude of “What is there to be afraid of?” toward lightning is more than I can figure out. you would think that we knew how to stop it. You would think that no one but women and yellow dogs were ever hit by it and that no man in a turtle-neck sweater and three days’ beard on his chin would give it a second thought. I am sick of all this bravado about lightning and am definitely abandoning it herewith.

And of course the dilatory old Post Office comes in for its usual can-you-believe-how-long-these-lines-are drubbing, gluyas williams 3this time in the piece called “Back in Line”:

The U.S. Post Office is one of the most popular line-standing fields in the country. It has been estimated that six-tenths of the population of the United States spend their entire lives standing in line in a post office. When you realize that no provision is made for their eating or sleeping or intellectual advancement while they are thus standing in line, you will understand why six-tenths of the population look so cross and peaked. The wonder is that they have the courage to go on living at all.

Not everything Benchley writes about is quite as evergreen as post offices and thunderstorms – that could hardly be avoided in an author who liked to flirt so assiduously with topicality. He writes about the subway and office and the beach, yes, but he also writes about the telegraph, Prohibition, and that staple of bygone eras, the passenger liner, so genially lampooned in “Abandon Ship”:gluyas williams 1

There has been a great deal of printed matter issued, both in humorous and instructive vein, about ocean travel on those mammoth ships which someone, who had never ridden on one, once designated as “ocean greyhounds.” “Ocean camels” would be an epithet I would work up for them, if anyone should care enough to ask me. Or I might even think of a funnier one. There is room for a funnier one.

Benchley was prolific; he wrote a shelf of books as long as your arm, and those books brought a lot of enjoyment to a lot of people. No Poems is fairly typical of the rest, mainly because they’re all fairly typical of each other (unlike the works of Benchley’s celebrated grandson, which had definite peaks and valleys). This volume came to my hand during a routine tour of my beloved Brattle Bookshop, but I’d have just as readily snatched up anything this kind, sarcastic man wrote – as an aforementioned restorative, against a dull or scratchy day. And the smile-inducing illustrations by Benchley’s old friend Gluyas Williams only add to the fun.

Book-list warmups in the Penny Press!

bunch of magazines

The long list for the National Book Award has been announced, so for one quick news cycle a few more people will be talking about books than otherwise would. The nonfiction list is a fairly disappointing assemblage of boring books: Nature’s God by Matthew Stewart (the likely winner, in my opinion), No Good Men Among the Living by Anand Gopal, The Heathen School by John Demos, The Innovators by Walter Isaacson, Age of Ambition by Evan Osnos, When Paris Went Dark by Ronald Rosbottom, and worst of them all, The Meaning of Human Existence by Edward Wilson – by and large dreary, dutiful books that tend to embody the bland nature of bookstore-frontlist middlebrow history-writing.

Fortunately, there are a few exceptions. John Lahr’s biography of Tennessee Williams was fairly entertaining, and Nigel Hamilton’s FDR-at-war book The Mantle of Command was extremely entertaining. And then there’s the book that really deserves to win: Roz Chast’s hilarious, disarming, utterly fearless Can We Talk About Something More Pleasant?

The fiction long list was much more encouraging – it has plenty of good stuff on it. True, there are some duds, like Jane Smiley’s Some Luck and Molly Atopol’s The UnAmericans. And there are some entries that were disappointing, like Elizabeth McCracken’s Thunderstruck and Phil Klay’s Redeployment. But the rest of the list is extremely encouraging! Emily St. John Mandel’s Station Eleven was very good, and the remaining five books were fantastic: Richard Powers’s Orfeo, Anthony Doerr’s All the Light We Cannot See, and John Darnielle’s Wolf in White Van are all superb, and the last two, Lila by Marilynne Robinson and Rabih Alameddine An Unnecessary Woman, are truly memorable, brilliant pieces of work. So theres a chance this year’s National Book Award for fiction will go to a novel that actually deserves the added attention and sales.

And regardless of who wins what, surely the best purpose this announced long list serves is to remind you all how soon it is until you’re once again basking in the greatest, the most opinionated, the most comprehensive, and, quite frankly, the greatest new-book list of them all. I refer, of course, to the annual Gotterdamerung that is the Stevereads Best – and Worst – Books of the Year! The 2014 edition – bigger, better, and more definitive than ever – will be loosed upon the trembling literary world in only three months. Are you prepared, spiritually?

the executioner

Mansplaining in the Penny Press!

bunch of magazines

As I foresaw, Sarah Boxer’s ridiculous article in the July/August issue of Atlantic drew ample responses. In her article, Boxer does the full-Millions take on why so many mothers are missing from Disney movies. Naturally, her explanation in “Why Are All the Cartoon Mothers Dead?” involved a vast evil male conspiracy, and in the new Atlantic some readers dare to take issue with her. Jim Jordan, for instance, from Charlotte, North Carolina, writes:

Despite the interesting observations in this article, there is no conspiracy, subconscious or otherwise, to negate mothers. The elimination of mothers in fantasy stories is a disguised compliment to motherhood.

The understood principle is that a good mother makes life so easy that nothing is impossible. If you have a mother’s ever-present guidance and wonderful encouragement, you can do anything. There is no challenge to build a story around if Mother stays, so Disney tells her to go.

Dads, on the other hand, are often viewed by children as aloof in real life. Kids secretly hope Dad would prove fun, caring, and plenty strong if circumstances forced him to get involved, so Disney makes their dreams come true. Using the simplest plot device (killing Mom), Disney brings forth a darling Daddy and allows a nearly impossible quest to take over the narrative.

Likewise Wayne Grant (he’s from Raleigh, North Carolina) points out some fairly obvious non-conspiracy theories:atlantic

In Sarah Boxer’s musings on the high mortality rate of cartoon mothers, she correctly identifies this interesting fact, but completely misunderstands why it is so. She describes cartoons as “reality-defying” for leaning on the device of a capable, caring father to advance the story, while offing the mothers. Does she really think cartoons are intended to be reality-affirming? What these motherless stories represent is the novelty of the capable and present Dad. By her own statistics, fathers are exclusively in charge of only 8 percent of U.S. households. In the real world of kids, the primary ruler is almost always Mom. So how can you have kids find the courage to face peril – the hallmark of cartoons – if Mom is there to make everything all right? She has to be done in! This is not “misogyny made cute.” This is coming-of-age Storytelling 101, and a recognition of the central role mothers play in real life.

And Sarah Boxer’s response?

The first two letters, both written by men, are lovely examples of what is now popularly known as mansplaining … both drip with condescension; both damn with faint praise (using interesting as an accolade); and both employ declarative sentences to tell me how it really is.

Things like this just make me sigh – and not in a good way. It neatly displays so many of the things I hate about modern-day pseudo-feminism, mainly that it has a congenital inability to pick worthwhile fights (as is immediately demonstrated by the fact that every pseudo-feminist who read that line saw – physically saw – only the word “genital”). While she’s complaining about the dripping condescension of the two letter-writers, she’s busy dripping plenty of her own, in this case in the form of a ready-made term to mock anything of any kind said by somebody with testicles: that stupid word “mansplaining.” She mocks her correspondents for using declarative sentences – as if, what? They’re supposed to write their letters in strings of anagrams? I seem to recall her own article was chock-full of declarative sentences – was she “mansplaining” to her readers? And her reaction if either of those men had called her article “lovely”? Yeesh.


Six for Field and Stream!

one day at teton marshSummer’s last true efforts – it’s last firm grips of heat and humidity – have finally faltered here in Boston; the mid-afternoon skies are bright and warm as always, but the mornings now tell a different story: their shadows are longer, and there’s a touch of actual chill in them. Soon the season’s signature languor will begin to fray away; weather reports will become more pressing; windows will close that have been open since late April. It’s a time of year when I always think about Cape Cod, where the end of summer has a particular, almost unbearably sharp beauty to it. But in truth the opening notes of autumn have caught me in many settings in the course of my life (including once at sea, where those notes are unrecognizable), and the binding thread is the urge to go out and walk on shore and hillside. These are the days when summer’s heat no longer threatens to turn those walks into ordeals of ooze and mosquitos – and when winter’s cold hasn’t yet turned those walks into grimly satisfying endurance contests.

Those walks out in fields and forests of course remind me of the countless nature books I’ve read in my life, since the wild world has moved the pens of writers for thousands of years (stop for a minute and think about the sheer amount of nature-writing contained in the Iliad, for instance). I gathered up six good examples to put before you today:

One Day at Teton Marsh by Sally Carrighar – Carrighar, who wrote this classic in 1947, was certainly one of the most passionate and prolific of those nature-spurred writers, and she’s also one of the best. I love the unabashed passion of her prose, so thoroughly caught up bob hines - hawk chases rabbitin the wonders she’s recounting that she very often foregoes including any mention at all of intrusive humans – and she never seems like one herself. In one nifty passage from this book, she contemplates the bull moose, “a creature who looked like some giant prehistoric beast, rising from the swamp of an ancient epoch”:

He was starting into a world where all other creatures were small and most of the sleek. Grotesque in the twentieth-century wilderness was his huge nose, a thick down-bent column; and grotesque were his ponderous shoulders, his massive hams, belly, and chest, and the string of limp hairy skin, his dangler, that hung from his throat. Among modern animals he would seem an outsider – until his great power struck. When he would rear, and his front hooves would drive down with a weight equalling that of six large men, his body would seem the suitable one and all others insignificant.

I wouldn’t be surprised if all her books were out of print at the moment (actually, that wouldn’t surprise me about any of the authors on this list, alas), but she never wrote a bad one, so I recommend finding them all.

Beyond Your Doorstep by Hal Borland – Borland wrote this book – as much a guidebook as a bestiary – in 1962, one year before his greatest commercial success, the beyond your doorstepnovel When the Legends Die, but to me he always seemed more in his element when writing nonfiction, especially about beautiful patch of Connecticut wilderness where he made his home. Beyond Your Doorstep is intended in part to be a general-purpose introduction to the world of field and stream, but he readily admits all through the book that he’s really just writing about his home, where he’s scrutinized every living thing for years. For instance, he writes about the change in bird-life at this exact time of year:

My Winter birds begin to appear by mid-September. I see a brown creeper or two, a few nuthatches, quite a few whitethroat sparrows, now and then a couple of juncos. Blue jays are more noisy. They were either quite or outvoiced most of the Summer. And the crows talk loudly. They were very noisy a month ago, bringing their young off the nests, screaming at them and at each other; then they were quiet for a bit. Now they are shrill again, talking of days ahead when they will own the valley. Catbirds are quiet, strangely subdued. I see no more kingbirds; they have gone south.

wild seasonWild Season by Allan Eckert – This author loved the wild landscapes of his native Midwest, and although he achieved his greatest readership with densely-researched novels of American frontier life (and achieved his single greatest work with his gigantic 1992 biography of Tecumseh), he wrote field and stream books his entire life, including this sweet little volume from 1967 (the old Bantam paperback I own has an uncredited cover illustration I’d swear was by the great Darrell K. Sweet, done before he found fame as a fantasy cover artist)(the internal illustrations are done with considerably less success by Karl Karalus). It focuses on the very specific locale of the author’s beloved Oak Lake, and you can definitely spot the future crafter of many excellent, gorybob hines - brook trout fight scenes in even such a bucolic setting, as when he describes the aftermath of a fight between a shrew and a deer mouse:

Breathing rapidly from his exertions, his heart hammering at the rate of over thirteen hundred beats per minute, the shrew released his hold and spent several minutes cleansing the fresh blood from his breast fur. This finished, he methodically ripped the mouse apart, devouring first her brains and internal organs with phenomenal speed and then starting in on the meat.

I’m actually a big fan of practically everything Eckert wrote and heartily recommend it all – but I think there’s an extra pointedness to his nature writing.

My Wilderness: East to Katahdin by William O. Douglas – This 1961 book by Supreme Court Justice Douglas (with some very fine buteast to katahdin poorly-reproduced illustrations by Francis Lee Jaques) is as pointed as they come: Douglas was a life-long outspoken advocate of wild places and an activist for their preservation. East to Katahdin starts in Colorado and ambles over hill and dale all the way to the title bob hines - pointermountain in Maine and is as full of doomy portraits of man’s depredation as something you’d read by Peter Matthiessen. But there are also more intimate hiking and kayaking moments that are rendered with the same rat-tat-tat rhetorical style that characterized so many of the judge’s legal decisions – and that, like them, often have a little spur of poetry poking up along the way:

We were halfway down to Anthony Creek when the downpour came. I had been in many a drizzle in the Smokies. This was the first hard rain I had experienced. It picked up momentum and volume until it came in sheets. Tons of water came to Ledbetter Ridge and Anthony Creek in an hour. We had ponchos over our packs. But the rain was in such force and quantity, it formed rivulets that ran down our necks and finally filled our shoes. We were now well off the ridge. So the rain was warm and seemed to sing some of the first sonnets of Spring.

“There is a poetry for me in the talus slopes of Katahdin” Douglas writes, but it’s not only the book’s end destination that evokes that poetry. Like most of the rest of the books on this list – and maybe just a bit more so, considering the place of its author in broader American history – this one really deserves a better literary afterlife than it’s so far received.

the streamThe Stream by Robert Murphy (1971) – A better literary afterlife is certainly warranted for this gem of a book, which intersperses sad and penetrating glimpses of ecological degradation with wonderfully evocative descriptions of field and stream. Murphy’s a more anecdotal author than any of the others on this list; his stories are full of hunters and trappers and friends and assorted characters, all dramatized with a fine light touch. The seasons roll by in these pages, and we see Murphy out walking in all weathers, always sensitive to the changing seasons, as in his very good evocation of the subtle shift I mentioned, from summer to bob hines - raccoons confront a porcupineautumn:

The air was lighter now, with a cool bright clarity that had not been there when the warmth of summer lay somnolently beneath the trees, and in the mornings the ridge beyond the river to the east was softened by autumn haze. After the coolness of dawn there was a drowsiness about the days that was different from the drowsiness of summer, for now the growing was over and the fruits of the growing were ripe; the world of green things rested and began to prepare for the long still time of winter sleep.

And as good as Murphy’s prose is, his book has a glory to equal it: several black-and-white illustrations by the great nature artist Bob Hines, who could imbue just about any wilderness scene with a clean beauty and puckish humor (he’s so much better than the other artists in these books that I’m using only his pictures in this post). The wonderful folks at Beaver’s Pond Press came out with a very good book about Hines a couple of years ago – Bob Hines, National Wildlife Artist by John Juriga – and it’s well worth your time, although I’d also like a national exhibit one of these days.

The Living World of Nature – no artwork at all in this nifty little 1980 volume from Reader’s Digest, an anthology of several of the better nature-related short pieces readers digest living worldthey’d run over the decades. There are some wonderful little items here by some great writers, pieces like “Probing the Mysteries of the Galaxies” by Timothy Ferris, or “Man in a Web” by Loren Eisley, or “A Hummingbird’s Magic,” a very moving essay by Norma Lee Browning. And this collection also includes a piece called “Voices of the Surf,” which is a slightly condensed excerpt from Henry Beston’s Cape Cod classic, The Outermost House – and so brings us back to the Cape where we started:

Listen to the surf, really lend it your ears and you will hear in it a world of sounds: hollow boomings and heavy roarings, great watery tumblings and tramplings, long hissing seethes, sharp rifle-shot reports, splashes, whispers, the grinding undertone of stones, and sometimes vocal sounds that might be the half-heard talk of the people of the sea.

It’s not just the sea – out walking on long, gorgeous mid-September afternoons (especially when those walks are very slow! If you’re shepherding along a sweet old dog, you have the leisure to look at everything around you), you can almost fancy you hear the half-heard talk of the people of field and stream as well, busily chattering away about the oncoming winter. That winter will have its own beauties, of course, but still: days like today are exceptionally sweet.


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