Some Penguin Classics are comprised of many authors, or no credited authors at all, and since Penguin doesn’t yet publish a Complete Poems of either Yevtushenko or Yeats (and since I’ll be buried in the cold, cold ground before I’ll recognize Zola), I thought it would be only fair to round out our inaugural Penguin Alphabet by mentioning a few of the many excellent anthology volumes that have entered the Classics lineup over the years:
The Metaphysical Poets – This 1985 volume was edited by the mighty Helen Gardner and featured a wider spectrum of poets than you might at first suspect, given the title: John Milton, Thomas Carew, William Davenant, Henry Vaughan, Andrew Marvell, George Herbert, Walter Ralegh, Robert Southwell, Richard Crashaw, and John Donne are all in here, even though Gardner herself, in her magisterial Introduction, sometimes seems to doubt some of their qualifications
Elizabethan poetry, dramatic and lyric, abounds in conceits. They are used both as ornaments and as the basis of songs and sonnets. What differentiates the conceits of the metaphysicals is not the fact that they very frequently employ curious learning in their comparisons. Many of the poets whom we call metaphysical, Herbert for instance, do not. It is the use they make of the conceit and the rigorous nature of their conceits, springing from the use to which they are put, which is more important than their frequently learned content. A metaphysical conceit, unlike Richard II’s comparison of his prison to the world, is not indulged in for its own sake. It is used, as Lady Capulet uses hers [comparing Count Paris’ face to a book], to persuade, or it is used to define, or to prove a point. Ralegh’s beautiful comparison of man’s life to a play is a good example of a poem which seems to me to hover on the verge of becoming a metaphysical poem. Its conclusion and completeness and the ironic, colloquially made point at the end – ‘Onely we dye in earnest, that’s no Jest’ – bring it very near, but it remains in the region of the conceited epigram and does not cross the border
Even so, her choices are superbly discriminating, which probably accounts for the book’s extraordinary longevity as a school text (this was the last US Penguin Classic to exist in mass market format, all the others having expanded to trade paperback size). But it’s worth finding even if you haven’t been a student in a long time.
Greek Literature: An Anthology – This 1977 re-issue (originally titled Greek Literature in Translation) is supervised by the indefatigable Michael Grant, who did in this volume and the next a brilliantly compressed version of the “In English” series Penguin later brought out. In that later series, individual classical authors get their own separate volumes, in which some of the best – and worst, and quirkiest – translations since the Renaissance are printed one after the other in a delightful jumble, to illustrate the enormously rich history of such translations. In this earlier volume, Grant operates on the same outline, only briefer – the authors are squeezed in cheek-to-cheek. Grant starts things off with a bit of off-the-cuff Introduction nonsense, as even the hardest-working editor must occasionally do:
These writings by the Greeks have a peculiarly large contribution to offer to this second half of the twentieth century A. D. The intervention of two and a half millennia has done nothing to hinder the effectiveness of that contribution. Indeed, readers of Greek literature have a lot in common with the Quechua Indians of Bolivia, who speak of the past not as behind them but ahead of them, since it can be grasped with the intelligence and consequently stands before their eyes. Similarly, the interval that has elapsed since the days of ancient Greece strengthens rather than weakens the impact its writers make upon our minds.
But then he gets down to business, presenting us not only with chucks of Homer and Hesiod and the great tragedians, but also with little gems from far lesser-known literary lights from ancient Greek, such as the wise old Theogonis, in a translation by the great Willis Barnstone:
Blessed is the man who knows how to make love
as one wrestles in a gym,
and then goes home happy to sleep the day
with a delicious young boy.
Or the even-more-obscure Timotheus, this time rendered by Gilbert Highet:
Old songs I will not sing.
Now better songs are sung.
Zeus reigns now, and is young,
Where Kronos once was king.
Old Muse, your knell is rung.
The volume is packed with unassuming erudition, and it represents a very good short course in ancient Greek literature. And as good as it is in those qualities, it’s outstripped by another Penguin anthology, also by Michael Grant:
Latin Literature: An Anthology – this was a 1979 reprint of Grant’s Roman Readings from 1958, and there’s no nonsense in it at all! This may very well be the best book Grant produced in a long and freakishly productive career, and he starts things off, very aptly, by talking about the act of translation itself. Which brings him right away to John Dryden, who “showed an almost uncanny insight into the intricate, lapidary stanzas and quintessential temperament of Horace – adding enough of himself to bring the Odes alive for a second time.” Grant references the master:
Dryden was also the first great theorist of translation, and the first to recognize and describe it clearly as an art. He distinguished between three ways of translating, the literal way, the looser paraphrase, and the even looser imitation or adaptation. He himself uses 171 words where Horace used seventy-eight, and so by modern standards he is paraphrasing – though this is perhaps not the final criterion, since English is far more diffuse than Latin; thirteen words of Virgil have been said to need sixty of English, and even then the sonorous, plangent overtones of trumpet-calls, like mortalia and lacrimae are lost.
And what follows is an absolute feast of those three different kinds of translation. Grant might have denied it, but he has a much surer grasp here of the bounty he’s presenting, and a much keener eye for which translations to pick. This is as close as you can get to all the ‘best’ of Roman literature in one volume.
And finally, there’s a less exalted entrant:
Early Irish Myths and Sagas – This 1981 Penguin Classic by the enterprising, always-interesting critic Jeffrey Gantz has an impossible task ahead of it. The ancient Irish epics it translates and re-tells in its intentionally plain prose are some of the most stark and strange narrative works the West has ever produced (“romantic, idealized, stylized, and yet vividly, even appallingly, concrete,” as Gantz puts it), and some of them are fairly long – indeed, for reasons of length, our editor can’t include one of the best and most famous of such stories, “The Cattle-Raid of Cuailnge.” Of the main bodies of Irish folklore, Gantz mainly represents two, with such stories as “The Wooing of Etain,” “The Dreams of Oengus,” and the stories of Cu Chulaind (as well as the delightfully gruesome “The Tale of Macc Da Tho’s Pig”).
But even in its humble style and in its omissions, Early Irish Myths and Sagas is quintessentially a Penguin Classic, bringing perhaps recondite material into the common discussion, putting invaluable volumes like this one in bookstores and schools where non-specialists can find them. Thousands of readers have encountered the Ulster Cycle through books like this one – and that’s one of the chief glories of some Penguin Classics.
Some Penguin Classics, as we’ve already noted, are miniature battlefields in their own right. Whether its the editor fighting with some previous editor or the translator fighting with some previous translator, these little black-spined editions have always been an odd but perfect place to skirmish. And surely the oddest of these skirmishes – although it happens fairly often, odd or not – is translator v.s. translatee.
People who haven’t been engaged in translating a long work can have very little idea of what an ordeal it is. The translator is trapped with his subject in the tightest of all possible confinements – his own head. Voices not his own are perpetually bombarding him, and often standards of translation excellence were set so high (usually by the Victorians, those bounders) that any subsequent attempt feels like mere wretched mucking around with participles. As with writing a long biography, so too with doing a long translation: it’s entirely possible to become well and truly sick of the subject. The graceful thing is to avoid letting this strain show; after all, your readers haven’t suffered as you have, and there’s nothing more tiresome than a couple who drag guests into their in-house squabbles. But if editors and translators had any grace they’d be novelists, so the squabbling goes on.
It can have a macabre kind of fascination, obviously. We’ve seen already, for example, how a new edition of Rex Warner’s Plutarch translation saw fit to justify itself mainly by slagging the old man, and the display might have prompted us to pity poor Warner. But the backhanded insults he received were peanuts compared to the overhand insults he himself dishes out during his own in-house squabbles. Case in point: the translation of Xenophon’s Hellenica he did for Penguin Classics back in 1966.
On the surface, Xenophon can seem like the cheeriest and chattiest of Greek historians this side of Herodotus. Even Warner concedes (in a typically wonderful line) “he must have been a delightful man to meet.” He initially patterned his Hellenica (Warner calls it A History of My Times, which mildly sets the author up to fail) as a continuation of Thucydides’ great history of the Peloponnesian War, and that’s already the last straw for Warner:
Few, if any, historians can be placed in the same class as Thucydides. Xenophon certainly cannot. In fact, when one reads the first part of his history, where he seems to be deliberately imitating Thucydides, one often feels sorry for him. There are, indeed, some good scenes (the return of Alcibiades to Athens, for instance), even some good speeches, as in the debate on Theramenes; but on the whole the speeches are clever without being profound, and, most important, one often has the feeling that Xenophon has no grasp of and is not interested in the underlying causes of things.
You’d think that parting shot about Xenophon not even fully understanding the things he’s writing about would be as catty as Warner could get, but no: he finishes up the indictment by adding, “Nor has he the passionate love for his own city, Athens, which burns on every page of Thucydides.”
And in case we missed the point, he stresses it again: “Indeed, by no stretching of partiality or imagination can Xenophon be called a great historian.” When he tells us that Xenophon was in his youth a student of Socrates, we can guess what’s coming: “though we may be sure that he was not, philosophically, among the most brilliant of his pupils …” It’s almost like Warner’s being paid by the Athenian council.
In reality, Xenophon’s Hellenica isn’t quite the train-wreck its own translator would have you believe. True, it’s not as neat and dramatic as Xenophon’s masterpiece, the Anabas, but it’s full of the worldly-wise character sketches Xenophon does so well, and the variation of its set-pieces, from intimate conversations to broad-stage action, is expertly orchestrated. Warner would have you believe it’s all slips and misses, and since he’s the translator, he’s in a perfect position to put his thumb on the scale.
One example will suffice. In a tense meeting at Ephesus between Agesilaus and Tissaphernes, a powerful satrap of Sardis, the impartial reader doesn’t have to know ancient Greek to suspect Xenophon’s alleged ham-handed tediousness might be getting a little help:
As soon as he [Agesilaus] arrived there, Tissaphernes sent to him and asked him why he had come. Agesilaus answered: ‘So that the cities of Asia may be independent as are the cities in our part of Greece.’ In reply to this Tissaphernes said: ‘Then if you will make a truce until I can send to the king, I think you will be able to achieve your purpose and then, if you would like to do so, sail home again.’
‘I should certainly like to do so,’ said Agesilaus, ‘if I could be quite sure I was not being deceived by you.’
‘I am prepared,’ said Tissaphernes, ‘to give you a solemn pledge that I will do what I have undertaken to do in all good faith.’
Some Penguin Classics have been forgotten by those who need most to remember them. The Western world has never been more open-handed of women’s rights, for instance, than it is at this moment in the 21st century, and hundreds of thousands of young women in the United States alone have grown up their entire lives with freedoms their counterparts in any previous century simply wouldn’t have believed. These women have plenty of time to coin nonsense-words like ‘hystory’ or to scan every list and book review compulsively counting up the boys versus the girls (eventually reaching a state of mindlessness so morbid that they object if there are no women on a Worst Books list); they have plenty of time for lawsuits of every kind, and Xarelto lawsuit lawyers are plentiful, but most of them have no time at all for the actual law-givers of their license.
In their complacent arrogance, such women ape the worst qualities of men and call it emancipation; they’re happy to bray catch-phrases, but they’re as lacking in coherent thought as any of the knuckle-dragging frat-boys they mock; they are the worst kind of pampered inheritors, stomping around on the mown grass inside the battlements built and defended by earlier generations for which they have nothing but indifference.
The first thought such ‘post-feminists’ invariably have when looking at the magnificent John Opie painting of Mary Wollstonecraft that typically adorns the front cover of any edition of her masterwork, Vindication of the Rights of Woman, is how odd her hair looks. Such ‘new wave’ or ‘third generation’ feminists have no patience for “old-timey stuff” like Wollstonecraft – they’re too busy writing up a sloppy and ungrammatical encomium to Angelina Jolie for Bitchcrit or Chickchat. Wollstonecraft herself would have understood this; the bottomlessly sad but steely eyes looking out from that Opie portrait had seen plenty of such nonsense in their own world. The author of the Vindication knew better than anybody how often oppression is aided by the oppressed. And like all self-educated people, she had a healthy regard for the power of ignorance.
Vindication of the Rights of Woman was written in 1791 and published in 1792, springing from the same intellectual ferment that birthed the philosophies of Edmund Burke and The Rights of Man by Thomas Paine. It exploded like a shell-burst into an intellectual world still ruled by Blackstone’s legal commentaries, which infamously held that “the husband and wife are one person in law” – that, as in ancient Rome, a woman could have no legal existence apart from the men in her life.
Miriam Brody edited the 1983 Penguin Classic of the Vindication, and she points out how thoroughly this attitude was engrained in Western society:
A married woman, then , could legally hold no property in her own right, nor enter into any legal contract, nor for that matter claim any rights over her own children. To be sure, families had got round these laws for many years and would continue to do so; still, the woman’s dependence on the economic productivity of her husband, a dependence which was becoming more and more manifest in the course of the eighteenth century, achieved a legal sanctity in Blackstone which formed the spirt, as well as the letter, of all traditional injunctions to women which writers on the subject would make.
Wollstonecraft saw a world around her in which women were trained from the nursery to be ‘tender,’ to simper and scheme, to pour their attentions into ‘accomplishments’ like paltry musical ineptitude or the painting of little bucolic scenes on furniture (some readers may recall the merry scorn Jane Austen heaps on such distractions in Pride and Prejudice) while men were outfitted with real educations and expected to go out and do things in the world. This was anathema to Wollstonecraft, who earned her own keep her entire life and was one of the first women to make a living by writing. The countless ways young women of her day were conditioned to be complicit in their own servitude enraged her, and her angry sympathy found excuses where it could:
Of what materials can that heart be composed, which can melt when insulted, and instead of revolting at injustice, kiss the rod? It is unfair to infer that her virtue is built on narrow views and selfishness, who can caress a man, with true feminine softness, the very moment when he treats her tyrannically. Nature never dictated such insincerity; and, though prudence of this sort be termed a virtue, morality becomes vague when any part of it is supposed to rest on falsehood. These are mere expedients, and expedients are only useful for the moment.
Editor Brodie rightly stands back from the Vindication and lets its author’s sometimes molten eloquence speak for itself. And despite the historically vital arguments being put forth in every chapter of the book, that eloquence is still one of the book’s most outstanding elements: Wollstonecraft is a simply magnificent prose stylist, and long, long stretches of Vindication of the Rights of Woman roll like thunder on a turbulent sea. The author often found herself caught on that lonely promontory between custom and reform, where the very people she was defending were most likely to attack her. This was true in her own day, and, bitterly, it would be almost as true today in many quarters. Swap out ‘celebrities’ for ‘idle rich’ and ‘Kardashians’ for ‘ladies,’ and Wollstonecraft might as well be railing against the ‘post-feminist’ young women of 2013, who don’t care beans about any sisterhood and just want to market their brand:
In the superior ranks of life, every duty is done by deputies, as if duties could ever be waived, and the vain pleasures which consequent idleness forces the rich to pursue, appear so enticing to the next rank, that the numerous scramblers for wealth sacrifice everything to tread on their heels. The most sacred trusts are then considered as sinecures, because they were procured by interest, and only sought to enable a man to keep good company. Women, in particular, all want to be ladies. Which is simply to have nothing to do, but listlessly to go they scarcely care where, for they cannot tell what.
Vindication of the Rights of Woman was the first true classic in the literature of female emancipation, the founding document in a tradition that includes The Second Sex by Simone de Beauvoir and The Feminine Mystique by Betty Friedan (and that features as its greatest work A Room of One’s Own by Virginia Woolf). I’ve never met a woman under the age of thirty who’s read Wollstonecraft, but thanks to Penguin Classics, she’s right there and handy, should anybody want to consult her coldly furious brilliance. The world of gender relations has changed a great deal in the West since she wrote her great work – and that great work is still the ultimate commentary on the changes that haven’t happened yet.
Some Penguin Classics, as we’ve seen, forever get second-banana billing. How much more ironic this whole process is when the author in question was a productive dynamo who managed to write many brilliant things in a long life? What does the non-German world know of Goethe, for example, except perhaps The Sorrows of Young Werther (or The Sufferings of Young Werther, as the great, the irrepressible Stanley Corngold has it in his recent quite remarkable translation) an 80-page fantasia written when its author was a boy?
Take a similar case: Francois-Marie Arouet, the writer known to history as Voltaire (a pen-name! shocking!), wrote a quick little philosophical novel called Candide in 1759, and it was seized upon by legions of school-teachers the world over as that most precious of all commodities: a teachable classic. It’s been filmed, staged, sung, and even anime’d, epitomized on posters, chanted at festivals, and its tag-lines have entered common discourse. It might be a slim book, but it casts a gigantic shadow – one that tends to thrown the long lifetime of other Voltaire master-works into the shade.
One of the most unassuming of those other master-works was something he wrote thirty years before Candide: Lettres anglaises, the superbly popular (and, in France itself, thoroughly banned) Letters on England that Voltaire initially wrote while sojourning in exile from his beloved Paris from 1726 to 1729. Formed into a slim book, those “letters” are utterly fascinating dispatches by the ultimate stranger in a strange land. Our author, in the full strength of his many outrageously ample talents, writes on such subjects as Quakers, Anglicanism, smallpox inoculations, Pope, Locke, and Newton. The almost random pattern of things he notices and doesn’t notice can be maddening at times, but always he’s vintage Voltaire, smart, eloquent, and funny.
It’s a deceptively tough book to translate, and Leonard Tancock, who translated it for Penguin in 1980, does a fantastic job – mainly because he understands so well the man behind the letters:
Popular legend, especially outside France, has portrayed Voltaire as the eternal mocker, even a sort of grinning atheist. Nothing could be further from the truth. At least one full-length book has been written about Voltaire’s religion. He was haunted by religion all his life, but religion does not imply accepting involved theology or subscribing to ridiculous dogmas. To Voltaire it simply meant leading a good and useful life in the hope that there is at least some ultimate justice in the world.
The title of the work is a bit misleading (intentionally so, of course): Voltaire’s setting might be England, but Letters on England is really about France and French thinkers. The Pensees of Pascal – and Pascal’s famous ‘wager’ about the existence of God, for instance, are never far from our author’s contentious mind:
Begin, one might say to Pascal, by convincing my reason. It is in my interest, no doubt, that there is a God, but if, in your system, God only came for so few people, if the small number of the elect is so terrifying, if I can do nothing at all by my own efforts, tell me, please, what interest I have in believing you? Have I not an obvious interest in being persuaded to the contrary? How can you have the effrontery to show me an infinite happiness to which hardly one in a million has the right to aspire? If you want to convince me, set about it in some other way, and don’t sometimes talk to me about games of chance, wagers and heads or tails, and sometimes frighten me by the thorns you scatter on the path I want to follow and must follow.
Letters on England, like most of what Voltaire wrote, is intensely beguiling, even though most people don’t know he wrote it or anything like it. And if Penguin wanted to honor even more of that ‘beguiling,’ they might think about publishing a nice 800-page collection of the man’s letters, which are virtuoso performances worthy of Cicero.
And in the meantime, there’s always that damn Candide to bring out again …
Some Penguin Classics get the royal treatment – whether they deserve it or not. By ‘royal treatment’ I of course mean not only induction into the Classics line itself, honor enough though it is for one lifetime, but the bestowal of one of Penguin’s gorgeous “Deluxe” volumes, extra-sized, deckle-edged, supremely aesthetic re-packagings that not every Tom, Dick, and Diderot gets.
The Deluxe Classic in question today is the one Penguin published in 2005 of Sigrid Undset’s famous historical fiction trilogy, Kristin Lavransdatter, with a new translation by Tiina Nunnally and an Introduction by Brad Leithauser. The translation is meant to replace the much earlier one done as a hobby by the indefatigable Charles Archer in the 1920s because, as Nunnally somewhat astringently points out in her Translator’s Preface, “Accuracy and faithfulness to the original tone and style are both expected and required” in modern translations. So when old Lavrans takes his young daughter on a pleasant ride upland, Nunnally gives us this:
High up on the grassy slope they came to a small hut. They stopped near the split-rail fence. Lavrans shouted and his voice echoed again and again among the cliffs. Two men came running down from the small patch of pasture. They were the sons of the house. They were skillful tar-burners, and Lavrans wanted to hire them to do some tar distilling for him. Their mother followed with a large basin of cold cellar milk, for it was a hot day, as the men had expected it would be.
“I see you have your daughter with you,” she said after she had greeted them. “I thought I’d have a look at her You must take off her cap. They say she has such fair hair.”
Whereas Archer gives us this:
High up the mountain-side they came to a little croft. They stopped by the stick fence; Lavrans shouted, and his voice came back again and again from the mountains round. Two men came running down, between the small tilled patches. These were both sons of the house; they were good men at the tar-burning, and Lavrans was for hiring them to burn some tar for him. Their mother came after them with a great bowl of cooled milk, for the day was now grown hot, as the men had foretold.
“I saw you had your daughter with you,” she said when she had greeted them. “and methought I must needs have a sight of her. But you must take the cap from her head; they say she hath such bonny hair.”
Setting aside textual considerations (Archer omitted some passages, all of which Nunnally implies are crucial to the trilogy), I don’t have much hesitation as to which I prefer, and even gentle Leithauser can’t be completely condemnatory:
Nunnally unquestionably brings us closer to the heart of the book than Archer did. While I have a lingering fondness for the Archer translation – he was the museum guide who first led me to the tapestry – on the grounds of lucidity and authenticity the nod must go to Nunnally, who has surely done as much as anyone in recent years to bring Nordic literature to this country.
“It’s the fate of most long books never to be revisited,” Leithauser writes, and he’s sadly correct. Deluxe format or no Deluxe format, it’s permissible to wonder just how many new Undset fans Nunnally’s artlessly accurate translation (one short, bald declarative sentence after another, like rocks pelting a wall) created. Certainly Archer’s version – florid ‘thee’s and ‘thou’s notwithstanding – created quite a few. Who knows? Maybe one day that translation will get a Penguin Classic of its own, far from the power-washed asphalt of expected and required. It would have lots of fairly distinguished company. George Chapman could make the welcoming toast.
Some Penguin Classics come perfectly recommended. Oh, they all come recommended – that’s what their Introductions are for, after all (although there’ve been one or two instances over the decades when the writer of the Introduction clearly disliked the translator of the work – or, even more titillatingly, clearly disliked the work itself; it can happen – I guarantee you, if Penguin ever commissions me to write a Classic introduction, it’ll be for goddam Ibsen)(or perhaps … can the evil day be far off? … Alice Munro). But sometimes the text finds the perfect ambassador, as happened in the 1983 Penguin Classic of Turgenev’s brilliant play whose title here is rendered “A Month in the Country.” The edition is translated and introduced by the great Isaiah Berlin as a special commission he undertook for the National Theatre. His version of the play was first published by the Hogarth Press in 1981 but was quickly recognized as a gem worthy of wider dissemination – hence this slim, handy Penguin Classic.
Berlin’s Introduction here is a marvel of erudite compression. He assumes that his readers will already be familiar with the basic plot of the play, in which a languid family and its various hangers-on, bored at a peaceful country estate, have their complacency upturned by the arrival of a passionate young tutor, with whom two of the ladies of the house promptly fall in love. And that assumption is his edition’s only weak spot, since it held water in the 1950s but certainly no longer does in the early 21st century, when the general reader will only be familiar with Turgenev if he was on “Dancing with the Stars” and the general college student will only be familiar with the name ‘Turgenev’ if it’s a brand of cigarette. Needless to say, those general readers have never heard of Berlin himself – but they’re in good hands nonetheless.
He takes them through the text’s surprisingly ad hoc history and Turgenev’s typically negligent, indifferent treatment of his own work (Berlin calls him “perhaps the least vain of major authors,” and that’s putting it mildly), and he revisits the fabled story of famous Russian actress Maria Gavrilovna, who took up the role of Vera, the slightly appalling teenage ward of Natalya Petrovna, the lady of the aforementioned country house. Gavrilovna transformed the role of Vera – or rather, as the hapless author later half-heartedly averred, discovered dimensions buried deep in the character – and made an enormous hit out of the play while simultaneously, perhaps inadvertently, stressing its mutability.
The notoriously humorless Berlin is gently baffled at the play’s classification as a comedy – he sees it as tragicomic at best, which would almost tempt me to think he’d never seen a good performance of it even though I know he must have. It’s faintly possible to see that ‘tragi’ part if you’ve only ever read the play, but Turgenev had very little doubt that he was writing about a group of people who were fundamentally absurd. Such is his flawless ear for dialogue that those people sound three-dimensional, but that just makes the comedy a bit more sharply relentless. Turgenev himself was utterly foolish when it the grip of headlong infatuation, and he captures that foolishness wonderfully from the first moments of the play to the end.
To my mind, he does it best in the form of the lady of the house, Natalya Petrovna, married to a good but clueless man nearly a decade her senior, constantly attended by Mikhailo Aleksandrovich Rakitin, a frustrated former suitor whom she expertly keeps at arm’s length. Vera might be an intuitive weathervane, but it’s Natalya Petrovna’s constant wry observations that give the whole play its heartbeat:
You know, Ratikin, I noticed this a long time ago … You are wonderfully sensitive to the so-called beauties of nature, and talk about them exquisitely … very intelligently … so exquisitely, so intelligently, that I feel sure nature should be indescribably grateful to you for your beautifully chosen, happy phrases about her; you court nature, like a perfumed marquis on his little red-heeled shoes, pursuing a pretty peasant girl … the only trouble is, I sometimes think that nature will never be able to understand or appreciate your subtle language – just as the peasant girl wouldn’t understand the courtly compliments of the marquis; nature is simpler, yes, cruder than you suppose – because, thank God, she is healthy … Birches don’t melt, they don’t have fainting fits like ladies with weak nerves.
Berlin keeps his notes to a minimum, and the play itself is over far, far too soon; this is a Penguin Classic that has to work hard to break 100 pages. But my, the sheer amount of insight into the human heart contained in those 100 pages! It’s as piercing as anything of comparable length in Tolstoy (our other main candidate for ‘T’) – and funny besides.
Robert Louis Stevenson started writing The Weir of Hermiston in late 1893 in Samoa in a whirlwind of rejuvenated creativity. He’d felt himself scraping the splintery inside edges of his prodigious talent in the course of that year, but he’d found frankly unexpected renewal in writing the dark, near-perfect sections of The Beach of Falesa (and in collaborating with his stepson on The Ebb-Tide), and the novel that wanted to become The Weir of Hermiston seized him with the easy absorption with which all strange books commandeer their authors. He remarked over and over that the sheer clarity of the book almost frightened him.
Then he died, abruptly. He was straining to open a bottle when he suddenly stopped, looked at his wife, said “What was that?” and collapsed. He was 44. The Weir of Hermiston practically ends in mid-sentence. Stevenson critics, fully aware of its truncated state, have sometimes called it his greatest work.
Karl Miller, founder of The London Review of Books, edited a slim edition of the book for Penguin Classics in 1996, supplementing and slightly superseding the version Paul Binding did for Penguin in 1979. Miller is a voluminous reader and a first-rate critic, a master of making deeply-contemplated observations seem tossed-off, as when he writes, “It’s common enough for people, and not least for expatriates, as they grow older and grow conscious of their deaths, to want to return to their early days and to their early words, and this is what the absent and endangered Stevenson wanted to do.” He gives his readers a quick overview of The Weir of Hermiston: sensitive young Archie Weir, son of a coarse and hilariously brutal Edinburgh judge and his weepy, wallflower wife, is sent to live with a local grandee at Hermiston, where he begins to fall in love with one of the two women called Kirstie who polarize the book like opposing centers of gravity.
Of course, Miller is equally prone to crusty-old-scrub pronouncements that don’t particular hold up under scrutiny, as when he writes about Stevenson, “His Kirsties do away with the idea that he was some sort of queer fellow whose reticence on the subject of sex was that of a writer who was unable to do justice to heterosexual love,” but such things can be forgiven in the balance of his marvelous Fleet Street roving curiosity, not to mention his welcome brevity – most writers would view the comparative brevity of the book as an open invitation to bloviate.
Reading the book itself again only reinforces the sadness that comes with thinking about it, because Stevenson was right to be somewhat frightened; imagine if Melville, who expressed the same kind of wondering fear when in the grip of Moby-Dick, had died while writing “Stub Kills a Whale.”
“We are all grown up and have forgotten the days of our youth,” Stevenson writes at one point, and certainly The Weir of Hermiston has more sheer complexity and incredibly rich ambiguity than in anything else Stevenson wrote, and it’s of a different kind as well, deeper, more completely controlled, showing everywhere an positively Byronic capacity for simultaneous sadness and mirth. When gruff old Hermiston launches into one of his dinner table tirades about the poor quality of his food, readers are both horrified and tickled:
“You and your noansense! What do I want with a Christian fam’ly? I want Christian broth! Get me a lass that can plain-boil a potato, if she was a whure off the streets!”
When his poor soul wife is anatomized by our author, he slips in a murderously effective little phrase to unsettle our complacency about her worth:
Mrs Weir’s philosophy of life was summed up in one expression – tenderness. In her view of the universe, which was all lighted up with a glow out of the doors of hell, good people must walk there in a kind of ecstasy of tenderness.
And when the good lady suddenly dies and the judge lumbers in to look upon her body, the most solemn moment is shot through with such weird humor that no self-respecting reader will know quite what to do:
“Her and me were never cut out for one another,” he remarked at last. “It was a daft-like marriage.” And then, with a most unusual gentleness of tone, “Puir bitch,” said he, “puir bitch!”
For a little over a hundred pages, this crystalline brilliance plays out before us, and even though we know full well the story behind the novel, we’re caught off-guard by the abrupt ending; on some fundamental level, it just doesn’t feel right that such a book could fail to go on. Had Stevenson finished it, The Weir of Hermiston would have been one of the greatest of all Victorian novels – and that’s saying a great deal.
As it is, we have a long, tantalizing fragment – and one of the best dedications ever written by an author, this one to his long-(and loud-) suffering wife:
Some Penguin Classics furnish an appetizer that’s so good it almost competes with the main course. Naturally, that becomes proportionately easier depending on how brief the main course is – or how unappetizing.
“Unappetizing” has always been my reaction to the two most famous books of sixteenth century satirist and weekend-Benedictine Francois Rabelais, 1532’s Pantagruel and 1534’s Gargantua. The books feature the ribald adventures of two giants in a world of fragile social customs and hypocritical moral strictures, and the fact that J. M. Cohen’s 1955 translation for Penguin Classics has gone through a jillion reprints is a testament to the fact that college lit professors aren’t above enticing bored students with endless fart jokes. They should be, but they’re not. And so Gargantua and Pantagruel lives on, a lovely fat little Penguin whose contents are sampled far more often (exclusively?) by prisoners of academia – whether inmates or wardens – than by the so-called common reader.
It wasn’t always so. W. F. Smith’s translation of 1893 was a modest hit, mainly owing to its vigorous English and its lavish notes. It could be argued that the late Victorian era was a perfect cultural backdrop against which to display Rabelais’ cheerful invectives against the starched moralizing of two-faced public figures, and Smith goes at his task with a wonderful exuberance. Cohen calls it “a monument of excellent scholarship devoted to a faulty theory of translation.” Sigh
Fortunately, Cohen’s own translation is every bit as good as Smith’s, if a bit less lively (nodding again to my adamantly held belief that when the seas finally close over the whole sorry epoch of mankind, enlightened later beings – perhaps evolved from basset hounds – will judge that the Victorian era was the single greatest era human creativity ever saw). And his obligatory Introduction is a stellar thing, one of the best such Introductions in the entire Penguin catalog. He’s firm about Rabelais’ excesses, but he forgives them out of love:
Only too often for his translator’s pleasure, he merely strings his narrative together with a series of thens and ands; and his sentences are sometimes so rich in half-related dependent clauses that his true meaning is in danger of escaping his reader. But once he is caught up by his passion for words, once he begins to catalogue, to pun, to travesty, to etymologize, to pile up his pebbles into monstrous and misshapen cairns; once he begins to list the Library of Saint-Victor book by preposterous book, or to list in parallel columns the games that Gargantua and his friends played in their unreformed youth, then we have the true Rabelais.
He’s sympathetic to his author’s plight – Rabelais was hounded throughout his life for the scandalous stuff he wrote (when Erasmus wrote the original inspiration for that stuff, in his The Praise of Folly two decades earlier, he had the good sense to issue it anonymously, so he could disown it if the Church came calling), and Cohen understands that he perhaps in some sense couldn’t help writing it:
Rabelais is not concerned with individuals; he is not sufficient of a Renaissance man for that. What he draws is the picture of an age, or to be more exact, of a time when two ages overlapped, the new age of research and individualism, with which he was in intellectual sympathy, and the age of the fixed world-order, to which he owed emotional loyalty.
And best of all, he gets what Rabelais is about. With all due respect to Mikhail Bahktin (whose greatness even I must concede, however reluctantly), I myself don’t think Rabelais was ever about much more than burlesque, but even so, his shade must be comforted by a translator so brotherly:
He was a man intoxicated by every sort of learning and theory, who had at the same time the earthy commonsense of a peasant. His mind would reach out in pursuit of the wildest fancies, and when he had captured them he would relate them only to the three constants of this life: birth, copulation, and death, which he saw in their crudest physical terms.
Rabelais certainly would never have anticipated a day when he’d be more studied than read, and it’s very possible such a thought would have alarmed him. But that’s one of the lessons Penguin Classics teach: you can’t always pick the form of your immortality.
Some Penguin Classics ain’t what they used to be! Take for example Rex Warner’s sturdy, chatty 1958 translation of six very famous mini-biographies from Plutarch’s epic series of Parallel Lives. Penguin decided early on that bringing out a fat Classic of the whole of Plutarch probably wouldn’t be commercially viable – or aesthetically either, since in Plutarch’s long pairing of Greek and Roman lives, several of the Greek figures suffer a great deal from the murky obscurity into which their names have fallen in the two thousand years since the the author dropped off the twig. But that’s not a worry with Warner’s volume, since it collects the lives of six of the most famous Romans of them all: Crassus, Cicero, Marius, Sulla, Pompey, and Julius Caesar. Writing those lives, Plutarch the master dramatist is on the surest of all possible terrain.
Something of that discursive certainty carries through wonderfully in Warner’s translation, but times, it seems, change. Under the strong impression that Warner’s translation was showing its age, Penguin in 2005 got Classics scholar and Pompey biographer Robin Seager to revise his own earlier revision of Warner’s version, and he set to his task with a vengeance. This spiffy improved Penguin volume has greatly expanded end notes, and it for the first time includes translations of the special essays Plutarch wrote explicitly comparing the Greek life and Roman life he’d just chronicled.
The resulting volume is an intensely valuable mini-education in some of the best Plutarch has to offer his readers – but it sure is hard on poor departed Rex Warner! This is an example of Seager trying to be nice:
I have completely revised Rex Warner’s translations of the six lives which make up the volume. More specifically I have corrected his very occasional errors and omissions, rephrased passages where it seemed to me possible to get closer to Plutarch’s exact meaning, and, for the benefit of students of Roman history, rendered more precisely certain Roman social, political, and military terms. I have not, however, made any attempt to alter the somewhat free and strikingly individual manner in which Warner handled Plutarch’s syntactical and grammatical structures, except in those rare cases where I judged it to have misrepresented or obscured Plutarch’s meaning.
Why Seager didn’t go the extra half-step and simply do a wholesale new translation of his own I do not know. But as good and useful as this new edition is, I can tell you one thing for sure: Rex Warner’s original translation wasn’t as bad as all that.
Some Penguin Classics – the vast majority of them, in fact – make their appearance too late to console their authors. Our case-in-point today involves an author who needed more consoling than most: the novelist and short story writer John O’Hara, who flourished in the 1930s and ‘40s, in the heady first heyday of The New Yorker, for which he wrote such an endless stream of short stories. O’Hara’s literary reputation has languished in the basement for decades, consigned there in large part by the comic, utterly damning evisceration the author received at the well-manicured hands of Brendan Gill in his classic Here at the New Yorker. It hardly matters that Gill praises O’Hara’s writing ability; the portrait he paints forever fixes O’Hara in the public imagination as a crass, sour buffoon.
It shouldn’t matter that he wasn’t, but the portrait stuck, and O’Hara’s stock declined to such a flea-market and church-sale low point that you’d never have guessed he was once famous and extremely well-paid. So extra kudos to Penguin for bringing out his best works, starting with Appointment in Samarra, the 1934 debut whose smash success shot its author, not yet 30, to the height of literary renown.
The novel tells the story of the inexplicable, seemingly unavoidable (hence the title) downward spiral of small-town Cadillac salesman Julian English who, in the course of only three days, manages to drink himself into a stupor several times and alienate virtually everybody he knows personally and professionally. O’Hara knew a great deal about the kind of career yearning that can lead a man to the comforts of nightly drinking, and he knew a great deal about how pointless those comforts feel, and he knew a great deal about their miserable aftermaths. And it’s all here in this easily-underestimated novel: Julian English has no genuine reason to first destroy and then end his own life – he’s goaded by persecutions that remain dark to the reader. But his uncomprehending, self-destructive, flailing anguish along the way feel as real as any drunk-scenes ever written.
Even the critics who hated O’Hara agreed that he had a knack for eavesdropping on the everyday speech of his characters, and a fresh re-reading of Appointment in Samarra confirms it: the dialog here, even between two comparatively minor characters, is as vivid and unassuming as anything in John Cheever:
“I’m going upstairs now and make the beds. I’ll see if the pants of your Tux need pressing.”
“Oh God. That’s right. Do I have to wear that?”
“Now, now, don’t try and bluff me. You look nice in it and you know it. You like to wear it and don’t pretend you don’t.”
“Oh, I don’t mind wearing it,” he said. “I was just thinking about you. You’ll be so jealous when all the other girls see me in my Tux and start trying to take me outside. I just didn’t want to spoil your evening, that’s all.”
“Applesauce,” said Irma.
“Why don’t you say what you mean? You don’t mean applesauce.”
“Never mind, now, Mister Dirty Mouth.” She left.
What a girl, he thought, and resumed reading his paper; Hoover was receiving the newsboys for Christmas …
O’Hara went on from his stunning debut to write an entire bookcase of novels and short story collections, plus a good deal of occasional prose and a vast heap of letters. We can’t expect Penguin to get to all of that verbiage, but we can fantasize that O’Hara’s restless ghost is grudgingly pleased with some of his fiction is now being honored as Penguin Classic reprints. And the fact that Brendan Gill’s own superb short story collection, 1974’s Ways of Loving, is currently nowhere to be found? Well, that’s just extra.