Posts from October 2014

October 24th, 2014

The Ides of March!

the ides of march coverOur book today is Thorton Wilder’s wonderful 1948 epistolary Roman historical novel The Ides of March; I found a neat old green-jacketed cover at the Brattle Bookshop the other day, and I smiled all the more readily at the sight of it, since I’d recently been unutterably wearied by the hosannas showered by the book-chat world on Augustus, the wan and wordy pastiche (also an epistolary Roman historical novel) of Wilder’s book written in 1972 by John Williams (author of the stupefying novel Stoner). The high-pitched fluttering among some of the best book-critics in Christendom on the occasion of the New York Review of Books‘ reprint of Augustus in 2013 only further convinced me that the book-chat world is as prone to yearbook-signing fad-following as the most flighty college sorority. In response (mental and sometimes muttered) to each one of these ridiculous encomiums, written on deadline by writers not one of whom could bring himself actually to finish Williams’ plodding book, I often remembered the book Williams was ripping off so ineptly. And since my own copy of Wilder’s book had long since disappeared (of course), I jumped at the chance to re-read this new-old copy.

It’s a strange book, in main part because it resolutely plies an artistic middle course, a respectable, Book-of-the-Month Club path far removed from Wilder’s own best leaps of genius (the greatest of which, no matter how many high school drama clubs massacre it, is his wicked and devastatingly sad play Our Town). Since so much of Wilder is now forgotten (his novel The Eighth Day, for example, won the National Book Award and probably hasn’t been read by a single person other than myself in the last forty years), readers might forget that the man was a working author with plenty of passions and interests of his own; The Ides of March reflects a good many of those, from Wilder’s idealization of political leadership to his appreciation of poetry.

The book dramatizes events in Rome immediately leading up to the assassination of Julius Caesar, and he dominates the narrative as thoroughly as he dominated Rome in his mode of benevolent dictator. In Wilder’s hands, he’s the quintessential great man: moderate, winningly cynical, enormously competent, and far-seeing into the hearts and minds of others. In these pages he shares the spotlight with such notable figures from history as Cicero, Catullus, and Cleopatra, as well as with that living nexus of Roman domestic intrigue, the scandalous Clodia Pulcher and her charismatic, ne’er-do-well brother Clodius. These two plot and scheme deliciously throughout the book, and Wilder imagines their dynamic as a bubbling stew of Freudian unspokens. They hate Caesar, of course, but Clodia at least is able also to appreciate him, at one point lecturing her brother about the parts of the man worth emulating:

Watch him. You might begin by imitating his diligence. I believe it when they tell me that he writes seventy litters and documents a day. They fall over Italy like snow, every day – what am I saying, they fall all over the world from Britain to Lebanon. Even at the Senate, even at dinner parties there’s a secretary behind him; the very second that the idea of a letter occurs to him he turns and dictates it in a whisper. One moment he’s telling a village in Belgium that it can change its name to his and he sends them a flute for the town band, the next moment he’s thought out a way of harmonizing the Jewish dowry laws with Roman usage. He gave a water clock to a city in Algeria and wrote a fascinating letter in the Arab mode Work, Publius, work.

And amidst all the wheeling and dealing, Wilder spares a very pleasing amount of time for poor Catullus, prompted by his infatuation with Clodia to pen both vituperative attacks on Caesar and, of course, some of the world’s immortal love poems. Wilder’s Caesar takes the former in stride with good humor, but it’s the latter, those love poems, that really confuse him. He sums it up well in a plaintive letter to one correspondent:

You will be astonished to know that the woman addressed in the poems under the name of Lesbia is no other than Clodia Pulcher to whom you and I have written poems in our day. Clodia Pulcher! By what strange chain of significances has it come about that this woman who has lost intelligible meaning to herself and lives only to impress the chaos of her soul on all that surrounds her should now live in the mind of a poet as an object of adoration and should draw from him such radiant songs? I say to you in all gravity that one of the things in this world that I most envy is the endowment from which springs great poetry. To the great poets I ascribe the power to gaze fixedly at the whole of life and bring into harmony that which is within and that which is without them. This Catullus may well be of that company. Are these sovereign beings then subject to the deceptions of the lesser humanity? What disturbs me now is not his hatred of me but his love of Clodia. I cannot believe he is addressing merely her beauty, and that the beauty of the body is sufficient to evoke such triumphs in the ordering of language and idea. Is he able to see in her excellences which are hidden from us? Or does he see the greatness that undoubtedly was within her before she wrought on herself the havoc which now arouses detestation and laughter throughout the city?

Wilder wields the epistolary form with sharp, economical grace (unlike a certain someone already mentioned), lucy reading ides of marchalways skillfully playing against the inevitable his readers know is coming. He provides the notion of an actual plot to his story – the infamous scandal in which Clodius infiltrated an august (and exclusively female) sacred rite dressed as a woman (this profanation of the Bona Dea rite is a staple of the writers of Roman historical fiction, and understandably so: it’s tough to mess up) – but the real spectacle here is of a singular Good Man surrounded by the clutterings and clawings of lesser beings. Every time I re-read the book, I worry that Wilder had some particular American politician in mind while he was creating his Caesar (as Taylor Caldwell would rather hilariously have one in mind years later when she wrote her own Roman historical novel, A Pillar of Iron), although it would be plenty bad enough even if he was only thinking of Julius Caesar himself, a more manipulative and self-serving creep than which it would be tough to find any time prior to the Nixon White House.

But no matter who might have been on Wilder’s mind, readers own that person a vote of thanks: they inspired a first-rate novel, and an eminently re-readable one as well … and one perhaps the New York Review of Books will get around to reprinting one of these days – by way of compensation.

October 22nd, 2014

Cape Cod!

cape cod thoreauOur book today is Henry David Thoreau’s beloved posthumous 1865 book Cape Cod, a collection of pieces he wrote for the Penny Press detailing trips he and a companion made to Cape Cod in 1849, 1850, and 1853. They tramped everywhere, in all weathers, and Thoreau’s razor-sharp observational powers caught every nuance of the local people he encountered and every detail of the wild landscape, most especially the great curved swoop of the outer beach, where the Atlantic batters the hook of the Cape relentlessly. The volume of Cape Cod I recently found (at the Brattle Bookshop, of course, although I’ve probably missed it countless times in bookstores on the Cape itself) was published in 1951 and features a short Introduction by Henry Beston, whose 1928 classic The Outermost House sits with Thoreau’s book on the small shelf of all-time best Cape Cod books. Beston attests to a Cape that’s rapidly changing from Thoreau’s day – with some parts changing more slowly ternsthan others:

Since Thoreau’s visit, the peninsula has been largely given over to the summer holiday regime, but that regime ends at the outer beach. Those who go in search of Thoreau’s Cape will find it if they use their eyes. A hundred years of warring with the tides have passed over the rampart wall and made their natural changes, but it still fronts the unappeased, the insatiable sea with an earthly strength of sand itself taken from the waves. The volutes of the breakers approach, rear, tumble, and dissolve, and over the glisten, the foam, and the most, sea-fragrant air still fly by the small shorebirds hastening. A noble world, and one is glad that it once touched the imagination of the obstinate and unique genius from whom stems the great tradition of nature writing in America.

One subtle, charming thing about the Cape is the way the sea manages to penetrate everything. Almost no matter where you happen to be on the Cape, it’s easily possible to spend your whole day out of sight of the water, and this was no less true when Thoreau visited the place – but he catches perfectly the fact that the sea is always with the Cape wanderer just the same:

Every landscape which is dreary enough has a certain beauty to my eyes, and in this instance its permanent qualities were enhanced by the weather. Everything told of the sea, even when we did not see its waste or hear its roar. For birds there were gulls, and for carts in the fields, boats turned bottom upward against the houses, and sometimes the rib of a whale woven into the fence by the roadside.

He and his companion braved the outer beach in winter, a thing even hardy year-rounders don’t take lightly, and again he captures the raucous, chaotic sights that stretch so regularly produces:

The wind blowed so hard from the northeast, that, cold as it was, we resolved to see the breakers on the Atlantic side, whose din we had heard all the morning; so we kept on eastward through the desert, till we struck the short again northeast of Provincetown, and exposed ourselves to the full force of the piercing blast. There are extensive shoals there over which the sea broke with great force. For half a mile from the short it was one mass of white breakers, which, with the wind, made such a din that we could hardly hear ourselves speak.

storm on the bluffsI’ve walked long sections of that great outer beach many times, both before and after it became the Cape Cod National Seashore; I’ve walked it with two politicians (one lanky, the other very much not), two violinists (one very talented, the other, well, from another world), three poets (one fat and shabby, one thin and beautiful, one built like a longshoreman, all three gone now and all three remembered in anthologies), three novelists (two talented, and one so blazingly gifted I doubt she even noticed the roiling ocean immediately to her right), two critics (one portly, of theater, the other lanky, of books), and even – for all you George Costanza fans out there – an actual marine biologist (in his youth, when he was very nearly as sleek and graceful as the ocean-going animals he yearned to study). And those walks were only a fraction of the epic hikes I took with a long roster of dogs – out in all weathers, tails up like pennants, constantly calling out nerdy chatter only I could hear. I’ve even walked those stretches alone, including once in bitter mid-winter, at night, when I had ultimate things to ponder and only ended up encountering a beach-waddling skunk who seemed as surprised to see me as I was to see him.

All those memories confirm what Beston wrote half a century ago about what Thoreau wrote a century ago: lucy reading cape codit’s still possible to encounter a Cape Cod untamed by mega-mansions – if you use your eyes. And thanks to Thoreau’s great essays and set-pieces, it’ll always be possible to encounter that Cape, even from the comfort of your own couch on a blustery day far from the shore.

Certainly my own enjoyment this time around was hugely enhanced by the very factor that made me buy this edition: it’s full of wonderful black-and-white illustrations by the great Henry Bugbee Kane, who also did the illustrations for yet another of the books that belongs on that shelf of Cape Cod classics, Wyman Richardson’s The House at Nauset Marsh. This volume of Cape Cod will find a place right there.

October 17th, 2014

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.

October 8th, 2014

Penguins on Parade: Jason and the Argonauts!

penguin colophon

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.

October 7th, 2014

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!

October 5th, 2014

Penguins on Parade: Chateaubriand!

penguin colophon

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.

October 1st, 2014

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.