Posts from October 2015
October 30th, 2015
Our book today is a gorgeous 1994 “Rumpole” volume from the Folio Society, featuring ten classic stories chosen by their author, John Mortimer, who introduces the collection by sketching out the very simple guideline he used to select which bits of his large “Rumpole” canon he wanted to include:
In this book I have chosen ten of my favourite Rumpole stories. They are the stories I have enjoyed writing most, those which made me laugh a little when I was writing them (the only reliable test of a successful piece of work), and which drew some laughter from the actors when they read through the televisions versions.
Of course the author of the stories won’t like the same ones as the readers – two or three of my favorite “Rumpole” stories aren’t included in this volume, but on the whole the wonderful mythology of the Rumpole universe is on display here, from our Old Bailey hack himself to his imperious wife Hilda (“She Who Must Be Obeyed”) to his various chamber-mates and the rogues gallery of judges who clash with our disheveled hero in court.
This volume includes “Rumpole and the Show Folk,” “Rumpole and the Younger Generation,” “Rumpole and the Tap End,” “Rumpole on Trial,” “Rumpole a la Carte,” and one of my favorites, “Rumpole and the Bubble Reputation,” in which Rumpole temporarily abandons his “always defend” philosophy in order to train his courtroom crosshairs on Hilda’s favorite author, that premiere bottler of historical bilge-water, Amelia Nettleship:
You may be fortunate enough never to have read an alleged ‘historical’ novel by that much-published authoress Miss Amelia Nettleship. Her books contain virginal heroines and gallant and gentlemanly heroes and thus present an extremely misleading account of our rough island story. She is frequently photographed wearing cotton print dresses, with large spectacles on her still pretty nose, dictating to a secretary and a couple of long-suffering cats in a wistaria-clad Tudor cottage somewhere outside Goldaming. In the interviews she gives, Miss Nettleship invariably refers to the evils of the permissive society and the consequences of sex before marriage. I have never, speaking for myself, felt the slightest urge to join the permissive society; the only thing which would tempt me to such a course is hearing Amelia Nettleship denounce it.
The binding of this volume is rock-solid, and as the best possible treat, the stories are lavishly illustrated by Paul Cox, with distinct hints of the late, great Leo McKern, one of those perfect embodiments of a fictional character (like Joan Hickson as Miss Marple, or the great Jeremy Brett as Sherlock Holmes) that sometimes come along to delight readers.
Of course, the nagging thing about slipcased gems like these Folio Society volumes is that you finish them wishing they just kept going – how I would love a volume like this one that somehow included every Rumpole story ever written, all of them illustrated. But I’ll take what I can get.
October 27th, 2015
Our books today are samples from the delightful old line of Viking Portables that flourished in the postwar years and whose compact, jam-packed format has by now entirely disappeared and, given the givens of our post-literate society, will likely never appear again.
They’re instantly recognizable on the shelves of used bookstores, these Viking Portables: they’re squat and thick and colorful, an unapologetically high-brow anthology series originally designed for US servicemen during World War II and maintained for years afterwards as tight-printed little bricks of literature. At one time or another, I think I’ve owned nearly every Viking Portable that’s ever been made, but these six stand out for me:
The Viking Portable World Bible – This 1944 volume assembled by Robert Ballou is a true gem. It contains accessible English-language excerpts from all the major Scriptures of the world – the Rig Veda, Upanishads, and Bhagavad Gita of Hinduism, the New and Old Testaments of the Judeo-Christian tradition, the Dhammapada and the Diamond Sutra of the Buddhists, the arcane texts of the Zoroastrians, selections from the Koran and the sayings of Confucius, and generous portions of the Tao Te Ching. Each faith gets a short but remarkably comprehensive Introduction, and the translations used, though hardly ever ecstatically poetic, are clear and easy – and the result is surprisingly eye-opening: running the foundational scripts of all the world’s major faiths together in one volume, reading them that way, has a remarkably exposing effect on their purported wisdoms. Small wonder, I’ve always thought, that most of the atheists I’ve known in the last sixty years owned a well-read copy of this book.
The Viking Portable Roman Reader – Basil Davenport edited this 1951 volume with the intent of creating a one-stop market for all the choicest bits of the literature of ancient Rome – an impossible goal, but he comes damn close to achieving it. He ranges across centuries to find the best English-language translations of passages from Virgil, Livy, Horace, Ovid, Petronius, Marital, Juvenal, Tacitus, Cicero, Caesar, Catullus … and he brings his volume all the way up to Boethius and St. Augustine. Each of the great “ages” of Roman literature gets its own perceptive (if slightly waspish) introduction, and like all the best anthologies, this one leaves the reader hungry to find more of the writings of each author it includes. Of course, once the best, most skillfully translated and annotated versions of those authors have been hunted down, a book like the Roman Reader isn’t needed anymore – but it’s served a mighty good purpose.
The Viking Portable Medieval Reader – Edited by James Bruce Ross and Mary Martin McLaughlin in 1949, this volume takes a thematic approach to its sprawling subject (European life and literature from 1050 to 1500), grouping writings under headings like “The Body Politic” or “The Christian Commonwealth” or “The Noble Castle” and bringing together writers across a span of centuries and perspectives, everybody from Gerald of Wales to John of Salisbury to Peter Abelard and St. Francis of Assisi. And Ross and McLaughlin venture far afield from these usual suspects as well, including dozens of fascinating and now-forgotten Medieval writers, many of whom are getting their first accessible English-language translation in these pages. The Viking Portables often made genuine little advances over mere reprint anthologies in just this way, and I remember how thrilled I was to find some of these writers (old friends of mine from long, long months of study) appearing in a bright paperback for sale in every bookshop in Iowa. Who knows how many medievalists today were inspired by the thrilling variety they encountered in this volume and a couple like it?
The Viking Portable Renaissance Reader – It’s not surprising that the same holds true for this wonderful 1953 entry, since it too is edited by Ross and McLaughlin – in fact, this book may very well represent the pinnacle of what the Viking Portables achieved. The Table of Contents is organized along the same lines as the Medieval Reader, thematically rather than strictly chronologically; we get intriguing headings like “An Age of Gold,” “The City of Man,” “The Book of Nature,” and “The Kingdom of God,” and filling out those sections we once again have not only famous names like Marsilio Ficino, Erasmus of Rotterdam, Boccaccio, Cervantes, Montaigne, and Machiavelli but also another assembly of now-forgotten lesser lights, sometimes presented in their first mass-market English-language translation. And the effect of all these voices together, writing with such amazing skill and learning and humor on all the most important questions of their time (a time whose wonder they saw as clearly as later ages have seen it) is electrifying – something critics back in 1953, every bit as predisposed to ignore popular reprint volumes as their present-day counterparts are, noticed almost in unison, which is always nice.
The Viking Portable Elizabethan Reader – Hiram Haydn edited this 1946 volume roughly along the same organizing principles as the Medieval and Renaissance readers: there are groupings here for exploration, astronomy, religious schism, courtly life, engagement with the past, and half a dozen others. But if anything, the range of titans assembled in these pages is even greater than what Renaissance Florence could produce: Donne, Spenser, Sidney, Jonson, Wyatt, Bacon, Marlowe, Shakespeare, and a dozen others, all excerpted with a very discerning ear, all combining to create a vibrant portrait of an age (indeed, just about the only shortcoming is that Haydn only sees fit to include one passage from the writings of the queen who gave her name to the age – and not a particularly good passage at that). And like all the best Viking Portables, there’s quite a bit included in this volume that can’t easily be found elsewhere.
The Viking Portable Tolstoy – In this post I’ve shied away from Viking Portables devoted to one author, but this big 1978 volume edited by John Bayley (and featuring throughout the sturdy Maude translations) deserves to be the exception. The predictable way to do a 900-page Tolstoy anthology would involve a 200-page excerpt from War and Peace and a 200-page excerpt from Anna Karenina, and Bayley knows this and pointedly avoids doing it. Instead, he fills his volume with other Tolstoy – selections of autobiographical writings, a stage-play, and plenty of essays, all filtered through Bayley’s unobtrusive but infinitely knowing editorial discretion. For many years that now embarrass me, the unconventionality of this volume annoyed me, but now I see it for the genius it is, giving the overworked business commuter and the curious student a Tolstoy very different from the crafter of long, forbidding epics, and giving them such a generous helping of that other Tolstoy that they really come to know him.
One by one as the years went by, the Viking Portables disappeared from bookstores. A handful of them were reprinted in larger trade paperbacks with such shoddy production quality that their covers would pop loose from their pages if you so much as looked at them funny (and the covers themselves had become boring, neither the Art Deco drawings nor the evocative photographs of earlier versions). But the bulk of the line was simply allowed to lapse out of print, and I’ve always considered that a real shame. These books were designed to be both fascinating and timeless; the deserve to be finding their way into the libraries of readers in the 21st century. The Penguin Press rescued one of the best-selling books in the line, the Viking Portable Dorothy Parker, dusted it off, gave it a spiffy new design, and added it to their Deluxe Classics line. Surely all the old Viking Portables deserve the same treatment? If nothing else, then in recognition of past service?
October 26th, 2015
The lad mags I love so much have a love of their own: so-called “bucket lists”! For some unaccountable reason, the core readership of magazines like Esquire, GQ, Outside, Details, and Men’s Journal – over-monied young white male douchebags – just love “bucket list” features designed to help them tick off the last few things they want to do before they die, even though they’re in their mid-twenties. True, most of them are dumb enough to consider some kind of smoking (asshole cigars, trendy-legal pot, “vaping,” or what have you) as a fashion or “lifestyle” choice rather than a corrosive chemical addiction, but even indulging as they do, simple actuarial probabilities give them at least twenty more years of racist, misogynist condescension before they have to start trash-talking and firing their way through a succession of long-suffering doctors. So you wouldn’t think they’d care all that much about “bucket lists” designed, at least in theory, to round off a few loose ends from a long, adventurous life. But no – hardly three issues of any lad mag go by without such a list.
Take the one in the latest issue of Outside. It’s by Kate Siber, which certainly sounds like a woman’s name, but the list itself couldn’t be more lunkheadedly masculine if it were chiseled on the wall above a men’s urinal in Pamplona.
I confess, when I read these lists I like to check off the items on them that I myself have done. Of course, when I did them, I had not thought of any “bucket list” in mind – I was just out in the world, trying to enjoy myself and do interesting things. And yet, it turns out I scored fairly well on this latest list. It’s true that I’ve never “cage-dived” the enormous great white sharks that swarm off California’s Farallon Islands (as, indeed, no sane person has), but even so, I’ve managed to do a quite a few of the things on this.
I’ve “tripped out” on the Northern Lights, for instance. The list advocates seeing them in Iceland, and I’ve done that, although I’ve also enjoyed them in many other places, including dark spots far, far from the lights of mankind. Likewise the “go it alone” entry, which encourages readers to go solo camping; the list emphasizes that if you’re doing this for the first time, you should prepare extensively so that you don’t end up the dumb live-footage emergency-rescue clip at the end of the evening news, and I agree. It also helps to have a group of well-trained dogs along for the trip – not quite going it alone in that case, but my, they do come in handy.
Likewise the list urges its readers to try North Rim back-country camping down the Grand Canyon and paddling the remote beauty of the Allagash in Northern Maine, both of which I’ve done. Spending the night lodged high in a Douglas fir is also recommended, and this, too, I have managed to do, though never strictly voluntarily. And utterly in-voluntary have been any of my up-close encounters with grizzly bears, and yet this article in its madness suggests that readers seek out these 600-pound killing machines – go to Admiralty Island during salmon season and just hang out with the bears, who are so intent on gorging on salmon that they’re “decidedly carefree about your presence.” To which I can only add: they’re decidedly carefree about your presence – right up until the moment they’re not. At which point you become intimately acquainted with the fact that a) they’re extremely easily enraged, b) they have claws the size of ice-picks, and c) they can accelerate to 45 mph in the time it takes you to pee yourself. Sheer insanity, to knowingly go anywhere near them, salmon of no salmon.
But one item at least on this list is something twenty-something douchebags are unlikely to do but that I can testify is life-changingly worth doing. It’s listed under “Cross the Ocean,” and I’ll quote it in full: “The right way to do it, as part of a sailing crew. Online hubs list openings for sailors on boats making crossings. Many captains don’t require extensive experience, and they’re happy to offer passage if you’re willing to work hard for it.”
That’s simply, absolutely true (and was true even before these mysterious-sounding “online hubs”), and the adventures that can result from picking up and making that choice enormously out-distance mountain-biking down a vertical rock slope in spandex or hiking to find that one super-rad hot spring in Utah. But then, if you made the mistake of telling any of those accommodating captains that you were checking them off your “bucket list,” you might find yourself swimming home.
October 25th, 2015
Some Penguin Classics prompt a sigh of relief, especially after the loosey-goosey anything-goes Week O’ Penguins we’ve had this time around (Ray Russell, I ask you!). After watching a coked-up gag-writer like Charles Beaumont pull down his own Penguin Classic (if that happened in a typical three-page Charles Beaumont story, he’d be super-honored until he discovered that … he could never read any OTHER book!)(*SIGH*), it’s like a draught of cool water to arrive at the end of our week and find ourselves reading a tried-and-true indomitable like Jane Austen’s Emma, which is one of the latest additions to the Deluxe line, just in time to celebrate the 200th anniversary of its original appearance in 1815.
Although … even now, in the apparently safe harbor of Emma, we come full-circle to the place where we started: mystery.
Not on some of the main points, mind you. This 200th anniversary Deluxe Annotated edition is introduced by Juliette Wells, whose book Everybody’s Jane: Austen in the Popular Imagination was a perfect combination of authoritative and accessible, and that’s a combination you definitely want in a pretty new paperback edition like this one, a paperback edition we can easily imagine being assigned in college classes. Wells gives us a wonderful Introduction to this wonderful book, the last one published in Austen’s lifetime and the first one whose business arrangements she wrangled herself rather than using her brother as a proxy. Wells allows herself comparatively few pages in which to orient the reader, and as in Everybody’s Jane, she manages to work quite a bit into every paragraph:
Austen cared greatly what her readers thought of her novels, and she was anxious about whether Emma would hold the same appeal as her previous works. “I am going to take a heroine whom no one but myself will much like,” her family recalled her saying when she began writing Emma, and when the novel was published she described herself as being in “a state of doubt as to her [Emma’s] reception in the World.” In particular she was concerned that readers who enjoyed the sparkling Pride and Prejudice would consider Emma to be “inferior in Wit,” while those who admired the morally serious Mansfield Park would think Emma “very inferior in good Sense.”
Wells is first and foremost a great teacher of Jane Austen, and for all its beauty and accessibility, this Annotated Deluxe Edition is clearly intended for students approaching Emma for the first time, as is made pretty explicit in the brief section called “Tips for reading Emma,” which includes common-sense advice like:
Pace yourself. If you’re reading for your own pleasure, take a chapter at a time. If you have a deadline – a class assignment or book group meeting – spread out the reading so that you’re doing some each day rather than big sections all at once. To the extent that you can, emulate the audience for whom Austen wrote: they read for pleasure, at their own pace.
(Not only do I know of no Austen fan who requires such advice, I know of no Austen fan who’s capable of following it; this must be at least my 35th re-reading of Emma, for example, and I could no more “pace myself” than I could sprout wings and fly to the moon – I gobbled it, immoderately, as always)
But even though these “tips” are clear and concise, there’s still, as mentioned, a mystery about this annotated volume of Emma … mainly involving the lack of annotations. It’s true that Wells provides eleven excellent “contextual essays” on things like food, health, love, or money in the world of Jane Austen’s novels, but such things, however interesting, do not an annotated edition make, as Wells must know as well as anybody. Yes, her readers will be fascinated to learn about dancing or social stratification in Emma from those brief closing essays, but first-timers reading the text of the novel itself will have none of the hand-holding that actual annotation is supposed to provide. When dear old hypochondriac Mr. Woodhouse says “I am too nice,” for example, there’s no authorial intervention to stop first-timers from immediately thinking they know what he’s saying, when he’s really not saying that. When we’re told that Mr. Martin has certainly read The Vicar of Wakefield but not The Romance of the Forest or Children of the Abbey, we’re being told something much more about him than the books on his nightstand, but readers who don’t already know that won’t learn it from this edition, unless they find it buried in one of those contextual essays at the back – certainly they’ll get no guidance on this or dozens of other small points while they’re actually reading the book itself.
It’s a small point, of course. As I’ve noted about annotated editions just in general, they’re often guilty of over-helping. Small misunderstandings or not, no beginning reader of Emma is going to fail to be utterly overjoyed by the book, and those beginning readers could hardly do better for themselves and their personal libraries than to invest the $17 in making this Penguin Classics Deluxe edition their Emma of choice. It’s just a bit odd, that’s all – which makes it par for the course during this particular Week O’ Penguins.
October 24th, 2015
Some Penguin Classics seem like classroom-ready compromises, as in the case of Jane Kingsley-Smith’s new paperback combining the two most prominent plays by John Ford with the two most prominent plays by John Webster. Why, you can almost hear being asked in some Penguin editorial meeting, should we force students to buy “complete plays” editions of both Ford and Webster when it’s only at most these four plays – “The White Devil” and “The Duchess of Malfi” by Webster and “The Broken Heart” and “ ‘Tis Pity She’s a Whore” by Ford – that those students will be studying in the limited time they have?
And Kingsley-Smith, bless her loyal heart, is fully aware of the criticisms that have been leveled against these two over the centuries, and she’s quick to defend them, not only by invoking that most useful of all literary shibboleths, the anxiety of influence:
Since the early nineteenth century both dramatists have been accused of the same crimes, most notably plagiarism, amorality and technical incompetence. Webster and Ford wrote for the King’s Men, Shakespeare’s company, at a time when its most celebrated playwright was either reducing his theatrical output or dead (see The Duchess of Malfi and The Broken Heart respectively), but Shakespeare remained a tyrannical presence, compelling his successors to remember and revisit his works.
… but also by hauling in modern critics who can be relied upon to work up nearly pyrotechnical grades of bullshit:
In the last fifty years the renewed popularity of Webster and Ford in the theatre has been complemented by a critical re-evaluation. Their reworking of Shakespeare is now more often attributed to creative ingenuity, which challenges audience expectations, rather than to mere slavish devotion.
“The ‘flaws’ in structure and characterization,” Kingsley-Smith tells us, “tend now to be perceived as deliberate artistic choices.”
Well, they at least tend to be claimed as deliberate artistic choices (and such claims are always dangerous, because they prefer what rhetorical game-playing can do over what it should do – this is exactly the kind of self-consciously disingenuous doubletalk that gets the movies of Michael Bay into allegedly serious film criticism courses). Newcomers to Ford and Webster, reading their works for the first time in this handy volume, will see plenty of deliberate artistic choices in these plays, and perhaps they’ll keep in mind that artistic choices that are deliberate can also be plagiaristic, amoral, and incompetent. Penguin once upon a time printed a selection of critical essays by George Bernard Shaw, who knew a thing or two about both Ford and Webster and would have had a few choice words to say about their “creative ingenuity.” Maybe Penguin Classics will revive and expand that grand old Shaw volume one of these days; the aforementioned students, among others, might find it interesting.
October 23rd, 2015
Some Penguin Classics are so physically beautiful they stifle dissent, at least temporarily. This is certainly true for most of the “Deluxe” titles (again, we shall not turn our thoughts toward a Deluxe edition of The Liars’ Club, lest those thoughts become impure …), and wow, even in that company, one of the newest Penguin Classics Deluxe editions really stands out: the new Penguin Arthur Miller, a big, gorgeous volume designed by Paul Buckley with cover art by Riccardo Vecchio (the art isn’t just a closeup of Miller’s hangdog face, thank God – the wraparound features 1950s-era New York City). This is a big book, 1300 pages, with French flaps and deckle edges, and its binding is so good that it obediently lays open at almost any page. It’s a genuinely hefty volume, capable – as I know now from first-hand experience – of being read and annotated and battered for a week straight. This is the Arthur Miller volume to own for a lifetime.
If you want such a thing, that is. Certainly you get the impression from reading the Foreword by playwright Lynn Nottage that you should want it. In a quick piece titled “Letter to a Young Playwright,” she takes the pretty much standard line about Miller’s worth in American letters:
I found myself drawn to Miller’s work because he wrote with a sense of purpose – an evangelical fervor rooted in his overarching concern about the shifting moral fault lines that threatened to fracture the foundation of American culture in the twentieth century. Indeed, Miller never backed away from the social issues of the day, mining his own misgivings and frustrations to create plays that probed the complexities of a flawed society. He had great empathy for the disaffected souls that hovered on the edges of darkness, light-seekers trying to negotiate a world that was rapidly redefining itself in the aftermath of the Depression and World War II.
It’s passionately – if somewhat tritely – stated (when writing about the critical and financial failure of Miller’s 1944 play The Man Who Had All the Luck, she has to contort herself to avoid using any kind of gendered pronoun: “These setbacks remind us that a playwright is shaped not only by how one copes with success, but, also as important, how the playwright rebounds from failure”). But I’ve never seen it in this writer. I know millions of people have read his plays and seen them performed – unlike our previous entries in this Week O’ Penguins, I’m not in his case saying he doesn’t belong in the Penguin lineup – but to me, he’s always seemed not only to be a mediocre dramatist but also an intensely insecure one. The mediocrity strikes me as self-evident; virtually nothing in his plays happens for organically dramatic reasons, virtually nothing progresses, and the characters are as flat as baking pans. And the insecurity jumps out in the texts of the plays themselves, where Miller is a stage mother from Hell, constantly hovering at the elbows of every actor and director, making sure every intonation and nuance is performed exactly the way he himself envisioned it, and to Hell with their own interpretations. It’s a fundamental distrust of the whole process of staged drama, and the only reason a playwright would feel it is if he wasn’t all that sure he’d done his job well enough so that his words led naturally to the interpretations he wanted.
His most famous play, Death of a Salesman, is absolutely lousy with such micro-management, but it runs through all the plays. Take for example his oft-staged (and Halloween-friendly) 1953 play about the Salem Witch Trials, The Crucible: it starts off with “A Note on the Historical Accuracy of This Play” (as if a dramatist has any business even thinking of such a note), then it proceeds to a four-page dissertation on Puritan Massachusetts – all this before Act One even begins. And even once the play has started, Miller is constantly there fussing with things, as in a quiet moment at the beginning of Act Two, between John Proctor and his wife Elizabeth:
PROCTOR, with a grin: I mean to please you, Elizabeth.
ELIZABETH – it is hard to say: I know it, John.
He gets up, goes to her, kisses her. She receives it. With a certain disappointment, he returns to the table.
PROCTOR, as gently as he can: Cider?
ELIZABETH, with a sense of reprimanding herself for having forgot: Aye! She gets up and goes and pours a glass for him. He now arches his back.
PROCTOR: This farm’s a continent when you go foot by foot droppin’ seeds in it.
ELIZABETH, coming with her cider: It must be.
PROCTOR, he drinks a long draught, then, putting the glass down: You ought to bring some flowers in the house.
ELIZABETH: Oh! I forgot! I will tomorrow.
PROCTOR: It’s winter in here yet. On Sunday let you come with me, and we’ll walk the farm together; I never see such a load of flowers on the earth. With good feeling he goes and looks up at the sky through the open doorway. Lilacs have a purple smell. Lilac is the smell of nightfall, I think. Massachusetts is a beauty in the spring!
ELIZABETH: Aye, it is.
It’s always struck me that Arthur Miller wasn’t so much a great dramatist as a second-rate novelist, but I realize I’m distinctly in the minority on that point. And lord knows, I tried to change that opinion! I lived with this beautiful Arthur Miller Penguin volume for days on end, taking it with me as I walked around in the traditional, nothing-to-see-here-folks 80-degree Boston October weather; I had strangers on subways comment on how lovely the book itself was, and I enthusiastically agreed with them. I talked to a couple of people who’d actually seen an Arthur Miller play, but their recollections were fuzzy. One older man told me about having seen a recent Broadway production of “Death of a Salesman,” and I asked him how he felt when he was leaving the theater. He looked puzzled, and then his face brightened. “My wife and I had a great dinner before the show.” We ended up talking about that, which was fine by me.
October 22nd, 2015
Some Penguin Classics quite inadvertently prompt somber thoughts. That’s been a bit of a theme in this particular Week O’ Penguins, and it continues with another of their latest volumes, Songs of a Dead Dreamer and Grimscribe, by cult horror-writer and bolt-eyed loon Thomas Ligotti. This is true not only because Ligotti is cut from the same cloth as Ray Russell and Charles Beaumont, although he is (he has more literary ability than both of them combined, but that’s not saying much, now is it?), but also because Ligotti is not only still alive but still well south of decrepit. There’s a peculiar chill that runs through your ventricles when the Penguin Classics line inducts an author who’s younger than you are. Natural orders feel inverted. The whole idea of what constitutes a “classic” begins to wobble.
Because surely whatever combination of elements go into making a classic, one of the most important of them all is time? I can name you five bestsellers and five cult figures (and five more bestselling cult figures) from the literary world of, say, 1968 – half of whom are still alive, two-thirds of whom are still writing – but their sales and status are just two gauges of the work they’re doing, right? Part of what we mean when we call something a “classic” is its ability to find readers in states unborn and accents yet unknown; when cheesy book-reviewers call something an “instant classic,” they’re expressing a hope rather than bestowing a benediction, and yet what is induction into the revered Penguin Classics line if not a literary benediction (we’ll say nothing, therefore, about the recent said induction of Mary Karr’s The Liars’ Club – there aren’t words, even in Klingon …)? Thomas Ligotti was born in 1953, for cripe’s sake! He only started publishing his stuff in 1981. Even calling him successful feels a bit presumptuous, but calling him a classic?
Nevertheless, that’s what Penguin is now doing, and they’ve enlisted Jeff Vandermeer, author of the popular “Southern Reach” trilogy, to do the Preface-writing honors. And he wastes no time in getting right down to business, hyperventilating from here to Penobscot Bay about strengths Ligotti doensn’t possess and stylistic resonances he’s never displayed and may never yet display:
In Ligotti’s work, the supernatural exists in support of ideas that serve as a sharp interrogation of the way we live, evoking comparisons to literary realists as different as John Cheever and Shirley Jackson. That may seem an audacious idea, but if we pluck Ligotti from the clutches of weird fiction, we find that his universality exists at an unexpected level – not because weird fiction doesn’t deal with complex issues and ideas, but because the weird fiction context places the emphasis squarely on the uncanny, obliterating our ability to see anything else.
“Ligotti’s fiction, temporarily unhooked from the weird, is best understood as a continuing interrogation of the legitimacy of our modern lives,” Vandermeer writes. “He is exploring the underbelly of modernity – personal and societal.”
He’s actually not doing anything of the kind, and even if he somehow were, that still wouldn’t salvage a contention that if you unhook Ligotti’s work from the weird, he suddenly transmorgrifies into Eudora Welty or somebody … No, Ligotti is a writer of weird stories; if you unhook him from the weird, you’re left with some semi-colons and a couple of disaffected aunts.
He writes weird stories fairly well, however. They’re very firmly Lovecraftian – of all the absurd assertions Vandermeer makes, his assertion that Ligotti soaked up all the Lovecraft that interested him and then moved on is by far the most absurd – but they’ve got a stylish sense of pacing and some fun use of color. They beguile an interval of reading, which is more than can be safely said of our previous two new Classics. It’s true that Ligotti never trusts his readers enough to risk being subtle and instead smears on the purple prose with a garden trowel, as when the half-supernatural main character in “The Lost Art of Twilight” is contemplating himself:
Such is a thumbnail sketch of my half-toned existence: twilight after twilight after twilight. And in all that blur of time I never imagined that I would have to account for myself as one who existed beyond or between the clashing worlds of human fathers and enchanted mothers. But now I had to consider how I would explain, that is conceal, my unnatural mode of being from my visiting relatives.
But more often than not (and more often than Lovecraft, which is saying something), Ligotti falls back on hokey stagecraft to lurch his stories to their intensely predictable climaxes, as in one of the sharpest stories collected here, “Dr. Voke and Mr. Veech”:
“I’ve done my best for you, Mr. Veech, and you’ve given me nothing but grief. I’ve tried to deliver you from the fate of your friends … but now I deliver you to it.”
At these words, Veech’s body began to rise in a puppet’s hunch, then soars up into the tenebrous rafters and beyond, transported by unseen wires. His arms and legs twitch uncontrollably during the elevation, and his screams … fade.
It’s good old-fashioned baroque melodrama steeped in fuzzily familiar horror cliches, by an author who’s barely into his 60s and probably has a lot more writing to do before he retires his laptop. So: more Penguin Classics in store? If it were up to me, I’d let the grandchildren of his current readers be the judges.
October 21st, 2015
Some Penguin Classics, as we seem to be mentioning quite a bit lately, are a bit odd. They call to mind fifty years of mottos the line has used to promote itself to the reading world, things like “The Best Books Ever Written.” They call these mottos to mind in aggressively evaluating terms, because when these certain Penguin Classics appear, they challenge any idea of inclusiveness. Even if we stretch “The Best Books Ever Written” to include also important books, path-breaking books, perhaps socially relevant books, there are some Penguin Classics that just don’t seem, well, good enough to belong in the same ranks as Tolstoy, Austen, Chaucer, and the Brontes. No matter how far we stretch any parameter of inclusion, in other words, there doesn’t seem to be any reason to include, say, Ray Russell – or any worth do doing so.
Which brings us in short order, since the two men knew each other and one paid money to the other for the task of writing on deadline, to Charles Beaumont: one of the newest Penguin Classics is a collection of his short stories called Perchance to Dream. It boggles the mind.
Beaumont was born in 1929 and broke into big-time print when a 1954 story appeared in Playboy. He sat himself in front of a manual typewriter every single day of his short life (he died at the age of 38) and pounded out short stories, novels, and a string of TV scripts, including for some of the best-known episodes of The Twilight Zone. He wrote at lightning speed for anybody with a check to write, and he was smart, and he was clever, and he had an incredibly fertile imagination, and if you’re noticing that I’m leaving something out of that list, you’re right: he had no literary talent. He never for an instant thought he did. Nobody who knew him for an instant thought he did. He wouldn’t have known what to do with literary talent – in fact, its appearance in his heart or mind would have alarmed him, since it would have gummed up the works.
Bizarrely, this is a point very nearly explicitly made in the Introduction of Perchance to Dream, an enthusiastic essay of appreciation by the late Ray Bradbury – one damning paragraph in particular:
I realize what a risk I take by daring to use the truly operative word Fun here. It could well label Charles Beaumont and damn him to hell amongst the agonizers and intellectual duck-pressers of the world. For, as you have noticed, you simply must agonize for them. If you do not sweat blood by the pint or the jeroboam, if you do not think loud and long or silent and heavy, and show traces of the sunken pit and the glorious masochism, are not a writer. Your novel took twenty years of nailing yourself to the cross over your typewriter? Splendid! You say that you revised your short story eighty-nine times, and are still not happy with it? Superb! Your three-act drama was in and out of your eyeballs and down on paper through ten thousand revisions? The Croix de Guerre is yours. But don’t be surprised if you trip over copies of your boring books as you leave the house. Literature? No. Doorstops is more like it.
This kind of nonsense says a great deal about the obvious limitations of Beaumont’s writing – limitations, keep in mind, obvious even to his friends, and hoo-boy, it says even more – all of it very accurate – about Bradbury’s own prose, . The one thing it says nothing about is the inscrutable Penguin editorial mindset.
And that mystery certainly isn’t cleared up when we turn to the twenty-three stories in Perchance to Dream, which aren’t really so much stories as they are pitch-ideas that natter on a bit. They have one single idea apiece, no characterization, perfunctory dialogue, and a wind-up length clatter-typed to perfectly commercial-friendly closure every time. Without exception, they reek of commercialism, expedience, and the tin-pan rattle mere shock. Without exception, they reek of convenience rather than any kind of craft other than shadow-puppetry. Without exception, in short, they reek.
“Sorcerer’s Moon” starts with “When he heard the screams, Carnady stopped walking. A fist closed about his heart.” “Blood Brother” starts with, “’Now, then,’ said the psychiatrist, looking up from his note pad, ‘when did you first discover that you were dead?’” About Mr. Pollet, the main character in “Father, Dear Father,” we learn:
Friends he had none. Acquaintances, few. His wife was afraid of him. And in the scientific clubs he was personal non grata: for when he was not mumbling jiggery-pokery about the “space-time continuum” and “the pretzel of the Past,” he was nudging people and asking them his famous, and perpetually wearisome question:
“Well, now, what about you, what is your opinion? If I were to go back in Time and kill my own father – what would happen?”
And those kinds of things aren’t just the carny-barker enticements to draw the reader into deeper matters, no: those lines are their stories – it doesn’t get any deeper. It makes a Penguin Classic of Perchance to Dream genuinely mysterious. The volume comes with a brief afterword by William Shatner. So: the Penguin Classics TekWar novels next?
October 20th, 2015
Some Penguin Classics, as we’ve noticed, are intensely mystifying. Not in their subject matter, but rather in their very existence – and one of the latest examples is the lovely new Penguin edition of Ray Russell’s 1962 debut novel The Case Against Satan, with a new Introduction by horror novelist Laird Barron.
After serving in WWII, Russell eventually became executive editor of Playboy and published big-name authors like Ray Bradbury, Kurt Vonnegut, and Richard Matheson. He went on to write a stack of screenplays and a dozen books in addition to The Case Against Satan, which Barron calls “a primary source in the modern iteration of gothic horror” and notes as a precedent to a “new wave” of horror novels that included Ira Levin’s Rosemary’s Baby and William Blatty’s The Exorcist.
The mention of Blatty’s book is key. The Case Against Satan came out in 1962 and sank like a stone, critically and commercially. The Exorcist came out in 1971 and sold like fresh griddle-cakes, and then two years later its author adapted it as a screenplay for an enormously successful movie adaptation, which prompted the sale of roughly a squintillion more copies of the book. Precedence or no precedence, in terms of cultural impact it should be Blatty’s book that’s a Penguin Classic, not Russell’s.
But that wouldn’t clear up the mystification, because both books stink. They don’t stink in quite the same way: Blatty was simply a talentless poser, purveying unreadable schlock; Russell, by contrast, was an old-style hack with a first-rate second-rate education – had he been born a generation earlier, he’d have made a fortune writing Death Comes to Dinner-style melodramas for the peppery Broadway of the time, and he never lost his keen ear for dialogue nor his keen sense of melodramatic pacing. His books definitely deserve your next rainy afternoon.
They just don’t deserve immortality, or the Penguin approximation, and The Case Against Satan is a good case-in-point. It’s the story of an alcoholic priest who’s confronted with a teenage girl named Susan Garth who’s suddenly behaving very strangely, cursing and avoiding churches and, at one point, attacking a priest. Her single father is at his wit’s end, and our priest is forced to face a possibility for which not all his years in seminary had prepared him:
It was never as if he lacked faith or doubted the existence of God. The idea of God sustained him. It is not difficult to believe in God. God is goodness, for which all men yearn; He is the fountainhead of life; He is Our Father Who Art in Heaven, a great concept, and there is nothing loftier, nothing nobler, nothing more dignified, nothing more awesome. “God is not mocked,” for such a figure is beyond mockery; but the Devil is and has been mocked down through the centuries – he has a sideshow puppet, a mustache-twirling city slicker, a costume for stage magicians, a trademark for a laxative water. No, it is not difficult to believe in God – the very flesh reaches out for such belief – but for an intelligent man of the twentieth century to wipe his mind the centuries of ridicule that have been heaped upon the Devil, for him to take the Devil seriously, as seriously as he takes God; that is difficult. And yet to fail is heresy.
Am I a heretic? Gregory thought with a stunning horror. Am I no longer a priest of God?
And – he asked himself – if this is true, how long have I known it? How long have I perhaps tried to wash it away that knowledge with liquor?
You can see at once the problem: this is quintessential lazy hack writing (“His is Our Father Who Art in Heaven,” etc.), and it’s staginess isn’t at all absolved by that more-interesting final line about washing away doubt with liquor, since that, too, is lazy hack writing, as much a part of the dime Westerns Russell eagerly consumed as was holster leather.
It’s like this all throughout The Case Against Satan, as the girl’s increasingly strange behavior begins to elicit even stranger behavior from her father, whose dark secrets are revealed in a climactic scene that takes place, as if you couldn’t guess, on a dark and stormy night. Mr. Garth never acts any different from the standard “Hey pal, what are you trying to imply?” guilty blowhard from every single week’s episode of The Twilight Zone, and he’s not the only cardboard character by a long-shot. Certainly all the priests in the book also qualify, and as a kindly gesture, Russell also throws in that staple of 1950s cheesy melodrama, the Incredibly Oblivious Housekeeper, in this case dear Mrs. Farley, who’s still thinking “priests were queer ones and no mistake, bless them,” long, long after a normal housekeeper would have run screaming for the hills, until you just want to sigh while watching Russell type this stuff out:
Ah, things had not been the same at St. Michael’s ever since the girl had started coming to Father Halloran with her troubles. That poor man had been plagued enough by that looney one, and now it was Father Sargent that had the cross to bear. A booby hatch was where she belonged, the wild creature. A paddle across her round little bottom … knock a little sense into her, a little of wildness and looniness out of her …
But no. Treat her gentle. Be nice as pie to her. Priests were queer ones entirely.
The aforementioned climax is well-done, as you’d expect from an old workhorse like Russell who knows not to disappoint the paying customer. And he leaves the shot and incident of his plot sufficiently ambiguously resolved as to give readers the seeming freedom to see Satan or simple child abuse at the heart of the matter. But subtlety is not only beyond writers like Russell, it’s also anathema to them – they typically can’t resist the hack’s parting gesture. Russell certainly can’t, although he leaves it for his Author’s Note, in which he dutifully enumerates the actual case of Catholic exorcism (in Iowa, of all places!) that inspired his tale, dutifully warns the readers that he’s embroidered the facts with fiction, as novelists are expected to do, and then … well …:
The following, however, is not fiction.
While I was working on Chapter XIII, in which the exorcism ritual culminates in the words, “Begone, Satan!” I was annoyed by the sudden appearance in my study of a large horsefly, almost the size of a bee, which buzzed about my head and kept me from working. It was not yet “fly weather” and, in addition, my windows were tightly closed. I was forced to interrupt the writing of the chapter, roll up a newspaper, and take time out to kill the intruder. Settling down to resume work, I had scarcely typed a half dozen more lines of the ritual when I was “attacked” by a second fly of the same size. Stopping work again, I killed the pest as I had killed the first. There were to be four such flies in all, each presenting itself only after the preceding fly had been killed. The flies stopped coming after I had typed the words of exorcism, “Begone, Satan!”
And that, ladies and gentlemen, is how it’s done. But in the same “classics” line with Tolstoy and Austen? Mystifying.
October 19th, 2015
Some Penguin Classics provide the best possible invitation right there with their covers, and I know almost no better example of this than the old 2003 edition of Benjamin Franklin’s The Autobiography and Other Writings, edited and introduced by the great American historian and biographer Kenneth Silverman (whose Pulitzer Prize-winning 1985 biography of Cotton Mather you should all rush right out and read). There on its cover is the utterly charming Norman Rockwell painting Ben Franklin’s Belles, the perfect enticement for the wavering reader to step in and explore the book.
As Silverman makes clear, the original readers of the Autobiography would have needed precious little in the way of such enticement. For those readers, Franklin himself was all the reason they’d need, and nobody knew that better than Franklin himself:
Given … his customary pose of authorial modesty, readers may find his self-portrait muted and lacking in glamour. But even when he began the book, knowledge of his accomplishments was so widespread that he could take it for granted. He therefore wrote from the point of view of his own legend. He would show his readers how he became what he knew he had in their minds become.
Franklin’s account of himself – highly sculpted, highly edited, highly self-regarding – is evergreen in its enjoyability, but Silverman isn’t half-bad himself, giving us a Franklin in his Introduction who’s almost as fascinating as Franklin himself thought he was:
Franklin’s fame has depended not only on his achievements but also on his personality and character. His geniality and wit made others long for his company. And to his more than fifty years of public service – crowned by his part in writing the Declaration of Independence, his role as American minister plenipotentiary to France, and his attendance at the convention that devised the Constitution of the United States – he brought a sensitive understanding of human nature and a realistic view of the possibilities for human happiness, together with enormous self-confidence, shrewdness, and tact. Gifted with foresight – indeed a kind of seer – he made remarkably few bad decisions, although often faced with momentous choices.
There are, of course, innumerable editions of Franklin’s Autobiography out there in circulation, including some that run to hundreds of pages of notes and annotations. But this paperback is my favorite – and its cover doesn’t hurt at all.