Posts from November 2017
November 24th, 2017
Some Penguin Classics don’t seem quite right until you actually see them in the familiar restrained format, staring out at you with that quintessential Penguin Classic quiet assurance (in this case considerably abetted by a stark cover illustration by Hsiao-Ron Cheng). Then you start to think, “Well yes, this is probably right. I’ve certainly never been able to forget [X] – and maybe that’s as good a definition of ‘classic’ as anything else.” And slowly, gradually, you experience the quietly wonderful feeling of adding a classic to the world’s roster, of admitting to the ranks another book that’s going to go right on making its strange and irreducible claims to generations of readers, whether the author’s around to disavow it, whether interpreters are around to claim they spotted it first … that’s going to go straight to the readers and sticking with them.
Such a book is certainly Anna Kavan’s Ice, which now becomes a Penguin Classic on the 50th anniversary of its publication in 1967. Many lurid cheap paperbacks have followed from that debut, and many readers, famous and obscure, have encountered the book at their library or on the metal spinner-rack of their small-town dry goods store and read its weird story of an unnamed man crossing a broken, ice-stalked version of modern reality in search of a “glass girl” who seems never quite willing to materialize – read the story and then tried to understand it, only to find that it, too, never quite materializes. This is a fantasy about sick longing, a quest novel in which the search erodes the searcher, and hard at every one of its perimeters is looming ice. Kavan, who wrote many more-or-less conventional novels under the name Helen Ferguson, wrote this one under not a pseudonym but a fictional character’s name, and speculation has been rife ever since about the extent to which Ice is a parable about her own struggles with drug addiction.
Either way, what she creates in these pages is a telescoping gallery of horrors. The man’s quest evolves into a tour through all the depravities of an intensely depraved world, and in scene after scene, monsters creep through the cold up to cabin windows, pause to listen to the talk inside, and hear stories of yet more monsters:
Now she was with a man she called father who sat just inside the window. Because he was so close to me, his was the first voice I understood. He was relating the legend of the fjord, how every year at the winter solstice a beautiful girl had to be sacrificed to the dragon that lived in its depths. The other voices gradually became silent when he began describing the rite itself. “We untie her as soon as we get her up there on the rock. She must struggle a bit, otherwise the dragon might think we’d palmed off a dead girl on him. The water foams down below. The monster’s great scaly coils appear. Then we hurl her down. The whole fjord becomes a maelstrom, blood and foam flying in all directions.”
“They might have been talking about a football match between their team and a rival town,” we’re told.
This Penguin Classic edition of Ice is introduced by the talented novelist Jonathan Lethem, and that turns out to be both good news and bad news. He opens his Introduction, for instance, like this:
Anna Kavan’s Ice is a book like the moon is the moon. There’s only one. It’s cold and white, and it stares back, both defiant and impassive, static and frantically on the move, marked by phases, out of reach. It may even seem to be following you.
There are 184 moons in Earth’s solar system. 11 of them are extremely similar to Earth’s moon. 4 of them are virtually identical to Earth’s moon. Earth’s moon is not white. Earth’s moon is not defiant. Earth’s moon is not frantically on the move. Earth’s moon is not out of reach – men have visited it, there are pictures. Earth’s moon does not seem to be following you, although Anna Kavan’s Ice will, especially if you’re reading it for the first time. As Lethem more helpfully writes “Though Ice is always lucid and direct, nothing in it is simple, and it gathers to itself the properties of both a labyrinth and a mirror.”
November 20th, 2017
Some Penguin Classics are beautiful productions in and of themselves, quite separate from the beauty (or, in the case of some authors reprinted with inexplicable regularity, the lack thereof) of the prose involved. Conspicuous along these lines is the Penguin Classics Deluxe Edition line, which puts wonderful extra effort into making paperback classics worth treasuring on the outside and the inside. These editions have gatefold covers, deckle edges, and, most noticeably, newly-commissioned and often deliberately off-kilter cover art. And while on rare occasions that cover-art can go awry (the less said about the new Penguin Classics Deluxe Edition of Anne of Green Gables, the better – although the stuff inside was as wonderful as ever), most often its both arresting and, often playfully, subversive.
In the case of the new Penguin Classics Deluxe Edition of Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, the cover represents a natural pairing: illustrating Conrad’s novella of frightening human degradation is comic book artist Mike Mignola, the creator of Hellboy. Mignola is a virtuoso of dark spaces in his art, and looming behind the semi-human figure on the cover is a tangled, swollen heart – in a pointed gesture of creepiness, the vein are embossed.
A reader who can resist embossed heart-veins is made of sterner stuff than I am, but even for such die-hard holdouts, this Conrad edition offers a mighty strong temptation in the form of an Introduction by Adam Hochschild, author of the bestselling King Leopold’s Ghost – in one sense a perfect choice, considering how extensively Hochschild has written about the same forces of colonialism that drive a wedge of madness right through the middle of Conrad’s book. Hochschild is a sensitive reader of fiction, but in this case he’s calling for more:
We miss much if we look at the novel only as a work of imaginative literature. It is also a remarkable description of “the actual facts of the case,” the Scramble for Africa at its most naked. The river that Marlow travels up may never be named – and, indeed, it doesn’t always physically resemble the Congo River, nor does the Inner Station much resemble the Stanley Falls Station Conrad saw … But consider the figure at the novel’s center, Mr. Kurtz, the brilliant, ambitious, supremely rapacious hoarder of ivory. Kurtz is sketched with only a few bold strokes, but he has become our time’s most famous literary villain: the lone white man with his dreams of culture and grandeur, his great store of ivory, and his barbarous fiefdom carved out of the jungle.
Of course the main draw here is the same as in all Penguin Classics: the book itself. I recently re-read and loved Maya Jasanoff’s great new biography of Conrad, The Dawn Watch, so I was primed and ready to re-read Heart of Darkness, which I confess I’d never really enjoyed all that much and whose vicarious elevation in the wake of Apocalypse Now I resisted with a degree of stubbornness that was doubtless unfair to Conrad.
My worry about him has always been the disquieting murk of his prose, and this latest re-reading of Heart of Darkness didn’t exactly sooth that worry: Conrad is a prolix writer. The wits who’ve been commenting for 100 years that his English reads like a fair-to-middling translation from some very different and perhaps far more glottal language have always been delivering a grain of truth. But this latest re-reading revealed slow (not to say sludgy) undercurrents in passages I’d always previously considered simple self-indulgence. I don’t know whether or not it was largely due to Maya Jasanoff’s book, but I navigated the undercurrents far more easily this time around and actually enjoyed myself in re-reading even fervid passages like this one:
“I let him run on, this papier-maché Mephistopheles, and it seemed to me that if I tried I could poke my forefinger through him, and find nothing inside but a little loose dirt, maybe. He, don’t you see, had been planning to be assistant-manager by and bye under the present man, and I could see that the coming of that Kurtz had upset them both not a little. He talked precipitately, and I did not try to stop him. I had my shoulders against the wreck of my steamer, hauled up on the slope like the carcass of some big river animal. The smell of mud, of primeval mud, by Jove! Was in my nostrils, the high stillness of the primeval forests was before my eyes; there were shiny patches on the black creek. The moon had spread over everything a thin layer of silver – over the rank grass, over the mud, upon the wall of matted vegetation standing higher than the wall of a temple, over the great river I could see through the sombre gap glittering, glittering, as it flowed broadly by without a murmur. All this was great, expectant, mute, while the man jabbered about himself. I wondered whether the stillness on the ace of the immensity looking at us two were meant as an appeal or as a menace. What were we who had strayed in here? Could we handle that dumb thing, or would it handle us?”
My other, non-Deluxe Penguin Classics edition of Heart of Darkness has the traditional Penguin black spine with white letters, but as is usually the case, this Deluxe Edition is easily superior, a slim, gorgeous thing in its own right and now haunted by Mike Mignola’s somber artwork. Complete with embossed veins.
November 14th, 2017
Our book today is an awkward, adorable little children’s classic from the bygone era of 1944: Georgie by Robert Bright, an old-school hack of the first water (and Boston Transcript alum, if those two things aren’t already redundant) who wrote a kids book about a lonely ghost and watched in bemused wonder as that book not only caught on with readers but went on to form the basis for what the 21st century would nauseatingly call a “brand.” Georgie, the little ghost, went on to have a dozen adventures, but the magic all started here, in an unassuming, poorly-drawn, and completely wonderful 95-cent paperback.
When we first meet Georgie, he’s a ghost who knows his place in the world, a happy ghost. He haunts the little old New England house of Mr. and Mrs. Whittaker, where every night at the same time he gives a step on the staircase a little creak and the door to the parlor a little squeak – and these are the signals everybody’s waiting for. When they hear their little ghost moving around at night, Mr. and Mrs. Whittaker know it’s time to go to bed; Herman the house cat knows it’s time to begin prowling for mice (and they presumably know to start hiding); Miss Oliver the owl knows it’s time to wake up and start hooting. It’s a perfect arrangement, and Georgie always has a smile on his ghostly face.
But then one day Mr. Whittaker decides to oil the parlor door and nail down the stair on the staircase. Suddenly there’s nothing for Georgie to do. The old couple falls asleep on the parlor couch; Herman the cat stops prowling for mice; Miss Oliver sleeps right through her usual wake-up time.
And in the rootless way of unemployed ghosts, Georgie soon decides to take up residence somewhere else. But we’re told – in one of the book’s most offhand and creepy asides – that every other house in the neighborhood already has a ghost. All but one: the dark and scary mansion of old Mr. Gloam is ghost-free – because Mr. Gloam himself is so mean no spirit will haunt him.
So Georgie goes to a drafty cow barn and stays there – idle and miserable – for “a lot of time,” through rainy days and cold, snowy days. It’s only after a long time that Miss Oliver flies over to the cow barn with word of an unexpected reprieve: the cold and the rain have loosened the floorboards in the old Whittaker place and rusted the hinges – Georgie is needed again! He enjoys a happy homecoming and gets right back to work causing the gentle creakings and squeakings by which everybody sets their own timetables.
Re-reading Georgie after all these years raised the same questions in my mind that I had the first time I read it: who is Georgie? Why is it that every single living thing in the book – Herman the cat, Miss Oliver the owl, the other ghosts, Mr. Gloam, the cow in the cow barn – can see Georgie, but Mr. and Mrs. Whittaker cannot? Is he perhaps the ghost of a long-lost son of theirs? And what happens if Mr. Whittaker decides to fix the stair again?
But I’m reminded that ghost stories always leave me asking the same kinds of questions. Earlier this year, I asked them all while watching David Lowery’s beautiful movie A Ghost Story, for instance. Fortunately, they don’t ever diminish my enjoyment – I loved Georgie all over again this time around.