Some Penguin Classics serve as reminders of the perils of sequels. In fact, since the very first Penguin Classic, and also the first Penguin Classic best-seller, was E. V. Rieu’s translation of Homer’s Odyssey, it would be fair to say the Penguin Classics line was founded on a sequel – with all the pros and cons that apply. The Odyssey is the ur-sequel: more tightly controlled than its predecessor – one plot and one subplot – but less angry and wild, more psychological and less elemental, conforming to a universe instead of creating one. In this way its reading satisfactions are also concessions, and so it’s been with sequels ever since, from The Merry Wives of Windsor to David Balfour to Bring Up the Bodies: readers trade the dizzy excitement of groundbreaking for the more settled pleasures of city-building.
It’s a trade on full display in Jean Larteguy’s 1961 novel Les Praetorians, the sequel to his enormously popular and best-selling novelThe Centurions, also now found in the Penguin Classics line. Les Praetorians was translated as The Praetorians in 1963 for Penguin by Xan Fielding, and a new 2016 reprint features a Foreword by retired US general Stanley McChrystal. The book returns readers to the world of The Centurions and its cast of battle-scarred French paratrooper veterans of the Algerian War and Dien Bien Phu, and McChrystal in his short Foreword is content to wax nostalgic:
As a young Lieutenant in 1977 I reported to the famed 82nd Airborne Division. I donned the uniform, topped by a maroon beret, with the hope that before long I’d have the sinewy physique, steady nerves, and nonchalant demeanor of a veteran warrior – the outward traits of the paratroopers Larteguy introduces us to in The Centurions and then examines more deeply in The Praetorians. Soon, my comrades and I learned the trade of young paratroop officers – from siting machine guns to dealing with strong-willed senior sergeants.
“It would have been impossible” he goes on, “to be quite as competent, courageous, and attractive to women as our French counterparts Larteguy portrays, but at least superficially, mimicking warriors we admired was straightforward.” This is genuine Marine-grade effrontery, of course, especially since anybody who’s actually studied the Vietnam War (much less those who watched it unfold) will automatically finish “siting machine guns” with “on helpless civilians,” but it certainly captures something of the dangerous sentimentality Larteguy’s confections have always provoked in their readers. That sentimentality is mixed with fire and brimstone throughout most of The Centurions, where Larteguy seems at times to be mocking it as much as any of his less biddable characters are; that it’s going to be far less adulterated in the sequel is signaled early in The Praetorians, when disillusioned Captain Philippe Esclavier of the 10th Colonial Parachute Regiment abruptly resigns and his commander, Colonel Raspeguy, assigns a man named Boudin to find out why:
The colonel was as slim as an adolescent. From the back he could be taken for a twenty-year-old if it were not for those folds round his neck. They were all slim, all adolescent, the Esclaviers, the Glatignys, the Marindelles: dangerous, pitiless and at the same time pitiful. Even Boisfeuras, who was not like them, had found this strange youthfulness in death. But he, Boudin, with his common sense, his feet planted firmly on the ground, his Auvergnat craftiness, was there to protect these fragile soldiers.
He would make quite sure not to find Esclavier.
In Italy an old glass-maker had told him that crystal sometimes catches a disease which makes it break without any reason. That sort of leprosy is contagious. Esclavier had it and he must not be allowed to infest his comrades, the crystal warriors.
In that business about “crystal warriors” we see the faint echo of virtually every sequel ever written, the lure of nostalgia, the urge to sanitize. Larteguy’s considerable literary gifts are not lessened in The Praetorians – no reader who starts it will voluntarily stop reading – but that lure is always a suspect thing. When Odysseus in the hall of the Phaeacians weeps when the bard sings of the war at Troy, readers are supposed to be touched by the plight of the weathered wanderer. They’re not supposed to remember that from that wanderer’s dark brain sprang the destruction of Troy, the enslavement of all its women, and the slaughter of all its babies. But maybe they should remember it anyway.
Some Penguin Classics never quite stop being controversial, and that’s certainly the case with Ernst Junger’s bestselling First World War memoir In Stahlgewittern, which was first privately printed in 1920 when its author in his twenties, fresh from his experiences during the war. He’d compulsively recorded those experiences in a collection of wartime diaries, and for the next forty years, and after a humble start, the resulting book became an enormous hit with the reading public. Penguin Classics has published an appropriately somber black-spine edition in the past, but in 2016 the book has been given the lavish “Deluxe Edition” treatment, complete with a Foreword by Matterhorn author Karl Marlantes and bright, surrealistically disturbing wraparound cover art (curiously uncredited) by Neil Gower. It’s gaudy, gorgeous production, very cannily at odds with the grim material contained in the book itself.
That material is presented here in Michael Hofmann’s 2003 translation, complete with his Introduction in which he slathers contempt all over the English-language predecessor translation by Basil Creighton (“… his knowledge of German was patchy, his understanding of Junger negligible, and his book seems much older and staler than his original. There are literally hundreds of coarsenesses, mistakes and nonsenses in his translation; open it at just about any page and you start to find them”) and immediately swings into the kind of mystification that’s always clung to this book like black smoke to a burning building:
There was always something aloof and solipsistic about Junger – the word ‘aristocratic’ is often misapplied to him – that meant that as a soldier and a writer and even an ideologue he was in it for himself, and never quite, at that. He was not a novelist or a politician or a penseur, though with elements of all three … It is hugely to Junger’s credit (though it is as much a matter of temperament as of choice) that he was never an opportunist – if anything, rather the opposite.
It’s tough to know how to reconcile “never an opportunist” with a man who sidled up next to power for his entire adult life, a man who refused to repudiate the Nazis lest it endanger his comfortable eminence, a man who was so assiduously opportunistic that he pushed to have not one but two “Collected Works” editions of his writings in his own lifetime.
That perennial urge to give Junger some extra-literary line of credit, to extend to him some kind of ineffability because his book is so moving, is on full display in the Deluxe Edition’s Foreword as well. Marlantes wrote one of the great Vietnam War novels of all time, and in his opening remarks he’s very much in war-fiction mode, the foremost characteristic of which is always an appeal to fact:
During my own war, I had the privilege of living in close proximity to born warriors. The Marine Corps has a lot of them. I am not one of them. I would consider myself a citizen soldier, and most of the young men I served with were citizen soldiers as well. We became warriors, through either volunteering or being drafted, for the time that we were needed by our country. As soon as we could, we left the military and returned home. Born warriors are different. For them, war is home. They like to fight.
Marlantes looks at all the times Junger was wounded during the war, and he naturally calls our author a “born warrior.” That’s why, he says, “Junger’s book contains almost no political, moral, or philosophical commentary.” Leaving aside the heavy implication that there’s something admirable or praiseworthy in the homicidal purity of “born warriors,” the fact that Junger’s book contains no tawdry political commentary was, like everything else about the book, a product of its author’s very careful, perhaps even opportunistic, fussing with the text. The earliest editions have plenty of fervently-worded German nationalist jingo-lingo; it was only once Junger had an international audience that might be put off by such rhetoric that he removed it from subsequent editions. The brutally authentic, unstudied tone of In Stahlgewittern is the product of unremitting study.
The results are invariably impressive, even in an English-language translation that isn’t quite the Second Coming Hofmann seems to think it is. Junger writes a gripping line of prose, always going for the cheap-but-effective juxtaposition of man’s despoiling of nature’s beauty in a time of war. This juxtaposition was old even when Stephen Crane weaponized it into a great narrative in the year of Junger’s birth, and Junger himself uses it consistently to good effect:
Twice more, I am torn from my sleep to do my duty. During the last watch, a bright streak behind the sky to the east announces the coming day. The contours of the trench are sharpened; in the flight light, it makes an impression of unspeakable dreariness. A lark ascends; its trilling gets on my wick. Leaning against the parapet, I star out at the dead, wire-scarred vista with a feeling of tremendous disillusion. These last twenty minutes seem to go on for ever. At last there’s the clatter of the coffee-bringers coming down the communication trench: it’s seven o’clock in the morning. The night-watch is over.
Storm of Steel has been sparking wildly contradictory reactions from the moment of its first fame. Critics have accused it of glorifying war, although this hasn’t stopped a wide range of those same critics (Hofmann refers to them as “cosmopolites, left-wingers, non-combatants” until you just want to have him escorted from the premises) from crying up the book’s “rare and brutal authenticity.” Admirers – whether of the book or of the “born warriors” it, I guess, depicts, have sung its praises as the definitive account of the WWI soldier’s perspective. It’ll no doubt go right on keeping people talking about it – thereby gladdening its author’s heart in the Poet’s Corner of Valhalla, since keeping people talking about Ernst Junger was Ernst Junger’s foremost dream for Ernst Junger – and thanks to this sturdy, beautiful new Penguin Classics Deluxe Edition, those debaters will have at their fingertips the nicest-looking English-language translation of the work ever produced.
Our book today is a courtly thing from 1945: William Dana Orcutt’s memoir From My Library Walls. The book is subtitled “A Kaleidoscope of Memories,” which might make it sound deadly dull and ponderous, but this particular author couldn’t write a ponderous book to say his life. He delighted readers with a dozen or so novels and half a dozen completely charming works of non-fiction, most of them, like this one, centered around authors, books, and book-making (two favorites I once owned and appear to own no longer are The Kingdom of Books and The Magic of the Book).
The book-making he learned as an apprentice to the great and gentle John Wilson of the old University Press of Cambridge, Massachusetts – an enviable position he held as a young man in his early 20s and vigorously dreamed of leaving for the beckoning fame and fortune of being a writer. As he recounts in warmly-remembered detail in these pages, the art of book-printing had sunk to an all-time low around the turn of the 20th century – the idea of making the physical presentation of a book into a work of art seemed a remote and foreign thing to him, which is deliciously ironic, considering how many gorgeous editions he’d go on to make when he ran the University Press and the Plimpton Press.
In From My Library Walls he recalls the somewhat unlikely catalyst of his change of heart: Mary Baker Eddy, who finished up an editorial meeting with him one day, fixed him with her unblinking gaze, and told him he should stay with the Press. When he protested that he dreamed of making beautiful things, she replied, “If one has beauty in himself, he can put beauty into anything.” And it stuck with him.
That Mary Baker Eddy story is one of dozens in these pages. “From My Library Walls” refers not to books taken down from shelves but to framed portraits that look down from walls, pictures like that of Mrs. Eddy, reminding him of all the great and famous people he’s met in his long life in the literary world. He recalls talking with J. M. Barrie at London’s Garrick Club and telling him a story about how the stage-play of Peter Pan was playing in the boondocks of the New World:
I told Barrie of a criticism of the play that had gone the rounds in America. “Peter Pan,” was on the road, playing a one night stand in some provincial Western town. The dramatic critic of the town’s single paper indignantly demanded: “When will our public refuse to accept plays whose producers seek to economize on road productions? In ‘Peter Pan,’ last night, the fairy was played by a dot of light. Undoubtedly in the metropolitan performances the fairy was dressed in full tights.”
Barrie smiled, but his mind was on the play rather than my story. “It is my dream child,” he said slowly. “It was at that very table,” he continued, pointing across the room, “that Peter Pan’s future was established.”
He remembers the long correspondence he carried on with Thomas Hardy, and the time Rudyard Kipling marked up a proof at this desk at the University Press. In a piece daringly titled “The Redundancy of Henry James,” he reflects on his initial growing dissatisfaction with the Master’s work:
I have read everything Henry James ever wrote, but I must admit that this has been due to my zeal as a student rather than because I enjoyed the reading. At one time I came to the conclusion that Henry James was having a beautiful adventure with himself at the expense of his readers. At this point I decided to remove myself from the guinea-pig class, and let his next book go by without reading it.
(But then of course he meets James, which promptly changes his disposition)
And predictably for somebody so intimately connected with the book-chat world, Orcutt is sensitive throughout his book to the mysterious ways of literary taste-making. He’s a gently wry narrator of literary foibles, and some of his digressions on the how and why of the book-recommendation business still resonate today, when that business has achieved a sheer sprawl he couldn’t possibly have imagined:
How do we know what to read? Not from subscribing to a book club, which does our literary thinking for us, and tells us what books to let them supply Not by selecting a book because it is a best-seller. Not by straining to get a copy of a book that is banned. Our literary appetite should be balanced, and, unless we ourselves are competent to select a satisfying literary menu, the selection of the “committees” of the various book clubs can hardly be expected to rescue us from our incompetence. The old bromide, “How can I know whether or not I like a book until I read a criticism?” is no more absurd than the more recent reply of the debutante: “How can I tell what I think until I hear what I say?”
From My Library Walls is every bit as lively and friendly as it was the first time I read it, many, many years ago. I was thrilled to find a copy at my beloved Brattle Bookshop, even though the dust jacket of the thing was practically disintegrating before my eyes. A little tender care should fix that, and then the book will be on my library walls, ready for periodic revisiting.
Our books today comprise a quick and torrid little tour through Burke’s Peerage, highlighting – as if it needed highlighting – that the 21st century Regency Romance is every bit as obsessed with rank and privilege as the Regency era itself was. In ascending order of oomph, those ranks are: the barons, the viscounts, the earls, the marquesses, and then, one step down from royalty itself, the dukes – and to judge by the Romance new releases at your local bookstore, those ranks are filled with more bed-hopping and heart-sighing than the average Midwestern co-ed college dormitory. A monthly visit to my local Barnes & Noble invariably nets me at least two or three examples of the landed aristocracy in heat, and one of my recent forays was no exception:
Wedding Night with the Earl by Amelia Grey – In this instance, and no doubt purely by chance, the lowest rank is also the weakest contender. Amelia Grey is a first-rate Romance author with a particular talent for dialogue, but several elements of this book – the latest installment of “The Heirs’ Club of Scoundrels” series – fall a bit flat. The story is the clash of wills between hard-hearted Adam Greyhawke, suddenly thrust into his responsibilities as the new Earl of Greyhawke, and Katherine Wright, a wealthy heiress sidelined from high society by a childhood leg injury. Grey handles their sharp-edged banter just perfectly, but the deeper parts of both their motivations – his for not wanting to marry her and father children, hers for insisting on it – seem thinly and hastily constructed rather than things that would actually move two intelligent people. The way Adam eventually helps Katherine to deal with her injury leads a wonderful ballroom scene, but the charm of that alone wasn’t enough to save the book for me.
You Can’t Always Get the Marquess You Want by Alexandra Hawkins – As we move up the social register, we come to this latest novel in the “Masters of Seduction” series (after the utterly captivating A Duke But No Gentleman), the story of Mathias Rooke, Marquess of Fairlamb, nicknamed “Chance” because he’s often uncommonly lucky, and Lady Tempest, the daughter of the Marquess of Norgrave. The two feel a strong but problematic attraction to each other, which is immensely complicated by the fact that a strong-tempered and long-standing feud exists between their families. Alexandra Hawkins specializes in weaving layers upon layers into her sparkling stories – that’s a big part of what makes her so delightful to read – and the plot she’s devised here gives her the perfect opportunity to play to her strengths. Her one weakness as a writer – a tendency to muddle her second acts – is mitigated more than ever in this latest book, with its gripping opening and even-more-gripping climaxes. It might share a virtually identical cover design with Wedding Night with the Earl, but it’s a significantly stronger outing.
The Wicked Duke by Madeline Hunter – We reach the peak of our social climb with Madeline Hunter’s delectable new novel, the third in the “Wicked” trilogy (which started with last year’s very good His Wicked Reputation), this time centering on Lance Hemingford, the Duke of Aylesbury, known about Town (and to his long-suffering valet) as the Wicked Duke – not just because of his rakish ways, but also because he’s suspected of having had a hand in his brother’s death. To escape the prying censure of the Ton, he retreats to a quiet estate in the country, where he’s confronted by respectability in the form of marriage to Mariann Radley, the daughter of a parvenu knight with social aspirations and very little common sense. But as fans of Hunter’s books will see coming, there’s a great deal more to Mariann than what appears on the surface, and at first she’s less intrigued by the Wicked Duke’s considerable physical attractions than she is by the chance to snoop into what really happened between him and his brother. The resulting story is part comedy of manners and part star-crossed lovers, with a hint of a whodunit added in – a wonderfully enjoyable tale.
Some Penguin Classics hew close to an academic model and try in their good conscience to be gateways to richer wonders. Once such gateway that’s always been attractive to teachers is an abridgement of Giovanni Boccaccio’s gigantic masterpiece, The Decameron. In its unedited form, the book is a cinder block in size, one hundred stories a group of Florentine nobles tell each other in their country retreats from the rampaging plague stalking the city. The stories and their delicate interconnections are an immeasurable gift to readers, but the unabridged work can be terrifying to high school and college freshman readers encountering it for the first time.
Hence the appeal of books like this svelte new volume from Penguin Classics, Tales from the Decameron, translated by Peter Hainsworth, who takes thirty-two of Boccaccio’s liveliest and best-known Decameron stories and presents them to readers who might balk at tackling the whole one hundred. And Hainsworth’s philosophy for conveying these thirty-two tales in English is admirably straightforward:
Boccaccio’s language poses particular problems for the translator. Keeping anything like his complex syntax in modern English seems out of the question. The risks of losing the free, conversational elements embedded in it, and ending up with ponderous, old-fashioned literary prose, are just too great. I decided that if the results were to be as readable as Boccaccio’s original was to his Florentine contemporaries in the upper merchant class, the sentences needed to be broken down, and in places I was ready to opt for very short unites indeed, although still syntactically and grammatically correct by the standards of ‘good’ contemporary English prose.
Readers familiar with some of the more popular of the many English-language translations of the Decameron won’t find it difficult to call to mind an example or two of the “ponderous, old-fashioned literary prose” Hainsworth invokes, and it’s fair to say his own selection of highlights in this volume mostly avoids such languors. The climactic moment of Masetto’s boisterously erotic tale from the third day of storytelling, for instance, comes across with a pleasing bounce:
‘Lady,’ he said, ‘I’ve heard it said that one cock is plenty for ten hens, but that ten men can barely satisfy one woman, and then only with an effort. And here I am having to serve nine of them. I couldn’t go on like this for anything you gave me in the world. Or rather, with what I’ve done so far, I’m in such a state I can’t even begin again, let alone go on. Either you wish me well and let me go, or you find some way of arranging things better.’
If your ears pricked up at that “cock” in the first line, they were no doubt intended to, and that kind of quiet playfulness runs throughout this inviting introduction to the much larger world of Boccaccio’s masterpiece. It’s a tone of well-mannered mischief that’s well reflected in the choice of one of the more whimsical pages from the classic old Rockwell Kent Boccaccio illustrations. And Hainsworth’s picks are unerringly on-target: he’s included all of the best of the Decameron here, the stories most likely to entice newcomers to move on to the splendid Penguin Classics unabridged edition. Once they’ve done that, it’s highly unlikely they’ll ever revisit this volume, but that’s as it should be – by then, it will have done its work.
Our book today is a doozy, a true and unexpected delight: Barnes & Noble’s latest addition to their sterling, mouth-watering series of leatherbound classics is a Star Trek volume! Just in time for the 50th anniversary of the original TV show’s appearance (an anniversary Paramount Pictures has decided to honor by, astonishingly, shamefully, mostly ignoring it), B&N has brought out an utterly gorgeous black hardcover volume collecting 42 of the episode adaptations mid-century sci-fi hack James Blish wrote up for the earliest Star Trek volumes that fans ate up eagerly and made into the most unlikely bestsellers of that or any other season.
The volume itself is a lovely thing, with color cast photos as end papers and with a pretty outline of the USS Enterprise inlaid on the back cover. The texts were taken from the three-volume paperback omnibus editions Paramount put out back in 1991, each containing an Introduction by Norman Spinrad that gives a quick and heartfelt overview of rackety birth of the original series, when Gene Roddenberry fought the network in order to make his new science fiction show something more than just a spaceship-oriented Wagon Train. Spinrad does a sensitive job of tracing Roddenberry’s determination to create something special:
[Gene] Roddenberry could have stopped there and, having cracked the basic problems, probably gotten his science fiction series on the air. But it wouldn’t have been Star Trek, and it wouldn’t have become the phenomenon that created the present mass audience for science fiction both literary and cinematic. It would have been merely Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea in Outer Space, a good format for a successful TV series maybe, but not something that would pass into the collective popular unconscious.
Blish created these short adventures not from the televised shows but, on some tight deadlines, from the original scripts. He’s a wooden, unimaginative writer who can nevertheless do a quick and confident job with the interpersonal scenes that are the hallmark of Star Trek (for a science fiction writer, his actual science fiction – both in these stories and in his other books – is very noticeably bad), but the main fascination of re-reading his Star Trek treatments comes from relishing the differences between what he had in front of him to work with and what had eventually made it to broadcast. Star Trek every week had a sound stage crammed with quick-witted and intensely creative people, staff and cast, who quite often changed things about each episode on the fly.
So, for example, Blish’s adaptation of Paul Schneider’s original script for the great 1966 episode “Balance of Terror” takes us to the tense moments on the Enterprise bridge when Communications Officer Lieutenant Uhura is working her magic to get Captain Kirk an inside view of the Romulan warship currently facing off with the Enterprise outside the Romulan Neutral Zone. The moment in the episode is fast and fairly straightforward; Blish’s elaboration of it gives us some choice back-and-forth that will leave any fan of the original show not only imagining the original cast saying the lines but wishing they’d seen it:
The Bantu woman paid no attention to anything but her instruments. Both her large hands were resting delicately on dial knobs, following the voices in and out, back and forth, trying to keep them in aural focus. Beside her left elbow a tap deck ran, recording the gabble for whatever use it might be later for the Analysis team.
“This appears to be coming off their intercom system,” she said into the tape-recorder’s mike. “A weak signal with high impedance, pulse-modulated. Worth checking what kind of field would leak such a signal, what kind of filtration spectrum it shows – oh, damn – no, there it is again. Scotty, is that you breathing down my neck?”
“Sure is, dear. Need help?”
“Get the computer to work out this waver-pattern for me. My wrists are getting tired. If we can nail it down, I might get a picture.”
Scott’s fingers flew over the computer console. Very shortly, the volume level of the gabble stabilized, and Lieutenant Uhura leaned back in her seat with a sigh, wriggling her fingers in mid-air. She looked far from relaxed, however.
“Lieutenant,” Kirk said. “Do you think you can really get a picture out of that transmission?”
“Don’t know why not,” the Communications Officer said, leaning forward again. “A leak that size would be big enough to peg rocks through, given a little luck. They’ve got visible lights blocked, but they’ve left a lot of other windows open. Anyhow, let’s try …”
Like any fan of the original show might, I have my little quibbles with the editor’s selection of episodes (mainly, my gripe is that the under-appreciated episode “Requiem for Methuselah” isn’t here), but even so, this volume is a pure, outright gift to Star Trek diehards who aren’t seeing nearly the level of commemoration this year that they’d like. Seeing it makes me day-dream about a much bigger volume containing The Price of the Phoenix, The Fate of the Phoenix, The Prometheus Design, and Triangle, but alas, I suspect no book like that will ever appear.
Comics this week contained several bombshells and big events, but the one that drew my attention the most was the first issue of DC Comics’ new “Rebirth” summer event series, and it drew my attention not just because of the fan reactions popping up all over the nerdy end of the blogosphere but also because of teaser interviews and comments from DC’s own creative directors that gave me just a glimmer of hope that the company’s massive 2011 revamp of all of its iconic characters – a revamp I’ve written about quite a bit here on Stevereads and one I consider a near-complete failure both in terms of conception and execution – that the “New 52” revamp might at long last be coming to an end.
“Rebirth” #1 certainly taunted me with something along those lines. The front cover shows the by now familiar cast of “New 52” versions of the superhero characters I grew up loving – but the back cover shows the real versions of those characters, the version that have been missing for five years (the back cover also shows the classic Justice Society of America, which the “New 52” revamp eliminated completely). It was certainly enough to get me to buy the issue.
It’s a premise-setting issue, written by Geoff Johns and drawn by half a dozen artists, and it’s central gimmick has definitely served DC well in the past: Wally West, aka Kid Flash, lost in the extra-dimensional “speed force” that is the source of his super-speed, is able to sense things the other heroes of the DC universe can’t – including the fact that a mysterious, nearly all-powerful force has been manipulating them all for years, sundering their friendships, altering their worldviews to make everybody more ruthless and cynical.
It’s a daring move on Geoff Johns’s part, since it essentially makes the entire “New 52” continuity not only invalid but evil, the work of a super-villain. That’s a remarkable development, considering the fact that five years ago the company was entirely gung-ho about the revamp. But as Wally West narrates: “There’s going to be a war between hope and despair. Love and apathy. Faith and disbelief.”
But what gave me the most hope in this first issue wasn’t actually a part of the issue proper at all: it was a two-page spread of a house ad for the whole “Rebirth” saga and beyond, showing an even fuller cast of DC characters rushing toward the viewer … but they’re smiling. They’re brightly lit. The whole ad, magnificently drawn by Ivan Reis, just brims with optimism, of exactly the type that always made me love DC comics over Marvel – of exactly the type that’s been almost entirely missing from the “New 52.”
So needless to say, I’ll be following “Rebirth” with the veteran comics buyer’s carefully guarded expectations … but I’ll allow myself to hope.
I’ve come to expect jaw-dropping moments in paleo-conservative magazines like The Weekly Standard, magazines that mistake blind cultural atavism for actual conservatism and end up actively praising a wide array of things any 1960 conservative would have considered appalling. But every so often, I stumble across a true whopper neatly folded into something as seemingly innocuous as a book review, and that happened this week.
I was reading the book reviews in the May 23rd issue when I came to one written by a reviewer with the Dickensian name of Barton Swaim. The piece was a review of The Crucifixion by Fleming Rutledge, a study of the theology and literary history of the central event in Christian religion. I raised an eyebrow when Swaim referred to Rutledge’s prose as “winsome” – I’d bet a whole bunch of bananas that Swaim would never use such a word to describe the prose of a man, but I’ve been reading this kind of magazine for a long time … their casual institutional racism and sexism doesn’t really slow me down much anymore. I had no idea the main show was coming up.
Swaim goes on to characterize the nature of modern academic Biblical exegesis in fairly accurate terms, recounting how that exegesis studies the history and provenance of documents and literary traditions and tends to do so in non-theological terms. That is, miracle stories about cured lepers and wrestling angels are to be studied as cultural artifacts rather than eyewitness accounts – and that eyewitness accounts purporting to see such things are, in the mildest reading, simply incorrect.
But then, astonishingly, Swaim indulges in a digression that makes it clear he’s tired of such scholarly pussy-footing:
On may approve or disapprove of that premise, and critical scholars themselves have found ways to treat texts as in some sense “sacred” without treating them as inerrant or even as divine revelation. But that has long been the de facto governing assumption behind critical exegesis of biblical texts. The trouble is that, from any point of view, it’s boring. The biblical writings purport to tell us what God is like and how man can know him. All critical scholars are ever going to tell us is who wrote (or didn’t write) which books and what sort of half-baked primitive ideas underlay their composition. That may be fine for desiccated scholarly monographs, but it will not sustain anyone’s faith or motivate anyone to works of mercy.
He makes it clear that he’s very grateful for the “growing number of liberal scholars” who are insisting on “interpreting biblical texts on those texts’ own terms” – meaning, on the terms of those texts being true and divinely-inspired dictations from a supernatural being. He’s happy for the growing number of scholars who are dispensing with the writing of “desiccated scholarly monographs” that merely chase down trivia about textual composition and literary influence and instead getting down to the real business of writing about just exactly how the demigod son of Yahweh took on mortal flesh and was crucified in accordance with ancient prophecy. Because come on – deep down, we all KNOW it really happened, right? Interpreting the these 2000-year-old Middle Eastern texts any other way would be boring, right?
Jaw-dropping, as I mentioned. Barton Swaim (and maybe the winsome Fleming Rutledge? The review doesn’t make it completely clear, and alas, I haven’t read the book) would really appreciate it if Biblical scholars would stop messing around writing “desiccated” studies that treat the Bible as just another ancient text – after all, the purpose of such scholarship isn’t to inquire into the past, it’s to sustain everybody’s religious faith.
It took me a while to realize I’d really read this kind of 15th-century stupid dogmatism in a 21st century publication, and then I was mainly just embarrassed for Fleming Rutledge. For myself, I have no desire whatsoever to go back to the ages when you could only write about the Bible by first fearfully professing your personal belief in the truth of all its fairy tales. Give me boring old responsible scholarship any day.
It would surely have dumbfounded the Steve from 10 years ago, but nevertheless: I’ve largely succeeded in weening myself from buying weekly comics. It’s not quite the impressive act of will that it might sound, mainly because my two age-old superhero comic book companies, Marvel and DC, have done their part recently by putting out such sloping piles of putrescent garbage that actually buying the issues every week would have required the act of will.
There’ve been glimmers of hope, of course – issues and runs on titles from both companies in recent years that were quite good. But these glimmers were never alluring enough to bring me entirely back to buying small piles of overpriced single-issue comics ever Wednesday at Comicopia here in Boston. The one thing that’s tended to be an exception over the years has been the big “event” miniseries both companies roll out once a year – not because the general work tends to be any better, but because they plots tend to be so much fun.
10 years ago, one of the most entertaining of those “event” miniseries was Marvel’s “Civil War,” in which a deadly explosion and the death of innocents during a superhero/supervillain fight in Connecticut prompts the US government to impose legal controls on the super-beings in their midst: register with the authorities, undergo training and indoctrination, draw a stipend – or face prosecution and imprisonment. It was a nice big idea, written by Mark Millar, and it was fun to watch it unfold, even though it had two major problems: first, there was no conceivable reason why all of the good guys – and, hell, plenty of the bad guys – would have objected to the plan, and second, no matter who joined which side and no matter how it all ended, there was no realistic way Marvel continuity would ever be able to go back to the way it had been before.
And yet, blithely, both those things happened. Sides formed, there were lots of nifty battles, Captain America was briefly inconvenienced by being assassinated, and eventually everybody ended up being friends – and free, unregistered agents – again. It was all utterly impossible – friends who turn against each other and imprison each other in gulags don’t forgive each other and go back to fighting agents of Hydra like nothing had happened. A civil war in the ranks of Marvel’s superheroes is a humdinger of an idea … but it’s the last Marvel story, not just one in a duck-row of stories.
And if it that story was implausible the first time, how much more implausible is it a second time? This summer, the Marvel Comics “event” miniseries is “Civil War II,” written by Brian Michael Bendis and drawn by David Marquez, in which battle lines are drawn again. This week Marvel came out with “Civil War II” #0, a kind of prequel issue tracing some of the tensions that presumably will lead to the outbreak of the Civil War next month. It’s written by Bendis and drawn exquisitely by Olivier Coipel (such a shame that he won’t be doing the mini-series himself), and it’s a busy issue – many little plot-snippets, from two college students being abruptly mutated to a second-string superhero named War Machine being groomed by the US President to enter high politics. There’s a wonderful bit with the She-Hulk, a gamma-irradiated cousin of the Hulk and also a lawyer, is in court defending a C-grade villain who’s on trial basically because his kind can’t be trusted. His subsequent death in prison is clearly a moving moment for She-Hulk, but we’ll have to wait to see how it plays out.
But the central plot-snippet involves long-time Marvel military character Carol Danvers, a vaguely super-powered Captain Marvel, who’s on the leading edge of response-teams tasked with handling sudden eruptions of super-violence. In her scene, she’s visited by Doc Samson, a kind of super-psychologist, who gently questions her about the massive responsibilities of her job.
She talks emphatically about how she feels like she’s “fighting the weather” in constantly fire-spotting trouble as soon as it happens. She gropingly wants something better:
Captain Marvel: “I just … with all that we know … with all that we have seen and experienced … I just wish there was that thing, that one thing, that would …”
Doc Samson: “Protect us from all comers?”
Captain Marvel: “ Yes.”
Doc Samson: “But maybe we’re it. Maybe that’s why we are … the way we are … and why we are who we are.”
Captain Marvel: “And what if one day we’re just not enough?”
Doc Samson: “So far, so good.”
It seems clear to me that this conversation will end up being crucial to “Civil War II,” although I’m not sure how. I’m also not sure how this will be much of a war; one of Marvel’s in-house ads shows a rough summary of the two sides, one led by Captain Marvel and the other by Iron Man, and even in the ad it’s glaringly obvious how lopsided those sides are. Captain Marvel has Captain America, Spider-Man, the Vision … and Iron Man’s has the Hulk, Man-Bun Hercules, and Thor.
That should be no contest. Maybe I’ll buy just the first issue.
Our book today is from an old friend of ours here at Stevereads, the great, garrulous naturalist William Beebe, the friendly world wanderer and author of, among many other books, Galapagos: World’s End. This book is a wonderful thing from 1925 called Jungle Days, a breezy, episodic account of various journeys the author took in Africa, and it’s enlivened on every page not only by Beebe’s companionable grace of expression but also by his infectious enthusiasm for the simple joys of life (a hard-won enthusiasm at times, since he often fought against pernicious black moods). At one point he writes, “The joy of climbing, of balance, of swaying limbs, of headlong leaps from self-earned lofty vistas, pass with boyhood for most of us,” and you just know he’s going to follow it up by telling us he hasn’t quite given up on those joys himself: “They are renewed for me sometimes when I mount the ratlines of a ship plunging through heavy seas, or in the first rush of a nose dive from high in air.”
His observations about the flora and fauna of the jungles he treks are so evergreen with wonder and enthusiasm that it’s easy to forget the book is almost a century old. In his chapter “The Jungle Sluggard,” for instance, we marvel right alongside him when he encounters true sloths:
Like a rainbow before breakfast, a sloth is a surprise, an unexpected fellow breather of the air of our planet. No one could prophesy a sloth. If you have an imaginative friend who has never seen a sloth and ask him to describe what he thinks it ought to be like, his uncontrolled phrases will fall far short of reality. If there were no sloths, Dunsany would hesitate to put such a creature in the forests of Mluna, Marco Polo would deny having seen one, and Munchausen would whistle as he listened to a friend’s description.
Beebe’s curiosity takes him everywhere, and it’s engaged by everything. In his travels through what was then called British Guiana, he stops to scrutinize plants, bugs, the local human inhabitants – anything that provokes his creative insights. The book’s narrative highlight is the chapter in which he patiently observes the successive waves of wild things that invade a massive tree that’s recently fallen; the process has happened countless times throughout the history of the jungle, but we as readers feel it entirely fresh because Beebe is there to see it.
And throughout the book, steadily but not pedantically, he keeps his readers aware of the larger picture of the natural world. It’s a common feature of all his books, never more simply or elegantly put than here:
Somewhere today a worm has given up its existence, a mouse has been slain, a spider snatched from the web, a jungle bird turn sleeping from its perch; else we should have no song of robin, no flash of reynard’s red, no humming flight of wasp, nor grace of crouching ocelot. In tropical jungles, in Northern home orchards, anywhere you will, unnumbered activities of bird and beast and insect require daily toll of life.
The wonderfully sturdy old green copy of Jungle Days that I found recently (my old copy, with the pretty dust jacket? Long, long gone, of course) carries the stamp of a country club in Brookline, Massachusetts that closed its doors many years ago. This copy belonged to the club’s library and was last checked out in 1951, when the book’s author was still alive. In situations like this (not uncommon, when you buy as many old used books as I do), I always write my name and the current year on the library slip, just to mess with the imagination of whoever gets the book next. But I’m going to try to hold onto this copy for a while.