July 4th, 2016
Some Penguin Classics, as we’ve seen, are classics in their own editions in addition to their reprinted contents. Whether it’s the Tain or Magna Carta or the Shahnameh, these monumental volumes feel like much more than simply the purveying of accessible translations – they’re self-contained seminars in their own right.
The happy phenomenon applies equally well to works not in translation. A fine case-in-point is Isaac Kramnick’s 1987 edition of the Federalist Papers, which was hailed at its original appearance by no less an eminence than former Chief Justice Warren Burger, who called Kramnick’s introductory essay “an outstanding piece of work.” (This Penguin edition rounds out its contents with a reprint of the United States Constitution in its entirety – one imagines Justice Burger either primly skipped that part or else found it very, very strange reading). Of all the readily-available popular-press editions of the Federalist papers, Kramnick’s is by far the best, which is probably why I gave my original copy away to some first-year fascist law student a decade ago. So I was naturally pleased to find it again at my beloved Brattle Bookshop and use the discovery as a flimsy excuse to re-read the entire thing, Introduction, papers, notes, and even that dear old Constitution.
The eighty-five Federalist papers were originally published over the course of a year, from 1787 to the spring of 1788, as an attempt to sway public opinion in New York in favor of ratifying that new dear old Constitution as a replacement for the Articles of Confederation that had seen the fledgling Republic through the Revolutionary War. And Kramnick’s authoritative Introduction gives an Olympian sheen to the inevitability of that process, citing how impolitely unworkable the Articles were, with their overriding emphasis on the inviolate sovereignty of individual States and its abhorrence of the coercive power of strong centralized governing bodies. After all, the Articles had only shepherded the united colonies to independence from the most powerful empire in the world – why, forms of government do that kind of thing every day! Such piddling achievements certainly couldn’t be allowed to stand in the balance against all those impolitic, unworkable flaws that are so easy to spot from the professor’s study:
From the perspective of historical hindsight it is easy enough to see the obvious defects of the Articles of Confederation which led to demands for its reform and ultimately to its replacement by the Constitution in 1787. The Congress of the central government could not deal with individual citizens but only with the states in their corporate capacity. It could not tax individuals or regulate their commerce. It could not carry out a foreign policy without the goodwill of states that perceived themselves as sovereign and independent. All of this was clear cut and formed a highly persuasive brief moving many to want change. But equally important on the road to Philadelphia and the Constitutional Convention was the activity of the state legislatures. Indeed, for some the abuse of power by state legislatures was the principal reason America needed a new Constitution.
In this Penguin Classic edition of the Federalist Papers, we get the full range of reformist eloquence, and the reading is every bit as invigorating as it always is. And if we don’t also get the anti-Federalist Papers, those equally-eloquent rebuttals of the idea of both the need to scrap the Articles of Confederation and the sublime beauties of a massive centralized government, well, Kramnick is at least willing to quote some brief qualms of the time, like this one from an aggrieved citizen of Massachusetts:
Does not this Constitution … take away all we have, all our property? Does it not lay all taxes, duties, imports, and excises? And what more have we to give? These lawyers and men of learning, and moneyed men that talk so finely, and gloss over matters so smoothly, to make us poor illiterate people swallow down the pill, they expect to get into Congress, themselves. They expect to be managers of this Constitution, and get all the money into their own hands. And then they will swallow up us little fellows, like the Great Leviathan …
The lawyers arguing in favor of the new Constitution expect to be its managers! Why, “they expect to get into Congress, themselves.” Yes indeed. As much of a classic-within-a-classic as Kramnick’s edition is, it possibly could have done with more of that kind of equal representation. But then, there is no Penguin Classics edition of the Anti-Federalist Papers, so interested readers will, in this rare instance, have to go elsewhere to read the whole story. American readers ought to, especially on the 4th of July.
July 2nd, 2016
Our book today is not exactly the Final Word: it’s The Story of Nell Gwyn (and the Sayings of Charles the Second), as “related and collected” by the now-forgotten Victorian editor and biographer Peter Cunningham in 1883. It’s a slightly oversized gold-gilded production of recounted Restoration trifles, just the kind of things for which Cunningham was, as London editors knew, an extremely reliable source. He was a rummager of archives and a knocker-together of friendly books of extracts, the kind of historian other historians tend to disdain – and who passes on that disdain in liberal helpings whenever possible. In the second paragraph of The Story of Nell Gwyn, for instance, he manages the smooth knight-fork of condescending not only to his subject but to his readers and his entire country of birth:
The English people have always entertained a peculiar liking for Nell Gwyn. There is a sort of indulgence towards her not generally conceded to any other woman of her class. Thousands are attracted by her name, they know not why, and do not stay to inquire. It is the popular impression that, with all her failings, she had a generous as well as a tender heart; that when raised from poverty, she reserved her wealth for others rather than herself; and that the influence she possessed was often exercised for good objects, and never abused.
There isn’t much accuracy in that parting string of accolades, but you don’t have to read much of The Story of Nell Gwyn to realize that accuracy isn’t high on Cunningham’s list of priorities. This is primarily a moralizing tract, and since our author is aware that his “Nelly” has lost none of her power to charm for being several centuries dead, he takes pains to remind us of his pious assumptions from time to time. “I have no intention,” he writes, “of finding a model heroine in a coal-yard, or any wish either to palliate or condemn too severely the frailties of the woman whose story I have attempted to relate.” Charming.
Predictably, the latter section of his book, the pages related to King Charles II and his witticisms and his Court of prissified sycophants, is rolled out with more gusto and less arm’s-length disdain. Here Cunningham is ready with every favorable anecdote about the “Merry Monarch,” eager to repeat the praise of every hanger-on as Gospel truth:
That he understood foreign affairs better than all his councils and counsellors put together was the repeated remark of the Lord Keeper Guildford. In his exile he had acquired either a personal acquaintance with most of the eminent statesmen of Europe, or else from such as could instruct him he had received their characters: – and this knowledge, the Lord Keeper would continue, he perpetually improved by conversing with men of quality and ambassadors, whom he would sift, and by what he obtained from them (“possibly drunk as well as sober”), would serve himself one way or other. “When they sought,” his lordship added, “to sift him – who, to give him his due, was but too open – he failed not to make his best of them.”
Although not even the late-Victorian pining for a male monarch can completely suppress the moral scold – historical condescension is a tough habit to break. “His love of wine was the common failing of his age,” we’re rather delicately told of Charles. Charming.
July 1st, 2016
Our book today is Terrorists & Novelists, a 1982 collection of great New York Review of Books pieces, New Statesman pieces, and New York Times Book Review pieces by the novelist and essayist Diane Johnson, who’d go on to score very nice sales with her 2000 novel Le Mariage and its 2003 follow-up L’Affaire. Re-reading the pieces reprinted here serves as a wonderfully enjoyable reminder that the novelist is also a first-rate book reviewer (and reporter: the two-part study of the Jonestown Massacre included here is entirely assured).
There are plenty of well-elaborated insights in these pages. Like all really good readers, Johnson isn’t worried about letting digressive thoughts into her dissections; her pieces are always stronger for the occasional rumination that crops up, as in the brief expansion on historical research that happens in the middle of a review of E. L. Doctorow’s historical fiction:
History is a queer disrupter of fiction. People always seem to enjoy a dash of verisimilitude, the real name of a real newspaper or town, or a reference to a street they know. But the introduction and distortion of true events are often greeted with wild, rather mysterious approval: for instance, that which has greeted (in America, at least) the novels of Doctorow, with their “real” characters, Houdini, Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, and so on. Perhaps historical characters are preferred to real ones because they make the reader himself feel less frivolous. Soon you will read the seven volumes of the history of World War II; meantime, here’s this interesting book about Hitler’s early life. I wonder how much of it, the reader asks himself, is true.
There are classic compositions scattered throughout this book, essays like “Colette in Pieces” or “Flaubert Dashes Off a Letter” that stand easily today, decades after they were written, as clean and lovely exercises in smart prose. And there are some wonderful turns of phrase, as when Johnson mentions “that slightly condescending sense of wonder on which the liveliest of travel literature depends” – although that frisson of condescension is totally absent from Terrorists & Novelists, despite how often these pieces seem to be about some kind of traveling, including, in some very canny ways, the traveling that is reading. Curiously, I found this evoked most clearly in a passage from the masterful “Ruskin as Guide” that seems on the surface to be one of those little anachronisms created by the march of technology:
The relation of a traveler to his guidebook is a sensitive one; an unsuitable choice can blight your expensive and brief visit to a distant city as surely as finding yourself there with an incompatible lover, or a fussy eater, or someone whose feet hurt. Anyone who has trudged across miles of strange streets to find himself looking at a dull municipal mural or a museum that’s shut has some intimation of the delicacy of this relation; not only must your guidebook have its facts straight, it must also understand what you have come there for.
On one level, those travelers trudging across strange city streets are tired and unhappy in large part because they live in a time before cell phones and iPads and museum apps, but the deeper question is what we want from our critics. Re-reading the pieces collected in Terrorists & Novelists, the main thing I wanted from this particular critic was more; what massive volume of book-chat could be assembled from the working life of Diane Johnson? I’d like to see it.
June 23rd, 2016
Our book today is a lovely old slip-cased thing from 1945: the volume of Louis Untermeyer’s “American Poets” series dedicated to Henry Wadsworth Longfellow. This series was done up very prettily: solid binding, high-quality paper, and original artwork for each volume – in this case, wood engravings by Boyd Hanna that are as wonderful on still scenes and animals as they are cringe-worthy when it comes to depicting actual human beings.
The volumes in this wonderful series serve as a reminder of what a great editor and general all-purpose book-organizer Untermeyer could be, despite the off-kilter and ramshackle mess his life almost always was. In this case, he oversaw the creation of a Longfellow volume fit to stand alongside the many very pretty such volumes publishers had created in the last century, betokening Longfellow’s status as the most popular and beloved poet in the United States. And in addition to the artwork and the technical quality of the thing, there’s also what for some readers would have been the main selling point: an Introduction by Untermeyer himself that’s absolutely wonderful, full of pith and politely borrowed cadences.
In the brief essay, Untermeyer tells Longfellow’s story, from his birth in Portland, Maine in 1807 to his impulsive three-year-long trip to Europe when he was a newly-minted eighteen-year-old Bowdoin College graduate, a trip that Untermeyer shrewdly characterizes as something of a wake-up call for Longfellow, who never gazed upon an ancient cathedral or dusty heap of ruins without pining for the New World:
But he was not meant to be an expatriate. He missed the trim orderliness, the whitewashed tranquility of New England, the wineglass elms, the dark evergreens, the flaming maples, the walled cornfields studded with golden pumpkins. Europe, after all, was too European; it had no “orchards by the roadside, no slab fences, no well-poles, no painted cottages with huge barns and outhouses ornamented in front with monstrous piles of wood for winter-firing.” There was nothing, he confessed in a burst of homesickness, “to bring to the mind of an American a remembrance of the beautiful villages of his native land.”
And as generations of schoolchildren once knew, it was that fresh, beautiful New World that formed the very breath of Longfellow’s poems, filling such pieces as “The Herons of Elmwood” with its flashing autumnal grandeur:
Warm and still is the summer night,
As here by the river’s bank I wander’
White overhead are the stars, and white
The glimmering lamps on the hillside yonder.
Silent are all the sounds of day,
Nothing I hear but the chirp of crickets,
And the cry of the herons winging on their way
O’er the poet’s house in the Elmwood thickets.
Call to him, herons, as slowly you pass
To your roosts in the haunts of the exiled thrushes,
Sing him the song of the green morass,
And the tides that water the reeds and rushes.
Sing to him, say to him, here at his gate,
Where the boughs of the stately elms are meeting,
Some one hath lingered to meditate,
And send him unseen this friendly greeting;
That many another had done the same,
Though not by a sound was the silence broken;
The surest pledge of a deathless name
Is the silent homage of thoughts unspoken.
But Untermeyer goes beyond simple biography in his splendid Introduction. In the 1940s, writing about the universally famous author of “The Song of Hiawatha,” “The Courtship of Miles Standish,” and “Evangeline,” our smiling editor knew he was addressing an audience that both knew Longfellow well and was also beginning to feel the strong undertows of the modernist versifying that would very soon, within the generation, consign Longfellow to an oblivion not even the most fanatical betting man would have predicted in the day’s of the poet’s fame. To that unsettled audience, Untermeyer feels the need to clarify – almost to re-introduce – the foremost poet of their parents’ generation:
Longfellow is not for those who demand ecstasy; yet what he lacks in force is made up in finesse. The verse is delicate, at times even thin; but it has an unusually even tone, an extraordinarily fine-grained texture. Such poetry is not heaven-shaking; it rarely strives for passionate heights. Nor does it probe psychological depths. But it maintains itself on its own unperilous level; it persists quietly in the mind as well as in the heart. It expresses a kindliness which is spontaneous, and a homeliness which is winning because it is so straightforward.
Untermeyer’s selections in this volume lean in the direction of that homeliness; softly-sighing pieces like “Hymn to the Night” crop up throughout the volume:
I heard the trailing garments of the Night
Sweep through her marble halls!
I saw her sable skirts all fringed with light
From the celestial walls!
I felt her presence, by its spell of might,
Stoop o’er me from above;
The calm, majestic presence of the Night,
As of the one I love.
It’s a melancholy thing, to find one of these stately old volumes at the outdoor Brattle sale carts. Once upon a time, they sat proudly on retail bookshop shelves, priced for special occasions, ready to be restocked for college graduations and faculty retirement parties. Once upon a time, the poets honored in this “American Poets” series were the everywhere-recognized titans of the art. Now, in 2016, handing a literate person a gift volume of Longfellow would have to be accompanied by a lip-curl of irony in order to make any sense, and that process was well underway when this great series first appeared. But there’s sometimes a pendulum to these things, the hopeful remind themselves.
June 17th, 2016
Some Penguin Classics, as we’ve seen in the past here at Stevereads, are just clear-cut improvements over earlier versions. One obvious example comes from 1990, the Richard Freeborn updated edition of Sketches from a Hunter’s Album, the book that first made the literary reputation of Ivan Sergeyevich Turgenev, whose first collection of these little sketches of Russian serf life was published in 1852 and quickly led to his exile to his country estate of Spasskoye. Penguin Classics added an English-language translation of the work to its list in 1967, but that edition was lacking several of the sketches and all of the sketch-fragments that can be found in Turgenev’s papers. Freeborn’s 1990 edition is complete, and his Introduction is very good, analyzing tale by tale these “occasional pieces, experiments in a particular kind of portraiture, tracts for the times cast in the mould of literature, trial sketches for his future work as a novelist.”
Turgenev came from a somewhat poor but noble background, and his championing of the downtrodden peasants was always more inadvertent (and opportunistic) than it was devotional, which Freeborn sees quite clearly and never lets his readers forget:
The fact that most of the Sketches are offered as brief, summery [sic] episodes tends to set in relief the ephemeral, not so say fleeting, manner of Turgenev’s encounter with the peasants and to make of them creations of a particular moment, with little identity beyond a nickname; their patronymics, like their parentage, have been obliterated in the anonymity of their servile condition. The framework of the peasant encounters, then, tends to objectivize and simultaneously to distance. It is a distancing, of course, which usually has the effect of making the encounter doubly significant, as though a lyric poem had been born of an anecdote, a work of art from a snapshot. But the difference, let it not be forgotten, is really due to ignorance.
Re-encountering these “sketches” puts you right in the minds of all those original readers who found in these pages the revelation of a sharp, clear new major talent. The natural world is vividly, lovingly invoked throughout – the narrators are always in motion, always making for the trees at sunset, with greenery and breezes coloring every quiet moment. Freeborn’s translation efforts are superb in catching the happy, fast-paced grades of shading Turgenev had already mastered when he wrote these sketches.
The end notes are a bit more problematic – they’re oddly spotty. The final line of the story “Chertopkhanov and Nedopyushkin,” for instance, is “It was late in the evening when I left Unsleepy Hollow.” But even though Freeman uses the term “Unsleepy Hollow” throughout the story, he includes no note about it, no help for readers who might be wondering if the translation is literal, and if so, just what familiarity Turgenev had with Washington Irving’s writing. The notes are like that; they tend to make you wish they were either five times as long or not there at all.
But the end notes can be ignored, as God intended all end notes to be. The real pleasure here is of course the translation itself, a jewel to be added to Penguin’s Russian library.
June 14th, 2016
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 novel The 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.
June 13th, 2016
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.
June 7th, 2016
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.
June 5th, 2016
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.
June 1st, 2016
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.