Posts from January 2017
January 5th, 2017
Some Penguin Classics almost play tricks on your memory, you’re so certain you’ve seen them before in earlier editions. Surely, for instance, any sizable US Penguin Classics library going back a few decades will already have a big fat volume of Percy Bysshe Shelley?
And yet no! When I first clapped eyes on the big, beautiful new Penguin Classics Selected Poetry and Prose of Shelley edited by Jack Donovan and Cian Duffy, I automatically scanned my memory – and my shelves – for its predecessor, something along the lines of two fat volumes of Wordsworth poems that the publisher put out forty years ago, or the great John Barnard edition of the complete poetry of Keats that Penguin brought years ago. And the more I searched, the more amazed I became to think that there might not actually be such a predecessor, that this might actually be the first big, generous scholarly volume of Shelley that Penguin Classics has ever done in this country.
Better late than never, I guess, particularly because this new Penguin volume is absolutely wonderful, nearly 1000 pages of poems, prose, copious notes, and a feisty Introduction in which the “extraordinary output” that has “come to be recognized as one of the major literary contributions to the English Romantic Movement” is examined through a perspective I of course found especially entertaining: Shelley as Box Office Poison, the enfant terrible who managed to get plenty of reviews despite being an upstart unknown – but who also managed to get disproportionately nasty reviews from all and sundry when, as our editors put it, “a number of factors combined to deny him the audience that he persisted in seeking in the face of both widespread disregard and outright hostility.” Donovan and Duffy outline some of that outright hostility and shrewdly point out that such was the capacious spread of Shelley’s innovative genius that his carping critics often had to take aim at only one aspect or fragment of the strange, beautiful, unaccountable work that had crossed their desks:
Remarkably, for a writer whose works did not enjoy wide circulation, Shelley’s volumes of verse were regularly reviewed in contemporary literary periodicals. These notices encompass a more extreme range of opinion than that provoked by any major English poet of the Romantic period. The Shelley that emerges from them is not a single figure but several, usually portrayed in striking colours, not infrequently from the garish quarter of the palette. The most egregious instance of this kind is the vain, sour, querulous, ignorant and vicious individual who is sketched in a review of Laon and Cynthia/The Revolt of Islam in the April 1819 number of the Quarterly Review.
I lost myself for an entire evening in this Penguin Selected Poetry and Prose, which only has competition as a one-volume edition of this poet from the thick 2003 Oxford University Press volume Percy Bysshe Shelley: The Major Works – and once again, as always when I read much of this author, I found myself wondering with a kind of nagging sadness what marvels he might have created if he’d lived to 60, or 50, or 40, or even 31. Even in his short life, he wrote well over 400 poems, a startlingly high percentage of which read like the finished products of a much older poet; the imagination quivers a bit at the thought of what might have been.
A nice big Penguin Classic like this one is all the consolation such thoughts will ever have, but as consolations go, it’s a mighty good one.
December 9th, 2016
Some Penguin Classics, especially in the last few years, are guaranteed to surprise even the most veteran Penguin- watcher. Sometimes this can be disappointingly puzzling – Wellington’s battlefield dispatches, anyone? – and at other times this broad-minded new sense of inclusiveness can be utterly delightful. An amazing example of this latter instance is a new volume from Penguin called The Dance of Death, a series of 51 engravings, 41 of which were printed in Basle in 1524-25.
The engravings were done by the great artist Hans Holbein, who came to Basle in 1515 and encountered a thriving artistic community growing up around the still-fledgling printing industry. University of Cambridge history professor Ulinka Rublack, in her brilliant, comprehensive commentary essay in this new Penguin volume, engagingly portrays this community: “Publishers lodged and entertained authors and other international visitors,” she writes. “Even though there existed clear hierarchies, these publishers, correctors, typesetters, muscular pressmen pulling off sheets and quick-witted artists together formed a new hub of cutting-edge intellectual life.”
This Penguin edition of the series of woodcuts that’s come to be known as The Dance of Death features full-page reprints of those woodcuts, one after the next, followed by Rublack’s 80-page commentary laying out the background, interpretation, and influence of Holbein’s work. It’s a different arrangement from the one obtaining with most Penguin Classics, mainly dictated by the fact that the central work being reprinted here is a picture-sequence rather than a text.
It’s an extremely effective change. It throws the spotlight of the volume squarely where it belongs: on the woodcuts themselves and the genius that Holbein brings to the subject of the terrifyingly impersonal universality of death: he comes for peasants and princes alike, and in panel after panel, his grasping skeletal hands are pulling at rich gowns, plucking at sack-cloth sleeves, yanking the hoods off monks, and holding up an hourglass whose sands are quickly ebbing. Death is counting out his own tray of coins over the loud protests of The Miser; he’s breaking the mainmast of the Seaman’s ship; he’s skewering a knight with his own lance; and he’s pulling the coverings off the four-poster bed of The Duchess. He plays a merry tune as he leads The Old Woman and the Old Man peacefully to their graves, and he leads the pleading Child away from his poor mother. And he shows no respect for ecclesiastical privilege, which was very much a controversial image in that age of Reformation – an ideological balancing act on Holbein’s part, as Rublack points out:
Holbein thus walked a tightrope. He knew that everyone belonging to that very broad spectrum of reform Catholics and Protestants would form a natural audience for his Pictures of Death. The series’ format, intricacy and, presumably, its price were aimed at elites. Holbein therefore could exploit the conventions of satire against the pope, clergy and the rich in this genre, but needed to tread carefully so as not to offend Catholic sensibilities and to be denounced as Lutheran.
The era’s foremost advocate of Church reform, the man puzzlingly referred to by Rublack as “the cult humanist” Erasmus, was a friend and frequent client of Holbein and showed great artistic insight when he wrote, “A great artist is always himself, whether he is modelling a colossal statue or a six-inch statuette … whether he is engraving bronze and ordinary stone or precious stones and gold.” When encountering this Dance of Death, it’ll take readers only a moment to come into complete agreement with the cult humanist: this might not be a work of prose, but it’s certainly a work of genius – and now, thanks to Penguin, it’s once again in bookstores everywhere.
November 23rd, 2016
Some Penguin Classics just never feel quite legitimate, no matter how hard they try, no matter how fervent their supporters are over the decades or centuries. This is how it will feel twenty years from now, when Kurt Vonnegut’s flyblown oeuvre is inducted into the line, and this is how it will feel thirty years from now, when the Harry Potter books make their way into the catalogue. It’s how I’d feel if Frank Harris’s My Life and Loves made the list, even though I’m personally fond of the book. And despite centuries of furtive and illicit love shown to it by a very diverse group of famous readers, this is just how it feels to see a Penguin Classic of The 120 Days of Sodom by the Marquis de Sade.
It’s got just the kind of outrageous pedigree curriculum readers tend to expect of their classics: written by de Sade on a scroll, while he was being held prisoner in the Bastille while the French Revolution was brewing outside its walls, then discovered in its secret cubby-hole and embarked on a centuries-long career as a cult classic. When it comes to enshrining works of literature, cheap conditions don’t get much better than that.
But then you start reading, and it just evaporates into a mess of schoolboy sniggering and pointless provocation. The book is nominally the story of a quartet of hardened libertines who come together in an isolated castle and – slowly and then more and more confidently – start descending into the depths of depravity. It’s all just unutterably boring, and despite the book’s raucous reputation, it’s hard for me to believe most readers haven’t always found it that way. And in this scrupulous, energetic new Penguin translation by Will McMorran and Thomas Wynn, it’s a nice easy reading experience – and still every bit as boring.
Our translators do what translators have always done with de Sade – in their Introduction, they try their best to position his tedium as profundity:
By assaulting our senses and our values the 120 Days may, in fact, revive them. Sade himself makes the argument in several of his works that ‘examples of virtue in distress, offered to a corrupt soul in which there remain some decent principles, can restore that soul to goodness just as surely as if one had shown dazzling prizes and the most flattering rewards.’ As disingenuous as Sade’s defence of his methods certainly is, the reader may well find some inadvertent truth in this apparent lie – that the spectacle of the suffering victim is more likely to inspire compassion than cruelty.
But it doesn’t quite fly, even in a pretty black-spined Penguin Classic with a cover photo that’s no doubt intended to be provocative (is it a pair of ass cheeks? A pair of boobies? Oooooh!). And the induction of de Sade’s work into the Bibliothèque de la Pléiade doesn’t nudge the needle at all – because the author himself, feverishly scraping away at his scroll, keeps doling out overheated scenes that he so painfully intends to shock … and the ham-handed intending drains away the shock every time, leaving you reading paragraph after paragraph and thinking there must surely be a rural nunnery kitchen girl somewhere who’ll blush at something like this:
A great connoisseur of arses and flogging summons a mother and daughter: he tells the daughter that if she does not agree to have both her hands cut off he will kill her mother; the little girl agrees and they are indeed cut off; he then separates these two creatures, stringing the girl up by the neck with her feet perched on a stool; tied around the stool is a another cord that leads into another room, where the mother is held; the mother is told to pull the cord – she does so without knowing what she is doing; she is promptly shown the fruits of her labour and as she is overcome with despair she is felled by a sabre to the back of the head.
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.
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.
May 4th, 2016
Some Penguin Classics, as I’ve noted before here at Stevereads, feel like they’re a long time in the making, and the Shahnameh of Ferdowsi more than most and in two different ways. Not only has this sprawling tenth century Persian epic waited a long time for an attractive, affordable paperback edition in English, but this particular text, a prose translation by Dick Davis that Viking brought out ten years ago, has waited a long time to become a Penguin Classic.
This Penguin Classic is an expanded edition of that Viking hardcover (which was mighty pretty in its own right), and it’s also a slightly larger size than the standard Penguin trade paperback. It’s got the black spine with the elegant white script title along it – a graceful new Penguin Classic of a book not enough Western readers know anything about. I remember vividly when it first arrived at the bookstore where I was working; I was stunned and immediately took a hardcover copy to the store’s two most veteran and wide-ranging readers – and neither of them had ever heard of it. Over the next few weeks, I tried hard to interest my most literary regular customers in the book, to no avail. When the unsold copies were returned to the publisher (nobody bought one – not even me, since the hardcover cost what was then a full day’s pay for me), I was the only one in the store who noticed or cared.
I don’t expect things are any better here in 2016, but at least I no longer have a ringside seat! I’m free to enjoy this Penguin edition in a peace and quiet broken only by the gentle, arhythmic snoring of a basset hound.
Of course, the Shahnameh is a big book in many more important ways than its thousand-page length. The action spans hundreds of years; the cast encompasses hundreds of characters; this is a national epic on the grandest scale, closer in tenor to The Tale of the Heike (also a beautiful Penguin Classic) than to Homer’s Iliad. The frequent action scenes read like the headiest possible combination of The Mahabharata and the Old Testament:
With his heart freed from this anxiety, Ardeshir paused at the fire-temple of Ram-Khorad; there he prayed earnestly for God to guide him, to give him victory in all his undertakings, and to allow the tree of greatness to flourish for him. Then he returned to his pavilion, where his officers and men awaited him. He distributed cash to his troops, invoking God as he did so. His army was now like a valiant leopard, and he advanced against Bahman, the son of Ardavan, to give battle.
As the two armies approached one another, each side formed ranks ready for battle, with lances and Indian swords grasped in their hands. Then they fell on one another like warring lions, and blood was spilled in rivers. So they fought until the sun turned pale, and the air was filled with dust, the ground with corpses.
As you can see, the translation is smooth and vivid, and I can attest that the reading of it over hundreds and hundreds of pages is almost uniformly gripping. It’s true that in this case I could have done without some of the more condescending comments in Davis’s Introduction:
My aim is translating the Shahnameh was not to produce a text for scholars, but to make it available to a wide non-specialist audience. I hesitate to say a popular audience: perhaps no medieval literary artifact, from any culture, can have a truly popular existence now. We prefer our medievalism to be derivative and ersatz; The Lord of the Rings rather the Beowulf, Camelot rather than Malory or Chretien de Troyes. Nevertheless there is still a world of readers, especially relatively young readers, who are not scholars, who might try Beowulf or Malory, and it was them I aimed to reach with my translation. I translated not for scholars, who after all have access to the original text, now in relatively good editions, but for that radically endangered species, the general reader.
… but despite the drippiness of that “derivative and ersatz,” Davis has most certainly produced a translation for the general reader. I’m hoping copies of this particular Penguin Classic end up in classrooms all over the country.
April 21st, 2016
Some Penguin Classics, as we’ve noted before here at Stevereads, are genuinely impressive works of scholarship in their own right, and I recently came across one of those during a foray at the Brattle Bookshop: The Penguin Book of Renaissance Verse, edited by David Norbook – in this case, the 2005 update to the 1992 original.
This plump volume – 900 pages – has everything you’d want from such a thing: micro-typed End Notes, a huge variety of authors from the English Renaissance (the title’s slight misleading in that way: it’s not exactly that Renaissance), and a long Introduction by Norbook that’s just brimming with fantastic insights delivered with almost staccato speed, including this great bit about the pragmatic side of the literary endeavor (a side it very much had in common with the Renaissance then bubbling in Italy):
The immediate response of an active life for an ambitious young writer lay not in dreaming of Roman antiquity but in serving the Crown. The prospect of an alliance with the Crown was an appealing one for many poets in the period. In adopting the demonstrative rhetoric of the court, writing panegyrics of the ruler and leading courtiers, they could think of themselves as in effect writing the script of the public world, fulfilling the humanist imperative of making their verbal skill serve the State. The resultant compromises with courtly discourse, however, were often uneasy.
The years covered by this book, from 1509 to 1659, encompass a roll-call of writers that can stand comparison with any similar time-frame in history. This was the era of John Skelton, Henry Howard, Thomas Wyatt, Philip Sidney, Edmund Spenser, John Donne, John Harington, Ben Jonson, Andrew Marvell, George Chapman, Samuel Daniel, Robert Herrick, Margaret Cavendish, and George Herbert. This was the time of Marlowe, Milton, and Shakespeare.
And Anonymous, whose work Norbook is a trifle too eager to include. Considering how many giants were writing during the period he examines, readers might perhaps have done without the limp doggerel of things like “On Sir Francis Drake”:
Sir Drake whom well the world’s end knew,
Which thou did’st compasse round,
And whom both Poles of heaven once saw
Which North and South do bound,
The stars above, would make thee known,
If men here silent were;
The Sun himself cannot forget
His fellow traveller.
But 99% of the book glows with a dozen different kinds of genius. You’ll find quite a few of your favorites in these pages, plus, if Norbook has done his job well, plenty of poets whose further acquaintance you’ll want to make, their strengths and their music brought into unexpected highlights by the company they’re keeping here. Thomas Campion’s exquisitely worldly lines on the various entertainments of winter, for example:
Now winter nights enlarge
The number of their houres,
And clouds their stormes discharge
Upon the ayrie towers,
Let now the chimneys blaze,
And cups o’erflow with wine:
Let well-tun’d words amaze
With harmonie divine.
Now yellow waxen lights
Shall waite on hunny Love,
While youthfull Revels, Masks, and Courtly sights,
Sleepes leaden spels remove.
This time doth well dispence
With lovers long discourse;
Much speech hath some defence,
Though beauty no remorse.
All doe not all things well;
Some measures comely tread;
Some knotted Ridles tell;
Some Poems smoothly read.
The Summer hath his joyes,
And Winter his delights;
Though Love and all his pleasures are but toyes,
They shorten tedious nights.
God only knows what happened to the copy of The Penguin Book of Renaissance Verse I originally bought back in 2005 at Barnes & Noble, but I didn’t realize how much I’d missed it until I came across this copy at the Brattle. I anticipate a few happy hours of browsing in it this weekend.
March 2nd, 2016
Some Penguin Classics don’t look like Penguin Classics, which is a trifle odd when you consider how instantly recognizable the Penguin brand is to book-buyers, but you certainly won’t hear me complaining when the results are as nifty as The Book of Magic, a big new anthology of supernatural literature “from Antiquity to the Enlightenment,” edited by Brian Copenhaver. It’s a heavy black 600-page volume with embossed gold lettering and sigils in the shape of a tree on the front cover.
The book is crammed full of great stuff. Copenhaver has ranged over vast tracts of literature, from the Bible to ancient Greece to ancient Rome to the Middle Ages and the Renaissance and beyond. We get snippets from the Old Testament, the New Testament, Homer, Plato, Hippocrates, Virgil, Cicero, Pliny, Plotinus, St. Augustine, St. Thomas Aquinas, the Malleus Maleficarum, Marsilio Ficino, Paracelsus, Marlowe, Spenser, Shakespeare, and many others (Copenhaver blandly informs us that all the translations from the Latin, Greek, Hebrew, and “modern vernaculars” are all by him except for rare cases otherwise noted – which would make this volume one of the most astonishing feats of scholarly translation to appear in several centuries), all grappling with the nature and specifics of magic in all its forms.
And the grappling starts early. Right away in his Introduction, Copenhaver is doing all of the rhetorical gymnastics writers always need to do in order to differentiate their subject – magic – from its malformed and conjoined twin, religion. It’s never a pretty performance, and it isn’t pretty here, being full of jittery air-quotes and mincing qualifications:
‘Magic’ (like ‘religion’) as the name of an essence will be uninformative because eliminating contradictions to keep the word accurate will also make it very abstract – too abstract for the relevant domains, which are moral, social and cultural. Keeping the word accurate will be hard because the concepts tagged by ‘magic’ and its cousins, with all the freight that they carry, have emerged in Western and Christian environments in response to Western and Christian problems. Applying the word ‘magic’ – free and clear – to something non-Christian and non-Western … will be difficult, maybe impossible.
The Book of Magic tracks its subject warily and quietly through the thickets of ancient sources of religion, trying the whole time never to touch the thickets. It’s the book’s aim to find magic throughout religious history, and it’s the book’s nagging worry never to call religion magic. Jesus cursing a fig tree makes it into the book; Jesus rising from the dead, no. God parting the Red Sea, yes; God Himself, no. The differentiation is strenuous and therefore incomplete, but I found the fact that it’s attempted at all just a touch irritating.
Copenhaver assembles a fantastic array of bits and pieces, shards of almost every magic neurosis on record. We get mystified physicians groping at why some diseases abate and others worsen; we get armchair travelers speculating on the strange customs of distant lands; we get wide webs of protocols designed to pathologize or punish the different; of course we get everywhere writers attempting to double-talk themselves out of death. And we get lots and lots of charlatans and dupes – one passage from The Life of Apollonius by Philostratus, third-century chronicler of the first century miracle worker, is a good case-in-point:
During an eclipse of the sun, a clap of thunder rolled out – rare in an eclipse, it seems. He then looked up at the sky and said, ‘Something great will happen and will not happen.’ Those present when he said this could not make sense of his words at first, but everyone had put the meaning together by the third day after the eclipse. While Nero was having his dinner, a thunderbolt had struck the table, breaking apart the cup that was in his hands and not far from his mouth. When Nero was almost hit, it was just as Apollonius had said – something done and not done.
It’s impossible to know whether or not the person who wrote that bit about “something great will happen and will not happen” saw what an open-ended con game it was, how Nostradamus-style “a great being will appear on the stage of life”-style unfalsifiable it was, although it’s not impossible to gauge how well it was believed by others. Ultimately, that’s one of The Book of Magic‘s most disturbing pleasures: as you read through it, you can’t help but keep remembering, people have genuinely believed ALL of these things, at some point or other.
Even a glance around the current cultural landscape – the American landscape in particular – gives a thoroughly barbed edged to such thoughts. The Book of Magic may just be the Penguin Classic for our time.