Posts from October 2015
October 25th, 2015
Some Penguin Classics prompt a sigh of relief, especially after the loosey-goosey anything-goes Week O’ Penguins we’ve had this time around (Ray Russell, I ask you!). After watching a coked-up gag-writer like Charles Beaumont pull down his own Penguin Classic (if that happened in a typical three-page Charles Beaumont story, he’d be super-honored until he discovered that … he could never read any OTHER book!)(*SIGH*), it’s like a draught of cool water to arrive at the end of our week and find ourselves reading a tried-and-true indomitable like Jane Austen’s Emma, which is one of the latest additions to the Deluxe line, just in time to celebrate the 200th anniversary of its original appearance in 1815.
Although … even now, in the apparently safe harbor of Emma, we come full-circle to the place where we started: mystery.
Not on some of the main points, mind you. This 200th anniversary Deluxe Annotated edition is introduced by Juliette Wells, whose book Everybody’s Jane: Austen in the Popular Imagination was a perfect combination of authoritative and accessible, and that’s a combination you definitely want in a pretty new paperback edition like this one, a paperback edition we can easily imagine being assigned in college classes. Wells gives us a wonderful Introduction to this wonderful book, the last one published in Austen’s lifetime and the first one whose business arrangements she wrangled herself rather than using her brother as a proxy. Wells allows herself comparatively few pages in which to orient the reader, and as in Everybody’s Jane, she manages to work quite a bit into every paragraph:
Austen cared greatly what her readers thought of her novels, and she was anxious about whether Emma would hold the same appeal as her previous works. “I am going to take a heroine whom no one but myself will much like,” her family recalled her saying when she began writing Emma, and when the novel was published she described herself as being in “a state of doubt as to her [Emma’s] reception in the World.” In particular she was concerned that readers who enjoyed the sparkling Pride and Prejudice would consider Emma to be “inferior in Wit,” while those who admired the morally serious Mansfield Park would think Emma “very inferior in good Sense.”
Wells is first and foremost a great teacher of Jane Austen, and for all its beauty and accessibility, this Annotated Deluxe Edition is clearly intended for students approaching Emma for the first time, as is made pretty explicit in the brief section called “Tips for reading Emma,” which includes common-sense advice like:
Pace yourself. If you’re reading for your own pleasure, take a chapter at a time. If you have a deadline – a class assignment or book group meeting – spread out the reading so that you’re doing some each day rather than big sections all at once. To the extent that you can, emulate the audience for whom Austen wrote: they read for pleasure, at their own pace.
(Not only do I know of no Austen fan who requires such advice, I know of no Austen fan who’s capable of following it; this must be at least my 35th re-reading of Emma, for example, and I could no more “pace myself” than I could sprout wings and fly to the moon – I gobbled it, immoderately, as always)
But even though these “tips” are clear and concise, there’s still, as mentioned, a mystery about this annotated volume of Emma … mainly involving the lack of annotations. It’s true that Wells provides eleven excellent “contextual essays” on things like food, health, love, or money in the world of Jane Austen’s novels, but such things, however interesting, do not an annotated edition make, as Wells must know as well as anybody. Yes, her readers will be fascinated to learn about dancing or social stratification in Emma from those brief closing essays, but first-timers reading the text of the novel itself will have none of the hand-holding that actual annotation is supposed to provide. When dear old hypochondriac Mr. Woodhouse says “I am too nice,” for example, there’s no authorial intervention to stop first-timers from immediately thinking they know what he’s saying, when he’s really not saying that. When we’re told that Mr. Martin has certainly read The Vicar of Wakefield but not The Romance of the Forest or Children of the Abbey, we’re being told something much more about him than the books on his nightstand, but readers who don’t already know that won’t learn it from this edition, unless they find it buried in one of those contextual essays at the back – certainly they’ll get no guidance on this or dozens of other small points while they’re actually reading the book itself.
It’s a small point, of course. As I’ve noted about annotated editions just in general, they’re often guilty of over-helping. Small misunderstandings or not, no beginning reader of Emma is going to fail to be utterly overjoyed by the book, and those beginning readers could hardly do better for themselves and their personal libraries than to invest the $17 in making this Penguin Classics Deluxe edition their Emma of choice. It’s just a bit odd, that’s all – which makes it par for the course during this particular Week O’ Penguins.
October 24th, 2015
Some Penguin Classics seem like classroom-ready compromises, as in the case of Jane Kingsley-Smith’s new paperback combining the two most prominent plays by John Ford with the two most prominent plays by John Webster. Why, you can almost hear being asked in some Penguin editorial meeting, should we force students to buy “complete plays” editions of both Ford and Webster when it’s only at most these four plays – “The White Devil” and “The Duchess of Malfi” by Webster and “The Broken Heart” and “ ‘Tis Pity She’s a Whore” by Ford – that those students will be studying in the limited time they have?
And Kingsley-Smith, bless her loyal heart, is fully aware of the criticisms that have been leveled against these two over the centuries, and she’s quick to defend them, not only by invoking that most useful of all literary shibboleths, the anxiety of influence:
Since the early nineteenth century both dramatists have been accused of the same crimes, most notably plagiarism, amorality and technical incompetence. Webster and Ford wrote for the King’s Men, Shakespeare’s company, at a time when its most celebrated playwright was either reducing his theatrical output or dead (see The Duchess of Malfi and The Broken Heart respectively), but Shakespeare remained a tyrannical presence, compelling his successors to remember and revisit his works.
… but also by hauling in modern critics who can be relied upon to work up nearly pyrotechnical grades of bullshit:
In the last fifty years the renewed popularity of Webster and Ford in the theatre has been complemented by a critical re-evaluation. Their reworking of Shakespeare is now more often attributed to creative ingenuity, which challenges audience expectations, rather than to mere slavish devotion.
“The ‘flaws’ in structure and characterization,” Kingsley-Smith tells us, “tend now to be perceived as deliberate artistic choices.”
Well, they at least tend to be claimed as deliberate artistic choices (and such claims are always dangerous, because they prefer what rhetorical game-playing can do over what it should do – this is exactly the kind of self-consciously disingenuous doubletalk that gets the movies of Michael Bay into allegedly serious film criticism courses). Newcomers to Ford and Webster, reading their works for the first time in this handy volume, will see plenty of deliberate artistic choices in these plays, and perhaps they’ll keep in mind that artistic choices that are deliberate can also be plagiaristic, amoral, and incompetent. Penguin once upon a time printed a selection of critical essays by George Bernard Shaw, who knew a thing or two about both Ford and Webster and would have had a few choice words to say about their “creative ingenuity.” Maybe Penguin Classics will revive and expand that grand old Shaw volume one of these days; the aforementioned students, among others, might find it interesting.
October 23rd, 2015
Some Penguin Classics are so physically beautiful they stifle dissent, at least temporarily. This is certainly true for most of the “Deluxe” titles (again, we shall not turn our thoughts toward a Deluxe edition of The Liars’ Club, lest those thoughts become impure …), and wow, even in that company, one of the newest Penguin Classics Deluxe editions really stands out: the new Penguin Arthur Miller, a big, gorgeous volume designed by Paul Buckley with cover art by Riccardo Vecchio (the art isn’t just a closeup of Miller’s hangdog face, thank God – the wraparound features 1950s-era New York City). This is a big book, 1300 pages, with French flaps and deckle edges, and its binding is so good that it obediently lays open at almost any page. It’s a genuinely hefty volume, capable – as I know now from first-hand experience – of being read and annotated and battered for a week straight. This is the Arthur Miller volume to own for a lifetime.
If you want such a thing, that is. Certainly you get the impression from reading the Foreword by playwright Lynn Nottage that you should want it. In a quick piece titled “Letter to a Young Playwright,” she takes the pretty much standard line about Miller’s worth in American letters:
I found myself drawn to Miller’s work because he wrote with a sense of purpose – an evangelical fervor rooted in his overarching concern about the shifting moral fault lines that threatened to fracture the foundation of American culture in the twentieth century. Indeed, Miller never backed away from the social issues of the day, mining his own misgivings and frustrations to create plays that probed the complexities of a flawed society. He had great empathy for the disaffected souls that hovered on the edges of darkness, light-seekers trying to negotiate a world that was rapidly redefining itself in the aftermath of the Depression and World War II.
It’s passionately – if somewhat tritely – stated (when writing about the critical and financial failure of Miller’s 1944 play The Man Who Had All the Luck, she has to contort herself to avoid using any kind of gendered pronoun: “These setbacks remind us that a playwright is shaped not only by how one copes with success, but, also as important, how the playwright rebounds from failure”). But I’ve never seen it in this writer. I know millions of people have read his plays and seen them performed – unlike our previous entries in this Week O’ Penguins, I’m not in his case saying he doesn’t belong in the Penguin lineup – but to me, he’s always seemed not only to be a mediocre dramatist but also an intensely insecure one. The mediocrity strikes me as self-evident; virtually nothing in his plays happens for organically dramatic reasons, virtually nothing progresses, and the characters are as flat as baking pans. And the insecurity jumps out in the texts of the plays themselves, where Miller is a stage mother from Hell, constantly hovering at the elbows of every actor and director, making sure every intonation and nuance is performed exactly the way he himself envisioned it, and to Hell with their own interpretations. It’s a fundamental distrust of the whole process of staged drama, and the only reason a playwright would feel it is if he wasn’t all that sure he’d done his job well enough so that his words led naturally to the interpretations he wanted.
His most famous play, Death of a Salesman, is absolutely lousy with such micro-management, but it runs through all the plays. Take for example his oft-staged (and Halloween-friendly) 1953 play about the Salem Witch Trials, The Crucible: it starts off with “A Note on the Historical Accuracy of This Play” (as if a dramatist has any business even thinking of such a note), then it proceeds to a four-page dissertation on Puritan Massachusetts – all this before Act One even begins. And even once the play has started, Miller is constantly there fussing with things, as in a quiet moment at the beginning of Act Two, between John Proctor and his wife Elizabeth:
PROCTOR, with a grin: I mean to please you, Elizabeth.
ELIZABETH – it is hard to say: I know it, John.
He gets up, goes to her, kisses her. She receives it. With a certain disappointment, he returns to the table.
PROCTOR, as gently as he can: Cider?
ELIZABETH, with a sense of reprimanding herself for having forgot: Aye! She gets up and goes and pours a glass for him. He now arches his back.
PROCTOR: This farm’s a continent when you go foot by foot droppin’ seeds in it.
ELIZABETH, coming with her cider: It must be.
PROCTOR, he drinks a long draught, then, putting the glass down: You ought to bring some flowers in the house.
ELIZABETH: Oh! I forgot! I will tomorrow.
PROCTOR: It’s winter in here yet. On Sunday let you come with me, and we’ll walk the farm together; I never see such a load of flowers on the earth. With good feeling he goes and looks up at the sky through the open doorway. Lilacs have a purple smell. Lilac is the smell of nightfall, I think. Massachusetts is a beauty in the spring!
ELIZABETH: Aye, it is.
It’s always struck me that Arthur Miller wasn’t so much a great dramatist as a second-rate novelist, but I realize I’m distinctly in the minority on that point. And lord knows, I tried to change that opinion! I lived with this beautiful Arthur Miller Penguin volume for days on end, taking it with me as I walked around in the traditional, nothing-to-see-here-folks 80-degree Boston October weather; I had strangers on subways comment on how lovely the book itself was, and I enthusiastically agreed with them. I talked to a couple of people who’d actually seen an Arthur Miller play, but their recollections were fuzzy. One older man told me about having seen a recent Broadway production of “Death of a Salesman,” and I asked him how he felt when he was leaving the theater. He looked puzzled, and then his face brightened. “My wife and I had a great dinner before the show.” We ended up talking about that, which was fine by me.
October 22nd, 2015
Some Penguin Classics quite inadvertently prompt somber thoughts. That’s been a bit of a theme in this particular Week O’ Penguins, and it continues with another of their latest volumes, Songs of a Dead Dreamer and Grimscribe, by cult horror-writer and bolt-eyed loon Thomas Ligotti. This is true not only because Ligotti is cut from the same cloth as Ray Russell and Charles Beaumont, although he is (he has more literary ability than both of them combined, but that’s not saying much, now is it?), but also because Ligotti is not only still alive but still well south of decrepit. There’s a peculiar chill that runs through your ventricles when the Penguin Classics line inducts an author who’s younger than you are. Natural orders feel inverted. The whole idea of what constitutes a “classic” begins to wobble.
Because surely whatever combination of elements go into making a classic, one of the most important of them all is time? I can name you five bestsellers and five cult figures (and five more bestselling cult figures) from the literary world of, say, 1968 – half of whom are still alive, two-thirds of whom are still writing – but their sales and status are just two gauges of the work they’re doing, right? Part of what we mean when we call something a “classic” is its ability to find readers in states unborn and accents yet unknown; when cheesy book-reviewers call something an “instant classic,” they’re expressing a hope rather than bestowing a benediction, and yet what is induction into the revered Penguin Classics line if not a literary benediction (we’ll say nothing, therefore, about the recent said induction of Mary Karr’s The Liars’ Club – there aren’t words, even in Klingon …)? Thomas Ligotti was born in 1953, for cripe’s sake! He only started publishing his stuff in 1981. Even calling him successful feels a bit presumptuous, but calling him a classic?
Nevertheless, that’s what Penguin is now doing, and they’ve enlisted Jeff Vandermeer, author of the popular “Southern Reach” trilogy, to do the Preface-writing honors. And he wastes no time in getting right down to business, hyperventilating from here to Penobscot Bay about strengths Ligotti doensn’t possess and stylistic resonances he’s never displayed and may never yet display:
In Ligotti’s work, the supernatural exists in support of ideas that serve as a sharp interrogation of the way we live, evoking comparisons to literary realists as different as John Cheever and Shirley Jackson. That may seem an audacious idea, but if we pluck Ligotti from the clutches of weird fiction, we find that his universality exists at an unexpected level – not because weird fiction doesn’t deal with complex issues and ideas, but because the weird fiction context places the emphasis squarely on the uncanny, obliterating our ability to see anything else.
“Ligotti’s fiction, temporarily unhooked from the weird, is best understood as a continuing interrogation of the legitimacy of our modern lives,” Vandermeer writes. “He is exploring the underbelly of modernity – personal and societal.”
He’s actually not doing anything of the kind, and even if he somehow were, that still wouldn’t salvage a contention that if you unhook Ligotti’s work from the weird, he suddenly transmorgrifies into Eudora Welty or somebody … No, Ligotti is a writer of weird stories; if you unhook him from the weird, you’re left with some semi-colons and a couple of disaffected aunts.
He writes weird stories fairly well, however. They’re very firmly Lovecraftian – of all the absurd assertions Vandermeer makes, his assertion that Ligotti soaked up all the Lovecraft that interested him and then moved on is by far the most absurd – but they’ve got a stylish sense of pacing and some fun use of color. They beguile an interval of reading, which is more than can be safely said of our previous two new Classics. It’s true that Ligotti never trusts his readers enough to risk being subtle and instead smears on the purple prose with a garden trowel, as when the half-supernatural main character in “The Lost Art of Twilight” is contemplating himself:
Such is a thumbnail sketch of my half-toned existence: twilight after twilight after twilight. And in all that blur of time I never imagined that I would have to account for myself as one who existed beyond or between the clashing worlds of human fathers and enchanted mothers. But now I had to consider how I would explain, that is conceal, my unnatural mode of being from my visiting relatives.
But more often than not (and more often than Lovecraft, which is saying something), Ligotti falls back on hokey stagecraft to lurch his stories to their intensely predictable climaxes, as in one of the sharpest stories collected here, “Dr. Voke and Mr. Veech”:
“I’ve done my best for you, Mr. Veech, and you’ve given me nothing but grief. I’ve tried to deliver you from the fate of your friends … but now I deliver you to it.”
At these words, Veech’s body began to rise in a puppet’s hunch, then soars up into the tenebrous rafters and beyond, transported by unseen wires. His arms and legs twitch uncontrollably during the elevation, and his screams … fade.
It’s good old-fashioned baroque melodrama steeped in fuzzily familiar horror cliches, by an author who’s barely into his 60s and probably has a lot more writing to do before he retires his laptop. So: more Penguin Classics in store? If it were up to me, I’d let the grandchildren of his current readers be the judges.
October 21st, 2015
Some Penguin Classics, as we seem to be mentioning quite a bit lately, are a bit odd. They call to mind fifty years of mottos the line has used to promote itself to the reading world, things like “The Best Books Ever Written.” They call these mottos to mind in aggressively evaluating terms, because when these certain Penguin Classics appear, they challenge any idea of inclusiveness. Even if we stretch “The Best Books Ever Written” to include also important books, path-breaking books, perhaps socially relevant books, there are some Penguin Classics that just don’t seem, well, good enough to belong in the same ranks as Tolstoy, Austen, Chaucer, and the Brontes. No matter how far we stretch any parameter of inclusion, in other words, there doesn’t seem to be any reason to include, say, Ray Russell – or any worth do doing so.
Which brings us in short order, since the two men knew each other and one paid money to the other for the task of writing on deadline, to Charles Beaumont: one of the newest Penguin Classics is a collection of his short stories called Perchance to Dream. It boggles the mind.
Beaumont was born in 1929 and broke into big-time print when a 1954 story appeared in Playboy. He sat himself in front of a manual typewriter every single day of his short life (he died at the age of 38) and pounded out short stories, novels, and a string of TV scripts, including for some of the best-known episodes of The Twilight Zone. He wrote at lightning speed for anybody with a check to write, and he was smart, and he was clever, and he had an incredibly fertile imagination, and if you’re noticing that I’m leaving something out of that list, you’re right: he had no literary talent. He never for an instant thought he did. Nobody who knew him for an instant thought he did. He wouldn’t have known what to do with literary talent – in fact, its appearance in his heart or mind would have alarmed him, since it would have gummed up the works.
Bizarrely, this is a point very nearly explicitly made in the Introduction of Perchance to Dream, an enthusiastic essay of appreciation by the late Ray Bradbury – one damning paragraph in particular:
I realize what a risk I take by daring to use the truly operative word Fun here. It could well label Charles Beaumont and damn him to hell amongst the agonizers and intellectual duck-pressers of the world. For, as you have noticed, you simply must agonize for them. If you do not sweat blood by the pint or the jeroboam, if you do not think loud and long or silent and heavy, and show traces of the sunken pit and the glorious masochism, are not a writer. Your novel took twenty years of nailing yourself to the cross over your typewriter? Splendid! You say that you revised your short story eighty-nine times, and are still not happy with it? Superb! Your three-act drama was in and out of your eyeballs and down on paper through ten thousand revisions? The Croix de Guerre is yours. But don’t be surprised if you trip over copies of your boring books as you leave the house. Literature? No. Doorstops is more like it.
This kind of nonsense says a great deal about the obvious limitations of Beaumont’s writing – limitations, keep in mind, obvious even to his friends, and hoo-boy, it says even more – all of it very accurate – about Bradbury’s own prose, . The one thing it says nothing about is the inscrutable Penguin editorial mindset.
And that mystery certainly isn’t cleared up when we turn to the twenty-three stories in Perchance to Dream, which aren’t really so much stories as they are pitch-ideas that natter on a bit. They have one single idea apiece, no characterization, perfunctory dialogue, and a wind-up length clatter-typed to perfectly commercial-friendly closure every time. Without exception, they reek of commercialism, expedience, and the tin-pan rattle mere shock. Without exception, they reek of convenience rather than any kind of craft other than shadow-puppetry. Without exception, in short, they reek.
“Sorcerer’s Moon” starts with “When he heard the screams, Carnady stopped walking. A fist closed about his heart.” “Blood Brother” starts with, “’Now, then,’ said the psychiatrist, looking up from his note pad, ‘when did you first discover that you were dead?’” About Mr. Pollet, the main character in “Father, Dear Father,” we learn:
Friends he had none. Acquaintances, few. His wife was afraid of him. And in the scientific clubs he was personal non grata: for when he was not mumbling jiggery-pokery about the “space-time continuum” and “the pretzel of the Past,” he was nudging people and asking them his famous, and perpetually wearisome question:
“Well, now, what about you, what is your opinion? If I were to go back in Time and kill my own father – what would happen?”
And those kinds of things aren’t just the carny-barker enticements to draw the reader into deeper matters, no: those lines are their stories – it doesn’t get any deeper. It makes a Penguin Classic of Perchance to Dream genuinely mysterious. The volume comes with a brief afterword by William Shatner. So: the Penguin Classics TekWar novels next?
October 20th, 2015
Some Penguin Classics, as we’ve noticed, are intensely mystifying. Not in their subject matter, but rather in their very existence – and one of the latest examples is the lovely new Penguin edition of Ray Russell’s 1962 debut novel The Case Against Satan, with a new Introduction by horror novelist Laird Barron.
After serving in WWII, Russell eventually became executive editor of Playboy and published big-name authors like Ray Bradbury, Kurt Vonnegut, and Richard Matheson. He went on to write a stack of screenplays and a dozen books in addition to The Case Against Satan, which Barron calls “a primary source in the modern iteration of gothic horror” and notes as a precedent to a “new wave” of horror novels that included Ira Levin’s Rosemary’s Baby and William Blatty’s The Exorcist.
The mention of Blatty’s book is key. The Case Against Satan came out in 1962 and sank like a stone, critically and commercially. The Exorcist came out in 1971 and sold like fresh griddle-cakes, and then two years later its author adapted it as a screenplay for an enormously successful movie adaptation, which prompted the sale of roughly a squintillion more copies of the book. Precedence or no precedence, in terms of cultural impact it should be Blatty’s book that’s a Penguin Classic, not Russell’s.
But that wouldn’t clear up the mystification, because both books stink. They don’t stink in quite the same way: Blatty was simply a talentless poser, purveying unreadable schlock; Russell, by contrast, was an old-style hack with a first-rate second-rate education – had he been born a generation earlier, he’d have made a fortune writing Death Comes to Dinner-style melodramas for the peppery Broadway of the time, and he never lost his keen ear for dialogue nor his keen sense of melodramatic pacing. His books definitely deserve your next rainy afternoon.
They just don’t deserve immortality, or the Penguin approximation, and The Case Against Satan is a good case-in-point. It’s the story of an alcoholic priest who’s confronted with a teenage girl named Susan Garth who’s suddenly behaving very strangely, cursing and avoiding churches and, at one point, attacking a priest. Her single father is at his wit’s end, and our priest is forced to face a possibility for which not all his years in seminary had prepared him:
It was never as if he lacked faith or doubted the existence of God. The idea of God sustained him. It is not difficult to believe in God. God is goodness, for which all men yearn; He is the fountainhead of life; He is Our Father Who Art in Heaven, a great concept, and there is nothing loftier, nothing nobler, nothing more dignified, nothing more awesome. “God is not mocked,” for such a figure is beyond mockery; but the Devil is and has been mocked down through the centuries – he has a sideshow puppet, a mustache-twirling city slicker, a costume for stage magicians, a trademark for a laxative water. No, it is not difficult to believe in God – the very flesh reaches out for such belief – but for an intelligent man of the twentieth century to wipe his mind the centuries of ridicule that have been heaped upon the Devil, for him to take the Devil seriously, as seriously as he takes God; that is difficult. And yet to fail is heresy.
Am I a heretic? Gregory thought with a stunning horror. Am I no longer a priest of God?
And – he asked himself – if this is true, how long have I known it? How long have I perhaps tried to wash it away that knowledge with liquor?
You can see at once the problem: this is quintessential lazy hack writing (“His is Our Father Who Art in Heaven,” etc.), and it’s staginess isn’t at all absolved by that more-interesting final line about washing away doubt with liquor, since that, too, is lazy hack writing, as much a part of the dime Westerns Russell eagerly consumed as was holster leather.
It’s like this all throughout The Case Against Satan, as the girl’s increasingly strange behavior begins to elicit even stranger behavior from her father, whose dark secrets are revealed in a climactic scene that takes place, as if you couldn’t guess, on a dark and stormy night. Mr. Garth never acts any different from the standard “Hey pal, what are you trying to imply?” guilty blowhard from every single week’s episode of The Twilight Zone, and he’s not the only cardboard character by a long-shot. Certainly all the priests in the book also qualify, and as a kindly gesture, Russell also throws in that staple of 1950s cheesy melodrama, the Incredibly Oblivious Housekeeper, in this case dear Mrs. Farley, who’s still thinking “priests were queer ones and no mistake, bless them,” long, long after a normal housekeeper would have run screaming for the hills, until you just want to sigh while watching Russell type this stuff out:
Ah, things had not been the same at St. Michael’s ever since the girl had started coming to Father Halloran with her troubles. That poor man had been plagued enough by that looney one, and now it was Father Sargent that had the cross to bear. A booby hatch was where she belonged, the wild creature. A paddle across her round little bottom … knock a little sense into her, a little of wildness and looniness out of her …
But no. Treat her gentle. Be nice as pie to her. Priests were queer ones entirely.
The aforementioned climax is well-done, as you’d expect from an old workhorse like Russell who knows not to disappoint the paying customer. And he leaves the shot and incident of his plot sufficiently ambiguously resolved as to give readers the seeming freedom to see Satan or simple child abuse at the heart of the matter. But subtlety is not only beyond writers like Russell, it’s also anathema to them – they typically can’t resist the hack’s parting gesture. Russell certainly can’t, although he leaves it for his Author’s Note, in which he dutifully enumerates the actual case of Catholic exorcism (in Iowa, of all places!) that inspired his tale, dutifully warns the readers that he’s embroidered the facts with fiction, as novelists are expected to do, and then … well …:
The following, however, is not fiction.
While I was working on Chapter XIII, in which the exorcism ritual culminates in the words, “Begone, Satan!” I was annoyed by the sudden appearance in my study of a large horsefly, almost the size of a bee, which buzzed about my head and kept me from working. It was not yet “fly weather” and, in addition, my windows were tightly closed. I was forced to interrupt the writing of the chapter, roll up a newspaper, and take time out to kill the intruder. Settling down to resume work, I had scarcely typed a half dozen more lines of the ritual when I was “attacked” by a second fly of the same size. Stopping work again, I killed the pest as I had killed the first. There were to be four such flies in all, each presenting itself only after the preceding fly had been killed. The flies stopped coming after I had typed the words of exorcism, “Begone, Satan!”
And that, ladies and gentlemen, is how it’s done. But in the same “classics” line with Tolstoy and Austen? Mystifying.
October 19th, 2015
Some Penguin Classics provide the best possible invitation right there with their covers, and I know almost no better example of this than the old 2003 edition of Benjamin Franklin’s The Autobiography and Other Writings, edited and introduced by the great American historian and biographer Kenneth Silverman (whose Pulitzer Prize-winning 1985 biography of Cotton Mather you should all rush right out and read). There on its cover is the utterly charming Norman Rockwell painting Ben Franklin’s Belles, the perfect enticement for the wavering reader to step in and explore the book.
As Silverman makes clear, the original readers of the Autobiography would have needed precious little in the way of such enticement. For those readers, Franklin himself was all the reason they’d need, and nobody knew that better than Franklin himself:
Given … his customary pose of authorial modesty, readers may find his self-portrait muted and lacking in glamour. But even when he began the book, knowledge of his accomplishments was so widespread that he could take it for granted. He therefore wrote from the point of view of his own legend. He would show his readers how he became what he knew he had in their minds become.
Franklin’s account of himself – highly sculpted, highly edited, highly self-regarding – is evergreen in its enjoyability, but Silverman isn’t half-bad himself, giving us a Franklin in his Introduction who’s almost as fascinating as Franklin himself thought he was:
Franklin’s fame has depended not only on his achievements but also on his personality and character. His geniality and wit made others long for his company. And to his more than fifty years of public service – crowned by his part in writing the Declaration of Independence, his role as American minister plenipotentiary to France, and his attendance at the convention that devised the Constitution of the United States – he brought a sensitive understanding of human nature and a realistic view of the possibilities for human happiness, together with enormous self-confidence, shrewdness, and tact. Gifted with foresight – indeed a kind of seer – he made remarkably few bad decisions, although often faced with momentous choices.
There are, of course, innumerable editions of Franklin’s Autobiography out there in circulation, including some that run to hundreds of pages of notes and annotations. But this paperback is my favorite – and its cover doesn’t hurt at all.
August 17th, 2015
Some Penguin Classics, as we noted last time, come along as almost indisputable improvements on what’s come before (‘almost’ because there’ll always be a few token refusniks in any crowd, don’t you know), and in the case of the last item in our Week of Penguins, the new Penguin Classics Deluxe Edition of Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment, this is doubly true.
First and most strikingly, there’s the physical appearance of the thing. In its history with Penguin Classics, Crime and Punishment has had, it must be admitted, some gawd-awful cover choices. This is a dense 500-page Russian novel about doubt and doubtful redemption … the very last thing it needs, in any popular reprint series, is a boring or off-putting cover. So some of those earlier Penguin choices – an entirely static out-of-focus black-and-white photograph of a street, or the ever-popular some guy in a hat – well, they weren’t exactly inviting.
That problem has been dramatically solved in this new Deluxe edition (which also has the advantage of feeling very sturdy in the hand – this is a Crime and Punishment truly built for the briefcase and backpack), which features a vibrant, eye-catching wraparound cover by popular illustrator Zohar Lazar. The back cover is a pathetic St. Petersburg street scene complete with plenty of word balloons (the heavy influence of the great Will Eisner in his “Contract with God” phase is evident in every brush-stroke). Front and center on that cover we see the novel’s hapless protagonist, Rodion Romanovich Raskolnikov, the pockets of his ratty coat bulging with stolen baubles, his hand gripping a bloody axe, and his panic-stricken eyes staring down into his own twisted reflection in a spreading pool of blood. In the grand new tradition of the Deluxe Classics, the staid quality of earlier covers has been abandoned in favor of a first impression that agrees with Virginia Woolf about this novel: “Against our wills we are drawn in, whirled round, blinded, suffocated, and at the same time filled with a giddy rapture.”
The second strength of this new edition is, thankfully, the translation itself. The earlier Penguin version was by David McDuff and could at times succumb to the kind of bloat our new translator, Oliver Ready, rightly notes as a cardinal sin of Dostoevsky translators. Ready then proceeds, in his Introduction, to raise the specter of mind-numbing academic tedium with this frankly terrifying call-and-response:
The troublesome question ‘Why retranslate the classics?’ has perhaps only one satisfactory answer: because the translator hopes to offer a closer approximation to his or her experience of the original than is otherwise available.
Happily, this is the only Casaubon-like note Ready strikes. His short but intensely interesting Introduction characterizes Raskolnikov as “an inveterate literary critic” and casts a great deal of the action surrounding him in intriguingly literary terms:
Raskolnikov has blood on his socks and ink on his fingers. He prepares for his crime not only by extensive reading, but also, we later learn, by attempting his first literary debut – a scholarly article with the same theme as the drama in which he plays the starring role. Published without his knowledge, this article is shown to him much later by his proud mother, whereupon, despite the grotesque incongruity with his current situation, he experiences ‘that strange and caustically sweet sensation which every author feels on seeing himself published for the first time, especially at only twenty-three years of age.’
And his translation itself is nothing less than a wonder. He mirrors the tonal shifts in Dostoevsky’s original more nimbly than any English-language translator has before, and he catches the dark humor that runs through the book mostly below its surface, and best of all, he captures the essential, unchanging absurdity of Raskolnikov perfectly, especially in the many key, priceless scenes of confrontation between him and the deceptively mild detective Porfiry Petrovich, including the first such encounter, when Raskolnikov is nattering on about how he has items on offer in the shop of a murdered old pawnbroker (a murder he himself has committed, both before and after interminable soul-searching) and doesn’t want that forgotten in the event of a sale, because he’s a trifle short of funds:
‘You see, for the moment all I wish to do is declare that the items are mine, and when the money comes in …’
‘Makes no odds, sir,’ replied Porfiry Petrovich, unmoved by this clarification about the state of his finances, ‘but if you prefer you may write directly to me to the same effect, namely, that being apprised of such-and-such and declaring items such-and-such to be mine, I request …’
‘Ordinary paper will do, I take it?’ Raskolnikov hastened to interrupt, expressing his interest once again in the financial side of the matter.
‘Oh, as ordinary as you like, sir!’ – and Porfiry Petrovich suddenly looked at him with a sort of blatant mockery, narrowing his eyes and even winking at him. Or perhaps this was just Raskolnikov’s impression, for it lasted no more than an instant. In any case, something of the sort occurred. Raskolnikov could have sworn he winked at him, the devil only knew why.
‘He knows!’ flashed through him like lightning.
Crime and Punishment is rife with such teetering, electric moments – Virginia Woolf was, as always, right – but I confess, I hadn’t seen that fact while slogging through previous translations (including the version from my beloved Constance Garnett, here clearly out of her psychological depth and producing a work of such murk that while reading it for the first time, a literary friend of mine quipped, “The ‘punishment’ part is coming through loud and clear”). Ready’s version crackles with grubby, demented vitality – I’m hoping it, and this lovingly twisted Deluxe edition – enjoys a long life as the go-to edition in English.
August 16th, 2015
Some Penguin Classics are clear, almost necessary improvements on their own Penguin predecessors, and we’ll be closing out our week of Penguins with two of those – starting with a new collection of the writings of Gertrude Bell called, somewhat redundantly, A Woman in Arabia: The Writings of the Queen of the Desert. The volume is edited by Georgina Howell, author of the 2007 biography Gertrude Bell: Queen of the Desert, Shaper of Nation, who writes that she hopes it will “stand in” for the autobiography Bell never go around to writing. And it certainly comes a lot closer to being that autobiography than did the previous Penguin volume of Gertrude Bell, 1953’s Selected Letters of Gertrude Bell, which consisted mainly of letters bell wrote to her father and stepmother over the years, regaling them with studiously nonchalant stories of her travels (“if it were not for a little touch of frostbite in the feet I should be merrily on my way to fresh adventures …”) and painting (as was her custom – her letters were often very long and always exceedingly quotable) vivid pictures of the far-off experience her family’s ironworks money was financing, as when she wrote to her father about a journey through the desert to Hayil in January of 1914, with this entry on the 25th:
To-day we set off in a frosty dawn and marched on down the valley. Ali and I walked on for an hour and waited in a sandy hollow for the camels, and the foot-prints were all round us in the sand. ‘They are fresh,’ said Ali. The valley ended in a wide, open plain, set round with fantastically riven hills black and rusty red as the volcanic stone had weathered. The light crept round them as we marched across the plain. They stood in companies watching us, and in the silence and emptiness were extraordinarily sinister. Suddenly Sayyah called out, ‘There is smoke.’ A tall spire of smoke wavered up against a black hillock. I must tell you that we were waterless and thirsty – the camels had not drunk for four days. We were not at all sure when we should find water, neither did we know in the least what Arabs had kindled the fire whose smoke we watched, but the consensus of opinion was that it was a ghazu – raiders. These are the interesting moments of desert travel.
The letters in that Penguin volume from sixty years ago were all chosen by her stepmother, who acknowledged that “there had clustered round her in her lifetime so many fantastic tales of adventure, based on fact and embroidered by fiction, tales of the Mystery Woman of the East, the uncrowned Queen, the Diana of the Desert …” But she doesn’t acknowledge what she had to have known: that a sizable chunk of those fantastic tales had originated with Gertrude herself, who wasn’t at all averse to the idea of being a legend in her own lifetime (after all, she’d seen it happen to friends of hers, including Winston Churchill and T. E. Lawrence). To the real pioneering treks she made up European mountains and across Arabian deserts, she added innumerable passages about the wildlife, the curious customs, and most of all the ferocious weather of the region:
We have had a week of fierce heat which still continues, temperatures 122 odd and therewith a burning wind which has to be felt to be believed. It usually blows all night as well as all day and makes sleep very difficult. I have invented a scheme which I practise on the worst nights. I drop a sheet in water and without wringing it out lay it in a pile along my bed between me and the wind. I put one end over my feet and draw the other under and over my head and leave the rest a few inches from my body. The sharp evaporation makes it icy cold and interposes a little wall of cold air between me and the fierce wind. When it dries I wake up and repeat the process. This evening Sir Percy and I went out motoring at 7 but it was too hot. The wind shrivelled you and burnt your eyeballs. They say it does not last very long like this – inshallah!
It’s all very evocative, but weather is also the letter-writer’s first choice for a safe subject, which might be why there’s so much of it in the letters of this earlier volume. And even when the subjects vary, they can only begin to hint at the vast variety of things Gertrude Bell wrote in her life. Not just letters by the tens of thousands but also diaries, archaeological guides, hundreds of position papers for the British government, and eight published books. Georgina Howell quotes from a tempting range of these writings in the course of A Woman in Arabia, giving readers a much fuller picture of Bell in the process, if also making the interested reader wonder why the whole thing is only a little more than 250 pages long when it could easily have been three times that length without risking the inclusion of a single boring sentence. In her advisory capacity to Arabian kings and British ministers, in her pivotal role in putting King Faisal on the throne of a newly-conceived kingdom of Iraq, Gertrude Bell quite literally helped to draw the map of the modern world’s most volatile region – but here she gets 200 pages less than the Penguin Classics book of ghost stories. An enlarged edition might be something to consider.
As it is, perhaps A Woman in Arabia should be seen more as a supplement to Selected Letters of Gertrude Bell (and vice versa) rather than a replacement for it. If only the two could be combined; it’s consistently fascinating to watch Bell contour the details of what she’s writing to the interests and tastes of her recipients. We don’t get much of that variation by simply reading the 1953 volume, since most of its letters are written to her parents. And there isn’t much more of that variation in Howell’s book, since she’s more concerned with showing us Bell in all her various capacities (the chapters of A Woman in Arabia have titles like “The Desert Traveller,” “The Lover,” “The War Worker,” and “The Nation Builder”). But reading the two books side-by-side can yield many intriguing moments of difference, moments when we can almost look into Bell’s mind as she subtly alters the stories she’s telling, first to her father:
We are camped within sight of Hayil and I might have ridden in to-day, but I thought it better to announce my coming and therefore I sent on Muhammed and Ali and have camped in the plain a couple of hours or so from the town. We finished with the Nefud for good and all yesterday – and to-day we have been through a charming country – charming for Arabia – of great granite rocks and little plains with thorny acacia trees growing in them and very sweet scented desert plants. We passed a small village or two, mud houses set in palm gardens and all set round with a mud wall. I hope the Hayil people will be polite.
And then, in an entirely more jaunty tone, to her close friend and almost-lover Richard Doughty-Wylie (the ellipses being Howell’s):
We are within sight of Hayyil and I might have ridden in today but I thought it better to announce me auspicious coming! So I sent in two men early this morning, Muhammed and ‘Ali, and have myself camped a couple of hours outside. We had … a most delicious camp in the top of a mountain, Jebel Rakham. I climbed the rocks and found flowers in the crevices – not a great bounty, but in this barren land a feast to the eyes … Yesterday we passed by two more villages and in one there were plum trees flowering – oh the gracious sight! And today we have come through the wild granite crags of Jebel ‘Aija and are camped in the Hayyil plain. From a little rock above my tent I have spied out the land and seen the towers and gardens of Hayyil, and Swaifly lying in the plain beyond, and all is made memorable by Arabia Deserta. I feel as if I were on a sort of pilgrimage, visiting sacred sites. And the more I see of this land the more I realize what an achievement that journey was. But isn’t it amazing that we should have walked down into Nejd with as much ease as if we had been strolling along Piccadilly!
To her father, on September 5, 1920, she can strike a grim (and damningly prescient) note:
We’re near to a complete collapse of society – the end of the Roman empire is a very close historical parallel. We’ve practically come to the collapse of society here and there’s little on which you can depend for its reconstruction. The credit of European civilization is gone. Over and over again people here have said to me that it has been a shock and a surprise to them to see Europe lapse into barbarism. I had no reply – what else can you call the war? How can we, who have managed our own affairs so badly, claim to teach others to manage theirs better?
But only a few days later, in Howell’s book, we find an excerpt of an entirely different tone:
The thing isn’t made any easier by the tosh T. E. Lawrence is writing in the papers. To talk of raising an Arab army of two Divisions is pure nonsense … I can’t think why the India Office lets the rot that’s written pass uncontradicted. T. E. L again: when he says we have forced the English language on the country it’s not only a lie but he knows it. Every jot and tittle of official work is done in Arabic; in schools, law courts, hospitals, no other language is used. It’s the first time that has happened since the fall of the Abbasids …
The experience of reading back and forth between the volumes is delightful; it reads back in to Bell something of her curious chameleon quality, which is a different thing from being multifaceted, and which is often the first quality to be steam-pressed out of a conventional linear biography. Some hints of that chameleon quality are preserved in A Woman in Arabia, which benefits enormously from Howell’s extensive biographical grounding of all the various excerpts she presents. In a way, especially for a writer as prolific and self-aware as Bell was, this may be the truest form a biography could take.
“In guiding the new British administration of Iraq,” Howell writes of Bell, “she was doing the most important work she had ever undertaken. To the people queuing up outside the secretariat in Baghdad, she was more than an administrator; she was someone they could trust. She spoke their language and had never lied to them.” Those people lining up outside, as well as thousands more around the world, were grief-stricken when she died in 1926. Her boss, the High Commissioner, wrote, “Her bones rest where she had wished them to rest, in the soil of Iraq. Her friends are left desolate.” T. E. Lawrence, her old colleague and sparring partner, called the loss of her “nearly unbearable.”
Reading the collection Howell has assembled here, it’s easy for a reader to understand that loss. Bell’s voice in all of its energy and so much of its contradiction is captured quite well here. “Strange isn’t it? To be so much in the midst of it all – strange and delightful for I love it,” Bell wrote at one point, and we feel it in every page of A Woman in Arabia. Now if the nabobs at Penguin could be convinced to do a nice reprint of the Selected Letters …
August 15th, 2015
Some Penguin Classics have horrible tidings to convey. In the broader game of literature, there’s no real way around that. On paper, all books are like the spirits in the underworld encountered by Ulysses: they need human blood in order to give them the power to speak. Printed words never stole a man’s property or took a man’s life, but when they’re invested with human belief, they can recombine into something terrible. There’s no way to calculate the sheer amount of pain and misery that words have caused when recombined with readers in that way. The Bible and the Koran alone carry a slaughter-weight that could sink a continent.
We tolerate this potential because the recombination can work in the other direction too: printed words can also bring joy and personal transformation. They act telepathically; they slip straight past vocal defenses and into the mind, and they can’t be dislodged. On some level, most readers recognize that the dark side of this quiet magic is the price they pay for the bright side of it. Books have tremendous latent power, and if tragedies are leveraged on their words, readers are almost morally obligated to read those words, not only to understand the tragedies but also to refute the leverage.
Somebody at Penguin Classics must know these uncomfortable truths, obviously, and their new volume The Life and Passion of William of Norwich faces it squarely. The book, written by a monk of the Norwich Cathedral Priory named Thomas of Monmouth sometime around 1150, recounts the life and posthumous saintly career of a 12-year-old boy named William of Norwich, who was found dead in a forest just outside the city of Norwich in 1144. The boy’s family insisted that he’d been killed by a group of the town’s Jews, and although the local sheriff appears to have ignored the family’s complaints and stayed any vengeance against the Jews, the story stuck. It was only a few years later that monk Thomas began to craft a story designed to create a lucrative saint’s cult for William at Norwich – a saint’s life in which the Jews were characterized as thoroughly evil beings who regularly kidnap and ritually execute Christian children. It was William’s book, asserts historian Miri Rubin in her invaluable Introduction to this Penguin volume (featuring her own brand-new translation), that began the ‘blood libel’ against the Jews that informed every subsequent antisemitic pogrom.
Monk Thomas tells the story of pure, innocent William’s early life, and he lavishes a good deal of morbid energy describing the boy’s torture and death – a crucifixion in all but name, as Rubin puts it. The book is “a rich and challenging text that greatly informs our understanding of how Christian ideas about Jews developed and spread in the Middle Ages,” Rubin writes, rather charitably, and continues along in that vein:
Accounts such as the Life and Passion were disseminated widely as literature and as edifying tales, but were occasionally acted out in city streets or in law courts as individual Jews or groups of Jews were accused of child murder. This could lead to trials and executions, but it should be remembered that on occasion such accusations were also derided and dismissed.
I don’t know about “edifying,” but Rubin is entirely right in pointing out how interesting some of the stories are that Thomas of Monmouth relates about young William’s very busy and frequently belligerent afterlife, curing the sick and watching miscellaneous doubters like a hawk. Thomas relates the story of a man named Walter, once a servant of the Dean of Norwich, who badmouthed the little martyr so vocally that he got a nocturnal visit from the glowing dead boy, who took him in a vision to a ghastly open grave:
‘Do you know whose grave this was?’ When Walter said it had been his, William retorted with terrible warnings: ‘Then get in at once, you who have always been uttering blasphemies against me.’ Walter was terrified and did not dare to go against the word of the saint commanding him, and, as it appeared to him, he entered, too, and cudgelled him and at last left him broken in all his limbs. And so the sleeping Walter woke up in terror; and he felt the most violent pain in all his limbs, as if he had endured when awake the beating he had seen in the vision.
“Shaken by this punishment,” the narrative tells us about a man who’s just been beaten up by Casper the Not-So-Friendly Ghost in a dream, “from then on he began to venerate and love from the bottom of his heart him whom before he was in the habit of disparaging most despicably.”
“The Life and Passion,” Rubin writes,
is an attempt to apportion blame and to make a link between mythical time – the time of the Passion of Christ – with the medieval present. We approach the book all too aware of the terrible consequences of such narratives. Yet historians must wear this knowledge lightly, lest we confuse Thomas of Monmouth’s intentions with events that occurred much later.
This is just a bit too nicely diced. Thomas of Monmouth’s intentions were twofold: to promulgate a new saint’s cult for a religious center that was eager for the financial windfall, and to vilify the Jews. He poured those intentions into his book, and he did that very consciously. It’s true that he couldn’t foresee the Nuremberg rallies, but we aren’t confusing things to know that he would have loved them. Underneath its brittle pieties, his book is gummily ugly, and this is both the caution and the necessity of reading it.
There’s a distinct kind of bravery in Miri Rubin’s insistence that we engage with this text in order to learn what it can teach us, and there’s a distinct kind of bravery in Penguin’s decision to add it to the line of Classics despite its almost entirely unsavory contents and its thoroughly revolting subsequent history. Whether this exact kind of bravery will ever some day extend to the creation of a Penguin Classics Mein Kampf remains to be seen. My guess is that there’d be protests.