Posts from July 2015
July 4th, 2015
Some Penguin Classics have perfect timing. Not many, as you’d expect, since the line deals primarily in works of literature that are specifically timeless – but in some cases, the when can mean a lot even alongside the what, and today is one of those case: a pretty new Penguin Classics edition of Thomas Paine’s quite literally revolutionary 1776 pamphlet “Common Sense,” here reprinted with the first installment of Paine’s “American Crisis” pamphlets, the whole thing edited and introduced by Revolutionary War historian Richard Beeman (whose 2013 book Our Lives, Our Fortunes, Our Sacred Honor was a lively retelling of the saga of American Independence), who rightly reminds us that “the publication of Common Sense would wholly change the debate over America’s relationship with England and with England’s vaunted ‘constitution.’”
The pamphlet spread through the colonies faster than dysentery; the first edition of Common Sense appeared right at the beginning of 1776, and within weeks, it seemed, every colonist was chattering about it, debating it, hashing choice quotes from it back and forth with increasing fervor. Beeman is far from the first to contend that this little booklet was as effective at stirring colonial hearts to rebellion as were any of the more overt physical provocations of the Sons of Liberty, and the contention might just be correct; a man haranguing you in a tavern can be agreed with and then forgotten, but a booklet enters the mind of its readers, where it can stay and work and replicate.
And the pamphlet’s success was of course entirely born of Paine’s ability to write gripping exhortatory prose at white-hot speed. His key device is to make everything immediately personal to his readers (and hearers – this text was much-declaimed in town squares), whether it be his ridicule of the idea that a small island could have pretensions to rule a sprawling continent, or his lampooning of the whole idea of hereditary monarchy, or his hard, squinting look at the various stances colonists took to his incendiary subject:
Though I would carefully avoid giving unnecessary offence, yet I am inclined to believe, that all those who espouse the doctrine of reconciliation, may be included within the following descriptions. Interested men, who are not to be trusted; weak men, who cannot see; prejudiced men, who will not see; and a certain set of moderate men, who think better of the European world than it deserves; and this last class by an ill-judged deliberation, will be the cause of more calamities to this continent, than all the other three.
Re-reading Common Sense is always electrifying, not least because Paine is so uncannily prescient about so many things (although not about everything; is there an American today, for instance, who doesn’t wince a little at the line, “But the most powerful of all arguments, is, that nothing but independence, i.e. a continental form of government, can keep the peace of the continent and preserve it inviolate from civil wars”?). And while I might quibble with Penguin’s decision to include so little of Paine’s writings in this slim volume (adding the rest of The American Crisis would have killed them?), there’s no arguing with how well the skimpy size of the volume cannily echoes the slight, passed-hand-to-hand nature of the original.
I’m hoping there are at least a few copies of Common Sense in the pockets of the many thousands of spectators who’ll gather on Boston’s Charles River this evening to watch the 4th of July fireworks. The pamphlet was an atom bomb in the Patriot arsenal – it would be nice if reading it were a small part of basking in the independence it did so much to bring about.
July 1st, 2015
Some Penguin Classics – including this, the final entrant in our little parade this time around – are eye-opening in a way that a single reprint of a single classic seldom is. Medievalists Ad Putter and Myra Stokes have taken one of keystone works of English literature – Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, beloved by generations of students for its sex and gore but above all for its brevity – and built it into a mighty thousand-page volume that would have undergraduates muttering grimly while they popped their Hello Kitty-flavored grey market antidepressants. A thousand pages! This rapturous new Penguin Classic isn’t Sir Gawain and the Green Night – it’s The Works of the Gawain Poet.
The capstone of those works is of course still Sir Gawain and the Green Night, but this volume also includes the dreamy, haunting, oddly sad poems Pearl, Cleanness, and Patience (it doesn’t include the poem St. Erkenwald, because our editors declare “the evidence for common authorship is inconclusive” – but that evidence is a whole lot more conclusive in this case, on the linguistic and stylistic level, than it is for a quarter of the plays routinely ascribed to Shakespeare; I say it should be included in this volume – I think it’s virtually impossible that the Gawain poet didn’t have at the very least a preponderant hand in St.Erkenwald‘s composition – but I’ll count my blessings either way). Putter and Stokes positively load the texts with footnotes and endnotes pitched at such a perfect range that they will simultaneously help the student and intrigue the expert. And at every stage, they’re careful to illuminate the actual working time period of the Gawain poet a thousand years ago:
Of his personal life, he tells us two things, one probably, the other certainly, true. He indicates in Patience that he had known poverty, which would not be surprising for a cleric who could not progress beyond minor orders. The claim functions partly as a captatio benevolentiae [courting the good will of the hearer], for the poet does not want to dis-implicate himself from the patient endurance of adversity which he preaches. But the rhetorical stratagem would sadly backfire if he were known to be in comfortable circumstances. For things at this period were not as they are today, when a dust jacket can give information on an actual author, between whom and the ‘I’ of his fiction there can be wide discrepancies. Such inconsistencies at this time would have caused confusion to no artistic purpose.
All of the poems are presented, rather daringly, in their original Middle English (very slightly cleaned up), and the array of critical materials dart very nimbly around the Gawain poet’s wide reading – though anonymous, this poet was surely one of the best-read writers of his age – and the end-product effect is to provide readers with something very close to a fourteenth century First Folio. It’s a marvelous performance all around.
June 30th, 2015
Some Penguin Classics would infuriate their authors, and that’s almost always a good thing – certainly so in the case of an absolutely lovely and subtly subversive new volume called When You Are Old: Early Poems, Plays, and Fairy Tales by W. B. Yeats, edited by a Yeats scholar who actually has Yeatsian name: Rob Doggett.
Doggett here very rightly reminds is that “we live in the shadow of Yeats the literary critic, who, in his Autobiographies (1916-1935) and extensive critical writings, did more than perhaps any other modern author to define how future readers should approach his works.” No perhaps about it: the older, snowy-faced, slope-eyed Yeats hated his much younger self, the handsome, lively firebrand who so quickly and deeply impressed a Victorian and Edwardian audience that read far more poetry than the modern era and read it more earnestly and better than all but a handful of readers can do today. It’s Doggett’s aim – here splendidly achieved – to give us “a very different Yeats” from that stooped taoiseach of later years:
Not here the bitter elitist railing against the middle classes during the 1910s or the self-assured high modernist of his late phase, but the young aesthete who dressed as a dandy, founded literary societies in Dublin and London, collected Irish folklore, penned dramatic works about ancient Ireland and the fairies, dabbled in magic, and wrote beautiful poems for Maud Gonne – the Yeats that people first came to know, that some loved, and that nearly all admired.
Seamus Heaney once wrote that it was the endeavor of that older Yeats “not only to create an Irish literature independent of the imperial, empirical sway of Britain; it was also an attempt to launch upon the world a vision of reality that possessed no surer basis than the ground of his own imagining.” And you only have to consider such lunacy for a second to know Heaney’s right. In fact, you can take his comments about ‘a vision of reality that possessed no surer basis than the ground of his own imagining’ and translate it into the common phrasing Heaney was too courteous to use: the older Yeats was a loon.
And that older, hangdog-seer Yeats systematically did something older, hangdog-seer authors are so frequently allowed to do without public censure: he revised his earlier published work. The subject of such literary blasphemy is one of the only points on the spectrum of eternity where I find myself agreeing with Stanley Fish: once a text is published, there it is. It doesn’t matter whether you’re its author or not – you can deride it, you can comment on it, you can clarify it, but once it’s been exposed to the reading public, it belongs to the reading public, and you, the author, are just another critic. Authors who go back to their earlier works and change them, offering “authorized versions” and the like, are not only cowards but also vandals. And although Rob Doggett is every bit as courteous as Seamus Heaney and twice as scholarly (he of course points out how much great poetry the older Yeats wrote), the volume he’s crafted here for Penguin Classics stands as a quiet rebuke of such tactics. Here he includes the 1895 version of Poems, the 1899 version of The Wind Among the Reeds, and, delightfully, the 1902 version of The Celtic Twilight. Here we get Yeats in the glorious morning of his talent, when his ear was by and large sharper, and when his voice was unmuffled by mysticism. It’s an amazing breath of fresh air – indispensable reading for any fan of this poet.
It also demonstrates – though I’m sure such was not kindly Doggett’s intent – that writers who go back and try to change their earlier works always worsen them. Take an example that Doggett himself provides, Yeats’ revised version of a stanza from the 1925 edition of “The Sorrow of Love”:
The brawling of a sparrow in the eaves,
The brilliant moon and all the milky sky,
And all that famous harmony of leaves,
Had blotted out man’s image and his cry
About this, Doggett says “The opening gerund is direct and powerful, the images are romantic but rendered with specificity, and the tone is confident, almost urbane …” All very nice and well-chosen euphemisms, but the version of the poem he prints in this volume is from 1895 and leaves very little doubt what the younger Yeats would have thought of “the tone is confident, almost urbane”:
The quarrel of the sparrows in the eaves,
The full round moon in the star-laden sky,
And the loud song of the ever-singing leaves
Had hid away earth’s old and weary cry.
What can even we “poor plodders in prose” (as one of Yeats’ contemporaries so winningly put it) discern from looking at the two versions side-by-side? Why, that the later ‘revised’ version is much worse, of course. A singular sparrow all alone cannot ‘brawl'; the fact that a sky is full of stars doesn’t make it ‘milky’ unless you’ve thought about it much, much too much (and ‘milky’ conflicts with ‘brilliant’ in any case – the moon’s light is white; how can it be ‘brilliant’ against a ‘milky’ background?); the ‘harmony’ of leaves is called ‘famous’ even though no previous poet had commented on it, let alone made it famous – and why is it called that? Because the older Yeats knew that he himself had made it famous – not through an observation of the natural world, but through the success Poems had selling in Dublin bookshops; and the reader is left wondering how a harmony of leaves can blot out an image – when’s the last time you saw a sound blot out an image? I’ll give you a hint: it’s something that happens to old people all the time. The earlier, original version of the stanza is by contrast lovely in all its parts, and the parts make sense because they came hot from the poet’s first imagining. Sparrows quarrel, ‘star-laden’ and ‘hid away’ are pure and evocative (an unthinking song ‘hid away’ a weak old song), the whole thing is, as Doggett points out, languidly sensuous in a way the later “this is what I really meant” elephantine pondering most certainly isn’t.
When You Are Old is a precious gift to readers: it gives them a William Butler Yeats that the older poet would have preferred the forget, or never meet in the first place. This volume would have exasperated that older poet, the pompous bastard, and that’s recommendation enough. As that younger Yeats so clearly put it, “a wolf is better than a carrion crow.”
June 27th, 2015
Some Penguin Classics are themselves every bit as fascinating a tale as anything they reprint. It doesn’t often happen that more provenance will furnish a story worth telling – certainly it doesn’t happen often in the Penguin Classics line, where the typical sequence of events goes something like this: Henry James finishes a nice lunch (soup, of course), boxes up the definitive, can’t-get-any-more-gassy edition of his latest 600-page opus about a well-dressed young woman changing her mind about somethng, hands the box to a trusted (young, comely, male) courier, and shortly thereafter receives a cable from his publisher announcing the safe arrival of the manuscript. It’s then printed without any emendations, duly impresses Edmund Wilson, and is eventually indoctrinated into the Library of the America James abandoned in order to save a few dollars on his taxes. That edition then swims contentedly from Penguin Classic to Penguin Classic, reprint to reprint, sometimes with a John Singer Sargent cover, other times with a J. M. W. Turner cover. For generations of readers (voluntary or in), whatever thrill that edition has will come from James doing his thing for page after page after page. Nobody will be interested in the courier, or the box.
Not so some Penguins, however! Some Penguins feature manuscripts etched in prison darkness or on the surging main, scribbled on clammy beds as a final illness gathers strength, or hammered out on an old typewriter with the sound of warfare on the near horizon. Some books, in other words, come with their own thrilling biographies of chances nearly missed (think of that one surviving copy of Catullus escaping Christian bonfires in a Verona library) or discoveries aided only by the thinnest of serendipities. These volumes elicit an extra sigh of gratitude no work of Henry James will ever hear.
One of the newest Penguin Classics is just such a volume: a collection called The Turnip Princess and Other Newly Discovered Fairly Tales, a group of “new” fairy tales assiduously collected by an amateur folklorist (and fan of the Brothers Grimm) named Franz Xaver von Schonwerth in the 19th century and then found, much later, by a heroically beetling bibliophile named Erika Eichenseer, who found von Schonwerth’s labors locked away in a municipal archive in Regensburg, Germany. She read them, sorted them, organized them, and presented them to the world in a 2010 selection called Prinz Rofzwifl (which translates to Prince Dung Beetle and instantly raises the question of why on Earth the folks at Penguin didn’t go with that absolutely stellar title for this volume).
That collection is now a Penguin Classic: The Turnip Princess here presents seventy-odd items from von Schonwerth’s vast treasure-trove of tales (this book could easily have been three times its present size, which raises another question about its current incarnation), giving fairy tale fans a huge mass of the stuff they like best. It’s like walking into a bookstore and finding an extra volume of Hans Christian Anderson that you’ve never seen before; it’s like a third volume of Homer, suddenly Fed-Exed from Regensburg.
They come with intriguing titles like “Seven With One Blow!” “Learning How to Steal” “What the Moon Tried to Wear” “In the Jaws of the Merman” and yes, “Prince Dung Beetle.” And most of them are intensely reminiscent of the brutal, insanely irrational, merrily bloodthirsty world of the more familiar fairy tales before Disney gets its hands on them. Take as just one example the story “The Wolves,” in which a princess hides from her prince the fact that she’s given birth to a veritable litter of baby boys (she’s worried that he’ll believe he’s been serially cuckolded). She orders her handmaid to dump the babies at the nearest wolf’s lair, but the prince, out hunting, intercepts the woman and has the boys raised with a trusted subject. And then:
Eighteen years went by, and the prince was planning a grand feast. Seven boys with long hair, all equally handsome and dressed alike, appeared at the feast. The princess could feel her heart pounding when she set eyes on the boys, and she began to tremble.
During the meal the prince jokingly asked how to punish a mother who throws her sons to the wolves. “She should dance to death in red-hot iron shoes,” was the answer. And so the princess condemned herself to that very punishment. The prince acknowledged the boys as his legitimate children, and they became known as “the wolves.”
Such a cheery little ditty! And the darkest detail goes unsaid: it was, of course, the boys themselves who suggested the gruesome punishment – a punishment meted out two decades after the original offense, an offense where no harm at all was done. The Grimm Brothers would have been proud.
June 23rd, 2015
Some Penguin Classics are so big and so impressive that it’s astounding they’re not better known to the general English-reading public, and surely La Regenta, the massive 1885 Spanish novel by Leopoldo Alas – issued in this big 1984 Penguin trade paperback but still almost entirely unknown to the Republic of Letters. I recently found a copy (you’ll never guess where) and spent an evening re-reading it in this splendid, almost opulently confident John Rutherford translation, starting, of course, with the book’s peculiarly sun-struck opening lines:
The city of heroes was having a nap. The south wind, warm and languid, was coaxing grey-white clouds through the sky and breaking them up as they drifted along. The streets of the city were silent, except for the rasping whispers of whirls of dust, rags, straw and paper on their way from gutter to gutter, pavement to pavement, street corner to street corner, now hovering, now chasing after one another, like butterflies which the air envelops in its invisible folds, draws together, and pulls apart.
The book is the story of that “city of heroes” and its varied, somewhat disreputable inhabitants, including the main character, a frustrated woman whose search for fulfillment in love is what prompted the book’s original critics to compare it to Madame Bovary – and to condemn it accordingly. You’d think such condemnation would have guarantee the book a wider audience than it got, but as far as I can tell, Penguin Classics has only given it two printings – this one and one later one.
Of course, poor Ana isn’t the book’s only standout character, far from it – my own favorite is the hapless and openly Dickensian priest Fermin, who never fails to bring out our author’s best – and most playful – prose:
Don Fermin was not in the habit of contemplating the serene night, although he had been at one time, long ago, in the Jesuits’ College, in the seminary, and during the first years of his life as a priest, when his health had been delicate and he had been prey to that sadness and those scruples which used to eat away at his soul. Later, life made a man of him and he had followed in the footsteps of his mother, a peasant woman who could see in the countryside nothing but the exploitation of the land. That which in books was called poetry had died in him years ago – oh yes, many years ago! The stars? How seldom he contemplated them since he had become a canon!
“La Regenta, rich in wit and humour, is also a work of intense moral seriousness,” Rutherford writes in his Introduction, and it’s true: there are plenty of moods in this big, intensely readable book, and there’s a variety of tones sufficient to warrant the comparisons it’s always received with Don Quixote. But the real comparison to make here – when we’re not being geographically lazy, mind you – is with Anna Karenina.
June 22nd, 2015
Some Penguin Classics feel like perpetual surprises – a bomb in a hymnal, as Sir Kenneth Clark might have written – and that certainly applies to Madame de Lafayette’s 1678 novel The Princess of Cleves, the short but untiringly punchy story of the elegant Mme de Cleves, a fixture at the splendid court of the French king Henri II. It’s a setting our author wastes no time in setting up as almost parody-worthy:
At no time in France were splendour and refinement so brilliantly displayed as in the last years of the reign of Henri II. The monarch was courteous, handsome and fervent in love; though his passion for Diane de Poitiers, Duchesse de Valentinois, had lasted for above twenty years, it was no less ardent, and the tokens he gave of it were no less exquisite.
Since he excelled at every sort of physical exercise, he made that his main occupation. Every day there was hunting and tennis, dancing, tilting at rings or similar pastimes. The colours and ciphers of Mme de Valentinois were everywhere to be seen, as she was herself, attired in a manner that might have befitted her grand-daughter, Mlle de la Marck, who was then of marriageable age.
Reading or re-reading The Princess of Cleves after a setup like that always, as noted, brings surprises. I just recently re-read the book and was struck by this fact over and over; our clever author is forever establishing the tableaux of a proto-romance and then sweeping those tableaux aside with a well-mannered ironic chuckle. The book’s main character, Mme de Cleves, is tormented by her ungovernable passions for a man who’s not her equal nor suitable for her, and both she and her intended husband and the object of her passion, the Duc de Nemours, are politely tortured by Mme de Lafayette for the 150-something pages of a book so quietly unnerving that she found it expedient to deny her authorship rather strenuously.
Some of the textual reasons for the low-boil scandal of the book are hinted at in this Penguin volume’s wonderful Introduction by the great French translator, the late Robin Buss:
The more one considers the moral of this book, the less ‘moral’ it seems. Like affairs of state, which are subject to sudden and disastrous change as the result of a trivial accident such as the death of Henri II, the lives of individuals are tragically determined by fate and by circumstance. Within these constraints, people act, driven by egotism and impulse, rather than by virtue or moral imperatives, and are punished for disregard of social, rather than religious taboos. If Mme de Cleves is heroic, it is not because she is virtuous, but because in the end she chooses the one course that will permit her to preserve her integrity and to remain, relatively, free.
Buss was entirely too eager to draw connection-lines between The Princess of Cleves and the gloppy bouillabaisse of Proust, and there’s a bit of that even in this Introduction – but actually Mme de Lafayette is the progenitor of an entirely different, entirely opposite genealogy of French literature: the bearable branch. And SO much of that starts with this book, plainly writing things that aren’t plain, and calmly developing into things that are entirely predictable and yet continue to surprise.
May 26th, 2015
Some Penguin Classics come in packages that are ridiculously enticing, and the foremost current example of this has to be the new Penguin Classics Deluxe Edition of Angela Carter’s 1979 short story collection The Bloody Chamber, which here gets an absolutely stunning paperback designed by Lynn Buckley and illustrated in leering, lapel-grabbing black-and-white by Alex Konahin. Here on the 75th anniversary of Carter’s birth, The Bloody Chamber, a book that’s had a long history of gorgeous book-designs, gets what might be its best one yet.
The hosting duties are taken up this time around by Magic for Beginners author Kelly Link, who reveals in her Introduction that The Bloody Chamber is for her one of those books:
I do know that since I first came across The Bloody Chamber, I have kept a copy with me wherever I have been living. I keep extra copies in the cupboard where we stockpile books that I can then, extravagantly, give away to whoever seems most in need of them.
I fancy that most readers have one or two of those books, the ones you buy whenever you see them, specifically so you always have copies on hand to give to people who haven’t read them, to press on those people like a Gideon Bible. I certainly have one of two of those books, the kind of book you love so much and so badly want people to read that you feel you’ve failed somehow if you aren’t able to put a physical copy in their hands the moment you recommend it. The Bloody Chamber has never been one of those books for me, but there’s something extra comforting in knowing it’s introduced here by somebody who loves it that way.
Certainly the open enthusiasm of the Introduction served to propel me into my first re-reading of the book itself in probably thirty years (God only knows what happened to the cheesy old mass market I used to have), and I was instantly caught up again in Carter’s hyper-lavish use of language – and by the theme that throbs so close to the surface in all ten of these stories, the great murmur of longing that unifies these separate parts. The Bloody Chamber‘s stories are pastiches of well-known fairy tales and folk tales like Beauty and the Beast or Puss-in-Boots, but at their heart they contain the kind of profound psychological displacement that belongs purely to the 20th Century. In the title story, for instance, we watch a recently-married young countess as she boards a train with her new husband, going “into marriage, into exile”:
The train slowed, shuddered to a halt. Lights; clank of metal; a voice declaring the name of an unknown, never-to-be-visited station; silence of the night; the rhythm of his breathing, that I should sleep with, now, for the rest of my life. And I could not sleep. I stealthily sat up, raised the blind a little and huddled against the cold window that misted over with the warmth of my breathing, gazing out a the dark platform towards those rectangles of domestic lamplight that promised warmth, company, a supper of sausages hissing in a pan on the stove for the station master, his children tucked up in bed asleep in the brick house with the painted shutters … all the paraphernalia of the everyday world from which I, with my stunning marriage, had exiled myself.
That’s so quintessentially Carter, that detail about poetically doomed characters catching glimpses – through warmly-lit windows – into pleasant, settled worlds they will never know. If anything, that detail is heightened in Link’s favorite – and mine – among these tales, “The Lady of the House of Love,” a vampire story in which, according to Link, we’re shown that it’s possible “to blend together in one story the gothic, the comic, the camp, and the cataclysmic.” The vampire Countess in that story hates her supernatural nature even as she yields to it:
On moonless nights, her keeper lets her out into the garden. This garden, an exceedingly sombre place, bears a strong resemblance to a burial ground and all the roses her dead mother planted have grown up into a huge, spiked wall that incarcerates her in the castle of her inheritance. When the back door opens, the Countess will sniff the air and howl. She drops, now, on all fours. Crouching, quivering, she catches the scent of her prey. Delicious crunch of the fragile bones of rabbits and small, furry things she pursues with fleet, four-footed speed; she will creep home, whimpering, with blood smeared on her cheeks. She pours water from the ewer in her bedroom into the bowl, she washes her face with the wincing, fastidious gestures of a cat.
Into her world, briefly, comes that same sunlit glimpse of another, this time in the form of a young officer, “blond, blue-eyed, heavy-muscled, visiting friends in Vienna,” but he’s only a glimpse – he’s gone again almost before she can register all the things he might have been.
I found the book effortlessly better and more beautiful than I remembered from the earlier reading a lifetime ago, and this sturdy new paperback only enhanced the pleasure. The front inside flap shows an ornate key, and the back inside flap shows an elaborate keyhole. Even if you’ve read The Bloody Chamber before – and especially if you haven’t – take the proffered invitation: turn the key, and enter.
May 23rd, 2015
Some Penguin Classics have been reprinted so many times in so many formats and years and fads that no further possible textual justification can ever be found for doing it again – instead, publishers have to think outside the book, have to look for nuances of presentation if they want to create something that feels a bit new. And if this is true for classics like Pride and Prejudice or fan favorites like Dracula – books that exists in billions of copies around the world and so, technically speaking, require no further reprinting – how much more true must it be for the millionth new edition of a flaccid and mordantly overpraised book like Graham Greene’s 1940 novel The Power and the Glory, which has seen hundreds of different paperback reprint editions over the last eighty years while managing to deserve none of them?
It’s a tribute to book-designer Paul Buckley that he can make such an old familiar chestnut look so fresh and inviting. This latest Penguin Classics reprint of The Power and the Glory harks back to some of the very earliest Penguins by having an actual dust jacket, in this case one that overlays a vaguely ecclesiastical gilt-work over a black-and-white cover photo of a soldier squinting to take aim with his pistol – an apt combination of images, given that Greene’s novel is set in Mexico of the 1930s, when the government was using the military to hunt and persecute Catholics in the rough outlying districts where the story unfolds.
That story, as will be well-known to the legions of high school students who’ve had this thing inflicted on them when they could otherwise have been reading Starship Troopers, features an unnamed “whisky priest” who wanders through the aforementioned unnamed provinces in a seedy, alcoholic stupor, hunted by the authorities, suspected by the inhabitants, distrustful of his own faith. In more talented hands, such a plot might have been woven into a great novel (indeed, it largely was – and a free book to the first of you who can identify the resulting huge book, one of the greatest unsung novels in Mexico’s literary history). In Greene’s hands, it’s just another talky, disjointed dish rag of a melodrama, mainly propelled by brevity and snappy place-descriptions – in other words, it’s a thinly-disguised piece of travel-writing.
Greene, always balky at doing anything creative and hence always ready to recycle old material, had in fact already written just such a piece of travel-writing about the brief time he spent in Mexico, a 1939 book called Another Mexico. But according to John Updike, in his 1990 Introduction reprinted with this new edition, Greene, far from recycling Another Mexico (Updike persists in calling it Another Country, and as with so much of the swill he churned out in his career, he wasn’t edited), transformed it into art with a capital “A”:
The tone, too, is transformed: in Another Country Greene is very much the exasperated tourist, hating Mexican food, manners, hotels, rats, mosquitoes, mule rides, souvenirs, and ruins. He even inveighs against the ‘hideous inexpressiveness of brown eyes.’ In the novel, as it shows a Mexican moving among Mexicans, and these generally the most lowly and impoverished, all querulousness has vanished, swallowed by matters of life and death and beyond.
Thus prepared for a transcendent novel in which “querulousness” has been purged away, readers will perhaps be surprised to find our man very much still in Havana:
The squad of police made their way back to the station. They walked raggedly with rifles slung anyhow: ends of cotton where buttons should have been: a puttee slipping down over the ankle: small men with black secret Indian eyes. The little plaza on the hill-top was lighted with globes strung together in threes and joined by trailing overhead wires. The Treasury, the Presidencia, a dentist’s, the prison – a low white colonnaded building which dated back three hundred years – and then the steep street down past the back wall of a ruined church: whichever way you went you came ultimately to water and to river.
Maybe Updike – from his Montauk vantage point – could discern a meaningful difference between ‘hideous inexpressive brown eyes’ and ‘black secret Indian eyes,’ but I sure don’t, and this kind of offhand garbage is waist-deep in so much of Greene’s boring, one-note fiction, including here in what Updike refers to as his “masterpiece.”
But, thanks to Paul Buckley, this is the prettiest paperback edition of that “masterpiece” you’re likely to find.
May 23rd, 2015
Some Penguin Classics mark a melancholy succession, and works in translation are particularly vulnerable to this. The old cherished translations of great works – the Rosemary Edmonds War and Peace, the E. V. Rieu Homer, the Dorothy Sayers Divine Comedy, and so on – begin to feel almost imperceptibly dated around the edges. If they’re particularly beloved, the editors might attempt a facelift, bringing in some scholar to write a new Introduction and revise the old translation, maybe providing new notes. But such things are delaying actions only; generally speaking, every age tends to demand its own translations of the canon.
Which is an entirely healthy process, even I must grudgingly admit, but the ‘melancholy’ part comes in when the outgoing translation in question has been an old friend. And what older Penguin Classics friend do I have than the 1954 Aubrey de Selincourt translation of the Histories of Herodotus? As I’ve noted before here at Stevereads, I’ve lived and traveled with the de Selincourt Herodotus to such an enormous extent that the book feels like a part of me. Seeing it dropped from the Penguin Classic lineup can’t help but be shocking, even if it’s being replaced with something very good.
Luckily, in this case it’s being replaced with something very good. Something better, in fact, than I originally thought. When Tom Holland came out with his translation of Herodotus a couple of years ago, the thought that it might one day replace my Herodotus in the Penguin line perhaps made me a bit defensive. But I’ve had a chance to live with the Holland translation since then, revisiting it in part or in whole as a conscious schooling decision whenever my hand just automatically reached for the de Selincourt.
It’s grown on me, this Holland translation. I like it’s straightforward conversational style, which starts immediately in the Translator’s Preface:
Herodotus is the most entertaining of historians. Indeed, he is as entertaining as anyone who has ever written – historian or not. He has been my constant companion since I was twelve, and never once have I grown tired of him. His great work is many things – the first example of nonfiction, the text that underlies the entire discipline of history, the most important source of information we have for a vital episode in human affairs – but it is above all a treasure-trove of wonders.
And I like the way Holland’s dialogue (and Herodotus is simply crammed with dialogue – more, percentage-wise, than we get in War and Peace) is often more natural and less arch than the stuff de Selincourt so often produced in pages from memory. Take the poignant moment when Croesus, the beaten king of Lydia, gives the ravenous Persian King Cyrus some ironic insight:
Then he turned, watching as the Persians devastated the Lydian capital, and opened his mouth at last. ‘O King, should I say what has been on my mind, or is this not an appropriate time to speak?’ Cyrus told him not to be afraid, and to say whatever he wished. Croesus responded with a second question. ‘What are they doing, all these rampaging hordes?’ ‘Why,’ said Cyrus,’ they are tearing your city to pieces, and carting off your treasures.’ But Croesus turned this statement upon its head. ‘It is not my city they are tearing to pieces, not my treasures. None of it belongs to me any more. It is you who is being robbed.’
And if I needed any extra convincing, I certainly got it in the form of his gorgeous new Penguin Classics “Deluxe Edition” paperback designed by John-Patrick Thomas. Its pages, its binding, its lovely black and burnt orange color set … de Selincourt never looked this good. It seems a little too pretty to take along on travels, but those days are over too, so I don’t mind.
May 22nd, 2015
Some Penguin Classics are legitimate scholarly landmarks. Not as many as you might expect, and for the clear reason that the overriding purpose of any classics-reprint line is actually the opposite of originality: a new Introduction here, a pretty new cover there, but the heart of Dover, Signet, Bantam, Penguin and all other reprint lines is mainly to present the familiar, not the new.
Penguin excels in this, of course. Their editions of classics both well-known and, shall we say, speculative, are lovely, handy, and efficient; when I want to re-read a canonical work of which I have half a dozen editions (*sigh* – don’t get me started), I almost invariably reach first for a Penguin Classics. But typically, if I want a scholarly, critical edition of a canonical work, I hunt down some other edition – the Norton Critical War and Peace, for instance, or the John Shawcross edition of Milton’s poetry, and so on.
There’ve been exceptions: the recent three-volume edition of the Arabian Nights, for instance, or the recent David Norton edition of the King James Bible. And to that short, distinguished list must now be added Penguin’s meaty new edition of the Magna Carta, the famous charter King John’s barons wrung out of him in June of 1215 on a field at Runnymede. Magna Carta itself winds down in well under 4000 words, but this new edition, edited by David Carpenter, is nearly 600 pages long, and such a staggering discrepancy would seem to defy justification. But as Carpenter points out early and often, the elaborate extent of the critical attention is well warranted by the sheer bombshell importance of the document itself:
The Charter’s impact in the thirteenth century was actually very great. Its arrival does mark a ‘before’ and ‘after’ in English history. For a start, the efforts at publication and enforcements meant that the fact of the Charter was enormously well known. Even for those who knew merely the fact and not the details, the fact was massive, for it embodied the basic principle of the Charter. The king was now subject to the law. This idea had, of course, a long pedigree, but now its truth was proved in a document of unimpeachable authority and overwhelming fame.
Carpenter’s edition of Magna Carta is a stunning scholarly performance from start to finish. The document is presented in all its sniveling glory, with English-Latin facing pages, but the glory of Carpenter’s endeavor is its consummate contextualizing. After the presentation of the text (copiously annotated), Carpenter writes what amounts to a political and social biography of King John and his times. We get wonderfully readable discussions of Magna Carta and the poor, Magna Carta and women, Magna Carta and English law, Magna Carta and the monarchy, Magna Carta and subsequent ages, and a dozen other historical permutations.
All this great surging current of scholarly support works to present the entire world and significance of Magna Carta in one elegant paperback volume, so it’s perfect for students coming to the subject for the first time, but it also digs as deeply as a great many works of specialist scholarship, so it’s perfect for readers who come to the volume already knowing something about the subject. That’s no mean feat of scholarship, and Carpenter makes it look easy. And occasionally, there are even some very faint hints of skepticism about holy worth of Magna Carta itself:
The Charter has indeed become one of the most famous documents in world constitutional history, regarded as a fundamental protection against arbitrary and tyrannical rule. In some ways, this illustrious history is as undeserved as it was unintended. Magna Carta, as originally conceived, certainly did not offer equal protection to all the king’s subjects. It was, in many ways, a selfish document in which the baronial elite looked after its own interests.
That hint – that the substitution of twenty, thirty, a hundred armed and mercenary tyrants for one single tyrant might not have been a purely good thing in “constitutional history” – isn’t extensively pursued, since the aforementioned illustrious history isn’t going anywhere any time soon. But Carpenter’s towering achievement in this volume is the best thing on Magna Carta to appear in this 800th anniversary year of King John’s capitulation to his subjects.