Posts from November 2017
November 24th, 2017
Some Penguin Classics don’t seem quite right until you actually see them in the familiar restrained format, staring out at you with that quintessential Penguin Classic quiet assurance (in this case considerably abetted by a stark cover illustration by Hsiao-Ron Cheng). Then you start to think, “Well yes, this is probably right. I’ve certainly never been able to forget [X] – and maybe that’s as good a definition of ‘classic’ as anything else.” And slowly, gradually, you experience the quietly wonderful feeling of adding a classic to the world’s roster, of admitting to the ranks another book that’s going to go right on making its strange and irreducible claims to generations of readers, whether the author’s around to disavow it, whether interpreters are around to claim they spotted it first … that’s going to go straight to the readers and sticking with them.
Such a book is certainly Anna Kavan’s Ice, which now becomes a Penguin Classic on the 50th anniversary of its publication in 1967. Many lurid cheap paperbacks have followed from that debut, and many readers, famous and obscure, have encountered the book at their library or on the metal spinner-rack of their small-town dry goods store and read its weird story of an unnamed man crossing a broken, ice-stalked version of modern reality in search of a “glass girl” who seems never quite willing to materialize – read the story and then tried to understand it, only to find that it, too, never quite materializes. This is a fantasy about sick longing, a quest novel in which the search erodes the searcher, and hard at every one of its perimeters is looming ice. Kavan, who wrote many more-or-less conventional novels under the name Helen Ferguson, wrote this one under not a pseudonym but a fictional character’s name, and speculation has been rife ever since about the extent to which Ice is a parable about her own struggles with drug addiction.
Either way, what she creates in these pages is a telescoping gallery of horrors. The man’s quest evolves into a tour through all the depravities of an intensely depraved world, and in scene after scene, monsters creep through the cold up to cabin windows, pause to listen to the talk inside, and hear stories of yet more monsters:
Now she was with a man she called father who sat just inside the window. Because he was so close to me, his was the first voice I understood. He was relating the legend of the fjord, how every year at the winter solstice a beautiful girl had to be sacrificed to the dragon that lived in its depths. The other voices gradually became silent when he began describing the rite itself. “We untie her as soon as we get her up there on the rock. She must struggle a bit, otherwise the dragon might think we’d palmed off a dead girl on him. The water foams down below. The monster’s great scaly coils appear. Then we hurl her down. The whole fjord becomes a maelstrom, blood and foam flying in all directions.”
“They might have been talking about a football match between their team and a rival town,” we’re told.
This Penguin Classic edition of Ice is introduced by the talented novelist Jonathan Lethem, and that turns out to be both good news and bad news. He opens his Introduction, for instance, like this:
Anna Kavan’s Ice is a book like the moon is the moon. There’s only one. It’s cold and white, and it stares back, both defiant and impassive, static and frantically on the move, marked by phases, out of reach. It may even seem to be following you.
There are 184 moons in Earth’s solar system. 11 of them are extremely similar to Earth’s moon. 4 of them are virtually identical to Earth’s moon. Earth’s moon is not white. Earth’s moon is not defiant. Earth’s moon is not frantically on the move. Earth’s moon is not out of reach – men have visited it, there are pictures. Earth’s moon does not seem to be following you, although Anna Kavan’s Ice will, especially if you’re reading it for the first time. As Lethem more helpfully writes “Though Ice is always lucid and direct, nothing in it is simple, and it gathers to itself the properties of both a labyrinth and a mirror.”
November 20th, 2017
Some Penguin Classics are beautiful productions in and of themselves, quite separate from the beauty (or, in the case of some authors reprinted with inexplicable regularity, the lack thereof) of the prose involved. Conspicuous along these lines is the Penguin Classics Deluxe Edition line, which puts wonderful extra effort into making paperback classics worth treasuring on the outside and the inside. These editions have gatefold covers, deckle edges, and, most noticeably, newly-commissioned and often deliberately off-kilter cover art. And while on rare occasions that cover-art can go awry (the less said about the new Penguin Classics Deluxe Edition of Anne of Green Gables, the better – although the stuff inside was as wonderful as ever), most often its both arresting and, often playfully, subversive.
In the case of the new Penguin Classics Deluxe Edition of Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, the cover represents a natural pairing: illustrating Conrad’s novella of frightening human degradation is comic book artist Mike Mignola, the creator of Hellboy. Mignola is a virtuoso of dark spaces in his art, and looming behind the semi-human figure on the cover is a tangled, swollen heart – in a pointed gesture of creepiness, the vein are embossed.
A reader who can resist embossed heart-veins is made of sterner stuff than I am, but even for such die-hard holdouts, this Conrad edition offers a mighty strong temptation in the form of an Introduction by Adam Hochschild, author of the bestselling King Leopold’s Ghost – in one sense a perfect choice, considering how extensively Hochschild has written about the same forces of colonialism that drive a wedge of madness right through the middle of Conrad’s book. Hochschild is a sensitive reader of fiction, but in this case he’s calling for more:
We miss much if we look at the novel only as a work of imaginative literature. It is also a remarkable description of “the actual facts of the case,” the Scramble for Africa at its most naked. The river that Marlow travels up may never be named – and, indeed, it doesn’t always physically resemble the Congo River, nor does the Inner Station much resemble the Stanley Falls Station Conrad saw … But consider the figure at the novel’s center, Mr. Kurtz, the brilliant, ambitious, supremely rapacious hoarder of ivory. Kurtz is sketched with only a few bold strokes, but he has become our time’s most famous literary villain: the lone white man with his dreams of culture and grandeur, his great store of ivory, and his barbarous fiefdom carved out of the jungle.
Of course the main draw here is the same as in all Penguin Classics: the book itself. I recently re-read and loved Maya Jasanoff’s great new biography of Conrad, The Dawn Watch, so I was primed and ready to re-read Heart of Darkness, which I confess I’d never really enjoyed all that much and whose vicarious elevation in the wake of Apocalypse Now I resisted with a degree of stubbornness that was doubtless unfair to Conrad.
My worry about him has always been the disquieting murk of his prose, and this latest re-reading of Heart of Darkness didn’t exactly sooth that worry: Conrad is a prolix writer. The wits who’ve been commenting for 100 years that his English reads like a fair-to-middling translation from some very different and perhaps far more glottal language have always been delivering a grain of truth. But this latest re-reading revealed slow (not to say sludgy) undercurrents in passages I’d always previously considered simple self-indulgence. I don’t know whether or not it was largely due to Maya Jasanoff’s book, but I navigated the undercurrents far more easily this time around and actually enjoyed myself in re-reading even fervid passages like this one:
“I let him run on, this papier-maché Mephistopheles, and it seemed to me that if I tried I could poke my forefinger through him, and find nothing inside but a little loose dirt, maybe. He, don’t you see, had been planning to be assistant-manager by and bye under the present man, and I could see that the coming of that Kurtz had upset them both not a little. He talked precipitately, and I did not try to stop him. I had my shoulders against the wreck of my steamer, hauled up on the slope like the carcass of some big river animal. The smell of mud, of primeval mud, by Jove! Was in my nostrils, the high stillness of the primeval forests was before my eyes; there were shiny patches on the black creek. The moon had spread over everything a thin layer of silver – over the rank grass, over the mud, upon the wall of matted vegetation standing higher than the wall of a temple, over the great river I could see through the sombre gap glittering, glittering, as it flowed broadly by without a murmur. All this was great, expectant, mute, while the man jabbered about himself. I wondered whether the stillness on the ace of the immensity looking at us two were meant as an appeal or as a menace. What were we who had strayed in here? Could we handle that dumb thing, or would it handle us?”
My other, non-Deluxe Penguin Classics edition of Heart of Darkness has the traditional Penguin black spine with white letters, but as is usually the case, this Deluxe Edition is easily superior, a slim, gorgeous thing in its own right and now haunted by Mike Mignola’s somber artwork. Complete with embossed veins.
October 7th, 2017
Some Penguin Classics serve as enjoyable reminders that more things in Heaven and Earth fall under the heading of “classic” than the usual lineup of Dickens and Austen. Penguin has always been good about this, and in the last twenty years or so they’ve improved even on their own track record, sometimes with questionable results (Wellington’s military dispatches? The Domesday Book?), and sometimes with cheering ones (never too soon for the complete back-catalogue of Ngugi wa Thiong’o, for instance), but the latest example feels long overdue for the American Penguin catalogue: it’s Joan Lindsay’s 1967 novel Picnic at Hanging Rock.
This book surely holds the record for the sheer number of different editions accumulated before its canonical black-spine Penguin Classics debut. Since its first appearance, it’s been a hit with readers – a success that was only amplified by the 1975 Peter Weir movie adaptation (a still from which serves as this edition’s cover illustration). An entire generation of Australian readers grew up with this novel, which is set on a hot, bright summer day in the year 1900. Some young women from Appleyard College for Young Ladies are taken on a picnic, driving some distance to wild, secluded Hanging Rock. “Hunger satisfied and the unwonted delicacies enjoyed to the last morsel, the cups and plates rinsed at the pool,” the text laconically tells us, “they settled down to amuse themselves for the remainder of the afternoon.”
Three of the young ladies decide to hike up the rock. Readers have already been given ample hints by the author that this is probably not a good idea. Even while the picnic party is still on the way to its destination, the first view we get of Hanging Rock itself is wreathed in ominous language:
Directly ahead, the grey volcanic mass rose up slabbed and pinnacled like a fortress from the empty yellow plain. The three girls on the box seat could see the vertical lines of the rocky walls, now and then gashed with indigo shade, patches of grey green dogwood, outcrops of boulders even at this distance immense and formidable. At the summit, apparently bare of living vegetation, a jagged line of rock cut across the serene blue of the sky.
The three are never seen again, and that deceptively simple fact is the engine that drives the entire book: what exactly happened at Hanging Rock that day? Right from the start, readers wanted to know the answer, and they were not-so-subtly nudged in that direction by the Sphinx-like note Lindsay attached to the beginning of the book:
Whether Picnic at Hanging Rock is fact or fiction, my readers must decide for themselves. As the fateful picnic took place in the year nineteen hundred, and all the character who appear in this book are long since dead, it hardly seems important.
Needless to say, a note like that was bound to increase exactly the kind of curiosity it pretends to want to calm. Readers trekked out to Hanging Rock, and they pored through all available old newspapers in search of some hint of a genuine disappearance around which Lindsay might have built her story. It’s pretty clear from even a single reading of the book that this was exactly the reaction its author wanted to inspire, a slow-boil confusion of reality and fantasy exactly mirroring the strange events of that picnic day. The move gives the whole story a delicious element of folk-tale: Three Young Women Disappear – The End.
After a lifetime of doing other things, Lindsay wrote Picnic at Hanging Rock in her sixties, and she wrote it at a dash, finishing the manuscript in a matter of weeks. And she herself was endlessly quizzed by readers about possible real-life resolutions to her story, including questions put to her by perhaps her highest-profile reader, as we’re told in the brief Introduction written by novelist Maile Meloy:
The mystery of what happened goes unsolved in the novel, and Lindsay remained elusive about the possibility that it was a true story. When director Peter Weir asked her for the film rights to make his 1975 movie adaptation, he was warned not to ask if there had been a real disappearance, but he did anyway. Lady Lindsay – her husband, Daryl, had been knighted for services to the arts – said she hoped he wouldn’t ask again. So Weir asked instead if the question of what happened to the girls was open-ended. Could they have fallen down a hole or been abducted by aliens? She said yes, it could have been any of the above.
(Meloy includes the detail that Lindsay’s original manuscript actually included a final-chapter explanation, which the manuscript’s editor cut – perhaps on grounds of its excessive loopiness, although there’s also no denying that the book is much stronger without a solution regardless of what that solution is).
It was a bit sobering to encounter Picnic at Hanging Rock for the first time in a 2017 American-edition Penguin Classic, but that’s exactly what I did, and I loved both the book itself and the experience of for once being squarely in the recipient-zone for Penguin’s great mission of spreading the word. It was both exciting and oddly humbling to know I was reading for the first time a book that had already been read, re-read, and loved by thousands and thousands of people, a book that’s a canonical classic in a country I’ve never visited and will never see. It’s been the highlight of my recent Penguin-reading experience.
June 16th, 2017
Some Penguin Classics are examples of that peculiar sub-species of literary work that somehow always feels pointedly relevant, no matter the age or era: in this case, the great writings of celebrated New England crackpot, Henry David Thoreau – Walden and Civil Disobedience. This is a new edition, with a simple, arresting cover illustration by Jason Holley and a new Introduction by English professor Kristin Case, who nods in the direction of that weird eternal relevance right away. “The questions that drove Thoreau to Walden Pond in 1845 were the same questions that face young people, particularly recent college graduates, two hundred years after his birth,” she writes. “What should I do for work? How should I spend my life? And how far should I accept the answers arrived at by others?”
Thoreau’s decision to absent himself from decidedly manageable hustle and bustle of mid-19th century Concord and go live in a little shack on a lot of Ralph Waldo Emerson’s land gained him a small amount of notoriety in his own day and has been irretrievably enshrined in American cultural mythology ever since, mainly because it was one of those insignificant gestures that seem to signify eighty different things. Something similar is at work in the pages of Civil Disobedience, even though on the surface the two works look so different that Case is right when she points out that Thoreau scholars have often complained that the two works feel like they were written by two different authors. The feeling is deceptive; in reality, great thematic strands unite these two things and everything else Thoreau wrote. One of those strands is hooey, but Case, ever the true believer, has a different one in mind:
Imagination is among the keys to Thoreau’s enterprise and one of the themes that unites his writing on nature and his writing on politics. To answer, even to earnestly ask, the question of how to live is to engage in the work of imagination. It is to imagine something other than what already exists, something other than what we can see. Here we might think again of that sentence from Walden‘s conclusion: “The volatile truth of our words should continually betray the inadequacy of the residual statement.”
Not exactly a crystal clear sentence, that, but re-reading this lovely new Penguin edition reminded me of how good Thoreau can be when he’s not woolgathering or posturing. The key, as Case writes, often is that element of imagination, when Thoreau effectively blends his habitual melancholy with a whimsical element that sticks in the memory – like the daydreaming in which he indulges while out working the ground:
As I drew a still fresher soil about the rows with my hoe, I disturbed the ashes of unchronicled nations who in primeval years lived under these heavens, and their small implements of war and hunting were brought to the light of this modern day. They lay mingled with other natural stones, some of which bore the marks of having been burned by Indian fires, and some by the sun, and also bits of pottery and glass brought hither by the recent cultivators of the soil. When my hoe tinkled against the stones, that music echoed to the woods and the sky, and was an accompaniment to my labor which yielded an instant and immeasurable crop.
“Our times have never needed the shock of Thoreau more,” writes Thoreau scholar William Howarth in The American Scholar, painting a now-familiar nightmare scenario: “We face a government eager to kill all measures of natural protection in the name of corporate profit. Elected officials openly bray that environmentalism “is the greatest threat to freedom.” One federal, state, and local levels, civil liberties and free speech are under attack. Thoreau is too: the barriers to reading him as a voice of resistance – or reading him at all – are multiplying swiftly.”
If this is true – and I wouldn’t underestimate the 21st century on such a score, particularly after this last year – then this Penguin Classics re-issue couldn’t be more timely, as appalling a thing as “timely” always is for any classic to be.
March 20th, 2017
Some Penguin Classics have to walk a very fine line in order to exist at all. Not all of them manage it, of course: there’s been no Penguin Classic of Hitler’s Mein Kampf, nor will there ever be, it’s unlikely we’ll ever see a Penguin Classic reprint of My Life and Loves, or a nice annotated edition of Roger Casement’s diaries, or any of the many electrifying books by Robert Ingersoll. There’s politics as well as cowardice at work here, or rather there’s the cowardice of politics: reprint volumes keep one eye fixed steadily on institutional sales.
It’s hard therefore to guess the fate of something like Brian Copenhaver’s big, brilliant new Penguin volume The Book of Magic: From Antiquity to the Enlightenment, since it treads for its entire 650-page length the finest of troublesome fine lines: religion. After all, if you’re compiling an anthology of excerpts about magic from the course of Western literature, you’ll scarcely be able to avoid tripping over living religious faith at almost every turn. Copenhaver’s eloquent Introduction is hardly off the starting-block before it’s beginning to parse its way around the question:
‘Magic’ (like ‘religion’) as the name of an essence will be uninformative because eliminating contradictions to keep the word accurate will also make it very abstract – too abstract for the relevant domains, which are moral, social and cultural. Keeping the word accurate will be hard because the concepts tagged by ‘magic’ and its cousins, with all the freight that they carry, have emerged in Western and Christian environments in response to Western and Christian problems. Applying the word ‘magic’ – free and clear – to something non-Christian and non-Western … will be difficult, maybe impossible.
Given the drift of this sort of thing, it’s inevitable that Max Weber will come up, and he does smartly:
Magic is ritual where religion is ethical, according to Weber. Magic coerces, but religion supplicates. Magic goes to particulars, religion generalizes. Magic is emotional, religion rational. Deeply learned, writing in patience and finesse, Weber knows that these facile dichotomies cannot stand. By his lights, Moses, Elijah and Jesus were magicians. If those heroes of the Abrahamic faiths were all magicians, how can magic be distinct from religion on axes like ethics v. ritual, reason v. emotion, and so on? No such distinctions can hold, as Weber concedes again and again. But then – on the trail of ‘typical pure magicians’ and something ‘essentially magical’ – he applies the distinctions again, seduced by ‘always’ and ‘all’, words meant to distinguish all magic always from religion – or the reverse – in order to isolate an essence.
The anthology itself, this tremendously entertaining book Copenhaver has created, bolts away from such torturous equivocation the instant it can. In these sections – the Hebrew Bible, the New Testament, the ancient Greeks, the Church fathers, the philosophers and commenters of the Middle Ages and the Renaissance and the Enlightenment – a delightful array of names parades before the reader: Strabo, Pausanius, Philostratus, Iamblichus, Lactantius, Origen, and of course the mighty St. Augustine, Marsilio Ficino in abundance, reliable old John Dee, and that gold mine of arresting quotation, The Hammer of Witches … Copenhaver presents this great crowd in mostly new and vigorous translations (the book is, among all its other virtues, a monument of erudition), and he provides along the way unfailingly helpful notes to everything.
The sum of the whole actually manages to rise above the ideological contortions that start the whole thing off, contortions made necessary by that most dangerous of all fine lines: the inability to call all religion magic. Jesus casting out demons Copenhaver somewhat bravely includes, but Jesus rising from the dead will never appear in books like this one, because millions of people still believe in that magic, and it’s possible that Penguin Classics would like to sell some copies to those millions. Even so, it’s unlikely that copies of The Book of Magic will be stacked for sale in the Bible bookstores that dot vast swaths of the American heartland – which is a shame on two or three different levels.
February 15th, 2017
Some Penguin Classics breathe with the towering wisdom of the world’s great literary figures. And then there’s Voltaire.
The voluminous writings of Francois-Marie Arouet have been a mother-quarry of pseudo-profundity for over two centuries, of course, so in that respect this slim new volume from Penguin – a new translation by Desmond Clarke of the Master‘s 1763 book Treatise on Toleration – is unsurprising. The American presidential election campaign of 2016 culminated in a resounding victory for the forces of intolerance, one of a string of such victories being celebrated all around the world in governments both openly repressive and allegedly progressive. The lamps are going out all over the Europe of the still-young 21st Century, so it’s a praiseworthy if predictable move on the part of Penguin, to issue this handy new edition of a short, compacted work in which Voltaire famously makes a case for rational inquiry, balanced consideration, and the toleration in the title.
He had in mind specifically religious toleration. The little treatise was sparked by the notorious case of the Huguenot shopkeeper Jean Calas, who in March of 1762 was sentenced to death for the crime of murdering his own son in the family home. Calas was innocent – his son had committed suicide – but he was also Protestant, and France’s vindictively Catholic authorities tortured Calas to death with extravagant brutality. Voltaire jumped on the bandwagon of the case for posthumously exonerating Calas, and the Treatise on Toleration was the loudest canon-blast in Voltaire’s arsenal. In it, he rails against the intolerance of France’s Catholic Church.
The case is laid out, as much as possible, along lines of logic and common sense. As Clarke summarizes in his perceptive Introduction:
If members of a political community accept the reciprocity of moral obligations and consider a principle such as the following: ‘Do not do what you would not like someone to do to you’, the implications for toleration are obvious. Each religious group or church must grant freedom of thought to others. Otherwise, they would face their fellow citizens with the following demand that cannot be satisfied simultaneously and reciprocally: ‘Believe what I believe and what you cannot believe, or you will die.’
The Master summons the whole history of Christianity to make all of his points about the long and complicated relationship the Church had always had with persecution and toleration – which calls for great chunks of cod-history buttressed with a delightful sub-profusion of footnotes (which Clarke further buttresses with notes of his own). To give him credit, Voltaire can very often make this kind of stuff interesting:
We are told that Nero persecuted Christians. Tacitus tells us that they were accused of setting fire to Rome and that they were then abandoned to the anger of the people. Has that accusation anything to do with their beliefs? Certainly not. Would we say that the Chinese who were slaughtered by the Dutch a few years ago in the suburbs of Batavia were sacrificed for their religion? No matter how much we might wish to deceive ourselves, it is impossible to claim that intolerance was responsible for the disaster that befell a few unfortunate half-Jews and half-Christians during Nero’s reign.
“If a government is not to have a right to punish human errors, those errors must not be crimes,” Voltaire writes. “They are crimes only when they are detrimental to society, and they damage society as soon as they inspire fanaticism. Therefore, in order to deserve toleration, people must begin by avoiding fanaticism.” And against this instance of fanaticism, our author was successful: Jean Calas was posthumously exonerated, and some of the worst of the creatures who broke him were cashiered. It’s enough to make a strong optimist wonder what brave Treatise on Toleration from 2017 Penguin will be reprinting in 2207.
January 5th, 2017
Some Penguin Classics almost play tricks on your memory, you’re so certain you’ve seen them before in earlier editions. Surely, for instance, any sizable US Penguin Classics library going back a few decades will already have a big fat volume of Percy Bysshe Shelley?
And yet no! When I first clapped eyes on the big, beautiful new Penguin Classics Selected Poetry and Prose of Shelley edited by Jack Donovan and Cian Duffy, I automatically scanned my memory – and my shelves – for its predecessor, something along the lines of two fat volumes of Wordsworth poems that the publisher put out forty years ago, or the great John Barnard edition of the complete poetry of Keats that Penguin brought years ago. And the more I searched, the more amazed I became to think that there might not actually be such a predecessor, that this might actually be the first big, generous scholarly volume of Shelley that Penguin Classics has ever done in this country.
Better late than never, I guess, particularly because this new Penguin volume is absolutely wonderful, nearly 1000 pages of poems, prose, copious notes, and a feisty Introduction in which the “extraordinary output” that has “come to be recognized as one of the major literary contributions to the English Romantic Movement” is examined through a perspective I of course found especially entertaining: Shelley as Box Office Poison, the enfant terrible who managed to get plenty of reviews despite being an upstart unknown – but who also managed to get disproportionately nasty reviews from all and sundry when, as our editors put it, “a number of factors combined to deny him the audience that he persisted in seeking in the face of both widespread disregard and outright hostility.” Donovan and Duffy outline some of that outright hostility and shrewdly point out that such was the capacious spread of Shelley’s innovative genius that his carping critics often had to take aim at only one aspect or fragment of the strange, beautiful, unaccountable work that had crossed their desks:
Remarkably, for a writer whose works did not enjoy wide circulation, Shelley’s volumes of verse were regularly reviewed in contemporary literary periodicals. These notices encompass a more extreme range of opinion than that provoked by any major English poet of the Romantic period. The Shelley that emerges from them is not a single figure but several, usually portrayed in striking colours, not infrequently from the garish quarter of the palette. The most egregious instance of this kind is the vain, sour, querulous, ignorant and vicious individual who is sketched in a review of Laon and Cynthia/The Revolt of Islam in the April 1819 number of the Quarterly Review.
I lost myself for an entire evening in this Penguin Selected Poetry and Prose, which only has competition as a one-volume edition of this poet from the thick 2003 Oxford University Press volume Percy Bysshe Shelley: The Major Works – and once again, as always when I read much of this author, I found myself wondering with a kind of nagging sadness what marvels he might have created if he’d lived to 60, or 50, or 40, or even 31. Even in his short life, he wrote well over 400 poems, a startlingly high percentage of which read like the finished products of a much older poet; the imagination quivers a bit at the thought of what might have been.
A nice big Penguin Classic like this one is all the consolation such thoughts will ever have, but as consolations go, it’s a mighty good one.
December 9th, 2016
Some Penguin Classics, especially in the last few years, are guaranteed to surprise even the most veteran Penguin- watcher. Sometimes this can be disappointingly puzzling – Wellington’s battlefield dispatches, anyone? – and at other times this broad-minded new sense of inclusiveness can be utterly delightful. An amazing example of this latter instance is a new volume from Penguin called The Dance of Death, a series of 51 engravings, 41 of which were printed in Basle in 1524-25.
The engravings were done by the great artist Hans Holbein, who came to Basle in 1515 and encountered a thriving artistic community growing up around the still-fledgling printing industry. University of Cambridge history professor Ulinka Rublack, in her brilliant, comprehensive commentary essay in this new Penguin volume, engagingly portrays this community: “Publishers lodged and entertained authors and other international visitors,” she writes. “Even though there existed clear hierarchies, these publishers, correctors, typesetters, muscular pressmen pulling off sheets and quick-witted artists together formed a new hub of cutting-edge intellectual life.”
This Penguin edition of the series of woodcuts that’s come to be known as The Dance of Death features full-page reprints of those woodcuts, one after the next, followed by Rublack’s 80-page commentary laying out the background, interpretation, and influence of Holbein’s work. It’s a different arrangement from the one obtaining with most Penguin Classics, mainly dictated by the fact that the central work being reprinted here is a picture-sequence rather than a text.
It’s an extremely effective change. It throws the spotlight of the volume squarely where it belongs: on the woodcuts themselves and the genius that Holbein brings to the subject of the terrifyingly impersonal universality of death: he comes for peasants and princes alike, and in panel after panel, his grasping skeletal hands are pulling at rich gowns, plucking at sack-cloth sleeves, yanking the hoods off monks, and holding up an hourglass whose sands are quickly ebbing. Death is counting out his own tray of coins over the loud protests of The Miser; he’s breaking the mainmast of the Seaman’s ship; he’s skewering a knight with his own lance; and he’s pulling the coverings off the four-poster bed of The Duchess. He plays a merry tune as he leads The Old Woman and the Old Man peacefully to their graves, and he leads the pleading Child away from his poor mother. And he shows no respect for ecclesiastical privilege, which was very much a controversial image in that age of Reformation – an ideological balancing act on Holbein’s part, as Rublack points out:
Holbein thus walked a tightrope. He knew that everyone belonging to that very broad spectrum of reform Catholics and Protestants would form a natural audience for his Pictures of Death. The series’ format, intricacy and, presumably, its price were aimed at elites. Holbein therefore could exploit the conventions of satire against the pope, clergy and the rich in this genre, but needed to tread carefully so as not to offend Catholic sensibilities and to be denounced as Lutheran.
The era’s foremost advocate of Church reform, the man puzzlingly referred to by Rublack as “the cult humanist” Erasmus, was a friend and frequent client of Holbein and showed great artistic insight when he wrote, “A great artist is always himself, whether he is modelling a colossal statue or a six-inch statuette … whether he is engraving bronze and ordinary stone or precious stones and gold.” When encountering this Dance of Death, it’ll take readers only a moment to come into complete agreement with the cult humanist: this might not be a work of prose, but it’s certainly a work of genius – and now, thanks to Penguin, it’s once again in bookstores everywhere.
November 23rd, 2016
Some Penguin Classics just never feel quite legitimate, no matter how hard they try, no matter how fervent their supporters are over the decades or centuries. This is how it will feel twenty years from now, when Kurt Vonnegut’s flyblown oeuvre is inducted into the line, and this is how it will feel thirty years from now, when the Harry Potter books make their way into the catalogue. It’s how I’d feel if Frank Harris’s My Life and Loves made the list, even though I’m personally fond of the book. And despite centuries of furtive and illicit love shown to it by a very diverse group of famous readers, this is just how it feels to see a Penguin Classic of The 120 Days of Sodom by the Marquis de Sade.
It’s got just the kind of outrageous pedigree curriculum readers tend to expect of their classics: written by de Sade on a scroll, while he was being held prisoner in the Bastille while the French Revolution was brewing outside its walls, then discovered in its secret cubby-hole and embarked on a centuries-long career as a cult classic. When it comes to enshrining works of literature, cheap conditions don’t get much better than that.
But then you start reading, and it just evaporates into a mess of schoolboy sniggering and pointless provocation. The book is nominally the story of a quartet of hardened libertines who come together in an isolated castle and – slowly and then more and more confidently – start descending into the depths of depravity. It’s all just unutterably boring, and despite the book’s raucous reputation, it’s hard for me to believe most readers haven’t always found it that way. And in this scrupulous, energetic new Penguin translation by Will McMorran and Thomas Wynn, it’s a nice easy reading experience – and still every bit as boring.
Our translators do what translators have always done with de Sade – in their Introduction, they try their best to position his tedium as profundity:
By assaulting our senses and our values the 120 Days may, in fact, revive them. Sade himself makes the argument in several of his works that ‘examples of virtue in distress, offered to a corrupt soul in which there remain some decent principles, can restore that soul to goodness just as surely as if one had shown dazzling prizes and the most flattering rewards.’ As disingenuous as Sade’s defence of his methods certainly is, the reader may well find some inadvertent truth in this apparent lie – that the spectacle of the suffering victim is more likely to inspire compassion than cruelty.
But it doesn’t quite fly, even in a pretty black-spined Penguin Classic with a cover photo that’s no doubt intended to be provocative (is it a pair of ass cheeks? A pair of boobies? Oooooh!). And the induction of de Sade’s work into the Bibliothèque de la Pléiade doesn’t nudge the needle at all – because the author himself, feverishly scraping away at his scroll, keeps doling out overheated scenes that he so painfully intends to shock … and the ham-handed intending drains away the shock every time, leaving you reading paragraph after paragraph and thinking there must surely be a rural nunnery kitchen girl somewhere who’ll blush at something like this:
A great connoisseur of arses and flogging summons a mother and daughter: he tells the daughter that if she does not agree to have both her hands cut off he will kill her mother; the little girl agrees and they are indeed cut off; he then separates these two creatures, stringing the girl up by the neck with her feet perched on a stool; tied around the stool is a another cord that leads into another room, where the mother is held; the mother is told to pull the cord – she does so without knowing what she is doing; she is promptly shown the fruits of her labour and as she is overcome with despair she is felled by a sabre to the back of the head.
July 4th, 2016
Some Penguin Classics, as we’ve seen, are classics in their own editions in addition to their reprinted contents. Whether it’s the Tain or Magna Carta or the Shahnameh, these monumental volumes feel like much more than simply the purveying of accessible translations – they’re self-contained seminars in their own right.
The happy phenomenon applies equally well to works not in translation. A fine case-in-point is Isaac Kramnick’s 1987 edition of the Federalist Papers, which was hailed at its original appearance by no less an eminence than former Chief Justice Warren Burger, who called Kramnick’s introductory essay “an outstanding piece of work.” (This Penguin edition rounds out its contents with a reprint of the United States Constitution in its entirety – one imagines Justice Burger either primly skipped that part or else found it very, very strange reading). Of all the readily-available popular-press editions of the Federalist papers, Kramnick’s is by far the best, which is probably why I gave my original copy away to some first-year fascist law student a decade ago. So I was naturally pleased to find it again at my beloved Brattle Bookshop and use the discovery as a flimsy excuse to re-read the entire thing, Introduction, papers, notes, and even that dear old Constitution.
The eighty-five Federalist papers were originally published over the course of a year, from 1787 to the spring of 1788, as an attempt to sway public opinion in New York in favor of ratifying that new dear old Constitution as a replacement for the Articles of Confederation that had seen the fledgling Republic through the Revolutionary War. And Kramnick’s authoritative Introduction gives an Olympian sheen to the inevitability of that process, citing how impolitely unworkable the Articles were, with their overriding emphasis on the inviolate sovereignty of individual States and its abhorrence of the coercive power of strong centralized governing bodies. After all, the Articles had only shepherded the united colonies to independence from the most powerful empire in the world – why, forms of government do that kind of thing every day! Such piddling achievements certainly couldn’t be allowed to stand in the balance against all those impolitic, unworkable flaws that are so easy to spot from the professor’s study:
From the perspective of historical hindsight it is easy enough to see the obvious defects of the Articles of Confederation which led to demands for its reform and ultimately to its replacement by the Constitution in 1787. The Congress of the central government could not deal with individual citizens but only with the states in their corporate capacity. It could not tax individuals or regulate their commerce. It could not carry out a foreign policy without the goodwill of states that perceived themselves as sovereign and independent. All of this was clear cut and formed a highly persuasive brief moving many to want change. But equally important on the road to Philadelphia and the Constitutional Convention was the activity of the state legislatures. Indeed, for some the abuse of power by state legislatures was the principal reason America needed a new Constitution.
In this Penguin Classic edition of the Federalist Papers, we get the full range of reformist eloquence, and the reading is every bit as invigorating as it always is. And if we don’t also get the anti-Federalist Papers, those equally-eloquent rebuttals of the idea of both the need to scrap the Articles of Confederation and the sublime beauties of a massive centralized government, well, Kramnick is at least willing to quote some brief qualms of the time, like this one from an aggrieved citizen of Massachusetts:
Does not this Constitution … take away all we have, all our property? Does it not lay all taxes, duties, imports, and excises? And what more have we to give? These lawyers and men of learning, and moneyed men that talk so finely, and gloss over matters so smoothly, to make us poor illiterate people swallow down the pill, they expect to get into Congress, themselves. They expect to be managers of this Constitution, and get all the money into their own hands. And then they will swallow up us little fellows, like the Great Leviathan …
The lawyers arguing in favor of the new Constitution expect to be its managers! Why, “they expect to get into Congress, themselves.” Yes indeed. As much of a classic-within-a-classic as Kramnick’s edition is, it possibly could have done with more of that kind of equal representation. But then, there is no Penguin Classics edition of the Anti-Federalist Papers, so interested readers will, in this rare instance, have to go elsewhere to read the whole story. American readers ought to, especially on the 4th of July.