Posts from May 2016
May 4th, 2016
Some Penguin Classics, as I’ve noted before here at Stevereads, feel like they’re a long time in the making, and the Shahnameh of Ferdowsi more than most and in two different ways. Not only has this sprawling tenth century Persian epic waited a long time for an attractive, affordable paperback edition in English, but this particular text, a prose translation by Dick Davis that Viking brought out ten years ago, has waited a long time to become a Penguin Classic.
This Penguin Classic is an expanded edition of that Viking hardcover (which was mighty pretty in its own right), and it’s also a slightly larger size than the standard Penguin trade paperback. It’s got the black spine with the elegant white script title along it – a graceful new Penguin Classic of a book not enough Western readers know anything about. I remember vividly when it first arrived at the bookstore where I was working; I was stunned and immediately took a hardcover copy to the store’s two most veteran and wide-ranging readers – and neither of them had ever heard of it. Over the next few weeks, I tried hard to interest my most literary regular customers in the book, to no avail. When the unsold copies were returned to the publisher (nobody bought one – not even me, since the hardcover cost what was then a full day’s pay for me), I was the only one in the store who noticed or cared.
I don’t expect things are any better here in 2016, but at least I no longer have a ringside seat! I’m free to enjoy this Penguin edition in a peace and quiet broken only by the gentle, arhythmic snoring of a basset hound.
Of course, the Shahnameh is a big book in many more important ways than its thousand-page length. The action spans hundreds of years; the cast encompasses hundreds of characters; this is a national epic on the grandest scale, closer in tenor to The Tale of the Heike (also a beautiful Penguin Classic) than to Homer’s Iliad. The frequent action scenes read like the headiest possible combination of The Mahabharata and the Old Testament:
With his heart freed from this anxiety, Ardeshir paused at the fire-temple of Ram-Khorad; there he prayed earnestly for God to guide him, to give him victory in all his undertakings, and to allow the tree of greatness to flourish for him. Then he returned to his pavilion, where his officers and men awaited him. He distributed cash to his troops, invoking God as he did so. His army was now like a valiant leopard, and he advanced against Bahman, the son of Ardavan, to give battle.
As the two armies approached one another, each side formed ranks ready for battle, with lances and Indian swords grasped in their hands. Then they fell on one another like warring lions, and blood was spilled in rivers. So they fought until the sun turned pale, and the air was filled with dust, the ground with corpses.
As you can see, the translation is smooth and vivid, and I can attest that the reading of it over hundreds and hundreds of pages is almost uniformly gripping. It’s true that in this case I could have done without some of the more condescending comments in Davis’s Introduction:
My aim is translating the Shahnameh was not to produce a text for scholars, but to make it available to a wide non-specialist audience. I hesitate to say a popular audience: perhaps no medieval literary artifact, from any culture, can have a truly popular existence now. We prefer our medievalism to be derivative and ersatz; The Lord of the Rings rather the Beowulf, Camelot rather than Malory or Chretien de Troyes. Nevertheless there is still a world of readers, especially relatively young readers, who are not scholars, who might try Beowulf or Malory, and it was them I aimed to reach with my translation. I translated not for scholars, who after all have access to the original text, now in relatively good editions, but for that radically endangered species, the general reader.
… but despite the drippiness of that “derivative and ersatz,” Davis has most certainly produced a translation for the general reader. I’m hoping copies of this particular Penguin Classic end up in classrooms all over the country.
April 21st, 2016
Some Penguin Classics, as we’ve noted before here at Stevereads, are genuinely impressive works of scholarship in their own right, and I recently came across one of those during a foray at the Brattle Bookshop: The Penguin Book of Renaissance Verse, edited by David Norbook – in this case, the 2005 update to the 1992 original.
This plump volume – 900 pages – has everything you’d want from such a thing: micro-typed End Notes, a huge variety of authors from the English Renaissance (the title’s slight misleading in that way: it’s not exactly that Renaissance), and a long Introduction by Norbook that’s just brimming with fantastic insights delivered with almost staccato speed, including this great bit about the pragmatic side of the literary endeavor (a side it very much had in common with the Renaissance then bubbling in Italy):
The immediate response of an active life for an ambitious young writer lay not in dreaming of Roman antiquity but in serving the Crown. The prospect of an alliance with the Crown was an appealing one for many poets in the period. In adopting the demonstrative rhetoric of the court, writing panegyrics of the ruler and leading courtiers, they could think of themselves as in effect writing the script of the public world, fulfilling the humanist imperative of making their verbal skill serve the State. The resultant compromises with courtly discourse, however, were often uneasy.
The years covered by this book, from 1509 to 1659, encompass a roll-call of writers that can stand comparison with any similar time-frame in history. This was the era of John Skelton, Henry Howard, Thomas Wyatt, Philip Sidney, Edmund Spenser, John Donne, John Harington, Ben Jonson, Andrew Marvell, George Chapman, Samuel Daniel, Robert Herrick, Margaret Cavendish, and George Herbert. This was the time of Marlowe, Milton, and Shakespeare.
And Anonymous, whose work Norbook is a trifle too eager to include. Considering how many giants were writing during the period he examines, readers might perhaps have done without the limp doggerel of things like “On Sir Francis Drake”:
Sir Drake whom well the world’s end knew,
Which thou did’st compasse round,
And whom both Poles of heaven once saw
Which North and South do bound,
The stars above, would make thee known,
If men here silent were;
The Sun himself cannot forget
His fellow traveller.
But 99% of the book glows with a dozen different kinds of genius. You’ll find quite a few of your favorites in these pages, plus, if Norbook has done his job well, plenty of poets whose further acquaintance you’ll want to make, their strengths and their music brought into unexpected highlights by the company they’re keeping here. Thomas Campion’s exquisitely worldly lines on the various entertainments of winter, for example:
Now winter nights enlarge
The number of their houres,
And clouds their stormes discharge
Upon the ayrie towers,
Let now the chimneys blaze,
And cups o’erflow with wine:
Let well-tun’d words amaze
With harmonie divine.
Now yellow waxen lights
Shall waite on hunny Love,
While youthfull Revels, Masks, and Courtly sights,
Sleepes leaden spels remove.
This time doth well dispence
With lovers long discourse;
Much speech hath some defence,
Though beauty no remorse.
All doe not all things well;
Some measures comely tread;
Some knotted Ridles tell;
Some Poems smoothly read.
The Summer hath his joyes,
And Winter his delights;
Though Love and all his pleasures are but toyes,
They shorten tedious nights.
God only knows what happened to the copy of The Penguin Book of Renaissance Verse I originally bought back in 2005 at Barnes & Noble, but I didn’t realize how much I’d missed it until I came across this copy at the Brattle. I anticipate a few happy hours of browsing in it this weekend.
March 2nd, 2016
Some Penguin Classics don’t look like Penguin Classics, which is a trifle odd when you consider how instantly recognizable the Penguin brand is to book-buyers, but you certainly won’t hear me complaining when the results are as nifty as The Book of Magic, a big new anthology of supernatural literature “from Antiquity to the Enlightenment,” edited by Brian Copenhaver. It’s a heavy black 600-page volume with embossed gold lettering and sigils in the shape of a tree on the front cover.
The book is crammed full of great stuff. Copenhaver has ranged over vast tracts of literature, from the Bible to ancient Greece to ancient Rome to the Middle Ages and the Renaissance and beyond. We get snippets from the Old Testament, the New Testament, Homer, Plato, Hippocrates, Virgil, Cicero, Pliny, Plotinus, St. Augustine, St. Thomas Aquinas, the Malleus Maleficarum, Marsilio Ficino, Paracelsus, Marlowe, Spenser, Shakespeare, and many others (Copenhaver blandly informs us that all the translations from the Latin, Greek, Hebrew, and “modern vernaculars” are all by him except for rare cases otherwise noted – which would make this volume one of the most astonishing feats of scholarly translation to appear in several centuries), all grappling with the nature and specifics of magic in all its forms.
And the grappling starts early. Right away in his Introduction, Copenhaver is doing all of the rhetorical gymnastics writers always need to do in order to differentiate their subject – magic – from its malformed and conjoined twin, religion. It’s never a pretty performance, and it isn’t pretty here, being full of jittery air-quotes and mincing qualifications:
‘Magic’ (like ‘religion’) as the name of an essence will be uninformative because eliminating contradictions to keep the word accurate will also make it very abstract – too abstract for the relevant domains, which are moral, social and cultural. Keeping the word accurate will be hard because the concepts tagged by ‘magic’ and its cousins, with all the freight that they carry, have emerged in Western and Christian environments in response to Western and Christian problems. Applying the word ‘magic’ – free and clear – to something non-Christian and non-Western … will be difficult, maybe impossible.
The Book of Magic tracks its subject warily and quietly through the thickets of ancient sources of religion, trying the whole time never to touch the thickets. It’s the book’s aim to find magic throughout religious history, and it’s the book’s nagging worry never to call religion magic. Jesus cursing a fig tree makes it into the book; Jesus rising from the dead, no. God parting the Red Sea, yes; God Himself, no. The differentiation is strenuous and therefore incomplete, but I found the fact that it’s attempted at all just a touch irritating.
Copenhaver assembles a fantastic array of bits and pieces, shards of almost every magic neurosis on record. We get mystified physicians groping at why some diseases abate and others worsen; we get armchair travelers speculating on the strange customs of distant lands; we get wide webs of protocols designed to pathologize or punish the different; of course we get everywhere writers attempting to double-talk themselves out of death. And we get lots and lots of charlatans and dupes – one passage from The Life of Apollonius by Philostratus, third-century chronicler of the first century miracle worker, is a good case-in-point:
During an eclipse of the sun, a clap of thunder rolled out – rare in an eclipse, it seems. He then looked up at the sky and said, ‘Something great will happen and will not happen.’ Those present when he said this could not make sense of his words at first, but everyone had put the meaning together by the third day after the eclipse. While Nero was having his dinner, a thunderbolt had struck the table, breaking apart the cup that was in his hands and not far from his mouth. When Nero was almost hit, it was just as Apollonius had said – something done and not done.
It’s impossible to know whether or not the person who wrote that bit about “something great will happen and will not happen” saw what an open-ended con game it was, how Nostradamus-style “a great being will appear on the stage of life”-style unfalsifiable it was, although it’s not impossible to gauge how well it was believed by others. Ultimately, that’s one of The Book of Magic‘s most disturbing pleasures: as you read through it, you can’t help but keep remembering, people have genuinely believed ALL of these things, at some point or other.
Even a glance around the current cultural landscape – the American landscape in particular – gives a thoroughly barbed edged to such thoughts. The Book of Magic may just be the Penguin Classic for our time.
February 6th, 2016
Some Penguin Classics, as we’ve seen before, take an earlier superb work of scholarship or translation and basically save it from obscurity by adding it to the Classics lineup. In our case today, the name of that obscurity would be Wayne State University Press, which in 2007 originally published Nancy Canepa’s translation of Giambattista Basile’s 1634 posthumous masterpiece, Lo cunto de li cunti, The Tale of Tales. That annotated translation now becomes one of the newest Penguin Classics, where it stands a greater chance of reaching the broad audience it deserves.
Basile spent all of his adult life as a Neapolitan freelancer, writing whatever the great or the powerful in the early years of the 17th century wanted to see from his pen, and the whole while he was collecting folk tales and legends, these “entertainments for little ones,” and writing them up in his tangy Naples dialect. Canepa does far more than any previous English-language translation to capture the lilt and raucous earthiness of that dialect – and she quickly dispels the notion that these stories were ever really intended for children:
That The Tale of Tales begs a sophisticated audience is quite apparent from the language in which it is written. Hyperbolic description, long-winded accolades, flamboyant metaphor, bloated word lists, endless strings of insults, and deformative citations of the most diverse authors and traditions can at times overshadow the bare storyline to the point of rendering it almost an afterthought. The way the tales are narrated is just as spectacular as what is narrated therein; episodes are memorable as much for how they are drawn as for the events they evoke.
In these pages, readers get early and vivid versions of such folk tale fixtures as Rapunzel and Sleeping Beauty, as well as dozens of far less familiar – and more disturbing – stories, all told with gruesome, faux-pious relish and a real sense of the horrifying in narrative form. And all of Basile’s many digressions into obscurity are chased down and patiently annotated, like:
Anything immersed in the waters of the Sarno River, it was said, would turn to stone; can weeds were thought to have dangerous properties; sparrow feces was believed to cause blindness (as happened to Tobit in the Book of Tobit 2.17)
The “ash cloth” (cennerale) was used to cover laundry basins in order to contain the ash therein (which was used as a detergent); lye is also a common detergent.
I confess, I’d only read about but never read The Tale of Tales before I received this satisfyingly plump Penguin volume, and although I’ve never been a big fan of folk tales just in general, this collection kept me entertained from start to finish – mainly, I suspect, because our hard-working author was often just making stuff up and calling it ethnography (and as far as ethnography goes, it’s oddly comforting to see how little things have changed).
January 17th, 2016
Some Penguin Classics need to work harder than others to define their terms. Take, for example, the nifty recent volume edited by Laura Ashe, Early Fiction in England from Geoffrey of Monmouth to Chaucer – even the title of the book might prompt a quizzical expression from the average reader, who might just naturally associate “early fiction in England” with Richardson and Fielding, hundreds of years later than Geoffrey of Monmouth and Chaucer. The so-called renaissance of the 12th century is all well and good, but can a volume titled Early Fiction in England actually manage to find any fiction?
Professor Ashe seems well aware of the tangle of ideas here preceding the emergence of a revitalized European literature in the 12th century, and she notices the shortage of one key element:
The earliest English writers had access to all the learning of the known world; churchmen travelled freely from north Africa and the Middle East to the monasteries of Yorkshire and Kent, bringing books and knowledge with them. English writers translated scripture, philosophy and theology; they wrote practical handbooks of medicine, astrology, weather prediction and recipes; they composed language and grammar guides for those learning to read and translate; they wrote saints’ lives and vivid accounts of the deaths of martyrs; they produced the unique vernacular poetry about loss, and love, and despair; they composed epic narratives of heroic warriors and their monstrous enemies. But despite all this, they did not write fiction.
After reading such a summary, the natural response might be to say those early English writers – and readers – weren’t actually doing without fiction but rather creating and enjoying it in forms somewhat different from the forms writers and readers use today. Surely the stories of Scripture, the elaborate teleologies of philosophy and theology, and most especially the entirely spurious wonders (physical and psychological) of all those saints’ lives were doing the work of Smollett, Burney, et al and just not getting the credit?
But again, we come back to defining our terms, and Professor Ashe has a veritable web of a definition for fiction – one that seems tailor-constructed specifically to disqualify every last scrap of martyrology:
‘Fiction’ is not a synonym for ‘literature’, as it is often used today. It is a label used to imply a contract between author and reader, a contract whose terms are known without being explicitly stated. The terms are these: that both author and reader know, and are aware that the other knows (and knows that they know), that this narrative is not an account of events which can be known to have happened.
This seems a bit dodgy to me, just a trifle too convenient. I know it’s customary nowadays to set no upper limit on the credulity of pre-Enlightenment common folk, but nobody in AD 986, reading all those juicy stories about executed martyrs walking around carrying their severed heads in the crooks of their elbows, or stories about fish in the river singing the praises of the local slain bishop, or sacred children causing flowers to grow in winter … nobody reading those stories ever looked up and said, “Honey, this story reminds me of that time last week when I heard that trout talking about Bishop Athanasius.” I look at Professor Ashe’s distinctions – that fiction is a story I know is made up, and you know it’s made up, and you know I know it’s made up – and I wonder how many smart, educated people more or less just like herself she’s consigning to the turnip truck in order to widen the ambit of a Penguin anthology.
But the anthology itself, regardless, is superb! In between the thick garlic-bread loaves of Geoffrey of Monmouth’s account of King Arthur and Chaucer’s account of embattled Troy, we get a wide range of delights: Wace’s Brut is here, and Sir Orfeo, and Marie de France, and the great, now-forgotten Walter Map. Professor Ashe herself provides a translation of Amis e Amilun that’s one of the highlights of the whole book. And as with so many Penguin anthologies, so too with this one: it’s a delight to think of all the college and high school students out there who’ll be encountering all these great old writers in such a fresh and energetic presentation. And the fact that the good professor’s fancy-dancing about what fiction is and is not can only spark debates is just a much-appreciated bonus.
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?