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.
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.
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.
Some Penguin Classics maintain a gruesome kind of relevance, which is surely part of what’s behind the publisher’s decision to bring Jean Larteguy’s 1960 French bestseller Les Centurions back into print, here ushering the book into the Classics line with the Xan Fielding translation (as The Centurions) and a Foreward by Balkan Ghosts author Robert Kaplan, who’s also something of a go-to expert in the deadly rag-tag counter-insurgency methods and mind frames highlighted throughout the novel. Given 2015’s 40th anniversary of the fall of Saigon – and given the wars of insurgency currently embroiling half of Africa and half of the Middle East – that gruesome relevance couldn’t be more evident.
The Centurions taps into the seeping disillusionments of the French experience in Indochina by setting up a very satisfying straw man scenario in which stereotypically valiant 20th century soldiers – here epitomized by heroic French Lieutenant Colonel Pierre Raspeguy, who survives a brutal Viet Minh POW camp and thereby learns first-hand the brutal efficiency of unstructured guerrilla tactics – first hate and then embrace a new kind of warfare made up of irregular fighting, improvised tactics, and unsparing ruthlessness.
The tension between conventional and guerrilla warfare was never as simply reduced as that, and Larteguy – the pen-name for a soldier who served in both Korea and North Africa – knew that quite well. In his sprawling, seedy, violent novel, he plays a very sophisticated game of shifting illusions, as his core cast of French paratroopers taken prisoner in Vietnam learn and unlearn everything they thought they knew about their profession. And Kaplan, after his Foreward’s bumpy start (in which he writes, “Conventional modern war, which Napoleon did so much to define and institutionalize, with its formalized set-piece battles and vertical chains of command, has mainly been with us for little more than two centuries” – a statement that would have bewildered professional warriors from Alexander the Great through William the Conqueror and right up to Field Marshal Montgomery), targets the novel’s appeal:
Vietnam, like Iraq, represented a war of frustrating half measures, fought against an enemy that respected no limits. More than any writer I know, Larteguy communicates the intensity of such frustrations, which, in turn, create the psychological gulf that separates warriors from both a conscript army and a civilian home front.
Some of Larteguy’s warriors fancy themselves directly connected to their illustrious past, as when idealistic Captain Philippe Esclavier, escaping the drunken revelry of his colleagues, refreshes himself in the cool desert night of North Africa while leaning against an old Roman Legion landmark and dreaming of the past. “The centurion Philippe Esclavier of the 10th Parachute Regiment tried to think why he, too, had lit bonfires in order to contain the barbarians and save the West,” Larteguy writes. “’We centurions,’ he reflected, ‘are the last defenders of man’s innocence against all those who want to enslave it in the name of original sin …’”
Less noble and cinematic but far truer to the book’s essentially ugly ethos are the nighttime ravings of Lieutenant Lescure after the defeat of the French army at Dien-Bien-Phu, when in his madness he glimpses the new reality in which he and his comrades find themselves:
It was a great procession of the damned who were making their way to the seat of the Last Judgement; angels had lit their torches so that no one should escape in the dark. Enthroned high above them sat the god with the huge belly and eyes as round as millstones. In his claw-like hands he grabbed the humans up by the fistful and tore them apart in his teeth, the just and the unjust, the pure and impure, the believers and the unbelievers alike. All were acceptable to him, for he hungered after flesh and blood. Every now and then he gave a solemn belch and the angels applauded with a shout: “Long live President Ho!” But he was still ravenous so he also devoured them; and even as he snapped their bones between his teeth, they kept on shouting: “Long may he live!”
Kaplan points out in his Foreward that The Centurions has been a cult classic of serving military men since its initial appearance, and it’s not hard to see why, although the knowledge is intensely uncomfortable. It’s a dubious thing, being a classic of war-fiction.
Some Penguin Classics look so darn elegant in their special anniversary editions, which certainly applies to the 50th anniversary reprint of The River Between, the lean and powerful 1965 debut novel by Kenyan author Ngugi wa Thiong’o, here presented with a new Introduction by Beasts of No Nation author Uzodinma Iweala and sporting a gorgeous cover photo by Nigel Pavitt, with the whole production opening with a “message” from Chinua Achebe welcoming the reader to the Penguin African Writers Series. This is the fourth of this author’s novels to join the Series (although it’s probably still to early for the induction of his 2006 masterpiece Wizard of the Crow).
Iweala’s Introduction is earnestly passionate, although reading offers the same kind of uphill struggle the reader faces on virtually every page of Beasts of No Nation: namely, it can be a trial to be lectured quite so sententiously by somebody who’s young enough to be my grandson (if a quick mental calculation is correct, our revered authority has only just crept out of his twenties). Penguin ran into this same problem a few years ago when they commissioned a teenager to write the Foreward to a John Steinbeck book, and things are only a little better here, with Iweala assuring us that Ngugi wa Thiong’o is a writer who’s “profoundly allergic to the simple” and lapsing quite often into lines like this:
It is not an easy text, primarily because it advocates abandoning many assumptions that the postcolonial African (which is to say every living African) has about the struggle for freedom and the institutions that structure everyday life.
I believe the native Kenyan term for that kind of stuff is twaddle, but even twaddle is preferable to thinly-disguised self-promotion. “Writers,” Iweala intones at one point, “have never been an easy lot. More than anyone – except perhaps soldiers or mercenaries – they thrive on conflict, viewing it as an integral part of any society.” Apart from the fact that a good fifteen occupations spring instantly to mind that “thrive on conflict” more than book-writing, there’s also the convenient fact that the main character in Beasts of No Nation is a mercenary. Wouldn’t want to be undercutting our own PR, now would we?
In fact, it’s a jarring jump to move from this Introduction written by a young man to the novel itself, which was written by an even younger man and yet never indulges in either bloat or self-congratulation. Re-reading The River Between is every bit as knife-edge uncomfortable now as it was the first time I read it, right around the time Uzodinma Iweala’s father was teething. This is a novel of only about 150 pages (a lifetime ago, such things were called novellas, according to the rule of a cherished and now long-gone Harvard fixture, who maintained that a short story was a work you could read in one sitting and that a novella was a novel you could read in one sitting “provided there’s tea”), but the London Guardian was right (though a trifle condescending) to say it “sometimes touches the grandeur of tap-root simplicity.”
The river of the title, the Honia, flows between two ridges in Kenya, and the ridges are occupied by two very different villages of the Gikuyu tribe, Kameno and Makuyu. The dividing issue is the newly-introduced Christianity, which will eventually come to divide the villagers, some wanting to embrace the new faith, others wanting to stick with their ancient tribal customs.
Caught in the middle is the book’s main character, a noble young man named Waiyaki, the rising star of the Gikuyu tribe. Waiyaki is on the brink of manhood, a time when “the hidden things of the hills were being revealed to him,” and, after a stint away from home in a prestigious secondary school, he returns ready to undergo his “second birth” in the tribe’s ritual of circumcision, a harrowing scene that’s presented with crystalline brevity:
All his life Waiyaki had waited for this day, for this very opportunity to reveal his courage like a man. This had been the secret ambition of his youth. Ye, now that the time had come, he felt afraid. He did not, however, show it. He just stared into space, fear giving him courage. His eyes never moved. He was actually seeing nothing. The knife produced a thin, sharp pain as it cut through the flesh. The surgeon had done his work. Blood trickled freely on to the ground, sinking into the soil. Henceforth a religious bond linked Waiyaki to the earth, as if his blood was an offering. Around him women where shouting and praising him. The son of Chege had proved himself. Such praises were lavished only on the brave.
The plot tangles further with the introduction of both family tensions (the relationship between Waiyaki and Chege is still, for my money, the most memorable part of the novel) and the forbidden love of the wrong young woman, and Ngugi wa Thiong’o plays it all very expertly against the impassive backdrop of the great ridges of the land itself (“they just slept, the big deep sleep of their Creator”). It’s a moving, brittle performance, just about as impressive a start to any literary career as could be imagined – and it’s great to have it in the Penguin Classics line at last.
Some Penguin Classics have perfect timing, and this neat new reprint of Elizabeth Von Arnim’s beloved 1922 bestseller The Enchanted April is a great example. If it had actually reached me in the month of April here in Boston, with the skies still black, the days still freezing, and the streets and parks still piled ten feet high in snow, I’d have come down on the slim little thing like ton of proverbial bricks, and I’d have started off with a deeply sarcastic “Some enchantment” or perhaps even “I’ve got your Enchanted Aprilright here.”
But instead, it reaches me in late May, when Boston is turning green again at last, when the nights are still five-blanket freezing cold, but the days are increasingly bright and sunny and souls withered to apple cores by the worst winter in recorded New England history can start to take some comfort from the pages of this perennial charmer.
A perennial charmer with a new Introduction by Brenda Bowen, author of Enchanted August, a contemporary re-imagining of the book. Bowen is a true believer in the book, obviously, and she’s a very spirited cheerleader in her dozen pages:
It’s a confection, it’s a dream, it’s a fleeting April romance, but oh, how hard to get this story out of your head. Who doesn’t long to find a place where one can shine like the sunlight? A place filled with lilacs and local wine and truest love, where we can all at last turn into the best versions of ourselves? Such a place is The Enchanted April’s San Salvatore, where mischievous Puck, with his midsummer violet love potion, would not have been out of place. Lovers come together and part and come together again. Scales fall from eyes. Sunlight and moonlight play tricks. All is forgiven. No one can come away from this April without thinking, even for just a moment, that the course of true love, unsmooth as it may run, is certainly worth taking.
The novel’s story is disarmingly simple: two women taking refuge in a reading room on a filthy London afternoon spot an alluring advertisement in the paper:
To Those who Appreciate Wistaria and Sunshine. Small mediaeval Italian Castle on the shores of the Mediterranean to be let Furnished for the month of April.
They’re both of fairly straightened means, but with the unexpected teamwork of two other women – likewise total strangers, to each other and the rest – they actually take the chance and take the castle, and in the chapters that follow they slowly, gradually loosen themselves and learn about each other. Our author manages these congenial little transformations with such wonderful skill that the whole performance looks effortless, and her technique varies perfectly from crisp dialogue to swooping character
analysis and back:
‘It’s a good thing, of course,’ said Mrs Arbuthnot a little hesitatingly, ‘to be independent, and to know exactly what one wants.’
‘Yes, it saves trouble,’ agreed Lady Caroline.
‘But one shouldn’t be so independent,’ said Mrs Wilkins, ‘as to leave no opportunity for other people to exercise their benevolences on one.’
Lady Caroline, who had been looking at Mrs Arbuthnot, now looked at Mrs Wilkins. That day at that queer club she had had merely a blurred impression of Mrs Wilkins, for it was the other one who did all the talking, and her impression had been of somebody so shy, so awkward that it was best to take no notice of her. She had not even been able to say goodbye properly, doing it in an agony, turning red, turning damp. Therefore she now looked at her in some surprise; and she was still more surprised when Mrs Wilkins added, gazing at her with the most obvious sincere admiration, speaking indeed with a conviction that refused to remain unuttered, ‘I didn’t realize you were so pretty.’
Brenda Bowen is right to cheerlead this warm, inviting book, and it’s a joy that Penguin has inducted it into the Classics line.
Some Penguin Classics celebrate awkward anniversaries, and in the literary world, it looks like no anniversary this side of the publication of Mein Kampf will ever be more awkward than that of Rudyard Kipling, born 150 years ago, whose incredible body of work has been simplified and then vilified under the “Empire jingo” tag for so long it that it’s become undergrad second nature to dismiss him out of hand except for a couple of isolated works. So “The Man Who Would Be King” can get made into a successful movie (and phrase can enter common parlance), and Kim can make it onto the Modern Library list of the top 100 novels of the 20th century, but the huge bulk of the man’s prose and poetry is consigned to the attic, where it’s understood that the only people who’ll visit it are secretly racist imperialists. It can get a bit tiring to watch the Republic of Letters so resolutely belittle itself.
Of course the foremost example of an ‘exempted’ work by Kipling is The Jungle Books, his much-beloved classic, the first part of which was published in 1894 and the second in 1895. The Jungle Books is now added to the beautiful Penguin Classics hardcover line with a monkey-full cover design by Coralie Bickford-Smith, a Preface by Jan Montefiore and an excellent Introduction by Kaori Nagai in which she points out the simple truth that for many readers, the stories in the Jungle Books “have almost become synonymous with the joys of childhood and of reading.” And she draws some intriguing parallels between Kipling’s work and that of his own father:
In many ways, the Jungle Books can be seen as an imaginative reworking of Kipling’s father’s book Beast and Man in India (1891) with its rich descriptions of Indian animals ‘in their relations with the people.’ John Lockwood Kipling, a gifted artist and illustrator, worked in Bombay and then in Lahore from 1865 to 1893, as an art professor and curator. Father and son shared similar perceptions of and an adoring gaze towards animals, and there are significant overlaps between their works.
But as much as that might make me want to find a copy of Beast and Man in India the next time I’m at the Brattle Bookshop, it only reinforces how thoroughly the younger Kipling made the subject his own, mainly by taking the ‘man’ part almost entirely out of the equation. Most of these great stories feature a little Indian boy named Mowgli who’s adopted by a wolf pack and raised as one of their own, gaining the friendship of the elegant black panther Bagheera and the thirty-foot rock python Kaa and learning the Laws of the jungle from the heavy old bear Baloo. Taking up this sturdy, lovely lime-green hardcover Penguin Classic, I plunged into these stories again exactly as if I didn’t have them memorized. And as usual – and fittingly enough, since it’s clearly the inspiration for this volume’s cover – my favorite was the story called “Kaa’s Hunting,” in which the noisy monkey-folk, the Bandar-log, kidnap Mowgli and carry him to the Cold Lairs, a long-ruined city deep in the jungle. Baloo and Bagheera naturally resolve to rescue him, but they are only two while the Bandar-log are many hundreds, so they enlist as an ally Kaa the python, who’s very old and very alien but who helps them because he has no love for the Monkey-people – and they certainly have no love for him:
Generations of monkeys had been scared into good behaviour by the stories their elders told them of Kaa, the night-thief, who could slip along the branches as quietly as moss gross, and steal away the strongest monkey that ever lived; of old Kaa, who could make himself look so like a dead branch or a rotten stump that the wisest were deceived, till the branch caught them. Kaa was everything that the monkeys feared in the jungle, for none of them knew the limits of his power, none of them could look him in the face, and none had ever come alive out of his hug.
But in addition to re-reading “Kaa’s Hunting,” I also soaked up again “Rikki-Tikki-Tavi” and the brilliant psychological study “How Fear Came,” and the epic action of “Red Dog.” And when I came to “The Spring Running,” I read in somber, rapt attention for the thousandth time as Mowgli, perhaps inevitably, makes his way back to the the world of humans, never to live in the jungle again. And as he goes, he’s sung farewell by his three closest animal friends, each a verse in turn until they share the final one:
On the trail that thou must tread
To the threshold of our dread,
Where the Flower blossoms red;
Through the nights when thou shalt lie
‘Prisoned from our Mother-sky,
Hearing us, thy loves, go by;
In the dawns, when thou shalt wake
To the toil thou canst not break,
Heartsick for the Jungle’s sake;
Wood and Water, Wind and Tree,
Jungle-Favour go with thee!
I’ve read my way through dozens of editions of the Jungle Books, from paperbacks to big lavish hardcovers to even the comic book adaptation with lovely artwork by P. Craig Russell. I’d like to think this sturdy little green brick of a Penguin Classic will hold up a lot longer than its predecessors. I can hope so, anyway.
Some Penguin Classics are just eye-openingly beautiful, extravagantly so in the case of the recent hardcover Tales of the Marvellous and News of the Strange, the first English translation of a medieval Arabic work called the Hikayat, the manuscript of which was found by a German Arabic scholar in a library in Istanbul and published in 1933. The work is a collection of Arabic folk stories that might very well pre-date the much more famous Thousand and One Nights, and it’s here presented in an English-language translation by Malcolm Lyons, with an Introduction by Robert Irwin in which he follows the age-old Penguin Classics tradition of introducing a work by being fairly stern with it:
Though the Tales of the Marvellous are indeed astounding, they are not flawless. They are written in a vulgar style, and their Arabic is sometimes incorrect. The diacriticals that are used to distinguish some letters from others have often been omitted. Where the words are vowelled, the vowels are sometimes incorrect. Occasionally the scribe has not understood what he was transcribing, and often the odd sentence or two has been skipped.
Anyone who’s familiar with the better-known Arabian Nights will be prepared for the tsunami waves of barbarism and violence they’ll encounter in these pages, but just in case, Irwin is takes pains to issue the appropriate warnings:
Misfortune breeds misfortune. The authors of the tales in Tales of the Marvellous delighted in being cruel to their characters, and Schadenfreude is definitely one of the dark literary pleasures provided by this collection. Hands and feet are lopped off, eyeballs plucked out, lips cut away, penises slit off, people burned alive, women raped, cripples and blind men mocked and robbed, and the ugly have their deformities seized upon and exaggerated. Here political incorrectness has gone mad, and there is ‘Laughter in the Dark’. In fact, as in fiction, public executions were popular entertainments. But the good suffer almost as much has the bad in these ruthless stories.
But there’s an enormous amount of savage and elegant beauty in these stories, where princesses and shopkeepers break into verse with encouraging enthusiasm, extolling their hatreds, their arrogance, and also – in this one example among hundreds – their longings of love and desire, sometimes bristling with exquisitely Catullan agony:
This letter comes to you from hope
That lodges in my ribs and does not leave,
From sleep, which now I seldom taste,
And from a heart not occupied with blame.
I am consumed with passion and with love,
And one of these alone would leave me dead.
By God, if passion could send messengers,
These messengers would be my heartfelt sighs.
Tales of the Marvellous and News of the Strange would be a pearl of a book even if it were “merely” a standard Penguin Classic black-spine paperback. But as I mentioned, Penguin has instead outdone themselves in making this a particularly lovely hardcover volume. Its front and back covers are entwined in branching trees of birds and beasts embossed in gold; the many sections of the text are headed in delicate script; and the whole thing presents this ancient but largely unknown work in just about the prettiest debut volume it could possibly want.
Some Penguin Classics break with tradition, almost always to excellent effect. Of course the foremost tradition we all associate with Penguin Classics is the durable, curiously dignified paperback reprints that have been the backbone of the publishing house for well over half a century, and Penguin still produces those in abundance, the finest reprint line in the English-reading world. But the folks at Penguin have also always been fairly canny at coming up with new and eye-catching approaches to re-packaging the great works of literature in their care, and an absolutely nifty new example of this has appeared in 2015: a line of beautiful little hardcover classics.
These books are pocket-sized (indeed, they’re more pocket-friendly in their dimensions than the trade paperbacks Penguin currently produces)(except for the “Little Black Classics” set currently setting the hearts of book-geeks in the UK all aflutter – I have yet to encounter this set, although I long to), and instead of dust jackets that could tear or wrinkle, they have gorgeous designs inlaid into their covers (the designs are the handiwork of the wonderfully talented Coralie Bickford-Smith).
The set I have before me consists of six seminal works of nonfiction from the canon. There’s The Communist Manifesto by Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, here in the sturdy 1888 translation by Samuel Moore, with an Introduction by Gareth Stedman-Jones in which he predictably but quite rightly touts the relevance (that dreaded word) of this crackpot tract:
In short, the Manifesto sketches a vision of reality that, at the start of a new millennium and against a background of endless chatter about globalization and deregulation, looks as powerful and contemporary a picture of our own world as it might have appeared to those reading it in 1848.
There’s also Letters from a Stoic by Seneca, translated by Robin Campbell, who tells his readers about Seneca’s “implicit belief in the equality and brotherhood of man despite all barriers of race or class or rank” and then flirts a bit himself with the dreaded relevance:
Whether or not his letters may still be turned to for their pointers to the contented life, they cannot be read without noticing how far in advance of their time are many of his ideas – on the shows in the arena, for example, or the treatment of slaves.
No collection like this would be complete without the Meditations of Marcus Aurelius, and here they are, translated by Martin Hammond and with an Introduction by Diskin Clay that smartly tries to prepare first-time readers for some of the strangeness they’ll encounter in this remarkable book:
Readers who come to this book expecting the hardness and austerity of a Stoic will not be disappointed, but they will be surprised by prose that often reads like modern poetry and startled by the vivid illustrations that reveal Marcus’ deep appreciation of the beauty and purposefulness of Nature (a word that is properly capitalized).
An odd choice for inclusion alongside all these personal tracts and manifestos is the long poem De rerum natura by Lucretius, which is hardly polemical and not at all confessional. In fact, as Richard Jenkyns points out in his Introduction to the A. E. Stallings translation (here given as The Nature of Things),
Here is a poem without people in it, without any story; instead, if offers a treatise on science and philosophy. The philosophy, moreover, is a strict materialism, which denies the existence of anything magical, mysterious or transcendent. It does not sound like promising matter for poetry at all, let alone for a work of more than 7,000 lines. Yet the result is a masterpiece.
I myself have always been a bit leery about calling The Nature of Things a masterpiece, but one of the books in this current Penguin set certainly deserves the title: it’s The Confessions of Saint Augustine, here in the slightly dated by still serviceable 1961 translation by, settle down now, R. S. Pine-Coffin, who imparts a nice stately cadence to the author’s famous exhortations of praise to his Creator:
Who will grant me to rest content in you? To whom shall I turn for the gift of your coming into my heart and filling it to the brim, so that I may forget all the wrong I have done and embrace you alone, my only source of good?
It’s a radical thematic shift to go from the faith-driven ecstasies of Saint Augustin to the tough, clear-eyed pragmatism of our final book today, this set’s pretty little hardcover of The Prince by Machiavelli, here presented with a very good and very pithy Introduction by the indefatigable Tim Parks, who gets to the essence of the work quite economically:
From start to finish we have a vision of man manoeuvring precariously in a suffocating net of cause and effect. What is at stake is survival. Anything extra is luxury.
There are more of these little hardcover Penguin Classics than just these six, of course, and all are beautifully and sturdily made, clearly able to serve as gifts just as readily as they’ll take their place on your own shelf. It’s a bit strange for me to think “Penguin Classics” and then think “hardcover,” but that’s more due to the fact that I’ve had hundreds of their paperbacks in my life – if their hardcovers are as lovely as this set, I’ll be happy to re-adjust my mental reflexes.
Some Penguin Classics, as we’ve noted here at Stevereads a few times in the past, take on a life of their own as translations even when the larger currents of social understanding and the craft of translation have moved on. I was reminded of this just the other day when I encountered a slightly battered copy of the 1966 Penguin Classics translation of the poems of Catullus done by Peter Whigham.
I sighed with the happiness of encountering an old friend. I’ve been reading the Peter Whigham Catullus for half a century, sometimes impatiently, sometimes immensely satisfied, and on the day I found this battered copy I wanted the comfort – it was a freezing cold sleeting late April day in what is clearly going to be an actually endless Boston winter. I have warm and sunny memories of Whigham’s translation (I read it first in high summer on Cape Cod, and I read it again on a hot summer afternoon in Florence, and there were many other readings on sultry long summer evenings in Iowa), so I happily sank into it again.
And now, in this 2015 re-reading, I recalled some of that warmth even though Whigham’s opening comments tend to creak a bit under the weight of the intervening decades. He was a truly remarkable figure in the Penguin roster of translators, a self-taught non-academic bon vivant and elegant thinker, although even his thinking doesn’t quite always surpass the limitations of his time, as in his aside about that volatile subject of sexuality:
On many occasions, in moments of intense emotion, Catullus expresses his feelings in the guise of a woman. The fact that homosexuality was not then considered either as a vice, an aberration or a disease, as it is now, is attendant but not cardinal to the point that I wish to make, which is that there was in Catullus a strain of femininity which went deeper than ‘normal’ adherence to the bisexual conventions of his class and time.
Whigham assures us that he’s followed no one text in constructing his translation, although both he and all other Catullus translations rely on a scarcity of manuscripts; “the original codex,” he tells us, “which according to a venerable tradition was discovered wedging a wine barrel in Verona, at the end of the thirteenth century AD and was in a poor state.” And that codex itself disappeared shortly afterward, although not before a couple of copies had been made. In other words, it’s a breeding ground for possible misinterpretations, although Whigham is perfectly right about the wonderful essentials of this author:
There is immediacy and vitality and pathos and nobility. He riddles away with words, juggling them about, a dozen times in half as many lines: eyes, apples, stars, numbers and then more numbers. The primitive is sometimes surprisingly near the surface. He has made his own mirror, not of life but of himself, and in this of course he is a Romantic.
I don’t know about that Romantic reach, but it was certainly a pleasure to read again these jaunty Englished (Americanized, even – Broadway is mentioned often) versions of Catullus in all his untranslatable glory:
Your most recent acquisition, Flavius,
must be as unattractive as
(doubtless) she is unacceptable
or you would surely have told us about her.
You are wrapped up with a whore to end all whores
and ashamed to confess it.
You do not spend bachelor nights.
Your divan, reeking of Syrian unguents,
draped with bouquets & blossoms etc. proclaim it,
the pillows & bedclothes indented in several places,
a ceaseless jolting & straining of the framework
the shaky accompaniment to your sex parade.
Without more discretion your silence is pointless.
Attenuated thighs betray your preoccupation.
Whoever, whatever she is, good or bad, tells us, my friend –
Catullus will lift the two of you & your love-acts into the heavens
in the happiest of his hendecasyllables.
These Whigham poems are indeed the happiest of his hendecasyllables – even if I had to read them while wearing a scarf and mittens.