Posts from August 2015
August 17th, 2015
Some Penguin Classics, as we noted last time, come along as almost indisputable improvements on what’s come before (‘almost’ because there’ll always be a few token refusniks in any crowd, don’t you know), and in the case of the last item in our Week of Penguins, the new Penguin Classics Deluxe Edition of Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment, this is doubly true.
First and most strikingly, there’s the physical appearance of the thing. In its history with Penguin Classics, Crime and Punishment has had, it must be admitted, some gawd-awful cover choices. This is a dense 500-page Russian novel about doubt and doubtful redemption … the very last thing it needs, in any popular reprint series, is a boring or off-putting cover. So some of those earlier Penguin choices – an entirely static out-of-focus black-and-white photograph of a street, or the ever-popular some guy in a hat – well, they weren’t exactly inviting.
That problem has been dramatically solved in this new Deluxe edition (which also has the advantage of feeling very sturdy in the hand – this is a Crime and Punishment truly built for the briefcase and backpack), which features a vibrant, eye-catching wraparound cover by popular illustrator Zohar Lazar. The back cover is a pathetic St. Petersburg street scene complete with plenty of word balloons (the heavy influence of the great Will Eisner in his “Contract with God” phase is evident in every brush-stroke). Front and center on that cover we see the novel’s hapless protagonist, Rodion Romanovich Raskolnikov, the pockets of his ratty coat bulging with stolen baubles, his hand gripping a bloody axe, and his panic-stricken eyes staring down into his own twisted reflection in a spreading pool of blood. In the grand new tradition of the Deluxe Classics, the staid quality of earlier covers has been abandoned in favor of a first impression that agrees with Virginia Woolf about this novel: “Against our wills we are drawn in, whirled round, blinded, suffocated, and at the same time filled with a giddy rapture.”
The second strength of this new edition is, thankfully, the translation itself. The earlier Penguin version was by David McDuff and could at times succumb to the kind of bloat our new translator, Oliver Ready, rightly notes as a cardinal sin of Dostoevsky translators. Ready then proceeds, in his Introduction, to raise the specter of mind-numbing academic tedium with this frankly terrifying call-and-response:
The troublesome question ‘Why retranslate the classics?’ has perhaps only one satisfactory answer: because the translator hopes to offer a closer approximation to his or her experience of the original than is otherwise available.
Happily, this is the only Casaubon-like note Ready strikes. His short but intensely interesting Introduction characterizes Raskolnikov as “an inveterate literary critic” and casts a great deal of the action surrounding him in intriguingly literary terms:
Raskolnikov has blood on his socks and ink on his fingers. He prepares for his crime not only by extensive reading, but also, we later learn, by attempting his first literary debut – a scholarly article with the same theme as the drama in which he plays the starring role. Published without his knowledge, this article is shown to him much later by his proud mother, whereupon, despite the grotesque incongruity with his current situation, he experiences ‘that strange and caustically sweet sensation which every author feels on seeing himself published for the first time, especially at only twenty-three years of age.’
And his translation itself is nothing less than a wonder. He mirrors the tonal shifts in Dostoevsky’s original more nimbly than any English-language translator has before, and he catches the dark humor that runs through the book mostly below its surface, and best of all, he captures the essential, unchanging absurdity of Raskolnikov perfectly, especially in the many key, priceless scenes of confrontation between him and the deceptively mild detective Porfiry Petrovich, including the first such encounter, when Raskolnikov is nattering on about how he has items on offer in the shop of a murdered old pawnbroker (a murder he himself has committed, both before and after interminable soul-searching) and doesn’t want that forgotten in the event of a sale, because he’s a trifle short of funds:
‘You see, for the moment all I wish to do is declare that the items are mine, and when the money comes in …’
‘Makes no odds, sir,’ replied Porfiry Petrovich, unmoved by this clarification about the state of his finances, ‘but if you prefer you may write directly to me to the same effect, namely, that being apprised of such-and-such and declaring items such-and-such to be mine, I request …’
‘Ordinary paper will do, I take it?’ Raskolnikov hastened to interrupt, expressing his interest once again in the financial side of the matter.
‘Oh, as ordinary as you like, sir!’ – and Porfiry Petrovich suddenly looked at him with a sort of blatant mockery, narrowing his eyes and even winking at him. Or perhaps this was just Raskolnikov’s impression, for it lasted no more than an instant. In any case, something of the sort occurred. Raskolnikov could have sworn he winked at him, the devil only knew why.
‘He knows!’ flashed through him like lightning.
Crime and Punishment is rife with such teetering, electric moments – Virginia Woolf was, as always, right – but I confess, I hadn’t seen that fact while slogging through previous translations (including the version from my beloved Constance Garnett, here clearly out of her psychological depth and producing a work of such murk that while reading it for the first time, a literary friend of mine quipped, “The ‘punishment’ part is coming through loud and clear”). Ready’s version crackles with grubby, demented vitality – I’m hoping it, and this lovingly twisted Deluxe edition – enjoys a long life as the go-to edition in English.
August 16th, 2015
Some Penguin Classics are clear, almost necessary improvements on their own Penguin predecessors, and we’ll be closing out our week of Penguins with two of those – starting with a new collection of the writings of Gertrude Bell called, somewhat redundantly, A Woman in Arabia: The Writings of the Queen of the Desert. The volume is edited by Georgina Howell, author of the 2007 biography Gertrude Bell: Queen of the Desert, Shaper of Nation, who writes that she hopes it will “stand in” for the autobiography Bell never go around to writing. And it certainly comes a lot closer to being that autobiography than did the previous Penguin volume of Gertrude Bell, 1953’s Selected Letters of Gertrude Bell, which consisted mainly of letters bell wrote to her father and stepmother over the years, regaling them with studiously nonchalant stories of her travels (“if it were not for a little touch of frostbite in the feet I should be merrily on my way to fresh adventures …”) and painting (as was her custom – her letters were often very long and always exceedingly quotable) vivid pictures of the far-off experience her family’s ironworks money was financing, as when she wrote to her father about a journey through the desert to Hayil in January of 1914, with this entry on the 25th:
To-day we set off in a frosty dawn and marched on down the valley. Ali and I walked on for an hour and waited in a sandy hollow for the camels, and the foot-prints were all round us in the sand. ‘They are fresh,’ said Ali. The valley ended in a wide, open plain, set round with fantastically riven hills black and rusty red as the volcanic stone had weathered. The light crept round them as we marched across the plain. They stood in companies watching us, and in the silence and emptiness were extraordinarily sinister. Suddenly Sayyah called out, ‘There is smoke.’ A tall spire of smoke wavered up against a black hillock. I must tell you that we were waterless and thirsty – the camels had not drunk for four days. We were not at all sure when we should find water, neither did we know in the least what Arabs had kindled the fire whose smoke we watched, but the consensus of opinion was that it was a ghazu – raiders. These are the interesting moments of desert travel.
The letters in that Penguin volume from sixty years ago were all chosen by her stepmother, who acknowledged that “there had clustered round her in her lifetime so many fantastic tales of adventure, based on fact and embroidered by fiction, tales of the Mystery Woman of the East, the uncrowned Queen, the Diana of the Desert …” But she doesn’t acknowledge what she had to have known: that a sizable chunk of those fantastic tales had originated with Gertrude herself, who wasn’t at all averse to the idea of being a legend in her own lifetime (after all, she’d seen it happen to friends of hers, including Winston Churchill and T. E. Lawrence). To the real pioneering treks she made up European mountains and across Arabian deserts, she added innumerable passages about the wildlife, the curious customs, and most of all the ferocious weather of the region:
We have had a week of fierce heat which still continues, temperatures 122 odd and therewith a burning wind which has to be felt to be believed. It usually blows all night as well as all day and makes sleep very difficult. I have invented a scheme which I practise on the worst nights. I drop a sheet in water and without wringing it out lay it in a pile along my bed between me and the wind. I put one end over my feet and draw the other under and over my head and leave the rest a few inches from my body. The sharp evaporation makes it icy cold and interposes a little wall of cold air between me and the fierce wind. When it dries I wake up and repeat the process. This evening Sir Percy and I went out motoring at 7 but it was too hot. The wind shrivelled you and burnt your eyeballs. They say it does not last very long like this – inshallah!
It’s all very evocative, but weather is also the letter-writer’s first choice for a safe subject, which might be why there’s so much of it in the letters of this earlier volume. And even when the subjects vary, they can only begin to hint at the vast variety of things Gertrude Bell wrote in her life. Not just letters by the tens of thousands but also diaries, archaeological guides, hundreds of position papers for the British government, and eight published books. Georgina Howell quotes from a tempting range of these writings in the course of A Woman in Arabia, giving readers a much fuller picture of Bell in the process, if also making the interested reader wonder why the whole thing is only a little more than 250 pages long when it could easily have been three times that length without risking the inclusion of a single boring sentence. In her advisory capacity to Arabian kings and British ministers, in her pivotal role in putting King Faisal on the throne of a newly-conceived kingdom of Iraq, Gertrude Bell quite literally helped to draw the map of the modern world’s most volatile region – but here she gets 200 pages less than the Penguin Classics book of ghost stories. An enlarged edition might be something to consider.
As it is, perhaps A Woman in Arabia should be seen more as a supplement to Selected Letters of Gertrude Bell (and vice versa) rather than a replacement for it. If only the two could be combined; it’s consistently fascinating to watch Bell contour the details of what she’s writing to the interests and tastes of her recipients. We don’t get much of that variation by simply reading the 1953 volume, since most of its letters are written to her parents. And there isn’t much more of that variation in Howell’s book, since she’s more concerned with showing us Bell in all her various capacities (the chapters of A Woman in Arabia have titles like “The Desert Traveller,” “The Lover,” “The War Worker,” and “The Nation Builder”). But reading the two books side-by-side can yield many intriguing moments of difference, moments when we can almost look into Bell’s mind as she subtly alters the stories she’s telling, first to her father:
We are camped within sight of Hayil and I might have ridden in to-day, but I thought it better to announce my coming and therefore I sent on Muhammed and Ali and have camped in the plain a couple of hours or so from the town. We finished with the Nefud for good and all yesterday – and to-day we have been through a charming country – charming for Arabia – of great granite rocks and little plains with thorny acacia trees growing in them and very sweet scented desert plants. We passed a small village or two, mud houses set in palm gardens and all set round with a mud wall. I hope the Hayil people will be polite.
And then, in an entirely more jaunty tone, to her close friend and almost-lover Richard Doughty-Wylie (the ellipses being Howell’s):
We are within sight of Hayyil and I might have ridden in today but I thought it better to announce me auspicious coming! So I sent in two men early this morning, Muhammed and ‘Ali, and have myself camped a couple of hours outside. We had … a most delicious camp in the top of a mountain, Jebel Rakham. I climbed the rocks and found flowers in the crevices – not a great bounty, but in this barren land a feast to the eyes … Yesterday we passed by two more villages and in one there were plum trees flowering – oh the gracious sight! And today we have come through the wild granite crags of Jebel ‘Aija and are camped in the Hayyil plain. From a little rock above my tent I have spied out the land and seen the towers and gardens of Hayyil, and Swaifly lying in the plain beyond, and all is made memorable by Arabia Deserta. I feel as if I were on a sort of pilgrimage, visiting sacred sites. And the more I see of this land the more I realize what an achievement that journey was. But isn’t it amazing that we should have walked down into Nejd with as much ease as if we had been strolling along Piccadilly!
To her father, on September 5, 1920, she can strike a grim (and damningly prescient) note:
We’re near to a complete collapse of society – the end of the Roman empire is a very close historical parallel. We’ve practically come to the collapse of society here and there’s little on which you can depend for its reconstruction. The credit of European civilization is gone. Over and over again people here have said to me that it has been a shock and a surprise to them to see Europe lapse into barbarism. I had no reply – what else can you call the war? How can we, who have managed our own affairs so badly, claim to teach others to manage theirs better?
But only a few days later, in Howell’s book, we find an excerpt of an entirely different tone:
The thing isn’t made any easier by the tosh T. E. Lawrence is writing in the papers. To talk of raising an Arab army of two Divisions is pure nonsense … I can’t think why the India Office lets the rot that’s written pass uncontradicted. T. E. L again: when he says we have forced the English language on the country it’s not only a lie but he knows it. Every jot and tittle of official work is done in Arabic; in schools, law courts, hospitals, no other language is used. It’s the first time that has happened since the fall of the Abbasids …
The experience of reading back and forth between the volumes is delightful; it reads back in to Bell something of her curious chameleon quality, which is a different thing from being multifaceted, and which is often the first quality to be steam-pressed out of a conventional linear biography. Some hints of that chameleon quality are preserved in A Woman in Arabia, which benefits enormously from Howell’s extensive biographical grounding of all the various excerpts she presents. In a way, especially for a writer as prolific and self-aware as Bell was, this may be the truest form a biography could take.
“In guiding the new British administration of Iraq,” Howell writes of Bell, “she was doing the most important work she had ever undertaken. To the people queuing up outside the secretariat in Baghdad, she was more than an administrator; she was someone they could trust. She spoke their language and had never lied to them.” Those people lining up outside, as well as thousands more around the world, were grief-stricken when she died in 1926. Her boss, the High Commissioner, wrote, “Her bones rest where she had wished them to rest, in the soil of Iraq. Her friends are left desolate.” T. E. Lawrence, her old colleague and sparring partner, called the loss of her “nearly unbearable.”
Reading the collection Howell has assembled here, it’s easy for a reader to understand that loss. Bell’s voice in all of its energy and so much of its contradiction is captured quite well here. “Strange isn’t it? To be so much in the midst of it all – strange and delightful for I love it,” Bell wrote at one point, and we feel it in every page of A Woman in Arabia. Now if the nabobs at Penguin could be convinced to do a nice reprint of the Selected Letters …
August 15th, 2015
Some Penguin Classics have horrible tidings to convey. In the broader game of literature, there’s no real way around that. On paper, all books are like the spirits in the underworld encountered by Ulysses: they need human blood in order to give them the power to speak. Printed words never stole a man’s property or took a man’s life, but when they’re invested with human belief, they can recombine into something terrible. There’s no way to calculate the sheer amount of pain and misery that words have caused when recombined with readers in that way. The Bible and the Koran alone carry a slaughter-weight that could sink a continent.
We tolerate this potential because the recombination can work in the other direction too: printed words can also bring joy and personal transformation. They act telepathically; they slip straight past vocal defenses and into the mind, and they can’t be dislodged. On some level, most readers recognize that the dark side of this quiet magic is the price they pay for the bright side of it. Books have tremendous latent power, and if tragedies are leveraged on their words, readers are almost morally obligated to read those words, not only to understand the tragedies but also to refute the leverage.
Somebody at Penguin Classics must know these uncomfortable truths, obviously, and their new volume The Life and Passion of William of Norwich faces it squarely. The book, written by a monk of the Norwich Cathedral Priory named Thomas of Monmouth sometime around 1150, recounts the life and posthumous saintly career of a 12-year-old boy named William of Norwich, who was found dead in a forest just outside the city of Norwich in 1144. The boy’s family insisted that he’d been killed by a group of the town’s Jews, and although the local sheriff appears to have ignored the family’s complaints and stayed any vengeance against the Jews, the story stuck. It was only a few years later that monk Thomas began to craft a story designed to create a lucrative saint’s cult for William at Norwich – a saint’s life in which the Jews were characterized as thoroughly evil beings who regularly kidnap and ritually execute Christian children. It was William’s book, asserts historian Miri Rubin in her invaluable Introduction to this Penguin volume (featuring her own brand-new translation), that began the ‘blood libel’ against the Jews that informed every subsequent antisemitic pogrom.
Monk Thomas tells the story of pure, innocent William’s early life, and he lavishes a good deal of morbid energy describing the boy’s torture and death – a crucifixion in all but name, as Rubin puts it. The book is “a rich and challenging text that greatly informs our understanding of how Christian ideas about Jews developed and spread in the Middle Ages,” Rubin writes, rather charitably, and continues along in that vein:
Accounts such as the Life and Passion were disseminated widely as literature and as edifying tales, but were occasionally acted out in city streets or in law courts as individual Jews or groups of Jews were accused of child murder. This could lead to trials and executions, but it should be remembered that on occasion such accusations were also derided and dismissed.
I don’t know about “edifying,” but Rubin is entirely right in pointing out how interesting some of the stories are that Thomas of Monmouth relates about young William’s very busy and frequently belligerent afterlife, curing the sick and watching miscellaneous doubters like a hawk. Thomas relates the story of a man named Walter, once a servant of the Dean of Norwich, who badmouthed the little martyr so vocally that he got a nocturnal visit from the glowing dead boy, who took him in a vision to a ghastly open grave:
‘Do you know whose grave this was?’ When Walter said it had been his, William retorted with terrible warnings: ‘Then get in at once, you who have always been uttering blasphemies against me.’ Walter was terrified and did not dare to go against the word of the saint commanding him, and, as it appeared to him, he entered, too, and cudgelled him and at last left him broken in all his limbs. And so the sleeping Walter woke up in terror; and he felt the most violent pain in all his limbs, as if he had endured when awake the beating he had seen in the vision.
“Shaken by this punishment,” the narrative tells us about a man who’s just been beaten up by Casper the Not-So-Friendly Ghost in a dream, “from then on he began to venerate and love from the bottom of his heart him whom before he was in the habit of disparaging most despicably.”
“The Life and Passion,” Rubin writes,
is an attempt to apportion blame and to make a link between mythical time – the time of the Passion of Christ – with the medieval present. We approach the book all too aware of the terrible consequences of such narratives. Yet historians must wear this knowledge lightly, lest we confuse Thomas of Monmouth’s intentions with events that occurred much later.
This is just a bit too nicely diced. Thomas of Monmouth’s intentions were twofold: to promulgate a new saint’s cult for a religious center that was eager for the financial windfall, and to vilify the Jews. He poured those intentions into his book, and he did that very consciously. It’s true that he couldn’t foresee the Nuremberg rallies, but we aren’t confusing things to know that he would have loved them. Underneath its brittle pieties, his book is gummily ugly, and this is both the caution and the necessity of reading it.
There’s a distinct kind of bravery in Miri Rubin’s insistence that we engage with this text in order to learn what it can teach us, and there’s a distinct kind of bravery in Penguin’s decision to add it to the line of Classics despite its almost entirely unsavory contents and its thoroughly revolting subsequent history. Whether this exact kind of bravery will ever some day extend to the creation of a Penguin Classics Mein Kampf remains to be seen. My guess is that there’d be protests.
August 13th, 2015
Some Penguin Classics, as we’ve seen over the years, abruptly thrust their readers into bewilderingly alien territory. For every well-known novel by a Bronte sister, in these thrillingly multi-cultural days, Penguin’s editors will cast their eyes to Africa or China, and the result is a growing library of diverse texts to keep readers very profitably unbalanced.
And hoo boy, texts don’t get much more alien than one of Penguin’s latest, first English-language translation of a key text of Tibetan Buddhism, The All-Pervading Melodious Drumbeat, a hyperkinetic saint’s life of Ra Lotsawa Dorje Drak, a violently charismatic eleventh-century Tibetan buddha as written by the eldest son of the man’s nephew, Ra Yeshe Senge, some time in the early 13th century.
As our translator and annotator Bryan Cuevas, Director of Buddhist and Tibetan Studies at Florida State University, makes clear, Ra Yeshe Senge’s account is a crucial early document illuminating the legendary past of this “paradigmatic sinister yogin”:
The All-Pervading Melodious Drumbeat remains the only complete biography of Ra Lotsawa that is available to us, and the primary source that Tibetans for generations have turned to for the story of his life. The text is thus essential for understanding the legend of this notorious master of Buddhist sorcery and how through his many tribulations and triumphs he came to popularize his unique transmission of the Vajrabhairava tradition in Tibet.
Cuevas is keenly aware of what a discordant note that mention of “Buddhist sorcery” will strike with many of the West’s more misty-eyed mischaracterizations of Buddhism, and he has no patience with such a supernatural defanging of Buddhist history:
Magic has always been deeply embedded in Buddhist thought and has long been tied inextricably to conventional Buddhist forms of ritual action. This vital dimension of Buddhism, however, is not often acknowledged or to often ignored. The reasons for this are tangled up in the long and convoluted history of the term “magic” in Western discourse, with its mostly negative connotations, but derive also from certain closely related modernist assumptions about Buddhism as a rational, empirical philosophy fully compatible with science. Magic has no place in this constructed image of Buddhism, for it insists that magic is inconsistent with true Buddha’s original message – this in spite of overwhelming textual and historical evidence to the contrary.
And certainly The All-Pervading Melodious Drumbeat is chock-full of magic! In his relentless quest for money and power (and, when occasion warrants, to instruct the masses on the path to enlightenment), Ralo has more encounters with bandits and super-villains than the Avengers in a really bad week. He and his brothers and followers are accosted almost everywhere they go and, as in this sudden battle while on a pilgrimage to India, Ralo almost always proves victorious, displaying a wide array of superpowers:
As Ralo approached this spectacle, some Hindus shouted, “Hey, here comes one of those dharma followers, the sort fit to be killed!” When they came closer and surrounded him, Ralo, prepared to fight, rose up in the body of Glorious Vajrabhairava and roared with the eight laughters booming like thunder. The temples with all their gods laughters booming like thunder. The temples with all their gods collapsed into tiny pieces and every one of the Hindu attackers fainted and slumped to the ground. When they awoke from their stupor, they saw that the temple foundations, gods included, had been reduced to ashes. Absolutely terrified, they begged Ralo to forgive their evil deeds and then they all joined the inner fold of the Buddha’s teaching.
He also performs miracles with ease, often merely for the amusement of friends and onlookers, as when he transmutes water into an unending supply of beer (getting fewer chuckles: that wacky time he re-animated the corpse of a dead deer). Cuevas rounds all this bizarre, utterly gripping stuff with generous end notes and a glossary of terms, which will prove invaluable for readers who find the whole world of The All-Pervading Melodious Drumbeat bewildering. It is bewildering, but it’s also unforgettably energetic, unlike anything you’re likely to read this year. Imagine a Gospel of St. John that’s five times longer, full of beautiful young women, and that features a Jesus who sometimes, as Ralo does in a particularly unforgettable moment, siphons up milk through his godly pecker and spews it out of his mouth while the crowd cheers. Or at least try to imagine such a thing.
August 12th, 2015
Some Penguin Classics, as we mentioned last time, are lost causes right out of the starting gate, and if such a thing applies to Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s Aurora Leigh, how much more does it apply to this wonderful 1988 Penguin volume edited by Lawrence Buell, who wrote last 2014’s fantastic book The Dream of the Great American Novel and who, in his nice meaty Introduction to this Penguin Classics Selected Poems of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, writes much the same kind of thing that we read in the Introduction that lovely new Penguin Classics Deluxe Edition of Robert Frost: that there were in effect two Longfellows, one serene and kindly, the other delving into deeper emotions, which ripple under the surface of many of his most anodyne-seeming poems.
“At the surface level,” Buell writes, “the modulated blandness of Longfellow’s verse easily anesthetizes us against looking for deeper effects. The sonorous meter, the proliferation of descriptive imagery, the gently didactic tone seemingly bespeak an uncomplicated muse.” But there are forces at work even in an “old chestnut” like “The Day is Done,” Buell points out, setting up more complicated dynamics between poet and reader than the sing-song exterior leads a casual reader to suspect. And in this volume, after reading such a sentiment, I naturally turned to the “old chestnut” in question:
The day is done, and the darkness
Falls from the wings of Night,
As a feather is wafted downward
From an eagle in his flight.
I see the lights of the village
Gleam through the rain and the mist,
And a feeling of sadness comes o’er me
That my soul cannot resist:
A feeling of sadness and longing,
That is not akin to pain,
And resembles sorrow only
As the mist resembles rain.
Come, read to me some poem,
Some simple and heartfelt lay,
That shall soothe this restless feeling,
And banish the thoughts of day.
Not from the grand old masters,
Not from the bards sublime,
Whose distant footsteps echo
Through the corridors of Time.
For, like strands of martial music,
Their mighty thoughts suggest
Life’s endless toil and endeavor;
And to-night I long for rest.
Read from some humbler poet,
Whose song gushed from his heart,
As showers from the clouds of summer,
Or tears from the eyelids start;
Who, through long days of labor,
And nights devoid of ease,
Still heard in his soul the music
Of wonderful melodies.
Such songs have power to quiet
The restless pulse of care,
And come like the benediction
That follows after prayer.
Then read from the treasured volume
The poem of thy choice,
And lend to the rhyme of the poet
The beauty of thy voice.
And the night shall be filled with music,
And the cares, that infest the day,
Shall fold their tents, like the Arabs,
And as silently steal away.
This Selected Poems volume is full of expertly-chosen gems like this one, as well as the whole of Evangeline and The Courtship of Miles Standish and selections from Tales of a Wayside Inn and The Song of Hiawatha – it’s the perfect introductory volume to the breadth of the work of this poet who, as Buell writes, “dared to aspire to become a writer by vocation as opposed to hobby at a time when no one in America had ever made a living by poetry before.”
He certainly couldn’t make a living at it here in the 21st century, which is a melancholy thing to realize, but there’s this volume and a handful of others floating around, to snare the unwary.
August 11th, 2015
Some Penguin Classics preach a doomed gospel to the masses, and one of them that does this most self-consciously is Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s 1856 novel-in-verse Aurora Leigh, here presented in the lovely 1995 black-spine Classic edited by John Robert Glorney Bolton and his daughter Julia Bolton Holloway with a picture on the cover of a figure from Michelangelo’s Tomb of Lorenzo de’ Medici (the Aurora figure, much beloved by our author). The editors indulge in very little throat-clearing; the book has no general introduction, merely a two-page preface between the reader and Browning’s almost indefinably odd decision to an Aurora Flood-style contemporary romance in a sometimes-abominable/sometimes-admirable slurry of “free verse” (the volume contains other Browning poems too, but the star billing goes to Aurora Leigh).
It’s the story of an impetuous young autodidact named Aurora, whose parents die while she’s still very young but not before imparting both a willful disposition and a love of learning. When she’s barely out of her teens, he handsome, virtuous cousin Romney Leigh, the heir to her family’s Leigh Hall, proposes marriage, but she’s already dreaming of dedicating herself to Art (concepts with uppercased first letters flock in dangerous numbers throughout Browning’s poetry, so the reader should beware), so she turns him down – opting instead to go to London and earn her living by her pen.
This has always been my favorite part of this weird, heartfelt, slightly silly, infallibly gripping work. Browning may not be the only poet to try capturing the life of a wretched freelance hack in verse, but she does by far the best job of it that I know, with the daringly quotidian subject matter only made more daring by the fact that Aurora is both a woman and obviously better than the world she’s using to pay her bills:
I worked on, on.
Through all the bristling fence of nights and days
Which hedges time in from the eternities;
I struggled, … never stopped to note the stakes
Which hurt me in my course. The midnight oil
Would stink sometimes; there came some vulgar needs:
I had to live, that therefore I might work,
And, being but poor, I was constrained, for life
To work with one hand for the booksellers,
While working with the other for myself
And art. You swim with feet as well as hands,
Or make small way. I apprehended this, –
In England, no one lives by verse that lives;
And, apprehending, I resolved by prose
To make a space to sphere my living verse.
I wrote for cyclopedias, magazines,
And weekly papers, holding up my name
To keep it from the mud. I learned the use
Of the editorial ‘we’ in a review,
As courtly ladies the fine trick of trains,
And swept it grandly through the open doors
As if one could not pass through doors at all
Save so encumbered.
There’s a matter-of-factness to all this that will strike a chord in any day-job writer, and a verisimilitude that serves to remind the reader that Browning knew in intimate detail the world she was describing, having been herself a hack freelancer for years in the 1840s, turning down no kind of paying job but always trying to work in at least a note here and there of the true, hard brilliant mettle of her non-summing mind. As a reconstruction of those days, this part of Aurora Leigh can certainly double as the autobiography she never wrote:
I wrote tales beside,
Carved many an article on cherry-stones
To suit light readers, – something in the lines
Revealing, it was said, the mallet-hand,
But that, I’ll never vouch for. What you do
For bread, will taste of common grain, not grapes,
Although you have no vineyard in Champagne …
Naturally, the poem moves beyond such grubby preoccupations, changing its setting first to France and then to Italy and extrapolating into a bathetic plot involving a poor young woman Romney Leigh wants to marry and a smart, vicious noblewoman – quite the poem’s best character, and its most maligned – who wants to marry him. And through all of it and all the other poems included, our editing duo stays discreetly out of our way, reserving the bulk of their attentions for the volume’s 50 pages of End Notes, which are magnificent and which have never to my knowledge been surpassed as a running commentary on these works.
The ‘doomed gospel’ part comes not in the execution of Aurora Leigh, which is it self almost febrile in its readability (Virginia Woolf was far from the only reader to find herself both frequently appalled by the thing and yet completely hooked), but in another problem altogether, one that Aurora herself recognizes at various points in the poem’s early sections: the reading public have lost the taste for epics, even verse epics about the kinds of people they know. An author insisting on generating one will be working mostly for the thin solace of art (sorry, Art) – and for the eventual reward of a Penguin Classic.
August 10th, 2015
Some Penguin Classics frankly puzzle, and a perfect example of this not-always-frustrating sub-category would have to be the plump new Complete Poetry volume of George Herbert, edited by Victoria Moul and John Drury, which comes only a skimpy ten years after the last edition of the previous Penguin Complete Herbert, edited by John Tobin, then as now a stellar English professor at the University of Massachusetts at Boston, who opened his own edition with the priceless line, “George Herbert is either our most major minor poet in English literature, or he is the most modestly exquisite of our major poets.”
So why is Tobin’s edition getting the old heave-ho? Especially considering the fact that Penguin still has creaking and wheezing editions of the Greek and Roman classics around from the 1450s?
There isn’t much to separate the two editions on their faces. Tobin gives us all of the English poems, selections from the Latin poems, and he reprints the entire Life of Herbert by Izaak Walton. He rounds his volume out with 120 pages of end-notes (and he refrains from starting those notes with the sub-title of Herbert’s great work “The Temple,” which is “Sacred Poems and Private Ejaculations” – whereas Moul and Drury fairly trip over themselves to footnote that final word, like well-meaning relatives making loud dinner-table smalltalk when they hear Grandpa winding up one of his racy jokes in front of company). Moul and Drury give us all the English poems, all the Latin (and a few Greek ones) with facing-pages in the original languages, selections from the Walton Life, and 200 pages of end-notes. In the world of popular-reprint classics, it all seems fairly even.
I suspect the change might have more to do with John Drury’s status specifically as a Herbert scholar – a status he cemented back in 2013 with his absolutely first-rate biography of the poet, Music at Midnight. He’s got an amazing familiarity with Herbert’s work and style, so his 30-page Introduction, while it lacks the wit and sparkle of Tobin’s 12-pager, is weighty with solid insights:
Among Herbert’s most enjoyable qualities is his wit, particularly when it is deployed on his religion – so much part and parcel of his inner and outer worlds that on occasion he can treat it lightly. ‘Discipline’ shows him using it against God, no less, ‘Giddiness’ and ‘Vanity (I)’ against human perversities and failings, and ‘Divinity’ against theological speculation. His clever devising of forms to picture their content, as in ‘The Altar’ and “Easter-wings’, was derided by Hobbes and Dryden, but when these poems are read aloud it is clear that there is nothing forced about them – rather that their shapes assist both sense and feeling.
Drury’s not the first critic to advise me to read Herbert’s verse out loud, and every time I read that advice, I take it and dutifully read a dozen or so poems to my dogs. I’ve been doing this sporadically for a great many years, and the exercise has left me in very little doubt about that dichotomy Tobin poses at the beginning of his own essay. Take a poem at random, let’s say “Business”:
Canst be idle? Canst thou play,
Foolish soul who sinn’d today?
Rivers run, and springs each one
Know their home, and get them gone:
Hast thou tears, or hast thou none?
If, poor soul, thou hast no tears;
Would thou hadst no faults or fears!
Who hath these, those ill forbears.
Winds still work: it is their plot,
Be the season cold, or hot:
Hast thou sighs, or hast thou not?
If thou hast no sighs or groans,
Would thou hadst no flesh and bones!
Lesser pains scape greater ones.
But if yet thou idle be,
Foolish soul, Who died for thee?
A lovely little ditty, but … most exquisite of our major poets? Not on George Herbert’s best day. But even so, two top-notch Penguin volumes of this poet are twice the treasure.
August 10th, 2015
Some Penguin Classics seem particularly to invite the Deluxe treatment, and for a host of reasons good and bad, the poetry of Robert Frost is certainly one of those. This lovely little Deluxe Classic is set to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the publication of Frost’s iconic and poster-friendly poem “The Road Not Taken,” and it sports a typically beautiful design by Alex Merto. The book’s Introduction, as terrifically inviting a 20 pages on Frost as I’ve read in a long time, is by David Orr, the poetry columnist for The New York Times Book Review, who makes some very good observations about the two separate versions of Robert Frost – the white-haired avuncular figure writing perfectly nice verses that even have the courtesy to end-rhyme, and the much more complicated artist, “dark, manipulative, and withholding,” as Orr puts it. Orr asks, “Why do we care where the essence of Frost truly resides?” and sketching out an answer:
The answer to this question is complex. But one aspect of it is simple: Frost became a public figure in a way no other American poet has managed, or even come close to managing. His goodwill was courted not just by scholars and other writers but by presidents and senators. He routinely spent the night at Eisenhower’s White House; he was good friends with Stuart Udall, John F. Kennedy’s secretary of the interior; and he was sent to the Soviet Union by Kennedy himself, where he spoke at length and privately with Nikita Khrushchev. (To appreciate how extraordinary this was, try to imagine a contemporary American poet being directed to Russia by President Obama and securing a tete-a-tete with Vladimir Putin.) Readers bought his works in numbers that would today be respectable for a fairly popular novelist, but that for a poet in the first half of the twentieth century were well beyond staggering.
(By reflex now when reading passages like this, I just mentally add in “no other 20th-century American poet,” since that way I’m not constantly irked by people overlooking the extent of Longfellow’s success)
The poems in this volume are taken from A Boy’s Will, North of Boston, and Mountain Interval, and they include “Mending Wall” and, yes, “The Road Not Taken,” but they also include the longer and more complicated verse short stories like “Home Burial,” “The Black Cottage,” “The Housekeeper,” “The Death of the Hired Man” – works that genuinely repay the effort of trying to understand that second, more recondite Frost. Even some of the shortest poems in this collection (which could easily have been three times as long, if it weren’t so clearly aimed at the gift-and-keepsake end of the book-buying spectrum) have tangled roots hidden just under the surface of their homesy scansion, like “The Cow in Apple Time”:
Something inspires the only cow of late
To make no more of a wall than an open gate,
And think no more of wall-builders than fools.
Her face is flecked with pomace and she drools
A cider syrup. Having tasted fruit,
She scorns a pasture withering to root.
She runs from tree to tree where lie and sweeten
The windfalls spiked with stubble and worm-eaten.
She leaves them bitten when she has to fly.
She bellows on a knoll against the sky.
Her udder shrivels and the milk goes dry.
Nobody’s ever going to make a college dormitory poster of that, but then, neither Frost would have cared about such things.
July 4th, 2015
Some Penguin Classics have perfect timing. Not many, as you’d expect, since the line deals primarily in works of literature that are specifically timeless – but in some cases, the when can mean a lot even alongside the what, and today is one of those case: a pretty new Penguin Classics edition of Thomas Paine’s quite literally revolutionary 1776 pamphlet “Common Sense,” here reprinted with the first installment of Paine’s “American Crisis” pamphlets, the whole thing edited and introduced by Revolutionary War historian Richard Beeman (whose 2013 book Our Lives, Our Fortunes, Our Sacred Honor was a lively retelling of the saga of American Independence), who rightly reminds us that “the publication of Common Sense would wholly change the debate over America’s relationship with England and with England’s vaunted ‘constitution.’”
The pamphlet spread through the colonies faster than dysentery; the first edition of Common Sense appeared right at the beginning of 1776, and within weeks, it seemed, every colonist was chattering about it, debating it, hashing choice quotes from it back and forth with increasing fervor. Beeman is far from the first to contend that this little booklet was as effective at stirring colonial hearts to rebellion as were any of the more overt physical provocations of the Sons of Liberty, and the contention might just be correct; a man haranguing you in a tavern can be agreed with and then forgotten, but a booklet enters the mind of its readers, where it can stay and work and replicate.
And the pamphlet’s success was of course entirely born of Paine’s ability to write gripping exhortatory prose at white-hot speed. His key device is to make everything immediately personal to his readers (and hearers – this text was much-declaimed in town squares), whether it be his ridicule of the idea that a small island could have pretensions to rule a sprawling continent, or his lampooning of the whole idea of hereditary monarchy, or his hard, squinting look at the various stances colonists took to his incendiary subject:
Though I would carefully avoid giving unnecessary offence, yet I am inclined to believe, that all those who espouse the doctrine of reconciliation, may be included within the following descriptions. Interested men, who are not to be trusted; weak men, who cannot see; prejudiced men, who will not see; and a certain set of moderate men, who think better of the European world than it deserves; and this last class by an ill-judged deliberation, will be the cause of more calamities to this continent, than all the other three.
Re-reading Common Sense is always electrifying, not least because Paine is so uncannily prescient about so many things (although not about everything; is there an American today, for instance, who doesn’t wince a little at the line, “But the most powerful of all arguments, is, that nothing but independence, i.e. a continental form of government, can keep the peace of the continent and preserve it inviolate from civil wars”?). And while I might quibble with Penguin’s decision to include so little of Paine’s writings in this slim volume (adding the rest of The American Crisis would have killed them?), there’s no arguing with how well the skimpy size of the volume cannily echoes the slight, passed-hand-to-hand nature of the original.
I’m hoping there are at least a few copies of Common Sense in the pockets of the many thousands of spectators who’ll gather on Boston’s Charles River this evening to watch the 4th of July fireworks. The pamphlet was an atom bomb in the Patriot arsenal – it would be nice if reading it were a small part of basking in the independence it did so much to bring about.
July 1st, 2015
Some Penguin Classics – including this, the final entrant in our little parade this time around – are eye-opening in a way that a single reprint of a single classic seldom is. Medievalists Ad Putter and Myra Stokes have taken one of keystone works of English literature – Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, beloved by generations of students for its sex and gore but above all for its brevity – and built it into a mighty thousand-page volume that would have undergraduates muttering grimly while they popped their Hello Kitty-flavored grey market antidepressants. A thousand pages! This rapturous new Penguin Classic isn’t Sir Gawain and the Green Night – it’s The Works of the Gawain Poet.
The capstone of those works is of course still Sir Gawain and the Green Night, but this volume also includes the dreamy, haunting, oddly sad poems Pearl, Cleanness, and Patience (it doesn’t include the poem St. Erkenwald, because our editors declare “the evidence for common authorship is inconclusive” – but that evidence is a whole lot more conclusive in this case, on the linguistic and stylistic level, than it is for a quarter of the plays routinely ascribed to Shakespeare; I say it should be included in this volume – I think it’s virtually impossible that the Gawain poet didn’t have at the very least a preponderant hand in St.Erkenwald‘s composition – but I’ll count my blessings either way). Putter and Stokes positively load the texts with footnotes and endnotes pitched at such a perfect range that they will simultaneously help the student and intrigue the expert. And at every stage, they’re careful to illuminate the actual working time period of the Gawain poet a thousand years ago:
Of his personal life, he tells us two things, one probably, the other certainly, true. He indicates in Patience that he had known poverty, which would not be surprising for a cleric who could not progress beyond minor orders. The claim functions partly as a captatio benevolentiae [courting the good will of the hearer], for the poet does not want to dis-implicate himself from the patient endurance of adversity which he preaches. But the rhetorical stratagem would sadly backfire if he were known to be in comfortable circumstances. For things at this period were not as they are today, when a dust jacket can give information on an actual author, between whom and the ‘I’ of his fiction there can be wide discrepancies. Such inconsistencies at this time would have caused confusion to no artistic purpose.
All of the poems are presented, rather daringly, in their original Middle English (very slightly cleaned up), and the array of critical materials dart very nimbly around the Gawain poet’s wide reading – though anonymous, this poet was surely one of the best-read writers of his age – and the end-product effect is to provide readers with something very close to a fourteenth century First Folio. It’s a marvelous performance all around.