Posts from August 2011

August 17th, 2011

Penguins on Parade: Chaucer Redux!

Some Penguin Classics seem like they must surely be an affront to the very nostrils of the Almighty, and surely if any Penguin Classics bids fair to seem so, it’s any Penguin Classic that dares to supplant one of the most beloved Penguin Classics of all time.

Obviously, we’re talking about Geoffrey Chaucer’s ‘Canterbury Tales’ – and that’s obvious before we ever get to editions or editors or talk of metrics, because surely there’s no English classic so beloved, so central to a national psyche, as this marvellous, unending book? Scholars have been fretting about just how ‘English’ a book it is, but the picayune particulars of provenance mean comparatively little against the sheer weight of tradition. Breton? Gascony? Who but a bloodless specialist would bother to mention such things when we’re talking about the very fons et origo of a country’s literature, the unmistakable beginnings of the peculiar British penchant for character-driven organic plotting? Chaucer is the soil for Shakespeare, Jane Austen, Dickens, and an entire literary tradition of making us root for characters even while we mock them, the tradition of giving us real life just slightly, just ever so perfectly enhanced. If we’re talking about a beloved classic, the starting exemplar of them all would be Chaucer’s greatest work.

And if we’re talking about beloved Penguin Classics, we could scarcely be talking about anything but Nevill Coghill’s best-selling 1952 modernization, one of the very first Penguin Classics in our Parade of Penguins. Coghill’s modernization of Chaucer was phenomenally popular as a radio program even before it became a Penguin Classic, and its subsequent sales virtually guaranteed that for thousands of students over the course of five decades, his version of Chaucer would be Chaucer. I’ve read his version countless times, in countless places across the face of the Earth, and it’s always managed to charm me. Any other Penguin Classic version of Chaucer would seem certain, as noted, to give offense.

Any other version of Chaucer … but not Chaucer himself.

That’s always the problem I have with modern-English versions of Chaucer, however inventive or talented they are (it’s this problem, I suspect, that’s prevented me from giving critical attention to any of the various modernizations that have wafted over the plate since I’ve been back at bat – I count four of them, all frenziedly ignored by yours truly, despite the fact that one of them was actually very, very good): they aren’t Chaucer, and no matter how good they are, they can’t ever be as good as Chaucer. I treasured the Coghill all those years by hearing Coghill’s clotted, adorable voice in my head when I read it – which was a very different thing from hearing Chaucer’s high, nasal, immediately likeable twanging in my head. Modernizations imply by their very existence that the original Chaucer is somehow beyond the reach of most latter day readers, but that actually isn’t the case. He’s still our most accessible inaccessible writer: a weak of study and practice, and you’re suddenly playing with English of an entirely different time.

With the possible exception of the Gawain poet, nobody in Chaucer’s day played with that English better than he did. Don’t get me wrong: I love the Coghill re-creation and I always will. He, too, has undeniable fun, as in the opening to the Cook’s Tale:

 There was a prentice living in our town

Worked in the victualling trade, and he was brown,

Brown as a berry; spruce and short he stood,

As gallant as a goldfinch in the wood.

Black were his locks and combed with fetching skiill;

He danced so merrily, with such a will,

That he was known as Revelling Peterkin.

He was full of love, as full of sin

As hives are full of honey, and as sweet.

Lucky the wench that Peter chanced to meet.

At every wedding he would sing and hop,

And he preferred the tavern to the shop.

But in the fat, beautiful 2005 Penguin Classic update edited by the redoubtable Jill Mann, in addition to a humble Introduction and a whopping 300 pages of invaluable Notes, we get not the stained glass pattern, lovely as it is, but the glory of the merry sun itself:

A prentis whilom dwelled in oure citee,

And of a craft of vitaillers was he.

Gaillard he was a goldfinch in the shawe;

Broun as a berye, a propre short felawe,

With lokkes blake, ykembd ful festisly.

Dauncen he koude so wel and jolily

That he was cleped Perkin Revelour.

He was as ful of love and paramour

As is the hive ful of hony swete;

Wel was the wenche that with him mighte mete.

At every bridale wolde he singe and hoppe.

He loved bet the taverne than the shoppe,

For whan ther any riding was in Chepe,

Out of the shoppe thider wolde he lepe …

Coghill’s lines smile and wink at the reader. But Chaucer himself? He taps his toe, he claps his hands in time, he throws back his head and laughs with the sheer joy of making something so alive. An enterprising reader need only acclimate himself with Mann’s Introduction, maybe roll the some lines around the sides of his mouth for practice, and then that living, laughing text, just as the author wrote it, is right there on the page. No matter how good intermediaries are, they could never be as good as this.

And so I am well-pleased. Fancy that.

July 7th, 2011

Penguins on Parade: Ammianus Marcellinus!

Some Penguin Classics will inevitably provoke a hearty “Who the Hell is that?” even in well-educated company, and a permanent occupant of that category is the fourth century Greek army officer and historian Ammianus Marcellinus, who dreamed of standing on the same level as his beloved Tacitus but never rises to more than a weak approximation of the master.

A.M. wrote thirty-one books of Roman history, thirteen of which have not survived (the whole work – and especially those first thirteen books, which had a sustained, almost manic tempo that readers loved and bought out whenever fresh copies became available). What we have left covers about twenty-five years (A.D. 354-378) in the tumultuous life of the Eastern Empire, seen in the reign of five emperors: Constantius, Julian, Jovian, Valentinian, and Valens.

If you’re a fan of historical fiction, your eyes no doubt seized on one of those five names – Julian, known as the Apostate, the subject of four English-language historical novels, including one hum-dinger by Gore Vidal that’s fondly remembered by everybody who’s ever read it (that happy old phrase, ‘an author at the height of his powers’ very much applied to Vidal at the time, three-quarters of a century ago). A.M. is one of our primary sources for the remarkably well-documented life and times of Julian, and as an army officer he knew the man personally.

A.M. was born around 330 in Antioch, home of the famous rhetorician Libanius (who features as a main character in Vidal’s book, and as a stand-in for a contemporary professor Vidal famously, er, knew). Antioch was the ‘jewel of the East’ – a sprawling, gorgeous place in which to grow up if your family was well enough connected. A.M.’s obviously was, and in 354 we find him attached to the staff of General Ursinicus, who was dispatched to deal with a massive Persian invasion of Mesopotamia in 359. A.M. went with him and saw a great deal of action and intrigue. His book has all the narrative excitement of the best patches of Livy, but he himself was no armchair historian, creeping around the old Julian library stacks and suffering only from eye-strain; our author was often in the thick of things, as when he and the rest of Ursinicus’ command come upon Antoninus, a renegade Roman who’d made a tidy sum selling insider knowledge to the invading Persians:

We, as I said, were about to set off for Samosata and were on the march before it was fully light, when as we reached a point of vantage the gleam of shining arms struck our eyes. An excited shout proclaimed that the enemy was upon us, so in obedience to the usual signal we halted in close order. Prudence suggested that we should neither take flight, since our pursuers were in view, nor yet meet certain death by giving battle to an enemy who were our superior in numbers and cavalry. At last, when a clash became absolutely inevitable but while we were still in doubt about our tactics, some of our men were rash enough to run out in front of our lines and were killed. Both sides pressed forward, and Antoninus, leading a troop spoiling for the fight, was recognized by Usicinus, who denounced him in violent terms as a traitor and a criminal. Therupon Antoninus took from his head the tiara which he wore as a badge of honor, sprang from his horse, and, bowing so low that his face almost touched the ground, addressed Ursicinus as his patron and master, at the same time clasping his hands behind his back, a gesture of supplication among the Assyrians.

But the main focus of this history (and this would still be true, one suspects, even if we still had the missing first half) is Julian: his rise, his ideas and attitudes, his all-around wonderfulness, and his military victories against the sometimes staggering forces of the East (when A.M. writes about “gleaming” war-elephants, he’s referring to the fact that they were often outfitted in extensive and terrifying armor that glinted in the sun). His narrative’s emotional peak is reached when he gets to the year 363, in which A.M. joined young Julian’s expedition against the Persians – and dies in combat, in the middle of a big, chaotic battle into which the ‘philosopher’-emperor had ridden without armor. In his meticulous and often delightfully caustic notes to Walter Hamilton’s translation, Andrew Wallace-Hadrill quips:

A. says nothing of the part he played in this battle: one suspects he was in the centre, panicking at the smell and noise of the elephants. Other sources have various explanations for Julian’s extraordinary lack of armour (the heat, or a conviction of invincibility): none can bring themselves to suggest that he was courting death as a way out of the disastrous situation into which he had led the Roman army.

Wallace-Hadrill is a dream-annotator for a work like this: he’s effortlessly authoritative but not at all reverential. Actually, A.M. seems to have generated precious little veneration from anybody who’s ever read him – he’s too involved (he was part of the group of officers in the aftermath of that terrible battle who banded together and chose the hapless Jovian to be Julian’s successor), too partisan at times, and he can be just a bit florid in his style. Gibbon used him gratefully as a guide for this period, but – in true Gibbon fashion – also did a bit of sniffing, remarking that A.M.’s “superfluous prolixity is disagreeably balanced by his unseasonable brevity.” There’s just no pleasing some people.

In a way, A.M. gets the last laugh, because his book itself is pleasing – it’s fast-paced and gripping and utterly personal (his famous digressions alone, on virtually any topic that crosses his mind, are worth the price of this wonderful Penguin volume)(needless to say, this Penguin volume is also pretty much the only popular edition of A.M. that’s ever existed – I’d sing an aria of praise to Penguin Classics, but that’s what this whole regular feature is for, isn’t it?).

It wasn’t a fluke that it was a best-seller in A.M.’s own lifetime: he lived a fascinating life at or near the center of some important events, then he wrote a fascinating book about it all. And then, two thousand years later, Penguin came along and made a Classic out of it for $8. Used, online, your copy might even be less!


December 13th, 2010

The Wages of Destruction!

Our book today is Adam Tooze’s 2006 The Wages of Destruction. It’s subtitled “The Making and Breaking of the Nazi Economy,” and it’s an astounding work that’s rendered all the more remarkable by the fact that it should have bored me cross-eyed. Tooze has delved deep into the financial records and business accords of Germany in the first half of the 20th century, and his book is replete with tables and graphs, nor is he a man afraid to raise the unholy specter of tariff revisions. Fortunately, he’s got an ear for serious historical narrative (this book is, blessedly, about as far away from the ‘102 Amazing Things You Thought You Knew About WWII – But Didn’t!!!’ school of history-writing as it’s possible to be) and a compelling way with marshaling and presenting all that research he did, or I’d have been stonewalled after about two pages.

He also has a curiosity about bigger questions, including the biggest question of ’em all when it comes to Nazi Germany: how was it possible? How was it possible that a country known for its culture and hospitality could become the nest of one of the most evil states in history? Like virtually every other major historian of the time, Tooze refuses to state (or perhaps even to believe) the glaringly obvious explanation – but that serves his purposes anyway, since he’s mainly concerned with the very practical side of that question: not how was it possible, spiritually and philosophically, but how was in possible, practically and financially? How did the Nazis pay for it all, and what can that tell us about their history? Tooze is convinced the question of money holds the key to many other questions besides:

For it is only by re-examining the economic underpinnings of the Third Reich, by focusing on questions of land, food and labour that we can fully get to grips with the breathtaking process of cumulative radicalization that found its most extraordinary manifestation in the Holocaust.

And he’s not only convinced of this – he’s convincing. Reading this fantastic book is like inhaling a gust of cold fresh air, clarifying so much and making you realize just how many WWII histories you’ve read that ended up being mainly one more colossal re-run of tanks, marching troops, the fog of war, Churchill’s bulldog tenacity, and the race for Berlin. It’s always invigorating when a really talented historian shakes up some comfortable narrative by looking at it from a new perspective, and Tooze does that throughout his book. He wants to know how the Great Depression fits into it all, how the economic policies of the National Socialists were received in all levels of German society, and abroad – along the way providing a much-needed reminder that the early 1930s were very tricky years for anybody to assume control of a nation, even if that ‘anybody’ was a gang of ruthless, evil thugs:

It was this contrast between domestic authoritarianism and international ‘liberalism’ that defined the ambiguous position in which German business found itself in 1933. On the one hand, Hitler’s government brought German businessmen closer towards realizing their domestic agenda than ever before. By the end of 1934 the Third Reich had imposed a state of popular pacification that had not existed in Germany since the beginning of the industrial era in the nineteenth century. On the other hand, the disintegration of the world economy and the increasingly protectionist drift of German politics was profoundly at odds with the commercial interests of much of the German business community.

Naturally, Hitler steps onto the stage almost immediately and never leaves it, and you’d think that might hamper Tooze in the pursuit of his subject. But to the extent that he agrees with some big names in the field by insinuating that economics relies more on personalities than most people think, it turns out to be no hindrance at all. Hitler was no economist, but until he completely lost his mind, he had some pretty uncanny instincts for survival – and Tooze charts these shifts and twists very adroitly:

If Hitler had wanted war on 1 October 1938, he could have had it. The French and the British had reached the point at which they could make no further concessions. The armies of France and the Soviet Union had mobilized. The Royal Navy stood at full alert. On 29 September 1938 it was Hitler who stepped back not his opponents, and there is no better explanation for this abrupt change of course than the sheer weight of evidence, argument and pressure that had been brought to bear on him over the previous weeks … Nobody could accuse either Goering or Mussolini of opposing war on principle. But neither wanted to risk a war against Britain and France in 1938. Furthermore, if Hitler abstained from open military aggression, the British and the French were clearly willing to give him virtually anything he might ask for. Reluctantly, Hitler backed down and accepted the extraordinarily generous settlement on offer at the hastily convened conference in Munich. In doing so, he almost certainly saved his regime from disaster.

Tooze naturally comes to some epic conclusions in the course of his book – one of the most bracingly fascinating things about The Wages of Destruction is how brave it is in making those big statements, and yet how shrewd (WWII wunderkind Niall Ferguson knows all about the big statement part, for instance, but he could learn a thing or two from this book about the shrewdness). Our author isn’t willing to say that World War II was the war to end all wars, but he makes an interesting case that one of its aftermaths was “its demonstration of the futility of war as a means of great power politics.” I read that first with outraged denial, but it stuck with me, and I like it when challenging ideas stick with me. Plenty of historians declare that the Second World War changed the very nature of the world, but I’ve never read the particularly limiting nature of that change put better:

The apocalyptic temptation of militarism was largely exorcized from Europe. Its dying embers flared up only occasionally in the rearguard actions of empire. but with it also went any aspiration to the ‘freedom’ once implied by great power status. As early as the autumn of 1943, after the Battle of Kursk, the United States ha realized that the dominant power over Europe for the foreseeable future would be the Soviet Union, not Britain, let alone France.

It’s a mark of how good this book is that the above quote – and many more gems just like it – are actually far afield from its central topic; that prodigality of insight is the mark of a master at work, and it’s one of the main reasons I so regularly re-read this book. There’s a shelf of truly landmark WWII histories – it’s about 55 books long, and The Wages of Destruction belongs on it.

December 3rd, 2010

Penguins on Parade: Gerald of Wales!

Some Penguin Classics ought to engender only hatred, and surely the 1185 Topographia Hibernia of our old friend Gerald of Wales should be at the top of that infamous list. “Giraldus Cambrensis” was born around 1146, the scion of one of the most influential Norman families of the century. His mother was the celebrated ‘Helen of Wales,’ a beautiful woman named Angharad who eventually married Gerald de Windsor, the castellan of Pembroke, and started churning out little fitzGeralds, including Maurice, the murderous thug who helped Henry II invade and conquer Ireland.

Gerald was given a more gentle education and fitted out for a career in the Church, although his lifelong quest of appointment to the see of St. David’s went unfulfilled. He first went to Ireland in 1183 accompanying Henry II’s son Prince John and a large body of armed men, and while his uncle and his brother were busy spiking the locals, he took an interest in indigenous folklore. During that first visit and a subsequent on in 1185, he collected a large amount of, eh, information that the locals were only too happy to foist on an Englishman of apparently bottomless gullibility, and Gerald studiously set all this information down in a book which he called The History and Topography of Ireland, even though it contains virtually no accurate Irish topography and no accurate Irish history at all.

By the modest and admittedly cumbersome standards of the day, the book became a hit. This is understandable: not only was Ireland in 1185 a wild chunk of terra incognita most Normans had never seen, but as such, it presented unbeatable opportunities for the kind of moralizing that was then at the peak of its popularity with the book-buying clergy.

We should hate this book, since it’s a picture-perfect illustration of history being written by the victors. Most of it is race propaganda of the vilest kind, like the innumerable tracts about native ‘savages’ that flooded the East Coast stationery stores in the early 19th century – and with the same purpose: to dehumanize the people you were in the process of dispossessing. It should be cast out, and Penguin Classics should no more print an edition of it than they would of The Protocols of the Elders of Zion.

Except … time, especially vast expanses of it like the vast expanse that now separates the sun in the sky every day from the 12th century, takes the sting out of things. I’m sure the editors of Penguin Classics didn’t think about Irish crofters burned alive in front of their children when they bought John O’Meara’s clean, fluid 1951 translation of the Topographia Hibernia and added it to the Classics backlist in 1982.

And perhaps that’s OK. Those bishops weren’t only enjoying the moralizing, after all; Gerald of Wales was an undeniably catchy storyteller, as his Journey Through Wales amply demonstrates. And O’Meara isn’t for a moment blind to the defects of the work he’s so skillfully translating:

The reader will be able to judge for himself the amount of credit to be placed in Giraldus’ statements, and the motives by which he was actuated. He will see the single-minded vanity of the ambitious flatterer, the haughty contempt for one who came with his family to reform and invade, and the apparent credulity which must have delighted the hearts of the Irish.

And the truth is, aside from this one slim volume, we have very little surviving written records of any aspect of Irish life at the time. Economists, sociologists, climatologists, biologists … many categories of people aside from military historians have ransacked this book, hungrily looking for the odd fact or tidbit that might be added to the historical picture. Gerald’s sermons are mined for factual details:

There are many birds here of twofold nature. They are called ospreys. They are smaller than the eagle, but larger than the hawk. One of their feet is armed with talons, open and ready to snatch; but the other is closed and peaceful and suitable only for swimming. It is a wonderful instance of nature’s pranks.

There is a remarkable thing about these birds, and I have often witnessed it for myself. They hover quietly on their wings high up in the air over the waves of the sea. In this way they can more easily see down into the depths below.

(O’Meara and the good folks at the Penguin art department fill this volume with illustrations from a 15th century manuscript of the work)

Likewise his frequent recourse to saints’ lives can still yield items of temporal interest, like the pair of interesting assumptions buried in this little tale:

There is a district called Ferneginan in Leinster. It is separated from Wexford by the river Slaney only. From there the larger mice that are commonly called rats were entirely expelled by the curse of the bishop, Saint Yvor, whose books they had happened to eat. They cannot be bred nor can they live there, if brought in.

Of course, studying and sifting through the text like this requires often turn a blind eye to the aforementioned race hatred, which crops up on almost every page in some shape or other – sometimes buried in innuendo, many other times sadly explicit:

They [the Irish, naturally] are a wild and inhospitable people. They live on beasts only, and live like beasts. They have not progressed at all from the primitive habits of pastoral living.

Yes indeed. Whereas the Normans in London at this time were using air-cars.

Gerald visited Ireland a few more times before his death in 1223, and he kept revising and enlarging his book for the rest of his life. O’Meara’s slim little Penguin Classic is a rendition of the ‘first edition’ of the book, before its author started making egregious additions and displaying what O’Meara calls “indiscriminate erudition of all kinds.” And the book fascinates in spite of itself, a quick, warped look at a people right on the edge of being inhospitabled out of every hill and valley they’d ever called their own.