Posts from June 2016
June 17th, 2016
Some Penguin Classics, as we’ve seen in the past here at Stevereads, are just clear-cut improvements over earlier versions. One obvious example comes from 1990, the Richard Freeborn updated edition of Sketches from a Hunter’s Album, the book that first made the literary reputation of Ivan Sergeyevich Turgenev, whose first collection of these little sketches of Russian serf life was published in 1852 and quickly led to his exile to his country estate of Spasskoye. Penguin Classics added an English-language translation of the work to its list in 1967, but that edition was lacking several of the sketches and all of the sketch-fragments that can be found in Turgenev’s papers. Freeborn’s 1990 edition is complete, and his Introduction is very good, analyzing tale by tale these “occasional pieces, experiments in a particular kind of portraiture, tracts for the times cast in the mould of literature, trial sketches for his future work as a novelist.”
Turgenev came from a somewhat poor but noble background, and his championing of the downtrodden peasants was always more inadvertent (and opportunistic) than it was devotional, which Freeborn sees quite clearly and never lets his readers forget:
The fact that most of the Sketches are offered as brief, summery [sic] episodes tends to set in relief the ephemeral, not so say fleeting, manner of Turgenev’s encounter with the peasants and to make of them creations of a particular moment, with little identity beyond a nickname; their patronymics, like their parentage, have been obliterated in the anonymity of their servile condition. The framework of the peasant encounters, then, tends to objectivize and simultaneously to distance. It is a distancing, of course, which usually has the effect of making the encounter doubly significant, as though a lyric poem had been born of an anecdote, a work of art from a snapshot. But the difference, let it not be forgotten, is really due to ignorance.
Re-encountering these “sketches” puts you right in the minds of all those original readers who found in these pages the revelation of a sharp, clear new major talent. The natural world is vividly, lovingly invoked throughout – the narrators are always in motion, always making for the trees at sunset, with greenery and breezes coloring every quiet moment. Freeborn’s translation efforts are superb in catching the happy, fast-paced grades of shading Turgenev had already mastered when he wrote these sketches.
The end notes are a bit more problematic – they’re oddly spotty. The final line of the story “Chertopkhanov and Nedopyushkin,” for instance, is “It was late in the evening when I left Unsleepy Hollow.” But even though Freeman uses the term “Unsleepy Hollow” throughout the story, he includes no note about it, no help for readers who might be wondering if the translation is literal, and if so, just what familiarity Turgenev had with Washington Irving’s writing. The notes are like that; they tend to make you wish they were either five times as long or not there at all.
But the end notes can be ignored, as God intended all end notes to be. The real pleasure here is of course the translation itself, a jewel to be added to Penguin’s Russian library.
June 14th, 2016
Some Penguin Classics serve as reminders of the perils of sequels. In fact, since the very first Penguin Classic, and also the first Penguin Classic best-seller, was E. V. Rieu’s translation of Homer’s Odyssey, it would be fair to say the Penguin Classics line was founded on a sequel – with all the pros and cons that apply. The Odyssey is the ur-sequel: more tightly controlled than its predecessor – one plot and one subplot – but less angry and wild, more psychological and less elemental, conforming to a universe instead of creating one. In this way its reading satisfactions are also concessions, and so it’s been with sequels ever since, from The Merry Wives of Windsor to David Balfour to Bring Up the Bodies: readers trade the dizzy excitement of groundbreaking for the more settled pleasures of city-building.
It’s a trade on full display in Jean Larteguy’s 1961 novel Les Praetorians, the sequel to his enormously popular and best-selling novel The Centurions, also now found in the Penguin Classics line. Les Praetorians was translated as The Praetorians in 1963 for Penguin by Xan Fielding, and a new 2016 reprint features a Foreword by retired US general Stanley McChrystal. The book returns readers to the world of The Centurions and its cast of battle-scarred French paratrooper veterans of the Algerian War and Dien Bien Phu, and McChrystal in his short Foreword is content to wax nostalgic:
As a young Lieutenant in 1977 I reported to the famed 82nd Airborne Division. I donned the uniform, topped by a maroon beret, with the hope that before long I’d have the sinewy physique, steady nerves, and nonchalant demeanor of a veteran warrior – the outward traits of the paratroopers Larteguy introduces us to in The Centurions and then examines more deeply in The Praetorians. Soon, my comrades and I learned the trade of young paratroop officers – from siting machine guns to dealing with strong-willed senior sergeants.
“It would have been impossible” he goes on, “to be quite as competent, courageous, and attractive to women as our French counterparts Larteguy portrays, but at least superficially, mimicking warriors we admired was straightforward.” This is genuine Marine-grade effrontery, of course, especially since anybody who’s actually studied the Vietnam War (much less those who watched it unfold) will automatically finish “siting machine guns” with “on helpless civilians,” but it certainly captures something of the dangerous sentimentality Larteguy’s confections have always provoked in their readers. That sentimentality is mixed with fire and brimstone throughout most of The Centurions, where Larteguy seems at times to be mocking it as much as any of his less biddable characters are; that it’s going to be far less adulterated in the sequel is signaled early in The Praetorians, when disillusioned Captain Philippe Esclavier of the 10th Colonial Parachute Regiment abruptly resigns and his commander, Colonel Raspeguy, assigns a man named Boudin to find out why:
The colonel was as slim as an adolescent. From the back he could be taken for a twenty-year-old if it were not for those folds round his neck. They were all slim, all adolescent, the Esclaviers, the Glatignys, the Marindelles: dangerous, pitiless and at the same time pitiful. Even Boisfeuras, who was not like them, had found this strange youthfulness in death. But he, Boudin, with his common sense, his feet planted firmly on the ground, his Auvergnat craftiness, was there to protect these fragile soldiers.
He would make quite sure not to find Esclavier.
In Italy an old glass-maker had told him that crystal sometimes catches a disease which makes it break without any reason. That sort of leprosy is contagious. Esclavier had it and he must not be allowed to infest his comrades, the crystal warriors.
In that business about “crystal warriors” we see the faint echo of virtually every sequel ever written, the lure of nostalgia, the urge to sanitize. Larteguy’s considerable literary gifts are not lessened in The Praetorians – no reader who starts it will voluntarily stop reading – but that lure is always a suspect thing. When Odysseus in the hall of the Phaeacians weeps when the bard sings of the war at Troy, readers are supposed to be touched by the plight of the weathered wanderer. They’re not supposed to remember that from that wanderer’s dark brain sprang the destruction of Troy, the enslavement of all its women, and the slaughter of all its babies. But maybe they should remember it anyway.
June 13th, 2016
Some Penguin Classics never quite stop being controversial, and that’s certainly the case with Ernst Junger’s bestselling First World War memoir In Stahlgewittern, which was first privately printed in 1920 when its author in his twenties, fresh from his experiences during the war. He’d compulsively recorded those experiences in a collection of wartime diaries, and for the next forty years, and after a humble start, the resulting book became an enormous hit with the reading public. Penguin Classics has published an appropriately somber black-spine edition in the past, but in 2016 the book has been given the lavish “Deluxe Edition” treatment, complete with a Foreword by Matterhorn author Karl Marlantes and bright, surrealistically disturbing wraparound cover art (curiously uncredited) by Neil Gower. It’s gaudy, gorgeous production, very cannily at odds with the grim material contained in the book itself.
That material is presented here in Michael Hofmann’s 2003 translation, complete with his Introduction in which he slathers contempt all over the English-language predecessor translation by Basil Creighton (“… his knowledge of German was patchy, his understanding of Junger negligible, and his book seems much older and staler than his original. There are literally hundreds of coarsenesses, mistakes and nonsenses in his translation; open it at just about any page and you start to find them”) and immediately swings into the kind of mystification that’s always clung to this book like black smoke to a burning building:
There was always something aloof and solipsistic about Junger – the word ‘aristocratic’ is often misapplied to him – that meant that as a soldier and a writer and even an ideologue he was in it for himself, and never quite, at that. He was not a novelist or a politician or a penseur, though with elements of all three … It is hugely to Junger’s credit (though it is as much a matter of temperament as of choice) that he was never an opportunist – if anything, rather the opposite.
It’s tough to know how to reconcile “never an opportunist” with a man who sidled up next to power for his entire adult life, a man who refused to repudiate the Nazis lest it endanger his comfortable eminence, a man who was so assiduously opportunistic that he pushed to have not one but two “Collected Works” editions of his writings in his own lifetime.
That perennial urge to give Junger some extra-literary line of credit, to extend to him some kind of ineffability because his book is so moving, is on full display in the Deluxe Edition’s Foreword as well. Marlantes wrote one of the great Vietnam War novels of all time, and in his opening remarks he’s very much in war-fiction mode, the foremost characteristic of which is always an appeal to fact:
During my own war, I had the privilege of living in close proximity to born warriors. The Marine Corps has a lot of them. I am not one of them. I would consider myself a citizen soldier, and most of the young men I served with were citizen soldiers as well. We became warriors, through either volunteering or being drafted, for the time that we were needed by our country. As soon as we could, we left the military and returned home. Born warriors are different. For them, war is home. They like to fight.
Marlantes looks at all the times Junger was wounded during the war, and he naturally calls our author a “born warrior.” That’s why, he says, “Junger’s book contains almost no political, moral, or philosophical commentary.” Leaving aside the heavy implication that there’s something admirable or praiseworthy in the homicidal purity of “born warriors,” the fact that Junger’s book contains no tawdry political commentary was, like everything else about the book, a product of its author’s very careful, perhaps even opportunistic, fussing with the text. The earliest editions have plenty of fervently-worded German nationalist jingo-lingo; it was only once Junger had an international audience that might be put off by such rhetoric that he removed it from subsequent editions. The brutally authentic, unstudied tone of In Stahlgewittern is the product of unremitting study.
The results are invariably impressive, even in an English-language translation that isn’t quite the Second Coming Hofmann seems to think it is. Junger writes a gripping line of prose, always going for the cheap-but-effective juxtaposition of man’s despoiling of nature’s beauty in a time of war. This juxtaposition was old even when Stephen Crane weaponized it into a great narrative in the year of Junger’s birth, and Junger himself uses it consistently to good effect:
Twice more, I am torn from my sleep to do my duty. During the last watch, a bright streak behind the sky to the east announces the coming day. The contours of the trench are sharpened; in the flight light, it makes an impression of unspeakable dreariness. A lark ascends; its trilling gets on my wick. Leaning against the parapet, I star out at the dead, wire-scarred vista with a feeling of tremendous disillusion. These last twenty minutes seem to go on for ever. At last there’s the clatter of the coffee-bringers coming down the communication trench: it’s seven o’clock in the morning. The night-watch is over.
Storm of Steel has been sparking wildly contradictory reactions from the moment of its first fame. Critics have accused it of glorifying war, although this hasn’t stopped a wide range of those same critics (Hofmann refers to them as “cosmopolites, left-wingers, non-combatants” until you just want to have him escorted from the premises) from crying up the book’s “rare and brutal authenticity.” Admirers – whether of the book or of the “born warriors” it, I guess, depicts, have sung its praises as the definitive account of the WWI soldier’s perspective. It’ll no doubt go right on keeping people talking about it – thereby gladdening its author’s heart in the Poet’s Corner of Valhalla, since keeping people talking about Ernst Junger was Ernst Junger’s foremost dream for Ernst Junger – and thanks to this sturdy, beautiful new Penguin Classics Deluxe Edition, those debaters will have at their fingertips the nicest-looking English-language translation of the work ever produced.
June 1st, 2016
Some Penguin Classics hew close to an academic model and try in their good conscience to be gateways to richer wonders. Once such gateway that’s always been attractive to teachers is an abridgement of Giovanni Boccaccio’s gigantic masterpiece, The Decameron. In its unedited form, the book is a cinder block in size, one hundred stories a group of Florentine nobles tell each other in their country retreats from the rampaging plague stalking the city. The stories and their delicate interconnections are an immeasurable gift to readers, but the unabridged work can be terrifying to high school and college freshman readers encountering it for the first time.
Hence the appeal of books like this svelte new volume from Penguin Classics, Tales from the Decameron, translated by Peter Hainsworth, who takes thirty-two of Boccaccio’s liveliest and best-known Decameron stories and presents them to readers who might balk at tackling the whole one hundred. And Hainsworth’s philosophy for conveying these thirty-two tales in English is admirably straightforward:
Boccaccio’s language poses particular problems for the translator. Keeping anything like his complex syntax in modern English seems out of the question. The risks of losing the free, conversational elements embedded in it, and ending up with ponderous, old-fashioned literary prose, are just too great. I decided that if the results were to be as readable as Boccaccio’s original was to his Florentine contemporaries in the upper merchant class, the sentences needed to be broken down, and in places I was ready to opt for very short unites indeed, although still syntactically and grammatically correct by the standards of ‘good’ contemporary English prose.
Readers familiar with some of the more popular of the many English-language translations of the Decameron won’t find it difficult to call to mind an example or two of the “ponderous, old-fashioned literary prose” Hainsworth invokes, and it’s fair to say his own selection of highlights in this volume mostly avoids such languors. The climactic moment of Masetto’s boisterously erotic tale from the third day of storytelling, for instance, comes across with a pleasing bounce:
‘Lady,’ he said, ‘I’ve heard it said that one cock is plenty for ten hens, but that ten men can barely satisfy one woman, and then only with an effort. And here I am having to serve nine of them. I couldn’t go on like this for anything you gave me in the world. Or rather, with what I’ve done so far, I’m in such a state I can’t even begin again, let alone go on. Either you wish me well and let me go, or you find some way of arranging things better.’
If your ears pricked up at that “cock” in the first line, they were no doubt intended to, and that kind of quiet playfulness runs throughout this inviting introduction to the much larger world of Boccaccio’s masterpiece. It’s a tone of well-mannered mischief that’s well reflected in the choice of one of the more whimsical pages from the classic old Rockwell Kent Boccaccio illustrations. And Hainsworth’s picks are unerringly on-target: he’s included all of the best of the Decameron here, the stories most likely to entice newcomers to move on to the splendid Penguin Classics unabridged edition. Once they’ve done that, it’s highly unlikely they’ll ever revisit this volume, but that’s as it should be – by then, it will have done its work.
May 4th, 2016
Some Penguin Classics, as I’ve noted before here at Stevereads, feel like they’re a long time in the making, and the Shahnameh of Ferdowsi more than most and in two different ways. Not only has this sprawling tenth century Persian epic waited a long time for an attractive, affordable paperback edition in English, but this particular text, a prose translation by Dick Davis that Viking brought out ten years ago, has waited a long time to become a Penguin Classic.
This Penguin Classic is an expanded edition of that Viking hardcover (which was mighty pretty in its own right), and it’s also a slightly larger size than the standard Penguin trade paperback. It’s got the black spine with the elegant white script title along it – a graceful new Penguin Classic of a book not enough Western readers know anything about. I remember vividly when it first arrived at the bookstore where I was working; I was stunned and immediately took a hardcover copy to the store’s two most veteran and wide-ranging readers – and neither of them had ever heard of it. Over the next few weeks, I tried hard to interest my most literary regular customers in the book, to no avail. When the unsold copies were returned to the publisher (nobody bought one – not even me, since the hardcover cost what was then a full day’s pay for me), I was the only one in the store who noticed or cared.
I don’t expect things are any better here in 2016, but at least I no longer have a ringside seat! I’m free to enjoy this Penguin edition in a peace and quiet broken only by the gentle, arhythmic snoring of a basset hound.
Of course, the Shahnameh is a big book in many more important ways than its thousand-page length. The action spans hundreds of years; the cast encompasses hundreds of characters; this is a national epic on the grandest scale, closer in tenor to The Tale of the Heike (also a beautiful Penguin Classic) than to Homer’s Iliad. The frequent action scenes read like the headiest possible combination of The Mahabharata and the Old Testament:
With his heart freed from this anxiety, Ardeshir paused at the fire-temple of Ram-Khorad; there he prayed earnestly for God to guide him, to give him victory in all his undertakings, and to allow the tree of greatness to flourish for him. Then he returned to his pavilion, where his officers and men awaited him. He distributed cash to his troops, invoking God as he did so. His army was now like a valiant leopard, and he advanced against Bahman, the son of Ardavan, to give battle.
As the two armies approached one another, each side formed ranks ready for battle, with lances and Indian swords grasped in their hands. Then they fell on one another like warring lions, and blood was spilled in rivers. So they fought until the sun turned pale, and the air was filled with dust, the ground with corpses.
As you can see, the translation is smooth and vivid, and I can attest that the reading of it over hundreds and hundreds of pages is almost uniformly gripping. It’s true that in this case I could have done without some of the more condescending comments in Davis’s Introduction:
My aim is translating the Shahnameh was not to produce a text for scholars, but to make it available to a wide non-specialist audience. I hesitate to say a popular audience: perhaps no medieval literary artifact, from any culture, can have a truly popular existence now. We prefer our medievalism to be derivative and ersatz; The Lord of the Rings rather the Beowulf, Camelot rather than Malory or Chretien de Troyes. Nevertheless there is still a world of readers, especially relatively young readers, who are not scholars, who might try Beowulf or Malory, and it was them I aimed to reach with my translation. I translated not for scholars, who after all have access to the original text, now in relatively good editions, but for that radically endangered species, the general reader.
… but despite the drippiness of that “derivative and ersatz,” Davis has most certainly produced a translation for the general reader. I’m hoping copies of this particular Penguin Classic end up in classrooms all over the country.
April 21st, 2016
Some Penguin Classics, as we’ve noted before here at Stevereads, are genuinely impressive works of scholarship in their own right, and I recently came across one of those during a foray at the Brattle Bookshop: The Penguin Book of Renaissance Verse, edited by David Norbook – in this case, the 2005 update to the 1992 original.
This plump volume – 900 pages – has everything you’d want from such a thing: micro-typed End Notes, a huge variety of authors from the English Renaissance (the title’s slight misleading in that way: it’s not exactly that Renaissance), and a long Introduction by Norbook that’s just brimming with fantastic insights delivered with almost staccato speed, including this great bit about the pragmatic side of the literary endeavor (a side it very much had in common with the Renaissance then bubbling in Italy):
The immediate response of an active life for an ambitious young writer lay not in dreaming of Roman antiquity but in serving the Crown. The prospect of an alliance with the Crown was an appealing one for many poets in the period. In adopting the demonstrative rhetoric of the court, writing panegyrics of the ruler and leading courtiers, they could think of themselves as in effect writing the script of the public world, fulfilling the humanist imperative of making their verbal skill serve the State. The resultant compromises with courtly discourse, however, were often uneasy.
The years covered by this book, from 1509 to 1659, encompass a roll-call of writers that can stand comparison with any similar time-frame in history. This was the era of John Skelton, Henry Howard, Thomas Wyatt, Philip Sidney, Edmund Spenser, John Donne, John Harington, Ben Jonson, Andrew Marvell, George Chapman, Samuel Daniel, Robert Herrick, Margaret Cavendish, and George Herbert. This was the time of Marlowe, Milton, and Shakespeare.
And Anonymous, whose work Norbook is a trifle too eager to include. Considering how many giants were writing during the period he examines, readers might perhaps have done without the limp doggerel of things like “On Sir Francis Drake”:
Sir Drake whom well the world’s end knew,
Which thou did’st compasse round,
And whom both Poles of heaven once saw
Which North and South do bound,
The stars above, would make thee known,
If men here silent were;
The Sun himself cannot forget
His fellow traveller.
But 99% of the book glows with a dozen different kinds of genius. You’ll find quite a few of your favorites in these pages, plus, if Norbook has done his job well, plenty of poets whose further acquaintance you’ll want to make, their strengths and their music brought into unexpected highlights by the company they’re keeping here. Thomas Campion’s exquisitely worldly lines on the various entertainments of winter, for example:
Now winter nights enlarge
The number of their houres,
And clouds their stormes discharge
Upon the ayrie towers,
Let now the chimneys blaze,
And cups o’erflow with wine:
Let well-tun’d words amaze
With harmonie divine.
Now yellow waxen lights
Shall waite on hunny Love,
While youthfull Revels, Masks, and Courtly sights,
Sleepes leaden spels remove.
This time doth well dispence
With lovers long discourse;
Much speech hath some defence,
Though beauty no remorse.
All doe not all things well;
Some measures comely tread;
Some knotted Ridles tell;
Some Poems smoothly read.
The Summer hath his joyes,
And Winter his delights;
Though Love and all his pleasures are but toyes,
They shorten tedious nights.
God only knows what happened to the copy of The Penguin Book of Renaissance Verse I originally bought back in 2005 at Barnes & Noble, but I didn’t realize how much I’d missed it until I came across this copy at the Brattle. I anticipate a few happy hours of browsing in it this weekend.
March 2nd, 2016
Some Penguin Classics don’t look like Penguin Classics, which is a trifle odd when you consider how instantly recognizable the Penguin brand is to book-buyers, but you certainly won’t hear me complaining when the results are as nifty as The Book of Magic, a big new anthology of supernatural literature “from Antiquity to the Enlightenment,” edited by Brian Copenhaver. It’s a heavy black 600-page volume with embossed gold lettering and sigils in the shape of a tree on the front cover.
The book is crammed full of great stuff. Copenhaver has ranged over vast tracts of literature, from the Bible to ancient Greece to ancient Rome to the Middle Ages and the Renaissance and beyond. We get snippets from the Old Testament, the New Testament, Homer, Plato, Hippocrates, Virgil, Cicero, Pliny, Plotinus, St. Augustine, St. Thomas Aquinas, the Malleus Maleficarum, Marsilio Ficino, Paracelsus, Marlowe, Spenser, Shakespeare, and many others (Copenhaver blandly informs us that all the translations from the Latin, Greek, Hebrew, and “modern vernaculars” are all by him except for rare cases otherwise noted – which would make this volume one of the most astonishing feats of scholarly translation to appear in several centuries), all grappling with the nature and specifics of magic in all its forms.
And the grappling starts early. Right away in his Introduction, Copenhaver is doing all of the rhetorical gymnastics writers always need to do in order to differentiate their subject – magic – from its malformed and conjoined twin, religion. It’s never a pretty performance, and it isn’t pretty here, being full of jittery air-quotes and mincing qualifications:
‘Magic’ (like ‘religion’) as the name of an essence will be uninformative because eliminating contradictions to keep the word accurate will also make it very abstract – too abstract for the relevant domains, which are moral, social and cultural. Keeping the word accurate will be hard because the concepts tagged by ‘magic’ and its cousins, with all the freight that they carry, have emerged in Western and Christian environments in response to Western and Christian problems. Applying the word ‘magic’ – free and clear – to something non-Christian and non-Western … will be difficult, maybe impossible.
The Book of Magic tracks its subject warily and quietly through the thickets of ancient sources of religion, trying the whole time never to touch the thickets. It’s the book’s aim to find magic throughout religious history, and it’s the book’s nagging worry never to call religion magic. Jesus cursing a fig tree makes it into the book; Jesus rising from the dead, no. God parting the Red Sea, yes; God Himself, no. The differentiation is strenuous and therefore incomplete, but I found the fact that it’s attempted at all just a touch irritating.
Copenhaver assembles a fantastic array of bits and pieces, shards of almost every magic neurosis on record. We get mystified physicians groping at why some diseases abate and others worsen; we get armchair travelers speculating on the strange customs of distant lands; we get wide webs of protocols designed to pathologize or punish the different; of course we get everywhere writers attempting to double-talk themselves out of death. And we get lots and lots of charlatans and dupes – one passage from The Life of Apollonius by Philostratus, third-century chronicler of the first century miracle worker, is a good case-in-point:
During an eclipse of the sun, a clap of thunder rolled out – rare in an eclipse, it seems. He then looked up at the sky and said, ‘Something great will happen and will not happen.’ Those present when he said this could not make sense of his words at first, but everyone had put the meaning together by the third day after the eclipse. While Nero was having his dinner, a thunderbolt had struck the table, breaking apart the cup that was in his hands and not far from his mouth. When Nero was almost hit, it was just as Apollonius had said – something done and not done.
It’s impossible to know whether or not the person who wrote that bit about “something great will happen and will not happen” saw what an open-ended con game it was, how Nostradamus-style “a great being will appear on the stage of life”-style unfalsifiable it was, although it’s not impossible to gauge how well it was believed by others. Ultimately, that’s one of The Book of Magic‘s most disturbing pleasures: as you read through it, you can’t help but keep remembering, people have genuinely believed ALL of these things, at some point or other.
Even a glance around the current cultural landscape – the American landscape in particular – gives a thoroughly barbed edged to such thoughts. The Book of Magic may just be the Penguin Classic for our time.
February 6th, 2016
Some Penguin Classics, as we’ve seen before, take an earlier superb work of scholarship or translation and basically save it from obscurity by adding it to the Classics lineup. In our case today, the name of that obscurity would be Wayne State University Press, which in 2007 originally published Nancy Canepa’s translation of Giambattista Basile’s 1634 posthumous masterpiece, Lo cunto de li cunti, The Tale of Tales. That annotated translation now becomes one of the newest Penguin Classics, where it stands a greater chance of reaching the broad audience it deserves.
Basile spent all of his adult life as a Neapolitan freelancer, writing whatever the great or the powerful in the early years of the 17th century wanted to see from his pen, and the whole while he was collecting folk tales and legends, these “entertainments for little ones,” and writing them up in his tangy Naples dialect. Canepa does far more than any previous English-language translation to capture the lilt and raucous earthiness of that dialect – and she quickly dispels the notion that these stories were ever really intended for children:
That The Tale of Tales begs a sophisticated audience is quite apparent from the language in which it is written. Hyperbolic description, long-winded accolades, flamboyant metaphor, bloated word lists, endless strings of insults, and deformative citations of the most diverse authors and traditions can at times overshadow the bare storyline to the point of rendering it almost an afterthought. The way the tales are narrated is just as spectacular as what is narrated therein; episodes are memorable as much for how they are drawn as for the events they evoke.
In these pages, readers get early and vivid versions of such folk tale fixtures as Rapunzel and Sleeping Beauty, as well as dozens of far less familiar – and more disturbing – stories, all told with gruesome, faux-pious relish and a real sense of the horrifying in narrative form. And all of Basile’s many digressions into obscurity are chased down and patiently annotated, like:
Anything immersed in the waters of the Sarno River, it was said, would turn to stone; can weeds were thought to have dangerous properties; sparrow feces was believed to cause blindness (as happened to Tobit in the Book of Tobit 2.17)
The “ash cloth” (cennerale) was used to cover laundry basins in order to contain the ash therein (which was used as a detergent); lye is also a common detergent.
I confess, I’d only read about but never read The Tale of Tales before I received this satisfyingly plump Penguin volume, and although I’ve never been a big fan of folk tales just in general, this collection kept me entertained from start to finish – mainly, I suspect, because our hard-working author was often just making stuff up and calling it ethnography (and as far as ethnography goes, it’s oddly comforting to see how little things have changed).
January 17th, 2016
Some Penguin Classics need to work harder than others to define their terms. Take, for example, the nifty recent volume edited by Laura Ashe, Early Fiction in England from Geoffrey of Monmouth to Chaucer – even the title of the book might prompt a quizzical expression from the average reader, who might just naturally associate “early fiction in England” with Richardson and Fielding, hundreds of years later than Geoffrey of Monmouth and Chaucer. The so-called renaissance of the 12th century is all well and good, but can a volume titled Early Fiction in England actually manage to find any fiction?
Professor Ashe seems well aware of the tangle of ideas here preceding the emergence of a revitalized European literature in the 12th century, and she notices the shortage of one key element:
The earliest English writers had access to all the learning of the known world; churchmen travelled freely from north Africa and the Middle East to the monasteries of Yorkshire and Kent, bringing books and knowledge with them. English writers translated scripture, philosophy and theology; they wrote practical handbooks of medicine, astrology, weather prediction and recipes; they composed language and grammar guides for those learning to read and translate; they wrote saints’ lives and vivid accounts of the deaths of martyrs; they produced the unique vernacular poetry about loss, and love, and despair; they composed epic narratives of heroic warriors and their monstrous enemies. But despite all this, they did not write fiction.
After reading such a summary, the natural response might be to say those early English writers – and readers – weren’t actually doing without fiction but rather creating and enjoying it in forms somewhat different from the forms writers and readers use today. Surely the stories of Scripture, the elaborate teleologies of philosophy and theology, and most especially the entirely spurious wonders (physical and psychological) of all those saints’ lives were doing the work of Smollett, Burney, et al and just not getting the credit?
But again, we come back to defining our terms, and Professor Ashe has a veritable web of a definition for fiction – one that seems tailor-constructed specifically to disqualify every last scrap of martyrology:
‘Fiction’ is not a synonym for ‘literature’, as it is often used today. It is a label used to imply a contract between author and reader, a contract whose terms are known without being explicitly stated. The terms are these: that both author and reader know, and are aware that the other knows (and knows that they know), that this narrative is not an account of events which can be known to have happened.
This seems a bit dodgy to me, just a trifle too convenient. I know it’s customary nowadays to set no upper limit on the credulity of pre-Enlightenment common folk, but nobody in AD 986, reading all those juicy stories about executed martyrs walking around carrying their severed heads in the crooks of their elbows, or stories about fish in the river singing the praises of the local slain bishop, or sacred children causing flowers to grow in winter … nobody reading those stories ever looked up and said, “Honey, this story reminds me of that time last week when I heard that trout talking about Bishop Athanasius.” I look at Professor Ashe’s distinctions – that fiction is a story I know is made up, and you know it’s made up, and you know I know it’s made up – and I wonder how many smart, educated people more or less just like herself she’s consigning to the turnip truck in order to widen the ambit of a Penguin anthology.
But the anthology itself, regardless, is superb! In between the thick garlic-bread loaves of Geoffrey of Monmouth’s account of King Arthur and Chaucer’s account of embattled Troy, we get a wide range of delights: Wace’s Brut is here, and Sir Orfeo, and Marie de France, and the great, now-forgotten Walter Map. Professor Ashe herself provides a translation of Amis e Amilun that’s one of the highlights of the whole book. And as with so many Penguin anthologies, so too with this one: it’s a delight to think of all the college and high school students out there who’ll be encountering all these great old writers in such a fresh and energetic presentation. And the fact that the good professor’s fancy-dancing about what fiction is and is not can only spark debates is just a much-appreciated bonus.
January 9th, 2016
Some Penguin Classics remain obstinately unclassifiable, no matter how many times you read them. Look, for instance, at Penguin’s 1986 paperback of Mont Saint Michel and Chartres, the deeply, deceptively strange 1904 work by Henry Adams. On the surface, it looks like a passionately impressionistic travelogue of the type that was enormously popular at the turn of the 20th century; Adams travels to France, tours the famous buildings there – most especially Mont Saint Michel and Chartres – characteristically buries himself in researching the history of those buildings, and then writes a book about it.
But as Raymond Carney writes in his Introduction to this Penguin edition, “If Mont Saint Michel is a tour guide, it is one only in the sense in which Thoreau’s Walden, Melville’s Typee, Hawthorne’s ‘The Custom-House,’ or Whitman’s ‘Crossing Brooklyn Ferry’ might be said to be.”
Instead of a guidebook, we get what Carney rightly calls a “narration of a voyage of the imagination across interior landscapes.” In chapter after gorgeously-written chapter, Adams starts with some handful of little anchoring details and then spins broad crystalline superstructures into which those anchoring details vanish like background threads in a vast tapestry. It happens again and again, in chapters like “The Court of the Queen of Heaven,” or the stunning chapter on Peter Abelard, or the mysterious “Towers and Portals,” which opens with deceptive mildness: “For a first visit to Chartres, choose some pleasant morning when the lights are soft, for one wants to be welcome, and the Cathedral has moods, at times severe. At best, the Beauce is a country none too gay.”
And in Mont Saint Michel and Chartres, as in Adams’ other masterpiece, The Education of Henry Adams, when his narrative wanders onto the subject of “the sacred female,” that narrative promptly doubles in both power and flat-out oddness, as in the book’s greatest chapter, “The Virgin of Chartres”:
The church is wholly given up to the Mother and Son. The Father seldom appears; the Holy Ghost still more rarely. At least, this is the impression made on an ordinary visitor who has no motive to be orthodox; and it must have been the same with the thirteenth-century worshipper who came here with his mind absorbed in the perfections of Mary. Chartres represents, not the Trinity, but the identity of the Mother and Son. The Son represents the Trinity, which is thus absorbed into the Mother. The idea is not orthodox, but this is no affair of ours. The Church watches over its own.
This Penguin Classic volume even goes the extra mile of strangeness but letting Carney digress like a nickel-plated loon elsewhere in his Introduction:
Darwinian notions of evolutionary descent, struggle, continuity, gradualism, and progress defined an absolutely supreme and increasingly unquestioned fiction in late nineteenth- and early twentieth-century England and America. (It is a fiction our culture is still under the spell of.) But what is interesting is Adams’ double attitude toward it. He was not only one of the few contemporaries of Darwin to recognize Darwinism as a mere metaphor and fiction, not as a law of nature or fact of life, but having done that, he … went on not to argue against it or to reject it, but to embrace it (as a fiction) anyway …
In case you’re wondering how good old Queen Victoria is doing over in London, recall: this Introduction, its author adamantly demanding that Darwin’s theory of evolution is a fiction, was written in 1986, not 1886. So this Penguin edition has the curious distinction of giving us a text-Introduction written in 1986 by a scholar with less scientific knowledge than the text’s author had in 1904. With any other text, it might have been jarring enough to warrant prompt revision – but with Mont Saint Michel and Chartres, it seems almost fitting.