Posts from March 2015
March 4th, 2015
Some Penguin Classics open up windows on alien worlds, and they do so every bit as effectively as the very best sci-fi and fantasy, but through radically different means: by showing us what was, not what wasn’t. A perfect demonstration of this would be the slim and elegant new Penguin Classic edition of Tenzin Chogyel’s 1740 work The Life of the Lord Victor Shakyamuni, Ornament of One Thousand Lamps for the Fortunate Eon, here given the slightly more manageable title of The Life of the Buddha by its brilliant and unashamedly effervescent translator Kurtis Schaeffer, who assures us in his Introduction that Tenzin Chogyel had what beleaguered readers of pre-modern literature (especially the large student audience at which one can’t help but think this volume is aimed) would consider the best of intentions:
In his telling of the Buddha’s life he endeavors at all times to tell a concise and quickly moving story that is at once exciting and emotionally engrossing. Occasionally he will stop to note an alternate version of a particular episode, or pause to speak directly to the reader about the proper way to pay reverence to the Buddha or to keep him in mind on holy days.Yet he never tarries too long. Tenzin Chogyel is not interested in systematically laying out Buddhist doctrine or prescribing practice. His task is to tell a good story.
Tenzin Chogyel, Schaeffer tells us, was a prolific and respected Bhutanese writer, a leader of the Drukpa Kagyu school of Buddhism, and the country’s tenth Lord Abbot, its highest ecclesiastical authority, and he wrote his Life of Buddha two thousand years after the Bodhisattva made his Earthly debut as a concept and a literary figure. And although it can be very jarring to read such a sparse and liturgical work as this Life of Buddha while remembering that it was composed in the same year James Boswell was born (as was no doubt intentional, it very much has the feel of an ancient text), Tenzin Chogyel nonetheless thoroughly grounded his work on a huge variety of literary precedents, foremost among them the huge work by 14 th century historian Buton Rinchendrup, whose History of Buddhism, Schaeffer writes, “is a model of scholastic writing, brimming with quote after quote from Buddhist scriptures, entertaining historical arguments, and theological queries, and it is ever willing to sidestep criticism by posing rhetorical questions only to offer the ‘correct’ answer.”
“This is the treatise’s great strength as a work of Buddhist doctrine,” he tells us sadly, “and it is its great downfall as a compelling work of literature.”
This isn’t a downfall shared by Tenzin Chogyel’s The Life of Buddha, which at 100 pages is as almost as lean and every bit as compelling as any Christian Gospel – especially if you picture a Jesus who, instead of vanishing from sight during his sexy, turbulent teenage years, lived those years to the fullest as the Bodhisattva does, bedding women, debating men and gods, trying his hand at all manner of crafts, beating everybody at feats of strength and skill, and doing it all with a happy, eager smile on his handsome face. I might not agree with Schaeffer’s implication that Buton’s History of Buddhism is too abstruse for Penguin Classics to touch – this is, after all, the publisher who gave us a Penguin Classic of the Domesday Book – but I couldn’t agree more with his characterization of Tenzin Chogyel’s book as too good to miss. I haven’t been this entertained by a Penguin Classic in many, many months, and our translator deserves a lion’s share of the credit for that, since even my untutored eye could easily tell this is a text that, however short, could easily have been rendered inert in less skillful hands.
Instead, Schaeffer perfectly captures the lightning-fast changes of pace and tone that Tenzin Chogyell crams into his little book, moving from the pathos of prose passages to the sharp tang of poetry, like the verses the seventeen-year-old Bodhisattva hears “wafting” up from the quarters of his harem, reflecting on the various obstacles to true dharma:
The pain of age and illness burns the worlds.
With no protector, people never know
How to depart this blazing fire of death.
They scramble like a bee inside a jar.
Autumn clouds, the three worlds pass fleeting.
We’re born, we die, we’re actors on a stage.
One life, a lightning flash across the sky.
A cascade falling, speeding down the cliff.
This little Life of Buddha is, then, a resounding success and a fantastic addition to the Penguin Classics line. And if Schaeffer’s comments sound like they’re closing the door on a future Penguin of Buton, well, what about a fresh new edition of the seminal Indian life of the Buddha, the Lalitavistara Sutra, referred to by Schaeffer as the Living Out of the Game Scripture, which surely deserves a Penguin Classic of its own? I happen to have a translator in mind.
February 22nd, 2015
Some Penguin Classics were custom-made to be very handy for traveling, which makes them extra-poignant in the Boston of February 2015, in which nobody packs bags or quick satchels because travel of any kind is impossible and has been for many, many weeks. All flights into or out of Logan Airport have been cancelled, and the large electronic announcement-boards that once told travelers the status of their flights have been dismantled, boxed up, and shipped to more fortunate cities for use in their airports. All roadways were first closed by order of the National Guard and have now been buried under many feet of the snow which has fallen continuously in howling, ripping gales for the last several years. The plucky I’m-an-individual A-holes who thought they’d turn that frown upside-down and don skis for traveling across snow-covered thoroughfares have all been killed and eaten by starving natives driven to such desperation by the shuttering of their fifteen local Dunkin Donuts. There are no sidewalks; the narrow, winding goat-paths battered out by the first waves of evacuating citizenry have long since first frozen over and then been buried in fresh snow. But there’s no need for sidewalks in any case, since it’s not possible to leave the house – twenty-foot snowpacks have blocked all doors and windows for many weeks, and those snowpacks themselves have been reinforced by fifty-foot-tall man-thick icicles extending from the roof to what used to be known as the “ground.”
So one of the two clear design-intentions of the famous Penguin Classics ’60s’ – the little square paperbacks the publisher produced in joyous profusion to mark its 60th anniversary of business – is now thwarted: these cute little things were clearly designed both for quick reading – they’re no more than 80 pages apiece – and for quick access, capable of being slipped into a pocket on the way out the door. But nobody in Boston goes out the door anymore. The door was first snow-blocked and then ice-frozen shut, and more snow is falling as I type this, and much more snow is forecast in the upcoming months, followed by freezing sleet, followed by sub-zero temperatures (for a long stretch last week, fey meteorologists from other parts of the world commented, correctly, that Boston was at that point colder than any other place on Earth; none of those meteorologists was cruel enough to add that Boston was also colder than the equatorial regions of Mars). So traveling with my Penguin 60s is out of the question.
But that still leaves enjoying them, and that’s no small thing, because these are very, very enjoyable little books.
The aforementioned joyous profusion was nerdily sub-categorized, of course (this is Penguin we’re talking about, after all), with different color-codings for different kinds of 60s classics – orange spines for some, black spines for others (there was also a sotto voce sub-categorization of a type also typical of Penguin: a different and slightly brainier set of titles was chosen for UK-only distribution. If asked, Penguin would say this was for copyright reasons, but the whiff of colonial condescension is mighty pronounced). The color-coding doesn’t make much sense in this case, but it certainly breaks up the look of these things on the shelf.
And the 60s themselves are fascinating. At first glance, they seem entirely traditional: a little bit of Beowulf, a few essays of Montaigne, a dialogue from Plato, some short stories by acknowledged masters, etc. But the more you actually read these charming little things, the more you realize how effectively they shift canonical feelings rather than reinforce them.
There are no Introductions. There are no notes. There’s none of the scene-setting for which Penguin Classics are renowned these days. And most of the works themselves are presented free from their own contexts: you get the Sherlock Holmes story “The Man with the Twisted Lip” – not in a collection of Arthur Conan Doyle stories, nor even in an anthology of Victorian crime fiction, but rather just standing there, on its own (well, “The Adventure of the Devil’s Foot” is included as well, but you take my meaning). You get Livy’s account of Hannibal crossing the Alps – but only that, not the rest of Livy. Same thing with the enormity of Edward Gibbon’s The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire – here, you just get 85 pages of Gibbon’s thoughts on the subject, not three 800-page books. True, you get the entirety of such short works as Rimbaud’s “A Season in Hell” or the “Lysistrata” of Aristophanes, but even in such cases, there’s something oddly new-seeming about getting just the slim translation, with no supporting material or contextualization. As strange as it seems, it really can prompt a fresh examination of the works themselves.
Of course, they’re not for everybody. I once handed somebody a gift of the Penguin 60s Classic of Eudora Welty’s famous short story “Why I Live at the PO” and watched as the recipient recoiled in horror and outright refused to accept it (ah, the gracelessness of today’s young people – one of the world’s truly inexhaustible resources) – not because the story isn’t its usual sublime self, but because of the format of the little paperback. But I myself used to love popping one of these little things into a pocket or shoulder-bag when I was headed out for a day that might be long on unforeseen waiting periods and short on good reading material.
I don’t do that anymore, of course. I don’t go outside anymore. I can’t go outside anymore. Which means I’ll miss Penguin’s celebration of their 80th anniversary, which I hear is going to take the form of an entirely new set of little black paperbacks. That celebration will happen out in the wider world where people still have kinds of weather that aren’t snow and freezing sleet.
But I’ll always have my memories of such a world. And I’ll always have these cute little Penguin 60s Classics … at least until I run low on kindling.
February 10th, 2015
Some Penguin Classics are the only ones you can turn to when your city has incurred the wrath of the Almighty, as Boston so clearly has in this apocalyptic February of 2015, which has so far seen just a few inches short of 500 feet of snow. At such times, my book-hunting lapsed Catholic fingers just naturally twitch their way along the bookshelves and stop on atavistic territory – in this case, the 1961 UK-only Penguin Classic of the New English Bible‘s New Testament, released in an affordable mass market paperback in the wake of the notable financial success of the hardcover New English Bible among the general reading populace.
The committee of scholars and translators who undertook the creation of the New English Bible took their task very seriously, as the unsigned Introduction to the this Penguin paperback makes earnestly clear:
No one who has not tried it can know how impossible an art translation is. Only those who have meditated long upon the Greek original are aware of the richness and subtlety of meaning that may lie even within the most apparently simple sentence, or know the despair that attends all efforts to bring it out through the medium of a different language. Yet we may hope that we have been able to convey to our readers something at least of what the New Testament has said to us during these years of work, and trust that under the providence of Almighty God this translation may open the truth of the scriptures to many who have been hindered in their approach to it by barriers of language.
But beyond the circumspection (there were living, working New Testament scholars in 1961 who were driven to transports of livid rage by the above paragraph, though you’d hardly guess it now that all the echoes have died away completely) and the sober sense of purpose, they worked some genuine wonders; it’s always a treat for me to be reminded of just how good and new the New English Bible is. It takes nothing for granted in the courses of its rhetoric; it holds up every familiar passage into bright forensic light, dismantles it, then re-assembles it according to best translation practices rather than according to long liturgical tradition. It can make for genuinely page-turning reading.
It’s true in the Gospels, of course, but in my opinion it’s even more true in the Acts and especially the Epistles, where there’s far more of a narrative voice to capture, and where the footprints of tradition aren’t quite so deep. And nowhere is this effect more pronounced than in the greatest Epistle of them all, Hebrews, in so many ways the unknown heart of the New Testament, with its typically Pauline (though exigetical scamps say he didn’t write it) emphasis on the immediate doing of the new covenant:
So now, my friends, the blood of Jesus makes us free to enter boldly into the sanctuary of the new, living way which he has opened for us through the curtain, the way of his flesh. We have, moreover, a great priest set over the household of God; so let us make our approach in sincerity of heart and full assurance of faith, our guilty hearts sprinkled clean, our bodies washed with pure water. Let us be firm and unswerving in the confession of our hope, for the Giver of the promise may be trusted. We ought to see how each of us may best arouse others to love and active goodness, not staying away from our meetings, as some doe, but rather encouraging one another, all the more because you see the Day is drawing near.
Simply in terms of translation, I have my little doubts about that lovely ‘hearts sprinkled clean’ – but I’m hardly in a position to quibble, especially with Boston’s own Day so obviously drawing near. And if we meet our snowy Creator with Penguin Classics in our hands, shall not the Judge of all the earth do right?
February 7th, 2015
Some Penguin Classics – as several of you readers have pointed out to me, hopeless bookworms that you are – revamp earlier Penguin Classics, as is certainly the case with the Penguin Modern Classics I just recently wrote about: the line is a kinda-sorta updating of Penguin’s old “Twentieth-Century Classics” line, a little shorter on the heft that tended to characterize the titles of the older version and little longer on the optimism needed in order to hope that anybody is going to be reading Carson McCullers in another 100 years, to say nothing of John Updike in another 10.
The old Twentieth-Century Classics line had some standbys, of course – writers like Edith Wharton and James Joyce and Willa Cather show up reliably on such lists (indeed, the field-of-flowers cover for the Twentieth-Century Classics O Pioneers! is quite the best cover the book has ever had), and of course there’s a selection of E. M. Forster novels, including his lovely little 1905 novella Where Angels Fear to Tread, here introduced by somebody named Oliver Stallybrass, who lays out the basic facts of Forster’s life and then promptly goes stark raving bonkers:
Unlike the more ambitious Howards End, I find it flawless – in the perfection of its structure, it’s subtle use of leitmotifs, its sureness of touch and tone, the deftness of its comedy, and the skill with which the comedy modulates via scenes of nightmare into a poignancy and pathos unsurpassed in Forster’s work.
But despite what could be considered a core of such canonical writers, the Twentieth-Century Classics line’s row of distinctive light-green spines contained some surprises too. I never expect to see Marguerite Yourcenar’s famous 1951 critical and commercial success Memoirs of Hadrian given the ‘classics’ treatment, even though I love it – and yet there it was, with an Introduction by Paul Bailey in which he somewhat tartly observes, “In Memoirs of Hadrian, Marguerite Yourcenar rigorously eschews the piling-on of historical detail to be encountered, and endured, in the majority of historical novels” – which had a little extra sting in the tail this week, since the queen of all detail-piling-on, Colleen McCullough, just recently died.
Equally unusual and equally welcome is the Twentieth-Century Classics reprint of Lytton Strachey’s revolutionary 1921 biography Queen Victoria, a kind of follow-up to the enormous success of his 1918 Eminent Victorians. This particular volume comes with no annotations of any kind but does have both a typically insightful blurb from Virginia Woolf: “In time Lytton Strachey’s Queen Victoria will be Queen Victoria, just as Boswell’s Johnson is now Dr. Johnson. The other versions will fade and disappear” … and a typically disastrous blurb from Forster himself: “He [Strachey] did what no biographer had done before; he managed to get inside his subject …”
And if you need some help shaking off that mental image, you can always turn to an odd and very enjoyable unannounced editorial drift in this run of reprints: there’s quite a bit of great literature from Jewish authors, including some gems that simply don’t get any kind of wide popular distribution anymore (if ever). One of the comparatively best-known of these is I. J. Singer’s 1936 novel The Brothers Ashkenazi, with an Introduction by the great Irving Howe, who’s also in a fairly tart mood and offhandedly comments, “There are two Singers in Yiddish literature, and while both are very good, they sing in different keys” – noting that both Singers were “not very successfully” at “full-scale social or family novel.” This is not only a swipe at the very book Howe’s introducing but also at I. B. Singer’s 1950 novel The Family Moskat - and it’s wrong on both counts, since both books are just about as successful as full-scale social or family novels” can get.
Far less well-known, but equally deserving of classic status, is Abraham Cahan’s The Rise of David Levinsky from 1917, originally serialized to enthusiastic acclaim in The Jewish Daily Forward and here succinctly summed up by Jules Chametsky: “Cahan put everything he had learned into this novel, and it is done with great relish.” Years ago, when I first saw this volume in the series, I actually allowed myself to hope Cahan would finally gain a wider readership – but alas, no.
And even less so for Jakob Wasserman, whose gripping 1908 novel Caspar Hauser was also part of this lineup, although in this case the lapse back into obscurity might be easier to understand. The book is heavily based on very improbable real-life events (a young man who’s been imprisoned for most of his life is released and wanders the streets utterly befuddled, leading to a great many conspiracy theories about his identity), and presenters always feel they need to reel off all those real-life events before they let Wasserman himself do any talking, and the combined effect incorrectly makes the book itself seem, well, too provincial for canonization – although the Introduction to this volume at least keeps things lively:
Wasserman’s portrayal of [Philip Henry, 4th Earl] Stanhope is a rich exercise in psychological realism couple with gothic cloak and dagger. How much of it is true will very probably never be known, and in a sense it does not matter, in so far as Wasserman was writing a novel and not a historical study. The same applies to Wasserman’s belief, shared by many historians, that Kaspar Hauser was in fact a prince of the royal house of Baden
Eventually, Penguin’s Twentieth-Century Classics shape-shifted from the pale-green spines to the more standard black-spines-with-white-letters look, and of course eventually the 20th century ended – which hasn’t stopped Penguin from inducting new titles into the line nor should it. But looking at the whole thing as a somewhat closed-set exercise, I naturally start thinking about what a Twenty-First Century Classics line would include. I’ve actually been pondering that question for the last few years with the kind of irrational persistence bookworms will recognize quite well. Expect a Penguins on Parade – or two, or three – on the subject before the year is out!
February 3rd, 2015
Some Penguin Classics just look so nice! This has surely been noticed by the younger generation of printed-book buyers, whose Book Depository-roving eyes have been caught time and again by the recent redesign of the Penguin Modern Classics run. In a canny inversion of the now-venerable black-spined design of the main Penguin Classics line, these snazzy new Modern Classics volumes are bright white; in a canny inversion of the monumental visual stateliness of the Penguin Classics line (I’ve lost count of how many friends I’ve bored while walking around the Metropolitan Museum of Art or the National Portrait Gallery happily matching the Old Masters painting with its Penguin cover), the covers of these Modern Classics are bright and new and evocative (indeed, some of the gray-spined UK editions, like the one for L. P. Hartley’s weird and utterly heartbreaking book The Go-Between, sporting cover art specifically commissioned for the occasion); in a canny inversion of the canonical choices of the old Penguin Classics lineup, some of these new Modern Classics are a bit on the unpredictable side.
Ford Maddox Ford’s Parade’s End, certainly, and for better or worse, James Joyce’s Finnegans Wake (which at least provides its soon-to-be stultified readers with a wonderful Introduction by Seamus Deane). The Great Gatsby with a great cover; a whole series of utterly arresting covers for the Modern Classics run of Kafka; some elegant editions of Virginia Woolf’s books .. these are expected things in any ‘modern classics’ lineup.
But The Collected Stories of Rumpole? You can imagine my surprise and delight in finding such a volume on the list! I wrote up the progenitor of this book for my reviewing home on the other side of the world years ago, and I had a great time doing it. And what about Ian Fleming’s James Bond novels? I might be practically alone in my opinion that they’re utter garbage, but even so, their appearance here bespeaks a very pleasingly broad editorial outlook just the same. And speaking of garbage: there’s John Updike’s Rabbit, Run, something that shouldn’t have seen the light of day, let alone achieve any kind of ‘classic’ status, but the mere fact that some editor stood up for it says good things about this series regardless of its lapses.
There’s Fair Stood the Wind for France by the criminally neglected H. E. Bates; there’s Ernesto Sabato’s bewildering The Tunnel; there’s a “selected poems” of Patrick Kavanagh, of all people, and a nice sturdy edition of John Kennedy Toole’s A Confederacy of Dunces; there are strange gems like Elias Canetti’s Kafka’s Other Trial and Paul Bowles’s Up Above the World – things you’d never expect to see in any kind of ‘classics’ line but are nonetheless glad to find here. There’s even Ryszard Kapuscinski’s Shah of Shahs, which I’ve pressed on many a reader in my day! And for the faint of heart (and the wimps, an ever-present sub-category of the reading world, the Silent Majority, as it were, in the Republic of Letters), there’s even a big boxed set of “Mini Modern Classics,” filled with some of the very worst books ever written, here gathered in one landfill-convenient set.
There’s E. L. Doctorow – not just the understandable Ragtime but the more idiosyncratic Book of Daniel; there’s the bizarre choice of Eric Ambler (you can trust me on this: not only does The Mask of Dimitrios have no redeeming rhetorical qualities, but its author didn’t even remember writing it), but there’s also Max Frisch’s Homo Faber, so often oddly neglected in roll calls of this kind; yes, there’s the dreariness of Saul Bellow’s inclusion, but there’s also John Dos Passos.
I’ve gone through phases where I scorned reprint lines like this new Penguin Modern Classics as crass and obvious marketing ploys designed to snag lazy readers who might buy a new paperback of The Bell Jar but would be much too intimidated to pick up Middlemarch regardless of how well-designed it was. After all, we can’t be elevating everything to the status of a classic, now can we? And if you make a gesture in that account – especially one that includes the C-list novels or Jack Kerouac, or the twin monstrosities of Atlas Shrugged and The Fountainhead – aren’t you adulterating beyond recall the very definition of the term?
And I still scorn excessive inclusivity (especially the kind prompted by holier-than-thou political correctness) – but if there’s evidence of discriminating taste, if there are signs of a taste involved, even if it’s a woefully misinformed taste, well, I increasingly can live with that. I snatch up these Penguin Modern Classics every time I find one.
January 26th, 2015
Some Penguin Classics are updates or revisions of things that were themselves already classics, and that can be nerve-racking for a long-time fan of the Penguin line such as myself. I love the ongoing march of new editions, don’t get me wrong – I’m always the first person telling my bookish friends that some new version of X, Y, or Z is coming down the pike. But they worry me, too (the new editions, that is, not the bookish friends, most of whom are past helping); it can be a very tricky business, updating or even re-assessing an old landmark.
New from Penguin Classics is a case-in-point: The Portable Emerson, edited by Jeffrey Cramer, who gave us a truly exceptional edition of Thoreau’s essays a couple of years ago. His Portable Emerson is a typically pretty thing all decked out in its Penguin Classics black spine with an eye-catching cover design showing the rings of an old tree with a famous Emerson quote superimposed over them. But it appears in the lengthy shadow of its seventy-year-old predecessor, the great Viking Portable Emerson edited by Mark Van Doren in 1946. That book has been a staple in thousands of libraries – mine very much included – for a very long time; any revision can’t help but feel like an act of daring, maybe even sacrilege.
Part of that feeling comes from how personal a writer Emerson always feels, to each new generation of readers. He very much had that effect in his own lifetime – among other things, it’s what made him such an unprecedented hit on the secular lecture circuit – and it’s threaded its way steadily through three generations of scholars. Back in 1946, Van Doren could write:
He was always somehow personal, generous and candid, but his nature was ventilated to the core. His modesty was equal to his pride. He was an aristocrat who thought all could be aristocrats. When he said there was no common people he meant that he was not common and that he had never met a man who was.
And in this new edition, Cramer is just as heartfelt adding his own variation on the same theme:
The “fairest fortune that can befall a man,” Emerson realized, “is to be guided … to that which is truly his own.” Emerson is such a guide. “To believe your own thought,” he wrote, “that is Genius,” but he never lost sight of the fact that “the moral discipline of life is built” on the “perpetual conflict between the dictate of this universal mind and the wishes and interests of the individual.” It is the essence of a person’s character that he or she can be true and responsive to the pull of both understanding and reason, of the individual and the universal, of the me and the not-me.
And it’s surely this same intimate prodding that worked in the opposite direction with Houston Baptist University literature professor Micah Mattix, who wrote a quick screed about Emerson in a recent issue of The Weekly Standard deriding his prominence in American literature:
But now that his Collected Works is complete, I’d like to suggest that we close the book on the Emerson Revival. Earlier scholars got Emerson right: He may serve “to swell a progress, start a scene or two,” but he is not American Hamlet, and his work is not great matter.
Mattix is hardly the first to call for such a retirement – Emerson’s fellow New Englander John Updike regularly called for the relegation of the Bard of Concord to the footnotes of history. Those footnotes have claimed Updike instead, and Emerson’s scattered subsequent critics face a similar fate; this writer is more alive than they are, and he’ll go right on impressing that life on readers long after his last carper has fallen silent.
The breadth of that literary life is on abundant, energizing display in Cramer’s new Portable Emerson. As gasping as it is to report, this is in every way an improvement on Van Doren’s sturdy hardcover from the wonderful Viking Portable line. Cramer not only includes far more than any comparable “collected” Emerson (there are very generous helpings of letters, poems, lectures, and essays), but he’s also a very attentive host, introducing each of his sections in turn. Penguin Classics has featured collections of Emerson’s essays in the past, but this volume includes all the famous essays like “The Over-Soul” and “Self-Reliance” but also huge amounts of everything else the man wrote, all of it full of boundless happiness and the exact kind of systematic brilliance he himself was sometimes wary of in other world-class thinkers:
Everywhere I am hindered of meeting God in my brother, because he has shut his own temple doors and recites fables merely of his bother’s, or his brother’s brother’s God. Every new mind is a new classification. If it proves a mind of uncommon activity and power, a Locke, a Lavoisier, a Hutton, a Bentham, a Fourier, it imposes its classification on other men, and lo! A new system.
In short, this new Portable Emerson is a great success, the perfect one-volume Emerson whether you’re a student or a scholar. And for Emerson’s own New England, currently bracing itself for a gigantic snowstorm, the book makes a perfect storm-day companion because, as I noted here at Stevereads on the eve of an earlier storm, the key to such books is that they be good company, and Emerson is always that – even when he’s having the bad grace to like snowstorms:
Announced by all the trumpets of the sky,
Arrives the snow, and, driving o’er the fields,
Seems nowhere to alight: the white air
Hides hills and woods, the river, and the heaven,
And veils the farm-house at the garden’s end.
The sled and traveller stopped, the courier’s feet
Delayed, all friends shut out, the housemates sit
Around the radiant fireplace, enclosed
In a tumultuous privacy of storm.
Come see the north wind’s masonry.
Out of an unseen quarry evermore
Furnished with tile, the fierce artificer
Curves his white bastions with projected roof
Round every windward stake, or tree, or door.
Speeding, the myriad-handed, his wild work
So fanciful, so savage, nought cares he
For number or proportion. Mockingly,
On coop or kennel he hangs Parian wreaths;
A swan-like form invests the hidden thorn;
Fills up the farmer’s lane from wall to wall,
Maugre the farmer’s sighs; and at the gate
A tapering turret overstops the work.
And when his hours are numbered, and the world
Is all his own, retiring, as he were not,
Leaves, when the sun appears, astonished Art
To mimic in slow structures, stone by stone,
Built in an age, the mad wind’s night-work,
The frolic architecture of the snow.
January 5th, 2015
Some Penguin Classics don’t really seem to need updating. One such solid-looking piece of work is the translation David McDuff did for Penguin Classics of Fyodor Dostoevsky’s 1860 novel The House of the Dead. That translation appeared in 1985, and it – and all other translations of this particular book – are suddenly threatened with superfluity, since in March there’ll appear a new rendition from Knopf by the superstar Russian-translation team of Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky. That translation will get the kind of review-coverage a Penguin Classic can only dream about (you can certainly look for my own review, in due course), and as has been the case with virtually every P&V translation that’s appeared in the last fifteen years, it’ll no doubt get called “definitive” by at least half a dozen monoglot freelancers. Suddenly, all previous translations will fall under a suspicion of being old or outmoded or some such left-handed condemnation.
As some of you Stevereads readers will know, I’m a great fan of outmoded translations. I love how oddly and sometimes fascinatingly they tend to reflect and warp the intellectual environment that produces them; I love the unabashed braininess that tends to infuse even the clunkiest translations of long works of literature (I’m less sanguine about poetry – the closer I get to age 30, the more convinced I am that poetry is, in fact, untranslatable)(a Stevereads diatribe for another day!).
But I get the best of both sides of the issue, since I also love the intense and sometimes prolonged book-world conversations that always result from the appearance of some high-profile new translation, regardless of what I think about the new translation itself. P&V have a pretty poor track record with me – I find their work jangly and needlessly showy, seemingly designed to dissuade readers from enjoying the works in question. But if their new translation of The House of the Dead sparks lots of first-rate discussion about the book itself, I’ll gladly read every instalment of that discussion.
Dostoevsky’s book details the ordeals faced in prison exile by Aleksandr Petrovich Goryanchikov, and the work is heavily autobiographical, reflecting the ordeal Dostoevsky himself underwent when he was sent to prison on 23 January 1850 to begin a four-year term in punishment for his part in the Petrashavest conspiracy. Dostoevsky had been a promising new author prior to his arrest, at which point his entire world ended and was replaced by a much smaller, more restrictive version. Long after the fact, he described it to his brother:
We lived all of a heap, crowded together in one barrack. Imagine, if you will, this dilapidated old wooden building which had long ago been scheduled for demolition, and which was now quite unfit for use. In summer the airlessness inside was intolerable, likewise the cold in winter. All the floors had rotted through. The floor was covered in nigh on two inches of muck; it was easy to slip and fall.
“Yet it would be a mistake to view the novel simply as a work of documentary realism,” McDuff writes in his slightly murky Introdcution to his translation:
It is important to realize that the book also describes an inner crisis – a spiritual death and an awakening. Dostoevksy is correct when he predicts that in the book his personality ‘will disappear from view.’ The tormented, eccentric Goryanchikov is all that the book contains by way of a characterized central figure.
Dostoevsky’s portrait of Goryanchikov’s sufferings ranges across a very wide spectrum (a spectrum of suffering that becomes from this point out a central characteristic of this writer’s work), from the iternal, emotional end (at one point he touchingly says, “I could never have conceived how terrible and agonizing it would be not once, not even for one minute of all the ten years of my imprisonment, to be alone”) to the bitterly psychological end (which, as always with Dostoevsky, is three-fifths self-pity, however justifiable in the present case):
When a common man goes to prison he arrives among his own kind of society, perhaps even among a society that is more developed than the one he has left. He has, of course, lost a great deal: his country, his family, everything – but his environment remains the same. An educated man, subject by law to the same punishment as the commoner, often loses incomparably more. He must suppress in himself all his normal wants and habits; he must make the transition to an environment that is inadequate for him, he must learn to breathe an air that is not suited to him …
The House of the Dead, with its vivid portrayals of Siberian exile in all its pathos, was a sales hit for Dostoevsky first serialized it in 1860, and having re-read it just recently in a kind of nerdish ‘preparation’ for the Pevear & Volokhonsky version, I can certainly see why: it moves fast, it sinks all the way down to the depths of human misery and yet still provides glimmers of hope amidst the squalor (there’s a famous scene where the inmates keep an injured eagle as a kind of barracks pet, and it’s every bit as heartbreaking now in my third re-reading of the book as it was the first time). It’s as riveting an example of the prison-memoir (I’m not quite as sold as McDuff on the idea of it being fiction) as I’ve ever read, and if Pevear & Volokhonsky can add a memorable translation to the tradition, more power to them.
November 26th, 2014
Some Penguin Classics become immediately indispensable. They so firmly supplant all previous editions of their particular work that those previous editions become curiosities, interesting in only ancillary ways. A notable recent example of this would be the Royall Tyler translation of The Tale of the Heike, and now the Penguin imprint clearly has another: a lavish new edition of the famous Analects of Confucius, translated and annotated by Yale history lecturer Annping Chin.
These Lunyu of Confucius (551-479 BC) are an enormous, shaggy, multi-faceted collection of sayings and anecdotes preserved by the disciples of Confucius and their disciples. The work is a pillar of Chinese literature, and the many, many parallel (and rival) commentaries on the work by its later handlers shape some fascinating, alternating readings. As Chin correctly points out, that multitude of analytical voices has sometimes been simplified by later scholars:
Most of the translations in English, however, do not reflect this rich tradition in reading the Analects. Instead, they tend to favor one commentary, Zhu Xi’ from the twelfth century, that had become standard through five hundred years of imperial support and the only interpretation the state would accept in the civil service examinations. My work follows a different approach. I relied on the scholars from the last three hundred years – scholars who put research before ideology – to show me the competing interpretations and the possibilities of understanding a word, a sentence, or a passage, and my translation is what I arrived at after I had considered the range of choices before me.
“My hope,” she writes, “of course, is to recover some of the ambiguities and nuances in what Confucius says, which are often lost if one comes to trust a single voice or a single vision.”
She succeeds wonderfully in her edition of the Analects; for the first time in a popular non-academic version, we get something very closely approximating the strange and compelling nature of the original, which reads like a surreal blending of Christian scripture and the social commentaries of Tom Wolfe. Too many times in previous editions, translators have reduced this rich complexity to a string of fortune-cookie apothegms that don’t in any way convey why this text would have remained a foundational work revered and consulted and studied for centuries.
Take a look, for instance, at the 1955 translation done by James Ware, which was such a sales hit for the old Mentor paperback line:
It is hard to converse with the people of Hu, so when a lad arrived and sought an interview with Confucius, the pupils were in a quandary.
“I do not sanction his departure just because I sanction his arrival. Why all the worry? When a man, hving cleansed himself, arrives, I receive him; but I don’t guarantee his future.”
In the Mentor version that found its way into so many backpacks in the early ’60s, that’s all you get – pithy, yes, but not particularly informative. Chin’s translation and accompanying note flesh things out considerably:
The people of Hu village [being boorish and obstinate] were difficult to talk to. A young man [from this village] came to see the Master [and the Master received him]. The disciples were puzzled. The Master said, “I accepted him when he was here, but that does not mean I will accept whatever he will be doing when he is not here. So why should there be a problem? In coming here, he made his heart pure, and so I accepted him [as he was,] a purified man. This does not mean, however, that I proved of what he had done in the past.”
Although no one can say for sure why the people of Hu village were “difficult to talk to,” it seems reasonable to assume that they were “boorish and obstinate,” as Zheng Xuan and Liu Baonan suggest. And Confucius’ decision to speak to this young man from Hu reveals much about what he was like as a teacher: he accepted anyone who came to him with pureness of heart even though, he said, he could not vouch for the person’s past or future behaviour.
Or take a famous passage from Book 17 about perception and reflection. Here’s Chin’s translation and accompanying note:
The Master said, “If a man, by the age of forty, is still being disliked by others, that perception will remain until the end of his life.”
Confucius expresses similar sentiment in 9.23, but there he says, “If a man is forty or fifty and has not done anything to distinguish himself, then he is not worthy of our respect.” So while he suggests in both statements that by the time a man is forty his character is formed and so it is nearly impossible for him to change, here is stresses other people’s perception of such a man – that they will not alter their view of him and start liking him. This led Qing scholar Yu Yue to conclude that Confucius could be speaking about himself.
And in the Mentor edition (which is by no means atypical of the all the earlier versions)? It’s this:
It is all over for the man of forty who is held in aversion.
Four things above all, we’re told, the Master taught: literature, conduct, loyalty, and reliability. He would look with favor (and maybe even a smile!) on Annping Chin’s labors.
November 2nd, 2014
Some Penguin Classics are welcome back in new reprints as often as opportunity allows; indeed, the persistence of their reappearances gives us one of the signature comforts of a canon. These works keep getting reprinted, we’re reassured, because some works deserve to be reprinted regularly.
We can certainly think of the new Penguin Classics edition of Washington Irving that way. The volume – sporting a detail from a terrifically moody painting by the amazingly talented young French fantasy artist Bastien Grivet – is called The Legend of Sleepy Hollow and Other Stories, and it’s a reprint of Irving’s 1820 hit The Sketch Book of Geoffrey Crayon, Gent. in which readers will find such foundational American literary myths as the Spectre Bridegroom, Rip Van Winkle, and, of course, “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow” with its Headless Horseman.
The volume is introduced with a sparkling essay by Irving expert Elizabeth Bradley, who notes that Irving was writing both against the grain and ahead of his time when he concocted the strange and often nostalgic tales of this collection against the better literary judgement of people who considered the young America “not sufficiently sophisticated to have a history, and certainly too green for ghosts.” But as big a pathfinder as Irving undoubtedly was, Bradley wittily cautions against veneration:
To refer to a writer as the Father of American Literature is the quickest way to consign him to anthologies, and to popular oblivion. This is a truism in legend and history alike: Who prefers the dutiful Abraham to his rebellious sons, or Joseph to Jesus? Who – aside from their biographers – remembers the progenitor of Thomas Edison, the Wright Brothers, or Marie Curie? There is no faster way to doom an author than to slap him with a patriotic paternity suit.
There’s no danger of doom for at least one of Irving’s creations: the aforementioned Headless Horseman, who’ll be chasing poor Ichabod Crane through Sleepy Hollow long after all of us are dead and gone (Bradley wryly notes the ongoing TV series on Fox, complete with “extra monsters, time travel, and skinny jeans”) – this has got to be the only Penguin paperback with back-cover blurbs from both Henry Wadsworth Longfellow and Tim Burton. But re-reading the Sketch Book reminds me how good Irving is at everything he writes. If anything, the vignettes here of an old storybook England on the brink (as Irving saw it, anyway) of fading entirely into the past are often more effective than the more famous tales. Take as just one example the moment he encounters a knight’s grave in “Westminster Abbey”:
I paused to contemplate a tomb on which lay the effigy of a knight in complete armour. A large buckler was on one arm; the hands were pressed together in supplication upon the breast; the face was almost covered by the morion; the legs were crossed in token of the warrior’s having been engaged in the holy war. It was the tomb of a crusader; of one of those military enthusiasts, who so strangely mingled religion and romance, and whose exploits form the connecting link between fact and fiction; between the history and the fairy tale. There is something extremely picturesque in the tombs of these adventurers, decorated at they are with rude armorial bearings and gothic sculpture.
Irving goes on that when seeing such things “the imagination is apt to kindle with the legendary associations, the romantic fictions” – and the same holds true for so much of what he wrote himself, both in the Sketch Book and in A History of New York (and especially in Bracebridge Hall). Irving specialized in exactly what he described while remembering that tomb: the connecting link between fact and fiction, between history and fairy tale. So kudos to Penguin Classics for bringing out this pretty new edition of such a quintessential example of that talent. Future Classics volumes reprinting this author’s great Life and Voyages of Christopher Columbus and particularly his unforgettable The Alhambra would be much appreciated!
November 1st, 2014
Some Penguin Classics are amazing original productions, which is an odd thing to say about the world’s best line of reprints. A perfect example – and a timely one, considering the Halloween/Samhain double-whammy that strikes most of the West today – is the new Penguin Book of Witches, a fantastic original anthology of key original documents in the witchcraft craze that swept Europe and colonial America two centuries ago. The collection is edited and curated by Katherine Howe (author of, among other things, the bookseller-favorite witchcraft novel The Physick Book of Deliverance Dane), who also provides a spirited and thought-provoking Introduction in which she attempts to lay out some clarifying taxonomy:
Belief in witchcraft was not an anomalous throwback to late medieval thought by provincial colonists, nor was it an embarrassing blip in an otherwise steady march to an idealized nationhood. It was not a disease. It was not a superstition. Witchcraft’s presence or absence was constituitive to the colonial order. It was a touchstone that reinforced what was normal and what was aberrant.
What follows are dozens of testimonies, tracts, and depositions ranging across the whole span of the last major Western flare-up of witch-hysteria, from its roots in England to the famous Salem Witch Trials of 1692 to the surprisingly long aftermath of Salem in the colonies. Throughout, in addition to the excerpts, Howe provides smart and helpful prefaces to orient students and interested non-specialists, as when she introduces Daemonologie, the 1597 treatise published by King James I:
Most striking to a contemporary reader will be the conflation of the pseudoscientific with the imaginary. In fact, James I was at pains to explain the difference between what was possible through witchcraft and what was merely mental delusion. He also must have grapple with the continually vexing question of why God permits the Devil to have such power. James I’s theodicy took a number of tacks, including the possibility that witchcraft could challenge those with flagging faith to rekindle their belief, but ultimately he resorted to the story of Job to justify the continual ability of Satan to tempt us into sin.
Howe reminds us that the Salem craze was far from the first such outbreak in the American colonies. Her priceless anthology includes fascinating documents from a dark interlude in Hartford, Connecticut in 1662, where at least eight people were executed, and where some of the accused were subjected to the “swim test” of hurling suspected witches into water and watching to see if they float (it was a 17th century catch-22: if you float, you’re guilty and must be hanged; if you drown, you were innocent). The “swim test” was advised by Boston churchman Increase Mather, and the account Howe includes is an arresting glimpse into societal madness:
There were some that had a mind to try whether the stories of witches not being able to sink under water were true; and accordingly a man and woman mentioned in Ann Cole’s Dutch-tone discourse had their hands and feet tied, and so were cast into the water, and they both apparently sam after the manner of a buoy, part under, part above the water. A by-stander imagining that any person bound in that posture would be so born up, offered himself for trial, but being in the like matter gently laid on the waters, he immediately sank right down. This was no legal evidence against the suspected persons, nor were they proceeded against on any such account. However, doubting that a halter would choke them though the water would not, they very fairly took their flight, not having been seen in that part of the world since.
The account concludes with a fascinating nod to the fact that so many of those caught up in this witchcraft hysteria had moments when they themselves sensed their own derailment: “Whether this experiment were lawful, or rather superstitious and magical, we shall enquire afterward.”
As you read this amazing little volume, you increasingly realize that we ourselves are living in that afterward, when the madness has long since faded and witches have become the friendly caricature on the cover of The Penguin Book of Witches and merchandizing themes in a Salem that booms with tourists every Halloween. I haven’t checked, but I’m fairly sure Howe’s excellent little gem is on sale there year-round.