Posts from March 2017

March 20th, 2017

Penguins on Parade: The Book of Magic

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Some Penguin Classics have to walk a very fine line in order to exist at all. Not all of them manage it, of course: there’s been no Penguin Classic of Hitler’s Mein Kampf, nor will there penguin bk of magicever be, it’s unlikely we’ll ever see a Penguin Classic reprint of My Life and Loves, or a nice annotated edition of Roger Casement’s diaries, or any of the many electrifying books by Robert Ingersoll. There’s politics as well as cowardice at work here, or rather there’s the cowardice of politics: reprint volumes keep one eye fixed steadily on institutional sales.

It’s hard therefore to guess the fate of something like Brian Copenhaver’s big, brilliant new Penguin volume The Book of Magic: From Antiquity to the Enlightenment, since it treads for its entire 650-page length the finest of troublesome fine lines: religion. After all, if you’re compiling an anthology of excerpts about magic from the course of Western literature, you’ll scarcely be able to avoid tripping over living religious faith at almost every turn. Copenhaver’s eloquent Introduction is hardly off the starting-block before it’s beginning to parse its way around the question:

‘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.

Given the drift of this sort of thing, it’s inevitable that Max Weber will come up, and he does smartly:

Magic is ritual where religion is ethical, according to Weber. Magic coerces, but religion supplicates. Magic goes to particulars, religion generalizes. Magic is emotional, religion rational. Deeply learned, writing in patience and finesse, Weber knows that these facile dichotomies cannot stand. By his lights, Moses, Elijah and Jesus were magicians. If those heroes of the Abrahamic faiths were all magicians, how can magic be distinct from religion on axes like ethics v. ritual, reason v. emotion, and so on? No such distinctions can hold, as Weber concedes again and again. But then – on the trail of ‘typical pure magicians’ and something ‘essentially magical’ – he applies the distinctions again, seduced by ‘always’ and ‘all’, words meant to distinguish all magic always from religion – or the reverse – in order to isolate an essence.

The anthology itself, this tremendously entertaining book Copenhaver has created, bolts away from such torturous equivocation the instant it can. In these sections – the Hebrew Bible, the New Testament, the ancient Greeks, the Church fathers, the philosophers and commenters of the Middle Ages and the Renaissance and the Enlightenment – a delightfulthing in the crypt array of names parades before the reader: Strabo, Pausanius, Philostratus, Iamblichus, Lactantius, Origen, and of course the mighty St. Augustine, Marsilio Ficino in abundance, reliable old John Dee, and that gold mine of arresting quotation, The Hammer of Witches … Copenhaver presents this great crowd in mostly new and vigorous translations (the book is, among all its other virtues, a monument of erudition), and he provides along the way unfailingly helpful notes to everything.

The sum of the whole actually manages to rise above the ideological contortions that start the whole thing off, contortions made necessary by that most dangerous of all fine lines: the inability to call all religion magic. Jesus casting out demons Copenhaver somewhat bravely includes, but Jesus rising from the dead will never appear in books like this one, because millions of people still believe in that magic, and it’s possible that Penguin Classics would like to sell some copies to those millions. Even so, it’s unlikely that copies of The Book of Magic will be stacked for sale in the Bible bookstores that dot vast swaths of the American heartland – which is a shame on two or three different levels.

February 15th, 2017

Penguins on Parade: Treatise on Toleration!

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Some Penguin Classics breathe with the towering wisdom of the world’s great literary figures. And then there’s Voltaire.

The voluminous writings of Francois-Marie Arouet have been a mother-quarry of pseudo-profundity for over two centuries, of course, so in that respect this slim new volume from Penguin – a new translation by Desmond Clarke of the Master‘s 1763 book Treatise on Toleration – is unsurprising. The American presidential election campaign of 2016 culminated in a resounding victory for the forces of intolerance, one of a string of such victories being celebrated all around the world in governments both openly repressive and allegedly progressive. The lamps are going out all over the Europe of the still-young 21st Century, so it’s a praiseworthy if predictable move on the part of Penguin, to issue this handy new edition of a short, compacted work in which Voltaire famously makes a case for rational penguin treatiseinquiry, balanced consideration, and the toleration in the title.

He had in mind specifically religious toleration. The little treatise was sparked by the notorious case of the Huguenot shopkeeper Jean Calas, who in March of 1762 was sentenced to death for the crime of murdering his own son in the family home. Calas was innocent – his son had committed suicide – but he was also Protestant, and France’s vindictively Catholic authorities tortured Calas to death with extravagant brutality. Voltaire jumped on the bandwagon of the case for posthumously exonerating Calas, and the Treatise on Toleration was the loudest canon-blast in Voltaire’s arsenal. In it, he rails against the intolerance of France’s Catholic Church.

The case is laid out, as much as possible, along lines of logic and common sense. As Clarke summarizes in his perceptive Introduction:

If members of a political community accept the reciprocity of moral obligations and consider a principle such as the following: ‘Do not do what you would not like someone to do to you’, the implications for toleration are obvious. Each religious group or church must grant freedom of thought to others. Otherwise, they would face their fellow citizens with the following demand that cannot be satisfied simultaneously and reciprocally: ‘Believe what I believe and what you cannot believe, or you will die.’

The Master summons the whole history of Christianity to make all of his points about the long and complicated relationship the Church had always had with persecution and toleration – which calls for great chunks of cod-history buttressed with a delightful sub-profusion of footnotes (which Clarke further buttresses with notes of his own). To give him credit, Voltaire can very often make this kind of stuff interesting:

We are told that Nero persecuted Christians. Tacitus tells us that they were accused of setting fire to Rome and that they were then abandoned to the anger of the people. Has that accusation anything to do with their beliefs? Certainly not. Would we say that the Chinese who were slaughtered by the Dutch a few years ago in the suburbs of Batavia were sacrificed for their religion? No matter how much we might wish to deceive ourselves, it is impossible to claim that intolerance was responsible for the disaster that befell a few unfortunate half-Jews and half-Christians during Nero’s reign.

“If a government is not to have a right to punish human errors, those errors must not be crimes,” Voltaire writes. “They are crimes only when they are detrimental to society, and they damage society as soon as they inspire fanaticism. Therefore, in order to deserve toleration, people must begin by avoiding fanaticism.” And against this instance of fanaticism, our author was successful: Jean Calas was posthumously exonerated, and some of the worst of the creatures who broke him were cashiered. It’s enough to make a strong optimist wonder what brave Treatise on Toleration from 2017 Penguin will be reprinting in 2207.

January 5th, 2017

Penguins on Parade: Percy Bysshe Shelley!

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Some Penguin Classics almost play tricks on your memory, you’re so certain you’ve seen them before in earlier editions. Surely, for instance, any sizable US Penguin Classics library going back a few decades will already have a big fat volume of Percy Bysshe Shelley?

And yet no! When I first clapped eyes on the big, beautiful new Penguin Classics Selected Poetry and Prose of Shelley edited by Jack Donovan and Cian Duffy, I automatically scanned my memory – and my shelves – for its predecessor, something along the lines of two fat volumes of Wordsworth poems that the publisher put out forty years ago, or the great John penguin-shelleyBarnard edition of the complete poetry of Keats that Penguin brought years ago. And the more I searched, the more amazed I became to think that there might not actually be such a predecessor, that this might actually be the first big, generous scholarly volume of Shelley that Penguin Classics has ever done in this country.

Better late than never, I guess, particularly because this new Penguin volume is absolutely wonderful, nearly 1000 pages of poems, prose, copious notes, and a feisty Introduction in which the “extraordinary output” that has “come to be recognized as one of the major literary contributions to the English Romantic Movement” is examined through a perspective I of course found especially entertaining: Shelley as Box Office Poison, the enfant terrible who managed to get plenty of reviews despite being an upstart unknown – but who also managed to get disproportionately nasty reviews from all and sundry when, as our editors put it, “a number of factors combined to deny him the audience that he persisted in seeking in the face of both widespread disregard and outright hostility.” Donovan and Duffy outline some of that outright hostility and shrewdly point out that such was the capacious spread of Shelley’s innovative genius that his carping critics often had to take aim at only one aspect or fragment of the strange, beautiful, unaccountable work that had crossed their desks:

Remarkably, for a writer whose works did not enjoy wide circulation, Shelley’s volumes of verse were regularly reviewed in contemporary literary periodicals. These notices encompass a more extreme range of opinion than that provoked by any major English poet of the Romantic period. The Shelley that emerges from them is not a single figure but several, usually portrayed in striking colours, not infrequently from the garish quarter of the palette. The most egregious instance of this kind is the vain, sour, querulous, ignorant and vicious individual who is sketched in a review of Laon and Cynthia/The Revolt of Islam in the April 1819 number of the Quarterly Review.

I lost myself for an entire evening in this Penguin Selected Poetry and Prose, which only has competition as a one-volume edition of this poet from the thick 2003 Oxford University Press volume Percy Bysshe Shelley: The Major Works – and once again, as always when I read much of this author, I found myself wondering with a kind of nagging sadness what marvels he might have created if he’d lived to 60, or 50, or 40, or even 31. Even in his short life, he wrote well over 400 poems, a startlingly high percentage of which read like the finished products of a much older poet; the imagination quivers a bit at the thought of what might have been.

A nice big Penguin Classic like this one is all the consolation such thoughts will ever have, but as consolations go, it’s a mighty good one.

December 9th, 2016

Penguins on Parade: The Dance of Death!

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Some Penguin Classics, especially in the last few years, are guaranteed to surprise even the penguin-dance-of-deathmost veteran Penguin- watcher. Sometimes this can be disappointingly puzzling – Wellington’s battlefield dispatches, anyone? – and at other times this broad-minded new sense of inclusiveness can be utterly delightful. An amazing example of this latter instance is a new volume from Penguin called The Dance of Death, a series of 51 engravings, 41 of which were printed in Basle in 1524-25.

The engravings were done by the great artist Hans Holbein, who came to Basle in 1515 and encountered a thriving artistic community growing up around the still-fledgling printing industry. University of Cambridge history professor Ulinka Rublack, in her brilliant, comprehensive commentary essay in this new Penguin volume, engagingly portrays this community: “Publishers lodged and entertained authors and other international visitors,” she writes. “Even though there existed clear hierarchies, these publishers, correctors, typesetters, muscular pressmen pulling off sheets and quick-witted artists together formed a new hub of cutting-edge intellectual life.”

This Penguin edition of the series of woodcuts that’s come to be known as The Dance of Death features full-page reprints of those woodcuts, one after the next, followed by Rublack’s 80-page commentary laying out the background, interpretation, and influence of Holbein’s work. It’s a different arrangement from the one obtaining with most Penguin Classics, mainly dictated by the fact that the central work being reprinted here is a picture-sequence rather the-abbotthan a text.

It’s an extremely effective change. It throws the spotlight of the volume squarely where it belongs: on the woodcuts themselves and the genius that Holbein brings to the subject of the terrifyingly impersonal universality of death: he comes for peasants and princes alike, and in panel after panel, his grasping skeletal hands are pulling at rich gowns, plucking at sack-cloth sleeves, yanking the hoods off monks, and holding up an hourglass whose sands are quickly ebbing. Death is counting out his own tray of coins over the loud protests of The Miser; he’s breaking the mainmast of the Seaman’s ship; he’s skewering a knight with his own lance; and he’s pulling the coverings off the four-poster bed of The Duchess. He plays a merry tune as he leads The the-dukeOld Woman and the Old Man peacefully to their graves, and he leads the pleading Child away from his poor mother. And he shows no respect for ecclesiastical privilege, which was very much a controversial image in that age of Reformation – an ideological balancing act on Holbein’s part, as Rublack points out:

Holbein thus walked a tightrope. He knew that everyone belonging to that very broad spectrum of reform Catholics and Protestants would form a natural audience for his Pictures of Death. The series’ format, intricacy and, presumably, its price were aimed at elites. Holbein therefore could exploit the conventions of satire against the pope, clergy and the rich in this genre, but needed to tread carefully so as not to offend Catholic sensibilities and to be denounced as Lutheran.

The era’s foremost advocate of Church reform, the man puzzlingly referred to by Rublack as the-peddler“the cult humanist” Erasmus, was a friend and frequent client of Holbein and showed great artistic insight when he wrote, “A great artist is always himself, whether he is modelling a colossal statue or a six-inch statuette … whether he is engraving bronze and ordinary stone or precious stones and gold.” When encountering this Dance of Death, it’ll take readers only a moment to come into complete agreement with the cult humanist: this might not be a work of prose, but it’s certainly a work of genius – and now, thanks to Penguin, it’s once again in bookstores everywhere.

November 23rd, 2016

Penguins on Parade: 120 Days of Sodom!

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Some Penguin Classics just never feel quite legitimate, no matter how hard they try, 120-daysno matter how fervent their supporters are over the decades or centuries. This is how it will feel twenty years from now, when Kurt Vonnegut’s flyblown oeuvre is inducted into the line, and this is how it will feel thirty years from now, when the Harry Potter books make their way into the catalogue. It’s how I’d feel if Frank Harris’s My Life and Loves made the list, even though I’m personally fond of the book. And despite centuries of furtive and illicit love shown to it by a very diverse group of famous readers, this is just how it feels to see a Penguin Classic of The 120 Days of Sodom by the Marquis de Sade.

It’s got just the kind of outrageous pedigree curriculum readers tend to expect of their classics: written by de Sade on a scroll, while he was being held prisoner in the Bastille while the French Revolution was brewing outside its walls, then discovered in its secret cubby-hole and embarked on a centuries-long career as a cult classic. When it comes to enshrining works of literature, cheap conditions don’t get much better than that.

But then you start reading, and it just evaporates into a mess of schoolboy sniggering and pointless provocation. The book is nominally the story of a quartet of hardened libertines who come together in an isolated castle and – slowly and then more and more confidently – start descending into the depths of depravity. It’s all just unutterably boring, and despite the book’s raucous reputation, it’s hard for me to believe most readers haven’t always found it that way. And in this scrupulous, energetic new Penguin translation by Will McMorran and Thomas Wynn, it’s a nice easy reading experience – and still every bit as boring.

Our translators do what translators have always done with de Sade – in their Introduction, they try their best to position his tedium as profundity:

By assaulting our senses and our values the 120 Days may, in fact, revive them. Sade himself makes the argument in several of his works that ‘examples of virtue in distress, offered to a corrupt soul in which there remain some decent principles, can restore that soul to goodness just as surely as if one had shown dazzling prizes and the most flattering rewards.’ As disingenuous as Sade’s defence of his methods certainly is, the reader may well find some inadvertent truth in this apparent lie – that the spectacle of the suffering victim is more likely to inspire compassion than cruelty.

But it doesn’t quite fly, even in a pretty black-spined Penguin Classic with a cover photo that’s no doubt intended to be provocative (is it a pair of ass cheeks? A pair of boobies? Oooooh!). And the induction of de Sade’s work into the Bibliothèque de la Pléiade doesn’t nudge the needle at all – because the author himself, feverishly desadescandalscraping away at his scroll, keeps doling out overheated scenes that he so painfully intends to shock … and the ham-handed intending drains away the shock every time, leaving you reading paragraph after paragraph and thinking there must surely be a rural nunnery kitchen girl somewhere who’ll blush at something like this:

A great connoisseur of arses and flogging summons a mother and daughter: he tells the daughter that if she does not agree to have both her hands cut off he will kill her mother; the little girl agrees and they are indeed cut off; he then separates these two creatures, stringing the girl up by the neck with her feet perched on a stool; tied around the stool is a another cord that leads into another room, where the mother is held; the mother is told to pull the cord – she does so without knowing what she is doing; she is promptly shown the fruits of her labour and as she is overcome with despair she is felled by a sabre to the back of the head.

Ooooooh!

July 4th, 2016

Penguins on Parade: The Federalist Papers!

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Some Penguin Classics, as we’ve seen, are classics in their own editions in addition to their penguin federalistreprinted contents. Whether it’s the Tain or Magna Carta or the Shahnameh, these monumental volumes feel like much more than simply the purveying of accessible translations – they’re self-contained seminars in their own right.

The happy phenomenon applies equally well to works not in translation. A fine case-in-point is Isaac Kramnick’s 1987 edition of the Federalist Papers, which was hailed at its original appearance by no less an eminence than former Chief Justice Warren Burger, who called Kramnick’s introductory essay “an outstanding piece of work.” (This Penguin edition rounds out its contents with a reprint of the United States Constitution in its entirety – one imagines Justice Burger either primly skipped that part or else found it very, very strange reading). Of all the readily-available popular-press editions of the Federalist papers, Kramnick’s is by far the best, which is probably why I gave my original copy away to some first-year fascist law student a decade ago. So I was naturally pleased to find it again at my beloved Brattle Bookshop and use the discovery as a flimsy excuse to re-read the entire thing, Introduction, papers, notes, and even that dear old Constitution.

The eighty-five Federalist papers were originally published over the course of a year, from 1787 to the spring of 1788, as an attempt to sway public opinion in New York in favor of ratifying that new dear old Constitution as a replacement for the Articles of Confederation that had seen the fledgling Republic through the Revolutionary War. And Kramnick’s authoritative Introduction gives an Olympian sheen to the inevitability of that process, citing how impolitely unworkable the Articles were, with their overriding emphasis on the inviolate sovereignty of individual States and its abhorrence of the coercive power of strong centralized governing bodies. After all, the Articles had only shepherded the united colonies to independence from the most powerful empire in the world – why, forms of government do that kind of thing every day! Such piddling achievements certainly couldn’t be allowed to stand in the balance against all those impolitic, unworkable flaws that are so easy to spot from the professor’s study:

From the perspective of historical hindsight it is easy enough to see the obvious defects of the Articles of Confederation which led to demands for its reform and ultimately to its replacement by the Constitution in 1787. The Congress of the central government could not deal with individual citizens but only with the states in their corporate capacity. It could not tax individuals or regulate their commerce. It could not carry out a foreign policy without the goodwill of states that perceived themselves as sovereign and independent. All of this was clear cut and formed a highly persuasive brief moving many to want change. But equally important on the road to Philadelphia and the Constitutional Convention was the activity of the state legislatures. Indeed, for some the abuse of power by state legislatures was the principal reason America needed a new Constitution.

In this Penguin Classic edition of the Federalist Papers, we get the full range of reformist eloquence, and the reading is every bit as invigorating as it always is. And if we don’t also get the anti-Federalist Papers, those equally-eloquent rebuttals of the idea of both the need to scrap the Articles of Confederation and the sublime beauties of a massive centralized government, well, Kramnick is at least willing to quote some brief qualms of the time, like lucy reads federaliststhis one from an aggrieved citizen of Massachusetts:

Does not this Constitution … take away all we have, all our property? Does it not lay all taxes, duties, imports, and excises? And what more have we to give? These lawyers and men of learning, and moneyed men that talk so finely, and gloss over matters so smoothly, to make us poor illiterate people swallow down the pill, they expect to get into Congress, themselves. They expect to be managers of this Constitution, and get all the money into their own hands. And then they will swallow up us little fellows, like the Great Leviathan …

The lawyers arguing in favor of the new Constitution expect to be its managers! Why, “they expect to get into Congress, themselves.” Yes indeed. As much of a classic-within-a-classic as Kramnick’s edition is, it possibly could have done with more of that kind of equal representation. But then, there is no Penguin Classics edition of the Anti-Federalist Papers, so interested readers will, in this rare instance, have to go elsewhere to read the whole story. American readers ought to, especially on the 4th of July.

June 17th, 2016

Penguins on Parade: Sketches from a Hunter’s Album!

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Some Penguin Classics, as we’ve seen in the past here at Stevereads, are just clear-cut improvements penguin turgenevover 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.lucy reads turgenev

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

Penguins on Parade: The Praetorians!

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Some Penguin Classics serve as reminders of the perils of sequels. In fact, since the praetoriansthe 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 lucy reads the praetorianssequel 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

Penguins on Parade: Storm of Steel

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Some Penguin Classics never quite stop being controversial, and that’s certainly storm of steelthe 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 lucy reads storm of steelmoment 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

Penguins on Parade: Tales from the Decameron!

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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.

penguin decameron talesHence 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.