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A Poe Anniversary

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“As the strong man exults in his physical ability, delighting in such exercises as call his muscles into action, so glories the analyst in that moral activity which disentangles.”

The Murders in the Rue Morgue

poe

Today is the anniversary of the first publication of Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Murders in the Rue Morgue” in 1841. The story is regarded as the first “proper” detective story, introducing C. Auguste Dupin to the world. An early practitioner of Holmes and Poirot’s methods (the detecting is mostly done with the ‘little grey cells), he would go on to feature in two more stories, and Poe would have set the standard for detective stories to come.

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I reviewed the book here, and highly recommend it (and anything else Poe wrote!). Only be very careful that the edition you choose has a plain cover that doesn’t give the game away…

Recent Reads: First Term at Malory Towers by Enid Blyton

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It’s really got to me, this editing of Enid Blyton thing – so much so, that I’ve made the point of picking up some early copies of her works so I can read the original publications. The Malory Towers books are a case in point – I would have read old 1960s/1970s paperbacks which were *probably* ok, but in any event I found a couple of early hardback versions – and since they have a lovely map and diagram on the endpapers, they were irresistible!

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Alas, my volume is not quite so lovely as this one…

Though I’ve revisited other Blytons, I don’t think I’ve re-read the Malory Towers books for years. So “First Term at Malory Towers” seemed in many ways like a new read! I remembered the heroine, Darrell and her best friend Sally – and the foolish French mistress! – but not a lot else. Of course it’s possible I didn’t have the complete set – after all these years, it’s impossible to tell.

“First Term” introduces us to the series and the girls, when Darrell goes off to boarding school for the first time. Refreshingly, Darrell is no saint – although basically a nice girl, she has a flaming temper and a tendency to laziness, both of which are displayed here. We meet a variety of girls, all with their different characteristics and problems – from Alicia the class prankster through timid Mary Lou to Gwendoline the spoilt brat. Sally obviously has something more serious going on, as she seems emotionally locked away and indifferent. And all these elements are played out and resolved against the lovely background of a boarding school by the sea, with its own sea water bathing pool.

Revisiting Malory Towers was beautiful escapism – I *so* wished I could go to a boarding school when I was young! There are jolly japes in class – a spider meant for Mary Lou in the French lessons causes havoc with Mam’zelle! – but also deeper problems. Darrell receives a real scare over her temper, and the issue with Sally reaches a dramatic climax. And then there is the slapping incident…

I had a look at one of the modern versions of this book in Foyles to see if I could spot any modernisations – and wished I hadn’t. At one point while swimming, nasty Gwendoline ducks Mary Lou and gives her a real scare. Darrell loses her temper spectacularly and gives her such a slapping you can see the handprints on Gwendoline’s leg. This is obviously considered so politically incorrect nowadays that the modern, watered-down, wimpy version has Darrell simply shaking Gwendoline. No, really….

But this removal of Darrell’s action completely undermines the foundation of the book. The girls are seen to have a very strong moral code of behaviour – no sneaking to the teachers, but a justice all of their own. Darrell herself realises instantly what a terrible thing she’s done and apologises, even before the head girl of the year tells her to. When the other pupils think that Darrell is guilty of damaging Mary Lou’s pen, they deal with it themselves – sending her to Coventry until the truth is discovered. This gives them an inward strength and we see them develop their characters. Shaking Gwendoline simply doesn’t work – it’s wimpy, weak and doesn’t demonstrate Darrell’s character trait of an uncontrollable temper at all. I’m sure that the line from one of the teachers about the girls dealing with sneaks by spanking them with a hairbrush has gone too…

000580-ap222I loved renewing my acquaintance with the girls of Malory Towers – partly I suppose because I was rekindling my youth, but also because I was delighted to rediscover what a fun book it was! I shall definitely be returning to more of Blyton’s work – and *always* in the original versions!

The Editing of Enid

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I should say upfront, before I start ranting a bit, that I was brought up on Enid Blyton. Apart from my beloved “Pookie” books, the earliest stories I can remember are Enid. As soon as I had any kind of pocket-money, it would be spent weekly on a new book – a Malory Towers or an Adventure series paperback, usually Armada or Piccolo, for something like 2/6- (that’s two shillings and six pence – about 25p on modern parlance!) I loved them to bits, and I kept my collection of battered copies with me for many years. They were pure escapism – children having exciting adventures, discovering secret places and plots, or attending boarding schools and having fun and jolly japes while learning to be all-round good people. Eventually, I let the books go – my own children weren’t interested in reading them, and I figured there was no longer a place in my life for them.

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However, I confess for having had quite a hankering for them recently, and a look at OH’s very old hardback copies had me wallowing in nostalgia. So I *was* rather excited (as I reported here) to be gifted with a lovely set of reprints of the Adventure series at Christmas time. I re-read “The Island of Adventure” and was transported back to childhood. And yet – as I thought about the book afterwards, something seemed not quite right…

I’d been thinking about the Malory Towers books, and I description I read online of some old books for sale stated that this was the original text, no longer available in current editions. Did this mean my Adventure books weren’t the original text too? I decided to investigate. The books themselves said nothing about text changes, but some digging about on the Enid Blyton society forums revealed the truth – the books have been updated and modernised and rewritten many times over the years.

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Not “original” at all – actually rewritten….

I have to confess I was infuriated. I *can* understand the reason for some of the changes, where there are racial stereotypes. But why on earth modernist? Change shillings for modern pence? Take out the lovely old-fashioned expressions? When I read the Blyton stories in the late 1960s/early 1970s they were already out of date and that was a good part of their charm. Girls I knew didn’t go off to boarding schools, play lacrosse and have midnight feasts – but I didn’t want to read about the things I knew, I wanted something different. And I agree with so many of the comments on the forums – particularly those that point out that we don’t update classic children’s books like “The Railway Children” and “The Secret Garden”, so why on earth should we rewrite Enid Blyton.

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Battered old 1970s edition, but with all the text and pictures!

Even more infuriatingly, it seems that the paperback editions I read and used to own are the last ones to use the original text (and in the case of the Adventure books the wonderful original illustrations). Hindsight is a terrible thing – I *so* should have kept them. I haven’t the heart to break it to OH that the editions he got me are not the original Enid; instead, I have decided to quietly re-collect the editions of my favourites, the ones I originally have. Fortunately, worn 1970s paperbacks don’t seem to be that collectible or expensive, so I should be able to get hold of the copies I lost. As for whoever owns the rights to Enid Blyton’s work – you should be ashamed of yourselves…..

Recent Reads: The Third Tower by Antal Szerb

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So, what exactly made me rush to buy and read this little volume by Antal Szerb? That’s actually a good question, to which I’m not sure I have an answer! I read and loved Szerb’s “The Pendragon Legend” recently, and have “Journey by Moonlight” on Mount TBR – but this book, about a journey Szerb took through Italy in 1936, somehow caught my eye and ended up here and being read quite quickly. I do seem to be rekindling my love of European literature lately, and as I mentioned we are so spoiled with the amount of translated literature available now.

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“The Third Tower” has just been published by Pushkin Press, a beautiful little edition in their trademark covers with French flaps, and lovely paper. At slightly over 100 pages long, with black and white illustrations, it consists of short pieces by Szerb on his travels through Fascist Italy, from Venice via Lake Garda, through Rome, Ravenna and ending up in Trieste. Along the way, as he encounters the landscape of the country, and the people in the midst of their euphoric state of mind following their military successes, he muses on everything from the Spanish Civil War to the sense of change in the air and the beauty of an Italy that he loves. Szerb is very aware of the fact that Germany is on the rise and fears the effect it will have on the rest of the continent:

“Then it occurred to me that I simply must go to Italy – while Italy remains where it is, and while going there is still possible. Who knows for how much longer that will be; indeed, for how much longer I, or any of us, will be able to go anywhere?The way events are moving, no-one will be allowed to set foot outside his own country. The Germans have long found it almost impossible to venture abroad, with a fine of a thousand marks for attempting to visit Austria. The Russians too have been denied this right for a great many years. Foreign travel is not one of life’s basic needs. No doubt the totalitarian state will sooner or later decree that the true patriot is the one that stays at home.”

In many ways Szerb’s physical journey is accompanied by an emotional, spiritual one. He’s an intelligent man, very much aware of his vulnerability but also able to laugh at his own bourgeois prejudices. He’s also a perceptive political commentator, able to observe the Italian public objectively and recognise the closeness of Fascism and Socialism, both driven by the people; whereas in so-called democratic England it is still the elite who rule. He’s a sensitive man, susceptible to the landscape and his surroundings, and he has the gift of capturing the essence of something beautifully in a few words.

“The time will come when the human race, horribly reduced in numbers, will scrabble for a living in the mansions of the world’s great cities like troglodytes in caves.”

szerb_antal

Of course, “Journey by Moonlight” is set in Venice, and Rix’s foreword to this volume points out how the visit to Italy informed the story. I’ve yet to read the novel, but this volume has made me even more keen to pick it up.

“Dostoevsky writes that we should live as if our every minute were the last moments of a man condemned to death; that way, we would grasp the ineffable richness of life. My impressions of Italy always feel like the last visions of a dying man.”

Reading a volume like this is always going to be tinged with the sadness of our knowledge of Szerb’s eventual fate. He was travelling through an Italy (and Europe) that would be forever changed by coming events, and in many ways he seems to be aware of this. As a snapshot of the time, beautifully written and observed, “The Third Tower” is essential reading. It’s a lovely, moving little book and kudos to Pushkin Press for bringing us more of Szerb’s wonderful writing.

Some thoughts of a Monolinguist

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It occurred to me recently, while browsing the lovely Pushkin Press site recently and trying to resist the temptation of another rediscovered 20th century classic, how lucky I am as a modern reader. For where would my reading be without translators?

I am a total monolinguist – I was good at French at school, but that was a long, long time ago and I have no vocabulary left. Additionally, I think the French I would speak would very formal and old-fashioned, because the version my children were dealing with at school was very different to the one I learned. As for other languages – hopeless! I once dreamed of learning Russian, but I think it’s beyond me. So, staring at my piles of Dostoevsky, Bulgakov, Zweig, Szerb, Hesse, Beauvoir, Sartre, Camus and the like, it’s sobering to realise how much of my reading pleasure is dependent on the people who undertake to approach a piece of art in another language and render it in English so that I (and many others) can enjoy it.

And it’s only recently that I’ve started to think more deeply about which translators’ work I like best, and which I’ll choose to read. Admittedly, in the early days of my reading, there was much less choice than there is now, and I more often than not ended up with any Penguin Classic I could find. You still often can’t go wrong with one of their volumes, but the range available is so much wider nowadays. Some independent publishers, like Hesperus, Pushkin and Alma, specialise in bringing us lost works in sparkly new versions, and NYRB are also responsible for many. So in no particular order, here are some of my favourites:

happy mosc

Robert and Elizabeth Chandler, for their sterling work on bring Platonov to the English-speaking world

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Len Rix, champion of Antal Szerb

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Anthea Bell, known best for many volumes of Stefan Zweig, but also translator of Irmgard Keun

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Joanne Turnbull, who’s given voice to Sigizmund Krzhizhanovsky

gambler alma

Hugh Aplin, quietly translating away so many volumes of Hesperus and Alma Classics

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Will Stone, who rendered “Rilke in Paris” so beautifully and has staunchly defended Zweig’s work

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The Maudes, whose translations of Tolstoy were contemporary and are still definitive in my mind

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David McDuff, whose versions of Dostoevsky are really wonderful

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William Weaver, doyen of Calvino translations

These are just the ones that spring to mind, translators who’ve provided some of the books which have given me so much pleasure recently. Alas, it’s likely that I’ll stay a monolinguist forever, so thank you, ladies and gentlemen, for giving me the freedom to read literature from around the world!

… in which the Book Finding Fairy comes to my aid…..

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No, seriously! I’m starting to think there is some kind of entity watching over me, pointing me in the direction of lost books needing a good home! Because I popped into town today for a few quick errands, with no intention of looking for any more volumes; but detoured into a couple of charity shops looking for a belt.

And in the first, these two caught my eye:

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I’ve wanted to read Stendhal for a while, so a nearly new Oxford version for 95p was not to be sneezed at. Likewise the Huxley – I have a load of his books on Mount TBR but no short stories and this 1944 reprint society edition was also 95p. It was also kind of intriguing – as on the title page and the reverse of that page, someone had pencilled faint messages asking someone to forgive them because it was their birthday…. My mind has been racing all day, speculating on the story behind the messages!

cremona

But find of the day was this lovely book club edition of “The Surprise of Cremona” by Edith Templeton. I read about this book on Vulpes Libris a while back, and was keen to get a copy – but all the ones I came across were overpriced, had no dust jackets etc etc. However, on the way to the bus today, I swerved into the last charity shop en route – they were revamping their bookshelves, so I took a quick glance at their other shelf of volumes of dictionaries, etc, which I don’t usually look at. Lo and behold, there was the Templeton – for £1 and with a reasonable d/j!

So the Book Finding Fairy was looking after me today – or maybe I just have Book Finding intuition. Whatever – I’m happy with the results!!

Vladimir Vladimirovich Mayakovsky: July 19 1893 – April 14, 1930

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Forward march! That time may whistle by as rockets flare.
So the wind shall carry to the past of ours
only the ruffling of our hair.
Our planet is poorly equipped for delight.
One must snatch gladness from the days that are.
In this life
it’s not difficult to die.
To make life
is more difficult by far.

from To Sergei Esenin
Vladimir Vladimirovich Mayakovsky

Portait-of-Vladimir-Mayakovsky

84 years today since we lost Mayakovsky…

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