Monday, April 19, 2010

beach reads revisited

My ex-husband David, hero of our earlier post on A Beach Read of All Times, draws to my attention a number of inaccuracies. It's not exactly, or rather not entirely, that I misremembered his account of being promised unlimited books for a beach vacation: I misremembered one thing (number of books read before the deal collapsed), remembered no details for other aspects of the incident (time, place, weather), and (I maintain) followed an example common in ancient historians, fleshing out according to probability.

For the record, David was indeed 13 when hauled off volens nolens (or rather, emphatically nolens) on a beach holiday, with the sweetener of as many books as he could read. David did, and indeed does, have two younger sisters. The rest is an example of everything that is worst about the novelistic approach to history. Superficially plausible, but wrong. For the record (and this is, of course, why the ability to read primary sources is so invaluable to the historian):

right that I was 13 at the time, but my mother didn't buy me five books for
the first day. She bought me two books, and I finished them by early
afternoon (and so probably could have read five books in the whole day if
I'd had them, but I didn't). Anyway, I suppose that shows just how
unrealistic my mother was - that she assumed that a mere two books would
keep me going for any length of time (in the absence of grammatical
commentaries on Homer and Kurosawa, that is). I suspect the problem was
that no one in my family, even my mother, paid sufficient attention to what
I was reading to appreciate how fast I was reading it. Which is why, even
four or five years after that, I could still encounter amazed scepticism
from relatives when they saw me do my party trick of looking briefly at a
page of text and then answering questions on its contents.

The two books, by the way, were both by Daphne Du Maurier: Jamaica Inn and
The Scapegoat. My mother selected them, of course - not that I actively
disliked Daphne Du Maurier (though I much preferred Jamaica Inn to The
Scapegoat), but I don't think they would have been close to the top of my
list had I been choosing for myself.

Also, your comments on British beach holidays, however just in general, are
in fact misplaced here. This was the summer of 1976, famous as the hottest
of all British summers. We had three weeks of unbroken sunshine, with
temperatures regularly in the 80s. And we spent our holiday in Perranporth
in north Cornwall, which has extensive sandy beaches - if only one likes
sandy beaches. And the heat of the sun made it all the more attractive to
simply stay in the shade and read.
I think there are lessons to be learnt (sorry, been watching too much South Park), with wider implications than whether The Last Samurai can/should be kept in print.

My impression is that it's common for parents not to pay much attention to what their children are doing unless it's likely to cause problems. A child quietly reading in a corner is A Good Thing. A parent - especially a parent with two smaller children, two less easily entertained children - is likely to feel that Child A has been taken care of. There's no pressing need to think about what would be best for Child A to read next. And it's not necessarily easy for a parent to know what to get Child A even if they bother to think about it.

To take an example, many teenagers love The Lord of the Rings. (David Foster Wallace mentions, in David Lipsky's new book, that he liked reading Tolkien; it was more of a publishing phenomenon in the 70s than now, but the films have given it a large new audience.) For many, the linguistic elements of the book are part of its charm. To me, obvious recommendations for such a reader would be Malory's Morte d'Arthur with the original spelling

The text is unabridged, with original spelling and extensive, easy-to-use marginal glosses and footnotes. No other edition accurately represents the actual (and likely authorial) divisions of the text as attested to by its two surviving witnesses—Caxton's 1485 print and, especially, the famous Winchester Manuscript. The Winchester Manuscript is now generally agreed to be the more authentic of the two surviving manuscripts. The Norton Critical Edition is the first edition of Malory to recover important elements of this manuscript: paragraphing, marginal annotations, hierarchies of narrative division as signaled by size and decorative intricacy of initial capitals and font changes. The Norton Critical Edition also represents, in black-letter font, the striking rubrication of proper names in the Winchester Manuscript, reconstructing for readers something of an authentic medieval reading experience, one which gives visual support to Malory's extraordinary representation, in character and setting, of a chivalric ideal. No other student edition of Malory contains such extensive contextual and critical support.

Icelandic sagas in translation

There was a man named Mord whose nickname was Gilja. He was the son of Sighvat the Red, and he lived at Voll in the Rangarvellir District...

It was in the days of King Harald Fine-Hair that a man called Hallfred brought his ship to Iceland, putting in at Breiddale east of the Fljotsdale district. On board were his wife and their fifteen-year-old son Hrafnkel, a handsome and promising youngster...

There was a man by the name of Odd Onundarson living in Borgarfjord, at Breidapolstad in Reykjardal. He was married to a lady called Jorunn, a shrewd woman of fine breeding, and they had four children, two fine sons and two daughters. One of their sons was called Thorodd and the other Thorvald, and their daughters were called Thurid and Jofrid. Odd was known as Tungu-Odd, and had no great reputation for fair dealing.

[If you have never read or liked Tolkien you may not see why a book that opens this way would look so appealing]

- and Gordon's Introduction to Old Norse, currently available new on Amazon for a heartstopping $76.78.

[back cover: This comprehensive book provides the student with everything he wants to get a good working knowledge of Old Norse]

DETAILS of Snorri's life are known from the history commonly called Islendinga saga, written by his nephew Sturla Þórðarson. It forms part of the long Sturlunga Saga which follows through many generations the history of the great family to which Snorri belonged. Snorri´s age was a time of uncontrolled ambition and faction among Icelandic chiefs; and Snorri was as ambitious and grasping as any of them. Though less treacherous and violent than most, he was not a scrupulous politician. He has even been called a traitor, because he promised the king of Norway to bring Iceland under his rule. But this was a diplomatic promise which he did not try to fulfil; he gave it to save Iceland from invasion...

Gylfaginning (The Beguiling of Gylfi) is so named from the device which forms the framework of this part. Gylfi, a king in Sweden who dealt in magic, heard of the great cunning of Æsir and set out to discover the secret of their power. He travelled in disguise and gave his name as Gangleri (Wayworn)...

Þat var snimma í ondverða bygð goðanna, þá er goðin hofðu sett Miðgarð ok gort Valhóll, þá kom þar smiðr nokkurr ok bauð at gøra þeim borg á þrim misserum svá góða at trú ok ørugg væri fyrir bergrisum ok hrímþursum, þótt þeir kœmi inn um Miðgarð...

[If you have ever had the childish tastes which annoyed Christine Brooke-Rose in readers of Tolkien, you'll know that you don't actually need to know what the last paragraph says to find it irresistible. Þat! ørugg! Miðgarð! But how could a parent be expected to know?]


The Nibelungenlied

of which Yale University Press aays

No poem in German literature is so well known and studied in Germany and Europe as the 800-year-old Das Nibelungenlied. In the English-speaking world, however, the poem has remained little known, languishing without an adequate translation. This wonderful new translation by eminent translator Burton Raffel brings the epic poem to life in English for the first time, rendering it in verse that does full justice to the original High Middle German. His translation underscores the formal aspects of the poem and preserves its haunting beauty. Often called the German lliad, Das Nibelungenlied is a heroic epic both national in character and sweeping in scope. The poem moves inexorably from romance through tragedy to holocaust. It portrays the existential struggles and downfall of an entire people, the Burgundians, in a military conflict with the Huns and their king. In his foreword to the book, Michael Dirda observes that the story “could be easily updated to describe the downfall of a Mafia crime family, something like The Godfather, with swords.” The tremendous appeal of Das Nibelungenlied throughout the nineteenth and twentieth centuries is reflected in such works as Richard Wagner’s opera tetralogy Der Ring des Nibelungen, Fritz Lang’s two-part film Die Nibelungen, and, more recently, J. R. R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings.
I've embedded images of these books because they offer, in various ways, some of the visual appeal which takes hold of readers of LOTR, The Hobbit and so on; Tolkien was susceptible to the paraphernalia of scholarship, to maps, manuscripts, the annotations which triangulate desire on such artifacts as objects of retrospection to a more heroic time - one constructed as real through the survival of such relics. For a certain sort of reader, scholarship is glamorous because reinforcing l'effet du réel. I note that our society does not encourage us to think of children or teenagers as having a longing for scholarship, or to encourage them to pursue the sort of scholarship they could enjoy; OUP, which publishes Gordon, gives no sign of seeing itself as having a potential readership in the region of 1%, or even .1%, of Tolkien's hundred million. (At $76.78 it is, of course, out of the price range of all but the most indulged or indulgent.)

Not sure what to do about this, but it is one reason I'd rather see a different cultural practice, such that the books visible to the public were not confined to bookstores and libraries, and individuals who saw that a certain sort of book was likely to appeal to certain sorts of readers were more active in getting it out in the world in unconventional places.

David asks, anyway, whether one couldn't just buy a few copies of The Last Samurai on Amazon and give them to friends, and of course one could.


Anonymous said...

Have you read Jenny Turner on Reasons for Liking Tolkien in the LRB? It's fantastic. Unlike (apparently) everyone else, I never really liked Tolkien, but I never understood why it seemed silly to me when so many people loved it. When I read that article, it all made sense.

Helen DeWitt said...

Yes, it's a terrific piece.