I recently had the chance to interview the marvelous David Shook about the equally marvelous Like a New Sun, a book of contemporary indigenous Mexican poetry, which he edited and co-translated. You can read the interview over at Asymptote’s blog.
I first read about Asymptote here on Biblioklept a few years ago. I’m happy to share that I have joined their ranks as Interview Features Editor, and that this is my first interview with them. Check back often for more interviews with translators, poets, novelists, and more.
Shameless plug over! Thanks for reading.
Killers of the Dream by Lillian Smith. Doubleday Anchor, 1963 mass market paperback edition. Cover design by George Giusti. Smith’s memoir-essay-critique is an underappreciated masterful dissection of the South in particular and humanity in general.
Moses, Man of the Mountain by Zora Neale Hurston. First-edition clothbound hardback from J. B. Lippincott, 1939. The dust jacket is missing, and no designer is credited in the book. I picked this up for eight dollars a few years ago. I lent my paperback copy to a student years ago; she never returned it. (Good for her!).
Afro-Cuban Tales by Lydia Cabrera. 2004 trade paperback by the University of Nebraska Press. Book design by R. Eckersley; cover illustration by Lydia Cabrera. Cabrera (1899-1991), an ethnographer, went beyond documenting the tales and fables of her native Cuba: she synthesized them into new tellings, new variations (not unlike Zora Neale Hurston’s folklore work in Mules and Men and Tell My Horse). Cabrera deserves a wider audience.
Last month, to mark its bicentennial, Penguin Classics published a deluxe edition of Jane Austen’s novel Emma. It’s a beautiful, hefty book, with deckle edges, French flaps, and a cool cover by Dadu Shin.
Beyond its obvious aesthetic appeal, Penguin’s new edition offers its readers helpful resources, including a note on spelling in the novel, a glossary, and a range of essays that offer context for better appreciating the plot (topics include “Dancing,” “Food,” and “Health”). Indeed, this edition seems geared towards helping younger readers appreciate and enjoy Emma. In a prefatory note, editor Juliette Wells writes:
This edition is designed to help. It’s a reader’s edition, not a scholarly one. In other words, the information you’ll find here is intended to support your understanding and appreciation of Emma rather than to instruct you in literary terms, theoretical perspectives, or critical debates. In choosing what to include, I’ve borne in mind what I’ve heard from students and others over the years about what has intrigued, and frustrated, them in reading this novel.
Wells’s brief introduction helps offer new readers context about the novel’s composition, publication, and reception. She even offers a short series of tips for reading Emma (sample: “If you’re feeling frustrated or bored because nothing much seems to be happening, remember that Austen’s own contemporaries commented on how little plot Emma contains and how ordinary its characters and events are”). The edition also features helpful maps (by Wells), along with illustrations and title pages from previous editions. The volume concludes with a suggested reading and viewing list “for further exploration.”
Emma is obviously in the public domain and available in plenty of inexpensive versions (like the Dover Thrift copy I read in high school)—but this new Penguin Classics edition makes a strong case for itself as the future go-to version for high school students. Wells’s editorial vision (and the aesthetic design of the book) show a strong love for Austen’s text that will carry over to a new generation of readers. Continue reading “A bicentennial edition of Jane Austen’s Emma from Penguin Classics”
How difficult it is in general to bring the machinery of thought to a standstill is shown by Rousseau’s description of his apparently so happy days on the island in the Lac de Bienne. He has, as he writes in the fifth Promenade, deliberately forsworn the burden of work, and his greatest joy has been to leave his books safely shut away and to have neither ink nor paper to hand. However, since the leisure time thus freed up must be put to some use, Rousseau devotes himself to the study of botany, whose basic principles he had acquired in Môtiers on excursions with Jean Antoine d’Ivernois. “I set out to compose,” writes Rousseau in the fifth Promenade, “a Flora Petrinsularis and to describe every single plant on the island in enough detail to keep me busy for the rest of my days. They say a German once wrote a book about a lemon peel; I could have written one about every grass in the meadows, every moss in the woods, every lichen covering the rocks—and I did not want to leave even one blade of grass or atom of vegetation without a full and detailed description. In accordance with this noble plan, every morning after breakfast I would set out with a magnifying glass in my hand and my Systemae Naturae under my arm to study one particular section of the island, which I had divided for this purpose into small squares, intending to visit them all one after another in every season.” The central motif of this passage is not so much the impartial insight into the indigenous plants of the island as that of ordering, classification, and the creation of a perfect system. Thus this apparently innocent occupation—the deliberate resolve no longer to think and merely to look at nature—becomes, for the writer plagued by the chronic need to think and work, a demanding rationalistic project involving the compiling of lists, indices, and catalogs, along with the precise description of, for example, the long stamens of self-heal, the springiness of those of nettle and of wall-pellitory, and the sudden bursting of the seed capsules of balsam and of beech. Nonetheless, the leaves of the small herbaria which Rousseau later compiled for Madelon and Julie de la Tour and other young ladies take on the aspect of an innocent bricolage in comparison with the self-destructive business of writing to which he usually submitted himself. A faint aura of unconscious beauty still hovers over these flower collections, in which lichens, sprigs of veronica, lilies of the valley, and autumn crocuses have survived, pressed and a little faded, from the eighteenth century. They can still be admired today in the Musée Carnavalet and the Musée des Arts Décoratifs. The herbarium Rousseau compiled for himself, meanwhile—eleven quarto volumes—was, up to the Second World War, preserved in the Botanical Museum in Berlin, until, like so much and so many in that city, it went up in flames one night during one of the nocturnal bombing raids.
From W. G. Sebald’s essay “J’aurais voulu que ce lac eût été l’Océan.” Translated by Jo Catling and collected in A Place in the Country.
From R.D. Laing’s Knots (1970).
Don Juan and Faust alike are former villains of the orthodox mind made heroes in an age of unorthodoxy, Promethean or Satanic figures; and both come to stand for the lonely individual (the writer himself!) challenging the mores of bourgeois society, making patent to all men the ill-kept secret that the codes by which they live are archaic survivals without point or power.
Often the two archetypes are blended in a single literary character, as in the lover-scientist Goethe calls by the name of Faust. But there is a real difference between the rebel whose life style is cued by passion and the one whose life style is compounded out of pride and terror—between the seducer and the black magician. Faust challenges the limitations set upon experience not in the name of pleasure but of knowledge; he seeks not to taste life without restraint but to control it fully; and his essential crime (or glory!) is, therefore, not seduction but the Satanic bargain: to sell one’s soul to the Devil. But what does it mean to sell one’s soul? The symbol is immensely complex, its significances multiple; they can be summed up, however, in the single phrase to choose to be damned, whatever damnation is. Not to fall into error out of a passionate loss of self-control, not even to choose to sin at a risk of damnation; but to commit oneself to it with absolute certainty for “as long as forever is.”
Damnation itself means various things to men of varying belief: a commitment to the vagaries of the unconscious; an abandonment of the comforts of social life—of marriage and the family, wealth and recognition; a rejection of all bonds of love and sympathy, of humanity itself; a deliberate plunge into insanity; and acceptance of eternal torment for the soul. When Huck Finn cries out, “all right, I’ll go to Hell,” and Ahab, “From hell’s heart I stab at thee!”; when Hester Prynne tears off her scarlet letter, they are Faustian heroes; but so, too (in all modesty and moral elegance), is Henry James’s Strether when he rejects Mrs. Newsome and Maria Gostrey alike, refuses all rewards from life; and so, too, is Hawthorne when confiding to a friend, after the composition of The Scarlet Letter, that he had written a “hell-fired book.” Anyone who, in full consciousness, surrenders the hope of heaven (what everyone says heaven is) for the endurance of hell (what everyone knows hell to be) has entered into a pact with Satan; and the very act, therefore, of writing a gothic novel rather than a sentimental one, of devoting a long fiction to terror rather than love, is itself a Faustian commitment.
From Leslie Fiedler’s Love and Death in the American Novel.
Kleinzeit by Russell Hoban. 1983 Summit Books trade paperback edition. Cover design by Fred Marcellino. A stark and funny retelling of the Orpheus myth, Hoban’s second novel obsesses over illness and art. Fans of Tom McCarthy might dig this one.
The Lion of Boaz-Jachin and Jachin-Boaz by Russell Hoban. 1983 Summit Books trade paperback edition. Cover design by Fred Marcellino. Hoban’s first novel. Not my favorite Hoban. Pilgermann by Russell Hoban. 1984 Washington Square Press trade paperback. No designer is credited, but look closely under the horse’s fore hooves and note the signature “Rowena” — Rowena Morrill. (Note also the pig and naked lady). Pilgermann, Hoban’s follow-up (and somehow-sequel) to Riddley Walker, was the occasion for this Sunday’s Three Books post. I was reminded of this strange, wicked, dark, funny, apocalyptic book as I finished a reread of Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian and began Kazuo Ishiguro’s The Buried Giant this weekend. Pilgermann is difficult but rewarding, and probably underappreciated, even as a cult novel.