In my previous post I wrote about reading during the lockdown, particularly delving into some longer reads like War and Peace. This time gives us ample opportunity to tackle books that may have daunted us before. And, as I previously wrote, some of these are my ‘books-to-read-upon-retirement’ titles.
Well, I recently finished War and Peace and still think it’s worth tackling, although I also believe Tolstoy could have benefitted from a more parsimonious editor (speaking as a former book, magazine, and newspaper editor)
The story is full of drama, passion, war, and romance, but he all-too-often meandered from the plot into commentary about war, Napoleon, Kutuzov, politics, and leadership. These commentaries tend to obfuscate the story and dilute the drama. In fact, ninety percent of the epilogue could be discarded to the benefit of the pacing. But I digress. What I wanted to write about here are some other reading choices for our lockdown, some of which are pictured above.
First, the Arabian Nights, also known as One Thousand and One Nights. Thanks to Disney and Hollywood, many people are aware of some portions of this collection of tales such as the stories about Sinbad, Ali Baba, and Aladdin, but there are so many, many more tales in these books. If you even read just one story a night (plus the apocryphal material such as Sinbad), it would take more than three years to finish them all. But most of the stories (nights) are relatively short, so you can read two or three or even more at one sitting.
Since the tales tend to lead from one to another (in the classic cliffhanger tradition, they were spun out to keep the prince occupied so he wouldn’t kill the storyteller, although sometimes the connections are a bit thin), reading more than one at a time helps keep the continuity of the tales.
Part of the charm of these tales is their exotic setting: we can easily see them thanks to romanticized movies/games like the Prince of Persia or the Disney animations. Although the storyteller (Scheherazade or Shahrazad in the Penguin translation) says the stories are from the pre-Islamic Sasanid dynasty (226-641CE), many of them date from the eighth and ninth centuries, in the golden age of the Islamic empire (including the early decades of the Abbasid caliphate, which began in 750 CE). But the tales themselves have their ancestry in folk stories from India, Greece, Egypt, and even China (if you are familiar with the Nasrudin tales by Idries Shah, these will appeal to you).
What exactly constitutes the collection, however, is a matter of long academic debate (some of which you can read here), so what you read depends on the translator and his or her choice of source material.
While there are abbreviated versions of the collection, it’s well worth the effort to get a complete edition, and Penguin books has a 2,700-page trilogy in paperback (2010), translated by Malcolm and Ursula Lyons. It’s been well-received (although some reviewers think it a bit fusty compared to other more bawdy translations), I find it transports me to a truly wonderful world, and I am enjoying it immensely. If you’re unsure, suggest that you buy volume one and try it; if it proves enjoyable, you can purchase the remaining two.
At the bottom of the pile above is an older (1953) edition of another translation, this one by Powys from the French by Gallard (fortuitously found at the local library in a book sale). As someone who likes to compare translations for language, style, and content, I thought this would be a good pairing. but Lyons and Gallard come from different sources, so while some of the stories are the same, there is much that is different, and some are in a somewhat different order. Still, for Gallard’s inventiveness and creativity (he has been accused of making up much material on his own), the second is worth having, too.
Next up: Don Quixote, by Miguel Cervantes. often described as the first modern novel, it has entered our cultural consciousness almost entirely from one episode: Don Quixote’s tilting at windmills. But this is a single page of almost 1,000 in a book full of adventures and episodes – most as quirky and humorous as the windmills.
Like the Arabian Nights, because it’s a collection of short adventures, Don Quixote is easy to read a chapter-at-a-time without losing any continuity. The combination of confused but valiantly determined ‘knight’ and his comic sidekick (Sancho Panza), ill-fitted, on mounts inappropriate for their intended great deeds is delightfully entertaining; warm, funny, touching, and sad.
Cervantes wrote the book in two parts: the first was published in 1605 CE, the second in 1615, in a version of Spanish that is as distant from modern Spanish as Shakespeare’s English is to ours. So the translator has to not only change languages, but modernize it. Tough job.
Your biggest choice will be which edition to read. There have been six major new translations since 1999: by Burton Raffel (1999), John Rutherford (2000), Edith Grossman (2003), Tom Lathrop (2005), James H Montgomery (2006), Gerald J Davis (2012). I have the Grossman and Montgomery, as well as two older translations for comparison. Good translators include foot- or endnotes to explain references or phrases – which you will need to fully appreciate Cervante’s work.
Cervantes himself wrote of the art of translation, putting into Don Quixote’s mouth the words,
…it seems to me that translation from one language into another, if it be not from the queens of languages, the Greek and the Latin, is like looking at Flemish tapestries on the wrong side; for though the figures are visible, they are full of threads that make them indistinct, and they do not show with the smoothness and brightness of the right side; and translation from easy languages argues neither ingenuity nor command of words, any more than transcribing or copying out one document from another. But I do not mean by this to draw the inference that no credit is to be allowed for the work of translating, for a man may employ himself in ways worse and less profitable to himself.
And as happens in academia, there are supporters and critics of each translation, often vocal and vociferous in their defence or disparaging. I spent many hours reading reviews and comparisons before settling on these two, and I highly recommend both – you will not be disappointed or want for entertainment in any of the recent editions (for audiophiles, the Grossman edition is also available as a 35-CD audiobook).
Also in the photo, at the top, are two editions of Montaigne’s Essays, translated by Screech (second from top) and Frame (top). I’ve written about Montaigne several times in the past, so I won’t repeat myself here. I would, however, like to add that reading Montaigne is always a joy for me, and if you haven’t sampled his works, it’s a good time to do so.
Third: Marcel’s Proust’s massive, 3,300-page work, In Search of Lost Time. While I have only recently begun volume one (The Way by Swann’s), completing the series is next on my reading list (I have a few shorter works to finish, first).
On LitHub, in a post titled, Six reasons Why You Must Read Proust, blogger Joshua Zajdman says of the series, “It’s the book of life and the book of a lifetime.”
While it is actually a single novel, there are seven parts ( Swann’s Way, In the Shadow of Young Girls in Flower, The Guermantes Way, Sodom and Gomorrah, The Prisoner, The Fugitive, and Time Regained). The Penguin/Random House edition has it in six volumes, each part by a different translator.
Penguin’s editor, Christopher Prendergast, said in an interview in the Independent,
We live in a culture of speed, instant obsolescence and rapidly processed information. Proust is the antithesis of all this, an invitation to slow down and take one’s time… Once you get to the end, you feel you have been on a long and amazing journey.
On top of the pile are two editions of the Complete Works of Malory, both by Oxford University Press. Malory, of course, is the author of the now-famous Le Morte d’Arthur, the story of King Arthur, his knights, and the round table. It was first published by William Caxton, England’s first printer, in 1485. However, Caxton edited and revised Malory’s work, but this wasn’t realized until the 1930s, when an original manuscript was found in the library archives at Winchester College. These two volumes are based on that manuscript.
The Arthurian legends are full of adventure, romance, treachery, knightly deeds, war, chivalry, and festivals. Malory is fun to read in the original (without the modernized spelling or punctuation): he wrote a century earlier than Shakespeare, but because English has evolved so rapidly, he is much easier to understand than Chaucer, almost a century earlier than Malory. However, if you’re not up to deciphering them, there are available many versions of the stories revised into modern English. And all readers of English should have at least a basic experience in the Arthurian cycle because they had such an influence of the language, culture, and writing ever since.
Fourth: Giovanni Boccaccio’s The Decameron, one of the more apt titles for the lockdown. As Wikipedia says, it is the “100 tales told by a group of seven young women and three young men sheltering in a secluded villa just outside Florence to escape the Black Death, which was afflicting the city.” It was written between 1348 and 1352.
The hardcover at the bottom of the pile is the recent translation by Wayne Rebhorn, published in 2013. A paperback edition (2014) is now available. I also have an older Penguin translation, shown at the top of the pile.
The Decameron is NOT a medieval manual for escaping the plague nor even tolerating lockdown. The stories are ribald, funny, sad, religious, and often bawdy – told to entertain a group of young nobles who escape the plague by gallivanting around the countryside, staying in other people’s palaces. But like Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales and the Arabian Nights, these short tales are easy to read and always entertaining. They have some moralizing in the commentaries the group makes on them, but the tales more about the joys of living and loving.
Also in that pile are James Joyce’s Ulysses, a book I have begun several times, but sadly admit it has so far defeated me to get past the first 100 or so pages. However, my father read it cover-to-cover, so I persist in his memory.
There is also the recent Penguin translation of Alexander Dumas’ wonderful tale of adventure, The Count of Monte Cristo, which I read two years back. Like the recent edition of his Three Musketeers (also in Penguin), it is a rollicking adventure, full of action, exploits, escapes, and love. Dumas was a terrific writer of romantic adventures that stand up even today as great reads. He never disappoints his readers (and he’s a lot lighter than his often-gloomy contemporary, Victor Hugo).
And second from the bottom is The Tale of Genji, another recent Penguin translation. This 11th-century work, written by a woman, is often called the “world’s first novel.” It’s got a massive cast of characters, a complex plot, and an exotic setting. It’s a challenge for me to read because it is so foreign to everything I know, but the Penguin edition has excellent notes to help explain things like names, court protocol, relationships, clothing, and so on. I am slowly progressing through it.
Fifth: And then there are others, so many others that I have almost run out of time and space.
Everyone, I assume, has read at least some of Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes stories and novels. The two volumes on the left are from the Annotated Sherlock Holmes series and include all 56 stories (the third volume – not shown here, but in hardcover only at present – includes the four novels). Aside from being great fun to read, the series provides extensive notes that explain the references and contemporary issues and events that are in the books. Sherlockian fans should love this series, but they really help general readers, too.
I can’t resist including some lighter material: the novels of Edgar Rice Burroughs. I was raised on this stuff (I first read Tarzan at age 8 or 9) and have read about 80-90 percent of his works (mea culpa, but I have not read his western novels). I read his entire Barsoom (Mars) series at least three times, and Pellucidar twice, and the first five or so Tarzan novels twice, and the rest of my collection once.
If you haven’t read Burroughs, then I suggest the first three Tarzan and the first five Barsoom as the places to start (depending on whether you want African adventure or scifi/fantasy). The movie John Carter of Mars was fun, but doesn’t do the novel – or Burroughs’ imagination – justice. Recent Tarzan movies fare the same (the vintage movies are more thinly related to the character and stories, albeit a lot of fun to watch, much like the vintage Hercules films).
I don’t recommend binge-reading them as a series because there is a sameness, even repetitiveness in the adventures that can pale the reader’s interest. Read one, then something else, then go back and read another, to keep the excitement and entertainment fresh. Yes, they tend to be chauvinistic (although many female protagonists are strong), and the Tarzan series is sometimes racist, but you have to allow for the era (A Princess of Mars was published in 1912, Tarzan in 1914).
My last recommendation is non-fiction: the diaries of Giacomo Casanova (Histoire de ma vie). Yes, that Casanova: icon of sexual adventurism and misbehaviour. But Casanova (“Chevalier De Seingalt”) was many things you may not expect: a playwright, an abbe in the church, a spy, gambler, mathematician, merchant, theatrical performer, a prisoner, a fugitive, and even a librarian. He travelled extensively throughout Europe in the late 18th century, meeting many of the great people, including the royalty and the politicians of his day. And he comments on the mores, the fashions, the politics, the faith, architecture, the people, the food, and social structures in every place he visited.
His ‘bad’ reputation springs from having his diaries heavily edited and revised postmortem to highlight (and embellish) his amorous affairs at the expense of his other activities. Hence his iconic reputation today – not entirely undeserved, but certainly only a small part of who this complex man was (and by today’s standards, his sexual adventures are remarkably tame).
Thanks to the discovery of many of the original manuscripts (some original chapters are still missing), readers can discover the actual Casanova in his own words (this edition translated by Willard Trask, 1966-71, with numerous notes and photographs). It is a rare and intimate window into the late 18th century.
Since it may be difficult to find this edition, if you are interested in reading further, about both Casanova and his time, I recommend you search online for biographies of Casanova to learn more about the man and his many adventures. A new edition of the diaries (from Laffont) in French is available now, although not translated into English yet.