Literary Gossip is Good for the Soul: News, Prizes, and Links

algonquin round table 610_algonquin_aboutSometimes it’s pleasant to post literary gossip and links to juicy articles about books. (Juicy by our unexciting standards.)

1.  Who is the  biggest publisher of literature in translation in the U.S.?  The New York Times reports,

It’s not Random House, and it’s not a specialized indie outfit like Europa Editions or New Directions. It’s Last year, the company’s translation imprint, AmazonCrossing, brought out 44 new English translations from a diverse slate of literature, including Icelandic, Turkish and Korean. That’s more translated titles than any other American publisher, according to data from Three Percent, a literary translation blog at the University of Rochester.

2.  In The Guardian, Tessa Hadley writes about Margaret Drabble’s first novel, The Millstone She says, “For my money, it’s the seminal 60s feminist novel that Doris Lessing’s The Golden Notebook is always supposed to be.”

the millstone drabble 41XWah-yQmL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_3.  In The Guardian, we also learned that Dorothy Richardson’s superb sequence of novels, Pilgrimage, is to be reissued by Oxford World Classics. 

Dorothy Richardson

Dorothy Richardson

4.  At the TLS blog, you can read Michael Caines’s article on rediscovering Brigid Brophy. Coincidentally, on my e-reader I have a copy of of Brophy’s The Finishing Touch, with an introduction by TLS editor Sir Peter Stothard.

Brophy the finishing touch 51tTNdHJzML5.  Karen E. Bender’s stunning collection of short stories,  Refund, is on the longlist for the Frank O’Connor International Short Story award.  (I blogged about this extraordinary book here.)

Karen E. Bender Refund book-refund-stories6.  Jo Walton has won the James Tiptree Award for her dazzling novel, My Real Children (I wrote about it here.)

Jo Walton's My Real Children7.  Wendy Pollard’s brilliant biography of Pamela Hansford Johnson, who is one of my favorite writers,  is a finalist for The People’s Book Prize. (You can vote here.) Wendy said in an email that it is “a vote for literary biography.” I interviewed Wendy here.

wendy pollard Pamela-hansford-Johnson-web8. Penguin has reissued Shirley Jackson’s Life Among the Savages and Raising Demons.  Ruth Franklin in The New York Times Book Review describes them as “a collection of warm and funny magazine pieces chronicling the ups and downs of Shirley Jackson’s household.” Franklin also reports that  ten years after the publication of Life Among the Savages, “Betty Friedan accused Jackson of betraying her readers by contributing to the pernicious myth of the ‘happy housewife’ purveyed by women’s magazines of the era.”  Hm, I love Betty Friedan, but I also enjoyed Jackson’s funny memoirs.

life among the savages and raising demons 1505_SBR_SHIRLEY_COVER.jpg.CROP.original-original

The Poison Pen in Dorothy Sayers’s Gaudy Night

Dorothy sayers gaudy night 51HkbAgFJTL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_Gaudy Night is not Dorothy Sayers’s most amusing mystery, but it is undoubtedly her most brilliant literary novel.

The elaborate plot is disturbing and hyperrealistic.  The heroine, Harriet Vane, a tormented mystery writer who was tried and acquitted for the murder of her lover, returns to her alma mater, Shrewsbury College, a women’s college at Oxford, to investigate a poison pen writer who is also playing poltergeist.  Her long-time suitor, Lord Peter Wimsey, the amateur detective and star of most of Sayers’s novels, comes to her aid. The women at the college, who pride themselves on their independence in the 1930s when women’s education was not the status quo, ironically need a man to solve the case.

And yet, despite this clichéd business of the women’s failure to find the perpetrator, Sayers deepens the psychology of her characters.. Harriet, who has always been improbably annoyed by Peter’s attentions, becomes more vulnerable and sympathetic as she seeks a refuge in scholarship at Oxford, only to be tormented by fear again. And it turns out that Peter, exhausted by work at the Foreign Office, has a similar temperament. He got a first at Oxford, which Harriet had not known. He also wishes he could retreat to Oxford, but the world exists there, too.

sayers old paperback gaudy_nightUsually I read for character, not plot, but what strikes me on my third reading of Gaudy Night is the very contemporary problem of the poison pen.  On the internet there are trolls.  Oddly, it is TV-watching that has brought this issue to my attention.  The beautiful Rumer Willis, one of the finalists on Dancing with the Stars this season, has said that she was “bullied” on social media about her unconventional looks (and, indeed, some of these horrifying tweets were shown on this DWTS episode).

I rarely see this kind of comment at book blogs, and fortunately am under the radar at Mirabile Dictu. But social media can be risky, and even online book discussions can be contentious. I have seen perfectly nice online groups splinter over very insignificant matters. Indeed, I have never been forgiven by a Virago group, or perhaps it was a Persephone group, for gently mocking the constant Virago and Persephone reading weeks.  And I love Viragos!

Jason Silverman’s wrote in article in 2012 about the pressure on the internet to be  “nice,” i.e., uncritical.  I wrote a response at my old blog:

I once said something about Persephone books (or was it Virago?) that upset quite a few bloggers who every few months declared it Persephone Week (or was it Virago Week?). I spoke out against “Amazon affiliates” and got even more grief. And recently I was called a “bitch” and a “bad reader” for trashing John Irving’s In One Person. …but I delete all comments that call me a bitch, unless I forget (which happens if I’m busy).

There are poison pens online, and there are patrol pens online.  But of course there are also good friends on the net.

Are There Words with That? and Turning off the Like Button

Unlikely though it might seem, I have become an aficionado of the Book in a Box.

It started this spring when I bought a used copy of the 1975 Folio Society edition of Rosemary Edmonds’s translation of War and Peace.

David Bellos Is That a Fish in Your Ear 11431000I became interested in Edmonds during my reading of David Bellos’s stunning book, Is That a Fish in Your Ear?:  Translation and the Meaning of Everything.  He quotes a passage from Edmonds’s translation of War and Peace to illustrate how Tolstoy links “the force of an utterance…to the identity of the speaker”…

The excerpt was so direct and simple that I wondered if Edmonds might be the bridge between the “Victorian-novel” elegance of Aylmer and Louise Maude  and the roughness of  Pevear and Volokhonsky.  And so I ordered the 1997 Folio Society reprint of Edmonds’s translation, which she originally did for Penguin.

Frontispiece of the Folio Society edition, 1997 reprint. Edmonds translation

Frontispiece of the Folio Society edition, 1997 reprint, Edmonds translation

My experience with classics has taught me that English translations rarely capture the unique style and structure of foreign languages:  the English translations of Catullus, the most sinuous, sensuous of poets who sometimes translated Sappho,  are very stilted , with the exception of David Ferry, who reworks the poems so that they are far from  literal translations.  We are completely dependent on the translator if we do not know the language. I certainly do not know Russian.  The elegant Maude translation has been imprinted on my brain, but Edmonds’s smartness and lucidity are equally striking.

Right now I am reading Edmonds’ translation of  Anna Karenina.  I bought yet another beautiful book in a box–the 1975 Folio Scoiety edition–which has illustrations by Dodie Masterman.

My husband wants to know, “Are there words with that?”

I think the illustrations add something to the text.:)


I disapprove of social media.

It is lazy.  It is dull.

It is panem et circenses 

Facebook  is an advertising and surveillance network, Twitter (ditto),  Goodreads (ditto), Shelfari (ditto), etc.

And here at WordPress I practice the craft of blogging, i.e., posting diary entries on the internet instead of in the pages of my orange leatherette  diary (from Target, the fun, stylish box store).  My blog is very fast–draft and post in a few hours–unlike the crisp writing I did for money at my old job.  It is social media!

There is a superabundance of social media on the internet.  Very little of it has value.  But I understand it will last forever, like atomic waste.

In 2012 several male critics  attacked  blogs and social media. It was  male networking at its finest.  Editors, critics, computer guys–you name it, they were gathering at their clubs. I expected them to read Robert Bly and go camping in the woods and howl.  They complained that social media were destroying book and film criticism.  Social media are too “nice,” or was it “too mean?”  I thought they sounded like a ridiculously whiny out-of-date Greek chorus.  The internet has ruined not just criticism–it has ruined everything!  Don’t they get it?  Are they not on this planet?  No more letters, no more bookstores, no more music stores, live-streaming of this and that (and I just got used to my DVD player and CD player and I don’t think my 15-year-old TV is capable of live-streaming), no more writing (try not to say more than a sentence or two and use a lot of emoticons and abbreviations like u for you), no more newspapers (they’re dying), no more post office (it is cutting back hours), no more pay phones, no more ozone layer (well, I can’t blame that on the internet).   They’re just hoping the damned cloud with our information will stay up because we’re going to spend a lot of time indoors.

Oh, and just so you know:  I turned off the like button.  Likes were starting to make sense:  that’s why I had to pull the plug.  Because a like button is the la-a-a-a-a-z-z-z-z-iest communication on earth

Addiction to “Dancing With the Stars”: Ten

Riker Lynch and Julianne Hough on Dancing With the Stars

Julianne Hough with  Riker Lynch before the semifinals on Dancing With the Stars

I dropped out of ballet after I got the coveted ballet slippers.

I could not claw my way out of an imaginary box in modern dance.

Love of rock music:  ten.  Grace and flexibility:  zero.

But here’s a fun fact:  I love Dancing With the Stars.

Millions of overweight potato-chip-chewing non-dancers like myself are addicted to Dancing With the Stars. Every Monday night I sit for two hours in front of this strange Broadway-esque Ballroom-Contemporary Dancing competition.  Then I talk about it all week to my husband, Who Just Doesn’t Care.

Reasons to watch:

Nastia and Derek, semifinals

Nastia and Derek, semifinals

1.  There is always an Olympic athlete on the show. The graceful Gold Medal-winning ice dancers, Meryl Davis and Charlie White, competed on Dancing With the Stars in 2014 and Meryl won.  This season Nastia Liukin,  a Gold Medal-winning Olympic gymnast, is breathtaking.

2.  It is  fun from the couch to gently mock the stars you haven’t heard of.   But then you realize that Riker Lynch (a rocker-actor who is in a band and was on Glee) is one of the most elegant dancers. Rumer Willis, the actress daughter of Demi Moore and Bruce Willis, is Another One to Watch. And I like her name.  She was named after Rumer Godden, one of my favorite writers.

3.  Even bad dancers improve.  Yes, the likable Chris Soules of The Bachelor was THE worst dancer this season, but he improved, and of course his pro partner Witney was his rock.  I’m glad he got eliminated, though, because better dancers were getting voted off the show.

The judges

The judges

4.  The four judges will teach you what to look for (connection, footwork, emotion, etc.).  Well, you sort of get the hang of it.  Carrie Ann is a creative madwoman who is passionate about dance,  Len, the 70ish Englishman, is very strict, Julianne Hough, a former pro on DWTS, is one of the gentler, more unpredictable voices, and Bruno is the most dramatic and eloquent.  (Actually, he and Carrie Ann are tied for drama and vocab.)

5.  The pro dancers are fascinating.  We don’t learn much about them, but we see them working with their partners in the studio and soothing their tears and encouraging them to get back on the ballroom floor.

6.  The most frustrating aspect about judging is the so-called America. Yes, “America” is one of the judges.  After the show viewers can call or tweet to vote for their favorite couple .These scores are factored into the judges’ scores. The results can be pretty weird, as popular people stay on the show and the talented are voted off.   I can only hope  “America” doesn’t go all militaristic and send gallant Noah, a former solider who lost a  leg and arm in  battle, to the finals..   I was touched by his dance, but then he did this weird thing. He dropped to his knee and proposed to his girlfriend.    I consider marriage proposals  a “don’t” during a dance competition.  Or am I just being a snob?

THIS IS THE BEST SHOW EVER.  REALLY!  Don’t call during the show because I won’t answer it.  Maybe we should place bets with a bookie on win, place, or show–not that I remember what that means.

Stella Gibbons’s The Charmers

Stella Gibbons

Stella Gibbons

There has been a revival in recent years of the work of Stella Gibbons.

Best-known for her satiric first novel, Cold Comfort Farm, the winner of the Femina Vie Heureuse Prize in 1933, Gibbons also wrote over 30 other novels and collections of short stories.  Vintage and Virago have reissued several of her charming books.  I very much enjoyed The Rich House and Westwood.

I recently read The Charmers, first published in 1965, a small gem reminiscent of the comedies of Barbara Pym. This gently humorous novel has a middle-aged spinster heroine, Christine Smith,  who has lost her office job of 30 years during a “reorganization” of the  firm.  While her parents were alive, she lived at home and was a slave of their  electric appliances, spending her leisure buying new toasters or taking them in for repairs. Finally free to live on her own, Christine finds a job as a housekeeper for a group of middle-aged artists.

Christine’s married sister tries to persuade her to give her live-in flat to her son and his  wife, who, she says, need the flat more than Christine.  This is typical of her family’s treatment of Christine.

[Christine] did not miss her family.  She had always felt herself to be odd-woman-out in the family circle, the one who was unlikely to marry, and could be relied on to look after Mother and Father and keep them supplied with electric kettles and toasters until they subsided into their graves…

Stella Gibbons The Charmers 31-9co6Bo+L._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_Christine is fascinated by her charming new employers, who have divided the house into five flats and are sharing expenses:  Mrs. Fabia Traill, who has had four husbands, illustrates stories for women’s magazines;  Clive Lennox, a famous actor, is relieved at his age to land the “second lead” in a new Noel Coward play; glamorous, single Antonia Marriott is a top fashion designer; and Diana Meredith is a dilettante potter who spends most of her time shopping, while  her charming husband James potters about.

Christine blooms in the atmosphere of Pemberton Hall.  She enjoys the artists’ gossip at meals and the contrasting peace of own her little flat at the top of the house.  She is horrified when Mrs. Traill offers her a TV.  Christine’s parents had cared more for characters on TV than they had for real people.

Christine meets people of other classes, ages, and races..  She is nervous when she hires a “black” cleaner, Mr. Johnson.  She chats with him over tea on his breaks and likes him very much, but he is always late, complains about doing “women’s work,” and admits he likes his other employers better.  (His other employers give him a flat with a TV .)

Then there is Clive’s sloppy 17-year-old daughter, an aspiring actress who dresses in jeans and boots.  The adults cannot understand her appalling boho dress sense.  Gradually she is transformed by a dress designed by Antonia’s boss.

The changes of the 1960s are gently touched upon.  The economy is uncertain, the young are rebelling, and there are political and social changes.  But Gibbons concentrates on the changes in Christine.  Her confidence makes her more attractive.  She meets her former manager, Mr. Richards, on the bus, and learns that he, too, has been let go from the firm.  He asks her to tea and dinner, and their dates inspire her with little enthusiasm, but she very much likes his sister, Moira, and her husband, Frank. Now if only she wanted to marry Mr Richards…

Through charming descriptions, pitch-perfect dialogue, and scenes that highlight the relationships among these very different people, Gibbons has written a small perfect book.

Nancy in Dickens’s Oliver Twist

“Nancy,” a pencil study by Charles Pears for Oliver Twist (1912).

I love the long, ambitious, intricately-structured novels of the nineteenth century.  And I am an ardent admirer of Dickens, whose novels are dark social satires, yet are also comedies and sentimental comfort reads.

I have read so much Dickens–my favorites over and over–that I superimpose his dark foggy smoky London on the modern city.  Wandering around Bloomsbury to find the Charles Dickens Museum on Doughty Street, I felt like one of Dickens’s purposeful, domestic females, my British Museum bag slung over my arm instead of a marketing basket. (Perhaps I was thinking of Esther Summerson or Little Dorrit.) And a-marketing I did go, because  I purchased books in the museum shop.

oliver twist dickens everyman 9780679417248_p0_v1_s260x420But I recently reread Dickens’s superb second novel, Oliver Twist, and I have been thinking of Nancy, a clever but undomestic female character.  Nancy, a prostitute raised by a gang, eventually saves the orphan OliverTwist from a life of theft,  burglary, and violence.  Fagin, “a Jew” (yes, the nineteenth-century stereotype), is an elderly gang leader who trains children to pick pockets.  He takes special pride in his attempts to corrupt Oliver, who, though raised and starved in the workhouse, is a naturally sweet boy, and, indeed, we later learn that Fagin has been paid to turn him into a criminal by a not-so-gentle gentleman..

Nancy’s loyalties are complicated, and when Oliver escapes from Fagin, she helps the gang track him down.  But when he escapes the second time, after he is shot during an attempted burglary organized by others,  Nancy has a bad conscience.   She contacts Rose Maylie, who with her aunt has rescued Oliver, and passes on information that the gang plans to kidnap him

Nancy is a a victim of Battered Woman Syndrome, though that is probably not how Dickens thought of her.  Her boyfriend is Sikes, a criminal who abuses and beats her, and poor Nancy, who has no one else to love, insists on returning to him, despite Rose’s pleas.  When Sikes learns she has betrayed him, he murders her by beating her with his pistol.

She staggered and fell: nearly blinded with the blood that rained down from a deep gash in her forehead; but raising herself, with difficulty, on her knees, drew from her bosom a white handkerchief — Rose Maylie’s own — and holding it up, in her folded hands, as high towards Heaven as her feeble strength would allow, breathed one prayer for mercy to her Maker.

illustration of Nancy and Sikes murder oliver dickens 38

An ngraving for Oliver Twist by F. W. Pailthorpe for the 1838 three-volume Richard Bentley (first) edition.

Dickens was sympathetic to prostitutes and fallen women, and often wrote about them:  I thought of Little Em’ly in David Copperfield.  He also  contributed money to Urania Cottage, a home for the reclamation of London prostitutes.  But, as the  article on “prostitutes and fallen women” in the Oxford Reader’s Companion to Dickens points out, not all Victorian readers were as forgiving as Dickens.

[Nancy’s) terrible murder, a scene which engaged Dickens’s intense imaginative commitment during his public readings in the last year of his life, can be construed as the punishment of a whore, whose good intentions and good works cannot save her.  For the modern reader it invites another interpretation, as the rendering of the violence men do to women through direct acts of physical brutality and through the kind of sexual relationships and fantasies epitomized by prostitutes where men hold the money and the power.

This is such a remarkable novel: the characters are vivid, the plot is unusually taut, and it exposes the inhumanity of the workhouse and the perils of the London streets.   Not, of course, as good as David Copperfield, which treats similar themes, but a very good read.

Notes on Nineteenth-Century Literature: Thomas Hardy’s The Mayor of Casterbridge

mayor of casterbridge hardy modern library 41xSvd8PH3LI would love to live in a city in a nineteenth-century novel.

The Moscow of War and Peace, the fictional Bruges of Charlotte Bronte’s Villette, the Casterbridge of Thomas Hardy, and the London of Dickens, no, wait, perhaps not the London of Dickens–too bleak.

Try to talk me out of the nineteenth century. It cannot be done.

I am in a heavy-duty 19th-century classics phase.

I have recently become addicted to Thomas Hardy, that Victorian giant who fought Victorian mores.

mayor of casterbridge hardy oxford 3fdd9edb0388d7ce910e5d2d21038443-gI just finished rereading his tenth novel, The Mayor of Casterbridge, a masterpiece. The chiastic structure of this brilliant novel (chiasmus refers to an A.B.B.A. pattern, in this case a repetition of various themes and plot elements) is classically balanced.   Hardy, an autodidact, studied Latin at school, but learned Greek largely on his own, as did the hero of his last novel, Jude the Obscure. Hardy rose at 4 am. to read Virgil, Horace, Homer, and Sophocles.  He struggled with Greek dialect, but was a master of writing his own Wessex dialect in his novels.  If I read much more Hardy, I am likely to start talking in  dialect like the Greek chorus-esque rustics  in his fictional pubs.

The Mayor of Casterbridge describes the rise and fall of one of the most memorable characters in literature, Michael Henchard, a hay trusser who gets drunk at a fair and sells his wife, Susan, to a sailor.  You cannot get much more dramatic than that.  He vows to stop drinking for 20 years.  Years later, after the death of Susan’s second “husband,” she and her daughter return to Wessex to find him.  Susan is stunned to learn that he has become the Mayor of Casterbridge.

Thomas Hardy was very classical, and had a strong sense of place.  Place and character reflect the elements of geography and the human passions.   Casterbridge, the dowdy major city of his imaginary Wessex (based on Dorchester), is very much an agricultural town. And it is here that Henchard, a  popular businessman and a dealer in hay and grain, has succeeded.  Henchard could not become the mayor of a larger, more sophisticated city.  Hardy is realistic.

In the Oxford Reader’s Companion to Hardy, edited by Norman Page, we learn that Casterbridge here does not so much resemble Dorchester as is supposed.  It represents in many ways the conservatism of Henchard.

Paramount for Hardy is the necessity of depicting Casterbridge as an isolated, conservative, and thoroughly traditional community, with a social organization belonging to the pre-railway age.

Hardy himself describes it as

… a place deposited in the block upon a cornfield.  There was no suburb in the modern sense, or transitional intermixture of town and down.  It stood, with regard to the wide fertile land adjoining, clean-cut and distinct, like a chess-board on a green table-cloth.  The farmer’s boy could sit under his barley-mow and pitch a stone into the office-window of the town-clerk; reapers at work among the sheaves nodded to acquaintances standing on the pavement-corner…

Michael Henchard is generous, if bipolar (my diagnosis of his ups and downs). He drops his plans to marry his younger, more attractive girlfriend, Lucetta, which has repercussions later. He decides to pretent to court Susan and then marry her. And when he takes a liking to Donald Farfrae, a Scotsman who is on his way to Canada to make a name for himself as a scientist and inventor, he persuades him to stay as his manager. But  Farfrae is more brilliant than Henchard, and soon Henchard finds himself nettled by his superiority and senselessly competing with him.  The competition leads to his downfall.  And there is a queer sense of the repetition of the triangulation at the long-ago fair:  after Susan’s death, Henchard ends up losing both of the women who were close to him, Lucetta and Elizabeth-Jane.  He blames it on Farfrae, but it is largely his own fault.

An illustration by Robert Burns from Thomas Hardy's The Mayor of Casterbridge

An illustration by Robert Barnes from Thomas Hardy’s The Mayor of Casterbridge

On the internet, I have looked up Thomas Hardy tours of Dorset. I want to walk on the heath and have a beer in Casterbridge, but do I want to go on a three-day walking tour? Do I want that much of Dorset?

I do really, really love Hardy, though.

Catching Up at the Coffeehouse: Where Are My New E-Books?

vintage woman reading book stock-illustration-21375543-vintage-woman-reading-book-and-holding-cup-of-coffeeI went to the coffeehouse with 100 books on my e-reader.

They are mostly classics:  Chekhov, Thomas Hardy, Tolstoy, Dickens, Emily Dickinson, Virginia Woolf, Seneca, and other dead writers.

But I went to the coffeehouse not to read the dead but to Catch Up on the Latest Books.   New books can’t compete with classics at home.   Ergo, I went to the coffeehouse to read the new Ann Packer.

But I couldn’t, because I’d only downloaded the sample.

So I kept scrolling through my library.

There must be a new book on this somewhere.  Isn’t that what it’s for?  A repository for all the new, hip, great books that win awards or get reviewed in The New Yorker.

david lodge changing places 71YCAwKNfsLWait, I found a living writer. David Lodge!  I abandoned his 1975 academic satire, Changing Places, at Location 2681.  (Why can’t they provide a page number?)

The quote below is very funny.

“They aren’t the top ten per cent, stupid, they’re the ten per cent who aren’t worried about it.  The point is you can’t have ninety per cent who are less than average.”

The characters are not talking about students’ IQs. They are discussing the size of penises.

Perhaps I’ll get back to this someday, but it’s hardly a new book, is it?

Scroll on!

Lots of free public domain books. Then some twentieth-century books by Angela Huth, Brian Aldiss, Robin Morgan, etc.

Get in Trouble Kelly Link 51UpA-MbcYL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_And finally I’m into the 21st century with Kelly Link’s new collection of short stories, Get in Trouble, which I’ve already read.  (A brilliant book, which I highly recommend for fans of very literary fantasy, SF, and horror.)

Clark The Afterlife of Little Women k2-_e2c95994-a61e-4453-afed-e85121e2cf8f.v1And then I find a new book to read!  Beverly Lyon Clark’s The Afterlife of LIttle Women, a scholarly study of the history of the reception of Louisa May Alcott’s masterpiece.  I read “25%” (why not a page number?) of this fascinating, readable book last winter.  Then I forgot I had it.  That’s the problem with the e-readers.

And so I was able to read one of the “latest books” on my e-reader after all.

The War and Peace Collection: Is Rosemary Edmonds’ Translation the Best?


My “War and Peace” collection.

I reread War and Peace every year.

I started reading it again on New Year’s Day and just finished it a few hours ago.

And now I’m ready to start again.

No, Kat, you cannot!



But War and Peace says everything, no?  Why read anything else?  The translator Rosemary Edmonds wrote,  “War and Peace is a hymn to life.  It is the Iliad and the Odyssey of Russia.  Its message is that the only fundamental obligation of man is to be in tune with life.”

Tolstoy’s brilliant, entertaining chronicle of Russia during the Napoleonic wars is a pageturner.  Tolstoy said it was not a novel.

It is not a novel, still less an epic poem, still less a historical chronicle. War and Peace is what the author wanted and was able to express, in the form in which it is expressed.

Of course it is a novel, or I would not love it so much, but it also mixes in history and philosophy. Every character is vivid; every scene so realistic that I feel I live in nineteenth-century Russia.  I have read five different translations, and have a collection of four on my shelves: in the photo at the top of the page, you see the Maude translation (Oxford World Classics paperback, top), the Anthony Briggs translation (brown Penguin trade edition, second from top); the Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky translation (Vintage paperback with the orange spine, third); and the Rosemary Edmonds translation (Folio Society, two-volume set).

Frontispiece of the Folio Society edition, 1997 reprint. Edmonds translation

Frontispiece of the Folio Society edition, 1997 reprint of Edmonds’ translation

I just read the Edmonds translation for the first time.  It was first published by Penguin in two volumes in 1957.

I was drawn to it because it was available in two volumes.  It is easier to heft one 700-page volume than one 1,400-page book.

Is Rosemary Edmonds the best translator of Tolstoy?  I am enraptured by her prose.

Her style is simple and graceful, neither too literary nor too literal.  It lies somewhere between the Edwardian elegance of the Maudes and the deliberately rough fidelity of Pevear and Volokhonsky to Tolstoy’s allegedly awkward syntax and inelegant repetitions.

Edmonds is a translator who allows you to forget you are reading.  You fall into the book and live there.

This afternoon I was particularly moved by Denisov’s grief over the senseless death of Petya Rostov.

It is the constrast between the reactions of the unfeeling officer Dolohov and the brave, kind-hearted, lisping officer Denisov that made me cry.

When Dolohov notes Petya is “done for” and rides away from the corpse, expecting Denisov to follow,

Denisov did not reply.  He rode up to Petya, dismounted, and with trembling hands turned Petya’s blood-stained, mud-bespattered face–which had already gone white–towards himself.

“I always like sweet things. Wonderful raisins, take them all,” he recalled Petya’s words. And the Cossacks looked round in amazement at the sound, like the howl of a dog, which broke from Denisov as he quickly turned away, walked to the wattle fence and held on to it.

Much of the action in War and Peace revolves around Moscow and Petersburg society.   I love the descriptions of  the balls in Moscow, the political salons in Petersburg, the hunts in the country, Natasha’s singing, the name-day parties, Nikolai’s fondness for simple army life, Pierre’s experiences with the Masons, Andre’s thoughts on God, Maria’s faithfulness and intelligence, and the orphaned Sonya’s struggles to remain true to her love for Nicholas in the face of disapproval from the Countess.

The award-winning Pevear and Volokhonsky are widely considered the best Russian translators these days.    In  The New York Review of Books , Orlando Figes explains it is because they do not over-refine Tolstoy’s language and succeed in replicating his somewhat awkward style in English.

In the English-speaking world there is a common perception, largely due to Garnett’s translations, that Tolstoy’s style is classically simple and elegant. This is only partly true. Tolstoy writes with extraordinary clarity. No other writer can recreate emotions and experience with such precision and economy. His moral lexicon is penetrating and direct, without the nuances and ambiguities that make Pushkin so complex, and in this respect Tolstoy’s writing is relatively easy to translate (“goes straight into English, without any trouble,” Garnett said ). But there are other elements of Tolstoy’s literary style, in War and Peace in particular, awkward bumps and angularities that have been ironed out, not just in Garnett’s translation, but in most of the subsequent translations of this masterpiece.

Which is your favorite translation? Constance Garnett?  The Maudes?  Anthony Briggs?  Pevear and Volokhonsky?  And does the translation really matter?

Nina Stibbe’s Man at the Helm

Man at the Helm nina stibbe 51RcFw8xmTL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_Friends phoned me when Alida Becker in The New York Times Book Review compared Nina Stibbe’s first novel, Man at the Helm, to Dodie Smith’s I Capture the Castle.  

Of course I bought the book.

Stibbe’s comedy is so charming and witty that I laughed and kept reading bits to friends.  (An annoying habit, I admit.)

Set in the 1970s, this hilarious novel,narrated by Lizzie, the nine-year-old middle child, begins with a sketch of the events that break up the Vogel family. Everything was “humdrum and comfortable until an evening in 1970 when our mother listened in to our father’s phone calls and ended up blowing her nose on a tea towel–a thing she’d only have done in an absolute emergency.”

Stibbe’s lean, comic style is often reminiscent of Dodie Smith’s.  Like Smith’s character Mr. Mortmain, a blocked award-winning writer who goes to prison for wielding a cake knife at his wife, their mother, a failed playwright, has a temper.  Furious to learn that her husband is having an affair with a man,  she attacks him with a plate of eggs. After a violent fight, he takes off in his chauffeured car.  Lizzie’s sister hopes they won’t split up because she thinks their mother “will go 100 percent crazy on her own.”

Nina Stibbe man_at_the_helmAfter the divorce, their father settles down with a new woman and buys a big house in a village for his first family.  Village life is strange after London.  Do they fit in?  They do not. Their long-haired, pretty mother drinks, pops pills, and keeps writing scenes for an ongoing play based on her life.  “Jesus fucking wept,” she says when they enter the village.  The Vogels are snubbed at village fetes and costume competitions.  A farmer threatens to shoot their dog Debbie if she continues to break into his fields.  The neighbors are threatened to have a pretty divorcee in their midst.

In this hostile setting, Lizzie, her younger brother, and older sister are at a loss.  And so Lizzie’s sister, age 11, decides they must find a man for their mother because she needs a “man at the helm.”

They make a long list of men and write letters in their mother’s name inviting them to help with various problems.  Among them are Mr. Swift the vet, Charlie Bates the plumber, the vicar, and their next-door neighbor, Mr. Longlady.  Most are happy to have sex with their mother.  She  goes mad for Charlie Bates, who “borrows” big sums of money.

The children adjust to whatever happens, have ponies, dislike their father’s new family, and take it in stride when they must go to London to buy illicit pills for their mother after the local doctor refuses to increase the dose.

When money runs out, their mother buys a cheap house in a housing estate, gets off the pills, and finds a job. She seems livelier, but the whole business of being a single mother is exhausting. On Saturdays at the grocery store she is often too tired to go through the line with the cart.  They return without food.

Do women need a man at the helm?  Life is hard for single mothers, and Mrs. Vogel is undoubtedly frail.  Will she find romance?  I won’t tell.  But her life improves when she gets out of the house, and we see that she didn’t need her children to be matchmakers. Gradually the Vogel family comes into their own.