Memorably Manic: On Folio Society Books & Reading Robert Graves’s “Count Belisarius”

Do you love shopping?  Have you ever bought a $2,900 handbag after watching The Devil Wears Prada? Or spent $300 on a Folio Society limited edition ? (Yes, the latter.)

Mind you, you don’t have to suffer from manic-depressive illness to have Memorably Manic moments.  We apply the MMM phrase to any $250-plus purchase that is not a computer or a washing machine.

My Memorably Manic moment occurred in 2014 when I ordered the Folio Society edition of the complete text of Trollope’s The Duke’s Children.  In my defense, I am a Trollope fan.  But you may wonder:   How could I afford it?  Did I take to the streets and sell my prescription thyroid drugs?  (No! I went without new clothes.)

I am a fan of paperbacks, which are compact, flexible, and suitable for reading in the horizontal position.  But I was mesmerized by an article in The Guardian about the publication of the complete text of The Duke’s Children.  Steven Annick, an American Trollope scholar, had restored the complete text from the manuscript at Yale.  When Trollope’s sales were waning, his editor, Charles Dickens, Jr., had required Trollope to cut 65,000 words.

Annick put them back.

And so I ordered the limited edition– an enormous leather object.

Oh, dear, it was lovely, but unwieldy.  I usually read in the horizontal position, and that was impossible.  So I gave the oversized  book to a charity sale.

Was the FS limited edition a one-off?  No, because I have bought used editions of FS books at reasonable prices.  I don’t care for the REALLY oversized FS books, but I love my used set of  Evelyn Waugh’s Sword of Honour trilogy .

WHAT AM I READING NOW?  I am loving Robert Graves’s historical novel, Count Belisarius, a brilliant retelling of the story of Belisarius, who was a Byzantine general  in the sixth century under the rule of Justinian. If you are a fan of Graves’s dazzling  I, Claudius, you will love Count Belisarius (why isn’t it a BBC series?).  Belisarius, known as the Last Roman because of his courage and integrity (what the Romans would call virtus), was loyal to Justinian, despite his taking credit for Belisarius’s victories.

Not all historians have been Belisarius fans:  Belisarius’s secretary, the historian Procopius, reviled Belisarius in his over-the-top book, The Secret History, along with Justinian, Justinian’s wife, Theodora, and Belisarius’s wife Antonina (the women were former actresses and prostitutes).  But in The Wars of Justinian, Procopius praised the achievements of Justinian and Belisarius. So perhaps Procopius had manic moments, too. (I recently wrote about The Secret History here.)

Graves is sympathetic to Belisarius. He intended to write the book from the point-of-view of Antonina, Belisarius’s wife, but at the suggestion of his girlfriend, the poet Laura Riding, changed the perspective to that of Eugenius, Antonina’s eunuch slave. Lindsey Davis, who wrote the introduction to the Folio Society edition, finds this decision disappointing.  But she points out that the trusted domestic servant has been the model for later narrators of historical novels (think Robert Harris’s Cicero trilogy, narrated by Cicero’s secretary).   Davis writes,

Use of such a figure has since become standard practice where men of letters write their novels about famous fellows from history.  It can have the advantage that as part of the hero’s household, the narrator supplies private insights, though we get no pillow talk from Eugenius.  Graves fits him out with an appealing background (he is the son of a British king, captured by Saxon pirates) and he is no cipher, because from time to time he assists his mistress Antonina with her schemes, not least helping to dethrone a pope.

Theodora and Antonina, childhood friends and the powers behind the throne, are by far the most interesting characters. But Graves is such a master of plot and characterization that there are no stick figures:  Belisarius, noble and courageous from boyhood, is commanding and believable.  As a boy, during a dinner at his uncle’s, Belisarius speaks eloquently of what it means to be Roman.

“‘Roman’ is a name borne by hundreds of thousands who have never seen the City of Rome and never will; and so it was, I believe,in the greatest days of the Empire.  To be Roman is to belong not to Rome, a city in Italy, but to the world.  The Roman legionaries who perished with Valens were Gauls and Spaniards and Britons and Dalmatians and many other sorts; of true-born Romans among them there cannot have been many hundreds….  Now, suppose that one could combine Hun archer and Gothic lancer and civilize him as a Roman, and put him under camp discipline–that, I think, would be to breed a soldier as near perfection as possible.  I intend to command such troops someday.”

Don’t fear being bored by soldiers: Graves’s war scenes are vivid and suspenseful.   If, as a Latin student, you fell in love with Julius Caesar’s Gallic Wars (for the gorgeous prose!), and Livy’s history (also gorgeous prose!) and even admired Belisarius’s enemy, the Greek historian Procopius, you will appreciate Graves’s facility in describing battles:  it is part of a long narrative tradition.   Trained in rhetoric,  Belisarius delivers speeches worthy of Cicero, especially when preventing mutiny, or cementing the plan for recapturing Carthage from the Vandals.

There is much to muse about in Grave’s intelligent chronicle of Justinian’s age, which he describes in the preface as  the overlapping of the Classical Age with the Romantic Age of medieval legend.

Can Beautiful Books Inspire Non-Readers to Read?

Who can resist Deanna Staffo’s  illustrations in the Folio Society edition of Persuasion?

Can readers of beautiful books inspire a reading trend among non-readers?

Well… I’m not an idealist (anymore).

According to the Pew Research Center, about a quarter of American adults (26%) last year said they hadn’t read even part of a book.

That’s bad news, but no one is surprised.

My friend Janet, my cousin Megan, and I sit outside Starbucks on a warm windy day (so windy there are wind advisories).  We’re discussing reading because we have a new project: a book-sharing project.  We three, along with relatives in Mount Pleasant, Davenport, Marshalltown, Sioux Falls, and Galena, have communally purchased classics from the Folio Society.  They’re very expensive–say, $50 to $100 a pop–but when everyone chips in, it’s not bad.

Why?  We love the paper, the beautiful covers, and the illustrations.  But we also noticed Folio Society-inspired action on a trip to Mount Pleasant last summer.

I  left my copy of Sheridan Le Fanu’s Gothic novel Uncle Silas (Folio Society) in the untidy Dickensian den of  Sue’s duplex for an hour, and when I came back her daughter, Paula, just out of rehab, was reading it. ” Beautiful book!”  she said. “Can I borrow it?”  Sue stood behind her nodding furiously and making thumbs-up signs.  Later she tried to pay me.

“No, give it back when she’s done!”

It was inconvenient, but I finished an e-book version.  If Paula tried to read the e-book , she’d be Snapchatting in a minute.  The truly f–ed up have one advantage in this world.  The rest of us frantically try to help.  It must do something for our Karma at least?

Here’s what has happened to those who have reproduced (Janet, Megan, and I did not).  The adult children have failed, they are moving home, they’re divorced, they’re in and out of rehab, can’t hold a job, don’t seem to want to much, never read, read palms, and are on their phones all day.  They went to community college or got Ph.D.s. They didn’t want to work in an office: that’s what they could do.  It’s far easier to live with Mom. (And Dad is long gone.)  Mom isn’t exactly rich.  But even in small towns they can get anything they want…

“Very rewarding, being a mom,” said Sue in Mount Pleasant.

And so we’ve got the Folio Society thing going on.

Is it a success?

Who could possibly not want to read this edition of Persuasion?

I have read Persuasion many times, but it enhances the reading of Persuasion.

Does the Snapchat generation read Persuasion?

Did Facebook, etc., mess them up too much to read Persuasion?

The women of my generation do like this book. We’re very enthusiastic. I suppose it’s too soon to say about the “target audience.”  We leave the books around.  Paula has read Pride and Prejudice and Turgenev’s First Love (her mother reports).  Paula won’t obey the rules about not eating chocolate when she’s reading the book.  Her mother has had a stern talk with her.  Their lodger, the man who lives in the basement?  Well, he’s read five of the FS books.

So not quite the target audience?

I don’t know how it’s working outside of Mount Pleasant.  Well, except in Sioux Falls, where Janet’s aunt reports that her grandson’s trans-boyfriend is on the second volume of War and Peace.

As far as I’ve heard, our project hasn’t changed anyone’s life.

You never know.

Megan wants to buy the Folio Society edition of Agatha Christie’s Miss Marple Short Stories next.

Because she thinks that everyone will enjoy that.

A Russian Literature Binge: Turgenev’s On the Eve & Chekhov’s The Collected Stories, Vol. 1

turgenev on the EVE

Folio Society books are expensive, but they can help one recommit to the classics.  After acquiring lovely editions of Turgenev’s On the Eve and a four-volume set of Chekhov’s short stories, I spent a happy summer indulging my enthusiasm for 19th-century Russian literature.

Turgenev is not spoken of with the same breathlessness as Tolstoy and Dostoevsky, perhaps because short books are considered less demanding.   But his lyrical style, sharp dialogue, and political and philosophical musings reflect the preoccupations of the time.  Fathers and Sons is Turgenev’s best-known work, but his other books are also little gems On the Eve (1860), his third novel, is an exquisite little book about politics and love that undeservedly has fallen out of print.  The Folio Society has reissued Gilbert Gardiner’s elegant translation, first published by Penguin in 1950.

Set on the eve of the Crimean War and written the year before the emancipation of the serfs in Russia, this novel reflects Turgenev’s own restlessness on the brink of change.  Hisham Matar quotes one of his letters in the introduction.  Like one of his own despairing characters, Turgenev asks,

Is there any enthusiasm for anything left in the world?   Do people still know how to sacrifice themselves?  Can they enjoy life, behave foolishly, and have hopes for the future?

In On the Eve, Turgenev concentrates on four characters in their twenties, Bersyenev, a kind and studious philosopher, Shubin, an artist who often plays the clown, Insarov, a Bulgarian revolutionary, and Elena, the intense woman with whom all of them are in love.  The wealthy Elena has too little to do:  she reads widely and is charitable to the poor, but longs for something to take her out of herself. The daughter of a hypochondriac and a materialistic man with a mistress,   “she struggled like a bird in a cage, though there was no cage.”  After she almost died at 18, she  longed for love or some meaningful experience.

Sometimes it seemed that she wanted something that no one else wanted, that no one dreamed of in all Russia.  Then she would calm down, and spend day after day in carefree indifference, even laughing at herself; but suddenly some strong, some nameless thing which she could not control boiled up inside her and demanded to break out.  The storm passed, the tired wings dropped without being flow; but these moods were not without their cost…

turgeneve illustration elena EVE_13105504090

Illustration by Lauren Nassef (Folio Society)

Turgenev’s descriptions of the country are lyrical, the philosophical arguments among the young heroes are hugely enjoyable, the eternal conflicts between the generations are realistic, and Turgenev’s women struggle to balance love with their ideals.  In On the Eve, Bersyenev is by far the kindest character, but he does not get the girl. The revolutionary Insarov captures Elena’s love, and she becomes as political as he is.  Virgin Smoke, his last novel, also about politics, is perhaps is a better book, but I loved On the Eve, and the ending is surprising.  If you can find a copy, I urge you to read it.

I have struggled for years to comprehend the beauty of Chekhov’s stories in Constance Garnett’s translation:  “The Kiss,” “The Lady With the Dog,” and “Ward Number Six.”  Ronald Hingham’s translations, originally done for Oxford and reissued in this beautiful Folio Society set, have finally made me value the beauty of these stories.  Today I am writing only about Volume 1.

Chekhov folio society img_31331In Volume 1, “The Steppe” is by far my favorite.  It is really a 100-page novella, and the descriptive prose is reminiscent of Thomas Hardy’s.  There isn’t much of a plot.   Kuzmichov and Father Christopher Siriyski, both wool merchants, are on their way to the city to sell their  wool; they are taking Kuzmichov’s nine-year-old nephew with them so they can drop him off to his new school.  They stop at people’s houses to have dinner, camp out in fields and chat to rustics, and enjoy the ride.  Little happens, but the dialogue is comical, and the descriptions of the country are sheer poetry.

In “Thieves,” the medical orderly, Yergunov, “a nonentity known in his district as a great braggart and drunkard,” stops at an inn in a blizzard.  Also present are Kalashnikov, a horse thief, and Merik, a gypsy.  The blowsy barmaid, Lyubka, flirts with all of them, but it is clear that she is not serious about Yergunov.  These amateur criminals are way out of his league.    And when they cheat Yergunov of his horse, he is not even surprised.  More surprising is the fact that after  Yergunov loses his  job and been out of work for eighteen months he believes he has been missing out on fun andwonders if a good burglary might not be the ticket.

Is “Peasant Women.”  Chekhov uses a frame narrative to tell the story.  A traveller, Matthew, tells Dyudya, an entrepreneur who dabbles in everything from tar to honey and cattle, how he came to adopt a boy called Kuzka.  Matthew used to live next door to a woman whose new husband goes to war. Soon Matthew is seeing Mashenka every day and advising her about her business.  Soon after that, he moves in with her.

Then the husband returns, and things turn topsy turvy.  Both men try to persuade Mashenka to go back to her husband.  Instead, she kills him with arsenic because she is madly in love with Matthew.  She is sentenced to a prison term.  The son remains with Matthew.  And the women of Dyudya’s house cry because they see that Kuzka is badly treated by Matthew.  They think he needs to be with women, but they have no power.

Characterized by unexpected details, sharp dialogue, and masterly storytelling,  Chekhov’s stories are mysterious and elegiac, precise and realistic.  Hingley’s translation is excellent, and most of these stories appear in the Oxford World Classics edition of The Steppe and Other Stories.

In Which I Find a Folio Society Set of the Collected Stories of Chekhov

This Folio Society set of The Collected Stories of Chekhov matches my lamp from Target!

This Folio Society boxed set of The Collected Stories of Chekhov matches my lamp from Target!

Paperbacks are perfect for reading in the horizontal position.  I love my Penguins, Picadors, and Nancy Pearl Book Lust Rediscoveries.

Commenters at this blog, however, recently mentioned that used editions of the Folio Society books are available at eBay.

I do not frequent eBay.  I was once outbid for a mid-twentieth-century blond wood dining room table I wanted for a desk. But  many eBay dealers do sell for a set price. And so I browsed and bought this gorgeous Folio Society set of Chekhov’s The Collected Stories.  The four books are very slightly oversized, but perfectly manageable for reading in “my nest.”

Published in 2010 to celebrate the 150th birthday of Chekhov, the books are beautifully bound and illustrated by Laura Carlin.

Illustration by Laura Karlin

Illustration by Laura Carlin

The translation is by Ronald Hingley, who translated nine volumes of Chekhov’s plays and six volumes of his stories for Oxford University Press.  I have tried the Constance Garnett, and hope Hingley will finally illuminate Chekhov for me.

In the introduction, James Lasdun explores the alluring brevity of Chekhov by comparing him to three epic novelists of the 19th century and early twentieth century..

The canonized writers of the past have a tendency to assume a fixed expression in their readers’ imaginations.  Dostoevsky always appears in the same aura of morbidly enthralling hysteria; Proust in the same velvety atmosphere of hyper-attuned sensory receptiveness.  To think of Tolstoy is to conjure, at once, the note of impassive grandeur as of creation being set out in glittering ranks for inspection.

Anton Chekhov, whose short career was as momentous as any of these, has his own distinct tone and manner, but the impression it leaves is curiously elusive, offering reticence and hesitation in place of ‘personality, and a series of mods rather than a discernible attitude to life, even the attitude of uncertainty.

I look forward to reading The Collected Stories and will report back in a few weeks.

Reading in Bed: In Which I Donate a Big Book to Charity

Bye, bye, Book!

Bye, bye, Book!

I sat in bed reading the new Folio Society  edition of Trollope’s The Duke’s Children.

It is as big as a dictionary.  Maybe a Complete Shakespeare.

It is a beautiful book.  It duplicates the design of Ye Olde Book, with a leather binding and gilded edges.

The Folio Society’s new complete four-volume edition of The Duke’s Children (it was originally published as a three-volume book and the missing volume has  been restored) has gotten good press:  John McCourt at The Irish Times loved it.  He wrote:

Standard editions of The Duke’s Children still read well and hold their ground against other works in the Palliser series, but the reborn text is of a much richer fabric. Shorn of its short cuts, and with all its details of plot, character, setting and narrative tone restored, it functions far more effectively both as a stand-alone novel and as the last of a long series full of familiar names, characters, settings and themes.

Alas,  it is too unwieldy to read in the supine position.

I know, I know.  I should sit up.

I am going back to my Oxford paperback.  I can’t read oversized books at my age.

What to do with my Folio Society edition?  Sponsor a contest at Mirabile Dictu?  Make everybody write an essay about why they deserve the book?

That would be crazy, wouldn’t it?

And so I donated it to the Planned Parenthood Book Sale.  I stuck it in a bag and put it in my bike pannier. Then I had to find the Planned Parenthood book drop.

The Jacqueline Blank drop for Planned Parenthood

The Jacqueline Blank drop for Planned Parenthood

I got lost in the inner city on my bike.  I was sure the map had said to head north.  Sure, it was north–north  of a street a few blocks south!

I  finally found it and dropped off the book.  After a decade of shopping at the Planned Parenthood Book Sale, I am happy to give them a valuable book.  I hope they make a huge profit.

I love the Folio Society’s clothbound books, and own one of the Thomas Hardy books.  They are normal-sized books:  a little tall, but readable in bed.

But I regard The Duke’s Children as a mirabile dictu folly!    What was I thinking?

Thomas Hardy set, Folio Society

Thomas Hardy set, Folio Society

 

 

 

The Folio Society Pushkin Notebook

My free Folio Society gift:  a Pushkin's Queen of Spades notebook.

My free Folio Society gift: a Pushkin’s Queen of Spades notebook.

Last week my Folio Society copy of the complete edition of Trollope’s The Duke’s Children arrived.

I photographed it, blogged about it, and then hid it from my husband.

Lovely book, but I had mixed emotions.

I was:

1.  Excited, because to have a new edition of The Duke’s Children with an additional volume (Trollope wrote a four-volume novel which was published in three volumes) makes it a new book.

2.  Depressed, because paperback reading copies are fine for me and I could have bought a plane ticket to Florida instead.

Trollope's The Duke's Children, with bedraggled geranium .

Trollope’s The Duke’s Children, with bedraggled geranium .

Then I shook the box.  Where was my gift? Weren’t we supposed to get a free journal or stationery?

Well, it’s not Amazon Prime, I reminded myself.  Chill.  They’re British.  It’s like the TLS app.  Good luck with that.

When another box from the Folio Society arrived today, I wasn’t surprised.  It contained my “free gift,” a notebook with the cover art from the Folio Society edition of  Pushkin’s The Queen of Spades and Other Stories.

I love it!  In fact, I want more notebooks, if there are any others.

So now I feel at peace.  I got my book and the toy gifty book (the notebook). And since I have spent my full allotment and more for Folio Society membership, I can now sit back–whew–and enjoy the book.

Arrival of Trollope’s The Duke’s Children!

Trollope's The Duke's Children, with bedraggled geranium .

Trollope’s The Duke’s Children, with bedraggled geranium s.

I was glued to a tea-drinking scene in a 19th-century novel.

I didn’t hear the mail arrive.

I went to get tea and saw a box on the stoop.

I opened the door.

I picked it up.

The sticker said “Royal Mail” (much more awe-inspiring than USPS), and the return address sticker said The Folio Society.

Yes, my gorgeous copy of the Folio Society’s complete edition of Trollope’s The Duke’s Children arrived.

It is bound in Indian goatskin leather, with hand-marbled endpapers.

IMG_3060

Hand-marbled endpapers, and Line counter bookmark.

And it comes with an adorable “Line counter” bookmark. Most of the pages have exactly 39 lines.  When I blog about it, I will be able to cite the line number.   Fun, fun.

The copy number is written in by hand.  It is 7__ of 1980.  And it says that:

The first complete edition of The Duke’s Children has been typeset in Miller by The Folio Society, printed on Caxton Cream Wove… It is limited to 1980 numbered copies, and 20 lettered copies hors de commerce.

IMG_3063

At work with my Line counter bookmark.

It has an introduction by Joanna Trollope.

And there is a second volume, a commentary on the book.

My misgivings:  I  have never had a leather book before.

I am a paperback person.

My cousin the librarian is laughing at me.  “You’re not a f—ing collector and what about tea stains?”

IMG_3066

The commentary.

Trollope write The Duke’s Children as a four-volume novel and it was  cut to three volumes. The complete edition is only available from the Folio Society.

I retort, “It’s not a collectible.  It’s mine now.”

I am a bit worried.  I read my books HARD.  I throw my paperbacks down on the couch.  I write in them.

Wish me luck!  It is no longer a collectible…  It is a reading copy!