August 29, 2010

Clever old penguin!

Penguin Books is 75 years old 

From the Penguin website’s “Company history” page
Penguin paperbacks were the brainchild of Allen Lane, then a director of The Bodley Head. After a weekend visiting Agatha Christie in Devon, he found himself on a platform at Exeter station searching its bookstall for something to read on his journey back to London, but discovered only popular magazines and reprints of Victorian novels.

Appalled by the selection on offer, Lane decided that good quality contemporary fiction should be made available at an attractive price and sold not just in traditional bookshops, but also in railway stations, tobacconists and chain stores.

The first Penguin paperbacks appeared in the summer of 1935 and included works by Ernest Hemingway, André Maurois and Agatha Christie. They were colour-coded (orange for fiction, blue for biography, green for crime) and cost just sixpence, the same price as a packet of cigarettes. The way the public thought about books changed forever - the paperback revolution had begun.
There's a Penguin 75th anniversary minisite about all the ways that decisive moment is being remembered this year. If all you can spare is a glance, do it just to see the banner with all the penguins from the last 75 years: skinnier ones, fatter ones, one that looks almost The New Yorkerish, and in 1945 a happy penguin executing a Fred Astaire dance step for Victory.

The famed orange covers are being honoured by Douglas Coupland in his “Speaking to the Past” project as a fantastic element of interior design for home or crack den, and oh yes, also something which communicates. He asks, “How would you speak to someone in the year 1935 from 2010, using a Penguin cover?” and shows some clever mock-covers he’s made with titles like Every book ever written fits into a shoebox, which surprises even modern me.

You download a Penguin cover template, add your title and image, and upload it to a group pool on Flickr. Of the ones uploaded so far, most seem to be about 2010 problems – energy wars, credit cards -- or inventions -- ipods, the internet -- rather than 1935 problems. Now, if you could speak to people in the past, wouldn't you be tempted to pass along some wisdom? I suggest a cover with an image of the first stretch of the German autobahn, in 1935 just completed and being sold as a "jobs creation programme", and the title The practical art of moving armies ( borrowed from the Baron de Jomini’s treatise on the art of war).

My favourite anniversary initiative is Penguin Decades. These are 5 books each from the 50s, 60s, 70s, and 80s, re-issued with new covers by famous designers from each period. The blurb says “Discover Penguin Decades. The scandalous, misunderstood, and most celebrated novels which have defined the post-war generations.” I definitely want to try them all. I might even re-read the ones I’ve already read, which are only three: From Russia with Love (50s), and A Clockwork Orange and The British Museum is falling down (both 60s). I’m not sure how I ever managed to define myself with such a poor track record, but this is definitely a chance to make up for lost time.

The Penguin decades pages on the minisite give thumbnail sketches of the decades and show all the new and old covers, including the very edition of A Clockwork Orange which my husband bought on a youthful trip to London (moving on from the more youthful still purchases of Health & Efficiency, a British magazine which lauded the salutory effects of sunbathing, even better if done naked) and which is still on our shelves. They’ve got it down as a 60s cover, but it’s actually the cover which David Pelham created in the 1970s for the movie tie-in edition. I vividly remember when the movie came out, because it quickly earned a reputation as a shocker, and doubly so for me, as my mother unexpectedly proposed that she and I go see it together, shooting us up a couple of notches in our evolving mother-daughter relationship.

Someone at Penguin should have reread the transcript of the talk David Pelham gave five years ago as part of their 70th anniversary celebrations. It's online on the Creative Review blog; it’s got lots of good anecdotes about book covers, from Lennon to Nabokov, if not Lenin.

Rest assured, a small error like this is not going to displace Penguin Books from its special place in my heart. I liked this part of the Company story about Allen Lane choosing a logo:

"He also wanted a 'dignified but flippant' symbol for his new business. His secretary suggested a Penguin."

I couldn’t help thinking of the Edward Lear nonsense alphabet of my childhood.
A was an ape
Who stole some white tape
And tied up his toes
In four beautiful bows.

Funny old ape!
That's from Edward Lear. And here's from me:
P was a penguin
Dignified but flippant  (it’s assonance, okay?)
He turned seventy-five
Spry and alive.

Clever old penguin!

August 27, 2010

Super super super book trailer

Gary Shteyngart's book trailer for Super sad true love story is a smash hit on youtube -- well, for a clip about books anyway

Many thanks to Random House for these four minutes of delirium which made me laugh and laugh and laugh. The script (written by Shteyngart) made me laugh, Edmund White (up there in my pantheon of favourite writers and people ever since I was invited along to an interview with him a few years ago and started reading my way through all his books) made me laugh and want to throw my arms around him, Jay McInerney made me laugh and shriek with disbelief at how funny he was, James Franco made me laugh and melt with how cool and adorable he is. These are not the only friends/literary stars Gary Shteyngart put into the trailer, but they are the ones who are still making me laugh out loud even now that I’ve watched it half a dozen times.

I had never read anything by Gary Shteyngart but the trailer was so funny I went to look for the book right away, only to discover that there’s already a waiting list for it, so I took his second book Absurdistan (the first was The Russian debutante’s handbook) instead. I’ve gotten to page 135 and I’m taking it back without reading the last 200 pages because it’s one of those books where the jokes are more important than the plot, which could be fine, except they’re pretty much all the same joke. It just can't hold a candle to A Confederacy of Dunces, whose spirit it sometimes appears to emulate.

Still I’m happy to have read far enough to reach a very good line on page 130 (I marked the place so I could write about it). The scene is Svani City, the capital of Absurdistan, “a small country south of Russia” a bit small also on democracy. The hero of the book, like Shteyngart a Russian Jew who emigrated to America, goes to the Svani Hyatt for a lunch with “Josh” from the American Embassy-cum-American upper class whom he irritates when he shows him up for not wanting to spring for extra fries for the hungry “native democrat” he’d invited to lunch with them. The line is “I watched Josh Weiner unfurl his lower lip my way, menacing me with his active cold sore.”

Gary Shteyngart was featured in this year’s The New Yorker’s 20 under 40 fiction issue. You can read the Q&As and his story “Lenny hearts Eunice” (the germ of Super sad true love story) in The New Yorker online.

I nearly forgot: James Franco really did take a class from Gary Shteyngart when he was a graduate student at Columbia.

August 24, 2010

The Owl and the Poussiquette

Edward Lear goes multilingual

Being fond of a good nonsense read myself, I was pleased to come across the following quote from Carolyn Wells’s introduction to an anthology of nonsense writing (via Kenneth Gangemi, an author, also an engineer and a bartender, from Bronxville, New York who is so cult I hadn’t even heard of him until my friend Nick told me about him, in a great interview in Gargoyle magazine).

"On a topographical map of literature, nonsense would be represented by a small and sparsely settled country, neglected by the average tourist, but affording keen delight to the few enlightened travelers who sojourn within its borders." syndetics-lc

Besides Lewis Carroll, my favourite nonsense writer is Edward Lear, not the limericks -- perhaps too antique for my taste -- but the “story” poems. I find it fascinating, or maybe I mean heartrending, how this depression-prone, epileptic, lonely man who earned his living painting watercolours of rare birds, was also the creator of wild and exuberant poems about Pobbles who swim the Bristol Channel with their noses wrapped in scarlet flannel (my all-time favourite), Jumblies going to sea in a sieve, and the Yonghy-Bonghy-Bo.

But the emotion inspired by the man is not the reason I love his poems. I love them because of how it’s impossible to read them silently, at least for me. Last night I spooked my family because I was rereading “The Owl and the Pussycat” and they thought I had gone crazy whispering away to myself at the kitchen table at midnight. But how can you not? “And there in the wood a piggy-wig stood, With a ring at the end of his nose, his nose, his nose…” syndetics-lc

A couple of years ago I stumbled on a website which everyone who ever loved having “The Owl and the Pussycat” read to them as kids, or reading it to their kids, or both, should visit. You have to know that in the 1950s or 60s an American named Francis Steegmuller, one of the most famous Flaubert scholars of his time and translator of Madame Bovary, translated “The Owl and the Pussycat” into French. It was published in The New Yorker and is probably the most felicitous translation of a poem I have ever encountered.
The flair is there right from the start when he rhymes Owl (hibou) and kitty (minou), but the refrain is pure genius, when he comes up with “Poussiquette” for a perfectly scanned “O Poussiquette, comme tu es rare!” for “What a beautiful pussy you are!”

 I’ve never been able to find out any more details about the translation beyond the fact that it only took one afternoon to do and that Francis Steegmuller bought a Rolls Royce with the money it earned. This leaves me free to imagine that it happened in Capri, where Steegmuller and his wife, the writer Shirley Hazzard, had a villa. They made friends there with Graham Greene, who also had a villa in Capri, after Shirley broke the ice by supplying the missing line in a Robert Browning poem Greene was trying to remember over a drink in the Gran Caffe'-- I am thinking not coffee -- with a fellow Englishman (I know about this from having read her memoir Greene on Capri).

I like to think it would have been over a long lunch and vodka gimlets with Graham Greene and Yvonne Cloetta that the translation took form. “They dined on mince and slices of quince… I’m damnedly becalmed here, Graham.” And the tormented Catholic novelist would have taken a sip of his gimlet, leaned back in his chair, and produced a Lent-inspired “Ils firent un repas de maigre et de gras” -- "They had a meal of lean and fat".

The website

You can read Steegmuller's (and Greene's?) "Le Hibou et la Poussiquette" on a ridiculous but fantastic -- or maybe we could just say nonsensical -- website dedicated to "The Owl and the Pussycat" translations, which includes versions in Volapuk, an invented language which only 22 people in the world speak (I googled it), and… Morse Code. It grew out the collection of a Mr. Hugh Stewart and all in all it contains over a hundred translations.

For many of the languages, including Morse Code, you can hear the poem read aloud, or in the case of Morse Code, I suppose I should say transmitted. I listened to some of it just to see if it were at all possible to tell it was poetry -- it wasn't. I recommend trying the Russian (a Flemingesque KGB-spy-in-tight-skirt-posing-as-a-translator-type voice) and also the Cornish (local historian/pub poet), whereas the Latin is great on the page but an unpleasant read offered up by a know-it-all schoolteacher type.

The Italian translation was contributed by Domenico, an employee of an Italian restaurant in England. “Ah, just a couple of doubts here”, as Graham might have said. The piggy-wig has become a pigeon, and the turkey who lives on the hill has become a Turk. It reminded me of how I once said something about the Persian blinds at our bedroom window to my (Italian) husband, and made the word masculine instead of feminine, thus calling them “Persian men” instead of “Persian blinds”. I still have the funny picture he drew me of dozens of little men with Persian headdresses swarming at the window glass.

Try it now!

August 01, 2010

Bwana Paka Mcheshi, the Swahili Cheshire Cat

I was saddened to learn of the death of Martin Gardner, whose annotated edition of Alice in Wonderland was one of the best reads of my childhood. Well, as sad as you are when someone dies who is 95 years old and has had a good life and a painless death. That kind of sad like when a great old battleship gets decommissioned, the flag lowered for the last time, the sailors saluting, the final watch secured.

In fact, besides being a lover of maths, science, philosophy and Lewis Carroll, Martin Gardner was one of the great old battleships of the skeptical movement, consecrated to debunking pseudoscience and superstition. His columns for The Skeptical Inquirer (which you can read online in our Digital Library) were one of the pillars of the magazine, and he finished his last one just ten days before he died. It will appear in the September/October issue, which should also be the first issue in print version to arrive at Central Library. We decided to start up a subscription in May, which turns out to have been the month Martin Gardner died. No evidence for paranormal suggestion being involved, I hasten to add.

Proud to be a liberrian

The tributes to Martin Gardner which his friends posted on their blogs after his death, like Richard Dawkins's "Rest in peace good old man", were followed by comment after comment about how important his books had been in people’s lives. The word libraryjumped out at me from a few of them, in contexts like "I first encountered one of his books at my library and it blew my mind".

I first encountered Martin Gardner as a child when I was given his book The Annotated Alice for my birthday. Just as well I didn’t get it from the library because I would never have wanted to return it. It's an oversize book with big wide margins where the notes are written (so superior to footnotes!). My sister and I were thrilled to discover an annotation which credited the father of her friend Andrea Burkenroad for explaining a particular Carrollian pun. “Thanks to Martin Burkenroad, of Panama” it read. Dr. Burkenroad (a biologist who had been studying Panamanian shrimp, possibly observing their quadrilles) was a mysterious and exciting figure to us already, as Andrea had told us he had once drunk rattlesnake poison to illustrate a scientific point. You can see why he would have been a friend of Martin Gardner's.

The Annotated Alice gives "The Jabberwocky" in French (“Le glaive vorpal fait pat-a-pan!”) and German (“O Freuden-Tag! O Halloo-Schlag!”), and now, to honour the memory of Martin Gardner, I’m going to let you see Alice in Wonderland in Swahili. Elisi katika nchi ya ajabu was published in 1940 by the Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge and is now part of the Burstein collection of Alice in Wonderland books on the Internet Archive.

It's illustrated with the original Tenniel drawings with marvellously random transpositions of some characters to Africa. Alice is a little African girl in a sarong instead of a pinafore; the White Rabbit is still a white rabbit (in a caftan, although later he gets his waistcoat back); the Caterpillar is still a caterpillar; but have a look at Baba Wilyam (pg. 46)! And in one of my favourite chapters, Pig and Pepper, the Ugly Duchess is the same but her cook has turned into an African houseboy, still holding the pilipili shaker (that's pepper). The Cheshire Cat, unchanged except for his fantastic new name, Bwana Paka Mcheshi, lies grinning at his feet.

I was intrigued by the treatment of the Tea Party. The Mad Hatter still sells hats, although they are fezzes, but the March Hare has become a tortoise, and the Dormouse seems to be -- quick check of an online Swahili dictionary -- a lemur? Okay, I got that -- a lemur being nocturnal, it would be sleepy during the day. But what does a tortoise have to do with a March hare?

Funny you should ask. You know about "Mad as a March Hare", right? How hares leap about with great abandon in March when their mating season starts? Well, Edward St Lo de Malet, the author of this translation, whom I think I've identified as the 8th Baronet Malet, Colonel in the Irish Hussars who had been posted before the war to Palestine, must have set those missionaries to work observing the mating behaviour of all the local animal types to come up with a species which could convey this special elan. And they found him one!

From the deadpan pages on the African tortoise on the Honolulu Zoo website:

Able to run and burrow quite well. Get excited just before it rains, running around (…)

Copulate during the rainy season (February-March) for about one week."

Apparently they are also very noisy. The zoo doesn't mention it but lots of websites about travel in Africa warn about people being kept awake by amorous tortoises. This caused some confusion on one site when someone thought "tortoises" was poor English for "tourists".

Here is the book (if it hasn't embedded right for your computer, click here). Enjoy!

Alice in Wonderland is one of the most translated books ever (the Bible is the most). Did you know that Vladimir Nabokov translated it into Russian in the 1920s when he was living in the Russian émigré community in Berlin, trying to make a living from writing rather than tennis lessons? They say he did a good job, especially considering he did it for the money, and probably in a hurry. Rather than a cheese cat, he made the Cheshire cat a Butter cat, using the name of a Russian holiday, Butter Day, where everyone gets to eat pancakes, with butter I presume. There's a Russian proverb which says "A cat can't have Butter Day every day"-- meaning, you can't have fun every day, eventually you have to go to work.

Unless of course you're a tortoise.

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