Heidi – Johanna Spyri

I asked my Catalan friend Anna, who is an advocate for children and young adults reading around her country, to choose a children’s book from three titles that I have on my shelves, but have never read, for me to tackle this week and she chose Heidi. I have to say that I know very little about it other than it is Swiss, Heidi lives with her grandfather and she has a friend called Peter so it’s all going to be new to me. In fact I couldn’t even have told anyone the authors name until I looked it up for this blog, that is how little I know about it. The copy I have is by Puffin Books and was printed by them in November 1956, the translation from the original German is by Eileen Hall and the lovely cover illustration is by Cecil Leslie who also provided the drawings included within the book.

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Well that was an interesting read, I don’t know what I expected but this book definitely wasn’t it. For a start when we first encounter five year old Heidi she is being taken up the mountain by her aunt, whilst wearing most of her clothes on a hot summers day, so that she can be dumped on her grandfather who has no idea she is coming. Why is this happening? Well the aunt who has looked after her since she was orphaned at the age of one has been offered a job in Frankfurt which she wants to have and cannot take Heidi with her, so has to leave her with somebody, and the apparently cantankerous old man is the only option. He lives way up the mountain all alone, well away from the nearest village having distanced himself from them over the years so the villagers cannot believe that the aunt is planning on leaving Heidi there so far from anyone else, in the sole company of the man known to everyone (at least in this translation) as Uncle Alp. The handover does not go well…

“Good morning Uncle” said Detie. “I’ve brought you Tobias’s daughter, I don’t suppose you recognise her as you haven’t seen her since she was a year old”

“Why have you brought her here?” he demanded roughly.

“She’s come to stay with you Uncle” Detie told him coming straight to the point.  “I have done all I can for her these four years.  Now it’s your turn.”

“My turn is it?” snapped the old man, glaring at her. “And when she starts to cry and fret for you, as she is sure to do, what am I supposed to do then?”

“That’s your affair!” retorted Detie. “Nobody told me how to set about it when she was left on my hands a baby barely a year old. Goodness knows I had enough to do already looking after mother and myself. But now I’ve got to go away to a job. You’re the child’s nearest relative. If you can’t have her here, you can do what you like with her. But you’ll have to answer for it if she comes to any harm and I shouldn’t you’d want anything more on your conscience.”

Detie was really far from easy in her mind about what she was doing, which was why she spoke so disagreeably and she had already said more than she meant to.

The old man had got up at her last words. She was quite frightened by the way he looked at her, and took a few steps backward.

“Go back where you came from and don’t come here again in a hurry,” he said angrily, raising his arm.

Detie didn’t wait to be told twice.

And so the deed was done, and 12 pages into the 233 page book things were where I thought they should be, Heidi was on the mountain with her grandfather; although how we had reached this arrangement was a considerable surprise to me as I hadn’t known that she had just been abandoned there with him. However he turns out to be very kindly to her and all is well in the bucolic bliss that Spyri conjures up and I settled down to enjoy the tales of goat herding with Peter and descriptions of the high mountain pastures.  However just 35 pages later, two years in Heidi’s life have passed and Detie reappears to drag her away from the life she has come to know and love and dump her yet again on another unsuspecting household, this time in Frankfurt. Just what is going on with this book, and why isn’t Detie being investigated for child abandonment?? The well being and happiness of Heidi seems to be nowhere in her considerations and indeed once she has again abandoned Heidi and run away before anyone in the house could stop her she is never heard of again in the book.

Without giving away too much more of the plot there now follows roughly a hundred pages of Heidi having fun with Clara, the invalid girl she has been brought here to be the companion of, but at the same time getting more and more homesick and depressed about being trapped in the city far away from the Swiss mountainside and her grandfather whom she has come to love. Yet again this book is not what I expected. Eventually she becomes so unwell that she is sent back to Switzerland and the book finally takes the positive tone that I was looking forward to when I started it.

My one negative point about the book is that half way through religion really started to be pushed, the children have to say their prayers and later on when she gets back home hymns read to Peter’s blind Grandmother. I suppose it is a mark of the times when the book was written (1880) but equally I don’t remember other children’s books of the period being so proselytising to the point where it sometimes gets in the way of the narrative. This does seem to be an issue with her other books as well as the Deutsche Biographie states at the end of it’s summary of her life, translation below:

S.’s writings were already criticised during their lifetime because of the religious-conservative positions they represented as well as their tendency against women’s emancipation

Having raised the one negative that I found with the book I have to say that it was a great read, with more twists than I expected and I’m glad I have finally read it.

Sentimental Journey – Laurence Sterne

To give the book its full (and misleading) title “A Sentimental Journey through France and Italy. Why misleading, well in the copy I read, which is 161 pages long, by page 143 he is still in Paris having travelled there from Calais on page 1, after that there is a rapid dash as far as Lyon which is where the book ends. Sterne undoubtedly intended to continue the tale in a further volume, as he had done numerous times with his much more famous novel regarding ‘The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy’ which eventually ran to nine volumes, but he died just three weeks after this book was first published in 1868.

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I have two copies of this book on my shelves, both there due to them being parts of separate book collections rather than a desire to own a copy of the novel but it did feel that it was time to tackle the book as it is regarded as a classic of English literature. That this is so is attested by the fact that the Folio Society edition I have read is only the fourteenth title produced by that publisher and came out in 1949. The other copy I have is from 1938 and was part of the ten books published by Penguin as Illustrated Classics which were their first attempt at a series of illustrated books, just three years after they started publishing. That two major publishers should select it so early in their existence suggests how much both companies rated the book and both editions are beautiful. The Folio Society copy is illustrated by Nigel Lambourne in lovely drawings that match well his cover design, see the picture of Maria further down this essay. The Penguin edition, in common with the other nine volumes published simultaneously, uses wood engravings in this case by a master of that art form Gwen Ravarat.

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And so to the tale itself… Well I have to admit that of all the books I have read so far for this blog this was the one I struggled with the most. Even though it is quite short (less than forty thousand words) it has taken over three weeks to read it as I kept putting it down after a few pages. Both the Maupassant short stories and The Pillow Book by Sei Shōnagon have been read and written about whilst I worked my way through A Sentimental Journey. There are two main reasons for this, firstly I couldn’t get on with Sterne’s style of writing and secondly it really needs a significantly better knowledge of French than I have so I have had to pause to translate sections before continuing if I really wanted to make sense of the narrative especially in the case of a letter which is important to the story but which is entirely in French. A random sample of the text, where Yorick (Sterne’s alter ego in the story) employs a servant is below.

La Fleur had set out early in life, as gallantly as most Frenchmen do, with serving for a few years; at the end of which, having satisfied the sentiment, and found, moreover, That the honour of beating a drum was likely to be its own reward, as it open’d no further track of glory to him,—he retired à ses terres, and lived comme il plaisoit à Dieu;—that is to say, upon nothing.

—And so, quoth Wisdom, you have hired a drummer to attend you in this tour of yours through France and Italy!—Psha! said I, and do not one half of our gentry go with a humdrum compagnon du voyage the same round, and have the piper and the devil and all to pay besides?  When man can extricate himself with an équivoque in such an unequal match,—he is not ill off.—But you can do something else, La Fleur? said I.—O qu’oui! he could make spatterdashes, and play a little upon the fiddle.—Bravo! said Wisdom.—Why, I play a bass myself, said I;—we shall do very well.  You can shave, and dress a wig a little, La Fleur?—He had all the dispositions in the world.—It is enough for heaven! said I, interrupting him,—and ought to be enough for me.—So, supper coming in, and having a frisky English spaniel on one side of my chair, and a French valet, with as much hilarity in his countenance as ever Nature painted in one, on the other,—I was satisfied to my heart’s content with my empire; and if monarchs knew what they would be at, they might be as satisfied as I was.

Another problem I had was the references to Tristram Shandy (which I have not read) including a whole section near the end of the book where Yorick goes off to comfort one of the characters from that novel thereby further muddying the narrative of this supposed travellers tale unnecessarily.

alas! I have but a few small pages left of this to crowd it into,—and half of these must be taken up with the poor Maria my friend, Mr. Shandy, met with near Moulines.

The story he had told of that disordered maid affected me not a little in the reading; but when I got within the neighbourhood where she lived, it returned so strong into the mind, that I could not resist an impulse which prompted me to go half a league out of the road, to the village where her parents dwelt, to enquire after her.

’Tis going, I own, like the Knight of the Woeful Countenance in quest of melancholy adventures.  But I know not how it is, but I am never so perfectly conscious of the existence of a soul within me, as when I am entangled in them.

The picture of the distraught Maria from the Folio edition is below.

20190924 Sentimental Journey 3

Enough of the negatives however, I persevered with the book rather than abandoning it because hidden behind the irritating (at least to me) overly stylistic writing is actually a pretty good story if only the first part of it. Laurence Sterne had indeed travelled through France and Italy in 1765, which was a couple of years after the Seven Years War had ended and he sets the story with Yorick making a similar trip but earlier so the conflict is actually still in progress. That it has no impact on his ability to travel through the country other than the need to get a passport authorising the journey, something Yorick had neglected to do before setting out thereby creating part of the story as he endeavours to obtain such a document before the police catch up with him, is surprising to modern readers. Although the title implies that this is a travel book do not expect any descriptions of places, rather it is a tale of his interactions with the people he meets, especially the ladies, and that is what makes it A Sentimental Journey.

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If you wish to read the novel for free then it is available on Project Gutenberg by following this link.

Boule de Suif and other stories – Guy de Maupassant

I have six volumes of short stories by Maupassant, three of which include his most famous tale Boule de Suif (literally ball of suet), and I have to admit that I haven’t read any of them. So in an effort to at least partly make amends I have picked one of the collections including Boule de Suif to read this week. The book I have chosen was the second title in the long running Penguin Classics publications and the fact that he was the second author chosen in this series, after Homer, suggests that the series editors regarded Maupassant highly. My copy is the first edition printed in 1946.

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There are seventeen short stories in this collection, but in total the book is only 218 pages long. Given that Boule de Suif is easily the longest at 45 pages on its own it is clear that some of the tales are extremely short and this for me is where Maupassant is at his best. Most, like ‘The Minuet’, are beautifully written character sketches where in just a handful of pages you feel you understand the sadness of the retired ballet master and his wife whose only solace is the park where he can dance uninterrupted and he believes unseen early in the morning. Others, such as ‘The Model’ are considerably less sympathetic to the protagonists, in fact rarely is Maupassant in tune with his female characters although some like Boule de Suif herself are beautifully drawn.

So lets get back to the title story, Boule de Suif as implied above is the less than flattering nickname given to an somewhat overweight prostitute who manages to get herself on a coach leaving Rouen trying to escape the occupation during the Franco-Prussian war in 1870. The description of her in this translation is as follows:

The woman, one of those usually called “gay”, was famous for her youthful stoutness, which had earned her the nickname of Boule de Suif, the Dumpling. She was short and rotund, as fat as a pig, with puffy fingers constricted at the joints, like strings of miniature sausages: In spite of her shiny tightly stretched skin, and an enormous bust, which stuck out under her dress, she was nevertheless desirable, and was in fact much sought after, so attractive was her freshness. Her face was like a red apple, or a peony bud about to burst into flower. She had magnificent dark eyes, shaded by long thick lashes, and below a fascinating little mouth, moist to kiss, with tiny white teeth.

She was said moreover to possess many other attractions not visible to the eye.

Well you can certainly picture her from this sketch but I don’t think that she would have been very happy with the depiction. The story is very difficult to review without giving away too much but basically she is one of ten people on the coach in heavy snow which forces them into far closer proximity over a couple of days than any of them would like. Six are made up of two prosperous merchants along with the Comte de Bréville and their wives who regard themselves as far superior to all the others, there is also an idealist democrat who boasts of setting traps for the advancing Prussians but who would clearly rather escape than do anything risky now they are actually in his town. The party is completed by two nuns who take little part in the actual main story line. Suffice to say that Elisabeth Rousset aka Boule de Suif is treated shamefully by the rest of the characters and is frankly the only one to emerge with any credit at the end.

‘The Capture of Walter Schnapps’ is also set during the Franco-Prussian war and is about the only genuinely funny story in this collection, ‘The Deal’ is written to be funny but is too heavy handed in it’s telling to really succeed although it is possibly down to the translation rather than in the original French where it falls down. Back to Walter Schnapps though, he is an unhappy Prussian conscript who finds himself separated from his compatriots and resolves to become a prisoner of war to avoid further fighting and, more importantly for him, to get get better food than he is receiving. The problem is how to achieve this without getting shot in the process? The humour initially comes from his cowardice but towards the end it becomes a send up of wartime propaganda and all within nine pages.

I will just pick out two more of the tales included in this collection and these are both amongst the longest. ‘The Olive Grove’ is a dark story of a violent and arrogant past catching up with man who believes he has escaped it and does not end well for anyone. It is totally unlike all the other stories in this book and the contrast made it all the more striking. My final choice is also the final selection in the book ‘Madame Teller’s Establishment’, this was an absolute joy to read. Everyone in the story is so well described you feel you could have been with them on their trip. The story regards Madame Teller and her staff at her establishment which consists of five prostitutes and a waiter cum bouncer who looked after the rougher side of the house. She is invited to the confirmation of her niece and as she does not think that she can leave the business running in her absence, as she will need to be away overnight, she decides to take the five girls and the waiter with her to the little town where her brother lives. The resulting impact this has not only on her brothers town and the confirmation service but also back in her home where suddenly this well respected and frequented establishment closes without notice was beautifully told.

Well as I said at the beginning I have other collections of Maupassant and these will definitely be read soon after years of being neglected on my shelves and I heartily recommend him to you. There may be the occasional not very good story but they are all so short and surrounded by excellent alternatives that this hardly matters.

It’s been a year

I have kept this weekly blog now for just over a year and I thought I would take the opportunity to look back at the entries and see if it can give me some ideas as to which books to talk about next. To my surprise the top five liked entries as I write this are all related to Scotland

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William McGonagall wrote excruciatingly bad verse about Scotland and the people there and was a proud resident of Dundee, eventually Dundee has become proud of him as well. Iain Banks was another Scotsman through and through and the book I reviewed was his homage to the land of his birth. Shaun Bythell’s book was one of the first things I wrote about so his diary of keeping a Scottish bookshop going has had a whole year to accumulate its tally of likes whilst I only wrote about Elizabeth Cummings book about Scottish artist Sir Robin Philipson a couple of weeks ago and it has already made it to number five. You may have noticed I skipped Robert Service, he was also Scottish although found fame as a poet in Canada however I left him to last as he highlights another trend in popular posts here and that is poetry.

This is even more obvious when I look at the next five entries…

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The Frogs is a classical Greek play in verse, Persian Poets is clearly about poetry and Under Milk Wood is a poetic masterpiece by Dylan Thomas, this makes half of the top ten liked entries are about poetry although there is nowhere near that percentage represented in the total number of essays I have produced so far.

The remaining two are interesting. The Royal Tour is a beautifully illustrated diary of a cruise around a lot of the then British Empire and Uncle Jim is a bit of a sleeper as it deals with the early output of fantasy author Sir Terry Pratchett but without mentioning him in the title so you had to read the article to find out.

There are other statistics available that don’t display on the front page so aren’t visible to readers of the blog and from those I can see that Deep in the Forest – Estonian Folk Tales is looked at more often than any other entry and it is viewed from all over the world, as opposed to my other Estonian review of the Apothacary Melchior books which also gets quite a few readers but 90% of these are in Estonia or Finland. Only one entry has not been read by anybody according to the statistics available and that is The Tempest by William Shakespeare. Sorry Will although I have all your plays several times I don’t think you are going to be featured here again.

So what does all this tell me? Well poetry is definitely popular here and that’s good as I also like poetry and have quite a few more poets to write about, one of which will probably be in the next four weeks. Bearing in mind the Scottish bias as well I suppose I had better get the volume of Robert Burns I have from 1946 out and reread that soon.

The Frogs by Aristophanes was a surprise hit, to me at least, so we will see how next weeks entry, which is also classical Greek, goes down. I have a lot of ‘the Classics’ and am also planning a review of a book dealing with the subject of what makes a classic in the next month or so. Art and Design has also been popular and again this is something I have a lot about in my library so expect more of those subjects in the coming year.

But is there anything you would like me to write about? Not specific books, as according to the rules I set myself I have to own the title to write about it so you would have to be really lucky to hit one of the 6,500 titles on my shelves, but general subjects. I haven’t done much on Travel and Exploration but what has been done has been generally well received, should I do more? Any suggestions would be good either as a comment below or as a message through the site.

Hedda Gabler – Henrik Ibsen

The first thing you notice when you pick up Hedda Gabler is that there is no character of that name in the cast list. Gabler was her maiden name but at the start of the play she is just returning from honeymoon having married Jörgen Tesman so she is referred to in the cast as Hedda Tesman. As Ibsen himself wrote:

The title of the play is Hedda Gabler. My intention in giving it this name was to indicate that Hedda as a personality is to be regarded rather as her father’s daughter than her husband’s wife. It was not really my intention to deal in this play with so called problems. What I principally wanted to do was to depict human beings, human emotions and human destinies upon a groundwork of certain social conditions and principles of the present day.

(Excerpt from letter to Moritz Prozor, December 4, 1890)

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The edition I have read is the Penguin Classic translated by Una Ellis-Fermor printed in 1950, she also translated a further collection of Ibsen’s plays for Penguin in 1958 entitled The Master Builder and other plays. When Penguin came to reprint this 1950 book it was retitled Hedda Gabler and other plays to match the later edition. In both volumes Ellis-Fermor describes the translations as ‘readers versions’. By which she means that although the plays could be performed from her translation her intention was to produce works that a reader would find comfortable to read. One thing I have definitely discovered during this month of reading plays is that although when performed on the stage a play can be a wondrous thing and transport you to worlds of imagination; when you sit and read them they are somewhat less satisfying. They were never intended to be read as literature after all, however Ellis-Fermor has, whilst retaining the structure of a play, made it so it can easily be read as a novella (102 pages in this version).

The play is in four acts all of which take place in the Tesman’s new home which has been purchased and furnished whilst they were away on their six month honeymoon under the supervision of Jörgen’s aunt Juliane. She has even put some of her own money into the purchase when finances became tight. It is clear the Jörgen needs the professorship that is available in order to finance is new life as a married man especially as Hedda appears to have quite expensive tastes. For her part Hedda is already bored of the marriage, Jörgen appears to be more interested in his work and books than her and the ‘honeymoon’ was really an extended research trip. There is a funny passage of dialogue near the beginning of act one where Juliane has clearly planned the layout of the house with two empty rooms to be used as nurseries and children’s bedrooms and Jörgen really can’t understand and thinks they are for his library extension and no matter how she hints at Hedda being possibly pregnant Jörgen just doesn’t twig.

When Hedda does finally appear on stage she is deliberately rude to Juliane and makes it clear that she doesn’t like the way the place has been decorated, Juliane leaves and in her place Mrs Thea Elvsted arrives with news of Ejlert Lövborg, Jörgen’s presumed rival for the professorship especially as he has published a book whilst they have been away on honeymoon. It is at this point that the complex relationships between the characters start to be explained. Thea was in a brief relationship with Jörgen before he met Hedda and she had also been at school with Hedda where she had been bullied by her. Hedda, for reasons of her own makes out that they were school friends and gets Jörgen out of the way to talk about Ejlert who Thea had moved in with after leaving her husband. Thea tells Hedda that she is worried about Ejlert as he has gone back to his old ways (presumably drinking) and that he had been threatened by a previous partner with a gun and she thinks he may meet her again. Hedda reassures her that no woman would do such a thing but as Thea leaves she goes to a cabinet and pulls out her fathers pistols as the first act closes.

Act two begins with Hedda firing one of her guns towards Judge Brack as he comes to visit Jörgen who is out at the time, she is clearly not mentally stable but as the play continues her instability revolves around a desire to totally control somebody else and it seems she is set on it being Ejlert. Whilst waiting Brack makes it clear that he also desires a relationship with Hedda although she is not at all keen on the idea. Jörgen returns and is soon followed by Ejlert at his invitation, once they actually meet Ejlert explains that he doesn’t want the professorship as he has a new book he is working on. Whilst Jörgen and Brack are talking in another room Ejlert tries to renew his relationship with Hedda and she sees that he can be the one she can control. Thea arrives towards the end of the act and the two woman settle down for the evening after Hedda has persuaded Ejert to accompany Jörgen and Brack on their planned night out with him to return at 10pm to escort Thea home.

Act three is set the next morning, both ladies are in front of the now cooling fire, Ejlert obviously didn’t return to take Thea home but when Jörgen comes in he is carrying Ejlert’s manuscript of his new book and is very excited about how good it is. He had seen Ejlert drop it in the street and picked it up but hadn’t returned it as he was afraid he would lose it again. However Jörgen gets a message that his other aunt is dying so needs to leave urgently. Ejlert meanwhile is convinced he has destroyed the book and arrives to tell Thea who is horrified as she had worked tirelessly on the book with him and leaves almost immediately. Ejlert left with Hedda is even more under her spell than when they were a couple and she seeing this as her chance to prove that she can control somebody presses him to commit suicide and gives him one of her pistols before he leaves. Afterwards she burns the manuscript.

The final act is very short and takes place soon after the previous scene. It turns out that Ejlert had gone from the Tesman house to the home of another previous girlfriend and there had died from a gunshot wound to the chest, Hedda thinks he shot himself in the heart (a truly romantic gesture) but no Judge Brack explains to her that the gun appears to have gone off accidentally and that he recognised the pistol thus insuring his power over her. Thea also reveals that she has the original notes from their work together so Jörgen and her start work to reconstruct the lost masterpiece. Knowing that her plans have failed and instead she is the one controlled Hedda retires to the other room and shoots herself which is where the play ends.

Hedda through out the play is depicted as a materialistic, narcissistic character, thoroughly unlikeable but someone who has drawn the three men to her in their own way. Jörgen has a wife who will help him progress in Norwegian society. Brack sees someone he can control and therefore use as he wishes. Only Ejlert Lövborg really loves her but she doesn’t reciprocate this love and he is apparently blind to the love from Thea Elvsted which could have made them both so happy.

At the end of the play you hope that Thea and Jörgen can get together as a couple during their work in resurrecting the lost manuscript. Finding through their shared loss a rekindling of the love they had in the past. Surely something good can come out of the tragedies.

The Frogs – Aristophanes

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For November I’ve decided to read a selection of plays and the first one is The Frogs by Aristophanes. Normally I’m not a great fan of Ancient Greek dramas as you need a lot of knowledge of the gods and other characters involved but this translation is so readable I found myself laughing along as I read it. It was written in 405 BC and can be dated so precisely because it was created for drama competition as part of a festival honouring the god Dionysus in Athens where it took first place. Dionysus is one of the Greek gods with lots of jobs, according to the Wikipedia entry he is the god of the grape-harvest, wine making and wine, fertility, ritual madness, religious ecstasy, and theatre and it is in the latter one of these roles that a drama competition in his name becomes obvious.

The play tells the story of Dionysus deciding to travel to the underworld to bring back the playwright Euripedes who had died the previous year in order to rescue the arts in Athens back from the doldrums that he perceives it to be in. The first act sees Dionysus and his slave Xanthias on their journey, initially they visit Dionysus’s half brother Heracles for advice which causes him to collapse with laughter as Dionysus has decided to dress like Heracles with the lion head cloak and club but he really doesn’t have the build to carry off the look. Eventually they persuade Heracles to explain the route he used when he went to get the three headed dog Cerebus and they duly set off. When they meet Charon, the ferryman of the dead he agrees to take Dionysus and this is when he encounters the frog chorus who sing during the crossing. Despite the play being called The Frogs this is the only time they appear in it. After various encounters with people who think Dionysus is Heracles and either hate him for taking Cerebus or love him for it they finally reach the home of Pluto ruler of the Hades.

Act two takes place entirely at the Pluto’s house where they find Euripedes and also another dramatist Aeschylus who had died about 50 years earlier. These two had been arguing for the last year about which was the better writer and should therefore sit with Pluto for meals. Dionysus takes it onto himself to judge a contest between them and they take it in turns to be rude about the others works with the chorus commenting as though it was a fight with each man landing viscous blows on the other. This gives Aristophenes a chance to parody each of the two dramatists styles and throw in his own critical comments on both of them. Eventually Pluto gets fed up and decides to determine the winner via a special set of scales which can measure the weight of an argument. Each man gets to speak one line into the baskets on the scale and they are marked against one another with the scale, to Euripedes’s annoyance Aeschylus wins both attempts by mentioning heavier objects. In the end Dionysus decides to simply ask the two dramatists for advice to save Athens, Euripedes has lots of fine words but Aeschylus has more practical suggestions so instead of having Euripedes brought back to life he decides on Aeschylus. A final parting shot from Aeschylus is to insist that Sophocles should have the seat as the finest dramatist rather than Euripedes.

Translations of ancient Greek and Latin have become far ‘less stuffy’ over the last few decades and this can largely be thanks to Penguin Books who started their series of Penguin Classics in 1946 with the express intent of making the classics more approachable. Compare this extract from the Harvard Classics edition of 1909 which is available on Project Gutenberg, which deals with the god Dionysus rowing across the Styx with Charon and encountering the Frog chorus.  The specific translator is not given for this edition on the site as this was a massive group exercise resulting in 51 volumes of a wide selection of classic works.

FROG CHORUS
   Brekekekex, ko-ax, ko-ax!
   Brekekekex, ko-ax, ko-ax!
   We children of the fountain and the lake
   Let us wake
   Our full choir-shout, as the flutes are ringing out,
   Our symphony of clear-voiced song.
   The song we used to love in the Marshland up above,
   In praise of Dionysus to produce,
   Of Nysaean Dionysus, son of Zeus,
   When the revel-tipsy throng, all crapulous and gay,
   To our precinct reeled along on the holy
   Pitcher day.
   Brekekekex, ko-ax, ko-ax.

 DIONYSUS. O, dear! O dear! now I declare I've got a bump upon my rump.

The same passage from the 1964 translation by David Barrett printed by Penguin and reprinted in the edition I have been reading.

FROGS
   Brekeke-kex, ko-ax, ko-ax,
   Ko-ax, ko-ax, ko-ax!
   Oh we are the musical Frogs!
   We live in the marshes and bogs!
   Sweet, sweet is the hymn,
   That we sing as we swim,
   And our voices are known.
   For their beautiful tone,
   when on festival days
   We sing to the praise
   Of the genial god -
   And we don't think it odd
   When the worshipping throng,
   To the sound of our song,
   Rolls home through the marshes and bogs.
   Brekekex!
   Rolls home through the marshes and bogs.

 DIONYSUS. I don't want to row any more.

 FROGS. Brekekex!

 DIONYSUS. For my bottom is getting so sore.

As you can see the Penguin edition is considerable more ‘lively’ and the translator has almost turned to the poetic structure of the limerick in order to emphasise the comic nature of the play. This is a form that he will return to several times during the translation in some places using the limerick itself. The play is only 110 short pages so I read it in two sittings, the edition is from the Little Black Classics series by Penguin and is one of the most expensive of these books at £2. I’m looking forward to reading more from this series of titles in the coming months.

 

Under Milk Wood – Dylan Thomas

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Yesterday was International Dylan Thomas day and marked the anniversary of the first ever performance of the great Welsh poet’s final work; Under Milk Wood. This show on 14th May 1953 was also the only time Thomas was recorded on stage giving any sort of performance of the work and sadly he was to die before the classic BBC recording starring Richard Burton was broadcast on the 25th January 1954. I have the vinyl recording of that original performance and it is playing now as I type this with Thomas’s distinctive voice taking four parts, that of 1st voice, Reverend Eli Jenkins, 2nd drowned and 5th drowned. The rest of the cast are Dion Allen, Allen F Collins, Roy Poole, Sada Thompson and Nancy Wickwire and between them they play the remaining 50 parts.

The recording was more accidental than intentional, there was a recording scheduled for 1954 with Caedmon but Thomas’s death prevented that happening. However somebody left a tape recorder at the front of the stage with the microphone probably nearer to Thomas than the other cast members mainly for their own use to record the first performance. As a single microphone on a device intended for amateur recordings it does remarkably well in picking up not only all the actors but also the audience and has left us with  a remarkable historical record. Caedmon therefore used this for their release of Under Milk Wood. The New York audience clearly didn’t know what to expect from this Welsh poet and you can hear them gradually realise that it is intentionally funny and the way the actors bounce partial sentences between themselves gives a delightful rhythm to the blank verse.

Under Milkwood is subtitled ‘A Play for Voices’ which sounds an odd description until you realise that it was intended to be a radio play for the BBC so there are no stage directions, it was always intended to be read by the cast not acted.

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My printed copy is the 1972 Folio Society first edition of the work and, as usual for Folio, it is a lovely edition. It restores the text back to the original broadcast script with some extra lines which he left out originally, probably due to running time, added as an appendix. Although Thomas did deliver the script to the BBC he was still fiddling with it up to his death as he gave various readings in an attempt to earn enough money to pay off his debts, specifically a large back payment owed for income tax. So the typescripts are full of corrections and amendments and he never did come to what he regarded as a satisfactory conclusion to the piece, which had always been rushed as he only finished the ending included on the album minutes before they started the performance and kept changing this at subsequent performances.  As Douglas Cleverdon (the BBC producer of the 1954 broadcast version) notes in his introduction to the Folio edition.

Two stage readings of Under Milk Wood were scheduled for 24 and 25 October at the Kaufmann Auditorium, New York. Under a mixture of alcohol, sleeping pills and cortisone drugs, Dylan was already in a near state of collapse. He managed to write another page for the closing sequence of the script; to take part on the two readings, and to edit a shortened version for publication in the American magazine Mademoiselle. On 5 November he was taken to hospital in a coma, and died four days later.

If he had survived the play would undoubtedly have been further amended, on the back of one page of the manuscript is a section entitled “More Stuff for Actors to Say” and there are parts of the Caedmon recording that were subsequently removed so it was definitely still a work in progress at least as far as Thomas was concerned even after he had submitted the ‘final version’ to the BBC.

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One final thing that should be mentioned is the setting of the play in a small Welsh village of Llareggub. This has the advantage of looking like a Welsh place name without being one, you don’t get a double g in Welsh. However anyone looking closely at the name and especially if you spell it backwards will see that here is another joke by Dylan Thomas. For this reason early editions of the script spell the village differently and even the Caedmon recording uses Lareggub when referring to the place in the notes. The fantasy author Terry Pratchett paid homage to Dylan Thomas when he named the equivalent of Wales on the Discworld Llamedos.

You can hear the first part of the performance I’m listening to on youtube here  It starts with Thomas as First Voice setting the scene.