Tuesday, October 31, 2017

Boris Pasternak's Doctor Zhivago

Boris Pasternak's Doctor Zhivago came out in November of 1957 first in an Italian translation even before a Russian edition came out in France at the very end of 1957. The story of its publication is as full of twists and turns as the novel Doctor Zhivago is itself. Sergio D'Angelo, an Italian communist bookseller, offered to act as a scout for the publisher Feltrinelli on a trip to Moscow, learned of the possible publication of Pasternak's novel during the post-Stalin thaw, and met with Pasternak, who authorized an Italian edition, telling him, "You, sir, are hereby invited to my execution."

An Italian reader for Feltrinelli said, "Not to publish a novel like this would constitute a crime against culture."

Correspondence about the edition followed. Feltrinelli and Pasternak set up a code that if letters were written in a language other than French they were to be ignored. At one point a bank note was cut in half and needed to be matched by two parties to guarantee authenticity. Pasternak was forced to pretend to plead with Feltrinelli not to publish.

The Russian edition in 1957 was quietly killed; it didn't come out in Russia until the fall of the communist state. But the first printing of the Italian edition was 12000 copies and sold out almost immediately; further printings occurred at two week intervals. Doctor Zhivago won Pasternak the Nobel prize, or would have, had he been allowed to claim it; after his death it was given to his heirs. [Details on the publication history drawn from Feltrinelli, Carlo Feltrinelli's biography of his father Giangiacomo Feltrinelli, English translation, 2001.]

The novel was first translated into English and came out in 1958; that edition was translated by Max Hayward and Manya Harari. It was retranslated by Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky, appearing in 2010. It's this second edition I've just read, though I've also read the earlier translation, even taught it once in a Reading and Comprehension course in Cal-Berkeley's Comp Lit program. I'd say, those poor students, who had to suffer through me, but since none of them read it, I don't feel that bad...

The story is pretty well known: Doctor Yuri Zhivago falls in love with Larissa (Lara) Antipova, though each of them are married to someone else. They're separated and rejoined several times by the tides of World War I, the October Revolution, and the Russian Civil War. You can if you choose now whistle or hum Lara's Theme.

With all that was going on, it would be reasonable to assume the original translation into English was rushed, and 40+ years on, it could stand redoing. Pevear and Volokhonsky are well known and, I think, generally successful translators from Russian. Like everyone else in the universe, I became aware of them when Oprah picked their translation of Anna Karenina for her book club. I read that and their War and Peace, some of their Chekhov. I really felt like I got a new appreciation of Dostoevsky when I reread his major novels in their translation. But I have to say I'm less convinced by this one.

I have no Russian, and I have to assume they're often trying to reproduce something that feels ungainly in the Russian, but it makes it harder going in English. Here's an example of what I mean, from the section named either Conclusion or The Ending, part 5. From Hayward and Harari:
"...the porter's lodge was always warm and dry, and the water did not freeze."
From Pevear and Volokhonsky:
"...only in the porter's lodge was it warm and did the water not freeze."
That's a particularly egregious example, but not an uncommon one.  I think Hayward and Harari, rushed though they may have been, didn't do so bad. 

Poetry translation is hard, but neither volume does especially well with the poems. Neither translation attempts the original rhymes.

Anyway, a great novel. An adequate translation, but maybe no better than what was there before.

Saturday, October 28, 2017

Agatha Christie's Murder On The Orient Express

I pulled this one off the shelf because I wanted to see how Christie introduced a large number (twelve) of suspects, a victim, and a few other sundry characters. They're all in place, though a few somewhat sketchily, by page 20 in my edition. I could have stopped there. I didn't.

This is, of course, one of Christie's absolute best, and I say that as one of the large class that prefer Miss Marple to M. Hercule Poirot as her detective.

The novel starts with Poirot in Aleppo about to board the train to Istanbul. He's just completed a successful case in French Syria and he's talking with a junior officer delegated to see him to the train. The officer is unimportant. In case we haven't seen Poirot before, we come away with three traits, I'd say: he can be smug, but he's kind and thoughtful about what others think, and he's insightful.

He's told about and then sees the first two suspects: a colonel from India, and a young English lady from Baghdad. They're described by the conductor as exactly that, and for quite a while at least, that's exactly who they are. Colonel Arbuthnot and Mary Debenham. (Played by Sean Connery and Vanessa Redgrave in the 1971 movie of my tie-in edition.) They seem like they might be falling in love, and Poirot overhears a few snippets of their conversation; their conversation has a strangeness not entirely accounted for by the general awkwardness of falling in love. Page 7.

In Istanbul, Arbuthnot and Debenham intend to proceed immediately on to the Orient Express; Poirot has promised himself a holiday for a few days but when he reaches his hotel, there's a telegram requesting his immediate return to London. The concierge goes to book him a sleeper and Poirot sits down to a quick meal in the restaurant. There he meets M. Bouc, an old friend, now in charge of the Wagon-Lits company whose train Poirot will catch. This gives us another quick view of Poirot's interior:
"Ah!" sighed M. Bouc. "Les affaires--les affaires! But you, you are at the top of the tree nowadays, mon vieux!"
"Some little success I have had, perhaps." Hercule Poirot tried to look modest but failed signally.
This conversation was presumably conducted in French, since both participants are French Belgian. You'll have to decide what you think of the odd inversions and the French inserted into a French conversation. I admit to being of two minds about this sort of thing.

Our next two individuals of interest are also dining at the restaurant. These are two Americans, one rich and the other his secretary. We get the most extended description so far of the rich American: his (old) age, his (receding) hairline, his (false) teeth, his eyes. Of the young man, we learn his name is Hector and he "seemed agreeable." Of the elder, that he was Mr. Ratchett, and that when he went by, "evil had passed very close." This is page 12 in my edition.

It is Mr. Ratchett who will be killed.

The sleeper car is in fact full and it takes some fiddling between M. Bouc and an as yet unnamed conductor to find Poirot a cabin.  We see the conductor in action; he will be an important character because when he's not answering a call, his seat enables him to see the entire length of the car and see access to all the sleeper-room doors. Poirot ends up for the night in a second class cabin bunking with the nice young American who is at first irritated that he won't have the cabin to himself after all. We learn his full name is Hector MacQueen. Page 15-16.

It is at lunch in the dining car the next day that the remaining characters are swiftly introduced. M. Bouc and Poirot discuss their fellow diners. M. Bouc knows some of then; otherwise they just speculate on the basis of appearance and quick snippets of conversation. They are: "a big swarthy Italian," "a spare neat Englishman [with the] disapproving face of the well-trained servant," "a big American in a loud suit--possibly a commercial traveler," Princess Dragomiroff "one of the ugliest old ladies [Poirot] had ever seen," a woman "tall and middle-aged [with] a long mild amiable face rather like a sheep," "the third woman, [at the table with Mary Debenham] a stout, pleasant-faced, elderly person," then a woman "possibly German or Scandinavian," and a couple--"Hungarian Embassy, I believe"--according to M. Bouc. This is in addition to MacQueen, Ratchett, and Arbuthnot, also all in the dining car. And here we are at page 20. I condensed two pages into this paragraph, but the remaining suspects are done very swiftly, and about a couple of them we know next to nothing. They are a bit of a blur.

And we, the story, and the train are off! At least until the train hits a snowdrift and is stuck. The story, of course, carries on. [Odd coincidence. To look at this I interrupted my current reading of Dr. Zhivago. There Zhivago and family are stuck on a train in a snowdrift, until the whole train gets out and clears the way with shovels.]

This post is now probably overlong, and anyway, I've already thought about what I wanted to think about. I also, of course, don't want to give anything away. Agatha Christie is famously the queen of misdirection and this one's a doozy. But I will add I find this one more fun even on rereading than reading it the first time. The fact that I know the solution adds extra nuance, a little extra fun, to a number of things that occur early in the novel. It's not hard to guess which will be clues: Poirot frequently points them out. But knowing exactly how they will come to fruition is fun.

And this is the perfect novel for:

Train. Golden Age. My Reader's Block Vintage Mystery Hunt Challenge.

Friday, October 27, 2017

Leslie Charteris' Enter The Saint

Enter The Saint is a collection of three novelets that came out originally in 1930 and is actually the second Saint volume by Charteris. Still, "...at the date of the Ganning episode [the first of the novelets] the Saint had only just commenced operations, and his name had not yet come to be surrounded with aura of infallibility which it was to earn for itself later."

I call them novelets because that's what Charteris calls them in the interesting introduction to my 1971 reprint. Forty years of Saint stories, novels, movies, television shows, radio plays, comic books, and stage plays are in the middle. Charteris tells us there are things he would have done differently. Obviously he did something right...

Simon Templar, AKA The Saint, inherited enough money from somewhere never really specified, enough to live, had he wanted to, the life of a luxurious playboy. Instead he craves adventure, and he has a Robin Hood streak that compels him to use those adventures to steal from thieves and give the proceeds to charity. Less his 10% for expenses. As a Robin Hood, he's got a Maid Marian, a Will Scarlet, and a Friar Tuck on his team. He's a stylish and debonair vigilante.

"...the flippant dandy with the heart of a crusader, a fighter who laughed as he fought, the reckless, smiling swashbuckler, the inspired and beloved leader of men, the man born with the sound of trumpets in his ears."
Charteris doesn't want you in any doubt who his Saint is.

In the first of the episodes he comes across a nice young man who's unfortunately gone a bit wrong, getting himself tied in with gamblers who run a drug running ring on the side. The Saint takes care of that ending with a car chase from Central London to Edgware in a Furillac.

The second sees a fake policeman stage two kidnappings; naturally the Saint decides he, too, should have one of his gang play a policeman to confuse the crooks. The car chase this time involves a Desurio, and goes further afield, to Dartmoor. Inspector Teal of Scotland Yard is queried to discover what the game is for; the crooks are delivered to Scotland Yard, and the loot has its own trip to make. Inspector Teal is once again allowed to clean up.

The last story doesn't involve some imaginary make of car, but a yacht and a seaplane; a group of rich men and their jewelry-wearing wives are lured on the yacht in a scam that, if all went well, was going to relieve them of their jewels and money. All does not go well, unless you're counting for the Saint.

I've read a bunch, but not all, of the Saint stories, and I thought these were very good outings, quite enjoyable. The Saint's flippancy can be insufferable, but that's pretty much by design.

From the introduction:
"It is thrilling enough for a boy to skirmish with imaginary savages in a stalk through the woods. Later he will discover much quieter and deadlier monsters, while at the same time he is reaching towards the stars."
I don't know whether that's a Desurio or  Furillac or maybe just some muscle car from forty years after the date of the stories, but it is:

Golden Age. Car/Truck. My Reader's Block Vintage Mystery Scavenger Hunt

Saturday, October 21, 2017

Jennifer Egan's A Visit From The Goon Squad

A Visit From The Goon Squad is a novel in thirteen chapters, or thirteen stories about an interlocking group of characters. Famously one of the stories is in the form of a PowerPoint presentation. It won the Pulitzer and the National Book Critics Circle Award for the year it came out, 2011. So, you know, it's a celebrated book, and anything I might add is just a cherry on top. But for what it's worth, I, too, thought it was great.

The novel centers around Sasha and Bennie and their friends, family, co-workers, and acquaintances. Each of the thirteen chapters focuses on a different character; Sasha and then Bennie get the first two, which are set in the present. Bennie Salazar operates a music production company. He used to own it, but sold it to one of the biggies, and was more successful in the past. In the present, Sasha is unattached and has a problem with kleptomania. She's also the assistant to Bennie as record producer. That's the sum total of the connection between the two of them, and unlike a different sort of novel, that's the way it stays.

The novel is a little difficult--not To The Lighthouse or Finnegans Wake difficult--but still it requires paying attention and doubling back. The difficulty arises because each of those chapters focuses on a different person; that person's connection with one of the two main characters may be more or less tenuous; the time frame jumps with each chapter from the 80s to maybe the 2020s. The Wikipedia article is pretty good at tying it together and I see no need to reproduce it, though the article does seem to find the novel darker than I did.

That structure, though, is also the novel's great source of strength. Seeing our characters in action over four decades and through the eyes of others means they gain a depth that a more tightly focussed novel wouldn't reveal.

It allows passages like this, which comes from a chapter focussing on Sasha's Uncle Ted, who goes to Naples to find Sasha, since her family suspects (correctly) she's living a life there of dissipation and crime and drugs:

On another day more than twenty years after this one, after Sasha had gone to college and settled in New York; after she'd reconnected on Facebook with her college boyfriend and married late (when Beth had nearly given up hope) and had two children, one of whom was slightly autistic; when she was like anyone, with a life that worried and electrified and overwhelmed her, Ted, long divorced--a grandfather--would visit Sasha at home in the  California desert. He would step through a living room strewn with with the flotsam of her young kids and watch the western sun blaze through a sliding glass door. And then for an instant he would remember Naples.
And that summary, almost bald, is verified by other chapters, but only mostly, because it's more complicated than that. Uncle Ted doesn't quite see everything. And that's the way life is: it works out, or doesn't, and others only partly perceive us, our triumphs, our failures, even our simple changes in time.

Anyway, very good, I thought.

Sunday, October 15, 2017

Janwillem van de Wetering's The Mind-Murders

Somewhere, I no longer recall where, I saw this compared to Crispin's The Moving Toyshop. That was enough to make me get it at once.

Van de Wetering wrote a dozen plus mysteries about Amsterdam cops Grijpstra and de Gier. This was the eighth in the series and came out in 1981. It is the first of the series I've read.

This is really two novellas with some overlapping characters, both involving on the cafe with the red sign shown on the cover. The first centers on Frits Fortune who has just been tossed in the canal and has to be rescued by de Gier. Fortune's wife has disappeared together with all the possessions of the Fortune home. She's gone, but there's no body. Nevertheless Grijpstra is convinced it's murder, even with no evidence, and Grijpstra drags the mostly unwilling de Gier in pursuit of the case. In the end there was a crime committed, even if different from what Grijpstra was looking for, and it's solved.

In the second novella, there's definitely a dead body, dumped in the trunk of a car, suspicious enough, but the coroner's report indicates the victim died of a duodenal ulcer. This time it's de Gier who's certain there was a crime, and he, too, is right, though again it's different than what he expected.

So was it The Moving Toyshop? (One of my favorite mysteries.) Well, no. It has some of the amusing absurdity of Crispin's novel, but doesn't quite get there. A Porsche changes from right-hand drive to left-hand drive and back again, which might have suggested a disappearing toyshop. That Grijpstra can discuss Zen meditation or that the junior policewoman is uncontrollably lascivious and with a thing for older men shows some of Crispin's absurdity.

A quick look at Goodreads after the fact tells me maybe this isn't in fact the best outing in the series. But this was good enough I will try another.

It seems my library used to just print a sticker and slap on it the cover for the due date--that's the bunch of white rectangles in the picture above. Either the book fell out of favor or they quit that process some time ago because the last sticker shows a due date of 03Apr95.

The canal plays an important role in the two stories, and those canals are a major feature in Amsterdam. That counts for:

Silver Age. Body of Water. My Reader's Block Vintage Mystery Scavenger Hunt.

Thursday, October 12, 2017

Charles Dickens' The Mystery of Edwin Drood

Can we talk about the mystery of The Mystery of Edwin Drood?

The Mystery of Edwin Drood was Charles Dickens' last novel and it was approximately half-finished when he died in 1870. Had he completed it, it probably wouldn't have been his best novel, but, hey, it's Dickens. It's still pretty good.

But the fun for mystery readers is precisely that it is unfinished. Dickens was influenced by his friend Wilkie Collins' hit The Moonstone and he thought he'd try his hand at a mystery plot. He's used crime and even murder elements before, but in Edwin Drood he seems to be constructing a plot with fair play cluing. And over the years, there have been plenty of attempts to say where those clues were going. But spoilers are impossible because nobody knows how it would have ended.

Edwin Drood is about to take a position in an engineering firm, a share of which he has inherited from his father. The job will take him to Egypt. He's also about to marry Rosa Bud as soon as she leaves school; they've been pledged to each other forever; their marriage was a favorite plan between their fathers, both dead now. But Rosa and Edwin can't seem to do anything but quarrel when they actually meet. And before Edwin's disappearance, Rosa tells him it's not a good idea they get married.

It's Edwin who is dead or missing when the book breaks off.

His best friend and closest relative is his uncle John Jasper, only six years older than Edwin, a church musician, and an opium addict. Edwin doesn't see it, but Jasper is also in love with Rosa.

Two other orphans, Neville and Helena Landless arrive in Cloisterham, the town where Rosa goes to school and Jasper leads the church choir. They're taken in by Mr. Crisparkle, a minor canon of the Cloisterham cathedral. They're from Ceylon (Sri Lanka) and are half of Indian ancestry. As Eurasians they're immediately subject to local prejudice. Neville immediately finds Rosa attractive and Edwin thinks the same of Helena, but this is intolerable, and Neville and Edwin end up in a brawl practically as soon as they meet. Boys.

Edwin's watch and tie pin are found at the edge of a weir, but there's no sign of him.

So the question is: is Edwin Drood dead? Or did he just disappear of his own free will? And if he's dead, who killed him?

I think it's pretty clear Neville is the first red herring. He's simply too obvious, and Dickens is too sympathetic to the downtrodden to make him actually the perpetrator.

In John Forster's biography, quoted in the introduction to my Penguin edition, Dickens muses about about a plot where an uncle kills his nephew, and is given a big scene in his condemned cell at the end of the book. Angus Wilson, author of the introduction is inclined to accept that as the plot outline. It is true that Dickens has used the prison cell scene before to great effect: think Fagin at the end of Oliver Twist.

This is a perfectly possible outcome, but I don't like it, for two reasons: 1.) the way Jasper behaves when he learns that Edwin and Rosa have called it off. He's clearly shocked, but is he shocked in the way he would be if he'd just learned he committed a murder that was unneeded? I don't think so. It's an idea that occurred to Dickens according to Forster, but I don't think he'd handle it this way if that was where he was going.

And 2.) Dickens typically shows sympathy for the addicted. He might, of course, feel differently about opium addiction than alcohol addiction, but I keep thinking of the alcoholic Sydney Carton (of Tale of Two Cities.) I think he would have allowed Jasper to redeem himself, though it would likely be at the cost of his life. Mr. Wickfield (in David Copperfield) is another example. Dickens' world view became darker as he aged, but he still seems to me to sympathize with Jasper, and I don't think he'd make him the murderer.

So if I don't think Neville Landless killed Edwin Drood, and I don't think John Jasper did so either, what was Edwin Drood's fate? I think he's still alive. In the notes reproduced in the back of the Penguin, Dickens writes, after trying out various name possibilities for Edwin, "Dead? or alive?" I think Edwin left the country to discover what he thought about Rosa, and wanted to be anonymous when he left.

I suspect Edwin would need to be returned to England at the end of the novel, possibly to save Neville from a false charge of murder, and it will have to be Jasper that does it, probably at the expense of his life somehow.

But who knows? Your guess is as good as mine.

Golden Age. Moon. That's a moon on the cover. It's a detail from A Moonlight Scene by Atkinson Grimshaw according to the back cover of my Penguin. My Reader's Block Vintage Mystery Scavenger Hunt.

Monday, October 9, 2017

Mount TBR Checkin #3

I was aiming for Mount Vancouver for the year, which is 36 books. I'd read 28 off of my TBR pile by the end of September, which puts me ahead of pace (though just slightly). Woo-hoo! I had to pull out the calculator app for the math on this one, but that puts me 3743m up my particular mountain.

Definitely the most memorable character from those books is the title character from the Alice Munro short story "The Albanian Virgin" in Open Secrets. Was Charlotte really captured by bandits in Albania in the 1920s? Did she actually pledge to live as a virgin in order to hang out with the boys? Did she run off with that Franciscan priest? Or was he a Moroccan chef? Or maybe she's just an incredible liar, umm, storyteller? And then where in the end did she go? We will never know, but who cares: she can spin such an awesome yarn...

Saturday, October 7, 2017

Eugene Ionesco's Hugoliad

He, Victor Hugo, had started life off on the right foot. From the age of twenty-eight, he was taken for a genius.
Can't say I particularly recommend Ionesco's Hugoliad, but I found that line funny. There were a few other funny things in it as well. It's an attack on Hugo in the shape of a biography, but it's not as funny or as pungent as it could be, as Ionesco would become later in his plays like Rhinocerous or Bald Soprano. It is the work of a young Ionesco. It may also be badly translated: it was doubly translated, from the original Romanian to French, and then from French to English.