CLASSICS IN PAPERBACK

Click to follow
The Independent Culture
Fathers & Sons by Ivan Turgenev trs Michael R Katz, Norton pounds 7.99. It was outside Russia that Turgenev's brilliance was most fully acknowledged in his time, yet in Britain he's never had the mass appeal of the Tolstoyevsky duopoly. This portrayal of a generation gap yawning in mid-century Russian politics between the men of the 1840s and their children, the "nihilists" of the Sixties, fairly set the samovars rattling with debate when it appeared in 1862. Katz's new translation rates no better than average and its footnotes seem to be for idiots, but the addenda (from Turgenev's letters and some illuminating critical essays) are both generous and useful.

! Seize the Day by Saul Bellow, Penguin pounds 5.99. This intensely moving New York novella of the mid-life crisis of Tommy Wilhelm - son, husband, film actor, sales executive, commodities investor, and in each of these a crashing failure - would have exhilarated Turgenev as much as it now does Martin Amis. The succulent prose is a superb instrument for Bellow's observation of urban individuality, struggling like an inept swimmer in a torrent of all the other individualities.

! The Sirens of Titan by Kurt Vonnegut, Indigo pounds 5.99. Vonnegut's second novel marries H G Wells, Lewis Carroll and cosmic Jewish pessimism to produce one of the most original and funny sci-fi stories ever written. Reading it again after 30 years, I see the enormous debt which Douglas Adams, with his verbal games about Life, the Universe and Everything, owes to Vonnegut, who is by far the greater writer.

! The Count of Monte Cristo by Alexandre Dumas, trs Robin Buss, Penguin pounds 6.99. Dumas's hefty bestseller about Edmond Dantes, unjustly banged up in the Chateau d'If before escaping to find wealth and wreak his revenge, is a forerunner of the political thriller, in which romantic individualism triumphs over evil men and the brutal power of the state. Buss's introduction to this first unbowdlerised English version takes issue with one reviewer's preference for translators who don't "get in the way". The point is that prose translation should not stutter and strain unnecessarily, a test which Buss himself passes with ease.

! Sailing Alone Around the World by Joshua Slocum, Phoenix pounds 5.99. In the 1890s Slocum, an American sea captain, lost his vessel and his livelihood to the sea. Offered the hulk of a 36-foot sloop called the Spray, he set about rebuilding her by hand before sailing away singlehanded around the world. The log of the voyage is as rousing as it is beautiful, evoking the intensity of the lone yachtsman's floating universe in a style as remarkable as that of any of his more recent successors. Slocum's passage round the Horn - buffeted by squalls and williwaws and harried by savages in fire-carrying canoes - is the highlight of an utterly bewitching book.

! Leviathan by Thomas Hobbes, World's Classics pounds 4.99. Thatcher's opinion that there are only markets and no society is often seen as Hobbesian. Hobbes's political philosophy, of which this great book is a complete statement, is famously predicated on the view that man's life is "solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short". Yet his Leviathan actually is society, a macrocosm of the human body in which we, the members, contract to be subject equally to the rule of the head and so gain relief from our own nasty and brutish proclivities. It is all argued on a scale which prompts J C A Gaskin, introducing this new edition, to claim Hobbes as the one English- language political philosopher up there with Plato, Aristotle, Hegel and Marx. And the magisterially lucid 17th-century prose offers a distinct hike in readability over the latter two.

! Centuries of Childhood by Philippe Aries, trs Robert Baldick, Pimlico pounds 12.50. In a preface to this welcome new edition of a celebrated work of social history, the psychologist Adam Phillips reminds us that it was Aries who discovered the discovery of childhood. First published in France in 1960, the book argues that childhood and the family are constructs which first emerged in the 17th century and became so popular that they began to be treated as the prescriptions of nature. That there once was no equivalent to our "family" and "childhood" was grossly shocking to Aries's readers but, despite the revolutionary thesis, he is a scholarly companion compared to barnstorming contemporaries like Foucault.

! One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovitch by Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn trs Harry Willetts, Harvill Panther pounds 5.99. I can still vividly recall the cover - jagged black barbed wire on an ice-white ground - of the first Penguin edition of this novel, which launched Solzhenitsyn on a literary career that soon took on Tolstoyan proportions. The monochrome design for this fine, fresh translation is softer, but the edition restores many passages that were originally removed to blunt the book's political attack. The restored text's theme remains universal, and despite his monumental three-volume Gulag Archipelago, Solzhenitsyn's first published description of the misery of the Gulag remains his most accessible.

Martial in English eds J P Sullivan and A J Boyle (Penguin pounds 9.99) is a fat and entertaining new collection of translations of Martial's epigrams, of which he wrote nearly 1,600, veering wildly in style. There is the cravenly devotional (addressed to potentates such as the Emperor Domitian, to whom the poet is portrayed offering laurel, oak and ivy, left, in Benedetto Bordon's 1501 miniature), the viciously insulting (aimed at contemporary poetasters), and the cheerfully pornographic (for lovers old and new) - the last of which modes made Martial very unpopular among buttoned-up critics of the late 19th and early 20th century. Since Ezra Pound took up Martial's cause, though, the Latin poet's reputation has been restored, and this collection embodies a strong argument for Martial's consistent influence on English literature, from the poems of Ben Jonson through Samel Johnson, Pope, Byron and, latterly, to such enthusiastic and inventively vulgar modern Martial translators as Peter Porter and Tony Harrison. The American poet Philip Murray happily advises us that "Marcus Valerius Martialis ... is still the funniest poet alive".

Comments