FROM THE PULPIT
P ETER W ASHINGTON CLASSICSLITE
enough already, so the Orion-ites propose to issue them next month in Compact Editions (doesn’t that sound cosy?) which will see that the books are ‘sym
I TIS UNLIKELY that even the erudite readers of the Literary Reviewknow much about Nahum Tate (1652–1715), one of our dimmer Poet Laureates in a crowded field. Historians remember Tate for a walk-on part in Pope’s Dunciad, but he does have a better claim to fame – apart, that is, from writing a poem about tea called Panacea. For it was Nahum who had the bright idea of cheering up King Lear by chopping out the difficult bits and allowing Cordelia to survive and marry Edmund, in a version of the play which held the stage for more than a century. Mucking about with Shakespeare was something of a national pastime in Tate’s day. It fell into disfavour with readers when the Bard was canonised by Romantic poets, but survives in the theatre, though there are now tacit limits to what you can do: make Hamlet a dog or transfer Othello to the Arctic by all means, but don’t meddle with the words, however much you twist their meaning. Yet, as everyone has noticed, even when you do meddle with the words, Shakespeare shows almost miraculous powers of recovery. It has become part of his myth that, mangle him as we may from China to Peru, we keep rediscovering the original. That being the case, does it actually matter what we do to his plays? Is it not the definition of a classic that it can withstand any amount of maltreatment, including butchery and neglect? After all, King Lear survived Tate. But would other writers survive this approach? This month, the publishers of a new translation of War and Peacecertainly appear to think so. Their advertising copy implies that this version is somehow sexier and cheerier than the one we all know, not least because it is ‘free of solemn philosophical wanderings’, whatever they may be. The text is shorter; characters who die in the later version survive in this one; and Tolstoy’s people ‘remain central throughout’. Well, they would, wouldn’t they? The only thing missing is a television phone-in to choose your favourite bit. In fact, the sales pitch is a bit of a con. This is not a hatchet job by the Nahum Tate gang. Closer inspection reveals that the ‘new version’ translates an early draft of the novel suppressed by the author, interesting to Tolstoy fans but not necessarily to anyone else. But the blurb does raise an interesting question. Why on earth should the publishers even try to sell their edition of War and Peace as a walk in the park? Is it not possible that people interested in such a book are serious enough not to need the perky patter of advertising departments to brighten their day? Apparently not. And Tolstoy is not the only one in for a mass-market, reader-friendly makeover (you see, I am catching the argot myself). Those nice people at Orion have decided that Charlotte and Emily and Jane and George also need a leg up. It seems they aren’t popular
pathetically edited’ (unlike cruel editions). And, although reduced in length, they will nevertheless ‘retain all the elements that made them a “classic” in the first place’. It really makes you wonder why no one thought of this wheeze before (or did they?). I mean, there have I been wasting my time on Proust, Musil and the other boys when the clever-clogs at Orion and Fourth Estate could have saved me the time and effort. All the same, I have been puzzling over how you can abridge a book while simultaneously retaining ‘all the elements which make it a classic’ because I don’t quite understand what they think ‘all the elements’ are. Don’t proportion, size, spaciousness and temporality have something to do with it? Isn’t Middlemarchlong and leisurely for very good reasons? And aren’t many classics difficult and even obscure by nature? Not any longer, it seems. Exhausted by Tristram Shandy? Finnegans Wake giving you a headache? Not to worry: the Orionites will be along in a moment with a shorter, snappier version which will have you on your feet in no time. Some people will of course be annoyed about this mauling of their favourite books. The accountants at Orion and Fourth Estate certainly hope so, because nothing sells like controversy. For myself, I couldn’t give a hoot about what they do to Tolstoy and co for the reason given above: part of the definition of a classic is that it can survive any mauling. The question is, will an intelligent reading public survive these constant assaults on its virtue? One of the disasters of our time is the obsession with making life easier and the assumption that this is obviously a good thing. Recent controversies about higher education are typical. I have to admit that in this context words such as ‘relevant’ and ‘accessible’ set my teeth on edge. I am all for universal availability, but whether we are talking about education or reading, let us stop pretending that such things are easy or inevitably desirable. Reading classics is not for everyone – and why should it be? There is an audience for Jeffrey Archer and another for James Joyce: making one more like the other or turning this distinction into a value-judgement is a huge waste of time. Nor are all books for all ages. There is an old saying about feeding babies with pap and adults with proper food. Let people read War and Peace if and when they are ready for it. Otherwise leave them to their Danielle Steels. And, by the way, why do you have to sex up Wuthering Heights in the first place? Sales figures suggest that there is already at least one copy in every home. Surely these benevolent new publications aren’t just gimmicks for selling more books? Perish the thought.
LITERARY REVIEW April 2007