Erich Kästner: Emil and the Detectives Translated from the German by Eileen Hall
Illustrated by Walter Trier
Vintage Classics 2012
(English translation 1959; Emil und die Detektive was first published in 1929)
It’s wonderful that this slight novel, nearly ninety years old now, is still a delight and a joy to read. Firstly, it goes clean against most of the highly didactic juvenile fiction of the day: the moral, such as it is, is directed to the grown-ups and not the young:
‘So you don’t think there’s anything to be learnt from all that’s happened?’ said Aunt Martha. ‘Money should always be sent through the post!’ said Grandma, with a merry, tinkling laugh.
Secondly, the pace and all the details are perfect. Things are described, things happen, they lead on to the next bit of action and so on; the suspense is maintained but is never unbearable; and there are no tricksy denouements as pretty much all the clues have been clearly and carefully signposted. The protagonist is both polite and likeable but not without mischief, and thus easy to identify with. While this is ostensibly a boy’s story, the adult females are strong characters, and the one girl to appear is especially proactive. I defy anyone not to be utterly charmed by this tale, its humour and its evocation of what it is to be young.
Xenophon The Persian Expedition Translated by Rex Warner, introduction by George Cawkwell
Penguin Classics 1972 (1949)
This is a fascinating record of how ten thousand Greek mercenaries invaded what is now Iraq on an ill-fated expedition, and how after various vicissitudes they made it back almost to their starting point. But this is no blockbuster thriller, nor is it a narrative of an incident in recent history; this all took place nearly two and a half millennia ago, before even Alexander the Great made his extraordinary foray from Macedonia to India. It’s told in the third person by an Athenian noble who makes himself the hero of his own story, but he’s not an entirely reliable narrator and the reader is warned that not everything he presents is the whole truth and nothing but.
I’ve touched on the pleasures of rereading a couple of times before, notably when I was contemplating a mammoth weeding out of books prior to moving house. I trust it’s something all us bibliophiles do, a delight like that of listening again to a well-loved piece of music or taking a favourite walk for the umpteenth time. As with that walk, different perspectives can present themselves depending on changing seasons, or moods, or circumstances.
A recent article by Julian Barnes focused on how maturity often ensured that rereading a book after some time — or maybe even reading for the first time a work by an author you’d assiduously avoided reading in your youth — caused you to think of it rather differently, sometimes for the better.
Being young frequently involves the seeking out of novelty, of stimulation and so on, while older minds may well consider more, weighing things up in the light of experience. Human beings have the propensity (though they may not often use it) of retaining their youthful ways, of somehow staying young, sometimes because it’s in their nature and sometimes from a deliberate effort not to stultify. The best thing, of course, would be to retain the advantages of both youth and age in one’s approach to life, the universe … and literature.
I went through much of my youth and teens in a rather befuddled and bemused state. I suspect that a lot of it stemmed from being on the autism spectrum as much as being of that particular, and peculiar, age. One of things I stumbled into doing before the age of 16 was the study of dead languages: Ancient Greek and Latin. I failed an O level in the former and scraped a pass with the latter, heaven knows how. If the past is a foreign country (“they do things differently there,” opined the first-person narrator of Hartley’s The Go-Between) then I was the archetypal innocent abroad. What I do recall is some slight acquaintance with two war campaign classics, Caesar’s De Bello Gallico and Xenophon’s Anabasis.
Now, I neither have nor had the slightest interest in battles, nor, at that time, familiarity with more than the southwest corner of France, and still less — none in fact — of Mesopotamia. These battles were not only in the past (“old, unhappy, far-off things” I’d have thought, as Wordsworth might have put it) but also took place in foreign countries, fulfilling both of Hartley’s paradigms in one; and they certainly did things differently there. The study of these set texts was limited to extracts, with synopses of whatever action went on in between. I failed to gain insights into anything other than a very distant bird’s eye view of the overall narrative, and could never raise up any enthusiasm for the events depicted, especially after struggling through vocabulary, syntax, conjugations and so on.
Jump half a century: I’ve just completed a whole read of Xenophon’s narrative, translated as The Persian Expedition, and my older self has experienced both the shock of recognition and the dropping of scales from the eyes. Events in Europe and the Middle East — from the two Gulf Wars to the eruption of Daesh, the conflict in Syria and the refugee crisis — have heightened my appreciation of events in 401 BCE, which is when a bunch of around ten thousand Greek mercenaries invaded the region, marching through what is now Turkey, Syria, Iraq, Kurdistan and Armenia before heading back towards the Mediterranean end of Turkey. Some of the parallels are enlightening, as are the differences, a few of which I may bring up in a future review.
It’s been a similar experience with many of my other rereads: fresh perspectives and fresh delights, not to forget appreciations and occasionally criticisms. It’s never ever been a waste of time. I agree with Barnes: rereading is definitely both a pleasure and a necessity of age. And I would in many cases emphasise the latter.
Charlotte Brontë The Professor Wordsworth Classics 1994 (1857)
Despite the fact that this is, by modern standards anyway, a very uneven novel and that the protagonist is a bit of a prig, there remains much to enjoy over its twenty-five chapters. The story of William Crimsworth’s struggles to find his métier and eventual happiness echoes parts of Charlotte Brontë’s own experiences but also points up her own unfulfilled hopes for combining a loving marriage with a successful career as an independent woman. The fact that aspects of this novel — unpublished in her own lifetime — were recycled in Villette (published in 1853) suggests that she knew that those experiences were worth recording, even in fictional form.
Arthur Machen The Great God Pan Parthian Books 2010
Tame by modern tastes:
When I was young I swore by H P Lovecraft while my friend Roger championed Machen. At the time I thought The Hill of Dreams pretty insipid compared to anything with Cthulhu in it. Several decades on I felt that I have to give Machen another chance, as it were, and this edition of The Great God Pan (and the two companion pieces in this volume, The White Pyramid and The Shining People) provided the opportunity.
Jane Austen Mansfield Park Penguin Popular Classics 1994 (1814)
Let other pens dwell on guilt and misery. I quit such odious subjects as soon as I can, impatient to restore everybody, not greatly in fault themselves, to tolerable comfort, and to have done with all the rest.
I’ve noted before Austen’s predilection for inserting her authorial voice into her novels: in Sense and Sensibility she speaks in chapter XXXVI, and in Pride and Prejudice she appears at the beginning of the final chapter. And here she is at it again in Mansfield Park, at the start of chapter XLVIII (yes, the final chapter again) giving a succinct if ironic set of observations about the previous forty-seven chapters. She says it’s about the ‘odious’ subjects of guilt and misery; and those who have suffered from such miseries, though not totally innocent, will come to some sort of happy ending, while those who have peddled the misery and turned the knife in feelings of guilt will get their more or less just deserts. Have I committed the unpardonable sin of introducing spoilers or, this being a classic romance, is this what readers of the genre hope for and expect?
Erskine Childers The Riddle of the Sands:
a Record of Secret Service
Penguin Popular Classics 1995 (1903)
I don’t normally seek out thrillers, even classic ones such as The Riddle of the Sands, and though this has historic interest – set just before the Second Boer War and scant years before the death of Victoria – it’s not a period I’m particularly interested in. Add to this that it’s about sailing on the North Sea coast of Germany when dismal autumnal fogs abound and it sounds like a novel I would normally pass over. But after an initially slow but deliberately drab beginning the story picks up, starts to tease the imagination and, even for the recalcitrant landlubber, sparks admiration for the enthusiasm and bravery of the two protagonists. Continue reading “Confounding expectations”→