Classics date, don’t they? The archaic language can obscure meaning, contemporary references often require intensive research to make sense, and social customs can seem more irritating than quaint.
Time then to bring them bang up to date, to make them relevant to the period we live in. Here are some title rewrites suited to a time of crisis. I invite you to reimagine the texts for yourselves but, please, there’s no need to share your full adaptations here.
As before, I offer suitable cover designs for Penguin Classics and Oxford World’s Classics courtesy of this online app where you may wish to avail yourselves of endless hours of amusement or, indeed, frustration.
There are certain queer times and occasions in this strange mixed affair we call life when a man takes this whole universe for a vast practical joke, though the wit thereof he but dimly discerns, and more than suspects that the joke is at nobody’s expense but his own.
— Moby-Dick, Chapter 49
When I’ve recently mentioned that I found Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick humorous I’ve received quizzical responses, as though this was a distinctly novel if not idiosyncratic concept. It may, as far as I know, be both, but I can’t help thinking that if not guffaws then wry smiles can only follow many of Melville’s passages.
And the passage quoted above only helps to confirm my view. How else but to view this vast literary exercise, like life itself, as a vast literary joke, though not all apparently discern the wit Melville invests it with?
Penelope Lively: Uninvited Ghosts Illustrated by John Lawrence Puffin 1986 (1984)
This delightful collection of eight short stories aimed at young readers is perfect for a quick diverting read by those of more mature years too. At between ten and twenty pages each in this edition they share humour and fantasy in equal measure in ways that remind me of writers like Joan Aiken and E Nesbit — which should be all the recommendation needed.
The plentiful line illustrations by John Lawrence, heading as well as littering each story, are simple yet effective; in a style reminiscent of Peter Firmin’s cartoons they succeed in conveying a typical child as protagonist confronted by abnormal situations; they perfectly complement the author’s narratives in which it’s touch and go whether all will turn out well or not.
Jan Mark: The One That Got Away. Thirty Stories from Thirty Years
Roffo Court Press 2020
How have I not come across the fabulous Jan Mark before? I look over some of the titles of her children’s books, all written and published over some three decades from 1974, and find that not one rings a bell. Maybe they weren’t what I was avidly consuming then, or what our children brought back from the library, but I now find she represents a significant lacuna in my reading experience.
Collected here are some thirty short stories arranged by alphabetical order of titles; they represent a selection of varied narratives, from school stories to family vignettes via ghost tales and humorous anecdotes, speculative short fiction and flashbacks to life in the mid-20th-century, and everything else in between.
I can’t possibly comment on them all so I’ll point out the real highlights for me, the ones that lingered even more than others as I read through the collection over a month, though to be honest that could still be a lot more than the representative sample I was intending.
No, not a comment on certain politicians — my word, aren’t there a lot of candidates for this epithet at the moment! — but a lovely pot boiler of a prompt otherwise called ‘My Life in Books 2019’ which was passed on by Annabel:
Using only books you have read this year (2019), answer these questions. Try not to repeat a book title.
In high school I was—
People might be surprised by—
I will never be—
My fantasy job is—
At the end of a long day I need—
Wish I had—
My family reunions are—
At a party you’d find me with—
I’ve never been to—
A happy day includes—
Motto I live by:
On my bucket list is—
In my next life, I want to have—
Of course, this presupposes that like any assiduous bookworm you’ve actually read over fourteen books.
[…] At eighteen the true narrative of life is yet to be commenced. Before that time we sit listening to a tale, a marvellous fiction; delightful sometimes, and sad sometimes; almost always unreal. Before that time, our world is heroic; its inhabitants half-divine or semi-demon; its scenes are dream scenes; darker woods and stranger hills; brighter skies, more dangerous waters […]
At that time—at eighteen, drawing near the confines of illusive, void dreams, Elf-land lies behind us, the shores of Reality rise in front.
— Chapter VII
I’ve mentioned before now about humour in Charlotte Brontë’s Shirley (here) and I want to expand a bit on that in this post, but I also wish to draw attention to a curious feature in this novel that I’m not aware of being discussed elsewhere (though I’m happy to be corrected on that): fairies.
The adult novels of the Brontë sisters are not, as far as I know, associated with either humour or faërie, so you may understand why these two features stuck out like the proverbial thumbs in what is otherwise a romantic but realist historical novel, set before Charlotte was even born.
I hope to persuade you that, despite some appearances to the contrary, Shirley (1849) has much about it of the fairytale, and contains more laughs than expected even though Charlotte recounts all with a straight face: the passage of 170 years hasn’t hidden all its impish secrets.
It’s 2011, going into 2012, a tumultuous year or so in Europe affecting everyone from the great and the good down to the two old soaks in a Dublin bar. The Eurozone crisis, a succession of deaths in the pop world, visits to Ireland by the Queen and Barack Obama, the London Olympics, other sporting events, tribal loyalties—they’re all up for discussion by these worldly-wise observers meeting up for the odd jar or two.
Nameless, though with individual voices, this middle-aged pair come together to chew the fat on family, fame, news and other miscellanea in short conversational vignettes. In some ways they are a modern equivalent of Beckett’s Vladimir and Estragon: the spotlight is totally on them and their inconsequential chat full of what might or might not be of meaningful significance: always humorous, sometimes poignant and for us now, at a few years’ remove, it’s even somewhat nostalgic.
E Nesbit: New Treasure Seekers Puffin Classics 1982 (1904)
The well-meaning but accident-prone Bastable siblings are given another outing by Edith Nesbit, following on from the success of The Story of the Treasure Seekers(1899) and The Wouldbegoods (1900). We reacquaint ourselves with the ‘anonymous’ author Oswald, with all his familiar malapropisms and self-proclaimed modesty, along with his siblings Dora (the sensible eldest) and then, after Oswald, Dicky (his frequent lieutenant), Alice, Noël (a wouldbe poet), and Horace Octavius (or H. O.).
The thirteen episodes often reference exotic places (including Rome, China, Italy or the Golden Orient) though we never leave the confines of Kent: they also ‘big up’ the protagonists (‘The Intrepid Explorer and His Lieutenant’), suggest dastardly deeds are afoot (‘Archibald the Unpleasant’, ‘The Turk in Chains; or, Richard’s Revenge’) or feature the Bastables’ charitable but doomed attempts to remedy the scrapes they have got themselves into (‘The Conscience-Pudding’ and ‘The Poor and Needy’). As ever, you sense their hearts are in the right place even if their steps constantly lead them astray. Even when they are involved in revenge (at least twice!) you feel they are attempting to right wrongs to the best of their imagination, ability and reasoning.
Nick Yapp: Bluff Your Way in Teaching
Ravette Publishing 1998 (1987)
This fell out of the bookshelves recently where it had somehow got wodged in and unnoticed. I didn’t ignore the irony as I myself had somehow got wodged into school education, only managing to extricate myself many years later by the skin of my teeth (and with my heart in my mouth, just to mix metaphors). I couldn’t finish this when I first came across it for it was much too painful — despite its deliberately humorous take on the state of pedagogy it was too close to the madness that pertained in British teaching at the time, and no doubt still does. Would a revisit bring back the pain?
J A Hazeley and J P Morris How It Works: The Husband
Ladybird Books 2015
My guess is that this book is designed for anyone who is not a husband — the wife, the fiancée, the boy in need of a role model, extraterrestrial visitors and the like — but, speaking as a husband, I found much to enlighten me within these pages. Like many practical manuals it describes the subject’s strengths and weaknesses, gives insights into his interior workings and pictures him at work and play, following lone pursuits and attempting to socialise. What it doesn’t do, however, is to suggest ways to improve or maintain the husband; quite the opposite — in its otherwise comprehensive thoroughness it seems to implicitly advise a take-it-or-leave-it approach. It’s a rather fatalistic and bleak picture that’s painted.
Terry Pratchett, Reaper Man Discworld novel 11
Corgi 1992 (1991)
What happens when Death fails to claim humans who die? What happens to their bodies, their consciousness, their life force? And what are the consequences for a world in which this calamity takes place?
Terry Pratchett’s famous character Death, who only converses in small capitals, has been ‘retired’ by Azrael, “the Great Attractor, the Death of Universes, the beginning and end of time” — or the Angel of Death as our monotheistic religions see him. With his scythe and faithful mount Binky he descends on a Discworld farm; here, as Bill Door, he is taken on as a farmhand by Miss Renata Flitworth. Elsewhere on Discworld, and especially in Ankh-Morpeth, people are ceasing to die: witness Windle Poons, the oldest wizard in the world, who after death turns into a zombie. In trying to find a point to his new afterlife he joins the Fresh Start Club (other members include werewolves, vampires, a banshee and a bogeyman) and starts to note curious events unfolding — things like ovoid snow globes appearing, supermarket trollies multiplying and swear words taking physical form.
You might expect, from the title, that this is a culinary offering from the award-winning novelist, but you’d be wrong. The dustcover informs us that this is
A COLLECTION of FANCIFUL, SATIRICAL and SURPRISING parodies, squibs and pastiches inspired by THE WRITE STUFF on RADIO 4
and so it turns out to be. The whole text of over 100 pages is essentially tongue-in-cheek, from the purported etymology of pistache (“a friendly spoof or parody of another’s work” from a possible “cross between pastiche and p**stake”) to its invented author biography (“born in Vilnius in 1969 … educated by Russian monks … His most recent book … runner-up in the Watney-Mann Bookend of Longlists”). He was — and still is — a team captain on BBC Radio 4’s lighthearted quiz The Write Stuff, proclaimed as the station’s “game of literary correctness”. Each weekly programme features an author of the week, in whose style panelists are asked to write a parody on a given theme; I’ve caught the odd broadcast over the years but to my chagrin have never been a regular listener. Was this collection of broadcast pistaches all that it was cracked up to be?
Benjamin Lee The Frog ReportPuffin Books 1978 (1974)
Jonathan Jessingford is the least regarded in his family: the youngest, and short-sighted to boot, he is either tolerated or patronised by his older siblings — sister Jenny and brother Daniel — by his parents Frank and Ada and by his teachers, especially Mr Grindley. But the last shall be first, as the saying goes; and Jonathan proves his mettle when called upon.
This is the early 70s when anxiety about external threats were ever in the air — Cold War spies, terrorists — but also where dull old Dullington Bay on England’s South Coast is the last place you’d expect trouble. Mr and Mrs Jessingford have gone up to London to see a play, leaving the three children alone at home on a dark and windy night to manage by themselves. As we all know and expect, this is a recipe for disaster. A night-time walk and crumbling cliffs are just the beginning, an illegal immigrant coming ashore just the thing to incite the action proper. What is family friend and GP Dr Bill Lancaster doing on a windswept beach? What’s Commander Tagg’s game? Who is Professor Jan Stepanov? And what is Jonathan’s crucial role in all of this? Continue reading “Slight but entertaining”→
For award-winning, internationally-acclaimed author Rosemary Sutcliff (1920-92). By Anthony Lawton: godson, cousin & literary executor. Rosemary Sutcliff wrote historical fiction, children's literature and books, films, TV & radio, including The Eagle of the Ninth, Sword at Sunset, Song for a Dark Queen, The Mark of the Horse Lord, The Silver Branch, The Lantern Bearers, Dawn Wind, Blue Remembered Hills.