Tuesday, February 5, 2008

2008 Preview - New Classics (no not an oxymoron)

I've spent most of the past two weeks completely immersed in Tolstoy. I had chosen War and Peace as my big book to leisurely read in 2008, but I accelerated the project when I found out that Cinematique was showing Sergei Bondarchuk's mammoth seven hour 1965 film version. It was quite a marvellous experience to see it on the big screen - the best battle scenes I've ever witnessed in a film, a fantastic score, and some very interesting, experimental cinematography). While the recent Modern Library edition with the new translation by Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky has been getting great reviews, it's just too heavy to fit in my purse, or to lie comfortably on my chest in bed, and so I decided instead to go with the 3-volume Everyman edition translated by Aylmer and Louise Maude. I like the fact that the two actually knew Tolstoy.

Which is my segue into the main subject of my post - a sneak preview into the "new" classics coming out this year. I make a conscious effort to choose a classic for every tenth book that I read ("classic" loosely defined in my own terms as anything written before I was born with The Classics being enduring books that are continually referenced by critics, writers, filmmakers, playwrights, musicians etc.) Everyone has their own sense of what a classic means to them as a reader; what I hope every good reader (and writer) acknowledges, is how important the classics are to understanding and appreciating our contemporary literature. They are also fairly indispensable to anyone working in the book industry. If a book's jacket is going to call a novel "Shandyesque" or celebrates how well it evokes Dickensian London, it helps if you've read Laurence Sterne or Bleak House. Plus you know that for the most part, if a book has stayed in print for decades or centuries, it has obvious lasting appeal power. But classics aren't just a enticing glimpse into the past - they continue to have relevance with our contemporary obsessions, and often trends in popular and literary culture are inspired or pulled directly from them. And this is why publishers continue to reissue and repackage the classics or keep an eye out for those lost gems that are due for a rediscovery. And why I personally collect a number of classic lines such as Persephone Books (seen the trailer yet for the upcoming Frances McDormand/Amy Adams movie Miss Pettigrew Lives For A Day? Persephone brought that book back into print); Hesperus Books (they specialize in small novellas - perfect for travel reading. Going to the opera? Hesperus publishes Merimee's Carmen and Prevost's Manon Lescaut among their many titles, and check out their amazing collections of Bronte juvenalia. You think you know Charlotte Bronte? Read The Spell); Virago Modern Classics which have introduced me to some fantastic 20th century women writers, and Folio Society Books because they are just plain gorgeous.

But one of the thrilling parts of my job is actually getting to sell some great classic imprints. One of the most beautifully packaged lines are the beforementioned Everymans. They are cloth covered hardcovers, (terrific for libraries) with beautiful, creamy, acid-free paper, a ribbon bookmark, and with good introductions, bibliographies, and historical timelines. They look majestic all lined up on a shelf; nothing furnishes a library more. Apparently Richard Burton gave a whole set as a wedding gift (can't remember for which wedding) to Elizabeth Taylor. Everyman has just come out with The Complete Novels of Flann O'Brien which includes At Swim Two-Birds, The Third Policeman and in particular, The Dalkey Archive which I've always wanted to read, considering that yet another respected classics and international literature publisher took its name from that novel. (I've just gone to Dalkey's website and their namesake novel, which they also publish, is described as "the best comic fantasy since Tristram Shandy"). See? Hot on the heels of the critical acclaim for Hermione Lee's biography of Edith Wharton, Everyman is also reissuing The Age of Innocence, and The House of Mirth, and publishing a lovely threesome of novellas consisting of Ethan Frome, Summer, and The Bunner Sisters, with an introduction by Hermione Lee. In May, an edition of Charlotte Bronte's Shirley will be published coupled with her first novel, The Professor.

NYRB Classics has a lot of really exciting works to look forward to this year. This is an imprint that publishes their books with a lot of love, beautiful covers, and savvy professionalism. Coming next month are two new Guy de Maupassant books (come on, we all read "The Necklace" in high school). Afloat is a travel memoir about cruising along the French Mediterranean. Alien Hearts, Maupassant's final work, is the story of three lovers bound by bitterness and passion. If you are a fan of Edith Wharton, you might want to check out Belchamber by Howard Sturgis, a friend of Wharton's, whose 1904 novel is a satire of the English ruling class. The novel I'm most looking forward to is Stefan Zweig's The Post-Office Girl. I find the cover completely haunting, and this story of a dissatisfied girl in post WWI Austria and her relationship with a war veteran, fits completely into my interest in WWI literature. This novel has never been published in English before. Another intriguing novel that will be out later this month is Victor Serge's Unforgiving Years, also never before translated into English. It follows a group of characters from pre WWII Paris, to Leningrad under siege by the Nazis, to Berlin and then to Mexico after the war and is billed as a cross between Celiné and le Carré. Have you seen the intricate, suspenseful movie, The Prestige or read the book by Christopher Priest? An earlier work, The Inverted World, will be out this summer. This looks like a lot of fun, set in a city that needs to constantly move along tracks or it will die. When it was first published in 1974, the London Tribune said it had, "one of the trickiest and most astonishing twist endings in modern SF". Can't wait. Also on the horizon is Vladimir Sorokin's The Queue which is about a group of people in line, but for what, they have no idea. NYRB also publishes children's classics and the poster I had up at OLA of James Thurber's The 13 Clocks elicited more squeals of delight than almost any other book in our booth. How can you resist a tale about an evil duke who believes he has killed time? This new edition will have an introduction by Neil Gaiman. And finally, how perfect is this? For all those like me who are tackling War and Peace, you can turn to Defeat: Napoleon's Russian Campaign by Philippe-Paul de Segur. Tolstoy used this eye-witness account, written by a young aide-de-campe to Napoleon, as major source material for his novel.

For some Canadian classics, The New Canadian Library has recently undergone a make-over with new covers and trim size, but it has also brought back some novels that have been out of print. Of these, I highly recommend The Clockmaker by Thomas Chandler Haliburton, originally published in 1836, which introduces Sam Slick of Slickville as he tours 19th century Nova Scotia or Brian Moore's The Luck of Ginger Coffey, the 1960 Governor General's award winning novel about a fortune-hunter in Montreal. And it being the 100th anniversary of the publication of Anne of Green Gables, it will be all Anne, all the time - at least in this country. But that will be the subject of another post.

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