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Friday, January 02, 2004 - Page updated at 12:00 A.M.

The classics, revisited: A maverick publisher revives literature with modern touches

Many publishers are focusing attention on some of history's greatest writers. Here are some classic authors and books that were rereleased or published last year.

By Michael Upchurch
Seattle Times book critic

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A sampling of Hesperus titles
Additional specialists in classical literature
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All passionate readers have their own notions of what is, isn't, or ought to be a literary classic. But London's Hesperus Press, founded just last year, has more offbeat notions than most.

True, some of its titles are well-known: Franz Kafka's "Metamorphosis" (in a new translation), D.H. Lawrence's "The Fox," and a centenary edition of Joseph Conrad's "Heart of Darkness."

But other titles are unfamiliar, even if their authors are household names: Ivan Turgenev's "Faust"? Daniel Defoe's "The King of the Pirates"?

And then there are authors you may have heard of but who aren't often read in the United States: Frenchman Théophile Gautier, for instance, or Italian writer Gabriele D'Annunzio, whose literary reputation waned in part due to the excesses of his personal life (more on this below).

The industrious little company that is bringing this eclectic lineup of books back into print is the brainchild of Italian husband-and-wife team Alessandro Gallenzi, 33, and Elisabetta Minervini, 34. Both are literary translators who moved to London six years ago because, as Gallenzi told Publishers Weekly in a 2002 interview, "we thought the English world would be a better opportunity for a global market."

All the books are short, around 100 pages, and there are already a lot of them: 54 available here (through U.S. distributor Trafalgar Square, at www.trafalgarsquarebooks.com) with 15 more on the way in March. All the translations — which make up more than half their list — are new. Though slender, these paperbacks — with the stiff French-fold dustjackets and sturdy paper — have a solid feel to them, and they're all strikingly designed.

The packaging also includes a foreword to each book by an impressive array of Big Literary Names: Peter Ackroyd, Margaret Drabble, Germaine Greer, Doris Lessing, Tim Parks, Colm Tóibín, John Updike and others. Hesperus even has a Latin motto: Et remotissima prope ("to bring near what is far"). The books are all modestly priced at $12. Hesperus also has a Web site — www.hesperuspress.com — that features, among other things, a "Literary Curiosities" column written by Gallenzi.

Sample offering: "In 1889, the editor of the San Francisco Examiner, having published one article by Rudyard Kipling, declined to accept any more of the author's work. The reason? 'I'm sorry, Mr. Kipling,' he explained, 'but you just don't know how to use the English language. This isn't a kindergarten for amateur writers.' Eighteen years later, Kipling (who had already written 'The Man Who Would Be King'), was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature."

In an e-mail interview last month, Elisabetta Minervini revealed that the idea for Hesperus was conceived in Italy in the early 1990s, and that the name itself — Hesperus is the evening star — came "as a revelation" about three years ago. Husband Alessandro (or "Alex") happened across the Latin motto while doing research in Rome's Biblioteca Nazionale. It was originally proposed in the 17th century as the motto for the Physico-Mathematical Society of Rome, to go with their proposed emblem: a telescope.

"Alex reinterpreted it in a modern way," she says, "and made it our main aim to bring near (i.e. make available and accessible) what is far both in terms of space (distant cultures) and time (distant past)."

Between them, Gallenzi and Minervini have the wherewithal to tap into five literary cultures. Gallenzi has Russian, English, Latin and Italian at his command. Minervini has French, German, English — "and obviously Italian." Minervini has translated Émile Zola and André Gide into Italian; Gallenzi has translated Charlotte Brontë, Ann Radcliffe and Alexander Pope.

Hesperus' commitment to commissioning new translations of classic works was there from the start. "Languages change very fast," Minervini says, "especially English. In recent times the approach to translation has changed considerably too. You will often find that older translations are much freer and philologically less accurate than modern ones. Therefore retranslating a book often amounts to re-telling a book; a new translation can be a real rediscovery of an old classic."

She credits Hesperus' new translations of Franz Kafka's "Metamorphosis" and Dante's "New Life" with making those books "newly accessible to the modern reader." My own reading of Tolstoy's "Hadji Murat," in Hugh Aplin's fresh Hesperus translation, confirms that she has a point: Aplin's version is much cleaner and a lot less fusty than Louise and Aylmer Maude's 1935 translation, long regarded as definitive (and still what is on offer from Oxford University Press and Everyman's Library). More, please!

The same translators' names keep appearing on Hesperus title pages, and reading their work can provide a fascinating glimpse of translation in action. It's startling, for instance, to realize that D'Annunzio's "The Book of Virgins" and Luigi Pirandello's "Loveless Love" were filtered through the same Italian-to-English translator, J.G. Nichols, given how different the two books' prose rhythms are. Nichols, as the best translators do, does a disappearing act, leaving you feeling as though you've made contact with the original text itself.

What about matching up classic authors with the living authors who write the forewords? The matches aren't always what you expect. It makes a certain intuitive sense for Doris Lessing to be introducing D.H. Lawrence's "The Fox" or Virginia Woolf's early sketches in "Carlyle's House." But Margaret Drabble introducing Charles Baudelaire's "On Wine and Hashish" comes as a bit of a surprise.

Hesperus's "matchmaker" is editorial director Jenny Rayner. "She sends out a list to a number of people who declare their preference," Minervini explains, "so the match is, most of the time, really spontaneous."

That spontaneity comes across vividly in Tim Parks' introduction to the work of D'Annunzio: "He preached the superman ... and was friends with Mussolini. Even his sexual trespasses win him little credit. There is something farcical about an aging man who orders the bells of his villa to be rung whenever he achieves orgasm with the umpteenth mistress. An old alliance between piety and caution, between Church and socialism — something we have recently learnt to call political correctness — has written off D'Annunzio as a monomaniac. His style, they tell us, is excessive, verbose. They don't want us to open his books. I was kept away for years.

"A dozen pages of 'The Virgins' will dispel theses prejudices... "

Who wouldn't want to take a look after that intro?

While Gallenzi and Minervini have final say on what Hesperus publishes, they listen carefully to proposals by colleagues, translators, readers and their foreword writers. "We do a lot of reading," Minervini says, "and an awful lot of research." The couple's fellow editors investigate English and American possibilities. Minervini's specialty is French literature. Gallenzi's is English, Italian and Russian. The Hesperus Web site also invites suggestions, and they're starting to come in: "At least a couple per week. Some great ideas, some crazy ones. Some good translations, some very bad ones."

Hesperus's upcoming March offerings look as intriguing as ever, including "Arctic Summer," a little-known and long out-of-print unfinished novel by E.M. Forster (with foreword by Anita Desai), "Directions to Servants" by Jonathan Swift (portraying "the ultimate upstairs/downstairs battle"), and "A Fantasy of Dr. Ox" by Jules Verne, in which an idyllic community is "suddenly overtaken by an appetite for aggression," thanks to some "oxhydric gas" released in town by the novel's mad-scientist title character.

Michael Upchurch: mupchurch@seattletimes.com


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