Friday, January 31, 2014

Looking backward ...

It's been a marvelous ride -- as full of twists and turns as Toby's tail -- but at last the Author must take leave of his blog, and move forward into new stories and fresh undertakings. Toby's latest sojourn in Italy, continues apace, helped by some very positive notices in the Press, especially from Pietro Citati, whose extraordinarily generous and appreciative review was far more gratifying than any Author has a right to hope for. The editions in Sweden and Turkey have also been very kindly received, and the book continues in print there, as well as in the U.K., U.S., and Canada. For further news, please visit my main page, where you can find out about my current and future books and other projects. Along with Toby, I want now mainly to express my thanks, to the many faithful Readers who have made this journey such a pleasure, along with the hope that, should they at some future date re-read his book, their enjoyment will be at least as great.

Monday, October 14, 2013

Toby in Italian

Later this month, the Italian publisher Einaudi will release their new edition of Pyg, as translated by Carla Palmieri. I was delighted to see that they retained the essential design of the original Canongate hardcover edition, with a few subtle changes -- of course, since the letters PYG don't work as a double-entendre in Italian, they (as did the Swedish publishers) changed it to TOBY. I was also pleased to see that the translator chose 'sapiente,' with its period connotations and Latin roots, and (just for fun) they added my PhD. after my name. My Italian being very limited, I can't really assess the book myself, though I hope to pass copies along to friends who are fluent/native speakers, and will look forward to their reaction. Many authors seem to me unexcited about their translations, but for me there could be no greater pleasure -- the translator, after all, has the unique task of ferrying meaning from the shores of one language to another (both ferry and translate share a root in the Latin fero/tuli/latus), and there is no other reader -- not even myself -- who has more carefully parsed out the various shades and shadows of meaning than a translator. I also love to think on how an edition in another language is, in a sense, entirely new -- and how it will garner the attention of an entirely new set of readers, readers with whom I would otherwise be powerless to communicate in their native tongue. And as to Italian -- which I'll always think of as the language of Dante -- I can't imagine a more fortuitous and fruitful shore upon which to arrive.

Sunday, September 1, 2013

A Learned Pig in Cleveland

I've known for some time that a Learned Pig once graced my home town of Cleveland, Ohio -- albeit more than a century before I had the fortune to be born there -- but only recently was able to track down the particulars, in the form of this advertisement which appeared in the Sandusky Register for 10 April, 1849. This is apparently the very same pig that had appeared a few weeks earlier in Cleveland, and which arrived after a delay explained thusly by its proprietor in a letter in the Cleveland Plain Dealer, which that paper quoted verbatim:
"I Do inform yo that the pig Will not stop With you, for some monce ago She got out, and now is hevy and Cannot perform Well till after a few Dais, and thare Was a mistake in the man that advertises for us Which We did not mean to have him come so far West."
On hearing that this same pig would soon be appearing in Sandusky, the editor of the Register, noting the writer's numerous errors of spelling and grammar, declared that "judging from the letter, if the pig is not more 'learned' than his master, he is no great shakes." It seems that the pig's proprietor took this criticism to heart, purchasing a large display advertisement, and perhaps paying someone at the Register to write the copy -- for it's reasonably well-written and error-free.

When in Cleveland, the pig appeared at a tavern near Doan's Corners, later the intersection of East 105th Street and Euclid Avenue, and a well-known area for movies and entertainment until the neighborhood hit the skids in the 1950's; the site is now completely overtaken by the "campus" of the Cleveland Clinic. The Sandusky appearance was at the North American House, a hotel which stood on the site until 1926; fittingly enough, it is now the site of the Board of Education for Sandusky City Schools.

Sunday, August 4, 2013

Spine Design

We've long been enjoined not to judge a book by its cover, but what about its spine?  Years ago, when I worked as a books clerk at the old Yale Co-Op bookstore, featured books were always turned "face out" to show the front cover to advantage.  And yet, even when denied the privilege of showing their fronts, books -- physical ones, at any rate -- have always had a secret weapon: their spines.  And, when a book is purchased, brought home, and read, I'd venture to say that very few of us, especially those whose shelves are already full to bursting, have the luxury to place any of our cherished volumes face out -- and thus, it's usually by their spines that we know them.

I got to thinking of this after Penguin Books sent me an image of the spine for the US edition of PYG. I love the dramatic background of scarlet, over which my name and the title are further framed by lovely golden side-squggles.  It's the kind of thing that, or so I hope, will tempt those who still love to browse in person to lift the book from the shelf to see what  more it has in store.  And, with my thoughts thus turned in a lateral direction, I go to thinking about spines, and how seldom most of us ponder the creative space, narrow though it sometimes be, of their invitation.  The best of them seem to say "pull me out!" "read me!" -- though at times, if they are wider than usual, they may loom more ominously, daring us to find the time to peruse their many pages. 

In the early nineteenth century, books were often sold without bound covers, with the assumption that their owners, reasonably well-heeled, would have them bound to their own library's design, which meant row after row of matching leather spines. I've seen one such collection, in a room hidden deep within the Mitchell Library in Glasgow, where an enormous private library, ranging in size from duodecimo to double-elephant Imperial Folio, still resides inside its original leather cases, and original cabinets as well (this room was also the site of Shauna McMullen's recent "blue spine" installation).  Yet for most of us, this is a sight we'll seldom see, unless we're especially fond of bound sets, such as the Library of America or the Harvard Classics.  No, our shelves are mostly a motley of colors, with white and green and crimson and brown bands of color jostling for our attention.

I've picked out a few of my favorites from my own collection, and put them in a Flickr album, and I'd invite any others who, along the edges of their shelves, have a few which somehow leap into mind, or into hand, to do the same.  After all, in the long time that often passes between first and next readings, it's often the only way we see our old friends, their faces hidden and pressed to each others' rear covers -- by that band of identity which, figuratively and literally, binds them all together.

Thursday, June 6, 2013

Bugs' Lives

While there are plenty of novels and films told from the viewpoint of an animal, the notion of an insect's perspective been an element in horror novels and films far more often than in literary fiction. For, it seems, there is something intrinsically horrible about being an insect; one thinks at once of the unfortunate Gregor Samsa in Kafka's Metamorphosis, or of the face of Vincent Price on the body of a fly trapped in a spider's web, plaintively calling "Help me! Help me!" (while, back at the lab, as shown here, his body now sports the fly's head and arm).

But perhaps a fly's eye point of view is not necessarily so grim -- after all, we've all probably used the phrase 'fly on the wall' to describe that view of human business which observes, without participating, things hidden to others. Making this metaphor literal is certainly a curious choice, but not unheard of -- Emily Dickinson managed it in "Bee! I'm expecting you!", and Patrick McGrath, perhaps best known for his novel Spider (made into a film by David Cronenberg who, coincidentally, also did a remake of The Fly) employed a fly as narrator in his 1988 short story "The E(rot)ic Potato," (collected in Blood and Water).

But now, with Rebecca Miller's delightful Jacob's Folly, we finally have a full-fledged fly narrator, one whose wry perspective on the ways of humans is made the more piquant by, in the first instance, his being a reincarnation of an eighteenth-century Parisian peddler, and in the second, by the delicately gradual manner in which he becomes aware of his true nature, with all its gifts and limitations. Indeed at first, our narrator -- Jacob by name -- believes himself to be an angel:
"I beat the wings I didn't know I had, and rose. I could fly! Was I dreaming? The black air was surprisingly viscous. My wings outstretched, I let myself descend, circling slowly through the thick stuff, passing through roiling, wispy clouds that felt cool on my skin. I was definitely awake. Could I be an angel? Euphoria and disbelief gathered in me. I reveled at having been chosen, against all odds to be part of the heavenly host."

Jacob soon discovers that he is, on the whole, rather small for an angel, but also finds that his tiny size and ability to go unnoticed give him a singular perspective on the humans he discovers in twenty-first century Long Island. Indeed, to be noticed is his only peril -- since for humans, there is only one reason to notice a fly, which is to swat it, then mutter an exclamation of satisfaction at its demise.

As the novel progresses, we learn something of Jacob's original life, of his humble beginnings and the strange fortune that put him, a poor Jew, in dangerous proximity to one of the wealthiest men of his time. Indeed, for me, Jacob's life and adventures were at times more engaging than the relatively tawdry doings of the modern family whose lives he observes. Perhaps that's because, as one who has spent so much time imagining the eighteenth century for my own non-human protagonist, I feel more at home there -- or perhaps both feelings stem from my dislike of the present moment, which first drove me to read, and later to write, historical fiction. Few people, I suppose, find their own time as interesting as times gone by; like Marion Cotillard's 'Adriana' in Woody Allen's Midnight in Paris, the moveable feast of 1930's Paris bores us because we're in it, and we must ever seek some further-back 'belle époque.'

Still, Jacob's hovering grace casts at least a bit of magic on the daily doings of his human 'hosts' -- we are often reminded of just how peculiar our contemporary lives might seem to a visitor from a distant time, and so of how peculiar they in fact are. We may not believe in reincarnation -- or, if we do, we might regard the life of a fly as punishment for some past misdeed -- but here, oddly enough, it seems to be a strange kind of reward, as is the experience of reading Jacob's Folly.

Miller's novel came out a few months ago here in the U.S. -- and I was delighted to discover that its UK publisher is the same as my own, Canongate. Readers there -- at least those who resisted ordering a copy from abroad -- are in for a treat, as it's just been published there today.

Wednesday, May 1, 2013

On the Perils of Animal Narrators

On the face of it, the idea of an animal narrator is just as sensible as a human one, and rather more attractive. One of our earliest conceits as children, and one which we might do well to cling to longer, is that everything around us is alive and sentient, and animals are more inviting-- more 'on our level' -- than adults: they are closer to our size, more affectionate,  more loyal, and cuter. As a result, in books supposedly meant for children, animals talk all the time: we have Babar the Elephant, Curious George the monkey (who though he doesn't talk, is certainly the protagonist of his stories), Pooh, Piglet, and the other denizens of the Hundred Acre Wood, and many more. Somewhere around adolescence, we are meant to put away these childish things; if we persist in wanting imaginative stories set in a world other than our own, we generally have to accept that they will be populated with humans or human-like characters, and animals will be downgraded to sidekick status. By adulthood, if we persist in our folly, we are generally forced to go back and read the books we grew up with; who, after all, writes adult fiction with animal narrators?

Well, quite a few people in fact, among them Virginia Woolf, George Orwell, Richard Adams, Paul Auster, and Andrew O'Hagan. Sometimes, it's a sly allegorical conceit, as with Orwell, or sly biography as with Woolf, who in Flush set out the write the life story of Elizabeth Barrett-Browning's pet spaniel. These animals, endearing though they be, are mainly figures of the human world, anthropomorphized with a particular purpose in mind. But to me, the more interesting question is, what would animals say on their own, had the but the chance and the means with which to produce speech?

There have been a number of books that have gone just a bit further in imagining the animal perspective on humans, rather than the other way about. I remember reading Watership Down as a teen, and loving the way rabbits had their own language, and their own notion of humans; their word for automobile, hrududu, still slips from my tongue when I'm nearly run over by one. A similarly effective tone can be found in the feral cats of Erin Hunter's Warriors series, the first few of which (at least) are wonderfully imagined, complete with the cats' maps of their world and the human incursions within it. These are, of course, intended for younger readers, which means they can't really be on our list of ostensibly adult fiction (though of course adults may read them).

So what have we? Well, for starters, there's Sam Savage's Firmin, a delightful tale of a book-eating rat who nibbles his way into a wry consciousness of the human world. Firmin, in fact, is a sort of nebbishly self-deprecating figure, which of course makes him all the more endearing as he struggles to find a niche in a world where all of his heroes -- and villains -- are of human form. Along quite different lines, we also have Cornelius Medvei's Mr. Thundermug, a curious tale of a baboon who moves his family into an abandoned home in an unnamed city, and has a series of droll and dryly-recounted adventures, many of which consist of his struggles with human authorities, who first demand that he send his offspring to school, and then that he remove them. Alas, no one else in Mr. Thundermug's family has the gift of language, and on his departure, he still seems a lonely soul, and one we have scarcely gotten to know.

There are a few other animal narrators who are based upon actual animals, and these offer some promise. Marilyn Monroe's dog "Maf" (short for 'Mafia Honey' -- he was a gift from Frank Sinatra) is given Shandyesque voice by Andrew O'Hagan in The Life and Opinions of Maf the Dog, and of his Friend Marilyn Monroe. Maf he turns out to be quite the talker; O'Hagan gives him free leash to speak his mind, and the result is strangely compelling, something that feels much closer to an articulated version of an observant dog's view of his humans than most other such tales. Other cases are not quite so strong; although it's fine that someone decided to write the autobiography of Sir Ernest Shackleton's cat, the far-faring Mrs. Chippy, the resulting book is, I fear, a one-off that's far too clever for its own good.

And there are more such books, with new ones appearing every day; Howard Anderson's Albert of Adelaide, a tale of a Platypus out of water in the Australian outback, looks promising (I've just started reading it). And then there's Nilanjana Roy's The Wildings, not yet available in the US, which pits feral cats against still-more-feral cats in a far darker and more disturbing imagination of a scenario similar to that of the Erin Hunter books. Another book on my to-read list is Three Bags Full: A Sheep Detective Story, by Leonie Swann, in which the detectives themselves are sheep. I am sure there will be more such books -- many more -- and there's one thing you have to admit: no matter how many, it will be a very long time before human beings receive their due comeuppance.

Friday, January 25, 2013

Friends of Toby: Robert Burns

Among all the noted figures of his day encountered by Toby, none left a more vivid impression than the poet Robert Burns. We know both from Toby's memoirs and from Burns's own letters that the two met during Toby's final fortnight of performances at the Grassmarket in Edinburgh, which Burns attended. I'll let Toby describe the scene himself:
A few days into our run, I received a singular Visitor, a man whose star was just then most Ascendant in the sky: Robert Burns, the Ayrshire ploughman-turned-poet. He arrived in fine fettle, in the company of Mr Creech, a local bookseller who had just then undertaken to publish a new edition of his Poems, along with a large gaggle of miscellaneous Followers, whose exact connection with the Poet was hard to Ascertain. They made, never the less, for a most colourful audience, and Sam at once arranged for them to be seated together, and issued tickets gratis, which would have offended those yet waiting to attend had it been any other person but Burns. The great poet himself, remarkably, seemed unaffected by this adulation: he retained a sturdy rustic dignity which seemed to regard all Praise as superfluous; his countenance possessed at all times a constant, even Temperament, and it was only in his eyes that there glimmered—or so I thought—an intensity of Feeling that belied his modest appearance and calm comportment. Truly, I have never beheld a pair of eyes such as those, before or since, and when—at the conclusion of my performance— we were introduced, I felt myself quite under their spell. We exchanged only bows and polite glances, but I am sure I was not alone in sensing a strange feeling of kinship between us, these two simple Country creatures whose capacity for Language was similarly made out to be some remarkable Spectacle, eliciting adulation that would somehow be lessened had we both been born not sons of Toil but to a gentler class.
Toby apparently left an impression on Burns as well; in an anecdote related by several of Burns's biographers, he was at that time invited to a soirée by an unnamed noblewoman; feeling that the invitation was merely made because he was considered, like Toby, a "curiosity," he made the following reply: "Mr Burns will do himself the honour of waiting upon her on the ninth inst., provided Her Ladyship will also invite the Learned Pig." This could be taken, perhaps, as reflecting poorly on our porcine protagonist, but Toby declared himself pleased by the reference:

This has, since then, been interpreted as far from complimentary, by a great many ignorant and idle commentators who have supposed that for Burns to compare himself to Me was a reflection of a perceived insult, rather than—as I am sure it was meant—a most generous avowal of our abiding sense of kinship. Poor Burns: though the span of life granted Man is (generally) many times that allotted to Pigs, he had scarce another nine years of life, while I have lived to mourn his death, and regret the brevity, though not the brilliance, of his poetic Career.
Alas, it was true: Burns died on 21 July 1796, at the age of thirty-seven, while Toby lived, as far as I his editor have been able to ascertain, at least to 1809 or thereabouts. Today, on the 257th anniversary of Burns's birth, let us remember them both with gratitude for the remarkable works they left behind.

Wednesday, January 9, 2013

Dan Rice and the Learned Pig

One of the most successful comic performers of his day, Dan Rice (1823-1900) was known for his dialect humor, his parodic takes on famous plays such as "Dan Rice's Multifarious Account of Shakespeare's Hamlet," and his mock political speeches; one of these, his striped costume and top hat may have played a part in popular depictions of "Uncle Sam." And, back in the early 1840's, Rice's very first strides upon the proverbial boards of the public stage were made in the company of a Learned Pig.

This pig, originally named "Sibyl," was re-christened by Rice with  the more impressive "Lord Byron," and exhibited from town to town, most often in taverns or public houses. Rice was astute at drumming up publicity for these appearances, and once took out an advertisement in poetic form in the Washington Commonwealth:
I've seen the Learned Pig. 'Tis queer 
To see a hog become a seer.
He knows his letters, and can hunt
The alphabet without a grunt;
Can add, subtract, and knows the rule
As well as any boy in school;
By working with his head and snout
He finds the truth without a doubt.
'Tis wondrous how a brute so low
Was taught by man so much to know!
Dan Rice's pig already had a history of its own; originally the joint property of one Mr. Osborne of Cazenovia NY and C.L. Kise, described as an "ingenious Connecticut Yankee." Kise was an old hand at exhibiting oddities, and is best known for his exhibition of Joyce Heth, said to be George Washington's nurse, and later shown to great effect by Phineas T. Barnum.  Rice bought out Osborne's half of the learned pig act, and enjoyed tremendous success with it. His pig was especially known for its card-playing acumen,  often beating human opponents, as well as his fortune-telling skills, along with comic revelations such as "who is the greatest rogue in the room?" Rice was said to dress Lord Byron in a somewhat clownish outfit, "trimmed with parti-colored ribbons, and so cleanly and tidy did he appear after a toilet as carefully prepared as the most pampered lapdog from its interested mistress." And indeed, Rice later trained up a dog with all the same skills that the pig had once demonstrated. By Rice's own account, his signals to the pig were made by clicking together his finger and thumbnail, producing a noise inaudible to audiences, but heard clearly by the pig, whom Rice declared possessed "extreme acuteness of hearing."

Saturday, November 17, 2012

Toby in Turkish

Toby's progress around the world takes a new and delightful turn this week with his appearance in a Turkish translation published by Ithaki, which debuts today at the Istanbul Book Fair. I feel honored to be in the company of many of the authors whose works have been translated and published in Turkey by Ithaki; it includes literary lights from Orwell to Woolf, and fantasists from Verne to Bradbury to Tolkien. The translator of PYGİnci Katırcı, has also translated Daniel Willingham's Why Children Don't Like School and Jonathan Santlofer's Anatomy of Fear. They've done a great job with the cover as well, even providing Toby with a miniature academic mortarboard, along with a gown that has his name embroidered on the lower part!  

Ithaki is also a very brave and persevering publisher; modern-day Turkey does not always enjoy the same breadth of press freedoms as are found in the United States and the EU, and its offices have been raided in search of manuscripts that the government and the police wanted to suppress, an action condemned by the Turkish Writers Union.  I am enormously pleased that they've become Toby's publishers, and wish their new edition all the best.

And Toby's journey is not over yet -- next year, he'll be appearing in Italian courtesy of Einaudi -- I can't wait to see how they translate and design the book! -- they are also the publishers of Sam Savage's tale of a book-devouring rat, Firmin (or Firmino as he is known there), so I feel confident they'll do a great job of bringing PYG to Italian readers.