Wednesday, 1 January 2020

Re-reading The Glass Bead Game


The last book I read in 2019 (or in the 2010s if you insist) was Hermann Hesse's The Glass Bead Game, one of the very, very few books, books as physical objects, that have followed me through all moves and other hurdles in the last fifty years. Its dust jacket is falling apart, its pages are yellow. I am not sure why I suddenly decided to re-read it; possibly it happened in the short interim when I didn't yet have internet in my new home and couldn't download whatever was queued on my Kindle. I opened the moving box marked “Books” and pulled out a book at random. This was a moving box from Gatehouse where I only had a handful of books. The fact that Glass Bead Game was in that box is telling.

It was a cult book in Russia – as elsewhere – fifty years ago, during my so-called formative years when certain books could be life-changing. Everybody read it, young and old. Translated books were rare in the Soviet Union then. Translated books other than by explicit supporters of the Soviet regime were exceptions. Translated books that didn't describe the horrors of capitalism were more than exceptions. Considering it now, I wonder how this book could be published in the Soviet Union at the time when every attempt at freedom of speech was crushed. Of course Hesse was anti-Fascist, and there was something called “the subtle art of forewords”; and indeed the foreword, written by a literary critic, promptly explains to the ignorant Russian reader that the novel presents the decline of spirituality in capitalist society. I am not even sure I read the foreword fifty years ago, but if I did, I probably laughed at it, together will my Russian fellow readers. We recognised the rhetoric only too well.

But today I see that it is precisely what the novel does.

I wonder how much I understood reading this extremely complicated novel at the age of seventeen. I wonder how much my parents understood. There is almost no plot, dialogue is sparse, and paragraphs go on for page upon page. Did I skim the pages? Wasn't I bored to death? Did I fake my fascination just to show off? However, I do remember that the novel made a strong impression on me – as already said, strong enough to save my precious copy for fifty years.

I also remember that I re-read it a couple of years ago. What strikes me now is that I have no memory of the book from this re-reading. Surely, a few years ago I would read it slower and deeper; I am also, I believe, more educated and knowledgeable than fifty years ago, with years and years of literary studies to equip me in both understanding and enjoying the novel. Yet when I re-read it now it was as if I hadn't re-read it since fifty years ago. I remembered the beginning and the ending of the minimal linear plot. I had even forgotten that there were also appended stories, purportedly written by the main character. Metafiction. I may not have known what metafiction was fifty years ago. But surely five years ago.

I had forgotten that the story takes place in the distant future, two hundred years from now and told by someone even further away in the future. Goodness, I have written tons of critical work on narrative temporality, and I didn't notice it in Glass Bead Game? And of course it is a dystopia. I wasn't as well-versed in the genre fifty years ago as I am now, but I had read 1984 and We, and I was living in a totalitarian state. But Glass Bead Game is a much more subtle dystopia than Orwell's or Zamyatin's. It is a seductive book, and I believe we were all seduced back then. I remember in my upper teens and early twenties we referred to our existential conversations as glass-bead games. We genuinely believed that it was the highest intellectual achievement of humanity. But why then does the main character, Magister Ludi, give it up? If we saw him as our role model, shouldn't we at the very least question his choice? We didn't. Probably we simply ignored the ending, which is, as reading research shows, a common reaction to unsatisfactory resolutions. And of course the Game continues – they still play it in the narrator's distant time.

What I clearly see now – and again, how carelessly must I have read it three or so years ago that I didn't even contemplate it – is that the narrator is unreliable (another favourite scholarly subject I have put much effort into), that he – only men could become Game masters – admires the legendary Magister Ludi whose objective biographer he pretends to be. But the reader is supposed to see through it and realise that the Game is a parasitic, pointless escape for a handful of self-proclaimed geniuses who have rejected science, arts, religion, social life, human relationships, for the sake of a safe and secure life within a strict hierarchical structure. Didn't we see it when we were young? No, because we saw what we wanted to see, extreme spirituality, and ignored the rest. But three years ago I should have noticed.

This is a rather long reflection on the tricks of memory. I always tell my students: Don't trust your memory, re-read! I should listen to my own advice. 



Sunday, 29 December 2019

My 2010s

Currently, both media and individuals are summarising not only the past year, but the past decade. For me, the 2010s more or less coincided with my sojourn in Cambridge so it feels natural to look back at it. While on the global scale these years have been disconcerting, for me personally they have been fruitful and enjoyable.

I had reached the highest position an academic can reach, a Chair in one of the three best universities in the world (the ranking rotates from year to year, but Cambridge is always in the top three). I believe I have done the work well. I built a community that I am proud of. I took fourteen doctoral students to completion and supervised scores of masters. It was a pleasure and a privilege to be among these brilliant young people with their inquisitive minds and tough questions. My former students have good jobs or other prominent positions. Some have become friends. 




I very much enjoyed being a Fellow of Homerton College, a superb intellectual community where you have opportunities to meet outstanding people outside your discipline. Free lunches and college dinners may sound attractive, but it's not about being free, but being an environment for professional and personal growth. 



I published two academic books, edited several more, revised a successful handbook, and I have lost track of articles and book chapters.




I also published a book of memoirs that hasn't received as much attention as it should have. 

I attended some great conferences and hosted a few – how great those were is not for me to decide, but I was pleased. 



I was elected Fellow of the English Association “for my services to the English language”. Given that English is not my native tongue, I find it quite remarkable. My English has significantly improved during these years. For what it's worth, I learned a lot about UK geography, history and habits.

I met and in some cases became friends with some brilliant authors. I also made many new friends within and outside of academia. I had always thought it was impossible to make real friends at later stages of your life, but I was wrong. And some older friendships grew stronger. I am exceptionally lucky to have these friends.

According to Goodreads, I read 437 books in these years. Some for work, many for pleasure. A few were life-changing. I hadn't imagined that you could still encounter life-changing books at my age. Others were perhaps not life-changing, but still highly enjoyable. My reading habits have changed. I now read more slowly. I don't finish books that do not engage me after fifty pages (unless it is for work). I started reading on Kindle in 2013, and I read more on Kindle than in print, mostly because it is convenient. Kindle books demand no shelf space, it's comfortable to read in bed, you can take as many as you need when travelling, and you can choose the font size. Contrary to existing research, I read slower and deeper on Kindle.

I also got an iPad early and love it dearly. I am ecologically minded and have completely stopped printing out lectures, conference papers, meeting documents and such. I even managed to persuade my department head to give up printing. Together with Finance office they figured out that if they gave each department member an iPad, they would save on printing within three months. I secretly take credit for this contribution to greener environment.

I was given a smartphone for my sixtieth birthday and have since then discovered lots of apps that make my life easier. I am a champion of getting lost, and the navigator was my saviour.

Continuing with technology: like most people these days, I switched from DVDs and Blue-Ray to streaming, and I use Spotify on daily basis. Last year I invested in noise-cancelling headphones which is probably the most useful gadget I own.

I went on several remarkable trips, including the Amazonas, Madagascar, Southern Africa and Orkney. Every time I tell myself that it is likely the last major trip in my life. I definitely prefer nature to culture now. 



I became a passionate walker and cannot imagine my life without walking. I walked Hadrian's Wall and some other wonderful trails that abound in the UK. I had fabulous walking companions. 





I tried falconry which I hoped would become a pastime in retirement, but it wasn't to be. Still, it was an experience I wouldn't want to be without. 



For a few years, until my peripheral eyesight failed, I was a star-gazer, spending hours with my telescope and becoming particularly good friends with Jupiter, sketching the position of its four large moons day by day. I once saw Uranus, only because I knew it was supposed to be there, and I observed Venus phases. I wanted to be an astronomer when I was young so at least I fulfilled a tiny bit of this dream.

I developed as a gardener, and although I probably killed off more plants than I succeeded with, after ten years my garden started looking the way I had wanted. 




I was a faithful servant to four cats. (You know, you cannot own a cat, you can only serve them, if they allow you to). 




I pursued my miniature-making hobby and finally decided not to wait until retirement and acquired a huge dollhouse that so far took me six years of work, and it's far from finished. Six years sounds like a long time, but it is rather abstract and imprecise so I will instead account for my time investment in hours: about 2,000. I made many other projects in between, among them room boxes I gave away as presents – I believe appreciated. 





I learned book-binding. 

 

My grandchildren have grown up. I have become older – maybe wiser.

On reflection is was probably the happiest decade of my life. 


Thursday, 26 December 2019

Final destination


Some friends have had a chance to see snippets of my new life on Facebook, but I should probably offer a brief summary, now that I have reached my final destination. Well, not the final-final, which will probably be the lovely Forest Cemetery in Stockholm.

Of course you never know. Four years ago I was still confident that Milton, Cambridgeshire, UK, was my final destination (close to crematorium). Then came Brexit and its uncertainties. Then came other things and a series of moves and temporary dwellings. But this time I have hopefully landed.

I now live in a north-western suburb of Stockholm. I don't know this area at all. When we lived in Stockholm, three lives ago, we lived in a southern suburb. It is pure serendipity that I started looking for a place to live in this area, and I love it. It is right on the edge of a large nature reserve, that I have tentatively started to explore. It has several lakes and wetlands, a wide variety of wildlife and a 35km trail that will be my goal for summer. 



At the same time, it takes 15 minutes to city centre by commuter train so I don't feel isolated at all. I have already returned home late after various events, and it wasn't much different from returning to Södermalm.

My local shopping centre has everything I may ever need. There is even a small old-fashioned cinema that is closed at the moment but is supposed to start operating again soon. There is a library and an excellent independent bookstore. There is a second-hand shop where I have already found some household stuff. Within walking distance I have a humongous shopping area with IKEA and other outlets. 




My new place is a condo that in the UK would be classified as one-bedroom and in Swedish is called 2rok, spelled out as 2 rooms and a kitchen. It is exactly what it sounds like: a large bedroom, a large living room and a large kitchen with a large dining area. Plus a large hall, a large bathroom and a large glazed balcony. The rooms face in two directions so there is plenty of light, and the windows are large. (I seem to be abusing the word “large”, but it really reflects my perception of space). There are zillions of built-in wardrobes and even a large – yes, really large! - walk-in wardrobe where I will store all my craft supplies. Otherwise I don't have a lot of furniture, and I got rid of much stuff when I was moving from Cambridge so the rooms are truly in a minimalist style which has always been my dream. In previous lives, we had far too many books filling every available space. I haven't unpacked all my books yet, but I will hardly have more than three or four shelves. As I said: I have a library within three minutes walk.

I am going to have a balcony garden. So far, I only have a potted Christmas tree and a couple of plants I brought from my rented flat. I aim at a tiered, hanging garden with flowers, decorative plants, herbs, strawberries and maybe even some veggies. I have also volunteered to join the garden committee of my cooperative. We have a lovely communal garden that could benefit from some improvements.



I haven't yet succumbed to a television, but I am seriously considering it. I have survived over a year without a television, but I like watching movies, and now that I do have space perhaps it's time to stop watching on computer and get a proper screen.

Most important, in two weeks I will bring home two longed-for friends, Smilla and Smirre. But this is another story.

Monday, 18 November 2019

My British children's literature, part 4


Read part 1, 2 and 3 of this story. 

 
Yet another unlikely British author, significantly more famous in Russia than in his home country, was Donald Bisset. Bisset was an actor at the National Theatre and Royal Shakespeare Company, as well as in a large number of profoundly forgotten movies and some TV shows, including Dr Who. But he also published numerous children's books with self-explanatory titles such as Anytime Stories (1954), Some Time Stories (1957), Next Time Stories (1959), This Time Stories (1961), Another Time Stories (1963), as well as a more imaginative Talks with a Tiger (1967). Bisset's stories are very simple, almost devoid of plots, conflicts or morals. They feature anthropomorphised animals and animated objects and machines, including a minibus, a raisin bun, and a birthday. They are perfect for bedtime reading, and Bisset indeed read them on the radio, as well as adapted them for stage.

Again, I can only guess why several of his books were translated, but the translator was also a legendary editor at the central Children's Literature Publishing in Moscow, who was perhaps in a position to translate and publish what she wanted. We know that Bisset visited Moscow in 1969, so it is likely that the first translation was the result of this visit. Unlike the common practice in Russia, the first publication kept Bisset's original illustrations. Most subsequent editions were illustrated by Russian artists. A dozen tales were made into short animations. Today his stories are available at several sites for downloading or online reading.

In my upper teens, everybody in Russia, old and young, loved Bisset's stories, and one reason may be that they are in a way reminiscent of Hans Christian Andersen's tales, tremendously popular in Russia, but without Andersen's dark undertones.

One of the stories is about the rivalry between St Pancrass and King's Cross. I read the story long before I knew that these places were real, and little did I know that King's Cross would one day become my most visited railway station. Not to mention that it would also become world famous thanks to a certain J.K. 

 
The last book in this series of reflections is The Questers, by E. W. Hildick, from 1966, published in Russian in 1969. Again, a book you have hardly heard about, by an author essentially forgotten, although there are very short entries both in the Oxford Companion to Children's Literature and the four-volume Oxford Encyclopedia of Children's Literature. E. W. (Edmund Wallace) Hildick (1925-2001) was educated at Leeds Training College and worked as a teacher until he became a full-time writer. Extremely prolific, he wrote several series of school novels, detective and adventure novels, but as far as I know is completely forgotten today. He also wrote a number of books about children’s literature, including Children and Fiction: a critical study in depth of the artistic and psychological factors involved in writing fiction for and about children (1970), to my surprise available at Homerton College Library. (Was it possibly included in the syllabus of one of those early children's literature courses?) The Questers is one of his less known books, followed by two sequels: Calling Questers Four (1967) and The Questers and the Whispering Spy (1968).

Why would this obscure writer be translated into Russian, when so many significantly more famous writers were not? I have not managed to find any relevant information, but my guess is, just as with Leila Berg, that he either visited the Soviet Union some time during mid-1960s or was among the hosts for a visit from Soviet writers. Hildick was a working+class writer, his books set in working-class environments of Yorkshire, Stevenage, and Southern London. Writers with a working-class background who wrote about working-class children were acceptable and therefore attractive in the Soviet Union, unlike suspicious Christian Oxbridge types such as C S Lewis.

In 1969, I was seventeen and entering university, so strictly speaking this book was not part of my childhood reading, but at that point I already knew that I wanted to study children's literature professionally, even though there were no accessible resources. Every translated book was an event, and I still had an illusion that if a book was translated it had to be a masterpiece by a famous writer. There was no way to find any information about the author or to set the book in a context. By that time, I had read Winnie-the-Pooh, Peter Pan, Mary Poppins and other genuine classics of British children's literature, and I knew that fantasy rather than realism was its strongest aspect. The Questers puzzled me because I could not understand what made it a great book it was supposed to be.

Unlike The Adventures of Chunky, this book does have a chronological progression and a problem in the beginning, partially solved in the end. It is quite interesting in the light of today's disability studies. The main character, Peter, is bedridden with an unnamed disease – possibly polio – that he has little hope of being cured of. And he isn't, but there is a technological improvement of his situation that must have been truly radical in the mid-60s. The plot revolves around obtaining the technology – a walkie-talkie – that would enable Peter to participate in his friends' outdoor adventures and pastimes. As a side comment, a walkie-talkie was to us something from science fiction and would be considered illegal in the Soviet Union.

While planning for the treasure hunt in the local park that will win them the coveted prize, Peter's friends are also engaged in a number of other activities, including ice-cream eating competition, pet show and talent contest, all with disastrous outcomes. These episodes are not particularly funny or engaging, and the characters quite flat, so I am not surprised that the book has gone into oblivion in the UK, but in Russia, in the absence of hundreds of similar stories, it filled, and probably still fills a gap. Unlike classic Soviet gang books featuring brave and virtuous young communists, The Questers is devoid of any ideology or morals, apart from Peter's friends' genuine desire to support him. There are no lessons learned from disasters and no serious consequences either. All adults are nice, and the overall atmosphere benevolent. Even Peter's disability is presented in a positive light.

When I was writing my book From Mythic to Linear, that I still view as my major contribution to scholarship, I considered books such as The Adventures of Chunky and The Questers within my theoretical framework, in which I examined the temporal conditions of children's narratives in three main patterns: prelapsarian, carnivalesque and postlapsarian. Both fit into the first category, since nothing significant happens to the protagonists, and they are not in any way, not even temporarily, introduced to linearity and thus the central aspects of adulthood, such as growing up, death and power hierarchies. It can of course be argued whether it is legitimate to view the temporal structure of realistic stories as mythical, but this will take us to a discussion of the concept of realism and mimesis. Muffin the Mule, although featuring sentient animals, is also an example of Arcadian fiction: a narrative without linear progression, with characters trapped in eternal present. I am not questioning the value of such stories; on the contrary, they are essential to provide young readers with a sense of permanence and stability before they are ready first to explore and interrogate the world through carnival and eventually leave Arcadia in a linear progression toward imminent adulthood. What I find fascinating is that Soviet publishers, at least in the 1950s and '60s, clearly prioritised prelapsarian narratives in their choice of British books to translate. 

I want to conclude this series of blog posts with an event that became a turning point in my career and that most probably eventually brought me to Cambridge. In 1975, after I had finished my undergraduate degree and had a job as far away as imaginable from children's literature, British Council brought a large exhibition of children's books to Moscow. The venue was perhaps odd, a bookstore rather than a library. The nature of my job enabled me to dispose of my time as I saw fit, and for the duration of the exhibition, probably a couple of weeks, I spent day after day there, reading books and taking notes. This was my first encounter with The Borrowers, Tom's Midnight Garden, The Children of Green Knowe, the Narnia Chronicles and many other books that would become central in my research. Then the exhibition was closed and the books gone. And the glossy 12-page exhibition catalogue would for many years remain my only source of information about British children's literature.

The End


Saturday, 16 November 2019

My British children's literature, part 3


Read part 1 and part 2 of this story.




While the reason Leila Berg was acceptable in the Soviet Union seems clear, it is less obvious with another favourite: Muffin the Mule. When I started my academic studies of children's literature in Sweden, Muffin the Mule was not a part of children's literature canon, and somehow I lost sight of it, until sometime in mid-90s I was guest lecturing at the University of Edinburgh and visited the Museum of Childhood, where I suddenly saw the puppet of Muffin the Mule in a glass case. This brought back fond childhood memories and kindled by curiosity. 


When I mentioned Muffin the Mule to an elderly Cambridge colleague some years ago, she immediately started singing the signature tune from the television series. Muffin is probably less known to contemporary audience, although BBC Two released a new animated series in 2005, and there are several picturebooks based on this series. However, I don't think Muffin is as famous in the UK today as he is in Russia. I was surprised to find scores of print editions, the most recent from 2017; free digital editions at numerous portals; as well as audio dramatisation from 1972 available both online and on CD. The book is included in the unofficial primary school curriculum. When I was a child, it was presented as one of the most popular children's books in England, and its author, Ann Hogarth, as one of the most important English children's writers. 

 

I could not find any evidence of Ann Hogarth's or her co-author Annette Mills's support of the Soviet Union or the Communist Party of Great Britain, so there must be other factors – as with all translations, extraliterary and frequently serendipitous. I have found information about Hogarth Puppets performing in Moscow, at the famous Obraztsov Puppet Theatre, and indeed the translation from 1958 has a foreword by Sergei Obraztsov, Russia's most celebrated puppeteer. In 1953, a provincial Russian film studio made a puppet animation, featuring crocheted figures and settings. For some reasons, the film was not released until 1974, by which time it was probably only of interest for specialists. I didn't see it then. It's available on YouTube.


The book, which is a collection of Muffin stories, was published in 1958 when I was six. In addition to Muffin stories, it also contained riddles, find five errors, colouring pages, join-the-dots drawings, patterns for cardboard figures and soft toys, and two board games, one a standard snakes-and-ladders game, but the other a child-appropiate version of Monopoly called “Carrots”, played with matches. The reason it is called “Carrots” is that the eponymous protagonist loves carrots. I remember playing it with my friends well in our upper teens. We were not familiar with Monopoly until much later.
But the main attraction was the stories. Anthropomorphic animals are prominent in Russian children's literature, as elsewhere, but Muffin and his friends were particularly attractive because of their exotic English names. I have read on a recent Russian webpage that the author was very clever when she gave her characters interesting English names – no comment! What I didn't know when I was a child, and that most Russian readers probably don't realise still today is that the names in English are alliterations: Muffin the Mule, Peregrine the Penguin, Sally the Seal, Oswald the Ostrich, Peter the Puppy, Grace the Giraffe, Poppy the Parrot, Hubert the Hippo, Louise the Lamb, Willy the Worm, and Katy the Kangaroo. Knowing this now, I wonder whether the translator gave up or simply didn't notice. It would have been difficult, but not impossible to render this wonderful linguistic feature in translation. The Russian Muffin was not a mule, but a donkey, probably because mule doesn't sound particularly nice in Russian. Donkey in Russian sounds even worse, just like “ass”, so Muffin got a diminutive suffix, oslik, little donkey, which is fine.

Muffin is anthropomorphised so that he sleeps in a bed and eats at a table, bakes a cake and combs his mane with a comb in front of a mirror. But he also eats carrots and walks on all four and wears a saddle and a bridle. In my book, the illustrations were printed in monochrome, alternating between red, yellow, green and blue. This irritated me because I didn't know which was the right colour of Muffin's saddle and bridle. Today, I am irritated that an antropomorphised animal wears a saddle and a bridle at all, and is proud of it. There is something profoundly wrong with it.

Muffin's friends are anthropomorphised in various degrees. Sally the Seal and Hubert the Hippo swim or soak in a pool, Peter the Puppy loves digging up flower beds, while Peregrine the Penguin reads scholarly books on statistics. Unlikely friendships, such as between Oswald the Ostrich and Willy the Worm, did not bother me, and I never wondered what had brought all these exotic animals together. One detail that did bother me was Poppy the Parrot who, on learning that Muffin is baking a cake, contributes an egg that she has just laid. Even to a very young me it sounded like cannibalism. Every time I re-read the book, I tried to get over this episode as quickly as possible.

Something that didn't bother me at all were the two characters who would definitely be expunged from any children's book today: the only two human characters, siblings Wolly and Molly. I presume that in the original puppet show they were golliwogs at a time when golliwogs were still acceptable, but I could not find information on whether they featured in the TV show. They are not listed among the TV characters, so probably not; and they definitely do not appear in the 2005 BBC production. Yet they are quite prominent in several stories, and it is mentioned that they come from Louisiana. Today we would of course object to these children being equalled with exotic animals – just as indigenous people were one time displayed in European zoos. For me, as a child, although I knew that these children were supposed to be human, they were certainly in the same category as the animals and came from similarly exotic countries as Peregrin's Antarctica, Oswald's Africa or Katy's Australia. Moreover, the characters were in line with a large number of black children popular in Soviet children's literature for various reasons, but always as tokens and never as central characters. Soviet publishers in the 1950s would not see any reasons for eradicating these characters.

There are two more human characters in the stories whom I, with my critical eyeglasses on, might call metafictional: Annette and Ann. In the story, at least in Russian, they are presented as little girls, but the names point at the creators of the TV show, Annette Mills and Ann Hogarth. The story they appear in was a disturbing one, and it wasn't until I was grown-up that I realised what was really implied. Muffin wants to write a book for Annette and Ann, with each of his friends contributing a chapter. The purpose is, as the Russian text states, for the girls to remember the animals in case they have to travel away. This statement puzzled me. Why would the animals travel away, “for a long time”, as specified some lines further down?

What strikes me now is the inversion of the toy-animal trope we recognise from Winnie-the-Pooh or Toy Story: the toys' anxiety about the child growing up and abandoning them. Here, the toys – if the characters are indeed toys rather than animals – are anxious that something will happen to them and their humans will forget them. With my today's critical eyes, I don't put high demands on the stories' psychological sophistication, but the fact that it troubled me as a child implies that there was definitely something wrong with the idea.

I was also disturbed by what I probably saw as a breach of genre conventions. I was prepared to accept that animals could talk, but I had problems with Muffin's magical gadgets that enable him to catch a thief and retrieve the stolen objects; or with the magic wish-granting comb. I also had problems with a spider who turns out to be an enchanted fairy.

Considering these stories today, I see them as rather bland, not without humour, but also with a good deal of morals. I am sure they worked well as short puppet shows, but there is very little literary merit in them. However, we all know that children do not necessarily appreciate books for their artistic quality. Also of significance is that the book was published in Russian three years before Winnie-the-Pooh, which doubtless offers a substantially more profound animal/toy narrative. Pooh was quickly incorporated in Russian children's literature, followed by a tremendously popular animated film, as far away from Disney in its aesthetics as can be. Pooh quickly started to function as an independent cultural icon, which I have written about and will not repeat now. Muffin was more of an oddity, and far from all in my generation in Russia still remember him. Yet it is still in print today, in dozens of editions, with various illustrations, and available on various online readers.

To be continued

Friday, 15 November 2019

My British children's literature, part 2

Read the first post in this series.


Another favourite was of a totally different kind: The Adventures of Chunky, by Leila Berg, who actually died just a couple of years ago. If I had known that she was alive when I moved to the UK, I would have contacted her to tell her how passionately I loved her book. But to a child, all authors are by definition dead, so it didn't even occur to me that the author of my childhood favourite could be alive. And again, this wasn't a name you saw on every syllabus. Why was this book translated? Why this book, of all English books? By all standards, published in 1950 and translated in 1959, it was obsolete already. Yet I loved this book for its nice everyday adventures and pranks, and without reference frames, without the background of Swallows and Amazons or Just William, I didn't see its flaws. Maybe they aren't flaws; maybe it is just one of many average books that come and go, but for me it was one of the Great Books, an indispensable book from which I still remember long passages by heart. For my critical self, this is an episodic narrative and a middle narrative; it has no logical beginning or end; it can be read in any order – perfect for bedtime reading. The stories take place during summer holidays, so there are no school-related obligations, and the children have, as they had in those simple times, total freedom of movement around the town, including riding buses and going into shops. The relationships between children and adults are idyllic. There is no character development, no conflicts or confrontations, not even moral lessons. Chunky, a seven-year-old boy, is scientifically minded and finds rational explanation to everything, but there isn't any factual knowledge to extract from the stories, which of course isn't important for me now, as it wasn't then.

There were quite a few things that puzzled me in the book. From other translated books, I knew that the British currency was pounds, shillings and pence, but I didn't know how many shillings there were to a pound or how many pence a shilling, therefore the sums Chunky and his friends do were incomprehensible. I was also puzzled that Chunky's parents went to meet the king. Kings didn't fit into a contemporary realistic story. Chunky's parents went to meet the king because, as I realise now, they worked on a super-secret military project, but it wasn't spelled out, and for a dislocated reader like myself it didn't say anything. At one point, a colleague of Chunky's parents, a certain professor Haldane, is mentioned. J B S Haldane was professor of biochemistry at Cambridge, and incidentally the author of a hilarious children's book My Friend Mr Leakey. He was a good friend of Leila Berg, but I wonder whether contemporaneous readers were supposed to recognise the name or whether it was just an internal joke. Like Berg, Haldane was a Communist and a supporter of the Soviet Union.


 Leila Berg                                        J B S Haldane

With Chunky, I was confused because of references to war. I had heard a lot about war from my parents, but it was obviously beyond my lived experience. The book mentions that when Chunky was born, his mother had to stay at home with him, but during the war she hired a housekeeper in order to continue her work as a scientist. This temporal setting that made Chunky perhaps fifteen year older that I was, was disturbing. It was not far back in time enough to be a historical novel, like The little rugamuffin, but it was not a diffuse present either. I was puzzled because one of Chunky's friends didn't know what a refrigerator was. From my upper middle-class position in the late 1950s, I could not imagine a household without a refrigerator, although today I wonder whether all my classmates' families had one. I was puzzled that only Mike's mother had a linen-cupboard. Why was having a linen-cupboard so remarkable in Britain in the 1940s? Where did people otherwise keep their linen? I was totally puzzled by burst water-pipes, because of course in the Russian climate all plumbing was indoors and well insulated, and it wasn't until I moved to the UK that I understood this detail.

I was truly puzzled that when Chunky's friend Mike's father has an accident and goes to hospital, the boys arrange a performance to collect money for the family. The story is thus set pre-NHS, that is, pre-1948, something that young British readers in the early 1950s would still recognise; but for a Russian young reader in the late 1950s it sounded more like Dickens. Surely, when you were sick in hospital, you received sick pay! So wide apart were Chunky's world and mine.

Of more mundane issues, I didn't know what a sandwich was, and it was probably wrong of the translator to transliterate it as exotic “sandwich” rather than a familiar bread-and-butter. Chunky's mother leaves him interesting lunches that fascinated me as a child. The standard Russian lunch was, and still is, a starter, a soup, a main and a dessert. So when Chunky had condensed milk-and-apple sandwiches for lunch it was as outlandish as it could get. But then of course Chunky's parents were scientists. I was also spellbound when Chunky drank milk through a straw. I wasn't familiar with plastic drinking straws. I tried to drink my milk through a real straw when we were staying in a summer cottage – it didn't work too well. Drinking straws first entered my life, tentatively, as a rare and exotic object, in the 1970s. We would save and rinse them for re-use.

Pocket money was an unfamiliar phenomenon in Russia, and the fact that you could save pocket money to buy a watch was inconceivable, but again, it was part of the exoticism, as was chewing gum, that I had encountered in other translated books, but had no idea of what it was. Neither did the translator, particularly when Chunky asks his parents to bring him bubblegum from London, a recent and still rare product unavailable in his little town. The translator was at a loss and had to invent an explanation: in Russian, Chunky says: “Not chewing gum, but bubblegum, to blow soap bubbles with”. It didn't make the episode clearer for me.

I obviously did not recognise the songs featuring in the book, such as Oranges and Lemons or Good King Wenceslas. The latter, incidentally, was presented as New Year song, since Christmas was banned as a phenomenon and a word in the Soviet Union. Progressive boys in England would not celebrate Christmas. I didn't understand rhyming slang, even though it sounded funny. I didn't understand the implication of “running away to sea”; I thought it meant going to the seaside for a holiday, but I had no idea how close or how far away seaside was. I am not sure I had seen a map of the British Isles by that time, and if I had, I did not understand the scale. I also missed the implication of having to turn twenty-one before you could do certain things, because in Russia the coming of age was eighteen.

On the other hand, there were things in the book that didn't puzzle me that would probably puzzle today's young reader: cod-liver oil. Every Russian child had to endure it after lunch. You would hardly find ether in an average British bathroom today, but you could in a Russian bathroom in the '50s. I could absolutely relate to a queue for oranges that were just as as scarce in the late 1950s in Moscow as in the late 1940s in Britain. If I was dislocated in space, I was to a certain extent synchronised in time.

But none of these puzzling details put me off the book, possibly the other way round. Using my critical toolkit of today, I didn't identify with Chunky; instead I was curious about his otherness. I read a lot of books about children in diverse chronotopes, but generally I do not remember ever identifying with fictional characters, not even when their experience was close enough to mine. Instead, it was the unfamiliar experience I cherished. Whether it makes me a sophisticated reader I will not speculate about.

Back to the question of why this book was translated. There was a quota on translated books per country; the central children's publisher that more or less had monopoly on children's books, would publish a translation from English maybe once every third year. Chunky thus effectively blocked any other British book that was perhaps more worth to be available for Russian young readers. But publishers had their guidelines. In the late 1950s, imaginative fiction was out of favour; both Russian and foreign books should be realistic and reflect lives of real children, preferably from working classes. Chunky didn't quite fit into the latter category, his parents being high-rank academics fraternising with royalty; but Leila Berg matched the criteria for acceptable Western authors. As already mentioned, she sympathised with the Soviet Union, was a member of the Communist Party of Great Britain and wrote for the party newspaper The Daily Worker. I could not find any information about her possible visits to the USSR, but as a member of the Communist Party she would probably be among the British writers hosting Soviet visitors. Casual exchange of books would be enough to justify a publication. It might be interesting to find out whether any Russian children's book was translated in the UK at the same time.

Once again, I deeply regret that I wasn't aware that Berg was still alive when I moved to Cambridge, or indeed when I started visiting the UK for academic purposes: it would have been interesting to hear her story.

To be continued

Thursday, 14 November 2019

My British children's literature


It so happened that I never gave the talk that was supposed to be my valedictory appearance. But I did finish it, and I think it may be of interest for some people, both those who were coming to listen and those who weren't. Therefore I have taken the liberty to cut it up into smaller chunks, appropriate for blog posts. If you have followed my blog, you may recognise some facts and arguments, but I don't think it matters.

For this talk, I was asked to share my experience of childhood reading – something that our Cambridge children's literature team asks masters students to do for their first assignment. I must admit that when I first came to Cambridge and saw this assignment on the syllabus, I said to myself: Oh dear, what is it, kindergarten? Then I started to supervise the essay and later grade it, and I realised that I was profoundly wrong. It is an immensely challenging assignment if you do it properly (and if you don't, why bother?). If you manage to balance between the authenticity of your childhood experience (and we know that memory is totally unreliable) and your critical self at the moment of writing.

I have since supervised and graded scores of these assignments, and I have seen both how students struggle with it and how beneficial it is for them to go back to their childhood reading and consider what was appealing and why. I have also read a number of childhood reading memoirs, including Francis Spufford, Margaret Mackey and Lucy Mangan. This is not really my genre, but I accepted the challenge.

However, I decided to limit my reflections to British children's literature, for a number of reasons. Firstly, at least the context, if not the texts themselves would be familiar to the intended audience (and probably to this blog's readers). Secondly, a valedictory talk is supposed to be entertaining, so I hope you, dear reader, will share the amusement of my critical self in contemplating what British children's books reached my young self behind the Iron Curtain and subsequently what my picture of British children's literature was before I was given the opportunity to study it academically outside the restrictions of my home country.

(If you want to know more about my childhood reading, I wrote several blog posts about it). 

Like Jerusha Abbot says in Daddy Long Legs: “I have never read Mother Goose or David Copperfield or Ivanhoe or Cinderella or Bluebeard or Robinson Crusoe or Jane Eyre or Alice in Wonderland or a word of Rudyard Kipling”. Well, I did read David Copperfield and Robinson Crusoe and Just So Stories, but I never read Beatrix Potter or J M Barrie or Frances Hodgson Burnett or Arthur Ransome or a word of C S Lewis. I read and loved a children's edition of Gulliver’s Travels, purged of all indecencies and politics. And of course I read and loved Alice in Wonderland, and I could go on forever explaining why it was so much loved in Russia where “Off with your head!” was not an empty declaration, but a real threat, and where someone could decide what words mean.

But I chose to talk about British children’s literature that few if any of British children's literature scholars would recognise: British books that got translated into Russian for any number of reasons – of which more in a minute – and that created my image of British children’s literature that is radically different from the established canon. For instance, of all Enid Blyton’s production, the only book translated until recently was Tim the Famous Duckling

 

Ever heard of him? Probably not, but a web search yields scores of Russian sites offering various editions of Tim the Famous Duckling, as well as audiobooks, stage versions and animation. There is even a lesson plan for teaching Tim the Famous Duckling to 8-year-olds and a variety of reviews on parenting sites. You need to know your Blyton well to figure out that the original story is The Famous Jimmy, published in 1936 and fetching fancy prices on ebay and online bookstores. How did The Famous Jimmy, with its hugely dubious morals, get translated and published in Russia in 1946 and never stayed out of print? It's just one of many mysteries when a mediocre and totally forgotten book becomes a hit in another culture.

One of my favourite books when I was a child was The true history of a little ruggamuffin, by James Greenwood. It wasn't just my favourite, it was everybody's favourite, a classic, mandatory classroom reading, yet still a favourite, as famous as Alice in Wonderland and Robinson Crusoe and mentioned in every Russian source on world children's literature, British children's literature, children's literature, fullstop. When I got professionally interested in children's literature and started reading Western sources, I was puzzled that this masterpiece wasn't mentioned anywhere. What foreign children's books got translated into Russian was a serendipity; and this one was a very progressive book from the point of view of Soviet ideology, showing the misery of the working classes under capitalism.

When I visited London for the first time, many place names, for instance, Covent Garden, were familiar from The little rugamuffin. I still think of The little rugamuffin these days when I take the Tube and pass Covent Garden.

In my book Children's Literature Comes of Age, I have a chapter on canon and an argument about how books can become more prominent in a foreign culture than in their own. The little rugamuffin was obviously a good example, but I needed at least some information about it. I had asked English and American colleagues, and nobody had heard of this book. I found it eventually in the British National Bibliography for 1866 (this was long before Google). It wasn't even a children's book. The book we all loved during my childhood and that is still loved and cherished by Russian children was a retelling of an obscure penny-dreadful. 


James Greenwood (1833–1929) was an investigative journalist with Pall Mall Gazette and later Daily Telegraph and wrote reports from the lives of the London poor, particularly workhouses. He published several books based on these reports. He also wrote adventure stories for Boy's Own and some children's books, mostly high sea adventures and nature stories. The true history of a little rugamuffinin was published in 1866 and only reprinted once in 1884. It was never marketed for young readers, most probably because it was so radically different from contemporaneous Victorian children's literature. In the 1860s and '70s, Greenwood was tremendously popular in Russia both with his reports and his fiction. The true history was translated two years after it appeared in English and published in a progressive literary magazine. The most prominent Russian working-class writer Maxim Gorky mentions it in his autobiography as influential adolescent reading. It was retranslated and retold several times, and in the Soviet Union it had over fifty editions, with printruns of millions of copies. It was acknowledged as a children's literature classic and is still in print. Several academic works have been written on it.

One of my questions in investigating the book further was how much liberty the translator/reteller had taken. This reteller was no other than the Grand Old Man of Soviet children's literature, Kornei Chukovsky, who also gave us Kipling and Doctor Dolittle and many other key texts of British children's literature. But why The little rugamuffin? That we might never know. Maybe the novel reminded him of Dickens. It surely fit in well with other fiction describing the horrors of capitalism that Soviet educationalists viewed as desirable reading for children. On close inspection, Chukovsky was quite faithful to the original, although he deleted episodes of domestic violence, references to wicked Jews and some other minor details. However, he did amend the ending to suit the Soviet ideology. In the original, the protagonist grows up, goes to Australia and makes his fortune there. In the version I know, he becomes a child factory worker, which apparently was a huge improvement for a little boy as compared to being a street urchin. Well, at least he wasn't adopted by a rich lady.

To be continued