Friday, 3 January 2014

Childhood reading, part 5: World classics

Read the previous posts, 1   2    3   4

For some reason, many classic children's books that our grandparents read were considered harmful by the Soviet educators, such as Little Women, Little Lord Fauntleroy and Daddy-Long-Legs, of which I had only heard or read in other children's books. Perhaps they were considered sentimental. Mark Twain on the other hand was welcome, and we all read The Adventures of Tom Sawyer and The Prince and the Pauper. Much of the wit of both books was lost on me, both because of my age and because of my cultural ignorance. For instance, when Tom says in Sunday school that the first two apostles' names were David and Goliath, I didn't get it.

I didn't get much of Alice in Wonderland either, especially because the translation I had was extremely poor. When I eventually read the original I realised that all the strange things the characters said were jokes and puns. But it didn't matter. I loved Alice and read it over and over again, and still today I remember some of the poor translation better than the original. I don't know why Alice was acceptable for the Soviet pedagogy when so much other nineteenth-century children's literature wasn't, and fairy tales were considered particularly dangerous.

Selma Lagerlöf's The Wonderful Adventures of Nils was popular already in my grandmother's childhood, but in the early '50s is was published as a retelling, rather a clumsy one as I discovered when I studied the subject academically, with lots of historical and geographical inaccuracies, but as a child I didn't know and didn't care. The miniature perspective was something I was familiar with from Dunno and Thumbelina: the wonderful world of animals was reminiscent of my favourite nature stories, and there was just the right touch of magic. When I moved to Sweden, names and facts from Nils echoed in my explorations.

The book was part of a larger venture, when suddenly lots of foreign classics were translated: Winnie-the-Pooh, The Little Prince, which of course were read by grownups as much as children. Today it is called crossover, then it was just a common acknowledgment that the best children's books are good for everyone. Yet I believe that the status of Western classics contributed to their popularity among adults. Karlsson-on-the-Roof came about the same time, and I have already explained why it was “the best-loved” of Astrid Lindgren's books in Russia.

Some of these translated books were very odd. Again, I have written about Muffin the Mule; but there was also 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. Why was this book translated? Why this book, of all English books? By all standards, it was obsolete already. I remember I was puzzled that one of Chunky's friends didn't know what a refrigerator was. I was also puzzled that Chunky's parents went to meet the king. Kings didn't fit into a 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. 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 indispensible book from which I still remember long passages by heart. 


Not least, there were books by Gianni Rodari. Some children's literature scholars may know his book The Grammar of Fantasy, but only one of his children's books is translated into English, The Befana's Toy Shop, which in Russian was closer to its original title, The Blue Train, but more imaginative: The Travels of the Blue Arrow. For me, this book had everything I wanted from a good story. There was the miniature perspective of the animated toys and the eternal quest plot. There was the vague boundary between real and magic. There was the misery of poverty. There was the tragedy of parting and the joy of reunion. I wasn't quite happy with the ending because the Blue Arrow crew never found the boy they were looking for, as a true happy ending should be. Maybe it was exactly why I liked this book so much. 


I liked Rodari's other books as well, the satirical Gelsomino in the Land of Liars and Cippolino the Onion Boy. I didn't care about their political messages: Rodari was a convinced Communist, which explains wy his books were translated in the Soviet Union and sold millions of copies. In Cippolino, some fruits and vegetables are rich and oppress other fruits and vegetables, who finally revolt and establish a better society. It was fine by me, because it was just like other stories about the underprivileged who revolt. What puzzled me was the allocation of roles. I would understand if all fruit were rich and all vegetables poor, but there was no logic in the construction of this world. Gelsomino was a very transparent satire on the Communist regime, a 1984 for kiddies, but again, I didn't care, but enjoyed the wordplay and the absurdity. If the grownups ever saw the satire, they kept it to themselves.

Was I then a tremendously naïve and uncritical reader who didn't understand books beyond the superficial plot? From my clever scholarly perspective today, what attracted me? Did I engage with the characters? Did I share their joys and sorrows? Did I ever ask myself the Important Question: what were these books really about? What did the authors want to say? Neither my parent nor school teachers ever asked such questions, and unless prompted, I don't think a child can ever think of them. Yet these books were obviously important and formative, and I kept re-reading them and remember them as if I read them yesterday. Again, from my scholarly viewpoint, I engaged with the characters emotionally, but never asking myself whether I liked them or wanted to be like them. Possibly, all these characters were far too strange.

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