Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Cynically Up To Date: A Second Glance at Penguin Author Biographies

Older Penguin Books provide biographical information about the authors that tends towards erudition and concision with the occasional touch of panache. Some of them read like short entries to a Who's Who reference work. Even modern Penguins have very good biographical information. The inclusion of the author's interests and recreations as can be found in biographical reference works is interesting to read.

Raleigh Trevelyan's first book, The Fortress (Collins, 1956) was republished by Penguin Books in 1958 (No. 1263) and on the back cover beneath the author photograph and decent biographical content, it ends with the author's interests: "writing, Bristol glass, Etruscan pottery, indoor plants and photography, and he enjoys walking, travel, and underwater swimming." Such details provide enough to give the reader a sense of his home life, something to identify with as well such as the common pursuit of underwater swimming. (Well, maybe more the indoor plants.)

Edith Sitwell's Alexander Pope published by Penguin Books in 1948 (No. 636) provides a rather brief biography beneath her somewhat unusual appearance: "Edith Sitwell was born at Scarborough and is the sister of Sir Osbert Sitwell, Bart., and Sacheverell Sitwell. She was educated privately and her principal recreations are reading and thinking about poetry, listening to music and silence." (A true introvert I would think.)

The historian William C. Atkinson, the author of A History of Spain and Portugal, (Pelican, 1960) is provided with a rather odd biographical treatment: "William C. Atkinson is an Irishman--1902 vintage--who
graduated through the universities of Belfast, Madrid and Durham to his present chair of Hispanic Studies at Glasgow. Having come, over the years, to know Spain and Portugal better than his homeland, he added Latin America to his parish and has thrice--1946, 1957, and 1960--made the grand tour of that Brave New World visiting every one of its twenty countries and lecturing in almost every university of note there." It ends with requisite list of the author's recreations: "his wife and four children, travel, tramping; on busman's holidays, book reviewing." (His life seemed one of great accomplishment and activity. Tramping, I think it is coming back into fashion.)

The irreverence at the beginning of a rather long biography of Aldous Huxley for his Crome Yellow, Penguin Books, 1961 (No.41) [orig. pub. 1921, Penguin Books 1936] is apt for the content and nature of the author's work: "The name of Aldous Huxley, which became known in the twenties, rapidly developed into a password for his generation. At cocktail parties, which were becoming fashionable in the same period, it was bandied about as if the mere mention of it were enough to show that one was brilliant, witty, and cynically up to date."

Just what people wanted, escape from the memories of the war that took so many lives. It wouldn'
t be till the late 1920s that people could begin to read about the war to any great extent. Ford Madox Ford's Parade's End which came out in the mid 1920s, was just a bit to early for the reading public. I imagine people were still "cynically up do date" as they looked back at the abyss of the recent past and lifted a glass to the void they felt around them. It makes me wonder where the popular television series Downton Abbey will go with their story lines as they face the 1920s. Will they venture into Huxley or Waugh territory? Will young people be quoting The Wasteland out of University dormitory windows and drinking to excess? Champagne, flappers and jazz? Hmm. Downton Abbey meets Brideshead Revisited?

Huxley missed out on the great war to end all wars due to very poor eyesight. The Penguin biography doesn't mention his early poetry collections which perhaps ironically have much to do with sight:

The Burning Wheel (1916), Jonah (1917), The Defeat of Youth and other Poems (1918) and Leda (1920).

From his first collection: Mole.

Like T. S. Eliot, Huxley was influenced by the French Symbolist poets; if Huxley had kept to poetry instead of prose, I wonder if he would have rivaled the American upstart? Would he have found his 'waste land' through his cynicism, satire, misanthropy and mysticism? Perhaps he did, eventually. Brave New World.

Monday, February 27, 2012

Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Presumably: A Glance at Penguin Author Biographies

Author biographies that are found on book covers or within books, are, one would think, matters of fact. Especially in this era when information can be so easily accessed, and triple checked, perhaps even with the author involved.

In looking at an early Penguin Books copy of a Graham Greene novel, it reveals that complete knowledge about authors was not as easily acquired in the past. There was room left for uncertainty. Perhaps even mystery.

In looking at my copy of Graham Greene's The Ministry of Fear (New York: Penguin Books, 2nd printing January 1946 [1st Penguin US printing January 1944, and 1st edition hardcover Viking, 1943] ), the "about the author" on the back of the paperback drew my attention for a number of reasons. One, for the phot
ograph of the author which looks like it was taken in the late 1920s, which would put the author at his mid to late twenties. At the time of this American paperback printing, Greene was 41 years of age. Secondly, the biographical description reveals a possibly less known fact for it refers to the initial American title The Labyrinthine Ways for his book The Power and the Glory. Thirdly, it refers to him as a gifted poet which adds a nuance of romance and literary beginnings. And finally it drew my attention for the penultimate sentence which reads:

After leaving Oxford he took up newspaper work, and by 1926 he was on the London Times, where he presumably remains today.

Presumably. That seems so fresh and laissez-faire. The hint of uncertainty leaves room for the imagination to stretch possibilities. (One can almost imagine the editor asking the copywriter if he knew if Greene was still with the Times, and saying, well, put in "presumably," that should cover us, we have a deadline after all....) Gone are the days of the "presumably" it seems. (Though that may be presumptuous of me considering authors like Thomas Pynchon and authors in extremis.)

♠ ♠ ♠ ♠ ♠

This "presumably" sentence has had me looking more intently at other "about the author" features and they can be interesting. Some of the descriptions are amusing. I thought I would provide a few as examples. Penguin copywriters seem quite adept. Often with a hint of subtext.

Margery Allingham took to writing naturally; in her family no other occupation was considered natural or indeed sane. (Sweet Danger, Penguin Books, 1971.)

Jocelyn Brooke was born in 1908 on the south coast and took to the educational process with reluctance. He contrived to run away from public school twice within a fortnight, but then settled, to his own mild surprize, at Bedales before going to Worcester College, Oxford, where his career as an undergraduate was unspectacular. (The Orchid Trilogy, Penguin Books, 1981.)

Nicolas Freeling was born in London in 1927 and spent his childhood in France. Before taking up writing he worked for many years in hotels and restaurants, and from their back doors got to know a good deal of Europe. (Love in Amsterdam, Penguin Books, 1975.)

John Wyndham was born in 1903. Until 19011 he lived in Edgbaston, Birmingham, and then in many parts of England. After a wide experience of the English preparatory school he was at Bedales from 1918-1921. Careers he tried included farming, law, commercial art, and advertising, and he first started writing short stories, intended for sale, in 1923. . . In 1946 he went back to writing stories for publication in the U. S. A. and decided to try a modified form of what is unhappily known as 'science fiction.' (Consider Her Ways and Others, Penguin Books, 1979.)

Nina Epton was born in London of a Scottish father and a Spanish mother. Brought up on self-control and hockey in England. . . . (Love and the Spanish, Penguin Books, 1964.)

Alfred Douglas was born in England in 1942. Inspired by his family's interest in arcane tradition, he began to study occult symbolism when he was still very young. . . Douglas divides his time between an apartment in London and a house in Whitby, where Bram Stoker wrote Dracula, on the rugged coast of the Yorkshire moors. (The Tarot, Penguin Books, 1979.)

The illegitimate son of an itinerant astrologer, Jack London was born in San Francisco in 1876. He grew up on the waterfront and was soon a heavy drinker, a fighter, and an outlaw as well as a voracious reader of books from the public library. (The Assassination Bureau, Ltd., Penguin Books, 1978.)