You can’t blame Raffel or Modern Library. An unabridged dual-language version would run more than 1,000 pages, making it...

THE CANTERBURY TALES

Burton Raffel has made two key decisions in his rendition of Chaucer’s greatest work. While most editions stick to the half-dozen or so best-known stories—the raunchy “Miller’s Tale” and the proto-feminist “Wife of Bath’s Tale” being the most popular with contemporary readers—Raffel offers modern English versions of even such unfinished fragments as “The Squire’s Tale” and such often-skipped sections as “The Parson’s Tale.” Few today will be burning to hear from the longwinded parson, but in general this unabridged edition is a delight. It lets you appreciate the masterful way Chaucer unifies his stylistically and topically diverse stories with a few overarching themes: the proper relationship between man and woman (the answer’s not what you’d expect from a 14th-century civil servant), the role of the clergy (they’re only human in his realistic portraits), the all-powerful impact of chance on our destinies. Having the full text also enables readers to enjoy the sly way Chaucer toys with them, allowing his raconteurs to interrupt their narratives with such tantalizing phrases as, “but nothing like that can be included here.” The unabridged edition provides more opportunities to savor the counterpoint of Chaucer’s earthy humor against passages of piercingly beautiful lyric poetry.

That glorious language—there’s the rub in Raffel’s second decision. Most modern editions of Chaucer include his Middle English text on the facing page; it’s the simplest way to make sure readers know what’s going on but still hear Chaucer’s distinctive voice. Raffel’s modern English captures to a large extent the polyphonic vigor of Chaucer’s verse and prose. But he cannot capture Chaucer’s voice. “When April arrives, and with his sweetened showers / Drenches dried-up roots, gives them power / To stir dead plants and sprout the living flowers / That spring has always spread across these fields,” is lovely. Can it equal, “Whan that Aprill with his shoures soote / The droghte of March hath perced to the roote, / And bathed every veyne in swich licour / Of which vertu engendred is the flour”? Of course not, and it would be unfair to expect it. But it would be nice to look across the page from Raffel’s lucid, lyrical rendition and be able to see the gnarled yet delicate taproot from which grew Shakespeare, John Donne and the King James Bible.

You can’t blame Raffel or Modern Library. An unabridged dual-language version would run more than 1,000 pages, making it prohibitively expensive and inaccessible to non-students who might want to use it somewhere other than at their desks. Keeping the oldest portions of our literary heritage alive for contemporary readers always involves compromise. If we lose some of the deepest levels of Chaucer’s poetry here, we are partly compensated with the full sweep of his zestful, unsentimental understanding of human nature and his abiding love for all kinds of good stories.

Pub Date: Nov. 18, 2008

ISBN: 978-0-679-64355-4

Page Count: 630

Publisher: Modern Library

Review Posted Online: June 24, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Jan. 1, 2010

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ONE DAY IN THE LIFE OF IVAN DENISOVICH

While a few weeks ago it seemed as if Praeger would have a two month lead over Dutton in their presentation of this Soviet best seller, both the "authorized" edition (Dutton's) and the "unauthorized" (Praeger's) will appear almost simultaneously. There has been considerable advance attention on what appears to be as much of a publishing cause celebre here as the original appearance of the book in Russia. Without entering into the scrimmage, or dismissing it as a plague on both your houses, we will limit ourselves to a few facts. Royalties from the "unauthorized" edition will go to the International Rescue Committee; Dutton with their contracted edition is adhering to copyright conventions. The Praeger edition has two translators and one of them is the translator of Doctor Zhivago Dutton's translator, Ralph Parker, has been stigmatized by Praeger as "an apologist for the Soviet regime". To the untutored eye, the Dutton translation seems a little more literary, the Praeger perhaps closer to the rather primitive style of the original. The book itself is an account of one day in the three thousand six hundred and fifty three days of the sentence to be served by a carpenter, Ivan Denisovich Shukhov. (Solzhenitsyn was a political prisoner.) From the unrelenting cold without, to the conditions within, from the bathhouse to the latrine to the cells where survival for more than two weeks is impossible, this records the hopeless facts of existence as faced by thousands who went on "living like this, with your eyes on the ground". The Dutton edition has an excellent introduction providing an orientation on the political background to its appearance in Russia by Marvin Kalb. All involved in its publication (translators, introducers, etc.) claim for it great "artistic" values which we cannot share, although there is no question of its importance as a political and human document and as significant and tangible evidence of the de-Stalinization program.

Pub Date: June 15, 1963

ISBN: 0451228146

Page Count: 181

Publisher: Praeger

Review Posted Online: Oct. 5, 2011

Kirkus Reviews Issue: June 15, 1963

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The phrase “tour de force” could have been invented for this audacious novel.

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A LITTLE LIFE

Four men who meet as college roommates move to New York and spend the next three decades gaining renown in their professions—as an architect, painter, actor and lawyer—and struggling with demons in their intertwined personal lives.

Yanagihara (The People in the Trees, 2013) takes the still-bold leap of writing about characters who don’t share her background; in addition to being male, JB is African-American, Malcolm has a black father and white mother, Willem is white, and “Jude’s race was undetermined”—deserted at birth, he was raised in a monastery and had an unspeakably traumatic childhood that’s revealed slowly over the course of the book. Two of them are gay, one straight and one bisexual. There isn’t a single significant female character, and for a long novel, there isn’t much plot. There aren’t even many markers of what’s happening in the outside world; Jude moves to a loft in SoHo as a young man, but we don’t see the neighborhood change from gritty artists’ enclave to glitzy tourist destination. What we get instead is an intensely interior look at the friends’ psyches and relationships, and it’s utterly enthralling. The four men think about work and creativity and success and failure; they cook for each other, compete with each other and jostle for each other’s affection. JB bases his entire artistic career on painting portraits of his friends, while Malcolm takes care of them by designing their apartments and houses. When Jude, as an adult, is adopted by his favorite Harvard law professor, his friends join him for Thanksgiving in Cambridge every year. And when Willem becomes a movie star, they all bask in his glow. Eventually, the tone darkens and the story narrows to focus on Jude as the pain of his past cuts deep into his carefully constructed life.  

The phrase “tour de force” could have been invented for this audacious novel.

Pub Date: March 10, 2015

ISBN: 978-0-385-53925-8

Page Count: 720

Publisher: Doubleday

Review Posted Online: Dec. 22, 2014

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Jan. 1, 2015

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