Sunday, January 29, 2017

Fortnightly Book, January 29

Somewhere in the world there is defeat for everyone. Some are destroyed by defeat, and some made small and mean by victory. Greatness lives in one who triumphs equally over defeat and victory.

When John Steinbeck was a boy, his favorite book was the Caxton edition of Malory's Le Morte d'Arthur. The book gave him a lifelong passion for King Arthur and his knights, so it is unsurprising that he had a continuing interest in the legends in all their shapes and forms. But he found that what he thought was most needed, did not seem to exist at all: a work that captured the charm of Malory for the present age. There have been various adaptations in various stages of irony; but these are really all just comments on our time. There have been various pageantries or extravagances; but these by their very nature put a distance between the viewer and the viewed. What Steinbeck wanted was something that reworked Malory to show it not as a comment on our own age, nor as a costume drama, but as a universal story. In the late 1950s he began on precisely such a project. He would never finish it. It's difficult to say why, but a stroke and recovery from it seems to have broken his momentum, and at some point he set it aside to work on his novel, The Winter of Our Discontent. The critics found that novel a disappointment, and when he received the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1962, it was followed by nonstop critical attacks and mockery. He did not write any more fiction after that, and one of the casualties seems to have been his Arthur cycle. The Acts of King Arthur and His Noble Knights breaks off with the death of chivalry in the tale of Lancelot, with Lancelot, at the height of his reputation, weeping at the loss of his honor over Guinevere. It would be published posthumously in 1976 -- to that polite critical approval that is worse than disparagement, the kind that regards a work as being of no interest of itself, but only for the light it sheds on the author. There has been some movement in the past few years, though, to reconsider the work.

It is, in any case, perhaps appropriate to a work that more than anything expresses Steinbeck's view that the noblest causes are sometimes the ones that will inevitably fail.

There are a number of different versions of La Morte d'Arthur, but the one that has been most often taken as the standard through the years has been Caxton's original publication. In the 1930s, however, a discovery was made of a manuscript of the work that bears a number of very different features from that which Caxton actually printed; this, known as the Winchester Manuscript, is usually thought to be either the original or a copy closer to the original, and was probably the manuscript that Caxton gave himself rather free hand to revise as he was printing it. It is also the version on which Steinbeck based his work. The work is not a slavish rendering; Steinbeck held that presenting the legend to twentieth-century sensibilities required reworking how the story was presented, a reworking that is sometimes quite thorough. But it is intended to be very faithful to the essentials of that story, and is based on Steinbeck's having steeped himself in the study of all things Malorian.

No comments:

Post a Comment

Please understand that this weblog runs on a third-party comment system, not on Blogger's comment system. If you have come by way of a mobile device and can see this message, you may have landed on the Blogger comment page, or the third party commenting system has not yet completely loaded; your comments will only be shown on this page and not on the page most people will see, and it is much more likely that your comment will be missed.