Sunday, August 19, 2012

Fortnightly Book, August 19

I've enjoyed the book-a-week for the summer, but it's not really going to be feasible for the Fall term. I have plenty of other books on the shelf that I've not read or haven't read in agens, though, so as a compromise I've decided to do the same thing but with a biweekly format. Since 'biweekly' is potentially confusing (it means every two weeks, but in some dialects it can also mean twice a week), we'll go with 'fortnightly', which has no such ambiguities. Besides, we need to use the word 'fortnight' and its cognates more often. Every two weeks should be more manageable. (The book-a-week is not the only reading I do in a week -- in the past week, for instance, besides Lilith I re-read Dark Lord of Derkholm, finished re-reading Corfield's Philosophy of Real Mathematics, read extensive parts of Mansfield Park and Bede's Ecclesiastical History of England and The Tolkien Reader, which have been recent ongoing re-reads and all of which I expect to finish at some point this week or next, and re-read a good half of Asimov's Caves of Steel, which will probably be finished tomorrow; and this is all not counting the reading I do for research. During the term this load lightens a bit but not as much as you might think. So the more systematic book-a-week already has to compete with other things even when I'm not teaching. Since this unsystematic reading is much more my natural style, simply substituting the more systematic approach for it won't work in the long run; it has to be tailored to make it so it can fit in with the rest. But I do want to keep it; it's been a good way to get through a lot of books I've been meaning to read or re-read but just have never gotten around to.)

The book for this round is Johnann Wyss's The Swiss Family Robinson, which I've read but not in a while. When Daniel Defoe published The Life and Strange and Surprising Adventures of Robinson Crusoe in 1719, he didn't just write a classic, he touched off an entire genre, the robinsonades, all of which followed the same very general formula, but in hundreds of different ways. It was, one might say, the same to its day as science fiction is to ours. There's actually even an overlap -- Jules Verne loved the genre and wrote more than one robinsonade himself (L'Île mysterieuse, which is perhaps the most famous because Captain Nemo and the Nautilus make an appearance, and we actually finally get his backstory; L'École des Robinsons, which is probably his purest robinsonade; and Deux ans de vacances, in which a group of resourceful and ingenious children are the castaways; and others, of which we'll get to one before the end).

The single most successful robinsonade after the original, however, began as some stories told by a Swiss pastor, Johann David Wyss, to his children. These were eventually put together into a book, which went by the title, The Swiss Family Robinson, or the Shipwrecked Swiss Clergyman and His Family: An Educational Book for Children and the Friends of Children in City and Country, which was published in 1812. The book is actually a joint effort: the originator of the stories was Johann David Wyss, but the book as we have it was heavily edited by his son, Johann Rudolf Wyss (who, incidentally, also wrote the poem that was the Swiss national anthem prior to the 1960s). One of the book's readers was a French woman Baroness de Montolieu, who loved the book, but thought it needed a better ending, one that was not so abrupt. She encouraged Johann Rudolf Wyss to fix the problem, but Wyss declined; instead, he suggested that she do it, which she did when she translated the book from German to French. Her French edition and continuation was an instant hit. When a new German edition of the book came out, however, it reissued the original but seems to have added many of the Baroness's French additions, translating them into German. However, it seems that Johann Rudolf Wyss did eventually re-write the ending, and (I think, although by this point I am getting very confused) this is the ending we usually get -- in every language except for French, which has tended to keep Montolieu's ending. The English version that everyone read in the nineteenth century, was a translation by William Godwin (father of Mary Shelley) of the new German edition, at which point the full count of authors would be Johann David Wyss, Johann Rudolf Wyss, Isabelle de Montolieu, whoever it was who translated the Baroness's French editions into German, and then William Godwin as the English translator.

Somehow this extraordinary paternity fits the book perfectly. Johann David Wyss's great idea, to have a robinsonade about a family, and, what is more, a family in which everyone pretty much acts like real people in a family would, was a new twist, and allowed for a much richer and more varied kind of story than the lonely-castaway robinsonades did. And while other robinsonades tended to strive for realism, that's all thrown to the wind in this story, which is just about the awesomeness of an awesome family having an awesome adventure on an awesome island. The island itself is entirely impossible -- the flora and fauna of radically different climate zones are mixed together with wild abandon. The island, in fact, while it has some hardships, is also a superabundant paradise: it has everything you could possibly imagine, as if it were God's toychest. And this leads to the second element by which this story completely repudiates any possible realism. Robinson Crusoe, stuck on an island, does various things necessary for survival. The Swiss family ('Robinson', of course, is not the family name, as indeed one can gather from the lack of Swissness about it, but a reference to the genre), not at all satisfied with mere survival, use giant sea turtles to make motor boats, make porcelain dinnerware, and construct musical instruments out of materials they happen to find growing on the island. And that's part of what has made the story last: the sheer, unadulterated whimsy with which it grasps the basic idea of a robinsonade -- having to rebuild civilization from scratch -- and does with it anything that seems like it would be fun. It was the nineteenth century version of steampunk.

The edition I'll be reading is the Heritage Press (New York) edition with wood engravings and with endpapers in which the illustrator, David Gentleman, has given what he thinks a map of the island would look like. It doesn't give the translator, but, without having checked up on it, I think it's the Godwin edition. It's a bit more worn than the other Heritage Press editions I received from my grandfather; must have been read often at some point in its history.

I mentioned above another robinsonade by Jules Verne. Verne, with his usual excellent taste in good stories, loved the book, and late in life wrote a two-part sequel to The Swiss Family Robinson as part of his series of extraordinary voyages, which he called Seconde patrie. I've never actually read it -- while I enjoy Verne quite a bit, there's a lot of Verne out there, and this one is especially hard to find. It would be interesting to read it at some point, though.

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