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Literature and Censorship? Never the Twain should meet…

January 7th, 2011 by Peter

The great American writer Mark Twain said once that “the difference between the almost right word and the right word is really a large matter”. Here was a man who understood the power of word usage, it’s something in the craft of the writer that they know the importance of words. Hemingway drafted and redrafted the last sentence to A Farewell to Arms over forty times, why? Because he recognised the power of getting words right.

It has been in the news today that a new edition of The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn and Tom Sawyer has been censored. Nowhere on the cover of the book does it say that you are purchasing a censored edition, it’s more than possible that people will buy this book and not even realise that they’re reading something that is not only heavily censored but that would also be directly against the wishes of the author. How can I speak for Mark Twain, you ask? I don’t need to, though anyone who has written will know that they want their original story to remain, Mark Twain had words on the matter himself and they were not pleasant. When a mistake was made in the printing of A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court he said of the typesetter “I telegraphed orders to have him shot without giving him time to pray”. Those are not the words of a man who would later want his work to be heavily changed in an act of cringe-worthy literary vandalism.

The words nigger and injun have been removed from the texts and replaced with slave and Indian. How can this be? The word nigger appears 219 times in Huck Finn because a major theme of the book is racism, if you remove that word then you strip the book of its power. It’s an absurd attempt to white wash out of history something that people should know.  If you find the word so offensive that you can’t read the book then here is a solution – don’t read the book. It really is that simple. Don’t change it, don’t mess with what someone created and don’t try and whitewash history so it doesn’t look so ghastly. The book is portraying history and real social attitudes and when it comes to history what we do not remember we are doomed to relive. If society finds Huckleberry Finn so offensive then it’s a sad indictment upon our insistence on political correctness and the desire to live in our comfort zones; if society finds the book offensive that shows all the more why we need it in it’s raw and undiluted form. It is offensive because parts of history are offensive and because racism is offensive and I don’t think we as a society should forget that.

The word does jar me and it’s certainly not a word I would use. I am taken aback a bit everytime I read it; it crops up a lot in old books in much the same way that anti-semitism does. It makes me stop and think, especially when it’s an author I love. I think about why they’re using the word and what the social attitudes were at the time. I think about what is says about society a hundred years ago and what it says about society now. I think about how far we have come from the time that those books were written in the same way that hearing it in a hip-hop song makes me think about how far we have still to go. The word stings; the word should sting.

As a child I would read children’s versions of classics but they were never marketed as the real deal. They were an introduction aimed at readers not yet old enough to read the length or language of the real deal. I loved those books. I think such books are a great way of introducing young readers to classic texts and hopefully encouraging them to read the real thing as they grow, but censoring words to protect modern sensibilities is an entirely different matter. This is not simplifying a text to be read by a younger audience, it’s changing a text to try and hide the truth of history.

What gives anyone the write to change someone’s work in this way? Surely the final copy of an author’s work is sacrosanct? You have the right not to read what offends you, if you’re a parent you have the responsibility not to let your child read what you think is bad for them, but who has the right to change and publish in this way? The author crafts what they want their novel to be, they choose their words carefully and they do so for good reasons and while the reader has a right to decide whether they read those words or not surely that does not give any person to change the work and publish it as though it were the original. We have the freedom to choose whether we read a person’s work but that does not give us the freedom to change it.

I’m firmly of the opinion that to censor literature in this way is a negative thing. What are your opinions on the matter?


NYTimes Books: Light Out, Huck, They Still Want to Sivilize You

NYTimes debate: Do Word Changes Alter ‘Huckleberry Finn’?


December 17th, 2010 by Peter

This book should be read by pretty much everyone. Not only one of the most enjoyable novels I have ever read but also one of the most beautifully written; chapter four is a vivid description of the city of Kiev in 1918 that is at times poetic and lyrical and yet entirely immersive as a piece of descriptive writing – it takes you there in a way very few writers ever can. It’s definitely worth a trip to your bookstore.

Happy Birthday, Sir Pelham…

October 15th, 2010 by Peter

I have somehow allowed it to get to almost midnight without posting in celebration of the greatest comic writer ever born. (Yes, even greater than Dan Brown. Sir Pelham actually intended to be funny.) Sir Pelham Grenville Wodehouse was born on this day in 1881. If you’ve not read his books then you’re missing out on one of the finest delights in the English language. His stories of upper class England offer fine comedy, complicated plots, memorable characters and perhaps the world’s most famous valet. I can think of no other author whose works have brought me such untainted enjoyment and fun as P.G; his cast of blundering twits, wealthy Lords, intimidating aunts and a variety of fiancées, never cease to entertain. One should also note that he was, for some time, the scorer at that most august of institutions The Hollywood Cricket Club.

If I could advise on one book to read just to delight in fine humour and beautiful use of the English language it would be Thank You, Jeeves, or to break away from the more famous Wodehouse characters there is the highly entertaining Big Money. The ability to write books that delight and offer such a pleasurable escape from the stresses and pressures of everyday life set P.G Wodehouse as a class apart.

J.G Farrell…

May 23rd, 2010 by Peter

It’s sometimes asked of writers – or aspiring writers – who they most admire as a writer or whose style they particularly like. I’ve thought about this from time to time and one writer who I personally find amazingly adept and skillful was J.G Farrell. He has appeared once more in the newsprint of the literary press this past month both for the publication of his letters and for winning the Lost Booker Prize with Troubles. (This was awarded due to a change in the qualification requirements creating an effective gap of one year, 1970, where books were not judged for the prize.)

I am a relative newcomer to Farrell having first read him last year when I found a rather lovely edition of The Siege of Krishnapur, itself also a Booker prize winner in 1973. The amazing thing about Farrell is the way he could meld so many elements together in his work; one moment you are aghast at the events in the siege ridden town and the next you’re laughing at the humour of another situation, one moment you despair at the events and the next you marvel at them. It strikes me that in his style Farrell captures life itself. Life is never all exciting nor all boring, it is never all happy nor all sad, all serious nor all funny; life is a mixture of many emotions and it is here that both the human condition and Farrell’s writing triumph. People can, in the most awful of situations, find solace in humour. It’s the final triumph over adversity when you can laugh at it. In Farrell’s work we see both the serious and the funny; we fear for the life of the collector at the same time as laughing at some other turn of events in the besieged residence. We see violence and love, fear and hope. It’s the skillful ability to apply to all ends of the spectrum the same adept skill with words.

In the Empire trilogy we are given a picture of the decline of empire that neither entirely condemns nor venerates; it observes both sides and it sees the idiosyncrasies of many of the circumstances thrown up by empire. He can make it so apparent that it is all a question of viewpoint and have the reader hoping for one resolution while at the same time understanding why others would hope for a different one. He brings wit, balance and great word skill to a defining era in our history and I hope that the publicity generated by the Lost Booker Prize will make many more people discover his work.

Pushkin: With him, we dream.

March 13th, 2010 by Peter

Pushkin. I’d heard of him, of course. You can’t read about Russia without knowing of Pushkin. He seems to bestride their cultural self image like a colossus, the father of Russian literature and their greatest poet. I hadn’t, however, actually read him; it strikes me that in the west he’s somewhat overshadowed by the reputation of Tolstoy and Dostoevsky. I knew that he had penned that novel in verse that I had always meant to read and yet never quite did. Then it was that tragic time last winter when Borders was closing down. Prices crashing, the forgotten corner of a dusty shelf, the copy of The Complete Prose Tales crying out for a home. I think it is clear where this is going.

I was surprised to find that Pushkin proved to be one of the easiest reads I’ve had in a long time. His prose is lucid and brilliant and his plots keep the pages turning. There is something smooth and seemingly effortless about the way he writes and it just takes you there. There are some words Jacques Chirac said at Alexandre Dumas’ internment; “With you, we were D’Artagnan, Monte Cristo or Balsamo, riding along the roads of France, touring battlefields, visiting palaces and castles — with you, we dream.” It is the same with Pushkin only with him we are Dubrovsky, Ibrahim, Grinyov, riding through Russia, besieged in fortresses and dining with royalty — with him, we dream.

What adds to the mystery and romance of Pushkin is his own life story. Great-grandson of Peter the Great’s African Major General, Abram Gannibal, Pushkin’s brief life saw him exiled for his political radicalism before later returning to St. Petersburg where he died in a duel at the age of thirty-seven, defending his wife’s honour. When you read of his heroes defending their honour you know that he did so himself to the point of his own life. Upon hearing of his death a friend who was away at that time is said to have written to others asking:  “How could you let this happen? If I had been there I would have thrown myself in front of the bullet.” Would that the friend had been there, it’s hard to imagine what Pushkin could have achieved with so much of life still ahead of him. Reading this book you enjoy what is there but are left with a sense of wonderment at the fact that this, while brilliant, is a poet just finding his way with prose. What would he have done with more time?

At times in this collection you come across the sentence “(Pushkin never finished this story.)” Many of these are from several years before his death so it is possible that he had either abandoned them entirely or was going to return to them later. It’s sad that some brilliant stories such as Dubrovsky and The Moor of Peter the Great were unfinished, they give you a taste of brilliance and you want more.

I was left with the paradoxical feeling of wishing that someone would finish them and the feeling that no one else really could. I get to thinking that perhaps they should take Pushkin’s pen and set it in the base of his statue like a latter day excalibur. Whenever a writer was in Saint Petersburg they would pass the statue and try to withdraw the pen. Eventually some young fellow, seemingly too inexperienced, would approach the statue and grasp the quill and out it would slide and to him would fall the task of completing what Pushkin started.

Then I realise that life is not a historical romance. C’est la vie, we shall simply never know.


The Complete Prose Tales by Alexandr Pushkin is published by Vintage Classics.

Stevenson’s Inspiration?

February 19th, 2010 by Peter

Stranger than fiction: the true story behind Kidnapped

A very interesting piece in the Guardian today about the true story that is, according to a new book, the inspiration behind Kidnapped and several other novels. I have often wondered where the inspiration for some of the works of great writers comes from and how they draw on elements of real life in their narratives. The true story is quite something, though the ending – like many true things – seemed to lack the justice we’d have liked to see for the protagonist. While he won his case in the courts it was post mortem and he didn’t benefit.  I can see the similarities between this and Kidnapped but I think it must be one of many things that joined together to form inspiration as the Appin murder is also a large part of the plot.

On another note, the story also reminds me in some ways of Son of Fury, a 1942 film starring Tyrone Power and the quite wonderful Gene Tierney. The question is was the film influenced by one of the novels or directly by the true story? It’s interesting to see how entirely different stories (such as Kidnapped and Son of Fury) can both use recognisable elements from one real story. I guess that is a testament to the variety of artistic endeavour that two very different stories can share the same root.

Huntingtower by John Buchan

December 31st, 2009 by Peter

Huntingtower by John Buchan“Civilization is a conspiracy,” said John Buchan. “Modern life is the silent compact of comfortable folk to keep up pretences.” This statement could be applied to many of his novels in which characters who are ordinary and human are drawn from their pretences into all kinds of adventure. He gave us characters like Richard Hannay, the Scots mining engineer, and Edward Leithen, the barrister and MP. Less well known, however, is Dickson McCunn, the protagonist from his 1922 novel Huntingtower. Dickson is everything you least expect of a hero in an adventure story: he is fifty-five years old and a recently retired grocer. He is the logical antithesis of the James Bond type of hero and, while successful, is drawn very much from the ranks of the common man. He is dependable, not flashy.

Huntingtower is a rip-roaring adventure story that reads with all the fun and enjoyment that, as a child, could be derived from Enid Blyton. (Actually I saw a lady reading the famous five a little while back in the park – it seems the enjoyment does not diminish with age!) It tells of Dickson McCunn going for a walking holiday and soon finding himself up to his ears in adventure; the story is centred around a Russian Princess who, having escaped the revolution, is being held against her will in the house of the title. As with stories such as The thirty-nine steps there is a back drop of historical relevancy and it very much reflects attitudes and thoughts of the time. What makes Huntingtower different is the light hearted and amusing touches throughout. Helping with this are a group of street urchins from Glasgow called the Gorbals Die-Hards who are camping near-by and turn out to have a spirit at once adventurous and militant. Their exploits are constantly referenced, by the narrator, in comparison to those of great figures from history and the show resourcefulness and hardy courage whenever called upon; while Dickson is the central figure and the narrator is telling his story the Gorbals Die-Hards could arguably be said to steal the show.

I really enjoyed this book and think that it shows Buchan on top-form throughout. It’s not about deep emotional insights, it’s just a good fun read. There were some characters who speak mainly in the Scots’ dialect but it’s usually understandable (just!) and where it isn’t there is a glossary of terms at the back. The story combines light hearted romanticism and adventure with some allusions to the failings and evils of the new social order emerging in Russia at the time. What I find most endearing about Buchan’s work is the way he can write so well – his descriptions of places are particularly excellent – but keep it entertaining and enjoyable throughout and, for me, this is up there with the best of his books.

The Real Genius of P.G Wodehouse

July 28th, 2009 by Peter

Guardian Books | Earliest Wodehouse Satires Discovered

I’m a huge fan of the work of P.G. Wodehouse, a man who was surely one of the finest comic writers of any era. His splendid gifts for metaphor, simile and classically British understatement were paired up with an ability to create characters that are so vivid that they have in many cases passed into the public conscience even amongst those who do not read. Four new playlets written by Wodehouse a century ago have came to light and were read by the Wodehouse Appreciation Society for the first time at the weekend. It’s fascinating when unknown works of any writer come to the surface but what has intrigued me is the way that reports, such as that in The Observer, have dwelt on the fact that the new found writing is political satire.

Wodehouse may not have openly expressed partisan political views in the main body of his work but a look at books such as Psmith, Journalist shows that as well as being very funny he was also extremely socially aware. It has, unfortunately, been another opportunity for some people to drag up the sinister accusations of Nazi-sympathies. This galls me, there was a witch-hunt at the time, which one commentator has described as including ‘the most vituperative vilification of one man ever heard on the BBC’, he was denounced in the House of Commons by Anthony Eden and public libraries refused to buy any more of his books.

However, if you read the broadcasts properly you see that they’re his usual light hearted, highly amusing self. Yes, he doesn’t scream and shout and cry, but which Wodehouse character ever did? He becomes the ultimate embodiment of his characters and dismisses circumstances with an air of naivete and a shrug. In much the same way that a chap at the drones might be understated about their latest engagement, Wodehouse is understated about being taken from his home and sent to Poland. It’s a wonderful example of cheery British morale in the face of a bad situation.

“There is a good deal to be said for internment. It keeps you out of the saloons and gives you time to catch up with your reading… The chief drawback is that it means your being away from home… I feel that when I rejoin my wife, I had better take along a letter of introduction, just to be on the safe side.”

“The soldier who escorted me was unfortunately not one of those leisurely souls who believe in taking time over one’s packing. My idea had been to have a cold bath and a change and a bite to cat, and then to light a pipe and sit down and muse for a while, making notes of what to take with me and what could be left behind. His seemed to be that five minutes was ample. Eventually we compromised on ten.”

It carries on in such light hearted manner, exhibiting what would seem to me to be the kind of British “dash it chaps, those blighters bombing our house was a bit inconvenient, what?” type of blitz spirit that was so valued in those bombed at home. I understand that the Nazis were trying to manipulate him for propoganda but I think in his own way he was manipulating them. His first broadcast in particular is honest about the bad conditions, though written in a way that would imply it was not so bad after all. In that way I’m sure the Germans thought they’d gotten what they wanted, however, looked at in hindsight we have a clever old man telling it the way he always had.

Surely it’s time we can forget such accusations and instead marvel at the fact that he managed to keep his head, as Kipling would say, while all about him were losing theirs.

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