Thursday, January 22, 2009
From the Shelves of the Paco Library
The Hesperus Press is a unique publisher that specializes in reintroducing short stories and novellas that, for the most part, have been unavailable for many years. The authors in the series are well-known (too many to list here, but they include Jonathan Swift, Alexander Pope, Jules Verne, Mark Twain, and Charles Dickens, to name but a few); however, for whatever reason, the little gems published by Hesperus have fallen by the wayside. The company has published something like a hundred books, so far; I have acquired a handful, and they are a pleasure to read and to hold (they are high-quality soft-cover books, generally not running to more than a hundred pages, and feature eye-catching cover designs). The books include not only fiction, but the occasional historical piece (e.g., Lorenzino de’Medici’s Apology for a Murder, the author’s defense of his assassination of his cousin, Alessandro De’Medici, Duke of Florence, in 1537). All of the books feature highly instructive, well-written introductions.
The following two books are among my favorites.
In 1924, Russian author Mikhail Bulgakov published The Fatal Eggs. It is a tale of an experiment gone horribly wrong, the fatal eggs of the title giving rise to a swarm of giant serpents. The story is a singular mix of horror and understated humor, and is also a sly satire of communist social engineering. One of the most striking episodes in the book is the scene in which one Alexander Semyonovitch Faight (who has midwifed the disaster through incompetent meddling) is on his way down to the pond for a swim, carrying a towel and his flute. On his way, he notices something stirring in the brambles. The “something” ultimately turns out to be a monstrous snake, that rises out of the weeds to the height “of a Moscow power pole”, its eyes gleaming with fathomless malevolence. Faight, paralyzed with fear, vaguely remembers something about the Indian fakirs and their snake-charming skills, takes out his flute, and begins frantically playing the waltz from Eugene Onegin. It is not, however, his music that saves him, but the sudden appearance of his wife, who had been following Faight down the path. The snake immediately sweeps in her direction and devours her (in a scene that is particularly grisly). Interestingly, the world is finally saved by a cold snap, which kills off the mutant reptiles (take that, Al Gore!).
Jonathan Swift’s Directions to Servants is a satirical “handbook” that ostensibly seeks to teach domestic workers the road to success; although “success”, in this context, tends to mean something considerably different from the ideal that the master might have contemplated. As Colm Tóibín points out in his excellent forward, “…Directions to Servants reads as a central document in the long, comic and sly history of Irish disrespect which includes Sterne and Sheridan and Wilde, Joyce and Beckett and Flann O’Brien.”
Here is a sample, from the first chapter, “Directions to Servants in General”:
“It often happens that servants sent on messages, are apt to stay out somewhat longer than the message requires, perhaps two, four, six, or eight hours, or some such trifle; for the temptation to be sure was great, and flesh and blood cannot always resist. When you return, the master storms, the lady scolds, stripping, cudgeling and turning off is the word. But here you ought to be provided with a set of excuses, enough to serve on all occasions: for instance, your uncle came fourscore miles to town this morning, on purpose to see you, and goes back by break of day tomorrow…you were taking leave of a dear cousin who is to be hanged next Saturday…some nastiness was thrown on you out of a garret window, and you were ashamed to come home before you were cleaned and the smell went off…”
The other chapters cover specific advice to holders of all the various offices that characterized the domestic infrastructure of the well-off 18th century householder: butler, groom, chamber maid, coachman, and so on. Particularly interesting is this parting counsel to the footman:
“To grow old in the office of a footman is the highest of all indignities, therefore, when you find years coming on, without hopes of a place at Court, a command in the army, a succession to the stewardship, an employment in the Revenue (which two last you cannot obtain without reading and writing), or running away with your master’s niece or daughter, I directly advise you to go upon the road [i.e., turn highwayman], which is the only post of honour left you. There you will meet many of your old comrades, and live a short life and a merry one, and make a figure at your exit…”
Hesperus has done a signal service in rescuing these works from obscurity, and they represent a delightful opportunity to explore some of literature’s out-of-the-way, but highly enjoyable, stories and essays.