Monday 25 May 2009

Stieg Larsson: The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo (2005)

Translated: Reg Ketland (2008)
Edition: MacLehose Press, 2008

The central character of The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, Mikael Blomkvist, is an investigative financial journalist who publishes a well-regarded magazine, Millennium. After its latest exposé of a corrupt businessman, he is sued for libel, and, abandoned by his sources, loses, leaving his career and reputation in ruins. But then he is offered a job by another well-known Swedish businessman, to spend a year writing a history of his family and their firm while really working on the mystery which has obsessed Henrik Vanger for forty years. In 1966, Vanger's great niece went missing, and he has mysteriously received a flower each anniversary of the disappearance.

Almost as important is the character who provides the title of the novel. Lisbeth Salander is in her twenties, but not permitted a full adult life by the Swedish state after her refusal to interact with the world around her as a child led to her institutionalisation as mentally deficient. Yet give her a problem which interests her, and she works obsessively on it, which combines with a photographic memory to make her a great investigator.

The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo is a gripping novel of investigation into the pastt of a fascinating but awful family, most of whom are nasty pieces of work, many of whom hate most of the others, who were heavily involved with Sweden's Nazi party, which includes drunks and hermits as well as obsessives. But it is actually the characters of Blomkvist and Salander which are the focus of the novel, and their strengths and shortcomings give a depth to it beyond that of most thrillers. It is also quite academic, as the action is mostly in the discoveries made about the past, but that doesn't stop the story being exciting. The background of the author as a financial investigative journalist similar to that of Blomkvist is clear not just from the verisimilitude of the setting, but from the style of writing, even in translation.

A few years ago, there was a short space of time during which I read several great fantasy novels. This year, it seems to be the same with literary thrillers translated from Swedish. But this novel, and its successors in the Millennium trilogy, have made it to English a great deal quicker than The Gentlemen. Cynically, this seems to me to be at least partly because the story of their production - delivered to a publisher by a respected financial journalist who died before publication - gives an added marketing hook to the novels.

This is an excellent translation of an excellent novel, and I look forward to reading the remainder of the Millennium trilogy. My rating - 9/10.

Friday 15 May 2009

Titus Maccius Plautus: The Pot of Gold and Other Plays

Contains: Aulularia (The Pot of Gold), Menaechmi (The Brothers Menaechmus), Captivi (The Prisoners), Miles gloriosus (The Swaggering Soldier), and Pseudolus
Edition: Penguin, 1965
Translated: E.F. Watling, 1965

What makes a "perfect comedy"? The German critic Gotthold Ephraim Lessing described one of the plays in this volume, Captivi (The Prisoners) as such, but it is unlikely to be an answer that would occur to many people asked this question today. Even if the field is restricted to stage comedies on the grounds that Lessing lived before the invention of moving pictures (ruling out such contenders as Some Like it Hot and Fawlty Towers), there are many plays which are funnier. Among my favourites, I might suggest Aristophanes' Frogs , Wilde's The Importance of Being Earnest, Stoppard's Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead, Orton's Loot, Frayn's Noises Off. My father would have suggested farces by Feydeau or Labiche, I'm sure.

To Lessing, of course, the word "comedy" didn't just mean an amusing drama; it was a more technical term, describing a play with particular components and attributes. But even so, Captivi is an odd choice, as Watling points out in his introduction: for example, the real world geography of the Greek setting makes it virtually impossible for the action of the play to take place in one day, a requirement applied to drama by critics of the time, based on Aristotle's ideas in the Poetics. So why choose this one? Again, Watling makes a sensible suggestion, that the real issue is that the play does not have aspects which Lessing apparently viewed as distasteful in ancient literature (and particularly in the texts which could be used to teach in schools). In particular, there's no sexual content to the play, which is very unusual in ancient comedy, the surviving examples of which usually at least include bawdy jokes. Until fairly recently, there were still versions of Aristophanes which translated passages which were particularly rude into Latin, rather than into English which could be read by the uneducated, considered to have minds corruptible by such things. Instead, Captivi is about the ties between father and son (together with the mistaken identities which occur in almost every plot used by Plautus).

And Captivi is not even the best known of the five plays in the volume. Two of the others served as the inspiration for extremely famous later comedies. Shakespeare's The Comedy of Errors is based on Menaechmi but takes the plot a step further by adding a second pair of twin brothers, increasing the potential for comic confusion at the risk of making belief in the actions on stage harder. Shakespeare may well be the greatest dramatist who ever lived, but this is an early play, and not one of his best; it has the air of an exercise rather than a drama involving characters based on human beings. On the other hand, Aulularia, the title play in this collection, inspired L'Avare by Molière, one of the greatest works by a great writer in his prime. Like Shakespeare, Molière added more to the plot, which to me suggests something of why Plautus is not as well known today as he used to be. My understanding is that these plays were produced as diversions during festivals - effectively another sideshow - so were not as long and or complex as Greek plays (which were the main attractions of the festivals they appeared were written for) or later plays which were the centrepiece of an evening's entertainment. The plays are short, one theme (almost one joke) affairs, without the subplots and subtlety we have come to expect from a full length three act drama in today's theatre. Perhaps it would be better to compare Plautus' output with one act comedies, like Shaffer's Black Comedy, but they are more like individual episodes from The Simpsons than anything produced for the stage now. Indeed, there are several parallels with the way that the animated sitcom works: plots as variations on standard themes; exaggerated everyman character; improbable events; and a happy ending.

Captivi is also not the funniest or cleverest play in this collection. The final pair here, Miles gloriosus and Pseudolus, are the best Plautus plays I have read. In both, the characters rise at least a little above the stereotypes, the jokes remain funny, and a little bit more length allows some extra complexity. These two are probably the place to start, if Shakespeare and Molière give you and interest in theirt sources of inspiration. (Not the ultimate source, because Plautus took most of his ideas from Greek originals, now mostly lost, but the closest you can get.)

The introduction to this collection states that these translations were made for use on the stage. Now, Penguin Classics translations of drama don't usually have that as their main aim; they are aimed at tthe reader, not the performer and tend to concentrate on being an accurate (if not word for word) translation of the best available edition of the original text. The Penguin Ibsen translations are obviously like this, if compared with the work of Michael Meyer or my father (among others). So, is this collection of Plautus plays an exception, or was Watling mistaken? There are certainly livelier translations of Plautus, while these are in turn livelier than some of the Penguin Classics drama that was published around the same time. I'm not so sure they would work so well on the stage; perhaps they would be good as a dramatised excerpt to liven up an academic seminar, but that isn't quite the same thing. But then I've never found Plautus as enjoyable as the more complex comedies listed at the start of this review, in any translation. There are problems with details. Some of the jokes could be better translated; there must be a better pun to describe cooks who are scoundrels than "rapscullions", for example. I'd give thee plays 6/10, and the translations, also now rather dated, 5/10.