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Holiday 1996 / BOOK CITY

Giving the Greats

December 08, 1996|David Denby | David Denby's "Great Books" was recently published by Simon and Schuster. He is the film critic for New York Magazine

Some 40 years ago, the great literary critic Edmund Wilson began promoting a good, though rather austere, idea for a series of books. Many of the American literary classics were out of print, or available only in scattered paperback editions, or in elephantine scholarly editions with paragraphs of pedantic notes pushing a few lines of text up to the top of the page. What Wilson had in mind was more like the wonderful French "Pleiade" editions, compact and readerly volumes, with the texts printed on lightweight but durable (i.e., acid-free and non-yellowing) pages. Wilson traveled quite a bit, and in my fancy he wanted ideal books for an ideal train journey, a long eventless ramble through interesting (but not too interesting) country, with the perfect serious volume in hand for reading at the window.

Wilson died (in 1970) before his project was realized, but in 1982, the Library of America was born with volumes of Melville, Hawthorne and Whitman. The somber black-jacketed uniform volumes, with their thin paper and generous margins, come very close to Wilson's ideal, and the series has since flourished, offering a total of 90 books devoted to Twain, Henry James, Flannery O'Connor, Willa Cather, Frederick Douglass, Raymond Chandler, Richard Wright, the work of historians, the memoirs of Grant and Sherman, and much else.

Of all the handsome books I've seen for this year's Christmas season, perhaps the most brilliant and satisfying are the three Library of America volumes devoted to the American work of Vladimir Nabokov, the Russian expatriate who arrived here in 1940, and who produced, in English, eight novels and an autobiography. His most famous work, "Lolita," a hilarious and disturbing account of a middle-aged intellectual's passion for a banal 12-year-old American nymphet, is here unsheathed like a gleaming dagger--no amount of canonization can dull its audacities. The novel is accompanied, in a single volume, by "Pnin," Nabokov's portrait (self-portrait?) of a bumbling Russian emigre teaching at an American university, and by "Pale Fire," and the elaborate screenplay that Nabokov wrote for Stanley Kubrick's 1962 film version of "Lolita" (Kubrick wound up throwing out most of Nabokov's work).

No one can be surprised that Nabokov has entered what John Updike has called, with obviously longing tones, "textual paradise." Perhaps a more startling choice for the Library of America is the longtime New Yorker humorist James Thurber, who has been given a full volume devoted to his comic pieces and wonderful line drawings. Garrison Keillor made the selections with an eye to variety and comprehensiveness. The book, I think, is a triumph, especially the line drawings, which impress themselves with stentorian clarity on the LOA's thin and tender (but age-proof) pages.

Any of these volumes feels good in the hand. The books are the right Wilsonian weight and size, not too large, not too heavy, and there's another element to their appeal, of course--why not admit it? Snobbery is an element in one's pleasure in reading any beautifully bound and printed book. One sees oneself reading and approves of oneself reading. Yet this is not, in the end, an issue much worth worrying about. Anything that draws us into the arms of literature is something to praise.

The new Simon & Schuster editions of classic short novels kicks off with Henry James' Washington Square and Kate Chopin's The Awakening, and each is accompanied by an extraordinary selection of period photographs illustrating the general milieu of the novel. In the James volume, for instance, it is fascinating to see the extraordinary weight of the 19th-century Manhattan decor, the thickness and elaborateness of the clothes that must have regulated and formalized the movements of the domineering Dr. Sloper and his unfortunate daughter Catherine, the heiress so cruelly jilted by a fortune-hunting young man. A new Grove press edition of Ivan Turgenev's short novel, Torrents of Spring has lovely brown-tinted ink drawings in elongated, almost caricature style--a sort of Russian Victorianism.

"Torrents of Spring" arrives without a word of introduction or a single note, but it's a novel that can stand on its own. From the Free Press, we get The Landmark Thucydides, a magnificent edition of the great historian's "The Peloponnesian War," complete with maps, index, short essays on Athenian history and military lore, and throughout it all, the text itself, clearly presented. Scholarship, of course, has its uses, and the unaffiliated (i.e., non-university) scholar Robert B. Strassler, clearly performing a labor of love, has made it possible to follow the disastrous conflict between Athens and Sparta with a greater intensity than ever before.

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