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A Smaller Island

Matthew Reynolds: David Mitchell, 10 June 2010

The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet 
by David Mitchell.
Sceptre, 469 pp., £18.99, May 2010, 978 0 340 92156 2
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... David Mitchell’s new novel is set on and around an artificial island called Dejima, constructed in the bay of Nagasaki to house representatives of the Vereenigde Oest-Indische Compagnie (Dutch East India Company), the sole official conduit for European trade with Japan during almost all of the rule of the Tokugawa Shoguns (1603-1867). Dejima is tiny: ‘two hundred paces along its outer curve … by 80 paces deep’ containing ‘some 25 roofs ...

Jamming up the Flax Machine

Matthew Reynolds: Ciaran Carson’s Dante, 8 May 2003

The ‘Inferno’ of Dante Alighieri 
a new translation by Ciaran Carson.
Granta, 296 pp., £14.99, October 2002, 1 86207 525 5
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... Throughout the 19th century, Italian critics attributed to Dante’s Commedia the formal and linguistic unity they desired for their country. It is ‘a national Bible’, de Sanctis said; ‘harmony,’ Mazzini affirmed, ‘flows throughout in full tide.’ Similar ideas flourished in Britain and Ireland, encouraged by the tendency of early translators to naturalise Dante in flattened versions of recognisable styles ...

Someone Else’s

Matthew Reynolds: Translating Cesare Pavese, 6 October 2005

Disaffections: Complete Poems 1930-50 
by Cesare Pavese, translated by Geoffrey Brock.
Carcanet, 370 pp., £14.95, April 2004, 1 85754 738 1
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The Faber Book of 20th-Century Italian Poems 
edited by Jamie McKendrick.
Faber, 167 pp., £12.99, June 2004, 0 571 19700 0
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... Does an Italian poet need translating even when he writes in English? Two of the poems in Disaffections make you wonder. Pavese addressed them to Constance Dowling, the American actress with whom he was involved in the months before his suicide in 1950, and they now frame the sequence published posthumously as Verrà la morte e avrà i tuoi occhi (‘Death Will Come and Will Have Your Eyes ...

Nicely Combed

Matthew Reynolds: Ungaretti, 4 December 2003

Selected Poems 
by Giuseppe Ungaretti, translated by Andrew Frisardi.
Carcanet, 287 pp., £14.95, April 2003, 1 85754 672 5
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... In Italy you can buy poetry T-shirts featuring lines by Dante, Leopardi and others. The Ungaretti shirt is good value: it gives you a whole work, though not a very long one. ‘Mattina’ (‘Morning’) reads in its entirety as follows: M’illumino d’immenso In books, those words are tethered to a particular location, Santa Maria la Longa, 26 January 1917; but there is a rightness about their transplantation to innumerable present-day torsos ...

Play Again?

Matthew Reynolds: Douglas Coupland’s ‘JPod’, 3 August 2006

JPod 
by Douglas Coupland.
Bloomsbury, 448 pp., £12.99, June 2006, 9780747582229
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... Douglas Coupland’s new book is both more than a novel and less. There is a JPod website where you can see the six main characters represented as Lego figurines, hear some of their favourite songs, and join in ‘pod pastimes’ – not much at present beyond selling yourself on eBay, but more is said to be ‘coming soon’. A ‘special edition’ of the novel includes a freebie Lego figurine: why not collect the whole set? Yet while the book-as-commodity expands into new media and merchandising, the book-as-fiction shrinks ...

The Taste of Peapods

Matthew Reynolds: E.L. Doctorow, 11 February 2010

Homer and Langley 
by E.L. Doctorow.
Little, Brown, 224 pp., £11.99, January 2010, 978 1 4087 0215 4
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... The American historical novelist E.L. Doctorow has spoken of the adventure of his process of composition, of the excitement of not knowing where he is going to end up. For a reader, too, the feeling of being searchingly led forward is one of the pleasures offered by his fiction. But another impression it gives is that the environment being explored comes ready structured ...

Der Jazz des Linguas

Matthew Reynolds: Diego Marani, 8 November 2012

New Finnish Grammar 
by Diego Marani, translated by Judith Landry.
Dedalus, 187 pp., £9.99, May 2011, 978 1 903517 94 9
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The Last of the Vostyachs 
by Diego Marani, translated by Judith Landry.
Dedalus, 166 pp., £9.99, May 2012, 978 1 907650 56 7
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Las Adventures des Inspector Cabillot 
by Diego Marani.
Dedalus, 138 pp., £6.99, July 2012, 978 1 907650 59 8
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... Diego Marani works in the Directorate-General for Interpretation at the European Commission, and he writes fiction full of ideas prompted by his day job. New Finnish Grammar, translated last year, is heavy with fear at what it might be like to lose language altogether. The hero is discovered in Trieste in 1943, with no words, memory or identity. He is thought (mistakenly) to be a Finn called Sampo Karjalainen, and is sent to Finland to try to recover his former self ...

So Much More Handsome

Matthew Reynolds: Don Paterson, 4 March 2004

Landing Light 
by Don Paterson.
Faber, 84 pp., £12.99, September 2003, 0 571 21993 4
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... You might expect a landing light to be bright, a herald of safe arrival, but the light Don Paterson had most in mind when naming his new collection is weaker and less sure. ‘The Landing’ (one of two poems echoing the title) locates its protagonist halfway up the stairs, between the ‘complex upper light’ and ‘the darker flight/that fell back to the dead ...

Can we conceive of Beatrice ‘snapping’ like a shrew?

Helen Vendler: How not to do Dante, 1 September 2005

Dante in English 
edited by Eric Griffiths and Matthew Reynolds.
Penguin, 479 pp., £16.99, May 2005, 0 14 042388 5
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... their titles suggest. (An outline of Dante’s life is provided separately in a short essay by Matthew Reynolds, Griffiths’s co-editor.) A reader will come away from Griffiths’s piece having heard a good deal about Dante’s works and the world from which they issued. But the manner of the introduction is so peculiar that its information is less ...

Most Himself

Matthew Reynolds: Dryden, 19 July 2007

The Poems of John Dryden: Vol. V 1697-1700 
edited by Paul Hammond and David Hopkins.
Longman, 707 pp., £113.99, July 2005, 0 582 49214 9
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Dryden: Selected Poems 
edited by Paul Hammond and David Hopkins.
Longman, 856 pp., £19.99, February 2007, 978 1 4058 3545 9
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... Of all the great English poets, Dryden must be the least enjoyed. Once honoured ‘rather in the stiffness than in the strength of his eminence’, he was soon ‘laid carefully away among the heroes’, according to Mark Van Doren, the critic who is still, nearly a century on, the most persuasive of his would-be resurrectors. The same melancholy afflicts his most authoritative modern biographer, James Anderson Winn: ‘Any candid teacher of English literature must admit that many students find little pleasure or stimulation in those few selections from Dryden we now ask them to read ...

His and Hers

Matthew Reynolds: Robert Browning, 9 October 2008

The Poems of Robert Browning. Vol. III: 1847-61 
edited by John Woolford, Daniel Karlin and Joseph Phelan.
Longman, 753 pp., £100, November 2007, 978 0 582 08453 7
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... Browning’s contemporaries agreed he was a genius, but they were not all sure he was a poet. Wilde’s quip – ‘Meredith is a prose Browning, and so is Browning’ – expresses a view shared by admirers such as George Eliot and Henry James, doubters like Carlyle and Hopkins, and a chorus of others. But the history of poetry is a history of revolutions in what counts as poetry ...

Beastliness

John Mullan: Eric Griffiths, 23 May 2019

If Not Critical 
by Eric Griffiths, edited by Freya Johnston.
Oxford, 248 pp., £25, March 2018, 978 0 19 880529 8
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The Printed Voice of Victorian Poetry 
by Eric Griffiths.
Oxford, 351 pp., £55, July 2018, 978 0 19 882701 6
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... duties – Griffiths published only a monograph about Victorian poetry and, in collaboration with Matthew Reynolds, an anthology of English translations of Dante. This was not an output to impress today’s REF bureaucrats. His thinking, and his efforts to describe the intricate working of literary texts, was largely contained in his lectures. Now Freya ...

Cultivating Cultivation

John Mullan: English culture, 18 June 1998

The Pleasures of the Imagination: English Culture in the 18th Century 
by John Brewer.
HarperCollins, 448 pp., £19.99, January 1997, 0 00 255537 9
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... in letters, puts alongside one another the reports of the splenetic but good-hearted hypochondriac Matthew Bramble, seeing wherever he looks in Georgian London the flotsam of ‘a tide of luxury’, and of his niece Lydia Melford, a frothy but virtuous ingénue who discovers, instead, ‘wealth and grandeur’ comparable only to ‘the Arabian Night’s ...

Eminent Athenians

Hugh Lloyd-Jones, 1 October 1981

The Greek Heritage in Victorian Britain 
by Frank Turner.
Yale, 461 pp., £18.90, April 1981, 0 300 02480 0
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... in London where Elderess Polly, Elderess Antoinette and other Nonconformist orators dear to Matthew Arnold used to edify the public. But where Mr Jenkyns is trivial, superficial and patronising, Professor Turner is serious, thorough and understanding. He is extremely well-informed, and, where necessary, well able to take account of Continental ...

Saucy to Princes

Gerald Hammond: The Bible, 25 July 2002

The Book: A History of the Bible 
by Christopher de Hamel.
Phaidon, 352 pp., £24.95, September 2001, 0 7148 3774 1
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The Wycliffe New Testament 1388 
edited by W.R. Cooper.
British Library, 528 pp., £20, May 2002, 0 7123 4728 3
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... and so on, the roll call of largely Protestant translators stretching down the page: Saint Matthew in Benga (spoken on the island of Corisco, West Africa), translated by G. McQueen of the American Presbyterian Mission, New York, 1861; the Gospels in Ewe (spoken in Togoland and Dahomey, West Africa), translated by B. Schlegel of the Bremen Bible ...

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