Simply reheat and critique

- Kim. First Edition
- The Secret Garden. First Edition
- Kafka's Selected Stories. First Edition
- Three Lives and Q. E. D.. First Edition

May 25, 2007

Which books merit critical editions? The spectrum of what now counts as 20th-century literature worthy of undergraduate study can be glimpsed in these four disparate titles. But what is a critical edition for? These do two useful things well and one problematic thing perniciously.

The first role is simple and yet valuable. These texts were composed in the early 20th century and contain so much detail that has now dissolved into history or irrelevance. How many 18-year-olds know the rank of a stoker on a ship - or what an English child would call an Indian nursemaid? The mountain roads of Kim, the Yorkshire of The Secret Garden, the nightmares of Kafka and the American domestic realm of Three Lives are all locales with specific names, modes of speech, insults and references - and these aspects are illuminated.

The second role of a critical edition applies particularly to Kafka and Stein. While both were idiosyncratic modernists who remade or vandalised all narratival certainties, they did not originally festoon and fence their texts with explanatory notes. The process of elucidating the difficulties in these stories has a recognisable lineage. For difficulty in reading itself has a history; the edition includes the Boston Evening Globe review of Three Lives from 1909 with its understated comment: "The style is somewhat unusual; at times it is a little difficult to follow." Indeed.

However, there is something troubling about these editions. All four contain their own eclectic mix of contextual works from Kafka's plaintive letters to an extraordinary cartoon of Frances Hodgson Burnett. But beyond these there is a chunky substratum of critical essays, mostly dating from the past few years or newly written for these editions, which take more than half of each volume and transform it into a study pack. Perhaps this would not matter so much if the criticism included was useful - but apart from a few honourable exceptions, such as Suvir Kaul on Kipling or Vivian Liska on Kafka, too many of these attached essays combine the ponderous with the portentous.

The good intentions are palpable: to give models and modes of interpretation as well as background material. Yet there is something of the lumpy pedagogic ready meal about the whole enterprise; the texts are presented pre-critiqued, a move that both shuts down students' responses and dissuades them from searching out more relevant critical works.

A particular low point comes in Kafka's Selected Stories - itself far too selected with only 30 tales. Footnotes here do not simply explain; instead they flaunt suppositions and then shackle the text to the attached essays, for example: "Can Kafka himself now expect to be punished on his own for this omission, deserving, so to speak, to die from stabbing consciousness for what he failed to do? See also Corngold's essay." This truly brings the feeling of being stuck in a Kafkaesque confined space with a beetling know-it-all.

Nonetheless, there are pleasures to be had, mostly from the sheer mise en page clarity of these editions. The chapters of Kim, with their poetic epigraphs properly centre-justified, make such a change from the usual breathlessly packed collected works. Some of the appendices also have their uses: a glorious treasure trove of maps places Kipling on the borders of empire as well as of language.

The chronologies are sound, if they do underline the generalised mode of analysis as basically historical and contextual. However, no evaluative spark - "Why bother with this book?" - seems present anywhere in these volumes. Furthermore, the possibility of reading as an affective experience, and not what one simply has to do to produce an essay, is very far away indeed.

But pleasure and surprise are what we can still bring to these texts. I thought I loathed The Secret Garden but now found it strangely compelling and enjoyable; I even slackened in my wish for the ghastly Dickon to be savaged by an anachronistic Flymo or his pet squirrels. Even the heroine's diagnosis of psychosomatic illness is rather acute: "'You didn't feel a lump!' contradicted Mary fiercely. 'If you did it was only a hysterical lump. Hysterics make lumps. There's nothing the matter with your horrid back - nothing but hysterics!'" The hysterics of contemporary academia in the critical edition unfortunately produces rather more solid lumps.

What undergraduates actually need to study and enjoy literature is simple: the intellectual self-confidence to read properly and access to fully resourced libraries to understand context and critique. There is still value in the student as critic, however naive, over the strictures of the didactic critical edition.

Kim. First Edition

Author - Rudyard Kipling
Editor - Zohreh T. Sullivan
Publisher - W. W. Norton
Pages - 458
Price - £6.99
ISBN - 9780393966503

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