14 October 2011

Returned to Life, Digitally: Thackeray & Bennett & Mailer & Monroe: Consider the Possibilities

When I led off Monday's Q & A with an answer referring to Thackeray, I had a moment of sadness, as I tend to do whenever he comes up. I grew up in a world in which his greatness was weighed against that of Dickens (his sole imaginable Victorian rival, we thought). True, most readers ended up preferring Dickens, but they had to think about it for a minute.

Today, if U.S. readers under 40 know Thackeray, it's likely to be solely for Vanity Fair, his only novel to have remained in print, in multiple editions, throughout their lifetimes. They may not even recognize the title of his Henry Esmond (1852), which I first knew as a mass-market paperback (from Pocket Books), then as a Modern Library hardback--both of course now long out of print. (Let me say about Esmond only that it's an historical novel that you either love or admire--freewheeling, enormously likeable; there are some readers who call it their favorite Thackeray, just as there are some for whom La chartreuse de Parme is the best Stendhal.)

At some point in the 1990s I picked up a new copy of what was already my favorite edition of Esmond, a Penguin Classics reissue of what used to be called the Penguin English Library edition (of 1970). (It has a real introduction and real notes, by John Sutherland.) Then, in no particular order, that edition and most of the rest of Thackeray went out of print, and I moved to Florida, somehow having donated most of my Thackeray. (It was just one of those things about which we say: 'It seemed to make sense at the time.')

It's not surprising that the ebook revolution of a few years ago brought onto the market, quite suddenly, a vast array of Thackeray, available for free from Project Gutenberg or in the 'aisles' of almost any ebookstore. What did surprise me was the ready availability of ebook counterparts of still unavailable print editions. Thus Sutherland's edition of Esmond is available today as an affordable Penguin ebook and looks better than ever (link for US Kindle here, or for UK iBooks here). It may never be restored to print (except in the sense that the Penguin UK website offers what I suspect is a print-on-demand edition, costing the equivalent of over US $25.00 and over three times the price of the ebook)--but the ebook is an 'easy download'. (Aren't they all?)

Let me also mention briefly that the same is true for an even more 'lost' Thackeray novel, Pendennis, as edited in 1972 by Donald Hawes with an introduction by J.I.M. Stewart, now returned to life as a Penguin ebook available in the same online stores.

What we're experiencing with ebooks is parallel to a phenomenon we already know from the digital revolution in recorded music: performances long unavailable are restored to us, sometimes even enhanced. For example, when I went shopping for Tony Bennett on vinyl in the early 1980s much of his catalogue was no longer available. By the end of this year it should all be available, digitally, and to me at least it sounds better than ever.

I continue to be surprised (wrongly, I think) by what these revolutions return to life. I discovered only yesterday that Norman Mailer's Marilyn (1973) has been released as an ebook--perhaps in anticipation of the 50th anniversary (next August) of Monroe's death. The book was a huge bestseller (outselling all of Mailer's other books except The Naked and the Dead) but has now been out of print for a few years. No new print edition is scheduled.

Although Mailer never had, for me, quite the status of my favorite authors, I followed him for most of his career. It felt at the time as if we all did. One of Mailer's greatest sins, in the eyes of his detractors, was the extent of his self-promotion; in retrospect, though, his excesses in this area don't seem to approach those of, say, 1980s singers, or certain bloggers of the present day. If his name is now less likely to be mentioned first in quick accounts of 20th-century writing on the border between reportage and fiction (New Journalism, nonfiction novel...), that may say more about the rest of us than about the value of his work. I'm only beginning to reread Mailer, and so far my experience has been mixed: The Fight I finally put down without finishing; Marilyn, which I just downloaded this morning, is more promising so far.

Norman Mailer (1923-2007) always was a 'lightning rod'. If you're looking for someone to dislike, or to dismiss, you might have to look for a long time to find a better candidate. But, if you can imagine that he might just be someone whose time is coming around again, give his prose a try in Marilyn. (And look for next year's ebook release of what may be Mailer's masterpiece: The Executioner's Song.)

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