Grouped by Spring 2014, Books and writers, and Medium read

Not Reading Ivanhoe

“A nine year old cannot read the stories of the past,” says writer and educator Alessandro Baricco.  Classic novels are too complex for modern children and the prose too hard – but why should children be fobbed off with second best? And so he hit upon the simple but revolutionary idea of asking today’s best writers to re-work the world’s classic stories for children.

However often the parent wrenches the iPad from the hands of the media-savvy infant, he or she cannot force them to read.  Not if they resist as successfully as we used to.  I still have my childhood copies of Treasure Island and Lorna Dooneand Ivanhoe – some unexamined beyond page 5 for donkey’s years. Ivanhoe still awaits my attention, and I was a bookish child.  But being read to is a different matter – in bed, the child tyrant is indefatigable.  And these books are perfect for reading out loud.

Baricco – an eloquent and colourful figure in electric blue sweatshirt and red sneakers – explained the cunning rules of his Saving the Story project to a London audience earlier this year.  The series, gorgeously illustrated in hard back, was launched in English by the Pushkin Press in 2013.  These are not adaptations or bowdlerisations, but a complete re-telling.

Firstly, Baricco said, each author was to tell the story in his or her own voice, choosing just what he or she liked in it.  Secondly the books had to be a precise length of ten thousand words maximum – each chapter divided into five-minute segments.  Something in the story had to come to an end as the chapter did, so the moment of closing the book became pleasurable rather than the cause of strife.  A father of two sons himself, Baricco had in mind the tired father – who in our house read himself to unconsciousness long before the listening child succumbed.  Thus, when the wide-eyed infant pleads for just one more page, the exhausted parent can generously offer to read another whole chapter, safe in the knowledge that the restorative gin and tonic is only five minutes away.

Alessandro Baricco is a successful novelist and theatre and film director (hisNovecento also became a notable movie) and additionally the founder of an unusual creative writing school in Turin , the wittily named Scuola Holden, after Holden Caulfield.  Even the website is a little creative masterpiece.  The teachers are international and themselves practising creatives; the school produces storytellers across every discipline and all media and has now expanded to take 150 international students for its two-year course.  Six colleges teach writing, film, acting, cross-media and what he calls ‘real world storytelling’ – that alone surely worth a trip to Turin.  It must have been in this fertile environment that Baricco came to realise that the young generation no longer possesses even the faintest collective consciousness of the great stories; they have been crowded out by the everyday multi-media assault.  He saw it as his “mission” to plant an awareness of such stories in the minds of children.  And he saw how to achieve his objectives.

“We chose difficult books”, he said: the mythical and archetypical stories that dominate the adult mental landscape.  The play/opera Don Giovanni – which some might think not suitable for children – became his Story of Don Juan.  The book describes itself as ‘The crazy life and valiant death of a man who loved women too much to desire only one’.  The text explains earlier versions of the story, and also what happened to the characters afterwards: ‘Leporello would pick up his former master’s catalogue of women and read the names, slowly, as if they were the names of distant lands where it would be wonderful to travel.’ The illustrations by Alessandro Maria Nacar are evocative, sinister and gorgeous. The translation by award-winning Ann Goldstein is a delight.

Above all, Baricco’s Don Juan is a great read – it never talks down or pulls its punches, but tells the story straight with truth and humour, leading to the moment when the fires of hell rise to consume the unrepentant seducer – the part children will no doubt enjoy most.  For children, as Jonathan Coe later told us, “are not afraid at all.”  Alas, we must remain afraid for them, exposed as they are to war, pornography, brutality, cruelty and sexism every day in the news, on television, and particularly online.  But the world’s great stories – while never shying away from cruelty and oppression – entertain and teach us in a way that is human, and understandable, and opens the mind.  They tell us how to live, or in the case of Don Juan, how not to; because they are so powerful, they linger in the mind.

This isn’t just about the children. The tired father is going to love reading this – no doubt accompanied by his own internal musings concerning Donn’Anna, Donna Elvira, and Don Juan’s other conquests.  The series is a handy crib of the great stories we adults pretend to know or haven’t quite got around to reading yet. Ali Smith has written The Story of Antigone, AB Yehoshua Crime and Punishment and Yiyun Li The story of Gilgamesh and so on (full list below).

Baricco had another good, simple rule when it came to writers: choose the ones you love.  “Choose by pleasure, desire,” he said, as a disciple of Don Juan must.  He mostly chose writers who had never written for children before, thus guaranteeing an interesting outcome.  Though he tried to fit the writer to the subject this didn’t always work – except for three cases, the writers always wanted to choose the subject themselves.

Jonathan Coe explained how how he came to take on Gulliver: offered a list of possible stories ‘I bagged it’.  One entirely sees why the author of such satirical state-of-the nation novels as The Rotters’ Club and What a Carve Up! chose multiply-shipwrecked Gulliver as his subject, indeed called it the ‘dream commission’.  Satirist meets satirist.  And Swift challenges a writer whose natural bent is (or was) a much more complex style, mixing jokes and seriousness, realism and surrealism, driving his plot forward through coincidences and comic cruelties in order to lampoon cruelty and greed.   But Coe’s main interest was lucidity, he said.  He welcomed the rules as liberating – limitations improved the work.  In his books, he wanted to make language transparent, and for Gulliver he had had to make it as lucid as possible, because the ideas were so challenging.  And he was thrilled to spend a month or two immersed in a text and to distil its essence was a great exercise.

It’s not easy holding one’s own against a quick-witted lateral thinker like Baricco, with charming interpreter to hand, but Coe treated us to a masterful display of British understatement.  He was self-deprecatory to the point of absurdity.  Asked which novel of his he would choose to re-write in this way Coe replied that he hadn’t written anything with a central narrative strong enough to distil down, and in his case “one tenth of a novel wouldn’t amount to much”.  What did he hope his daughters’ response would be? ‘“Dad, you don’t write as well as Swift. “ He also confided that when he read his drafts to his daughter, she was fast asleep by the end of each chapter  – leading his famously acerbic friend Jim Crace to suggest he was going to have to claim this as ‘homage’ to his narcolepsy/insomnia novel, House of Sleep.

Despite, or because of his expertise in self-disparagement, Coe’s Gulliver is a very clear and readable account, which Sara Oddi illustrates with verve and fun – we see Gulliver peeing to put out the Lilliputian fire, for instance, to the subsequent annoyance of the diminutive royals.  Gulliver remains faithful to the spirit of the original, which was what Coe wanted.  “I learnt it’s difficult to write anything complex, ambiguous and challenging while being lucid,” Coe said, and the exercise taught him that “you can’t use complicated prose or try being clever because Swift didn’t.”

He wanted to render the story “to form a difficult question in the mind of the child” and he did.  My – very minor – quibble is that that question has been inserted into the afterword about Jonathan Swift: ‘Are human beings good, or evil?’  And – worse – ‘He wrote it to make people think’ – those naughty writers, what else might they be sneaking into the mix? I wonder if the child listener really needs to be spoon-fed the questions that the mind automatically supplies.  The merest whiff of a didactic urge turns children off – its absence is what makes these powerful stories so readable and memorable.

As Baricco put it, we all have a rendezvous with these stories at some time in our life and perhaps the writers lucky enough to participate in this project are reaping a further benefit.  Learning to distil the essence and write simply in few words is not easy at all, and so the task becomes a writing class.  All writers learn, and develop, and the ones writing these modern classics are being taught by the very best.  Coe told us that he has subsequently been inspired to write a children’s book himself.  Clearly he is mellowing, perhaps with some input from those sleepy daughters.  It will be most interesting to see how his children’s book turns out.

The illustrators for this series, rather wonderfully dissed by Baricco as being ‘chosen by a 26-year-old illustrator at the school’ (hire that girl, somebody) are young too, uniformly good and some excel.  Their illustrations were road-tested on various children, nephews and nieces.  The illustrators well understood the remit to aid the imagination by not being too literal.  The books have lots of beautiful white space and handsome typefaces and just make you pick them up; the series has sold to 14 countries so far.

The Pushkin Press website says its remit is ‘to publish the world’s best stories, to be read and read again’.  Publisher Adam Freudenheim (formerly of Penguin Classics) is American in origin but European in thinking, and clearly loves the beautifully made book. Noted for the rediscovery of Hans Fallada, he has also re-issued Stefan Zweig in de luxe editions.  Pushkin hardbacks are reminiscent of Knopf in their love of design, intelligent typography and good paper.

Freudenheim told me why he thought Saving the Story worked so very well.  They were “stories for adults rewritten by adult writers for children – and this is very unusual.”  They have clarity and force and wit, and they do not talk down. I bought three and now regret leaving the others; I shall just have to go back.

Saving the Story series :

The Story of Antigone, Ali Smith, Pushkin Press, London, 2013

The Story of Gulliver, Jonathan Coe, Pushkin Press, London, 2013

The Story of Don Juan, Alessandro Baricco, trans. Ann Goldstein, Pushkin Press, London, 2013

The Story of Captain Nemo, Dave Eggers , Pushkin Press, London, 2013

The Story of Gilgamesh, Yiyun Li, Pushkin Press, London, 2014

The Story of the Betrothed, Umberto Eco, Pushkin Press, London, 2014

The Story of King Lear, Melania G Mazzucco , Pushkin Press, London, 2014

The Story of Crime and Punishment, AB Yehoshua, Pushkin Press, London, 2014

The Story of Cyrano de Bergerac, Stefano Benni, Pushkin Press, London, 2014

The Story of the Nose, Andrea Camilleri, Pushkin Press, London, 2014

The Rotters’ Club, Jonathan Coe, Penguin, London, 2002

House of Sleep, Jonathan Coe, Penguin, London 1998

What a Carve up!, Jonathan Coe, Penguin, London, 2008

Ivanhoe, Sir Walter Scott, Penguin Classics, 2000