Virginia Barton

11 June 2013: Travels with my books

11 June 2013

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My friend, long dead alas, gave me some excellent advice about reading. Noticing that I was struggling to finish something particularly turgid – Travels in the Interior Districts of Africa possibly, he said: “Never feel you have to finish a book if you can’t get on with it. Don’t waste your time. There are so many others you might be reading.” Excellent advice which I have followed ever since.


Mungo Park and his 1816 two-volume Travels may well turn up in my very old age, but not until my friend’s specialty, the Russian classics, have been re-read (in English I’m afraid).

Whizzing along my bookshelves I can see several I’m astonished a) I bought, and b) I read. Take Robert Surtees’ Jorrocks’ Jaunts and Jollities (1838). I defy any of you to say a) you’ve read it, and b) you enjoyed it. There’s a gauntlet!

My late friend was a Slavist scholar and a masterly translator from Russian. The art of translating is much undervalued I think, for nothing must detract from the story. The author’s “voice” must be intact, but yet the book must be as readable and true as the original.

51s4zcJU41LQuo Vadis, for example, the famous novel written by Nobel Prize winning author Henryk Sienkiewicz, is available on Amazon today in translation by Jeremiah Curtain, circa 1896. It’s a clumsy, awkward read, it neither flows nor allows the language to speak. The reader reads on despite, as it were, because it’s such a rattling good story. But were it not for Curtain, the Trilogy by the same author Sienkiewicz would not be available at all!

I borrowed these three books from the Oxford Union Society years ago and was totally bowled over. BH reads them again and again when he’s miserable. And when he’s bored, he watches the 1995 TV version of Pride and Prejudice, with Jennifer Ehle and Colin Firth. (He claims he has to be sure there’s a happy ending…)

Maybe we should have a shelf set aside with books I bought and never finished, plus books I bought by mistake – so easy to do on the Internet. Then you could regularly sweep them into a bag and take them to the charity shop. Somebody somewhere will find they are just exactly what they were looking for.





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