July 25, 2012

For you see, mademoiselle, even in a small, unimportant matter, I am something of a pedant

Thinking about Agatha Christie because of this post, I said to myself: "self, it's been quite some time since you've read one of those, hasn't it?"

"Yes," I replied. "It certainly has been."

"How long do you reckon?"

There was a long, uncomfortable silence while both of us, that is to say, I, struggled to come up with an answer. Math and keeping track of things were never our strong points.

"I know what you're thinking," I finally said, "and I'd strongly advise against it." But it was too late. He, or rather I, had already begun to bound over to the nearest disordered pile of paperbacks and had pulled out the Agatha Christie title nearest the top, sitting down and beginning to read it before I could say "no, not that one, that's not a particularly good one. Let's try to find Crooked House instead…"

The book in question was Murder in Retrospect, also published under the title Five Little Pigs in 1942. I was wrong about its not being a particularly good one. It is, in fact, tolerably good, an unusual take on the customary detective puzzle where the subtly conflicting stories of the suspects are expounded in the form of written accounts by each of them, composed sixteen years after the events occurred (hence the "retrospect" in the US title.) Many people will tell you that Agatha Christie is a "bad writer," and I probably would have told you that too in my younger days before I became a writer myself and truly realized how hard it is to do any kind of writing, especially the kind that she managed to do once or twice a year for her whole life, which is to take the tiniest bit of fluff and somehow spin it into a compelling narrative that keeps the reader engaged and eager to reach the final page, come what may. In this case, the germ of the story is a single spoken sentence that leaves a different impression on the characters who hear it depending upon how they interpret the word "packing." (I hope that's not too much of a spoiler, but if it is, sorry.) Massaging the word "packing" into a two-hundred page story, even one you almost promptly forget about after you read it, as I have almost done, is a kind of magic and worthy of high praise. It's good writing even if it isn't "good writing" (which I suppose it isn't) if you get what I mean.

Anyhow, what I want to mention is nothing to do with that. It has to do with this: at one point in the book there is this passage:

Poirot spread out his hands in a gesture of resignation. He got up to go. He said, "You permit that I ask one little question?"

"What is it?"

"At the time of the tragedy, you had lately read -- had you not? -- a life of the painter Gauguin?"

Angela stared at him. Then she said, "I believe -- why, yes, that is quite true." She looked at him with frank curiosity. "How did you know?"

"I want to show you, mademoiselle, that even in a small, unimportant matter I am something of a magician. There are things I know without having to be told."

I expected the reference to the life of Gauguin to be explained in the "assemble the guests in the parlor" scene, but Gauguin is never mentioned subsequently. The matter is dropped. Well, I'm only vaguely aware of the particulars of Gauguin's life -- "he's the guy who went to Tahiti" pretty much covers the extent of my knowledge. But the murder victim in the book is an artist, so I figured anyone who was more familiar with the Gauguin story would get it, and I googled around it to see if I could get it too without resorting to the drastic measure of actually reading a biography of Gauguin myself. (My self would have really objected to that one, I can tell you that right now.)

What I found was that the text in my 1985 paperback had been altered. In the original text, the book referenced was The Moon and Sixpence by W. Somerset Maugham, which is, evidently, loosely based on the life of Gauguin. If the wikipedia description of the book is accurate, its narrative approach ("the narrator tries to piece together [the artist's] life there from the recollections of others") seems to have been appropriated by Christie for her book, which is maybe a meta-clue to the reader of something or other, though its actual significance within the narrative's constructed world is still dark to me. I suppose the editor of the more recent edition felt contemporary readers would be less familiar with W. Somerset Maugham than their 1942 counterparts, and elected to make it easier on them by glossing it. Since no one on the internet seems to have any idea what Poirot or Christie might have been getting at with this reference, in either form, the gloss seems a bit beside the point. Did the editor "get it," I wonder? Maybe it will become clear when I read The Moon and Sixpence, which I guess I may do, one day, if my self allows it.

Anyway, as I've mentioned before in various contexts, I find silent altering of literary texts (beyond mere correction of errors) infuriating, and wrong, even when it is done with the best intentions. That goes for Huckleberry Finn, Are You There, God, It's Me, Margaret?, Charley and the Chocolate Factory, A Separate Peace, what have you. And it even goes for something as trivial and relatively unimportant as a passing reference in a silly little murder mystery like Murder in Retrospect. I can think of many reasons to retain the reference to The Moon and Sixpence (for one, it just sounds better; for two, it was, evidently, a popular book at the time, and the character who read it is said to have had good taste in popular literature, rather than a generic interest in the biographies of artists; for three, much of the appeal of reading these books lies in their straightforward, largely unselfconscious depiction of their time and place, which effect updating random references obviously undermines; for four, it's what the freakin' author actually wrote.) On the other hand, I can think of not a single good reason for changing it, particularly because the gloss illuminates nothing.

Even if it did illuminate something, though, I'd still like some way of knowing, when reading a book of any sort, that such alterations have happened. Something, perhaps, like the warning you see when they show edited movies on TV: "the book you are holding in your hand has been altered from its original text: it has been dumbed down for contemporary readers."

I mean, seriously, if you think Agatha Christie needs dumbing down, you're sadly in need of "perspective." Or, you've got the right perspective and society is even more doomed than I assume it is. How do we know readers will know who Gauguin is? Maybe it would be better, in future editions, to replace "Gauguin" with the Belgian-accented phrase: "some painter dude who used to be famous, eh bien? Ah, I suspected as much…"

I'm sure it happens all the time, far more than I'd like to know. And I guess the only way to know for sure you have read the real book, in the end, is to seek out the original edition, which seems like a hassle and an expense (and would indeed deprive the publisher of a sale, if anyone were actually to do this -- which, they won't of course. If there are others who care about this, I bet there aren't many.) See, they tried to make it easier, but actually made it more difficult. So it goes.

Posted by Dr. Frank at July 25, 2012 06:44 PM