Thursday, January 15, 2009

"I am persuaded that of all persons in the kingdom, none are more neglected than those who devote themselves entirely to literature."

A couple of weeks ago, after I quoted some lines from Isaac D'Israeli's Curiosities of Literature (1791) that I'd come across in The New Oxford Book of Literary Anecdotes, a kindly reader sent me a link to the entire text of D'Israeli's volume online. It's separated conveniently into its constituent essays--and with titles such as "The Bibliomania," "Literary Impostures," "Literary Blunders," and "Professors of Plagiarism and Obscurity," how could it not be great? I've only poked around in it a tiny bit, but it's already yielded some great nuggets, many of which I'm sure will find their way here eventually.

The most fun essay I've come across so far is "The Good Advice of an Old Literary Sinner," which D'Israeli opens with the lament that,
Authors of moderate capacity have unceasingly harassed the public; and have at length been remembered only by the number of wretched volumes their unhappy industry has produced.
He then recounts the story of the graphomaniacal Abbé de Marolles,
a most egregious scribbler; and so tormented with violent fits of printing, that he even printed lists and catalogues of his friends. I have even seen at the end of one of his works a list of names of those persons who had given him books. He printed his works at his own expense, as the booksellers had unanimously decreed this.
Along with his 133,124 poems--of which, on being told by the Abbé that they had cost him little to print, a fellow poet sarcastically remarked, "They cost you what they are worth"--the Abbé was also known for his "detestable versions" of works from other languages. D'Israeli notes,
He wrote above eighty volumes, which have never found favour in the eyes of the critics; yet his translations are not without their use, though they never retain by any chance a single passage of the spirit of their originals.

The most remarkable anecdote respecting these translations is, that whenever this honest translator came to a difficult passage, he wrote in the margin, “I have not translated this passage, because it is very difficult, and in truth I could never understand it.”
D'Israeli--who, by the way, was the father of Victorian novelist and Prime Minister Benjamin Disraeli--seems, at least on short acquaintance, inclined to leaven his harsh criticisms with at least a dollop of kindness. In the case of the Abbé, he acknowledges that, aside from his literary sins, he was a "most estimable and ingenious man." And he even verges on praise for one of the Abbé's productions, writing that his bitter and self-pitying Memoirs are "not destitute of entertainment."

I took the title of this post from D'Israeli's quotations from that book, which offers this line as well:
I have omitted to tell you, that I do not advise any one of my relatives or friends to apply himself as I have done to study, and particularly to the composition of books, if he thinks that will add to his fame or fortune.
But, especially given the news out of the publishing world these days, you all knew that already, didn't you?

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