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Putting the classics on a diet

Frank Wilson
The Philadelphia Inquirer (MCT)

The last commandment in Elmore Leonard's "10 Rules of Writing" (Morrow, $14.95) declares that an author should "try to leave out the part that readers tend to skip.

The people at Phoenix Press think a number of classic authors were negligent in observing this rule. "Anna Karenina," for instance, weighs in at a whopping 800-plus pages. Who can possibly hope to read that and still have time to watch "Dancing With the Stars"?

"The great classics contain passionate romance, thrilling adventure, interesting characters, and unforgettable scenes and situations," Phoenix generously acknowledges. "But finding the time to read them ... can be a problem."

Their solution? Compact Editions: "Now," they tell us, "these masterpieces have been sensitively and intelligently condensed, retaining both the author's own words and all the drama of the original!"

The first six Compact Editions -- Melville's "Moby-Dick," Dickens' "David Copperfield," Thackeray's "Vanity Fair," Tolstoy's "Anna," George Eliot's "The Mill on the Floss," and Mrs. Gaskell's "Wives and Daughters" -- arrived in bookstores in September.

The Phoenix Press edition of "Anna Karenina" is a mere 385 pages because, as it tells you right there on the cover, it's "Anna Karenina" in half the time. Phoenix's "Moby-Dick" in half the time comes in at just 313 pages (compared with 720 for the Penguin Classics edition).

There is a note, "About this Compact Edition," appended to each. The one for "Moby-Dick" tells us that it "retains the main narrative line" -- that would be the whale hunt -- and even the "supporting characters ... feature strongly."

What's missing? "Lengthy descriptions of whaling history and of whales, some philosophical observations, a number of other digressions and reflections" -- in other words, the pith and marrow that are precisely what makes Melville's idiosyncratic masterwork the epic that it is.

As for "Anna Karenina," in the Compact Edition "the central focus is on the ill-starred love affair of Anna and Vronsky, the marriage of Dolly and Stiva, and the coming together of Kitty and Levin." So "some descriptions of society life in Moscow and Petersburg" have been excised, and "overlong dialogue is reduced ... some minor characters are either eliminated or have a diminished emphasis."

Oh, and "philosophical and political sections are outlined ... and detailed descriptions, from characters' reactions to particular events, are cut back."

What this comes down to in practice is that, of the 13 paragraphs in Chapter One of "Moby-Dick," six are missing and three others have been trimmed. On the other hand, Chapter 36, "The Quarter-Deck" -- a key chapter to be sure, in which Ahab descants to Starbuck upon his belief that "all visible objects ... are but as pasteboard masks" and that "some unknown but still reasoning thing puts forth the mouldings of its features from behind the unreasoning mask," and "that inscrutable thing is chiefly what I hate" -- that chapter is left mostly intact.

Of course, in this edition "The Quarterdeck" is Chapter 29, not Chapter 36, because seven other chapters have been left out altogether, among them "Cetology" -- everybody's choice for omission -- but also "The Pulpit" and "The Sermon," which contain some of Melville's most splendid prose. Apparently, Father Mapple's sermon on Jonah and the whale doesn't have as much bearing on the "main narrative line" as we thought.

And there's the rub, as Hamlet might not say, if a Phoenix editor thought better of it. There is nothing inherently wrong with what Somerset Maugham called "the useful art of skipping." Maugham himself in fact helped produce a series of abridged classics in 1948 called "Great Novelists and Their Novels."

But it's one thing for me to skip. I know what I've passed over and can go back and read it if and when I choose. It's another thing altogether for someone else -- even a Somerset Maugham -- to do my skipping for me. The only abridged book I can remember reading was the edition of "War and Peace" that I read as a teenager. It left out the historico-philosophical essays that Tolstoy interrupts the action with. (To tell the truth, when I finally got around to reading the whole thing last year, I found myself feeling retroactively grateful.)

No, the real problem with the Phoenix series is its premise -- that you can take away just about everything from a great novel as long as you leave the "narrative line" intact.

One example will have to suffice (after all, we mustn't go on). Only two paragraphs of Chapter One, Part III, of "Anna Karenina" survive in the Compact Editions version. In fact, the first two chapters of the third part take up only a page and a half and the first 15 pages (four chapters) are condensed into three. The mowing of Mishka's Knoll, which takes up all of Chapter Five and a good part of Chapter Four in the Pevear-Volokhonsky translation, is here reduced to just more than two pages.

So what? It's only about mowing a meadow. But it happens to be one of the splendors of world literature. And the effect is lost if you cut it, because you lose the sense of the passing of time, of the exhilaration that comes of overcoming weariness, of the sense that Tolstoy's book, as Matthew Arnold observed, is not a work of art, but "a piece of life."

What the editors at Phoenix seem not to realize is how much texture and tempo contribute to a literary masterpiece. Without them, "Anna Karenina" is just another desperate housewife.

I had better leave it at that, but before closing, I just want to say that I went out of my way here to observe Elmore's Rule No. 10, just so you could read what I had to say in half the time. Of course, you'll never know what you missed.

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