Lost in Translation

By Hensher, Philip | The Spectator, July 14, 2001 | Go to article overview

Lost in Translation


Hensher, Philip, The Spectator


WORKS, VOLUMES I-VII by Thomas De Quincey, edited by Grevel Lindop Pickering & Chatto, 550, pp. 400 per volume, ISBN 1851965181

If you want to see how wildly eccentric De Quincey was, and how bizarrely tasco noting he remains, it helps to go beyond his acknowledged classics, Confessions of an English Opium Eater and The English Mail Coach, and deep into the collected works: to his solitary novel, never reprinted since its first publication. Walladmor had probably the most peculiar origins of any novel in English literature. The Europe-wide hunger for the works of Walter Scott was more insatiable than his labours alone could satisfy, and occasional forgeries began to surface. Among them was a bizarre German romance which De Quincey happened upon when his landlord, the London bookseller, Johann Bohte, brought back a copy from the Leipzig book fair. Announced as a free translation, Walladmor was, of course, a wretched imitation of Scott's big bow-wow strain.

De Quincey, highly amused by the book, wrote an extremely funny essay about it for the London Magazine in 1824; at which point, anyone else would have let it rest. Perhaps no other writer would have had the indefatigable energy, the eccentricity, and the wilfulness then to translate the whole thing in fantastically elaborated vein. After all, there was no chance whatever that such a farrago could possibly attain any kind of popularity or readership: and one gazes at De Quincey's Walladmor: Freely Translated into German from the English of Sir Walter Scott and Now Freely Translated from the German into English with a sense of utter amazement. What on earth did he think he was doing? Perhaps the Leipzig connection suggested something wild to him: one of his favourite writers, Jean Paul, had written a beautiful, odd little fable about a poor schoolmaster called Wuz who, unable to afford to buy any of the books he saw at the Leipzig fair, returned home and wrote a series of books with the titles of the great classics. Was Walladmor after all the work of Wuz, or even of Jean Paul himself? A great novelist behind the mask of a fictional character masquerading as a real author and translated by De Quincey, or the same terms in some other combination? How could De Quincey resist foisting this salmagundy on an admittedly uninterested public, all in all?

De Quincey is one of those authors, like James Hogg, who is known very well for one extraordinary and fascinating thing: in his case, the Confessions of an English Opium Eater. Unlike many such authors, further exploration readily reveals one treasure after another, and I can think of no other English author whose collected works awake in me such an anticipation of undiscovered riches. De Quincey himself thought the task of collecting and commenting on his works beyond human labour, so widely scattered are his occasional pieces and so zanily varied his learning. When George Gilfillan, towards the end of De Quincey's life, suggested the project to him, De Quincey apparently said, `The thing is absolutely, insuperably and for ever impossible. Not the archangel Gabriel, nor his multipotent adversary, durst ever attempt any such thing.'

It has been attempted before, but never on such a scale as this edition. Grevel Lindop has already enlarged our understanding of De Quincey with a fine biography: this edition, of which these seven volumes are the first instalment, ought to put De Quincey in his proper place, not just as the author of four or five celebrated anthology pieces and one classic autobiography, but as one of the central roving intelligences of English romanticism, a mind to rank not far short of Coleridge's. Perhaps one of the reasons why this has never quite registered is that De Quincey was a philosopher, like Dr Johnson's friend Edwards, with whom cheerfulness was always breaking in. Even on the most abstruse subjects he is always apt to make a very silly joke. We have to group the early expositions of Kant with that masterly, and disconcertingly hilarious late sketch, `The Last Days of Immanuel Kant', for instance. …

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