A classic mess

6th June 1997 at 01:00
Eyewitness Classics:DraculaBy Bram Stoker. Abridged by Jo Fletcher-Watson. + Illustrated by Tudor HumphriesThe Hunchback of Notre-DameBy Victor Hugo. + Abridged by Jimmy Symonds. Illustrated by Tony SmithBlack BeautyBy Anna Sewell.+ Abridged by Caryn Jenner. Illustrated by Victor AmbrusRobin Hood Retold by + Neil Philip from the medieval ballads. Illustrated by Nick HarrisDorling + Kindersley #163;9.99 each.Why abridge the classics? asks the publicity booklet+ for this new series from Dorling Kindersley. And being Dorling Kindersley, it + supplies the answer at once: because "children expect everything to happen in + the time it takes to watch a TV programme or play a video game". Well, if they + do, they're wrong. Part of an adult's job is to show them that some things have+ to take longer, and can be more pleasurable for doing so. The real problem + with this gnat-sized attention span is not that children have it, but that some+ adults do, and it's usually the ones who are in charge of providing + information for children. Of course, it's very tempting to arrange informatio n+ in discrete little packages: it avoids the problem of integrating it into a + continuous narrative. This principle lies behind the success of Dorling + Kindersley's non-fiction, even though the brilliance of the double-page spreads+ sometimes covers shallowness rather than adding to real substance. Even the + academics are at it now: Norman Davies's recent and highly-praised Europe: A + History is aimed at adults but varies its flow with mini-essays, which he + calls capsules, and which are hived off from the text in boxes. But when it + comes to stories, this formula isn't so useful. The sidebars and information + spreads and feature boxes must serve the story, or the story will end up + serving them. With Dorling Kindersley's series of Eyewitness Classics, the + method seems to be an end in itself: the text has to tiptoe self-effacingly + through the spaces between the lavish illustrations. And then there's the + problem of abridgement. At least Viking's Whole Story series (of which this + seems like a fairly blatant imitation) does what it says and provides the + entire text, so that although the reader may wonder about the relevance of this+ or that laboriously researched picture, the story is still there intact to + return to (review, TES2, January 31). But The Hunchback of Notre-Dame in 50 + pages, with at least half of each of those pages being occupied by pictures? + This may be spectacular to look at, but it really isn't an experience of the + classics. "The original story in its true historical splendour," says the + cover. Bunkum. It's the old Classics Illustrated comic brought up to date. So I+ have deep reservations about the method. What about the results? The most + successful of these four is Neil Philip's Robin Hood, partly because there was + never a single text to begin with, and partly because of Philip's genuine + know-ledge of and affection for the tales. His version is clear and vivid, and + (this is the real test) would work just as well if heard aloud, without a + picture in sight. Nick Harris's illustrations are vigorous (he can draw, which + helps) and the information boxes seem to be less of an interruption because the+ text itself is episodic. The finest illustrations in this series are Victor + Ambrus's splendid horses in Black Beauty. The huntsmen, the dog-carts, the + London cabmen and their growlers, the Charge of the Light Brigade - they are + all rendered in his inimitable flickering line and luminous wash, and all are + worth gazing at. The title that will be most popular, initially, is Dracula. + Unfortunately it's the least successful: Tudor Humphries's illustrations are + atmospheric enough - all swirling mists and pointy teeth - but the fact-files + and feature boxes demonstrate the feebleness of the overall conception all too + plainly. "Vampires are said to have the ability to change the weather, to + create storms, and also to control many animals including the creatures of the + night," says one side-bar; and beside it we have, in the well-known Dorling + Kindersley photo-on-white-space style, helpful pictures of a moth, an owl, and + a fox, each usefully labelled in case we don't know what a moth looks like. + Why? To occupy the space, of course. This isn't proper illustration: it's + visual Polyfilla. There's plenty of it. On page 20, for example, we see a Greek+ vase painting of a harpy, and on page 61, the very same picture turns up + again, only this time it's reversed, so that in each case the creature looks + into the page rather than out of it. In other words, the designer has learned a+ first-year trick (don't lead the reader's eye out of the page) and applied it + mechanically without the slightest concern for truth, or meaning, or relevance.+ That wouldn't matter quite so much if, as I say, the whole text were there. In+ the Viking Whole Story Tom Sawyer, for example, the passage where Tom and Joe + learn to smoke is given in full: "Every pore inside the boys' cheeks became a + spouting fountain; they could scarcely bail out the cellars under their tongues+ fast enough to prevent an inundation; little overflowings down their throats + occurred in spite of all they could do, and sudden retching followed every + time. Both boys were looking very pale and miserable now."That is all too good + to lose, and it isn't lost. But I dread to think what Dorling Kindersley would + have done with it - or rather, done instead of it. Stick to the text, is my + advice; let the story lead the pictures; and when in doubt, leave the space + white.

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