Children's Literature

9th June 1995 at 01:00
Lullabies, Lyrics and Gallows Songs. By Christian Morgenstern. Selected and illustrated by Lisbeth Zwerger; translated by Anthea Bell North-South Books #163;9.95 - 1 55858 364 5.

Daisy-Head Mayzie. By Dr Seuss Collins #163;6.99. - 0 00 172001 5.

I first encountered Christian Morgenstern as ad-man: "Nutridentol! the best toothpaste; not just hygienic but nourishing! You can use it to substitute for breakfast or supper!" - and there followed a letter of grateful recommendation from one Eleonora Hecht for savings on her groceries.

This struck me as having a slight resemblance to the spoof recipes that Edward Lear included in his Nonsense Songs, and when I got to grips with the comic verse of Morgenstern's Gallows Songs and his sequences of daft poems about a chump called Palmstrom and his obscure relative Palma Kunkel,the equivalence with Lear seemed justified. This is in part because of his sober acceptance of total absurdity (a lonely knee, say, wandering through the world) and in part because of his delight in the melody of words.

Like Lear, too, Morgenstern imposes horrid burdens on his translators. German is not the most flexible of languages, but he handled it with great subtlety. He created lyrics with the flow of simple ballads or nursery rhymes, and too slavish an attempt to match him is bound to result in misrepresentations which are forced or naive.

In her translator's note to Lisbeth Zwerger's picture-book selection from the lyrics, Anthea Bell recognises this. She rejoices in the freedom that total nonsense allows her - no problems with something like "Kroklokwoffzie? Seemimeemi!" - and enjoys the chance to make an English parallel to things like Morgenstern's animal calendar: "Jaguary, Zebruary, Moose . . ." - but the real challenge comes with the little songs. With scrupulous respect for the originals she seeks to match their metre and their rhythmic schemes and, at their best, her translations are fine replications: A cold was lurking in the grass, waiting for some poor man to pass, and very soon, with furious rage, it seized upon a man called Page...

Since Lullabies began life as Lisbeth Zwerger's book in a Swiss-German edition, Anthea Bell has had no option but to work with the illustrator's own choice of poems - but the pleasure one feels for seeing Morgenstern Englished as well as this is tempered by doubts about the value of the art-work that is the raison d'etre of the project. In some of the near-cartoons, Zwerger comes close to the gentle, undemonstrative drawing that suits the verse, but in her larger paintings or her rather feeble marginal drawings she is struggling to find something to say.

Dr Seuss is struggling too - unusually for him - in Daisy-Head Mayzie. This posthumous publication was written as a screen-play 20 years ago and has recently been found by his widow in the back of a drawer. It has to do with a girl who suddenly finds a daisy growing out of her head, and her efforts to get rid of it inspire Dr Seuss to a depressing parody of his own zingy doggerel and flat-hued comic-book artwork. Bits of the text do not even scan or rhyme properly (a failing which reveals how dependent so much of his comedy is on verbal slickness - without it, many of his picture books are simply crude moralities). Regrettably too, the appearance of our old friend, the Cat in the Hat, in a walk-on part serves only as a reminder of past glories. Put Mayzie and her daisy back in the drawer and let them wilt.

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