Monday, July 31, 2017

Abridging your own book

The novel I'm supposed to review for the local newspaper turns out to be - to me - dull and not inviting to read. I've read fifty pages, and seem no further ahead than I was at the start. I won't say what the book is, because someone else may find it more to their liking than me.

So last night, when it came to going in the bath and wanting something to read, I dug around on my That Hideous Strength by C S Lewis. I've read it twice before, but quite some time ago. Once way back when I was in my thirties, I think, or maybe even earlier, when I was still in London. And once again since at some point. The general story has stuck in my head, but little of the detail.
shelves and picked up

It turned out that the print in the Pan edition I've got has 'shrunk' over the years, making it rather hard to read. I'm having to use magnifying glasses over my ordinary glasses at present just to read the newspaper, and the computer and the music. It's surprising how many things have become just that much more difficult to read clearly in the last few years.

There’s a note in this Pan edition that says Lewis himself had abridged the original some five or six years after the first edition came out. He writes in a Preface: In reducing the original story to a length suitable for this edition, I believe I have altered nothing but the tempo and the manner. I myself prefer the more leisurely pace - I would not wish even War and Peace or The Faerie Queen any shorter - but some critics may well think this abridgement is also an improvement. 

Lewis was plainly loathe to do to abridge his story, nevertheless this second version reads so well you wouldn't think of it as being edited down, unlike the Reader's Digest abridged versions, for example, which often cut out huge swathes of material, and wound up with books less than half the length of the original.

So, with the print being very small in the Pan edition I thought I’d get a copy on Kindle.

I found a combined edition of all three of Lewis' ‘Space’ trilogy, and bought it. It was only when I compared it to the version I'd started reading that I found extra material in the first paragraph, and more beyond. It turned out to be Lewis' original version, and all sorts of additional material appears in it. His abridged version is very well done; what is missing from the later edition is often writing that adds to the characters in some way, or the general detail. Comparing the two editions would be a good exercise for any writer: Lewis shows how much can be deleted from a text without loss. The tempo is certainly quickened; we're not held up by interesting little sidepaths that add to characterization. But these sidepaths remain interesting. They're not excess.

Out of interest, I thought I'd compare a little of the opening of chapter two in the abridged version with the original. The abridged is first.

"This is a blow!" said Curry.
"Something from the N.O.?" said Busby. He and Lord Feverstone and Mark were all drinking sherry before dining with Curry. N.O., which stood for Non Olet, was the nickname of Charles Place, the Warden of Bracton.
"Yes, blast him," said Curry. "Wishes to see me on a most important matter after dinner."
"That means," said the Bursar, "that Jewel and Co. have been getting at him and want to find some way of going back on the whole business."
"Jewel! Good God!" said Busby, burying his left hand in his beard.

The original is much more expansive. Note the detail in the first paragraph alone, and the extensive background on Place, who's only a minor character, and the additional dialogue later in this extract. 

“This is a blow!” said Curry, standing in front of the fireplace in his magnificent rooms which overlooked Newton. They were the best set in College.
“Something from N.O.?” said James Busby. He and Lord Feverstone and Mark were all drinking sherry before dining with Curry. N.O., which stood for Non Olet, was the nickname of Charles Place, the Warden of Bracton. His election to this post, some fifteen years before, had been one of the earliest triumphs of the Progressive Element. By dint of saying that the College needed “new blood” and must be shaken out of its “academic grooves” they had succeeded in bringing in an elderly civil servant who had certainly never been contaminated by academic weaknesses since he left his rather obscure Cambridge college in the previous century, but who had written a monumental report on National Sanitation. The subject had, if anything, rather recommended him to the Progressive Element. They regarded it as a slap in the face for the dilettanti and Die-hards, who replied by christening their new warden Non Olet. But gradually even Place’s supporters had adopted the name. For Place had not answered their expectations, having turned out to be a dyspeptic with a taste for philately, whose voice was so seldom heard that some of the junior Fellows did not know what it sounded like.
“Yes, blast him,” said Curry. “Wishes to see me on a most important matter as soon as I can conveniently call on him after dinner.”
“That means,” said the Bursar, “that Jewel and Co. have been getting at him and want to find some way of going back on the whole business.”
“I don’t give a damn for that,” said Curry. “How can you go back on a resolution? It isn’t that. But it’s enough to muck up the whole evening.”
“Only your evening,” said Feverstone. “Don’t forget to leave out that very special brandy of yours before you go.”
“Jewel! Good God!” said Busby, burying his left hand in his beard.

Certainly a great example of how to edit your own work and do an excellent job of it!


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