From the Brnian
THE BIG BOOK OF THE season for Farrar, Straus, and Giroux is The Cunning Little Vixen by Rudolf Teshnohlidek, illustrated by the incomparable Maurice Sendak. The name Sendak, of course, sends shivers of pleasure through sellers of children's books, but FS&G is marketing Vixen as a jolly good read for grown- ups, a kind of cross between Orwell's Animal Farm and Richard Adams' Watership Down.
Most of us know the title from the opera by Leos Janacek, who picked up his plot from the Teshnohlidek novel, which appears for the first time in a language other than Czech. Teshnohlidek is a fascinating character, a morbid journalist in the Moravian town of Brno following World War I. His first wife died mysteriously of a gunshot wound on their honeymoon -- was it murder or suicide? -- and he ended up shooting himself in 1928 in the newsroom of his paper. An especially mean copy editor? No, apparently just world- weariness.
The irony is that Teshnohlidek was the paper's humor columnist. His farewell to the world was his final column, phrased in a set of funny verses, which he left on his desk. Teshnohlidek wrote The Cunning Little Vixen as a serial for the paper in 1920. A satire on the human condition, the novel is laid in the forests around Brno and the characters include both humans and animals. The Czechs immediately fell in love with the cunning fox in the story, called Vixen Sharp- Ears. The new book's dust jacket describes her as "a model of feminine charm and instinctive morality . . . tricky as a politician and . . . crude as a streetwalker when it serves her purpose."
One reason why the work remained untranslated is that it was written in the Brno dialect -- called, of course, Brnian -- which is difficult for even other Czechs to comprehend. Most of them know the work from a heavily annotated version. Tatiana Firkusny and Maritza Morgan, both native speakers of Czech, prepared separate literal translations, which were then woven into harmonious contemporary English by Robert T. Jones, who provides an afterword explaining the whole ball of wax.
The illustrations are taken from watercolors that Sendak did when he designed Janacek's work for the New York City Opera in 1981.
Library of America THE PUBLICATION today of three more books in the wonderful series called The Library of America brings the total number of volumes issued to 29. As you probably know, the Library is an attempt to put into print the major works of American literature and was initially funded by the National Endowment for the Humanities and the Ford Foundation. The volumes average 1,300 pages and are printed on lovely, light acid-free paper. Most sell for $27.50.
The newly issued volumes include works by Henry Dvid Thoreau, Henry James and William Faulkner. The Thoreau, 1,136 pages, has A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers, Walden, The Maine Woods and Cape Cod, all the works that Thoreau intended to be published as full-length books. The James volume, 1,264 pages, covers his novels written from 1881 to 1886, including Washington Square, The Portrait of a Lady and The Bostonians. It is the fourth in a projected eight volumes of James' work. The Faulkner, covering his novels from 1930 to 1935, includes As I Lay Dying, Sanctuary, Light in August and Pylon. It is 1,056 pages and is the first volume to appear by a 20th- century writer.
Coming up next year will be a volume of Edith Wharton novels (The House of Mirth, The Reef, The Custom of the Country, and The Age of Innocence), a volume of writings by W.E.B. DuBois (Suppression of the African Slave-Trade, The Souls of Black Folk, Dusk of Dawn, and Essays) and History of the United States During the Administration of Jefferson and Madison by Henry Adams in two volumes. Knights 42, Arabs 1
I TOOK SEVERAL courses in college touching on the Crusades, but I never learned that there was an opposing side to the story, that the bloody events had also been recorded by Arab historians. As a matter of interest, I took a look at the article on the Crusades in the Columbia Encyclopedia. It lists 42 Western participants but only a single Arab one, Saladin. This profound bit of research, very much in the currently fashionable counting mode of historians, was spurred by the appearance of The Crusades Through Arab Eyes, by Amin Maalouf, a Lebanese Christian journalist who left Beirut in 1975 and has since worked in Paris. It has just been published in the United States by Schocken Books.
I talked with Maalouf by phone in New York where he was conferring with officials of the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation about an upcoming TV documentary based on his book.
"What I set out to do was write the story based entirely on the texts of the Arab historians and chroniclers," Maalouf said. "The most amazing thing I found is that it took the Arabs almost 50 years to realize what the Christians were after. They heard about them crossing into Turkey, but didn't realize that they wanted to rescue the tomb of Christ, etc."
I asked Maalouf who won the Crusades. "The West definitely won," he said, "although the Arabs eventually drove out the Christian forces. The West took away a lot from Arab culture, which was important in launching the Renaissance. But the Arabs didn't learn much from the Christians. They expressed some admiration for their military prowess but in general regarded them as a bunch of barbarians. I think that's a shame -- if they had not been so suspicious, they could have learned something about social organization from the West." Under Your Cheerios
IN OUR WORLD of rush, rush, rush, where no one has any time for anything except work and watching Miami Vice, there is hardly a moment to snatch a quick snicker (and full laughs must usually wait for vacation). Into this laughter vacuum flies Workman Publications of Preppie Handbook fame with a new volume called Encyclopedia Placematica, made to be read while you eat. The book has only 16 color pages but each is made of thick, water-resistant paper and can be torn out to use as a placemat. The colors and design are meant to evoke the kind of mat that used to be given to childen in Howard Johnson's on interstate highways to distract them while Mommy and Daddy scoffed down onion rings.
Printed on the placemats is purported comic stuff including "Bowling Tips of the Presidents" and instruction for turning your guests inside out. My favorite mat has the "Signs of the Foodiac." We folks born in late September fall under the sign of the potato and, says the mat, we are thick, have sharp eyes and are frequently found fried. Hmmm. The Chess Championship
ACCORDING TO Shelby Lyman, the chess expert who analyzed the recently concluded world chess championship on WETA and 140 other public TV stations nationwide, the duel between Anatoly Karpov and Gary Kasparov was "probably the greatest championship ever held. Each player was at the top of his form and there were very few errors." Chess books will undoubtedly be drawing for years to come on the matches between Karpov, who was defending champion, and the 22- year-old Kasparov, who defeated him. First into the fray in the U.S. is Collier Books, a paperback arm of Macmillan, which has a large chess list. Maneuvers in Moscow: Karpov-Kasparov II is just arriving in bookstores. Priced at $8.95, the book is a play- by-play analysis by British grandmaster Raymond Keene and international master David Goodman, who covered the championship for the Associated Press. Your move. In the Margin
IF YOU'RE the kind of guest who likes to amaze your hosts, try this one. Saunter over to the coffee table, pick up their latest Book-of-the-Month Club volume, flip over the jacket, glance at the spine and tell them who printed the book. BOMC uses three printers and each puts a little symbol on the lower right-hand of the back cover near the spine. A maple leaf means the Maple Leaf Press and was probably printed in Manchester, Pennsylvania. A square is the mark of Haddon Craftsmen and likely comes from the plant in Bloomsburg, Pennsylvania. A circle means R.R. Donnnelly, which does most of its BOMC printing in Harrisonburg, Virginia. Thus will you astound your hosts and after you leave, they will say "what a twit" and delete you from their address book . . . There's a new publishing company in Washington area. It is the Claiborne Press of Chevy Chase, of which Mary H. Claiborne is president and publisher. The firm's first book is The Dragonfly, a novel by Everard Meade, set in Charlottesville in 1918. Meade is a native Virginian, a longtime faculty member of the Darden Graduate School of Busines Administration at the University of Virigina and a former vice president of the big ad agency Young & Rubicam.