Why Some Ink Remains Invisible

Reading & Writing

Invisible Ink

Recently I had a conversation with a translator about why certain European books don’t make it to these shores as reprints. We were discussing ‘The War of the Buttons’ in particular, and he pointed out that its politically incorrect language has dated the book and made it difficult to translate for modern British audiences.

I read a version that had been edited for teens, but I fully take his point about the translation problem. He touched on a bigger issue that has dogged me since I began my ‘Invisible Ink’ series in the Independent several years ago. The reason why many authors go out of print is because  society changes, and what was once acceptable is no longer palatable.

Since the column began, those featured authors who are still around have asked me if they should rewrite their books for e-versions, and I have resolutely said no from the start. I usually suggest instead that the republished book should be prefaced with a short piece setting the work into its social context. We now have the absurdity of ‘Fawlty Towers’ being re-edited to remove references to Germans, when anyone of the remotest intelligence should be able to realise that the lead character is embarrassing no-one but himself.

 Although there are some books I would possibly re-edit for children (‘Where the Rainbow Ends’, for example, with its clear anti-Semitic stance) I would allow adult books to remain as they were published. As a consequence, words like ‘nigger’ and ‘queer’ have to stand within the context of the book’s time period, or you create a bizarre amalgam of period/modern work that fails to catch any time accurately. If anything, the originals stand as a reminder of how far we have come.

 I agree that ‘Catcher In The Rye’ is a sweeter version of ‘The War of the Buttons’ (a little too sweet for my tastes) but the period when children start behaving like adults stands in every national literary canon. There are other novels, like ‘A High Wind In Jamaica’, that capture the nascent sexuality of children in a way that is difficult to convey today without drawing witch-hunt accusations of pedophilia.

When a book is obviously offensive I always draw attention to it (‘Bulldog Drummond’ saying that ‘all niggers smell bad’, for example). In fact, I may have accidentally killed a newly proposed film version of the book because I outlined the problems with the character in ‘Invisible Ink’.

Meanwhile, the collected columns are selling well in a book that features the first 100 authors in the series. I have covered a number of French authors in the past, and am about to cover Sébastien Japrisot, who desperately needs republishing!

30 comments on “Why Some Ink Remains Invisible”

  1. Patrick says:

    I had to read “The War of the Buttons” in my Grade 11 French class. I thought it was terrific.

    Ah, I have a copy of Japrisot’s L’ETE MEURTRIER on my bookshelf… and I have to get around to it… For that matter, I have to get around to a lot of books…

    One author I’d tirelessly promote is René Reouven. Author of some of the most ingenious mysteries ever written, and some of my favourite Sherlock Holmes pastiches, including the mysterious death of the anti-Semetic Cardinal Tosca in a locked Jewish library. Buuuuuuuuuuut it seems that there’s an attitude in publishing that foreign books are supposed to be unusually dark; nobody has time to publish genuinely creative, enjoyable books.

    I do think it’s silly how books are edited to fit modern day sensibilities. For instance, Agatha Christie’s book AND THEN THERE WERE NONE was originally called TEN LITTLE N!&&3*S… and they changed it to TEN LITTLE INDIANS — a change for the better since the N-word has an almost inherent derogatory connotation. But then they changed Indians to soldier boys, then soldier boys to sailor boys, and the title to AND THEN THERE WERE NONE. I’m just eager to see what they’ll change it to next — I’ll write to the Christie estate and complain that it portrays sailors as an irresponsible lot who will get themselves killed through sheer stupidity and incompetence, or failing that will commit suicide.

    Also in that book are several derogatory, anti-Semetic references to Jews… what every publisher ever seems to have missed is that they are supposed to be disgusting attitudes held by Phillip Lombard, one of the nastiest characters Christie ever wrote: a man who killed over 20 black men but who claims to be justified precisely because they’re black. Instead, publishers have edited the text to suggest that he and Vera Claythorne are two likeable heroes in the Hollywood tradition and that the leading man surely ought to run off with the leading lady at the end. This makes the conclusion all the more jarring in the censored and sanitized text.

  2. Chris Lancaster says:

    I really enjoyed Invisible Ink, although I got greatly annoyed that there is neither a contents page to tell one on which page each author is to be found, or any identifiable order to how the authors appear. Alphabetical order would have been nice! 10/10 for the content; 0/10 for user friendliness. Still a great read, however, and highly recommended.

  3. Dan Terrell says:

    Revising books to a “milktoast” version of the times it portrays is just wrong. Your idea of including a social context piece at the start of a reissued book really appeals.
    If we can’t read back, how can we look forward with greater stability? The wince inducing bits are needed to convey the time of the story and to act as ratchets to keep us from slipping back.
    A child needs to feel “pain” and become outraged or he/she has no anti-bodies against the unacceptable. Turning back is so dangerous and so many people may try to turn you into a pillar of salt.
    I was born only a few days before Crystal Night in Germany. Of course I wasn’t aware of it then but I soon became aware of World War II, my Father gone, and I couldn’t escape the brutal history of the first half of the Forties, even if I didn’t actually go through the Blitz. This was instruction for a lifetime and I have a personal “start point” to the wrong-headed roughness of people and the mistreatment of others in our world.
    In the Middle East, they have a Sufi mullah of many names and many “funny” stories – Mullah Nasradeen is an instructive folk hero – in a famous one story the village sees him riding along seated facing backward on his old donkey. “Mullah, Mullah be careful you are not facing forward! Your donkey may stumble and you will both be hurt!” Nasradeen relies: “Never fear, my donkey knows walk and where we are headed, but I am keeping an eye on where we’ve been, so we never mistakenly return there.” I’ll buy that old wise man a cup of tea any day.

  4. Dan Terrell says:

    I tucked three typos in there, so you know I’ve “copyrighted” the bit. Dang.

  5. Pheeny says:

    Without wishing to start a witch hunt I confess I found “High Wind in Jamaica” creepy and unpleasant in the extreme.

    As for racism in children’s books – its a toughie – much of the otherwise entertaining Dr Doolittle is very loaded in a “look at the loveable childlike negro isn’t he funny” way …

  6. admin says:

    A note for Chris – the cataloguing of ‘Invisible Ink’ was highly intentional. One of the key points about discovering authors is the thrill of discovery itself, and we wanted to convey that, rather than having a data-driven alphabetical reference guide. I know it’s not to everyone’s taste, but it’s what we wanted.

  7. Sam Tomaino says:

    The censoring of books for “offensive language” also has another effect. It wipes out evidence that racism even existed. There was a big story a while back of a version of “Huckleberry Finn” in which “nigger” (a word difficult for me to write) is replaced by “slave.” Someone should write a short story with Mark Twain rising from his grave to give one scary, funny lecture to the jerks that did that.

  8. Jon Masters says:

    Not sure if he’s slipped away because he was offensive, but I remember the day when libraries were chocked full of Len Deighton novels and now he seems to have almost vanished (am currently reading some of his I missed the first time from SHBS and , I’m afraid, reliable old Amazon)).
    Obviously tastes and times change (a major plot point in Funeral in Berlin is that one character is a security risk becaise he’s homosexual), or maybe he’s just not exciting enough. I find his portrayal of 60’s London very evocative.

  9. Chris Lancaster says:

    Apologies, Chris, if my above comments on the layout of Invisible Ink were unwarranted. As my (many) thousands of books are kept in strict order by author and strict (original) publication date, I was never going to be a fan of a purposefully random ordering of the contents. 10/10 for content, though. Have you ever written a column on Alastair McLean, btw? If so, hopefully that will feature in volume 2.

  10. Dan Terrell says:

    At the time Deighton wrote and for many decades later, you probably would have serious security clearance problems for a range of things that are now accepted. Whatever might enable someone to blackmail you. All countries realized this. The Russians in particular were famous for getting a person drunk and into bed with someone other than your wife or husband. How to avoid all the things that might compromise you were included in overseas orientations. And many still are and there were then official papers to sign in which you ha to say you understood.
    I’ve reread some of Deighton’s novels and he is still quite a good read.

  11. Helen Martin says:

    I was sure that Dan would comment, as one really aware. I had an argument with my mother in which I said that if you took away the illegality then there would be nothing to blackmail homosexual people about and she just threw up her hands. Huckleberry Finn has been a “problem” for some time, but I agree that you don’t change material to today’s standard to avoid what we don’t accept now. It is an opportunity to discuss attitudes with a class and talk about societal standards. What I do dislike (and only suspect) is that some people write in the style of a certain period in order to use language or attitudes that are unacceptable today. How can you understand the thirties or the Second War without looking at racial biases?

  12. Ken Murray says:

    I guess one factor you surely have look at is the writers motivation for using a particular language/style. Are they using emotive language (as we see it now) because it reflects their core beliefs (or those of the target audience).Or is the author using it as a device, to possibly authenticate characters or storylines? I think there was a huge debate about a similar issue a few years back concerning Herge (Tintin). Were his colonial/racist storylines truly his or the product of the political regime (Nazi) he was under? Context is everything.

  13. admin says:

    Very interesting replies -thanks, everyone. I’ll need to do Alastair McLean, but I’ve a feeling Deighton is still in print.

  14. Ken M says:

    I am a regular reader of reprints of American pulp magazines, and the reprints all have a disclaimer in the front matter pointing out that the text will contain references that are characteristic of their time. This strikes me as respectful of the audience. The last time I saw the Merchant of Venice the director was so determined to make it obvious that he did not share the sentiments of the characters the actors might has well all have been waving flags with “we aren’t anti-semitic really” written on.

  15. Dan Terrell says:

    It is not just in the area of books and plays. Johann Sebastian Bach’s St. John’s Passion paticularly is also problematic.
    It is his first Passion, very expressive, and a bit rougher in composition than his other major and lengthy choral works. Because of his depiction in narrative, song and music of the trial and execution of the Christ, the Jewish citizens crying for his death come off badly. They are the ones who are depicted here to be the force behind his execution.
    Bach wrote the piece to inspire Christians during the holy weekend of Easter 1724. Lutheranism was, and is an evangelical faith, created by Martin Luther after his break from the Catholic church.
    The St. John Passion is still often presented in a secular, multi-year rotation with other Easter works. It is a major world work of original music and Bach is the go to composer for All composers and musicians since his revival 50 to 100 years after his death in 1750. His music is studied and written about by persons of nearly all the major religions and many people of the Jewish faith.
    (In some sections the St. John this is so dramatic, it could be a blueprint for John Williams or the Bond-film composers.)
    Before a performance, or at the least in the concert program, it is now always explained that it is a product of the times in which it was written and first presented. It is so important, so well created, and so beautiful in performance that it is worth performing with noted reservations. And the times in which it was written were most controlling of the Jews, and others, who traded in Leipzig and in all Europe. This was common with all “outsiders” throughout the world.
    The majority of the Jews – and many others – trading in the free city of Leipzig had to stay outside the walled inner city, had to register, and had to pay a trading fee as this was trade protection for the city’s businesses. Jewish people and others could only enter the city, and had to depart, at certain hours, and travelling tradesmen mostly set up to do business during the several annual Trade Fairs.
    So it was, but the groundbreaking music of the St. John Passion is so important it needs to be performed, but absolutely without change and absolutely with a preface.

  16. Helen Martin says:

    Alistair McLean is out of print? I just received a catalogue today – admittedly, publishers’ remainders – with both Guns of Navarone and Force 10 from Navarone on offer. The only two of his, though. Perhaps I should order them, though since the copies we had fell apart from reading years ago. “Guns…” was the first war story I ever read and enjoyed.

  17. Bob Low says:

    Admin’s idea of a short preface putting some older works of fiction in their social and historical context is a very good idea. I recently bought an omnibus edition of the works of H. Rider Haggard, from an American publisher called Wildside Press. The books are unexpurgated, and have a notice on one of the front pages, which reads-”This book is a product of its time and does not reflect the same values as it would if it were written today. Parents might wish to discuss with their children how views on race, gender, sexuality, ethnicity and interpersonal relationships have changed since this book was written before allowing them to read this classic work.”
    It’s great to see people still read Len Deighton. He was my late father’s favourite spy writer, and I recently re-read a couple of his books, including ”The Ipcress File”, which reads more like a Kafka-esque nightmare, than anything else. I agree with Jon, that his writing about London in the sixties is extremely evocative, and his plots are fascinating.
    I never warmed to Bulldog Drummond-I tried reading one of his books when I was about twelve, and even in the unenlightened early eighties, there was a nastiness to the tone that was very unpleasant. Leslie Charteris, however, still rocks, as does the ever-green Simon Templar.

  18. Bob Low says:

    Helen-Alistair MacLean was another boyhood favourite-his best novel might be his first, ”HMS ULysses”. It’s an extremely harrowing war novel, based on MacLean’s own experiences serving on a convoy ship, and is quite different from his later, more fun adventure stories. I haven’t seen a copy in years though. I borrowed it from our school library.

  19. Dan Terrell says:

    Bob: Here in the States a number of MacLean’s are available on Amazon. There are a few new paperback editions, some Kindel editions, a couple of reprint hardbacks, and plenty of previously-read books on offer. I have read nearly all of his novels and they were quite good for a long run.
    Needn’t say this, but it’s interesting film trivia: I have a large brass belled and wood handled handbell, such as was used in “Ice Station Zebra.” It was given out by MGM to newspaper and magazine critics when they released the film. I’m not a critic, but was given the bell by the company’s publicity department. We used it to call in my son evenings. It’s loud as it should be if you’re lost on the ice. It sits in honour on top of my bookcases devoted to crime, mystery, suspense, thriller, and – of course – adventure novels. (Never had the opportunity to mention this before, but it’s a bit of somewhat interesting film buff stuff and there are many here.)

  20. Ken Murray says:

    A couple of years back I wanted to revisit some of McLean’s novels but had a hard time finding any. However here in Wellington we’re lucky enough to have the Wellington Book Fair. Basically it’s run by the City Mission charity, who collect donated books (some new some old) from sources such as publishers, libraries and members of the public. Then once a year in the city’s TBS Arena (seats a couple of thousand) they sell the lot off for charity. It’s become an institution and always generates cues of booklovers around the block. Over the years I’ve managed to pick up nearly a complete set of McLean and other out of print tomes I had been searching years for. The other great thing is that for all those books that can be classed as ‘one time reads’ you can donate them back for others to enjoy, and all for a good cause.

  21. Helen Martin says:

    Ken: you might want to keep an eye out for benches which might have books lurking on them. I know there is an active bookcrossing group in the area and you might find one of your sought-afters has been released there. Those big charity sales are always a great source for books. Our library has one every year, too, but I’m not good in crowds so I frequent our church sale, which turns up all sorts of surprising things, and the local bookcrossing group which has me buying a number of authors I wouldn’t otherwise have considered. They’ll drag me into the 21st century whether I want to or not.

  22. Bob Low says:

    Dan-it’s good to hear that MacLean’s work is still out there, and being enjoyed. He did have a very good run of consistently fine adventure novels, and even the later ones, when he was starting to repeat himself, were immaculately crafted. I loved his war stories, but a couple of others I remember particularly liking as well were ”When Eight Bells Toll”, and ”Puppet On a Chain”-the latter surprisingly hard edged in some of its action, I seem to recall.

    Lovely anecdote about the ”Ice Station Zebra” bell!

  23. Vivienne says:

    I have just finished ‘The Content Assignment’ written 1948 by Holly Roth – an old green Penguin I found. Excellent story or, as the Observer review at the time said “Spastically tense thriller ..definitely exciting” This gave me quite a jolt – I actually had to look up spastic to find the correct derivation of ‘drawing in’.

  24. Hi there,
    I’ve just bought (and read) Invisible Ink on Kindle. I definitely liked the more random style. It’s a book to open randomly, dip-in and find something interesting (which is not so easy on the Kindle). I fear that you have done irreparable damage to my bank balance, but I’ll be happier, so swings and roundabouts!
    My own forgotten author would probably be Thorne Smith. I’d be tempted to nominate Peter Dickinson and Norman Hunter, but their books are easy to find. I just don’t know many people who’ve even heard of them.

    Thank you for ‘Invisible Ink’ and bringing some gems to my attention. Bring on ‘More Invisible Ink’.

    P.S. There are a couple of typos in the Kindle version.

  25. glasgow1975 says:

    Disney’s 1946 release Song Of The South has never been released to home movie in the US, and even outwith the US has only been released on video/laserdisc up to the early 90s, with no dvd/bluray updated option forthcoming. . .
    Zip-a-Dee-Doo-Dah won the Oscar for Best Song but even at the time the film was seen as problematic/controversial.

  26. Dan Terrell says:

    Dennis: I am surprised to see that the book can be downloaded and read on Kindle for free – for a short time – if you are a Prime member. I intend to buy and down load so there is no time pressure. Thorne Smith was great. “Was it a pair of smokey stepins on a girl, or a smokey girl in stepins?” Very cool. And Peter Dickinson was so good and some of his books are still available. Sleep and His Brother, The Glass-sided Ants Nest, etc. each of his books was an enclosed world of its own.
    Dennis: As I kid I loved Song of the South, Uncle R was great and the stories were fun. I loved the crows and at my age I saw nothing wrong with them, but now is another time and I doubt the film will be rereleased even with disclaimers. A shame. I can’t time you how often a sang Zip-a-Dee-Doo-Dah and so did my friends. “…What a wonderful day, plenty of sunshine, coming my way, Admin should be smilin’, Zip-a-Dee-yah, Bryant is putterin’, May’s on the way…”

  27. Helen Martin says:

    I loved Song of the South, too, the stories and all, especially the tar baby, but no, in spite of the wonderful animation – remember the bluebirds? – and the art and the sound, there are too many problems, including with the tar baby of course.
    I was at my favourite bookstore yesterday, a small very crowded shop, and I looked for McLean and Deighton, both of which were definitely present, so I have a “new” copy of Navarone and a couple of others. You people are filling my house with far more books than I have room for. The shop keeper is of Japanese origin and we talked about the standards of other times and places. He agreed that people should read the stuff, but he really agreed with the idea of a disclaiming preface.

  28. Ken M says:

    One author I stumbled upon by chance was Eric Nicol. I haven’t read any of his newspaper work, but his novel “Dickens of the Mounted” is a wonderful read.

  29. Helen Martin says:

    Where are you, Ken? Eric Nicol was a columnist in the Vancouver Province. He wrote a play called “Her Scienceman Lover” which UBC put on every frosh week for years. He and his bride traveled their first year so he could write Girdle Me a Globe and the scone recipe I’ve used for years was from his Don’t Move, a book about their house renovation.

  30. Ken M says:

    I am in London somewhat North of Mr Fowler. I bought the paperback on holiday in Canada last century. I have subsequently found one of his other books on Kindle, containing this magnificent sentence:
    “The main benefit from writing for the stage is not financial but social, as the playwright gets to meet a lot of people – director, actors, stagehands – whom he might otherwise never have hated.”

Comments are closed.