The question of migration and its impact on societies is everywhere in the print and broadcast media. So too on social media.
Today we are launching our Book Pick of the Month. Just to get things off to a good start we decided to subvert the one book rule and select two! Why make a rule if you can’t break it? Our choices for the Book Pick’s first outing are How to be an Alien. A Handbook for Beginners and Advanced Learners by George Mikes and Winnie Ille Pu (The Latin Edition) by A. A. Milne, translated by Alexander Lenard.
At first glance these two books may seem like odd bedfellows but on closer inspection the common factor is the shared experience of migration of the author of one and the translator of the other. ¹
George Mikes and How to be an Alien
George Mikes was born in Hungary in 1912 under the reign of the Austro-Hungarian Emperor Franz Josef. Whilst his father had ambitions that George would follow his profession of the law, his son’s interest lay in writing and journalism. After graduating in Budapest in 1933, George gained his first post as a journalist for the Budapest newspaper Reggel (“Morning”), shortly followed by writing a column for Színházi Élet (“Theatre Life”).
By 1938 he was the London correspondent for Reggel and 8 Órai Ujság (“8 O’Clock Paper”), a post he held until 1940. Despatched to London to cover the Munich Crisis he was only expected to stay for a couple of weeks. In fact he stayed for the rest of his life, becoming a British citizen in 1946.
Mikes’ real talent was as a humourist. In a long career he wrote over 40 books, 35 of them humorous and many post-war British classics. He was recognised as a blender of elements of Hungarian, English and Jewish humour.
His most successful and outright best-selling title was How to be an Alien, first published in 1946, translated into 22 languages and published in 39 countries. In it he portrayed himself as a bumbling alien who describes the habits of the natives in the vast, strange but friendly “country” of London. ²
Quoted examples of his gentle and wry poking of fun at the British still ring true:
“Continental people have a sex life, British people a hot water bottle”, “An Englishman, even if he is alone, forms a queue of one”, “Many Continentals think life is a game; the English think cricket is a game”, “Overstatement, too, plays a considerable part in English social life. This takes mostly the form of someone remarking: ‘I say …’ and then keeping silent for three days on end”, and a particular favourite, “Remember: If you go for a walk with a friend in England, don’t say a single word for hours; if you go for a walk with your dog, talk to it all the time.”
To accompany the witticism of Mikes’ observations the book was illustrated by Nicholas Bentley who captured the essence of the author’s comic perspective.
Alexander Lenard and Winnie Ille Pu
In the case of Alexander Lenard, born in Budapest in 1910, the unexpected success of his Latin translation of A. A. Milne’s classic and beloved story of the bear Winnie the Pooh and his friends Christopher Robin, Piglet, Eeyore, and Tigger, threw the spotlight of fame on to an otherwise almost reclusive 50 year-old Hungarian-born doctor who spoke 12 languages, who with his wife Andrietta was resettled in Brazil in 1952 by the International Refugee Organization. One of the few possessions they took with them on their odyssey to find a safe haven was an English language edition of Winnie the Pooh.
Because his Austrian medical degree was not recognised in Brazil, Lenard worked as a nurse in a lead mine, a pharmacist, and a translator at medical conferences. Eventually buying land in the sparsely populated Itajai valley in Southern Brazil the Lenards built a two-room house where he painted, wrote poetry and indulged his passion for Bach. In 1956 Lenard won the equivalent of $2,000 on the Sao Paolo Television Bach Competition. With the winnings more land was purchased and a larger house was built.
When teaching Latin to the daughter of a local resident who expressed a wish for something interesting to read in the language Lenard began translating Winnie the Pooh. Over a period of seven years he mined the classics for idiomatic expressions used in ancient Rome and its empire. Whereas the original was a children’s book Lenard’s “Pu” was filled with puns and alliteration from centuries of Latin literature.
Not able to find a publisher for his “Pu” Lenard paid a printer in Sao Paolo to publish a print run of 100 copies, sending review copies to foreign publishers. This led to a Swedish publisher printing 2,000 copies of an abridged version which in turn prompted Methuen, A. A. Milne’s publisher, to publish several thousand. Milne’s American publisher Dutton, published “Pu” in 1960 with the result that Lenard’s book remained on the New York Times bestseller list for 20 weeks – a feat unheard of for a foreign language book let alone one written entirely in Latin.
The New York Times writer, Lewis Nicholls described it as ” … the greatest book a dead language has ever known.” The Chicago Tribune exclaimed that “… it does more to attract interest in Latin than Cicero, Caesar and Virgil combined.”
The message from these two Hungarian migrants, writers both, is that we are all someone else’s foreigner. And that includes a funny little bear and an alien.
¹ Strictly speaking Lenard and his wife were refugees.
² As a matter of interest Montesquieu used this satirical literary device in his Lettres Persanes to excoriate and satirise French society especially that of the court of Louis XVI. It was first published in 1721.
Read more about George Mikes here
Read more about Alexander Lenard here
I’m a fan of the English writer Julian Barnes; I admire his economical use of language and his careful construction of the plot lines and psycho-drama of his novels. A little while back I read his tenth book Arthur and George, first published in 2005, and what struck me was how well he had researched a criminal case that became an Edwardian cause célèbre with, to boot, the involvement of the creator of the great fictional detective Sherlock Holmes, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle.
George Edjali, a young lawyer of mixed race – whose father was an Indian Parsee who converted to Christianity, became a clergyman, and came to England to take up a country parish in Staffordshire – was accused of the crime of “ripping horses” in Wyrley in 1903.
These incidents became known as the “Great Wyrley Outrages” and were sensationalised in the newspapers of the day. Edjali was arrested, charged and sentenced to seven years penal servitude, reduced to three after a petition was raised for his release. Conan Doyle became involved when he read of Edjali’s determination to clear his name and his family’s reputation, and resume his professional life after having been banned from practising law.
Conan Doyle investigated the circumstances surrounding the “rippings” and was convinced that Edjali was an innocent man. Using his celebrity to generate public interest in the case, he lobbied the Home Office for a pardon and due compensation for Edjali. One of the outcomes of this campaign and the light it threw on certain legal and police procedural practices was the creation of the Court of Criminal Appeal in 1907.
Julian Barnes used a number of sources to help shape the novel’s characters, their motivation, their psychology, and to convey the social attitudes of the period. Conan Doyle was convinced that Edjali was convicted of the crimes due to two critical factors: firstly that he was of mixed race and reportedly “looked strange”, and second that the Staffordshire Constabulary was not only incompetent but made the crime fit the man. What had convinced Conan Doyle of Edjali’s innocence was on first meeting him he noticed the younger man’s severe myopia; Doyle had once been a specialist in opthalmology before finding success as a writer.
Seeing, yet not seeing, lies at the heart of Arthur and George. It’s a powerful rumination on identity, Englishness, life and death, guilt and innocence, and the grey space existing between.
For further information and material on the Edjali case see Birmingham City Council archives at http://www.birmingham.gov.uk/edalji
For information about George Edjali see http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/George_Edalji
To listen to a 1987 BBC radio dramatization of the case click on https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ePHl02pqjQE
For the Conan Doyle letters to the Chief Constable of Staffordfordshire concerning the Edalji Case see http://www.bonhams.com/auctions/22713/lot/134/