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Ken Follett

Folio Society devotees

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1NLNils
Nov 6, 1:34am Top

I've read Pillars Of The Earth and the first two books of the Century trilogy (Fall Of Giants; Winter Of The World; Edge OF Eternity) by Ken Follett. I found them to be good reads. He is now in the twilight of his writing career but still cranking out books on the regular. Are there more devotees who like his writing? As I read a lot of love for Hilary Mantel here and almost never hear about her male 'counterpart' in historical fiction, I'm curious. I would definitely like to have good FS editions of the aforementioned books and maybe other titles. It's intriguing to think about the illustrations which could accompany them.

2ironjaw
Edited: Nov 6, 3:32am Top

I’ve never read his books, but see them all the time in Waterstones and Tesco/Sainsbury’s. As of yet I haven’t ventured over to historical fiction, but did pick up the limited editions of Hilary Mantel when they were released. I think he’s quite popular in Denmark

3HuxleyTheCat
Nov 6, 3:42am Top

I’m definitely a devotee who very much enjoys Ken Follet’s novels, and I would buy Folio editions of the Kingsbridge series almost certainly. Male counterpart of Hilary Mantel is not really a comparison I’d make though, as Follet’s novels are essentially well written page turners. I can’t see my compatriot being nominated for the Booker once let alone win twice. Still very enjoyable novels though and with the popularity to suggest decent sales should Folio consider publishing them.

4Willoyd
Edited: Nov 6, 4:03am Top

I think it would be further acknowledgement that the FS had left its original aim "to produce editions of the world's great literature, in a format worthy of the contents, at a price within the reach of everyman" yet further behind them. Male counterpart to Mantel? Not a comparison I'd have made either!

5HuxleyTheCat
Nov 6, 4:30am Top

>4 Willoyd: That original aim went out of the window years ago and, for me, Follet would be an elevation in quality of writing over Forsyth.

6Raenas
Edited: Nov 6, 12:57pm Top

>4 Willoyd: Follett is a good story teller, who also does proper background research. There are more than fancy sentences one could love a book for.

7Uppernorwood
Nov 6, 2:07pm Top

I read Pillars of the Earth earlier this year and really enjoyed it. For a 1,000 page book it didnt feel long at all.

I would say he's operating in an area very different to Hillary Mantel, so it's not really a good comparison. He's never going to be nominated for the Booker (and I dont see why that should be a yardstick of literary merit either).

I will say I actually finished his book without feeling like I was crawling through it for some kind of penance, which is more than can I can of Middlemarch, for example.

8Willoyd
Edited: Nov 6, 3:54pm Top

>5 HuxleyTheCat:
That original aim went out of the window years ago
Yes, I'd agree, and that is partly the point I was trying to make. What I'm saddest about is the increasing imbalance.

Follet would be an elevation in quality of writing over Forsyth.
Very possibly!

>6 Raenas:
Follett is a good story teller, who also does proper background research. There are more than fancy sentences one could love a book for.
And great books are is, of course, not about fancy sentences. I'm sure Follett is a good story teller for many, although I've never managed to get more than 100 pages in before abandoning.

>7 Uppernorwood:
I read Pillars of the Earth earlier this year and really enjoyed it.
I've read and enjoyed many books of all sorts. Only a very small proportion of them would I want to see being given the FS treatment.

the Booker (and I dont see why that should be a yardstick of literary merit either)
Totally agree!

I will say I actually finished his book without feeling like I was crawling through it for some kind of penance, which is more than can I can of Middlemarch, for example.
Yes, there are many widely acclaimed 'great' books which I've found very difficult (Joyce and James jump to mind). Middlemarch is, OTOH, one of my all-time favourite books, one of I have returned to on numerous occasions, so am sorry that you found it rather different! There are, equally, plenty of books where I've reached the end fairly easily, without rating them particularly highly.

9gmacaree
Nov 6, 5:07pm Top

If the original aim was to produce "editions of the world's great literature" they never met it in the first place.

10NLNils
Nov 7, 12:58am Top

>3 HuxleyTheCat: >4 Willoyd: I brought up Hilary because she also writes successful historical fiction. Having never read her books, apparently they are different in style and maybe quality(?). I can concur that the early books by Follett are pageturners, His Kingsbridge and Century books are a little more than that, to put it mildly. Very wel researched books and with a lot of information to digest up front before turning over to page 1 of hundreds per book.

11HuxleyTheCat
Nov 7, 4:31am Top

>10 NLNils: For me what differentiates between them is the amount of intellectual effort required. To put it simply, I enjoy Follet’s books very much for the story and, in relation to his historical novels, his description of the world. Mantel demands a bit more from me, the reader. Others who have read and enjoyed both may well view things differently.

12Willoyd
Nov 7, 11:01am Top

>9 gmacaree:
If the original aim was to produce "editions of the world's great literature" they never met it in the first place.
Really?

13gmacaree
Nov 7, 11:22am Top

>12 Willoyd: Europe's, maybe.

14elladan0891
Nov 7, 3:23pm Top

>13 gmacaree:
If by "Europe" you really mean one particular island in its Northwestern corner, with exceptions so rare they only prove the rule.

>12 Willoyd:
I agree with >9 gmacaree:. And even putting the issue of representation of the non-British world aside, you still need to be able to say with a straight face that R.S. Surtees is one of the world's greatest writers.

On the other hand, early FS published some very interesting memoirs and various accounts of historical events by their contemporaries/participants. Nobody would ever call them "world's great literature", but I'm sure glad FS didn't actually limit themselves to the original aim.

15NLNils
Nov 7, 3:33pm Top

>11 HuxleyTheCat: Which book by Mantel is a good starting point to a complete novice on her?

16podaniel
Nov 7, 4:19pm Top

For a Mantel beginner, I'd recommend A Place of Greater Safety. This should have been the book that made her reputation: a giant, sprawling epic about the French Revolution where she portrays the key historical players as "young men on the make" (this may sound vaguely familiar regarding some of the historical characters in her current historical fiction about the English Reformation).

17NLNils
Edited: Nov 7, 4:51pm Top

>16 podaniel: I appreciate your answer. The time period is better aligned with my own interests in history as well. Will seek out a (secondhand) paperback. Thanks!

18boldface
Nov 7, 5:57pm Top

>9 gmacaree:
>12 Willoyd:
>14 elladan0891: etc.

Folio's original mission statement about the world's greatest literature was made in 1947 to appeal to an almost exclusively white, middle-class, and I suspect largely monoglot, British readership, who were generally comfortable with traditional country pursuits like foxhunting. It's not really surprising that their more international, multicultural and more ecologically-aware readers of today might well raise an eyebrow or three to their early and middle-period choices.

(Surtees, in my opinion, when he's not purely pursuing the fox, is still good for his incidental descriptions of early nineteenth-century English life and customs, even though he's not a great writer.)

19Willoyd
Edited: Nov 7, 6:11pm Top

>14 elladan0891:
If by "Europe" you really mean one particular island in its Northwestern corner, with exceptions so rare they only prove the rule.
So, that's why almost half (10/22) of the first three years' publications came from writers from outside that one particular island.

>13 gmacaree:
Europe's, maybe.
Yes, I would agree that the FS, particularly early on, has been rather (too much so for my taste) Euro-centric, with occasional exceptions - I've long stated on here that I would like to see them tackle more American literature for instance - but even if only restricted to Europe, a good proportion of it was still amongst the greats.

>14 elladan0891:
you still need to be able to say with a straight face that R.S. Surtees is one of the world's greatest writers.
Oh, absolutely - the FS has never only published 'great' literature, and there's always been at least the odd head-scratcher (why on earth....?). However, they still majored in 'editions of the world's greatest literature' even if those were mostly European, indeed British (last I checked, Europe was still part of the world!).

My point was that they appear to be moving ever further away from that standard, particularly when considering 'new' (ie, not done by the FS before or, at least, not for a long time) works. I just find it a pity that, with all the great literature to go at (especially all that neglected work from outside Britain and even Europe!), they are doing so little, and prioritising some of the authors and works that they do. But, probably, needs must.

20Jayked
Nov 7, 6:54pm Top

Here's a list of the authors published by Folio, at the rate of 12 a year, before the first Surtees: Anon (Aucassin..), Shakespeare, Tolstoy, du Maurier, Voltaire, de Quincey, Anatole France, Stevenson, Gautier, Homer, Brooke, Swift, Sterne, 1001 Nights, Merimee, Walton, Brothers Grimm -- an insular second-rate bunch to be sure, followed by Trollope, Shelley, Sheridan, Thackeray...
You will note that with the exception of Brooke all date from at latest the 19th century, because that was part of the mandate, a period which provides slim pickings from American literature. Nevertheless in the first few years Folio published Poe, Melville, Crane and Wilder. Wilder, incidentally, made it into print before any British novelist of the 20th century.
As to the original members, they've been dismissed in the past as randy clergymen, and now as monoglot bumpkins given to country pursuits. I was an early member, and like most others a city dweller. The monoglot characterisation is particularly ludicrous. In order to enter university, in any discipline, you had to be proficient in Latin, and since you didn't know at age 11 what the future would hold, you learned it just in case. In high school you also took one modern language, usually French, and I took German in addition.

21elladan0891
Edited: Nov 8, 1:15am Top

>18 boldface: I actually think it's perfectly normal for people to gravitate towards literature of their own folk, and my earlier comment wasn't meant as a criticism of the publishing choices of the early/middle years of the FS.

...when he's not purely pursuing the fox, is still good for his incidental descriptions... even though he's not a great writer

I have nothing against publishing Surtees, especially at the time when he was more widely read and appreciated. But that's the thing - there is a difference between "good for incidental descriptions" and "great", especially world great. And then Surtees is just as peculiarly British and travels across the Channel just as well as two separate faucets for hot and cold water or railway carriage doors with handles on the outside only (for folks not in the know: to exit many a British train you need to 1) lower the door's window 2) stick your arm all the way out 3) lean out some more 4) grab the handle on the OUTSIDE of the door 5) open the door without falling out - and voila, free at last). Ok, perhaps Surtees is not nearly as bad as the carriage doors, and even good in places, but he's still virtually unknown outside of the UK and the former colonies - even wikipedia has an article on him in only 1 language other than English (a one-liner in Swedish). So all in all - not exactly a prime candidate for "world's great literature"

And that's what I was trying to say - not that I think Folio published bad stuff, it's just the "world's great literature" moniker in particular might not be best to describe FS output as a whole.

>19 Willoyd: ...half (10/22) of the first three years' publications...

Sure, but Ede was at the helm of the FS until 1970 or 1971. And I don't think there is anything wrong when British publisher focuses more on British works. It's just that "world's greatest literature" is not the first thing that comes to my mind when looking at the list of Folio's earlier titles.

a good proportion of it was still amongst the greats

A good proportion - absolutely, but then a good proportion wasn't, and I don't mean it as a criticism. For example, A Voice From the Ranks, Discovery of Tahiti, Galley Slave, Memoir of the Forty-Five and many others don't fit into the category, yet I'm interested in these personal historic memoirs more than in some of the "world's great literature".

And then there is a question of how great "world's great" should be. Mademoiselle de Maupin? Rupert Brooke? I actually have the recent Brooke LE, but if asked to name greatest poets just in the English language alone, where would Brooke come in? I feel that FS catalogue has many solid entries many of which fall a bit short of the moniker.

>20 Jayked: See above. Not that they are horrible, but I can think of hundreds of titles more fitting the original aim than Mademoiselle de Maupin or Rupert Brooke. Unless the aim was to produce "world's great but not greatest".... And even then I'm not so sure.

You will note that with the exception of Brooke all date from at latest the 19th century, because that was part of the mandate, a period which provides slim pickings from American literature.

But why such a mandate? In the 60s, when Ede was still the owner, or even in the 50s, it was already perfectly clear that Hemingway, Fitzgerald, and many other early 20th century writers passed the test of time. And when stepping outside of the British canon, why just American literature? FS did publish some French and a few Russians and Americans, but to claim to be worldly you need many more Russians and Americans, and then where are the Germans, Austrians, Czechs, etc.? And that's just the Western canon.

Again, nothing against early FS, just don't think the stated original aim was the most accurate phrase to describe what Folio was doing.

22drasvola
Nov 8, 1:44am Top

Just to add my ten-cent's worth, Folio published its first Spanish "world class" literature in 1957 (El Zarco the bandit), The Remarkable Life of Don Diego in 1958, The Life of the Admiral Christopher Columbus in 1960. 1961 was a great year, The Conquest of New Granada came first and then, finally a true hit, Don Quixote.

23HuxleyTheCat
Nov 8, 4:32am Top

>16 podaniel: >17 NLNils: If you prefer the French revolutionary period to Tudor England then, yes, A Place of Greater Safety is a fine place to start. I prefer Wolf Hall and think it’s utterly brilliant but that may be a reflection of my own preference and familiarity with the historical period.

If you enjoyed Pillars of the Earth then perhaps you may also enjoy Edward Rutherford’s Sarum which is an easy, albeit lengthy, read in similar vein.

24stopsurfing
Nov 8, 6:22am Top

Just to throw my 2cents in: I read pillars of the earth in German as part of my learning German efforts and found the writing better than the original. Perhaps it’s just my subjective experience (when you have to struggle in another language a bit maybe a book seems more like literature?) but a bilingual friend came to the same conclusion. A rare case of the translation being better than the original perhaps? I never had that feeling when reading Dan Brown in German but perhaps he’s irredeemable!

25Fierylunar
Edited: Nov 8, 9:18am Top

>24 stopsurfing: I know of one main translator who is widely credited with improving the original book: Venugopalan Ittekot, who translated Terry Pratchett's Discworld novels to Dutch. He not only managed to keep the humour of the original books, but was able to capture the essence of the joke in English culture and transpose that to a Dutch equivalent if it didn't work when translated literally. I do not want to know how much time he spent making those translations, there is a lot of attention to detail in them.

While I usually prefer reading Dutch books in English translation (Dutch, my native language, is not a pretty or efficient language for expressing thought in my opinion; I regularly struggle finding a Dutch version of an English/Latin word I'd like to use), Pratchett's are the only books I can enjoy in both the English original and the Dutch translation. (The only other example of a better translation I've read was Jonathan Safran Foer's Everything is Illuminated, which was incomprehensible in English due to the internal narrator's lack of grasp on the English language).

26coynedj
Nov 8, 9:31am Top

A philosophy professor of my acquaintance told me that German philosophy students prefer to read the English translations of Heidegger's works, because the original is just too impenetrable. At least, I think it was Heidegger - I'll have to ask him next time we talk.

27stopsurfing
Nov 8, 9:46am Top

>25 Fierylunar: Nice when the improvement is into your own language for a change I imagine.

Some authors can’t be improved on. I came to Hermann Hesse in English translation, and became a fan. One of my motivations for learning German was to read him in the original. When I read ‘Narziss und Goldmund’ for the first time in German I could appreciate what a master of the German language he was; translation of his work will always be a compromise (though I still want folio to do that book). Unfortunately I’m a very pedestrian writer, otherwise I would try translating it myself.

In your opinion, from the perspective of a second language reader, who would be the masters of the English language? I find it far easier to judge a good or otherwise writer in German than in my own English. I guess with English, style is far more transparent/invisible for me than German...

28dlphcoracl
Nov 8, 4:20pm Top

My two cents, FWLIW:

1. The change in material the FS publishes should be no cause for alarm or consternation amongst the older FSD set (which includes myself). It is inevitable and necessary if the FS is to survive in the 21st century. Younger readers consider sci-fi, apocalyptic, horror literature essential reading and the FS must reflect and attract this younger and newer readership. The millennials are not to be castigated because this is their preference over reading Don Quixote, Homer, Shakespeare, etc. They are to be commended and applauded for putting down their smartphones for a few hours to pick up and read a physical book. I certainly do not need the umpteenth reissue of Charles Dickens, etc. and the FS is to be applauded for doing what is necessary to stay afloat. They still publish enough of interest to the older, more classically-oriented and traditional readership to be relevant. The wonderful edition of Montaigne's Essays is but one example.

2. Translations from foreign languages will rarely be comparable to reading the work in the original language. A perfect translation would precisely convey the meaning of the work while preserving the poetry and command of language the author possessed, a feat well-nigh impossible to achieve. I am quite pleased to find translations that render the original work in concise, accurate terms that a modern reader can appreciate. If the translator can also preserve and convey a bit of the original language's poetry and quirkiness without it being obtrusive, so much the better. While not perfect, the Edith Grossman translation of 'Don Quixote' and the Hollanders translation of Dante's 'The Divine Comedy' are wonderful examples of what a skilled and sympathetic translator can achieve.

29Fierylunar
Nov 8, 5:13pm Top

>27 stopsurfing: I have no illusions of having read anywhere near enough English writers to make this a comprehensive list, but I remember these authors for their choice of words, syntaxis or general pleasure to read: Edgar Allan Poe (I've been infatuated with Annabel Lee since I first encountered it in high school, and enjoyed plenty of other poems by him), Seamus Heany (for his marvelous work on Beowulf), Oscar Wilde and Ray Bradbury for the ways in which the language conveys the story they're telling. Mind you, I dislike some quite fondly adored authors as well, and the language can never make up for a story I find uninteresting to read. E.g. James Joyce's Ulysses and Finnegan's Wake I've only read fragments from and while the English was interesting at least and always thought provoking, the story never truly captured my fancy (as is usually the case for stream of consciousness).

30Willoyd
Edited: Nov 8, 5:51pm Top

>28 dlphcoracl:
I certainly do not need the umpteenth reissue of Charles Dickens, etc. and the FS is to be applauded for doing what is necessary to stay afloat. They still publish enough of interest to the older, more classically-oriented and traditional readership to be relevant. The wonderful edition of Montaigne's Essays is but one example.

My point is that 'the umpteenth reissue of Charles Dickens etc" is pretty much all they're doing when it comes to classic fiction. I'm glad you like the most recent Montaigne's Essays - I'm sure very nice, but yet another rehash, and, following the trend, not the complete set.

I'm not against rehashes/reissues, and welcome the broadening of genres, I'm just disappointed at the deterioration on the more classic side of things and the increasing emphasis on the more 'popular' at the former's cost. Flicking down their 'classic fiction' list, there's really only two non-LE 'new' (ie not reissue or rehash) titles in the whole list: Outlaws of the Marsh and Three Men on a Bummel (although struggle to regard that as a real classic; East of Eden would probably count now, but isn't in that section for some reason, there may be others*), and one under 'classical texts' - Sappho. So IMO not actually much of interest to the "older, more classically oriented and traditional readership" at all. But, as said before, I suspect needs must, although I live in hope that something more adventurous and interesting will come along (Confederacy of Dunces, although too recent to be 'classic', almost got me excited, until I saw the cover!).

The millennials are not to be castigated because this is their preference over reading Don Quixote, Homer, Shakespeare, etc. They are to be commended and applauded for putting down their smartphones for a few hours to pick up and read a physical book.
I know plenty of millenials who enjoy reading beyond those low expectations!

*later edit: eg Phantom of the Opera

31Jayked
Nov 8, 6:15pm Top

Fwiw Follett's Eye Of The Needle is on BBC's list of "100 Novels that shaped our world." Might be enough to persuade FS of its commercial possibilities, though they've ignored other worthy entries.

32terebinth
Nov 8, 6:19pm Top

I hope nothing I've written suggests either alarm or consternation at Folio's direction. The economic imperatives are evident enough, so my reaction as the catalogue fills with works and translations I find uninviting or unrewarding is no more than a mild shrug. I may now and again confess a personal suspicion that the "modern reader" is impoverishing himself if he doesn't take the trouble to acquire a comfortable familiarity with anything but modern English. Very possibly I'm wrong and there are better employments for his time.

33drasvola
Nov 9, 2:18am Top

Ok, ok, I was being overly generous with my ten cents! ;)

34N11284
Edited: Nov 9, 2:25pm Top

While we are on the subject of great literature , and especially that published by FS, I came across this gem of theirs only this morning while browsing in a book store in Dublin.

" Royal Favourites" Published in 1971, being a compilation of recipes from Palace Kitchens. The recipes range from "Roast Stuffed Hare , apparently beloved of Severus Emperor of Rome from AD 222 to 235 ,through to "Mutton Pies", beloved of George 5th of England from 1910 to 1936.

Now there's literature for you! Can't wait to get my teeth into this one!

Edited for typos.

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