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Book Notes

J.D. Wyss
The Swiss Family Robinson (1813)

from Vanamonde #768 (2008)

A friend gave me J.D. Wyss, The Swiss Family Robinson (1813), which I thus read for the first time, with delight. Robinson, no Swiss name, refers to D. Defoe, Robinson Crusoe (1719), a copy of which appears in the story. I received the 1990 Signet Classic, whose condescending afterword does call attention to some of the troubles with the text; Johann David Wyss (1743-1818) left a rough manuscript, his son Johann Rudolf (1781-1830, later chief librarian of the University of Bern and author of "Rufst du, mein Vaterland" ("When thou call'st, my fatherland"; also in French, Italian, and Romansch), the Swiss national anthem until 1981) finished it for publication, it was first Englished in 1816 (by Mary & William Godwin!), whereafter various hands sought to improve it. Penguin Classics in 2007 reprinted the 1816 version, with an introduction no less inane in its commentary but more detailed on the text history.

The Signet editor prefers her version as "eliminating a good deal [of] mid-nineteenth century interpolation [p. 333 (afterword)]" but it keeps the attacking serpent, the language study in books rescued from the shipwreck, the ten-year pause, the castaway Emily Montrose, and much else added by Isabella de Bottens, Baroness de Montolieu (1751-1832). For me one flash from 1816 lit the whole world of Central European authoritarianism: "It is imprudent at all times [the father speaks] for a tutor to contradict himself, and thus prove to his pupils that he was wrong in issuing such or such a command; a single word revoked on the part of the tutor will occasion ten to be revoked by the pupil [Penguin ed., p. 200]." Aha, the tutor's side of the story!

But the genius of this book is its eye for the telling detail. To s-f fans it is a model of exploring an alien world. In fact it is mostly explanation of how things were achieved, and thereby something of a shock: it succeeds where science fiction has notoriously failed: how dey do dat? Can it better liken the unfamiliar to the familiar, managing strangeness by the watchword of Robert Southey's tale "The Three Bears" (1836; originally with a bad old woman, not a young Goldilocks), not too much, not too little, but just right?