Sunday 17 August 2014

On the real thing

In the current issue of the Times Literary Supplement there is a full-page advertisement for THE COMPLETE PROSE OF T. S. ELIOT offering 'unprecedented digital access to material that has been restricted or inaccessible for almost fifty years'.

This is an event. For the first time in one place the collected, uncollected and unpublished prose of one of the most prolific and influential writers of the twentieth century

Volumes 1 and 2, covering 1905-1918 and 1919-1926 respectively, will be available on Eliot's birthday, 26th September.

But (and this is a big but, so BUT) this invaluable edition will not be available in book form, only as an online resource. At least I can see no sign in the advertisement that there are any plans to make the material available in print.

This, if the case, is a watershed moment and one to note with sorrow. As Faber continue diligently and exhaustively to publish Eliot's letters (rather too many of which are short formal notes to contributors The Criterion and humdrum exchanges that would best appear in an online archive), the Complete Prose (every bit as important as the correspondence and, what's more, intended for a public readership) will languish on an academic website. Eliot scholarship is still first rate, and I have no doubt that the Complete Prose will be diligently edited by Ronald Schuchard. What's lost to the reader, however, is a continuity, and a physical engagement with the print medium which was, of course, Eliot's only publishing option. This is a real loss, and not only for those of us who still value books as convenient tools (provided they have all the once-standard apparatus of footnotes, index etc).

Not unrelatedly - I went recently to a screening at the BFI Southbank (the former National Film Theatre, a title now dropped presumably because it implied that there's something special about the capital and that the provinces simply aren't up to scratch when it comes to definitive institutions). The film in question was Chinese and made in 1948, Spring in a Small Town.

But it wasn't really a screening. The film wasn't projected from behind us onto the screen because there was no film to project. What we had paid to see, it turned out, was a digital version - a DVD. If I'd wanted to see this film on DVD I'd have bought the DVD.

Nowhere in the BFI Southbank programme was this made clear and while I can hardly accuse the programmers of deception I expect they've talked this through and decided that the average punter isn't too fussy so why bother to flag up what amounts to a mild deception? But how would it be if the Old Masters in the National Gallery were suddenly and without explanation replaced with high-grade photocopies? We'd feel short-changed, wouldn't we? To say the least.

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