Saturday, 21 July 2007

Tanya Grotter

Rather than make the obligatory comment about the release of the last Harry Potter novel, I thought I'd mention a more interesting bibliographic story: the case of Tanya Grotter.

The Tanya Grotter series is a very popular Russian clone of Harry Potter by the best-selling author Dmitri Yemets. There is no doubting the origin, and Yemets is open about it: introduced in Tanya Grotter and the Magical Double Bass, Tanya is an orphan with magical powers, brought up by an abusive foster-family, who gets to go to a wizarding school, etc etc. You won't currently get to read it in translation because in 2003 lawyers for JK Rowling and Time Warner successfully brought a cease-and-desist action to prevent the release of a Dutch translation, and this is likely to be the fate of translation into other languages (see Pravda's J.K. Rowling law firm sued Russian publishing house Eksmo on plagiarism allegation and the BBC's Rowling blocks Grotter release). Rowling's lawyers argued that the Grotter books violated copyright, and Yemets and his Moscow-based publishers, Eksmo, were unsuccessful in defending it as a parody. The latter is permitted under copyright, which is why Michael Gerber's Barry Trotter series is allowed.

On the face of it, this sounds like a cut-and-dried copyright case. But Maureen O'Brien, a blogger in the USA, wrote a deal at the time about the Tanya Grotter series, suggesting that it has been misrepresented. According to Defending Tanya Grotter, the case failed to address the point that the Grotter series is not a parody (in the sense of an extended joke) but a contrafakt: a form of literature that retells a story in a different genre. Compare "contrafactum", the same concept applied to music. Maureen gives the particular examples of Sharon Shinn's Jenna Starborn and Pat Murphy's There and back again, respectively SF retellings of Jane Eyre and The Hobbit. The latter is a particularly significant precedent, as The Hobbit is still in copyright.

As described in Maureen's review , Tanya Grotter has structural similarities to Harry Potter, but is so deeply adapted to a Russian setting that, Maureen argues, it amounts to a different work (or, as Yemets put it, a "cultural reply" to the Potter series). For instance, Tanya doesn't sleep in a broom cupboard but a loggia, a glazed balcony (freezing in winter, sweltering in summer) characteristic of Russian apartments. The magical elements are rooted in Russian folklore, such as Baba Yaga and Rusalki, and general Russian culture such as the works of Pushkin and Rimsky-Korsakov's Night on Bald Mountain. You can read about some of the characters at another of Maureen O'Brien's postings, A little more measured response.....

None of these subtleties came out at the Dutch court sessions, and few commentators outside Russia bothered to investigate (news items just reported the similarities and assumed the copyright breach to be clear-cut). One exception was Tim Wu at - Harry Potter and the International Order of Copyright - who argued that the freedom to create derivative works is actually beneficial to the literary market. There have been no attempts to market a translation since then.

- Ray

Addendum: I've commented on this further in a later post, More Russification / Wind Done Gone. - Ray

Thursday, 19 July 2007

Small talk

Cecil Torr's Small Talk at Wreyland is a book that's constantly popular around here.

Torr, who lived from 1857-1928, was an interesting polymath. Described by his Times obituary for Thursday, Dec 20, 1928 as "a finely intellectual English country gentleman", he was the son of a solicitor, who was educated at Harrow and Trinity, Cambridge, then briefly took up law. But then he inherited the family estate at Wreyland, Lustleigh, and not needing to work for a living, spent the rest of his life in the duties of a country squire, travel, and scholarship. He wrote well-regarded books on the antiquities of Rhodes, ancient naval architecture and his own theory about Hannibal's route over the Alps.

In addition to these, he wrote the three-volume Small Talk series. The Times describes them as about "first of all (though he did not know it) Cecil Torr, next about Wreyland in the past and present, and then about subjects so diverse and so many that few readers (and no reviewer) could resist the fun of seeing how incongruous a list could be made out of them". I won't even try - but the flavour is, in fact, that of a wide-ranging weblog (well beyond the "Devon interest" into which it's commonly categorised).

There has been a recent reprint, but the books are old enough to be out of copyright in the USA, and all three volumes are available on the Internet Archive: Volume 1 / Volume 2 / Volume 3. They are greatly worth exploring. His more specialist works are also archived (here), including Xenophon's Expedition of Cyrus (1835), Rhodes in Ancient Times (1885), Ancient Ships (1894), Memphis and Mycenae; an examination of Egyptian chronology and its application to the early history of Greece (1896) and Hannibal crosses the Alps (1924).

- Ray


Via the community weblog MetaFilter: the official website of the Glaswegian artist and writer Alasdair Gray. For those who don't know Gray, his most famous work is the novel Lanark. It follows twin narratives of the semi-autobiographical Duncan Thaw, an unhappy asthmatic artist; and his alter ego Lanark, an amnesic man who finds himself in Unthank, a Glasgow-like dystopian city.
      Lanark's structure is unusual: its four books are arranged in the order Three, One, Two, Four. It's rich in literary allusions: Gray includes a whole chapter listing and analysing the varous "plagiarisms" (the whole structure for instance, can be viewed as a diffuse plagiarism of Charles Kingsley's The Water Babies). Postmodern literature? Fantasy? Social satire? The definitive novel on the Scottish condition? Probably all of them.
      Gray explains some of the background to it and some of his other works to Mark Axelrod at An Epistolary Interview, Mostly with Alasdair Gray. Also online, Canongate Press reprints Gray's article How Lanark grew - in Alasdair Gray's words, which is included with the Canongate Classic edition. There's much more, including examples of Gray's art (he illutstrates his own works), at the unofficial website, Lanark 1982. - Ray

Tuesday, 10 July 2007


Current reading: Alan Delgado's Have you forgotten yet? Between the Two World Wars. While this covers major national issues such as the General Strike, the Abdication and the Mosleyites. But it has its share of the small peculiarities of the era. 1924, for instance, saw a peak in a long-running craze for "Put and take", a gambling game using a six-sided top (one not so different from a dreidl and any number of similar devices, such as the "teetotum", going back centuries). That it had been a gambling device explains a memory from my childhood: how my grandmother reacted quite angrily when I got a yellow plastic put-and-take top as the toy from a Christmas cracker.

Another innovation of the 1920s was the publication of the first crossword puzzles in Britain (they had existed in the USA since the Liverpool-born editor Arthur Wynne introduced them to New York World in 1913). The first Sunday Express one in 1924 was a 7x7 non-cryptic effort that seems rather feeble by current standards; early puzzles also tended to go for densely interlocked grids of checked letters (in the style of the current "smallest, hardest crossword" format) but the familiar modern format and cryptic puzzles rapidly developed, notably via the poet and scholar Edward Powys Mathers (aka Torquemada).

I didn't realise until recently that there's a deal of philosophy behind crossword compilation. Torquemada is remembered as a great exponent and founder of the cryptic format, but many of his clues are imperfect by modern standards of clue-setting. Some were not even cryptic, in the crossword sense, just obscure general knowledge like completing literary quotations ("Chicken-skin, delicate, white, Painted by -- Vanloo").

A further problem relates to the logical basis, an idea codified by Torquemada's successor in 1939, Ximenes (Derrick Somerset Macnutt). Ximenes set the standard for the symmetric grid and the typical density of checked vs. unchecked letters (checked are the ones where words cross), as well as fairness of clues: no misdirection, guesswork, jumps of illogic, or breaching of the separation between the "definition" and "subsidiary indication" that comprise the clue. See Ximenean clueing and More thoughts on Ximenean clueing. Some puzzle setters such as the Guardian's Araucaria go against this convention; the rightness or wrongness of this is a matter of debate in crossword fandom.

If this kind of thing interests you, there's a lot more at Crosswords by Ximenes page (from which some of the above links come). The Fifteen squared weblog is a good stepping stone into the online crossword enthusiasts' circuit.

- Ray

Monday, 9 July 2007


Current reading: a very nice book of other kinds of British institutions consigned to the dustbin of history: ES Turner's An ABC of Nostalgia.

This compendium of bizarre and largely forgotten fixtures of the late 19th and early 20th centuries includes examples that show nothing much has changed. It tells, for instance, of John Bull magazine, run by the deeply crooked Horatio Bottomley, which ran a word competition called "Bullets" where strangely no-one ever won the top prize: a reminder that Lottery fraud and other competition scams are nothing new.

There was the Children's Newspaper run by the gung-ho and evangelising Arthur Mee. It mentions Crystal Sets (a doomed technology decades ago, but even more so now we're shifting to FM and digital radio, which crystal receivers won't pick up); the Jellygraph (aka hectograph), a still-usable technology for homebrew, maybe samizdat, printing; Lobby Lud (fictionalised as Kolley Kibber in Greene's Brighton Rock , and reinvented as the Daily Mirror's Chalky White); and the scary cautionary stories of Struwwelpeter, online at Project Gutenberg.

My favourite of the bunch is probably the Froth Blowers (AOFB), a charitable drinking organisation founded in 1924 by a grateful patient of the surgeon Sir Alfred Downing Fripp. This is the kind of uncontroversial topic where Wikipedia excels: its article Ancient Order of Froth Blowers is very good, even mentioning the Turner book, with links through to a couple of enthusiast sites, The Friends of the Froth Blowers and the Pub History Society's page. It may well have not been a terrifically healthy pursuit, but it must have a significant source of bonhomie in a period still reeling from World War 1.

- Ray