September Publications

Though it sold briskly when first published in 1866, Toilers of the Sea, by Victor Hugo (1802—1885), is rarely read in the U.S. today. In time for the bicentenary of Hugo's birth, Modern Library has commissioned a new translation by Scot James Hogarth for the first unabridged English edition of the novel, which tells the story of an illiterate fisherman from the Channel Islands who must free a ship that has run aground in order to win the hand of the woman he loves, a shipowner's daughter. Gilliat, the embattled fisherman, contends with sea storms and monstrous predators that Hugo describes in exhilarating detail. Intended to be part of a triptych with Les Miserables and The Hunchback of Notre-Dame, the book laments the living conditions of impoverished workers, while celebrating their ingenuity and discipline. (Modern Library, $9.95 paper 400p ISBN 0-375-76132-2; Sept. 17)

The farce—or is it the tragedy?—of New York leftist intellectuals done in by free love is gleefully taken up in The Unpossessed, the newly reissued 1934 comic novel by Tess Slesinger (1905—1945). Among the union organizers, academics, activists and slumming society folk who make up the cast are transplanted New Englander Miles ("his... conscience ticking neatly on his desk, beside the clock"); philanderer and mediocre novelist Jeffrey Blake, who gets it on with Comrade Fisher, a militant Trotskyite; and the droning Marxist professor Bruno Leonard. Several of these characters are, of course, planning to start a magazine. Slesinger, a New York native, moved in the same circles as Lionel Trilling, Clifton Fadiman and other famed liberal intellectuals, who seem to have provided her with rich material. Introduction by Elizabeth Hardwick. (NYRB, $14.95 paper 306p ISBN 1-59017-014-8; Sept. 26)

Lionel Trilling (1905—1975) himself took a more serious look at the political commitments of intellectuals in his The Middle of the Journey (1947), also newly reissued, with an intro. by Monroe Engel. Arthur and Nancy Croom, a successful, affluent, young couple loyal to the Communist Party, are spending the summer in Connecticut, where they help their friend John Laskell recuperate from a near-fatal illness. Their cozy view of the Party is challenged by a visit from Gifford Maxim, an impassioned ex-Communist from their circle. Maxim had been the most radical of them all, working with the Communist underground, but became disenchanted and left the Party at the risk of his life. In the meantime, the ailing Laskell, confronting his own death, feels alienated from all political preoccupations. Written a crucial 13 years after Slesinger's book (noted above), this moody document of a vanished intelligentsia anticipates the deepening crisis of the left in the McCarthy years. (NYRB, $14.95 paper 360p ISBN 1-59017-015-6; Sept. 26)

A young girl's growing pains include falling for another girl in Bonnie Shimko's Letters in the Attic. In the early 1960s, Lizzy McMann moves from Arizona to upstate New York with her unstable mother after her father runs off with a hatcheck girl. There she meets her grandparents for the first time and strikes up a friendship with Eva, an eighth grader "who looks like Natalie Wood and smokes." Her one-sided attraction to Eva is instant and so are the attendant feelings of shame, confusion and jealousy. Meanwhile, she begins to learn things about her family history that help shed some light on her current circumstances. Lizzie is a charming narrator, a seventh grader hovering between naïveté and experience. She notices everything, and while sometimes the details tend to pile up and interfere with the flow of the narrative, there are enough surprises in this appealing story to keep things interesting. (Academy Chicago, $23.50 227p ISBN 0-89733-511-2)

Guarding Hanna is a thoroughly unique black comedy by bestselling Slovenian novelist and screenwriter Hiha Mazzini, trans. by Maja Visenjak-Limon and Mark White. The unnamed narrator is badly deformed, with the face "of a prize boar" and a fondness for Bach. Raised in an orphanage, he leaves when he is recruited to work as a debt collector by a Berlin gangster named Maestro. He is upgraded to "protection specialist" and assigned to guard Hanna Woyczik, a witness to a crime committed by a rival gang member. His only experiences with women have been with prostitutes, so he is horrified to learn that he must spend seven days alone with her as they await the trial. Not only is Hanna unfazed by his appearance, she chats endlessly and drags him along on errands. She gradually makes him her involuntary confessor, regaling him with stories of her ex-husbands and her nymphomaniac mother. It should come as no surprise that he falls in love with his charge, but that's the only predictable element of this delightfully perverse and oddly touching story. (Scala House, $16 paper 288p ISBN 0-9720287-1-4)

In Isabelle the Navigator, Australian poet and novelist Luke Davies (Candy) examines family secrets and tragedies through the eyes of his female protagonist. The novel begins shortly after the death of Isabelle Airly's father, Tom. A doctor, he had spent four years in prison for insurance fraud; from the time of his release until his suicide at the age of 56, he fell further out of touch with reality. Part of his despair was caused by the affair his wife, Tess, had with his brother, Dan, when Isabelle was a little girl. At 22, Isabelle meets the love of her life, Matt, who is five years her senior and works as a deckhand and later as a band manager. Their passionate affair lasts for a few years, until Matt is killed in a motorcycle accident. Then Isabelle moves to Paris, has an affair with a Portuguese woman named Laura and generally tries to make sense of her life. Although the language is frequently overcooked, Davies tells Isabelle's story with sensitivity and passion. (Berkley Signature, $12.95 paper 272p ISBN 0-425-18604-0)