The Life of Texts: Evidence in Textual Production, Transmission, and Reception
Edited by Carlo Caruso
Bloomsbury
272pp, 27 black-and-white illustrations
Hardback, £85

The Classical (and other) texts that we read today have all come down to us through various processes of editing. In some cases, manuscripts, already centuries removed from the author whose words they contain, present conflicting versions of lines. In others, all that survives are quotations preserved in the texts of later commentators or grammarians.

The Life of Texts, edited by Carlo Caruso (Professor of Italian Philology at the University of Siena) brings together detailed chapters by a range of experts that explore the issues of transmission and reception of texts, both ancient and modern.

There is a lack of autograph material in many cases. Homer is a classic example, and there have been centuries of discussion on who Homer is and whether the poet really existed. Barbara Graziosi, Professor of Classics at Princeton University, who has written much on the ancient poet (including a feature in the last copy of Minerva), provides a clear account of the necessary considerations when undertaking the challenge of editing Homeric text. These include composition methods, editing and performance in Antiquity and authorship, and how they can help us improve our understanding of the text's history and meaning.

Centuries later, Dante (1265–1321) is another poet who has left us not a single line written by his own hand. The textual tradition of his Commedia (Divine Comedy), which was well-known even beyond his native Florence in his own lifetime, is investigated by Dr Annalisa Cipollone, of Durham University, who also tells us what the textual evidence can say about the work of copyists in Florentine and Tuscan workshops.

For Shakespeare, we have only six signatures and possibly a few manuscript pages from a co-authored play. The authorship of Shakespeare's works is still hotly debated today. In his chapter, Professor David Fuller, also from Durham University, takes a close look at two different versions of King Lear, one from the Quarto of 1608 and
the other from the First Folio of 1623. The differences between them are substantial (some say that the Folio text is the result of revisions by the author) and choosing which elements to take from each version is a clear demonstration of the thoughtful decisions a modern editor must take, and of the power they have. In the final chapter, there is a fascinating discussion of TS Eliot's poem The Waste Land and its various editions, that presents us with a similar puzzle in the 20th century, where texts can still be changeable but we have more correspondence on the subject by those involved.

One of the strengths of this interdisciplinary book is the different types of text it tackles including: the renowned collection of stories in One Thousand and One Nights; Beethoven's Tempest sonata (Op. 31, No. 2), which allows for an exploration of music as text; and Leonardo da Vinci's manuscripts, which contain drawings as well as the written word.

The Life of Texts, is an eye-opening book, underlining the importance of thinking long and hard about the life of texts, and forcing us to reflect on their often complex histories so we don't just take the words we read for granted.

Lucia Marchini

 

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