A French-Speaking Ape Man And Other Riveting Originals

TARZAN read English but spoke French. Count Dracula was felled by a Texan wielding a bowie knife. The Frankenstein monster was nimble as a mountain goat.

Surprised? Blame countless comic books, films, plays, cartoons, advertising, and television spinoffs that fail to tell the whole story -- or brazenly alter it -- even while making these characters among the most enduring familiar fictions since Sheherazade spun her tales.

To know the authentic monster, vampire, or ape man requires penetrating roughly a century of second-hand information and returning to the source, the novels that first gave them life.

When I did, I discovered not only intriguing tidbits but the whole excitement that eventually propelled them to theme-park immortality.

That's what makes exploring original material so rewarding. Imagine knowing Beatles music only through snatches of Muzak half-heard in elevators! Four bars of ''Yesterday'' performed on harpsichord and then -- whoosh -- the doors open at your floor.

The same applies to imaginative writing and its subsequent derivations. Whoever said that you can't judge a book by its movie can have a cup of buttered popcorn on me. Because I'll be at home, reading the original.

Sure there are exceptions, such as James Bond. I never caught wind from the books that the British spy had a secret passion for the banjo, for instance, or that he was otherwise oversimplified in the 007 films.

Enjoying original works sometimes means resorting to a translation, and not for the better. Recently, I perused English versions of ''The Autobiography of Benvenuto Cellini'' and ''Pere Goriot,'' in which, as it happens, a character brags of having read Cellini in the original Italian.

I'm jealous. No doubt the sculptor's duels, prison escapes, and quarrels with patrons and rivals were even more savorily recounted in his own language. I believe this because my several versions of ''Pere Goriot'' (owing to a redundancy of Balzac on my Christmas list) disagree enough to reveal that translations trample subtleties.

When Rastignac encounters Delphine at the theater, was he drawn toward her as if by ''the current of a stream'' or ''a tide of the sea''? Did the impoverished student speak to the banker's wife in ''low, vibrating'' tones or ''soul-stirring'' ones? Did he utter ''whispered words'' or ''soft nothings''?

Reading the translations are like viewing Balzac's scandalous 19th-century Parisian society through a dirty windshield. Sure I reached the end of ''Pere Goriot'' safely. But I also missed some interesting scenery.

My bedside reading at the moment is nonfiction, consisting of the June 1935 issue of American Cookery. Perhaps the publisher, the Boston Cooking-School Magazine Company, still exists at 221 Columbus Avenue since my wife's grandmother, whose magazine this was, had an excellent reputation in the kitchen.

Here again, the articles are satisfyingly firsthand. One is ''I Like American Food,'' which should have been titled ''I Dislike English Food,'' since the writer mainly deplores the lack of variety on the far side of the Atlantic. Having endured four weeks of green peas and boiled potatoes, she says that if asked to entertain an English tourist in America, ''I should take him to our local grocery.''

Another compelling article is ''House-Cleaning Tricks in the Dust Country'' -- meaning the dust bowl of those Depression years. John Steinbeck portrays that time no more vividly than does the article's writer. This uncelebrated housewife laments blooming irises and violets that wear a ''thick, dark mantle'' and folded sheets in closets that thrice-weekly wind storms streak with soil ''finer than the powder you use on your face.''

As for my interest in icons of popular fiction, someday I'd like to read the original Lassie books. I only know the clever, ever-helpful collie from a 1960s television series in which her companion was an American boy named Timmy. Disney also made films in which Lassie assists a forest ranger.

Didn't the first Lassie live in Scotland? Who were her companions? What were her adventures? Wouldn't it be hilarious to find out that the ''real'' Lassie was a poodle?

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