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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction


Felix Salten

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To purchase Bambi

Title: Bambi
Author: Felix Salten
Genre: Novel
Written: 1923 (Eng. 2022)
Length: 143 pages
Original in: German
Availability: Bambi - US
Bambi - UK
Bambi - Canada
Bambi - France
Bambi - Deutschland
Bambi - Italia
Bambi - España
directly from: New York Review Books
  • Or, Life in the Forest
  • German title: Bambi
  • Serialized in 1922, and first published in book-form in 1923
  • Translated by Damion Searls
  • With an Afterword by Paul Reiter
  • Previously translated by Whittaker Chambers (1928), and by Jack Zipes (as The Original Bambi) (2022)
  • Bambi was also famously made into an animated film by Walt Disney in 1942

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Our Assessment:

A- : very nicely done (though also rather dark)

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
Books Abroad* . (4:3) 7/1930 Paul Horgan
The NY Times Book Rev.* A+ 8/7/1928 John R. Chamberlain
The NY Times Book Rev.* . 6/2/2022 Bill McKibben
The New Yorker* . 17/1/2021 Kathryn Schulz
The Observer* . 25/12/2021 Donna Ferguson
TLS . 23/9/2022 Leo A. Lensing
Wall St. Journal* . 14/1/2022 Meghan Cox Gurdon

  From the Reviews:
  • "The tale, which in English was thinly supported by its intrinsic interest; takes on, in' French, a sort of fabulous quality, so that the peaceful air of the novel is invested with extraneous charms, Aside, then, from the unavoidable graces and happinesses with which literate French can invest anything, the story is still a placid, somewhat dull little account of the many afternoons of a fawn." - Paul Horgan, Books Abroad

  • "Felix Salten, in Bambi, takes you out of yourself. He has the gift of a tender, lucid style. His observation is next door to marvelous, and he invests the fruit of this observation with pure poetry. (...) Bambi, for instance, is a better book than Green Mansions, and that is praise of the highest." - John R. Chamberlain, The New York Times Book Review

  • "It’s a pretty brutal meditation on existence, serving as a kind of wild counterpart to Orwell’s domesticated animals on the Farm." - Bill McKibben, The New York Times Book Review

  • "The curious thing about this insistence on solitude is that nothing in the book makes it seem appealing. The chief trajectory of Bambi’s life is not from innocence to wisdom; it is from contentment and companionship (...) to isolation and bare-bones survival. Stranger still, this valorization of loneliness seems unrelated to the book’s second explicit moral, which concerns the relationship between human beings and other animals. (...) What are we to make of this muddy, many-minded story ? (...) Zipes is knowledgeable about his subject matter, but he is not a lucid thinker or a gifted writer (...), and the Chambers translation (...) is much the better one. (...) What makes it such a startling source for a beloved children’s classic is ultimately not its violence or its sadness but its bleakness." - Kathryn Schulz, The New Yorker

  • "Far from being a children's story, Bambi was actually a parable about the inhumane treatment and dangerous precariousness of Jews and other minorities in what was then an increasingly fascist world, the new translation will show." - Donna Ferguson, The Observer

  • "Bambi should be read independently of its author’s biography. In Damion Searls’s elegant translation it is possible to understand why contemporary readers as different as Heinrich Mann and Schnitzler had such praise for this coming-of-age story of a young roebuck. The novel combines a richly imagined animal world with the narrative trajectory of a Bildungsroman. (...) Vignettes of sylvan otherness, enhanced by the hunter-author’s descriptive powers, alternate with anthropomorphically charged scenes and episodes." - Leo A. Lensing, Times Literary Supplement

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       Bambi is a seemingly almost universally-known title -- though it is the Walt Disney movie version from 1942 that most likely first comes to mind. at the mention The source-material, this novel by Felix Salten, has however also enjoyed great success and popularity from the time of its first publication, both in the original German and then Whittaker Chambers' 1928 translation. Many sanitized and Disneyfied editions have been published since, but 2022 has now seen the publication of two translation of the original text, by Jack Zipes (as The Original Bambi) and Damion Searls (the one under review here); published by Princeton University Press and in the New York Review Classics-series respectively, these two translations are, in their presentation, also clearly geared more to an adult audience -- appropriately so, as Bambi is hardly *just* a children's book. Both serious and poetic, it is an impressive work of art that should hold great appeal to mature readers.
       Bambi is a tale of, as the subtitle has it: Life in the Forest, centered around the title-character, from his birth on. For the newborn everything is new and Salten uses the fawn's journey of discovery to also introduce the forest-world to readers. While not strictly realistic -- the animals converse with one another as humans might, including between species -- Salten gives a remarkably fine sense of animal-life in the wild. Even at its most fantastical -- a chapter consisting almost entirely of oak leaves in dialogue as winter comes -- the portrayal of nature rings true.
       At first Bambi is close only to his mother; later he befriends two cousins, Aunt Ena's children -- Faline and Gobo -- and they become playmates. Father-figures are almost entirely absent -- distant figures with crowns of antlers that are sometimes seen but don't stay with the fawns or their mothers. Looming largest among the wildlife is the wise old man of the forest, the Old Stag, who eventually takes Bambi at least partially under his wing.
       Bambi's mother tries to teach him about the dangers of life. She does not always explain why a certain situation is dangerous, or why something must be avoided -- but the greatest danger is obvious to all: 'Him'. Already Bambi's first encounter with Him makes clear to the fawn that this is something terrible: first there's the smell, and then:

     Bambi stares at the figure. It is strangely upright, strangely narrow, and has a pale face, utterly naked around the nose and the eyes. Dreadfully naked. The face radiates a fearsome horror. Cold terror. It has a monstrous, disturbing, paralyzing violence in it, and it is almost unbearably painful to look at, yet Bambi stands there and doesn't take his eyes off it.
       The rifle the hunter carries is taken to be some kind of leg, and the animals never completely understand His ability to cause such terrible harm, but He is understood to be the greatest danger to the animals. Even when an injured Gobo is taken in by a hunter and later returns to the wild, cocksure that no harm will come to him from Him, the other animals (wisely) can't believe it. (And, yes, He kills and injures quite a few animals over the course of the story -- violence that is also well-handled by Salten, who makes very clear its horror without wallowing in it.)
       'He' remains a shadowy figure, always a threat, an anonymous everyman who can so easily upset the natural order. He seems all-powerful - even as, ultimately, the Old Stag can teach Bambi one last lesson, that: "He too knows fear and hunger and sorrow", and that He too: "can be overpowered and defeated, just like us".
       If He poses the greatest threat, there are also others in the wild -- certainly for other, smaller animals. Salten does not paint a simple natural idyll: winters are harsh and difficult, and other animals too turn on each other. Indeed, Bambi is an often dark story: there are times when all is well and happy, but much of the time: "every day some new terrible thing happened". From Bambi's mother, almost always on alert, to Faline's terror at Bambi approaching the Old Stag -- "Don't do it ! Baa-oh ! Something terrible will happen, Baa-oh !" -- danger, in some from or other, seems always in the air. And sometimes it's right there: "The great terror had arrived".
       While Gobo claims He isn't as bad as everyone believes -- "He's wicked, but He's not wicked -- when He likes someone, when someone serves Him, He is good. Nice and good" -- the other animals are wise to remain leery. No good comes of Him -- who even cuts down the squirrel's beautiful old oak tree.
       Bambi moves quickly across the seasons and then years. From early on: "Time passes, and Bambi experiences much". Salten presents only some of what Bambi sees and learns, but it's still a rich, full portrait of the then rapidly maturing buck, soon with his own impressive crown of antlers, soon an imposing creature in his own right.
       From early on, Bambi's mother nudges him to self-sufficiency, but it also goes beyond that. The male figures, including the Old Stag are lone figures, choosing to stand apart -- and Bambi too follows this path. Even the happiness of being with Faline is not enough to overcome what ultimately becomes the very essence of his being: "I have to be alone", as he tells her. It is his fate and calling.
       It's a poignant tale, seemingly simple -- one reason it is taken for a children's book -- but with considerable depth to it, especially in its presentation of Him -- of man -- in the natural world. Bambi is also beautifully written, Salten's touch light and deft; and Searls' translation (I haven't seen the others) re-presents it very well.
       Both very dark -- indeed, arguably far too dark for young readers -- and tender, Bambi is an impressive little novel.

- M.A.Orthofer, 16 October 2022

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Bambi: Reviews (* review of a different translation): Bambi - the movie: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       Austrian author Felix Salten (born Siegmund Salzmann) lived 1869 to 1945.

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© 2022 the complete review

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