Category Archives: Penguin Modern Classics

Interview with Henry Eliot

Classic literature is more or less dubbed boring by regular people. Academicians still swear by it. Middlemarch is the greatest novel ever written. Oh wait, it is actually the Tale of Genji. Chaucer was way ahead of his times and maybe he was. But does he hold any relevance today? What is classic literature and what does it mean in today’s time and age? Do people even read classics, beside the regular Austen and Brontë sisters? Does anyone give a fig about Shakespeare? How can then classics be made more accessible and make people aware of their existence?

Henry Eliot, publisher of Penguin Classics and author of the recently published, The Penguin Classics Book is of course about Penguin Classics as the title suggests, and rightly so, given Penguin Classics is the largest and best-known classics imprint in the world as of today. The book attempts to document classics (in various Penguin editions) right from The Epic of Gilgamesh to the poetry of WWI – covering it all: fiction, poetry, non-fiction, plays, histories, and philosophy. This companion contains 500 authors, 1200 books, and 4000 years of world literature (though I think that is highly debatable, but that discussion is for a later day).

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I had the opportunity to interview Henry while he was in town for the Tata Literature Festival. Here are some excerpts from the interview.

Me: I actually adore this book. I love the research. What do you think makes a classic, a classic? What makes Chaucer a classic though so unreadable? Or an Austen who is so readable? Is it just time or is it more?

Henry: I think it is a complicated question, I think. As an experiment, I tried collecting all definitions of a classic and they are all so different and disparate. Well, for me, when I am trying to decide whether a book is a classic, maybe there are four criteria I use. A book doesn’t have to have all of them but if it does have all of them, I am convinced it is a classic. They are: literary quality, which is quite subjective but you know when something is good, some kind of historical significance – either it was a great bestseller in its day or it did something new for the first time and shifted the course of literature, and thirdly, an enduring reputation, so it is still being studied, sort of read or survived somehow and the fourth one, I think is crucial actually, a classic work of literature at some level should still be alive and speaks to you today. I think as soon as books stop speaking to us today, then it becomes just a historical document and not a classic.

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Me: Do you think there are books like these that have lost their significance and are still termed as classics because we cannot get rid of the definition attached to them?

HE: Interesting. I am coming at it from a publisher’s point of view because I work at Penguin Classics. It is subjective to an extent, the way it is arbitrary what we include but not entirely. But if no one is say reading a book anymore, there is no reason for keeping it on the list. There is a kind of Darwinian – almost a kind of natural selection, as books stop being read, they are removed from the list.

Me: I just cannot recall any titles that have been removed from the Penguin list

HE: So, there is this section at the back of the book – these all titles are no longer in print and we couldn’t include them all – because there are so many. I mean, one example is someone like Sir Walter Scott is a good example of someone who was hugely popular all through the 19th century and through the course of the 20th century has become less and less popular. We do have some titles though like Waverley and Ivanhoe, but you know we used to have many more but we have removed some.

Me: Do you ever face a situation where you have started reading a classic and you’re like “Oh My God! I just cannot read this anymore”?

HE: Yes, I certainly find some classics harder to read than others. You just spoke of Chaucer right now and I’m actually a great fan and I really enjoyed studying him, but it is definitely read, and I find when I am reading Chaucer, the first twenty minutes or so I am struggling and then there’s a shift, you’re almost stuck into it and then you begin to understand it.

Something like Origin of Species is highly on the list, and it is very relevant even today, but in terms of literary quality it is quite hard to read. The prose is not easy. So, I certainly have that experience and I can’t think of a classic that I started reading and got bored but sometimes it is hard and you do need a spark of a connection or sometimes you just need a bit of historical context to sort of experience it better.

Me: We live in a world which is very fast, and would you think someone in their 20s or a 20-year-old would actually read a classic? What role then a classic would play in this?

HE: My hope is that people will keep reading classics – the reason for them to read is to expand experiences – what it means to be alive, what it means to connect with these great writers across centuries makes you a bigger and better person, and see the world in more colours, and I hope will read them – whether they come to then later or whether they read them now, given the speed of social media.

There are some interesting projects connected to social media to generate awareness of classics. For instance, an email service I subscribe to which sends me an entry from Samuel Pepys diary, every day, on the day that he wrote it. And I feel like, there’s lots of books you can break into accessible bytes like The Arabian Nights for instance. But sure, nothing can replace the experience of actually holding the book and reading.

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Me: How much time did it take you to edit this book?

HE: It took a long time. It is a very ambitious project, and everyone only realized how ambitious it was once we were stuck right into it and we had to keep going. Even the designer, it was a huge job to design – the editions, the photographs, etc. In terms of time, it took me about a year to write and another year to design it.

Me: I was going through the India list and just saw Tagore. Just Tagore?

 HE: This book stops at WWI and I agree there should be more and there’s one thing that this book has shown is that there is a lot of stuff in here but there’s also a lot of stuff that isn’t here.

Me: A lot of male writers. Is it because of function of time?

HE: Exactly! Exactly! And that’s something I speak of in the introduction. There are very few women writers here, because it is probably a combination of fewer women have written classics and I suspect this has got to do with this list being almost 70 years’ time and over that time gender equality has improved. We do have George Eliot, Brontë sisters, Katharine Mansfield, and Gaskell that have their space, but we do need more.

Me: People keep speaking of a modern classic, but I’ve never really understood it. What is a modern classic then?

HE: It is a bit of a blurred line and I suppose the way I think about it; Modern Classic is almost a quarantine period. These are books that have an impact, they have literary quality, but we don’t know whether they are going to endure or not. So, I sort of say is that they are the best bet as of now, but we need to see if they speak to generations coming on. And for that reason, there are some quite whacky choices. It allows us to be experimental actually.

Me: Is there a sequel to this?

HE: I would like there to be a second-volume. So, this finishes in 1918 and the second volume would then cover the last 100 years. Copyright issues might spring up I suppose. If we did a Penguin Modern Classics book, we wouldn’t have so many books, but I hope there is a sequel.

Me: I see so many people trying to take up reading challenges. Would you think this book would then serve as a reference for that as well or steer readers to read classics?

HE: I mean I like that. I wish people would set themselves ambitions. I hope people use this as building their reading lists and come across titles that they haven’t read earlier. It is difficult for one person to know what is out there. So, this book might help them. I hope people use this as a map to discover literature and know more about classics.

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365 Stories: Day 11: The Story of an Hour by Kate Chopin

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Today’s story is funny, will warm your heart and at the same time will leave you with your jaw dropped at the end of it. Kate Chopin’s The Awakening, to me is one of the first feminist novels ever.

“The Story of an Hour” is about a woman who has just chanced on independence, only to have it been taken away from her. Read the story. It is about three pages long, so I cannot really give away more while talking about it. But what I can say is that, it is a story that is funny (read: wry humour depicting how the society was then – the story is set in early 1990s), tragic and ironic.

Steps in Darkness by Krishna Baldev Vaid

Steps in Darkness by Krishna Baldev Vaid Title: Steps in Darkness
Author: Krishna Baldev Vaid
Publisher: Penguin Modern Classics
ISBN: 9780143419792
Genre: Translation, Literary Fiction, Indian Fiction
Pages: 170
Source: Publisher
Rating: 5/5

This is another one of those books I would have never thought of reading and it just happened to me. It is fun when these things happen. The monotony of life gets broken. There is something new to look forward to. Even if it means that it is just about turning pages of a new book. “Steps in Darkness” is one of those books which I had not heard or, neither did I want to read it. It came to me and I read it. I was pleasantly surprised. I started enjoying the nuances brought out by the writer and what I liked the most was that the book has been translated from Hindi by the author himself, so there is a lot of originality which is intact and left sacrosanct.

“Steps in Darkness” is about an Indian family, living in pre-partition times. It is a family living in poverty and each member is struggling with his or her own insecurities and fear. Vaidji has written the book with utmost clarity and fierce honesty. Beero, but a boy, lives through the day to day events, as his family cannot make sense of themselves. His father is a gambler and wife beater. His mother blames him for everything and yet loves him the most or so it seems to him at times. His sister Devi does not know what to do. She is flirting with men all the time. His grandmother is nothing but a nuisance for his mother.

All of this plays out in extreme poverty and sadness of life. All of this is witnessed by a boy on the brink of manhood and yet who cannot understand why things happen the way they do. All Beero wants are snatches of joy and kindness, which he tries very hard to come across at and outside of his home.

Baldev Vaidji’s writing shines in so many places. I could almost imagine and hear the voices as they were written in Hindi. There are a lot of dialogues and inner dialogues as well, which according to me is the highlight of this book.

“Steps in Darkness” is in some way coming of age, but it is also about what it takes to perhaps be human and patient, no matter what life dishes out to you. I also think that there were times when I could not stand to read the book, because of the stark nature of poverty depicted, but I had to, because the book did not leave me with any other option.

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Book Review: BUtterfield 8 by John O’Hara

BUtterfield 8 by John O'Hara Title: BUtterfield 8
Author: John O’Hara
Publisher: Penguin Books
ISBN: 9780143124689
Genre: Literary Fiction
Pages: 288
Source: Publisher
Rating: 5/5

I remember the first time I watched BUtterfield 8. I was dazzled by the plot and more so by Elizabeth Taylor. I grew up some. I grew up some more. At twenty-five I realized that it was adapted from a book by the same title, written by John O’Hara and I could not wait to get my hands on it and devour it. I searched everywhere – high and low, but could not find it anywhere. This was way before the online shopping mania struck us. Somehow, I managed to find three of his novels in one book – Appointment in Samarra, BUtterfield 8 and Hope of Heaven. I devoured BUtterfield 8 in one sitting and loved it.

It was Elizabeth Taylor who played Gloria Wandrous so well, that somehow she stayed in my mind. I lost my copy and then got a chance to reread it – a fantastic Penguin Drop Cap edition of the book and it just felt the same way, the first time I read it.

BUtterfield 8 is set in New York. It is New York in 1931 and it is glamorous and ruthless at the same time. It is a society yet to pick up its pieces from the Great Depression and yet it puts on a show and façade for all to see. One Sunday morning, Gloria wakes up in a stranger’s apartment, with a torn evening dress, stockings and a pair of panties. She has nothing to wear. She steals a mink coat from the wardrobe and starts a chain of events – all strangers interconnected by that one action of hers – which but obviously only ends in tragedy for her. This in short is the plot of the book.

O’Hara’s story is bold and candid and Gloria somehow becomes an icon. An icon that no one wants to aspire to be, however she does instil courage and determination in readers. O’Hara’s pen gives us lines full of wit, candour and irony. The only problem with BUtterfield 8 is that there are too many characters in it – that flash and go and then come back, leaving the reader confused at some point.

I guess the beauty of his novels lay in honesty. He told it like he saw it, without sugar-coating anything and in that, lays the genius of a writer. I knew that there could be no other end to the story and yet the writing somehow makes you hopeful to want more for Gloria, than just a doomed love-affair. I guess if that kind of powerful writing hits you, then all you need is hot chocolate and to switch off the cell-phone and devour this book in one straight sitting.

Here is the trailer of the movie starring Elizabeth Taylor:

Book Review: Mrs. Bridge by Evan S. Connell

Title: Mrs. Bridge
Author: Evan S. Connell
Publisher: Penguin Modern Classics
ISBN: 978-0141198651
Genre: Literary Fiction
Pages: 208
Source: Publisher
Rating: 5/5

Mrs. Bridge by Evan S. Connell is a deceptively simple story. On the surface it might seem to be just another story of a woman, rather a portrait of a woman, and a housewife at that, told in over one hundred brief and discrete chapters.
Mrs. Bridge to a very large extent could very-well be any Indian housewife (without the household chores) – with her suppressed desires, yearnings and longings, while focusing entirely on taking care of her family, in this case Mr. Bridge and her three children. She is a Kansas City housewife who spends her days shopping, visiting, and playing bridge. Her housework is taken care of by the maid. Her husband works long hours. Her children grow up as children often do.

The book traverses the so-called journey of a woman – from childhood to when she got married to how she lives and that is what is most appealing. The writing at times feels thread-bare but as the reader continues reading the book, the opinion changes drastically. Connell takes the book to a point also when the reader starts pitying the protagonist. It is then that the book seems to be frightening in its own way.

Connell is a master of the highest order. His prose is as crisp as it gets. He does not believe in wasting words and that is evident throughout the book. Mrs. Bridge never sees herself the way she wants to. She always sees herself the way others would – from her country-club friends to her husband to her children. The time also in which the novel is set is important. Set in the decades surrounding World War I and World War II, it reeks of change and yet juxtaposes monotony in the protagonist’s life.

Mrs. Bridge is such a character who will not even admit to herself what she goes through and the characterization done by Connell is excellent. Mr. Bridge is hardly present in the book (he later appears though in another book called Mr. Bridge, but that’s another review). The prose is biting. You may not be an affluent housewife and yet you will connect to the character in more than one way. Mrs. Bridge cannot assert any kind of individuality in her life and I was overwhelmed a little reading those parts. I would recommend Mrs. Bridge only if you want to read something to shake you up a bit. It sure will.

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