Tag Archives: chaucer

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).


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.


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.


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.

One Amazing Thing by Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni

Following an earthquake severe enough to damage the building containing the Indian consulate nine people are trapped in the visa office located in its basement. Seven of them are there to apply for an Indian visa, two are the last remaining office workers. One of the applicants, a student of Medieval Literature, has brought her copy of Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales with her. This suggests to her the idea of having each of the trapped people tell a story, some encounter with one amazing thing that may help to pass the time and keep their minds off the stifling conditions and the increasing mortal danger. As in Chaucer’s poem all of these characters come from disparate backgrounds and are on a pilgrammage (of sorts). The multicultural background of these characters creates a microcosm of the world in a room, a stationary Pequod in which human frailty and the universality of suffering seems never to deter the quest for happiness or our incessant search for meaning.

As they tell their tales, some with an autumnal poignance that is like the fast dying light of the early setting sun, others that are filled with an anger and bitterness that seems to increasingly typify an alternate American experience for those caught in the snare of recent history, we discern something deeper in the manner in which the author lets these stories unfold. As the characters struggle on the knife-edge of calamity, living a nearly posthumous existence even as they try to fend off the darkness, we are engrossed in their past struggles as much as their current travails. Through Divakaruni’s creative alchemy we are drawn to the power of stories to reveal who we were, what we are and what we hope to become. As the darkness draws near, we watch these troubled lives begin their ghostly flickering, entombed in what one of them describes as a “damp mausoleum”. The author shows us with stunning simplicity and skill that after we die all that may remain are our stories. And for the solace they offer and the instruction they bring these stories need to be told as much as they need to be heard.

The story moves back and forth between the characters’ stories and the present situation in the office. As they struggle to survive the tension builds. They must put aside individual needs for the common good, and trust their lives to strangers. The result of this perfectly balanced story is like a literary symphony; it builds, swells to a taut crescendo, and leaves you haunted by the last echoing strains of the tale. As they struggle with whether to fight for survival or resign themselves to dying in the rubble, the stories provide both a distraction and a reason to keep going.

One Amazing Thing combines suspenseful action with a spiritual insight into matters of life and death. As the characters fight for survival, their passion for living and the crushing disappointments of their lives all come into play. In an easy-to-read light yet poetic prose, Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni’s words flow with a simplicity that gets to the heart of the issues while leaving enough unsaid to allow the reader’s imagination to enter the story. While one scene flows naturally to the next, the chapter and sub-chapter divisions within the narrative work at odds with the natural flow of the story. The breaks do not always correspond to the speaking voice or to specific events. Quite frankly, the text flows smoothly without all these divisions on account of the author’s skill so that at times the divisions seem superfluous or stop the smooth flow that would exist without them. The ending might not satisfy readers who prefer all questions resolved at the end, especially since the suspenseful plot drives forward towards the end, and yet others, like myself, might find the ending a most satisfying ending all the more so because it respects the almost mystical, spiritual dimension of life opened up by the characters’ stories. 

The book keeps a reader glued to the pages, anxious to find out the fate of the characters but also wanting to never quite reach the ending in hopes of witnessing more revelations in the intimate look into the characters’ hearts. It is not a disaster survival book laden with physical how-to details nor are the fleeting portraits heavy in psychological detail. Rather,One Amazing Thing, like the moment it portrays, is a quick glance at a moment in time, a moment marked by points of spiritual and emotional conflict as the characters struggle to survive. Easily read within one sitting, the narrative satisfies a desire for a light read that nevertheless touches spirituality or something beyond the everyday reality, a spirituality that is not overly preachy or defined by division. Part of the charm of this story resides in the empty spaces and details that the author leaves up to the imagination of the reader.

One Amazing Thing; Divakaruni, Chitra Banerjee; Hamish Hamilton; Penguin India; Rs. 450