Tag Archives: 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).

he

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.

pc

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.

penguinclassics

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.

Advertisements

Giovanni’s Room by James Baldwin

giovannis-room-by-james-baldwin Title: Giovanni’s Room
Author: James Baldwin
Publisher: Vintage Books
ISBN: 978-0345806567
Genre: Literary Fiction, LGBTQ, LGBT
Pages: 176
Source: Personal Copy
Rating: 5 Stars

I waited this long to read this gem. “Giovanni’s Room” was always on my to be read pile but I never picked it up and even if I did, I just read a couple of pages and dropped it. Yes, I am aware of the sacrilege but it is all sorted now and hopefully a thing of the past, because I intend to reread and reread this marvelous book of loss, unrequited love and courage to some extent.

It is a fluid book. At the same time, it is also the kind of book that makes you introspect and travel deep within the recesses of your heart to perhaps realize yourself better. It is about David (the narrator) who is American living in Paris. He has a seemingly normal life with a girlfriend in tow, and things change when he meets Giovanni. It is the 50s and Paris was the place where homosexuality wasn’t illegal, though stigmatized to a large extent. It gives David the freedom to explore and know himself and he unknowingly falls in love with Giovanni only for the book to reach its heartbreaking conclusion (Don’t worry; I shall not spoil it for you, though you will know in the first two pages).

Baldwin wrote this book in the 50s – when perhaps it was unimaginable to think of an LGBT book. David is not likeable. He is confused, lost and often does not come across as a great guy to be with, and yet Baldwin created one of the most unforgettable characters in him and Giovanni and their love story – which is toxic, destructive and will not stop at anything.

Subcultures as presented by the author on every page – many characters unfold as the journey of these two men take place side by side. Love in the margins is not easy to write about. Everything about Giovanni’s room depicts David’s state – emotionally and physically, beautifully portrayed by Baldwin. To sum this book in one line, I will quote from this book: “Nobody can stay in the Garden of Eden”.

The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas by John Boyne

the-boy-in-the-striped-pyjamas-by-john-boyne Title: The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas
Author: John Boyne
Publisher: Vintage, Penguin Random House
ISBN: 978-0099572862
Genre: Children’s Fiction
Pages: 256
Source: Personal Copy
Rating: 5 Stars

This was the second book I read as a part of ‘The Story Cure’ reading project. Also, it is holocaust literature, so it comes with the territory of tears, anger, and loneliness. There is nothing you can do about it when you start reading it. To top that, there is a movie based on this book, which I don’t think I will ever watch.

“The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas” is a book that will not leave you – perhaps because you already know how it will end, but also because of the writing. Boyne is simple, direct and quite powerful at his craft. The book is by no means a difficult read – it is just the emotions that need to be dealt with after that is tough.

Bruno, a nine-year old boy lives with his parents and older sister Gretel in Berlin. The year is 1942. One fine day as he comes back from school, he is told that they are moving to a place called Out-With (Auschwitz or so he pronounces or understands it throughout the book). His father has received a promotion. He doesn’t have any friends in the new place. But it is the Fury’s order who father works under (the Führer – of course we all know it is Hitler. Again Bruno cannot pronounce it so he calls him Fury throughout the book) and they have to go to Out-With.

There is a tall fence there that separates him from some strange place – all wearing the same clothes – all dressed in striped Pyjamas. This is where Bruno meets Shmuel – a skinny, gray looking boy and their worlds will never be the same.

Boyne’s characterization skills are superb. The characters – including the parents, Lieutenant Kotler and the servants are gripping. Their sub-plots convey so much throughout the book and yet it doesn’t stop being a young adult book. It continues to maintain its innocence and has so much to say. The writing is funny also at times, mostly it is heartbreaking though. I don’t think I can bear to watch this movie. The reason it was a part of “The Story Cure” is as it answers the question “What it’s all about?” – it will cure you of it – all the angst (some of it) and perfect for teenagers to know what happened and how did the Holocaust play out for most. I almost didn’t want to read the book – but I am glad I did. Read it, but do keep the box of tissues handy.

Winter by Christopher Nicholson

winter-by-christopher-nicholson Title: Winter
Author: Christopher Nicholson
Publisher: Europa Editions
ISBN: 978-1609452957
Genre: Literary Fiction, Historical Fiction
Pages: 272
Source: Publisher
Rating: 5/5

I was in college and I remember devouring everything by Thomas Hardy. He was and is one of my favourite writers. I know that most think that he doesn’t fit in today’s scheme of things but I beg to differ. I think the topics that he raised in his novels are as relevant today as they were then. Feminism though is at its core, if you read his works closely enough. But I digress, or maybe not, given this review is about a book titled “Winter” where one of the protagonists is Mr. Hardy himself.

“Winter” is in turns a charming, a terrifying (some of it) and most graceful read. It is set in the last years of Mr. Hardy. He is in his eighties and lives in Dorset with his second wife Florence. Enter Gertrude, the lovely eighteen-year old actress who has been cast to play Tess in a local performance. Hardy cannot help but fall for her. She is young, nubile and everything that he cannot see in Florence. Thus begins one of the best marital dramas I’ve read in recent times. Marital dramas are not written about all that much and when one does attempt to try his or her hand at it, it has to be perfect and almost precise, which is what “Winter” manages to achieve.

There are three shifting views and narratives to this novel – of course, of the three protagonists. Hardy’s view though is always third person. Gertrude and Florence have first person narratives. It is as though Hardy’s voice is just reduced to those in his books – background and full of insight. There is love between Florence and Thomas – but it cannot be expressed. Most love is inexpressible or reaches that stage as the novel progresses.

Gertrude is married to her cousin who is a butcher and Hardy cannot help but feel sorry for her and at the same time envious of her husband. Florence wants to make her husband happy but is unable to do so. At the end of the book, I could not really take sides but I did feel sorrier for Florence. My empathy was tilted in her direction.

The tone, atmosphere and feelings of characters are most precisely etched by Nicholson and those add to the layers of the novel or merge and become one with it. “Winter” is a story that is of the past – of love, secrets, lies, stories we tell ourselves in order to live and Christopher Nicholson does a super job of communicating its raw and almost unseen parts.

Book Review: The Birthplace by Henry James

Title: The Birthplace
Author: Henry James
Publisher: Hesperus Press
ISBN: 978-1-84391-207-1
Genre: Classics, Literary Fiction
Pages: 120
Source: Publisher
Rating: 4/5

If there is one novelist whose entire body of work I am eager to read, it would but definitely have to be Henry James. Henry James as a writer is something else and I feel his works are either loved or hated. You cannot be in-between when it comes to Mr. James’ writing. Either you like it or you do not.

Henry James wrote of an era and time when manners were the key to discriminating in societies and classes. He wrote making fun of the culture and as one would say, provided the much needed, “black comedy”. His writing was unlike any of his contemporaries and maybe that’s why it turned out to be this different and sometimes difficult to read. Not everyone can get used to his style – the sometimes so called big choice of words and then others simply told with the much needed twist can be quite a challenging task for a reader.

In the two short stories in this book, “The Birthplace”, one can clearly see James’ style shining through. The title story is of a family moving in to the birthplace of their nation’s literary hero to become live-in guardians of a house, which reveals itself to be sinister in more than one way, thus diminishing their view and opinion of everything around them.

The story had the sinister feel to it for sure and more than that it had reactions from every character in the story that added to its presence. The second story, “The Private Life”, one of James’ lesser known works centers around the importance of an author in the literary grand scheme of things keeping in mind literary criticism and arts in general.

I think the second story must have been very close to Henry James’ heart given the context and the way it is written. Also it is my favourite now after, “The Spoils of Poynton”, which I think is his best work (but that’s just my opinion). Read Henry James if you haven’t read him before. He has a way with words like no other and an author you will not regret reading.


Affiliate Link:

Buy The Birthplace from Flipkart.com