Tag Archives: shakespeare

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.

Book Review: The Great Night by Chris Adrian

Title: The Great Night
Author: Chris Adrian
Publisher: Picador USA
ISBN: 9781250007384
Genre: Literary Fiction
Pages: 384
Source: Publisher
Rating: 4/5

It isn’t easy to take a Shakespearean play and retell, even if it is being done loosely. Chris Adrian manages that and more with his book, “The Great Night”. I read the book in almost one sitting. It wasn’t that I was enthralled. It was just that the story was way too beautifully told for me to ignore it. I could also not read anything else while reading this one. I had to complete it.

Now to the plot: Three brokenhearted people lose their way in San Francisco’s Buena Vista Park. They are lost on a night known to the Faerie kingdom as, “The Great Night”. This is where the action unfolds. This retelling isn’t like the Shakespearean comedy. In fact, it is a tragedy. Chris Adrian has reshaped, “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” into a mammoth, messy, erotic, and a feast of faeries and monsters. So these three people are lost in the park. There is a group of homeless people as well, who are rehearsing for a musical version of Soylent Green. While this counts for the mortals in the park, we then have the Faerie Queen, Titania, who is in throes of deep sorrow at the loss of her son (changeling child) to leukemia. She is inconsolable and has a spat with the King Oberon, leading to his departure from the park.

Titania wants him back and in a rage of anger, she lifts the controlling enchantment off of Puck, also known as the Beast, freeing him to wreck havoc in the park. The stipulation is clear: Nothing mundane or fantastical, gets in or out of the park when the park walls are up as created by Oberon. The three mortals are at the center of the tale: Molly, who has been recovering from the suicide of her boyfriend, Will, in love with a strange woman who dumped him a year ago, and Henry, whose compulsive habits drove his boyfriend away.

The stories are in plenty in this book. The sub-plots fascinated me even more so. Titania and Oberon are sweeping figures in the book. The grief that they go through in the book is simply stunningly written. There is a lot of chaos in this book just as it was in the play. The writing is clear in parts and not so in some other. For instance, the end was abrupt and anti-climatic. It leaves the reader hanging with no solution at all. But that is only a fragment of the book. The writing otherwise is something that is magnificent and grand.

I am happy that I read this book. There are so many interpretations of Shakespearean themes and characters, that it is always great to read another one. Some sections of, “The Great Night” are quite strong and worth reading. There is so much beauty and tragedy in the book that at times I was left speechless. A great read for me.

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Guest Post by Robin Maxwell

I am so thankful to Robin for writing this guest post on how she came up with the idea of  O, Juliet. It is a brilliantly written book and she is an amazing person to know. Thank you Robin.

I had been desperately trolling around for months after finishing SIGNORA DA VINCI, a project that was so research-intensive I thought my head was going to explode. That book was a hard act to follow with its rich, colorful real-life characters and civilization-changing events. Also, I was distressed to realize that with so many historical fiction authors out there (so many more than when I started in 1997) that all the well-known historical figures had been done and done to death, and every waiting lady, royal cousin, seamstress, confectioner and bastard child had also been snatched up for a book. How was I going to be original in this climate?

Then I read that that Susan Fraser King had written a historical fiction called LADY MacBETH. That stopped me in my tracks. “Brilliant!” I thought, “Use a literary figure instead of an historical one.” I had loved Sena Jeter Naslund’s AHAB’S WIFE (a wonderful adventure and beautifully drawn heroine gleaned from a single reference in Melville’s MOBY DICK about Captain Ahab’s wife). But why go any farther than Shakespeare? It took me another split second to come up with “Romeo and Juliet” for myself, only the most romantic tale ever told. I’d always wanted to write a great love story. And best of all, I realized with more than a touch of disbelief, nobody had ever written it as a novel. It took place close to the period and in the same part of Italy as SIGNORA DA VINCI, so I wasn’t going to have to kill myself with research. It was an easy-peasy pitch to my agents and publishers. Everybody LOVED the idea from the first moment.

I decided from the get-go that I was not going to compete with Shakespeare. How could I? He, in fact, had stuck pretty closely to the basic story points — hard to call them “facts” — that the three Italians short story writers had used in the century before him. But the Bard invented Juliet’s nurse, and Paris (the young man Juliet was betrothed to), and gave the helpful cleric (Friar Lawrence) and Juliet’s cousin whom Romeo kills (Mercutio) names and distinct personalities.

I took similar liberties, going even further. I lost Juliet’s nurse altogether, as my Juliet is four years older than Shakespeare’s heroine. Besides, I wanted my Juliet to have more freedom to move around and see Romeo privately. I made her cousin a character who is much more central to the action and a closer family member than Mercutio had been. My friar (Bartolomo) is a well-known figure in Florence and tied into my Dante sub-plot. And since I’m a firm believer in really bad “bad guys,” I created the character of Jacopo Strozzi to replace Paris as Juliet’s family-approved suitor, even giving him a “dragon lady” mother.

Shakespeare’s play takes place over a few days. I felt that was not nearly enough time to expand my characters, add scenes of Romeo’s peace-making between the families Monticecco and Capelletti (both names from the older Italian short story), get to know Romeo’s wonderful parents, give Romeo a calling that he loved (olive growing), and situations in which Juliet and her best girlfriend can confide in each other.

Lucrezia Tornabuoni (that girlfriend) is a major addition, and one of my favorites. Those of you who read SIGNORA DA VINCI (that takes place several decades later than O, JULIET) will remember her as the fabulous mother of Lorenzo de’ Medici and materfamilias of that powerful Florentine family. Here she is an 18 year old girl on the verge of her marriage, and a devoted friend to Juliet. Extremely bright, though rather conservative and conventional, she is frequently freaked out by Juliet’s outrageous behavior.

So you can see I didn’t feel constrained by Shakespeare’s play, or the Italian short stories. I just freely used what worked for my purposes and left the rest “on the cutting room floor.” I’m sure I’ve ruffled a few feathers, but that was a risk I was wiling to take, and I’m confident that there’ll be plenty of readers who will be happy with my take on the iconic legend.

Like so many of my historical characters, Juliet is a woman ahead of her time, someone courageous enough to take chances and buck convention, particularly in her passionate drive to find a marriage for love (something unheard of in her society). And like all my heroines, Juliet is well-educated (also not common among women of her time) and her educated, discerning, cultured mind is central to her character. I didn’t feel it was hard to convey it in the writing. I wonder if those qualities come across in the reading.

You might wonder why I linked the works of Dante Alighieri to the story.  While I was doing the research for SIGNORA DA VINCI I kept running across references to Dante. EVERYBODY idolized him, read him, quoted him and if they were writers, emulated him. He was responsible for making the Italian language acceptable in literature and poetry (as opposed to Latin). When I was creating my characters and their relationships I tried to remember what was at work while I was falling in love with Max (we’ve just celebrated 26 years of marriage), and I recalled that besides a strong physical attraction, we found we shared a passion for certain music, yoga and human anatomy (don’t ask!). In Shakespeare’s play, Romeo and Juliet had a physical attraction for sure, but beyond their “love at first sight,” there didn’t seem to have much else going on. It worked perfectly in a story in which everything takes place in a few days. There was no time for any real getting to know each other.

So I put all those factors together, decided Romeo and Juliet needed “common ground” on which to play out their burgeoning romance, and realized that a love of Dante was perfect. I made the two of them amateur poets (which kind of scared me when I realized I had to write poems in both their voices). But the greatest benefit to me was that I got to use so much of Dante’s love poetry. It gave my book a rich literary pedigree I wouldn’t ordinarily have had. His words are really beautiful and I, think, accessible and relevant today.

I would recommend reading the slim volume VITA NUOVA (New Life) and Dante’s biography, THE LIFE OF DANTE written by Boccaccio. THE DIVINE COMEDY, THE INFERNO is a masterpiece and Dante’s most famous work, but it’s pretty grim and hasn’t got much to do with love.

Thank you so much for inviting me to share my thoughts with your readers.  I hope you enjoy reading the book that was such a joy writing, O, JULIET.

Warm wishes,

Robin