Penguin Classics’ creative editor and an author Henry Eliot reveals what classic literature entails and what’s in store for the future.
It’s easy to lose oneself in the 4000-year-old labyrinth of literature. While traversing through the Western canon of literature is itself not an easy ride, the expanding list of literary works from the languages and cultures afar, has changed the landscape of classic literature. Moreover, in the times when publishing houses are neck-in-neck to produce best-sellers, it is no doubt that privy to commercialisation and the carefree handling of the word ‘classic’, have made it rather challenging for new readers to distinguish between a truly noteworthy piece of literature and the modern one-time-read crass.
For Henry Eliot, the Creative Editor of Penguin Classics –the beloved imprint of the classic literature across the world, the classics can be ascertained if they have a combination of literary quality, historical significance and enduring reputation. After months of careful illumination on the three factors, Henry has published his third book Penguin Classics that in the process of recording vivacious publishing history of the imprint also traces and catalogues the classics right from Mesopotamian epic poem The Epic of Gilgamesh to the World War I Robert Graves’ autobiography Goodbye to All That.
The book which boasts of 500 authors and 1200 books is a testament that the publishing house has come a long way since publishing its first classic book Homer’s ancient Greek epic The Odyssey in 1946. Talking about the ever-growing list and the need for the redefinition of classics, Henry says, “The part of the reason why it has gone so big and will continue to be so big, is that definition of a classic has expanded. It used to be quite a Western focused traditional canon, and as readers and publishers, we are broadening our horizons and looking for more literature written by women and cultures which weren’t necessarily studied.” Now they are in the process of adding the 14th century Ethiopian classic Kebra Nagast and have already commissioned a translation of the Vietnamese epic poem called The Song of Kieu.
Contrary to the expectations of a hefty and cumbersome record of literary history, as most of the references unusually are, the book engagingly hooks the readers with its interesting stories, author biographies, book summaries, literary connections, illustrations of cover designs and recommendations. “The person that I was trying to while writing this book, I guess myself at the age of around 14 and 15, someone who is just starting to read the classics. And so, the tone I was trying to take was always of the one of enthusiasm, and trying to interest them into what’s interesting, unusual, and humorous about this book,” says Henry.
The connoisseur of classics channels his boyish charm when he reveals that it was hardest for him to write about the books he loves. “I almost felt guilty about the Jane Austen spread because I love Jane Austen, I kept writing and re-writing. William Blake was another one, it was so hard to sum it up in few words,” complains Henry. Ask him what were the most interesting snippets, and he narrates an absolute erratic life history of Jam Potocki, the writer of a Polish novel The Manuscript Found in Saragossa. “He was this Polish aristocrat who travelled around the world; was a great adventurer; was the first aeronaut in Poland who flew in a hot balloon before anyone else did, and he was quite eccentric. During the end of his life, he somehow became convinced that he is a werewolf, and so terrified about what he might do, he ended up taking his own life by shooting himself from a silver bullet made from the knob of his favourite sugar bowl!” regales the author. The others include a snippet about Tibetan Buddhists
’ who drank so much nettle tea that their skin went green; and one about at a writer who used to tie the fingers of his enemies into his hair as a reminder that they were dead. “And this is what I mean to find the hook, with every writer I just kept digging, until I found something unusual. The idea was basically to give people, literally something to gather their arms and literally hold the list in their two hands. They are not going to read every book in their lifetime; but at least they should get a sense that it’s not impossible, not unmanageable, it’s big, but it’s finite,” concludes Henry.