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What makes a Penguin Classic?

Alexander Larman talks to the Creative Editor of Penguin Classics, Henry Eliot about what makes a ‘modern classic’

Artillery Row Books

I recently found out that Len Deighton’s novels were to become Penguin Modern Classics in 2021. My first response was mild incredulity. Deighton’s books, especially those revolving around his suave spy Harry Palmer, are undoubtedly accomplished and interesting, but the difficulty of co-opting a living author into such distinguished company is that it is impossible to pick and choose their oeuvre.

Therefore, while few would argue with Penguin’s decision to include The Ipcress File and Funeral in Berlin in their series, less distinguished titles such as Blitzkrieg and Blood and London Match have to be included purely in the interests of consistency. Personally, I’d have liked to have seen his underrated cookery books included in such a series, including Len Deighton’s Action Cook Book and Où est le garlic, and hopefully they shall appear in due course.

Eliot is disarmingly evangelical about the inclusion of living authors in the Modern Classics series

It is the ultimate necessity of turning an author’s entire bibliography into Modern Classics that makes an editor’s job both simple and difficult. Few would argue that Evelyn Waugh’s novels Brideshead Revisited, Decline and Fall and A Handful of Dust would merit inclusion in such a series, but does his rather unsuccessful historical novel Helena, about the mother of the Roman emperor Constantine the Great, really deserve to be described as a modern classic? And do interesting but flawed books by George Orwell such as Burmese Days and A Clergyman’s Daughter honestly merit such a selection? The concern is that the once-hallowed designation of a Penguin Classic, modern or otherwise, is being bandied around too freely and without the discrimination that it needs. But who is in charge of such selection?

Such decisions ultimately lie with Henry Eliot, the Creative Editor of Penguin Classics since 2016. He was brought in, in his words, “to be a fresh pair of eyes”, and has tried to revitalise the format. He has quite literally written the book on the series, 2018’s The Penguin Classics Book, in which he offers incisive and enjoyable commentary on 500 authors and over a thousand books in the series, including anything from Greek tragedy to the First World War poets. He will be following it up in autumn 2021 with The Penguin Modern Classics Book, its companion volume, which will cover every title that has even been a Penguin Modern Classic: a daunting task.

Eliot, when asked to define “a Penguin classic”, says:

For me, a ‘classic’ is a book that combines literary quality, historical significance and an enduring reputation, and — above all — it is a book that still feels alive. When you read it there needs to be a flicker of revelation that speaks to you across the years. Perhaps that’s the Penguin factor: Penguin was founded to put beautiful, affordable books into the hands of more people, and Penguin Classics aims to continue that tradition. The series is not a catalogue of relics; it’s a list of living texts, a gathering of insights into the human condition from around the world and across time. The series is now the largest library of world literature on the planet.

When asked what the highlights of his job over the past few years have been, Eliot replies:

They include the publication of The Penguin Classics Book, my book about the history of the series and all the titles on it; the introduction of a new Classics format, with paperback flaps and colour-coded covers according to original language; and a tour of India in 2018 speaking about Penguin Classics at literary festivals in Delhi, Mumbai, Calcutta and other cities.

Since the Penguin Classics series began in 1946 – and celebrates its 75th anniversary in January 2021 – the definitions of what denotes a “classic”, and a “modern classic” have changed. Eliot says:

The Penguin Classics series began in 1946 as a translation-only series — English-language fiction, poetry and plays were incorporated only gradually. The Penguin Modern Classics list began fifteen years later in 1961 and has grown into a celebration of challenging, radical writing from the last hundred years or so. To me, the Penguin Classics series is an attempt to gather the world’s greatest books into one place. It’s a constant work-in-progress, because there are always gaps to fill and imbalances to redress, but we can say with confidence that every title on the list is an established classic of world literature.

And how would he respond to any criticism that the definition of “Modern Classics” has grown too elastic? He is diplomatic. “The Modern Classics series gathers the greatest books of more recent times, books that have challenged convention, changed the world or created something new. They are books that speak powerfully to the moment — and time will tell if they speak for more than that.”

He cites some of his favourite books that he has worked as including The Journal of a Disappointed Man by W. N. P. Barbellion, “the hilarious and heart-rending diary of a philosophical entomologist with multiple sclerosis”; The Song of Kiều by Nguyễn Du, the first and still the only Vietnamese classic in the series; and Territory of Light by Yuko Tsushima, a “luminous” twentieth-century Japanese novel about a single mother raising a daughter in Tokyo.

There are many writers whose work seems a good fit for Penguin Modern Classics, but copyright restrictions have so far made it impossible

One feels that these are slightly removed from Len Deighton, but Eliot is disarmingly evangelical about the inclusion of living authors in the Modern Classics series, where Deighton finds himself alongside the likes of Svetlana Alexievich, Roberto Calasso, Angela Davis, Javier Marías, Vladimir Sorokin and Paul Theroux. He is diplomatic about the notorious inclusion of Morrissey’s Autobiography in the Penguin Classics format (the singer insisted upon it as a condition of publication), saying, “that was before my time … I see it as a playful anomaly on the list, as Penguin Classics has no other living authors”. Morrissey has, appropriately, now been moved to Modern Classics, and one does not imagine that the experiment will be repeated once again.

There are many writers whose work seems a good fit for Penguin Modern Classics, but copyright restrictions have so far made it impossible: Eliot cites Hemingway, Salinger and Faulkner, as well as Toni Morrison, Naguib Mahfouz and Flannery O’Connor. (“The term of UK copyright law is seventy years from the death of the author; I hope all of these authors will join the series one day.”)

As the 75th anniversary draws close, Eliot has numerous plans for commemorating such a momentous date. In addition to the autumn publication of The Penguin Modern Classics Book, 2021 will see both the 75th anniversary of Penguin Classics and the 60th anniversary of Penguin Modern Classics: “There are a few different projects planned. In January we are launching On the Road with Penguin Classics, a new podcast that visits the landscapes and locations around a different brilliant book in each episode, and in April we are launching a new range of Modern Classics audiobooks.”

Eliot’s own taste verges on the recherché – he eulogises the eighteenth-century novel A Journey around My Room by Xavier de Maistre (“written during an enforced forty-two-day lockdown in Turin, it’s a laugh-out-loud pastiche of contemporary travel books with some surprisingly profound revelations”) – but he is convincingly passionate about the egalitarian nature of his work. “Allen Lane founded Penguin Books as an essentially democratic project, to make books as widely available as possible, so I hope I have contributed to that vision in a small way, inspiring readers to discover the best books from around the world.”

And what books does he think everyone should own?

That’s difficult. I suppose I would want everyone to experience the range of emotions that reading can offer, so I would recommend that everyone experience at least one funny book, one scary book, one thrilling book, a book about love, a book about sadness and a book that makes you angry. Here are my suggestions to cover those bases, and they’re all short too: Cold Comfort Farm by Stella Gibbons; Nineteen Eighty-Four by George Orwell; We Have Always Lived in the Castle by Shirley Jackson; The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald; Le Grand Meaulnes by Alain-Fournier; and Notes of a Native Son by James Baldwin.

Perhaps, after all, Deighton has earned his place amongst his Modern Classic peers. But I’m still not convinced by Helena.

On the Road with Penguin Classics, a new podcast hosted by Henry Eliot, will be launched on 28 January.

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