Archive for April, 2013

Tolstoy’s “confession”


Tell me, good Brutus, can you see your face?


No, Cassius; for the eye sees not itself,
But by reflection, by some other things.


‘Tis just:
And it is very much lamented, Brutus,
That you have no such mirrors as will turn
Your hidden worthiness into your eye

– from Julius Caesar, Act 1, Scene 2, by William Shakespeare


The general consensus of opinion appears to be that while Tolstoy’s greatness as a novelist is beyond dispute, his polemics are a bit loopy, and are, on the whole, best ignored.

I think I probably subscribed to this also: after all, from what I knew of Tolstoy’s life, the moral and religious convictions of his later years brought happiness neither to himself nor to the people around him. And what great wisdom can it be that makes people unhappy?

So I, too, was content to think of his polemical writings as merely “loopy”; and so, I ignored them. But this won’t really do: his fiction, right to the end of a life, is quite clearly the product of an extraordinary mind; and that he should switch this mind off when writing polemics, and allow some inferior mind to take over, seems unlikely to say the least.

So I turned to the first of his major polemical writings of his late period, “A Confession”, written in 1879 shortly after the completion of Anna Karenina, while he was in his early 50s. Here, the writer who is perhaps equalled only by Shakespeare in his understanding of humanity in all its extraordinary diversity, turns the spotlight upon himself, and tries to understand the promptings of his own soul. The result is enthralling, but, as with the last section of Anna Karenina (which finds frequent echoes here), it is also, it seems to me, open-ended.

As is well-known, the depiction of the spiritual crisis Levin undergoes in Anna Karenina is almost entirely autobiographical. The details of Levin’s crisis, and that of Tolstoy’s as recorded here, seem virtually identical. Here too, we get the startling details of how he had kept away from ropes and knives and guns for fear that he might be tempted into suicide; here too is the realisation that there exist powerful forces other than reason that shape his thoughts. But before we get to this stage, Tolstoy tells us how his spiritual crisis had come about.

Although raised in the Orthodox Russian faith, he had not, he tells us, taken it very seriously. At first, he had accepted the outward shows without thinking too hard; but after a while, he couldn’t help but note the various absurdities of human life itself, and what struck him as its pointlessness. And set against this pointlessness, the rituals of the church seemed meaningless. All this may come as something of a surprise to those who know and love War and Peace and Anna Karenina, as those books could only have been written by someone who loved life, who loved the constant flux that constituted living, who was dazzled by the sheer plenitude of it all. And yet, this same man, having already scaled some of the greatest peaks of artistic achievements, says this:

Before occupying myself with my Samara estate, with the education of my son, or with the writing of books, I had to know why I was doing these things. While I did not know why, I could not do anything. Amidst my thoughts concerning the farm, which at the time kept me very busy, a question would suddenly come into my head: “Well, fine, you will have 6,000 desyatins in the Samara province and 300 horses, and then what?” And feeling completely taken back, I would not know what to think next. Or, beginning to reflect on the education of my children, I would ask myself, “Why?” Or deliberating how the peasants may achieve prosperity I would suddenly ask myself, “What concern is it of mine?” Or thinking about the fame my own writing had brought me, I would say to myself, “Well, fine, so you can be more famous than Gogol, Pushkin, Shakespeare, Molière, more famous than all the writers in the world, and so what?”

And I had absolutely no answer.

On reflection, perhaps it was precisely because Tolstoy loved so much that these questions were for him so terrible: only someone who loves life could be so horrified by the possibility of its futility. These questions, for Tolstoy, demanded answers: there had to be, for him, some meaning to his life, to his activities, that would not be obliterated by his physical death. In the absence of answers, his life became for him, he tells us, “hateful”; and this is why he had to keep himself away, like his creation Levin, from temptations of self-slaughter.

At this point, he introduces what he claims is a traditional fable. A man falls down the well, but manages to hold on to a branch projecting from the wall of the well. At the bottom of the well is a dragon. While he is holding on to this branch, he knows he is safe from the dragon, but two mice – a black and a white, night and day – are gnawing away at the branch, and he knows that eventually he will fall prey to the dragon. And the thought of this gives him no peace. Near where he hangs is honey which he can lick, but the thought of that dragon, and of the fate that awaits him, prevents him from enjoying this honey.

The meaning of the fable is obvious enough, but there is a contrivance about it that seems most unTolstoyan, and very far from the seemingly effortless simplicity of the fables he was later to go on to write (“How Much Land Does a Man Need?”, “What Men Live By”, etc.) How could other people enjoy the honey while being aware of the dragon? he asks himself. He describes some mechanisms whereby the question of the dragon may be avoided, but such mechanisms, he decides, are not for him: at the end of it all there’s that dragon, and that sucks out of life all possibility of meaning.

And yet, Tolstoy is not prepared to turn his back on life. He speaks of Socrates, of Buddha, and of Schopenhauer, all in their different ways turning away from this world, renouncing desire, abjuring the earthly. But the man who had written War and Peace and Anna Karenina couldn’t do that: even when he had renounced these works, he couldn’t do that: he loved life too much. And in any case, he reflected, even Socrates, Buddha and Schopenhauer, for all their renunciation, went on living. Tolstoy could not force himself into renunciation: to renounce life was unthinkable, and to go on living a life which one had renounced seemed to him yet another form of meaninglessness.

As ever with Tolstoy, the writing is extraordinarily simple and direct. Whether or not the reader shares Tolstoy’s outlook, the intensity and directness with which his crisis is described is startling:

My position was terrible. I knew that I could find nothing along the path of knowledge, other than negation of life. While in faith I found nothing other than a negation of reason, which was even more impossible than denial of life. According to rational knowledge life is an evil and people know it. They have the choice of ending their lives and yet they have always carried on living, just as I myself have done, despite having known for a long time that life is meaningless and evil. According to faith it follows that in order to comprehend the meaning of life I must renounce my reason, the very thing for which meaning was necessary.

Like Levin, Tolstoy saw the possibility of an answer – a possibility only – from the simple life of peasantry. Now, Tolstoy is frequently accused of idealising peasant life, and peasant wisdom; however, Tolstoy was close to the peasantry, while his accusers are almost invariably far removed from the lives of the illiterate and the impoverished. So perhaps we ought to give Tolstoy at least some benefit of the doubt when he says that in the lives of many peasants, poor, illiterate and uneducated, he had found a serenity and an equanimity that were so conspicuously lacking in his own life. And the possibility struck him that they may be in possession of something that had eluded him.

And there came to him a realisation also that there were powerful forces in his mind other than the rational:

Thus in addition to rational knowledge, which I had hitherto thought to be the only knowledge, I was inevitably led to acknowledge that there does exist another kind of knowledge – an irrational one – possessed by humanity as a whole: faith, which affords the possibility of living.

It is easy for the modern reader to dismiss this merely as sentimental religiosity, but perhaps, once again, we should not be so cavalier in rejecting this. For it is true that there is much we – even secularists, even atheists – hold on to that we have not arrived at through exercising our reason. For instance, I am convinced that slavery is a great evil; but did I reach this moral position through exercising my reason? Did I set out to myself what the objectives of human activities should be, and why, and then reason to myself why slavery hinders rather than helps us achieve our objectives? Of course I didn’t. I don’t know where my conviction comes from that slavery is evil, but it’s not through reason. Of course, we all know slavery is very cruel, but the conviction that cruelty is an evil is not, once again, one that I have arrived at through ratiocination. How I have arrived at it, I don’t know. But Tolstoy’s realisation that there are powerful forces at work in shaping our thoughts and our moral values that are not in themselves rational is one I find myself sympathetic with.

But I do find myself somewhat nervous, to say the least, in Tolstoy’s placing so much faith in the power on unreason – in his identifying our inner moral voice as divine. For inner moral voices have led people to commit all sorts of horrors. And I cannot believe that Tolstoy could have been unaware of this. Perhaps it is not surprising that Tolstoy’s religious conversion never brought him the serenity he so craved.

But, provisionally, his religious conversion gives him some semblance at least of answers to those questions which, for him, had to be answered:

…to the question: what meaning is there that is not destroyed by death? The answer is: unity with the infinite, God, heaven.

But Tolstoy was at least as complex a character as any that he had depicted in his work, and reading this, it’s hard to escape the feeling that perhaps he didn’t see himself to quite as much depth as he saw his own creations: as Brutus knew, the eye sees not itself. Tolstoy, by temperament, was a rational creature: accepting the irrational, though attractive, though seemingly the answer to the questions that so tormented him, was not easy. There was nothing of the mystical in Tolstoy: the heaven he yearned for was not the heaven in some promised life to come, but heaven in the here-and-now. And to this end, he went on to make moral demands of his fellow human beings that he must have known his fellow human beings could not live up to. He made these same moral demands of himself, and it seems he couldn’t live up to them either. Tolstoy was as fascinating a character as any he created.


I am not capable of providing a critique of “A Confession” from a philosophical or a theological point of view: I am not sufficiently knowledgeable in either area. With hindsight, we can see that Tolstoy’s religious conversion had not brought him the peace and serenity he had so craved. That his questions remained unanswered, or, at best, only partially answered, was perhaps inevitable: the most profound questions about our lives will always elude us. But what I find particularly enthralling about “A Confession” is Tolstoy’s attempt, after having peered so deeply into the minds of others, to understand himself: The eye may not see itself, and Tolstoy’s vision of himself may have been incomplete; but it is, nonetheless, an extraordinary eye.

[All excerpts taken from the translation by Jean Kentish, published by Penguin Classics]

The “tragic flaw” in Shakespeare

Among the bits and pieces of information WordPress supplies me with regarding this blog are the various items people have searched on to get here. And almost every day, people have found this blog by searching on such items as “What was Othello’s fatal flaw?” or “What was Hamlet’s fatal flaw?”  and the like.

I am not sure why it is anyone should imagine that the key to understanding a tragic drama is to identify some “fatal flaw” on the part of the protagonist: the story of someone coming to grief on account of a moral shortcoming is more the provenance of Aesop, I’d have thought, than that of Aeschylus. Are students being encouraged in their literature classes to think of tragic drama in this manner, I wonder? Are they being set assignments to identify various fatal flaws? Well, if they are, they need look no further. Here, completely free of charge, I have put together a ready reckoner that will identify the fatal flaws of each and every tragic protagonist in Shakespeare.

First, let’s get the easy ones out of the way:

Hamlet: indecisiveness

As we all know, the poor lad couldn’t make up his mind. Take him to a pub and ask him if he wants a beer or a whisky, and he’d be all over the place.

Othello: jealousy

That’s easy enough. Lear, though, I had to think about a bit, and in the end came up with this:

King Lear: self-delusion

Macbeth, however, is much easier:

Macbeth: ambition

[Update: in my first version of this post, I had unaccountably missed out Lady Macbeth, who is also a great tragic character. However, her tragic flaw is the same as that of her husband’s, so the initial omission is easily remedied.]

Let’s move on to some of the others. Julius Caesar is an awkward one, for here we have not one, but four protagonists. But they are classified quite easily:

Julius Caesar: megalomania
Brutus: faulty reasoning
Cassius: envy
Mark Antony: not applicable (he doesn’t die at the end, and hence is not tragic)

And as for that oddball Timon of Athens, that’s a fairly easy one also:

Timon: spendthrift

Now the two late tragedies, Antony and Cleopatra and Coriolanus. Coriolanus is simple enough:

Coriolanus: pride

Antony and Cleopatra, however, are a bit more difficult. But they’re indubitably tragic, and so must have tragic flaws of some kind:

Antony: a bit of a pisshead
Cleopatra: a bit of a slapper

There are a couple of early tragic plays in the canon, Titus Andronicus and Romeo and Juliet. We needn’t bother much about Titus, since no-one really takes the play very seriously anyway. But, if you insist:

Titus Andronicus: obduracy

And Romeo and Juliet seem to me to share the same tragic flaw:

Romeo and Juliet: fancied the wrong person

Although Richard II and Richard III are both classed as History plays, many consider them to be tragic dramas also. So, for the sake of completeness:

Richard II: self-regarding
Richard III: right evil bastard

I think that covers the lot now. With this handy guide, no student looking to complete their essay assignment on the tragic flaws in Shakespeare should have any problem at all.

“Northanger Abbey” by Jane Austen

Though published posthumously in 1817, Northanger Abbey was the first of Austen’s six novels, and, according to the advertisement accompanying the publication, was “finished” in 1803. It was in 1803 that publishers Benjamin Crosby & co had bought the rights to this novel, but they subsequently decided not to publish it. Austen bought back the rights, but, despite the publication of her subsequent works, did not, for whatever reason, try again to get this published. And it remains a matter of some controversy amongst scholars to what extent, if at all, the text that was posthumously published in 1817 was the same as that “finished” in 1803. Brian Southam, for one, believes that Austen had revised and re-written the text substantially since 1803, but he appears to be in a minority on this. It is impossible to be at all sure on this point, as there is little to go by except internal evidence of the text itself.

Compared to her later novels, the scope here is certainly modest; but the writing is very assured, and of great sophistication. Neither tells us much: there have been writers at the peak of their powers who have written works modest in scale; and novels as assured and as sophisticated as Buddenbrooks or The Heart is a Lonely Hunter have been written by their respective authors when only in their mid-twenties. Neither is there much that can be read from there being in the novel two distinct strands, which, though adroitly spliced together, do appear to indicate different levels of artistic ambition: there have, after all, been many other instances of slightness giving way, during the course of writing, to matters of greater substance. The most obvious example of this is Don Quixote, which, to begin with, is no more than a satire on chivalric romances, but which assumes greater stature as it progresses. Although Northanger Abbey is a work of a very different nature, something similar happens here also: it starts as a sort of parody of certain kinds of fiction, but soon, other more important themes come to the fore, displacing from the novel’s centre the parodic element.

The parody, as is well known, is of Gothic novels. The very opening sentence tells us that Catherine Morland is very different from the kind of protagonist readers may have been expecting:

No one who had ever seen Catherine Morland in her infancy would have supposed her born to be an heroine.

Catherine is ordinary: no great beauty, no great intellect – no great anything really. Her childhood years are covered with a prose of delicate and mischievous irony that was to become Austen’s trademark. But the irony is entirely affectionate: Catherine’s ordinariness, though ironically contrasted with what one might have expected from a heroine of a Gothic romance, is never disdained.

When Catherine is a teenager, on the threshold of maturity, the Allens, well-off neighbours, offer to take her to Bath. Austen offers us images of various stereotypes of Gothic literature, only to dash them with delicious anti-climax:

When the hour of departure drew near, the maternal anxiety of Mrs. Morland will be naturally supposed to be most severe. A thousand alarming presentiments of evil to her beloved Catherine from this terrific separation must oppress her heart with sadness, and drown her in tears for the last day or two of their being together; and advice of the most important and applicable nature must of course flow from her wise lips in their parting conference in her closet. Cautions against the violence of such noblemen and baronets as delight in forcing young ladies away to some remote farm-house, must, at such a moment, relieve the fulness of her heart. Who would not think so? But Mrs. Morland knew so little of lords and baronets, that she entertained no notion of their general mischievousness, and was wholly unsuspicious of danger to her daughter from their machinations. Her cautions were confined to the following points. “I beg, Catherine you will always wrap yourself up very warm about the throat, when you come from the Rooms at night…

Austen also points out the various Gothic elements in which the journey to Bath was lacking:

Neither robbers nor tempests befriended them, nor one lucky overturn to introduce them to the hero. Nothing more alarming occurred than a fear on Mrs. Allen’s side, of having once left her clogs behind her at an inn, and that fortunately proved to be groundless.

All this debunking is amusing, but while they may be sufficient for a sketch, they cannot be expected to form the entire substance of a full-length novel – even of a novel as short as this. And in any case, Austen herself seems after a while to lose interest in debunking the Gothic: there are more serious concerns.

For, if the novel had – as seems probable – its beginnings in debunking Gothic fantasy, then the theme of greater import that arises from such debunking is the recognition of reality. And this Austen found far more interesting. In Bath, after an initial few days in which nothing much happens, Catherine becomes acquainted with the Thorpes – in particular, with Isabella Thorpe (who becomes her close friend), and with her brother John. Catherine possibly senses that Isabella is an airhead and her brother a bumptious bore; but if she does, she does so only vaguely. Her mind is still essentially that of a child, unable adequately to perceive reality for what it is. And it is the development of her mind, of her perceptions, that is the real theme of the novel. The ordinariness that is required to debunk Gothic pretensions becomes in its own right the principal focus of interest; and Austen was among the first of the great nineteenth century novelists to find the extraordinary in the ordinary. The human mind contains, after all, mysteries and wonders that are more fascinating by far than all the secret passages and torture chambers of Gothic castles.

The development of Catherine’s perceptions is achieved with a supreme mastery. After being introduced to the refined Henry Tilney and his sister Eleanor, Catherine finds herself, albeit unconsciously, preferring their company to that of the Thorpes. And hidden even more deeply in her consciousness is that she has fallen in love with Henry. Her distress in thinking that she had behaved badly to the Tilneys, and her mortification in imagining what they think of her behaviour, are communicated with the lightest but surest of touches. We, the reader, may know that she is worrying over nothing; but we nonetheless sympathise with her worrying, and do not look down upon it.

The mock-Gothic element reappears for a few chapters when Catherine is invited to Northanger Abbey, the Tilneys’ home. Here, under the influence of various Gothic novels, she imagines that General Tilney, the father of Henry and of Eleanor, had murdered his wife. Possibly, this is where the idea of the novel had started. But if it had, Austen doesn’t now show much interest in it: far from drawing it out, as she could so easily have done, she puts a stop to it as soon as she can, setting Catherine right on these matters. Indeed, in the context of what has been achieved in the novel so far, these chapters may even seem somewhat crude: Catherine’s mistaking the character of Isabella, and mistaking her own feelings for Henry, are more subtle and more interesting by far than her mistaking General Tilney for a murderer.

Perhaps a more mature Austen could have achieved even more; perhaps a more mature Austen would have made more of Henry than the perfect paragon of virtue and goodness we see here. But what we get is remarkable enough. The theme of growing into adulthood, of beginning to see the world as it is, is a popular theme in fiction, but rarely, if ever, has it been done better. Indeed, so engrossing are the psychological insights, that when the plot has to move on, the emphasis on the events rather than on the subtleties of the mind seems a bit of an intrusion.

The climax comes when the general unceremoniously orders Catherine from the house, with no explanation given. Catherine is devastated, not only on account of the insult offered her, but also for other reasons – reasons of the heart, which she is only now beginning to recognise. But the strength of character Catherine reveals in her devastation is a mark of how far she has travelled, and the extent to which she has grown.

I suppose one could point to a structural flaw in that the climactic point of the story (Catherine’s eviction from Northanger Abbey) does not coincide with the resolution (Henry’s subsequent proposal to Catherine, and their marriage). Indeed, the chapters containing this resolution seem to appear almost as a sort of epilogue. But that’s a minor point. And if this is to be counted a flaw, it’s one Austen never repeated in her subsequent work.


Northanger Abbey has all the hallmarks of an early work – the first steps of a writer who will later go on to achieve even greater things. But these first steps aren’t by any means merely tentative: the relatively unambitious parody of the Gothic – which, I’d guess, was conceptually the starting point of this work – is soon overtaken by themes that, though clearly related, display a far greater artistic ambition. I am now looking forward to reading (not really re-reading, since I got so little from my earlier attempts) the novels in which this artistic ambition blossomed more surely.

Marketing at Penguin Classics: a postscript

I just opened up the Penguin Classics website, and the first thing I saw was this:

Discover Dante Alighieri’s original Inferno – the inspiration for Dan Brown’s new novel – in this modern and acclaimed Penguin translation.

Read more about Dan Brown and the descent into Hell here.

(I have deleted the links in the cut & paste job above.)

Penguin Classics is among the great institutions, and, as I wrote in my previous blog post, I have effectively grown up with their books. But can they please employ PR and marketing people who actually care about classical literature? I go to Penguin Classics to get away from Dan Brown & co!

Sorry to keep banging on about the marketing at Penguin Classics, but someone has to! Right now, I must admit that Oxford World Classics is looking more attractive by the minute.

In celebration of Penguin Classics

In my previous post, I was less than entirely complimentary to Penguin Classics. I feel a bit bad about this, since I can think of no other commercial organisation – not even the Macallan distilleries – whose products have meant so much to me over the years.

Penguin Classics first appeared immediately after the War, in 1946, with E. V. Rieu’s translation of The Odyssey. Rieu’s vision was to make available for everyone at affordable prices the greatest literature that the world has to offer. It is a vision that may seem somewhat quaint to us nowadays, when so many of us refuse even to admit that anything could be objectively “greater” than anything else; some even judge this sort of thing to be paternalistic, and patronising. The Rievian vision, like the Reithian vision that was the foundation of the BBC, was possibly of its time, and is, many would argue, of little relevance in our modern world. But I won’t start off on another of my intemperate rants on this matter: I want this post to be celebratory. So I will restrict myself to saying that I have grown up with Penguin Classics; that they have been my constant companions throughout my adult life; and that, for better or worse, they have helped make me what I am: I would be a very different person without them.


I remember the first Penguin Classic volumes I ever bought. I think it was the Rosemary Edmond’s translation of War and Peace. I was thirteen years old, and had been utterly transfixed by the splendid BBC dramatisation; and I wanted, desperately, to read the books. So I handed over my pound note for the two volumes – 50p each, I still remember – with pictures of Alan Dobie as Prince Andrei on the cover of the first volume, and of Morag Hood as Natasha on the second. (Antony Hopkins was Pierre in that BBC series, but he wasn’t a big enough star in those days to make the front cover.)

I confess that disinterested love of literature was not then my sole motivation. I did, it is true, genuinely want to read the book for its own sake, but, being too young to be aware how little erudition is valued in society, I had thought that people would be impressed by a mere thirteen-year-old reading Tolstoy. I am tempted to be picturesque here, and invent a story of my sitting on a park bench reading War and Peace with the front cover held up ostentatiously for passers-by to view, but no – even at thirteen, insufferable prat that I no doubt was, I didn’t go that far. But I did read it in the comfort of my room, when I should have been doing more useful and important things such as seeing to my chemistry homework.

In the event, no-one was impressed. But by the time I finished the book, I found, to my surprise, that it didn’t matter. The experience that book had given me was beyond anything I had expected. It obsessed me day and night. And I knew that if this is what classic literature could give me, I wanted more – regardless of whether or not it impressed others.

I remember still saving up whatever change I had in a biscuit tin to buy myself more Penguin Classics. Naturally, I wanted to read more Russians. Anna Karenina soon followed, again in Rosemary Edmonds’ translation. Then Crime and Punishment, and The Brothers Karamazov, in the venerable translations by David Magarshack. And Chekhov’s short stories, and Gogol’s Dead Souls – both, again, in Magarshack’s translations, I found an edition of the plays of Chekhov in the local lending library – translated once again by David Magarshack – but it wasn’t Penguin: in those days, the Penguin version of these plays was translated by Elizaveta Fen, and I didn’t enjoy them as much as I had done the Magarshack versions. Still, it was Chekhov; and it was Penguin Classics. So I wasn’t complaining too hard.

After a while, I diversified. I knew a few of the Russians: it was time, I decided, to try some of the French. So I got myself Alan Russell’s excellent translation of Madame Bovary.  Soon, I was on to Marion Ayton Crawford’s translations of Balzac, Margaret R. B. Shaw’s translations of Stendhal, and Leonard Tancock’s translations of Zola. After a while, I ventured out of the 19th century: John Butt’s beautifully fluent translation of Voltaire’s Candide – and, later, John Butt’s translations of Voltaire’s Zadig and L’Ingenue. And, as a nod to my own background, Juan Mascaró’s translation of the Bhagavad Gita. The only disappointment, as I remember, was J. M. Cohen’s version of Don Quixote, which, I later discovered, had the reputation of being accurate but dull. The accuracy I couldn’t vouch for, but the dullness I could. However, since the more recent publication of the translation by John Rutherford, Penguin Classics now boasts what is reckoned to be one of the finest of all English versions of Don Quixote, renowned for its accuracy both to the letter and the spirit, and also – and this last bit once again I can vouch for – for its fluency.

And so it continued – through my student years, my adult life, and right into my now advancing middle age. Bit by bit, my reading repertoire expanded. Those Penguin Classics I read in my teens I have since re-read in different translations, but, call it nostalgia if you will, it is those translations I first encountered that I usually love the best. When I want to re-read Madame Bovary, for instance, it’s still Alan Russell’s version I turn to.

When I look through the Penguin Classics catalogue online, I can but marvel at the range and depth of it. Of course, I suppose it’s a bit biased towards Western literature, but given that Penguin Classics are Western publishers, that’s nothing to be surprised by or to complain about. However, having said that, the literatures of India, of China, Japan, Persia, etc, aren’t badly represented at all. If anyone has read all the titles Penguin Classics publish of non-Western literature, one could count oneself to be very well read indeed in those areas.

And from the West, we have just about everything from Athenian drama to medieval Arthurian romances; from nineteenth century European novels to  Icelandic sagas; from early Christian theology to Byzantine histories; Renaissance drama to Romantic poetry; Greek philosophy to modernist experimentation … It’s a veritable Aladdin’s cave of treasures. And it is sad that the PR team whose job it is to publicise these marvels focus so unremittingly on only a few of the most popular of titles – Pride and Prejudice, Jane Eyre,  Great Expectations, Huckleberry Finn, The Great Gatsby, On the Road, and a relatively small handful of others. It’s only when you go into a large bookshop, or browse the online catalogue, do you realise the sheer range of the riches on offer. And in both cases, you need to know beforehand what you’re looking for. Why hide such glorious light under a bushel? When you publish splendid new translations of Ovid, say, or of Cervantes, why not shout from the rooftops about it?

But, instead of my usual rant, I would like to say a big “Thank You” to Penguin Classics. I really cannot imagine my life without these books. While E. V. Rieu, now in the Great Library in the Skies, may well be shaking his head at the antics of the PR department, his heart must be swelling with pride as he surveys the current catalogue, and sees what has developed from the publication of The Odyssey over sixty years ago.

The end of the world is nigh

I have long regarded Penguin Classics as one of the great civilising forces of the modern world. It is with some dismay, therefore, that I found today this post from Penguin Classics on my Facebook page:

2 April, 1840: Birthdate of French naturalist author Émile Zola. Penguin Classics publishes many of his fictions, plus his history of the Franco-Prussian War, The Debacle.

Zola’s only purely historical work, this realistic, detailed, and accurate account of France’s defeat in the Franco-Prussian War is a grim testament to the human horrors of war.

And this post is a grim testament to the unashamed ignorance of PR bods busy promoting works they neither know nor care about. I’m not, admittedly, the greatest expert on the works of Zola, but The Debacle (La Débâcle) was certainly a novel the last time I read it.

If even Penguin Classics no longer care about classic literature, then the end of the world really is nigh.