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.