The future of a classic

Published on Nov 30, 2018 06:34 PM IST

Literary worth is not enough to determine the greatness of a work of art. A classic speaks to the present, but time alone tells if it can speak for all ages, says writer and editor Henry Eliot

Brad Pitt plays Achilles in the Hollywood film Troy (2004) that dramatises the Trojan War, the crux of Homer’s Iliad.
Brad Pitt plays Achilles in the Hollywood film Troy (2004) that dramatises the Trojan War, the crux of Homer’s Iliad.

The creative editor of Penguin Classics, Henry Eliot, no relation to the most famous Eliot -- TS Eliot – was in India recently to participate in the Penguin Classics festival. Henry did live, for a time, quite close to the village of East Coker in Somerset, the subject of one of TS’s Four Quartets and the home of his English ancestors, where his ashes are kept today.

A literature scholar from Cambridge University, Henry,has designed a number of literary tours in London including one on Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, a Lake Poets tour of Cumbria. He is the co-author of Curiocity (with Matt Lloyd-Rose), an illustrated book of an ‘alternative’ London.

What is your definition of a classic and what do you think are the necessary conditions for it to emerge? An interesting childhood? The age of the writer? The age of his/her nation?

It’s difficult to attempt a definition of a classic — there are already a lot to choose from! — but for me a book needs to combine literary quality with historical significance and an enduring reputation in order to be considered a classic. And above all it must still be able to speak to you across time and space, enlarging your experience of what it means to be human.

It’s also hard to generalise about the necessary conditions for a classic to emerge: Mary Shelley published Frankenstein when she was just 20 years old and Leo Tolstoy wrote Resurrection when he was 71. I think classics can emerge at any time and in any place, but there do seem to have been a few particularly productive moments and places in literary history, such as Elizabethan England, Heian Japan and post-revolutionary France.

A classic must be able to say what it means to be human, says Henry Eliot. (Photo: Penguin)
A classic must be able to say what it means to be human, says Henry Eliot. (Photo: Penguin)

Name a writer whose book was not considered a classic in its time.

Two examples of works that were not highly regarded at the time they were written, but which have come to be called classics later, are the poetry of William Blake and the novel Maurice by EM Forster. Blake was a proud outsider who died in poverty - it was only after his death that readers acknowledged what a spectacularly visionary poet he was. And Forster wrote Maurice before A Passage to India, but he chose not to publish it in his lifetime as it’s a homosexual love story: he attached a note to the manuscript saying ‘Publishable, but worth it?’ Now it is considered an equal of his other great novels.

Most will agree that Robert Walser’s The Assistant or Ray Bradbury’s Fahreinheit 451 or Sylvia Plath’s Bell Jar or Tolkein’s Fellowship of the Ring are classics, but are they all classics in the same way.... Some also use that term for Rowling’s Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets, how do you see this?

The term ‘classic’ is probably overused. The danger, if we use it too loosely, is that it becomes meaningless. All the books you mention are still in copyright, so that means they were written relatively recently - time will tell if they are really timeless classics.

In April 1961, four titles were published by Penguin for the first time with a new look and a new name: Penguin Modern Classics. Are the criteria for including a work of literature as a Penguin classic still the same? Which classic has had many cover changes?

I think of the Penguin Modern Classics series as a kind of ‘quarantine period’ for more recent works of literature that have great literary quality but which are not yet old enough to have demonstrated that they can endure through time. They are our best guess at what will be the classics of the future: we know they speak to the present, but time will tell if they speak for all ages.

Penguin Modern Classics have a very distinct design, which has changed five times over the years. Currently it is a bold full-bleed image, with white bands at the top and bottom and large white and eau-de-nil lettering in a typeface called Avant Garde.

A book that has had many different Penguin cover designs is Sons and Lovers by DH Lawrence, which began as a triband ‘original’ Penguin book in 1948, then went into Penguin English Library in 1981, then Twentieth-Century Classics (1994), Penguin Modern Classics (2000) and finally Penguin Classics (2006).

Which country tops the list of writers who are part of Penguins classic list? Which are the top 5 classics that Indians love reading?

The countries with the most titles on the Penguin Classics list would be the UK, the US, France, Germany and Russia.

Is there any Indian writer whom you have recently included in the classics list ?

In 2017 we published a volume called Roots of Yoga, which is an anthology of passages from the Upanishads, as well as Buddhist and Jaina traditions, and many other Indian texts that relate to the traditions of yoga. These key texts had never been collected together in this way before and we felt there was a demand for a volume of this kind, given the worldwide enthusiasm for all forms of yoga.

Why do you think the first classics came out of the pen of poets – Homer (Odyssey), Vyasa (Mahabharata), Ferdowsi (The Book of Kings)?

Spoken language is far, far older than the written word: for thousands of years humans transmitted stories orally without producing any written literature. When writing was first invented in the 27th century BCE, it would not have been seen as an artistic medium in itself: it was a way of recording spoken words. Poetry is closely associated with song and performance and so it is no surprise that these early oral traditions were set down in a form that we now describe as poetry.

Do you think the film Troy would have done better had Brad Pitt as Achilles, spoken in verse like Ralph Fiennes did in Coriolanus?

Interesting question! Of course Troy is a translated adaptation of Homer’s Iliad, whereas Coriolanus is a filmed version of Shakespeare’s play that uses the original language. If Brad Pitt were to have spoken in verse in the English-language film, it would have been a verse translation of Ancient Greek.

There have been different approaches to the merits of prose and verse translations over the history of our classics. Initially, the first series editor E. V. Rieu had a strong preference for translating verse into prose: he felt that the added difficulty of versifying led to unnecessary compromises in the translation. But his successor Betty Radice preferred verse, because it replicated the experience of reading the original poetry more accurately.

If we’re comparing the two films, however, I do think Coriolanus is a lot better; I’m not sure that changing Brad’s lineation would be enough to rescue Troy . . .


    Paramita Ghosh has been working as a journalist for over 20 years and writes socio-political and culture features. She works in the Weekend section as a senior assistant editor and has reported from Vienna, Jaffna and Singapore.

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