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Penguins on Parade: Twentieth-Century Classics!

By (February 7, 2015) No Comment

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Some Penguin Classics – as several of you readers have pointed out to me, hopeless bookworms that you are – revamp earlier Penguin Classics, as is where angels fear to treadcertainly the case with the Penguin Modern Classics I just recently wrote about: the line is a kinda-sorta updating of Penguin’s old “Twentieth-Century Classics” line, a little shorter on the heft that tended to characterize the titles of the older version and little longer on the optimism needed in order to hope that anybody is going to be reading Carson McCullers in another 100 years, to say nothing of John Updike in another 10.

The old Twentieth-Century Classics line had some standbys, of course – writers like Edith Wharton and James penguin queen victoriaJoyce and Willa Cather show up reliably on such lists (indeed, the field-of-flowers cover for the Twentieth-Century Classics O Pioneers! is quite the best cover the book has ever had), and of course there’s a selection of E. M. Forster novels, including his lovely little 1905 novella Where Angels Fear to Tread, here introduced by somebody named Oliver Stallybrass, who lays out the basic facts of Forster’s life and then promptly goes stark raving bonkers:

Unlike the more ambitious Howards End, I find it flawless – in the perfection of its structure, it’s subtle use of leitmotifs, its sureness of touch and tone, the deftness of its comedy, and the skill with which the comedy modulates via scenes of nightmare into a poignancy and pathos unsurpassed in Forster’s work.

But despite what could be considered a core of such canonical writers, the Twentieth-Century Classics line’s row of distinctive light-green spines contained some surprises too. I never expect to see Marguerite Yourcenar’s famous 1951 critical and commercial success Memoirs of Hadrian given the ‘classics’ treatment, even though I love it – and yet there it was, with an Introduction by Paul Bailey in which he somewhat tartly observes, “In Memoirs of Hadrian, memoirs of hadrianMarguerite Yourcenar rigorously eschews the piling-on of historical detail to be encountered, and endured, in the majority of historical novels” – which had a little extra sting in the tail this week, since the queen of all detail-piling-on, Colleen McCullough, just recently died.

Equally unusual and equally welcome is the Twentieth-Century Classics reprint of Lytton Strachey’s revolutionary the brothes ashkenazi1921 biography Queen Victoria, a kind of follow-up to the enormous success of his 1918 Eminent Victorians. This particular volume comes with no annotations of any kind but does have both a typically insightful blurb from Virginia Woolf: “In time Lytton Strachey’s Queen Victoria will be Queen Victoria, just as Boswell’s Johnson is now Dr. Johnson. The other versions will fade and disappear” … and a typically disastrous blurb from Forster himself: “He [Strachey] did what no biographer had done before; he managed to get inside his subject …”

And if you need some help shaking off that mental image, you can always turn to an odd and very enjoyable unannounced editorial drift in this run of reprints: there’s quite a bit of great literature from Jewish authors, including some gems that simply don’t get any kind of wide popular distribution anymore (if ever). One of the comparatively best-known of these is I. J. Singer’s 1936 novel The Brothers Ashkenazi, with an Introduction by the great Irving Howe, who’s also in a fairly tart mood and offhandedly comments, “There are two Singers in Yiddish the rise of david levinskyliterature, and while both are very good, they sing in different keys” – noting that both Singers were “not very successfully” at “full-scale social or family novel.” This is not only a swipe at the very book Howe’s introducing but also at I. B. Singer’s 1950 novel The Family Moskat – and it’s wrong on both counts, since both books are just about as successful as full-scale social or family novels” can get.

Far less well-known, but equally deserving of classic status, is Abraham Cahan’s The Rise of David Levinsky from 1917, originally serialized to enthusiastic acclaim in The Jewish Daily Forward and here succinctly summed up by Jules Chametsky: “Cahan put everything he had learned into this novel, and it is done with great relish.” Years ago, when I first saw this volume in the series, I actually allowed myself to hope Cahan would finally gain a wider readership – but alas, no.

And even less so for Jakob Wasserman, whose gripping 1908 novel Caspar Hauser was also part of this lineup, caspar hauseralthough in this case the lapse back into obscurity might be easier to understand. The book is heavily based on very improbable real-life events (a young man who’s been imprisoned for most of his life is released and wanders the streets utterly befuddled, leading to a great many conspiracy theories about his identity), and presenters always feel they need to reel off all those real-life events before they let Wasserman himself do any talking, and the combined effect incorrectly makes the book itself seem, well, too provincial for canonization – lucy reads old penguin modern classicsalthough the Introduction to this volume at least keeps things lively:

Wasserman’s portrayal of [Philip Henry, 4th Earl] Stanhope is a rich exercise in psychological realism couple with gothic cloak and dagger. How much of it is true will very probably never be known, and in a sense it does not matter, in so far as Wasserman was writing a novel and not a historical study. The same applies to Wasserman’s belief, shared by many historians, that Kaspar Hauser was in fact a prince of the royal house of Baden

Eventually, Penguin’s Twentieth-Century Classics shape-shifted from the pale-green spines to the more standard black-spines-with-white-letters look, and of course eventually the 20th century ended – which hasn’t stopped Penguin from inducting new titles into the line nor should it. But looking at the whole thing as a somewhat closed-set exercise, I naturally start thinking about what a Twenty-First Century Classics line would include. I’ve actually been pondering that question for the last few years with the kind of irrational persistence bookworms will recognize quite well. Expect a Penguins on Parade – or two, or three – on the subject before the year is out!