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Reading the Classics from A to Z: A Literary Makeover

Alan Walker As we reported in the December 2007/January 2008 newsletter, several Penguin colleagues have agreed to read a Penguin Classic as part of their new year’s resolution, to challenge the assumption that many classics, however deserving, go unread. Alan Walker, our Senior Director of Academic Marketing & Sales, volunteered to start an ambitious marathon to read one book by an author per letter of the alphabet. Here is Alan’s complete first marathon from A to Z.


I begin with Henri Alain-Fournier’s The Lost Estate , known also by the French title Le Grand Meaulnes. Some of the other "A"s that I considered were Untouchable by Mulk Raj Anand and another recent Penguin Classics French translation, Fantomas by Marcel Allain (something to look forward to for the next go-round). Alain-Fournier’s only finished novel (he died in WWI at 28) reminded me of some of my favorite 20th-century coming-of-age novels like The Great Gatsby, The Catcher in the Rye, and A Separate Peace. This is an easy and fun book, with a mysterious mix of harsh realism and romantic idealism. And of course there is Le Grand Meaulnes himself (silent L and S, by the way), a character for the ages!


On to Russia and Mikhail Bulgakov, author of The Master and Margarita . I took up Bulgakov’s A Dead Man’s Memoir, a semi-autobiographical account of the author’s experience with the theater after his first play was brought to the Moscow stage. This absurdist tale affectionately draws on the madness of a Muscovite theater and all of its bizarre characters, with the backdrop of Soviet repression. For all those actors out there who have studied the Stanislavsky Method, this is a must-read, since one of Bulgakov’s most ridiculous and funniest characters is based on the famous Russian director and teacher.


This was a tough decision; almost too many Cs to choose from. I mulled over Cather, Chatwin, Chaucer, Chekhov, Conrad, Chopin, Crane, and many others before I settled on Charles Chesnutt’s A House Behind the Cedars. I’ve always wanted to read Chesnutt, and I was not disappointed. This story about a young Southern woman of mixed race who gets engaged to a white man under false pretenses is both scandalous and tragic. And it resonates today—a time when we could have an African American in the White House in 2008. This novel drives home that it was barely a century ago that words like "quadroon" and "octoroon" were part of the American dialogue on race.


This one was easy: My D is Robertson Davies! I read the first book of the Deptford Trilogy, Fifth Business, the great Canadian writer’s most famous novel. This book is a revelation, and reminded me of the humor and scope behind one of my favorite Penguin Classics, W. Somerset Maugham’s Of Human Bondage .


After four male authors, I thought my "E" should be a woman writer-even though I wound up picking one with the first name George! George Eliot, that is, who Henry James once said "is magnificently ugly-deliciously hideous . . . in this vast ugliness resides a most powerful beauty which, in a very few minutes, steals forth and charms the mind, so that you end as I ended, in falling in love with her." I read Eliot’s famous tale of the Weaver of Raveloe, Silas Marner. This is one of Eliot’s shorter novels and memorable for her affectionate portrayal of a rural English town and the sad but heroic figure of Silas.


On to Australia and Miles Franklin (born Stella Maria Sarah Miles Franklin). My Brilliant Career, Franklin’s semi-autobiographical novel about growing up in the Australian bush, is one of Australia’s best loved novels, and has some obvious similarities to the story of Jane Eyre. Of all 26 books that I read in my first Classics A-Z marathon this was my favorite find. Written while she was still a teenager and published under the name Miles Franklin to convey male authorship, the book caused a scandal down under when it was published in the early 1900s. Due to the book’s unexpected popularity and its true-to-life characters who so closely portrayed Franklin’s own family and social circle, the author decided to have the book removed from publication until after her death. The romantic novel centers on the headstrong Sybylla Melvyn, a fiercely independent and intelligent aspiring writer growing up in the dustbowl of the Australian Outback. Jane Eyre and Lucy Honeychurch have nothing on this feminist heroine! Like these classic women of literature Sybylla gets the man in the end but then makes a decision that makes this book altogether different than the works of Brontë, Forster, and Jane Austen novels. But I won’t give any more away. I am certain you will enjoy My Brilliant Career. And then after reading it it’s worth Netflixing the 1979 film version starring a young Judy Davis and Sam Neill. Quick note: Miles Franklin never married and before her death in 1954 set up a trust for the Miles Franklin Award for Australia’s Best Novel portraying Australian life. The first winner in 1957 was Patrick White for his novel Voss which has also been recently published in a Penguin Classic edition.


How could I pass up using my "G" to read another novel by one of my favorite authors, Graham Greene? This time around I took up The Power and the Glory, considered by many to be Greene’s masterpiece. It’s a brilliant and powerful novel about a morally conflicted whisky priest on the run from the fascist paramilitary group the Red Shirts, who persecuted Roman Catholic priests in 1920s Mexico. I’d also recommend Greene’s equally powerful and relevant The Quiet American and the brilliantly funny Travels with My Aunt.


On to Norway and Knut Hamsun’s hallucinatory novel Hunger. Considered a predecessor to both Camus’s The Stranger and Kafka’s Metamorphosis, this 1890s classic is in the author’s words "an attempt to describe the strange, peculiar life of the mind, the mysteries of the nerves in a starving body." The basically plotless account of the hero’s attempts to publish, find food, and maintain his overzealous pride is both bizarre and hilarious. I am already looking forward to reading more Hamsun, including the book that won him the Nobel Prize, Growth of the Soil.


For the letter "I" I read Gilbert Imlay’s early American epistolary novel The Emigrants, set around an English family’s frontier crossing into the Ohio River Valley. It’s a bit rough-going getting used to the formality of the language in the letters exchanged by the various characters, but once the different plotlines unfold it becomes quite a page-turner. It features a great romance, Austen-like plot turns, and even a kidnapping of the heroine by Native Americans. There is also historical value here, as Imlay addresses the issue of divorce and the rights of married women in England at the time.


My oldest brother is a Henry James scholar, and embarrassingly I had never read a single James novel, so my "J" was a no-brainer—although I would like to tackle Joyce’s Dubliners next time around, or maybe Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House. I chose James’s third novel, The American, as it is considered one of his more comic and accessible novels. I loved this book: It’s full of melodrama, humor, and witty, crackling dialogue. I highly recommend this tale of a self-made American millionaire who proposes marriage to the beautiful daughter of a haughty family of the French aristocracy!


I took a bunch of Classics on vacation recently but got caught up reading a 700 page DAW fantasy novel called The Name of the Wind by Patrick Rothfuss (maybe a future Penguin Classic some day). So with some catching up to do on my Classics reading I thought I’d try Kerouac’s On the Road, an example of a book I’ve always been a bit ashamed to admit to not having read. And I think I was right to feel this way. It fits right into that elite list of generation-defining American novels like The Sun Also Rises, The Great Gatsby, and Catcher in the Rye, and the novel’s main protagonist Dean Moriarty has to be one of the strangest and most original characters you’ll ever come across (and God forbid you ever have to sit in the passenger seat with him driving). For those of you keeping score, Kerouac’s narrator Sal Paradise at one point during one of his many cross-country trips is reading another book about two oddly matched partners in crime, Le Grande Meaulnes (or The Lost Estate) (see my "A" pick).


It’s been in the mid-90s for a week in New York, and I just came across this great passage in Nella Larsen’s Passing describing a hot summer day in Chicago: "Sharp particles of dust rose from the burning sidewalks, stinging the seared or dripping skins of wilting pedestrians. What small breeze there was seemed like the breath of a flame fanned by slow bellows." Yes, exactly. Couldn’t have said it any better. Larsen’s short novel is an intricate exploration of racial consciousness involving two light-skinned African-American women who both "pass" as white women. The themes here are very similar to my "C" pick, A House Behind the Cedars by Charles Chesnutt; but the styles couldn’t be more different. Larsen was a modernist and the most important woman writer of the Harlem Renaissance, despite only publishing two novels in the 1920s, quitting writing altogether in the ’30s, and working full-time as a nurse until her death in 1964. (Quicksand is also available in Penguin Classics).


In the late 1890s with The Magician, W. Somerset Maugham attempted to have a commercial success by following in the footsteps of other English authors of the times by writing a novel of the occult. This book is sort of a cross between du Maurier’s Trilby (from which came the famous term "Svengali") and H. G. Wells’s The Island of Dr. Moreau. It’s a fun science fiction thriller for anyone who likes their gothic fiction a bit twisted and even stomach-turning (I won’t give anything away but I will say that homunculi are involved!). Maugham didn’t have the commercial success to which he aspired with this book; his simultaneous success as a playwright caused him to quit novel-writing, at least until he came back to it later in life to write one of the 20th century’s most widely read books Of Human Bondage. (Brief aside: A controversy brewed due to Maugham’s unflattering portrayal of The Magician’s main character, Oliver Haddo, which was based so closely on real life poet and satanist Edward Crowley, that Crowley accused Maugham of plagiarizing from his own life for fictional use (an ironic twist on contemporary debates on fake memoirs).


There are very few living authors in the Penguin Classics series. One of them is African author Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o, formerly James Ngũgĩ before he renounced his "colonialist" name. Having just finished a contemporary novel by another great African writer (Nuruddin Farah’s Knots), I thought for my letter "N" I’d move from Somalia to Kenya and read Ngũgĩ’s Petals of Blood. Response to his critique of the Kenyan government and the failure of Kenyan independence in this novel was so explosive in 1977 at the time of publication that the author was imprisoned without charge. Even more incredibly Ngũgĩ wrote his next novel and the first novel in the Gikuyu language on prison issue toilet paper while he was incarcerated. Petals of Blood is a moving tale of four disparate characters in rural Kenya who each get accused of the aforementioned murder; this book should also be of interest to those interested in the political history of Kenya, especially now that we have a Presidential candidate of Kenyan heritage running for the Oval Office.


Even with a letter like "O" there are difficult choices to be made here. I decided to forgo Ovid and Omar Khayyám this time around and try a shot at the five-hundred-page Victorian novel Miss Marjoribanks by Margaret Oliphant. Described by literary critic Q.D. Leavis as the "missing link" in Victorian literature between Jane Austen’s Emma and George Eliot’s Dorothea Brooke, Lucilla Marjoribanks is an indomitable spirit who comes to a fictional provincial English town called Carlingford to take care of her widowed father and takes it upon herself to raise the level of local society through her Thursday evening parties. In the meantime she has to deal with a lineup of inappropriate suitors who constantly mistake her own lofty intentions. This is a fun and fast read despite the length, and perfect for Classics reading clubs I think, and for anyone who enjoys Austen, Eliot, Trollope, and Victorian comedies of manners in general. Important note though: don’t read the introduction first as it gives away the ending!


Only a few days until the deadline to get my latest entries in here, so I skipped longer books by Proust and Pynchon that I’ve always wanted to read (Swann’s Way and Gravity’s Rainbow), and instead took a leap of faith with a novel called Excellent Women by a twentieth-century English author named Barbara Pym who the Times Literary Supplement once called the "most underrated author of the century." As I was walking out of the office on Friday I ran into an editor taking home a pile of manuscripts for the weekend who saw that I was carrying this book. The editor’s exact words were: "you are so lucky." And they were true; this book is a real pleasure. Narrator Mildred Lathbury is a thirty-year old unmarried clergyman’s daughter with no ties who gets embroiled in the tumultuous affairs of the new couple sharing her house. This is a wry, comic novel that dispels the Jane Eyre myth of homely women finding romance; the end somehow is simultaneously happy, humorous, and bleak (I’m not giving anything away I promise!). Highly recommended!


Very few choices for the letter Q; in fact there are only two. And for this round I chose the French modernist novel Zazie in the Metro by Raymond Queneau over Francisco de Quevedo’s The Swindler—which is the second half of a Penguin Classics edition containing two Spanish picaresque novels, with the first being the anonymously authored Lazarillo de Tormes. (Brief aside: once I get through the letter "Z", I should probably read a Classic by that most common of all Classics authors, Anonymous, but I digress.). Zazie in the Metro is a short manic novel about an incredibly precocious girl of unknown age who is brought to Paris from her provincial French home town by her mother and left under the care of her married but sexually ambiguous cross-dressing uncle Gabriel. All Zazie wants to do is go on the metro, but a strike has closed the system, and she instead takes Paris by storm leaving all in her tumultuous wake. Louis Malle adapted Zazie into a movie in 1960, and it’s now on my Netflix list (which is not in alphabetical order by the way, but French Cinema A-Z could be amusing).


For "R" I chose Susanna Rowson’s Charlotte Temple. Published in 1794 this book was the biggest American bestseller until Uncle Tom’s Cabin came out half a century later. According to Ann Douglas’ introduction in the Penguin Classics edition, this tragic tale of seduction so moved readers that thousands made the pilgrimage to the Trinity Churchyards in New York to leave "tears, flowers, locks of hair, crude verses" at the author’s supposed tombstone—ignoring the nearby grave of Alexander Hamilton. Rowson was not a critic’s darling, and she herself admitted to having little literary talent. The Cambridge History of American Fiction stated that Rowson had "imposed on a naïve underworld of fiction readers." Obviously her readers felt differently. This is a short, fast-paced tale of morality in which Charlotte is seduced into leaving her loving parents and boarding school, and embarking on a trip to America with an army lieutenant who then loses interest in her once in America. This Penguin Classic also includes the novel Lucy Temple, about Charlotte’s daughter; you have to read this book as well to understand the full tragic weight of the first!


So far I’ve made it all the way up to the letter "S" only reading black spine Penguin Classics, and I can’t tell you how good they all look together on my bookshelf!! For "S" I chose a Deluxe Penguin Classic by Leslie Marmon Silko, Ceremony. This is a book that I’ve always wanted to read, and I was not disappointed; it may be my favorite novel up to this point in this reading adventure and one that I probably can’t give justice to in a short blog paragraph. Tayo returns home to the Laguna reservation in New Mexico after being a Japanese POW during WWII, experiencing what we would now call post-traumatic stress disorder. Through a series of traditional ceremonies with a seemingly crazed medicine man, Tayo attempts to gain back the peace that he has lost. The writing here is beautiful and powerful, and the story both compelling and brutal, especially in the way the Indian community is portrayed, in its ravages from war, alcoholism and racism. The most powerful theme or image to me is Tayo’s connection to the natural world which has been severed by the white man, who were themselves created by Indian "witchery." I highly recommend this one!


I followed the advice of a friend to try 19th-century Russian novelist Ivan Turgenev for my letter "T" and I was not disappointed. For the next round I might try Tolstoy’s War and Peace which is one of those great books that I am ashamed to say I have not yet read, but for now, the letter Z and the end of this reading marathon beckons, and I have gone with Turgenev’s much shorter novella First Love which one could easily read in one sitting. Ironically Tolstoy and Turgenev had a contentious and rocky relationship, highlighted by Tolstoy challenging Turgenev to a dual in 1861 (Tolstoy later apologized). First Love is a story of infatuation in which sixteen-year-old Vladimir Petrovich falls for his new neighbor, the twenty-one-year old Princess Zasyekina, who is already stringing along a series of other suitors. This book is a great introduction to Turgenev I think , and I daresay upon reading this that most, like me, will want to delve into his longer and more famous works, Fathers and Sons and Sketches from a Hunter’s Album. First Love is also the story of a father and son, one with a rather tragic conclusion, but I will say no more for fear of giving anything away.


Sigrid Undset could very well be considered the First Lady of the historical fiction genre. The Norwegian author and Nobel Prize-winner wrote a trilogy called Kristin Lavransdatter which takes place in Norway in the Middle Ages, and I tackled the first novel of the trilogy, The Wreath, which was originally published in 1920 (note: all three parts are available in Penguin Classics along with a single edition of the entire work). This is a great read, and a love story on two levels: one of passionate love between the beautiful and wilful Kristin and the ill-reputed Erlend, and also of the well-tested love between Kristin and her adoring but proud father Lavrans. In some ways this book reminds me of a Norwegian Fiddler on the Roof. Undset does an amazing job putting the reader in the mindset of these period characters, and yet, the conflict between father and daughter is wholly modern. Highly recommended!


My "V" is Voltaire, the French philosopher, social critic and all-around important Enlightenment figure. I read his most famous work Candide with great pleasure. This was a nice change of pace for my Classics adventure. This very sarcastic, witty and absurd novel follows the travels of young Candide through history, as he manages to maintain his optimism in the face of constant tribulation. Voltaire manages to critique almost every social norm of the time, on the way ridiculing religion, government, war, the military and, above all, the philosophy of optimism put forward by Liebniz. This is a fun and important historical read. I found that the notes were very helpful, as I constantly turned to the index in the back of the book for context on the jokes and allusions in the book.


As a young adult (to use a book industry term) my favorite book was Edith Wharton’s Ethan Frome, and many years later I discovered Wharton’s The Age of Innocence, which still stands as one of my favorite books. So naturally for "W" I turned to another of Wharton’s novels Summer, which was her only other pastoral novel besides Ethan Frome, also taking place in the Berkshires of Western Massachusetts. This is the story of North Dormer’s young librarian Charity Royall, who grew up in a very poor mountain region above the village and was "brought down from the mountain" by the widowed Lawyer Royall, the town’s most distinguished citizen. Despite not being a very good librarian she meets and charms the rich and handsome Lucius Harney who visits the library to do research on the old houses of the area. This is the story of Charity’s sexual awakening and also a twisted and disturbing love triangle between the two young lovers and Charity’s amorous and lonely adoptive father. As always, Wharton does not let down!


I have to admit, this was the one I’ve been dreading for a while as I approached this letter. As you would expect there are not too many authors starting with the letter X to select from here. In fact, my only choice was Xenophon. But this close to the end of the marathon I soldiered on (no pun intended) through The Persian Expedition (otherwise known as Anabasis in the classical Greek). Turns out this is actually rather fun fare: Xenophon’s account of the famous March of the Ten Thousand, a mercenary army that lost in its attempt to dethrone the ruler of Persia (Prince Cyrus) and was forced to march home to Greece over difficult and hostile terrain. Hmm, sound familiar? A great army, forced to withdraw from Persia, with a huge army of mercenaries. Actually I have to thank one of our brilliant Penguin editors who pointed out this ironic connection to contemporary times when I mentioned I was reading this book. All in all the accounts are quite easy and fun to read! Another colleague of mine referred to Xenophon as Herodotus Light!


And the anticipation grows as I get closer to the ultimate letter Z (theme of Jaws playing behind this blog). But first I have to conquer Y and for this letter I decided to read a poetry book (opening motif of Beethoven’s 5th). Of course, Penguin Classics has a vast collection of great poetic works ranging from the classical to the modern periods, from British to American, Homer, Milton, Longfellow, Whitman, Pound, Millay...I could go on. I have to admit though that I have never read an entire book of poetry up to now; and this in a nutshell is what has made doing this marathon so satisfying (enter the intro sequence to Star Trek: "to explore strange new boldly go where no man has gone before"). I read contemporary Russian poet Yevgeny Yevtushenko’s Selected Poems (a short 90 pages) and was blown away. I was drawn in by just about every page and every word, most notably a poem about an encounter in a Copenhagen café with a Hemingway look-alike (with a brilliant and memorable last line), and an incredibly moving and beautiful poem called Colours (I nourish it who can nourish nothing, love’s slipshod watchman). Wow! All I can say is we should all read more poetry!


And finally....the letter Z. It came down to Zola or Zamyatin, and since I hadn’t read any dystopian novels about the 26th century yet for this marathon I figured I’d try the novel We Another 20th Century Russian writer named Yevgeny, Zamyatin was influenced heavily by British authors H.G.Wells and Jerome K. Jerome (both Penguin Classics authors by the way), and We in turn inspired Orwell’s own 1984. I also see a lot of Fahrenheit 451 in this book, and in a very odd turn, maybe even a bit of The Wizard of Oz. This is one of the strangest and most imaginative books I’ve read, with a bizarre and deeply psychological narration by D-503, the inventor of the spaceship Integral. Perfect for anyone who is into mass state-sponsored lobotomy programs, We was also an answer to the "science of management" fostered by American efficiency expert Frederick Winslow Taylor who "pioneered studies that transformed industrial workers into maximally efficient adjuncts of the machines they were hired to operate." And there it is, the grandest theme for the greatest literature: the death of the imagination. To that end I am signing off to go feed my own imagination with more Classics. See you at A for the next go ’round! —ASW

Check out Alan Walker’s second Penguin Classics reading marathon in “Reading the Classics from A–Z: Round #2” »

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