The Penguin Modern Classics Book by Henry Eliot
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The Penguin Modern Classics Book by Henry Eliot

24th November 2021

For lovers of twentieth-century
literature from around the world -
The Penguin Modern Classics Book
by Henry Eliot

The Penguin Modern Classics Book by Henry Eliot

At Foyles we love books about books, but no more than Henry Eliot who in his new book The Penguin Modern Classics Book, has compiled and created a wonderful volume that can be used for researching what books to read next, or rediscovering old favourites and new classics. Containing every title published in the Penguin Modern Classics series since it began over sixty years ago, readers have several routes through the +1800 titles, whether that's by author, decade, country or one of the handy mini reading lists scattered throughout the pages. Profusely illustrated and beautifully designed, this really is a book-lovers dream, and especially for Foyles Eliot has written a fascinating blog, which demonstrates the kind of curious facts you'll find in his marvellous book


Five Literary Legends

by Henry Eliot


‘Truth is always strange,’ wrote Byron, ‘stranger than fiction.’ The last century was packed full of authors with colourful life stories, and these five legends had lives that were even stranger than their works of fiction.


Anaïs Nin

Angela Anaïs Juana Antolina Rosa Edelmira Nin y Culmell was born in Paris to Cuban parents, both musicians, who separated when she was two years old. She lived with her mother in Barcelona, before moving to New York at the age of eleven. She worked as an artist’s model and married her first husband, the banker Hugh Guiler, in Havana in 1923. The next year they moved to Paris, where they lived for fifteen years. Nin began writing exquisite works of dreamy erotica, trained as a flamenco dancer and studied psychoanalysis. At the outbreak of the Second World War, Nin and Guiler returned to New York, where she became famous for her collection Under a Glass Bell and her novels, such as A Spy in the House of Love. In 1947, she met the actor Rupert Pole in an elevator. They married in 1955, while Nin was still married to Guiler. She established what she called a ‘bicoastal trapeze’, with husbands in both New York and Los Angeles. ‘I tell so many lies I have to write them down and keep them in the lie box so I can keep them straight,’ she explained.


Irmgard Keun

Keun grew up in Cologne, where she trained as an actress, but she gave up acting at sixteen and turned to writing, encouraged by the novelist Alfred Döblin. Her first two novels were instant bestsellers: Gilgi, One of Us and The Artifical Silk Girl are about modern young women in Berlin, and ‘Gilgi’ soon entered the vocabulary of Weimar Germany. When the Nazis blacklisted Keun in 1933, she attempted to sue the Gestapo for loss of earnings, before wisely escaping both Germany and her Nazi-supporting husband in 1936. She spent the next two years travelling around Europe with the writer Joseph Roth, and drew on these experiences in her masterpiece, Child of All Nations. When her suicide was erroneously reported in 1940, Keun was able to smuggle herself back into Germany and spent the rest of the Second World War living in Cologne under a false name. Afterwards she wrote satirical pieces for magazines and suffered increasingly from alcoholism, spending six years on a psychiatric ward.


Malcolm Lowry

Lowry went to sea between school and university, working as a deckhand and coal-trimmer on a ship bound for the Far East. After university, he moved to Paris, where he married his first wife, and then to New York, where he read books and drank alcohol, having arrived, according to legend, with just one football boot and a copy of Moby-Dick. He travelled to Mexico, where he drank mescal and his marriage dissolved, and he was inspired to write his greatest novel, the delirious Under the Volcano. He then wound up in British Columbia, where he married again and lived in a squatter’s shack on the beach outside Vancouver. After the shack burned down, Lowry travelled around the world; he returned to England in 1955 and choked to death in his sleep. He had planned a sequence of seven novels with Under the Volcano as the centrepiece: he saw the projected cycle as a modern Divine Comedy, with the ultimate goal Hell and redemption, but the other segments remained mostly unfinished and unpublished when he died.


William S. Burroughs

In 1943, William Seward Burroughs met Allen Ginsberg and Jack Kerouac in New York, and together they went on to form the Beat Generation. Burroughs was a heroin junky, living with fellow addict Joan Vollmer. The couple moved to Mexico in 1950, where Burroughs accidentally shot Vollmer dead before fleeing the country. He relocated to Tangier in Morocco and spent four years taking opiates and edible cannabis and producing a vast fragmentary manuscript, part of which was repurposed as the wild, orgiastic, fantasia novel, Naked Lunch. In 1958, he moved to a shabby hotel in Paris with Allen Ginsberg, the poet Gregory Corso and other Beats, where he experimented with occult mirrors, mind-altering drugs and the literary cut-up technique. His ‘cut-up trilogy’ of psychedelic novels was intended to form ‘a new mythology for the space age’. Burroughs spent his last years in Kansas, collecting firearms, making artworks by shooting cans of spray paint and performing ‘chaos magic’. J. G. Ballard called him ‘the most important writer in the English language since the Second World War’.


James Baldwin

Baldwin was born and raised in Harlem. He never knew his biological father, but his childhood was dominated by his overbearing stepfather David Baldwin, a Baptist preacher. At twenty-four, Baldwin bought a one-way plane ticket to Europe, and spent most of the rest of his life in Paris and Saint-Paul-de-Vence, in the south of France. In the 1960s, he became an influential figure in the American civil rights movement, appearing regularly on US television debates. In 1963, The Fire Next Time, comprising two short ‘letters’, galvanized the movement and propelled Baldwin to the cover of Time magazine. That same year he joined the March on Washington alongside his film-star friends Marlon Brando and Sidney Poitier. ‘The story of the negro in America is the story of America,’ he wrote in his first collection of blistering essays, Notes of a Native Son. ‘[. . .] It is not a very pretty story.’ He wrote essays, stories, plays and exquisitely crafted novels, such as Giovanni’s Room, If Beale Street Could Talk, and his masterpiece Another Country.


Yukio Mishima

As a child, Kimitake Hiraoka was banned from playing with other boys, or in direct sunlight. As a teenager, his father ripped up his stories and held him up to the side of speeding trains, but he continued to write secretly and began publishing under the pseudonym ‘Yukio Mishima’. In 1944, he left school with a commendation from the emperor, and in 1946 he visited the novelist Yasunari Kawabata, who became his literary mentor. Mishima wrote novels that broke social taboos, in a Japan that was changing rapidly: he treated themes of homosexuality, abuse, adultery, prostitution, voyeurism and suicide in works such as Confessions of a Mask and The Frolic of the Beasts. His interests included modelling, acting, bodybuilding, karate and training as a samurai. He founded a civilian militia, which was dedicated to restoring power to the emperor of Japan and overturning the parliamentary constitution of 1947. In 1970, he and four members attempted a military coup, which failed. After a rousing speech from a balcony, which was greeted by jeers, Mishima stepped inside and performed seppuku, ritual disembowelment.


Henry Eliot

Henry Eliot is the author of The Penguin Classics Book and the presenter of the podcast On the Road with Penguin Classics. He has organized various literary tours, including a mass public pilgrimage for the National Trust (inspired by William Morris), a recreation of Chaucer's Canterbury Tales, which raised money for the National Literacy Trust, a Lake Poets tour of Cumbria and a quest for the Holy Grail based on Malory's Morte D'Arthur. He is also the author of Follow This Thread: A Maze Book to Get Lost In and Curiocity: An Alternative A to Z of London.


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