6 May 10 | Chad W. Post

Penguin sure is loaded with amazing series. Penguin Classics is an obvious standard, but the Great Ideas collection is both incredibly beautiful and intellectually stimulating. Now, Simon Winder, the editor responsible for the Great Ideas series, is launching Central European Classics:

This series originates in a visit I made to Krakow last summer where I was talking to a Polish publisher who had known Czesław Miłosz and who berated me for the useless way in which Miłosz was published in English – it was his essays which were so valued and admired in Poland and yet these were virtually unknown in Britain. Suitably shamed I read lots of the essays and, indeed, they were amazing. So then the challenge became, how could a suitable frame be created for republishing them? I have always been obsessed with Central Europe so it didn’t take a huge leap of imagination to see that it might be possible to create a series which would allow readers to come to a range of great writers – the series could tell a story (from before the First World War to the last years of the Cold War), it could usefully highlight the switch from Soviet ‘Eastern Europe’ to modern ‘Central Europe’, and it could be made out of all kinds of writing – essays, novels, memoirs, philosophy, short stories.

The first ten books in the series are pretty incredible (see below), and following in the line of Great Ideas, the series has a very distinctive and eye-catching cover design. Next time I’m in London, I’m going to buy all of these . . . (Too bad these didn’t come out last month. A whole slew of stranded book people could’ve read the entire set while waiting for the ash to die down.)

Anyway, here’s the first ten titles they’re releasing (I would normally list the translators, but they’re not included on the Penguin website . . . ):

How I Came to Know Fish (1974) is Ota Pavel’s magical memoir of his childhood in Czechoslovakia. Fishing with his father and his Uncle Prosek – the two finest fishermen in the world – he takes a peaceful pleasure from the rivers and ponds of his country. But when the Nazis invade, his father and two older brothers are sent to concentration camps and Pavel must steal their confiscated fish back from under the noses of the SS to feed his family. With tales of his father’s battle to provide for his family both in wealthy freedom and in terrifying persecution, this is one boy’s passionate and affecting tale of life, love and fishing.

The Snows of Yesteryear (1989) is Gregor von Rezzori’s haunting evocation of his childhood in Czernowitz, in present-day Ukraine. Growing up after the First World War, Rezzori portrays a twilit world suspended between the dying ways of an imperial past and the terrors of the twentieth century. He recalls his volatile, boar-hunting father, his earthy nursemaid, his fragile, aristocratic mother, his adored governess and the tragic death of his beloved sister, in a luminous story of war, unrest, eccentricity, folk tales, dark forests, night flights, and what it is like to lose your home.

Old Masters (1985) is Thomas Bernhard’s devilishly funny story about the friendship between two old men. For over thirty years Reger, a music critic, has sat on the same bench in front of a Tintoretto painting in a Viennese museum, thinking and railing against contemporary society, his fellow men, artists, the weather, even the state of public lavatories. His friend Atzbacher has been summoned to meet him, and through his eyes we learn more about Reger – the tragic death of his wife, his thoughts of suicide and, eventually, the true purpose of their appointment. At once pessimistic and exuberant, rancorous and hilarious, Old Masters is a richly satirical portrait of culture, genius, nationhood, class, the value of art and the pretensions of humanity.

War with the Newts (1936) is Karel Capek’s darkly humorous allegory of early twentieth-century Czech politics. Captain van Toch discovers a colony of newts in Sumatra which can not only be taught to trade and use tools, but also to speak. As the rest of the world learns of the creatures and their wonderful capabilities, it is clear that this new species is ripe for exploitation – they can be traded in their thousands, will do the work no human wants to do, and can fight – but the humans have given no thought to the terrible consequences of their actions.

My Happy Days in Hell (1962) is Gyorgy Faludy’s grimly beautiful autobiography of his battle to survive tyranny and oppression. Fleeing Hungary in 1938 as the German army approaches, acclaimed poet Faludy journeys to Paris, where he finds a lover but merely a cursory asylum. When the French capitulate to the Nazis, Faludy travels to North Africa, then on to America, where he volunteers for military service. Missing his homeland and determined to do the right thing, he returns – only to be imprisoned, tortured, and slowly starved, eventually becoming one of only twenty-one survivors of his camp.

The Elephant (1957) is Slawomir Mrozek’s award-winning collection of hilarious and unnerving short stories, satirising life in Poland under a totalitarian regime. The family of a wealthy lawyer keep a ‘tamed progressive’ as a pet; a zoo saves money for the workers by fashioning their elephant from rubber; a swan is dismissed from the municipal park for public drunkenness; and under the Writers’ Association, literary critics are banished to the salt mines. In these tales of bureaucrats, officials and artists, Mrozek conjures perfectly a life of imagined crimes and absurd authority.

The Cowards (1958) is Josef Skvorecky’s blackly comic tale of post-war politics that was immediately banned on publication. In 1945, in Kostelec,Danny is playing saxophone for the best jazz band in Czechoslovakia. Their trumpeter has just got out of a concentration camp, their bass player is only allowed in the band since he owns the bass, and the love of Danny’s life is in love with somebody else. But Danny despairs most about the bourgeoisie patriots in his town playing at revolution in the face of the approaching Red Army – not least because it ruins the band’s chance of any good gigs.

Life is a Dream (1931) is Gyula Krudy’s magical collection of ten short stories. Creating a world where editors shoot themselves after a hard day’s brunching, men attend duels incognito and lovers fall out over salad dressing, Life is a Dream is a comic, nostalgic, romantic and erotic glimpse into the Hungary of the early twentieth century. Focussing on the poor and dispossessed, these tales of love, food, death and sex are ironic and wise about the human condition and the futility of life, and display fully Krudy’s wit and mastery of the form.

A Short History of Decay (1949) is E. M. Cioran’s nihilistic and witty collection of aphoristic essays concerning the nature of civilization in mid-twentieth-century Europe. Touching upon Man’s need to worship, the feebleness of God, the downfall of the Ancient Greeks and the melancholy baseness of all existence, Cioran’s pieces are pessimistic in the extreme, but also display a beautiful certainty that renders them delicate, vivid, and memorable. Illuminating and brutally honest, A Short History of Decay dissects Man’s decadence in a remarkable series of moving and beautiful pieces.

Proud to be a Mammal (1942-97) is Czeslaw Milosz’s moving and diverse collection of essays. Among them, he covers his passion for poetry, his love of the Polish language that was so nearly wiped out by the violence of the twentieth century, and his happy childhood. Milosz also includes a letter to his friend in which he voices his concern about the growing indifference to murder and the true value of freedom of thought, as well as a verbal map of Wilno, with each street revealing both a rich local history and intricate, poignant personal memories.


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