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Tuesday, June 01, 2010

New old Penguins!

I am writing about this newly-reprinted 1928 book for a variety of reasons.

It reminds me very feelingly, but without rancour, how tough the lot of women has always been, until very recently, especially women who were ‘cursed’ with the divine spark (Virginia Woolf herself was led by recurrent and increasingly deep depression to suicide).

It also led me to ponder over how much has changed – and not changed – both in the west and in India – since Woolf delivered this lecture at Girton College, Oxford, in the very early days of higher education for women. I look forward to the day when womankind will finally produce the equivalent of Shakespeare (Woolf had expected the signs to become visible in a hundred years’ time!)

It told me how difficult really good ‘stream of consciousness’ writing is, and how sad it is that it has been ruined by countless incompetent emulators since Woolf’s time.

It was Woolf’s thesis that the most fundamental reason why women have never had the time and opportunity to write great literature was that they were bound in fetters of absolute poverty, and hence absolute dependence upon male-folk, and confinement to the domestic hearth, and lifelong grinding menial servitude. So every aspiring woman writer needs a room of her own and ‘five hundred pounds a year’ in order to spread her wings. Why, then, now that women’s material condition has vastly improved – even in India, at least among the urban educated liberal elite, whose numbers must certainly be greater than that of the whole of Britain today – do we still not find great creative (and independent-minded) folks among our women in good enough numbers? And if material poverty and sexual bondage are quite adequate explanations, how do we explain phenomena like Joan of Arc, Florence Nightingale and Marie Curie?... read the book.

Above all, I bought this little volume at Crosswords in Kolkata because it had the old, original Penguin look. My grandfather’s book-case was filled with books with the selfsame look, but then, as I grew up, they apparently went out of fashion, when Penguin started publishing books with covers as garish and commonplace as every other publisher was doing, in the belief, I suppose, that it was important to draw customers who were not really readers, who could not help judging (whatever their judgment was worth!) a book by its cover… it was an indescribably happy moment for me to find that they had started re-publishing books in the old, plain, familiar format again. Apparently sufficient numbers of readers with my kind of tastes still exist to justify it: a heartening thought. They are calling the series Penguin Red Classics. Only, in my grandpa’s day, the typical price of a book was one or two rupees (and it was often printed in terms of shillings): I bought this reprint for Rs. 199. But I am looking forward to buying many more.

P.S., June 02: Please do note, before dashing off a comment, that this post is not merely (or even mainly) about feminist issues but about good writing, and about genius, and about the (rather rare thing these days) love of books.


Zaara Naseem said...

Again thought of sharing some ruminations...
I liked your delicate treading between "much has changed" and "not changed"...well, that perhaps is the crux of the issue - that certain things, certain identities, certain selves continue occupying that fragile and ever-so-fluid position of 'is' and 'not'.But I would rather not look forward to a woman becoming the equivalent of Shakespeare but perhaps of some one closer home. [Personally I feel - though 'feelings' are not akin to knowledge!]that Mahasweta Devi (the Maoist sympathizer) deserves our ovation for her grit and strength. Coming back, maybe in our times, in our space, poverty is not the only binding factor...there might just be other 'causes'... of course one admits, acknowledges and respects the Joans, Florences and Marie Curies - but in as much they seem to stand in as 'exceptions', one is filled with trepidation. Wollstonecraft was a radical in her time, but as feminism went through more waves, she was looked down upon by her intellectual progeny for being too much of a bad liberal...so perhaps contextual changes are significant to be traced and identified. What I am perhaps trying to posit is that mere empirical advancement of material comforts or benefits might not be enough for 'liberation' (whatever that means).Ashis Nandy says that colonialism is a state of mind...perhaps for us women androcentrism and androcentric ways of thinking have become too much of a state of mind![I hope this post gets interpreted as concern and not passionate outburst of any sort!] Have a nice day dear Mr Chatterjee!

Suvro Chatterjee said...

Thanks for writing again, Ms. Naseem, but this time round, I'm afraid, it seems that you didn't really do me the kindness of reading the blogpost thoroughly enough (it's short, but it's dense), so at this point I shall refrain from either lauding or joining issue with anything you have said. In fact, your comment has prompted me to add a postscript to the blogpost.

aranibanerjee said...

In our house inDelhi we have two Penguin editions of 'Of Mice and Men'--both bought in the Penguin staff sale. While one book has a garish modern look, the other one is the red classic. And, needless to say, Aakash will be cursing me after your post! I own the 'little red book"!

Suvro Chatterjee said...


But seriously, Arani, send me a list of new releases in that series if and when you can. I saw only My Family and other animals and Carr's What is history? in that bookstore in Calcutta...

On another note: how many 'educated' people your age and younger these days know what The Litle Red Book means? to think that only fifty years ago a billion people at least pretended to treat is as gospel! sic transit gloria mundi...

Shilpi said...

I think by the time I die I’ll go back to being a staunch (and crabby) individualist. I always have been deeply suspicious (if not outrightly sceptical) of the idea that material wealth and the removal of external shackles can and will create geniuses and intellectual, creative and spiritual giants (or should I say ‘giantesses’ in this instance?). That women like Virginia Woolf (and I’m reminded too of Charlotte Perkins Gilman) spoke and wrote about these as being constraining factors doesn’t make me admire them any less although I think that they were overly optimistic being the sort of people they were…maybe they couldn’t see how women could not be driven.

I’m somewhat less cautious of saying that geniuses are born…but I will say that brilliant writers will be brilliant writers and geniuses will be geniuses no matter where they are born and no matter what their external conditions are made of. This, I cannot doubt any longer. Material conditions matter not a whit to those who are blessed/’cursed’ by the ‘divine spark’ – nor do external shackles and bonds matter. Somehow the creative and intellectual giants are able to throw these off and still create and still write and keep going on the strength of some internal fire that blazes away and they go on and keep going till they can't.

The picture of the old penguin cover brought back some warm memories. I don’t believe I have any of those old cover books though. By the time I started buying books by penguin – the covers were like any other although I remember borrowing books, which had those old covers. As for that bit about judging a book by its covers - hahaha.

Thanks for this thought niggling post (and I've been wondering about some bits in that fifth paragraph for awhile), delightful picture, and a ticklish title.
Take care.

Aakash said...

Dear Sir,

The popular Penguins were released some time back and here's the link to the seventy-five titles available as of now on this list.

As far as 'Of Mice and Men' goes the modern cover isn't bad.

With regards,


Aakash said...

I'm sorry the link didn't come through. Here it is: http://www.popularpenguins.com.au/

Suvro Chatterjee said...

You and I see things quite the same way, Shilpi: geniuses shake off their shackles - even if they die in the process - the rest whine lifelong about how being ordinary, they never dared to reach for the stars! Which is why I reserve all my sympathy and admiration for those who try, and all my contempt for the herd which not just plays safe but makes a virtue of it... do try the book if you haven't read it already.

Aakash, no slight intended to your copy of Mice and men! I hope you are too good at heart to take hurt at the joke I shared with Arani. My apologies, anyway. And thanks for the link!

Aakash said...


There's a story about the Of Mice and Men copies that we have. Arani found his at the sale. I had ordered a copy of yellow-and-orange edition at office. Instead I was handed a costlier, US edition of the book (which is a Red Classic).

And what I said about the cover was also in jest. I prefer the other edition myself.

Looking on the brighter side, we know who owns which copy.


Suvro Chatterjee said...

Funny that the flow of comments stopped as soon as I added that postscript!

Shilpi said...

Ah. Well now I'll have to tell you, won't I? I'd read an extract at the old age of 25, and so I'd picked up the book, and I couldn't read beyond the first ten pages. I simply couldn't follow her stream of consciousness.

But I ran out and picked it up again (on Tuesday) from the library and this time I am having a much more interesting time. She even has a curious sense of humour on top of everything else.

Also, your post reminded of an old penguin book I had borrowed once when in Class VIII but had never gone beyond the first chapter I think, and had never tried reading again...so I'm reading that as well with great delight this time around. That book is Three Men in a Boat. I know. I know.

So - thank you.

Suvro Chatterjee said...

I won't say anything. Better late than never, always.

Just notice how few people have anything to say about books. And yet there was this oaf who took offence a while ago when I lamented the decline of reading among 'educated' people in India!

Shilpi said...

Two bits that I know I'll now never forget from her book (apart from what you've written here) is what she said about the writer self and how the writer who does not have an axe to grind (in terms of setting up a divide between male and female even within one's mind) and does not bear a bitter grudge against society and the external world is the writer who shall stand out to be a genuine, natural, and outstanding writer. The other bit is where she censures the women in Griton saying that 10 years should have been enough to have made women brighter and take proper advantage of the privileges and benefits that had come by for women. I don't know though whether she would have been less tormented in the world of today where some women do enjoy more freedom: legally, politically, and socially...

Many thanks for getting me to give the book another try.