Penguin turns 80 this year, and, to celebrate, has published 80 extracts of its classics for 80p. Since I myself only recently became reunited with my Penguin 60s (yes, 60 mini books for 60p, 20 years ago, now on their shelf, top left, as illustrated), I couldn’t wait to look see what was on offer. It’s like a tasting menu from a very good restaurant indeed.
You can save yourself £14 and buy the lot for £50, but you probably have several already. If you can’t choose, spin Penguin’s own roulette wheel and let them decide for you. Or why not go for the 60% that are in translation? Basho and Sappho are made for a format this size, but if you can’t manage all of Ovid and Virgil, a well-chosen excerpt will start you off. The only downside is that there are more Western than Eastern classics on the list.
I’ll go for the Persian translations first – I stopped learning Farsi after about 6 months, though I still have a notebook, and Herodotus’ Histories are on my shelf half-read. His story of the The Madness of Cambyses, King of Persia, is one of the new Little Black Classics. Another is someone I’ve been meaning to read for ages – the great Persian poet Hafez or Hafiz, whose The Nightingales are Drunk is in the new collection in Dick Davis’ translation.
If you can’t get hold of this version, try the translations by indomitable Victorian adventurer Gertrude Bell, available with her own preface here. The drunken nightingale is in number VIII, and it starts like this…
The rose has flushed red, the bud has burst,
And drunk with joy is the nightingale
Hail, Sufis! lovers of wine, all hail!
For wine is proclaimed to a world athirst.
Like a rock your repentance seemed to you;
Behold the marvel! of what avail
Was your rock, for a goblet has cleft it in two!
Bring wine for the king and the slave at the gate
Alike for all is the banquet spread,
And drunk and sober are warmed and fed.
When the feast is done and the night grows late,
And the second door of the tavern gapes wide,
The low and. the mighty must bow the head
‘Neath the archway of Life, to meet what . . . outside?