Penguin Classics 2019

Every year, new titles join the Penguin Classics list. In 2019 we welcomed Swedish science fiction, a Polish war novel, a volume of medieval Welsh poems and an anthology of Japanese ghost stories, along with many other titles, including the spectacular Penguin Book of Christmas Stories, a selection of poignant, magical and celebratory Christmas stories from around the world. We asked our classics editors to pick their favourite classics of 2019.

All My Cats by Bohumil Hrabal 

All My Cats is a rather unusual thing: a cat memoir from Bohumil Hrabal, the best Czech writer of the 20th century (the runner-up? Milan Kundera, who also agrees that Hrabal is the best).

Deeply honest, poignant and at times disturbing, it is the chronicle of a cat lover driven to near-madness by the dilemmas his passion has created. More than that, it's a touching meditation on our place in nature, violence, love, and innocence. Having been a fan of his eccentric, exuberant novels for many years — Closely Watched Trains is my favourite — it was a real treat to come across a piece of writing that hadn't been available in English before.

Casiana, Publishing Director 

Bad Behavior by Mary Gaitskill

I was delighted to be able to republish Mary Gaitskill’s Bad Behavior in Penguin Modern Classics earlier this year. First published in 1989, it caused a sensation at the time with its frank portrayal of women, men, sex, relationships and the city (New York, in this case).

How we think about all these things is once again being upended in 2019, but Bad Behavior continues to shine a light on all the murky, subtle, funny and heartbreaking ways we relate to one another. I think Mary Gaitskill’s stories are sorely needed today, but they are hugely entertaining too.

Maria, Commissioning Editor

The Book of Taliesin, trans. Rowan Williams and Gwyneth Lewis

The Book of Taliesin is one of the great works – and mysteries – of Welsh literature, featuring names, faces and places with connections to the worlds not only of the Mabinogion, but also of the Arthurian legends.

The thing is, nobody really knows who Taliesin was. He may have been a real bard among the warring kingdoms of fifth- and sixth-century (Heroic Age) Britain, earning his keep at warlords’ courts with songs of their largesse and skill on the battlefield; or he may be a fiction, an avatar created for an early oral tradition by the generations of anonymous hands who wrote under his name in the 700 years that followed.

Whatever the case, the poems here gathered become increasingly trippy with the centuries; from ecology, to battles fought by trees, to wondering how the world is held up, to shape-shifting journeys through time, space, and human history (like Forrest Gump, Taliesin gets everywhere), and with a sprinkling of Britons kicking around the invading Saxons’ heads, it’s got it all. These are dense, mystical, driving poems, brought into wonderfully crisp contemporary English by Gwyneth Lewis and Rowan Williams. For those who don’t know their Gododdin (South-East Scotland) from their Glywyssing (Southern Wales), there’s a handy map of Heroic Age Britain. And, amazingly, this is the first time they’ve all been translated in one place since 1915.

Donald, Senior Commissioning Editor 

Childhood, Youth and Dependency by Tove Ditlevsen

Tove Ditlevsen’s Copenhagen Trilogy has been my most exciting publication of the year. Ditlevsen was a famous twentieth-century Danish writer who turned her messy life into three exceptional volumes of memoir that read like the most compelling kind of fiction. She was completely fearless in the way she wrote about sex, motherhood, abortion, addiction and being an artist, and the books feel as fresh and as vivid today as when they first appeared in the late 60s. The response to them has been everything we’d hoped for, with reviewers describing the trilogy as a masterpiece and comparing the author to Elena Ferrante, Karl Ove Knausgaard, Natalia Ginzburg and Sylvia Plath.

Jessica, Editorial Director

Down in the Valley by Laurie Lee  

There’s a wonderful serendipity about Down in the Valley, which we’re publishing for the first time, some two decades after Laurie’s passing. That it exists at all is somehow miraculous – but it’s what the book is that’s so special. A meditation on the Gloucestershire landscape that inspired and infused his work — from summer swimming in the sheep dip, to jazz records played in the privy and the inevitable pitstop in the The Woolpack, pub that was his home from home – it’s truly classic Laurie Lee: a fitting coda to a life in writing, and a reminder of the gently hypnotic power of one of our great storytellers.

Tom, Publishing Director

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Life for Sale by Yukio Mishima

I think lots of people are aware of Mishima’s story: born in 1925 in Japan, he was a samurai and bodybuilder with a keen interest in sadism, who ended his life in 1975 by ritual suicide (seppuku) after launching a failed coup against the Japanese government. In between all this he wrote some excellent books. Life For Sale was published for the first time in English this year after recently becoming a bestseller once more in Japan. It’s a madcap romp featuring a narrator with a lightly worn death wish who becomes tangled up with the Japanese mafia, vampires and heiresses and so much more. It’s tons of fun.

Maria, Commissioning Editor

The Penguin Book of Oulipo, ed. Philip Terry

Founded in Paris in 1960, OULIPO (The ‘Workshop of Potential Literature’) has been delighting readers ever since with a stream of often highly eccentric mathematics-based new written forms, some surreal, some very funny and some simply annoying.

At its heart lies the work of Raymond Queneau, Georges Perec and Italo Calvino and this anthology celebrates some of their most enjoyable inventions, but also the work of many more less well-known figures. There is an important place in Oulipo for ‘Anticipatory Plagiarism’ – work by writers such as Carroll, Swift and Herbert whose lives, for merely temporal reasons, predate Oulipo’s founding. These include pieces such as Swift’s Writing Engine and Carroll’s Pool of Tears.

This is one of those books which deserves a permanent place on a small table next to the bed: anyone reading it from cover to cover would be stark mad by page 126, but it is magical to dip into randomly. My current favourite is an entirely successful attempt to rewrite Poe’s The Raven without using the letter e – a particularly insane task, given that it’s most famous line — Quoth the Raven “Nevermore” — includes five of them.  

Simon, Publishing Director

The Song of Kiều by Nguyễn Du    

I was thrilled when we added our first Vietnamese title to the Penguin Classics list in April. The Song of Kiều (1820) is the greatest work of Vietnamese literature, frequently cited in Vietnamese media, taught in all Vietnamese schools, and with characters and stories that provide common reference points for the Vietnamese community around the world.

But it is also a gripping, proto-feminist adventure about brothels, nuns and pirate heroes. It tells the story of Kiều, a beautiful singer who marries in order to save her family from debt and gets dragged into an increasingly tragic sequence of events. ‘The manuscript is ancient, priceless, / bamboo-rolled, perfumed with musty spices,’ run the first lines of Timothy Allen’s exquisite translation. ‘Sit comfortably by this good light, that you may learn / the hard-won lesson that these characters contain.’

Henry, Creative Editor

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