As the great paper-back pioneer, Penguin always had a way of making even ordinary releases seem like classics — think of all the elegant orange spines of the old Penguins. Not to mention the 20th-century paintings and beautiful grey-green spines of the Modern Classics series, a very comprehensive representation of the canon of literature in English.
Nowadays titles in the revived Modern Classics series have silver spines, and South Africa has been able to add to the list with its own handful of classic titles. Of course, choosing what is a classic is a hard and contentious job, but series editor Stephen Gray has made a thoughtful and diverse selection. Sol Plaatjie’s Mhudi appeared a while ago, along with two novels by Dalene Matthee; now the series has been augmented by a further six books.
The writers who started off in the 1950s are represented by Can Themba and Es’kia Mphahlele. Themba’s work was collected only after his death, and Requiem for Sophiatown is a new gathering of mostly non-Drum creative work. Mphahlele’s In Corner B is an expanded version of his 1967 collection, taking in older and newer stories as well. Both these are key texts in South African literary history. So too, though not for purely literary reasons, is Ruth First’s diary of her time in detention in 1963, 117 Days.
Prison literature is an important South African genre, and First’s book one of its most important works. She writes movingly and well, and not without a dash of humour, as in when she ruminates on the fact that such prisoners were given the interrogation methods of the Security Branch would, it was hoped, do the rest.” Also from this period, is the lesser-known Road to Ghana, activist Alfred Hutchinson’s account of his escape from South Africa after the 1959 Treason Trial. Without a passport and moving overland, he finally made his way to the newly independent Ghana. It reads like a thriller.
Then there’s Yvonne Burgess’s 1979 novel, Say a Little Mantra for Me, which does not concern itself with the big political issues so much as the small, quiet problems of interpersonal relations. Three generations of women are stuck in a little flat, metaphorically dancing around each other. The novel is a triumph of nuance, detail and the use of voice, as the telling moves between the characters.
Lastly, there is the oldest work of the bunch, and perhaps the least known today. It is William Charles Scully’s autobiography, Unconventional Reminiscences, stitched back together from its original serial form. Scully was a pioneer and magistrate in South Africa in the late 19th and early 20th centuries — and one of the time’s leading poets. This volume traces his life from his departure, aged 14, for the Witwatersrand goldfields, to the eve of the Boer War. With his energetic, forthright style, his story is never less than engaging.
These titles give a South African series of Penguin Modern Classics a great kick-off, not least with their stylish design and look. They offer a wonderful opportunity to discover or rediscover key works in our literature, and one can only hope the series soon expands some more.