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.
Colleagues at Penguin contributed important elements, not least the amazing little book How I Came to Know Fish by Ota Pavel, a rhapsodic but also deeply painful account of learning as a child to fish in Bohemia before the Second World War and then having to use that skill to survive the Nazi occupation. I used the opportunity of the series to throw together some of my favourite books: Gregor von Rezzori's The Snows of Yesteryear, Thomas Bernhard's Old Masters and Karel Čapek's War with the Newts - books which in different ways repay endless rereading. Josef Škvorecký's Czech novel The Cowards had been for many years in Penguin Modern Classics and had gone out of print, so this seemed the perfect chance to revive it. György Faludy's great (and very funny) memoir My Happy Days in Hell turned out to be available - as did Sławomir Mrożek's little book of surreal stories The Elephant. We had received a proposal for a new translation of Gyula Krúdy's beautiful short stories about Habsburg Budapest, so that was a fun piece of luck. The series was finished up by a conversation with John Gray about Emil Cioran's searing collection of aphorisms A Short History of Decay - and suddenly we had ten absolutely fascinating and brilliant books.
Central European Classics does not pretend to be definitive or even particularly coherent - there are many other candidates who could not be included because of lack of space or copyright problems (I was personally particularly sad not to include Hrabal's Too Loud a Solitude, Handke's Repetition and Kis's The Encyclopedia of the Dead), but the ten books do give a sense of the atmosphere of a vast band of cultures across the 20th century - from the delights of Budapest in its pre-1914 heyday (Life is a Dream) to the acrid cynicism of neutral Vienna in the 1980s (Old Masters), and lying at its heart the terrible experience of the 1940s.
We decided to use very bright colours for the jackets as it had become a Cold War tradition to design jackets for so much writing from this zone of Europe in greys and blacks. Many of these books had been deeply tangled in arguments about the nature of the Iron Curtain and had fallen out of circulation when the USSR finally collapsed. By reimagining the books' appearance the hope is that people will look at them with fresh eyes and see them not as ideological documents, but as great and enduring works of art - sometimes grim, but often extremely funny and constantly surprising.
Publishing Director, Penguin Press