And onwards I go, into the second fifth of the Penguin Modern boxed set! I thought I’d leave things a little while so as not to get jaded with just reading short works, but after the bulk of “The Aviator” these (and the recent Maigret) were a pleasant contrast. Again, two books with not much in common, but nevertheless powerful works despite their slim size.

Penguin Modern 11 – The Legend of the Sleepers by Danilo Kis

Kis is another author I’ve read before, and in fact I reviewed the collection from which the two stories featured here are drawn “The Encyclopedia of the Dead“) back on 2016. Kis was a Serbian writer and “Dead” was his final work, initially published in 1983. It’s a varied collection, taking in myths and legends, fantasies, realism and stories which deal with the art of words. The two texts chosen for this Penguin Modern are the title story and “Simon Magus”, both of which have a common theme of re-telling ancient legends.

By Marina Kalezić [CC BY-SA 3.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0), via Wikimedia Commons

As I commented when reading the full collection, the stories are full of allusion and references, multi-layered and beautifully written; in fact, the language in “Sleepers” is particularly striking with its flowing repetitions creating memorable images. I had intended back in 2016 that I’d go on to read more of the Kis I have on Mount TBR; that never happened, but this is a reminder that I really should…

Penguin Modern 12 – The Black Ball by Ralph Ellison

And now an author new to me. Ralph Ellison is an American author best know for his book “Invisible Man” (which I’m sure I have a copy of *somewhere* in the house). Like so many writers, he’s one I’ve always meant to read but never got round to, so I was happy to be poked with the Penguin Modern stick into making his acquaintance.

By United States Information Agency staff photographer [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

PM12 contains four of Ellison’s shorter works – the title story, “Boy on a Train”, “Hymie’s Bull” and “In a Strange Country”, and they’re all absolutely stunning. I suspect I may possibly have come across “Hymie’s Bull” at some point in my reading life, as it was vaguely familiar, telling as it does the tale of some men hopping freight trains across America and the violent men they meet along the way who are out to stop them. “Boy on a Train”, an ostensibly simple tale of a widow and her two boys travelling home in a segregated train was desperately poignant (and I suspect, from a quick look at Ellison’s Wikipedia entry, may draw on his own life.) “The Black Ball” is a fascinating story, highlighting a complex distrust of the white man, as a black worker struggles to accept that a white union man has any interest in helping him.

The sun was a big globe in the west that seemed to drop away like a basketball toward a basket, and the freight seemed to be trying to catch it before it got there. You could see large swarms of flies following the freight cars like gulls over a boat; only the noise they made was lost in the roar of the train. In the field you could see a flock of birds flying away into the sunset, shooting off at an angle to rise and dip, rise and dip, sail and pivot in the wind like kites cut loose from their strings.

However, I think it’s “In a Strange Country” that will stay with me the most. Parker, an African American sailor, comes ashore in Wales and encounters white fellow countrymen who attack him. Yet he finds tolerance and acceptance amongst the Welsh, who take him into their world, sharing their love of music with him. It’s a stunning, powerful story of how humanity can transcend differences, and how a love of something deeper than stupid national boundaries can bring people together. It had me in tears, to be honest, and felt terrifyingly relevant in this day and age.

Ellison writes beautifully; his prose is lyrical, readable, evocative and he’s obviously the master of telling a bigger tale in the short story form. You find yourself raging at the injustices but celebrating the fact that there must be hope, demonstrated by unlikely bedfellows finding a kind of common ground. A really excellent addition to the Penguin Moderns, and I’m particularly glad to have read this one.

*****

So Penguin Moderns 11 and 12 were a particularly stunning pair, featuring two very disparate yet individual voices. Kis is a writer deserving wider reading, and Ellison obviously justifies the high regard in which he’s held. What a treat these unassuming little pastel coloured books are turning out to be!

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