It’s a little disconcerting how the Penguin Moderns pairs that I pull out to read often seem to fall quite naturally together. The last two, 23 and 24, were inspiration women authors; however 25 and 26 go off in a very different direction, with a duo of dudes who most definitely want to push the envelope!

Penguin Modern 25 – The Finger by William S. Burroughs

Burroughs is something of a notorious figure (or at least, he was, back when I was reading him in the 1980s!). Connected to the Beat movement by his friendship with Kerouac, Ginsberg et al, his writing is individual, often shocking and frequently labelled obscene because of its treatment of sex and drugs. Yet it’s also often very, very funny; and although things like “Naked Lunch” can be considered difficult to read, he’s also capable of much more straightforward narratives. This Penguin Modern gathers six short pieces, drawn from a collection called “Interzone” and they’re readable, entertaining, often funny and sometimes moving.

Burroughs in 1983 – Chuck Patch [CC BY-SA 2.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)%5D

So The Finger is a skewed tale of a deliberate amputation; The Junky’s Christmas a wistful and wishful-thinking fantasy; Lee and the Boys a vignette of life in Tangiers; In the Cafe Central captures the hidden truth beneath surface level impressions; and Dream of the Penal Colony is just that, a surreal imagining of imprisonment. The story that perhaps affected me most, though, was Driving Lesson; all of the stories in effect draw on Burroughs’ life featuring his alter ego Lee (autofiction again, anyone??), but this seemed rooted in his youth in St. Louis, scion of a rich family who couldn’t understand him, and there was an underlying sense of melancholy which touched me.

It was three o’clock in the morning. Not a car on the street, not a sound. A pocket of immobile silence… Jack’s face was blank, oblivious, the beautiful mouth a little open. Bill lit a cigarette from the dashboard lighter, muttering a denunciation of car lighters and car clocks. A piece of burning tobacco fell on his thigh, and he brushed away it away petulantly. He looked at Jack’s face and put the cigarettes away. The car had moved into a dream beyond contact with the lives, forces and objects of the city. They were alone, safe, floating in the summer night, moon spinning around the world. The dashboard shone like a fireplace, lighting the two young faces: one weak and beautiful, with a beauty that would show every day that much older; the other thin, intense, reflecting unmistakably the qualities loosely covered by the word ‘intellectual,’ at the same time with the look of a tormented, trapped animal. The speedometer crept up… 50… 60…

I haven’t read Burroughs in decades, though I do still have his books on my shelves. However, having read this, as well as Andrew Lees’ excellent “Mentored by a Madman“, I do find myself drawn back to his work. Perhaps a re-read is in order…

Penguin Modern 26 – The End by Samuel Beckett

In contrast, Beckett (an equally controversial author) is someone I’ve never read; the closest I’ve come is the old Open University version of “Waiting for Godot” featuring Leo McKern and Max Wall which used to turn up in the wee small hours of BBC2 decades ago. I found “Godot” intriguing, so why I’ve never explored Beckett’s writing is unclear… 😀

Samuel Beckett – Roger Pic [Public domain] – via Wikimedia Commons

Anyways, as they say, this Penguin Modern contains two stories by the great man, The End and The Calmative. Both were written in French and published in 1954; in 1967 they were translated into English, The Calmative by Beckett himself and The End by Richard Seaver in association with Beckett. And a strange little pair of fictions they are. Both are narrated by vagabonds; are they alive, are they dead, are the ill, do they really exist? Nothing is clear with Beckett, which is be expected I suppose, if “Godot” is anything to go by. The narrators wander; look for shelter; decay; beg; scrape together food occasionally; and ponder on the apparent reality around them. I’m not sure what to actually make of these stories – I guess I need to read a bit more of Beckett to get a handle on him – but they were unusual, entertaining, often bleakly funny and quite unsettling. Which is no doubt what the author intended… 😀

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So what an unusual and thought-provoking pair of Penguin Moderns this was. I enjoyed re-encountering Burroughs and found myself intrigued by Beckett. The pair of Bs turned out to be bleak, black and often affecting. Yay for the Penguin Moderns for taking me to authors I wouldn’t necessarily seek out myself! 😀