I was reminded that I haven’t read any of my Penguin Modern box set recently by Lisa’s posts on two of the books from the collection – Fernando Pessoa’s “I Have More Souls Than One” and Lorca’s “The Dialogue of Two Snails”, both of which she covered for Spanish and Portuguese Literature Month. I’ve read and loved the Pessoa, and haven’t yet reached the Lorca – but I decided to press on with the next two books, and intriguing reads they turned out to be!

Penguin Modern 39 – Letter to my Mother by Georges Simenon

Simenon of course needs no introduction; I’ve read tons of his Maigret stories, and love them, as well as a few of his romans durs, as he called his non-Maigret fictions. This, however, is something a little different; “Letter to my Mother” is an autobiographical piece which is indeed in the form of a letter addressed to his mother, written after her death.

Via Wikimedia Commons – By Jac. de Nijs / Anefo (Nationaal Archief) [CC BY 4.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/4.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

By all accounts, Simenon had a difficult upbringing and a complicated, distant relationship with his maternal parent; and in “Letter…” he places himself at her deathbed, recalling the past, trying to reconstruct her early life and fill in gaps – and ultimately to try to understand a woman who gave birth to him, but to whom he’d never been close.

There are two or three billion people on earth… How many have there been since prehistoric times? No one has any idea. What does seem reasonable to suppose is that they’ve always fought and killed each other as they do now, that they’ve always had to fight their neighbours, natural disasters, and epidemics.

Of course, by the time Simenon’s reached this point, it’s too late; there can be no real reckoning and instead he’s left to carry with him all the things left unsaid between them – which is perhaps the point of this work. It’s a stark, often painful piece of writing, but incredibly powerful. The relationships between parents and children are incredibly complicated (I know that from my own experiences) and to lay them bare like this takes a certain kind of courage and also the strength to examine yourself. Simenon is someone who doesn’t seem to shy away from difficult subjects, and this was an unforgettable read.

Penguin Modern 40 – Death the Barber by William Carlos Williams

In contrast to the intensity of the prose in the Simenon, PM40 is verse, and by a poet whom I know I’ve read before – William Carlos Williams. I suspect I read him in my teens, when I discovered a lot of 20th century poets, thought I don’t think I own a book by him, so I probably discovered him in anthologies. The poems in this PM are drawn from a dozen collections, ranging from 1917 to 1962, so do cover a wide range of Williams’ writing.

William Carlos Williams, from his passport photo (Unknown author, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons)

And this is the kind of poetry I love; short, immediate verses which grab and hold the attention, paint little pictures with words, drop beautiful little phrases into your line of sight where they lodge, and which stay with you afterwards.

These

are the desolate, dark weeks
where nature in its barrenness
equals the stupidity of man.

The PM contains what is probably WCW’s most famous verse “This is just to say” (all about the plums in the icebox!), but there are so many other fabulous poems – “These” was particularly memorable. I picked up hints of e e cummings in places, perhaps, but WCW has a wonderfully individual and idiosyncratic way of writing – another PM which I loved to bits!

*****

So two extremely different but equally great Penguin Moderns today – at 58 pages, the Simenon is definitely best published and read as a standalone piece (I don’t know if it always is) so you can read properly, digest and ponder upon it. And a poetry collection of 55 pages is just the right length, as it’s so easy to get overwhelmed by large chunky editions. These two PMs were both excellent entries in the series and hey! guess what! – I’m now four fifths of the way through!!! 😀