It’s quite exciting to realise that I’m now drawing ever closer to having completed my read of the lovely Penguin Moderns box set which I’ve been making my way through since 2018! I’m now up to books 45 and 46 of 50, and both are by authors I’ve read before. Each of these Moderns was a treasure in its own right, despite the differences in the authors and settings, and in both cases I knew I was in the hands of a master storyteller.

Penguin Modern 45 – The Haunted Boy by Carson McCullers

McCullers needs no introduction here, and I know I’ve read at least one of her works “The Ballad of the Sad Cafe”; that was well pre-blog, and I suspect I no longer have my copy, but interestingly two of the stories featured in this Modern were in that collection. Needless to say, I could remember nothing…

The three stories are the title one, The Sojourner and A Domestic Dilemma (it’s the latter two which feature in “Sad Cafe”). McCullers’ work is described as Southern Gothic and certainly there’s a darkness at the heart of all of these tales. The opener features a young boy who is nervous about going home on his own after school; he insists a friend comes with him, trying to hide his anxiety, and only gradually does the story reveal the reasons for his concerns and past events which have caused this. In “The Sojourner”, a man encounters his ex-wife and her new husband plus their child, and reviews his life and the direction he’s taken. And “A Domestic Dilemma” explores the problems faced by a family with young children when the mother takes to drink.

The twilight border between sleep and waking was a Roman one this morning: splashing fountains and arched, narrow streets, the golden lavish city of blossoms and age-soft stone. Sometimes in this semi-consciousness he sojourned again in Paris, or war German rubble, or Swiss ski-ing and a snow hotel… Rome it was this morning in the yearless region of dreams.

All three stories are powerful pieces of fiction, beautifully written and capturing the tensions of everyday life, the difficulties of keeping a family balanced and, I think, underlying much of these narratives is the emotional strain on women in holding things together and the toll being a mother can take. McCullers is a superb writer, her narrative sympathetically negotiating the complexities of love, life, sorrows and the choices we make, and I suspect I didn’t appreciate her work enough when I first read it. Definitely an author I need to revisit!

Penguin Modern 46 – The Garden of Forking Paths by Jorge Luis Borges

Again, Borges needs no introduction; a much-loved favourite of mine, he’s featured many times on the Ramblings as I gradually read my way through his collection fictions (as well as a number of side projects!) Modern 46 draw five stories from his collected short stories; the title one, considered his best by many, as well as The Book of Sand, The Circular Ruins, On Exactitude in Science and Death and the Compass. Of these, I have read three before, but not Sand or Exactitude; however, I’m always happy to read and re-read any Borges so this Modern was, of course, a great pleasure.

Beneath English trees I meditated on that lost maze: I imagined it inviolate and perfect at the secret crest of a mountain; I imagined it erased by rice fields or beneath the water; I imagined it infinite, no longer composed of octagonal kiosks and returning paths, but the rivers and provinces and kingdoms… I thought of a labyrinth of labyrinths, one sinuous spreading labyrinth that would encompass the past and the future and in some way involved the stars.

What to say specifically? Forking Paths is a most compelling story with a very clever and unexpected end; Sand was a particular joy, exploring as it does a very singular kind of book; Circular has a mythological bent; Exactitude is a short piece riffing on maps; and Compass is a quite brilliant kind of detective story (although with much, much more to it than that) which again twists brilliantly at the end.

As you might guess, these stories are just magnificent, and actually this little Modern would be a great way to give Borges a try and see what you thought of him. He creates a world of his own, full of strange mythologies, labyrinths and twisted tales of detecting and they have a flavour all of their own, unlike any other author I can name. The stories here are translated by Donald A. Yates, Andrew Hurley and James E. Irby, and I salute them! Happily, I still have some collections remaining unread in my chunky big volume of all his short stories (including the “Book of Sand” collection); plenty more Borges to come then, but in the meantime this Modern was a lovely treat!


As you can see, I loved both of these Moderns; despite the different settings, subject matter and style of the authors, they were both completely in control of their narratives and created some unforgettable stories, settings and characters. In many ways, I shall be sad to come to an end of my reading of the Penguin Modern box set – these little books have been such a joy!