Well, I’ve done it! I have read the last two books in the Penguin Moderns box set and have finished my reading of the series!! It’s been a brilliant and enjoyable experience – but what did I make of the final two volumes??

Penguin Modern 49 – Lance by Vladimir Nabokov

Let’s face it, I was always going to be on safe ground here, as Nabokov is an author whose work I’ve read and loved a lot! This particular Modern collects together three of his works – The Aurelian, Signs and Symbols and the title story – and they really are a varied and fascinating selection.

‘Aurelian’ is an old-fashioned term for a lepidopterist (and Nabokov was one of those); and this story tells of Paul Pilgram, a morose butterfly/moth collector who runs a failing shop and has never been able to afford to travel abroad hunting the flying creatures. His hopes are raised by a fortunate sale; but will reality get in the way? “Lance” is a very different beast, a skewed sci fi tale wherein a descendent of the narrator gets to travel to the stars – or does he? All is cloaked in mystery, hints and Arthurian allegory. The third story, “Signs and Symbols”, concerns an ageing couple and their very mentally ill son who lives in an institution; a planned visit to him is aborted; the couple receive wrong number phone calls; and again the narrative is full of riddles.

I am somewhat disappointed that I cannot make out her features. All I manage to glimpse is an effect of melting light on one side of her misty hair, and in this, I suspect, I am insidiously influenced by the standard artistry of modern photography and I feel how much easier writing must have been in former days when one’s imagination was not hemmed in by innumerable visual aids, and a frontiersman looking at his first giant cactus or his first high snows was not necessarily reminded of a tyre company’s pictorial advertisement.

This being Nabokov, the language of the stories is quite stunning, if occasionally obscure. The opening paragraphs of “Aurelian”, describing the little town from the point of view of a trolley bus journeying along its streets, is remarkably unusual and vivid. “Signs and Symbols” is, of course, laden with these things, and I did find myself looking at just about every word and wondering what it was signifying! Once more, it’s quite brilliant of course, and the kind of story you want to read all over again. “Lance” is a little more obscure, and is apparently the author’s last short story; it attacks sci fi and plays with the genre’s tropes and although I’m not sure I understand it all, it’s again beautifully and vividly written. Even when he’s being tricky, I do love reading Nabokov.

Penguin Modern 50 – Why I Am Not Going to Buy a Computer by Wendell Berry

The final Penguin Modern couldn’t be further away from the Nabokov; it’s some non-fiction work by the American poet Wendell Berry, and is thought-provoking if perhaps a little problematic for me.

Berry is described online as “an American novelist, poet, essayist, environmental activist, cultural critic, and farmer”, and seems to be known as much as for his environmental work as for his poetry. “Why…” is a short piece first published in 1987 where Berry outlines his reasons for continuing to write in analogue form (pen/pencil and paper, then typewriter) and ignoring all recommendations he receives to get a computer. The rest of the book is taken up with letters the publication received arguing with him, his responses to those letters and a further piece expanding on the controversy it seems to have raised.

Thing is, I entirely get his stance; he’s an advocate of simple living, being off grid as much as possible and avoiding excessive consumption to help save the planet. It’s a laudable position to take, quite prescient, although in some ways I think we’re past that point now. The obsession with social media, being online and connecting digitally would be hard to reverse now unless a major environmental catastrophe happened; and in fact the digital was something of a lifesaver during the lockdowns, helping people to cope with the potential mental health issues that isolation brought.

I think my reservations come on two counts; one criticism made of Berry’s original piece was that he related writing his works on paper and then having his wife as collaborator typing these up for him, which was attacked by feminists. Although he defended this by saying their marriage was a partnership and in effect it was none of anyone’s business, his later piece came across as a little dismissive. He basically said why would women want to join the rat race as well as men; however, women might perhaps want to create their own art, rather than facilitate a partner’s, and his response was simplistic I feel. The second problem was actually his tone; he did come across as quite patronising, and although I respect (and agee with most of) his thoughts on how we should live and the effect we are having on the planet, I don’t think he got these across particularly well. He never really engaged me or enthused me with his narrative, and I ended the book feeling vaguely disgruntled with him. So whilst I applaud his aims, I didn’t gel with his method of delivery!


So I finished the Penguin Moderns box with once more two very different writers! If there’s one thing this series of books has done, it’s introduce me to authors and subjects I never would have read. It’s been a pleasure and a joy to read them all; and I’m sorry to come to the end of the box. However, I do have a number of other Penguin reading projects which I really need to get off the blocks (as you can see from the Penguin Projects page); and there may be the possibility of a new addition to the list – watch this space… ;D