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“Now the truth would be told” #thepumpkineater #penelopemortimer

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As I’ve mentioned previously, the lovely LibraryThing Virago Modern Classics group is hosting this year a monthly themed reading project of books from our collections; I’ve managed to take part in a few of the themes so far, and June’s choice is books by Virago authors, but issued by a different publisher. That opens up all manner of possibilities, and as I hinted in my May round-up post, I was considering picking up “The Pumpkin Eater” by Penelope Mortimer. Reader, I have done so! and I find myself wondering just why it took me so long to read her, because on the basis of this book, I really need to search out some more! 😀

“The Pumpkin Eater” was published in 1962, and was Mortimer’s fifth published novel. Born in Wales, her upbringing was scarred by the sexual abuse of her father; and after a first marriage to Charles Dimont they divorced and she then married barrister and author John Mortimer, although this relationship eventually foundered. She produced journalism, biographies and novels, as well as having six children; and “Pumpkin…” may well be her best-known novel as it was made into a successful film with Ann Bancroft (who features on the cover of my edition).

The book opens with the narrator, known throughout only as Mrs. Armitage, visiting a male psychiatrist; to say he seems less than interested is an understatement. Her marrige to Jake, a successful screenwriter, is her fourth and it’s on the rocks. As the narrative continues, it becomes clear that he’s been having affairs; the couple’s time together is limited anyway by the demands made on the narrator by her children. Curiously, the number of children is never stated specificially, but simply reckoned to be an unusually large collection, by various husbands, and it does seem as if Mrs. Armitage is obsessed with maternity.

Gradually, the narrator becomes more and more unsettled, the sessions with the psychiatrist don’t help and things come to a head when Mrs. Armitage becomes pregnant yet again. Jake cannot cope – slightly reasonably, he points out that he had been hoping that as the younger children grew up, they could actually have more time on their own together – and Mrs. A. is persuaded to not only have an abortion, but also a sterilisation. She doesn’t cope with this well, either physically or mentally, particularly when another infidelity of Jake’s comes to light – and it’s touch and go as to whether she and her marriage will survive.

“Pumpkin…” is a fascinating read on a number of levels, and a particularly interesting book to come to straight after the Brackenbury. The fact that the narrator is only ever known as Mrs. Armitage is telling; she’s obviously a woman defined by her marriages and also by her children, that numerous and sprawling brood. The psychiatrist at one point wonders if she has an issue with sex and constantly bearing children is her way of justifying it; and although this is based on nothing I picked up in the book, I did wonder if Mortimer’s own childhood abuse informed this. The book was written at a time when, as I stated in my post on “A Day to Remember to Forget”, women’s lives were expected to be fulfilled by home and children; however, Mrs. Armitage is quite obviously neither happy nor fulfilled, and like Felicity Ridgley hasn’t got the options for which women would soon be fighting.

Only the three at boarding school remained apart, cut adrift, growing old under their old names… Slowly, little by little, almost imperceptibly, I let them drift until only our fingertups were touching, then reaching, then finding nothing. Our hands dropped and we turned away.

The book is also a vivid portrait of the mores of the time, as well as the sheer hatred that some men obviously felt for women. The circles Jake moves in are full of people having affairs, and the bitterness which follows is nasty; Conway, in particular, is a vile character, intent on making not only his own wife (who’s had a fling with Jake) suffer, but also Mrs. Armitage. The latter’s operations and subsequent physical issues are starkly portrayed (although not graphically) and little real understanding or consideration seems to come her away, apart from a brief reunion with one of her ex-husbands.

It’s fair to say that “Pumpkin…” can feel like a melancholy read at times; it covers complex issues of mental health, emotional breakdown, marriage difficulties and crises of self-identity. Yet the book does not end without hope, and although Mrs. Armitage may never have the perfect life a 1960s housewife was meant to, she does have a kind of resolution. And the children, flitting in and out of the narrative, are something of saviours, particularly one of the older ones, Dinah. A younger woman engaging with the changes happening in society around them, she perhaps represents a future for women different to the proscribed role her mother has had.

I have a vote. Really, anyone would think that the emancipation of women had never happened…let us march together to our local headquarters and protest in no uncertain terms. Let us put forward our proposals, compile our facts, present our case, demand our rights. The men – they are logical, brave, humanitarian, creative, heroic – the men are sneering at us. How the insults fly. You hear what they are saying, as we run the gauntlet between womb and tomb? ‘Stop trying to be a man! Stop being such a bloody woman! You’re too strong! You’re too weak! Get out! Come back!…’ When we were young, we said the hell with it and used our breasts as shields. But the tears fall so easily when they take away love.

“The Pumpkin Eater” is a moving and provocative book, and I found it impossible to read without thinking it was informed by the author’s own experiences; even a cursory glance at the outlines of Mortimer’s life leads to the inevitable conclusion that the book is extremely autobiographical. I presumed that the use of only Mrs. Armitage for the narrator’s name was strongly symbolic, reflecting her only existing in relation to her husband, and it’s intriguing that she was given a name for the film. As I hinted above, I was inevitably drawn to make comparisons with the Brackenbury I read recently, and although nearly a decade separates them, the older women characters seem to have little choice or agency, whereas there is hope for the younger ones. Mortimer’s writing is excellent, capturing her narrator’s state of mind quite brilliantly, and there are some particularly lyrical passages involving the children. I’m really glad the VMC group decided on this month’s challenge, as Mortimer is an author I’ve meant to get to for ages. “The Pumpkin Eater” is a powerful portrait of a woman’s life and her identity crisis, and an unforgettable read.

For more thoughts on the book, you can check out HeavenAli’s lovely review here.

A scintillating dialogue between artists – over @ShinyNewBooks

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I’m sharing today a review I have over on Shiny New Books of a beautiful, moving and thought-provoking book. It’s “Letters to Gwen John” by artist Celia Paul, and in it the latter initiates a narrative between herself and the lauded artist Gwen John in the form of letters. Despite the fact that John cannot, of course, reply, Paul sprinkles her book with extracts from writings by John and others who knew her, as well as some truly gorgeous illustrations from both artists. This is a wonderful book which illuminates the life of the woman artist, particularly when she’s so often judged in relation to the men in her life, and it’s a stunning and memorable read. I loved it, and you can read my full review here.

“… how infinitely hard to go on living.” #rosalindbrackenbury @spikenard65

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As I hinted in my post about my Penguin Modern Stories project, I do often wonder why it is that some authors fall out of fashion, whereas others continue to be read long after they were first published. There doesn’t always seem to be any rhyme or reason to it, and that’s certainly the case with regard to the author I want to share with you today. Rosalind Brackenbury is a novelist who is still writing nowadays, but Mike Walmer has reprinted several of her early novels, including the first one “A Day to Remember to Forget”. Originally released in 1971, it’s set in the late 1960s and explores a day in the life of a young couple and the man’s family; it will an eventful day indeed, and the small domestic crises will build to dramatic effect while family (and local) secrets are revealed.

Lucy and Philip, described in the blurb as a ‘progressive young couple’, have found a house they want to buy and settle in; the fact that Philip is still at university and money is tight seems irrelevant, and having settled on their house they go to visit Philip’s conservative suburban family, the Ridgleys, for his mother’s 50th birthday. George, the father is a bit of a traditional patriarchal bully; Felicity, the mother an OCD nervous wreck; and elder brother Andrew is a conventional married man who has his wife and small child in tow. Felicity is in a state of agitation, juggling constant catering, anxiety about everyone’s needs, wanting to dote on her younger son and struggling to cope with her birthday. Philip is quarrelsome and prickly, and his main reason for visiting seems to be to announce that he and Lucy are going to get married and get his inheritance from his grandfather for the house. A visit to a next door neighbour, old Mrs. Fletcher, brings a little respite, but she has baggage of her own relating to her late husband, also called Philip. As the day progresses, the tensions expand and Lucy is left wondering whether she is making the right choices.

“A Day…” is a compelling and really wonderfully written book, it has to be said; Brackenbury is brilliant in capturing the essence of a day in September, with a summer coming to its end and all the family tensions simmering and coming to a head. People lash out verbally; there’s much eating, drinking and attempting to paper over the cracks; and both Philip and Lucy push against the conventions but find themselves struggling to identify what they really want. The story of Mrs. Fletcher and her past loves and losses, set against Philip and Lucy’s tale and Felicity’s younger experiences, build up a picture of women’s lives and loves over the decades; and although superficial things have changed, it does feel as if the underlying issues and conflicts are still there.

Noise, chaos, the misuse of property, her fears; she had in some measure passed them on to her sons. And the scheme of things, the safe plan and the ordered day, these were what took away the fear; she must love propriety, details. Tidy drawers of linen, pots of jam on the shelf, labelled.

Interestingly, although the book seems focused on Lucy and Philip, I couldn’t help feeling that much of the story was pointing towards the experiences of Felicity Ridgley. Maybe, like “Anna Karenina”, I would have found the young lovers’ story most compelling if I had read this book years ago. As it was, I found myself empathising with Felicity’s plight despite her smothering and intense behaviour. Lumbered with a husband who dominates and frightens her, one son for whom she has no real interest and a second who she dotes on to an unhealthy degree, she’s a person with no resources to fall back on when things go wrong. She’s very much the product of a class and period when women were supposed to find satisfaction in the home and family; but as has been proved time and time again, this really is not enough and women needs interests, careers and outside friends. As it is, it seems that at 50, her life is really pretty much over.

Life embraced the young, tolerated the middle-aged, did not want to know about the old.

For Felicity, it’s too late as she’ll never unlearn her conditioned upbringing; but for Lucy I couldn’t help but wonder if a new way of living would be possible for her. The lure of marriage and conventionality is there, and despite her and Philip’s protestations that things will be different for them, this particular reader was not entirely convinced – his behaviour is not always as progressive as he might want to believe. And as the book comes to a close, Lucy does seems to be seriously doubting if this is the future she wants. The couple’s vision of their life together is not a realistic one; it’s a chimera, really, with no actual detail of what they want their future to be or practical plan to achieve it. I must admit I ended the book fearing that whatever path they chose would not necessarily end well – they were both so very young (Lucy is 19) and had much growing up to do before deciding what they really wanted to do for the rest of their lives.

Once again, I can’t applaud Mike Walmer enough for reissuing a book; on the evidence of her first novel, Rosalind Brackenbury is a marvellous writer who definitely deserves wider exposure. Although commentators on this one have focused on the fact it is of its time, it does much more than just capture a point in the 20th century when lives and norms were transforming. “A Day…” explores memory, family dynamics, filial tensions, male/female relationships and a topic which seems to regularly turn up in my reading – how well we can ever really know another human being. Having loved my first experience of reading Brackenbury’s work, I’m pleased to note that I have more treats in store – Mike has reissued her second and third novel, and they might just be lurking on the TBR… ;D

*****

Thanks must go to Mike Walmer for kindly sending a review copy and waiting so patiently for me to get to it! You can also read Helen’s excellent review of the book here.

Sidling up to a new Penguin reading project…. #PenguinModernStories

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I really don’t like to make things easy for myself, do I? Having successfully finished my project of reading all 51 of the Penguin Moderns (the 50 in my box and the extra Mishima) you would think I would like to relax and contemplate the various Penguin projects I haven’t touched for ages, planning to get back to them. Alas, not so….. I blame author of the excellent “White Spines“, Nicholas Royle, who I follow on Twitter; during May I noticed that he was tweeting daily with an image of the date made up in book titles e.g. 25.05.2022 would have three different volumes of Penguin Horror Stories – nos. 25, 5 and 22! Intriguingly, on some of the dates, Royle featured a set of books I’d never come across – Penguin Modern Stories…

I exchanged a few tweets with Royle and he kindly posted a photo of all 12 volumes in the set. It seems that these are from the late1960s/early 1970s, and perhaps followed on from the Penguin Modern Poets which began in the 1960s; however, that series ran for 27 books, whereas the Modern Stories finished at 12. Was there less of an interest in short stories? Did readers prefer poetry? Who knows, as there doesn’t seem to be much documentation available. The blurb on the back of Book 1 says “This volume is the first of a new series designed to bring new short stories by both well-known and exciting new writers to the wide public they deserve. Penguin Modern Stories will be published four times a year”. Which is a laudable aim! However, looking at the range of authors featured, I was intrigued and set about searching online.

When I casually mentioned these books to my BFF J. she was as intrigued as I had been, particularly when we could see that Plath and Rhys were featured authors. I tracked down volumes 1 and 2; J. found a load more online; and then I sourced the final missing two. So now we have a set of 12 between us and I’m hoping reading them will be a manageable project!

The books appear to come with a little more information than the Poets did, and from my initial quick explorations it seems that this may be first time of publication for the stories. So that’s interesting, and reading these volumes will raise lots of questions for me about the changing fashions in writing and reading, why some authors’ work survives and others disappear by the wayside, and what kind of audience there would be nowadays for something like this. You could argue that things like Granta have overtaken a venture like the Penguin Modern Stories, but I think they must have been quite groundbreaking releases at the time.

So, onward and upward with a new reading project! I shall be putting up another dedicated page just for these books, and linking any reviews on it. I *will* also be trying to reboot the other stalled projects – so watch this space and see whether I manage to get going with the various Penguins! 😀

“…his heart had opened, awakened for a long time to come.” @ColumbiaUP @RusLibrary #homewardfromheaven @Bryan_S_K

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An imprint I always follow with interest is the Russian Library arm of Columbia University Press. They’ve released all manner of wonderful titles, many of which I’ve covered here on the Ramblings; and so I was intrigued when I saw they were issuing a work by an author new to me, Boris Poplavsky. “Homeward from Heaven” was his final work, considered his masterpiece, and here it’s translated by Bryan Karetnyk, who’s been responsible for bringing so much Russian emigre literature into English (particularly the marvellous Gaito Gazdanov).

Poplavsky sounds like he was something of a character, to say the least: from a wealthy Moscow family, he fled Russia after the revolution and settled down in Paris in 1921. He died tragically young, at the age of 32 from a drug overdose, and has been described as an ‘enfant terrible’. Certainly, on the evidence of this work, he sounds like a man drawn to extremes and also one with a divided self.

“Homeward…” actually follows on from an earlier work, “Apollon Bezobrazoff”, and that character does appear in this novel However, the focus here is mainly on a young man called Oleg; a Russian emigre in Paris, he’s following religious study yet is drawn to the darker, seamier side of life. His most regular companion is the aforesaid Apollon and the two men travel to the south of France where they live rough over the summer, existing on what they can beg borrow and steal, while Oleg pursues his obsession with the beautiful Tania.

…Oleg did not forget the sea, he would never forget it, although after Tania‘s betrayal, it sung to him not of happiness and life, yet sing it did, unrelenting and unembraceable, without words, the blinding witness to so many summer dramas and pointless confrontations. The footprints that Oleg left in the sand were washed away before all the others.

She’s somewhat unreachable, however, with a succession of boyfriends, and Oleg returns to Paris in the autumn where he then pursues a relationship with another woman, Katia. Despite this being a more successful liaison, Oleg seems unable to settle, constantly wracked by existentialist doubts. The return of Tania sees a rupture with Katia; but will his reunion with Tania be any more successful.

As translator Karetnyk’s excellent introduction clarifies, “Homeward…” was actually unfinished at Poplavsky’s death, and he explains how he drew on the original typescript for his translation. It’s a fascinating, if sometimes challenging read, and combines Oleg’s inner mologues with Apollon’s gnostic-style deliberations, set against vividly conjured backdrops of the Paris and south of France of the period, with its bohemian cast of emigres. Oleg’s conflicted nature is strongly on display, and the narrative focuses on his divided self, travelling from exalted regions of religious thought to a more prosaic, down to earth daily life. At one point close to the end, Apollon asks how his journey homeward from heaven has gone, and if the book is at all autobiographical (which I suspect it is), the answer might well be ‘not very well’….

The corners of the room slowly vanished amid the darkness. The window was a perfect pale blue, and across the street golden specks appeared as lights in the neighboring building were switched on.

Oleg, it has to be said, is not always a particularly likeable character. Oscillating between bullish masculinity and the febrile emotional state of an adolescent, he seems to struggle to come to terms with the world. He’s immature, often overwrought, and his treatment of women, as evidenced in some of the more explicit passages, leaves much to be desired. Nevertheless the book is compelling reading, with some beautifully lyrical writing, stream-of-consciousness prose sections and a most marvellous sense of place. The feeling of dislocation so common in emigre fiction is strongly present, and I kept being reminded of what those Russians who chose to flee had been through; which no doubt strongly influenced their art and their mindset.

As with all Russian Library editions, there is the previously mentioned introduction and excellent supporting notes to shine a light on any of the more obscure references in the text. “Homeward…” is a vivid, sometimes dark yet often exhilarating read, and I did finish it saddened that Poplavsky’s life ended when it did so that he was not there to carry on the story of his protagonists. The translation by Bryan Karetnyk reads beautifully and it must have been quite an undertaking to render some of the more complex passages into English! I’m happy to have finally been able to make the acquaintance of Poplavsky and his writing, and may have to nip off and see if anything else is available for the Anglophone reader…. ;D

(ARC kindly provided by Columbia University Press, for which many thanks – the book is out today!)

“… only writing can save them…” #lovenovel @VQ_Books

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Back in 2020, I read and shared my thoughts on two novels by a new publisher, V&Q Books; these were “Paula” and “Journey Through a Tragicomic Century” (which you can read about here), and both were fascinating reads. V&Q have gone from strength to strength, and recently were kind enough to send me one of their latest titles – “Love Novel” by Ivana Sajko, translated from Croatian by Mima Simic. I’m not sure if I’ve read anything Croatian before, so that’s an exciting first; and the book itself is striking and very memorable.

“Love Novel” is the story of an unnamed married couple struggling with life and their relationship in an unnamed European country. The man is an unemployed Dante scholar attempting to write; the woman is a fairly average actress who made the mistake of not only falling for the man, but also giving up her regular job at the theatre to look after the couple’s baby. The strain of lack of money, an unstable location and the fact that they have nowhere to turn is bringing their relationship to the brink and it’s not clear whether it (or them!) will survive.

The publicity blurb describes the book as a “Furious anti-love story” and that’s not far from the truth. The couple are suffering from lack of sleep, the strain of dealing with a small child (mostly being borne by the woman) and there is a sense that the pair didn’t really know each other than well before the pregnancy and marriage came along. So they circle each other, lash out and struggle to stay sane enough to make a living. The man finds himself drawn into a public protest against the authorities; and their neighbours add pressure by expecting them to contribute to improving the appearance of the block of flats. A brief period where they both manage to grab temporary jobs brings a little respite; but not for long; and it soon becomes clear that the little family unit can’t stay in their small flat for much longer… What will become of them is anybody’s guess.

It has to be said that “Love Novel” is not necessarily an easy read; seeing two characters in extreme emotional conflict is painful to say the least. What makes the book stand out so much, however, is the writing; Sajkno’s narrative with its long, fluid sentences drags you into a maelstrom where you experience the whirlwind of the couple’s emotions first-hand. It’s intense and immersive writing, and does leave you a bit breathless. The narrative very cleverly doesn’t take sides, allowing you to see events from both male and female perspective; and though both have their faults, you can’t help but hope they’ll find a way through…

So my third read of a V&Q turned out to be a really powerful and thought-provoking work. It’s a book which is of its time, capturing the pressures and the fragmented lives being lived in what the blurb calls late capitalism; but it also highlights the eternal differences between men and women, society’s expectations of both and the sheer difficulty of one human being understanding another. Forcefully and brilliantly written, “Love Novel” is a book which will demand your attention and one you’ll struggle to put down!

(Review copy kindly provided by the publishers, for which many thanks!)

“I have sometimes seen what man thought he saw!” #Rimbaud #VictorSegalen @BlackHeraldPres

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One of my favourite things about bookishness is the unexpected joy of random discoveries. Most of this used to take place when I would be rummaging through a second hand bookshop, or exploring a well-curated indie store. However, nowadays it’s Twitter and blogs which often send me off exploring unknown books and authors, and today I’m posting about a work which I discovered from a mention in my Twitter timeline. I can’t recall who it was who mentioned it, but my interest was piqued because the author had been mentioned by another Tweeter! That author is Victor Segalen, and the work is an essay called “The Double Rimbaud”, translated here by Blandine Longre and Paul Stubbs.

Segalen’s name had originally come to my notice when Damian Kelleher shared a picture of one of his books on Twitter; I’d not come across him previously, and he was a man of many talents – according to Wikipedia, a “naval doctor, ethnographer, archeologist, writer, poet, explorer, art-theorist, linguist and literary critic”. I’ve already acquired two of his books which are sitting on Mount TBR, but this essay intrigued; Rimbaud is a poet I’ve read and loved during the pre-blog years, and so I was interested in Segalen’s take on him, particularly as his essay apparently explores the contractictions of Rimbaud’s life. Basically, after a youth spent in writing his seminal poetry, living rioutously and almost being killed by a shot from his lover, Verlaine, he then renounced his art and spent the rest of his life travelling and working in a variety of trades. The disjuncture between the two halves of his life is startling and it’s this rupture which Segalen explores.

Let us not try to understand. In art, more often than not, understanding is a peurile and a naive game, the admission of a slackened sensitivity, the intellectual revenge of a beholder afflicted by artistic anaesthesia. The one who does not understand and who obstinately tries to understand, is, a priori, the one who cannot feel.

Going from being the scandal of the Parisian literary world to a businessman is a bit of a dramatic transformation, and one it’s hard to understand looking back from here. Segalen is also puzzled and his essay seems to be wanting to decide which was the true Rimbaud – poet or man of affairs? I sense that Segalen is trying not to judge Rimbaud but regretting that he abandoned his craft; and as a poet himself, Segalen seems to wish that Rimbaud had not repudiated his work and had continued to write. Segalen was able to talk to people who’d known Rimbaud in Djibouti and who had heard nothing about his poetry; and he seems to find a fellow spirit in the poet whilst ruing Rimbaud’s change of course.

Segalen can’t help wondering, in the end, whether if Rimbaud had returned to Paris, his writing muse would have returned and the poems would have once more flowed forth; or indeed, if Rimbaud was simply suppressing his verse, and external forces might have resulted in his poetry returning. That was not to be, however, and Rimbaud died in Marseille, at the age of 37, after a period of illness.

“The Double Rimbaud” makes fascinating reading, not only because of Segalen’s meditations on the two Rimbauds, but also for his insights into the poet’s work (he opens the essay by discussing various parts of it). Segalen does seem pretty obsessed with Rimbaud (and he wouldn’t be the first or last !); but perhaps is not able to accept that a person *can* change dramatically; they *can* repudiate their youth; and they can travel a different road from the one originally envisaged. That was what Rimbaud chose to do in the end, but at least he left behind a wonderful body of work.

So Segalen turned out to be an interesting writer to explore (his own prose is quite beautiful), and I’m glad I have those other books of his lurking. Kudos must go to Black Herald Press for publishing a translation of this essay into English for the first time; and their back catalogue looks intriguing too! 😀

Ten years of the Ramblings – oh my!!!!! 🎂🎂🎂 #bloganniversary

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Rather incredibly, today marks 10 years of Kaggsy’s Bookish Ramblings!! On 6th June 2012, I took my first tentative steps into the world of book blogging, not really having any idea of what I was doing but just wanting to connect with other book bloggers and give back some of the joy of reading and sharing thoughts about books. The years seem to have flown by in many ways…

During the lifetime of this blog, I do feel I’ve learned to engage with books more deeply; certainly having to write about them has made me concentrate more on what I’m reading rather than just gulping books down. I’ve read and written about some marvellous books, some beloved authors and fortunately not had too many bookish disappointments!I

I’ve also, most importantly I think, had wonderful interactions with other readers and with authors and translators; sharing thoughts on books, having those discussions and sometimes differences of opinion (but always good natured!), has been a real joy. I don’t meet many bookish types in real life, so to be able to have these exchanges has been a real boon! Thanks to all of you who’ve visited, engaged and commented over the years – I always love to interact with other readers!!

A little message Mr. K sent me – he knows my taste in classic detection!! 🤣❤😊

There are often reports of the death of the book blog; I’ve no idea if that’s true or not, but whatever the case I shall continue to Ramble away here about the books and authors I love as long as I get pleasure from it. Here’s to the next ten years!! (if I make it that far….🤣)

Penguin Moderns 49 and 50 – ending the series with stunning prose and provocative non-fiction…

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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!

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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

Exploring exile and displacement – over @ShinyNewBooks

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I have a new review up at Shiny New Books today which I’d like to share with you, and it’s of a fascinating and very timely work by William Atkins – “Exiles: Three Island Journeys”.

In the book, Atkins explores the lives of three political exiles: Dinuzulu kaCetshwayo, a Zulu king who was exiled to St Helena in the South Atlantic; Louise Michel, a French radical of the Commune, who was shipped off to New Caledonia in the South Pacific; and Lev Sternberg, a Ukrainian revolutionary who was sent to the notorious Sakhalin, off the coast of Siberia. Besides looking at their experiences, as Atkins retraces their journeys he considers the whole notion of exile, as well as encountering his own issues. It’s a really thought-provoking read and you can find my full review here – do take a look! 😀

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