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Penguin Moderns 15 and 16 – Luscious prose and evocative journalism

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I haven’t left it too long between pairs of Penguins this time, possibly because I was particularly keen on reading one of them, and possibly because I felt the need of something brief after a fascinating but dense doorstop of a Russian book. So without further ado:

Penguin Modern 15 – Daydream and Drunkenness of a Young Lady by Clarice Lispector

Lispector needs no introduction, I’m sure, to readers of the Ramblings. I’ve written about her before here, and although I’ve only read the one work by this celebrated Brazilian author, it was memorable and stunning and I’ve always meant to read more. So this Penguin Modern, with three short pieces, was an ideal way to ease back into Lispector’s work.

Rio de Janeiro – Estátua da escritora Clarice Lispector e seu cão Ulisses no Leme. (Fernando Frazão/Agência Brasil) via Wikimedia Commons

The book contains three stories – the title one, “Love” and “Family Ties“. All concern women’s lives, all are beautifully written, and all are utterly memorable. The first story is that of a young lady who indeed daydreams and gets drunk. Her husband and children almost seem incidental; instead she lives in a haze, detached and somewhat alienated from her family, only really moved by a glamorous rival when she’s out drinking with her husband and a business client. “Love” tells of Ana, another married woman with children; stuck in a passive, content routine, an unusual chance encounter on a tram shakes her out of her complacency and threatens her everyday existence.

She had pacified life so well, taken such care for it not to explode. She had kept it all in serene comprehension, separated each person from the rest, clothes were clearly made to be worn and you could choose the evening movie from the newspaper – everything wrought in such a way that one day followed another. And a blind man chewing gum was shattering it all to pieces. And through this compassion there appeared to Ana a life full of sweet nausea, rising to her mouth.

Family Ties” in particular is a triumph; the central female character, Catarina, is seen in relation to her mother, her husband and her son, all of whom have different views of her and depend on her in different ways. Once again a seemingly happy existence is not what it seems, and Lispector dissects human relationships with frightening precision, laying bare in a few sentences the tenuous nature of love and life.

There was no escape… And there was no way not to look at it. What was she ashamed of? That it was no longer compassion, it wasn’t just compassion: her heart had filled with the worst desire to live.

This was a stunning addition to the Penguin Moderns series; Lispector is such a wonderful writer, and each hypnotic story lingered in the mind after. The language is often gorgeous, and I’m left wondering why I’ve left it so long to go back to Lispector’s work. After all, I think I might well have her complete stories lurking somewhere… 🙂

Penguin Modern 16 – An Advertisement for Toothpaste by Ryszard Kapuscinski

In complete contrast to book 15, Penguin Modern 16 is a collection of short journalistic pieces by Polish author Ryszard Kapuscinski, who was known also for poetry and photography. The four pieces collected in this book are all set in post-War Poland, a country that seems as far away and exotic as any distant regime.

By Mariusz Kubik, http://www.mariuszkubik.pl (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.5)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

The title story sees the author visiting a small village dance, where future marriages will be decided; “Danka” tells of temptation and a clash between modernity and old-style religion; “The Taking of Ezbieta” is a striking piece which relates the effect on the parents when their only daughter is seduced into taking the veil; and in the final story, “The Stiff“, Kapuscinski joins a group taking the coffin of a miner back to his family.

That woman and that man did not have much of a life, although they gave it their lungs and their heart. After that, they tried to fight. But when solitary people try to fight for their cause, it is only at that moment when they naively forget that right must yield to might. In the end, that moment always passes. And what’s left is what’s left.

I wasn’t sure what to expect when I picked up this particular PM, but I don’t think I anticipated such striking, evocative and memorable pieces. The post-War Poland which Kapuscinski captures is indeed a strange place, struggling to move into modernity but hampered by the superstitions and beliefs of the past. Some of the conditions seem incredibly primitive for the 20th century, as if the little villages and towns had been missed by progress and lost in time. Kapuscinski’s writing is clever and at times sharp; his anger, for example, at the grievous hurt done to her parents by Elzbieta and the nuns is not far below the surface. Another excellent addition to this collection and another author I want to explore more of!

*****

I was really impressed with this pair of PMs and made an interesting discovery when I was looking up Kapuscinski online; one of the titles of his books sounded familiar, and when I went and had a dig in the stacks, I did indeed own it – a gift from youngest child some Christmases ago!

It sounds absolutely fascinating, and chimes in a little with my mindset at the moment. So hopefully that one will be coming off the stacks soon too! 🙂

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#1977club – some previous reads

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Well, we’re halfway through our week of reading from 1977, and I thought I would take a look at some previous reads – both on the blog and off. Interestingly, I don’t seem to have covered many books from 1977 here on the Ramblings, but I don’t record the publication dates so I may have missed some. Anyways, as they say, here are a few I’ve written about before:

Interestingly, I guess you could possibly say that these are what might be called ‘difficult’ books; Clarice Lispector, who I wrote about here, definitely has a reputation as not being a straightforward read. The Strugatskys wrote some marvellous speculative and sci-fi books – this one is a wonderfully twisty tale and you can read my thoughts on it here. And the Lem was one of a series of re-issues by Penguin. Again writing under a Soviet regime, so lots of subtexts, I covered it for Shiny New Books here.

However, in pre-blog times I’ve read some substantial books from 1977, including these:

I went through a phase of reading Diana Wynne Jones in the 1980s (and was lucky enough to meet her once). She was a marvellous author (much better than a certain HP writer, in my view…) and this is one of her Chrestomanci books. She always twisted reality rather wonderfully. The Tolkien came out not long after I had discovered The Lord of the Rings , and I was keen to read anything by the author; although I’ve never found anything that matched up to the trilogy.

The very fat Agatha book was essential reading for any fan of the great Christie and I read it back in the day although if you asked me for specifics I would collapse in a heap of poor memory. As for the Woolf diaries – well, I came upon these in the early 1980s (which is when I think they first appeared in paperback). I had a daily train commute at the time and I immersed myself in Woolf’s diaries and letters and all the wonder and strangeness of Bloomsbury – developed a real obsession with the group, in fact. I would love to read them all again – maybe in retirement – but time isn’t going to permit that during this week.

I also recall that I once owned and read a copy of “In Patagonia” and I think I rather enjoyed it – but it, and my memories of it, have I’m afraid flown off in the wind…

So – some previous reads on and off the blog. I’m still planning a mix of new and old reads this week, and it’s actually nice that our club reads give me what I feel is an excuse to re-read. What are you enjoying from 1977 this week?

Time for some 1970s clubbing…

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… by which I’m not suggesting that we all get dressed up in flares and platforms heels and go out discoing to glam rock…

Instead, I thought I would mention that the results are in! Simon has been feverishly counting the votes for the next reading Club year, and the winner is:

So there you have it! Our next reading week will be the #1977club. Time to start digging in the stacks and online lists to see what titles we can come up with. I know that there is at least a Richard Brautigan I have from that year (somewhere…), and as I failed to squeeze him into 1968 I shall do my very best to make sure I read at least this one!

Simon has come up with another eye-catching logo (he’s so good at these!) and as you’ll see from the dates, you have five months or so to get preparing, researching and reading – and we’re looking forward to seeing what you come up with! 🙂 I had a preliminary dig in the stacks and found that I have at least three other books from 1977 without even looking very hard:

Some commenters have wondered why we aren’t going on into the 1980s or back before the 1920s with the clubs, and to be honest that’s because of our personal tastes! Simon is particularly happy in the 1920s I know, and I don’t think either of us always feel drawn to modern writing. Personally, I’m inordinately fond of 20th century literature in the decades we feature, and as Simon pointed out to me, the dawn of cheaper printing from the 1920s onwards gives us more books choose from.

OK – maybe some things about 1977 weren’t so good…..

So – here’s to the #1977club, and we hope as many of you as possible will join in with this next year –  happy reading! 🙂

#WIT Month – The Thin Line between Author and Character

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The Hour of the Star by Clarice Lispector

Clarice Lispector is much in the literary news at the moment with the publication of a collected edition of her short stories. In fact, her name has been bandied about for quite a while on the blogs I read (!) which has made me keen to read her work. “The Hour of the Star” is her last work, a slim novella of 96 pages which certainly packs a punch…

hour

It’s clear from the title page that we’re in complex territory, as the book is given a number of alternative titles, from “The Blame is Mine” to “A Tearful Tale”, and including that given on the cover. The story is that of a poor South American girl, Macabea. Born with all the disadvantages in life – not much in the way of brains or looks – she works as a fairly incompetent secretary in Rio de Janeiro and moons over her boss. Her main obsession is listening to a room-mate’s radio and memorising facts, which she spouts at any opportunity. Somehow, she manages to attract a somewhat thug-like admirer, but things do not go as she wishes.

However, the book may not be about Macabea at all, for the narrator of her story, who makes it quite clear that he is the narrator, keeps interposing himself into the tale and pondering on the fate of the poor girl. He names himself as Rodrigo S.M. and alternates between authorial over-confidence and self-doubt. The lines between what is fiction and what is real, what comes from the author and the character, become blurred and the book challenges preconceptions about writing all the way through. We gradually watch Macabea becoming revealed to us through the eyes of Rodrigo (or is it the eyes of Lispector, as she discusses the art of the author?), and there’s a fascination in watching the whole compositional process.

lispector

“Star” is an engrossing read and Macabea a tragic, moving character. You sense all the way through that she had the potential for so much more in her life which was crushed out of her by poverty, fear and a bad upbringing. And the author of Macabea’s story is also intriguing, shown as struggling with the creation of his work, inhabiting her mind and treating her as if she were a real person he knew. What is truth? What is fiction? The book throws up any number of metafictional questions about the process of writing while involving you in Macabea’s story.

I have to say my thoughts were thoroughly provoked by my first read of Lispector! Her language and the structure of the story are complex, but the whole reading experience left me thinking deeply about the purpose of fiction, about what’s true and what’s not, and also about lives that could be so different if the circumstances were. I did enjoy my first experience of Lispector’s work and I’m sure it won’t be my last.

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