My third pair of Penguin Moderns is perhaps a less obvious duo of books; the subject matter and country of origin don’t fall naturally together, but I seem to have got into a routine of reading two PMs together – so let’s see what I make of these…

Penguin Modern 5 – Three Japanese Short Stories

This particular Penguin Modern is one I was very much looking forward to; I read a lot of Japanese fiction back in the day (particularly Mishima), but not many short stories and none of the authors featured here, as far as I’m aware. And the three stories really couldn’t be more varied!

The first, Behind the Prison by Nagai Kafu, is narrated in the form of a letter from a renegade son; having spent time in the West, he’s returned to his homeland and family but struggles with ennui and dislocation. Critical of Japanese society, he is unable to find a place in the world; and the house behind the prisoner, in which he lives, confines him as much as that building does its inmates.

Closet LLB by Uno Koji, the second story in the collection, is a lighter, more humorous work; the title character is a lawyer (signified by the LLB!) although he keeps his qualification in the closet – as well as himself at points! He must be one of the laziest and most languid characters in literature; as unable as the narrator of the first story to find his place, but this is because he simply can’t be bothered…

Finally we have General Kim by Akutagawa Ryunosuke, which conforms very much to what I would call the ‘Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon’ kind of Japanese storytelling; full of supernatural elements and dramatic fights and leaping in the air.

Of the three, the latter was my least favourite; I appreciated the second’s humorous twists; and I loved the first story a lot. It was beautifully written, with some atmospheric descriptions and one of those last lines that kicks you in the feels a bit. All of the stories are translated by Jay Rubin and are rather excitingly taken from the forthcoming Penguin Book of Japanese Short Stories – which I may feel the need to read…

Penguin Modern 6 – The Veiled Woman by Anais Nin

And now we go off somewhere *very* different, with Anais Nin and her erotica! Three of the stories (The Veiled Woman, Linda and Marianne) are drawn from Delta of Venus, possibly her best known collection, and I *have* owned a copy of this at some point. The other (Mandra) I had read before, so possibly I had more than one book. And I think I have a copy of one of her Virago books, Collages, somewhere – possibly… (you’ll notice that I’m never quite sure what I own in the way of books, which is vaguely disturbing). Any road up, what of these stories?

Well, if I’m honest, I had a bit of a “meh” response and found myself not really that interested. I wouldn’t say I’m an expert in the subject of writings about sex, but as erotica the stories seem pretty well written, avoiding the cringe-worthy cliché that these things often fall into. There’s dominance, subjection, masks, anonymity, orgies, lesbianism and all that, which seems reasonable if you want to read that kind of thing. But I found myself querying why you would want to (apart from the obvious reasons…) As *literature*, as short stories, they’re not that great; when I think of the perfection of one of Chekhov’s short stories, that’s certainly not here. Nin famously began writing erotica as a kind of joke for a private collector, and apparently never expected the stories to be taken seriously.

However, it’s worth acknowledging that she *was* breaking new ground in that she was a woman writing in this field; and also noting that her female characters, though very clichéd, are active sexual beings who are often in control, rather than the passive cardboard cut-outs or dolls that might be portrayed by a male writer.

As I said, I’m no expert in this field; but I think I might have a dig in the stacks and see what else I have by Nin – it would be interesting to see what her other fictions are like!

*****

No – as hard as I try, I can’t find much connection between these two Penguin Moderns! Both, however, had points of interest; and in particular I’m very keen to see what the Penguin Japanese collection is like when it comes out. One thing is for sure, though – this Penguin Modern box is going to be full of plenty of variety! 🙂

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