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Penguin Moderns 45 and 46 – two very different masters of the short story form

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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!

#1976Club – time from a little poetry from a prose master! #borges

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I’ve written quite a bit about Borges lately, exploring books by and about him; and for the 1944 Club club I was able to read his “Ficciones”, which was a great joy. So when we decided on 1976 I had a look to see if there were any works by the great man from that year, and although there was no fiction I could find, he did publish a poetry collection called “The Iron Coin”. Now, I’ve read plenty of Borges’ prose but none of his poetry as far as I can recall, so this seemed an ideal book to explore for the club. Unfortunately, I don’t have the full collection, but I do have a book of his “Selected Poems” which does feature some from “Iron…” so I figured I would take a look at these to see what Borges poetry is actually like.

The anthology I own is a dual language one, and it contains eleven poems from “The Iron Coin”, plus Borges’ prologue; this in itself is fascinating reading with any number of provoking comments jumping out at the reader:

The steely music of the Saxon language is no less agreeable than the delicate musings of the Symbolists. Each subject, however, occasional or thin, imposes on us its own aesthetic. Each word, though weighed down by the centuries, opens up a blank page and posits the future.

The actual verses themselves are rendered by a variety of translators (indicated by initials) and range over history, authors, composers and Borges’ father, amongst other, and are short but beautifully written. I guess these were all dictated to one of his various amanuensi, and there are some really affecting lines in the works. A few quotes might give you a flavour of what I’m talking about:

The sea was always his. By the time his eyes
First took in the great waters of the high seas
He had already longed for and possessed it
On that other ocean, which is Writing.
(from “Herman Melville”)

I have committed the worst sin of all
That a man can commit. I have not been
Happy. Let the glaciers of oblivion
Drag me and mercilessly let me fall.
(from “Remorse”)

“You are Not the Others” is also a powerful piece of work but you need to read the whole poem so I encourage you to search it out! 😀

Via Wikimedia Commons

Borges’ poetry is the kind I respond well to, with an immediacy and also with beautiful imagery and wordplay. Having read this selection from “The Iron Coin” I’m now not only keen to dip into more of my selected volume, but also wonder if the individual collections are available in full. Certainly Borges was an amazing wordsmith who could turn his talents to all forms of writing and reading these poems has been one of the pleasures of the #1976Club! 😀

“…the man who weaves these symbols…” #jorgeluisborges #thealeph

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As I mentioned in my post on “With Borges”, after finishing that book I felt incapable of reading anything but more of Jorge Luis Borges’ own fictions – so obviously that meant digging out my lovely US Penguin volume of his ‘Collected Fictions’ (translated by Andrew Hurley). I picked this up many years ago on a trip to Foyles in Charing Cross Road, and have slowly over the years been making my way through it. The first collection of his was called “A Universal History of Iniquity” (1935) and I read that back in 2016; his next work “Ficciones” was one I was delighted to read as part of the #1944Club. So going chronologically, next up is “The Aleph” from 1949, and I couldn’t wait…

And instantly I come up against the barrier of how to say anything new or profound about a wonderful and revered writes like Borges. As I said in my review of “Ficciones”, what a bloody amazing writer he is. I don’t know I’ve read anyone with an imagination like his, or the ability to conjure up strange tales and words. Anyway, here goes…

“The Aleph” contains 17 short works (and they *are* short, some only a couple of pages) which range far and wide over setting and topic. There are puzzles, doubles, mysteries, magic and of course the regular appearance of labyrinths and mazes; in fact, one is the crux of a story, “Ibn-Hakam al-Bokhari, Murdered in His Labyrinth”, which is set in Scotland and is also a kind of clever locked room mystery (the fact that I mentioned John Dickson Carr as one of Borges’ favourites authors here is perhaps relevant…!) Mysticism also creeps in, with explorations of Islamic culture and characters, the Aleph of the title story (a magical point in space and time which appears to hold all points of space and time at once) plus the secret of immortality. Borges’ prose quite brilliantly conjures the strange cities and landscapes in which his stories are set, and it often seems there is no limit to his imagination.

I had realized many years before I met David Jerusalem that everything in the world can be the seed of a possible hell; a face, a word, a compass, an advertisement for cigarettes – anything can drive a person insane if that person cannot manage to put it out of his mind.

Mirrors, a recurring trope, make an appearance, as well as South America cowboy-style plots, strange architecture, the clash between reality and dreams, the passing of time, crime and vengeance. As with all of Borges’ work, each story is wonderfully woven, with twists often appearing unexpectedly (there’s a marvellous one at the end of “The House of Asterion”) and I think repeated readings would reveal so much more.

Borges in 1951 (via Wikipedia Commons)

I loved all of the tales, and was particularly taken with “Emma Zunz” which although it appears on the surface to be a tale of revenge taken by a woman is also, I think, about the fine line between truth and falsehood, and whereabouts one becomes the other. “Deutsches Requiem” is another powerful piece, narrated by a Nazi concentration camp administrator who sets down his version of events, feeling no guilt and triumphing that violence has won – it really is chilling, to say the least. The title story and “The Zahir” both deal with the narrator’s obsessions, whether with a mysterious marker or a dead woman, and they’re haunting.

Now an implacable age looms over the world. We forged that age, we who are now its victim. What does it matter that England is the hammer and we the anvil. What matters is that violence, not servile Christian acts of timidity, now rules. If victory and injustice and happiness do not belong to Germany, let them belong to other nations. Let heaven exist, though our place be in hell.

Well, once again I could go on and on, but I stand by my description of Borges as “bloody brilliant”; these stories are just stunning and unforgettable, and Borges really was a genius of a storyteller. Haunting, mind-bending, imaginative and strange, “The Aleph” is an astonishingly brilliant collection and a real joy to read. Fortunately, I’m only just over half way through the book so I still have plenty of Borges left to enjoy… ;D

 

“…time as a river and life as a voyage and a battle…” #Borges #Manguel

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As I’ve mentioned many times, Twitter can be a dangerous place for booklovers – all those pictures, all those recommendations, all those wonderful books you’ve never heard of before!!! And as I revealed in my end of August post, one particular recent arrival was prompted by just such a nudge – I think it may well have been a tweet on the occasion of Borges’ birthday, which resulted in the arrival of a slim volume simply entitled “With Borges” by Alberto Manguel.

Both Manguel and Borges have made a number of separate appearances on the Ramblings, but I can’t say that I knew there was a connection between them. So I was very excited to discover this book and the minute it arrived I had to read it straight away – yes, another new book bypassing the TBR and beating all the books which have been waiting there patiently for so long…

Borges should, of course, need no introduction; in fact, neither should Manguel! Borges is described by Wikipedia as “a key figure in Spanish-language and international literature” whereas they cast Manguel as “an Argentine-Canadian anthologist, translator, essayist, novelist, editor, and a former Director of the National Library of Argentina”. Both are connected by Argentina, of course, and this book came about because the 16 year-old Manguel (working then at a bookstore) was one of a number of young men who would read aloud to Borges, who was by that time (1964) completely blind. In the book, Manguel recalls fragments of his time with Borges and paints a portrait of the great author which is affectionate, atmospheric and moving.

Borges would ask almost anyone: students, journalists who came to visit him, other writers. There exists a vast group of those who once read out loud to Borges, minor Boswells whose identities are rarely known to one another but who collectively hold the memory of one of the world’s greatest readers.

It’s a tragedy, of course, that sometime like Borges should go blind and I believe this was hereditary. Despite his blindness, Borges retained his intense interest in literature and continued to write, often dictating poetry to his readers. As well as conjuring the actual times he would read to Borges in present tense, italicised paragraphs, Manguel also discusses the author more generally – his work, his legacy, his behaviour towards others – and all of this combines to make a short but evocative read which really captures both Borges and Manguel. Of particular interest, of course, is Borges’ library, and as well as a mass of reference books, there is a dazzling list of authors from Wells, Wilkie Collins and Joyce, through John Dickson Carr, David Garnett, Wilde, Carroll – well, I could go on, but he was obviously a varied and voracious reader!

Borges 1951, Via Wikipedia Commons

Manguel is, of course, a wonderful writer of non-fiction, and I have read two of his books about books – “A Reading Diary” and “The Library at Night“. I guess you could consider him as one of the heirs of Borges, whose own work ranges surprisingly far and wide over many topics. I’ve read a number of his collected short stories and after reading this I basically felt that I couldn’t read anyone else. So if nothing else “With Borges” has prompted me to pick up my chunky volume for the first time in ages and remind myself of what a unique writer Borges was. If you like either the author or the subject of this little gem of a book, I can highly recommend it!

A pleasant end to summer – but what bookish joys will September bring??

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As I always seem to be saying to myself, wherever has the month gone? And in this case, wherever has summer gone? Despite having the long break from work, I don’t feel that I did much – well, we did get the windows painted outside the house, and painted the inside ones ourselves, as well as tidying up gardens and clearing out stuff. And Youngest Child came for a long overdue visit, which was lovely, so it hasn’t been entirely inactive!

August Reads!

However, I did manage a decent amount of reading in August, and you can see the stack above. I should hasten to add I did *not* read all of the Derrida, only his piece on Roland Barthes. No duds again this month, and I’m happy to have enjoyed an interesting variety of books!

August has seen a small amount of getting out and about, despite the pandemic and mainly because of the visit of Youngest Child. She’s often been a brilliant shopping companion in the past and we had a lovely trip into the Big Town which involved lunch at the wonderful Hank’s and a little browsing – here are some images from the trip!

Coffee at Nero with a Bookcrossing find!

Lunch at Hank’s – yum!!!

Modest bookfinds – Bookcrossing and the Oxfam

We also managed to escape to the coast another day, and as well as seeing the sea and having seaside chips (yay!), we popped into a couple of bookshops! Treasure Chest Books is an old haunt, but OH managed to find one called Poor Richard’s Books which I can’t recall visiting before (it also had vinyl so that was nice!) There were, of course, purchases…

It was quite overcast but still warm, and I love the sea in any weather!

The seaside town did have some pretty flowers on display, however!

Treasure Chest – a wonderfully labyrinthine bookshop in which it would be possible to spend a whole day…

Youngest Child took this when lost in the depths….

Can’t go wrong with seaside chips! 😀

Seaside book haul! (even had to dig out the KBR tote created by Middle Child!)

As you can see, I had some wonderful finds! The Macfarlane and Barnes came from Treasure Chest, and the other four books from Poor Richard’s Books (which is sadly closing at the end of the year – such a shame…) Very happy with all of these!

As for approaching September reading, I think I may actually be challenge free this month, and I have few plans (if any…) I shall try to reduce the size of the immediately-pending TBR, although my plans are constantly being sabotaged. For example, these two arrived at the end of last week:

Borges and Mishima!!!

The Mishima was inspired by a review on Shiny New Books, and the Borges was mentioned on Twitter I think – I mean, Manguel and Borges, what a combination! Needless to say, the latter didn’t even get a sniff at the TBR, and has been instantly read – review will following eventually (I’m a bit behind), but it made me dig this chunkster out again, and I am now continuing to make my way through Borges’ simply marvellous stories – a joy!!

I also tidied up the Russian shelves over the summer, getting everything nice and tidy, putting them in alphabetical order and rediscovering some marvellous books (as well as realising just how many unread ones I had) – here’s what they look like now:

Some of the Russians….

And, of course, in October we have the #1976Club coming up, so I may well start a little planning/early reading for that. I like to be organised and I’m not sure yet what I’m going to read. It’s nice to have a clean slate and be able to follow my reading mojo wherever it takes me; do you have any plans for September??

#1944Club : “In all the Library, there are no two identical books”

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Ficciones by Jorge Luis Borges
Translated by Andrew Hurley

My final read for the #1944Club is a book which comes with a massively high reputation, and although it was not a difficult read, actually writing about it may be harder than expected. I’ve written about Jorge Luis Borges on the Ramblings before; a titan of South American literature, I read him back in my early twenties, and have revisited him more recently when I read his first collection “A Universal History of Iniquity” (1935). However, for the Club I’ve visited the next section of the rather large book in the picture and it was a spellbinding experience, to say the least…

“Ficciones”, which was published of course in 1944, consists of two slim collections entitled “The Garden of Forking Paths” and “Artifices”. Slim they may be in size, but certainly not in content. In 1956, Borges added three extra stories to the latter selection, and they’re included with “Ficciones” in my beautiful Collected Fiction volume (American edition, deckled page block edges, gorgeous). So I did read them, even though technically speaking they were published after 1944 – but I co-host the Club week, so I don’t care! 😀

Anyway, Borges…. What a bloody amazing writer, basically. Does he need any introduction? I’m not going to attempt one here, so if anyone reading this post doesn’t know who Borges is, I suggest they go and Google him straight away and then read him. However, Wikipedia says “Jorge Francisco Isidoro Luis Borges Acevedo KBE was an Argentine short-story writer, essayist, poet and translator, and a key figure in Spanish-language literature” and the BBC, while stating the case for Borges being the most important 20th century author, says “Reading the work of Jorge Luis Borges for the first time is like discovering a new letter in the alphabet, or a new note in the musical scale”. Quite. I agree. So let me dispense with waffle and attempt to respond to my reading of what could be argued to be Borges’ most important work, or at least the stories that made his name.

Ashe was afflicted with unreality, as so many Englishmen are; in death, he is not even the ghost he was in life… My father had forged one of those close English friendships with him (the first adjective is perhaps excessive) that begin by excluding confidences and soon eliminate conversation.

Firstly, it’s worth noting the sheer breadth of the stories in this collection, which range far and wide in both location and also subject matter. There are historical narratives in any number of locations; stories of fictional worlds, cowboys and gauchos, erudite scholars, Europeans and South Americans, world builders and criminals. There are spurious biographies of fictional authors; and memorable characters, such as Pierre Menard, whose ambition was to write “Don Quixote” – not a version of the book, but the actual book that Cervantes had already produced…. Obviously at times Borges has his tongue firmly in his cheek, although each story still has a serious purpose behind it; “The Lottery in Babylon”, for example, is a parable of the random forces at play in our lives.

Borges often blends fact and fiction, and he and his friends often feature as characters in the various stories; and the fantastic and the surreal mingle in a way which is utterly captivating, leaving a haunting impression on the mind. Each story is a gem, a breathtaking piece of writing in its own right, and coming to these stories after decades of reading since I first discovered Borges I saw so many resonances in other authors’ works; particular my beloved Calvino, whose strange worlds and allegorical tales seem to me to have been informed by the legacy of Borges. There are recurring themes of labyrinths, mirrors, unreal or non-existent books or worlds; and several of the stories have wonderful twists at the end.

He understood that the task of molding the incoherent and dizzying stuff that dreams are made of is the most difficult work a man can undertake, even if he fathom all the enigmas of the higher and lower spheres – much more difficult than weaving a rope of sand or minting coins of the faceless wind.

I’m not going to discuss any more specifics as I would rather just encourage you to pick up this book and read with no real preconceptions – and prepare to be blown away by your encounter with a unique and glittering imagination. If you want favourites, well “The Garden of Forking Paths” is pretty damn perfect, as is “Death and the Compass”, as it the aforementioned “The Lottery in Babylon”, as is “The Library of Babel”. Oh, basically it’s a work of genius! 😀

Re the translation, there’s not a lot I can say except that it reads beautifully to me, and Andrew Hurley has also provided useful supporting notes. It’s so long since I read the “Labyrinths” collection that I have nothing to compare this to, but I think Hurley deserves an award for translating all of these stories so wonderfully so they can be gathered in a collected edition – ’nuff said.

Via Wikipedia Commons

Well. This is not really the kind of post I expected to write on Borges, but frankly when I sat down to gather my thoughts I wasn’t sure how I would tackle it, and I felt vaguely incapable of doing justice to these stories, so you can just have my reactions. Borges needs no praise from me as he’s already a revered writer (and as Mario Vargas Llosa is quoted as saying on the cover of this book, it was a crime that Borges never received the Nobel). If you’ve never read him, I would urge you to do so. He’s *not* a difficult writer; just a stimulating, thought-provoking, intriguing, mind-bending, clever and unforgettable one. My last read for the #1944Club was a marvellous experience, and it’s wonderful to think that I’m only a third of the way through the book – all that lovely Borges left to read…. 😀

A highly unusual detective…

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Six Problems for Don Isidro Parodi by Jorge Luis Borges & Adolfo Bioy-Casares

One of my favourite reads from last year, as I’ve probably mentioned before, was the wonderful crime novel parody “Where There’s Love, There’s Hate” by Silvina Ocampo and Adolfo Bioy Casares. Both authors are well-known for their connection with the great Argentinian writer Jorge Luis Borges, and so when I discovered that Casares had written a crime spoof with the former, I had to track down a copy… Surprisingly, it seems not so well-known as the rest of the two authors’ work, and the copy I finally found was published in 1981 – I’m not sure if it’s been reissued since, but it certainly deserves to be!

parodi

The titular Parodi is the detective in question and his name is a clue to the type of book we’re reading here. In fact, the whole thing is laced with in-jokes and was originally published under the pseudonym H. Bustos Domecq. Amusingly, there’s a biography of this so-called author by a school teacher at the end of the book, and a foreword is written by one of the characters! So the scene is set for a book that’s going to be tongue-in-cheek from the very start.

Parodi is a most unusual detective, in that he’s locked up in jail, framed for a crime he apparently didn’t commit. Constantly making and drinking cups of mate, Parodi receives a stream of visitors hoping he can solve puzzles for them – involving murder, blackmail, ghosts, thefts and every kind of crime you can imagine. By exercising his little grey cells (!) and seeing through their stories, Parodi manages to get to the bottom of every kind of conundrum and present a solution that seems obvious once you know it, but mystifying while you’re reading about it.

The clever thing about the book is that Parodi is in effect being presented with a series of unreliable narrators, and his gift is seeing past them to the essential qualities of what they’re telling him. It’s a wonderful exercise in literary detection, as much as anything else, which goes well alongside the parodic qualities of the book itself. There are running characters who feature in a number of the stories, gradually developing their lives and careers following on from Parodi’s solving of their puzzle, and his reputation gradually grows as the book progresses.

The (real) authors!

The (real) authors!

There’s also another level of parody in that many of these stories take the tropes of a specific author or style of story (the locked room, for example, or a well-known Agatha Christie) and use this as the basis of the plot. I don’t think I got all of them, but it was fun trying to spot what the authors were spoofing!

All in all, this was a very funny, very clever and very enjoyable read; in fact, I’d like to go back to it again and re-read to see if I could spot more of the references. But even if you don’t get them the book stands in its own right as a wonderful detective spoof and sits beautifully alongside “Where There’s Love, There’s Hate” – perhaps Melville House Press would like to bring out a nice new Neversink edition! 🙂

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