Home

Penguin Moderns 13 and 14 – A woman’s life and a dog’s eye view

20 Comments

The next two books in my reading of the Penguin Modern boxed set are from very disparate writers; but the books are both intriguing and in some places moving. Both are authors I’m very familiar with and yet it was a delight to spend time with them again – that’s one of the joys of reading my way through the set sequentially!

Penguin Modern 13 – Till September Petronella by Jean Rhys

By G88keeper [CC BY-SA 3.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)%5D, from Wikimedia Commons

Rhys should need no introduction here; best known for “Wide Sargasso Sea”, her prequel to “Jane Eyre”, she was a fine writer with a focus on the lives, loves and loneliness of women. This Modern contains four pieces: “The Day They Burned the Books” (be still, my beating heart!!!), the title story, “Rapunzel, Rapunzel” and “I Used To Live Here Once”. The stories have been very cleverly chosen (and the more I think about it, the more clever it is) to span the range of a woman’s life, from childhood in the Caribbean in the first story, to the inevitability of the finality of life at the end. All are beautifully written, often with an aching sense of melancholy, and Rhys is just brilliant at capturing atmosphere.

Once I went there with Eddie to borrow The Arabian Nights. That was on a Saturday afternoon, one of those hot, still afternoons when you felt that everything had gone to sleep, even the water in the gutters. But Mrs. Sawyer was not asleep. She put her head in at the door and looked at us, and I knew that she hated the room and hated the books.

The title story is the longest, telling of what might be regarded as a typical Rhys heroine; drifting, unfocused, almost passive most of the time and reacting to the men around her rather than taking control of her life. Petronella is out of place in most settings, as it seems was Rhys herself, and it’s hard not to worry about her and be cross with her in the same breath! “Burned” is an episode from childhood and Rhys conjures the setting and the milieu in which she grew up beautifully. Of course, the subject matter is one guaranteed to reduce me to a quivering jelly; at least one books survives, and the title is significant. “Rapunzel…” is heartbreaking, and the last story, only two pages long, has an incredible emotional punch.

I think I’ve only read Rhys’s novels so far, but on the evidence here her shorter works are just as good. Must dig in the stacks and see if any of the books of hers I have are short stories…

Penguin Modern 14 – Investigations of a Dog by Franz Kafka

By Atelier Jacobi: Sigismund Jacobi (1860–1935) (http://www.bodleian.ox.ac.uk/news/2008_july_02) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Kafka is again an author requiring no introduction, and I read “The Castle”, “The Trial” and “Metamorphosis” back in the day (well, the 1980s…); I’ve also written about some more recent Kafka reads here on the blog, but I don’t know that I’ve ever seriously read a lot of his shorter works (though I do have a big book somewhere!) “Investigations of a Dog” was written in 1922 and published posthumously (as was the bulk of his work) and it’s an intriguing little tale.

The story is narrated by the titular canine, and we see the world entirely from his perspective – and it’s a very different one from ours indeed. The dog’s investigations try to make sense of his world, in particular attempting to work out just where the food comes from. And as you read on, you realise that the dog doesn’t actually seem to have any real awareness of what the humans around him are and that they’re feeding him… So the poor creature attempts to apply rational and pseudo-scientific methods to his investigations but fails to get to grips with anything. It’s an interesting premise and could almost be read as allegorical; I’ve often heard it postulated that human understanding is limited by the range of our perceptions and there could be any number of ‘higher’ beings around us that we just can’t see.

So an intriguing story, although perhaps a little long for the subject matter; the point was made about halfway through so Kafka could maybe have been a bit more concise and still conveyed his meaning. Nevertheless, it serves as a reminder that I have plenty of Kafka on the shelves which could do with dusting off! 🙂

*****

Penguin Moderns 13 and 14 were an enjoyable pair, and both have had the effect of sending me back to books I already own and haven’t read (of which there are far too many). Maybe I should schedule a regular shelf shuffling exercise just to remind myself of all those volumes waiting to be opened… 😀

The 1924 Club – The Final Tales of a European Great

20 Comments

Franz Kafka – The Hunger Artist

There’s always the danger that when an author becomes absorbed into the mainstream consciousness, they become a bit of a cliché, and that’s certainly been the tendency with the work of Franz Kafka. We hear the phrase Kafkaesque bandied around all over the place, to describe the latest TV thriller or political chicanery, all of which tends to obscure the works themselves. Kafka died in 1924, but luckily for me a collection of four short works of his was published shortly after his death and so I’m able to squeeze one last read in to the 1924 Club! 🙂

complete kafka

“The Hunger Artist” was the last collection which Kafka himself prepared for publication, and he was actually able to correct the proofs during his final illness, with the book appearing several months after his death. It contains four stories – the title one, plus “First Sorrow”, “A Little Woman” and “Josephine the Singer, or the Mouse Folk”. I confess that I didn’t mess about trying to find a copy of this collection; instead, I splashed out on a volume containing the complete short stories because I figured that I need to start reading Kafka again, and also that the book might come in handy for German Lit Month in November…

But back to Kafka. “First Sorrow” is a wonderfully strange little tale about a trapeze artist who decides he wants to get away from the world in a most unusual way. Is it an allegory about wanting to escape? Or about taking the pursuit of your art too far? Or maybe about a quest for identity? Certainly it contains an awful lot in its few pages. “A Little Woman” is again a strange one; the narrator is convinced that his very existence is an irritation to the woman of the title – and yet they are strangers! Is he unreliable? Is there a story here we’re not aware of? Again, there’s much hidden beneath the surface here.

The title story relates the story of an actual hunger artist (I had to search online to find out if they really existed and they did – people would travel around in shows, fasting for a set period and making a spectacle of themselves). Again, there’s a lot going on in this story. The craft of starvation seems to be going out of fashion and despite joining a circus, the hunger artist is sidelined; people are not interested in watching him go without food and he in his turn is repelled by the animals and the noise of the crowds. As he declines and fades away we are left to ponder just why he tried to earn a living this way. Certainly, he could be meant to represent the misunderstood artist or perhaps a religious figure, as he usually fasts for 40 days.

Franz-Kafka

And finally, “Josephine the Singer”, an ambiguous little work. Josephine is the only one of the mouse folk who is able to sing, and the story tells of her life and her relationship with her audience. Capricious and demanding, while the other mice work, she entertains them – but the narrator is never clear as to whether Josephine really *can* sing or whether they’re all just fooled by the fact that she’s so convinced she can. In fact, it’s possible that she puts her people in danger by attracting attention with her singing, although she always manages to be whisked to safety. Oddly enough, it’s only the title that describes the people in the story as mice – despite references to fur, it isn’t explicitly made clear that these are real mice and they could just be a community of people with mice-like timidity and characteristics.

Quite clearly, there’s a running theme with Kafka, as his stories are laden with ambiguity and open to a variety of interpretations – which is half the fun of reading them! Kafka died young at the age of 40 and very few of his works had actually been published. It was only because of the diligence of his friend, Max Brod, who refused to burn Kafka’s manuscripts after his death, that the great works like “The Trial” and “The Castle” survived. However, “The Hunger Artist” is particularly interesting because it’s a work Kafka intended to see published; it’s an intriguing collection of stories and highly recommended!

A Rather Wonderful Literary Blog

Leave a comment

One of my favourite literary blogs in recent years has been the very wonderful A Piece of Monologue. Run by Rhys Tranter, it has a strong focus on Samuel Beckett, but also regularly comes up with some gems about my favourite writers.

One of the current pages, here, features some amazing photos of Virginia Woolf by Man Ray, including this one:

virginia-woolf-1935-man-ray

Isn’t that glorious?

The blog also has recent features on Toni Morrison, Wassily Kandinsky, Kafka, Philip Roth and much more. I highly recommend a visit!

Recent Re-reads: Metamorphosis by Franz Kafka

2 Comments

In the early to mid-1980s I went through my first Big Reading Binge, when I devoured umpteen newly discovered authors – Virginia Woolf, Colette, Sartre, De Beauvoir, Cocteau, Camus, Calvino – and of course Kafka. I was like a kid in a candy shop, having discovered all these wonderful writers, and fortunately when I’ve revisited them over the years, I haven’t been disappointed. I re-read some Woolf, Colette, Camus and Calvino recently, and the sight of a little bargain in Poundland sent me back to Kafka!

Poundland? I hear you exclaim! Yes, Poundland. We have a rather large branch in the Big Town, which lodges in the old, much-missed Woolworths store, and up at the back there is a section with books for £1. Understandably, these are most often rubbish but occasionally there is a little gem. I picked up a copy of Emma Larkin’s “Finding George Orwell in Burma” a while back and recently I was browsing with Youngest Child when we spotted some hardback “Banned Books”. There were only a few titles but they were two for £1! I decided to have a fresh copy of “Metamorphosis” and YC settled for “Lolita” (“to see what all the fuss is about”). The books appear to have been produced to sell with a newspaper, but are nice little hardbacks with a dustwrapper and introduction.

There can’t be many people who don’t know what “Metamorphosis” is about but here goes – it’s a short (77 page) story about a young man called Gregor Samsa who wakes up one morning to find he has turned into an insect. Gregor works as a travelling salesman, supporting his mother, father and sister after some kind of financial disaster which has left the family owing money to the company. His dream is to send his sister to the conservatory as she plays the violin and he works hard to earn and save enough for this.

Much of the story is told from the thought-stream of Gregor, as he is unable to communicate with his family now that he is a bug. The family recognise that he is their son/brother, but are repelled by his appearance. Initially, the sister Grete feeds and cares for her brother as much as she can, despite the repulsion she feels, and Gregor attempts to adjust to his new status. The whole family has to take on work to cope without Gregor’s income and tensions build up when they take in three lodgers.

Of course, this surface level description doesn’t really hint at the number of themes explored here. Firstly, if the family are all capable of working, why does poor Gregor have to work so hard to support all three of them – the burden could have been spread equally and everyone would have been under less pressure. It is hinted, through the response of the three lodgers to some violin playing by Grete, that she is not actually that good a musician so it might have been more practical for her to think of a proper job than waste time dreaming of the conservatory. Similarly, Gregor’s father, who was apparently unable to work after the problem with the company, manages to find a job after Gregor’s change and is also revealed not to have been as bankrupt as he made out as there are bonds and savings to be drawn on. Gregor, in his simplicity, sees this as sensible behaviour on the part of his father, whereas the reader is more likely to think that the father has been taking great advantage of the son.

There is also the company that Gregor works for – a large, impersonal organisation whose functionaries are known by their title rather than a name: Mr. Manager, Mr. Chief, Mr. Chairman etc. The company is such a demanding one that they send a member of staff to check up on Gregor at the first moment he is not in work on time. There are echoes of future themes in Kafka’s books here, with the faceless officials in control of the hapless little man who loses control of his situation.

Public domain via Wikipedia Commons

Of course, there is a huge analogy at work here. Gregor has obviously become an insect emotionally before he became one physically – a worker ant, slaving away for three ungrateful family members, with no time for himself or for a proper life apart from his work. When he becomes an insect physically he actually becomes more human emotionally, as he no longer has to rush about frantically pursuing money, but can sit back and lovingly observe his family. He is as considerate as he can be of their needs, covering himself with a sheet when they enter his room or hiding under the sofa. The family, conversely, initially try to care for , but as things progress begin to shun and hate him when he is need of their love and support. In a reversal of roles, they become the emotional insects, rushing about working, and they feel nothing but relief when the inevitable result comes about.

The ending I thought to be rather ambiguous. The remaining family are out in the sun, a burden lifted from them and Grete growing into a woman who will presumably marry and have a normal life. They have shed the past and are moving on to the future – was the sacrifice of Gregor necessary to get them to this point or is it only their cruelty that has made this possible? It could be said that at the start of the story the three other members of the family were completely passive and powerless, and it is only Gregor’s transformation and passing that allows them to develop into functioning ‘normal’ human beings – although whether that is a good thing or not is debatable!

“Metamorphosis” is a thought-provoking story, which demands contemplation and consideration. It’s obvious that Kafka wanted to explore many themes: alienation, transformation, the strains of work, the structure and relationships within a family – but as well as all this, it’s a very readable and intriguing tale and I’m glad I returned to it.

%d bloggers like this: