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Penguin Moderns 9 and 10 – Parables and poetry

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Well – time for another slightly odd pairing… Sci fi fables written under a Communist regime and Irish poetry really *don’t* have much in common – apart from the fact that I enjoyed both, I suppose!

Penguin Modern 9 – The Three Electro-Knights by Stanislaw Lem

Polish author Stanislaw Lem is someone whose books I’ve read and loved before (as a quick search on the blog will show!) And in fact I’ve read all of the four stories featured in PM9, as they come from the collection Mortal Engines which I read and reviewed for Shiny New Books back in 2016. At the time, I commented on the collection had been put together by translator Michael Kandel to showcase Lem’s stories of robots, and the four tales featured here certainly do that.

Stanisław Lem in 1966, courtesy of his secretary, Wojciech Zemek.

What’s intriguing about Lem’s robot tales is how they take human emotions and events, then twist them with the robotic perspective. The stories are the title one,The White Death, King Globares and the Sages, and The Tale of King Gnuff. All could be tales of derring-do with knights in armour, but they’re robots on far-flung planets and worlds – just goes to show that not much changes the universe over…

Science explains the world, but only Art can reconcile us to it. What do we really know about the origin of the Universe? A blank so wide can be filled with myths and legends. I wished, in my mythologizing, to reach the limits of improbability, and I believe that I came close. You know this already, therefore what you really wanted to ask was if the Universe is indeed ludicrous. But that question each much answer for himself.

Underlying these witty and entertaining tales is of course a serious point; for example, The White Death could be an allegory of any kind of colonial invasion humans have undertaken. And King Globares… parodies the trope of a king wanting to be entertained by his wise men which turns up in no end of ancient literature. King Gnuff is a little more surreal, with the monarch mutating into his actual realm and losing grip of reality as he sinks deeper into layer upon layer of dreams.

As I said in my original review, the stories present a chance to explore “the possibility of relations between humans and robots that speaks about our ability to reconcile ourselves to living in the world alongside other species and races, and learning to get along with them.” Lem was a great writer, and this Penguin Modern is an excellent introduction to his witty, clever, almost Steampunk stories.

Penguin Modern 10 – The Great Hunger by Patrick Kavanagh

Book 10 is the second poetic entry into the list of Penguin Moderns, an a poet new to me! Irish author Kavanagh wrote both verse and novel, and is recognised for his realistic portrayal of Irish rural life. This selection is drawn from his Collected Poems, and spans his life’s work.

Joseph Mischyshyn / Dublin – Grand Canal – Poet Patrick Kavanagh

It’s obvious from the poems featured here that Kavanagh was very much rooted in his landscape. The poems are powerful and lyrical, and central to the book is his long work The Great Hunger, from which the collection takes its title. It’s a gritty and realistic work, taking a long hard look at the truth of life in rural communities against the background of famine, and is moving and memorable.

I do not know what age I am,
I am not mortal age;
I know nothing of women,
Nothing of cities,
I cannot die
Unless I walk outside these whitethorn hedges.

(from Innocence)

The rest of the poems are equally striking – often full of beautiful imagery, they have a streak of harshness and a refusal to lapse into saccharine descriptions of nature. In many ways, Kavanagh reminds me of that other great poet of the country, R.S. Thomas, and I can imagine them stalking their relative landscapes, glaring at the sky and composing as they went.

So an introduction into a new and excellent poet who I probably wouldn’t have read without the Penguin Modern box set – and whose work I’m now keen to read more of!

*****

Strangely, I now find myself one fifth (or 20%…) of the way through the Penguin Moderns box set, having created a series of posts on the books – something I was a bit reluctant to start as I don’t do well with challenges or commitments. But I’m enjoying this whole reading process so much, I think I might just carry on…. 🙂

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Penguin Moderns 7 and 8 – Distinctive voices, polar opposites

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Well – this must be the least likely pairing so far in my choices of two Penguin Moderns to read at a time! I’ve been picking them out in pairs in numerical order, but George Orwell and Gertrude Stein?? Not obvious bedfellows…

Stylistically, I don’t think you could two more dissimilar authors: Orwell is prized in these parts for his wonderful clarity, immense reasonableness, and his clear-sightedness about humans, their foibles and the way the world was going; Stein, however, can be a murky writer, spinning webs of words that often appear to make little sense. Yet both have been acclaimed as geniuses in their own way which just goes to show that there is plenty of appetite out there for different kinds of writing. So – what did I make of these two little books?

Penguin Modern 7 – Notes on Nationalism by George Orwell

It’ll be no surprise to anyone that this was a great joy – Orwell is much loved on the Ramblings. And Penguin are remarkably clever at choosing very apposite Orwell essays to reprint which chime in remarkably well with the times. Penguin Modern 7 contains three essays first published in 1945: the title one, Antisemitism in Britain and The Sporting Spirit.

The nationalism Orwell refers to is not just an extreme love of country, but a violent partisanship for country, creed or group. It’s a dangerous state of mind, breeding intolerance and causing conflict and as always Orwell is spot-on at identifying problems which are still relevant today.

To study any subject scientifically one needs a detached attitude, which is obviously harder when one’s own interests or emotions are involved. Plenty of people who are quite capable of being objective about sea urchins, say, or the square root of 2, become schizophrenic if they have to think about the sources of their own income.

The anti-Semitism essay is of course remarkably topical and GO is clear about how it is impossible to look at the subject objectively as so many emotions get in the way – as we can see from hysterical modern media reactions. As for sport – well, that one had me laughing all the way through!

Serious sport has nothing to do with fair play. It is bound up with hatred, jealousy, boastfulness, disregard of all rules and sadistic pleasure in witnessing violence: in other words it is war minus the shooting.

There speaks a fellow sport-hater! :)))

As always, and as I (and many others) have said before, what strikes you is Orwell’s basic decency and reasonableness. I read this little book while the Royal shenanigans were going on, distracting us all from the real issues and hiding everything up in fake news. As GO says so presciently:

The calamities that are constantly being reported – battles, massacres, famines, revolutions – tend to inspire in the average person a feeling of unreality. One has no way of verifying the facts, one is not really fully certain that they have happened, and one is always presented with totally different interpretations from different sources.

As with all of Orwell’s writings, I ended up with a sheaf of post-its marking relevant and quotable parts, places where I shouted “Yes!” as I was reading (not literally of course, as that would have alarmed OH – though I did feel obliged to read him the above quote, and send messages to the Offspring reminding them how much I love Orwell and what a genius he was. Youngest Child was moved to reply that she lived for receiving such messages from me… But I digress!) The world is in many ways no better or no different from how it was in Orwell’s day; the rich are getting richer (and greedier) while the poor suffer lack of services, lack of basic living standards, lack of respect. Oh, how we need Orwell now…

Penguin Modern 8 – Food by Gertrude Stein

Aaaaand, in complete contrast – Gertrude Stein. Where Orwell is all clarity, Stein’s work comes in varying degrees of comprehensibility. I’ve read a number of her works (mostly pre-blog) and have enjoyed some more than others. These pieces come from her book “Tender Buttons” which I have vague memories of struggling with – and I can understand why…

… it is so easy to change meaning, it is so easy to see the difference.

The short extracts are given titles like Roastbeef, Breakfast and Single Fish. Do they describe food? Or the art of cooking? Or shopping? Or dining? Or indeed sex, as the blurb claims. The answer is, I don’t know! I’ve found when reading Stein in the past that if you treat the prose as musical, going for sound rather than obvious meaning, you get further. But I didn’t, if I’m truly honest, get very far trying that here.

It may be that because the text actually had a strong subject I was looking *too* hard for meaning and wasn’t able to get past that into the sound. Or it may just have been the wrong timing. Or it may just be that this was one of Stein more incomprehensible works. Which was a little frustrating, because occasionally lovely and silly phrases did jump out at me!

This is no authority for the abuse of cheese.

If you’re looking to read some Gertrude Stein, I have to honestly say this is probably not the best place to start. “The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas” (which I read decades ago) I remember as definitely being more approachable – “Tender Buttons” and its extracts I would class as for Advanced Stein Readers only!

***

So a mixed bag of Penguin Moderns this time. I obviously loved the Orwell (but then when do I *not* love reading Orwell?) Stein was difficult, and I think I will go for something less lexically complex next time I want to read her. Any road up – the next two titles in the box look rather intriguing. Watch this space! 🙂

Penguin Moderns 5 and 6 – Erotica and the Orient

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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! 🙂

My Blog’s Name in Books…. :)

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There is a lovely meme doing the rounds at the moment that I’ve been umming and ahhing about, but I’ve finally succumbed! It originated with Fictionophile and basically you have to choose books from your TBR to spell out your blog name. Sounds fun, yes, and I’ve enjoyed everyone else’s posts on this; however, I hesitated for a couple of reasons. Firstly, because my TBR books are frankly all over the house; and because I figured it would take quite a lot of books. But I gave in at last, and with some helpful suggestions from OH behind the scenes, this is what I came up with:

Yes, there they are – a selection of unread books that spell out Kaggsy’s Bookish Ramblings! I’ve split them up into the three words (without apostrophe, of course) so that I can run through what they are. Be prepared – as my blog has a long name, this will be a long post…

First up, Kaggsys:

(The) Kremlin Ball by Curzio Malaparte – a fascinating sounding review copy from NYRB – I’m  hoping to get this one to the top of the pile soon!

A Passionate Apprentice – early essays by Virginia Woolf – one day I would like to read through all of Woolf’s essays – one day….

(The) Great Hunger – Patrick Kavanagh – a Penguin Modern from my box set by an author I’ve not read before.

Grand Hotel Abyss by Stuart Jeffries – an interesting title picked up when Verso were having one of their regular online offers (which I can never resist – damn you Verso!)

Silas Marner by George Eliot – another lovely review copy, this time from OUP – I *may* have read this book decades ago, but I can’t be sure….

(The) Year of the Death of Ricardo Reis by Jose Saramago – I loved my first experience of reading Saramago so I’m glad I had picked this one up in the charity shop. It has connections to Pessoa, too – more of whom later in this post… 😉

Selected Writings by John Muir – I had this on a wishlist for ages; then I had a fit of fedupness and decided to treat myself. So there you go.

Next up is Bookish:

Bats in the Belfry by E.C.R. Lorac – another beautiful review copy, this time from the British Library. It sounds fun. This meme is making me want to read all these books at once…

On the Beach At Night Alone by Walt Whitman – one of my many Penguin Little Black Classics – I need to get reading some more of those too. Plus the complete Walt Whitman that OH gave me. Gulp. Will the books to be read never end???

(The) Old Man of the Moon by Shen Fu – and another Penguin Little Black Classic. I love the diversity of Penguin books.

Keep the Aspidistra Flying by George Orwell – I was really struggling to find another K book, when OH suggested this. Now, I initially thought I’d read it but I went and had a look on my shelves anyway. And as I don’t have a paperback copy of it, I don’t think I can have – so George to look forward to!! This is a gorgeous hardback edition from a fancy box set that OH gifted me many years ago – he’s a great book enabler! 🙂

I am a phenomenon quite out of the ordinary by Daniil Kharms – this has been sitting on the TBR for a while and I’ve dipped but not read properly or finished. I love Kharms’ strange and beguiling work, and I really must get back to this one.

Somebody at the Door by Raymond Postgate – another lovely from the British Library – I obviously desperately need to catch up with review books.

His Only Son by Leopoldo Alas – and yet another review book from NYRB, one about which I know nothing but I’m willing to explore!

And finally, Ramblings (goodness knows, I do enough of that…):

(The) Rings of Saturn by W.G. Sebald – I didn’t get Sebald the first time round, but I think I’m probably better placed on a second attempt – we shall see…

Aurora Leigh by Elizabeth Barrett Browning – another gift from my book-enabling OH who thought it was a pioneering feminist work I should have. I don’t think I’ve read it before, so on the TBR it sits.

Memoirs from Beyond the Grave by Chateaubriand – a review copy from NYRB which is fascinating so far (I *have* started it, I confess) and which promises to stretch into the French Revolution – so *that* should be good! 🙂

(The) Book of Disquiet by Fernando Pessoa – which I’ve been intending to read for ages and which has links to the Saramago above. But I keep wondering which translation/version is best to read – any advice out there??

Looking Backward by Edward Bellamy – early sci fi which has been lurking for ages and which I might have nicked from Eldest Child (the sci fi buff of the family). One day I will read this…

Iconoclasm in revolutionary Paris by Richard Clay – #Iconoclasm #FrenchRevolution #ProfRichardClay #Coveted book I finally got a copy of. ‘Nuff said…

Notes of a Crocodile by Qui Miaojin – have you noticed several NYRB review books in this meme? I should catch up, I really should…

(The) Gigolo by Francoise Sagan – another Penguin Modern. I have had mixed experiences with Sagan so it will be interesting to find out how I react to this one!

Sense and Sensibility by Jane Austen – I have only read a couple of Austens, despite owning them all (sometimes multiple copies). Perhaps this gorgeous hardback review copy from OUP will help a bit.

*****

There – I told you it would be a long post! So what does this tell you about me and my TBR? Probably that I have a grasshopper mind, refuse to stick to genres or types of books, and that I have more books than I need and that I’ll probably die before I read them all. At least I’ll be ok for reading matter if there’s a zombie apocalypse…

Penguin Moderns 3 and 4 – striking women authors

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Aren’t they pretty??? 🙂

The lure of my lovely Penguin Moderns is proving too hard to resist, despite all the big books on the pile demanding my attention! The next two in the series are by some big hitters among female authors, Daphne du Maurier and Dorothy Parker. Both of these are writers I’ve read and loved before, but it’s a long time since I read either, so this is a timely revisit! I love the fact this set is prompting me to go to places I wouldn’t normally at the moment!

Penguin Modern 3 – The Breakthrough by Daphne du Maurier

Although I’ve read du Maurier, most of it was a long time ago and to be honest I couldn’t be sure exactly which books they were. I’m pretty sure I read Rebecca, and I know I read The House on the Strand as a teenager because I was very struck with it. This little volume features one work, the story of the title, and a powerful piece it is indeed.

The book is narrated by Steve, an engineer, who’s sent off to the wilds of the east cost to a strange, deserted kind of research complex where some rather odd experiments are taking place. Headed by the obsessed Mac, the small group is ostensibly undertaking experiments with sound frequencies, and having managed to train the appropriately named camp dog Cerberus to respond to these. However, more worryingly, they’ve also tapped into the frequency of a local small girl, who has what we would now call learning difficulties. The survivor of a pair of twins, she’s become crucial to the underlying, hidden research going on at the base, which is to try to find out what happens to the essence of a human when they die. The results are unexpected…

This was a dark and somewhat unsettling story, focusing very much on science, what it can do, what perhaps it shouldn’t do, the link between twins, life after death and a lot more. du Maurier keeps the tension ramped up and the atmosphere unsettling, and I ended the story a bit rattled really! Which is probably what she intended…. I’ve never read any of her shorter works before but I must admit I’m keen to now.

Penguin Modern 4 – The Custard Heart by Dorothy Parker

I’m on slightly more familiar territory with this one, as I have had a copy of The Collected Dorothy Parker since my teens. Her poem Résumé was always popular amongst my group of angst-ridden BFFs but we always appreciated her wit too. PM4 features three short works – the title story, Big Blonde and You Were Perfectly Fine. The Custard Heart is the story of a selfish and self-centred society woman, Mrs. Lanier; totally vacant and obsessed with her wistful appearance, her heart is indeed as soft and brainless as a bowl of custard, and while real life goes on around her she wafts around in a world of unreality. Never has Parker’s satirical scalpel been so sharp!!

Big Blonde, the longest story in the book, tells of Hazel; something of a good time girl and known as a Good Sport, she in fact suffers from an excess of emotion. Her constant friendships with men and her brief marriage leave her with a void in her life; and even her attempt to leave it meet with no success.

You Were Perfectly Fine is short and brilliant; a young man, recovering from a night of heavy drinking and high jinks, finds that he may have said things to his companion that he might regret in the long term…

Three wonderful, witty, pithy and clever pieces of writing from Dorothy Parker; I can see why I’ve always loved her work and I can see that I’m going to have to re-read more of her soon. There’s a depth here that you might not expect, but then satire often has a serious purpose. The stories are described as being of women on the edge, which maybe doesn’t do them justice; the women in the stories are coping with a man’s world and an imperfect world in the ways they know best, and it’s fascinating to watch.

*****

So – the second two Penguin Moderns have been as good as the first two. Although both of these writers are female, the books couldn’t be more different; but both are just brilliant in what they do and say. I can’t wait to read more of this set! 🙂

Penguin Modern 1 and 2 – Voices from the Sixties #mlk

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I have to confess that I was a little hesitant and nervous about opening the lovely box set of Penguin Modern books kindly gifted to me by the three Offspring for Mother’s Day; it’s so pretty and I wanted to keep it nice etc etc etc (silly, I know, because books are to be read). However, on 4th April, as well as being Youngest Child’s birthday, it was also the 50th anniversary of the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King Jnr. I started the day watching a recording of the ceremony from last November at Newcastle University where a statue of Dr. King was unveiled; and realised that as book 1 of the Penguin Modern set was his “Letter from Birmingham Jail”, I’d better get the set open and read the book that day. Which I did, and it seemed totally appropriate to do so. Also fascinating to note that Newcastle University had awarded Dr. King an honorary degree back in 1967 – how forward-thinking of them!

Moderns 1 and 2 are both by authors who would be considered to be connected with the 1960s (although of course Allen Ginsberg had been writing for much longer; but he will forever be connected with the sixties counterculture, particularly in this country because of the Royal Albert Hall poetry reading). And in many ways these are disparate authors, although reading them alongside each other was actually quite thought-provoking. So, a few of my thoughts on the first two books in the box.

Penguin Modern 1 – Letter from Birmingham Jail by Martin Luther King, Jr.

That’s Birmingham, Alabama, of course, and not the one in our Midlands… King was arrested while protesting against the treatment of his people in Birmingham and wrote this letter in the margins of a newspaper whilst confined.

I’ve never read King before; but obviously I know him as a great and articulate orator, and this is carried over into his writing. He’s clear, concise, reasoned yet impassioned. The “Letter” takes to task fellow religious leaders who argued against taking direct action in the streets to end segregation; and King states quite clearly how the legal route has failed, how his people are sick of the racial prejudice and sick of being treated so badly. Frankly, it’s amazing that they had waited so long before taking direct action and I couldn’t help feeling anger at the so-called religious men who failed to take action.

… I am compelled to carry the gospel of freedom beyond my own home town.

King is an erudite commentator and it actually terrifies me to realise how recently this kind of racial segregation was in place, and also how easy it still is to stir up distrust amongst peoples of different race and creed. If we could all only take on board Dr. King’s messages, maybe the world would be a better place.

The book also comes with an extract from one of Dr. King’s sermons, “The Three Dimensions of a Complete Life”.

Penguin Modern 2 – Television Was a Baby Crawling Toward That Deathchamber by Allen Ginsberg

In what would seem like a complete contrast, Penguin Modern 2 is a book of poetry, taken from Allen Ginsberg’s collected works. Ginsberg was one of the original Beats – friend (and sometimes lover) of Jack Kerouac and Neal Cassady – but he was the one who survived, continuing to write up until his death in 1997. I first discovered his work in the late 1970s when I began to explore the work of the Beats; in those days it was virtually impossible to buy copies of his books in provincial England, but my absolutely marvellous local library actually had a copy of his masterwork “Howl” so I was able to read him.

PM2 doesn’t contain “Howl” of course, but a selection of his well-know works features. The collection opens with “Pull My Daisy”, co-authored with Kerouac and Cassady, and from the film of that name (shhhh – have a little search online and you can find the film for a wonderful slice of Beat history.) Other well-known titles are “A Supermarket in California”, “America” and of course the title poem.

America why are your libraries full of tears?

On the surface, you might not connect King and Ginsberg. But both were fighting for freedoms – King on racial grounds, Ginsberg on sexual (and actually possibly any ground going, as he hated restrictions of any kind). Ginsberg was against prejudice of all sorts and in fact he and King actually met a couple of times.

Ginsberg’s verses are free-form, explorative, often profane, stimulating and it was a wonderful experience to re-encounter them after a looooong time. Nowadays, I find reading the Beats more problematic than I did in my youth; I’m less tolerant of the undercurrent of misogyny and feel more critical of their treatment of women. But when their prose and poetry soars I can forget that for a while and relish their words and their searches for freedom.

******

So Penguin Moderns 1 and 2 turn out to be an inspired pairing. These two voices from the past still have so much to say to us and I wouldn’t have necessarily chosen to pick up either of these authors at the moment without the prompting of the box – but I’m really glad I did. Looking through the names of the authors featured in the series, I think I’m going to have many joys to come – for which thanks! to the three Offspring! :))))

A little taster… #penguinmodern @Bryan_S_K @classicpenguins

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Four Russian Short Stories by Gazdanov and Others
Penguin Modern: 21 – Translated by Bryan Karetnyk

OK, time for a little confession… Before I received the lovely Penguin Moderns box set, and when I wasn’t sure when it was coming out and if I’d actually get it, I may just have picked up a few of them in my local Waterstones (who did a lovely display of them – I got inordinately excited about spotting Penguin Moderns ‘In the Wild’!!!) – and here they are:

All of these are titles I wanted to read anyway, and I don’t mind having extra copies. But in advance of a review I have going live on Thursday, I thought I would dip into the Four Russian Short Stories volume. These are all works by émigré writers and it’s interesting that of the four featured, it’s the name of Gaito Gazdanov that appears on the cover; testament, I suppose, to the success of Pushkin Press’s rediscovery of his work over recent years.

The stories are translated by the ever-industrious Bryan Karetnyk, who was responsible for the marvellous “Russian Emigre Short Stories from Bunin to Yanovsky”, which I reviewed for Shiny New Books. Three of the stories featured here are also in that book, but very excitingly this little volume features a newly translated gem in the form of “A Miracle” by Yury Felsen. First published in 1934, this evocative story is set in a clinic where the narrator is bored whilst recuperating. Forced into the company of a rather troubling nurse, he is initially relieved to have a room-mate, although the latter turns out to be taciturn and no company at all. However, on the room-mate’s day of discharge a few home truths are told and the final denouement is perhaps unexpected.

My rule is to agree, not to argue, not to object. That way, the outside world remains somehow acceptable: I haven’t the energy to fight. Sometimes, with no good cause, I hope that everything will clear up…

I read this story after finishing my Thursday book and interestingly found that it resonated strongly with the feelings I had about that particular volume. Specifically, I keep returning to the drifting quality of émigré life, the detachment of the protagonists, and their sense of ennui as well as often despair.

There will be more on this subject in Thursday’s post, but if you want an introduction to Russian émigré writing this is definitely a great place to start. One of the things which please me about the “Russian Emigre…” volume was the gender balance and the fact that there were a goodly number of women writers featured; I’m glad to see that this has been carried over to PM21 as there is a 50:50 split. As well as Gazdanov and Felsen, the other stories are by Nina Berberova and Galina Kuznetsova, and all are excellent.

I’ll leave you a quote from Gazdanov which will give you an idea of the quality of the writing here – more émigré writing to come later this week!

The February dusk fell, plunging Paris into the icy darkness typical of this time of year, and night shrouded everything that had just taken place. Afterwards, it began to seem as if none of this had ever happened, as if it had all been an apparition, eternity’s brief intrusion into the historical reality in which we just happened to live, uttering foreign words in a foreign tongue, not knowing where we were headed, having forgotten whence we came.

 

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