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Penguin Moderns 49 and 50 – ending the series with stunning prose and provocative non-fiction…

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Well, I’ve done it! I have read the last two books in the Penguin Moderns box set and have finished my reading of the series!! It’s been a brilliant and enjoyable experience – but what did I make of the final two volumes??

Penguin Modern 49 – Lance by Vladimir Nabokov

Let’s face it, I was always going to be on safe ground here, as Nabokov is an author whose work I’ve read and loved a lot! This particular Modern collects together three of his works – The Aurelian, Signs and Symbols and the title story – and they really are a varied and fascinating selection.

‘Aurelian’ is an old-fashioned term for a lepidopterist (and Nabokov was one of those); and this story tells of Paul Pilgram, a morose butterfly/moth collector who runs a failing shop and has never been able to afford to travel abroad hunting the flying creatures. His hopes are raised by a fortunate sale; but will reality get in the way? “Lance” is a very different beast, a skewed sci fi tale wherein a descendent of the narrator gets to travel to the stars – or does he? All is cloaked in mystery, hints and Arthurian allegory. The third story, “Signs and Symbols”, concerns an ageing couple and their very mentally ill son who lives in an institution; a planned visit to him is aborted; the couple receive wrong number phone calls; and again the narrative is full of riddles.

I am somewhat disappointed that I cannot make out her features. All I manage to glimpse is an effect of melting light on one side of her misty hair, and in this, I suspect, I am insidiously influenced by the standard artistry of modern photography and I feel how much easier writing must have been in former days when one’s imagination was not hemmed in by innumerable visual aids, and a frontiersman looking at his first giant cactus or his first high snows was not necessarily reminded of a tyre company’s pictorial advertisement.

This being Nabokov, the language of the stories is quite stunning, if occasionally obscure. The opening paragraphs of “Aurelian”, describing the little town from the point of view of a trolley bus journeying along its streets, is remarkably unusual and vivid. “Signs and Symbols” is, of course, laden with these things, and I did find myself looking at just about every word and wondering what it was signifying! Once more, it’s quite brilliant of course, and the kind of story you want to read all over again. “Lance” is a little more obscure, and is apparently the author’s last short story; it attacks sci fi and plays with the genre’s tropes and although I’m not sure I understand it all, it’s again beautifully and vividly written. Even when he’s being tricky, I do love reading Nabokov.

Penguin Modern 50 – Why I Am Not Going to Buy a Computer by Wendell Berry

The final Penguin Modern couldn’t be further away from the Nabokov; it’s some non-fiction work by the American poet Wendell Berry, and is thought-provoking if perhaps a little problematic for me.

Berry is described online as “an American novelist, poet, essayist, environmental activist, cultural critic, and farmer”, and seems to be known as much as for his environmental work as for his poetry. “Why…” is a short piece first published in 1987 where Berry outlines his reasons for continuing to write in analogue form (pen/pencil and paper, then typewriter) and ignoring all recommendations he receives to get a computer. The rest of the book is taken up with letters the publication received arguing with him, his responses to those letters and a further piece expanding on the controversy it seems to have raised.

Thing is, I entirely get his stance; he’s an advocate of simple living, being off grid as much as possible and avoiding excessive consumption to help save the planet. It’s a laudable position to take, quite prescient, although in some ways I think we’re past that point now. The obsession with social media, being online and connecting digitally would be hard to reverse now unless a major environmental catastrophe happened; and in fact the digital was something of a lifesaver during the lockdowns, helping people to cope with the potential mental health issues that isolation brought.

I think my reservations come on two counts; one criticism made of Berry’s original piece was that he related writing his works on paper and then having his wife as collaborator typing these up for him, which was attacked by feminists. Although he defended this by saying their marriage was a partnership and in effect it was none of anyone’s business, his later piece came across as a little dismissive. He basically said why would women want to join the rat race as well as men; however, women might perhaps want to create their own art, rather than facilitate a partner’s, and his response was simplistic I feel. The second problem was actually his tone; he did come across as quite patronising, and although I respect (and agee with most of) his thoughts on how we should live and the effect we are having on the planet, I don’t think he got these across particularly well. He never really engaged me or enthused me with his narrative, and I ended the book feeling vaguely disgruntled with him. So whilst I applaud his aims, I didn’t gel with his method of delivery!

***

So I finished the Penguin Moderns box with once more two very different writers! If there’s one thing this series of books has done, it’s introduce me to authors and subjects I never would have read. It’s been a pleasure and a joy to read them all; and I’m sorry to come to the end of the box. However, I do have a number of other Penguin reading projects which I really need to get off the blocks (as you can see from the Penguin Projects page); and there may be the possibility of a new addition to the list – watch this space… ;D

Penguin Moderns 47 and 48 – poles apart poetry and prose…

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There’s a palpable sense of excitement at the Ramblings as I get ever closer to the end of my reading of the Penguin Moderns box set! I have now reached books 47 and 48, which means that there are only two more to go after today’s post! How exciting! Anyway, lets take a look at the penultimate pair and see what they’re like! 😀

Penguin Modern 47 – Fame by Andy Warhol

Andy Warhol began his journey into the public eye as an artist; first producing drawings for advertising and then moving on to create his own pop art during the 1960s. As well as visual art, he also made films, managed The Velvet Underground, and became a celebrity superstar in the 1970s and 1980s. A number of books were released under his name, and the pieces included in this Modern are drawn from his 1975 release “The Philosophy of Andy Warhol”; they were selected by the editor of the PM series and had not previously been issued separately.

The biggest price you pay for love is that you have to have somebody around, you can’t be on your own, which is always so much better. The biggest disadvantage, of course, is no room in the bed. Even a pet cuts into your bed room.

Divided into three sections, Love (Senility), Beauty and Fame, the book draws together a number of aphorisms and thoughts by Warhol on what constitutes those three things. He’s a humorous commentator and I couldn’t help but hear his distinctive voice in my head as I read this little book. Although his writing is often light and humorous, he sees the darker, sadder side of things and his thoughts on drag queens, poverty and the advantages/disadvantages of love are very pithy. He may have put on an inarticulate, vague persona when on film, but I suspect there was a lot more to Warhol than appeared on the surface. A really interesting read.

Penguin Modern 48 – The Survivor by Primo Levi

In complete contrast, PM48 is a selection of poetry by Primo Levi, translated by Jonathan Galassi. The author of “The Periodic Table” amongst many others, the blurb on the reverse of the book describes his as a writer “who bore witness to the twentieth century’s darkest days”. If I remember correctly, he may have rejected that witness status; but there’s no denying the incredible power and sadness of these poems.

I wouldn’t disturb the universe.
I’d like, if possible,
To get free silently,
Light-footed, like a smuggler,
The way one slips away from a party.
(from “Still to Do”)

Inevitably, many of the verses featured are informed by Levi’s experiences as a Jewish chemist in a Nazi concentration camp; and I often sensed a ferocity creeping in here that was absent from his prose about the same incidents. I’ve always felt he tried to be neutral in tone when describing what happened in the camps, but the horror of what happened and the tragedies he experienced are very clear here. Of particular note is “Shema”, which contains the line “if this is a man”, later used for one of his memoirs. Powerful, too, is the title poem which explores the survivor’s guilt which haunted Levi from after the war until his death. And “Still to Do” hints at his wish to be done with living despite the commitments he had. Levi died in 1987 in what was officially a suicide but this has been debated; however, he left behind him a compelling body of work which should remind us to remember the past and learn from it. Alas, despite his best efforts, it doesn’t seem that we’re doing so.

*****

Such a different pairing of moderns, yet both explored, in different ways, the darkness of living and the problems of being human. Although the authors are poles apart, both most definitely deserve to be read and are worthy entries in the list of Moderns. And now – only two more to go. How will I find them? And what will I do when I’ve finished the box???!!!

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!

Penguin Moderns 43 and 44 – more recent Japanese fiction plus a bit of a revelation

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When I was casting about recently to see what other Japanese titles I had TBR which could be suitable for the Japanese Literature Challenge, I realised that one of the next two books in my Penguin Moderns series featured an author I’d wanted to read for quite some time – Yuko Tsushima. So it seemed a good idea to dip into these two titles, particularly as they were short and engaging during stressful work times earlier in the month!

Penguin Modern 43 – Of Dogs and Walls by Yuko Tsushima

Tsushima was a renowned author of fiction, essays and criticism whose work has had a recent renaissance in translation, with two full length works appearing in Penguin editions, as well as these stories in the Penguin Modern, all translated by Geraldine Harcourt. Born in 1946, she was the daughter of the sometimes controversial author Osamu Dazai, who committed suicide when she was one year old. The two stories in this collection, “The Watery Realm” and “Of Dogs and Walls” both seem to contain autobiographical elements, which I guess is not surprising…

You’re afraid of the water that stole your husband, but all you can do is consort with it. It’s always around you. As far as you’re concerned, he didn’t die, he turned to water. What happens on land vanishes in water, and the reverse is true, too. Water is your greatest fear…

“Watery…” is a beautifully written short work which intertwines narratives from a daughter and her mother, and explores their lives, as well as that of the daughter’s brother who suffers from learning difficulties. The narrative is as fluid as the watery images which pervade it, and looks back at the lost father who drowned himself with a lover (as did Dazai) as well as the relationship between mother and daughter and their misunderstandings. The narrative in “Of Dogs…” could almost be a continuation of the first story as again we have a mother, daughter and troubled brother. The story has a more conventional structure and is set at a later date where the characters are looking back to the sister and brother in their younger years, the dogs and houses of the families and the blurring effects of time on memories. In both cases, as I implied, it’s impossible not to read these stories autobiographically.

I’d heard good things about Tsushima’s writing and she certainly lives up to her reputation with these two short works (which I believe aren’t available anywhere else). Evocative, poignant and moving, the stories reveal the complexities of family relationships and explore how easy it is to misunderstand someone close to you. The story of the brother was particularly touching and the dream-like quality of the prose is haunting. A definite winner in the Penguin Modern set, and I shall obviously have to check out her other works in translation.

Penguin Modern 44 – Madame du Deffand and the Idiots by Javier Marias

Well, this was something of a surprise! I have only ever tried to read Javier Marias once – well, twice I suppose, as I had two goes at one book and didn’t get on with it so abandoned it. So when I picked this out of the Penguin Moderns set I had no expectations at all. It turns out that “Madame…” is non fiction; five short portrait of famous literary figures, translated by Margaret Jull Costa, and I absolutely loved them!!!

The pieces cover the title lady, Nabokov, Djuna Barnes, Oscar Wilde and Emily Bronte. They’re certainly brief, and each has a small picture heading the essay, but they’re sparkling, witty, slightly cheeky takes on each of the figures – and despite his often irreverent stance, Marias really does seem to have an affection for his subjects and captures them beautifully in wonderfully readable and entertaining prose. The Nabokov portrait was particularly affecting, as was that of Oscar, the latter looking at his life after he left prison – always something which makes me emotional.

This was a wonderful little gem of a Modern, and I enjoyed it so much that I’m sorely tempted to read the whole collection from which they’re drawn. I’m also obviously going to have to rethink my attitude towards Marias, because if I can enjoy his non fictions so much, maybe I *would* like his fictions – I’ll just have to try a different book to the one I failed with twice!

*****

This particular pair of Penguin Moderns were memorable and wonderful, both great introductions to authors whose work I need to explore further. Plus another read for the Japanese Literature Challenge! Has anyone any recommendations of where I should go if I fancy exploring Marias’ work further??

Looking back on highlights of 2021’s reading…

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During December, on book blogs and Twitter, I’ve seen many a ‘best of’ post; however, I always prefer to leave my look back on the year until the very end – I have known, in the past, some of my best reads of a year to arrive at the very end! 2021 has not been an easy year in many ways, but I have read more books than ever (my coping mechanism) and so I shan’t pick a best of – I never do – but instead will look back at some of the highlights… 😀

Classic Crime

As always, I have sought consolation at difficult times with murder, mayhem and mysteries! Golden Age Crime has always been a huge favourite and a comfort read for me, and 2021 was no different. As well as any number of marvellous British Library Crime Classics, I’ve managed to find an excuse to revisit Agatha Christie, the Queen of Crime. And Edmund Crispin, another long-term love, has made appearances here. Really, I doubt I would have made it through the year without crime!!

As an extra crime treat, I was invited to take part in the Crime Reprint of the Year Award by Kate at Cross Examining Crime, and was happy to nominate two favourite books – such fun! 😀

British Library Women Writers

As well as reissuing some wonderful Classic Crime, British Library Publishing have also been releasing stellar titles in their Women Writers series. I’ve covered a number this year, including Edith Olivier’s The Love Child and Diana Tutton’s Mamma. However, a highlight was their reissue of F. Tennyson Jesse’s A Pin to See the Peepshow, a book I regard very highly. I was delighted to take part in the blog tour and sang the book’s praises – a wonderful and moving read!

Russia

Inevitably there are Russians, as books and authors from that country are some of my favourites. I spent time with Dostoevsky for his bicentenary; squeezed in Nabokov short stories; read a wonderful anthology of classic short works, and a brilliant collection of new writing; and reacquainted myself with a recently rediscovered author who wrote for the drawer. I can never read enough Russians, and frankly I think you’ll see plenty more books from that country appearing here in 2022!!

France

As well as a love for Russian culture, I also have a passion for all things French, most particularly Parisian. There were plenty of French treats this year, from unpublished fiction from a favourite writer, a marvellous non-fiction work exploring the culture of mid-century Paris, poetry from that city, some hypnotic prose from Marie Ndiaye and a lovely look at Sylvia Plath‘s relationship to the place. All lovely, and all have drawn me back to reading French authors; I’m currently rediscovering Jean Genet, and have a good number of unread Sartre, Camus and others on the TBR!

Of course, I have to mention Roland Barthes, who has been much on my mind this year. I’ve only read one of his works in 2021, and also Derrida‘s piece on him, but I am keen to continue with him in 2022. A readalong on Twitter of A Love’s Discourse went by the by leading up to Christmas, as my head was in totally the wrong place, but I shall hope to get back to this one soon.

New to me authors vs old favourites

I must admit to being a reader who loves to discover new authors and books, though this year I’ve also sought comfort from the familiar. I don’t do statistics, but I do see from the list I keep that I *have* explored new writers this year. Margarita Khemlin, Marguerite Duras, Amanda Cross, Gilbert Adair and Alex Niven are just a few names who have intrigued this year, but I’m happy to keep the mix of old and new going. From the old guard, George Orwell continues to be a constant delight – I can’t foresee a time when I’ll ever stop reading him! John Berger is a more recent favourite and I’ll definitely be continuing with his works in 2022. Burroughs and Beverley Nichols, a disparate pairing if there ever was one, are both names I love to revisit regularly. Really, there are so many books and so little time, as we always say!

Projects and Reading Events

We get onto shaky ground for some of these, as I’m often a bit rubbish at keeping up with this kind of thing. As far as events go, I co-hosted Read Indies Month in February with Lizzy and this was wonderful fun – so many great independent publishers to support! And Simon and I co-hosted two reading club weeks this year – 1936 and 1976. Both years had an excellent selection of books available to read, and the response was wonderful! I’m happy to say we’ll be running the #1954Club from 18-24 April 2022 and there are some really great books from that year, so do join in!

As for other events, I have dipped into Spanish Lit Month, German Lit Month, Novellas in November and a few more – I like to take part in these when I can and when it fits in with the TBR and also what I fancy reading!

My own personal reading projects, which are all really centred round various Penguin collections, have been pretty intermittent this year – whether from lack of focus, the state of the world or just wrong book at wrong time, the only one I’ve made headway with is the Penguin Moderns box set. I’ve had great fun with this little series of books – there are some marvellous authors and titles in it – and I have high hopes that I might actually finish reading it in 2022!

Disappointments…

I always try to be selective in what I read, but there are occasional misfires and DNFs. I started the year with one, The Housekeeper and The Professor, which really didn’t gel with me; I struggled with Confessions of a Heretic, which was not for me; and I tried to read a high profile book about Russian authors and frankly disliked it immensely. But the balance is heavily in favour of successful reads, so that’s good!!

Poetry

2021 also saw me spending a good amount of time with poets and poetry, and this was a real pleasure. There were biographies – John Sutherland’s marvellous Monica Jones, Philip Larkin and Me was a highlight, as was Gail Crowther’s magisterial Three Martini Afternoons at the Ritz, which explored the lives of Sylvia Plath and Anne Sexton. I discovered new poets, too, often via the NYRB Poets imprint, and this was particularly wonderful.

Translated works

I generally read a lot of work in translation. And I continued to read a lot of work in translation during 2021 – yay! And I shall continue to do so in 2022. Thank you *so* much to all those who translate works into English – my reading life is richer because of you!

Favourites?

I can *never* pick favourites or a top ten or a book of the year, and my BFF J. always reckons it’s because I read such a disparate range of books. I tend to think she might be right, and in any case I’ve read so many stunners this year it seems wrong to pick out one. But to satisfy those wanting me to choose *something*, a few which particularly stood out were In Memory of Memory by Maria Stepanova, every short story I read by Nabokov, Unwitting Street by Sigizmund Krzhizhanovsky, New Model Island by Alex Niven, The Edge of the Object by Daniel Williams and Gentleman Overboard by Herbert Clyde Lewis. All of those were oustanding reads, but probably all for very different reasons!!

Well, there you have it! Some of my reading highlights for 2021. Come back to the Ramblings tomorrow to see if I have any plans for the new year, so you can place bets on whether I’ll stick with any of them! 🤣🤣🤣

Penguin Moderns 41 and 42 – fiery feminism and poignant poetry!

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Well, so much for me charging through the last fifth of the Penguin Moderns box set… I haven’t actually read any since July (where does the time go???) so I figured it was time to take a look at the next two – and an interesting, though disparate, pairing they are! 😀

Penguin Modern 41 – The Problem That Has No Name

If you’re a feminist of a certain age, the name of Betty Friedan will be very familiar. Although I’m a bit later than the generation she was writing for, when I first encountered what was called Women’s Lib Friedan was still a reference point. A pioneering American feminist, her book “The Feminine Mystique” (1963) was a groundbreaking work which attempted to identify the problems faced by those 1950s housewives who were told they had it all, but felt that they didn’t…

Here, two selections from “Mystique” are featured – the title essay and “The Passionate Journey”, and they still read as rousing rallying cries for woman who are still being short-changed by the patriarchal societies which continue to exist all around the world. “Problem…” is stirring stuff; particularly in America of that era, women were told that with a husband, children, home and all mod cons they had all they could ever want and should be grateful. This was part of the post-war return to traditional ways, following the advances into the workplace made during WW2. Well, we know how well being restricted to house and home went for women – I mean, just look at Plath and Sexton…

Betty Friedan (c. Lynn Gilbert, CC BY-SA 4.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0&gt;, via Wikimedia Commons)

The second essay looks at the lies and disinformation spread to discredit feminists and suffragettes from the early days on, warping and distorting their aims – again, not much has changed, has it?

It is a strangely unquestioned perversion of history that the passion and fire of the feminist movement came from man-hating, embittered, sex-starved spinsters, from castrating, unsexed non-women who burned with such envy for the male organ that they wanted to take it away from all men, or destroy them, demanding rights only because they lacked the power to love as women. Mary Wollstonecraft, Angelina Grimm Kay, Ernestine Rose, Margaret Fuller, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Julia Ward Halle, Margaret Sanger all loved, were loved, and married…

Friedan’s trenchant writing still makes inspiring reading, but I found myself a bit saddened that her thoughts still seemed so relevant. When it comes to the feminist cause, it often seems it’s one step forward, two steps back… 😦

Penguin Modern 42 – The Dialogue of Two Snails by Federico Garcia Lorca

This was a book I’d hoped to get to during Spanish Lit Month, but alas I failed. Better late than never, then… Anyway, the great Spanish poet Lorca probably needs no introduction, and this Modern brings together what the blurb describes as “A representative sampling of (his) poetry, dialogues and short prose”. The translator is Tyler Fisher, and apparently some of the works appear here in English for the first time which is rather lovely.

So much for living.
All for what?
The path is flat and dreary,
and there is not love enough.

What to say about Lorca which hasn’t been said before? His work is lyrical, sometimes quirky, often dark and really does stick in the mind and the heart. The prose is particularly lovely, and I’m not sure I was aware before that Lorca had written anything other than poetry.

Statue of Lorca in Madrid (Lourdes Cardenal, CC BY-SA 3.0 <http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/&gt;, via Wikimedia Commons)

A sharp emotion, like an elegy for the things that have never been – good things and bad, large things and small – invades the landscapes of my eyes, which are almost hidden behind a pair of violet-tinted glasses. A bitter emotion that compels me to walk towards this quivering garden on the highest prairies of the air.

Of the poems, there are beautiful words and phrases, romantic verses about people and nature, and “They Felled The Trees” is a particularly stunning lyric. Lorca’s sketches are dotted through the book, and as I read it I couldn’t help but lament his early death… A particularly lovely inclusion in the Moderns series.

*****

So – a *really* different pairing of authors here, with little in common, perhaps. Nevertheless, both of these little volumes were great reads in their own individual ways and so I am impelled forward to read the next two in the seires – hopefully before too long!!

Penguin Moderns 39 and 40 – searing prose and memorable poetry

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I was reminded that I haven’t read any of my Penguin Modern box set recently by Lisa’s posts on two of the books from the collection – Fernando Pessoa’s “I Have More Souls Than One” and Lorca’s “The Dialogue of Two Snails”, both of which she covered for Spanish and Portuguese Literature Month. I’ve read and loved the Pessoa, and haven’t yet reached the Lorca – but I decided to press on with the next two books, and intriguing reads they turned out to be!

Penguin Modern 39 – Letter to my Mother by Georges Simenon

Simenon of course needs no introduction; I’ve read tons of his Maigret stories, and love them, as well as a few of his romans durs, as he called his non-Maigret fictions. This, however, is something a little different; “Letter to my Mother” is an autobiographical piece which is indeed in the form of a letter addressed to his mother, written after her death.

Via Wikimedia Commons – By Jac. de Nijs / Anefo (Nationaal Archief) [CC BY 4.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/4.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

By all accounts, Simenon had a difficult upbringing and a complicated, distant relationship with his maternal parent; and in “Letter…” he places himself at her deathbed, recalling the past, trying to reconstruct her early life and fill in gaps – and ultimately to try to understand a woman who gave birth to him, but to whom he’d never been close.

There are two or three billion people on earth… How many have there been since prehistoric times? No one has any idea. What does seem reasonable to suppose is that they’ve always fought and killed each other as they do now, that they’ve always had to fight their neighbours, natural disasters, and epidemics.

Of course, by the time Simenon’s reached this point, it’s too late; there can be no real reckoning and instead he’s left to carry with him all the things left unsaid between them – which is perhaps the point of this work. It’s a stark, often painful piece of writing, but incredibly powerful. The relationships between parents and children are incredibly complicated (I know that from my own experiences) and to lay them bare like this takes a certain kind of courage and also the strength to examine yourself. Simenon is someone who doesn’t seem to shy away from difficult subjects, and this was an unforgettable read.

Penguin Modern 40 – Death the Barber by William Carlos Williams

In contrast to the intensity of the prose in the Simenon, PM40 is verse, and by a poet whom I know I’ve read before – William Carlos Williams. I suspect I read him in my teens, when I discovered a lot of 20th century poets, thought I don’t think I own a book by him, so I probably discovered him in anthologies. The poems in this PM are drawn from a dozen collections, ranging from 1917 to 1962, so do cover a wide range of Williams’ writing.

William Carlos Williams, from his passport photo (Unknown author, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons)

And this is the kind of poetry I love; short, immediate verses which grab and hold the attention, paint little pictures with words, drop beautiful little phrases into your line of sight where they lodge, and which stay with you afterwards.

These

are the desolate, dark weeks
where nature in its barrenness
equals the stupidity of man.

The PM contains what is probably WCW’s most famous verse “This is just to say” (all about the plums in the icebox!), but there are so many other fabulous poems – “These” was particularly memorable. I picked up hints of e e cummings in places, perhaps, but WCW has a wonderfully individual and idiosyncratic way of writing – another PM which I loved to bits!

*****

So two extremely different but equally great Penguin Moderns today – at 58 pages, the Simenon is definitely best published and read as a standalone piece (I don’t know if it always is) so you can read properly, digest and ponder upon it. And a poetry collection of 55 pages is just the right length, as it’s so easy to get overwhelmed by large chunky editions. These two PMs were both excellent entries in the series and hey! guess what! – I’m now four fifths of the way through!!! 😀

Penguin Moderns 37 and 38 – poles apart – or are they???

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It’s been a little while since I spent any time on my Penguin reading projects, and a recent narrow reading window seemed the perfect time to fit in the next two in the Penguin Moderns sequence. These titles are very different from each other – but oddly enough there are resonances!

Penguin Modern 37 – The Cracked Looking-Glass by Katherine Anne Porter

Porter is another one of those authors I know of, but have never read. Yet she was a prolific and critically acclaimed writer, perhaps most known for her novel “Ship of Fools”; and her short stories are apparently very highly regarded. This PM contains just one work, the title story, and it’s a moving piece of work.

Rosaleen sat silent, without rancor, but there was no denying the old man was getting old, old. He got up as if he gathered his bones in his arms, and carried himself into the house. Somewhere inside of him there must be Dennis, but where?

First published in 1922, the story tells of Rosaleen, married to a considerably older man and living an unsatisfactory life on a farm in rural Connecticut. At 30 years her senior, Dennis is aware that he is no longer man enough for his wife, who is obviously unhappy and bored. As the story progresses, both characters think back; both are aware of their flaws; and both have deep regrets about the loss of a child, a missing friend and how their lives could have been very different. Rosaleen is drawn to other men, yet holds back; and a trip to the city will test her real feelings.

Porter packs a lot into the 55 pages of her story, and it’s a poignant and atmospheric read. Rosaleen and Dennis share much, including their Irish heritage, and as a portrait of the ties that bind a marriage together, “Cracked…” is excellent. Porter’s writing is excellent, and on the strength of this I definitely would like to read more!

Penguin Modern 38 – Dark Days by James Baldwin

In contrast, book 38 is from the acclaimed author James Baldwin. He’s an author I’m familiar with, having read several of his works back in the day; however, I think these were all fiction, so I was keen to explore the essays in this volume. The book contains three titles: Dark Days (1980), The Price of the Ticket (1985) and The White Man’s Guilt (1965); and each is a powerful and moving read.

To be black was to confront, and to be forced to alter, a condition forged in history. To be white was to be forced to digest a delusion called white supremacy.

The essays explore the situation of people of colour in the USA, and Baldwin draws on his own life; growing up in Harlem, being given breaks by people whom he came to love and trust, and managing to make his way in the world, despite the odds being against this. He digs deeply into the prejudice faced by every one who is non-white, dismantling the illusion that there can be equality until white people’s supremacy is no more. One particularly resonant point he made was about education; this is, of course, structured by white people with a particular bias, and so even if a person of colour gains an education, it is skewed. The essays are inspirational reading, and still very, very relevant today…

…I am facing sixty. Dark days, for we know how much there is to be done and how unlikely it is that we will live another sixty years.

You see, I put in above the years the essays were published because I think it’s worth noting, tragically, how little has changed. In the 1960s and 1980s Baldwin was writing about police brutality to people of colour; and we saw last year how the same attitudes and prejudices lead to continuing violence against non-whites and how those who perpetrate it don’t seem to be brought to justice. It’s a sobering reminder of how much still needs to change.

Baldwin’s writing is, of course, excellent; his arguments are persuasive and his sense of outrage palpable. He’s obviously a writer I need to return to.

*****

This pair of PMs might on the surface, therefore, seem to be quite unalike. However, there are similarities; both books deal with the kind of system of inequality which exists in the USA. Rosaleen and Dennis are marginalised because of their povery and their Irish heritage; Baldwin because of race; and it struck me reading these works that America has a class system of its own. It does seem that those who emigrated to the New World took all their problems and prejudices with them, and if you aren’t one of the white folk who scrambled to the top and are clinging onto your privilege, life is still very hard. A thought-provoking pair of books, which I highly recommend!

“… I ride and ride and I never arrive.” #JapaneseLitChallenge14 #mishima

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Having had an underwhelming experience with my first read for the Japanese Literature Challenge, I didn’t want to let January pass without trying another work from that country; particularly as I’ve read some marvellous books from Japan. An old favourite is Yukio Mishima, an often-controversial figure; and I was delighted when previously untranslated works starting appearing recently in new English versions. So I decided to cheat! I say cheat, because the book I read was no 51 in the Penguin Modern series of bite size loveliness – and I am supposed to be reading the series in order!! However, the Mishima was issued after the box set came out so that’s my excuse, and I’m sticking to it!

The work in question is “Star” and it’s a novella-length work first issued in 1961, in a short story collection of the same name. In contrast to many of his major works, which look back to a golden past in Japan, “Star” is set firmly in the present. It tells of Rikio “Richie” Mizuno, a young actor at the height of his fame who’s nevertheless suffering from insecurity, disillusioned with fame and the film world. Despite being surrounded by hysterical young adoring fans, his most important relationship is with his personal assistant, Kayo. The latter is older that Richie, and considered unattractive; yet she offers the actor emotional and physical support, keeping him grounded in some kind of reality.

… threads of permanence cling to the underbelly of all formulaic poetry. It comes as a false shadow, the refuse of originality, the body dragged around by genius. It’s the light that flashes from a tin roof with a tawdry grace. A tragic swiftness only the superficial can possess.

Aside from the complexities of acting while surrounded by screaming fans, another problem occurs when a struggling actress inveigles her way onto the set and into the film. Things go wrong when she proves not to be up to the task of acting the part, and takes dramatic action. Needless to say, the PR people use this to their advantage, leaving Richie just as full of self-doubt as ever…

Real love always plays out at a distance.

“Star” may be a short work, but it’s just as brilliant and full of impact as any of Mishima’s longer works. Richie is the pefect Mishima character; struggling with the hollowness at the heart of his fame, losing sense of reality because of the number of different personas he has to adopt, his life feels empty and he’s assailed by doubt and ennui. The constant wearing of (metaphorical) masks has detached him from the reality around him; and the intense and unlikely relationship with Kayo is more real to him than anything else. Despite the fact that this anchors him, he acknowledges that the relationship is just as much of an illusion; and the couple can sit and calmly discuss the prospect of his suicide, as if this is a logical end to which his life is headed.

A star is more of a star if he never arrives.

Needless to say, reading this wonderful novella from Mishima has restored my faith in my love of Japanese writing. Inevitably, because of the author’s complex relationship with his country and fame, it’s hard not to imagine him drawing from his own life and feelings when writing “Star”. Mishima had himself recently had a go at movie acting and it apparently proved not to be to his taste; so presumably much of that experience was funneled into this story. It’s a compelling, beautifully written work, and I can’t understand why it’s taken so long for it to appear in translation.

Via Wikimedia Commons – see here for attribution: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Yukio_Mishima_01.jpg

Like my encounter with another recently translated book, “The Frolic of the Beasts“, reading “Star” has reminded me what a stunning writer Mishima was and how I really need to revisit his other works. And rather wonderfully, I also have another previously untranslated work of his sitting on the TBR…. ;

“Star” is translated by Sam Bett, who apparently has received kudos for his work – to which I would like to add my thanks and praise! Any previously untranslated Mishima is very welcome in this quarter!!!

Penguin Moderns 35 and 36 – Marlon and melancholia…

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After the excitement of considering revamping the Penguin Projects, it seems only fitting that I should continue to move on through the various collections I have; and after the disappointment of my first foray into Japanese Literature Month, I thought I would return to the Penguin Moderns to try to ensure a good read – which these two certainly delivered!

Penguin Modern 34 – The Duke in his Domain by Truman Capote

Capote is an author with whom I’m fairly familiar (and who probably needs no introduction); I read “Breakfast at Tiffany’s” and “In Cold Blood” back in the day, and loved and admired both. In particular, I find his journalism compelling, so I was particularly keen on reading this short work: a profile of the young Marlon Brando, marooned in a Kyoto hotel whilst filming “Sayonara”. First published in 1957 in the New Yorker, the piece makes absorbing reading.

As Capote reveals, he had first run into Brando in the actor’s early years appearing on stage in “A Streetcar Named Desire”. Then, Brando had been at the start of his career; here, he’s at the top of his game, a box office certainty, and in many ways an enigma. Whether attempting to write his own screenplays, studying the various philosophy books strewn around his room or juggling his entourage, Brando remains basically unknowable, completely enigmatic. Capote observes and records, as the perfect journalist would do, and really captures the time and place and the mystique.

What struck me, too, as I read this Modern, was the strong impression I got from it of Japan; a stronger impression, I have to say, than I got from “The Housekeeper and The Professor”…. Which I suppose tells you much about the quality of Capote’s writing. An excellent entry in the Penguin Moderns collection and a nudge to me to read more of Capote’s non-fiction!

Penguin Modern 36 – Leaving the Yellow House by Saul Bellow

The next Modern is an author I know of but have never read – Saul Bellow. A Canadian-American author who won all manner of literary prizes (including the Nobel), I guess maybe “Herzog” is his best known work. First published in Esquire in 1958, and in book form a decade later, “Leaving the Yellow House” is an evocative and beautifully written story of a woman and a house and the West.

The main character is an older woman called Hattie, who lives on her own in the Yellow House near a desert town by Sego Desert Lake. Hattie is a hard-drinking character with a past; and a car accident and injury forces her to attempt to face up not only to what’s happened in her life so far, but also whether she has any future. Her only friends are a few local neighbours, some of whom will help and some who will take advantage; and as the story progresses we explore Hattie’s past with the various men in her life, her complex relationship with her friend India, and her drinking. That latter element has become the most important part of her life (in fact, certain flashbacks hint it might always have been), and I ended the story wondering what would eventually become of Hattie.

“Leaving the Yellow House” is a title with a double meaning as you’ll see if you read this story; and I do recommend it highly. It’s beautifully written, very evocative and captures the area in which Hattie lives vividly. Bellow obviously deserved all the awards he received, and this was a brilliant introduction to his writing.

*****

So once again, a pair of great Penguin Moderns featuring two titans of American writing.  Re-encountering Capote was a real joy, and discovering Bellow a revelation. And that’s basically what I’m hoping to get out of these little books – renewal of acquaintances or an introduction to new writing. Perfect!  ;D

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