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


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???!!!

Primo Levi – a few musings


As I’ve probably mentioned before, this month sees the centenary of the birth of the author and chemist Primo Levi. I’ve written about him before on the Ramblings, and the reading of his book “The Periodic Table” back in my twenties had a profound effect on me. I’d read all of his works which had been translated into English previously, although as I recorded on the blog, the discovery of a reasonably priced copy of the three volume set of his Complete Works in London caused a lot of stressful lugging around the big city and transporting home! I’m not sorry, thought, and I have been spending time this month dipping into the three large books (amounting to several thousand pages).

As I’d read all of his fictions in the past, I’ve been focusing on poetry and shorter prose, the latter in the form of stories and essays, and there are so many riches. I frankly don’t feel that I’m well-versed enough in his literature (and indeed in Holocaust literature) to comment in depth; in fact, if you want some wonderfully in-depth pieces discussing Levi’s work in detail, I recommend  you visit the marvellous Eiger, Monch & Jungfrau blog of Dorian Stuber, who’s featured some excellent posts this month.

Levi’s poetry is, of course, incredibly moving; and like his prose often painful to read. I believe he disliked being regarded as a witness of the times he lived through, but his works inevitably do just that – tell us of events we must *not* forget for fear of a repeat (and goodness knows we seem to be sliding rapidly in that direction at the moment). I’ll share a few lines with you, but urge you to go and read his work – it is, of course, remarkably powerful…

I see you in my heart, exhausted comrade;
Suffering comrade, I can read your eyes.
In your breast you have cold hunger nothing
The last courage has been broken in you.
Gray companion, you were a strong man,
A woman traveled next to you.
Empty comrade who has no more name,
A desert who has no more tears,
So poor that you have no more pain,
So exhausted that you have no more fear,
Spent man who has a strong man once:
If we were to meet again
Up in the sweet world under the sun,
With what face would we confront each other?

(from Buna, 28 December, 1945 – translated by Jonathan Galassi)

A close-up and personal encounter #FridaKahlo #V&A


I can’t believe we’re into September already; as usual the summer has flown by and I’m facing the looming spectre of going back to work and wondering what I did with my time! (Well – I read a lot and amassed more books, amongst other things, so not much changes…) Anyway, I *did* manage to have a lovely day out on Saturday when I popped up to London to meet up with my BFF J. to take in a very special exhibition. Mind you, ‘popped’ is the wrong word – as there were hideous rail replacements, which meant I had to do a train-coach-train kind of journey and what normally takes an hour and a quarter took two… It was also fairly unsettling as not only can I not read on a coach, but I managed to forget my phone! I didn’t mind not having social media and the like, but I felt a bit insecure not being able to call anyone in case of problems; and I was also very cross at not being able to take photographs. Oh well…

c. V&A Museum

Anyway, this is the rather wonderful exhibition that J. and I were off to see. It’s a show that’s garnered a lot of media attention, and basically the story is that when Frida died in 1954, Diego Rivera (her husband) ordered all her things locked away. In 2004, 50 years later, they were opened up and clothing, cosmetics, corsets and all sorts of personal effects were found. The exhibition is drawn from these, with the clothes taking centre position, and this is apparently the first time these objects, intimately connected to Frida, have been seen outside of Mexico. Of course, as Frida-lovers, both J. and I were desperate to see the show, but it was impossible to get tickets for 21st July (when we had our early summer meet up) so I suggested 1st September as a treat before I went back to work. I just wish I’d checked the trains beforehand…

Anyway, J. booked us entry at 10 a.m. and so we rocked up at the V&A promptly. It was busy – a lot of people were queuing for the limited tickets left for the day, so I was very glad J. had booked. And the exhibition was worth any amount of (minor) hassle getting there – it was absolutely stunning! The initial sections of the show had photographs, images and videos which gave an outline of Frida’s life, including some marvellous footage which I’ve seen online of Trotsky with Frida and Diego, as well as some family background. We were gently led through to the first of the costumes, in a display case set up to resemble her painting “The Two Fridas” as well as some of her collection of shawls; and then into the first of the main parts of the exhibition, that of her personal effects.

The display cases were constructed in the shape of four-poster bed frames (modelled on Frida’s own, I believe, a bed that was a central part of much of her life). Spread through these were a most touching and moving collection of items: her comb, her sunglasses, her nail varnish, a variety of plaster and leather corsets and casts which helped to support her during her life; and heartbreakingly, the prosthetic she wore after the amputation of part of her polio-damaged leg towards the end of her life. Seeing these small, personal objects – often decorated by Frida herself – really brings you close to the woman herself, and of course with Frida (who constructed her own self image daily) the person and the art are inseparable.

The final room of the exhibition contained the centrepiece – a huge display case full of Frida-type mannequins wearing her outfits. They were, of course, stunning as she had such a personal sense of style. Both J. and I had our own favourites, and again it was moving to consider how she chose her clothes for the practical reason of covering her corsets, supports and wounded leg, and yet insisted on creating such a beautiful personal style for herself. The room (and indeed the whole exhibition) was enhanced by the wonderful photographs on the surrounding wall which showed Frida wearing the outfits and jewellery on display, and the colour ones were particularly striking – have a look at the postcards I bought (above) for example.

Obviously, I can’t recommend this show highly enough; definitely one of the best put together I’ve seen and I came out of it stunned and a bit emotionally drained. In fact, I  have to say that the culture shock of stepping out of what was a  profound and moving experience into the gift shop was quite alarming; the latter was stuffed to the gills with souvenirs that frankly at best were tangential and superficial, and at worst could be seen as exploitative – a paper dressing doll book with a Barbie-shaped Frida with ‘perfect’ limbs actually struck me as a bit offensive. I suppose organisations have to make money to be able to put on exhibitions, but the commodification of tacky fake flower headdresses sat a bit uncomfortably with me. And if I ever decide to channel my inner Frida I hope I would do it by constructing my own personal items and spin on her style. Hey – that’s a cool idea for a back-to-work look….. ;D

Anyway, after a couple of emotional hours in the company of Frida, we felt in need of sustenance and decided to head off in the direction of the British Library. On our previous visit to the area, when we discovered the lovely Judd Books (more of which later), J. remembered seeing several eateries. Unfortunately, we incorrectly remembered Judd Books as being in Judd Street and ended up at the Brunswick Centre… Fortunately, there was an Itsu which came to our rescue with several vegan options (and I was getting a bit desperate as breakfast had been early because of train-coach-train meaning a very prompt start today). And it would have been rude not to visit Skoob as we were in the area (and we eventually rediscovered Judd Books in the parallel Marchmont Street where there are indeed plenty of eateries!) I was priding myself on having a very restrained day, despite the infinite temptations of both bookshops:

The small book is from Skoob and is another Penguin Modern Poets I didn’t have – two in a week must be good! The Anna Akhmatova book was from Judd and was a no-brainer – it’s by Elaine Feinstein, who translates Tsvetaeva so beautifully, and so I really had to pick it up. And restraining yourself in Judd Books is difficult – they have a *lot* of second-hand stock, but also what I imagine is remaindered stock of US books and there were some wonderful temptations. However, I was priding myself on doing so well and turning to leave when I spotted something that I really could *not* leave behind:

This behemoth of a box of books came out in the USA: a beautiful, three hardback set of Primo Levi’s complete works. I coveted it like mad when it was first issued, but couldn’t justify the £100 upward cost plus postage, especially as I have a lot of  his works already (albeit in different translations). But it’s too long since I read him, and I *did* really covet this set. Well – it was in Judd and I had to stare in disbelief, because it was £17.95. Yes really – £17.95!!! J. looked a little disbelieving when she realised the weight, but as I told her this was not negotiable – I wasn’t going home without it. I had come armed with rucksack this time as we were exchanging books (and I ended up carrying more than J. did!) but this wasn’t going to sit comfortably in there, so the trusty and very sturdy KBR tote bag sprang into action and did the job!

*Definitely* the most useful present Middle Child ever gave me, and I certainly don’t think I could have lugged that set of books round London in any other bag!!!

By this time, our endurance was rather coming to an end so we bused back to Foyles via Tiger in Tottenham Court Road for a welcome browse amongst the poetry and tea in the cafe (whilst taking it in turns to hold/guard Primo) – the Foyles cafe is *such* a lovely place. After that we went out separate ways to negotiate the complexities of the journey home (train-coach-train was *not* fun when loaded with books and surrounded by football fans manspreading everywhere). I’m pleased to report that Primo and I arrived home safely (if exhausted and footsore) and OH seemed surprisingly understanding about the reasons why I had to have this particular box of books (although he did express vague concerns about shelves of books falling on us while we sleep….)

I haven’t been able to put many photos in this post because, dammit, I couldn’t take any and I don’t want to pinch anyone else’s. However, if you have a quick search online you’ll find plenty up there which will give you an idea of what’s in this exhibition. It really is stunning, a kind of once in a lifetime chance to see these items, and it’s running until November. If you get a chance to go I urge you to do so – J. and I certainly had a wonderful day out encountering the presence of Frida Kahlo!

Primo Levi : 31 July 1919 – 11 April 1987



“You who live safe
In your warm houses,
You who find warm food
And friendly faces when you return home.
Consider if this is a man
Who works in mud,
Who knows no peace,
Who fights for a crust of bread,
Who dies by a yes or no.
Consider if this is a woman
Without hair, without name,
Without the strength to remember,
Empty are her eyes, cold her womb,
Like a frog in winter.
Never forget that this has happened.
Remember these words.
Engrave them in your hearts,
When at home or in the street,
When lying down, when getting up.
Repeat them to your children.
Or may your houses be destroyed,
May illness strike you down,
May your offspring turn their faces from you.”
― Primo Levi, Survival in Auschwitz


I first read Primo Levi’s work when I spotted a copy of “The Periodic Table” in a local bookshop in the mid 1980s – the cover was emblazoned with a recommendation from Italo Calvino, which was enough to make me pick it up instantly. The bulk of the body of his work concerns the Holocaust and its survivors, a constant reminder of the horrors of the past which we must never forget lest they be repeated.

Levi was a troubled man and died in 1987 after a fall from the landing of his third floor apartment. The death was ruled as suicide, but as fellow survivor Elie Wiesel put it, “Primo Levi died at Auschwitz forty years earlier”.

For much of his life post-War Levi seemed plagued by the guilt of a survivor, stating “We who survived the Camps are not true witnesses. We are those who, through prevarication, skill or luck, never touched bottom. Those who have, and who have seen the face of the Gorgon, did not return, or returned wordless.”

Levi was never wordless, and his books remain as a testament. Happy birthday Primo Levi.

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