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Penguin Moderns: Vladimir Nabokov and Wendell Berry

Lance by Vladimir Nabokov **** (#49) 9780241339527
I will begin this review by saying that of the work of Nabokov’s which I have read in the past, I have not enjoyed it anywhere near as much as most people seem to.  I had never encountered his short stories before picking up Lance.  All of these ‘dazzling stories of obsession, mania and an extra-terrestrial nightmare feature all of the wit, dexterity and inventiveness that are the hallmarks of Nabokov’s genius’, and were published between 1931 and 1951.  ‘The Aurelian’ was originally written in Russian, and appears in translation here by Peter Pertzov in collaboration with the author.  The other two stories – ‘Signs and Symbols’ and ‘Lance’ – were first written in English.

The three tales collected here are all rather sad.  ‘The Aurelian’ follows protagonist Paul Pilgram, who has taken over the running of his parents’ shop in Berlin.  Of Pilgram, Nabokov writes: ‘… as a boy he already feverishly swapped specimens with collectors, and after his parents died butterflies reigned supreme in the dim little shop.’  He is an entomologist, who knows so much about species all around the world, but has never travelled farther than Berlin’s suburbs.  His wish is to see butterflies living in their natural habitat.  I will say no more lest I give any of the story away, but suffice to say, I very much enjoyed reading it.  It is the first time in which  I have ever felt fully engaged with Nabokov’s work.

The second haunting story, ‘Signs and Symbols’, takes as its focus a suicidal young man living in a sanatorium, and the effects which he has upon his family: ‘The last time their son had tried to take his life, his method had been, in the doctor’s words, a masterpiece of inventiveness; he would have succeeded, had not an envious fellow patient thought he was learning to fly – and stopped him.  What he really wanted to do was to tear a hole in his world and escape.’  I found such descriptions touching and evocative, and indeed, this style of writing and character reveal threads through all three tales in Lance.  The stories are very human, and I now have an interest to read more of Nabokov’s work in the near future.

The third titular story was the only one in this collection which I did not much enjoy.  However, that may be because it is so firmly rooted in science fiction, something which I am not at all a fan of.  I found it interesting enough to read, but it was certainly peculiar.  Had this surprising collection featured only the first two stories, I certainly would have given it a five star rating.

 

9780241337561Why I Am Not Going to Buy a Computer by Wendell Berry ***
The fiftieth, and final, Penguin Modern is Wendell Berry’s Why I Am Not Going to Buy a Computer, which features two essays.  The title essay was published for the first time in Harper’s magazine in 1987, and the second – ‘Feminism, the Body and the Machine’, which provides a reflection upon it – in 1990.

In the first essay, as is evident in its title, Berry argues his case for writing ‘in the day time, without electric light’, and with only paper and a pencil.  He says, of his decision: ‘I do not see that computers are bringing us one step nearer to anything that does matter to me: peace, economic justice, ecological health, political honesty, family and community stability, good work.’  He also points out that he very much enjoys the collaborative experience which he shares with his wife, who types up his work on a Royal Standard typewriter: ‘Thus (and I think this is typical of present-day technological innovation), what would be superseded would be not only something, but somebody.  In order to be technologically up-to-date as a writer, I would have to sacrifice an association that I am dependent upon and that I treasure.’

This first essay ends with a transcription of several responses received after its publication, and Berry’s quite witty response.  In the second, and more extended response essay, Berry writes in a measured way of those who chose to send letters to him, and the overriding view that he was both exploiting and oppressing his wife by getting her to type his work.  Here, he reflects: ‘That feminists or any other advocates of human liberty and dignity should resort to insult and injustice is regrettable.  It is also regrettable that all of the feminist attacks on my essay implicitly deny the validity of two decent and probably necessary possibilities: marriage as a state of mutual help, and the household as an economy.’

I found this short collection easy to read, and found that Berry argues his various points succinctly, although perhaps a little briefly at times, throughout.  His reasoning, in some ways, feels quite ahead of its time.  He touches upon many themes here, from materialism and relationships to technology and values.  Berry’s essays have such a nice message at their heart: ‘My wish simply is to live my life as fully as I can.  In both our work and our leisure, I think, we should be so employed.  And in our time this means that we must save ourselves from the products that we are asked to buy in order, ultimately, to replace ourselves.’

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‘Sixty Degrees North: Around the World in Search of Home’ by Malachy Tallack ****

Malachy Tallack’s Sixty Degrees North: Around the World in Search of Home immediately appealed to me, and has been on my radar for such a long time.  In it, the author charts his own journey as close as he can get to the sixty degree line – or sixtieth parallel – beginning his journey in his home on Shetland, a place which the line also passes through.  This sixtieth parallel ‘marks a borderland between the northern and southern worlds.  Wrapping itself around the lower reaches of Finland, Sweden and Norway, it crosses the tip of Greenland and the southern coast of Alaska, and slices the great expanses of Russia and Canada in half.’

9781846973420Robert Macfarlane calls this ‘a brave book… and a beautiful book’.  The Scotsman believes it to be ‘so original, and so compelling’.  Kirkus Reviews writes: ‘A memoir remarkable for its intimacy, wisdom, and radiant prose…  an enthralling meditation on place.’  For me, the idea is quite an original one.  I have read rather a lot of travelogues and travel memoirs, but no author whom I have come across to date has approached their journey in quite the way that Tallack has.

In Sixty Degrees North, ‘Tallack travels westwards, exploring the differing landscapes to be found on the parallel, and the ways that different people have interacted with these landscapes, highlighting themes of wildness and community, isolation and engagement, exile and memory.’  On beginning his journey, Tallack ruminates thus: ‘Shetland lies at sixty degrees north of the equator, and the world map on our kitchen wall had taught me that, if I could see far enough, I could look out from that window across the North Sea to Norway, and to Sweden, then over the Baltic to Finland, to St Petersburg, then Siberia, Alaska, Canada and Greenland.  If I could see far enough, my eyes would eventually bring me back, across the Atlantic Ocean, to where I was standing.’

Of his decision to travel around the sixty degree line, Tallack writes: ‘It was curiosity, first of all.  I wanted to explore the parallel, and to see those places to which my own place was tied.  I wanted to learn about where I was and what it meant to be there.  But finally, and perhaps most potently, it was homesickness that made me go.  It was a desire to return to somewhere I belonged.  My relationship with Shetland had always been fraught and undermined by my own past, and somehow I imagined that by going – by following the parallel around the world – that could change.’  Woven throughout his travels, and the conversations which he has with those who inhabit the sixtieth parallel, is a dialogue about what home means, and how one can define it.

Tallack’s writing throughout is rich and informative, and this is particularly so with regard to the descriptions which he weaves in to his narrative.  He has such an understanding of, and an appreciation for, the natural world around him, and this comes through strongly in Sixty Degrees North.  When beginning his journey in Shetland, he writes: ‘Soon, the lavish green that had fringed the shore gave way to this heather and dark, peaty ground.  The land flattened into a plateau of purple and olive, trenched and terraced where the turf had been cut.  White tufts of bog cotton lay strewn about the hill. Shallow pools of black water crowded below the banks of peat and in the narrow channels that lolled between.  I hopped from island to island of solid ground, trying to keep my coat dry…’.

Tallack also has an awareness of the history of each place which he visits, and the importance and impact which it still has.  ‘Shetland,’ for instance, ‘like other remote parts of Scotland, is scarred by the remnants of the past, by history made solid in the landscape.  Rocks, reordered and rearranged, carry shadows of the people that moved them.  They are the islands’ memory.  From the ancient field dykes and boundary lines, burnt mounds and forts, to the crumbling craft houses, abandoned by the thousands who emigrated at the end of the nineteenth century, the land is witness to every change, but it is loss that it remembers most clearly.’  He realises not only the positive aspects of the places in which he finds himself, but also the negatives; he does not sugarcoat anything.

There is such a purpose to Tallack’s travelogue, and he recognises just how unusual his choice of journey may seem to a lot of people.  He writes: ‘The journey north – in history, in literature, in the imagination – is a journey away from the centre of civilisation and culture, towards the unknown and the other.’  Indeed, suggests Tallack, the north is often at odds with the south: ‘The north is all that it contains.  It is a place capable of change and diversity, a place immeasurable.  It holds the preconceived, yes, but also the unimagined and the unimaginable.’

I have been lucky enough to travel to the majority of the countries which Tallack’s journey covers, and it was fascinating to compare his experiences of each place with my own.  I very much enjoyed Tallack’s reflective writing style, which is layered with the details of geographical and personal history.  He is insightful and fair as an author, and Sixty Degrees North is measured and immersive.

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‘Mythos’ by Stephen Fry *****

Anyone who knows me is aware of my fondness for Stephen Fry; even as a child, I loved to watch him on television, and was lucky enough to see him speak live around a decade ago after winning tickets to the iTunes Festival.  I have read all of his previous books, and have been wanting to read his take on Greek mythology, Mythos: The Greek Myths Retold, for an awfully long time.  I received the book for Christmas 2017.  It seems shameful that it took me around nine months to get to it, but I wanted to save it for when I had finished my thesis, and was therefore able to devote a lot of time to it.  I am pleased to report that I loved the book just as much as I had anticipated, and it felt like a real treat.

9780718188726In his introduction, Fry notes: ‘No one loves and quarrels, desires and deceives as boldly and brilliantly as Greek gods and goddesses.  They are like us, only more so – their actions and adventures scrawled across the heavens above.’  He goes on to explain his love of mythology, which he discovered when he was very young.  In his foreword, Fry justifies his choice of Greek mythology as a focus here: ‘Much as I went on to enjoy myths and legends from other cultures and peoples, there was something about these Greek stories that lit me up inside.  The energy, humour, passion, particularity and believable detail of their world held me enthralled from the very first.’  The sense of history, and of beginnings, also contributes to this decision; he writes that the stories ‘were captured and preserved by the very first poets and has come down to us in an unbroken line from almost the beginning of writing to the present day…  The Greeks were the first people to make coherent narratives, a literature even, of their gods, monsters and heroes.’

Mythos is aimed at everyone, and the way in which Fry has approached the stories makes his a highly accessible tome.  He writes: ‘There is absolutely nothing academic or intellectual about Greek mythology; it is addictive, entertaining, approachable and astonishingly human.’  Fry acknowledges those who are already familiar with Greek mythology in his introduction, and ‘especially welcomes’ people who are new to the stories.  ‘You don’t need to know anything to read this book,’ he tells us, ‘it starts with an empty universe.’

In this manner, Fry begins Mythos by setting out the very start of Greek mythology.  He writes, with his usual knowledge, warmth, and sparkling humour: ‘Mythos begins at the beginning, but it does not end at the end.  Had I included heroes like Oedipus, Perseus, Theseus, Jason and Heracles and the details of the Trojan War this book would have been too heavy even for a Titan to pick up.’  (Heroes is, of course, the focus, and the title, of his second volume of Greek mythology, which was recently published.)

As Mythos progresses, Fry revises a wealth of the original stories, and provides a commentary upon them.  His prose style is controlled, but always fulfilling.  Fry certainly puts his own spin on things, particularly when it comes to the stylistically modernised conversations which he imagines between certain characters.  When Gaia and Tartarus are discussing Gaia’s son Kronos, Tartarus, for instance, says: ‘I wish you’d tell him to leave me alone.  He does nothing all day but hang around looking at me with his eyes drooping and his mouth open.  I think he’s got some kind of man-crush on me.  He copies my hairstyle and leans limply against trees and boulders looking miserable, melancholy and misunderstood.  As if he’s waiting for someone to paint him or something.  When he’s not gazing at me he’s staring down into that lava vent over there.  In fact there he is now, look.  Try and talk some sense into him.’

Each section in Mythos has been split up into smaller parts, and this approach makes it even more accessible for the general reader.  Throughout, Fry relates the Greek myths to other cultural points, both in order to give more contextual focus, and to chart the links between Greek mythology and popular culture.  In this manner, he shows just how important and pervading mythology is.  He says, for instance: ‘Had Kronos the examples to go by, he would perhaps have identified with Hamlet at his most introspective, or Jaques at his most self-indulgently morbid.  Konstantin from The Seagull with a suggestion of Morrissey.  Yet there was something of a Macbeth in him too and more than a little Hannibal Lecter – as we shall see.’

I found Mythos utterly compelling, and it retains a feeling of freshness throughout.  Fry’s approach has made the stories both scholarly and highly accessible, and the balance between the two has been handled with skill.  It feels as though every reader will get something out of Mythos, and I would highly recommend it, both to those who are new to Greek mythology, and to those who are familiar with various interpretations, by the likes of Edith Hamilton and Robert Graves.  I loved the commentary which Fry gives throughout, and found that it allowed me to view myths which I was already familiar with in a different way.

I shall end this review with a paragraph that Fry humbly notes in his afterword: ‘I cannot repeat too often that it has never been my aim to interpret or explain the myths, only to tell them.  I have, of course, had to play about with timelines in order to attempt a coherent narrative…  If anyone tells me that I have got the stories “wrong” I believe I am justified in replying that they are, after all, fictions.  In tinkering with the details I am doing what people have always done with myths.  In that sense I feel that I am doing my bit to keep them alive.’

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Penguin Moderns: Andy Warhol and Primo Levi

Fame by Andy Warhol ** (#47) 9780241339800
Andy Warhol’s Fame is the forty-seventh book on the Penguin Moderns list.  I read a little book by Warhol about cats several months ago, and didn’t much like it.  Whilst Fame is very different in what it set out to do, I was not much looking forward to reading it.  In this book, ‘the legendary pop artist Andy Warhol’s hilarious, gossipy vignettes and aphorisms on the topics of love, fame and beauty’ can be found.  The pieces collected here were selected by the editors of The Philosophy of Andy Warhol (1975).

Fame consists of three sections – ‘Love (Senility)’, ‘Beauty’, and ‘Fame’.  Each section is made up of fragments of various pieces which Warhol wrote.  From the beginning, I must admit that I did not enjoy his prose style; I found it a little too matter-of-fact and bitty.  The prose also felt rather repetitive, more so due to the distinct subject groupings used here.  Some of the fragments have very little to say, and there is barely any flesh on many of his utterances; rather, there is only a kind of skeleton structure to the book.  It feels as though scores of random ideas and sentences have been jotted down in a notebook, and were not revised in any way before being published.

I found Fame rather jarring to read.  Much of the content verged on odd, and the entirety was very dated.  There is no sense that it has transferred well to the twenty-first century.  I found this collection shallow and superficial, and Warhol sometimes crosses lines.  For instance, Warhol writes: ‘Sometimes people having nervous breakdown problems can look very beautiful because they have that fragile something to the way they move or walk.  They put out a mood that makes them more beautiful.’  Fame was not particularly interesting in any way to me, and it is one of a handful of Penguin Moderns which I have finished solely because it is short.

 

9780241339411The Survivor by Primo Levi **** (#48)
I have read some of Levi’s non-fiction in the past, but had no idea that he had written any poetry until I picked up The Survivor, the forty-eighth book on the Penguin Moderns list.  The blurb notes: ‘From the writer who bore witness to the twentieth century’s darkest days, these verses of beauty and horror include the poem that inspired the title of his memoir, If This is a Man.’  All of the poetry collected in The Survivor has been taken from Collected Poems, which was first published in 1988, one year after Levi’s death, and have been translated from their original Italian by Jonathan Galassi.

I imagined, quite rightly, that the poetry collected here would be rather hard-hitting.  The majority of these poems are haunted by Levi’s experiences of the Holocaust, and his imprisonment in Auschwitz.  Throughout, Levi’s words and imagery are evocative and heartfelt, and there is a questioning and searching element to each of his poems.  The collection is poignant and incredibly dark.  Much of the imagery here is chilling; in ‘Shema’, for instance, he writes:

‘Consider if this is a woman,
With no hair and no name
With no more strength to remember
With empty eyes and a womb as cold
As a frog in winter.’

There is an overarching sense throughout the collection, however, of looking forward rather than back, and of not losing hope.  I found Levi’s spirit remarkable; even in his darkest days, he is able to picture his future.  In ‘After R.M. Rilke’, he says:

‘We’ll spend the hours at our books,
Or writing letters to far away,
Long letters from our solitude;
And we’ll pace up and down the avenues,
Restless, while the leaves fall.’

The Survivor is an incredibly memorable collection, and one which I will certainly revisit in future.

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