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Penguin Moderns: Italo Calvino, Audre Lorde, Leonora Carrington, and William S. Burroughs

9780241339107The Distance of the Moon by Italo Calvino ** (#22)
I have not really been a fan of what I have read of Italo Calvino’s work thus far, but went into this collection of ‘exuberant, endlessly inventive stories’ with an open mind nonetheless.  The tales collected here – ‘The Distance of the Moon’, ‘Without Colours’, ‘As Long As the Sun Lasts’, and ‘Implosion’ – were published between 1965 and 2009, and have been variously translated by Martin McLaughlin, Tim Parks, and William Weaver.  I found Calvino’s work interesting enough, particularly with regard to the metaphors which he uses.  There is some really imaginative imagery to be found here too.  Overall, however, I found this collection – which hovers between the classifications of science fiction and fantasy – peculiar, and not to my taste.  It is nothing which I would have chosen to read had it not been included in the Penguin Moderns Collection.

 

The Master’s Tools Will Never Dismantle the Master’s House by Audre Lorde **** 9780241339725(#23)
This collection of ‘soaring, urgent essays on the power of women, poetry and anger’ was my first taste of Audre Lorde’s writing.  The majority of the essays collected here were first given as conference papers between 1978 and 1982.  The Master’s Tools Will Never Dismantle the Master’s House includes the titular work, as well as ‘Poetry is Not a Luxury’, ‘Uses of the Erotic’, ‘Uses of Anger: Women Responding to Racism’, and ‘Learning From the 1960s’.  Throughout, Lorde writes with confidence and intelligence.    The 23rd Penguin Modern is an accessible book, which explores feminism and the issues which it poses for minority women, and those whose identify as anything other than heterosexual.  Lorde weaves in elements of black history and lesbianism.  Each of these essays is thought-provoking, and I would definitely like to read more of her work in the near future.

 

9780241339169The Skeleton’s Holiday by Leonora Carrington **** (#24)
Leonora Carrington’s The Skeleton’s Holiday is one of the books which I have been most looking forward to in the Penguin Moderns series.  I read her novel, The Hearing Trumpet, last June, and very much enjoyed its brand of absurdity.  The titular story was written as part of a collaborative novel in 1939, and the other stories – ‘White Rabbits’, ‘Uncle Sam Carrington’, ‘The Debutante’, ‘The Oval Lady’, ‘The Seventh Horse’, and ‘My Flannel Knickers’ – have all been translated from their original French by the likes of Marina Warner and Carrington herself.  The writing here is characteristically Carrington’s; each tale is filled with oddity, and surprises the reader at every grotesque turn.  Throughout, Carrington has a wonderful knack of vividly setting scenes, and her prose is at once odd and beguiling.  There is a dark, startling humour throughout, and an otherworldly sense to her stories.  The author clearly had such an imagination; this collection has left me eager to read more of her work.

 

The Finger by William S. Burroughs ** (#25) 9780241339077
These stories – ‘The Finger’, ‘Driving Lesson’, ‘The Junky’s Christmas’, ‘Lee and the Boys’, ‘In the Cafe Central’, and ‘Dream of the Penal Colony’ – have all been taken from William S. Burroughs’ Interzones (1989).  Of his work to date, I have read only Naked Lunch, which I found quite odd.  These stories, however, were far stranger.  As a collection, I did not feel as though there was a great deal of coherence between them, despite an overlap of characters.  Some of them also felt rather brief and unfinished.  I do enjoy Beat writers on the whole, particularly Jack Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg, but I find Burroughs’ work far more difficult to get into.  Whilst the tales here were readable enough, I found that some of the descriptions made me feel rather sick, and I did not enjoy a single one of them.  On the whole, there did not seem to be a great deal of point to any of these stories.  Not for me.

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‘The Hearing Trumpet’ by Leonora Carrington ****

‘One of the first things ninety-two-year-old Marian Leatherby overhears when she is given an ornate hearing trumpet is her family plotting to commit her to an institution. Soon, she finds herself trapped in a sinister retirement home, where the elderly must inhabit buildings shaped like igloos and birthday cakes, endure twisted religious preaching and eat in a canteen overlooked by the mysterious portrait of a leering Abbess. But when another resident secretly hands Marian a book recounding the life of the Abbess, a joyous and brilliantly surreal adventure begins to unfold. Written in the early 1960s, The Hearing Trumpet remains one of the most original and inspirational of all fantastic novels.’

9780141187990Leonora Carrington’s The Hearing Trumpet is as wonderfully odd and obscure as it sounds. The novel is amusing, sometimes startlingly so; it made me laugh aloud in a few places, which very few books manage to do. (I do have a sense of humour. Promise.) Whilst I wasn’t at all fond of the religious aspects, I found our protagonist Marian quite a character. She and her best friend Carmella are two great eccentrics, really. One never quite knows what they’re going to do next.

I would categorise The Hearing Trumpet as falling somewhere between magical realism and utterly fantastical; there are recognisable elements, but it often reads like what I imagine a strong drugs trip might do to one. There were, rather strangely, echoes of Enid Blyton’s The Magic Faraway Tree for me here; read it, and you’ll understand why. There are also a few harks back to fairytales – ever so strange ones, but fairytales all the same.

The Hearing Trumpet is perhaps the epitome of Surrealist literature, and I have never read anything quite like it; the closest I have come to date is probably the work of Scottish author Naomi Mitchison, who is undeservedly neglected. The ending was even stranger than I was expecting, and verged upon the disturbing. My favourite quote from the whole is: ‘People under seventy and over seven are very unreliable if they are not cats’.

As a final thought, it was a wonderful surprise to discover that the introduction to the volume which I borrowed from the library was written by one of my absolute favourite authors, Ali Smith; her work is, as ever, fantastic, both fascinating and funny, and she set the tone of the whole perfectly.

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