1

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.

Purchase from The Book Depository

Advertisements
0

Penguin Moderns: ‘The Dialogue of Two Snails’ by Federico Garcia Lorca ***

9780241340400I was looking forward to trying a selection of Federico Garcia Lorca’s poetry, having never read any of his work before.  The 42nd Penguin Modern, The Dialogue of Two Snails, is described as ‘a dazzling selection of the beautiful, brutal and darkly brilliant work of Spain’s greatest twentieth-century poet.’

The collection, which has been translated by Tyler Fisher, contains work which appears in English for the first time, and presents a ‘representative sampling of [his] poetry, dialogues, and short prose.’  The poems collected here also appear with the dates in which they were written, which I think is a useful touch.

Other reviewers have commented that the placing of poems here feels disjointed, and that the quality of the translation renders the poems stilted.  I have no reference points with which to compare Garcia Lorca’s work, and so I did not let this affect my reading of The Dialogue of Two Snails.

As I find with many collections, there were poems here which I didn’t much like, and others which I thought were great.  Some of Garcia Lorca’s ideas are a little bizarre and offbeat, but I am definitely intrigued enough to read more of his work, and to see how the translations compare.  Some of what he captures here is lovely, and so vivid, and I enjoyed the diversity of the collection.  As ever, I will finish this poetry review by collecting together a few fragments which I particularly enjoyed.

From ‘The Encounters of an Adventurous Snail’:
There is a childlike sweetness
in the still morning.
The trees stretch
their arms to the earth.

From ‘Knell’:
The wind and dust
Make silver prows.

‘Seashell’:
They’ve brought me a seashell.

It’s depths sing an atlas
of seascapes downriver.
My hear
brims with billows
and minnows
of shadows and silver.

They’ve brought me a seashell.

 

Purchase from The Book Depository

1

Penguin Moderns: Georges Simenon and William Carlos Williams

Letter to My Mother by Georges Simenon (#39) ****9780241339664

I love reading correspondence, and was looking forward to the extended Letter to My Mother, written by Georges Simenon, most famous for his Maigret series of detective novels.  This is a ‘stark, confessional letter to his dead mother [which] explores the complexity of parent-child relationships and the bitterness of things unsaid.’  First published in 1974, and translated from its original French by Ralph Manhem, Letter to My Mother is filled with sadness from its beginning.  Simenon writes, very early on, ‘As you are well aware, we never loved each other in your lifetime  Both of us pretended.’

Simenon grew up in the Belgian city of Liege, and wished to revisit his pained childhood here.  A period of three and a half years elapsed between the death of Simenon’s mother and the writing of this letter, and he is almost seventy years old when he puts pen to paper.  He tells her about this, stating: ‘perhaps it’s only now that I’m beginning to understand you.  Throughout my childhood and adolescence I lived under one roof with you, I lived with you, but when I left for Paris at the age of nineteen, you were still a stranger to me.’  Even when he was young, Simenon was aware of his mother’s problems: ‘You endured life.  You didn’t live it.’  He then muses, after speaking of the favour his mother showed his younger brother: ‘It seems to me now that perhaps you needed a villain in the family, and that villain was me.’

The relationship between Simenon and his mother was fraught and complicated.  This tender and honest letter details their troubled interactions, and his mother’s lack of warmth toward him.  He speaks throughout about the unknown events of his mother’s own childhood, which may have caused her to behave in the disconcerting way which she often did.  Writing such a letter is a brave act; it seems a shame that his mother was never able to see it.

 

Death the Barber by William Carlos Williams (#40) ****

9780241339824The fortieth Penguin Modern publication is a collection of poetry by William Carlos Williams, entitled Death the Barber.  The poems here are ‘filled with bright, unforgettable images… [which] revolutionised American verse, and made him one of the greatest twentieth-century poets.’  I do not recall having read any of Williams’ work prior to this, and was expecting something akin to e.e. cummings.  Whilst I was able to draw some similarities between the work of both poets, their work is certainly distinctive and quite vastly different from one another’s.

The poems in Death the Barber are taken from various collections published between 1917 and 1962.  Whilst I recognised ‘This Is Just to Say’, the rest of the poems here were new to me, and have certainly sparked an interest within me to read more of Williams’ work.  There is so much of interest here, and the varied themes and imagery made it really enjoyable.  Whilst some of the poems seem simplistic at first, there is a lot of depth to them.  I shall end this review with two of my favourite extracts from this brief collection.

From ‘Pastoral’:
The little sparrows
hop vigorously
about the pavement
quarrelling
with sharp voices
over those things
that interest them.
But we who are wiser
shut ourselves in
on either hand
and no one knows
whether we think good
or evil.’

From ‘To Waken an Old Lady’:
Old age is
a flight of small
cheeping birds
skimming
bare trees
above a snow glaze.

 

Purchase from The Book Depository

1

One From the Archive: Christmas with Carol Ann Duffy

Last Christmas, I read the majority of Carol Ann Duffy’s annual Christmas poems, all of which I very much enjoyed.  To get us in the mood for the current festive season, I thought that I would amalgamate my short reviews of them all into one post.

Another Night Before Christmas (2010) 9780330523936
This extended poem, about a young girl’s longing to find out whether Santa is real, is just as lovely as ever.  The artwork here is gorgeous; minimalist and lovely.  A delightful volume.

The Christmas Truce (2011)
9781447206408This was the first of Duffy’s Christmas poems which I read after finding a lovely little copy for fifty pence in a Notting Hill bookshop, and it evokes one of my favourite historic Christmas stories, that of the 1914 truce between German and English soldiers in the trenches, when they played the famous football match and sang carols.  There is such humanity and sensitivity packed into these pages, and it is a true delight to settle down with each winter.

Wenceslas (2012) 9781447212027
A beautifully illustrated and rather sumptuous poem; perfect for making one think of Christmas past, and the true message of the season – good will to all men.

Bethlehem (2013)
9781447226123Alice Stevenson’s art is lovely and fitting, particularly with regard to scenery and still lives, and Duffy is on form with the originality of her wordplay throughout.  I particularly enjoyed the use of sibilants, and think that this would be a great volume to read aloud: ‘The moon rose; the shepherd’s sprawled, / shawled, / a rough ring on sparse grass, passing / a leather flask’, for instance.  On the whole, it is a really sweet poem which promotes a nice message, but I think it would have been better had it been extended slightly.  Still, it is a lovely contemplative Christmas read.

Dorothy Wordsworth’s Christmas Birthday (2014)
9781447271505I put off reading Dorothy Wordsworth’s Christmas Birthday when it was first released as Carol Ann Duffy’s annual Christmas poem, but couldn’t resist ordering a secondhand copy to read over Christmas 2016.  It’s not that festive, but it is a lovely little volume.  The art style is gorgeous, and I loved the use of just a few colours, an effective and evocative choice on the part of the illustrator.  The poem itself was sweet; not my favourite Duffy, but a simple and vivid story nonetheless.  It is not as playful as a lot of her other work; the vocabulary used is not unusual, and was even a little simplistic in places.  Still, I feel that I will probably indefinitely reread this once a year as the festive season rolls around.

The King of Christmas (2016)
9781509834570I love the fact that The King of Christmas is based upon tradition from the Middle Ages, in which a Lord of Misrule could be appointed to take charge if the original ruler was in need of a break, or some light relief.  The art here is very appealing, and Duffy’s rhyme scheme and wordplay worked perfectly.  Thoughtful and mischievous, The King of Christmas evokes winters past in rather a magical way.  It is a perfect addition to the set.

1

Penguin Moderns: Fernando Pessoa, Shirley Jackson, and Gazdanov and Others

I Have More Souls Than One by Fernando Pessoa **** (#19) 9780241339602
Collected in the nineteenth Penguin Modern, Fernando Pessoa’s I Have More Souls Than One, are a series of poems which were written by Fernando Pessoa under four separate names, or ‘souls’: his own, Alberto Caiero, Ricardo Reis, and Alvaro de Campos.  They were first translated to English from their original Portuguese in 1974.  The blurb calls the collection ‘strange and mesmeric’, and details that they ‘express a maelstrom of conflicted thoughts and feelings’.

Whilst I preferred the poetry of some of these personas to others, I found each to be intelligent and insightful.  Pessoa was clearly a very talented poet in the diversity of forms and subjects which he addresses and explores.  This quite wonderful collection surprised and startled me in its clarity, and I definitely want to read the rest of Pessoa’s oeuvre in future.
9780241339282The Missing Girl by Shirley Jackson ***** (#20)
Shirley Jackson is one of my absolute favourite authors, despite having a couple of her novels still outstanding, and not yet having made a dent in her short stories.  In The Missing Girl, says the blurb, ‘Malice, deception and creeping dread lie beneath the surface of ordinary American life in these miniature masterworks.’  Each of these stories – ‘The Missing Girl’, ‘Journey with a Lady’, and ‘Nightmare’ – appeared in a posthumous 1997 collection entitled Just an Ordinary Day.

Jackson is a veritable master at building tension, as anyone who has read a single one of her novels will recognise.  Each of these tales is wonderfully unsettling for one reason or another, and I have never read a story like ‘Nightmare’ before; it is so unusual, and the heights of tension make one feel almost claustrophobic when reading.  I absolutely loved this collection, and am so looking forward to reading more of Jackson’s work soon.
Four Russian Short Stories by Gazdanov and Others **** (#21) 9780241339763
Each of the four authors collected together in the twenty-first Penguin Modern, Four Russian Short Stories, were exiles of Revolutionary Russia.  Galina Kuznetsova, Yury Felsen, Nina Berberova, and Gaito Gazdanov each ‘explore deaths in a world in which old certainties have crumbled’ in ‘Kunak’ (1930), ‘A Miracle’ (1934), ‘The Murder of Valkovsky’ (1934), and ‘Requiem’ (1960) respectively.

I was very excited to get to this volume, as I adore Russian literature, and had not read anything by any of these authors before.  The content of these tales is varied and far-reaching, as one might expect; the first is about a horse, the second about hospital patients and addiction, the third deals with a married woman’s infatuation with another man, and the fourth, which takes place in wartime Paris, focuses upon the emergence of the black market and artwork.  Four Russian Short Stories is fascinating to read, and a real treat for fans of Eastern European literature.

Purchase from The Book Depository

0

Penguin Moderns: Stanislaw Lem, Patrick Kavanagh, and Danilo Kis

9780241339398The Three Electroknights by Stanislaw Lem ** (#9)
I would not have picked up Stanislaw Lem’s The Three Electroknights had it not been collected as part of the Penguin Moderns series. The stories here rest in the genre of science fiction, which is not one that I enjoy. They feature ‘crazy inventors, surreal worlds, robot kings and madcap machines’. Originally written in Polish, they have been translated by Michael Kendall. Collected here are the titular story, along with ‘The White Death’, ‘King Globores and the Sages’, and ‘The Tale of King Gnuff’.

Lem’s tales are well written and translated, and it cannot be said that they are not highly inventive. As I suspected, the collection was not to my taste, and I read it through to the end only because it was short. The final story was by far the most interesting to me, but I was left feeling largely indifferent by the others.
The Great Hunger by Patrick Kavanagh *** (#10) 9780241339343
These poems, selected from the oeuvre of the man said to have ‘transformed Irish verse’, span the period between 1930 and 1959. I do not think that I had read even a single poem of Kavanagh’s before picking up <i>The Great Hunger</i>. I enjoyed some of the poems here more than others, but was mesmerised throughout by the lingering presence of the Irish countryside, which so many rely upon for their livelihoods. Kavanagh’s poems are heavily involved with nature, as well as the turning of the seasons; some of the corresponding descriptions are absolutely lovely. Whilst I did enjoy reading this collection, it has not made me want to rush out and read the rest of Kavanagh’s oeuvre immediately.
9780241339374The Legend of the Sleepers by Danilo Kis ** (#11)
In these two stories, ‘sleepers awake in a remote cave and the ancient mystic Simon Magus attempts a miracle’. The blurb also heralds Kis as ‘one of the greatest voices of twentieth-century Europe’. I was unsure as to whether I would enjoy these stories, as I’m not the greatest fan of magic, but was suitably intrigued. Throughout, I found Kis’ descriptions to be rather sensory ones, which certainly helped to build the mysterious elements of his stories. The first story, ‘The Legend of the Sleepers’, held my interest throughout, but the second, ‘Simon Magus’, was a little too religious in tone and plot for my personal taste. The collection was interesting enough, but I do not feel eager to read more of Kis’ work in future.

Purchase from The Book Depository

1

Penguin Moderns: Allen Ginsberg, Daphne du Maurier, and Dorothy Parker

Television Was a Baby Crawling Toward That Deathchamber by Allen Ginsberg **** (#2)
9780241337622This new collection of Beat poet Allen Ginsberg’s work, Television Was a Baby Crawling Toward That Deathchamber, is the second book in the Penguin Moderns series. Whilst the poems have been printed before, in Ginsberg’s Collected Poems 1947-1977 (2006), they have not appeared in this particular selection before.

Throughout the admirable poems exhibited here, Ginsberg tackles many issues which were contemporary to him – atom bombs, the political system in the United States, Communism, the Cold War, propaganda, the state of the world, and oppression, to name but a few. With regard to their approach, some of the poems here are far more structured; others read like stream-of-consciousness pieces, or monologues. In Television Was a Baby Crawling Toward That Deathchamber, Ginsberg presents a fascinating and creative view of a bygone time, whose issues are still relevant to our twenty-first century world. Despite the vulgarity at times, the wordplay here is impressive, and there is such a variance to the selection which has been made.

 

The Breakthrough by Daphne du Maurier **** (#3)9780241339206
Daphne du Maurier’s short story ‘The Breakthrough’ has been reprinted by itself as the third book of the Penguin Moderns series. I have read it before, but was very much looking forward to coming back to it. Whilst not quite amongst my favourite pieces of her short work, there is so much here to admire. First published in 1966, ‘The Breakthrough’ still surprises and startles, even upon a second reading. I found this a chilling tale, and whilst I do not want to give any details of the plot away in my review, it is one which I would highly recommend.

 

The Custard Heart by Dorothy Parker **** (#4)
9780241339589The Custard Heart is the fourth book in the Penguin Moderns series, which I have decided to read in order after receiving the full boxed collection in all of its glory. The three stories by Dorothy Parker in this collection – ‘The Custard Heart’, ‘Big Blonde’, and ‘You Were Perfectly Fine’ – have all been taken from The Collected Dorothy Parker, which was first published as The Portable Dorothy Parker in 1944. Whilst I’ve not read any of Parker’s short stories before, I have read the entirety of her poetry output.

The descriptions in each of these stories, which are ‘tales of women on the edge’ are startling and vivid. From ‘The Custard Heart’, for instance, ‘… Mrs Lanier wore yellow of evening. She had gowns of velvet like poured country cream and satin with the lacquer of buttercups and chiffon that spiraled about her like golden smoke. She wore them, and listened in shy surprise to the resulting comparisons to daffodils, and butterflies in the sunshine, and such…’.

Here, Parker paints intimate portraits of three women, in a perceptive and introspective manner. Parker looks at ageing, relationships, emotions, and womanhood at different stages, amongst other things. ‘Big Blonde’, which shows the slip into depression and its depths, was as tense as it was fantastic. I found each of these tales immediately immersive, and am very much looking forward to reading the rest of her stories in future.

Purchase from The Book Depository