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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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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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Penguin Moderns: Carson McCullers and Jorge Luis Borges

The Haunted Boy by Carson McCullers ***** (#45) 9780241339503
The forty-fifth publication on the Penguin Moderns list is one which I was particularly looking forward to – The Haunted Boy by Carson McCullers.  Whilst a huge fan of her fiction, and of the Southern Gothic genre in which she wrote, I have only read a handful of her short stories to date.  The blurb states that ‘these moving stories portray love, sorrow and our search for happiness and understanding.’  All of the tales here – ‘The Haunted Boy’, ‘The Sojourner’, and ‘A Domestic Dilemma’ – were published between 1950 and 1955.

As with her longer works, McCullers’ writing is fantastic – multilayered, perceptive, and admirable.  She captures moods particularly so well in the first story, ‘The Haunted Boy’: ‘It was then, in the unanswering silence as they stood in the empty, wax-floored hall, that Hugh felt there was something wrong’.  McCullers also marvellously explores her characters and their psyches.  From the same story, she writes of young protagonist Hugh: ‘Confession, the first deep-rooted words, opened the festered secrecy of the boy’s heart, and he continued more rapidly, urgent and finding unforeseen relief.’

McCullers also fantastically captures the essence of memory; from ‘The Sojourner’, for instance: ‘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.  Sometimes, also, in a fallow Georgia field at hunting dawn.  Rome it was this morning in the fearless region of dreams.’

McCullers writes of some very dark topics in this selection of her work, and contrasts this darkness with a series of glorious descriptions.  Her character portraits are always sharp and varied.  All three stories here are rich, thoughtful, and searching, and I enjoyed every single word of them.  I am very excited to read the rest of McCullers’ short work at some point very soon.

 

9780241339053The Garden of Forking Paths by Jorge Luis Borges ** (#46)
I do not think I had ever read any of Argentinian author Borges’ work before picking up the forty-sixth Penguin Modern, The Garden of Forking Paths.  I was not entirely sure, from other reviews which I have seen of various pieces of Borges’ work, whether this would be for me.  Collected here are several ‘fantastical tales of mazes, puzzles, lost labyrinths and bookish mysteries, from the unique imagination of a literary magician’, and all were first published during the 1940s.  They have been variously translated by Donald A. Yates, Andrew Hurley, and James E. Irby.

The stories in this collection are the title story, alongside ‘The Book of Sand’, ‘The Circular Ruins’, ‘On Exactitude in Science’, and ‘Death and the Compass’.  All are very short, and ‘On Exactitude in Science’ covers just a single page.  There are some interesting ideas at play throughout, and I found the collection strange and unusual.  I could never quite guess where the stories were going to end up.

Whilst I found The Garden of Forking Paths interesting enough to read, and enjoyed some of the quite beguiling descriptions in its pages, it has not sparked an interest within me to pick up any more of Borges’ work.  I can see why other readers would really enjoy this collection, but it was not really my style.  The tales were a little obscure for my particular taste at times, and I found that they sometimes ended a little abruptly.

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Penguin Moderns: Yuko Tsushima and Javier Marias

9780241339787Of Dogs and Walls by Yuko Tsushima *** (#43)
I must admit that I find Japanese fiction a little hit or miss.  A lot of the stories which I have read have been a little too obscure for my taste, and even sometimes when I have enjoyed a particular plot, I find the writing, or the translation of it, rather too simplistic.  Regardless, I came to the forty-third Penguin Modern with an open mind.  These are described as ‘luminous, tender stories from one of Japan’s greatest twentieth-century writers, showing how childhood memories, dreams and fleeting encounters shape our lives.’

This collection is made up of two short stories, ‘The Watery Realm’, and ‘Of Dogs and Walls’.  The first was published in 1982, and the second in 2014, and this is the first time in which both tales have been translated into English, by Geraldine Harcourt.  ‘The Watery Realm’ begins in rather an intriguing manner: ‘It was in the middle of the summer he turned five, as I recall, that my son discovered the Western-style castle in the window of the goldfish shop in our neighbourhood.’  I found this tale engaging throughout, and the narrator and her son both felt like realistic creations.  I didn’t enjoy ‘Of Dogs and Walls’ anywhere near as much, unfortunately.  Whilst on the whole both stories were interesting and kept me guessing, and neither was overly obscure, I do not feel inspired to read the rest of Tsushima’s work.

 

Madame du Deffand and the Idiots by Javier Marias **** (#44) 9780241339480
Javier Marias’ Madame du Deffand and the Idiots sounded like such an interesting concept.  This volume presents ‘five sparkling, irreverent brief portraits of famous literary figures (including libertines, eccentrics and rogues) from Spain’s greatest living writer’.  All of these sketches are taken from Written Lives, which was published in Spain in 2009, and all have been translated by Margaret Jull Costa.

The essays here are written variously about Madame du Deffand, Vladimir Nabokov, Djuna Barnes, Oscar Wilde, and Emily Bronte.  I was particularly interested to read the final three, all writers whom I adore.  This is the first time which I have read Marias’ work, and I found it rather amusing and intriguing.  The first essay, for instance, begins: ‘Madame du Deffand’s life was clearly far too long for someone who considered that her greatest misfortune was to have been for at all.’  On discussing the unusual names used in Djuna Barnes’ family, ‘which, in many cases, do not even give a clue as to the gender of the person bearing them’ he writes: ‘Perhaps it is understandable that, on reaching adulthood, some members of the Barnes family adopted banal nicknames like Bud or Charlie.’  All of these pieces are rather short, and quite fascinating – and sometimes enlightening – to read.  Marias seems to really capture his subjects throughout, and shines a spotlight on a handful of quite unusual people.  Madame du Deffand and the Idiots has certainly piqued my interest to read more of Marias’ work, and soon.

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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.

 

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Penguin Moderns: ‘The Problem That Has No Name’ by Betty Friedan ****

The 41st book in the Penguin Moderns series is Betty Friedan’s The Problem That Has No Name.  The selected work in this volume was first published in her seminal The Feminine Mystique (1963), in which Friedan ‘gave voice to countless American housewives… and set the women’s movement in motion’.  In The Problem That Has No Name, one finds the titular essay, as well as a piece entitled ‘The Passionate Journey’.

I have read criticism about Friedan’s work before, and other tracts which mention her, but this was my first taste of her original work.  Friedan notices a marked shift between the 1920s and 1950s in the priorities of women in the United States: ‘A century earlier, women had fought for higher education; now girls went to college to get a husband.  By the mid fifties, 60 per cent dropped out of college to marry, or because they were afraid too much education would be a marriage bat.’  This denotes a crisis in society; few women decided to pursue careers for their own fulfilment, working instead to support their families.9780241339268

Friedan’s work is all-encompassing, and she is very understanding of Everywoman.  The first essay begins in the following way: ‘The problem lay buried, unspoken, for many years in the minds of American women.  It was a strange stirring, a sense of dissatisfaction, a yearning that women suffered in the middle of the twentieth century in the United States.  Each suburban wife struggled with it alone.  As she made the beds, shopped for groceries, matched slip-cover material, ate peanut butter sandwiches with her children, chauffered Cub Scouts and Brownies, lay beside her husband at night, she was afraid to ask even of herself the silent question: “Is this all?”‘  As the title of this work suggests, Friedan suggests reasons as to why a name had never before seen given to ‘this yearning in the millions of words written about women, for women…’.  The ‘problem that has no name’ consisted of the many women believing that any individuality they once had was swallowed up as soon as they became wives and mothers.

Useful statistics have been woven in throughout The Problem That Has No Name, in order to reinforce or better illustrate Friedan’s points.  She also makes use of the many interviews which she has conducted with females all across America, discussing various problems which they had with their husbands or children.  It is in these instances that her profession of magazine journalism really shows.  She notes the point at which she began to notice signs of something buried within widespread society, and common for so many different women: ‘But after a while I began to recognize the telltale signs of this other problem.  I saw the same signs in suburban ranch houses and split-levels on Long Island and in New Jersey and Westchester County; in colonial houses in a small Massachusetts town; on patios in Memphis; in suburban and city apartments; in living rooms in the Midwest.’  In the 1960s, Friedan notes that news outlets began to report on ‘the actual unhappiness of the American housewife.’  Although she does not talk about her own life in detail, Friedan also touches upon her own experiences of bringing up her children during this period.

The dissatisfaction of women is a major theme in the second essay too, but from an historical perspective which focuses on the path to women’s rights.  ‘The Passionate Journey’ begins: ‘It was the need for a new identity that started women, a century ago, on that passionate journey… away from home.’  Of this journey, which women felt compelled to make in order to keep a grasp on their personal individuality, and to try and escape from societal confines, Friedan writes: ‘Theirs was an act of rebellion, a violent denial of the identity of women as it was then defined.  It was the need for a new identity that led these passionate feminists to forge new trails for women.  Some of these trails were unexpectedly rough, some were dead ends, and some may have been false, but the need for women to find new trails was real.’  This essay is a real celebration of what women have achieved.

Friedan’s writing style is highly accessible, and she takes a clear point of view throughout.  Her prose is highly engaging and quite easygoing, despite the wealth of information which she denotes.  She is incredibly perceptive of womankind, viewing them as individuals rather than as a singular collective, and recognising that many women who were suffering silently during the period which she examines did so for myriad reasons.  The Problem That Has No Name is an empowering tome, and I will certainly be reading the rest of The Feminine Mystique at some point.  Despite the fact that it was published over five decades ago, Friedan’s work is still highly relevant in the twenty-first century.

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The Book Trail: From Virago to Persephone

I have chosen one of Muriel Spark’s books for this, the first of 2019’s, edition of The Book Trail.  As ever, I have used the ‘Readers Also Enjoyed’ tool on Goodreads in order to generate this list.

 

1. The Mandelbaum Gate by Muriel Spark 17593886
To rendezvous with her archeologist fiance in Jordan, Barbara Vaughn must first pass through the Mandelbaum Gate–which divides strife-torn Jerusalem. A half-jewish convert to Catholicism, an Englishwoman of strong and stubborn convictions, Barbara will not be dissuaded from her ill-timed pilgrimage despite a very real threat of bodily harm and the fearful admonishments of staid British diplomat Freddy Hamilton.

 

2. The Summer House: A Trilogy by Alice Thomas Ellis
In The Summer House trilogy, three very different women, with three very distinct perspectives, narrate three very witty novels concerning one disastrous wedding in the offing.  The Clothes in the Wardrobe: Nineteen-year-old Margaret feels more trepidation than joy at the prospect of her marriage to forty-year-old Syl.  The Skeleton in the Cupboard: Syl’s mother, Mrs. Monro, doesn’t know quite what to make of her son’s life, but she knows Margaret should not marry him.  The Fly in the Ointment: And then there’s Lili, the free spirit who is determined that the wedding shall not happen, no matter the consequences.

 

174655123. A Long Way From Verona by Jane Gardam
Jessica Vye’s ‘violent experience’ colours her schooldays and her reaction to the world around her- a confining world of Order Marks, wartime restrictions, viyella dresses, nicely-restrained essays and dusty tea shops. For Jessica she has been told that she is ‘beyond all possible doubt’, a born writer. With her inability to conform, her absolute compulsion to tell the truth and her dedication to accurately noting her experiences, she knows this anyway. But what she doesn’t know is that the experiences that sustain and enrich her burgeoning talent will one day lead to a new- and entirely unexpected- reality.

 

4. Marianne Dreams by Catherine Storr
Ill and bored with having to stay in bed, Marianne picks up a pencil and starts doodling – a house, a garden, a boy at the window. That night she has an extraordinary dream. She is transported into her own picture, and as she explores further she soon realises she is not alone. The boy at the window is called Mark, and his every movement is guarded by the menacing stone watchers that surround the solitary house. Together, in their dreams, Marianne and Mark must save themselves…

 

5. Mistress Masham’s Repose by T.H. White 29124
‘Ten-year-old Maria, orphaned mistress of Malplaquet, discovers the secret of her deteriorating estate: on a deserted island at its far corner, in the temple long ago nicknamed Mistress Masham’s Repose, live an entire community of people—”The People,” as they call themselves—all only inches tall. With the help of her only friend—the absurdly erudite Professor—Maria soon learns that this settlement is no less than the kingdom of Lilliput (first seen in Gulliver’s Travels) in exile. Safely hidden for centuries, the Lilliputians are at first endangered by Maria’s well-meaning but clumsy attempts to make their lives easier, but their situation grows truly ominous when they are discovered by Maria’s greedy guardians, who look at The People and see only a bundle of money.’

 

6. The House in Norham Gardens by Penelope Lively
No.40 Norham Gardens, Oxford, is the home of Clare Mayfield, her two aged aunts and two lodgers. The house is a huge Victorian monstrosity, with rooms all full of old furniture, old papers, old clothes, memorabilia – it is like a living museum. Clare discovers in a junk room the vividly painted shield which her great-grandfather, an eminent anthropologist, had brought back from New Guinea. She becomes obsessed with its past and determined to find out more about its strange tribal origins. Dreams begin to haunt her – dreams of another country, another clture, another time, and of shadowy people whom she feels are watching her. Who are they, and what do they want?

 

5025367. They Knew Mr Knight by Dorothy Whipple
The Blakes are an ordinary family: Celia looks after the house and Thomas works at the family engineering business in Leicester. This book begins when he meets Mr Knight, a financier as crooked as any on the front pages of our newspapers nowadays; and tracks his and his family’s swift climb and fall.

 

8. Fidelity by Susan Glaspell
Set in Iowa in 1900 and in 1913, this dramatic and deeply moral novel uses complex but subtle use of flashback to describe a girl named Ruth Holland, bored with her life at home, falling in love with a married man and running off with him; when she comes back more than a decade later we are shown how her actions have affected those around her. Ruth had taken another woman’s husband and as such ‘Freeport’ society thinks she is ‘a human being who selfishly – basely – took her own happiness, leaving misery for others. She outraged society as completely as a woman could outrage it… One who defies it – deceives it – must be shut out from it.’  But, like Emma Bovary, Edna Pontellier in ‘The Awakening’ and Nora in ‘A Doll’s House’ Ruth has ‘a diffused longing for an enlarged experience… Her energies having been shut off from the way they had wanted to go, she was all the more zestful for new things from life…’ It is these that are explored in Fidelity.

 

Have you read any of these?  Which have piqued your interest?

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