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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 1944 Club: ‘The Case of the Gilded Fly’ by Edmund Crispin ****

Hurrah!  I have finally been organised enough to be able to participate in one of the wonderful yearly clubs run by Simon and Karen.  The year which they have chosen for bloggers to read books from this week is 1944, and I was so pleased that I could read and review the first book in the Gervase Fen series, The Case of the Gilded Fly by Edmund Crispin, for the occasion.

9780099542131The Guardian praise Edmund Crispin’s series of crime novels as ‘a ludicrous literary farce’, and The Times call the author ‘one of the last exponents of the classical English detective story… elegant, literate, and funny.’  In this, the first novel in the series, a ‘pretty but spiteful young actress’ named Yseut Haskell, who has a ‘talent for destroying men’s lives’, is discovered dead in a University room ‘just metres from unconventional Oxford don Gervase Fen’s office.’  In rather an amusing aside, the blurb says: ‘Anyone who knew her would have shot her, but can Fen discover who could have shot her?’

The Case of the Gilded Fly begins in early 1940, in a typically British manner: ‘To the unwary traveller, Didcot signifies the imminence of his arrival at Oxford; to the more experienced, another half-hour at least of frustration.’  On such a railway journey is where we first meet English Language and Literature Professor Fen – ‘And as his only distraction was one of his own books, on the minor satirists of the eighteenth century, which he was conscientiously re-reading in order to recall what were his opinions of these persons, he became in the later stages of the journey quite profoundly unhappy’ – as well as the other protagonists.  This cast of characters is rather a diverse one.  After brief sketches of their personalities and professions, Crispin discusses them for the first time as a group: ‘By Thursday, 11 October, they were all in Oxford.  And within the week that followed three of those eleven died by violence.’

Crispin controls his writing and characters wonderfully.  The opening description of Yseut gives her character a complexity, and sets the reader – like her acquaintances – against her rather quickly.  Crispin writes: ‘To a considerable extent we are all of necessity preoccupied with ourselves, but with her the preoccupation was exclusive, and largely of a sexual nature into the bargain.  She was still young – twenty-five or so – with full breasts and hips a little crudely emphasized by the clothes she wore, and a head of magnificent and much cared-for red hair.  There, however – at least as far as the majority of people were concerned – her claims to attractiveness ended.  Her features, pretty enough in a conventional way, bore little hints of the character within – a trifle of selfishness, a trifle of conceit; her conversation was intellectually pretentious and empty; her attitude to the other sex was too outspokenly come-hither to please more than a very few of them, and her attitude to her own malicious and spiteful.’

The Case of the Gilded Fly is both intelligently written and highly immersive.  Whilst not my favourite in the Gervase Fen series – that accolade has to be given to the magnificent The Moving Toyshop – The Case of the Gilded Fly, whilst stylistically different in some ways, serves as a marvellous introduction to the series.  Crispin sets it up so that everyone has a grievance against Yseut, and the reader is consequently left guessing who could have perpetrated the crime, when all have a motive.

The sense of place here has been well captured, too, as well as the early Second World War time period in which it is set.  Crispin notes that the college admissions at Oxford University have been greatly affected, with many students going off to fight.  The blackout conditions are also in place when Yseut is murdered, which does not help matters; her death is first ruled as a suicide, until Fen and an Inspector from the local police force probe more deeply and discover several clues.  The novel does not throw up as many red herrings as I had come to expect from the later books in the series; it is more of a measured and meditative novel.  I did correctly guess one of the elements, but found it incredibly well pieced together nonetheless.

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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.

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Penguin Moderns: Albert Camus and John Steinbeck

Create Dangerously by Albert Camus **** (#17)
9780241339121In Create Dangerously, French-Algerian author Albert Camus ‘argues passionately that the artist has a responsibility to challenge, provoke and speak up for those who cannot’.  This ‘powerful speech’ has been accompanied by two other pieces, which were also delivered orally, entitled ‘Defences of Intelligence’ and ‘Bread and Freedom’.  The speeches were delivered between 1945 and 1957.

In ‘Create Dangerously’, Camus says, in rather a poignant manner: ‘In any case, our era forces us to take an interest in it.  The writers of today know this. If they speak up, they are criticized and attacked. If they become modest and keep silent, they are vociferously blamed for their silence.’  The three speeches collected here, the style of which is quite similar, are intelligent, fascinating, and well-informed.  They are filled with thoughtful ideas and discussion pieces.  It seems fitting, in our current tumultuous global climate, to end with the following quote, taken from ‘Bread and Freedom’: ‘… we shall henceforth be sure… that freedom is not a gift received from a State or a leader but a possession to be won every day by the effort of each and the union of all.’
The Vigilante by John Steinbeck ***** (#18) 9780241338957
I adore John Steinbeck; in everything which I have read of his, I have been struck by the clarity of his writing, and the depth of emotion which he demonstrates.  I was thus very excited to read this selection of his short stories, presented as the eighteenth Penguin Modern book.  Collected here are three stories – ‘The Vigilante’, ‘The Snake’, and ‘The Chrysanthemums’ – set in the Salinas Valley in California, in which Steinbeck ‘explores mob violence, a disturbing encounter and a bitter betrayal’.  All have been taken from Steinbeck’s short story collection, The Long Valley, which was first published in 1938.

The content here is varied.  ‘The Vigilante’ focuses upon a man who first storms a jail along with others, and then watches the lynching of a black prisoner, recounting his experience to a bartender whom he meets later the same evening.  The protagonist of ‘The Snake’ is about a scientist who ‘could kill a thousand animals for knowledge, but not an insect for pleasure’; a woman comes into his seaside laboratory, and requests some rather unusual things of him.  ‘The Chrysanthemums’ tells the story of a farmer’s wife in a rural part of California, who meets a new acquaintance, and learns quite as much from him as she teaches him.

Throughout these stories, Steinbeck’s prose has a pitch and tone which is customary with, and unique to, his work.  He manages to fit so much into a deceptively simple sentence; for instance, in ‘The Vigilante’, he writes: ‘The park lawn was cut to pieces by the feet of the crowd’, conjuring up myriad questions in the reader’s mind.  Steinbeck’s long fiction really packs a punch, and these stories are no different; indeed, I found them quite difficult to read in places.  Their scenes are haunting and memorable.  The stories collected in The Vigilante are fantastic in their breadth, and in the brutality and beauty which sears from the pages.

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Penguin Moderns: Clarice Lispector and Ryszard Kapuscinski

Daydreams and Drunkenness of a Young Lady by Clarice Lispector ***** (#15)
9780241337608I was so looking forward to the inclusion of Clarice Lispector in the Penguin Moderns series, and am happy to report that Daydreams and Drunkenness of a Young Lady, the fifteenth book, is my favourite so far.  I have not read much of Lispector’s work to date, but find her writing glorious, and the perspectives which she uses fascinating.  The three stories collected here – ‘Daydream and Drunkenness of a Young Lady, ‘Love’, and ‘Family Ties’, all of which were published in 1960, and have been translated by Katrina Dodson – promise the blurb, are ‘three intoxicating tales of three women – their secret desires, fears and madness – from a giant of Brazilian literature.’

There is a peculiar beauty to each of these tales; they have an almost otherworldly quality to them, even when Lispector is writing about rather mundane things.  The titular story in this volume begins: ‘Throughout the room it seemed to her the trams were crossing, making her reflection tremble.  She sat combing her hair languorously, before the three-way vanity, her white, strong arms bristling in the slight afternoon chill.  Her eyes didn’t leave themselves, the mirrors vibrated, now dark, now luminous…  Her eyes never pried themselves from her image, her comb working meditatively, her open robe revealing in the mirrors the intersecting breasts of several young ladies.’

Daydreams and Drunkenness of a Young Lady is both emotive and absorbing, and is filled with intelligent nuances.  Lispector’s voice is searching and perceptive.  I was utterly swept away with the three stories here, and absolutely loved each one of them.
An Advertisement for Toothpaste by Ryszard Kapuscinski *** 9780241339329
Before picking up An Advertisement for Toothpaste, I had not read anything by Ryszard Kapuscinski.  The sixteenth Penguin Modern was translated from its original Polish by William R. Brand, and consists of several essays, all of which were written in 1963 and published in 2017.  In these essays, states the blurb, ‘the great traveller-reporter finds an even stronger and more exotic society in his own home of post-war Poland than in any of the distant lands he has visited.’

An Advertisement for Toothpaste consists of the title essay, as well as ‘Danka’, ‘The Taking of Elzbieta’, and ‘The Stiff’.  I was not sure what to expect in this volume, but found myself really enjoying Kapuscinski’s descriptions; in ‘Danka’, for instance, he describes the way in which he ‘went back into the town.  I won’t give its name, and the reportage will explain why.  It lies in the northern part of Bialystok province, and there is no one who has not seen, at least once in their life, one of a hundred little towns like this.  There is nothing distinctive about any of them.  They put on a drowsy face, damp patches growing with lichens in the furrows of their crumbling walls, and anyone who walks across the town square has the impression that everything is staring at him insistently from under half-closed, motionless eyelids.’  Kapuscinski certainly uncovers some interesting things, and meets a whole cast of interesting people along the way.  Whilst I found these essays interesting enough to read, it has not sparked in me a desire to read any more of the author’s work.

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Penguin Moderns: Ralph Ellison, Jean Rhys, and Franz Kafka

The Black Ball by Ralph Ellison **** (#12) 9780241339220
Four of Ralph Ellison’s stories – ‘Boy on a Train’, ‘Hymie’s Bull’, ‘The Black Ball’, and ‘In a Strange Country’ – have been collected together in The Black Ball, the twelfth Penguin Modern book. These are ‘stories of belonging and alienation, violence and beauty, racial injustice and unexpected kindness, from a writer of searing emotion and lyricism.’ The majority of these stories have been taken from a collection published in 1996, and entitled Flying Home and Other Stories. I had somehow not read any of Ellison’s work before picking up this selection, but found it highly engaging. His prose is quite startling in places, and he is an author not afraid to poke into the darker elements of life. I am so looking forward to reading more of Ellison’s books in future.
9780241337585Till September Petronella by Jean Rhys **** (#13)
Unlike many readers, I have not yet been blown away by Jean Rhys’ work; thus, I was both looking forward to, and felt a little sceptical about, the thirteenth Penguin Modern book, Till September Petronella. This collection includes ‘four searing stories of women – lost, adrift, down but not quite out – that span the course of a lifetime, from a Caribbean childhood to ruinous adulthood, to old age and beyond.’

The stories here – ‘The Day They Burned the Books’, ‘Till September Petronella’, ‘Rapunzel, Rapunzel’, and ‘I Used to Live Here Once’ – were published in 1968 and 1976. I thoroughly enjoyed each of these searching and multilayered tales, and am very much looking forward to immersing myself into the rest of Rhys’ short stories in future; these are by far my favourites of her work to date.
Investigations of a Dog by Franz Kafka ** (#14) 9780241339305
I was not much looking forward to the fourteenth Penguin Modern, Franz Kafka’s Investigations of a Dog. I am not a fan of The Metamorphosis, and have not enjoyed the short fiction of his which I have read thus far. I am also far more a cat person than a dog one. However, I tried to go into this with an open mind. The blurb states that in this ‘playful and enigmatic story of a canine philosopher, Kafka explores the limits of knowledge.’ The story was originally written in 1922, and published posthumously in 1931.

Investigations of a Dog is told from the imagined perspective of a canine who has, it must be said, rather an impressive vocabulary. Whilst intrigued by the style of the story, it did not capture my attention as I was unable to suspend my disbelief enough. Investigations of a Dog is well written, but it was simply not enjoyable for me in terms of its subject matter. I also found it rather meandering as it went on. I may try another of Kafka’s books in future, but at present, I am of the opinion that he is not an author for me.

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Penguin Moderns: ‘Three Japanese Short Stories’, and ‘The Veiled Woman’

Three Japanese Short Stories by Akutanagawa and Others *** (#5)  9780241339749
I have not read much Japanese fiction that I have really enjoyed to date; rather, I tend to find it a little hit or miss, and usually a bit off the wall in its plotting for my particular taste. I was intrigued by this collection, however; it consists of ‘three beguiling, strange, funny and hair-raising tales of imprisonment, memory and atrocity from early twentieth-century Japan’, all of which have been newly translated by Jay Rubin. Overall, I found the collection difficult to pin down; I very much enjoyed the first story, but was not much of a fan of the second or third.

‘Behind the Prison’ by Nagai Kafu is told in the form of a letter, addressed to ‘my dearest excellency’. The narrator is a thirty-year-old man who, after living in the West, has returned to Japan to live ‘in a single room on my father’s estate, which is located behind the prison in Ichigaya.’ He describes quite how this came to be, when his greatest desire was to hide away amongst people who have no knowledge of him, or of his family. I found the writing in this story poetic, and quite absorbing.

The second story, ‘Closet LLB’, is a third person perspective story written by Uno Koji. It provides an account of an unambitious law graduate, whose only wish lies in becoming a novelist. He has delusions of grandeur about his person, and is both self-important and self-obsessed. This story was not quite to my taste; I found the character almost loathsome, and the tone of the narrative felt a little off to me.

The third and final story collected here is ‘General Kim’ by Akutanagawa Ryunosuke. This is rather a short story in comparison to those by the previous two authors. It follows two ‘powerful Japanese generals, who had crossed the sea to assess military conditions in the neighbouring kingdom of Korea’. In some ways, this was quite interesting, but it was also, almost overwhelmingly, bizarre.

 

9780241339541The Veiled Woman by Anais Nin **** (#6)
I adore what I have read of Nin’s work so far; I have read a few of her books, but have much of her oeuvre left to get stuck into. Here, ‘transgressive desires and sexual encounters are recounted in these four pieces from one of the greatest writers of erotic fiction’. These stories were first published in the 1970s, three of them taken from <i>Delta of Venus</i>, and one from <i>Little Birds</i>.

Nin writes incredibly well; the scenes which she depicts have a vividness and vivacity to them. Her female narrators feel realistic, and impart their deepest thoughts and desires to the reader. Nin’s character descriptions hum with life and richness; for instance, from ‘The Veiled Woman’: ‘She was extraordinarily lovely, with something of both satin and velvet in her. Her eyes were dark and moist, her mouth glowed, her skin reflected the light. Her body was perfectly balanced. She had the incisive lines of a slender woman together with a provocative ripeness.’

Nin’s visions are strange and unexpected. These particular stories are all quite highly erotic ones; it is a genre which ordinarily I would steer away from, but there is beauty in these tales regardless. The four stories here are perfect examples of the kinds of tales which Nin’s reputation has sprung from.

 

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