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Penguin Moderns: ‘The Cracked Looking-Glass’ by Katherine Anne Porter ****

The thirty-seventh book on the Penguin Moderns list, The Cracked Looking-Glass by American author Katherine Anne Porter, was one which I was particularly intrigued by.  In this story, which was first published in 1922, ‘a passionately unfulfilled woman considers her life and her marriage’.  This woman is named Rosaleen; she has been married to Dennis, thirty years her senior, for over two decades, and the pair live on a farm in rural Connecticut.

9780241339626I particularly enjoyed the opening scenes of the story, in which Porter sets both scenes, and the complexities of marriage, with precision and beauty.  She writes: ‘Dennis heard Rosaleen talking in the kitchen and a man’s voice answering.  He sat with his hands dangling over his knees, and thought for the hundredth time that sometimes Rosaleen’s voice was company to him, and other days he wished all day long she didn’t have so much to say about everything.’

Porter is so aware of her characters’ flaws, and how these adapt with the passing of time.  During their anniversary dinner, for instance, ‘He looked at her sitting across the table from him and thought she was a very fine woman, noticed again her red hair and yellow eyelashes and big arms and strong big teeth, and wondered what she thought of him now he was no human good to her.  Here he was, all gone, and he had been so for years, and he felt guilt sometimes before Rosaleen, who couldn’t always understand how there comes a time when  man is finished, and there is no more to be done that way.’

The Cracked Looking-Glass is quite tender in places.  Of Rosaleen, Porter writes: ‘She wished now she’d had a dozen children instead of the one that died in two days.  This half-forgotten child suddenly lived again her, she began to weep for him with all the freshness of her first agony; now he would be a fine grown man and the dear love of her heart.’  Given that this is a short story, there is a lot of depth here, and we learn a lot about the pasts of the characters, and how this has affected their present-day lives.

The looking glass of the story’s title is square in shape, and positioned in the living room.  ‘There was,’ writes Porter, ‘a ripple in the glass and a crack across the middle, and it was like seeing your face in water.’  Throughout the story, Rosaleen views herself in it, and Porter records her thoughts.  With this technique, and the scenes which she records, Porter has been able to create a fascinating portrait of a complex and complicated, and incredibly realistic, woman.  The Cracked Looking-Glass also presents a searing portrait of a troubled marriage in a skilfully crafted way.   I was reminded somewhat of Katherine Mansfield whilst I was reading, one of the highest accolades which I could give; not so much because of Porter’s prose style, but due to the way in which she builds her characters and their histories.

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Penguin Moderns: ‘The Duke in His Domain’ by Truman Capote ****

The thirty-fifth book in the Penguins Modern series is Truman Capote’s The Duke in His Domain, a piece of journalism which covers an extended meeting with Marlon Brando in Japan.  This ‘peerless piece of journalism’ presents, promises its blurb, a ‘mesmerising profile of an insecure, vulnerable young Marlon Brando, brooding in a Kyoto hotel during a break from filming’. 9780241339145 The interview was conducted in 1956, when Brando was filming ‘Sayonara’, and the extended article was published in The New Yorker the following year.

Amongst Capote’s many gifts is the ease with which he wonderfully depicts settings, such as one of the more traditionally Japanese decorated rooms of a Westernised hotel which Brando is staying in: ‘His quarters consisted of two rooms, a bath and a glassed-in sun porch.  Without the overlying and underlying clutter of Brando’s personal belongings, the rooms would have been textbook illustrations of the Japanese penchant for ostentatious barrenness…  In these rooms, the divergent concepts of Japanese and Western decoration – the one seeking to impress by a lack of display, an absence of possession-exhibiting, the other intent on precisely the reverse – could both be observed, for Brando seemed unwilling to make use of the apartment’s storage space, concealed behind sliding paper doors.’  The way in which Capote writes about Kyoto too, is stunning: ‘Below the windows, the hotel garden, with its ultra-simple and soigné arrangements of rock and tree, floated in the mists that crawl off Kyoto’s waterways – for it is a watery city, crisscrossed with shallow rivers and cascading canals, dotted with pools as still as coiled snakes and mirthful little waterfalls that sound like Japanese girls fighting.’

Capote also had a marvellous ability to capture so much in just a single sentence, as he does here: ‘My guide tapped at Brando’s door, shrieked “Marron!” and fled away along the corridor, her kimono sleeves fluttering like the wings of a parakeet.’  His descriptions of his guide, as well as the woman who looks after Brando, are rather enchanting; he describes them variously as ‘doll-delicate’, with ‘tiny, pigeon-toed skating steps’ in their kimonos, and having a ‘plump peony-and-pansy kimonoed figure.’

Brando’s elusive qualities are discussed in swathes in The Duke in His Domain.  Whilst defined as a ‘slouchingly dignified, amiable-seeming young man who was always ready to cooperate with, and even encourage, his co-workers’, he would rarely accept invitations to spend time with anyone, ‘preferring, during the tedious lulls between scenes, to sit alone reading philosophy or scribbling in a schoolboy notebook.’  Capote captures Brando and his curiosities in such a playful, precise manner: ‘Resuming his position on the floor, he lolled his head against a pillow, dropped his eyelids, then shut them.  It was as though he’d dozed off into a disturbing dream; his eyelids twitched, and when he spoke, his voice – an unemotional voice, in a way cultivated and genteel, yet surprisingly adolescent, a voice with a probing, asking, boyish quality – seemed to come from sleepy distance.’  He also gives a real insight into Brando’s thought processes, and the manner in which he conducts himself: ‘The voice went on, as though speaking to hear itself, an effect Brando’s speech often has, for like many persons who are intensely self-absorbed, he is something of a monologuist – a fact that he recognizes and for which he offers his own explanation.  “People around me never say anything,” he says.  “They just seem to want to hear what I have to say.  That’s why I do all the talking.”‘

I knew very little about Brando before reading The Duke in His Domain, and was looking forward to learning about him.  Capote is one of my absolute favourite authors, and his journalism is the only part of the work which I’ve not yet got to from his oeuvre.  As well as outlining his observance of Brando, and the in-depth conversations which they have, Capote has also included testimony from several of Brando’s friends here, which helps to build a full picture, and explores the effects which others have had on him.  The Duke in His Domain is a great piece of extended journalism, and one which I would highly recommend.

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Penguin Moderns: Hans Fallada and Saul Bellow

9780241339244Why Do You Wear a Cheap Watch? by Hans Fallada *** (#34)
I have really enjoyed what I have read of Fallada’s work thus far, and was therefore looking forward to Why Do You Wear a Cheap Watch?, a short story collection included in the Penguin Moderns series.  These are ‘darkly funny, streetwise tales of low-lifes, grifters and ordinary people trying to make ends meet in pre-war Germany.’  All of the stories collected here – ‘Why Do You Wear a Cheap Watch?’, ‘War Monument or Urinal?’, and ‘Fifty Marks and a Merry Christmas’ – have been taken from Tales of the Underworld, which first appeared in English in 2014.  All have been translated by Michael Hofmann.

I found Fallada’s prose style interesting; he uses a rather conversational narrative voice, which I did not feel always worked.  I must admit that I found this collection a little disappointing.  The title story is a little odd, and seemed to end quite abruptly.  Given the beauty of Alone in Berlin and Every Man Dies Alone, I was expecting something rather different from these short stories.  Whilst they have a considerable amount to say, there is little cohesion between them.  The second story is clever, and makes many comments about German politics, and I did enjoy the third, about a couple who are adamant to have the happiest Christmas they can, despite the husband not expecting payment of his yearly bonus.  Why Do You Wear a Cheap Watch? isn’t a bad collection by any means, but if I had come to Fallada’s work with no preconceptions and read this, I can’t say I’d rush to get to the rest of his oeuvre.

 

Leaving the Yellow House by Saul Bellow *** (#36) 9780241338995
The thirty-sixth book on the Penguin Moderns list is a short story entitled ‘Leaving the Yellow House’ by Saul Bellow, which was first published in 1956.  In it, ‘a stubborn, hard-drinking elderly woman living in a desert town finds herself faced with an impossible choice, in this caustically funny, precisely observed tale from an American prose master.’  I do not recall reading anything of Bellow’s before, and as I am always keen to discover new to me short story authors, I was looking forward to reading this.

The opening of the story really sets the scene, and the period in which the story is set: ‘The neighbors – there were in all six white people who lived at Sego Desert Lake – told one another that old Hattie could no longer make it alone.  The desert life, even with a forced-air furnace in the house and butane gas brought from town in a truck, was still too difficult for her.’  Hattie has settled here after being left a yellow house by her friend India, described throughout as a real ‘lady’.  I did enjoy Bellow’s portrayal of Hattie, and found this one of the strengths of the novel.  He describes her, for instance, in the following way: ‘You couldn’t help being fond of Hattie.  She was big and cheerful, puffy, comic, boastful, with a big round back and stiff, rather long legs.’

After having ‘a few Martinis’ one evening, Hattie loses control of her car, and it veers onto the railway tracks.  ‘Leaving the Yellow House’ is ultimately a character study of Hattie, which charts her gradual decline.  She begins to plan for her death, and debates who to leave the yellow house to in her will.  The premise of the story is interesting, and it is well executed.  Whilst it kept my interest throughout, I was not quite blown away by it, however.  This taster of Bellow’s work has unfortunately not made me want to pick up any of his other books in the next few months, as I had hoped it would.

 

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Penguin Moderns: Cyprian Ekwensi and Jack Kerouac

Glittering City by Cyprian Ekwensi *** (#32) 9780241339848
In Cyprian Ekwensi’s short story, ‘untrustworthy, charming Fussy Joe spins tall tales and breaks hearts in this rollicking story set in the “sensational city” of 1960s Lagos.’  First published in 1966, reading Glittering City was my first taste of Ekwensi’s work.  I found that the opening descriptions of person and place helped to set the tone of the whole, rather than paying too much attention to the scene.  I did find that Nigeria was used barely at all as a setting, aside from several short and random descriptions of Lagos.  I know that this is a short story, but I would have enjoyed more content like this within it.

Fussy Joe has depth to him, and comes across largely as an untrustworthy creep.  When the story begins, he takes a young girl, who has arrived alone at the train station, back to his room in another part of Lagos.  It is here that she begins to feel frightened: ‘All of the tales she had heard about the bad men of the city came crawling back.  They were the exciting stories they whispered after lights out in the boarding-house.’

I felt rather uncomfortable whilst reading parts of this story.  Whilst I enjoyed Ekwensi’s prose style, and found the whole well written and nicely paced, there were elements which detracted from my enjoyment.  I did not like Fussy Joe at all, or his constant dishonesty; he tells various people that he is employed in all manner of different jobs, and has several women on the go at once.

Throughout, I could not quite tell in which the direction the story was going, and it did surprise me in a couple of places.  There did feel at times as though there was too much going on in the story, and whilst I enjoyed some elements, others I felt indifferent to, or disliked altogether.   I’m not going to rush to read any of Ekwensi’s other work, but I would be intrigued to try another of his short stories at some point, just to see how it compares.

 

cover-jpg-rendition-460-707Piers of the Homeless Night by Jack Kerouac *** (#33)
I do really enjoy Beat writer Jack Kerouac’s work, and was looking forward to reading these ‘soaring, freewheeling snapshots of life on the road across America.’  Piers of the Homeless Night, which is the thirty-third publication on the Penguin Moderns list, is composed of two journal entries – ‘Piers of the Homeless Night’ and ‘The Vanishing American Hobo’ – which were first published in Lonesome Traveler (1960).

I tend to find that Kerouac has a lot to say about American society, and that is certainly the case here.  The stream-of-consciousness style, with its longer than usual run-on sentences did take me a little while to get into, but it works on the whole.  I admire Kerouac’s writing, largely in that I would find it impossible to emulate.  His prose is fascinating, too.  There is structure here, but elements of both journal entries are a little garbled and confusing.  If this was the first work of Kerouac’s which I had read, I would be largely indifferent to picking up anything else by him.  As it is, I enjoyed On the Road and Maggie Cassidy far more than I did Piers of the Homeless Night.

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The Book Trail: From Edith to Iris

I am beginning this edition of The Book Trail with one of my most highly anticipated reads, Edith’s Diary by Patricia Highsmith.  As ever, I have used the Goodreads ‘Readers Also Enjoyed’ tool to generate this list.

 

1. Edith’s Diary by Patricia Highsmith 27282871
As Edith Howland’s life becomes harsh, her diary entries only become brighter and brighter. She invents a happy life. As she knits for imaginary grandchildren, the real world recedes. Her descent into madness is subtle, appalling, and entirely believable.

2. The Book of Repulsive Women by Djuna Barnes
Originally published in the chap book series by Bruno of Greenwich Village in 1915, this renowned volume of poetry presented portraits of women of the period -a mother, prostitute, cabaret dancer, and others-which were wildly radical in their day dominated as it was by Victorian mores. But there is still in these “rhythms” a seething beat of sexuality and vice, whipped up into a delicious sense of perversity by Barnes’s art. On the evidence of Barnes’s numerous other works, most of which included art that was interleaved with her writing, Messerli has restored the drawings-which in the Bruno edition appeared in the back, after the poem’s-to the front of the book so that they can create an interplay with the texts.

4045323. Mysteries of Small Houses by Alice Notley
Alice Notley vividly reconstructs the mysteries, longings, and emotions of her past in this brilliant new collection of poems that charts her growth from young girl to young woman to accomplished artist. In this volume, memories of her childhood in the California desert spring to life through evocative renderings of the American landscape, circa 1950. Likewise, her coming of age as a poet in the turbulent sixties is evoked through the era’s angry, creative energy. As she looks backward with the perspective that time and age allows, Notley ably captures the immediacy of youth’s passion while offering her own dry-eyed interpretations of the events of a life lived close to the bone. Like the colorful collages she assembles from paper and other found materials, Notley erects structures of image and feeling to house the memories that swirl around her in the present. In their feverish, intelligent renderings of moments both precise and ephemeral, Notley’s poems manage to mirror and transcend the times they evoke. Her profound tributes to the stages of her life and to the identities she has assumed—child, youth, lover, poet, wife, mother, friend, and widow—are remarkable for their insight and wisdom, and for the courage of their unblinking gaze.’

4. In by Natsuo Kirino
R is the other woman. Labelled simply with one initial, her identity in the famous 1940s novel that recounts the damage she did to her lover’s family remains shrouded in mystery. The novelist who carried out an illicit relationship with her, and then used her as material for his work, became a celebrated writer. But R never had the chance to put her side of the story.  Tamaki is determined to find out who R really was. A writer herself, she is working on a book about R and begins to uncover clues about the real story behind the novel, and the great tragedy of the novelist’s life. While she throws herself into her research she’s aware that her own imperfect relationships are also up for scrutiny. Her ex-lover, Seiji, is gravely ill in hospital and her reminiscences about their long affair strike echoes with the subject of her work.  In this compelling and moving novel, prize-winning author, Natsuo Kirino explores the themes of love and death, and the significance of fiction.

5. Woman on the Other Shore by Mitsuyo Kakuta 1401908
This compelling novel, widely acclaimed for its perceptive portrayal of the everyday lives and struggles of Japanese women, struck a deep chord with readers throughout Japan. In 2005 it won the prestigious Naoki Prize, awarded semiannually for the best work of popular fiction by an established writer.  Sayoko, a thirty-five-year-old homemaker with a three-year-old child, begins working for Aoi, a free-spirited, single career woman her own age who runs a travel agency-housekeeping business. Timid and unable to connect with other mothers in her neighborhood, Sayoko finds herself drawn to Aoi’s independent lifestyle and easygoing personality. The two hit it off from the start, beginning a friendship that is for Sayoko also a reaffirmation of what living is about.  Aoi, meanwhile, has not always been the self-confident person she appears to be. Severe classroom bullying in junior high had forced her to change schools, uprooting her and her family to the countryside; and at her new school, she was so afraid of again becoming the object of her classmates’ cruelties that she spent most of her time steering clear of those around her.  The present-day friendship between Sayoko and Aoi on the one hand, and Aoi’s painful high school past on the other, form a gripping two-tier narrative that converges in the final chapter. The book touches on a broad range of issues of concern to women today, from marriage and childrearing to being single and working for oneself. It is a universal story about both the fear and the joy of opening up to others.

6. Now You’re One of Us by Asa Nonami
In the tradition of Daphne du Maurier’s Rebecca and Ira Levin’s Rosemary’s Baby, here is a new classic about the bride who’s no longer sure what to think. All families have their own rituals, secrets, and credos, like a miniature religious cult; these quirks may elicit the mirth or mild alarm of guests, but the matter is rather more serious if you’re marrying into a household. If its’s a Japanese one with a history, the brace yourself: some surprising truths lurk around the corner.

9227137. Autofiction by Hiromi Kanehara
Rin is flying back from her honeymoon. She’s madly in love with her husband, Shin, and the future looks rosy. Then Shin disappears to the bathroom while he thinks Rin is sleeping and she starts to imagine that he has gone to seduce the flight attendant. As her thoughts spiral out of control the phrase ‘madly in love’ takes on a more sinister meaning.  Prizewinning author Hitomi Kanehara’s sensational novel, Autofiction, follows Rin’s life backwards through time from this moment so that we see her when she is eighteen, sixteen and finally fifteen, and a picture of the dark heart and violent past of this disturbed young woman gradually develops.

8. Hotel Iris by Yoko Ogawa
A tale of twisted love from Yoko Ogawa—author of The Diving Pool and The Housekeeper and the Professor.  In a crumbling seaside hotel on the coast of Japan, quiet seventeen-year-old Mari works the front desk as her mother tends to the off-season customers. When one night they are forced to expel a middle-aged man and a prostitute from their room, Mari finds herself drawn to the man’s voice, in what will become the first gesture of a single long seduction. In spite of her provincial surroundings, and her cool but controlling mother, Mari is a sophisticated observer of human desire, and she sees in this man something she has long been looking for.  The man is a proud if threadbare translator living on an island off the coast. A widower, there are whispers around town that he may have murdered his wife. Mari begins to visit him on his island, and he soon initiates her into a dark realm of both pain and pleasure, a place in which she finds herself more at ease even than the translator. As Mari’s mother begins to close in on the affair, Mari’s sense of what is suitable and what is desirable are recklessly engaged.  Hotel Iris is a stirring novel about the sometimes violent ways in which we express intimacy and about the untranslatable essence of love.

 

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

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Penguin Moderns: ‘The Gigolo’ by Francoise Sagan *****

9780241339640
I was very much looking forward to the Francoise Sagan short stories published as part of the Penguin Moderns series (#31).  I have read quite a lot of her work to date, and always admire the way in which she writes, and the clever characterisation always to be found within her books.  In this collection of ‘shimmering, bittersweet tales of desire and disillusionment’, ‘a middle-aged woman breaks with her young lover; a husband is suspected of infidelity; a dying man reflects on his extramarital affairs’.

As with many of her psychologically rich novel-length stories, Sagan concerns herself here with the darker side of human relationships in these stories.  She focuses upon sexuality and affairs, and the ways in which people hurt others.  The four stories collected here are ‘The Gigolo’, ‘The Unknown Visitor’, ‘The Lake of Loneliness’, and in Joanna Kilmartin’s English translation in 1977.

Throughout, Sagan has such a deep understanding of her characters, and of what motivates them.  She knows their vulnerabilities and their thought patterns.  True to form, her stories rarely end with happy conclusions, or even with closure.  She presents the unexpected, and builds suspense well throughout.  She displays one complicated life after another, and the fragments of story which she focuses upon tell the reader so much about her protagonists.

Sagan strikes such a great balance between descriptions of place and developments of character.  She has such skill in presenting the more chilling aspects of the natural world.  In ‘The Lakes of Loneliness’, for instance, she writes: ‘The idea of those lakes in the setting sun, with reeds, furze, perhaps some duck, immediately attracted her and she quickened her step.  She came upon the first of the promised lakes almost at once.  It was a mixture of blues and greys, and although not covered with wildfowl (there wasn’t even a single duck) it was nevertheless strewn with dead leaves which were slowly sinking, one after another, in a dying spiral; and each one seemed to be in need of aid and protection.  Each of these dead leaves was an Ophelia.’

The translation of each of these stories is fluid, and the prose beguiling.  The stories in The Gigolo are not neat; they make one think for weeks after the final page has been read.  I loved each of the stories collected here, but was particularly struck by the imagery and troubled female protagonist in ‘The Lake of Loneliness’; there is such a dark beauty to it.  The stories here are so human, so deep, and so wonderful.

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‘The Red Tenda of Bologna’ by John Berger *****

I had not read anything of John Berger’s before reaching the thirtieth book in the Penguin Moderns series.  The Red Tenda of Bologna, which was first published in 2007, is a ‘dream-like meditation on memory, food, paintings, a fond uncle and the improbable beauty of Bologna, from the visionary thinker and art critic.’

9780241339015The Red Tenda of Bologna opens in an intriguing, even a spellbinding, way, when Berger depicts the relationship which he had with his uncle Edgar: ‘I should begin with how I loved him, in what manner, to what degree, with what kind of incomprehension.’  The way in which he describes his uncle is quite lovely: ‘When he first came to live with us, I was about ten years old and he was in his mid-fifties.  Yet I thought of him as ageless.  Not unchanging, certainly not immortal, but ageless because unanchored in any period, past or future.  And so, as a kid, I could love him as an equal.  Which I did.’

The Red Tenda of Bologna is comprised of a series of untitled vignettes, some of which are only one sentence long, and which together form a wonderful fragmented memoir.  These vignettes follow one another in their content; a rumination in one about Berger and Uncle Edgar sharing affection for one another by giving small gifts leads to a list of some of the things which they exchanged, ranging from ‘a map of Iceland’ and ‘a pair of motorbike goggles’, to ‘a biography of Dickens’ and ‘one and a half dozen Whistable oysters.’

Berger fittingly brings his memories of his uncle to life on the page.  It soon becomes quite possible to see Edgar sitting astride his upright bicycle, with its pile of books strapped to the luggage rack, ready to be exchanged at Croydon’s public library.  Edgar was clearly a huge influence upon, and comfort within, Berger’s life.  He writes: ‘Whenever I stood beside him – in the figurative or literal sense – I felt reassured.  Time will tell, he used to say, and he said this in such a way that I assumed time would tell what we’d both be finally glad to hear.’

Indeed, Berger decides to travel to Bologna quite some time after his uncle’s death, as it was a place which Edgar held dear.  The scenes which unfold on the page are both sumptuous and observant; for instance, Berger writes: ‘I notice that some people crossing the square, when they are more or less at its centre, pause and lean their backs against an invisible wall of an invisible tower of air, which reaches towards the sky, and there they glance upwards to check the clouds or the sky’s emptiness.’  Thus, the history of his uncle, and the history of Bologna, begin to converge.  Berger writes about a singular relationship, as well as the relationship which he has with Bologna.

The ‘tenda’ of the book’s title is the name of the red cloth used to make window awnings in Bologna, all of which are in varying shades of red according to their age.  Berger wishes to buy a length of it, as a souvenir of his trip.  He writes: ‘I’m not sure what I’ll do with it.  Maybe I only need it to make this portrait.  Anyway I’ll be able to feel it, scrumble it up, smooth it out, hold it against the sunlight, hang it, fold it, dream of what’s on the other side.’

The Red Tenda of Bologna is a tender, thoughtful rumination on life and love.  It is a small but perfectly formed book, artful and intelligent.  The prose is best savoured, written as it is with the all-seeing artist’s eye.

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