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‘Convenience Store Woman’ by Sayaka Murata **

Sayaka Murata’s Convenience Store Woman (2016) is a novella which so many people have been talking about of late.  Translated from its original Japanese by Ginny Tabley Takamori, and published in English in 2018, it has fast become an international bestseller, and is receiving praise from every direction. I felt, therefore, that it would be a great choice for my online book club, and we discussed it during February.

The blurb of Convenience Store Woman claims that Murata ‘brilliantly captures the atmosphere of the familiar convenience store that is so much part of life in Japan…  she provides a sharp look at Japanese society and the pressure to conform, as well as penetrating insights into the female mind.’  The novella, and Murata’s prose style, have variously been compared to the work of Banana Yoshimoto and Han Kang, and the film Amelie, all of which I very much enjoy.

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Convenience Store Woman uses the first person perspective of Keiko Furukama, a woman in her mid-thirties, who has spent her entire adult life working in a convenience store outside Hiromachi Station in Tokyo.  Her parents were thrilled when she originally took the job whilst pursuing her studies, as they viewed her as odd, a misfit.  After several troubling incidents in her childhood, Keiko recognised how her natural behaviour was affecting her parents: ‘[They] were at a loss what to do about me, but they were as affectionate to me as ever.  I’d never meant to make them sad or have to keep apologizing for things I did, so I decided to keep my mouth shut as best I could outside home.  I would no longer do anything of my own accord, and would either just mimic what everyone else was doing, or simply follow instructions.’  Therefore, to feel as though their daughter was fitting in within a regimented environment was comforting to them.  Little do they know that Keiko has actually based her entire manner whilst working upon the store manual, ‘which dictates how the workers should act and what they should say’, and by observing the habits of her colleagues.  By doing this, Keiko essentially enables herself to ‘play the part of a normal person’.

Whilst Keiko is content, and feels comfortable in her job, she is aware that she is not living up to societal expectations, and that her family is worrying about her.  There is such a focus in the wider society on the importance of marriage – even if it is not to the right person, it seems – and women are referred to as old maids, spinsters, and ‘grubby’ for not conforming.  This all seemed very Jane Austen-esque to me; it is a very old-fashioned attitude.  Keiko says: ‘I knew it was considered weird for someone of my age to not have either a proper job or be married because my sister had explained it to me.’  Although she has no understanding as to why societal constructs want every woman of her age to conform to marriage and motherhood, she is still aware that others perceive her to be somehow deviant, or abnormal, for trying to maintain her own independence in a way which makes sense to her.  I found this part of her character desperately sad; she recognises that unless she puts on an act, she would not fit in anywhere: ‘You eliminate the parts of your life that others find strange – maybe that’s what everyone means when they say they want to “cure” me.’  It is never explicitly stated what might be wrong with Keiko, and I would not like to speculate, particularly considering that this is such a short book.

The first half of the novella sets out Keiko’s job, and the way in which she tries to fit in with her colleagues, in the same manner as she tried to imitate her peers when she was young; for instance, shopping at the same boutique as a stylish coworker of around the same age as herself, and copying what others do, despite the way in which she largely does not understand the reasoning for this.  In her job, Keiko tells us, ‘speed is of the essence, and I barely use my head as the rules ingrained in me issue instructions directly to my body.’  She takes a great deal of pride in her efficiency and knowledge: ‘I automatically read the customer’s minutest moments and gaze, and my body acts reflexively in response.  My ears and eyes are important sensors to catch their every move and desire.’  She is proud, too, that she has found somewhere she belongs, and something to do which others rely on.  At the outset of Convenience Store Woman, Keiko reflects: ‘It is the start of another day, the time when the world wakes up and the cogs of society begin to move.  I am one of those cogs, going round and round.  I have become a functioning part of the world, rotating in the time of day called morning.’  She sees herself as an important, and irreplaceable part of the store: ‘When I think that my body is entirely made up of food from this store, I feel like I’m so much a part of the store as the magazine racks or the coffee machine.’

The second half of the novella is concentrated far more upon colleague Shiraha’s place within Keiko’s life, and the ways in which they interact with one another.  From their meeting onwards, I did begin to find Convenience Store Woman rather unsettling in places; for instance, when Keiko invites Shiraha to stay at her apartment, and a strange conversation ensues.  Some of the things which he says to her – especially considering that they had only recently met, and he knew little about Keiko – made me feel uncomfortable, and even outraged.  He tells her: ‘”Your womb is probably too old to be of any use, and you don’t even have the looks to serve as a means to satisfy carnal desire.”‘  If anyone spoke to me in this way, I would not hesitate to tell them in no uncertain terms to leave my house and never contact me again.  Keiko, however, just listens quite passively, and does not seem to see a problem with Shiraha addressing her in this manner.

I certainly found Keiko to be an interesting character, but I cannot say that I warmed to her at all.  I felt sympathetic towards her to an extent, but I do not believe that creating empathy for her protagonist was Murata’s driving intention.  It seems a real shame that the second half of the novella took focus away from herself, and projected it onto her moody, feckless, and unlikeable colleague, Shiraha.  He is a character whom, whilst disrespectful and rude to customers and colleagues, conforms to societal constructs by divulging that the only reason he applied for the job was to find a wife.

I found the translation of Convenience Store Woman rather awkward at times, particularly with regard to the uncomfortable phrasing which Tapley Takamori decided to include.  For instance, Keiko refers to people who do not fit in as ‘foreign objects’, and Shiraha rather bizarrely declares: ‘… they all seem to think nothing of raping me just because I’m in the minority.’  It may well be that this prose is deliberately awkward in order to mimic Keiko’s own ineptitude, but I did find it a little too much at times.  In the past, I have found quite a lot of Japanese fiction rather awkward in its translation, but Convenience Store Woman is the most consistently awkward which I can remember reading.

Whilst I did enjoy the first half of the novella, I found this book largely an uneven and problematic one.  None of the characters around Keiko felt quite realistic, and their bad traits – particularly in the case of Shiraha – were too much; he had no redeeming qualities whatsoever.  Other characters felt like merely stereotypes and cliches, and seemed to feature in the story merely to provide a contrast to Keiko.  I also found the dynamics between them quite odd.  I suppose that I am firmly lodged within the minority, but I did not find Convenience Store Woman anywhere near as compelling as I expected to.

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‘Go, Went, Gone’ by Jenny Erpenbeck ****

Go, Went, Gone by German author Jenny Erpenbeck was my book club’s choice for January.  I have read all of her other books which have been translated into English thus far, and find them all wonderfully strange, and highly memorable.  I was therefore looking forward to dipping into this novel, which is the winner of the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize, and the English PEN Award.  Go, Went, Gone was also longlisted for the 2018 Man Booker Prize.  Sally Rooney has called it ‘vital’, and The Guardian ‘profound’.  It has been translated into English by Susan Bernofsky.

81bkztrl1zlThe novel’s protagonist is a retired University professor of Classical Philology named Richard, a man who has lived alone in Berlin since the death of his wife.  Early on in the novel, he finds ‘a surprising new community on Oranienplatz – among the African asylum seekers who have set up a tent city there.’  As Richard slowly gets to know them, his life starts to change, and his own sense of belonging is thrown into question.

The story begins on the first day of Richard’s retirement, in which he finds himself cast rather adrift: ‘He doesn’t know how long it’ll take him to get used to having time.  In any case. his head still works just the same as before.  What’s he going to do with the thoughts still thinking away inside his head?’  His existence, rather than peopled with daily interactions with students and other members of staff, suddenly feels suffused with loneliness.  The inability which he now has to share his work with his peers, and with the wider community, saddens him: ‘As it is, everything his wife always referred to as his stuff now exists for his pleasure alone.  And will exist for no one’s pleasure when he’s gone.’

I admired the way in which Erpenbeck brought together quite disparate goings on in the world, using Richard as the more focused, privileged, Western character, and placing not-so-faraway terrors in his wake.  I found the following scene rather startling: ‘This isn’t the first time he’s felt ashamed to be eating dinner in front of a TV screen displaying the bodies of people felled by gunfire or killed by earthquakes or plane crashes, someone’s shoe left behind after a suicide bombing, or plastic-wrapped corpses lying side by side in a mass grave during an epidemic.’  In this manner, and later through the individuals whom he meets, the migrant crisis is firmly embedded throughout the narrative, entwining with Richard’s own life.  I also enjoyed the parallels which Erpenbeck drew between the Ancient world and the modern; for instance, the comparison made between the anonymous demonstration of migrants on Alexanderplatz, who refused to give their identities or nationalities, to the story in which Odysseus ‘called himself Nobody to escape from the Cyclops’s cave.’

Erpenbeck’s commentary about the Berlin Wall, which ran alongside the present-day crisis, was a forceful tool, establishing similarity between Richard and the migrants.  When Erpenbeck describes the way in which the demolition of the Wall made Berlin almost unknowable to Richard, likenesses form with the borders which the migrants he meets have to try and overcome: ‘Now that the Wall is gone, he no longer knows his way around.  Now that the Wall is gone, the city is twice as big and has changed so much that he often doesn’t recognize the intersections.’  With the Wall as her focus, Erpenbeck is able to mark the passing of time, as well as the changing face of both the city, and its political climate.  Instead of the ‘good bookstore around the corner, a repertory cinema, and a lovely cafe’ around Oranienplatz, the scene now looks more like a ‘construction site: a landscape of tents, wooden shacks, and tarps: white, blue, and green…  What does he see?  What does he hear?  He sees banners and propped-up signs with hand-painted slogans.  He sees black men and white sympathizers…  The sympathizers are young and pale, they dye their hair with henna, they refuse to believe that the world is an idyllic place and want everything to change, for which reason they put rings through their lips, ears, and noses. The refugees, on the other hand, are trying to gain admittance to this world that appears to them convincingly idyllic.  Here on the square, these two forms of wishing and hoping cross paths, there’s an overlap between them, but this silent observer doubts that the overlap is large.

At the novel’s opening, Erpenbeck lets us know that Richard has been shielded from the world around him – physically in terms of the marked space imposed upon him by the Berlin Wall, but figuratively too, moving as he does in the same circles and routines throughout his work, and with his wife.  In Go, Went, Gone, the refugees are given the ability to make Richard more malleable, to open his eyes to the wider world, and to shape elements of his persona.  Richard, despite his good education, job as a professor, and prior travels, was previously ignorant to such things as African geography, and could come across as ignorant.  When he meets a group of migrants for the first time, for instance, Erpenbeck writes: ‘The refugees weren’t all doing so badly, Richard thinks, otherwise how could this fellow be so burly?’ I found some of Richard’s gradual realisations quite moving; for example: ‘There’s something he’s never thought of since these men aren’t being permitted to arrive, what looks to him like peacetime here is for them basically still war.’

The novel’s blurb declares that in Go, Went, Gone, Jenny Erpenbeck makes ‘a passionate contribution to the debate on race, privilege and nationality’.  I agree with this; she certainly explores many issues which revolve around the notions of statehood and selfhood, and the difficulties which so many people have to overcome in order just to live in safety.  Reading such novels as this in our current climate, which places such emphasis on borders and boundaries, is pivotal.  The use which Erpenbeck makes of the present tense throughout just makes the realistic story which she has built feel all the more urgent.  So much of the human experience can be found within this novel.

The only drawback of Go, Went, Gone for me is that it only features the male perspective, but perhaps this is what Erpenbeck was going for.  The few female characters here are either absent – Richard’s wife, and the wives and sisters of many of the migrants – or on the periphery.  In some ways, this absence makes the book seem limiting; in others, I suppose, it is rendered more realistic, as Richard perhaps would not have been allowed the same access to female migrants.  The other slight issue that I had is with the translation; whilst I found Bernofsky’s work fluid, there were some overly long, and occasionally quite muddled, sentences within the novel.

Overall, I found Go, Went, Gone poignant and highly thought-provoking; it made me give so much consideration to the world in which we live, the terrible things which humankind daily proves itself capable of, and notions of privilege.  There is a strong sense of place, and of selfhood, here, and I really did like the way in which the author has not presented Germany, or the wider Western world, as a utopia. Throughout, I found Erpenbeck’s tone, and the omniscient narrative perspective, effective.  I admire the amount of themes which the author has been able to pack in.  She considers, with empathy, what it must be feel like to be an essentially stateless migrant in the modern world, and the injustices which face them on a daily basis.  Go, Went, Gone is a timely novel which I would highly recommend.

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One From the Archive: ‘Les Enfants Terribles’ by Jean Cocteau

First published in July 2017.

I purchased Jean Cocteau’s Les Enfants Terribles for two reasons; firstly, it looked fantastic, and secondly, I thought that it would be an interesting inclusion for my Reading the World Project.  The novel in its Vintage edition has been faultlessly and lovingly translated by Rosamond Lehmann, a Virago author whom I very much enjoy in her own right.

Cocteau the man was a fascinating figure by all accounts, and is recognised as important in many fields; he was a poet, a novelist, an artist, a musician, a choreographer, an actor, and a filmmaker.  The book’s blurb hails him ‘one of the most talented Frenchmen of the twentieth century and a leading figure in the Surrealist movement’.  His foray into novel writing, Les Enfants Terribles, was first published in France in 1928, and in this translation in 1955. 9780099561378

Siblings Paul and Elisabeth share a ‘private world… from which parents are tacitly excluded’.  Although both in their middling teenage years, they play what they term ‘The Game’, ‘their own bizarre version of life’: ‘the word “Game” was by no means accurate, but it was the term which Paul had selected to denote that state of semi-consciousness in which children float immersed’.  The rules are rather complex, and the overwhelming message of The Game is that one of the pairing must die.  Their home life is not a happy one; their mother has been recently struck by paralysis, and Elisabeth has to care for her:

‘She had been bewitched, spoiled, and finally deserted by her husband.  For three years he had gone on treating his family to occasional brief visits, during the course of which, – having meanwhile developed cirrhosis of the liver – he would brandish revolvers, threaten suicide, and order them to nurse the master of the house; for the mistress with whom he lived refused this office and kicked him out whenever his attacks occurred.  His custom was to go back to her as soon as he felt better.  He turned up one day at home, raged, stamped, took to his bed, found himself unable to get up again, and died; thereby bestowing his end upon the wife he had repudiated’.

Les Enfants Terribles opens with Paul being knocked unconscious by a snowball, which appears to have been thrown by a boy whom he is infatuated with.  He is badly hurt, and his friend Gerard sees him home.  Cocteau has tenderly described this journey: ‘Paul heard: but he was sunk in such leaden lassitude that he could not move his tongue.  He slid a hand out of his rugs and wrappings and put it over Gerard’s’.  Their friendship is loving and multilayered.

From the outset, I found the novel – or novella, I suppose, as it runs to just 135 pages – beguiling and intriguing.  There is such a sense of place throughout, and Paris is beautifully evoked.  Cocteau’s writing is intelligent, and there is a marvellously fluid feel to its English translation.  Elisabeth and Paul are endlessly fascinating.  Their sheer unpredictably renders both incredibly realistic.

I am a huge fan of French literature, and this contains almost all of the most prevalent elements which I enjoy within translated French tomes – child characters, interesting and original plot twists, the weird, and the quirky.  There is a tenseness and violence to it which builds as the novel progresses.  Les Enfants Terribles also includes a series of illustrations by Cocteau himself; these are vivid and striking.

Les Enfants Terribles is a transportative work.  In accordance with the blurb, I believed that the Game itself would be more a focus than it turned out to be.  However, the sheer strength and breadth of the coping strategies which the children adopt in response to the traumatic experiences which they undergo is strong enough to make the Game itself almost fade into the background.  Les Enfants Terribles is fantastic, both gritty and dark; it is a strange and clever book which promises to stick with the reader for weeks after it has been read.

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‘The Lady and the Little Fox Fur’ by Violette Leduc ****

I have wanted to read Violette Leduc’s novella, The Lady and the Little Fox Fur, for such a long time, but was never able to find a copy for an affordable price.  Thank goodness for Penguin, who have recently published it in a gorgeous edition as part of their European Writers series.  Translated from the French by Derek Coltman, and first published in 1965, the Penguin publication includes an introduction written by Deborah Levy.

The Guardian writes that the novella gives ‘a forceful affirmation of the human spirit’, and The Observer that Leduc ‘can capture the smells of a country childhood, dazzle with the lights of the Place de la Concorde or make you feel the silky slither of her eel-grey suit.’  Among Leduc’s first admirers were Albert Camus and Simone de Beauvoir, who were beguiled by her writing.
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The lady of the novella’s title is a sixty-year-old woman who lives in Paris, in a tiny attic apartment.  She has no money, is slowly starving, and ‘spends her days walking around the city, each step a bid for recognition of her own existence.’  She has placed herself into a routine of comparative comfort, riding the subway and walking in large crowds just to be close to others.  Once we have become accustomed to her ways, the crux of the novella comes when she gifts herself an unrelenting purpose during a stifling hot summer’s day:  ‘One morning she awakes with an urgent need to taste an orange; but when she rummages in the bins she finds instead a discarded fox fur scarf.’  This scarf ‘becomes the key to her salvation, the friend who changes her lonely existence into a playful world of her own invention.’

In her introduction, Levy notes her own experiences with the novella.  She writes that ‘Leduc can make this reader laugh out loud at her grand themes: loneliness, humiliation, hunger, defeat, disappointment – all of which are great comic subjects in the right hands…  It requires a sensibility that is totally unsentimental, a way of staring at life and making from it a kind of tough poetry…’.  She goes on to write: ‘It is because Leduc profoundly understands how mysterious human beings are that her attention as a writer is always in an interesting place.’  Of her prose, she states: ‘Life, like language, is coherent and incoherent, and Leduc knows the only way to do justice to this dynamic is to fold into the texture of her narrative the strange in-between bits of experience…  Writing, for Leduc, is a concentrated form of experiencing.’

The novella opens at the end of winter.  Leduc writes: ‘February was a sullen captive in the afternoon mist, and the grey streets were melting indistinguishably into the grey street corners.  She wandered around the still empty, still silent Paris-Sevran bus.  On tiptoe, avidly, she gazed through the windows at the backs of the seats, at the luggage rack, and thought of the passengers who were not there, whom she had ever known.’  Our protagonist is beset by a variety of problems which become apparent from the outset of the story, and often philosophises about her life and the turns which it has taken: ‘She began putting problems to herself.  Not to leave her own neighbourhood, not to travel was a tragedy.  But to leave all that she cherished would be another tragedy.’  Her quite miserable present is interspersed with memories from her past: ‘Memories are comfy too, they are swaddling bands, they wrap you up warm like a mummy.  What moment is there in life that is not already a memory?’

Leduc’s prose, and its construction, is fascinating. The narrative is meandering, taking swift turns here and there.  There sometimes seems to be very little to connect one sentence to the next, but Leduc skilfully builds a surprisingly cohesive picture of her Paris.  There is a beguiling feel to the sentences which she weaves, and the descriptions which she gives reveal the grittier side of the city.  Paris is a character in parallel; it alters alongside our protagonist, and faces a variety of shifting moods, just as she does: ‘Paris had not forgotten her, Paris was lighting up on every side, the night was tender, the light was soft, the neon signs were flickering on, the sky was candid, and she was rewarded for loving Paris so much.’  I found the protagonist’s relationship with inanimate objects – her keys, coins, and handbag – very interesting, and it is an element which I rarely come across in fiction.

In The Lady and the Little Fox Fur, Leduc reveals just how lonely it can be to live in the midst of a big city, and how one can retain their own place in the world.  She writes of coming to terms with the ageing process; her unnamed narrator’s ‘hands shook these days when she was threading a needle; her fingers were growing old; life and death were two maniacs locked in a well-matched struggle.’  Our protagonist is peculiar, and has such a lot of depth and complexity to her.

The Lady and the Little Fox Fur spans just eighty pages, but there is so much involved within it that it feels like a much longer work. Reading it is something like being stuck in a maze; one has to unravel so many crossed threads, and travel down so many dead ends, to reach the protagonist in the middle.  The Lady and the Little Fox Fur is one of the most peculiar books that I have ever read, but I feel that it will also prove itself to be one of the most memorable.

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‘Speculative Japan 4: “Pearls for Mia” and Other Tales’ ****

There’s nothing better and more satisfying than finding a way to combine one’s passions. This is exactly what the Speculative Japan series does for me, as it successfully combines my love for fantasy and my fascination with Japan and its unique literature. 37550505

It’s been almost 3 years since I first read and reviewed the second volume in the series, which also happened to be my introduction to the fascinating world of Japanese fiction of the fantastic. In a similar fashion to the previous volumes, this fourth instalment includes 15 short stories, all by different authors and containing fantasy or sci-fi themes.

I really enjoyed reading this volume, as I think it was quite diverse in its content. There were some really long stories (“Dancing Babylon” by Makino Osamu) and some very short ones (“Nightfall” by Suzuki Miekichi or “Communion” by Takahashi Takako); there were stories by women as well as by men (and I’m always enthralled when I encounter fantasy stories by Japanese women); and, of course, there was the right balance between fantasy/fantastic and sci-fi stories, something which I think is an improvement compared to the previous volume where sci-fi seemed to prevail.

As with every collection, it is rather difficult for all of the stories to appeal to the reader to the same degree, and even though there were a couple of stories that were not really akin to my usual reading style, I did enjoy most of the stories contained in this volume. Two of my favourite stories were “The Fish in Chryse” by Azuma Hiroki and “The Sparrow Valley” by Hanmura Ryo.

But what I really love about the Speculative Japan series is the fact that I can encounter authors I haven’t read or even heard of before, and that expands my reading horizons immensely. The Japanese literary fantastic is a genre I’m very passionate and enthusiastic about, but since I’m still relatively new to it and I don’t have immediate access to all the untranslated works all the way here in Greece, it’s always very difficult for me to come across new and exciting authors. Speculative Japan does the job for me in this case, and so far, it has never failed me. I also love how the titles of the stories and the names of the authors are also given in Japanese, for those of us who want to research the originals, too.

If I had to mention something I find lacking in this volume, that would be more information on the translators of each piece. Especially when I read a story by an author I haven’t read before, I really enjoy reading about the author him/herself, as well as about their translators, as I tend to find their bios fascinating. That is just me, though, but it’s a little something I would like to see included in translated story collections more often.

Lastly, I would like to mention that the publishing house of Speculative Japan 4 is organising a short story translation contest (I believe) every year, and the winner’s translation is included in the upcoming Speculative Japan volume(s). I think that’s an amazing initiative, as well as a great incentive for new and aspiring translators of Japanese to English to become recognised. One day I might enter as well! 😉

While I’m eagerly anticipating the next volume of Speculative Japan to be released, I will go hunt down the ones I’m missing.

A copy of the book was very kindly sent to me by the publisher, Kurodahan Press.

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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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