Click here to read my review in the Irish Times of Yuko Tsushima’s novel Territory of Light, translated by Geraldine Harcourt and published by Penguin Classics.
Click here to read my review in the Irish Times of Yuko Tsushima’s novel Territory of Light, translated by Geraldine Harcourt and published by Penguin Classics.
Three years ago, Penguin hit paydirt with its Little Black Classics range: short, pocket-sized slices of work from the authors in its Classics imprint, at 80p a pop, to celebrate 80 years of Penguin Books. It wasn’t a new idea: they did it before in 1995 (with the Penguin 60s, with both contemporary and classic authors), in 2005 (with the Pocket Penguin 70s – no, not those Pocket Penguins – containing old and new writing by Penguin authors) and in 2011, to celebrate 60 years of Penguin Modern Classics (with the Mini Modern Classics). And here is another set, 50 slim selections from the Modern Classics range, branded laconically as Penguin Modern.
It seems that Penguin has learned from the sales for Little Black Classics (more than two million in the first year) to put the books at an irresistible price point. The Mini Modern Classics were overpriced at £3 each: these are a pound. As with the previous sets, the list is well-curated in that almost every volume contains self-contained work: one or two stories or essays, typically. To me that matters because I can hold in my hand a slim volume and say “this is Sontag’s ‘Notes on Camp’!” and because there’s something dingy and disrespectful about abridging longer pieces to fit this length (they’re all around 64 pages). That’s why I had no interest in last year’s Vintage Minis, which got it horribly wrong by mostly being samplers of larger books (Heller’s masterpiece Something Happened reduced to 100 pages!), except when they got it horribly wronger by using complete texts but renaming them (so Huxley’s The Doors of Perception became Psychedelics, and Styron’s Darkness Visible became Depression).
So what’s the purpose of the new Penguin Modern list? Well, it ties in with the new eau-de-nil look for Penguin Modern Classics (readers of an age with me will remember this as the signature colour for Penguin Twentieth-Century Classics in the 1990s, the list from which I first read the likes of Fitzgerald, Greene, Woolf and Waugh). If there’s an anniversary to mark this time around, I’m unaware of it. But the press for the series says it’s about capturing the “pioneering spirit” of Penguin Modern Classics. Certainly if you compare this list to the 2011 Mini Modern Classics, it’s less mainstream – and even those authors whose names are more familiar than your own toothbrush are at the radical end of the literary establishment (Borges, Kafka, Beckett). The sources are a little more diverse too: last time we had 11 women out of 50, this time it’s 17; then there were 3 books by non-white authors, now there are 7; and the number of books in translation has risen from 11 to 19.
The other purpose, for the reader, is to try authors you might otherwise not have wanted to shell out a tenner on, or would never have had the stamina to tackle at full length. The latter is certainly my experience: like the much-missed KevinfromCanada, I prefer to read books, not parts of books, so whereas I’ve had Sontag’s Against Interpretation on my shelves for years, awaiting retirement or empty nest syndrome or some other factor that will give me the time and intellectual room to tackle it, I can read ‘Notes on “Camp”‘ in this new series in one gulp. For me, some of the titles here were a chance to revisit authors I’d read in my youth but never since, so I was reminded how playful and approachable Borges’s stories are, even through their intellectual rigour: the outward simplicity of ‘The Book of Sand’ and its “monstrous” infinite volume, or the spy story structure of ‘The Garden of Forking Paths’ and its exploration of time and futures: “The author of an atrocious undertaking ought to imagine that he has already accomplished it, ought to impose upon himself a future as irrevocable as the past.”
For some of the familiar authors here, the material is ‘new’; for example I was pleased that James Baldwin’s Dark Days contains three short, late essays not available in the current Penguin collections, Notes of a Native Son and Nobody Knows My Name. Baldwin is always good value, and his writing often has the cadences of oratory, a consequence of his time as a child preacher, with all the repetition that that entails:
Not one of us – black or white – knows how to walk when we get here. Not one of us knows how to open a window, unlock a door. Not one of us can master a staircase. We are absolutely ignorant of the almost certain results of falling out of a five-storey window. Not one of us comes here knowing enough not to play with fire. Nor can one of us drive a tank, fly a jet, hurl a bomb, or plant a tree.
We must be taught all that. We have to learn all that. The irreducible price of learning is realising that you do not know. One may go further and point out – as any scientist, or artist, will tell you – that the more you learn, the less you know; but that means you have begun to accept, and are even able to rejoice in, the relentless conundrum of your life.
In these essays it’s easy to see Baldwin’s influence on Ta-Nehisi Coates, whose We Were Eight Years in Power was one of the best books I read last year. Here’s Baldwin in the final essay, ‘The White Man’s Guilt’:
I have known many black men and women and black boys and girls who really believed it was better to be white than black, whose lives were ruined or ended by this belief; and I, myself, carried the seeds of this destruction within me for a long time.
What about the authors I didn’t already know? I liked Yuko Tsushima’s stories in Of Dogs and Walls (the title story taking its inspiration from Marcel Aymé’s The Man Who Walked Through Walls). Both are hybrid pieces, which start in one way – gentle, familial, pastoral even – and become much sharper and tougher. Tsushima is one of the writers here who isn’t actually in Penguin Modern Classics yet: her novel Territory of Light is published in English for the first time in April, and this is the first translation of these stories too. Something to look forward to.
Also new to Penguin is prolific Nigerian Igbo writer Cyprian Ekwensi. “Five decades or more of writing have brought me world fame but not fortune,” he said in 1999. “If I were an American living in America or Europe, I would be floating in a foam bath in my own private yacht off the coast of Florida.” Penguin will reissue his most popular novel Jagua Nana later this year, and his contribution to this series is a standalone story first published in 1966. ‘Glittering City’ shows us the life and times – and women – of Fussy Joe, a musician and chancer in Lagos, a “bed-bug of a man” according to one of those women, who “didn’t seem to have one serious thought in his life,” and whose “interest in any girl became more intense if he knew that she was engaged to a good friend of his.” Of course such luck cannot last long. Even when the ending turns sober, though, Ekwensi’s telling never loses its liveliness, and that lack of fortune he bemoaned seems truly unjust.
One of the most interesting of the titles I read is Wendell Berry’s Why I am Not Going to Buy a Computer, which starts with the very short title piece from Harper’s Magazine where the farmer and prolific novelist, ecological essayist and poet explains why he doesn’t want a word processor. Not having a computer in 1987 was a less notable stance than it is now, and the piece would hardly be worth mentioning if it wasn’t for the way Berry gets his dander up in response to readers’ letters to Harper’s after the piece appeared. Most of the readers are good-humoured in their letters, whereas Berry’s response is frankly, as Marge Gunderson would put it, snippy. Even worse, the other essay here, ‘Feminism, the Body and the Machine’, from two years later, begins: “Some time ago, Harper’s reprinted a short essay of mine in which I gave some of my reasons for refusing to buy a computer…”
Oh Wendell! Let it go! But he’s back, with more points to make after stewing on it for a couple of years. In fact this piece is much more interesting and wider-ranging than the first, though sets standards for others no less unrealistic (“I do not believe that ’employment outside the home’ is as valuable or important or satisfying as employment at home, for either men or women”, which is easy for you to say if you’ve got your own farmland and a hotline to Harper’s). He does admit that “one cannot construct an adequate public defence of a private life” and, as the essay moves from thought to thought, his anti-consumerist rhetoric and warnings about technology “replac[ing] ourselves” sound more timely now than ever. He acknowledges that even he cannot live as he recommends, and when he writes “I still fly on aeroplanes” despite them being “inconvenient, uncomfortable, undependable, ugly, stinky and scary,” it’s hard not to wonder if, writing a year after even Margaret Thatcher was warning of the perils of climate change, he isn’t overlooking a more obvious problem with air travel. He does write very engagingly, however, and I was driven to find an interview with Berry from 2012, where – for what this is worth in a writer – he comes across as much more human than he does here, and with greater understanding of how his lifestyle won’t work for most (“Don’t do it”). Oh, and these days “I do have a bit of commerce with a computer that belongs to a friend of mine, who does a lot of my typing for me.”
Similarly uncompromising is Audre Lorde, who has a handful of short pieces, mostly originating as lectures, collected in The Master’s Tools Will Never Dismantle the Master’s House. (All are taken from Silver Press’s recent publication Your Silence Will Not Protect You, ahead of the Penguin reissue of her ‘biomythography’ Zami later this year.) Lorde, who described herself as a “Black, lesbian, mother, warrior, poet,” makes it clear from the start that she is speaking to us from outside the establishment, with her self-definition of poetry as
the revelation of distillation of experience, not the sterile word-play that, too often, the white fathers distorted the word poetry to mean – in order to cover a desperate wish for imagination without insight.
As a white father myself, I’d say sterility is in the eye of the beholder, and it’s no more fruitful to attack – who did she mean? – Eliot, say, than it is to denigrate the poetry of Rupi Kaur to those who love it. But she packs a punch on the value of poetry, however you define it. “Poetry is the way we give name to the nameless so it can be thought.” Or, later: “Right now, I could name at least ten ideas I would have found intolerable or incomprehensible or frightening, except as they came after dreams and poems.” Elsewhere, in the title essay, she is an early proponent of intersectionality. “It is a particular academic arrogance to assume any discussion of feminist theory without examining our many differences, and without a significant input from poor women, Black and Third World women, and lesbians.” She ends with Simone de Beauvoir: “It is in the knowledge of the genuine conditions of our lives that we must draw our strength to live and our reasons for acting.”
This Penguin Modern series overall gives Penguin an opportunity to recast the character of its Modern Classics range. It’s a list which has traditionally been dominated by early-20C English language writers – the Woolfs and Fitzgeralds, Greenes and Waughs I mentioned earlier – and even now, when you search the list by ‘Relevance’ on Penguin’s website, top hits are the likes of George Orwell, James Joyce and Kingsley Amis. But in recent years it has expanded into more crime, more SF and more diverse voices, which has worked only because the quality of the writing has always been paramount. (And then there’s John Christopher.) These 50 mini-books strongly foreground the newer stuff, with only a few traditional Modern Classics authors: Steinbeck, Nabokov, Bellow … and Orwell.
A word about the cover designs for this series. The typeface is Avant Garde, named after the New York magazine for which it was created, and it comes with numerous bespoke and playful ligatures to join certain letter combinations, which the Penguin design team has made full use of – adding, I suppose, to the air of radicalism the series seeks to project. When I first saw these designs in the Penguin catalogue last year, I hated them. Now I love them. And that is why I will never be a designer.
Here is a book whose fearsome reputation precedes it – or should I say (spoiler alert) exceeds it? Berlin Alexanderplatz is a monument of modern German literature and, more prominently to me, a byword for fat unreadability. It’s not clear whether this is because of intrinsic qualities in the book itself, or the widely disliked first English translation by Eugene Jolas. The book is a running joke in Ned Beauman’s novel The Teleportation Accident, where the ‘hero’ Egon Loeser has been trying to read it for 30 years:
About a year earlier, he had taken a slow train to Cologne to visit his great aunt, and on the journey he had deliberately brought nothing to read but Berlin Alexanderplatz, on the basis that after six hours either he would have finished the book or the book would have finished him. He lasted one stop before turning to the other man in the carriage and saying, ‘I will give you fifty-seven marks, which is everything I have in my wallet, for that novel you’re reading.’
‘Don’t you care what it is?’
‘Is it by any chance Berlin Alexanderplatz?’ said Loeser.
‘Then I don’t care what it is.’
Six hours was an optimistic estimate by Loeser – it took me over a week to complete it – but otherwise he was unnecessarily gloomy. In this new translation by Michael Hofmann, Berlin Alexanderplatz is not at all difficult and rarely daunting, except in its length.
Berlin Alexanderplatz (1929) was originally subtitled The Story of Franz Biberkopf, at the insistence of Döblin’s publisher Samuel Fischer, for whom (writes Hofmann in an excellent afterword) “‘Berlin Alexanderplatz’ was the name of a railway stop, not the title of a book.” The subtitle is dropped in this new edition, but if another were to be added, I suggest The City. Just as Melville called his most famous novel Moby-Dick, or, The Whale, because it sought to reduce the entire concept of the whale to writing (though ‘reduce’ is probably not the word), so Döblin does the same not just for Berlin, but the modern city in general. Berlin Alexanderplatz is Europe’s Moby-Dick, a work of unified force whose story is intercut with advertising slogans, court reports, and all manner of found materials whose inclusion has the intended effect: it makes for a book as busy as the city.
The story of Franz Biberkopf (‘beaverhead’) is simple enough. At the start of the book, it’s the beginning of 1928 and Franz has just been released from prison, and immediately we see Döblin’s casual, reflexive style: “The awful moment was at hand (awful, why so awful, Franz?), his four years were up.” It’s awful because freedom is its own punishment, away from the routine and certainties of prison: now, terrifyingly, Franz is once again responsible for his own fate. He does try to go straight, initially through working in trade, selling laces door to door but with ambitions for more (“why not be the man to introduce garden statuary into small towns?”), but we are high in the Weimar republic, and the economic outlook is not favourable (“one and a half million unemployed, up by 226,000 in a fortnight”). It’s inevitable, then, that Franz finds himself falling in with a gang of crooks (“do I run, do I not run, what do I do”), whose company defines him for the rest of the book, through a car accident with dramatic consequences, to his involvement with a string of women – Lena, Eva, Cilly, Sonia (or is it Mitzi?) – none of whom he treats well, to say the least. But here he has – literally – form, as his prison sentence in the first place was for the manslaughter of his girlfriend Ida, to whose killing we get a flashback, in a depersonalising style that George Saunders might have been inspired by:
It only remains to list the further consequences of the process thus initiated: loss of verticality on the part of Ida, reversion to the horizontal, in the form of colossal impact, at the same time as breathing difficulties, intense pain, shock and psychological loss of balance.
Not that anyone else gets off lightly either. Part of the aim of Berlin Alexanderplatz seems to be to show how a great city can be terrible for so many of the people who live in it. To illustrate this, Döblin’s focus, apart from an ironic expression of concern for the impact that inflation is having on the middle classes, is on the down-at-heel and the down-and-out, the occupants of seedy bars and apartment blocks. The story at times threads through the floors of a building, passes from one consciousness to another, reading correspondence, eavesdropping in a pile-up of chaotic set pieces.
Yes, all human life is here, and not just human, as the glamourless locations include the local slaughterhouse (“courts of justice for the beasts”), which is portrayed in a loving four-page description. If Döblin gives the animals here as much attention as he does his humans elsewhere, it’s only to emphasise that the mass of the people in this economically stratified, still war-wrecked country are no better off than the “dear piggies” on their way to market. The ironic and amused tone Döblin adopts here (“We have come to the end of physiology and theology, this is where physics begins”) is common throughout the book, as he peeks out from behind the curtain – look! I am writing a novel! – and this is never better expressed than in the sub-chapter headings:
Markets opening directionless, gradually drifting lower, Hamburg out of bed the wrong side, London continuing weak
Victory all along the line! Franz Biberkopf buys a veal escalope
Keep your eyes on Karl the plumber: something’s going on with him
Reinhold’s Black Wednesday – but this section can be skipped
All in all, Hofmann’s casual style suits the looseness of the narrative (“the book contains a great deal that is simply there for its own sake” he writes in the afterword) pretty well. One of the difficulties for the translator of Berlin Alexanderplatz is the supposedly untranslatable idiomatic language of working-class Berlin, for which Hofmann says he has chosen what fellow German translator Anthea Bell calls “the regional unspecific,” though to me it seemed more directed than that, usually toward British speech (bunch a flars, nothink, facking, even leave it aht), though I suppose if you’re going to settle on a vernacular rendering, European English makes more sense than American. (In the second English translation, by Anne Thompson, northern English dialect was used.)
Berlin Alexanderplatz was a bestseller in its time, so much so that Döblin regretted the shadow it cast over his other work, but for years has been only patchily available in English. This Penguin Classics edition (the same translation is being released in the US by NYRB Classics) is part of a new look reserved for, I think, first publications and significant new translations, presumably to be followed in due course with a standard black Classics or Modern Classics paperback. The covers are colour-coded to indicate the original language, as with the Pocket Penguins series (olive here for German). The rough card covers and spartan design seem to communicate seriousness and significance, like a brown road sign that directs drivers to a destination that’s good for you. That gives it more the daunting quality of black Penguin Classics than the approachable coolness (to me, anyway) of Penguin Modern Classics. Probably either look would be suitable, for a book that is at heart both seriously significant and a great deal of fun.
A few years ago, I had a discussion with someone who said they never re-read books. This seemed to me a wild claim. Re-reading is, to me, an essential component of reading: I might even say that the first reading of a book is only ever a provisional act, a test to determine whether it is fit to be retained for a future revisit, when I’ll take my time over it and give it the reading it deserves. In practice, because I am fully engaged in this first-level sifting, the re-reading almost never happens, an effect enhanced by the usual drains on reading time (see blog posts passim).
Re-reading might be done for comfort reasons: I know people who read an old favourite each year, particularly favourites from adolescence or early adulthood. For me I’m more likely to re-read if, despite having read the book before, perhaps multiple times, it’s one that I’ve never got to the bottom of. Examples – books I’ve read at least three times each – would include Jeanette Winterson’s Sexing the Cherry, with its classic Wintersonian ‘spiral’ narrative, and Patrick McGrath’s Dr Haggard’s Disease, with its impeccable narrative mysteries.
This month I read another book for a third time. The Ice Palace by Tarjei Vesaas (1963, tr. Elizabeth Rokkan 1993) was previously published by Peter Owen, one of the first and finest internationalist independent publishers in the UK, which I wrote about here. Now, in a
raid on deal for its backlist, Penguin has reissued some Peter Owen titles in its Modern Classics range. (That, of course, is another common trigger for me to re-read a book: Penguin has given it a handsome new look.) That cover image, by the way – a perfect complement both to the book and to Penguin’s new eau de nil look for its Modern Classics – is by Taiwanese artist Hsiao-Ron Cheng.
The Ice Palace is about two young women – children, in fact, at 11 years old, though this is easily forgotten – who have a strange connection and who are brought together, and separated, by a mysterious crystalline ice structure in the Norwegian fjords. There is no sentimentality or neat resolution, no happy ending: it is the anti-Frozen. A close comparison might be made with Adalbert Stifter’s Rock Crystal, which shares with The Ice Palace its brevity, a sense of inchoate threat, and a fairytale atmosphere, though The Ice Palace remains much more uncompromising and bold. The two girls are Siss and Unn, opposing monosyllables, who have come to know one another in school, and at the beginning of the book are going to spend the afternoon together for the first time. Siss, in whose head we remain for most of the book, feels both excitement and fear, is “quivering with expectancy.” There’s an uncomfortable, nascent sexual feel to their history of becoming aware of one another at school. “They were both playing some game of enticement.” Siss, aware of Unn’s eyes on her in class, feels “a peculiar tingling in her body. She liked it so much she scarcely bothered to hide it.”
When Siss reaches Unn’s house the atmosphere is turned up to eleven, and the scene where they sit together in Unn’s bedroom is so highly charged that the pages crackle. Everything is suggested and implied, but nothing stated, even in their elliptical dialogue. (“There’s something I want to tell you. I’ve never said it to anyone.” “Would you have said it to your mother?” “No.” “Will you say it now?” “No.”) Eventually the evening, the encounter, ends, Siss runs home and the girls are separated. We are still less than 30 pages into the book but already I feel constrained from discussing more of the plot – even in re-reading, there are many surprises and turns here that it would be unfair to disclose.
There is one chapter from Unn’s point of view, which is central to the book. Partly this is because it introduces us to the ice palace of the title, with a heady line in singing, ringing prose:
From here the ice walls seemed to touch the sky; they grew as she thought about them. She was intoxicated. The place was full of wings and turrets, how many it was impossible to say. The water had made it swell in all directions, and the main waterfall plunged down in the middle, keeping a space clear for itself.
But it is also key because it’s so hard to tell the difference between this chapter, featuring Unn, and the previous ones featuring Siss. The two are represented like two halves of one body, with all the questions that arise from that: how do they depend on one another? What happens if they are separated?
What follows Unn’s visit to the ice palace is a narrative that in some ways is traditional – a mystery, a quest, suspense – but doesn’t follow any pattern we are familiar with. There is plenty about the close-knit community of village life in Norway, with all the balance of support and oppression that that implies, and one of the beauties of the book is the rural warmth even in chapter titles – “Snow covered bridges”, “woodwind players” – which provide a haiku-ish quality (“like the water drop and the twig”) and a reassuring warmth amid a coolly threatening story. There is real force in the sober beauty of lines like these, when Unn’s aunt and Siss say goodbye for the last time:
They were floating, almost at one with the darkness, reflecting no light. Their footsteps could not be heard. But their breathing could, and perhaps the heart. They mingled with other almost nocturnal stirrings, like a small vibration in long wires.
The language in The Ice Palace is perfectly clear, but it resists straightforward interpretation. I’ll resist the obvious iceberg comparisons, but the style is ice-like in being simultaneously translucent and opaque. Sadly there is no introduction or other supplementary material in this new edition, which is exactly what a troubling text like this needs. We can turn, though, to Doris Lessing’s review when the book was first published in English, which is valuable particularly for its discussion of the community in which Versaas lived his whole life, and how the book must be seen in this context. Robert Macfarlane is a fan too (“it dazzled me with its discretion, precision and angular icy beauties” – typically summing the book up better in half a dozen words more effectively than I can in a thousand), as is Max Porter, who is “surprised it isn’t the most famous book in the world.” Well, I can see why it’s not, but it would be nice if this reissue gives more deserved attention to this entirely mysterious, entirely satisfying story.
Why is it that I’ve never read Margaret Drabble before? Probably through some expectation of her as a dull, middlebrow producer of ‘Hampstead novels’; her status as a member of the literary establishment (sister of A.S. Byatt, wife of Michael Holroyd); and frankly, the fact that her name sounds like a cross between drab and drivel. So here I break my duck with her complete short fiction, new from Penguin Modern Classics (ahead of their publication of some of her novels later this year).
A Day in the Life of a Smiling Woman is subtitled The Collected Stories, which makes it sound rather more epic than it is. It consists of thirteen stories in 220 pages: Drabble’s entire published short fiction output since 1966. (The US edition, subtitled The Complete Stories, includes one, ‘Les Liaisons Dangereuses’, which is not included here.) A collection of stories covering a writer’s entire career – though the most recent story is eleven years old – might be a good introduction to her work, though it does present problems. First, what busy reader can justify taking two weeks over a slim volume like this, which is what would be required to satisfy Mavis Gallant’s injunction that one should read only one story per day? Second, in a collection such as this, where there is an identifiable authorial style in many of the stories, that style may come to seem overfamiliar or tiresome when the stories are read together. Moreover, this might be quite the reverse of the experience for the Drabble fan reading them as they were published over four decades: they may experience comfort and delight in settling back into the author’s familiar voice. Finally, any collected stories like this wickedly invites the reviewer to forge connections or emphasise contrasts to give the review coherence, or to trace a line of development that can only be imposed retrospectively.
Nonetheless there are similarities to some of the stories. All writers revisit the same themes throughout their career – ‘the perspective is like a shadow moving across a lawn,’ Martin Amis said of Graham Greene. Drabble explores social changes affecting predominantly middle-class characters (they are playwrights, TV presenters, Nobel laureates: she is the female Ian McEwan). What’s most interesting about the way she approaches social change is that her stories both embody and challenge it. In the earliest story here, ‘Hassan’s Tower’ – the book presents them in chronological order – modern marriage is viewed starkly by a honeymooning husband who is already regretting his wedding (“he was no more able to refuse the temptations of pity than he had been able, earlier, to refuse those of an envious admiration”). His wife, a figure of boredom and contempt to him, has no voice in the story, though there is no imbalance of empathy. This in fact is the only story from a man’s point of view – elsewhere, it is the men who are off-stage or recounted in rueful memory: a bully (‘The Merry Widow’), a lech (‘A Success Story’, and the introduction by José Francisco Fernández tells us that this poor example of masculinity was based on Saul Bellow). In ‘The Merry Widow’, the resistance to social norms is even more marked: the central character is “bored” with family life, her children and grandchildren and seeks only to be “divinely, enchantingly, rapturously alone.” (“Writers, most alive when alone:” Amis again.) She decides to go alone on a holiday planned to be taken with her recently dead husband, and finds a new richness through discovery of both the English countryside and the landscape of her own personality.
Drabble’s style remains similar through many of the stories: a subjective third person narrative which comes close to stream of consciousness in its detail and absorption of the characters’ thoughts (at times I was reminded of Mrs Dalloway). This enables her to impart her characters’ histories and impressions together, in a way which can tip from showing to telling, so that the experience is like flying over a landscape rather than walking through it. The narrative style expands a little in second half of book, as though Drabble has begun to experiment. ‘A Success Story’ and the title story have an omniscient narrator – the author, or an author – talking directly to the reader in a playful way (“Perhaps I shouldn’t write [this story], perhaps it’s a bad move to write it”), though they both settle into something very like the directed internal monologue of the early stories. Later, there are a couple of first person narratives, though one of them, ‘Homework’, fell flat for me as it was too obvious an example of a classical unreliable narrator – the sort who thinks they are revealing information about someone else when in fact they are revealing slowly information about themselves. This seems tricksy against Drabble’s usually more straightforward approach, and it is clear that a social realist style is where she remains most comfortable.
Happy liaisons in these stories are a rarity. People fail to connect, or their only connection is a memory; when they do meet it is by accident, or ends unsatisfactorily. In ‘A Voyage to Cythera’, a single woman who loves to travel because she dreams of meeting a lover in every new place she visits (“Oh messages from a foreign country, oh, disquieting glimpses of brightness”), becomes obsessed with the lover of a man she helps on a train. In ‘Faithful Lovers’, former partners in an extra-marital affair encounter one another by chance in an old secret meeting place; though it is not quite by chance. The woman accidentally tells the man that she no longer sleeps with her husband, then is grateful when food arrives to enable the subject to drop. But when it does, she regrets it, and wants to tell him more. Of such astute character insights is great fiction made. The stories are not entirely gloomy, though they do cast a cynical eye in particular on social expectations of women and the masks society imposes. In ‘A Success Story’, a young woman playwright finds herself more pleased by a man’s lechery than any interest he shows in her work (“It’s an awful thing to say, but that’s how some women are,” nods the author to the reader). In ‘A Day in the Life of a Smiling Woman’, there is something like a fairy story tone, including the darkness that we tend to forget about fairy stories, which Drabble brings into an account of a woman losing the will to mask her true self:
And she thought, What has happened to me is that some little mechanism in me has broken. There used to be, till yesterday, a little knob that one twisted until these people came into focus as nice, harmless, well-meaning people. And it’s broken, it won’t twist any more.
Even in the darker stories, we are rewarded with an inkling of optimism toward the end, as an agent of change comes into focus. In ‘Hassan’s Tower’, the husband who “had been afraid for years that he had come to the end of the new and interesting in life,” starts to see his marriage as a beginning rather than an ending. In ‘The Caves of God’, a woman who has never recovered from a relationship ending finds that going back is a possibility, if only for temporary relief. In the later stories, the landscape of England becomes a source of succour.
The stories collected here cover four decades, and it is possible to see the phases of life reflected in them when reading chronologically. Yearning turns to love and settlement; later, children are a subject; finally bereavement, illness and fear of death. Anxiety in the earlier stories turns to calm in the last ones. There is a shift, too, from foreign places, to English cities, to the rural landscape. There need not be any strongly autobiographical element for it to be clear that these are the subjects that preoccupied Drabble as she herself aged. In that sense, what we have here is a document of existence; a life in writing.
My main gripe with Saul Bellow, even while recognising his greatness, is that there’s so damn much of him. It’s facile but unavoidable. With a hungry blog to feed and a couple of other minor draws on my time (oh yes: family and work), I’ve never been able to clear the couple of months that frankly I would need to really ingest the 496 pages of Humboldt’s Gift. All hail, then, Penguin Mini Modern Classics, the latest series of single-shot fiction miniatures from Penguin. (Decrepit readers will remember the Penguin 60s and Pocket Penguins from 1995 and 2005, and indeed the Great Loves. This new set celebrates half a century of Penguin Modern Classics.)
‘Him With His Foot in His Mouth’ is the title story from Bellow’s 1984 collection. It appears here in a standalone volume – the story is the whole book – which is by far the most satisfying way of doing it. (Many of the fifty titles in the Mini Modern Classics collect two or more stories together, which seems to me somehow to be cheating.) Needless to say, there is enough in its slim extent to fill the reader up as a whole novel by another author might.
Bellow’s style is there from the title: the carefully casual repetition, the self-regard, the demotic idiom. The story takes the form of a letter to “Miss Rose” from Shawmut, a sort-of retired professor, where he apologises for an off-the-cuff jibe he made to her some thirty-five years ago. Partly this is because he has been reminded of his crime by an old friend, partly because he fears that “there is a life to come – wait and see – and that in the life to come we will feel the pains that we inflicted on others.” I said ‘sort-of retired’ because although Shawmut is of a certain age, he is in no position to rest up:
The death of my brother leaves me in a deep legal-financial hole. I won’t molest you with the facts of the case, garbled in the newspapers. Enough to say that his felonies and my own faults or vices have wiped me out. On bad legal advice I took refuge in Canada, and the courts will be rough because I tried to escape. I may not be sent to prison, but I will have to work for the rest of my life, will die in harness, and damn queer harness, hauling my load to a peculiar peak.
Shawmut comes not just to make amends to Miss Rose for his “stupid wisecrack” (adding, “Allow me to presume that you are old-fashioned enough not to be furious at having led a useful life”), but to wallow in his own downfall – to say, look, I got my just deserts! Really, the letter is his document to himself, a self-critique, which is emphasised early on when we discover that what we are reading is not the final form, but a draft (“I will say it all and then revise, send Miss Rose only the suitable parts“). This being Bellow, ‘I will say it all’ seems like a challenge to himself that he can’t resist.
Shawmut has been warned to make amends by his old friend Eddie Walish, who was with him on the dangerous day. Bellow reminds us how he can do a novelist’s turn – how he could, if he wanted, be just a really good novelist – with just-so imagery (“absorbent-cotton bread”) and descriptions of characters so tight that they snap:
Our Ed, who suffered from curvature of the spine, would not carry a stick, much less wear a built-up shoe. He behaved with sporting nonchalance and defied the orthopedists when they warned that his spinal column would collapse like a stack of dominoes. His style was to be free and limber. You had to take him as he came, no concessions offered. I admired him for that.
(Eddie Walish sounds a little like Augie March introducing himself.) Shawmut laments Walish’s attack on him, the demand that provoked this letter of apology. “All the while that he was making the gestures of a close and precious friend, he was fattening my soul in a coop till it was ready for killing.” So beleaguered does Shawmut appear in his account – swindled by lawyers and family members, betrayed by his oldest pal – that it soon becomes clear that he wants to make Miss Rose feel sorry for him, to become the victim and leach her pity even as he purports to apologise. The simplest reason to apologise – feeling guilt – doesn’t come high on his list.
He is topsy-turvy, but what isn’t? “The world’s grandeur is fading.” He feels himself to be “not in the right state, the state of vision I was meant or destined to be in. … Until this ends there can only be errors.” He connects this to his financial troubles, the swindlings he has been on the wrong end of, and his disorientation in America, the money capital of the world. Shawmut, reversing his creator’s steps, leaves Chicago and goes to Canada. “It’s no easy thing to share a border with the USA. Canada’s chief entertainment – it has no choice – is to watch (from a gorgeous setting) what happens in our country.” A short journey, but on the way Bellow seems to cover – and uncover – a multitude, the whole man, and more besides; to take us around the world in eighty pages.
Every so often a book comes along that leaves you dizzy with wonder that you haven’t read it before. Why haven’t people been pressing Karel Čapek’s War with the Newts on me since I was old enough to read? (Yes, you see: it’s all your fault.) In fairness, people who did know the book were enthusiastic when I said I was reading it. Now I’m doing my bit.
War with the Newts (1936; tr. M and R Weatherall, 1937) is published as part of Penguin’s Central European Classics series. And what a series it is! Three hits out of three so far makes me sound like a bit of an uncritical fanboy, so I had better point out that I was disappointed by the lack of introductions or other critical apparatus to the ten books in the series, and the fact that most had not been reset but used the old type from earlier editions. (Contrast with the Penguin Decades, all reset and with new introductions.) No doubt cost control is a part of this, and I’d rather have the books like this than not at all. However the absence of the first contents page in this volume seemed to go beyond quirky.
‘Quirky’ – wash my mouth out – is probably how a committee of studio executives would describe a major motion picture adaptation of War with the Newts. Dammit, it is quirky, but by that I mean funny, satirical, unexpected, pithy and possessing the strange quality of being both precisely of its time and bang up to date. It keeps the reader on their toes by introducing new characters, and a new narrative style, in almost every chapter, with only a mischievously satirical air uniting them.
The plot of the book, the conclusion of which is revealed in the title, takes us through a history of man’s discovery of an advanced species of newt on an island “right on the equator, a bit to the west of Sumatra,” a species whose ability to learn quickly and use tools makes them ideal workers for the global pearl industry. Čapek shows – shows off, I suppose – his dazzling range, in chapters which lampoon everything pop-cultural from Hollywood starlets to the modern media: “It was a newspaper man’s dog days when nothing, absolutely nothing, happens, when there are no politics, and not even a European crisis.” It is through the agency of a motley range of these characters – the desperate, the ruthless and the lazy – that the newts come to be used around the world as cheap labour. Throughout the book, underneath the stylistic tricks (typeface switches, footnotes, people who speak in newspaper headlines, fake academic articles), the real subject of Čapek’s scorn is modern commerce and capitalism.
Today we simply cannot wait some hundreds of years for something either good or bad to happen in the world. For instance, the migration of peoples, which used to drag on for ages, can now be managed with the organised transport of today and be all completed in three years; otherwise there is no money in it. It was the same situation with the liquidation of the Roman Empire and the colonization of the continents, the killing off of the Red Indians, and so on. All that could be accomplished today in an incomparably shorter stretch of time if it were entrusted to contractors with plenty of capital behind them.
(75 years ago? It might have been written next week.) To preserve the lives of this valuable commodity while they carry out their pearl fishing, the businesses have come up with a brilliant solution. “Certain inevitable losses which the Newts used to suffer from sharks ceased almost completely when the Newts were provided with underwater revolvers shooting dum-dum bullets for defence against rapacious fish.” See? Čapek is even giving us a bit of dramatic irony and foreshadowing.
The deluded humans blunder on toward their self-inflicted disaster, even as some speculate that “our history has already been played … and we shift our figures with the same moves to the same checks as in times long past.” Sure enough, there are direct references to black slavery. This seems not to trust the reader to pick up such parallels for himself, but there is good reason for it. War with the Newts was written in central Europe in the 1930s, and the obviously and dominating analogy, with hindsight engaged, is with the plight of the Jewish people. Yet the book is broad enough to be open to numerous, and even contradictory, interpretations. (See here [PDF link], where the editor of Penguin’s Central European Classics series, emphasises the equally powerful impression of the Newts representing the Nazis.) Enthusiasm for the Newts, this imported species – these immigrants providing cheap labour – does not last.
As soon as the Newts became a collective and commonplace phenomenon, what we may term their problems altered. The truth is that soon the great Newt sensation passed off to make way for something else, and to some extent something more substantial, that is the Newt problem.
So it’s science fiction, comedy, satire, social commentary, warning, a scrapbook of pastiche – War with the Newts has pretty much everything. I even wondered, when reading the Newt leader’s address to the the human population (“Let us know your price for the south part of Lincolnshire along with Wash”), if Douglas Adams had been inspired by it before writing the Vogons’ “People of Earth, your attention please” speech in The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. It’s a book which contains multitudes, and should be read by multitudes.