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PENGUIN MODERN STORIES

PART TWO, continued from HERE

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Edited by Judith Burnley during 1969-1972

My previous reviews of older or classic books: https://dflewisreviews.wordpress.com/reviews-of-older-books/

And other Penguin short stories here: https://nullimmortalis.wordpress.com/26609-2/and https://dflewisreviews.wordpress.com/2021/12/26/the-penguin-book-of-the-contemporary-british-short-story/

When I read these stories, my thoughts will appear in the comment stream below…

14 responses to “*

  1. The Excursion to the Source by Elizabeth Taylor

    “Through an open window she could hear the solid ticking of a grandfather-clock and on the terrace, the peacocks squawked with a sound of rusty shears being forced open. Here there was only the busy noise of the cicadas in the grass.
    At the bottom of the orchard, she saw Jean. He was beckoning to her eagerly, and she hurried forward, with a wading motion, through the long grass.”

    This Zeno time-wading story of two women, Gwenda and Polly (27), the former, as once guardian, fifteen years older than the other, travelling by car in France towards the source of the river in Dordogne where Gwenda’s last holiday with her then ill, and now dead, husband was spent. They are well-characterised and the nature of the auberge where they stay for six days by chance with a broken down (or deliberately tampered-with?) car, and the fellow guests and the “oafish” mute called Jean and the landscape itself are all also well-characterised, surrounded by images of a trout-trap, pâté, worms, mosquitoes, gentians and wild flowers. A sort of Aickman ‘Hospice’ audit trail where the Aickman strangeness is conjured inside you and not in the story itself, while summoning climaxes and outer and inner landscape edges such as those in Lindsay’s ‘Picnic at Hanging Rock’ and Forster’s ‘Passage to India.’

    My ongoing review of this author’s collected stories: https://dflewisreviews.wordpress.com/2022/04/27/complete-short-stories-elizabeth-taylor/

  2. ANOTHER DAY by Dan Jacobson

    “I held a book in my hands, but I wasn’t reading it.”

    An extremely haunting story ostensibly told by a white boy left alone at home in the African sun, back in some day, with the children he sees called ‘piccanins’. The evocative atmosphere of Africa is presented to us, and the route he follows, following a parade of a makeshift funeral of a child and a black man with white smile paid to push the barrow with the coffin upon it, amid the wired off mine-dumps and humps and mounds of earth, and we sense the fear that he will see himself inside the coffin when gleefully invited to look inside, till he loses grip, as we do, upon what happens next, if anything. Though he fears something will, even if it’s tomorrow.

  3. A SATISFACTORY SETTLEMENT by Nadine Gordimer

    “YOU RUBBISH . . . don’t say me . . . he want . . . L-I-A-R-S . . . don’t say me.
    Or the horrible jabber when a tape recorder is run backwards. Is that my voice? Shrill, ugly; merely back-to-front? L-I-A-R-S?”

    I get the impression this boy in Johannesburg has moved with his mother, away from his father, a decline, I guess, in standards, but eventually a settlement with his Mum eventually meeting new friends, with much more than just the actual distance between him and his friends back in the earlier home in the same city, in fact could be continents away, with someone’s broken down car in the street, blacks mixed with whites, not sure, but certainly a white Alsatian, but men who interfere with him, not sexually so much as mean-fully.
    His bike is stolen over night. His mum is kept awake by recurrent voices every night. Words jabbered that end up meaning nothing. Or a tranche of what happens in his life, reversing if not erasing lies? A satisfactory settlement.

  4. THE WAIT by John Updike

    This 1968 story is in a super  league  of its own simply because it’s by Updike. It has everything: coincidences galore, high suspense, romcom intrigues, two elbow-triggers, a collar-bone, references to Camus, Vermeer, Holbein, and a strong   sense of a ticketed airport hell of space and weight and waiting as word magic, all  twisting and turning the fate of the obsessive yet guilty affair of Harry having met Sally and of their respective spouses and children. It is an eventually gestalt masterpiece of prose style, people characterisation and wondrous synchronicity. Need I say more?

    • PS: It’s strange that the main characters in THE WAIT are Harry and Sally about the same time as that film came out which, as far as I know, is otherwise unconnected with this story.

  5. AN ACTOR’S LIFE FOR ME by Philip Roth

    “…Tarsila was floating in an inflated bag, a swollen invisible membrane, inside which she carried on her contortions all alone.”

    …as Walter made love to her.
    This is is the finely reciprocating story, in London and New York and Bahamas, of Walter Appel called Walter and his wife Juliet, of their modern difficult and easy marriage, modern, even though a character is said to dance the twist in it that sort of dates it, and of his affairs, first with a woman in Oneonta that, as a word, sort of goes with the quote from the story above, and then a raging affair with a celebrity called Tarsila, until Appel has an appendicitis….
    But the real point is that Walter and Juliet have naive ambitions, he to be a playwright, and she to be an actor. And they sort of reciprocate over the years in these aspirations (he eventually to become and actor, and she a playwright?), to the memorable backdrop of Juliet’s own sort of affair… with a distant so-called man in the apartment opposite who walks about nude, visible to the study where she is supposed to be writing a story or, as it turns out, a play. A man thing that Walter can also sometimes see from the living room. Not so much anything as haunting as a Nicholas Royle-like Appel-dummy or doppelgänger that follows them about, although it may be that as well if you can imagine it, but something else acting on them which you will need to nail down.
    “…he confronted his own elongated shadow.”
    Full of authorial wit about marital angst and the shallowness of ambition and …. well, you will need to read its closing literary elbow-trigger that creates, SPOILER, a happy ending, I guess! The text’s last two words being the clincher!

    “…with his free hand he pushed to the side elbows,…”

  6. MOBIUS THE STRIPPER by Gabriel Josipovici

    “I red Jennett. Prust. Nitch.”

    This story is in two layers with a line between, and you my choose to read the text across, above the line, from beginning to end of the pages, then later the same below the line. The otherwise breaks in the text make this seem easier. But I chose to read each complete page one by one, while ignoring the line, and this seems to evoke a story gestalt that took me from the eponymous stripper of his folds of banana skin flesh as not strictly sexual but more spiritual. And those who watch him or are asked to watch him at the sex club, a woman with big feet and some man as semi-collusive narrator whom she wants to join her at the club to see the stripper, who (and I don’t know to whom that ‘who’ belongs) seems to be writing it all down to avoid suicide when faced with a writers block. And it works supremely! Where has this story been all my life? It took a bit of chance serendipity, I guess, even to find it today.
    I loved in particular the peacocks and the rugger match with various famous writers.

    “‘For what is life?’ he would say. ‘Chance. And what is my life. The result of a million and one chances. But behind chance is truth. The whole problem is to get be-“

  7. CROSSING THE ALPS by Margret Drabble

    “looked up to look” — “we simply haven’t a chance of being given a chance”

    An adulterous trip together, with their gloomy, often near tragic, backstories, hers being her defective husband and defective child, and his being his impossible wife, involving a complex agonising about their hopes and motives as they travel on this road trip through Europe, with her taking over the driving halfway because of his worsening feverish illness (that I found wholly nightmarish to contemplate) and she reverses into a yellow stone wall without looking at what damage she had done and later she almost drives the car into their Yugoslavian hotel! A hybrid hotel that she describes to him in his sickbed as something like Marienbad with a dreadful hybrid modern wing.
    “: they loved what they could not have because, if they had it, it would cease to be, it would be so destroyed by possession that it would be no more.”
    Their emotional agonising gets so convoluted, I suspected that the point of view was now filtered through his delirious illness and he actually died abroad, instead of the happier, more hopeful ending we were given to read, a happier, more hopeful ending that was doubtless encouraged by the Wordsworthian quotation given to us at outset! Not forgetting the constant meals of eggs, because they couldn’t manage the menus!

    “(always so much further, the next town, than one thinks)”

    My review of LEFTOVERS by Margaret Drabble: https://dflewisreviews.wordpress.com/2020/12/10/the-new-abject-tales-of-modern-unease/

  8. THROUGH THE WILDERNESS by Dan Jacobson

    “My father’s life had been a ceaseless, unknowing, unswerving trek towards these hideous days and hours; they were the summation of his life as well as its undoing. He had moved through time as through a landscape, distracted by a thousand moods, experiences, possessions, achievements, memories, but always, unfalteringly, in one direction only, in this direction. And as with him, so with everyone else who lived, or had ever lived, or ever would. So many deaths already! So many still to die!”

    An amazingly compelling portrait of the African veld, of the ‘white enemy” and the blacks as farmers, the sheep-counting, the sunsets, and the various competing cults or sects of Jewishness and superstition and Godlessness, simple-mindedness and the God-cosmic, animal sacrifice and human death. Characters are well-drawn and long-lasting, whatever the illness or even death, i.e. the narrator, his father, Piet the foreman at the farmhouse, Boaz the Israelite who turns up, with one yellow eye small enough to watch you and a swollen bigger one that could not see.

    “The sun was low in the west, red, growing larger; around it were gathering the clouds that invariably appeared in the western corner of the horizon at that hour, after even the most cloudless days. Those clouds, together with the dust that was always in the air, the flat openness of the country, and the strength of the sun, all combined to produce the most spectacular sunsets, day after day: immense, silent, rapid combustions that flared violently into colour and darkened simultaneously. It always seemed suddenly that you became aware the colours had been consumed and only the darkness remained.”

    And the ‘pebble’ that chooses you as a synchronous equivalent from yesterday’s SOLID OBJECTS by Virginia Woolf (here).

    “…a disgusting daintiness.”

  9. THE MARMALADE BIRD by William Sansom

    “There it stood again, the magnificent marmalade bird! Head and shoulders above the grovelling tabibs, peppered as a thrush, beaked as an ibis, and achieving even some of the important trousery strut of an eagle.”

    An amazing story of a marriage battle as Dr Henry Livingstone and his wife holiday in Morocco, somehow in tune with this ‘Temporary Matter’ here: https://nemonymousnight.wordpress.com/2022/08/06/a-temporary-matter-jhumpa-lahiri/ that I read and reviewed only this morning, where darknesses and secrets are replaced by breeds of birds in this Sansom story, with the kaleidoscopic genius-loci of Morocco last century coming right at you with the wife’s pesky small tabibs and the husband’s more regal marmalade bird that attacks their marmalade in the hotel, and she attacks the marmalade itself with Kleenex tissue, and this sticks to the marmalade bird itself, paralleling their battles of what a holiday should be in Morocco, spiritual and Moroccan, or trivial and touristy. It is like an Aickman with knowingly pretentious literariness, and we are bombarded sensorily by it, as they bombard each other censoriously. Till they sort of make it up via their respective competing and struggling birds and become a gestalt more than what they are individually, along with sacrifice and exultation. Like Elizabeth Bowen, too.
    I felt like picking old hard skin off my ageing head while reading it. And so I did.

    “…and a tall Sengalese in baggy scarlet trousers and gold waistcoat entered the room carrying letters on a tray. This man stood for a moment more astonished by humans than by bird: by the doctor’s malevolent bloodhound eye and ghostly face patched with white toothpaste, by the wife with hair pinned mannishly down in a night-net. But his second thought, as servant and by nationality host to these strangers from the white North, was to be of assistance to the poor crazed things.”

  10. WATCH IT by A.L. Barker

    This is an astonishingly odd story, one whereby Reresby an ‘old man’ in the eyes of the squabbling little girls whom he regularly watches “as coming between fairies and angels”. He has recently retired from commuting to the office, when people used to commute, and now setting new routines for himself and his wife’s housework duties, but he tries to reconstitute his old commuting days (and office work) at home, sometimes walking in a place called The Plats, a cross between an artificial garden and a waste ground where the little girls think there is a monster in the pond or puddle, and they argue about a brooch their grandma gave them, but there are even odder caprices and undercurrents amid a whimsically sinister dubiousness, in glinting prose, as they feel they are stared at by Reresby, whom for some reason they saw at the end as Brer Rabbit….I think!

    My review of an Excuse for a Party: https://dflewisreviews.wordpress.com/2022/05/09/penguin-modern-stories/#comment-24946

  11. I SPY A STRANGER by Jean Rhys

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    This is a remarkable monologue by a woman couched within a dialogue with her visiting sister during the second world war when blackout curtains featured at night. She describes vividly a cousin called Laura who had arrived to live with her as a refugee from central Europe, with strange behaviour that started virulent gossip and threats about her in the area as if she is one of the enemy, and she has now been hived off to some sort of ‘sanatorium’. Above are some of Laura’s handwritten notes that form an intrinsic backdrop to the monologue. And the garden roses ironically and tellingly as some sort of recurrent objective-correlative of obsession. And we have powerfully evoked for us our own world today where a “nasty spirit” is about. “Something has gone terribly wrong. I believe we are all possessed by the Devil . . .”

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