The good people at Penguin seem to specialise in making boxsets with the express purpose of making them impossible for me to resist. Books with near-identical designs, in a box, cry out to me and find a home waiting for them on my shelves – even if I rarely get around to reading all or many of them.
Well, they’ve done it again. To celebrate the 50th anniversary of Penguin Modern Classics, they’ve created the Penguin Mini Modern Classics. As you’ll know, I love me some short books – and this selection of reasonably priced short books just hits the spot. Penguin asked 25 different bloggers to write about two of the 50 books – thus covering all fifty, and I was lucky enough to be one of those bloggers. So you’ll hopefully see reviews of them pop up everywhere across the blogosphere this week…
First things first – click here and then here for the rather spectacular Penguin websites for the Mini Modern Classics – you’ll come away hankering for the lot, I’ll wager. I’ve shamelessly stolen this picture from them.
The Machine Stops & The Celestial Omnibus – E.M. Forster
I must get around to reviewing Howards End soon, but suffice it to say that I thought it was brilliant. Another case of Third Time Lucky (so encouraging for keeping trying with authors) and I was keen to read more. Well, none of the three novels I’ve read of Forster’s could have prepared me for these two stories. I think (and this is an incentive to have a gander through the Mini Modern Classics) a lot of authors are more experimental or playful when they turn their hand to short stories. Perhaps they feel they have less to lose?
Anyway, Forster is certainly playful in these stories, originally published in 1928 and 1911 respectively. Perhaps playful isn’t the right word, as there are menacing tones to his fantasies. ‘The Machine Stops’ envisages a world where people live in isolated rooms, performing all communication and receiving all their needs through an international machine:
There were buttons and switches everywhere – buttons to call for food, for music, for clothing. There were the hot-bath button, by pressure of which a basin of (imitation) marble rose out of the floor, filled to the brim with a warm deodorized liquid. There was the cold-bath button. There was the button that produced literature. And there were of course the buttons by which she communicated with her friends. The room, though it contained nothing, was in touch with all that she cared for in the world.
It is a truism when writing of past dystopic (or is this utopic?) literature to suggest that the prophecies have come true. Obviously these have not, to the extent Forster writes – nor do I think much can be profited by worrying too much about it. Instead, I think Forster’s imaginative vision should be appreciated for what it is, and read as a fascinating tale – and a forerunner of Orwellian literature. For this world is crumbling; dissenters are punished – there is much to ponder on in this short, vivid tale.
‘The Celestial Omnibus’ is more lighthearted, but equally enjoyable – I shan’t write much, as the joy in this story comes from seeing how Forster treats the idea of a bus that travels to Heaven. And I’m in danger of the ironic failing of writing too much about short stories… I’ll just conclude by saying that this pairing was a brilliant idea from Penguin, and has opened my eyes to facets of Forster which I’d never have expected.
The Magic Paint and other stories – Primo Levi
I’m afraid I’ve only read the first two stories from this collection of eight – each of which is only around 5-10 pages. I will certainly finish it, possibly later tonight, but I wanted to write this post out before I went to bed. The title story concerns a paint which has miraculous properties (I love how Penguin have somehow correctly guessed my love of fantastic stories!) This is told with a wonderful matter-of-factness, and even within a few pages manages to incorporate a twist and a denouement. Impressive, Mr. Levi. I think I’m going to value this mini collection…
All in all, Penguin seem to have got off to a good start! I’m looking forward to seeing what other Mini Reviews appear, and (let’s face it) to getting some of the stories. The only others I’ve read are Katherine Mansfield’s astonishingly good ‘Bliss’, and Virginia Woolf’s beautiful ‘The Lady in the Looking-Glass’ – all so very promising as a great collection of international short stories. Thanks, Penguin!
EDIT: David is creating a list of Mini Modern Classic reviews as they appear, which is very kind of him – click here to see it (scroll to the bottom – once you’ve been enticed by Saki, that is!)