Book Review

Penguin Modern Stories 7

Photo on 28-10-2014 at 19.03 #3

I sourced this 1971 collection of short stories for one simple reason: ‘For Bolocks Please Read Blocks Throughout’, a B. S. Johnson “short story” that did not appear in 2013’s Well Done God! Selected Prose and Drama of B. S. Johnson. I also made an effort to buy this because it’s one of the few books containing work by B. S. Johnson that I don’t own and can actually afford. He’s collectable. Very collectable.

This book, part of a series Penguin ran from 1969-1972, contains a short story by Anthony Burgess, two each from Susan Hill and Yehuda Amichai, and three from my boy Bryan. In that order.

The Burgess is an odd sci-fi piece about people quasi-time-travelling by going to distant planets exactly the same as ours but hundreds of years in the past/future. It focuses on a Shakespeare scholar attempting to discover the truth of authorship, but the scripts he has with him are stolen by Shakespeare, and the “hilarious twist” is that Shakespeare writes all his plays by constructing them from the remnants time travellers leave with him before he had them killed for insanity. Odd.

Susan Hill contributes two stories – one about a couple having an affair who use an ugly stately home as their rendezvous, but the woman is disgusted by the loitering adopted child of the caretakers; the other is about a middle-aged woman realising the emptiness of her life and the fact that she will never have any of the adventures that she wanted. Both of these stories contain keen social detail and some interesting psychological insight, however both include a pointless death at the end with severe detriment to the overall enjoyment of the story. I might give one of Hill’s novels a go, though, the writing is strong and I imagine I’d be more able to forgive Gothic pretensions in a longer piece.

Yehuda Amichai is an Israeli writer, originally a German refugee. His two included stories are both long, and his writing covers more than a third of Penguin Modern Stories 7. This, in my opinion, was unjustified. Of his two stories, one is a self-consciously Kafkaesque farce about a teacher drawing together conscripted locals for a battle that never happens, the other is about a beach community and a woman amongst it who runs off with men a lot. Then one of them kills her. The writing is these I found a bit annoying (though semantically very different – possibly because each story had a different translator), a bit male gazey for my taste, and rather florid without fun. The guy’s better known for poetry, and in his cock-waving heterosexuality and classical references, I imagine he’d have been popular with the in-crowd of poets at that time. I don’t know what I mean by that.

The main event, though, was the Johnson. He opens with a good story I’ve read before, a piece about getting a blister on his cock whilst having bad sex (bad for her and for him). Then there is the piece I’d never read before that was a pointless bit of existential scriptwork (I can see why it wasn’t included in last year’s collection), but this was followed by one of Johnson’s short story masterpieces: ‘Mean Point of Impact’. This is short, and pleasantly simple: it contrasts the long and culturally significant construction of a cathedral with its rapid destruction during a war. It opposes art and beauty and community with wilful, selfish, smashing. It is simple, but it works very well. It’s an easy concept, perhaps, but Johnson pulls it off with aplomb. However, I’d read this and the other good Johnson piece before. Hmmm.

Penguin Modern Stories 7 was disappointing. I enjoyed Susan Hill but wasn’t really charmed by either the Burgess or the Amichai. The Johnson stories I liked already existed elsewhere on my shelf, and the one I didn’t like I will probably never read again.

I doubt I’ll ever read another Penguin Modern Stories, based on the quality of this one.

Alas, alas, alas.

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