Thursday 31 March 2022

Slim Volumes

 My preference for short books over long ones will be well known to regular readers of this blog. Here I am ten years ago arguing that the future surely belongs to shorter, smaller books. Of course this was more wishful thinking than prognostication, but it must be said that the range of well produced short books available is ever increasing – and I am glad of it. At present, extreme busyness (most of it family- and house-related) and much travelling to and fro by train, to say nothing of the urgent need to thin my overcrowded shelves, means that my reading is largely limited to short and easily portable volumes, and I am always on the look-out for more as I browse the charity shop shelves.
 The other day I picked up Him with His Foot in His Mouth, a Saul Bellow long-short story that I reread with pleasure. I always find Bellow enjoyable company, though I do wonder now if his larger, baggier novels are quite as wonderful as we thought they were when we first read them (of Seize the Day I have no doubts – surely a genuine classic, as is perhaps Mr Sammler's Planet). The Him with His Foot volume that I picked up is one of Penguin's series of well chosen offprints from its Modern Classics list, the Mini Modern Classics, one of several such series drawn from Penguin's enormous list. A complete collection of these miniature Penguins would amount to a microcosm of much of western literature, a whole library reduced to a few feet of shelving. 
  Also very recently, I came across Chekhov's long short story/novella, The Story of a Nobody (also known as An Anonymous Story and The Story of an Unknown Man), in a notably well produced slim volume published by Hesperus Press of London (motto and mission statement 'Et remotissima prope'), a company devoted to republishing neglected shorter fiction – generally 100 pages or less – by English and foreign-language writers. I shall be looking out for more from its list. Meanwhile, the 90-odd pages of The Story of a Nobody – Chekhov's only story set in St Petersburg – will keep me going a surprisingly long time, such is life at present. 
  Incidentally, my hero and role model Alfred E. Neuman makes an appearance in Him with His Foot in His Mouth, as he does in Kingsley Amis's One Fat Englishman. Bellow's narrator describes the friend of his youth (and enemy of his old age) Eddie Wallish as typically grinning 'like Alfred E. Neuman from the cover of Mad magazine, the successor to Peck's Bad Boy'. Peck's Bad Boy, I learn, was a popular fictional character created in the 1880s by one George Wilbur Peck. A mischievous prankster, he was described as a 'vicious little swaggerer' and 'no more than a callous brute' – so really not at all like the amiable Alfred E. 

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