thorold sings of May-poles, hock-carts, wassails, wakes (in Q2)
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I sing of brooks, of blossoms, birds, and bowers,
Of April, May, of June, and July flowers.
I sing of May-poles, hock-carts, wassails, wakes,
Of bridegrooms, brides, and of their bridal-cakes.
I write of youth, of love, and have access
By these to sing of cleanly wantonness.
I sing of dews, of rains, and piece by piece
Of balm, of oil, of spice, and ambergris.
I sing of Time's trans-shifting; and I write
How roses first came red, and lilies white.
I write of groves, of twilights, and I sing
The court of Mab, and of the fairy king.
I write of Hell; I sing (and ever shall)
Of Heaven, and hope to have it after all.
(Robert Herrick, Hesperides - "Argument")
Major interests for Q2 are likely to be
- the RG Japan/Korea theme read, which should be fun because I start out knowing almost nothing about Japanese or Korean literature
- the 19th century - I only managed one Trollope, one Hardy and two Zolas in Q1, so plenty of ground still to cover there
- crime - I started a couple of interesting new series in Q1, and I've seen some others mentioned that I would like to try out
- history - has been languishing a bit in Q1, and I'm toying with the idea of exploring the 80 years' war a bit - I've already got Geoffrey Parker's biography of Philip II sitting on the shelf.
- the TBR shelf (no, really...!)
OED to the rescue again - the hockay, hawkey, horkey, hookey (etc.) is a harvest-home festival in East Anglia, apparently, and the hock-cart was the specially decorated cart that brought in the last load of the harvest. Two of the four citations are from Herrick. So it’s a word that seems to belong to Q3 rather than Q2...
51 books read in Q1:
Author gender: F 29; M 21; Other 1
By main category: Crime 4; Fiction 40; Literature 2; Poetry 3; Travel 2
By language: French 7; English 35; Dutch 2; German 3; Spanish 4
(Of the 35 English books, 8 were translations - original language Swedish 2; Danish 2; Turkish, Hungarian, Arabic and Kikerewe 1 each)
By original publication date: Earliest 1250(*); latest March 2018; mean 1965(*), median 1992. 10 books were published in the last five years; 5 were published before 1900.
(*) for consistency with what I did for the two modern editions of Wordsworth, I should probably have used the translation date 1988 for The delight of hearts instead of the presumed date of the Arabic original - in that case the earliest would be La fortune des Rougon, 1871; the mean would shift to 1979.
By format: 19 physical books; 25 read-but-not-owned (free e-books or public library); 1 audio; 6 paid e-books
Of the physical books, 10 were from the TBR (i.e. bought before the end of 2017). If I counted right, I've acquired 17 physical books in Q1, so I've reduced the TBR by 2 books (But one of those 17 is a 6-volume boxed set, so I don't really count it as a win!)
41 distinct authors read in Q1:
Author gender: F 22; M 18; Other 1
By country: UK 12; FR 6; DE 3; ARG 3; TR 2; others 15
- The gender-balance in 2017 was very skewed towards men, so I've been trying to stick to the rule of not reading two books with male authors in succession. So far that hasn't been any kind of hardship...
De eerste wandelaar: in de voetsporen van een wandelende dominee (2017) by Flip van Doorn (Netherlands, 1967- )
Flip van Doorn writes walking columns for a couple of Dutch newspapers and is the author of several walking and cycling guides. He lives at IJlst in Friesland.
Between 1874 and 1888 Jacobus Craandijk (1834-1912), the minister of the Mennonite (Doopsgezinde) community in Rotterdam and later in Haarlem, published eight volumes of his Wanderings through the Netherlands with pen and pencil (Wandelingen door Nederland met pen en potlood). His books, originally issued as grand coffee-table editions illustrated by a well-known landscape artist, but later repackaged as pocket-sized guidebooks, were a big success, not only introducing the rapidly-growing Dutch middle-classes to the pleasures of exploring their own country on foot but also helping to build support for the creation of movements to preserve historic buildings and landscapes.
Flip van Doorn obviously feels a great affinity for Craandijk, with whom he not only has an occupation in common, but also a little bit of DNA - as he accidentally discovered whilst researching his family tree, his grandmother was a great-niece of Craandijk's. But more to the point, Craandijk was the pioneer - or at least first great populariser, which is what "pioneer" and "inventor" usually mean in practice - of wandering (rambling) as a pleasure in itself. He is not especially interested in covering distance or getting to a destination. Walking for him is all about what you experience on the way - discovering beauty in the landscape, understanding its history and ecology, lying on your back in the moss and looking up at the clouds, and so on. The walks Craandijk describes don't come with turn-by-turn instructions or a line on the map - it is all about following your nose and discovering stuff for yourself. And that's almost as radical a concept for us to take in nowadays as it was for Craandijk's early readers. We're so used to following coloured markers, leaflets, GPS routes and the rest and of having other people do the decision-making for us that it's almost scary to go out with nothing more than a general sense of what you want to see and where you can home from afterwards. But it can be very rewarding - I took a day in the middle of reading this book to wander, Craandijk-style, between Vorden and Zutphen, an area I hardly know at all. Very pleasant (the photo in >1 thorold: is from that walk).
This isn't a biography or a condensed version of the Wandelingen - Van Doorn writes about Craandijk's background and career as a clergyman, writer and antiquary, about the process of writing and publication (crowd-sourcing and advertorial are clearly nothing new in the publishing world...), about the Netherlands as they were in the 1870s and as they are now, about Mennonites, about some of the places that interested Craandijk and how they are experienced by a modern walker, about preserving ancient buildings and re-establishing damaged landscapes ("re-meandering" is a big deal nowadays - and something I came across on the river Berkel on my "Craandijk walk"). It's a gloriously random and jumbled account of the experience of discovering and thinking about Craandijk - a mosaic, van Doorn calls it - with a lovely, frank listing in the last chapter of the bits and pieces that were left over unused at the end of the exercise. Re-meandering, indeed.
In some ways the 1870s were an ideal moment for Dutch walkers - for the first time, you could reach just about any point in the Netherlands quickly and in comfort by train, steam-tram or steamboat, but there were no bicycles or motor-cars to spoil things. But in other ways we have it so much better now - beautiful topographic maps on your phone (and all eight volumes of Craandijk as well if you want!), hundreds of former private parks are open to walkers, there are thousands of kilometres of marked circular walks, long-distance trails, node-point-routes, etc., there are information boards to explain anything rare or historic so that we don't overlook it, etc. And wherever you look there is someone busy re-meandering. But still, if we happen to end up on the wrong side of a Friesian canal nowadays, I wouldn't fancy our chances of finding a milkmaid to row us across...
Not a book many CR members will have a use for, but highly-recommended for anyone who reads Dutch and enjoys walking with their eyes and ears open.
Flip van Doorn's blog: http://www.flipvandoorn.nl/website/
Craandijk site, with links to the Wandelingen on the DBNL: http://www.jacobuscraandijk.nl/wandelingen-1874-1888/
I seem to remember coming across something about a guy called Wordsworth, not all that long ago... :-)
And plenty of other famous examples, as you say. If there is something distinctively Dutch about Craandijk then it’s probably that it still came across as new and exciting as late as the 1870s - in England, Germany, the US, people had been romantically walking since the beginning of the century at least.
The Netherlands is still a slightly complicated place to walk in because you can’t tell directly from maps what places you have access to. Most public and private landowners give access to walkers (amongst other things, there’s a tax incentive to do so), but some don’t. And unless you’ve been there before or are following an official route of some sort, you can’t be sure until you’ve read the notice at the gate. There are still a few places where you have to buy a ticket or join a club to get in, as well...
There does seem to be a growing literature about people who write about walking - Rebecca Solnit, Geoff Nicholson, Frédéric Gros, and plenty of others have written that kind of book lately.
Having said that, we all enjoyed a stroll around part of Loonse en Drunense Duinen. A bizarrely unexpected yet wonderful place.
Craandijk never seems to have gone to the Loonse en Drunense Duinen at all - he wasn't a fan of "woeste natuur" and tended to stay away from sands and heaths as far as possible.
I was walking in Zeeuws-Vlaanderen yesterday, and had time to read most of another crime story on the train. This is the third in the Canadian series I started with a few weeks ago, and of course very seasonal:
The cruellest month (2007) by Louise Penny (Canada, 1958- )
The residents of Three Pines seem to have got used to their peaceful village filling up with police officers and crime-scene tape by now: no-one really bothers to act surprised when it turns out that the sudden death that marred their Easter celebrations was the result of foul play. When Chief-Inspector Gamache and his team roll into town once again, the villagers are simply pleased to see their old friends again and have a new source of gossip...
Silly as the premise is, Penny manages to build it into a psychologically interesting plot, where it turns out that a person universally described as popular and well-liked actually had a whole slew of people with plausible motives for doing away with her. And of course Gamache is still confronted with nasty internal conflicts in the Sûreté as the echoes of the Arnot case rumble on interminably - as with everyone's favourite crime-scene, the Old Hadley Place, Penny is clearly too frugal to expend all the possibilities of this useful bit of plot in a single book.
Happily we don't get anything like as many T.S. Eliot references as I was fearing - after an initial flurry, Penny manages to restrain herself quite well. But she does come up with a second Local Poet to give herself the freedom to insert some really bad fragments of original verse into the story...
Malena es un nombre de tango by Almudena Grandes
Illusions perdues by Honoré de Balzac
Meneer Beerta by J.J. Voskuil
Quer pasticciaccio brutto de via Merulana by Carlo Emilio Gadda
Así empieza lo malo by Javier Marías
I don't think I've touched any of those in six months. Maybe I should add those to the reading aims in >2 thorold: above!
Kokoro (1914; new English translation 2010) by Natsume Sōseki (Japan, 1867-1916), translated by Meredith McKinney (Australia)
Sōseki is often cited as the most distinguished modern Japanese novelist. He studied English at Tokyo Imperial University and was one of the first Japanese to get the chance to study abroad, spending two years ("the most unpleasant years in my life") at UCL. After his return, he taught literature at Tokyo University. He first came to prominence as a writer with I am a cat in 1905.
Meredith McKinney teaches at the Australian National University and translates medieval and modern Japanese literature (she's also the daughter of the well-known Australian poet Judith Wright).
I have a feeling that Kokoro is a book that will make more and more sense the more I know about modern Japanese culture. On one level it's a simple story about friendship and betrayal, but on another level it's a working-out of the cultural tensions set up in the minds of Japanese intellectuals who lived through the opening-up of Japan to western ideas during the Meiji period (Sōseki was born in the year of Meiji's accession to the imperial throne). The foreground story of Kokoro takes place in the months around the emperor's death, and its main character, Sensei (teacher), is an older man - a contemporary of the author - whose life has been messed up by his inability to resolve the existential conflict between the demands of the two threads of his upbringing, the requirement to subsume himself into the traditional, collective family values of middle-class Japanese society setting itself against the western need for intellectual self-determination. The narrator of the first part of the book is a man of a younger generation who gets into a similar ethical tangle, but with different dimensions and results.
It's all very carefully, delicately built up, with a lot of everyday detail about the rapidly-changing face of Japan in the decades before 1914 used to reflect and explain the development of the conflicts the characters are dealing with. Very much a book about male friendships (what used to be called "homosocial" relationships in the good old days of literary theory), where the women rarely speak and don't have all that much to do apart from arranging flowers and cooking (is that why Penguin coincidentally put a brush-stroke across the woman's eyes in the cover design?). But that's an accusation that would be equally true of a lot of western novels of the same period.
Very interesting, and McKinnon's translation reads very naturally and transparently.
Inventing Japan, 1853-1964 (2003) by Ian Buruma (Netherlands, UK, etc., 1951- )
Ian Buruma is very well-known as a historian, journalist and essayist, and was recently appointed editor of the NYRB. He's written many books on the Far East, international relations, religion, politics, 20th century history, etc., etc. He grew up in the Netherlands with a British mother (John Schlesinger's sister!) and a Dutch father. He studied history and Chinese literature in Leiden and Japanese cinema in Tokyo, and has lived for lengthy periods in Japan and Hong Kong. Wikipedia tells me that Buruma's grandfather was a well-known Mennonite minister, which even gives me a tenuous link with Craandijk - see >5 thorold: above.
Inventing Japan is one of the Modern Library Chronicles series of brief histories, taking us through the history of modern Japan from Commodore Perry to the Tokyo Olympics in not much more than 150 pages, but it's far from being a mere gallop through the facts. As you might expect from Buruma, the stress is on understanding the development of Japanese political thought and exploring how that led to the peculiarities of the Japanese kokutai (polity) as it leapt from feudalism to Meiji authoritarianism, Showa militarism, and the postwar LDP machine. And of course, he's not slow to express his opinion of what went wrong with all these different visions of Japaneseness. Buruma looks not only at the roles played by political and military figures, but also at the cultural background to the main currents of Japanese thought during the period - novelists, film-makers, popular journalism, propaganda, etc.
One thing that struck me from Buruma's account was the extent to which Japanese scholars were already aware of (and using) western ideas during the Dutch period - the idea of Japan suddenly being made to open the shutters and discover the modern world for the first time in the 1850s makes a good story, but of course it couldn't really have been quite as sudden as that in real life. Another was the way that the state reacted to the destabilising effects of outside ideas by inventing new "ancient traditions" to reinforce the links between authority, religion and nationalism - not so very different to what was happening in Britain during the industrial revolution or is happening now in many postcolonial states.
Obviously, there has to be a lot of important material that gets missed out or skipped over lightly in a book this size (quite apart from the fact that the book was written 15 years ago and only takes the main story up to 1964 anyway). Buruma is an opinionated writer, albeit one I usually find myself agreeing with, so it's probably best not to take this book in isolation, but it is a good way to get the broad outlines of the story fixed in your mind. It looks like a useful jumping-off point, and it comes with a comprehensive bibliography to facilitate that kind of use.
Strange weather in Tokyo (2001; English 2012) by Hiromi Kawakami (Japan, 1958- ), translated by Allison Markin Powell (USA)
(original English title: The briefcase)
Tsukiko, a Tokyo office-worker in her late thirties, is drawn into conversation by the elderly man drinking sake next to her in a neighbourhood bar - it turns out that he's her former high-school Japanese literature teacher. The two of them don't seem to have much in common - they're thirty years apart in age, and Tsukiko was never a good student and still has a deaf ear for classical poetry. She addresses her old teacher as "Sensei" not so much out of respect but rather because she can't remember his name at first. But they somehow drift into being companionable drinking acquaintances, then friends, then (after many quarrels about unimportant things) discover that they really need each other's company.
This is a very engaging, delicate-but-funny (occasionally even surrealistic) May-to-December romance and a commentary on modern urban loneliness, but I think Kawakami is also enjoying herself pulling the reader's leg a bit - while Tsukiko is to all appearances a classic western chick-lit character, the detail of the story is obsessively Japanese to the point of self-parody - the over-specified food, the discussions about the correct way to pour sake, the activities Tsokiko and Sensei share (mushroom-hunting, a calligraphy exhibition, a vegetable market, a hot-springs inn, a pachinko parlour, a passionate night of octopus-related haiku-composition...). And then there's the odd figure of Sensei's presumably-dead wife, as subversively odd as Sensei is conservatively old-fashioned. There's definitely a bit more going on here than an unlikely love-affair!
The silver spoon : memoir of a boyhood in Japan (serial 1913-15, book 1922, English 2015) by Kansuke Naka (Japan, 1885-1965), translated by Hiroaki Sato (Japan, USA, 1948-), illustrated by Sumiko Yano
Hiroaki Sato is a distinguished Japanese poet and translator. He's lived mainly in the US since the 1960s and has taught at various American universities.
Kansuke Naka was a student of Natsume Sōseki, and it was Sōseki's influence and support that led to Naka's childhood memoir first being published as a serial in Asahi Shinbun in 1913 (part I) and 1915 (part II). Publication in book form followed in 1922, after Sōseki's death, and from the 1930s on the memoir gradually became established as a Japanese favourite. Sato tells us in his introduction that it reached a cumulative total of a million sales in Japan in 2006. Reading between the lines, it looks as though Sato must be at least partly to blame for the long delay before the appearance of an English translation - he started working on it in the late sixties and first published some excerpts from the work-in-progress in 1972...
Naka writes about his childhood in Meiji-era suburban Tokyo (the 1880s and 90s). His father belonged to the "gentry" class, but was not especially well off - he started off as an estate administrator, and under the new régime went into business with his former feudal lord. Young Kansuke was a sickly child (as he tells us every other page or so, throughout the book), and was obviously rather too much fussed-over by the aunt who acted as his nanny. But he describes very charmingly the life of those times, when popular culture was still struggling to assimilate the changes being imposed on it. There's a lot about Buddhist festivals, fairs, entertainments, street-life, school, and about the normal preoccupations of childhood - toys, games, friends and playmates, etc.
A lot of the emphasis of the book seems to be Naka's desire to undermine the idea that Japaneseness necessarily revolves around nationalism and militarism - we have to laugh at wimpy little Kansuke re-enacting the 16th century sword fights from his story books in desperate hand-to-hand combat with his elderly aunt, and everyone in the book who embodies any kind of macho martial spirit - school bullies, a jingoistic teacher, Kansuke's big brother - is made to seem foolish. Flowers, insects, Buddhism, painting and poetry are clearly much more important. Sumiko Yano's drawings of cute little figures in kimonos flying kites almost manage to push this over into kitsch, but the genuine feeling and modesty of Naka's writing just about manages to save it.
After the banquet (1960, English 1963) by Yukio Mishima (Japan, 1925-1970), translated by Donald Keene (US, Japan, 1922-)
Mishima was of course the Japanese writer best known outside Japan before Murakami came along, far eclipsing the two Nobel laureates. I've taken a lot of pleasure from those of his books that I've read so far (Forbidden colours, Confessions of a mask, The sailor who fell from grace with the sea), but I'm a little queasy about enjoying the work of a writer who dedicated himself to martial arts and ended his career in a futile attempt at a right-wing coup directly after putting the finishing touch to his magnum opus. I think I need to read more about him before getting into that discussion, though...
Donald Keene is a noted Japanese scholar and an emeritus professor at Columbia, where he taught for 50 years. He moved to Japan and took on Japanese citizenship in 2011.
After the banquet (1960) falls about a third of the way through Mishima's impressively-long list of books - the fact that it appeared in English only a couple of years after its original Japanese publication is an indication of Mishima's reputation at the time. It's basically a political satire in form: a self-made businesswoman marries a gentlemanly, old-style politician and engages herself on his behalf in an election campaign full of dirty tricks on both sides. Mishima evidently made it a little too realistic, as the former foreign minister Hachiro Arita (who had just fought an election in rather similar circumstances) successfully sued him for invasion of privacy.
It feels rather old-fashioned as a novel, because of the way Mishima keeps his distance from both the main characters, showing us what they are thinking and feeling indirectly and mostly through externals - clothes, physical settings, food, weather. We aren't allowed to sympathise too closely either with Kazu's frenetic need to drive events or with Noguchi's self-deceiving ethical stance, but we do get to see how they fail to communicate with each other almost from the beginning of the story. We do very clearly see Mishima's absolute contempt for the way Japan's post-war political machine operated in an environment free of any sort of ideological commitment, driven only by self-interest, cronyism and hard cash. He doesn't really need to spell out where they learnt that from, but there are a couple of significant passing mentions of US military bases. Probably the closest we come to a genuine emotion in the book is in Kazu's (doomed) desire to anchor her anomalous life within the norms of Japanese society, as symbolised by her aspiration to be buried in Noguchi's family tomb.
Probably not a major work, but interesting, anyway.
Territorial rights (1979) by Muriel Spark (UK, 1918-2006)
Perhaps because of the Venetian setting, this glorious romp of a crime novel that refuses to take itself seriously sometimes feels as though Spark is sending up Patricia Highsmith. There is a beautiful, over-inquisitive boy (escaped from The Comforters via Death in Venice), a Ripleyesque, amoral American millionaire, and a set of supremely prosaic English adulterers (a retired headmaster and his former Domestic Science teacher), all mixed up with a ludicrous Bulgarian spy plot, Italian gangsters and a dodgy detective agency that specialises in blackmailing its clients. And the headmaster's offstage wife who is forever nodding off to sleep over viciously-parodied excerpts from a sixties kitchen-sink novel. Far too much going on, not much chance of identifying any deeper meaning, but great fun.
The sound of the mountain (serialised 1949-1954; English 1970) by Yasunari Kawabata (Japan, 1899-1972), translated by Edward Seidensticker (US, 1921-2007)
Kawabata was the first Japanese Nobel laureate in literature. He was associated with the "Shinkankakuha" (new impressions) movement of the inter-war years, reacting against both naturalism and politically-inspired writing. He was also a close friend of Mishima.
Seidensticker was another great Japanese scholar from the US. He was associated with various Japanese and US universities; towards the end of his career he taught at Columbia together with Donald Keene. (I have to be careful what I say here, because I remember Seidensticker's name chiefly from one of the bloodiest battles in the Great Geisha War that took up so much of the first RG Japan thread...)
The sound of the mountain is a slow-moving, lyrical account of a couple of years in the life of a middle-class family living in the historic small town of Kamakura a few years after the end of the war. Shingo, a businessman in his early sixties, is watching rather helplessly whilst just about everything he counts on is slowly crumbling away around him. His mind and body aren’t what they used to be, his son and daughter are both going through difficult patches in their marriages, his own marriage has gone stale, his friends are gradually dying off, and he can’t even take the same pleasure in nature, poetry and the harmonies of Japanese society and religion that he used to. Even the one thing that really does give him pleasure — his close friendship with his daughter-in-law — is a source of guilt to him when he sees that he may be holding her back from resolving the problems she has with her wayward husband.
Despite its very restrained, formal Japanese style, it’s not difficult to identify with Kawabata’s account of the fears and uncertainties that go with approaching old age in a time of destabilised social conditions. Kawabata isn’t known as political and historical writer, but the story here clearly is centred in the particular historical moment when he was writing, with frequent references to current newspaper stories or to people who have been damaged by the war in one way or another.
I haven't laughed this hard in a bit! That was quite the discussion at the end of that thread, wasn't it? But it was a good month of reading!
Can't wait to see your thoughts on the Kawabata. Not an easy author to read what with his very "Japanese style".
I enjoyed the Kawabata more than I expected to, but it did take a while to get into.
Still technically a book by a Japanese writer, but not a very obviously Japanese one:
Etüden im Schnee (2014; Memoirs of a polar bear) by Yōko Tawada (Japan, Germany, 1960- )
Poet, novelist and literary critic Yōko Tawada grew up in Tokyo. She studied Russian and German literature in Tokyo, Hamburg and Zürich, and has lived in Germany, where she has won numerous literary awards, since 1982. She writes in both German (as in the case of this book) and Japanese, with a long list of publications in both languages. Several of her books, including this one, have been translated into English.
Etüden im Schnee is - amongst other things - a book about three (polar) bears and a little girl. But it's the magic-realist three bears novel that you might imagine Günter Grass, Angela Carter and Richard Adams getting together to write. Part one is narrated by the grandmother bear, who is writing her memoirs in between riding a tricycle in a Russian circus; part two is a joint effort by the East German mother bear Toska and her circus trainer Barbara, and part three is again a bear's-eye-view narrated by a slightly-fictionalised version of the greatest real polar-bear-celebrity of our times, Knut of the Berlin Zoo. There's also a guest appearance by a well-known US musician. Although it touches on World War II, the division and reunification of Germany, climate change, and other big topics, this isn't really a political novel - its real focus is on the relationship between people and animals. Tawada tries to get past the anthropomorphism and sentimentality to dig into what is really going on when people interact with animals. Interesting, beautifully written, and technically very ingenious, but I don't know if the result is really worth the effort.
The only obviously Japanese thing about this book was the use of coloured printed paper (with Arctic motifs) for dividers between the chapters, which I thought was a rather nice touch. Less successful was the idea of setting the entire text in Futura. I can't see what that was supposed to achieve - it is a typeface that really doesn't look good when it's packed together to fill a page.
Five modern Japanese novelists (2003) by Donald Keene (USA, Japan, 1922- )
Donald Keene (see >18 thorold: above) shares his memories of five writers he knew personally: Jun'ichirō Tanizaki, Yasunari Kawabata, Yukio Mishima, Kōbō Abe and Ryutaro Shiba. Each essay neatly mixes Keene's affectionate (sometimes comical, always respectful) first-hand reminiscences with a mini-bio and a brief critical appreciation of his most important works and some notes on how they have been received in Japan and in the West. For the moment, I've only read two of the five, but I found it interesting and useful to read about the others too. There's a good bibliography for anyone seeking to explore in more depth.
I was curious about what Keene would have to say about the Mishima Incident - he takes the line that Mishima's activism had little to do with real right-wing politics but was driven by an aesthetic infatuation with the beauty of sacrifice and early death.
The housekeeper and the professor (2003) by Yōko Ogawa (Japan, 1962- ) translated by Stephen Snyder (USA)
Yōko Ogawa has won a number of major Japanese literary prizes since the 1990s. Several of her books have been made into films and/or translated.
Stephen Snyder has translated books by a number of important Japanese writers, including Kenzaburo Oe and Ryu Murakami.
A charming, subtle, little story about a young single mother who finds herself looking after a retired professor of number theory. As a result of a car accident, the professor has lost his short-term memory, and is unable to recall anything since 1976 if it happened more than eighty minutes ago. Despite this, the woman and her ten-year-old son somehow become close to the old man and learn to share his passion for numbers and for baseball.
Ogawa's butterfly-technique makes this book very attractive to read, but you come out at the end feeling that you haven't really learnt very much about any of the big themes of the book. The maths is what you already know about popular themes like prime numbers and Fermat's last theorem, the baseball probably only makes sense if you're a sports fan, and all you discover about the professor's peculiar mental condition is that it must be very distressing not to be able to recognise the people who matter to you in life: Empathy-lite.
Some prefer nettles (serial 1928-9; English 1955) by Jun'ichirō Tanizaki (Japan, 1886-1965), translated by Edward Seidensticker (US, 1921-2007)
In black and white (serial 1928; English 2017) by Jun'ichirō Tanizaki (Japan, 1886-1965), translated by Phyllis I. Lyons (US)
Phyllis Lyons is an emeritus professor in Asian languages at Northwestern University. See above for Edward Seidensticker.
Jun'ichirō Tanizaki started out as a real bad-boy writer, dropping out of Tokyo University and financing his exploration of Tokyo's bars and brothels by whatever he could make by dashing off a story here and there. He was besotted with all things western, and - as both Keene and Seidensticker note - furiously pursuing his sexual fantasy of an ideal (un-Japanese) cruel and dominating mistress. After the 1923 earthquake he moved out of Tokyo to live in the Kansai region (Kobe, Kyoto, Osaka), where he started to (re-)discover and learn to appreciate the Japanese cultural values he'd been urging people to sweep away only a few years before. By the time Keene and Seidensticker met him in the fifties, he had become a respected model of the cultured, conservative, Japanese old gentleman.
Some prefer nettles is one of the best-known of Tanizaki's pre-war works. Kaname and Misako feel that their marriage has run its course - Misako is having an affair, Kaname visits "western" brothels - but they can't quite make themselves take the decision to divorce. They both cultivate a westernised, "Tokyo" attitude to life, and are mildly amused by the way Misako's widowed father is immersing himself and his compliant young mistress, O-Hisa in every kind of tradition. But Kaname is captivated, despite himself, when his father-in-law invites them to an Osaka puppet theatre, to the extent that he later goes with him and O-Hisa to an even more authentic (and uncomfortable) performance on Awaji island.
Witty, complicated, and very engaging, even if the unresolved ending is a bit frustrating for anyone used to the way well-plotted western novels work. It would be fun to read this side-by-side with Evelyn Waugh's A handful of dust, written at about the same time and with a very similar plot situation, and a parallel sort of tug-of-war between the modern and the traditional, but resolved in quite a different way.
In black and white, also written in 1928, ran as a successful serial a few months before Some prefer nettles and Quicksand, but for some reason was never re-issued in book form until it appeared in Tanizaki's collected works. It seems to have been largely overlooked until the recent appearance of Phyllis Lyons's English translation.
Mizuno is a struggling young writer living in a Tokyo boarding house and in debt with every bar, whore-house and pawnbroker in the area. He's already sabotaged his marriage by writing a string of wife-murder stories, and now another story, just sent off to the magazine at the last possible moment, looks likely to get him into worse trouble.
His first-person narrator in the story describes getting away with the perfect crime, the motiveless murder of Codama, a man whose link to the narrator is so distant that no-one would suspect his involvement. Unfortunately, in his haste Mizuno has written "Cojima" in several places where he meant "Codama", and he realises that Cojima is in fact a slight acquaintance he must have had in mind whilst he was describing Codama. This mistake will obviously cause embarrassment to him and the magazine if the story is read by anyone who knows Cojima, but Mizuno is worried about something else - what if there's a "Shadow Man" out there somewhere who is out to get him? If Cojima is now murdered, suspicion will automatically fall on Mizuno.
To forestall this, Mizuno works out when the murder would have to take place, and puts in place a comically complex plan to ensure that he is not left without a convincing alibi. Needless to say, it all goes horribly wrong...
Apparently Tanizaki wrote this story in part as a follow-up to a high-profile debate he had had in 1927 with the writer Ryūnosuke Akutagawa about the relative merits of modernist stream-of-consciousness "I-novels" and tightly-structured plots - it's a kind of literary pastiche in which Mizuno's position as a stream-of-consciousness antihero forces him to craft the literary tools for his own destruction. But it also works well as a crime thriller in its own right, albeit with a rather black kind of humour.
Mishima : ou la vision du vide (1980; Mishima: a vision of the void) by Marguerite Yourcenar (France, Belgium, US, 1903-1987)
Novelist and essayist Marguerite Yourcenar was a distinguished French intellectual and all-round LGBT icon, probably best remembered for her historical novel Mémoires d'Hadrien (1951 - "often bought and rarely finished"). She was born in Belgium, with a French father, and moved to the US (Maine) with her partner Grace Frick in the 1930s (she became a US citizen in 1947). In 1980, the same year as her Mishima essay was published, she became the first woman to be elected to the Académie Française - there have only been 7 others since.
Yourcenar's novella-length essay on Mishima is largely an attempt to answer the question "why did he kill himself?" in a way that would make sense to a western reader. She gives a brief sketch of Mishima's background and upbringing (covering much the same ground as Keene), then looks in some detail at a number of his works, in particular The Golden Pavilion, the Sea of Fertility tetralogy and the 1966 film Patriotism, based on his story of the same title, in which Mishima played an officer who commits seppuku after the failed 1936 army coup. Yourcenar discusses Mishima's own "attempted coup" in rather more detail than Keene does and makes it fairly clear that we should understand it as an aesthetic rather than a political gesture - from the way she describes it, Mishima can't have had any serious belief that he would be able to convince the Japanese army to mutiny and restore imperial power, but for reasons of his own, he needed to be seen making the gesture. However, she reminds us that equally quixotic acts of revolution have succeeded in overturning apparently stable governments elsewhere (at the time of writing she must have been thinking of Iran).
This often reads more as a literary work than as a critical essay - Yourcenar's instinct as a story-teller gets the better of her sometimes, and the plot-summaries of Mishima's works almost turn into full-scale re-imaginings. And she seems to have been almost as turned on as Mishima by the gruesome details of disembowelment and decapitation. In the final section she contrasts the fine Buddhist aesthetic of the closing image of the Tetralogy, the vision of the empty sky, with the physical reality of a photograph of Mishima's and Morita's detached heads. A clear and brutal reminder of the unromantic ugliness of death, but somehow I couldn't help thinking of the imagined decapitation in The Mikado, where Pooh-Bah relates that the detached head "...stood on its neck, with a smile well-bred, / And bowed three times to me." Yourcenar probably wasn't a G&S buff.
(This book was favourably mentioned by two or three people in the original 2008 Japan thread)
The roads to Sata (1985) by Alan Booth (UK, Japan, 1946-1993)
(Sorry about the disembodied hand! This was the only half-decent photo of Booth that Google could find, the hand belongs to the even-drunker writer Timothy Harris who had to be cropped out of it...)
Alan Booth grew up in Leytonstone in the East End of London. An early love of Shakespeare led him to embark on a career as a stage director, but this was derailed when he went on a study-visit to Japan in 1970 and was so captivated by Japanese culture that he never came back. He reinvented himself as a writer and journalist in Tokyo, working mostly for English-language media, acquired a Japanese wife and a very good knowledge of Japanese language and literature. Sadly, he died very young, in 1993. Apart from The Roads to Sata, he wrote one other travel book, the posthumously published Looking for the lost, about a journey in search of two Japanese poets. A collection of Booth's journalism, edited by his friend Timothy Harris, has recently been published in Japan as This great stage of fools.
The Roads to Sata describes a journey Booth made in the summer and autumn of 1977, walking from Cape Soya in the north of Hokkaido to Cape Sata at the southern extreme of the Japanese archipelago, a distance of some 3000 km, which he covered in the space of about four months. Which probably makes this one of the longest pub-crawls in history - the quantity of alcohol consumed in the course of the journey is quite impressive, even by 1970s standards. You often have to wonder how he managed to get up in the morning and carry on walking...
Boozing apart, this is an interesting and very entertaining account of the bits of Japan you normally don't hear very much about.
Booth is a contemporary of people like Bruce Chatwin and Paul Theroux, and he shares something of their habit of commenting acerbically on the things he doesn't like. But he is far from being an ignorant gaijin who has parachuted in from elsewhere to make fun of the locals - after seven years in the country he understands Japanese history and culture and knows what he's looking at, and he's more than capable of holding an intelligent conversation with the people he meets - even if he is liable to start singing Japanese folksongs at them at the smallest provocation. His irritation at the thoughtless xenophobia he keeps encountering (the people who assume he can't understand Japanese even when they are talking to him in that language; the schoolboys who treat him as a circus freak; the inns that are mysteriously fully-booked when he appears) is always tempered by his assurances that not all Japanese are like that, and that even the ones who are like that can often be won over after a couple of beers...
This probably isn't a very useful guidebook in practical terms, but it does help you get Japanese geography straight in your mind. Obviously, it's all describing how things were forty years ago, much will have changed in the meantime, but some things (like the climate and the stark contrast between rural and city life) probably haven't. Booth's type of walking, mostly over motor roads and covering distances of around 30km a day, isn't something you would necessarily want to reproduce either. On the whole, when you find yourself trudging along over mile after mile of asphalt with cars roaring past you, you start asking yourself why you aren't at least on a bicycle...
David Cozy (dcozy) noted some interesting stuff about Mishima and how he's perceived in Japan--basically as a clownish figure, baffling, marginally contemptible because somehow non-Japanese--in his love for all things Western, his loudness, self-promotion etc.
The whole spectacular suicide act turned into a deeply embarrassing damp squib, with even his lieutenants not rightly knowing what the hell they were doing.
A caricature of a fascist but a beautiful writer (as far as anyone reading him in translation can judge...)
There's an edition of Enjo, the movie based on The temple of the Golden Pavilion, with a very interesting documentary on Mishima and lots of footage of him--interviews, ads, promos, acting, singing etc.--that I think together "explain" him better than anything written about him. The movie and book come closest to a coherent exposition of the ideas that led him to his para-military revolt and suicide (whether genuine or used as a blind for other, to him inadmissible motives) and the documentary material conveys the amazing energy and vividness of his personality words can't capture.
Given that I spent a very enjoyable evening at a performance of Wagner a couple of days ago, I’m not going to agonise too much about Mishima’s politics.
I've caught up with and enjoyed your reviews. Thanks in particular for al the ones about Japanese lit! Do you plan on exploring Corean lit as well?
This is another one where RebeccaNYC went before me, and I don't really have anything of substance to add to her review:
Sanshirō (Serial 1908; new translation 2009) by Natsume Sōseki (Japan, 1867-1916), translated by Jay Rubin (USA, 1941- )
Jay Rubin is another American Japanese scholar, who taught at various institutions, most recently Harvard - amongst other things, he is the main English translator of Haruki Murakami's books.
Sanshirō seems to be one of Sōseki's most popular novels, to the extent that its protagonist now has a pond at Tokyo University and a Kyushu railway station named after him (which presumably makes him the Japanese Waverley!). It's not hard to see why people like it - it's a warm, affectionate account of a provincial young man's first term as a student in the big city. Not a coming-of-age novel, more a putting-off-growing-up story, really, but full of charming detail and a very convincing account of what it's like to be a shy young man suddenly confronted with the choices of adult life (none of which Sanshirō chooses to take, of course...). He almost falls in love, he almost gets into money problems, he almost gets involved in campus politics, but he's still somehow protected from all those things by a cloud of youthful innocence. Much less twee than it sounds, and very enjoyable.
Sanshirō went to the joint lecture for all literature students from five to six o'clock. It was too dark for taking notes, too early to turn on the lights. This was the hour when the depths of the great zelkova tree outside the high, narrow windows began to turn black. Inside the hall, the faces of the students and the lecturer were equally indistinct, which made everything somehow mystical, like eating a bean jam bun in the dark. He found it strangely pleasant that he could not understand the lecture. As he listened, cheek in hand, his senses became dulled, and he began to drift off. This was the very thing, he felt, that made lectures worthwhile.
One interesting feature of the Rubin translation is that it marks the breaks between the instalments from when the novel was originally published as a newspaper serial - it makes you realise how different it must have been experiencing this 230-page novel over a period of four months in chunks of 2-3 pages, rather than galloping through it in a couple of days as most modern readers would.
Haruki Murakami's introduction to the Penguin Classics edition is a warm and charming account of Murakami's time as a struggling young writer, so poor that at times he was even obliged to resort to reading books from his wife's shelves, but doesn't actually tell us anything relevant about Sanshirō. Fortunately Rubin compensates for this lacuna in a "Translator's Note" that serves as the real introduction, filling us in on the historical background and the real campus politics behind the story.
Three years ago I brought back Christa Wolf's Voraussetzungen from the charity shop, but then realised that I hadn't actually got a copy of Kassandra to go with it, and it seemed a bit pointless to read one without the other. So it disappeared onto the shelf and was forgotten until this week. Anyway, together at last:
Kassandra (1983) by Christa Wolf (DDR, 1929-2011)
Voraussetzungen einer Erzählung: Kassandra (1983; Conditions of a narrative: Cassandra) by Christa Wolf (DDR, 1929-2011)
Christa Wolf was probably the best-known writer in the former DDR, enormously popular with East German readers and well-received internationally. Critics in West Germany tend to accuse her of being too close to the DDR authorities and of making too many artistic compromises to avoid a direct rift with the state - but it's also arguable that she used her unique position to bring to light problems in the DDR that would otherwise have been buried. (She even put her reputation on the line in 1965 to defend Werner Bräunig's banned novel Rummelplatz.) Although she didn't agree with the way the party were running the country, she remained faithful to the ideals of socialism, and many in the West simply couldn't forgive her for her opposition to reunification. The conservative press had a field-day when it emerged that she had (briefly, and uselessly) been an informer for the Stasi thirty years earlier.
Kassandra is one of Wolf's most famous works - it takes the form of a first-person monologue set within the foreground timeframe of Cassandra's appearance in Aeschylus's Agamemnon. Expanding (a good deal) on her speeches in the play, Cassandra looks back on her life in Troy, the war and fall of the city, and the circumstances that have led to her impending murder by Clytemnestra. Although there's no formal metrical structure, and the narrative is basically a stream-of-consciousness mixing memories of different time-periods quite arbitrarily, Wolf does use a declamatory style that is at least "rhetorically aware" - it echoes the feel of the play, and this is a book you certainly have to imagine being read aloud.
For a feminist writer, the character of Cassandra is just a gift that keeps on giving. She's known above all as a woman doomed not to be listened to, and - as we know from Aeschylus - that was a punishment for saying "no" to sex with Apollo. And there are other traditions that she was a rape-victim and was forced into a political marriage by her father. But she's possibly also the first woman in literature who is there because of the work she does and not because of who her father or her husband is. And for Wolf, she's above all a representative of the transition from the matriarchal societies of the Minoan tradition to the hard new patriarchal culture of the Achaeans.
Cassandra's Troy, in Wolf's account, is being turned into a militaristic police-state by a Himmler-like figure called Eumelos who is fond of the "those who are not with us are against us" version of binary logic; those who still seek to follow the old ways and respect the mother-goddess are being forced underground.
Wolf is such a capable writer that none of this sounds like strident cliché when we meet it on the printed page, and Cassandra is a much more complex character than we might expect. She has a complex relationship with Aeneas, for instance, which seems to be there not for any obvious political reason but simply because Wolf found him an interesting character and wanted to work out for herself what he might be doing in the story. Definitely worth the effort.
Voraussetzungen is an odd kind of book - it's presented as a set of lectures on the background to Kassandra, but it's difficult to imagine how Wolf could have fitted that amount of material into four lectures (Kassandra itself was the fifth lecture). Presumably it was either cut for oral presentation or expanded for publication. The general effect is something like the "Making of..." documentary that you find on the second DVD.
Lectures 1 & 2 are "What I did on my holidays", a travelogue of Wolf's trip to Greece in 1980 (she must have been just about the only person in the DDR who could take a holiday abroad without any great difficulty), in the course of which she shows us how she became interested in the figure of Cassandra - reading Aeschylus while waiting for a delayed flight - and started to learn about pre-Hellenic matriarchal cultures, which she contrasts with the role of women as she observed it in modern Greece.
Lecture 3 continues the story after her return to rural Mecklenburg, in a diary style rather reminiscent of her later novel Störfall - thoughts about international news and what she sees on TV are interspersed with a record of her reading of background material relevant to Cassandra and her (possible) historical situation: archaeology, anthropology, sociology, etc. The international news is all about the Reagan-era arms race and the near-certainty that Europe would be overwhelmed by a nuclear war between the USA and USSR within the next three or four years. It's rather alarming to realise how quickly we managed to forget how close we thought we were to destruction then... When Cassandra talks about living in a besieged city-state that refuses to accept that it's doomed, I imagined her as talking about the DDR, but from what Wolf says here, it seems that Troy is actually standing for Europe as a whole. But of course, either way, the threat comes from patriarchy.
Lecture 4 is the shortest and also probably the most interesting, as - in the form of a letter to a fellow-writer, this time - Wolf brings in some rather unexpected literary evidence to illustrate her growing awareness of how women have been short-changed by western society over the last 3500 years. Exhibit A is a rather lovely poem by Ingeborg Bachmann, "Erklär mir, Liebe" (https://www.lyrikline.org/de/gedichte/erklaer-mir-liebe-268#.WuuFrS-B3UI); Exhibit B is Faust II, and so on... Wolf doesn't bother to draw an explicit parallel between Bachmann and Cassandra, presumably because she realises it would be rather facile, but we get the point. And her analysis of the poems is very much to the point. Just by the way, in between dissing Goethe and Schiller, she drops in the rather remarkable statement that her research into women in the ancient world has been the most exciting intellectual epiphany she has had since she first read Marx!
An odd book, certainly, and some of the ground it covers is over-familiar, but more fun to read than you might expect. But it will probably add a few books to your reading list...
Back to Japan. This was the first of the Japanese books I've read so far where I felt that the translation was really getting in the way.
Masks (1958; English 1983) by Fumiko Enchi (Japan, 1905-1986), translated by Juliet Winters Carpenter (US, 1948- )
Fumiko Enchi was recognised rather late in life as one of the most important Japanese women authors of the 20th century, but before the 1950s she had a hard time getting her work published. As well as fiction, she's known for her plays and for a modern Japanese version of The tale of Genji.
Juliet Winters Carpenter teaches at a women's college in Kyoto and has translated books by many important Japanese writers.
Masks is a tricky book to get to grips with, and I'm not sure that I really did it justice reading it during a long train journey. The present-day (i.e. 1950s) foreground middle-class adultery plot seems to be a reworking of an episode from The tale of Genji (the story of the Rokujō lady), as carefully explained in a scholarly essay by one of the characters, and there are all kinds of undercurrents of spiritualism and of shamanism-as-matriarchal-power going on.
I found the language of the book, as translated by Carpenter, flat and unappealing (tone-deaf, even), rather in the idiom of a very forgettable modern American novel, without much sense that this was Japan in the 1950s, and this made it harder to take the leap into engaging with the supernatural side of the story, which takes away a lot of the point of the book. But there obviously is a lot of interesting stuff to dig out if you can get past the dull language, in particular the complex characters of the two women at the centre of the story.
The curious incident of the dog in the night-time (2003) by Mark Haddon (UK, 1962- )
I felt much the same about this as I did about The pier falls - Haddon is obviously a very clever, observant, and original writer, but he writes books that don't do much for me except leave me feeling rather uncomfortable. Of course it's impressive to be able to write a novel from the point of view of a narrator who isn't capable of understanding any of the things that normally drive a work of fiction (not least, the concept of "fiction" itself), without obviously being patronising, but the result is to make the reader feel uncomfortable about enjoying the book for any of the reasons we normally enjoy fiction - we don't want to laugh at Christopher, even though we probably will have to at some point. And we can't feel sympathy for him, because our minds simply don't work the same way as his. Maybe I would have liked this more if I liked science-fiction, but as it is, it just felt like Adrian Mole without the Thatcher-jokes...
Shire (2013) by Ali Smith (UK, 1962- ), images by Sarah Wood
This collaboration by Ali Smith and her partner Sarah Wood is a largely a celebration of the Scottish critic Helena Mennie Shire (1912-1991), whom they were friendly with when she was a fellow of Robinson College, Cambridge, and of the poet Olive Fraser, whose work Shire rescued from oblivion when she published an edition of her collected poems as The wrong music in 1989. The book, published by the Suffolk-based small press, Full Circle Editions, contains four stories, separated by illustrations, and it's obviously a carefully designed object, intended to be enjoyed visually as much as read.
I've read the first two stories before elsewhere (possibly in Public Library and other stories?), but that didn't matter - "The beholder" is the one where an odd growth on the narrator's chest turns out to be a Lycidas rose bush, and "The poet" is an account of Olive Fraser's rather unfortunate life, with the usual Smith caveat that you know that this is a work of fiction about a real person, i.e. "true" but not necessarily "correct". In "The commission" we are introduced to Mrs Shire in a similar sort of way, with Smith establishing parallels between the paths she, Fraser and Shire all followed from the north of Scotland to Scottish universities and Cambridge, and bouncing those similarities off the rather different trajectories of Virginia Woolf and Sylvia Plath (amongst others...). And finally, "The wound" is a very short piece inspired by the Scottish renaissance poetry that was Shire's special interest for much of her life.
Light, glowing, as hard to pin down as the aurora photographs used in some of Wood's pictures, as thought-provoking as Smith always is - a lovely little book.
The elephant's journey (2008; English 2010) by José Saramago (Portugal, 1922-2010), translated by Margaret Jull Costa (UK, 1949- )
1998 Nobel laureate José Saramago was, of course, the best-known Portuguese author of modern times. I've read about nine of his novels, but what I hadn't realised about him was that, although he wrote his first novel in 1947, he remained more or less unknown as a writer of fiction until the success of Memorial do Convento (Baltasar and Blimunda) in 1982.
Margaret Jull Costa is the regular translator for many distinguished Iberian writers, not least Saramago and Javier Marías.
The elephant's journey was Saramago's penultimate novel - it's a superficially light and straightforward story, based on a real incident, the gift of an elephant from King João III of Portugal to Archduke Maximilian of Austria in 1551. The elephant Solomon (renamed Suleiman by the Archduke) has to travel on foot from Lisbon to Valladolid and then on to Vienna, accompanied by his mahout and a suitable military escort (Portuguese on the first stage; Maximilian's Austrian retinue thereafter).
Saramago treats this simple journey narrative with his usual irony and stubborn refusal to take the past on its own terms - there are plenty of witty swipes at royalty, clergy, the military, civil servants and the foibles of 16th century humanity in general, contrasted with the patient tolerance of the elephant, who remains determinedly just an elephant, whatever symbolic roles the people around it are trying to impose. And the mahout, an Indian a long way from home, whose straightforward relationship with the elephant is contrasted with his complex human worries about what is going to happen to them. Wonderful!
Love bade me welcome: yet my soul drew back
Guilty of dust and sin.
But quick-ey'd Love, observing me grow slack
From my first entrance in,
Drew nearer to me, sweetly questioning,
If I lack'd any thing.
A guest, I answer'd, worthy to be here:
Love said, You shall be he.
I the unkind, ungrateful? Ah my dear,
I cannot look on thee.
Love took my hand, and smiling did reply,
Who made the eyes but I?
Truth Lord, but I have marred them: let my shame
Go where it doth deserve.
And know you not, says Love, who bore the blame?
My dear, then I will serve.
You must sit down, says Love, and taste my meat:
So I did sit and eat.
Love (III) by George Herbert
Music at Midnight: The Life and Poetry of George Herbert (2013) by John Drury (UK, 1936- )
John Drury is an Anglican clergyman, who has been a Fellow and Chaplain of All Souls College Oxford since retiring as Dean of Christ Church in 2003. He's written extensively about church history, religious art, and similar topics.
George Herbert (1593-1633) is not one of those obscure poets you only ever meet in lecture courses about 17th-century poetry: we can still read him with the barest minimum of editorial support, because his language is so astonishingly simple, clear, and almost "timeless" as to leap the barrier of 400 years effortlessly; several of his poems have become well-loved fixtures in the hymn-books of English-speaking Christian denominations; ordinary readers still turn to his religious poetry for spiritual consolation; poets from Richard Crashaw to Seamus Heaney and Elizabeth Bishop have cited him as an inspiration and exemplar of how to write; Vikram Seth loves his work so much that he bought and restored the rectory where Herbert used to live...
On the other hand, ill-health and an early death apart, Herbert's life doesn't seem to have had any of the difficulties in it that mark someone out to be a genius. He came from a minor, but still prosperous, branch of a powerful aristocratic family. George Herbert's relative the Earl of Pembroke was married to the poet Mary Sidney, dedicatee of Arcadia. Herbert's mother was a friend of William Byrd and John Donne. His headmaster at Westminster School (and later friend and mentor) was Lancelot Andrewes, the most distinguished of the translators of the Authorised Version. And those are just the names that Drury drops - there were probably even more connections of that kind...
Unlike most self-respecting poets, Herbert did very well at school and at Cambridge, being elected at a young age to a fellowship of his college and to the important university office of Orator. He served for a while as MP for a constituency that belonged to the Herbert clan. In an age of highly-charged political and religious turmoil, he appears to have managed not to get involved in any conflicts worth speaking of. When it all got a bit too much, he elegantly stepped aside from academia and politics, married a relative of his stepfather's, and became a country rector at Bemerton in Wiltshire, conveniently halfway between the musical life of Salisbury Cathedral and the Earl of Pembroke's seat at Wilton. And then, just as everything was about to descend into chaos and civil war, he died peacefully and in an aura of sanctity just before his 40th birthday.
Despite all this High Tory silver-spoonery, you only have to look into one or two of Herbert's poems to get a feeling for what a lovely, modest man he must have been. The debate in his poems is always between Herbert and God, and you get the feeling that God must be enjoying it far too much to let either side achieve a decisive result. They're probably still at it...
John Drury evidently loves Herbert very dearly, although not too dearly to point out the occasional weakness in his writing. And, as an academic and a clergyman himself, he's also in a very good position to look critically at Herbert as a priest and as a religious writer. He's found a very interesting way to construct this biography, mixing detailed discussions of individual poems with passages of historical and biographical material thematically rather than chronologically. To some extent this might have been forced upon him by the fact that we know very little about when Herbert wrote what - almost the first anyone knew of his poems was when he handed over a pile of manuscript to a friend on his deathbed with a request to see if there was anything worth publishing. But it works very well - we aren't allowed to get too deeply involved in the trivia of the life or too abstractly pedantic about the texts and their theology, but always keep the one in the context of the other. This is basically an author who doesn't have any need to profile himself any more, sharing with us his private pleasure in a poet he admires, and it's therefore a book you can read with pleasure without being a literary scholar, a Christian theologian, or an expert on the 17th century (although it probably helps if you're at least a little bit inclined to those things!).
Something else to follow up one day...
Die Enten, die Frauen und die Wahrheit (2003) by Katja Lange-Müller (Germany, 1951- )
A collection of entertainingly subversive stories and newspaper columns from the late nineties, dealing with a wide range of topics, from mushrooms (poisonous) and zoo animals (neurotic) to circus freaks and baseball. And with quite a lot about real life in the less-than-chic Berlin neighbourhood of Wedding, so convenient for her favourite all-night bar, the "Feuchte Welle" on the "five-jail-island" of Moabit, where the barman lets homeless day-labourers sleep undisturbed, provided they pay for a beer every two or three hours. Lange-Müller wants to show us that reunified Berlin is not a glamorous city for everyone who lives there, and that it's not always easy to feel grateful for the lifting of the iron curtain when it means you have to do your shopping at Aldi. But this is mostly a book about individual contrariness - mostly on the part of the author, sometimes of the people who tell her their stories over a few beers. Any generalising is left to the reader.
Oh yes, and those ducks. There are two duck stories in the collection, actually: in neither one do the ducks come out of it well.
Reality and dreams (1996) by Muriel Spark (UK, 1918-2006)
Spark's touch in her later works is sometimes so light that she never quite touches the ground, and you start to wonder whether there was anything there at all, or whether you just imagined that you'd read another Spark novel...
In this one, written when Spark was in her late seventies, a well-known film director is put out of action for a while by an accident on set. Spark sets out on a hunt to find out what is behind the key concept of the Thatcher years for a lot of middle-class people, "redundancy". Are people - men especially - really so defined by "what they do" that they are entitled to fall apart if someone pays them to stop doing it? But she seems to get bored with this quite quickly and shifts to celebrity culture and the absurdities of the film industry, where actors and directors like to pretend they are producing aesthetically relevant work but all the decisions are taken by accountants and insurers. And there's a vague recurrence of the "rogue female" plot-thread from The only problem, so faintly pencilled-in that it almost isn't there.
Worth reading because it's Spark and there are gems of unexpected thought tucked away even in this, and it only takes an hour or two of your life anyway, but probably not one of her best.
(If there were any justice in the world, this would at least be a book that we could hail as presciently relevant to the current outburst of breast-beating about sexual exploitation in Hollywood, but it isn't, because, with her usual contrariness, Spark refuses to give anyone the status of victim - her women characters behave every bit as reprehensibly as the men do. Sex, at least for the satirical purposes of this book, is a morally neutral activity.)
I've spent the last few days being very lazy on a sailing boat in the sunshine, and that can only mean another small crime-spree: the next two in the Donna Leon series I first dipped into a couple of months ago.
Death in a strange country (1993) by Donna Leon (USA, 1942- )
The anonymous Venetian (1994; a.k.a. Dressed for death) by Donna Leon (USA, 1942- )
Death in a strange country is the second Brunetti novel - a body found floating in the canal is identified as that of an American serviceman from the giant base at Vicenza, leading to an investigation that brings to light not only the inevitable political corruption but also some of the more uncomfortable aspects of the long-standing US military presence in Italy.
Like all long-term expats, Leon has fun criticising both the country she comes from and the one she's living in. It's good to see that her Venice is not simply the tourist-gem we like to think it is, and it's also nice that it's never a foregone conclusion that Brunetti will triumph over the systematic evils he finds in his investigations. On the other hand, the things Leon chooses to represent "the real Italy" sometimes almost seem to be drawn from the other side of the same box of Italian clichés as tourist-Venice - tax-evasion, the maffia, chiuso per restauri, pollution, corrupt businessmen and politicians, etc. Maybe it's all a bit too easy...?
The anonymous Venetian starts off with another unidentified corpse - a man found beaten to death, dressed in women's clothes in an area of Mestre notoriously used by prostitutes. On that most traditional of all occasions for crime, the eve of the detective's planned holiday. But is it all that it seems? Well, no, obviously. But surely Brunetti's investigation isn't going to open up another tangled web of corruption in high places so soon after the last one? And surely even Brunetti wouldn't be so daft as to accept an invitation to a late-night rendezvous with an informant after the ones in the last two books ended so disastrously...?
Leon's intelligent and lively style and the many unexpected touches of local detail she finds room for allow this book to be entertaining despite a rather predictable and pedestrian plot, but I'd rather hoped and expected that the series would be developing a bit more strongly by the time it got to the third book. If it carries on like this, I'm not sure that I shall.
Beauty and Sadness (1964; English 1975) by Yasunari Kawabata (Japan, 1899-1972) translated by Howard S. Hibbett (US, 1920-)
Howard Hibbett is yet another American scholar who came to Japanese literature through military service in World War II. He's an emeritus professor of Japanese literature at Harvard and has translated many major Japanese authors, including Tanizaki and Kawabata.
Beauty and sadness was Kawabata's last novel. The situation is a little bit like a Japanese version of Lotte in Weimar in reverse - twenty years ago, Oki published what has become his best loved and most famous novel, telling the story of a tragic, destructive love-affair between a married man and a sixteen-year-old girl. In the meantime, it's become an open secret that the girl in the story was based on Otoko, who is now a well-known painter living in Kyoto. Otoko is in a relationship with her pupil, a younger woman called Keiko. Oki spontaneously decides to visit Kyoto and look up his former lover for the first time since they broke up, and of course stirs up a lot of old and new passions in the process.
There's a lot of beautifully serene evocation of Japanese tradition and history, unexpectedly - but very effectively - set against a story of boiling passions and the unhealed harm people do to each other. And some very interesting glimpses at the complex ways that art and life intersect, both for writers and for visual artists. I particularly liked the little digressions into the physicality of the writing process, and the differences between the effect of manuscript, typescript, woodblock and movable type. And the well where the 12th century writer Fujiwara Teika is said to have drawn water for his inkstone.
There is - probably inevitably - an element of male voyeurism in the way Kawabata writes about the relationship between the two women, with rather more discussion of breasts than we really need, but there's also an intriguingly offbeat fascination with body odour (male as well as female) that you probably wouldn't find in a western novel. And - just like The sound of the mountain - we shouldn't allow all the obi-tying and bath-running to distract us from the way the story is driven by strong female characters. Another superb miniature.
Spark notes, part 123(2):
Not to disturb (1971) by Muriel Spark (UK, 1918-2006)
Mozart's Don Giovanni ends, after the Don has been dragged down into the flames of Hell, with his faithful servant Leporello telling us that he's off to the inn to look for a better master. This typically eccentric Spark miniature takes more or less the same point of view, except that in this case the servants have already put in place their plans to profit from the situation well before anyone else knows that disaster is on its inevitable way for their employers. Spark obviously wants us to re-examine our role as readers of fiction in the light of these cynical observers of other people's tragedies.
The servants' hall setting and the dialogue-driven style that leaves you to work out for yourself who is who seem to be a conscious echo of Henry Green and Ivy Compton-Burnett, but the jokes are very much Spark's own, down to the running gag that none of the speakers ever gets quite the verb they're looking for. And the economy is pure Spark - a super-complex plot with far too many characters all crammed into 90 pages! Hectic, but fun.
Reading your reviews, I'm tempted to revisit Kawabata and try Spark.
Tod eines Kritikers (2002) by Martin Walser (Germany, 1927- )
Martin Walser (no relation to the Swiss eccentric Robert Walser) is one of the last survivors of the important post-war German writers' organisation Gruppe '47. Having published his first novel, Ehen in Philippsburg, in 1957, he's still going strong, with three new books appearing in the last 18 months or so (I read one of them, the novel Statt etwas oder Der letzte Rank, in June last year).
One of the most frequently-heard pieces of advice to new writers is that you shouldn't let yourself get drawn into replying to criticisms of your work. This probably applies a fortiori when you've been in the business for the best part of half a century and the critic who's provoked your anger is the most famous arbiter of literary taste in the country. And even more so when your reply takes the form of a savage novel-length personal attack. But Walser was obviously in a William Tell mood in 2002, and must have seen himself as the only person in a position to bring the tyrant down...
The target of his wrath was Marcel Reich-Ranicki (1920-2013), the most feared and celebrated German literary critic of modern times, well-known to the public as the host of the long-running TV show Literarisches Quartett, on which many distinguished authors saw their work mercilessly torn to shreds (there are plenty of clips on YouTube if you haven't seen him in action). By the time Tod eines Kritikers appeared, Reich-Ranicki and Walser had been skirmishing in public for longer than most viewers of the show had been alive. And it sounded as though they could happily go on doing so for as long as they both survived, like an old married couple.
Something obviously pushed Walser over the edge, though, and he produced this satirical roman-à-clef in which novelist Hans Lach finds himself accused of the murder of the tyrannical TV pundit André Ehrl-König (an obvious allusion to the sinister child-stealing figure in Goethe's poem). Lach's latest novel has just been scathingly dismissed on Ehrl-König's show - in an attack that has Reich-Ranicki's footprints all over it - and he has been heard threatening Ehrl-König at the after-show party. But Lach's neighbour, the historian Michael Landolf, doesn't believe he's capable of violent murder, and sets out to prove his innocence, in a quest that requires him to interview half of literary Munich.
There are a few good jokes, and some satisfyingly postmodern plot twists, and the central point about the relationship between the writer, the expert and the ordinary reader is worth making, but probably not at such length or with so much anger. As Walser lets Landolf discover, the reason Ehrl-König/Reich-Ranicki is so easy to parody is that he is a performer who has learnt to exaggerate his own character traits for the purposes of television. And, as we all know from current politics, people who use that strategy only get stronger when you try to make fun of them.
Walser has got into trouble about supposed antisemitism in his books on several occasions before, and that happened with this book as well. He obviously knew it would: in the book itself, he has journalists absurdly argue that Lach's crime is exacerbated by the fact that he has killed a Jewish critic, even though he didn't actually know that Ehrl-König was of Jewish descent. In real life, critics pointed to the echo of Hitler in Lach's threat "Ab heute nacht Null Uhr wird zurückgeschlagen" and to elements of negative Jewish stereotypes in the portrayal of Ehrl-König. It's probably impossible to say whether Walser is indulging his (supposed) prejudices or simply trolling the press here, particularly when you reflect on how Reich-Ranicki exploited the same kind of Jewish stereotypes to his advantage in his own TV persona. Probably best to leave this one to the German press to argue about. However, what is clear is that there's a lot too much lecherous-old-male fantasising about sex in the book, and that rapidly gets tedious. Female characters are either permanently offstage (like Lach's wife) or they are there to be the object of one or other male character's lust. Yawn!
Snow country (1935-1948; English 1956) by Yasunari Kawabata (Japan, 1899-1972) translated by Edward Seidensticker (US, 1921-2007)
Snow country has a complex writing history - Kawabata tinkered with it over a lengthy period from 1935 onwards, publishing bits of the story in a least five different journals in the process. It didn't appear as a complete book in its present form until 1948. (Kawabata returned to it once more at the end of his life, reworking it as one of his "palm-of-the-hand" micro-stories.)
The book relates a series of visits by an urban dilettante, Shimamura, to an obscure mountain hot-springs resort in the west of Honshu. As Seidensticker delicately explains: "The Japanese seldom goes to a hot spring for his health, and he never goes for 'the season,' as people once went to Bath or Saratoga. He may ski or view maple leaves or cherry blossoms, but his wife is usually not with him. The special delights of the hot spring are for the unaccompanied gentleman. No prosperous hot spring is without its geisha and its compliant hotel maids."
Shimamura, true to type, has left his wife and child in Tokyo (they are mentioned a couple of times in the book, but we never get to meet them) and orders up a geisha. It turns out to be a busy time, and what he gets is Komako, who when they first meet is a kind of semi-professional, "a girl who was not a geisha but who was sometimes asked to help at large parties". Shimamura is captivated by her aura of old-fashioned Japanese virtue and cleanness - "The impression the woman gave was a wonderfully clean and fresh one. It seemed to Shimamura that she must be clean to the hollows under her toes" - and starts to fall in love with his image of Komako as a simple country girl at the same time as he is physically attracted and aesthetically repelled by her occupation. The story is complicated by Shimamura's glimpses of another young woman, Yoko, whom he also instantly idealises, especially when he discovers she is in mourning for her lost lover.
Kawabata keeps feeding us little bits of description that echo Shimamura's erotic confusion: on the one side the beauty of nature and the changing seasons; on the other the hardships of life under the snow for the local people, the economic uncertainties of tourism, traditional crafts and the geisha profession. Even the insects are made to remind us that they only have the briefest of spells of being beautiful before their lives end.
This may be a geisha romance, but it's a distinctly unromantic one.
An attractive little book, based on five extramural lectures about traditional (i.e. pre-Meiji) Japanese literature Keene gave in New York and Los Angeles in 1986-1987. They cover aesthetics, poetry (two lectures), fiction and theatre, in a very straightforward and accessible way, giving a kind of crash-course in what you really need to know about the most important forms, styles, and contexts from the 8th to the 19th century.
I picked up quite a few fairly basic concepts that I should have known about but didn't, in particular the the importance of the distinction between the roles of vernacular and Chinese writing, which has some rough parallels to the role of Latin in European literature, but had an even more direct effect in medieval Japan: the high-status language was reserved for male use, so writing in the vernacular was dominated by texts either addressed to or written by women, in particular love poetry and narrative prose, a distinction that became so entrenched that for a long time no-one felt able to write anything else in Japanese. Also, Keene digs into the way the shape of the Japanese language itself meant that only syllabic form could be used for structuring poetry - there are no stresses, only five word-endings that could make rhymes, and classical Japanese did not have long and short vowels - and how syllabic structure only really works effectively for very short forms (waka, haiku).
I didn't get quite so much out of the lecture on drama - it's probably too complex a subject even to introduce in such a short space - but at least you come out with a slightly clearer idea of what distinguishes Nō, Kabuki and Bunraku.
Useful, and very agreeable to read.
>63 thorold: Sounds like a very useful reference
“Do take Muriel out” — I don’t think Stevie Smith was talking about Spark, somehow, but it’s good advice for next time you’re in a library... :-)
I remember there being some really excellent bookshops in Glasgow, Aberdeen and St Andrews, but that was a long time ago. Haven’t been to Scotland for far too long. High street bookshops these days seem to be very poorly stocked with dead authors, wherever you go. For back-catalogue they obviously don’t think it worth attempting to compete with charity shops and the Internet. You’d think there’d still be a market for RLS, at least, though. Did they have Ali Smith and Carol Ann Duffy in their Scottish section?
I really need to get around to Robin Jenkins and a couple of the others you mention.
Ali Smith and Carol Ann Duffy were there, but my thought was they were easy to find at home, so I left them there. Others sadly were A L Kennedy and James Kelman.
Haven’t been to Scotland for far too long. It's always a good time to take a trip to Scotland.
Anyway, something else I've been neglecting unfairly lately is the nineteenth century, so it's about time for another Zola. Fortunately I had a lot of time for reading on trains in the last few days:
Le ventre de Paris (1873) by Emile Zola (France, 1840-1902)
Not suitable for vegetarians; may contain large quantities of animal fats, sugar, carbohydrates, nuts, gluten, rampant capitalism, etc.
In this third volume of the Rougon-Macquart cycle, readers couldn't avoid noticing what an extraordinary kind of writer Zola was (in case they hadn't spotted it already...). The novel is composed exactly like one of those Flemish kitchen-scene paintings where 80% of the canvas is covered with vividly-rendered fruit & veg, poultry, fish, and meat, usually with a muscular kitchen-maid doing something nasty to a duck, and a lot of gleaming copper pans. And when you look really closely, somewhere in the background through a doorway you will spot a narrative going on - usually Christ in the house of Mary and Martha, or the Road to Emmaus.
Zola takes us on a gloriously overpowering virtual-reality tour of the sights, smells, textures and sounds of Paris's central food market, Les Halles, as rebuilt in magnificent Second Empire cast-iron and glass by Victor Baltard in the 1850s and 60s. Everywhere we look there is sensory overload as we are manoeuvred around piles of cabbages and turnips, mountains of fresh fish, vast displays of charcuterie, a competition of smelly cheeses, piles of animal carcasses, cellars full of pigeons and ducks, drains running with offal, and hundreds of traders, butchers, porters and market officials rushing around in a desperate hurry. All the drama and excitement of how you manage to feed a city of over a million people in this strange modern world. It's often said that Zola - like Thomas Hardy - was only a novelist because the cinema wasn't invented in time for him, but when you read this, it's pretty clear that Zola would have found the cinema's limitation to reproducing sound and vision only far too restrictive. He needs to be able to address all our senses from all directions at once to get his effect.
Somewhere in between all this high-pressure trading in perishable wares, there is a story going on, a typical Zola story of a hapless well-intentioned individual crushed under Napoleon III's regime, but it's tucked away so far in the background that we're made to realise just how little an individual human's fate counts for in the middle of the capitalist euphoria of booming Paris. Everything is about production, consumption, and excess, and Zola doesn't hesitate to milk it. In what's probably the most memorable scene in a novel that consists almost entirely of memorable scenes, the unfortunate Florent is telling what should be the exciting tale of how he escaped from the inhuman conditions of Devil's Island, but Florent's brother, now a charcutier, is busy making boudin, and Zola keeps distracting us and the other listeners from Florent's attempts to survive in the Guyanan jungle with the complex and difficult process of preparing blood-sausage. In the end, only his five-year-old niece, fascinated by "l’histoire du monsieur qui a été mangé par les bêtes", is actually listening to Florent.
Seriously, you remind me of how wonderful it is to read Zola. I do have to get back to it - I have no idea what I have been doing instead.
The photo truly does capture the teemingness of it all, if there is such a word. Struck by the prominence of the Mexican chocolate billboard, I had to look up Maximilian's dates, and see the novel was written not long after the execution, so the timing of the photo is a nice touch. Even though the events had nothing to do with each other, there is a sense of zeitgeist.
There are lots more things about the novel it would be fun to chase up - one silly little thing I noticed was how wicker baskets were the standard containers for transporting stuff around - there’s a cart loaded with a huge pile of them on the left of that postcard.
The “revolutionary conspiracy”
The great cities in history (2009) edited by John Julius Norwich (UK, 1929-2018 )
John Julius Norwich is the author of some very up-market "popular history" (Byzantium, Sicily, Venice, etc.) and was for a long time a familiar voice on the BBC. He played an important role in the international campaign to preserve Venice in the 60s and 70s. He's the son of the glamorous Evelyn-Waugh-era couple Duff Cooper (from whom he inherited the title Viscount Norwich) and Lady Diana Manners; his daughter is the biographer Artemis Cooper.
The idea of this book sounded good, if a little ambitious - a collection of short essays by distinguished experts presenting a global overview of the role of particular cities in history from ancient times until 2009. But in practice, it turns out that the essays are simply too short (1000-1500 words) for most of the experts to get around to saying anything really interesting about their cities before the editor's red light comes on. And there's no real attempt to draw any general conclusions from what they say - Norwich's introductions to each of the five broad time periods are brief and do little more than touch on some of the big historical themes that are important for the period. After reading it, I discovered that the book was originally issued by Thames & Hudson in a big, glossy coffee-table format with lots of pictures, which would make a lot more sense for such a book than the later "compact edition" in which I read it, with illustrations at the rate of only about one to every four essays, gathered into blocks of colour plates.
That's not to say that it's a complete waste of time - whilst many of the contributors waste precious space telling you what you almost certainly already know (Rory Maclean reduces Berlin to little more than a truncated Wikipedia entry), others, like A. N. Wilson on London or James Cuno on Chicago, have more instinct for the form and manage to home in on non-obvious details that tell you something relevant about their cities. Norwich - as you would expect - has claimed Constantinople, Palermo and Venice for himself, and of course does a very nice job of condensing the thousands of pages he has written about those cities to three or four each.
ETA: Sad to see that John Julius Norwich died on the 1st of June, a couple of days after I posted this. Obituary here: https://www.theguardian.com/books/2018/jun/01/john-julius-norwich-obituary
Anyway, no harm done - Louis is firmly on my list now, and Eribon's book was a very interesting complement to the Annie Ernaux books I've been reading.
Retour à Reims : Une théorie du sujet (2009; Returning to Reims 2013(US), 2018(UK)) by Didier Eribon (France, 1953- )
Sociologist and philosopher Didier Eribon teaches at the University of Amiens and has done the requisite stints as visiting professor at several distinguished US universities and King's College Cambridge. Apart from this book, he's probably best known as the biographer of Michel Foucault.
Like many gay men, Didier Eribon moved to the big city and effectively broke off contact with his parents when he came out — he was prompted to write this memoir largely by the process of renewing his relationship with his elderly mother, decades later, when she found herself having to cope with his father’s illness and death.
In the book, he reflects on how both his sexuality and his choice of an academic career cut him off from the rough, working-class background he grew up in, and at the odd ways in which the two interact. It is quite consciously written as a book by an academic, for academics, and it’s written in the finest sociologese (a dialect that at least has the merit of being no harder to understand in French than it is in English...). It can be tough for a lay reader to follow in places, and occasionally it almost reads as though Eribon is just making fun of himself, but it is worth battling on through the jargon. Eribon takes his personal experiences and bounces them up against political and sociological theory and against the parallel experiences of writers who have influenced him - Sartre, Marx, Foucault, Bourdieu, etc., but also, less obviously, Annie Ernaux, Raymond Williams, James Baldwin and Patrick Chamoiseau. And he comes up with some interesting conclusions about the problems that are inherent in the relationship between academic left-wing thought and the real working-class that it claims to represent.
One aspect of the book that has got a lot of media coverage is his analysis — drawn from his mother’s admission that she “only once” voted for Le Pen — of the way the Left may have made space for radical right-wing ideas by moving into the comfortable mainstream of politics. But this is actually a rather minor part of the book, and he doesn’t really develop this idea very far. What was interesting, though, was the point he made about the complexity of the act of voting. People don’t simply vote to express their agreement with a candidate’s policies, or in their own interests (in press interviews more recently he’s taken this further to talk about not only the way his mother — a pensioner dependent on social security — would have lost out if Le Pen had got in, but also the turkey/Christmas referendum in the UK). But there also seems to be something more than a little patronising about his attitude: he seems to accept that working-class culture is necessarily racist, sexist, homophobic, and that you can only get beyond that by engaging people in some cause that makes them see beyond their own noses (striking workers show solidarity with their black colleagues...).
What I found particularly interesting about the book was
the frankness of Eribon’s discussion of his feelings about his working-class background, which actually do seem to come very close to those Ernaux expresses in her books (in very different language!). There is the same feeling of shame and embarrassment at his (perceived) coarseness and ignorance compared to his bourgeois fellow-students, the same guilt about having abandoned “where he came from”. And the same anger about the education system that pretends to provide equal opportunities but is actually designed to favour kids from nice, respectable middle-class backgrounds at every stage.
Also interesting to see his thoughts about how expressing his sexuality as a gay man required him to develop an identity different from the one he grew up in, so reinforcing the tendency to become middle-class (and a sport-hating aesthete — yes, we’ve all been there and done that...!).
Not an easy book, but worth reading if you’re interested in class and sexuality and how they interact.
BTW: is it just me getting older, or are Penguin going steadily down-market? I've had several recently with wet, blurry ink, and this one's not even printed straight. They must have closed down their quality control department...
Thousand cranes (1952; English 1958) by Yasunari Kawabata (Japan, 1899-1972), translated by Edward Seidensticker
Another lovely (but not exactly cheerful) Kawabata miniature, a book you can read in the time it takes to sip a couple of mugs of good strong Yorkshire tea, but will leave you sitting there a long time afterwards trying to work out what it was about...
After his parents' death, Mitani Kikuji is disconcerted to find his father's discarded ex-mistress Chikako trying to take their place and run his life for him. Especially when another, more recent ex-mistress turns up, the widow of old Mr Mitani's fellow tea-ceremony enthusiast, Mr Ota. The action of the story takes place over the course of a series of tea-drinkings, each a little less dignified and tranquil than the one before, and everything is played out in the symbolism of centuries-old drinking cups, water jugs, and other paraphernalia. The underlying theme again seems to be the alarming moral and cultural emptiness of a post-war world where it isn't possible to take refuge in the continuity of traditions any more.
It pains me to say this, but don't get your hopes up *too* much about En finir avec Eddy Bellegueule. It's very much a first book by a very young writer. He overdoes the horrifying aspects of the story (in my opinion - obviously, YMMV), including the age of his first sexual encounters, to the point where I don’t know how the dates and ages can possibly make sense. I felt that using shock tactics made the book less powerful than it could have been otherwise, paradoxically. I’m not sure he’s always fully honest with himself and with us. Sometimes, it feels like he’s trying to justify himself on the one hand and sensationalise his life on the other, rather than truthfully explore his past. Annie Ernaux for example, digs deeper and is more honest as well as rawer, in my opinion. It’s still a must-read book, however, if only because of the conversation it sparked about class and the underrepresentation of working-class gay men.
Two more short "fillers" read in the gaps between thunderstorms, coincidentally both novels by authors who were also graphic artists:
- I read and very much enjoyed Jansson's Fair play in March - I've been meaning to get around to this, her best-known novel for adults, ever since
The summer book (1972) by Tove Jansson (Finland, 1914-2001) translated by Thomas Teal
Little Sophia and her grandmother spend their summers completely immersed in the world of the small island that is the family's summer home. In a series of short vignettes, we see them investigating nature, constructing play-worlds or art projects, dealing with crises brought on by weather, neighbours, or their own doubts, fears and weaknesses, quarrelling and making up, etc.
In an odd way, this is a completely parallel book to Fair play, with the complementary personalities of the two middle-aged women artists in that book replaced by the cross-generation bond between the little girl and the old lady. The idea works brilliantly, because of the subtle way Janssen brings out echoes between the different kinds of challenges that life throws at the very young and the very old, and shows us the two of them working as a team to meet those challenges. A lovely little book, deservedly popular.
- This one was recommended to me by several people around the time it came out in Germany; I dutifully passed on the recommendation to various young friends, who seemed to enjoy it, but I never got around to reading it myself...
Tschick (2010; Why we took the car) by Wolfgang Herrndorf (Germany, 1965-2013)
Wolfgang Herrndorf studied art, and worked as writer and illustrator on various (mostly satirical) magazines and websites. Sadly, he was diagnosed with a brain tumour not long after the publication of his wildly-successful second novel, Tschick.
Fourteen-year-old Berlin schoolboy Maik and his Russian-born classmate Tschick find themselves left at a loose end in the summer holidays. Maik's middle-class parents are too busy with their own concerns to worry about their son, whilst Tschick only seems to have his dodgy elder brother as family support. In a "borrowed" Lada, they set off to drive to Wallachia to find Tschick's grandfather. Unfortunately, they omitted to take a map, and they haven't "done" Germany yet in their school geography lessons, and finding Wallachia doesn't prove to be all that easy.
This is a very funny book, but the joke is exactly the same one as in Catcher in the rye, Adrian Mole, and (nearer to home) Die neuen Leiden des jungen W. -- we are looking at the world of adults from the peculiar perspective of an alienated teenage boy, who is (of course) really just an adult novelist using his disguise as a first-person narrator to poke fun at his contemporaries. Herrndorf does it very well, and adds some 21st century Berlin detail to the usual mix, with references among much else to asylum-seekers, racism, open-cast mining, industrial agriculture, computer games, Beyoncé, a left-over old Nazi (or possibly Communist) and a very discreetly smuggled-in LGBT plotline. Although it is a kind of coming-of-age novel, it always feels more irresponsible and subversive than didactic. I'm not really a fan of "YA" books, but I can see that if I were, this would have a good chance of becoming a favourite.
- and so should I! :-)
A couple more I finished on trains over the weekend but didn't get around to posting. First Spark Notes, part 97 3/4:
Doctors of philosophy (1962) by Muriel Spark (UK, 1918-2006)
When you reflect on how brilliant she was as a writer of dialogue, it's quite a surprise to find that this was Spark's only work written for the stage. Perhaps there were just too many (male) playwrights with big egos around in the London theatrical world of the late fifties and early sixties, and Spark decided that it wasn't worth the effort of trying to get a foot in the door. Or she found that middle-class audiences of the time wanted to see gritty tragedies with plain-spoken working-class heroes, not sophisticated satires about people like themselves...
Anyway, this is one of those Spark pieces that starts out relatively sane and predictable, then veers off into a totally unexpected direction. Leonora and Catherine are cousins who were postgraduate students together a generation ago: one has devoted her life since then to Assyrian palaeography, the other has left academia to become a wife and mother whose daughter is now a PhD student in her turn. And of course each of them wonders whether her life would have been more fulfilling if she had taken a different path. Also in the picture are Catherine's husband Charlie (an economist who knows the price of everything), cousin Annie, who has apparently devoted her life to pleasure, and the cleaning-woman, Mrs S. So far, so normal.
But then it all gets rather strange, in a very Sparkish way. Two further male characters also called Charlie appear, one the daughter's boyfriend, the other a "hulking great lorry driver" who has apparently wandered in by accident; Mrs S gloriously oversteps the role that servants are supposed to play in middle-class drama; the characters start to become concerned about the wobbly set and the feeling they have that they are being watched by an invisible audience; there's a debate about whether the (offstage) broom-cupboard can truly be said to exist; various people fall in the Regents' Canal (which is outside the French windows) and have to be revived, dripping. And the whole "career vs. family" question we thought was going to be at the heart of the play turns out to be a red herring.
Fun, peculiar, and very much of its time.
LEONORA. When you come up to visit me in college you have a hankering look. I feel sorry for you at those times. I think perhaps it stabs you — the knowledge that you had it in you to become a distinguished scholar — and have become merely the mother of an average student and the wife of a second-class scholar.
CATHERINE. You needn’t feel sorry for me. Charlie’s one of the best economists in the country.
LEONORA. That doesn’t prove him to be a first-class one.
MRS. S. Let her enjoy herself while she’s young. She’ll soon have her Ph.D., and once you’ve got it you’ve had it. Annie, the time’s getting on if you want to change into something suitable for consuming shepherd’s pie with oily lettuce leaves on your side plate.
ANNIE. Mrs. S., I’m sure Mr. S. must have loved you very dearly. I know he must have done.
MRS. S. I wouldn’t be sure. I remain agnostic on that point. What makes you raise the subject, academically speaking?
ANNIE. I always like to bring the conversation round to love, I do it by instinct.
MRS. S. A pernicious instinct. Enough to spoil your appetite. (Goes out.)
CurrerBell also reviewed this a few days ago, and links to this very interesting review by Joseph Farrell in the Scottish Review of Books, which has a lot more about the historical context of the play: https://www.scottishreviewofbooks.org/2018/02/doctors-of-philosophy/
Men explain things to me (2014) by Rebecca Solnit (USA, 1961- )
I sometimes find myself wondering what the purpose of books like this is. You're not very likely to buy this if you're a rapist, wife-beater and/or conservative politician (and even if you did, it's not likely to make you change ideas which were never based on rational argument in the first place); if you're a lefty-liberal petition-signing banner-carrying feminist then you know all this stuff already from the newspapers you read, and the only obvious reason to buy the book is to advertise your political credentials by displaying it on your shelf.
But that's missing the point, of course. This isn't written for Guardian readers or the religious right. The people for whom campaigning books like this are really important are the people the book is talking about - in this case women who are victims of male violence or unable to make their voices heard. Reading something like this, even if it is only setting out the problems and not really offering concrete solutions, helps you to realise that you aren't alone, that these are subjects that can be talked about and should be, and that talking about the problem openly and getting others to accept that it is a problem can be the first step on the way to changing the world.
Solnit writes with a good deal of understandable anger and frustration, but the points she makes struck me as fair and balanced - where there's a standard counter-argument she doesn't hesitate to stop and give it a fair hearing (before blasting it out of the water...). A worthwhile book, definitely.
A month in the country (1980) by J.L. Carr (UK, 1912-1994)
"Jim" Carr (officially he was Joseph Lloyd Carr...) was one of those eccentric outsiders the British literary establishment occasionally tolerates to demonstrate to itself that it isn't an incestuous closed elite after all. He was a primary-school headmaster from a rural, lower-middle-class background (his father was a Yorkshire stationmaster), and ran his own small press (Quince Tree Press) publishing whatever took his fancy, most famously little pocket-sized books of poetry. Carr was notoriously someone who invariably did things his own way, even if the "standard" way to do them would have been far simpler (well-known example: the books he published had one price for adult buyers, another for children). He wrote eight short, quirky novels, of which the Booker-shortlisted A month in the country was the most famous.
In the summer of 1920, Tom Birkin and Charles Moon, both veterans of the Great War, find themselves working in the North Riding village of Oxgodby. Birkin is restoring a medieval wall-painting in the church, whilst the archaeologist Moon is supposed to be looking for a tomb. Both projects have been imposed on the disapproving vicar by an eccentric bequest. But in spite of this frosty reception, we soon see the work, the tranquil atmosphere and association with the down-to-earth villagers starting to undo some of the damage they have brought back from the war with them.
Moon, as we see right from the start ("the three holes in the tunic’s shoulders where his captain’s pips had been...") is officer-class but has somehow fallen from grace, and has a hard time getting acceptance from the locals, but they recognise Birkin - despite his southern accent and art-training - as "one of us". He approaches his work like an artisan, and that's clearly how he's been trained, by a master-craftsman whose skills may well go right back to the generation of the anonymous master who painted the Oxgodby Doom. The villagers respond to that, and Birkin is soon being summoned to have his Sunday lunch with the stationmaster's family and integrated, despite his protests, into the life of the Wesleyan Chapel. But he's also starting to make friends with the grumpy vicar's beautiful wife...
It's a lovely, tantalising little story, in which not much appears to happen on the surface, but a great deal obviously does shift to help Birkin grow beyond the troubled state he's in at the beginning of the story. And it's interesting how in the end it seems to be his association with the very "ordinary" Ellerby family that has had a much profounder effect on him than the exotically erotic plotline we were looking forward to! The respect with which Carr treats the Ellerbys - who could so easily just have been played for laughs - is wonderful and astonishing (until we reflect that they probably have more than a slight resemblance to Carr's own family...). And they are so very real. You can easily imagine being sucked in by a family like that and signed up to look after the "dafties" in the Sunday School or sent out without any qualifications or experience to preach in the most obscure little chapel in the Circuit because no-one else is available. (In fact, I don't need to imagine it - something very similar to that happened to me in my Yorkshire days...).
It has spoiled me a bit, as I want more int he same vein. But it's also been part of me realising I feel like reading some History again, but of a social and cultural sort.
Slightly irrelevant reflection: I couldn't help wondering about "preaching to the choir" (chiefly US, first appeared in the 1970s, according to the OED) vs. "preaching to the converted" (British, 1850s). The received wisdom of Google is that they both mean the same thing, but I wonder if there isn't a bit more behind the difference? I wouldn't tend to think of the choir as the place where you find the most fervent believers. Or any believers at all, perhaps!
My stereotype of a church musician is of someone passionate about obscure Tudor and Victorian composers and with an endless supply of ecclesiastically-themed dirty jokes, who probably occupies himself during the sermon with the Times crossword or mentally running through the next piece he has to sing. So for me, "preaching to the choir" would have a connotation of talking to an audience that doesn't care, rather than an audience that is already on your side.
But that's obviously because I associate serious church music with the Anglican (cathedral/college) tradition, where it's institutionalised, rather academically-oriented, and semi-professional. If you come out of an ecstatic Pentecostal gospel-singing tradition you might have a quite different idea...
... and that also fits in nicely with the distinction Carr sets up between the Keaches (Anglican) and the Ellerbys (Wesleyan) in A month in the country, especially in the scene where they are testing organs in Ripon.
Even more irrelevant aside: I had to laugh a little at the way Carr happens to pick Wesleyans as the representatives of the "down-to-earth". My Lancashire relatives - at least the ones born before 1932 - were Prims and Independents from the other side of the Methodist split of the time, who spoke of Wesleyans as irredeemably posh, Anglicans in all but name (as Anglicans were Roman Catholics in all but name...). But that sort of thing was very regional - it could well be that there was never a split of that kind in the North Riding.
Wanderlust : a history of walking (2000) by Rebecca Solnit (USA, 1961- )
An interesting demonstration of how a publisher can create a ludicrously overblown subtitle without including a single adjective. You clearly don't need to assert that a story is "extraordinary", "incredible" or even "true" - the simple, unadorned word "history" is already enough to make an extraordinary, incredible (but not, alas, true) claim for the subject-matter of the book that lies behind it...
But that probably isn't the author's fault, and other than on its front cover, this book doesn't make any real claim to be anything other than what it is, an interesting and worthwhile collection of essays grouped around the cultural (mostly literary) significance of Anglo-American attitudes to getting about on foot over the last couple of centuries. Solnit looks at obvious topics like the relationship between recreational walking and garden design; the importance of walking in nature for the Wordsworths and Thoreau and how that led to the later development of access and conservation movements; walking as a political act in parades, pilgrimages and protest marches; and travel-writing and the rise of mountaineering and challenge-walking. And, as a dedicated subversive and feminist, she also looks at some less obvious socio-political aspects of walking - walking and prostitution, exclusion of women and minorities from public spaces in which walking is possible, US cities built without any provision for getting around on foot, and so on. Most of the essays bring together material from literary sources with reflections from her own personal experiences, and very often lead her to non-obvious insights into the ideological framework within which very familiar texts on walking are actually operating.
I enjoyed sharing Solnit's insights, but I'd (unrealistically) been expecting more, and found it a bit disappointing that so many "obvious" topics didn't get a look in. Wordsworth's walk to Italy gets detailed coverage, but there's no mention of Thomas Coryat, who did much the same walk (and subsequently walked from England to India!) two centuries earlier. One of my favourite 19th century travellers, George Borrow (admittedly, a rider as much as a walker) is also overlooked. Nor is there anything about Heine, Novalis, and the rest of the German romantics with their core idea of the Wanderer - which is particularly odd, because the Naturfreunde and Wandervogel movements they inspired get discussed quite extensively. And given the amount of literature it's inspired, it's surprising how little attention she pays to refugee-walking. Primo Levi's walk home from Auschwitz is mentioned only in passing, and there's nothing much about all the many books about being forced to leave your home on foot in wartime.
A good start, but someone really should write "A history of walking" one day!
"Nur wo man zu Fuß war, war man wirklich - Goethe" - seen on a barn wall a couple of metres from the Dutch/German border near Millingen.
("You've only really been there if you've been there on foot" - often quoted, in several different forms, but never more precisely attributed, so probably apocryphal.)
The white bird passes (1958) by Jessie Kesson (UK, 1916-1994)
Jessie Kesson (by coincidence, a close contemporary of Carr) was another writer who had to overcome considerable hurdles to get her work into print. She was from a very "deprived" background, never got the chance to study, and spent much of her childhood in an orphanage, and worked in adult life as a farm labourer. As Linda Cracknell tells it in the introduction to the Virago edition of the book, it was only a chance meeting with a writer on a train that persuaded her to try to submit some of her work for publication.
Kesson’s autobiographical novel The white bird passes tells the story of a young girl growing up in a slum district of a Scottish small town (Elgin) in the years after World War I. It could easily have been the Scottish A tree grows in Brooklyn, but that’s not the way Kesson wants to go: her heroine is a wonderfully sharp observer, refreshingly free of any sort of conventional morality. She revels in the way her neighbours - whores and petty criminals - somehow manage to maintain their dignity by defying authority and supporting each other at times of trouble. Of course, we readers get to see a bit further than little Janie, and perceive the adult misery behind the defiant attitude, and the way no-one in the community is really strong enough to maintain the mutual support when their own survival is at risk. It’s not an uplifting story, in the usual sense, nor is it a story of triumph over adversity - in Janie’s world, it’s pretty clear that adversity will get you every time. But it is a magnificent, very Scottish, account of how important it is to be proud of being human and keep on struggling for the impossible.
The Solnit also sounds worthwhile, having read accounts by those intrepid walkers Muir and RLS, and others. I also read an odd book, The Woman Who Walked to Russia, which is really as much about the author's walk as the subject's, but an interesting quirky book, if somewhat lacking in hard facts.