Month: October 2017

Ten Nights Dreaming and The Cat’s Grave

ten niths dreamingThis is the second work by Natsume Soseki that I have read.  I read the Dover Publications edition, which collects both Ten Nights of Dreams and the small piece The Cat’s Grave together even though they are unrelated. The Ten Nights of Dreams were serialized in July and August of 1908.  They are titled “First Night,” and “Second Night” and so on. It would be incorrect to call these pieces short stories since most of them are just barely two pages. There is not a lot room for development or background – just a few paragraphs that glimpse some aspect of human experience that Soseki found of interest.

The group of writings is called Ten Nights Dreaming (or similar translation) so, one expects the contents to be dream-like. However, if the book was titled anything else, maybe “Ten Musings” or “Ten Moments” it would work just as well.  Readers accept these pieces as “dreams” because that is what they are titled. Most of the dreams are melancholic or disturbing. But as dreams/dreamlike, one naturally finds the surrealism disturbing. In some of the pieces the surrealism is subtle and quiet (e.g. The Ninth Night) and in others it is brutal (e.g. The Tenth Night).

In all of the stories, I think the key element within them is their twist on the passage of time. Time, and how we experience it, plays a rôle in each of the works. In fact, as I began reading through these, I noticed this reference to time right away and was looking for it in each story.

Readers and commentators have frequently interpreted these pieces in a metaphorical sense.  There are plenty of discussions that suggest certain dreams are metaphors for Soseki’s childhood, for Japan as a nation, for Soseki’s comments on Zen or Taoism, etc.  I think some can be read in this way, certainly, but to take a strict hardline position on these interpretations would be foolish.

My favorites were nights Five, Six, and Seven.  My least favorite was Ten. Now, the Eighth Night left me really not sure what to think. I wanted to love this story – in other words, I wanted it to knock the ball out of the park. This one had the potential to tie all of the pieces together and be ridiculously profound and haunting. The fact that it failed to live up to my (totally uncalled for) expectations really annoyed me. But that error should lie mainly with me; shame on me for putting undue expectations on a foreign language story written over a hundred years ago.

Nevertheless, I’m unsatisfied. I want to turn the Eighth Night into what I wanted it to be. So, do I even attempt a rewrite of it? What would it look like/sound like? Should an imitation/response be attempted or would that undo the whole Ten Nights?  I cannot help but keep thinking, long after I read this book, how this one story could have been so great.

Because the stories are so short, it is harmful to readers who have never read them for me to discuss any structure or details whatsoever of them.  However, I can explain that the reasons I liked the three stories mentioned above is because they contained a strong wit. In the Fifth Night, there is a heart-crushing wit. In the Sixth Night, we find a wry and agile wit.  In the Seventh Night, the wit changes more into wisdom and advice. All of these stories have application to contemporary readers. They are very accessible, unlike, perhaps, Tenth Night.  It is this keen intelligence hidden in these spare stories that really demonstrates Soseki as a sharp-minded writer.

This is a short read, though there is no need to race through it. The dreams are an excellent concept, which Soseki more or less succeeds in presenting. I had a hard time considering the work as a whole and found it much easier to look at the parts separately. Readers who enjoy the a light-touch of the surreal would probably enjoy this. After all, its such a small book, it would not be a heavy lift for anyone.

4 stars

Snow Country

Snow CountrySnow Country by Yasunari Kawabata (1899 – 1972) was published in its finalized form in 1948. I read the Vintage International edition translated by Edward G. Seidensticker. This is the first Kawabata novel that I have read, though I own several. Kawabata won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1968, which made mention of Snow Country and two other of his works. His Nobel Lecture was entitled Japan, The Beautiful and Myself and I do want to take a look at that. There is an annual prize in Japan awarded to the year’s most accomplished work of short fiction. The Kawabata Yasunari Prize for literature was established in 1973 by the Kawabata Yasunari Memorial Association to honor Japan’s first Nobel Prize–winning novelist. The winner receives a certificate, a commemorative gift, and a cash award of one million yen.

So much has been said/written about this novel that I doubt I can add much value to the overall volume of commentary. I did not love the novel, but please, do not assume I am a lazy or stupid reader. I really wanted the novel, with it’s poetic and spare writing, to grab my heart by it’s beating valves and drag me around the mountains of snow country.

Disappointingly, that did not occur. Broadly, because I deeply disliked both main characters. The writing is quite good and scenic; it envelopes the reader. But the sloth and decadence of Shimamura and the annoying voice of Komako killed the wonderment of the writing. I don’t forgive them for that.

However, I cannot say that I disliked this novel.

Kawabata’s Nobel Prize was awarded “for his narrative mastery, which with great sensibility expresses the essence of the Japanese mind.”  This sort of statement sometimes makes me grumpy. The thing is the definite description there in the phrase; the “the” that causes issue.  At once we are to recognize The Other and embrace diversity – therefore keeping the independence of The Other, but yet we are also expected to support and enjoy the fullness of the universal human experience.  So, what is this “Japanese mind”?  Even if we assume that in 1968 they did not choose their words so nicely, is there a “Japanese mind”? A mind so in tune and vital that it is quite simply separate and distinct from all other human minds? Or is “Japanese mind” merely a euphemism for “experience produced within Japanese culture”?

This little messy babbling of mine is important because I think this specific novel by this specific author is affected by these questions/answers. Snow Country is allegedly his most famous and well-enjoyed novels – by Japanese readers and non-Japanese readers alike. Is it because the non-Japanese readers love the insight gained through glimpses into the “exotic” Japanese world via this prose? Or is it because there is something universal in the writing that appeals and is readily accessible by all readers?

I felt that the writing was very good for most of the novel. I mean, there are places where I was less impressed. But throughout, the actual writing – and it has been likened to haiku and poetry many times – was very good. Its a spare prose with a pseudo-poetic feel. Again, some of the greatness may be reduced because of translation.

Above all of that, I could synthesize with the feelings in the story. It is hard to choose the correct words here, so let me keep trying. I do not mean simply that I sympathized/empathized with the characters, but rather that I feel that I have also experienced those feelings. Feelings, though, is also the incorrect word. I mean, something deeper – something like the relationship to the milieu. Or, more like the ennui of the whole scenario. Or, perhaps better, the Russian term тоска́/toska. Observe what happened here – I was unable to find the English word and had to dip into different languages.

Is this a love story? No, I do not think so. Allegedly, Komako falls foolishly in love with Shimamura. I must have missed that part. Please do not tell me it is “between the lines” or that the reader has to supply this. I missed that part because it was not there and it could not happen. Shimamura is thoroughly unlikeable and I doubt the young geisha could see anything of value in him. His heavy ennui drips down every page of the novel and he is truly a shameful character. Not because of his morality, per se, but because he is so wretchedly slothlike. Much has been commented about Shimamura’s dilettanism, yet I don’t think this is his defining characteristic. I see him as sluggish and oozing his upper-class ennui.

When Shimamura goes for a massage, the woman says: (pg. 59)

“. . . you must not have to work. Feel how nice and soft you are.”

“No stiff muscles on me.” Shimamura replies.

I find Shimamura repugnant. His conversation is also lazy and slothful. He repeats phrases and seems constantly hazy on the conversation. Komako is just as frustrating. Her conversation is immature and ridiculous. Much of this is because most of the time she is drunk (she is a geisha and must attend “parties”) or because she is acting as her age dictates. Still, I find her to be annoying, at best.

This novel, for me, was about distance. The remote hot-spring inn is far from Shimamura’s home in Tokyo. The mountains and snow make the setting isolated and Kawabata writes them so that you feel the silence of heavy, hard-packing snow. Snow deadens sound like nothing else; I have experienced this at length. There is distance, too, between Shimamura and his family. There is distance between Komako and Yukio. There is distance between Komako’s hopes and dreams and her reality. Of course there is the distance between Shimamura and Komako. Finally, as if this were not enough distance, there is the distance between the characters and their selves. The Self. Themselves. This seems repetitive when it is written out, but in Kawabata’s novel it is omnipresent and sturdy, not nearly as redundant as my listing it makes it feel.

For example, often Shimamura is depicted looking out at the mountains and trees. He vaguely ponders the autumn leaves or the skiers. He has lazy daydreams about the grasses and snows. In fact, several times he wanders listlessly, but yet cannot seem to really ever become “one with nature.” There is always the distance as he stands in the inn, by the screens looking out at the scenery. Basically, this is a metaphor for all of Shimamura’s distances.

Overall, if you can stand a novel filled with ennui and distance, this is a perfect representation of that. I mentioned above that this is not a bad novel, I did not dislike it. But I was not convinced all of the time. What I was drawn in by was that heavy-headed fuzziness that sloth and bad schedules and long winters come with. And that is not a feeling I have ever relished.

3 stars

The Sound of Waves

The Sound of WavesThe Sound of Waves by Yukio Mishima (1925 – 1970) was first published in 1954 in Japanese. If you do not know who Mishima was, then you are missing out on one of the scandalous stories of the century. The translator for the novel is Meredith Weatherby (1914 – 1997) – yet another scandalous character. Both Mishima and Weatherby ran in some of the same circles as Tamotsu Yato (1928 – 1973) and Donald Richie (1924 – 2013), who were involved in film, art, and photography. Much of the work and interests of these people crossed paths repeatedly; especially because much of their production was classified in the homoerotic genre. For example, Tamtosu Yato’s photography books of young Japanese males contained introductions written by Mishima and/or were dedicated to Mishima. Weatherby was an actor (Cp. Tora! Tora! Tora) and publisher (hence, translating and publishing Mishima’s writing), and also Tamtosu Yato’s lover. Needless to say, intentional or not, engagement with one of these folks usually contains a connection to one of the others.

All of that being said, I read the Vintage International edition translated by Weatherby. I feel that the closeness of those folks [sic] probably guarantees that the translation was faithful to the original Japanese. However, I also think that proximity causes bias, and I would definitely purchase and read another translation if one were to be published.

A last note on the book itself – there are ink drawings at each of the chapter beginnings. These were done by Yoshinori Kinoshita and they are perfect. They complement the story perfectly and I found myself pausing in my reading to look at these illustrations.

Anyway, The Sound of Waves is one of Mishima’s earlier novels. I read it because it is the earliest novel of his that I own. I have owned it for decades, but there are so many books that are on shelves waiting to be read. I think this is a very good novel for a number of reasons, although I can also agree with most of the criticisms of the novel that I have read.

The novel takes place, mainly, on Uta-jima, a small island. It is important to note that in the first sentence this is translated as Song Island. The greatest element of this novel, in my opinion, is the setting. Being titled The Sound of Waves and setting the story on Song Island, should cause the reader to immediately sense the carefully selected wording that the author chooses. The word selection that develops each and every scene is deliberate and not frivolous.  The nice thing that comes from this deliberateness is a vivid and robust description of Uta-jima that does not come from a deluge of adjectival verbosity, but rather from spare, precise, nearly-poetic writing. The setting is so realistic and strong that it is almost another character in the novel.

At 183 pages, this could easily be an afternoon read. However, it does not seem like the sort of novel one should read-through with haste. Uta-jima is not an island in which the residents live with haste. Home to fourteen-hundred residents, the novel spins around the connections that exist between a handful of characters. We meet the main character, Shinji, in the evening of a day like most days – a day occupied by the main industry of the residents of the island, fishing.  Shinji, who is eighteen years old, is bringing a halibut caught that day to the lighthouse, for the lighthouse-keeper. En route to the lighthouse, Shinji comes upon a young lady whom he has never seen before, the surprise of this confuses him and he silently tries to identify her. This whole event is but a moment in the twilight, but it sets up the entire rest of the novel.

In retrospect, is this novel a story of love-at-first-sight? Most descriptions of this novel call it a “coming-of-age” novel.  That is a categorization that really vexes me. I usually avoid novels that are classified that way because I find it absurd and ridiculous. I guess in a way, Shinji is at a turning point in his life. He has been supporting his family for awhile and he is old enough to consider a career/marriage/etc.  However, even though this focus is on Shinji, I feel like Mishima is not writing about how Shinji develops into a young man and the decisions that occur. In fact, there is little or no “character growth” at all when it comes to Shinji. The stolid young man we meet on page 6, is nearly the exact same as the young man we depart on page 183. In fact, I might even go so far as to suggest the novel is a demonstration of how success comes to such a solid, unchanging, and strong character. An ode, perhaps, to the rigid and dependable ideal of the samurai that Mishima was always so enamored.

Still, on the surface, its a love story. Shinju and Hatsue forever – carve it in a tree trunk or something. They are good kids, and the reader is going to root for them. Because the story, on the surface, is fairly straightforward and unsurprising. This is another criticism that I read. Some readers felt that the story was too basic and not nuanced; I guess readers did not feel challenged. Well, the story is one that, in one form or another, we are all familiar with in novels and film and in real life. Two kids fall in love, this affects the others who are connected in some way to the situation. The others react in various ways, which causes further effects that spread out like the Doppler system. In the end, everyone has to play a rôle and adjust to the events.

Frankly, I think that because it is such a common storyline that the novel is actually worthy of more praise. Such a well-known and obvious storyline is elevated by such good writing and style that this begs the question of whether this is not what, precisely, art is supposed to do. In other words, taking the common in life and making it elevated or highlighting the spiritual, the magical, the extraordinary within the everydayness.

Finally, Mishima’s passion for physicality is apparent with every deliberate scene. The materiality and the tangibility of character’s bodies, the wind and the waves, the temperatures and the scenery, all are very important to Mishima. For example, readers can feel the rain, they can feel the hole in the sweater, and they can see the too-bright sunshine on blinding sand. Now, not all of readership wants to focus on what Mishima focuses on, but for a short novel, it is poignant and powerful. Definitely worthwhile reading.

The very subtle usage of elements of Shinto are also noteworthy. In delicate and significant scenes, the faith of Shinji is like all other characteristics displayed by him – solid and diligent. I liked these little moments of religion on this little island.

Overall, this is a novel with a lot to offer readers who are careful not to heap expectations on it before they start reading. It contains a somewhat timelessly familiar story within a careful arrangement of setting and sound. Even if readers do not necessarily like the novel, I suspect it is still a novel they will be glad to have read.

4 stars

The Three-Cornered World

Three Cornered CoverNatusme Soseki’s (1867 – 1916) The Three-Cornered World was published in 1906.  The title in Japanese is Kusamakura, but I read the 1965 translation into English. It is the first that I have read by this author.

This is one of those novels that I suspect readers who write reviews have mixed feelings about.  It is an excellent novel – but it is also a rather short novel. The novel is so wonderful and thoughtful that it could easily evoke a review that is thrice as long as the novel itself.

Some readers have likened it to a haiku writing. As if the novel’s simplicity is deceptive because it contains such a wealth of insight. I do not think that is the best comparison, but I agree that this is just one of those few novels that it is just better to read for yourself and not bother with reading interpretations.

This is a rare novel. Not every reader will enjoy this novel. Many readers seem to me to be totally enthralled with action, hurrying, and loudness. And part and parcel of such action/loudness is usually severe depravity.  This novel is unrushed. It is aesthetic and honest. The honesty and the lack of loudness is what separate this novel from so many other ones. Usually, when someone calls a text “honest,” I think it is assumed that it is grossly confessional and obscenely open. The Three Cornered World is very honest, but do not expect some ribald, grotesque exposé.

For example, the author bluntly shares that he knows nothing of Zen. That’s not a literal truth, but it tells us that this is not some manifesto to artificially praise “true Japanese culture/religion.”  Of course, this must be contrasted with several points in which the author sharply expresses his negative feelings towards modern civilization and urban life.  The novel was published in 1906, but its setting is contemporaneous with the Russo-Japanese War.  Further, the development of Industry in Japan (particularly with railroads and coal) clearly affected the author’s vision of urban versus rural. So there is a current running through this novel that keeps the reader aware that the rush toward modern (and Western) industry is not entirely happy for the author.

The narrative of this novel is by an artist. He tells us he is a painter, but he writes much poetry and does a few sketches. His artist’s eye is keen and he sees colors and people and the world on an expert-level. However, he is unable to actively use his color-box.

The artist has taken a trip in late winter/early spring to develop his own art. He is doing this by detaching himself from society, from the caustic urban centers. And on this trip to a hot springs in the rural landscape, he must remain detached from all things – as if looking at scenes and people as if they were in a picture or even on stage.

Settings and scenes matter in this book, because the narrator is an artist and he is painting the narration. However, if you do not wish to deconstruct the setting and the language and everything else – the novel is still excellent. This is very nice because its one thing to say: “this novel is good, but you have to be intelligent and deconstruct and analyze every item in it” and its quite another to say: “this novel is so good; it is wonderful if you analyze it and it is wonderful if you lazily just let it carry you along to enjoy its rhythm.” 

The setting/scenes, though narrated by an artist, are not atmospheric or esoteric. The artist who is narrating is exceedingly down-to-earth and empirical.  I feel this is somewhat opposite of the stereotypical Western conception of an artist.

I find a lot of contemporary/modern Japanese writing to be morbid or gruesome. They are too raw and unpalatable for me, usually. Now, I know this particular novel is a bit older than “contemporary,” but I found it refreshing and delightful that it was not written how I have found many Japanese novels. I think the author is often referred to as Japan’s first modern novelist – to heck with that, I want to call him Japan’s last novelist, too.

The novel is sometimes sad and sometimes joyous. And it sometimes contains the slightest eeriness. But it also ends with a bittersweet perfect imperfection that the best Japanese artists have mastered. There are very stark comments from the narrator about Tokyo. But there are also humorous and amusing moments that display a very, very honest wit. Overall, that is the word I want to use to describe this novel:  honest.

4 stars