Author: nawfalaq

Thinking. Reading. Writing. Punching.

Devils in Daylight

tanizaki_devils_in_daylight coverDevils in Daylight by Junichiro Tanizaki (1886 – 1965) was first written in 1918, but not published in English until 2017. I read this 2017 New Directions edition translated by J. Keith Vincent. I had previously read Tanizaki’s In Praise of Shadows (1933) – his very important, but short, nonfiction essay. Devils in Daylight is really, from what I understand, representative of all things Tanizaki – even if it is one of his earlier pieces. It contains all the elements and themes that Tanizaki is usually associated with. The first key item to be mentioned is Tanizaki’s being impressed with all things modern and/or Western culture early in his life. This is probably one of the main reasons that this book is nearly an homage to, or a reworking of, Edgar Allan Poe’s The Gold Bug (1843).

I strongly recommend having familiarized oneself with Poe’s work before reading Devils in Daylight. There are so many parallels and also allusions and references that the reader would be shortchanging their reading experience by skipping the Poe work. Tanizaki’s work is highly influenced by The Gold Bug, though I would hesitate to say “based on.” The main character in Devils in Daylight, Sonomura, is nearly exactly the character in Poe’s work, William Legrand.

I found him well educated, with unusual powers of mind, but infected with misanthropy, and subject to perverse moods of alternate enthusiasm and melancholy. He had with him many books, but rarely employed them. His chief amusements were gunning and fishing, or sauntering along the beach and through the myrtles, in quest of shells or entomological specimens… – The Gold Bug, E. A. Poe.

Tanizaki basically tells the reader that Poe’s work is necessary reading. Sonomura is talking to his only friend, the narrator:

He suddenly doubled over and cackled with laughter, whereupon he continued, with immense self-satisfaction, like some insufferable scholar showing off his vast learning.

“I take it you have not read Poe’s famous story ‘The Gold Bug.’ Anyone who had read it would recognize these symbols immediately.”

Sadly, I had only read two or three of Poe’s stories.  I had heard of one with the title “The Gold Bug,” but I had no idea what it was about. – pg. 15

So much for the proofs needed for reading The Gold BugDevils in Daylight begins by Sonomura telephoning Takahashi (the narrator) in mid-morning insisting that Takahashi come over to his house immediately. Takahashi is a writer and had spent a sleepless night with his pen in his hand trying to finish a serial novel for a magazine. Sonomura says:

“Later tonight, at around one o’clock, in a certain part of Tokyo, a crime. . . a homicide will be performed. I want to get ready now and go see it happen, and I want you to go as well. . . . But I want to watch it happen, in secret, without any of those involved knowing that I am there.  And I would feel a lot better about it if you came with me.  Doesn’t that sound more enjoyable than staying home writing a novel?” – pg. 9

Straightaway Tanizaki shows his hand and gives the reader all the usual themes that he is known for.  Sonomura expresses a desire to watch a crime – in secret. And then there is the juxtaposition between writing and watching and performing that rolls through the entire novel.

The novel is rather short – only 87 pages. I do not want to quote or comment too much about what the storyline actually contains.  This sort of noir-esque novel can be spoiled easily, although the crime and mystery is not really the strong part of this novel.  The excellence of this work comes from the finely-tuned writing that describes the narrator’s experiences. Using only as much as needed, Tanizaki carefully shows the reader the entirety of the story without burdening him with too many words, concepts, and descriptions.

Throughout the novel, Takahashi remains tired and sleepless. The few hours of sleep that he manages to get is punctuated by interruptions from Sonomura and images that disturb Takahashi’s psyche.  Takahashi’s tiredness provides this neat feeling to an already noir story. It also provides Takahashi a small excuse for not thinking/judging perfectly throughout.

The element of a femme-fatale is present in this story and the reader should appreciate her mysteriousness and her effectiveness. This is a theme that Tanizaki returns to quite often in his works. In this work, the femme-fatale may or may not be a geisha – which neatly juxtaposes the Western concept of femme-fatale with the Japanese-rooted geisha archetype.  More than simply using certain symbols and elements over and over, Tanizaki utilizes these elements to demonstrate the tension he feels and observes between Western and Eastern cultures. Hopefully reviewers will forgive this possible spoiler:  it seems that in this novel Tanizaki (as well as Sonomura and Takahashi) do not view geishas as capable of being femme-fatales – a point that is an intriguing insight into Tanizaki’s understanding of Japanese culture.

The ending might aggravate some readers – particularly ones who do not appreciate certain literary chess moves. Throughout the novel it is difficult to know whether one likes or hates Sonomura. By the end, I think readers will be even more suspicious of Sonomura (and by default, William Legrand) than anything. The title of the novel, for me, made no sense originally, but then at the end, I decided who the devils were and they are, indeed, also in daylight.

I recommend this to noir-fiction fans, readers of Japanese literature, and also Poe fanatics. I enjoyed this work and definitely will be reading more Tanizaki.  He has a reputation of writing some unsavory topics, so I will still attempt to be selective with what I read by him.

4 stars

Advertisements

The Woman in the Dunes

The Woman in the DunesThe Woman in the Dunes by Kobo Abe (1924 – 1993) was first published in 1962.  I read the Vintage International edition from 1991. The novel won the Yomiuri Prize. In 1964, a Japanese film by the famous Hiroshi Teshigahara was released – author Kobo Abe wrote the screenplay. The film was nominated for an Academy Award, but lost to the Italian film Yesterday, Today and Tomorrow by Vittorio De Sica.

This is probably Kobo Abe’s most famous novel. I have not read any of his other works, but I do own The Ark Sakura. I am open to reading other works by this author, but he does not interest me at the same level as some of the other super-famous authors of mid-20th Century Japanese authors. Sometimes his works are classified as absurdist/surreal literature, which is a genre I can sometimes devour and at other times am disinterested in.

The man intended to collect insects that lived in the dunes. – pg. 10

I enjoyed this book, and I really do appreciate what the author has shown us via sand. However, I cannot help but subtract a few points from my estimation of its rating due to a few sections of the novel.

There are dozens of ways to interpret this novel, but the erosion of the main character’s opinions via the Sisyphus-lifestyle is the overwhelming concept. The sand claims all – eventually. Survival alongside the eroding powers of the sand drives the story. The way the sand affects everything is really well done. The author very gradually traps the main character within the pit in the dunes. This is, in my opinion, the most beautiful part of the writing; the character being trapped is done so subtly and simply.

I really enjoyed the early chapters because the early interactions between the man and the woman are so very well written. In translation, the woman’s sentences are often open-ended, with ellipses or simple statements that only seem innocent:

“But somebody just said ‘for the other one.'”

“Hmm. Well, they’re referring to you.”

“To me? Why mention me in connection with a shovel . . . ?”

“Never mind. Don’t pay any attention. Really they’re so nosy!” – pg. 30

One of my favorite aspects of the novel is how the woman clearly knows what is going on and yet, is able to seem innocent. Though she knows what is happening to the man, she may or may not be powerless to stop/change it. Like the man, the reader will probably consider, in turns, the woman to be mentally challenged, an entrapping vixen, or a resigned, but dedicated villager.

The author really puts the main character through some suffering, but he also inflicts some on the reader. Readers will constantly want “justice” or “to know the reason” or “someone to accuse” through the novel. And Kobo Abe just doesn’t provide a clear and direct target for all of that. Frustrating? Maybe. Engaging? Definitely. (Probably the reason for Kafka comparisons.)

Stop looking so stupid! He was angry; he wanted to make her admit her guilt even if he had to force it out of her. – pg. 90

The subtle horror of being trapped/imprisoned for, seemingly, no reason is the key that makes this novel so vibrantly emotional. Even if I disliked parts of the novel, I have to credit the author with the ability of being able to tap into that fundamental chord in my being that I assume every human possesses, which rebels against such a circumstance. It seems it is easier to accept a prison sentence if there is a reason. But without reason or cause, without an authority or a captor to blame, without a purpose or goal – such an imprisonment is a magnitude of horror well beyond a reasonable incarceration.

For some time he concentrated on digging.  The sand was exceedingly tractable, and his work appeared to be progressing.  The sound of the shovel as it bit into the sand, and his own breathing, ticked away the time. However, at last his arms began to grow weary. He thought he had worked for a considerable time, but his digging had apparently had no results at all. Only a little bit of sand had fallen from right above where he was digging. – pg. 68

The man’s psychological state is what one might expect. He is outraged, indignant, and frustrated. He calms himself by convincing himself a rational and thoughtful method will rescue him. He dips into the violent and the desperate. He only very gradually comes to realize an outcome, which, perhaps, the woman knew from the start. The woman’s reaction to the man’s arrival, when you think about it in retrospect, contains all of the pensive understanding of what she knows he and, by connection, herself will have to undergo. Her early timidity is probably because she knows what emotional turmoil will occur – and she has to resign herself to going through the turbulence as well.  In a way, this also means that nothing the man does truly surprises her.

And what of the man’s mental state? At points he forces himself to be relatively rational. Bargaining and reasoning with his supposed captors. He also attempts “scientific” escapes and schemes. But he is also clearly disturbed because he has mental conversations with himself – or the Mobius man.  Kobo Abe even suggests, subtly, that there is an element of schizophrenia at play. Late in the novel, the man has a mental conversation with an imagined judge:

-Your Honor, I request to be told the substance of the prosecution. I request to be told the reason for my sentence.

-I am telling you that in Japan schizophrenia occurs at the rate of one out of every hundred persons. – pg. 217

And this fascinating little segment with the man conversing with himself continues to an amusing conclusion:

-Well, listen to me calmly.  Acrophobes, heroin addicts, hysterics, homicidal maniacs, syphilitics, morons – suppose there were one per cent of each of these, the total would be twenty per cent. If you could enumerate eighty more abnormalities at this rate – and of course you could – there would be statistical proof that humanity is a hundred per cent abnormal. – pg. 218

I disliked, though, the chunk at the end where the main character is told the “deal” how the villagers will let him see beyond the pit. This was weird/vulgar and destroyed a lot of good faith I had in the author. This part was the “too far” point in the writing.

Excellent in concept and writing, although the 1960s-Freudian-focus is a bit too prominent in the whole thing. Definitely for an adult readership. I appreciate the “horror” of the novel, but dislike some of the episodes. In any case, this is an excellent novel for book clubs, I think, because there is a lot to discuss about all of the various interpretations available.

3 stars

The Counterfeiter and Other Stories

CounterfeiterThe Counterfeiter and Other Stories is a collection of stories by Yasushi Inoue (1907 – 1991) that contains three stories. The Counterfeiter was published in 1951, Obasute was published in 1956, and The Full Moon was published in 1958.  Although the three stories are different from one another, I think they do give a good sample of the author’s style and tone. I really enjoyed The Counterfeiter and I also enjoyed The Full Moon, but Obasute was not very likeable. I think that to enjoy Obasute one needs to have a lot more understanding of Japanese culture and history – particularly Izu Peninsula – than I have.

I knew right as I finished The Counterfeiter that many readers would dislike these stories. I think the concept of what a novel is and should be, what a story ought to contain, what a narrative’s purpose is, is very different from the Japanese perspective than the typical post-Enlightenment Western conception of literary works.  I do not claim to be any sort of literary expert whatsoever, but I can speak for some of the non-Japanese mindset.

Western Europeans and Americans are educated in literature since they begin school with the idea that a literary work has a point and purpose.  Small schoolchildren begin writing book reports wherein they are drilled in the exercise of figuring out the main point or the resolution or the purpose of the book. In fact, I know that many schoolchildren are told to summarize their readings.  This serves to really cement in the mind the idea that literature has a beginning, a middle, and an end and can be summarized in terms of writer’s intent, character development, and climactic action.  Reading more Japanese literature, I am discovering that this sort of mindset will struggle when encountering some authors like Yasushi Inoue.

Inoue, more than others, seems to have a skill in bringing to life a vivid story, with excellent wordsmithing, about a mundane matter.  The fullness with which Inoue tells us a story about what in reality is a very everyday sort of “story” is very interesting.  This is the sort of author who can tell you about the day he had, which may have consisted of mundane work, a couple of meals, and watching the trees outside, but yet you listen so intently because he makes this narrative into a story.

In The Counterfeiter, there is a strong sense of autobiographical writing. The narrator is a journalist who is commissioned to write a text on the artist Keigaku Onuki.  We learn that the narrator is a bit disinterested in the project.  Boredom or laziness or disinterest cause this text to have taken far longer than it should have.  The narrator tells us this is because he cannot form a definitive chronology of the artist since no one alive is able to accurately detail out Onuki’s years. And in searching for data, the narrator becomes more interested in Hosen Hara than in Onuki, who really fades from the narrative altogether.  The last chapter, which is merely two pages, explains the narrator’s feelings on his biographical research. To discuss that here would be to ruin the reader’s experience.

I can see myself making a pseudo-archetype out of Hosen Hara. I will probably use him as an example in the future. These are all such unique stories that the characters in them stand up among the multitude of characters in fiction.  And one of the other feelings I have about this story is how realistic it is. If I handed this “story” to someone who knew nothing about this, I could convince them it was an excerpt from a non-fiction biography. The realism is so strong that I suspect we could start a silly quest (a la Foucault’s Pendulum and “The Bee Book” by Kit Williams) to find Hara’s paintings.

Obasute was a tougher piece to penetrate because I am lacking some of the cultural data that probably makes the story far more potent. I did, however, appreciate the narrator’s efforts to examine other members of his family in light of his thoughts on his mother’s Mount Obasute request. Still, the family relationships element also fell weakly on me. At the end, I felt I wanted more from the story – either regarding the mother or regarding the sister.

The Full Moon was actually just as good, if not better, than The Counterfeiter. Against the backdrop of the harvest moon festivals, the rise and fall of executive businessmen is portrayed. If there is cynicism regarding the business world involved in Inoue’s writing, it is hidden.  The rise and fall of the businessmen sometimes has a destiny/karmic feel to it. Ambition and sycophancy are highlighted, but so are the choices of the quite melancholic main character, Kagebayashi. Although not full of action and excitement, this story is haunting in its everydayness .  The truth factor question of Jiro Kaibara’s stories about Kagebayashi plays with how such a random event can influence so much, whether or not that event is true or false. Just like in The Counterfeiter, the story is subtle and melancholic. Just like in real life, there is a sense of lack of closure and resolution. These are not tidy, manufactured stories.

Well, I recommend these stories for advanced readers who have some interest in Japanese literature. I can see some readers being frustrated by these subtle stories. I think words like haunting and mundane suit this collection well. I intend to read more Inoue.

3 stars

Buying a Fishing Rod for My Grandfather

Buying A Fishing Rod for My GThis collection of six stories, Buying a Fishing Rod for My Grandfather, was published in English in 2004, but the stories within were written between 1983 and 1990.  Gao Xingjian (b. 1940) is a Nobel Prize Literature winner (2000).

I read this collection and enjoyed it. I also read a review (amateur) of this collection and reading that review sparked all kinds of thoughts in my head. Let me be upfront…. I did not agree with the review and I think the reviewer is [insert a kinder way of putting the words I am actually thinking here]. The reviewer reads a lot of pages, therefore has an opinion. But opinions also demonstrate the level of knowledge/proficiency toward a batch of knowledge. Sp there is the gulf between the academically-knowledgeable versus the “laymen’s opinion.”  In this particular case, the reviewer misses the mark and it is fairly clear why – they just do not know better. A case of ignorance. My complaint, though, comes in when their opinion is influencing others… In any case, I decided to use their review as a springboard for my thoughts.

Reviewer: “Above all else, I value storytelling. I think a story should be just that, a story. If you want to evoke feelings and emotions purely from language and writing, then to me that is poetry. So go write that! Short form poetry, long form poetry…whatever floats your boat. Poetry to me is pure human emotion expressed through language and I am very much a fan of it. And I absolutely believe that human emotion can be expressed through storytelling and fiction writing in general too…but for it to be considered a story, I need a plot. I need something to cohesively connect together the beautiful words and emotions they can evoke, rather than simply having beautifully phrased words together on a page.”

Gao Xingjing’s writing – in this collection in particular – is surreal and non-traditional.  These stories are non-linear and do not always contain the usual story elements. We have all seen that rudimentary novel 101 mountain of: Introduction – Rising Action – Climax – Falling Action – Resolution.  I think I first saw that in middle school? The majority of pulp authors use this sort of schematic all the time. Let it be said, too, that some very good, very entertaining novels have been produced following that schematic!

However, as literature develops, this linear “mechanical” setup surely has been and will be tested. The boundaries of the concept of the novel are pushed and expanded.  Now, this writing – call it postmodern, call it avant-garde – is somewhat experimental. And readers who approach it with the expectation (demand?) that it conforms to their idea of novel-writing may not understand or enjoy it. Or, hopefully, they will enjoy the experience as a fresh and exciting new direction.

Or is it new?

Readers who proclaim to “value storytelling” and want “a story to be a story” should be queried for their thoughts on Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland, James Joyce’s Finnegans Wake, Jean-Paul Sartre’s Nausea, and Kafka’s The Castle, to name a few examples. And there are more than enough examples that can be cherry picked from the science fiction genre. Overwhelmingly, the first example that comes to mind is Philip K. Dick’s writing. Further, Cp. New Wave science fiction  So, a reader must not confuse a new experience for themselves as a new event qua reality.

Secondly, that reviewer’s definition of poetry makes me see red, as the saying goes. I do not know where this zeitgeist/stereotype/shared delusion came from, but it sickens me. Go ahead, stand in front of me and tell me “poetry is for emotions and feelings” and get yo’ throat punch. I have conferred with Alex Pope and Bill Blake and Yeats and Matty Arnold and Ted Adorno. I have double-checked with Seamus Heaney and T.S. Eliot. I ran it by Li Po and Kobayashi Issa. And we all agreed that all literature has the ability to evoke emotions, but poetry is not and ought not be some juvenile, frivolous, ridiculous outpouring of emotion. Some poetry may evoke feeling. But to relegate all poetry to some adolescent teenage girl’s hyperemotionalism and drivel makes all of us very angry people. Poetry is a not a synonym for some beatnik, artsy-fartsy, whimpering.

Here is what Gao Xingjian had to say when he accepted his Nobel Prize (The Case for Literature):

Poetic feeling does not derive simply from the expression of the emotions nevertheless unbridled egotism, a form of infantilism, is difficult to avoid in the early stages of writing. Also, there are numerous levels of emotional expression and to reach higher levels requires cold detachment. Poetry is concealed in the distanced gaze. Furthermore, if this gaze also examines the person of the author and overarches both the characters of the book and the author to become the author’s third eye, one that is as neutral as possible, the disasters and the refuse of the human world will all be worthy of scrutiny. Then as feelings of pain, hatred and abhorrence are aroused so too are feelings of concern and love for life.

Reviewer: “So I guess he [Gao Xingjing] knows A LOT more about writing than I could ever hope to as a humble reader. So while I am not unhappy that I read this collection I think it just has shown me that perhaps this is not an author to my taste. We have very different opinions about literature and I guess we will have to respectfully agree to disagree!”

Saying “respectfully agree to disagree” is sometimes a cop-out. And in this reviewer’s comments, it is also disingenuous, is it not? The bolded “a lot” and the “a humble reader” speak to the insincerity with which the respectful agreement is reached. But the key line here is that “we have very different opinions about literature.” This is the key the whole of approaching this particular work by Gao Xingjian.

The only word that comes to mind, over and over again, while I read these stories was “superimposed.”  In these stories, dreams are superimposed over imaginings over flashbacks. Layered simultaneous viewpoints are continually turning around and around the scenes of the “story.”  In the story The Accident, the comments made by the multitude of bystanders seem to layer upon each other. All of the relativism and subjectivity just keeps spinning and layering throughout the whole story. Beautifully, all of these superimposed thoughts are punctuated by graphic, shocking tidbits of the actual scene.  And then… as a sort of capstone superimposition…

“Of course a traffic accident can serve as an item for a newspaper.  And it can serve as the raw material for literature when it is supplemented by the imagination and written up as a moving narrative:  this would then be creation.  However, what is related here is simply the process of this traffic accident itself….” – -pg 59

Because, what may vex readers even more is the fluidity Gao Xingjian has as a narrator/character flowing in and out of his stories whenever he pleases. “Breaking the fourth wall” is another technique common to avant garde literature. And Xingjian manages it nicely. So, if the reader’s preferred literature keeps the narrator “over there” and the audience “over here,” elements like this will make this collection even more of a struggle.

The reviewer’s honesty about a difference of opinion on what constitutes literature is where I suggest some of this discussion pivots. I think reading works like this – if even that can be said – should cause the reader to evaluate their own opinions on literature. To that end, the reader should reassess and re-calibrate their opinions, updating where necessary and reaffirming where applicable.  That, indeed, is why Gao Xingjian won the Nobel Prize:

“for an oeuvre of universal validity, bitter insights and linguistic ingenuity, which has opened new paths for the Chinese novel and drama”

Not to say that I loved each piece in this collection and I will not praise them just because it purports to be postmodernist. The last piece, In An Instant, was not one I found enjoyable. I think it was too long.  I recognized the stream of consciousness efforts and the superimposition of dreams, writing process, and reality. Unfortunately, the piece seemed too aware of what it was doing to be a total success and the length was displeasing.

I would contrast this with the title story, Buying a Fishing Rod for My Grandfather, which contains similar superimposed imagery and views.  In this piece, though, the writing builds pounding angst in the reader. As I read it, I felt distress and sorrow alongside the main character. And I really liked the way it felt I was in that zone between sleep and awake where the television intrudes on my daydreams and the surrealism creeps in. Maradona is playing soccer and I am hunting tigers. I loved the depictions of Loulan Kingdom with the quicksand and the dried riverbeds.  The wordsmithing here is exquisite.

“An aesthetic intricately related to the human emotions is the only indispensable criterion for literary works. Indeed, such judgements differ from person to person because the emotions are invariably that of different individuals. However such subjective aesthetic judgements do have universally recognised standards. The capacity for critical appreciation nurtured by literature allows the reader to also experience the poetic feeling and the beauty, the sublime and the ridiculous, the sorrow and the absurdity, and the humour and the irony that the author has infused into his work.”

That last quote (Nobel acceptance speech) really does reply to myself and the Reviewer. Reader emotion is necessary for literature, says Gao Xingjian.  And however much we are affected by and how effectual a work is definitely is rated on a subjective scale.  So, let us not banish reference to emotions in any form of literature. However, there are recognized standards that seem to operate as a baseline for the wise, experienced reader. I totally agree with Gao Xingjian. And I might even present this whole segment from his speech as a vital “definitional” basis for literary studies. That, too, is why he won the Nobel Prize because he does know A LOT more about literature than I do.

4 stars

For the Reviewer’s review:  https://www.goodreads.com/review/show/1736144516

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