3 Stars

Under the Green Star

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“Under the Green Sky” – Lin Carter; DAW 1972 (cover: Tim Kirk)

Under the Green Star by Lin Carter was first published in 1972.  It is the first of five novels in the Green Star series.  I think this is the first thing that I have read by Carter, but it is really hard to know for certain.  Anyway, the key fact about this novel is that it is Carter’s attempt to emulate the style and subject of the so-called Burroughs tradition.  This, of course, refers to Edgar Rice Burroughs (1875 – 1950).  Burroughs is the creator of the super famous archetype-level characters:  Tarzan and John Carter. In any case, even the title of this book refers to Burroughs’ A Princess of Mars, which was originally (in some form) entitled Under the Moons of Mars. So, Lin Carter gives us an excellent homage to this sort of sword & planet tradition.

I enjoyed reading this novel because I am always entertained by adventure-pulp stories. There is something wonderfully raw about them and their constant headlong rush into constant adventure.  It is sometimes a relief how authors of this style usually hand-wave and shrug regarding all the tedious details.  They and their characters are not omniscient and all of that is besides the point.  The point is to have adventures and be heroic and carry a sword.

Which is real – the fantastic adventure I feel compelled to relate – or the world beyond my windows?  Have I only dreamed that I have stood where no man of my race has ever set foot before, or is this dull world of tax returns and ball-point pens, of air pollution and TV talk shows, itself by a dream? Are both worlds real? – pg. 7

Carter did a very good job of matching the original form that he was trying to homage.  He clearly has a fondness for and a sharp understanding of that former style.  The vocabulary is just ever-so-slightly less archaic.  Really only people who care a lot about words would notice that his word-choice is not exactly Robert E. Howard’s or H. P. Lovecraft’s.  The descriptions are just barely not quite Burroughs’ descriptions.  But only to those who read a great deal and, as I said, love words.  The style, the milieu, the storyline, the characters, all seem to solidly come from the Burroughs tradition.  And perhaps, even Burroughs himself, if you did not know better.

Similarly with John Carter, the main character in this novel manages to end up on a different planet.  Of course, here is a referential sequence of the nameless main character:

To walk the surface of another planet – to go where no man of my world had yet been in all the ages of infinite time!  Vague thoughts of the books I had read with such fascination in my boyhood came back to me – memories of old Edgar Rice Burroughs and his unforgettable Martian adventure classics – now I, too, like John Carter, could stride the dead sea bottoms of mysteries and romantic Barsoom! – pg. 15, chapter two

But, in the end, Lin Carter knows enough that he cannot duel on Burroughs’ home turf, so to speak.  He knows he has to take us somewhere new. So, the main character manages to get himself to the planet under the green star.

And the setting is actually interesting. I mean, I have to admit that I was reminded a lot of the 2013 children’s animated movie Epic (which was itself based on the story by William Joyce:  The Leaf Men and the Brave Good Bugs).  I do not think it spoils too much to say that on this planet of the Green Star, the people are miniaturized and the flora and fauna is gigantic.  Now, like the nameless narrator, I have no idea if the people are truly miniaturized (Cp. sizing in Lilliput of Jonathan Swift’s work. The people there are about one-twelfth the size we are used to.) or if the people are normally-sized and the trees and insects are just outrageously large.  Imagine huge trees such that their branches are like four-lane highways!  Imagine the peril from things like spiders and lizards!

One does not, however, look for stones in the upper branches of a tree. – pg. 74

And the entirely of the novel is spent within the trees of this world. The ground, if there is one, is not seen and remains an unknown.  Imagine a world with trees so large, that one could live their entire lives without seeing the earth below.  And this food for the imagination is partially why adventure-pulp novels are so much fun.  Now, it is no good if a reader just blazes over the words in the novel and does not actually allow his imagination to enjoy these items.  In fact, without imagination or fun, this is a super-fast and extremely silly read.

We could have done with a bit of tomato sauce, or a twist of lemon, but I suppose Crusoes cannot be choosy. – pg. 77

That is my favorite line in the entire novel. It really amuses me and I feel like I should incorporate it into my daily speech.  Remember that, fans of swords & planets – you take adventure as it comes and you do not act all picky about it!

Well, this is immensely readable especially if you enjoy the Burroughs tradition.  However, even if you have not read all that much Burroughs and/or Howard, this is enjoyable. Sure, it is a pastiche of a time gone by and maybe of authors who were not perfect, but it is excellent escape reading.  Only the hardest-hearted reader would, I think, not find this enjoyable. I’m so glad I own book two, because like our main character also feels, there is something magical about that planet under the Green Sun.

3 stars

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Thousand Cranes

Thousand CranesThousand Cranes by Yasunari Kawabata (1899 – 1972) was published in 1952 and in English in 1958. It is the second Yasunari Kawabata novel that I have read. I disliked his main characters, however, in this novel they do seem to possess a measure of realism. I felt that the characters in Snow Country were not realistic. While this is a speedy read, one can finish it in a day, it is not really an easy story to penetrate. There is a great deal of native culture within that can keep non-Japanese readers at bay. Further, this entire novel is very much focused on human interrelationships and their responses to each other. For some readers, this could be challenging.

Wikipedia’s entry, in very forthright style, explains precisely what this book is about. This means this, that means that. And while some of that is probably true, I think there are deeper and more complex interpretations possible.

The storyline, the characters, and the other general dimensions of the novel were not anything I was particularly drawn to. It is quite a dramatic work and does not immediately appeal to any of my major interests. As I mentioned above, this work is very heavily focused on human relationships. The defect is in me, clearly, because I am usually disinterested and bored and even confused by novels like this. Autistic. Russian. I have a hard time with some aspects of stuff in this genre. All of this being said, though, I will admit wholeheartedly and very profusely that in this novel, Kawabata’s skills are on showcase. In a sense, I feel this is almost a brag novel – Kawabata knows he is that good of a writer and he is showing off. He is an excellent novelist and even if this particular storyline does not appeal to everyone – the skill with which it is written is undeniable.

Do not suppose, however, that this novel is arrogant or that it is over-the-top with writerly flourishes.  Perhaps in its minimalist oh-so-Tanizaki/Japanese manner, it is precisely what it needs to be:  no more and no less; and Kawabata deserves all the praise he gets for it.  He proves himself an acutely aware, highly sensitive, perfectly edited, writer. He is a master-writer.

Layered upon the story are tea ceremony items and elements of Japanese aesthetics, specifically pottery. This would be best understood by someone with familiarization with such topics. To some readers, the frivolous and fastidious obsession with which tea bowl to use, which vase, what tokonoma flower, may seem massively tedious. I was able to assimilate my personal cultural experiences fairly easily and completely empathize with the discussions of the tea items etc. To some people, such concerns seem “petty” or “decorative” as opposed to practical. The tea ceremony is such a THING, though, that I hardly know what to say about it. From its origins, to all of its iterations throughout history, and from the praises of it, to those who scorn it… whatever one thinks of it, it is not something to merely hand wave at.  Yet, I struggle to discuss it.  Regardless, if someone were to ask me about the tea ceremony, I do think I would recommend that they read this book. It sort of provides a situation for the whole process without directly confronting it.

Like the back of book says: “a luminous story of desire, regret, and the almost sensual nostalgia that binds the living to the dead.” Again, this is going to be felt more by a reader who can assimilate certain cultural/religious aspects. This blurb accurately describes the novel. But I liked all the smaller points, symbolism of water, of mould, of the thousand cranes. And more than anything, the very subtle presentation of old Japan crashing with modern Japan.

The symbolism in this work is significant and excellently written. And while I dislike the main character, Kikuji Mitani, even I could not help but be caught up in some of the sensitivities Mitani faces and is caught up in.  The dispositions and inheritances (both in objects and relationships) that befall him from his deceased father are mighty and certainly not pristine “black and white” dichotomies.

This is a very good novel. I think I took it for granted as I was reading it and only afterwards was I able to process how good a work it is. I think it is a written by a master writer, but the storyline itself does not interest me at all. Three stars is a very good rating for a plot that I was uninterested in…….  Recommended for all fans of Japanese literature, students of the tea ceremony, ikebana scholars, and readers of quality literature.

3 stars

Bullfight

bullfightBullfight is one of Yasushi Inoue’s (1907 – 1991) early works. This story won Inoue the Akutagawa Prize in 1949. It is definitely not for every reader, but there are many who will be able to appreciate it. As is expected with his writing, the plot and the story are not thrillers. In another review of another of his works, I described his stories as haunting and mundane. I think that is still true. While the storylines are not outrageous and unusual, the way in which they are written can be haunting. The setting is enveloping and the characters are very realistic.

Entitled “Bullfight” and yes, there is a bullfight (a sort of bracket tournament among actual bulls), the bullfight itself is a minor element in the story. The story focuses on newspaperman Tsugami and his efforts to stage this bullfight in post-war Osaka. The novel portrays the struggles that take place before the actual bullfight. I love this Pushkin Press edition that I read because it has a good feel to it and there is a nice black and white photo of Inoue on the first page.  The cover art is by artist Ping Zhu ( https://www.pingszoo.com ) who’s work I am discovering that I highly enjoy.

The concept of a bullfight in this context is entirely different from the more well-known Spanish bullfighting. Readers are probably more familiar with the Spanish forms wherein humans compete against bulls – matadors and picadores taunt, wound, and evade the bull.  The bullfighting in Inoue’s story is traditional to the Ryukyu Islands and is better translated a “bull wrestling” or “bull sumo.”  Bulls are pitted against other bulls and the contest is similar to sumo wrestling in which one contestant attempts to wrestle/push the other from the ring.

The true bullfight tournament in this novel may not really be between the bulls. It may be between the main character and his business partner. Or the main character and his girlfriend. Or between the Japan of what was and what could be. Or even symbolizing the concepts of Success and Greed and Failure and Resignation. Or, in the most radical interpretation, between Tsugami and his own Self. There are many ways this story, in its utter mundanity could be interpreted.

Inoue writes as if putting his scenes and characters on a microscope – and it seems he turns the knob and zooms, zooms in – until the we are focused on the character’s reactions to their daily lives. Facial expressions. The way they smoke their cigarette. Their posture. We do not get to see extraordinary characters in unusual situations. Instead, we see realistic characters in intensely portrayed realistic situations. And when it rains, we feel the raindrops. When they pour tea, we see the steam from the cup.

The supporting cast is both a reflection and a competition for Tsugami. His girlfriend Sakiko provides the only exterior view of Tsugami in the story, so she is a vital component to the novel. Mirua Yoshinosuke, president of Toyo Pharmaceuticals, provides an almost dopplegänger-like challenge to Tsugami.

He was a young man, probably in his late twenties or early thirties, with long sideburns and a red necktie in a large, loose knot; he had the affected air of someone in the film world – an assistant director, perhaps – but he exhibited a certain drive as he rose, an unmistakable energy, like that of a sportsman meeting an opponent. – pg. 79

This little description has an awesome, subtle clue in it that may or may not relate to the very last page of the book, in which the result of the bullfight is mentioned. As the reader follows the various struggles that Tsugami faces in order to put on this show, each character that he is forced to deal with presents some facet of his own personality. It is interesting for the reader to consider Tsugami’s relationships with each of the other characters. Mirua’s seemingly successful status versus that of Okabe’s is the contrast that I most enjoyed.

For strong readers and for fans of Japanese literature.

3 stars

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

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

Time and Again

time and again aceToday is Clifford D. Simak’s birthday (1904 – 1988).  It is a happy coincidence that I am writing this review today, after having finished reading his 1951 novel Time and Again.  I read the Ace 1983 edition with cover by Romas Kukalis.  I also own the 1976 Ace edition with cover by Michael Whelan. I like the Whelan cover more so I read the 1983 one.

This is the fourth Simak novel I have read.  It took awhile to get through this one – and I managed to polish off other novels during the time I was also reading this one. I admit, I got stuck on page 90 for a couple of weeks and the book sat abandoned.

 I got stuck at page 90 on June 15th. (Today is August 3.)  So, the book sat there because I did believe this might be a book I have to abandon. And abandoning a book mid-read is not really something I do, unless there is a very good reason. The novel starts all right, gets ridiculously awful – disjointed, confusing, and random – and then suddenly most of it straightens out and things make sense. The ending continues on too long and gets a little out of hand, honestly.

I am impressed that Simak pulled this one together. Still, there is no excuse for the nonsense and total random that goes on early in the book. It is REALLY tough to read through – literally, I was just reading words and they were not stringing together to make a coherent plot or even any basic sense. I could not have told you what this book was about for anything. I forced myself to keep reading (weeks later) – and then Simak pulled some threads together and the writing improved by leaps and bounds.

The story has less to do with time travel and more to do with Simak’s views on quasi-religion (destiny/life). The questions revolving around destiny and life are juxtaposed against the natures of humans and androids. (Simak’s androids are different than Asimov’s.) Finally, over all of this, to make this a science fiction story, rather than a pondering, there is a “war” of sorts that is fought by far-future humans and robots. All of this makes for a confused book. I see what Simak was doing, and its not a bad idea, but the execution got muddied. He sorts it out – mostly, but there are some rough sections that are really tough to get through.

The middle and middle-end part of the book is quite good. You really could not read it without the beginning and actual end, though. So readers are stuck with that murky front end with the total chaos.  Still, when Simak is “on” the writing is great.

And he didn’t say it because he was interested at the moment in war, whether in three or four dimensions, but because he felt that it was his turn to talk, his turn to keep this Mad Hare tea chatter at its proper place.

For that was what it was, he told himself… an utterly illogical situation, a madcap, slightly psychopathic interlude that might have its purpose, but a hidden, tangled purpose. -pg. 145  Chapter XXIV

I really liked this quote and I feel that I can relate to the character’s feelings here. Haven’t you been in a conversation where it seems you are talking around something and everyone seems smiley and fake and bizarre, but everyone plays along? Anyway, the next lines are quotes from Carroll, so Simak’s usage of the Mad Hare (as opposed to Mad Hatter) is clearly deliberate. Similarly, this is somewhat of the feeling you get when you read the early chunk of the novel:  we are all talking about something illogical, random, but we sense a hidden and tangled plot in there somewhere.

At the end of the day, the basic concept of the novel is that of Destiny. Or destiny. I do not believe Simak is a theist, so I do not think that is a euphemism for a deity, but there is definitely a pseudo-Tao concept being played with here. I am not suggesting that it is totally worked out in an academic way, but it is a solid concept for a 1950s novel.

Destiny, not fatalism.

Destiny, not foreordination.

Destiny, the way of men and races and of worlds.

Destiny, the way you made your life, the way you shaped your living. . . the way it was meant to be, the way that it would be if you listened to the still, small voice that talked to you at the many turning points and crossroads.

But if you did not listen. . . why, then, you did not listen and you did not hear.  And there was no power that could make you listen.  There was no penalty if you did not listen except the penalty of having gone against your destiny. – pg. 175 Chapter XXIX

This page sums up what Simak is playing with in this novel. I am not sure it is clear for most of the book, but this page lays it out plain as can be – or, as plain as the concept of destiny can be, anyway. And the action and characters and storyline are all accidental, it seems, to this discussion, which does not even occur until late in the novel. Its fairly interesting, but the reader will suffer getting to that point. Depends on if it is their destiny or not, right?

time and again ace whiteNow, there is a bit of time travel – but its not very much like time travel stories we know and “love.”  This time travel is juxtaposed with the concept of destiny, so it kind of applies. And in the last quarter of the novel, the main character ends up in the year 2000 or so in Wisconsin. On a farm near a river in Wisconsin. (Simak students will know this is Simak’s home of which he had a great fondness for and often plays a part in his novels.) Simak really likes Wisconsin, because when he writes about it, it is descriptive and meandering and he draws it out and praises everything about it.  Its so dang rural. And farmy. It kills me when Simak does this. I do not doubt his sentiments and I understand his love for the location, but my word do I suffer reading about grass and hay!

Lastly, Simak had me grinning in chapter XXXIII, when Sutton (the main character) first arrives in Wisconsin in 2000. Sutton meets a resident of the time just fishing and smoking a pipe…a fellow named “Old Cliff.”

This is a difficult, but relatively rewarding read. Definitely for Simak fans. Those with interest in 1950s robots/androids could find interesting bits here, too. And, of course, readers curious about Simak’s concept of destiny would enjoy this. The first half of the book, however, will require a bit of effort from all.

3 stars