book

The Last

THe LastThe Last by Hanna Jameson was first published in April of 2019. I read the hardback edition at the end of 2019 into 2020. I have not read anything by the author previously.  Overall, there are two things that drew me to the novel; the first is the appealing cover and the second is the concept of a post-apocalyptic survival story in a Swiss hotel.

Overall, I am not disappointed in this novel.  It was a quick read, honestly, and I felt that the plot was sufficiently written. I think the author attempted to have three layers of storyline in this plot – the overarching nuclear-war/survival situation, the murder-mystery of a found body, and then the personal drama of the main character (who is also the narrator). For the most part, the entire novel takes place at (or nearby) the L’Hotel Sixieme in Switzerland.

I really wanted more out of the setting.  The setting is such a hook for readers and the entire storyline is running around it. I certainly could have enjoyed a little more of the setting being described. The majority of the novel takes place in a hotel – and I have literally no picture of it; I do not think this is such a good thing.  No doubt the narrator, who is keeping a sort of diary might not be inclined to sit around describing rooms and hallways – but, at the same time, soaking the reader in the physicality of the setting might have balanced out some of the melodrama.

I disliked all of the characters. Not a one of them did I care about, which is fine, I do not need to befriend characters.  The characters all seemed, to me, to be exceedingly dramatic.  By this I mean, they all had personal turmoil that defined and overwhelmed their existence. I got weary, quickly, of all their hangups and issues and psychologies. I think this novel was touted as a bit of a “psychological thriller,” but to my mind, that means that the author has the heavy lift of building atmospheric suspense and intensity. It is not the same as just making the reader feel like the characters need to spend a lot of time with a therapist.

Some of these problems that I have with the novel suggest my sensing that the author is young. There is nothing wrong with being a young author, of course. However, and I know this is a statement that can only come from the old – it shows when the author is just a young cub. There is nothing wrong with this – let me reiterate. However, it has a different tone and style and understanding than if the author was much older. That being said, I do not think that I am the intended target audience. So, when the main character, Jon, engages in ethical ruminations or gets ensnared in discussions about theism,  politics, and/or history – it seems very mundane to me.  Certainly such discussions might occur in such situations, but the novel does not get points for leaving a lot of the discussions as just Cratylus-style “and there is this thought and also that one.”

At one brief point I was “creeped out” by the story. That was the most fun had with the thing. Overall the story did not quite reach the “suspenseful” and “intensity” level that I feel was potentially there.  The book ended up being a decent read about Jon’s wonderings. Some minor adventures take place, but in none of them did the threat seem real enough or intense enough. Somehow though the reader knew the stakes were high, the way it played out was like a conservative NFL running-game oriented offense.

The ending contains some weird, it ties some plot points together. Jameson clearly wanted to keep a drop of the “unknown/esoteric/supernatural/other-worldly” in the story. It works fairly well here, in the sense that I understand what the author did, but it was not a ‘wow.’

All of this being said, I do think the author has some good skill and I would be inclined to read a future work of theirs. This one just felt a little flatline for what it offered, which is a shame, because I am a total sucker for survival stories that include singular locations.

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

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 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