Posts Tagged ‘Japanese Literature’

Summer Reading Part 2: Kawabata Yasunari’s Snow Country.

August 22, 2010

I normally don’t read two books of the same author in a row, so in order to get all the Murakami books out of the way, I had to intersperse them with something else. The first one was by another Japanese writer.
Yasunari Kawabata – or Kawabata Yasunari, if you want to stick to the Japanese way of presenting names – was the first Japanese to receive the Nobel Prize for Literature, in 1968. Whereas Murakami is a Japanese writer very much influenced by the west, and particularly USA, Kawabata’s style and subject matters are Japanese through and through. (At least as far as I can see. I am by no means an expert in Japanese literature, and can base my impression only on a few works). I think Murakami’s western sensibilities, to put it perhaps euphemistically, goes a long way to explain his quite singular success in translated form. Apart from a certain inherent Japanese quirkiness, he often reminds me quite a bit of Paul Auster when Auster still seemed interesting.

Kawabata, on the other hand, is no easy sell abroad, I suspect. At least not these days. While his style can at times have a certain exotic attraction by its very Japaneseness, the at times strong modernist traits won’t ingratiate him with the casual reader. Of course, this is by no means a goal in itself. The only thing Kawabata has in common with Murakami (apart from both being Japanese authors), is that neither of them seem to find the endings particularly important. Snow Country was begun in 1934 and finished in 1947, after having been published piecemeal in various instalments. The ending almost being an afterthought as he revisited the book after several years…
Snow Country is by many considered his finest book, and it opens fantastically:
“The train came out of the long tunnel into the snow country. The earth lay white under the night sky. The train pulled up at a signal stop.”
Note the rhythm here and the haiku-like sparseness of the prose, like some oriental Hemingway. I had to read these lines several times, allowing myself to bask in their perfection. The Haiku is perhaps influential in Kawabata’s way of using very short scenes to stand in for a much larger story; we are never given more than fleeting glimpses into the actual actions and lives of the characters. The opening description of watching a woman’s translucent face halfmirrored in the window of the train during its nightly ascent to the Snow Country, is among the sublime  passages of the book. Here Kawabata suggests not only the protagonist’s way of looking at his world and at life, but  even sums up the novel for us, almost telling us how we should expect to read it.

The plot of the novel is seemingly straightforward, albeit not told straightforwardly. The young well off protagonist of the piece, is a dilettante with enough money not to have to worry about sordid matters such as actual work. As a consequence, he is busying himself by writing a monograph about the occidental ballet, an art form he has never actually seen. He is married, but returns to the hot springs of the Snow Country to meet again a young geisha who has fascinated him. Another girl there also draws his attention. A sense of resignation infuses their conversations and interaction. There is a love affair.

I am pretty sure that Snow Country is a very good book. It might even be a masterpiece. However, there were so many elements I didn’t understand, and I came to believe that I had no means to understand them. I didn’t have any problems with the modernist style of going back and forth in time, without clear indications of how much time passes or who is speaking at any given time. Thus spake Faulkner. Neither did I find the language particularly complicated, and I am convinced that the translation by Edward G. Seidensticker is impeccable. So, I concluded that the reason for reason evading me must be at least in part cultural.  Or I might be a bit more on the stupid side than I hitherto feared.

The translator adds some valuable foot notes trying to explain the more esoteric aspects, for example which cloth is typically used for which kimonos, and what would be the kimono’s purpose and significance in a given situation. However, it seems also the colour of the kimonos, to continue this example, would be pregnant with meaning in a given exchange, signifying not only social status but also symbolic relations. Whether a person is standing to the left or the right of the oldest person in a room could be extremely important for all I know, but – I just don’t know. The translator himself notes in his foreword that he doesn’t know of any other novel in which a slight change in tone signifies so much. Thus, no matter how good a job the translator does, it is pretty impossible to catch all or even most of the nuances of the novel. As a result, I never felt that I managed to inhabit Snow Country in the way the book probably deserves. There are beautiful phrases here, conversations rendered clear and cold as ice. There are psychological insights in the novel that even I could appreciate, told in a spare, distant style, with any melancholy left to the reader, not in the text itself. This will have to be enough for me, and perhaps revisiting the novel in thirty years’ time, I will have learnt more of the culture and know enough of Japanese literature to appreciate Snow Country properly.

By the way. While the foreword is a valuable tool in order to understand what is going on and why, try not to read it before you have been through the book at least once. Seidensticker chooses for some reason to retell the entire plot, including the very last line, even giving his interpretation of the books climactic moment(s).

And by the way again: I just love the painting on the cover of my edition of Snow Country: Ando Hiroshige, or rather, Hiroshige Utagawa’s Night Snow at Kambara (from his 53 Tokaido Stages/Stations) (It’s the first picture at the top of this post). I know of no other painter who portrays snow nearer to my ideal of snow, as if his pictures are communicating to a half forgotten childhood, and there is a faint answer there. I get a warm, excited feeling every time I see one of his snow scenes. (That sounded wrong, didn’t it?) I have a nice framed print of Hiroshige’s Man Crossing a Bridge in the Snowy Landscape, from his 100 (Famous) Views Of Edo. It was begun the year he withdrew from the world to become a Buddhist Monk and would be very fitting of this novel as well. I would decorate our entire apartment with his pictures if it was up to me…

In closing this part, I recommend the book to anyone seriously or half-seriously interested in literature, and it can’t hurt if you also have some interest in Japanese culture. I liked Snow Country a lot, I just didn’t love it. For this, I suspect, I can only blame myself.

After Summer: Reading and Laziness

October 7, 2009

Yes, I have been lax. Summer has gone and autumn done come without this journal having seen any considerable advance. With HBO’s competent miniseries about John Adams still relatively fresh in my mind, I’m tempted to quote Benjamin Franklin’s bon mot that “a life of leisure and a life of laziness are two different things“. I’m afraid that in the matter of keeping up this blog I’ve erred on the side of the latter. All is not lost, though, as I have put my energies, such as they are, to pursuits perhaps equally worthy during this time, the results of which I’ll hopefully see come December or thereabouts. Let that be sufficiently vague. (No, it is not an offspring!)

But enough self-recrimination! Laziness is not what it is if a purpose can be glimpsed. To that end, let’s bring on another quotation that better illuminates how I prefer to view these past hazy days of summer: “Never be entirely idle; but either be reading, or writing, or praying or meditating or endeavouring something for the public good“. Thus, validated by one of my favourite monks, Thomas à Kempis, I can rest assured (bit of a pun there!) that I have not, indeed, been entirely idle.

kempis04One thing I HAVE done during these months is reading. – And writing, supplemented by the occasional meditative moment (which I like to describe as staring emptily into the wall while waiting for a sentence not completely crap to fall down from a place not unlike heaven. If there is prayer involved, it is silent and hidden). As for the public good, well I have voted and not murdered anyone while visiting the local cinema, no mean feat, that. So there, Kempis.

(Kempis is thought to have written the mystic devotional work The Imitation of Christ, in which we learn that “at the Day of Judgement we shall not be asked what we have read but what we have done“, a phrase which rather takes the sheen off his former statement about the merits of reading. Kempis, though, was himself an avid reader, to put it mildly, and a writer, praying and meditating and so on, so I suspect that in both cases he talks more about himself and any general validity, then, is merely hoped for. Much like any religion, organized or not.)

All this hullabaloo, and the only purpose of this post is: These are the books I brought with me and read during the summer:

Marilynne Robinson: Housekeeping. I can’t think of many – if any – novelists alive today with Robinson’s command of language, her eye for the perfect sentences. This was her first novel, released in 1980. I had only read her second novel, the wonderful Gilead, from 2004, which deservedly won a Pulitzer. It seems that she has now picked up speed, for her “sequel” to Gilead, Home, was published last year. I plan to read soonish her book of essays, The Death of Adam: Essays on Modern Thought (1998), which, I’m sure, will be a hoot and a half. A rash and probably inexact description of Robinson would be to place her somewhere between Flannery O’ Connor and Harper Lee, both thematically and stylistically. However, that would be lazy, so let’s not do that, shall we?

Knut Hamsun: Mysterier (Mysteries). This was the second (real) novel of Norway’s best author, released two years after the more famous Sult (Hunger). For some reason I had not read it before, and I planned to really like it. It is, of course, well written in the inimitable Hamsun-style, and there are psychological insights in the book that are surprising of its time. And it is actually very entertaining. However, I couldn’t quite shake the feeling that I would have liked the book better had I read it at a younger age. I found it hard to share the novel’s concerns other than in a very vicarious way, which perhaps is true of all books, though I think not. These days I find that I much prefer Markens Grøde (Growth of the Soil). Even though it is by far a perfect novel, it has a power and a will (dangerous words to use while talking about Hamsun…) and a direction; a goal, something the author seems to need to be saying. It also has plot holes the size of a Frenchman’s ego and severe narrative problems, but these matter less than the mere existence of the work itself. Growth of the Soil insists upon its place in the world much like its protagonist. I haven’t read Hunger in quite a few years, but while reading Mysteries, it struck me that perhaps that book as well will be best appreciated by being read at a younger age than mine. (I liked it a lot when I was 20 or so). Still, these are quibbles, as all the Hamsun books mentioned here are masterpieces of a sort.

nagasakiKazuo Ishiguro: A Pale View of the Hills. I really, really liked this first novel. Having formerly only read An Artist of the Floating World, Ishiguro’s second book (which this novel closest resembles) and When We Were Orphans, I had great hopes for this and was not disappointed. Ishiguro, while having a Japanese name,and having lived in Japan till the age of five, is very much an Englishman, and the Japan he observes in his first two novels is very much a mediated Japan. One gets the feeling that he has studied the films of Yasujiro Ozu with the interest of someone a generation removed from the society and geography that these films represent. As he has added his own literary sensibility to this second hand understanding of Japan, he is able to describe both the society and the results of that society in a way that he maybe could not have accomplished had he lived there himself his entire life. The English reserve and traditional virtues (as seen in Remains of the Day) actually go very well together with the Japan of Ozu.

18651996While these reflections may seem boring, in A pale View of the Hills, they are definitely not. There is an extreme tension in the telling, everything so seemingly mundane and matter of fact, that one comes to suspect that Ishiguro’s narrator is perhaps not all trustworthy. Every little event is thus filled with a kind of dread, as if the masks, not only of the society, but the one worn by the narrator herself, might slip at any moment and the result will not be comforting. As the action takes place in Ishiguro’s birth town of Nagasaki, where the atom bomb had been dropped not that long ago, there is a curious mix of traditional Japanes idyllic scenes and an almost post-acopalyptic landscape. This underlines the tension between tradition and the foreign; the new; the rootless so to say. These are people living in an environment where they have learned that everything might disappear in seconds; what does this mean for the traditionally so stoic Japanese mindset? Rather than say more, I urge everyone to read this small wonderful book.

Haruki Murakami: The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle. While Ishiguro is an English writer looking to Japan for inspiration – and possibly his “roots” – Murakami is certainly Japanese and looking to the west and particularly to USA. The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle was originally a serialised novel, meaning that the author wrote it without having the luxury to go back and change things. This one can certainly see, as there are innumerable plot threads that are never picked up. Lots of scenes seem to be without consequence to the story and this even after the book has been through a kind of editing by the translator, Jay Rubin. Still, it is maybe the most enjoyable book I’ve read this year, and one of the few instances that I’ve not wanted a book to end (This almost never happens. I want most books to end as soon as possible, even the good ones.) as I was having a helluva time with it. In Rubin’s translation, at least, Murakami’s language sounds very polished and elegantly post modern. In fact, I found myself thinking that this is the book that Paul Auster would have written if he’d had any interesting ideas the last 20 years. After having finished it I went straight out and bought 3 more books by Murakami, an author I would have read long ago if I hadn’t been so sceptical to literary fashions and of seeing his books everywhere these last years:

Blind Willow, Sleeping Woman. A collection of short stories, none of which I seem to be able to recall a mere two months after having read them. I remember I enjoying some of them, but frankly, while they perhaps were my cup of tea, I had screwed up the order and gotten a rather bland bag. The fault is possibly mine, as one should not read a short story collection in just two days.

Norwegian Wood. Murakami himself didn’t want this novel translated, even though it was a sensation in Japan. But as the Norwegian publishers desperately wanted the book released (because of the title), the American publishers produced an English version for the purpose. The novel is not more than passable, but never dull.

Michael Chabon: The Yiddisch Policemen’s Union. I read this immediately after having read The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle, and possibly that explains the near fury I felt upon reading the first chapters of this. Murakami at his best is indeed a hard act to follow. I’ve liked many of Chabon’s novels, but this one is almost irredeemable. I really can’t explain how something like this can be published. (Actually the publishers almost forced Chabon to publish the book before he felt that it was ready…) The language of the book is amateurish and irritating, the plot never rising above the clichéd nature of the popular fiction it tries to emulate. “The first man to compare the cheeks of a young woman to a rose was obviously a poet; the first to repeat it was possibly an idiot”, as Salvador Dali said. There are rumours that the Coen-brothers will make this parody of Noir into a film. I can actually see how The Yiddisch Policemen’s Union can work better as a film than as a novel, but I have my doubts that any medium can save this mess. At least without some serious rewriting.

After some 100 pages I did begin to warm up to the concoction, but not enough by a long shot to forgive its considerable shortcomings. Whereas Murakami’s imagination and elegance of writing made me overlook the holes in his plot, Chabon is just too much of a journeyman to pull the novel off as an anecdotal trifle. He tries to translate Raymond Chandler to a Jewish Alaska (!), and frankly he is no Chandler, not even an Alistair Maclean. In this novel I find that he is not even himself.   I could – and perhaps should – back up this critique with examples from the text and try to formulate just what I disliked so much, but frankly I can’t be bothered. Life’s too short. I do hope, though, that Chabon will be able to redeem himself, as I know that in his best moments he writes popular prose of a high order.

Richard Ellmann: Yeats; The Man and the Masks. This biography of Yeats was originally written in 1948, a mere ten years after the author’s death. It is considered something of a key text in the understanding of Yeats’ life and literary universe. Ellmann later wrote a highly regarded biography of Joyce, which I’ve not read, but the view he presents of Yeats here doesn’t alltogether convince me. While he covers Yeats the Mystic and makes a case for a perpetually insecure man with no fixed identity, I never felt I got to know Yeats The Man, which, after all, is what one comes to a biography for. Perhaps more inexcusable, I didn’t get to know Yeats The Poet. Almost all of Ellmann’s readings seem determined by how he has chosen to perceive Yeats and allows little leeway or room for what I would call the poet’s genius. (I generelly avoid this word like the plague, but will make an exception in Yeats’ case) That is to say, how he managed to write so many good poems that seem timeless and almost universal even though Yeats himself was very much a man of his times and interests (mysticism).

The book, as it was written with important contributions by Yeats’ widow, never seems to dare to be impolite or, well, daring, and the biographical elements as a result end up less interesting than I suspect they could be. I don’t expect or want sensationalism, but this biography seemed almost reductionist. As for the poems, for example the famous but widely misunderstood The Second Coming, Ellmann seems only interested in the gyre of the poem’ first line, as this term is discussed in Yeats’ A Vision and thus is a key term in Yeats’ mysticism. As for what the poem itself might mean, or why it is a great poem, Ellmann has little to nothing to declare. This is a solid biography, but an artist of Yeats’ stature deserves more than solid.