Short Stories, Irish literature, Classics, Modern Fiction and Contemporary Literary Fiction, The Japanese Novel and post Colonial Asian Fiction are some of my Literary Interests

Saturday, May 28, 2016

Proust The Search by Benjamin Taylor (2016, from The Yale Jewish Lives Series) Plus suggestions on other books on Proust

In The Guardian's luke warm review of Proust The Search by Benjamin Taylor it is suggested 
that the big question on Proust Taylor addresses  is "How did a simpering, high-class layabout write a work of such profound moral seriousness?"  This for me pretty much wrecked the book.

I am currently doing my third read through of Marcel Proust's In Search of Lost Times.  Wayne Carter, the greatest living authority on Proust, is producing, published by Yale University Press, heavily annotated with illuminating data, a revision of the great translation of F. Scott Charles Moncreiff.  I was kindly given an advanced review copy of Volume One which I posted on last year and am now reading a review copy of volume two.  

The standard biographies of Marcel Proust are huge, pushing 1000 pages.  Taylor's sort of biography is just over 200 pages.  Taylor has two basic objectives.  The first is a task he acknowledges as impossible, explaining how Proust's life experiences lead to him producing one of the the very greatest novels ever written, a supreme artistic achievement of the human spirit.  Taylor somehow buys into the notion that because Proust was gay he was of weak character, lacking in the strength to produce a 3500 page masterpiece.  This notion permeates  Taylor's account of the life of Proust.  Taylor also tries  to place Proust in the European Jewish tradition.   Proust's father was Christian, his mother Jewish.  I did not find this tremendously interesting and I think it is counterproductive to limit Proust like this.

Taylor goes into detail on Proust's romantic life with various young men and what Taylor sees, probably rightly, as "cover" relationships with women in his younger days.  It is not pleasant to learn what Proust liked to do at a gay brothel he might have provided start up money for, Proust inherited in today's money five millions dollars from his mother.  Taylor lets us see that Proust was not money smart but was blessed with a good money manager.  He sometimes bought stocks because he liked the company name.  He was a very generous tipper and gave large gifts.  

My thoughts on getting into Proust (check out on YouTube the hilarious Monty Python skit on Proust)

First to state the obvious, read Proust.  It will take awhile, it is very, seven volumes over 3500 pages in most editions, long but it is not "difficult" or hard to follow.  (There is an interesting scene in Taylor's book describing a meeting of Proust and James Joyce.)  I read tne Moncreiff translations but will eventually read newer translations.  Next I would suggest you read Wayne Carter's biography of Proust.  

I have read two good secondary books on Proust.  Roger Shatluck's Proust's Way A Field Guide to Remebrance of Things Past is a work I found interesting and useful.  

Anka Mulstein's Proust's Library is super interesting.

Taylor does talk a good bit about Proust's reading.  He loved The Idiot by Fyodor Dostoevsky.  I must read it again.

On Taylor's book, it is for Proust fanatics only.  There is enough detail to keep readers like me interested but most will be better served by following my suggestions.  

Taylor is an adjunct professor at Columbia University and I guess this book started out as class room lectures and Taylor felt a need to base his work on things young students who most likely have never read Proust could relate to, him being Jewish and Gay.  It was near offensive when Taylor suggested it was surprising when Proust, who joined the military to get his choice of where he would be trained knowing he would be drafted, liked the army and was considered a good soldier.  

Mel u

Friday, May 27, 2016

The Square by Marguerite Duras (1955)

Not long ago I read and posted on my first work by Margaruite Duras, The Lover.  Set in French colonial Vietnam, it is a very powerful story about a young French girl's relationship with an older wealthy Chinese man.  It is a story of sexual obsession, class distinctions and the impsct of colonialism on Vietsmese society.  

I wanted to read more of her work and was happy to find four of her novels published in a Kindle edition.

The Square is set on a park bench in Paris, on a Thursday afternoon between 430pm and nightfall.  There are but two characters in the work, a woman of twenty and an older man, both sitting on the bench.  Not knowing each other, they begin to talk.  At first the conversation is the bland innocuous talk of two strangers just passing the time.  Slowly each begins to open up, their ways of coping with life begin to emerge.  Each one begins to learn from the other.

The Square is almost all dialogue.  It is interesting and worth reading.  I did prefer The Lover but that just may be because I am very into colonial Asian fiction.

I will read and post on the other three works in the collection

Thursday, May 26, 2016

Woodcutters by Thomas Bernhard (1984)

This is my fifth venture into the dark world of Thomas Bernhard.  In normal Bernardian fashion, the story is told by a Viennese man who thinks everyone but himself is a complete idiot.  It is one long paragraph.  It is an attack on the values of bourgeois Vienna, the art, the literature and the people.  The narrator hates everyone.

The story is set an "artistic party" hosted by a married couple the narrator was friends with thirty years ago.  The occasion is the observation of the death by suicide, unfortunately he ran into the couple while on a stroll in the park and they invited him to the party.  

Bernhard is not for everyone.  I am quite fond of his work.  It is fun to try to reconstruct what really is going on through the narration of the often unbalanced but always very cultured and intelligent narrators.

I hope to eventually read all of his work available as a Kindle

Please share your experience with Thomas Bernhard with us.


  • Frost (1963), translated by Michael Hofmann (2006)
  • Gargoyles (Verstörung, 1967), translated by Richard and Clara Winston (1970). *
  • The Lime Works (Das Kalkwerk, 1970), translated by Sophie Wilkins (1973)
  • Correction (Korrektur, 1975), translated by Sophie Wilkins (1979). *
  • Yes (Ja, 1978), translated by Ewald Osers (1991)
  • The Cheap-Eaters (Die Billigesser, 1980), translated by Ewald Osers (1990)
  • Concrete (Beton, 1982), translated by David McLintock (1984). *
  • Wittgenstein's Nephew (Wittgensteins Neffe, 1982), translated by David McLintock (1988) *
  • The Loser (Der Untergeher, 1983), translated by Jack Dawson (1991)
  • Woodcutters (Holzfällen: Eine Erregung, 1984), translated by Ewald Osers (1985) and as Woodcutters, by David McLintock (1988). *
  • Old Masters: A Comedy (Alte Meister. Komödie, 1985), translated by Ewald Osers (1989)
  • Extinction (Auslöschung, 1986), translated by David McLintock (1995). *
  • On the Mountain (In der Höhe, written 1959, published 1989), translated by Russell Stockman (1991)

(I have read and posted on the items marked with a *)

Mel u

Wednesday, May 25, 2016

Christmas Pudding by Nancy Mitford (1932)

The Novels of Nancy Mitford 

Nancy Mitford wrote two comic masterpieces, The Pursuit of Love and Love in a Cold Climate.  I liked these so much I decided to read all eight of her novels.  The other novels are funny, have great segments but all pretty much acknowledge they are not as great as her two master works.

Christmas Pudding is set on tne country estate of Lady Bobbins, obsessed with hunting.  It is Christmas time and several of her friends and relatives, including her very spoiled and somewhat difficult youn adult daughter, Philadelphia.  Another important, and my favorite character in the story, just published his first novel.  He intended it to be a work showing the anquish and dispair of contemporary English society.  To his great anquish, the novel is hailed by all the critics and the public as a wonderful comic novel.   He has decided he should write a biography of an English author.  He researched various possibilities and set on a recently deceased female author.  He finds she kept a journal for years and he writes her sister telling her of his interest and asks permission to use her journal in his research.  The sister reads his very respectful letter, tells her housekeeper that he seems like a mental case and her write him refusing permission to see the papers.  He is crushed but he keeps trying and eventually gets to read parts of the journal.  We get to read along with him and the diary entries, quite a few of them, are just a total delight.  

Lady Bobbins is trying to find a husband for Philadelphia, not an easy task for this very picky young lady.   At the dinner party one of the guests advocates that capitalism be abolished and that owners of grand country homes would be happier and better citizens if they moved into small cottages.  When asked why she does not give up her house she says she would love to but she does not want to put her 97 household and grounds servants out of work.  

Christmas Pudding was fun to read, a gentle satire of country aristocracy.  I will next read Pigeon Pie.

Please share your feelings on Nancy Mitford and her family with us.

Mel u

Tuesday, May 24, 2016

The Life of Elves by Muriel Barbery (2016, translated by Alison Anderson)

My Post on The Elegance of the Hedgehog - from July 21, 2009

When I first read The Elegance of the Hedgehog by Muriel Barbery about a concierge in a Paris apartment building who keeps largely hidden her high degree of culture from the wealthy and elegant residents of the building.  She feels the apartment owners will not readily relate to someone they seek as socially inferior if they discover she is extremely and deeply into the reading life.  I loved this book and in truth I very much related to it.  I saw in her work life as reflective of many of us deeply into the reading life.  I wanted to see how others reacted to this book so I googled it and I discovered the world of book blogs.  Soon I was following lots of book blogs.  It was a great thing for me as I have always been alone in my personal life in my love of reading.  In a few months I decided it would be fun to have my own book blog and I started The Reading Life.  The day I joined the international book blog community changed my life forever and I always felt grateful to Muriel Barbery for this.  

The Life of Elves is a very challenging book, one which offers great rewards to readers with the willingness and desire to follow the very deep mysteries with which it deals.  I read a few reviews after completing the book.  I was surprised to see it described in The Telegraph as a "children's book", another print reviewer said she abandoned the book on page 69 because  she could not follow the plot  and complained of an inadequate narration.  Another reviewer complained of many obscure perhaps overly lush, overblown sentences that they found difficult to understand. (To me this shows a negative aspect of print reviews in which reviewers are required to write about works with which they feel no affinity and more or less acknowledge is beyond their reading level.)

Still other reviewers recognized it was a major work of art dealing with universal political issues, the nature of story telling, the role of beauty in bringing value to life.  Above all it is about the clash of realms, about the need to keep Magic alive if humanity is to survive.

The Life of Elves treats of two different but connected world, that of elves and that of humans in Brugandy and Italy.  A great evil is treatining both realms.  Disharmony in the human world has given a sinister mysterious leader the ability to change in a destructive meteorological cycles.  The disharmony is reflective in the falling away from a love for stories and music, the music of the spheres.  The elf council has located two young girls who may be able to repel these forces.  

The two girls are Maria and Clara. One lives in Brugandy, the other in Italy. Maria's parents are elves but her apperance is totally human.  Her magical powers are still in the nascent stages but with direction her powers can go rapidly.  Clara is half elf, half human. Her power comes through music and have the power to defeat the growing darkness.  Her music can help restore harmony.  

The plot is not simple, there is an extensive cast of characters.  The prose is exquisite, replete with erudite references, beautiful metaphors, and wonderful descriptions of the beauty of the natural world. I had to way slow down to read this book but it was worth it.  It is about the nature of stories, how stories helped make us human.  

I first became familiar with the work of Gallic Books when I received a review copy of a wonderful biography they recently published, Helena Rubenstein The Woman Who Invented Beauty by Michelle Fitoussi.  I urge anyone into quality French literature in translation visit their very well done webpage.

Here is their mission statement

 Gallic Books was founded by francophiles and former Random House colleagues Jane Aitken and Pilar Webb, with the aim of making the best French writing available to English-speaking readers. Having published its first titles in 2007, Gallic now has a catalogue of more than 50 works of fiction and non-fiction, including historical crime series, contemporary noir, commercial and literary fiction, recently adding classics to the list.

Mel u 

The Black Rain by Masuji Ibuse

The Black Rain by Masuji Ibuse (1966, translated-1969- from the Japanese by John Bester, 298 pages)

I am very happy that Dolce Bellezza's Japanese Literature Challenge 4 has begun.    This will be my second year participating in this wonderfully managed challenge.   There is a very good list of recommended books on the challenge blog.     When I signed up for  the challenge in July 2009 I planned to just read one Japanese novel to complete the requirements.    I have now posted on 60 Japanese literary works This includes everything from novels by Nobel Prize winners,  then century poetry, historical novels, great books about WWII and some books that may never be classics but were a lot of fun.   In reading the Japanese novel in translation we have the possible advantage in that probably only the best and potentially best selling ones are translated so we already have a filtering process in place before we begin to select books.

Masuji Ibuse  was born in Hiroshimi and, like Oe studied French literature and also had a deep interest in the work of Tolstoy.    He was born 1898 and died 1993.   During WWII he served in Singapore in the Japanese Army.   His primary duty as writer for the Singapore newspaper The Straights Times.  He wrote articles in which he  depicted the occupation of the city by the Japanese as very preferable for the people to British rule via a diary he published.   As time went on he stopped publishing his diary as he saw no point to doing it under military supervision.   He also gave lectures on Japanese culture at a Singapore University.    He was an unwilling inductee into the Japanese army and he showed his distaste for military life in his  writings  after the war.   He did not directly experience the blast as he was in Singapore on August 6, 1845.   He never was in combat  (I have noticed many Japanese novelists were devoted readers of western literature.)    In his early twenties he began to publish short stories in literary journals.        He became famous as a writer for his only major work, Black Rain.

Black Rain is set in Hiroshima Japan from  August 4 to August 15, 1946.    On August 6 history was made when an atomic bomb exploded over Hiroshima.    Black Rain centers on a woman who lived with her family in Hiroshima but was far enough from the bomb explosion to survive.    A couple of days before the explosion the Americans dropped leaflets over the area saying they had a big surprise in the works for Hiroshima.    The war weary  residents just shrugged it off.    

Everyone knew something terrible had happened.   People knew the Americans had a weapon of a new magnitude but they were not sure how it worked.    They knew the bomb did not just kill with its blast but left survivors with horrible injuries and a new illness the doctors did not understand.    We travel with the woman as she goes in search for her relatives.    Everywhere she sees the remains of the dead and the soon to be walking dead.     Black Rain beautifully describes horrors.    The book also makes use of fictional diaries, journals and conversations as well as first person and third party narration.    After the bomb all sorts of rumors go through the city as people try to figure out what the Americans dropped on them.    When it rained shortly after the blast the rain came down black and many felt it was an oil bomb to set the city up for fire bombing.    Somehow everyone believed that if the Americans and their much feared potential fellow invaders, the Russians (looking for revenge for the Russo-Japanese  War) took over Japan they had plans to castrate all the male citizens.   (Maybe Ibuse was attuned to this sort of rumor from his work in the propaganda ministry.)    The Japanese had even been told that the Americans were going to send in specially trained "Rape Squads" of black soldiers.    Ibuse does a masterful job of capturing the feel of the first few days after the bomb.   After the bomb attack for nearly the first time many Japanese soldiers begin to refuse to follow orders.     Some people behaved very courageously after the attack and did all they could to help the victims.    

Ibuse's account is harrowing  and beautiful. I could not help but read on and on.  There is no sense in which he blames the Americans for what happened.    (I agree with the standard opinion that the bombing saved millions of lives on both sides and for sure the Japanese would have carpet bombed Australia, The Philippines and The USA with atomic bombs had they been the first to develop them.)     There is no great screaming out of horrors in the book.   If anything it is understated as the people walking through the city do not know how many were killed they just see local destruction.  

As I read Black Rain I could not help but hope there will not be a need to write a similar book after another world war.   As I thought that I began to wonder who would be left  to write it.   Black Rain was written 21 years after the first atomic bomb.    I wondered how long it would be after a world war with full use of nuclear weapons before a beautiful book about it could be written, published and one day blogged about.   

Kenzaburo Oe has written a wonderful non-fiction book about the bombing, Hiroshima Notes.   I have previously posted on a short story by Ibuse, "Crazy Iris".    Kenzaburo Oe admired this story so highly that he made it the lead work in his collection of short stories about the atomic aftermath, Crazy Iris and Other Stories of the Atomic Aftermath. 

I recommend this book without reservation and see it as must reading for anyone interested in the literary treatment of WWII from the Japanese point of view.   I must point out that the print is very small and if you have a hard time with small print you will have issues with this book.    I hate to say that as it is a wonderful work of art and it is sad some may miss out on the chance to read it.

Mel u

Monday, May 23, 2016

Japanese WWII Literature- A Guide to Getting Started

Getting Started in Japanese Literature
Five Great WWII Literary Works
by Japanese Writers
The Japanese Literature 3 challenge opened up a whole new reading world for me.  I think a lot of people would like to read more or even their first Japanese Literary work but they do not know where to start.   If you wander the big chain book stores you will not see much besides the work of Haruki Murakami.    Since I read my first work of Japanese literature back in July 2009 I have read about 100 works.     I am not an academic and make no claims of expertise at all but I want to share my experience a bit.   I  will do, I think, three or four Reading Life Guides to Japanese Literature to help participants in the challenge decide what to read.     The first one will be The Reading Life Guide to Getting Started in Japanese WWII literature.  I have read about 20 novels and shorter works written by Japanese authors about the Japanese experience in WWII.   Some are by Japanese  soldiers, some by victims of the Atom bomb attacks, and some were by Japanese opposed to the war.  I will post briefly on my "Top Five Japanese WWII Works.

  1. The Crazy Iris and other Stories of the Atomic Aftermath selected and introduced by Kenzaburo Oe.     Eight stories about the days right after the atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, some by survivors.    These are some of the very wisest and saddest stories I have ever read.     Some of the writers went on to become big literary stars, some never wrote another story.
2.    One Man's Justice by Akira Yoshimura.    This is an account of the post WWII 
       life of a Japanese soldier who cut the head off an American POW after he and
       his unit knew they  had surrendered.   I think this is a totally brilliant novel that 
       makes us understand what it was like for the Japanese after WWII.   We follow
       the central character as he runs from the Americans, as he spends his time in
       prison and in his years of freedom.   In his mind, he did nothing wrong (as far 
       he was ever told by his leaders the Americans and their allies had attacked
       Japan and killed millions of civilians out of race hatred.) This is a great novel.

3.    Fires on the Plain by Shohei Ooka centers on the experience of a Japanese 
       soldier in the southern Philippines right after the return of the Americans.
       He is too ill to fight so he is turned out of his unit and told to go to the 
       coast and look for a boat home.    In other words he is thrown out as useless
       with the expectation by his superiors that he will be killed.    We see in this
       novel the conman humanity in this soldier as he slowly begins to
       understand his superiors care nothing about him.   Ooka was himself a 
       combat soldier in the Philippines until he was captured by the Americans.
      He carried a copy of The Red and the Black in his rucksack.

4.   The Burmese Harp by Michio Takeyama is a world class treasure.   UNESCO
      sponsored its translation into English.     It is about a soldier in a Japanese
      Army unit stationed in Burma.   The casualty rate among Japanese soldiers 
      was very high and when a soldier was killed his body had to be left 
      where it fell, contrary to all religious tradition.    This powerful book
      is about one man's attempt to live within the strictures of his Buddhist faith
      while serving in the Japanese army in Burma.    This is a great work of art.

5.    The Black Rain by  Masuji Ibuse  takes place in Hiroshima from August 4 to
       August 15, 1945.   The atomic bomb was dropped on the city on August 6,
       1945.     We are there when the residents read the warning leaflets the
       Americans dropped on the city and we are there right after the bomb hits
       and the survivors try to figure out what has happened.   At first a black rain 
       seems to come down on them and they think the Americans are dosing them
       in Kerosene so they can then set them all on fire.   We go through the terrible
       days right after the bomb hits.

       This is a beautiful book about a horrible subject.   As two side notes, as I read
       this I wondered who will be left to write the great novels about it if there is a
       WW III and I was somehow pleased to know Ibuse was also an admirer of
       Stendhal.    Ibuse was drafted into the Japanese army and served as a professor
       of Japanese culture in a Singapore university during the war.

Please let us know what your favorite Japanese WWII  works are.  I know there are lots of other great Japanese works about WWII but these are some ones I endorse without reservation.

I think I will next write a guide to Japanese Noir literature-The Darker Side of Tokyo

Then Japanese Historical novels-I am aware of some wonderful ones

       Mel u