M 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

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Wednesday, March 31, 2010

"Bartleby, The Scrivener" by Herman Melville

"Bartleby, The Scrivener" by Herman Melville (1853 and revised 1856-39 pages)

I read this story about a year ago, before I began my blog.   I decided to reread it now as it somehow reminded me in several ways of a great literary work of art I recently posted on, "The Overcoat" by Nikolai Gogol published in 1842, eleven years prior to "Bartleby, The Scrivener".    The central character in "The Overcoat" is also a copier of documents, the meaning of the term "scrivener".   There was in the days before copy machines a huge demand for scriveners to duplicate legal and government documents. The work was boring and mind numbing.    The scrivener in both stories is an isolated man with no family or  friends  and few social skills.   Melville and Gogol each wrote one towering master novel that defines their place in literary history.     The central character in both stories is hard to really understand.   Both stories are seen as forerunners of the literature of the absurd and the   existential novels of the post World War Two Period.   Both deal with a man somehow frustrated by life in ways that are hard to fathom.   Both central characters today feel like a near nameless everyman caught up in a corporate night mare world.

I think what surprised me a lot about "Bartleby, The Scrivener" was that it is quite funny.   The narrator of the story is an attorney to the wealthy of New York City.   He deals in mortgages, bonds, and contracts and does not sully himself with criminal cases.   He is a decent man, good to his employees.   He has two scriveners working for him when the story begins, Nippers and Turkey.   Turkey is often drunk in the morning but by afternoon he sobers up and is a good dedicated worker.   Nippers has chronic stomach problems but is alert in the mornings.   He also employes an office boy called "Ginger nut" as his man function seems to be to bring ginger nut cakes to the two scriveners.   The attorney knows his workers are not perfect but he is a fair and reasonable man and accepts that they are not bad so he keeps them on.   His business begins to increase so he puts out an ad for a third scrivener.   Bartleby appears at his office to apply for the job.  He is a kind of sad seeming young man, bland in his appearance but well spoken so he is hired.   The narrator hopes his calm personality will bring peace between the often squabbling  Nippers and Turkey.   For a while everything is great.   Bartleby is a very hard work and does not seem to have any quirks of personality.   He is the ideal employee, never late, never stops working, and is always very subservient in his attitude, something that cannot be said of the other scriveners.   Part of the work of a scrivener is to proofread each others work as the smallest mistake in a legal document could be very harmful.   One day the attorney asks Bartleby to help in proof reading and Bartleby says, in a very calm unemotional way detached way "I would prefer not to."   Bartleby begins to do less and less around the office.  Soon his response to every request that he join in the work of the office is "I would prefer not to."    The attorney asks him about his background and life history and he is told when asked to relay information about himself that "I would prefer not to."    Soon the other employees are very upset.   Why is Bartleby allowed to simply refuse to work without explanation.   Turkey offers to give him a good thrashing and Nippers just wants him thrown out.   The narrator is a very kind decent man but he cannot have this go on.   One day one of the leading attorneys of New York City drops by.  He needs a simple errand run and notices Bartleby is doing nothing.  He asks him to run the errand and is told "I would prefer not to."   The narrator is losing face as more and more people learn about Bartleby.   He offers Bartleby the equivalent of two months pay to leave and tells him if he needs help in the future he will help him.   Bartleby tells him he when asked when he will leave "I would prefer not to."     There are some interesting fun twists in what happens to Bartleby so I will not reveal more of the plot.   

 
There are religious and philosophical interpretions that could be put on this story.   There is reference to Jonathan Edwards, a thinker on free will and maybe there is a point to seeing Bartleby as man trying to assert his freedom the only way he can, by refusing to do what he does not want to.    This story still speaks to us because of the sheer absurdity of Bartleby.   He has figured how to deal with absurd demands and requests.  Just say "I would prefer not to".

The writing style is very different from Moby Dick.  As fits the themes of the novel, the prose is  almost bland feeling (bland for Melville that is!) .   We get to know the narrator, the attorney, and his world well.   Bartleby remains a mystery to us.    "The Overcoat" is the greater work of art of the two stories but "Bartleby, The Scrivener" runs it a a close second and I think Gogol would have understood this story as would Kafka and Oe.   I will be reading more short stories as I am coming to understand more an  art form I have perhaps not respected as well as I should as it does not quite suit my need for worlds to enter. 

I am grateful to LuAnn for hosting the Spring into Short Stories Challenge

I am also reading this book for Aatri's Flashback Challenge-I also read this story about a year ago-
I would appreciate any suggestions as to "the best short stories ever written"-I have collections of Chekhov and Gogol short stories and a few James and Wharton on hand also but need more ideas as I really want to read a lot more short stories now.

"Living With the Enemy: A Diary of the Japanese Occupation" by Pacita-Pestano-Jacinto


Welcome to Students from the University of The Philippines-





Living With the Enemy:   A Diary of the Japanese Occupation by Pacita Pesttano-Jacinto (2002, 246 pages-Anvil Publishing-Manila)

Living With the Enemy: A Diary of the Japanese Occupation deserves to be a world wide best seller with a million copies sold.   Pacita Pesttano-Jacinto was 25 years old when the Japanese invaded the Philippines in 1941.   She had recently graduated from college and married a doctor from a very good family.   She had a lovely house in a beautiful part of Manila.    One day she heard on the news that the Japanese had bombed Pearl Harbor.    Then they began to bomb the Philippines and shortly after their troops entered the northern provinces of the Philippines.    The cruelty of the Japanese invading force was beyond the human.    The Philippines was a very peaceful country.   If ever there was unprovoked attack on an innocent country this was it.   The rationale of the Japanese was that they were "liberating" the Philippines from the control of the Americans.  
Pacita Pesttano-Jacinto does a simply marvelous job in detailing the changes that come for the people of Manila as the Japanese take over.    All citizens are required to bow  when they pass in front of a Japanese.   When they fail to bow with the proper attitude of humility, they are slapped in the face.   Soon the Japanese begin to take over the best houses for their troops, then they begin to take all the horses, and as time went on they took even the healthy dogs to be trained as attack animals.   Some of the residents of Manila reacted in heroic ways, some became collaborators.    If you read this book,  you will not be so quick to judge those who cooperated with the Japanese as in many cases it was the only way to keep their families alive.    Pacita Pesttano-Jacinto tells us how the prices of common items, even the staple rice, go way up.    She shows what it is like to live in a climate of fear.   Through out the years (the diary is from December 10, 1942 to Feb. 24, 1945) the thing that keeps the people going is the belief that the Americans will return, the faith in the promise of Douglas MacArthur to return.    The Japanese propaganda ministry works over time to try to get the Filipino people to see themselves as part of a new Asian partnership  run by the Japanese for purely altruistic reasons.   The Filipinos have to act as if they agreed with this or face torture or worse.    Government employees are sent to giant rallies where they scream in joy over the speeches of the Japanese.    Venal politicians emerge to be puppet rulers but there are also great and courageous leaders.
Some of the diary is the day to day life of the family.    Some is a detailing of the activities of the Japanese and their extreme cruelties.    Pacita Pesttano-Jacinto writes in a simple beautiful style of a person who may have never heard when she wrote this a native speaker of English.   Her family is lucky in that the Japanese respect doctors and they also need Filipino doctors to tend their wounded.    We get to see how people try to make the best of their lives.   We see a simple house boy grow into a hero.   The goodness, the faith in God, and the family bonds of the Filipino people comes through wonderfully in this book.    Japanese are depicted as inhuman monsters and one can hardly blame Pacita Pesttano-Jacinto  for that.   I knew how the diary would end, of course, and I knew Pacita Pesttano-Jacinto survives the war but it was still very exciting and somehow even suspenseful to await the return of the Americans.    The sadness parts of the diary are near the end.   As the Americans begin to take back Manila and the Japanese know they will lose they make it their goal to kill all of the 500,000 residents of Manila.   They begin to machine gun people at random, they have snipers throughout the city shooting people for no reason other than blood lust.  
There are many poignant moments in the diary.   I reacted with true sorrow when I read of a 16 year old Filipino girl who was impregnated during a group rape by Japanese soldiers.   Even the counsel of her priests and supportive family cannot stop her from suicide.   I had my wife read the entry from October 15, 1944 (she is from Zambales in northern Luzon one of the most brutalized areas of the Philippines at the time of the invasion ).
The streets are full of starving people who swarm the gates of the houses insistently, desperately begging for rice, for a little soup, for crumbs, for anything.   Even during the air raids, while planes fly overhead and bombs shake the earth, this starving army of beggars patrol the streets dragging themselves and their starved bodies from door to door, unaware of possible death from the skies, aware only of the pain of the hunger gnawing at their entrails.
My wife was so effected by this passage she could not read on in the diary past this one entry.   Here is an entry from Feb 8, 1945 (near the end for the Japanese in Manila):

Americans themselves say nothing will remain of our beloved city.   The Japanese have gone on an orgy of savage burning...The Japanese cornered have turned on 500,000 civilians.  The American soldier says "I am used to deaths and killing but my flesh creeps when I remember what I have seen".  He said the acrid smell of burning flesh rises from high in the winds, that the streets are littered with he dead.

This maybe difficult to read but here is what the mother of a six year old boy experienced as they ran from the fires being set by the Japanese (they forced the citizens to remain in the buildings when  they set them on fire):

Then from the shadows of a fallen wall, they saw a figure detach itself.  The woman must have seen it too.   They heard her scream in terror and run.   But she was too late.   As she fell, they saw the Japanese soldier run forward and with his bayonet, strike the child upwards, lifting him from the ground, implanted like meat on a butcher's knife
.Living With the Enemy: A Diary of the Japanese Occupation  is a very honest diary and shows great emotional and political intelligence.   Anyone interested in the history of the Philippines in World War II would like this book, I think, and learn from it.  I know I did.   It will be hard for anyone out side of the Philippines to get a copy.  

Everyday there are fewer people  left with living memories of World War II.   I hope anyone who has a family member or a friend with such memories will take the time to hear their stories as they will all be gone soon.   So far I have posted on two other books by Filipino authors on the world war II experience.   I recommend   Living with the Enemy:   A Diary of the Japanese Occupation with no reservations or qualms at all.   I know it will never be on the N Y Times best seller list but it deserves to be.

Mel u

Tuesday, March 30, 2010

"The Diving Pool" by Yoko Ogawa

"The Diving Pool" by Yoko Ogawa (50 pages, 1991-translated from Japanese by Stephen Snyder) is the lead story in a collection of three short stories by Ogawa under the title The Diving Pool.   The Professor and the Housekeeper also by Ogawa has to be one of the most blogged about Japanese novels of the last year.    Everyone loves it.   (Sadly, I have yet to find it in a  book store here in Manila but I was so happy when I saw The Diving Pool in a local book store.    As soon as I read the quotation from Kenzaburo Oe on the cover ("Yoko Ogawa is able to give expression to the most subtle workings of human psychology in a prose that is gentle yet penetrating")  I knew it was a must read for me.   

The central character and the narrator of  "The Diving Pool" is a teenage girl.   Her father is a Christian minister in a Protestant church in Japan in the early 1990s.   He and his wife, the mother of the narrator, run and live in an orphanage for children in most cases abandoned by their parents.   Most of the children find adopted homes as infants.   A few with special needs stay on in the orphanage.   Our narrator grew up among children who had no real parents.   We see relayed in  very subtle ways how this has shaped her psyche.   The narrator loves to watch a boy, a bit older than herself, who has been in the orphanage about ten years (older orphans are rarely adopted from the home) diving from high dive into the diving pool.    She loves the beauty of his body and of the dives.   She some how has kept a mental collection of all the dives by Jui, who she sees as a step-brother, in her mind.   Clearly she is feeling sexual desire and love mixed together.   There is a mentally disabled girl at the orphanage.   This girl, Rui, is several years younger than our Narrator and seems to very much look up to her.   For reasons that are not on the surface clear, our narrator does something very cruel to this girl.    One would think under these circumstances the narrator would be appreciative of her parents.   Instead, she wishes they were, in her darker moments, dead so she could also be an orphan.   I somehow wondered if the father's love for the church and the doing of good deeds had turned him away from his duties as a father.    The narrator feels no real human connection to any one but the Jui, the diver and she does not understand what those feelings are and they are further confused by the fact that Jui is her step- brother.  Jui is a person of near saintly temperament.   When he is asked if he is upset that his parents abandoned him because of drug addiction he says no they could not help what they were.    We wonder how he found such a kind wisdom so young and we wonder what is behind his obsession with achieving a perfect form in diving.   We see the loneliness of the narrator and we also must wonder how the parents became involved in the Christian ministry in a country in which Christians are a very small minority.   We wonder if this cutting off from traditional religious roots through the adoption of an alien religion is in any way behind the angst of the lead character. Is the seeming emptiness of the life of the narrator a commentary on Christianity as a religion brought into Japan as a result of its defeat in war?    The imagery of the novel is very beautiful.   There is clearly a powerful artistic intelligence at work here.    There are two other stories in this collection and I look forward to reading them.   

Yoko Ogawa was born in 1962.   She has written over twenties books but only a few have yet been translated.   One of her novels was made into a movie and she has won numerous Japanese literary prizes.  

"Death March: A Documentary Novel" by Jiro Nitta

Death March:   A Documentary Novel by Jiro Nitta (1971, translated from Japanese by James Westerhoven, 1992, Stone Bridge Press , 204 pages)

Death March:   A Documentary Novel is a historical novel written in near journalistic style about a military exercise in the middle of winter in 1902 on Honshu Island in northern Japan.    This is not an at all well known book in its English translation.   There are no book blog entries on it and no goodreads.com reviews.   It was a million copy best seller in Japan on publication.    It is the fictionalized account of a military training routine gone tragically wrong.  It is set right before the time of the Japanese-Russian War (1904 to 1905).    The military leaders knew war with Russia was on the horizon.    The Imperial Japanese Army leaders wanted to prepare themselves for a possible land invasion of Russia.   With this in mind they assembled a group of about 200 men and officers to do a march with full military equipment around a huge mountain on Honshu Island in the middle of the winter.   It is the coldest place in Japan.    The leaders of the march are all quite uninformed as to the needs and dangers of leading an army on a march in the middle of a horrible winter.   As luck would have it, a severe blizzard broke out in the middle of the march.   


One of the most interesting aspects of the novel was seeing how things got done in the Japanese Army in 1902.    Most of the officers were descended from Samurai families and those few officers who were not were looked down upon and had little chance for advancement.     Unquestioning obedience is expected and seen among all soldiers.   It is common for Japanese officers to slap soldiers for even seeming to question an order.   The common soldiers are all young and mostly were drafted.   Seven local guides were hired by the lead officer of the regiment to guide them on their march.    Things quickly turn very wrong in terrible way.   Nitta gives us a very good feel as to what this march was like for the soldiers and officers.   He gives us a very clear idea as to how death comes to people during the march and we can really almost see and feel the men freezing to death.   We see the efforts of the officers to help their men deal with frost bite by suggesting they make boots of straw.   We see their efforts to ration food and sake.  (The officers could have easily brought all the food they might have needed but they intentionally made this a hardship march for training purposes and to learn how to fight in sub-zero conditions.)   The death scenes are very well done and we can see what happens easily.   (The book was made into a movie in Japan).   Of 210 in all who started the march, only 21 survived plus all of the seven guides (the guides, civilians, returned home when they decided among themselves they were not being paid enough now that a blizzard had begun).    The officers were completely incompetent.   


When the few surviving troops were rescued the army tried  to keep what happened quiet.   They could not do it as the parents of the soldiers (many in their teens) demanded to know what happened to them.  In one very moving scene a father confronts the commander of officer over the march and tells him if his son had died in battle he could have accepted it but to die at the orders of a fool cannot be accepted.   The incident gets in the media and there is a public outcry.   All of the higher officers deny any knowledge of it, of course.   Payments are made to the families of the dead.   The payments were actually quite substantial and were enough for them to buy land which could support the survivors from then on.   Of course, this must be seen as more or less a payment for silence.  

Jiro Nitta was by profession a meteorologist.   When he retired from the Japanese government meteorological department in his middle fifties he became a professional writer.   The description of the weather conditions show his extreme knowledge on this.   Three of his books have been translated into English but this book is the only one in print.   

In his very good afterword, the translator James Westerhoven (a teacher at Hirosaki University very near the actual setting of the novel) says one of the dominant themes of Nitta's work is the effect of the cult of blind obedience on Japan.   Nitta served in the Japanese army in WWII in China and ended the war in a POW camp.  (I tried to find out more about his war experiences but I could not.)    Westerhoven also tells us what happened to the surviving men in real life and how the investigation of the march turned out.   Westerhoven does let us know that Nitta had a problem with authority in most forms, even on a personal level.   

Death March:   A Documentary Novel  does a very good job of doing what Nitta says he wanted to do, that is see and feel what the march was like.   It feels somehow like a novel a skilled newspaper reporter might have written.   The writing about weather are superb.    I have also posted on another novel set in the very same time frame, Kusamakura by Natsume Soseki.   By contrast, Kusamakura is a near lyrical deeply beautiful work.    Jiro Nitta has numerous works not yet translated.   

Death March:   A Documentary Novel  is easy to read and follow.  (The production qualities of the book are high.)     It teaches us a lot about the Japanese army.   When I read of the common practice of slapping soldiers I was reminded of One Man's Justice by Akira Yoshimura in which I learned that after the war Japanese who had slapped American POWs were hung as war criminals.    Death March:   A Documentary Novel is not a work of great genius, it is not a "must read" Japanese or war novel but it is a good solid book by a man with very strong values whose goal is to let us see the truth about the things he writes about.     
Jiro Nitta was the pen name of Hiroto Fujiwara (1912-to 1980).




Mel u

Monday, March 29, 2010

"Wuthering Heights" by Emily Bronte

Wuthering Heights by Emily Bronte (1847, 385 pages, Vintage Books)

Wuthering Heights by Emily Bronte (1818 to 1848) is the 5th novel by a Bronte sister I have read this year.   Emily was the middle sister, with Anne the youngest and Charlotte was the family big sister.   Wuthering Heights is on nearly every list of 100 best novels ever written, some times at a mark well above the top 50.   The lead male character, Heathcliff, is the forerunner for the troubled brooding "bad boy" hero of surely 1000s of novels in many languages.    Wuthering Heights has been made into a movie numerous times.    It was the only novel ever published by Emily.   (I read somewhere that Charlotte found a completed  manuscript after Emily's death at thirty but destroyed the work as of inferior quality.)  
The name of the novel comes from the name of a mansion in the moors, "Wuthering" is an old  fashioned word used in the Yorkshire region of England to mean bad weather.    For those not quite sure what a moor is here is  a description from Wikipedia:
Moorland or moor is a type of habitat found in upland areas, characterized by low growing vegetation on acidic soils. Moorland nowadays generally means uncultivated hill land.

The basic plot of the novel is well known, even many who have never read it and never will know the plot.   I do not feel any need to retell it here.   I will just try to say what I like about the novel and what did not quite work for me.

I love much of the style of the writing.   It is very different from that of Anne or Charlotte.    Somehow the language of  Wuthering Heights seems older, darker and deeper.   I enjoyed much of the atmosphere of the book.   I enjoyed the quirky nearly dysfunctional characters that populate the novel at all levels.   I enjoyed learning about the childhood of the characters.   Emily is very insightful in showing how a troubled childhood can shape people in a way that fits them best for the shadows of life.   I think Emily understands the power such people can have on those with no firm anchors in life.  In this maybe Wuthering Heights is also in the tradition of Vampire Romances and helps us understand the power of these narratives and to   understand in part why the vampire is such an attractive icon  to many.   I liked the minor characters a lot.    With  dark mansion, the moors, a troubled brooding hero with a mysterious past and some ghosts thrown in Wuthering Heights is solidly in the mood of a gothic novel.   The plot action of Wuthering Heights is not told in nearly as straight forward a way as Jane Eyre or Anne's two novels.

In the book blog world Jane Eyre is nearly universally loved.   I have seen a lot of posts with Jane Eyre  listed as a favorite book.   Wuthering Heights gets mixed reactions as I see it from my brief research.   Some do not like the feel of the prose (I personally do not like "country" dialects in conversations and there is a good bit of this in the work).    Some do not feel the character of Heathcliff  is as well done as that of Mr. Rochester.   Some feel that the plotting is confusing and hard to follow.   Others see it as the deepest of the work of the Bronte sisters and see Catherine and Heathcliff as the best pair of literary lovers of the first half of the 19th century.   I enjoyed all the references  to reading in the novel.   (All of the sisters and Branwell were for sure into the reading life.)  

As a personal note, and I am sure I am not alone in this, I could not help but think of another now better know Heathcliff as I was reading Wuthering Heights.   Wuthering Heights a great cultural treasure and a very important book in literary history, not just in England.    I subscribe to about 300 book blogs and they are full of reviews of novels with a Heathcliff type man on the cover, often with his shirt undo and his hair flowing in the breeze.   The question then becomes, no offense meant by this, are the Brontes books of primary appeal to women?    If one of my three daughters brought home a Heathcliff or Mr Rochester as a future husband I would be very upset.   I am sure my wife would be terribly worried that the youthful passion of our daughters had blinded them to a man that will ultimately hurt or even destroy her.   I have enjoyed some back and forth comments concerning Jean Rhys's account of the character of  Mr Rochester in  Wide Sargasso Sea following my posting on that work.     Perhaps the majority opinion is that Jean got him wrong.  (I think she got him right but I will reread Wide Sargasso Sea this year as I read it prior to my reading of Jane Eyre.   In terms of literary quality that does not matter but given the huge import of the books of the Brontes it seems a question worth pondering.   I will come back to in the last quarter of the year.)

Any body interested in the 19th century novel (most have probably already read it) should read this book.  I am in the process of reading all seven of the Bronte novels in close order.   I have two to go, both by Charlotte, The Professor and Shirley.   The advance notices I have picked up are not that good on them, (boring, obvious first novel etc) but I like a sense of completion and there are only seven Bronte novels anyway so I figure I should read them all.

I am reading this work for these challenges:

Typically British Challenge-now complete
All About the Brontes Challenge-level two now complete.
Gothic Novel Challenge
Mutual Reads (Victorian Novels)

Mel u

Sunday, March 28, 2010

"Parade's End" by Ford Madox Ford-some of the great things in Chapter One


The Read Along of Parade's End by Ford Madox Ford (a work in four parts-1924 to 1928-836 pages in the Penguin Books edition) is set to begin April 1.   Several people will be joining in so it should be very interesting-There are no rigid schedules the only request is you link your posts to here and that hopefully we can all comment on each others posts.    I invite any and all to join in.

A  Common Reader has just done a great post concerning on line resources on Ford Madox Ford and Parade's End

I want to just talk a bit about some of the wonders of Chapter 1.  (I will refer to chapters in making references as there are different editions.)   One of the great things I can already see in Parade's End are the marvelous observations about literature, history and current events by the central characters.   I enjoy a novel when the lead characters make me think.   A great novel can, through these remarks, reshape our own perceptions.   Here is a very interesting remark by the lead character of Parade's End, Tietjens:

"I don't read novels."  Tietjens answered.  "I know what is in em.   There has been nothing worth reading written in England since the eighteenth century expect by a woman...but it is natural for you enamel splashers to want to see them selves in bright and variegated literature.  Why shouldn't they?   It a healthy human desire and now that printing and paper are cheap they get it satisfied.

Maybe we do not agree with his remark about English novels but this for sure made me think.   Not just think about if this remark was correct but more about the mind set that would produce it.   Why dismiss all the canon status English male novelists of the 19th century (in an era when political correctness meant something far different than it does now).?

Parade's End  begins shortly before WWI (1914 to 1918)  on a train in England.   The conversations wanders to a consideration on the question as to why a great war is certain to happen.   Here is Tietjens explanation as to why war is sure to occur:

Yes war is inevitable.   Firstly, there is you fellows who cannot be trusted.  Then there is the multitude who mean to have bathrooms and white enamel.   Millions of them all over the world.  Not merely here.   And there aren't enough bathrooms and white enamel in the world to go around
 These few lines go a long way to explain the turmoil of the 20th century.   Here in Asia it can be seen stating the cause of the rise of communism in China with millions of deaths and the reign of Pot Pal in Cambodia,  leaving Europe aside.

This is my first reading of Parade's End and I have read only the first chapter so far but I think I can say we will be treated to 100s of such observations.   Maybe you think they are crazy (at least we now know what an enamel splasher is) but they will make us think and smile as well.  

As Tietjens and his companion Manchester begin to descend from the train here is what they see:

On the platform a number of women in lovely sable cloaks, with purple or red jewel cases, with diaphanous silky scarves flying from motor hoods, were drifting toward the branch train bound for Rye, under the shepherding of erect, burdened footmen.


Ford Madox Ford (FMF from now on) knows how to paint a scene and evoke and era in a few lines.   There  are other things in Chapter one of Parade's End .   There are quotations from wonderful poems spoke by Manchester, passing references to things that allude to events in English history, narrative remarks about  Italian painters such as Botticelli and Rosetti,  and numerous  references to English places.   Chapter One is really nearly an introduction to the gentry in England if one works through the allusions.   The characters are "snobbish" and they do evaluate people based on their clothes, the circumstances of their birth etc.   But remember before we judge them,  some of the lead characters are headed into the abyss of the trenches of WWI.   Tietjens, who we will get to know very well, I think, knows he is a snob and is rather proud of what that means:

All the same, when the war comes it will be those little snobs who will save England, because they've the courage to know what they want and to say so.
I think I will do another post on place name references and cultural asides in Chapter One.   I think FMF in Parade's End has produced a kind of encyclopedic narrative and I want to ponder  a bit how this works using the references we see already in great profusion in Chapter One.  

I found Chapter One a great pleasure to read.   It made be think.   I marveled at the glorious prose.   I dreamed I was riding on a train.   I imagined a day where people were as educated as Tietjen and Manchester obviously are.    I do see the book as possibly itself seeming somehow "snobbish"  and overbearing in its presumption of cultural depth on the part of the reader to some readers.   I actually think I will quite enjoy this aspect of the book and I expect to learn a great deal from it.   I am going to read this book slower than I normally do and will go into greater depth than I ever have before in talking of other books.  To a large extent I am doing this as the writing of the posts will help clarify for me my understanding of the book.    I will also, I think, talk some about the themes of the book but I may focus on the workings of the narrative a bit.   To participants in the read along,  please let me know when you have done a post and I will link it.  

To readers of my blog,   I will, I hope be posting on a number of interesting books at the same time I am posting on Parade's End.   I hope others will join in and I can see just in chapter one the great conversations alone will make the book a wonder to read.   I will only post on Chapter One until the read along officially begins on April 1, 2010.

Friday, March 26, 2010

"The Aspern Papers" by Henry James


The Aspern Papers by Henry James (1888, 84 pages in Barnes and Noble Edition)

The Aspern Papers is  considered from the start of James middle period.  ( James was born in New York City in 1843 into a wealthy very educated and cultured family.  He lived in Europe for many years and eventually became an English citizen.   He died in 1916.  He produced a huge diverse volume of literary works.    Several of his novels often show up on lists of 100 best novels.)     It was published between The Bostonians and a Tragic Muse.   I greatly enjoyed The Bostonians and have not yet read The Tragic Muse.    It is considered by many a small master work of 19th century American prose.  I would say first it is not hard to read.     It does not have super long sentences with four or five subordinate clauses.   It does not have a lot of characters,  only three in fact.    It in fact is a pleasure to read and the plot action is easy to follow.  

The central figure of The Aspern Papers, we never learn his name, is a literary biographer and collector and seller of memorabilia of famous writers.     He has heard a rumor that a very elderly lady living in Venice, Juliana Bordereau,  was at one time the lover of a deceased now famous American poet, Jeffrey Aspern.   (Aspern is creation of James.)    He finds out the elderly lady lives in genteel poverty in a very large house in Venice.   He quickly discerns that they are barely surviving on an annuity and offers to pay an above market amount to rent a room in her house.   Living with Mrs Bordereau is her niece Miss Titus.   They are Americans.   Both have been out of the country so long they do not  feel any more like Americans but for sure they are not Italians.   The city of Venice so lovingly described that we long to be there and feel strongly the beauty of the background of this story.   The narrator wants the papers he thinks the elderly lady so much that he begins to court the niece with compliments and gifts.   The niece herself is far from a young woman.   No ages are given but I see the Mrs Bordereau in her 80s or so and the niece late 40s.    The narrator wants the documents so bad that he sneaks into room of Mrs Borderau and is caught by her as he is going through her possession in search of the documents.    Just a few days after this incident she dies and the narrator feels the shock of catching him may have been the cause.    The niece, in a question of the player playing the player, suggests she might give the documents to the narrator if he marries her, something he has no interest in doing.   We are shocked when we find out what has really happened to the papers.

Part of the theme of The Aspern Papers is a simple attack on literary biographers (sort of the equivalent to writers for scandal magazines now).      It also deals with the very common theme in James of the American living in Europe.   It is also about loneliness and lost love and a beautiful city.   It is also about relationships between men and women that never advance beyond the "starting gate".      It is about the relationship of an artist to his life.   I have to say also it is fun to read.   It is a fine example of late 19th century fiction and will well repay the time it takes to read it.     

I am reading this for The 2010 Reading Themes Challenge.   This is a very interesting challenge in that you are ask to "pick your own theme".   I picked as my theme "Flaubert and Friends".    While in Paris Henry James socialized and dine with Gustave Flaubert and his good friend Ivan Turgenev and others in Flaubert's circle.     
Henry James was the brother of the philosopher Williams James.    So far I have posted on Indiana by George Sand, a brilliant book  on women's rights (among other things) and Pierre et James Guy De Maupassant (James called it a masterpiece) for this theme.    


Thursday, March 25, 2010

"Peony in Love" by Lisa See

Peony in Love by Lisa See (2007, 284 pages)

Peony in Love is the third historical novel by Lisa See that I have read in the last six weeks.   The first was Shanghai Girls, a very well done and cliff hanging story of the immigration of two sisters from Shanghai in the 1930s to their adjustment to life in California  through the mid 1960s.     I learned a lot about the Chinese immigration to the USA experience from this book and it was exciting if grim in its movement from one disaster to the next.     A couple of weeks after I finished Shanghai Girls  I lucked on her Peony in Love and Snow Flower and the Secret Fan in hardback for sale at nearly ninety percent off the list price.    Snow Flower and the Secret Fan is set in mid 19th century China and is the story of the lives and relationships of two life long friends.    Just as in Shanghai Girls, we see the importance of foot binding in Chinese culture ad we see just how terrible a thing it was to do to adolescent females.   The descriptions of the process are hard to read.  
Peony in Love is set in 17th Century China.     Peony, who we meet at age sixteen shortly before her arranged wedding is to take place, loves reading and books with a special passion for opera.   An opera is going to be preformed by a traveling troupe of players.   Unmarried women of the gentry are not supposed to go to such performances but Peony begs her father to be allowed to go and her indulgent father sets it up so she can see the opera and be hidden behind a screen.    Peony is soon to be married to a man she has never met.   Her mother and her aunt have been educating her on the proper role of a wife in a noble family.   Peony is very worried about her future.   She knows there is little love in her parents marriage and she knows the shame her mother hides when she deals with the concubines her father has taken.    There is a really brilliant scene in the book where Peony's maid,  also 16, is helping Peony dress.   Peony thinks she and the maid (who was sold to the family a few years back as more or less a slave) are friends.    She is shocked to learn the maid hopes Peony's father will take her as a concubine and is even more shocked to see that under the mask of servility the maid deeply resents the  privileged status of Peony and may even hate her.   At the opera Peony sees a beautifully attired and very handsome man and it is love at first sight for her.    Peony has three days of contact with the man and falls deeply in love.    As I have come to expect in the novels of Lisa See, there will be many turns of the plot.   Just as her wedding day approaches Peony learns some very wonderful almost unbelievably good news.   Then something horrible happens.   Peony enters the afterlife prior to her wedding (this is not a spoiler it is on the book jacket) wedding.    We are given a very detailed and fascinating look at the Chinese concept of the underworld.   We see the various torments the deceased must go through depending on how they have lived.   Peony is able to watch her families lives go on without her.  (For better or worse this part of the book reminded me in its point of view of Lovely Bones by Alice Sebold though the afterlife in Lovely Bones is just set out in a bare bones way.)   Peony watches her family go on without her.   She wanders as a ghost for a long time.    She bonds after a period of hatred with the woman her beloved does eventually marry.    There are a lot of very good details in Peony in Love and we learn a lot about how marriages among the nobility worked out.    We learn of politics in the period and we she her shock when her father goes to work for the Manchu dynasty even though he had sworn life long loyalty to the emperor the Manchus overthrow.    We experience the carnage of warfare on the civilian population in 17th century China.   We get a detailed look at daily life and come to understand class structure.  We see what people eat.    Any lover of books will cringe in horror when they see what her mother does to Peony's beloved books at the advise of a doctor.   We also learn a lot about women writers in 17th century China.

I think I may have "overdosed" a bit on Lisa See in reading three of her three historical novels back to back.   The novels can be described as grim.   Of course the times were hard and women were valued only as they could bear sons and serve men.   I do endorse the reading of all three of her historical novels for anyone who enjoys novels set in Asia (as I do).   I think you should read first novel set in the period that interests you most, Shanghai Girls from 1935 to 1965, Snow Flower and the Secret Fan set in mid-19th century and Peony in Love in the 17th century.   If I did not dislike the ending of Shanghai Girls I would say it is my favorite one.    Peony in Love is being made into a movie.  

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

"The Overcoat" by Nikolai Gogol

"The Overcoat" by Nikolai Gogol 1842-translated by Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky, 1999)-Published in The Collected Tales of Nikolai Gogol-30 pages

After having finished Villette and with some ambitious reading projects coming in April ( Parade's End Read Along, the Read Along of the Brothers Karamazov being hosted by Dolce Bellezzza, and a commitment to post on Zola's Germinal for the Classics Circuit) I decided I would try to read some short odds and ends in the next week or so.  


I began to look over my shelves to see what I had on hand that might work.    I have seen some very lauding posts on Dead Souls by Nikolai Gogol recently.     Vladimir Nabokov is often used as an authority figure on literary excellence.   Here is what he says about "The Overcoat" in his Lectures on Russian Literature


Steady Pushkin, matter-of-fact Tolstoy, restrained Chekhov have all had their moments of irrational insight which simultaneously blurred the sentence and disclosed a secret meaning worth the sudden focal shift. But with Gogol this shifting is the very basis of his art, so that whenever he tried to write in the round hand of literary tradition and to treat rational ideas in a logical way, he lost all trace of talent. When, as in the immortal The Overcoat, he really let himself go and pottered on the brink of his private abyss, he became the greatest artist that Russia has yet produced.
Nabokov is very nearly or is in fact saying "The Overcoat" is the best Russian literary work ever produced and by extension the best ever produced at all.  

"The Overcoat" is set in St Petersburg (called Petersburg in the story) Russian in the early 1840s.    The story centers on  minor government clerk,  Akaky Akakievich Bashmachkin, a copier of documents.    (It is hard for us to relate but there was a vast amount of work to be done in copying government documents in the days before Xerox.   Those who did this work were called Scriviners.    Melville wrote about them in his incredible story, "Bartleby the Scriviner" and  the father in Dickens A Christmas Carol was one.).    The work was very boring and thankless.   Akaky seems to be in his forty's around, he has no wife or children, no friends, and he lives in a room in a modest boarding house in a run down part of St Petersburg.    Gogol does a superb job bringing him fully to life for us in just a few paragraphs.   (Akaky if alive today would be sitting in a cubicle working for a giant corporation, doing work he hated for people that had contempt for him.)   One very cold day he decides he wants an overcoat, keeping in mind he lives in a horribly cold place where a good coat could mean the difference between life and death.    He goes to the shop of a very good tailor near him.     As he walks the streets Gogol describes for us the conditions that exist.   "The Overcoat" is very attuned to the class differences in Czarist Russia and the economic disparities of the times.   Akaky finds out the coat he wants costs an amount equal to about twenty five percent of his annual pay.    He has been saving money a little bit at a time for years by eating cheap meals and not really heating his room so he has half of the money saved up.     He knows he is getting his annual bonus at work and that will almost cover the cost of the coat.    We feel his sense of excitement as he orders the coat and also his fear in spending all his savings on an overcoat.    The overcoat is way above the quality of coat a man of his station should have.  (It is as if the lowest paid worker at a huge firm came to work in his own private limo, almost).   Everyone at his work is in awe of his new overcoat and we must assume under their masks of happiness for him that most are terribly jealous.    His supervisor decides to throw a party for him in honor of the new coat.    Akaky is not a social person at all and he feels very out of place and awkward at the party.    On his way home from the party he is mugged and his coat is stolen.     Akaky is given the name of a high ranking general by one of his coworkers and told to go to this man and tell him what happened.     The general is a man with a very bloated sense of his imnportance, a strict believer in formalities.    Akaky has never been in the presence of such an exalted personage before and he does not know how to act.    The general is outraged that Akaky has brought this to him petty matter to his attention rather than to a person way down in the ranks who would possibly refer it up the ladder for review.     The general explodes in an enraged diatribe of abuse on Akaky for daring to waste his time and Akaky runs out feeling lucky not to receive a beating.    Shortly after this, I imagined it brought on by wandering the streets without a cold in the Russian winter, he catches some sort of illness and shortly after dies.    Other than by his land lady clearing out his room he is forgotten.   Gogol's account of the items left in Akaky's room are very poignant and at least match anything in Dickens for summing up a life in a few artifacts.     His ghost begins to roam the streets, creating a lot of fear among the local population as he steals overcoats from a lot of people.    I will tell no more of  the plot but the ending is kind of a satisfactory one and revenge of a sort is acheived.

I really liked this story and I do find it difficult to explain its real power.   It takes us deeply into the minds of the people we encounter.   We know exactly how Akaky feels.    He is anyone who has ever tried to deal with a mindless government, to figure out how to live on just enough money to get along barely.   "The Overcoat" is a forerunner of "magic realism".    There is no one to admire in this tale.    It has the humor of a grim, cold, nasty world where your life can be lost over nothing.    It is really a vicious attack on society in Russia in the 1840s.   There are no noble peasants in this work.    There no are reflections on the great ideas of life, no revelations achieved.     "The Overcoat" is funny in the asides, the small observations of the self-conscious narrator and in the social satire.    In a post on a collection of short stories by Haruki Murakimi I said that I found short stories somehow unsatisfying as they do not construct complete alternative worlds for the reader to enter into.    In "The Overcoat" there is a complete world.   We know what it is like to walk the streets on the poor side of St Petersburg.   We can get inside the mind of the characters in this book.    A lot of readers feel the central character is them in a meaningless job in a world without values.   Nabokov admired literature that took us out of our comfort zone, that plays with notions of reality, and that has the power to change how we see the world.      I


I am reading this in conjuction with the LuAnn's Spring into Short Stories Reading Challenge.    I am planning to periodically do posts on short stories and am open for suggestions as to the world's best short stories.


Monday, March 22, 2010

"Villette" by Charlotte Bronte

Villette by Charlotte Bronte (1853, 656 pages-Vintage Press)

Villette is the story of Lucy Snow who we first meet at age 14 living in the house of her god mother, Mrs Bretton in rural England.   Villette is about what happens to her in the next nine years.   I tried to check Amazon.com sales ratings on Jane Eyre sales versus Villette without luck but my guess is for every twenty people that reads Jane Eyre, one reads Villette.  (Virginia Wolff considered Villette to be Charlotte's master work.)   If I were to guess why I would say it is  because Villette does not have the powerful romance between the central female character and a man with many layers to his character as we do find in Jane Eyre.   I read some goodreads.com posts on then novel after completing it and some did complain that Villette is annoying in its use French in some of the conversations (translation in footnotes or brackets would be nice!) and some found the vocabulary too difficult.    I just told myself  Tolstoy does the same thing in War and Peace and did not worry overly much about the conversations in French.

I think the quality of  much of the writing in Villette is a good bit higher than in Jane Eyre and that is saying a very lot.   Villette is narrated by Lucy and she is an unreliable narrator both by her own intentions as well as by the limits of her perceptions and self knowledge.   The story is told self consciously as a written story to the reader down to the "dear reader" remarks and Lucy purposely misleads the reader at times as she is embarrassed or reticent to reveals some of her thoughts as she feels they maybe viewed as indecorous.

Lucy has to leave England at a relatively young age because of an unexplained by her family tragedy.   She takes ship to France and ends up in Villette.   Villette is said to be based on  a city in Belgium.   Speaking no French Lucy gets a job at boarding school for girls from well off families run by Mrs Beck.    I have to say the sections of Villette in Volume One set in Mrs Becks school were just a pure delight to read.   Those portions of Villette are for sure better done than anything in Jane Eyre.    The school sequences in Villette are to me as least as convincing as the schools in any Dickens novel.    The character of Mrs Beck is perfectly done.   We see deeply into her through the perceptions of a 20 year old woman looking at woman at least twice as old with much more experience of the world.   Lucy starts out working for Mrs Beck as the companion for Mrs Beck young children and later as she learns French is promoted to instructor in the school.   Most of the students are from wealthy families and  Charlotte Bronte has done a great job making  the pupils come to life for us.   Some of the students we really like and some are spoiled brats of the worst order!    

I loved the chapter of  Villette devoted to Lucy's first day in the class room.    The students sense she is very nervous and unsure of herself.    Some try to be nice but many enjoy the idea of rattling the new teacher (who they know to be of a social class quite below that of  themselves).    One of the girls seems to be near psychotic and begins to stand up and yell and scream at Lucy challenging her in every way.    I laughed out loud when I saw how Lucy handled her ( I do not want to say what happened as it is just so much fun).   Lucy grows about a foot taller that day!  


Life goes on in the school and we get to know some of the other teachers, maids, cooks, a local doctor and even some of the parents of the children.   One of the fathers of a student sees what a good teacher and person Lucy is after his daughter tells him all about her that he offers her three times her current salary to become the private tutor of his daughter at his grand estate.   The power of the ethics and depth of personality of Lucy come through when she explains why she feels she must remain at the school.    

As Volume Two (there are three volumes) of the book opens we enter a new phase of Lucy's life.   The plot does begin to take some perhaps convoluted turns.    A Gothic element is introduced in the form of a mysterious nun who may be either an apparition or the result of a minor break down on the part of Lucy.   The suggestion is that the nun may be either a real ghost returned from the grave or a projection of the repressed sexuality awaking in the psyche  of Lucy.    Lucy has two romantic interests though it takes her a long time to figure things out and it seems to me she may have made the wrong choose and not know it (yet-she is only 23 when the novel ends).    I do not want to reveal to much of the plot and the love stories as it is fun to see them develop.    I do think Bronte has increased  the depth of her portrayals of characters since her first novel, Jane Eyre, especially of the female characters.    In terms of male characters, the characters of Lucy's loves are sketched in a very subtle fashion.   One of the powers of the use of  Lucy as unreliable narrator is it forces the reader to see others through her perceptions and work from there to the reality of others in the novel.   The characterization of the men in Villette seems more subtle than that in Jane Eyre but many will long for a powerful male lead and not find it here.   Jane Eyre is more an action packed novel than Villette.    An awful lot of Villette is taken up with very exacting observations on small events around the school.    To me these portions of Villette were a pure joy to read and flawless in every way.    Lucy Snow is a good English Protestant and she is not comfortable in the Catholic atmosphere of the school and France.   I do not, others disagree, see this as anti-Catholic rhetoric, it is just the perceptions of a woman with really very little experience of the world who sees Catholics as exotic near pagans!.    Her prejudice to me comes across as more amusing and I sense no hate in her attitude and I can see her out growing it.  

I am sure that portions of Villette are truly great.     As  to the question is it better than Jane Eyre, I really think any one seriously interested in the Brontes, the Victorian Novel, women writers or just a lover of quality novels owes to themselves to  read all seven of the Bronte novels, at the most around 3000 pages. 
I think I need to reflect a bit more about the device of the mysterious nun in Villette.   Sometimes the nun seemed like a contrived plot element to add excitement to the book (Gothic novels very big at the time) and I am not sure I totally liked as a plot device what the nun in fact turned out to be.  I have three more Bronte novels to go in my personal challenge to read all of novels in 2010.    I will next plunge into what many say is the deepest part of the Bronte Ocean, Wuthering Heights

Villette is about loneliness, longing to belong, about a young woman growing up alone and making her own way in the world and a novel of growth.   We can see all  this as Lucy's perception of things deepen.   I think this is part of the power of the narrative mode of the novel.
There is a very perceptive review of the Villette at English Major's Junk Food

I also recommend highly Judy's comments on Villete at Cover to Cover

Amateur Reader of Wuthering Expectations  has some very insightful remarks on Villette

I am reading this novel for these challenges:

Chunksters (now completed)
Typically British
Mutual Reads (Victorian Era novels)
All About the Brontes Challenge (6 of 6 for second level)
The Gothic Novel Challenge.


I would like to hear from other Villette readers as to their feeling about the Gothic elements of the novel.   My Thanks to Laura for hosting The All About the Brontes Challenge for hosting this challenge.   I am enjoying all the great reviews that it is producing.  

Sunday, March 21, 2010

"Blind Willow, Sleeping Woman" by Haruki Murakami

Blind Willow, Sleeping Woman by Haruki Murakami (trans by Philip Gabriel and Jay Rubin, 2006, 362 pages)


Blind Willow, Sleeping Woman is a collection of short stories that were originally published from 1981 to 2005.     A number of the stories were first published in translation in the New Yorker magazine.   I am not normally drawn to collections of short stories.    I was asking myself why.   I think the basic answer for me and a lot of others is that I like to be drawn into another world when I read and the vehicle of the short story is not, for me, conducive to this most of the time.   When I do read a good short story I enjoy it and I tell myself I should read more.    With this in mind I recently acquired Blind Willow, Sleeping Woman, a collection of short stories in a book trade.   None of the stories in Blind Willow, Sleeping Woman are over 25 pages long and some are much shorter.    In my readings of Japanese literature I have not begun really to read much of Murakami's work.    He is  widely considered a writer of great quality as well as an entertainer of the highest order and were it not for the fact that two Japanese authors have won since WWII many think he would be in line for a Nobel Prize.    Basically you cannot say that you have begun to know the post war Japanese novel until you have read most of his work.  

I read half the stories in this collection and will read the rest one a time as the year goes on.   Each of the stories is unique and are set in modern Japan or at least begin there.   Murakami does a good job in bringing to life the characters in the stories in the short space he has to do it.

 A very typical story and one I liked a lot was "Man Eating Cats" (19 pages).    It centers on a man and woman, college educated young corporate employee sorts, both married who begin an adulterous affair with each other.    Their passion for each other does not seem deep and the affair seems motivated almost  out of boredom.    In time through unlucky accidents each of the spouses finds out about the affair and their marriages and lives are ruined.    The couple decide if they pool their money they can live for about three years without income.   After some research they decide the best place for them to move to (they want to escape their shame) is to a small Greek island, off the tourist track.    While there the male partner reads an article in an Athens newspaper about a 70 year old woman who lived with a number of cats.    The woman dies alone in her apartment and her body is not found for weeks.   In the mean time her starving cats had begun to eat her body.    The man comes to see this as metaphor for his life.   He feels his life has been thrown away for nothing, any future to live a good life beyond mere subsistence was destroyed by his adultery, done just because he could do it.   Here is the ending of the story:

I returned to the apartment and downed a glass of brandy.  I tried to go to sleep but I could not.  Until the eastern sky grew light, I was held in the grip of the moon.   Then suddenly I pictured those cats, starving to death in a locked apartment.   I, the real me, was dead, and they were alive, eating my flesh, biting into my heart, sucking my blood.   Far away,  I could hear them lapping at my brains.   Like Macbeth's witches, the three little cats surrounded by broken head, slurping up the thick soup inside.    The rough tips of their tongues licked the soft folds of my mind.   And with each lick, my consciousness flickered like a flame and faded away.
In most of the stories we are introduced to ordinary people.    We get to know them a bit then we  begin to see their lives are not so ordinary.    Seemingly small decisions change  the courses of the characters lives in ways they cannot quite fathom.    The introduction of the element of "magic realism" found in Murakami's longer works is found here in several of the stories.    It might be seen as the attempt of people to make sense of their lives by creating their own myths and  using personal magic to explain to themselves elements of their lives that make sense no  any  other way.

The stories I read in the collection were all well done, all entertaining and all made me think.    I hope to read Wild Sheep Chase, Kafka on the Shore, and  The Wild Bird Chronicles soon.

I am reading this book for the POC challenge (now completed with 15 books-I will continue to read for it)
I am also reading this in conjunction with Murakami Month on In the Spring it is The Dawn


I would appreciate any and all suggestions as to my next Murakami read.   I have already read Dance, Dance, Dance and After Dark





Friday, March 19, 2010

"The Broken Tower: The Life of Hart Crane" by Paul Mariani

The Broken Tower:   The Life of Hart Crane by Paul Mariani (1999, 492 pages)
Hart Crane (1899 to 1932) is a poet much more know about than read.   In many ways he is the very embodiment of the public image of a gay poet burning himself out in a short life.     His life story is almost a complete stereotype with a domineering father who sneered at his efforts at poetry and over indulgent mother who he adored.    He came to dislike the very idea of marriage through watching the bitter fights of his parents.   He loved alcohol, reading, Melville, Mexico, The Brooklyn bridge, New York City  and sailors.    Some see him as a great poet ranking right below Whitman, Shelley and Yeats.    Others see him as striving for the Orphic depth through a mask of obscurity and   a best half digested sense of history who overreached for his rhymes.   He saw himself as a tragic figure.    He devoted huge energies to finding ways not to have to work.    He received fellowships of various sorts and lived for a while as the companion of a very wealthy devotee.    He destroyed all of these relationships and seemingly never saw any role he might have had in his problems.    

Paul Mariani has done a wonderful job bringing Hart to life for us.    We feel his father's oppression but we also can see his frustration.  (The father was in the candy business.   He created the Life Saver candy but sold the patent for a small amount just before the candy became very popular.)     We see what Cleveland, where Hart grew up,  meant to him and get a look at gay life there in the 1920s.    We see his inability to mature into a self responsible adult.   We come to see why Hart loved New York City so much.     We get a very good look at the gay literary scene in NYC in the 1920s.    I did come to wonder if part of the success of Hart did come from patronage by wealthy fans who some how enjoyed a proximity to Crane.   Crane was many things but he was never dull.    He stayed for a brief period in Ford Madox Ford's Paris apartment (They had a mutual friend in  Alan Tate).   Hart ended up in a terrible fight (he often got beaten up by the men he picked up on his night crawls) and spent a few days in a jail in Paris.   Mariani even details the rat bites Crane received in that jail.


Mariani (professor at the University of Massachusetts and author of several highly regarded literary biographies) has an attitude of near worship toward Crane.    He sees him as kind of Orphic poet who found deep wisdom not available to more conventional academic poets like T S Eliot.   Crane's most famous poem is  his  The Bridge, an  epic on the history of America.    Crane's poetry is filled with images that can easily be seen as allusions to homo-erotic activity.    The question that dominated my reading of   The Broken Tower:   The Life of Hart Crane was "Could a straight Hart Crane who worked as an executive in his father's candy business written the poems he did as a hobby on the side?"    No screams out at me as the only answer.   Hart saw him self as a genius persecuted for his homosexuality in most quarters though he clearly used it to his advantage in dealings with some wealthy patrons.    Crane needed to feel he was Orpheus descending into the underground and coming back to tell those in the upper world of the visions he had seen.    His underground was the rough gay bars of N Y City and Paris.     He does not seem to have really had a partner that was near his intellectual or social equal.    Crane loved to roam the streets of NYC looking for  encounters.  Crane saw himself as a tragic figure and his sexual orientation and the problems it caused him seem central to this.    

Crane died by jumping of a cruise ship in the Gulf of Mexico at age 32 after a sever beating by a group of sailors.    Here is part of his poem, "The Broken Tower":


The bells, I say, the bells break down their tower;
And swing I know not where. Their tongues engrave
Membrane through marrow, my long-scattered score
Of broken intervals… And I, their sexton slave!

Oval encyclicals in canyons heaping
The impasse high with choir. Banked voices slain!
Pagodas campaniles with reveilles out leaping-
O terraced echoes prostrate on the plain!…
I read a good bit of his poetry on line as I was reading the book.  I tried to find some striking lines to quote.   I could not really find any.    Crane celebration of the Brooklyn Bridge as the symbol of America seems terribly dated, his use of the Indian Princess Pocahontas seems near silly to us now and his culture seems shallow.    Mariani suggests that Hart was widely and deeply read in the classics and in modern poetry.   I at times wonder if Mariani's judgment was not clouded by his obvious love of Hart as the allusions in his poetry seem forced.   Some see Crane as a poet prosecuted for his life style and a man who had his potential tragically cut short.   I see him as poet whose work was stimulated by this very persecution and without it he would never have written the works he did.    I wonder would a Hart Crane who died in his 70s, fat and without the beauty of youth, still be read or even remembered.    I commend 100 percent The Broken Tower:  The Life of Hart Crane, it is very detailed, very well documented, full of interesting information about the greats and 3rd rates of the NYC and Paris literary world.   Maybe Mariani is over reaching in his admiration for Crane's poetry (or maybe I just dismiss any poetry that does not compare well to W B Yeats and Whitman) but his book really is a great literary biography.   I closed the book feeling I knew Hart Crane and had learned a good bit about the literary scene in NYC in the 1920s.   I also felt the book gives us a very balanced look at how Hart's sexual orientation shaped his poetry.  


I am reading this for the GLBT challenge and the Chunkster Challenge

Mel u

Thursday, March 18, 2010

"Parade's End" and the Ford Madox Ford Page 99 Test

While reading  Amateur Reader's blog, Wuthering Expectations yesterday I came upon a post on the so called page 99 test  devised by Ford Madox Ford.  (Link above).    The basic idea is you open a book to the 99th page.   You then read the first purely discursive paragraph and the quality of prose there can be taken as representative of the quality of the prose of the work as a whole.  This was sort of meant as a pre-read test for a novel new to you.  Ford Madox Ford  (1873 to 1939) had a great influence on the literature of England in the period from 1915 or so up to his death.     Wikipedia sums it up well:
In 1908, he founded The English Review, in which he published Thomas Hardy, H. G. Wells, Joseph Conrad, Henry James, John Galsworthy and William Butler Yeats, and gave debuts to Wyndham Lewis, D. H. Lawrence and Norman Douglas. In 1924, he founded The Transatlantic Review, a journal with great influence on modern literature. Staying with the artistic community in the Latin Quarter of Paris, France, he made friends with James Joyce, Ernest Hemingway, Gertrude Stein, Ezra Pound and Jean Rhys, all of whom he would publish (Ford is the model for the character Braddocks in Hemingway's The Sun Also Rises). Known in his role as critic for the statement "Open the book to page ninety-nine and read, and the quality of the whole will be revealed to you." In a later sojourn in the United States, he was involved with Allen Tate, Caroline Gordon, Katherine Anne Porter and Robert Lowell (who was then a student). Despite his deep Victorian roots, Ford was always a champion of new literature and literary experimentation. He had an affair with Jean Rhys, which ended bitterly
(By coincidence (?) I am now nearly done with The Broken Tower:  The Life of Hart Crane by Paul Mariani, a brilliant wonderful literary biography I will post on soon.    It turns out that while in Paris Hart  stayed for a while in the  apartment of Ford through the courtesy of their mutual friend, Alan Tate.) 

I am attempting to host a read along on Parade's End, a tetralogy set in dealing with WWI and the immediate after years starting on April 1, 2010.   I am very happy that some have shown an interest in joining in.   There will be no rigid rules, deadlines, schedules etc just like minded people reading the same book around the same time and reading and hopefully talking about each others posts.


I decided to apply the "page 99" test to  Parade's End, using the Penguin Press Edition of the work.


The 99th page test of the first section, Some Do Not (I started the count not with the page numbers but with the page count) found this:


She pushes her daughter out of her seat, and moving around besides the young man, she overwhelmed him with vociferous love.  As Tietjens had turned to speak to Mrs Duchemin she had recognized his aquiline profile as exactly that of her father at her own wedding breakfast.  To the table that knew it by heart--though Tietjens himself didn't--she recited the story of how his father had saved her life and was her mascot.   And she offered the son-for to the father she had never been allowed to make any return-her house, her purse, her time, her all.  
There is a way of life depicted in this short paragraph.    We have to be active in reading it.   What does it mean to have it declared that your father was the mascot of Mrs Duchemin?    It is overwhelming in its understatement and portrays action in a wonderful way.   We imagine the shock of all when Mrs Duchemin jumps up!    It evokes a world where ties matter, where people talked in complete sentences, where history mattered and where a woman could quite plausibly look at a man and have the thought go through her mind that his profile was "aquiline".   In the second to the last line most writers would say "To the father", where Ford's use of "For to" does make the reader see this had become in the mind of Mrs Duchemin and those in her immediate circle a kind of personal epic tale.   "For to the father"  is from an epic or at the very least a fairy tale brought to life in the retelling over and over.   In a way, the paragraph is about a dying empire in the form of a legacy that will never be passed on.

In reading The Good Soldier I learned that you must keep your wits fully about you in reading Ford.   The seeming meaning of a line on page 22 may be quite undercut by a revelation 100 pages further in.    There are layers of irony and feints to delight and prose as refined as it comes to   savor while  on a verandah contemplating what drink you wish to be brought to you while trying to forget about the war to end all wars.

In my own mind I have a test for greatness in a literary work.    (I have several but this is one I developed while reading the work of the great early 20th century Japanese novelists Natsume Soseki)-I call it the "Soseki test":

The pleasure we gain from a Noh play springs not from any skill at presenting the raw human feeling of the everyday world but from clothing feeling as it is in layer upon layer of art, and in a kind of slowed serenity of deportment not found in the real world.
(I have read a number of the great Japanese novelists in the last six months.  The Good Soldier reminds me of the work of Junichiro Tanizaki in that the smallest line may seemingly  destroy our understanding of all we have read and if we are not careful we will miss the point.     In my opinion, one of the uses of literary art is to teach us to see that there is no quite fixed social reality, it is all interwoven tales.     I will be, among other things, applying The Soseki test to Parade's End.   

I invite all interested parties to read along with us starting April 1.   Read at your own pace.   All I really ask is that one place at least a comment on my blog when you post or have some thoughts on the work so we can all join in.   This is my first time attempting such a project.   I hope, of course, lots of  readers will join in or at least read the posts.  (I promise not to write a long commentary on every paragraph!)


Mel u


Monday, March 15, 2010

"The Street of a Thousand Blossoms" by Gail Tsukiyama

The Street of  a Thousand Blossoms  by Gail Tsukiyama (2007, 422 pages)

The Street of a Thousand Blossoms is the most recent novel by Gail Tsukiyama.    She has written a total of six novels,  mostly historical novels set in the World War II era in China or Japan.   She was born in San Francisco.   Her mother is of Chinese ancestry, her father Japanese.   

The Street of a Thousand Blossoms is set in Tokyo.   It begins in 1939 and ends  in 1966.   It is the story of the lives of  two  orphaned brothers living on The Street of a Thousand Blossoms.   We see their lives develop from the horrible days of World War II, through the seven years of the occupation of Japan by the Americans up to the beginning of Japan's period of great prosperity.    

The brothers, Hiroshi and Kenji live with their grandparents in a part of Tokyo quite removed from the city center.    They feel the war in terms of growing shortages of food and collections of their personal goods for the war efforts.   (Pots and pans for bullets and wood furniture for building material and fuel are among the items collected.)   One minor but quite despicable character is in charge of these "voluntary" donations.   To refuse to donate is seen as very unpatriotic and could get you reported.   Somehow the person in charge of the collections of these donations on The Street of a Thousand Blossoms keeps getting richer and richer while others around him get thinner by the day.    Even after Japan begins to be subject to very heavy bombing by the Americans the area where the brothers live is undisturbed.   People in the area say it because the region is  remote and has no targets of military or economic import, just wooden houses.    The attitude of the people toward the war is one almost of bewilderment.   Everyday they hear in the media of how Japan is triumphing over the allies.   People begin to realize that the war has nothing to do with the interests of the ordinary Japanese but no one can come out and say this without the risk of the secret police.    Then the inevitable happens and a massive incendiary raid hits their neighborhood.    Life goes on.    Kenji walking the streets one day as an early teen finds a shop of a master carver of Noh masks.    He is completely fascinated by this and begins to work for free in the shop, cleaning up and such.     He develops a life long passion for designing these masks.   One of the very interesting aspects of the book for me was learning about the creation of Noh masks and their place in Japanese culture. The other brother, Hiroshi, develops an interest in becoming a sumo wrestler.    The books focuses well on the day to day lives of people and seeing how history plays out in the background.    As we advance into the years of American occupation (1945 to 1952) we see Japan still very traumatized by the war but things begin to get better.    Both of the brothers are able to pursue their passions.    The people on The Street of a Thousand Blossoms were continually indoctrinated to believe the attacks of the Americans on Japan were an unprovoked attack on a peaceful country.   Americans were portrayed as savage barbarians.    The people on The Street of a Thousand Blossoms hate the occupying Americans and see them as huge monsters.   I thought this was a very honest portrayal of their attitudes.  (As I read it I could not help but imagine how a Japanese occupation of a defeated America, the Germans had told them they could occupy the west coast of a defeated USA, would have compared to the American treatment of the defeated Japanese.)

As  time progresses  we learn what the life of an apprentice Sumo wrestler was like.   We see Kenji begin to master the art of Noh mask creation.   A lot of things happen in the brothers' lives and we get a good feel for the passage of Japan from a defeated nearly starving nation to a very prosperous country.   We can see how this happens in the novel's portrayal of the commitment of the brothers to their crafts and the very strong work ethic displayed by the characters in the novel.

On the cover of my copy of the book there is a quote from Lisa See, author of Shanghai Girls and Snow Flower and the Secret Fan.  (I have reviewed both of these set in China historical novels recently)   See says Tsukiyama has given us a peek into the lives of those living on the home front in Japan in WWII:

She has long been known for her emotional and detailed stories.   This time she has gone even deeper to explore what happens to ordinary people during frightening and tragic times.
The flow of events in The Street of a Thousand Blossoms is a bit slower than in the works of Lisa See and there are not so many terrible events in the forefront of the story.    The characterization maybe is a bit better in the work of Lisa See but we do care about and get to know well both of the brothers in The Street of a Thousand Blossoms.     I do not have a clear preference for the work of one of these authors over the other.  Both make very good use of detail to allow us to enter into the past.    I could see some seeing Lisa See's novels as more exciting and I could also see a justification for saying Lisa See makes use of constant turns of events and melodrama to keep us interested where Tsukiyama creates a more vivid world out of a mass of small details and does not rely on constant exciting events to keep us interested.    I would really endorse both of these authors to those who enjoy historical novels set in Asia (as I do).   For those interested in learning about the post WWII experience from a Japanese point of view One Man's Justice by Akira Yoshimura is a superlative work.

I will read other works by Tsukiyama.      I am surprised that her work is not more often blogged about.  Dolce Bellezza has a very good post on The Street of a Thousand Blossoms.   At the end of the book there is an interesting interview with the author and a set of  reading group questions.   Of her work I think I will next read The Samurai's Garden, also set in WWII Japan.   I will start read Peony in Love by Lisa See today.

I am reading this work for the POC challenge.


Mel u