Short Stories, Irish literature, Classics, Modern Fiction, Contemporary Literary Fiction, The Japanese Novel, Post Colonial Asian Fiction, The Legacy of the Austro-Hungarian Empire and quality Historical Novels are Among my Interests

Monday, November 30, 2009

"The Club Dumas" by Arturo Perez-Reverte

I first heard of The Club Dumas Arturo Perez-Reverte (1993-translated from Spanish by Sonia Soto-362 pages) when I read all the blurbs the publisher had included in the pages before the title in Shadow of the Wind by Carlos Ruiz Zafon.   The quote from The Washington Post says that if you liked Club Dumas then you will like Shadow in the Wind.   After reading this I did a search on The Club Dumas.   It is about the adventures of a book finder who seeks out books for wealthy collectors.   (Sort of like the father in The Thirteenth Tale that I recently read.)   I never made any effort to find a copy of The Club Dumas, it did sound sort of interesting in that the characters were all supposed to be great readers, as I had other reading priorities.

Last week I was browsing in a local book store looking for Japanese novels and a new to me Atwood and I saw The Club Dumas and I bought it.
There is a genre of literature called "chick lit".   I do not use this term normally as I do not like the expression.   The Club Dumas   then sort of falls in the category of bookish boy's lit.   The characters in the novel are all very into the works of Alexandre Dumas, mainly The Three Musketeers.   There are several female characters in the book.   They all seem to find a man who can recite the plot of The Three Musketeers completely impossible to resist and have nearly to be restrained from removing their clothes at the sight of a musty old French novel no one out side of The Sorbonne would ever have heard about.   One of the women is a kind of Nordic looking Anna Nicole Smith widow whose wealthy much older husband hung himself under mysterious circumstances.   The book dealer came to visit her as her husband had a very valuable book collection as we are told book collections are normally sold very soon after the collector dies.   It turns out the widow is very into old books herself.   In the mind of the book dealer, the widow is having problems controlling herself  in his presence.   We are given references also to a lot of occult knowledge, burning candles in the middle of pentagrams type stuff.   Of course this sort of occult knowledge is central to the bookish boy's genre and plays right into his  fantasy world.    The book dealer later will establish a relationship with a beautiful eighteen year old woman who is also dazzled by his erudition and knowledge of occult lore.

I know all this makes The Club Dumas  seem a bit silly and it is in fact more than a bit silly.    Having conceded this it is also kind of fun.  (Here I am acknowledging that at 12 or so I was a very bookish boy who thought The Count of Monte Cristo was the height of culture).   I think if you pushed this book and analyzed it closely it might well fall apart.   The occult information conveyed is pretty shallow and could be learned by watching some vampire type TV shows. The female characters are pure bookish boy fantasy stereotypes.    There are a lot of comments about books and the  reading life of the characters,  some of which are interesting.  We also learn somethings about old books as regards their physical properties.   The book is ok  escapist reading for bookish boys and those who used to be a bookish boy.   I think if I were in an airport and had forgotten to bring a book with me and saw another book by Perez-Reverte in the newsstand and could not find anything else to buy I would buy another of his books.   The ratings on go from those who thought it was pretty much completely silly to those who felt it was a really interesting and intelligent look into a world most of us know little about.   The plot action does have a lot of twists and turns.   I did not find any of the characters interesting.   I liked Shadow of the Wind and The Angel's Game much more than The Club Dumas  but I was able to finish it.   I am glad I satisfied my curosity in reading this book  but I do not see it being liked by a lot of readers of my blog.  

Mel u

Sunday, November 29, 2009

"Hiroshima Notes" by Kenzaburo Oe

Hiroshima Notes by Kenzaburo Oe (trans. from Japanese by David Swain and Toshi Yenezawa, 1965 and translation 1981, 192 pages) is a collection of essays Oe published after making several visits to Hiroshima in 1965 to attend observations for the 20th anniversary of the dropping of the Atomic Bomb August 6, 1945.    It also includes a useful introduction by David Swain and two prefaces by Oe.

Hiroshima Notes is a deeply wise book by a man who has thought long and hard on topics most would prefer to move on from.   It is far from a bitter work.    I want  to relay few of the things in the book that stood out for me.

The survivors of the atomic bomb blasts were the very first of the Japanese people to say that the bomb blasts were the fault of the Japanese military government.   Oe feels that the dropping of the bomb was a war crime also.   My first reaction to this was to say that it saved, among other, the lives of millions of Japanese.   (I recall a few years ago I watched a movie from 1944-it was just a very minor movie and I do not recall the name.   Some English school children were looking at a future globe of the world.   They asked the teacher what the big empty space in the Pacific Ocean was.  The teacher laughed and said that was where Japan used to be.)   Oe, agree or not, is suggesting in doing this a force was turned lose on the world that could one day bring an end to human life. Never before could war do this.  It might have been that the Japanese would have surrendered facing a joint American and Russian Invasion (the Japanese knew the Russians would without hesitation send millions of their troops to be killed and that they wanted very much revenge for their defeat in the Russian Japanese Naval War).    Both the Japanese and the Germans were working on Nuclear weapons and clearly would have carpet bombed Australia and England with them and the USA if they could reach it with the planes of the day.   It is also true that the Japanese would have been defeated by nonnuclear warfare.  (I personally feel Truman did what he had to do)  In Hiroshima in 1965 there were 1000s of  women who were children when the bomb went exploded.   They survived but were so badly scarred that they began essentially life long hermits ashamed to go out in public.  No one would marry them as they were thought to be unable to give birth to a healthy child.    There were also in 1965 thousands of older women living alone who were the only survivors of their families.    Some of the young girls who survived did pray daily that no one else ever experience what they did.  Some wanted all the world to go up in a nuclear war.    The Japanese government, aided by American occupation forces, did provide medical care to survivors but they did not provide living expenses so many of the injured had to keep working to support their families so could not take treatment.

The doctors who lived in Hiroshima when the bomb exploded soon became the first authorities on the medical effects of the bomb.   They also suffered the effects.   Rates of leukemia went way up as did other forms of cancer.   Suicides went way up throughout the lives of the survivors.    Oe tells us a very moving story.   A twenty six year old man, age six when the bomb exploded, is advised he has two years to live as a result of leukemia.   He can live out his remaining time in a charity hospital ward.   He chooses to work at hard labor (he has no skills) so he can live on his own and be with his 19 year old fiance, not yet born when bomb exploded.   When he died she took an overdose of sleeping pills stating that her death was also a result of the bomb blast.   There are other equally moving stories.   We see the wisdom and power of the doctors.   We feel a little ashamed when we see different groups fight over who should run the 20 year anniversary memorial but we are also moved by seeing good people from all over the world come together.    

Oe says the greatest gift of the bombing is the wisdom of the survivors.  Oe is clearly humbled by his task of bringing their stories to life.  

The youngest survivors of the bomb are now in their middle sixties.   There are ninety year old survivors that still bear the scars.

I know I do not have the ability to convey the power of this book.   I know most people do not want to dwell on these matters.   I am pretty sure my daughters and children throughout the world can graduate from college and never be told of them by a teacher.    As I read the book, I hope this remark bothers no one, I thought that Oe was the kind of man who could have written the wisdom books of the Old Testament.   At one point he has a long conversation with an elderly woman.   He says her wisdom is so strong that she is able to live a life scarred since her middle years by the blast without a belief in any authoritarian creed.   Oe does not say  that wars are started by those who follow authoritative codes, much of his wisdom is in what he knows he cannot say.

Hiroshima Notes deeply effected me.  I felt an almost Oceanic Feeling come over me as I thought about the book and what I could attempt to say about it.

Mel u

Saturday, November 28, 2009

"Kusamakura" by Natsume Soseki

Kusamakura by Natsume Soseki (1906, trans. from Japanese 2008 by Meredith Mckinney, 146 pages) is the oldest Japanese work I have so far read.   It has recently been published as a lovely Penguin Classic in a brand new translation by Meredith Mckinney of the Japan Center in Canberra Australia.  

Nasume Soseki's (1867-1916)  most famous literary work is I Am a Cat.   He taught English Literature  at the University of Tokyo until he became a professional writer in 1908.   In addition to 14 novels he wrote a large number of haiku poems.  

Kusamakura' plot line is fairly simple.   A young artist, whose name we never learn ( I have noticed that there are a lot of unnamed persons in Japanese novels) embarks on a walk into the mountains in order to find suitable subjects for his painting.   He stays at a resort and meets the beautiful daughter of the resort owner.   He has a number of conversations with her and others people he encounters.    In the background of the story is the Japanese Russian War.   There is not a lot of "action" in Kusumakura.  The bulk of the novel consists of the thoughts of  the young artist on painting, reading, nature and beauty.

I quickly and happily discovered that the novel is very much a meditation on the reading life and a contrast of Japanese and Western Literature as seen through the eyes of the narrator.   The narrator is drawn to the finest of English poetry, Wordsworth and Shelley.   The work is almost readable as a companion to Shelley's "The Skylark" and the nature poetry of Wordsworth.

When I hear the skylark's voice, my soul grows clear and vivid within me.  It is with its whole soul that the skylarks sings, not merely with its throat.   Surely there is no expression of the soul's motion in voice more vivacious and spirited than this.   Ah, joy!   And to think these thoughts, to taste this joy, this is poetry.   Shelley's poem about the skylark immediately leaps to my mind.   I a reciting it to myself, but I can remember only two or three verses. 

The artist has reflected deeply on the role of suffering in poetry.   He reads the landscape as poetry 

I see this scenery as a picture, I read it as a set of poems.
To him the novel is of interest as you can leave yourself  behind as you read.  He sees western poetry as based largely on human affairs and preoccupied with issues right and wrong whereas

Happily in the poetry of the Orient there are works that transcend such a state
                By the eastern hedge,  I pluck crysanthemums
                 Gazing serenely out at the southern hills.
Here we have purely and simply a scene in which  the world of men is utterly cast aside and forgotten....Reading it, you get the feel that you have been washed clean of all the sweat of worldly self interest, of profit and loss, in a transcendental sense.

The narrator sees the poetry of transcendence as a necessity if Japanese literary culture is to avoid corruption by a half understood imitation of western poetry.   Soseki is writing for a small potential audience of highly cultivated people deeply into the reading life just as he was.

The pleasure we get 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.
This reinforced my security in my reinterpretation of Yukio Mishima's The Sailor Who Fell From the Sea as a drama to be seen precisely through layers of art.   If you do this, the work is a very powerful work of art, if you do not it is a silly cliched ridden novel.   Think of the deeply cultivated father in law in Some Prefer Nettles by Junichiro Tanizaki who sees the world in terms of puppet plays.

Kusamakura is densely written.   It is commonly referred to as a haiku novel.   I am a bit vague on precisely what that means and I suspect those who use that use expression do so in the knowledge  that no one will quite know what they mean but will pretend they do.   A haiku is very roughly a poem  in a fixed format replete with natural images in which thought is compressed.   That the poem may mean  different things to each reader is part of the point.  

The plot or action of the book is basically the narrator talking with people and his interior meditations on art, poetry, novels, plays, nature, painting and beauty.   He has an interest in the beautiful daughter of the owner of the inn but he simply talks to her, almost in circles.   I think he does not see her as a person so much as a figure in an internal drama.   For better or worse, if she were a plain or drab looking woman our artist would have no interest in conversing deeply with her.   We learn about the attitude of the Japanese toward their impending war with Russia.   (I could not help but flash forward to the shocked reaction at the court of Czar Nicholas when the news of the crushing defeat of the Russian navy arrived.  Nicholas made a tour of Japan prior to his marriage to Alexandra in the company of very rich young Russian nobles.  They made visits to very high class homosexual brothels-it was said the Czar only went in-the Czar was then convinced that all Japanese men were totally effeminate and did not take them seriously as opponents.  I base this on the writings of Prince Yussoupov whose autobiography is not nearly as  read  as it should be)   I could not help but think that at the great American and English Universities in 1906 there were no courses in Japanese literature.   

I completely endorse this novel to anyone interested in the development of the Japanese novel with the understanding that it is about sixty percent an interior monologue of a philosophical nature and assumes an interest in Romantic era western poetry and classical forms of Japanese literature.   It is beautifully expressed and the translation seems without jarring infelicities.   It is only 146 pages long and has an interesting introduction.   I think anyone who would start this book having read what I have written (I did a Google book blog search and this is the first post on Kusamakura ever done) about it will really like it.   

There is an excellant very recent post on In The Spring it is the Dawn by Tanabata in which she gives us some very interesting and informative background information on Natsume Soseki.   There is currently a read along on Soseki's best known work I Am a Cat on her blog.   Her blog is a great source of  reading insight and inspiration for those interested in Japanese literature and beyond.

Friday, November 27, 2009

"Teach Us To Outgrow Our Madness" by Kenzaburo Oe

Teach Us To Outgrow Our Madness by Kenzaburo Oe (1969, translated from Japanese by John Nathan 1977-50 pages) is included in the collection of the same name introduced  by John Nathan.   There are four novellas in this collection.   I have already posted on three of them.   I loved each of these works.   Kenzaburo Oe is now on my "Read everything they have written list" along with Junichiro Tanizaki and Banana Yoshimoto.

Teach Us To Outgrow Our Madness is perhaps the strangest novella in the collection and this is saying a great deal!   I was so struck by the opening few lines that I had to read them several times.

In the winter of 196-, an outlandishly fat man came close to being thrown to a polar bear bathing in a filthy pool below him and had the experience of very nearly going mad.   As a result, the fat man was liberated from the fetters of an old obsession, but the minute he found himself free  a miserable loneliness rose in him and withered his already slender spirit.   Thereupon, he resolved, for no logical cast off still another heavy restraint;  he vowed to free himself entirely and let the sky tilt if need be, and when he had taken his oath and a reckless courage was boiling in his body..he telephoned his mother in the middle of the night and said to her,   ---you give me back the manuscript you stole from me, I'm fed up, do you hear!   I have known all along what your are up to!.
As Oe has explained in his Nobel Lecture, 1994, the most important event in his adult life was the birth of a son with an incurable brain defect that would leave him severely handicapped for life.   (In this lecture Oe also talks about his literary influences, his reaction to the atomic bomb blasts,  the birth of his handicapped son and his feelings about modern Japan.   If you at all interested in Oe you really should read this speech.)

The lead character was once slender.   When his brain damaged son is born he begins to eat and eat and becomes immensely fat.   He refers over and over to his son as an "idiot".  (More than one source has verified that the Japanese term in the original text is just as  harsh a label as "idiot" is for a brain damaged person.)    I think the narrator wants to avoid hiding from himself the nature of his son's handicap.   He is being starkly honest.   The jarring nature of the word "idiot" in this context seems to be the narrator's attempt to remove the world's ability to use a label to hurt him or his son.   He becomes hugely fat in order to share a handicap with his son and to seem like an idiot to those who see him.   In a way he is telling the world he cares nothing for them.   His son also becomes very very fat.   Through his weight, the narrator has made himself handicapped and the ignorant  see him as mentally slow.   The world wants to throw him into a polar bear pit.   The narrator's father went into an extreme period of withdrawal from the world.   His mother knows why he did this and eventually the father dies as a result of this.   It is explained in the stolen manuscript.  

I am not normally into the use of the life of a writer as an artistic  explanation for his works but Oe himself has said that the birth and life of his handicapped son in the most important personal factor in shaping his work.   (The son, though never escaping his brain damage, became a very famous composer of music.   The story is explained in the Nobel Lecture.)    Teach Us To Outgrow Our Madness, like the other works in  the collection of that name, are not just stories but the direct creation of wisdom.   

I read for the 3rd time the Nobel Speech of Oe as I was writing this post.   Here is how he sees himself as a novelist.

I am one of the writers who wish to create serious works of literature which dissociate themselves from those novels which are mere reflections of the vast consumer cultures of Tokyo and the subcultures of the world at large. What kind of identity as a Japanese should I seek? W.H. Auden once defined the novelist as follows:
..., among the dust
Be just, among the Filthy filthy too,
And in his own weak person, if he can,
Must suffer dully all the wrongs of Man.
('The Novelist', 11-14)
The full text of W. H. Auden's The Novelist can be read here

Mel u

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

"The Thirteenth Tale" by Diane Setterfield

The Thirteenth Tale by Diane Setterfield (2006, 456 pages) is just a flat out wonderful book.   The announced theme of my blog is "Twenty First century books about people who read books".  The Thirteenth Tale is the epitome of such a book.   The Thirteenth Tale takes us deeply into the minds of people who love books, old English Classics like Jane Eyre, The Woman in White, Wuthering Heights, Rebecca, and The Case Book of Sherlock Holmes.

The story begins in an old bookstore run by Margaret Lee and her father.   It is the kind of book store that may soon not exist anymore.  The store owner loves books and has passed this love along to his daughter.   The mother of Margaret is disengaged from daily life.   (The reason for this is revealed in due time).   The bookstore makes little or no profit.   The income of the family comes from the father's work as a rare book finder for wealthy collectors.   Some days only three or four customers come in the shop.   The time setting of the novel is not precisely specified (in fact in the study group questions in the back of the book we are asked to guess when it took place) but it is in a time before malls, before TV,  before cell phones.    It was a time when bookstore owners and employees loved books and did not have to answer to stock holders.  If asked to guess I would say in the 1920s (in England).

The story is told in the first person by Margaret. 

The Shop itself makes next to no money.   It is a place to write and receive letters..In the opinion of our bank manager it is an indulgence, one that my father's success entitles him to.  Yet in reality-my father's reality and mine; I don't pretend reality is the same for everyone-the shop is the very heart of the affair.  It is a repository of books, a place of safety for all the volumes, once so lovingly written, that at present no one seems to want to read...And it is a place to read.   A is for Austin, B for Bronte, C for Charles and D for Dickens.
Margaret is a writer.   A writer of biographies of only slightly known figures, people who live in the shadows of the famous and fade into "profound obscurity" upon their death.   One of her biographies very much impressed Vida Winter, a beloved author of many books and a woman greatly venerated.   She has given numerous interviews detailing her life, each of them totally different from the others.    One day Margaret gets a letter from Vida Winter (she is such a formidable person that, even though fictional, I cannot bring my self to just call her "Winter").   Margaret is requested to come to her house.   When she gets there Ms Winter tells her that she wants her to write the true story of her life.

What follows is a very compelling gothic tale of the life and family of Ms Winters.   The plot action was totally compelling and had numerous great surprise twists.   Some wonderful things happen and some heart breaking ones.
We see how the reading life manifests itself in some very diverse (but also very similar) people.   Ms Winters has constructed her self into an iconic character through the internalizing of old books.   She is hiding a terrible secret, maybe we will learn it maybe we will not.   Margaret's father has used his love of books to make a living and to create a sanctuary to retreat from a troubled marriage with its own tragic story.  Margaret loves books totally.   She recasts the things she sees as if they were events in Jane Eyre.   (This aspect of the reading life is also displayed in Some Prefer Nettles by Junichiro Tanizaki and in his Arrowroot).  Margaret does not worry too much about her personal life as she knows as long as she has her books she will be ok.   Charles, an older quite well of man, plays a large role in the plot though he is not center stage very much.   Life has not gone his way.   He completely retreats into his library living in his books.  He is so caught up in The Reading Life that he more or less emerges from the library once every few months to sign some checks to keep his family going but he probably has not bathed in this period.  

The Thirteenth Tale shows a deep love of books and The Reading Life.    It is beautifully written.   The characters in the book were very real for me and I cared about each of them.   Margaret's father gave his daughter a great love of reading and a love for books.   She grew up as a reader.   The story line is just so much fun and so clever.   The Thirteenth Tale made me want to reread some books I read long ago, Jane Eyre and Wuthering Heights and read Rebecca and The Woman in White for the first time.   The Thirteenth Tale is a work of subtle and exquisite intelligence by a great story teller.    As I finished this book I had a vision of The Bronte Sisters eagerly pressing The Thirteenth Tale into the hands of Wilke Collins who will advise Arthur Conan Doyle that he has found a mystery that would challenge Sherlock Holmes.   The book does have some darker elements and it requires your attention as there are a lot of twists and turns in the plot.  

I endorse this book without any reservations at all.   It is Ms Setterfield's first novel.   I hope there are many more.  

Mel u

Monday, November 23, 2009

"The Almost Moon" by Alice Sebold

The Almost Moon is Alice Sebold's second novel (2007, 319 pages).    I read her first novel Lovely Bones in early July 2009, just before I began my blog.   Like almost everyone, I really liked Lovely Bones, her first novel.   I thought the point of view from which the story is told was very creative, the characters were well done and I was kept very interested by the story line.  I look forward to the movie.

Recently in a local book store I saw a huge stack of her second novel, Almost Moon on sale at 80 percent off the cover prize.   I like to follow an author if I like their first novel so I bought it and now have read it.

When the opening sentence of a novel is

When it was all said and done, killing my mother came easily
you pretty much know the book will not be a laugh riot and this for sure was not.

Sunday, November 22, 2009

"Shamela" by Henry Fielding

Shamela (1741) is Henry Fielding's biting and hilarious response to Pamela (1740) by Samuel Richardson.   Fielding, most famous as the author of Tom Jones and Joseph Andrews published this work under the name Conny Keyber and in fact never acknowledged authorship but it was from the start known to be his work.  

Pamela, told in epistolary fashion, is the story of a young country maid whose master continually makes many improper advances on her.   We see her attempts to ward of his advances and her virtue is eventually rewarded by her  marriage to her master. We also see her  transformation to an upper class wife.  Throughout the work Pamela is seen as a complete innocent, utterly naive in the ways of the world.

Pamela  was   extolled as an account of how virtuous young ladies should deport themselves.    It has been widely condemned by some as suggesting the women are simply commodities who lose their value when they lose their virginity.   The master is clearly a near rapist exploiting his position of power to abuse Pamela.   Other than his money, he seems a completely despicable person.

In Shamela (44 pages) we learn from the letters Shamela writes her mother that this was not quite how things were.   Shamela (that is revealed to be the real  name of Pamela) completely plans it all out.   She wears clothing designed to flatter her figure.    She allows the master to kiss her breasts while she fends him off by so inadvertently pushing him away with her hands in a way calculated to inflame him  even more.   Of course a simple country girl like Shamela is deeply humialated by all this and it is not her fault if her hands went astray during the encounter.  After all a simply country girl like Shamela did not realize  the master might somehow be more inflamed by this accident than reproached by it.

Here is some of the maternal advice that Shamela receives in a letter from her mother

When I advised you not to be guilty of follow, I meant no more than that you should take care to be well paid before hand, and not to trust to Promises, which a man seldom keeps, after he hath had his wicked Will.   And seeing you have a rich fool to deal with, your not making a good market will be the more inexcusable.
Shamela, as her mother pointed out, has already had a romantic encounter with Parson Williams.   Her mother is quite afraid her daughter will follow her example and tie herself to men of no economic value out of romantic attraction, only to be discarded once the bloom of youth is gone.   Shamela is a fast learner.   Her master returns home in a coach and she springs into action

I immediately run up to my Room, and stript, and washed and drest myself as well as I could, and put on my prettiest round ear'd Cap, and pulled down by Stays, to shew as much as I could of my Bosom, (for Parson Williams says that is the most beautiful part of a Woman) and then I practised over all my Airs before the glass.
Her mother advises Shamela not to worry once she gets the Squire to marry her she can indulge herself with Parson Williams or any other man she fancies as long as she is discreet.   One day the Squire comes into Shamela's room.   She pretends to sleep while he climbs into bed with her and takes considerable liberties with her person.  Just in time she awakes and begins to weep that a man she so loves would try to take advantage of her before marriage.   At last the wedding day arrives.   She tells her mother all about it.

Henry Fielding
In my last I left off at our sitting down to Supper on our Wedding Night, where I behaved with as much Bashfulness as the purest Virgin in the world.   The most difficult task for me was to blush.   My Husband was extreamly eager and impatient to have supper removed, after which he gave me leave to retire into my closet for a quater of an hour..I employed the time in writing Parson Williams, who as I formed you in my last, has been released, and presented to the Living with the Death of the last parson
Shamela (her nickname is "Sham"-I guess Fielding wanted to be sure his readers got that this was satire!) then pines for a man just out of prison who seduced her, using his position to his advantage just as he had done many times before.   As married life proceeds Shamela explains how a wife should use the misbehavior of a husband to extract the most guilty gifts from him.

Nothing can be more prudent in a wife, than a sullen Backwardness to Reconciliation;  it makes a husband fearful of offending by the length of his punishment.
As the marriage proceeds we see how Sham is preoccupied with finding ways to be with Pastor Williams.   She presents him to her husband as her spiritual adviser.   We see, Shamela alas does not, that the Parson cares nothing for her other than as a source of gratification (that is really not a big deal for him as it can easily be obtained) and hopes to find away to use her marriage to the squire to extract large donations to the church.  Shamela is both the shammer and the shammed.  

There are letters by several different persons in this work.   Each person has their own style of writing.   The spelling and punctuation were different in 1741 than they are now of course.   Shamela is depicted as an avid reader and has educated herself well above her station.   She is a very smart woman treated without condescension by Fielding.   Her mother has learned some hard lessons and tries to pass them along to her daughter.   Her mother knows Shamela is a fool for a handsome well spoken man like the Parson and tries to guide her daughter without browbeating her over her mistakes.   Clearly the mother has made some mistakes of her own.   The mother does profit from the marriage as was part of her intention all along, of course.   

Shamela is a very funny Novella.   Pamela is often portrayed as an anti-hero by feminist critics.   She is seen as a near fool whose whole purpose in life is to get a wealthy near rapist to marry her.   Her conditioning does not allow herself to enter into any sort of romantic encounter with a man she does not love so her economic needs force her to deceive herself into thinking she is in love.  Once married, it is obvious to every one but Pamela that
 her future husband will abuse her and lose interest in her as she ages.   Now the question becomes if Pamela is the feminine anti-hero is Shamela a hero?   Is Shamela an 18th century woman asserting her rights who has the intelligence to see through the claims of the squire to love her?    Shamela knows what she is doing with her master, Pamela is in bad faith and either does not know what she is doing or more likely has it buried very deep in her consciousness.   (It has been about 15 years since I read Pamela and Clarisa.   There is a great deal of depth and artistry in these works.   Both of them have lot  to tell us about issues related to this challange.   Richardson was not, as he is often portrayed, a literary oppressor of women.  Clarisa is one of the longest novels in history).

Shamela is also a fool for Pastor Williams.   It looks like Shamela will out grow the Pastor as she ages and settles into her role of wife of a squire.   She is into The Reading Life and this has helped he develop her self consciousness and her insight.   My first guess and hope is Shamela will long outlive her husband and will go own to have lots of adventures, use the squires money to buy books and fancy clothes for herself and her mother.   I think maybe Shamela will always have a weakness for an attractive but somewhat wicked young man of the lower gentry but she will learn to have fun with that.   Pamela will end up a widow also but she will not be able to escape the roles society has imposed on her.   Shamela is a woman with a much greater sense of freedom in her life than Pamela and is much more in control of her life than Pamela. 

When I first decided I would include this work in the Women Unbound Challenge I had some serious reservations.   After all it does show a woman whose life revolves around a man and this  is not quite in accord wth the values of the challenge.   But then I thought more, Shamela has to live in her times, she has to use the only assests she has.   She does this well and is in charge of her life more than we might think.   As I predicted, she will out live her squire husband and be a well off woman fully in charge of her own life for many years.   There were very few options for advancement to  a lower class woman in England in 1741.    Shamela in under fifty pages gives us a vivid look at the life of an 18th century woman that we can today relate to, believe in and even like.  

Shamela can be read without reading Pamela first.   You may need to slow down a bit when you read it and the spelling and punctuation seem eratic by our standards.   To me it is a very funny very well written book that any one with a sense of humor and a little patience with the sentence structure of another era will enjoy.   I see it as totally deserving of a place on the Women Unbound Challenge.   We can learn as much from it as we can from the very poltically correct works of the 21th century.  

This is my fourth post for the November Novella Challenge.   I enjoyed participating in the challenge a lot and hope to be back in November 2010.

Thursday, November 19, 2009

"The Handmaid's Tale" by Margaret Atwood

The Handmaid's Tale (1985, 389 pages) is the first work by Margaret Atwood that I have read.    It is in the genre of the dystopian novel. It is about an alternative future in which a church group has taken over the United States, which they rename "Gilead".   The setting is the late 20th century in what used to be Cambridge Massachusetts.  

The narrator of our story, which begins right before the church take over, is married to Luke.   She and Luke had an affair while Luke was married to another woman.  Luke divorced his wife and married Offred and the two of them have a three year old daughter.   One day she goes to use her ATM type device and it will not work.   The clerk in the store tells her that it is saying invalid account number.   She is indignant and says she will call her bank.   When she gets to her job at the library she calls the bank over and over for hours but she cannot get through.   Her very nervous male boss calls the all female work force to a meeting.   Everyone is being fired as of now.   All libraries in Gilead are to be closed.   When she gets home she finds out that it has been declared illegal for women to have bank accounts.   Their balances are to be transferred to their husbands or fathers.   If they have no husband or father the government will keep the money.   Women should never have worked in the first place.   This is explained as a blessing to the women as they will no longer have to burden their minds about money.    From now on it will be illegal for women to have jobs, read or for female children to receive any sort of education.   This is all presented as a wonderful lifting of burdens by the very paternal government.   Luke vanishes one day.   Her child is taken from her as only children born in a first marriage may stay with their parents.  Divorce, birth control and abortions are strictly illegal.   In order that children may be born in a religiously proper fashion, no pain killers of any kind are allowed at child birth

Women can only be in certain roles in society.   This is explained to them as a wonderful thing and woe unto a woman who does not love these ideas.

The highest status position is that of Wife of a government official.   There is a shortage of men in Gilead due to the very large number killed off in the civil war that the church take over produced.    High status males, called Commanders, are allowed to set up grand households.   Below Wife is  the position of Econowife.   That refers to a woman who may marry a lower status male but has to do all the house work herself and must have her children herself.   Next we have the position of Handmaiden.   There is a very low birth rate in Gilead, far below the replacement rate.   This is in part because atomic bombs were dropped on parts of the USA that resisted the church take over and radiation caused massive sterility as well as a very high portion of genetic defects.   Handmaiden's job is to have sex once a month with their Commander.  The wife is present and has a degrading  role to play.  The handmaiden wears a cloth bag over her head so she cannot see the Commander and to prevent any hint that this is a personal encounter.   Wives tend to hate handmaidens though it is illegal for them to directly kill them.   If someone does not fit into this new society or shows any sign of lack of enthusiasm for the new way of life they can be sent to what is called "The Colonies".   The colonies are those parts of the USA that did not accept the new government.   They were laid waste by atomic blasts.   Workers are send their to clean up the damage and bury millions of dead bodies.   Because of the radioactivity, the disease brought on by the unburied corpses that are everywhere and the extreme envirnmental degradation life expectancy in the colonies is three years.   That is also where the food is grown for Gilead, which may account for the low birth rates and the very high rate of severe birth defects.   Even though abortion is punishable by death defective babies, called "Shredders", are destroyed at birth.    Below the status of Handmaiden is the Martha who is a household servant that is not allowed to have children or marry.   Like the Romans and the Nazis, the rulers of Gilead know that subject people are best controlled on a day to day basis by their own kind.   The work of monitoring the women is done by Aunts, all of whom carry cattle prods on their belts and are fond of telling the women how lucky they are that there is no longer any degrading pornography, that they no longer have to strain their minds with decision making, that they no longer need fear rape  and that they are protected by their wonderful Commander.   If a woman does not agree fast enough she gets the cattle prod and worse maybe will be sent to the colonies.   We only learn gradually how the society works and how it came into place.   Everything is narrated by the handmaiden and she has access only to limited information, after all she is not even allowed to read any more.   Women cannot trust each other as they are trained to inform on negative thinkers.  The informant is showing herself to be a worthy daughter of the Republic of Gilead.   Men have various roles to play also.   Everyone but a Commander, who is also watched, has to wear a uniform based on their role in society.   If a Handmaiden fails to have a child in six years, she is rotated every two years to a new Commander, she is sent to the colonies.   Any child she has, as long as it is not a shredder, will be raised by the Wife or another family.   Once she has had a child and done her six years she can even dream of becoming an Aunt.   If she fails to have a child, most of the men have very low fertility rates, she is sent to the colonies.  

Gilead is beautifully realized and I at once believed it could exist.   There are a lot of questions that one will have in mind about how Gilead works but remember the story is told in the first person by a handmaiden who can ask no questions and is forbidden to read.   The Aunts tell the women  it will be easier on girls born in Gilead as they  will not have the burden of confused thoughts that the foolish custom of allowing women to be educated caused.   Now the women have no worries,  no decisions to  make, no children to rear (maybe Econowives raise their own children but we do not learn much about them or the Marthas), and a wonderful government to take care of them and protect them.   Of course every woman tells all she meets that she is so grateful for the changes.

This is the background in which the Handmaiden's Tale unfolds.  People being people not everything is really perfect in this paradise.   The unfolding of the story is wonderfully clever and imaginative.   Shocking and brutal things will happen but there is hope and the human spirit is far from defeated.    We will get to know the local Commander, his wife, some of the other women.   A commander can have multiple Marthas.   Barriers break down, the women compare notes and some strange relationships develop.   I was very taken when I saw the joy of the handmaiden when she got the chance to read some magazines.   Most preGilead magazines and books have, of course, been burned.  

The Handmaiden's Tale does a marvelous job creating an alternative future.   The characters are very well developed.    Anyone who has ever worked for a large corporation will see at once coworkers who would have made great Aunts.   The Handmaiden's Tale reminded me more of Brave New World than 1984.   To me, it stands with them as cautionary stories of the first order.   It is also very entertaining, fast paced and just a great story.   I have not relayed much of the actual plot line as it is so clever I do not want to spoil it for anyone.  

The Handmaiden's Tale seems like it was almost written with the Women Unbound Challenge in mind.   It is easy to follow and understand.   It is beautifully written.     I found myself completely taken into The Republic of Gilead. I hope my three daughters never have to live there.  It shows how women can be and often are their own  oppressors. It shows how people sell themselves for small worthless things.  It tells us something important about the reading life.   Dictators always try to stop The Reading Life.   A diverse range of  free reading has never ever been encouraged under any totalitarian regime, from the Romans on down to the days of Pot Pal in Cambodia where wearing glasses could get you executed.   The ending was a complete surprise and I loved how the book was closed.      She as written over thirty books so if anyone has any suggestions as to my second Atwood please post them.  

Mel u

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

"Hard Luck" by Banana Yoshimoto

Hard Luck by Banana Yoshimoto (1999, translated from Japanese by Michael Emmerich, 2005) is published in the same book as Hardboiled.   I have already posted on Hardboiled.

Hard luck centers on a young woman waiting for her hospitalized sister to pass away.   Her parents, the fiance of the sister and his brother keep rotating vigil at her bedside.   The finance is not faithful in his attendance in the bed side and is dispised by the ill girls parents and sister.   His brother actually shows much more concern for the young woman than her fiance does.   The sister begins to feel an attraction to him but she does not know if it is just based on her growing feeling of  loneliness and  her admiration for the good character of the brother.  In her mind, she knows once the sister is lost the brother of the boyfriend will leave her life also.   The feelings in this work are below the surface.    Anger at the boyfriend is displaced anger over the young death of the sister and daughter. 

A feeling of sadness, of course, permeates this work.   We sense everyone will go on after the woman in the hospital is gone but no one will be quite the same.   

The sky is high and lonely and makes me feel alone.

Death is present in every aspect of life.

This is also a book about families, the ones we are born with and the ones we create.    

Mel u

Monday, November 16, 2009

"People of the Book" by Geraldine Brooks

People of the Book by Geraldine Brooks (2008, 449 pages)   

People of the Book is about the attempt by a skilled book conservator, Hanna Heath from Australia to preserve in as pristine a condition as possible a very famous mauscript which gives the history of people of the Jewish faith in Sarajevo during the middle ages. Sarajevo is under near war conditions at the time. Part of her job is  to trace the history of the illuminated book, to find out as much as she can about where the book has been in the last 500 years or so. In her examination of the book she notices an insect wing, a wine stain, a cat hair and a saltwater stain. From these clues she is able to reconstruct the paths the book has taken all over Europe. The story line then goes into a narrative about other people who have had the book. We go back to Sarajevo in 1940 and see the heroic efforts it required to keep the Nazis from burning the book   I confess I did not know that the Nazis had employed a large number of people lead by "art experts" to seek out and destroy Jewish artifacts. Thousands of amazing old books were burned. We go back to Vienna in 1894, portrayed as a period of decadence. Each "flash back" section of the book is interleaved with current events in Hanna's effort to conserve and understand the book. We also see her interactions with museum directors, other book conservators and her very brilliant neurosurgeon Mother. Her mother looks on Hanna's profession as a waste of brain power. We also get to know about and see some of Hanna's love live. We go to Vienna in 1609. We go inside a harem in Seville in 1480.

Along the way we learn a lot about the art of book conservation. We learn how illuminated books were made. I was fascinated by the account of how the hairs of Persian Cats had a role to play in the creation of the Sarajevo Haggadah. ( I do not know if these and other details are correct but they sounded plausible throughout.) She makes skillfull use of historical detail. The level of research goes way beyond simply watching a couple of History Channel programs.

Some of the "flash back" sections did seem to go on a bit long. At times I sort of wished the character of the mother could be deleted as it did not add much to the story and was kind of a distraction. At times I also felt Hanna's quarrel with her mother sort of humanized her a bit so it was not a big negative for me.

People of the Book tells us some things about the reading life of those who collect books as artifacts. People read to get historical information to help them appreciate books as art objects. They feel a continuity with other owners of old books.

When I read of Hanna's attempt to trace the previous owners of the book I could not help but recall when a few years ago I found in a second hand book store a large number of the early volumes of the Yale Edition of Horace Walpole's Correspondence. A number of the books were over 50 years old. They had a lot of character. To me they were beautiful. On the inside cover of each of the twenty or so books was written, in what looked like a very old hand, the letter numbers that a previous owner of the book had liked most. I still wonder who that might have been. I imagine the person treasured those books for many years then one day somebody took them to a second hand book store. The book store clerk told me they had been on the shelve there for many years. As I left the store I saw her call the manager over to point out the person who for some clearly senseless reason had at last bought these books.

People of the Book is entertaining, makes good use of historical research and teaches us a lot of things we might not know too much about. The author has written two other historical novels, for one of which she got a Pulitzer prize.
Mel u

"Shame in the Blood" by Tetsuo Miura

Shame in the Blood by Tetsuo Miura (1964, translated by Andrew Driver, 2007 from Japanese, 216 pages)

I am reading this for the Japanese Literature Challenge 3

It seems to me that this book was published and marketed in a misleading fashion. It is marketed as a novel consisting of six interrelated stories about the same family. In fact it is five stories about the same married couple and a final forty five page story that has nothing at all to do with the first five stories. The first five stories are very interrelated and are in fact repetitious. It seems almost like the author went back and rewrote the stories so they could be marketed as a novel. The book was a great success when it was first published. It sold over a million copies and the author won the very prestigious Akutagawa Price for Literature, among other awards. Of course, that the book is collection of short stories published separately and then assembled as a novel does not take away from the literary merit of the work but it does seem a bit opportunistic.

The narrator of Shame in the Blood has six siblings. Four them have already killed themselves and one of the survivors is nearly blind and his brother disappeared many years ago. The narrator's family is poor and he is a struggling writer without a real job. He meets a waitress, they are in their early twenties, they marry and she ends up as the main source of income for the family. We are not really provided any clear explanation for why four of his siblings committed suicide. His mother died when he was young and we do meet his elderly father when they go back for a visit. The father laments that he has no accomplishments in life and that he is a complete failure and disgrace as a father. We see nothing overtly wrong with him. He is just a very sad old man. When his son comes back for a visit the wife is pregnant. The father is so happy he begins to make in secret a list of names for the as of yet unborn child. In short sequence the father dies (the family lingering over the dying father is very well relayed and is a very well done account of a meaningless life coming to an end), the wife miscarries. The family finds the list of names the father was making along with a note saying he prays the birth of his first grandchild will redeem his life somehow and give him a new start.

The stories do show some temporal confusion until you realize it not really a novel. In one story we are somehow back in mid 1944 WWII Japan with the then 15 or so year old narrator. He regrets he is a year too young to join the military. When the bombs fall all around him he wishes he will be killed so he can die an honorable death. He suggests many put themselves intentionally in harms way when the bombing raids begin (they happen often enough so the residents know what to expect) as a form of suicide. The suggestion is made that Japan has made at that point the decision to commit suicide as a nation.
This a death obsessed work. A feeling of futile sadness permeates it. We do feel we know the narrator and his wife well.

We see what it was like to be poor in Japan in the 1950s and early 1960s. The stories are well told and each of the five stories about the couple give us some new information about them. There is a lot of repeated material in the book which is a by product of the fact that the chapters were first published as stand alone stories. The author is a talented story teller and clearly knows how family history effects individuals in ways deeper than they may know.

There is not a lot of information on Tetsuo Miura on the internet in English. He was born in Aomori, Japan in 1931. I could not confirm if he is still alive. Several of his own siblings did kill themselves.

As to my endorsement of the book, I would say read it after your have read twenty or so of the better known Japanese novelists first. This is his only work translated into English, though he does have a lot of other novels and stories. The stories are very well told in a straightforward fashion. A number of the commentators on Shame in the Blood did dislike the put together collection of stories marketed as novel feel that this work for sure has. In spite of this, it is well written. I would say buy it used or better yet get a library copy of this work as it was marketed in a perhaps deceitful way. I think if it were published now by a living author it would be condemned as a dishonest marketing ploy.

Mel u

Friday, November 13, 2009

"Hardboiled" by Banana Yoshimoto

Hardboiled  by Banana Yoshimoto (89 pages, 1999 translated by Michael Emmerich) is the third of her works  which I have  read.   It is a beautifully told story of a woman who goes to a mountain inn on the one year anniversary of her lover's death in a fire, the only female one among a number of males.   It is a story of a  half love brought on by the fear of loneliness.   It is a great ghost story.    Any fan of ghost stories knows a strange isolated inn can have some surprises

I'm a woman.   Once, just once, I went out with another woman,   She could see things that other people couldn't.  Maybe it rubbed off on me, or maybe being with her sharpened an instinct that I had always had, I don't know.

One of the themes in  the works of Yoshimoto is what loneliness and the fear of being alone can drive women to do.  The protagonist of Hardboiled, about thirty years old, never felt deeply for her former lover and seems to have developed her relationship with her more out of boredom than anything else.   When the relationship ends the narrator soon returns to her normal routine of life.   She had been raised by her mother, a beautiful woman who works in a bar.    The mother is depicted by the narrator as a good mother, a woman with many lovers but she keeps them away from her daughter.  

While at the inn, a woman comes in from the room next door.  She says she has just had a terrible fight with her prone to violence male lover and needs to stay in the narrator's room for a while.    She acts strangely so the narrator goes down stairs to get the manager.   The manager tells her that there are no other guests at the inn that night.    It seems a couple long ago had made a mutual suicide pact.   They brought enough pills to kill each of them.   The woman took much more than half the pills in order to spare the life of her lover.   Women in the inn have often spoken of being approached by a distraught woman.   The female manager of the inn is depicted at the start of the story by the narrator as being totally unattractive in looks and personality.   Events change the narrator's perceptions enough, or at least that is her excuse, that she ends up spending the night on the mat with the inn manager.   We get little or no sense of passion from the narrator, only the sense that she does what she does to avoid loneliness.  

This work is perhaps the most beautifully told of her works that I have read so far.   The production qualities of the book, published by Faber and Faber are very high.   Included in the same book is Hard Luck.    It appears that the two stories were originally published together.   Hard Luck is about a woman keeping vigil over her sister who is in a coma.   I will post on it soon also.   Some people see Banana Yoshimoto as kind of a "light weight" writer.  I do not.  Her works are short and the main characters are relatively young women.   She for sure is fun to read.    She evokes Buddhist  and Shinto themes in her stories.   She might not be the Japanese Dostoevsky but she is very smart, very knowing , she tells a great story and I have added her to  my read all they have written list along with Tanizaki and Oe.  I think I would start reading her works with Goodbye Tsugumi  and if you like than I think you would probably like any thing she has written.  

November Novella Challenge-a beautiful perfectly developed novella-this is my second work for this challenge-I committed to read one novella but may try for four, the second level.

The Japanese Literature Challenge 3-

Woman Unbound Challenge -I think there is a special kind of loneliness that women are prey to that men are not.   I know not every one or maybe most people will not agree with this but I think Yoshimoto sees it.   That is ok but Hardboiled shows us why a woman made the choices she did, what she did to avoid being alone.   Her mother was mostly alone also and we see the second generation effects of this.   

Mel u

"The Makioka Sisters" by Junichiro Tanizaki

The Makioka Sisters by Junichiro Tanizaki (1948, 530 pages, translated by Edward Seidensticker) is the

longest work I have read so far for The Japanese Literature 3 Challenge.  It is the fifth book by Tanizaki  that I have read.   Vintage press has twelve of his works in translation in print and I will read them all.  

The Makioka Sisters gives us a very intimate look at the lives of four sisters living in Osaka Japan.   It is set from 1936 to 1940.   Tanizaki is said to have written it during WWII to distract himself from the war.   The book is considered his master work.    The basic plot is simple.   It is the story of a merchant family whose fortunes are not quite what they once were.   They decide to remedy the problem by finding a wealthy husband for the second youngest sister, thirty year old Yukiko.
She has  two older sisters.  Tsurko the eldest has traditionally authority over her sisters now that their parents have passed away.   Her husband took her last name when he was adopted by her family and he is, in theory, the head of the family.   Sachiko is the second oldest and is considered to have the most gentle and warmest nature.   Her two younger sisters live with her most of the time.   Yukiko also has  younger sister who is portrayed as distinctly more modern than her very traditional older sisters.   She has a man in her life that she very much wants to marry, and everyone in the family likes the match as he is from a very good family.   The problem is she is not allowed to marry until all of her older sisters have married.   The fun of the plot turns on a husband hunt for Yukiko.   Yukiko acts like the totally obedient sister she is supposed to be but some how every suitor presented ends up being rejected.   One is simply way to old, one has six children, one has a mentally ill mother and one is simply too ugly.   Along the way we get a very detailed look at life in an upper class family in Osaka.   One sees in the work that there was a lot of regional conflict in Japan.   People from Osaka looked at those from Tokyo as very ill mannered and money driven, people from the Nagasaki area were simply too country and so on.  Of course people from Tokyo looked at those from Osaka as living in the past.   One of the saddest moments in the book is when the older sister and her husband most move to Tokyo to pursue a business opportunity.   We see what the sisters eat, how they feel about their husbands and how they exert control over their families.  A very fun part of  the book for me was when the sisters became friends with a White Russian Family who fled to Japan after the Czar was displaced.   The sisters are amazed by the vitality of the grandmother of the family.   When the Russia family invites them all over for dinner I could not help but laugh as we see them trying to cope with the food.   I was happy to see the sisters said they had all read Tolstoy and Dostoevsky.   When the Russian family expressed surprise at this they said that all educated Japanese had read them.  The sisters also become friends with some German neighbors.   One of the best moments in the book was when the Germans, who returned because of political events in 1939, sent them a letter.   There are several letters in the novel and each is marvelously done.   One oddity, to me at least, was the pride of the sisters in their ability to drink alcohol, mostly sake.    In fact it was sort of agreed that if a man was not a drinker at all he would not be considered an acceptable husband as he would simply be too dull.   The sisters hire private investigators to check out the back grounds of possible spouses.   A big issue seems to be how much time the men had spent in the pleasure quarters.   Too much and he was considered a reprobate but no visits there also was a point to ponder.   The sisters father was a habitual frequenter of gieshas after their mother died at an early age.   This seems to be a sort of socially acceptable as long as you do not talk about it.   We really are shown a lot about day to day life.    Each sister has her own  well defined personality and we really feel we know them.   I liked all the sisters.  One of the most suspenseful elements in the book concerned a dark spot that would come and go over the eye of Yukiko.   We get a good look at child rearing practices.   We hear a lot of gossip.   There is conflict among the sisters,  of course.   It was interesting that the husbands of the older sisters had both taken the family name.   Marriages were mostly arranged at the time and we get to see how that business works and meet the marriage broker.  (She knows the in the closet secrets of every well off family in Osaka.   Of course she is very discrete and only tells these secrets to the clients of her beauty parlor!)

Most goodreads commentators on this book have given it four or five stars.   I gave it five.   Some did say it was simply to dry and that it was boring. Those who disliked the novel seemed to feel it was too detailed in its treatment of the conversations and interior lives of  the sisters and their friends.  To me it was a wonderful book that took me into another world very much unlike my own.  Only a few passing references are made in  the novel to political events (the novel period is 1936 to 1940).   I wanted to believe the family would some how survive World War II without terrible suffering.  

This is my 3rd post for the Women Unbound Challenge.    The Makioka Sisters is a very closely observed look at four Japanese women, their families and their relationships with their husbands and how they raised their children.   We see how an unwanted pregnancy is dealt with.  We see the sisters having a great time just being sisters.   I could not help but smile when we slowly began to realize that maybe Yukiko did not want a husband to be picked for her by her older sisters or maybe she does not want one at all.  

The Makioka Sisters is to me a great joy and a master novel.   Readers of Jane Austin will at once relate to the themes of the book.   I would suggest that those wanting to get to know Tanizaki first read The Secret History of the Lord of Musashi and Arrowroot, if you like that read Quicksand, then Some Prefer Nettles. if you like these three works then read The Makioka Sisters.   Tanizaki had an interesting life.   For a brief period he was a dramatist in silent films.   I could not help but think when I read this that if were with us now (1886 to 1965) he would be an ultra rich novelist whose every work is sold to Hollywood for millions.  

Monday, November 9, 2009

A WOMAN in the Dunes-by Kobo Abe-a second look

In my post on A Woman in the Dunes by Kobo Abe I talked almost exclusively about what the novel seems to be saying or manifesting about the man.   We know the man's name, we know his job and we know a lot about his life passion entomology.   The man has a place in society,  he fits in and is valued for what he does and what he knows.   In most posts on the novel on Goodreads and elsewhere the focus is entirely on the man.   Then I started to rethink the book a bit.   It is not called Man in the Dunes.  

We first meet the woman when the male protagonist of the novel seeks a place to stay for a night and gets trapped in a giant hole in  the ground.   The hole in the ground is the home of a woman.   We find out that her husband and child were killed in a typhoon.   We only have a vague idea how she got there.   She has sex with the man or more bluntly said she allows the man to mate with her.   She shows herself naked to the man but it is not clear if this part of a seductive routine or if she like an insect without self consciousness at all.   We are given no insights into her thoughts other than that she has a foreknowledge of the fate of  man and that her life goal is to have a radio.   She does not wish to escape her circumstances.   She seems to see her existence as natural to her species.   Her essence is to be a woman used as bait to keep a man in a hole in the ground shoveling out sand that forever comes back.   In my initial comments on Woman in The Dunes   I went into existentialist interpretations of the novel,   focusing on the man trapped in an absurd meaningless situation.  Now, thanks to the stimulus of the Woman Unbound Reading Challenge I want to talk about the woman in the dunes.  The woman is the existential anti-heroine.   She, with no sense of doing it, is  utterly trapped by an essence, an essential nature that she is no more is aware of than a fish is aware of water.   She is used by the micro society  of the dune who,  not by conscious design, have fashioned her consciousness in such a way that she is useful mainly as bait for a man.   She does not question it.   If she was reflective enough to ponder the issue she would probably say something along the lines of "this what was meant to be" or see it as part of a supernatural design.   The woman maybe seen as evoking the fate of women in rural Japanese society.    Just as in Japanese society prior to the end of World War II, women and men were taught that there role in life, the essence of  their being, was to serve their overlords and their Imperial God, so the woman in the dunes sees no alternative to her life in a hole in the ground.   Expanded beyond this, the  WOMAN in the Dunes, is any woman (or man) bound by what she things is her essence when that essence is just a choice made for her by some one else to impose this on her.   Of course it regresses back.   

Sunday, November 8, 2009

Four Stories of The Atomic Aftermath

Noted added September 16, 2014.

To the many readers of this and related posts from U C L A, please let my 100,000 monthly readers know of your feelings on this story and the others in the collection.  I am assuming this book is being read in a class at U C L A and I am very glad to see that.  These stories are world class treasures. 

I have already posted on four stories from Crazy Iris and Other Stories of the Atomic Aftermath (edited and introduced by Kenzaburo Oe, 1985)-     Here are the final four stories in the collection.

"Human Ashes" (22 pages)  by Katsuzo Oda.   Katsuzo was exposed to the atomic blast at Hiroshima while working as a student recruit in a factory.   His story was first published in a journal published by the Japanese Ministry of Posts and Telecommunications in 1966.   He was never a professional writer.   "Human Ashes"  appears to be his only work in print in English.   Wikipedia has no article on him and all google searches lead back to this story.   "Human Ashes" tells of Katsuzo immediate reaction to the bomb.   He wanders through scenes of horrible destruction.   Katsuzo had just felt the first sexual urges that came with young age and he cannot help but notice many of the female victims have lost much of their clothes.   He begins to wander through the city.   Everywhere he sees the dead and the soon to be dead.   In one very sad moment of terror a black rain begins to fall.   The people of Hiroshima at once assume the Americans are dropping gasoline on them and are terrified as then expect to be set on fire. The rain is radioactive.  The Japanese had received constant reports on the horrible cruelty of the Americans.   We see the Bushido code begin to erode when a young officer (maybe 19 and only an officer in a youth corp) orders the young boy factory workers he was in charge of to line up at his instructions.   He is so shocked when his charges (mostly 13 to 15 years old) run from him.   Just yesterday they obeyed everything he said.   The primary heroes of the boys were kamikaze pilots.   Oe says Odo is the only writer included in the collection who did not go on after the war to become a professional writer.    "Human Ashes"  was written 21 years after the day of the bomb.   Oda was born in 1931, the year Japan invaded Manchuria.   I could not find any images of him nor could I find out if  he is still alive.   "Human Ashes" is a simple completely honest attempt by a thirty five year old man to describe how August 6, 1945 in Hiroshima felt to him.

"Fire Flies" by Yoko Ota (27 pages first published in 1953)  Yoko Ota was already a well known author prior to experiencing the atomic bomb blast at Hiroshima.  Her writings focus closely on individual victims of the blast.   It is the first story in the collection that expresses extreme bitterness about the use of the bomb and in which its use is treated as an immoral decision, in the remarks of a doctor treating victims and by the narrator of the story.   I am not sure exactly when the U S Army began to stop censoring the publication of information that could be construed  as anti-American but I think it was around 1953 or so.   (It should be noted that the Japanese public were never informed in any way concerning the terrible actions of their own soldiers.)   The narrator goes to visit a friend she has not seen since August 6, 1945.   As she enters the modest house she notices a young girl disappear into a room.   It turns out she wants to put on her best clothes to meet the visitors.   She comes back into the room.

It was not a girl but a monstrosity.   Her deformed face and hands stood out even more grotesquely because she had put on her best clothes..her face was expressionless.  I broke down weeping  slumped on the wooden board, shuddering but unable to stop my tears.  I wished I could stand up, reach out to the monstrous body of the young woman and embrace it.   However, Japanese people, and I especially, are not accustomed to expressing emotion in this way.

The narrator begins to speak with the young girl.   We find when she goes out people sometimes think she is part of an exhibit.   She says people thing of her as a zoo animal allowed out and will sometimes slip twenty yen in her hand.   Her eyes have a permanent glow.   She cannot eat without spilling food as her mouth and lips were reshaped by the blast. 

"The House of Mirth" by Mitsuhara Inoue (1960, 25 pages) deals with the fate of female orphans, now grown to marriageable age, who lived in a rural orphanage near Nagasaki.   The girls have been there since 1945, most came at ages from infants to ten years.   A few of the girls have married and attempted to have children.   Many have miscarried and none has had a child live past four.   A suitor (in an arrangement made by relatives) is coming to meet  one of the girls.   Everyone wants to keep as a secret from the suitor the fact that the woman in question was at Nagasaki when the bomb went exploded.    Some villagers see the inability of the women to have healthy children as curse brought on my their adoption of Catholicism in place of their old religions.   The became Catholics because the catholic priests helped the orphaned bomb victims.   In this well told story we see the bond between the orphaned women and the shunned status of bomb victims  Discrimination against bomb victims was evidently worse in rural areas around Nagasaki than elsewhere.   Bomb survivors were almost like a class of untouchables.  (In a footnote Inoue describes for us the existence of an untouchable type cast of people in the rural areas.).    I could find almost no information on Inoue.  I could find no images.   Oe tells us he was active in the communist party after the war.   He was born in 1926.

"The Rite" by Hiroko Takenishi (31 pages) was first published in 1963.   Takenishi was born in Hiroshima but was not there on the day of the atomic bomb explosion.   She and a friend are their for the erection ceremony for a monument to Tamiki Hara.   I have already posted on "Summer Flowers, his story in the collection.  Takenishi established a reputation as a critic of modern literature with a profound knowledge of classical literature.   "The Rite" appears to be her only work in print in English.   This story is the most self consciously artistic of the stories in the collection.   It centers around rites of death and rites of mourning interleaved with accounts of the day the bomb dropped.    It is perhaps the most beautifully written of the stories.   I could find no images of her or really no information at all on her via google.

The stories in The Crazy Iris and other Stories of the Atomic Aftermath all are deeply moving.   When I began my blog July 7, 2009 I never thought I would do a series of posts like the ones I have attempted on the stories in this collection.   At first I thought no one will read them.   I have done google searchs on each of the writers.   A few are quite famous but some have little or no information on them  on the web and no pages dedicated to them.   Somehow it made me feel good when I began to see that people from all over the world were coming to my posts on these figures.   In several cases there is nothing else on the web (at least in English) on the writers in this collection.   I thank those who have read my posts on this topic and really hope others will read these stories and Mr Oe's deeply felt introduction to the collection.   It is also a way to read eight stories chosen by a master writer.

Friday, November 6, 2009

"The Woman in the Dunes" by Kobo Abe

The Woman in the Dunes by Kobo Abe (1964, translated from Japanese by E. Dale Saunders)

I was some how a little nervous as I began to read The Woman of the Dunes as my expectations for the book were so high.    My fears were misfounded.  It is, to me, a masterpiece.    Like other post WWII Japanese novelists, Abe was influenced by French Existential thinkers and writers like Jean Paul Sartre and Albert Camus.  (Side note, has anyone ever read The Plague by Camus who was not required to read it for a class?).   One of the basic tenants of existentialism is that there is no intrinsic meaning to life.  All the codes people are taught to live by are simply not true.   Some saw this as plunging us into a meaningless universe, some saw it as bringing man the freedom to create their own meanings.   It is easy to see why post WWII Japanese intellectuals would be attracted to this.   Much more so than the Germans, the world view of the Japanese people was destroyed by their defeat in WWII and the announcement of the Emperor that he was not divine.   (This theme is treated in Kenzaburo Oe's marvelous When He Himself Shall Wipe Away My Tears.)    The Bushido code by which the Japanese lived was reduced to a mockery and seemed something imposed on the people to make them slaves to their once master, the Emperor, now a figure of mockery.   A great sense of shame was felt by nearly all and everyone was quick to deny they have believed in the old ways anyway.   They only acted like they did out of fear of their overlords.

The central character of the novel, Niki Jumpei, is teacher.   This was just something he did to make money.  He has a girl friend but does not give her much thought.   His true passion in life was his work as an amateur entomologist.   One of the common characteristics novels by Japanese authors who were influenced by French post WWII novelists (I do not like the term "existential novelist" at all) is their narratives in passing will assert something as an obvious fact when it really may be a baseless absurdity.   Here is what we informed concerning the mental state of entomologists

Even in children, unusual preoccupation with insect collecting frequently indicates and Oedipus complex.   In order to compensate for his unsatisfied desires, the child enjoys sticking pins into insects, which he need never fear will escape.   And the fact that he does not leave off once he has grown up is quite definitely a sign that the condition has become worse.   Thus it far from accidental that entomologists frequently have an acute desire for acquisitions and that they are extremely reclusive, kleptomaniac, homosexual.   From this point to suicide our of weariness with the world is but a step.

The plot action is pretty simple.   (The back of the book in the edition I have gives it away and I really think most potential readers of the book  would know the basic plot before they read it any way so I do not see this as a spoiler).   Niki is on a holiday from his teaching job.   He goes to an area with a lot of sand dunes in the hope of discovering a never before cataloged beetle of some kind.   If does this, he will be famous among other entomologists.    He walks into a village of simple country people, in the sand dune area.   Sand is everywhere and in everything.   The shifting sand is constantly encroaching on the houses.   Niki  needs a place to stay for the night and ends up in the underground dwelling of a 30 or so year old widow.   The dwelling is a sixty foot deep in the ground hole which can be exited only by a rope ladder.   The woman's entire existence revolves around excavating sand.   Everyday what ever she excavates can be blown back by the shifting winds.  (The Myth of Sisyphus is one of the dominant themes in the work of Camus.)    The man finds himself unable to get out of the hole in the ground.   He eventually has sex with the woman (she may be a trap for him like the bait one would put out for an insect might be scent from a female of his species.).  Their mating is described quite clinically just as an entomologist from a far superior planet might detail in a report on  human mating customs.   Niki's life comes to resemble that of a beetle that lives in a hole in the ground and preforms an absurd act over and over again to live.   He slowly tries to find or create a meaning to his existence and always hopes he will escape.   The villagers reasons for keeping him trapped are totally without logic.   He comes to feel a kind of fondness for he woman while at the same time hating her and using her body for sex.   The woman's only goal in life is to somehow earn enough money to buy a radio.   Years go by.   The man loses interest in reading, forgets many of the details of his old life.  

I  know my account of the book makes it seem rather bleak.   One can take it as either a tale of an absurd universe where any adherence to a faith or creed is but groundless or you can take it as suggesting  that meaning can be created anywhere under the harshness of circumstances even after all the trappings of  your acculturation have been removed.    The themes in this work have ancient roots.   There has always been a few who laughed at the Gods and went their own way.   For some readers the dunes and the hole in the ground house will be society.   Niki is partially trapped by his desire to have sex with then woman in the underground house, trapped by his physical nature to perform an absurd action for a moment of transcendence.   In time, he makes as his  dominant goal in life to help the woman get a radio.  We never learn her name.   Woman in the Dunes  also be viewed as a comment on the life of women in post world war II Japan.

Woman in the Dunes is beautifully told.   We really feel we are in the world the novel creates.   We can feel the sand creeping into everything.   The story does not impose a meaning on us.   In one sense, if there is a meaning it maybe just that there is not one.   I endorse this work without reservations.   It is not a hard to read work at all.   After I read two or three more books by Kobo Abe, I think he will probably be among the Japanese novelists on my "read everything they have written TBR List".