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, May 31, 2010

Katherine Mansfield-Three stories from In A German Pension

"The Modern Soul",  "At Lehman's", and "The Luft Bad"-from In A German Pension (1911) by Katherine Mansfield

In A German Pension is a collection of short stories by Katherine Mansfield (1888 to 1923, New Zealand) about the experiences of a young English woman staying in an exclusive boarding house in Germany where she has been sent to take a cure (we do not yet know what for) in a nearby spa famous for its waters.    Everyone at the boarding house we have met so far is German.   The tone of the young woman is detached and ironic.   In this post I will talk a bit about three of the stories in the collection.

"The Modern Soul" (24 pages) begins with our young lady having a conversation with a professor at a prestigious German university.  The professor could not be politer or more patronizing of the intellectual limits of the English woman:

Psychologically I understood your refusal. It is your innate feminine delicacy in preferring etherealised sensations. …The conversation is not out of your depth? I have so seldom the time or opportunity to open my heart to a woman that I am apt to forget.
The Professor, called "Herr Professor", is seemingly interested in getting to know the English woman better.    Also present at the conversation are young Fraulein Sonia and her mother.   We have seen overbearing mothers before in a Mansfield story, "The Garden Party" and Sonia's mother seems to fit this description well.

Sonia's mother interjects herself in the conversation as soon as she finds out there is an English woman present  (this is three years before WWI)
I have never been to England,” interrupted Fräulein Sonia, “but I have many English acquaintances. They are so cold!” She shivered.   Fish-blooded,” snapped Frau Godowska. “Without soul, without heart, without grace.   'England is merely an island of beef flesh swimming in a warm gulf sea of gravy.’ Such a brilliant way of putting things. Do you remember, Sonia?
Sonia is an aspiring writer.  

“What a night!” she said. “Do you know that poem of Sappho about her hands in the stars. … I am curiously sapphic. And this is so remarkable—not only am I  Sapphic  I find it in  the work of all the greatest.
As I read this I could not help but wonder, is a swipe being taken  at  Virginia Woolf?  

writers, especially in their unedited letters, some touch, some sign of myself—some resemblance, some part of myself, like a thousand reflections of my own hands in a dark mirror.

As the story ends Sonia and Herr Professor leave for a picnic.

"At Lehman's"  (20 pages)

In the next story in the collection we get our first look behind closed doors of the servants and helpers that do the day to day work at the pension.    We meet the maid Sabina for the first time:

Certainly Sabina did not find life slow. She was on the trot from early morning until late at night. At five o'clock she tumbled out of bed, buttoned on her clothes, wearing a long-sleeved alpaca pinafore over he

Business at the pension slows down quite a bit in the winter with the coming of the heavy snows.

 Winter had come very early to Mindelbau. By the end of October the streets were banked waist-high with snow, and the greater number of the “Cure Guests,” sick unto death of cold water and herbs, had departed in nothing approaching peace. So the large salon was shut at Lehmann's and the breakfast-room was all the accommodation the café afforded. Here the floor had to be washed over, the tables rubbed, coffee-cups set out, each with its little china platter of sugar, and newspapers and magazines hung on their hooks along the walls before Herr Lehmann appeared at seven-thirty and opened business.

One day a very handsome young man enters the cafe and  Sabina is quite infatuated by him.    Now at this same time the wife of the owner of the pension is set to have a baby any day now.    The handsome young gentleman knows he is free to make advances on a serving girl:

He pulled her closer still and kissed her mouth. “Na, what are you doing — what are you doing?” she whispered.    He let go her hands, he placed his on her breasts, and the room seemed to swim round Sabina. Suddenly, from the room above, a frightful, tearing shriek.  Who did that—who made that noise?”She wrenched herself away, tightened herself, drew herself up.   In the silence the thin wailing of a baby.   “Achk!” shrieked Sabina, rushing from the room.
This wonderful story is about class,  a satire of pomposity, contains a swipe at Virginia Woolf  (there was personal connection) or at least pretentious female authors overly in touch with the spirit world and it is also just a lot of fun.

"The Luft Bad"   (10 pages) takes us for the first time to the spa where we sit in with the women as they take a bath.    This story is simply hilarious.    We meet our first Russian lady in the baths.  .   It is of interest to know that at the time much of fashionable literary Paris was in the thrall of Russian spiritualists like Georges Gurdjeff and occult gurus such as those that formed the Order of the Golden Dawn.     Mansfield was not exempt from this mania but was smart enough to see it as a bit silly.  Mansfield is a master at short descriptions that create a world:

“Oh, I spend the day here now,” she answered. “I am making my own ‘cure,’ and living entirely on raw vegetables and nuts, and each day I feel my spirit is stronger and purer. After all, what can you expect? The majority of us are walking about with pig corpuscles and oxen fragments in our brain. The wonder is the world is as good as it is. Now I live on the simple, provided food” —she pointed to a little bag beside her— “a lettuce, a carrot, a potato, and some nuts are ample, rational nourishment. I wash them under the tap and eat them raw, just as they come from the harmless earth—fresh and uncontaminated.”

All these stories are miniature gems.   Taken together they are creating a perfect picture of life at the German pension.

If any one has any suggestions as to short stories please leave a comment.

Mel u

Saturday, May 29, 2010

"The Withered Arm" by Thomas Hardy

  "The Withered Arm" by Thomas Hardy (1888-20 pages)

Thomas Hardy (1940 to 1928)  is one of the giants of Victorian literature.     He wrote numerous novels now considered an important part of the canon such as Return of the Native,   The Mayor of Casterbridge, and Far From the Madding Crowd as well as some very wonderful poems.    It has been a long time since I have read any of his books so as soon as I got the suggestion to read this from  Mrs B of The Literary Stew I decided this would be a good opportunity to renew my acquaintance with Hardy and I am very glad I did.

The story is set in rural England in the 1880s on a milk farm.    As the story opens we meet a strange solitary milkmaid who works for the farm owner, Mr Lodge.   She has a 12 year old or so son and we quickly gather there was once a relationship between her and Mr. Lodge and we think Mr Lodge is probably the  father of her son.   A rumor spreads around the farm that Mr Lodge is to marry.   Everyone begins to at once wonder what  the soon to be Mrs Lodge is like.

Hav' anybody seen her?' said another.
There was a negative response from the first. 'Though they say she's a rosy-cheeked, tisty-tosty little body enough,' she added; and as the milkmaid spoke she turned her face so that she could glance past her cow's tall to the other side of the barton, where a thin, fading woman of thirty milked somewhat apart from the rest.
'Well, she's growed up, and her ways be quite a woman's.'
'Of course. What colour is her hair and face?'
'Her hair is lightish, and her face as comely as a live doll's.'
'Her eyes, then, are not dark like mine?'
'No - of a bluish turn, and her mouth is very nice and red; and when she smiles, her teeth show white.'
Clearly there is a good bit of under the surface hostility toward the as yet unseen Mrs Lodge.

Rhonda has a dream in which the new Mrs Lodge, Gertrude, visits  and her  basically shoves her wedding ring into the face of the Rhonda.   In the dream Gertrude has an injured nearly withered arm after Rhonda grabs the arm with the ring hand.   Soon she has such an affliction in reality.    We can see Hardy's style is this account of Gertrude showing her injured arm to Rhonda (who sees her as her replacement):
'How did it happen?' she said mechanically.
'I cannot tell,' replied Mrs Lodge, shaking her head. 'One night when I was sound asleep, dreaming I was away in some strange place, a pain suddenly shot into my arm there, and was so keen as to awaken me. I must have struck it in the daytime, I suppose, though I don't remember doing so.' She added, laughing, 'I tell my dear husband that it looks just as if he had flown into a rage and struck me there. O, I daresay it will soon disappear.'
'Ha, ha! Yes. . . . On what night did it come?'
Mrs Lodge considered, and said it would.

Sadly and not to his credit as Gertrude is a very good person and wife, her increasingly withering arm causes her husband to lose his feelings of love and passion for her.   Gertrude wants more than anything to find a cure for her arm.   Several years go by and Gertrude begins to try  folk ways of curing her arm.   She has never been able to conceive a child and Mr Lodge is a harsh man who begins to feel it was a mistake to marry her and does little to hide his feelings.    Over time Rhonda begins to develop almost an affection for Gertrude as she knows it is not the fault of Gertrude that Mr Lodge abandoned Rhonda and his probable son.   Finally one day Rhonda suggests Mrs Lodge go see a conjurer,  a practitioner of folk medicine.    I will relay no more of the plot so as not to spoil it for others.  

"The Withered Arm" is a wonderful tale in the Gothic manner.   It does have a surprise ending as short stories often do but it is more powerful than the standard cute ending in the O Henry/Saki style.  In this case the ending is very moving and made me rethink the whole story.     This story was first published in a magazine and the public seemed to want surprise endings.   The language of the story is beautiful and with just a few phrases Hardy is able to built a complete world.   The mood of the story is dark and it shows us something about what guilt can do to us.   There are numerous places you can read this story online.

If anyone has a suggestion as to other short stories please leave them in a comment

Be sure and look at Mrs B's very preceptive post on this story


Mel u

The Housekeeper and the Professor by Yoko Ogawa

The Housekeeper and the Professor by Yoko Ogawa (2003, trans. by Stephen Snyder, 2009, 180 pages)

The Housekeeper and the Professor by Yoko Ogawa (1962-) is one of the most blogged about Japanese novels of the last year.    Everyone loves this book.    I have wanted to read it for a long time but have not been able to find it in any of the book stores I frequent here in Manila.    I did find and post on her collection of three short novels, The Diving Pool about six weeks ago.   I liked that so much I finally decided to order her most famous book  from    Even with the high shipping charges, I am very glad I did.

There are many very good posts on this book.   (Normally after I read a book I do a book blog search so I can benefit from the insights of others.   If I know I will read a book I often wait until I have read it before I read other posts.)   I will just keep my post here very brief.   

 The professor was once a famous mathematician but 25 years ago he got in a bad accident that damaged his brain.    He now has only 80 minutes of short term memory and can remember nothing that happened earlier than 20 years ago.    His sister in law hires a series of housekeepers to take care of him and everyday he has no memory of who they are.   He has developed coping mechanisms for this problem such as putting notes on his clothes to explain things to himself.    A new housekeeper is hired by sister in law and she and her son develop a special fondness and relationship with the professor.   The professor becomes very attached to her ten year old son.    I will tell no more of the plot but is very well done and I cared about everyone in the book, even the sister-in-law.   

This book tells us a lot about how memory works.   It goes into the beauty of mathematics.    It shows us how relationships can develop even when there seems little hope of real human contact.    The story is told in a very elegant fashion.     I also learned a good bit about baseball in Japan.   I liked this book a really lot and endorse it for all.    

In the interest  of full disclosure, the publisher has sent me a free copy of her latest book, Hotel Iris and I will post on it for the Japanese Literature 4 challenge starting soon.

Mel u

Friday, May 28, 2010

"The Story of an Hour" by Kate Chopin

"The Story of an Hour" by Kate Chopin (1894-5 pages)

I have recently read two works by Kate Chopin (1850 to 1904) which I greatly enjoyed.   The first of her works I read was "A Respectable Woman" and the second was her famous novella The Awaking.    Both of these works are set in Louisiana.    Both have as their central character a married woman in comfortable financial circumstances with a decent  husband who seems to  treat her  well.    Both of the women in these works are dissatisfied with their lives and seek to be free to pursue their lives unfettered by the bands of conventional society.    In both stories we are not given a concrete reason or offense that is driving the women from their husbands, who they acknowledge they "sort of" love.   There is just a vague but strong feeling that they are being somehow oppressed both by their husbands and the very institution of matrimony.   Both of the stories are beautifully written and evoke a strong sense of place and time.   If there is a common malady  in the lives of these women it is a lack of passion or connection with what some would call "the life force".

When Rebecca Reid  of Rebecca Reads (and manager of the Classics Circuit)  suggested in a comment that I might like "The Story of an Hour" also by Kate Chopin I decided to read it.   It is a very short story.    I read it online and in print it would be from three to five pages long.   For sure you can read it in just a few minutes.   Like the other two works by Chopin that I posted on this story is about a married woman with a decent seeming husband for whom she acknowledges feelings of love and who as far as we see treats her well.    She is for sure materially comfortable.   I read this story three times.    It is that good and is  really almost shocking in its impact.   

As the story opens Mrs Mallard gets some very bad news:

Knowing that Mrs. Mallard was afflicted with a heart trouble, great care was taken to break to her as gently as possible the news of her husband's death.
It was her sister Josephine who told her, in broken sentences; veiled hints that revealed in half concealing. Her husband's friend Richards was there, too, near her. It was he who had been in the newspaper office when intelligence of the railroad disaster was received, with Brently Mallard's name leading the list of "killed." He had only taken the time to assure himself of its truth by a second telegram, and had hastened to forestall any less careful, less tender friend in bearing the sad message.
She did not hear the story as many women have heard the same, with a paralyzed inability to accept its significance. She wept at once, with sudden, wild abandonment, in her sister's arms. When the storm of grief had spent itself she went away to her room alone. She would have no one follow her.
Mrs Mallard gazes out her window seemingly in shock but everywhere she looks she sees signs of new life:

She could see in the open square before her house the tops of trees that were all aquiver with the new spring life. The delicious breath of rain was in the air. In the street below a peddler was crying his wares. The notes of a distant song which some one was singing reached her faintly, and countless sparrows were twittering in the eaves.
There were patches of blue sky showing here and there through the clouds that had met and piled one above the other in the west facing her window.
Then her mind begins to break from its bonds:

When she abandoned herself a little whispered word escaped her slightly parted lips. She said it over and over under her breath: "free, free, free!" 
There is more to the story than this and the ending is a tragic one but I hope some will want to read it so I will not give away any more of the plot.

This is a wonderful story.    As a married man with a great wife it did make me think.    The work of Chopin might not be quite on the level with that of Katherine Mansfield but she is for sure worth reading.

I think all of her stories can be read on line.    I read "The Story of an Hour" here.

If anyone has any suggestions as to short stories that they think are among the best please leave a comment.

Mel u

Thursday, May 27, 2010

Four Short Stories from The German Pension by Katherine Mansfield

"The Baron"  
"The Sister of the Baroness"
"Frau Fisher" 
"Frau Brechenmacher Attends a Wedding"
All from In A German Pension by Katherine Mansfield 

All of these short stories (none are over 15 pages) are from Katherine Mansfield's first collection of short stories,  In a German Pension  (1911).    I have already posted on the first story in this collection, "German Meat".   All of these stories revolve around the experiences of a young English woman  taking the waters at a health spa in Germany and staying in a pension there with others there for the same purpose.   The pension (boarding house) caters to affluent Germans seeking a cure for various ills real and imagined.     Spas were also places where the rich could go and get extensively pampered.   I am going to post on four stories  in the collection today.   Each story can stand on its own but they are interrelated.    I was surprised a little that some of these stories were laugh aloud funny  (as I said before, the stories are hard on Germans, who may not appreciate the humor in them).    Each of the four stories I will post on here is a real work of literary art.   Only one of them relies on the standard O Henry/Saki twist at the end technique which was seemingly preferred  by magazine editors of the time.   Mansfield did not need to care about this due to extreme family wealth.   

"The Baron"

"The Baron" is about a baron staying in the pension who keeps totally to himself.   He speaks to no one and he takes his meals in his room.    His social rank is higher than anyone else at the pension at the time and the other guests are hoping for some attention from the baron.    Mansfield does a wonderful job of conveying all this to us in a few sentences:
“The Baron comes every year,” went on the Herr Oberlehrer, “for his nerves. He has never spoken to any of the guests—yet.” A smile crossed his face. I seemed to see his visions of some splendid upheaval of that silence —a dazzling exchange of courtesies in a dim future, a splendid sacrifice of a newspaper to this Exalted One, a “danke schön” to be handed down to future generations.
The English woman runs into the baron in town and asks him why he always stays alone in his room.
I sit alone that I may eat more,” said the Baron, peering into the dusk; “my stomach requires a great deal of food. I order double portions, and eat them in peace.” 
They return to the pension together and the Baron gives her a very cordial thanks for her company.    The Baron departs that day for his estate and the English woman now has a much higher social status among the German guests.

"The Sister of the Baroness"

When ever a new guest checked in the pension the other guests were eager to discover the social and financial standing of the new arrivals.    Today a very exciting guest is expected:
There are two new guests arriving this afternoon,” said the manager of the pension, placing a chair for me at the breakfast-table. “I have only received the letter acquainting me with the fact this morning. The Baroness von Gall is sending her little daughter—the poor child is dumb—to make the ‘cure.’ She is to stay with us a month, and then the Baroness herself is coming.”
“Baroness von Gall,” cried the Frau Doktor, coming into the room and positively scenting the name. “Coming here? There was a picture of her only last week in Sport and Salon. She is a friend of the Court.
I am still trying to imagine how a course at a spa (known for its curative waters) could help this child and that is part of the great humor of this story.    (Mansfield was herself sent to a spa in Germany by her mother to cure   her of lesbianism through a series of water treatments some involving high pressure hoses!)

There is a really funny surprise ending to this story so I will not tell anymore of the plot.    Like all her stories I have read so far, the tone is marvelous and the prose is beautiful.   

"Frau Fisher"

Mansfield liked to flaunt convention, both in her life, her dress and in her stories.     Frau Fisher is the wealthy widow of a candle factory owner who comes once a year to the spa and always stays in the pension.     She is very curious about the young English woman:
. When I meet new people I squeeze them dry like a sponge. To begin with—you are married.”
I admitted the fact.
“Then, dear child, where is your husband?”
I said he was a sea-captain on a long and perilous voyage.
“What a position to leave you in—so young and so unprotected.”
She sat down on the sofa and shook her finger at me playfully.
“Admit, now, that you keep your journeys secret from him. For what man would think of allowing a woman with such a wealth of hair to go wandering in foreign countries? 
This conversation has turned into a private joke on Frau Fisher who just assumes the English woman is married.     From the conversations of the English woman just the idea she would be married to a sea captain is hilarious but the Frau has no clue.
This husband that I had created for the benefit of Frau Fischer became in her hands so substantial a figure that I could no longer see myself sitting on a rock with seaweed in my hair, awaiting that phantom ship for which all women love to suppose they hunger. Rather, I saw myself pushing a perambulator up a gangway, and counting up the missing buttons on my husband's uniform jacket
One of the things one seems to see often is the work of Mansfield is older society women who are happy dwellers in male dominated societies who delight in enforcing the rules of conventional correct behavior for young women.   Mansfield delights in puncturing pomposity and hypocrisy.   There is a smugness and self amused quality to the narrator of the stories in A German Pension that some may not like as much as I do.   The more I learn about her the more I like her and admire the brilliant incredible stories of her creator.  

"Frau Brechenmacher Attends a Wedding"-

This is another really fun story along the lines of the other three.  

I read these stories on line at The New Zealand Electronic Text Center.    This site has all of her stories on line (it looks to me), some of her letters and journals as well as a lot of great background information.   

There are nine stories I still have not had the pleasure of reading for the first time in In a German Pension.    I plan to post on them in  groups of 2 to 4.   None of these stories are among her most famous but so far this has been a very enjoyable read and I see why New Zealand is so proud of her.   

Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Ernest Hemingway "Hills Like Elephants" and "A Clean, Well Light Place"

"Hills Like Elephants"  (1927 -6 pages) and "A Clean,  Well Light Place" (1926, pages) both by Ernest Hemingway

Ernest Hemingway (1899 to 1961) won the Nobel Prize for fiction in 1954.   He is the author of such American classics as A Farewell to Arms  (based on his WWI experiences as an ambulance driver), The Sun Also Rises and The Old Man and The Sea all of which I read long ago. He also wrote a number of short stories that have near canon status including the two I just read.    In the public eye he is identified with hyper-masculine activities like bull fighting, big game hunting,  deep sea fishing and wars.    He was initially helped into print by Ford Madox Ford but in time turned against him.     Hemingway is known for his lean sparse prose.    Some consider him a writer that "manly men" can admire and take with them on a moose hunt.   Some see him as a poseur trying too hard to be masculine.   He is nearly always listed among top American novelists of the 20th century.     I think part of his continuing popularity may come from the fact that his works are easy to read and could readily be used as class room texts in places where Woolf, Joyce, Ford and Mansfield could not.    

  Hemingway skillfully throws us in the middle of a conversation of a man and a younger woman in a train station in Spain.    It is not explicitly said but the man and woman seem to be talking about whether or not the woman should get an abortion.   We do not learn the man's name but he calls the woman "Jig".    This is a degrading nickname with several slang meanings that were common knowledge in the 1920s.   "Jig" can mean a fast dance of the time and it also means sexual relations (You can verify this in Cassell's Dictionary of Slang) in the argot of the streets at the time.   I had the feeling the man in the story knew this but the woman did not.   Here is how their conversation starts out:

Well, let's try and have a fine time.'
'All right. I was trying. I said the mountains looked like white elephants. Wasn't that bright?'
'That was bright.'
'I wanted to try this new drink. That's all we do, isn't it - look at things and try new drinks?'
'I guess so.'
The girl looked across at the hills.
'They're lovely hills,' she said. 'They don't really look like white elephants. I just meant the colouring of their skin through the trees.'
'Should we have another drink?'

The man is doing his best to emotionally manipulate Jig into going through with the abortion.

Maybe the man just wants to get rid of a problem or maybe he really thinks it is the right thing to do, we are not sure.

'It's really an awfully simple operation, Jig,' the man said. 'It's not really an operation at all.'
The girl looked at the ground the table legs rested on.
'I know you wouldn't mind it, Jig. It's really not anything. It's just to let the air in.'
The girl did not say anything.
'I'll go with you and I'll stay with you all the time. They just let the air in and then it's all perfectly natural.'
'Then what will we do afterwards?'
'We'll be fine afterwards. Just like we were before.'
'What makes you think so?'
'That's the only thing that bothers us. It's the only thing that's made us unhappy"

 We do not find out what happens.   

I also read his perhaps better known story "A Clean, Well Light Place".   Of the two stories I think I liked "Hills Like Elephants" best.   The style in both works is  the same-lean prose, no flowery images, no lush descriptions and don't use two words where one will do.   

I am glad I read these stories.   Some find his prose beautiful, some do not.   Both can be read online.   I have used the term "bookish boy book" before and for sure Hemingway is in this category.   

Mel u

Harp of Burma by Michio Takeyama

Harp of Burma by Michio Takeyama (1948, tran.  from the Japanese 1966 by Howard Hibbett, 132 pages)

Michio Takeyama (1903 to 1984-Osaka, Japan) was a professor of German and translated works by Goethe, Nietzsche, and Albert Schweitzer into Japanese.  After graduating from Tokyo Imperial University he was sent by the Imperial Ministry of Education to study in Paris and Berlin.   He was not a supporter of the alliance of Japan with Italy and Germany and wrote a newspaper article opposing the Tripartite Alliance of the three countries prior to the start of WWII.   After the war he wrote The Burmese Harp (his only translated work) which made him world famous.  It was made into a very successful movie.  The translation of his work was sponsored by UNESCO.   The Burmese Harp tells the story of a group of Japanese soldiers in Burma who know the war is lost and who do not want to die for nothing.   The standard image of the Japanese soldier is that of a mindless fanatic who wishes to do nothing more than die for his Imperial God.     The soldiers in The Burmese Harp have been through hell.   They have been through years of constant fear from the British troops who are successfully taking back Burma (I decline for my own reasons to call it Myanmar) and from the Gurkhas whose knives they fear even worse.   They have been hungry for years, many have tropical diseases, they know somehow that Japan has been nearly destroyed by Allied Bombing and they do not know how their family and loved ones are doing back in Japan.

The soldiers in this unit do have something special.   They have a captain who encourages them to sing and a wonderfully strong corporal who plays the Burmese harp to keep up their spirits.   Compared to other units, the morale of the men in this group is very high.    The Captain gets word that the war is over and they surrender to the British.   As was normal, his unit was placed in a POW camp where they were told they would stay for a few months before being sent back to Japan.   The British Captain treats them with respect.   One day he approaches the Japanese captain and tells him he wants him to send a man into the jungle to advise a Japanese unit there that the war is over.    This is a very dangerous mission.    The harp player volunteers knowing he may well be killed as a coward by the men he will approach.    The harp player never returns from the mission.   He was sort of the heart of the unit.    The story is narrated in the first person by one of the soldiers and he often talks about the Burmese monks.   One day they see a Burmese monk who looks just like the harp player.     Some of the men in the unit ask him if he is their missing comrade but he denies it.    As the story goes on the narrator talks of how the culture of the Japanese lead them into a horrible war which devastated their country and took them to a terrible defeat while the much simpler almost primitive seeming Burmese want only to live in peace.   It does turn out the monk is the missing harp player.   He admits his identity when he finds out his old unit is being released and sent back to Japan.   He had been observing them the whole time and longed to be with them.     While in the jungle he had undergone a kind of conversion to the core values of Buddhism.    He had lived for months as a Burmese monk wandering the jungle and supported by the offerings of the Burmese.   Everywhere he went in the jungle he was increasingly horrified to see 1000s of unburied bodies of fallen Japanese.   He had committed to make his life mission to bury as many of these bodies as he could.    He sent a long letter to his friends to explain his decision:

We Japanese have not cared to make strenuous spiritual efforts.   We have not even recognized their value.  What we stressed was a man's abilities, the things he could do-not what kind of man he was, how he lived, or the depth of his understanding.   Of perfection as a human being, of humility, stoicism, holiness, the capacity to gain salvation and to help others to it-of all these virtues we were left ignorant.   I hope to spend the rest of my life seeking them as a monk in this foreign land...Our country has waged a war and lost it and is now suffering.   That is because we were greedy, because we were so arrogant that we forgot human values.  
Harp of Burma is an amazing book.    It affirms the deepest values of Buddhism and makes us see the horrors of war.    For western readers, it lets us see the humanity of the Japanese soldier.   You can read it in a few hours but I do not think you will soon forget the sound of the Burmese harp echoing a message of peace and faith through the Burmese jungle.    We can all learn a lot from the attitude of the Burmese people as depicted in this marvelous tale.   I recommend this book without reservation.   I think it is the first post WWII Japanese novel to harshly condemn the role of the Japanese in causing the horrors of WWII.    UNESCO was right to treat this book as a world class cultural treasure.

"German Meat" by Katherine Mansfield-Background for her first collection of short stories-The German Pension

"German Meat" by Katherine Mansfield (8 pages, 1911) is the lead story in her first collection of short stories, In A German Pension.   All of the stories in this collection center on the experiences of a young English woman staying at a boarding house in Germany.  ("Pension" is an old fashioned word for boarding house).   

Katherine Mansfield (1988 to 1923-New Zealand) was born into a wealthy highly educated New Zealand family.   (I have posted on her background in my prior Mansfield posts.)   At age 20 she made the 6 weeks plus steam ship trip to London to attend Queen's college, living with her two sisters initially.   Long story short she fell in love with the big city, had some flings with theatrical and literary bad boy types as well as romantic encounters with other women.   Mansfield's parents appear to have been very supportive of her (for sure they were financially) and when they got a letter from some old  New Zealand family friends that Mansfield lived with for a while in London and who seemed to have kicked her out due to her romance with their son describing her life style in particular her relationships with other women (in her late teen age years  while still in Wellington she had a relationship with a Maori woman) they were very worried.    Mansfield also in 1909 married a man she had known only a month and annulled the marriage after one day.   She also had a miscarriage about this time  although it is not clear to me from what I have read if her parents knew about all this.   Her parents were so alarmed that her mother made the very long steam ship voyage to London to check on her daughter.     At that time homosexuality was considered a disease and was a crime so after some investigation her mother sent her to the  Bavarian spa of Bad Wörishofen which purported to be able to cure a woman of lesbian tendencies through a series of baths in the mineral hot springs.   The treatment (I would love to know details I admit) also involved soaking  the women down with high pressure hoses!  During this six week or so period Mansfield stayed in a pension, all the other guests were Germans.   The stories in her first collection (edited by her) "In a German Pension" all center around the interactions of a young English woman with the other guests.    At the time most short stories were of the O Henry/Saki pattern with a surprise or a twist at the end.   Mansfield  disdained this as a cheap trick.    In defense of other story writers,  Mansfield did not need to sell her stories to magazine editors to have money to live.   The allowance she received all her life from her parents gave her the artistic freedom to follow her muse where it lead her.   

There are 13 stories included with In A German Pension.   "German Meat" is the first story.   (The spa also treated gout.)    Here is a conversation at the boarding house table when a German guest learns the English woman is a vegetarian:

“Is it true,” asked the Widow, picking her teeth with a hairpin as she spoke, “that you are a vegetarian?”
“Why, yes; I have not eaten meat for three years.”
“Im—possible! Have you any family?”
“There now, you see, that's what you're coming to! Who ever heard of having children upon vegetables? It is not possible. But you never have 


large families in England now; I suppose you are too busy with your suffragetting. Now I have had nine children, and they are all alive, thank God. Fine, healthy babies—though after the first one was born I had to—”
“How wonderful!” I cried.
“Wonderful,” said the Widow contemptuously, replacing the hairpin in the knob which was balanced on the top of her head. “Not at all! A friend of mine had four at the same time. Her husband was so pleased he gave a supperparty and had them placed on the table. Of course she was very proud.”
Germany,” boomed the Traveller, biting round a potato which he had speared with his knife, “is the home of the Family.
The English woman and the Germans talk about the possibility of war and both sides says it will not happen as neither has any desire for the country of the other. The story ends with the German widow asking the English woman about her husband's eating habits.

What is your husband's favourite meat?” asked the Widow.
“I really do not know,” I answered.
“You really do not know? How long have you been married?”
“Three years.”
“But you cannot be in earnest! You would not have kept house as his wife for a week without knowing that fact.”
“I really never asked him; he is not at all particular about his food.”
"German Meat" is not a mature marvel like some of her more famous stories but is really a great pleasure to read (maybe not so much if you are German!)

The full text of In A German Pension is on line at the New Zealand Text Center along with a lot of great background information.   There is also a great article   detailing the New Zealand era reading life of Mansfield and literary culture in New Zealand.    This web page is a wonderful resource and a model of its type.

There are 12 other stories in In A German Pension.   I plan to read them all.   I have not decided yet if I will post on each one individually but I will for sure at least comment on all of them.   Mansfield also wrote some wonderful poems (they are on the New Zealand Texts web page).    Google books also has most of her stories on line.   

I again request that anyone who has any suggestion as to short stories I can read online please leave them in a comment.    Thanks

Mel u

Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Five Modern No Plays by Yukio Mishima

Five  Modern No Plays by Yukio Mishima (1957, trans. and introduced by Donald Keene, 199 pages)

I am becoming increasingly convinced that one of the defining characteristics of the Japanese novel (and I think there is more to this concept than just the language) is an assumption that the audience for the novels will be familiar with the conventions of various types of Japanese theater.   One of the first Japanese novels I read was Yukio Mishima's The Sailor Who Fell From Grace with  the Sea.    If you merely look at this as purely European novel the plot line is cliched and the characters are not fully developed.    When I stepped back and came to see this as a novel that assumes the ritualized and representational features of classical Japanese theater I was able to see the brilliance in the work.    After reading Kenzaburo Oe's Somersault I read a number of the Amazon and Goodreads reviews.    Many said the characters are not well developed and seem almost like cartoon figures.  Somersault is also, in part, a theatrical novel which assumes a familiarity with the conventions of Japanese theater.   This knowledge is not something arcane that only professors would understand , it is (or maybe better said now was) part of the common culture of the Japanese novel reader.

A year ago or so when I read my first Japanese novel I was just looking for some new to me good books.   Then I moved on to looking for the best of  the Japanese novel.  Now I am trying to understand the Japanese novel as a cultural entity.  That is why I was very happy when I saw this book in a local bookstore.   Donald Keene, the translator  and author of the very informative and well written introduction,  deserves much of the credit for opening up Japanese literature to the English language world through his translations of many books and through the scholars and translators he educated and inspired in nearly 50 years as a professor.    Yukio Mishima (1925 to 1970)   is on all lists of best five Japanese novelists.   One of the themes of his work is the destruction of traditional Japanese culture through the defeat in WWII and the subsequent total adoption of the values of consumerism by most Japanese.    Mishima felt deeply enough about his views to commit ritual suicide in support of them.

Each of the five plays in this book could be performed or read in an hour or so.   The plays have from three to ten characters.    The actors' lines in the plays range from one line to paragraph long dissertations.    Some of the plays border on the drama of the absurd (they probably owe a lot to  the post WWII French theater) and others are simple encounters.   The essential action in the first drama in the collection comes from the conversation of a man who claims to be a poet and a very old woman (she claims to be 99) who says she was once a great beauty.  It is up to the reader to decide if they are what they say they are.  Some of the lines have a brilliant epigrammatic quality that made me read them several times.    I would love to see these performed though the odds of that are pretty low.

I recommend this book to devotees of Mishima (which I have now become also), those who want to acquire a bit of the cultural background to more deeply appreciate the Japanese novel  and to those interested in modern drama.   I am grateful to Vintage International Press for keeping in print so many of  Mishima's works.     There is convincing biographical evidence in the form of reports from multiple sources that Mishima can be listed as a GLBT author.   There are it appears 13 novels in print from Vintage and three collections of plays.   One of  the plays is entitled "My Friend Hitler".    I hope to eventually read all of his translated works.

Here is a link to some more Japanese posts

Mel u

"The Enormous Radio" by John Cheever

"The Enormous Radio" by John Cheever (8 pages, 1953, originally published in The New Yorker)

John Cheever (1912 to 1982-Quincy, Massachusetts) is probably most highly regarded now for his short stories which were mostly set in New York City and the American North East region.   He received a Pulitzer Price in 1979.   His two most famous novels are The Falconer and The Wapshot Scandal.   I have never read his work before now nor have I see his novels posted about on any of the blogs I follow.  The last time I heard a reference to John Cheever was, I admit, in an episode of the Seinfled show.

"The Enormous Radio" is often  mentioned as one of Cheever's best short stories.   It is set in a big American city which I think we are to take as New York City.   The time frame is not given but as radios occupy the place TVs do now in American lives I think it set in the 1940s.   It centers on a married couple, a quite ordinary couple with nothing it seems remarkable about them.   The prose of Cheever is pleasant and easy to read.   He starts the story out with a description of the couple it is about.

Jim and Irene Wescott were the kind of people who seem to strike that satisfactory average of income, endeavor, and respectability that is reached by the statistical reports in college alumni bulletins.  They were the parents of two young children, they had been married nine years, they lived on the twelfth floor of an apartment house near Sutton Place, they went to the theater on an average of 10.3 times a year, and they hoped someday  to live in Westchester.  

Their big passion was listening to the radio,   especially Irene who stayed at home with the children  while Jim worked.   This was in the day when radios were big and had beautiful wood cabinets.   Their old radio was not working well at all so Jim bought a new one for his wife.  (To relate, imagine a super hot computer being delivered to replace  to replace a five year old one and we can sense what this means to the family.)

The wife is at first intimidated by the many dials and knobs on the radio.   Then Irene begins to notice something very odd.   She can hear voices coming out of the radio.   After a while they realize the voices belong to other people who live in the same building they do.

The Westcotts overheard that evening a monologue on salmon fishing in Canada, a bridge game, running comments on home movies of what had apparently been a fortnight at Sea Island, and a bitter family quarrel about an overdraft at the bank.

Irene at first enjoys her eavesdropping  but soon she begins to be overwhelmed by the sadness in the conversations she hears and the shocking things she learns about her neighbors.    Irene begins to tell her husband how shocked she is by what she has learned about the other wives in the building:  one woman is having an affair with the hideous apartment maintenance man, one woman who seems so nice appears to be a prostitute, and one had an abortion behind her husband's back, etc.   Everyday she tells her husband what she hears.   I will not tell any more of the plot.   It is in the tradition that suggests a short story needs a surprise or twist at the end.

To me, "The Enormous Radio" was an enjoyable read.     It is not comparable to Katherine Mansfield, Kate Chopin,  or Flannery O'Conner but it was fun, easy to read and made me think a bit and did do a good job of building up a world in a few pages.   Ok is is not high art etc but sometimes you would rather watch the Seinfeld show than the highest rated BBC or PBS drama!

Please leave your suggestions as to good short stories (that I can read online) in a comment and my great thanks for the many very good ideasI have already gotten.

Mel u

Monday, May 24, 2010

The Waves by Virginia Woolf

The Waves by Virginia Woolf (1931, 297 pages)

I want firstly to thank Nicole of  Bibliographing (whose blog I have been following for a long time) for sending me this book.   I have been intending to  read Woolf   for a long time (I read her short story "The Mark on the Wall" and posted on it while I was reading The Waves) and I will now always be grateful to Nicole for giving me the nudge I needed. 

Woolf (1882 to 1941) is for sure the most influential female literary artist of the 20th century.   She really seems to have no competition for this title.   Her literary output was tremendous.   In addition to numerous novels now in the canon she wrote essays that are still treasured and  wonderful short stories.   She was born into a wealthy highly cultured English family.    She was a member of the Bloomsbury group.    In her literary style she experimented with different techniques for conveying the stream of consciousness of the people in her novels.   

The Waves, based on my brief research,  is considered her most experimental novel.   In it she combines the interior monologues of three men and three women.   There is a seventh major character off stage, Percival, who passes away half way through the book.   Each of the characters emerge from the stream of soliloquies as a personality with their own needs.   They also all blend into one and help create each other.   I am glad I read Ford Madox Ford's incredible Parade's End (the final section of which was published in 1928) shortly before I began The Waves.    Both books are about the construction of reality out of the fragments of experience.    Making use of the Wikipedia definition,  I sort of see both works as "Cubist novels":

In cubist artworks, objects are broken up, analyzed, and re-assembled in an abstracted form—instead of depicting objects from one viewpoint, the artist depicts the subject from a multitude of viewpoints to represent the subject in a greater context. Often the surfaces intersect at seemingly random angles, removing a coherent sense of depth. The background and object planes interpenetrate one another to create the shallow ambiguous space, one of cubism's distinct characteristics.

Both also make prolific use of cultural references though perhaps Ford's are more diverse.   Much of the prose of The Waves feels like a wave is going over us.   There are sections of the novel where there are some transitional scenes as we move from sunrise to sunset all of which take place by the shore.   As I read the work I knew I would   just have to accept I would not fully understand it and just sort of let the beauty of the prose take me under its power.  I think trying to arrive at a neat intellectualized account of the meaning of the novel is a perversion of the wonder of it.    I had marked numerous passages I wanted to quote but decided I could not really pick out just a few quotes.  I did learn something from this passage about the lingering sadness caused by the death too young of friends and loved ones I wanted to share:

Among the tortures and devastations of life then is this -our friends are not able to finish their stories.
There is much wisdom in this work.    Many passages to marvel at and savor abound in The Waves.  The Waves can be read  as poetry started and stopped at any section.   

I would like to read the three or four best of her novels-if you have any suggestions please leave a comment.

Virginia Woolf is one of the icons of twentieth century literature admired by many for her life style as much as her work.  

The Cage by Kenzo Kitakata-Japanese Crime Novel

The Cage by Kenzo Kitakata (1983, translated from the Japanese by Paul Warham, 2006, 231 pages)

The Cage by Kenzo Kitakata (1947-) is the first Japanese novel I have read that focuses on the world of the yakuza gangsters.     It is the first novel that centers on a professional criminal and the police officers who combat him.   I have posted on the much better than this novels of  Natsuo Kirino which also have a crime as their central focus but in her case they are sort of accidental crimes committed by ordinary if socially marginal  people at the end of their ropes.     One of my goals in reading Japanese novels is not just to get to know individual writers (I have now placed four Japanese novelists on my "read all I can list" and I think there are numerous more that will be added as Japanese Literature 4 gets underway soon) but to come to at least a partial understanding of the Japanese novel as a whole.   So I thought I should read this new to me type of crime novel plus I figured it might be fun to learn about the yakuza.   

The Cage is about a former yakuza member now trying to lead a respectable life as the manager of a super-  market.   He is having problems with sabotage in the store.   Red dye is being put in the milk and rats are being mixed into his meat display.   Soon he finds out a big supermarket chain that wants his store to be closed down or sold to them is behind all this and finds they are employing a yakuza gang to force his store to sell out at a low cost.    The supermarket manager confronts an enforcer for the gang and is soon drawn into a conflict with local yakuza.  The plot moves on from here to show the role of the police in fighting the yakuza etc.   I was disappointed in this book as it really does not give us much of a look at the world of the yakuza.

The only people I would recommend this book to are those really into crime novels.   If you just want a look at the lower depths of Japanese society, there are better options such as Kirino.   I found this novel a bit boring and ended up speed reading my way through it.   If you check some of my other posts on the Japanese novel you will find at least 50 books better than this one.   Still I am glad I read it as every book broadens my understanding of the Japanese novel as a whole.   

Mel u

"The Lottery" by Shirley Jackson

"The Lottery" by Shirley Jackson (1948, 8 pages-originally published in The New Yorker)

Recently I have been studying a number of different "Best Short Stories" lists.    Most lists overlap a lot with your standard canon writers like Poe, Gogol,  Chekhov, Woolf, Mansfield, Joyce etc.    When I see a new to me story on a list I do not take it seriously until I see it on several lists.    One new to me writer that I have seen on numerous lists is Shirley Jackson for her story "The Lottery".   

After a bit of research I found Jackson (1916 to 1965-San Francisco, California) was a very influential writer of Gothic horror  style stories.    Her work is greatly admired by Stephen King and Neil Gaiman.   She was married to a well known literary critic, Stanley Hyman.   She wrote six novels with titles like Hangsaman and The House on Haunted Hill.    According to several on line biographies, she and her husband had a personal library of over 100,000 volumes.    Among lovers of Gothic Horror fiction she is highly regarded.    It seems for sure "The Lottery" is her most famous work.

"The Lottery" is set in a small village environment where everyone knows everyone.   As the story open you got a sense of foreboding and I admit I visualized the residents of the village walking around with glassy eyes and pitchforks in their hands.   Her style is simple and straightforward.   It is a story anyone can enjoy and after reading think "Ok that was cute and quirky and clever and did not strain my mind a whole lot".

Here are the opening lines which give a clear picture of her style:
The morning of June 27th was clear and sunny, with the fresh warmth of a full-summer day; the flowers were blossoming profusely and the grass was richly green. The people of the village began to gather in the square, between the post office and the bank, around ten o'clock; in some towns there were so many people that the lottery took two days and had to be started on June 2th. but in this village, where there were only about three hundred people, the whole lottery took less than two hours, so it could begin at ten o'clock in the morning and still be through in time to allow the villagers to get home for noon dinner.

We learn that the lottery is a ritual that has been around a long time.   It has deep cultural meaning to the older residents who decry that the young do not really correctly observe the forms of the ritual.   We do not learn what the lottery is for until the very end of the story.   It is fully in the tradition of a story that depends on a surprise ending to work.    I will let you discover the ending for yourself but maybe you will see it coming.

I enjoyed reading this story.  It just took a few minutes.  It is not a literary classic just a well written enjoyable story that makes us think a bit.   It is not near the level of  Katherine Mansfield, Kate Chopin, or Flannery O'Conner.   The writing style is what I would call bland.   I think it maybe listed on so many lists as a classic short story as I think it could easily be taught in a class aimed at students 12 and above.   I would say it is worth reading as a fun diversion.    You can read it on line here.

Please leave in a comment any short stories you can endorse -

Mel u