The nights are drawing in, even though I’m still in denial. So it’s time to start thinking of creating cosy spaces around the house where you can read, gather all your books and forget about the rest of the world.
In order to spare you book-length blog posts, I will do my summaries of films watched every month in two sessions: halfway through the month and at the end of the month. The first part of September saw us going out to the cinema (once), transfixed by the saddest season of The Wire and also debating some classics of world cinema. We have now set up a ‘film bowl’, i.e. a mixing bowl in which we’ve put pieces of paper with all of the films we have available to watch (on DVD or on various TV streaming services) and we pick them out of the bowl at the weekend.
I have to admit I went to see this one more as a test run for the cinema experience than for the film itself. The concept of time moving clockwise and anti-clockwise was interesting, but the film was too big, too loud (you couldn’t even hear important conversations above the explosive bangs) and too much of a cross between James Bond and The Night Manager to truly appeal. A lot was made of the locations, but the characters were just not given sufficient depth.
I was saying to my older son that Christopher Nolan had been much more creative on a smaller budget in his earlier work, Memento, and we had the opportunity to watch it on BBC2 a couple of nights ago. It certainly holds up in terms of clever storytelling, without feeling gimmicky, and still raises questions around the slipperiness of memory, small mistakes which can pass unnoticed but lead to much bigger mistakes, as well as lack of trust.
Older son, the film buff, unearthed this one – an animated film for grown-ups from the 1970s, called La Planète sauvage in the original French, directed by Rene Laloux and co-written by Roland Topor. On a planet called Tgan, the gargantuan blue humanoid Draags keep the relatively tiny humans called Oms as pets. However, some Oms remain undomesticated, live in the wilderness and rebel on occasion, so they are periodically slaughtered by the Draags. As you can imagine, this is a powerful allegory about slavery, exploitation and repression. The hand-drawn animation and inventive hybrid plants and animals on their island are like something out of Claude Ponti books, while the music is reminiscent of Pink Floyd. Truly psychedelic effect!
Fantastic Mr Fox
I have mixed feelings about Wes Anderson films – I love the meticulous attention to detail and that slightly old-fashioned, arts-and-crafts look and feel of his films, but sometimes it feels like this is done at the expense of the content. However, in this instance, form and function blend together well, Anderson even added what might be called an existential twist to it regarding family relationships and creating your own identity (via the rivalry between Mr and Mrs Fox’s son Ash and the cousin who comes to visit).
Although the boys were moved by the film, they were not as shaken by it as I was when I first saw it. I don’t know if this is because the subject is now well-known, or if the memory of the Second World War and the pogrom is starting to recede. OS went to Auschwitz on a class trip and had visited Schindler’s factory in Krakow, so he recognised some of the places, but complained that Amon Goeth was too much of a cartoon villain. I had to gently explain that he was, if anything, even worse than depicted in the film, according to eyewitness accounts.
This was a bit of a disappointment – both to my sons and to me (I hadn’t seen it since the age of twenty, when I was studying Japanese). My sons thought it lacked pacing and was overacted. I tried to explain about the stylised acting of the Kabuki theatre, as well as the silent era of cinema in the West. Kurosawa certainly seems to be saying:’ Why should I explain things in words when facial expressions or music or a shadow flitting across a face can say so much more?’ It does feel as if the people are all acting ‘at’ each other, which I guess is the point in a film that is so much about lies, interpretation and, once again, reliability of memory.
The Wire Season 4
This was the season I expected would appeal most to the boys, and indeed they laughed at some of the classroom scenes. I’m not sure if they felt the indictment of poor parenting as deeply as I did. But the emphasis on testing and stats instead of actual learning, the lack of budgets for schools and the political manoeuvring around education sounded all too familiar. And it was so sad to see most of the boys unable to escape from their social environment and almost preordained career paths as criminals.
I read two books with summer in their title to ease me into autumn. I’m not quite ready for autumn yet, when I feel I haven’t really had a summer (or at least the nice bits of summer, only the heat). Luckily, we have a few summer days to look forward to this coming week. Both of these books were both fun, but also thoughtful, lyrical, filled with characters I wanted to get to know better,and very evocative in their setting.
Sarah Moss is one of the authors I will read without questioning: her work is always interesting and tries to push the boundaries, even if it’s not always 100% successful. This latest book is more in the vein of what one might call the ‘exasperated humour’ of contemporary family life of Night Waking rather than her historical fiction, such as Bodies of Light or Signs for Lost Children.
A random assortment of families or couples are spending their summer cooped up in log cabins in a Scottish holiday park. Of course it is raining. ‘It can’t keep up like that all day, there can’t be that much water up there’, people are reassuring themselves, but for most of the day it does. The author seems to be having fun finding different ways to describe the relentless, never-ending downpour. ‘Rain is God’s way of stopping Scots having sinful levels of fun’. Or ”the Scottish sky is better at obscenity than any human voice’.
Understandably, tempers are frayed, especially since there is a foreign family having parties until late at night in one of the cabins (they are variously – and carelessly – described as Romanians, Bulgarians, Polish, although in fact they are from the Ukraine, with that typical lack of curiosity about geographical precision that comes from people who would be very miffed if you confused their Yorkshire accent with a Brummie one, or Minnesota with Michigan).
We get to see fitness fanatic Justine, bored of her rather judgemental husband, using running as an excuse to escape the children for a couple of hours and despising anyone who isn’t as driven as she is. Elderly David, a retired doctor, and his wife Mary – the chapter from her point of view, being one of the most moving portrayals of gradual sinking into dementia, grasping at notions and words. Young couple Josh and Milly, who are planning to get married and are doing a test run of domestic life with sex-fuelled days, and some lacklustre cooking and conversation. Lola and Jack, young kids bored with their parents – an overly anxious mother and a father who’s taken his work with him on holiday, so they wander around looking for someone to play with – or bully. A family with utterly fed up teenagers, each embarking on potentially dangerous activities. A family with even younger children, struggling so much to find ways to keep them entertained that they forget to look after themselves.
There are a lot of amusing and recognisable vignettes of family life, across a range of ages and political beliefs, but I believe the author intends to do more than that. This is designed to be a ‘state of the nation’ novel, albeit on a small scale, and that’s why she also brings in descriptions of nature, of the environment, the climate and how humans link to it, what will stay behind once the humans have left. I accept all that and found it worked for me on the whole, really enjoyed the book most of the way through. But then, for some reason, it seems to stop abruptly, with a sudden dramatic event. It felt too rushed: I’d have liked to hear more from each of the different voices, perhaps their reactions to the event, or some kind of conclusion.
I’ve known Alison Anderson as a translator from French into English (Muriel Barbery, Le Clézio, Amélie Nothomb), but she also speaks excellent Russian, and she uses her knowledge of the country, its literature and culture, to evoke the late 19th century in the Ukraine, as well as the present (the novel was published in 2016 and is set in 2014). In the modern day we have Katya, a London publisher of Russian origin, who is hoping that the recently unearthed diary of Zinaida Lintvaryova will resurrect her fortunes, as well as the translator Ana, who falls in love with Zinaida’s voice and of course with her famous guest.
Who is the famous summer guest? Well, Zinaida kept a diary of the three years in the late 1880s, during which she and her family hosted on their rural estate in north-eastern Ukraine the writer Chekhov and his family for the summer. Zinaida had qualified as a doctor, but had to stop practising, as she was blinded by a fatal illness. Chekhov forms a great bond with her, based partly on their shared profession, but above all on her great listening skills and unsentimental, uncomplaining approach to life. He ends up entrusting her with the manuscript of a novel that he has been trying to write. Ana gets overexcited at the thought that there might be a lost Chekhov novel and that she might be the one to translate it.
Not only do we have lush descriptions of country life and family squabbles, love interests and disappointments, but also what Chekhov describes as ‘living well, inspecting each moment for honesty and fullness and awareness’. I just loved the fascinating discussions about literature and human psychology between Anton Pavlovich (who was just starting to gain fame as a writer at that time) and Zinaida. For instance, this revealing passage about Anna Karenina, in which Chekhov states:
… if we all had Anna’s desperate soul, the world would descend into a chaos of tragedy. That was Tolstoy’s vision for the novel, based on a true incident – so such things do happen. But most often… banality. Which is why I prefer to err on the side of comedy. Otherwise life would be altogether too hard to bear, don’t you think? If love always led to train platforms? All this passion tearing people apart, sending decent women out into the night without so much as a bonnet on their head?
But the present-day story also has its merits, with thoughts on translation and mediating between cultures, and displacement more generally, as well as love and its loss, and even the protests on the Maidan in Kiev in 2014. There is even a bit of a mystery attached to it. Overall, an enchanting, dreamy book, one I wish I’d read much sooner.
Some of the interior design sites or magazines show me rooms which seem really attractive at first sight, until I think about how uncomfortable or downright dangerous it might be to live there and use them daily. Still, these Friday Fun posts are all about dreaming and escapism, so let’s not be too rational, shall we?
It’s a brave, bold move to write a diary about being rejected as a writer and learning to live with it, especially when it is not a rediscovered manuscript from a hundred years ago but refers to the present day, and is not a one-off article in a newspaper. How can you write about your disappointments and discomfort when you have published in the past, known some success and critical acclaim, have a second home in France and friends who invite you on holidays abroad?
I am sure that some descriptions of Michèle Roberts’ life over the course of a year (a day for each month of the year) will jar with many readers. And perhaps it was too soon to publish this – this is the kind of diary that might be published posthumously – but I for one found her candour and zest for life refreshing. She copes with the double disappointment of a relationship breaking down and being rejected by a publisher and fearing that she will never be able to write again in the only way she knows how: by keeping a diary, trying to come to terms with failure but also describing the good things going on in her life.
‘Negative capability’ is a phrase that has often been mentioned before (it is also the title of a Marianne Faithfull album). It comes from Keats, who sees it as an ideal state for a poet (or human being in general): ‘capable of being in uncertainties, Mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact & reason’. A sort of Zen state. You might be quibble that it is doubtful that Roberts achieves this in the twelve months, there is certainly quite a lot of anger especially towards the beginning of the book, but she certainly tries.
Having attended a workshop run by the author, I did squirm a little at the description of one of the courses she runs in Dublin and there certainly is the literary author’s disdain towards genre literature in this paragraph:
Most of the students equated writing novels with producing marketable commodities. They were obsessed with writing correctly to certain agent-identified, agent-approved agendas… These students obviously had a template for the perfect commercial genre novel in their heads. Product! They spoke authortiatvely about rules and techniques, about backstory and front-loading and info dumps. They trusted literature less than self-help writing manuals.
As always, I can see both sides of this argument. The problem is that far too many would-be writers think they are ‘too profound, too literary’ to respect any rules, but that, to get published, you do have to meet certain criteria and commodify your work. But this proliferation of writing courses and ‘meet the publisher or the agent’ events do tend to lead to a lot of cookie-cutter novels and MFA type writing, which exasperate me and which allow little room for experimentation or diversity.
Roberts is often sharp-tongued and sarcastic about the people she encounters, but always harshest on herself. She does not shy away from dissecting her own pretensions, assumptions, beliefs, but she also shows much tenderness towards friends and neighbours, even her ex-partners. She shows the rawness of her grief at the death of a friend, and is very open about the flickers of sexual desire, the need for love, which she still feels and which, in an older woman, society deems almost shameful.
I related above all to her dual identity (her mother was French, her father English) and to her conclusion that life goes on, despite there being no recognisable or comforting patterns, and that one should stop seeking approval from somewhere.
Perhaps Negative Capability could mean finally letting go once and for all of that deep, childhood need for approval by powerful others, letting go of making them the sole arbiters of whether I was any good as a person, as a writer… Strength not as a shield, but formed from the knowledge of my own capacity for weakness, my knowledge of the support of other writers, the support of friends.
In the end, this proved a soothing read (with recipes for Normandy chicken and mackerel in the special launch pack which I pre-ordered from Sandstone Press). A reminder that there is life beyond loss and rejection, and that we have to make the most of living in the moment and connecting with our friends.
Another month, another Six Degrees of Separation link-up hosted by Kate at Books Are My Favourite and Best. Each month a book is chosen as a starting point and linked to six other books to form a chain. This month the starting point is Rodham by Curtis Sittenfeld, an alternative history of Hillary Clinton, a book that I haven’t read and have no intention of reading.
I’m not a huge fan of fictional biographies (even ‘alternative’ ones), but one book that I do have on my shelves and am thinking of reading is The Paris Wife by Paula McLain. It’s the story of Hemingway’s first wife, Hadley, and the early years of his writing career and his Paris lifestyle. I don’t have a very high opinion of Hemingway as a man and husband, so this book is likely to reinforce this view.
It might be an obvious link, but my next choice of book is one set in Paris, namely Paris Nocturne by Patrick Modiano. Modiano is a fine writer, although his low-key, unshowy prose often translates as rather flat in English, but he was a bit of a surprise Nobel Prize winner. I find he does tend to address the same themes over and over again, which can get wearisome. However, this is one of his best, most slippery and mysterious books about accidents, mistakes and unreliable memories, with the streets of Paris coming to melancholy life here.
From one Nobel Prize winner to a wannabe one. According to Mircea Cartarescu’s Journal (III – aka Zen), which I read a few years back, he is disappointed every year that he hasn’t won it. Maybe it will be his year this year? This is a very personal and surprisingly candid diary, and this third volume (from 2004-2010) deals with suffering from writer’s block, going on a lot of writing retreats, keeping his family at arm’s length and learning to live with fame and freedom. I love some of his work, but this diary is a little bit too much like Karl Ove Knausgård for me.
Which brings me to the next obvious link, Knausgård himself. I only read three of the Norwegian writer’s six volume memoir and my favourite was Part 2, A Man in Love, which is more than a little self-indulgent (a man in love with himself?) but entertaining to see a man struggling to combine parenthood with writing, for once.
But enough of male writers drunk on their own ego, let’s look at a woman writer who was a star in her own time, namely Fanny Burney and her first novel Evelina was written in secret and published anonymously, because her father did not approve of her scribbles. She had a wicked satirical pen and cynical view of high society (perhaps informed by her stint as a lady-in-waiting at the Royal Court). She is also famous for her diaries, which she kept over a period of no less than 72 years – and she was probably the first person to describe a mastectomy performed on her without anaesthetic.
Although she didn’t write about mastectomies, Virginia Woolf’s Diaries do tell us about her fear of succumbing to her mental illness once more, and how much of an effort it was for her to socialise and be creative at times. Nevertheless, it also give us an entertaining insight into the gossip of the Bloomsbury Group, as well as her thoughts about her reading and the seedlings of ideas from which her novels grew.
Not that much travel this month – only Paris, Romania, Norway and England. But where will your links take you?
Overall, a good month of reading: 11 books, of which four were outstanding (Haushofer, Teffi, Kawakami and Melchor), three were very good (Puhlovski, Michele Roberts and Sarah Moss), two were entertaining and two were fine (just not as good as I expected). Unsurprisingly, with it being Women in Translation Month, I read mostly women, Mark Billingham being the sole male writer sneaking in because of the Virtual Crime Book Club.
If you include the Spanish Literature Challenge reads from July and the Tokarczuk which I read in July but did not get to review until August, I’ve reviewed a total of nine books for #WITMonth and they represent a nice diversity of nationalities.
- Liliana Colanzi – Bolivia
- Margarita Garcia Robayo – Colombia
- Lina Meruane – Chile
- Olga Tokarczuk – Poland
- Marlen Haushofer – Austria
- Teffi – Russia
- Marina Šur Puhlovski – Croatia
- Mieko Kawakami – Japan
- Fernanda Melchor – Mexico
I also had the best experience that can happen to a book blogger, who can sometimes feel they are writing in the dark, spending all their money buying books, then hours on writing fair reviews, only to discover that a handful of people read them. [Always the same handful, usually, and I am very grateful to my constant readers!] But then… Mieko Kawakami actually read and retweeted my review and thanked me for it: ‘Thank you from the bottom of my heart for writing such an insightful, courageous and wonderful review. I am also touched to know that you wrote it in time for my birthday’. I think that will keep me going for another few years in terms of reviewing motivation, for sure!
In between reading and reviewing these more demanding books (ostensibly – I found most of them on the whole pleasant and easy to read), I had some down time with the non-fiction of Michèle Roberts in Negative Capability, a gentle, contemplative and very evocative book about learning to live with uncertainty and even failure, while still enjoying life, and the hilariously accurate and often poignant observation of people on holiday in Summerwater by Sarah Moss (reviews to follow).
I mentioned some of the films I saw in early August, before the boys joined me for my share of the holidays. Since their return, I have watched some of their film choices, as well as mine. Let’s see if you can spot which is which!
- Christian Petzold: Barbara (Germany) – captures the chill factor and claustrophobia of East Germany when the Stasi have their eyes on you
- Alejandra Márquez Abella: The Good Girls (Mexico) – what to do when the economy of your country is in meltdown, your currency worthless and you still have to keep up appearances – the original ladies who lunch, viewed with biting satire but also some compassion
- Almodovar: Live Flesh (Spain) – I love my early (1980s-90s) Almodovar – complex female characters, good-looking young men, and always elements of the past creeping in and tainting the present
- Tarantino: Django Unchained (US) – was not expecting this Western approach to the story of slavery (and yes, he does rather glorify violence, but that is Tarantino every single time)
- Alejandro G. Iñárritu: Birdman (US/Mexico) – the long, long single shots worked a treat (only found out afterwards how difficult they were for actors and crew to get right) and Michael Keaton, with his own Batman background, was the perfect actor for this part
I’ve just noticed that I’ve had quite a good dose of Mexico this month in both books and films!
Plans for next month – well, what’s even the point of planning, because I don’t seem to stick to any of my plans?
Fernanda Melchor: Hurricane Season, transl. Sophie Hughes (Fitzcarraldo Editions, 2020)
Someone on Goodreads describes reading Hurricane Season like ‘running downhill’ and that is probably the best description of what it feels like: the mad rush, the acceleration, the inevitability of gravity pulling at you. You get caught up in something inescapable and you cannot stop until you reach the bottom of the hill, whether in one piece or not. This is one of the few instances where I perfectly understand and concur with the author’s choice of syntax and style: eight chapters, eight different voices, and it feels like each chapter is composed of just one very long sentence. In actual fact, there might be more than one, but the overall effect is one of precipitation and agitation, so you cannot put the book down and it propels you along to its terrible conclusion.
Not that the beginning isn’t terrible as well. It starts with some children playing by the canal in the Mexican village of La Matosa and finding the body of the local ‘witch’. The rumours go into overdrive about what could have happened to the person they called the Young Witch, to distinguish her from her mother, who was likewise known as a Witch and to whom all villagers turned to for medicine, potions and fortune-telling. In each chapter we find out more about the murder and the witches themselves, the village and several of its inhabitants, in their own language, via their own unfiltered thoughts.
The breathless, feverish style may make for an exhilarating read, but it’s not a joyful one. You may feel the urge to shower or go for a long walk after being in those people’s heads for a while. Poverty, illiteracy, misogyny and homophobia in the rural area are conveyed with such urgency, that they feel like a blow to your stomach. In the interview with Fernanda Melchor and her translator at the Edinburgh Book Festival, the author says she deliberately set out to shock the audience with the violence of the discourse, to demonstrate that this kind of language, thought and behaviour are not normal, that we cannot be complicit in it. She also said she had to start therapy after finishing the book, because so much work and heart and passion went into it – and I’m not surprised.
What really struck me is how angry each of the characters is – anger is often the way they express their loneliness or desperation or need to be loved. The men, especially, come across as weak, pathetic losers who have to take it out on those weaker than themselves, usually the women and children. The author says she is not excusing the monstrous behaviour of those people, but she wanted to show how monsters are made. And she certainly succeeds. She does not shy away from describing the mud and stench, the lack of opportunities, the small and great betrayals, where even the family no longer represents a safe harbour, and where church and superstition constrain people even more.
If you dislike strong language and graphic descriptions of violence and bodily functions, you are going to struggle with this one. The author used the speech patterns of her own native Veracruz region, but also described how she was inspired by A Clockwork Orange to construct a fictional language that would really highlight the problems. Although I haven’t read Selva Almada’s Dead Girls yet, that book (which is a true crime recount similar to In Cold Blood) would provide and interesting contrast with this fictional insight into femicide, a huge problem in most Latin American countries.
This is a world in which men and women distrust and merely use each other, both sides feeling trapped, not realising that it is society that has entrapped them. The men tell each other:
And there are bitches who go even further, they head into the hills in the rainy season to pick a wildflower shaped like a trumpet… and they brew them into a tea that turns you into a real prick, a real soft touch, brings you to your knees, cowering at their feet like a slave, and you don’t have the first fucking clue what’s going on… They’re all the same, dipshit, all up to the same tricks, all capable of untold fuckery just to hold on to you…’
Meanwhile, the women give each other advice as follows, even though they are talking about their own sons:
Got to keep your wits about you in this world… You drop your guard for a second and they’ll crush you, Clarita, so you better just tell that fuckwit out there to buy you some clothes. Don’t you be anyone’s fool, that’s what men are like: a bunch of lazy spongers who you have to keep rounding up to squeeze any use out of them… you’ve gotta keep men like that on a tight leash, keep them busy to stop them coming out with all their shit.
There are a few, very few glimmers of hope, the tentative possibility of real love – all too often nipped into the bud almost before it has had a chance to blossom. Ultimately, however, this is a horrific read, because it is a horrifying subject: the violence that humans perpetuate against each other, and especially against women. Towards the end of the novel, we realise the full extent of it, the national problem one might call it, as Melchor moves from the specific story to the bird’s eye view of the region.
They say the place is hot, that it won’t be long before they send in the marines to restore order in the region. They say the heat’s driven the locals crazy, that it’s not normal – May and not a single drop of rain – and that the hurricane season’s coming hard, that it must be bad vibes, jinxes, causing all that bleakness: decapitated bodies, maimed bodies, rolled-up, bagged-up bodies dumped on the roadside or in hastily dug graves on the outskirts of town. Men killed in shootouts and car crashes and revenge killings between rival clans; rapes, suicides, ‘crimes of passion’, as the journalists call them.
But just when you think there is no hope, no escape, when the women in town agree that ‘there’s no treasure in there… nothing more than a searing pain that refuses to go away’, you get the final chapter. Tenderness and a release of sorts, when a gravedigger known only as Grandfather buries the ‘overflow’ bodies from the morgue, the ones for whom there were no more spaces at the cemetery. He seems to be the only one showing some compassion for the poor mutilated bodies, some understanding of all the suffering, and he believes in talking to the dead as he buries them, guiding them into the afterlife. The final words seemed as powerful and elegiac as the ending of The Great Gatsby:
Don’t you worry, don’t fret, you just lie there, that’s it… The rain can’t hurt you now, and the darkness doesn’t last forever. See there? See that light shining in the distance? The little light that looks like a star? That’s where you’re headed, he told them, that’s the way out of this hole.
So pleased I managed to read this book in the nick of time to include it in the #WITMonth. One that I will be thinking about, uneasily, in years to come.
Mieko Kawakami: Breasts and Eggs, transl. Sam Bett and David Boyd
By fortunate coincidence, it turns out today is this author’s birthday, so Happy Birthday, Mieko! And thank you for a very thought-provoking and entertaining read.
If I told you that a book entitled Breasts and Eggs talks frankly and at length about breast surgery, sperm banks, artificial insemination, asexuality, single motherhood and periods, you would probably conclude that it is an angry feminist tract – possibly written by a brash Western writer (Virginie Despentes or Otessa Moshfegh come to mind). The fact that it was written by a Japanese woman makes this book seem even more revolutionary. Japan is still a far from equal society when it comes to gender – in some ways, it has even regressed in recent years under a conservative government.
Yet, of course, Japanese women have been writing books portraying women’s (and men’s) thoughts and their restricted lives for centuries. Just off the top of my head: Murasaki Shikibu‘s portrayal of men playing their power games with women as their pawns in the Heian period, to the frank description of sexual desire in Akiko Yosano, the trauma of spouses supplanted by second wives in Fumiko Enchi, the description of working class struggles and the red light district in Ichiyo Higuchi (a writer Kawakami cites as an inspiration), the fiendishly subversive retelling of myths of Aoko Matsuda. There is a plethora of exciting women writers in Japan today and, luckily for us, more of them are getting translated. Alongside the well established names such as Banana Yoshimoto, Natsuo Kirino, Yoko Ogawa, Hiromi Kawakami and Kanae Minato, we are starting to see the emergence of challenging and fearless writing, occasionally with a surreal twist, by younger authors such as Hitomi Kanehara, Sayaka Murata, Misumi Kubo and Nao-Cola Yamazaki.
So, while I don’t agree that Mieko Kawakami is a revolutionary who ‘lobbed a literary grenade into the fusty, male-dominated world of Japanese fiction’ (as The Economist puts it), I have to admit that this book addresses issues that are typically swept under the carpet in Japan – and, let’s admit it, probably are not discussed that much in fiction in the West either. And she manages to offer us a variety of opinions about motherhood and the female body, while also giving us an involving plot about sisterhood and friendship, well-rounded characters with great back stories, and writing which can span everything from raucous female banter (in dialect) to philosophy to passages of lyrical descriptions.
In the first part of the book, which is by and large the original novella entitled Breasts and Eggs that won the Akutagawa Prize in 2008, we see three women at three different stages of their lives. Natsuko, the narrator, is 30, still young but no spring chicken anymore, and she can feel the clock ticking on her career as a writer in Tokyo. Her sister, Makiko, is nearly ten years older and still lives in their home town of Osaka, doing her best to keep herself and her daughter afloat as a single mum, working in a hostess bar. She too can feel the clock ticking – on her body – and thinks that getting breast enhancement will improve her life and her career. Meanwhile, her daughter Midoriko (the name means ‘green’ in Japanese and she really is very green still, just starting to experience her own bodily changes at the age of twelve) refuses to communicate with her mother in any other way than in writing. Natsuko is mostly the observer and tries to mediate between them, but she struggles to understand her sister’s need for validation or her niece’s judgemental attitude. There are some beautiful conversations between them, but the reminiscing about the past steers clear of either melodrama or sentimentality. One of the most poignant passages was the conversation between aunt and niece as they go round in a ferris wheel – this was the passage that Kawakami read out during her Edinburgh Book Festival interview, and the contrast between the Osakaben that Natsuko speaks with Midoriko and the descriptive passages in literary Japanese stood out even more when she read them.
I would have loved to see more of the sister and niece in the second part of the novel, but that is really Natsuko’s story (the title of the whole book in Japanese is Natsu Monogatari, which can be translated as either Summer Tales or Tales of Natsu). Natsuko is now nearing the age of her sister in the first part, and this time it’s her biological clock that is ticking. She is still single, and doesn’t really want a relationship with a man. She is enjoying some literary success, which is a great opportunity for mocking the pretentiousness of the Japanese literary scene, but realises that she really would like to have a child before it gets too late. So she starts investigating the possibility of using a sperm donor (which is not really possible for single women or same-sex couples in Japan). Along the way, she both befriends and alienates people, and gets to hear a variety of different attitudes about what it means to be an artist or a mother or both in Japan, as well as being the child of a sperm donor (and condemned to never know exactly who your biological father is).
As for being a wife, well, I can just imagine the reaction of the reading public to the quote below by a fellow writer Rika, who is also a single mum, and whom Natsuko befriends:
Everything men do repulses me, I can’t tell you how good it felt when we got divorced and my ex left the house. It was like I could breathe again… It’s just, men can be such idiots. They can’t do anything around the house without making a ton of noise, not even close the fridge or turn the lights on. They can’t take care of anyone else. They can’t even take care of themselves/. They won’t do anything for their kids or their families if it means sacrificing their own comfort, but they go out in the world and act all big, like I’m such a agood dad, such a provider… For better or worse, living with someone is nothing but friction, the collision of incompatible ideals. It takes trust to make it viable. I mean, love is basically a drug, right? Without love and trust, resentment is the only thing that’s left.
Well, I could certainly relate to that, and so could many women, particularly those living in rather patriarchal societies. Yet, in her Edinburgh Book Festival interview, Kawakami expressed some surprise and amusement that her book was a big hit with male readers as well in Japan.
In some ways, this novel reminded me of Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, both of them novels of ideas, with the focus here being on women’s bodies and motherhood instead of race and immigration. Much as I loved Americanah, I felt that Kawakami was more successful at integrating her ideas into the flow of the narrative, rather than having long blog-like passages, which slightly marred Adichie’s book for me. However, another reviwer I admire feels that there is a blog-like quality to the second half of the book and overall it’s chick lit with a feminist agenda. I think individual passages taken out of context can sound flat, but when all the layers come together, it certainly left me with a powerful impression.
Thank you also to Tony Malone, who in his review of Breasts and Eggs, pointed out that there was an alternative translation of part of the first part by Louise Heal Kawai, using a Mancunian speech pattern to render the Osaka dialect. I think it’s a brilliant version and wish we could have had the whole book translated like that (although Sam Bett and David Boyd have done a good job of smoothing out the language to appeal to a wider audience). And, although I’m the last person to suggest that books by women writers should only be translated by women, given the particular subject matter, I cannot help wondering how different it might have looked if it had been translated by a woman.
There was a musical movement called Tropicália born in Brazil in 1968, very dear to my heart. So, to pay homage to this soul jazz/bossa nova musical legacy, I chose a lot of Brazilian websites to find what one might call ‘tropical’ house decor.