Book memes come and go, but there’s one that I always find irresistible. So it’s a great pleasure to participate once more in the monthly Six Degrees of Separation, where we all start from the same book and end up in very different places, a reading meme hosted by the lovely Kate at Books Are My Favourite and Best
This month we are starting with the highly-recommended What I Loved by Siri Hustvedt, which I have on my shelves but which I haven’t read yet. I do know it’s about male friendship and also about art, but is it too obvious to go for those links? Should I try to be cleverer than that?
Clearly not, because, in the end, the link is ‘books that I bought very eagerly and really look forward to reading but because I’m so sure I’ll enjoy them, I just have them sitting on my shelves for far too long.’ Another book that fits into this category is Olga Tokarczuk’s Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead, although I will finally get around to it this August for #WomeninTranslation Month.
Tokarczuk’s title is famously taken from a poem by William Blake and so is my next book, a little-known and rather strange volume by Aldous Huxley The Doors of Perception that I found in the rather old-fashioned British Council library in Bucharest (before I was banned from going there anymore). Huxley describes with great honesty and detail his own personal experiment with the hallucinogenic drug mescalin. In a way, it was his response to an increasingly troubled world (not the eve of the Second World War, but the Cold War and the fear that the word would descend into chaos once more) and he was a great believer in seeking a personal route to enlightenment.
Another writer who was fascinated by experimentation with drugs to induce a shamanistic trance was Carlos Castaneda, who was hugely popular in the 1960s-70s with his supposedly ethnographic accounts of his apprenticeship to a Yaqui Indian shaman from North Mexico in the so-called Teachings of Don Juan series. Anthropologists got a bit suspicious about the accuracy of the cultural practices he described and I believe the stories have now been mostly debunked as fiction.
Another anthropologist who wrote vividly and beautifully, but not always extremely truthfully was Claude Levi-Strauss. His Tristes Tropiques describing his own fieldwork in the Amazon remains a masterclass in ethnographic description, and was also the starting point for the structuralist school of anthropology. Above all, however, it is a blend of autobiography, travel literature, fiction, anthropology and social criticism which would perhaps fit better with the novels of today. At the time it was published however in 1955, the Prix Goncourt judges regretfully had to turn it down for the prize because it was considered non-fiction.
I’ll remain in the Amazon rainforest for my next book, which is by Brazilian writer Milton Hatoum and entitled Ashes of the Amazon, although the book itself describes a difficult period in the history of Brazil, while the rebellious but ultimately defeated heroes Lavo and Mundo move from the city of Manaus in the Amazon to Rio and then further afield to Europe.
I will stay in Brazil, but move to Belo Horizonte, the capital of the Minas Gerais region, where in the early 1970s the most famous Milton of Brazil, namely singer/songwriter Milton Nascimento, recorded an album entitled The Corner Club and gave rise to a musical and political community of the same name. Jonathon Grasse is a musician and professor of music who wrote about this movement in his book entitled The Corner Club.
This month I’ve travelled from Poland to Britain to Mexico and Brazil via my six links. Where will your links take you?
Poetry books are slim and mislead you into thinking that they are quick reads. Of course, in actual fact, you spend a lot longer on them, as you read and reread and mull over certain poems. As for reviewing… well, I feel poetry in my bones, and at university I learnt how to analyse it to within an inch of its life… but I still find it hard to write something coherent about a volume of poetry without simply quoting extensively from it and letting the poems speak for themselves.
The two books were interesting in terms of similarity and differences. Both of them speak of everyday lives, predominantly the lives of women trying to make their way in a world that is not always friendly towards them, women who are more outspoken and observant than most, yet decidedly women navigating difficult circumstances and tricky relationships. The world they describe is both made joyous and damaged by technology. Both volumes feel very ‘of the moment’, with mobile phones, drones, Google and Twitter making fleeting appearances. Travel is involved – but seldom glamorous. This is the economy travel of those who might feel trapped by their environment or by poverty, yet still wish to see as much of the world as possible.
Inga Pizane: Having Never Met, transl. Jayde Will (Midsummer Night’s Press).
Inga is a popular milennial Latvian poet (born 1986 so I don’t know if she is strictly speaking milennial, but her poems certainly feel like that). She is also a spoken word performer and the poems in this tiny volume feel very ‘Instagrammable’, brief little glow in the dark moments as they are. Some of them feel as sketchy as if hastily scribbled down on a paper napkin:
The night gazes at people in love –
under these stars
Others feel like they are trying a little too hard to be modern – but the results are amusing and sometimes quite touching:
you have access
search in the settings
and update manually
use me more
update me regularly
make sure that I don’t freeze up
please don’t accidentally delete me.
There are echoes of the simplicity and everyday language of Tawara Machi’s by now classic Salad Anniversary – and the same preoccupation with love and disappointment – a young woman’s concerns. Of course I am no longer the age I was when I first read Tawara Machi, so perhaps I am less captivated by these quite narrow concerns. Above all, I felt that the language at times veered into the cliché or sounded quite flat.
Josephine Corcoran: What Are You After? (Nine Arches Press)
Corcoran is (I suspect) a poet of my generation, so her subject matter is wider. Love, yes, but also marriage and pregnancy, miscarriage, grieving, growing up in poverty, growing old together, going back to one’s roots, living with one’s neighbours, looking at the wider world. The voice is always warm, immediate, but also remarkably restrained when necessary. Her poems are multi-layered – nothing is ever ‘just a love poem’. The past is never too far below the surface, ready to break through at any moment.
Some of us understand
why our past plays out
in films and books;
need to look behind curtains
before we go to sleep;
keep quiet about our dreams…
News stories are woven in to create a state of heightened anxiety, but also compassion. There are so many cultural references I sometimes wonder how well these poems will date: Tamir Rice, Stephen Lawrence, Harry Potter and Privet Drive, but also Gavrilo Princip, Red Rum and Jack Nicholson. While the Stephen Lawrence poem plays on the fears of mothers everywhere and is incredibly poignant, there were many other references which I probably didn’t quite get. The poems that touched me most, however, were the ones about leaving behind your home town, your social class, the people who know you. A damning indictment of the restrictive class boundaries and preconceptions.
Forgive me for the sin of making up my own identity; for not sitting easily inside a category; for leaving school with nothing; for learning languages from cassette tapes I borrowed from a public library; for liking literature and art and orchestras; for stuffing my face with a free university education before it ran out.
I’m far away from my council house. If I turned up there, they wouldn’t know me.
And I’m not always kind to earnest people campaigning about class injustice.
Although the language is equally simple and unadorned, Corocoran’s poems never feel flat-footed, they are three-dimensional rather than two-dimensional:
… we shine signals of friendship
over the rough see of the playground…
You ask for my number – People see this hijab and look the other way.
We rummage for our phones
as if our bags are full of answers.
We spell out our names
and promise to meet again
but never do.
Working from home has not been as peaceful and productive as many of us imagined it would be while we were cursing our commute, but nevertheless many of us are now hoping that organisations are more open to a hybrid model of working. A couple of days at home every week would really make all the difference – and would certainly be a pleasure in any of the home offices below.
June has always been my favourite month – lots of hours of daylight, my birthday, my younger son’s birthday, my older son’s nameday, and in my childhood it used to mark the end of school (no longer the case nowadays). So we had a lot of cake, and even a few drinks with online friends and even with real, grown-up friends in actual flesh, in my garden, in strategically placed chairs. What more could you want?
I really do believe I might have finally found my reading mojo which had been missing in action for months. I read 13 books this month (well, 12 to be precise, because one of them was a DNF, as mentioned below). Unusually for me, only four of the 13 books were translations, while ten were by women writers. Two were poetry collections, which require more attentive reading and rereading, but are shorter. Of course, I still have to catch up with reviews. But here is what I have reviewed thus far, in case you missed it:
I was very pleased with myself that 11 of those were from my #20Books of Summer list! In fact, the only two exceptions were my Virtual Crime Book Club read (Three Hours by Rosamund Lupton) and a sort of in-memoriam read upon hearing of the death of Carlos Ruiz Zafon. The Shadow of the Wind has been enthusiastically recommended by so many people, and the theme of books and mystery and historical connections made me think I would love it. Sadly, this was the book I did not finish. I did give it a good thorough try: 246 pages, after which I realised I was finding it a bit of a slog, was never keen to get back to to it and I was in danger of losing my reading va-va-voom once more. The first few chapters were fun, but it all became a bit too sentimental, too repetitive, too clicheed and I lost interest in the characters and the big mystery.
Toni Erdmann – In addition to the often very funny cringeworthy moments and the painful father/daughter relationship, I thought this was an astute look at capitalism and corporate culture taking over both individual and national cultures. It felt like Maren Ade did an excellent job in understanding the endless patience, hospitality and desire to please the foreigners (no matter how crazy they might seem) of the Romanian people with which the main German characters interact.
The Past – Having previously been mesmerised (and saddened) by Asghar Farhadi’s A Separation, I thought it would be nice to follow it up with another of his films currently available on Mubi. A moving portrayal of relationship breakdown and family dynamics with only a light touch of cross-cultural misunderstandings, I was especially impressed by the child/teen actors.
The Shining – a rewatch with the boys, who don’t like horror films but quite like Stanley Kubrick. I haven’t read the book, but I understand why Kubrick made some changes in the script – and made it more psychological rather than supernatural.
Animal Crackers – struggle with this one, it just wasn’t to my taste. I never quite ‘got’ the humour of the Marx brothers as a child – always preferred Buster Keaton, Charlie Chaplin, Laurel and Hardy or Bourvil. And I clearly still don’t get on with it as a grown-up. There were a handful of witty repartees which I enjoyed, but not quite enough to make the film worthwhile.
Given my new incarnation as a literary translator who is going to be doing more than just the occasional one-off project, it’s not surprising that I’ve been keen to keep up with the very welcoming and utterly fascinating, cosmopolitan translation community. In addition to attending the Borderless Book Club and hearing translators and publishers talk about their choices, I have also attended some events aimed at translator audiences.
Translation Theory Lab – discussion with Kate Briggs, author of This Little Art.
Daniel Hahn, Katy Derbyshire, Arunava Sinha talking about their current projects and changes to their routines during the Covid crisis, hosted by the Society of Authors
The W.G. Sebald Lecture given by David Bellos – in which he dispelled what he called the ‘myths of translation’, which are a combination of wishful thinking and confirmation bias, and ultimately not that helpful to translators.
Plans for July:
I am planning to read a lot of Women in Translation for August, and thought I might start a bit early, to combine with Stu Jallen’s Spanish Literature Month (which includes Latin American literature). I’ve got Ariana Harwicz (Argentina), Lina Meruane (Chile), Liliana Colanzi (Bolivia) and Margarita Garcia Robayo (Colombia) on the TBR pile.
Since we cannot holiday abroad for the time being, what better escapism than to travel via a couple of my 20 Books of Summer? These two books seem to work well as a compare and contrast: the first is a portrait of German holidaymakers coming to Britain in summer, while the other is of British holidaymakers going to a German-speaking country (Austria) in winter. The shadow of war hangs over both of these stories, although they are different wars, and never quite make it to the forefront. Still, I cannot help but wonder if there is a bit of political propaganda quietly involved in these books.
Elizabeth von Arnim: The Caravaners
The insufferable, pompous and completely self-absorbed Baron Otto von Ottringel, who is a major in the Prussian army, has decided to make the trip of a lifetime to celebrate his silver wedding anniversary. Actually, his first wife has died and he has only been married to his second wife for five years – but the overall number would be 25 years of married life for him, which is what counts. The plan was to go to Switzerland, but the baron is a bit stingy and cannot resist the temptation to go on a caravanning holiday in Kent instead. He finds the English contingent of his travel companions somewhat puzzling, and even the German ladies in the party seem to be succumbing to the spirit of freedom and frivolity. Otto heartily disapproves, of course, and is quite surprised to find that everyone cuts their month-long holiday short at the end of a week.
The Baron is a caricature of course, and, while some of this was probably a bit of a personal dig against the author’s aristocratic German ex-husband, it needs to be set in context. The novel was first published in 1909, when anti-German sentiment was running rampant in British society, for fear of Prussian militarism on the rise. Otto clearly feels superior to the ‘weak’ English, but soon proves himself incapable of helping out, finding wood, lighting a fire or even leading the horse-drawn caravan, and he very soon tires of the endless diet of boiled potatoes, as they struggle to find or cook anything edible outside, during one of the wettest summers on record.
Anyone who has struggled to enjoy camping or caravanning will delight in the comedy of the situation, perhaps even feel slightly sorry for the Baron. Of course, he will very quickly dispel any modicum of pity with his breathtaking lack of self-awareness and cruelty towards others, particularly his poor wife Edelgard.
Take away annoyances and worry, and I am as good-natured a man as you will find. More, I can enjoy anything, and am ready with a jest about almost anything. It is the knowledge that I am really so good-humoured that upsets me when Edelgard or other circumstances force me into a condition of vexation unnatural to me. I do not wish to be vexed. I do not wish ever to be disagreeable. And it is, I think downright wrong of people to force a human being who does not wish it to be so.
Carol Carnac: Crossed Skis
This book shows two countries that were once at war with each other now trying to repair the scars of the past. The narrative alternates between the ski resort of Lech in Austria and London in the early 1950s. A body is found burnt beyond recognition in a boarding house in London and there seem to be clues linking it to a merry ski party of eight men and eight women holidaying in the Austrian Alps. The Cold War was in full swing and the first of the Cambridge spies had defected to the Soviet Union just before the book was published in 1952. So it’s not surprising that there is a certain level of political paranoia in this book, as well as the brutally honest depiction of London as a city that is still struggling to return to normal after the war.
This contrasts with the beautiful, tranquil landscapes of Arlberg, the good humour of the holidaymakers and their light-hearted skiing and dancing exploits – until their holiday gets somewhat spoilt by some thievery. The author was clearly quite passionate about skiing, as are quite a few of her characters. Needless to say, this was the part of the book that I enjoyed most:
To the west and south the sky was blue behind the snow peaks, and the visibility had an intense quality, so that Kate felt helplessly that here was something you could not express in terms of paint. There was no gradation, no near and far, just a vast, crystalline clarity. To the east the sky was grey and great cloud banks were piling behind the mountains… Once again Kate realised that there was an element of terror in this mountain loveliness: the massing clouds and the snow slopes made the wooden houses seem puny.
So, if it’s escapism, holiday reading and vicarious travel that you are after, both of these books fit the bill: a comedy of manners and a neat little murder mystery, and in both cows and/or horses play a surprising key role. Two lesser known works by authors who were very popular in their time, but very much worth rediscovering.
This Friday Fun post is pure escapism, nothing political about it at all… but for some reason all of today’s houses seem to be located in New Zealand. A country I very much hope to visit some day. Most if not all of these pictures are taken from the wonderful website ArchitectureNow.co.nz
I’ve never been one to NOT read reviews about a book just because I haven’t read it yet. On the contrary, I like to read both positive and negative reviews and then plunge right in, hopefully without bias, and make up my own mind. In the case of Hamnet, I’d been hearing lots of praise about the evocative language and the refreshing perspective of the Bard from the point of view of his family. But I’ve also heard some of my favourite bloggers such as Eric from Lonesome Reader or Rebecca Foster at Bookish Beck that it falls short, either in terms of Maggie O’Farrell’s other work or compared to other recent historical fiction such as Hilary Mantel’s.
So let me lay out my wares perfectly candidly. I really enjoyed the book, but I haven’t read any other novels by Maggie O’Farrell, nor do I read much historical fiction in general. So perhaps I am not best placed to make these comparisons. Although I do have some reservations about the present tense and jarringly modern language at times, I allowed myself to be swept away by the beauty of the sentences, the appeal to the senses, and the way the author conjures up the atmosphere of village life in the late 16th century. I should also add that I was reading it while I was battling migraine and nausea, so I felt I was there in the sick-bed with Judith and Hamnet. Last but not least, I am such a Shakespeare fan, so I enjoyed this additional insight into how other people might have viewed him.
I allowed myself to be swept along in a current of emotion and drama, as a mother wanting to protect her children, as a wife who has grown apart from her husband, as someone who felt stifled by family and small-town life, as someone living through a pandemic currently. On that visceral level the book works extremely well. If I stop to analyse it too carefully, I might find some repetitions and flaws, perhaps an over-emphasis on description and manipulation of our sorrow gland. I might find that there is no real analysis of Shakespeare’s psychology, little hint of his depth in how he handles the grief at the loss of his son. But, as Agnes finds out when she goes to London to watch the play named after her dead son, there is a chasm between life as it is lived and life as it is portrayed in the arts.
As she rode to London, she had thought that perhaps now she might understand his distance, his silence, since their son’s death. She has the sense now that there is nothing in her husband’s heart to understand. It is filled only with this: a wooden stage, declaiming players, memorised speeches, adoring crowds, costumed fools. She has been chasing a phantasm, a will-o’-the-wisp all this time.
This is clearly a book that Maggie O’Farrell has wanted to write for a long time, a subject that she has been obsessed with. I really enjoyed hearing her talk about it as part of the online Hay Festival. It really worked for me, since I am probably equally obsessed with the topic, and I don’t regret getting a Waterstones signed edition hardback. It’s a keeper for me. But for those who tell me that I should read her other novels, that they are better, I wonder if sometimes when you feel too strongly about something, you cannot fully capture what you really want.
My reading mojo has come back, and this (together with a very lengthy migraine) contributed to a lower number of films that I watched so far in June. Here are some micro-reviews and some books which I associated with these films. Bear in mind that I lack any real film critic vocabulary, so all I can say is what I liked or not about the films below (spoilers: I liked all of them).
Paterson – Adam Driver has that puzzled emo look down pat, so is very well cast as the poet bus-driver. (The Iranian actress Golshifteh Farahani who plays his fey but sweet-tempered wife is also very good, but it’s the dog who possibly steals the show). It’s extremely difficult to show the creative process at work, and I had some misgivings about the way the marriage and the town (the only white guy in a community of African-Americans, really Jim Jarmusch?) are portrayed in the film, but overall it did inspire me to start writing again. The book everyone refers to in the film, of course, is the epic poem Paterson by William Carlos Williams. He describes this small town in New Jersey, paying close attention to the everyday and deliberately sticking to simple, even flat language (much like the modern-day poet figure in the film). Williams was giving a sort of riposte to T. S. Eliot’s The Waste Land, which he felt was too despondent, abstract and wedded to classical poetry.
Lights in the Dusk – Aki Kaurismäki is great at capturing the mundane life of the downtrodden. With an equal mix of tragedy and farce, he tells the story of loser security guard Koistinen, tricked by a gang and a femme fatale, yet unable to see who really cares for him. The black comedy which leaves a nasty yet thoughtful aftertaste reminds me very much of the Finnish writer Antti Tuomainen’s last few books, such as The Man Who Died or Palm Beach Finland.
Julieta – Almodovar was for a while in the 1990s my favourite director: he seems to have great insight into the female psychology and doesn’t shy away from showing all the complexities and messiness of parent/child relationships as well as couples. This is a bittersweet, at times melodramatic story of an estranged mother and daughter (and what led to their estrangement), with none of the trademark eroticism or crazy humour of his earlier films. The film is based on three inter-linked short stories by Alice Munro: “Chance,” “Soon,” and “Silence”.
Olla – This is a very short (27 minutes) film, the debut work of French-Greek actress Ariane Labed as a director, but it packs a lot in. Olla is a mail-order bride, chosen by the rather clumsy Pierre, who lives in his mother’s flat in a miserable industrial town in the north of France and requires a full-time carer for his mother more than a companion for his fumbling sexual advances. Although Olla doesn’t speak a word of French, she quietly but firmly resists being modelled by her husband, who from the start wants to make her fit in: ‘I’ll call you Lola.’ Western men’s patronising attitudes towards the ‘easy prey’ European women is a topic that irritates me greatly and is unfortunately the dominant narrative in the few books set in post-1989 Eastern Europe or Russia, such as Patrick McGuiness’ The Last Hundred Days or A. D. Miller’s Snowdrops.
Mustang – Another film by a woman director Deniz Gamze Ergüven, this coming of age story about five sisters in rural Turkey is delightful in portraying the complicity and exhuberant horsing around of the girls – which might have inspired the latest version of Little Women, directed by Greta Gerwig. However, the girls are orphans and are being raised by a very traditionalist uncle and grandmother who are too worried about what the neighbours might think. So getting them married off, ready or not, to avoid any scandalous behaviour (or rumours) becomes the top priority. The girls’ small (and big) rebellions in an effort to lead what we might consider normal lives will inevitably lead to disappointment and heartbreak. Although it has nothing to do with the film, I would recommend Elif Shafak’s Three Daughters of Eve, which likewise looks at East vs. West, religion and gender roles.
A Short Film About Killing – Kieslowski’s Dekalog was the first series we saw uncensored on TV after the 1989 Revolution in Romania, and this is one of the two which Kieslowski remade to became feature-length films. It is an extremely disturbing film, that you need to have a strong stomach for. You are almost instantly confronted with cats strung up to die and dogs being poisoned, and it just gets worse from there, with image after image of death, decay and cruelty. An apparently motiveless murder of a (thoroughly unpleasant) taxi driver, a lawyer haunted by the fact that he can’t get the young perpetrator off and a brutal execution scene (in those days Poland still had the death penalty) all make you question everything you believe about violence and punishment. I would recommend the book Kieslowski on Kieslowski published by Faber, based on a series of interviews with the film-maker, his life and how politics has shaped so much of it, whether he liked it or not.
Our Little Sister – Another celebration of sisterhood, this time in Japan and seen through the eyes of a male director Koreeda Hirokazu. After the death of their father, who abandoned them when they were quite young, three sisters living in Kamakura meet their much younger half-sister and convince her to move in with them. What does it say about my suspicious, noir set of mind that I kept waiting for something terrible to happen – for the sisters to cheat each other, fall out, commit suicide or a dramatic denoument with the mother (who also abandoned them)? In fact, it is more of a charming observation of the everyday, small triumphs, many mess-ups and sorrows along the way. The fairy-tale atmosphere and the gentle passing of the season began to make more sense when I realised that the film is based on a manga series called Umimachi Diary, written and illustrated by Yoshida Akimi, serialised between 2006 and 2018 in the josei (young women) manga supplement Monthly Flowers.
The Clouds of Sils Maria – This film by Olivier Assayas is ostensibly all about an aging star Maria Enders, played by Juliette Binoche, returning to the play which made her famous, but now playing the older woman devastated by the consequences of her infatuation with a younger woman. It has echoes of All About Eve and Sunset Boulevard, and there are many references to Binoche’s own career as well as to Kristen Stewart’s scandal-driven career (although not via the character that Kristen plays, but in her reaction to the social media furore over the young actress played by Chloe Grace Moretz). To me, however, it feels much more like the clash between generations: in literature, in film, in real life. Even when the generations respect and befriend each other (which one might argue that Maria does with her assistant played by Stewart), there is a divergence of opinion that seems insurmountable. Although some have criticised the epilogue, to me it made perfect sense: things have moved on, relentlessly; the sympathetic faces of the young fawning starlet and Klaus the director are slipping and becoming less sympathetic, more concerned with their own PR. And then there is that almost throwaway scene, where a young newbie director tries to convince Maria that she is not too old to play in his proposed film. When she suggests he should use the young starlet instead (and echoes some of the admiration that her former assistant had expressed for her), he expresses frustration at a world in which the brash young Chloe Grace Moretz is the norm. A world without subtlety, a world where everything you do is exposed and pounced upon, a world where you have to take sides. I never felt older and more on Binoche’s side than at the end of that film. On the other hand, I loved the landscape, the amazing Majola Snake weather phenomenon in the Engadine Valley and miss my beloved mountains more ferociously than ever.
The Wire Season 2 – Ongoing project to watch the whole 5 seasons of The Wire with the boys. Depressing to watch the end of the docks, the unions and a way of life. Amusing to understand all of the untranslated Greek way before the investigators did.
As for the reading, I’m very proud of myself for sticking, on the whole, to my 50 books or so of summer longlist to choose my 20 books of summer. I have now read eight of them, but only reviewed four, so I have some catching up to do! Additionally, I also read the tense thriller Three Hours by Rosamund Lupton for Virtual Crime Book Club, which, although it does seem to manipulate your emotions at certain points, is a moving experience and extremely nerve-wracking if you’ve ever been a teacher, a parent or (as in my case) both. Following the announcement of the death of Carlos Ruiz Zafon, I decided to pick up the only book of his that I have on my shelf The Shadow of the Wind, which seems to be good fun so far. Although I’m perhaps no longer of the age to become obsessed with historical or literary trails as I was when I read Foucault’s Pendulum or Posession, it is certainly better written and more interesting than Dan Brown’s novels.
It’s been a few years since I last reread Genji, but I’m vicariously living through the experience as two of my literary friends on Twitter read it for the first time in English and French translations. Yee @hdinguyen11 (check out her book blog here) and Knulp @KnulpTanner, who has a book blog in French, are comparing notes on their respective translations as they go along. It’s such fun to read their tweets and to add my tuppence worth of additional info and comparisons to the (possibly far too many) translations that I own. I wrote the article below for the Asymptote fortnightly newsletter back in 2018, but it’s not currently available anywhere online, so I thought I would share it here on my blog, with big thanks to Yee and Knulp for reminding me of it!
Written by court lady Murasaki Shikibu roughly 1000 years ago, The Tales of Genji (Genji Monogatari) is considered the oldest novel in the world. It is perhaps also the longest novel in the world, more than 1200 pages, spread over 54 chapters. Although it has a cast of over 400 characters, there is a recognisable main character (Genji himself, the son of the Emperor by a beloved but not royal concubine) and a small core of recurring characters. There is a narrative arc (of sorts): the characters grow older and wiser, while the story gets darker as old age and regrets set in. However, the chapters are believed to have been written episode by episode for distribution amongst the other ladies of the court (therefore, there are some inconsistencies, time lapses or overlaps), much like a feuilleton in a newspaper in more modern times.
When I first encountered Genji Monogatari as a student, our Japanese professor told us: ‘It’s the kind of book that everyone talks about, but very few read properly.’ This is in marked contrast to the 13th century poetry anthology of Hyakuninisshū, which is widely known and often quoted in contemporary Japan (thanks in part to the card game based on its tanka poetry, which is traditionally played on New Year’s Day). Why should that be the case? It cannot be solely because of the obscure allusiveness to classic Chinese poetry typical of the Heian period, for the poetry anthology too contains many such examples, including the author of Genji, Murasaki Shikibu, herself.
It could have something to do with the sheer length of the story, which is not for the faint-hearted. However, the main reason undoubtedly is that until the early 20th century there was no adequate translation of it, not only in English, but even in modern Japanese. The 11th century saga remained part of the cultural legacy of Japan, but the refined, almost effeminate aesthtetics of the Heian court fell out of favour in the period of warring clans and samurai codes which followed. It would be like English readers trying to tackle Chaucer in the original.
It wasn’t until 1912 that Japanese modernist poet, feminist and social activist Yosano Akiko published an abridged version of Genji translated into colloquial Japanese. This was the result of a lifetime’s infatuation with the work: she had read it countless times by the time she turned twenty, wrote biographical studies of Murasaki Shikibu, produced a series of lectures and a scholarly commentary of the text. The latter was sadly destroyed in a fire following the Great Kanto Earthquake in 1923, but she published a full translation in 1938. While it is perhaps surprising that such a resolutely modern, unconventional woman as Yosano Akiko found common ground with the confined women of the Heian court, waiting patiently for fickle lovers, she somehow found a voice that would speak across the centuries to both men and women of her day. Both her translations are still in print and transformed the fate of Genji.
It was thanks to her earlier version of the modernised Genji that we have the first complete English translation of the work. A partial, unsatisfactory translation attempt was made by Baron Suematsu in 1882, but that sank without a trace. Then Orientalist Arthur Waley discovered both the original and Yosano’s translation in the 1920s and there is something of the flow and verve of Yosano in his own work. As a confirmed Sinologist, Waley was also familiar with many of the classical Chinese poems that are being referenced in the text. Last but not least, the translator was an admirer of the artistic and literary style of the Bloomsbury group. We see all of these influences at work in his creative, some might even say idiosyncratic translation.
Waley skips any bits he finds too dull or obscure. He has no qualms about rearranging names, sentences, even paragraphs and themes to make the book more palatable to an English audience. He tries to capture the spirit of the beauty of the original prose, rather than sticking to it literally. The flowery style may on occasion veer towards sentimentalization and prettification. It seems to capture an echo of an earlier period much like the pre-Raphaelite painters captured the medieval spirit in a new style that had little in common with the original.
There is also a paternalistic bias which jars with the modern reader – the translator’s voice intervenes at times, giving us his value judgements rather than Murasaki Shikibu’s voice: ‘This chapter should be read with indulgence. In it Murasaki is still under the influence of her somewhat childish predecessors…’ Yet in spite of his imperialistic tendency to judge other cultures through the prism of his own, his translation helped perceptive readers to see beyond mere ‘exoticism’. Virginia Woolf reviewed Waley’s translation in 1925 and saw instantly that this was far more than ‘cranes and chrysanthemums’. Genji is about universal human nature: ‘how passionately he desires things that are denied; how his longing for a life of tender intimacy is always thwarted; how the grotesque and the fantastic excite him beyond the simple and straightforward; how beautiful the falling snow is and how, as he watches it, he longs more than ever for someone to share his solitary joy’.
Despite its flaws, Waley’s attractive translation raised the profile of this Japanese classic so much that when Japanese novelist and short story writer Tanizaki Junichirō attempted his own translation into modern Japanese, he admitted that he was heavily influenced by Waley’s work. While Tanizaki and Yosano’s translations are the most literary, there have been other modern Japanese translations, for example the more erotic version by Funchi Emiko and the most accessible one, the everyman’s edition by Buddhist nun Setouchi Jakuchō. Contemporary scholars of Japanese literature recognise, however, that it was Genji’s surprising success abroad which led to its enshrinement as the ‘greatest Japanese classic’ in its home country.
The second complete English translation of Genji was published by Edward Seidensticker in 1976 and could hardly be more different from Waley’s work. Seidensticker resolutely sticks to a pared-down, understated style, with relatively few footnotes. As such, it is very readable, clear yet faithful to the original. His treatment of the 800 or so poems which appear throughout the pages of Genji has provoked some ire from purists: he renders them as couplets. It may not be true to Japanese poetic form, but at least he keeps them distinct from the main text, unlike Waley, who turns them into dialogue.
Royall Tyler’s translation in 2001 consciously attempts to return to the original Heian text and mimic its highly elliptical style. For instance, he does not use place or chapter names to identify the characters – an unspoken convention that all translators have resorted to for the sake of clarity. Instead, Tyler sticks to identifying them by their titles with elaborate ceremonial indirectness. This makes it difficult to follow, since those titles constantly change over the course of the book, as characters get promoted or fall out of favour. The endless hesitations and circumlocutions may be closer to the original style, but they feel old-fashioned and heavy-handed. The poetry sticks to the Japanese form but sounds a little pedestrian. For those who would like an insight into the intricacies and dramas of the Heian period, however, there is much to learn from the encyclopaedic footnotes.
Finally, the most recent translation is the 2015 version by Dennis Washburn, who tries to find a middle ground between clarity and as literal a translation as possible. The strength of his translation lies in its psychological depth and a modern sensibility to the different voices, which is in direct contrast to Waley’s. Washburn allows these often introverted, opaque characters to muse about their life and regrets, without judgement or sense of superiority. In his interpretation, it becomes clear just how much the characters are torn between the fleeting appeal of material, secular culture and a desire to escape worldly attachments.
To demonstrate just how different these translations can be, and why none of them can be considered the definitive translation, let us look at just two examples:
Chapter Five: Wakamurasaki
Genji visits a Buddhist monastery in the mountains and encounters there the love of his life, Murasaki, who is but a little girl at the time.
Arthur Waley: “Genji felt very disconsolate. It had begun to rain; a cold wind blew across the hill, carrying with it the sound of a waterfall–audible till then as a gentle intermittent plashing, but now a mighty roar; and with it, somnolently rising and falling, mingled the monotonous chanting of the scriptures. Even the most unimpressionable nature would have been plunged into melancholy by such surroundings. How much the more so Prince Genji, as he lay sleepless on his bed, continually planning and counter-planning.”
Edward Seidensticker: “Genji was not feeling well. A shower passed on a chilly mountain wind, and the sound of the waterfall was higher. Intermittently came a rather sleepy voice, solemn and somehow ominous, reading a sacred text. The most insensitive of men would have been aroused by the scene. Genji was unable to sleep.”
Royall Tyler: “Genji felt quite unwell, and besides, it was now raining a little, a cold mountain wind had set in to blow, and the pool beneath the waterfall had risen until the roar was louder than before. The eerie swelling and dying of somnolent voices chanting the scriptures could hardly fail in such a setting to move the most casual visitor. No wonder Genji, who had so much to ponder, could not sleep.”
Dennis Washburn: “Genji was feeling ill. It has started to rain, bringing a cooling breeze. Moreover, the water in the pool of a nearby waterfall had risen with the spring runoff, and the roar was clearly audible. He could just barely make out the sound of sleepy voices reciting sutras, a sound that sent chills through him. The atmosphere of the place would have affected even the most insensitive of people, and, coupled with his preoccupation with both Fujitsubo and the girl, it prevented him from getting any sleep at all.”
In this passage, Waley comes across as charmingly entertaining, Seidensticker as pedestrian, Washburn as a little too emphatic, while Tyler’s version seems both respectful to the orginal and the most seductive to modern readers.
Chapter One: Kiritsubo
However, the test I always give to any new translation of Genji is to read the first paragraph of the opening chapter, which is fiendishly difficult to render comprehensible to a modern reader. The chapter describes Genji’s mother and the circumstances of his birth. In this case, it seems that Waley is the most gossipy and entertaining, Seidensticker the most unobtrusive and clear, Tyler the most instructive, while Washburn is once again too long-winded.
Arthur Waley: “At the court of an Emperor (he lived it matters not when) there was among the many gentlewomen of the Wardrobe and Chamber one, who though she was not of the very high rank was favoured far beyond all the rest; so that the great ladies of the Palace, each of whom had secretly hoped that she herself would be chosen, looked with scorn and hatred upon the upstart who had dispelled their dreams. Still less were her former companions, the minor ladies of the Wardrobe, content to see her raised so far above them. This her position at Court, preponderant thought it was, exposed her to constant jealousy and ill will; and soon, worn out with petty vexations, she fell into a decline…”
Edward Seidensticker: “In a certain reign there was a lady not of the first rank whom the emperor loved more than any of the others. The grand ladies with high ambitions thought her a presumptuous upstart, and the lesser ladies were still more resentful. Everything she did offended someone. Probably aware of what was happening, she fell seriously ill…”
Royall Tyler: “In a certain reign (whose can it have been?) someone of no very great rank, among all His Majesty’s Consorts and Intimates, enjoyed exceptional favor. Those others who had always assumed that pride of place was properly theirs despised her as a dreadful woman, while the lesser Intimates were unhappier still. The way she waited on him day after day only stirred up feeling against her, and perhaps this growing burden of resentment was what affected her health…”
Dennis Washburn: “In whose reign was it that a woman of rather undistinguished lineage captured the heart of the Emperor and enjoyed his favour above all the other imperial wives and concubines? Certain consorts, whose high noble status gave them a sense of vain entitlement, despised and reviled her as an unworthy upstart from the very moment she began her service. Ladies of lower rank were even more vexed, for they knew His Majesty would never bestow the same degree of affection and attention on them. As a result, the mere presence of this woman at morning rites or evening ceremonies seemed to provoke hostile reactions among her rivals, and the anxiety she suffered as a consequence of these ever-increasing displays of jealousy was such a heavy burden that gradually her health began to fail.”
Which of those translations do you prefer? And do you think you might be tempted to tackle Genji yourself, if you haven’t already done so? Let’s start the Murasaki Shikibu fan club [I was going to say the Genji Fan Club – but that is in fact the entire plot of Genji Monogatari, one might say!].
Something a little bit different for this Friday Fun post. Josephine Baker achieved her greatest success outside her country of birth, the United States. She moved to Paris when she was still very young, and it was there that she became idolised as the Black Venus of cabaret performance in the 1920s and 30s. She was also active in the French Resistance during the war and in the civil rights movement in the US in the 1950s and 60s. Part of her activism was her well-intentioned but rather misguided ambition to raise a Rainbow Tribe. Unable to have any children of her own, she adopted a total of 12 children of different ethnicities to prove they could grow up together in harmony. She also deliberately raised them with different religions. At her magnificent estate in the Dordogne Chateau de Milandes she created something of a theme park, including a hotel, a farm, rides, and the children singing and dancing for visitors, included in the price of admission. That sounds to me horrendously like a zoo, and she certainly was not beyond typecasting the children to ‘represent’ their ethnic group, but she no doubt meant well. She later had to sell the chateau as she got into massive debt, and was taken in by her friend Grace Kelly, by then Princess of Monaco. The chateau is now open once more to visitors.