January in Japan: Yukio Mishima

Yukio Mishima: The Temple of the Golden Pavilion, transl. Ivan Morris, Vintage Classics, 2001.

In 1950 a young Buddhist monk-in-training set fire to the temple of Kinkakuji in Kyoto. The young man was diagnosed as schizophrenic and died a few years later, but his apparently inexplicable act of destruction has captured the imagination of creators ever since, most notably in Mishima’s best-known novel, but also in numerous film, stage and even opera and dance adaptations.

Mishima was not content to just label the young man as ‘mad’; instead he tried to delve deeper into the psychology of such an individual, even visiting the arsonist in prison. Of course, this is a fictional, speculative account, but such is the beauty of Mishima’s writing and his understanding of twisted minds and feelings, that it feels truer and more interesting than perhaps the real story could have been.

This was one of those novels that changed my understanding of life when I was a 19 year old student of Japanese language and literature, but I had not reread it since. I was almost afraid to, in case it failed to live up to my memory of it. For the first half or so of the book, I struggled. I was nearly convinced that it was a mistake not to consign it to the attic of my memories: the self-absorbed, sulky teenager is not the kind of character for whom I have any patience left. Yes, he stutters and has problems communicating with others, yes, his mother has cheated on his dying father, and yes, he has no place really to call home other than this almost far too beautiful temple where he has been sent to train to become a priest… but is that really sufficient reason to be such a bastard? There is a crescendo of unpleasant scenes that the narrator Mizoguchi observes and takes part in, so the final act should really not come as a surprise, but the journey there can be quite distasteful.

However, despite the occasional pretentious philosophising (typical teenager, I suppose), there are passages of great beauty throughout. The final chapter or two, in particular, reminded me why I loved this novel so much. The part of the story which has always fascinated me was still there and still intact. It’s the eternal artist’s dilemma, which reminds me of Andrei Rublev, except that Mishima tries to answer the questions that Tarkovsky only asks (and Mizoguchi is no artist). How can actual, real-life beauty ever live up to the beauty in our imaginations? Are the creation and destruction of beauty our only possible responses to an indifferent, cruel world? Does the artist have to sacrifice everything for the sake of beauty – is that the only thing that gives art authenticity? Can we ever really understand and fully appreciate beauty until we feel its loss? And doesn’t darkness or ugliness make the beauty stand out all the more?

Like a moon that hangs in the night sky, the Golden Temple had been built as a symbol of the dark ages. Therefore it was necessary for the Golden Temple of my dreams to have darkness bearing down on it from all sides. In this darkness, the beautiful, slender pillars of the building rested quietly and steadily, emitting a faint light from inside.

Mizoguchi has two friends who almost act as the angel and devil sitting on his shoulders: Tsurukawa, the naive, idealistic friend who believes the best of everyone, and Kashiwagi, whose birth defect has turned him cynical and cruel. [There might be a lot to say here about Mishima’s aversion towards bodily defects, he who indulged in bodybuilding and modelling, but we’ll leave that aside for now.] Mizoguchi wants Tsurukawa to be his conscience but is fascinated and swayed by Kashiwagi. Tsurukawa is weak in his moral rectitude, while Kashiwagi is strong in his corruption. The narrator also feels let down by his mother and by the Superior of the temple – for they are nothing but ordinary human beings, with all sorts of flaws. Meanwhile, he wallows in his self-hatred and grows to resent anything that reminds him that he too is imperfect and weak. Does beauty not become tarnished by familiarity? So why does this temple he knows so well still exert so much fascination upon him? Why does it render him impotent (both literally and metaphorically) and how can he rid himself of the hold it has over him?

A less common picture of the Golden Temple in the snow.

Perhaps beauty was both these things. It was both the individual parts and the whole structure… the mystery of the beauty of the Golden Temple, which had tormented me so much in the past, was halfway towards being solved. If one examined the beauty of each individual detail… the beauty was never complete in any single detail… The beauty of the individual detail itself was always filled with uneasiness. It dreamed of perfection, but it knew no completion and was invariably lured on to the next beauty, the unknown beauty…. Nothingness was the very structure of this beauty.

Many have taken issue with Mishima because of his problematic life, opinions and death, and it’s true that in this particular book (and a few of his other ones) the main character is a complete knob. But the author shows his character in all his ‘knob-ness’: it’s this self-awareness of his own personal flaws, this distancing from the sentiments described, this ability to make us pity and understand even the strangest of compulsions, the worst of human nature, that make me still appreciate Mishima. This is a man who was afraid of unpredictability, of too much freedom, of lack of structure, a repressed homosexual… and this tension is clearly visible and unresolved in his books. Alas, in his real life, it manifested itself in a reverence for military discipline and authority, a tendency to see things in binary terms which is more Western than Japanese. Am I reading too much in this book in saying that Mizoguchi is incapable of seeing any other solution than either destroying the temple or allowing himself to be destroyed by it (and that this is presented as a major error of judgement)?

The book was published in 1956 and the event it depicts was still fresh in people’s memories at the time, but it can also be interpreted as a metaphor for the emptiness and self-hatred that many in Japan felt after the end of the war. This translation came out in 1959 in the US, although it wasn’t published in the UK until 1994. Ivan Morris belongs to that first generation of translators and scholars, who did so much to familiarise the Western world with Japan after the Second World War, and humanise the people we had previously demonised. I group him loosely together with Donald Keene and Edward Seidensticker (Jay Rubin, John Nathan and Michael Gallagher came a little later, thereby representing the second wave). We owe them so many of the translations of the classics: Genji, Sei Shonagon’s Pillow Book, but also the modern storytellers that really aroused our interest in Japanese literature: Kawabata, Tanizaki Junichiro, Oe Kenzaburo, Mishima, Dazai Osamu and Kobo Abe.

If you look at these two lists, what do you notice? That it was largely male translators translating male writers (with the exception of the Heian classics). Of course, that is not to say that these writers were not brilliant and did not deserve to be translated, but it’s worth bearing in mind that there was a certain element of pre-selection going on there, so our image of Japanese literature was slightly skewed until at least the 1990s, when other (ahem – female) authors and translators began to appear, and when it became possible to admit that maybe the Japanese economic miracle was not all light and beauty.

Two writers in particular stood head and shoulders above the others in the early 1990s, when I was studying Japanese – and they remain among the most translated Japanese writers, at least until Murakami Haruki came along. I am referring, of course, to Kawabata and Mishima, Kawabata because of his Nobel (this was before Oe won his), and Mishima because of his highly-publicised, dramatic death. Their literary styles were very different: Kawabata’s prose is bare, restrained, detached, full of ellipses and hidden meanings, while Mishima is ornate, intense, visceral and dramatic. The battle between the fans of the two writers was as acute as the one between Tolstoy and Dostoevsky fans. If you like Dostoevsky at all, I would encourage you to give Mishima a try, and forget about the unsavoury aspects of the man, simply succumb to the magic that is his writing style.

January in Japan: Tokyo Ueno Station

Yu Miri: Tokyo Ueno Station, transl. Morgan Giles, Tilted Axis Press, 2019.

Ueno Park is an oasis of beautiful greenery in the heart of Tokyo. It houses several museums and cultural venues, a zoo, a Shinto shrine and is the site of the most exuberant cherry blossom gazing in the Japanese capital. When I first went to Japan in the summer of 1989, it was one of my favourite places to escape to from the humid heat of the city.

However, when the Japanese economy stagnated in the 1990s, the park became notorious for its large population of homeless people, who have created a makeshift town of blue tarp tents and cardboard boxes under the unusually large, sheltering trees. On my most recent trip to Japan in 2015, I was shocked to see how vast this community of the disenfranchised was. Japan has a tendency to sweep this problem under the carpet – for the longest time they wouldn’t even admit to having any homeless people. Nowadays, the problem is acknowledged but there is very little effort to deal with it in a concerted and humane way. The only positive is that the restaurants and shops in the neighbourhood give them their surplus, about-to-expire food. The police periodically disperses the homeless people, particularly when there is a formal event at one of the Ueno venues, with imperial attendance, but since there is nowhere else for them to go, they slowly drift back there. With the Tokyo Olympics on the horizon in 2020 (now 2021), the past two years or so have seen widespread attempts to ‘discourage loitering’, i.e. setting up of camps.

Yu Miri’s book gives us the life story of one of these marginalised people (and, in his company, we get to meet others from this community, which is by no means as homogeneous as you might expect). Kazu is a labourer in the construction industry, who left his family in Fukushima to make money in the big city in the run-up to the 1964 Olympics.

I never took my children to Ueno zoo… I didn’t take them to the zoo, nor to the amusement park, the seaside, the mountains; I never went to their beginning-of-the-year ceremonies or graduations or to a parents’ open day or to a sports day, not even once. I went back only twice a year, in summer and in winter…

Unsurprisingly, his children grow very distant, and he feels completely disposable and superfluous when he goes back to his home village. But things are no better in Tokyo: as a member of the homeless community, he is well-nigh invisible. ‘To be homeless is to be ignored when people walk past while still being in full view of everyone.’ Of course, we soon find out that Kazu is in fact a ghost, so he is literally invisible and can eavesdrop on the conversations of those wandering through the park. There are interesting contrasts between the visitors to the park and museums, and the homeless community. We also get to know other homeless people like Shige, extremely well-educated, who spends a great deal of his day in the public library, but is so ashamed of one single event in his past, that he can never return to his family.

Ueno Park and the Tokyo National Museum of Art

However, it is Kazu’s memories, his guilt and pain, that are at the forefront of the book. Kazu has always felt a special bond or affinity with the Emperor Akihito (who has since the writing of the book abdicated in 2019 in favour of his son Naruhito).. They were born in the same year (1933), they had their first son born on the same day in 1960, and Kazu even saw the old emperor (Akihito’s father) up close back in 1947. Despite his hard work, his submission, his feeling that he has done everything he was supposed to do, Kazu’s life has been full of bad luck. I want to avoid spoilers so I won’t say anything more specific here, although you are probably not going to read this book for its suspense. The narration glides from one conversation to another, from past to present, so that we often lose track of who is talking and what is real, what is experienced and what is merely observed and overheard.

There are some parts of the book where the author gets sidetracked into lengthy descriptions of a historical event or person, or descriptions of different types of roses interspersed with the dialogues Kazu hears in the park. I have to admit I was not quite sure what the author intended with these digressions. It might be to add to that overall effect of no escape, no enlightenment for Kazu. He is stuck in limbo and there is no end to his suffering and no meaning to his life or that of those around him.

I thought that once I was dead I would be reunited with the dead. That I could see, close up, those who were far away, touch them and feel them at all times. I thought something would be resolved by death. I believed that at the final moment, the meaning of life and death woudl appear to me clearly, like a fog lifting…

But then I realized that I was back in the park. I was not going anywhere, I had not understood anything, I was still stunned by the same numberless doubts, only I was now outside of life looking in…

Time does not pass. Time never ends.

Critics have made much of Yu Miri’s own outsider status – as a Japanese of Korean descent, she belongs to a group that is heavily discriminated. She herself has said that she wants to give voice to those who are voiceless and marginalised, but resists being stereotyped as a ‘minority writer’. Her only other novel to be translated thus far into English Gold Rush is about a less obvious kind of outsider. [You can read an excellent review of it on Tony’s blog.] Another writer who also struggled with this tension between giving voice to the type of experiences often unacknowledged by Japanese society is Kenji Nakagami, who was a Burakumin, so-called hereditary outcastes of society because they engaged in ‘unclean’ trades.

P.S. I should also add that I had the pleasure of discussing the book in December 2020 at the Borderless Book Club organised by Peirene Press, a wonderful initiative that introduces books published by small independents, translated from all over the world.

So my first two January in Japan reads have shown the darker underbelly of Japanese society. Will my next one live a little more up to the expectations we might have of this country? I’ll give you a clue…

January in Japan: Yuko Tsushima’s Short Stories

A pleasure to take part once more in Meredith’s Japanese Literature Challenge 14. My favourite way to start the year, with January in Japan.

Tsushima Yūko: The Shooting Gallery and other stories. (transl. Geraldine Harcourt), The Women’s Press, 1988.

It’s a puzzle to me why Yūko Tsushima is not better known to the English-speaking world. During her life she won pretty much all of the major Japanese literary prizes. She did not produce a huge body of work, but wrote steadily throughout her life. Quite a bit of her earlier work was translated into English in the 1970s and 80s by respected New Zealand translator Geraldine Harcourt, who had a personal connection with the author. Tsushima also fitted in with the feminist preoccupations of the Western world during that period (the time of Spare Rib magazine and Virago Press) – although perhaps she did not fit in well with the narrative of the Japanese economic miracle and boom years. She was not ‘exotic’ enough, not ‘other’ enough. She was not writing about cherry blossoms and chrysanthemums (although she does write about a chrysanthemum beetle). Her protagonists were usually single mothers, struggling to bring up children in a society that was often belittling and marginalising them. Perhaps too relatable the world over… although with additional pressures in Japan.

I am hopeful, however, that after the success in recent years of her novel Territory of Light (which was reissued in 2018 in the Penguin Classics edition), the rest of her work might be discovered. Like her father, she does not have an enormous range in terms of subject matter or stylistics, but what she does write is magnificent, just like her father’s work.

I do realise that perhaps I shouldn’t be allowing her father to enter the conversation, really, even if he is Dazai Osamu, a writer greatly revered in Japan (perhaps less well known abroad, because he too presents too gloomy a view of Japan and of mankind more generally). I certainly don’t think they can or should be compared to each other. After all, Tsushima was just a baby when her father died. However, her father’s highly publicised double suicide with his lover and abandonment of his family clearly had an enormous impact on Tsushima’s worldview and on her work. (She confronts this situation and imagines her mother’s reaction in a short story called ‘The Watery Realm’ which is not part of this collection, but has also been translated by Geraldine Harcourt).

So when Tsushima explores the life of single mothers, she is not only mining her own experiences as a single mother, but also memories of herself growing up in a single parent household. She was bemused by the ‘feminist’ label that often got stuck on her, and it’s perhaps the age-old truth that if a man writes about the very heart of loneliness and lack of communication, even (or perhaps especially) within a family, they are perceived as addressing the great universals of human experience, while if a woman does it, then it’s a domestic theme or less important women’s fiction.

Set against a backdrop of harsh realism, of dirty dishes piled high in the sink, cramped flats, whining children, fluorescent lights with insect corpses piled high, Tsushima’s protagonists, most of them mothers, but some of them young girls or boys, try to escape into their dreamworlds. But reality often comes chasing after them, crushing their carefully constructed alternative worlds.

In the title story, an exhausted mother tries to find the magical seaside memories of her youth once more and recreate them for her sons.

The thought of the sea had come to her suddenly the night before… She’d made up her mind to take the two children to the beach. There she had been, hemmed in by the cracker crumbs, plastci blocks, empty juice cans, underwear and socks that littered the room, the sinkful of dirty dishes, the washing hanging from the ceiling, the sound of the TV, the younger child’s crying, her own voice talking at the office, and the weariness – a weariness that turned her body to a desiccated old sponge. Unable to lie down, she was sitting having a cigarette with her elbows resting on the table when a trasnaprent blue gleam streaked before her eyes… It could only be the sea. It had completely slipped her mind.

Needless to say, once they get to the sea, it does not live up to their expectations at all. No cool, beautiful blue – the sea is grey, the light dull, the beach full of concrete and rubbish and dog poo, the children complain that they are tired, they have to pee, they can’t walk any longer… She closes her eyes and dreams of some sort of release:

… one day my back will sprout a pair of lance-shaped wings which will begin to beat, my body will visibly expand, and when the metamorphosis is complete I’ll be a dragon that ascends spiralling to the heavens. I’ll leave everyone watching astounded on the earth below as I soar aloft. my golden scales gleaming. Refreshed.

In another moving story ‘The Silent Traders’, a walled park in the middle of the city becomes a place for abandoning unwanted animals and develops its own microcosm, becoming a fantasy land for the lonely children growing up around it. People thoughtlessly or casually hurting and neglecting animals is a recurrent motif – undoubtedly a parallel with the way they marginalise and overlook certain people. Another theme that crops up time and again is that of feeling invisible. In ‘Clearing the Thickets’ we seamlessly move from a young woman relinquishing her lover to a woman in a bright red dress and wondering if she is visible at all, to a scene where the wayward daughter returns home to help with clearing the weeds in the family garden and, seemingly out of sight and mind of her mother and older sister, she overhears them viciously gossiping about her.

Yūko Tsushima author photo from The New Yorker.

The mother-daughter relationship in particular is often fraught with problems. All of the characters are flawed, and yet we cannot help but empathise with the yearning of many of them for escape from the everyday worries, their need to be loved and understood and appreciated. But to what extent do they weaken themselves by relying too much on others to be rescued? And when they understand that rescue is not forthcoming, how can they not despair and fnd the strength to carry on? It’s this wonderful rich complexity of each character, this understanding of the contradictory impulses in every one of us, that I find so satisfying in Tsushima’s work.

These are stories to read carefully and savour every word. They move effortlessly between the bland everyday and daydreams or even pure fantasy. I hesitate to call them magical realism, but there is often a strong reliance on symbolism. Stories that will make you uneasy, that will lodge themselves into your mind and never quite leave you.

You can read an excellent review of this story collection here, and thank you also to this blogger for referring me to this very revealing autobiographical essay by Tsushima published in the Chicago Tribune. I will leave you to read it for yourselves, but this paragraph in particular describes her subject matter perfectly:

I have never written about happy women. This is not because I like unhappiness, but it comes from my firm belief that misfortune is not always bad. Happiness can spoil people. Happy people can lose sensitivity, and as a result they become poor in terms of human qualities.

Reading Plans for First Third of 2021

While it is true that I didn’t get to read as much as I planned in the September-December time-frame, I found that having a bit of a plan for the final quarter of the year (or third, to be precise) did give me additional motivation. 2021 doesn’t look like it will be any less busy, but I will repeat this reading planning model for January-April. Of course, I keep it fairly flexible, allowing myself to add random books that capture my fancy, or offer me the thrill of transgression without being too constrained by the rules. Most of these books are on my shelves already, so that gets rid of my ‘far too many unread books’ concerns.

January = January in Japan

I have already read Tokyo Ueno Station but intend to reread parts of it for reviewing. I also plan two further rereads: two of my favourite Japanese books of all time – Dazai Osamu’s Ningen Shikkaku in a new translation and Mishima Yukio’s The Temple of the Golden Pavilion (it was the first novel that I read in the original Japanese all the way through back in my student days). I also intend to read some more by Tshushima Yuko (Dazai’s daughter). The Shooting Gallery is a collection of her short stories. I’ll also read short stories by Higuchi Ichiyo, one of the first professional women writers of Japan, who described the plight of the working classes.

February = Canada

In Canada it will still be lovely and wintry weather in February – real winter, with pure white snow and skiing. Perhaps nicer to read about than to live through it. So I have a nice selection of Canadian authors to hand. Dorian Stuber has been trying to get all his bookish Twitter friends to read Marian Engel’s Bear, so I’ll finally do him the favour! Carol Shields’ Mary Swann is about a latter-day Emily Dickinson who is killed soon after handing her manuscripts over to an editor – and becomes a bit of a posthumous sensation. I love Anne Carson as a poet and look forward to reading some of her essays as well in Plainwater. Inger Ash Wolfe is the crime writing pseudonym of author Michael Redhill, in case I feel the need for a bit of lighter reading. Last but not least, the only French language writer I seem to have from Canada on my shelves is Mathieu Boutin L’Oreille absolue, about two violonists, one young and ambitious, the other midlle-aged and depressed.

March = Drama All the Way

Scene from a production of The Holiday Game at the Maria Filotti Theatre in Braila, Sebastian’s home town.

This month will pave the ground for the next month, so I will be reading plays. Something I very rarely do nowadays, although I was very keen on reading (and performing) plays back in my late teens. I will reread The Holiday Game by Mihail Sebastian (which I am hoping to translate at some point if a friendly publisher decides it’s worth pursuing), as well as two Austrian favourites Arthur Schnitzler and Ödön von Horvath. Last but not least, something by Noel Coward, who also falls roughly into that time period. Which time period, you ask? Why, the one that I will be immersed in for April… If there is time, I might revisit Oscar Wilde’s plays, all of which I adored as a teenager, even Salome, which is less well-known.

April = #1936Club

The reading club dedicated to one specific year of publishing only lasts a week, but I intend to extend my reading to the whole month. The eagle-eyed amongst you may have spotted that Mihail Sebastian’s play was written that year (although not performed until 1938 – very briefly), and that Horvath also had two plays that appeared that year. Additionally, I also intend to read Max Blecher’s Occurence in the Immediate Unreality, Karel Capek’s War with the Newts and Mircea Eliade’s Miss Cristina, all published in 1936 and all East European. If I have time, I’d also like to read a book about Mihail Sebastian (a novel rather than a biography) by Gelu Diaconu, entitled simply Sebastian.

Living in the Pleasure of Anticipation: Reading Plans for Autumn/Winter

One of my favourite bookish Twitter people Alok Ranjan said: ‘Sometimes just the anticipation of books to come is even more pleasing than the actual reading of them’. And in times of uncertainty, with no doubt a tough autumn and winter ahead, you take your small pleasures where you can. So I’ve been spending a few joyful hours luxuriating in planning my reading and joining in with some like-minded online friends.

October

There are two reading challenges in October that I cannot resist. First, Paper Pills is planning a group read of Penelope Fitzgerald’s The Gate of Angels starting on the 1st of October, which got me looking through my shelves for other Fitzgerald books, so I’ll also be attempting her short story collection The Means of Escape and rereading The Bookshop and The Blue Flower.

Secondly, the week of 5-11 October is also the #1956Club organised by Simon Thomas and Karen aka Kaggsy. I have bought books in anticipation of that year and will be reading: Romain Gary’s Les racines du ciel, plus two books I remember fondly from my childhood Little Old Mrs Pepperpot by Alf Pryosen and The Silver Sword by Ian Seraillier. If I have time after all of the above, I may also attempt Palace Walk by Naguib Mahfouz, but might not make it in time for the 1956 week, lucky if I squeeze it in before the end of October.

November

It’s been quite a few years now that November has been equivalent with German Literature Month for me, so this year will be no different. I’m in the mood for rereading Kafka’s Das Schloss (especially since my son recently read The Trial and I didn’t have my German language edition to read it in parallel with him). I was so enamoured of Marlen Haushofer that I will read another of her novels, a very short one this time Die Tapetentür (which I’ve seen translated as The Jib Door, an English expression I am unfamiliar with). I can’t stay away from Berlin, so I’ll be reading Gabriele Tergit’s Käsebier erobert den Kurfürstendamm (Käsebier takes Berlin). I’m also planning to read a book of essays about Vienna and its very dualistic nature: Joachim Riedl’s Das Geniale. Das Gemeine (Genius and Filth/Rottenness) and another non-fiction book, a sort of memoir of studying in England by Nele Pollatscheck entitled Dear Oxbridge (it’s in German, despite the title).

Since taking the picture above, I’ve also decided to reread the book I borrowed from my university library just before lockdown in March, namely Remarque’s Nothing New on the Western Front.

December

Alok is once again to blame for his persuasive skills, as he’s managed to convince a group of us, including Chekhov obsessive Yelena Furman to read Sakhalin Island in December. Of course, winter seems to lend itself to lengthy Russians, so I’ll also be attempting The Brothers Karamazov (my fifth attempt, despite the fact that I am a huge Dostoevsky fan, so fingers crossed!). If I have any brain or time left over at all after these two massive adventures, I’d also like to read the memoir of living with Dostoevsky written by his wife and the memoir about Marina Tsvetaeva written by her daughter.

I also have a rather nice bilingual edition of Eugene Onegin by Pushkin from Alma Press, so I might put that into the mix as well, let’s see how it goes.

January

Meredith, another Twitter friend, has been organising January in Japan reading events for years now, and I always try to get at least 1-2 books in. This coming January I might focus exclusively on Japanese authors or books about Japan, as I have a lot of newly bought ones that are crying out loud for a read.I have a new translation of Dazai Osamu’s Ningen Shikkaku (A Shameful Life instead of No Longer Human) by Mark Gibeau, I’d also like to read more by Tsushima Yuko (who, coincidentally was Dazai Osamu’s daughter), the short story collection The Shooting Gallery. Inspired by Kawakami Mieko (who mentioned her name as one of the writers who most influenced her), I will be reading In the Shade of the Spring Leaves, a biography of Highuchi Ichiyo which also contains nine of her best short stories. Last but not least, I’m planning to read about Yosano Akiko (one of my favourite Japanese poets) and her lifelong obsession with The Tale of Genji, an academic study written by G. G. Rowley and published by the Center for Japanese Studies at the University of Michigan. (Once upon a time, I dreamt of studying there for my Ph.D.)

Saving the best for last, I have a beautiful volume of The Passenger: Japan edition, which is something like a hybrid between a magazine and a book, focusing on writing and photography from a different country with each issue. While I’d have liked more essays by Japanese writers themselves (there are only 3 Japanese writers among the 11 long-form pieces represented  here), there is nevertheless much to admire here.

Ambitious plans for the next few months, but they feel right after a month or so of aimless meandering in my reading. Let’s just hope the weather, i.e. news, outside isn’t too frightful!

January in Japan: Tales of Moonlight and Rain

Ugetsu Monogatari by Ueda Akinari is a collection of Japanese ghost stories written in the 18th century. The influence of this collection on subsequent Japanese literature (and film) can be compared to Edgar Allan Poe’s in the English-speaking world. And yet these stories are very different from the tales of the supernatural we are familiar with in the Western world. There are no jump scares, no steady build-up of horror, no Gothic twists – in fact, these stories may not frighten you at all. Instead, they blend folk tales, Chinese literary tradition, historical elements and both Buddhist and Confucian philosophy.

Does that sound deathly dull? Possibly. And certainly not easy to read without extensive footnotes, which makes up more than half of this book translated by Leon Zolbrod (published by good old Tuttle, which, together with Kodansha International, was THE best friend of the student of Japanese, at least in my days). This edition also has beautiful pictures (in black and white only, but perhaps that adds to the sense of old-time atmosphere).

Many of the stories feature a traveller who comes across a somewhat eccentric individual, usually at dusk or at night, hears their story, converses with them, only to find out the next day that they were in fact ghostly apparitions. Another type of story is about spirits (especially animal spirits) that co-inhabit a human body. Akinari clearly believes that anything is possible, that in the darkness ‘demons might appear and consort with men, and humans fear not to mingle with the spirits.’ However, when dawn comes, ‘the gods and devils disappear and hide somewhere leaving no trace.’ Virtually all of the stories are set in the past and are critical of the medieval era of feudal lords and constant wars. Some of the ghosts are bloodthirsty rulers, others are victims of their constant fighting. The endless list of names (and having to turn to the endnotes to make sense of who fought with whom) doesn’t make for smooth reading.

As students of Japanese, we were told to examine the elegant use of language in Ugetsu Monogatari. We struggled, of course, because it’s a little like expecting modern readers to understand Shakespeare instantly. The author is clearly well-educated and knows his Chinese classics, but gives them a Japanese twist. He has absorbed the language of the Heian period (think Genji Monogatari) and is clearly also influenced by Nō plays, and the result is a dramatic and dynamic prose, designed to appeal to a wider audience. Yet there is also a wistful, poetic, melancholy strand, full of oblique references to classical poems. All of these nuances are difficult to convey in translation, but the translator has managed to make it feel remarkably easy to understand and not pretentious at all. You need to read longer passages for the cumulative effect, but some of the briefer descriptions of landscape and especially of abandoned buildings may convince you of the beauty of the language:

At the mountain cloister there remained no sign of habitation. The towering gate was smothered with brambles and thorns. The sutra hall stood empty and covered with moss. Spiders had spread their web across the Buddhist statuary, and the altar, where burnt offerings had once been made was overlaid with swallow droppings… Then the darkest part of the night came. Without a lamp it was impossible to distinguish even nearby objects, and the roar of the stream in the valley sounded close at hand.

What I had forgotten since the first time I read these stories is just how misogynistic they are. Women are there to be subservient and faithful, or else if they become angry because of abandonment, they turn into evil spirits. Meanwhile, men behave as abominably as they please and yet seem to escape ‘ogrification’. The second story, The House Among the Thickets, particularly incensed me. It forms the basis for the Japanese film Ugetsu (1953), directed by Mizoguchi. It’s the story of a couple: the man Katsushiro has frittered away the family fortune and is desperate to make some money, so he decides to go to Kyoto to sell their silk in an attempt to set up as a merchant. His wife Miyagi begs him not to go, but cannot dissuade him and ends up praying for his safety instead. He promises to return by autumn.

While he is away, war breaks out in the province, but Miyagi does not seek refuge elsewhere, so sure is she that her husband will keep his promise and return soon. She bolts her doors and manages to avoid intruders lusting after her renowned beauty (echoes of Penelope). But Katsushiro doesn’t return, needless to say.

At first he seems to make a nice profit in the capital, but then he is waylaid by robbers and loses all his money. He hears that war has broken out and blithely assumes that his wife has been killed. So instead of checking, he returns to Kyoto where he sponges off a rich man. He falls ill so postpones his return till spring, which is fair enough, but then ‘before he knew it seven years had gone by as if in a dream’. Oops! How do seven years just slip by without you noticing? So he finally decides to return home and what is the excuse he gives upon being reunited with his far too patient wife?

I heard that our province was nothing but scorched earth and that horses had trampled every foot of ground. You must have passed away to dust and ashes, I thought, or if not that, I imagined, perhaps you had drowned. Eventually I went back to Kyoto where I managed to live for seven years on other people’s good will. But recently I found myself wondering more and more about old times, and I decided that the least I could do was to return and pay my respects. Even in my wildest dreams, you see, I never imagined that you might still be alive.

She gently chides him (in tones reminiscent of Anne’s passionate defence of women in love in Persuasion): ‘I’m very happy now but you should know that a woman could die of yearning, and a man can never know her agony.’

The story is given as an example of how bitter feudal wars affect ordinary everyday people, and the film version certainly blames the husband more for neglect of the family (there is a child involve too in the film version). But it still leaves a bitter taste in my mouth and makes me be firmly on the side of the uncontrollable female stalker in the story The Lust of the White Serpent. Of course in that story the woman is the dangerous villain and her evil nature has to get exorcised.

That tricky white serpent and her maid throw themselves into a waterfall to escape pursuit.

In The Cauldron of Kibitsu we have another couple: the wife’s justifiably jealous of her philandering husband, yet he manages to trick her into giving him money, which he then uses to set up house somewhere else with a new lover. Although it’s the jealous wife who gets transformed into a fox spirit, at least there is some come-uppance for the real villain of the story.

I suppose the difference between reading these stories at the age of 20 and at my age now is that I can no longer quite skate serenely over the content and simply admire beautiful language. That’s why I keep putting off rereading Mishima, who was a great favourite of mine at the time…

January in Japan: A Locked Room Mystery

Soji Shimada: Murder in the Crooked House, transl. Louise Heal Kawai

I read this for the Japanese Literature Challenge 13 hosted by Meredith. Go and see what other Japanophiles have been reading and reviewing.

The Pushkin Vertigo series has a predilection for the more classic type of crime fiction stories. They’ve published Margaret Millar, Frederic Dard, Leo Perutz, as well as the famous Vertigo by Boileau-Narcejac that gives its name to the whole imprint. So I knew what to expect when I ordered myself Shimada’s locked room mystery, although the author writes in many different sub-genres, often including horror or supernatural elements. Indeed, this book is more comic than scary, although grimmer than you would expect cosy crime fiction to be. It most closely resembles a Golden Age detective story, with all the clues (including drawings) painstakingly laid out for the reader to match their wits against the renowned sleuth – who in this case only enters the story in Act Three.

Kozaburo Hamamoto is a wealthy company director who has built himself a strange house on the northernmost tip of the northernmost island of Japan, Hokkaido. It is called The Crooked House, because all of the floors are uneven and sloping, there are staircases leading to some floors but not others, and the master bedroom is in a leaning glass tower accessible only by a drawbridge. There are plenty of guest rooms, but some of them are filled with all sorts of creepy collectors’ items such as life-size puppets, masks and automatons. Hamamoto has invited several guests, including one or two of his business partners, to spend Christmas 1983 with him and his daughter. There are some tensions between the guests, but nothing too untoward. Nevertheless, after the first snowbound night, one of the guests is found dead in apparently impossible circumstances, in a locked room, while all the other guests seem to have an alibi. The police is called in but they are unable to solve the mystery and, after a couple more deaths, they decide to send for the private investigator Kiyoshi Mitarai. Initially, he does not impress either the guests or the police with his exuberant style, but of course you underestimate the super-sleuth at your own peril.

This has all of the required nods to the classic country house mystery, similar to the recent film Knives Out, and it is about as plausible as the film too, and entertaining. Clues and red herrings are liberally sprinkled throughout the text, and avid armchair investigators may be able to solve part of the puzzle (I defy them to figure the whole thing out, though!). However, I did find the repetition and the insistence on carefully going through all the materials and clues a bit tiresome. I was far more interested in the psychology of the guests and their interaction, but there wasn’t quite enough of that to satisfy me.

There are some descriptions of the desolate snowy plain and the ice floes in the sea around the house, but overall this is not as atmospheric as I would have hoped from a Japanese writer.

There are many references to Sherlock Holmes, Agatha Christie, Poe and many other Western writers, as well as links to Japanese classics which might be less obvious to readers in the English speaking world. There is a lot of flamboyant posturing and presenting of a ‘masked face’ to the world which is reminiscent of Kabuki theatre. None of the guests (or hosts or household staff) are exactly what they appear to be at first glance. And, because this is the modern world of 1983 after all, there is lot less prudish reserve in describing some of the things going on between the guests.

An intriguing (but at times tedious) read, with a rather far-fetched solution. Entertaining enough, especially on a winter’s evening, but the motivations were murky and so, overall, it was not terribly memorable.

January in Japan: Short Stories by Women

I cannot remember where exactly I came across this rather lovely little bilingual collection of short stories by Japanese women writers, translated and edited by Angus Turvill and sponsored by The Japan Society in the UK . Probably the London Book Fair, but it is available for purchase (mostly online). The collection features Kuniko Mukoda (gone far too soon), Natsuko Kuroda, Kaori Ekuni, Mitsuyo Kakuta, Aoko Matsuda. I had only read Mukoda in the original a long time ago and in translation only the last of these authors, Matsuda’s novella entitled The Girl Who Is Getting Married (translated by the same Angus Turvill).

The stories are presented in parallel text format, although of course it is not intended to be an absolute literal translation. Nevertheless, it makes me feel curiously powerful to be able to check the original Japanese on the left against the English on the right, especially when the original includes phonetic transcription of all the kanji characters that might prove a bit of a struggle to this rusty scholar of Japanese! It also includes a fascinating discussion of translation choices at the end, which demonstrates just how tricky translation can be.

The stories all take place in different settings – town, country, seaside, past, present. In all but one of them, the main character is a woman, at different stages of their life, and in scenarios that will sound terribly familiar to women outside Japan too. From the young girl shunned by her classmates in The Ball by Kuroda, to the young worker profoundly tired of ‘friendly working environments’ in Planting by Matsuda, from the mother mourning the loss of her stillborn infant in The Child Over There to a lonely older woman finding some kind of connection with the younger generation in Summer Blanket. What is very Japanese about these stories, if we can make any cultural generalisations, is the subtle, slant way of telling things. None of that ‘drumming home the point’ that we often get in what I like to call the MFA class of contemporary American short stories.

Having said that, my favourite story is probably The Otter, the one that follows the most typical Western-style short story format. (It was written in 1980, shortly before the death of the author in a plane crash). It is the only one where the main protagonist is an elderly man, whose pride and joy is his garden, a rare thing in an urban environment. He likes to sit on the veranda and admire it at dusk. He has been resisting his wife’s suggestion that he should sell off part of the plot of land to a developer to build a block of flats. But then he has a stroke and his wife takes matters into her own hands.

Throughout the story, Takuji compares his wife to an otter – he feels real affection for the energy with which she tackles most things, how lively and captivating she is. How easily she proffers little white lies to the travelling salesmen who come knocking at their door. In Japanese the word for otter is ‘kawauso’ (which is written throughout the story in hiragana rather than any kanji – significantly so, because kawauso also sounds like ‘kawaii + uso’ – which could mean ‘cute lies’). But then he remembers a painting entitled The Otters’ Carnival:

Otters are wanton in their destructiveness: they sometimes kill more fish than they can possibly eat, and lay them out on display. That kind of display is sometimes called an otters’ carnival.

In layer after layer of recollections, almost a list of the things he admires but also finds a little frustrating about his wife, he begins to realise what shaky foundations his life has been built upon.

Stories that felt like a breath of fresh air. I was transported to a Japanese seashore, was wrapped in a light summer blanket, and planted away my fear…

New Year, Final Book Haul

Since I’ll be practically selling my kidneys (and almost certainly my parents’ old age security) in order to buy out the ex’s share of the house, I have to be very, very careful with money for the foreseeable future. So no more book buying for me this year – and this time I mean it!

However, before this frugality kicked in, I had a final splurge of French and Swiss books which I might struggle to find back in the UK, plus some that had been preordered in November or so, but got delayed in the Christmas frenzy post.

The French contingent

I finally bought myself a copy of Montaigne – not one translated into contemporary French but a ‘rejuvenated and refreshed’ edition, based on the 1595 version. I bought an abridged version of The Three Musketeers, in the hope that my younger son would fall for its charm. I got two Goncourt winners (smaller Goncourt prizes – for debut and the one given by high school students, which is often far better than the main one) and wanted to get the 2018 Goncourt winner that Emma rated so highly Les Enfants aupres eux – but they’d sold out and were waiting for the poche edition to appear some time in 2020. Last, but not least, I couldn’t resist this fictionalised biography of Tsvetaeva at a second-hand bookshop. The bookseller said I was the first person there who seemed to have heard of Marina Tsvetaeva, so we had a good long chat about her, how she is my favourite poet, but my Russian friend prefers Akhmatova.

The Swiss contingent

My good friend Michelle Bailat-Jones, whose translation of Ramuz so impressed me, was delighted to take me to a bookshop in Lausanne and recommend some more Ramuz and other Swiss writers. I ended up with Fear in the Mountains and with this trilogy by Agota Kristof, a Hungarian writer who taught herself to write in French. This trilogy has inspired other writers, a film (The Notebook) and even a video game, believe it or not!

Books arriving while I was away

Sadly, Michelle’s second novel Unfurled, which I’d wanted her to sign for me, arrived long after I’d left for Geneva. I had also ordered an Olga Tokarczuk which Tony Malone reminded me had been translated into English: Primeval and Other Times. I’ve been collecting quite a few books about the difficulties of writing and the importance of perseverance lately – Dani Shapiro’s one comes highly recommended. Last but not least, following the death of Alasdair Gray, whom I’ve never read, I wanted to sample some of his writing,but was not sure I could commit to a full novel, so chose these stories instead.

Japanese Literature Challenge

Finally, I have selected a few contenders for the January in Japan challenge. Heaven’s Wind is a dual language anthology of 5 women writers (each represented by one short story, all translated by Angus Turvill) and makes me feel like I almost remember enough Japanese to read it in the original. The translation notes at the back, though, make it clear just how little I am able to grasp the nuances nowadays. Another shortish story about insomnia by Yoshida Kyoko, Spring Sleepers, in that rather lovely publishing initiative by the Keshiki UEA Publishing Project. Then I have Ugetsu Monogatari (Tales of Moonlight and Rain), one of the most beautiful collection of supernatural stories in Japanese literature dating from the 18th century, which has inspired many, many later books and films. A classic of Japanese crime fiction and the author with the highest profile currently in Japanese literature consumed in the West make up the rest of my small selection. Now all I have to do is keep up with the reviewing!

Like a painting, Mont Blanc from the train window.

The holidays were nice, and reminded me once more just how much I miss that particular part of the world. They had the potential to be truly spectacular holidays, but alas, not quite! Sadly, you cannot escape all your problems or the nuisance people in your life, even at times of peace and joy to all humankind, even at a distance of a thousand miles. Stroppy teenagers changing their minds about things at the last minute and bringing plague-like flu symptoms with them meant that there was far less writing, skiing, fondue and chocolate eating, wine drinking, snowshoeing, meeting of friends than I’d planned. I am nevertheless incredibly grateful to my friend Jenny for allowing us to use her flat and partake in her impeccable literary tastes.

Statistics from 2019 and Plans for 2020

According to Goodreads, I read 44,163 pages across 148 books – so went over my target number of 120. There were times during the year, however, when I fell quite a bit behind with my reading, so it didn’t feel like I read so much. The longest book was Sylvia Plath’s Unabridged Journals at 732 pages, the shortest was a novella Christmas at the Chateau, written by Lorraine Wilson. The most popular book that I read was Meg Worlitzer’s The Interestings (which did not quite live up to my expectations) and the least popular was Denise Levertov: In Her Own Province, apparently read by only one other person on Goodreads (but well worth the effort of finding and reading).

I was lucky to have a bit of peace and quiet after the 22nd of December, staying alone at a friend’s flat just outside Geneva, so I read a lot for a week or so (my friend also has an excellent selection of books neatly lined up all over her flat). So that helped bring my total of books read in December to a wopping 17, quite a contrast to some previous months. This was a month of ‘free reading’, whatever catches my fancy. So I read 12 women writers, 5 men.

6 crime fiction novels (although two of those were unusual ones): Attica Locke: Heaven, My Home (nuanced and thought-provoking depiction of race relations, as usual); After She Wrote Him by Sulari Gentill (a clever, joyous metafictional romp); Katherine Bolger Hyde’s Death with Dostoevsky (a cosy crime on campus novel with a literary twist); Will Dean’s Red Snow (an immersive, glacial experience of Sweden’s far northern reaches, and a resolute, brilliant detective); The Raising by Laura Kasischke (another campus novel, looking at the dangers of the Greek societies); Sarah Vaughan’s Little Disasters (a drama which sounds far too plausible to any parents who have had to take their children many times to A&E).

3 non-fiction: Pies and Prejudice by Stuart Maconie (a humorous, heartfelt description of Northern towns, although it feels incredibly dated at times – written in 2008, it refers to Boris Johnson as an aimable clownish politician, for example); Still Writing by Dani Shapiro (inspirational but very down to earth encouragement and advice for writers); Circling to the Center by Susan Tiberghien (the perfect book for when you need to take a step back and use writing, art, psychology to understand yourself and find a spiritual path, whatever way it might take).

2 books of short stories by an old favourite writer of mine, Helen Simpson: Getting a Life (about the slippery slope of motherhood) and Cockfosters (the even slippier slope of aging).

3 books about marriages (and their tensions): Madeleine St John’s The Essence of the Thing (written almost entirely in dialogue – sharp, bitter, spot-on regarding tone); Raising Demons by Shirley Jackson; Alberta Alone by Cora Sandel, although you could argue Helen Simpson’s books talk about that too.

2 seasonal books: one Christmas themed (although I tend to avoid Christmas themed books or films) but this one was in preparation for my Christmas on the Franco-Swiss border – Christmas at the Chateau by Lorraine Wilson (too brief to make much of an impression); and to commemorate the 30th anniversary of the Romanian Revolution in 1989 – The Last Hundred Days by Patrick McGuiness

My favourite this month is probably the book that fits into none of the above categories: All die Nacht über uns (All the Night Above Us) by Austrian writer Gerhard Jäger. An apparently really simple story about a soldier on night guard at a border crossing in an unspecified part of (probably) Germany. As each hour drags on, he remembers scenes from his own life, his grandmother’s experience as a refugee, and struggles with his orders to ‘shoot with live ammunition’ if anyone tries to cross the border clandestinely. This impressive piece of work deserves a full review, once I get back home.

In addition to the books above, I’ve also found an edition of Montaigne’s Essays that I like (there are many, many editions available), some Alexandre Dumas for my boys and an unexpected fictionalised biography of Marina Tsvetaeva by poet and novelist Venus Khoury-Ghata.

However, these new acquisitions will not be my top priority at the start of 2020. I intend to take part in a TBR clearout, whether it’s 20 or hopefully more, and not buy any new books until I’ve significantly reduced that pile (there may still be a few late 2019 orders arriving in January, though). I also intend to continue with my geographical wanderings every month and January is for Japan, as is by now well-established courtesy of Meredith at Dolce Bellezza. I’m not quite sure which ones I’ll pick yet, but as soon as I get home, I will plan at least 3-4 reads or rereads from my fairly large batch of Japanese books.

I still have piles of Spanish and Canadian books waiting quietly for me, as well as Malaysian and Indonesian, so there will be many more countries to visit in the months ahead. Plus, a proper French read is long overdue, right?