January in Japan: Falling Down the Rabbit Hole

Osamu Dazai: Self Portraits: Tales from the life of Japan’s great decadent romantic, transl. and introduced by Ralph F. McCarthy, Kodansha International, 1991.

Once I reconnected with my old flame, Dazai Osamu, it was difficult to stop at just the new translation of his final novel Ningen Shikkaku. One of my book blogging friends, whom you might know as @Kaggsy59 from Twitter, mentioned that she had a collection of his autobiographical stories in roughly chronological order, with sympathetic introductions to each story by McCarthy. Somehow, I did not manage to get my hands on this book back in the 1990s and it is now out of print and prohibitively expensive. So maybe I shouldn’t recommend it to you. But if you can get hold of it, it is probably the best introduction to Dazai’s work, as there is great variety and much more humour here than in some of his better-known work.

As the translator says, some of the stories are clearly more fictional than others, and there is a tendency to exaggerate for effect. Let’s not forget that most of these were stories for magazines, published during the writer’s lifetime, and that he had to produce work to earn a living. He injects humour into situations, often at his own expense, but also has the ability to turn from comedy to tragedy within the same paragraph, even the same sentence. This style – and the more domestic stories – remind me of Shirley Jackson’s family-inspired stories collected in Life Among the Savages and Raising Demons. Except that Shirley Jackson does not mention directly her fury at her husband’s affairs, or her agoraphobia or her many health problems, while Dazai has no such qualms.

Dazai at around the time of the first double suicide attempt.

In his quite experimental story written in dialogue form ‘Mesu ni tsuite’ (translated here as Female, elsewhere as Of Women), we initially seem to witnessing one of those games that old friends might play late at night, after a bout of drinking. The narrator and his friend vie with each other to describe the ideal woman, in terms of looks, occupation, clothes, behaviour and speech. This may come across as crude masculine banter, but they then go on to create the scenario of a spa break. Yet even in this best of all possible imaginary worlds, things don’t go according to plan and the romantic dinner for two becomes increasingly awkward. The man seems to avoid intimacy by pretending he’s got a writing deadline, but then spends endless minutes copying out the Iroha poem repeatedly (used as a kind of alphabet ordering for the Japanese syllabary). It seems that even in his imagination, the narrator cannot rid himself of his fears and complexes. It all seems quite funny in a very ‘cringe comedy’ sort of way (which makes Dazai so modern, to my mind), but then both the friend and the reader realise, to their horror, that the story takes a sinister turn (apologies for spoiling the ending for you, but then, if you’ve read my previous post about Dazai’s life, you will know that only one ending is possible):

‘I heard a sound like water flowing behind me. It was only a faint sound, but a chill ran down my spine. The woman had quietly turned over in bed.’

‘What happened?’

‘”Let’s die,” I said. She too…’

‘Stop right there. You’re not just making this up.’

He was right. The following afternoon the woman and I attempted suicide. She was neither a geisha nor a painter. She was a girl from a poor background who’d been a maid in my home. She was killed simply because she turned over in bed. I didn’t die. Seven years have passed and I’m still alive.

Dazai does not come out well from most of these stories, as you might expect, but he can also be quite cutting about the people closest to him for comedic effect. For example, in the story ‘Trains’ he feels sorry for a country girl who has been spurned by one of his friends and impulsively decides to say goodbye to her as she leaves from Tokyo Ueno station. He takes his wife along for moral support, believing that she might have more social skills than him. As you might expect, however, everyone just hangs around, looking and sounding very awkward.

Three minutes or so still remained before departure time. I couldn’t stand it… nothing is more confounding than those last three minutes. You’ve said all there is to say and can do nothing but gaze helplessly at each other. And in this case it was even worse, because I hadn’t been able to come up with a single thing to say in the first place. If my wife had been a bit more competent, it wouldn’t have been so bad, but look at her: standing there with her mouth clamped shut and a sullen look on her face.

Yet each story has layers: beneath the comedy there is something much more serious. While they are at the station, they also see ‘an ashen-faced fellow leaning out a window of the third class coach, bidding a faltering farewell’ and we realise that it is a young man being mobilised during the war. In ‘Female’, reference is made to a failed coup in 1936 (the so-called February 26 Incident) to reinstate the power and glory of the Emperor – an attempt that Mishima admired and Dazai completely despised.

Dazai was emphatically against the war, but, given his arrest because of his involvement with the Communist Party, he is careful not to upset the censors and only mentions war in passing in his work of the 1930s. His downbeat, fatalistic stories were increasingly frowned upon by the censors, so he reverted mostly to retellings of Japanese folk tale or older stories during the war.

Yet, for all his appreciation of traditional Japanese literature and history, he stubbornly refused to accept the established narratives or clichés. In a very funny scene in his story ‘One Hundred Views of Mount Fuji’, he and one elderly woman are the only ones in a bus full of tourists who steadfastly refuse to crane their necks to catch a glimpse of the mythical mountain, but look in the opposite direction.

Perhaps Dazai is at his best when he focuses on others rather than on himself. He has a great eye for detail and proves a good observer of people and situations. There is much warmth and humanity in his descriptions, even when he almost churlishly tries to undermine his own kind impulses, as if afraid that he might be accused of sentimentalism. The tenderness and hope of spring and marital love in a story like ‘A Promise Fulfilled’. The way he keeps assuring readers that he hates dogs, yet takes in a stray puppy in the comical tale ‘Canis familiaris’. Believing a rose-seller is an imposter and yet nevertheless buying the roses from her in ‘Thinking of Zenso’. The affection and admiration with which he describes his older brothers, who all had some literary talent (even though he clearly had a troubled relationship with them). In ‘Two Little Words’ he helps an old man fill in the withdrawal slip from his saving passbook and finds out that it is in the name of his daughter who died in the air raids. When sent by journalists for a photo feature with the vagrants in Ueno Park, he is able to relate to them and treat them like real human beings, observing much more within a few minutes of walking there than any of the reporters who accompany him. Perhaps most touchingly, in ‘Seascape with Figures in Gold’, he feels guilty about the way he used to treat one of the family maids, yet years later, when she comes to visit him with her family, she remembers things very differently and he ends up being almost envious of her peaceful, serene life.

In one of the last stories he ever wrote, ‘Cherries’, we are participating in an evening meal with his family and Dazai says something that reminds us of the main character in Ningen Shikkaku:

When I’m at home, I’m forever making jokes. Let’s say it’s a case of needing to wear Dante’s mask of merriment precisely because there are so many things that trigger the anguish in the heart… Whenever I’m with people, no matter how great my mental or physical suffering, I try desperately to create a happy atmosphere. It’s only after parting with company that I stagger away exhausted to think about money and morality and suicide.

I don’t know if I’ve managed to convey the flavour of this author without making you feel he is too self-indulgent. Mishima described him as ‘an invalid who does not wish to recover’ and therefore does not qualify as a true invalid. The thing with Dazai is that you cannot hate or criticise him more than he does himself. You have the feeling that it was not a pose. He handled the fame that came along after the publication of The Setting Sun just as badly as he had handled poverty and obscurity in his youth. He was ever the one to rebel against rules, and the tyranny of ‘should’, decrying what he perceived to be the hypocrisy and opportunism of the Japanese society during and after the war. His is a manifesto of constantly inspecting, never accepting at face value, opposing any facile answers: ‘I’m a libertine – burhaiha. I rebel against constraints. I jeer at the opportunists.’ He refused to join any clique and could be quite spiteful about what he perceived as arrogance in others. But for those who were truly poor, downtrodden, outcast or sad, he had endless compassion. He was always able to forgive weaknesses in others (probably because of all the weaknesses he could see in himself).

In the academic study I was reading in parallel with this, The Suicidal Narrative in Modern Japan: The Case of Dazai Osamu, the scholar Alan Wolfe argues that Dazai does not really fall into the romantic suicidal hero vein. Dazai is ‘simultaneously victim and victimizer’, and his texts resist our interpretation of him. Dazai becomes slippery, impossible to pin down to a single interpretation, teasing readers from beyond the grave. He constantly casts doubt on the veracity and consistency of the narrator – a technique that Mishima also uses in The Temple of the Golden Pavilion. Dazai would never be content with a final narrative, a theory set in stone, any effort to enclose thought once and for all. Everything is fluid, and the real meaning of things escapes us, or is only briefly glimpsed in the corner of one’s eye.

I can live with that.

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.

#WITMonth and #20BooksofSummer: Teffi

Teffi: Subtly Worded, transl. Anne Marie Jackson et al. (Pushkin Press, 2014)

Imagine Dorothy Parker combined with Marina Hyde, with a dash of Chekhov and a sprinkling of Anna Seghers – and you might have something like Teffi, a Russian journalist and short story writer from the early 20th century. Had she lived today, she would no doubt be a star of social media, an influencer with her pithy, succinct and witty comments. She was a star twice over in her lifetime – first in her homeland (admired first by the Tsar and then by Lenin), then in exile in Paris in the 1920s, had perfumes and chocolates named after her, was the toast of political and cultural circles in several European cities. Towards the end of her life and after her death, her star waned somewhat, but she has now been rediscovered both in Russia and abroad.

Subtly Worded is a selection of her literary work from 1910 to 1952 and, although Teffi was celebrated primarily as a humorist and satirist during her lifetime, this collection certainly proves that she was not a one trick pony. Some of her shortest early pieces are slight, laugh-out-loud funny and hugely relatable – such as ‘Will-Power’ (about a man whose doctor has told him to give up the booze). There is gentle mockery of vanity in ‘The Hat’, in which a young woman believes she is irresistable to her poet boyfriend (‘who had not yet written any poems, he was still trying to come up with a pen name, but in spite of this he was very poetic and mysterious’), but only when she is wearing her new hat… and then she realises she was wearing the wrong one all along. The stories told from the point of view of children (‘The Lifeless Beast’ or ‘Jealousy’) ring very true and are made up of equal parts of innocence, humour and heartbreak. She does not sentimentalise childhood, nor old age. Her characters are infuriating as well as touching.

The sting in her humour becomes more noticeable during and just after the Russian Revolution. These stories may have just one string to their bow, so they feel more like satirical newspaper articles, but they certainly hit the mark. She observes how ideals get derailed by famine in ‘Petrograd Monologue’, narrated by someone determined not to mention ‘food’, yet thinking of nothing else. She recounts the indiscriminate persecution of the cultural elites and suspicion of education in ‘One Day in the Future’ – an exaggeration that was not too far from the truth in the Soviet Union, Eastern Europe in the 1950s and during the Chinese Cultural Revolution.

On his return journey he overtook several carts loaded with firewood. Their drivers had the most improbable backgrounds: one had been a tenor with the Mariinsky Theatre, another an academician, the third a staff captain, the fourth a gynaecologist. […] At home, he had an unpleasant surprise. In the dining room his ten-year-old son was studiously learning the alphabet. Terenty tore the book out of the boy’s hands and ripped it to shreds.

‘You mangy pup!’ he yelled. ‘So you thought you’d start reading books, eh? Learn the sciences, eh? So you wanna end up a goatherd?’

Yet she is equally scathing about the airs of misplaced superiority and nostalgia for the glories of the past of Russian aristocracy. She lampoons them in ‘One of Us’, in which Mrs Kudakina, wife of a general, laments the disappearance of les nôtres (people like us) and their replacement by les autres (people not at all like us), yet proves incapable of truly distinguishing between the two.

Teffi is a keen political observer, and the description of her encounter with Rasputin is eye-opening. He tries his hypnotic powers on her, and, although she doesn’t succumb to them, she can understand how others might. However, she is careful to distinguish between personal charisma and the charisma of power. All those ‘sucking up’ to Rasputin for the hope of political advancement or at least for being spared severe punishment – their behaviour is reprehensible yet what other choice have they got? Teffi seems like a precursor of the Me Too movement when she says:

… there was something in the atmosphere around Rasputin I found deeply revolting. The grovelling, the collective hysteria – and at the same time the machinations of something dark, something very dark and beyond our knowledge. One could get sucked into this filthy mire – and never be able to climb out of it. It was revolting and joyless… The pitiful, distressed face of the young woman who was being thrust so shamelessly by her lawyer husband at a drunken peasant – it was the stuff of nightmares, I was seeing it in my dreams. But he must have had many such women – women about whom he shouted, banging his fist on the table, that ‘they wouldn’t dare’, and they were ‘happy with everything.’

Once in exile, she casts her lucid eyes on the emigrant community and they don’t escape unscathed, as in ‘Que Faire?’, perhaps one of her best-known and most-quoted pieces.

We – les russes, as they call us – live the strangest of lives here, nothing like other people’s. We stick together, for example, not like planets, by mutual attraction, but by a force quite contrary to the laws of physics – mutual repulsion. Every lesrusse hates all the others – hates them just as fervently as the others hate him.

This lack of solidarity in exile has been observed by other ethnic communities – especially when they are escaping from a country in political turmoil, because they are never quite sure on which side their new acquaintance might be (or might have been in the past). Add to that the envy of someone else’s success abroad, a success that would have been inferior to yours if you had still been experiencing the ‘normal’ (i.e. long gone) state of affairs in the ‘motherland’…

This is an impressive collection, showing a full range of emotions – from flighty to serious, from mockery to genuine compassion, from sharp insight to sentimentality. There is depth and sadness here too, a lot of reading between the lines, but also sheer impish humour. Something for everyone in fact – her ‘idol-like’ status becomes more understandable.

This was my 20th book of the #20BooksofSummer challenge and my third review for #WITMonth.

 

 

Liliana Colanzi: Our Dead World

This is my most recent #20BooksofSummer read (No. 12 in actual fact), but I am somersaulting over the earlier ones I read and placing it at No. 10, so that I can have at least one review this week for #SpanishLitMonth initiated by Stu Jallen (which is not just literature from Spain but literature in the Spanish language).

Liliana Colanzi is a Bolivian writer, considered one of the most promising young voices in Latin America today, but so far Our Dead World is her only book that has been translated into English (by Jessica Sequeira and published by Dalkey Archive Press). I heard Colanzi speak at the Hay Festival two years ago, as part of the Bogota39 initiative, and bought her book then and there (and of course got it signed). The stories are unusual, surreal, captivating and show a great deal of courage, in the sense of not worrying about making the reader feel comfortable or of fitting under one convenient genre or label.

The first story The Eye, for example, could be described as a more realistic, coming-of-age type story, with a girl in her first year of college struggling with her feelings for a male classmate, who lets her down by buggering off with another girl at the last minute while working on a group project for class. Her mother is deeply religious and traditional, her professor chides her for not being brave enough to think for herself, and she compensates for all of her disappointments by cutting herself. So far, so conventional, you might think, but then the story and the language takes on a surreal turn, as we follow the protagonist into something like a nervous breakdown (or illumination?).

And that is the hallmark of Colanzi’s style: taking the mundane and well-trodden set-ups and then twisting them completely beyond recognition. You sit and read breathlessly  and wonder how the author will manage to conclude the story and exit from the impossible situation in which she has placed herself and her characters. Usually, this is done through altered states, which the author is very good at conveying through repetitive, mesmerising language, which is often like watching a film playing at double the speed in someone’s head.

Each story (bar one) has a different but realistic setting – a Bolivian village preparing for a funeral, an East Coast college campus, a Paris hotel, a photographic studio, a house hidden in a sugar-cane plantation. But then a curveball gets thrown into the apparently familiar set-up: a family starts quarreling as they remember past frustrations while having their portrait taken, a meteorite is ready to hit the earth, a mysterious wave-type weather pattern drives students to suicide, a cannibal is on the loose, the corpse at a funeral seems to start breathing, you stumble across a place in the jungle where indigenous slavery still exists. There are hints at secret traumas and a side serving of horror in most of these tales.

The story which is the exception has more of a sci-fi premise: it’s set on Mars. A young woman has joined the colonising workforce on Mars but still yearns for the life and man she loved on Earth. While she and her fellow workers are doomed to either go mad or die of cancer, she becomes obsessed by the idea of life perpetuating itself even in the most hostile of environments.

These are the kind of stories which pack so much into their tiny frame that I’m not sure I’ve completely understood them. I also like the way in which Colanzi alludes to her cultural background but is not limited by it. I want to reread and analyse these stories – but above all, they give me permission to go forth and be bolder and more experimental in my own writing.

#20Books of Summer: No. 3 – Lydia Davis

The Collected Stories of Lydia Davis, published by Penguin Books.

Lydia Davis is a law unto herself. Her short stories are sometimes so short – no more than a title and a line – that you struggle to give them a name. They are often fleeting observations, like a flash on a camera, momentarily drowning everything in its brightness, leaving you slighly blinded. Not all of them work, but when they do, they make you wince, groan, laugh and shiver in recognition. Some of them linger long after you read them. Davis wrote mainly poetry at college, and this shows in her prose, that ability to choose the perfect word at the perfect time. The deliberate choice of punctuation and line breaks.

I can’t say I read this book from cover to cover. Instead, what I do is periodically dip into it and see which stories attract me. For instance, when I first bought the book in 2017 and was struggling with divorce and trying to find a job, I found the earlier, more explicitly gender battle stories spoke to me more. There is a certain unravelling chattiness in her earlier stories which looks like the effortless transcription of a particularly breathless kind of self-torment, but which is in fact beautifully controlled. The only other writer I’ve known who can do this beautifully, combining the funny with the tragic, is Dorothy Parker.

The fact that he does not tell me the truth all the time makes me not sure of this truth at certain times, and then I work to figure out for myself if what he is telling me is the truth or not, and sometimes I can figure out that it’s not the truth and sometimes I don’t know and never know, and sometimes just because he says it to me over and over again I am convinced it is the truth because I don’t believe he would repeat a lie so often.

Picking up the book three years later, in very different circumstances, I was more attracted to the stories, which seem to experiment more with form and language or give voice to other literary influences. The very funny bilingual story French Lesson I: Le Meurtre, which starts off as a description of a farm pastoral for learners of French, including grammar and pronunciation hints, and then gets progressively more sinister. The simple description of trying to read Foucault and take notes on public transport in Foucault and Pencil. The manic energy and endless self-doubts and second-guessing as Kafka Cooks Dinner for Milena. Lydia Davis excels at mimicry and dead-pan humour.

I also enjoyed the very brief, less artfully constructed, more fugitive pieces. Simple observations that make you say: ‘Yes, why has no one every expressed that before?!’ They are very slight, but both amusing and often thought-provoking. For example:

Like a tropical storm,

I, too, may one day become ‘better organised’.

Or the one entitled Example of the Continuing Past Tense in a Hotel Room, in which the ‘story’ is shorter than the title.

Your housekeeper has been Shelly.

Many of the later stories seem to be more observational and feel more like non-fiction, such as What You Learn About the Baby, which anyone who has looked after a baby for any period of time will understand. One of them almost feels like a sociological study. Helen and Vi: A Study in Health and Vitality compares the lives of two elderly women, both born and raised in the US, one of African-American parents and the other the daughter of Swedish immigrants. The humour becomes more biting, and perhaps this time round I was more disposed to see the social satire in her work, such as in the perfectly paced and impeccably voiced Mrs. D and Her Maids.

I’m not yet done with Lydia Davis, I will no doubt return to her stories again and again. Who knows what aspect of them I will focus on next time? It is proof of the variety and depth of her short fiction that you never come away empty-handed. It is certainly a wonderful source of inspiration for any writer of flash fiction – although she remains inimitable.

Short Stories for Short Attention Spans

I’m sure I’m not the only one whose attention span seems to be shrinking in the last few weeks. Although I’ve embarked upon The American by Henry James and am finding it quite humorous and easy reading, on the whole I seem to spend more time on interruptions rather than on reading. So short story collections are ideal. I can always squeeze one story in between a team meeting and starting to cook supper, or between a Barney/Zoe socialisation project and a game of Cluedo with the boys. (Sadly, that last one is becoming infrequent, as they keep reminding me that they have left such childish pursuits well and truly behind them.) And these two short story collections by women and about women are truly magnificent, highly recommended. Just don’t expect very lengthy, profoundly analytical reviews of them – my writing attention span is likewise very much reduced.

Lucia Berlin: A Manual for Cleaning Women

Everyone was buzzing about it a few years back, and I even bought it for a friend who I was sure would love it, but I somehow never got around to reading more than 1-2 stories from it. I am so glad that I discovered it now. It is so, so good. An instantly recognisable, unique voice, regardless of whether the story is in first person or third person. She reminds me of Jean Rhys, but in a different setting and a few decades later, a working woman rather than a kept one, with not just herself but four boys to look after as well.

Many of her biographical details match with what she shares in the stories, and there is something of the ‘confessional writer’ about her. (She also reminds me of Anne Sexton, with a cool, unflappable veneer hiding tormented depths.) But she twists and exaggerates memories and events, so that they can best serve the story she wants to tell. As one of her sons said: ‘Our family stories… have been slowly reshaped, embellished and edited to the extent that I’m not sure what really happened all the time. Lucia said this didn’t matter: the story is the thing.’

Her stories are never boring, and they are surprisingly humorous (unlike Rhys). Some are brief, mere glimpses into someone’s life, you can’t help feeling like a voyeur at times. Others are longer, building up to… well, sometimes there is a climax, but often the stories are not crescendo all the way. Something seems to be about to happen, and then something far less dramatic happens, and life is just that one shade clearer or foggier, heavier or lighter. But nothing has really changed, you always knew it was going to be this way.

Matsuda Aoko: Where the Wild Ladies Are, transl. Polly Barton

I read this one for the online reading group of literature in translation, organised by Peirene and other independent publishers. Unfortunately, I lost the connection after the first 20 minutes or so and was unable to log back on, but I did enjoy hearing the translator Polly Barton and the publisher Tilted Axis talk about what attracted them to these stories.

Ghost stories are very popular in Japan – I’ve recently reread and reviewed Ugetsu Monogatari – and I certainly spotted that ‘story within a story’ narrative framework in some of the stories in this collection, as well as rakugo, Kabuki and other folktales used as inspiration. But the author does a brilliant job of turning those traditional stories on their head. In Japanese tradition, the vengeful spirit is nearly always a woman (who has been severely wronged, admittedly, but nevertheless seems vengeful beyond any reason). In Matsuda’s stories, the women are free agents, surprising, mainge unexpected choices or comments. The stories are set in the present-day, with modern, often eccentric flourishes, and they often end on an inconclusive note.

They have been hailed as ‘feminist retelling’ of folk tales, but the feminism is often subtle rather than screaming out loudly. The stories have all the joyful creativity, wilful darkness and inventiveness of Angela Carter’s The Bloody Chamber or Anne Sexton herself in her little-known retellings of Grimm’s fairytales Transformations.

 

 

 

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…

#WITMonth: Brazilian short stories

My final take on Brazilian women writers this month falls under the approximate label ‘short stories’, although one is a collection of short stories, one is a fragment of a novel and the third is an allegory.

Clarice Lispector is an old passion of mine, but I’ve read her novels rather than her short stories. This beautiful collection of the Complete Stories is published by Penguin Modern Classics (translated by Katrina Dodson and edited by Benjamin Moser, this was well received, before the whole scandal about Benjamin Moser erupted two weeks ago, when another Lispector translator Magdalena Edwards accused him of colonising both Dodson’s prose as well as her own). It is a massive volume, so of course I didn’t try to read all of it in one go, or even read the stories chronologically. I dipped in here and there, attracted by titles or trying to find narrators (usually women) at different stages of their life.

Although precisely, exquisitely observed, there is something as ancient as the hills about the stories, a sense of inevitability. In Obsession, a married woman who has an affair with a difficult, manipulative man called Daniel, leaves her husband, moves in with her lover, finds out love is not all it’s cracked up to be, but struggles to let go of her idealised notions of him and of love.

I never smiled, I had unlearned joy. Yet I wouldn’t have removed myself from his life even to be happy. I was not, nor was I unhappy. I had so incorporate myself into the situation that I no longer received stimuli and sensations that would allow me to modify it… He needed me! I repeated a thousand times afterward, feeling that I had received a beautiful, enormous gift, too large for my arms and for my desire.

Most of the early stories are about the relationship between men and women, and at least have a semblance of a structured narrative. A young girl discovers something about male double standards in the very short story Jimmy and I, but decides not to worry about it and enjoy her life instead. In Interrupted Story a girl is attracted to a sad, self-destructive type of man and wants to rescue him… but life smacks her in the face. In Happy Birthday a family gathers around the eighty-nine-year-old matriarch, who is silently disappointed in them all, but also reminds them uncomfortably of their own mortality.

Other stories are more wilfully experimental. Horses as metaphors romp through the pages of Dry Sketch of Horses, representing ‘what is best in the human being’, still and statuesque during the day, released from burdens at night. Mysterious rituals and revels with a charismatic androgynous divine creature give way to disillusionment the next day in Where Were You at Night’. The Smallest Woman in the World is an extraordinary story of colonialism and racism (and an indictment of anthropology when it studies ‘exotic cultures’ like butterflies pinned to a table). Marcle Pretre, hunter and man of the world, comes upon a tribe of tiny pygmies in Central Congo, including the fully-grown, 18 inch pregnant woman ‘dark as a monkey’, whom he chooses to call Little Flower. She becomes a bit of a media sensation when her picture appears in the newspapers, but she remains unknowable and confuses the explorer with her laughter, her very different definition of love and her joy at not being devoured, that most perfect of feelings, the secret goal of an entire life.

Love this picture of Lispector in Bern in 1946-47

Lispector seldom gives instructions on how to read her stories. They lurch like a runaway tram between realism and the fantastical, between universal and very detailed, very particular observation. Like with Shirley Jackson, there is always something slightly off about the stories, something lurking in their depths. Nothing is as straightforward as it might appear.

The extract from the novel Perhaps an Animal by Natalia Borges Polesso (transl. Sophie Lewis) is in a way a reprise of the Lispector story Jimmy and I, with its conclusion that it’s best to live like an animal, content in what you get every day and not daring to want too much. A poor girl who has come to Sao Paolo to work but is struggling to make ends meet and resorts to eating food out of bins. She encounters a boy who wants to become a woman, who tells her earnestly:

There’re times it’s good to be an animal. I think we hang on to this idea that humans and humanity are always the best thing to be. What we’re really talking about is kindness – except it’s not always like that. Humanity is far from being a good thing. Look around. If everyone was an animal, at least no one would feel guilty, No one would be bearing grudges, no one would be judging.

Both stories are from this rather lovely volume I bought at the Hay Festival last year.

If Polesso seems to have affinity with the more realistic side of Lispector’s fiction, Mariana Torres’ Roots (transl. Lisa Dillman) hearkens more to the surreal Lispector. This is a charming, sad little allegory about displacement. The narrator was ‘born in Brazil because everything grows in that soil’. The day she is born her father plants the seeds of an apple he was eating and a tree grows in the same rhythm as the roots on the soles of the girl’s feet. When the family moves to Rio, they prune and take the tree with them; both it and the girl acclimatize to life in the city, but her body becomes covered with shoots and she can no longer go to school. So the family decides to move to the other side of the world (somewhere in Europe), again with the tree in tow. In the new city where nothing grows, where ‘the earth is brown, hard and dry, it’s impossible to plant anything’, the girl learns to fake it but ‘the truth is that at night the scars on the soles of my feet burned’.

Russians in July: Odessa Stories

Odessa Stories by Isaac Babel, translated by Boris Dralyuk (Pushkin Press)

Odessa was a lawless, cosmopolitan port town on the fringes of the Russian Empire, on the Black Sea coast, home to one of the largest Jewish populations in the world. I say ‘was’, because, although it remained an important trading port during the Soviet period, it was also savagely attacked during the Second World War (it was one of the four Soviet cities to be given the title of Hero City, together with Leningrad, Stalingrad and Sevastopol) and 80% of its Jewish community was exterminated during the first 6 months of the occupation.

With its Mediterranean architecture, mixed ethnic composition and gang culture, Odessa might remind you of Marseille or Naples.

Its great variety of ethnicites remain tangled even nowadays: it is part of Ukraine, with a majority Ukrainean population, but the main language spoken is Russian, albeit an idiosyncratic Russian with a lot of local slang. It is this rich Odessan argot that the translator Dralyuk tries to capture, and he makes the completely logical choice to use the language of American pulp fiction and films for that purpose.

Babel published these stories in the early 1920s, and they consolidated the myths about the city and its gang culture. Legendary gang leaders such as Sonya the Golden Hand and Mishka the Jap (from the turn of the 20th century) were admired as well as vilified, perceived as rebels and Robin Hood type of characters (when in actual fact they were probably ruthless monsters). They are still a popular source of stories not just locally, but throughout the Russian (and then Soviet) empire. Babel creates his own gang leader, the charismatic yet cruel Benya Krik, known as The King.

The first part of the book narrates (not in linear fashion, these are all distinct stories) the rise of Krik – how he intimidated the new head of police in Odessa by setting fire to the police station, how he first acquired the nickname The King, how he took revenge on those who messed up his deals. It also introduces many other colourful local characters: old gangster boss Froim the Rook, avaricious landlady and smuggler Lyubka the Cossack, Aryyeh Leib the elder of the almshouse, the hapless broker Tsudechkis who seems to misread every situation. Although it can be tricky keeping track of who’s who, these are stories in the best oral tradition, fun, full of sly humour, exaggerated, larger than life, designed to make the listener laugh or cry out in shock.

If the first part of the book is a celebration of diversity and virility, the second part shows what happens when virility becomes aggressive and when innocent bystanders get caught up in events. This is not about quarrels between gangs anymore and the style is much more serious and lyrical, showing the broad range that Babel was capable of.

The narrator here is Babel’s alter ego, a slightly idealistic young Odessan who recalls his childhood and youth in the city. While many of the incidents he recalls are quirky and funny, full of Jewish humour and family foibles, some of the texts, such as The Story of My Dovecote, are heartbreaking, showing the many inequities and dangers to which the Jews living in the city were subjected. A ten-year-old boy who has been saving up assidously to buy a pair of beautiful dovers gets caught up in a vicious pogrom on his way home.

I lay on the ground, the crushed bird bird’s innards sliding from my temple. They ran down my cheek, winding, dribbling, and blinding me. The dove’s tender gut slipped down my forehead, and I shut my only unplastered eye, so that I wouldn’t have to see the world laid bare before me. This world was smal and terrible. There was a pebble lying in front of me, a jagged pebble, like the face of an old woman with a large jaw; and a piece of string; and a clump of feathers, still breathing.

I’ll finish on a more cheerful note, a brilliant quote from the slippery trickster Benya the King himself, who tries to excuse himself for having killed someone ‘accidentally’.

Aunt Pesya, if you want my life, you can have it, but everyone makes mistakes, even God. That’s what it was, aunt Pesya – a huge mistake. But wasn’t it a mistake on God’s part to put the Jews in Russia, where they suffer as if they’re in hell? I ask you, why not have the Jews live in Switzerland, with nothing but top-quality lakes, mountain air and Frenchmen as far as the eye can see? Everyone makes mistakes, even God.

Let’s pretend we don’t know about Babel’s untimely death and his subsequent erasure from Soviet literature. Luckily, he has been rehabilitated now and we can enjoy this earthy, lively, somewhat madcap collection of stories, bringing a new streak of – well, I wouldn’t exactly call it realism, perhaps ‘heightened realism’, but certainly a lot less gloom and pessimism than some of the great Russian writers.

Alice Munro: Too Much Happiness

toomuchhappinessWith an unwitting stroke of irony, this book was shelved, thanks to its promising title, under ‘mood-boosting books’ at my local library. I did wonder a little at that, as past experience with Alice Munro had acquainted me with her sharp eye for dissecting trouble under a seemingly happy façade…

And sure enough, this was another collection of stories with brutal themes – families destroyed by anger and resentment, wrestling for control, manipulation and deceit. Her style is, as always, cool and collected, all about controlled fury rather than rants, about women’s hidden strengths and men’s visible weaknesses, the cruelty of children and the countless small hurts which add up to a lifetime of cracks and fissures.

The title story is about a real person, Sophia Kovalevsky, the first Russian female mathematician and the first woman to hold a professorial chair at a North European university (in Sweden). Munro riffs on the challenges and possibilities of this extraordinary woman, ‘full of glowing and exceptional ideas’, who was both politically engaged and also a prose writer, and who died at the age of forty-one.

We do get to see Sophia’s family in this story, but other stories are much more explicitly about those ties which bind us. And the family is not seen as a place of harbour and refuge in Alice Munro’s world. In fact, quite the opposite: men as dominant bullies taking advantage of young girls who then wreak revenge (‘Wenlock Edge’), men and women as more or less subtle murderers (in ‘Dimensions’ or ‘Free Radicals’), children teasing or harassing those who are different to themselves (‘Face’ or ‘Child’s Play’), first wives being abandoned , families reforming and mothers feeling disappointed about their offspring (‘Deep-Holes’ and ‘Fiction’). These are all people I would hate to encounter in real life… and yet I probably have.

alicemunroOften described as ‘stark and unflinching’, you can certainly understand why this dissection of modern family life is disturbing and unforgettable. I cannot read too much of her in one go, I have to admit. Add to this the fact that Munro often edits her stories quite extensively between the first publication (usually in a literary journal) and the final appearance in a collection, and you can see just sharp her scalpel is, and how precise and exquisite her style.