#1929Club: Here Are Some I Read Earlier

I won’t have time to read or reread another book from 1929 for the wonderful #1929Club, but when I looked at the year in literature, I realised just how many of the books published that year I have read in the past… and how many of them are by favourite authors! I really think the 1920s and 30s might be my favourite time in literature and there is quite a bit of variety in this particular year. By no means a cosy time, still recovering from one war and starting to prepare for another, a struggle for social and economic stability, a major financial crash, countries starting to militate for freedom from the shackles of empire. A time of great poverty but also shameless display of wealth, with socialist and labour union movements clashing with capitalist owners and the police. It must have felt like the end of the world at times, which meant unchained hedonism and a devil-may-care attitude too.

Hardy Boys cover from 1929

I can’t help feeling we are living through similar times now – but will today’s cultural output be equally creative, extraordinary and have a long-lasting impact? Just think of the effervescence of Paris, Berlin, Vienna, London and Bucharest/Iasi in 1929 in terms of literary, philosophical and artistic circles! Anyway, here are some of the most memorable books from that year.

Books about the war, looking towards the future but also nostalgic about vanished worlds:

E. M. Remarque: All Quiet on the Western Front – probably one of my favourite books about WW1, it was not popular at the time of publication in Germany because of its ‘defeatist’ attitude, but it gives us a great insight into ‘the other side’ (i.e. usually history is written only by the victors)

Richard Aldington: Death of a Hero – equally as excoriating about the stupidity and futility of war, just as critical of the mistakes and monstrous egos on the English side as Remarque was about the German side. I don’t know why this one seems to have slipped into oblivion.

Ernest Hemingway: A Farewell to Arms – I have to admit I am not a huge Hemingway fan (I tend to prefer his short stories to his novels, but overall he describes a man’s world which makes me as a woman feel somewhat superfluous and weak), but this is an apt description of the disillusionment and alienation felt by soldiers sent to war, impacting even on their ability to love and be loved.

Antoine de Saint-Exupery: Courrier Sud – not strictly speaking a war novel, although our knowledge of the author’s fate may colour our perception of his books about flying. A homage to the pioneers of early aviation, as he describes the life of the postal pilots.

Tanizaki Junichiro: Some Prefer Nettles – this story is not only about the death of a marriage, but also mourns the death of the traditional Japanese society (and culture), as it succumbs more and more to Western influences

Elizabeth Bowen: The Last September – as if WW1 was not enough, this book describes its aftermath – the Irish War of Independence, as it is perceived in one of the grandiose country mansions in Ireland, and its subsequent destruction

Children’s books:

Although all of the below are classed as children’s books, it has occurred to me that they are quite dramatic and unsentimental, a real contrast to many of the more saccharine children’s books deemed suitable for younger readers.

1950s cover

Richard Hughes: A High Wind in Jamaica – sort of an adventure story, but actually the story of a kidnapping, living with pirates and violence and near-sexual abuse. I don’t remember being terrified reading it as a child – maybe I was too innocent to grasp all of its horrors? We read it in class, believe it or not.

Erich Kastner: Emil and the Detectives – the innocent sent to the big bad city, who ends up chasing the bad guys together with a gang of street kids – I loved this book so much as a child, it was the start of a lifelong love affair with urban noir. I particularly like the close relationship between Emil and his mother, very sweet.

Herge: Tintin in the Land of the Soviets – the first of the Tintin BD, this has a problematic history, as Herge had never set foot in the Soviet Union but was forced to write this almost as a piece of anti-communist propaganda by his boss, conservative newspaper owner and Catholic priest Norbert Wallez. As it turned out, many of the negative depictions of the Bolsheviks and of Stalin’s secret services were quite true…

Cover from the 1970s

Franklin W. Dixon: The Secret of the Caves (The Hardy Boys) – of course nowadays I know that there was no author of that name, but that it was a syndicate of writers who produced at least two Hardy Boys titles per year. The Secret of the Caves is the seventh in the original series, written by one of the best of the original authors, Leslie McFarlane. I loved all the Nancy Drew, Hardy Boys and Trixie Belden books, although the ones I read were probably the ‘revised’ and modernised ones published from the 1950s onwards. They certainly seemed to epitomise the glamour of American teens to me.

As a treat, I have included three different covers of The Hardy Boys book, the original, plus one from the 1950s and one from the 1970s. The story got modernised too along the way – I wonder if anyone bothered to bring it into the 21st century? Oh, there we go, I found a cover dating from 2017, which looks much more childish.

Cover from 2017

#6Degrees of Separation September: Wildcard Pick

I missed last month’s Six Degrees of Separation meme, since I was away on holiday, but it is one of my favourites and a good way to ease myself back into blogging after quite a hiatus. Here’s how it works: hosted by Kate over at Books Are My Favourite and Best, each month a book is chosen as a starting point and linked to six others to form a chain. No need to have an overarching theme, although some do, or connect the book to all of the titles on the list, just let your mind have a wander and see where it take you.

This month is Wildcard month, no set starting point, but Kate suggests we start with the last in the chain that we last completed or else with the last book we read. Well, the last chain I completed in July ended with the rather depressing Pale Horse, Pale Rider by Katherine Anne Porter and I’ve had enough of illness and death, so I will opt for the second version.

The last book I read was Jennie by Paul Gallico, a children’s story about an eight-year-old boy, feeling rather lonely and unloved by his upper-class ‘colonial style’ parents, who suddenly turns into a cat. It was the only book I could read during the last few days with my beloved Zoe, and it is clearly written by someone who loved and completely understood cats. Full of adventures but also gentle moments, not at all preachy, simply a beautiful tribute to friendship and love.

Another book written by a cat connoisseur is Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats by T. S. Eliot, which shows that the very cerebral and earnest poet also had a humorous and tender side. Famously turned into a musical (and a rather horrid film). I love this edition illustrated by Axel Scheffler.

I don’t think T. S. Eliot’s book is necessarily aimed at children, but it relies heavily on wordplay and subverting expectations, which is certainly the MO for Dr Seuss and his famous (or should that be infamous) Cat in the Hat. I certainly could have done with a cat or other pet to blame (I was an only child) when there was mess in the house after one of my ‘pretend’ games.

I will stick to the cat theme and move to Japan, where of course cats are much loved and often feature in their literature, art, anime and manga. The classic book is Soseki Natsume’s I Am a Cat, which is most certainly NOT aimed at children, but a satire about a rapidly changing Japanese society during the Meiji and Taisho period (turn of the 19th to 20th century), seen from the no-nonsense point of view of a cat.

Another Japanese novel where the cat is a pretext for the examination of adult themes, in this case a relationship turned sour, is Tanizaki Junichiro’s A Cat, a Man and Two Women, which once again is all about loneliness, tenderness and love in the most unexpected places.

When it comes to love triangles, of course the French could teach the world a thing or two, even when one of the corners of the triangle is a cat. My go-to book in that respect is Colette’s La Chatte (The Female Cat), about a marriage founded on jealousy of a cat, and although it features some deliberate cruelty towards the cat, you know that Colette would never allow a beautiful Chartreux to die (she herself had a succession of them, who followed her around everywhere).

My final cat-themed link is to that most formidable, shape-shifting, ill-mannered, incorrigible and evil cat of them all, Behemoth, the Devil’s sidekick, from The Master and Margarita by Bulgakov. Who can resist the immortal line, which always makes me burst into laughter, as the troublesome duo try to enter the literary club:

“You’re not Dostoevsky,” said the citizeness, who was getting muddled by Koroviev.
“Well, who knows, who knows,” he replied.
“Dostoevsky’s dead,” said the citizeness, but somehow not very confidently.
“I protest!” Behemoth exclaimed hotly. “Dostoevsky is immortal!”

I have a T-shirt with Behemoth looming above the city (see picture), which I love to bits.

So my cat-shaped travels have taken us to London and Glasgow, the United States, Japan, Paris and Moscow. Let me know where your Six Degrees take you!

#JanuaryInJapan: A Cat, a Man and Two Women

Tanizaki Junichirō: A Cat, a Man and Two Women, trans. Paul McCarthy, Daunt Books, 2017.

Tanizaki Junichirō (I’m sorry, I just can’t cope any more with the Western habit of reversing Japanese author names to suit our own standards – it is surname first in Japanese and in many other languages) was one of the leading Japanese authors of the 20th century and one of the contenders for the Nobel Prize in Literature in the 1960s (he died in 1965 and in the end it was Kawabata who was the first Japanese to win it). His obsessions with eroticism, fetishism and violence did not endear him hugely to me when I was a student, but I should add that not all of his books are like that.

He was a huge fan of Genji Monogatari and translated it into modern Japanese, so it’s no surprise that the clash between tradition and modernity, between East and West are recurring themes in his (often best) work. The Makioka Sisters has a Chekhovian or Thomas Mann Buddenbrooks feel to it (not just because of its title, which is actually Sasameyuki – or ‘thin/lightly falling snow’ in Japanese); it depicts the decline of a merchant family in Osaka, but also the end of an era. His collection of essays on Japanese art and aesthetics In Praise of Shadows is also worth a read. But I can’t say I ever found his work amusing or charming… until now.

The 120 page novella A Cat, a Man and Two Women is one of Tanizaki’s lighter-hearted works and was written perhaps as a bit of a relief from the struggles of working for five years on the translation of Genji. A love triangle – or should that be a square? – it clearly shows that the author understood cats (and perhaps women too) very well. Shozo is a simple, unsophisticated man, somewhat easily manipulated (certainly when it suits him) by his mother or his second wife Fukuko. Meanwhile, his spurned first wife Shinako claims that she wants custody of their tortoiseshell cat Lily. But why does Shinako, who seemed to be jealous of Lily while they were all living in the same house, really want the cat? Is it because she knows that Shozo is so smitten with his pet that he will start visiting her once more?

Each of the humans in the story sets out to use Lily as a pawn, but in the end the cat proves to be the mistress of them all, drawing out both the best and the worst qualities of the people fighting over her. What is most touching about the story is the description of Lily as she ages – these are the passages where it becomes clear that Tanizaki must have been a great cat lover himself.

There were many signs of Lily’s rapid decline: one of them, for example, was her no longer being able to jump up with ease to Shozo’s height and snatch a bite to eat… each year the number of leaps grew fewer, and the height she reached lower. Recently, if she were shown a bit of food when she was hungry, she would first check to see if it was something she liked or not, and then jump; and even so, it had to be held no higher than a foot or so above her head. If it were any higher she would give up the idea of jumping and either climb up Shozo’s body or, when even that seemed too much for her, simply look up at him with those soulful eyes, her nose twitching hungrily… When Shinako got that sad look in her eyes, it didn’t bother Shozo very much; but for some reason, when it was Lily, he was strangely overcome with pity.

It seemed oddly appropriate to be reading this story about love for one’s pet during the week when the Pope expressed dismay that people prefer pets over having children (Shozo does not have any children with either his first or his second wife). Certainly, the closeness between Shozo and his cat is excessive at times – forcing his wife to cook something she hates for the sake of feeding it to the cat instead of eating it himself, or exchanging farts under the bedcovers. Yet I dare any animal lover not to be moved by that final scene, when he holds Lily on his lap and she purrs and allows herself to be stroked, but doesn’t seem to recognise him. Of course, you can also see it as the transience of life and marriage itself…

A slight story, but a beautifully observed and sensitively written study of human (and feline) nature. Tony Malone reviewed this when it was first reissued by Daunt, Karen aka Kaggsy reviewed it for #1936Club, while Annabel reviewed it for last year’s Japan challenge. This post will be linked to Meredith’s record-breaking 15th (fifteenth!) Japanese Literature Challenge.