May Reading: Two Books from Lebanon

This post might also be called Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay, featuring two writers, one male and one female, one living in Lebanon, the other abroad, who both use oral storytelling as a narrative device and blend personal stories with political ones, trying to explain what is inexplicable, or at least give us a flavour of what it might be like to go through such difficult times. Neither of these books are easy to read, despite what the jaunty cover of the second one might indicate, but they are worthwhile, well-written and thought-provoking.

Elias Khoury: White Masks, transl. Maia Tabet, Maclehose Press. (Originally published in 1981, in the midst of civil war in Lebanon)

An apparently banal murder of a man in his fifties, left on a rubbish tip in Beirut: Khalil Ahmad Jaber represents everyman – wife, family, two married daughters, a son who fought in the civil war and has been proclaimed a ‘martyr’. Prior to his body being discovered, disappeared for three weeks. The story is narrated by a journalist who tries to investigate the case – and speaks to his widow, his daughter, the neighbour (an engineer who seems reasonably interested in the widow), widow of the caretaker of the block of flats who seems to have had a relationship with the deceased, the rubbish collector who found the body, a militiaman who was involved in the interrogation of Khalil, his daughter, the doctor who performed the autopsy.

Each account gives of course a very different view of the troubled personality of the dead man, seeks to justify their own part in his downfall, but also show how preoccupied they are with their own lives. The narrative gives the feeling of interview transcripts, messy, slipping easily from present to past and back again, going off on tangents. Perhaps in keeping with the oral storytelling tradition of the region.

Finally, the journalist narrator’s voice comes back in at the end of the book, to almost chide himself for picking such a ‘small’ subject to ‘entertain, please and pass the time’ (surely an irony, as he succeeds in doing almost exactly the opposite – cause anxiety, worry and confuse us). He sums it up as one small tragedy among so many that are being played out daily.

Is the identification of the murderer the problem? Would it help us understand the motives for the crime? I don’t think so… It was not for lack of trying… I spent months investigating and reading to try and establish the facts.. So now, dear reader, you too may feel as bewildered as I do. Faced with the impossibility of discovering the truth, you must doubt, as I do, the reported incident itself, as well as people’s accounts. I am sure one of those clever literary critics is going to say that I’m making a mountain out of a molehill. I can just hear him saying, ‘But surely Beirut is just like any other city, full of ordinary people leading ordinary lives, going to work, eating, sleeping, having sex, having children, dying, celebrating festivals buying chocolate egss, sugared almonds, and maa’moul.’ While all of that is true, I do not know how one can reconcile that assertion with my story.’

The book is troubling in its portrayal not only of the ‘artistic truth’, which is in the eye of the beholder, as we have seen in Rashomon and many other instances, but also in its political implications, namely that the truth is no longer valued. Arriving at even an approximation of the truth is no longer attempted and you can trust no one. A weary, cynical view of partisanship and a necessary indictment of all sides in a conflict.

Hoda Barakat: Voices of the Lost, transl, Marilyn Booth, Oneworld Publications. Initially published in Arabic in 2017

Barakat perhaps represents the next generation of Lebanese, who never knew the country before constant civil war drove them into exile. She has been living in France for quite a while now, so it comes as no surprise that her novel reflects the stories of those who left a country torn by war (it could be Lebanon or any other country in the Middle East or North Africa, or several different ones). Six individuals are trying to make new lives for themselves somewhere abroad, but they are also looking back towards their home, their family and their past, writing letters to the ones they left behind… letters which never reach their destination, but are found by the next letter-writer in the chain. Despite the cheery-looking cover and the more modern tone, the six stories in this novel also weave a dark and troublesome story of displacement, hopes quashed, struggling to be accepted and treated as an equal and living in poverty and uncertainty. At times, it feels like letter writers are their own worst enemies, as they make dangerous or foolish or bad choices – or at least, that’s how we would judge them at a distance, in the comfort of our own settled lives. But who knows how we might act if we were in similar situations, with the personal, familial and historical social burden weighing upon us?

The conceit of letter-writing (after all, who still writes letters nowadays, would they not be more likely to call or send messages via phone) also gives a very immediate, oral storytelling quality to the book. The letters are found in those public liminal spaces that are neither here nor there, neither old home nor new country: hotels, airports, planes. They never reach their intended destination, but towards the end of the book, we see how the intended recipients might respond to them (or at least to the people who wrote them). At the same time, the author makes us the readers question how we might respond if we were to encounter these people. None of the people presented here are ‘nice’ or ‘worthy’ refugees – they are prickly, egoistic, pitiful, performative, trying to justify the horrible things they did in the past, often downright nasty. The whole gamut of human experience, because anyone can become a displaced individual. But they are not just individuals who make bad choices, they are also victims of their place of birth, their culture and upbringing, the historical and social circumstances.

There are both shocking moments and so many poignant and wistful details in each of these stories. Here are just a few of my favourite quotes:

Nothing in my childhood or my adolescence has ever prompted a longing for the past, a past that seems to me more like a prison than anything else. I am not here in this room in order to return to what was, nor to see you and thus see with you the charming young woman I was, or how lovely and robust the springtime was that year, there in my home country. That country is gone now, it is finished, toppled over and shattered like a huge glass vase, leaving only shards scattered across the ground. To attempt to bring any of this back would end only in tragedy. It could produce only a pure unadulterated grief, an unbearable bitterness.

Another voice says the following in a letter to her mother:

If a mother doesn’t love her daughter, then who will she love in this world? Mother, why did you change so much as you got older? Didn’t I obey you enough?… I know that you loved me when I was a child. And then the world treated you harshly. The hardships accumulated, as they did for me, and the bitterness of it all weighed on your heart. This is what life does to us, how it determines things. Life unleashes its storms on us and we are no more than feathers whirling in hurricane winds.

This book provides such a powerful, uncompromising look at people on the margins of society:

These people see no one and no one sees them. Any attempt to infiltrate the world beyond that wall ends in catastrophic, violent repulsion, like the meeting of two substances whose magnetic charges repel each other. Two worlds, completely cut off from each other, two languages whose codes are mutually undecipherable, unreadable in whichever direction you try to read them.

How well can we ever know people who have lived through civil wars? How much can we ever really know about the violence and destruction, the losses, the devastation? The overpowering fear they must feel every day? Can we ever really understand how they are transformed, which things change inside them and which things harden?

I was too busy at work this month to get much reading done, so these two will be my only two books from Lebanon, but they certainly provided an intriguing insight into a different culture and literary style. My last book in the May reading of translated Arabic literature will be Egyptian: Palace Walk, which deals with far less recent history.

#1936Club: Max Blecher and Translation Comparison

Max Blecher published the short novel Întâmplări în irealitatea imediată in 1936 and in this post I will be referring to the Romanian language version of it via the Open Access library, as well as three English language translations: Adventures in Immediate Irreality by Michael Henry Heim, published by New Directions in 2015; Occurence in the Immediate Unreality by Alistair Ian Blyth, published University of Plymouth Press, 2009; Adventures in Immediate Unreality by Jeanie Han, dating from 2007, which is freely available online.

I discovered Romanian author Max Blecher a few years back with his best-known work Scarred Hearts, a shorter, funnier but also much more visceral version of The Magic Mountain. Unfortunately, because of his early death at the age of 28 from spinal tuberculosis, and being bedridden for the last ten years of his life, he only produced a small but memorable body of work over a very short period of time between 1930 and 1938. He was not at all well-known in Romania when I was growing up. He certainly was not as well known as his contemporaries Camil Petrescu, Mircea Eliade, Eugen Ionescu or Mihail Sebastian, and was largely ignored even when his novels were reissued in 1970 during a brief cultural thaw in Communist Romania.

He is only now starting to be recognised for his unique modernist style in his home country, and perhaps this is only thanks to the reaction of readers in the West (he has been translated into French, German and English, among others), where he has been compared to Kafka, Robert Walser or Bruno Schulz. It still didn’t prevent his house in the town of Roman from being torn down in 2013, although there had been campaigns to preserve it as a museum.

This novel reads like a memoir, but it is an indefinable work, hovering somewhere between a prose poem, a memoir and a novel. In terms of subject matter, it reminds me a little of Barbellion‘s Diary, but it is less about day to day life, with less ego involved. This last may seem like a strange statement, since we have a first person narrator who gives us a detailed account of his childhood in a small provincial town, his encounters with women, his bodily sensations, his reaction to the small objects he picks up and the people he observes. And yet this is not the author worrying about his legacy, or how his contemporaries may perceive him. Instead, we have a devastatingly honest and detailed account of living with the spectre of death in front of you all the time. His reactions are very physical, immediate, powerful, occasionally excessive – it’s as though the narrator is trying to plunge himself into life, determined to squeeze every last drop of enjoyment out of it. Or perhaps he is trying to determine which of the worlds he feels he inhabits is more real. The narrator has always hovered on the threshold between two worlds. As he tells us, he has suffered from early childhood from something he calls ‘crises’, which tend to occur in certain particular spaces in his home town, spaces he calls ‘cursed’. During these crises, which sound a bit like a fugue state, he feels his identity dissolve, he is no longer sure of what is real or not, and when he recovers from them, he has a profound sense of futility and disappointment with the world. At those times, he seems to suffer from an overabundance of clear sight and awareness, and it’s telling him that he is in the wrong place, that his real self and life are somewhere else. This is the rather poignant ending of the book (in the translation of Michael Henry Heim).

Now I am struggling with reality. I scream, I beg to be awoken, to awaken into another life, my true life… I know I am alive, but there is something missing, as there was in my nightmare.

I struggle. I scream. I flail. Who will awaken me?

That precise reality around me is dragging me down, trying to sink me. Who will awaken me?

It has always been like this. Always. Always.

Blecher in happier, more mobile times, 1929.

It is very difficult to describe the book in any more detail, other than to say that, although it bears some resemblance to the stream of consciousness techniques developed by James Joyce or Virginia Woolf, it is not just introverted musing. Instead, it is also a description of a town, a way of life, a family and a certain time period. It is full of anecdotes, full of scenes which take place against unusual backdrops: a waxwork museum, a cinema that goes up in flames, the props room at the local theatre, the August funfair, junk-filled attics, a sewing machine shop, all filtered through the consciousness of an over-sensitive child and then young man. I had the feeling I was watching a Jean Cocteau film (more specifically, Testament of Orpheus) while reading this, although it would be unfair to call the book surrealist, given how firmly it is anchored in the body.

However, I have to admit that I struggled with the book at first. This is because I had bought a copy of it in translation from the University of Plymouth Press, a bulk buy of beautifully illustrated translations of modern or contemporary Romanian literature (which has ceased, because of lack of funding). I could not resist the high production values, and the British translator is a prolific translator from Romanian, of philosophers like Constantin Noica and Catalin Avramescu, as well as novelists like Filip Florian and Stelian Tanase. So when I resolved to read the book for the #1936Club, this is where I started. But I soon hit a wall: I found the style pompous, pretentious, needlessly complicated, which was not at all how I remembered Blecher from Scarred Hearts.

So I turned to the Romanian original. And indeed, in spite of the modernist style, the language is simple and everyday, perfectly comprehensible to the average Romanian, not at all high falutin. I’d noticed this discrepancy before when reading English translations of Romanian works – but, in the case of Cartarescu at least, I thought maybe that was a fair reflection of his own style. However, in the case of Mihail Sebastian or others, it felt like these translations (which are mostly by men, by the way, and I honestly don’t know if that makes a difference) are pointlessly over-egging the language and giving people the wrong impression about Romanian literature. One possible explanation could be that words of Latin origin are perfectly common in Romanian but sound more sophisticated and erudite in English. Still, there are plenty of perfectly acceptable non-Latin choices in English that could convey the meaning in a way closer to the Romanian intention and spirit.

I have said before that, when there is only a small amount being translated from a certain language, publishers and readers are prone to put labels on the literature of that country. For Romania this might be ‘abstract, difficult, philosophical, traumatic’, and anything that doesn’t fit into that stereotype won’t be considered. But that was in terms of content; I didn’t expect it to be the case also in terms of language. It’s not often, of course, that you have multiple translations of the same text from Romanian, but I have seen Max Easterman puzzling over two very different translations of Mihail Sebastian’s Women. In this case, I found three translations of Blecher’s text. I don’t know anything about the earliest translator, Jeanie Han, other than that she received funding to visit Romania and was mentored by Romanian professors there while translating this work. I do know, however, that Michael Henry Heim’s translation appeared posthumously. This award-winning multilingual translator (specialist in Slavic languages in particular) was terminally ill himself when he translated Blecher’s work. However, he felt such a strong affinity for this project that he learnt Romanian especially for it. However, I didn’t allow myself to be influenced by the back story when I decided that I preferred his version, which reads far less like a treatise in philosophy. Jeanie Han also comes closer to the more colloquial language of the original, while Alistair Ian Blyth sounds the most academic.

Even in the following passage, which is more objectively difficult even in the original Romanian, you can see that Heim’s version is the one that sounds most natural in English, although he has subtly altered the meaning in the first sentence. In the original, there is no hint that the narrator was waiting for the light to change before leaving the cinema. However, in the second version the translator has suddenly made it sound like the narrator was going to the cinema with a larger group, which seems highly unlikely in that context.

2007 Version2009 Version2015 Version
In the summer I would go to the matinee early and come out when it began to get dark. The light outside was changed; the day, nearly over, was waning. I observed that in my absence an immense and essential event had taken place in the world like a kind of sad obligation to carry on the ceaseless work – night falling, for instance – regular, diaphanous and spectacular. Thus, I would once again enter into the middle of a certainty, which through its daily rigor seemed to me of an endless melancholy. In such a world, subject to the most theatric effects and obliged every evening to produce a correct sunset, the people around me seemed like poor pitiful beings with their seriousness and their naive belief in what they did and what they felt.In summer, we would go into the matinee early and leave in the evening, as night was falling. The light outside was altered; the remnants of the day had been extinguished. It was thus I ascertained that in my absence there had occurred in the world an event immense and essential, its sad obligation of always having to continue – by means of nightfall, for example – its repetitive, diaphanous and spectacular labour. In this way we would enter once more into the midst of a certitude that in its daily rigorousness seemed to me of an endless melancholy. In such a world, subject to the most theatrical effects and obligated every evening to perform a proper sunset, the people around me appeared like poor creatures to be commiserated for the seriousness with which they always busied themselves, the seriousness with which they believed so naively in whatever they did or felt.In summer I would go to the matinee and emerge only at nightfall: I was waiting for the light outside to change, for the day to end. I would thus ascertain that in my absence an important thing, an essential thing had taken place: the world had assumed the sad responsibility of carrying on – by growing dark, for example – its regular, intricate, theatrical obligations. Again I had to accept a certainty whose rigorous daily return made me infinitely melancholy. In a world subject to the most theatrical of effects, a world obliged every evening to produce an acceptable sunset, the poor creatures around me seemed pitiful in their determination to keep themselves busy and maintain their naive belief in what they did and felt.
The literal translation of the Romanian title, by the way, is Happenings in the Immediate Non-Reality

There are many more such examples, but I will spare myself the delights of typing them all up in the WordPress blocks (and spare you the delights of ploughing through very similar texts). In my comparison of the translations of Genji, I was probably the only one who preferred Seidensticker’s translation for making things smoother and easier for the English reader. However, in that case, we had a style of language that was no longer in use in present-day Japan, so I can understand why other readers preferred the translations that were closer to the spirit of the original. In this case, however, Max Blecher’s Romanian is still instantly recognisable, only very occasionally using slightly outdated verb forms etc. We all still speak like that and write like that, and, even though we share with the other Romance languages a predilection for three or four syllable words, that does not make us any more thoughtful or highly literary than others!

Photograph of Blecher from the early 1930s.

Aside from my quibbles about the various translations, I would agree with Herta Müller, who described this novel as a masterpiece of sheer literary intensity. Blecher was ahead of his time in many ways, and will probably always be an acquired taste. This book will never become a bestseller, but it is remarkable for its unflinching look at the increasingly slippery borders between the real world and the interior (or, nowadays, the virtual) world. How the real world holds us back, imprisons us, never quite lives up to our imagination, how we forever sense there is something beyond its ‘petty passion for precision’. How the imaginary world can seduce us with its infinite promise, but is ultimately empty. ‘Exasperating as it was, I was forced to admit that I lived in the world I saw around me; there was nothing else.’

I doubt this book could ever be turned into a film, but Blecher’s Scarred Hearts has been imaginatively adapted by Romanian director Radu Jude, interspersed with the author’s own words and the historical context of the 1930s.

I jumped the gun a little on the officieal #1936Club because I’m spending most of hte month in that time period. So I have already written about Don Juan Returns from War last week.

Robert Seethaler: The Field, transl. Charlotte Collins

There was a TV series that I enjoyed watching while living in France called Un village français (A French Village). It followed the years of the German occupation of France during WW2 in a small village near the Franco-Swiss border. The logline of the first season was ‘1940 – living means having to choose’, and it presents a far more nuanced picture of the different degrees of resistance or collaboration, accommodation or destruction in those murky times. Every village and every community has a wealth of different characters and points of view, and the threads that link all of the people over time are fascinating.

Very taken by this beautiful cover, by the way.

I was reminded of this TV series while reading Robert Seethaler’s latest novel The Field, which attempts to capture the history of the fictional village – or tiny town – of Paulstadt, through the conceit of hearing the voices of those buried in its cemetery, called ‘the field’ by the locals. There are certain elements which make us think this is an Austrian village (not least because the Austrian author has always set his novels in his native country, even though he is now living in Berlin), but in fact it could be anywhere in Central Europe, with its fluid borders, Catholicism and recent prosperity that hasn’t always translated well into the rural environment.

What is of course incontestable is that, in death, all of the people are equal, even though in life they may have been rich or poor, corrupt or fair, winner or loser, kind or horrible, immigrant or refugee or native. The village has had its share of tragedies and small triumphs, its corrupt councillors and odd priests, its failed development initiatives. It is very ordinary and yet, in this patient enumeration of its inhabitants, their hopes and fears and dreams and disappointments, it reminds us that no place is ordinary.

Some of the voices call out and respond to each other, some replay family dramas or contradict each other or regret things. It helps perhaps to think of each voice as a piece of prose poetry or flash fiction. Some are funny, others are lyrical, some are quite dramatic and they all gradually build up to give you a picture of an entire community. Because they are presented in the higgledy-piggedly order you might come across names in a graveyard, it’s hard at first to make sense of the cacophony of voices. I would certainly recommend dipping in and out of the book for a first reading, and then rereading it to observe all of the connections. Although very well-written, I did wonder if the same cumulative effect could have been achieved with slightly fewer voices – but then I seem to keep on saying about each book that it could have been shorter! Which seems rather ungenerous, given that this book is only 240 pages long, so not a massive tome.

This is the kind of novel that will inevitably get readers to wonder what makes for a life well lived. It’s difficult to pick just one quote, because the book is full of beautiful passages, but here is one example that amused me, taken from one of the less sympathetic characters (funny, but also very moving, particularly reading it in 2021):

Some young people have been picknicking on our grave lately on mild summer evenings… They picked this grave because it’s got a huge slab of black Labrador marble that retains the heat of sun until well after nightfall. There they sit, yattering non-stop, the most egregious nonsense, spilling their beer, which trickles over our family name… Sometimes young Schwitters pees against the back of the gravestone, and the girls all giggle and shriek. I resent them for it. I hate them for their stupidity and their beauty. I hate them for the miracle inside them, on which they waste not a single thought behind their hot, unwrinkled foreheads.

Can someone go and ask them to stay forever?

I have previously really enjoyed and reviewed Seethaler’s The Tobacconist; while The Field has also been reviewed by John, Rachel and (in fascinating detail) by Susan.

Monthly Summary, January 2021

Reading

I have decided to no longer review every book I read this year, since I simply cannot keep up. This month, I’ve read 13 books, including finishing off the chunkster that was The Brothers Karamazov (which was left over from my December Russian reading). 12 of these were translated books, greatly helped by the fact that it was January in Japan and I really enjoyed spending time in one of my favourite countries in the world (9 of the 12 were Japanese). The only one in English in the original was for the Virtual Crime Book Club – and you can catch our discussion of The Chemistry of Death by Simon Beckett here.

Of the 13 you can see in the picture below, you might notice two are different translations of the same book by Dazai Osamu, so let me reassure you that I am not counting that twice, but am including instead an academic work about Suicidal Narrative in Modern Japan: The Case of Dazai Osamu by Alan Stephen Wolfe (but it does not have a pretty cover). To go through my Japanese reading chronologically:

  • I found out about the fascinating life and work of Higuchi Ichiyo, the first modern Japanese professional woman writer.
  • I reconnected with my favourite Dazai Osamu, reading his No Longer Human in a new translation and his shorter, often quite funny more purely autobiographical stories. This is where I also fell down the rabbit hole of reading more of him and about him in a more academic context.
  • I moved on to another modern classic and old favourite, Yukio Mishima.
  • I read a short story collection by Yuko Tsushima, Dazai’s daughter, and learnt more about the impact of her father’s death via an example of autofiction.
  • I read an enjoyable romp of a crime novel with a deliberately American noir feel, despite its Japanese setting and preoccupation with the consequences of the Vietnam war: The Wrong Goodbye by Toshihiko Yahagi (not reviewed)
  • Last but not least, it was intriguing and timely to read about the often ignored homeless people of Tokyo Ueno Station by Yu Miri

Aside from Japan, I also spent some time with Portuguese writer Afonso Cruz and his experimentally structured novel Kokoschka’s Doll, as well as with the fast-paced, jazzy improv beat of talented German writer Simone Buchholz: Hotel Cartagena (not reviewed).

For February, I will spend time in Canada, but inevitably some other writing will creep in, especially if it’s winter themed. However, our host Meredith is continuing with the Japanese Lit Challenge until March, and I certainly intend to continue following the reviews that people are posting there.

Films

Elsa the Rose – beautiful love story (although also ever so slightly obsessive) told through interviews with Elsa Triolet and Louis Aragon, in conversation with Agnès Varda.

Ikiru – absolutely adored this film, more reminiscent of Ozu than Kurosawa. It tell the story of a faceless (not very likeable) bureaucrat who, when faced with a death sentence through a cancer diagnosis – becomes concerned about making up for lost time (and looking for fun in all the wrong places initially) and leaving behind a legacy. Particularly poignant and realistic in the post-funeral scene, when you see how others talk about the dead and misunderstand them.

The Godfather and The Sopranos – rewatched the first with my older son, who really likes it. Then, by way of counterpoint and an update into the Mafia families, started watching Season 1 of The Sopranos.

The Long Goodbye – was not entirely convinced by the portrayal of women as either manipulative bitches or decorative hippies high on drugs. However, I really liked Elliott Gould as Philip Marlowe: with his dark suit, lanky figure, fluffy hair and constant smoking, it’s clear he must have been the inspiration for the Spike Spiegel in the anime series Cowboy Bebop.

Lovers Rock – described by many as their favourite of the Small Axe films by Steve McQueen. I loved the recreation of the period, the setting, the community and also the charming touches of youthful love (as well as more disturbing aspects of the party culture), but I did feel some of the music passages were too long.

Phoenix – a pared-down approach to acting by Nina Hoss to what could have been quite a melodramatic story of losing one’s identity, betrayal, forgiveness (or not) and moving on (both as an individual and as a country). The final ten minutes or so, when she gets off the train and is reunited with her husband and ‘friends’, are perfectly and heartbreakingly done.

Other News

Despite a busy working month, I’ve made a little bit of progress on my novel (I’m nearly two thirds of the way through, but I think it will need at least another edit before I’m happy with it).

However, I’m happy to say that I’ve very nearly finished the edits to my second translated novel: Resilience by Bogdan Hrib. ‘Resilience’ in the context of this novel does not focus on psychological resilience in the face of the unknown (although it does deal with this tangentially), but on geopolitics. It is defined as “the ability of states and societies to adapt and reform, thus withstanding and recovering from internal and external crisis, particularly in a period of unpredictability and volatility”. Of course, that is too academic to be of much interest in a crime novel, so let’s just say that this will be all about social media, fake news and dubious agents (who knows from where?) trying to influence international politics. This should come out end of March with Corylus Books.

January in Japan: Higuchi Ichiyo, First Professional Woman Writer

Robert Lyons Danly: In the Shade of Spring Leaves: The Life of Higuchi Ichiyo with Nine of Her Best Short Stories, Norton, 1992.

Higuchi Ichiyo is revered in Japan as the first major woman writer of the modern era, poised between traditional Japan and the death of the samurai era, and the rapidly modernising Japan of the late 19th century, a precursor to the many excellent women writers that Japan produced in the 20th century and the present-day. Although her portrait appears on the 5000 Yen note, and most of her stories have been adapted for film, I had not really read any of her work until Mieko Kawakami mentioned her as a role model and inspiration in her interview at the Edinburgh Book Festival.

Higuchi Ichiyo on the 5000 yen note.

Although Ichiyo died in 1896 of tuberculosis at the age of twenty-four, she left behind a legacy of nearly four thousand classical poems, twenty-one well-crafted stories and numerous essays, which would make anyone else feel like a slouch in comparison. Some of her stories are regarded as examplary to this day. This book contains nine of those stories, as well as extensive quotes from her very detailed, lively and accomplished diary, which she kept over a long period of time (and which I wish would get translated in its entirety into English). It also contains biographical notes, showing just how surprising and remarkable her achievements were, because she came from an impoverished former samurai family, and became de facto the head of the family at an early age, was largely self-taught and constantly struggled to make a living to support her mother, her sister and herself.

Trained initially in the classical style of poetry, and clearly a huge fan of the writing of the Heian court, this all changes in 1893, when she and her family move to the poorer, red-light districts of Tokyo and try to run a stationery shop (not very successfully). Her stories become less melodramatic and inspired by the past, and instead feature both a rich description of a particular time and place, as well as social critique. She allows the rickshaw drivers, prostitutes, orphans, shopkeepers from their neighbourhood to appear as fully-rounded characters and voice their concerns, their small joys and triumphs, as well as their disappointments and defeats. At the same time, she also depicts the social constraints placed upon them.

In her most famous and accomplished story/novella Takekurabe (translated here as Child’s Play), we encounter a group of youngsters growing up in the Yoshihara red-light district. We are privy to their games and teasing, their quarrels and fights, their mischief and bullying, but also their kindnesses and mutual help. Midori is a free spirited, almost pampered girl, generous at sharing the little luxuries money can buy with her friends – but her money comes from her older sister’s work as a courtesan and she herself is being groomed to follow the same fate. Nobu is the shy, introverted son of the local priest, perpetually embarrassed by the materialistic, wordly nature of his parents. Shota is the wealthiest of the three, the son of the local pawnbroker, but he is a likable boy, constantly embarrassed by his family’s avaricious ways. As the children reach their mid-teens, they realise that the world of opportunities that seems to lie ahead of them… are actually illusions, that their fate was always to follow in their parents’ or sister’s footsteps. The solidarity and hope that they had as children drains away and they are left feeling very lonely indeed.

The last story Wakaremichi (Separate Ways) addresses the same problem, although here it is a friendship between Okyo, a young woman in her twenties who works as a seamstress and the boy who oils umbrellas Kichizo, nick-named the Dwarf, because he looks far smaller than his actual age (sixteen). Okyo is finally forced to become the mistress of a rich older man and Kichizo feels utterly betrayed that she should choose that way of life. Childish innocence gets destroyed by adult pragmatism in all of her stories.

Nigorie (Troubled Waters) is an earlier, slightly more melodramatic piece, but it succeeds in showing the life of courtesans as they grow older and fade in popularity, and the dreams they have had to cast aside. Meanwhile, in Jusanya (The Thirteenth Night), the author addresses the plight of the woman desperate to leave an abusive husband. Oseki returns home to her parents one night to say that she wants a divorce, but that would not only bring poverty and disgrace upon her family, but it would also mean she never gets to see her son again.

Ichiyo’s protagonists have very little wriggle room, very few choices open to them. They simply hustle and try to get through the day, the week, the month, and feed their dependents. This type of subject matter was perhaps not entirely new (there had been stories about the red-light district or ‘floating world’ before, notably Saikaku Ihara from two centuries earlier), but most of the stories were told by men and had a certain quality of titillation and sensationalism. Ichiyo shows real compassion and understanding for her characters. Moreover, it’s not just her subject matter that makes her memorable, but her beautiful style: full of allusions to classical works, elliptical, compact, full of word associations, puns, kakekotoba. These last are so-called pivot words, where you use the phonetic reading of a kanji character to convey multiple meanings concurrently – a much prized rhetorical device, because you can be concise yet introduce multiple layers of meaning. I suspect she might be quite difficult to read in the original, and not just because she was writing 130 years ago.

You can read a review of this book and of Ichiyo’s stories on Tony Malone’s excellent blog. If you get a chance to see the 1955 film of Takekurabe directed by Gosho, it provides a useful counterpoint to those in Japan who were looking back with nostalgia at the Meiji period during the post-war years.

Still from the film Takekurabe.

January in Japan: Dazai Osamu

Osamu Dazai: A Shameful Life (No Longer Human), transl. Mark Gibeau, Stone Bridge Press, 2018.

Zoe’s surprisingly enthusiastic reaction to this book – it had the effect of catnip on her!

Biographical background

Mishima may have captivated me in my late teens, but my absolute favourite Japanese author of the modern era is Dazai Osamu. He is not as much read or appreciated abroad, but in Japan he has achieved cult status, even appearing as a suicide maniac detective in a manga and anime series called Bungo Stray Dogs. He is often seen as the epitome of the romantic decadent scoundrel – a Lord Byron with less of a penchant for wild animals or ability to buy his way out of trouble. To me, he continues my long line of infatuation with literary bad boys: a slightly less manipulative Rimbaud, a less cynical Baudelaire. N.B. This did not translate into liking American bad boys like Jack Kerouac, Bukowski or Norman Mailer. But clearly, the myth of the genius creator who is terminally depressed and incapable of relating well to people is still powerful when it comes to authors who died before I was born.

Osamu in a bar, photographed by Tadahiko Hayashi, who was not aware at the time who was in the picture.

Superficially, there are quite a few biographical similarities between Mishima and Dazai, even though they were born sixteen years apart. Both were younger sons of quite wealthy landowners, who spent a significant part of their childhood years away from their family (raised by aunts, grandmothers or servants). Both of them were academically gifted and went to the prestigious Tokyo University (although Dazai dropped out and Mishima never practiced law) and both showed early promise in their writing. Both were shattered by their country’s experience of war (although neither of them served on the front because they were diagnosed with tuberculosis – mistakenly, in Mishima’s case).

Above all, both of them had tortured psyches, were over-sensitive and self-critical, and had destructive tendencies. But this is where their differences start. Dazai directed all that hatred inwards, bent on destroying himself, while Mishima turned it onto the outer world, bemoaning the loss of Japanese pride and ancient code of values. The world crushes Dazai, while Mishima sets out to crush the world.

Politically, of course, they could not be further apart: Dazai was a lukewarm member of the Communist Party in the early 1930s (which was banned at that time in Japan), while Mishima created his own private right-wing militia in the 1960s. Both of them had problems with their love lives: Mishima, for all his macho posturing, clearly had gay tendencies which he (and his family, posthumously) vigorously denied, while Dazai, for all of his more effeminate, unhealthy looks, was an inveterate womaniser. Mishima started publishing his stories and his first full novel (Confessions of a Mask) just as Dazai was ending his career by committing suicide. They had one single awkward in-person meeting. Apparently, Mishima had previously expressed some admiration for Dazai’s writing, but when they met, with Dazai very much the fêted established writer surrounded by courtiers and Mishima the unknown student, the younger man was tongue-tied, felt his ego was somewhat bruised and declared that he found Dazai too weak and that he despised his tendency towards self-dramatizing. (Pot calling the kettle black!)

What was truly problematic about Dazai of course was that his alcoholism, addiction to painkillers, adultery and suicidal tendencies did not just impact him, but also others. I have already mentioned how it impacted his children and will mention it again in my next review of Yuko Tsushima. He attempted a double ‘love’ suicide several times (a much more popular pastime in Japan than over here, with many notable examples in literature), before he finally achieved it successfully, and in one instance the consequences were fatal to the woman involved although he survived.

Novel or memoir?

The reason I insist upon all of these unsavoury biographical details is because they heavily influence Dazai’s work, particularly his last completed novel Ningen Shikkaku, translated by Donald Keene in 1958 quite literally as No Longer Human, while the new translation has opted for A Shameful Life. This new title (a bold decision, if I might say so) refers to the quote below (I will use Keene’s version here, which I feel captures the gravitas of the statement slightly better):

Mine has been a life of much shame. I can’t even guess myself what it must be to live the life of a human being.

To summarise the story as succinctly as possible, the ‘author/narrator’ is handed three notebooks (the first one opens with the quote above) and three photographs by an old lady, a former bar- and now coffee-shop-owner, who knew the writer of the notebooks many years ago. She thinks it might inspire the narrator to write a novel. The narrator is intrigued by the appearance of the man in the photos, reads the notebooks and concludes that this story of physical and mental destruction sounds ‘a bit exaggerated here and there’ (Dazai ever ready to poke some self-depecratory fun at himself), and that he too might have been tempted to lock him up in an asylum if he’d encountered the man.

The failed love suicide, the addictions to morphine and alcohol, the involvement in a banned political group – all of these biographical details are present in the novel, but it would be simplistic to believe that they are just pages from Dazai’s diaries. In this age of blogging and extreme sharing via social media, we have seen that unedited ranting, vast outpourings of feelings of anger or despair are actually not all that readable.

The book may be one of the best descriptions of general despair, deep depression and alienation that I have ever read, but this is not achieved by unmediated access to the author’s thoughts. Although the bleakness with which Yozo regards life is probably very similar to the author’s own outlook, there is great craft in giving us that feeling of ‘nothingness’, no exit, in deliberately unadorned ‘honest’ prose. Authenticity is a lot harder to write than it looks – what Dazai leaves out is as interesting as what he puts in.

Dazai Osamu with his two older children (Yuko Tsushima’s sister and brother), showing that there must have been happy times in his life too.

The autobiographical novel – shishōsetsu or I-novel – is a staple of modern Japanese literature – but I would argue it was there long before the 20th century. Although it is most often associated with the confessional, naturalistic style popular from the 1920s onwards, there are earlier examples of what one might call ‘creative non-fiction’ (with a huge emphasis on ‘creative’) in the ‘zuihitsu’ (random jottings/ personal essays) genre of the 13th and 14th century Japan. There is almost what one might call a ‘myth of sincerity’ in the I-novel: some of the thoughts may well reflect the author’s own preoccupations, but ultimately we are being misled – or rather, led precisely in the direction where the author wants us to go.

Last but not least, this is not just the story of an individual – it is also the story of a generation of Japanese who have had to come to terms with being perceived as monsters in a long and cruel war, and who find themselves utterly vanquished, unconditionally surrendered, and having lost everything they ever believed in (including the innate goodness of their fellow countrymen).

Translation Comparison

Overall, Mark Gibeau’s translation tries to create a more contemporary feel to the book. He is at pains to point out that this is by no means a criticism of Keene’s translation, but his choices are substantially different from those of his predecessor. I believe he is trying to be more immediate, to really convey the protagonist Yozo’s voice in all its weary cynicism and self-hatred, his sense of alienation from the world of humans as if we are there going through it with him, while Keene tries to make the horror more palatable by keeping it somewhat detached.

That doesn’t mean that the original translation is too cold, but it is now over sixty years old and can feel a little bit dated or too formal at times. However, although this new translation is lively and easy to read, at times I feel it gets the register of suffering just a little bit wrong. Here, for example, is how the narrator of the framing device describes the pictures of Yozo, which come together with the notebooks:

I think that even a death mask would hold more of an expression, leave more of a memory. That effigy suggests nothing so much as a human body to which a horse’s head has been attached. Something ineffable makes the beholder shudder in distaste. I have never seen such an inscrutable face on a man.

Donald Keene’s translation

Even the face of someone slipping into death holds some kind of expression, leaves some kind of mark. But this, maybe this is what it would be like if the head of a carthorse were sewn onto a human body. In any case, a vague sense of revulsion shivers up my spine. Never in my life have I seen a man with such a peculiar face.

Mark Gibeau’s translation

That word ‘peculiar’ just doesn’t seem to do Yozo sufficient justice, almost brings in a tone of levity. There are also several occasions when Keene has Yozo wondering if trustfulness or non-resistance is a sin, while Gibeau’s Yozo wonders if these things are crimes. I feel that some of the profundity of the original gets sacrificed for the sake of appealing to modern audiences. Perhaps there is a reason why Kafka and Camus (two near-contemporaries of Dazai’s) chose to write about similar themes – but few publishers or translators seem to feel the need to modernise them. They continue to speak to us directly.

However, in other instances, Gibeau sounds spot-on. Here is Dazai voicing universal concerns about hiding your true self, about living behind a mask and attempting to fit in at all costs, which Yozo decides to do early on in life, and which results in tremendous personal pain and disconnection from other people:

I lived in quivering terror of people, and since I had no confidence whatsoever in my ability to speak or behave like a human being, I gathered up all of my fears and anxieties and concealed them in a box, deep inside my breast. I took enormous pains to conceal my melancholy and nervousness, and devoted myself instead to cultivating an air of innocent good cheer. Thus, little by little, I was transformed into an eccentric clown.

Mark Gibeau

I have always shook with fright before human beings. Unable as I was to feel the least particle of confidence in my ability to speak or act like a human being, I kept my solitary agonies locked in my breast. I kept my melancholy and my agitation hidden, careful lest any trace should be left exposed. I feigned an innocent optimism; I gradually perfected myself in the role of the farcical eccentric.

Donald Keene

Here I feel that the more elegant, stylised language of Keene keeps us at arm’s length from Yozo’s suffering.

But are we in fact supposed to take Yozo’s suffering that seriously? Is this a person who is crushed by life or someone who has disengaged and fled? We never find out if he is still alive or not, if he committed suicide, or if all of those notebooks that he sent to the former bartender were performative pieces, cries for help, or even… fiction. Or could it be that he was being far too hard on himself, that he never really fully understood his own effect on others? After all, the book ends on the words of this old woman, who knew Yozo in real life, and who disbelieves pretty much everything she read in those notebooks:

‘It’s all his father’s fault,’ she said absently. ‘The Yo-chan I knew was kind and so gentle. If only he didn’t drink – no, even when he did drink… He was such a good boy. An angel.’

#KokoschkasDoll by Afonso Cruz, transl. Rahul Bery

I interrupt my season of January in Japan for a quick trip to Portugal, via Dresden, Paris and even Budapest.

I don’t usually take part in blog tours, but this is an unusual, one-day ‘make some noise’ for an unusual book, which I might not have picked up otherwise, although the title intrigued me. Perhaps I should clarify from the word go that this is not a biopic of Kokoschka nor about his obsession with Alma Mahler, which led to the creation of that monstrous doll he commissioned. This story is briefly mentioned in the book, but it is tangential to the main plot. If this meandering tale sparked by another tale sparked by a reminiscence sparked by a minor character who then writes their own story can be called a plot. It is in fact rather like a set of Russian dolls, one story nesting within another, although not progressing from the big to the small as neatly and predictably as Russian dolls. Of course, there is also the metaphor of the doll – of women, in particular, even ones the men obsess over (or particularly the ones they obsess over) having to be the beautiful silent partner, or being viewed as a possession.

In the first part of the novel we are introduced to Bonifaz Vogel, who has lost all of his family in the war-time fire-bombing of Dresden and now lives above the bird shop he runs, appropriately enough (Vogel is bird in German, but ‘to have a bird’ also means to be crazy or obsessed – the book is full of such puns and word games). When he hears a voice coming out from underneath his floorboards, his first thought is that it’s all in his head. In actual fact, it is Isaac Dresner, a Jewish boy who has hidden in the cellar, after witnessing his best friend being shot by a Nazi. A little later, a third person joins this little ‘family’: Tsilia Kacev, a waif of an artist’s model who wants to become a painter herself.

But that is just the first layer of the story. We are then taken into the swirling eddies of family histories, and particularly a lost manuscript of Thomas Mann’s, although the name of the author is Mathias Popa, an unsuccessful writer, who apparently stole it and tried to pass it off as his own. This mysterious Popa seems to have lived a million different lives all over the world, and in what follows we are never quite sure what is real and what is fiction, what is the world of his novel and what constitutes other people’s memories. Popa tells Isaac that he has decided to put him in a novel:

‘I’m going to be one of your characters?’

‘On the contrary, Mr Dresner, you are one of my character’s characters. My creation is far more perfect than you are… My character is the true you.’

‘But you hardly know me.’

‘We’ve met a few times, and that’s enough for me. I am able to see people the way they really are and not how they appear or how they dress in this world. I understand a person just by looking at them.’

If this reminds you of Fernando Pessoa and his personas or heteronyms, then this book certainly has an echo of that, and it is resolutely tongue-in-cheek about whether we can trust anyone to give us a coherent, truthful account of their life. I did occasionally get lost in the labyrinth of stories. This is almost certainly a book that needs to be read several times to be fully understood or appreciated. But there are moments of fairly straightforward and fun narrative that will appeal to any reader. One recommendation: it might be easier to keep track of the different stories and families if you have a paperback edition rather than e-book. I struggled a bit with the formatting for Kindle.

Rahul Berry translates from both Spanish and Portuguese, and seems to naturally gravitate towards quite experimental fiction. I was very intrigued by this interview I uncovered from when he became the Translator-in-Residence at the British Library in 2018.

I want to focus on how people’s identities change and adapt as people start existing in other languages. Though I grew up speaking only English, 3 of my grandparents spoke 4 languages between them (Hindi, Sindhi, Punjabi and Welsh) but spent most of their lives existing in English. I also want to play a small role in challenging the hegemony of English, which, under the guise of utility, ends up being ubiquitous, making the world a more predictable and less exciting place.

In a way, this novel challenges the hegemony of ‘received’ narrative, showing us that everything is always open to interpretation, and that we need to be open to new ways of looking at things. Our stories are constantly being constructed, and never quite finished.

Some Thoughts on Translations of Genji

It’s been a few years since I last reread Genji, but I’m vicariously living through the experience as two of my literary friends on Twitter read it for the first time in English and French translations. Yee @hdinguyen11 (check out her book blog here)  and Knulp @KnulpTanner, who has a book blog in French, are comparing notes on their respective translations as they go along. It’s such fun to read their tweets and to add my tuppence worth of additional info and comparisons to the (possibly far too many) translations that I own. I wrote the article below for the Asymptote fortnightly newsletter back in 2018, but it’s not currently available anywhere online, so I thought I would share it here on my blog, with big thanks to Yee and Knulp for reminding me of it!

Scenes from the Tale of Genji painted by Tosa Mitsuyoshi, of the Tosa school in Osaka. Dating from the second half of the 16th century (Azuchi-Momoyama period).

Written by court lady Murasaki Shikibu roughly 1000 years ago, The Tales of Genji (Genji Monogatari) is considered the oldest novel in the world. It is perhaps also the longest novel in the world, more than 1200 pages, spread over 54 chapters. Although it has a cast of over 400 characters, there is a recognisable main character (Genji himself, the son of the Emperor by a beloved but not royal concubine) and a small core of recurring characters. There is a narrative arc (of sorts): the characters grow older and wiser, while the story gets darker as old age and regrets set in. However, the chapters are believed to have been written episode by episode for distribution amongst the other ladies of the court (therefore, there are some inconsistencies, time lapses or overlaps), much like a feuilleton in a newspaper in more modern times.

When I first encountered Genji Monogatari as a student, our Japanese professor told us: ‘It’s the kind of book that everyone talks about, but very few read properly.’ This is in marked contrast to the 13th century poetry anthology of Hyakuninisshū, which is widely known and often quoted in contemporary Japan (thanks in part to the card game based on its tanka poetry, which is traditionally played on New Year’s Day). Why should that be the case? It cannot be solely because of the obscure allusiveness to classic Chinese poetry typical of the Heian period, for the poetry anthology too contains many such examples, including the author of Genji, Murasaki Shikibu, herself.

It could have something to do with the sheer length of the story, which is not for the faint-hearted. However, the main reason undoubtedly is that until the early 20th century there was no adequate translation of it, not only in English, but even in modern Japanese. The 11th century saga remained part of the cultural legacy of Japan, but the refined, almost effeminate aesthtetics of the Heian court fell out of favour in the period of warring clans and samurai codes which followed. It would be like English readers trying to tackle Chaucer in the original.

It wasn’t until 1912 that Japanese modernist poet, feminist and social activist Yosano Akiko published an abridged version of Genji translated into colloquial Japanese. This was the result of a lifetime’s infatuation with the work: she had read it countless times by the time she turned twenty, wrote biographical studies of Murasaki Shikibu, produced a series of lectures and a scholarly commentary of the text. The latter was sadly destroyed in a fire following the Great Kanto Earthquake in 1923, but she published a full translation in 1938. While it is perhaps surprising that such a resolutely modern, unconventional woman as Yosano Akiko found common ground with the confined women of the Heian court, waiting patiently for fickle lovers, she somehow found a voice that would speak across the centuries to both men and women of her day.  Both her translations are still in print and transformed the fate of Genji.

It was thanks to her earlier version of the modernised Genji that we have the first complete English translation of the work. A partial, unsatisfactory translation attempt was made by Baron Suematsu in 1882, but that sank without a trace. Then Orientalist Arthur Waley discovered both the original and Yosano’s translation in the 1920s and there is something of the flow and verve of Yosano in his own work. As a confirmed Sinologist, Waley was also familiar with many of the classical Chinese poems that are being referenced in the text. Last but not least, the translator was an admirer of the artistic and literary style of the Bloomsbury group. We see all of these influences at work in his creative, some might even say idiosyncratic translation.

Waley skips any bits he finds too dull or obscure. He has no qualms about rearranging names, sentences, even paragraphs and themes to make the book more palatable to an English audience. He tries to capture the spirit of the beauty of the original prose, rather than sticking to it literally. The flowery style may on occasion veer towards sentimentalization and prettification. It seems to capture an echo of an earlier period much like the pre-Raphaelite painters captured the medieval spirit in a new style that had little in common with the original.

There is also a paternalistic bias which jars with the modern reader – the translator’s voice intervenes at times, giving us his value judgements rather than Murasaki Shikibu’s voice: ‘This chapter should be read with indulgence. In it Murasaki is still under the influence of her somewhat childish predecessors…’ Yet in spite of his imperialistic tendency to judge other cultures through the prism of his own, his translation helped perceptive readers to see beyond mere ‘exoticism’. Virginia Woolf reviewed Waley’s translation in 1925 and saw instantly that this was far more than ‘cranes and chrysanthemums’. Genji is about universal human nature: ‘how passionately he desires things that are denied; how his longing for a life of tender intimacy is always thwarted; how the grotesque and the fantastic excite him beyond the simple and straightforward; how beautiful the falling snow is and how, as he watches it, he longs more than ever for someone to share his solitary joy’.

Despite its flaws, Waley’s attractive translation raised the profile of this Japanese classic so much that when Japanese novelist and short story writer Tanizaki Junichirō attempted his own translation into modern Japanese, he admitted that he was heavily influenced by Waley’s work. While Tanizaki and Yosano’s translations are the most literary, there have been other modern Japanese translations, for example the more erotic version by Funchi Emiko and the most accessible one, the everyman’s edition by Buddhist nun Setouchi Jakuchō. Contemporary scholars of Japanese literature recognise, however, that it was Genji’s surprising success abroad which led to its enshrinement as the ‘greatest Japanese classic’ in its home country.

The second complete English translation of Genji was published by Edward Seidensticker in 1976 and could hardly be more different from Waley’s work. Seidensticker resolutely sticks to a pared-down, understated style, with relatively few footnotes. As such, it is very readable, clear yet faithful to the original. His treatment of the 800 or so poems which appear throughout the pages of Genji has provoked some ire from purists: he renders them as couplets. It may not be true to Japanese poetic form, but at least he keeps them distinct from the main text, unlike Waley, who turns them into dialogue.

Royall Tyler’s translation in 2001 consciously attempts to return to the original Heian text and mimic its highly elliptical style. For instance, he does not use place or chapter names to identify the characters – an unspoken convention that all translators have resorted to for the sake of clarity. Instead, Tyler sticks to identifying them by their titles with elaborate ceremonial indirectness. This makes it difficult to follow, since those titles constantly change over the course of the book, as characters get promoted or fall out of favour. The endless hesitations and circumlocutions may be closer to the original style, but they feel old-fashioned and heavy-handed. The poetry sticks to the Japanese form but sounds a little pedestrian. For those who would like an insight into the intricacies and dramas of the Heian period, however, there is much to learn from the encyclopaedic footnotes.

Finally, the most recent translation is the 2015 version by Dennis Washburn, who tries to find a middle ground between clarity and as literal a translation as possible. The strength of his translation lies in its psychological depth and a modern sensibility to the different voices, which is in direct contrast to Waley’s. Washburn allows these often introverted, opaque characters to muse about their life and regrets, without judgement or sense of superiority. In his interpretation, it becomes clear just how much the characters are torn between the fleeting appeal of material, secular culture and a desire to escape worldly attachments.

To demonstrate just how different these translations can be, and why none of them can be considered the definitive translation, let us look at just two examples:

  • Chapter Five: Wakamurasaki

Genji visits a Buddhist monastery in the mountains and encounters there the love of his life, Murasaki, who is but a little girl at the time.

Arthur Waley: “Genji felt very disconsolate. It had begun to rain; a cold wind blew across the hill, carrying with it the sound of a waterfall–audible till then as a gentle intermittent plashing, but now a mighty roar; and with it, somnolently rising and falling, mingled the monotonous chanting of the scriptures. Even the most unimpressionable nature would have been plunged into melancholy by such surroundings. How much the more so Prince Genji, as he lay sleepless on his bed, continually planning and counter-planning.”

Edward Seidensticker: “Genji was not feeling well. A shower passed on a chilly mountain wind, and the sound of the waterfall was higher. Intermittently came a rather sleepy voice, solemn and somehow ominous, reading a sacred text. The most insensitive of men would have been aroused by the scene. Genji was unable to sleep.”

Royall Tyler: “Genji felt quite unwell, and besides, it was now raining a little, a cold mountain wind had set in to blow, and the pool beneath the waterfall had risen until the roar was louder than before. The eerie swelling and dying of somnolent voices chanting the scriptures could hardly fail in such a setting to move the most casual visitor. No wonder Genji, who had so much to ponder, could not sleep.”

Dennis Washburn: “Genji was feeling ill. It has started to rain, bringing a cooling breeze. Moreover, the water in the pool of a nearby waterfall had risen with the spring runoff, and the roar was clearly audible. He could just barely make out the sound of sleepy voices reciting sutras, a sound that sent chills through him. The atmosphere of the place would have affected even the most insensitive of people, and, coupled with his preoccupation with both Fujitsubo and the girl, it prevented him from getting any sleep at all.”

In this passage, Waley comes across as charmingly entertaining, Seidensticker as pedestrian, Washburn as a little too emphatic, while Tyler’s version seems both respectful to the orginal and the most seductive to modern readers.

  • Chapter One: Kiritsubo

However, the test I always give to any new translation of Genji is to read the first paragraph of the opening chapter, which is fiendishly difficult to render comprehensible to a modern reader. The chapter describes Genji’s mother and the circumstances of his birth. In this case, it seems that Waley is the most gossipy and entertaining, Seidensticker the most unobtrusive and clear, Tyler the most instructive, while Washburn is once again too long-winded.

Arthur Waley: “At the court of an Emperor (he lived it matters not when) there was among the many gentlewomen of the Wardrobe and Chamber one, who though she was not of the very high rank was favoured far beyond all the rest; so that the great ladies of the Palace, each of whom had secretly hoped that she herself would be chosen, looked with scorn and hatred upon the upstart who had dispelled their dreams. Still less were her former companions, the minor ladies of the Wardrobe, content to see her raised so far above them. This her position at Court, preponderant thought it was, exposed her to constant jealousy and ill will; and soon, worn out with petty vexations, she fell into a decline…”

Edward Seidensticker: “In a certain reign there was a lady not of the first rank whom the emperor loved more than any of the others. The grand ladies with high ambitions thought her a presumptuous upstart, and the lesser ladies were still more resentful. Everything she did offended someone. Probably aware of what was happening, she fell seriously ill…”

Royall Tyler: “In a certain reign (whose can it have been?) someone of no very great rank, among all His Majesty’s Consorts and Intimates, enjoyed exceptional favor. Those others who had always assumed that pride of place was properly theirs despised her as a dreadful woman, while the lesser Intimates were unhappier still. The way she waited on him day after day only stirred up feeling against her, and perhaps this growing burden of resentment was what affected her health…”

Dennis Washburn: “In whose reign was it that a woman of rather undistinguished lineage captured the heart of the Emperor and enjoyed his favour above all the other imperial wives and concubines? Certain consorts, whose high noble status gave them a sense of vain entitlement, despised and reviled her as an unworthy upstart from the very moment she began her service. Ladies of lower rank were even more vexed, for they knew His Majesty would never bestow the same degree of affection and attention on them. As a result, the mere presence of this woman at morning rites or evening ceremonies seemed to provoke hostile reactions among her rivals, and the anxiety she suffered as a consequence of these ever-increasing displays of jealousy was such a heavy burden that gradually her health began to fail.”

Which of those translations do you prefer? And do you think you might be tempted to tackle Genji yourself, if you haven’t already done so? Let’s start the Murasaki Shikibu fan club [I was going to say the Genji Fan Club – but that is in fact the entire plot of Genji Monogatari, one might say!].

 

Literary Weeks Are the Best Weeks…

And bookish friends are the best friends… I had a rather lovely week filled with books and literary discussions, just what the doctor ordered: the perfect nourishment to keep my soul from unravelling.

On Tuesday I had another Skype session with my poetry mentor and it is amazing how excited I get about rewriting some poems that I’d set aside because I felt I’d revised them so much that I was sick of them. It took another poet to read them and ask me what I was trying to achieve to actually regain some of that original spark that gave birth to the poem.

Freddie Bruckstein and Susan Curtis, founder of Istros Books.

On Thursday I attended the book launch of The Trap, two novellas by Romanian Jewish author Ludovic Bruckstein, translated by Alastair Ian Blythe. The author’s son, who has been the driving force behind the publication of his father’s literary estate, was there and gave us a very moving account of his father’s life.

Not many people born in that part of Europe can summarise their lives in simple terms. Their choices have been horribly affected by external events.

Freddie Bruckstein

Ludovic grew up in Sighet in North Maramures, just across the street from where Elie Wiesel used to live, but during the Second World War this thriving Jewish community was rounded up and sent to concentration camps. Ludovic discovered he was almost the sole survivor when he returned home after the war. For a while it seemed like he was going to be active and successful in the post-war writing community, with plays written in both Yiddish and Romanian, but he preferred a quieter life in the north of the country rather than becoming an establishment figure in Bucharest. Of course, he was duly expunged from Romanian literary history when he emigrated to Israel in 1972. But the poignant thing is he continued to write in Romanian for the Romanian community in Israel (most of his work was translated into Hebrew as well). I gave my copy of the book to my friend from Geneva days who came to visit me this weekend, and have promptly bought another one for myself. The brief reading we had from the book was absolutely brilliant and the stories really are a stark warning that passivity and political apathy often lead to the same consequences as deliberate malice.

On Friday my friend from Geneva came over to find me after work and we did non-stop literary things all weekend. First, we visited the Writing in Times of Conflict exhibition at Senate House and I discovered that my friend Jenny (a trained actress) had actually played Anne’s mother in a theatrical adaptation of the diaries, and toured with it around Europe.

I could listen to Kathleen Jamie forever…

We then went to the LRB Bookshop to see Kathleen Jamie in conversation with Philip Hoare, talking about her latest collection of essays entitled Surfacing. I’ve had the pleasure of attending a poetry masterclass with Kathleen and have always admired her sincerity and lack of pretension. She told us how she needed to write something to fill in those fallow periods in-between moments of poetic inspiration and for some reason she thought that essays would be easier and more lucrative than poetry (‘and boy, was I ever wrong!’). She also talked about her process, how she never starts out with a theme she can research, but just lets things accrue until she finally detects a pattern right at the end.

What I really appreciate about her writing is that she bears witness to a disappearing world, muses about the connections between past and present (and future) but refuses to romanticise the past or even nature. She doesn’t consider herself a pure nature writer, because it is the collision between humans and nature that she finds most interesting. Furthermore, because she is not as bound by science as archaelogists are, she can use her imagination much more freely to speculate about the lives and emotions of the people whose objects they are unearthing.

We spent a lazy Saturday in Oxford, talking non-stop about writing and reading, having pie and mash in the Covered Market, but unable to visit any of the colleges because of the graduation ceremonies taking place in the Sheldonian. Except Keble College, where I was overjoyed to see a quince tree against the ornate Victorian Gothic background. In the evening, we watched the rather depressing Marianne and Leonard documentary about Leonard Cohen’s Norwegian muse and their life together on the island of Hydra and wondered about the excuses and sacrifices we make for men who are considered geniuses (and not just them).

On Sunday we went to Henley Literary Festival and, although the weather prevented us from taking full advantage of riverside walks, we enjoyed seeing three indomitable women writers talk about why they find family dynamics so fascinating. The writers were:

  1. Harriet Evans, whose inspiration for her latest novel The Garden of Lost and Found came via a strong visual flash of children running down to the bottom of the garden when she heard someone sing the old song ‘The Fairies at the Bottom of the Garden’
  2. Hannah Beckerman, who said she wrote 24 drafts for her novel If Only I Could Tell You, because the characters usually come to her to lie down on a therapy couch and gradually reveal their stories
  3. Janet Ellis, whose second novel How It Was I have on my Kindle but haven’t read yet, said she gets her inspiration when a voice starts plucking at her sleeve and demanding to be heard.
From left to right: Harriet Evans, Hannah Beckerman and Janet Ellis.

There was a great deal of warmth and humour in their interaction, they were almost interviewing each other, or rather, having a delightful literary conversation that we were allowed to witness. One thing that they said really stuck with me: how we assume that older women just fade and vanish from public life or literature, but maybe some of that is by choice. That it is such a relief not to be at the cutting edge anymore, constantly scrutinised, judged by appearance or have every choice analysed. And also what satisfaction it is to have survived things that if anyone had told us in our youth that we would have to endure, we would probably not have believed ourselves capable of enduring.

I was planning not to buy any more books (I’d received quite a few in the post), not even if I could get them signed by the authors – although I was intrigued by the three of them and will certainly borrow their books from the library. But then Jenny took me into the Oxfam bookshop… and, in short, here is the week’s book haul. Alas.

China in September: Chilli Bean Paste and Noisy Families

A Chinese friend once told me: ‘We Chinese families are very noisy, you know.’ and I certainly spotted the contrast between people on streets in China (jostling, laughing, chatting you up) and Japan (carefully respecting the distance – at least, if you are a foreigner). Yan Ge’s The Chilli Bean Past Clan certainly dials up the volume on this story about a dysfunctional family in a small provincial town in Sichuan, a landlocked province in the south-west of China, renowned for its extremely spicy food.

The Xue-Duan family runs a chilli bean paste factory in this town and the main character (known as Dad, because it is his daughter who is telling the story, although it is in fact more like a third person narrative) is a bon viveur, who likes to smoke, eat, drink and mess around with women. He is also foul-mouthed, selfish and not very considerate of the women in his life (his mother Gran, his wife Mum, his mistress Jasmine and his daughter). Yet, despite the comfortable life he has created for himself, he is still envious of his siblings who managed to escape from their humdrum home town and the eagle eyes of their mother.

As the family starts preparing for their matriarch’s 80th birthday, and his siblings return home, Dad’s life gets less and less comfortable and old bitterness and memories start to resurface. By the end of the book, Dad gets a sort of come-uppance and the reader realises just what a sad creature he really is. (Although no doubt some women will feel that he hasn’t been punished enough.)

Interestingly, when the novel was first published in China, many readers were very surprised that the author was a woman, because they felt it was describing all too well the world in which men can get away with anything. Here is what the author has to say about that:

I wrote this book because, as a young female writer, I have encountered many, many men who have behaved in such an ugly way. I can think of many scenarios in my early twenties where, as a writer, I was thrilled — this was great material, it revealed the richness, the unspeakable darkness of human nature — but as a woman, I was absolutely traumatized. People often are surprised that this book is written by a woman. Actually, this book is a traumatized woman wanting to get back at those men by writing a story like this. It is venting, an expression of my anger, a therapeutic experience.

At first I was very angry. But it is important not to hold any moral judgement when you’re writing a novel. When I was writing this book, I passed no judgements on my characters, and I was actually surprised to feel the anger when I reread it. But I think my anger vanished as I wrote on. In the end I truly liked Xue Shengqiang. He is a misogynist, but once you get over it, you can see the other sides of him, his loyalty to his family and friends, his cowardice and kindness. In the end, I reconciled with him.

The book is full of local dialect and slang, so it must have been truly tricky to translate. I’m sure the ‘dude talk’ that the translator Nicky Harman has introduced is probably the closest stylistic approximation of this, but it does sound irritating (and perhaps too Western) at times.

It was fun, operatic, over the top – a sort of soap opera set in a rapidly changing town and society. Not my favourite of the Chinese reads this month (that would be Eileen Chang), but certainly more interesting than Shanghai Baby. One final little tidbit of information: the author now lives in Ireland with her Irish husband and has started writing in English. However, she says she refuses to write about China in English.