Annual Summary: Classic Reads

This year I felt the need to find comfort in the classics, some of them new, some of them rereads, and some classics I had previously attempted and abandoned. My definition of classics is quite broad, so you will find both 19th and 20th century books in here, and from all countries. 28 of my 127 books were classics of some description (29 if you count The Karamazov Brothers, which I’m currently reading and hope to finish by the start of January), and 17 of those will be mentioned below – which just goes to show that the ‘success rate’ is much higher with the classics.

Ueda Akinari: Ugetsu Monogatari – it’s been a pleasure reacquainting myself with these very Japanese ghost stories, even though some of them made me furious at the classist and sexist assumptions of the time.

Marghanita Laski: Little Boy Lost – utterly heartbreaking and very thoughtful story of parenthood but also a moving portrait of post-war France, one of my favourite Persephones so far

Thomas Bernhard: Woodcutters – I sometimes find Bernhard a bit much to take in, too grumpy, but this book is so good at poking holes in the Viennese literary and artistic pretentiousness, that I laughed nearly all the way through

Henry James: The American – one of the few James that I’d never read, an earlier one, and much lighter, frothier and funnier than I remembered him

Machado de Assis: Dom Casmurro – another grumpy old man reminiscing about his life, like Bernhard, and another tragicomic masterpiece

Shirley Hazzard: The Bay of Noon – another portrait of a post-war European city, and a strange little love story, full of subtle, skilled observations

Elizabeth von Arnim: The Caravaners – if ever there was a book to distract you from lockdown, this is the one. Hilarious, sarcastic, and reminding you that a bad holiday is worse than no holiday at all!

Dorothy Canfield Fisher: The Home-Maker – an ingenious role reversal story from Persephone, thought-provoking and surprisingly modern

Barbellion: Journal of a Disappointed Man – courtesy of Backlisted Podcast, I reacquainted myself with this diary of a complex character, struggling to be courageous, often self-pitying, and usually ferociously funny

Marlen Haushofer: The Wall – simply blew me away – again, perfect novel about and for solitary confinement

Teffi: Subtly Worded – ranging from the sublime to the absurd, from angry to sarcastic to lyrical, tackling all subjects and different cultures, a great collection of journalistic and fictional pieces

Defoe: Journal of the Plague Year – such frightening parallels to the present-day – a great work of what one might call creative non-fiction

Romain Gary: Les Racines du ciel – not just for those passionate about elephants or conservationism, this is the story of delusions and idealism, colonialism and crushed dreams, appropriation of stories and people for your own purposes

Penelope Fitzgerald: The Gate of Angels – both very funny and yet with an underlying sense of seriousness, of wonder – and of course set in my beloved Cambridge

Erich Maria Remarque: All Quiet on the Western Front – even more heartbreaking when you reread it at this age

Liviu Rebreanu: The Forest of the Hanged – Dostoevsky meets Remarque meets Wilfred Owen, a book which never fails to send shivers down my spine

Anton Chekhov: Sakhalin Island – possibly the greatest revelation of the year, alongside Defoe. Stunning, engaged writing, and so much compassion.

What strikes me looking at all of the above is how many of these books that I naturally gravitated towards this year are all about showing compassion and helping others, about the bond with the natural world, about not allowing yourself to despair at the horrors that human beings bring upon themselves. I’ve been thinking about that mysterious gate in the wall of the college, and how it opened at just the right time – and that’s what all these books have allowed me to do. They’ve provided me with the perfect escape and encouragement whenever I needed them most. If you’ve missed my crime fiction round-up, it is here. I will also do a contemporary fiction round-up after Boxing Day.

I wish all of you who celebrate Christmas as happy a time as possible under the circumstances. I’ll be back before the start of the New Year with some further reading and film summaries, but until then, stay safe and healthy, all my love from me to you!

Six in Six 2020

I saw this on FictionFan’s blog, but it’s a meme started by Jo at The Book Jotter. It’s a pause for reflection at the half year mark:  you select select six categories from the selection Jo provides or create your own categories, and then find six books you’ve read between January and June to fit each category. A great way to procrastinate from either reading, reviewing, writing, translating or working!

 

Six books I have read but not reviewed

Although I loved each of the books below, I somehow didn’t get round to reviewing them – either because I was planning to write something longer and more elaborate, or else because I just lost my reviewing super-power during lockdown.

Francesca Wade: Square Haunting 

Debbie Harry: Face It

Rosamund Lupton: Three Hours

Julian Symons: The Colour of Murder

John Dickson Carr: Castle Skull

 

Six authors I am looking forward to reading more of

Graeme Macrae Burnet – after reading The Disappearance of Adele Bedeau, I want to read more of his books, whether set in France or in Scotland.

Ron Rash – although I had mixed feelings about Serena, I certainly want to read more by him and have bought another two of his books

Machado de Assis – a rediscovery

Maggie O’Farrell – I really enjoyed Hamnet but have been told there is much more and better from where that came from

Elizabeth von Arnim – I’ve read her two most famous books a while back, but this year I discovered The Caravaners (which could easily fit into at least two other categories) and I think there’s a lot more there to explore

Marghanita Laski – Little Boy Lost was so captivating and nuanced and sad that I certainly want to read more (I’ve read The Victorian Chaise Longue as well)

 

Six books that I had one or two problems with but am still glad I tried

Carlos Ruis Zafon: Shadow of the Wind – I got about halfway through and didn’t finish it, which makes me feel guilty, since I was reading this as a tribute to him following the news of his death. I think I’d have enjoyed it a lot more if I’d read it in my teens, and I seem to remember quite liking Marina, the only other book of his that I’d read. But at least I know now that I haven’t missed anything by not reading more by this author.

Harriet Tyce: Blood Orange – I’d probably not have read it if it hadn’t been the May book for the Virtual Crime Book Club, as the subject matter was quite troubling and the descriptions a little too grotty for my taste. However, it was undeniably a powerful story and led to some good discussions at the book club.

Lily King: Writers and Lovers – I do like books about writers and about entitled male egos, so it was both fun and quite revealing, but just not quite as good as I wanted it to be

Nino Haratischwili: The Eighth Life – I struggled because of the sheer length of it and because family sagas are not really my thing, but it is undeniably ambitious, fascinating and entertaining

Kate Briggs: This Little Art – the only reservation I had about this is that it requires great concentration to read, you need to stop and reflect after every few pages, but I was completely captivated. Masterful!

Yokomizu Seishi: The Inugami Curse – very bizarre and somewhat crazy murders in this country manor mystery set in Japan – but lovely to see And Then There Were None transposed to a Japanese setting. Certainly enjoyed it much more than Shimada’s Murder in the Crooked House

 

Six books that took me on extraordinary journeys

Abir Mukherjee: A Rising Man – India (Calcutta) – and the start of a series I really want to explore

Shirley Hazzard: The Bay of Noon – Naples, Italy

Carol Carnac: Crossed Skis – my favourite sport and one of my favourite countries

Ludovic Bruckstein: The Trap – town nestled amidst the Carpathians in Maramures, Romania

Mary Stewart: Nine Coaches Waiting – the French Alps

Ueda Akinari: Ugetsu Monogatari – Japan (and ghosts of the past)

 

Six books to read to avoid politics

Nick Bradley: The Cat and the City

Mary Stewart: Airs Above the Ground

Philip Pullman: The Book of Dust

David Foenkinos: The Mystery of Henri Pick

Alan Melville: Weekend at Thrackley

Beth Ann Fennelly: Heating & Cooling

 

Six books purchased during lockdown but not yet started

All of the below have been purchased following tweets or reading reviews by fellow book bloggers:

Helon Habila: Travellers

Tshushima Yuko: The Shooting Gallery and other Stories (transl. Geraldine Harcourt)

Luke Brown: Theft

Sylvia Townsend Warner: The Corner That Held Them

Michele Roberts: Negative Capability

Antal Szerb: Journey by Moonlight (transl. Peter V. Czipott)

 

January in Japan: Tales of Moonlight and Rain

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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