Monday, 20 September 2010

Review Post 48 - A Selection of Japanese Treats

After the whirlwind madness that was BBAW 2010, where I spent my time preaching of the virtues of reading translated (mostly Japanese) literature, it's actually quite relaxing to settle back into my usual blogging routine with a review post about... Japanese literature. Plus ça change...

After having passed myself off as an expert in the field, it was a little disconcerting to realise that the thirty-something Japanese books gathering dust on the allotted shelves in my study were written by a mere seven different writers - seven!  While I realise that this may be one or two (or seven) more than a lot of bloggers, it does undermine my authority a little and needs to be addressed as soon as possible.  Which is where today's book came in very handy...

The Oxford Book of Japanese Short Stories is a wonderful collection which I first spotted in the campus bookshop a while back.  Being reluctant to spend over $30 on it, however, I trotted off back to my desk and my trusty PC, where I quickly found it for about $14 on the Book Depository.  A click of my fingers mouse, and it was winging its way over to my doorstep.  Brilliant :)

The book contains thirty-five short stories by thirty-five of the best Japanese writers of the past century, increasing my source of potential classics by 500% in a matter of 440 pages.  There were stories from some of my old favourites (Yukio Mishima, Haruki Murakami, Natsume Soseki, Kobo Abe), from famous writers I'd heard of but never encountered in print before (Yasunari Kawabata, Ryunosuke Akutagawa, Kenzaburo Oe, Shusaku Endo), and from writers I never knew existed (Naoya Shiga, Ango Sakaguchi, Masahiko Shimada).  The book is edited, and introduced by, Theodore 'Ted' Goossen (a famous scholar and translator of Japanese literature), and his excellent introduction, giving an overview of 'five generations' of modern Japanese writers and 'five legacies' (or areas) of Japanese short-story writing, is just as valuable for the reader as the stories themselves.

It would be impossible to review all of the stories in one, easily-digestible post, so I have decided to choose my top five stories, deliberately excluding any by writers whose works I have already read.  This list is, of course, highly subjective, and by excluding all of the female writers featured, I may be letting myself in for a little criticism; nevertheless, these were my favourites :)

5 - The Bears of Nametoko by Kenji Miyazawa
A story of a hunter living in the mountains and making a living by shooting bears and selling their pelts in the village below.  Far from being a merciless slaughterer, he and his dog appear to live in near harmony with the bears, as shown by the melancholy ending.

4 - In the Forest, Under Cherries in Full Bloom by Ango Sakaguchi
One of the most chilling and supernatural stories in the book, this story about a bandit who kills a man and takes his wife to be his own is both tense and grotesque.  One thing's for sure - you'll never think the same way about cherry-blossom viewing again...

3 - Prize Stock by Kenzaburo Oe
By far the longest story of the collection, this forty-page tale, seen through the eyes of a child, recounts the events which unfold when a small Japanese village captures an American airman.  A well-crafted tale of humanity, and a lack of it.

2 - The Izu Dancer by Yasunari Kawabata
The first of Japan's two Nobel laureates in literature (Oe was the second), Kawabata evokes everything that foreigners love about this country's writing in a sumptuous, twenty-page walk through mountainous terrain and small villages in the company of a student from Tokyo and a family group of wandering entertainers.

1 - In a Grove - Ryunosuke Akutagawa
An absolute classic of Japanese writing.  A murder, seven accounts, seven conflicting stories - one amazing piece of writing.  This story was adapted by Akira Kurosawa for the big-screen (Rashomon).

Have you guessed yet that I love this book?  This is a must-have item for anyone interested in Japanese literature: for novices, it provides a useful starting point, from which you can follow your interests and tastes; for readers (like me) who have already tried a variety of writers, it helps you to widen your view a little and decide which author to look at next.  And yes, that's exactly what happened -  I am currently waiting for a book by Kenzaburo Oe to arrive, and I have two new Kawabata editions on advance purchase (which will be late Christmas presents by the time they land on my doorstep!).

Unfortunately, that's where I'll have to leave you for the moment - while you go off and get your credit card details ready, I need to go and look at getting some new, double-reinforced bookshelves.  There's always a downside...

Friday, 17 September 2010

Future Treasures - BBAW Wrap & Goals for the Coming Year

Friday already, and it's time for my BBAW 2010 wrap-up post.  In some ways, the five days have flown past; in others, it's been an exhausting experience!  In this final post, I'd just like toreview the week, consider what I've learned and lay out some future plans for my blogging, formed in the crucible of the BBAW furnace!

Although my blog has been around since the start of 2009, it's not one of the most popular sites out there, and I have tended to move languidly around in a fairly limited circle of bloggers, gradually extending that circle at each rotation.  This week, therefore, has seen a quantum leap in both the number of blogs I have visited and the number of visitors my own quiet little corner of the blogosphere has been lucky enough to receive.  I'm not sure that the mutual admiration will last in all cases much beyond the end of the week; however, I'm sure a little will have rubbed off on both sides, and there'll be some lasting relationships in both directions. 

This week has seen me post every day on (or close to) the BBAW topics: on Monday, I recommended a couple of my favourite bloggers; on Tuesday, I interviewed Jenners, a blogger who was new to me (and vice-versa!); on Wednesday, I talked about how a recommendation led to my reading a novel by blog; and yesterday, I got up into my pulpit and preached to the masses about translated literature!  I'd like to extend a special thanks to Jenners for her participation and help with Tuesday's interview posts; having a more popular and mainstream blogger as a partner probably helped more people find their way here than would otherwise have been the case - and she was very nice about it all too, despite my comments about vampires and e-books ;)

Over the course of the week, while evaluating other blogs and receiving comments about my site and the posts contained herein, I have also had time to reflect on Tony's Reading List and to think about what my blog actually means to me.  One thing the many kind comments have brought home to me is that I do what I do well; that is, I review a range of classical, translated and German-language literature, and I pretty much stop there apart from the (very) occasional comment piece.  It's what makes me stand out a little, even if it's what makes me hard to find in the first place, as oxymoronic as that may sound!  In short, there's no point in moving my tastes towards those of the wider market as there are thousands of bloggers out there who can, and do, achieve this much more successfully than I ever could.

The recognition has also made me realise that I enjoy writing the posts and that I want to keep up my blog, as difficult and time consuming as that can be at times.  If I need to improve my time management a little (and avoid chasing my tail with attempts to secure free books from publishers), then a little simplification is all that's needed - well, that and curtailing the urge to recheck my dashboard for comments seventy-three times a day...

So what, specifically, does this mean for the blog for the coming year?  Well, firstly, that I want to continue with it (something we should never take for granted - bloggers can lose their desire to post and review at any time!).  Secondly, that I will continue to concentrate on my strengths and avoid following trends just so that I can play with the cool kids.  There are plenty of sites where people can read reviews of Mockingjay - there aren't that many where people can read reviews of Billard um Halbzehn or Der Besuch der Alten Dame, so I should continue to fulfil my community service role ;)  Thirdly, I really need to work on my time management.  This means cutting down on time-wasting activities (such as checking on comments...), and planning how I'm going to spend my time before I actually get to the computer.  Sadly, as much as this pains me, it may also mean that I need to give up on the concept of reviewing every single book I read, in favour of reviews on my favourite books along with some more regular, alternative types of posts.

This last point is probably where my blog falls down a little.  In my desire to review books, I have neglected the peripheral activities which make the blog attractive to others and keep the visitors coming.  My reviews have tended to come down at irregular intervals without warning, like new literary versions of The Ten Commandments (Thou shalt read Quicksand forthwith!), which is fine for some readers, but probably puts others off.  Therefore, I plan to make a few small changes to make the site a little more user-friendly: monthly wrap-ups (if I can find the time), tabs at the top of the home page (if I can work out how to do it on Blogger!) and a stronger, permanent logo at the top of the page to strengthen my identity (if I can do it without disrupting the look of the blog).

Finally, in what has turned into a bit of a manifesto, I'll talk about the wider role I and my blog play in the literary blogosphere.  Last night's South Pacific Book Chat on Twitter (#spbkchat) focused on raising your blog's profile, and the main message to come out of it (apart from a need for closer links to publishers in our area of the world) was a desire for some more events for our region.  Perhaps we can all soon start a meme, or a book club, and move towards establishing an event such as BBAW for Asia-Pacific book bloggers.  Who knows, maybe one day we'll have an actual face-to-face catch up somewhere too!  But that might be looking a little too far into the future...

That then is what the next year holds for me and my blog.  I hope some of you have managed to stick it out to the end of the week (and the end of my lengthy diatribe!).  A big thanks to all of you book bloggers out there and especially to the organisers, overseers of an event which must be incredibly time-consuming to pull together: congratulations on a job well done :)  All that remains to be said is that I hope to 'see' you all around soon... oh, and let's do it all again next year :)

Thursday, 16 September 2010

Forgotten Treasure - No Passport Required

One of my big themes this week, and one that I was unaware would be a theme until I started writing all these posts, is the importance of variety and diversity in the blogosphere.  I have been heartened to see that there are a few like-minded souls out there, blogging on less mainstream fare and content to cater for the few, rather than the many, exposing little-known books and authors to the eyes of the select group who occasionally drop by these back streets of Lit City, content to leave the bright lights of the glitzy blogs behind for a while.

As well as encouraging the promotion of niche literature in general, I am keen in particular to espouse the reading and reviewing of foreign-language fiction, in my case German, French, Japanese and (to a lesser extent) Russian novels.  If there is one criticism I would level at blogging in general, it is that it can concentrate on contemporary American and British literature at the expense of classic and foreign-language works, a focus that can only be bad for the medium as a whole.  Just as more multi-cultural cities (hopefully!) means a more vibrant and tolerant society, a broader focus in your reading can open your mind to different ways of thinking, similar to the effect of learning a foreign language (and much easier and cheaper!).

Anyone who has visited my blog and perused the reviews on offer will have noticed the emphasis on some of the cultures mentioned above, and I'd like to discuss two of them here to elaborate my point.  I have long been a fan of Haruki Murakami's fiction, but it wasn't until the middle of 2009 that I began to become more seriously interested in Japanese literature in general, thanks mainly to two, virtually simultaneous events: the discovery of Belezza's Japanese Literature Challenge and reading about something called the Book Depository in my weekend newspaper.  Together, these two discoveries have brought me an abundance of joy - and cost me a few hundred dollars...

It's hard to say what I love about Japanese novels, but if pressed, I would say that it's the nuances of the prose and a focus on surrounds, rather than a plot.  Whether it's the tranquility of Natsume Soseki, the barely-repressed hostility of some of Yukio Mishima's work or the simmering sexual tension depicted by Jun'ichiro Tanizaki, the end is rarely as important as the means of arriving there.  Some of the descriptive writing about nature is simply breathtaking, and it's easy to forget, or to overlook, the fact that this description is often conveying ideas which the untutored may be unaware of. 

You see, the Japanese culture, in contrast to its American counterpart (I believe - thinking back to my communication studies subject at university - British culture sits somewhere in the middle) is high-context, meaning that it is all about what is not said.  The reader must create their own meaning from the text, picking up on subtle hints left by the writer (and I'm not saying for one second that I pick up on them all!).  This idea of reader responsibility contrasts with the Anglo-Saxon idea of writer responsibility - which will be very familiar to those of you who have had to write university essays and theses...

Naturally, if you do not read Japanese (and, like most fans of J-Lit, I don't), you are at the mercy of the translators, at times an unpleasant position to be in.  Luckily, Japanese authors seem to have a plethora of skilled translators, mainly American, ready to convert their work into English worthy of the original.  I posted earlier this year in detail on this topic (and touched briefly on the issue of American translations in a recent review post), so I won't go over that ground again today, but I would like to reemphasise my gratitude that someone has gone to the effort of bringing these works to an English-speaking audience.

The second area I want to touch on is one which I, fortunately, am able to enjoy without the intervention of a translator.  I have been reading German-language literature, on and off, since my school days, and the last couple of years have seen an increase in the number of books I have read in this language, allowing me to make the most of my otherwise fairly useless Bachelor's Degree in Modern Languages.  Despite some difficulties with vocabulary and style, I have enjoyed my forays into German-language classics, revisiting old friends like Kafka and Dürrenmatt, and discovering the joy of Goethe and Mann.

Of course, when you get to later German literature, it's impossible to avoid a certain topic, and two of my favourite writers deal with the events, and consequences of the respective World Wars.  Erich Maria Remarque, best known for his novel Im Westen Nichts Neues (All Quiet on the Western Front), wrote about the difficulties faced by civilians and returning soldiers in post-WW1 Germany, describing the situation which allowed the Nazis to rise to power.  Coming from the other side of the front, reading Remarque's work has been an eye-opener, leading me to rethink my ideas of what actually happened during the wars.  The fact of his books being burned by Hitler's regime is proof enough of the importance of his novels, and I have thoroughly enjoyed the three I've read so far.

Probably my biggest discovery of the past few years though has been Nobel Prize winner Heinrich Böll, whose works are set during and after the Second World War, analysing the guilt and responsibility Germans felt (or pretended to feel) once the fighting was over.  Many bloggers have commented that they aren't interested in War literature, but the themes and issues covered here are just as relevant today, in an increasingly-fractured world, as they were back in Böll's time.

So that's my gift to you all on the fourth day of BBAW 2010: a wish for peace, harmony, understanding and a world of wonderful literature.  There's a wide world of books out there - make sure you don't miss out :)

Wednesday, 15 September 2010

Unexpected Treasure - Influenced by Others

Some of you may have heard of Dan Holloway, blogger, writer (Songs from the Other Side of the Wall), indie publisher and general all-round polymath (although I prefer polylit - a much more book friendly expression).  Well, earlier this year I noticed he was following a blog which was about to start publishing a novel on a daily basis - which was actually a fairly apt medium as the book was written in the form of a diary...  The book is Thaw by English writer Fiona Robyn and is the tale of a thirty-something woman coming up to her birthday and wondering whether she can carry on with her life.

I won't go into the plot now (you can read my review here if you'd like); I'd rather concentrate on the format instead as it's something I find fascinating.  While the traditional form of publishing is far from dead, the explosion of new forms of media and technology means that people have many more opportunities to get their work out there.  Using a blog to expose a book (particularly one so suited to serialisation as this one) to the unsuspecting world is a wonderful idea, and one that many people, I'm sure, will be quick to follow.

But what are the advantages of this type of marketing?  Doesn't it just mean at the end of the day that you are giving away your work for free?  I'm sure the above-mentioned Mr. Holloway could come up with a million good reasons why this is not the case, but I'll just say that book exposure by blog is a great way for non-superstar writers to make a wider audience aware of their work and, perhaps, to gain more free publicity from people like... well. me!  While I may not have bought this or any other of Fiona's books (I enjoyed Thaw, but it's not my usual kind of book), this is the second or third time that I have mentioned it in the course of my blogging, and if even only a few people do this, then the number of people exposed to the book will gradually mount up.

So, once again, thanks to Dan for the tip, Fiona for the book, and the blogosphere for making the whole thing a friendly community experience; hopefully many more aspiring authors will give blog serialisation a go.  You never know - I may even try it myself one day :)

Tuesday, 14 September 2010

New Treasure - Interview Swap

Today it's time for the BBAW interview swap, and my partner for this is Jenners from Find Your Next Book Here.  Rather than speak for her, I'll let her do the talking, in response to a few questions I dashed off to her last week - enjoy :)

How would you briefly describe yourself for the blogging public reading this post?
The Fantasy: Witty and winsome, this wildly popular blogger has been charming the pants off her fellow book lovers for almost two years. Known for her astute analyses of an eclectic mix of books, Jenners is currently at work on her own novel, which has been optioned by Harper Perennial.

The Reality: Chubby and mildly humorous on her best days, this beleaguered stay-at-home mom could stand to lose about 25 pounds, clean the house more often and read less. Yet she manages to spend more time working on her blogs than she does planning and preparing nutritious meals for her family. Although she's dreamed of attempting to write a novel for almost her entire life, laziness and a lack of confidence have so far kept her from even trying.

When and why did you start your blog?
I started my personal blog, Life with a Little One and More, in November 2008 after seeing a friend's blog and thinking "I could do that!" I'd been seeking a creative outlet to offset the monotony and tedium of being a stay-at-home mom/housewife, and nothing had been a good fit. I'm not crafty AT ALL so sewing, needlepoint, scrapbooking and all the various other projects I'd attempted had quickly been tossed aside to molder in a closet. But blogging ... well, blogging was what I'd been seeking my entire life! I realized quickly that I wanted to write about books as well as my personal life so I decided to start a dedicated book blog, which ended up as Find Your Next Book Here. Since then, my love affair with blogging has never wavered (much to my husband's chagrin and surprise).

What is the main focus of your blog, and what type of posts are most common (reviews, chatting, giveaways)?
I don't really have a defined focus for my blog other than to write about the books I'm reading. The majority of my posts are book reviews, but I do have a monthly giveaway and occasionally write chatty book-related posts if the mood strikes me.

How much time and energy do you put into your blog?
Way more than I probably should ... and much much much more than my husband feels I should! I estimate that I spend at least 2 hours a day every day blogging, which includes writing posts and visiting other blogs. Left to my own devices, I would probably spend even more than that but I realize I do have other responsibilities. Sigh.

What would you change about your blog and/or your blogging if you had the time?
I'd love to move it to Wordpress, but I'm unsure how to do this without losing my domain name and screwing up the feeds. (Any hints or advice would be greatly appreciated.) The main reason I want to move to Wordpress is for the threaded comments--that is one of the things that really annoys me about Blogger. How hard is it to develop a better commenting system, Blogger Powers-That-Be????? And I'm always futzing around with my blog look. I try to leave it alone but at least once a year I get all crazy and change it around. I'd also like to finally get caught up on my book reviews. Right now, I have a list of 11 books I still need to write reviews for, and it drives me crazy.

Do you think you read enough books from outside your home country?
No ... but I don’t really focus on that as a reading goal. In thinking back over the books I've read this year, almost all of them are by American or British authors. I did read Stieg Larsson's Millennium Series, and I'm painfully working my way through Fyodor Dostoyevsky's The Brothers Karamazov right now. And I'm hosting a read along for Eiji Yoshikawa's Musashi later this month, so I guess I'm branching out a bit.

If you had to choose three books everyone should read, what would they be?
Wow ... that everyone should read? Impossible to answer! How about three of the best books I've read in the past year or so? The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay by Michael Chabon, The Book Thief by Marcus Zusak, and Unaccustomed Earth by Jhumpa Lahiri.

E-books: the next big thing or spawn of Satan?
The next big thing! I've had a Kindle for about a year or so (and just upgraded to the new Kindle 3 ... they did a really good job improving it!), and I love it. I love its portability. I love having a gadget my husband doesn't hog. I love being able to take 10 books on vacation without having to figure out how to fit them in a suitcase. I love that I can get more books for my money. I love that I don’t have to find more room on the four shelves I'm allowed to fill with my books. (Unfair, yes?) I really don’t think paper books or bookstores will disappear any time soon so I fully embrace e-books as an enhancement to my reading addiction.

Do bloggers deserve free books from publishers in return for reviews?
Well, "deserve" is such a loaded term. I think the relationship between publishers and book bloggers can be a mutually beneficial thing, but I think both sides need to adhere to a few guidelines. First, publishers SHOULD NOT expect, demand, or imply that the books they send to a blogger should receive positive reviews. All they should expect is honest and timely reviews. Second, bloggers SHOULD read books they receive for review in a timely manner and write a thorough, honest and considered review. By this, I think if a blogger receives a free book from a publisher, they should read it relatively soon after receipt and take the time to write a review that gives their readers an idea of what the book is about and what they thought of it.

Personally, I try to limit the amount of books I accept for review from publishers so I don't feel overburdened. I do provide my honest opinion of the book, but I also try to present basic information about the book so my readers can decide whether this book might be of interest to them or not. I think that is all I can be expected to do by a publisher. I do also disclose if I got a book for free from a publisher so that my readers know and can decide whether that matters to them. Also, I don’t think it is fair to accept a book for review and then regurgitate the book jacket description and write just a few lines such as "I really liked it!" or "Not so good!" In exchange for the free book, I think a blogger needs to put a little honest effort into their review.

What is the future of book blogging?!
Darned if I know!

Thanks for the chat Jenners :) 
If you want to hear what I had to say, you can find my half of the interview over at Jenners' site...

Monday, 13 September 2010

First Treasure - New Blog

First official post for BBAW 2010, and the rules are already out of the window as, instead of the one new blog I've discovered, I will, in fact, be presenting two.  Yes, I am a rebel without a cause (but with plenty of commas) ;)

The first of my dynamic duo is a Canadian exiled (by choice) in deepest, darkest Japan (I lie, it's somewhere near Tokyo).  Take a bow Tanabata, curator of the ever-stylish and cherry-blossom emblazoned In Spring It is The Dawn.  This site is a haven for all things Japanese, and having spent three years in the Land of the Rising Sun myself, I am always happy to join in the fun.  The name of the blog comes from the first line of Sei Shonagon's The Pillow Book, an ancient Japanese work, and Tanabata (a pseudonym, of course) runs many a readalong of Japanese texts, including the one from which the site takes its name. 

Another fun aspect of the site is the monthly Hello Japan! mini-challenge, where a topic is given, and all and sundry are free to interpret it as best they can and post the results for the world to see (I was lucky enough to win a delightful wooden sumo game after being drawn as the winner of the sport-themed month for my reminiscence of my sumo-watching days...). 

One final reason to spotlight Tanabata is that she is one of the three organisers of the recently-founded 'South Pacific Bookchat' on Twitter (#spbkchat).  Every Thursday, at an Asia-Pacific-friendly time (7 p.m. Japan/8 p.m. Eastern Australia/10 p.m. NZ), bloggers from all over the region (and some from further afield) twitter happily away on a pre-determined topic, allowing Asia-Pacific bloggers and tweeters, who can often be neglected by some of the US-/UK-centric events, to get involved in the bookish community.  Just another reason to say Domo Arigato Gozaimasu :)

The second of my choices today hails from my home country (England - Australia is just where I am incarcerated for shoplifting choose to live) and is a very active social butterfly in the British section of the blogging world.  Her name is Jackie, and she runs Farm Lane Books, both a blog and an on-line book shop.  As far as I can tell, Jackie seems to be one of the epicentres of the BritLit blogosphere and provides useful connections with other wonderful blogs on the European side of the Atlantic.

As well as keeping me up to date with all that's happening back home, Jackie allows me to vicariously follow what's happening in contemporary literature as she is an avid reader of modern fiction, and a compulsive reader of books appearing on long- and short-lists.  I would never try anything like this - I am addicted to my old classics and foreign-language literature, and I'm loath to try a book (let alone a dozen) that I'm less than assured of liking -, so it is wonderful to have someone out there who can do all that for me!

Rest assured: when the Booker Prize winner is announced next month, it's Jackie's comments I'll be looking back to, and her opinion that I'll be sharing when praising the judges for their perspicacity or slamming them for their total lack of taste ;)

So there you have it: two wonderful blogs, and two lovely people I am in (semi-)regular contact with :)  You could do a lot worse than drop by their blogs this week, and see for yourself what makes them great!

Sunday, 12 September 2010

Welcome to Book Blogger Appreciation Week!

For the next week, I will nightly be posting little bits and pieces connected to this year's Book Blogger Appreciation Week.  Far from retiring into a sulk after failing to get past the longlist stage in any of the award categories I entered myself in, I will be throwing myself into it as best I am able, posting interviews, paeans to worthy fellow bloggers and suggestions as to what you all should be reading.  This will probably mean a lack of the usual, insightful book reviews you have become accustomed to, nay, expect from me, but I suspect I wouldn't have been writing many of those next week anyway (a combination of flu, Henry James and the awful existential turmoil of turning thirty-six years old yesterday).  Enjoy the show while it lasts :)

Friday, 10 September 2010

Review Post 47 - Why early retirement rarely works out well

More than twenty months into the life of my little blog, and I've just realised that so far there has been nothing by the undisputed king of literature, the Bard of Avon, a man born just down the road from me, the one, the only, William Shakespeare.  Consider my head duly hung in shame :(

Having then just read Le Père Goriot, a French novel partially based on King Lear, now seems like the perfect time to make up for my shortcomings with Tony's Reading List's first Shakespeare review, looking back at the inspiration behind the Balzac novel.  Once more unto the breach, dear friends?

King Lear is, of course, a classic tragedy, the tale of a great man with a fatal flaw.  Lear, a pre-Roman King of Britain, has had enough of life at the pointy end of politics and decides to abdicate his throne, splitting up his kingdom and passing on his power to his three daughters and their partners.  While he is pleased with the sycophantic professions of love from his elder daughters, Goneril and Regan, he detects a lack of respect in his youngest daughter's (Cordelia's) words and disowns her.  Cordelia then departs with the King of France, a suitor who is prepared to take her hand in marriage even without the sizeable dowry expected. 

After putting his kingdom in the hands of his sons-in-law, Lear settles down for a nice, relaxing retirement spent shuttling between their castles, bringing with him a train of a hundred knights for carousing, jesting and general courtly merriment.  Alas, daughterly love only extends a certain way, and with Goneril and Regan, it doesn't even reach that far...

The two sisters are wonderful characters, reminders that strong women didn't suddenly pop into existence at the start of the twentieth century.  The royal siblings are far from passive, taking an active part in the ruling of their father's kingdom, and they constantly speak and act in ways which can only be described as, well, masculine.  They're also not above using their womanly charms to get ahead, with both queens making passes at Edmund, illegitimate son of the Duke of Gloucester and a comrade in arms in their political struggles.  This passion and ambition proves their downfall, however, as the sisters prove too selfish and ambitious to work together; this kingdom ain't big enough for the both of them.

While the plot is interesting, a lot of the charm in Shakespeare comes from the language, which is surprisingly subtle and varied for someone who was basically a farm boy from the provinces.  However, ignoring all the elegant wordplay, subtle innuendoes and newly-coined phrases, I prefer to concentrate on one of the less-appreciated of Shakespeare's skills: swearing.  I believe that it is no accident that English seems to have a greater repertoire of taboo words than many other languages and that foreign students are fascinated (and perplexed) by the range and flexibility of our language of insults - it's all because of Will.  Exhibit A is Kent's tirade at Oswald when the King's retainer comes across Goneril's fawning servant.  He calls him:

"A knave, a rascal, an eater of broken meats, a base, proud, shallow, beggarly, three-suited, hundred-pound, filthy-worsted-stocking knave; a lily-livered, action-taking, whoreson glass-gazing super-serviceable finical rogue, one-trunk-inheriting slave; one that wouldst be a bawd in way of good service, and art nothing but the composition of a knave, beggar, coward, pander, and the son and heir of a mongrel bitch; one whom I will beat into clamorous whining if thou deniest the least syllable of thy addition." (II.2, L13-22)
Oswald son, consider yourself well and truly dissed...

I don't think I'm giving too much away when I say that King Lear fails to end happily (do you not understand the word tragedy?), and the moral of the story, if there is one, is that early retirement is not all that it's cracked up to be.  As Old Goriot found, it's probably wise to keep your kids waiting a little for their inheritance, no matter how impatiently they are willing you to hang up your sword.  Edmund, in Act I.2 (L72-5), putting his words in Edgar's mouth, says:
"...But I have heard him oft maintain it to be fit that, sons at perfect age and fathers declined, the father should be as ward to the son, and the son manage his revenue."
If only Lear had consulted a financial planner before making his retirement plans, he could have spared himself a lot of trouble (hindsight's a wonderful thing).

So, all in all, a most entertaining and thought-provoking tale, but, as always with Shakespeare, there's a bit of a caveat.  His works were not really designed to be read, but to be seen (preferably in an open-air toilet of a theatre, in the company of hundreds of plague-ridden plebs), and the true greatness of the piece only becomes apparent when you see it brought to life.  As with every time I've read anything by Shakespeare, on finishing King Lear I promptly decided that I would watch it at some point, either on screen or (less likely) on the stage.  As with every time I've said that, I expect that I'll find myself remembering that promise in a decade's time and wondering why I haven't quite got around to doing it yet.

Maybe when I take early retirement...

Tuesday, 7 September 2010

Review Post 46 - Our Father, who art in Paris...

Once upon a time, a long time ago now, I posted on the perils of reading in a foreign language, and I'd like to revisit that theme to start today's post.  That time, I was reading a book in German, the foreign language I'm most proficient in, but last week I finally got around to reading Balzac's classic novel, Le Père Goriot (Old Goriot), in the original French.  In hindsight, starting the book on a packed commuter train on a weary Monday morning was probably not the most intelligent way to ease into it, but then, if I'd been able to think clearly, it wouldn't have been a Monday morning...

Imagine then, if you will, Tony seated on the 7.37, i-Pod connected, book open, ploughing through the first, incredibly detailed and descriptive, section of the book, when a couple of loud and annoying university students decided to have a conversation about their Japanese homework, proceeding to get their books out and decide to do it together, there and then.  As the desperate duo slowly worked their way through their ten sentences of translation, their feeble attempts at correctly using post-positional particles becoming ever more laughable and grating, I desperately tried to take in Balzac's minute portrayal of a house in the Parisian suburbs, first outside, then inside, upstairs and down.  And then I started banging my head against the window.

That this post is here for you to read shows you that I did (eventually) overcome that false start, and I'm very glad I did.  Honoré de Balzac is one of France's literary giants, and Le Père Goriot is considered to be the pivot of his incredible La Comédie Humaine series, an interconnecting collection of more than a hundred works set in the same place and time and recycling thousands of characters.  In this novel, the reader is introduced to several characters who will go on to be mainstays of Balzac's fiction (Rastignac, one of the major characters, appears in twenty six of his novels) and many who have already made their bow in one of his other books.

From the rather narrow beginning described above, Balzac gradually expands his story, introducing us to a motley collection of people residing in Madame Vauquer's rather unsalubrious boarding house.  Of the seven residents present at the start of the novel, the story revolves mainly around three: Eugène de Rastignac, a good-hearted young Law student from the provinces; Vautrin, an enigmatic figure with a shady past and an even shadier present; and Old Goriot himself, a retired vermicelli maker, who has been slipping further and further down the social ladder since arriving at Mme Vauquer's establishment.

The reason for Goriot's decline is his decision to give away the majority of his fortune to his two daughters, Anastasie and Delphine, on the event of their marriages, followed by his expulsion from their houses by his two sons-in-law owing to his inability to fit in to Parisian high society.  When Rastignac begins to flirt with Delphine, the old man sees an opportunity to reconnect with at least one of his daughters, despite the young student not having enough money to play this high-stakes game.  However, the mysterious and charismatic Vautrin has a plan to help young Rastignac out, involving Mlle Victorine Taillefer (another of the Vauquer boarders), her estranged father and a duel...

As you can tell from this brief description, there's a lot going on and a lot that Balzac wants to say through his fiction.  One of the foremost ideas is family and the respect owed by the next generation to their fathers, and to underscore this idea, Balzac borrows liberally from Shakespeare, with Anastasie and Delphine taking just as much advantage of Goriot's foolish generosity as Gonoril and Regan of King Lear when he divided up his kingdom between them.  Sadly, Goriot does not even have the compensation of a Cordelia figure (although Victorine, in a parallel plot, can be seen a Cordelia of sorts), and he lives to regret his impetuous generosity towards his daughters, which threatens to leave him destitute.

The book is also a classic example of a Bildungsroman, providing Rastignac with his baptism of fire in the Parisian haut-monde.  Like many a literary young man before him (Werther, David Copperfield, Johnny Eames, to name but a few), our hero must grow up quickly, beset with temptation all around.  He quickly decides to put his studies to one side in order to concentrate on cementing his place in the city's social fabric - and in the heart of Delphine de Nucingen.  To do so, he also requires money, and while he manages to get by for a short while thanks to a small loan from his family (which, for them, however, is a more onerous undertaking), funding his Parisian adventure long-term will require more substantial support.  And that's where we come to Vautrin...

...for the star creation of this novel is undoubtedly the mysterious, scene-stealing jack-of-all-trades, a best-supporting-actor performance if ever there was one (and, in my mind at least, if this role hasn't been played by Gérard Depardieu, it damn well should be).  Vautrin has an animal magnetism which fascinates and unsettles the boarders at Mme Vauquer's in equal measure, his mood swinging between barely-concealed menace to delighted bonhomie (and back) in the twinkle of his roguish eye.  He quickly develops a close relationship with Rastignac, becoming both a sort of father figure and a dark angel, tempting the young man by offering to fulfil his financial dreams - in return for a little something, of course.  I won't say any more about this loveable rogue; I don't want to spoil your enjoyment of the book...

As an early 19th-Century novel, Le Père Goriot has a lot in common with the literature coming out of England at the time and may well have been an influence on some of the later Victorian writers.  Anyone familiar with the likes of Dickens and Trollope will see parallels in this novel; however, it is the differences which are more interesting.  When you compare the lively, boisterous atmosphere of Mme Vauquer's boarding house with the more genteel (though just as downtrodden) establishment run by Mrs. Roper in Trollope's The Small House at Allington, the contrast between the wanton carousing in Paris and the more formal and formulaic events in London is instantly clear.  Another area where the French seemed to be a little more open than their English counterparts of the time is in the treatment of extra-marital affairs.  While these liaisons are hushed up, if not actually hidden, as best as possible in English novels, Balzac's unhappy couples are fully aware of their partner's affairs, even arranging their schedules so as to be out of the way.  One example of this is the Viscount de Beauséant, taking his wife in his carriage to meet her lover at the opera, before setting off to meet his own mistress: now that's a modern marriage for you!

All these elements (and a whole lot more that I, unfortunately, must omit, lest this blog post become a fully-blown thesis) help to make Le Père Goriot one of the most famous works in French literature and (much more importantly) a great book to read.  I can't wait to acquire a few more of Balzac's series so that I can follow Rastignac, Vautrin et al. further along their tangled paths.  Next time though, I'll choose my reading time more carefully (I think I'll start my books in the comfort of my own home, after the girls have gone to bed) - and if I see any students with Japanese textbooks nearby, I think I'll be changing carriages in future...

Thursday, 2 September 2010

Review Post 45 - What novelists do in their spare time

George Eliot, a writer who once lived in my home town and is, therefore, officially brilliant, is well known for her epic novels (Middlemarch, Romola etc.), and I have long wanted to complete the set by reading Felix Holt, the only fiction of hers not in my possession - or so I thought...  When browsing a list of Oxford World's Classics publications, I discovered an Eliot title I'd never heard of, and it turns out that old Mary Ann, as I like to call her (it's a Coventry thing), in addition to her eight major works, also had two short stories serialised in literary journals.  Unfortunately, they were not as popular as her longer works, so they remained alone and largely overlooked, waiting for the odd reader to discover them centuries later.  Now, how could I resist that?

Brother Jacob, the second of the two stories in my edition, is a whimsical tale of David Faux, a young man who decides that the world owes him a living and that he intends to seek payment of that debt sooner rather than later.  He concocts a plan which involves appropriating twenty Guineas belonging to his mother in order to decamp to the West Indies and make his fortune in some vague and unplanned fashion.  The plan, however, comes unstuck when his idiot brother (whose name you can probably guess) tags along, complicating matters somewhat.

Having eventually made good his escape, we rejoin David several years later after his return from the Caribbean, now making a fair living as a confectioner under a pseudonym.  Life is starting to look up for our gallant protagonist when tempting news reaches his ears - but will his youthful misadventures threaten his imminent prosperity?

This amusing tale, probably Eliot's lightest literary moment, is reminiscent of Hardy's The Mayor of Casterbridge (albeit without any of Michael Henchard's redeeming qualities).  It shows the price we pay for our greed and the way it causes us to overreach when happiness is within our grasp.  Faux, whose name was chosen for its French meaning of 'false' and its resemblance to the English word 'fox' - indicating the cunning nature of our 'hero' - is the cause of his own downfall, and it's simple Brother Jacob who is involved in his final come-uppance.  Remember, everyone: it's rather important to be honest.

The first of the two stories, The Lifted Veil, is about the same length (around forty pages) as Brother Jacob, but in many ways it is a far weightier tale.  A dark (almost Gothic?) story, it centres on the figure of Latimer, an aged gentleman in a country house, apparently waiting for his death.  He tells us the story of his life, and recounts how he became obsessed with Bertha, a beautiful young woman who was the intended bride of his more popular and successful elder brother, and how events arranged themselves so that he ended up her husband.

All fairly normal stuff so far, you may think; however, there is a twist in the tale.  Latimer chooses Bertha despite knowing full well that she will end up despising him, with full knowledge that his marriage will be unhappy, a sham.  And how does he know this?  Well, you see, our friend Latimer has a couple of very unusual abilities...

When first offered for publication, the periodical which ran it was not particularly keen on the tale and wanted to tone it down a little; it was certainly a far cry from the pastoral story-telling of Scenes of Clerical Life and Adam Bede.  The focus on a number of pseudo-sciences, such as phrenology, (which had not, at the time, been dismissed as being without substance) seems strange to the modern reader, and the final twist in the story (a fairly unexpected one) is even more startling.

The underlying focus though is on the value of uncertainty in life and the misery that ensues when your destiny is preordained.  It is the possibility of forging your own future which makes life possible, and enjoyable, and on reading Latimer's tale, the reader can feel content not to have inside knowledge as to what is in store for them, tempting as it is to want to know our fate.

All in all then, a most enjoyable duet of tales, especially so when you consider that I never even knew they existed.  While there can be no comparison to Eliot's longer works, the two stories show another facet of a great writer, and that's something which is always welcome.  So, as mentioned above, it just remains for me to source a copy of Felix Holt, and I will have finally read all of Eliot's fiction - unless, that is, there are more lost stories waiting to be discovered...

Review copy courtesy of Betty from Oxford University Press (Australia & New Zealand) :)