Monday 29 November 2010

Stories from Across the Ditch

A while back, on the Thursday night Twitter chat-fest we call South Pacific Book Chat (#spbkchat), the topic was New Zealand literature, and I was cast in the unusual position of a mute bystander, having only read works by Katherine Mansfield (exquisite short stories, poignant and thought provoking) and Lynley Dodd (Hairy Maclarey from Donaldson's Dairy).

The one name that came up again and again was Janet Frame, so I decided to check her out and was lucky enough to receive a copy of The Daylight and the Dust, a collection of Frame's short stories, from the lovely Golda at Random House AustraliaOf course, then I had a nasty bout of RSI and a flare-up of my old back issues too, which made both reading and writing (typing) rather difficult - not to mention painful.  Consider this a belated repayment of my literary and blogging debts :)

The Daylight and The Dust is a selection of Frame's short stories, gleaned from her various collections, ranging from the early 1950s to the end of her life.  There is a staggering variety in the selection, with serious, thought-provoking psychological tales brushing shoulders with whimsical childhood memories and ultra-short stories which are over almost before you've realised you're reading them.  Several of the stories are set in London, and this colonial view of life in the mother country reminded me a little of V.S. Naipaul's short fiction, written around the same time.  Of course, as a Kiwi writer, it's rather obvious to say that Frame's writing is influenced by Mansfield (I'm not sure anyone from New Zealand could write short stories without sensing her shadow looming heavy in the background), but there is a definite similarity in some of the themes covered.

One example of this is The Tea Cup, a story about a woman sharing lodgings and tentatively trying to create a connection with a male fellow lodger.  The subtle desperation exuding from the poor, lonely woman reminded me of several of Mansfield's eternal spinster characters, wonderful women destined to live and die alone, unloved.  The idea is also helped by Frame's light, airy style, with both the language and the events of the story appearing at first to be quite trivial while masking great sadness and inner torment.

Another story touching on a sense of unfulfilment (if that's a word!) is The Triumph of Poetry - one of the longer stories in the book -, which follows a man from his very successful school days through his moderately successful life, always reminding the reader of the hero's failure to become a real poet, life having got in the way.  Despite the character's apparent professional and personal happiness, Frame skilfully weaves an air of unhappiness between the lines, leaving the reader with the sense of what might have been.

One of the interesting features of this book was the number of very short stories, ludicrously brief in some cases.  One, the title story, barely reached two hundred words (and I have to say that it wasn't one of my favourites...), and there were several others which were a little over a page long.  However, even in some of these shorter efforts, there was some wonderful writing.  In Dossy, a story taking up just under two pages of very uncluttered text, the little girl featured goes from being a Queen bee to an envious poor girl to a doomed orphan in the space of a few hundred words (and three differing viewpoints) - a wonderful achievement.

In fact, several of the more memorable stories centre on childhood, Frame evoking nostalgic memories of long, lazy holidays long forgotten.  However, for the adult reader, there are often darker undertones lurking beneath the surface, saving the tales from becoming mere descriptive passages and turning them into something a little more interesting.  Good examples of this include The Reservoir, a story about children daring to break an unspoken taboo, and Swans, where a family (sans father) go on a curiously bleak day trip to the beach.  These stories are both familiar and yet slightly unnerving, leaving the reader with a sense of more happening than meets the eye, which (of course) is how good writing should be...

The Daylight and The Dust is a nice introduction to an obviously talented writer, but it is a little like an appetiser before the main meal.  I'm more of a Victorian pot-boiler man than a short-story afficionado, and these stories have merely whetted my appetite for something a little lengthier.  So, to finish up today, I'll turn the spotlight back on my audience and ask: have you read any of Frame's novels?  What would you recommend?

I'd be very interested to hear your opinions :)

P.S. As I began to write this review, I flicked over to Twitter (as you do) and, after following a few interesting tweets and links, I found something which brings a certain symmetry and serendipity to my post.  Apparently, Tim Jones (an NZ Science-Fiction Writer and a regular at the aforementioned #spbkchat event) was awarded a prize this week (and well done to him for that!).  Which one, you ask?  Well, would you believe it was the Janet Frame Memorial Award for Literature?  Life, sometimes, truly is stranger than fiction.  And nicer :)

Saturday 27 November 2010

Hello Japan November Challenge

It's time to add my contribution to Tanabata's Hello Japan! event for November, and this month it's a little meme with a few Japan-based questions - saa, ikimashoo~ :)

My favourite Japanese city is Nara because you get all the temples of Kyoto without the ugly buildings (and with added deer!).

The best Japanese book I've read this year is The Oxford Book of Japanese Short Stories - a wonderful introduction to J-Lit for anyone interested in this area.

What Japanese author(s) or book(s) have you enjoyed that you would highly recommend to others?
Let's try Yukio Mishima, Natsume Soseki, Jun'ichiro Tanizaki and (of course) Haruki Murakami :) - I will be moving on to the two Japanese Nobel laureates, Yasunari Kawabata and Kenzaburo Oe, in 2011, so that list will undoubtedly grow longer...

What is something Japanese that you'd like to try but haven't yet had the chance?
Alas, I never got to attend the Sumo or make it to Koshien for a Hanshin Tigers' game during my time in Japan :(

You're planning to visit Japan next year. Money is not a concern. What is on the top of your list of things you most want to do?
See above :)  Also, I spent most of my time in Japan in Kansai, with one fleeting visit to Kanto, so I would like to skip Honshu and visit the other main islands - a bit of time in Kyushu, Hokkaido and Shikoku (plus a few days on the beach on Okinawa!) would be great!  Not sure I could stomach Will Ferguson's Japanese journey though...

***Thanks to Tanabata for organising this mini-challenge: why don't you all join in next time and learn more about Japan?***

Tuesday 23 November 2010

A Small Amount of Catching Up - Part 2

Today, I'll be discussing another trio of books in my desperate (and unnecessary) attempt to get back up to date with my blog, reviewing a rare (for me) non-fiction book, a French magical realism novel and yet another slice of Japanese literature - allons-y...

A Short History of Philosophy is a textbook I read a while back, in preparation for helping students studying an Art & Design theory unit at work.  I am no longer working there, so it probably wasn't the best use of my work time, but it was extremely interesting all the same.  Reading about the long line of Western philosophers, starting with the Greek greats (Socrates, Aristotle, Plato) through to Bertrand Russell in the twentieth century was fascinating stuff; however, a month or so after the fact, I'd be hard pressed to remember more than a few names and ideas (which is thoroughly depressing).

One thing I do remember though is my favourite philosopher, Diogenes the Cynic.  Why is he my favourite?  Well, in addition to living on the streets and being fairly dismissive about adhering to the conventions of polite society (and hygiene), he was also responsible for one of the best disses in history.  When Alexander the Great, one of his admirers, came to visit him and asked whether he could do anything for him, Diogenes replied "Yes, you can get out of my daylight."  As well as being extremely profound, it also showed a lot of balls: if the ruler of the known world showed up on my doorstep (or gutter), I think I'd probably be a tad more respectful...

A good while back, I was dropping off some old clothes at the local second-hand shop when I noticed a book in German on the shelf by the counter.  I'd never heard of it, but it was only $1 (and, in pre-Book Depository times, finding anything in German in Melbourne was nothing short of a miracle), so I decided to take it home - where I soon realised that it was actually a German translation of a French novel (which I am now reviewing in English...).

Der Erlkönig (Le Roi des Aulnes or The Alder King, translated from French to German by Hellmut Waller) is a Goncourt Prize-winning novel by French writer Michel Tournier.  The title comes from a Nordic myth, turned into a poem by Goethe, about a fairy king who pursues a man across the moors to steal his child from his grasp.  This story, set just prior to, and then during, World War II, appears to have little to do with the title at first; however, as the story unfolds, the parallels become very clear. 

Abel Tiffauges is a rather unusual person, a clumsy, lonely giant of a man, living in Paris in the late 1930s, who gets into serious trouble with the law after spending more time than he should with some local children.  Set free to join the war effort, he begins a gradual drift eastwards across Europe, firstly as a soldier, then as a prisoner of war and finally as a civillian helper in Germany.  He becomes a collector of creatures, from carrier pigeons to dogs, until finally he achieves his dream and becomes a hunter of children, seeking suitable young boys for a German military school: to the parents in the area, his tall, menacing figure becomes one with the legendary Erlking...

This book is a wonderful example of magical realism, with Tiffauges seeming both larger than life and somewhat apart from it, a spectral observer of the European war.  Tournier draws from a dazzling variety of sources ranging from Greek myths to European fairy tales and introduces real people (such as Hermann Goering) to complete his rich tapestry of a novel.  At the end, we are no wiser as to Tiffauges' fate as he heads deeper into the east, but the journey was definitely worth it.  If you like slightly unusual, magical novels (à la Murakami or Garcia Marquez), Tournier is certainly worth a read - but maybe try him in English (or French) instead!

And finally, we come to my third book today and the companion piece to The Key, also translated by Howard Hibbett, Diary of a Mad Old Man.  As well as having an absolutely superb title, this book is another of Jun'ichiro Tanizaki's looks at the seedy sexual underbelly of polite Japanese society.

This time our protagonist is Utsugi, a prototypical grumpy old man if ever there was one, who attempts to ease the aches and pains of growing older by lusting after Satsuko, his daughter-in-law.  With each diary entry (probably the reason these two Tanizaki works were joined in one volume), the old man's obsession grows, causing trouble for the rest of his long-suffering family; predictably, Satsuko is portrayed as being slightly less than innocent, only too willing to use the old man's attention to serve her own interests.

For the first half of this book, I would have to say that I was a little disappointed.  If The Key was a poor imitation of Quicksand, it appeared that Diary... was going to be a mediocre imitation of The Key.  The plots were similar, the diary format was the same, and the idea of the seductive outsider was beginning to grate.  However, Tanizaki turns it around in the second half, moving the story away from a story of obsession and into a study of the effects of old age, focusing the microscope on Utsugi rather than Satsuko (which comes as a nice change).  When the obligatory twist ending comes, it's actually very different to what's expected, leaving the reader with a satisfyingly melancholy resolution.

All in all, an interesting read, but I think I'll lay off the Tanizaki for a while.  Individually, I'm sure all of his books are a wonderful read; however, having looked at brief descriptions of some of his other famous works (Naomi, Some Prefer Nettles), I get the feeling that I would be experiencing severe déjà vu were I to dive into his novels again in the near future.  Besides, there are so many other Japanese authors whose books I am yet to sample - so little time (sigh!)...

Saturday 20 November 2010

A Grass Pillow for My Head

Well, I was planning to plough through all my neglected reviews before moving on to new books, but as Robbie Burns pointed out, the best-laid plans of mice and men do, indeed, gang aft agley (especially when it comes to blogging - although I don't know many rodent reviewers myself).  Anyway, I finished a book yesterday and decided that I had to talk about it, and when that happens, you just have to grit your teeth, hit the keyboard, and hope that your body holds out; here goes...

The book which brought on this spontaneous bout of blogging is another novel by the father of Japanese literature, Natsume Soseki.  Translated by Meredith McKinney, Kusamakura (previously translated as The Three-Cornered World) means 'grass pillow' and is a short novel which is the epitome of what people imagine Japanese literature to be.  The main idea of the novel - you couldn't really call it a plot - is of an artist travelling through the wilds of Kyushu at the start of the twentieth century and staying at a hot springs inn while searching for inspiration for a picture.  He comes across Nami, the owner's daughter, and... that's pretty much it.  If you're looking for complications, you are definitely in the wrong place.

You see, Kusamakura, as with many Japanese novels, is more about the path than the destination.  While reading it, the expression 'poetry in prose' continually crossed my mind, and Natsume himself actually described this book (a sort of bridge between his humorous early works and his later, more serious, efforts) as a 'haiku novel' - which probably says more about the book than I could ever tell you ;)  It consists of thirteen short chapters, each around ten to twelve pages long, and I read it as it should be read, taking one chapter at a time, savouring the words, putting it to one side, and then coming back for another slice later.  This is a book for enjoying, not rushing.

The concepts expressed in the book revolve around a few central ideas: the examination of what an artist actually is and what they need to do to live artistically; the contrast between natural rural life and the fevered city existence most people have become accustomed to; and, more allegorically, the difference between the past and the present, East and West.  Soseki's unnamed protagonist is more than happy to just find the nearest rock and drink in the scenery as he ponders these mysteries, gazing into the distance and musing on the challenges of poetry and painting. 

This could get rather repetitive and mind-numbing in the hands of a lesser writer, but Natsume has a subtle and timely sense of humour, allowing his main character to laugh quietly at himself and prevent the thinking from becoming navel-gazing.  When his hero spends a page wondering what has happened to the other occupants of the inn, imagining them lost at sea in an impenetrable mist, or magically transformed into ethereal spirits, the final sentence of the paragraph:
"Whatever may be the case, it certainly is quiet" p.64, Penguin Classics (2008)
pulls us back to the real world with a thud!

One idea I loved was his musing that you don't actually have to create anything to be an artist.  Simply removing oneself consciously from worldly troubles and being able to appreciate nature's artistic qualities requires an artistic temperament; the actual work of art is simply the culmination of this idea (as a lazy writer, I find this idea far too tempting!).  Of course, on a sunny day, relaxing in the mountains (or lounging on the sofa), it's best not to overanalyse these things.  As Natsume himself says:
"To think is to sink into error." p.43

Another point where I am fully in agreement with the writer and his creation is where he discusses the delights of tea (no coffee for me or the characters in Kusamakura!):
"Tea is in fact a marvellous drink.  To those who spurn it on the grounds of insomnia, I say that it's better to be deprived of sleep than of tea." p.87
As you can tell from all these quotes I've provided (something I rarely take the pains to do), I loved this book.  It's less a novel or novella, and more a tract about living life artistically, the Tao of Kusamakura if you will.  I'm sure someone with a bit more energy than myself could create a new religion from Natsume's whimsical musings (and I'm sure it would be a good one), but that would actually defeat the object of removing oneself from daily life.

I'll finish today with a perfect example of how this book can constantly throw up surprises.  After going away for a stroll in the garden, I came back to read Chapter 9 - only to realise on completing it that it was actually Chapter 10...  When I eventually got around to reading the real Chapter 9, our fearless protagonist was conversing with Nami and explaining his method of reading novels, dipping into the book wherever he saw fit and reading a few pages with no context.  When challenged as to the logic of this method, he replies:
"If you say you have to start at the beginning, that means you have to read to the end." p.95
And that is what Kusamakura is all about...

Tuesday 16 November 2010

A Small Amount of Catching Up - Part 1

After a horrible bout of RSI and/or nasty neck pain (which made it very painful to both type and read), I am slowly getting back to fairly normal health - yay :)  So, it's time to catch you up with a little of what I have managed to read recently: slowly...

Of course, it's good to start the way you mean to go on, so my first mini-review will be a slating of Henry James' The Wings of the Dove.  Yes, yes, he's very clever, wonderful psychological treatment etc etc, but Henry James is everything that non-readers imagine classic literature to be - impenetrable, over-wordy, meandering and (most importantly) completely up itself.  I've tried with Mr. James, I really have, and there were times where I thought I was glimpsing the good in his writing; however, these few moments of enjoyment were drowned in the sludge of words and lack of momentum.  The story?  Sick rich girl has money, and everyone else wants it (but never actually says it of course).  Apologies to all James fans, but it's three strikes and out for old Henry - I just don't like his style...

Now someone whose style suits me a little better is Jun'ichiro Tanizaki, and after reading the wonderful Quicksand, I immediately snapped up a two-book edition on the Book Depository, the first of which was The Key (translated by Howard Hibbet).  This is a he-says-she-says novel with a difference as it is entirely constructed of extracts from the diaries of a man and his wife.  The extracts show the somewhat perverse turn their marriage takes when the husband decides to spice up their sex life with some rather unorthodox measures.  While both the husband and wife become aware of their spouse's diary, both strongly deny that they would ever actually look inside, thus violating their partner's privacy, but how much can we trust what they are telling us - and who are they really writing their diaries for?

The Key is another wonderful, slow-burning, sexually-charged story, and the idea is an intriguing one.  However, it's not as good as Quicksand and suffers a tad in comparison  The ending is definitely very similar, and it does appear to run out of steam a little, surprising for what is a fairly slim book.  I would also warn potential readers that it does contain a storyline that is actually quite shocking to...  Look, I'm getting onto very dodgy moral ground here, and I don't want to start any kind of cultural debate, so I'll tread lightly and just say that many people will find some of the actions the husband takes ever-so-slightly disturbing.  Let's move on...

Now, I do love a bit of Dostoyevsky, and Devils (translated by the famous Constance Garnett) is a lot more than a bit of Dostoyevsky.  Another rolling epic tale, it depicts events in a small rural town where a group of young anarchists is stirring up the locals, confusing the authorities and preparing for a particularly unspeakable crime.  It's based on a real event, and the novel is every bit as good as some of his more famous works, another wonderful combination of tight plotting, psychological suspense and well-written crucial scenes.

It's funny though that when people talk about Dostoyevsky, it's always as a brooding, masterful writer, someone who writes books to be waded through, akin to walking across a vast river of treacle, yet his books are often a joy to read.  As well as being real page turners, his novels can contain wonderful scenes of humour - yes, Dostoyevsky is funny!  The first part of Devils is especially amusing, culminating in a meeting where about a dozen of the main characters meet under unexpected and confusing circumstances, reminiscent more of Oscar Wilde than Tolstoy.  Of course, with the subject matter being what it is, things do take a turn for the more serious later, but never let it be said that Dostoyevsky neglected the lighter side of the art of literature...

So that's the first of my mini-catch-up pieces; there'll be more to come when I can bring myself to return to the computer.  Forgive the brevity and the shallowness of the reviews - hopefully there's something there to make it all worthwhile :)