Saturday, 17 October 2020

Reading women (3)

See part 1, in which I wrote about my reading of female authors and the call to read more women. 

See part 2, in which I talked at length about Murasaki Shikibu, and also discussed Edith Wharton and Carson McCullers. 

1/ I suppose it’s time to look at the works by women that I’ve read this year (not counting the Jane Austen re-reads): 

- Edith Wharton: The House of Mirth, The Custom of the Country, The Age of Innocence

- Daphne du Maurier: My Cousin Rachel

- Kate Chopin: “At the ‘Cadian Ball”, “The Storm”, “Désirée’s Baby”. 

- Willa Cather: “Neighbour Rosicky”, “The Sculptor’s Funeral”. 

- Carson McCullers: The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter

- Murasaki Shikibu: The Tale of Genji (trans. Royall Tyler), The Diary of Lady Murasaki (trans. Richard Bowring). 

- Sei Shonagon: The Pillow Book (trans. Meredith McKinney). 

- The daughter of Sugawara Takasue, also known as Lady Sarashina: Sarashina Nikki (retitled As I Crossed a Bridge of Dreams, trans. Ivan Morris). 

- Virginia Woolf: The Moment and Other Essays, The Death of the Moth and Other Essays, On Being Ill.  

- Susan Sontag: Against Interpretation, Illness as Metaphor

- Joan Didion: Slouching Towards Bethlehem, The White Album, Vintage Didion, The Year of Magical Thinking

The majority of them are newly discovered writers, except for Daphne du Maurier, Kate Chopin, and Virginia Woolf. 

Last year I didn’t get a new favourite writer (are you shocked, Rebecca fans?), this year I’ve got 2: Murasaki Shikibu and Edith Wharton. With Carson McCullers and Joan Didion, I don’t use the word “favourite” (yet) but I do like them. 

See my blog post comparing Edith Wharton to Jane Austen, and my post comparing her to other writers, specifically George Eliot and Henry James. 

Murasaki Shikibu remains the greatest and most important writer I’ve discovered this year (and perhaps over the past 5 years)—I don’t expect her to lose “the title” any time soon. I know many readers object to ranking writers and naming someone as the best, saying literature is not a competitive sport, but I do think that Murasaki is the greatest Japanese writer. Apart from the ones mentioned above, this year I’ve read Natsume Soseki (most highly acclaimed writer of modern Japan), Yasunari Kawabata, and Junichiro Tanizaki—The Tale of Genji surpasses them all in terms of scope, depth, complexity, and vision. But the greatness of the novel is not limited to only Japanese literature, I place Murasaki next to literary geniuses such as Tolstoy, Jane Austen, Flaubert, etc. and she writes about death and its impact in a way that I don’t find elsewhere. 

This blog post is perhaps another excuse of mine to praise and promote The Tale of Genji, as I do every once in a while, but it is neglected, it is overlooked, it is not often read and consequently almost never mentioned among the greatest novels of all time (as it should) and therefore not much read. The length is intimidating perhaps, and the distance in time might cause hesitation, but why read 20-30 other books, which would appear small in comparison, if you can spend that time reading a novel that has lasted a millennium, a novel that has lasted while almost everything else has faded into oblivion? 

I myself am glad I have read The Tale of Genji, and I hold Murasaki Shikibu close to my heart. 

2/ As I read modern essayists such as Susan Sontag and Joan Didion, both of whom have a strong persona on the page, I can’t help thinking of Sei Shonagon. A lot of The Pillow Book is gossip and she writes about all sorts of things, but Sei Shonagon speaks across 1000 years because of her overwhelming personality. 

3/ I’ve now read Sontag and Didion, 2 of the most iconic American essayists, always listed among the best. 

So far I’ve written a blog post about both of them, and one about Vintage Didion and Didion’s writings about politics. 

I do like Joan Didion and, as written before, she makes me rethink essay-writing. I also get a bit “protective” of her in possibly a strange way—perhaps there is something in what people say about Didion and young women (am I young?). If you have a look at The Year of Magical Thinking on the hellscape called goodreads, most of the negative reviews reek of bitterness and resentment and seem to hate her for being rich and privileged, as though being rich and privileged means that someone didn’t experience deep sorrows and wouldn’t deserve sympathy, or they complain about her name-dropping famous people and mentioning (expensive) trips, as though she should feel bad for being friends with important people in the media or in Hollywood, considering that she works in both. The trips they took, the food they ate, the places they went to… are mentioned in the memoir because they’re part of her life, part of the memories of her husband. The negative reviews also say that the book is “depressing, self-pitying, and whiney”, but what do these readers expect, picking up a book about the author’s husband’s sudden death while their daughter’s in ICU? 

Having said that, I was a bit underwhelmed by The Year of Magical Thinking. It is very good, and insightful, and very moving, I didn’t mind that it’s fragmentary, but I was underwhelmed perhaps because of the immense praises I read before reading the book. That probably says more about me than about the book itself. 

I don’t quite share lots of women’s worship of Joan Didion either (is it partly because I’m not American?). The writers I worship (or come closest to worshipping) are Jane Austen and Murasaki Shikibu (and the artist in Tolstoy—I still have troubles with some of his ideas). 

4/ Where does the myth come from, that women can’t write men? These novelists I’ve read create vividly alive male characters: Murasaki Shikibu (Genji, To no Chujo, Kaoru, Niou, Suzaku, Yugiri, Kashiwagi…), Edith Wharton (Simon Rosedale, Gus Trenor, Lawrence Selden, Ralph Marvell, Elmer Moffatt, Peter Van Degen, Newland Archer…), Carson McCullers (Dr Copeland, Jake Blount…), etc. Even Daphne du Maurier, who is generally read more for mood and atmosphere and mystery than for psychological insight, portrays very well the character of Philip, who presents himself as inexperienced and naïve but who is actually controlling, paranoid, and manipulative. 

There are some female writers that can’t write men just as there are some male writers that can’t write women, but there are plenty of female writers that write men well and vice versa. Jane Austen and George Eliot too are excellent at writing male characters. 

The most fascinating and remarkable one here is Murasaki Shikibu, as The Tale of Genji was a striking masterpiece built upon a very slight foundation. She might not go as far as Tolstoy or Flaubert in exploring human consciousness, understandably, but the major characters in The Tale of Genji are still complex, memorable, and fully alive, and we follow them over the course of a lifetime and watch them change over time. Murasaki Shikibu also works with hundreds of characters who are all distinct. Then in the Uji chapters (45-54), she focuses on a much narrower group of characters and delves even deeper into their minds. 

5/ You might ask, why did I decide to read more books by women this year? 

Because I wanted to. 

Generally speaking, I don’t necessarily prefer or feel closer to female writers than male writers, I don’t share lots of feminists’ obsession with gender (and hostility towards “dead white men”), and I don’t look at literature through the lens of feminism. I also think that complaints about numbers and percentages are often foolish—of course there are more great writers that are men, throughout history women didn’t get the same education and the same opportunities, women didn’t get the same respect. 

I wanted to read more books by women because I was, and am, interested in the female perspective. The phrase doesn’t mean that women all think the same—all the female writers I have read are very different, in style, in approach, in ideas. But men and women are different, because of biology and evolution as well as social factors (though of course good writers can write across gender), and I do notice that female writers generally have more sympathy (and pity) for female characters, even the frivolous, selfish, and mercenary ones, than male writers do. 

I embarked on this personal project hoping to discover great books by female writers, which I did. The most interesting part is that it helped me discover the Heian period, which seems to be unique in the history of literature in the way that women were at the time seen as inferior and therefore barred from writing Chinese and writing history/ non-fiction, it just so happened that over time women became instrumental in developing vernacular Japanese and developing Japan’s literature—Japan’s greatest literary work was written by a woman. 

That being said, The Tale of Genji should be read not just because it’s an important book by a woman, but because it’s a great book. It’s one of the greatest novels I’ve ever read.

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