Wednesday 30 September 2020

Non-fiction reads and discovery of Didion and Sontag

A list of essay collections and non-fiction books I’ve read lately: 

(Works by the same authors are grouped together, but the titles are in the order in which I read them). 

- James Wood: 

The Fun Stuff and Other Essays (2012)

- Virginia Woolf: 

The Moment and Other Essays (1947)

The Death of the Moth and Other Essays (1942)

On Being Ill (1930)

- Joan Didion:

Slouching Towards Bethlehem (1968) 

The White Album (1979) 

- Susan Sontag: 

Against Interpretation (1966) 

Illness as Metaphor (1978) 

I meant to take a break from reading fiction and from blogging, but perhaps I should jot down a few lines about these reads. 

James Wood and Virginia Woolf have always been two of my favourite literary critics and essayists, the others are new discoveries. It is a good thing that I read Joan Didion and Susan Sontag close to each other because Sontag wrote about the culture of the 60s and Didion also wrote about the 60s but focused on the counter-culture movement; Sontag wrote about the theoretical and the abstract whereas Didion wrote about people she met and things she saw. 

My feelings about Sontag are complicated—she is undeniably erudite and fascinating, she seems to have read everything in Western culture and writes with lots of authority, and has a strong persona on the page. Against Interpretation is an excellent essay collection and Illness as Metaphor has many interesting points and is understandably popular even if the book as a whole is a bit weak and confusing in its intentions. The problem with Sontag, by which I mean my problem with her personally, is that I blame her for promoting Camp, “bad taste”, and so on, which I see as partly responsible for postmodern art and certain trends in popular culture today, and Sontag has also said some crazy things such as the “white race” comment. It’s also hard to take her very seriously when she likes Marx and Freud and keeps mentioning them in Against Interpretation (even though each of her essays probably mentions about 50 different names). 

Joan Didion I do like. I have heard of her for years but never picked up her books—only did recently because I was curious about the joke that all female novelists are compared to Jane Austen and all female essayists are compared to Joan Didion. Like Austen, Didion is extremely popular (and perhaps often liked by the wrong people), which may similarly make her reputation appear suspicious, but she is very good. I like her sentences, she makes me rethink writing. I have very little interest in the 60s and 70s of America, even less in the hippies, but she’s good and I keep thinking about certain images in Slouching Towards Bethlehem or The White Album: image of the orchids, image of the horses and the birds in the Malibu fire, image of people temperamentally affected by the Santa Ana wind, image of the quick weddings and the waiter serving alcohol to everyone except the bride because she’s not old enough to drink, image of Didion herself in bed with a bad migraine, image of the 5-year-old on acid and another kid having almost set the house on fire while the adults in the house don’t notice as they’re trying to retrieve some good drugs that drop through the floorboards, and so on. 

Didion has a sharp eye and writes well and selects good, striking images, and there is a rhythm to her prose that I like. 

The White Album isn’t as interesting as Slouching Towards Bethlehem in subject matter, but I do love some of the essays in it like the “Women” essays (especially “The Women’s Movement”), “In Bed” (about her migraine, to which I can relate), and the one about the orchids and the Malibu fire.  

I should read more from Didion, especially The Year of Magical Thinking and Blue Nights

At the moment, I’m reading The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat by Oliver Sacks. Fascinating stuff. 

Sunday 13 September 2020

Snow Country

I’ve just got a kobo, and just finished the first book on it: Snow Country by Kawabata Yasunari, again translated by Edward G. Seidensticker. 
Snow Country was first serialised between 1935 and 1937, but Kawabata revised it several times afterwards and the novel reached its final form in 1948. For comparison, The Sound of the Mountain was serialised between 1949 and 1954. 

1/ Here is Seidensticker explaining the title and the location: 
“In the winter, cold winds blow down from Siberia, pick up moisture over the Japan Sea, and drop it as snow when they strike the mountains of Japan. The west coast of the main island of Japan is probably for its latitude (roughly, from Cape Hatteras to New York, or from Spanish Morocco to Barcelona) the snowiest region in the world. From December to April or May only the railroads are open, and the snow in the mountains is sometimes as much as fifteen feet deep.
The expression “snow country,” then, does not mean simply country where snow falls. It means very specifically the part of the main island that lies west of the central mountain range. It suggests long, gray winters, tunnels under the snow, dark houses with rafters black from the smoke of winter fires—and perhaps chilblains, or, to the more imaginative, life divorced from time through the long snowbound months.” (introduction) 
The attractions of this region are the hot springs (onsen) with their geisha and masseuses—it’s a place for unaccompanied men. The novel is about one such man, Shimamura, with a geisha named Komako. Kawabata writes about the sad fate of the hot spring geisha, who may fall in love with a visitor who might never come back. 

2/ There are more scenery descriptions in Snow Country than in The Sound of the Mountain
“The mountain sky still carried traces of evening red. Individual shapes were clear far into the distance, but the monotonous mountain landscape, undistinguished for mile after mile, seemed all the more undistinguished for having lost its last traces of color. There was nothing in it to catch the eye, and it seemed to flow along in a wide, unformed emotion. That was of course because the girl’s face was floating over it. Cut off by the face, the evening landscape moved steadily by around its outlines.” (P.1) 
An interesting image. That is the landscape as seen by Shimamura through the train window, reflecting Yoko’s face, who is sitting diagonally across from him. 
This is a good passage: 
“It was a stern night landscape. The sound of the freezing of the snow over the land seemed to roar deep into the earth. There was no moon. The stars, almost too many of them to be true, came forward so brightly that it was as if they were falling with the swiftness of the void. As the stars came nearer, the sky retreated deeper and deeper into the night color. The layers of the Border Range, indistinguishable one from another, cast their heaviness at the skirt of the starry sky in a blackness grave and somber enough to communicate their mass. The whole of the night scene came together in a clear, tranquil harmony.” (ibid.) 
Or this one: 
“The color of the evening had already fallen on the mountain valley, early buried in the shadows. Out of the dusk the distant mountains, still reflecting the light of the evening sun, seemed to have come much nearer. 
Presently, as the mountain chasms were far and near, high and low, the shadows in them began to deepen, and the sky was red over the snowy mountains, bathed now in but a wan light.” (ibid.)
I like that. Snow Country is full of poetic passages. The location helps, perhaps. 

3/ This is the music teacher’s house, where Komako lives: 
“The walls had been industriously pasted over with rice paper, so that the effect was rather like the inside of an old-fashioned paper box; but overhead was only the bare roof sloping down toward the window, as if a dark loneliness had settled itself over the room. Wondering what might be on the other side of the wall, Shimamura had the uneasy feeling that he was suspended in a void…” (ibid.)

4/ A sense of melancholy and stagnation permeates Snow Country. Shimamura as a character isn’t very interesting, but Komako is—as a hot spring geisha in the north-country, she is trapped, and she knows that her love for Shimamura would lead nowhere. She is intriguing, as she is seen by Shimamura—Kawabata makes us wonder about her, and want to know more about her. 
As a writer, Kawabata creates more questions than answers, and leaves out a lot. We know Shimamura is an idler who inherits his money, and a dilettante who reads and writes about Western ballet but has never seen it, but we don’t know much more about him. We know he has a wife and some children that he sometimes leaves in Tokyo to visit Komako at the hot springs, but know nothing about them. Thus there are 3 women in his life—his wife, Komako, and Yoko, another woman in snow country, but the wife never appears, Yoko is mostly kept at distance and there is little information about her and her relationship with Komako or with the music teacher’s son, and Komako, whom we see most clearly in the novel, is seen through Shimamura’s eyes, thus there is also a lot we don’t know about her life and her inner world. 
Compared to Shingo in The Sound of the Mountain, Shimamura is portrayed less sympathetically—he is colder, incapable of love, and more sensitive to the beauty of nature than to human feelings. But both are passive and impotent. In both books, the women are more interesting. 
I’m starting to think that perhaps there’s something in what Edwin McClellan says about the impressionistic tendency in (some) modern Japanese writers, and the lack of individuality and force in characterisation. Maybe I’ll change my mind when I read more. So far I’ve read Kokoro by Soseki, Some Prefer Nettles by Tanizaki, The Sound of the Mountain and now Snow Country by Kawabata, and these writers all have different styles, but I’ve noticed that in all of them, especially in Kawabata and Tanizaki, the characters are distinct enough, but they don’t have the same kind of vividness, the same kind of depth and complexity and force as characters in Western novels (specifically British, Russian, American, and French—the ones I know). They’re partly hidden by some kind of mist. Just compare Snow Country or Some Prefer Nettles to The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter, for example, which was published in 1940. 
I’m not saying that this makes Japanese novels inferior to novels of the West—it’s an observation, a comment on the differences. It’s about aesthetics, or perhaps the way of seeing the world. 
Snow Country focuses more on the region, and on the general mood—the sadness and stagnation and gloom. At this, I think it does better than The Sound of the Mountain

5/ Even better than the poetic passages about the landscape are these passages about insect deaths: 
“Each day, as the autumn grew colder, insects died on the floor of his room. Stiff-winged insects fell on their backs and were unable to get to their feet again. A bee walked a little and collapsed, walked a little and collapsed. It was a quiet death that came with the change of seasons. Looking closely, however, Shimamura could see that the legs and feelers were trembling in the struggle to live. For such a tiny death, the empty eight-mat room seemed enormous.” (P.2) 
Shimamura picks up a dead insect and for an instant thinks of the children he left in Tokyo. 
“A moth on the screen was still for a very long time. It too was dead, and it fell to the earth like a dead leaf. Occasionally a moth fell from the wall. Taking it up in his hand, Shimamura would wonder how to account for such beauty. 
The screens were removed, and the singing of the insects was more subdued and lonely day by day.” (ibid.)  
What’s a better way to convey the transience of life? 
That passage echoes another moth’s death earlier in part 2 of the novel: 
“A moth so still that it might have been glued there clung to one of the screens. Its feelers stood out like delicate wool, the color of cedar bark, and its wings, the length of a woman’s finger, were a pale, almost diaphanous green. […] That one spot of pale green stuck him oddly like the color of death. The fore and after wings overlapped to make a deeper green, and the wings fluttered like thin pieces of paper in the autumn wind. 
Wondering if the moth was alive, Shimamura went over to the window and rubbed his finger over the inside of the screen. The moth did not move. He struck at it with his fist, and it fell like a leaf from a tree, floating lightly up midway to the ground.” (ibid.) 
Does anyone else write about insects like that? That’s a great passage. 
Right after that, Kawabata contrasts the image of death with an image of life: 
“In front of the cedar opposite, dragonflies were bobbing about in countless swarms, like dandelion floss in the wind.” (ibid.) 

6/ Why did I not expect a human’s fall later on in the novel? 
The fire, with the image of the Milky Way, is an excellent scene.  

Friday 11 September 2020

Some Prefer Nettles: images, themes, women

1/ I don’t have much to say about Tanizaki’s prose (in Seidensticker’s translation). Some Prefer Nettles is mostly dialogue and Kaname’s thoughts and long passages about Japan or bunraku puppets. But once in a while there’s an interesting sentence. 
“The sea, clear into the distance, was so bright a blue that it turned black as one stared at it. Even the smoke from the ships seemed motionless. Now and then, with the faintest breath of a breeze, the leaflet stirred very lightly and a tear in the paper door rustled like a kite.” (Ch.10) 
Or this passage, when Kaname thinks about that time he went to the pantomimes at the Mibu temple in Kyoto. 
“The lazy warmth of spring bathed the temple precincts, and in the stands he felt a pleasant drowsiness came over him. […] It was as if a hundred formless and uncollected dreams were passing through his mind, the dreaming and the waking fused one into the other… Call it a taste of the joys of great peace, call it a transport to some fairyland, it was a feeling of serene removal from the world such as Kaname had not felt since the day he had been taken, still a child, to see the Kagura dancing at the Shrine of the Sea God in the old downtown section of Tokyo.” (Ch.11) 
The mood comes over him again at the puppet theatre. 
“Here and there a patch of blue sky showed, or a stretch of waving, rustling grass down toward the river. When another theater would have been dark with tobacco smoke, this one was fresh as the out-of-doors, and a spring breeze came in over meadows bright with dandelions and the mauve of clover.” (ibid.) 
I like that.
This is a passage later during the day, also at the puppet theatre in Awaji: 
“… the sunlight showed no sign of fading, and through the chinks in the mats the blue sky still shone as happily as in the morning. It hardly seemed necessary to worry about the plot. Just to lose oneself in the movements of the puppets was enough, and the disorderliness of the audience was no hindrance. Rather the myriad noises and myriad colors combined into a brightness, a liveliness, like a kaleidoscope pointed into the sun, and the eye took from them an over-all harmony.” (ibid.) 
The first 4 sentences are not remarkable, but the last one in that passage has an interesting image. 

2/ See this description when Kaname’s on a ship. 
“Waves danced and shimmered across the ceiling, the serenity of spring on the Inland Sea reflected blue into the softly lighted room. Now and then, as the shadow of an island passed, a smell compounded of flowers and the tide seemed to press stealthily in on him.” (Ch.12) 

3/ The idea of performance runs through the entire novel. In the background we have the bunraku puppets, contrasting between the Osaka ones in the theatre and the larger Awaji ones performed outdoors, which are fascinating. In the foreground are the characters acting. 
Kaname and Misako put on a performance as husband and wife in the presence of people who don’t know about their open marriage, including their son Hiroshi. Hiroshi, they think, also puts on a performance—he senses that something’s not right, but goes along with it and pretends that everything is fine.
Misako in a way also puts on a performance when she’s alone with Kaname—she can’t be herself anymore. 
Kaname sees his mistress Louise crying about her circumstances and asking for money as a performance. He even thinks: 
“The dramatic bill of complaints, however, with its straining and its storming, contained enough comedy to dispel the threat.” (ibid.)  

4/ Is it not curious that Misako’s father doesn’t have a name? He’s known as “the old man” for the entire novel. 

5/ The theme about women in the novel is interesting. 
As I wrote in the previous blog post, Kaname divides women into 2 types—the mother type and the courtesan type, and he thinks a woman has to be either a goddess or a plaything. 
Here’s more: 
“A sensitive woman, a woman with ideas, can only get more troublesome and less likable with the years. Surely, then, one does better to fall in love with the soft of woman one can cherish as a doll.” (Ch.12)  
That is his conclusion after watching the old man with his geisha, O-hisa. 
See what Kaname thinks about his lover Louise, a Eurasian prostitute who is meant to be half Russian half Korean: 
“As a matter of fact, though, it had been the dark glow of her skin, with its faint suggestion of impurity, that had attracted Kaname…” (ibid.) 
I’ll let you judge. 
“Had anyone asked about the attachment, he would have said that he found it safest for secret debauchery to go to a house that rarely admitted Japanese, that Mrs Brent’s was cheaper and less time-consuming than a Japanese teahouse, that after he and a woman had been behaving like animals it was somehow easier for them to forget, less damaging to their pride, when they were foreigners to each other.” (ibid.) 
2 sentences later: 
“But, for all that he tried to think of her as no more significant than a beautiful, furry, four-legged beast, Kaname felt in her something that suggested the gladness and exuberance of certain Lamaist statues.” (ibid.) 
Kaname is what the kids would call problematic.
Would I say so about the author, or at least, the book? Probably not.
In Kaname-Misako marriage, Tanizaki does highlight the importance of sex in marriage—Kaname has no hostility towards his wife and in fact can think of her as a friend as they have much in common, he just no longer gets excited by her sexually; Misako suffers in a sexless marriage, then gets a lover; Kaname accepts it, and creates rules for an open marriage and a trial run; they spend most of the novel deciding on when and whether to get a divorce. Tanizaki also depicts Misako as neither a goddess nor a plaything—she’s her own person, with her own ideas. She makes up her own mind to get a divorce, even if there’s no guarantee that she would be with Aso for the rest of her life (which appears shocking to the cousin).  
Louise doesn’t feature much in the novel—the blurb was misleading, as she doesn’t appear until ch.12 and Some Prefer Nettles has 14 chapters. 
What about O-hisa? 
“[The old man] lavished affection on her as on his principal treasure. He trained her in the arts, in cooking, in dress, wherever it was possible to cultivate and refine her […]. O-hisa was allowed to see only puppet shows and to eat only insubstantial Japanese delicacies, and it was hard to believe that she was really satisfied with no more. Now and then she must want to see a movie or to eat a beefsteak.” (Ch.9) 
Kaname’s father-in-law has extreme ideas about doing everything the traditional Japanese way, so he trains her in everything, makes her learn singing and playing the samisen, forces her to read “old dusty books”, dresses her up as a pilgrim, brings her with him to see the Awaji puppet theatre, and picks an uncomfortable area at the theatre because it’s the best spot (ignoring her discomfort), insists on her using the traditional Kyoto bathtub (smaller than the Tokyo bathtub and not as white and bright as the Western one) and not using soap, and so on and so forth. He has her in perfect control and tries to shape her into his ideal woman. 
Slowly Kaname wants to have his own O-hisa—“not this particular O-hisa, ministering to the old man here, but another who belonged to ‘type O-hisa’.” (Ch.14) 
To the old man, and perhaps to Kaname, O-hisa seems to be the perfect woman, satisfying his every whim. However, Tanizaki also shows, in small details here and there, that she’s not quite “converted”—on the surface she does everything the old man wants, but deep down she has little interest in all the things he forces on her. She doesn’t turn into a different person. 

This is a good read.   

Wednesday 9 September 2020

Some Prefer Nettles: first impressions, East vs West, 2 types of women

1/ Here is the blurb of Some Prefer Nettles by Junichiro Tanizaki: 
“Kaname, a young man from Tokyo, escapes from a loveless marriage into the arms of Louisa, a Eurasian prostitute, tactfully permitting his wife to take a lover. His father-in-law, sensing that the marriage is failing, tries to revitalize it by drawing the couple into an appreciation of classical Japanese arts, especially the puppet theater, which Tanizaki describes magnificently. Kaname’s conflict—whether to embrace the traditional aesthetic and emotional satisfactions that are the mainstay of Japanese culture or to accept the more superficial westernized ways represented by Louisa—is symbolized by the parallels between the puppets of the traditional Japanese theater and the human puppets of the domestic conflict…” 
That looks like a good thing to read after The Sound of the Mountain. Even though they’re a few decades apart—the Kawabata novel was serialised between 1949 and 1954 and Some Prefer Nettles was published in 1929, they share several themes in common: a failing marriage, relationship between two generations, and the clash between East and West, old and new.  
The subject of East vs West has never bothered me much personally, as I embrace both in me, but it is interesting in the context of Japan. Compared to Vietnam, their contact with the West was very different—Japan wasn’t colonised, but was deliberately learning from the West. Several years ago I even read Yukichi Fukuzawa’s autobiography—as Vietnam is still an authoritarian regime and in many ways still under Chinese influence, I’m fascinated by Japan deciding to break out of Chinese influence, learn from the West, adopt modern technology and certain values from the West. Today Japan is one of the most modern countries in the world in terms of technology, but still has a strong, rich culture and tradition—in certain aspects, I think Japan is even more traditional and oppressive than Vietnam (such as gender relations). 
I suppose it’s the high contrast between modernity and tradition in Japan that many foreigners find fascinating. 
It’s therefore interesting to read Japanese writers writing about the East vs West conflict in the early 20th century.  

2/ The blurb is probably unclear—what does an appreciation of classical Japanese arts have to do with saving a marriage? The idea is that Misako’s father (Kaname’s father-in-law) seems to think that the marriage is falling apart because of Western influences—Kaname thinks he is a modern man, they are having a modern marriage, and now they’re contemplating a divorce. 

3/ Chapter 2 has a passage comparing the Japanese bunraku puppets and the Western string puppets. 
In chapter 3, through Kaname, Tanizaki talks about the differences between Tokyo people and Osaka people (to the reserved Tokyo natives, Osaka is associated with the merchant class—loud, coarse, forward, and impudent). There’s an interesting passage about the Japanese tastes. 
“… pure Japanese tastes, such as the old man’s, were dominated by the standards of the Edo period, the period of the two and a half centuries before the Restoration of 1868, and Kaname simply did not like the Edo period. […] Edo culture was colored through and through with the crassness of the merchant class, and no matter where one turned, one could not escape the scent of the market place. […] the very fact that he was a child of the merchants’ quarter made him especially sensitive to its inadequacies, to its vulgarity and its preoccupation with the material. He reacted from it toward the sublime and the ideal.” 
“Kaname had an intense feeling of loneliness and deprivation when he thought of the emotional life of the Japanese, so lacking in this particular feeling of worshipfulness. Ancient Japanese court literature and the drama of the feudal ages, with Buddhism a strong and living force behind it, had in its classical dignity something of what he sought, but with the Edo shogunate and the decline of Buddhism even that disappeared.” (ibid.) 
The translation is by Edward G. Seidensticker. 
This is very interesting. Is it true? I have no idea, knowing nothing about Edo culture. But there might be something there. 
Tanizaki wrote Some Prefer Nettles before translating The Tale of Genji into modern Japanese. Having read nothing else by him, I wonder if his writing changes after Genji.  

4/ For whatever reasons, I have always grouped Kawabata and Tanizaki together in my mind, separate from Soseki. That hasn’t changed. 
While Soseki begins Kokoro by introducing the main focus (Sensei) and where the narrator first meets him (Kamakura), Kawabata in The Sound of the Mountain and Tanizaki in Some Prefer Nettles both throw the reader into the middle of a scene, the middle of a conversation. Then the story slowly unfolds, and they start introducing the characters and their relationship with each other. 
Both the Kawabata and the Tanizaki have lots of dialogue, but Kawabata pays more attention to nature, and The Sound of the Mountain is more meditative. Some Prefer Nettles especially has more dialogue after a cousin named Takanatsu Hideo (Japanese order) enters the scene to help Kaname and Misako come to a decision regarding the divorce—for instance, in chapter 6, there are more than 2 pages of dialogue about a dog’s throat. 

5/ As Kaname says to Takanatsu, he divides women in 2 types: the courtesan type and the mother type. 
“For Kaname a woman had to be either a goddess or a plaything. Possibly the real reason for his failure with Misako was that she could be neither.” (Ch.8)
That’s not a very healthy way to look at women, is it? 
Tanizaki uses dialogue to contrast between Misako in Kaname’s presence and Misako when she talks to Takanatsu alone. When her husband’s not there, she seems livelier, more animated, more comfortable with herself. 
To my surprise, Kaname doesn’t look at women the way Shingo in Kawabata’s novel does—he doesn’t seem obsessed with breasts, at least so far. 

6/ For Tanizaki’s reputation, the writing in the novel so far is rather tame. But perhaps the subject matter was shocking at the time—Kaname withdraws from his wife sexually and after a while accepts her getting a lover (making the marriage open), even though they have a small son called Hiroshi. 
A large part of the novel seems to be about them hesitating about getting a divorce. 

Monday 7 September 2020

The Sound of the Mountain: characters, style, tone

1/ Shingo, the main character of the novel, is generally portrayed sympathetically but he’s not always likable. He’s not very tactful. 
For example, while talking to his wife Yasuko about an old couple in the news who go off to die, he notes that the husband leaves a note but the wife doesn’t, and then turns to his daughter-in-law Kikuko to ask that if she and Shuichi committed suicide together, whether she would leave a note. That’s not very nice to ask, is it? Especially when Kikuko and Shuichi don’t have a good marriage. 
In the previous blog post, I wrote about a scene in which his daughter Fusako had an outburst of feeling, but he said nothing to console her or clear the misunderstanding. 
In another scene, Shingo talks to Fusako of his past love, Yasuko’s dead sister, and remarks that she was very beautiful, one wouldn’t know that she and Yasuko were sisters. That’s not the right thing to say to your daughter about her mother, or am I sensitive? 
Kawabata writes well the feelings of an aged man who doesn’t feel much for his wife and children—the love of his life is long dead, and now he’s yearning for his daughter-in-law, whom he cannot have. 

2/ Freudians would probably have lots of fun with The Sound of the Mountain—the dreams and Shingo’s obsession with breasts all show his repression, frustration, and loneliness. 
There’s even a scene where Shingo almost kisses a Noh mask. 

3/ Is Kikuko too perfect, or does she appear perfect because she’s seen by Shingo? 

4/ Shingo is the main character and the novel focuses on his perspective, but he is passive. Perhaps he has the reticence and reservation of an old Japanese man, but he is passive, compared to other characters, especially the women. He doesn’t do anything about Fusako’s failed marriage. He doesn’t do much about Shuichi cheating on Kikuko either—when he speaks to Shuichi, his is a mild objection; when he addresses it with Kikuko, he doesn’t name the action but only says Shuichi is the way he is. 
His wife Yasuko is more forthright than him, and several times tells him to ask Fusako, Shuichi, or Kikuko questions. Fusako once or twice speaks her feelings, which doesn’t get a response from him—he holds things back, and generally keeps his feelings to himself. 
Eiko, his secretary, whom he reduces in his mind to a girl with small breasts, is in some sense perhaps the most active character in the novel, as she’s the one who talks to Shingo about Shuichi’s mistress Kinu, she’s the one who brings Kinu’s friend Mrs Ikeda and then quits the office, she’s the one who tries to get Kinu to end it with Shuichi, then she’s also the one who comes to Shingo to tell him that Shuichi takes money from Kinu to give Kikuko for the abortion. 
Even Kikuko, who shares the same kind of reservation and quietness, is more active than Shingo, as she chooses to have an abortion, which is a big decision and a shocking act.  
The passivity (or just lack of involvement?) does explain why the daughter and the son turn out the way they are, however. 

5/ Shingo’s interaction with Shuichi’s mistress Kinu is interesting. Her name is actually Kinuko, but Seidensticker shortens it to avoid confusion, with Kawabata’s permission. Next to her, Shingo is so weak, so inept, perhaps even pathetic. 
It is a bit hard to see why someone like her, who appears to be independent and strong-willed, has an affair with Shuichi—what does she see in him? And what does Kikuko see in him? 
Shuichi is a rather pale, colourless character. He’s meant to be a selfish, philandering man, who is callous to his wife and can be violent to his mistress, and Shingo starts to recognise the moral decay and lack of discipline in him, but the character himself doesn’t appear very clear and vivid. Shuichi isn’t quite alive.  

6/ Shingo’s main interest is in nature—trees, plants, flowers, the mountain, the wind, birds, insects… This is something he shares with Kikuko. Because he is interested in nature, the character becomes more interesting, as he seems passive and languid in his relationships. 

7/ Soseki’s Kokoro was published in 1914 (Meiji era) whereas The Sound of the Mountain was serialised between 1949 and 1954 (post-war), and the 2 novels are very different in style, but both of them deal with differences between generations, the Westernisation of Japan, and an old man’s response to a rapidly changing society, among other themes. Perhaps it’s a common theme for the Japanese novel in the 20th century? I have no idea. 
Kawabata’s novel is not only about an old man meditating on aging and death, and observing his family members, but it’s also about him observing the changes in society around him. Kikuko gets Shingo an electric razor, for instance, and he and Yasuko talk about getting a fridge, a vacuum cleaner, or a washing machine—they don’t have anything modern in the house. Yasuko remarks that Kikuko doesn’t know that giving someone a comb as a present means cutting off relations.  
Shingo also observes other changes like the new kind of prostitutes, or the differences between him and later generations. 
However, it doesn’t seem to be a great, serious conflict as in Kokoro. Kokoro shows some devastating things when a character is torn between tradition/ aspirations and individualism/ pursuit of personal happiness. It is intense. The Sound of the Mountain is a quiet novel. 

8/ Tom at Wuthering Expectations wrote this about The Makioka Sisters by Tanizaki: 
“What struck me the most was the evenness of the tone.  Every event is told with the same emphasis.  The flood, a natural disaster that killed hundreds, receives more pages but the same rhetorical weight as a meal at a favorite sushi restaurant.” (full post
I think the same can be said about The Sound of the Mountain though it’s not the same author (for context, The Makioka Sisters was serialised between 1943 and 1948). The abortion has an emotional impact on everyone in the family but receives the same rhetorical weight as Shingo’s various dreams, his encounters with childhood friends, or his observations of the plants and birds around the house. The dramatic impact of the event is much reduced because Kawabata drops earlier on in the story the news about Eugenics law in Japan and teenage girls getting an abortion, then Shingo has a related dream, then some time afterwards he has suspicions about the abortion, so by the time the news comes out, it barely has much impact. 
Normally the news of the teenage girls and the dream should be foreshadowing, but because of the evenness in tone, the events all seem to be “equal”. 
It’s the same thing with the suicide and the news of the other pregnancy. They might be a bit sudden, but don’t appear shocking or impactful—Kawabata doesn’t give them more emphasis than he does other things that happen in the story. It’s all told in a quiet way, and I don’t think there’s anything like a high point in the narrative. 
You cannot say the same about Kokoro. The first part of the novel is driven by a mystery—by the young student’s curiosity about Sensei, inability to understand him, and a strong desire to penetrate the barriers to his heart. The arrival of Sensei’s letter at the end of the first part is a strong dramatic moment, especially when the student sees the final lines. The second part of Kokoro, narrated by Sensei, has a different tone and different voice, and different events get different levels of emphasis—K’s appearance gets more emphasis than Sensei taking lodgings at the house, for instance, the tension and intensity also increase as Sensei becomes more tortured with jealousy and suspicions, and there is of course a strong dramatic event in Sensei’s testament.  

9/ Then the novel ends, without any kind of ending or resolution. Is it a Japanese thing, to have an inconclusive ending? 
In a way, it almost seems to suggest a new beginning, a new book even—as the book ends, Fusako asks her father to open a shop but he says he’ll think about it; there’s uncertainty about her and the children as Shingo and his wife discuss their future; Shuichi’s affair ends but there’s also uncertainty about his marriage with Kikuko, in the way both of them talk about it; there’s ardour in the way Kikuko talks about taking care of Shingo, in which he senses some danger; Fusako still seems jealous of Kikuko; and we don’t know what would happen with the unborn baby.  
The Tale of Genji has an open ending but at least I can get an idea of what would happen (Kaoru wouldn’t give up, and either way it would be bad for Ukifune), but here, there’s no way to tell what would happen. The novel just ends. 

Friday 4 September 2020

The Sound of the Mountain: first impressions of Kawabata

1/ After Kokoro, I read 3 other books, without blogging about them: Sarashina Nikki or As I Crossed a Bridge of Dreams by a lady known as Takasue’s daughter (translated by Ivan Morris), Stiff Upper Lip, Jeeves by P. G. Wodehouse, and The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes by Arthur Conan Doyle (a reread, but this time in English). 
I’m now returning to Japanese literature with The Sound of the Mountain by Yasunari Kawabata, translated by Edward G. Seidensticker. Kawabata writes in short, sparse sentences. The prose is not as bare as Soseki’s in Kokoro in terms of descriptions but there is an intensity to Soseki’s writing that isn’t here—Kawabata’s style is more quiet and restrained. 
The novel is about an old man named Ogata Shingo (name in Japanese order), as he looks back on his life and examines his relationships with his family members. Shingo has lived for a long time with his wife Yasuko but never truly loves her, and only married her because of the death of his love, who was her more beautiful sister that he cannot forget. Shingo cannot communicate with either of his children, and both of them fail in their marriages—the daughter Fusako leaves her husband and returns home with 2 children, and the son Shuichi has an affair, leaving his wife Kikuko at home. 
As Shingo experiences lapses of memory, has disturbing dreams about dead people while feeling distant from his living family members, and keeps hearing the sound of the mountain, which he takes to be an omen of his impending death, the only person who can bring some joy to his life is his daughter-in-law Kikuko. However, Shingo doesn’t talk to her about Shuichi’s affairs. 

2/ Look at the section named “The Cherry in the Winter”: 
“On New Year’s Day the occidental way of reckoning ages became official. Shingo was therefore sixty-one. Yasuko sixty-two.” 
This is expanded on later, as the old people watch Satoko, Fusako’s daughter. 
“Yasuko listened. ‘It gives you a strange feeling, doesn’t it? She should be five this year, and all of a sudden she’s three. It doesn’t make all that much difference for me, shifting from sixty-four to sixty-two.’ 
‘But there’s something you haven’t thought of. My birthday comes before yours, and for a while then we’ll be the same age. From my birthday to yours.’ 
Yasuko seemed aware of the fact for the first time. 
‘Quite a discovery. Once in a lifetime.’ 
‘Maybe so’, muttered Yasuko. ‘But it doesn’t do much good to start being the same age this late in life.’” 
Is that not an interesting passage? When my grandma passed away, she was 81 in the Western way of reckoning ages, and 83 in the Eastern way. 
A sudden shift from one system to another is quite something else. 

3/ It is tempting to compare The Sound of the Mountain and Wild Strawberries, because of the similar themes of old age, life and death, family relationships, and failures. However, Shingo is portrayed more sympathetically—he is a good man, ineffectual and distant perhaps, but not as cold and egoistic as Isak Borg. Kawabata’s novel is also understated, and gentler. 
For example, in this passage in “Water in the Morning”, Shingo starts suggesting to his wife that Shuichi and Kikuko live away from them, because he thinks that perhaps Shuichi would be less likely to leave Kikuko at home alone to go to his mistress. 
“‘I’m thinking of having them live away from us,’ he said in a low voice. 
‘Away from us?’ 
‘Don’t you think that would be better?’ 
‘Maybe. If Fusako is going to stay on.’ 
‘I’ll leave, Mother, if it’s a question of living away from you.’ Fusako got out of bed. ‘I’ll move out. Isn’t that the thing to do?’ 
‘It has nothing to do with you,’ Shingo half snarled at her. 
‘It does have something to do with me. A great deal, in fact. When Aihara said that you made me what I am by not liking me, I almost choked. I’ve never been so hurt in my life.’ 
‘Control yourself, control yourself. Here you are in your thirties.’ 
‘I can’t control myself because I have no place to control myself in.’ 
Fusako brought together her night kimono over her rich breasts. 
Shingo got up wearily. ‘Let’s go to bed, Granny.’” 
(Aihara is Fusako’s husband). 
The conversation ends. In Wild Strawberries, there are several conversations, between Isak Borg and his daughter-in-law, or between her and her husband, in which they are brutally honest to each other and the speaker just coldly dissects the listener’s weaknesses and cruelties—Bergman doesn’t hold back in his examination of people’s egotism and hypocrisy, and their troubled relationships. In The Sound of the Mountain, Kawabata takes a different approach—for once, Fusako speaks of her hurt feelings but the conversation doesn’t go any further, she doesn’t speak more, and Shingo neither clears the misunderstanding nor reassures her of his fatherly love. 
In a quiet way, Kawabata gives us a glimpse of the father-daughter relationship from Fusako’s point of view. Earlier, we have seen that she leaves her husband for some relatives’ house, instead of going home to her parents. Now we can see it more clearly. 
As Shingo and his daughter cannot communicate, the problem is never resolved. 

4/ Did you notice the phrase “her rich breasts”, which looked rather out of place in the passage above? I can’t help noticing that breasts are mentioned lots of times throughout the book—there’s a fixation on breasts, mostly Fusako’s and Eiko’s. I can barely visualise Eiko, who is Shingo’s secretary and Shuichi’s friend, and knows the mistress. In Shingo’s mind, she’s mostly associated with small breasts. 

5/ In the section “The Voice in the Night”, Shingo is waken up by Shuichi’s voice calling “Kikuko-o-oh” in the night. 
“Shuichi seemed to be calling out in heart-broken love and in sorrow. It was the voice of one for whom there is nothing else. The groaning was like a child calling out for its mother in a moment of pain and sorrow, or of mortal fear. And it seemed to come from depths of guilt. Shuichi was calling out to Kikuko, seeking to endear himself to her, with a heart that lay cruelly naked. Perhaps, his drunkenness his excuse, he called out in a voice that begged for affection, thinking he could not be heard. And it was as if he were doing reverence to her.” 
Does it not sound like Marlon Brando as Stanley Kowalski, crying “Stellaaa!” in A Streetcar Named Desire