Saturday 24 October 2020

The Woman in the Dunes: themes

1/ In the previous blog post, I wrote about a rough sex scene in The Woman in the Dunes

Near the end of the novel, there’s a rape attempt that I’m not going to quote here. 

Unpleasantness aside, I note that the first time Kobo Abe describes Niki Jumpei and the woman having sex, he goes on a long rant about spiritual rape and psychological venereal disease and the Mobius man and all such theoretical gibberish; the second time it’s rough, aggressive sex that is cut off because the woman’s in pain; and the third time it’s not sex but a rape attempt in front of an audience. No affection, no passion. The sex is always devoid of pleasure.

The teacher also becomes worse and worse over time—more selfish, more irrational and thoughtless, more violent and brutal, and more like an animal. His life is gradually reduced to basic needs, and he slowly turns into an animal. 

Look at this moment when he’s caught by the villagers because he sinks in the sand and has to yell for help: 

“His dreams, desperation, shame, concern with appearances—all were buried in the sand. And so, he was completely unmoved when their hands touched his shoulders. If they had ordered him to, he would have dropped his trousers and defecated before their very eyes.” (Ch.26) 

That is intense. 

It’s not surprising that a few chapters later, he’s so desperate to be allowed to go out of the hole and breathe some fresh air that he’s willing to have sex with the woman in front of the villagers, and when she doesn’t want to do so, he forces himself on her. After several months at the bottom of the sand dune, he no longer has any sense of privacy, any sense of dignity and shame. 

2/ People generally talk about existentialist themes in The Woman in the Dunes, and in a way I can see why. Take this passage, when Niki Jumpei’s looking at a newspaper: 

“There wasn’t a single item of importance. A tower of illusion, all of it, made of illusory bricks and full of holes. If life were made up only of important things, it really would be a dangerous house of glass, scarcely to be handled carelessly. But every day was exactly like the headlines. And so everybody, knowing the meaninglessness of existence, sets the center of his compass at his own home.” (Ch.13) 

His life in the dunes is repetitive and meaningless, but wasn’t his life repetitive and meaningless before, as a teacher? Weekend every 7 days, exams every few months, and so on and so forth.

The novel also explores ideas such as existentialist angst, alienation, identity, despair, etc. 

What I find a lot more interesting is the theme of bondage and exploitation, and the relationship between him and the village, or rather, the complete control the village has over him—they’re always watching, they always have the advantage, and they always win. This is a job that he has never chosen, which turns into lifelong servitude, a job that yields nothing useful, nothing beneficial for society. 

3/ Look at this scene, after Niki Jumpei’s attempt to escape. The woman is outside shovelling sand, he is in the house watching a spider near the lamp, which he doesn’t understand—why would a spider be drawn to a lamp? Then a moth appears, attracted to the light, and Niki Jumpei, like the jerk that he is, burns it with his cigarette and the spider happily grabs the moth. 

“He had not known there were spiders like this. How clever to use the lamp in place of a web. In a web it could only wait passively, but with the lamp it could engage its prey. However, a suitable light was the prerequisite of the method. It was impossible to get such a light naturally. […] Could this be a new species of spider, then, that had developed its instincts by evolving with man? […] But, in that case, how could you explain the attraction of a moth for light?” (Ch.27) 

He then goes on: 

“If a law appeared without reason, like this, what could one believe in?” (ibid.) 

4/ In the end, the water trap gives Niki Jumpei power, or rather, the illusion of power. It gives him an occupation, a distraction, a sense of purpose. 

Why then does he return to the hole? Habit perhaps. Like the woman, he’s now used to the life at the bottom of the sand dune. He gets out for a walk but the sea air that he has long yearned for isn’t as nice as he imagined. He has changed, and would have to “start from the beginning” if coming back to his old life and seeing the other woman and his former colleagues. 

“The change in the sand corresponded to a change in himself. Perhaps, along with the water in the sand, he had found a new self.” (Ch.31) 

But the main thing is the water trap. It gives him the illusion of power, the illusion of choice and freedom. 

“There was no particular need to hurry about escaping. On the two-way ticket he held in his hand now, the destination and time of departure were blanks for him to fill in as he wished.” (ibid.) 

In his life as a teacher, did he have the two-way ticket? Did he have the freedom to get out? He has longed to get out, only to fall into another trap, a more repetitive life, but now he thinks he has the choice—he accepts a life of servitude because of the illusion of choice, he just never chooses escape. 

Friday 23 October 2020

The Woman in the Dunes: ideas, style, dialogue, troubling aspects

1/ Niki Jumpei is held captive by the villagers and stuck in a ramshackle house at the bottom of a sand dune, with a woman. See what he thinks about her: 

“Her charms were like some meat-eating plant, purposely equipped with the smell of sweet honey. First she would sow the seeds of scandal by bringing him to the act of passion, and then the chains of blackmail would bind him hand and foot.” (Ch.12) 

The Woman in the Dunes is a terrifying, nightmarish, and claustrophobic novel, but at the same time it’s also erotic. There’s lots of sexual tension in it.  

“The woman sidled up to him. Her knees pressed against his hips. A stagnant smell of sun-heated water, coming from her mouth, nose, ears, armpits, her whole body, began to pervade the room around him. Slowly, hesitantly, she began to run her searing fingers up and down his spine. His body stiffened.” (ibid.) 

I won’t tell you what happens next, you have to find out for yourself. 

2/ Both he and the woman slave away for the village—for what? Food? Does she not want to go out, and perhaps take a walk? Does she not want a different life? How can she accept such a life, away from civilisation, shovelling sand all night every night and living like an animal? He asks but she doesn’t seem to understand—she has accepted it all. 

He doesn’t. 

3/ So far from 20th century Japan, I’ve read Soseki, Akutagawa, Kawabata, Tanizaki, and now Abe (not including the ones I read over 10 years ago), and Abe and Soseki are the writers with the most interesting metaphors and similes. 

I mean, look:  

 “It was hard to wait. Time was folded in endless, deep, bellow-like pleats. If he did not pause at each fold he could not go ahead. And in every fold there were all kind of suspicions, each clutching its own weapon. It took a terrible effort to go ahead, disputing or ignoring these doubts or casting them aside.” (Ch.18) 

This is when the teacher holds the woman hostage and tries to negotiate with the villagers. He refuses to work, thinking he holds the trump card because they wouldn’t want the whole village to be swallowed up by sand, not realising that he’s the one at a disadvantage because he’s at the bottom of a sand dune, unable to get out, and the villagers are the ones bringing them water and food. He’s not very good at negotiating—he threatens the villagers, but why should they care when he’s there and nobody outside knows it?  

“The morning, pressing its face, like the belly of a snail, against the windowpane, was laughing at him.” (ibid.) 

That’s an interesting, unusual simile. And it’s the morning, not the villagers or the whole situation, that laughs at him. 

The Woman in the Dunes is full of striking images. 

“The sand, clinging to the perspiration, was like a soggy wheat cake in texture and color.” (ibid.) 

Not everything looks good either. Look at the woman, being tied up to a chair. 

“The towel was as heavy as a dead rat with her saliva and foul breath. It had bitten into her flesh, leaving freckled spots, which did not seem about to go away. The stiffness in her cheeks, which had become like the skin of dried fish, began to relax as she repeatedly moved her lower jaw.” (Ch.16)

4/ I don’t think dialogue is Kobe Abe’s strength. Same with Kafka. It may be funny that the novel is not meant to be realistic and could be read as an allegory but I still find the dialogue awkward and slightly contrived—even when the setting, the entire situation is absurd and like a nightmare, I would still prefer the characters to sound natural and to talk like people, rather than the author’s mouthpieces bouncing ideas off each other. 

In The Woman in the Dunes, it’s fine when there’s a short exchange, but when the conversation gets a bit longer, there’s an unnaturalness about it that I don’t really like, especially the conversation between the teacher and the woman before they have sex the first time (ch.19). For a few lines it’s not even clear who’s saying what, until later, as the woman doesn’t seem to have a distinct voice—distinct enough for me to know if a line is spoken by her or by the teacher—though perhaps the voice gets lost in translation. In such a brilliant, well-written novel, that dialogue becomes an irritating blotch. 

5/ I would have to watch Teshigahara’s film adaptation again, which I saw many years ago, to make an adequate comparison, but about halfway through the novel, I cannot help thinking that the film would be superior as everything would be turned into images and all the unnecessary ramblings would be got rid of. This novel is rich in ideas, but near the end of chapter 19 there’s a long philosophical section that goes on till about chapter 21, and I feel that The Woman in the Dunes doesn’t have the artistic purity of Kafka’s best works (such as “The Metamorphosis” or “A Hunger Artist”). The narrator goes on and on about sex and Mobius and spiritual rape and soap opera and psychological venereal disease and death and hunger and certifications and all that, only because the woman doesn’t want a condom—it all becomes frustrating and appears a bit out of place. I’m talking, I must note, as a fan of Tolstoy and Moby Dick. Maybe there’s a point: Niki Jumpei, a theoretical man, develops even madder ideas because of heat and thirst and hunger and the encroaching sand and the whole preposterous situation. 

But in chapter 21, the writing returns to normal and is good again, even before the 2 characters get water. 

This is when the characters return to work: 

“No soon did he have the shovel in his hands than his exhausted limbs collapsed like a folding tripod.” (Ch.21) 

That’s good.

“His vocal cords were shredded like strands of dried squid…” (ibid.) 

Kobo Abe doesn’t say, but the teacher is now hungry: 

“The board wall of the house was as soft as a rice cake that has not fully dried; it looked like a seedbed for mushrooms.” (ibid.) 

Look at him: 

“A frothy saliva that tasted like egg white filled his mouth.” (ibid.) 

6/ Earlier I came across a blog post that pointed out a scene from The Woman in the Dunes that she found troubling and repulsive: 

“The woman, who had been entreating him at first, manifested obvious fright at this frenzy. He was seized by a feeling of prostration, as if he had ejaculated. Again he spurred his courage, forcing himself on by a series of helter-skelter lewd fantasies, arousing his passion by biting her breasts and striking her body, which, with the soap, sweat, and sand, felt like machine oil mixed with iron filings. He had intended to let this go on for at least two hours. But finally the woman gritted her teeth, and complaining of pain, crouched away from him. He mounted her from behind like a rabbit and finished up within seconds.” (ch.23)

The blogger read it as rape. I’m not sure. Is it rape, or is it rough sex? 

This is the moment before—she’s washing him and he’s washing her back:   

“He would wash her in return. Caught between confusion and expectancy, she made a gesture of resistance, but it was not clear just what she was resisting. He quickly poured a bucket of warm water over her naked body…” (ibid.) 

Is she resisting the touching, or resisting him putting soap and water on her? 

“She cried out and, sliding down his chest, crouched level with his stomach. Undoubtedly it was a posture of expectation. […] 

The woman’s excitement naturally infected him too. […] The woman was glowing from within now, as if she were being washed by a wave of fireflies.” (ibid.) 

To me, it looks more like aggressive, affectionless sex than rape, or at least it doesn’t seem absolutely definite that it’s rape. However, I do think that Niki Jumpei is not nice either to the woman in the dunes nor to the woman he left behind (referred to as “the other woman”)—he appears patronising and self-important from the start and some of his thoughts about women here and there are rather troubling, then the philosophical sections reveal more of his views on women, which are frustrating to read.  

However, I believe the point here is that Niki Jumpei is not likeable but it doesn’t matter—it doesn’t make what happens to him acceptable. It is precisely in making Niki Jumpei a jerk that Kobo Abe makes a stronger point about slavery, about the cold deception and exploitation by the village, about the exhaustion and meaninglessness of their struggle against the sand—we may not like the teacher personally but we are still with him against the village. 

I’ve finished chapter 24. The man is at the moment out of the trap, but I know he would soon be caught.

Tuesday 20 October 2020

The Woman in the Dunes: writing, images, similes

1/ The Woman in the Dunes by Kobo Abe was published in 1962. The film adaptation by Hiroshi Teshigahara came out in 1964. 

It’s no wonder. The Woman in the Dunes is a very cinematic novel. I mean it’s the kind of novel that a filmmaker reads and thinks “that’s a film right there”. 

Look at this passage for example: 

“The wind blew ceaselessly from the sea and, far below, turbulent white waves beat against the base of the sand dunes. Where the dunes fell away to the west a slight hill crowned with bare rock jutted out into the sea. On it the sunshine lay scattered in needle-points of light.” (Ch.3) 

Or this one, when the man tries to fall asleep:

“He tried thinking of something else. When he closed his eyes, a number of long lines, flowing like sighs, came floating toward him. They were ripples of sand moving over the dunes. The dunes were probably burned onto his retina because he had been gazing steadily at them for some twelve hours.” (Ch.6) 

Such a striking image. I remember this image from the film. The translator is E. L. Saunders (I almost wrote his name as Sanders). 

Or this one, when he wakes up after the first night: 

“The sand that had accumulated on his face, head, and chest fell away with a rustling sound. Around his nose and lips sand was encrusted, hardened by perspiration. He scraped it off with the back of his hand and cautiously blinked his eyes. Tears welled up uncontrollably under his gritty, feverish eyelids. But the tears alone were not enough to wash away the sand that had become lodged in the moist corners of his eyes.” (Ch.7)

We can see the sand. We can hear its rustling sound. We can feel it, hardened by sweat and lodged in the eyes. 

2/ Here’s the story: a schoolteacher and amateur entomologist travels to a remote area of sand dunes in search of beetles. He misses the last bus back to civilisation so the villagers offer him shelter in a house at the bottom of a sand dune, to which he gets down by rope ladder. The woman in the house is in her 30s, alone, and she spends all night shovelling sand into buckets to be raised and taken away by the villagers—as the man finds out, the sand doesn’t stop falling and she has to do it every day so that the entire village doesn’t get swallowed up by the sand. The next morning he gets ready to leave, only to realise the rope ladder is gone. He is trapped. 

Sand becomes a character on its own in the novel. 

“Because winds and water currents flow over the land, the formation of sand is unavoidable. As long as the winds blew, the rivers flowed, and the seas stirred, sand would be born grain by grain from the earth, and like a living being it would creep everywhere. The sands never rested. Gently but surely they invaded and destroyed the surface of the earth.” (Ch.2) 

Sand is fascinating. Sand is destructive. 

 “This house was already half dead. Its insides were half eaten away by tentacles of ceaselessly flowing sand. Sand, which didn’t even have a form of its own—other than the mean 1/8-mm. diameter. Yet not a single thing could stand against this shapeless, destructive power. The very fact that it had no form was doubtless the highest manifestation of its strength, was it not?” (Ch.5) 

That is an interesting image—“tentacles of ceaselessly flowing sand”. 

Here Kobo Abe contrasts sand with water: 

“Never before had he been so keenly aware of the marvel of water. Water was an inorganic substance like sand, simple, transparent, inorganic substance that adapted to the body more readily than any living thing. As he let the water trickle slowly down his throat, he imagined stone-eating animals.” (Ch.7)

3/ The man goes in search of insects, and finds a woman who lives like an insect.  

4/ Other people have written about the meaninglessness of the woman’s life and the existentialist themes in The Woman in the Dunes so I’m not going to write about them. I’m more interested in the visual writing and the surreal, nightmarish qualities of the novel. 

“… from one corner of the ceiling the sand began to pour out dizzily in numerous tapelike streams. The strange quietness was in eerie contrast to the violence of the flow of sand.” (Ch.10) 

Kobo Abe first introduces sand as an interesting, ever-flowing substance, then slowly builds up and makes sand become terrifying—violent, destructive, a trap. Look at the scene where the man desperately tries to escape, in vain. Then: 

“Suddenly the flow of sand grew violent. There was a muffled sound and then a pressure against his chest. He tried to look up to see what was happening, but he no longer had any sense of direction. He was only dimly aware of a faint milky light playing over him as he lay doubled up in the black splotch of his vomit.” (ibid.) 

I can see why Kobo Abe is compared to Kafka—everything is senseless and absurd; the main character gets thrown into a nightmarish situation where everyone and everything is against him and he doesn’t know why but there’s nothing he can do to get out of it. 

5/ James Wood notes that Edmund Wilson (if I remember correctly) generally doesn’t quote from the book he’s critiquing. But why not? When the writing is good, I want to point at it—look! 

The Woman in the Dunes has more interesting metaphors and similes than in Kawabata or Tanizaki, at least the ones I’ve read. This is the main character, Niki Jumpei (his name is not introduced until ch.11), contemplating whether people miss him or put out a missing notice for him in the papers after his several days at the bottom of the sand dune with the woman. 

“Rarely will you meet anyone so jealous as a teacher. Year after year students tumble along like the waters of a river. They flow away, and only the teacher is left behind, like some deeply buried rock at the bottom of the current.” (Ch.11) 

That’s good. 

“It was doubtful whether they were sincerely worried, but at least their meddling curiosity was as overripe as an unpicked persimmon.” (ibid.) 

That’s very interesting—comparing something abstract (curiosity) to something concrete (a fruit). 

This is another: 

“No sooner had the cooling blue light slipped down from the edge of the hole than everything was reversed, and he engaged in combat with sleep that sucked at him as a sponge sucks water. As long as this vicious circle was not broken somewhere, not only his watch but time itself would be immobilized, he feared, by the grains of sand.” (Ch.13) 

This one is not a simile, but it’s a good sentence where he mixes sight with smell. 

“The colors of drawn were beginning to mingle with the fragrance of cooking rice.” (Ch.11)  

Such a brilliant novel. 

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.

Saturday 10 October 2020

Tips for reading The Tale of Genji

Are you curious about The Tale of Genji, Japan’s greatest literary achievement, from the 11th century? Are you thinking about tackling it, because of its reputation as the world’s first psychological novel, but intimidated by its length and unfamiliar culture? 

Or perhaps you’re curious but uncertain about whether it’s worth it. It is. I read The Tale of Genji earlier and enjoyed it thoroughly (it is in fact in my top 10 favourite novels).  

Let me quote the Nobel lecture of Yasunari Kawabata, the Japanese writer who won the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1968: 

The Tale of Genji in particular is the highest pinnacle of Japanese literature. Even down to our day there has not been a piece of fiction to compare with it. That such a modern work should have been written in the eleventh century is a miracle, and as a miracle the work is widely known abroad. Although my grasp of classical Japanese was uncertain, the Heian classics were my principal boyhood reading, and it is the Genji, I think, that has meant the most to me.” 

Here are some of my tips for reading The Tale of Genji

1/ Make sure you have time and can concentrate. Don’t read during term, for instance. Don’t read another book at the same time. This is a novel that requires full immersion. It is longer than Anna Karenina, nearly as long as War and Peace, and I read it in 7 weeks. 

2/ Read about the book, the Heian era, and the cultural context before picking it up. It helps. I spent a few weeks reading essays about it and getting myself prepared. 

3/ Do some research, compare the translations, and decide which one you want. There are currently 4 English translations: Arthur Waley’s (1933), Edward G. Seidensticker’s (1976), Royall Tyler’s (2001), and Dennis Washburn’s (2015). 

From what I’ve gathered, Waley’s has a historical significance, being the first proper translation of The Tale of Genji into English and introducing Anglophone readers to the Japanese masterpiece, but it is said to be quite loose; Royall Tyler’s is said to be the closest to the original text but could be difficult because it retains Murasaki Shikibu’s way of referring to characters, i.e. he doesn’t stick to a nickname but keeps the changing nicknames and titles as in the original; Seidensticker’s is meant to be somewhere between Waley’s looseness and Tyler’s fidelity; Washburn’s is the latest but doesn’t get as much praise as Tyler’s, and he is said to spell things out often while Murasaki Shikibu tends to keep it subtle. 

I myself recommend Royall Tyler’s translation because of its reputation of being close to the original text, and because of the immense scholarship—there are annotations, footnotes, diagrams, appendices, maps, character list at the beginning of each chapter, character list at the end of the book, explanations about the world depicted and its rules and hierarchy, and so on and so forth. The character lists are particularly helpful. It’s true that he doesn’t stick to a nickname, but he often adds footnotes to help readers know who’s who. 

If you have Royall Tyler’s translation, read the entire introduction except for plot summary, before reading the book. 

4/ Make notes. Create your own character list. Draw your own family trees. Make notes of the characters’ changing titles. Make notes of the palace buildings, especially if you’re reading Royall Tyler’s translation. 

You may worry about the characters’ changing titles, but usually it happens in groups, not individually—either on Promotion Day or when a new Emperor comes into power. That makes things easier. 

Murasaki Shikibu’s characters are all distinct, so there’s little reason to get them mixed up. She could keep track of her hundreds of characters as she was writing them, so a reader can also follow them.   

My family trees were built around Genji, To no Chujo, and the Kiritsubo Emperor. 

5/ Read slowly. Take your time. Go back if you’re unsure about something. I went back a few times.

6/ Once you’re past page 100, you should be fine. If you’re not in the mood for it, leave it and read something else—the book is not going to go away. There’s no point continuing if you’re a few hundred pages in and still don’t “get” it. The Tale of Genji is longer than Anna Karenina, nearly as long as War and Peace

7/ It’s fine to read it alone, but a read-along could help, as long as you don’t feel the need to rush it. 

8/ Read with an open mind and remember that this is an 11th century Japanese novel, set in the 10th century. Go along with it. Don’t try to impose modern values on it, don’t judge the characters’ actions by modern standards. 

That being said, I do think The Tale of Genji has a female perspective and depicts women’s confined lives and the double standards in Heian society—the novel is about Genji’s women as much as it’s about Genji. 

9/ Look for the common humanity, so to speak. This is a very different time, a very different society, with its own rules and values, but human beings are not that different—the human feelings of joy, happiness, anger, resentment, worry, jealousy, bitterness, fear, guilt, shame, embarrassment, hopelessness, despair, loneliness, grief… have always been the same. 

I especially love the way Murasaki Shikibu writes about death. She and Tolstoy are the best at writing about death. 

10/ Look at my blog posts, which might be useful, at least with characters. 

Chapters 1-4


7-9, hierarchy, and relationships.   

10-11, politics, and mono no aware

12-14, women

15-17, Suetsumuhana, Genji, changes in reign


21-23, new generation, education, and the Rokujo estate

24-27, Tamakazura and To no Chujo’s children

28-31, indirectness, and Tamakazura’s suitors

32-34, Murasaki, Akashi, and Suzaku’s children

35, change in reign, refuge in religion

36-39, 2 princesses and male entitlement

40-41 and the subject of death

42-44, a new beginning

45-47, the Uji sisters, the uncertainty of life

48-49, foils, polygamy

50-51, stepchildren, lack of privacy, Niou

52, Kaoru vs Genji

53-54, patriarchy, authorship, ending

There are also other blog posts under the tag Murasaki Shikibu. 

Hope these tips are helpful. Enjoy The Tale of Genji

Friday 9 October 2020

Comparing a scene from Truyện Kiều and Jin Yun Qiao

A few months ago I read and wrote about Truyện Kiều (known in English as The Tale of Kieu), Vietnam’s greatest literary work (click here for the first blog post). It’s an epic poem written by Nguyễn Du in the 19th century, based on a 17th century Chinese novel named Jin Yun Qiao (Kim Vân Kiều truyện in Vietnamese) by Qingxin Cairen (Thanh Tâm Tài Nhân). 
Just so you get an idea: Nguyễn Du in Vietnam has the same kind of importance and influence as Shakespeare in England or Pushkin in Russia, and if we have an Asian equivalent of the Western canon, Truyện Kiều would be part of it. Jin Yun Qiao wouldn’t. Nobody cares about Jin Yun Qiao—it is of interest only as the novel on which Truyện Kiều was based.   
I myself have not read Jin Yun Qiao as a whole, having little interest, but I have read some excerpts. The general consensus is that it’s a banal, unimportant novel that somehow inspired a poetic masterpiece in another country—Nguyễn Du took the general plot but elevated it to a completely new level, in terms of language, characterisation, psychological insight, themes, and moral vision, and also made significant changes to the characters and some plot details. 
I’ve just come across an article comparing the same scene in Truyện Kiều and in Jin Yun Qiao, and you know what, I’m traumatised.   
Here’s the context: Kiều is now married to Từ Hải, the third love of her life, who is at this point leader of a revolutionary army. Having now gained power, Kiều repays people who have been kind to her, and takes revenge on those who have harmed her. The scene is “the revenge”. 
In Truyện Kiều, the executions are reduced to a few sentences: 
“Lệnh quân truyền xuống nội đao,
Thề sao, thì lại cứ sao gia hình.
Máu rơi, thịt nát, tan tành,
Ai ai trông thấy hồn kinh, phách rời.”
Here is the translation by Michael Counsell: 
“… the executioner 
was told to use them as was right. 
All who beheld the sight
were terrified; the courtyard filled
with streams of blood which spilled 
from battered flesh before their eyes.” 
The same scene in Jin Yun Qiao is unnecessarily detailed and disturbingly graphic. 
Here’s the passage about Bạc Hạnh and Bạc Bà, translated into Vietnamese: 
“Phu nhân nói: Bạc bà đẩy người xuống giếng, Bạc Hạnh bán người lương thiện vào nhà xướng ca. Nay theo đúng lời thề trước của Bạc Hạnh, lấy dao vằm nát thân thể, rồi cho ngựa ăn, còn Bạc bà thì đem chặt đầu bêu lên cây. Đao phủ nghe lệnh dạ ran một tiếng, tức thì lôi Bạc bà ra chặt đầu, còn Bạc Hạnh thì dùng chiếu cỏ bó như bó củi, ngoài quấn dây thừng thật chặt, rồi hai người giữ, một người cầm dao (3), chặt từ chân lên đầu thành hơn trăm đoạn. Ghê thay một con người mới đó mà trong giây lát biến thành một đống thịt như bùn, người coi ai cũng hoảng hồn chết ngất. Bọn đao phủ vào bẩm đã thi hành xong, phu nhân truyền đem đống thịt trộn lẫn với cỏ để cho ngựa ăn.” 
These are the people selling Kiều into a brothel the second time in the story. 
I can’t find an English translation. To summarise, in the original, Bạc Hạnh gets tied up in a mat and has his flesh cut into little pieces, which get fed to horses, whereas Bạc Bà gets decapitated and her head gets stuck on a tree. 
Here’s the passage about Tú Bà (the woman in charge of the first brothel), her husband Mã Giám Sinh (named Mã Bất Tiến in the original), and Sở Khanh (the philanderer who tricks Kiều) in the original novel, translated into Vietnamese: 
“Bèn lệnh cho quân sĩ, lôi mụ Tú ra, lấy dầu bách tưới đẫm vào người, rồi dựng ngược cho đầu xuống đất, chân chổng lên trời, như ngọn đèn trời để làm tròn lời thề ngày trước. Còn tên Mã Bất Tiến thì kẹp chân tay vào mảnh gỗ cho thẳng căng ra, rồi rạch da và moi gân khiến cho tứ chi rời rạc, để ứng lời thề của nó. Lại nấu một nồi tùng hương trộn lẫn với vỏ cây gai, đun thật sôi và lấy chum nước lớn để bên, đem Sở Khanh ra, lột hết áo xiêm, một người thì múc dầu tùng hương đun sôi tưới vào mình hắn, một người thì lấy nước lạnh dội theo. Quân sĩ được lệnh lôi ba phạm nhân ra ngoài. Trong chốc lát, mụ Tú đã cuốn thành một cây sáp lớn, phía dưới chỉ lộ cái đầu. Mã Bất Tiến thì bị căng xác. Sở Khanh hóa thành một thỏi sắt nguội.
Đoạn rồi phu nhân hô to: “Đốt sáp”, quân sĩ đứng lên cao châm lửa vào chân mụ Tú. Mụ mới bị châm một mồi lửa đã kêu đau ầm ĩ. Phu nhân mắng rằng: Mi cũng biết đau ư? Cớ sao ngày trước mi nỡ lòng hủy hoại da thịt người khác? Mụ Tú chết ngất, không trả lời được nữa.
Kế đến Phu nhân hạ lệnh rút gân, xẻ thịt Mã Bất Tiến, lại lệnh cho quân sĩ lột da Sở Khanh. 
Nghe lệnh, quân sĩ tìm chỗ chùm gân, lấy mũi dao nhọn khoét da, rồi dùng lưỡi câu móc vào đầu gân, dùng sức lôi mạnh một cái. Mã Bất Tiến lập tức chết tươi. Quân sĩ rút thêm ba bốn cái gân nữa làm cho thi thể Bất Tiến rời ra từng mảnh. Phu nhân bèn sai quẳng xác ra biển cho cá ăn để đền tội bạc tình.
Còn Sở Khanh bị tẩm dầu tùng hương và keo vỏ gai, bên trong tuy vẫn còn sống nhưng bên ngoài không cựa quậy được. Quân sĩ chạy đến bóc miếng vỏ gai nơi đầu ra, thì da đã bị dầu tùng ăn loét ra, chẳng cần dùng đao kiếm, chỉ tuốt một cái thì lột hết da. Độ nửa giờ sau, thân thể Sở Khanh chỉ còn trơ lại một cục máu đỏ lòm nhưng vẫn còn thoi thóp. Phu nhân lại sai đem nước vôi rưới vào, tức thì toàn thân Sở Khanh nổi lên những cái bọt lớn. Chỉ trong chốc lát đã rữa nát thành mủ máu, rớt thịt trơ xương mà chết...” 
One would have to translate every single word to convey fully how nauseating, how brutal and fucked up the entire scene is, but I’m just going to summarise quickly: in the original novel Jin Yun Qiao, Tú Bà is drenched in oil (dầu bách hương—cypress oil?) then hung upside down like a lamp, turned into some kind of human wax, and burned from the feet down; Mã Bất Tiến (original of Mã Giám Sinh) has his limbs stretched in different directions by pieces of wood, his skin gets pierced, his tendons get cut then pulled apart with fishing hooks till he dies then his body is thrown into the sea to be food for fish; Sở Khanh gets soaked in burning oil (cypress oil?), then skinned alive, before they throw boiling water at his skinless body… 
Isn’t that just fucked up? How is this literature? It isn’t. Now look back at the subtlety in Truyện Kiều, look back at the way Nguyễn Du handles the scene. 
Another difference between Truyện Kiều and Jin Yun Qiao in this scene is that Hoạn Thư (the jealous woman, main wife of Thúc Sinh) is let go—Hoạn Thư says to Kiều that she’s just a woman, it’s normal that she gets jealous, nobody wants to share a husband, and Kiều, persuaded, lets her go unpunished.  
The original Kiều—Qiao—doesn’t let her go. 
Here’s the passage, translated into Vietnamese: 
“Vương phu nhân thấy mụ quản gia lãnh Kế thị đi rồi, bèn truyền lệnh cho cung nữ đem Hoạn Thư ra, lột trần áo xiêm rồi treo lên đánh một trăm trượng.
Cung nữ dạ ran, túm tóc Hoạn Thư lôi ra, lột hết áo quần, chỉ chừa lại một cái khố, tóc buộc lên xà nhà. Hai tên cung nữ mỗi tên túm một tay để lôi giăng ra, trước và sau có hai cung nữ khác cầm roi ngựa đồng loạt ra tay, một người đánh từ trên đánh xuống, một người đánh từ dưới đánh lên, đánh như con chạch rơi trên đống tro, con lươn trong vạc nước nóng, luôn luôn dẫy dụa kêu trời. Toàn thân chẳng còn miếng da nào lành lặn. Sau khi cung nữ báo cáo đủ một trăm roi, phu nhân truyền lệnh đem Hoạn thị  ra giao cho Thúc Sinh. Quân sĩ dạ ran. Cởi tóc Hoạn Thư mang xuống thì đã nửa sống nửa chết, mang ra ngoài cho Thúc Sinh nhận lãnh. Thúc Sinh luôn miệng tạ ơn, nhìn đến Hoạn Thư thấy chỉ còn thoi thóp thì than rằng: Nàng ôi, chỉ vì thủ đoạn, phương pháp lớn lao của nàng mà nàng mà phải tự cầm dao cắt thịt của mình… Rồi bèn gọi hai tớ gái là Xuân Hoa, Thu Nguyệt vào đỡ lấy Hoạn Thư. Thúc Sinh quay vào dinh tạ tội Phu nhân rồi ra ngoài một mặt thu nhặt thi thể Kế thị, một mặt mang Hoạn Thư về nhà chạy chữa đến nửa năm trời mới khỏi.” 
In short, Hoạn Thư is stripped down to only a loincloth and hung from the rafters by her hair, then receives 100 lashes—one beats her from above, another beats her from below, and when she’s taken down, she’s half alive half dead, and afterwards needs treatment for half a year. 
Some critics of Nguyễn Du’s Kiều argue that she’s so weak and gullible, Hoạn Thư once turned her into a slave and humiliated her in front of Thúc Sinh but now only has to say a few sentences and Kiều already lets her go. They also comment that Hoạn Thư doesn’t look bad in this scene, in the sense that she explains and argues her case but doesn’t beg, and doesn’t lose her shit like her weak husband Thúc Sinh does. 
But look at the original Qiao. What a brutal, vengeful, cold-blooded, inhuman, vicious bitch. 
It’s incredible that Nguyễn Du used such material and created something like Truyện Kiều. Truyện Kiều is full of humanity and compassion. Unlike that thing. 

Monday 5 October 2020

Vintage Didion: Didion on politics and the press

I’m currently reading The Year of Magical Thinking, after finishing Vintage Didion. You perhaps have now noticed that I’m on a Joan Didion marathon. 

Taking a break from social media means having more time for reading (which does make me ask myself, why the hell did I spend time arguing with morons on fb or going through stupid tweets instead of reading good books and enjoying the company of intelligent, interesting people?). I’m enjoying Joan Didion’s company. 

Vintage Didion includes 3 essays from After Henry, 3 chapters from Miami, an excerpt from Salvador, an essay from Political Fictions, and a separate essay called “Fixed Opinions, or the Hinge of History”. They’re all good but I especially like the one from After Henry about Central Park Five, “Clinton Agonistes” from Political Fictions, and “Fixed Opinions, or the Hinge of History”. 

What I find interesting in these essays is that Joan Didion, through her eyes as an essayist, journalist, and novelist, examines the narratives created by politicians and by the press. In the essay about Central Park Five for instance, which according to wikipedia was the first mainstream media to suggest that they were wrongfully convicted, she examines the 2 contrasting narratives by mainstream news on one side, and by black-owned newspapers and black activists on the other; she also writes about the kind of story that gets attention and becomes big, the kind of news that gets ignored, the kind of language used by journalists and by politicians, and so on. In the essay about Bill Clinton, she contrasts the year 1998 with 1992, and writes about how the press (or rather, a handful of prominent journalists) shapes the news and promotes a scandal. In the last one, she writes about the mood in America after 9/11 and the language, the narrative in the news. 

I don’t fully know Didion’s political views, but she is perceptive and sceptical and critical, and she writes well about the way the press frames a story or an event. I should get hold of Political Fictions. Reading Didion’s essays, I can’t help wondering what she thinks about what’s happening today, though many of her observations all the way from the 60s are still true today, and in many cases, worse now.   

For example, in “On Morality” (Slouching Towards Bethlehem), she writes about the disturbing frequency with which the word “morality” appears everywhere, and she ends it with:  

“It is all right only so long as we recognize that the end may or may not be expedient, may or may not be a good idea, but in any case has nothing to do with ‘morality’. Because when we start deceiving ourselves into thinking not that we want something or need something, not that it is a pragmatic necessity for us to have it, but that it is a moral imperative that we have it, then is when we join the fashionable madmen, and then is when the thin whine of hysteria is heard in the land, and then is when we are in bad trouble. And I suspect we are already there.” 

This is from 1965—it is still true, and it is worse. People still assign moral burdens to everything, and also talk about being on the right or wrong side of history. People still act moral and “inflict their conscience” on others, and also talk about compassion and kindness and tolerance—the kind of kindness and tolerance that involves silencing and de-platforming anyone that they see as intolerant and bigoted.  

In “The Women’s Movement” (The White Album), she voices her criticism of the feminist movement in the 70s and mocks the feminists for portraying women as mere victims. 

“That many women are victims of condescension and exploitation and sex-role stereotyping was scarcely news, but neither was it news that other women are not: nobody forces women to buy the package.

[…] Just as one had gotten the unintended but inescapable suggestion, when told about the ‘terror and revulsion’ experienced by women in the vicinity of construction sites, of creatures too ‘tender’ for the abrasiveness of daily life, too fragile for the streets, so now one was getting, in the later literature of the movement, the impression of women too ‘sensitive’ for the difficulties of adult life, women unequipped for reality and grasping at the moment as a rationale for denying that reality.” 

The essay was controversial apparently but she wasn’t wrong, and what she wrote still applies now—it’s not that there’s no discrimination against women, but many feminists concentrate their energy on non-issues (such as manspreading for example) instead of real problems, and it doesn’t help anyone to see women always as victims and men always as (potential) perpetrators or abusers. In the #MeToo movement, I can think of a few cases that are a bad date or a regretful relationship that get equated with sexual assault, as though women had no agency. Again, I’m not saying that there is no misogyny, no discrimination against women (there is), and Didion clearly knows it too, but it doesn’t help to infantilise women. 

The thing is that she also mocks the creation of Women as a class, but the essay is from 1972—I wonder what she thinks about the current attacks on biological sex and the concept of womanhood. 

Reading Didion’s essays, I can just replace names in my head and her observations about certain groups of people like politicians, journalists, activists, etc. apply well for today’s equivalents. Depressingly so. Like (some) activists or political leaders not caring whether something happened because it had happened many times to others, for example. Or the press picking a story over others and framing it in a certain way. 

Interestingly, in the essay about Clinton, Didion notes: 

“The Lewinsky story had in fact first broken not in the traditional media but on the Internet […], posting on the Drudge Report.” 

She quotes James O’Shea of the Chicago Tribune: 

“The days when you can decide not to print a story because it’s not well enough sourced are long gone.” 

That was 1998. Think about now. 

The pity is that she writes about Ronald Reagan, George H. W. Bush, Bill Clinton, and George W. Bush (and I think she has written about Barack Obama) but not Donald Trump. I’d like to know what she thinks about Trump, and the current political trends.