Thursday, April 2, 2020

Snow Country

"There was something far from ordinary in all this, Shimamura told himself."
The thing that most struck me in reading Yasunari Kawabata's Snow Country was its extreme reticence: about emotional matters, about the backstory of the main characters, even, in the end, about the actual events that take place in the novel. When Shimamura muses the above quote, Komako has just visited him twice. We more or less know what's going on, but never precisely, and neither do the characters in the book.

Here's what I do know...Shimamura is a well-to-do Tokyo resident likes to go to Japan's snow country (in the western part of the main island) for a winter getaway. The story is set in the 1930s. On the visit at the beginning of the story, he sees a girl Yoko on the train, who is looking after an ailing man. (Who is he? We eventually learn his name--Yukio--but not much else.) They get off at his stop.

Once established in his hotel, Shimamura calls for a geisha. The maid in the hotel says that due to various parties in town, none of the town's geishas are available but that there is a part-time geisha who might be available. The introduction (by the translator Edward Seidenstecker) tells me geishas in small resort towns work more generally as prostitutes than even geishas in the city. The part-time geisha is Komako; Shimamura is interested in her, but not at first to sleep with her, because she seems too pure to be a geisha in that sense.

A relationship develops between the two of them. We see at least two examples of geishas who found rich patrons who were going to set the girls up for life; both examples fail, but no doubt Komako has hopes.

Shimamura comes and goes between this resort town and his urban home. Komako is eager and hopeful for his returns. We eventually learn, perhaps unsurprisingly, Shimamura has a wife in town.

Shimamura eventually learns of the existence of a former triangle of some sort between Komako, Yoko, and Yukio; he never learns the exact nature of it, and we don't either. Yukio eventually dies of tuberculosis; Komako feigns to not care, but we don't believe her. Shimamura is also attracted to Yoko, making Komako and Yoko (possibly) doubly rivals.

The ending is especially ambiguous; there's a fire, but we're not meant to know what happens to the principals, so I can't tell you...

I think if I had more experience with Japanese novels and culture, I could probably read between the lines a bit better, but I am quite convinced (and the introduction assures me I am not wrong) that the novel is meant to be mysterious. It is, quite successfully, I think. How well can you ever know somebody else? And yet I definitely feel that these people are there, that they have their mysteries they aren't telling and may not know themselves.

Most of Snow Country appeared in serialized form in the 1930s; a final section was added in 1947 and it appeared then in book form. Kawabata went on to win the Nobel Prize in 1968.

Wednesday, March 25, 2020

Two Novellas by Arthur Schnitzler

Late Fame

In Late Fame, Eduard Saxberger is an unmarried civil servant in Vienna; he's approaching seventy. His life is quiet, but he has a few friends he meets regularly at his favorite restaurant.

But forty years ago he published a book of poetry The Wanderers which sank without notice; but in the 1890s, young poet Wolfgang Meier finds the book again, loves it, hunts down the aging Saxberger, and draws him into his circle of young literati. Late Fame has come to Saxberger.

At first it's nice. None of his restaurant regular friends knew he once had aspirations to poetry; he scarcely believed it himself anymore, but now Meier and his circle are telling him he's inspirational. Fräulein Gasteiner, the actress in the group, flirts with him, and the circle organize a reading and wouldn't he write something new to be the star of the evening?

Of an earlier draft, Schnitzler wrote in his diary, "...end not sad enough." You'll have to see if you think the end is now sad enough, but it's not as sad as it possibly could be, and there's definitely humor in the middle parts.

The younger characters in the novella in the novella are partly caricatures of the Jung-Wien group of the 1890s in Vienna, of which Schnitzler himself was a young member. But the novella's artists are a little more hapless than the Jung-Wien group, which did have some notable successes among its members: Schnitzler himself as well as Hugo von Hofmannsthal and (for a while) Karl Kraus.

The novella was written at the time it was set for a weekly magazine Die Zeit (not connected as far as I can tell to the current German newspaper) but it was deemed too long for that and so it never appeared while Schnitzler was alive. His papers were rescued with the help of the British embassy in the aftermath of Anschluss; otherwise it would have been lost. It came out in English in 2015 and is translated by Alexander Starritt with an afterword.

Fräulein Else

Else is a nineteen-year-old girl staying a vacation spot in the Italian Alps; she's chaperoned by an aunt and her cousin is also present, but her parents are at home in Vienna. A nice life, right? Well, not entirely.

A letter arrives from her mother--written at the instigation of her father--asking Else to ask Herr von Dorsday for money. The situation is desperate; her father, a society lawyer, has been caught pilfering from a trust he administers in order to feed his gambling habit; if the money isn't restored in a few days, he'll be taken up for embezzlement, which means dishonorable jail or an honorable-ish suicide. Hours later a telegram comes from her father saying even more money is needed.

Herr von Dorsday is ostensibly a friend of her father, if her father still has any friends; his gambling compulsion and consequent need to sponge is well-known in Viennese society. And worse, what everyone knows, including both Else and her father, is that Herr von Dorsday is an old roué, who can't keep his hands off the girls. Does her father want Else to ask because it's an emergency and the personal touch is better? Or does he figure the 'personal touch' is better and it's Else who will be touched?

The novel is told in stream of consciousness--Else's--and it follows every twist and turn of her thought throughout this impossible situation she's been thrown into. I found it very convincing, but also very painful. So, though it's impressive, you might want to be sure to save it for a moment you can bear to read such a thing. It is timely, though, as Harvey Weinstein (hopefully!) is going off to jail.

The novella came out in German in 1924. My copy is from Pushkin Press and is translated by F. H. Lyon.

Collected Arthur Schnitzler on the blog.

Unsettled times. Keep well!

Sunday, March 8, 2020

Washington Irving's Tales of the Alhambra

"The peculiar charm of this old dreamy palace is its power of calling up vague reveries and picturings of the past,..."

Washington Irving's Tales of the Alhambra (1832) relies upon the power and charm of the Alhambra to work its magic. Though no doubt Irving worked on those reveries for a while himself.

In 1829, Irving, already a professional writer, traveled to Spain, and in particular to Granada, where he had arranged to live in the Alhambra. Though he had originally intended to stay longer, he was only there six months before he was drafted into taking on the secretary role at the American embassy in London. But he gathered enough material in those six months to write this book.

It's structured as a travel or guide book, and it begins with his crossing the lonely mountains north of Granada and worrying about bandits. He arrives in Granada, establishes himself in the Alhambra, and hires Mateo as his guide/valet. He looks around the Alhambra and describes its various features, famous towers and halls, and here it functions particularly like a guide book.

But the truly fun part is the embedded tales, unsurprising from the man who brought us Rip van Winkle and the Legend of Sleepy Hollow. Irving knew Spanish and ten years later he was the U.S. Ambassador to Spain, and he presents these tales as picked up in conversation, quite often from Mateo. They're Romantic--Irving was influenced by Sir Walter Scott--but have an ironic humor to them that lightens the romanticizing. There's the tale of the three Moorish princesses in the Tower of Princesses, or the Two Discreet Statues that indicate (to those who know) where (one of the) buried Moorish treasures are. My favorite story was the longest, the story of Ahmed the Perfect, or the Pilgrim of Love. Ahmed is a Moorish prince, and the prophecies say he will live long and happily in a happy realm if only his father can keep him from thinking about love until after his teen years are done. Well, we know how that will go, don't we? (Or do we?)

His prose is a little fulsome, with more adjectives than it needs (see above) but also is also capable of amusing ironies like this, "Mohammed the Left-handed was acknowledged to be a wise king by his courtiers and was certainly so considered by himself." He's also, especially for a New England Protestant of that period, surprisingly tolerant of Catholicism and even of Islam.

Anyway, quite a fun book and a better read than I thought it was going to be. My edition is printed in Spain, in Granada in fact, and has an introduction by R. Villa-Real, though I bought it in Chicago. Mr. Royal House is almost too appropriate as the author of an introduction to a book on the Alhambra. It also comes with colored engravings from the 19th century of the Alhambra that are an amusing accompaniment.

Thursday, March 5, 2020

Poem For A Thursday (#Dewithon20 edition)


Job Davies, eighty-five
Winters old, and still alive
After the slow poison
And treachery of the seasons.
Miserable? Kick my arse!
It needs more than the rain's hearse,
Wind-drawn, to pull me off
The great perch of my laugh.
What's living but courage?
Paunch full of hot porridge,
Nerves strengthened with tea,
Peat-black, dawn found me 
Mowing where the grass grew,
Bearded with golden dew.
Rhythm of the long scythe
Kept this tall frame lithe. 
What to do? Stay green.
Never mind the machine,
Whose fuel is human souls.
Live large, man, and dream small.
-R. S. Thomas 

"Grumpy old clergyman, sour old sod," is the description of Thomas at this link from the Guardian, but the author also made Thomas' Collected Poetry one of his ten best Welsh books. 'Lore' is from his 1961 book Tares. Here's another of my favorite Thomas poems.

I got that Guardian link from Paula's organizing post for her Welsh readalong Dewithon, which is full of other great resources.

Jennifer is featuring a poem by Kim Addonizio this week.

Saturday, February 29, 2020

Kate Briggs' This Little Art (#Fitzcarraldo Fortnight)

Well, I've got a couple of hours to squeeze in one last book for Kaggsy's and Lizzy's Fitzcarraldo Fortnight, but I can't dilly-dally...

This Little Art by Kate Briggs is an essay/meditation on the translation of works from one language to another. Briggs herself is the translator of two of Barthes' late lectures from French to English and she brings that experience to bear, but she also looks at other translators, in particular Helen Lowe-Porter (the person responsible for originally translating most of Thomas Mann into English) and Dorothy Bussy (who was André Gide's first translator into English.) And, in fact, the title of her book comes from an off-hand, possibly meant as disparaging, comment by Lowe-Porter about her own work.

Lowe-Porter has taken a bit of a beating over the years, and Briggs is supportive of her work and gives reasonable indulgence to Lowe-Porter's method and the possibility of errors. She's even better, I thought, on the complicated, but loving, relationship between Bussy and Gide, which comes across as touching in Briggs' telling.

For me, one of the most interesting suggestions in the book is Briggs' notion that the translator/artist has a sense of recreating the original work, adopting it as one's own, pushing it almost into the area of original creation.
"All books are made from other books and so, in their way, all books are translations in one way or another." (p.138)
She cites an essay by Elena Ferrante with an interesting example about Ferrante's reading of Madame Bovary and wanting to write a story in Italian that could the very sentence Ferrante found in Flaubert. She doesn't cite, but could, something like Zadie Smith's retelling of Howards End as On Beauty. Is that a translation? Well it is a carrying-across (the Latin root of the word) of a story on class relations, on the relations between art and commerce, from 1900 to 2000. From a white England to a multiracial United States.  It's a fascinating idea and Briggs pushes it hard, but is careful not to push it farther than it should go.

The other thing that definitely needs to be remarked is the prose, and here, I'm afraid, I was less taken with the book. I wrote 'essay/meditation' above with deliberation: Briggs has a way of meditatively circling around an idea without ever quite lighting upon it. Some of this may come from Barthes, whom I scarcely know (and haven't read the works Briggs translated.) Sometimes it may be to remind of the way a translator works, trying out different words before settling on the preferred one. But some of it I just found maddeningly repetitive. Robinson Crusoe's table! I love Robinson Crusoe. But I will not be able to reread Defoe for quite a long time into the future without thinking, "Robinson Crusoe needs a table...He wanted a table because it was wanting." (p.237) And yes, I did definitely elide there.

Ah, well. Still a fascinating read.

In Googling for an image of the cover, I saw that Benjamin Moser reviewed the book for the New York Times. Moser himself is sometimes a controversial figure, but he cares about translation and is responsible for our most recent versions of Clarice Lispector. (As translator, but also as general editor.) But he fundamentally misread this book, I'm afraid. He sees Briggs as advocating some sort of translatorial relativism, as if all translations are equally good. No. "Translation cannot dispense with...the effort to get it right." (p.140) Now maybe Briggs' way of talking around an issue and seeing all sides made it a bit more difficult to see what she was saying, but, heck, I got it, and I felt Moser was just phoning it in, working out some issues he'd been irritated about in the past. Bah.

And that leaves me with no unread Fitzcarraldo Editions books! I may very well have to do something about that...

Thanks to Kaggsy and Lizzy for the great idea and for hosting!

Friday, February 28, 2020

The Indian Vampire Story

A few weeks ago I read Phillip Ernest's novel The Far Himalaya and enjoyed it. That led me to read his first novel The Vetala, even though I would have said from the description it's not my kind of thing. I think it's even better, and very good indeed.

I haven't read much vampire literature--Dracula fairly recently and one Anne Rice novel years ago--and I generally steer clear of the films, so I don't particularly know, but this strikes me as fairly innovative. And even if I'm wrong, and it's not innovative in the world of vampires, I think it's still a very good story.

That story takes place mostly in India, and Nada Marjonivic, a Sanskrit scholar, is studying a seven-hundred-year-old book, the Amrutajijnasa, or the Inquiry into the Undead. Just from the translation of that title you may suspect how her investigation is going to go, and, of course, you're partly right. But there are complications.

Dr. Marjonivic has just returned to India from her European university to study what she believes is the only existing copy of the book; her elderly mentor and fellow Sanskrit scholar has just died and she will now be in charge of the study and of the manuscript itself.

Vetala is a Sanskrit word and vetalas are actual undead figures in Indian lore, though the manuscript Inquiry into the Undead is a creation for the novel. Dr. Marjonivic has experience of these Indian undead in the past; now in her mid-40s, her boyfriend twenty years before was killed by one. The Inquiry is not just an inquiry; it also indicates, though imperfectly, how to lay one to rest. The titular vetala of the novel became one at the time the Inquiry was written, and has carried on, wreaking havoc, for those seven hundred years.

I thought the novel made very good use of its Indian setting. Hindu reincarnation complicates the more familiar Western version of the vampire; an episode from the Mahabharata influences the choices the characters make; the multilingual nature of Indian society is important; the countryside, with its temples, are where the events take place.

The reader gradually comes to understand the emotional tangle that accompanies the more spectacular supernatural events.

Very enjoyable.

Thursday, February 27, 2020

Poem For A Thursday

General Summary

We are very slightly changed
From the semi-apes who ranged
  India's prehistoric clay;
He that drew the longest bow
Ran his brother down, you know,
  As we run men down to-day.
'Dowb,' the first of all his race,
Met the mammoth face to face
  On the lake or in the cave:
Stole the steadiest canoe,
Ate the quarry others slew,
  Died--and took the finest grave. 
When they scratched the reindeer-bone,
Some one made the sketch his own,
  Filched it from the artist--then
Even in those early days,
Won a simple Viceroy's praise
  Through the toil of other men.
Ere they hewed the Sphinx's visage
Favouritism governed kissage,
  Even as it does in this age. 
Who shall doubt 'the secret hid
Under Cheops' pyramid'
Was that the contractor did
  Cheops out of several millions?
Or that Joseph's sudden rise
To Comptroller of Supplies
Was a fraud of monstrous size
  On King Pharaoh's swart civilians? 
Thus, the artless songs I sing
Do not deal with anything
  New or never said before.
As it was in the beginning
Is to-day official sinning,
  And shall be for evermore!
-Rudyard Kipling

This is the lead poem in Kipling's first published collection, Departmental Ditties of 1886.

Jennifer is back in town and has a poem this week she brought back with. Yay!