If in doubt – back to the Penguin Little Black Classics! I thought these might be the solution to the Woolf book hangover and the failure with Duras, so decided to carry on the slightly Eastern theme of my last read with five titles from Japan and China.
Akutagawa – The Life of a Stupid Man
Akutagawa was a fascinating character (just check out his Wikipedia entry!) and this book features three titles: his most famous story “In a Grove” plus two autobiographical pieces. “In A Grove” is fascinating; it features seven short pieces relating the teller’s particular view of an incident which has taken place whereby a woman has been assaulted and her husband murdered. It’s a surprisingly modern take on criminal reportage, where every account differs and it’s hard for those investigating to learn the truth. Kurosawa’s film “Rashomon” was based on the story and it just goes to show that everyone is an unreliable narrator. The other two pieces are autobiographical and the second of them, “The Life of a Foolish Man” is chilling; split into 51 short parts, it’s a summary of Akutagawa’s life written shortly before he killed himself at the age of 35. His writing is excellent and I certainly want to explore his work more.
Kenko – A Cup of Sake Beneath the Cherry Trees
Kenko was an author and Buddhist monk who lived in the 13th/14th century and his works are apparently some of the most studied in Japanese literature. This is extracts from his longer work “Essays in Idleness” which consists of a series of random pieces in a stream of consciousness style, where Kenko just jotted down his thoughts and feelings as they occur to him. They’re intriguing and often lovely meditations on all the things that affect human life, and go to show that not a lot changes over the centuries. As Kenko says, “It is a most wonderful comfort to sit alone beneath a lamp, book spread before you, and commune with someone from the past whom you have never met.”
Pu Songling – Wailing Ghosts
Chinese literature is a place where I have a huge gap in my reading, so it was nice to pick up this little volume to start my exploration. Pu Songling lived during the 17th century and spent most of his life as a private tutor; he’s known for his collection “Strange Stories from a Chinese Studio” from which these tales are taken. They’re a lively bunch of stories; ghosts, monsters, witches, demons and magical foxes abound; some are no more than a page long. But all are arresting, intriguing and sometimes rather scary, blurring the lines between fantasy, myth and ghost story. This book has some lovely line drawings too, and on the evidence here, I really need to read more Chinese literature.
Shen Fu – The Old Man of the Moon
Shen Fu was also a Chinese author, from the 18th century; he’s known for his book “Six Records of A Floating Life” which is regarded as the best description of everyday life during the dynasty through which he lived. This LBC has extracts that cover his relationship with his wife; his early love of her, their marriage, the struggle to make ends meet, her health issues and their final parting. It’s a fascinating and moving work that again shows that our concerns stay the same over the centuries and there’s nothing new under the sun.
Matsuo Basho – Lips too chilled
My final Oriental read was a collection of haiku from the master of the for, Basho. This was distilled from the collection I read not long ago (and reviewed here), but it was lovely to revisit them – poetry of all sort bears repeated re-reading and these small gems of beauty and wisdom were no exception.
So – another great batch of Little Black Classics from Penguin – dippable, enjoyable and often good tasters for an author or genre you haven’t approached before. Definitely a winner for me!