When I was casting about recently to see what other Japanese titles I had TBR which could be suitable for the Japanese Literature Challenge, I realised that one of the next two books in my Penguin Moderns series featured an author I’d wanted to read for quite some time – Yuko Tsushima. So it seemed a good idea to dip into these two titles, particularly as they were short and engaging during stressful work times earlier in the month!

Penguin Modern 43 – Of Dogs and Walls by Yuko Tsushima

Tsushima was a renowned author of fiction, essays and criticism whose work has had a recent renaissance in translation, with two full length works appearing in Penguin editions, as well as these stories in the Penguin Modern, all translated by Geraldine Harcourt. Born in 1946, she was the daughter of the sometimes controversial author Osamu Dazai, who committed suicide when she was one year old. The two stories in this collection, “The Watery Realm” and “Of Dogs and Walls” both seem to contain autobiographical elements, which I guess is not surprising…

You’re afraid of the water that stole your husband, but all you can do is consort with it. It’s always around you. As far as you’re concerned, he didn’t die, he turned to water. What happens on land vanishes in water, and the reverse is true, too. Water is your greatest fear…

“Watery…” is a beautifully written short work which intertwines narratives from a daughter and her mother, and explores their lives, as well as that of the daughter’s brother who suffers from learning difficulties. The narrative is as fluid as the watery images which pervade it, and looks back at the lost father who drowned himself with a lover (as did Dazai) as well as the relationship between mother and daughter and their misunderstandings. The narrative in “Of Dogs…” could almost be a continuation of the first story as again we have a mother, daughter and troubled brother. The story has a more conventional structure and is set at a later date where the characters are looking back to the sister and brother in their younger years, the dogs and houses of the families and the blurring effects of time on memories. In both cases, as I implied, it’s impossible not to read these stories autobiographically.

I’d heard good things about Tsushima’s writing and she certainly lives up to her reputation with these two short works (which I believe aren’t available anywhere else). Evocative, poignant and moving, the stories reveal the complexities of family relationships and explore how easy it is to misunderstand someone close to you. The story of the brother was particularly touching and the dream-like quality of the prose is haunting. A definite winner in the Penguin Modern set, and I shall obviously have to check out her other works in translation.

Penguin Modern 44 – Madame du Deffand and the Idiots by Javier Marias

Well, this was something of a surprise! I have only ever tried to read Javier Marias once – well, twice I suppose, as I had two goes at one book and didn’t get on with it so abandoned it. So when I picked this out of the Penguin Moderns set I had no expectations at all. It turns out that “Madame…” is non fiction; five short portrait of famous literary figures, translated by Margaret Jull Costa, and I absolutely loved them!!!

The pieces cover the title lady, Nabokov, Djuna Barnes, Oscar Wilde and Emily Bronte. They’re certainly brief, and each has a small picture heading the essay, but they’re sparkling, witty, slightly cheeky takes on each of the figures – and despite his often irreverent stance, Marias really does seem to have an affection for his subjects and captures them beautifully in wonderfully readable and entertaining prose. The Nabokov portrait was particularly affecting, as was that of Oscar, the latter looking at his life after he left prison – always something which makes me emotional.

This was a wonderful little gem of a Modern, and I enjoyed it so much that I’m sorely tempted to read the whole collection from which they’re drawn. I’m also obviously going to have to rethink my attitude towards Marias, because if I can enjoy his non fictions so much, maybe I *would* like his fictions – I’ll just have to try a different book to the one I failed with twice!

*****

This particular pair of Penguin Moderns were memorable and wonderful, both great introductions to authors whose work I need to explore further. Plus another read for the Japanese Literature Challenge! Has anyone any recommendations of where I should go if I fancy exploring Marias’ work further??