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#1947 Club – Visiting post-War Japan

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The Setting Sun by Osamu Dazai
Translated by Donald Keene

One of the joys of this reading week has been the fact that so far it’s taken me to some very far flung places! “The Labours of Hercules” took Poirot all over the world; “The Plague” was set in French Algeria; “A Girl in Winter” looked at England before and during WW”; and now I’m off to post-War Japan with Osamu Dazai’s work, “The Setting Sun”.

setting-sun

Dazai (June 19, 1909 – June 13, 1948) was an enigmatic figure whose early suicide (after several attempts) turned him into a cult in Japan. “The Setting Sun” was one of his last works, and it’s set immediately after WW2 – which of course saw a crushing defeat for Japan. This loss is referred to throughout the book, and the story is one of decay – of the old way of Japanese life, of the old regime, of the old morality and specifically of the aristocracy. The book is narrated by Kazuko, daughter of noble family who have fallen on hard times. The father is dead, the brother Naoji missing, and Kazuko and her mother (always referred to as being ‘a lady’) scrape a living. The family home has been sold and they’ve moved to a small dwelling in the country. But despite constant sales of clothes and jewels, the family barely get by, and the situation is not improved by the return of the prodigal son. Naoji himself is in decline, being a recovering drug addict and pretty much an alcoholic.

But Kazuko is no blushing flower, and has her own history of a broken marriage and a stillborn child, as well as dalliances with artistic friends of her brothers. And as her mother and brother continue to decline, Kazuko is drawn to change and a need to live.

The older and wiser heads of the world have always described revolution and love to us as the two most foolish and loathsome human activities. Before the war, even during the war, we were convinced of it. Since the defeat, however, we no longer trust the older and wiser heads and have to come to feel that the opposite of what they say is the real truth about life. Revolution and love are in fact the best, most pleasurable things in the world, and we realise it is precisely because they are so good that the older and wiser heads have spitefully fobbed us off on their sour grapes of a lie. This I want to believe implicitly: Man was born for love and revolution.

Her answer to her emotional dilemma is to throw herself at Mr Uehara, author friend of her brother’s, and frankly not much of a catch from the description here. She wanders round Tokyo looking for him, shamelessly caring nothing of the fact that he has a wife, a child and numerous lovers. Her encounter with him will decide her future, but what a broken future that is…

“The Setting Sun” was an unusual, sometimes fragmentary book, but absolutely fascinating. It’s chock full of symbolism, which of course refers to the so called “Land of the Rising Sun” being in decline, and there is a recurring motif of snakes. These turn up regularly, usually as a portent of death and at one point Kazuko burns some snake eggs which she feels brings on a kind of curse. Fire is a theme too, with the eggs, and with Kazuko almost setting fire to the house and consequently the whole village.

Kazuko herself is a complex character; Dazai’s books are often described as semiautobiographical and I did find myself wondering if her behaviour was typical of women of that era. She drinks, runs around Tokyo in pursuit of men and often seems to have little regard of what people think about her. But the more I thought about it, the more I understood that she was also symbolic. It seems to me that Kazuko and Naoji represent the reality of the aristocracy; on the surface very powerful and revered but underneath actually corrupt and dissolute.

dazai_osamu

Dazai’s style is also of interest; he has a very distinctive way of structuring his chapters, with what is almost the climax of the action at the start which he then works his way towards during the rest of that chapter. It makes for stimulating, if unusual, reading. As for the subject matter, I imagine that a scholar of Japanese life and culture would sense even more symbols and references in the book than I did; nevertheless, I did enjoy “The Setting Sun” immensely. It’s a book I think I admire and like, rather than love, and I put that down to a certain detachment in the storytelling. Kazuko herself was a character I struggled with in places; it’s hard sometimes to sympathise with her melodramatic monologues and although I understand she’s meant to be a woman caught in a changing society, trapped between ancient and modern, I didn’t feel she was necessarily rounded enough.

Despite that caveat, the glimpse of post-War Japan presented here was fascinating, and I’ll be interested to read his other cult classic “No Longer Human”, which I have lurking on Mount TBR. The 1947 Club is certainly throwing up some intriguing books and stay tuned to find out which counry I’ll end up visiting for my last reads of the week!

#1947 Club – Revisiting one of the pivotal books in my life

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The Plague by Albert Camus
Translated by Stuart Gilbert

My second read for the 1947 Club is a book that’s very dear to my heart: Albert Camus’ “The Plague”. It’s a book I first read back in my 20s on that fateful Sunday that I read four books in a day; I can’t remember what the other three were (though I daresay I could find out if I went through old journals), but Camus’ masterpiece made such an impression on me that I sent hysterical postcards out to all my friends insisting they read it straight away – such were the ways of communicating in those pre-Internet days!

My old copy of "The Plague" which has been with me for over 30 years...

My old copy of “The Plague” which has been with me for over 30 years…

I’ve re-read the book, in the 1990s, but not since so I was really pleased to have an excuse to pick it up again. I think I may have read Camus’ most famous work “The Stranger/Outsider” first, but personally I always thought “The Plague” was his best, and I did wonder what my response would be to it at this point in my life. As it was, I’ve ended the book emotionally drained and stunned, so whether this will be any kind of coherent review which does the book justice remains to be seen….

oran-1940s

The book is set in the French Algerian town of Oran; introduced by an unnamed narrator, it’s an ordinary place, with the usual mix of good and bad, old and young, living their lives but about to be hit by catastrophe. One morning, Dr. Rieux leaves his house and stands on a dead rat; this is a symbol of what’s to come as an infestation of dying rats is followed by the first cases of illness and death. Initially, the authorities are reluctant to accept that this might be an outbreak of bubonic plague, but as the deaths multiply they have no choice but to close the town walls, put strict control measures in place, and battle the disease alone. The book mainly follows a group of characters at the centre of the fight: Dr. Rieux himself, firsts to identify the plague; Tarrou, a visitor to Oran for unknown reasons, with private means; Rambert, a visiting journalist trapped by the quarantine procedures and desperate to get back to Paris and the woman he loves; Cottard, an elusive and edgy character with some kind of secret; and Grand, a lowly clerk with hidden depths of his own.

The room was in almost complete darkness. Outside, the street was growing noisier and a sort of murmur of relief greeted the moment when all the street-lamps lit up, all together. Rieux went out on the balcony, and Cottard followed him. From the outlying districts—as happens every evening in our town—a gentle breeze wafted a murmur of voices, smells of roasting meat, a gay, perfumed tide of freedom sounding on its way, as the streets filled up with noisy young people released from shops and offices. Nightfall, with its deep, remote baying of unseen ships, the rumor rising from the sea, and the happy tumult of the crowd— that first hour of darkness which in the past had always had a special charm for Rieux—seemed today charged with menace, because of all he knew.

As they battle on against the plague, surrounded by a wonderful supporting cast (from Dr. Rieux’s mother to the local magistrate, the other doctors and the Jesuit priest Fr. Paneloux), we watch as the mood of the town turns from initial disbelief, to anger and resistence, then to resignation and dull acceptance. As the disease reaps its grim harvest, the humans and their medicines seem very puny by comparison. There will be those who survive and those who do not, and all the while the narrator considers what it is to be human, what is the point of life and why such catastophes are visited on us. Eventually, of course, the tide will turn and the plague will retreat, but those who survive, like all survivors, will be changed forever.

Thus week by week the prisoners of plague put up what fight they could. Some, like Rambert, even contrived to fancy they were still behaving as free men and had the power of choice. But actually it would have been truer to say that by this time, mid-August, the plague had swallowed up everything and everyone. No longer were there individual destinies; only a collective destiny, made of plague and the emotions shared by all. Strongest of these emotions was the sense of exile and of deprivation, with all the crosscurrents of revolt and fear set up by these. That is why the narrator thinks this moment, registering the climax of the summer heat and the disease, the best for describing, on general lines and by way of illustration, the excesses of the living, burials of the dead, and the plight of parted lovers.

“The Plague” is one of those life-changing books that ensures you see the world differently after reading it  and I can understand why I responded to it the way I did back in the 1980s. Of course, it’s often read as an allegory of the Nazi occupation of France during the Second World War and certainly the parallels are there to see. With the restrictions on movement, the quarantine camps and the crematoria running constantly, it’s not hard to see the imagery as being that of Nazi Germany. And the responses of the people to the plague, which is portrayed as a maglignant force with a life of its own, could equally be applied to the reactions to occupation by a hostile, invading army; incredulity followed by some citizens fighting back, some accepting the situation and most coming to see it as something to be endured whilst cutting themselves off emotionally.

Yes, the plague gave short shrift indeed, and they must set their shoulders to the wheel again. Throughout December it smoldered in the chests of our townsfolk, fed the fires in the crematorium, and peopled the camps with human jetsam. In short, it never ceased progressing with its characteristically jerky but unfaltering stride. The authorities had optimistically reckoned on the coming of winter to halt its progress, but it lasted through the first cold spells without the least remission. So the only thing for us to do was to go on waiting, and since after a too long waiting one gives up waiting, the whole town lived as if it had no future.

Much of the power of the book comes from Camus’ wonderful writing (and the excellent translation by Stuart Gilbert); and also from the fact that it is not just the story of an occupation (whether by disease or man, it seems to be much the same). The book digs down to the roots of being; the necessity of humans to have a stable life, to be with the ones they love; the effects of forced separation; whether a Priest is justified in calling out a doctor or whether he should accept illness as the will of God; if the things men do in extreme circumstances is heroism or simply actions taken out of necessity; and so on. The setting of Oran is also vividly conjured; its geography, its climate and the changing seasons as the story develops are all brought to life wonderfully by Camus’ pen. “The Plague” ends up being a gripping tale and an intense meditation on what life actually is, and compulsively readable to boot.

On moonlight nights the long, straight streets and dirty white walls, nowhere darkened by the shadow of a tree, their peace untroubled by footsteps or a dog’s bark, glimmered in pale recession. The silent city was no more than an assemblage of huge, inert cubes, between which only the mute effigies of great men, carapaced in bronze, with their blank stone or metal faces, conjured up a sorry semblance of what the man had been. In lifeless squares and avenues these tawdry idols lorded it under the lowering sky; stolid monsters that might have personified the rule of immobility imposed on us, or, anyhow, its final aspect, that of a defunct city in which plague, stone, and darkness had effectively silenced every voice.

I found myself feeling deeply connected with each of the characters in the book, all of whom were very real and very human. On my first reading I related particularly to Tarrou, the man who eschews cruelty of any kind and helps lead the fight the disease with dignity. But this time round, it was Rieux, with his boundless humanity and unstinting care for others who stood out for me. Grand, too, with his endless quest for a perfect sentence, and Rambert the lover, focused only on the thought of escape to his beloved, will stay with me. I ended the book feeling as if I had lived through it, rather than just read it, and coming back to the everyday reality of my own life was a shock.

camus

So re-reading “The Plague” is going to be one of the highlights of the 1947 Club, and indeed of my reading year. It’s sometimes risky going back to a book you read and loved decades ago, just in case your high opinion of it is dented. However, in the case of Camus’ masterpiece, I think I’m affected just as strongly and just as much as I was back then. Of course, I’m barely scratching the surface of the book here; I’m sure reams of pages and University theses can and have been written on it. However, I’ll just say, as I did to my friends back in the day, that you should read “The Plague” – it’s a work of genius and you *won’t* see the world in the same way after it.

*******

(Interestingly, Camus makes a knowing little reference to his other great work early in “The Plague” when he mentions in passing: Grand had personally witnessed an odd scene that took place at the tobacconist’s. An animated conversation was in progress and the woman behind the counter started airing her views about a murder case that had created some stir in Algiers. A young commercial employee had killed an Algerian on a beach…)

Launching the #1947 Club with a wonderful Agatha Christie revisit!

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1947-club-pink

Yes, today is the first day of our wonderful week of reading books from the year 1947 – part of a series cleverly thought up by my co-host Simon at Stuck-in-a-Book. So far we’ve covered books from 1924 and 1938, and had some fabulous reading experiences. However, 1947 looks to be a vintage year for publishing, and I’m starting off the week in style! I’ve also put up a separate page for 1947 and if you read or review anything from that year do leave a comment and I’ll do my best to include everyone!

I was personally really pleased to find out that Agatha Christie’s “The Labours of Hercules” was one of the books published in 1947, as I have happy memories of reading it as a teenager, and I thought it was definitely due a revisit. By the time of its publication, Christie had been a household name for decades as was Poirot himself; and this collection of linked short stories is presented under the conceit that Poirot will take on 12 cases mirroring the historical Labours of Hercules before he finally retires. Of course, we know now that the determined detective would carry on solving crimes until his creator’s death in the 1970s, but at the time the thought of Poirot retiring must have shocked his readers as much as the death of Sherlock Holmes on the Reichenbach Falls did!

My original copy from the 1970s - in much lovelier condition than some of my books from that era!

My original copy from the 1970s – in much lovelier condition than some of my books from that era!

There is a foreword where Poirot dines with an academic friend and laments he never studied the classics. It is this friend, Dr. Burton, who mentions in passing the classic Labours and laughingly refers to Poirot’s inappropriate forename, thereby triggering the whole concept of the book. The stories that follow are a wonderfully varied bunch, tied loosely to each Labour, and even if you have no classical knowledge (and I don’t!) they’re absolutely brilliant and immensely enjoyable.

So for example, “The Nemean Lion” has Poirot looking into the kidnapping of Pekinese dogs, an apparently trivial crime that turns out to have hidden repercussions. “The Lernaean Hydra” deals with murder and poison pen letters (the latter one of Christie’s regular tropes) in a small village. “The Stymphalean Birds” has fraud and potential blackmail, and warns of the dangers to foolish Englishmen who travel abroad without knowing any other languages! “The Cretan Bull” features hereditary madness, and “The Capture of Cerberus” reunites Poirot with Countess Vera Rossakoff in a post-War London setting. The latter was always one of my favourites, with the opening scenes of Poirot being jostled in the London Tube and encountering the Countess on a huge escalator permanently stuck in my mind. These are just some of the highlights; really, each of the varied stories is a little gem and I don’t want to pick favourites! Inspector Japp and Poirot’s valet Georges make an appearance or two, as does Miss Lemon, who is always a joy!

And Poirot ranges far and wide whilst undertaking his Labours, travelling all over the world and meeting a variety of different people, all the while using his ingenious methods of discovering the truth and dispensing his own kind of justice (as we see in many of his stories). There is a surprising amount of drug-taking featured (cocaine and the like, not just poisons being used for murders) and Christie has a wonderfully no-nonsense approach to life. In fact, it’s a delight to rediscover how much she used sly humour to dig at the rich and silly. There isn’t a titled lady with a Pekinese who gets off lightly, nor a pompous lord or businessman having an affair with a secretary who isn’t deflated or warned off. Agatha Christie and Hercule Poirot are on the side of the governesses, companions and car mechanics, and it’s lovely. That’s not to say that the cases don’t deal with some richer people from the upper echelons – they do, which is proof that Christie can see good in all. Some of her descriptions are just priceless, like this one of a rather alarming country home:

Inside, it was what a house agent would have described as “fully furnished”. Cross-legged Buddhas leered down from convenient niches, brass Benares trays and tables encumbered the floor space. Processional elephants garnished the mantelpieces and more tortured brass work adorned the walls.

If I had to stand back and be truly honest, there *are* times when Christie rather stretches things to fit in with her concept; taking Poirot to the top of a Swiss mountain to deal with dangerous gangsters is perhaps – well, unexpected. But none of this detracts from reading Christie at the height of her powers, and the book is pure joy and entertainment. There are a couple of sly nods to Sherlock Holmes, as if to acknowledge the debt all Golden Age crime writers owed to Conan Doyle (particularly in a partnership structured like Poirot and Hastings), as well as mentions of Reggie Fortune and Sir Henry Merrivale, some of Poirot’s contemporaries.

Agatha Christie

So my first book for the 1947 Club has turned out to be a fabulous one and a real pleasure. I forget how much I love Christie when I leave a gap between books, but revisiting “The Labours of Hercules” has convinced me that when I have the time (retirement maybe!) I shall sit down and read the entirety of her output from start to finish in chronological order!

Get ready for the #1947 Club!

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1947-club-pink

As those of you who follow Simon’s excellent Stuck in a Book blog will know (and I assume that’s all of you!) it will soon be time for the next ‘Club’ read, where we all enjoy books from a particular year. This was a wonderful idea that Simon came up with, and next time we’re going to be focusing on 1947.

Some of you have asked for lists and suggestions, and of course a quick search online will bring up loads of books from that year. As Simon mentioned, the fun here is not having a prescribed list of books, but exploring your bookshelves and the wider book world to see what you have from that year and what you can find – if you can up with new or obscure titles that’s great fun! 1947 certainly does seem to have been a vintage year for publishing and I’m going to have trouble picking what to read! I have a pile of possibles, but for now I’ll do like Simon has and list a few possibles with links to a few reviews of books I’ve already read from that year:

One Fine Day by Mollie Panter-Downes

Under the Volcano by Malcolm Lowry

Exercises in Style by Raymond Queneau

A View of the Harbour by Elizabeth Taylor

Maigret’s Holiday by Simenon

The Blank Wall by Elizabeth SanxayHolding

The Valley of Adventure by Enid Blyton

Of Love and Hunger by Julian McLaren-Ross

These are just a few books of what is a very long list I have scribbled in the back of my notebooks as possibles. “One Fine Day” in particular is a fabulous read, as is the Julian McLaren-Ross. I personally plan to revisit a favourite from the Queen of Crime, a French book which had a profound effect on me back in the day, and a novel by a famous poet. Well, that’s what I’m thinking at the moment – but of course anything could happen between now and then so watch this space and Simon’s blog, and do join in – it’ll be great fun!

Exploring my Library: George Eliot

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Perhaps it’s a little arrogant of me to regard my collection of books as a library; nevertheless, I do have quite a lot and I don’t spend enough time with those I already own, instead getting distracted by shiny new tomes that appear. However, there was some talk of George Eliot on the LibraryThing Virago group recently, and she’s also turned up on some blogs I follow. This set me thinking about the Eliot books I own, which I’ve mainly had for decades, and I was inspired to dig them out.

eliots

As you can see, I do own quite a few by this classic British author, but as I browsed I found myself wondering how many I’d actually read…

silas

Perhaps the oddest looking one is this rather strange American edition of “Silas Marner”. I had a few of these cheap classics which I picked up in the early 1980s, but I’ve replaced most of them over the years because they’re not particularly easy to read and they don’t look that nice. Obviously this one slipped through the net…

penguins

Penguins, however, are usually much nicer! These three are part of the Penguin English Library and date from around the same time. A bit bedraggled but more easily read than the American one.

pans

I also have a number of Pan classics from the time (definitely some Brontes) – they’re quite attractive, although the paper (like the Penguins) doesn’t age particularly well.

amos barton

This is a more recent acquisition – a slim Hesperus Press volume I obviously picked up at some point and then just slipped onto the shelves with the rest of the Eliots without reading…

eliot viragos

And finally, two slim Viragos. “The Lifted Veil” gets some real stick on the LibraryThing group – not a popular title!

So – which of these *have* I read? The answer is that I’m not really sure. I think I might have read “Adam Bede”, “The Mill on the Floss” and “Silas Marner” – but this would have been back in the early 1980s and I kept no kind of record of what I was reading at the time. I’m 99.9% sure I’ve never read “Middlemarch” which is a failing on my part, as it’s so highly recommended by so many people (including Virginia Woolf).

Digging about on the shelves to find these was fun – I reconnected with books I tend to take for granted as they’ve been around for so long. I’m trying to read from the stacks more (and I think all of the books I’ll be tackling for The 1947 Club and the Jean Rhys Reading Week are ones I already own) – so it’s a useful exercise to go back to shelves and go through what you actually own. I may well share more of the collections in my library here soon  (if you’d care to see pictures of my books…) – and I really should read more George Eliot!

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