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“velvet nights spiked with menace” – in which Angela and I are reconciled…

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Fireworks by Angela Carter

As a rule, I don’t generally have disastrous reading experiences. Life is too short to waste on books you don’t like so I try to tailor my reading to things I actually want to read or hope I’ll get something from; or to continue the ongoing search for those works which change your life. However, I had a less-than-pleasant encounter with Angela Carter during our week of reading for the #1977club, when I found “The Passion of the New Eve” to be most unpleasant with no redeeming features. This *did* irk me a bit, because I’ve enjoyed her work in the past; so, as Carter is the author of the month on the LibraryThing Virago Modern Classics group, I resolved to try again, and picked up “Fireworks” a slim volume of short works.

Sorry Virago, but I really *don’t* like that cover at all – I want a green version……

First published by Virago in 1988, the book collects works that span a number of years, some as early as 1974 (though it isn’t specified which is dated when). I had previously read, and been intrigued, by the opening story “A Souvenir of Japan”; and indeed several of the stories seem to be set there (and apparently draw heavily on the period Carter lived there in the early 1970s). There are nine stories here, all very disparate in subject but all very much in Carter’s style.

I speak as if he had no secrets from me. Well, then, you must realize that I was suffering from love and I knew him as intimately as I knew my own image in a mirror. In other words, I knew him only in relation to myself. Yet, on those terms, I knew him perfectly. At times, I thought I was inventing him as I went along, however, so you will have to take my word for it that we existed. But I do not want to paint our circumstantial portraits so that we both emerge with enough well-rounded, spuriously detailed actuality that you are forced to believe in us. I do not want to practise such sleight of hand. You must be content only with glimpses of our outlines, as if you had caught sight of our reflections in the looking-glass of someone else’s house as you passed by the window.

I don’t know if it was just that I was in the right mood this time, but I found myself seduced by Carter’s prose from the very start. The stories cover much ground – the complexities of personal relationships (“A Souvenir…”, “Flesh and the Mirror”); myth, legend and brutality in far countries (“The Executioner’s Beautiful Daughter”, “Master”); morality (or lack of it) in disintegrating landscapes (“Elegy for a Freelance”, “Master” again); being an outsider, the ‘other’ (“A Souvenir…” again, “The Smile of Winter”); plus strange and haunting works which draw on fairytale and fantasy (“Penetrating to the Heart of the Forest”, “Reflections”, “The Loves of Lady Purple”). These stories are disturbing and beautiful and I found myself lost in other worlds brilliantly created by Carter in astonishing prose.

These tree trunks bore an out-crop of plants, orchids, poisonous, iridescent blossoms and creepers the thickness of an arm with flowering mouths that stuck out viscous tongues to trap the flies that nourished them. Bright birds of unknown shapes infrequently darted past him and sometimes monkeys, chattering like the third form, leaped from branch to branch that did not move beneath them.

I mentioned brutality and yes, there is violence (emotional, physical and sexual); however, I didn’t have quite the problem with it that I did reading “Passion…” Maybe I recognised that it was necessary here for the stories Carter was telling; maybe the storytelling was so strong that I could see the point; or maybe her beautiful writing counterbalanced the darkness and provided a necessary harmony in her work. Certainly Angela Carter’s prose was just stunning in these tales; hypnotic and haunting, it convinced me that I hadn’t been wrong in my belief that I had loved her work previously – and still can and do. The stories are multi-faceted, multi-layered things of beauty and cruelty, and I think that a second reading would pull out many more references and resonances than I saw on my first read.

I had fallen through one of the holes life leaves in it; these peculiar holes are the entrances to the counters at which you pay the price of the way you live.

Picking favourites is always difficult (and maybe controversial!) when reading a collection of short works, but I have to mention in particular “Reflections”; this wonderful and dark fairy tale, drawing on mythology, had the most amazing imagery and the pictures it painted in my head will stay with me.

Carter in the early 1970s

So Angela and I are reconciled. Yes, there is violence and cruelty (and rape, I’m afraid) in these stories, but this time around I felt Carter was using these things for a purpose. The worlds she portrays are beautiful and brutal, filled with vivid landscapes, striking imagery and troubled people, smoke and mirrors, dreams and allegories. I am pleased to say that I will *definitely* be reading Carter again

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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!

A Japanese Trio

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Back in the day (well, the 1990s/early 2000s – not quite so far back as my First Big Reads in the 1980s!) I went through what OH called my Japanese Period, when I was fairly obsessed with the country, its literature and its art. I read stacks of books by and about Mishima, drank plenty of tea and covered the walls with Japanese prints. It’s a hankering that still comes back to me periodically, and it was rekindled recently by my little post on Richard Brautigan’s birthday. He was a real lover of Japan and its culture (and its women!!) and I felt the need to dig out some Japanese titles I hadn’t read yet. In fact, rummaging among the shelves of Japanese books was an enjoyable and therapeutic exercise, and I ended up picking out and reading three different books: “The Narrow Road to the Deep North” by Basho; “Of Love and Barley – Haiku of Basho”; and “The Book of Tea” by Kakuzo Okakura. The haiku book is one I’ve had for a long time; the tea book was a Christmas gift; and I sent off for the “Narrow Road” because I just liked the sound of it!

The Narrow Road to the Deep North and Other Travel Sketches by Basho

narrow road

Matsuo Basho is widely regarded as the greatest master of haiku, and Wikipedia says of him “Matsuo Bashō (?1644 – 1694) was the most famous poet of the Edo period in Japan. During his lifetime, Bashō was recognized for his works in the collaborative haikai no renga form; today, after centuries of commentary, he is recognized as the greatest master of haiku (then called hokku). Matsuo Bashō’s poetry is internationally renowned; and, in Japan, many of his poems are reproduced on monuments and traditional sites.”

However, as well as a poet he was also an inveterate wanderer, and this collection brings together several brief travel sketches. Translated by Nobuyuki Yuasa, who also provides a very informative introduction, the book contains five pieces; from Basho’s earliest travellings in “The Records of a Weather Exposed Skeleton”, to the title work where his art had reached its highest point. Each is a mixture of prose and haiku, with the most successful being when the transition between the two is seamless, evoking the journey and its emotional effect on the traveller.

Intriguingly, the translator renders the haiku in a four-line, stanza form, rather than the more usual three-line format. He explains that the rhythms of the stanza would seem more natural to the English-speaking reader and that his book is more for lovers of poetry than for scholarly study – which is a lovely idea, and certainly I’m not going to go all purist about it.

It was the middle of April when I wandered out to the beach of Suma. The sky was slightly overcast, and the moon on a short night of early summer had special beauty. The mountains were dark with foliage. When I thought it was about time to hear the first voice of the cuckoo, the light of the sun touched the eastern horizon, and as it increased, I began to see on the hills of Ueno ripe ears of wheat tinged with reddish brown and fishermen’s huts scattered here and there among the flowers of white poppy.

At sunrise I saw
Tanned faces of fisherman
Among the flowers
Of white poppy.

The prose is spare, yet evocative, putting the haiku into context and showing us how Basho would take a moment of existence and capture it beautifully in a few lines. A lovely, slim volume with some beautiful, memorable imagery.

Of Love and Barley – Haiku of Basho

barley

I picked this book up ages ago, but after reading Basho’s travel writing I wanted to read more of his haiku, and this collection has them rendered in the more traditional three-line format. Translated by Lucien Stryk, the book also has an excellent introduction by him which did a lot to help me understand the purpose of haiku which in turn helped me read and enjoy this book so much more. As Stryk says:

So the poet presents an observation of a natural, often commonplace event, in plainest diction, without verbal trickery. The effect is one of spareness, yet the reader is aware of a microcosm related to transcendent unity. A moment crystallized, distilled, snatched from time’s flow, and that is enough. All suggestion and implication, the haiku event is held precious because, in part, it demands the reader’s participation: without a sensitive audience it would appear unimpressive.

Certainly, these short but lovely haiku *do* capture the fleeting moments of life and perhaps are also useful in slowing us down a little, making us more mindful of our surroundings, of the everyday simple things which make up our life. In these days of mass media, constant distractions from gadgets and social media, and all the pressures of modern living, we certainly need all the help we can get to remember what it is to be human!

Moonlit plum tree –
wait,
spring will come.

The Book of Tea by Kakuzo Okakura

book of tea

The third of my Japanese books was a Christmas gift from Eldest Child, picked from my wishlist. I can’t actually recall where I stumbled across mention of it, but I like tea and I like Japan, so I guess those things were instrumental in my choice!

Okakura himself sounds a fascinating character; given a Western education when young, he didn’t actually start to learn anything about his traditional culture until he was 11. He travelled the world, lived in India and America, and was something of a cultural ambassador for Japan. The book was written in English, and although it purports to be a study of Japanese tea culture (or “Teaism” as he jokingly call it) it’s actually a lot more. Okakura uses the format of his book to sneak in a number of observations about the differences between East and West, as well as providing a study of Japanese culture as a whole – its religions, its aesthetics and its attitudes to life, love and war.

Those of us who know not the secret of properly regulating our own existence on this tumultuous sea of foolish troubles which we call life are constantly in a state of misery while vainly trying to appear happy and contented. We stagger in the attempt to keep our moral equilibrium, and see forerunners of the tempest in every cloud that floats on the horizon. Yet there is joy and beauty in the rolls of the billows as they sweep outward toward eternity. Why not enter into their spirit or, like Liehtse, ride upon the hurricane itself?

There’s some beautiful, thought-provoking writing in this deceptively slim volume, and I’d highly recommend it to anyone wanting to explore the Japanese soul.

Reading these three volumes in succession was a wonderful experience; if I can’t travel in real life, at least I can do so in books, and my recent visit to Japan was a joy! 🙂

The Japanese have a word for it…..

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Whilst browsing on Tumblr recently, I came across a post which pointed me to a very apt word which I think certainly applies to my book-collecting habits…

‘tsundoku’ – is defined as “the Japanese word for buying books & not reading them, leaving them to pile up”

japanese booksWell, that’s definitely me – I could illustrate this post with lots of pictures of Mount TBR but I won’t – what I will be posting tomorrow is pictures of the recently tidied shelves as I have been having a bit of Book Guilt. But I’m not worried – I’m sure it won’t last long…. 🙂

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