The Tale Of Genji (1008 and the abridged edition by Edward Seidensticker in 1990) by Shikibu Murasaki is known as one of the first novels and a great literary masterpiece. I thought I should give it a try and read this in concert with Sedisnicker's memoir on the process, and realize now that he was referring to the unabridged edition that he was translating rather than this abridged one. However, I can't say I feel cheated, there is much to be admired in the novel: the look at the lives of the Heian upper classes, and specifically the exploits of a rake who has license to enjoy himself as much as possible until he is exiled for his behavior. But there is much that is tedious as well: descriptions of clothing, art, flowery and inscrutable poems exchanged by characters. But I don't really feel the need to read Seidensticker's unabridged edition nor read Arthur Waley's authoritative text either to compare and contrast-that is for those specialist whoa re entrenched in uncovering life in the Heian era-a taste is enough for me.
Earlier this year I read Tokyo from Edo to Showa 1867-1989 by Edward Seidensnicker and enjoyed it immensely. Thus recently, I decided to read translator Seidensticker's memoirs, Genji Days (1977) of translating Murasaki Shibiku's timeless masterpiece, Tale of Genji, along with Sedensticker's translation as one of my summer projects. Of course this memoir is more than just an account of Seidensticker's struggles with translating the famous novel. In the past I have read translations of his by such esteemed writers as Yasunari Kawabata, Yukio Mishima and Junichiro Tanizaki. Throughout the journal entries he often refers to these writers as well, especially Kawabata and Mishima since both of the m committed suicide during the writing of these journal entries that comprise the memoir, which take place largely form 1970-1974. He reveals that earlier in 1968, Mishima had essentially told Seidsticker that he was planning on killing himself, but Seidensticker was caught off guard by Kawabata's suicide that followed world recognition after winning the Nobel Prize and to which he attributes fatigue and inability to sleep as the most likely reasons for his suicide. Seidensticker makes observations about the volatile politics that were taking place in the US and on his campus of the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor. For example, he goes out of his way to see Huey Newton's speech at the campus. In another section, he discusses the ramifications of terrorist acts taken by young Japanese radicals in Tel Aviv. More often than not he is not impressed with the rhetoric and almost finds himself in opposition to the youth politics of the day, which he often sees as frivolous and not particularly deeply considered. There are more prosaic aspects such as his discussions of trips to the market, buying flowers, stop overs in Hawaii, visiting sex shops, and recording dreams. However, throughout the memoirs Seidensticker makes interesting observations about literature, Murasaki, Arthur Waley's influential translation, and The Tale of Genji. For example,he compares the essential loneliness of the American archetypal hero with that of the Japanese hero by saying:
In the one case it is because society has not yet come into being, in the other because an old tradition and old conventions still weigh heavily. In the one case geography keeps people apart, in the other the pigeonholes into which people are thrust by tradition.
He sees Murasaki as a pessimist due to the views on the decline of Buddhism and decay of court aristocracy, but an optimist in view of human nature, in that people strive to be good. Furthermore, he states that she is more concerned to crystallize the moment in the flow of nature, and make it be still. In regards to his translation, says that he will refrain from "improving" upon Murasaki, but feels that it shouldn't be hard to improve on Waley in the directions of quietness and unobtrusiveness. I found these memoirs though provoking and an enlightening look into the past and into the mind of a talented translator.
I knew going into The Last Train To Zona Verde (2013) that Paul Theroux would decide that he had enough of travel in the dark continent. So I suppose the suspense lies in where and what finally breaks him. The miseries of travel are what he specializes in and it was interesting to see what finally breaks the camel's back. It seems that it was Angola that did him in, although his credit card was duplicated while he was in Namibia. He seems to have enjoyed most of his travel from South Africa into Namibia, but the true tests of his mettle started with his overland entry into Angola with its corruption and desolate poverty and menacing cities full of idle youths with little hope:
Not my misery-as flitting bird of passage, I had nothing to complain about-but the misery of Africa, the awful poisoned, populous Africa; the Africa of cheated, despised, unaccomodated people; of seemingly unfixable blight: so hideous, really, it is unrecognizable as Africa at all. But it is, of course-the new Africa.
In fact he resists taking the a train in Angola and decides that he is to close to death to take the chances and the discovery that he loved so much has lost their appeal at this stage in his life:
Yes,-what happened? Why was this trip going flat? Was it because I always had to figh for a seat, and kept seeing the same dreary sights, the same bad roads, the same sorry market women, the same slums? In Africa every rural village is different, but every city is the same, and a perfect fright.
Of course as in any Theroux travel book there are lots of references to other books about the places he travels, travel books in general, or works of fiction that he uses to references his observations or feelings about places. It is sad to think that Theroux is done traveling, but a lifetime is a limited time and there are other travel books by him that I have yet to read so the open road is also still there for me as well.
The Real Life of Aljendro Mayta (1984) is another virtuoso performance from Nobel Prize winning Peruvian author Mario Vargas Llosa. The narrator of the story is a novelist investigating the life of Mayta, who participated in a fiasco of a rebellion 30 years before. The story is told from two perspectives, that of the author in the present facing an uncertain future in which Peru is being invaded by foreign forces and that of flashbacks of the people who were involved in Mayta's failed revolution of 30 years ago. The shifts of perspective that take place between paragraphs are seamless. Some of the factional communist stuff is somewhat tedious, but Llosa brings to life a fervent radical who is defeated over time by his pure ideals. It's hard not to compare these happenings to those of Peru who has had a long war with radical s over the years and seems to have achieved some stability even though it, like most of its neighbors still has a very uneven economy and quality of life between "the haves" and "the have nots."
I was inspired to read Granta 124: Travel (2013) becuse of the general theme of travel and the fact that it contained pieces by three of my favorite contemporary writers: Rattawut Lapcharoen, Dave Eggers, and Haruki Murakami. That being said I was disappointed by all of them save Murakami, who had an interesting nonfiction piece about walking in his former hometown of Kobe years after the 1995 earthquake ravaged the area. Lapcharoen (author of a impressive short story collection, Sightseeing, in his debut) wrote a strange story, "The Captain," about a Thai American who returns to SE Asia for his honeymoon and is separated from his wife and held captive by locals who drain his bank accounts. I couldn't discern if he was trying to make a statement about modern Thailand or whether he was making some sort of personal metaphor out of the situation. Egger's story was something like a real life anecdote written as fiction and not very memorable. That being said there several other more memorable pieces such as Hector Abad's memoir about a visit to the Colombian amazon jungle in "A Rationalist in the Jungle." Another interesting piece was "Barrenland" by A Yi, which at first i mistook for a short story, but turned out to be memoir by a rural Chinese policeman. "Water Has No Enemy" by Nigerian writer Teju Cole was another enticing personal memoir about calamities and other extraordinary events that took place on a return visit to Lagos. I also found the photo essay "Tour Gide," with commentary by Phil Klay with WWII photos from Colonel A. Black, fascinating. There were more nonfiction pieces in this collection than usual and there were several pieces that didn't appeal to me on some level.
I have been an admirer of the writing of Paul Bowles for some time and have been aware that his wife, Jane Bowles has also done some writing, but did not get around to reading any of her work until I was inspired to read her novel, Two Serious Ladies (1943) after reading Negar Azimi's excellent New Yorker blog post, "The Madness of Queen Jane." It is a curious novel about misfits and and sesnitve people who do not get own with the average people of their day and struggle with inner demons. Azimi's openign sold me on the novel:
The Hotel de las Palmas, in Jane Bowles’s conspicuously strange novel “Two Serious Ladies,” is a gnatty pension where pimps and winos lie about. It is here, in a rundown Panamanian port town called Colon, a place “full of nothing but half breeds and monkeys,” that Frieda Copperfield, a fine lady of early middle age and of respectable provenance, decides to jettison her handsome but square husband to find warmth and gin-soaked comfort in the arms of a teen-age prostitute named Pacifica. Lying in leonine Pacifica’s tiny bed, her cheek resting on the girl’s breast, Mrs. Copperfield feels that she has finally found the sort of love that she has always looked for. “I wouldn’t live anywhere else for the world,” she says, a little later, about the inn that will soon become her adopted home.
The other "serious lady" aside form Mrs. Copperfield is Cristina Goering. Again Azimi states it succinctly:
As “Two Serious Ladies” opens, we meet Cristina Goering, an acquaintance of Frieda Copperfield’s, whom we are told is the daughter of a powerful American industrialist. From here, Bowles relates each woman’s separate story, until the two, who are friendly but not intimate, cross paths at the book’s unforgettable end. Both women—they are referred to as Miss and Mrs., like the good librarian types they appear to be—are of bourgeois bearing. Both, too, astonish, perplex, and offend just about everyone they meet, willfully straying from the straight path set before them and descending into debaucherous excess. Dipsomaniacal uptown girls—one is never far from a drink in this tale—these serious ladies find pleasure downtown, in the company of lunatics, clowns, and misfits.
This edition also has an informative introduction by Lorna Sage and memoir by Truman Capote that was written as an introduction to her Collected Works (1966). It was an unusual novel about those who didn't fit into "proper" society, much like Jane and her acclaimed husband I would suspect.
Jhumpa Lahiri's latest novel, The Lowland (2013), has been published to her usual great acclaim: shortlisted for the Booker and National Book Award. Although, there is much to like here, it isn't as compelling as her short fiction. Perhaps some of this has to do with the scope of the story, in which about 70 years between characters is condensed in 340 pages. Perhaps, it also has something to do with the characters themselves who make momentous life decision which they do not really questions nor go back on the paths they have set out for themselves, which makes me wonder if people are really that intractable. I find them hard to relate to. On the other hand, I like how Lahiri integrated real aspects from India's history where one, Udayan, of the two brothers (the other is the more moderate who starts as the protagonist of the novel), is a member of a the radical Naxalite movement. Essentially, I find this novel more contrived than her short stories, despite the easy narrative flow of the novel with themes about family, history, and identity.
Tokyo from Edo to Showa 1867-1989 (2010) may be the best comprehensive social history of Tokyo from the acclaimed translator of Yasunari Kawabata and Junichiro Tanizaki among others, Edward Seidensnicker. There is a preface by film critic and historian Donald Richie as well as an introduction by Japanese scholar Paul Waley. This volume is essentially a combination of a two volume series on the social history of Tokyo starting with the first volume Low City, High City: Tokyo from Edo to the Earthquake: How the Shogun's Capital Became a Great Modern City, 1867-1923 (1984). The chapters in the book include: 1) "The End and the Beginning" 2) "Civilization and Enlightenment" 3) "The Double Life" 4) "The Decay of the Decadent" 5) "Low City, High City" 6) "The Taisho Look." Seidensnicker chose to use the Great Earthquake as a dividing point instead of the end of the Taisho era (which ended December 25th 1926) since it created an opportunity to rebuild the city anew and ushered in a new age socially and culturally. This in turn leads to the second volume: Tokyo Rising: The City Since the Great Earthquake (1990). This books has the following chapters: 1) "The Days After" 2) "The Reconstruction Days" 3) "Darker Days" 4) "The Day of the Cod and the Sweet Potato" 5) "Olympian Days" 6) "Balmy Days of Late Showa." I guess the main drawback for this volume is that it ends before "the Bubble" burst in Japan and Tokyo, but I think it was the earlier chapters that were really most interesting. Although I must admit it was interesting to see him correctly identify areas of Tokyo that would develop and become major centers of commerce like Roppongi, Shiodome, and Marunochi. It is clear that Edward Seidensnicker, like Donald Richie had great affection for Tokyo and it's traditions. One of my summer projects is to read Seidensnicker's translation of The Tale of Genji and then his memoir about this project, Genji Days.
I was first inspired to see Bernardo Bertolucci's film, The Conformist, when I read that critic/director Paul Schrader stated that he watched this every time before starting on a new film project as a director. After seeing the film and the exquisite mise en scene and cinematography employed throughout the film I could understand why he did this. Christopher Wagstaff analyzes Bertulucci's film in BFI: The Conformist (2012). He does this by discussing the "Background" where he compares and contrasts the screenplay from it's adapted source, the novel by Alberto Moravia (Godard's Contempt was also based on one of his novels). Then the "Collaborators" were discussed. Chief among them were his influential editor Franco (Kim) Arcalli, virtuoso cinematographer Vittorio Storaro (also known for Apocalypse Now and The Last Emperor ), and production designer Ferdinando Scarfiotti. This is followed by a discussion of the "Narrative" or the main parts of the story. And is in turn followed by a discussion of "Mise en scene and Montage" which is essentially a general discussion of Bertolucci's desire to inject a psychoanalytic element into the film and a shot by shot analysis of images and action that takes place in the film. Wagstaff makes an overt summation of the film in the final section "Sex and Politics," in which he states:
Il conformista is a supremely beautiful artifact. But it brings the viewer no nearer to understanding any but the most orthodox sexual orientation. And while its theme of conformism might on a very superficial level, contribute to explaining why the fascist regime was so tolerated by a politically indifferent Italian populace, it contributes little to an understanding of the politics of fascism and its savage consequences in a historical movement. Perhaps what it does do is illustrate the extent to which all 'messages' are made of 'images,' and all images are illusions projected on one kind of screen or another: the more attractive the image, the more illusory.