steven03tx's 2012 reading log, part 3
This is a continuation of the topic steven03tx's 2012 reading log, part 2.
This topic was continued by steven03tx's 2012 reading log, part 4.
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See the new Part 4 thread: http://www.librarything.com/topic/143081
See the new Part 4 thread: http://www.librarything.com/topic/143081
Regarding your next to last post on your previous thread, I didn't realize that the LT mobile app was up and running. I'll have to download it. Thanks for the tip about the Wishlist collection not being visibly different in the app. That would be an issue for me.
The app I'm speaking of is technically just a mobile version of the website, but it does have its own icon on my iPhone. I've been using it for well over a year now, and it's very handy for quickly looking up authors and titles while book shopping. The full website works too, of course, but it's slower and you have to keep zooming the screen to read the text.
This page: http://www.librarything.com/more/sites says they're still working on a "full-fledged app."
The Proof of the Honey by Salwa Al Neimi
First published in Arabic 2007
English translation by Carol Perkins 2009
"Some people conjure spirits. I conjure bodies. I have no knowledge of my soul or the souls of others. I know only my body and theirs. And I content myself with that."
The Proof of the Honey is a novel that explores traditional and modern notions of eroticism and sensuality in the Arab world. The unnamed narrator, like the author herself, was born in Damascus but later emigrated to France. She works in a research library in Paris but travels regularly to several Arab countries. She has found in her relationships with men that she can't feel or even understand romantic love, as Western culture expects her to feel it. To her, sex is only a matter of physical desire. She finds, however, common ground in the medieval erotic writings of a variety of Arab poets, physicians and philosophers. These writings, which are quoted throughout the novel, express a forthright delight in sexual pleasure unalloyed by notions of romantic attachment, possession or jealousy.
Admitting that today's Islam is anything but tolerant of promiscuity and outward sexual expression, the narrator shows how the traditions of frank sensuality remain alive within family and in various other physical activities such as bathing. She deplores, however, what she calls modern Arab dissimulation and hypocrisy in being unable to speak as directly and frankly about sex as their ancestors did. Language itself is an important part of the novel. "To talk about sex is to indulge in it," she maintains. "Words are a component of sexual energy."
The Proof of the Honey is not a book of a erotica, but rather a cultural exploration of eroticism. It does, however, contain--and insists upon--very explicit language. It is an eye-opening look at a surprisingly rich aspect of Arab literature, and an interesting story of how a woman used that literature to become comfortable with her body and her feelings.
#6 - The narrator's nationality and residence are the same as the author's, but other than that there's no basis for assuming Al Neimi is writing about her own life. I found this quote on the web:
'Syrian author Salwa al-Neimi explains that when her novel The Proof of the Honey was first published in 2007, the first question put to her was whether the story in the novel was autobiographical. "As usual, I laughed and replied that everything I write is both real and invented."'
Here are some of the Arab writers she makes reference to in the novel (actually at least one of them is Persian). I've tried to get touchstones on all of them, but only a few are recognized.
Muhammad ibn Zakariya al-Razi
Abul Hasan Ali ibn Nasr
al-Samaw'al ibn Yahya
Nasr al-Din al-Tusi
Ahmad ibn Sulayman
Ali al-Katibi al-Qazwirni
Jalal al-Din al-Suyuti
Muhammad al-Tijani al-Samawi
Excellent review, I've had that title noted for a long time now. Arguably, older Arabic literature is either about religion or about sex!
I have a very modest collection of such titles, most of them in French or Italian. (Combining gets to be a bit of an involved task, with all the possible permutations and transliterations of Arabic names.)
A quick reference for the interested: Encyclopédie de l'amour en Islam.
As I noted on another thread, I was surprised by the frankness about women's sexual needs in Distant View of a Minaret, especially since it was written by a woman who lived a very traditional life.
The Proof of Honey has been on my radar for a few years--I first learned about it from a banned book list. But then I heard some negative things about it, so I put a question mark next to it. Looks like I can erase that mark now.
Looking forward to this new thread! Just wanted to point out though in your first post that you wrote Haruki Murakami instead of Ryu Murakami next to Coin Locker Babies.
Thanks, lilisin. It's been corrected. I'm sure I'm not the first to make that slip.
Excellent review of The proof of the Honey A surprising topic (to me) for a female Arab writer.
It's always good to start off the new thread with sex. The Proof of Honey sounds interesting.
Librarything mobile dates from 2006, but this is the first I've heard of it.
Thanks, everyone. I wasn't sure if I dared even review this one because of the subject matter and put it off for several days, but I decided my reputation is beyond redemption at this point anyway. Now on to some RYU Murakami.
Compared to some of the works you have reviewed, The Proof of the Honey is pedestrian! ;-) The subject of public vs private as it relates to the body and sexuality in Islam is a mystery to most Westerners. I think it is one of the important topics to get out there in order to demystify Islamic women and keep propagandists from creating stereotypes that fit our assumptions instead of reality.
Sixty-Nine by Ryū Murakami
First published in Japanese 1987
English translation by Ralph F. McCarthy 1993
Kensuke Yazaki is a 17-year-old student in his final year of high school in 1969. It is a turbulent year in Japan as elsewhere. Since the beginning of the year protests against the Vietnam war by students at Tokyo University have paralyzed the campus. Kensuke lives in Sasebo, Nagasaki Prefecture, where the roar of Phantom jets from a nearby American base is a constant reminder of the war. So Kensuke's thoughts never stray far from... girls. What else would a 17-year-old boy be thinking of?
Kensuke, who prefers to be called "Ken," has a sharp and inventive mind but middling ambitions. He would be satisfied with almost any girl until a chance comment causes him to set his sights at the very top: Kazuko Matsui, the queen of the school's English Drama Club and known to the boys as "Lady Jane" (from the Rolling Stones' song). Lady Jane, in spite of her pure reputation and innocent Bambi eyes, is all in sympathy with the student protests. This is all it takes to turn Ken into the school's leading radical voice and get him into more trouble than he can imagine.
Compared to Murakami's earlier novels such as Almost Transparent Blue and Coin Locker Babies, Sixty-Nine is light almost to a fault. Aside from the language you would expect from teenage boys, there is nothing here to shock or offend--no violence or drugs and only a lot of wishful thinking where sex is concerned. The book doesn't attempt to grapple with the issues of the time, but is simply a portrait of teenage life in 1969 as the author himself no doubt experienced it. In the end we see that Ken has somehow managed to do the right things for all the wrong reasons and has come to a fuller perception, if not an understanding, of himself and his world.
On a personal note, I was especially interested in reading this book since, along with Ryu Murakami and his character Kensuke Yazaki, I was also a 17-year-old high school senior in 1969. But my experiences in the reactionary, evangelical and segregated American South couldn't have been more different. I learned nothing of myself or the world until the following year when I went to college.
Other works I have read by Ryū Murakami:
Almost Transparent Blue
Coin Locker Babies
Interesting review. My mom grew up in Georgia and in her 60s is still a recovering Southern Baptist. It's hard for me to imagine.
Great review of Sixty-nine. One of my favourite numbers. I was wondering if 69 in Japanese has anything like the same connotations as the number does in Western numerals.
Ah 1969 my first and only year at University. Your review brings back some memories of that time. If only I knew then what I know now, but then again it probably would not have done me any good. I think I might like this book.
As I mentioned on another thread, I was also in high school in 1969 (although not yet a senior), so this might be interesting for cross-cultural reasons. The Vietnam war was high on the list of our concerns too. On the other hand, if I can steel myself to read another Ryu Murakami (for the Author Theme Read group), I think I should choose one that is more typical in its efforts to "shock and offend."
#19 - Well, obviously the Japanese characters themselves (which, if Wikipedia is right, would be: 六 九 ) don't have the suggestive juxtaposition of our Arabic numerals, but Arabic numbers have long been in use in Japan, and any exposure to French literature would have clued them in to the "soixante-neuf" notion. Nonetheless, I don't recall any hint from Murakami's novel that it carried any special meaning for them.
#20 - Rebecca, I had you in mind when I pointed out that it wasn't as likely to shock and offend. And now you want to avoid it for that very reason! :-) It looks like Popular Hits of the Showa Era and Audition are more in the middle of the shock scale, whereas In the Miso Soup and Piercing are comparable to Almost Transparent Blue. You've seen my comments on Coin Locker Babies which, in addition to being pretty far out is at least twice as long as any of his other novels.
Well, I'm wavering, Steven. I feel I should read one of the more shocking ones . . . .
The Adventures of Peregrine Pickle by Tobias Smollett
First published 1751
Peregrine Pickle is a young man born to a prosperous but unprepossessing merchant, Gamaliel Pickle, who has retired prematurely to the English countryside. Sent away for schooling, Peregrine demonstrates a remarkably defiant and independent character, as well as a lifelong penchant for elaborate and excessive practical jokes. He returns from school to discover that his mother, having in the meantime born two other children, has unaccountably refused to recognize Peregrine as her own. His spineless father refuses to intervene, so young Peregrine escapes to the refuge offered by his father's neighbor, Commodore Trunnion.
Commodore Trunnion, a retired seafarer, and his confederates Lieutenant Hatchway and Bosun Pipes, are the source of most of the humor in the novel, with their relentless use of nautical jargon and metaphor. Living in a house they call the "garrison," equipped with hammocks rather than beds, Trunnion and his shipmates are delighted with the high-spirited Peregrine, and the Commodore not only sponsors the young man's college education, but a trip abroad to France and Holland where Peregrine not only encounters a host of eccentric characters, but also develops unfortunately extravagant tastes and appetites.
Prior to his sojourn on the Continent, however, Peregrine has met the love of his life, the beautiful and virtuous Emilia. Their on and off again love affair will dominate the latter half of the novel in a typical sequence of prideful rebuffs and jealous misunderstandings. In this respect The Adventures of Peregrine Pickle is something of a transition between the picaresque novel and the "marriage plot" convention that dominated 19th-century fiction. Love and marriage are never to be disassociated from social class and fortune, and rare is the suitor who, on bended knee, declares his love for his beloved without mentioning his net worth in the same breath.
Peregrine's life is a cautionary tale on the perils of pride and extravagance. Our young hero liberally dispenses charity, but takes offense at its being offered to him when he, in turn, is in need. He goes through a disastrous spell as a high-roller, attempting to ingratiate himself into English society, only to learn that an aristocratic title conveys neither good character nor sound judgment. At his high points he rejects his friends (and Emilia) as beneath him; at his low points he refuses their help and love in shame.
The novel is flawed, perhaps fatally, by lengthy digressions into the life stories of characters who have little or nothing to do with Peregrine. The first and longest of these, subtitled "The Memoirs of a Lady of Quality," is the story of a young woman who marries first for love, then after the death of her husband, is talked by her father into an arranged marriage with a despicable English lord. The lady, in her attempt to free herself from her despised spouse, eventually becomes the mistress of a succession of noble patrons. This is an interesting digression into the sad plight of women caught in a legal system that favors the husband, but its telling is devoid of anything that will emotionally engage the reader. Likewise the later digressions into the life histories of disinherited youths.
Satire is the chief purpose of the novel. Smollett pokes fun at the English aristocracy and clergy, but also shows the inferior characteristics of French autocracy. He also settles what is obviously a personal vendetta against publishers and untrustworthy sponsors.
One of the more interesting episodes of the novel is when Peregrine, frustrated at Emelia's defense of her chastity, resolves to bed the first wench he sees. He literally buys a teenage girl from her indigent mother, then takes pleasure in educating her, a la Pygmalion's Galatea and "My Fair Lady," and passing her off at Court as a member of the gentry. Smollett also pokes fun at the medical profession: "His noble patron was seized with an apoplecitc fit, from which he was recovered by the physicians that they might dispatch him according to rule."
Though this is not a bawdy novel, there is more sexual candor in this 1751 publication than you will find a century hence. There is a revealing episode in debtors' prison in which it is admitted that male and female inmates routinely cohabitate (prisoners being obliged to rent their apartments from the warden). The double standard is much in evidence, as Peregrine consorts frequently with courtesans and common whores but wouldn't dream of marrying a woman who wasn't a virgin.
Altogether Peregrine Pickle is more an interesting novel than an enjoyable one. It gives us a memorable picture of mid-18th century life, but overlong digressions, a predictable plot, and limited humorous diversion after the opening chapters make the middle half of the novel more tedious than entertaining.
Other works I have read by Tobias Smollett:
The Adventures of Roderick Random
Well done steven for getting through The Adventures of Peregrine Pickles and an excellent review. I can't think that this book is read very much these days, but I will certainly get to it because of its memorable picture of mid-18th century.
Excellent and fun review. I don't think I'll read the book, but I'm delighted to have read your review.
Great review, and very tempting. I have two or three books by Smollett (not this one), but never read any.
Always interesting and also entertaining, Steven. Your review sent me chasing down the meaning of "picaresque".
Great review of Peregrine Pickle - thumbed. Your review does make the book sound intriguing even with all its faults.
Thanks, everyone. I've read two novels by Smollett this summer and will finish up with The Expedition of Humphrey Clinker with my reading group in September. Between Roderick Random and Peregrine Pickle I think I'd recommend the former if you're only going to read one, though there are points in favor of each. Peregrine himself is a more likable protagonist than Roderick (though there are more similarities than differences), and Peregrine Pickle has some really funny passages. But Roderick Random calls upon Smollett's own life experiences to give us a vivid picture of life aboard a British warship in the West Indies and as a mercenary in the French army. It also is much shorter and less plagued by 50-100 page digressions into dry accounts of someone else's financial difficulties that have no direct bearing on the principal plot.
Both novels convey the notion, so foreign at least to my way of thinking, that those who are entitled to the greatest respect are those who have attained wealth with the least effort. At their lowest ebb these heroes consider every possible alternative to get money: marriage, gambling, fraud, speculation, begging, and even highway robbery. Everything except that which would be socially unforgivable: getting a job. I may need to read some Émile Zola as an antidote to this sickening elitist ethos.
The idea that "Having to work for a living" is the absolute pitts, is so foreign to the way most people view the world these days that it really does stick in the craw. It is better to be forewarned and forearmed about this attitude before you try and read the novels. Thanks for pointing this out steven.
#29 I may need to read some Émile Zola as an antidote to this sickening elitist ethos.
I am currently reading my first Zola, Germinal, and it will certainly provide an antitdote!
Germinal is one of my all time favorites. If you like Gérard Depardieu, you might also like the 1993 French film of the same title.
Some new additions to the library:
Rescued from the clearance rack at the used book store...
Fires on the Plain by Ooka Shohei (recommended by lilisin and others)
The Dream (Le Reve) by Émile Zola
Matterhorn by Karl Marlantes (recommended by rebeccanyc and others)
Birthday gifts (from my wish list, of course)...
Popular Hits of the Showa Era by Rhu Murakami (for Author Themed Reads and recommended by kidzdoc)
New Science by Giambattista Vico (on my wishlist for years)
On Elegance While Sleeping by Emilio Lascano Tegui (an automated LT recommendation)
Hypnerotomachia Poliphili: The Strife of Love in a Dream by Francesco Colonna (recommended by baswood)
So excited that you bought Fires on the Plain. Already looking forward to your review.
Journey to the West by Wu Cheng'en
16th century Chinese
English translation by W. J. F. Jenner 1993
Journey to the West is an epic fantasy adventure compiled in the 16th century by Wu Cheng’en from a body of oral and written sources. The setting is the Tang Dynasty (7th to 10th centuries), and the novel depicts in allegorical form the growing influence of Buddhism on China and its fusion with Taoism and Confucianism.
The novel begins with the birth and early history of its principal character, Monkey. He is a creature of divine origins born from a sacred stone on the Mountain of Flowers and Fruit many thousands of years ago. Not content with being king of a nation of monkeys, he seeks out a Taoist master from whom he learns magical powers so potent that Monkey dares to defy Heaven itself. For this he is imprisoned by the Tathagata Buddha under a mountain for five hundred years.
Next we have the background of the Buddhist priest Sanzang, himself once an immortal but banished to mortal life as punishment for a careless misdeed. He has now purified his soul through ten reincarnations. He is chosen by the Tang Emperor for a monumental task: Sanzang is to journey from China to India where he will find the Tathagata Buddha atop Vulture Peak. He is to obtain copies of the holy Buddhist scriptures so that the people of China may improve their conduct and well-being.
Sanzang is, frankly, a rather pathetic creature, pure though he may be, and could not get across town on his own, much less across a continent. Fortunately he has the divine aid of the Bodhisattva Guanyin, who frees Monkey and converts him to Buddhism so that he can be Sanzang’s guide and protector. Later he is joined by two other reformed immortals: Pig and Friar Sand.
The great majority of the novel’s 100 chapters are devoted to the journey itself and the series of adventures that befall the four monks. Most of the adventures follow the same format: They come to a particularly dangerous-looking mountain, forest or city. Sanzang quails in fear, but Monkey reassures him, but provides some prudent warning. Sanzang then ignores Monkey’s warnings, blunders right into the danger and gets himself captured by some evil spirit. Monkey fights a mighty battle to recover his master, but eventually must either resort to trickery or summon divine aid to save the day.
Most of the demons and monsters they face are supernatural creatures that have escaped from their heavenly masters and assumed human form. They are particularly eager to capture Sanzang because he is so pure that his flesh has special properties. The male demons will gain immortality by eating him, the female demons by mating with him.
Chinese culture has for centuries been built upon a fusion of Confucianism, Taoism and Buddhism, and Journey to the West, while it is most favorable to Buddhism, reflects that fusion. Monkey calls upon Taoist deities as frequently as he does Buddhist ones, and recommends the study of Confucius as well as the Buddhas and Laozi. The particular Taoists represented in the novel, however, are mostly (and spectacularly) evil, as was Monkey himself as a Taoist before his conversion to Buddhism.
Though many abridgements have been published over the centuries, the 100 chapter version of Journey to the West is the authoritative one. It is delightfully easy to read, with some very inventive situations and plenty of humorous banter between the clever Monkey and the selfish, simple-minded Pig. With only three characters of any consequence, it is not only an easy book to digest but one that is easy to put aside and pick up days or weeks later. This may be inevitable as some of the adventures do begin to be a bit repetitive, and the novel, in the excellent 4-volume Foreign Language Press edition, is over 2300 pages long. Journey to the West is a cultural treasure that anyone with a serious interest in Chinese literature should read, but it is also an entertaining and amusing adventure story.
Sounds fascinating. I think I would really enjoy reading that but it would be low on my priorities right now. Going to keep it in mind however.
As soon as I got to the word "Monkey," I thought "monkey, monkey, don't I have a book called Monkey?" So I checked my LT catalog and found that it is an abridged version of Journey to the West. I could picture the book, but had no recollection of reading it (what does that say about my memory?), so I found the book and gradually recalled that I read it and several others as part of a freshman seminar in Chinese literature just over 40 years ago. On the one hand, I feel happy that I've kept the books all these years; on the other hand, I'm abashed that I completely forgot about them.
In any case, I enjoyed your review, and it does sound like a lot of fun (if LONG)!
The Things They Carried by Tim O'Brien
A collection of linked stories first published in book form 1990
The Things They Carried is a gut-wrenching account of the author's Vietnam War experience. It is a series of stories, some published independently, worked into a novel with connective material. In some chapters O'Brien relates his own experiences; in others he talks about members of his infantry platoon. There is the moral dilemma of whether to fight a war he doesn't believe in or run from the draft, his first experiences with death, the grinding effect of continual fear, the episodes of playful and irresponsible adolescent behavior, the guilt of being safe in a hospital while your comrades are in combat, and the dislocation of post-war return to civilian life.
O'Brien is a naturally gifted storyteller, and his chapters are captivating even as they are horrifying. There is never the sense that the author goes out of the way to shock, but rather that these are memories that insist on being shared that they may be subsumed into a collective conscience. O'Brien even tells the reader, in effect, on several occasions that these stories are true, even if they aren't always real, and that they are his memories, even if they weren't his experiences. That the writer so clearly reveals himself as a writer doesn't seem to lessen the novel's impact in the least, but adds a dimension of insight into the cathartic and curative power of literature.
"The Things They Carried" (the story) is one of the most powerful stories I've ever read. I liked the whole book too, but I first read the story as a stand-alone.
Nice review of The Things They Carried, Steven. I'll add it to my wish list.
Wonderful review of The Things They Carried. It is one of the best things I've read, and I've foisted it on a number of people as well. I especially liked the tensions between perception and reality or storytelling and truth.
Agreeing with everyone on The Things They Carried. It maintains its power each time I go back to it, and that is fairly frequently.
A Mind at Peace by Ahmet Hamdi Tanpınar
First published in Turkish 1949 as Huzur
English translation by Erdağ Göknar 2008
"What is it that should be done?" This is the central question of A Mind at Peace at both the public and personal levels. The novel is set on the eve of World War II in Istanbul, Turkey. Its protagonist, Mümtaz, is a young, unmarried academic and would-be novelist. He is principally occupied at the moment, however, with caring for his older cousin İhsan who suffers from what appears likely to be a fatal case of pneumonia. İhsan had been Mümtaz's guardian and mentor ever since the latter's parents died as a result of the Greek invasion of Anatolia in 1919--events which Mümtaz recalls at the beginning of the novel.
Mümtaz also reflects ruefully upon his recently broken love affair with Nuran, a divorced woman slightly older than Mümtaz. In the long walks he takes to escape from the sick room, every sight and sound seems to recall the times he spent with Nuran.
After this prologue, the novel shifts back a year or more in time to Mümtaz's first meeting with Nuran. It is a relationship we know is doomed to failure, but not how or why. In the meantime, the two lovers, enraptured with one another, spend many idle hours in all seasons exploring their city--from palaces to bazaars, from waterways to ancient ruins. Eventually Mümtaz even wonders "Do we love each other or the Bosphorus?"
On a par with their passion for Istanbul is the pair's enthusiasm for traditional Turkish music. There are lengthy discussions about it, as well as sessions where Nuran's uncle, a noted vocalist, and his friends perform for guests. (It's a shame that the novel couldn't have included a CD to satisfy readers' inevitable curiosity about the folk music described in such rapturous terms.)
Notwithstanding the love story and travelogue, A Mind at Peace is essentially a novel of ideas. It is August 1939, and the world is obviously on the brink of another great war. The Turks have no reason to expect that they won't be involved, but should they just let the currents of history carry them into another bloodbath? What is the responsibility of the individual, especially of the intellectual, at times like this? After long talks with his cousin, Mümtaz asks himself: "Maybe İhsan does have a point! This society wants ideas and maybe even a struggle out of me. Not romantic posturing! But to achieve this end must I forget about Nuran?"
There is obviously much of Hamlet's "To be, or not to be..." in Mümtaz's dilemma. Readers of Robert Musil's The Man Without Qualities will also find themselves on familiar ground with a protagonist full of ideas but lacking in direction. In contrast to Mümtaz there is Suad, a key character introduced fairly late in the novel, who is his mirror image: a man of intellectual attainment but impulsive, irresponsible, self-indulgent and proud of his Sadean amorality. Nuran, in contrast to both of these men, is centered on her feelings, her family, and her cultural roots. In the author's words, "Nuran depended on a minimum level of selfhood. She lived through her milieu."
A Mind at Peace is a great novel that brings forth ideas of epic scale out of an intimate story, and does so against an unforgettable historical and cultural backdrop. The principal characters, notwithstanding their penchant for philosophical abstracts, are convincingly complete and complex. The author's prose, beautifully translated, has an evocative and lyrical quality in keeping with the musical theme running through the novel. Here, for example, is a passage describing Nuran:
"Not a single spot existed on her small face with which he wasn't familiar. For Mümtaz, her face became his panorama of the soul: the way it blossomed to love like a flower, closed definitively upon a despairing smile--the metallic radiance burning in her eyes asquint--and not least of all the way her face changed by degrees like a daybreak over the Bosphorus.... With a look, she dressed him up and stripped him down, at one moment turning him into a pitiful, forsaken malcontent with no recourse but Allah, and at the next into the very master of his fate."For both its profound discussion of ideas central to the human condition and its vivid portrayal of a place, a time and a people, A Mind at Peace is highly recommended.
What a great review and recommendation. I have that book, through my Archipelago subscription, and now I'm going to have to move it up higher on the TBR.
Thank you for your outstanding review of A Mind at Peace, Steven. I keep meaning to read this, but I've put it off at least twice. I'll make a point to read this in the fall, or early next year at the latest.
Gorgeous review of A Mind at Peace -- I was not familiar with this book, but it goes on the wishlist -- thanks.
Wow steven, great review of A Mind at Peace. This looks to be quite a discovery and looks to hit on many of my interests. I would particularly like the talks about Turkish music and the flavour of Istanbul. It goes straight on my to buy list.
You have quite a range of musical interests, Barry, from American jazz to Turkish folk music. I've asked my Turkish friend, who is the owner of the website where we are discussing A Mind at Peace, to provide some links to samples of the music mentioned in the novel. I'll repost them here as soon as she does so.
Agnes Grey by Anne Brontë
First published 1847
Anne Brontë's novel Agnes Grey is largely autobiographical. Agnes, the narrator, is the daughter of a poor clergyman. She is, however, quite well-educated. When her father foolishly squanders the family's capital in an unwise investment, Agnes goes out at the age of 18 to seek work as a governess.
In two successive positions, Agnes finds herself nominally in charge of spoiled and willful children who treat her as their servant rather than their mentor. With no support from the children's parents, poor Agnes more often than not must take the blame for her charges' misbehavior. Eventually, however, she has cause to hope that love and fulfillment will finally come her way.
The chief interest in the novel is its harsh portrayal of the English middle and upper classes of the day. Always grasping for wealth and position, their lives are devoid of any romantic sentiment or domestic affection. Fathers celebrate their sons' cruelties as evidence that they will succeed in life. Mothers marry their daughters off for the sake of a title and an estate to men they despise.
Agnes herself is not an entirely likable heroine. Prone to priggishness, she makes herself a martyr to her poverty and moral rectitude, refusing to stand up or speak out for herself and making happiness fight its way through her defenses.
Without the name "Brontë" attached to it, this is a novel that probably would have faded into obscurity decades ago. While it is well-written, it offers few insights, and the plot is painfully predictable. Fortunately it is short enough it can be read as a specimen and for biographical insight. Brontë's later novel, The Tenant of Wildfell Hall, is much more rewarding.
Other works I have read by Anne Brontë:
The Tenant of Wildfell Hall
Fabulous review of A Mind at Peace, Steven. You continue to find such interesting works and write such intriguing reviews!
Deep River by Shūsaku Endō
First published in Japanese 1993
English translation by Van C. Gessel 1994
Four members of a Japanese tour group visiting the sacred sites in India each have their own deep and personal reasons for this journey. On the banks of the River Ganges they will find, if not the answers they seek, at least a measure of illumination.
Isobe, a strict and traditional Japanese businessman, has watched his wife die of cancer. The woman he has taken for granted for many years suddenly commands his attention, and he feels too late the love he has never shown her. Her dying words stun him: "I know for sure...I'll be reborn somewhere in this world. Look for me...find me."
Mitsuko is a spoiled and callous young college student. Just for the fun of it, she seduces Otsu, a serious, awkward, and naïve member of Japan's Catholic minority. She taunts him about his faith, but can't erase from her mind the ideas of humanity, sacrifice and redemption he clumsily defends. Years later, finding her life an empty and meaningless shell, Mitsuko seeks out Otsu.
Kiguchi is an aging veteran of Japan's disastrous campaign in Burma during World War II. He is haunted and hardened by memories of the Highway of Death, Japan's final retreat, where hundreds of his comrades died of starvation. Kiguchi was kept alive by a sacrifice whose horrific nature he has only recently learned. His journey to the Buddhist shrines of India is an homage to friend and enemy alike.
Numanda, a writer of children's stories, attributes his miraculous recovery from lung disease to his constant companion, a myna bird. In a spirit of celebration and gratitude, Numanda makes a pilgrimage to the bird's native forests in India.
The four travelers come to Varanasi (formerly Benaras). Here, on the banks of the sacred Ganges, they witness an ongoing celebration of life, death, and renewal, as pilgrims bathe in and drink the same waters where the ashes of the cremated dead are committed. They see the extremes of luxury and poverty, of selfless sacrifice and religious violence. Here, also, they find Otsu, the serious young man whom Mitsuko once teased.
Otsu has finally become a priest, but has been ostracized by the Church for his heretical ideas, ideas which are central to the novel. All religions worship the same god, he believes, and the idea of Jesus and his sacrifice is present in many forms including the Hindu ritual enacted daily on the Ganges. Every selfless act is an affirmation of God, and the forms in which we worship are immaterial.
Deep River is rich in religious symbolism and metaphor, but even readers who don't relate to its fundamentally Christian spiritual content will find relevance in the underlying humanism and spirit of self-discovery in the novel. The well-drawn characters and vivid depiction of the spiritual heart of India also make this a book well worth reading.
Other works I have read by Shūsaku Endō:
The Sea and Poison
Excellent review of Deep River steven, those back stories sound interesting.
You are doing some great reading, Steven. Silence was one of my favorite novels, given to me when I was confirmed Episcopalian by my youth minister. To this day it still haunts me. The Journey to the West came up in my Buddhist Studies course. Did you know Dragon Ball Z drew on it? Yeah, crazy.
#59 - Showing my age here, but I had to resort to Google to see what on earth "Dragon Ball Z" was. However I've found, just by doing image searches & such, that all three of China's most famous action classics: Romance of the Three Kingdoms, Outlaws of the Marsh, and Journey to the West continue to be reflected in popular culture in both China and Japan. Here are samples, respectively, from the three novels:
Reading a lot of Asian literature this year has made me wish I had more background knowledge of Buddhism. In Journey to the West there are multiple heavens, multiple Buddhas, and a vast array of gods, Bodhisattvas, and other divinities. I wondered what derived from established Buddhist beliefs, what from Taoism, and what may have been--like Dante's Hell--just the author's invention.
Deep River sounds amazing. Great review. Off to the library catalog to see if they have it.
Popular Hits of the Showa Era by Ryu Murakami
First published in Japanese 1994
English translation by Ralph McCarthy 2011
Popular Hits of the Showa Era is a dark and violent comedy satirizing the emptiness of modern urban life.
Six young men from the suburbs of Tokyo have lives centered around video games, girly magazines and junk food. The get together occasionally at a member's apartment to dine on vending machine snacks, play endless games of rock paper scissors, and keep a watch on a nearby apartment in hopes of catching sight of an especially shapely neighbor at her window. The are most enthusiastic, however, when it comes to karaoke. Once a month or so they get drunk, dress up in costumes and drive off to a deserted beach in the middle of the night where they set up a mock stage and perform execrable pop tunes to an audience of crabs and sea lice.
Six middle-aged suburban women have likewise formed an informal group called the "Midori Society" because they all happen to be named Midori. They are all divorced, lonely, unloved, and unappreciated. In Japan such women are known as "oba-sans." The also like karaoke, and meet regularly at a karaoke bar in the vain hope of finding love.
One day a particularly unbalanced member of the male group makes a vulgar gesture towards one of the oba-sans. When she rails at him in response, he takes out a knife and slashes her throat. This random killing baffles the police, but the other members of the Midori Society blunder upon a clue that leads them to the killer. Thus begins a blood feud between the two groups that grows to outlandish proportions. The irony is that the members of the two groups only begin to find fulfillment in their lives when they focus on violence and revenge.
Murakami has skillfully combined a bleak picture of modern life and popular culture with outrageous satire and black humor. This is a novel that would be disturbing if you took it seriously, but it certainly isn't meant to be.
Other works I have read by Ryu Murakami:
Almost Transparent Blue
Coin Locker Babies
Yes, it does have that feel at times, though there are scenes that would have to be lightened up considerably for the screen. Ryu Murakami is also a filmmaker and has filmed at least a couple of his novels. That was not the case with Popular Hits of the Showa Era, but it was filmed by another director nine years after the novel was published. The English release is titled "Karaoke Terror." The pictures I posted were from that film (but one of the links is already broken, so I removed it).
Great review of Deep River, Steven. I'm reading Endo's books in order, so I won't get to this one until the end of the year.
I loved your review of Popular Hits of the Showa Era, which made me chuckle as I remembered the absurdity and black humor of it. Thanks for posting that still shot from the movie; I'll have to see if I can find it.
I had forgotten all about Zhang Xianliang and a quick check with my old paper notebook in which I used to keep a record of books I have read shows I read Getting Used to Dying but not Half of Man Is Woman. So, I will look forward to your review of that.
By the way, the English title of Half of Man Is Woman is more poetic than the Chinese title, because in English Man could be taken to mean mankind. The Chinese title "男人的一半是女人" (Nanrende yiban she nüren) firstly says that "Half of man / men is woman / female" and only by extension might mean "mankind", but this link is not as strong as in English.
However, there is a saying in Chinese that Women hold up half the sky.
Heartbreak House by George Bernard Shaw
A play first published in 1919
Read from George Bernard Shaw: Selected Plays
The setting for Heartbreak House is a house designed by its owner, the retired Captain Shotover, to resemble the afterquarters of a great sailing ship. It is also a metaphor for England, or perhaps all of Europe, drifting onto the rocks of disaster on the eve of World War I.
The large cast consists of Captain Shotover's two middle-aged daughters, Hesione Hushabye and Lady Ariadne Utterword, and their assorted relatives and connections. They all arrive at the house by coincidence within minutes of one another. Most are unexpected, and more than one encounter reveals a previously hidden identity. The rest of the play consists essentially of one extended conversation with characters coming and going.
Revelations are the order of the day at Heartbreak House, as everyone's pretensions and disguises are gradually removed--in most cases voluntarily. The shams, cowards, temptresses, golddiggers, drunks and con-men all reveal their true natures and their real feelings for each other. Eventually conversation becomes tinged with political overtones, and we begin to see the characters as representatives of the social classes and political movements. Their revelations of their true natures gives us little hope that there is a capable hand at the helm of the ship of state.
For all its gloom and cynicism, Heartbreak House is a very funny play, especially in the beginning when its characters' disarming candor is still startling. And there's very little in it that isn't just as relevant now as it was almost 100 years ago.
Other plays I have read by George Bernard Shaw:
Mrs. Warren's Profession
Caesar and Cleopatra (my favorite so far)
Man and Superman
Intriguing play. I almost never read them, to my loss, and so few are produced. In our area, the theater companies were hard hit in the last few years, and some had to close. I'm hoping things are starting to turn around.
Excellent review steven. GBS wrote over 60 plays are you intending to read them all?
#70 - That's a shame about theaters companies closing. I don't think that's been the case here, but I don't keep up with the big (i.e. expensive) professional theaters. We go to several plays a year put on by various local amateur, civic and bilingual theater groups. Unfortunately, Heartbreak House would be beyond their means. In fact, I read that it is rarely performed because it is considered too complex, which surprised me.
#71 - No, I have no such ambitions. I have another collection with two plays I haven't read yet: Arms and the Man and Candida. That's probably as far as I'll go with GBS.
>69 Very nice review of Heartbreak House, Steven. I haven't seen any of Shaw's plays, so I'll keep this one in mind.
>70 The same holds true in Atlanta, Lisa. One suburban theater company closed in the past year or two, and another one in town is struggling to stay afloat. There is a playhouse on the street I live on, and another a few blocks away, but I haven't been to either one since I moved to Atlanta in 1997, as none of the plays have piqued my interest. Earlier this morning I made a reservation to see the Royal Shakespeare Company performance of Julius Caesar, which is set in sub-Saharan Africa, next month in London, which will be the sixth play I've purchased a ticket for in the two weeks I'll be there. Sadly, and despite my love for live theater, I haven't seen six plays in Atlanta in 15 years.
Interesting that you favour Caesar and Cleopatra, may I ask why? Just curious, I've been a fan of Shaw's all my life (I'd say even a disciple--and more's the pity, but at least I got someone to blame). That one's not one of my faves, as it happens, although I even went to see it, with Christopher Plummer. You might be interested in the filmed, Hollywooded version with Claude Rains, Vivien Leigh, Stewart Granger and a bunch of excellent British stage actors.
#74 - I guess what appealed to me about Caesar and Cleopatra was its historical setting and its portrait of Julius Caesar, nothing more profound than that. What are your favorites?
Thanks for the movie recommendation. I'm sure I would enjoy it, but I just haven't been in the habit of watching movies or TV in recent years.
So, it turns out that one of the plays I'll see next month at the National Theatre, The Doctor's Dilemma, was written by George Bernard Shaw. Do you, or does anyone else, read the script before seeing the play, wait until afterward (which is what I usually do), or not read them at all? I've found it helpful for some NT performances, particularly those whose actors speak in heavy Cockney accents, such as England People Very Nice. I just downloaded the free version of The Doctor's Dilemma onto my Kindle, and I'll read it beforehand or afterward.
I suppose the playwright would say that his work was meant to be seen in performance, not read, so you should go to the theater with an open mind about it. An exception might be in order, however, when you are so far removed in time and culture from the writer and the play that a more studied approach would be helpful. I read Schiller's Maria Stuart before seeing it performed, and was glad I did because of the complex political and religious issues involved. But that's the only time I can think of that I deliberately read a play before going to see it.
As it happens, I love the best some relatively obscure stuff, simply because it was my introduction to Shaw, by pure chance: The Man of Destiny (a plucky English lady upends Napoleon in a country inn), You Never Can Tell (zany Shaw), An unsocial Socialist (I can't seem to get touchstones for any of those...)
Of the most famous stuff, Pygmalion.
I would recommend that you read it BEFORE seeing the play, by all means! I can't think of any reason not to read Shaw before watching the play, or even for going to see his plays in preference to reading them. This may be iconoclastic, considering he's supposedly such a great "dramatist", but I always had the strongest suspicion Shaw wrote "plays" simply because that was the most economical way of writing conversations.
But another reason to read before watching is his famous prefaces--and I think the one for Doctor's Dilemma especially is twice the length of the play, a full-fledged anti-vivisectionist polemic. I don't remember very many details, but I think it would be extremely useful to know the full extent of Shaw's arguments before you see them enacted. The prefaces are also useful in delineating his true positions; Shaw adored paradoxes and loved nothing better than to play the devil's advocate against himself. Oh, and that's another lovely play-conversation of his, The Devil's Disciple--I do like all his plays "for Puritans".
#73 despite my love for live theater, I haven't seen six plays in Atlanta in 15 years
Because of inferior productions or nothing in 15 years that interested you? What sorts of plays do they put on in your area? Your statement surprised me, knowing you to be a theater buff.
I can't fathom not seeing plays for 15 weeks, much less for 15 years -- surely there must be SOMETHING worth seeing.
>77 I suppose the playwright would say that his work was meant to be seen in performance, not read, so you should go to the theater with an open mind about it.
That's my general opinion. I don't think I've read any scripts just before seeing the performances, but I was curious to see what other people did.
>78 I would recommend that you read it BEFORE seeing the play, by all means!
Thanks, Lola. I shall make an exception for The Doctor's Dilemma then. I downloaded the free version onto my Kindle, but I'll purchase the Penguin version from the NT Bookshop or Foyles if it doesn't contain the preface that you mentioned.
>79 Because of inferior productions or nothing in 15 years that interested you? What sorts of plays do they put on in your area?
Atlanta isn't a very sophisticated town when it comes to fine arts, unfortunately. The plays tend to be rehashes of Broadway plays (e.g., Avenue Q, which is playing here for the umpteenth time, The Wiz and Legally Blonde: The Musical (seriously?)), campy comedies or love stories that feature tawdry Southern characters (What I Learned in Paris by Pearl Cleage is playing at the theater in the main Arts Center in town), gospel or hip-hop performances or the equivalent of urban lit on the stage, or ones that would have zero appeal to a red-blooded male, such as The Vagina Monologues or Menopause: The Musical (you would have to lobotomize me before I saw either of those performances, which had extended runs at the theater just across the street from me).
>80 surely there must be SOMETHING worth seeing
I did check one of the free weekly publications earlier today, and only one of the 32 listed theatrical performances this weekend was moderately interesting: Art by Yasmina Reza. I saw her play God of Carnage on Broadway in 2009, which won three Tony Awards that year, including one for the Best Play of the year.
There have been plays that I have wanted to see that were on in Atlanta, most recently Fela!, which I had a ticket for in London last year but missed due to a sudden bout of gastroenteritis. Unfortunately I was out of town for the week that it was here.
Catching up here. Of all the terrific reviews I just read, Deep River struck me the strongest, for whatever reason. Post #61 is very interesting. Three books to approach whenever I finally get the momentum to read about China.
Welcome back, Dan! I was happy to read on your thread that you had such a memorable journey.
I scrolled up to see what post #61 had said and discovered a broken picture link, so I found another to substitute.
Last night reading a modern Chinese novel, Half of Man is Woman (which I'll be finishing and reviewing soon), I ran across yet another reference to the wonderful novel Outlaws of the Marsh (aka Water Margin). In 1975 Mao Zedong and the "Gang of Four" began a campaign of indirect attacks against Premier Zhou Enlai by encouraging public criticism of Song Jiang, the principal character of Outlaws of the Marsh. Song was a highly effective guerrilla leader who nonetheless negotiated an amnesty with the emperor, making him a defeatist in Mao's eyes. Zhou, like Song, preferred compromise over absolutism. Here are two posters promoting the criticism of Song Jiang:
The images came from Chineseposters.net which has a nice summary of the campaign.
Half of Man Is Woman by Zhang Xianliang
First published in China 1985
English translation by Martha Avery 1986
By 1966 Zhang Yonglin had already spent a decade--his entire adult life--in various Chinese prisons and labor camps. An intellectual and a poet, he is accused of being a "rightist." After a day at work in the rice fields he spots a trail leading into a canebrake, a likely spot for ducks. Pushing his way through the cane, he comes upon a pond where a young woman, completely naked, is bathing. She finally sees Zhang and--amazingly--just smiles at him; he panics and runs, but the memory of that moment will linger for years. "Here was something magical, that escaped all that man abhorred. Here, almost, was a myth, an archetype that transcended the world itself. Because of her, the world now had color. Because of her, I now knew grace."
Zhang's life in the labor camp is sterile and meaningless, but not brutal. The inmates perform hard but satisfying work in the fields and are treated humanely. Some even say they are glad to be safe in the camps instead of "on the outside" where things are really crazy with the Cultural Revolution running amok. But they are denied any social freedom or creative expression and must listen daily to propaganda broadcasts over the camp loudspeakers.
Eight years later Zhang has been transferred to a State Farm. The farm is a more relaxed atmosphere than the labor camp, with the residents having considerably more freedom. They are more like military draftees than prisoners, but they are still under strict ideological constraints. Here Zhang works at the fairly easy job of tending sheep and horses. And here, too, he again encounters the beautiful young woman. Her name is Huang Xiangjiu. After an exceedingly awkward courtship, they marry. It is only then that Zhang, a 39-year old virgin, discovers that he is impotent.
The author clearly uses Zhang's impotence to represent the powerlessness of China's intellectuals: "The passion of politics flows from the same source as the impulse of lust.... Both incite a man to abandon himself, to plunge forward--decisively, bravely, foolishly, taking and possessing--receiving fulfillment and happiness in the act of self sacrifice." And Zhang Yonglin himself, who quotes Shakespeare and other Western authors, faces Hamlet's dilemma in both his personal and political life: to suffer or to struggle. "I wanted to break through that false world, I wanted to break through my own current existence. But with the future so uncertain, at a time when great storms were raging, wasn't this world worth lingering in awhile?"
Half of Man Is Woman is closely based on the author's personal experiences. The novel was published in China in 1985, but authorities later banned it on account of "vulgarity." It provides a detailed picture of life in China's labor camps during the Cultural Revolution, showing them to be less harsh than we might imagine--provided one did not attempt to challenge the régime's ideology. It is also a bittersweet romance about a couple who find it is difficult to build an honest relationship in a world of lies.
Excellent reviews of Half of Man Is Woman and Heartbreak House, Steven. Shaw is on my list of Nobel Laureates still to be read. I think there must be an art to reading plays that you have not seen produced, but the only time I have done it with any satisfaction was Euripides' Hecuba, which I was planning to see but then missed.
Interesting review of Half of Man is Woman. I'm curious about the title -- it doesn't seem to bear a direct relation to the subject, or at least the English title does not. Does the author mention anything about it?
#87 - The title is ambiguous. See edwinbcn's comments in message 68 above which say it could be read simply as "half of mankind is woman."
Because of Zhang Yonglin's impotence, he is referred to as "half a man." So a sexist interpretation of the title might be: those Chinese intellectuals who have been emasculated by the Cultural Revolution are no better than women. Or to put it in a less offensive way: men are torn between their risk-taking masculine side and their security-seeking feminine side.
A simpler explanation may be to see Half of Man Is Woman as one novel in a series of autobiographical works by Zhang Xianliang, with its theme being that this is the period in his life when "the other half" made its influence felt.
Or to put it in a less offensive way: men are torn between their risk-taking masculine side and their security-seeking feminine side.
That would be an elegant interpretation: in Chinese culture masculinity is yang and femininity is yin. Balanced halves of Yin & Yang.
Voss by Patrick White
First published 1957
Voss is a superb novel combining elements of adventure, romance, and spirituality. The setting is Australia in the mid 19th century. We first meet Laura Trevelyan, a young woman orphaned in early childhood and living with her aunt and uncle, the Bonners, in Sydney. Mr. Bonner is a prosperous fabric merchant, so Laura has had a very advantageous upbringing. She is of a reserved and chilly temperament, however, and is unfashionably well read. She also rejects the religious orthodoxy of the community and is generally aloof from society.
Mr. Bonner has recently undertaken to sponsor an expedition that will attempt the first European crossing of the Australian continent. The leader of the expedition will be Johann Ulrich Voss, a German whose origins and motives remain an enigma, but who is supremely confident in his own abilities. Voss is entertained on occasion at the Bonner house, where the fastidious Mr. and Mrs. Bonner find the German's manners abrupt and uncouth. They are not accustomed to a man who says what he thinks, or, for that matter, who thinks much at all. It is a different story, however, with Laura, who finds her brief conversations with Voss both intriguing and infuriating. Though no sign of affection has passed between the two in their few moments together, after the expedition departs both Voss and Laura realize they are in love.
The expedition consists of a handful of volunteers plus two native guides. They take their provisions with them in the form of a small herd of cattle, sheep and goats. But the waterless desert takes its toll on animals and men. The seasons change, and suddenly it is disease and flooding with which they must contend. Before long it is more a question of survival than success, and discord becomes mutiny. White's descriptions of the landscape, the men's physical suffering, and their mental anguish are vivid and memorable.
In alternating chapters we follow the ordeals of Laura and Voss. Keeping her feelings for the explorer a secret, the young woman further alienates herself from family and friends by her moody temperament and social indifference. She and Voss begin to see each other in their dreams, and even believe they are communicating spiritually. Their relationship begins to take on a religious context, and as they each independently face their greatest crisis, Laura begins to see Voss as a Christ figure while in his hallucinations he sees her in a form resembling the Virgin Mary.
The novel has many biblical allusions, from the ordeal in wilderness, to Abraham's willingness to sacrifice Isaac, to a virgin birth of sorts, to a Judas figure. The author does not appear, however, to be supporting a theology as much as he is placing his characters' spiritual dilemma in a context of Christian symbolism. There is no cut and dried message here. Neither of the principal characters is fully revealed to the reader, nor are they entirely likable. What starts out as a romantic adventure becomes a novel on an entirely different plane. Voss is indeed both a thoughtful and a disturbing work and most highly recommended.
Other works I have read by Patrick White:
The Living and the Dead
The Tree of Man
Super review of Voss steven. Those biblical allusions are open to all sorts of interpretation, but I agree with you they do not skew the novel in a way that supports or otherwise a theology.
Since I'm interested in all things religious and spiritual I like novels that explore these things too. Patrick White is now on my list. Thanks.
#93 - There's a group called the Patrick White 100th Anniversary Challenge where you can find discussion of most of his novels and pick the one that interests you most. Voss is his most famous work, but baswood and I both admired The Tree of Man as well. bas's recent review on Riders in the Chariot indicated it is even richer in Christian references, but not as rewarding overall as the other two.
Piercing by Ryu Murakami
First published in Japanese 1994
English translation by Ralph McCarthy 2007
As a child, Kawashima Masayuki was physically and mentally tortured by his mother before being placed in an institution. As a result he hears a mysterious inner voice and is periodically overcome by the desire to stab a woman, any woman, with an ice pick. When he suddenly finds himself one night standing over his infant daughter, ice pick in hand, Kawashima decides the only way to get this compulsion out of his system is to actually kill someone. A woman he doesn't know. A prostitute.
Little does Kawashima suspect that the call girl he picks as his victim, Sanada Chiaki, is even more messed up than he is. Sexually abused as a child by her father, Chiaki is prone to violent personality changes, sudden rages, and self mutilation. When the two come together the result is a dark--very dark--comedy of errors as each assumes the other is acting rationally, which triggers even more bizarre reactions. Whose psychosis will prevail?
Piercing is a fast-paced thriller, sometimes morbidly funny, but not for the squeamish.
Other works I have read by Ryu Murakami:
Almost Transparent Blue
Coin Locker Babies
Popular Hits of the Showa Era
Very dark comedy of errors indeed! Your effective review could be used as a synopsis at the back of the book.
@ #91 - and again. Wonderful review of Voss. If I could only convince myself to set the other books aside and actually read Tree of Man. Ryu Murakami, on the other hand, I can maybe live without reading.
In the Miso Soup by Ryu Murakami
First published in Japanese 1997
English translation by Ralph McCarthy 2003
The narrator of In the Miso Soup is Kenji, a twenty-year old man who works as a freelance "nightlife guide." He escorts foreign tourists through the glittering maze of Tokyo's red light district, helping them find the entertainments and services they seek. The novel tales place over a three-day span, December 29-31, 1996. Kenji's client is an American named Frank, a man of imposing size and strength and, Kenji soon realizes, some very frightening characteristics and mannerisms. After the first two stops on their first night--a bar and peep show--it is obvious to Kenji that Frank is not what he claims to be, and Kenji even begins to suspect that this American may have been the one responsible for the grisly murder of a prostitute the previous evening.
Kenji's suspicious of Frank are, of course, well-founded, and we are soon in the midst of a grisly and suspenseful pshcyo-thriller. But from its second sentence on, it is also obvious that another purpose of the novel is to compare Japanese and American cultures. For example, Kenji observes:
What's good about Americans, if I can generalize a little, is that they have a kind of openhearted innocence. And what's not so good is that they can't imagine any world outside the States, or any value system different from their own. The Japanese have a similar defect, but Americans are even worse about trying to force others to do whatever they themselves believe to be right. American clients often forbid me to smoke and sometimes even make me accompany them on their daily jogs. In a word, they're childish...Much later in the novel Frank mirrors this argument, in a way, as he is relating to Kenji what a Peruvian prostitute had just explained to Frank. Pointing out that Japan may have lost wars, but, like the U.S., has never been invaded and forced to assimilate another culture, she explains...
...so the people at home never came face to face with an enemy who killed and raped their relatives and forced them to speak a new language. A history of being assimilated is one thing most countries in Europe and the New World have in common, so it's like a basis for international understanding. But the people in this country don't know how to relate to outsiders because they haven't had any real contact with them. That's why they're so insular.Yet while Japan and the U.S. do have in common a certain degree of cultural smugness, albeit manifested in different ways, Kenji finds a number of sharp contrasts, including this observation:
I remember the American making this particular confession, and the way his voice caught when he said "accept it." Americans don't talk about just grinning and bearing it, which is the Japanese approach to many things. After listening to a lot of these stories, I began to think that American loneliness is a completely different creature from anything we experience in this country, and it made me glad I was born Japanese. The type of loneliness where you need to keep struggling to accept a situation is fundamentally different from the sort you know you'll get through if you just hang in there.Loneliness is a theme Murakami returns to in describing the Tokyo sex trade. Most of the women working as prostitutes or participating in "compensated dating" are not in need of money, he claims, but simply lonely. Likewise most of their clients are not seeking sex as much as simple companionship, and an ever increasing number of them are willing to pay a prostitute just to have a long conversation fully clothed.
Yet it is the American, Frank, and not the Japanese who is the central figure in the novel. He is a psychotic of immense, almost supernatural, power and ability. Yet he is also fully aware of his own condition and discusses its origins at length with Kenji. Presumably he is representative of the ills of society as a whole, Japanese as well as American. He is the product of a culture obsessed with materialism, where parents are so devoted to their careers that they neglect their families, where neighbors never meet one another, and where children are desensitized by a surfeit of artificial stimulation.
Ending with a plea for cultural understanding and spiritual focus, In the Miso Soup is clearly meant to be a thoughtful novel and not just a crime thriller. Yet the novel's brevity doesn't allow for much development of the author's ideas, so it's not quite as satisfying or convincing as it might have been.
Other books I have read by Ryu Murakami:
Almost Transparent Blue
Coin Locker Babies
Popular Hits of the Showa Era
Your comments about how Murakami treats Frank, the American, are interesting, because I felt that the treatment of the US servicemen, particularly the African-American ones, in Almost Transparent Blue, were quite stereotyped. Also, interesting thoughts about neither the US nor Japan having been invaded.
#103 - Linda, I would say if there is a must-read by Murakami it is Almost Transparent Blue, with the caveat that it is his most sexually explicit and nihilistic work. It's my impression that, after his second novel, Coin Locker Babies, Murakami was probably focusing more on his film career and less on his writing. His subsequent novels don't seem to be quite everything they could be, and at times seem to belong more to the world of cinema than literature.
#104 - Rebecca, yes, I remember the depiction of black soldiers as amoral drug-fueled sex fiends. And it's interesting, despite some sympathetic comments, that the only American character in In the Miso Soup is a psychotic monster. I toyed with the idea that Frank is a metaphor for America itself, but I wouldn't go that far.
Those of us south of the Mason-Dixon line would quibble about "not ever having been invaded." (In fact, some claim we are being invaded all over again from the south.) But, if so, its laughable to think that these "invasions" have made persons of later generations more understanding of other cultures. In fact, I think the whole idea that having been conquered makes a people more understanding is nonsense. Repeated conquests by Mongols and Manchus certainly didn't make the Chinese any more open to external influence or understanding of foreigners than the never-invaded Japanese.
I was more interested in the comment about Americans having a need to "accept" tragedy, loss, or what have you. This, to me, is a relatively new facet of American character, but one that has quickly become an imperative. I get tired of hearing how people have to "come to terms" with the unacceptable, or "find closure" with the unbearable. I guess I'm more Japanese--per Murakami's distinction--in my sentiments that misfortune is to be endured, if necessary, but never accepted.
Enjoyed your thoughts and some naval gazing following your reading of In the Miso Soup. No comment from an Englishman whose country was invaded by the French back in 1066. It is a shame they never left us with there culinary skills.
#105, I do agree with you 1000% about how completely enraging it is to hear people talk about "finding closure." It drives me crazy. I think when something unbearable happens, you just have to find a way to go on with your life, but you will never "accept" it.
Perhaps it is living an ocean away from most other countries that makes Americans, in general, so insular.
Midaq Alley by Naguib Mahfouz
First published in Arabic 1947
English translation by Trevor Le Gassick 1966
Midaq Alley is a small, narrow street, but a community unto itself. Here, amid the feverish bustle of wartime Cairo, life goes on as it seems it always will. Uncle Kamil naps at the door of his sweets shop. The baker's wife berates her husband. Salim Alwan is busy making money and taking aphrodisiacs to feed his timeless libido. Mrs. Saniya Afify decides to put an end to years of widowhood and visit the professional matchmaker. Zaita the beggarmaker gives one of his clients a profitable new deformity. And Abbas the young barber gazes longingly at a window in hopes of catching a glimpse of Hamida, the girl he adores.
Hamida herself is the central character of the novel. An orphaned girl taken in by the matchmaker, she has few prospects in life despite her beauty. She dresses in rags. Her gorgeous thigh-length hair smells of the kerosene she uses to kill the lice. Yet she has an unconquerable pride and a fearsome temper. Even when she is fond of a man, she can't help lashing out with her sharp tongue at every chance, and she seems stubbornly determined to spurn the few opportunities life hands her.
In this community of generally high religious values there is also Kirsha, the café owner. Late in life he has developed a fondness for hashish, as well as for the intimate company of young men. His loud arguments with his wife and adult son have made him the scandal Midaq Alley. Yet the same group continues to gather daily at Kirsha's café for their evening tea and a smoke.
The novel takes place in the mid-1940s when the air raids and the threat of German occupation have passed, but the city is still a hub of military activity. The Allied armies provide both an economic windfall, with jobs aplenty for young men, but also the temptations to vice. There is still, however, a sense of timelessness that leaves Midaq Alley, not isolated, but somehow insulated from the passing centuries. This novel is like an exquisitely painted miniature depicting all of life's pleasures and sorrows in a tiny frame.
Other works I have read by Naguib Mahfouz:
The Cairo Trilogy
I don't have much to add but your discussion of Ryu Murakami has given me a lot to think about when I return to his other books.
To Edited Add: One might Argue that while the United States, at least large portions of it (for those lost causers out there), has never been conquered by an invading force, we have been influenced by a steady stream of immigrants from all over the world and assimilated cultural customs not our own in an often ugly process.
#112 - I'm certainly not going to defend the argument made by Murakami's characters. As you say, while the U.S. may not have been invaded and forced to adopt a new culture and language, it is historically comprised of immigrants who suffered even greater cultural dislocation. If modern Americans do not develop much of an understanding of other cultures it is simply because our culture and language are so globally pervasive that most Americans have neither the need nor the opportunity to do so. The Tiger does not need to learn the ways of the Fox.
>102 - Another good review of a book that I won't be reading. Are you planning to read Audition? I remember reading reviews about the Miike film (before I knew it was a book) and concluding that I could never see it.
Hecuba by Euripides
First performed 425-424 BCE
English translation by William Arrowsmith
"Where is greatness gone?," cries Hecuba, the widow of King Priam of Troy and now a prisoner of the Achaeans. The victors are eager to set sail for Greece and home, but foul winds hold them back. They are still camped on Asian shores, with the women of Troy assembled in tents as the spoils of war. Aged Hecuba, who has seen most of her family put to death, has with her only her youngest daughter, Polyxena. Her last remaining son, Polydorus, is safe with a nearby Thracian nobleman named Polymestor--or so she believes.
But the ghost of mighty Achilles has appeared and demanded a sacrifice, nothing less than a princess of Troy. The Achaean soldiers are worried that, until they appease Achilles' spirit, the winds will not turn. Odysseus bears the news to Hecuba: her darling Polyxena must die. Hecuba pleads for her daughter's life with arguments that seem irresistible. But Odysseus is not moved: What can he do? The mob must be appeased! Polyxena bravely accepts her fate.
At the very moment she is losing her daughter, Hecuba learns that the body of her son, Polydorus, has just washed ashore. He has been treacherously murdered by his host Polymestor. All the poor woman can think of now is revenge and death. An onlooker moans:
O Zeus, what can I say? That you look on man
and care? Or do we, holding that the gods exist,
deceive ourselves with unsubstantial dreams
and lies, while random careless chance and change
alone control the world?
Euripides's play depicts a world where honor and nobility are on the wane. Odysseus and Agamemnon are demagogues, playing to the mob, going back on their word, granting justice only if it doesn't cost them popularity. They are put to shame by Polyxena, a little maiden who bares her breasts to the sword and gladly dies a free woman rather than live as a slave. This is not Euripides's best play, but it is a very emotional and revealing one that fills a sad chapter in the great epic of the Trojan War.
Andromache by Euripides
Written 430-424 BCE
English translation by John Frederick Nims
At the end of the Trojan War, Andromache, the widow of Troy's champion Hector, was taken prisoner by the Greeks. Hector's killer, Achilles, was now dead, so Andromache was given as slave and concubine to Achilles's son, Neoptolemus. The play opens some years later after Andromache has borne Neoptolemus a son. But Neoptolemus has now taken a wife, Hermione, the daughter of Menelaus, king of Sparta, and his famous wife Helen. Hermione, who is barren, jealously plots against the life of Andromache and her son while Neoptolemus is out of town.
Hermione and Andromache engage in a long shouting match. Then Hermione leaves and Menelaus shows up. He and Andromache have at it verbally for a while, then he tricks her into giving up and is about to lead her and her son off to be killed when Peleus, the grandfather of Neoptolemus, comes to the rescue. Menelaus suddenly remembers he has a city to sack somewhere, and goes off leaving Hermione in the lurch. She realizes she's in for it when her husband gets home, so she rips off her clothes and is trying to kill herself when her cousin Orestes suddenly happens to drop in to say Hello. Let's kill Neoptolemus instead, he suggests, then you and I can get married.
Written during the Peloponnesian War, the play Andromache is mostly a piece of anti-Spartan propaganda. There is nothing dignified or noble in it at all, nor are the emotions genuine. Told that her son will be put to death, Andromache's reaction is to slander Hermione with sarcasm. Then she simply disappears midway through the play, never to return. This is a curious and disjointed tragedy that is probably best played for laughs.
#114 - Yes, though I'm a little burnt out on Murakami at the moment, I have Audition and will probably read it sometime in September.
Wow, Euripides. I'm impressed how interesting Hucuba sounds. I really enjoyed your review of Midaq Alley.
There is a tragic symmetry to the Trojan War. At its beginning the departure of the Achaean fleet is thwarted by adverse winds until Agamemnon, in fulfillment of a prophecy, has his youngest daughter Iphigenia sacrificed to the gods. She is tricked into believing she is going to be married to Achilles. This is a story memorably told by Euripides in Iphigenia in Aulis. At the end of the war, and for the same reason, it is King Priam's youngest daughter Polyxena who must be sacrificed as depicted in Hecuba. Again, Achilles is part of the picture, but this time there is no trickery involved.
I haven't read Greek plays in decades, but you make me want to do it again.
And, back to the immigration discussion, since I live in New York City which, if not a true melting pot, at least has school children who speak some 175 languages, we are completely accustomed to being surrounded by immigrants from all over the world. Of course, in some parts of the US, people may consider NYC a foreign country!
Excellent reviews of the Greek plays, steven. You have inspired me to want to read some of Euripides's plays at some point in my life. Thank you for the wonderful reviews.
Really great reviews, Steven. I've enjoyed the few Euripides I've read (Medea and The Bacchae). I remember Nietzsche being quite contemptuous of Euripides in his The Birth of Tragedy, but, well, the man could be contemptuous of anyone. I think he felt that Euripides signalled the decline of Greek tragedy, but I'd have to check again to be sure of his argument.
Yes, Euripides does represent a change and a contrast from Aeschylus and Sophocles. In place of their nobility and purity, Euripides' characters often have a fumbling ambivalence about them. He appears to be writing for a broader and somewhat iconoclastic audience. An in Andromache in particular, Euripides crosses the line from tragedy into satire.
For a good illustration, read the Electra of Sophocles, followed by the Electra of Euripides. The nobility of Sophocles's Electra will move you to tears, but Euripides's characters will give you more insight into how real people feel and act.
Oh, how I enjoy reading your informative and well-written reviews on books and plays that might otherwise have remained forever unknown to me! I had some catching up to do, so the thumbs are flying. I enjoyed the discussion provoked by In the Miso Soup. I have just finished The Cairo Trilogy so I may take a break before reading Midaq Alley, but I appreciated your comparison of CT as being about one family over time, and MA as many families in a snapshot. Checking my library to see if I have Hecuba and Electra.
I read somewhere that The Trojan Women is supposed to be a moving anti-war piece...
Yes it is, and highly recommended. I saw it in performance many years ago, and it was overwhelming. At least ten years of strife between Athens and Sparta had elapsed between the writing of Andromache and The Trojan Women, as is obviously reflected in the mood and theme of the two plays.
The following amazing passages are from The Expedition of Humphrey Clinker by Tobias Smollett, published 1771. Before turning novelist, Smollett was a surgeon and seems to have had very progressive attitudes towards public health. Unfortunately some of his complaints have still not been addressed, nor has there been much change in political attitudes and obstacles.
"The bread I eat in London, is a deleterious paste, mixed up with chalk, alum, and bone-ashes; insipid to the taste, and destructive to the constitution. The good people are not ignorant of this adulteration—but they prefer it to wholesome bread, because it is whiter than the meal of corn: thus they sacrifice their taste and their health, and the lives of their tender infants, to a most absurd gratification of a mis-judging eye; and the miller, or the baker, is obliged to poison them and their families, in order to live by his profession. The same monstrous depravity appears in their veal, which is bleached by repeated bleedings, and other villainous arts, till there is not a drop of juice left in the body, and the poor animal is paralytic before it dies; so void of all taste, nourishment, and savour, that a man might dine as comfortably on a white fricassee of kid-skin gloves; or chip hats from Leghorn.
"...the milk itself should not pass unanalysed, the produce of faded cabbage-leaves and sour draff, lowered with hot water, frothed with bruised snails, carried through the streets in open pails, exposed to foul rinsings, discharged from doors and windows, spittle, snot, and tobacco-quids from foot passengers, overflowings from mud carts, spatterings from coach wheels, dirt and trash chucked into it by roguish boys for the joke's sake, the spewings of infants, who have slabbered in the tin-measure, which is thrown back in that condition among the milk, for the benefit of the next customer; and, finally, the vermin that drops from the rags of the nasty drab that vends this precious mixture, under the respectable denomination of milk-maid.
"Now, all these enormities might be remedied with a very little attention to the article of police, or civil regulation; but the wise patriots of London have taken it into their heads, that all regulation is inconsistent with liberty; and that every man ought to live in his own way, without restraint—Nay, as there is not sense enough left among them, to be discomposed by the nuisance I have mentioned, they may, for aught I care, wallow in the mire of their own pollution."
the wise patriots of London have taken it into their heads, that all regulation is inconsistent with liberty; and that every man ought to live in his own way, without restraint
To each man a cow of his own!
I will never eat bread or drink milk again when I am in London.........On second thoughts there is no milk produced there and most of the bread would be packaged from elsewhere and so is probably safe.
The comments on bread reminded me of something I learned a few years ago in a short class on nutrition. Packages of white flour and white bread sold here in the U.S. all say "Enriched." This is not something the millers and bakers do out of the goodness of their hearts to make sure we get our vitamins. It is because the milling and bleaching process renders the wheat so devoid of nutritional value that the government won't allow it to be sold as a food product unless a minimum level of nutrients are restored by means of chemical additives.
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>129 Thanks for mentioning The Expedition of Humphry Clinker, Steven. That sounds very interesting, and I've just downloaded the free e-book version onto my Kindle.
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Hrrmph! I spend one night in the hospital and when come out I find some jerk has trashed my thread.
I finished Humphrey Clinker, but a full review will have to wait a day or two because I'm not supposed to sit up for more than a few minutes at a time just yet. All is well, though. These days a life-saving cardiac procedure is as routine as an oil change (only a heck of a lot more expensive).
Yikes! That sounds frightening. I hope you are feeling better soon. Are you allowed to read in bed? Take care of yourself.
Don't worry, Steven, we had your back and flagged away until the messages were taken down.
Thanks, everyone. I hope I didn't make this sound more severe than it was. I had an 80% blockage in a coronary artery (the LAD) which was cleared by implanting a stent via cardiac catheterization. I had been through the same experience only worse last year; otherwise I wouldn't have even recognized the symptoms, which come on slowly and are quite mild. I feel fine now; I'm just not supposed to sit at a straight chair for extended periods until the incision has healed (no restriction on standing or walking). I'm getting a lot of reading done, though.
It's good to get an update, Steven. I'm glad it wasn't worse than it was, but it sounds bad enough. Glad to hear there's a silver lining — lots of reading time!
The Expedition of Humphrey Clinker by Tobias Smollett
First published 1771.
Tobias Smollett’s last and greatest novel, The Expedition of Humphrey Clinker, is a both a satire and a travelogue. It is an epistolary novel with five letter-writers, all part of a family group that makes an eight-month tour of the island of Great Britain.
Matthew Bramble, the leader of the expedition, is a gouty Welsh gentleman, a confirmed bachelor who admits to being a libertine in his youth, and something of a hypochondriac. His health is the reason for the trip, and the letters he writes are to his doctor, who is also his closest friend. Bramble is a bit of a misanthrope, or at least likes to appear to, but his innate humanity and generosity never fail to show through. “If the morals of mankind have not contracted an extraordinary degree of depravity, within these thirty years,” he writes, “then I must be infected with the common vice of old men.”
Bramble’s sister, Tabitha, likewise never married, is a selfish, miserly spinster whose narrow-mindedness is always set in contrast to the broader views of her brother. Her nephew writes on one occasion that she “found new matter of offence; which, indeed, she has a particular genius for extracting at will from almost every incident in life.” She writes back to the family housekeeper constantly reminding her to keep the servants under control and not to lose count of the spoons.
The most perceptive observer of the group is Bramble’s nephew, Jery Melford who reports with wry detachment on the family’s foibles to his friend back at Oxford. In London Jery associates with both literary and political circles, reporting in astonishment on the corruption and hypocrisy he finds in both.
Jery’s younger sister Lydia enters the scene already stricken with love for a mysterious actor who calls himself “Wilson,” but who confesses this is neither his real name nor his true station in life. This Wilson will appear in various guises throughout the journey, sending the fragile Lydia into a faint and her protective brother into a raging fury.
Lastly there is Tabitha’s young maid Winifred Jenkins, whose struggles with spelling in her letters to her friend back in Wales provide the novel's funniest moments. Of her visit to London she writes: “And I have seen the Park, and the paleass of Saint Gimses, and the king's and the queen's magisterial pursing, and the sweet young princes, and the hillyfents, and pye bald ass, and all the rest of the royal family.” She later asserts she is not given to “tailbaring,” and righteously proclaims “that by the new light of grease, I may deify the devil and all his works.”
So who is Humphrey Clinker? He is a young man the family hire on the road between Bath and London to replace a dismissed footman. He’s so poor that the rags he wears don’t even properly cover his behind (bare buttocks, as you can see, are a recurrent gag in the novel). But Clinker, a devout Wesleyan, becomes the moral center of the group, and changes each of them the longer they are around him.
As a travel narrative, the novel focuses on three locales: Bath, London, and Scotland. The first two are treated satirically, with the family members giving accounts contrasting as widely as their temperaments. To young Lydia they are sparkling jewels of social delight. To her uncle they are Sodom and Gomorrah. But the tone changes when the group reaches Scotland, the author’s native land. “The people at the other end of the island know as little of Scotland as of Japan,” Jery asserts, and Smollet sets out to rectify that ignorance with an extensive and loving description of urban and rural scenes, lowlands and highlands, and the people therein. Near the end of the novel there is this excellent observation: “Without all doubt, the greatest advantage acquired in travelling and perusing mankind in the original, is that of dispelling those shameful clouds that darken the faculties of the mind, preventing it from judging with candour and precision.”
The Expedition of Humphrey Clinker is a warm and funny novel, and many of the author’s observations on politics, public health and human nature are as applicable today as they were in 1771. Anyone who likes the novels of Charles Dickens or the travel narratives of Mark Twain will find that this was their prototype.
Other novels I have read by Tobias Smollett:
The Adventures of Roderick Random
The Adventures of Peregrine Pickle
You do have a way of fining interesting and unusual books, Steven!
Am I correct to think this is the first Smollett you have truly enjoyed? Fascinating as always.
# 155 - I would say that this is the first Smollett I have thoroughly enjoyed. The others had their moments but suffered from long, dry digressions into the lives of unrelated characters, especially Peregrine Pickle which was about twice as long as it could have been. There is nothing of the sort in Humphrey Clinker.
Green Mars by Kim Stanley Robinson
First published 1994
The first work of Robinson's Mars Trilogy, Red Mars, was an exciting story of discovery and survival that introduced the fascinating technical and philosophical issues surrounding the decision to terraform the red planet. In Green Mars the colonization of Mars is well established, the terraforming well under way, and the issues are social and political rather than technical (not that there isn't still an abundance of scientific information and debate presented to the reader). The key issue is Mars' relationship to Earth and the multi-national corporations which are now in charge. Is Mars to continue to be a colony whose mineral resources are siphoned off to meet the needs of the home planet, or is it to be an independent world building its own future?
It is perhaps inevitable that the level of excitement in Red Mars cannot be sustained into the sequel. The important, and sometimes cataclysmic, events are now happening on Earth, to be learned of only second hand. And the vital issues are now not so much scientific as economic, a field in which the author seems less at home. In fact the economic basis for the massive effort involved in settling and terraforming Mars remains largely a mystery throughout the novel.
So rather than a thrill ride into the unknown, Green Mars is a novel that invites sober reflection on the nature of economic imperialism and the perils of unregulated corporate capitalism. It also reflects, albeit from a vast distance, upon the dangers of population growth, economic stratification, and climate change.
By means of dramatic medical advances, the author keeps the surviving characters from Red Mars around for several more decades so they continue to be the principal characters in Green Mars. They are not reintroduced, so it is advisable to read the two books as closely together as you can so you remember who's who. A peek ahead into Blue Mars reveals the same character names, so the entire trilogy is best treated as a three-volume novel.
Other works I have read by Kim Stanley Robinson:
Excellent review of The Expedition of Humphrey Clinker which sounds like a great 18th century road novel. You might even have sold it to some of us Club Read members. It must be free on the internet for all us kindle etc users.
Green Mars is one of the most sleep inducing novels I have ever read. All those rocks!!, but I know many people rate it very highly.
I read Humphrey Clinker about 30 years ago and remember quite enjoying it -- but your review reveals all kinds of things that have been lost in the transit of time. I should pick it up again --- but then there are hundreds of books I should pick up.....
Excellent review of Humphrey Clinker! Sounds very interesting and I do like the occasional epistolary novel.
Great review of The Expedition of Humphrey Clinker, Steven. I have just added the free version to my Kindle wishlist. The joy of free e-books!
Lovely review, Steven. Smollett seems very interesting; wonder why he is such a marginal figure nowadays.
Fabulous review of Humphry Clinker, Steven. I've already downloaded the Kindle free e-book, and I'll add it to the list of books I'll read in 2013.
A comment about inappropriate book covers on rebeccanyc's thread led me to wonder, since I read an ebook of Humphrey Clinker that had no cover, which of the many illustrations used for past editions of the work would I have picked. Certainly not the one shown in the current "hot review" list that looks like it comes from a pirate novel.
I decided on the one below. It shows an actual scene from the novel (the dog's name is "Chowder"), shows appropriate dress, and captures the often zany mood of the novel.
I think I'll make this "best cover" selection a regular feature on future reviews where appropriate.
Looking forward to this emerging series on covers along with your reviews.
Euphues: The Anatomy of Wit by John Lyly
First published 1578
Euphues is a fable from the fifteen-seventies, a time more of courtly manners than manly courtiers. ‘Tis more a manual of speaking than a study of man. ‘Tis style over substance, rhyme over reason, affectation more than effect, more a novel of rhetoric than a realistic novel.
The plot is simply and swiftly put: Euphues, a young scholar of Athens, decides to abandon his studies to sojourn abroad, for the flower blooms brightest where the soil is fresh. He names Naples as his aim, and there befriends Philatus, a noble native. Now Philatus’s finacée is the lovely Lucilla. To see Lucilla is to be stricken by Love, and as Paris to Menelaus ‘twas Euphues to Philatus, taking the heart of his Helen and rewarding friendship with infidelity, repaying trust with treachery. But just as Love is Folly, so Lucilla is fickle. As soon as Euphues breaks with Philatus, does Lucilla betray Euphues, casting her courtesies upon a courtier called Curio.
Euphues is made mature by misfortune, draws discernment from disappointment, and adjourns to Athens to resume his researches. Ere long he is producing essays and penning epistles, perpetually promoting a stern philosophy and a strict piety. Yet the wisdom of Euphues is no more than the wit of a magpie: Lyly but plagiarizes Plutarch and imitates Erasmus. His script “On Education” to cite an example is but the same-named chapter of Plutarch’s “Moralia” with minor amendments.
Euphues: The Anatomy of Wit displays the fanciful style of a frivolous set. ‘Tis a book less read than ridiculed, less studied than satirized. Even Shakespeare found profit in poking fun at its silly alliterations, its rhymes and repetitions, and its ludicrous allusions. Read it, if you will, as a curiosity of the age, not as an ageless creation, for this Lyly smelleth sweet, but nourisheth not.
Oh great review of Euphues: The Anatomy of wit It is now on my to buy list, but I will check Gutenberg first.
Looking forward to seeing those best covers.
#167 - Gutenberg doesn't have it, Barry, but there are several free editions you can download from Google Books. They are, however, just scanned images of pages that haven't been properly OCR'd or proofed, so the best way to read them is as PDF files. I used the 1916 edition which has useful notes and seemed to have the clearest text: http://books.google.com/books?id=3xRbAAAAMAAJ
Not sure how much it nourisheth, but love your review. A single, but emphatic thumb.
Foucault's Pendulum by Umberto Eco
First published in Italian 1988
English translation by William Weaver 1989
Foucault’s Pendulum begins with the narrator, a man with the unlikely name of Casaubon, preparing to hide past closing time in a Paris museum. Here, at midnight, he expects to observe some sort of rite practiced by a secret and dangerous society. He also hopes to find a clue to the disappearance of his friend and mentor, Jacopo Belbo.
We then go back a number of years to the point where Casaubon, then a graduate student in Milan, first meets Belbo, a publisher. Casaubon is working on a thesis about the Knights Templar, and it just so happens that Belbo has a meeting scheduled with a retired army officer who claims to have uncovered profound secrets about the Templars which he is ready to reveal to the public, not the least of which secrets is that the Templars are still in existence and poised to seize control of the world. Belbo and Casaubon interview the man, whose conspiratorial conjectures they are inclined to dismiss as whimsical until they learn that the officer was found dead in his hotel room that night, only to have his body mysteriously disappear by the following morning.
Years elapse as Casaubon, Belbo, and a third friend named Diotallevi gradually explore the world of secret societies, eventually making it a specialty of Belbo’s publishing firm. The Templars, they find, are linked by some theorists to the Rosicrucians, and thence to the Freemasons. The circle of conspiracy broadens to include groups as diverse as the Druids and the Elders of Zion. Among the people implicated are Sir Francis Bacon, Napoleon, Voltaire, and the head of the Czar’s secret service. The artifacts of the conspiracy include the Pyramids, Stonehenge, the Holy Grail, the great Gothic cathedrals, and the Eifel Tower. Eventually it seems that half the elite of Europe are involved in guarding some great secret, but it appears that not even the guardians themselves know what the secret is.
Connecting symbols, meanings and ideas across languages and cultures is an element of semiotics, the branch of learning pioneered by Umberto Eco. His characters follow clues across historical and literary trails, finding hidden meaning in seeming coincidences, decoding complex messages from isolated fragments, and seeing patterns in distant events. Like others before them, however, their findings are all too likely to conform to their expectations and desires. Finally, and to their peril, they lose the ability to distinguish their discoveries from their inventions.
The seemingly endless litany of secret societies, obscure authorizes, and ancient texts can be mind-numbing at time, but this is a novel that fully rewards perseverance. The concluding chapters are not only very suspenseful, but we also find that the author’s exploration of how we evaluate meanings and associations has led us to much more philosophical observations on how we evaluate and find meaning in life itself.
Other works I have read by Umberto Eco:
The Name of the Rose
The Mysterious Flame of Queen Loana
Cover design: There are a number of good covers from the various editions of Foucault's Pendulum depicting various aspects of this complex novel, but the one pictured above from the edition I own is as good as any. It is embossed with emblems taken from the novel itself, and under certain angles of light the individual symbols will seem to leap off the cover--a dramatic and very relevant touch.
Not that rare really (although, it's not an Italian name), especially the world of literary classics. There were several scholars by that name, most famously a philologist, I think, and, coincidentally (or not) George Eliot's character Casaubon whom hapless Dorothea marries is also a classical scholar.
Great review of Lyly, by the way.
Yes, of course Casaubon is an allusion to both the philologist and the character in Middlemarch--this is even brought out in the novel--but the narrator himself seem to think it's an unlikely name for a 20th century Italian.
It's been too long, I don't remember anything other than the broad-strokes story...
I was wondering whether Eliot was referring to some historical Casaubon. Even that "Key to Mythology" her Casaubon wasted his life on was some real person's project.
How did you like Queen Loana? That's my top-fave Eco.
Enjoyed your review of Eco. I have The Name of the Rose on my shelf but am saving for a more ambitious time.
I read Foucault's Pendulum years and years ago and, like Lola, I don't remember a lot of it. Enjoyed your review, and it helped remind me of why I liked the book when I read it.
Excellent review of Foucault's Pendulum, Steven. I have several of Eco's books on my TBR pile, this one being among them.
How did you like Queen Loana? That's my top-fave Eco.
It's been several years since I read it, but I really enjoyed it. There are strong parallels with Foucault's Pendulum, one being about reconstructing a public history from hints and fragments and the other (Queen Loana) being about reconstructing an amnesiac's personal history. In both cases wishful thinking and preconceptions lead to false associations and later to painful realizations. The Mysterious Flame of Queen Loana was also beautifully illustrated and made me wish I had an attic full of artifacts from my childhood to rummage through.
Next month I'll be reading The Prague Cemetery with another group. There is a reference which I flagged in Foucault's Pendulum to a "Prague cemetery," so it will be interesting to see how the two accounts relate.
Great review, Steven. I've always been a bit wary of Umberto Eco's fiction, because I read somewhere that he only had one great novel in him (can't remember which one - probably The Name of the Rose). I probably shouldn't let such hearsay cloud my perception of him, so maybe I'll give him a try in the future.
I've had The Prague Cemetery on the TBR for a while now, Steven, but for some reason it hasn't been calling to me! I bought it both because it was by Eco and because I visited the Prague cemetery to which it refers when I was there almost 20 years ago.
#182 - Prague is the one place in the world I would most like to visit, but my wife has absolutely no interest in going, so I don't suppose I ever will.
Do you think you could combine a trip to Prague with a trip to somewhere else? I went from Prague to Krakow (and Auschwitz) and from there to Budapest, and home from Vienna; I'm glad I went, but it was a tough trip, surrounded by the ghosts of millions of Jews and the living people who wanted to repair destroyed Jewish cemeteries and sites so they could attract more Jewish tourists. (Not the Prague cemetery, which was never destroyed, just as so much of older Prague is intact, because it was never bombed.)
That sounds like a great trip. I've tried to sell my wife on Prague+Krakow, but that part of the world just doesn't interest her. She thinks we should see London before we die, and that will be the end of our travels, but we have no plans or prospects for such a trip. So I'll just continue to explore the world vicariously through its literature.
>166 - Entertaining review of Euphues and congrats on the hot review slot.
Also a very informative review of Foucault's Pendulum. That one has been on the shelf for several years now, staring out at me with its bulk (as well as its imagined dense content).
>185 - If you're interested in reading any nonfiction about Prague, I can recommend Prague in Black and Gold which I read earlier this year. His other book about Prague during WWII, Prague in Danger, is on the pile.
So Focault's Pendulum is one big conspiracy theory. That's Ok I like conspiracy theories.
The Prague Cemetery is also about a conspiracy, this one all too real. Aaand yes, the Templars come into the picture again, as a tangent, through occult practices (ascribed to), as an example of how to destroy a group of people using rumours and propaganda (to begin with), and finally, connecting them directly (and falsely) to various anti-clerical, "pro-Jewish" movements via freemasonry.
That's the critical link (Templars ==> freemasonry) covered in FP I'd mostly forgotten details of. So you'll be excellently prepared to absorb the whole complex picture, Steven!
By the way, have you read Huysmans' Là-bas? If not, and if you can squeeze it in before Eco (it's a fast read), I think it would enhance your enjoyment of The Prague Cemetery--it shares some characters with it (although the names are changed in Huysmans), and Eco even refers to Huysmans directly. The black mass in The Prague Cemetery is modelled on the one in Là-bas, which was in turn a description of a real event Huysmans attended.
White Teeth by Zadie Smith
First published 2000
On New Year's Day, 1975, Archie Jones attempts to kill himself. Archie is an ordinary London bloke, age 47, whose wife has just divorced him. A complete stranger foils Archie's clumsy attempt to gas himself, and Archie takes this to be the start of a new life. Indeed it is, for later that morning he meets Clara. Clara is the 19-year-old daughter of Jamaican immigrants who has just fled her parents' home for the first time because of her mother's oppressive religious zealotry (Jehova's Witness). Clara and Archie have nothing more in common than an urgent need for someone to cling to, and a few weeks later they are married.
Archie's best (in fact his only) friend is Samad Iqbal, a Bengali Muslim from Bangladesh. The two were thrown together by chance in the waning days of World War II and renewed their friendship when Samad immigrated to England. Samad's long-awaited arranged marriage to a wife Clara's age occurs at about the same time as Archie's, and the two aging men soon become fathers in the cultural maelstrom that is late 20th century London.
It is the children--Archie's daughter and Samad's twin sons--whose lives are the focus of the novel. They are caught between cultural, religious and social forces and react in often unpredictable ways. Another family then enters the picture, the Chalfens, the husband a brilliant but eccentric geneticist (and a lapsed Jew), the wife a middle-aged flower child (lapsed Roman Catholic) who compulsively mothers every child but her own. Eventually each child, including the Chalfens', winds up espousing a Cause diametrically opposed to the values of its parents.
White Teeth appears in the beginning to be chiefly a light-hearted look at immigrant life in London, and indeed it is up to a point. But the principal theme of the novel is actually the one expressed in the book's epigraph, a quote by E. M. Forster: "There's never any knowing... which of our actions, which of our idlenesses won't have things hanging on it forever." This is highlighted by the indecisive Archie's using a flip of the coin to make all of his life's tough decisions. In the end, his method seems to be as good as any.
I found the first half of the novel, which focused more on the cultural environment of London and the challenges facing immigrants and interracial couples, to be both rewarding and funny. White Teeth began to disappoint me, though, when it got away from these themes with the introduction of the Chalfens. The humor started turning into silliness and the novel seemed to be occurring on a sitcom stage rather than the real world. The author clearly shows us that our life's direction can be made up of seemingly random events, chance encounters, and unportentous choices, but where does that take us? We can only shrug in the face of the obvious and move on. It's still a good novel, and Smith's uninhibited writing style is superbly suited to her subject, but for me the story didn't live up in the end to the high expectations the opening chapters had generated.
Cover design: About all that can be said about the cover of my edition is that it's legible. None of the covers used on other editions is exceptional, but I think this one is the most appropriate.
Well, that's certainly interesting. White Teeth has been low on my wishlist for a while but I'm bumping it up now. And I like your cover comments. Legible, indeed!
Great review of White Teeth steven, yet another book I have not quite gotten round to yet.
More great reviews. Really enjoyed your review of FP. White Teeth is a book I wouldn't mind reading. Smith is entertaining.
Just cathing up with your great reviews Steven. You've reminded me to pick up Green Mars (basswood all those rocks sound awesome) and I just might have to finally try an Eco
The Letters of Mina Harker by Dodie Bellamy
First published 1998
"I am a post-punk Milton waging a one woman war against structure, taste, logic and even words themselves..."
Mina Harker is a character from Bram Stoker's novel Dracula. She keeps the journals which comprise much of the novel, is bitten by the vampire, and is saved from the brink of vampirism by Count Dracula's death. In Dodie Bellamy's novel The Letters of Mina Harker, Mina is a name representing the author's uninhibited and rebellious inner voice, nothing more than that. There are no vampires, bats, sucking of blood, etc. in the novel (except in the broadest metaphorical sense), even though other characters are also take their names from Stoker's novel.
"I'm not a person," Mina declares, "If I ever was this story ended that--I am I I am she I am Mina Harker a sexy construct a trope a simulated force of nature Dodie's embarrassment a vortex of urges swelling around a void." Later she declares: "IF THE PLOT DIDN'T KILL ME THE UNCERTAINTY WOULD HAVE THAT'S WHY I KICKED DODIE OUT OF THE DRIVER'S SEAT. I WANTED TO INCITE A RIOT IN WRITING." (emphasis in original)
The letters themselves, written to several different people (including the Dracula character Van Helsing), reveal Mina/Dodie's desires and conflicts as she progresses through relationships with several different men. The first is called only "KK" (Bellamy's real-life husband is Kevin Killian). KK, who is bisexual, encourages Mina to have affairs with other men. Her principal lover is another Dracula character, Quincey, who, in the original novel, is one of several men courting the coquettish but empty-headed Lucy. In Bellamy's novel Lucy is Quincey's neurotic and jealous wife whom he betrays with Mina. Thus the erotically frustrated intellectual gets her revenge against the beautiful flirt. "...in my remake Lucy loses--sure she's married to Quincey but his heart belongs to Mina they fuck forever like demons and Quincey's sexual ecstasy binds him to her FOREVER. Lucy snaps flies in Dr. Seward's asylum. I think this is an exciting conclusion, don't you?"
The prose is often a stream of consciousness with random italicized interjections as though from an even deeper and harsher level of emotion. There are occasional comments on the act of writing the novel itself as a way of expressing the author's feelings and frustrations about her craft. (In one late scene KK even picks up the draft of the earlier chapters and complains to Mina that all he does in the novel is have sex.)
The story takes place in San Francisco, and the letters are dated 1986 to 1994. The AIDS epidemic is a factor in the novel, but not its principal theme. One of the letters is addressed posthumously to Sam D'Allesandro, a collaborator of Bellamy's who died of AIDS in 1988.
Though Mina and other characters are drawn from literature, the novel refers far more often to the cinema. There are references to specific movies--from classic films to horror flicks--every few pages. This was a drawback for me, since I am not a movie watcher and could not visualize the scenes she was referencing.
The Letters of Mina Harker is raw, graphic, explosive emotion with (by design) little structure or plot. The style has been called "New Narrative," and features a combination of poetic prose and metafiction. Similar novelists (both of whom are mentioned in the text) include Kathy Acker and Dennis Cooper.
I thought of Acker as soon as my eyes fell on the bolded text. That would ordinarily be a recommendation for me, but such super-self-awareness (I am a sexy construct a trope etc.) is seriously off-putting. I don't know, you made me curious. I'll definitely take a look through it, if I run into it.
I'm not sure I have the right visuals for the book either. My most recent Hollywood Dracula is Todd Browning's, with Bela Lugosi.
Fascinating review of The letters of Mina Harker. steven, I understand that you had problems with the cinema references, but looking at your rating I was wondering if the style of the novel worked for you at all. Is it a novel that you would consider worth re-reading? Interesting comparison with Kathy Acker.
I don't recall exactly where I heard of The Letters of Mina Harker, but it was most likely a comparison somewhere with Kathy Acker. I didn't care as much for it as I have for Acker's work, however, and the "super self awareness" Lola mentions is certainly part of the reason. Acker's work has a sense of political, social and literary context that I didn't find in this novel.
As to the rating, I think of 3 stars as something I would recommend for anyone interesting in the subject or genre, but not for the reading world at large. There's much in the novel I didn't grasp--aside from the cinema references--but I think you would have to be much closer to Bellamy's San Francisco milieu to appreciate everything. I'll hang on to my copy, but I'm not likely to read it again.
If I did re-read it I would want to come armed with a better understanding of literary theory and current jargon for when Mina says things like "My body is not the text!"
"New Narrative"...I find myself wondering about the pros and cons without having actually encountered it directly. Oh well. Enjoyed your review.
The Empty Book by Josefina Vicens
First published in Spanish 1958
English translation by David Lauer 1992
José García has two notebooks. The first is for his random daily thoughts, his notes, his experiences, his ideas. The second is for the draft of the novel he tells everyone he is writing. The second notebook is empty.
García is a lower middle class accountant living somewhere in Mexico and barely supporting his wife and two sons. For reasons he can't explain or understand, he is compelled to write even though, as he freely admits, he doesn't know how, and he has nothing to say. The first notebook opens with a string of such self-recriminations. The more he writes, the deeper his guilt over having produced nothing of value. Often he has considered burning his notebooks, only to realize that the next thing he would do is buy a new notebook to record his feelings about having burned the previous one.
But without having planned it, García begins to fill the first notebook with thoughts and reminiscences about his wife, his sons, an extramarital affair, his financial difficulties, and his job. Thinking about his wife, he observes that "it is only in the body of a person whom we have loved deeply for a long time that we don't perceive the passing of time, and that growing old with that person is a way of never growing old. Seeing someone from day to day has a slow, compassionate rhythm."
When his grown son falls in love with an older woman, García despairs of giving him guidance:
Maybe he's right. He feels I can't understand it. He considers my fifty-six years capable of conserving the memory of a twenty-year-old's love but not its richness. He feels that I keep the whole experience inside me, compact, sort of petrified, but that I can no longer separate and give the emotions their exact value that love aroused, that I no longer understand tears, hope, desire, or the absolute truth that the world begins in the head of a woman and ends at her feet. There are no other surroundings, there is no other horizon. She, she alone with her small boundaries that contain everything....And most poignantly, García speaks of the common man's sense of hope and the future. We are always wanting time to hurry by so that we can see our dreams materialize. We look forward to watching our children grow, to gaining the next promotion, to paying off our debts, and to putting a bad experience behind us. "And so," he concludes, "hoping that time will pass so that the daily problems that weigh us down will also pass, we find one day that our own time has passed."
José García's empty notebook stands for the unrealized dreams of all of us who will never be heroes or celebrities. The Empty Book is a beautiful and moving expression of both the shattered hopes and the hidden richness of a common life, and of the nature of memory and experience. It was also, in 1958, the first work of metafiction by a Mexican author. José García writes about writing. When a close friend is put on trial for embezzling money to pay medical bills, García confesses, "So there were moments when I experienced both sorrow because of the event and enthusiasm for the possibility of describing it, and felt both with equal passion."
It is amazing that a novel this good, this readable, and of such importance in the Latin American literary tradition should now be so obscure. But Josefina Vicens was a modest woman, always writing under masculine pen names, who refused to promote her own work. Her gender and political views probably played a role as well in keeping The Empty Book from a wider readership. If you can find a copy, I highly recommend it.
Fabulous review of The Empty Room, Steven; I'll be on the lookout for it.
Great review, it sounds intriguing. I imagine it will be even more difficult to find after CR readers go searching for it!
Beautiful review of The Empty Book steven, you have certainly made me want to read it.
How did you come across it, because I note that it has not been reviewed before and it would probably not have appeared on any book list.
Thanks, everyone. I learned of The Empty Book from a an online reading group member who lives in Mexico. Last year at this time we were selecting the books we would read together in 2012 and I nominated a book by Elena Poniatowska, an author whom our friend found politically unacceptable. So we asked him to name a female Mexican author in her place, and he came up with three: Josefina Vicens, Carmen Boullosa, and Elena Garro. We will be reading Garro's novel Recollections of Things to Come together in December, but I decided to give the other two authors a try as well. Another female Mexican author I learned of and want to read sometime is Julieta Campos.
Audition by Ryu Murakami
First published in Japanese 2009*
English translation by Ralph McCarthy 2009
Aoyama, a Tokyo filmmaker, has been a widower for seven years. His teenage son Shige eventually asks him "Why don't you find yourself a new wife, Pops?" Aoyama, realizing that he has been avoiding female company for his son's sake, warms up to the idea, but at age 42 he has no idea how to go about it. His best friend suggests that he do what comes naturally to a filmmaker: hold an audition. So they concoct a fake film project and advertise for a leading lady with the special qualities Aoyama desires.
Right from the first interview, Aoyama realizes that Yamasaki Asami is the woman he is looking for. He barrels into a relationship, ignoring his friend's warning that there are signs this beautiful young woman isn't what she claims to be.
The plot of this thriller is simple and predictable. When it comes to scenes of sex, terror and violence, Murakami is at his best, but the rather shaky premise and hastily developed characters make Audition the weakest of the author's novels in English translation.
Other works I have read by Ryu Murakami:
Almost Transparent Blue
Coin Locker Babies
Popular Hits of the Showa Era
In the Miso Soup
Cover design: The film poster (top right) is a much better representation than the cartoonish image chosen by the publisher.
*Wikipedia says 1997, but Author's copyright in the book itself says 2009.
Enjoyed your latest reviews. The Empty Book is now on my wishlist. A terrific review, not mention a terrific find.
"it is only in the body of a person whom we have loved deeply for a long time that we don't perceive the passing of time, and that growing old with that person is a way of never growing old. Seeing someone from day to day has a slow, compassionate rhythm."
I loved your review of The Empty Book, Steven, and I love that quote. I've added it to my wishlist, but without much hope of finding a local or library copy.
The Damned (Là-Bas) by Joris-Karl Huysmans
First published in French 1891
English translation Terry Hale 2001
The end of the 19th century was a time when science had battered the foundations of orthodox religion, but could not yet dispel many notions of the supernatural. Spiritualism became an upper class fad, and there was a renewed interest in the darker forms of occultism. Là-Bas both represents and depicts this period of exploring the fringes of the supernatural.
The novel opens with its principle character, a writer named Durtal, having one of many discussions with his friend Hermies, a physician. They are criticizing Naturalism, the literary movement led by Émile Zola. What Durtal finds objectionable is not "the language of the lockup, the doss house and the latrines," but the fact that it "promotes the idea of art as something democratic" and denies the "higher levels of existence."
Durtal announces that he is commencing a writing project that will address the spiritual as well as the material. It is to be a biography of Gilles de Rais, a 15th century military leader, occultist, and serial killer. Throughout the novel, Huysmans interweaves the biographical details of Gilles de Rais with the story of Durtal and his friends. Once a celebrated general under Joan of Arc, Gilles retired to his baronial estates in Brittany where he began dabbling in alchemy. This led to the practice of celebrating the Black Mass, a ceremony meant in this case to invoke Satan's aid in converting lead to gold. But the Black Mass, as Gilles practiced it, required the blood of a freshly slain child. This soon became a sexual fetish for the baron, who became one of history's most notorious child killers.
From Hermies, Durtal learns that there are people practicing the black arts even in his own time. In various dinner table conversations--much of the novel consists of dinner table conversations--Durtal learns about contemporary practitioners of astrology, exorcism, spiritual poisoning, and other rites. He is most fascinated by the Black Mass, however, and eventually gets his chance to observe one with the aid of a mysterious and anonymous female admirer.
The views of Durtal and his friends reflect the author Huysmans's increasing conservatism and orthodoxy. There is a nostalgia for the Middle Ages, a time when the "plebs" knew their place and accepted their lot in life--in contrast to the Paris "rabble" whom Hermies describes as "avaricious, abject and stupid." Most tellingly, Satan is depicted as a Socialist revolutionary in this invocation: "Thou art the champion of the poor, and the staff of the vanquished! Endow them with hypocrisy, ingratitude and pride, that they may defend themselves against the Children of God, the rich and wealthy!"
The author's elitism may be as repugnant to some as the Gilles de Rais's murders, but that doesn't keep Là-Bas from being a fascinating and entertaining novel. The discussion of the dark arts is highly informative but kept light enough--would you be so kind as to pass the creamed peas--by the interjection of small talk to avoid becoming a lecture. While it's rather light on plot, there is enough graphic sex and violence in Là-Bas to make it controversial at the time in France and unpublishable elsewhere. It is very much worth reading for the light it sheds into the darker corners of history and its insight into the intellectual currents of the fin de siècle.
Other books I have read by J. K. Huysmans:
Cover design: The Penguin cover above with a detail from Memling's "The Altar of the Last Judgment" is as good as any. A more appropriate illustration would be one depicting a Black Mass as described in the novel itself. This is the closest, but the woman should be on the altar, not crucified:
The Huysmans book sounds interesting, Steven. Maybe for winter break!
Interesting review; I just read about that Husymans book somewhere else on LT, I think, or maybe I'm imagining that.
I'm glad you enjoyed the Huysmans, Steven. Durtal appears in the next three novels as well (En route, L'oblat, La cathedrale), which describe his conversion. I was always interested in what role Huysmans' early influence through A rebours played in it--he claimed to have been scandalised and alarmed by the decadent following he drew. One detail about relationship with Zola--they used to be friends and even shared authorship, along with some others, including Maupassant, on a collection called Les Soirées de Médan, based on meetings they had in Zola's house at Médan. They were even known for a while as "the Médan group". A peculiar mix, in retrospect.
Vicens sounds like a great find.
Excellent review of The Damned (La-Bas). I have had A Rebours sitting on my bookshelf for ages and so I must get to it soon.
Interesting stuff from Lola about Zola and Maupassant. Can you imagine the conversation around the dinner table when those three had been well fed and watered.
Well, now I'll have to read Huysmans just to imagine the conversations with Zola!
Great review of The Damned, Steven. I'll look for it later this fall.
Nice review. I've read A Rebours but don't think I have seen any of the other books mentioned by Lola. Quite a group. I will have to look for more of Huysmans.
Is La Bas really as fascinating as you've made it sound? Intrigued. Great review.
Is La Bas really as fascinating as you've made it sound?
Speaking of being fascinated reminds me: About the time I started graduate school, some 30-odd years ago, I read an article somewhere that said the key to reading and learning is to fascinate yourself with anything you happen to be reading. I took that advice to heart and found it possible to "fascinate myself" with every thing from matrix algebra to assembly language to cotton production in the 1840s.
So, yes, Là-Bas is as fascinating as you want it to be. I learned a lot from it about occultism that meshes well with my recent reading of Foucault's Pendulum and hopefully--per LolaWalser's advice--with my future reading of The Prague Cemetery. It doesn't offer the tightly structured plot and neatly tied up ending that many readers demand, but it provides an enormous amount of insight into the period, and I found it quite entertaining.
You may want to read Huysmans's earlier and more famous novel À Rebours (Against the Grain) first, but the reading order is not critical. À Rebours is referenced at least once, indirectly, in Là-Bas, but the two stories are independent. Huysmans's beliefs were apparently undergoing considerable change between the two novels. I didn't enjoy À Rebours as much as I did Là-Bas, but then I didn't have the background at the time I read À Rebours that I do now.
(edited for typos and clarity)
the key to reading and learning is to fascinate yourself with anything you happen to be reading
Great advice, Steven. And an excellent review of The Damned.
About the time I started graduate school, some 30-odd years ago, I read an article somewhere that said the key to reading and learning is to fascinate yourself with anything you happen to be reading. I took that advice to heart and found it possible to "fascinate myself" with every thing from matrix algebra to assembly language to cotton production in the 1840s.
You mean you had TIME to read in grad school besides dissertation-related material???
You mean you had TIME to read in grad school besides dissertation-related material???
I was reading mostly for school, but I did read outside as well. I was in my 30s at the time taking one or two courses per semester in the evening while working. My Masters is in Management Information Sciences, which wasn't that demanding--mostly math and computer programming. A decade later I took graduate courses in history, which entirely monopolized my reading, but did not get a degree because the state changed its policies and would not accept part-time students as degree candidates.
What a joy to study history at the graduate level. I hope there was a good reason for the policy change. I can't think of one.
I'm an undergraduate and I already find a lot of my reading time monopolized. Paradoxically LT takes away even more. Then I sign up for these group reads and don't get around to my own reading. :P
#227 - The reason for the policy change was the assumption that part-time history students were taking it only for their own pleasure and personal development, and the state only wanted to provide a subsidized education to those who were intending to go into teaching. I really did enjoy it, though, while it lasted.
That's really too bad about the policy change, though. But as my mom informs me, and education is never wasted. :)
Juliette by the Marquis de Sade
First published in French 1797
English translation by Austryn Wainhouse 1968
Juliette is the sequel to Sade's most famous novel, Justine. Justine and Juliette are sisters, but opposites in their values and temperaments. At the beginning of their respective stories they are each left alone and penniless after a family catastrophe. Justine is pious, modest and idealistic. In her story she is repeatedly made a captive of rapacious libertines, raped, beaten, and taught that her prayers and ideals are all for naught.
Her sister Juliette, on the other hand, embraces sensuality, vice, cruelty, treachery and crime. Taking a series of male and female libertines as her mentors, she quickly enriches herself as a prostitute, as a procuress, as a minister's mistress, and through various crimes.
Juliette's adventures all follow the same pattern: She enters a new situation or a new city. She meets a powerful libertine. This libertine, enamored of Juliette, explains his or her philosophy of life at length, then invites Juliette to participate as a partner in a series of elaborate and usually violent orgies.
The philosophy of libertinage (which we can safely assume is Sade's own since it is always the same and appears in all of his writings) is developed as follows:
Firstly, there is no God, and therefore no basis for the moral values which are derived from religion. Sade's argument for atheism is coherent and thorough. It would hold up as well today as it did 200+ years ago.
Secondly, there is no such thing as "Natural Law," meaning the Golden Rule of "do unto others..." Sade argues that the law of Nature is instead what we would refer to as the "Law of the Jungle": to kill or be killed. Sade often refers to "Nature" as his inspiration and ideal.
Thirdly, we owe neither obedience nor affection to anyone else based on the accidents of kinship and nationality. Parents owe nothing to their children, children nothing to their parents, and citizens nothing to their government. In support of this, Sade cites an entire catalog of ancient and primitive societies which sanctioned fratricide, infanticide, etc. As a corollary, he maintains that the incest taboo is nonsense.
Fourthly, given that there are no laws made by God, nature or man which should direct or constrain us, our goal in life should be to enjoy as much physical pleasure as possible.
And fifthly, the greatest pleasures are those which come at the expense of others. Sensuality is enhanced by crime, and the more heinous the crime, the greater the pleasure.
Sade's argument in this last point is rather tenuous: "Nature has given us these weak individuals to be our slaves: they are her gift to us: a sacrifice: their condition is proof thereof," and to aid or pity them in any way is to act "contrary to Nature's will." Clearly Sade is unable to separate sexual pleasure from physical domination, so, for him, the principle of maximizing one's pleasure must be accompanied by the imperative to dominate and punish others.
The orgies which follow these declarations of principle (or the lack thereof) are all variations on the same ideas. Sade's libertines (including Juliette) all have similar sexual tastes. They plan elaborate tableaux of a dozen or more participants in which every hand and orifice is engaged with a different individual. Eventually the orgies turn violent, and one or more of the participants is tortured to death. The author's language when depicting these episodes is mechanical rather than sensuous, and rarely do either the participants or victims display any emotions. Sade's writing is about as erotic as the instructions for assembling a bicycle, but he takes delight in violating every imaginable taboo. There is bisexuality, incest, pedophilia, parricide, filicide, coprophagia, necrophilia, bestiality and cannibalism, all of which our heroine participates in with relish.
Ironically when Juliette isn't turning children into mincemeat she expresses some surprisingly progressive social and political ideas. She gives the King of Naples an extensive lecture on the principles of good government--beginning with the suggestion that he abdicate in favor of a republic--that echo many of the brighter ideas of the French Revolution. She tells the king: "I have never considered any living creature better than any other, and as I have no belief in any moral virtues, neither do I consider that they are differentiated by any moral worth." Through Juliette, Sade argues for improved sanitation and other measures of public health, free trade, reduced taxation, an end to war and to capital punishment, and equal rights for women.
The enigma of the Marquis de Sade is that he was obviously a brilliant thinker and writer whose ideas anticipate those of Darwin and Freud. His political notions are among the antecedents of modern libertarianism. Yet these ideas are couched amid the most explicit and gratuitous violence imaginable.
Juliette the novel is monstrous in both size and content. I would only recommend it to those who have already read Justine and are prepared for something three times as long and several times more extreme.
Other works I have read by the Marquis de Sade:
Justine, Philosophy in the Bedroom, and Other Writings
The 120 Days of Sodom and Other Writings
Cover design: The rather murky cover picture on the Grove Press edition (above) is okay, but a much better cover is this one which depicts a typical scene from the novel. The engraving is from an early Dutch edition.
Excellent review of Juliette, Steven, but I will take a pass on this one. Sade's philosophy seems unimaginably heinous.
Brilliant review of Juliette steven and your interpretation of De Sade's philosophy. Of course he was a crazy psychopath, but that didn't stop him from having some forward thinking ideas.
I was not surprised that there is little eroticism in his book, because if there was then he would be at the top of the best seller lists.
I was OK (but not in complete agreement) with his philosophy of libertinage until I got to the fifth point, which is indeed monstrous.
Great to see a review of this book, deserves to go straight to the top of the Hot Reviews.
Thanks, Barry and Linda. I had some qualms about even admitting to owning such a book, much less publishing a review of it. But the sudden infusion of egalitarian ideas when Juliette gives King Ferdinand a dressing down convinced me it was a book worth knowing about even though it's not one I would recommend most people read.
Actually, those who knew Sade agree that he wasn't any kind of psychopath. He wasn't considered mad even by the standards of 18th century medicine. He was removed to Charenton, a lunatic asylum, at the end of his life because his family objected to his (completely arbitrary, by the way) last imprisonment in Bicetre, a clink for lowlifes. But even the officials who just needed to pack him off (Napoleon's censors wanted to keep an eye on his writing) couldn't find anything wrong with his mind and put down sexual "obsession" as the reason.
I'm struggling to remain brief on the topic, and actually say something worthwhile. Maybe this: it is likely, in my view, that most casual readers would profit more from reading about Sade, than his own texts, especially if there's only one choice. In my experience, most people are interested mainly in whether he was like the sadists in his work, and to answer that (incompletely, of course) one must look at his biography. Maurice Lever's is the most recent one and also the most exhaustive, I think Lever is the last person to have unearthed some new documents of Sadeiana. (I like very much Jean-Jacques Pauvert's three-volume bio, more audacious in suggesting the mutual references between Sade's life and work, but I don't think it's been translated into English.)
As to why bother with Sade at all, John Philips in How to read Sade (is that the same as The Marquis de Sade: A Very Short Introduction?) gives an adequate idea of his influence, which is probably the most reductive reason one could come up with.
This topic was continued by steven03tx's 2012 reading log, part 4.
This topic is not marked as primarily about any work, author or other topic.