As I Crossed A Bridge Of Dreams, by Sarashina

0140442820.1.zoomYears ago, I read Sei Shonagon's The Pillow Book, and found it to be thoroughly delightful. It's not quite a diary, more like a series of anecdotes, lessons, and complaints by a courtly woman in Heian Japan and was written in about the 11th century AD. What came out most strongly from the book was just the personality of the writer: short-tempered, irritable, but also charming and perceptive.

Anyway, I recently realized that The Pillow Book was not an isolated document. It was part of a whole genre of Heian-era courtly memoirs. I checked a few out of the library, but the one that caught my eye immediately was the one by an unknown author who's only known as the Sarashina lady. I mean, look at the first lines of the book:

I was brought up in a part of the country so remote that it lies beyond the end of the Great East Road. What an uncouth creature I must have been in those days! Yet even shut away in the provinces I somehow came to hear that the world contained things known as Tales, and from that moment my greatest desire was to read them for myself.

This document is also not quite a diary, since it was not written as a daily chronicle. Instead, it was written towards the end of the author's life, as a sort of memoir. I say "a sort of memoir" because it's actually quite strange. The book spends pages upon pages talking about a man who she met on a rainy day and discussed trivialities with…but mentions her husband and three children for a total of maybe three sentences.

In fact, that's most of the book: a succession of pilgrimages, hotels, windy nights, and fragments of poems.

It seems random, but it's obviously not. The book isn't a traditional memoir. It's not about doings. Instead, it's more like a novel. It's about a person's emotional development. This is a woman who was obviously very sensitive. A woman who, from the very earliest part of her life, had a strong sense of what was right and beautiful. For instance, she rights of her recurring fantasy, during her teen years, that a man would come along and shut her up in a distant tower and then visit her for only one day a year, and leave her, the rest of the time, to walk alone along the windy battlements. Which is a beautiful image (partially derived from the Tale of Genji) but also a bit perverse.

And the book is about how that person--the girl who dreamed that dream--survived and changed throughout a lifetime that didn't really include very much that was beautiful or Romantic.

I find that most ancient documents (at least those that are in prose) don't have the virtues of modern literature. They don't describe sights and sounds and smells and emotions. They're about great doings or adventures or amusing incidents. Only in ancient Japanese literature, really, is there that fine-grainedness to the perceptions that strikes me as very modern. I highly recommend this book. It's also really short, maybe 80 pages long.

Started reading THE SOUND OF THE MOUNTAIN, by Yasunari Kawabata

n273757A few days ago, I posted on Twitter lamenting about how I'd never managed to get into anything by Kawabata other than Beauty and Sadness (an amazing book that you should all read). And a day later, I picked up his book The Sound of the Mountain and found myself really responding to it. The book is about 62 year old old man with a failing memory whose household includes his wife, his son, his daughter-in-law, his daughter, and his two grand-daughters.

The plot has that aimless quality that I've noticed in many Japanese novels. Much of it is about contemplating the mountain and the gardens. He attends the funerals of a few of his friends and meditates on their absence. He slowly befriends his daughter-in-law. He thinks about the distance that's grown up between him and his wife.

A lot of Japanese novels include some attempt, by the characters, to enjoy traditional Japanese art forms. In this case, the narrator buys several No masks (i.e. the masks that actors would wear in a No drama) and spends some time contemplating them. This is pretty interesting to me, because there's nothing similar in English literature. You don't often see characters in our novels seriously think about the ballet or the opera or classical music or even poetry. We Americans are extremely disconnected from our traditional art forms, but we don't seem to miss the absence.

I don't know enough about Japanese culture to be able to speculate accurately about the reason for this difference. Whenever I read a Japanese novel, I'm struck by the weight of history. All of these places have been inhabited, more or less continuously, and more or less peacefully (i.e. without major interruption by invasion or collapse of civilization) for thousands of years. To live in a town in Japan means being connected to the people who've come before you in a way that I don't think anyone in the West can really understand. Every Western civilization has suffered major upheavals--changes in government and in ethnic makeup--that far exceed anything Japan has seen.

But, at the same time, Japan (at least the Japan in these novels) doesn't feel exhausted or tired or decadent. In the west, we've been programmed, because of the fall of successive waves of empire (the Roman, the Holy Roman, the British, etc) to think of civilization as either expanding or being in decline. Whereas Japan's situation seems so different. Kawabata's novels are about a Japan that's suffered a major setback…but is still expanding. A Japan that's economically vibrant without being politically powerful. And even though the business and economic and political backdrop is submerged in these novels, you can see the tension there in the way that these characters try to reconcile their current way of life with their traditional cultural forms.


Reading a pretty fantastic short novel: The Setting Sun, by Osamu Dazai

The_Setting_Sun_300_445Not yet that far into this book, but I am thoroughly engrossed by it. The novel is about a family (well, a mother and a daughter) of Japanese aristocrats who are struggling to survive in post-war Japan. It's a fairly stately novel, but the writing and the voice are so sharp. For instance, the novel begins with an extended riff on how the protagonist's mother is a true aristocrat because she eats her soup in a bizarre manner that's very different from what is prescribed by etiquette:

Mother, on the other hand, lightly rests the fingers of her left hand on the edge of the table and sits perfectly erect, with her head held high and scarcely so much as a glance at the plate. She darts the spoon into the soup and like a swallow — so gracefully and cleanly one can really use the simile — brings the spoon to her mouth at a right angle, and pours the soup between her lips from the point. Then, with innocent glances around her, she flutters the spoon exactly like a little wing, never spilling a drop of soup or making the least sound of sipping or clinking the plate. This may not be the way of eating soup that etiquette dictates, but to me it is most appealing and somehow really genuine. As a matter of fact, it is amazing how much better soup tastes when you eat it as Mother does, sitting serenely erect, than when you look down into it. But being, in Naoji's words, a high-class beggar and unable to eat with Mother's effortless ease, I bend over the plate in the gloomy fashion prescribed by proper etiquette.

From the moment I read that, I knew that this was the book for me.

You know, it's interesting to contemplate the Japanese novel. From what I can tell, Japanese novelists are very much in conversation with western ones: Junichiro Tanizaki and Natsume Soeseki had both read tons of western novels. But Japan also has its own independent novel tradition: Tale of Genji is considered (by some) to be the first novel. And both Japan and China were producing high-quality works of prose fiction long before the West (okay fine, the West did have Petronius and those ancient Greek novelists, but whatever. No one reads them).

And one can certainly detect some significant structural differences between the Japanese novels that I have read and what I would consider the standard Western novel. Japanese novels tend to be a slower and to have conflicts that are less pronounced. Tension doesn't rise in as straightforward a manner. And while they often end on images, those images don't usually feel like epiphanic moments. Of course that's by no means true for all (or perhaps even most) of them. Tanizaki's Quicksand, which I read a week or two ago, has a fairly straightforward crime novel structure: it's full of plotting and reversals and ends in a stunning twist.

Anyway, I suppose this'll all become clearer to me as I read more of them.

Finished reading The Makioka Sisters

the_makioka_sisters.largeIt's a very oddly structured novel. The whole thing centers around these four sisters attempts to get their spinsterish third sister, Yukiko, married off. They continually come close to arranging a marriage, only to have something go wrong at the last minute. In the meantime, the fourth sister, Taeko, becomes more independent and willful.

All the portraits are very nuanced, though. There's a tendency to see Yukiko as something of a sap and Taek as an enlightened, modern woman. But that's not quite right. Yukiko doesn't want to marry someone that she doesn't want to marry, and she's fully willing to bear the consequences of that--she's okay with being a spinster. And Taeko wants to get her own way, but she often comes off as somewhat selfish.

I think part of the lesson of the novel is that there is no way to break with societal mores without coming off as a selfish person, because it is fundamentally pretty selfish to care more about what you want than about what other people think. In modern America, we try to ignore that, by appealing to some universal human right to self-determination. When someone in an American novel chooses freedom, they're really doing everyone else a favor, by creating a world where it is more possible to be free.

But...that's not really why they're doing it. They're doing it because that's what they want to do. Like, in America, it's an accepted point of fact that if you're unhappy and trapped in a loveless marriage, then you should leave. And I agree. You should leave. But we're very uncomfortable with the implications of this belief, which is that a person should prioritize their own happiness over the happiness of their spouse and their children. We're so uncomfortable with it, in fact, that we often pretend like this isn't the real choice: we pretend that unhappy marriages lead to unhappy children. I'm not sure that's the case, though. Look at all the situations in which people divorce after their kids have gone to college: they were obviously only staying together for the sake of the children. And often seems less traumatic for the kids than if their parents had divorced during their childhood. And, on a purely financial level, it's certainly much harder to care for and provide for the children when you have two single parents.

Which is not to say that I find anything unethical about divorce or about refusing (as Taeko does) to break off relations with men that your family matriarchs don't approve of. And neither does The Makioka Sisters. It's just that the novel is honest enough to take an honest look at the selfishness that human beings need to have if they're going to lead honest lives.

The novel was an interesting one. While reading it, I wasn't sure if I was enjoying it. But I can tell that it's one that's going to stay with me for awhile. I usually claim that I only read books that I enjoy, but this both true and untrue. What's true is that there's a minimum level of enjoyment that I need to be getting from a book if I'm going to read it. But what's untrue about it is that sometimes the books that give me the most white-hot pleasure are not the ones that I am happiest to have read. I've rarely had a reading experience that was as purely pleasurable as Lev Grossman's The Magicians, but I do not think that book added as much to my life as The Makioka Sisters did.