Monday, December 1, 2008

The meaning of a volume / Reputed most difficult - Donald Keene's Anthology of Japanese Literature

It is a pleasure
When, without receiving help,
I can understand
The meaning of a volume
Reputed most difficult.

from “Solitary Pleasures,” Tachibana Akemi (1812-1868), tr. by Donald Keene in his Anthology of Japanese Literature.

Donald Keene's Anthology of Japanese Literature was published in 1955 and is still in print. No one seems to have been able to replace it. The book covers the beginnings to 1868. There's another anthology for the modern stuff.

One reads an anthology to learn the lay of the land, and to guide future reading, and the Keene anthology worked for me in that sense. What did I learn?

First, most importantly, I could spend a lot of time enjoying the riches of the Heian Period (roughly 8th-12th centuries). Any reader of The Book of Genji has little choice but to spend a lot of time, since it's so enormously long. But it's not just Genji. The poetry, The Pillow Book, the range of the women’s diaries. What a time. And the clear fact that nearly all of the major writers were women still amazes me.

Some version of The Tale of Heike (13th century), the chronicle of the civil war between two noble families that led to the creation of the Shogunate, is essential. It's a foundational work for later playwrights, poets and story-tellers, a bit like The Iliad and The Odyssey were to the ancient Greeks, or for that matter to 19th century English poets. It is not so obvious that I need to read the original – my impression is that most Japanese readers stick with one of the many modern retellings.

The monk Kenko's Essays on Idleness (14th century) will have to wait, although I love the title.

Similarly, my appetite for No plays is pretty much sated by the four included by Keene.

The 17th century is a high point. There are at least three major writers: the novels of Ihara Saikaku, the haiku and travel journals of Basho, and the puppet plays (!) of Chikamatsu seem like they must be highlights of the language. I really was not expecting those puppet plays. Nor that one of Saikaku’s books is a collection of tales of homosexual love affairs between samurai.

This is what I mean: with a good anthology, I learn a lot, quickly. It's as close as I get to speed-reading or skimming. Oh, there’s such a thing as that? I had no idea.

The 18th and 19th century, at least to 1868, are thin. There's not nothing – there’s rarely nothing – but the prose is imitative, the poetry formalized into sterility. The Japanese poetry, to be specific, which seems to have become so mannered and rule-bound that if a poet wanted to write about anything remotely modern – attacks on the Dutch traders for example – he had to do it in Chinese.

I wonder if there's an anthology of Chinese literature that gets as much done in 450 pages?

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