Friday, January 26, 2024

Some lesser works of Sōseki and Tanizaki - deep in the earth directly beneath Lady Kikyō’s toilet

Dolce Bellezza is running her 17th Japanese Literature Challenge.  Amazing, well done, etc.

I read some short works for it, which I will pile up here: three short works by Natsume Sōseki, collected in a Tuttle volume that looks like it is titled Ten Nights of Dream Hearing Things The Heredity of Taste and a pair of Junichirō Tanizaki novellas paired up in The Secret History of the Lord of Musashi and Arrowroot.  Sōseki and Tanizaki are exactly who I read last year, and quite possibly who I read for many years more.

The translators, in the introduction, emphasize that the Sōseki pieces are “lesser” although “not unimportant,” but I enjoyed them more than the one other work of Sōseki’s I’ve read, the short novel Kokoro (1914), by reputation a great work, I presume more for its culturally significant subject than its art.  But perhaps these stories are like études, technical exercises no matter how catchy the melody.

“Ten Nights of Dream” (1908), for example, is a series of ten dreams, each a few pages long, perfect newspaper fodder.  Some pieces are pure surrealism, accumulations of symbols, while others are little parables.  A man dreams that he is watching a famous 13th century sculptor at work.  He is told that the sculptor does not create the image of a god, but rather finds the god within the wood, the Michelangelo conceit.  When the narrator tries to carve a god, he botches it again and again, concluding that there are no longer gods in the wood.  See, a little parable.

The dreamer spends the last dream knocking pigs into a bottomless pit – “still the pigs, more pigs and more, kept grunting up toward him” – before falling in the pit himself (63).  I have a strong taste for this type of thing.  But any imaginative write can knock out fake dreams, I know.

Similarly, “Hearing Things” (1905) is about an anxious man who becomes hopped up on ghost stories and begins thinking ghosts are everywhere:

“It’s all imagination,” he immediately went on, continuing his conversation with Gen-san.  “You think to yourself that they’re frightening, so the ghosts get uppity and then, of course, they start wanting to come out” (110). 

That’s the narrator’s barber, deflating him so that the story can end happily.  The story is more about the literary representation of the uncanny than about anything actually uncanny.  So again, an amusing exercise.

“The Heredity of Taste” (1906) is the most interesting, a series of Tristram Shandy-like digressions that end up telling the story of a soldier killed in the Russo-Japanese war, which is treated tragically under the narrator’s comic.  And the lack of jingoism was interesting.

It was a wonderful time when Kō-san waved the flag, but I’ve been told that where he lies at the bottom of that ditch he’s just as dead and just as cold as any other soldier.  (145)

Aiko Itō and Graeme Wilson translated the Sōsekis.

I have enjoyed – again this is just taste – Tanizaki’s historical fiction, his stories about samurai and warlords, more than his contemporary stories, and Arrowroot (1930) and The Secret History of the Lord of Musashi (1935) were not exceptions.  Lord Musashi is about a samurai with a sadistic sexual kink, a common Tanizaki preoccupation, this time involving severed heads, and more specifically severed noses.  I suppose the historical setting is absolutely necessary, since such a story set in contemporary Manchuria would be too disgusting to read.  Tanizaki pretends to have found unlikely original sources describing Lors Musashi’s sex life while also explaining obscurities of the actual historical events.

In other words, Terukatsu now found himself deep in the earth directly beneath Lady Kikyō’s toilet.  (74)

It is that kind of story, with the usual Japanese political and military events caused by motives stranger than the norm.  On the same page is a reference to another story about “the beautiful Heian court lady who tantalized a suitor with a copy of her feces fashioned out of cloves” which Tanizaki finally wrote up fifteen years later in Captain Shigemoto’s Mother (1949), which I read last January.

Arrowroot is a gentler thing, an example of the distinctive Japanese genre of the literary travel story that dates back at least to the 9th century Tale of Ise, where characters visit beautiful or historic sites in large part because of the poems or plays or stories about them.  In this case, Tanizaki wants to explore a canyon which perhaps sheltered an exiled warlord but more importantly along the way is able to see a  drum make of fox skins that is featured in a famous Nōh play.  The narrator is perfectly aware that the drum he sees is not the real thing, and the warlord cannot possibly have lived in the canyon.  The “real” association is false, but the literary side, the story, remains true.  The story is still the story.

The translator, Anthony Chambers, in a note about magical Japanese foxes, writes that “[f]oxes are so partial to tempura and fried tofu that they can be summoned by setting out these delicacies” (201).  Me too, me too.  Just try it.

Meredith, thanks as always for the push to read these Japanese books.

Sunday, January 21, 2024

Metamorphoses Cantos IV and V - gore, Pyramus and Thisbe, and a rap battle

Bacchus continues his reign of terror in Canto IV of Metamorphoses by turning three sisters who refuse to believe in his divinity into what “we in English language Backes or Reermice call the same” (Golding, 99) “[Or, as we say, bats.]” (Martin, 140).  How sad that we lost the word “reermice.”  But what is new here is that the three sisters, before their transformation, tell stories that also feature transformation, one after the other, the most famous of which is Pyramus and Thisbe.

The Pyramus and Thisbe story is not a mythological story but a tragic romance of the ludicrous sort, as Shakespeare saw perfect for travesty.  Charles Martin shifts his rhetoric to emphasize the ridiculous side of the story (warning: gore ahead):

  “It was as when a water pipe is ruptured

where the lead has rotted, and it springs a leak:

a column of water goes hissing through the hole

and parts the air with its pulsating thrusts;

splashed with his gore, the tree’s pale fruit grows dark;

blood soaks its roots and surges up to dye

the hanging berries purple with its color.” (Martin, 128)

This just-so story about why mulberries turn purple is the bit of Ovid Willa Cather borrowed for O Pioneers! (1913).  Shakespeare for some reason omits theses special effects (“With the help of a surgeon he might yet recover and prove an ass”).  Somehow Arthur Golding’s translation does not sound so silly.  But Martin has A Midsummer’s Night’s Dream behind him; silly is the only way to go.

The Canto ends with another romance, this time purely mythological, the Perseus story, full of metamorphoses, not just everyone turning to stone from Perseus’s super-weapon, but the creation of coral, another just-so story tossed in.  The Perseus saga shifts, in Canto V, to another parody of Homer and other epics, an insane scene of mass slaughter as gory as a Hollywood action movie, and part of the joke is that the scene goes on forever, ten blood-soaked pages in Martin.  One poor schmuck dies when his sword rebounds into his own throat.  Like an action movie, it is not just the number of kills, but the variety.

Every fifth book of Metamorphoses ends with a performance, in this case two, a song contest.  Martin shifts meters, letting one side rap and giving the other a loosey-goosey irregular five-beat line that somehow feels closer to Golding’s long lines but without the rhyme.  That’s how Ovid delivers the story of Proserpina (another just-so, why there is winter).  The rap is not in today’s style, but more like that of “Guns and Ships” from Hamilton, or maybe “Lazy Sunday.”  The rappers, challenging the Muses themselves, lose the battle and are turned into, what else, birds, magpies according to Golding,

Now also being turnde to Birdes they are as eloquent

As ere they were, as chattring still, as much to babling bent. (Golding, 135)

Ten cantos left.

Saturday, January 20, 2024

Ovid's Metamorphoses, Cantos II and III - or just III, it turns out - And Cole and Swift, and little Woolfe

A month ago I wrote about the first Canto of Ovid’s Metamorphoses.  Now I will move through the Cantos two or three at a time, just leafing through the books, really, with luck getting at what Ovid is doing.  Cantos II and III today.

Ovid established his cosmology and created the world in Canto I.  Now he is ready to do what he loves best, turning innocent young women into plants.  Or water, or constellations.  And turning innocent and less innocent men into stags and snakes, and writing just-so stories.

The gods are highly human, impulsive and wicked, sometimes more like impersonal, uncaring forces, and other times more like all-powerful dictators.  The rulers, the philandering Jove and the wronged wife Juno, so jealous and petty that she loses any sympathy, are especially menacing, but really danger can come from any direction at any time.  Mere humans are also generally terrible if they have any power at all.  That’s the ethos of Metamorphoses.

Canto III is full of the revenge of Juno.  She is especially awful to Semele, the mother of Bacchus.  She plays the Snow White trick, visiting to her as “a crone / with whitened hair and wrinkle-furrowed skin” (Martin, III, 101) to goad her into making a request from Jove that will cause her death – “incinerated by Jove’s gift” (103).  It’s all Semele’s fault then, not Juno’s.

Little fetus Bacchus is of course unharmed, and, sewed up in his father’s thigh, becomes the second child after Athena to whom Jove gives birth.  The gods live in a strange world.  An entire series of Bacchus stories follow in later Cantos, some familiar from our reading of Euripides.  Ovid is adept at interweaving the mythic story cycles, turning them into little sagas, into history.

For example, earlier in Canto III Cadmus founds Thebes by defeating a dragon and sowing the teeth to grow warriors from the earth.  A series of Thebes stories, mostly tragic, follow.  Eventually (Canto IV) Cadmus and his wife will themselves will be transformed into dragons.  They live in a cave on the Dalmatian coast, occasionally terrorizing the locals until the 4th century when St. Hilarion makes them immolate themselves, presumably converting them to Christianity.  See Rebecca West’s Black Lamb and Grey Falcon (1943), her giant book about Yugoslavia.  “Without doubt it was Cadmus, it was literature” (252).  She does not actually see the cave, though, but takes the word of St. Jerome.

Canto III – not sure why I am only pulling things from Canto III – features another of Ovid’s modes, explicit parody, in Actaeon’s catalogue of hounds, a Homeric pastiche, comic but grimly so, since the dogs are about to tear poor Actaeon to pieces:

Blab, Fleetewood, Patch whose flecked skin with sundrie spots was spred:

And Tawnie full of duskie haires that over all did grow,

And Tempest best of footmanshipe in holding out at length.

And Cole and Swift, and little Woolfe… (Golding, 68)

And “shaggie Rugge,” Jollyboy, the entire pack.  I wonder if Shakespeare was thinking of this passage when he named King Lear’s little lap dogs.

Actaeon’s metamorphosis and death is gory and detailed, as many of Ovid’s transformations will be, but I find Echo’s change to be the most horrible:

unsleeping grief wasted her sad body,

reducing her to dried out skin and bones,

then voice and bones only; her skeleton

turned, they say, into stone.  (Martin, 106)

More of that to come in Metamorphoses.  More of everything.

Sunday, January 14, 2024

The Best Books of 2024

For the last year and a half I read short books, mostly, which was psychologically satisfying and anyway necessary to fit the available energy and concentration.  Now, though, back on my feet, I hope, I am ready to read long books again.

Long, and I mean it, like Rebecca West’s 1,150 page Black Lamb and Grey Falcon (1941), a novelistic tour through Yugoslavia mixed with a fragmented Gibbon-like history of the region.  I am almost halfway through without losing much enthusiasm.

My chronological drift has taken me into the 1940s, and I plan to read a number of the major works of the decade.  Nothing else I am likely to read comes close to West’s monster, although The Second Sex tops 700 pages.  But in the last couple of years I passed over a number of likely books because they were too long, so now is the time to gather them up.  Is A Glastonbury Romance (1932) really almost 1,200 pages?  Was John Cowper Powys out of his mind?  Gertrude Stein’s The Making of Americans (1925), under a thousand, seems almost reasonable, Louis-Ferdinand Céline’s Journey to the End of the Night (1932) a breeze at 600, except I hope to read it in French, and Finnegans Wake (1939) practically a novella, except that it is written in the style of Finnegans Wake.

Yes, of course, this post is some kind of post-surgery overreaction.  Now I will read Finnegans Wake!  Now I will read The Tale of Genji!  And so on.  I am aware.  Although last summer, wondering what the first readers of Finnegans Wake saw, I read the first four or five installments published in 1924 and 1925 under the noncommittal title “Work in Progress” and found the idea of reading more plausible.

I greatly enjoyed my little immersion in Indian literature a couple of months ago, where I mixed classical epics and poetry with modern novels.  I want to do that again.  Several times even.

First: Persian literature.  Dick Davis has been publishing piece of Ferdawsi’s Shahnameh (1010) for decades.  His latest version (2016) is just under a thousand pages; I doubt that is half of the entire epic, likely the longest ever written by a single person.  Along with Ferdawsi I could read Attar’s The Conference of the Birds (1177) and the poetry of Rumi (12th c.) and Hafez (13th c.), all of which have been translated by Davis.  Maybe, looking at modern novels, I could try My Uncle Napoleon (1973) by Iraj Pezeshkzad, translated by, let’s see, Davis again.  Any Persian expedition is likely to become the Dick Davis show.  Well, it is a great lifetime achievement, and he is a fine poet in his own right, as I know from his 2009 collection Belonging: Poems.

Second: Arabic literature.  The One Thousand and One Nights, not necessarily such a long book depending on exactly which texts are included in the translation.  The 2021 Annotated Arabian Nights is a beauty.  I am not sure what else I might read.  A browse through the Library of Arabic Literature will find something.  Naguib Mahfouz’s Midaq Alley is from 1947, so that is an easy choice.  I wonder what his earlier novels about ancient Egypt are like?

Third: Japanese literature.  The Tale of Genji (11th c.) and The Pillow Book (1002) alongside Ivan Morris’s The World of the Shining Prince: Court Life in Ancient Japan (1964).  Then move to The Tale of Heike (14th c.) and some more recent works, more Sōseki and Tanizaki and Kawabata, maybe.

Fourth: Chinese literature.  One of the early novels, like Romance of the Three Kingdoms (14th c.), likely in some still enormous abridgement, followed by The Story of the Stone (1791-2).  Then, or alongside, some novels from the 1940s, Eileen Chang’s Love in a Fallen City (1943) and Qian Zhongshu’s Fortress Besieged (1947).

For example.  Let’s say.  Maybe these are the best books of 2024 and 2025.  Or 2035.  No, look, one big book per month is twelve books.  Maybe I really get ten read, or eight.  That’s pretty good.  That’s not pure bluster.

If anybody would like to recommend a Persian, Arabic, etc. book, short or long, classical or contemporary, please do.  If anyone would like to read along with one of these beasts, please let me know. They all seem like terrible readalong books, since they are exactly the books where the pace should not be forced and the reader’s right to give up halfway – a tenth of the way – through is paramount.  Still, let me know.

Now I need to get writing about Ovid.  Speaking of whom, if anyone wants to continue reading Roman literature in my company, I am completely open to the idea.  Let’s say you have joined me with Plautus, Terence, Lucretius, Ovid, Seneca the playwright, and Seneca the Stoic.  We still have Virgil, lots of great lyric and satirical poets, Pharsalia, Satyricon, Cicero, a shelf of famous historians I have never read, and St. Augustine.  Lots of interesting things.  Julius Caesar, I’ve never read Caesar.  Let me know, let me know.

Thanks for indulging the silliest-sounding thing I have ever written here.

Thursday, January 4, 2024

The best books of 2023, in a sense - "Aren't you tired of reading?"

Last January seems even more distant than usual at this time of year.  It will likely not surprise anyone that 2023 now comes with a strong feeling of Before and After.  So I will indulge in the “facetious and silly” exercise of identifying the best books I read in 2023.  Sorting through the actual books of the year is also a good hobby, but not mine.

I mean “best” in the sense that the books are the most imaginative, artful, innovative, beautiful up to a point, linguistically rich or at least interesting, and still generative of other significant works of art.  Obviously one can value other things.  My list of favorites of the year would be similar but somewhat different, including more silly stuff.

Plato’s dialogues (4th cent. BCE), of which I read almost all, were easily the best book or books I read last year, and I mean best as literature, as invention and story-telling and linguistic play and all of that.  As the extended development of one particular character, approaching the novelistic.

A few other books – Lucretius’s The Way Things Are (1st BCE) and Lucian’s Satires and Dialogues (2nd CE) – would make this list on their own, but I am tempted to add everything we read as part of the march through Greek and Greekish philosophy.  The pre-Socratics, Diogenes, and Seneca were all richer because they were part of the project, because they conversed with Plato.  No, reading does not always have to be a course of study, it does not always have to have a syllabus.  Sometimes, though.  Many thanks to everyone who read along with any of this.  It was a real help to me.

The great highlights of my little post-surgery course in Indian literature, in Sanskrit, Tamil, Kannada, and English, were the obvious:

The Mahabharata (2nd BCE – 2nd CE / 1973) in the William Buck retelling

The Bhagavad-Gita (added to the above at some point) in Barbara Stoler Miller’s translation

The Ramayana (2nd BCE – 2nd CE / 1972) in the R. K. Narayan retelling

All just thrilling stuff.  Narayan is explicit that he compresses anything he does not find so thrilling the later classical poetry and modern novels and Peter Adamson and Jonardon Ganeri’s Classical Indian Philosophy (2020) became more interesting with the ancient epics behind them.  Vivek Narayan’s 600-page counter-epic After (2022) would not exist without them, since the thing it is “after” is the Ramayana.

The best novels and the like:

Little Novels of Sicily (1883), Giovanni Verga, the D. H. Lawrence translation

The Death of Ivan Ilych (1886), Leo Tolstoy

Ulysses (1922), James Joyce – in its own category, almost , although what tedium in passages, including in some of the most brilliant, like the “Oxen of the Sun” chapter that parodies the bulk of English literature.  When I last read this book I could identify, I don’t know, the Dickens chunk, while now I could see almost everyone.  It is some kind of progress, I guess, in the study of literature, to be able to identify a Carlyle or Pater parody.

Invitation to a Beheading (1936), Vladimir Nabokov, plus the most extraordinary of the last half of his Collected Stories, “Signs and Symbols” and “The Vane Sisters” and so on.

The Grapes of Wrath (1939), John Steinbeck – a novel written in many modes, which should have endeared it to postmodernists, except that two of the modes, the sentimental and didactic, are low prestige.  Or used to be.  Pynchon and DeLillo readers should revisit the novel.  It is more of a systems novel, an omnibook, I remembered.  I enjoyed several other more minor Steinbeck books last year, but none were like this one.

Ficciones (1944), Jorge Luis Borges - fundamental

The Leaning Tower and Other Stories (1944), Katherine Anne Porter, especially the cluster of Miranda stories, “The Old Order.”

Delta Wedding (1946), Eudora Welty – the richness, the fluidity, the insights.

En attendant Godot (1952), Samuel Beckett – somewhat different in French than English.

The Leopard (1958), Giuseppe di Lampedusa

Invisible Cities (1972) and If on a winter’s night a traveler (1979), Italo Calvino - the title quotation is from the last page of the latter.

Every one of these I had read before, although mostly long, long ago.

Some books of poems:

L'Art d'être grand-père (1877), Victor Hugo – The Art of Being a Grandfather, the great thunderer as an old softy.

La jeune parque (1917) and Charmes (1922), Paul Valéry

Poesias Heteronominos (1914-34), Fernando Pessoa – a collection of the various Pessoan personas.  I wanted to read Pessoa in Portuguese and I did, even if I doubt I could do it again right now,  Maybe Alberto Caeiro, the shepherd poet.

A Marvelous World (1921-52), Benjamin Peret – Surrealism as a principle of life.

Autumn Journal (1939), Louis MacNeice

Transport to Summer (1947), Wallace Stevens

Poems of Paul Celan (1947-76), tr. Michale Hamburger – as if I understood these.

In a Prominent Bar in Secaucus (2007), X. J. Kennedy

This Afterlife: Selected Poems (2022), A. E. Stallings

Seren of the Wildwood (2023), Marly Youmans – a genuinely mysterious fairy tale poem, too mysterious for me to say anything about it.  If Youmans, a longtime Friend of the Blog, were more of an abstraction, as most authors are to me, I would say she is in a “major phase.”

Next up: the best books of 2024.

Tuesday, January 2, 2024

Books I read in December 2023 - No one’s worse than you, she says

Lots of short fantasy fiction this month, perhaps everything in the first section except the May Sarton novel and Eugene O’Neill play, balanced by a complementary pair of Holocaust memoirs.


Ocean of Story, Vol. 1 (11th cent.),  Somadeva, tr. C. H. Tawney, ed. N. M. Penzer (“Penzer is a maniac”)

The Case of Charles Dexter Ward (1927 / 1941),  H. P. Lovecraft – the beginning of Lovecraft’s comic masterpiece.  Yes, also cosmic, sure, why not, but mostly hilarious.

The English Teacher (1945),  R. K. Narayan

1984 (1949),  George Orwell – decades ago I had not understood this novel as a response to the Blitz.  To totalitarianism, obviously, but Orwell also wonders if London will ever really be rebuilt, if rationing will ever end.  It was a good question.

The Palm-wine Drinkard (1952),  Amos Tutuola – another lively folktale pastiche novel, like the Brazilian one, Macunaima, I read last month.

A Shower of Summer Days (1952),  May Sarton – Sarton has caught my attention as a Maine writer, but that was her old age.  For some reason here, earlier, she wrote a quite good Irish country house novel which is also, as my wife pointed out, a comic remake of Elective Affinities.

Long Day's Journey into Night (1956),  Eugene O'Neill – so much poetry quoted in this play.  When I last read it, let’s say thirty-five years ago, what did I know about Swinburne or Dowson or Baudelaire.  Or anyone.  I had heard of Shakespeare.

Elric of Meliboné (1972),  Michael Moorcock – funny, but not as funny as Lovecraft.  Last read at least forty years ago.  A friend collected the Lovecrafts and Moorcocks, while I assembled Fritz Leiber’s Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser books.  An education in the classics.

The Living End (1979),  Stanley Elkin

Wakefulness (2007),  Jon Fosse

Olav's Dreams (2012),  Jon Fosse

Weariness (2014),  Jon Fosse – aka, the three novellas bundled together, Trilogy, or as it says at the top of every odd-numbered page, Triology.  The Dalkey Archive blurb claims a “rich web of historical, cultural, and theological allusions” which was utterly invisible to me.  I especially enjoyed the oblique murder story, or more correctly the obliqueness of the murder story.

You’re awful, the Girl says

You’re the worst guy in the whole of Bjørgvin, she says

No one’s worse than you, she says

No everything is awful, she says (p. 100)

The Dangers of Smoking in Bed (2017),  Mariana Enriquez – highbrow horror from Chile.  It is always interesting to see what is going on in the literature of the South American south, even if the recently resurgent genre is not really for me.  It can’t scare me (see Lovecraft above) but it can still disgust me.


Ovid's Heroines (25-16 BCE / 1991),  Ovid / Daryl Hine

Ovid's Elegies (16 BCE / 1599 CE),  Ovid / Christopher Marlowe

The Owl and the Nightingale (12-13 cent.),  anonymous, tr. Simon Armitage

Collected Poems 1921-1951 (1952),  Edwin Muir

I hope to write about the Ovid books soon.  They are not at the level of Metamorphoses, but what is.


Smoke over Birkenau (1986),  Liana Millu

Still Alive (1992/2001),  Ruth Kluger – please see Dorian Stuber’s blog for notes on both of these books.



La condition humaine (1933),  André Malraux

Bacchus (1951),  Jean Cocteau

Rhinocéros (1959),  Eugène Ionesco

Still plugging away at Bom Dia!, my Portuguese textbook.