Literary Arcadia Literature and other things

…For What Remains of the Day

The Remains of the Day fulfills every requirement I have for a novel; interesting characters with depth, description, a bit of mystery.  It is a big bonus that it feels as if it could be made very easily into an episode of Downton Abbey (which I am addicted to) if a few names were changed.

Highclere_Castle

We are introduced to Stevens, the perfect servant.  He has been the butler at Darlington Hall for nearly forty years, has in essence, devoted his entire life to the service of the Hall- in the person of first Lord Darlington and then to the new American owner of the Hall, Mr. Farraday.  The story begins with Stevens taking a short holiday from his job (likely for the first time in his life), by driving through western England from Darlington Hall to the southwest coast to visit a Ms. Kenton, a former housekeeper of Darlington Hall and a woman who has kept up a correspondence with Stevens for many years.  As Stevens drives through the countryside he reflects on his life, and more is revealed to the reader.

The novel is deceptively slim, but Ishiguro packs it full of various themes; it is dense with colonialism, comments on class structure, love and denial, status and dignity.  In 1956 Stevens is one of the last of a dying breed, a servant in a great house.  Even “serving his lord” has irrevocably changed; the last lord has died and Stevens is now employed by “new money” in the person of a rich American businessman who has purchased the Hall.  The upper class in Britain that Stevens devoted his life to is dying.  The British Empire is in tatters, soon to be almost completely dissolved.

Stevens often reflects on the past, particularly the 1920′s when Lord Darlington was alive.  He remembers overseeing a vast Hall, many banquets and events, and dozens of servants.  Various threads of memory slowly weave together.  There was the possibility of romance with Ms. Kenton that, although danced around, was never acknowledged by either party.  There is Stevens respect for his father, also a butler, and his influence upon Stevens own life.  Most of all there is Stevens’ devotion to Lord Darlington and the family name- even after the lord is dead and many years have passed Stevens still wants to protect his name (Darlington supported talks between the German and British governments before WWII, and many took this to mean he supported the Nazis).

In the end Stevens meets Ms. Kenton (many years married) and they drink tea together in typical English fashion.  Although feelings are finally admitted to, the afternoon ends with Ms. Kenton returning home and Stevens beginning back to Darlington Hall.  Acknowledging how things might have been different, but accepting his life for what it is, Stevens decides to continue to live as he always has; to live out what remains of his days.

I thoroughly enjoyed this book; it is so tightly written with never a word too much or too little.  Characters are drawn to perfection.  Despite what would seem only a mildly interesting story- the life of a butler- the plotting is perfection, and I was always anticipating what would be revealed next.  If it still sounds “boring” read the parts where Stevens practices “witty banter”, or when he is sent to instruct Lord Darlington’s godson on sex- its pure gold.

Fairies in the Forest

Sara Maitland’s book, From the Forest: A Search For the Hidden Roots of Our Fairytales (British title is slightly different), is a ramble through the woods, a meditation on humanity and nature, a discussion of the fairy tales that we have grown up with and have become a part of our culture- whether in a Brother’s Grimm book, in a Disney movie, or popping up in modern fiction.

puss in boots*Puss in Boots*

The book is structured into twelve sections- in each Maitland recounts a walk through one of the woods/forests in Britain, followed by her re-telling of a fairytale.  The book can fall into no particular genre- if I were to describe it I would say it is a sort of folklore study/nature/pop history/fiction.  Maitland’s “new” fairy tales are fun and interesting, but I am not sure if they really belong in a book discussing the “roots” of fairy tales.  She may have wanted to illustrate how the tales changed with the times/tellers, however their inclusion directly contradicts her oft-repeated assertion that writing the tales down, as the Brother’s Grimm did, stagnated them (I do not personally agree with this theory).

I liked this book, but I wished that it had been more; that Maitland had stretched her research and analysis further.  My main annoyance is the subtitle “A Search for the Hidden Roots of Our Fairytales”.  With this title I expected more research into the fairy tales themselves.  Maitland touches lightly upon how the forest is connected to a deeper part of the human psyche and influenced fairy tales, however everything is in generalizations.  I would love to read an in-depth anthropological study on fairy tales, how they evolved from oral folktales, how they are connected to various cultures, and how they inform on these cultures.

Instead Maitland is all over the map, never going in-depth on one subject or another.  She muses on forestry, natural science, written vs. oral tales, child rearing (in an out-of-place lecture), and anything else that pops into her head as she is walking in the woods.  The style resembles what would actually happen in my brain if I was wandering in the woods.  However, it is not the researched and cohesive work that I expected.

Japanese Literature Challenge: A Retrospective

I recently finished a self-imposed Japanese literature challenge (consisting of After the Banquet, Snow Country, I am a Cat, Naomi, and Ugetsu Monogatari).

fuji

Though I have previous read many other Japanese works, it is obviously not enough to draw conclusions about an entire country’s literature.  However there were certain themes I noticed;

- The meeting of and conflict between separate and disparate ideologies, two main themes being Traditional vs Modern and Western vs Japanese.

  • In I am a Cat many new, Western ideas and conveniences are largely embraced and the characters see nothing wrong with adopting many non-Japanese cultural aspects (yay modern plumbing!).  The main human character is even an English teacher.
  • The decades before and after WWII change the attitude; there is a national resurgence of interest in traditional culture along with increasing exposure to the West.  Some felt industrialization/modernization/Westernization had gone too far while others wanted to fully embrace it and felt Japanese culture to be too restricting.  Tanizaki especially loved this theme; his characters are always struggling to assimilate the two ideologies.  Too much of the “new” fractures relationships within families (The Makioka Sisters) or between spouses (Some Prefer Nettles, Naomi), but too much of the “old ways” repressed emotions and individuality.  Post-war Mishima’s scathing portrayal of Japanese politics in After the Banquet is a complaint against the imported democratic political system.  Kawabata also writes of incompatible Traditional and Western, but in a different way; he separates new (city life, ballet, etc.) from old (the Snow Country, traditional geisha) completely by giving them different locations in which to dwell.  I’ll stop before I write an entire thesis.
  • The Western theme is largely absent from Ugetsu Monogatari (written before 1853), however many of the stories still contain the Past vs Present theme- the past is glorified and treated with nostalgia, and many would prefer it to their grim and war-torn present.

- Loneliness and isolation.  So many of the characters feel separated, isolated, and unable to connect.

  • This is a big theme for Kawabata.  Snow Country is separate, only reached after a long train journey.  Komako, a geisha, is desperate to connect; she is often alone, or wandering in search of clients, or drunk at parties.  Shimamura, her frequent client, deliberately keeps a distance from everyone.  In Thousand Cranes each person is trying to connect with another character (mainly through affairs and tea ceremonies) because they want to remember someone else.
  • A more modern approach- Murakami’s Wind-Up Bird Chronicles.  Although more fractured than all of the other novels I read the characters exhibit the same isolation.  Toru spends most of his time alone in his apartment, his wife (and even the cat) have left, and his one main outside contact being May, herself a lonely teen.

Beauty, Aesthetics, and the Natural World.

  • In Snow Country the weather and mountainous countryside location are elevated to almost becoming characters in the novel.  In fact, all Kawabata works are heavy on aesthetics and beauty, focused by his succinct and lyrical phrasing.  Thousand Cranes continually comes back to the traditional tea ceremony; where every movement and object has meaning, and where a chipped cup can be more aesthetically pleasing than a perfect one because it symbolizes the impermanence of life.
  • Many characters take time to appreciate nature, and to enjoy the beauty of the world around them.  Kazu is most content in her garden, and walks in it every morning.  The four Makioka sisters have a tradition of viewing the cherry blossoms together every spring- it is a special event not only for the beauty of it, but also to be together despite their differences.
  • Ugetsu Monogatari tells several tales where elementsof the natural world play a role- including ghosts, oni, and the unexplainable, often intersecting with humankind.
  • I remember these themes being a large part of Genji; classic Heian culture according to Murasaki Shikibu was a lot of poetry writing, arranging flowers and clothing (so that color and pattern would be not just ascetically pleasing but also have hidden meaning), and rigorously observing ceremonies.

So- yes I did enjoy my literature challenge!  I would like to do it again, focusing on another part of the world; perhaps one I haven’t read anything from before.

*Further note: Part of me feels it is a bit arrogant to assume I can parse out the elements of an entire literary tradition based only upon books that have been translated from their original language.  Conclusion: I don’t know, but I will have to work with what I’ve got!

After the Banquet

After the Banquet is the last book in my self-declared “Japanese Literature challenge”.  I have read Mishima before, but it was ten years ago.  Also, it is sometimes difficult to read very famous authors with very famous deaths without having the author’s personality in the back of your mind as you read.  And Mishima is a very interesting character to have bouncing about in your head…

(FYI: Yukio Mishima was one of Japan’s most famous and beloved writer, artist, actor, director – basically a premiere artist.  He lived the flashy, full life of the avant-garde artist until he, with a small conservative political group, attempted a coup d’etat to restore the Japanese emperor to real (instead of symbolic) power.  When it failed he committed seppuku).

Moving on to the actual story- the story begins as Kazu, the middle-aged owner of a restaurant is walking in her garden.  Kazu is successful because she works hard, is friendly and gregarious, and has made her own way in the world without assistance.  She is charming and, from the first, I liked her.  Kazu holds a small banquet at her restaurant for some retired ambassadors – it is here that she meets Noguchi.

The courtship between  Kazu and Noguchi is awkward, but sincere.  These two are so unalike that I was at first unsure why an attraction ever developed.  Kazu’s vivaciousness is countered by Noguchi’s reserve and more “old-fashioned” ways.  There is no question of a passionate love- Kazu and Noguchi are no longer young and inexperienced- the attraction is a combination of extreme loneliness and a genuine regard brought about by admiring someone completely opposite to yourself.

Once she was married to Noguchi, Kazu at first attempts to keep her restaurant open, but finds it too difficult to be both a proprietress and a wife.  However, Kazu was too energetic to do nothing- soon she funnels all of her energy into a political campaign for Noguchi.  Noguchi loses the election, but not before Mishima gives a scathing description of the various campaign tricks and back-handed manipulations involved in Japanese political campaigns.

Mishima displays very well the collision course of two disparate personalities.  Noguchi’s loss proves a catalyst for the dissolution of his and Kazu’s marriage.  Kazu, who for a time lost herself to her husband’s wishes and aspirations, breaks free.  She decides that being lonely is not enough of an excuse for denying her true self.  The catharsis she felt at the end of the novel, as she is rebuilding her business and once again walking through her garden, was also felt by myself as I read it.

After the Banquet is excellent.  This book connected with me far more than one of those novels that really try too hard by giving the characters some roller-coaster ride of emotion.  I connected to Kazu.  She is charming, but constantly worrying and over thinking.  She is successful because of her own hard work.  She sometimes shows too much enthusiasm or passion, but she is sincere and never lets anyone else make her feel like she is lesser for it.  I felt a sinking in my stomach as I read of Kazu repressing her nature for her husband.  I thought that the end was inevitable- but Kazu surprised me with her refusal to be put into a box.

This novel can be read just for the excellent character of Kazu alone.  The salacious description of Japanese politics and the sad portrait of a marriage is just a bonus.

japanese painting -garden

Swamplandia! (<—the exclamation point is part of the title)

Swamplandia! has made a splash in literature.  Because it is a first novel.  Because the author has been on the “Best 30 under 30″ or some such list.  Because it has been touted as “fresh” and “unique”.  All of these things are true.  So that means I should have really liked it, right?

Warning:  This review contains spoilers.  I can say what I liked about the book by being vague.  However I cannot say why I do not like the book without citing examples.  So if you haven’t read it and want to be surprised, don’t read further.

What I liked: The writing.  Karen Russell writes very well.  When she describes the swamp you can almost feel the humid air and smell the dark, damp dirt and the dripping leaves.  She has many good ideas.

What I didn’t like: The story.  Russell sets up an unlikely, although interesting premise.  A family owns an alligator farm on an island in Florida, where they eke out an existence as a tourist destination with their theme park and alligator thrill show.  The mother and star of the show dies of cancer, leaving the father (self-dubbed as the “Chief”), a son, and two teenaged daughters.  The family is struggling, both emotionally and financially.  The son, Kiwi, runs off to the mainland and gets a crap job at a rival theme park to earn money for the family.

This is the point where the book begins to go “off the rails” so to speak.  The father decides to go on a business trip to find investors for the park and leaves his daughters alone on the island.  Seriously?!  Horrible and completely preventable things happen to these girls.  They both get lost in the swamp- Ossie runs off into the swamp with her “ghost lover”.  The younger sister Ava tries to find her sister with the help of a wandering vagrant who for some reason she completely trusts so, of course, he rapes her.  Then she runs away and is also lost in the swamp.

The narrative becomes even more ridiculous.  Kiwi (who in a completely obvious plot device) is learning to fly and magically finds both of his sisters in the swamp and saves them, even though he did not even know they were missing.  Tied up in a nice little bow there, right?

Oh yeah, and the father is working at a casino and is too proud to admit that this is how he is making money and there are no investors for their alligator park.  After Kiwi finds his sisters they all decide to live on the mainland, find an apartment to live in, and the girls go to school.  Nicely tied up.

Did I mention how nicely it all ends?  The family is all together again, hooray!  Ava never tells anyone she was raped, and even seems not to care at all and blocks it from her mind – I foresee a lot of therapy for her after her mental breakdown in a few years.  Ossie is finally diagnosed with some “mental disorder” (never named or described) and sees a counselor – which is good because she’ll need it after all that crap.  Despite basically abandoning his teenaged daughters on an island with very little food for an indeterminate time period the father sees no repercussions for his neglect.  In real life child services would have been all over him.

Although I did not at all enjoy the plot of Swamplandia! I feel that Karen Russell’s writing style is superior.  That’s what makes it frustrating.  It could be that a full-length novel is a bit much.  I may try her short story collection coming out soon if only because of its quirky title – something about vampires in a lemon grove.  What are the vampires doing in a lemon grove?  Do they like lemons?  Were they orchardist’s before they were turned?  Possibilities.

An English Mystery Novel (with opium!)

The Moonstone by Wilkie Collins is considered to be the first detective novel (although I have heard of several other novels also labeled as such).   Even if (to this modern reader) it can seem at times to be a little too convoluted, with a lot of bait-and-switch moves and classic red-herrings,  most of it is great fun.

The novel depicts events over several years regarding the Moonstone, a large yellow-ish diamond that is the center of all the mystery.  It is told from several different perspectives, and introduces some narrators that could be considered biased or unreliable.  I think that part of the reason that the book was such a sensation is because of this style- we read many different perspectives from unique characters, and then find out that some of them were clueless, actively lied, or were “under the influence” (yes, I mean opium).

Ms. Rachel Verinder inherits the Moonstone from an eccentric and disliked uncle who spent much of his life in India.  How he got the diamond is never revealed, but it is apparent even from the beginning that those means were likely dishonest – three Indians arrive in England to retrieve it.  Rachel, ignoring her mothers advice to lock up the diamond, flaunts it at her birthday party.  Inevitably, the Moonstone goes missing afterward.  The rest of the novel is the year following the theft, told by many characters and in such a way as to slowly reveal to the reader the events of that fateful night.

Most of the novel is fun to read.  I can see why, when it was written, it was a big hit.  Not only do you have a clever mystery, an exotic Indian diamond, opium use, romance, etc… but it is written in that unique style.  Towards the end of the novel it does get to be a bit much – “oh, so he really is a bad/good guy!”, “oh, so that scene earlier really had nothing to do with the mystery!”, “a ha! he was innocent the entire time!”- it becomes increasingly ridiculous and sensational.  I feel that much of the emotional scenes, mystery, and drama could have been cleared up very quickly with a few honest five-minute conversations.  But where would be the fun in that?

A fun mystery to read if you don’t mind a bit of over-the-top plotting and characters- it is what makes it so charming.

Howard’s End

My first post of the new year!

I enjoyed Howard’s End.  I am not surprised that I did – I like Forster in general and A Passage to India is on my top-ten-favorite-novels list.

Howard’s End is about English society during the Edwardian Age (c. 1901 to 1910, although some consider it lasted through the end of WWI).  It shows a cross-section of English society during that time, through the stories of the commercial/bourgeois Wilcox’s, the upper class intellectual Schlegel’s, and the poor working-class Bast’s.  These three families coming (or to be more accurate, crashing) together produce interesting and sometimes disastrous results, but it is indicative of the rapid changes that rocked Edwardian England.

Most of the novel revolves around characters struggling to connect to others, to emerge above the rigid social structure of England at the time.  The cultured Schlegel’s regularly attend the symphony, while Leonard Bast is taking an afternoon off from his clerk job.  They meet and discuss the music, and the differences in education and social class are readily apparent to both.  As Leonard observed; “[Ms. Schlegel's] speeches fluttered away from [him] like birds.  If only he could talk like this, he would have caught the world.  Oh, to acquire culture!  Oh, to pronounce foreign names correctly!  Oh, to be well informed, discoursing at ease on every subject that a lady started!  But it would take one years.  With an hour at lunch and a few scattered hours in the evening, how was it possible to catch up with leisured women who had been reading steadily from childhood?”.

It is a sad truth about Edwardian society; despite the desire to be educated or cultured, there is no chance for anyone of the lower classes to achieve those goals- they have neither the time or money to invest.  This harsh system allowed England to create a class of workers that helped the country become a manufacturing powerhouse and rapidly expand their empire, but even as this lower class was being created and molded, there were many who protested.  The Schlegel sisters felt that it was their duty to discuss and join committees that censured the conditions of the poor, barely realizing that it was their money alone that allowed them to have the time to attend all these committees and the education to discuss the issues with erudition.

Despite everyone trying so very hard, the Bast’s and the Schlegel’s are not compatible, especially when Helen Schlegel decides to become the Bast’s patroness.  Helen is too prying and acts too high-handed, Leonard too resentful of his own situation and those he perceives as superior.  Leonard’s wife is too indiscreet.  Despite all differences, the Schlegel’s decide to take Mr. Bast “under their wing” – the results are a disaster.

The connection between the Schlegel’s and the Wilcox’s does not turn out to be quite so disastrous, although it is arguably more interesting.  These two families are more equal; they are similar in their education and economic status.  The main differences between the two families, and why much of the conflict between them emerges, is the differences in attitude; towards culture, towards other people, and towards their own position in society.  The Wilcox’s are more worldly and more interested in material gain, while the Schlegel’s are more interested in culture and intellectual pursuits,  but are supremely naive.  They are actors, playing out the eternal battle between art and the sublime and the mercenary commercial system- what “cultured” people want to focus on, and what gives them the means to achieve it.

In the end the only characters to emerge relatively unscathed are the ones that embrace, or at least accept, both their own situation and the changes that will inevitably occur in their society very soon.

Gore Vidal’s Creation

Creation is a historical novel.  One of those epic, all-encompassing, ones.  It is more than just a silly “historical fiction” book- not just a fictional character wandering through a time, a vacant vessel to be a surrogate for the reader.  This is deep and involved; you have to know about history, and preferably also about some world religions, before you pick it up.  Or perhaps it could be a sort of gateway book – if the various historical figures and events are interesting enough by all means do the research!

Our hero, Cyrus Spitama, is a Persian ambassador and friend of Xerxes.  He is also the grandson of Zoroaster, the founder of the Zoroastrian religion.  This gives a new dimension to the novel, because not only is Spitama a globe-trotting ambassador, but also takes an interest in the various religions and philosophies he encounters along the way.  So, let the fun begin!

- Spitama travels to India, gets involved in the intrigue between the various Indian princes, meets Siddhartha Gautama and various Hindu sages.

- Spitama is sent to China, where he travels through various warring Chinese kingdoms, and meets Confucius and Lao Tsu.

- Spitama’s last diplomatic mission is to Greece, where he is involved in the war/peace/stand-off/machinations between Persia and Athens.  He meets various Greek philosophers, scientists, poets, and playwrights.

- When Spitama is actually in Persia he is always involved in the various palace intrigues and drama that continually surround the royal family.  He is involved vicariously in the continuing philosophical battles between the Zoroastrian priests and the purveyors of the older religions of Persia, Sumeria, and Babylon.

What connects the story together (besides our protagonist) is the search for meaning in all of these religions.  Spitama specifically seeks the answer to the one question that continually eludes him – Why do we exist?  What created the universe and why?  Each religion has a different perspective, from “it doesn’t matter” to “serving the gods”.  The novel leaves the question unanswered because, as Spitama says, regardless of the religion or philosophical concept each person adheres to, it can only be answered by each person’s own individual journey through life.

Creation is like a historical fiction novel I wish I could write.  Very interesting and mostly accurate.  There are a very few tiny quibbles – my main one is our main character is able to meet both Confucius and Lao Tsu in fifth century China, although it is likely that Lao Tsu lived before that time period.  As an historian I would ordinarily be irritated, but within the novel it makes sense – the point is to introduce and discuss formative world religions and the best way to do that with Taoism is for Spitama to speak with Lao Tsu.

If I ever did write a historical fiction work it would be very accurate, and likely boring.

“Best of” 2012?

I am still digesting Gore Vidal’s Creation; I will write about it soon.

As everyone else is doing the same, I will add my small contribution the the extensive dearth of the “best of the year” lists.  Despite the fact that 2012 is not yet over, I know.  But as this time of the year is usually too busy for me to read more than one or two books more, I will probably be safe in assuming the following are my favorites of the year.

NB: These are the titles of my favorites that I read this year, not necessarily published in 2012.  I am always behind on the newest.

Favorite Classic: (tie!) I, Claudius by Robert Graves, Justine by Lawrence Durrell

Favorite Modern Fiction: Sacre Bleu by Christopher Moore

Favorite Literary Fiction: The Cat’s Table by Michale Ondaatje

Favorite Non-Fiction: The City of Falling Angels by John Berendt

Snow Country

Snow Country is a small, rich novel by Yasunari Kawabata.  Kawabata, partially in reaction to earlier, more verbose authors, and partially to evoke emotions over describing events, wrote the novel in a sparse style reminiscent of haiku – a short string of words meant to create an impression, a fleeting feeling, a juxtaposition.

The “snow country” of the title refers to the remote western part of Honshu where the story takes place.  The area is known for the large amount of snow that falls in the winter.  The area is also known for the small towns and hot springs that provide a break for city-dwellers willing to make the long train ride.  The hot spring inns are serviced by geisha – not the hyper refined and artistic geisha from the larger cities, but provincial geisha that are not particularly talented as entertainment and far closer to the label “prostitute” than their urban counterparts.

The story centers around the love affair between Shimamura and a geisha, Komako.  Shimamura is a wealthy but directionless man who fancies himself an expert on Western-style ballet – he has extensively studied the subject and ponders writing a book, although he has never seen a single performance.  Komako is a provincial geisha who, even though she tries to better her craft, knows that she will always be stuck in a backwater, dependent of the brief visits of men like Shimamura.

Digital Capture

Komako and Shimamura’s relationship deepens as they meet over several seasons.  Both the weather and location are part of the story, as their relationship deepen in summer and autumn until the final scene in winter.  As in the previous Kawabata novel I have read, Thousand Cranes, what happens is not as important as how it is written.  The ending is a bit incomprehensible, especially based on what had come before, and there is no real resolution.  The point of the novel is reading it slowly, for the language and writing.  I somewhat prefer Thousand Cranes to Snow Country because, though it is written in the same style, it is more comprehensible, and isn’t quite as obscure.  If you are going to choose one over the other I would choose Thousand Cranes, especially if the tea ceremony interests you.