Literary Arcadia Literature and other things

Claudius the God

I read Claudius the God because I enjoyed I Claudius so much (first post).  While it is not quite as good as the first it is still very entertaining.  It begins where its predecessor left off- Claudius, as one of the only surviving members of the imperial family, suddenly finds himself rather reluctantly thrust into the role of Emperor after the death of Caligula.  The novel recounts Claudius’ entire reign as Emperor and his inevitable murder.

claudius

The book still includes the court intrigues and plots that made the first installment so delicious.  However, sometimes the focus will shift to governmental procedures or talk of politics, as Claudius attempts to implement plans for improving Rome and the government.  It would be more interesting for the historians of Roman history, but I found it interesting as well.

Even though I knew for a fact what was going to happen at the end- Claudius is murdered by his scheming wife Agrippina in order for her son Nero to become Emperor- I found that I didn’t look forward to poor Claudius’ death.  Robert Graves has created such a sympathetic character that the reader can feel the burden of ruling an empire right along with Claudius.  Somehow you just don’t want to read his death.

Overall, if you read I Claudius and enjoyed it you should also read Claudius the God.

I Am a Blog Post

I have finished Natsume Soseki’s long and rambling novel, I Am a Cat.  It did take a bit of perseverance on my part – the book is not only long, but often waxing philosophical on no one subject in particular.  Sometimes no action occurs for an entire chapter.  Some parts are laugh out loud funny (when the cat tries to catch a rat), some not so much.

cat-catching-a-mouse

I Am a Cat begins with a stray cat beguiling his way into a home- the home of an English teacher and his family.  Much of the remainder of the book is the cat (who is never named) observing and commenting upon his master, the master’s wife and daughters, and the small group of friends that can often be found discussing all sort of nonsense in the study of the house. Also, for some reason, all of the characters have very odd names (or odd in translation at least).  This may have been Soseki poking fun at them, but it is very odd to me to name the cat’s master “Mr. Sneaze”.

Most of the action occurs when one or more friends visit.  One friend, Waverhouse, always tells ridiculous (mostly fabricated) stories, and needles everyone.  Another friend, Coldmoon, is a “lost scholar” type, continually changing his focus to increasingly obscure subjects.  The cat sits in the study and listens to these ramblings.

This book could be very interesting if one was studying middle-class families in turn of the century Japan, or animals as main characters.  Otherwise I found that sometimes I lost the thread of conversations because they went on for so long (really most of the book is the overheard conversations in the study), and I am not an expert on Meiji-era Japan.  Since Soseki originally wrote the book in sections for a magazine (and indeed did not even intend to continue the story beyond the first chapter), I feel a bit is lost by reading it in book form.

This book, being so long-winded, is quite a change from the other books I am reading for the Japanese literature challenge.  Overall I felt that I enjoyed it the least.  It was alright, but cannot be read quickly, and is best read in bits and pieces.

Possession: A Sort-Of Romance

Possession is a novel of academia, literature, and mystery.  Roland is a young scholar specializing in a particular Victorian poet, Randolph Ash.  When he finds two unfinished letters from Ash to an unnamed lady his curiosity is piqued.  He figures out that the lady was Christabel LaMotte, another poet.  Roland joins forces with a LaMotte expert, Maud Bailey, and together they follow the clues left by the poets across England and Brittany and reveal a passionate love affair.

The premise of this book sounds great, and like something I would really enjoy.  The fact that it won the Booker Prize is also another point in its favor.  The book is very “literary” – in the sense of “literary fiction” genre- in that the prose is often broken up by poems, letters, and excerpts from books written by some of the characters.

I’ll admit it – I am not a poetry person.  The most I can handle is very short snippets or the occasional 17 syllables of haiku.  Long lines of Victorian verse filling up several pages are especially off-putting to me, and this book contains several examples.  I confess that I skimmed them.  For some they may add to the experience, but for me they break up the story and take me out of the narrative.

The really interesting point made by the novel is who “owns” literature, or specifically who owns the undiscovered love letters of two writers who died over a century before?  The people who possess them at the moment, or buy them?  The descendents?  What scholars have a right to study them, or should they study them at all?  Do they add to scholarship in any way?  There are many themes of various forms of “possession” that flow through the book.

The thing was, as much as I thought I would like this book, I didn’t.  It was just ok.  I was very interested during the first 2/3 or so of the book, while Roland and Maud were solving the mystery of the poets Ash and LaMotte.  But the last part of the novel seemed like a let-down- it felt rushed towards a conclusion that tied everything up really nicely into a neat and pretty bow.  The ending was predictable, and everything I expected but, somehow with all the build-up and quality writing, I felt that it should have been more.

Ugetsu Monogatari

Ueda Akinara’s Ugetsu Monogatari (Tales of Moonlight and Rain) is a collection of nine short stories, each containing supernatural and otherworldly elements.  The tales were written in the 18th century, although many are set during an earlier time in Japanese history.

The edition I have is invaluable for understanding the tales.  It is the Cambridge U Press edition edited by Anthony Chambers and in addition to the tales themselves it includes background on Ueda, Japanese history, and the literary foundations for the tales.  For instance in “Shiramine” the two main characters are a famous Buddhist monk, Saigyo, and a former emperor, Sutoko, who reigned from 1123- 1141 CE.  I would not at all have understood who these two were or what they were discussing without the information added by Chambers.

Many of the tales have Buddhist morals behind them, and several include monks as characters.  Ueda also uses several Chinese fables as basis for his tales.

Some of the tales don’t need quite as much exposition, though.  “The Carp of My Dreams” is a fun story of a man who dreams he is turned into a carp (yes, the title is literal).  “A Serpents Lust” steadily builds up the tension and becomes genuinely creepy.

Basically the tales are interesting if you like Japanese history or literature.  The tales are never “scary”, and sometimes the supernatural elements are a bit tame – they are used more for morality fables or to comment on history or Japanese society.

Naomi in Westernized Japan

In Junichiro Tanizaki’s Naomi, an older shy engineer becomes enamored with a fifteen-year-old cafe hostess.  Joji is attracted to Naomi because of her “Western” appearance and name, which to him represents a freedom that he feels he cannot find in traditional Japanese society.  He sees her as precocious, bright albeit uneducated, and free of the trappings of the rigid social order Joji wants to escape from.

Joji begins by thinking he should educate Naomi and takes her under his wing, having her take lessons and setting up a sort of idealized “play-house” where they can live together.  It was a bit off-putting at first for me- the whole older man taking a young girl and molding her into his ideal, so maybe if she turns out how he wants he will marry her (to be fair Joji never takes advantage of Naomi’s dependence on him – in fact his is really paranoid about not doing that).  Later Joji becomes obsessed by Naomi’s beauty and budding sexuality, as she becomes increasingly spoiled and manipulative.  As the novel progresses it becomes increasingly scandalous (and addicting!).

The collision of the two very different desires of Joji and Naomi is analogous with the collision of Western styles and influences versus the traditional Japanese.  Tanizaki, in his various works, repeatedly returns to the theme of West vs. Japanese.  It seems it is his personal obsession, to observe the changes in Japan, and to document them.  For more on this read one of my personal favorites, In Praise of Shadows.

Books Update

I haven’t written anything in about a week now.  Rest assured my eyes did not fall from my sockets and I am still reading.  I have read two of the three books for my Japanese literature challenge and I plan to write about them very soon.

I had been feeling a bit demoralized lately.  I read a book that I felt was so bad it just took the creative wind out of my writing sails.  I won’t say which book, because I feel that it is no doubt very difficult to come up with ideas and write them down into a cohesive and complete story, and then get it published.  I have certainly never done it, and give credit where it is due to the authors who actually succeed.

However, this book left me in despair over the fate of literature- if this is what is “popular” are we at the end of good literature as we know it?  I wrestled with this, pacing and lamenting and no doubt annoying the stuffing out of C.  I was only dragged out of my book-induced hole and back into the light of good characterization and plot that makes sense when I saw that two of my favorite books of 2011 have now been published in paperback.  I wholeheartedly recommend both of them.

Rules of Civility, by first time author Amor Towles is absolutely lovely.  In Towles’ capable words the glitzy, gritty  New York of the 1930′s comes to life.  It is fabulously written and the female protagonist is both interesting and likeable (a much rarer thing than it should be in modern literature!).

Michael Ondaatje doesn’t have to build a reputation as a literary giant- he is already there.  While I personally have a love-hate relationship with his works (hated The English Patient, while Anil’s Ghost is in my “top-ten favorite books of all time” list), I can say without reservation that I loved The Cat’s Table.  Rich characters take an eventful sea voyage from India to England- what’s not to love?

Japanese Literature Challenge!

I was thinking to myself- what type of book haven’t I read lately?  The answer comes to me- Japanese lit!  I usually love any Japanese lit I come across (an exception being The Wind Up Bird Chronicles, which I really didn’t see why such a fuss was made over it- don’t hate me!).

I have just read/will read Tanizaki’s Naomi, Soseki’s I Am a Cat, and Ueda’s collection of supernatural short-stories Tales of Moonlight and Rain.  I am open to suggestions, and will probably come up with a few more myself.

Missing Something in My Antonia

Am I missing something in My Antonia?  I do not think that the character of Antonia is that great- certainly not great enough to devote a book to.  (Sacrilege!)

Massive Spoilers Ahead: Antonia has a very average life.

Yes, she is “spirited”.  Antonia laughs and loves freely, gives opinion without being asked, has opinions and thoughts of her own.  She is free-er than the average Nebraska town girl, but then so are the other “hired girls” featured in the story.  I was far more interested in the adventures of Lena and Tiny, women who consciously followed a different path in life, lived fully, and were successful.  They were true pioneering women.

Antonia, well… she just ended up married to an immigrant farmer from the same place she was from and had a bunch of kids.

It seemed that Jim Burden admired and loved Antonia out of nostalgia, because he remembered growing up with her.  He had a much deeper relationship with Lena, and they became true friends when they met again in Lincoln, both on their ways to successful careers.  Jim neither wrote to or saw Antonia for many years together, yet still held this vision of her in his mind, a vision that seems unreal when one reads about how her life eventually turned out.

The Hired Girls of My Antonia

The “hired girls” of My Antonia are the daughters of immigrant farmers who have come into the town of Black Hawk to work and earn money to send back to their families.  They are the waitresses, maids, and shop assistants that the townsfolk rely on.  They are slightly outside of town society, not because they are servants, but because they are women living alone and because they are the (more recent) immigrants.

The hired girls, because of their unique situation, also do not have to conform to society’s images of what a woman should be or do.  Tiny Soderball, Lena Lingard, and Antonia Shimerda are all hired girls.  Free of expectations these girls go to dances, speak freely with everyone, and walk around unaccompanied (!!!).  Unfounded rumors about these girls fly around the town, just because they act differently.  Despite being warned away, Jim Burden prefers hanging out with them over more “respectable” girls because they are far more interesting, talkative, alive.

Despite the gossipy townspeople’s predictions, the girls are all successful.  Lena becomes a successful business owner, Tiny has a life of adventure.  They likely would not have ended up so if they had been forced to conform.  Cather includes these characters to make the point that women can be just as successful as men, especially in a new land of opportunity such as Nebraska.  In fact, I was more interested in their stories than I was in Antonia’s!

 

Weather and Mood in My Antonia

One of the things I have noticed about Willa Cather is her use of weather and the natural environment in her works.

I especially love her (very accurate) description of winter in the Midwest-

“The pale, cold light of the winter sunset did not beautify- it was like the light of truth itself. When the smoky clouds hung low in the west and the red sun went down behind them, leaving a pink flush on the snowy roofs and the blue drifts, then the wind sprang up afresh, with a kind of bitter song, as if it said: ‘This is reality, whether you like it or not. All those frivolities of summer, the light and shadow, the living mask of green that trembled over everything, they were lies, and this is what was underneath. This is the truth.’ It was as if we were being punished for loving the loveliness of summer”. 

The weather of Nebraska becomes almost alive and sentient in this passage.  But doesn’t everyone feel that sometimes- as if the weather was conspiring just to make your day bad (as if something as pervasive as weather would deign to bother with one human)?

Having just driven across the country (and through the longest part of Nebraska) I can also attest to the veracity of the following passage, Jim describing his journey to his grandparents farm in rural Nebraska-

“I do not remember crossing the Missouri River, or anything about the long day’s journey through Nebraska. Probably by that time I had crossed so many rivers that I was dull to them. The only thing very noticeable about Nebraska was that it was still, all day long, Nebraska”.

The isolation but also openness of the vast lands and sky of the prairie is essential to the novel- it is the backdrop for the small struggling farms, the cloistered towns, the restlessness that Jim feels that eventually causes him to flee.  The openness of the landscape is the essence of Antonia.