Tag Archives: book review

Shirley Jackson’s “We Have Always Lived in the Castle” – A Life of Seclusion and Imagination

16 Aug

“My Name is Mary Katherine Blackwood. I am eighteen years old, and I live with my sister Constance. I have often thought that with any luck at all I could have been born a werewolf, because the two middle fingers on both my hands are the same length, but I have had to be content with what I had. I dislike washing myself, and dogs, and noise. I like my sister Constance, and Richard Plantagenet, and Amanita phalloides, the deathcup mushroom… Everyone else in my family is dead.”

(Shirley Jackson, We Have Always Lived in the Castle)

I recently got my hands on this little mystery novel “We Have Always Lived in the Castle” by the American writer Shirley Jackson. It was originally published in 1962, just three years prior to Jackson’s death. The title of the novel definitely intrigued me and when I opened the first page I was lured enough to continue reading it. I am perplexed at just how simple the style and form of the novel are, and yet how mysterious and strange the story itself is. The way Jackson writes makes writing seem effortless and easy.

The novel tells a story about two sisters who live isolated and alone in their castle at the edge of a small village in Vermont. The sisters, a twenty-eight year old Constance and an eighteen year old Mary Katherine “Merricat” Blackwood, live with their uncle Julian and their cat Jonas. The villagers hate the family because of the tragedy that had happened six years before the novel reacts; the whole family, apart from Merricat and Constance, was poisoned by means of the arsenic-laced sugar on their blueberries after supper. Only the uncle Julian survived; Merricat was sent to her room that night as a punishment, and Constance was the only one who didn’t put sugar on her blueberries. Constance was blamed for the poisoning, but nothing could be proved.

When the novel begins, Merricat is going out to village to get books from the library and fresh groceries since Constance is an agoraphobic and doesn’t leave the garden of their castle. Merricat and Constance live their peaceful, isolated life together happily. The only thing that disrupts this peace is the arrival of the intruder, their cousin Charles whose motives are not sincere, for he is only after their inheritance. Merricat can intuitively sence the arrival of change, as personified in the character of Charles: A CHANGE WAS COMING, AND NOBODY KNEW IT BUT ME. Constance suspected, perhaps; I noticed that she stood occasionally in her garden and looked not down at the plants she was tending, and not back at our house, but outward, toward the trees which hid the fence, and sometimes she looked long and curiously down the length of the driveway, as though wondering how it would feel to walk along it to the gates. I watched her. On Saturday morning, after Helen Clarke had come to tea, Constance looked at the driveway three times.”

Castle Hill Ruggle, Ohio. Built in 1878.

His visit ends in a house fire and a ransacking of the castle by a deranged group of villagers. At the end of the novel, Merricat admits that she is the one who poisoned the family and Constance says that she knew that all along and they agree not to talk about it ever again. I love how the strange is the normal in their home. Constance is completely unphased by Merricat’s strange habits or behavior, and she never shows any rash emotions such as anger, snapiness, impatience, no, she is always calm, composed and sweet-mannered, like a doll. Constance always finds a way to justify Merricat’s behaviour, even the murder of their parents, uncles, brother etc. I find it amazing that the novel is told from Merrica’t point of view and even though she specifically states that the rest of her family is death, she never admits to us, the readers, directly that she was behind it.

All sugar. Like, zero arsenic.

Here is a little passage with conversation between Merricat and Constance. I really like Merricat’s view on life here:

The rain started while we sat in the kitchen, and we left the kitchen door open so we could watch the rain slanting past the doorway and washing the garden; Constance was pleased, the way any good gardener is pleased with rain. “We’ll see color out there soon,” she said.

“We’ll always be here together, won’t we, Constance?”

“Don’t you ever want to leave here, Merricat?”

“Where could we go?” I asked her. “What place would be better for us than this? Who wants us, outside? The world is full of terrible people.”

“I wonder sometimes.” She was very serious for a minute, and then she turned and smiled at me. “Don’t you worry, my Merricat. Nothing bad will happen.”

(March 1995. ‘What makes a good finale? Gowns that look just as good on the way out.’, Picture found here.)

Whilst reading the novel, I found myself liking Merricat’s personality which is crazy because she is a pychopatic murdered who killed everyone in her family at the age of twelve. Still, there are things about her that I like and even find relatable; her hatred for everyone in the village; for example, when she says: “I wished they were all dead and I was walking on their bodies.” I like that her love is very limited; she only loves Constance and her cat Jonas. I love how she lives in her own little world and daydreams about going to live on the moon. I love her imagination and her strange little rituals which she perceives as a way of keeping her safety. I love how childlike Merricat is and how, despite being eighteen years old, she still runs around her house and garden as if she were a younger teen, she is completely oblivious of the fact that she is becoming an adult. And Constance behaves towards her in a motherly and nurturing manner, further cradling Merricat into her prolonged state of childhood. I love how she hates guests and anyone intruding the solemn space of her castle, for so do I! And I am envious that, unlike Merricat, I have not the means to completely isolate myself from society but rather, I am forced to participate in it, one way or another. So, in a way, this novel describes the ideal life for me; away from everything and everybody. Oh, I can just imagine Merricat slamming the doors to Charles’s face and playing Iggy Pop’s song “I’m Sick of You” very loudly; “I’m sick of you and there ain’t no way/ Don’t want to know, don’t want to see/ Don’t you ever bother me/ Sick of hanging around your pad/ Sick of your Mom and sick of your Dad…”

Book Review: Summer of Strangers (and Other Stories) by Masao Yamakawa

4 Jul

“The woman sees herself in the sea. She calls out to that other self.
The sea took you from us, Hiroshi. Then you became one with it…I wonder, if I throw myself into the sea, will I become one with you?”

(Masao Yamakawa, The Gift of Loneliness)

Georges Lacombe, Blue Seascape, Wave Effect, 1893

We are starting this July on the blog with my little review of the short story collection called “Summer of Strangers (And Other Stories)” by the Japanese writer Masao Yamakawa which was recently translated by J.D.Wisgo. I have already written a few book reviews for short stories “The Days and Nights” and “Downfall and Other Stories” by Fumiko Hayashi, both translated by the same translator.

The author of these short stories is the Japanese writer Masao Yamakawa who was born in 1930 in Tokyo. He wrote his university thesis on Jean-Paul Sartre and worked as the editor of the literary magazine “Mita Bungaku” which is interesting because that magazine published famous Japanese authors such as Tanizaki Junichiro and Akutagawa Ryunosuke; I enjoyed the works of both of these writers immensely. Yamakawa’s short story “The Summer Procession” is one of his most well-known. Sadly, Yamakawa died at the age of thirty-four as a result of a traffic accident, but his work is popular in Japan even today. The book contrains seven stories; “The Gift of Loneliness”, “You in a Box”, “Summer of Strangers”, “The Distorted Window”, “The Summer Procession”, “No More Summers”, and “Fireworks of the Day”. Each story is presented both in the English translation and in the original form, that is, in Japanese. I think this would be very fun and useful for someone who was studying Japanese language. It was interesting for me too, I will admit it.

Photo by Mervyn O’Gorman, 1913

As you can see, each story has a title that is delicious and alluring and I found it hard to chose which one to read first! What struck me with these stories is how different they are to each other, how uniquely crafted and individualistic, not following a certain plot-formula or having repetitive, recurring motives. And also, how the stories often take a surprising turn. When I would start reading each story, I always finished reading it and feeling surprised: “whoa, I did not expect that!” That was literally my reaction and that made reading all the more fun. The first story I read was “Summer of Strangers” because the title was very inviting and I love how it contained a story within a story: the main character who lives in a coastal, touristy town is swimming one night and meets a mysterious woman and, fearing that she might intend to commit suicide by drowning, he tells her a tale that his father would tell him. This tale, although affirming the individual’s right to decide whether to live or die, ends up saving the woman’s life and changing her perspective on things.

Edvard Munch, The Lonely Ones (Two People), 1895

The second story I read was “The Gift of Loneliness” because, again, the title made me curious. The story starts with a man and a woman sitting on the beach. We find out they are a husband and a wife, but they are emotionally distant from each other… Winter time is approaching in the story and the cold, raging sea seems to mirror the coldness and turmoils that the couple is experiencing. This image of two people, joint together by love and/or marriage, but feeling distanced from one another instantly brought to mind the famous painting by Edvard Munch called “The Lonely Ones” from 1895. In the painting the man and a woman are standing on the beach, gazing at the sea. The waves crush on to the shore as the two of them stand there in silence, just one step away from each other, and yet emotionally distant. The murmur of the sea, louder than their loneliness, matches the turmoil that rises in their soul. Are they a couple who just had an argument, or two lovers who have, after being drunken with love, now sobered and realised that nothing, not even their love, will spare them the loneliness and feeling of isolation that they experience as individuals…? The mood of the story, at least in the beginning, feels similar and quickly we find out the reason behind the mood: a month ago their four-year old son Hiroshi had died, drowned in that very same sea. Here is a passage from the beginning:

It seems like Hiroshi was everything to you,” the man says, forcing a smile. “But Ryoko, you were my wife to begin with…even before you became Hiroshi’s mother.”

The man seems to be calling out to her, but the wind makes his voice difficult to hear.

The woman does not turn around. Far out in the indigo sea, a faint mist hangs in the air.

The sea churns. Surely Hiroshi has already dissolved into the ocean. A month has already passed since the waves carried off his tiny, four-year-old body. Why did we ever go to the beach in September in the first place…
(…)
The man is calling me again. My husband must be worried.

Husband? Is that really my husband? He’s like a stranger to me, a man I’ve never seen before.

Suddenly the sea screams. A powerful roar. It engulfs her.

The woman sees herself in the sea. She calls out to that other self.

The sea took you from us, Hiroshi. Then you became one with it…I wonder, if I throw myself into the sea, will I become one with you?

“Let’s head back to the hotel soon.”

The man’s hand holds her shoulder tightly. Gazing at her from the side with a cautious look in his eyes, the man’s stiff cheeks force a smile. Silly man. You actually think I would jump from here.

“I’m ok. Let go of me,” the woman says. “If I wanted to die, I would have been dead long ago.”

Through the characters’ conversations and visual imagery, the story beautifully captures the sadness of loosing a child, and, as the title suggests, it brings a thought-pondering idea about loneliness being a gift, giving someone some time and space out of love as a gift.

Tanigami Konan (1879-1928), Dahlia, 1917

First and last pictures here by Magdalena Lutek (Nishe)

“I’ve been looking so long at these pictures of you
That I almost believe that they’re real
I’ve been living so long with my pictures of you
That I almost believe that the pictures are all I can feel”

(The Cure, Pictures of You)

The story that especially surprised me the way it turned out to be is “You in a Box” because at first we are presented with a shy, withdrawn, slightly socially awkward woman whose coyness reaches such levels that she cannot even look a man in the eye, but as the story unfolds we discover that her shy, frightened demeanour hides an entirely different nature; twisted passions and a distrust, a fear of any relationship with people, with men in particular. The story begins with her strolling around park, meeting a stranger – a tourist and taking his picture, but this innocent start mustn’t fool you because things turn deadly very quickly…

I especially found this inner monologue of hers chilling: “Darling, I’m really sorry about killing you…but just deal with it, ok? You see, I’m scared of the living. I can’t predict what they’ll do, and people who are alive will never truly become mine. In this form, you’re very obedient and will never betray me. Now there’s no reason for us to hide things from each other. I’m sure that you aren’t lonely either. Let’s live together like this forever, happily ever after…” While I was reading the story my perception of who is the predator and who I should hate and fear changed almost instantly as the events in the story unfolded.

Even though the story is very short, the character of the woman in it is very psychologically complex and the story left me feeling haunted for days. At first she struck me as a creepy horror film character, but as this sensation subsided, I came to see the woman as a deeply lonely individual and the story shows how intense loneliness, isolation, and distrust of people can lead to harrowing acts of aggresion. In a way, the woman in the story reminded me of the character Etsuko from Yukio Mishima’s novel “Thirst for Love”; she is also a shy, private person but her calm exterior hides rage and an obsessive love which turns deadly.

I enjoyed all the stories in the book, but this post would be too long to mention them all so I just mentioned the ones that struck me the most. All in all, if you love short stories and Japanese literature, I am sure you will enjoy these shorts stories. You can check out the translator’s word on his blog: Self Taught Japanese and Goodreads page.

This book is available here on Amazon.

As I Crossed a Bridge of Dreams…

3 Aug

“Night after night I lie awake,

Listening to the rustle of the bamboo leaves,

And a strange sadness fills my heart.”

(As I Crossed a Bridge of Dreams)

Japan | takaphilography

A week or so ago I finished reading this wonderful little book whose title alone lured me from the bookshelf of a dimly lit library: As I Crossed a Bridge of Dreams. How alluring is that title!? As I took the book into my hands and flipped the pages, it was as if I were instantly transported to the world of dreams, the quotes spoke to my heart and I knew right away this book was a treasure. And what a delight, in warm summer nights, with the nocturnal music of cicadas and rain, to read a diary of a young girl, later a young woman, living in the 11th century Japan. Lady Sarashina was born in 1008 at the height of the Heian Period, at the same time when Sei Shonagon was writing her “The Pillow Book” which I love, and she spent most of her life in Kyoto. As a child, she is utterly dreamy and obsessed with reading tales and daydreaming of a charming, handsome prince that she will meet one day and the wonderful life she will have.

Timid, withdrawn and hypersensitive, little Sarashina feels deep sorrow after her sister dies and her step-mother leaves, and the same poignancy is seen in her experience of nature, especially the sight of the moon and red leaves of the trees in autumn. As she grows up, she finds that she doesn’t want to participate in the world and that her dreams are more fulfilling. She tries being a court lady for awhile but is a failure because she is too dreamy to participate in the court life. Eventually, at the age of thirty-six she marries a middle-class man and has three children. It is assumed that she started writing the book at the age of forty-nine, just after her husband had died. Perhaps, with this huge loss that brought a change to her life, she started thinking about lost times and again sank into the deep, wild sea of dreams.

Maples and River by Ogata Kenzan, Edo Period, 18th century; Look at those maples leaves, falling down in the river like bright red stars!

“Though it was already the end of the Tenth month when we crossed Mount Miyaji, the maple leaves were still in their height.

So the storms have not yet come to Mount Miyaji!
For russet leaves still peacefully adorn the hills.”

Ogata Kenzan, Autumn Ivy, after 1732; Notice the gorgeous gradient colours of the leaves; from brown to green, red to orange, just mesmerising…

I lived forever in the dream world. Though I made occasional pilgrimages to temples, I could never bring myself to pray sincerely for what most people want. I know there are many who read the sutras and practice religious devotions from the age of about seventeen; but I had no interest in such things. The height of my aspirations was that a man of noble birth, perfect in both looks and manners, someone like Shining Genji in the Tale, would visit me just once a year in the mountain village where he would have hidden me like Lady Ukifune. There I should live my lonely existence, gazing at the blossoms and the Autumn leaves and the moon and the snow, and wait for an occasional splendid letter from him. This was all I wanted; and in time I came to believe that it would actually happen.

Kobayashi Kiyochika, Autumn leaves in Sangoku, 1914

“The trees in our garden grew as thickly as those that spread their darkness at the foot of the Mount Ahigara, and in the Tenth month we had a blaze of red leaves, like a rich covering of brocade, which was far more impressive than anything on the surrounding hills. A visitor to our house mentioned that he had passed a place with some magnificent red foliage and I improvised:

What can excell this garden where I dwell
In my autumnal weariness?”

Toyohara Chikanobu, Autumn Leaves, 1897

Lady Sarashina’s disinterest in the real world around her is also evident in her descriptions of her travels; her knowledge of geography was limited and sometimes flawed, but she writes with ardour about a field of poppies, a sea of mist, or the beauty of the waves hitting the shore. She saw life through a poetic lense and real life facts and data had little meaning to her. Over time, she comes to regret wasting her life in dreams and wishes that instead she had invested more time in her spiritual growth, but in a way this is yet another escapism because monks live in the own world, away from society and its troubles. By engaging in spiritual concern, Sarashina could once again escape reality, just like Anais Nin. Needless to say that I find Lady Sarashina’s thoughts and reveries very relatable and I find it very poignant that a thousand years ago a girl lived who is so much like me and who could understand me like no one else does know. I can only imagine how lonely she felt in her reveries, since people mostly think that fantasising is a waste of time. Little do they know how pleasant it is … to cross the bridge of dreams and pass the time in that pleasant, other-world.

Shibata Zeshin, Autumn Grasses in Moonlight, 1872

“That evening we stayed in Kuroto Beach, when the white dunes stretched out far in the distance. A bright moon hung over the dense pine groves, and the wind soughed forlorny in the branches. The scene inspired us to write poems. Mine was:

Had I not stayed awake this night
When should I have seen the moon –
This Autumn moon that lights Kuroto Beach.”

Utagawa Hirshige II, Autumn Moon at Ishiyama Temple (Ishiyama shûgetsu), from the series Eight Views of Ômi (Ômi hakkei), 1859

“Late one nights towards the end of the 8th month I gazed at the wonderful dawn moon illuminating the dark cluster of trees and the mountainside, and I listened to the beautiful sound of a waterfall.

“If only I could share this moon
With one whose feelings are like mine –
This moon that lights the mountain village in the Autumn dawn!”

The Days and Nights – Short Stories by Fumiko Hayashi – Now in Paperback

20 Jun

“Obscured by the rain, Mount Fuji was not visible the entire day. But I knew that the moment the sky cleared, a massive mountain would appear before my eyes. As I looked out from the second floor, within the twilight mist a verdant, green cornfield stretched far into the distance.”

(Fumiko Hayashi, The Tryst)

Tsuchiya Koitsu, Evening Glow at Lake Sai, 1938

Last spring and this spring I had the pleasure of reading and reviewing two short story collections, “The Downfall and Other Stories” and “The Days and Nights” by a Japanese writer Fumiko Hayashi (1903-1951), translated by J.D.Wisgo. All the short stories were really beautiful and thoughtful, slightly tinged with melancholy, and the atmosphere conveyed in the stories lingers in your room long after you close the pages of the book. The author’s writing style is what really appeals to me, but the choice of motives is interesting as well. Hayashi writes about themes such as loneliness, fate, love, nostalgia and desolation in a way that is both simple and yet deep and thoughtful, the heaviness and lightness of life, the main theme of Milan Kundera’s novel “The Unbearable Lightness of Being”, are beautifully combined in Hayashi’s short stories as well. The lives of the characters in her stories are often set in the urban post-war Japan and this gives not only an interesting historical portrait of the times but also a haunting background for the character’s lives; their unique troubles, sadnesses and indecisivness about love and life are set against universally tragical times. When you read those stories, it is easy to see why Fumiko Hayashi is considered one of the most important twentieth-century female Japanese authors. All the stories from the short story collections I talked about above are now united in a single paper-back edition, plus an additional short story called “The Tryst”. All together nine beautiful short stories and you can check them out here. Let me end this short post with a quote from the story “The Tryst”:

We wanted to lie together like this, even for a short while, resisting the fate that was trying to leave us behind. It felt like we were gripping tightly to each other, refusing to let go. I thought that at least for this moment, god would take pity on our honest, glittering souls. (…) We had no time to really decide anything; nor did we have a desire to trick the world and stay together. (…) Believing that a happy ending would never come to two people like us, I was also comforted by the fact we were beyond the age of worrying needlessly about a dark future. I can just feel it – happiness…

All in all, if you love short stories and Japanese literature, I am sure you will enjoy these shorts stories. You can check out the translator’s word on his blog: Self Taught Japanese and Goodreads page.

Loving Modigliani: The Afterlife of Jeanne Hébuterne – A Novel by Linda Lappin

17 Apr

“My dying, I mean. I can’t change it now. But nothing could ever have kept me from loving Modi; or him, me. We were born for each other, under his lucky black star.”

(Loving Modiglian, by Linda Lappin)

Jeanne Hébuterne, c 1918

The 6th of April marked the birth anniversary of Jeanne Hébuterne; the muse, the lover, the companion, common-law wife of the great painter Amedeo Modigliani and an artist in her own right. She was born in Paris in 1898, and died on the 26th January 1920 after throwing herself from the window of the fifth floor of her parents’ flat. The Paris she left behind was a very different world from the one she was born into; it had seen the great war and it has witnessed many art movements appearing like shooting stars and disappearing into the (art) history. And most importantly of all, for Jeanne, the Paris of 1920 didn’t have Modigliani who had died on the 24 January that year. The Paris without Modi was a dreary and sad urban wilderness.

This tale of art, love and death is perhaps the most tragical and heart-breaking tale from the world of art and it is not easy to write about it in a fresh and exciting way, or find a unique and original perspective on the topic which can easily become sentimental in the hands of a bad writer. Still, I recently read a book on the topic which blew my mind; “Loving Modigliani: The Afterlife of Jeanne Hébuterne” by Linda Lappin. I was instantly drawn by the title alone and the way the novel begins in medias res, with Jeanne’s fall from the window, and the way everything was told from her point of view. Jeanne, as a ghost, leads us through the tale of her love for Modigliani whom she desperately wants to find now that they are both dead. What can be more romantic than that!?

The writting is so vibrant, exciting and captivating. The novel has a great flow and the pages just pass by like landscapes from the window of a train. Indeed, the whole book feels like a very intense, poignant and exciting journey that begins with death and ends with …. well I am not going to tell you that. From the Paris of the living and Jeanne’s burial, to the “other Paris” as the author calls it in the book where Jeanne goes through a trial, meets the Death herself and seeks Modigliani so that their souls might wonder together the promenades and the avenues of the dead. A segment of the book is set in 1981 where a young art history student comes to Paris to do a research about a painter Manuel Ortiz de Zárate, and also a part which is Jeanne’s diary. This seemingly strange composition actually works beautifully and everything falls in its place in the end. The storyline is nonlinear and that makes the reading very exciting; you feel as if you are unravelling a mystery. All in all, in my opinion this was a beautiful novel and I think it would be a great read for those who are familiar with the story of Jeanne and Modigliani, as well as for those who don’t even have an interest in the art history because in the end it is a tale of love, death and lovers separated by death and that is something everyone can connect with. Also, I must say that I found the novel very poignant, it made me feel the same way that the book “Torn Apart: The Life of Ian Curtis” did and I already wrote a book review for it here. You can visit the author’s page for more information.

Amedeo Modigliani, Portrait of Jeanne Hébuterne, 1918

And now some quotes from the book which I really loved:

“Examining her past, we will see that she had always been a perverse child—moody, disobedient, quarrelsome, and stubborn. (…) Rather than follow the sensible wishes of her family to prepare herself to become a wife and mother, she badgered them to let her enroll in an academy of arts, to become an artist, a painter, as you heard her prideful boast. But has her work ever been sold by a gallery, displayed at an exhibition, represented by a dealer, reviewed in a newspaper? In the art world the name of Jeanne Hébuterne is totally unknown. And so it is likely to remain.”

I was fuming now. What right had he to judge my artwork?”

When I gaze at Jeanne’s face, the phrase “still waters run deep” comes to mind because she was seen by those around her as shy, quiet, melancholy and delicate, and yet she had all that passion hidden inside. If channeled in a different way, that passion would have made her a great artist. A quote from Jeanne’s diary (not Jeanne’s real diary, but the diary from the novel):

This is the room of a proper jeune fille, the person I am outgrowing or perhaps have never been. It is a room where Modi will never set foot, where his smile will never be caught in the mirror. Yet the thought of him fills every room, every space I go, and replaces the air in my lungs.

Jeanne Hébuterne, Self-Portrait, 1916

I can’t explain why I keep watching the horizon, but I feel that my real life is waiting for me out there somewhere across the water. Who am I? Who will I become? Maman says I am going to be beautiful—but that my hips are too round, my face too full, and when I am older I will have a double chin, like hers. But my eyes are the color of southern seas in summer, changing from green to gold to turquoise. I have seen those waters in the pictures of Gauguin, who is my favorite painter.

She was an artist, you see. Not many people knew that. A very talented artist. He was not only her lover, her husband, and the father of her children, but also her maître. He was teaching her, guiding her artistic career. He was a god in her eyes. Her passion for Modigliani was equaled only by her passion for her art. As a mother, well, she was too young to have taken on that responsibility, and he was certainly not much help.

Amedeo Modigliani, Portrait of Jeanne Hébuterne in a Large Hat, 1918

Jeanne Hébuterne, Death, 1919

Jeanne Hébuterne, Suicide, 1920

Jeanne Hébuterne, Self-Portrait, 1918

Jeanne Hébuterne, Portrait of Modigliani, 1919

I really enjoyed this description of Modigliani’s scent and the way it brings back memories to Jeanne who had just died:

“And then I saw his brown velvet jacket with frayed cuffs reflected behind me, hanging on a nail in the wall. (…) I went to it now, caressing the length of the sleeves, remembering the arms they once held, that once held me, and although I could not lift it from the nail, I could almost feel the smooth velvet ribs against my fingertips and cheek. Sticking my nose into the folds, I sighed deeply, and a miracle happened! I could smell again, and his scent, a ripe potpourri of tobacco, wine, turpentine, sweat, hashish, and soap, poured into my senses, and I thought I might collapse. My chest heaved with sobs, but my eyes produced no tears.”

Amedeo Modigliani, Jeanne Hébuterne with Hat and Necklace, 1917

Amedeo Modigliani, Portrait of Jeanne Hébuterne, 1919

“This is the cemetery of the unborn. (…) Things that have been left undone—unspoken loves, unwritten books and symphonies, unexpressed regrets, unrealized wishes, unsolved mysteries, unsatisfied hunger… (…) Things unfinished all end up here in this graveyard, where they remain until they either disintegrate or return to life, drifting about in the wind in hopes someone will catch them.”

 

Edward Okuń, Four Strings of a Violin, 1914

Jeanne Hébuterne played the violin and I really love the motif of the violin which is repeated throughout the novel; Jeanne’s memories of taking violin classes, Jeanne taking the violin as the one thing she can bring to the other world and the ghostly sounds of violin in the air:

Nothing  I  cared  about—except  my  violin—which the gallery thieves had abandoned on my worktable. I reached for the handle of the violin case and most amazingly, lifted it up before being swept through the door. Or perhaps it was the soul of the instrument I held in my hand—for the violin case still lay on the table even as I carried it away. But I had no time to puzzle this over. (…) Caressing  the  worn  leather  case  on  my  knees,  I  thought  of  the many times I had taken the horse-drawn omnibus to go to my music lesson with old Maître Schlict on cold rainy days like this, and how I would stop for a cup of hot coffee or chocolate to warm my hands up before my lesson.

“I always loved that hour in winter and would sit  by  the  window,  gazing  out  through  the  dusk,  waiting  for  Modi  to  come  home  from  the  cafés  when  he  was  out  on  business  with  Zbo.  I would take out my violin, which I had brought from my parents’ flat in Rue Amyot and practice a little Schubert, “Death and the Maiden.”But I could never get the opening bars of the first movement to sound quite right. Maître Schlict, my old violin teacher before the war, always said that I was too hesitant in the attack. I needed to learn to be more assertive. I could almost hear that music now…”

Book Review: The Days and Nights by Fumiko Hayashi

9 Mar

“I’m staying with you. Even if we try to break up, if we don’t wait until things get better with our lives, we’ll be haunting each other forever, like ghosts.”

(Fumiko Hayashi, The Days and Nights)

Utagawa Hiroshige, Cranes Flying Over Waves, 1858

Last spring I had the pleasure of reading Japanese writer Fumiko Hayashi’s short stories for the first time and now, in the time of the year when the trees are starting to bloom and crocuses and snowdrops are making their appearance on the meadows, I read more of her wonderful short stories in a new English translation by J.D.Wisgo who, again, did a marvelous job! Translators are usually criminally underrated and I am happy to praise them for their good work and for bringing good literature to those of us who don’t speak the original language. As you know, I love Japanese literature so these stories are a real treasure for me, and it always happens that my interest in Japanese art and literature coincide with the arrival of spring.

Fumiko Hayashi (1903-1951) was a Japanese novelist and poet who produced her main works in the 1930s and 1940s. This short story collection is called “The Days and Nights” and consists of three short stories; “The Master of the Wanderer’s Tavern”, “The Crane’s Flute” and “The Days and Nights”. “The Master of the Wanderer’s Tavern” is a story about a man called Takayoshi who is trying to coming to terms with life after his wife’s death and his daughters’ growing up. Possibility of a new love is on the horizon, but, as it often is in Hayashi’s stories, hopes are heart-warming but never come true. The story line is filled with memories of the past, some that bring smile and some that bring bitter heartache because they can never be returned. “The Crane’s Flute” is a beautiful short story which almost feels like some old fairy tale because it has a positive message of the importance of generosity and working together, and it has the element of a flute which makes beautiful sounds: “The flute’s tone was so beautiful that the two cranes felt silly for having always worried about not having food. Bearing a grudge against the many cranes that had flown away without any regard for them, the two cranes had spent their days complaining. But once they obtained the flute, with its exceptionally beautiful tone, they became satisfied with what little food they had, and from then on only spoke about pleasant memories and how they wished good fortune for the cranes who had gone far away.

Tsuchiya Koitsu, Evening at Ushigoma

I read that in her work Hayashi often put an emphasis on free spirited female characters and troubled relationships, and after reading more of her stories I can vouch for that! In fact, the topic of my favourite of the three stories, “The Days and Nights”, is exactly that; a wistful story of two lonely individuals, husband Kakichi and his wife Nakako, unable to decide whether to part their ways after being married for four year and starting their lives anew, annoyed when together, lonely when apart. The reason why I love that story so much is because it’s very lyrical and feels real, that is, the feelings described feel genuine, as if Hayashi knows what she is writing about from her own experience. We find the characters in the ashes of their love, disillusioned and undecided, aware of how dysfunctional and unhappy they are together yet not knowing where to go in life separately.

The story also revolves around the store which Kakichi started with his late wife and the memory of Kakichi’s late wife whose ghost is often on Nakako’s mind, sometimes in an eerie: “But whenever Kakichi began talking about the store they left behind, Nakako was seized by an image of his late wife’s ashes flying through the sky, making an eerie rattling noise. A portion of her ashes had been sent to her hometown, where they now rested in a small urn on the household altar. Every time Nakako heard Kakichi belittle their old store, she grimaced at him, wondering if he too was thinking about his ex-wife’s ashes.” and sometimes in a comical way: “(….) when getting drunk at night she would always slip into bed and dramatically moan, “There’s a ghost! There’s a ghost! But she neither saw a real ghost, nor did her conscience conjure up an imaginary one as a form of punishment; she was simply just not comfortable drinking alcohol and saying, “Oh my, I feel terribly giddy,” in front of her husband, so she would instead yell, “There’s a ghost!”

Kotozuka Eiichi, Drooping Cherry Blossoms, 1950

I also loved how the story line skips from real events happening at the moment, such as a train ride or job-search, to memories, reminiscing, and a wave of nostalgia washes over the story in a most delightful way. Both Kakichi and Nakako are not old, being in their late thirties and late twenties, and yet they both feel old, as if a whole lifetime is behind them. You can really feel the heaviness of life and decisions, and details such as rain and peach blossoms add a lyrical touch to the otherwise grey reality of their lives. I love how the reader doesn’t know until the last page what their final decision will be. Here are some quotes to show you the beautiful way Hayashi portrays feelings of her characters:

“An inexplicable sense of desolation flashed through Kakichi’s mind: after bidding farewell to this store and to this woman, where was he supposed to go? Where was he supposed to live?”

“Kakichi was surprised to see the heavy rain and hid under the eaves of a gas station, but when he glanced at his black shadow stretching out onto the rain-soaked sidewalk, the stark hopelessness of his life struck him hard.”

“(…) the idea of separating from his wife and living on his own seemed unbearably lonely. He had literally nobody but himself, and while the idea of building a life seemed like a heroic thing when his wife had been around, as a man in his late 30s an unspeakably desolate feeling towered over him, saying this was all a futile display of power, and that emptiness gripped Kakichi’s heart with great force. How much easier it would be to simply die of starvation with his wife.”

“Kakichi absent-mindedly wished that this misery would be the first and the last time in his life. If he knew loneliness as intimately as his own hand, then it was like countless of the same gaunt hands were now grabbing at him from all directions. He was unbearably lonely.”

“(…) he felt a burning, decidedly unmanly sensation behind his eyelids. He hadn’t been able to express it in speech or writing, but after separating from Nakako, his love for her came cascading down like a waterfall, and an undefinable fear drifted through not a stream of difficulties with money or life, but through a torrent of love for a tiny woman, and the next moment Nakako’s name was on his lips, about to be spoken.”

All in all, if you love short stories and Japanese literature, I am sure you will enjoy these shorts stories. You can check out the translator’s word on his blog and Goodreads page. Also, here you see the book on Amazon.

Book Review: Bret Easton Ellis – White

12 Jan

“Those of us who reveal flaws and inconsistencies or voice unpopular ideas suddenly become terrifying to the ones caught up in a world of corporate conformity and censorship that rejects the opinionated and the contrarian, corralling everyone into harmony with somebody else’s notion of an ideal. (…) The greatest crime being perpetrated in this new world is that of stamping out passion and silencing the individual.”

(Bret Easton Ellis, White)

Kazimir Malevich, White on White, 1918

Bret Easton Ellis is an author I’ve loved for years, even though his novels, “American Psycho”, “The Rules of Attraction” and “Less than Zero” to name a few, can be disturbing at times. I am always curious to know what people whose opinions I value have to say on the society at this moment so I was delighted to watch his interview with Rubin Report some time ago on YouTube and even more delighted to read his collection of essays called “White”. As you can imagine, “White” caused outrage and scandal with the mainstream journalists and all the reviews tend to make fun of him or go as far to describe Ellis, who is a liberal gay man, as a sexist racist and/or misogynist, which couldn’t be father from the truth. The reviews focused on their hate for the author rather than reading the essays and seeing them for what they are. The woke journalists who dislike anything apart from their own agenda wrote that “Ellis likes to offend people”, well I personally found nothing to be offended by and I think if you’re offended by someone having an opinion different than yours – then it’s your problem. A quote from Ellis essay “tweeting”: “Social-justice warriors never think like artists; they’re looking only to be offended, not provoked or inspired, and often by nothing at all.

I especially love hearing Ellis’ views on things today because he, being a Generation X and growing up and living most of his adult life in a pre-instagram and internet world, has a better, broader and more objective perspective, he can observe things from afar but isn’t caught up in them. He often mentions his Millennial generation boyfriend whose views on life and whose reactions he is perpetually perplexed by. That’s not to say that Ellis is just some old man saying things were better in his days, not at all, because everyone who has read his novels will know that he exposes the problems of his generation such as greed, materialism, and alienation. The essay topics range from Ellis’ nostalgic memories of growing up in 1970s Los Angeles (a very different growing up than that of Anthony Kiedis I might say hehe), to films he loved such as American Gigolo and that left impact on him, discovering horror films and porn, interviewing Judd Nelson in the 1980s, to political correctness, Millennial generation’s narcissism, group-thinking and constant whining… It’s a collage of topics for sure, and I really enjoy this casual, direct and honest flow of thoughts. Even thought the critics only saw outrage in Ellis’ essays, he touches on many important things such as free speech, the importance of separating artist from his art, the power of aesthetic over ideology….

And now some quotes:

This particular wish—the desire to remain a child forever—strikes me as a defining aspect in American life right now: a collective sentiment that imposes itself over the neutrality of facts and context. This narrative is about how we wish the world worked out in contrast to the disappointment that everyday life offers us, and it helps us to shield ourselves from not only the chaos of reality but also from our own personal failures. The sentimental narrative is a take on what Didion meant when she wrote that “we tell ourselves stories in order to live” in her famous essay “The White Album,” from 1979.

The overreaction epidemic that’s rampant in our society, as well as the specter of censorship, should not be allowed if we want to function as a free-speech society that believes—or even pretends to— in the First Amendment. (…) By now, just months before the election, it truly felt we were entering into an authoritarian cultural moment fostered by the Left—what had once been my side of the aisle, though I couldn’t even recognize it anymore. How had this happened? It seemed so regressive and grim and childishly unreal, like a dystopian sci-fi movie in which you can express yourself only in some neutered form, a mound, or a clump of flesh and cells, turning away from your gender-based responses to women, to men, to sex, to even looking.

Liberalism used to concern itself with freedoms I’d aligned myself with, but during the 2016 campaigns, it finally hardened into a warped authoritarian moral superiority movement that I didn’t want to have anything to do with.

Things that Ellis writes about the warped authoritarian left is very similar to what Dave Rubin writes in his book “Please Don’t Burn This Book: Thinking for Yourself in an Age of Unreason”:

(…) the left is now regressive, not progressive. What was once the side of free speech and tolerance—the one that said, “I may disagree with what you say, but I will fight to the death for your right to say it”—now bans speakers from college campuses, “cancels” people if they aren’t up to date on the latest genders, and forces Christians to violate their conscience. They also alienate sensible grown-ups who dislike high taxes, oppose open borders, enjoy the free market, and harbor a healthy distrust of socialism. They’re equally unwelcoming for sane, decent people who happen to be fiscally conservative, classically liberal, libertarian, or—dare I say it—the worst thing of all: straight, white, and male. Rather than being all-inclusive and fair, the left is now authoritarian and puritanical. It has replaced the battle of ideas with a battle of feelings, while trading honesty with outrage.

Kazimir Malevich, Black Circle, 1924

And now one more Ellis quote:

If you feel you’re experiencing “micro-aggressions” when someone asks you where you are from or “Can you help me with my math?” or offers a “God bless you” after you sneeze (…) or the candidate you voted for wasn’t elected, or someone correctly identifies you by your gender, and you consider this a massive societal dis, and it’s triggering you and you need a safe space, then you need to seek professional help. If you’re afflicted by these traumas that occurred years ago, and that is still a part of you years later, then you probably are still sick and in need of treatment. But victimizing oneself is like a drug—it feels so delicious, you get so much attention from people, it does in fact define you, making you feel alive and even important while showing off your supposed wounds, no matter how minor, so people can lick them. Don’t they taste so good?

This widespread epidemic of self-victimization—defining yourself in essence by way of a bad thing, a trauma that happened in the past that you’ve let define you—is actually an illness. It’s something one needs to resolve in order to participate in society, because otherwise one’s not only harming oneself but also seriously annoying family and friends, neighbors and strangers who haven’t victimized themselves. The fact that one can’t listen to a joke or view specific imagery (a painting or even a tweet) and that one might characterize everything as either sexist or racist (whether or not it legitimately is) and therefore harmful and intolerable—ergo nobody else should be able to hear it or view it or tolerate it, either—is a new kind of mania, a psychosis that the culture has been coddling. This delusion encourages people to think that life should be a smooth utopia designed and built for their fragile and exacting sensibilities and in essence encourages them to remain a child forever, living within a fairy tale of good intentions. It’s impossible for a child or an adolescent to move past certain traumas and pain, though not necessarily for an adult. Pain can be useful because it can motivate you and it often provides the building blocks for great writing and music and art. But it seems people no longer want to learn from past traumas by navigating through them and examining them in their context, by striving to understand them, break them down, put them to rest and move on.

All in all, I think if you love his novels, if you’re interested in Ellis in general or in any of these topics, then there’s a big chance you will enjoy the essays as much as I have!

Book Review: Torn Apart: Life of Ian Curtis

7 Aug

“As for John Peel, although he went on to famously support The Fall, on his 1987 retrospective Peeling Back The Years, he noted: “I always think of them [Joy Division] in a rather romantic way, as being introspective and rather Russian… listening to them always makes me feel slightly central European.”

(Torn Apart)

Scene from the film Control (2007)

Is it like this
In death’s other kingdom
Waking alone
At the hour when we are
Trembling with tenderness
Lips that would kiss
Form prayers to broken stone
(T. S. ELIOT – 1925; Ian quoted these lines in a postcard for Annik)

I have been a massive fan of Joy Division for a long time, but it wasn’t until July this year (a few weeks ago really) that I picked up the book “Torn Apart: Life of Ian Curtis” by Mick Meddles and Lindsey Read and I enjoyed it tremendously, more than I imagined I would. I picked it up in the library eager to read an interesting and amusing book, but I ended up enjoying it in a more profound and poignant way. I had already read Deborah Curtis’s (Ian Curtis’s widow) “Touching from the Distance” and while it was interesting, I wasn’t breathless when I closed the last page, and I got the sense that she was a bit bitter about some things and she also wasn’t the most objective person to write about Ian, and not the most informed one to write about the band when it came to things such as tours, recording and what when on backstage because she wasn’t there. “Torn Apart” gave a better broader view of Ian’s mind and the life of the band. It was great to hear Annik’s side of the story, see the letters Ian had written to her, at times very poetic and melancholy, at times very warm and humane, like when he writes about the love he feels for his dog Candy.

“Reflects a moment in time,
A special moment in time,
Yeah we wasted our time,
We didn’t really have time,
But we remember when we were young.”

(Joy Division, Insight)

Pic found here.

A short-lived band that sprung in the dark and dreary Manchester scene and ended with the suicide of the singer and lyricist Ian Curtis, leaving only two albums behind whose haunting beauty captivates till this day. A motif of transience and time lingers throughout “Torn Apart” and it is often indicates that Ian felt very old even when he was very young (he died two months shy of his twenty-fourth birthday) and he often felt he had to rush things in life; rush the marriage and family life, rush the band and albums, for there would be no time left for him. It is eerie to know that he felt that way, but also ironic because in the end it was he himself who stopped the clock of his time and no one else.

Laura Makabresku, Care.

“Ian and I were certainly very close emotionally and felt a lot for each other. I think I just came at the right time when he was in need of comfort, affection, tenderness and that my presence was soothing to him. He was very gentle and very soft and very caring. I think the fact that I was a foreigner was part of the attraction and also the fact that I was very kind and maybe more kind of refined than girls he had met before. Our relationship was very platonic and very pure and romantic but also quite abstract. He felt quite diminished by his disease and quite frightened of how it would evolve.” (Annik’s words)

In short, here are some things which I loved about the book and which I think every Joy Division fan would love to read about; I loved that (finally!) we get to hear Annik’s side of the story! Annik was a girl from Belgium who moved to London at one point and she was a fan of Joy Division and that is how she got to meet Ian. I really love Annik’s personality from what I’ve read and some of the things she said about Ian and their relationship and the letters that he wrote to her were so heartbreakingly beautiful; their gentle, ethereal and nearly platonic love touched the strings of my heart. I feel like Annik had a gift of truly understanding him and being there for him when he needed warmth and affection, like she says herself. Then, Ian’s personality and his interests. From Deborah’s book, he comes off as a real asshole sometimes, but in this book, from various sources, I got the image of a very polite, nice, gentle, introverted person. Here is what Annik says: “He was truly the nicest and kindest man I ever met in my life. He had a whole world inside him, a true understanding of mankind. You know how compassionate he felt, especially for the weakest. He opened my eyes on being compassionate; he really opened my heart to others, even to people very different from me. He felt a lot for others, for people who were poor or who didn’t have a very interesting life or interesting job. He really felt for them. He was a very kind man, very polite, very soft spoken.

Control (2007)

The book really got deep into the nature of Ian’s struggles with depression and epilepsy and it was both fascinating and sad to read about it, but is helpful in understanding his sadness and eventual suicide. Along with depressions and epilepsy, a major trouble was the conflict of a failing marriage on one side and a blossoming relationship with Annik on the other side. He had responsibilities towards his family on one side, and Annik’s warm nurturing embrace on the other. Ian had no desire to hurt anyone, but enduring this conflict certainly added to his depression. Quoting the book again: “He was a gentle soul with genuine humility who really didn’t want to hurt anyone. And here he was in a position where he seemed to be hurting everyone close to him – his wife, his daughter, his girlfriend, his group, his friends, and even his fans.” Had he lived, I think he would have been happy with Annik. I loved hearing what Tony Wilson had to say about many things, and also his then wife Linsey Reade who co-wrote the book. I didn’t know that Ian spent a week at their house and listened to records with her in the living room just prior to his suicide. And lastly, I enjoyed reading about the sound effects and the method in which the maverick Martin Hannett worked on the albums.

Indeed, the first bleak seconds of ‘Atmosphere’ convey an unparalleled intimacy through the close-up timbre of Ian’s voice. Lyrics that are awash in ambiguity – “Walk in silence… don’t walk away, in silence…” – suggest the head-in-hands desperation as a lover leaves for the last time; hollow moments of realisation, of a life lost, a killed passion, the final embers of dream. Ian’s voice might be the loneliest in the world as it hovers above Hannett’s simplistic mix, a flickering candle of truth, of grim realisation. Pop music was never meant to be like this: the fire of youth vanquished and an emotive power so effortlessly believable flowing through the lyrics. And then, slicing through the pitch black like a shard of glass, there’s the blinding white light of sound that cuts straight to the heart. The darkness of’ ‘Atmosphere’ rippled out across post punk Britain, a clash of light and dark which filtered slowly into the consciousness of others, not least The Cure’s 1989 masterpiece, Disintegration, which offers a reflection of ‘Atmosphere’ in varying degrees of grey on practically every sweet song. Faith, The Cure’s morose 1981 epic, would arguably side even closer.

All in all, a very interesting and thorough book, but also very sad.

Ian and Annik in Control (2007)

Pulvis et umbra sumus

(We are dust and shadows)

Horace

Book Review: The Collector by John Fowles

15 Jul

I read quite a few interesting novels lately, but John Fowles’ debut novel “The Collector”, published in May 1963, is the most peculiar one; both the theme and the style in which it was written are fascinating. I discovered this novel by serendipity, completely randomly, but it turned out that this was exactly the kind of novel I craved. I was captivated from the very first page because from the very beginning Fowles places the reader into the mind of a seemingly ordinary, yet very unusual individual named Frederick Clegg. Frederick isn’t the Arnold Layne from Pink Floyd’s song, stealing and collecting girls knickers from the washing lines in suburban gardens of Cambridge, but he is a collector of other things; firstly the butterflies, and then one beautiful girl called Miranda he watches from afar and over time falls in love with, despite not knowing anything about her really, apart of the Art School she goes to and what she looks like. He is a socially awkward, strange individual and it’s hard to decide whether he is good or bad; the things he does are bad, but his intentions truly are not.

His early daydreams about her are very romantic and sweet, but concerning in their delusional nature: “I used to have daydreams about her, I used to think of stories where I met her, did things she admired, married her and all that. Nothing nasty, that was never until what I’ll explain later. She drew pictures and I looked after my collection (in my dreams). It was always she loving me and my collection, drawing and colouring them; working together in a beautiful modern house in a big room with one of those huge glass windows; meetings there of the Bug Section, where instead of saying almost nothing in case I made mistakes we were the popular host and hostess. She all pretty with her pale blonde hair and grey eyes and of course the other men all green round the gills.

Other days the sweetness of these innocent daydreams takes a darker tone when he sees her spending time with other men, for he, naturally, wants her all for himself, even though Miranda doesn’t even know he exists: “The only times I didn’t have nice dreams about her being when I saw her with a certain young man, a loud noisy public-school type who had a sports car. Those were days I let myself have the bad dreams. She cried or usually knelt. Once I let myself dream I hit her across the face as I saw it done once by a chap in a telly play. Perhaps that was when it all started.

Catherine Deneuve in UK filming 1965 British psychological horror Repulsion, London, Friday 2nd October 1964. Photo by Wilson

One day, Frederick wins a prize in the football pools and decides to buy a lonely and old countryside house. From that moment on, his daydreams and wild fantasies become serious plans; he decorates the cellar and is ready to catch his butterfly-victim Miranda. One evening he follows her after her classes: “It was all planned. And then she was near. She’d come up and round without me seeing, only twenty yards away, walking quickly. If it had been a clear night I don’t know what I’d have done. But there was this wind in the trees. Gusty. I could see there was no one behind her. Then she was right beside me, coming up the pavement. Funny, singing to herself.” After he kidnaps her, he drives her to his countryside house and locks her in the cellar. The novel is divided in three parts; the first part is seen from Frederick’s point of view, the second part is Miranda’s diary written in captivity, and a tiny bit at the end is again told from Frederick’s point of view.

Miranda’s emotions change greatly throughout the novel; at first she is frightened and thinks he must be interested only in sex, which isn’t true, but as she gets to know him, she realises just how pathetic, uneducated, uncultured and weak he truly is; a working class nobody, that is how she sees him, for she is a posh, middle-class art student. He doesn’t have a clue about art or Mozart; things that Miranda loves. Frederick also realises that Miranda is far from the girl of his dreams; she is insolent, she regularly mocks him for the way he walks and talks, decorates his house, nothing escapes her snobbish prejudice. And the most heartbreaking realisation comes in the end, when he realises that she never loved him. The realism gives this novel humanity; Frederick isn’t a cruel savage and a monster, but rather a lonely, confused, strange individual who simply wants to connect with another human being, and he tries doing that the only way he thinks it’s possible, as he says: “if she’s with me, she’ll see my good points, she’ll understand. There was always the idea she would understand.” Things aren’t always black and white and this novel shows the complexities of such a situation. Even though one would assume Miranda was a poor victim and Frederick the evil person, I grew fond of Frederick whilst reading the novel and I developed a sadness and understanding for him. I don’t think he has a cruel heart.

And now more quotes I enjoyed:

That was the day I first gave myself the dream that came true. It began where she was being attacked by a man and I ran up and rescued her. Then somehow I was the man that attacked her, only I didn’t hurt her; I captured her and drove her off in the van to a remote house and there I kept her captive in a nice way. Gradually she came to know me and like me and the dream grew into the one about our living in a nice modern house, married, with kids and everything. It haunted me. It kept me awake at nights, it made me forget what I was doing during the day. I stayed on and on at the Cremorne. It stopped being a dream, it began to be what I pretended was really going to happen (of course, I thought it was only pretending) so I thought of ways and means — all the things I would have to arrange and think about and how I’d do it and all. I thought, I can’t ever get to know her in the ordinary way, but if she’s with me, she’ll see my good points, she’ll understand. There was always the idea she would understand.

Apollo Butterfly, Illustrations taken from ‘The Natural History of British Butterflies’ by Edward Donovan, Printed for the author in 1792 and for F. and C. Rivington

He’s so slow, so unimaginative, so lifeless. Like zinc white. I see it’s a sort of tyranny he has over me. He forces me to be changeable, to act. To show off. The hateful tyranny of weak people. The ordinary man is the curse of civilization. But he’s so ordinary that he’s extraordinary. He takes photographs. He wants to take a “portrait” of me. Then there were his butterflies, which I suppose were rather beautiful. Yes, rather beautifully arranged, with their poor little wings stretched out all at the same angle. And I felt for them, poor dead butterflies, my fellow-victims.

She’d taken her blue jumper off, she stood there in a dark green tartan dress, like a schoolgirl tunic, with a white blouse open at the throat. Her hair swept back into the pigtail. Her lovely face. She looked brave. I don’t know why, I thought of her sitting on my knees, very still, with me stroking her soft blonde hair, all out loose as I saw it after. Suddenly I said, I love you. It’s driven me mad. She said, “I see,” in a queer grave voice. She didn’t look at me any more then. I know it’s old-fashioned to say you love a woman, I never meant to do it then. In my dreams it was always we looked into each other’s eyes one day and then we kissed and nothing was said until after.

For some time she sat smoking, with her eyes shut, as if the sight of me tired her eyes.

High Brown Fritillary, Illustrations taken from ‘The Natural History of British Butterflies’ by Edward Donovan, Printed for the author in 1792 and for F. and C. Rivington

The author explained the inspiration behind the novel in his journal entry for 3rd February 1963:

The Collector. The three sources. One. My lifelong fantasy of imprisoning a girl underground. I think I must go back to early in my teens. I remember it used to be famous people Princess Margaret, various film stars. Of course, there was a sexual motive; the love-through-knowledge motive, or motif, has also been constant. The imprisoning in other words, has always been a forcing of my personality as well as my penis on the girl concerned. Variations I can recall: the harem (several girls in one room, or in a row of rooms); the threat (this involves sharing a whip, but usually not flagellation—the idea of exerted tyranny, entering as executioner); the fellow-prisoner (this by far the commonest variation: the girl is captured and put naked into the underground room; I then have myself put in it, as if I am a fellow-prisoner, and so avoid her hostility). Another common sexual fantasy is the selection board: I am given six hundred girls to choose fifty from and so on. These fantasies have long been exteriorized in my mind, of course; certainly I use the underground-room one far less since The Collector.

Two, the air-raid shelter incident.

Three, Bartok’s Bluebeard’s Castle.

Review: Downfall and Other Stories by Fumiko Hayashi

3 May

This April I had the pleasure and honour of reading a short story collection written by a Japanese writer Fumiko Hayashi and newly translated in English by J.D. Wisgo. The five stories in this collection were beautiful, unique gems that deserve a post of their own, and I simply couldn’t resist sharing some beautiful quotes here.

Childe Hassam, The Sonata, 1911

“Returning to Tokyo after a long summer break, Tanimura left his guest house on the outskirts of the city and moved to another one that he discovered on a backstreet near a school.

Gone were the days of opening a window in the morning and looking out at an oak forest, or listening to the piano played by a beautiful girl in the bungalow next door; now when he opened his window in the evening, the dim lights of the city sparkled and the autumn scenery of Tokyo was an utterly refreshing sight for his eyes, filling his chest with great pride in being able to live in such a metropolis.” (The Tale of the Seishukan Guest House)

It is no secret that I am a massive fan of Japanese literature, there is a certain indescribable sensibility of introspection and sadness, passion from within mingled with external silence, that lingers throughout different novels by different Japanese authors which I just adore! So, naturally, even before I started reading this short story collection, I knew it would be my cup of tea. Fumiko Hayashi (1903-1951) was a Japanese novelist and poet who produced her main works in the 1930s and 1940s. I read that in her work Hayashi often put an emphasis on free spirited female characters and troubled relationships. While I cannot state this with certainty because I haven’t read any of her other works, I can say that this quality shines though in some of these stories. I read these stories slowly, to truly savour them, and after I would read one I thought to myself “oh this one is my favourite”, and then I would proceed to read another one and would end up with the same thought. All five are so unique and beautiful and it’s difficult to chose.

Fumiko Hayashi, 1924

“The Tale of the Seishukan Guest House” is the first story and it has a mysterious mood which I loved. It’s about a young student Tanimura and his stay at the guest house, meeting a beautiful mysterious woman and falling in love for the first time. At times the story had a Kafkaesque mood of mystery, and at times Tanimura’s obsession with a hair strand and his reaction to things was rather amusing. I loved the contrast of Tanimura’s pleasant memories of days back home with the shining lights of the big city, both scary and promising. “Downfall” follows a young woman who moved from the countryside to Tokyo just after the end of the war to find employment, but instead of a secure job and success, she ends up in all sort of crazy situations.

Picture by @gill.hen on Instagram

“Employment” struck a chord with me in particular because the main character is a frail yet mischievous young girl called Sakiko whose idealist, naive view of the world is in contrast to that of her peers who are already planning their lives out; job, career, marriage. Even from the beginning, Sakiko is behaving in a carefree and childlike way, and I feel like that is her form of rebellion against the constricting world of adulthood:

She didn’t understand why she was so angry. Sitting upon the roots of a pine tree, Sakiko gathered pebbles from the ground and screamed out as she tossed them towards the ocean, throwing like a boy. The pebbles only went a short way before falling onto the nearby sand with a dull thud. On the winter seashore, strong gusts of wind blew in occasionally from the distance. Despite there being no clouds in sight, soft beams of light fell from the sky onto the beach, like scattered needles. Sakiko fell down abruptly onto the sandy ground, rolling around and kicking up bits of dry sand like a dog thrashing about. The sand came in contact with her hot body at her neckline, her sleeves, and the hem of her skirt. The sensation of sand accumulating on her sweaty body felt good. Eventually she thrust out her chest and poured dry sand all over it. The sand smelled of salty seawater.

Fujishima Takeji (1867-1943), The Sea at Sunrise, date unknown

I love the conversation between Sakiko and Ken’ichi which shows differences between their characters and I can really understand how Sakiko feels:

“Everyone is going to graduate college, get a job, find a wife without falling in love, have children, and live happily ever after, right?”
“Alright, that’s enough…Saki, inside your head you’re imagining all sorts of things, giving punishments and rewards to people as you desire…I think maybe that, in the end, the most natural way for us to spend our days is just living an ordinary life…You know, I think you’ve been reading far too many books. (…) But when you get irritated, everyone around you does too. Yesterday, you brought in all that sand, remember? I like the innocent Saki much better…and I think simply getting a job, getting married, and living out one’s days peacefully is more than enough…”
“Oh, how dreadful! I can’t stand close-minded young people like you with your dried-up adolescence…”

Dancers resting on the rooftop of the SKD Theatre Asakusa, Tokyo, 1949, Photo by Takeyoshi Tanuma.

“Consolation” had an air of sadness from start to finish and even though the theme of ruined post-war Tokyo and starving, lost, sad individuals was dreary, there were some quotes that stayed in my mind. “The beautiful city of Tokyo has gone through a series of shocking changes, the day-to-day activities of the dejected metropolis shattered into a million pieces, like myriad unfulfilled dreams. Stricken by the terrible memories of a long, hard war, wrinkles marred the faces of every person on the streets, even the younger folk, their vacant expressions a mixture of bitterness and disappointment.” It’s about a sad old man who spends his days finding food, reminiscing about old, better days, and just trying to survive the chaos all around him. I really loved this thought: “For me all that remains is simply living… After everything that’s happened, I have no desire to end my life. I don’t think I’m better off in the grave just because I’m lonely and alone. I’m terribly fortunate that I’ve never thought about anything like that. Spending our days doing nothing but eating steamed potatoes and sleeping like logs, it’s hard to believe us humans are the supreme beings of creation, don’t you agree?

More than themes of the stories, I enjoyed Hayashi’s writing style. It’s so beautiful yet cuts to the point. I felt like no sentence was unnecessary, and that she never wrote something to show off her writing and bring focus to her skill. Everything was very lyrical and very convincing, she really brought the character’s emotions, personality and struggles of the moment . Sometimes, a single sentence was so beautiful and conveyed so much, for example “It was a beautiful autumn night, the scent of the rain lingering in the air” (The Tale of the Seishukan Guest House), and “With cheerless facial features like those of a Kyoto doll, her pale skin had an oddly miserable appearance.” (Employment) All in all, if you love short stories and Japanese literature, I am sure you will enjoy these shorts stories. You can check out the translator’s word on his blog and Goodreads page.