Tag Archives: Japanese literature

Edogawa Rampo: Vision of a Wraith-like Waitress as Salome

13 Mar

Two weeks ago I read a few stories from a short story collection “Japanese Tales of Mystery and Imagination” by Edogawa Rampo (1894-1965), considered the first modern Japanese writer of mystery. His birth name was Taro Hirai, but he seemed to love Edgar Allan Poe’s writings so much early in his career that he even derived his own pen name from the Japanese pronunciation of Edgar Allan Poe. The story that struck me the most was “The Red Chamber”, originally published in April 1925, in which the main character and a narrator is a very bored eccentric individual who joins a strange club and starts killing as a way of curing his boredom, although the killings are more just planned accidents. I feel bored quite often, and I was in one of my everything-is-boring phases when I started reading this story so I could connect with the main character in this regard and here is something he tells us about himself: “I believe (he said) that I am in my right mind and that all my friends will vouch for my sanity, but whether I am really mentally fit or not, I will leave to you to judge. Yes, I may be mad! Or perhaps I may just be a mild neurotic case. But, at any rate, I must explain that I have always been weary of life… and to me the normal man’s daily routine is – and always will be – a hateful boredom.

At first I gave myself up to various dissipations to distract my mind, but unfortunately, nothing seemed to relieve my profound boredom. Instead, everything I did only seemed to increase my disappointment the more. Constantly I kept asking myself: Is there no amusement left in the world for me? Am I doomed to die of yawning? Gradually I fell into a state of lethargy from which there seemed to be no escape. Nothing that I did – absolutely nothing – succeeded in pleasing my fancy. Every day I took three meals, and when the evening shadows fell I went to bed. Slowly I began to feel that I was going stark raving mad. Eating and sleeping, eating and sleeping – just like a hog.

Jean Benner, Salome, c. 1899

The feeling of intense boredom and aggravation of the repetitive flow of day to day life is something very relatable, especially this line: “Nothing that I did – absolutely nothing – succeeded in pleasing my fancy.” Oh how I know the feeling!

But there is another fragment of the story which I found interesting, something related to art. In the last few pages the story takes place in a cafe where the main character and his friends from the club are talking, when all of a sudden he noticed a waitress and his reverie begins: “Suddenly, on the surface of the silk curtains near the door, something began to glitter. At first it looked like a large, silver coin, then like a full moon peering out of the red curtains. Gradually I recognized the mysterious object as a large silver tray held in both hands by a waitress, magically come, as if from nowhere, to serve us drinks. For a fleeting moment I visualized a scene from Salome, with the dancing girl carrying the freshly severed head of a prophet on a tray. I even thought that after the tray there would appear from out of the silk curtains a glittering Damascene broad-sword, or at least an old Chinese halberd. Gradually my eyes became more accustomed to the wraith-like figure of the waitress, and I gasped with admiration, for she was indeed a beauty! Without any explanation, she moved gracefully among the seven of us and began to serve drinks.

As I took the glass I noticed that my hand was trembling. What strange magic was this, I pondered. Who was she? And where did she come from? Was she from some imaginary world, or was she one of the hostesses from the restaurants downstairs?

Aubrey Beardsley, Illustration to Salome by Oscar Wilde, 1893

Salome is truly a fascinating femme fatale figure that appeared on many canvases, from Renaissance to fin de siecle, and it is equally thrilling to imagine her dancing seductively, dresses in shiny robe, adorned with jewellery and perfume… and to imagine her being so daring as to ask for the head of St John the Baptist, and hold it on a tray, how cool is that!? This was a very vivid passage of a story, very memorable.

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The Three-Cornered World (Kusamakura) by Natsume Soseki

25 Feb

Last February I read Natsume Soseki’s book “The Thee-Cornered World” for the first time and it left a deep impression on me so I decided to read it again this month, and spread the word of its beauty.

Hashiguchi Goyo, Hot Springs Inn

The story is told in the first person. The main character is a nameless thirty-year old artist, a poet and a painter, who set on a journey to the mountains in search of Beauty and the true meaning of art. He stays at a hot spring resort where he is the only guest. One moonlit night he hears a woman singing in the garden. This mysterious beauty, called Nami, captures his imagination, but not in a romantic but in an artistic way. The plot is simple and the story is not a dynamic one full of events and exciting adventures. Instead, Soseki fills the pages with essay-like meditations on art and nature as the narrator tries to explain to us and himself what is means to be an artist and the bliss of being in the state of inspiration.

Another thing, the narrator loves Percy Shelley’s poetry and is infatuated with John Everett Millais’ painting “Ophelia”, especially with her face expression which he think reveals a body not suffering, but finding serenity in death. The narrator puts an emphasis on the sensitivity to beauty around you, whether it’s a pale face of a beautiful woman, a shoji paper, crimson camellia petals on a surface of a dark lake, a cherry tree in bloom or the gentle rays of sun coming into the room. Contemplation gives birth to moments of inspiration, and throughout the novel the narrator composes haiku poems and dreams of painting a perfect painting; not on canvas but in his imagination because he thinks being an artist is a state of mind rather than a skill or an occupation. To put it simply, if you like the narrator and his world views, you will enjoy the novel as well. The book invites the reader to stillness and sweet contemplation of beauties around you.

The original title of the book is “Kusamakura” which literally means “Grass Pillow”, and the term in Japanese carries a symbolic meaning, implying a journey without a specific destination. Another translation of the book is “The Three-Cornered World”, which comes from this quote:

“I suppose you could say that the artist is one who lives in a three-cornered world, in which the corner that the average person would call “common sense” has been sheared off from the ordinary four-square world that the normal inhabit.”

The quote continues: “For this reason, be it in nature or in human affairs, the artist will see the glitter of priceless jewels of art in places where the common herd fears to tread. The vulgar mind terms it “romanticizing,” but it is no such thing. In fact, the phenomenal world has always contained that scintillating radiance that artists find there. It’s just that eyes blinded by worldly passions cannot see the true nature of reality. Inextricable entanglements bind us to everyday success and failure and by ardent hopes – and so we pass by unheeding, until a Turner reveals for us in his paintings the splendour of the steam train, or an Okyo gives us the beauty of the ghost.”

John Everett Millais, Ophelia, 1852

Here is a beautiful dialogue between the narrator and Nami, in the ninth chapter:

“Where were you, in fact? The abbot was asking about it, guessing you must have gone off for a walk again.”

“Yes, I walked down to the Mirror Pool and back.”

“I’d like to go there sometime….”

“Please do.”

“Is it a good place to paint?”

“It’s a good place to drown yourself.”

“I don’t have any intention of doing that just yet.”

“I may do it quite soon.”

This joke is uncomfortably close to the bone for mere feminine banter, and I glance quickly at her face. She looks disconcertingly determined.

“Please paint a beautiful picture of me floating there – not lying there suffering, but drifting peacefully off to the other side of the world.”

“Eh?”

“Aha, that surprised you, didn’t it? I’ve surprised you, I’ve surprised you!”

She rises smoothly to her feet. Three paces take her across to the door where she turns and beams at me. I just sit there, lost in astonishment.

***

Hashiguchi Goyo, Woman at a Hot Spring Hotel, 1920

Also interesting, in one chapter the narrator is reading a Western book, but not from the first to the last page, but dipping in here and there, not following the plot but relishing in beauty of the words, and Nami finds it strange, but insists that he reads it to her out loud. The narrator says:

It’s because I’m an artist that I don’t need to read a novel from cover to cover. On the other hand, wherever I choose to dip in is interesting for me. Talking to you is interesting too. In fact, it’s so interesting that I’d like to talk to you every day while I’m staying here. Come to think of it, I wouldn’t mind falling in love with you. That would make it even more interesting. But we wouldn’t need to marry, no matter how in love with you I was. A world where falling in love requires marrying is a world where novels require reading from beginning to end.

Kyoto, photo by maco-nonch.

And now the quotes because, at least for me, sometimes the quote make me eager to read the book more than the plot:

As I climb the mountain path, I ponder –

If you work by reason, you grow rough-edged; if you choose to dip your oar into sentiment’s stream, it will sweep you away. Demanding your own way only serves to constrain you. However you look at it, the human world is not an easy place to live.

And when its difficulties intensify, you find yourself longing to leave that world and dwell in some easier one – and then, when you understand at last that difficulties will dog you wherever you may live, this is when poetry and art are born. (…) We owe our humble gratitude to all practitioners of the arts, for they mellow the harshness of our human world and enrich the human heart.

“Sorrows may be the poet’s unavoidable dark companion, but the spirit with which he listens to the skylark’s song holds not one jot of suffering. At the sight of the mustard blossoms too, the heart simply dances with delight. Likewise with dandelions, or cherry blossoms.”

Photo found here.

“Yes, here among these mountains, in immediate contact with the phenomena of the natural world, everything I see and hear is intriguing for me.”

“In order to regain the poetic point of view on this occasion, I have only to set up before myself my own feelings, then take a step back from them and calmly, dispassionately investigate their true nature. The poet has an obligation to dissect his own corpse and reveal the symptoms of its illness to the world.”

“While we live in this world with its daily business, forced to walk the tightrope of profit and loss, true love is an empty thing, and the wealth before our eyes mere dust. The reputation we grasp at, the glory that we seize, is surely like the honey that the cunning bee will seem sweetly to brew only to leave his sting within it as he flies. What we call pleasure in fact contains all suffering because it arises from attachment. Only thanks to the existence of the poet and the painter are we able to imbibe the essence of this dualistic world, to taste the purity of its very bones and marrow. The artist feasts on mists, he sips the dew, appraising this hue and assessing that, and he does not lament the moment of death. The delight of artists lies not in attachment to objects but in taking the object into the self, becoming one with it. Once he has become the object, no space can be found on this vast earth of ours where he might stand firmly as himself. He has cast off the dust of the sullied self and became a traveller clad in tattered robes, drinking down the infinities of pure mountain winds.”

“I am floating there aimlessly (…) when from somewhere I hear the plucked notes of a shamisen. (…) But listening idly to the sound of those distant strings makes me wonderfully happy, laying here in a hot bath in a remote mountain village, my very soul adrift in the spring water on a quiet vernal evening, with the rain adding to the delight of the occasion.”

“Yet here this young man sits, beside an artist for whom the sole value of human life lies in dreaming.”

Ryunosuke Akutagawa – Mandarin Oranges

26 Jan

Last year when I published a post with the story The Good Faith of Wei Sheng by Ryunosuke Akutagawa (1892-1927) many of you seemed to like it, so I decided to share another one I loved. The story I am sharing with you today, Mandarin Oranges, is less lyrical and more realistic, but it possesses a strength that culminates in the very end with a sentence that I couldn’t forget even after a year of reading the story: It was not until then that I could forget for a while the inexplicable fatigue and weariness, and the obscurity, lowness and boredom of life.

I accompanied the story with beautiful paintings of Victorian flower girls and poor children, which, in my view, suits the mood of the story. I am not an expert in Japanese art to find the Japanese art to follow the story.

Augustus Edwin Mulready, The Flower Girl, 1872

It was a cloudy winter evening.

I was sitting at the end of the seat in the second class car.  The train was to leave Yokosuka for Tokyo and I was waiting absentmindedly for a whistle to blow.

As is not usual,  there were no passengers except me in the car,  which had already been lit inside.

Looking out at the platform,  I didn’t see any persons who came for a send-off; only a puppy was sometimes barking sadly in the cage.

Strangely enough, such bleak scenery fit my feeling of that time.

Inexplicable fatigue and weariness were casting their shadow in my mind like the cloudy sky threatening to snow.

I kept both my hands in my overcoat pocket;  I didn’t have much strength even to take an evening newspaper out of it to read.

Meanwhile, a whistle blew to signal the departure.

Thomas Benjamin Kennington, The Pinch of Poverty, 1892

Having a slight peace of mind, with my head against the window frame, I was expecting half-heartedly that the station before my eyes would start moving backward trailingly.

But prior to it, I had hardly heard a loud noise of wooden clogs from the gate accompanied by the conductor’s abuse, when I saw a girl in her early teens open the door and come in hurriedly.  At the very moment the train swayed heavily once and moved off slowly.

Each pillar on the platform, a water-wagon for a locomotive looking as if left behind, and a porter thanking his customer for the tip —-they lingered but soon fell behind the smoke blown against the windows.

Feeling relieved at last , I opened my heavy eyelids and gave my first serious glance at the girl seated in front of me while I was lighting a cigarette.

She was a typical bumpkin with ichogaeshi-styled dry hair and chapped cheeks so flushed as to look strange.

She hang loosely a spring-green colored woolen muffler over her knees, and on them lay a package covered with furoshiki.

She held it in her frostbitten hands, in one of which she also clasped tightly a ticket for the third class car.

I disliked her vulgar looks.

I was disgusted by her dirty clothes.

And I was displeased by her senselessness of not being able to tell the second class car from the third class car.

So after I lit a cigarette, I took the newspaper out of my pocket and spread it on my knees, for one thing, to forget about her.

Vilko Šeferov, 1928

Then suddenly the light lit on the newspaper changed; it had come from outside, but now it came from the ceiling, making the types of the newspaper appear clearly before my eyes.

Needless to say, the train was entering the first of the several tunnels on the Yokosuka Line.

When I looked over the newspaper under the electric light, I found nothing but routine incidents occurring in the world, which were there to console my gloom.

Treaty of Versailles, weddings, bribery, obituary — I ran my eyes over these dreary articles almost mechanically,  under the illusion that the moment the train entered the tunnel in the opposite direction

However, I could not but be aware of the girl sitting in front of me, personifying the vulgar reality.

This train passing through the tunnel, this bumpkin girl, this evening newspaper filled with routine articles— weren’t they all symbols?   Didn’t they all symbolize obscurity, lowness and boredom of life?

Coming to feel everything was worthless, I threw away the half-read newspaper and closed my eyes as if dead.  I began to doze with my head against the window frame.

Several minutes had passed.

Augustus Edwin Mulready, Little Flower Sellers, 1887

Suddenly I felt as if I had been threatened by something and I looked around in spite of myself and found the girl, who had changed her seat from my opposite to my side, trying to open the window eagerly.

But it seemed that the heavy window would not open up against her wishes.

The chapped cheeks became all the more flushed and some sniffles accompanied with a low breathless noise reached my ears constantly.

It certainly aroused some sympathy of mine.

But it was obvious that the train was right on the point of another tunnel by seeing the mountains on both sides, where dry grass were reflected by twilight,  approaching the train window.

Nevertheless, the girl was trying to drop open the window which was closed on purpose.

I couldn’t understand what forced her to do so.

No, I could not but think she was doing out of caprice.

So, with hostility deep inside toward her, coldheartedly I was watching her struggling to open the window with those frostbitten hands, hoping that her attempt would never succeed forever.

Then the train rushed into the tunnel with an appalling noise, at which moment the  window was dropped open at last.

And the air , as dark as melted soot, came in through the square opening and , turning into suffocating thick smoke, began to fill the car.

Claude Monet, The Gare Saint-Lazare: Arrival of a Train, 1877

Having a naturally weak throat, I tried but failed to put a handkerchief over my face in time not to be bathed with the smoke.  Consequently, I was made to cough so violently that I could hardly breathe.

But the girl seemed not to care about me and looked hard in the direction the train went,  making a long neck out of the window with her hair blown in the wind in the dark.

When I saw her in the smoke and the electric light,  it was getting brighter and brighter outside the window, from which the cold smell of soil, dry grass and water flew in; otherwise I would have scolded the strange girl without waiting for her excuse and ordered her to close the window though I had been relieved of coughs at last by that time.

Aleksander Gierymski, Jewess with Oranges, 1880-81

But having gone through the tunnel smoothly, the train was coming near the crossing on the outskirts of a poor town lying among the mountains covered with dry grass.

Near the crossing were shabby cramped houses with thatched and tiled roofs.

And in the dusk was fluttering languidly a white flag, which would be waved by a gateman.

It was when I thought the train had passed through the tunnel at last that I saw three red cheeked boys standing closely together in a line behind the fence of the crossing.

They were all as short as if they were held down by the cloudy sky.

And all of them were wearing kimono of the same color as the gloomy scenery of the outskirts town.

They had no sooner raised their hands at the same time, while looking up at the train passing, than they bent their little neck backward and gave an incomprehensible cry with all their might.

Then it happened.

William J. McCloskey (1859–1941), Wrapped Oranges, 1889

The girl,  who had leant half her body out of a window, stretched her frostbitten hand and shook it vigorously.  Then some five or six mikan, so beautifully sunny-orange colored as to make one happy, showered down on the boys who had seen the train off.

The unexpected scene took my breath away.

And I understood everything at once.

The girl, who was likely to be on the way to her new employer, threw some mikan out of her kimono pocket to reward her brothers who came all the way to the crossing to see her off.

The crossing of the outskirts town in the dusk, the three children cheering like little birds, and the bright color of mikan falling around them – all of them had gone by in a blink.

Henry Walton, The Market Girl, 1776-77

But the scene had been printed on my mind so clearly in a heartrending way.

And I realize a strange feeling of something cheerful also sprang up from there.

I raised my head confidently and gazed at the girl as if she were another person.

Before I noticed, she had sat on the seat before me again , with her chapped cheeks buried in her spring-green colored woolen muffler.

In her hand, which held a big furoshiki, she clasped tightly the ticket for the third class car.

It was not until then that I could forget for a while the inexplicable fatigue and weariness, and the obscurity, lowness and boredom of life.”

________________________________________________________________________________

*mikan, the fruit the girl is giving away, is of Asian origin, also translated as satsuma mandarin, satsuma orange, tangerine and cold hardy mandarin, hence the title.

Osamu Dazai: No Longer Human – Art and Ghost Pictures

10 Feb

Osamu Dazai’s novel No Longer Human is a really fascinating book I’ve read recently and I’ve already reviewed it here. In this post we’ll take a look at the main character, Oba Yozo’s connection to art and the paintings of Western painters such as Modigliani and Vincent van Gogh.

1918-amedeo-modigliani-a-young-girlAmedeo Modigliani, A Young Girl, 1918

Oba Yozo was interested in art and painting since primary school and wanted to go to an art school, but his father put him into college, with an intend to make a civil servant out of him. Yozo obeyed, like he always did in his life, but he couldn’t really identify himself with the role of a student, or soak himself in the ‘college spirit’, so he often cut classes and spent days at home, painting and reading – which is totally more useful for imagination and the soul than the boredom of classrooms and patronising professors at college. He also attended art classes given by a painter in Hongo, and practised sketching for hours. He said: ‘I owned a set of oil paints and brushes from the time I entered high school. I sought to model my techniques on those of the Impressionist School, but my pictures remained flat as paper cutouts, and seemed to offer no promises of ever developing into anything.’

With the help of a friend he realised the artistic truth: sometimes it’s more important to portray the truth and work from the soul, than to create perfect, lifeless pictures with a lot of skill and precision. He also says: ‘What superficiality – and what stupidity – there is in trying to depict in a pretty manner things which one has thought pretty. The masters through their subjective perceptions created beauty out of trivialities. They did not hide their interest in things which were nauseatingly ugly, but soaked themselves in the pleasure of depicting them.’ From that moment on, he began making self-portraits, which is kept a secret, and showed one only to Takeichi, and no one else. In his free time, he painted these ‘ghost pictures’, but in school he kept his style strictly conventional. Later, at college, he meets a fellow art lover and painter, Horiki, who lures him into the ‘mysteries of drink, cigarettes, prostitutes, pawnshops and left-wing thought’.

Vincent van Gogh, Self-Portrait with a Grey Felt Hat, March/April 1887

Here, Yozo and his friend Takeichi are discussing the so called ‘ghost pictures’, and the name itself is so intriguing to me. ‘Ghost pictures’ – what is meant by that? It puzzles me, especially since I adore both Modigliani and van Gogh, but I never thought of their art in that way. A certain fragility, melancholy and sadness lingers through Modigliani’s portraits, that’s for sure, but now I can’t help but to notice the wraith-like quality of his women, with elongated faces and sad eyes, or his nudes in ‘coppery skin’ tones.

Takeichi made one other important gift to me. One day he came to my room to play. He was waving with a brightly coloured picture which he proudly displayed. “It’s a picture of a ghost,” he explained.

I was startled. That instant, as I could not help feeling in later years, determined my path of escape. I knew what Takeichi was showing me. I knew that it was only the familiar self-portrait of van Gogh. When we were children the French Impressionist School was very popular in Japan, and our first introduction to an appreciation of Western painting most often begun with such works. The paintings of van Gogh, Gauguin, Cezanne and Renoir were familiar even to students at country schools, mainly through photographic reproduction. I myself had seen quite a few coloured photographs of van Gogh’s paintings. His brushwork and the vividness of his colours had intrigued me, but I had never imagined his pictures to be of ghosts.

I took from my bookshelf a volume of Modigliani reproductions, and showed Takeichi the familiar nudes with skin the colour of burnished copper. “How about these? Do you think they’re ghosts too?”

“They’re terrific.” Takeichi widened his eyes in admiration. “This one looks like a horse out of hell.”

“They really are ghosts then, aren’t they?”

“I wish I could paint pictures of ghosts like that,” said Takeichi.

1916. Modigliani 'Female Nude'Modigliani, Female Nude, 1916

Yozo later draws for comic books and magazines, and, at the very end, ends up copying pornographic drawings which he would then secretly peddle, to earn just enough money to buy gin. Still, despite leaving his original artistic intentions behind, he mentions these ‘ghost pictures’ again:

At such times the self-portraits I painted in high school – the ones Takeichi called “ghost pictures” – naturally came to mind. My lost masterpieces. These, my only really worth-while pictures, had disappeared during one of my frequent changes of address. I afterwards painted pictures of every description, but they all fell far,  far short of those splendid works as I remembered them. I was plagued by a heavy sense of loss, as if my heart had become empty.

The undrunk glass of absinthe.

A sense of loss which was doomed to remain eternally unmitigated stealthily began to take shape. Whenever I spoke of painting, that undrunk glass of absinthe flickered before my eyes. I was agonized by the frustrating thought: if only I could show them those paintings they would believe in my artistic talents.

1888-self-portrait-with-straw-hat-van-goghVincent van Gogh, Self-Portrait with Straw Hat, 1888

Ryunosuke Akutagawa – The Good Faith of Wei Sheng

6 Feb

Today I’ll share with you a beautiful, lyrical short story called The Good Faith of Wei Sheng, written by ‘The Father of the Japanese short story’ – Ryunosuke Akutagawa, who, just like Osamu Dazai of whom I’ve written earlier, also committed suicide, at the age of thirty-five. I’ve accompanied the story with some equally beautiful paintings of water lilies and a Japanese bridge by Claude Monet. I can’t stop thinking whether Monet felt the same transcendental beauty in his beautiful gardens at Giverny?

1912-water-lilies-by-claude-monet-iClaude Monet, Water Lilies, 1912

Wei Sheng lingered under the bridge. He had been waiting awhile for the woman to come.

Looking up, he saw that vines had creeped halfway along the high stone bridge railing. The hems of the white garb of occasional passers-by would flash brightly into view through the railing, flapping gently in the breeze. But the woman still did not come.

Whistling softly, Wei Sheng light-heartedly looked across the sandbar beneath the bridge. The yellow mud of the sandbar extended only about four yards; beyond that was water. Between the reeds at the water’s edge were a number of round holes that must have been dwellings for crabs. A faint gurgling sound could be heard whenever a wave washed over them. But the woman stilll did not come.

Wei Sheng moved to the water’s edge, as though he was beginning to notice the passage of time, and gazed out at the quiet course of the river, where no boats were passing.

The course of the river was thickly lined with green reeds. In addition to those reeds, here and there round river willows grew luxuriently. For that reason, the surface of the river that could be seen snaking along between them did not look as wide as it actually was. The belt of clear water, however, meandered silently through the reeds, gilded with the mica-like reflection of clouds. But the woman still did not come.

1897-99-water-lilies-and-the-japanese-bridge-claude-monetClaude Monet, Water Lilies and the Japanese Bridge, 1897-99

Wei Sheng walked around at the edge of the water, going here and there on the sandbar, which was no longer as wide. Twilight advanced slowly, and he listened to the stillness around him.

There had been no sign of travelers up on the bridge for a little while. He hadn’t heard any sound of boots, or any sound of hooves, or any sound of wheels from up there. He did hear the sound of the breeze, the sound of the reeds, the sound of water, and from somewhere there came the piercing cry of a heron. So thinking, he stopped where he was, and realized that the tide was coming in. The water that washed the yellow mud sparkled nearer than it had a little earlier. But the woman still didn’t come.

Arching his eybrows sharply, Wei Sheng hurriedly started walking back up the dimly lit sandbar under the bridge. Inch by inch, foot by foot, the water of the river rose up the sandbar. At the same time the smells of duckweed and water rising from the river flowed cold across his skin. When he looked up, the gaudy rays of the setting sun had disappeared from the bridge. The stone bridge railing showed black against the barely blue evening sky. But the woman still didn’t come.

1919-le-bassin-aux-nympheas-water-lily-pond-is-one-of-the-series-of-water-lilies-paintings-by-claude-monetClaude Monet, Water Lily Pond, 1919

Finally Wei Sheng stood fixed in his place.

Soaking his boots, the water of the river spread below the bridge and shown colder than steel. His knees, his belly, and before long his chest surely would be hidden by the brutal tide soon. In fact, the water continued to rise and his shins were submerged already. But the woman still didn’t come.

As he stood in the water, Wei Sheng repeatedly turned his eyes to the sky over the bridge as his sole remaining hope.

Surrounded by mists of shadowy darkness rising from the water that immersed his knees, he heard a lonely rustle of reeds and willows through the mists. Wei Sheng’s nose was grazed by a fish, perhaps a sea bass, that flashed its white belly at him. Stars, if only a few, could be seen in the sky through which the fish leapt, and the shape of the bridge railing and its vines blended with the darkness of the night. But the woman still didn’t come . . .

1912. Water Lilies by Claude Monet IIClaude Monet, Water Lilies, 1912

Late at night when the light of the moon bathed the reeds and willows and the water of the river exchanged quiet murmers with a slight breeze, Wei Sheng’s dead body was carried softly to sea from beneath the bridge. Wei Sheng’s spirit, perhaps yearning for the light of the moon high in the lonely sky, slipped out of the body and tranquilly ascended toward the faintly glowing sky, just as the smell of water and duckweed rises silently from the river. . .

With the passage of several thousands of years from that time, this spirit had experienced countless transmigrations and had to give life to a human form again. This is the spirit that dwells in me. Therefore, even though I was born in the present time, I am unable to do any meaningful work. I spend my life in desultory dreaming, day and night, waiting for an indescribable something that is bound to come. Just as Wei Sheng stood under the bridge at the end of the day, waiting forever for a lover who would never come.

Book Review: No Longer Human by Osamu Dazai

2 Feb

‘Now I have neither happiness nor unhappiness. Everything passes.’ – This is the first quote I’ve read from this book, and it stayed etched on my mind. I couldn’t stop myself from endlessly pondering over its meaning. And the title was intriguing as well – No Longer Human, what does that mean, I wondered. Now, after finally reading this brilliant book, I can say without exaggeration that I consider it one of my favourite books ever!!!

no-longer-human

Osamu Dazai (1909-1948) wrote his second novel, a dark and disturbing work of art – No Longer Human,  in a state of frenzy, some suggested he was suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder.

The book begins with an unnamed narrator finding three photos and three notebooks written by Oba Yozo, which follow his decline from a student, to an morphine addict. It tells the story of his moral, physical and emotional degradation, and downfall into the shady life of crime, suicides, prostitutes, alcohol and morphine. It’s written in the first person which gives it a psychological depth and intimate mood. Yozo tells us all his thoughts, fears and ideas – everything that the hides from the world by wearing a ‘clownish mask’ of cheerfulness and wittiness. This sentence, for me, explains Yozo’s life the best: ‘Something impure, dark, reeking of the shady character always hovers above me.‘ He feels deeply alienated from everyone around him, and his day to day existence is tormented by this intense feeling of not belonging, not being able to show others his real self, and no being able to find out, for himself, who he really is.

The story reminded me of Dostoyevsky’s Notes from the Underground, and Vadim in Ageyev’s Novel with Cocaine, because it’s narrated in the first person and deals with similar themes. In all three of these books, the main characters are fully engulfed in their own dark thoughts, feel isolated from society and their real selves, and they cannot find anything of value, nothing to cling to in a world of strangers where it’s much easier to become corrupted than try and make something out of your life. This is exactly the kind of literature I love, with characters who are weak, flawed, isolated, and I can slip through the pages and witness their downfall because it’s always inevitable. Not everyone can find their Sonia – a gentle, selfless, angel-like creature, like Raskolnikov in Crime and Punishment, to save them.

osamu-dazaiOsamu Dazai

Another thing I found fascinating is the massive amount of Dazai’s autobiographical elements. Like Yozo, Dazai neglected his studies and took interest in Marxism, prostitutes and alcohol. Both were born in privileged families and felt guilt about it. Both attempted suicide by drowning off a beach in Kamakura with young bar hostesses. Both Yozo and Dazai survived, and both women died. Both became addicted to morphine-based painkillers. At the end, Dazai committed suicide by drowning. Yozo’s whereabouts remain unknown, although he might have done the same thing.

Those of you who are inclined to judge characters such as Yozo (but I don’t believe people like that read my blog anyway), well, I have a quote to share, something which Vladimir Mayakovsky wrote upon hearing the news of Yesenin’s suicide. He wrote: ‘In this life it is easy to die, to build life is hard.'(*) So what if Yozo was weak and succumbed to all these vices, what of that? It’s so hard to be good and create a genuinely fulfilling life. And we can never know what is the right way to live, because we have only one life.

I can’t relate to that specific ‘decaying’ aspect of Yozo’s life (alcohol and women), but I can empathise. I have not (yet) fallen into destruction like him, but that’s because I have art, it comforts me in a way nothing could, it’s my love, my opium… And then there’s poetry, and music, and flowers, and the moon… Maybe, if Yozo had found something of value in his life, things would have turned out differently. Still, I utterly identify with this quote: ‘All I feel are the assaults of apprehension and terror at the thought that I am the only one who is entirely unlike the rest. It is almost impossible for me to converse with other people. What should I talk about, how should I say it? – I Don’t know.‘ The more I think about this book and Yozo, the more I can relate to him, it’s almost frightening, but like him I am terribly untrusting and I can understand how he feels when he says that he can’t reveal his true self to others, it’s not that I cannot, I don’t want to, I relish in keeping myself to myself and letting others think I’m cold and reserved. This makes the book even more interesting in my eyes.

I highly recommend you to read this book! As for myself, I plan on reading more Japanese literature. I have not yet read a book by a Japanese author that I did not like, I like the characters, who are often introverted, alienated and misunderstood, and the whole sensibility. Yukio Mishima’s portrayal of Etsuko’s loneliness and unrequited sexual longing in Thirst for Love was particularly poignant to me, for example.

Shimeko Tanabe: young bar hostess who died, while Dazai was saved…

And now some of my favourite quotes:

I drank more that night than ever before in my life, more … more, my eyes swam with drink, and every time Tsuneko and I looked in each other’s face, we gave a pathetic little smile. Yes, just as Horiki had said, she really was a poverty stricken woman and nothing more. But this thought itself was accompanied by a welling-up of a feeling of comradeship for this fellow-suffered from poverty.

***

She lay down beside me. Towards dawn she pronounced for the first time the word “death.” She too seemed to be weary beyond endurance of the task of being a human being; and when I reflected on my dread of the world and its bothersomeness, on money, the movement, women, my studies, it seemed impossible that I could go on living. I consented easily to her proposal.

***

We threw ourselves into the sea at Kamakura that night. She untied her sash, saying, she had borrowed it from a friend at the cafe, and left it folded neatly on a rock. I removed my coat and put it on the same spot. We entered the sea together.

She died. I was saved.

***

I was taken aback. Horiki at heart did not treat me like a human being. He could only consider me as the living corpse of a would-be suicide, a person dead to shame, an idiot ghost.

***

At one point, Yozo and his friend are playing a game of antonyms, and start discussing Dostoyevski and the idea of crime:

If we knew the antonym of crime, I think we would know its true nature. God… salvation … love … light. But for God there is the antonym Satan, for salvation is perdition, for love there is hate, for light there is darkness, for good, evil. Crime and prayer? Crime and repentance? Crime and confession? Crime and … no, they’re all synonyms. What is the opposite of crime? (…) Crime and punishment. Dostoievski. These words grazed over a corner of my mind, startling me.

***

It was less the fact of Yoshiko’s defilement than the defilement of her trust in people which became so persistent a source of grief as almost to render my life insupportable. For someone like myself in whom the ability to trust others is cracked and broken that I am wretchedly timid and am forever trying to read the expression on people’s faces. Yoshiko’s immaculate trustfulness seemed clean and pure, like a waterfall among green leaves. One night sufficed to turn the waters of this pure cascade yellow and muddy. Yoshiko began from that night to fret over my every smile or frown.

***

From the first to the last page, Yozo feels detached from everyone around him, and ‘ceases to be a human being’. That sounds unbearably sad, but the more I think about it, the more I find it liberating. If you think of all disgusting things that ‘humans’ have done, the ‘inhumanities’ their rotten minds have come up with, all the wars, tortures, injustices, hypocrisies – ‘the centre of humanity is cruelty’ (Manic Street Preachers – Archives of Pain). If I take all of this into consideration, then, please disqualify me to, I don’t want to be a human being! I’d rather be a flower, a star, rose petal in the wind, a blade of grass floating on the surface of the lake, or simply a drop of rain. There’s another great line from the song ‘Mausoleum’ by the Manics, which is actually taken from the interview with J.G.Ballard: ‘I wanted to rub the human face in its own vomit… and force it to look back in the mirror’.

And now I had become a madman. Even if released, I would be forever branded on the forehand with the word “madman”, or perhaps, “reject.”

Disqualified as a human being.

I had now ceased utterly to be a human being.‘ (p. 122)

***

I confess, I have shed a few tears at the end, and shivered as I read these lines:

Now I have neither happiness nor unhappiness.

Everything passes.

This is the one and only thing I have thought resembled a truth in society of human beings where I have dwelled up to now as in a burning hell.

Everything passes.

This year I am twenty-seven. My hair has become much greyer. Most people would take me for over forty.’

Sei Shonagon’s Pillowbook – Lyrical Meditations on Nature and Court Life

22 Aug

Sei Shonagon (c. 966-1017/1025) was a Japanese court lady who wrote poems and lyrical observations on court life. This month I read her famous ‘Pillowbook’; a collection of the previously mentioned texts and poems which she wrote purely for her own amusement before going to sleep. Some chapters, such as those discussing politics, were a bit tedious in my opinion, but others were brilliantly poetic and lyrical, often funny as well. The book was written in 990s, and it’s something so poignant in the fact that there was a lady, both witty and intelligent, often cynical, who thought it interesting to write about things happening at court, about the change of seasons, and document her views on many topics, from having a lover to travelling in carriages made of bamboo plants. And now, more than a thousand years later, I have a privilege to read a collection of texts you could rightfully call a diary. Some people even went so far as to say that Shonagon was the first blogger!

Her observations seemed so relatable, even though cultures and time periods divide her life from mine. The book really brings the spirit of the times and I like their way of life; visiting shrines, belief in reincarnation, writing haiku poems and sending elegant letters with tree twigs attached to it, contemplating in beautiful rock (later Zen) gardens, and admiring moonshine, still lakes and gentle plum trees in spring. If I had ten lives, I wouldn’t mind spending one of them living like that. In today’s hectic and instant society such serenity seems unimaginable to me.

I will end my short review by saying that I thoroughly recommend the book, if you still haven’t realised that. Happy reading!

1800s Courtier sleeping, Katsushika Hokusai, 19th centuryCourtier sleeping, Katsushika Hokusai, 19th century

This is how The Pillow Book begins, with Sei Shonagon describing the beauty of four seasons:

In Spring it is the dawn that is most beautiful. As the light creeps over the hills, their outlines are dyed a faint red and wisps of purplish cloud trail over them.

In Summer the nights. Not only when the moon shines, but on dark nights too, as the fireflies flit to and fro, and even when it rains, how beautiful it is!

In Autumn the evenings, when the glittering sun sets close to the edge of the hills and the crows fly back to their nests in threes and fours and twos; more charming still is a file of wild gees, like specks in the distant sky. When the sun has set, one’s heart is moved by the sound of the wind and the hum of the insects.

In Winter the early mornings. it is beautiful indeed when the snow has fallen during the night, but splendid too when the ground is white with frost; or even when there is no snow or frost, but it is simply very cold and the attendants hurry from room to room stirring up the fires and bringing charcoal, how well this fits the season’s mood! But as noon approaches and the cold wears off, no one bothers to keep the braziers alight, and soon nothing remains but piles of white ashes.

1793. Maruyana Okyo, Edo Period, Butterflies

Maruyana Okyo, Edo Period, Butterflies, 1793

*As this is mainly an art blog, I am aware of the fact that Shonagon lived in Heian period and the painting by Hokusai is from Edo period or 19th century, so there’s a discord here. It would be the same as putting a painting of Queen Victoria and a Medieval text, but I really liked this painting by Hokusai and I felt it fits the mood of Shonagon’s book.