This week at Necessary Fiction I reviewed Hiromi Kawakami’s The Briefcase, which was published last spring by Counterpoint Press. I had a lot of fun reading and writing about this book, not only because it fits so well into my current Japanese literature reading project, but also because it brought me to think about the way that different cultures handle narrative perspective. Especially first-person narrative – which is the perspective for which readers are asked for the greatest suspension of disbelief. I find that with first person the framework of fiction seems the most false – who is this person and why is this person writing this all down?
And I think that different cultures have different tolerances for how the first-person is handled—all based on literary tradition and current publishing trends. I only touch on this briefly in the review, but I think there is a greater discussion lurking around this idea.
But without further ado, here is a little of what I had to say about The Briefcase:
On the surface this a book about a woman in her late thirties and a man in his seventies and the strange romance in which they find themselves engaged. That word romance is a little misleading, because what happens between Tsukiko and Sensei is far more serious than what that simple word might lead one to believe. The Briefcase is less a study of an unconventional relationship and more a query of what happens when two resolutely lonely individuals find that when they are together their loneliness is eased.
Contemporary Japanese fiction is fascinated with loneliness and what loneliness does to the psyche, how it manifests both publicly and privately. In this sense, The Briefcase is a part of a larger genre of fiction. Kawakami, however, while not shying away from the darker aspects of loneliness, refrains from making her characters marginal. Both Tsukiko and Sensei are functional, polite, and to some extent even social beings, and aside from rather impressive drinking abilities, their emotional isolation is nearly undetectable.
You can read the rest of the review here.
If you’ve never heard of Kawakami and are interested, there are a few examples of her writing to be found around the web:
The story “Mogera Wogura” from the Spring 2005 issue of The Paris Review. This story is just amazing – I can’t stop reading it.
The story “Record of a Night Too Brief” from the July 2012 issue of Words Without Borders.
“The Moon and the Batteries” from Granta. This is the first chapter of The Briefcase.
I have mentioned before how much I love the international journal Cerise Press—consistently excellent content and a lovely design as well. But I’m extra delighted about their latest, the Spring 2013 issue, as it includes my translation of a 1906 short story by Ramuz. This particular story was originally published in the Journal de Genève in 1906, and as far as I can find was never anthologized elsewhere or re-published.
Ramuz is especially good at writing about old women, old maids in fact, and this story, aptly named “The Two Old Maids” is one that showcases that skill. The story is really only a very brief portrait—a single evening in the night of two older seamstress sisters living in a small town when they get a glimpse of a life that was denied to them.
My favorite part of the entire story is when Ramuz steps back and sets the scene – just before the women sit down at the window to look out into the garden (which is an action that will devastate them – this looking out – best not to look out):
And so the daylight departed slowly from the back of the room up to where they were sitting. The furniture entered into the shadow; it appeared to be drowning. The shadow began at the base and then rose like water, until eventually each piece was submerged.
Looking outside, the light was a surprise because it was still so bright yet already dark inside. The sky was yellow, then it became green. A gust of wind bent the branches on the trees.
A large garden extended in front of the ladies’ house. The garden belonged to Mr. Loup, the surveyor. The trees were all black too, making great masses in the sky. In between them, a bit of lighter colored grass stuck out. Then there was a movement in the air. Up above, the green had gone, turned to blue, darkened and a star began to shine at that moment, opened like an eye.
Oh, what softness was on everything! The evening lies down, lets itself go. A renunciation. And then noises come from further away, weaken and disappear. So good to breathe in this silence! Even if it makes lonely souls sad.
You can read the entire translation – and the rest of this excellent issue here. Enjoy!
The more I read authors from start to finish, the more I find this method of reading suits me better than any other—there is something about following a writer’s evolution that I find so fascinating, so satisfying. How they move through and repeat certain themes, how their style intensifies or thins out. I’m thinking of this tonight because I’ve just finished Christine Schutt’s short story collection, Nightwork – this is the first book she published (with Knopf in 1996 and then it was re-issued in 2000 by Dalkey Archive), and I wish I had read it before reading Florida (her first novel, 2004).
I wish this only because Nightwork felt like it contained all the elements that worked together as a blended whole in Florida, only in Nightwork they were still separated, each held under a microscope or pushed to an extreme. They sort of worked against and around each other, instead of merging so seamlessly into a single narrative. Both books are excellent, by the way, so I’m not trying to suggest that Nightwork is some unfinished or raw version of Florida.
Nightwork collects together a series of intense little pieces—the best word to describe these stories may be unsettling, although they are all of them beautiful or sad or even funny as well. But what Schutt does more than anything else is create a vivid sense of disquiet. These are women-centered fictions—all about mothers, girlfriends, wives, daughters, sisters—and the worlds these women have found themselves in, or created, are not easy places to inhabit.
From “Religion,” for example:
Scabs in the spring air on the compound, cottonseed and petals, early bees and trembling webs, dews, worms, some stones in the sun already warm against our feet—remember spring there? How Jerry caught us in our nightgowns, how he stared? I was ashamed—we all were. We never went outdoors again quite so undressed.
Or here in “Teachers,”:
Once hours on the floor doing puzzles, and even earlier, she remembered, a baby in the middle of the bed, so needful and small, she had thought she might kill it—this, and the flushed breasts inflamed from suckling. His thirst, too, the oil he used to ease past the stitches when she was milky and wounded and just to put her foot against the floor to rise from bed as lightly as she did amazed her, as the baby amazed her.
Violence and trespass are what underwrite these stories: dark spaces, the movement toward taboo behaviors, closed rooms and oversized emotions, fear and anger. And in many of the stories, a dangerous closeness between mothers and daughters.
Interestingly, what defines the collection for me—more than these subjects or themes—is the impenetrability of the stories. Schutt is hinting more than she is showing or telling, and the actual scenes and description and dialogue all seem to work to shield the “truth” or “meaning” of the story instead of wanting to reveal it. I can imagine that some readers might find this frustrating, but I found it was extremely effective especially because the personal relationships within each story could be so disconcerting.
And, more than anything else, Schutt’s poetry – the way she juxtaposes images and slightly changes words (“needful” in that second excerpt for example) – is just wonderful.
Now that I’ve backed up and started reading her from the beginning, I’ll read her second book, A Day, A Night, Another Day, Summer (another story collection) before I move on to reread Florida and then her two most recent novels, All Souls and Prosperous Friends.
This is from “The Summer After Barbara Claffey,” the second story in Christine Schutt’s 1996 collection, Nightwork:
She is watching from her window the man’s approach across the lawn. “You can wave from here,” Mother says in the voice she uses with the new Jacks, and I do.
I wave and wave, even though she is not looking. I wave at my mother muscling her own weight under this Jack’s arm. I cannot hear what they are saying; it is quiet in this town.
But the neighbors must notice my mother and her Jack. Either side of us and across the street, the Dunphies, the Smiths, Barbara Claffey down the street, must press to windows startled as by birds that swoop and mate so queerly close. I sometimes draw the blinds to them—but not to Mother. I am ready for Mother and her sudden turning to see if I am watching her, to see if I am paying attention to how she stands, tottering in her shoes, ankles gagged and tense and helpless—and Mother is not helpless. My mother is brave, I think, and her upturned face is shining. I see this, and see them both, willful lovers, tilted away from the house, leaning hard into the night.
This collection is extremely hard to put down. The writing! The mood! Interestingly, much about these stories is inscrutable—what exactly is going on? what kind of situation has the narrator found herself in? The stories move forward in impressionistic little flashes and fascinating off-kilter dialogue, but the atmosphere is sharp and dark and well-defined. There is so much menace, and each story seems to function within a borderland space of taboo and transgression. The story I’ve quoted from here actually reminds me a lot of her first novel Florida–this intense mother/daughter relationship and the precariousness of the mother’s dependence on various men.
I’ll write more about the book when I’ve finished…
A modern coating goes no farther than the large cities that are a country’s arteries, and there are not many such cities anywhere. In an old country with a long tradition, China and Europe as well as Japan—any country, in fact, except a very new one like the United States—the smaller cities, left aside by the flow of civilization, retain the flavour of an earlier day until they are overtaken by catastrophe.
This is Kaname, the young man in Junichiro Tanizaki’s short novel Some Prefer Nettles (1929), and he has this thought as he’s surveying the harbor town of the small island of Awaji, which sits in Osaka Bay. The entire book involves comparisons of this sort—between new cities and old cities, between Tokyo and Osaka, between traditional Japan and the more modern values that have filtered into the country since its opening in the 1850s.
Some Prefer Nettles is a straightforward novel, meaning that the story is quite simple; at the same time, the story is purely symbolic. Kaname and his wife Misako have been married for about ten years but they are both tired of their marriage, Misako has even fallen in love with another man with Kaname’s help and blessing. But divorce is a difficult thing to manage properly and they are waffling about it, very much paralyzed and unsure of how to move forward. A situation which works as a perfect symbol of Japanese society between the two world wars. Here is a country that was absolutely closed to the outside world until 1850, and when it opened up it was quickly inundated with images and media and fashion from other parts of the world. European and Middle Eastern culture especially–two “exotic” cultures with long and rich histories–became extremely interesting, as did American culture with its apparent ease and openness. Obviously, with any great cultural change, there are those who embrace the changes and those who run from them. Much of the book is about whether to look backward and honor traditions, even those that feel stale, or whether it’s best to look forward and embrace a new identity.
What’s most interesting to me about this book is how Tanizaki handles it all so directly – and yet it’s still a good story. Most of Kaname’s conversations are about the old Japan vs. the new Japan, his thoughts are constantly comparing tradition versus modernity, whether in puppetry or another art form, or even with respect to the roles of women, and even some of the narrative exposition directly addresses these ideas. Tanizaki is known for his constant East-West comparisons and his literary soul-searching to define the pure heart of Japan, and this book is an unsubtle expression of those questions. I don’t actually mean that word “unsubtle” as a kind of negative criticism, only that the idea being explored isn’t ever hidden. Everything Kaname thinks about, every person he encounters, every love relationship, every friendship, even every town or puppet play—all of these things stand in to represent one side or the other in this great debate. There’s a terrible risk of the book coming off as pedestrian – and yet Tanizaki has just enough poetry fitted in around the edges of everything that the novel is smooth and engaging.
At one point, Kaname goes on a three-day trip with his father-in-law and that man’s mistress, the very young but traditional O-hisa. She is practically a geisha, although she does not work for a tea-house, she is under the protection of Kaname’s father-in-law and he is “training” her so that when he dies, she will make a suitable match. It’s interesting that O-hisa, the very young woman, is a symbol of traditional Japan, while Misako, who is in her late thirties and already a mother, is the “modern” woman turning away from those traditions. And Kaname is stuck between the two and the stereotypes they represent, trying to decide which kind of woman he would like.
But I was talking about poetry, wasn’t I? On this three-day trip, the purpose of which is to watch some traditional puppet theatre, Tanizaki provides a series of truly stunning images of his traveling companions, the countryside, the theatres, the music, the puppets and the audiences.
From a walk through one of the towns:
The main road through the town stretched on under the blue sky before them, so clear and serene that they could count the people passing back and forth far into the distance. Even the bicycles tinkling their bells as they moved by seemed calm and unhurried.
From the last theatre they visit:
In the pit, where rush mats and rows of cushions were laid out on the bare ground, the children of the village had taken over. Noisy games, oranges, candy—it was lively as the playground of a kindergarten, untroubled as a country shrine festival. No one seemed to notice that a play was going on.
There are too many of these little moments to do them any justice by pulling out only two, but I wanted to show a little sampling of his style. Which, all in all, is very neat and simple, but he uses that simplicity to great effect. I’ve read Tanizaki before – his collection of stories Seven Japanese Tales is wonderful, so is his essay on aesthetics In Praise of Shadows. I read In Praise of Shadows probably once a year, and it’s both complicated and extremely beautiful—it’s also a primer on Japanese nationalism, but we will forgive him this when he writes so eloquently about the beauty of a cracked porcelain teacup. However, this was my first time reading one of his novels, and I’m obviously now really looking forward to reading his best-known work, The Makioka Sisters, as well as hoping to get a copy of another novel, Quicksand, which was written in serial form between 1928 and 1930, but only translated into English in 1994 – it sounds incredibly dark and psychological.
I had my suspicions that it wasn’t a good idea to leave my 2013 reading so open—no defined projects, nothing to focus on—and I was right, because I have spent the month of January jumping somewhat aimlessly between books that weren’t speaking to each other. Luckily most of what I read was quite good: one exceptional novel-manuscript by the talented Steve Himmer and several books I would still like to write about, namely Jesmyn Ward’s Salvage the Bones, Deborah Levy’s Black Vodka and Steve Edward’s memoir Breaking Into the Backcountry about living alone in a cabin in eastern Oregon for ten months. Still, I like a little more continuity in my reading and so I put an end to my random reading last evening and made a proper plan with matching spreadsheet (oh yes, big nerd).
Before I tell you about the new project, I should give a quick re-cap of a current one. Last year I began reading Virginia Woolf start to finish and I am not curtailing that project, but I am reading her diaries at the same time as her fiction, and trying to keep pace—which means that I am somewhere in 1923 (17 July 1923, to be exact), quite a few months after she published Jacob’s Room (1922) and she’s now begun working on Mrs. Dalloway. I’m really looking forward to rereading Mrs. Dalloway but I have a few diary years to catch up before that. And I find that the diaries are best read slowly, a few pages every evening.
There is a lovely passage I underlined recently, one of the few passages in which Woolf writes about children:
We came back from Rodmell yesterday, & I am in one of my moods, as the nurses used to call it, today. And what is it & why? A desire for children, I suppose; for Nessa’s life; for the sense of flowers breaking all round me involuntarily. Here’s Angelica—here’s Quentin & Julian. Now children don’t make yourself ill on plum pudding tonight. We have people dining. There’s no hot water. The gas is escaping in Quentin’s bedroom—I pluck what I call flowers at random. They make my life seem a little bare sometimes; & then my inveterate romanticism suggests an image of forging ahead, alone, through the night: of suffering inwardly, stoically; of blazing my way through to the end—& so forth. […] Let me have one confessional where I need not boast. Years & years ago, after the Lytton affair, I said to myself, walking up the hill at Beireuth, never pretend that the things you haven’t got are not worth having; good advice I think.
And she goes on at quite some length on the subject – it’s a very interesting moment in her journal, one of her most introspective.
In any case, while I do my catching up with Woolf, I need a new project, something to give some meaning to my reading, and as I’m elbow-deep in revisions of one of my novel manuscripts, and as this book is set in southern Japan, I thought to do some concentrated immersion. It is the perfect excuse to broaden and deepen my experience with modern and contemporary Japanese literature. I’ve put together a very preliminary list – works by well-known authors whom I’ve already read one or two novels, works by some lesser known writers, books by as many women as I can find in translation (and one Yoko Ogawa short story collection in Japanese – as slowly and painfully as I can) and many of the men as well.
This is an aside but I took many of these names from the Akutagawa Prize winners – and while there are actually a lovely number of women on the list, most of them have not been translated. More of the men on the list have been translated into English. So it goes.
Here is the early list – and I welcome any additional suggestions:
- Yoko Ogawa – Hotel Iris
- Yoko Ogawa – Amours en Marge (quite a bit of Ogawa is available in French)
- Yoko Ogawa – Mabuta (in Japanese – wish me luck)
- Yasunari Kawabata – Thousand Cranes
- Yasunari Kawabata – The Dancing Girl of Izu (we spent time on the Izu peninsula last year and I’d wished I’d read this before going)
- Fumiko Enchi – Tale of False Fortunes (I am a big fan of Enchi’s Masks and The Waiting Years)
- Shusaku Endo – Silence
- Shusaku Endo – Volcano
- Shusaku Endo – The Sea and Poison (if it’s been translated)
- Kobo Abe – The Ark Sakura (Abe’s The Woman in the Dunes is one of my all-time favorite novels, it’s about time I read more from him)
- Kobo Abe – The Ruined Map
- Junichiro Tanizaki – The Makioka Sisters
- Kenji Nakagami – The Cape and Other Stories
- Kenzaburo Oe – Silent Cry
- Kenzaburo Oe – Rouse up O Young Men of the New Age
- Japanese Women Writers: Twentieth Century Short Fiction
- Taeko Kono – Toddler Hunting
- Minako Oba – Of Birds Crying
- Risa Wataya – Isn’t it a pity? (which is supposed to be translated soon)
- Yu Nagashima – Yuko’s Shortcut
- Yoko Tawada – The Bridegroom was a Dog
- Hiromi Kawakami – The Briefcase
That’s what I’ve got so far – what am I missing?
This year I am resisting the idea of writing a wrap-up post to catalogue all that I’ve read and thought about in 2012, and I’m resisting even more the idea of plotting out all that I’d like to read and think about in 2013… of course I’ve got scratched out reading plans sitting around my desk and stacks of books I’ve slowly acquired over the last few months that I am eager to pick up and begin. I love the beginning of the year because there is always so much potential for “newness” and there is always the idea that lurking just inside the next book is an idea or an image that will radically change something about me or how I perceive the world. Reading is such an incredibly powerful activity that way.
So instead of putting together a neat wrap-up of last year and a carefully detailed outline of the year to come, I’d like to just post a quote from something I recently read… the first “new idea” of 2013. This comes from Tim Parks’s essay “The Mind Outside My Head” which, although it was published this past April, I just read (hat tip to the Twitter world). It is about a conversation Parks had with the Italian philosopher Ricardo Manzotti and Manzotti’s ideas of a spread consciousness versus the traditionally understood internal/subjective conciousness. After his conversation with Manzotti, Parks takes a walk around Milan and writes:
For some time I walk the streets of Milan trying to accept that consciousness is not locked in my head but spread out across the revving traffic, the rustling leaves, the dog shit, the blue sky, the gritty cobbles, the solemn facades, the soft breeze, the unseasonal temperatures, the screaming children, the air, the women. After a while it begins to make sense. There are small shifts of mood passing from street to park, from outside to inside, from red to blue, male to female, night to day, tram to metro, center to suburb. There are varying tensions between focus of vision and field of vision, between conversation and background noise. In general there is more: the intrusion of smells, the slap of a passing truck, a persistent touching of heat and breeze.
I will not pretend to understand everything that Manzotti is talking about, even if I do find the idea fascinating. Also, Parks does a lovely job of translating this idea of Manzotti’s for the layperson and applying it to the realm of novel writing, and, in a more general way, to an individual’s experience of the world. Parks takes Manzotti’s science and makes it a subtle argument for a different way of constructing one’s particular openness toward the world, a way of observing and allowing the outside world inside. So, I think, it isn’t a bad way at all of looking forward to the future as I step through these first few days of the new year.
Bonne Année. Happy New Year. Wishing you all a million pages of fascinating ideas in 2013.