“…trouble following the line between trees and sky.”

December was a markedly different reading month compared to the rest of 2016, and in a very good way. I read some wonderful books in 2016, but not enough, and much of my reading time was spent on manuscripts – my own and those of friends, and reading for work. That is often wonderful, interesting reading in its own right, but I did miss the larger range of books I usually choose to read over a year. As I mentioned in my last post, I filled December with a wonderful list of essays and short stories and this brought me reading wildly again. Such a pleasure.

More than this, however, I spent the last week and a half of December at home without any work projects. Aside from a few larger family responsibilities for the holidays, it was a very quiet break. Can you guess how I spent it? Curled up in my favorite spot, with a large pot of tea at hand and a stack of books, some of which I’d read before and were in need of a re-read. For some reason Japanese modernism fit my mood (there’s probably a political analogy in there somewhere) and I began with Enchi Fumiko’s 1958 Masks, translated into English by Juliet Winters Carpenter in 1983. Masks (referring to Noh masks and to overlaid representations of the self) is a dark little novel about desire and revenge and, in some sense, too, about scripted drama. I remember loving it the first time I read it, and I found it no less interesting this second time around.

I was still in the mood for something I’d read before, so I picked up Yasunari Kawabata’s Snow Country (1935-1937). I’d forgotten how interesting Kawabata is, and so I followed this with Kawabata’s The Sound of the Mountain (1949-1954), which I hadn’t read before. I loved it more than Snow Country. And then, not willing to stop until I’d finished all the Kawabata sitting on my shelves, I then read his Thousand Cranes (1949 – 1951), finishing it up in the early morning of December 31st in a quiet house with a stunning winter dawn breaking over the mountains and the lake outside the window of my favorite reading spot.

These are all beautiful little books (all of them translated by Edward Seidensticker in the 1970s and 80s). Kawabata has a gentle lyrical style and a very perceptive eye for distinguishing character traits. I love his lens, because the “eyes” of all three novels are male, but their gaze is tightly focused—either in a curious or an obsessive way—upon a series of eccentric women characters.

That word “eccentric” is a hesitant choice. I don’t mean to say that these women characters are outlandish or bizarre. I mean it in the sense of “unconventional” and this seems to me to lie at the heart of Kawabata’s queries in these novels, which are all looking at fundamental social shifts and generational changes in Japan. The relationships tethering his male narrators to their female family members and lovers and friends open up a window onto either a hint or a fully realized portrait of some unconventional trait in each of the women. He tends to play with ideals and traditional stereotypes and explodes them over and over again—but it’s all done in a soft and quiet way.

I want to write about Sound of the Mountain in more detail, mostly because I absolutely adored Shingo Ogata’s character and perspective, but also because I braved reading the English and Japanese side by side, and found myself curious about many of Seidensticker’s translation choices. Not arguing with them necessarily, although sometimes that, too, but just looking at the way his translation shapes a reader’s perception of the story. Always fascinating for me.

In any case, I’ll stop here and just say Happy New Year, leaving off with a line from Thousand Cranes that fits what is outside my window right this second:

For the rest, the night was so dark that he had trouble following the line between trees and sky.

Wishing you all a chance to read everything and anything in 2017.

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