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Archive for December, 2016

I discovered Minae Mizumura’sA True Novel‘ through this article about giant translated novels that make a mockery of subway reading. When Bellezza suggested a readalong of Mizumura’s book, me and a few others jumped in.

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This book at 862 pages is the longest book that I have read this year. It is also the longest book that I have read on my Kindle. So this is a new experience for me. I realized while I was reading that the pages were flying and the only reason I think this happened was because I was reading a digital copy of the book. I would never be able to read a paper book this fast. I don’t know why we read things faster on a screen when compared to paper.

A True Novel is multi-layered. In the first part of the novel, the author herself is the narrator. There is a preface in the beginning where the author describes how she was inspired to write the book and the story behind it. It makes us think that the story is based on real events. The next  part of the book talks about the narrator’s (that is, the author’s) own life and her experiences while growing up in America and later after she moved to Japan as an adult. Weaved into her story is the story of Taro Azuma, who is a mysterious figure, who works as a chauffeur for a friend of the narrator’s father. No one knows about his past life in Japan, but he works hard and so everyone likes him. In this part of the book the narrator talks about how Azuma comes in and goes out of her life and how she hears news about him through others. Then later, the narrator meets a person called Yusuke, who tells her about Azuma’s life in Japan, before he came to America.

The second part of the book, which comprises most of the book, is the story that the narrator hears from this new person Yusuke. In this part, a woman called Fumiko, whom Yusuke meets in Japan, tells the story of Taro Azuma. This story is also structured like the first part, in the sense, Fumiko tells the story of her life and she weaves in the story of Taro Azuma into it. Through her we hear about how Azuma started his life and how his circumstances changed when he met the family that Fumiko worked for and about the great love of his life, Yoko.

In the final part of the book, which is small and runs for only a few pages, one more narrator Fuyue tells Yusuke more things about Taro Azuma, things we didn’t suspect.

The story then unwinds and we move out from the innermost story arc to the next outer one to the outermost one where the author-narrator finally shares her thoughts.

I liked this circular narration of the story, moving from one narrator in the outer circle to another narrator in the inner circle. It make me think of classics like Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein and Cao Xueqin’s Dream of Red Mansions which have a similar structure. No one writes like that anymore and so that made me happy.

One more thought I wanted to share on the narrators was this. It is hard to tell whether the three narrators are reliable or not. For example, is this a true story, as the author-narrator Minae Mizumura says? Or is this a literary device that the novelist adopts – like Somerset Maugham did by making an appearance in some of his novels? Did Fumiko tell the whole truth? Or did she suppress some parts of it, as Fuyue, the third narrator says in the end? Or is Fuyue lying or misinformed? These are interesting topics of conversation.

I also loved the central story, which is the story of Taro Azuma and Yoko. It is tempting to call it a love story and that is probably how it will be known. But love is such a catch-all term and these days it is used mostly to refer to love of the romantic variety. Ancient Greek had four different words for love – Eros, Philia, Storge and Agape. Today, love is generally used in the sense of ‘Eros‘. But the love between Taro and Yoko is complex and deep – it is the way one would feel towards one’s soulmate. It has elements of all the four Greek words, but it also has facets which is hard to describe in words. Taro is from a very poor family and Yoko is from a rich family and the love they feel towards each other, an impossible love in post World War II, class-conscious Japan is beautifully described in the middle part of the book. We also see how Japan, a country with a traditional culture and lots of poverty became the industrialized powerhouse it is today and how the lives of our novel’s characters change significantly because of the overall change that the country goes through.

A True Novel‘ has been compared to Emily Brontë’s ‘Wuthering Heights‘ and when we read the book it is easy for us to see why. It is tempting to assume that Taro is the Japanese Heathcliff and Yoko is the Japanese Catherine Earnshaw, but the similarities end after a while. Beyond the brooding, Taro is unique in his own way and so is Yoko. Though there are other similarities in the story – I won’t write about them here because I want you to discover them yourself, if you choose to read the book – and though Minae Mizumura might have been inspired by the Heathcliff-Catherine legend, I would like to see the book as a classic in its own right, a story which tells us how the lives of a few families across different social strata underwent big changes over the past few decades when Japan herself went through significant changes, economically and culturally.

Mizumura’s writes in vintage, spare, Japanese prose. There is no word wasted. The pages fly as a result. I still can’t believe that I read 862 pages in a week! I loved the places where Mizumura takes a digression from the main story and shares her thoughts on other topics – like how one becomes a novelist, about the different kinds of Japanese novels and about the differences between Japanese and English as literary languages. Those were some of my favourite parts of the book.

So, what are my final thoughts on the book? I loved ‘A True Novel‘. After having a bad reading year, I am glad I ended it with a chunkster that I loved. I am also happy that I have now read a giant-translated-novel-that-makes-a-mockery-of-subway-reading 🙂 Yay! I am also happy that I read a Japanese literary work after a long time. I can’t wait to read more of Mizumura’s work, especially her nonfiction book ‘The Fall of Language in the Age of English‘, which I think is an important book for our times.

I don’t think I have done justice to Mizumura’s book in my brief review. If you love Japanese literature and chunksters, this book is for you.

Here are some of my favourite passages from the book.

Let’s say in ten years’ time I have written numerous novels and am doing quite well for myself. I doubt if the day will ever come, but let’s just suppose that it does. Would I then be satisfied? No, I don’t think so. Most likely, I would still want to know if it was my mission on earth to become a novelist. However prosaic a writer’s work or person may be, a writer is also an artist, and every artist must ask himself whether he was born to do what he does, rather than whether he can live by doing it. Behind the question is a perennial—indeed obsessive—need to believe that in some mysterious way one is destined to be an artist. A novelist is particularly prone to this concern. To become a painter, a dancer, or a musician, two things are necessary: an apparent gift and hard training. In contrast, nothing seems easier than becoming a writer. Anyone can string a few sentences together and turn out a novel practically overnight. Who becomes a novelist and who does not seems almost arbitrary. Hence the strong desire to hear a resounding voice from on high telling one that one was indeed destined to write.

I remembered a time when I often encountered new people in unfamiliar places and spent hours with them. Who it was or where the place was did not matter; what mattered was that those hours cut off from routine could be as intoxicating, as blissful, as time spent drifting on the surface of a deep sea. But after I reached my mid-thirties, this happened less, and I began to feel that new encounters were often just repetitions of old ones. I hadn’t experienced meeting a stranger as a pleasure for a very long time.

…one of the many ways in which it (Japanese) differs from European languages is in how the personal pronouns—I, you, we, he, she, and they—function. In its European counterparts, these pronouns are the pillars of the language and are essential in constructing a sentence, even if they are only indicated by the inflections of verbs. This isn’t so in Japanese. Here, the personal pronouns are elusive, constantly shifting, often absent, and function like any nouns. This becomes most problematic when it comes to the use of the personal pronoun “I.” In their first encounters with Western thought, Japanese people tried to grasp the concept of a “subject”—a concept that has become increasingly important in the modern West. Yet in Japanese there exists no grammatical equivalent to, for example, the English word “I.” There is no grammatical “I” that can be used by anybody—which ultimately means no grammatical “I” that can speak as a “subject” independent of its context. In fact, there is no single word for “I” in Japanese but a variety of “I’s,” depending on who the speaker is and whom he is speaking to—a linguistic feature perhaps unimaginable to those who only know European languages. All this renders the notion of the abstract and transcendent “subject” difficult to conceive of in Japanese. And that may be one of the reasons why Japanese readers continue to look for an actual, specific individual in a story rather than perceive the story as the work of a writer’s imagination.

Have you read Minae Mizumura’s ‘A True Novel‘? What do you think about it?

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This is my third and final post for this year’s German Literature Month hosted by Caroline from Beauty is a Sleeping Cat and Lizzy from Lizzy’s Literary Life.

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I think I first heard of Stefan Zweig through a comment made by Peter Hall in his book ‘Cities in Civilization‘, in which Hall talks about Vienna and its culture and architecture and mentions Stefan Zweig’s thoughts on Viennese culture at the beginning of the 20th century. I still can’t believe that I remember that, but happily I do. Later, I read one of Zweig’s short stories in an anthology. I then got his book ‘The World of Yesterday‘ and read the first fifty pages and loved it, but got distracted and kept it aside for a rainy day. I thought that I will get back to it one day and also read other Stefan Zweig books. I have still not got back to that book, but I discovered this story collection ‘A Game of Chess and other stories‘ and so I thought I will read this first.

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A Game of Chess and other stories‘ has four stories – two of them are short stories and two of them are novellas. The first story ‘The Invisible Collection‘ is about an art dealer who goes to visit a longtime client. He has never met this client, but has been impressed by this client’s wisdom because he has collected little known pieces of art across the years which have gone on to become extremely valuable. Of course, when he actually meets that client, he ends up in an unusual situation. I can’t tell you more – you should read the story.

The second story is a novella called ‘Twenty-Four Hours in a Woman’s Life‘. In this story, a few people are holidaying in the Riviera. They don’t know each other originally, but get to know each other because they are staying in the same guesthouse. They have interesting cultural and intellectual conversations everyday and some of them even play tennis. At one point the wife of one person elopes with one of the guests. Most of the people are critical of the woman and call her irresponsible. But the narrator of the story takes her side and says that given the right circumstances, anyone can break the prevailing social rules and fall in love or get attracted to a stranger. This leads to a lot of heated debate. Then one of the older women takes aside the narrator, asks to speak with him privately and tells him the story of what happened one day in her life many years back. The forms the major part of the story.

The third story, ‘Incident on Lake Geneva‘ is about a stranger who ends up in the shores of Lake Geneva and the people of the town don’t know what to do with him as he speaks a strange language and it is war time. Who he is and what happens to him form the rest of the story.

The fourth story, a novella, is the title story ‘A Game of Chess‘. A ship is leaving New York for Buenos Aires. It has the World Chess Champion Mirko Czentovic in it. Our narrator wants to engage the champion Czentovic in some way. But Czentovic avoids people. The narrator tries to catch his attention by engaging in a game of chess with a fellow traveller. The trick works. Czentovic agrees to join them next day for a game or two. And he easily defeats them. But the story doesn’t end there. One of the spectators joins the amateur players against Czentovic. He is able to see the World Champion’s tactics and strategy many moves in advance and gives the right kind of advice. Before long, the amateurs are able to hold their own against the World Champion. Czentovic is impressed and calls for a game next day with this mysterious traveller. Meanwhile our narrator goes to meet this mysterious traveller and this mysterious chess genius tells the story of how he got so good at the game.

I loved all the stories in the book, but I loved the novellas a little bit more. I can’t decide which is my favourite story, because I liked both ‘A Game of Chess‘ and ‘Twenty-Four Hours in a Woman’s Life’ equally well. All the stories had beautiful passages that I liked very much. Most of them had an interesting structure – a narrator starts to tell us the story and this narrator meets another person who takes over and tells us the rest of the story, the important part of the story. This is how stories used to be written once upon a time, in which the original narrator doesn’t play an important part in the story. It made me smile. There is a description of the Riviera in ‘Twenty-Four Hours in a Woman’s Life‘ which is incredibly beautiful which I loved. ‘A Game of Chess‘ has been called the best chess story ever written. I don’t know about that, but it definitely had one of the most beautiful passages on chess that I have ever read.

Here are some of my favourite passages from the book.

From ‘Twenty-Four Hours in a Woman’s Life’

Most people have little imagination, and what does not impinge on them directly, or run a sharp wedge insistently into a sensitive spot, generally fails to arouse them. On the other hand, something quite minor can put them in a towering passion if it happens right before their eyes or touches off their most immediate feelings. So, in a sense, the rarity of their emotional involvement is offset by the unwarranted and excessive vehemence they show in such instances.

You know the Riviera landscape. It’s always fine, but it offers its rich hues complacently and with picture-postcard flatness to the eye, rather like a sleepy, languid beauty who is content to be touched by every gaze, almost oriental in her ever-luxuriant display. But sometimes, very seldom, there are days when this beauty rises up with a purpose and cries out for attention, sparkling with madly garish colours and flinging her myriad blooms triumphantly in one’s face, her sensuality burning bright. And just such an effervescent day had dawned after the stormy chaos of the night. The rain-washed street gleamed white, the sky was turquoise and on all sides lush bushes catching the light flamed like green torches. The mountains seemed nearer and more distinct in the crisp, sunny sky, pressing forward inquisitively on the glittering, brightly polished town.

From ‘A Game of Chess

But are we not guilty of belittling chess by calling it a game at all? For surely it is also a science and an art, poised between these categories like Muhammad’s coffin between heaven and earth, a unique fusion of all opposing pairs : ancient yet eternally new, mechanical in its arrangement yet requiring imagination for its effect, limited to a fixed geometrical space yet limitless in its permutations, forever evolving yet sterile, a thought process without purpose, a mathematics that solves nothing, an art form with no artworks, an architecture without materials, and nevertheless demonstrably more enduring in its essence and being than any book or artefact. It is the only game that belongs to all nations and all eras, and no one knows which divinity brought it into the world to stave off boredom, sharpen wits and firm up the spirit. Where is its beginning and where its end? Any child can learn its basic rules, any bungler can try his hand at it, and yet from within its small, unvarying square field it brings forth an extraordinary and incomparable species of virtuoso, people whose peculiar gifts make chess their only possible vocation. In this type of genius, vision, patience and technique operate in the same proportions as with mathematicians, poets and composers – only these elements are differently layered and combined.

I don’t think I have done justice to this beautiful book in my review. ‘A Game of Chess and other stories‘ is one of my favourite books of the year. I will definitely be reading it again. I can’t wait to read more Stefan Zweig.

Other reviews

The Invisible Collection (Jonathan’s review – Intermittencies of the Mind)

Twenty-Four Hours in a Woman’s Life (Lisa’s review – ANZ Lit Lovers)

Twenty-Four Hours in a Woman’s Life (Melissa’s review – The Book Binder’s Daughter)

A Game of Chess (David’s review – David’s Book World)

Have you read ‘A Game of Chess and other stories‘? What do you think about it?

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This is my second post for German Literature Month hosted by Caroline from Beauty is a Sleeping Cat and Lizzy Siddal from Lizzy’s Literary Life.

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Continuing with more Kafka, I decided to read Michael Hofmann’s translation of Kafka’s shorter prose. The book is called ‘Metamorphosis‘ after Kafka’s most famous work, but in the 300-page book, the title story occupies only 50 pages and the rest, comprising the majority of the book at 250 pages, has some of his shorter prose collections. The collections featured are ‘Contemplation‘ (Kafka’s first published work), ‘A Country Doctor : Short Prose for My Father‘ and ‘A Hunger-Artist : Four Stories‘. There were also a few standalone stories – ‘The Judgement : A Story for F.‘, ‘The Stoker : A Fragment‘, ‘In the Penal Colony‘ and a few others. I didn’t read the last two.

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I found Kafka’s stories to be roughly of three types. There were the short-shorts which ranged from single paragraphs to one or two pages. Then there were the short story length pieces, which were around ten pages. Then there were the longer stories ranging from 30 to 50 pages. I reacted to them in different ways. I loved most of the short-shorts. There was a beautiful passage in nearly every one of them and some of them were beautiful overall. The longer stories – I can’t really comment because I read just one, ‘The Metamorphosis‘, that too in a different translation. But based on this one reading, I can say that Kafka can tell a good story in this form and I liked it. The in-between 10-page short story – I liked many of them, but some I found quite challenging. The challenging ones all started well, but at some point, I didn’t know where the story was going. For example, there is one story called ‘A Little Woman‘, in which the narrator talks about how this woman finds him annoying in everything he does. (At one point the narrator says – “if one could divide life into minute constituent particles, and judge each individual particle separately, I am sure each little particle of my life would contain some irritant for her.“) They seem to have a close relationship. I was expecting some revelation through the story or in the end – something like how this woman is his mother or his wife or his lover or his daughter or even his dog, but nothing of that sort happened. She was just annoyed with him.

Some of the stories which I think are important in some ways are these. After writing ‘Metamorphosis‘, in which Kafka  talks about a man who wakes up in the morning to discover that he is a huge insect, it looks like Kafka explored related themes in other stories. In ‘A Report to an Academy‘, an ape which has evolved into a culturally sophisticated human-like being, writes a report about it for the scientific academy (at one point the ape says – “My achievement would have been impossible if I had selfishly clung to my origins and to memories of my early youth. And it was precisely the renunciation of my self that was my project; I, a free ape, willingly accepted this burden.“) In ‘Josefine, the Singer, or The Mouse People‘, the narrator, who is a mouse talks about the singer-superstar among mice, Josefine. We learn about the cultural life of mice and how Josefine is an oddball in the mice population. Then there is ‘A Country Doctor‘. A country doctor gets a midnight call. His coachman gets his coach ready, but then asks the doctor to travel on his own. The coachman then looks at the maid with lust and when she realizes what is happening she runs into the house and locks the door. The coachman runs after her and tries to break the door down so that he can go in and rape her. The doctor realizes what is happening but he is unable to do anything because he has to rush to his patient’s house. When he reaches there, he discovers that his patient doesn’t seem to have any major problem. But after careful examination, he discovers that his patient does have a life-threatening illness and he is beyond help. The patient’s parents hope that the doctor will work a miracle. While the doctor is waiting there wondering what to do, he contemplates on life – he is sitting with a patient who is beyond help while in his home his coachman is trying to rape his maid and he is unable to help her too. He ponders over the futility of it all. That situation must be the very definition of the word ‘Kafkaesque‘, I think.

Some of my favourite stories from the book were ‘The New Advocate‘, ‘The Neighbouring Village‘ and ‘A Hunger-Artist‘.

Instead of reviewing my favourite short-shorts, I will share some of my favourite passages here.

From ‘Children on the Road

Then birds flew up like corks out of a bottle, I followed them with my eyes, saw them climb in a single breath until I no longer thought they were rising, but that I was falling, and, clinging in to the ropes in my dizziness, I began involuntarily to swing a little.

From ‘Looking out Distractedly

What shall we do in the spring days that are now rapidly approaching? This morning the sky was grey, but if you go over to the window now, you’ll be surprised, and rest your cheek against the window lock.
      Down on the street you’ll see the light of the now setting sun on the face of the girl walking along and turning to look over her shoulder, and then you’ll see the shadow of the man rapidly coming up behind her.
      Then the man has overtaken her, and the girl’s face is quite dazzling.

From ‘The Way Home

I weigh up my past against my future, but find both of them excellent, am unable to give one or other the advantage, and am compelled to reprove providence for its injustice in so favouring me.

From ‘The Neighbouring Village

My grandfather was in the habit of saying : ‘Life is astonishingly brief. By now it is all so condensed in my memory that I can hardly understand, for instance, how a young man can undertake to ride to the neighbouring village without wondering whether – even if everything goes right – the span of a normal happy life will be enough for such a ride.

Have you read any of these shorter prose pieces by Kafka? Which are your favourites?

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