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Archive for the ‘Literature Month’ Category

The Family Doctor‘ by Debra Oswald is the second Australian book I read in April. I discovered this book through Kim’s (from ‘Reading Matters’) review of it.

Paula Kaczmarek is a doctor. Her friend Stacey is currently staying with her with her two kids, after Stacey moved away from her husband because of domestic violence. One day Paula comes home and finds the door open. Inside the house she finds Stacey dead, shot through the head. She searches for Stacey’s kids and finds them dead in the same way. While she is reeling in shock, she sees Stacey’s estranged husband enter the room with a rifle. While we and Paula are terrified about what he is going to do next, he shoots himself. After Paula recovers from this traumatic experience, she gets back to work. One day she notices that one of her patients has injuries caused clearly by domestic violence. When Paula offers help, this patient refuses. She says that her life will get harder if she complains against her husband. Paula thinks. She doesn’t want this woman to suffer the same fate as her friend Stacey. She doesn’t want to sit quiet and watch another woman get killed by her partner. She finally does something unconventional.

I can’t tell you more, of course. You have to read the book to find out what happened.

I loved ‘The Family Doctor‘. The story is gripping, the action picks up on the first page and never lets go till the end. The friendship between Paula and Stacey and another friend Anita is beautifully depicted. The book asks some difficult questions on how the law works in domestic violence cases, on how it is possible for the perpetrator to get away with things. We can’t stop thinking of the first line from William Gaddis’A Frolic of His Own‘ – “Justice? – You get justice in the next world, in this world you have the law.” Dr.Kaczmarek, Paula to us, realizes that and she kicks ass and dispenses her own brand of justice.

I wondered how the book would end and I thought I wouldn’t be happy with it, but the author surprised me. It was a wonderful ending. It wasn’t the perfect ending I wanted (I always want good characters to live happily ever after), but it was a very satisfying ending. Brava Debra Oswald for getting it right!

Have you read ‘The Family Doctor‘? What do you think about it?

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I have wanted to read ‘A Fraction of the Whole‘ by Steve Toltz ever since it came out. I finally got around to reading it. It was a thick book, almost approaching chunkster-ish size at around 700 pages filled with tiny font, and while reading it, I was distracted by real life, elections, addiction to TV shows, temptations of slimmer books. But I persevered and I was thrilled when I crossed the last page today. It took me 21 days to read, and that is a really long time for a 700-page book, but I am glad that I stuck with it and didn’t give up.

The story starts with the narrator Jasper Dean describing his life in school and discovering one day that he had an uncle who was a famous outlaw and almost a folk hero. When Jasper asks his dad about his uncle, his dad, after some initial hesitation, tells the story. And we are taken on a roller coaster ride as the story moves from past to present through different time periods and things get crazier with every page.

Reading ‘A Fraction of the Whole‘ was like reading the literary version of a Coen brothers movie. The dark humour is amazing and I couldn’t stop laughing while reading the book. It was odd, because the story is mostly sad as bad things keep happening to the main characters, but the dark humour is so cool and stylish that it lightens the bleakness of the story. The book has a brilliant first passage which grabs our attention. I was thinking that as authors always give importance to the first passage and the first pages of a book, the first few pages will be gripping, but as the book progresses things will slip and the prose will lose its charm and become plain. But surprisingly, it was not the case here. The prose is cool and stylish and the pacing is taut even in page 200. It is hard to maintain that for hundreds of pages and Steve Toltz has done the impossible. I loved that aspect of the book.

The date on the first page that I have written says that I got the book in 2008, when it first came out. I am glad I didn’t read it then, because I didn’t understand dark humour then. Though I feel sad that the book lay on my shelf for years gathering dust, I am glad I read it now, because I could appreciate it better.

My favourite part of the book was the first part which is about Jasper’s father Martin and Martin’s brother Terry. It is a sad story, a realistic story, but the dark humour is at its most brilliant here. Later in the book, the events become more and more crazy and at some point we have to suspend our disbelief.

The book also makes references to real events like corruption in sports – the Shane Warne – Mark Waugh interaction with bookies is alluded to. There are even two characters who look suspiciously like the media moghul Rupert Murdoch and his son.

I loved ‘A Fraction of the Whole‘. It is one of my favourite books of the year. I am glad I finally read it. This book came out in 2008 and it was shortlisted for the Booker Prize. I wondered why it didn’t win. So I went and checked the shortlist. That year the Booker Prize was won by Aravind Adiga’s ‘The White Tiger’. I don’t know in which world ‘The White Tiger’ is better than Steve Toltz’ book. That is one more decision that the Booker Prize committee got wrong. Toltz’ book deserved the prize. Steve Toltz has written one more book since, but has otherwise kept quiet and slipped into anonymity. I don’t know whether he is one-book-a-decade writer like Donna Tartt and Jeffrey Eugenides, or whether that is all there is and he is like Patrick Süskind and has retired to a quiet life in the outback. I hope this is not the end, and hope he writes more.

I’ll leave you with a couple of my favourite passages from the book. I hope they make you laugh.

“I was taking a 45-minute shower. I know I was being unforgivably inconsiderate of the environment, but I’d read in ‘New Scientist’ that in a couple of billion years the expanding universe will have stretched to breaking point and will start contracting like a rubber band, time will run backward, and (therefore) the water will eventually return to the showerhead.”

“The worst thing you can say about someone in a society like ours is that they can’t hold down a job. It conjures images of unshaven losers with weak grips watching sadly as the jobs slip free and float away. There’s nothing we respect more than work, and there’s nothing we denigrate more than the unwillingness to work, and if someone wants to dedicate himself to painting or writing poetry, he’d better be holding down a job at a hamburger restaurant if he knows what’s good for him.”

Have you read ‘A Fraction of the Whole’? What do you think about it?

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A Man’s Place‘ is Annie Ernaux’ ode to her father. In the book about her mother, Annie Ernaux compares her father and mother and says this :

“He took me to the funfair, to the circus, and to see Fernandel’s films. He taught me how to ride a bicycle and recognize the garden vegetables. With him I had fun, with her I had “conversations”.”

Ernaux expands on that in this book, by going back to the beginning, to her grandparents’ time, describes the environment her father grew up in, how her grandfather hated people who read because he himself couldn’t read or write, how her father did well in school but was still taken off school when he was around twelve years old and made to work in a farm and earn his keep. And how because of this Ernaux’ father always wanted her to do well academically and was proud of her achievements.

A Man’s Place‘ takes us back to a different era, to early twentieth century France and makes us see the world through the eyes of a twelve year old boy who becomes a farmworker, then a factory worker, who fights in the First World War and later gets into the grocery and cafe business with his wife. I liked it very much. Though I liked Ernaux’ book on her mother, ‘A Woman’s Story‘ even more, ‘A Man’s Place‘ complements that perfectly, as we get to know about Ernaux’ father.

I’ll leave you with some of my favourite passages from the book.

“He had to walk two kilometres to get to school…The teacher was a harsh man, rapped the boys’ fingers with an iron ruler, he was respected. Some of his pupils ended up among the best in their canton to have passed their primary certificate; one or two even made it to teachers’ training college. My father missed class when he had to harvest the apples, tie the straw and hay into sheaves, and sow and reap whatever was in season. When he and his elder brother went back to school, the master would yell : “So your parents want you to remain as ignorant as they are!” He managed to learn how to read and write properly. He liked learning. He liked drawing too…At the age of twelve, he was due to take the primary certificate. My grandfather took him out of school and got him a job on the same farm as him. He could no longer be fed without paying his way. “We didn’t even think about it, it was the same for everyone.””

“…it took me years to ‘understand’ the kindliness with which well-mannered people greet each other. At first, I felt ashamed, I didn’t deserve such consideration. Sometimes I thought they had conceived a particular liking for me. Later I realized that their smiling faces and kind, earnest questions meant nothing more to them than eating with their mouth shut or blowing their noses discreetly.”

I read this for ‘Reading Independent Publishers Month‘ hosted by Kaggsy from Kaggsy’s Bookish Ramblings and Lizzy from Lizzy’s Literary Life, an event which celebrates indie publishers for the whole of February. The edition of ‘A Man’s Place’ I read was published by Fitzcarraldo Editions.

Have you read ‘A Man’s Place‘? What do you think about it?

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In ‘A Girl’s Story‘, Annie Ernaux takes us to the time when she was eighteen years old, when she had just graduated from high school and was joining a summer camp as one of the group leaders. It was the first time in her life she was staying away from her family, especially away from the constant gaze of her mother. How this sudden freedom impacts her life, how she is able to stay up late, go to movies, drink with friends, act on her feelings of desire for the first time, and how she lost her innocence and virginity – all these are told in the first part of the book. The second part of the book talks about her time after camp, when she tries to train to become a teacher and how it doesn’t work for her, and how she leaves that and goes to London with one of her friends to work as an au pair and how she comes back after that and enrolls in university to pursue the study of literature.

A Girl’s Story‘ is different from other Ernaux books in three ways. It is double the size of other slim Ernaux books. It has a new translator, Alison L. Strayer. (I miss Tanya Leslie). The most significant difference though is this. In this book Annie Ernaux has clearly amped up her prose. There are sentences like this :

“But she, no doubt, was forgotten more quickly, like an anomaly, a breach of common sense, a form of chaos or absurdity, something laughable it would be ridiculous to tax their memories with.”

And this :

“But what is the point of writing if not to unearth things, or even just one thing that cannot be reduced to any kind of psychological or sociological explanation and is not the result of a preconceived idea or demonstration but a narrative : something that emerges from the creases when a story is unfolded and can help us understand – endure – events that occur and the things that we do?”

I don’t know whether this is because Annie Ernaux changed her writing style, or whether the new translator rendered it this way. I am leaning more towards the first, though the second one could be the truth. I love the new style, the long sentences and the beautiful prose, but they feel very un-Ernaux. One part of me, the Ernaux fan in me, misses the prose of early Ernaux, the short sentences, and the deceptively simple prose which was powerful.

I enjoyed reading ‘A Girl’s Story‘. It is about a time when a girl becomes a young woman and the kind of changes she goes through as a person and how she navigates that transformation. I liked the way Ernaux looks back at her past and treats her past self as a different person and tries to look at that person from the distance of perspective that time gives. It is fascinating to read.

I’ll leave you with one of my favourite passages from the book.

“The time that lies ahead of me grows shorter. There will inevitably be a last book, as there is always a last lover, a last spring, but no sign by which to know them. I am haunted by the idea that I could die without ever having written about ‘the girl of ’58’, as I very soon began to call her. Someday there will be no one left to remember. What that girl and no other experienced will remain unexplained, will have been lived for no reason.
No other writing project seems to me as – I wouldn’t say luminous, or new, and certainly not joyful, but vital : it allows me to rise above time. The very thought of ‘just enjoying life’ is unbearable. Every moment lived without a writing project resembles the last.”

I read this for ‘Reading Independent Publishers Month‘ hosted by Kaggsy from Kaggsy’s Bookish Ramblings and Lizzy from Lizzy’s Literary Life, an event which celebrates indie publishers for the whole of February. The edition of ‘A Girl’s Story’ I read was published by Fitzcarraldo Editions.

Have you read ‘A Girl’s Story‘? What do you think about it?

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This is the third consecutive Annie Ernaux book I’ve read. In ‘Happening‘, Annie Ernaux takes us back to the year 1963. She is a young university student. She is 23-years old. One day she discovers that she is pregnant. She doesn’t want to have the baby. There is one small problem though. Abortion is illegal in France. Doctors don’t even mention the word while speaking to patients. Doctors can go to jail and be permanently barred from practising medicine, if it is revealed that they helped a pregnant woman in any small way to get an abortion. As Ernaux tries to come to terms with her condition and tries to deal with the situation, she finds that people around her can’t be relied upon. But she also finds help in unexpected quarters, especially from a religious classmate who thinks that abortion is evil. As every kind of method to induce a miscarriage – including medicines, injections and even inserting a knitting needle inside herself – fails, Annie Ernaux is pushed into a situation of finding an abortionist who is working outside the confines of the law. If she or the abortionist are caught, they both will go to jail. What happens after that is told in the rest of the book.

Happening‘ is a powerful, moving book. Though it talks of a time which is nearly sixty years back, and we have come a long way since, as the law has changed and abortion is not illegal anymore in many places, in practice things are still complex and freedom of choice exists only on paper. Ernaux’ book describes how things were once upon a time, and how she survived to tell the tale, and she further goes on to ask some tough questions.

I’ll leave you with some of my favourite passages from the book.

“The fact that my personal experience of abortion, i.e. clandestinity, is a thing of the past does not seem a good enough reason to dismiss it. Paradoxically, when a new law abolishing discrimination is passed, former victims tend to remain silent on the grounds that ‘now it’s all over’. So what went on is surrounded by the same veil of secrecy as before. Today abortion is no longer outlawed and this is precisely why I can afford to steer clear of the social views and inevitably stark formulas of the rebel Seventies – ‘abuse against women’, etc. – and face the reality of this unforgettable event.”

“Somehow I felt there existed a connection between my social background and my present condition. Born into a family of labourers and shopkeepers, I was the first to attend higher education and so had been spared both factory and retail work. Yet neither my baccalauréat nor my degree in literature had waived that inescapable fatality of the working-class – the legacy of poverty – embodied by both the pregnant girl and the alcoholic. Sex had caught up with me, and I saw the thing growing inside me as the stigma of social failure.”

“Girls like me were a waste of time for doctors. With no money and no connections – otherwise we wouldn’t accidentally end up on their doorstep – we were a constant reminder of the law that could send them to prison and close down their practice for good. They would never tell us the truth, that they weren’t prepared to sacrifice their career for some young doe-eyed damsel foolish enough to get knocked up. Or maybe their sense of duty was such that they would have chosen to die rather than break a law that could cost women their lives. They must have assumed that most women would go through the abortion anyway, in spite of the ban. All in all, plunging a knitting needle into a womb weighed little next to ruining one’s career.”

“The law was everywhere. In the euphemisms and understatements of my journal; the so-called forced marriages; the shame of women who aborted and the disapproval of those who did not. In the sheer impossibility of ever imagining that one day women might be able to abort freely. As was often the case, you couldn’t tell whether abortion was banned because it was wrong or wrong because it was banned. People judged according to the law, they didn’t judge the law.”

“The next morning I was back in my room, which I’d left early the previous afternoon with all my books for class. The bed was neatly made, nothing had been touched and almost a whole day had gone by. This is the sort of detail that tells us our life is beginning to fall apart.”

Happening‘ is a powerful book and is a must read. I am glad I read it.

I read this for ‘Reading Independent Publishers Month‘ hosted by Kaggsy from Kaggsy’s Bookish Ramblings and Lizzy from Lizzy’s Literary Life, an event which celebrates indie publishers for the whole of February. The edition of ‘Happening‘ I read was published by Fitzcarraldo Editions.

Have you read ‘Happening‘? What do you think about it?

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I Remain in Darkness‘ by Annie Ernaux is kind of a sequel to Annie Ernaux’ book about her mother, ‘A Woman’s Story‘. In this book Ernaux describes the last two-and-a-half years of her mother’s life, when her mother had Alzheimer’s and had to be admitted to a nursing home. The book is in the form of a journal. On the title – ‘I Remain in Darkness‘ were the last words that Ernaux’ mother ever wrote.

Annie Ernaux’ book is moving and poignant and sad. It is hard to watch Ernaux’ mother who was a dynamic, strong woman descend into Alzheimer’s and become someone who can no longer remember her daughter and her family. When Ernaux describes the time when her mother can no longer eat a piece of cake herself because her hand cannot find her mouth, we feel devastated.

This book made me remember Erwin Mortier’s book about his mother, ‘Stammered Songbook : A Mother’s Book of Hours‘, which is on the exact same topic – about Mortier’s mother’s descent into Alzheimer’s. I felt that Mortier’s prose was poetic, while Ernaux’ prose was spare and meditative, though both were beautiful in their own ways.

Anyone who is or has been the caregiver of their aged parents would be able to relate to Ernaux’ book and would be moved powerfully by it. I was. The anxiety, the worry, the guilt, the anger, the love – Annie Ernaux describes them all perfectly.

I loved ‘I Remain in Darkness‘ though it was not always easy to read, and it was sometimes moving and sometimes heartbreaking.

Have you read ‘I Remain in Darkness‘? What do you think about it?

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I discovered Annie Ernaux‘ ‘A Woman’s Story‘ many years back through Caroline’s (from ‘Beauty is a Sleeping Cat’) review of it. I finally got around to reading it.

In this short book, which runs to 90 pages, Annie Ernaux describes the life of her mother, from the time she was born, her childhood, how she stopped going to school when she was twelve and went to work, her teens, her marriage, her ambition to run her own grocery store, how she navigated the war years, the time when Annie Ernaux was born, the relationship between mother and daughter, and on towards the final years when her mother had Alzheimer’s. It is hard to believe that the book is so slim, because Ernaux packs so much in it. The story of how her mother rose from poverty to make something of her life is so inspiring to read.

The book is Ernaux’ beautiful love letter to her mother. It is also an insightful portrayal of the history of France of the 20th century, if we choose to look at it that way – not the glitzy, glamorous France of the popular imagination, but the real France with real people like Annie Ernaux’ mother. The central theme of the book is, of course, the relationship between Annie Ernaux and her mother, which is beautiful and complex, loving and exasperating at the same time, the way relationships between close family members are.

Annie Ernaux’ prose is spare but it also has a calm, serene, meditative quality to it, which is almost like reading a Zen monk’s spiritual account. It is fascinating and surprising, because the first line of the book starts with “My mother died on Monday 7 April…”

I loved ‘A Woman’s Story‘. I’m looking forward to reading more books by Annie Ernaux soon.

I’ll leave you with two of my favourite passages from the book.

“One could tell whether she was upset simply by looking at her face. In private she didn’t mince her words and told us straight out what she thought. She called me a beast, a slut, and a bitch, or told me I was “unpleasant”. She would often hit me, usually by slapping my face, or occasionally punching my shoulders. Five minutes later, she would take me into her arms and I was her “poppet.”
She bought me toys and books under any pretext, a party, a trip into town, or a slight temperature. She took me to the dentist’s, the lung specialist, and made sure I had good shoes, warm clothes, and all the right stationery I needed for class (she had enrolled me at a private establishment run by nuns, and not at the local primary school). If I mentioned that one of the other girls had an unbreakable slate, she would immediately ask me if I wanted one : “I wouldn’t want them to think you’re not as good as the others.” Her overriding concern was to give me everything she hadn’t had. But this involved so much work, so much worrying about money, and an approach to children’s happiness so radically different from her own education, that she couldn’t help saying : “You know, we spend a lot of money on you” or “Look at everything you’ve got, and you’re still not happy!”

“I thought her a cut above my father because she seemed closer to the schoolmistresses and teachers than he did. Everything about my mother – her authority, her hopes, and her ambitions – was geared to the very concept of education. We shared an intimacy centered on books, the poetry I read to her, and the pastries in the teashop at Rouen, from which he was excluded. He took me to the funfair, to the circus, and to see Fernandel’s films. He taught me how to ride a bicycle and recognize the garden vegetables. With him I had fun, with her I had “conversations”. Of the two, she was the dominating figure, the one who represented authority.”

I read this for ‘Reading Independent Publishers Month’ hosted by Kaggsy from Kaggsy’s Bookish Ramblings and Lizzy from Lizzy’s Literary Life, an event which celebrates indie publishers for the whole of February. The edition of ‘A Woman’s Story‘ I read was published by Seven Stories Press.

Have you read Annie Ernaux’A Woman’s Story‘? What do you think about it?

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I remember the time, not long time back, when Annie Ernaux was virtually unknown in the English speaking world. Though she was well known in France and her works were acclaimed, outside her French readership, she was virtually unknown. For a long time, the only review of Annie Ernaux that I had seen on the internet was this one by Caroline from ‘Beauty is a Sleeping Cat’. It was a review of Ernaux’ ‘A Woman’s Story‘.

This is surprising, because Ernaux has been translated into English for a while now. The earliest translation of her work appeared in English in the early ’90s (I think it was ‘La Place‘ which was translated into English as ‘A Man’s Place‘ and came out in 1990), and the translations of her books were favourably reviewed. But still, she was virtually unknown. A small indie publisher called Seven Stories Press published Ernaux’ books in English and kept the flame burning for years. Translator Tanya Leslie did all the initial translations and kept the fire burning. Then Ernaux’ memoir ‘The Years‘ was translated into English in 2017, it was shortlisted for the Man Booker International Prize, and suddenly everyone was reading it, and at the grand old age of 80, after being around in the literary arena for a long, long time, Annie Ernaux suddenly became an international literary star.

These days Ernaux’ books are published by both Seven Stories Press and by Fitzcarraldo Editions in English. The two editions look very different – the Seven Stories edition has a beautiful picture on the cover, it is bigger, the pages have lots of surround spacing while the Fitzcarraldo edition has the standard white cover and look-and-feel that Fitzcarraldo editions have. I love both the editions, but I’ll always have a soft corner for the Seven Stories edition for keeping the Annie Ernaux flame burning across the years and decades. You can see both the editions in the picture below.

Annie Ernaux is odd for a writer. While most writers work in a particular area and publish a memoir or two, Ernaux writes only memoirs. After her initial foray into fiction at the beginning of her career, she moved away and opted to write only memoirs. I counted atleast eighteen of them. There is no one like her. The closest I can think of is Diana Athill, who wrote multiple volumes of memoirs.

I am happy that Annie Ernaux is famous these days and has become a literary star. Her fame is well deserved. But one part of me also feels sad because she was a closely guarded secret by some of us old fans, for a long time, but now the secret of her greatness is out in the open.

I wrote this post for ‘Reading Independent Publishers Month‘ hosted by Kaggsy from Kaggsy’s Bookish Ramblings and Lizzy from Lizzy’s Literary Life, an event which celebrates indie publishers for the whole of February. I also wanted to write a fan’s love letter to Annie Ernaux.

Have you read Annie Ernaux’ books? Which is your favourite book of hers?

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The Narrow Road to the Deep North‘ is a collection of travel essays by the great Japanese poet Matsuo Basho, who invented the Haiku poetic form. This book has five essays recounting travels that Basho did at different times. All the essays have prose interspersed with poems. Sometimes the poems describe the poet’s impression of a particular scene, sometimes they delve on past events and fascinating personalities, sometimes they take the story forward.

In her introduction to the anthology of classic Japanese travel writing, ‘Travels with a Writing Brush‘, translator Meredith McKinney says this –

“The greatest pleasure a literary traveller could experience was the pleasure of arriving in person at a place hallowed in poetry. The brief scene in the early Ise Tales in which the man (traditionally identified as the poet Ariwara no Narihira) sends a poem to his beloved from distant Mount Utsu echoes down the centuries in the journals of travellers along the Tōkaidō, who continued to search out the place identified with this scene…it was not the characteristics of the place itself so much as the presence of its name in literature (and sometimes in history) that lent it special power. The term for such place names, and by extension for the places that bore those names, was utamakura (poem-pillow), and their central role in travel literature was one of its defining features. Utamakura places were in a sense sites of literary worship in a manner similar to holy places on a pilgrimage route, places where the traveller would pause in awe, perhaps recite the poem or poems associated with the site, and compose a poem in turn, often incorporating some allusive reference to that earlier poetry, almost as a pilgrim will offer up a prayer…A traveller who was moved by an utamakura site, or by seeing far overhead a flight of wild geese in an autumn evening, was moved the more deeply by partaking in an experience shared with so many others, and thereby drawn into the force field of a greater tradition that imbued his or her own insignificant and contingent experience with far richer meaning.”

This passage describes Basho’s travels and his essays in this book perfectly, far better than I ever can.

While we read the essays we can feel Basho’s style evolving across time, till it all comes together perfectly in the title essay which is also the longest essay in the book, ‘The Narrow Road to the Deep North‘, which is a perfect blend of prose and poetry. It starts with these famous lines – “Days and months are travellers of eternity. So are the years that pass by” – and from there onwards proceeds to reach sublime heights. Basho’s prose is beautiful and poetic, and he delves into deep ideas while also displaying a fine sense of humour, occasionally mocking himself gently, which makes us smile.

The book has an insightful introduction by the translator Nobuyuki Yuasa, in which he gives a short history of the Haiku poetic form and Basho’s contribution to it. At one point, Yuasa quotes Basho’s most famous haiku poem –

“Breaking the silence
Of an ancient pond,
A frog jumped into water –
A deep resonance.”

And then he proceeds to give a two page commentary on it which is brilliant.

Yuasa also gives a brief introduction to Basho’s life and work, and looks at the essays in this book in detail, on the travel experiences which shaped these essays and how Basho’s prose style evolves across time.

I loved ‘The Narrow Road to the Deep North’. I can’t wait to read more of the Master’s poetry now.

I’ll leave you with one of my favourite passages from the book. It is from the essay ‘A Visit to Sarashina Village‘.

“Above my head, mountains rose over mountains, and on my left a huge precipice dropped a thousand feet into a boiling river, leaving not a tiny square of flat land in between, so that, perched on the high saddle, I felt stricken with terror every time my horse gave a jerk. We passed through many a dangerous place…the road always winding and climbing, so that we often felt as if we were groping our way in the clouds. I abandoned my horse and staggered on my own legs, for I was dizzy with the height and unable to maintain my mental balance from fear. The servant, on the other hand, mounted the horse, and seemed to give not even the slightest thought to the danger. He often nodded in a doze and seemed about to fall headlong over the precipice. Every time I saw him drop his head, I was terrified out of my wits. Upon second thoughts, however, it occurred to me that every one of us was like this servant, wading through the ever-changing reefs of this world in stormy weather, totally blind to the hidden dangers, and that the Buddha surveying us from on high, would surely feel the same misgivings about our fortune as I did about the servant.”

Have you read ‘The Narrow Road to the Deep North‘? What do you think about it?

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I have wanted to read Sei Shōnagon’sThe Pillow Book‘ ever since I discovered it. I picked it up recently and read it slowly and finished reading it yesterday.

Sei Shōnagon lived around a thousand years back in the Japan of the Heian era. She served the Japanese empress of that time. One day someone got the empress a big bundle of paper as a gift and the empress gave it to Shōnagon, and Shōnagon decided to write on it, recounting anecdotes and sharing experiences and her thoughts on different topics. The book is like a diary and shows a detailed description of court life of those times. In addition to anecdotes and experiences and stories, the book has lists. Lots of lists. There are different kinds of lists in the book. Some are simple, like lists of mountains, rivers, gardens, forests. They are deceptively simple though. Because they all have poetic associations to classical Japanese and Chinese poetry or famous stories. The second kind of list is descriptive. In those lists, Shōnagon shares things that bring joy, that are beautiful, that are annoying. These lists are charming and make us smile and we can relate to them even after a thousand years from the time they were written. Some of the lists describe beautiful experiences and images and scenes. These lists are beautiful, and they bring a lot of joy and delight if we read them slowly and linger on. This third kind of list was my favourite. I will share some excerpts here from this kind of list.

“A beautifully arranged brazier with fire burning, its rim swept clean of ash, the firelight revealing the painting on its inner surface, is a most delightful sight.”

“Delightful too to hear the soft sound of fire tongs being gently pushed into the ash of the brazier, and sense from this the presence of someone who isn’t yet asleep.”

“It’s also very elegant the way, when the gentlewomen are gathered seated here and there in the room talking, you hear the silk rustle of people as they leave or enter and, though it’s only a soft sound, you can guess who each one would be.”

“Late that night, I woke and was deeply moved at the sight of the moonlight shining in through a window and casting its white light over the bedclothes of the sleeping forms around me. This is precisely the sort of moment when people compose poems.”

“The setting sun. Just after it’s set, it’s very moving to see how a reddish light lingers along the rim of the mountains, with pale yellow clouds trailing in the sky above.”

“Endearingly lovely things – A sparrow coming fluttering down to the nest when her babies are cheeping for her.”

There are pages and pages of these beautiful, soft, delicate images and they give us a lot of pleasure. I loved reading them and dreaming about them.

You can find more of these charming images in my previous post here.

Sei Shōnagon lived at around the same time as Murasaki Shikibu, who wrote ‘The Tale of Genji‘. There seems to be some kind of rivalry between the admirers of Shōnagon and Shikibu since the old times. I am not sure why. They served rival empresses and maybe that was one reason. Shikibu appears to have criticized Shōnagon in her own diary – unfairly, in my opinion. Having attempted to read ‘The Tale of Genji‘ earlier, and now having read ‘The Pillow Book‘, I can now say that I am firmly on Team Shōnagon 😊

When I read Sei Shōnagon’s book, I remembered one of my favourite lines by one of my favourite writers Yoshida Kenko – “It is a most wonderful comfort to sit alone beneath a lamp, book spread before you, and commune with someone from the past whom you have never met.” It was wonderful to meet Sei Shōnagon who lived a thousand years back, and hear her voice through this delightful book. When I read the last line – “That seems to have been the moment when this book first became known – or so it is written” – I felt sad that our conversation was over.

Have you read ‘The Pillow Book‘? What do you think about it?

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