Thursday, March 31, 2011

An Industrial Haiku for Robert Bunsen (on the occasion of his birthday)

Rising in the clouds
of hot, percolating oil,
a refinery.

Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Snow Country by Yasunari Kawabata

I have just finished this novel. Somebody, maybe Kuzuo Ishiguro, advised in one of the introductions, to read it slowly, so I have. It has taken me two days to read just over 100 pages. I have read like a snail over gravel, trying to take it all in, and I think I have got more out of it as a result.

I think I now have more appreciation of the descriptions of nature and the function of the Haiku. I would say it serves to startle and make the reader pause and think - and then lends emphasis. I suppose, in a way, Kawabata forces the reader to take it slowly.

In the introduction it said there was not much plot, and thinking back I realise that is true. There were no twists, no devices, and was all the more satisfying for that. Just like 'Thousand Cranes' it was intense and absorbing, but I have to confess I preferred 'Snow Country' because of the characters. They were less passive and therefore more interesting, and I loved the way the setting of this place isolated for so many months of the year by snow, became part of the story.

Again, it was the subtlety which I think is one of the main reasons that I agree that it is a masterpiece. I realise now that other writers, who are also heavily influenced by Japanese writing, have used this technique in their work. For instance, one of the most striking features of Kazuo Ishiguro's 'The Remains of the Day' (for me) was my realisation of the butler's love only after I had finished the book. Maybe other readers knew about this all along, but for me it was only something that struck me long after I'd finished. Similarly, I now realise the significance of David Mitchell's asides in his dialogue at the beginning of 'The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet'. It is the introduction of haiku into prose. It is clever, and a powerful device.

Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Another definition of a Haiku

This time by Edward G Seidensticker (from his introduction to 'Snow Country').

'... seek to convey a sudden awareness of beauty by a mating of opposite or incongruous terms.'

'...the classical haiku characteristically fuses motion and stillness.'

e.g. in Snow Country, Kawabata fuses senses 'roaring silence of a winter night' or 'round softness of the sound of running water'

'In the best of the dialogue (in Snow Country) one brief sentence, often a double entendre, is exchanged for another.'

Reading 'Thousand Cranes'

This morning I just finished reading Kawabata's Thousand Cranes. I now feel I need to read it again. Despite my preparation (reading books on the history and culture of Japan, reading a large collection of Japanese short stories, watching three Japanese films set in the era, and actually taking part in a tea ceremony, albeit a Chinese one), I still found the book puzzling. All the way through I kept wondering why that was said then, and the significance of the short paragraphs of natural description. Despite all this I still found the short novel one of the most intense pieces of writing I have ever read.

Monday, March 28, 2011

Authors North Meeting in Hull, 26th March.

It's my second visit to Hull and the weather has become suddenly cold. Maybe it is the wind off the North Sea, but inside the Hull History Centre everything is warm - including the welcome.

The Hull History Centre.

It's an impressive building. It reminds me of the whale skeleton I saw inside the Maritime Museum last time I was in Hull, but inside these ribs are specially constructed air-conditioned rooms. Not only temperature but the humidity are carefully controlled. The floors are thick concrete, and any pipes conducting water are stored within other pipes with a humidity sensor inbetween to monitor leaks. There are sophisticated fire alarms, bookshelves on runners which are so perfectly balanced that five can be moved along at once with little effort, a special cold room with a low humidity for photographs, brass staples instead of the iron sort which may rust, and folders and boxes made from acid-free cardboard so they do not start to crumble with age.

Hull History Centre: Entrance.

What, you may wonder, is so precious that it must be stored in such careful conditions? The answer is the archival material of certain celebrated authors who have an association with Hull including Stevie Smith, Winifred Holtby (author of 'South Riding'), Alan Plater, the poets Douglas Dunn, Roger McGough, Anthony Thwaite, Andrew Motion and, of course, Philip Larkin.

Archivist Judy Burg in the History Centre Entrance Hall.

Before our tour around the archives, we had a very interesting talk from Judy Burg. Judy has been an archivist at the University of Hull since 2003. For most of that time she has been working on the History Centre and was involved in the planning of this multi-million pound project. It is a unique collaboration between the University of Hull and the Hull City Council. On the ground floor is a room for local researchers, while above it, well out of the way of potential floods are the unique archives.

Larkin Statue erected at the Hull Paragon Train Station December 2010.

As well as papers and exercise books, the Philip Larkin collection contains artefacts such as his lawn mower (but not, says Judy, the famous hedgehog-killing one), and also his entire library at his death. It also contains seven out of his eight workbooks, and his many photographs (Larkin was a keen photographer).

The Larkin Statue will be part of the Larkin Trail - listing 25 places connected to Philip Larkin.

As a contrast to the archival works of Philip Larkin, which were exclusively on paper, Judy also described the way in which Stephen Gallagher's work has been acquired. Gallagher writes novels as well as screenplays and the archive of his work includes copies of files from his hard drive as well as the more conventional notebooks and their mixture of notes and photographs. His blog and website is also part of the archive.

In the future it is is expected that more and more of an author's work will be preserved digitally. Then it will be a case of deciding what is important (e.g. which emails are worth preserving) as well as making sure that the work is adequately catalogued and filed. Preservation of formatting, and access to that format is likely to be a problem, and there is some research ongoing into this. Judy also pointed out that there is likely to be an archival gap for some authors in the 1990s as writers began to work exclusively on their computers, and drafts which may have been kept, were not.

Judy Burg - University Archivist.

One of the most interesting points of the talk for me was Judy's description of an archive as being organic. The contents of an archive must be not self-consciously kept, she said. They must be what has been left behind by an author without the influence of a third party. However, the British Library does look into acquiring the work of what it sees as up-and-coming authors and has a project to keep such people within its radar.

After the talk and tour we had a particularly good lunch at the centre. This was followed by a group discussion on specific problems faced by the writers present, and how the staff of the Society of Authors (represented by Authors North Secretary Anna Ganley, Sarah Burton (our former secretary) and Lisa Dowdeswell from Head Office) might help.

Anna and the poet (photo by Sarah Burton).

We finished off with tea and cakes. It was a good day - not only to find out a lot of interesting information but also to meet a lot of authors living in the area around Hull.

Sunday, March 27, 2011

Sunday Salon: Not Quite Reading

I really should be writing. I keep thinking that. I should stop doing so much reading of other people's books and do some writing of my own. The longer I leave it, the worse it gets. It's like standing, shivering, on the shore of a bleak ocean. You know you'll enjoy it when you get under the waves, but first you have to wade out.

But I came here to tell you what I am reading now; but really what I am doing is a combination of listening and watching as I wait for a couple of books I've ordered to arrive through my letterbox.

The listening is an audiobook 'The Castle' by J Robert Lennon, which was published by Graywolf Press and converted to audio by Iambick and read by Mark Nelson.

A man has bought a rambling old house in the place where he grew up. There are mysteries that are slowly uncovered: why is he there, what happened to his mother and father, and what is the significance of the piece of land that nicks a quadrangle from his back yard, and why is the name of the previous owner crossed out? It is completely absorbing and I spent a very happy seven hours on the train yesterday listening to the story slowly unfold. I am looking forward to hearing more.

Iambick books contacted me to find out if I'd like to sample their books and report back, and although I don't normally respond to these sorts of requests these days, I am very happy to do so in this case. They work well and are of excellent quality - the price is very good too!

As for the watching part - I am still on my Japanese run, and last saw another film by Yasujiro Ozu : the Flavour of Green Tea over Rice. This was lightly comic and very charming. A couple in 1950s Japan have a somewhat sterile arranged marriage built on lies. A young niece makes them question the validity of their relationship and the ending is unexpected. The acting was subtle and effective, and the action was just as slow and satisfying as the other Ozu films. I just want to see more.

Saturday, March 26, 2011

A Talk at Oriel, Llangefni, Anglesey.

Imagine this: a room full of wonderful paintings of Patagonia (if you click on the picture below you can see some of them); a projector and a screen all ready and waiting for me, and checked out by a man called Gwyndaf (coincidentally the name of my father's cousin); a good-sized audience of interested people - many of whom had been to Patagonia or who knew people that were out there.

We had a lively discussion after I had finished my talk last night. It was definitely worth enduring 45 minutes of gridlock outside Abergele to get there! Thank you Llinos, and the rest of the staff at Anglesey, for the invitation, and thank you Caren, for coming to see my talk twice. Your support is much appreciated!

This is the Kyffin Williams Gallery in Oriel, Llangefni, the artist's home. I don't think I could have had a more auspicious venue. Kyffin Williams went to Patagonia too on a Churchill scholarsip in 1968 and painted and drew the landscapes and the people there. From reading his memoir A Wider Sky (that my father bought for me a year or so ago) I know that he felt the same way about the place as I did: depressed.

There is something about the great sweeping expanse of flat land, the desolation of discarded paper rolling along in the wind, the lack of trees and the bare ground that makes the heart ache for home. Like Sir Kyffin I too felt a relief on reaching the relative tranquility of Gaiman. When I reached that valley and encountered the gentle and hospitable people, it affected me like the most sentimental part of a forties movie. The smell and sight of the familiar-looking buildings, and the sound of the old language adds to the sense of dislocation. Then there are the faces - like Sir Kyffin, I too found myself compelled to tell people in Wales they had a double thousands of miles away across the Atlantic. Ridiculous, really, but somehow I felt they needed to know.

Friday, March 25, 2011

'Tokyo Story' and 'The Brothers and Sisters of the Todo Family'

Over the last couple of days, I have been watching a couple of very interesting films by the celebrated Japanese film director Yasujiro: 'Tokyo Story' and 'Brothers and Sisters of the Todo Family' are poignant studies on the same theme - how the old traditional Confucian ways of Japan can fit into modern life.

In 'Brothers and Sisters...' it is the occasion of the mother's 61st birthday. This is an important one where the older generation traditionally stand aside and let the younger one take precedent. As the mother says, as she excuses her 'too red' robe to her grandson, it is a time when life comes full circle and it is time to be a child again. From my reading, I also know it is the age when the father of the family firm allows the elder son or maybe son-in-law to take charge. Unfortunately, this matriarch's husband dies and then she, and the youngest daughter is handed around the siblings, each one squabbling with her until they end up in a house that had previously been deemed uninhabitable.

It was filmed before the second world war and I found several features surprising: the way servants get down on their knees when they enter or leave a room, the continual bowing and removal of shoes and socks, the ritual of the Buddhist funeral, and the discussion about dress - western or traditional?

In 'Tokyo Story', which was set in post-war Tokyo, there is again the idea that the parents are a nuisance, and difficult to fit into their busy Tokyo lives. The two elderly parents are stoic, even when they are sent to a spa and are kept awake all night with the noise of younger people having a good time. Only the widowed daughter-in-law, the outsider, is kind to them, and there is a scene that is almost unbearably poignant. It is this character who is the most interesting because it is she who advises the younger unmarried daughter of the family, when she is disgusted by the behaviour of her siblings, that what has happened is natural and 'Everyone has to look out for their own life first'. The traditional world, where the elderly can rely on their off-spring for care when their life goes full-circle, is going. It must seem unjust to those who devoted their own youth to caring for their own parents.

I found the setting very interesting. The rooms seem fragile, small, exposed, not at all private. I also got a strong sense of the overcrowding and the fight between tradition and austere modernity.

They are both fairly slow films, which I like, because it gives me time to think. There are moments where all that is show is an empty room, and then, when people speak there is little introduction to the action. It reminds me very much of some of the Japanese stories I have read, especially those of Kawabata Yasunari. The important messages are between scenes and between the lines. Nothing it is told, and very subtle. It is rather like eavesdropping on a room full of strangers; it takes a while to work out what is going on, and success feels all the more satisfying for all that.

Thursday, March 24, 2011

The Oxford Book of Japanese Short Stories : Part 5

Prize Stock by Oe Kenzaburo. Long, absorbing story about a Japanese village finding a black American airman during the war. It is from the the viewpoint of a child in the village who treats the man as a beloved pet. The adults are worse, having been told by the prefectural government to 'rear' the man (rather like livestock - hence the title). Oe is another Nobel laureate, and I think this story is lodged in my mind for good.

A Very Strange, Enchanted Boy by Tsushima Yuko. A story that tricks the reader into thinking the story is about a child, but by the end it is clear that it is about the boy's mother. Elegant, with a very good ending.

The Elephant Vanishes by Murakami Haruki. This is about an elephant vanishing. It is by Murakami - and therefore just brilliant.

Desert Dolphin by Shimada Masahiko. Evocative and very imaginative story about a fallen angel.

Dreaming of Kimchee by Yoshimoto Banana. The realisation of happiness - an unusual story, and a good one to end this generally excellent collection of stories. I enjoyed each one.

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

The Oxford Book of Japanese Short Stories : Part 4

The Rifle by Kojima Nobuo. A soldier's relationship with his rifle during the second world war: a vehicle to describe the atrocities, particularly to Chinese prisoners, and guilt.

Unzen by Endo Shusaku. An unusual story relating how a modern-day writer makes a pilgrimage to Unzen - a mountainside near a town named Obama - where many Christians were tortured and then executed in 1629. He retraces the steps of a man called Kichijiro who had renounced his Christian faith to save the lives of his wife and children, exploring ideas of guilt and belief along the way.

The Bet by Abe Kobo. A weird and wonderful story about an architect who has been called in to design an office for the president of an advertising company. It is modern - Brave New World set in a sixties TV programme like the Avengers. It has a surreal dream-like quality and is about creativity and the power of advertising.

Three Policeman by Yoshiyuki Junnosuke. A very short story featuring a 'gay-boy' and indicating the attitudes of the post-war generation to the war years and the 'oldies' that lived then.

Onnagata by Mishima Yukio. An engaging tale about an 'onnagata' from a traditional kabuka company who falls in love (a silkworm enveloped in a cocoon of love) with a young director who has been called in to direct a new play. An onnagata is a man in drag in a kabuka performance, who is accorded special qualities. 'Even after Mangiku disrobed, it was apparent that he was still wearing several layers of splendid costumes beneath his skin...' An accomplished onnagata must live as a woman in real life - must keep up the pretense at all times. 'An onnagata is the child born of the illicit union between dream and reality.'

It is a very well structured and interesting story, and through it I learnt a lot about traditional Japanese theatre.

Toddler-hunting by Kono Taeko. Akiko, as a small girl aged between 3 and 10, felt herself to be repulsive - like the silkworm pupa still faintly squirming inside its cocoon, slowing binding itself up in the thread issuing from its own body. Later, she finds all girls that age to be similarly repulsive. She does like little boys, though, and these have an important part in her sado-masochist fantasies. According to Wikipedia Kono is one of the most important modern writers in Japan, and this story is one of her most famous. She deals with the modern Japanese woman who has moved on from the traditional role, and is childless and unmarried with unconventional sexual practices. Although I can see this story is interesting, unusual and powerful in its characterisations and descriptions, there are others I like much better.

Mr Carp by Mukoda Kuniko. A really good story about a family-man whose former mistress leaves a carp (symbol of love) in his kitchen. The carp causes him to eventually return to where his mistress used to live with his son.

The Duel by Kaiko Takeshi. Brilliantly described duel between the habu snake and the mongoose - with a strong setting. Mysterious and with strong undercurrents.

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

The Oxford Book of Japanese Short Stories: Part 3

The Izu Dancer by Kawabata Yasunari. This is an incredibly affecting tale of mutual hopeless attraction between a young student and a child on the cusp of adolescence. It seems to me to epitomise Japanese style: emotions are conveyed by the subtlest of actions, and because of this have a powerful impact. Kawabata Yasunari won the Nobel prize for literature.

The Lemon by Kajii Motojiro. The writer died when he was only 31 and this is a playful piece about the protagonist, who suffers from TB, plays a visual trick with a lemon. Along the way he describes the small shops and department stores in 1930s Japan.

The Accordion and the Fish Town by Hayashi Fumanto. A 'slice of life' type of short story about a peddler's family and their adoption of a town. Reading the author's notes I see it is autobiographical. The author put herself through High School by working nights to eventually become one of Japan's most populat writers. It is certainly very interesting and absorbing, and the relationship between the mother, father and fourteen year old daughter comes over very well indeed.

The Flower-Eating Crone by Enchi Fumiko. This is one of my favourites so far. A mature woman is losing her sight. She encounters an older woman who is even more blind. The older woman is articulate, knowledgeable and intelligent. She surprises the younger woman by suddenly eating the crab orchid blossom they have both been admiring. The common sexual implications of what she has done are discussed, but the old woman points out that soon the younger woman too will want to eat the flowers. It is a way of releasing the demons inside, allowing 'the night parade of a hundred goblins'. This leads the younger woman to reflect that maybe they have started to emerge already. Last night they uncovered letters from an old love-affair of her youth. She had felt embarrassed by them and didn't want to read them; but now she realises she ought to embrace her past (although that in itself is an admission that she has become old).

It has a good structure with a lot of internal reflection, and in some ways may be more heavily influenced by 'the West'.

Blind Chinese Soldiers by Hirabayashi Taiko. An incredibly powerful tale of a man's encounter with 500 blinded Chinese soldiers in wartime Japan. An experiment with toxic gas is implied, and the man attempts to understand the apparently unconcerned reaction of some of the crowd. It seems almost like an example of reportage.

In the Forest, Under Cherries in Full Bloom by Sagaguchi Ango. An unusual tale about a bandit who is afraid of a forest of cherry trees in full bloom. It has the feel of a folk story, and is surreal and horrific.

Passage to Fudaraku by Inoue Yasushi. A poignant story about the final voyage of sixteenth century Buddhist monks.

Merry Christmas by Dazai Osamu. The effects of war on two inhabitants of post-war Tokyo. Short and absorbing.

The Expert by Nakajima Atushi. Excellent story, and seems to me to be very zen: the ultimate master doesn't demonstrate his art at all. 'The ultimate stage of activity is inactivity; the ultimate stage of speaking is not to speak; the ultimate stage of shooting is not to shoot.' A true master has the demeanor of a vacant idiot.

Monday, March 21, 2011

A Visit to Rhyl Library

North Wales has made a commendably strong investment in its libraries in recent years.

For instance, the one in Rhyl, which was already pretty good, has been refurbished over the last few months,

and today I went there to give a talk to a reading group composed mainly of the Townswomen's Guild (some of whom are shown here, together with one of the librarians at Rhyl, Kathryn Parry)

and also a member of the local fire brigade. It was a lively session, and I was asked several questions during and after my talk, so I enjoyed myself tremendously. And after the talk they gave me a pretty potted cyclamen which now has pride of place on my window sill.

Thank you Rhyl!

The Oxford Book of Japanese Short Stories: Part 2

I continue my reading of this hugely enjoyable anthology (part 1 here).

The Peony Garden by Nagai Kafu describes the journey of a geisha and her companion along a canal to see a peony garden. There is a desultory feel to the whole journey, a the two protagonists examine their relationship, and the garden turns out to be a disappointment. It leaves a strong impression.

Night Fires by Shiga Naoya evokes the Shinto gods of the countryside. Despite the encroachment of the rational modern world they are still obviously present.

Aguri by Tanizaki Jun'ichiro is about a man shopping with a geisha and is a highly satisfying character study of a vain man. I especially liked the detail of how it feels to be forced into western clothes. This is one of my favourite stories - I liked it so much I searched to see if I could find any of his other works and found he had written 'The Makioka Sisters' (already recommended to me by Anne S). There is a similar study in Blowfish by Satomi Ton - a man suffers to the consequences of consuming a famous Japanese delicacy.

Portrait of an Old Geisha by Okamoto Kanoko. This is the story of obsession - between an old geisha and a young male inventor whom she encourages and nurtures.

In a Grove by Akutagawa Ryunosuke: This is an unusual story in which the characters involved give three different accounts of a murder/suicide. It poses the question: what is truth?

The Bears of Nametoko by Miiazawa Kenji: a beautifully written tale about the sad life of a hunter who kills bears despite himself.

Spring Riding in a Carriage by Yokomitsu Riichi: This explores the relationship between a man and his wife as she dies of TB. It is intensely written, and absorbed me as I read, but at the end I was left wondering what it meant. I suppose I do not understand Japanese culture enough, and hope another reading of the introduction and the story will help me.

Carp. This fish is the symbol for love, according to the anthology's introduction, so this story, where the carp is moved from pool to pool deals with the chasing of love. Again, I felt I was missing something when I came to the end.

Sunday, March 20, 2011

Sunday Salon: Prizes and Dead Authors

Yesterday, I started reading a couple of books, one I'd recently bought which had been short-listed for the James Tait award a couple of years ago, and the other which had been long-listed for several prizes (including a Commonwealth award and the Dylan Thomas prize), and both were unreadable, at least to me. The first was 'too clever' concentrating more on its literary devices rather than telling the story, so I abandoned it. The second was merely a sample, deemed to be a shining example of the author's work (in the mind of the author, at least, because it was on her website) but contained such unbearable clunkiness of prose that I soon tired of that too. It's a shame, really, because both books seemed promising in outline. Looking on sites such as Librarything and Goodreads I see that my views are shared by the majority of readers. I am becoming more and more convinced that prizes of these sorts are really publicity vehicles for books of publishing houses that need a bit of help; either because they are just starting out on a new imprint, or because they have paid an outrageously huge advance to the author.

Happily, then, I returned to my anthology of Japanese short stories and continued with them, and what a wonderful treat the first one turned out to be: Aguri by Tanizaki Jun'ichiro. It concerns a vain man who is the partner of a geisha, and he is obsessed with his weight. He is becoming too thin. Each rib is showing and his veins are beginning to look like earthworms. I am going to spend the rest of the day reading stories by (mostly) dead authors. Bliss.

Friday, March 18, 2011

How to Stage a Successful Literary Festival Event

(as produced by Heather Rodenhurst and colleagues at Oswestry Library, Shropshire - part of the Oswestry Literary Festival).

1. Choose a good venue.

These are the steps to the splendid library extension at Oswestry. The front of the building is traditional, but behind this facade these enticing and slightly mysterious steps invite the reader onwards to a children's reading area featuring a castle

complete with intriguing lanterns that look as though they have real flames.

2. Organise 'extras'.
I didn't take a photo, unfortunately, but Heather and her colleagues had organised Welsh cakes, and also Wyn Davies, a member of a Llansilin choir, to come in and sing one of the hymns mentioned in my book: 'Oh God our help in ages past,' (which he sang beautifully) and all of the rest of us joined in (without accompaniment, just as the Welsh may have done in Patagonia).

3. Encourage community involvement.
Apart from the organisation of the singing and the cakes and tea Heather had put in a request for memorabilia from Patagonia, and recollections of relatives and friends that had been out there. This brought in a table full of objects including a poncho, a cup and straw for maté (the local tea), various books, letters and pictures. All fascinating stuff. After my talk I had the opportunity to talk to some of these people and listen to their stories and was excited to encounter Rev. R. Glyn Jones who has ancestors that went on the Mimosa (the ship that took the first settlers to Patagonia).

4. Liaise with an enthusiastic and excellent independent bookseller.
In this case Booka Bookshop, who have only been open eighteen months, but of whom I have heard great things already.

5. Make the speaker feel valued.
I have put these beautiful flowers on my kitchen table, and they've given me much pleasure to see them every time I pass.

It was not just my event that was a sell-out, but also Jean Baggott's event before (about her memoir, The Girl On The Wall, which is on my reading list).

Thank you very much Heather (on the right) and the rest of the members of staff at Oswestry. I had a thoroughly great time.

Thursday, March 17, 2011

The Oxford Book of Japanese Short Stories: Part 1

I continue my attempts to understand Japan, this time with a collection of short stories - which I am happy to see includes one by Murakami 'The Elephant Vanishes'.

The introduction to this volume, by Theodore W Goossen, is superb. The collection covers the twentieth century and classifies the works not just by stage in development, but also by theme. I am returning to it again and again as I read because it is so informative.

The first story is based on a sad traditional Japanese tale by Mori Ogai called 'Sansho the Steward'. Its theme is the nobility of sacrifice for the greater good - allegorical of Japanese Society as a whole. The second is by the author of Kokoro, Natsume Soseki and is called 'The Third Night'. This is more obviously allegorical and very short. A man carries his own child on his shoulders; a child he never sees but helps him to see the crimes of the past - representing the desertion of the culture of the old Japan.

'The Bonfire' takes the bonfire as its central theme and builds a story around that. A group of boys build a bonfire and light it with difficulty. When they leave a traveller rests awhile alongside it and he watches it slowly die away. I suspect that this too could be allegorical, but my knowledge of Japanese history is too insufficient for me to be able to tell - the descriptions of nature more than compensate in any case.

'Separate Ways' was written by a writer, Higuchi Ichiyo, who died very young, aged 24. It is about an obsessive, hopeless love shown through conversation. I am constantly surprised at prodigy.

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Understanding Japanese Society (in March 2011)

I've learnt a lot from reading Joy Hendry's Understanding Japanese Society. I suppose the underlying theme is harmony of society achieved through peer pressure. It also explains much about the role of mentor and student as in Natsume Soseki's Kokoro. One thing I particularly like about the book is that its 'recommended reading' at the end of each chapter includes novels as well as the more orthodox non-fictional reading.

The Oyabun/Kobun relationship.
In Japan it is common for a young person to become attached to a senior who will help him build up a career. In return the senior person expects loyalty, support, and for the young person to do his bidding the rest of his career. The young person's success is then dependent on the senior's, and I expect that it is quite easy to back the wrong horse.

Everyone knows their place. Seniority, gender, social status are all important. This is
demonstrated in forms of address, the verbs used and the dept and duration of the bowing. It comes from Confucianism from China. Harmony is all and the community sees that this is maintained through remonstration and ostracism. This seems to be very effective and makes for a law-abiding society where the most intractable-sounding disputes are reconciled by negotiation.

Uchi and Soto
The division between outside and inside is important. Outside is polluted and must not be brought inside so shoes are taken off, clothes may be changed and the outside may be even washed away. The outside has a public unemotional face, the inside a private more demonstrative one.

Today the emperor of Japan admitted in a television broadcast that he is worried about what's in store for his country. After reading this book I realise that this must be an extraordinary move, and emphasises the seriousness of the situation. Until the occupation after the second world war the emperor was regarded as a god. For this god to expose his private face in this way must add to the general anxiety.

Sunday, March 13, 2011

A Talk at Fort Belan.

When I was a school girl on a biology field trip, little did I think when I gazed across the Menai Straits from Aberffraw beach and noted, just then, that this must be the most beautiful place on this planet,

that one day I would be back there, giving a talk from a fort with the same view

and it would make my soul soar now just as it did back then.

Fort Belan is at the end of a long track at the end of the straits to Anglesey. It is remote. It hugs the land with a series of grey castellated walls easy for young boys to climb.

Inside it is a tasteful combination of walls the colour of peaches and roses, and smells of wood fires. It was here that I went today to give my talk. The audience was not huge but I was asked some very interesting questions and had a good time, and thank you to Eirian of Palas Print books for selling copies of my book, and also Jean Blundell, who runs Friends of Fort Belan, for inviting me to speak.

Saturday, March 12, 2011

A Little Light Travelling

I have a busy fortnight ahead. Tomorrow morning I am interviewed on Radio Shropshire; and then later I travel to Fort Belin near Caernarfon in north Wales to give a talk there. On Thursday I take part in the Oswestry Festival of the Word, the following Monday I give a talk to a library in Rhyl, and on Friday give another talk in the Oriel Gallery on Anglesey, before the next day travelling across country to Hull. That's a lot of interesting places. I'm looking forward to seeing them.

Friday, March 11, 2011

Earthquakes, Tidal Waves and the Haiku

It's been an eerie day. I opened my history book on Japan and, before starting work, took a look on the BBC news website and saw tsunami, whirlpools and Tokyo shaking. I spent a couple of hours mesmerisedly watching video footage, not quite believing the country that has so occupied my thoughts for the last few days was suddenly the centre of attention: drivers of lone cars attempted to escape the grey-slurried front of water; containers from ships jostled against the uplifted and floating superstructure of whole houses; and a kind of soup appeared to move quite leisurely across ploughed fields. From the viewpoint of a helicopter's cameraman it seemed weirdly peaceful, the whole thing out of proportion, like some accident with a water bucket over someone's lovingly-built model village. It was only the footage at ground level that made it terrifyingly believable.

Eventually I tore myself away and went back to the book. I read while the history of this stricken country played out in my mind. Warlords and clan chieftains fought for power. Eventually, due to the efforts of three strong men, Japan unified, but it was a hard struggle.

The price for peace turned out to be seclusion (because the Jesuits had an irritating tendency to convert people which was unsettling), and while the rest of the world learnt about telescopes and gravity, Japan turned inwards and watched dramas called No or comedies called Kabuka, or puppet shows called Bunraku. They also composed Haiku.

Matsuo Basho (1644-94) was a great practioner of the Haiku, and I have discovered, at very long last, what exactly is meant by a Haiku. I've known for a long time about the 5- 7- 5 syllable rule but I'd always suspected there was more to it than that. W. Scott Morton is obviously admiring of the form and gave a good definition. It is a vignette, uses a fragment of a scene usually from nature, and then there is a sudden subjective turn indicating the effect of the scene on the poet. It is deliberately open-ended and depends on the imagination of the reader. It sounds rather like a good novel.

Wednesday, March 09, 2011

Japan and the first modern novel.

I'm reading Japan: Its History and Culture by W Scott Morton at the moment, and coming across some interesting information.

First, he compares Japan to Rome. Japan is to China as Rome was to the Ancient Greeks, he says. They were secondary cultures, importing and improving many cultural ideas, and in the process, he says, losing an innate delicacy.

For instance, what some regard as the first modern novel in the world was Japanese. It was called the 'Tale of Genji' and was written in Chinese in 1008 by a woman called Lady Murasaki Shikibu. Since women were not supposed to learn to read or write Chinese, she learnt by listening in to her brothers' lessons. She subsequently wrote her book in a simplified version. There are excerpts in the Morton book, and they do sound very modern. Her skill is compared to Jane Austin and Charlotte Bronte. The Japanese lack of restraint (compared to China's) is indicated, so Morton says, by Lady Murasaki's comment that her heroine's versification was not too good - writing poetry was thought to be an essential skill for a lady of the Imperial court. Presumably, the Chinese would have been not so picky.

This translation by Royall Tyler is supposed to be a good version of Lady Murasaki's work, keeping close to the original unfinished manuscript.

Other interesting facts are that Japan was first invaded in 1274 by the Moguls, and after a further attack in 1281 was not invaded again until world war two.

Another instance of longevity is the Imperial family. It has been in power ever since the first decade AD. Although its 'power' some of the time was very small. Because of the onerous number of ceremonies, and emperor would often abdicate or retire to leave an offspring (a child) as figurehead, then, from the peace and privacy of, say, a monastery, would lead his country as regent. When the emperor lost power due to lack of tax revenue and the supreme military leader or shogun took charge, then this shogun would also sometimes appoint a regent, so the person in power was even more removed.

The emperors were frequently impoverished, sometimes there was not enough revenue for a funeral so the body had to be kept for six weeks until enough money could be raised. And one way of raising money was by selling the monarch's autograph. Sometimes he would include a short poem or quote from a novel, maybe Murasaki's. So often when I read about history it seems that everything has been done already before.

Tuesday, March 08, 2011

The Housekeeper and the Professor by Yoko Ogawa

Today I read this book on my Kindle, having only heard about it from a friend last night. It is a sweet, light and quick read set in Japan about a professor of mathematics who can only remember the last eighty minutes. It is skilfully written, quite endearing, and deals with the beauty of mathematics, and also the thrill of discovery...and baseball.

Monday, March 07, 2011

Kokoro by Natsume Soseki

I have just finished reading Kokoro by Natsume Soseki (translated by Edwin McClellan) and understand now why it is held with such high regard by the Japanese. It is incredibly intense. Not a huge amount happens, and the narrative consists mainly of descriptions of thoughts and reasonings, and yet it holds the reader (well, this reader, anyway) transfixed.

I suppose the themes are universal: what drives us to go on, and what causes us to stop, and the associated themes of love, guilt, friendship and the gulf between generations. It is this latter theme that struck me as I read the most just now, mainly because my sons are growing up and leaving home, but also because of conversations I've had recently with other parents with grown up children. The book was published in 1914 in Japan. It concerns a young graduate and his relationship with and older man he has befriended and calls his mentor. There are parts of his mentor's life which troubles him; mainly how the mentor seems to be melancholy and distant and will never divulge why. Often he seems to be on the point of doing so, but then something happens and he stops. He gives snippets of wisdom such as the following (but without providing further detail or explanation):

'A gentleman, when tempted, can easily become a rogue.'
' causes a good man to become bad.'

This behaviour of the mentor reminded me of a snail appearing to come out of its shell, but withdrawing again and again. It is a little tantalising but never irritating.

Eventually the student goes home to where his father is ill and here the father gives his views on the the attitude of his son. Some of which seems incredibly relevant to today.

'There are advantages and disadvantages to having one's children educated. You take the trouble to give them an education, and when they are through with their studies they go away and never come home. Why, you can almost say that an education is a means of separating children from their parents.'
'In my day, parents were supported by their children. Today the children are forever supported by their parents.'

The mentor's letter forms the final part of the book, and describes the mentor's life and, eventually the melancholy, and my final quotes are from this:

'I do believe for love to grow there must first be the impact of novelty. Between two people who have always known each other, that necessary stimulus can never be felt.'

(why siblings or childhood friends do not commonly fall in love).

'Words are not meant to stir the air only; they are capable of moving much greater things.'

I found the ending both open and yet, strangely, satisfying. This is because I feel I know what did, in fact, happen - and I don't need to have it spelt out.

A lot has been written about this book in Japan, and I can see why. It is an extraordinary book.

Friday, March 04, 2011

Going Japanese.

I blame David Mitchell. First I read his Ghostwritten, his Cloud Atlas and his Zoet, then I learn he was inspired by Haruki Murakami and I become a besotted addict. I think I am most of the way through his entire oeuvre (at the moment I am listening to his collection of short stories as I go about my chores which is called 'The Elephant Vanishes').

Then, somehow or other (on Amazon, I think) I read that Murakami was inspired (as all Japanese are, apparently) by Natsume Soseki. So I acquire his bestseller, Koroko.

But then I feel I need to know more about Japan and its culture and society so I buy these: Japan: Its History and Culture by W Scott Morton,

and then Understanding Japanese Society by Joy Hendry.

And then I think I would rather like to learn about how Japanese literature has developed throughout the ages so I have this the Oxford Book of Japanese Short Stories edited by Theordore W Goossen on order - which should keep me busy for a while.

So, after China and Korea comes Japan. I am slowly traveling around the world in books, and learning a lot about the different ways there are to tell a story.

Thursday, March 03, 2011

Paint Box: House 1 St Fagan's

Colours are bright this wet morning:

blue smoke, red walls, green grass,
a tree still wearing its gauzy evening gown
of lichen - a revealing south, modest north -
but the once-golden thatch

is now a sodden grey,
harbouring spiders, nesting birds and burrowing mice.
Better then to sleep downstairs
cutched away in a box

next to Mam's roaring fire
and the dresser of tin plates

and leave the space beneath the roof

for the waking dream
of a world beyond
mists, hills and trees

through an ochre-crusted eye.

Tuesday, March 01, 2011

Cardiff Castle

It is strange how much is forgotten.

For all the Marquess of Bute's family knew, they had inherited a Norman Castle - a mansion house with Keep sitting atop a motte surrounded by moat,

and a Norman Wall separating outer ward and inner ward.

They added a few small frills like a clock tower

and allowed Capability Brown to do a little landscaping to make everything look a trifle romantic, a touch picturesque,

while inside, in accordance with Victorian tastes, embellished every surface

with gold and romantic symbols of a more chivalric past.

But then they found this:

remnant of a more ancient times,

and built again, mimicking what they thought they'd found: Roman-style gates and walls with tunnels within for children to hide,

- and adults too when the bombs later fell.

Nowadays, the wars are in more distant lands, and the soldiers,

after fighting the modern crusades against the same old infidels

return to march here with drums and pipes

...and regimental goat.

For St David's Day.