Monday, July 21, 2008

On "Anthology of Japanese Literature," compiled and edited by Donald Keene ****

For an uninitiated person like me, this was a really good quick and dirty rundown on early Japanese literature. And that is partly why I picked it over other anthologies, which seemed too long or too focused. Keene aims rather to give a person a real feel for what the Japanese were writing up until 1870, and with just 450 pages, he appears to do an excellent job. (Another anthology I am planning to read will cover the post-1945 period, and yet another the late 1980s, so I'll have covered pretty much the swoop of Japanese literature, save the realism/naturalism/Meiji eras between 1870 and 1945, which is a bit of shame--I had thought I'd caught that period in one of the anthologies but apparently not, though many of the writers from those periods do show up in one anthology or another via their early or late work.) So here's a short rundown on the works (most of the selections, some of them complete) in Keene's anthology:

Ancient Period (to 794 A.D.)
The Luck of the Sea and the Luck of the Mountains

Heian Period (794-1185)
Kukai: Kukai and His Master
The Tales of Ise
Ki No Tsurayuki: TheTosa Diary
Poetry from Six Collections
The Mother of Michitsuna: Kagero Nikki
Murasaki Shikibu: Yugao (from The Tale of Genji, which is available here)
Sei Shonagon: The Pillow Book
Murasaki Shikibu: Diary (available here)
The Daughter of Takasue: The Sarashina Diary (available here or here)
Poetry in Chinese
Ryojin Hisho
The Lady Who Loved Insects

Kamakura Period (1185-1333)
The Tale of Heike
Kamo No Chomei: An Account of My Hut
Tales from the Uji Collection
The Captain of Naruto

Muromachi Period (1333-1600)
Yoshida Kenko: Essays in Idleness
The Exile of Godaigo
Seami Motokiyo: The Art of the No
Kan'ami: Kiyotsugu: Sotoba Komachi
Seami Motokiyo: Birds of Sorrow
Seami Motokiyo: Atsumori
Seami Motokiyo: The Damask Drum
The Bird-Catcher of Hades
Poems in Chinese by Buddhist Monks
Three Poets at Minase
The Three Priests

Tokugawa Period (1600-1868)
Ihara Saikaku: What the Seasons Brought to the Almanac-Maker
Ihara Saikaku: The Umbrella Oracle
Ihara Saikaku: The Eternal Storehouse of Japan
Matsuo Basho: The Narrow Road of Oku
Matsuo Basho: Prose Poem on the Unreal Dwelling
Mukai Kyorai: Conversations with Kyorai
Haiku by Basho and His School
Chikamatsu on the Art of the Puppet Stage
Chikamatsu Monzaemon: The Loves Suicides of Sonezaki
Ejima Kiseki: A Wayward Wife
Jippensha Ikku: Hizakurige
Takizawa Bakin: Shino and Hamaji
Haiku of the Middle and Late Tokugawa Period
Waka of the Tokugawa Period
Poetry and Prose in Chinese

Of the first four sections, I particularly enjoyed the poems selected from Man'yoshu, the passage from the Sarashina Diary, and Kamo No Chomei's "An Account of My Hut." Man'yoshu is one of the first major works in Japanese literature--it's a collection of poetry put together by an emperor, from various sources. And its quality seems outstanding, at least in the selections Keene has chosen. While British literature starts with a story of Grendel, in the epic poem Beowulf, which sounds much more interesting than I ever found it to actually be, and American literature starts with Puritan sermons, Japanese literature starts with poetry. Okay, there are prose pieces that are like myths--some similar to Native American materials (which are usually unintelligible to me and not very interesting)--but most of the early stuff is poetry, simple lyric poetry, short, as Japanese poetry tends to be. And I enjoy it. I think what I like about the poetry as opposed to the more mythic pieces in our English literature is that it's easy to identify, to understand what the poet is writing and experiencing. And that's also part of what's so interesting, these poets thinking about their mortality, about the weather, about love--they're writing over one thousand years ago, and they could be writing now. I don't know if that's comforting or sad or what, the idea that humans struggle with the same issues through time immemorial. Maybe it's just surreal, when I think about how long ago that was and how much similar it was to today, and how, if time goes on, humans will be worrying and thinking about the same thing a thousand years after I'm gone also.

The Sarashina Diary centered around a woman whose parents sent her to the royal court to live. She was older, around twenty-six, and unmarried. She didn't really want to go, but did in deference to authority. She'd heard that many women found husbands there, though she figured herself a bit too old for that. As the plot fell out, it was hard to believe this was a diary, rather than a short story. It seemed complete and thematic and sad, with a rise and climax and fall as in any good story. The woman, as it turns out, does meet a man one day. But it is only for a brief period. They exchange a few messages via poetry, but for whatever reason circumstances don't allow them to actually begin communicating much in person (there are always others around for one). About six months later, without contact, the man shows up at a social function in hopes of seeing her. She doesn't know and so misses him. He comes to visit her, leaves a note. She misses him again but writes a reply. Alas, he is gone by the time its ready. Such a sad story of near meetings. What also struck me about this piece, and many others, however, was how prevalent poetry seems to have been in the society then. People wrote of their day in poetry, and they courted in poetry as well--exchanging haiku and tanka with potential mates. Wouldn't it be a curious world if we did that nowadays? But maybe e-mail is equivalent. Somehow, it just doesn't seem as romantic as a poem.

As for "An Account of My Hut," it was a piece that reminded me a lot of Ecclesiastes. Kamo No Chomei was a Buddhist who, in this short account, thinks heavily about his life, about the happenings in Japan, and about how little of it is of any lasting consequence. Amid all this there are recountings of several distasters that hit Japan during a relatively short span during his life (an earthquake, a plague), as well as recountings of his homes, which get progressively smaller as he ages. In the end, he realizes he needs little more than a ten-foot hut--and he ponders why he's even bother to write. Lots of deep thinking. It's pretty short. I wish there were a translated version available online to share.

From the Tokugawa Period there was also much to admire. Three works in particular stood out for me, two of which I'd like to return to at some point to read the rest of the work. Ihara Saikaku's "What the Seasons Brought to the Almanac-Maker," one section from his novel Five Women Who Loved Love, seemed intriguing to me in part because of its fairly modern-seeming structure. I tend to go for those kind Gertrude Stein-type Three Lives books. This one covers five lives, specifically the erotic parts of them at that--and in seventeenth-century Japan, there is much to be curious about, given the very different times and culture.

I also liked Jippensha Ikku Hizakurige, a tale of two travelers on the road. Apparently Jippenshu wrote a whole series of these, all of the light and humorous but nevertheless providing an entertaining and interesting insight into the Japanese culture of the early 1800s.

Finally, the poems and prose in Chinese were interesting if not for themselves then for the historical perspective that they offered. Keene chooses to end his anthology with a set of works that discuss, in particular, the coming of Westerners, the opening of the ports, and Japan's seeming weakness in the face of these. There is much criticism in these poems and the one short profile offered of the leaders who fail to fight back, who let the barbarian Westerners in. And there is hate--hate of the Dutch and of the Russians and of all the others from the West; and hate also, for Japanese themselves, who feel as if in this dawning of a new age, Japan has lost its way and its power. In some eras, women act like men, one writer intones sadly (contemporary political correctness aside), while in others men act like women.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Donald Keene gives a nice introduction to what Japanese literature was in his book. He has struck the right balance between exhaustiveness and readability. That is why his book is so very wonderful
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