Wednesday, July 30, 2008
The first story in the book is typical. It involves a playboy who eventually finds one true love. They attempt to elope but are caught. Money comes up missing, and the former playboy is blamed and sentenced to death. Soon after, the money is found--he wasn't a thief after all. His lover decides to kill herself (only as is to be expected in all of these stories), but after some discussion is convinced instead to become a nun and live a spiritual, monastic life.
It's seventeenth-century fiction, and it's pretty good. It's probably a little sappy, but because I'm reading it in modern translation, it doesn't come across nearly so bad as such melodrama might come off in the original tongue--or maybe the Japanese are simply better at keeping the stories simple than the English are. Whatever the matter is, Ihara Saikaku's point seems to be that love is born in tragedy, and without the possibility of loss, the value of love can't be weighed.
Tuesday, July 29, 2008
He does have his enemies, namely the emperor's first wife, who wants her own son placed on the throne. Genji is thus demoted to commoner status, though he has court privileges (not being an expert on ancient Japanese affairs, how some things work in the novel are a little lost on me). This is to his own good, as far as love life is concerned. Without responsibilities, he has time to woo five to ten ladies at any given time and even knock up his father's concubine (the son that results from the affair later becomes emperor).
Genji has a wife too. She's pretty cold, but no doubt, as much as Genji may complain about her and blame her for his seeking solace in the company of others, his continued dalliances with other women only add to her coldness. It is only when she dies as a result of childbirth that he finally finds some way to appreciate her and that mostly through excessive grief. Is it guilt that drives him? I don't know. It seems a short repentance, for within a year or so, he's back to his philandering ways, and this brings its share of troubles, which I won't go into here. At some point, we learn that a soothsayer has told him he will have three children (all by different women apparently)--two to become emperors. And the abridgment ends at a convenient spot, with Genji no longer quite as interested in romantic affairs, wishing to leave court life, but now devoted to seeing that his children are well provided for.
This is a novel written a thousand years ago. The mannerisms seem foreign, but the characters and passions involved seem as current as ever--save that much of the seduction takes place by the point of a pen (forget what the women look like--how nice is their handwriting?).
Seidensticker notes that if the abridgment causes one to want to read the full book, he's done his job. I can't say he quite worked his magic on me. I enjoyed his abridged version, and I'm curious to know where the story goes from here, but I'd be just as happy to read a synopsis of the rest of the plot as to read the other thirty-seven chapters.
An online version of another translation of the book is available here.
Monday, July 28, 2008
So the story . . . Set on a psych ward in some place we don't know, the way pysch wards often are worlds unto themselves, this story manages to convey the essence of four very interesting and disturbed characters, as well as the setting itself. For our narrator, foosball is her way out--or maybe perhaps more accurately just another way for her to lord herself over the others. I can't say this piece makes me hope for the white-suited men to take me away anytime soon, but I suppose that's a good thing--you know, that I want to continue to be normal, rational, stable. . . . Read the story here.
Monday, July 21, 2008
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
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.
Friday, July 18, 2008
Friday, July 11, 2008
Wednesday, July 9, 2008
This difference is especially clear in how the two books cover the 1500s, wherein Japan was involved in extensive civil war. The previous book, as noted, goes into each battle, which makes events hard to follow; Perez just notes it's a period of civil war. By 1600, with the country beginning to unite under the brutal campaign of Nabumura, history becomes much clearer--and that's when the previous book finally starts making sense and become enjoyable.
That's not to say the first book's attention to detail was completely useless. Perez greatly simplifies historical events. One would think, for example, from this Perez's text, that Japan pretty much just happily adopted Buddhism, when, in fact, as Sadler's book, with all its detail, makes clear, Buddhism was accepted only gradually and not without many doubts and battles over the course of a couple of centuries.
Perez's book is part of a series of basic histories on various contemporary nations of importance--The Greenwood Histories of Modern Nations. Books in the series, while they give the entire history of the nation from start to finish, apparently focus most on the more recent past. Indeed, about half of Perez's volume is devoted to the post-1800s (one reason I read Sadler's book was because it was more focused on early history, so I wanted something to balance Perez out). But the early material, while greatly truncated, is still informative enough to be a good outline. I'm impressed enough that I want to check out more volumes in this series. Sadly, the list price of fifty-five dollars means books in the series aren't likely to become part of my personal library.
Thursday, July 3, 2008
I have yet to come across something I didn't think was good on Anderbo. I'm sure it will happen at some point, but for now, I marvel at how the taste the editors and I seem to share. This latest story on Anderbo uses the second person. I am also a sucker for the second person. I think most people find second person pretentious or gimmicky. Perhaps, the fact that Choose Your Own Adventure novels were so much a part of my reading when I was young has made the second person seem simply natural to me, a great way to thrust me into the character's life, to make me feel part of the action. In Jody Madala's story, I'm a young, beautiful woman. There are worse things one could be. I'm a woman who does what so many other young women do. I'm kind of a cliche. And yet, I'm me--and those clichés are not clichés when it's me, my actual life. And I'm growing older, and I'm going out less, and I'm wishing I could hold on to what I have, what I had. And, well, the title tells it all. Read the story here.
The history was published in 1946, so it breaks off basically with the start of World War II, which is an interesting and seemingly appropriate place to close the book. I'd read this one in part because of its focus on the earlier history of Japan, but much of that was a literal recounting of Japanese mythology, with little attention given to what it actually means. Sadler's book does hit its stride, however, in discussing the Tokugawa Period, the era when Japan finally united under a single Shogun. I'm hoping the next book on Japanese history on my list, which takes things into the current day, will be a bit easier to read for the underinitiated.