Monday, November 4, 2013

A Dark Night’s Passing - Naoya Shiga (Japanese)
This is a novel in which depression plays a major role. We follow Kensaku as he searches for a way of life that will free him from episodes of emotional, physical and spiritual suffering. At the halfway point he marries; this seems to offer the prospect of contentment, but it turns out not to be as simple a solution as he had wished. One of the book’s virtues is its restrained portrayal of the “dark night” of the soul; another is its depiction of pre-war Japanese culture. Kensaku’s marriage to Naoko – both their courtship and their relationship as husband and wife – is especially interesting. For over four hundred pages I was involved in someone’s life, which is a significant achievement. Yet Shiga goes astray in the last section. The first half of this autobiographical work came out in 1921, followed in the next two years by a substantial part of the second half. In the concluding chapters, which weren’t published until 1937, the fifty-four-year-old author has Kensaku go to a temple in the mountains; we last see him in a tranquil state of near-death. Shiga had spent too much time in the actual for this nebulous attempt at closure to be convincing.

Ocean of Story - Christina Stead
Few writers are more oceanic than Christina Stead, though with her you don’t sink to the murky depths; instead you get a tumultuous ride on white-capped crests. That said, this volume of her “uncollected stories” is a mistake because it’s primarily made up of sketches, fragments and toss-offs. Stead closes one “story” with “(And so on. Don’t know.).” In his Afterword the editor traces which of her novels these pieces are connected to (“ ‘The Woman in the Bed’ is a rewriting of those parts of The Little Hotel . . .”). But I suggest that you read The Little Hotel. And why bother with an “obvious spin-off from The Man Who Loved Children? The editor concludes his inventory with the following statement: “The writings in this volume vary in quality. This is no matter for surprise, since a little fewer than half of them (some obviously lacking the final polish) were found among her papers after her death. It seemed to me worthwhile putting them together.” I disagree. They may be of some value for Stead scholars, but for those not acquainted with her work this collection does her a disservice.

Seize the Day - Saul Bellow
What a wordsmith Bellow was! His writing is both smooth and sumptuous, grounded and imaginative. But a novel succeeds or fails on character and plot. In the course of one day (a day fraught with crises) Tommy Wilhelm’s guts are spread out before us. Perhaps this serving of Wilhelm is too rich – he’s like a dish fancied up with so many sauces that the palate becomes confused. As Tommy floundered about in a cascade of emotions I became increasingly detached. In a three character book, the father was the only person I could relate to; at least I could draw a bead on who and what he was. Tamkin, on the other hand, was way too slippery a concoction. For a long stretch in the middle of the book – seventeen pages – he holds forth on matters like the “real soul” and the “pretender soul.” When Tamkin gives Tommy a poem he wrote about Mechanism vs Functionalism, Tommy says to himself, “What kind of mishmash, claptrap is this? . . . What does he give me this for? What’s the purpose? Is it a deliberate test? Does he want to mix me up? He’s already got me mixed up completely.” Tommy could be complaining about Saul Bellow. It cannot be wisdom that Tamkin is spouting (most likely he’s a con man); why, then, did Bellow dedicate a good chunk of this 115 page novel to “claptrap”? Things end in a torrent of tears from Tommy: “. . . they were pouring out and convulsed his body, bowing his shoulders, twisting his face, crippling the very hands with which he held the handkerchief.” This spectacle of grief failed to move me; like his hardhearted father, I had my fill of Tommy and his problems.

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