Black Rain – Masuji Ibuse

First published in 1965, Japan. Original title: 黒い雨 [Kuroi Ame]
Black Rain tells the aftermath of the infamous atomic bombing of Hiroshima. Personally I never read book that describes what happens to the people on ground zero – not to this extend anyway. For some reason in my mind it was total annihilation, but of course it wasn’t as clean as that. People in the vicinity were affected in thousands different ways – and to my mind they suffered the most (compared to instant death). The many ways the atomic bomb affected people are so varied, that when I thought the worst has passed, worse scenes came around the corner, again and again.

To think that humankind has done this to each other in the past, and knowing what happened, keeps the possibility for the future. It’s hard to comprehend. This should be a required reading, especially for anyone having any access to or any influence over the nuclear button. Why Hiroshima and Nagasaki? What would happen if it were Tokyo? It’s equally unthinkable for other major cities with the highest density and the most important infrastructure. At this point, a few countries in the world have the weapon almost just to keep each other in check. But it’s not hard to imagine that at the end, it could be triggered by a human mistake. Then we are truly doomed. Humanity as we know it may perish. Apocalypse in the truest sense.

Ibuse based his tales on real life diaries and interviews of the victims so it’s free of sentimentality, it’s fact after fact. You’d think it’d be permeated with rage, but it’s not. The overwhelming reaction is that of bewilderment. The nuclear bomb at the time was an unknown entity, a completely new weapon. The people of Hiroshima have been the guinea pig of the world.

Structure wise it could use some improvement. The book laid out diaries of a few people with not very strong connections, which shouldn’t work as narrative fiction. However you can’t read it as fiction, you read it as non-fiction, no matter how Ibuse labeled it. I suspect it gave him more freedom to do it as a work of fiction. I like the framing of the story in particular. It starts with a young woman called Yasuko, who has trouble finding a suitor because of the circulating rumors that she was affected by the bombing radiation. Such a ‘small’, domestic beginning, starting a year after the actual bombing. Bigger things are revealed gradually to readers, each thing more devastating than the next. For me the end is hopelessness. Truly nothing good comes out of war.

“I hated war. Who cared, after all, which side won? The only important thing was to end it all soon as possible: rather an unjust peace, than a “just” war!” – p161

Mee’s rating: 4.5/5

Masuji Ibuse 1898-1993

My second book for Bellezza’s Japanese Literature Challenge – now in its 11th year!

The Secret Agent – Joseph Conrad

First published in 1907

I received another invitation for the Happy Reader (real life) book club, and after a short consideration, decided to join again as I really enjoyed the last time with Treasure Island. They again sent me a copy of the book – which I really appreciated, but wish they had organised everything a bit earlier. The reading period was two weeks, and I didn’t quite finish it in time (probably about two third). Luckily I got to the point that mattered.

I never read Joseph Conrad’s, so this is my first. I knew he was the author of Heard of Darkness, which I’ve been meaning to read for a while. The Secret Agent just came to my attention with this event. A quick read of the summary showed that it’s a London book, Soho specifically, with Greenwich as an important setting. I’m a big fan of Greenwich area so it was almost enough as a hook in itself, and I work in Soho! From Penguin introduction:

“The Secret Agent is as much a Soho novel as a London one. Loosely bordered to the south by Leicester Square’s theatres to the east by Covent Garden’s fruit and vegetable markets, to the north by Oxford Street’s busy shops and to the west by Regent Street’s wanky stores, Soho, home to the Verlocs, was the apotheosis of Bohemian London, a bolthole for refugees, prostitutes and Anarchists. In Charles Booth’s analysis of the district in 1898, what most characterized it was the starkly heterogenous mix of its denizens, from the well-to-do to the nearly destitute. While the East End housed the recent influx of Eastern European immigrants, Soho was home to an established immigrant population, though it was no more reputable. Adolphe Smith writing of the district in 1909 states: ‘For centuries England, but more specifically London, has been the asylum of the defeated.’ … Soho was thus a natural home for Conrad’s Anarchist misfits. … To Conrad and his readership, therefore, the district represented the alien in the home, at home even; … Soho, in reality and in Conrad’s imagination, was terra incognita, a locale of political conspiracy and sexual deviance, a zone where ‘foreigners’ circulated.”

Amazing to think how Soho was a century ago, now that it is one of the most expensive place on earth, the rent per square foot is astronomical. (So much that visual effects studios are being pushed out of Soho. But that’s story for another day.)

Conrad got his ideas from a real event. In 1894, a 26-year-old Frenchman named Martial Bourdin accidentally got himself blown up near Greenwich Observatory. His purpose and plans were not clear. That and a bunch of other incidents terrorised Britain and Europe in that period, known as the Anarchist movement. Anarchism was not simple or monolithic. They’re “unified only by their impassioned rejection of government and authority” (Penguin Introduction, an excellent read.)

In a way the book felt timely, what with the terror attacks that have been happening in recent years. It reminded us that there have always been attempts to disrupt society and break peace, by different group of people, under different movement names, throughout different times. Sadly nothing is new nor unique, and history probably repeats itself again in the future, even after we’ve passed through this particular period.

People mentioned the book as dense, which I agree with. I went through it with audio book to keep my reading pace constant and ensure my reading to move forward, as I’m the type of reader that often gets stuck on a paragraph that I can’t get into for a while, just repeatedly reading without getting anything into my head. Audio book forces me to keep going. The Secret Agent does need a bit of dedication to read, but I think it pays off at the end.

Conrad himself had a very interesting life. Born in (what is now) Ukraine, he moved around Europe with his family before moving to England. English is his third language. (Reminded me of Nabokov.) He’d also been a sailor traveling to Australia, south east Asia (now Malaysia, Indonesia, Singapore, and Thailand), and Africa (Congo). What a life! The feeling of ‘foreign-ness’ I can relate with, and it comes up in The Secret Agent with almost all the characters being from ‘somewhere else’, half-descents, live outside of ‘place of origin’, and identify as one thing or the other. I’m interested to read more of his works to see how the themes play out.

Mee’s rating: 3.5/5

Joseph Conrad (1857-1924). Born: Józef Teodor Konrad Korzeniowski

Treasure Island – Robert Louis Stevenson

First published in 1882

I have never watched an adaptation of Treasure Island – except for Disney’s Treasure Planet if that counts, though I don’t remember much about it – so the book was new to me. In many ways, it was exactly what I expected it to be: an adventure story for boys. Unlike J.M. Barrie’s Peter Pan, I couldn’t find appreciation on a different level, though I liked this a bit more than Edgar Rice Burroughs’s A Princess of Mars.

The book went up my reading queue when The Happy Reader x Joseph book club sent me an invitation and mailed the Penguin Classics book. It arrived a couple of weeks before the book club night – there was a real-life meet up in Kensington at one of Joseph’s store – and I reckoned I could finish 190 pages in 2 weeks, even as a slow reader that I am (I didn’t, but 30 pages away to finishing on the night). Not sure if I mentioned The Happy Reader here before, but I absolutely love the “magazine”. The Treasure Island issue will be for June, so they are still working on it. The Editor in Chief Seb Emina attended the book club in person and led the discussions. It was a great night. Hope to go to more of them in the future.

But going back to the story of Treasure Island, the main character is a teenager named Jim Hawkins, who meets a series of characters – most of them are pirates – and gets tangled in a series of adventures. He starts off living with mum at a family pub, but the discovery of a treasure map leads him to going on a journey to this treasure island.

I’m very wary of books about boats, because there seems to be a million boat related terms – all of which I never heard of in my life and have no real usage for in the future. This book was not an exception unfortunately, there are boat terms. Some of them I googled, some I let go. Luckily the narrative is straightforward and it doesn’t delve too much into boat technicalities. This is why I may never read Moby Dick.

For a book meant for boys, it felt quite grown-up. There are plenty of deaths and murders. And there is one character in particular that is a bit “grey”, and I was never convinced whether he was good or bad throughout the book. For a children (young adult?) book, it felt that Stevenson had gone a bit further to show that life is not as simple as black and white.

I have not read The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, but I’m sure I’ll get to it one of these days.

Mee’s rating: 3.5/5

ps: I now really look forward to watching Muppet Treasure Island!

Robert Louis Stevenson – born in Edinburgh, died in Samoa (!)

The Hunting Gun – Yasushi Inoue

First published in Japan, 1949

This is the first book I finished after a couple of months of reading slump. And it was just the right book. It’s short and compelling, and the Pushkin edition is just beautiful to hold and read.

It’s not a perfect book, and for me the ending peters out a little. But there are a lot of things to like. I find the story framing fascinating in particular. The story starts from a poet, who is sent letter by a reader of the poem recently sent to a magazine. The reader thinks the poem is based on him, as he remembers a time and place, where he carried a specific type of hunting gun – all elements of which were featured in the poem. Together with his letter, the reader attaches three letters from three women in his life. Through these letters the story is told.

I don’t generally like novels written in letter format, as they often feel contrived. But the book is short enough for me not to mind. It just felt like story told from three point of views.

The Hunting Gun is Yasushi Inoue’s debut novel. He later won the Akutagawa prize for his second novel, also published by Pushkin: The Bullfight. The three perspectives in The Hunting Gun reminded me of Ryunosuke Akutagawa’s possibly most famous short story: In a Bamboo Grove (which Kurosawa’s movie Rashomon is based on). I read and mentioned this not long ago, and would highly recommend the short story, in which a single event is told from multiple character perspectives. It seems very apt for Inoue to win the prize, though it’s for his second book.

I read the book with my Japanese Lit GR group. We agreed that the prose was such a delight to read, that we could gloss over the possible lack of depth in characters and unique story line. But really for a debut book that barely reaches 100 pages I think it’s accomplished a lot.
It’s my first time to read Inoue, and I’d be interested to read more of his works in the future when I get the chance.

Mee’s rating: 4.5/5

Inoue Yasushi

The Bell Jar – Sylvia Plath

the bell jar
The Bell Jar – Sylvia Plath (US, 1963)

I read the Bell Jar sometime in November and only got the chance to write about it now, so it’s started to get a little fuzzy. I went back to Sydney for 2.5 weeks in the first half of November, then fell into a bad reading slump. So really I have not read much since The Bell Jar – only one “book” of Middlemarch (a slog), and one short story (fantastic!): Story of Your Life by Ted Chiang. I’ve resigned to the fact that I can only finish Middlemarch next year, as I’m only halfway through the tome, and I may not read much more until the end of the year.

The Bell Jar is the only novel by Sylvia Plath, is said to be a feminist text, and semi-autobiographical. I knew about Plath’s suicide, and I had some idea that the novel would be somewhat about descending into madness – and it is. It reminds me of The Yellow Wallpaper by Charlotte Perkins Gilman.

The book starts in New York City. We meet Esther Greenwood, who won a prestigious internship at a fashion magazine with a selected other young women. She is supposed to be having the time of her life, but she is mainly… depressed. In the second half, she goes back to her home, in a small town somewhere, and things just keep going down hill.

For me there is definitely a recognizable feminist undertone throughout. A sad discovery of the way the world works and there is nothing much you can do about it. You’re so insignificant, a single fish swimming against the current, a rebellious speck. There’s a realization that you’re dealt the bad cards by being born a female.

It’s hard to imagine someone like Plath being married to Ted Hughes, and then having to take care of two children from the marriage. Hughes is a series adulterer (when he was with Plath, and after), and his next wife after Plath also committed suicide! I never read anything by Hughes – and I don’t know if I want to, but really, having 2 wives who killed themselves does not give a good impression on the person’s character, does it? Furthermore, Plath and Hughes’ son also suffered depression and hanged himself. This guy is literally littered with deaths.

While I wasn’t quite blown away by The Bell Jar, I think it gave an interesting insight of the time and place and the mind of a Sylvia Plath. Like a few other authors, I find her life story possibly more interesting than her book. I may read more about her in the future.

Mee’s rating: 4/5

“I saw the years of my life spaced along a road in the form of telephone poles threaded together by wires. I counted one, two, three… nineteen telephone poles, and then the wires dangled into space, and try as I would, I couldn’t see a single pole beyond the nineteenth.” – The Bell Jar, Sylvia Plath

The Bell Jar is one of the Guardian’s 100 best novels written in English, amongst plenty of other book lists.

Save

1984 – George Orwell

1984

I might be one of the last people on earth that had not read 1984. I ony read Animal Farm a few years back. Absolutely loved it. Since then I’ve been reading a few of his essays here and there. I’m a huge fan of Orwell. I know he’s not a terribly literary type of writer, and some people may disagree with his style of writing with a political purpose, but I’m inclined more to his side rather than the other extreme of “art for art’s sake”.

In his essay Why I Write (1946) – which I read a while back, but it really made an impression on me even though it’s only a few pages long – he mentions 4 great motives for writing prose for any author. The last point is political purpose – “using the word ‘political’ in the widest possible sense. Desire to push the world in a certain direction, to alter other people’s idea of the kind of society that they should strive after. Once again, no book is genuinely free from political bias. The opinion that art should have nothing to do with politics is itself a political attitude.”

From the get go I roughly knew what 1984 was about. A dystopian novel was my impression. And it is. But it is bolder and even more political than what I imagined – almost like a political essay dressed in a novel. The scary thing is, it’s still as relevant today than it was when it’s first published in 1949. North Korea definitely came to mind. In fact, just the weekend after I finished the book, I met someone from Angola who told many stories about how she and her family went through the communist regime – which lasts to this day. A lot of what she described was very similar with what is described in 1984.

From pop culture point of view, I’m glad to have read the origin of things like Big Brother, Room 101, and doublespeak. It’s amazing how the book has penetrated many aspects of society and culture, and not just Western society, as I remember an occasion when an author from a communist regime at a literary event told the story of how 1984 was the book that everyone was smuggling between revolutionaries. It’s like a secret code. A shorthand for the worst society humanity could possibly become. But it’s not a mere distant possibility, not just a cautionary tale. Some elements are too familiar. They make you realise how easy it is for humanity to slip into this kind of regime – and in fact it does exist in some parts of the world, at different times perhaps, but it never totally goes away. We are still part of the 1984 world! The book is important in many ways, and there is still no other book like it.

Another quote to close this, again from Why I Write, at the very end: “I see that it is invariably where I lacked a political purpose that I wrote lifeless books and was betrayed into purple passages, sentences without meaning, decorative adjectives and humbug generally.” 

I feel like he allows me to have a political purpose in my own writing. Thank you Orwell.

Mee’s Rating: 5/5

The Picture of Dorian Gray – Oscar Wilde

dorian gray

The Picture of Dorian Gray is Oscar Wilde’s only novel. First published in 1890 in Lippincott Magazine, it was widely criticized by London society for its homo eroticism, so Wilde revised it and published its modified version in 1891. It helped little for what’s coming however, as 5 years after the first publication of Dorian Gray Wilde faced trial for “gross indecency”. He was convicted and went to prison for 2 years of hard labor, was self-exiled to Paris, and died 3 years later in poverty.

I’m a big fan of Oscar Wilde, having read all his short stories and his most well known play The Importance of Being Earnest. But with The Picture of Dorian Gray I felt like I finally tied all the pieces together, as the book I believe (and many people do) to be the closest to the author in terms of ideas and deepest desires. In fact, I faced the challenge of separating one of the characters in the book with Oscar Wilde himself – or what I thought he must be like.

I assume most people know the gist of the plot about a man and his painting who gets old and ugly instead of him. There are 3 major characters: Basil Hallward – the artist who did the painting; Dorian Gray – the man that Basil completely adored to the point of idolatry, hence the painting; and Lord Henry – a friend of them both who makes all these witty, cynical comments, and partly “tainted” Dorian into the road of sins and pleasure. (Before reading the book I had in my head that Dorian painted a self-portrait.)

Lord Henry was the person that I imagined Oscar Wilde to be. In fact, he famously said: “Basil Hallward is what I think I am: Lord Henry what the world thinks me: Dorian what I would like to be—in other ages, perhaps.” A bit ironic then, imagining Lord Henry as Wilde was what made parts of the book a bit difficult to swallow for me, for his comments on women like: “Women are a decorative sex. They never have anything to say, but they say it charmingly.” or “I am afraid that women appreciate cruelty, downright cruelty, more than anything else. They have wonderfully primitive instincts. We have emancipated them, but they remain slaves looking for their masters, all the same. They love being dominated.”

However if you think that this book is really about love, passion, and adoration between men, none of them fancying women much, would you blame such comments?

Prior to reading I didn’t know there are different versions of The Picture of Dorian Gray. And unlike Frankenstein’s two versions that are widely available, the second version of Dorian has been the ultimate and only version that we read until today. The first version that appeared in Lippincott Magazine was never published as a book until recent years, in 2011 by Harvard University Press (link).

The revision of Dorian Gray and Oscar Wilde’s life before and after the publication are the two major themes that were discussed in Edx BerkeleyX Book Club that I followed. And thanks to it I was aware of which chapters were added: 6 chapters, totaling some 28,000 words. Many of which were the expansion of the other characters.

More interestingly perhaps is what was being dropped. An example is this speech by Basil the painter to Dorian: “It is quite true I have worshipped you with far more romance of feeling than a man should ever give to a friend. Somehow I have never loved a woman…. From the moment I met you, your personality had the most extraordinary influence over me…. I adored you madly, extravagantly, absurdly. I was jealous of everyone to whom you spoke. I wanted to have you all to myself. I was only happy when I was with you.”

How radical! I can only imagine how daring you must be to write such thing in mainstream publication in the time where homosexuals were being persecuted.

Prior to reading, I somehow imagine Dorian Gray as a simple morality tale – which it is in a way, but it has so much more. There are a lot of discussions on beauty, aestheticism, art for art’s sake, and hedonism. In many ways it was so modern. And in the style of Oscar Wilde, there are plenty of aphorism (short observation that appears to contain a general truth). The book is full to the brim with them and my highlighter was flying:

“There is only one thing in the world worse than being talked about, and that is not being talked about.”

“I can believe anything, provided that it is quite incredible.”

“The terror of society, which is the basis of morals, the terror of God, which is the secret of religion – these are the two things that govern us.”

“Nowadays people know the price of everything, and the value of nothing.”

“Men marry because they are tired; women, because they are curious; both are disappointed.”

“When one is in love, one always begins by deceiving oneself, and one always ends by deceiving others. That is what the world calls a romance.”

“Experience was of no ethical value. It was merely the name men gave to their mistakes.”

And some that are simply funny:

“I make a great difference between people. I choose my friends for their good looks, my acquaintances for their good characters, and my enemies for their good intellects. A man cannot be too careful in the choice of his enemies. I have not got one who is a fool.”

“I don’t desire to change anything in England except the weather.” (So it has been like that since 1890. England hasn’t changed much.)

I can go on. Oscar Wilde produced more quotes than any other authors I know.

Mee’s rating: 4/5 – A fascinating novel that I couldn’t give my full mark, but I highly suspect that the first version would’ve got my full mark. New Yorker article on the revised version: “.. these excursions (the additional chapters) in high and low society feel a bit like staged distractions. There are too many tidy formulations—“It was his beauty that had ruined him, his beauty and the youth that he had prayed for”—positioned to reassure the middle classes. The version that Wilde submitted to Lippincott’s is the better fiction. It has the swift and uncanny rhythm of a modern fairy tale—and “Dorian” is the greatest of Wilde’s fairy tales.” I believe this. The Dorian Gray that we read now felt like the sharp edges have been smoothed out and it sometimes pretends to care about characters and stuffs it doesn’t actually care about. A cut of 28,000 words would also make the work a lot tighter, the pace swifter. Perhaps one day I’ll read the uncensored version. (Though note that the magazine editor had already cut some 500 words before publication without Wilde’s knowledge for fear of “indecency” charges. I guess you can only imagine the *original* original version.)

Trivia:

Do you know that The Picture of Dorian Gray and Conan Doyle’s The Sign of Four were sparked by the same dinner at Langham hotel in 1889? I coincidentally read The Sign of Four merely months ago and mentioned this in my post, so it’s interesting that this comes up again in the above New Yorker article.

bosie

Lord Alfred Douglas (picture above), nicknamed “Bosie”, is how I imagine Dorian Gray to look like. His youthful beauty is remarkable, honestly looks like something out of a painting. I can absolutely imagine Basil being enamored of this boy. Bosie is Wilde’s latest lover who brought his downfall. However Wilde only met him after the publication of Dorian Gray.

 

Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...