For Two Thousand Years

You can find my review of Mihail Sebastian’s beautiful novel For Two Thousand Years in Issue 9 of Shiny New Books! out today. Please do go and have a look!

Spring Snow by Yukio Mishima

30 September, 2015

Spring Snow

The Shinkawas were both irritated and flattered by the Matsugae’s invitation to the blossom viewing. Irritated because they realized how bored they would be. Flattered because it would give them an opportunity to display their authentically European manners in public. The Shinkawas were an old and wealthy merchant family and while it was, of course, essential to maintain the mutually profitable relationship established with the men from Satsuma and Choshu who had riesen to such power within the government, the Baron and his wife held them in secret contempt because of their peasant origins. This was an attitude inherited from their parents, and one that was at the very heart of their newly acquired but unshakable elegance.

Reading a novel by Yukio Mishima is rather a daunting prospect as he comes with a lot of baggage, from his highly sensationalised life and death to very divided opinions on his work amongst his Japanese readers. However, what can’t be disputed is his place in Japanese literature. He missed getting the Nobel Prize to Yasunari Kawabata, one he felt was unfair but perhaps inevitable in Japan’s strict hierarchical society even in literary circles, and some say this may have led to his inevitable foray into nationalism and death. But my mother told me many years ago that Mishima’s writing was beautiful and that I must read him. And so I chose him for my book group this summer.

Spring Snow is the first volume in Mishima’s Sea of Fertility quartet detailing the bittersweet love story between Kiyoaki Matsugae, son of a recently elevated Marquis at the Emperor’s court and coming from a long line of Satsuma samurai, and Satoko Ayakura, daughter of a waning aristocratic family, and how it reflects the seismic changes within Japanese society at the beginning of the 20th century. Following the Meiji Restoration, the power structure shifted from the samurai families back to the aristocracy once peace was established. The Marquis Matsugae had sent Kiyoaki to be educated in the Ayakura household and as a result, they no longer have anything in common, Kiyoaki having grown into a rarefied and refined gentleman studying at the Peers School until he is given a position at Court unlike his friend Honda, who has no privileged family connections and is studying to become a lawyer like his father. Into this friendship comes Satoko, Kiyoaki’s childhood friend, a beautiful and self-assured young woman, a few years older than Kiyoaki, who is in love with him. But Kiyoaki has been trained to contain all displays of emotions, fooling everyone around him and ultimately himself.

When Satoko’s engagement to an Imperial Prince is announced, Kiyoaki suddenly realises his love for her and is desperate to see her. With the help of Iinuma, his servant, and Tadeshina, Satoko’s maid who has worked for the Ayakuras since before Satoko’s birth, Kiyoaki sets in motion events which will have severe repercussions for both families.

This sounds rather grim and there are echoes of Romeo and Juliet here, however, it is Mishima’s style and his beautiful writing that elevates and transforms this tale into something so much more. Here is a microcosm of aristocratic Japanese society, still reverberating from the Meiji Restoration. Satoko, however spirited and intelligent and emotionally so much more mature that Kiyoaki is nevertheless bound by her family and society’s rules and makes the only choice available to her. We see her living, loving and finally realising the true metal of her lover, and although harsh, the choices she makes are the only ones which will set her free. Apart from Satoko, whose only flaw is to fall in love with Kiyoaki, most of the other characters are ineffectual and don’t realise their mistakes until the end. Kiyoaki’s parents are weak and blind to his faults and believe money will solve everything; Honda, Kiyoaki’s friend, tries to help but is too in awe of him; the Ayakuras are living off others and are consequently in a bubble; Iinuma, fanatical and unable to fit into Tokyo life; and Tadeshina, supposedly loyal with a cruel streak inside.

Mishima brilliantly depicts the subtle undercurrents within Satoko and Kiyoaki’s circle. The importance of keeping face as opposed to the often ugly side of reality, the obsession with strict rules and manners when real communication between people are lacking and most importantly, intent over-ridden by duty. Both Satoko and Kiyoaki try to break free from their restraints but their methods differ and ultimately fail. There is a tragic sense of miscommunication leaving the reader feeling, ‘if only he had’ or ‘why didn’t he just say something?’ This puts the onus on Kiyoaki, but it’s by no means only his fault. Satoko, who should have known him best failed too. All in all, it’s a glorious piece of tragic storytelling mixed in with cultural and historical detail. Mishima’s knowledge of history and his curiosity of other cultures are evident too. But what really strikes the reader is his mastery of language. His prose is light, whimsical and exquisite. And yet he delves into such dark themes. I loved this book which is so beautifully translated by Michael Gallagher and am looking forward to reading the other novels in the quartet, Runaway Horses, The Temple of Dawn and The Decay of the Angel.

I read this as part of Bellezza’s Japanese Literature Challenge 9. Do also check out the reviews by Kim and Tony.

Master and Margarita 2

The Master and Margarita by Mikhail Bulgakov is one of the books I purchased from what used to be Dillons on Gower Street, now Waterstone’s, when I was an earnest student trying to broaden my knowledge of literature. As a science undergrad, I spent hours in the bookshop perusing books to read rather than face my sums. With one aborted attempt many years ago, I assumed it would be one of those novels I would get to at some point, even though so many of you have told me how much you loved it. So I was really happy when Polly decided it’ll be our next choice for our book group. It seems many of us had it tucked away on our shelves too.

At the beginning of the novel when the writers Berlioz and Bezdomny meet Woland, a suspicious individual claiming to be a magician, little do they know that this will throw Moscow into an upheaval leading up to Easter. Having been subjected to a vision of Pontius Pilate, they are naturally spooked and escape but this sets off a series of unfortunate events from Berlioz’s death to the sectioning of Bezdomny, the disappearance of his flatmate, the seizure of his prized Moscow flat and so on until everyone connected to each other has been randomly traumatised in some way. All orchestrated by Woland, who may or may not be the Devil, and his familiars, Azazel, the witch, the choirmaster and a humongous cat named Behemoth, they wreak havoc all over the city beginning with a huge magic show which throws the audience into hysteria when wads of cash appear and all the ladies are left disrobed. Bulgakov leads us on a merry chase through the absurdities of Moscow life from the privileged status of the literati to the paranoia aimed at foreigners, the shortage of good housing and food to the forbidden love that springs from unhappiness and ennui.

At the psychiatric hospital, Bezdomny meets the Master who has had his novel rejected and in his despair succumbed to madness and abandoned his lover. The Master had written about Pilate, the very same tale told by Woland, where we are again transported two thousand years back when the flawed Roman procurator of Yershalaim meets the one man who will change him but isn’t strong enough to save him.

In the second half of the book, we meet the Master’s lover Margarita, desperate to find him and wreak revenge on his critics. When Woland promises her whatever she wants, she agrees to do his bidding and becomes a witch, presiding over a spectacular ball where all the evil characters throughout history file through and are given their just desserts. But will she get what she deserves?

Reading the book, it struck me, as I am sure it did others, on the odd choice of the title. Both the Master and Margarita don’t appear in the novel until several chapters in, and even then, I’m not even sure whether they are the main protagonists, perhaps just vehicles to push through Bulgakov’s agenda. It’s a curiously difficult novel to characterise; from one angle, it is a comedy so like many Russian and European novels of the period with its nod to romanticism and artistic angst. And yet, there is always the spectre of violence which you cannot escape, Bulgakov’s present seeping into the fiction. Written between 1929 and 1940, The Master and Margarita was meant to be Bulgakov’s magnum opus even though he didn’t expect it to be published, what with his experiences with censorship and the tightening of freedom of expression which characterised Stalin’s rise to power. It’s at once a novel bridging the gap between the pre- and mid-Soviet eras, the former using only allusions to the present political state while maintaining some of the frivolity of an earlier age and the latter, the violence and paranoia revealed in full in the Master’s tale of Pontius Pilate.

The first half is much more sombre and complex than the second, possibly because it was more heavily edited. Bulgakov passed away soon after he finished his manuscript but without completing the editing. The Picador edition I read had notes and a detailed afterword which set the novel in context and gave a richer understanding of the novel. There is so much symbolism in The Master and Margarita and anyone who has read Goethe’s Faust would be in no doubt of the similarity although Bulgakov has made it his own and set it in the world he knows best. There are allusions to literary and musical figures throughout the novel and I particularly enjoyed Satan’s Grand Ball where Bulgakov introduces a slew of evil characters from history. However, what is with all the women being naked and men in tails? I just found it increasingly annoying that the female characters were either hags or witches, who are naked, naturally, although none of the men were drawn sympathetically either.

Bulgakov’s style is light and deft, his prose vibrant, colourful and visual. Woland’s visit to Moscow is just like a little break where they thoroughly enjoy themselves. And I really loved the bit at the end when Woland and his troupe return to their original forms, much more sombre and darker than what they exhibited on their holiday.

Although The Master and Margarita would benefit from a second reading once you realise the political and social implications of what Bulgakov is trying to convey, I really enjoyed reading this brilliantly bonkers novel. That satire is taken so seriously preventing publication for 26 years says much about the political regime. Even though the chapters set in Moscow may not come across as heavily Stalinesque, his reign of terror had already begun with arrests and disappearances and we see this in the increasingly crazy turn the novel takes as Bulgakov’s tale spins out of control.

Elective Affinities

I confess I’ve only read one book by Goethe which was Faust because who didn’t try that one as a student? But I don’t remember much of it and I probably raced through it without really thinking about it much. So although I’ve been wanting to try more of Goethe’s novels, I only retain memories of something dark and heavy. So what a revelation Elective Affinities turned out to be. Chosen as my October/November’s book group read, the novel showcased Goethe’s lightness of touch and acute sensibilities which are so finely tuned that you really feel you are in the presence of a master. What could so easily have turned into a heavy, dank romantic tragedy was saved by the relentless self questioning of his characters and their wish to do the right thing.

Elective Affinities begins with Charlotte and Eduard who has been given a second chance at love. No longer in their first flush of youth and having overcome previous life events that were orchestrated by others, they are now happily enjoying the freedom of their simple coupledom. Charlotte’s daughter is away at school and so they spend their days organising and designing their house and land at their pleasure. In fact all their time is taken with pleasure. Happy but getting a little bored of their monotonous life, a visit from a scandalous aristocratic couple embeds ideas of love and affairs which slowly take root in their minds. Their fidelity is tested when Eduard’s close friend, the Captain, and Charlotte’s niece, Ottilie who is unhappy at school, come to stay.

Goethe melds his views on romanticism with the scientific ideals and advances from the Age of Enlightenment that was fashionable in 19th century Europe to create a story which mirrors science. Elective affinities, a concept in chemistry where elements naturally gravitate towards their optimal counterpart, is used here to illustrate the romantic leanings of the four main characters.

Eduard, a dynamic man, begins to feel an affinity for Ottilie who is equally smitten, and succumbs to temptation, albeit platonic. However Charlotte and the Captain are a bit more reserved, battling with their morals even though their feelings for each other are as fierce. The main focus of the novel is the love affair between Eduard and Ottilie, a reflection and dissection of the ideals and reality of what love is.

However there were a few things that perplexed me. For example, why did everyone love Ottilie so much? Because she is young and innocent? Eduard who is actually married sees nothing wrong in his feelings and nor does Ottilie until towards the end of the tale. Only Charlotte and the Captain seem commendable but Goethe seems more sympathetic towards Eduard and Ottilie as though he holds them much higher up as his romantic ideal, that theirs is the great love story with so many obstacles when in fact they could have really gotten together at any point. Ottilie’s refusal of Eduard doesn’t seem to have a moral aspect to it, more as a whim and feels self-indulgent. And personally I felt Eduard comes very close to being the villain of the piece, acting as though his marriage to Charlotte meant nothing. It seems as though he was going through a mid-life crisis and as a result I found it very difficult to sympathise with him. In fact, all the characters felt a little flat, especially the female characters, except for Charlotte’s aristocratic friends who revel in their scandalous lives. At least they don’t pretend to be good. And although there are tragic consequences to the choices these characters make, Goethe’s light touch stops short of making Elective Affinities a tragedy or even a moral tale, leaving the reader feeling rather confused.

It’s been several weeks since I’ve finished the book but I’m still wondering about the characters in Elective Affinities, especially Ottilie and Eduard. I wonder whether Goethe was drawing a parallel to himself and his own choices in life. However, the novella certainly made for an interesting discussion and I most certainly would like to read more by Goethe.

I read this as part of German Literature Month hosted by Caroline and Lizzy.

Three Fat Men

Published in the very early years of the new Soviet regime and before the horror of Stalin’s rise to power, Yuri Olesha’s The Three Fat Men is considered one of the most important pedagogic books for young communists and an instrument of state propaganda and is controversial even now.

The Three Fat Men
is a satirical allegory, a mixture of folktales with names recalling Shakespeare’s Italian comedies. I’m not sure whether that is to make it seem universal, but the setting is a country tightly ruled by the Three Fat Men who are greedy, lazy and gluttons and who take all the grain, coal and iron from their people and give back nothing. When Prospero the armourer and Tibullus the tightrope walker incite revolution, the Three Fat Men’s soldiers set out to capture them and throw Prospero in jail. Tibullus manages to escape and is helped by Dr. Gaspar, a highly regarded intellectual, who coincidentally is given the task of bringing the Three Fat Men’s heir, Tutti’s, golden haired doll back to life or face death. When the doll is lost, Gaspar despairs until he meets Tibullus’ young friend Suok, a dancing girl at the circus, who is the spitting image of the doll. And so they concoct a plan to get Suok into the palace, save Gaspar and set Prospero free.

Olesha’s tale reminded me strongly of George Orwell’s Animal Farm (even though it is from a completely opposite ideology) and Cornelia Funke’s Inkheart trilogy with their clear demarcation of right and wrong, good and evil. The Three Fat Men and their soldiers are evil as opposed to the common folk who are being robbed of what is rightfully theirs. Its strong and simple ethical message is hard to ignore and is actually a good tool for teaching children. However, as with many stories in this vein, children would probably miss the communist subtext which for many adults will be hard to separate with actual events and the violent history of Soviet Russia.

Although a very short book, I confess that I found it rather difficult to get into and it only became interesting once Suok was smuggled into the palace when things begin to move quickly. However, there were some very funny moments, such as the reaction of the Three Fat Men and important court officials to little Tutti’s tantrums and, even more bizarre, the balloon seller being dressed up as cake and worried he would be eaten before escaping through a bottomless pot and ending up in a cabbage patch. The message of the book itself is one I rather agree with but I’m not entirely sure I understand why it’s such a popular book when there are more interesting fairy tales around unless you grew up reading it, which seems the case in many Eastern European and post-Soviet countries. I have a copy of the illustrated Soviet version which made me see it more as a children’s book and I will be passing it on to my nephews and niece to polish their moral compass.

As this was a book group choice, we had an interesting discussion regarding the purpose of this book and its construction as propaganda for communism. And it seems especially pertinent regarding recent events between Russia and the Ukraine. I probably liked it the least but most of my book group found it highly enjoyable and it sparked an interesting discussion.

Making of a Marchioness

Frances Hodgson Burnett’s Little Lord Fauntleroy was one of my favourite books in childhood. How I yearned to be a little lost orphan boy with golden ringlets and an immense fortune. Not to be on all three levels.

I’m rather wary of revisiting childhood favourites because my reading pace has changed as much as my taste in fiction (i.e. I am no longer a child). But when I heard that Persephone Books have re-issued a couple of Burnett’s adult novels, I was very curious indeed.

I decided to start with The Making of a Marchioness purely because there was going to be a tv adaptation during Christmas. I prefer to read the book before seeing an adaptation only because I tend to be rather lazy afterwards and not bother. I didn’t really know anything about it, which was a good thing.

Emily Fox-Seton is a spinster of 30. Originally from aristocratic stock, her family have gone down in the world and now orphaned, she lives in a boarding house for ladies and runs errands for wealthy society patrons. She’s a keen, engaging woman, not too bright but always looking on the bright side of things. It is because of her efficiency that Lady Maria Bayne has taken an interest and asked her to come up to her country seat to help with her house party. Amongst the guests is her nephew Lord Walderhurst, a middle-aged widower whom she is determined to matchmake with a suitably connected young lady. At the house party, Emily is in limbo, not fully a guest and yet not quite the help, but she quickly makes friends with the others and is a great help to Lady Mary who soon abuses her power over Emily. But it is because of this that Emily’s life suddenly takes an unexpected turn and she finds herself in a situation in which both marriage and love may be hers.

I don’t want to spoil anything as I want you to feel the surprises and hopes that welled up in me as I read this book. However, I will mention that Lord Walderhurst has a dodgy nephew, Captain Alec Osborne, who is married to an Anglo-Indian lady named Hester who is considered wild and eccentric with an even more sinister Indian ayah, Ameerah. It’s rather heavy on the colonial stereotypes which had me rolling my eyes on occasion.

I was also initially irritated by Burnett’s descriptions of Emily, how good she was, how grateful, how doe-eyed. It just went on and on and made me want to scream. However, as Emily’s circumstances change, so did the story and I began to like her a lot more. I think the novel was initally two books to begin with, The Making of a Marchioness and The Methods of Lady Walderhurst, and then they lumped it into one. It certainly reads as two different stories, the first part being a drawing-room story and the second a sensation novel a la Wilkie Collins. Evil comes primarily from bad blood and drink which seems à la mode in stories from this era. I didn’t mind that so much except that it was pretty one dimensional. However, the latter half of the novel certainly made up for the first part and I read on breathlessly until the end, not knowing whether everything would turn out alright. Burnett certainly knows how to crank up the tension. And it dealt with issues much darker than I expected too. There’s domestic violence and poverty contrasting sharply with the rose-tinted lives of the richest strata of society.

I enjoyed this book immensely, especially as I read it straight after Julia Strachey’s Cheerful Weather for the Wedding which was a bit of a disappointment. And I’m going to search out Burnett’s other book, The Shuttle, which, rumour has it, is even more brilliant.

However, I wouldn’t bother with the tv adaptation, Making of a Lady, which mutilated the story and turned it into something completely different. It’s ok if you don’t mind that sort of thing but there was a lot more emphasis on sex, madness and murder which wasn’t there in the book.

And so I come to the end of my brief foray into myths beginning with Madeline Miller’s The Song of Achilles and going on to Atwood’s The Penelopiad and Winterson’s Weight and ending somewhat appropriately with Karen Armstrong’s A Short History Of Myth. I like to tie things together and Armstrong’s book is like an afterword to my mini reading project.

It’s a short non-fiction account of the place of myth in literature and society and inevitably this touches upon belief as myths are often the basis of both history and religion. I wasn’t sure how Armstrong would manage it as going back into proto-history, before the written and oral traditions flourished, is like treading on water.

Although a little tedious and overwhelming at times, there were several fascinating strands in Armstrong’s short history. From the early stone age, bronze age, the Assyrian, Mesoptamian and Egyptian civilisations to the Green, Roman and Judeo-Christian world, it’s an absorbing study into how early priests and scholars assimilated and incorporated their basic understanding of nature and the world into their daily cosmology. These evolved into ideologies and structures of government and social rule simultaneously transforming the myths themselves as people’s understanding and needs changed.

Although I was expecting a more western-centric history, that is a failing on my part as Armstrong shows just how diverse and rich our literary tradition is. And in turn, it shows that however admirable her attempt is, this is a huge undertaking and probably needed a more extensive study. But it certainly opened my eyes to the wealth of stories out there and I will be sure to delve further into mythologies, and not just the Greek myths.