Novella a Day in May 2020 #30

Snow Country – Yasunari Kawabata (1935-7 trans. Edward G Seidensticker 1956) 121 pages

My brother doesn’t often lend me books, in fact I can’t remember the last time he did. So when he lent me Snow Country with the warning ‘I want it back’, I thought it must be exceptionally good. Turns out my brother and the Nobel Prize committee are in agreement on this, as Snow Country was cited when Yasunari Kawabata won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1968.

It begins with Shimamura, an overprivileged wastrel who doesn’t have to work, leaving Tokyo to travel to a hot spring town in the north of Japan. He is captivated by Komako, a young geisha who works there.

“The more he tried to call up a clear picture of her, the more his memory failed him, the farther she faded away, leaving him nothing to catch hold. In the midst of this uncertainty only the one hand, and in particular one forefinger, even now seemed damp from her touch, seemed to be pulling him back to her from afar.”

Shimamura has a wife and children back in Tokyo so the relationship with Komako is a commercial one, but still one in which both seem emotionally invested. I say seem, because nothing is ever spelled out in Snow Country. This is not the novella to read if you want fully rounded characterisation or plot development. What Kawabata creates is series of impressions, moments and images that layer on top of each other.

“The woman’s hair, the glass of the window, the sleeve of the kimono – everything he touched was cold in a way Shimamura had never known before.”

That’s not to say that Snow Country is an unsatisfying read. Kawabata is a beautiful, precise writer and he crafts an atmosphere expertly. The natural surroundings are stunningly described, and the people are believable and idiosyncratic, even though we know very little about them.

“there was something sad about the full flesh under that white powder. It suggested woollen cloth, and again it suggested the pelt of some animal.”

It’s also a deeply melancholy read. The two main characters will never be together and both seem trapped. Shimamura by his inability to find a meaningful way to spend his time, Komako by debt and circumstance. The sadness of it all crept up on me due to the writing style I’ve described, and it seemed all the more poignant for doing so, rather than explicitly announcing itself.

My memory is terrible, so as a reader I find what tends to stay with me is not plot or character, but more the atmosphere of a novel and the feelings it evoked. Snow Country is one of those that will stay with me a long time.

“All of Komako came to him, but it seemed that nothing went out from him to her. He heard in his chest, like snow piling up, the sound of Komako, an echo beating against empty walls. And he knew he could not go on pampering himself forever.”

Novella a Day in May 2020 #5

The Ten Loves of Mr Nishino – Hiromi Kawakami (1995, trans. Allison Markin Powell 2019) 195 pages

I really enjoyed the previous novels by Hiromi Kawakami that I’ve read, Strange Weather in Tokyo and The Nakano Thrift Shop, so I approached The Ten Loves of Mr Nishino with high expectations. Although this was still highly readable and full of well-realised, idiosyncratic characters, I didn’t find it quite as satisfying as the others. I think this is because I misunderstood the title. I thought Nishino was the subject and the Loves were the object. But, in having the Ten Loves tell their stories in individual chapters, it turns out they are the subject, Nishino the object – an enigmatic object who remains mysterious to the end.

This is not a novella about the romance of love, though it is about the impact of romantic encounters. Kawakami is interested in how people relate to each other and the effect that we have on people’s lives that we can’t recognise or fully comprehend. She’s not interested – at least not here – on rose-tinted explorations of romantic love. The first chapter is from the point of view of a married woman who has an affair with Nishino:

“What is love, really? People have the right to fall in love, but not the right to be loved. I fell in love with Nishino, but that’s not to say he was required to fall in love with me. I knew this, but what was so painful was that my feelings for Nishino had no effect on his feelings for me. Despite this pain, I longed for him more and more.”

We then go back in time to when Nishino was at school, and learn something of his painful past:

“A strange air drifted around Nishino. An air that none of the other kids in class had. I had the impression that, if I were to try and push that air around, there would be no end to it. The more I tried to push it, the deeper I would get caught up in it. And no matter how hard I pushed, I would never reach Nishino on the other side.”

Nishino is someone who is never without a partner, and sometimes these women overlap. The women’s perspectives on each other add to the narrative; one of his loves is stunningly beautiful, but we only learn this from his subsequent girlfriend, as the woman herself would never describe herself that way.

Despite his womanising, it is Nishino who comes across as vulnerable, much more so than the women, even when he causes them pain.

“I wanted to flee from Nishino as quickly as possible. This desire welled up from the bottom of my heart. I still couldn’t put my finger on what the sense of discomfort was – all I knew for sure was that it was present. And no matter how hard I tried, I simply couldn’t make it go away – that cold and awful uneasiness.

I wanted to flee. This simple thought flooded my mind. The same way that I had wished I could love him.”

Through ten very different women, we catch glimpses of Nishino but we never see him fully. This captures the central question of the novella: how much do we ever know another person? It’s not a bitter question though, or a desolate one. Rather it is one of compassion. I came away from Ten Loves… with a sense not of the importance of romantic love, but of kindness. Because at the point you touch another person’s life, you have no idea of what has gone before and what they carry with them.

Novella a Day in May 2020 #1

Convenience Store Woman – Sayaka Murata (2016, trans. Ginny Tapley Takemori 2018) 163 pages

It’s always with some trepidation that I embark on Novella a Day in May, as I’m never sure I’ll make it to the end. This year the feeling is even more marked, as with all that is happening in the world I’m finding it hard to read as well as write blog posts. But I do really enjoy NADIM, so I’m making a start and I’ll try not to berate myself if I don’t finish this year. Onwards! 

I shouldn’t really worry about not feeling ready or particularly organised, as the world has a way of laughing at such endeavours. I read Convenience Store Woman a while ago and thought I’d get it written up well in advance of NADIM 2020. Then somehow the document got overwritten  – and by somehow I mean I stupidly overwrote it – and I couldn’t recover it. So I’m writing this months after I initially read the novella. It speaks to its strength that even with my terrible memory I could recall how good it is and how much I enjoyed it.

Keiko is in her mid-thirties and has been working in a convenience store half her life. For all of her life, she has never fitted in:

“My parents were at a loss what to do about me, but they were affectionate to me as ever. I’d never meant to make them sad or have to keep apologizing for things I did, so I decided to keep my mouth shut as best I could outside home. I would no longer do anything of my own accord, and would either just mimic what everyone else was doing, or simply follow instructions.”

Within the highly ordered, routine environment of the Hiiromachi Station Smile Mart convenience store, Keiko finds her approach works well.

“For the first time ever, I felt I’d become a part of the machine of society. I’ve been reborn, I thought. That day, I actually became a normal cog in society.”

However, as a woman approaching middle-age, Keiko comes under pressure to become a different type of normal cog. She is always single, with no interest in sex. She will not be getting married or having children any time soon, and the job that was at first tolerated by others, is now thought odd as it is not a career. Her sister has helped by thinking up a lie she can use, that she has health issues that suit a part-time job, or elderly parents that need her support, but still Keiko finds herself coming under closer scrutiny for her life choices.

A new employee at the store, Shiraha, may offer a solution. He is a misogynist with ill-thought out social theories and is completely unlikable. However, if they live together, Shiraha gets a place to stay and Keiko can pretend to fit in. What could possibly go wrong?

Keiko is a truly unique character. She is detached to an almost disturbing extent – whacking a playmate over the head with a shovel as a child, idly wondering about knifing her nephew to keep him quiet. Ultimately though, she is a convenience store woman to her core:

“A convenience store is not merely a place where customers come to buy practical necessities, it has to be somewhere they can enjoy and take pleasure in discovering things they like. I nodded in satisfaction and walked briskly around the store checking the displays. […] I could hear the store’s voice telling me what it wanted, how it wanted to be. I understood it perfectly.”

Convenience Store Woman is funny and almost surreal in places, but it is also an incisive look at what it means to be a woman struggling to find a place of acceptance within a society that oppresses who she truly is.

“Whenever I think of the past, it brings back so many memories.” (Steven Wright)

I’m a month into my new job and the main effect it’s having is that my memory is shot to pieces. Trying to cram #allthefacts about one particular health condition into my head means all other knowledge has dribbled out of my ears. In fairness, my short and long-term memory has always been appalling and I used to claim I operated in a constantly shifting 3 hour window. This is currently down to about 30 minutes. Plus I got lost at Bank the other day, when I’ve lived in London MY WHOLE LIFE. And there’s a bloomin’ great building at Bank (guess which one) to help you orient yourself.

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Where am I again? Oh, yeah…

So to console myself this week I’m looking at novels which explore memory. Its inherently unreliable nature means memory is a gift to novelists who want to consider how we construct reality and decide who we are. (At the moment I’m happy if I manage to construct a sentence, never mind reality and coherent sense of self).

Firstly, The Housekeeper and the Professor by Yoko Ogawa (2003, tr. Stephen Snyder 2008).I’m a huge admirer of Ogawa and her spare, stunning writing. In this short novel she details the relationship between a young housekeeper, her son, and the Professor she works for, who since a car accident in 1975 has a memory which lasts 80 minutes, though his memory from before the accident is intact.

“At the end of my first day, I noticed a new note on the cuff of his jacket. ‘The new housekeeper,’ it said. The words were written in tiny, delicate characters, and above them a sketch of a woman’s face. It looked like the work of a small child…but I knew instantly it was portrait of me. I imagined the Professor hurrying to draw this likeness before the memory had vanished. The note was proof of something, that he had interrupted his thinking for my sake.”

These notes cover the Professor’s suit and give him an eccentric experience which belies his brilliant mind. He is talented mathematician who sees numbers everywhere. His housekeeper became pregnant at 18 and needed to work to support her child; she is intelligent but not highly educated. Gradually though, he is able to convey the magic of numbers to her and her mind relishes the new challenge:

“With my finger I traced the trail of numbers from the ones the Professor had written to the ones I’d added, and they all seemed to flow together, as if we’d been connecting up the constellations in the night sky.”

Meanwhile Ogawa is able to convey the magic of numbers to the reader. There is no-one more resistant to mathematics than me – I won’t even play soduku. Yet the Housekeeper’s response to the discoveries the Professor opens up for her is so creative and joyful that I found myself carried along:

“I wondered why ordinary words seemed so exotic when they were used in relation to numbers. Amicable numbers or twin primes had a precise quality about them, and yet they sounded as though they’d been taken straight out of a poem. In my mind, the twins had matching outfits and stood holding hands as they waited in the number line.”

The titular characters and the Housekeeper’s son – nicknamed Root as his flat head reminds the Professor of the square root sign – form a tender alliance. The Professor cannot remember them from one day to the next, and yet he changes their lives forever, through his love of numbers and how he uses these to reach out to people.  The novel is a love story, but not a romance.  It is about the love of friends, of family, of vocation. It contains tragedy but also endurance beyond such, with Ogawa’s sparse style bringing the story a great delicacy. I adored it.

“I thought of the Professor whenever I saw a prime number – which, as it turned out, was almost everywhere I looked: price tags at the supermarket, house numbers above doors, on bus schedules or the expiration date on a package of ham, Root’s score on a test. On the face of it, these numbers faithfully played their official roles, but in secret they were primes and I knew that was what gave them their true meaning.”

Secondly, The Sea by John Banville, which won the Booker Prize in 2005. I’m still a bit conflicted about how I feel about this one, but it’s given me food for thought and is undoubtedly well-written, so I decided to add it to this blog where I only write about books I like. The Sea is narrated by Max Morden, coming to terms with the recent death of his wife. He returns to the holiday cottage which in his childhood was rented by a family, the Graces’, while Max and his family had a nearby chalet.

“I approached the Cedars circumspectly. How is it in childhood everything new that caught my interest had an aura of the uncanny, since according to all the authorities the uncanny is not some new thing but a thing known, returning in a different form, a revenant?”

The Sea is an effective exploration of memory as Max’s memories of the childhood holiday are jumbled alongside those of his marriage and especially his wife’s final illness. Chloe and Myles Grace are twins who never quite reveal themselves to Max, although he begins a tentative romance with Chloe.

“Her hands. Her eyes. Her bitten fingernails. All this I remember, intensely remember, yet it is all disparate, I cannot assemble it into a unity.”

As Max remembers the events of that summer he is forced to reflect on his wider choices and the man he is, particularly as he is now single again.

“Life, authentic life, is supposed to be all struggle, unflagging action and affirmation, the will butting its blunt head against the world’s wall, suchlike, but when I look back I see the greater part of my energies was always given over to the simple search for shelter, for comfort, for, yes, I admit, it, for cosiness.”

So… my reservations about this novel are weirdly some of its strengths. It is written in considered, careful prose, expertly structured overall to build to a conclusion that reconciles past and present. But for me it almost felt too considered, too artful. Then I wondered if Max, insecure about his social background, was supposed to be a slightly ponderous man out to prove his own cleverness? I’m not sure, I would have to read another of Banville’s novels to know. There are certainly moments of wry humour to lift the narrative at moments:

“these days I must take the world in small and carefully measured doses, it is a sort of homeopathic cure I am undergoing”

I’m undecided about Banville at present but I’ll certainly give him another try. If you’ve read him I’d really appreciate enlightenment as to his style and other novels that would be worth a read? The reason The Sea made it onto this determinedly positive blog was the final line of the novel, the final image. It was so powerful, such a perfect end, so moving and insightful: a moment of pure brilliance.

To end, it had to be either this or Elaine Paige dressed as a giant feline. Ultimately I decided to have my memories misty-water-coloured rather than alone in the moonlight. Take it away, Babs:

“Deep-versed in books and shallow in himself.” (John Milton)

Well, Milton’s got my number. My shallowness extends to books themselves –against conventional wisdom, I definitely judge by the cover.  Thank goodness I do, otherwise whole publishing marketing teams would be out of business.  This week I’m hoping other people aren’t as shallow as me as I’m starting a new job and I hope they overlook whatever gibbering first impression I make to see the hard-working-team-playing-but-definitely-not-a jobsworth- and-will-never-steal-your-lunch-from-the-fridge colleague within.

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I was also thinking about first impressions and book covers following an interesting post by Lady Fancifull a few weeks back, about a marketing campaign which played on this exact bias.  Earlier in the year, I was persuaded by another blogger, Cathy at 746 books, to stop being so shallow when I won a book in her giveaway, encouraged by her great review, although its cover meant I would never have picked it up normally. So in this post I’m going to look at the book I was lucky enough to win, and a book whose cover would have attracted me even if I wasn’t already a fan of the author.

Firstly then, Fallen by Lia Mills (2014). Here’s the cover:

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Yuck, right? Curlicues – seriously? I would never have picked this up, thinking it looked like a fluffy romance, which is not my taste at all. But while there is a love affair in Fallen, it is not romanticised. Mills is interested in the fallout from war on both those who served and those who remained behind (often women) and how a generation of young people were irrevocably damaged.

Katie Crilly is living in Dublin in 1915 and trying to find her way in a world where she doesn’t know what she wants, except that she definitely doesn’t want what others expect of her. Then her twin brother Liam announces he’s off to join the war effort.

 “He went into his room and shut the door. The latch clicked like a scold’s tongue, made me wish I’d a more generous heart. The silence on the landing was so deep I heard my own pulse tick.”

Liam dies, and Katie has to cope with profound grief, and the fact that her grief is commonplace:

“We’d heard that, in the Dardanelles, many of the Dublins were put off their boats into water that was too deep for them. Pulled under by the weight of their packs, they drowned, while Turkish bullets and mortar fire tore into their comrades and churned the sea red. The gas unleashed at Ypres, around the time that Liam died, was still claiming lives two months later. Every second person on Sackville Street wore a black armband, or a cuff.”

While all this is happening, the Easter Rising explodes onto the already wrecked population of Dublin. Katie finds herself stranded in the home of friends who are also giving shelter to a wounded soldier, Hubie, who knew Liam. Hubie, his wounds visible and invisible, is furious at the ignorance of those who have remained at home. Katie does not turn her face away from the horrors of war and recognises in Hubie a fellow haunted soul:

 “If you love someone, and that person dies, all that love becomes a burden, a weight accumulating, pooling inside you, with nowhere to go. What do you do with it? … Sometimes it gathered itself into a shape, a shadow, peeled itself off the ground and attached itself to my heel. It followed me and spoke, in Liam’s voice”

Fallen is about an ordinary life caught up in exceptional circumstances. It is about how to find meaning in a world where national events dwarf the individual. Ultimately it is a hopeful book, about how a fractured self can be rebuilt, whole but wholly different.

And it is very much about Dublin: Mills evokes a strong sense of place and Fallen was a perfect choice for Two Cities One Book, in the centenary year of the Easter Rising.

“There was something raw about the morning, as though layers of the city’s skin had rubbed off during the night.”

Secondly, The Nakano Thrift Shop by Hiromi Kawakami (2005, tr. Allison Markin Powell, 2016). I was excited to read this as I’d loved Strange Weather in Tokyo and was disappointed that none of Kawakami’s other work had been translated into English. The Nakano Thrift Shop was translated this year and like Strange Weather, the cover features one of Natsumi Hayashi’s beautiful levitating photographs:

Gorgeous, no? The pictures really capture the vibrancy, unpredictability and humour of Kawakami’s writing.

In The Nakano Thrift Shop, Hitomi takes a job at the eponymous business, uncertain of what she wants from life and hoping that the job will be undemanding:

“With its second-hand goods (not antiques), Mr Nakano’s shop was literally filled to overflowing…Mr Nakano would raise the shop’s shutter and, with a cigarette between his lips, he’d arrange the goods intended to tempt customers outside the front of the store…Sometimes ash from his cigarette fell on the turtle paperweight’s back, and Mr Nakano roughly brushed it off with a corner of the black apron that he always wore”

The owner has several ex-wives and a mistress. Despite his unprepossessing appearance, Mr Nakano has irresistible charm:

“I’d heard the phrase ‘a boyish grin’, but Mr Nakano’s grin was decidedly middle-aged. There was something scruffy about it. And yet, at the same time, it was also a winning smile. I suppose it’s the kind of smile that women, as they age, can’t resist”

Hitomi, Nakano, his artist sister Masayo and the driver Takeo form an unlikely quartet as they are thrown together. And really, very little happens. These four idiosyncratic, wholly believable characters rub along together in their day-to-day lives of triumphs and tragedies, some larger than others, explored through different objects in the shop. Takeo and Hitomi begin a tentative, on-again-off-again relationship that was heart-breaking, real and funny in its tenderness, misunderstanding, affection and frustration:

“I would eat a diet rich in vegetables, seaweed, and legumes, and every day would be sparkling and bright, my life brimming with health and vitality. While imagining this, I was again filled with a general sort of sadness. I definitely wasn’t sad because I was thinking about Takeo. Definitely not.”

This is not the novel to read when you’re in the mood for a heavily plotted, eventful story. Yet Kawakami captures the drama of everyday lives and their meaning. Her writing can also be startling, so while it is concerned with the ordinary it is never banal:

“The skin on Saskiko’s cheeks was glowing with an inner light. Just like the bottom of the gin jug, they reflected a dusky and beautiful radiance.”

The Nakano Thrift Shop is touching and life-affirming, but never sentimental. Fingers crossed for further translations…

To end, some shameless objectification of someone whose outward appearance has been my idea of perfection since 1981:

“We’ve all heard that a million monkeys banging on a million typewriters will eventually reproduce the entire works of Shakespeare. Now, thanks to the Internet, we know this is not true.” (Robert Wilensky)

Gong Hei Fat Choi! Happy New Year of the Fire Monkey! To celebrate the start of the Lunar New Year I thought I would look at writers from cultures and countries outside of China that also widely celebrate this event: a Hong-Kong born writer’s Philippines-set novel, and a Japanese writer, as the interwebs tell me Japan celebrates both the Gregorian and Lunar new years.  These will also be two more stops on my Around the World in 80 Books Reading Challenge, hosted by Hard Book Habit.

Fire Monkey - this is going to be your year, my simian friend

Fire Monkey – this is going to be your year, my simian friend

Image from here

Firstly, Brownout on Breadfruit Boulevard by Timothy Mo (1995). I picked this up because it was enthusiastically recommended  in a lecture I attended on post-colonial literature. Brownout is set primarily in the Philippines, in the fictional city of Gobernador de Leon, where Victoria Init, admirer of Imelda Marcos, strives to extend her congressman husband’s power.

“Rubbish carts too dilapidated to carry the neat and frugal household wastes of Osaka had come from Japan; schoolbuses no longer fit to carry Korean children from Seoul; traffic lights , too laconic to blink longer at the soldierly traffic in Wellington would glare defeasance implacably red-eyed at the escaped lunatics behind the steering wheels of the Gobernador de Leon jeepneys. Traffic was absurdly heavy…you would stay in the same place a maximum of five minute before creeping on again…So what if it was only inches? Advance was cumulative; the achievement slow but palpable. In short, at the end of it you had made progress. Progress was Victoria Init’s idol. She would sacrifice everything and everyone at the feet of that stern shibboleth”

The second part of the novel deals with a conference of academics coming to the city, through which Mo is able to extend the portrait of corruption flourishing in the face of lazy indifference and self-interest far beyond the politicking Inits and a toothless journalist named Boyet. The visiting intellectuals have no understanding, wrapped up as they are in their own tiny worlds. Some are overtly derogatory to other cultures, others restraining themselves to sweeping racism:

“Filipinos don’t actually have a colonial chip on their shoulder…The ordinary pinoy likes America and Americans, in fact there’s nothing he’d like better than to be one. And as for the language of the oppressor issue, Holy Moses, they grow up speaking English. It’s as natural to them as…”

I think it speaks volumes that the sentence is unfinished by the speaker. As a satire Brownout doesn’t entirely work – there’s not really a character to care about, to anchor the narrative to or throw the corruption into sharp relief.  It’s a novel filled with characters, a broad portrait that for me could have done with being a little deeper.  However, Mo is a highly skilled writer and, as my lecturer suggested, Brownout is certainly interesting from a post-colonial point of view. It didn’t wholly capture me but I enjoyed it enough that it makes it onto this blog, where I only write about books I recommend.

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Image from here

Secondly, The Diving Pool by prolific Japanese writer Yoko Ogawa (trans. Stephen Snyder), a collection of three stories written in a beautiful, spare style. In the deeply unsettling titular story a young girl falls in love with her foster brother:

“Sometimes I wish I could describe how wonderful I feel in those few seconds from time he spreads his arms above his head, as if trying to grab hold of something, to the instant he vanishes into the water. But I never can find the right words. Perhaps it’s because he’s falling through time, to a place where words can never reach.”

The narrator lives with a large extended family where she is the only biological child.

“I can never hear the words ‘family’ and ‘home’ without feeling that they sound strange, never simply hear them and let them go. When I stop to examine them, though, the words seem hollow, seem to rattle at my feet like empty cans.”

It’s quite a feat that for a precise, beautifully eloquent writer such as Ogawa, she makes what is left unsaid and unacknowledged the dominant theme of the collection. The girl in The Diving Pool carries out horrible acts of cruelty without really knowing why; in Pregnancy Diary, a young woman is mesmerised and yet alienated by her sister’s pregnancy:

“I wonder how she broke the news to her husband. I don’t really know what they talk about when I’m not around. In fact, I don’t really understand couples at all. They seem like some sort inexplicable gaseous body to me – a shapeless, colourless, unintelligible thing trapped in a laboratory beaker.”

Again, the narrator does not behave well, indeed, behaves in a shocking way, with quiet malice. The inarticulate nature of the narrators makes their behaviour all the more unsettling, as it is presented through simple statements of fact, unadorned and unjustified.

In the final story, Dormitory, a young woman returns to the dorm building she stayed in as a student:

“I would hear it for the briefest moment whenever my thoughts returned to the dormitory. The world in my head would become white, like a wide, snow-covered plain, and from somewhere high up in the sky, the faint vibration began…I never knew how to describe it. Still, from time to time I attempted analogies: the icy murmur of a fountain in winter when a coin sinks to the bottom; the quaking of the fluid in the inner ear as you get off a merry-go-round; the sound of night passing through the palm of your hand still gripping the phone after your lover hangs up…”

Ogawa is a stunning writer, and in this final story, rather than a psychologically disturbed protagonist, she unsettles the reader by leading them down a well-worn narrative route, before abruptly destabilising it with a surreal and astonishing final image. Highly recommended.