Category Archives: Novella

Mokusei! by Cees Nooteboom

Identity, time, space, art, photography, culture, passion and love.  These are just some of the topics that Nooteboom explores in his beautifully written, stirring novella.  Arnold Pessers is a Dutch photographer who gets a job with a travel agency to take photos in Japan for one of their brochures.  Pessers would rather spend his time doing more creative art projects, but assignments like this boring brochure are what pays his bills.  Nooteboom’s description of his character’s profession also gives us a hint at the numbness he feels about his life: “His world, and this was a fact to which he resigned himself, was a world of brochures, of ephemera that no one would ever look at again; the decay, the sell-out, the morass.”  Pessers instantly falls in love with the mysterious model he chooses for the photo shoot and over the course of five years he maintains a long distance yet fierce love affair with the woman he calls Mokusei.

When Pessers first arrives in Japan, he connects with De Goede, an old friend who works as a cultural minister in the Belgian Embassy.  As De Goede guides Pessers through different tourist attractions, they discuss the misperceptions that western tourists have about the Japanese people and its culture.  De Goede complains that visitors pick up “half-baked” ideas about Zen or Japanese history and think they know all about this culture:

They don’t speak the language and in most cases never will.  They know a little, which is really nothing, about Japanese culture, but that doesn’t bother them, they have something  better than knowledge, they have an idea about Japan.  And this idea always has to do with a certain form of asceticism or purity or whatever you like to call it.  To put it briefly, it comes down to this, that they are convinced that the Japanese have managed better than other people to keep their heritage intact, as if in some kind of pure, unadulterated culture.

The ugliness, the stupidity, the ruthless slavishness with which the Japanese copy our worst habits, the buying of mass products, the ridiculously aped decadence—they refuse to see it.

The many nuanced and misunderstood layers of this culture mirrors Pessers’s relationship with the Japanese model.  As they travel to Mount Fuji for the photoshoot and stay at a ryokan together, his time with her is intense, passionate, exotic and shatters him in so many ways: “It was passion that would burn him down to his roots and through which all that came before and after would fade, because this time it was love first and foremost and only secondly a story.”  In addition to sending letters and running up his phone bills to call her, he travels to Japan to see her several times over the course of the next five years.  He cannot find the words to describe to his friends what he feels about her.  Her presence in his life has caused him to reexamine his own existence and to look at his world differently.

Pessers doesn’t know very many details about her life in Japan.  She refuses to visit him in Europe and when he hints that he wants a life with her and children she tells him this is impossible because of her culture—her parents would never approve of such a union.  He has three different names for her, which add to the mystery about her identity and her culture:

Mokusei is one of the few Japanese plants that smell, he learnt later, and that was what he had called her from then on.  Now she had three names, one secret, only known to him as Snowy Mask, her own, Satoko, which he never used, and Mokusei.  By that name he wrote to her, it was a name that existed only for them.

The other Nooteboom title that I have read, Letters to Poseidon,  also showcases the author’s ability to take something mundane—a flower, the sea, a nickname, a landscape—and write about it in such a way that makes one look at it from a fresh, philosophical perspective.

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Filed under Novella, Seagull Books, Uncategorized

How Do You Write About Mediocre Books?

There are three books I read over the summer that didn’t inspire me to write complete reviews or posts.  If a book is really not resonating with me then I will abandon it, and I really don’t have the time or energy to waste on negative reviews.  These three titles kept my attention until the end but I would call them mediocre and could not muster enough enthusiasm or words for a full post.  I am very curious to see how other bloggers handle such middle-of-the-road books.

Adua, written by the Somali, Italian author Igiaba Scego and translated by Jamie Richards, moves among three different time periods and two different settings.  The main character, Adua, emigrates from Somalia to Italy and her own story is a mix of her current, unhappy life and flashbacks to her childhood in Somalia.  The third thread in the book deals with the protagonist’s father and his time spent as a servant for a rich Italian who is part of the Italian attempt at colonialism in East Africa just before World War II.  My issue with the book is that I wanted more details about Adua and her father but the plot was too brief to provide the depth of plot and characterization that I craved.  The author could have easily turned this story into three large volumes about Adua’s childhood, her father, and her adult life as an immigrant in Italy.  Adua did prompt me to research and learn more about Italian colonialism in the 20th century but other than that I didn’t have strong feelings about the title after I finished it.

Late Fame, written by Arthur Schnitzler and translated by Alexander Starritt, involves an episode in the life of an older man named Eduard Saxberger who is suddenly reminded of a collection of poetry entitled Wanderings that he had written thirty years earlier and has long forgotten.  A group of Viennese aspiring writers stumble upon Saxberger’s volume in a second hand bookshop and invite him to join their literary discussions at a local café.  Saxberger, although he never married or had a family,  considers his life as a civil servant very successful.  The young poets, whom Schnitzler satirizes as bombastic and overly self-important, stage an evening of poetry readings and drama at which event Saxberger is invited to participate. Saxberger learns that although it is nice to get a little bit of late fame and recognition from this ridiculous group of writers, he made the correct decision in pursuring a different career.  Trevor at Mookse and The Gripes has written a much better review of this book than I could have done and I highly encourage everyone to read his thoughts: http://mookseandgripes.com/reviews/2017/08/08/arthur-schnitzler-late-fame/

Party Going by Henry Green describes exactly what the title suggests: a group of British upper class men and women are attempting to get to a house party in France but are stuck at the train station in London because of thick fog.  Green’s narrative starts out on a rather humorous note as he describes these ridiculously fussy, British youth.  They panic with what Green calls “train fever” every time they think they are in danger of missing their train.  They fret over their clothes, their accessories, their luggage, their tea and their baths.  As the story progresses they become increasingly mean and petty towards one another which made me especially uncomfortable.  The men are portrayed as idiots and dolts who are easily manipulated by the vain and churlish women.  In the end I found Green’s characters so unpleasant that I couldn’t write an entire post about them.  I’ve read and written some words about his novels Back and Blindness both of which I thoroughly enjoyed.  I still intend to read all of the reissues of his books from the NYRB Classics selections even though I wasn’t thrilled with Party Going.

So which titles have my fellow readers found mediocre?  Do you bother to write anything about the ones that are just okay?

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Filed under British Literature, Classics, German Literature, Italian Literature, Literary Fiction, Literature in Translation, Novella

…And a Dream: Anna Soror by Marguerite Yourcenar

As I was reading Anna Soror, the third and final novella in Yourcenar’s Two Lives and a Dream, I kept thinking about the images of love that Ovid creates in Amores.  The beginning poems in Amores Book I, in particular, depict Love (Amor)—personified as  Cupid replete with arrows— as something to be feared because of its (or his)  unpredictable nature.  The poet himself has fallen victim to this volatile and unruly emotion and he is tortured because it is something over which he has no control.  He begins Amores 1.2 (the translation is my own):

Esse quid hoc dicam, quod tam mihi dura videntur
strata, neque in lecto pallia nostra sedent,
et vacuus somno noctem, quam longa, peregi,
lassaque versati corporis ossa dolent?
nam, puto, sentirem, siquo temptarer amore.
an subit et tecta callidus arte nocet?
sic erit; haeserunt tenues in corde sagittae,
et possessa ferus pecora versat Amor.

What should I call this, that my bedsheets seem
so hard to me, and my coverlets do not stay in their
place on my bed, and without sleep I have passed
the night, oh for so long, and the weary bones
of my tormented body are suffering? For I think
that I would feel it if I were tempted by love.
Or could it be that cunning Love has crept up
on me with its hidden arts? It will be thus;
Love’s subtle arrows have pierced my heart and
savage Love disturbs my breast which he
already occupies.

The image of Ovid’s tumultuous night recalls the character of Don Miguel who suffers from fevers, insomnia and exhaustion because he is in love with his sister, Anna.  Their story takes place in Naples in the late-16th century when their father, Don Alvaro, is serving as the Spanish Governor of that city.  They live in an elaborate, well-guarded castle and they are raised together by their mother, Donna Valentina, a pious women who cares deeply for both of her children.  Mother, daughter and son form a close bond that largely isolates them from the rest of the world.  When the three of them travel to southern Italy to oversee the grape harvest on one of the family estates, Donna Valentina is taken to her  bed with fever and her ensuing death devastates both of her children.  When their mother dies, the brother and sister oftentimes find themselves alone and this causes a strange tension between them.

Yourcenar, through an extreme example with incest, is attempting to make the same point about love as Ovid did with his poetry; love is unpredictable, it cannot be controlled, and no matter how hard we try to resist it or fight it or reason it away, it is an emotion to which we are all susceptible.  Yourcenar treats her characters with compassion and understanding.  Her story is not shocking, lewd or salacious, but instead she highlights the torment that Miguel and Anna feel in their deep and innocent love for one another.  Their feelings are very subtle at first and neither one of them understands why they are suffering from constant anxiety, haunting dreams and extreme fatigue.  Yourcenar is a master at slowly and steadily building tension in her stories.  She describes Don Miguel on one of his sleepless nights:

He no longer repressed his nightly fantasies.  He awaited with impatience the half consciousness of the mind falling asleep; with his face buried in his pillows, he gave himself over to his dreams.  He would awake from them with his hands burning, his mouth stale as if from a fever, and more obsessed than the day before.

And later, when brother and sister consummate their love during a brief period of joy and passion, Yourcenar’s text is subtle and sensitive.  She only composes a few lines about their sexual encounter: “In the darkness, she discerned his anguished face , which seemed eroded by tears.  The words she had prepared died on her lips.  She fell upon them with an anguished compassion.  They embraced.”  Don Miguel and Anna do not apologize or regret their relationship, but they fear eternal damnation so each chooses a penance in the hopes of mollifying their sin.  Don Miguel volunteers for a dangerous mission to rid the Mediterranean of pirates and dies in battle.  Anna, despite marrying and having two children, never feels the same joy that she experienced in her five days spent with Don Miguel.  Throughout her life she wears hair shirts and prays constantly in the hopes of being released from her sin.

Yourcenar does not shy away from exploring different kinds of forbidden love in her other writings.  In An Obscure Man, for instance, Nathanaël has an intimate, physical relationship with another man that he enjoys and for which he feels no remorse.  He knows the world would judge him for engaging in what are considered unnatural acts, but he refuses to believe that his genuine affection for another man should be considered wrong.  Yourcenar makes it clear in Anna, Soror that Don Miguel and Anna, likewise, are unapologetic for their sincere, kind and passionate love.  It is the church and its laws which they are taught to obey that condemns their connection and it is because of the church that each chooses a penance.

As Ovid’s poem progresses, he realizes that there is no fighting against Love (Amor) so he willfully surrenders to passion and embraces his fate.  The torment of the first scene of the poem in which he is tossing and turning in his bed fades away.   In the Postface to this collection of novellas, Yourcenar’s description of  her characters feels very similar to the force of Love that Ovid experiences: “Their passion is too powerful not to be acted upon, yet, despite the long inner conflict which precedes their fall, is immediately felt to be an ineffable happiness, so that no remorse penetrates them.”

I would also like to share this great article in the New Yorker about Marguerite Yourcenar that Anthony at Times Flow Stemmed recommended to me.  Yourcenar is a fascinating writer and I am looking forward to reading her memoirs as well as her historical fiction novel about the emperor Hadrian: http://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2005/02/14/becoming-the-emperor

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Filed under Classics, French Literature, Historical Fiction, Novella

Nil de Nilo Fit: A Different Sea by Claudio Magris

ἀρετή τιμὴν φέρει, (excellence brings honor), are the first words spoken by Magris’s protagonist in A Different Sea.  Enrico has graduated from the Royal Imperial Staatsgymnasium of Gorizia and has decided to set sail for Patagonia in an attempt to live an authentic life, free from material items, worry,  and The Great War which is about to break out in Europe.  His mind has been shaped by the Ancient Greek texts that he and his friends Nino and Carlo are so fond of reading in Nino’s attic room:

Up in Nino’s attic in Gorizia they would read Homer, the tragedians, the Pre-Socratics, Plato, and the New Testament in the original Greek, and Schopenhauer—also, of course, in the original; the Vedas, the Upanishads, the Sermon of Benares and the other teachings of Buddha; Ibsen, Leopardi, and Tolstoy.  They used to exchange their thoughts and describe the day’s events, like that story of Carlo and the dog, in ancient Greek, and then translate them into Latin for fun.

Enrico has an existential crisis in his youth as he is trying to decide what, for him, constitutes excellence in his life.  To the Homeric heroes he is so fond of studying, excellence comes in the form of success on the battlefield which, in turn, brings them honor.  Enrico’s search for purpose in life seems to have more elements of Epicurean philosophy than Homeric values.  He feels the most content when he is with his friends, in the attic, discussing life and Greek philosophy.  Epicurus himself achieved ἀταραξία (a lack of disturbance) sitting in his garden and contemplating human existence with his friends.

The Epicurean elements of Magris’s text continue as Enrico traverses the ocean in order to reach South America.  Enrico craves simplicity, has no interest in politics, avoids pain and has no fear of death.  On board the ship, when he is told the story of a famous captain who dies at sea Enrico remarks: “Nil de nilo fit et nil in nilum abit” (nothing happens from nothing and nothing will go into nothing).  Once he reaches Argentina he spends weeks and months alone herding his flocks and living in a modest hut with only a bed and a few Greek books.

When Enrico finally returns home he settles in Salvore and also lives a modest life in a small house and rents his land out to tenants.  But he still remains unhappy and unfulfilled since his friends have all died and he fails to make connections with anyone else in his life.  Every time he has the chance to get close to someone, especially a woman, he ends up driving them away.  His poor relationship with women begins early in his life with his mother whom he feels favors his younger brother.  He finds comfort in having a woman with him who can also fulfill his sexual needs but he treats each woman he lives with very badly.  Even his niece, for whom he at first develops a fondness, is treated poorly and verbally abused by Enrico.  In the end Enrico’s loneliness and his failure to achieve ἀταραξία are due to his inability to make emotional connections with other people in his life.  He never finds his excellence, his reason for living, something that can bring him honor and self-satisfaction.

I found Magris’s writing in A Different Sea as enjoyable as his longer novel Blameless which I recently reviewed.  He is fond of weaving images of the sea into his stories, imbedding stories within stories in his texts, and portraying flawed characters who are searching for meaning in this random, crazy life.

Here is a link to a recent interview with Claudio Magris whose English translation of Blameless has just been published by Yale University Press: http://blog.yupnet.org/2017/04/13/writing-as-witness-a-conversation-with-claudio-magris/

For a more detailed discussion of excellence and honor in Homer see my thoughts on Logue’s War Music: https://thebookbindersdaughter.com/2017/03/23/excellence-and-honor-in-logues-war-music/

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Filed under Historical Fiction, Italian Literature, Literary Fiction, Literature in Translation, Novella, World War I

In umbra voluptatis lusi: My Review of Pascal Quignard’s A Terrace in Rome

To read any work by Pascal Quignard whether fiction or non-fiction, is to experience philosophical and literary reflections on sex, love, shadows, art and death.  A Terrace in Rome, his novella which won the Grand Prix du Roman de l’Académie Française prize in 2000, explores all of his most favored themes and images via the fictional story of Geoffroy Meaume, a 17th century engraving artist whose illicit love for a woman causes him horrible disfiguration, pain and suffering. The year is 1639 when twenty-one-year-old Meaume, serving an apprenticeship as an engraver, first lays his eyes on Nanni, the eighteen year-old blond beauty who is betrothed by her father to another man. For a while Meaume is happily absorbed in this secret affair and playing in umbra voluptatis (in the shadow of desire.)

Meaume and Nanni’s love affair comes to an abrupt and tragic end, but through his art, his memories and his dreams he is always seeking that same feeling of desire he felt for her as a twenty-one-year-old apprentice. Meaume says in his own words: “I have never found joy again with any woman other than her. It is not joy I miss, it is her. And so have I, all my life, etched the same body moving in the intensity of passion of which I never stopped dreaming.” Each of the forty-seven chapters in the book are succinct– most are only a page or two—as Quignard is a master at composing a tightly woven narrative which lends the feeling that every word, every character, every image has been carefully placed on the page and is of the utmost importance.  For those who are new to Quignard’s philosophical and roving style of writing, A Terrace in Rome is a perfect first, short piece to begin an exploration of his writings.   For those of us who are familiar with his other books, especially his non-fiction—The Roving Shadows, The Abysses, The Sexual Night, Sex and Terror—we find some familiar themes personified in the character of Meaume and his life of shadows, desire, sex and art.

Read my full review of A Terrace in Rome in 3:AM Magazine.  Special thanks to the fabulously talented book review editor, Tristan Foster, for giving me this opportunity.

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Filed under French Literature, Novella