Wednesday, December 19, 2012

"A Posthumous Confession" (1894) by Marcellus Emants (Book Review)

When South-African/Australian Noble Prize winning author J.M. Coetzee takes the trouble to translate a book, there must be something good about it... and indeed, A Posthumous Confession by Emants is one of the best Dutch novels I know. It is also a very bleak story - something it has in common with the oeuvre of Coetzee.

The Dutch writer Marcellus Emants (1848-1923) belonged to the group of writers who came up in the eighties of the 19th c. and who modernized Dutch literature - for the first 80 years of the century, Dutch literature (and for that matter, all of society) had been in the deadening, small-minded grip of pastors, preachers and grocers. That changed in the 1880s, when Holland also underwent a rather belated industrial revolution.

Many of the new authors were influenced by naturalism (Zola); Emants also admired Turgenev, but A Posthumous Confession has in the first place been influenced by Dostoevsky's Notes from the Underground (1864). It is also very much a fin de siècle novel, encased in a suffocating web of guilt and fear.

The plot is simple. When the novel opens, a man of independent means called Termeer has just murdered his wife. The novel is his confession of how this came about. Termeer is a despicable man, full of self-loathing. He is pathologically introverted, indolent and unable to take any action, uninterested in society, and without a shred of empathy for his fellow humans.

He feels that everything in his life has gone wrong: he had a terrible childhood, as he was treated as an outsider by other children; after he grew up, he became very much interested in women, but was to shy to approach them, so he had to satisfy his urge with prostitutes. After a particularly wild period, he decides to straighten out his life by marrying. He knows no suitable partner, but notices that the man who has been his former guardian has an unmarried daughter. This daughter accepts him, as he is the first to propose to her and she is already thirty - in the 19th c. women were expected to marry.

Although they spend a few quiet years together, the loveless marriage is unhappy, especially after the death of a girl baby (Termeer is relieved as he hates children). Termeer seeks his pleasure outside the house, he becomes infatuated with a dancing girl and needs money for her upkeep. His wife in her turn  becomes close friends with their neighbor, a former pastor with a sickly little daughter. They have many soulful talks, making Termeer madly jealous. He wants to separate and marry the dancing girl, but his wife rejects this - she will do her duty to him, she says.

Termeer works himself into a mad frenzy - when he happens to notice that in her nervous state his wife has had recourse to a sleeping potion, he pours another bottle of the stuff down her throat. The coroner decides it is inadvertent death by an overdose of the potion. Here the story ends, but... it is a "posthumous" confession, so what happened to him? Did guilt after all overtake him, or was he jilted by his dancing girl and did he kill himself out of spite?

A Posthumous Confession reminded me somewhat of the early stories of Arthur Schnitzel, where we find the same type of introspection brought about by new notions of psychology. It is a pessimistic story, as were most novels by Emants; he also wrote interesting travelogues.
The Dutch version of the novel is online here. Coetzee's English translation is available from NYRB Books. Coetzee has also written an interesting essay about the novel in his Stranger Shores.

Saturday, December 15, 2012

Tai (Madai)、Red Seabream

Red Seabream (madai, often called just “tai” in Japanese) is the King of Fish.

[Griled Sea Bream for the New Year]

In Japan, red seabream was traditionally eaten during auspicious or celebratory occasions – during the New Year, or at weddings. The reason for that is that the sound of the word “tai” reappears in the word “medetai,” meaning "auspicious."

The fish was used as an offering to the gods or a gift to the Imperial Court.

Madai has a brilliant red skin, firm and translucent white flesh and a sweet taste. It has little smell. Wild madai is available from winter through spring. It is difficult to catch as the fish does not form schools, making it a luxury product. The highest catch comes from Kumamoto, Nagasaki, Ehime, Kochi, Wakayama and Mie, and also the sea bream from Akashi in the Inland Sea is famous. Sea bream can now also be farmed.

[Tai no kabutoni]

Madai is used as sashimi and on sushi, and also popular grilled (usually the whole fish). Chunks of madai may be added to clear soups (suimono), larger pieces to one-pot dishes (nabemono). Kabutoni (the simmered head of the fish) is considered a delicacy. Pieces of sea bream can also be steamed with white rice to make tai-meshi.

Because of the name value, the name tai is attached to many fish which have nothing to do with the above – look for "madai" which is the one and only sea bream!

Wednesday, December 5, 2012

"Roads to Berlin" (2012) by Cees Nooteboom (Non-Fiction)

Cees Nooteboom (1933) is a Dutch poet, novelist and above all, writer about travel and culture, whose name regularly turns up on those mysterious short lists of Nobel Prize contenders. Nooteboom has written impressive novels as Rituals (1980), All Souls Day (1998) and Lost Paradise (2004). His travel writing is always of a philosophical and historical bent and has appeared in such collections as Roads to Santiago (1997) and Nomad's Hotel (2009).

Nooteboom's work has been extensively translated into English, Spanish (the country of his residence), and above all, German - in Germany, even his collected works have been published and one could safely say that he is more popular in that country than in The Netherlands. The reason is probably that Nooteboom's work has an "idealistic" bent, it is full of whirling thoughts, and his sentences also are rather long - general characteristics of German prose. The display of erudition one finds in his work is probably another element that puts off some Dutch readers.

That doesn't mean in the least Nooteboom is German - he is much more than Dutch or German or Spanish or whatever nationality, he is an all too rare example of a pan-European intellectual. Nooteboom is a modern Renaissance man, with a huge field of interests ranging from philosophy and political thought, to contemporary art, literature, music, architecture and almost anything else. I always feel envious when in his essays he casually scatters names of famous thinkers and writers, while it is clear that he has also actually found the time to read and study them.

Roads to Berlin (subtitle: "Detours & Riddles in the Lands & History of Germany") is a collection of various pieces written about Germany between 1963 and 2012, with an emphasis on 1989, the year the Berlin Wall fell and a period when Nooteboom actually was living in that city. In this way he became witness to one of the most significant turning points in 20th century history, mapping the changing moods of the country, describing the pivotal events of Germany's difficult passage to reunification. We are lucky with this observer, the most informed and perceptive one you could wish for.

Nooteboom always sees present events through the lens of history. He writes a beautiful prose, poetical and whimsical. He is both personal and objective. Besides the Wall which is viewed from countless perspectives (including that of the Wall which is no longer there), there are long discussions about Germany's history, its influence on its neighbors, and the question which was deliberated in 1989 whether the Germans themselves or its neighbors wanted Germany to be again reunited and become a large force in Europe. Of course this is what has happened, and now Europe itself is unthinkable without Germany.

But Nooteboom also shows us other interesting vistas: mythical, such as the huge statue of the legendary German tribal leader Hermann in the Teutoburg Forest, or  the grotto of Emperor Barbarossa; political, as Nuremberg with Hitler's Walhalla and Nazi Party rally grounds, or the bridge into Poland over the Oder; literary, as the Brocken of Walpurgisnacht fame in the Harz mountains and Goethe's Weimar; weird, as the East-German Museum of the Unconditional Surrender of Fascist Germany, or an exhibition of the disintegrating aeroplanes built by the artist Anselm Kiefer, or a rhapsody on German eagles.

Most impressive, too, are the two intermezzo's about Munich, where the author falls in love with "Justice," a stone woman holding a Sword and a Book on the Max II monument, and later experiences an apocalyptic Liebestraum about a golden angel...
Published in English by Maclehose Press, London. Website of Cees Nooteboom (in English).
Non-Fiction Index

Tuesday, December 4, 2012

"Travels with Charley in Search of America" by John Steinbeck (Best Non-Fiction)

It was an impossible endeavor. In 1960 the writer John Steinbeck, then living in New York and Sag Harbor, set out with a camper on a 10,000 mile journey around the U.S. He had been cooped up for long years in his apartment in New York and wanted to meet "ordinary Americans" again - the kind of people he had so vividly written about in his great novels of the 1930s like Grapes of Wrath. Steinbeck thought he could have deep conversations with them about the state of America, while camping out.

A second reason for the trip was Steinbeck's "macho fixation" - he believed a man should "do things with his own hands" and "live violently" - now at age 58 he wanted to test what was left of his physical powers. As the book tells, already before the trip he could prove his toughness: when a hurricane hits Long Island the day before he plans to leave, he wades out into the stormy harbor to save his boat.

So just after Labor Day 1960 Steinbeck sets out in his green GMC truck, fitted with a custom built camper. He calls it Rosinante after the horse of Don Quixote - he probably knew he was setting out on a Quixotic trip himself. He was accompanied by his sprightly dog, a French poodle called Charley, middle-aged like himself. Starting in Long Island, the fateful journey of one man, one dog and a truck would follow the border of the United States, going all throughout the North, through the Pacific Northwest, down into Steinbeck's native Salinas Valley in California, across to Texas, then through the Deep South, and finally back to New York. Two years later he would publish the book about the trip as Travels with Charley in Search of America, and it would become an instant bestseller.

Steinbeck's original plans were just too megalomaniacal. How much of the country can you see when the landscape just flashes by on such a long trek by car? How many interesting people can you meet when you sit all day long behind the wheel? The first part of the trip, through New England is still fairly detailed and takes up half of the book, but after the Mid-West Steinbeck starts to jump, with bigger and bigger leaps. He must have been driving like mad for days on end, just to complete the journey... Unfortunately, that doesn't leave much of the story.

Despite the intention to test his toughness and loneliness, as we now know, the journey was not at all so hard. Steinbeck broke the trip several times for lengthy stays with his wife - who flew in from New York - in luxury hotels (Chicago, San Francisco) or at the ranch of Texas millionaires. The times he camped out, made his own food and washed his own clothes, were in fact far and few between: most of the time he slept in motels. And during the last part his wife was riding with him in the cabin.

It doesn't matter, unless you are interested in macho stories. What Steinbeck gives us in full is the view of America from the windows of his truck, and that view is authentic.

The same can be said about the meetings Steinbeck describes - we know from his letters that these, too, did not really take place as he writes about them. And again, it doesn't matter. All travel writing contains fictional elements (take the famous In Patagonia by Bruce Chatwin!) - authors have to select things, leave out things, and to make the book readable they will reorganize events and discussions. Travel literature is not journalism. By the use of his imagination Steinbeck gives us humor in the portrait of his dog Charley (and his talks with the dog), and he lets us meet several rare characters, as a New Yorker-reading aspiring hairdresser living in the middle of nowhere, or a traveling Shakespearean actor camping out near a river in North-Dakota. Even though Steinbeck has reorganized ("massaged") his impressions, they are not less true.

Steinbeck shows us the America of the early 1960s, a view in kaleidoscopic images of a "new America" that did not live up to his expectations. He is appalled by the sameness he finds everywhere, for example of food and of lodgings, by the loss of dialect, by the environmental destruction. He wonders about the large number of people living in campers, as if Americans have no roots. But there are also beautiful descriptions of landscapes, of Montana that he loves, of California and the giant sequoias, of Texas. There are funny scenes such as when he is advised not to enter Canada as on reentering the U.S. his dog will have to be quarantined, or when almost home he looses his way in New York. And, finally, there is great and justified anger, too, when in New Orleans he observes how black children need police protection to commute to one of the first mixed schools, and how a group of white women ("Cheerleaders") everyday comes to the school gate to shout the basest obscenities at the colored kids. When on top of that a taxi driver tells him "Them goddamn New York Jews come in and stir the niggers up," he is so disgusted with the America he encounters, that he cancels the further trip and just rushes home.

Travels with Charley is great travel literature, an impression of America in 1960 enhanced by the pen of a consummate author. In 1962, Steinbeck received the Nobel Prize in Literature.
I read the Penguin Classics edition. A recent voice accusing Steinbeck of "fraud" is journalist Bill Steigerwald (article in NYTimes, website); a counter-voice can be found here. My answer is, as I have written above, that literature is not journalism and that also travel writing is never a fact-by-fact account.

Friday, November 16, 2012

Short Stories by Abe Kobo (Book Review)

Abe Kobo (1924-93) is best known for The Woman in the Dunes and the film based on it by Teshigahara. To me, this superb novel is indeed the crown on his work, but also in other novels, stories and plays Abe has engaged in surreal and nightmarish explorations of individuals in contemporary society. The usual comparisons to Kafka (and Beckett) are unavoidable, although, interestingly enough, Japanese commentators in the past used to emphasize the Marxist political dimension of his work - a side which to me is happily invisible. Reducing Abe's work that addresses the general human condition to the mere political is in fact absurd.

[Abe Kobo]

Since the 1970s, three collections of English translations of Abe's short stories have seen the light of day, the last one being Beyond the Curve (1991) by Juliet Winters Carpenter. I have also a collection of five stories in a Dutch translation, and it seems there were translations in many other languages as well, although most of that is now out of print. Writers have their seasons and that of Abe Kobo seems a bit past - something which enables us to have a more objective look at his real achievement. So here are first the short stories, like the novels a subtle merging of real and surreal events. An ordinary individual is suddenly placed  into extraordinary, often nightmarish circumstances that lead him to question his identity.

Here are remarks on a number of the stories:

"Red Cocoon" (1950; not in Beyond the Curve, but in my Dutch collection; it has also been translated in The Showa Anthology, 1985) is one of Abe's earliest stories which already contains the idea of alienated man that we find in his later fiction. A homeless man is wondering why he has no home. Or does he have a home and has he forgotten it? He happens to pull on a bit of silk thread hanging from his shoe and ends up unraveling his leg, then his whole body. The thread forms a cocoon around him, until his body has completely been unraveled. "I have a house now," says the man, "but there is no one left to come home to it." Alienated man seeking for a place in society has lost himself in the process.

This can also be linked to Abe's own rootlessness. He was born in Tokyo, but grew up in Manchuria, while his family came originally from Hokkaido. Abe always felt he had no real place of origin. That could also be the reason his fiction has such an international quality: it is mostly devoid of typical Japaneseness, and not linked to any specific cultural location. In that respect Abe Kobo resembles Murakami Haruki.

In "Dendrocacalia" (1949) a bewildered man called Common discovers he is turning into a rare plant; he eventually ends up in a botanical garden. The director of the Botanical Garden is called K. so it is clear we are in Kafkaen territory here!

Only part of "The Crime of Mr. S. Karma" (1951) has been translated in Beyond the Curve - which is a pity as it is quite interesting: the "crime" is that Mr S. Karma lets his name cards (meishi) get away from him and take over his personality. Without cards he has no name or identity, no self, he is hollow inside - a predicament that shows how much Japanese businessmen rely on their business cards.

"Intruders" (1951) is the only political story: a salaryman living alone in a small apartment is visited by complete strangers, a large family with grown-up sons and a daughter, who take over his apartment and his life. They use his money and he has to wait on them as their servant. They even steal his girlfriend. Although they behave very dictatorially, everything is decided "democratically" by the majority. This is a satire of the American occupation of Japan; in his play "Friends" Abe later would remove the anti-American satire and write a  more general piece about the human condition.

"Beguiled" (1957) is a very clever story. Two man confront each other in the waiting room of a small station, one the pursuer, the other the pursued... but which is which? In the end, one of them is led back to the lunatic asylum from which he escaped.

"The Dream Soldier" (1957) is a moving, straightforward story about an old police officer guarding a village during war time. An army unit is exercising in the snow and a deserter is on the loose. When the villagers find him, he has already committed suicide - it is the son of the old officer. Thanks to the subdued and indirect way of narration, this is a small masterpiece.

In "The Bet" (1960) an architect for a demanding advertising company discovers a bizarre building with doors and stairs that lead not to other spaces but to red lights and slogans. It is a satire on the efficiency of a modern company. The contest is to decide where the President should have his room. The architect finally designs "the path of the president's office as a mathematical function of the System."

In "An Irrelevant Death" (1961), a man returns home from work to find a murdered man he doesn't know in his apartment. He contemplates ways how to get rid of the unexplained and unpleasant body without incurring suspicion, but everything he does seems to implicate him more and more in the crime.

In "Beyond the Curve" (1966) a man with amnesia tries to remember his past, which exists just beyond the curve of his mind - and is symbolized by the fact that he can't remember what is beyond the curve of the road he is walking on. He has no identity, he even has no business cards in his wallet. When a woman working in a coffee restaurant recognizes him, he still fails to remember who he is and he can only try to cover up his ignorance while waiting for his memory to come back.

Photo: From Wikimedia Commons

Wednesday, November 14, 2012

"Heart of Darkness" by Joseph Conrad (Best Novellas)

He cried in a whisper at some image, at some vision—he cried out twice, a cry that was no more than a breath—"The horror! The horror!"
Heart of Darkness appeared in Blackwell's Magazine in 1899, and was issued in book form in 1902. This novella is the absolute masterwork of Polish-born English author Joseph Conrad. The story is narrated by Charles Marlow, who accepts an assignment from a Belgian trading company as captain of a river boat in Africa. Besides transporting ivory, his major task is to bring back Kurtz, a trader of the company, who has set himself up as the dictator of his own small kingdom in the wilderness, letting the native tribes worship him.

The story is partly based on Conrad's own experience: about eight years before, Conrad had been appointed by a Belgian trading company to serve as the captain of a steamer on the Congo River. Congo Free State was the private colony of Belgium's King Leopold II, and as has been described so aptly in Adam Hochschildt's King Leopold's Ghost: A Story of Greed, Terror, and Heroism in Colonial Africa, it was one of the cruelest colonies in Africa. From 1885 until 1909, the greedy king used his mercenary army to force slaves into mines and rubber plantations, apply sadistic punishments such as cutting off hands or feet, and commit mass murder. In Conrad's story, the country is kept vague, probably to make the story more generally applicable and not just write a political book. But the novel fits in the supra-national protest movement, the first one ever, in which King Leopold II's "rape of the Congo" was harshly criticized, also by many other writers such as  Mark Twain.

[Congo River]
The "darkness" in the title not so much points to "dark Africa" - despite the misgivings of the Nigerian writer Chinua Achebe who has lashed out at Conrad for treating the Africans around Mr Kurtz as savages -, for the problem is not alleged African primitiveness. The true "darkness" is that of colonialism, a barbarity imported from Europe - Conrad saw the extortion, the maiming, the heavy iron chains, in short the enslavement of many Africans for the profit of the Europeans who lusted after ivory and rubber. And again at a deeper level, the darkness is also the darkness at the heart of European civilization - you can't do what the Europeans were doing in 19th c. Africa and come away unblemished yourself. This darkness in Europe built up tension and unleashed itself in the horrors of the Great European War (WWI) of 1914-18, and its sequel, WWII. As a consequence, in the first half of the 20th c., Europe became the true "dark continent" (see the book by Mark Mazower of that title).

[The "Roi des Belges," the Belgian riverboat
Conrad commanded on the upper Congo, 1889]

An interesting detail is that Marlow tells his story when seated with friends in a boat on the Thames while darkness is falling. They look at the horizon and see the silhouette of the City of London, another dark mass, where British colonial adventures were planned - Britain was just then involved in the Second Boer War in South Africa where a scorched earth technique was used against the farmers and where also the world's first concentration camps were "invented," with a death toll of 150,000.

[Colonial river post]
In short, there is an unfathomable darkness within every human being, the capacity of the human ape for committing heinous acts of evil knows no bounds. It must be that realization which made the dying Kurtz cry out: "The horror! The horror!"
Conrad's work is out of copyright, Heart of Darkness is therefore freely available, for example at Gutenberg. I read the novella in the Penguin Modern Classics edition which has an interesting introduction as well as a fragment from Conrad's African diary. Heart of Darkness formed the inspiration for the 1979 film by Coppola, Apocalypse Now.

Tuesday, November 13, 2012

"First Love, Last Rites" & "Between the Sheets" by Ian McEwan (Book Review)

Ian McEwan started writing in the 1970s and his first two books were collections of short stories: "First Love, Last Rites" (1972) and "Between the Sheets" (1978). One glance - even at the titles of the individual stories - suffices to show that these sinister and perverse stories are rather different from McEwan's later work, such as the celebrated novel Atonement. The only thing they share is the controlled, elegant and precise language, one of the reasons I admire McEwan's books so much. But as content goes, these  fifteen stories are utterly weird and disturbing, full of freaks and monsters who tell about their misdeeds in sickening detail. The stories are also quite varied in nature. McEwan has said that these early tales were a sort of laboratory for him, allowing him to try out different things, to discover himself as a writer.

The protagonists of the stories are often isolated, sexually-deviant males. The first story in the first collection ("Homemade") is about a young teenager who tricks his little sister into incest. The sexual initiation strikes the precocious adolescent boy as comical rather than anything else, in what is perhaps a nod towards Philip Roth's Portnoy's Complaint.

More evil is the protagonist in "Butterflies:" a lonely and misshapen man (a dwarf) meets a little girl on a deserted path along a canal, befriends her but panics after he touches her, and ends up drowning her in the waters. The deed is terrible, but so is his realization of lifelong solitude. McEwan deftly tricks the reader into an improbable sympathy with the outcast.

In “Pornography,” a man who is the owner of a porno shop leads a despicable life: he is sleeping with two different nurses, passing on a venereal disease to both. When the women by chance meet each other, they decide to take revenge by applying their clinical skills with brutal efficiency, acting out their fantasies in a scene that is even more violent than the most awful BDSM books the man sold in his shop.

There are also comical stories, although the situations remain weird. In "Solid Geometry" a man reads the diaries of his great-grandfather in which a "geometrical" method is described to make people disappear into another dimension. As his wife has started to disgust him, he tries it out on her, with great success. In "Reflections of a Kept Ape" the narrator hangs on kitchen cabinets and behaves not really human, although he has a relation with the woman, a writer, with whom he lives. Gradually it becomes clear to the reader that the story is told by an ape. In "Dead as They Come" a jaded millionaire buys himself the perfect mistress and plunges into a hell of jealousy and despair, as he fears this stunning beauty can't be faithful to him. And that, while the "mistress" is a mannequin, acquired from a shop window...

McEwan dissects his characters as in a laboratory. Reading these dark, experimental stories almost feels like an act of voyeurism. But here also lies the kernel of McEwan's authorship, allowing readers of McEwan's books to understand how he has evolved as a writer. And certain elements, such as the dark humor McEwan finds in human foibles, are a constant in his work - take, for example, On Chesil Beach.

Kamakura Museum of Literature: Lawn above the clouds

There is not much to see in literature museums, but in the case of the Kamakura Museum of Literature you come for the great house and spacious garden. A Western-style villa right in the middle of the old warrior capital! The art deco manor was built in 1936 by the Maeda family, who had been the feudal rulers of the rich fief of Kaga, now Ishikawa prefecture with capital Kanazawa.

Many famous politicians used to come here, as prime ministers Eisaku Sato (after retirement he spent his weekends here) and Shigeru Yoshida. The house also figures in Yukio Mishima's novel Spring Snow. It was donated to Kamakura City in 1983 and after renovation became a literature museum.

That is not such a strange choice, as Kamakura has deep ties with Japanese literature. Kamakura already appears in the ancient poetry anthology Manyoshu. It also feautures in the Tale of Heike and other war literature, as well as in travelogues of the Middle Ages. One of the most important Kamakura poets was the Minamoto shogun Sanetomo, whose work has been collected in the Kinkai Wakashu after he was murdered on the stairs of the Tsurugaoka Hachiman Shrine in 1219.

Modern authors were attracted by the shrines and temples of Kamakura. Some, as Natsume Soseki, came to practice Zen meditation; he also situated his novel Kokoro in Kamakura. The haiku poet Takahama Kyoshi lived in Kamakura as well. Others came here to spend the summer, for recuperation, or to visit the charming vestiges of the old capital.

The most notable modern author who resided in Kamakura is of course Nobel Prize winner Kawabata Yasunari. Kawabata also situated important novels as Thousand Cranes and The Sound of the Mountain in the historical town. In addition, filmmaker Ozu made several of his postwar films here, marvelously capturing the relaxed residential atmosphere; Ozu is buried in Engakuji Temple (see here for directions).

The display in the beautiful house consists of manuscripts and photographs. Most interesting is perhaps the large garden, which has azaleas, roses and a lawn, that slopes down the hill. When you stand on the terrace of the house, you see the green grass of the lawn and immediately behind that, Yuigahama beach. The town is blotted out. It is as if you live in the clouds, far above the hustle and bustle of ordinary life, like all those Maeda marquises and politicians did.
Tel: 0467-23-3911

Hrs: 9:00-16:00. CL Mon.

Access: 7-min walk from Yuigahama St on the Enoden Line.

Monday, November 12, 2012



Chinese-style wheat noodles


Also called Chuka-soba (中華そば). Ramen is a form of the Japanese-Chinese (Chuka) cuisine, as this dish does not originally exist in China. A type of ramen was first sold in Japan from around the 1900s, both in restaurants and food stalls. After WWII, the popularity of ramen soared as cheap wheat became available from the U.S. In 1958, instant ramen was invented by Ando Momofuku. It became a popular food among students, salarymen living away from their families on tanshin funin basis, as well as harried housewives. In the 1980s a veritable ramen boom started, making this noodle the king of the B-Gourmet scene. There are countless magazines and books devoted to ramen and ramen restaurants, as well as manga and films.

Ramen noodles contain four ingredients: wheat flour, salt, water, and kansui (an alkaline mixture) or eggs, lending the noodles a yellowish hue and a firm texture. Ramen noodles are kneaded, left to sit, then stretched with both hands - this is also the probable origin of the name, as "ramen" literally means "stretched" or "pulled" noodles.

Ramen noodles are served in a hot soup based on stock from chicken or pork, plus a choice of other ingredients as kelp (konbu), bonito flakes (katsuobushi), dried baby sardines (niboshi), shiitake mushrooms, salt, miso and soy sauce.

Based on the soup, four basic types of ramen are distinguished:
  • Shio-ramen. Light and clear soup. Made with salt and any combination of chicken, vegetables and seaweed. From Hokkaido.
  • Shoyu-ramen. Clear brown soup. Based on a chicken and vegetable stock with plenty of soy sauce added. Savory, yet light. Originally from Tokyo. 
  • Tonkotsu-ramen. Cloudy, white colored soup. Made with pork bones (tonkotsu). Hearty  flavor and creamy consistency. A specialty of Kyushu, particularly Hakata in Fukuoka.
  • Miso-ramen. Thick soup based on miso with chicken or fish broth. Robust and hearty soup. developed in Sapporo (Hokkaido) and nationally popular from around the mid-1960s.
The quality of the soup determines the quality of the whole ramen dish.

Popular toppings include sliced pork (chashu), bean sprouts, spring onion, nori, kamaboko (often in the form of Naruto-maki, thinly sliced fish-cake with a pink inset resembling a whirlpool - named after the whirlpools of Naruto in Tokushima) and brownish shinachiku (lactic fermented pickles of bamboo shoots). Other possibilities, especially for tonkotsu-ramen, are boiled egg, cloud-ear fungus (kikurage) and red pickled ginger (benishoga). A popular seasoning is black pepper.

There are many regional styles (Sapporo, Kitakata, Tokyo, Yokohama, Kyoto, Wakayama, Hakata/Kyushu, etc.) as is already clear from the above.

Related types of noodles are: Nagasaki champon, tsukementantan-men, wantan-men and reimen.

Ramen noodles are central to Itami Juzo's great film Tampopo, which has been called a "ramen Western."

And talking about national dishes... in Japan ramen is more popular than sushi...

Japanese Food Dictionary

Wednesday, November 7, 2012

"My Name is Red" by Orhan Pamuk (Book Review)

The Turkish writer Orhan Pamuk, who was in 2006 granted the Nobel Prize in Literature, was born into a wealthy, upper-class Istanbul family. He was originally interested in architecture and painting, but changed course during his studies and after graduating from the Institute of Journalism, became a professional writer. His first novel, a traditional family saga in the style of Buddenbrooks, was published in 1982. From his third novel (The White Castle) on, his work has been translated in English and many other languages. From that time on, his books also became more adventurous with a definite post-modern quality. My Name is Red was his sixth novel, published in Turkey in 1998 and a few years later appearing in a prize-winning English translation.

The interesting thing about Pamuk is that all his novels are different in style and intent. My name is Red is a historical thriller in the style of Umberto Eco's The Name of the Rose, and also has echoes of Borges. The postmodern quality can for example be found in the way each chapter is narrated in an alternating voice. There are even occasional unexpected voices as a coin and the color red, while the first chapter is told by a man who has just been murdered and dumped into a well.

Most of the recurring voices are those of Black, a former miniaturist who has returned to Istanbul from 12 years absence in Persia and in the story functions as amateur detective; Enishte Effendi, uncle of Black, in charge of the creation of a secret book for the Sultan in the Venetian style, who will become the second murder victim; Shekure, Enishte's beautiful daughter but also a (probable) widow with two young sons, with whom Black is in love and who later becomes his wife; Master Osman, the head of the Sultan's workshop of miniaturists; three miniaturists called Stork, Elegant and Olive; Esther, a Jewish peddler and matchmaker; etc.

[Ottoman miniature painters]

The book contains a murder mystery and a love story, but is above all a philosophical and historical novel about art and reality, and the cultural division between Islam and Western thought. This division is made tangible in the theme of painting. Islam originally forbids figurative representation, but in Persia in the Middle Ages the art of book illustration by decorating the margins of the pages with abstract representations, gradually led to a miniature figurative art. This art, however, was very different from European painting, as for example practiced in Venice: the miniaturists did not observe perspective and other rules basic to Western art, but made idealized pictures where hierarchy was taken into account (the sultan was drawn in the center and extra large, a human figure could not be taller than a mosque etc.); moreover, as in other non-Western pre-modern societies, human figures were not drawn as individuals, but as generalized, unrecognizable persons. In the novel, we meet the miniaturists who were making this type of illustrations at the court of the Ottoman sultan in Istanbul, just at the juncture that some wanted to go in the individualistic direction of European painting, while on the other hand fundamentalists were clamoring to stop all figurative expression. The last group won. In this way the novel also symbolically reflects modern societal tensions in Turkey.

This piece of art history, lovingly and in great detail presented by Pamuk, was also new to Turkish readers, for modern Turkey has largely cut away its historical, Ottoman roots. Even more so for Western readers, it is a lot of new information (with the names of numerous miniaturists, sultans and famous illustrated books), making the pace of the novel a bit slow at times, but I wouldn't want to be without it - the cultural comparison is indeed compelling.

The clash of ideas leads to murder and mayhem in the novel, until the mystery is solved by Black, with the help of his wife Shekure. The characterization of Shekure as a very elusive and enigmatic woman is finely done by Pamuk. And the "end good, all good" ending is turned on its post-modern head by having in the last paragraph Shekure ask her son Orhan (!) write down the story we have just read, "although she knows that for a delightful story, there isn't a lie he wouldn't deign to tell..."

Note: The "family saga" mentioned at the beginning if this post, is The Silent House and has by now also been translated into English.

Comprehensive Orhan Pamuk website.

Saturday, November 3, 2012

Tonkatsu (Breaded, deep-fried pork cutlet)


"pork cutlet"

豚カツ, とんかつ

[Tonkatsu with shredded cabbage that serves as a salad[

Tonkatsu is a breaded, deep-fried pork cutlet one to two centimeters thick and sliced into bite-sized pieces, generally served with finely shredded raw cabbage, rice in a bowl, miso soup and tsukemono. Either a pork fillet (hire) or pork loin (roosu) cut may be used; the meat is dipped into beaten egg and coated with panko (bread crumbs) before being deep fried (furai).

"Ton" means "pork" and "katsu" is short for "katsuretsu," "cutlet." Tonkatsu was derived from the European breaded cutlet.

Tonkatsu is eaten with a thick dark sauce (called soosu), which is a Japanese version of Worcester sauce. In other words, it is not pungent but sweet and contains pureed apples as its main ingredient. Usually, a dab of Japanese mustard is also served on the side. Each restaurant (chain) has its own "secret sauce."

Although formally Yoshoku, tonkatsu has traveled back home to the Japanese cuisine, as is shown by the fact that the rice is not served on a plate, as was originally the case, but in a rice bowl with pickles and miso soup. Neither is it eaten with knife and fork (or a spoon, like that other perennial Yoshoku, curry rice), but with chopsticks. You can use the same sauce on the shredded cabbage, if you prefer, but usually there is also a salad dressing available.

[Sometimes sesame seed (goma) is added to the sauce. One restaurant chain provides a suribachi where you can grind the sesame yourself]

Tonkatsu restaurants are popular in Japan - especially among students because "katsu" also means "wining" (for example, in the examinations). Moreover, most restaurants offer free extra helpings of rice, shredded cabbage and miso soup. Besides the basic "hire" and "roosu" mentioned above, the menu usually offers various kinds of tonkatsu, for example: with cheese, with a shiso leaf, with ume paste, with minced meat (menchi-katsu), with daikon-oroshi (in which case it is eaten with ponzu sauce), or combined with other types of furai as large shrimps and oysters, etc. Sometimes especially expensive pork is on the menu as an extra option, that of black pigs (kurobuta) from Kagoshima.

In Nagoya and surrounding areas, "miso katsu," tonkatsu eaten with the local  Hatchomiso-based sauce, is a specialty.

Besides being served as a meal set (teishoku), tonkatsu meat is also used as a topping for curry rice (katsu-kare), and a sandwich filling (katsu-sando).

Tonkatsu can be very good and is not as heavy as it seems at first blush. It is both filling and inexpensive. As a true symbiosis between east and west, it is one of my favorite dishes.

Japanese Food Dictionary

Friday, November 2, 2012

"The Lower River" by Paul Theroux (Book Review)

Paul Theroux is an author with an incredibly high production. Although in the first place famous for his travelogues as The Great Railway Bazaar (1975), he has also written 32 novels and short story collections. The fiction often is inspired by the travel; in The Lower River we find echoes of the trip through Africa described in Dark Star Safari (2002), but also of Theroux' 1963–1965 Peace Corps teaching experience in Nyasaland/Malawi.

So far, I had been more interested in Theroux the travel author than Theroux the novelist. I have tried several of his early novels but somehow always got stuck in the book without finishing it. The first fiction by Theroux that trapped my attention were the three novellas about India collected in The Elephanta Suite (2007). And now The Lower River... this book again far surpasses these novellas and is indeed a great novel, putting anything that went before it in the shadow. It is a novel about aging; about the meaning of life; about altruism and the lack of it in the world; and the sad plight of Africa where Western aid agencies have for the last 50 years destroyed the economy in many parts of the continent by enslaving the population with dependence on "aid" (China is wiser: by giving practical assistance in the form of building infrastructure, it has won the hearts of the Africans and so also gained access to Africa's minerals).

A middle-aged American called Hock has reached the end of the tether in his work and marriage and burning all ships behind him, returns to Malawi, a small African country he fell in love with 40 years ago when he lived there as a Peace Corps teacher. Instead of reestablishing his dream, Hock arrives in a failed state where the people are lazy, disillusioned and greedy, living off the handouts of the Western aid agencies. The country has also been ravished by AIDS. The school Hock built 40 years ago lies in ruins, and nobody wants it rebuilt.

[Mountains in Northern Malawi]

Hock is taken a virtual prisoner in his old village, Malabo, that is governed by the cynical and dictatorial Manyenga, a sinister chief who used to work for the aid agencies. Hock has been warned: “They will eat your money ... When your money is gone, they will eat you.” And that is what happens, in a world where altruism has been swiped away, Hock has to fork out dollars for every small service he receives. When he has been fleeced to the bone and his money is all gone, Manyenga decides to sell him to a group of punks who will then try to ransom him.

The only light in this darkness are Hock's former girlfriend, Gala, who gives him sound advise; her 16 year old granddaughter Zizi, a tall and slim fairy tale figure who attends to Hock; and a dwarf named Snowdon. An attempt to flee misfires when he is caught in a Lord of the Flies-like village of abandoned feral children suffering from AIDS. Here he also witnesses a helicopter food dropping by two pop stars working with the "Agence Anonyme": after the heli flies away, elder boys on motorbikes steal all the dropped food in order to sell it. The self-interested do-gooders have corrupted the population with their "good intentions," perverting the local ecology and economy. Western paternalism is still enslaving Africa.

The Lower River has reminded reviewers of Heart of Darkness, with Hock as a Kurtz who is not saved from the jungle; but the novel reminded me even more of A Handful of Dust where the protagonist is "caught" in the jungle as well. One could also think of the dark musings of an author like Coetzee (Disgrace, for example). Although the book is about Africa, it has a much wider resonance for the human condition.

If The Lower River seems a dark and claustrophobic book, that is only partly the case. It is also a book full of humor, a tight thriller, and a book with patches of tenderness. And the end - although a bit deus ex machina-like - is certainly uplifting.

Thursday, November 1, 2012


Yuzu (Citros junos) is a Japanese type of citron with a distinctive aroma and tarty flavor. Yuzu has been cultivated in Japan at least since the 7th century. It is believed to be a hybrid of the sour mandarin and Ichang papeda, and probably originated in China.


Yuzu grows on small trees which contain many thorns. Yuzu trees are planted at high elevations on mountain sides, as the cold at night makes the fruit sweeter. Harvest is from late October through November. The largest yuzu cultivation takes place in Kochi Prefecture (almost half of total national production), followed by Tokushima and Ehime.

The fruit resembles a small grapefruit with an uneven skin, usually between 5.5 and 7.5 cm in diameter. It can be either green or yellow, depending on ripeness. Although there are subtle differences in size and flavor, yuzu resembles the sudachi, another Japanese citrus fruit.

Besides the yuzu used in the Japanese cuisine (called hon-yuzu, or "true yuzu"), there are two other types of yuzu: shishi-yuzu, with a knobby skin, and hana-yuzu. This last variety is purely ornamental and only grown for its flowers.

[Yuzu trees in Kochi Pref.]

Uses in the Japanese kitchen (yuzu is seldom eaten as such):
  • Aromatic yuzu peel (the outer rind) is used to garnish soups (suimono) and other dishes such as chawan-mushi.
  • Yuzu and yuzu peel are added to miso to create yuzu-miso.
  • Yuzu juice is used as a seasoning (like lemon in other cuisines). One way of using it is in ponzu sauce, a combination of yuzu juice with dashi, vinegar and mirin. Another product is yuzu vinegar, rice vinegar flavored with yuzu juice.
  • Yuzu is combined with honey to make yuzu-hachimitsu. Yuzu-hachimitsu is used to make yuzu tea, or cocktails as "yuzu sour." There is also yuzu sake!
  • Yuzu is also used to make jam or marmalade.
  • Yuzu can be used as a flavoring for sweets, as yuzu cake.
  • Yuzu pepper (yuzu kosho) is a combination of green and yellow yuzu rinds with chili peppers and salt.
  • Yuzu juice is now a popular soft drink (often with honey mixed in).
In winter, yuzu is also sometimes added to the bath water (yuzuburo), especially on winter solstice day. This is said to guard against colds, rough skin and warm and relax the body. It is a custom that goes back to the 18th c. The yuzu can be floated whole in the bath (sometimes in a cloth bag), or cut in half.

Tuesday, October 30, 2012



Curry rice with deep-fried pork


This combination of two Yoshoku dishes, curry rice and tonkatsu, was first served in 1918 by the restaurant Kawakin in Asakusa (this restaurant has closed, but in Iriya and Senzoku there are still several restaurants carrying this name). It was called "Kawakin-don."

The present type was born in 1948 in the restaurant Grill Swiss on the Ginza.

This is now one of the most popular forms of curry rice in the whole country. Delicious as it is, it is also a dish rather high in calories.

Japanese Food Dictionary

Friday, October 5, 2012

Wasabi (Japanese condiments)

Wasabi (Wasabia japonica) is a plant that grows naturally in the marshy edges of clear mountain streams and when cultivated also needs clear, running water. Such cultivation usually takes place on mountain terraces. Due to the difficulty of growing wasabi, it is an expensive product.

[Fresh wasabi stems - Wikipedia (松岡明芳 - Own work) - CC BY-SA 4.0]

Although conveniently called "horseradish" in English, it is in fact very different from Western horseradish: wasabi is more fragrant and less sharp. The pale green flesh of the root is made into a paste by rubbing the root on a fine metal grater (oroshigane). After grating, wasabi has to be used immediately as it soon loses its flavor.

Authentic wasabi has a fresh and cleansing taste - even a certain sweetness. The burning sensation works on the nasal passage rather than the tongue and can be easily washed away with liquid. Wasabi helps to prevent food poisoning and that is the reason why wasabi is eaten with raw fish (sashimi) as well as sushi containing raw fish as a topping. In exclusive sushi bars the chef grates the wasabi roots with a sharkskin grater (samegawa-oroshi). With sushi, wasabi is added by the customer to the soy-based dipping sauce, but also used by the chef, who always puts some wasabi between the rice and the slice of raw fish.

[Wasabi and oroshigane - Wikipedia (Chris 73 / Wikimedia Commons) - 

Wasabi has been long known in Japan - the oldest record dates from the 7th century, but it was mostly used for its medical properties. Wasabi is not used as a general condiment in traditional Japanese cooking, which does not know any sharp flavors. As stated above, its main function is for its anti-microbial properties with sashimi and sushi, and besides that in dipping sauces for cold soba, in chazuke and sometimes on steak. Wasabi can also be used for pickling vegetables (wasabizuke).

The best wasabi roots come from the Izu Peninsula in Shizuoka or from Nagano Prefecture.

[Wasabi fields in Izu City, Izu Peninsula - Wikipedia (by Batholith) - Public Domain]

Real wasabi is a luxury product even in Japan, and at home mostly wasabi paste (neri-wasabi) or wasabi powder (kona-wasabi) is used. This in itself would not be so bad, were it not that most of these products contain little or no authentic wasabi but instead Western horseradish (called Seiyo wasabi) mixed with mustard, starch and green coloring. The paste is sold in tubes in supermarkets, the less common powder is sold in cans.

Thursday, October 4, 2012

"The Portrait of a Lady" (1880) by Henry James (Book Review)

The Portrait of a Lady, written by the American-born, European-minded author Henry James (1843-1916), is a masterful story about the cruel loss of ideals. James himself called it "the conception of a certain young woman affronting her destiny." What will she "do?"

From The Portrait of a Lady on, for the rest of his life, James would be absorbed by the problem of "consciousness." The novel derived great drama from psychological interiority, changing reader's ideas about what fiction can do. In the end Isabel Archer discovers that instead of “affronting her destiny”, as she had hoped, her destiny has affronted her. (See this review in the New Statesman).

An orphaned young American woman, Isabel Archer, visits her rich relatives who have settled down in England, at an estate called Gardencourt. She is a strong and willful person, who knows her own mind and is full of ideals. She has refused an American suitor, square-jawed and boring businessman Caspar Goodwood, who however follows her to England to press his suit again and in fact keeps stalking her until the last pages of the book. But to her family's surprise, she also refuses the soft-spoken Lord Warburton, a friend of the family who lives nearby, and who has both rank and fortune - she thinks him too safe and sure and seeks a man with more inspiration. The third man in love with her is her nephew, Ralph Touchett, but as he is suffering from tuberculosis and does not expect to live very long, he keeps his feelings secret and becomes her best and only true friend. In fact, he persuades his dying father to bequeath a large portion of his inheritance to Isabel - Ralph looks with pleasure forward to what she will do with her life when she is rich and independent. Well, unfortunately there will be no such pleasure...

After her uncle's death, Isabel embarks on the Grand Tour with her aunt and in Florence makes the renewed acquaintance of Madame Merle, a lady she had already met at Gardencourt. Madame Merle is an intelligent and accomplished woman, an independent socialite mostly living off others, who likes manipulating those around her. Isabel trusts her despite warnings from other friends and swims naively into a wide open net. Madame Merle introduces her to expatriate, indolent dilettante Gilbert Osmond, a widower with a doltish daughter of fifteen, Pansy, who has been educated in a convent. Gilbert leads a quiet and well-ordered life surrounded by antiques and art. Isabel falls in love with him - he has excellent manners and poses as an artist living on a higher plane. Blinded by her idealism, she sees a fellow-idealist in Gilbert, and does not note his faults.

The newly-weds set up house in Rome and here the story jumps three years. As soon as that, the marriage is already a failure, although Isabel and Gilbert keep up appearances for the outside world, they coexist in a hateful truce. Gilbert is a control freak who does not want his wife to have too many ideas (i.a. an independent mind and character) - he would probably prefer her to be an obedient  "doll" like his well-trained daughter.  Instead of finding freedom with her fortune, Isabel has been caught in a loveless trap. She finds some consolation in Pansy, to whom she feels close.

A visit to Rome by Lord Warburton (who briefly poses as suitor to Pansy, but is in fact still in love with Isabel) and the ailing Ralph, causes a further rift in the marriage. Gilbert accuses Isabel of having sabotaged Pansy's chances with Lord Warburton (Pansy is in fact interested in someone else), and of paying too much attention to Ralph of whom he feels jealous. Both men return to England, Ralph expecting never to leave Gardencourt. Isabel promises to come when the end is near. Gilbert strictly warns her to stay in Rome, but when the dreaded telegram arrives, she disobeys him and quickly travels to England.

However, after Ralph's funeral she feels she has no other option but to return to Italy, even although she now knows the secret relationship that existed between Gilbert and Madame Merle. She loves Pansy and wants to help her, on top of that she feels she cannot run away from the life she has chosen, even if it is full of unpleasantness and discordance - different from today, when mistaken commitments are perhaps all too easily discarded.

Sadly, Isabel is a normal, good person inspired by idealism, but everything she did has led to disappointments: not only has she disappointed Ralph's faith in her, but most seriously of all, she has been wrong to herself. Such is the harsh conclusion of Portrait of a Lady, a novel written in a meticulous literary style that tends to cover up the torments of its characters, which are nonetheless very real.
Available for free at Gutenberg and the Adelaide University Etext Center. I read the novel in the Penguin Classic edition. The Portrait of a Lady has been filmed by Jane Campion, with Nicole Kidman, John Malkovich, Barbara Hershey and Martin Donovan (1996).

Wednesday, October 3, 2012



Eucommia Tea


Tochu-cha is tea made from the leaves of the Eucommia tree, in China called Duzhong. The Duzhong has long been used in traditional Chinese medicine. The bark of the 15 meter high tree is, for example, believed to alleviate lower back pain and aching knees.

The deciduous leaves contain some rubber (it comes out when you fold them), but are also used to brew tea. Tochu tea is supposed to help lowering high blood pressure, slim down and cleanse the body. It also has an interesting taste.

The tea was first made popular in Japan by Hitachi Zosen, a shipbuilding company on the path of diversification. Hitachi Zosen caused a small boom with tochu-cha in the nineties. Afterwards, the company sold the product rights of this health food to Kobayashi Pharmaceutical, who is now the main manufacturer of this type of tea in Japan.

Duzhong trees have to be cultivated, they do not grow in the wild anymore, but they have been succesfully imported to Japan and planted in the Ina area of Nagano Prefecture.

Japanese Food Dictionary

The Grand Meaulnes, by Alain-Fournier

"Le Grand Meaulnes," of which the title literally means "The Great Meaulnes" (like the "Great Gatsby"), but which in English is also known as "The Lost Domain" and "The Wanderer," is the only work written by the French author Alain-Fournier before he was killed at age 27 in one of the early battles of WWI. It is a true masterpiece of nostalgia.

The novel is narrated by François Seurel, son of a village schoolmaster in a small village in the Sologne, a region of pools and marshes in north-central France. François (age 15) is captivated by the charismatic new schoolboy Augustin Meaulnes (17 years old), who is known as “the great Meaulnes" not only for his large stature, but also the daring feats he pulls off. He may be called an embodiment of the romantic ideal: a wanderer, a pathfinder.

On a solitary excursion through the countryside, Meaulnes looses his way and stumbles upon a mysterious country estate where some kind of fête champêtre is going on, with the party goers dressed in costume from the 1830s. There Meaulnes meets the son of the chateau, Franz de Galais, a wilder and destructive version of himself, and Franz's sister, a young woman of otherworldly beauty, Yvonne de Galais, for whom Meaulnes conceives a transcendent love. It is as if he has stumbled right into a fairy tale... But abruptly, the party breaks up and Meaulnes has to return to the village, where he takes François in his confidence.

He remembers Yvonne's last words, that they are two children and have been foolish. It is indeed an impossible dream to enjoy adult love while remaining a child at heart. It is in that lost borderland between child and adult that the dreamland of this novel is situated. The love that Meaulnes feels for Yvonne is a union of souls and not of bodies, a state of perfect purity and innocence.

[UN World Heritage site, the Chateau de Chambord is situated in the Sologne -
could this be the model for the "mysterious estate"?]

To his dismay, Meaulnes discovers that he cannot retrace the route to the country estate, which has become "lost," an unobtainable romantic ideal, and a symbol of perfect happiness on the borderline of childhood and adulthood. He keeps hopelessly trying with the help of François, and it is the narrator who a few years later succeeds in locating the castle after Meaulnes has already left the village - it is much closer than they thought possible. Meaulnes is called back, he revisits the estate and even marries Yvonne - but the perfect happiness he believed to find has evaporated due to the experiences he himself has had in the meantime.

The book is filled with a haunting atmosphere, the sounds and colors of the countryside and the different seasons. It is also permeated by a feeling of irrevocable loss: the loss of the pure dreams of charmed youth to cruel experience, the loss of idealized love to the sordid reality of the flesh, and the realization of the evanescence of the world around us - and even our memories of that world.

"Le Grand Meaulnes" was one of the favorite books of the British author John Fowles (The French Lieutenant's Woman) - he called it "the greatest novel of adolescence in European literature" - and he wrote The Magus under its influence. Of course, you have to be grown up to fully appreciate this novel because adolescents don't yet know what it is they are going to lose by growing up. Another author who writes in the same vein of the loss of magic worlds is the today so popular Japanese author Haruki Murakami. But Alain-Fournier is purer than these postmodern authors, he writes exactly in the adolescent spirit of the story, honest and without any cynicism. "Le Grand Meaulnes" is a most beautiful book that deserves to better known.

It may be impossible to find our dreams, but we must keep trying.

Photo of Chambord Castle: Benh LIEU SONG, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Monday, October 1, 2012

Persuasion by Jane Austen

"Persuasion" is the title and theme of Jane Austen's last completed novel - manipulative persuasion has broken the life of Jane Elliott, whose engagement with penniless naval officer Frederick Wentworth was blocked by her vain father Sir Walter Elliot and her all too practical godmother, Lady Russell. Now, eight years later and 27 years of age, though highly intelligent and accomplished, Anne is still unmarried and nursing the wound from the past and facing a future of loneliness and financial uncertainty - though with calm resignation.

[The Cobb in Lyme, where Louisa Musgrove has an accident
and Anne Elliot shows how cool headed she is]

The story is set into motion by the renewed appearance of Captain Wentworth. Anne's pompous and status-conscious father has squandered much of his fortune and is forced to let out the family estate, Kellynch. By chance, the new renters, Admiral Croft and his wife, are related to Captain Wentworth, who has returned with a fortune - and still a bachelor - from the Napoleonic Wars. He has never forgiven Anne for allowing herself to be persuaded to break up the engagement and their first meeting after all those years is a difficult one.

Misunderstandings and social restrictions keep them for a long time from getting to know each other's true feelings - there are other, younger women interested in Wentworth, and a devious nephew is trying to court Anne. But, as every reader of Jane Austen's novels knows, in the end the emotional tangle will be cleared up and things will be set right...

[Bath, where the second half of the novel is set]

More interesting than the plot is again - as in other Jane Austen novels - the "comedy of manners," where the hypocrisy of society is revealed in the extreme vanity of Anne's father and elder sister Elizabeth. They are only interested in titles and despise people who are not part of the aristocracy - Elizabeth regards Anne as inconsequential as Anne doesn't share her prejudices - and in a nice scene are shown demurely licking the heels of a viscountess, lady Dalrymple. Another hypocrite is Anne's unscrupulous nephew William, who after an estrangement with Sir Walter caused by his lowly marriage (for money) now as a rich widower is courting Anne for her title. Even Lady Russel, though of a practical mind, is very susceptible to matters of rank and birth and therefore, with her wrong persuasion, has made Anne's life unhappy.

But at the same time, the second theme of the novel is the rise of the professional classes which would end the domination of the landed gentry. Jane Austen speaks with admiration about Captain Wentworth and other naval officers (including Admiral Croft, who has none of the foolish pride of Jane's father and does away with his collection of large mirrors after renting the house). These people work for their living and do great things, while Mr Elliott and others of his class only sit on their fat ass. Austen shows that too much reliance on money and connections leads to a false life. This is also a break with other novels by Jane Austen: in Pride and Prejudice, for example, the heroine Elizabeth Bennet marries inherited wealth and rank in the person of Mr. Darcy; in Persuasion, the hereditary aristocracy is held up to ridicule, while the rising meritocracy made up of successful officers in the Royal Navy gets full praise. In that sense, too, Anne's eventual marriage to Captain Wentworth shows the way to the future.

Free at Gutenberg. I have read the Penguin Classics version. Persuasion is referenced in John Fowles's The French Lieutenant's Woman. Since 1960, the novel has been filmed four times for television.

Photo of the Cobb: John M / Early morning on the Cobb via Wikimedia

Photo of Bath: Pedro Szekely from Los Angeles, USA, CC BY-SA 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Wednesday, September 26, 2012

Columbia Anthology of Modern Japanese Literature (Book Review)

If you drop the Columbia Anthology of Modern Japanese Literature on your foot, you will end up in a plaster bandage. Physically, it is not a pleasure to read such a brick - I have the paperback edition that already starts cracking at the spine in the middle.

But the main question is: is this a good anthology? This is a tricky question because there could be as many anthologies as readers - everyone has his or her own preferences. I am not going to talk about authors who have been unjustly excluded or included, because that is too personal. But there are some objective markers as well.

One of these: Does the anthology offer a new view of modern Japanese literature?

My answer is: not really, this Columbia Anthology does not offer a new perspective. It is again an all-too-familiar anthology of mainly prose fiction. That ties in with the Western 19th-20th century view of literature as mostly prose fictional narrative. Some poetry and drama has been included, but in number of pages really very little. One of the poetic giants of Meiji literature, Masaoka Shiki, gets only two pages…

Therefore the book does not do justice to the Japanese tradition, also not of the late 19th c. and first half of the 20th c. treated in this anthology.

In Japan and China, lyrical poetry and short prose forms other than fiction (in Japan called zuihitsu and nikki) have always been of great importance as literature. (Besides that, they have of course also greatly influenced narrative fiction in Japan). What I almost completely miss are these short prose forms.

Where is the Romaji Diary of Takuboku? Why has not one of the uta-nikki, poetry diaries of Shiki been included, for example “One drop of Ink”? What about the diaries and zuihitsu of Kafu, for example Hiyori-geta or "Tidings from Okubo"? What about the essays and literary criticism of Tanizaki, for example a new translation of "In Praise of Shadows"? What about the diaries of Santoka? Why is the Tono Monogatari not included as this is certainly also great literature?
A really excellent anthology, doing justice to all in Japan important genres of literature would have to consist of five parts, in separate volumes:

1. Narrative Prose (prose fictional narrative)
2. Essays, diaries and letters (zuihitsu, nikki and other non-fictional literary prose)
3. Lyrical poetry (also including complete collections as Midaregami)
4. Drama and film scripts (Ozu, Kurosawa!)
5. Literary theory and criticism

Let's start thinking and puzzling about what to include!

Large numbers in Japan

Large numbers in Japan are difficult as you do not count in units of thousand, but rather in units of ten thousand (with different names for those units the higher you get):

1 = ichi (一、one)
10 = ju (十、ten)
100 = hyaku (百、one hundred)
1,000 = (is)sen (千、one thousand)
10,000 = (ichi)man (万、ten thousand). You can also write 4man, or 4.5 man=45,000
100,000 = ju-man (hundred thousand) - ten man or 10 x 10,000 = 100,000
1,000,000 = hyaku man (one million) - hundred man or 100 x 10,000 = 1,000,000
10,000,000 = (is)sen man (ten million) - one thousand man or 1,000 x 10,000 = 10,000,000
100,000,000 = (ichi) oku (億、hundred million). Again you can say 4 oku or 4.5 oku = 450,000,000
1,000,000,000 = ju oku (one billion; in Europe people call this "milliard") - ten oku or 10 X 100,000,000
10,000,000,000 = hyaku oku (ten billion) - one hundred oku or 100 x 100,000,000
100,000,000,000 = sen oku (thousand billion) - one thousand oku or 1,000 x 100,000,000
1,000,000,000,000 = (it)cho (兆、one trillion; in Europe people call this "billion"!). Again you can say 4 cho or 4.5 cho = 4,500,000,000,000
10,000,000,000,000 = ju cho (ten trillion).
100,000,000,000,000 = hyaku cho (hundred trillion)
1,000,000,000,000,000 = sen cho (quadrillion; in Europe people call this "billiard")

We could go even higher (the next unit coming up is called "kei" (京), a one with 16 zero's or 10 quadrillion), but in practical use cho is the highest counting unit. But you see the changes with myriads and not thousands: 1 followed by four zeros is man, 8 zeros oku, twelve zeros cho, and 16 zeros kei etc.

So when you see "92 cho 2694 oku" it is 92,269,400,000,000 etc. Here the counting is clearly in "man" units, therefore you have four digits in front of the "oku". The US GDP is (in yen) 1401 cho 7171 oku = 1,401,717,100,000,000. Mindbogglingly large figures...

Sunday, September 23, 2012

Bach Cantatas (45): Trinity XII

The twelfth Sunday after Trinity treats the theme of God constantly doing good for man (taking its cue from the story of the healing of a deaf mute man in the readings for this day). The Twelfth Sunday after the Trinity also was the day when town elections were celebrated, which meant this was a festive occasion on which trumpets and drums were at Bach's disposal.

There are three cantatas for this Sunday.

2 Corinthians 3:4–11, "the Ministration of the Spirit"
Mark 7:31–37, "the healing of a deaf mute man"

Cantata Studies:
Bach Cantatas Website | Simon Crouch | Emmanuel Music | Julian Mincham | Wikipedia | Eduard van Hengel (in Dutch) | Bach Companion (Oxford U.P.) | Bach: The Learned Musician (Wolff) | Music in the Castle of Heaven (Gardiner)

[Christ healing the deaf mute of Decapolis,
by Bartholomeus Breenbergh, 1635]


  • Lobe den Herrn, meine Seele, BWV 69a, 15 August 1723

     Chorus: Lobe den Herrn, meine Seele
    Recitativo (soprano): Ach, daß ich tausend Zungen hätte!
    Aria (tenor, oboe da caccia, recorder, bassoon): Meine Seele, auf, erzähle
    Recitativo (alto): Gedenk ich nur zurück
    Aria (bass, oboe d'amore): Mein Erlöser und Erhalter
    Chorale: Was Gott tut, das ist wohlgetan, darbei will ich verbleiben

    "Praise the Lord, my soul"
    Text: anonymous

    The text refers to the gospel reading for this day, but also presents "the healing of a deaf mute man" in a more general light, of God constantly doing good for man. The cantata therefore has a festive character. The opening chorus (a double fugue) starts with "Praise the Lord, my soul, and do not forget the good He has done for you". This is one of the grandest of Bach's trumpet choruses, introduced by an orchestral ritornello. But the gospel story is not forgotten, either, as the text in the rest of the cantata often refers to "telling" and "tongues," as in the first recitative for soprano. The first aria (tenor), which continues proclaiming God's grace, is a delicate pastoral song with recorder and English horn, a nice contrast to the chorus. The bass aria contrasts suffering and joy by the use of chromatic coloraturas. It has a graver and deeper character than anything else in this cantata, being a solemn prayer for protection and help during suffering. After that follows a warm harmonization of "Was Gott tut, das ist wohlgetan" to conclude the work.

    Rating: A+
    Video: J.S. Bach-Stiftun (Bachipedia)

  • Lobe den Herren, den mächtigen König der Ehren, BWV 137, 19 August 1725

     Coro: Lobe den Herren, den mächtigen König der Ehren
    Aria (alto): Lobe den Herren, der alles so herrlich regieret,
    Aria (soprano, bass): Lobe den Herren, der künstlich und fein dich bereitet
    Aria (tenor): Lobe den Herren, der deinen Stand sichtbar gesegnet
    Chorale: Lobe den Herren, was in mir ist, lobe den Namen!

    "Praise the Lord, the mighty King of Honor"
    Text: Chorale by Joachim Neander (1680)

    Chorale cantata based on "Lobe den Herren, den mächtigen König der Ehren" by Joachim Neander. As Bach left the chorale text unchanged, there is no reference to the readings. It is a perfect piece of occasional, even popular music, and like other the cantatas for this Sunday, with festive trumpets and drums. Musically, it is a set of variations on the chorale tune. After the "jazzy" fugal chorus with its exuberant introduction (the orchestra plays a concerto here), we have an alto aria with obbligato violin. The third part is for soprano and bass with two oboes and is the deepest movement of the cantata, the fourth for tenor with organ and trumpet. The concluding chorale is in grand style with again a triumphant trumpet. The cantata may also have been performed to celebrate the inauguration of the new town council of that year, 1725.

    Rating: A
    Video: Netherlands Bach Society (All of Bach)

  • Geist und Seele wird verwirret, BWV 35, 8 September 1726

    Part I
    1. Sinfonia
    2. Aria: Geist und Seele wird verwirret
    3. Recitativo: Ich wundre mich
    4. Aria: Gott hat alles wohlgemacht
    Part 2
    5. Sinfonia
    6. Recitativo: Ach, starker Gott
    7. Aria: Ich wünsche nur bei Gott zu leben

    "Spirit and soul become confused"
    Text: Georg Christian Lehms (1711)

    Cantata with only an alto as soloist, and without chorus, set to a poem by Lehms, first published in 1711. It is possible that parts of this work were earlier than the first recorded Leipzig performance of 1726. The work includes two large concerto movements for organ and orchestra (the two sinfonias), presumably from a lost (oboe?) concerto, and also other parts may go back to other music - so for many this cantata is in the first place a treasury of lost music! The cantata is of a more serious character than the other two works for this Sunday; trumpets and drums are absent. The first aria is a lilting siciliana, and the third one a minuet. During the first performance, Bach himself probably played the virtuoso organ part.

    Rating: A+
    Video: Netherlands Bach Society (All of Bach) / J.S. Bach-Stiftung (Bachipedia)

Bach Cantata Index

Wednesday, September 19, 2012

"Bel Ami" (1885) by Guy de Maupassant (Book Review)

Bel Ami is a fun novel about cold-blooded social climbing, with a generous admixture of sex and seduction as ladders to success. I was reminded of Balzac's earlier novel Le Père Goriot (1835), where the student Rastignac uses similar methods for advancement in Parisian society, only Guy de Maupassant is much more radically cynical than Balzac. Bel Ami has not for nothing been called one of the nastiest pieces of French literature - never have liaisons been more ruthless, even Les Liaisons Dangereuses stands in the shadow of this cruel book.  But it is also one of the most delicious books imaginable.

"Bel Ami" ("Beautiful Boy") is the nickname of Georges Duroy, a penniless soldier just returned from French Algeria who comes to Paris to make his fortune in journalism, in a corrupt society where the press are in league with the politicians (they are involved in secret preparations for a North-African invasion that will enrich them all). Georges has the luck to be introduced into society by an old friend from the army, Charles Forestier, now editor at the powerful newspaper "La Vie Française." It is Charles' beautiful and intelligent wife Madeleine who helps Georges write his first article, for he has no real journalistic talent. She also teaches him that the most important part of the Parisian population are the women, not the men.

Georges starts on the lowest sport of the ladder with a prostitute, Rachel, but soon climbs up to his first liaison by seducing Madeleine's married friend Clotilde, with whom he sets up a veritable love nest. All the same, he is on friendly terms with her elderly husband, who suspects nothing. When Charles dies, Georges presses his suit on Madeleine and marries her for further social advancement, but he also seduces Mme Walter, the wife of the super-rich owner of "La Vie Française," and while visiting her house, to put the icing on the cake, her daughter Suzanne falls hopelessly in love with him.

Via an intrigue Georges gets rid of Madeleine, and he also pushes the besotted, clinging Mme Walters away with a hard hand. As the husband of millionaire's daughter Suzanne the world will lie open for him, perhaps he will even become a minister... Georges has cunningly built his success on the hypocrisy, decadence and corruption of society, but his rise to power has above all been made possible by the powerful and wealthy women around him. At the party of his marriage to Suzanne, he presses the hand of Clotilde - they should soon have one of their intimate meetings again!

And with the description of Georges' wedding to Suzanne the satirical novel ends - we have glimpsed the future and there is nothing more to say. Moreover, this marriage in a fashionable church is the apex of the hypocrisy the novel castigates: the triumphant rascal, adorned with the Order of the Legion of Honor marries the young daughter of a mother he has seduced and a father he has trapped into acquiescing with the marriage, and this marriage is blessed by the Church and recognized as something good and proper by all high society present! Readers who would like to see Georges punished for his unscrupulousness might be dissatisfied, but happily Maupassant is too much of a realist to fall into such a trap. The world is cruel, and that is what he wanted to show us. Wealth and glory are often for the unworthy.
Read it for free at Gutenberg, but pick the right translation: Bel Ami, Or, the History of a Scoundrel is more a paraphrase than a faithful translation, so please avoid it and read Bel Ami (A Ladies' Man). There is of course also an even better translation available as a Penguin Classic. The French version of this novel can be found here. There is also an audiobook in French.
Bel Ami was filmed several times, but no version can be recommended. The latest, made in 2012 by directors Declan Donnellan and Nick Ormerod and acted by Robert Pattinson, Uma Thurman, Christina Ricci and Kristin Scott Thomas, is visually beautiful, but the casting is all wrong (especially the young actor who plays Bel Ami with a terrible squint) and it crams so much of the plot in just 100 minutes that it becomes a superficial story racing along without any depth.