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.

Tuesday, September 18, 2012

"Sweet Tooth" by Ian McEwan (Book Review)

Ian McEwan is one of the best contemporary (living) writers and a new book is therefore a feast. Sweet Tooth is the title and this novel gives us McEwan at his classical best. At first glance, it is the story of a young woman, Serena Frome, her love affairs and her entrance into MI5, the British security service; but there is a postmodern twist in the tail which turns this seemingly middlebrow story completely on its head. Sweet Tooth is also the story of Britain (and Europe) in 1972 with its sad malfunctioning of public services, terrorism threats, and of course the Cold War still very hot. And the novel pries into the problems of fictionality and literature, even giving us the young Ian McEwan and his literary world in the figure of his "invented self" Tom Haley. "Sweet Tooth," by the way, refers to an MI5 program to stealthily sponsor the arts, in order to promote some democratic ideals in that leftist environment. Selena Frome ("rather gorgeous" and "rhymes with plume") is selected to bring Tom Haley into the program, and of course she falls terribly in love with him...

Here are the main points:
  1. The story told by Serena Frome. a rather gauche young woman who is addicted to "middlebrow" novels which she "speed-reads," reads itself like just such a middlebrow novel, until McEwan turns the tables on his readers with a highbrow, postmodern trick. The sweet story is about Serena's loves (Jeremy who turns out to be homosexual, the much older professorial Tony who dumps her to protect his marriage, and finally the young author Tom), her entrance into MI5 and her task to recruit the writer Tom Haley. She offers him a stipend "enough to keep a chap from having to do a day job for a year or two, even three." As happens in all novels she reads, she finally "gets" the right guy, although she fails miserably in her spy job.
  2. The story of Britain (and wider, Europe) in the early 1970s: malfunctioning of the state (like a rotten tooth), terrorism threats, a war in the Middle East and the First Oil Crisis, the Cold War and rampant leftism among the young.
  3. A tongue in cheek "Tinker Tailor" story of MI5 - the misogynist culture, the complicated secrecy about nothing, the silliness of the Sweet Tooth project.
  4. The world of literature when McEwan himself was writing his first short stories - his colleagues as Martin Amis, his publisher, etc. Several of McEwan's early stories are paraphrased, the dystopian novel Tom Haley produces as part of the MI5 program (so not at all what they wanted!) is also based on such a story.
The construction of this novel, which has been called a "Russian doll" with its stories in stories and its mirroring images, is immaculate. But it is above all a comic novel, and McEwan clearly had lots of fun writing it - and at least this reader had as much fun reading it.