Saturday, February 23, 2013

Best Short Stories by Anton Chekhov (1): Earliest Comical Stories (1882-1885)

Together with Guy de Maupassant, Anton Chekhov (1860-1904) shaped the genre of the short story (and of the modern play, but that is another matter). According to one source, Chekhov published 588 stories, of which 528 between 1882 and 1888 and the rest (60) between 1888 and 1904. In other words, his youthful output was prodigious: at age 26 he had already published 400 pieces. Many of these are buried in the original editions of the magazines of the time, they were never reprinted in book form. (Some of these uncollected pieces have become the subject of the interesting The Undiscovered Chekhov by Peter Constantine, who also wrote an informative article about these often experimental stories and sketches). But other early stories were selected by Chekhov for his Collected Works (brought out between 1899 and 1902), and that are the stories we are talking about now, as these in turn have become the basis of most translations into English and other languages.

The first and most influential of those translations were the 17 volumes of 201 stories translated by Constance Garnett (1861-1946) and published between 1916 and 1922 - thanks to Garnett, Chekhov became known in the West and influenced such authors as Hemingway, Joyce, Woolf and Mansfield. Garnett's translations are in the public domain, and are quite reliable - on top of that, Garnett has a felicitous hand where it concerns Chekhov, just as in her Turgenev translations. They are available on Gutenberg, eBooks@Adelaide and other sites with public domain books.

[Chekhov (left) in 1882, with his brother Nikolai. 
Photo from Wikipedia]

Chekhov was born in 1860 in the port town of Taganrog, in southern Russia on the Sea of Azov. His father, with whom he had a difficult relationship, failed in business and fled with wife and two of his sons to Moscow when Chekhov was only 16 and still a pupil at the local high-school. Chekhov finished school in Taganrog, supporting himself in various ways, before joining his family in Moscow where he started studying medicine. Chekhov wrote his stories (plus other newspaper work as a column with Moscow gossip) because he badly needed the money, both for himself and his parents and brothers who were largely dependent on him. Chekhov worked under difficult conditions, on the kitchen table in tiny rooms filled with noisy people. He wrote fast and looked everywhere for new materials. As most magazines had little space, he also learned how to be concise and paint a character or situation in just a few brushstrokes.

Here we will look at the often comical stories that formed Chekhov's earliest production, those from the years 1882-1885. Although he dashed them off to support himself and his family, they are certainly no hackwork.

One important theme in this period is satire of the gigantic Tsarist bureaucracy or more in general, of the hypocritical behavior, absurd rituals and bribery that are rampant in a strictly hierarchical society as the Russian one. He attacks these with surrealistic humor and with the exasperation of a young man who is still idealistic. Another group of stories finds its humor more simply in comical situations, or people behaving in a stupid or extremely naive way. In comparison to the later stories, Chekhov in these years still observes mostly from the outside, the situation makes the story, rather than what is happening inside the head of the protagonist.

[Chekhov monument in Taganrog. Photo Wikipedia]

Here are the 10 best stories from 1883-85:
  1. "The Death of a Civil Servant" ("The Death of a Government Clerk"; July, 1883). Russian society is extremely vertical, and Chekhov has written several early stories to criticize the exaggerated humility of those in lower ranks towards their superiors. In this story, a clerk sneezes while watching a play in the theater and his spit hits the bald pate of a high official sitting in front of him. He immediately apologizes, but when the reaction of his exalted victim is rather tepid, he apologizes again, and again. The next day he visits the official and once more makes his excuses in a rather emphatic way. His repeated obsequiousness and reference to something unpleasant, but minor, so upsets the official that the clerk is literally thrown out. Paralyzed with fear that he will loose his job, the clerk takes to his bed and dies.
  2. "The Daughter of Albion" (August, 1883). A landowner is fishing at the riverside, together with the English governess of his children. A friend comes to meet him. The landowner speaks roughly and impolitely about the governess in her own presence, for even after ten years in Russia, she still can't manage a word of the language, he explains. Then his hook is stuck at the bottom of the river. He has to undress in order to go into the water and retrieve the hook, but the governess doesn't understand him when he asks her to leave or look the other way. So he just takes off his clothes in front of her and steps stark naked into the river. She seems unperturbed. This story is a critique of lack of respect for others.
  3. "Fat and Thin" (October, 1883). Two old schoolmates, a fat one and a thin one, meet in front of the station. They haven't met for many, many years and strike up an animated discussion. The thin one, who is accompanied by his family, tells he has just been promoted to head clerk. The fat one, as it turns out, is already a much higher ranking official. As soon as the thin man hears this, all normal human feelings are gone and he looses himself in groveling humility...
  4. "The Chameleon" (September, 1884). Again an excellent "hierarchy" story. A man has been bitten by a dog and asks the local policeman to take action towards the lax owner. But who is the owner? The behavior of the servant of the law changes like a chameleon, depending on his guessing of who the owner of the dog might be. After all, he can't inconvenience the local landlord or other authorities with a complaint about their dog!
  5. "Oysters" (December, 1884) A father and his young son stand in front of a restaurant. The father has lost his job and has no money left, this is the first day that they have to start begging for food. The father, however, is too ashamed to do so. The restaurant advertises "oysters" and the boy asks what these are. A customer hears the boy and invites him to a good meal of oysters. At night, the father who didn't get any food, is still hungry, and the boy has severe heartburn...
  6. "The Swedish Match" (1884). Detective stories with logically reasoning sleuths became popular around this time in Russia, and Chekhov wrote two:  a novel - his only one! - called The Shooting Party (available as a Penguin Classic) and this story, which in fact makes fun of the genre. A man is thought to have been murdered and the detective by strict logical reasoning solves the case and arrests the culprits... until the murdered man is discovered, in the shed of his mistress with whom he was hiding for a few days of intensive lovemaking!
  7. "The Marshall's Widow" (February, 1885). That strong liquor was just as popular in Russia in Chekhov's time as today, is evident from many of Chekhov's stories. A widow of a Marshall every year has a Requiem Mass read for her deceased husband, followed by a lunch for the local notables. The lunch is always excellent and therefore very popular, but there is one problem: it is a teetotalist event, as liquor carried the Marshall to his grave. But the participants know how to solve that problem in various, ingenious ways...
  8. "The Fish" (July, 1885) Two men are trying to catch an eelpout in the river, using their bare hands to get hold of the slippery fish. They have been at it for an hour, when more forces arrive, including the local landowner. But the result is not as hoped for... A beautiful description of the river scenery.
  9. "The Malefactor" (July, 1885). A villager has been arrested and stands in front of the judge. He has stolen iron bolts from the railway, which endangers the trains. He uses the bolts as weights for his fishing rod, and has no idea of the difference between things rightfully belonging to him and what is government property - let alone the larger idea of the public weal. As appears from his defense, neither have the other villagers... 
  10. "The Huntsman" (July, 1885) The best of the stories from this period, foreshadowing the later Chekhov. A huntsman always lives alone in the woods, busy with his occupation, away from his wife of twelve years. He even never visits her. When by chance he comes across  his wife, she tries to make him come home (she still harbors tender feelings for him), but he sees no point in it. It is the fate of his wife that she is married to a huntsman, he claims and leaves again. At their parting, he gives her a ruble. A deft story without moralizing, with an unspoken tragedy hidden behind the simple words.
I have read Chekhov in the Constance Garnett translations available on eBooks@adelaide (see the links in the story titles). The selection was made among 42 stories from 1883-85. A few more stories from these years are available in other collections, for example those in Penguin Classics or Oxford Classics. 

Friday, February 15, 2013

Bach Cantatas (47): Trinity XIV

The fourteenth Sunday after Trinity introduces the theme of spiritual sickness and healing, via the story of the cleansing of the ten lepers.
    There are three cantatas for this Sunday.

    Galatians 5:16–24, works of the flesh, fruit of the Spirit
    Luke 17:11–19, Cleansing ten lepers

    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)

    • Es ist nichts Gesundes an meinem Leibe, BWV 25, 29 August 1723

      Coro: Es ist nichts Gesundes an meinem Leibe
      Recitativo (tenor): Die ganze Welt ist nur ein Hospital
      Aria (bass): Ach, wo hol ich Armer Rat?
      Recitativo (soprano): O Jesu, lieber Meister.
      Aria (soprano): Öffne meinen schlechten Liedern
      Chorale: Ich will alle meine Tage

      ("There is no soundness in my body") The Lutheran fondness for sin, decay, and "rotting of bones" infuses the somber opening chorus with off-beat violin. But the trombones and recorders playing a dirge-like chorale melody and the fugal chorus add enough elements of greatness to make this a superb chorale fantasia - a double fugue which incorporates a chorale tune and features a large instrumental ensemble. A tour de force in which Bach conveys a vivid sense of spiritual and physical sickness, the subjects of this cantata. In contrast, the following three movements are consciously bare, only accompanied by the continuo. In the tenor recitative the disease is likened to human weaknesses as lust, pride and greed. The bass aria asks where help can be found and then gives the obvious answer: Jesus, the Physician of Souls. The ensuing soprano recitative is a plea for mercy and spiritual healing and this is followed by an aria, again for soprano, which forms a thanksgiving for answering the previous prayers. It is quite delightful, a sort of dancing concerto for strings and oboes, echoed by the recorders, as if the soul is already joining in the chorus of angels. The cantata is closed by a four-part version of the final stanza of Johann Heermann's chorale Treuer Gott, ich muss dir klagen (1630).

    • Jesu, der du meine Seele, BWV 78, 10 September 1724

      Chorus: Jesu, der du meine Seele
      Aria (soprano, alto): Wir eilen mit schwachen, doch emsigen Schritten
      Recitativo (tenor): Ach! ich bin ein Kind der Sünden
      Aria (tenor, flute): Das Blut, so meine Schuld durchstreicht
      Recitativo (bass, strings): Die Wunden, Nägel, Kron und Grab
      Aria (bass, oboe): Nur du wirst mein Gewissen stillen
      Chorale: Herr, ich glaube, hilf mir Schwachen

      ("Jesus, Thou who [has rent] my soul") Chorale cantata based on a chorale of Johann Rist (1641), only generally related to the readings for this day, as it deals with redemption and the Passion of Jesus, which cleanses the believer. The opening chorus is a chorale fantasia in the form of a passacaglia, a lament full of meditative profundity. The soprano has the cantus firmus, together with slide trumpet and transverse flute, and the melancholy theme is repeated 27 times. A noble and tender movement. The expressive duet for soprano and alto imitates the rushing steps of the text in a joyful way - the eager disciple following in the footsteps of Jesus. This is accompanied by an energetic basso continuo of organ, cello and violone. The tenor recitative contains an intense prayer for forgiveness and the tenor aria with obbligato flute is concerned with cleansing through faith. There is interesting word painting on "makes my heart light again," where the music suddenly turns into the major key, suffusing the image with a quiet radiance. The bass first reflects on the agony on the cross and then, in his vivid aria with oboe obbligato, holds a plea for a quiet conscience. The closing chorale sets the original tune in four parts.

    • Wer Dank opfert, der preiset mich, BWV 17, 22 September 1726

      Part I
      1. Coro: Wer Dank opfert, der preiset mich
      2. Recitativo (alto): Es muss die ganze Welt ein stummer Zeuge werden
      3. Aria (soprano): Herr, deine Güte reicht so weit
      Part II
      4. Recitativo (tenor): Einer aber unter ihnen, da er sahe
      5. Aria (tenor): Welch Übermaß der Güte schenkst du mir
      6. Recitativo (bass): Sieh meinen Willen an
      7. Chorale: Wie sich ein Vatr erbarmet

      ("He who offers me thanks, honors me") Shaped by two corresponding passages from the Bible, one from the Old Testament (Psalm 50) and one from the New Testament (the story from Luke about the Samaritan, who among the ten lepers cured by Jesus, alone returned to give thanks). The main subject of the cantata is therefore gratitude. The opening chorus, a single large choral fugue, is preceded by an instrumental sinfonia. All recitatives in this short cantata are secco. The first aria, for soprano and two obbligato violins is an illustration of the soaring clouds from the text, which is based not on original poetry, but on quotations from the Bible ("Thy righteousness standeth like the strong mountains"). The aria is shaped like a Baroque concerto movement. The second part of the cantata starts with a simple recitative, a plain biblical narrative. The ensuing tenor aria can be seen as setting the words of the grateful Samaritan to music and has an interesting violin phrase. The closing chorale, the third stanza of "Nun lob, mein Seel, den Herren" (1525) by Johann Graumann, does some word painting on "wind" and "fallen leaves."

    Bach Cantata Index

      Kuginuki Jizo (Kyoto Guide)

      Kuginuki Jizo (or, officially, Shakuzoji) is a small temple sitting in the northern part of Senbon Street in Kyoto. The name means the “Jizo that pulls out nails,” and is a wordplay on “Kunuki,” or “removing pain.”

      [The Jizo Hall with its wooden votive panels with nippers and nails]

      According to legend, the Jizo was carved by the famous priest Kukai from a stone he brought back from his sojourn in China. In reality, of course, it must have been one of the many anonymous carved stones standing at the wayside in old Japan. The main image of the temple, an Amida Trinity from the 13th century, was likewise set up by the wayside and later incorporated into the temple.

      [Giant, decorative nippers in front of the small temple hall]

      The temple must originally have grown up on the basis of the legend that the Jizo statue could bring relief from distress. It was only in the 16th century that a new and more vivid legend took over. A certain merchant had terrible pain in his hands. In a dream the stone Jizo of this temple appeared to him and removed two nails from his hands, telling him they were a punishment because in a previous life he had felt a grudge towards another person. The next day the merchant visited the temple, and saw two bloody nails on the altar – and his pain was miraculously gone.

      [Offerings out of gratitude of nails and nippers]

      So from then on, when people thought the Jizo helped them find relief, they would offer a set of two nails and a nail puller attached to a small wooden board to the temple as a token of gratitude. The custom still exists and many of these sets have been attached to the outside wall of the Jizo Hall – a most original decoration. The temple is always busy with supplicants.

      [Jizo is present in the temple grounds as well]

      Hrs.: 8:30~16:30. Free. Access: 3 min walk from Kyoto City Bus stop "Senbon Kamidachiuri."

      Sunday, February 10, 2013

      Sylvie, by Gérard de Nerval

      The French have something with memory. Proust, of course, but also Alain-Fournier, and now in a novella I just read, Sylvie by  Gérard de Nerval. Just like Le Grand Meaulnes, this is a beautiful story about the innocence of youth. My attention was drawn to it by an essay of Umberto Eco (who also translated the novella into Italian), included in his On Literature. Eco claims Sylvie is one of his favorite literary works, and he analyzes the story in detail. It is indeed a most beautiful tale about the narrator's youthful and pure love for two girls, a hymn to a love never realized, and told from the interesting perspective of an older self.

      [The Embarkation for Cythera, by Antoine Watteau (1717). It depicts a departure from the island of Cythera, the birthplace of Venus, thus symbolizing the brevity of love. The festival where the narrator meets Adrienne evokes for him the atmosphere of this painting.]

      The author, Gérard de Nerval (1808-1855), was a French romanticist, who after the death of his mother was brought up by a great-uncle in Valois, a rural region with an idyllic landscape just north of Paris. He translated Heine and Goethe - his translation of Faust was used by Hector Berlioz for his legend-symphony La damnation de Faust. Living in Paris, De Nerval counted Théophile Gautier and Alexandre Dumas, père, among his literary friends. Victor Hugo greatly admired him and of course also Proust underwent his influence. De Nerval's insistence on the significance of dreams was mirrored in the Surrealist movement of a century later, as emphasized by André Breton. Interestingly, De Nerval also behaved in a surrealistic way – he had a pet lobster which he took for walks on the end of a blue silk ribbon, saying: “Why should a lobster be any more ridiculous than a dog?”

      From the 1840s, Gérard de Nerval had several nervous breakdowns, and, disoriented, in 1855 he finally committed suicide by hanging himself. He left a brief note to his aunt: "Do not wait up for me this evening, for the night will be black and white."

      Sylvie is an idyll written in the form of a reminiscence, the story about love for three women, all of whom the narrator loses - in short, it is a hymn to unattainable, unrequited love. The short novel was written in 1853. In his essay, Eco points out the use of temporal ambiguity in the novel, and he tries to figure out the time scheme in intricate tables. That is not so easy – there is conscious ambiguity here and the perspective shifts back between past and present, and the lost time of youth leads to ever deeper memories inside memories. The reader is never entirely sure if the narrator is recounting past events from memory, or retelling current events as they happen.

      [Vue du lac d'Ermenonville, Jean-Joseph-Xavier Bidauld - the type of nostalgic countryside in which the novel is situated.]

      The narrator lives a debauched life of the theater and drink in Paris, when he is suddenly reminded of his youthful love for a peasant girl named Sylvie. Although of a different class, Sylvie was his playmate when he was a young boy, they seemed almost like brother and sister - they used to play at bride and bridegroom dressing up in his aunts house. Sylvie has classic features and brunette hair, and embodies a timeless ideal. In the present time, the narrator returns to Sylvie, who is now sowing gloves, but nothing comes of it - the charm is gone, and he leaves her to marry one of their school comrades, a man more equal to her class.

      The second woman the narrator loves is a seductive actress in Paris named Aurélia, who has many suitors who tell her empty idylls of love, but none love her for who she really is - including the narrator, who sees her as a lovely illusion that fades in the daylight of reality.

      The third woman for the narrator is Adrienne, a tall blonde girl of noble birth, an "ideal beauty." She is the narrator's idealized love, something which is mirrored in later life in his love for the actress Aurelie. He first meets Adrienne in a dance where she kisses him, a mirage of glory and beauty, filling him with bliss. But Adrienne enters a convent, and dies an early death.

      In the end, he loves all three but obtains none, seemingly for reasons both beyond and within his making.

      There is a large contrast between the first half of the novel, which is euphoric (enchanted, uplifting, the kiss as a mystical experience) and the second half, which is dysphoric (depressed, embarrassed, the kiss as merely affectionate). Obsessed with the fantastic images of ideal women he fabricates in his mind, the narrator eventually destroys his chances of forming a relationship with a real woman.

      And not for nothing is the subtitle "Recollections of Valois": the recollections are brought about by visits to the area where the narrator spent his youth, and in those memories particular places play a large role - the place names themselves become memories, again, as in Alain-Fournier and Proust, ringing in the mind like distant bells.

      The nostalgic story of a beautiful but lost world, Sylvie is certainly one of the most enchanted narratives ever written - a close family member of Le Grand Meaulnes.

      Sylvie is available at Internet Archive in English translation. The original French can be found at Wikisource.

      Saturday, February 2, 2013

      Best short stories of Akutagawa Ryunosuke (Book Review)

      Akutagawa Ryunosuke (1892-1927) was a short story writer, essayist and haiku poet who died young at age 35, but whose about one hundred stories and novellas have become a hard and fast part of the canon of modern Japanese literature, not in the least thanks to his stylistic perfectionism and keen psychological insight. Shortly after Akutagawa was born - with the original family name Niihara - , his mother went insane, and he therefore was adopted into the family of his maternal uncle, whose surname he assumed. From a young age he was a voracious and eclectic reader of Western, Japanese and Chinese literature, and at Tokyo University, where he went in 1913, he studied English literature. After graduation, he briefly taught English, before deciding to devote his life wholeheartedly to literature - he was a fixed contributor to the Osaka Mainichi newspaper. He married in 1918 and had three sons, one of whom became the famous conductor and composer Akutagawa Yasushi.

      Akutagawa's first short story to be published was Rashomon, in 1915, and it was praised by veteran author Natsume Soseki, who became a sort of mentor. At this time Akutagawa also started writing haiku, perhaps following the example of Soseki - it is a genre in which Akutagawa's efforts only in recent times have been properly evaluated. In the next years, Akutagawa especially wrote stories set in the past, reinterpreting classical works or historical incidents, and infusing them with modern psychology. But he also wrote modern stories and, in his final years, autobiographical stories, which show his emotional exhaustion.

      Akutagawa suffered from insomnia and hallucinations, a condition that had been worsened by an unhappy stint in China in 1921 for the Osaka Mainichi. While searching for new themes in his novels at a time that the "I-Novel" dominated the literary scene, he was harassed by personal misfortune: the burning down of his sister's house, the suicide of that sister's husband, the fact that as head of the family he had to look after those family members, a burden for which he didn't have the strength - also financially, as he only subsisted on his meager income as a story writer. Increasingly paranoid, in the end, he fled the world he found so uncomfortable. On Sunday, July 24, 1927, Akutagawa took a fatal dose of a sleeping aid (Veronal, a barbiturate with which Virginia Woolf had tried suicide but failed) and passed away aged 35. Beside his pillow he left a note in which he explained that he had killed himself because of “a vague unease about my future.”  In 1935, Akutagawa's friend, the writer Kikuchi Kan established the Akutagawa Prize, which is today is still considered as the most prestigious Japanese literary award for aspiring writers.

      [Akutagawa Ryunosuke, photo Wikipedia]

      The best stories by Akutagawa are in my view:
        1. "Hell Screen" ("Jigokuhen," 1917). Does great art demand the artist to give up human feelings to reach the pinnacle of his powers? That is the question asked in this story of a medieval painter who looks on at the sacrifice of his daughter to create the best work he can. In order to make a screen with a depiction of sinners tormented in Buddhist Hell, the painter - who can only paint from life - has a carriage set on fire in which the evil feudal lord - out of spite for his rebuffed love - has secretly chained and gagged the painter's beautiful daughter. The painter, who has been shown earlier on to have a cruel streak, is first shocked at seeing his daughter in the fatal carriage, but then when the flames leap up and she writhes in agony, he starts painting in ecstasy. Akutagawa has clearly modernized the story, for in pre-modern Japan painters always worked after templates, in the fixed style of the school to which they belonged - there was no such thing as individual originality and "painting after life." But that comment does not make the story less beautiful... "Hell Screen" was filmed several times (for example in 1969 as a Toho costume drama), and in 1953 was also made into a Kabuki play by Mishima Yukio.
        2. "Spinning Gears" ("Haguruma," 1927; the title has also been rendered as "Cogwheels"). The strongest of the autobiographical tales Akutagawa wrote in the years before his death - the reader almost feels he is pulled down the same dark hole as Akutagawa himself. The narrator is a novelist staying in a hotel in Tokyo to write stories. He takes long walks around the city, suffering from insomnia, and gradually loses his grip on reality. A whole life boils down to a few days of intense suffering, and finally inexhaustible paranoia.
        3. "In a Bamboo Grove" ("Yabu no Naka," 1922). A perfect demonstration of how humans all interpret events in different ways, and not coincidentally always to their own advantage. Pride and vanity keep us from seeing the truth (if the truth exists at all...). A samurai and his wife travel through a dense forest, they meet a robber, the samurai eventually dies, a passing-by woodcutter reports the crime. The woodcutter, a priest, the robber, the gentleman and his lady all have their own, self-serving versions of the same murder (or was it suicide?) - even the dead man speaking via a medium is still telling lies from over the grave... Together with "Rashomon" this story formed the basis for the classic film Rashomon by Kurosawa Akira. In fact, in my mind the stories are so indelibly linked to the film, that when reading them, before my eyes I see the images of Mifune Toshiro as the bandit, Kyo Machiko as the lady and Shimura Takashi as the woodcutter...
        4. "Kesa and Morito" ("Kesa to Morito," 1918). A historical story about the infatuation of a palace guard for a married court lady, told in two monologues, first by the guard, Morito, and then by the lady, Kesa. In the original story in The Rise and Fall of the Genji and Heike (around 1400), Kesa is a paragon of fidelity and she only yields to the violent Morito (in fact her cousin) in order to save her mother, who is threatened by the lovesick man. Next, she asks Morito to kill her husband, as she can not bear the shame of being the wife of two men. This is  a ruse, though, for she ties up her hair and lies in the bed of her husband, waiting for the killer. Morito by mistake cuts off the head of his beloved and mad with grief, he finally becomes a Buddhist ascetic. The original story of Kesa was also used by Kinugasa Teinosuke in the 1953 film Gate of Hell (Jigokumon). Akutagawa probes the complex motives of both Morito and Kesa - in his version Kesa commits adultery out of vanity and ambivalent feelings towards Miroto rather than sacrifice for her mother.
        5. "Dragon" ("Ryu," 1919). Another historical tale. A priest who is fond of practical jokes, puts up a sign next to the Sarusawa Pond in Nara with the message: "On the third day of the third month, the dragon of this pond will ascend to heaven." To his own surprise, a huge crowd, from high to low, is assembled at the pond on that day and later all watchers believe they indeed saw a dragon rise up from the pond - the priest is unable to convince them that the sign was just a joke. A perfect story of religious obsession (the dragon in Japan is sacred, like a deity), showing that religion could well just be a form of mass hysteria.
        6. "The Nose" ("Hana," 1916). Akutagawa's second story, which gained him much initial fame, based on a classical collection of tales. A renowned priest with an ugly and hugely long nose after much trouble finally gets rid of his nemesis - but then longs to have it back, as he is nothing special anymore. That the vain and egotistic priest is only obsessed about the state of his nose can be seen as a comment on the relative positions in human society of religion and personal vanity.
        7. "Rashomon" (1915). Akutagawa's use of the dilapidated Rashomon gate was deliberately symbolic, the gate's ruined state representing the moral and physical decay of Japanese civilization and culture in the later Heian period (12th c.). The story is quite gruesome: a manservant who has lost his job must choose between honesty and crime. We see how he gradually decides to become a thief, when observing that an old hag on the attic of the Rashomon gate is tearing out the hair of dead bodies dumped there to make wigs. The old woman becomes his first victim, in good Dostoyevsky-style... Used as the "frame" for Kurosawa's above mentioned film.
        8. "Death Register" ("Tenkibo," 1926). A short but stark and harsh record of the deaths of three close family members, containing a sad look at Akutagawa's estranged, insane mother, the elder sister he never knew and the father who gave him up as an infant. Akutagawa suggests that the difference between the living and the dead is barely perceptible, like a shimmer of heat on a summer day.
        9. "Mandarins" ("Mikan," 1919). A jaded young man is shocked into feelings of human warmth when he sees a servant girl (whom he first despised as crude and stupid) throw oranges from the train to her younger brothers. The mikan is a popular citrus fruit, consumed in great quantities in winter. 
        10. "O'er a Withered Moor" ("Karenosho," 1918). Relates the death of haiku poet Basho, and the selfish thoughts his disciples harbor at his deathbed, although supposedly "lost to boundless grief." A personal meditation that was also influenced by the early death in 1916 at age 49 of Akutagawa's mentor Natsume Soseki. The tile is based on Basho's final haiku, his death poem: Ill on a journey / Wandering in fevered dreams / O'er a withered moor. (See my post about this haiku).
        And here are two great stories that as far as I know have not yet been translated:
        • "A Painting of Autumn Mountains" ("Shuzanzu," 1921). Story set in ancient China. About "the greatest painting of all times," that is an overarching presence in the minds of two art lovers. And "in the mind" is how they want to keep it, for when they are shown a painting that is none other than the famous "greatest painting" they have been enthusing over all their lives, they find it so disappointing that they decide it is not the "real thing." Indeed, the "real thing" only exists in their imagination...
        • "The General" ("Shogun," 1922). Features a brutal character named "N Shogun," who may have been based on General Nogi, the hero of the bloody Russo-Japanese War of 1904-05. The story was considered as controversial and heavily censored, but it is an interesting critique of the authorities. Another perfect anti-war tale is The Story of a Head that Fell Off in the Penguin translation by Jay Rubin.
        Besides somewhat older translations which are still being reprinted by Tuttle, we have two volumes of excellent modern renderings of Akutagawa's prose:
        Rashomon and Seventeen Other Stories, translated by Jay Rubin and with an introduction by Murakami Haruki (Penguin Classics, 2006)

        Mandarins: Stories by Ryunosuke Akutagawa, translated by Charles de Wolf (Archipelago Books, 2007)
        There is only an overlap of a few stories between these two volumes. Rubin - well-known for his translations of several novels by Murakami Haruki - includes both a generous selection of the historical tales, modern fiction, and autobiographical works, while Keio University Professor De Wolf mostly selects stories set in modern times. Rubin includes nos 1-3 and 5-8 from the above list, and De Wolf nos 2, 4, 9, and 10.

          "The Rings of Saturn" ("Die Ringe des Saturn") by W.G. Sebald (Book review)

          The Rings of Saturn, An English Pilgrimage (Die Ringe des Saturn, Eine Englische Wallfahrt, 1995; English translation by Michael Hulse 1998) is a great postmodern prose work, at the same time autobiography, historiography, literary criticism, philosophy and travelogue. The book rings with intertextuality. Like Sebald's other work, it is illustrated by gritty black and white pictures, often photos taken by Sebald himself, or images collected by him. On the surface it is the account of a walking tour in Suffolk in East Anglia (a county close to the author's home, as he lived in Norfolk, having made England his home since around 1970), through a landscape that reminded me in its flatness of Holland, but it is decidedly not a travel book: the tour through Suffolk only serves as the stimulus for the narrator's (who might and might not be Sebald) sometimes arcane historical and literary meditations, which usually turn towards war, destruction and decay. The people he describes are often grossly eccentric, creators of alternate universes of the mind, but with the shadow of annihilation hanging over them. Each chapter begins with an observation about the place the narrator is visiting, but then jumps almost without transition to reflections about persons or historical events connected with that place – often things that happened at the other end of the world. The connections are usually so tenuous that I was reminded of the "butterfly effect:" how the flapping of a butterfly's wings in England can create a typhoon in, say, China.

          What is the meaning of the title? In the first place, in astrology Saturn is the planet of melancholy and the book is obviously a study of that state (although not without humor). Next, the word “rings” suggests ripples of water, reaching out farther and farther, until everything is connected with everything – a meaning that is finally also supported by the fact that Saturn's rings are the debris of a crashed planet, whose fragments ultimately belong together. And on a technical level, the image of the planet stands for the “saturnine” circles through which Sebald's narrative proceeds, linking one digression to the other.

          Recurring images and themes line the length of the book (such as that of sericulture, which I will talk about later) that takes its intertextual keynote from the Hydriotaphia or Urn Burial of Sir Thomas Browne, a baroque thesis written by the 17th c. essayist, himself a native of East Anglia, in response to the local discovery of an ancient gravesite. And indeed, as Sebald says: “Are we standing on a mountain of death? Is that our ultimate vantage point?” There are staggering figures to support this view: just to name a few disasters described by Sebald: 500,000 deaths a year in Belgian Congo between 1890 and 1900, more than 20 million deaths in the in the West largely unknown Taiping Rebellion in mid-19th c, China, and so on. Through its links with these events (see below for a detailed discussion), a single English county turns out to contain an inconceivable world of devastation.

          Sebald has written a meditation on historical loss, and the capacity of humans for both cruelty and forgetting that cruelty. But Sebald also stresses the importance of memories and the idea that nothing entirely disappears thanks to the power of art. He writes as if every memory is fleeting and must be noted down urgently before it slips away. The gritty photos are part of the process of remembering. The Rings of Saturn is a carefully composed book, rich in beautiful ideas. It is also decidedly a work of fiction – some of the persons and events in the book are obviously imaginary. It is, although Sebald talks rather about “prose fiction,” a new form of the novel.

          Here follows an overview of the ten chapters of The Rings of Saturn listing the main intertextual references.

          The narrator finds himself hospitalized in a state of physical and emotional paralysis, exactly one year after the walking tour he took through Suffolk in August 1992, which forms the subject of this book. In the description of his state are echoes of Kafka's Metamorphosis. He remembers: “I saw a vapor trail cross the segment framed by my window. At the time I took that white trail for a good omen, but now, as I look back, I fear it marked the beginning of a fissure that has since riven my life. The aircraft at the tip of the trail was as invisible as the passengers inside it. The invisibility and intangibility of that which moves us remained an unfathomable mystery … our world… no more than a shadow image of another one far beyond.”

          The stay in the Norwich hospital leads to an exploration of the 17th c. writer Thomas Browne, whose skull was at one time kept in the hospital's museum. This leads to a discussion of Browne's masterwork Hydriotaphia or Urn Burial, a consideration of burial rites and the various ways of disposal of human remains, ending with a meditation on transience.

          In the section on Thomas Browne, also Rembrandt's painting "The Anatomy Lesson of Dr Nicolas Tulp" is taken up – interestingly, the narrator takes the side of the corpse of the criminal in this public dissection. He also remarks on the strangeness of the corpse's left hand (which is a second right hand). The narrator muses interestingly on the possibility that Browne was in the audience.

          Start of the narrator's walk down the coast of Suffolk, from north to south to Orford (after which there will be a turn west in chapter IX). The walk starts in the northern tip of the county at what is left of the fairy-tale palace Somerleyton Hall, once a Victorian railway king’s monument to vanity. The owner, nouveau riche Samuel Morton Peto, was the largest employer in the world of his time.
          Meeting a gardener at Somerleyton leads to a discussion of the WWII wartime bombings – in this area were several military airfields from which the bombers bound for Germany left (Sebald has written about the devastation these bombings caused and the German forgetfulness about this tragedy in On the Natural History of Destruction).

          On the nearby coastline the narrator visits the dilapidated town of Lowestoft (where Joseph Conrad first came ashore in England), around 1900 a flourishing seaside resort, where even German royalty came to stay, but now an economic wreck.

          Walking south along the coast from Lowestoft, the narrator plunges into the history of the herring industry from ports along this coast, and its demise. He also notes that herrings retain their luminosity after death, which - he claims, probably fictionally – led in the late 19th c. to research into their luminous substance to use it for practical applications.

          When the narrator reaches Benacre Broad his mind turns to one George Wyndham Le Strange, who used to live here in the large mansion Henstead Hall, completely isolated from the world. "Some said that one summer Le Strange dug a cave in his garden and sat in it day and night like St. Jerome in the desert." We also learn that Le Strange was part of the tank regiment that liberated the concentration camp of Belsen-Belsen, which may have contributed to his madness. This section includes a grainy black and white photograph of what appear to be piles of bodies in a wood, reminding the reader of the picture of captured herring a few pages earlier. It is probable that the section about Le Strange is fictional – I have not been able to find any other reference to this eccentric.

          The chapter concludes with the mention of “Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius” by Borges, in which the imaginary books from the story are cited as valid scientific works in a discussion of time. "The denial of time, so the tract on Orbius Tertius tells us, is one of the key tenets of the philosophical schools of Tlön. According to this principle, the future exists only in the shape of our present apprehensions and hopes, and the past merely as memory."

          The narrator has reached Gunhill in Southwold and remembers the English-Dutch naval battle that took place here in 1672, which included a bombardment of the town. This leads to memories about a previous trip the narrator made to Holland, where he visited the Mauritshuis (where the Rembrandt painting mentioned above is on display), the Kurhaus Hotel in Scheveningen, and Amsterdam, returning to Norwich with a small plane from Schiphol Airport.
          The next day we find him browsing in the Southwold Sailors' Reading Room where albums with war images direct his mind to the terrible statistics of death in WWI, as well as the mass executions in the Balkans during WWII. One person linked to these atrocities is Kurt Waldheim, the former Secretary General of the UN (although unnamed by Sebald), and the narrator ironically mentions the fact that Waldheim's voice was used on space probe Voyager II, to greet other intelligent beings in the universe.

          The recollection of a documentary on the life of Roger Casement, which the narrator saw while half asleep in his hotel room, leads to a detailed exploration of Joseph Conrad's experiences in the Belgian Congo, where Conrad had briefly encountered Casement. This in turn leads to thoughts about the horrors of colonization, as described in Conrad's magnum opus, Heart of Darkness. Conrad was like Sebald another author who immigrated to England, where he first spent three months sailing on ships out of Lowestoft. The author goes on to chronicle the case of Roger Casement, who had written strong critical articles about the Belgian activities in the Congo. In 1916 the Irish Casement was hanged as a traitor, for allegedly supporting the Irish rebellion (Ireland was a colony of England at that time).

          The narrator also discusses a visit to Belgium, a country he doesn't like very much, due to the cruelties in Africa. He visits the monument of Waterloo and sees the diorama about the battle, which leads him to the thought that this cannot be a correct representation of history. “It requires a falsification of perspective. We, the survivors, see everything from above, see everything at once, and still we do not know how it was.”

          At the Bridge over the River Blyth the narrator muses over the miniature railway train that used to run here in 1875, but that was – supposedly – originally built for the Emperor of China. This leads to thoughts about the Taiping Rebellion which ended in a mass suicide in 1864, the destruction of the Summer Palace near Beijing and the looting of its treasures by the British, and the terrible Empress Dowager Cixi, who slowly poisoned her nephew Guangxu in order to remain in power herself. The Empress had a strange fixation on silkworms, in her lonely palace she sat listening to the greedy noise of the worms feeding on mulberry leaves - at least, so we are told.

          Next we get the spectacular demise of the once-mighty port of Dunwich, which over several centuries toppled inexorably into the North Sea - caving in because of the power of the waves. The poet Swinburne lived in Dunwich and the narrator notices that the poet's birth and death dates correspond to those of the Empress Dowager. He had a disproportionally big head with wild red hair on it, and was said to eat his meals greedily and monotonously like silkworms.

          The narrator mentions the military radar stations set up in Dunwich. Then, hiking over the heath near Dunwich he loses his way in a sort of labyrinth. When he finally manages to escape and arrives in the town of Middleton, he visits the home of his friend Michael Hamburger, the translator of poetry by Hölderlin, Celan and Sebald himself. His life of exile roughly parallels Sebald's, although Hamburger was 20 years older and being Jewish, had to flee Europe. Walking around the house, the narrator has the deja vu feeling that not only has he seen this place before but that it is his place, a house he lived in years earlier. "Why it was that on my first visit to Michael's house I instantly felt as if I lived or had once lived there, in every respect precisely as he does?”

          The narrator arrives in Boulge and is reminded of Edward Fitzgerald, the 19th c. translator of the Rubaiyat by Omar Khayyam. He also addresses the question why Edward FitzGerald never completed anything except this fabulous translation. Woodbridge, his next destination, leads to memories of a previous trip to Ireland, where the narrator stayed with the Ashburys, a mother, a son and two daughters living a dreamy life in a totally delapidated estate, Clarahill. They do not have the money necessary for the upkeep and gradually the spacious house crumbles away. There is a hint that the family wanted him to stay and marry one of the daughters, Catherine.

          The narrator is hit by a disorienting sandstorm before arriving in Orford. This coastal town faces a long sandbank, Orford Ness, that during the Cold War housed a military installation where secret weapon research took place. The narrator visits the now deserted Cold War site.

          The narrator starts moving inland, in a western direction, through an almost empty landscape. In this countryside, he visits a farmer, Alec Garrard, who spends his life trying to build a model of the Temple of Jerusalem – an useless endeavor he knows he will never finish, while being ridiculed by family and neighbors.

          In Ilkethall St Margaret in The Saints the narrator is reminded of the beautiful love story of the French author and diplomat Chateaubriand and Charlotte Ives, the daughter of a countryside pastor.

          When he finally visits Ditchingham he sees a strange grave with "air holes" in it, and remembers from a previous visit the large trees that once stood in the park of Ditchingham Hall. This reminds him of the huge storm of October 16, 1987 that uprooted 14 million trees in Suffolk/Norfolk, the most severe storm the country had experienced since 1703.

          The walk is over and the narrator directs his thoughts to the beginning, to Thomas Browne, who also wrote a strange book called Museaum Clausum. A passage in this book leads him to thoughts about sericulture and silk worms, and a survey of the history of silk in major European countries. The narrator depicts the plan of the Nazis for the development of the silk industry and although he doesn't mention it, there is a silent analogy between the methods used for killing silkworms and the Holocaust.

          Silk is, in fact, one of the themes that bind the book together – the father of Thomas Browne was a silk merchant and silk appears in almost every chapter. In fact, the silkworm, or the act of spinning, is another emblem of the process the author has engaged in, for The Rings of Saturn is a book which is “spun out” much like a silkworm spins her web.

          The book then concludes: “[Browne] remarks in a passage of the Pseudodoxia Epidemica that I can no longer find that in Holland of his time it was customary, in a home where there had been a death, to drape black mourning ribbons over all the mirrors and canvasses depicting landscapes or people or the fruits of the fields, so that the soul, as it left the body, would not be distracted on its final journey, either by a reflection of itself or by a last glimpse of the land now being lost forever.”


          W.G. "Max" Sebald (1944-2001) has been called the most important German author of the postwar era. Since 1970 until his untimely death in a traffic accident in 2001 (caused by heart failure), Sebald lived and worked as a university lecturer in Norwich in the U.K. He taught German Literature at the University of East Anglia, an institution known for its creative writing course that saw several important writers as its graduates, for example Ian McEwan (the university is described in McEwan's Sweet Tooth).

          Sebald was an academic who came late to literature. In 1988 he published a long poem, After Nature (Nach der Natur. Ein Elementargedicht). This was followed by four unique prose fictions: Vertigo (Schwindel. Gefühle, 1990), The Emigrants (Die Ausgewanderten. Vier lange Erzählungen, 1992), The Rings of Saturn (Die Ringe des Saturn. Eine englische Wallfahrt, 1995), and Austerlitz (2001). They combine memoir, fiction, travelogue, literary criticism, history, and philosophy in a new form of prose fiction, and are all written in a haunting style with sentences that sometimes meander over several pages. In the same style we have the essay On the Natural History of Destruction (Luftkrieg und Literatur: Mit einem Essay zu Alfred Andersch) from 1999Sebald's other work consists of three volumes of academic essays about his specialism, Austrian literature, and a book published posthumously, Campo Santo, with prose fragments Sebald was working on at the time of his death and some more essays. The essays, however, are written in a normal academic style and very different from the four "novels," although of course Sebald's opinions about Austrian literature (Schnitzler, Stifter, Kafka, Hofmannsthal, Bernhard, Handke) are very interesting.

          In the five years before his death, Sebald had come to be widely recognized for his extraordinary contribution to world literature. His death at age 57 was a great loss - but we can be grateful for what we have. 

          I read the German original published by Fischer Taschenbuch Verlag. The excellent English translation (made under supervision of the author) was published by New Directions
          Professor Sebald's homepage at the time of death, University of East Anglia - with picture of W.G.Sebald.

          Itinerary of The Rings of Saturn. Fan web page.