Wednesday, December 24, 2014

"A Heart So White" by Javier Marías (Book review)

One of the greatest contemporary Spanish novels is A Heart So White by Javier Marías, a celebrated literary bestseller about honesty and memory and the weight of personal history, and at the same time a very funny and sexy book.

But first the title, "A Heart So White," which is a quote from Shakespeare's Macbeth:
"My hands are of your colour; but I shame / To wear a heart so white." 
These words are spoken by Lady Macbeth to her husband, who on her instigation has just murdered Duncan, the King of Scotland, by stabbing him in his bed. She helps Macbeth - who is bemoaning his crime - by putting the dagger next to the guards of the king, so that they will be blamed for the murder. She is just as guilty as her husband, she says, she also has blood on her hands, but at least she is not a coward like he "with his white heart" - she is continually questioning his courage and manhood to drive him on in his (or rather, her) criminal ambitions.

Such a title promises a book full of drama and that is what we get, at least for starters. The book opens with a dramatic suicide, where the narrator's aunt (to whom his father was married before marrying his mother, her sister) shoots herself in the chest, just after returning from her honeymoon. This has happened forty years before the present, and is a mystery the narrator's father never is willing to talk about. The next chapter jumps to the honeymoon of the narrator, Juan, a translator/interpreter working for the United Nations, who overhears a conversation in the neighboring hotel room where a woman is pushing her lover to murder his wife. This setup almost seems like a thriller, but don't worry, it is a serious book that mixes apprehension with reflection. We could say that elements of the thriller serve as a catalyst for existential observations. Against that background it is gradually revealed how the narrator learns the secret behind his father's three marriages - his father is an art expert who has become rich by defrauding his clients, and also something of a womanizer. In fact, as Juan will learn, discovering the truth does not solve anything, it only serves to make life more complicated.

Marías writes in the tradition of James and Proust, of Borges and Nabokov. His long, meandering sentences even reminded me of that other great Iberian author, Saramago, who also may start with the description of an event, to continue in the same sentence with a discursive observation. Marías has also been highly praised by W.G. Sebald, and indeed, he exhibits a Sebaldian obsession with history and memory (and even uses black-and-white photos in some of his books - though not in this one -, which was Sebald's trademark). His basic theme is the transience of human life, how everything belongs to the past as soon as it has happened - which means that everything is constantly in the process of being lost. A second theme is the ambiguity of language - not for nothing is his protagonist a translator / interpreter, someone who is well aware of the pitfalls of language.

But different from Sebald, Marías' books are also very sexy and full of humor. A good example is the scene in A Heart So White where Juan for the first time meets Luisa, the woman who later will become his wife. Juan is acting as interpreter at a private discussion between the premiers of Spain and Great Britain (the British PM is clearly Margaret Thatcher). As is usual at such high level meetings, a second interpreter is present to check on the first - for mistakes can have far-reaching consequences. This is Luisa and she is sitting diagonally behind Juan, watching the back of his neck, so he only sees her long crossed legs and Prada shoes out of the corner of his eye. Translating for these two heads of state, Juan intentionally misinterprets what they say (in fact, they don't have much to say, this is a very ironical act), just to see what happens. He watches Luisa's legs to get a cue as to how she will react: startled, she uncrosses them, but does not intervene. And as he goes on changing more and more parts of the conversation, leaving out certain remarks and adding others of his own fabrication, he notices that Luisa's "gleaming legs" don't move anymore, they remain crossed and only sway a little, a sure sign she isn't going to ruin Juan's career by speaking up - and for him also the sign "that she would allow him anything for the rest of his life." This is one the most beautiful and funny seduction scenes from all literature.

The book contains several scenes that echo other events in the narrative. The above mentioned, overheard conversation in the hotel foreshadows what Juan will discover about his father, although his father acted on his own initiative and his second wife, Juan's aunt, far from spurring him on like Lady Macbeth, was so shocked by his crime that she killed herself. And Juan learns this through another overheard conversation, between his father and Luisa, where Luisa persuades her father-in-law (who has a weakness for her) to tell her the truth about his first two wives.

Another example of such parallelism is "the person standing below in the street, looking up at the balcony." This is how Juan first sees the woman who comes for a tryst with the man occupying the next-door hotel room during his honeymoon (this happens in Havana, while Luisa is ill in bed with a slight form of food poisoning): the woman, a fierce, local type, stands in the street and he notices her "strong legs that seemed to dig into the pavement with their thin, high, stiletto heels." She then shouts at Juan sitting on the balcony and waves angrily with a swift flourish of her fingers, mistaking him for the man with whom she has a date - something which is only resolved when the man next door also appears on his balcony. Later, in Madrid, Juan notices a somewhat sinister friend of his father, who seems strangely interested in his marital relation with Luisa, standing motionless in the street, watching his balcony. And when Juan is on a business trip to New York, he stays with an old flame, a woman who is searching for romance by placing contact advertisements and sending out kinky videos of herself. She has had a traffic accident and now one of her legs is shorter than the other. She has hooked a man (also a somewhat sinister type, so here, too, is the suggestion that she could end up being murdered) and Juan has to leave the apartment and stand in the street during her lovemaking, so this time he becomes the one looking up at the balcony, waiting for a sign that the coast is free.

On another note, even certain reflections of the narrator are repeated, to demonstrate that our thought processes are often repetitious. An interesting thought of Juan that is repeated in the novel is:
"What takes place is identical to what doesn't take place, what we dismiss or allow to slip by us is identical to what we accept and seize, what we experience identical to what we never try, and yet we spend our lives in a process of choosing and rejecting and selecting, in drawing a line to separate these identical things and make our story a unique story that we can remember and that can be told."
In short, Marías mixes philosophy and kinkiness, suspense and contemplation, wading through the swamp of ambiguous language, to tell a tale where people never seem to learn anything about their true selves. But A Heart So White is also a highly engrossing novel full of human passion that is difficult to put down.

Javier Marías was born in Madrid in 1951. His father was the philosopher Julián Marías who was banned from teaching as he opposed the France regime. As his father therefore moved for a time to the U.S., Marías was partly educated at Yale and Wellesley College. He became a translator of English literature into Spanish, and is known for his renditions of Shakespeare, James, Nabokov, Updike, Faulkner and Sterne, to name a few. In the mid-1980s, he lectured for a few years in Spanish literature and translation at the University of Oxford. Critical acclaim for his own novels came with The Man of Feeling (1986) and All Souls (1988), which was set at Oxford University, while his breakthrough to commercial success came with A Heart So White in 1992. Fourteen of his sixteen books have been translated into English, the last one The Infatuations from 2011. The protagonists of Marías' novels are often interpreters or translators, like Marías himself, "people who are renouncing their own voices."

Here is the answer Marías gave when during an interview he was asked what was the purpose of writing:
"I think it was Faulkner who once said that when you strike a match in a dark wilderness, it is not in order to see anything better lighted but just in order to see how much more darkness there is around. I think that literature does mainly that. It is not really supposed to “answer” things, not even to make them clearer, but rather to explore – often blindly – the huge areas of darkness and show them better."
 ***
Javier Marías, A Heart So White (Corazón tan blanco). Translated by Margaret Jull Costa (Penguin Books). With this book, Marías and Costa became joint winners of the 1997 International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award. 

Friday, December 12, 2014

"The Temple of the Golden Pavilion" by Mishima Yukio (Book review)

The Temple of the Golden Pavilion (in Japanese Kinkakuji) is a novel about beauty so perfect that its becomes unbearable and has to be destroyed.

The novel, written in 1956 by Mishima Yukio, is based on a real event. On July 2, 1950, at 2:30 a.m. the Golden Pavilion of Kinkakuji Temple (official name: Rokuonji) in northwestern Kyoto was torched by a 22-year-old novice monk, Hayashi Yoken, who then attempted suicide on the hill behind the temple. He survived and was arrested. Later he was sentenced to seven years in prison, showing no contrition, but released because of mental illness (schizophrenia); he died of tuberculosis in 1956. The pavilion was a wonder of architecture, a marvelous wooden, three-storied structure, a national monument that many times through history had been spared destruction. It now burned to the ground, with the statues inside, and the loss of the precious, seven-centuries old architecture severely shocked Japan and the world.

[The new Golden Pavilion in light snow (2007) - photo Ad Blankestijn]

Of course, today the Golden Pavilion is again one of the top tourist attractions of Kyoto, but what all those tourist throngs don't know is that they are looking at a copy, a reconstruction vintage 1955. The present Golden pavilion looks even better than the real one, for while the old one was just a bare wooden structure without any gold on its outside walls, the new one has in the late 1980s - Japan's nouveau-riche period - been covered in an obscenely thick layer of gold. Yes, it looks good on photos, especially after it has been powdered by a thin layer of snow, but it is not the original national treasure anymore. And it is debatable whether the original pavilion really was ever covered in gold on the outside of the whole building, instead, as was usual, only on the inside.

Mishima regularly based his novels on real events - another example is After the Banquet, about machinations in the political world, based on the lives of the proprietress of a famous traditional restaurant and a well-known politician (who in fact successfully sued Mishima for violation of his privacy). Also for the present novel Mishima carefully studied the reports of the case, including the transcripts of the trial. But of course Mishima was a writer, not a journalist, so he changed events and characters to obtain an artistically satisfying story. The resulting novel is an imaginative reconstruction of the pathology of the perpetrator.

[The original Golden Pavilion in 1886 - isn't it without gold much more beautiful than the "new" one? - Photo Wikimedia]

In the novel, the arsonist-acolyte is called Mizoguchi, a person afflicted with an ugly face and a stutter, who from his youth has been so obsessed with the beauty of the Golden Pavilion (possibly as a symbol for the whole of Japanese traditional culture) that he gradually - especially after the war has been lost - starts feeling the urge to destroy it. His character defect has made him jealous of beauty, in his view true beauty is something that overpowers and finally destroys. He is prodded on by his friend and "bad angel" Kashiwagi, a cynic, who has a club-foot, and likes to hold long "philosophical" digressions.

Already during his childhood, on the coast of the Japan Sea in Maizuru, Mizoguchi was assured by his country-priest father that the Golden Pavilion was the most beautiful thing on earth. But he is a friendless, stammering boy, who seeks compensation for his weakness in vengeful fantasies. At the height of the war, in 1944, his fate is sealed when he becomes a novice at the Rinzai Zen temple Rokuonji that in 1397 was set up to control the Golden Pavilion. At that time, it is almost deserted, as most monks have been drafted into the army. When American planes are destroying one Japanese city after another with their terrible firebombings (which took many more lives than the atomic bombs), Mizoguchi has an ecstatic vision that also the Golden Pavilion will be burnt to ashes. Unfortunately for him, the Americans have the decency to spare the cultural capital, Kyoto, and the war ends in bitter disappointment for Mizoguchi. There is the suggestion that he later destroys the Golden Pavilion because it survived the war.

[The Golden Pavilion after arson - photo Wikimedia]

The Pavilion has such a huge hold over Mizoguchi that it even makes him impotent - Kashiwagi (who is as little popular with women as Mizoguchi) has taught him a trick how to seduce women by making them feel sorry for him, but when Mizoguchi successfully puts this advice into practice, and is about to embrace his girlfriend, his mind is so filled with the image of the Golden Pavilion that his desire is blocked. It is as though the temple is shutting off Mizoguchi's access to the normal world. The Golden Pavilion in all its arrogance becomes his mortal enemy. And after Mizoguchi has finally set fire to the Pavilion, he feels properly relieved - instead of trying to commit suicide as the real arsonist did, he sits down on the hill above the temple and lights a cigarette, enjoying the view of the blaze.

Japanese tradition fares badly in this novel. The tea ceremony, flower arrangement and garden viewing - and not to forget Zen Buddhism - provide occasions for acts of sadism, arson and treachery. Beautiful traditional symbols are deliberately contrasted with the ugliest of actions and placed in a world of lost ethics and perverted values. The abbot of Kinkakuji Temple is caught by Mizoguchi when he secretly visits a geisha. At a tea ceremony, a woman who is taking leave of her lover who has been called into battle, squirts milk from her breast into the man's traditional tea bowl. An American soldier walking in the garden of the Golden Pavilion with his pregnant Japanese girlfriend, tempts Mizoguchi into kicking her in the belly, so that she has a miscarriage. The novel, a study in evil, has therefore been called "an expression of postwar nihilism." But the novel can also be understood from Mishima's (anti-) aesthetics: the Golden Pavilion simply is too beautiful, it has to be robbed of its arrogance and power. Mizoguchi - and also Mishima - seems to feel that he will only become free through its destruction.

***
[Mishima Yukio in 1956 - Photo from Wikipedia]

Mishima Yukio (Hiraoka Kimitake, 1925-1970) was one the major twentieth century Japanese authors, and also one of the most problematical. Highly talented, Mishima started writing at the end of the war and at high speed produced many acclaimed novels, short stories and literary essays, as well as modern plays for the Kabuki and Noh theater. He was originally inspired by such Western authors as Wilde, Rilke and Mauriac. His breakthrough novel, written at age 24, was Confessions of a Mask, about a young homosexual who must hide behind a mask in order to fit into society. This novel also introduced Mishima's masochistic fantasies, as well as his preoccupation with the beauty and decline of the (male) body, themes which recur in his later work as well. Many of his later short stories and novels deal with the themes of suicide and violent death. That preoccupation also influenced his extra-literary activities, as he for example posed in photographs of "St Sebastian shot through with arrows" (showing off his bodybuilding) or acted a doomed yakuza in a 1960s film, or played the officer who commits (a rather distasteful) seppuku in the film version of his own story Patriotism.

Mishima, who spoke fluent English, in the 1950-1960s befriended several American and British Japanologists in Tokyo, who later became translators of his novels, so the ratio of his work that was translated was higher than was the case with contemporaries. Other famous works are, for example, After the Banquet (1960), The Sailor Who Fell From Grace With The Sea (1963), Death in Midsummer (1963), and the Sea of Fertility tetralogy (1965-70). In the late 1960s, Mishima was several times nominated for the Nobel Prize, but he was passed over due to the extreme right-wing ideas and activities he had developed by that time (including a private militia of 100 radical youths). The Nobel Prize, rightly, went to Kawabata Yasunari in 1968.

While interest in his work declined in Japan in the course of the 1960s, Mishima gradually conceived a chaotic, extreme right-wing ideology, becoming an adherent of his own brand of bushido. That ideology formed the background for the terrorist attack with his militia on the head-quarters of the Self-Defense forces in Tokyo, on November 25, 1970. They took the commandant hostage and Mishima held a speech for the soldiers at the base, from the HQ balcony (giving occasion to an all-too famous press photo), trying to incite them to a coup d'état, and revive the ghosts of the nationalistic past that had been happily laid to rest in 1945. But the soldiers kept their heads cool and only laughed and jeered at Mishima, after which he went inside and committed ritual suicide (the seppuku was botched, so Mishima died a most painful death). In the view of most Japanese at the time, Mishima's deed was just as schizophrenic as the torching of the Golden Pavilion.

The English translation is by Ivan Morris and dates from 1959 (Vintage International).

Wednesday, December 10, 2014

"The Radetzky March" by Joseph Roth (Book review)

Who doesn't know the Radetzky March by Johann Strauss Sr., played annually as the last piece at the New Year's Concert from Vienna? This famous piece of music is dedicated to a war-horse of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, Bohemian-born Joseph Radetzky von Radetz, who during a 70-year long career first fought against Napoleon and finally ended up trying to suppress the First Italian War of Independence. He was a ruthless disciplinarian, but also idolized by his soldiers as "Vater Radetzky." Joseph Roth used "Radetzkymarsch" as the title for his greatest novel, written in 1932, because the march symbolizes the greatness of the perished Empire, while the protagonists actually also hear it played at important moments.

[Joseph Radetzky von Radetz,
the type of Austro-Hungarian "war horse"
that also figures in the novel - photo Wikipedia]

The novel tells the story of the rise and fall of three generations of the Trotta family, concentrating on the youngest and last member, Carl Joseph, and this is paralleled by the glory and subsequent disintegration of the empire in which they live and serve - in other words, the passing of the Old Europe into the modern world. The Trottas are professional Austro-Hungarian soldiers and career bureaucrats of Slovenian origin. Joseph Trotta, the patriarch, happened to famously save the life of the blundering Emperor, Franz Joseph I, by toppling him from his horse during the Battle of Solferino (1859), and was ennobled for his service, although his parents had been Slovenian farmers. After his promotion and ennoblement, Baron Joseph von Trotta degrades into rural obscurity, except for one anecdote where he demonstrates that he has always remained a naive peasant: he remonstrates (even to the level of the Emperor) against a textbook for use at schools where his deed is made more heroic than it was by changing some facts. As a result, the war hero stubbornly opposes his son Franz' aspirations to a military career, having him become a government official (district administrator in a Moravian town) instead - the second most respected career in the Austro-Hungarian Empire.  Like the first Baron, also the second Baron Trotta is a square and conservative man, a pillar of the nation, but also a rather nondescript government functionary. The grandson, Carl Joseph, has a character that is very different from his forefathers, but at the urging of his father joins the army - with consistently disastrous results. It is his fate to die in WWI, just before the destruction of the empire.

The life of Carl Joseph is not a happy one. He stands for the frivolous generation that lost the empire, addicted to the pleasures of the flesh, to drink and gambling. He has a relation with the wife of the police commander in the town where he has grown up and is shattered when she dies in child birth, especially when the husband openly returns a stack of his love letters. At his next post, he has an affair with the wife of his best friend, the Jewish military doctor; as a result, the doctor dies fighting a senseless duel. It seems as if everything Carl Joseph does falls apart under his hands. He sinks into despondency, becoming old before his time, and seeks forgetfulness in drinking and gambling. For the third time, he takes a married lover, and piles up gambling debts, living in an alcoholic daze in a remote military outpost near the border with Russia (the local drink is a sort of extremely strong vodka called "Ninety Degrees"). Just as he is about to permanently damage the family's honor and good name, the Emperor's son Franz Ferdinand is assassinated in Sarajevo and the Great War breaks out, to devour Carl Joseph's life and those of unnumbered others.

The Austrio-Hungarian Empire was a very authoritarian and hierarchical society. It was a world with a clear order, with clear rules and regulations. People knew who they were and what their place in the greater scheme of things was. This is especially clear in the early chapters where we see that Carl Joseph has been disciplined so by his father, the district administrator, that to any question his father poses he answers obediently "Yes, Pappa." The relation between father and son is so formal that the son doesn't talk when he is not invited to do so. When his father picks up some official documents, the son may read the paper, but he is careful to put this immediately away when his father looks up from his reading. Life has been regulated strictly, everything, such as meals, takes place at fixed times. Somehow, this strict and disciplined society reminded me of the Japan of the Meiji-period (1868-1912). And we also know this world from the descriptions in Stefan Zweig's The World of Yesterday (see my post about this book). It is of course not a very warm society and you can see the gulf that gapes between father and son - especially since for the son the old order ceases to have any meaning. For his father, being the district administrator and a pillar of the empire is his identity - he defines his life in terms of the social order and not in terms of his own being. But the times have changed and Carl Joseph is unable to do that. He is an individualist who simply floats through life, and unfortunately he has chosen the wrong occupation for the army doesn't suit him at all and the boredom even brings out the worst in him. His greatest problem is his lack of reflection, as a more thoughtful life might have brought him to new values.

[Emperor Franz Joseph I - from Wikipedia]

A fourth important character in the novel is the Emperor, Franz Joseph I, who is everywhere present in the form of his official portraits and who with his own unchangeability (he is over eighty years old) symbolizes the state of the realm. But he also meets all three Trottas in person and the fate of the barons seems inextricably linked to that of the Empire, tottering towards its destruction as the Emperor totters towards his grave.

Roth uses historical persons and events in a most imaginative way, that is, they only appear when they are important for the story and not the other way round. He relates the story in a supple style, somewhat understated and matter-of-fact, keeping a fast pace, and his voice is always full of compassion - he treats the death of a small thing like a canary with as much feeling as he does the death-throes of the great Empire.

This superb novel remained long in obscurity. In the Germanic countries, the 1930s were a time that another terrible war was brewing and people didn't have time to read about a previous one. The Nazis next forbade Roth's work because he was of Jewish ancestry. It is only in the last decades that Joseph Roth has been fully rehabilitated - Radetzkymarsch, for example, was in 2003 included in the canon of the most important German-language literary novels by the influential German critic Marcel Reich-Ranicki. The first English translation appeared in 1995 and as a result, the novel was widely acclaimed. The last twenty years have seen a great flow of Roth translations, especially by Michael Hofmann, who also made a second translation of Radetzkymarsch. For more about Joseph Roth, see my post about his last novella, The Legend of the Holy Drinker.  

The German original, Radetzkymarsch, is available from DTV (Deutscher Taschenbuch Verlag). It is also freely available as ebook from various internet sites, as the German Gutenberg site or the Internet Archive. 
The first English translation was made in 1995 by Joachim Neugroschel and is available from The Overlook Press as well as from Everyman's Library. A second translation was made in 2003 by Michael Hofmann (who has translated many works by Roth and is a great Roth advocate) and is available from Granta Books. I have read the novel in German, but a quick comparison of both translations with the original, shows that the translation by Hofmann is closest to Roth's style.







Sunday, December 7, 2014

Kounji Temple and its Garden

Although lying next to the much trodden Philosopher's Path (Tetsugaku no Michi) at the foot of the Higashiyama range in Shishigatani in Kyoto, Kounji is only open a few weeks each year and therefore happily free from tourist throngs. I had previously caught glimpses of its garden and also marveled at its huge tiled roof just below me when walking along the Philosopher's Path.

[Kounji Temple, Kyoto]

The temple in fact belongs to Nanzenji (as a outside subtemple), but originally came from Osaka where it was presumably founded in 1280 by Daimin Kokushi, the founder of Nanzenji. After it fell into disrepair due to various wars, in 1664 it was rebuilt and revived on the present site by the 280th abbot of Nanzenji, Eichu. The present main hall and belfry still date from that period, but most other buildings and land were lost in the mists of modern history.

Kounji was in fact re-established in 1664 as the family temple of Tofukumonin (Tokugawa Masako, 1607-1678), the daughter of the second Tokugawa shogun Hidetada and consort of Emperor Gomizunoo. She was the mother of Empress Meisho (reigned from 1629-1643), the seventh out of only eight women to occupy the Chrysanthemum Throne. Empress Meisho dedicated the above mentioned belfry to the temple. Tofukumonin was an important patron of the arts and used her wealth to help restore many temples and other significant buildings that had been damaged or destroyed during the centuries of internal wars that had ended with the peace of the Tokugawas.

[Garden of Kounji Temple]

The main image of the temple is a serene Shaka statue with two disciples. There is also a very fine Sho Kannon statue that used to be the object of personal devotions of Tofukumonin. The high and spacious main hall also houses a statue of Tofukumonin herself, clad in imperial robes and with a golden crown on her head.

[Stepping stones - Garden of Kounji Temple]

The small but exquisite garden of Kounji already existed in the 18th century, as it is mentioned in travelogues of that period, but it only took its present shape under the hands of the famous modern garden master Ogawa Jihei VII (Ueji; 1860-1933). Ogawa Jihei was also responsible for the gardens of the Heian Shrine, the Murinan Garden and Maruyama Park, where he worked with water as he did in Kounji. He restored the Kounji garden in 1927. It is a pond stroll garden with the Higashiyama hills as borrowed scenery (visitors have to view the garden from the temple, it is not possible to enter it; but as it is quite small, that is in fact a wise arrangement).

Kounji serves as the Nanzenji Zen Center and also offers Zazen sessions (English website of the head priest, Tanaka Kanju). Kounji lies just west of the southern end of the Philosopher's Path, not far from the Eikando Temple. It is only open to general visitors for a few weeks in autumn, at the end of November.

Tuesday, December 2, 2014

The Japanese Seasons: December

The twelfth month is traditionally called Shiwasu. This name is often explained as "Buddhist priests (shi) busily running around (hasu, wasu) to hold year-end Buddhist services in people's houses" - something which etymologically doesn't sound very convincing, but there seems to be no better explanation for the poetical name of the twelfth month. It is the season that the trees shed their leaves (ochiba), although - depending on the weather - the momiji can still be beautiful in early December. But winter inexorably deepens and the sunlight becomes weaker - although never as weak as in my native north-western Europe where it can remain almost dark the whole day. There are more winter showers and a cold north wind starts blowing.

One of the seasonal points is called Daisetsu, Great Snow, around the 7th or 8th of December, when winter is deemed to be starting in earnest. Fifteen days later, on the 22nd or 23rd of December falls Toji, the winter solstice, with the shortest day time and longest night time of the year. There is an old belief that taking a bath with yuzu citrus floating in it (yuzu-yu) will help one stay healthy through the cold winter. Another winter solstice custom is to eat kabocha squash.

[Yuzu]

After November with its enjoyment of nature by way of viewing the gorgeous autumn colors, December is a rather colorless and above all busy month. The 13th of December is called Kotohajime, the Start of Preparations for the New Year, a custom originating in Edo Castle in the Edo period. The first thing to do is housecleaning (soji), not only in order to start the new year with a spic-and-span dwelling, but also as a sort of ritual cleansing of the evil that may have accumulated in the house during the year. At Nishihonganji Temple in Kyoto, Buddhist priests clean the dust away in the huge temple on December 20 in a ritual called Susuharai.

People may also be busy buying and sending out Seibo or Year-End Gifts. Oseibo are given to persons who have supported one personally or professionally during the past year and are generally of a higher value than the summer gifts (Ochugen). Usually expensive food items are bought, of course nicely packaged - many companies devise special gift sets for Oseibo. The busiest time of Oseibo shopping is from early through mid-December when the winter bonus is paid to workers of companies and government agencies.

In December, people are also kept busy with Bonenkai or Year-End Parties. These are held with colleagues or friends to forget the hardships of the past year, to thank each other and ask for continued support in the new year. Depending on the size of one's social network, some people have to attend many of these parties and as the drinking is usually quite heavy, there are a lot of people suffering from head-aches during the daytime.

[Kadomatsu]

At the end of December, but before the 28th, the New Year Decorations such as Kadomatsu have to be put up by the entrance to welcome the God of the New Year (Toshigami). This has to be done early so that the deity can be welcomed in a relaxed way. Kadomatsu are placed in pairs on both sides of entrances to homes, shops, offices, etc. These consist of three diagonally cut bamboo poles of varying length, symbolizing strength and growth, and pine branches which symbolize long life, bound with a newly woven straw rope and sitting on a straw mat at the bottom. As these are very expensive, ordinary homes instead may only put up Shimekazari: a small rope made from rice straw (shimenawa), with zigzag-shaped paper strips called shide, small pine branches and a citrus fruit as the daidai to add color - these are hung above doorways, both inside and outside the house, and serve to keep bad spirits away.

Also around the 28th of December (the exact date can become earlier when it happens to be in a weekend) falls Goyo Osame, "Concluding the Year's Work," by the employees of public organizations and government agencies. In companies, this is called shigoto osame. The work of the year is formally completed, so that one can make a fresh start in the new year. 

[Kera-mairi - lighting the rope with the sacred fire]

Then comes December 31 or New Year's Eve, in Japan called Omisoka. People stay up late and many visit a shrine or temple at midnight to make an auspicious start of the new year. One way to spend the long evening is to watch Kohaku Utagassen, the Red vs. White Song Competition, which is broadcast live by NHK since 1951.  In the four hour long show a red (female) and white (male) team each consisting of about 25 of the most popular artists of the year compete in acts that are often the highlights of a singer's career. New Year's Eve is also the time to eat Toshikoshi Soba, buckwheat noodles, something which originally started as a simple and quick dish for merchants who were still busy settling their books on this day, but which now continues because of the expression "to live long like a soba noodle." Finally, at midnight on New Year's Eve, temple bells are rung 108 times to eliminate the 108 delusions and false attachments to which human beings are subject. This is called Joya no kane. There are many temples where visitors can join in ringing the bell. A nice custom exists in the Yasaka Shrine in Kyoto, where on New Year's Eve watch fires and toro lanterns are lit using the roots of a medicinal herb called Okera, which is believed to help cast away evil influences from the past year. This festival is called Okera-Mairi. In the past, visitors used to take back embers from this fire to prepare the ozoni for New Year. Nowadays, visitors can buy a bamboo rope and kindle this symbolically with the herbal root fire. You have to keep swinging the rope to keep the fuse burning, and it is a nice sight to see people walking in the darkness with those small red flames - although it is now impractical to take these ropes home.

There are several other festivals in December. One, also in Kyoto, is the Kyoto Minamiza Kichirei Kaomise, or the annual Appearance of the All-Star Cast of Kabuki at the Minamiza Theater. It is a stage for actors from east and west Japan to meet each other and also a greeting by the cast to the audience, asking for their continued patronage.

December is also the month of Chushingura or the story of the Forty-seven Ronin. This tale of feudal loyalty, based on a historical incident, has inspired countless media, from kabuki and bunraku to film, theater, novels and manga. The Forty-seven Ronin refers to the 47 loyal retainers of Lord Asano of the Ako clan, led by Oishi Kuranosuke. As their revenge on Asano's rival, Kira Yoshinao, took place on a snowy night on December 14, this has become the day of the Gishisai or Festival of the Loyal Retainers at Sengakuji Temple in Tokyo - Sengakuji is the temple where they and (some years earlier) Lord Asano himself were buried after committing seppuku. On December 14, many people visit their graves and also come to watch a parade of persons dressed up as these 47 loyal retainers. (in Ako in Hyogo Prefecture, the location of the castle of Lord Asano, a similar parade is held on the same date).

[Hagoita Market, Sensoji, Tokyo]

A more bright event are the Hagoita Markets (Hagoita Ichi) held throughout Japan from mid-December. A hagoita is a paddle used in the game called hanetsuki, a sort of badminton which in the past was a popular pastime at New Year. However, the hagoita sold at these markets today are purely ornamental - they are beautifully decorated with pasted pictures of Kabuki heroes, geisha, film/TV stars and anime characters. By far the largest and most famous Hagoita Market is held in the Sensoji Temple in Tokyo from Dec. 17 through 19.

The flower of December is the tsubaki (sancha) or camellia, an evergreen shrub with flowers that range from white via pink to deep red. Depending on the sort, tsubaki can bloom either in winter or in spring. The winter type starts blooming in October, keeps blooming during winter, and looses it flowers in spring. The flower is indigenous in China and Japan and was brought to Europe by the German botanist Engelbert Kaempfer, who called them "Japan Roses." In the 19th century it was a popular luxury flower in Europe, as appears from Dumas' La Dame aux camélias.

[Tsubaki]

A popular fruit of December is the yuzu, which was already mentioned above. Winter is also the time that enormous amounts of mikan, Japanese mandarins, are consumed. Typical vegetables of December are shungiku (kikuna), edible chrysanthemum leaves, which add a bitter note to stews and one-pot dishes, and of course the versatile daikon or giant white radish that is eaten boiled in various dishes. Several temples and shrines in Kyoto have days that they serve daikon-daki, boiled slices of daikon, often with abura-age, for example Daihoonji (also called Senbon Shakado, Dec. 7 & 8) or Ryotokuji (Dec. 9 & 10).

A popular fish of December, finally, is buri or yellowtail, This is an auspicious fish that has its name changed as it grows from infant to adult as though it were given a "promotion." It is also a must for the New year dinner in West Japan, and often used as a year-end gift.

Sunday, November 30, 2014

Rue des Boutiques Obscures (Missing Person, 1978) by Patrick Modiano

The Nobel Committee in Sweden doesn't always get it right - and they have their own agenda which is narrower than the total range of literature - but their choices are usually well worth checking out. It were Nobel Prizes that initially attracted my attention to José Saramago and J. M. Coetzee, who are now among my favorite authors. And this year's choice, Patrick Modiano, is a highly interesting author as well. Here I discuss one of his best novels, Prix de Goncourt winner Rue des Boutiques Obscures from 1978.


[Via delle Botteghe Oscure (« Rue des Boutiques obscures »), Roma]


The novel tells the story of a man suffering from amnesia who searches for his identity, a tale of memory and repression. Guy Roland has lost his memory ten years ago; since then, he has worked in a detective agency. Now, in the mid-1960s, on the retirement of his boss and closure of the office, he finds the time has come to use his sleuthing technique to recover what he can of his tenuous past.

The pieces do not fit easily together. Guy Roland goes around talking to various persons, but is himself  a so-called "empty narrator," a first-person narrator devoid of self or identity, who only listens to others but never talks about himself. He tries to reconstruct his old self using unreliable, fragmentary evidence he receives from those he interrogates, such as old photographs, letters, a magazine, a book. These bring back flashes of memory, but it is not certain whether these recollections are authentic, or just dreams, the result of his imagination. Perhaps he is just creating his past with the memories and the past of others.

First Guy thinks he might have lived in a milieu of Russian émigrés; then he imagines he lived once in Hollywood, serving as the companion of the actor John Gilbert. Next it seems he worked as a diplomat for a Latin-American embassy under the assumed name Pedro McEvoy - a false identity to evade arrest - but in reality he may have been a Greek Jew, a broker who lived in Rome and Paris, called Jimmy Stern, who consorted with the idle rich, including exiled Russian aristocrats. Jimmy Stern was married to a French model called Denise, and was friends with Freddie Howard de Luz of Mauritius (a youth friend whom he met at an exclusive private school) and his wife Gay Orlov, an American dancer of Russian origin. To avoid the Nazi occupation (dangerous if Guy/Jimmy was indeed a Jew) the four friends, together with an English jockey, seem to have moved to the winter sports village of Megève in the French Alps. From there, Guy and Denise tried to flee to Switzerland but they were cheated by their guides and became separated. Guy was abandoned in the snow and Denise disappeared forever. This was in 1943.


[Following traces...]

Here the memories break off again, and it seemingly follows that Guy lost his memory in 1943. But elsewhere it is stated unambiguously that this happened in 1955 - so what has occurred in the twelve years between those dates? Was this twelve year gap a case of conscious forgetting, just like the French after the war tried to forget their history of cooperation with the Nazis and the Holocaust? This is one of the many questions that is never answered in the book.

The novel has a playful relation to the conventions of detective fiction, by raising the reader's expectations according to the rules of the genre, but always failing to fulfill them. Guy Roland's quest is a never-ending search for identity in a world where "the sand holds the traces of our footsteps but a few moments."

By the way, in English this book has been renamed "Missing Person," which is not only wrong (it is not what the book is about), but which also destroys the rich references of the original title "Street of Dark Shops." This is the name of an actual street in Rome (which also appears in Modiano's previous novel, Livret de famille), and it also points at small clothes shops owned by Jews and therefore hints at the (implied) Jewish identity of the protagonist, Guy Roland, while the "shops" suggest his "shopping around" for an identity, and that he never seems satisfied with what he finds. Guy Roland remains an empty self, trying to fill the void in him with various narratives. The title also embodies "obscurity," connected to the fact that Guy Roland never finds clear proof of his past self, which remains shrouded in darkness. And, finally, a reference to the actual street Rue des Boutiques Obscures in Rome stands at the end of the book suggesting "lack of closure" - the search for identity goes on and will never end. So you see how much is lost when a too commercially-minded publisher changes a title the author has given deep thought to, into a simplistic phrase suggesting a cheap genre novel!


[Patrick Modiano (2014)]


Patrick Modiano was born in Paris in 1945 as the son of an Italian Jewish father and a Belgian mother. His father hid his Jewish identity and evaded arrest, but spent the war doing questionable business on the black market. Modiano always had a difficult relation with his father, who was often absent. Instead, he was emotionally close to his brother Rudy, who died from an illness when only ten years old. After high school, Modiano did not continue to university, but started writing. The famous author Raymond Queneau, a friend of his mother, acted as his mentor and played a decisive role in Modiano's development. His first novel, La Place de l'étoile, was published in 1968 and attracted much attention.

Since then, Modiano has published a new novel every year or every other year. He has also written children's books and film scripts - the most important of these is Lacombe Lucien, a film set under the German occupation, filmed by Louis Malle in 1974. Modiano's books center on themes as memory, oblivion, identity and guilt - there is a decided similarity to the work of German author W.G. Sebald here. Paris also plays an important role in his work, it is evoked by using real addresses and Modiano follows the evolution of its streets. Modiano uses many autobiographical elements in his work. He is also obsessed with what happened during the Nazi occupation. Some of his novels have a documentary character, being built on newspaper articles. Modiano's many novels not only share the same topics, but also hang together because the same persons may return in different novels, and earlier, concise episodes may be extended in later books. Modiano writes in a bare and unemotional - indeed documentary - style.

Some important novels, also translated into English, are: Villa Triste (1975); Voyage des noces (1990, translated as Honeymoon) and especially Dora Bruder (1997, again a title severely mistranslated as "The Search Warrant"). This last novel documents the true history of a fifteen-year old girl (called Dora Bruder) in Paris who ran away from the convent that had sheltered her during the Nazi Occupation and who subsequently became victim of the Holocaust. It shows, again, how little remains of a human life.
Photos:
Via delle Botteghe Oscure:  Lalupa, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons
Traces in the snow: Richard Dorrell / Further up the track, via Wikimedia Commons (Share Alike 2.0 Generic license).
Modiano:  Frankie Fouganthin, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Two Shishigatani Temples: Reikanji and Anrakuji

Shishigatani is the area between the small Shirakawa River and the thickly wooded slopes of Higashiyama, just south of Ginkakuji. For centuries this shallow valley was farmer's land, interrupted only occasionally by a small temple or a country villa. But then, after WWII, the city started expanding and a wave of stucco houses swept also over Shishigatani. But with the Philosopher's path and the little, almost hidden temples - and despite the unpleasant rise in numbers of tourists - Shishigatani is still one of my favorite Kyoto haunts.

[Reikanji temple halls on the hill slope]

Reikanji and Anrakuji both form part of this string of secluded, little temples that cling to the hillside where the slope of Higashiyama begins to get steep. They are usually closed and only open to visitors for a few weeks in spring and autumn.

***

Reikanji or "Sacred Mirror Temple" is a nunnery of the Rinzai school of Zen. It was established in 1654 for the 10th daughter of the retired Emperor Gomuzinoo, Johosshinin no Miya Socho. The new temple took over as main image the Nyoirin Kannon statue (as well as sacred mirror) of a temple in the area that had been closed.

Until the Meiji Restoration, Reikanji served as a monzeki monastery that always had an imperial princess for its abbess. The Shoin, the first building one passes, possesses screens by Kano Motonobu. Opposite is a small moss-covered rock garden with old stone lanterns and a pond which used to contain water, but now stands dry. On a somewhat higher level and connected via a corridor, stands the main hall housing the small Kannon statue.

[Maple leaves at Reikanji]

The garden spreads out over the hill and the one-way path leads first steeply up, and later again down, through flowering bushes and trees. The flowering trees in the northern part of the garden include red and white camellias, plums and cherries. It is a fine, though small, garden. One exits via a path that leads under the corridor between the two temple buildings and finally can enter the Shoin, where usually some treasures of the temple are exhibited. These include fine makie lacquer work, and infallibly one also finds some of the marvelous dolls the princesses owned (like the Imperial nuns of Hokyoji). The temple is only open to visitors for a few weeks in spring (early April), when the cherry trees are in full bloom, and autumn (late November) when the maple trees are on fire.

***

Anrakuji is a Jodo (Pure Land) temple that legend has firmly linked to Honen (1133-1212), the founder of that school, and two of his disciples, Anraku and Juren. It was probably founded around 1211-1212, to the memory of both these priests, although it was only named after one of them. It stands about one kilometer from the spot where Anraku and Juren had set up their cottage called "Shishigatani Soan." Both priests were experts in shomyo, Buddhist chanting, and their beautiful singsong had attracted many followers. Among them were also two court ladies of Emperor Gotoba, Matsumushi-hime (Pine Beetle) and Suzumushi-hime (Bell Cricket). They were so entranced by the teachings of the musical priests that they fled the palace and became nuns. Legend adds as spicy elements that the Emperor was especially fond of them and that the other palace ladies had become extremely jealous.

[Main Hall of Anrakuji]

So the rumor machine worked at full speed, suggesting that the intentions of Anraku and Juren were not honorable. The handsome priests were accused of having a love affair with the beautiful palace ladies. As a result, Emperor Gotoba - who had already for a long time been pronged by the traditional schools to put a stop to the teachings of Honen - became furious and exiled the aged Honen. Anraku and Juren were hit by a harder fate, for they were executed on the bank of the Kamo River on a charge of immorality. The grounds of Anrakuji contain the small graves of Anraku and Juren, and - chastely in a different spot - those of the palace ladies, who became nuns and died at a later time.

The grounds of Anrakuji are well-planted and have fine camellia trees. The graves are to the right (Anraku/Juren) and far right (at the back) of the entrance path; the path leading to the main hall, standing to the left, crosses this at a right angle. Both sets of graves are surrounded by low fences.

[Anrakuji - The graves of the two court ladies]

The present main hall dates from the late 16th century. The central trinity in this hall of Amida, Kannon and Seishi, has been ascribed to Eshin (942-1017). The altar also contains an ancient Jizo statue. To the left of the main altar stands a smaller altar with a statue of Honen and his most important follower, Shinran. Here one also finds a walking stick and hat said to have belonged to Shinran, but both look suspiciously newer. A right-hand altar contains the images of Anraku, Juren, Matsumushi-hime and Suzumushi-hime. The court ladies are depicted as nuns.

Connected to the main hall is a shoin type building, which has a nice garden with azalea bushes on its east side, against the green background of the Higashiyama hills. One can sit down here and relax. Anrakuji is filled with peace.

[Anrakuji - the Shoin garden with clipped azalea bushes]



Thursday, November 27, 2014

"The Emigrants" ("Die Ausgewanderten") by W.G. Sebald

The Emigrants, a work of fiction written in 1992 by W.G. Sebald, consists of four short biographical narratives. The original German title, Die Ausgewanderten, has a nuance that is impossible to convey in the same way in English: it means people who have already emigrated, and who are now living away from their original homeland, not "emigrants" still on the move, which would be "Auswanderer." "Displaced persons" or "exiles" would be a better description for the four persons described in these tales, as they have not only emigrated in a spacial sense, but also in a social and above all psychological sense. The Emigrants is the record of the narrator's research into the memories, traumas and feelings of foreignness of four such displaced persons, and it is at the same time a post-modern fictional investigation into the relationship between memory and history. Unavoidably, that history is the impact of WWII and the Holocaust on Germans, especially those of Jewish heritage. It is a sign of Sebalds' mastery that the word "Holocaust" is never mentioned in the book, but that we feel its ominous present on almost every page.

They four "displaced persons" are:
Dr. Henry Selwyn, the estranged and unworldly husband of the English landlady of the narrator. The narrator and his wife first meet him when they come to look at a house for rent in Norwich and in fact find him face down on the lawn, talking to the grass. When Dr. Selwyn was only seven, in 1899, his family emigrated from a village in Lithuania to England. It was their intention to go to New York, but the boat dumped all emigrants in London, where they unknowingly for a long time kept searching for the Statue of Liberty. In this way, the originally Jewish Dr Selwyn, who had a distinguished career as a medical doctor, could remain untouched by the horrors of Nazism. However, it is clear that psychologically he increasingly suffers under the shadow of the (never mentioned) Holocaust - that is the reason he gradually dissolves most relations with other humans and only feels close to plants and animals. At the same time, Dr Selwyn doesn't like to speak about the past and it is only via chance meetings that the narrator hears part of his life story. Dr Selwyn finally commits suicide by shooting himself.
Paul Bereyter, the primary school teacher of the narrator in a town called "S" in southern Germany. The story is triggered when the narrator reads a small notice of the death by suicide of his old teacher. Although partly Jewish, and therefore having trouble finding work in Germany in the 1930s, Paul Bereyter has served in the Wehrmacht because at that time he felt his identity was "German." After the war he leads a quiet life as an inspirational school teacher, who takes his pupils often out of the classroom. But after his pension he moves to France, not feeling at home in Germany anymore - as his grandfather was Jewish, he gradually realizes he belongs to the "exiles." He finally commits suicide by lying down on the railroad.
Ambros Adelwarth, a long-dead great uncle of the narrator. During a visit to relatives living in New Jersey, the narrator hears the story of this great uncle. In his youth, in the early 20th century, Uncle Adelwarth has emigrated from Germany to the U.S. where he became the traveling companion (both valet and lover) of a young man from a wealthy Jewish family who wandered around the world (the narrator paraphrases his diaries to tell about this period). They visit casinos and famous hotels were the pre-WWI jetset used to seek its enjoyment. When his companion has become mentally ill, Uncle Adelwarth continues serving the same family as a butler on their estate on Long Island. After his pension, he suffers from depression and undergoes an electroshock treatment whereby his memories seem to be dissolved. He finally dies in a mental institution.
Max Aurach (in the English version: Feber), an expatriate German-Jewish painter. He scratches his paintings as much as 40 times away, until they become veritable "images of the lost." The young narrator (who has come to the U.K. to study) meets him in the dilapidated city of Manchester. Years later, the painter gives the narrator the diary of his mother, which describes her idyllic life as a girl in a Bavarian village in the early 20th c. It was written as she and her husband awaited deportation to the Nazi death camps. In this way, the narrator gradually discovers the effects of the Holocaust on Aurach/Ferber and his family.

In the above, I have on purpose spoken about "the narrator" and not "Sebald." I wanted to make clear that we should distinguish between the two - although the narrator shares many autobiographical elements with Sebald, The Emigrants is a work of fiction. That same fictionality is true for the four narratives: these "biographies" ring very true, but we know that Sebald included fictional elements, making them rather "mock biographies." For example, the painter in the fourth story is a composite, fictional figure, partly based on the real Frank Auerbach, a German-born painter with a Jewish background working in London, who indeed paints in the style described by Sebald. But Sebald has said in an interview that he has never met Auerbach and in order to protect Auerbach's privacy, he changed the name of the painter in the English translation from "Aurach" into "Feber." This of course means that the diary of the mother of the painter is also fictional, or that Sebald used another diary here. And so there are more instances revealing the ultimate fictionality of the biographies - which does not alter the fact that the book as a whole points at a higher truth.

There is one more fictional element that all four stories have in common: In all of them suddenly a man (in the last story, a boy) with a net catching butterflies appears - this obviously is the famous author Vladimir Nabokov, who was a great butterfly fan and spent all his holidays hunting butterflies, either in the U.S. or Europe. The inclusion of Nabokov is more than just a post-modern joke - after all, also Nabokov was an "emigrant," exiled from Russia by the Revolution, and his autobiography is significantly called "Speak, Memory."

Sebald illustrates his mix of fact and fiction with small blurry black-and-white photographs which are another form of "memories," but here, too, we can never be sure we have to do with real documents - teasingly, they may, or may not, be photographs of the places and people in the narrative.

What Sebald shows in a masterly fashion is how our lives are constituted by chance, how they rather randomly consist of both realized and unrealized possibilities. On top of that, for Sebald the major elements of life are not the great themes of love, truth or friendship - but rather unremitting loneliness and permanent disquiet.

No life develops as originally scripted, "life stories" only exist in Hollywood films. In fact, life can be stranger than fiction, as in the story about Dr Selwyn, who tells the narrator about his friendship with a Swiss mountain guide - until that guide suddenly disappeared. Long after the death of Dr Selwyn, the narrator reads in a paper that the body of exactly this guide has been found in a retreating glacier, many decades after his death. "And so they are ever returning to us, the dead," he concludes.

A very profound work of fiction, that gains from repeated readings.

P.S. Sebald, who since 1970 lived permanently in England where he taught at the University of East Anglia in Norwich, was himself an emigrant as well.

English translation by Michael Hulse, published by New Directions.
See my review of The Rings of Saturn by W.G. Sebald for more information about the author.

Wednesday, November 26, 2014

Autumn in Arashiyama (2): Okochi Sanso

Okichi Sanso is a mountain villa, laid out on the sides and top of a steep hill next to Kameyama Park in Arashiyama. It affords grand views over both the city of Kyoto (towards the Higashiyama range) and over the gorge of the Hozu River. There are evergreen pine trees, but also maple trees and cherry trees which dress the garden in the color of the season. There are also several buildings, such as a shrine, a tea house and a private residence in traditional style, but these are not open to the public.

[Okochi Sanso - the lawn in front of the main house with a gorgeous Ginkgo tree]

Okochi Sanso is named after the man who constructed house and garden: Okochi Denjiro (real name Obe Masuo; 1898-1962), one of Japan's most famous film actors. Okochi's career started in 1926 with silent films, and he mostly - though not exclusively - acted in period films (jidaigeki). He worked with directors as Kurosawa Akira, Ito Daisuke, Yamanaka Sadao, Kinugasa Teinosuke, Inagaki Hiroshi and Makino Masahiro, and played next to famous stars as Bando Tsumasaburo, Kataoka Chiezo, Shimura Takashi and Hara Setsuko.

[Okochi Sanso - the main house called Daijokaku]

Among Okochi's famous films are The Million Ryo Pot (Tange Sazen Yowa: Hyakuman Ryo no Tsubo), a jidaigeki comedy made in 1935 by Yamanaka Sadao; and Sugata Sanshiro (1943), The Men Who Tread on the Tiger's Tail (Tora no O wo Fumu Otokotachi, 1945) and No Regrets for Our Youth (Waga seishun ni kuinashi, 1946), all by Kurosawa Akira. His most famous genre roles in period film were that of the wandering gambler Kunisada Chuji and the nihilistic ronin Tange Sazen, who has lost his right eye and right arm due to betrayal. In non-period films (made during the Occupation after WWII, when jidaigeki were forbidden), he usually depicts a traditional, overbearing father.

[Okochi Sanso - Mossy garden next to the Tekisuian tea house]

The 20 thousand square meter garden was constructed over a period of 30 years. The main structures, such as the Daijokaku main house and Tekisuian tea house were built in the 1930s and 1940s; only the Jibutsudo Buddhist shrine dates from the Meiji period and was brought here from elsewhere. This unique garden has only few flat spaces - the largest one is in front of the main house, where visitors can sit down on benches and enjoy the view over Kyoto. Another one is close to the entrance, where there is a restaurant serving the cup of green tea and a sweet included in the (somewhat higher than usual) entrance fee. There is also a mossy garden next to the exquisite Tekisuian tea house. But for the rest this garden consists of narrow paths running steeply up or down the hill, all with one-way traffic - to see the garden, one has to do quite a lot of climbing. At the top of the hill is a viewpoint affording a view of the Hozu River gorge and Daihikaku Temple on the opposite hillside - but the view over the same river gorge from nearby Kameyama Park is better, as that allows a broader and more open view of the valley.

[Okochi Sanso - the view towards Kyoto]

As a bonus there is a small outdoor museum with pictures of Okochi Denjiro in various film roles; but unfortunately for foreign visitors, no effort at translation has been made here. The garden is open around the year and although one has to do some effort to see it, the reward for that is a rich seasonal feeling.

Monday, November 24, 2014

Autumn in Arashiyama (1): Hogonin

A few weeks ago, when the leafs on the trees were just starting to show some color, I visited two beautiful gardens in Kyoto's Arashiyama: the garden of Hogonin temple and the garden of the Okochi Sanso (Mountain Villa). Here follows first Hogonin.

Hogonin is one of the subtemples of Tenryuji, the Rinzai Zen temple that sits in a central position in Arashiyama, Kyoto. Hogonin was originally founded in the 15th century in central Kyoto, suffered several times destruction, then was restored in the grounds of Kogenji, another subtemple of Tenryuji, before being set up in the present independent location - a spot where originally another subtemple of Tenryuji had stood which was closed down. After that, during a spat of fighting with rebellious Satsuma forces in 1877, Hogonin's buildings were again destroyed, together with those of Tenryuji. In other words, the present buildings of the temple were all reconstructed in the 20th century, and you come here not for the architecture, but for the garden.

[Hogonin garden with large rock shaped like a Shishi lion]

That garden, which predates Hogonin, is ascribed to a disciple of Muso Soseki, the famous priest credited with the creation of the great Tenryuji garden. But as far as I can see, there is no proof for that ascription. We only know for certain that the garden did exist in the Edo-period, as it is mentioned in travelogues of the 18th century (such as the Miyako Rinsen Meisho Zukan or Guidebook to the Gardens of Miyako dating from 1799). The name of the garden is "Shishiku," which means "Lion's Roar" - an image of the preaching of the historical Buddha, Sakyamuni (in modern Japanese it also means "making an impassioned speech").

The garden is usually described as a "shakkei kaiyushiki teien," a "circuit stroll garden (often centered on a pond, but not here) that incorporates the surrounding scenery into its design." This is also called "borrowed scenery" (shakkei), but gardens with borrowed scenery usually have a framing device through which the borrowed scenery is viewed - as Mt Hiei seen through a frame of strategically placed trees in the case of the Entsuji garden. That is not the case here and as the Arashiyama hill serves more as a diffuse background and continuation of the tall trees in the Hogonin garden itself, I doubt whether it formally could be called a "borrowed scenery garden."

[Arashiyama seen through the trees of Hogonin]

That does not make the garden less interesting, on the contrary: this is an enclosed "forest garden" (my term, not a traditional one!) with tall Japanese maple trees (iroha momiji), various varieties of moss, and several colossal rocks. In one place, a pine tree grows from a rock, having split the stone in two. The garden almost seems to be natural, but of course is carefully tended. The moss is so beautiful that Hogonin is a good alternative to the so-called Moss Garden Temple (Kokedera) elsewhere in Arashiyama, which restricts visitors by a super-high entrance fee and compulsory sutra copying. The rocks in Hogonin must have been eroded in the past by the nearby Oi River - thanks to the human "Rorschach fallacy," one of them looks indeed like the Shishi lion that gives the garden its name.

What makes this garden interesting is the natural atmosphere - the murmuring of a small stream that flows through it, the bird calls, the rustling of the leaves, these are all like "wordless preaching." There are some benches where visitors can sit down to enjoy the peaceful atmosphere. Adding to the rustic character are several interesting bamboo fences, one made with bamboo branches (not poles) packed tightly together (takeho-gaki); there is also an unusual hanging bamboo gate as used in tea ceremony gardens, made from strips of bamboo woven into a diamond pattern (shiorido). Although these elements are newly made by the gardeners, they wonderfully fit the garden. The only element that I could do without is the small "themed garden" that has been laid out near the entrance and that shows the Buddhist River Styx (made with large, round stones), with a boat-stone to pass to the "other side (higan) where three large upright stones symbolizing the Amida trinity wait - this is just too artificial.

[Maple leaf on the moss]

For an extra fee, one can have matcha in the tea house in the garden; and for another extra fee it is also possible to enter the main hall and see the screens by contemporary painter Tamura Noriko - but for me, the garden with its beginning autumn colors was more than sufficient. As an added bonus there is a cute set of arhats (rakan) called the "Arashiyama Rakan" sitting outside, opposite the gate of Hogonji. It is good this fine temple is nowadays open (something which only started recently), if only for a few weeks in spring and in autumn.



Tuesday, November 18, 2014

"The Following Story" by Cees Nooteboom (Best Novellas)

The novella The Following Story by the Dutch author Cees Nooteboom is - at less than 100 pages - a little gem. It is also a strange and uncanny story, although told with the necessary humor. A man who as usual went to bed in his apartment in Amsterdam, to his surprise wakes up in a hotel room in a different country. What has happened to him? What kind of metaphysical mystery has him in its grip? Is he still alive?

The man called Hermann Mussert (a surname with a notorious connotation as this is also the name of the leader of the National Socialist Movement in Holland before and during WWII, who was executed for high treason) is in his fifties; he used to be a teacher of Greek and Latin, until he lost his job, after which he became a writer of popular travel guides. He is not an attractive man - not for nothing was his nickname as a teacher "Socrates" (the Greek philosopher was reputedly one of the ugliest men in history) - and a typical intellectual who only lives for his books and study - of course he is unmarried and lives alone. He is obsessed by Greek and Roman literature, and especially by the mythology as described in the Metamorphoses of Ovid.

But twenty years ago he was harshly pulled into ordinary life (the life of other mortals) when a rather forceful and outspoken female colleague started an affair with him - to take revenge on her husband who was having his own affair with one of his pupils. The affair with the female colleague, a biology teacher called Maria Zeinstra, started in the same hotel room in Lisbon where he now finds himself, and the next day he spends his time walking through Lisbon, bringing back memories of his life and especially of what happened twenty years ago. The pangs and pleasures of memory bring him to the fundamental question of his identity, and what he has done with his life. They are also filled with an inexpressible melancholy.

And then, in the second half of the novella, the scene suddenly changes, as the man takes passage on a mysterious ship that sails west, and finally will reach South-America where it enters the mouth of the Amazon. There is only a handful of other passengers, who seem to be in the same circumstances, plus a woman, a sort of guide. They are from different walks of life and only thrown together by accident, as travelers usually are. Gradually we understand that they are all dead, shades as in classical mythology, on their way to Hades. When the ship enters the mouth of the Amazon, the passengers one by one are invited to tell their life story, after which they have to follow the guide and disappear. They all tell how they died. The teacher is the last one to tell his story and he starts with the words that he will tell "the following story" - at which point the novella ends, for this is the story we have just been reading.

As the author has indicated, the two parts of the story represent the first few moments during and after dying: at first, one sees the most important scenes of one's life flashing before one's eyes; next, one leaves the earth. Nooteboom is not religious in the traditional sense, so he doesn't conjure up a heaven or paradise - he uses images from classical Greek and Roman mythology, as that is the specialty of the teacher - and mixes these with the contemporary insight that death is the end: in life we are a collection of a particular set of atoms, after death these atoms will be scattered and their function will change so that even they will have no memory of the body they once formed.

The scenes that appear before his eyes the moment the teacher in the story dies, have been the crucial ones in his life, because this was a time that he was untrue to himself. This truth is buried deep in the story and never stated in so many words. For the relation with the biology teacher was not a tale of love: Maria was an overbearing, assertive and - as Dutch can be - aggressively outspoken person and just swept the shy classical language teacher, who had no experience in love or life, from his feet. She didn't love him, and the way she spoke to him shows that she in fact looked down on him. She only used him for taking revenge on her philandering husband. That husband is a teacher at the same school and has an affair with a beautiful pupil, Lisa d'India. She is the best pupil also in Latin and Greek, and much admired by our protagonist. He is even secretly in love with her, perhaps without being wholly aware of that.

As events develop, Lisa sends him a letter, and he receives it while the biology teacher is standing next to him. Maria Zeinstra demands that he throws the letter away, unseen, or else she will stop loving him. The meek classical teacher obeys, and so throws away his own chance of happiness - this was the crucial moment in which he failed Lisa d'India and himself, something which he only now realizes as it had been buried deeply in his consciousness. That same day, he gets involved in a fist fight with Maria's husband, after which both teachers are sacked; and Lisa d'India dies in a car accident.

Finally Hermann Mussert discovers who he is, and the answer is not a pleasant one.
First published in Dutch with the title Het volgende verhaal in 1991. The English translation was made by Ina Rilke and published in 1994. A Vintage paperback edition has followed in 2014 (with a foreword by David Mitchell). The German edition was translated by Helga van Beuningen and published by Suhrkamp in 1991; this led to a breakthrough for Nooteboom in Germany, where Die folgende Geschichte was not only highly praised by critics (as Marcel Reich-Ranicki of Das Literarische Quartett) but also led to highly successful sales (seven printings in only the first three months). 

Tuesday, November 4, 2014

The Japanese Seasons: November

November is traditionally called Shimotsuki, or “Month of Frost.” It is the time that temperatures get lower and days shorter - one week into November the seasonal turning point of Ritto comes along and actual winter is deemed to start.

But November is in fact a most beautiful month as it is the time of momiji (maple leaves). Although less well-known outside Japan than cherry blossoms, in Japan the koyo or colored leaves of autumn are just as big an event. Like hanami or blossom viewing, momijigari ("hunting for colored maple leaves") draws huge crowds. Not only the famed "sakura zensen," but also the "koyo zensen" or "front map of autumn colors" is heavily reported, from TV to magazines and internet. Based on the information given by the media, people plan day trips or short holidays to enjoy the fall colors. In the past, the beauty of autumn leaves was eulogized in poems and paintings. In the Heian-period, aristocrats would enjoy lavish banquets under the autumn leaves, gathering the fallen leaves, and writing poetry.

[Koyo]

November is also characterized by several interesting public holidays and other events.

Culture Day (Bunka no Hi) on November 3 is originally the holiday dedicated to the Emperor Meiji, whose birthday according to the Lunar Calendar fell around this date. Before the war, people would gather at shrines throughout the country and bow in the direction of the Imperial Palace. Under the postwar constitution the day was rechristened as "Culture Day", as after all autumn is a time for cultural pursuits.

On November 3 the Emperor awards the Order of Culture to people of outstanding achievement in the fields of science, art or culture. The Emperor presents the awards (shaped as a mandarin orange blossom with purple cord; the mandarin orange was planted in the palace courtyard since Heian times and symbolizes eternity - in this way the timelessness of culture is expressed) during a ceremony held in the palace.

In Tokyo, visit the Meiji Shrine for the last day of the Shrine's Festival (held from Oct. 29 to Nov 3). Various activities are held, including yabusame (archery on horseback) and other demonstrations of martial arts.

Also on November 3, in Yumoto Hakone (Kanagawa) the Hakone Daimyo Gyoretsu is held, a parade of 150 people in full period-dress recreating a daimyo procession of the Edo-period (1603-1867).

There are also many art festivals (such as the Nitten Exhibition in Tokyo) and cultural activities nationwide, where lesser awards are given by all kinds of organizations.


Around this time, museums have special exhibitions, such as the annual Shosoin Exhibition of priceless treasures and household goods once belonging to the 8th century Emperor Shomu held at the Nara National Museum. These are 650 items, all personal belongings of Emperor Shomu, given to the Great Buddha of Todaiji by his widow, the Empress Komyo in the 8th century. Among the priceless treasures are many Persian and Chinese items that reached Japan via the Silk Road. Carefully kept under lock by Todaiji for many centuries, the Shosoin is now under the care of the Imperial Household Agency. The annual exhibition shows a limited number of items, usually for about 3 weeks from the last week of October.

There are also special temple openings in Kyoto, which are normally closed to the public, such as of subtemples of Daitokuji (these seasonal openings are nowadays held - depending on the temple - somewhere between late October and early December).

November 15 is a good day to visit a Shinto Shrine, as this is Shichi-Go-San (Children's Shrine Visiting Day), the "seven-five-three" festival when parents with boys of five, girls of seven and either boys and girls of three dress their children in gay clothes and take them to shrines where they pray for their children's future. These three numbers were chosen since odd numbers are considered lucky and also go back to old dress customs.

Tori-no-ichi or "Cock Market" is held in the Otori Shrine in the Taito Ward of Tokyo on the two or three days of the cock falling in November according to the old calendar. It is nowadays held for success in business and among the lucky items for sale are kumade or bamboo rakes, to rake in good fortune.

November 23 is Labor Thanksgiving Day, established after the war as a day to express gratitude for hard work done in the past year. Originally, Nov 23 was the day when since the Meiji-period the Niiname-sai, an ancient rice festival, was held. The Emperor would make an offering of the new harvest to the gods and himself taste the first rice of the year. The Niiname-sai is still held privately by the Imperial Family.

On November 22 and 23 at the Sukunahiko Shrine in Osaka the annual Shinnosai is held. This small shrine in the pharmaceutical district is dedicated to the Chinese and Japanese gods of Medicine and on the festival days it is customary to purchase a toy tiger (hariko) as a prayer for good health.

Although the weather in November is generally good, in early November (or sometimes already in late October) a cold wintry wind coming from the northwest called Kogarashi blows - “Kogarashi” is literally the wind that sears the leaves of the trees. The first such withering blast is called “Kogarashi Ichigo.” Early and mid-winter are also the season of Shigure, rain showers. These showers occur after the sky suddenly clouds over, but they pass quickly. Shimoyo is the name for nights when the stars are bright in the sky and there is a blanket of frost on the ground. November actually knows also many beautiful, clear days and these are known as Koharu(-bi), or “Little Spring” as the weather can be quite balmy.

As foods go, November is the season that kaki or oysters come to market, which are cultivated on a large scale, for example in Hiroshima. They are eaten raw, fried, cooked in hotpot or mixed through rice (kakimeshi). Another wintry seafood that starts being sold in November are large crabs from the coast of the Sea of Japan called zuwaigani. They are served in various forms, as sashimi and tempura, or just with some vinegar. It is also the season of ginnan or gingko nuts, from the prehistoric Gingko tree, which have a subtle taste and are eaten skewered, grilled or in chawan mushi.

[Kaki]

As fruit goes, in November the season of kaki or persimmons starts. This autumn fruit rich in Vitamin C is either eaten raw or dried (hoshigaki); persimmons in Japan are usually sweet but there are also astringent varieties. Dried persimmons also form part of the New Year decoration. The orange kaki fruits hanging on the trees or after plucking strung under the eaves of farm houses are a beautiful sight in the Japanese countryside.

In the tea ceremony, finally, from November starts the use of the sunken hearth (ro), instead of the portable stove which is used in summer.

Tuesday, October 21, 2014

More Best Films Based on Classical Novels (2)

For a general introduction about literature and film, see my previous post Best Films Based on Classical Novels.

1. Octave Mirbeau: Diary of a Chambermaid (Le Journal d'une femme de chambre, 1900), filmed in 1964 by Luis Bunuel. With Jeanne Moreau, Michel Piccoli & Georges Géret.
The outspoken diary of Célestine R., a chambermaid, who exposes the hypocrisy and perversions of bourgeois society, before herself becoming "one of them." 
Although a political context is certainly not lacking in Mirbeau's fin-de-siecle, satirical novel (in the form of the Dreyfus affair), Bunuel changed the story into a strong anti-fascist statement, by updating the setting from the late 19th century to the 1930s. In the novel, Célestine comes to work for the Lanlaires (in the film called Monteils), an estranged couple living on a large estate in Normandy, while telling tales about her previous employers in flashbacks. The book was shocking because a chambermaid was given voice here via her so-called diary, and what a voice! She exuberantly hangs out all the dirty washes of her hypocritical bourgeois employers. (By the way, in Anglophone countries this French novel is often presented as "naughty" or "obscene," but that is absurd: it is a serious novel with nothing in the least "titillating.") In both film and book, the lecherous head of the household not only hunts game but also women (he has impregnated the previous chambermaid), and his miserly frigid wife indulges her pent-up frustrations by tormenting her chambermaids. Bunuel leaves out the loose stories the chambermaid includes in her diary about her past employers, but includes the first one by making the "shoe-fetishist employer" with whom the novel starts into the father living with the Monteils. In both cases, the man dies of excitement while embracing one of Célestine's boots. Like in the novel, there is the mystery of the murder of a young girl and the suspicion which falls on the brutish gamekeeper and handyman of the family, Joseph, who is also a fervent rightist. In the book, Célestine finally marries Joseph, because she is sexually attracted to his "animalistic spirit," and they start a successful cafe business together; in the film, she does even better by marrying a rich (though very old) neighbor and becoming a grand lady herself - lording it over her husband. Bunuel sets Joseph down as an outright Fascist - as a joke, at the end of the film the director has him join a rally where people shout the name of a Fascist leader... who is none other than the police chief who in 1930 had censored Bunuel's Un Chien Andalou. Nouvelle Vague icon Jeanne Moreau as Célestine gives a great performance: she is impeccably stylish and composedly serene even when facing off with the elderly shoe-fetishist, and above all, wholly inscrutable - her face is a true enigma. Although more straightforward and lacking the surrealistic teases of Bunuel's films made after Diary of a Chambermaid, the director takes care to include his usual pokes at erotic repression and religious oppression, and satirize the strange ways of the bourgeoisie who live behind a facade of respectability while secretly indulging their lower instincts. Although less well known, this a perfect film that deserves to be viewed more often and should take its place beside Bunuel's other great films, as Tristana and Belle de Jour.

2. Henry James, The Wings of the Dove (1902), filmed in 1997 by Iain Softley and with Helena Bonham Carter, Linus Roache and Alison Elliott.
An American heiress, who is seriously ill, is befriended by an impoverished English woman who lives with her wealthy aunt, and her journalist lover, for less than honorable motives: they need money to be able to marry, and hope the heiress will fall in love with the journalist, and leave her fortune to him... of course, things turn out rather differently.
I have included this film only because it is an excellent example of how NOT to film a classical novel. This cheap and sentimental film is an insult to the artistry of Henry James, who in The Wings of the Dove wrote a sensitive, ambiguous and multi-layered psychological novel, one of his best achievements. The film keeps the period dresses (although changing the time from late Victorian to Edwardian) but infuses the characters with late 20th century egotism and lack of principles ("I want it now!"). It includes various sex scenes which are not in the novel, starting with a bout of groping in an elevator, a scene of lovemaking on the cold stones of Venice, and a final sequence where the important discussion between Kate and Merton which changes their fate, has been made to take place during a soft-core sex scene. Can it get more silly? This is like drawing feet on a snake - cheap and commercialized, and totally foreign to the rather inhibited character of James' protagonists. The great psychological novel has been reduced to a sugary Harlequin romance. Despite the period dresses, the images are never impressive, not even in the scenes set in Venice, and neither are the performances of most of the "stars." This is all the more a shame as Helena Bonham Carter, as Kate, alone gives the performance of a lifetime.

3. E.M. Forster, Howards End (1910), filmed in 1992 by James Ivory and with Emma Thompson, Vanessa Redgrave and Anthony Hopkins.
The story of the hunt for a house called Howards End. Depicts three different classes in Edwardian England: the capitalistic and businesslike Wilcoxes, the cultured and humanistic Schlegels and the working-class Basts. Will they finally connect?
In contrast to the previous entry, this is a film adaptation that fully lives up to the great classical novel on which it is based. It is a first class and tasteful achievement, as is usually the case with director James Ivory, with superb acting from Emma Thompson and Helena Bonham Carter as the cultured Schlegel sisters, and Anthony Hopkins as the hard businessman Wilcox. Vanessa Redgrave is also great as the mystic - and dying - Mrs Wilcox. The screenplay by Ruth Prawer-Jhabvala does fully justice to the novel and accurately renders all the critical scenes. The unavoidable changes, such as removing the German family from the film, or having Helen visit the concert where she meets Leonard Bast alone instead of with her family, are all logical. In fact, there are few film adaptations which manage to be so faithful to the original, while at the same time enhancing it by great acting and beautiful visuals. The locations and period details are accurate as well. A most impressive film that I highly recommend.

4. Virginia Woolf: Orlando: A Biography (1928), filmed in 1992 by Sally Potter as "Orlando." With Tilda Swinton, Billy Zane & Quentin Crisp.
Mock biography of a perpetually youthful, charming hero/ine, who starts out as a nobleman living in Elizabethan times before traversing three centuries and both genders. 
A fairy tale, already in Woolf's novel and even more so in independent film maker Sally Potter's version. Potter remains true to the spirit of the book but has simplified the storyline and removed any events not significantly advancing Orlando's story. As Potter wrote in her Notes on the Adaptation, elements that can be abstract or arbitrary in the novel, had to be explained in the film. Orlando's long life (he has lived for many centuries and may still be around today) is never explained in the book, but in the film Queen Elizabeth bestows Orlando's long life upon him with the words "Do not fade, do not wither, do not grow old . . ." In the same way, Orlando's sex change is explained in the film as the result of his having reached a crisis of masculine identity when looking death and destruction in the face on the battlefield. The "moral" of both book and film is that gender is just a convention prescribed by society - it is the inner essence of people which matters. Thus, Potter's Orlando, on discovering (s)he is now a woman, declares, "Same person, no difference at all. Just a different sex." Like the book, the film follows its character through four centuries of sexual politics, by taking 50-year steps. In the 18th c. clad in an impossible dress, Orlando experiences society's disdain for women, and in the 19th century she looses her vast country house as women were not allowed to own property. The film ends at the present day, when unmarried mother Orlando rides on a motorcycle with her little daughter in the sidecar. The androgynous title character is played delicately and marvelously by Tilda Swinton. True to the gender-bending theme, Quentin Crisp has a great act as the aged Queen Elizabeth I. Despite the feminist message, the film is not at all preachy but rather deliciously playful. It also makes its modest budget go a long way - a most memorable scene is a skating waltz by courtiers on ice.

5. Vladimir Nabokov: The Defense (1930), filmed in 2000 by Marleen Gorris as "The Luzhin Defence." With John Turturro, Emily Watson, & Geraldine James.
A novel about a brilliant but socially awkward chess master who connects to life only through the language and conventions of chess and finally descends into madness.
Nabokov is truly impossible to film, although both Stanley Kubrick and Adrian Lyne had a go at Lolita. In my view, perhaps the best results have been achieved by Marleen Gorris' adaptation of an early novel written in Russian, when Nabokov lived in exile in Berlin: The Luzhin Defense. Gorris is a Dutch feminist film maker known for Antonia, who also made a wonderful film based on Virginia Woolf's Mrs Dalloway. In The Luzhin Defence she doesn't stick to the main details of the book but rather sets out to capture its spirit. The movie looks at things from a decidedly feminine point of view. Gorris has greatly enhanced the role of the woman Luzhin marries, and even made Natalia the heroine - while in the novel her name is not even mentioned! The novel ends with Luzhin's supposed suicide, but in the film Natalia finds Luzhin's notes (the "Luzhin defense") for the championship match he is then playing and decides to finish the game for his posthumous honor - and she wins (see this chess site for an evaluation of the realistic chess scenes in the film). Despite the dramatic ending, the film is filled with light humor as well. Luzhin is a near-autistic genius, dwelling only in the chambers of the mind, and wearing filthy suits while chain-smoking. He is unable to make small talk, so when Natalia asks him how long he has been playing chess, he answers, after calculating: "9,263 days, 4 hours and 5 minutes." Gorris sees him with great empathy and John Turturro gives a magnificent performance. Also Emily Watson is touching and convincing as Natalia, who has the inner strength to stand up against her aristocratic mother who wants her to marry an eligible count. A great and delicate film about the vulnerability of genius in our cruelly ordinary world.

6. Georges Simenon: The Engagement (Les Fiançailles de M. Hire, 1933), filmed in 1989 by Patrick Leconte as "Monsieur Hire." With Michel Blanc and Sandrine Bonnaire.
An introverted, middle-aged man who has no contact with his neighbors, and who is considered as "strange," is wrongly suspected of murder by police and neighborhood when a young woman is found killed in the vicinity. But M. Hire has his own secret...
The Engagement is one of the earliest "Romans durs," serious psychological novels with often an element of crime (and different from the Maigret-series) written by Simenon. It is a small book, almost a novella, in which the tragic tale is told with the utmost economy. Leconte has updated the film from the 1930s to the late 80s - his detective with long hair and rough clothes is a far cry from the neatly uniformed police officers in the original. But Michel Blanc as Monsieur Hire is perfect - just as I imagined him when reading the novel, with a white face, balding head but always overdressed in suit and tie. Monsieur Hire's secret is that he peeps into the room of a young woman living in a wing of the same building, just opposite a small courtyard (almost Rear Window-style). She never closes her curtains, and Monsieur Hire every evening switches off his lights and stands watching her, also when she undresses... When Alice finally notices his voyeuristic behavior, she approaches him, first by spilling a bag with tomatoes in front of his door (a great idea, only found in the film). Later they become friends, more so in the film than in the book where Alice works in a dairy shop; in the film she is more intellectual, admirably played by Sandrine Bonnaire. But in both book and film she has a boyfriend who is a small criminal, and who may be the real murderer, something which also means disaster for Monsieur Hire. His plan that she ditches her boyfriend and run off with him comes to nothing and then his own existence hangs suddenly - literally - in the balance... What remains a mystery is what Alice really thinks of Monsieur Hire - does she after all love him although she plants false evidence in his room and then informs the detective? Is she sorry for him? And what does that last look mean, when she stands behind her window, and Monsieur Hire sees her in an extraordinary final shot? It are the two main actors who make this a great film and worthy comment on the original novel.

7. Julio Cortazar: "Blow-Up" (original title in Spanish "Las babas del diablo,” “The Drool of the Devil,” 1959), filmed in 1966 by Michelangelo Antonioni. With David Hemmings, Vanessa Redgrave and Sarah Miles.
A photographer believes he has seen something intriguing through his camera, which when he blows up the picture, turns out to be possibly tragic.
In Cortazar's experimental story an amateur photographer living in Paris happens to snap a shot of a woman and a boy, wondering whether he has captured the seduction of an adolescent boy by an older woman. When the woman notices her picture is being taken, she starts shouting angrily at the photographer about the invasion of her privacy and the boy sees his chance to run away. After enlarging the photo and studying it again, the photographer realizes to his horror that the woman was in fact "pimping" the boy for an older man waiting nearby in a parked car. Then the story moves into the surreal: the photographer is drawn into the enlarged photo, he becomes the camera and also becomes the seduced boy, and is murdered by the man who has come out of the car, and finally  lies dead in the photograph staring immobilized as a camera at the sky, where the clouds pass by and now a then a pigeon flies past - the world has become a photograph. Antonioni uses the idea of the Cortazar story, but unavoidably greatly changes it. The most visible aspect is that he changes the scene to the swinging London of the 1960s, and his protagonist becomes a popular fashion photographer, Thomas, who leads an empty life of "sex, drugs and rock-n-roll." He is bored by all the gratuitous sex, the brainless models, the groupies and the languid pot parties, and goes soulless through the motions of his work. He happens to take pictures of a couple in park, a woman and an older man; the woman remonstrates with him and even follows him to his studio. She even takes off her shirt, wanting to seduce him and steal the film. Thomas sends her away with the wrong roll, but is intrigued by this woman, so different from the superficial girls around him. Then out of curiosity Thomas enlarges the photos and in a beautiful sequence, hanging ever larger and larger prints on his wall, discovers that he has photographed a murder - in the grainy image he sees is a man with a gun hiding in the bushes behind the couple and the elderly man who was with the woman later lies prostrate on the grass. Thomas checks again in the park, now by night. The mystery deepens and proves at the same time unsolvable as the mysterious woman has also disappeared... but for a short while, the mystery has woken him from his lethargy. Antonioni has filmed in a great style, with little dialogue, almost telling the whole film with the camera. In its day Blow-Up was notorious for an orgy scene with groupies and some nudity; today, the sex is tame, but what shocks is the cruelty and contempt for women of the protagonist as shown in the way he treats his models and girlfriends, an aspect of the 60s we seem to have forgotten. The film ends with a nice symbolic scene where a group of students with white faces mimic playing tennis in the park - Thomas pretends he can see the ball and we hear it on the soundtrack, but it isn't there, just like the core mystery of the film.