Sunday, October 25, 2020

Post about the novel in Belgium expanded!

The Novel in Belgium has been expanded and renewed! Absurdism and black humor are the keywords.

Writers included are: Rodenbach, Elsschot, Ray, Simenon, Boon, Lampo, Claus, Toussaint, Aspe, Brijs, Verhulst, Nothomb, Lanoye, Hertmans and Verbeke.

Read my new post: https://adblankestijn.blogspot.com/2017/05/the-novel-4-belgium.html





Saturday, October 17, 2020

Best European Novels: Belgium

Belgium is a small country in the heart of Europe: just over 30,000 square kilometers and a population of 11.5 million. Located at the meeting point of Germanic and Latin Europe, Belgium has benefited from a cross-fertilization of cultures for centuries, and has been at the center of many European artistic movements. Its strategic location also meant that Belgium served as the battleground for several European wars, most fatally WWI, but also the famous Battle of Waterloo of 1815 in which Napoleon was finally defeated. (As Tom Lanoye has phrased it in Speechless: "You can't have a much better position in Europe, except when war breaks out.")

The capital and largest city is Brussels; other major cities are Antwerp (a large European port city), Ghent (another port and economic powerhouse), Liège (a traditional industrial center in Wallonia), historic town Bruges and university town Leuven. Brussels is also the capital of Europe as it hosts several EU-connected organs, such as the European Commission and the European Parliament.

As is well-known, Belgium is home to two main linguistic communities: the Dutch-speaking Flemish community (about 60 percent of the population) and the French-speaking community (Brussels and Wallonia). But the Flemish are not Dutch and the Walloons are not French, they have their own identities. In the northeastern corner of Belgium is also a small area where German is spoken (see the novel The Angel Maker below). Belgium's linguistic diversity has led to a complex system of politics and governance. It is sometimes joked that Belgium is not a country, but a compromise.

Belgium controlled two colonies during its history, of which the major one was the Belgian Congo (modern DRC), a huge country - 76 times larger than Belgium itself (comparable to the mismatched sizes of The Netherlands and its colony the Dutch-Indies). The colony originally was the personal property of the country's king, Leopold II, and is infamous for the cruelty against the local population which led to international protests at the time - as well as to Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness.

Well-known elements of Belgian culture include painting (from the Flemish Renaissance and Baroque painting - Rubens - to modern Surrealism as exemplified by Magritte), gastronomy (Belgian beer, chocolates, waffles), and a strong comic strip tradition (Tintin  - by Herge, one of the most translated writers in the world - , the Smurfs, etc.).

The Belgian character is characterized by conservatism, intellectual humility, avoidance of dogmatism, common sense and compromise. The Flemish are more egalitarian, consensual and low key, among the Walloons hierarchy and rank is more important.

Belgian literature is therefore also split into two languages. Note that there are minor differences in vocabulary and semantic nuances between Flemish and Dutch as spoken in the Netherlands; the same is true of French. There is a lot of talent writing in both languages. The "Big Three" 20th c. classical novelists from Flanders are Willem Elsschot, Louis Paul Boon and Hugo Claus. The greatest Belgian who wrote in French (and therefore was often wrongly thought to be a Frenchman) was Georges Simenon. In fact, Simenon used often Belgian and Dutch settings in his novels, especially in the 1930s, such as in his semi-autobiographical Pedigree.

Belgian Francophone literature is sometimes difficult to distinguish from French literature as a whole, because several great French authors sought refuge in  Belgium (Apollinaire, Baudelaire, Rimbaud, Verlaine) and, conversely, top French-speaking writers sometimes settle in Paris (Simenon, Nothomb). But Belgian Francophone literature is squarely Belgian in character thanks to sharing the traits which are representative of all Belgian literature.

Of the ten Nobel Prizes won by Belgians, one was in literature: Maurice Maeterlinck in 1911, but Francophone Maeterlinck was a poet and a playwright, not a novelist.

Characteristic themes of Belgian literature are:
- Catholic influence in life and education
- World War I and II
- The inability to transcend personal or societal limitations
- Use of black humor and self-derision
- Absurdism and magic-realism

The rules I have followed are:
(1) English translations must exist (it may be out of print, in which case you'll have to try the sellers at Amazon etc., or a good library)
(2) Every writer is represented by only one book (to prevent me from spamming the list with my favorites)
(3) One of the selection criteria is "sense of place," meaning that I have a preference for books that bring the reader closer to the country under consideration.
(4) Besides "high literature," I also include a few "genre novels" (usually thrillers or mysteries), as these can give a good insight in the culture of a particular country.

Useful websites:
Dutch Foundation for Literature: http://www.letterenfonds.nl/en/
Digital Library for Dutch Literature: https://www.dbnl.org/
Flanders Literature: https://www.flandersliterature.be/ 

I recommend checking out the various places mentioned in these novels via Google Maps or Wikipedia for a virtual trip!


Here are the best novels from Belgium (all novels have been translated into English):

1. Jacques Rodenbach, Bruges-la-Morte (1892) [French]
A man is obsessed with the memory of his deceased wife and tries to mold a dancer, who uncannily resembles her, after his wife. "Bruges-la-Morte," by the Belgian Francophone author Georges Rodenbach is a melancholic novel about an obsessive love, a love both for a beautiful dead wife and a beautiful dead town, Bruges (in the 19th c. Bruges had become an antiquarian town; that has changed today as it has been revived by trade and tourism). It is the novel of a poet, in which almost nothing happens, the reader is as it were incarnated in the lonely soul of the protagonist. "Bruges-La-Morte" is also the iconic Symbolist novel.

Something that is very modern is that this is the first novel to incorporate dozens of black-and-white photographs (as for example contemporary German author W.G. Sebald has done). The photos show mostly deserted streets and canals. Although they are an integral part of the novel, most modern editions leave them out – the English translation has replaced them with new photos. Only the original images, however, have a truly haunting quality. (Detailed review on this blog)


Georges Rodenbach (1855-98) was a Belgian Symbolist poet and novelist. Rodenbach had a French mother and a German father and studied in Ghent. He belonged to the circle of the poet Emile Verhaeren and published eight collections of poetry and four novels, besides a number of short stories. He spent the last ten years of his life in Paris, where he became an intimate of Edmond de Goncourt. His best work is Bruges-la-Morte, in which he tries to evoke the town as a living being, associated with the moods of the spirit. Bruges-la-Morte was adapted by the Austrian composer Erich Wolfgang Korngold as his famous opera Die tote Stadt.

2. Willem Elsschot, Cheese (Kaas, 1933) [Dutch]

Willem Elsschot (1882-1960; in real life called Alfons de Ridder) was a writer and businessman (in advertising) from Antwerp, who because of the combination of these two functions, has been dubbed the “Flemish Italo Svevo.” He wrote eleven short novels, of which the highly amusing Cheese (Kaas) is the best, a gentle fable, timeless in its skewering of the pretensions and pomposity of the urban bourgeois.


[Statue of Elsschot in Antwerp]

A humble shipping clerk in Antwerp becomes the chief agent in Belgium for a Dutch cheese company and takes delivery of ten thousand full-cream wheels of this red-rinded Dutch delight. But he has no idea how to run a business, or how to sell his goods. He is more focused on setting up his office with a proper desk and typewriter, rather than doing the hard-selling that is needed. When his employer comes to Antwerp to settle the first accounts, he panics... (Detailed review on this blog)

Soft Soap
and The Leg (Lijmen / Het Been) are two more examples of humorous novels by Elsschot which lead the reader to reflect on the absurdity of life.

3. Jean Ray, Malpertuis (1943) [French]
Malpertuis purports to be a series of manuscripts written at different times by various hands, but all relating to a man named Cassave and an ancient house called Malpertuis. The prologue involves a sea voyage, and a mysterious island. We then move on to the main narrative, written by one Jean-Jacques Grandsire. He tells about the death of the patriarch of the house of Malpertuis, Uncle Cassave, who in his will stipulates that the assorted relatives, hangers-on, and servants must all live in Malpertuis if they want to inherit his large fortune. It is a strange lot of people that is gathered there, but the eerie building is stranger. Events occur that are so bizarre that Jean-Jacques doubts his own sanity. Even worse, he is uncertain whether he can trust any of the others – not even the enigmatically beautiful Euryale (perhaps Euryale least of all, but he cannot help but feel the strong fascination she exerts with her green eyes and red hair). Then Jean-Jacques’ narrative breaks off, and additional information is furnished by an abbot, whose ancestor was partly responsible for setting the original events in motion, and by an elderly monk whose monastery may hold some of the answers needed to reveal the truth. What are the inhabitants of Malpertuis - demons, madmen, or mental figments? In fact they are none of these but neither are they quite human… A weird and hypnotic novel, that deserves to be better known.

The novel was filmed in 1971 by Harry Kümel with Orson Welles, Susan Hampshire, Michel Bouquet and Mathieu Carrière in the leading roles.


[Poster for the film Malpertuis]

Jean Ray (1887-1964) was the most famous author of fantastic literature in Belgium. His real name was Jean Raymond de Kremer. He began his career as a pulp writer, using a variety of aliases. His large output can be divided into three parts. Under his own name, he wrote many short stories, which were collected in a number of volumes, and have since become horror classics, and two novels, Malpertuis and La Cité de l'Indicible Peur [The City Of The Unspeakable Fear] (both 1943). These works were all written in French. Under the name of "John Flanders" Ray wrote (often in Dutch) a number of juvenile adventure novels, many incorporating science fiction or fantasy elements, as well as an estimated 300 stories. The third part of Ray's literary output was in pulp magazines and includes an unauthorized Sherlock Holmes pastiche, Harry Dickson, sub-titled "the American Sherlock Holmes."

4. Georges Simenon, Pedigree (1948) [French]
At his death, Liegeoise writer Georges Simenon (1903–1989) had published over 375 works, including 75 novels and 28 short stories in his fictional detective series featuring Inspector Maigret. The Maigret series has been translated into over 50 languages, making the Belgian Simenon the most translated French-speaking author in the world. More than that, Simenon also wrote more than a 100 serious novels, called "romans durs." These "hard novels" were not detective stories but darkly realistic psychological novels, books in which he displayed a sympathetic awareness of the emotional and spiritual pain underlying the routines of daily life. Some famous titles are: Dirty Snow, The Man Who Watched Trains Go By, Pedigree, Tropic Moon, The Engagement, The Blue RoomThe Widow and Red Lights. In the "romans durs" Simenon tried to display the full range of his talent, often addressing existentialist themes.


[Rue Léopold in Liège where the novel starts (and where Simenon was born)]

Pedigree is a semi-autobiographical novel, described by the author as "a book in which everything is true but nothing is accurate." It presents a fictionalized account of the author's childhood in the Walloon industrial center of Liège, from the start of the twentieth century to the end of World War I. At the center stands the mother, Élise (in real life: Henriette), tormented and tormenting, “a girl from the other side of the bridges, a girl who, when she was with her sisters, spoke a language (Flemish) nobody could understand." She is married to Désiré Mamelin, a stolid insurance clerck, who so much adores routine that he sometimes seems more mechanism than man. Husband and wife are very much our of sync - he with his fixed routines, she the continuous prey of her changing emotions. The book starts with the birth of their baby (called Roger); as he grows up and his character of a precocious and curious boy emerges, the focus will gradually shift from the mother to him. Spanning the years from the beginning of the century, with its political instability and terrorist threats, to 1918, Pedigree is an intense account of everyday existence in all its messiness. Simenon deftly brings the sounds, sights and smells of that existence to life, from coals falling in the stove, the tram giving off sparks as it passes, to gas jets being lit. It is the vivid evocation of the sensate world that makes Simenon such an extraordinary novelist.

5. Louis Paul Boon, Chapel Road (Kapellekensbaan, 1953) [Dutch]
Louis Paul Boon (1912-1979) was a Flemish novelist and journalist who was a serious candidate for the Nobel prize in Literature. He gave up literary language for regional Belgian Dutch words and expressions with which he colored his writing in a Faulknerian way. Boon combines social engagement (an important characteristic of Belgian literature) with advanced literary techniques. Chapel Road is his masterpiece. Its interesting avant-garde-like construction combines several narrative threads, including an almost postmodern one where the writer and his friends discuss how the story should develop further.


[Town center, Aalst]

The story itself is set in the 19th c. and is about a young woman who wants to escape from a grey industrial town "where it is always raining, even when the sun is shining" (the town is a fictionalized Aalst, the town where Boon himself grew up). A third thread in the book is a reworking of the classic myth of Reynard the Fox.

Boon’s other famous novels, both available in English, are My little war (Mijn kleine oorlog) and a sequel to Chapel Road, Summer in Termuren (Zomer in Termuren).

6. Hubert Lampo, The Coming of Joachim Stiller (De komst van Joachim Stiller, 1960) [Dutch]
A series of mysterious occurrences in 1950s Antwerp and in the life of journalist-writer Freek Groenevelt, disrupting his calm and orderly life: a street is broken up and closed again, but the alderman of Public Works denies Freek's newspaper report. Then comes a letter from one Joachim Stiller posted in 1919 (!) that predicts the above incident. Freek visits Simone Marijnissen, the editor of a small literary magazine, who has also received a letter from Stiller, and who suspects it was sent by Freek. Simone later receives a mysterious phone call from a man calling himself "Stiller." In his favorite second-hand bookstore Freek finds a 16th c. book about "the end of time," authored by one Joachim Stiller. And so on. The mysterious Joachim Stiller becomes an obsession for Freek Groenevelt, until Stiller finally appears as the archetype of the redeemer, acting out the story of the death and resurrection of Jesus.

This is an easy read, perhaps a bit too much so, at the expense of character development, so literary critics have not always been kind to the novel. My own criticism concerns the character of Simone, and the mutual love at first sight between her and Freek Groenevelt. She is just a "type" ("the ideal woman," a purely male fantasy), and not a full character; when she starts living together with Freek, she immediately disappears into the kitchen as a dutiful 1950s housewife (and expectant mother). What I liked best about the novel is the atmosphere of Antwerp, with its many cafes, and the long walks of Freek through the old city.

 
[Antwerp's South Station, where the final scene of the novel takes place
(the station building was demolished in 1965)]

Despite these small shortcomings, this novel is generally regarded as one of the classics of postwar Flemish literature. Hubert Lampo (1920-2006) was the founder of magic realism in literature in Flanders (in painting it existed already, in the famous works of Magritte). Joachim Stiller was central to Lampo's oeuvre; the novel was filmed in 1976 and during the life of the author 44 editions and numerous translations appeared.

7. Hugo Claus, The Sorrow of Belgium (Het verdriet van België, 1983) [Dutch]
The Sorrow of Belgium is a semi-autobiographical "bildungsroman," the story of the coming of age of the protagonist in a conservative, Flemish nationalist family during the German occupation in WWII. We follow the life of the young Louis Seynave and his family in the 1930s and 1940s in the community of Kortrijk. Claus' family novel is, among other things, a study of everyday low-level collaboration. Many Flemish felt sympathy for the occupier because they thought the Germans could give the Flemish struggle for emancipation a favorable turn. But most of all they just cared for their own small material needs (as most people would do in a similar situation) - in everything they see a threat to their already poor prosperity and they want to preserve the status quo of their lives. They do not recognize the German danger.

[German parade past the Royal Palace in Brussels
shortly after the invasion, May 1940]

Hugo Claus (1929-2008) has been dubbed the most important Flemish writer of the 20th century. He has written over 20 novels, 60 theater pieces and thousands of poems. Unfortunately, very little has been translated into English, and what has been translated is difficult to find. Claus' best novel The Sorrow of Belgium has been compared to The Tin Drum by Gunther Grass.

8. Jean-Philippe Toussaint, Monsieur (1986) [French]
Jean-Philippe Toussaint (born 1957) is a Belgian writer and filmmaker, who was educated in Paris. He was influenced by Beckett and the Nouveau Roman. Monsieur, which was filmed by Toussaint himself in 1990, is typical of his work. It is a minimalist series of vignettes from the life of an introverted, quiet man who lacks any strong interests or will power. At the office, he has perfected the art of doing nothing, and at home, he is no less undistinguished. His neighbor persuades Monsieur to spend his free time typing a treatise of mineralogy under his dictation, and the only way Monsieur is able to escape that servitude is to move in with his fiancée’s parents. He is still living in their home long after his fiancée has found a man more to her liking. But in the end, another young woman finds a soulmate in Monsieur, leading Toussaint to conclude that life, for Monsieur, is mere "child’s play." In other words, although he is utterly passive, Monsieur still manages to keep his head above water and seems always content. You might compare him to the "uncarved block" of Daoism, while his way of life embodies the idea from the Daodejing that the qualities of flexibility and suppleness, especially as exemplified by water, are superior to rigidity and strength. Nothing happens in this novel, but Toussaint manages to keep his readers interested. In his quirkiness, Monsieur Toussaint also has some traits of that other nay-sayer, Melville's Bartleby. You could also call him the true "man without qualities."


We find similar types in Toussaint's other novels, such as a man who wishes nothing else than to spend the rest of his life in his bathtub, or a man who organizes imaginary international dart tournaments in his hotel room, and keeps playing his solitary games until little Belgium finally wins. Some other titles are The Bathroom, The Camera, Reticence, Television, and Making Love.

9. Pieter Aspe, The Square of Revenge (Het vierkant van de wraak, 1995) [Dutch]
The beautiful medieval town of Bruges (also appearing in Bruges-La-Morte above) here features in quite a different context, that of a mystery in which the dark longings of her residents are revealed. When the wealthy and influential Degroof’s jewelry store is broken into, nothing is stolen, but all the jewels are dissolved in strong acid. In the empty safe a scrap of paper is discovered on which a strange square has been drawn. Degroof is less concerned about solving the case than preventing details about the crime from getting out. Police inspector Van In quickly determines it was an act of revenge for something that happened years ago. When Degroof’s grandson is kidnapped, Van In and the beautiful new prosecutor Hannelore Martens find themselves unraveling a complex web of intrigue and dirty family secrets. They must cut through bureaucratic resistance to learn why one of Degroof's daughters has been institutionalized and another is in a nunnery. Besides clever plotting and brisk pacing, it is the light-hearted bantering of Van In and Hannelore (which slowly develops into a romance) that carries the book.


[The Steenstraat, Bruges' major shopping street,
where the fictional jewelry store in the novel is located]

Pieter Aspe, who himself lives in Bruges, is the author of a series detective stories starring inspector Van In, of which The Square of Revenge is the first novel.

10. Stefan Brijs, The Angel Maker (De engelenmaker, 2005) [Dutch]
The Angel Maker is set in the (fictional) village of Wolfheim, in the German-speaking community of east Belgium, at the border with The Netherlands and Germany and Luxembourg. Wolfheim is located in the northern part of this area, close to the Vaalserberg (in the Dutch province of Limburg) and the Three Country Point, where tourists can stand on a spot where the borders of the Netherlands, Germany and Belgium meet. The village of Wolfheim is a quiet place until the geneticist Dr. Victor Hoppe returns after an absence of nearly twenty years to the house where his parents had lived. The doctor, an autistic, monomaniac eccentric, brings with him his infant children: three identical-looking boys all sharing a disturbing disfigurement (a cleft palate), like the doctor himself. The doctor sets up his practice but the boys remain hidden from view - they don't play outside, they aren't sent to school. The villagers are curious about these odd-looking children with the exact same cleft palates and large, bald heads. Charlotte, the woman who is hired to care for them, finally begins to suspect that the triplets (as well as the doctor himself) aren’t quite what they seem...


[The Vaalserberg and Three Country Point (between The Netherlands, Belgium and Germany), where the dramatic finale of the novel takes place]

The Angel Maker is about genetic engineering and the cloning of humans, of assuming the same power as God, like a contemporary Frankenstein. But Victor Hoppe hates the cruel god of the Old Testament who after all created beings with defective genes that cause immense suffering, and for good measure even added some viruses to the mix of misery. Instead, Victor identifies strongly with Jesus - to what a degree will become clear at the shocking end of this mysterious and chilling novel.

Stefan Brijs (1969) was born in Genk and studied to become a teacher; since 1999 he is a full-time writer. De engelenmaker reached its 25th printing in Dutch in 2011, selling over 125,000 copies. It has been translated into more than ten languages. It is a book that can be read on many levels: as a Frankenstein-type horror story - there is a sense of dread and doom (and typically Belgian absurdity) throughout the book - but also as a morality tale (the ethics of DNA engineering and cloning), an (anti-) religious parable (how can god be "good" as he has created beings with defective genes?), and a meditation about the problem that science is cold and without empathy. In how far may science make us suffer for its advancement?

11. Dimitri Verhulst, The Misfortunates (De Helaasheid der Dingen, 2006) [Dutch]
Dimitri Verhulst was born in Aalst, like the elder author Louis Paul Boon, with whom he shares a critical but compassionate view of Belgian life. Verhulst’s most famous novel is The Misfortunates, a fictional autobiography of a young writer growing up in a family "that knew no sobriety or moderation" (to put it mildly). Both his father and his three uncles, useless in all other aspects, had an unwavering commitment to beer and the pub - and an inclination to violence. As soon as the narrator is born, his father plucks him from the maternity ward, props him on his bike, and takes him on an introductory tour of the village bars. The boy grows up amid the stench of stale beer, and it seems that the same fate is waiting for him, until he makes his own plans for the future. The blackest of black humor and extremely politically incorrect - not everyone can stomach this avalanche of crude language and unappetizing bodily functions - read at your own risk. But nothing could be more Belgian (Flemish) than this type of humor.


[Grote Markt with church and cafe in Aalst]

Dimitri Verhulst (born in 1972) was an unwanted child in a violent family (described by him as "there was an incredible amount of fighting at home, the pints flew through the living room, there was always aggression in the air (…) we were the losers, the knife fighters" - as in The Misfortunates). At age 12 he was evicted by his mother and ended up in a family replacement home. Wanting to stand on his own two feet as soon as possible, he worked as a pizza delivery boy, tourist guide on pleasure boats, and 'pigeon shit scraper' on churches. His first novel was published in 1994. Another well-known novel by Verhulst is Problemski hotel (2003), about a center for asylum seekers. Dimitri Verhulst reminds me of another modern Belgian author, Herman Brusselmans (1957), who is just as controversial for his profane language and offensive comedy (and just as popular in Flanders). Unfortunately, there are no English translations available of Brusselmans' many books.

12. Amélie Nothomb, Tokyo Fiancée (Ni d'Eve, ni d'Adam, 2007) [French]
Amélie Nothomb was born in Japan of Belgian parents in 1967. In fact, her father was the Consul-General for Belgium in Kobe (later also Ambassador in Tokyo). Despite her background in a diplomatic family, in her public persona and her writing Nothomb is the embodiment of unconventionality. Since her debut with Hygiene and the Assassin in 1992, she has written a novel a year (of the concise French type, it should be admitted). She has been widely translated and won many prizes. One of her best novels is Tokyo Fiancée, in which an affair with a Japanese suitor, Rinri, serves as the impetus for fun discoveries about the Japanese way of life, especially food culture. Rinri is really in love, and although Amélie likes spending time with him, she doesn't love him. She also doesn't want to give up her independence. After he proposes, she struggles with the question how to best refuse this sweet and shy boy. (Detailed review on this blog)


Another excellent book set in Japan is the popular Fear and Trembling (Stupeur et tremblements), in which a Belgian woman returns to Japan, where she lived as a child, for a job at one of the country's major corporations. The cultural misunderstandings pile up like a train wreck until the woman (again called Amélie - both novels are semi-autobiographical) gives up trying to adapt to the Japanese way of working.

13. Tom Lanoye, Speechless (Sprakeloos, 2009) [Dutch]
"And this is the story of a stroke, devastating as an internal lightning bolt, and of the agonizingly slow decline that over the next two years afflicted  a five-fold mother and first-class amateur actress." Sprakeloos begins with this sentence, in which Tom Lanoye sketches a portrait of his mother Josée Verbeke, a butcher's wife and amateur actress, and - in good Catholic style - mother of five (of which Tom was the youngest). After a rich life in and above the butcher's shop in Sint-Niklaas, she was hit by a cerebral infarction and eventually ended up in a nursing home before her heart gave out. Her son, the author, is shocked by her loss of speech, which – as an amateur actress – had been so dear to her. In compensation – and as a homage – he reconstructs her life in an abundance of language. Josée is depicted as a flamboyant, domineering and controlling woman who, investing great effort in her family and their butcher’s shop, always strove for everyone’s respectability, reputation and well-being, resorting, from time to time, to dramatic scenes and shrewd manipulation. Lanoye tells of the ups and downs of family life in a good-natured, humorous fashion. He also makes up the balance of his own colorful youth in a working-class neighborhood, of his struggle with love, of his role as a writer, and of the conflicts with his diva-like mother.


[The market place in Sint-Niklaas, where the novel is set - "the largest market square - if you like, the largest empty space - in the whole of Europe"]

Tom Lanoye (1958), the "butcher’s son with glasses" (part of his identity and the title of his prose debut), was born in Sint-Niklaas in East Flanders. He studied Germanic Philology and Sociology at Ghent University, before becoming a novelist, poet, columnist, screenwriter and internationally respected playwright. Lanoye lives and works in Antwerp and Cape Town (South Africa). His literary work has been published and/or performed in over fifteen languages; in 2013 he received the Constantijn Huygens Prize for his whole oeuvre. Lanoye a rich and masterful prose.

14. Stefan Hertmans, War and Turpentine (Oorlog en terpentijn, 2013) [Dutch]
War and Turpentine is based on a pair of notebooks Stefan Hertmans received in the 1980s from his grandfather Urbain Martien, who had fought in WWI. The novel reconstructs the grandfather's life, which began in a working-class neighborhood in Ghent during the belle époque and took an unforeseen turn at the outbreak of WWI, when Urbain was 23 years old and had to go to the front. When the troops withdraw from the German advance, they end up in the trenches behind the flooded Yzer plain. The horrors of war are poignantly described 'up close' - as in that other trenches-novel, All Quiet on the Western Front. In a short final part, the story takes a tragic turn when Urbain's beloved dies in the pandemic of the Spanish flu.


[Belgian machine gunner in WWI]

Stefan Hertmans (1951) was born in Ghent. His poems and stories have been published in French, Spanish, Italian, Romanian, Croatian, German, Bulgarian. For the present novel Hertmans received the AKO Literature Prize 2014.

15. Annelies Verbeke, Thirty Days (Dertig dagen, 2015) [Dutch]
This novel is set in Westhoek, a corner of West Flanders between the French border and the North Sea, in the extreme southwest of Belgium. There is not much else in this rural area except grim reminders of WWI (more WWI graves than anywhere else in Europe), a high suicide rate, and lots of pensioners. But there are also wide low skies and open fields. The protagonist Alphonse Badji is an immigrant from Senegal who, after an initial career as a musician in Brussels, has started a new life as a handyman in this quiet corner, together with his girlfriend Cat whose retired parents live in the area. As Alphonse paints the interior of people's homes, they open up to him about their problems - their complex emotional lives, their affairs, messy divorces, small cruelties and family quarrels. Alphonse is a good and patient listener and tries to help his fellow human beings - like a "handyman of the soul." In the end, Alphonse also helps a group of Afghan refugees living in old WWI trenches (wishing to cross over to England, as this is close to the French port of Calais), and here his kindness unfortunately leads to disaster for himself. Every chapter describes a day in the life of Alphonse, starting with 30 and counting down. The novel touches on current social issues such as migration and discrimination, but does not get lost in simplifications. The book won the Bordewijk Prize 2015.


[WWI cemetery near Ypres in Westhoek]

Annelies Verbeke (1976) studied language and literature at Gent University. In 2003, she gained instant fame with her first novel Slaap! (Sleep!), which with translations in 22 countries became the most widely translated Flemish debut of all time. Verbeke writes with sympathy and humor about the underdog; her keenly observed characters are familiar in their ordinariness, but also have a dark and unexpected side. There is an absurdist feel to her work - "typically Belgian," as I would like to say.


Modern Japanese Fiction by Year (5): 1933-1945 - Conservatism, Nationalism and War

Modern Japanese Fiction by Year (5): 1933-1945 - Conservatism, Nationalism and War

1933
Japan withdraws from the League of the Nations in opposition to a report criticizing it as aggressor in Manchuria - Sanriku Earthquake and Tsunami on March 3 causes more than 3,000 dead and missed.

The turn toward militarism in Japan after the Manchurian Incident of September 1931 was accompanied by increasing denunciation  of the modernists for their alleged superficial application of Western aesthetic modes as well as a crackdown on proletarian writers, leading in February 1933 to the death in police custody of Kobayashi Takiji.

The literary magazine Bungakukai is started by a prominent group of writers and critics (Yokomitsu Riichi, Kawabata Yasunari, Kobayashi Hideo, Uno Koji, etc.), serving as a call for a literary revival (bungaku fukko). This was a call in a double sense: for a reconstruction of pure literary practice in the wake of the suppression of Marxist literature (including a return to prominence of such Taisho-era writers as Shiga Naoya and Uno Koji), and a resurgence of confessional fiction among Tenko writers. The value of the "classics" and pure Japanese culture was advanced. The central figure was Yokomitsu Riichi with his "Theory of the Pure Novel."

"Tenko" or ”Ideological Recantation" became a common term for the government policy which pressed Marxist and other "thought criminals" to recant. A number of proletarian writers, threatened with long prison terms, were persuaded to recant their Marxist beliefs. In this way arose a genre of literature called "Tenko Literature," the common designation for writings by ex-Communists, characterized by descriptions of the writer's ideological and spiritual struggles. The major writers belonging to this trend of "Conversion literature" were Shimaki Kensaku, Takeda Rintaro, Takami Jun, Hayashi Fusao and Kamei Katsuichiro. Tenko literature often employed the form of the Shishosetsu.


Shunkinsho ("A Portrait of Shunkin") by Tanizaki Junichiro. 
A Portrait of Shunkin is set in Doshomachi, the pharmaceutical district of Osaka and tells about Shunkin, the daughter of a pharmaceutical dealer and her servant / pupil Sasuke. Despite its dramatic character, the story is told in a classical, distanced manner, and is written in an almost hypnotically beautiful prose style. By the way, this use of a classical style was not so much a "return to traditional Japan" by Tanizaki, as is often asserted, but rather a Modernistic stylistic device used to give an impression of authenticity to the story. The tale is told by an unnamed antiquarian who has obtained a copy of a biography of Shunkin who lived in the late Edo to early Meiji periods. This biography, which is rather a hagiography so that the narrator also warns against trusting it too much, is the main source of the story; the narrator either retells it (adding his own thoughts) or quotes it directly ("sho" in the Japanese title Shunkinsho is not a portrait, but a commentary on a text, and that is exactly what the narrator provides); to this he appends the personal remembrances of an old servant of Shunkin and Sasuke, obtained via an interview, as well as a brief account of a visit to their graves, sitting next to each other in a temple in Osaka. Shunkin's grave is larger, as Sasuke even after he became a great master on the shamisen himself, always treated her as his teacher. All these narratives are in a different register: the biography is in the classical style used in the 19th century, the servant speaks in Osaka dialect, etc., - subtleties which are difficult to bring out in translation.

Sasuke, who was four years older than Shunkin, became her special servant when she was eight (just after she had become blind due to an infection) and he was twelve. Musicians were often blind people in traditional Japan, and as Shunkin was already interested in music, she now became a dedicated player of the koto and the shamisen. It was Sasuke's task to take the blind girl everyday to her music lessons. Sasuke is very devoted to the meek and gentle-looking Shunkin and also develops an interest in music. He practices the shamisen secretly at night, sitting in a cupboard, and when that is discovered and he proves to have talent, it is decided that Shunkin will become his official teacher. Shunkin is a very strict and even cruel teacher for Sasuke, but he is totally devoted to her, even masochistically, in both his subservient roles. He follows her like a shadow and even ministers to her in the toilet ("she never has to wash her hands afterward"), something glossed over in the prudish English translation. When, after finishing her own studies, she sets up shop as an independent teacher, Sasuke accompanies her and starts living with her. That their relation secretly must encompass something more, becomes clear when the unmarried Shunkin has a baby, although both refuse to confess who is the father (the baby is immediately sent away for adoption). Shunkin is nor only very beautiful, she also has a vivid character, and therefore she is a popular guest at social gatherings. But then - in the year she is 36 and Sasuke 40 - a terrible accident happens: at night, someone - probably a thief who panicked, or a pupil with a grudge - throws scalding hot water in her face which as a result is disfigured by scars. Sasuke says he can't endure looking at her destroyed countenance and therefore blinds himself by pricking with a needle through the pupils of both his eyes. Now he shares the same world as his beloved Shunkin. He remains her dedicated servant and even continues calling himself her pupil, although he has by now become a master on the shamisen in his own right. Filmed in 1935 by Shimazu Yasujiro with Tanaka Kinuyo.
[Translated by Howard Hibbett in Seven Japanese Tales, Vintage]

"Kinju" ("Of Birds and Beasts") by Kawabata Yasunari is an exploration of Modernism. A man (a 40-year-old bachelor) with an aversion to human beings prefers the company of birds and pet animals (as Kawabata himself seems to have done in those years) and constantly tries to improve the breed of each. Although animals are also cruel to each other, the egocentricity of human beings is worse. Told in episodic fragments, with colorful descriptions of the various birds.
[Translated by Edward Seidensticker in House of the Sleeping Beauties, Kodansha International]

1934
The Muroto Typhoon makes more than 3,000 victims on Shikoku and Western Honshu - Washington Naval Treaty of 1922 abrogated by Japan. 

Ginga tetsudo no yoru ("Night of the Milky Way Railway") by Miyazawa Kenji was written and continuously revised in the 1920s, and posthumously published in 1934. A masterwork of children's literature (dowa), but also a complex work based on Miyazawa's Nichiren-Buddhist worldview larded with some Christian elements. The story of a young boy named Giovanni who, on the night of the Tanabata festival, miraculously speeds through the Milky Way on an intergalactic train, glimpsing the Christian heaven and other celestial places with his friend Campanella (whose jacket is curiously wet). They also meet shipwrecked passengers of the Titanic, as well as a bird catcher. Gradually, as the train makes stops, the other travelers on it disappear. Also Campanella vanishes (at a stop called "Heaven") before the train ride ends, leaving Giovanni alone. Then Giovanni suddenly wakes up to discover he has fallen asleep beneath the stars. As he makes his way back into town, he learns that Campanella drowned in a river that evening while attempting to save the life of a friend. The story thus traces Giovanni’s development into maturity as he begins to understand concepts of mortality and the afterlife. It is a speculative-fiction story that traces the author’s thoughts about Buddhism, Christianity, and science. A well-known anime adaptation was made in 1985 by Sugii Gisaburo.

Miyazawa also wrote many short tales. Some of the best are:
- "Chumon no oi ryoriten" ("The Restaurant of Many Orders," 1924). Two young hunters for sport are lost in the mountains and very hungry, when they happen see a "Restaurant Wildcat House," a "restaurant of many orders." There are various orders (to them!) written beside each door they have to go through - something which they interpret arrogantly to their advantage - until finally they realize after having been covered in cream, vinegar and salt, that they themselves are on the menu... A sarcastic revenge on people who lightly take the lives of other living beings.
- "Donguri to yamaneko" ("Wildcat and the Acorns"). Wildcat sends a postcard to Ichiro, a boy from a nearby village who loves nature, beckoning him to come to the mountains and help settle a dispute among the acorns.
- "Nametokoyama no kuma" ("The Bears of Mt. Nametoko," posthumous). Fuchizawa Kojiro hunts bears, not for pleasure, but because his land is too poor to grow useful crops, and he then sells their skin and liver in the village. He and his dog in fact love the bears and he prays for each bear he kills. So, when he himself falls victim to a large bear, the bears gather around his body and mourn for him. Miyazawa Kenji was a vegetarian and a Buddhist who opposed useless killing or hunting of animals.
- "Serohiki no Goshu" ("Gorsh the Cellist"). Gorsch, the cellist in the town orchestra, is a rather bad player and always scolded by the conductor. He lives and practices in an old millhouse, where late at night many animals come to visit him. In the course of his encounters with the music-loving animals, he discovers the true soul of music.
[Translated by Sarah M. Strong, Sharpe as Night of the Milky Way Railway (contains an interesting "Reader's Guide," "Background," etc.); by John Bester, Kodansha, as Night Train to the Stars; Studies: the Nichiren Buddhist conception is analyzed in Ticket to Salvation by Jon Holt in JJRS; Susan Napier sees it as a "ticket to progress, a Utopia" in The Fantastic in Modern Japanese Literature, p. 149; short tales translated by John Bester in Wildcat and the Acorns, Kodansha; republished by NYRB as Once and Forever]


Kenji Miyazawa  (1896–1933) was a poet and writer of children's stories from the northeastern town of Hanamaki, Iwate Prefecture. A Nichiren Buddhist (and member of a nationalistic lay organization), as a social reformer Miyazaki strove to improve the material and spiritual lives of the peasants around him. Miyazawa worked as a teacher at an agricultural school; later in life he traveled from village to village giving talks on agronomy. His best-known literary work is the novella Ginga tetsudo no yoru; many of his tanka and free verse poetry is still popular today. Almost totally unknown in his lifetime (in 1924 he self-published both a volume of his poetry and of his children's stories), Kenji's work posthumously gained a solid reputation, and even enjoyed a boom by the mid-1990s. Every Japanese today knows his poem "Ame ni mo makezu" (Be not Defeated by the Rain). A museum dedicated to his life and works was opened in 1982 in his hometown. 
[A website about Miyazawa Kenji is The World of Kenji Miyazawa]

1935 

The nationalistic Nihon Roman-ha (Japanese Romantic school) initiates publication of a journal of the same name. The group is joined by many writers including Dan Kazuo, Dazai Osamu and Hagiwara Sakutaro. Its aim is to extol the beauty of traditional Japanese culture. It also calls for a revival of the spirit of self-sacrifice. The young Mishima Yukio would later also be associated with this group.

The critic Kobayashi Hideo writes his famous essay on the Shishosetsu, Shishosetsuron (Discourse on the Fiction of the Self), suggesting a new way of individualism in the form of a "socialized self."

Akutagawa Prize (for the best newcomer in serious literature) and Naoki Prize (for the best work of popular literature) instituted by Kikuchi Kan, writer and then editor of the Bungei Shunju magazine. 

The Akutagawa Prize is awarded in January and July to the best serious literary story published in a newspaper or magazine by a new or rising author. The winner receives a pocket watch and a cash award of 1 million yen. Short stories and novellas win the prize more frequently than do full-length novels. Because of its prestige and the considerable attention the winner receives from the media, it is one of Japan's most sought after literary prizes. The first prize in 1935 was won by Ishikawa Tatsuzo.

The Naoki Prize is also awarded semi-annually, and recognizes "the best work of popular literature in any format." The winner receives a watch and one million yen.

Death of Tsubouchi Shoyo (1859-1935).
 


Yukiguni ("Snow Country," 1935-37, 1947) by Kawabata Yasunari.
This is another one of Kawabata's stories that finds beauty in ugliness. Geisha at spas in the countryside were very different from the sophisticated Geiko and Maiko in Kyoto's "flower towns" as the Gion. Country geisha were often uncouth farm girls who acted as common prostitutes. Shimamura is a well-to-do dilettante from Tokyo, a middle-aged married man and amateur scholar of Western ballet who has never seen a live performance (true, before the war Western classical music was relatively rare in Japan). One summer, he has spent a holiday walking alone in the mountains and by chance comes to the spa village (now the mansion-studded ski-town of Echigo-Yuzawa in Niigata). There he meets Komako, a young woman who helps out when the geisha entertain, but who at that time is not yet a geisha herself. Komako falls in love with Shimamura, probably because he is an educated gentlemen from the big city, very different from the usual visitors to the spa - perhaps she hopes he will take her away. Shimamura is attracted by Komako's "purity" or "cleanliness." He returns that winter. Komako spends much time in his room, and he is captivated, but seems incapable of loving her. In the train to the "Snow Country," Shimamura has seen another woman from the spa town, Yoko and her fiance Yukio, a dying man. Shimamura is in fact more attracted to the otherworldly Yoko, whose eye he saw mirrored on the nightscape in the window of the train. She is strangely beautiful and unreal, very different from the vivacious and sensual Komako. Shimamura's last visit takes place a year and a half later in autumn, and now everything is different: Komako has become an official geisha, and he feels less and less close to her as she now is a professional woman (something he gives away by a slip of the tongue). At the end of the novel, there is a fire and Yoko leaps from the second story of the burning building, into the arms of Komako; although left ambiguous, we can only assume that Yoko dies in this scene. She served as a sort of double of Komako, her light side. The novel ends with an image of the Milky Way, which in the Japanese context refers to the Tanabata festival and the myth of the two star lovers who could only meet once a year. Shimamura and Komako (with Yoko as her alter ego) were like these mythical lovers and now their story is finished. Filmed in 1957 by Toyoda Shiro (with Ikebe Ryu and Kishi Keiko) and in 1969 by Oba Hideo (with Iwashita Shima).
[Translated by Edward G. Seidensticker, Vintage]

Irozange ("Confessions of Love") by Uno Chiyo is a Modernist (anti-Naturalist) send-up of the confessional Shishosetsu. The story is told in a serio-comic tone, full of irony, from the point-of-view of the male protagonist. William Tyler (Modanizumu, p. 11-12) calls it a "modernist farce that mocks not only male privilege and passivity, but also the supposedly modern girls who are all too eager to indulge the whims of their 'Joji boy' (the protagonist)." Uno Chiyo parodies the conventions of romantic love and courtship and even includes a traditional lover's double suicide that goes comically awry. Interestingly, the model for the protagonist, who suffers a string of failed romances, was the Modernist painter Togo Seiji. Uno Chiyo eventually married the subject of her novel.
[Translated by Phyllis Birnbaum, Tuttle]



Uno Chiyo (1897-1996) is Japan's first "infamous" woman writer, a "modern girl" with bobbed hair like a flapper. She was part of the Bohemian world of Tokyo and had liaisons with other writers, poets and painters. She edited a magazine that focused on foreign fashion, but later also became famous as a kimono designer. Besides Irozange, one of her most successful novels was Ohan, which received the Noma Literary Award in 1957. Her autobiography Ikiteiku Watashi ("I Keep on Living") published when she was 86, in which she frankly stated that the essence of her life was to have not followed anyone else's rules and to have done as she pleased, became a best seller.
[Study: The Sound of the Wind by Rebecca Copeland, Tuttle]

Dogura Magura ("Dogra Magra") by Yumeno Kyusaku is a mazelike and nightmarish mystery story set in a hospital in Kyushu. The protagonist, a victim of amnesia incarcerated in a mental hospital, futilely attempts to discover his identity from doctors who are intent on misleading him. He is for example told that a - now deceased - professor at the hospital has used him as a guinea pig for a new medical treatment, and that he has murdered seven people, including his mother and fiancee. In an attempt to ascertain the truth, the patient acquires various materials, including Dogra Magra, a book allegedly written by a man suffering from mental illness. William Tyler (Modanizumu, p. 304) calls it "a work of metafiction in which the novel continually comments on itself and argues for the nonessentialist nature of the self." "A novel in the style of a thriller, extremely grotesque and from start to finish nonsense," are some of the terms in which Yumeno himself advertised it. Filmed in 1988 by Matsumoto Toshio.


Yumeno Kyusaku (Sugiyama Yasumichi; 1889–1936) was the son of a nationalist politician from the Meiji period and also himself very conservative - in contrast to most other Modernist writers. After Yumeno dropped out of Keio University, he worked at many occupations before becoming a novelist. He is known for his wildly imaginative and fantastic detective novels. 

Miyamoto Musashi ("Musashi," 1935-39) by Yoshikawa Eiji is a novel about Japan's greatest legendary swordsman, who, while learning the Way of the Sword, also has to learn to conquer his unruly self. The novel follows the exploits of Miyamoto Musashi, beginning just after the battle of Sekigahara in 1600, and leading up to his climactic duel with Sasaki Kojiro on Ganryujima. Musashi becomes famous during the course of the novel as he searches for both perfection in swordsmanship and in consciousness. Innovating Japanese swordsmanship, he invents the style of simultaneously wielding both the katana and the wakizashi. It is of course no coincidence that this popular novel about a fighter who perfects his Self was written when Japan was gearing up for war. Filmed in the 1950s by Inagaki Hiroshi with Mifune Toshiro as Musashi (3 films) and in the 1960s by Uchida Tomu with Nakamura Kinnosuke (5 films).
[Translated by Charles S. Terry, Kodansha International (abridged version)]


Novelist Yoshikawa Eiji (1892-1962) was a self-made popular author. He wrote 70 voluminous novels, mostly about historical subjects, of which three have been (partly) translated into English: The Heike Story, Musashi, and TaikoYoshikawa Eiji was born into an ex-samurai family in Kanagawa and spent his youth in Yokohama. Although he worked for a short while for a newspaper, in the early twenties Yoshikawa decided to become a full-time writer. Yoshikawa's break-through novel was Miyamoto Musashi (1935-39). Yoshikawa's novels embody basic conservative moral values. He was enormously popular in the years after WWII and in 1960 he became the first writer of popular fiction to receive the Order of Culture. Even today, his major works are readily available in Japan. Yoshikawa Eiji lived in the beautiful pastoral countryside of Ome for the last eight years of his life, and his house and study have been preserved exactly as they were during his lifetime as the Yoshikawa Eiji House & Museum (now permanently closed). Yoshikawa Eiji can be credited with having established Taishu Bungaku as the basic reading matter of most Japanese.

1936
February 26th Incident in Tokyo: 1,400 troops participate in an unsuccessful coup d'etat.

Neko to Shozo to Futari no Onna ("A Cat, a Man and Two Women") by Tanizaki Junichiro is a charming, comic novella with a female tortoiseshell cat called Lilly as the absolute star. The male protagonist, Shozo, is a weak-willed man who is utterly in love with his cat Lilly - he loves her more than any of the two women who figure in his life, his young new wife Fukuko and his divorced ex-wife Shinako who has been chased away by Shozo's scheming mother. When Shinako takes the cat off her hands, Fukuko is initially pleased but soon starts worrying: isn't this a scheme by Shinako to attract Shozo back to her? This is a humorous story which also provides an interesting glance at life in the Osaka-Kobe area in the 1930s (the story is situated in Ashiya), something which Tanizaki would do on a much grander scale in his masterwork, The Makioka Sisters (Sasameyuki).
[Translated by Paul McCarthy, New Directions]

Kaze Tachinu ("The Wind Has Risen," 1936-38) by Hori Tatsuo. Set in a tuberculosis sanitarium in Nagano Prefecture, where the narrator takes care of his fiancée, and then wife, Setsuko, who has been diagnosed with the disease, staying with her until her death. The narrator meditates about life and death as he sees his beloved's condition deteriorating. "Just like the wind rises" (the title is based on a poem by Paul Valéry, "Le vent se lève, il faut tenter de vivre"), he discovers he can still keep living after her death through the strong bond of their love. Setsuko was modeled after Hori's wife, who died of tuberculosis barely a year after their wedding. Filmed several times, in 2013 also as an anime adaptation by Miyazaki Hayao.
[Translated by Francis B. Tenny in Columbia Anthology I]


The poet and novelist Hori Tatsuo (1904-1953) studied at Tokyo University. He was interested in French literature and regarded himself as a disciple of Akutagawa. He is known for his high aesthetic consciousness and his pursuit of the introspective, the refined and the delicate in literature. His major novellas are the autobiographic Utsukushii mura (The Beautiful Village, 1933) and Kaze tachinu (The Wind Rises). Also influenced by Heian court diaries, later in life he would write poetic evocations of the Japanese landscape in the environs of Nara and Kyoto.

Fugen ("The Bodhisattva," or "Samantabhadra") by Ishikawa Jun wins the 4th Akutagawa prize in 1936. Modernist story with a metafictional approach. Ishikawa satirizes and rejects the "I-novel" and strives to create a novel of the kind that Gide envisioned in Les Faux-monnayeurs. An impoverished novelist, beset by the daily realities of making a living in Tokyo, dreams of a secular "Pure Land" on earth. In an interesting cultural mix-up, he also longs for a modern incarnation of Joan of Arc - and finds her in Yukari, a young woman who is involved in the political underground and whom he attempts to save from the hands of the police. The novel implicitly critiques its times, and finishes with the conclusion that no "bodhisattva" will save Japan in its hour of peril.
[tr. William J. Tyler]


Novelist, critic and translator Ishikawa Jun (1899-1987) was born in Tokyo where he studied French literature. He became known as an expert on and translator of Andre Gide. He won the Akutagawa Prize in 1936 with the novella Fugen ("The Bodhisattva"). His most representative works are the pieces he wrote immediately after the war, such as Ogon no densetsu ("The Legend of Gold") and Yakeato no Iesu ("The Jesus of the Ruins"). Ishikawa's most experimental works were written in the 1950s, such as the highly fantastical Taka ("The Hawk," 1953). Ishikawa was one of Japan's most important Modernist writers, who also paved the way for Abe Kobo and Oe Kenzaburo. Ishikawa was an anti-establishment writer whose iconoclasm goes hand in hand with the Modernism of his literary experimentation.

Kaijin Nijumenso ("The Fiend with Twenty Faces," 1936) by Edogawa Ranpo. Due to the wars waged by Japan in the second half of the 1930s, both classical and Ero-Guro mysteries were increasingly frowned upon by society, so Edogawa Ranpo moved to mystery and adventure stories for boys, starting with The Fiend with Twenty Faces in 1936. Akechi Kogoro figures as detective in the story and he is helped by a twelve year old boy called Kobayashi (as well as "the Boy Detectives Club") in his fight against an Arsene Lupin-like master-thief, called "The Fiend with the Twenty Faces." Ranpo wrote 34 installments in this long-running and popular series (the last one dates from 1962), often recycling and infantilizing previous work. It at least has the merit that it made a whole generation of Japanese enthusiastic for the detective genre, which helped foster the postwar boom of the genre. The "Fiend with Twenty Faces" became a proverbial celebrity, and also Akechi Kogoro probably has at least part of his great fame to thank to this series of adolescent novels.
[Translated by Dan Luffey for Kurodahan Press].

1937
Marco Polo Bridge Incident marks the beginning of the Sino-Japanese War (1937-45). Nanking Massacre. 

After the outbreak of the Sino-Japanese War (1937-45), the influence of ultra-nationalism grows and an increasingly broad range of literature is suppressed.


Bokuto Kidan ("A Strange Tale from East of the River") by Nagai Kafu. 
Kafu was one of the best Japanese authors of the 20th century, also someone who was fully aware of major trends in Western literature, which he read in the original French or English. The literary interest of A Strange Tale from East of the River - in my view his best work - lies in the original mode of narration -  the setting is that of an author who is writing a novel for which he is collecting materials. Like Kafu, he enjoys wandering through Tokyo, and that is why he visits the Tamanoi, a raw, low-life prostitution area east of the river Sumida. Kafu gives parts of the novel the narrator of his story is writing, interspersed with the adventure of the narrator, and several general observations, poems, etc. (The haiku in the story are a reminder that Kafu was also a good haiku poet!). This is true metafiction. As William Tyler says in Modanizumu, Modernist Fiction from Japan (1913-1938), Kafu fuses elements of classical lyricism, the 'novel within the novel' of Edo-prose, and the modernistic 'novel as commentary on the novel.' A Strange Tale from East of the River is not only a well-crafted novella, it also has an unforgettable atmosphere: the long walk of the narrator through Asakusa where he visits a second-hand bookshop, the interrogation at a police post (these were the years leading into the war, and the authorities were not easy on the population), the view of Tamanoi with its dilapidated houses seen from the railway dyke, then the sudden rain and the meeting with the prostitute Oyuki who deftly entices him to her room by borrowing his umbrella. That summer, he keeps visiting her mosquito infested room in the evening, never disclosing his true identity as a writer - and she also keeps silent about her background and past. She appeals to the narrator because she wears a kimono and old-fashioned hairdo, reminding him of a woman of the Meiji-period. But when autumn starts, he decides it has been enough and stops his visits. The summer evenings spent with Oyuki have become an unforgettable experience for the narrator, and Oyuki has unwittingly served as his muse. Filmed in 1992 by Shindo Kaneto.
[Translation: Kafu the Scribbler: The Life and Writings of Nagai Kafu 1879-1959, by Edward Seidensticker (Stanford U.P., 1965). Reprint of the story by Tuttle Books.]

Stories by Okamoto Kaneko.
Kingyo Ryoran ("A Riot of Goldfish," 1937). Mataichi has spent almost 20 years to breed a rare species of goldfish, which should exceed the beauty of Masako, a young woman living in a house on a cliff above his goldfish ponds - he admires her from a distance. Success does not come easy, but one passion fuels the other. Finally, he finds a wonderful type of goldfish in an old pond into which he has thrown defective specimens.
[Translated by J. Keith Vincent (Hesperus Press)]

- "Rogisho" ("Portrait of an Old Geisha," 1938). Kosono, an elderly geisha, supports a young mechanic who dreams of becoming an inventor. But when the plans come to nothing, he feels trapped by her. She, however, doesn't release him and in fact seems to be siphoning off his young life force.
[Translated by Cody Poulton in the Oxford Book of Japanese Short Stories]


Okamoto Kanoko (real name Onuki Kano; 1889-1939) was a tanka poet and novelist active in the years before WWII. She was born in Tokyo's Aoyama into the wealthy and distinguished Onuki family. From a young age she was carefully tutored in the Japanese classics, music, dance and calligraphy. At 16 she started publishing her tanka poetry in the style of Yosano Akiko. In 1910 she married the cartoonist Okamoto Ippei. Their first child was born a year later, and went on to become the famous avant-garde artist Okamoto Taro. Okamoto Kanoko's first story, "Tsuru wa yamiki" ("The Crane Falls Sick") was published in 1936 in Bungakkai with the support of Kawabata Yasunari, who was a constant admirer of her work. It is a biographical sketch about the last years of the famous author Akutagawa Ryunosuke, who had committed suicide in 1927. Okamoto now received so many invitations to write from magazines that she worked at a furious pace - she wrote all her fiction, more than 30 short stories and novellas, in only three years time, from 1936 to 1939. In that year she died of a stroke, at the age of just forty-nine. (Detailed disccussion)

1938
Prime Minster Konoe declares a policy of nonrecognition of Nationalist China and calls for the "establishment of a new order in East Asia." Passage of the National Mobilization Law. 

Ikite iru heitai ("Living Soldiers"), a novella by Ishikawa Tatsuzo dealing with the taking of Nanjing by Japanese forces, is banned.  

"Marusu no uta" ("Mars' Song") by Ichikawa Jun is the best piece of anti-war fiction written during Japan's march to war with China and in the Pacific. 
Through the story of a writer who cannot write because  of the constant dinning of military songs, Ishikawa denounces the chorus of jingoism that swept Japan (denouncing them as "Mars' Song," the song of the War God) and warns, via a metafictional tale within a tale, against the assured suicidal destruction to which this warmongering will lead. Though no actual "Mars' Song" existed, similar patriotic songs were everywhere in 1938. When the narrator flees into a cinema to get away from the militaristic songs, he is treated to news fragments of the war on the Chinese continent. A warning for all time and all people. "Mars' Song" was banned by the censors, and Ishikawa and his publisher were taken to court and heavily fined. Ishikawa wrote nothing of political import until the end of the Pacific War in 1945. This abstinence, of course, was also a form of political action.
[Translated by William J. Tyler in The Legend of Gold and Other Stories, Hawaii U.P.]

Sazanami Gunki ("Waves: A War Diary," 1938) and Jon Manjiro Hyoroki ("John Manjiro, A Castaway's Chronicle," 1937) by Ibuse Masuji.
Between 1930 and 1961 Ibuse wrote twenty-four historical works. Ibuse's heroes are not famous historical persons, but ordinary people, "in whose hands rests the future of the world," according to Ibuse. Waves describes the misfortunes of the Heike clan after their expulsion from the capital by Minamoto Yoshinaka in 1183. John Manjiro is the entertaining and true story of a young Japanese fisherman who is shipwrecked and saved by an American whaling vessel; he is educated in the U.S. and after his return to Japan, becomes an interpreter for the first Japanese delegation to visit San Francisco.
[The first novella has been translated by David Aylward and Anthony Liman in Waves, Two Short Novels, Kodansha International; the second one by the same translators in Castaways, Two Short Novels, idem]

1939
Nomonhan Incident: heavy fighting between Japanese and Soviet troops along the Manchurian-Mongolian border ends in a rout of Japanese forces (this incident plays a role in Murakami Haruki's Wind-up Bird Chronicle of 1994). 

Death of Okamoto Kido (1872-1939). Death of Izumi Kyoka (1873-1939). Death of Okamoto Kaneko (1889-1939).

Shisha no sho ("The Book of the Dead") by Orikuchi Shinobu was the only novel by this famous folklorist. It is a unique attempt to conjure up the mental world of ancient Japan, something he also tried to do in his academic studies. Based on the legend of the Taima Mandala from Taimadera at the foot of Mt. Nijo in Nara, Chujohime who spends her life as a devout Buddhist copying sutras, sees the image of a man floating above Mt Nijo. It is Prince Otsu (the son of Emperor Tenmu), who has become a restless ghost kept on earth by the memory of a young woman with whose gaze he connected just prior to his death. A wonderful work of fantastic fiction. Impressively filmed as a stop motion animation feature film by Kawamoto Kihachiro.
[Translated by Jeffrey Angles, University of Minnesota Press]


Orikuchi Shinobu (1887-1953) was, together with his mentor Yanagida Kunio, one of the most prestigious modern scholars of Japanese folklore and early culture. He was also known as a poet and translator into modern Japanese of the Manyoshu. Born in Osaka, he studied at Kokugakuin University in Tokyo and later became a professor there and at Keio University. His most original contribution to scholarship was his folkloric approach to the study of Japanese literature. He also advocated the study of ancient history to discover the basic traits of the Japanese psyche. 

Stories by by Dazai Osamu, arguably Japan's best Shishosetsu writer. 
- "Fugaku Hyakkei" ("A Hundred Views of Mt Fuji," 1939). The title is of course borrowed from the famous collection of ukiyoe prints by Hokusai. In mid-September of 1939, Dazai Osamu traveled, with his mentor Ibuse Masuji, to Misaka Pass in Yamanashi Prefecture, a secluded spot in the mountains with one of the most spectacular views of Mt Fuji to be had anywhere. One of the best loved stories of Dazai, in Shishosetsu style.

- Joseito ("Schoolgirl," 1939). One day in the life of a teenage school girl. An uninterrupted stream-of-consciousness monologue by a high school student who has lost her father and lives alone with her mother. Based on an actual diary sent to Daizai for his use by Ariake Shizu, who at that time was 19 years old. Dazai rewrote the diary into a continuous short story. Has been called the Japanese "Catcher in the Rye."

"Tokyo Hakkei" ("Eight Scenes from Tokyo," 1940). Although also named after an ukiyo-e series, this story is written in a more gloomy vein than Fugaku Hyakkei. Dazai retires with a map of Tokyo to an inn in Izu, and then writes down the memories of his life for ten years in Tokyo. Not something to bring you in a cheerful mood.

- "Hashire, Merosu" ("Run, Melos," 1940). A story about "trust," a perennial in school books in Japan, and an example of how Dazai used existing works (here a Greek legend and a poem by Schiller), giving them an ironic twist.

- "Omoide" ("Memories," 1933). Dazai's seminal work, the beginning of his career as a writer. Written in Shishosetsu style. Typical of Dazai is that, through repeatedly emphasizing his worthlessness, he still desperately clings to a glimmer of self-worth (as in his last novel, No Longer Human). "I wanted to set down, without the least ornamentation, all the evil I had done since childhood." Together with other autobiographical stories which he together called Bannen ("Final Years"), it was meant as a literary suicide note, and in 1935 he tried to hang himself in the mountains of Kamakura (happily, he failed).
[Fugaku Hyakkei and Tokyo Hakkei translated by Ralph F. McCarthy in Osamu Dazai, Self-Portraits, Kodansha International; Joseito and Hashire, Merosu translated by Ralph F. McCarthy in Run, Melos, Kodansha and Joseito also by Allison Markin Powell, One Peace Books; Omoide translated by James O'Brien in Crackling Mountain and Other Stories, Tuttle]


Dazai Osamu (real name Tsushima Shuji; 1909-1948) was born in Aomori Prefecture as the son of a wealthy landowning family. At Hirosaki High School Dazai developed a strong taste for literature, started drifting towards a bohemian lifestyle, and even fell in love with a young geisha whom he was later to marry (reason for his being disowned by his family). Dazai also came under the influence of left wing activists, which lasted until 1932 when he "recanted." In 1930 he started studying French at Tokyo University, but dropped out five years later. Around this time Ibuse Masuji, a writer he greatly admired, became his mentor. In 1935, after a severe case of peritonitis, Dazai became addicted to painkillers and had to be admitted to an asylum for treatment. The same year, he was refused the Akutagawa Prize because one of the judges, Kawabata, opposed his wild private lifestyle. In 1936 his first collection of stories came out, called Bannen ("Final Years") because he had written the stories as his testament and intended to die. In 1937, he divorced his geisha as she had been unfaithful. In 1939 things took a turn for the better when Ibuse found a proper bride for him, Ishihara Michiko, a secondary school teacher. They would have three children, the second daughter became the writer Tsushima Yuko. His marriage started a happier and more quiet period for Dazai, which lasted until the end of the war. All stories by Daizai were autobiographical in the Shishosetsu style, but in the war years because of censorship Dazai mainly wrote adaptations of Japanese folklore and other existing tales. After the war followed his best novels, Shayo ("The Setting Sun") and Ningen Shikkaku ("No Longer Human"). In 1947 Dazai's life became again turbulent. He had an affair and finally succeeded in what was to become his fifth attempt at suicide since 1929, a double suicide with a woman who had lost her husband during the war. The title of his last, unfinished novel was typically "Goodbye." Daizai often wrote in a mordant, sarcastic style but had a way with words. Sometimes it looks as if he is ironical, but ironical people don't commit suicide - in Dazai's case, this so-called irony must have been sheer despair. After his death, a cult following among young Japanese developed and his books remain part of the canon. 
[Study: Dazai Osamu by James A. O'Brien, Twayne]

Tanizaki Junichiro makes his first translation into modern Japanese of the classical Genji Monogatari (1937-39). Even this classical work was censored by the authorities: all passages referring to Genji's illicit love for his mother-in-law, the Empress, and his fathering of a child by her, had to be removed as this broke the "sacred" succession of the imperial line. Therefore, Tanizaki made a new and full translation in 1951-54 (and a third one, in the new kana orthography, in 1964-65). Tanizaki's translation is still the best (and most reliable) of all Genji versions in modern Japanese.

1940
Throughout the entire year: celebration of the year 2600 in the Japanese imperial calendar. 
Tripartite Pact signed by Japan, Germany and Italy. 
Japanese invasion of French Indochina.

Meoto Zenzai ("Hurray for Marriage!") by Oda Sakunosuke. 
Ryukichi, the pampered son of a well-to-do family, abandons wife and child to run off with a geisha named Choko. Disinherited by his father, he relies on Choko for his support, while making halfhearted attempts to engage in one type of business or another. As Burton Watson remarks in his introduction to the translation of Oda's stories: "This pattern of the hard-working, all-forgiving woman and the spoiled ineffectual man is a long-standing one in Osaka literature" (for example Chikamatsu). The story is also characterized by meticulous attention to food and money, traditionally alleged to be two overriding concerns of Osaka dwellers.
[Translated by Burton Watson in Stories of Osaka Life, Weatherhill]



The novelist Oda Sakunosuke (1913-1947) was born in Osaka and educated at Kyoto University. With Dazai Osamu and Sakaguchi Ango he is counted as one of the writers of the "Decadent school" (Buraiha, see my next post). In some fifty short stories, essays and plays, he depicted the lives of ordinary citizens of Osaka. In later stories as "Seso" ("The State of the Times," 1946), Oda describes the first months of the occupation period following Japan's surrender at the end of World War II, which were marked by food shortages so severe that government rations were not enough to sustain life and people turned to the black market to procure the food they needed for their survival.

1941
Japan attacks Pearl Harbor.

The Noma Literary Prize (Noma Bungei Sho) is established in accordance with the last wishes of Noma Seiji (1878-1938), founder and first president of the Kodansha publishing company. The Noma Literary Prize has been awarded annually to an outstanding new work published in Japan between October and the following September. It includes a commemorative plaque and a cash award of 3 million yen. Important winners over the years have been Kawabata Yasunari (The Sound of the Mountain), Enchi Fumiko (The Waiting Years), Yasuoka Shotaro (A View by the Sea), Ibuse Masuji (Black Rain), Inoue Yasuji (Confucius) and Murakami Ryu (From the Fatherland, With Love).

1942
Japanese forces occupy the Philippines, Malaysia, Singapore, the Dutch East Indies and Burma. Japanese naval fleet defeated in the Battle of Midway. 

The Nihon Bungaku Hokokukai (Patriotic Association for Japanese Literature) is established to mobilize writers in support of the war effort. Writers are used as reporters and serve as information officers for the army and navy. Modernism is decidedly frowned upon.

"Sangetsuki" ("The Moon over the Mountain") by Nakajima Atsushi.
Nakajima's chief literary bequest to the world consisted of a handful of stories set in ancient China. Although written during the war, this is not "war literature" (although it was certainly a "safe subject" for a writer during the war years). Nakajima followed in the footsteps of Akutagawa and Tanizaki in writing about Chinese historical figures, Chinese folktales and legends (a tradition that would be continued after the war by, for example, Inoue Yasushi). He is admired for having given life to traditional materials dear to both the Japanese and the Chinese. The characters in Nakajima's stories are always searching for the meaning of their own lives; Nakajima has been called a precursor of the Existentialist world-view that became common after the war. "The Moon over the Mountain," his most popular story that is also incorporated into high school textbooks, is the story of a Chinese bureaucrat who aspires to become a great poet - instead, he turns into a tiger. The story is a meditation on human consciousness and also a warning for the "beast inside." Other interesting stories are "Deshi" (The Disciple) about Confucius and his disciple Zilu, and "Ri Ryo" (Li Ling) about the tragic death of the Grand Historian, Sima Qian.
[Translated by Paul McCarthy and Nobuko Ochner, Autumn Hill Books]


Nakajima Atsushi (1909-1942) was born into a family with traditions of scholarship, especially in Sinology. He studied at Tokyo University and then settled down to the life of a high school teacher. He visited China in 1936. His first novel, published in 1941, was an account of the life of Robert Louis Stevenson. In 1941, he took employment with the Japanese South Seas Government at Palau (Japan governed these islands under a mandate from the League of Nations), where he wrote a dozen historical short stories set in China. He suffered from asthma, and after his return to Japan in 1942 died of pneumonia at the age of 33. His Chinese stories are part of the canon and still popular.

1943
Japanese forces withdraw from Guadalcanal. Death of Admiral Yamamoto Isoroku.   
Tottori Earthquake with more than 1,000 victims.

Death of Tokuda Shusei (1870-1943). Death of Shimazaki Toson (1872-1943). 

As WWII intensified, an increasing number of works was banned. Literature was made an instrument of the state as popular authors were drafted to write laudatory reports from the front (this was also a type of fiction).

First installment of Sasameyuki ("The Makioka Sisters," 1943-1948; lit. "thin snow") by Tanizaki Junichiro, which was banned by the Japanese authorities. 
By focusing on a story of four women from an old Osaka merchant family (now past its financial prime) and their peaceful, feminine daily doings (how to select a kimono or obi, matters of hairdo and make-up, how to handle a miai meeting for a proposed arranged marriage), Tanizaki has delivered his own anti-war statement. There are almost no men in this novel. In fact, at the time of writing, Tanizaki was living with his third wife, Matsuko, and her sisters and daughter in a house called Ishoan in Kobe, so he himself was also steeped in a very feminine environment and much of the action in the novel is based on events in the lives of Tanizaki and his family in the late 1930s. I am not talking about the larger plot - the work was not autobiographical but purely a work of fiction - but about the small, seemingly inconsequential details of daily existence that together give life to the novel. Countless small facts from life at Ishoan and realistic details about Kobe / Ashiya found their way into Tanizaki's notebooks and subsequently into the novel. But as said above, at the same time the novel is a carefully structured work of fiction and not a record of Tanizaki's world from 1936 to 1941. Although there are several plot-lines in The Makioka Sisters, such as the attempts to marry off the reticent third sister Yukiko, and the affairs of the fourth sister, Taeko (who conforms to the archetypal femme fatale in Tanizaki's works), the book's charm comes from the descriptions of daily life such as a family outing to view cherry blossoms. Interesting is also the detailed knowledge about the custom of miai, arranged marriages. The book was finally completed after the war and published in 1948. The novel was an instant popular success, not only because of its qualities as a masterwork, but perhaps in the first place because the evocation of the life of an upper middle class family in the 1930s struck sentimental chords - a way of life that had been solidly wiped away by the war. The novel was filmed in 1950 by Abe Yutaka, and, more notably, in 1983 by Ichikawa Kon - although this last version sometimes looks like a cherry blossom and kimono show.
[Translated by Edward Seidensticker, Vintage]

1944
Saipan falls. Large-scale U.S. bombing raids on the Japanese main islands begin. Japanese naval fleet defeated in the Battle of Leyte Gulf. 

Death of Nakazato Kaizan (1885-1944) .

Tsugaru ("Return to Tsugaru") by Dazai Osamu. 
The author was born on the Tsugaru peninsula in Aomori Prefecture, Northern Japan, one of the poorest and remotest areas of Japan, known for its folklore and Tsugaru shamisen music. Dazai's family's house in Goshogawara, "Shayokan," is now a museum. During the war years, a publisher was bringing out a series on various regions in the country and asked Dazai to contribute a volume on Tsugaru. Dazai therefore travels to Tsugaru to get inspiration and the result is not a travelogue (the author is totally unconcerned with scenery or history), but rather a book on meetings with figures from his childhood. In Japan (including by Dazai himself) Tsugaru is regarded as a Shishosetsu rather than as non-fiction, on a par with Dazai's other work.
[Translated by James Westerhoven, Kodansha International]

1945
1945 was the last year of WWII and the first year of the Allied Occupation.  

March 10, huge aerial bombardment of Tokyo, followed by bombings of Osaka, Nagoya and scores of other major cities. The Japanese battleship Yamato is sunk. Iwojima falls. Okinawa falls. Atomic Bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. 

Japan accepts the terms of the Postdam Declaration and Emperor Hirohito announces the end of hostilities in a national broadcast. Douglas McArthur, supreme commander for the Allied powers (SCAP) arrives in Tokyo to oversee the Occupation of Japan (1945-1952). Instrument of Surrender signed aboard the U.S.S. Missouri. 

SCAP orders the arrest of suspected Japanese war criminals and issues directives aimed at the democratization of Japan. This includes the release of political prisoners and the breakup of the industrial and financial combines (zaibatsu). Revival of the socialist and communist parties; Labor Union Law issued. New election law promulgated; women given the vote.

[Reference works used: Dawn to the West by Donald Keene (New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1984); Modern Japanese Novelists, A Biographical Dictionary by John Lewell (New York, Tokyo and London: Kodansha International, 1993); Narrating the Self, Fictions of Japanese Modernity by Tomi Suzuki (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1996); Oe and Beyond, Fiction in Contemporary Japan, ed. by Stephen Snyder and Philip Gabriel (Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, 1999); Origins of Modern Japanese Literature by Karatani Kojin (Durham and London: Duke University Press, 1993); The Columbia Anthology of Modern Japanese Literature, 2 vols, ed. by J. Thomas Rimer and Van C. Gessel (New York: Columbia University Press, 2005 and 2007); The Fantastic in Modern Japanese Literature by Susan J. Napier (London and New York: Routledge, 1996); Writers & Society in Modern Japan by Irena Powell (New York, Tokyo and London: Kodansha International, 1983).]