Not My Favorites: Junichiro Tanizaki’s Quicksand and Catherine Lacey’s The Answers

I do read a lot of good books.

But some are not that good.

I recently read two novels that are neither very good nor very bad.

I loved Junichiro Tanizaki’s brilliant novel,  Some Prefer Nettles, translated by Edward G. Seidensticker, who is my favorite translator of The Tale of Genji.

And this week I read Tanizaki’s Quicksand, translated by Howard Hibbert.

It did not quite measure up.

I admired this macabre comedy, with its elements of noir. But Hibbert’s translation is labored, and I missed Seidensticker’s elegant exuberance.  A reviewer in The New York Times in 1994 said Quicksand is notoriously difficult to translate, and it wasn’t Hibbert’s fault.

Well, it can either be translated or it cannot.

But the plot is fascinating.

The narrator, Mrs. Sonoko Kakiuchi, is a bored housewife who does not love her husband. She takes classes at art school, where she falls in love with gorgeous, seductive Mitsuko. The two women have an affair, and enjoy deceiving Sonoko’s husband and Mitsuko’s parents. When Sonoko learns that Mitsuko is also having an affair with a ravishing, impotent young man named Watunuki, it doesn’t affect the women’s relationship. Yet Mitsuko is a mad femme fatale–rather like Zuleika Dobson in Max Beerbohm’s satirical novel.

Still, Sonoko is a schemer in her own right.  Her apology to the author for intruding on him and telling him her story is the frame for the novel.  She is a fan, but perhaps an aspiring writer, too, the unreliable narrator of unreliable narrators.

The novel opens:

Do forgive me for bothering you again, but I simply had to see you today–I want you to hear my side of the story, from beginning to end. Are you sure you don’t mind?  I know how busy you are with your own writing, , and if I go into every detail it will take me forever!  Really, I only wish I could put it all down on paper, like one of your novels, and ask you to read it… The truth is, the other day I tried to start writing, but what happened is so complicated I didn’t know where to begin.

A fascinating story, and her versions of the other character’s versions (we’re in a mirror) are equally riveting.

Catherine Lacey’s The Answers is stunning. That is, for the first 89 pages.

Dwight Garner raved about it in The New York Times.  Why did I forget that I rarely agree with him?

I have read several novels in recent years about passive, tractable young women.  It is a disturbing trend:  I find myself longing for George Eliot, Elizabeth Taylor, and Doris Lessing.  Lacey’s prose is lyrical and detached, as if her heroines are dissociating.  This was also true in her first novel, Nobody Is Ever Missing.

I do love her style, but she cannot plot.  The opening, however, is spellbinding. It is narrated by Mary Parsons, an emotionally numb young woman raised off the grid in Tennessee.  Rescued by her Aunt Clara, who adopts her in her teens, she learns to imitate normalcy.  She cannot understand social culture .  In New York, Mary works for a pittance for a travel agency, and descends into a chronic pain which doctors cannot understand.  Eventually, her friend Chondra recommenda a New Age healer. But the treatment costs a fortune, so Mary takes a second job.

As for the second job?  Here is where Lacey loses me.

Catherine Lacey

An insane actor, Kurt Sky, who claims he hates celebrity and has spent years ineptly editing a film, hires a team of researchers to formulate a “Girlfriend Experiment.”  They hire a crew of false girlfriends to help him work through different emotions.  Ironically, Mary, who cannot relate to people, is hired as the Emotional Girlfriend.  Others are the Maternal Girlfriend, Anger Girlfriend, Intellectual Girlfriend, and Mundanity Girlfriend.  They do not have sex with Kurt, but memorize bizarre scripts.

In Part 2, Lacey begins to write about Mary in the third person, which I suppose is meant to show her dissociation.  But when she switches to Kurt’s point of view, and then to that of  Ashley, a boxer and a waitress, I am far less interested.

Well, there is some good writing, but I cannot pretend it is the best book about wispy, passive young women I have read in recent years. That would be Emma Cline’s lyrical novel, The Girls.

A Lady and Her Husband by Amber Reeves

I am a fan of middlebrow women’s literature.

And Amber Reeves’s  superb novel, A Lady and Her Husband (Persephone), first published in 1914, exactly suits my taste.  This neglected novel is graceful and entertaining, yet it has long been out-of-print.

Amber Reeves is best remembered now as one of H. G. Wells’ mistresses.  In fact,  I first read about her in Margaret Drabble’s introduction to Wells’ brilliant novel, Ann Veronica.  Reeves was the model for Ann Veroinca, a 21-year-old Cinderella suffragette who leaves home on principle after her father forbids her to go to a ball.  And she continues to pursue the unfeminine study of sciences, also denounced by her father.

But Reeves was a writer in her own right:  she was a Fabian socialist, a feminist, and a brilliant graduate of Cambridge.  In the Wellsian tradition, Reeves’s A Lady and Her Husband is laced with radical politics, socialism, and feminism.

When the novel opens,  the 45-year-old heroine, Mary, has no interests outside the home. Her husband James runs he family business, a chain of tea shops, though she is half owner. Now her youngest daughter, 18-year-old Rosemary, is getting married, and Mary is anxious about the too early marriage.   Rosemary, guilty at leaving her mother, urges Mary to investigate the state of the female employees at the tea shops and introduce improvements.

And so Mary begins to study the culture of the waitresses.  With her secretary, Miss Percival, Mary interviews the waitresses and managers.  And when a young pretty waitress, Florrie Wilson almost faints in front of her, she is concerned that there are no chairs for the waitresses. And they make very little money:  they are hired only if (they say) their income is not their main support.

Florrie is the archetypal waitress. She needs the money, but pretends to be a lady.  One day she sends Mary a note asking for help.  Florrie lives in a grim room in poverty with her dying mother.  And she has been fired from her job, through a complicated set of events that ended in her borrowing, or stealing, money from the till.  Moreover, she pawned a diamond necklace, a gift from a young man she doesn’t love, and needs to retrieve and give it back. She says he has threatened her.  As Mary and Miss Percival walk with Florrie to the pawn shop, the young man follows them.  Florrie says he stalks her everywhere.

They turned off down the street and Mary knew for the first time the choking excitement of the chase.  She would not look round to see whether the man was following, every instinct forbade it, but she could not help wishing that Florrie would do it for her.   This did not seem likely; Florrie’s eyes were fixed straight ahead, and every line of her shoulders expressed an unyielding singleness of purpose.  It was extraordinary that she did not seem to mind whether the man was there or not.  Even the bold Miss Percival was looking at the ground.

Amber Reeves

Reeves’ spare prose makes the narrative distinctive:  it is very fast-paced,  well-crafted, and not preachy (until the near the end).  Florrie throws the necklace at the young man, who begins to cry.  Mary suspects the story is more complicated than Florrie’s version, but by the time they get back to the room, Mrs. Wilson, Florrie’s mother, is dead.  Whatever the story really is, whether Florrie is a thief or a victim, Mary is determined to help her.

What is the answer?  Higher wages.  Mary cannot get around it.  As you can imagine, her husband James, who considers her the “little woman,” dismisses this.

And what follows, if not quite Ibsen’s A Doll’s House, shows Mary as a mature woman who studies economics so she can learn about business.  I did not believe the ending, but the book is thoroughly enjoyable.  I want to read more Reeves.  Why isn’t she in print?

Is Virgil’s “Aeneid” a Weepie? (The Restored Version)

If there is one word on which we can fix, which will suggest the maximum of what I mean by the term “a classic’, it is the word maturity. I shall distinguish between the universal classic, like Virgil, and the classic which is only such in relation to the other literature in its own language, or according to the view of a particular period.
― “What Is a Classic?” by T. S. Eliot

Is Virgil’s Aeneid a weepie?

I tell everyone it is a beach read.

Some of us read it because we love it. Some of us read it in school. Perhaps you remember the opening words of the epic, arma virumque cano… “Of arms (war) and the man I sing…”

The poet sings of two wars, the Trojan war and a later war in Italy, and the man is Aeneas.

I read this Roman classic every summer. I focus on the elegance of the Latin, but this time found myself weeping over Aeneas’s harsh fate. A leader by default–everyone else is dead–he must lead the survivors of the Trojan War to their new homeland in Italy and found Rome. The gods says it is his fate. He is a reluctant hero, even whiny sometimes. He seems like a human being. Not just an epic hero.

Why was this so shattering to read? The Trojan plight seems so fraught, so war-torn, so modern. Exile is horrendous, whether it is by war (Aeneas) or emperor’s mandate (Ovid’s exile, which he wrote about in Tristia, “Sad things,” and Epistulae ex Ponto, “Letters from the Black Sea”). I kept visualizing Aeneas’s and the Trojans’ wanderings, driven from place to place, welcome no place. Modern refugees of war, too.

The young women I taught in third-year Latin much preferred Book IV of the Aeneid, a kind of romance. But the heroic fate wrecks that, too. When Aeneas and his men are shipwrecked at Carthage, Dido, a refugee widow and queen of a new city, Carthage, takes them in. She and Aeneas become lovers. But he flees when his mother, Venus, tells him to go and follow fate. He tries to slip away without Dido’s knowing.

During the years I taught Virgil, I gradually became more sympathetic towards Aeneas. Constantly referred to as pius Aeneas, he is ripped apart by pietas, which is not quite“piety,” but a very Roman notion of duty to the gods, one’s country, and family.

After a shipwreck at Carthage, can he cry and moan? Only privately. He wishes he had died at Troy.

His duty is to make an encouraging speech to his men.

And he says the famous line:

Forsan et haec olim meminisse iuvabit.
“Perhaps sometime it will please us even to remember these things.”

The literal order of the Latin words is as follows:
“Perhaps even these things someday to remember will be pleasing.”.

Emphasis on “perhaps even.”

Does this stoic sentiment even make sense? Not for Aeneas, who has lost wife, father, and friends. He says what he has to to comfort his followers.

Does Virgil believe it? In the context of the poem, I doubt it, though he certainly flatters Augustus when necessary. Perhaps this is a line generals will quote in future wars.

I certainly do not believe the Trojans will someday find these things pleasing to remember.

Hence my lacrimae rerum, “tears over these things” (Aeneid, Book I, line 462).

Some Prefer Nettles by Junichuro Tanizaki

Junichuro Tanizaki’s Some Prefer Nettles is an elegiac masterpiece.

If you like Colette, you will enjoy Some Prefer Nettles.  Set in Tokyo and Osaka in the 1920s, it follows the fortunes of a couple who cannot decide whether or not to divorce. The protagonist, Kaname,  lost sexual interest in his wife Misako years ago, and she is having  an affair with Abu, with Kaname’s  permission.   They are at their best with their son, and are reluctant to disturb his happiness.

The plot, such as it, has parallels with the plays in the traditional Japanese Bunrako puppet theater, a form of art which Tanizaki describes at length and which is a mark of the contrast between Western civilization and old Japan.

The novel seems very modern.  It opens in medias res, with a passive-aggressive exchange that characterizes the couple’s relationship.

“You think you might go, then?” Misako asked several times during the morning.

Kaname as usual was evasive, however, and Misako found it impossible to make up her own mind.  The morning passed.  At about one o’clock she took a bath and dressed, and, ready for another eventuality, sat down inquiringly beside her husband.  He said nothing.  The morning newspaper was still spread out in front of them.

“Anyway, your bath is ready.”

Kaname  has tentatively agreed on the phone that he and Misako will meet Misako’s father in Kyoto at the puppet theater.  She seems reluctant, but says she can “go to Suma” (code for meeting her lover) tomorrow.    Once at the theater, Misako desperately wants to leave early, while Kaname is concerned with courtesy and sampling the elaborate picnic provided by his father-in-law’s mistress.   Misako is a Westernized woman, which Kaname used to encourage and find  sexy.  Now he is taken aback by her lack of manners and finds her clothes unattractive.

Under the influence of his father-in-law, who is referred to as “the old man,” Kaname becomes fascinated not only by the  puppet theater but by the old man’s mistress,  O-hisa, described as a doll-like woman.  Earlier, when Misaku expressed her dislike of O-hisa, Kaname said, “She’s one of the antiques in his collection, exactly like an old doll.”

And indeed she is his father-in-law’s puppet/doll:  the young woman has been trained to cook his favorite dishes, takes lessons in traditional music, and wears old faded  kimonos he buys for her.  (She would prefer Western clothing, like Misako.)    The old man seeks an antique puppet he can buy, but there are only three puppet makers left in Osaka.

Some of us will think he already has a puppet in O-hisa!

Some Prefer Nettles is partly autobiographical.  Tanizaki lost interest in his wife, and in 1930 divorced her after arranging for her to marry the writer Sato Haruo.  He became a proponent of traditional Japanese culture after he moved to Osaka after the Tokyo earthquake in 1923. He often criticized the effect of Westernized Tokyo on Japanese art in essays and novels.  And in this novel about a cold marriage, he also explores the cultural polarity between Tokyo and Osaka.

The ending of the book is open–and  fits the theme of passivity in a marriage.

In the introduction, translator Edward G. Seidentsticker quotes Tanizaki on writing and the question of telling the reader too much:

“We Japanese scorn the bald fact, and we consider it good form to keep a thin sheet of paper between the fact or the object and the words that give expression to it.”

Novels in Translation: Georgio Bassani’s The Garden of the Finzi-Continis & Theodore Fontane’s No Way Back

Novels in translation.  We love them, but are occasionally baffled.  I recently read two highly-touted novels, Georgio Bassani’s The Garden of the Finzi-Continis and Theodore Fontane’s No Way Back.  The structure of each novel is elegant, but the writing is uneven.

But I did prefer the former to the latter, as you see in these two short reviews.

The Italian writer Georgio Bassani’s novel, The Garden of the Finzi-Continis, is understated, moving, and mournful.  Set in the ’30s in Italy, when fascism is rising, it is the story of the  Jewish narrator’s friendship with the Finzi-Continis, a wealthy Jewish family who died in a concentration camp.

The novel begins in 1957.  A weekend drive to an Etruscan tomb evokes for the narrator the massive, pretentious tomb built by the paternal great-grandfather of his friends.  Just as the Etruscans have died out, so have the Finzi-Contanis.

The narrator begins,

For many years I wanted to write about the Finzi-Continis–about Micol and Alberto, about Professor Ermanno and Signora Olga–and about all the others who inhabited or, like me, frequented the house in Corso Ecole I d’Este, just before the last war.  But the stimulus, the impulse to do it really came to me only a year ago, on a Sunday in April 1957.

(This is William Weaver’s translation:  elegiac and yet at times ponderous.)

Their Jewishness links the unnamed narrator and the aristocratic Finzi-Continis.  They attend the same synagogue, but do not socialize:  the Finzi-Continis are educated by tutors at home, while he is a middle-class doctor’s son.   One day when he is 12 or 13, he is wretched over a failed math exam.  He bicycles into the country, fantasizing about  never going home, hiding in a cave, and living as a hermit.

A wall surrounds the Finzi-Continis’ “garden”–really an estate–and Micol suddenly pops up on the top of the wall.  She knows all about his failure at school, and asks what’s the big deal about retaking the exam in October.

This is Micol’s attitude toward life–optimistic and practical.  She is bolder than he:  he is afraid to climb the wall into the garden, and by the time she has shown him the footholds, it is time for her to go in.

He and the Finzi-Continis become close friends when he is 23.  Micol and her brother Alberto organize tennis games in their garden after Jews are banned from the tennis club.  The narrator falls in love with Micol, who does not reciprocate his feelings.  (Still, they are best friends, and she tolerates a lot of kissing.)  Her brother Alberto, a homosexual, falls in love with a socialist engineer who is not Jewish or homosexual.

It is a coming-of-age story: the narrator cannot accept that Micol will never love him. Eventually they cease to see each other, after she has made it clear she is tired of him.  And the novel ends tragically, with our knowledge that the bright, lively, brilliant Micol and her family were rounded up and  killed.

I was intrigued by the narrative and read quickly.  But I felt something was missing:  lyricism?  Perhaps it was the time when I read it; perhaps I just did not like William Weaver’s translation.

The German writer Theodore Fontane’s No Way Back is not on the same plane as Bassani’s novel.  Still, it begins well.  In fact, I thought happily, It’s a nineteenth-century Kristin Lavransdatter!  (Turned out I was wrong.)

Set in Schleswig-Holstein and Denmark in the 19th century, it is the story of a marriage gone awry. Count Helmuth Holk is kind and warm-hearted but almost hedonistic in his love of society; his wife Christine is brilliant, pious, responsible, and steady. Seven years ago Holk built a new house on a dune, against her wishes; they have never been happy since, though Christine says she admires the new house. Building represents the crisis in their different viewpoint: he wants to build new cowsheds ; she wants to replace the crumbling family vault in the cemetery.

She says of her husband to her friend, a seminary director.

“…truly he would be the ideal husband, if he had ideals.  Forgive my play on words but I can’t help it, because that’s exactly how it  is, and now I have to say it again: he only thinks of the moment and never of what is to come.  He avoids anything that could remind him of that.  Since we buried our Estrid, he has never once been to the grave in the vault.  So he doesn’t know that the whole thing is in danger of collapse.”

Soon Holk is called to the court of a Danish princess. After that we see little of Christine.  And then we are trapped in the consciousness of the shallow count, who attends parties and forgets his family.  How I disliked being in his world!  He especially resents Christine.  And we readers are shocked by his thoughtlessness when he writes her letters about the beauty of other women.   Eventually his flirtation with a lady at the court destroys Christine.

This novel is based on an actual case:  I will not tell you the details because I don’t want to ruin the book for you.

But this book is so poorly written.  Honestly, if it weren’t so short I would have abandoned it.  And I really hated reading about Holk.  A dull man.  I wanted to get back to Christine.   Is it the translation, or the book?

My husband say, “Some  of these obscure 19th-century German novels are really NOT classics,” and recommended Fontane’s Effi Briest.  (And, yes, he has kept up with his German.  Not I!)

This book has also been published under the title Irretrievable (NYRB).  I do prefer that title.

Almost Constantly, or Sometimes?

According to a 2015 Pew Research Center survey,  twenty-one percent  of Americans say they go online “almost constantly.”

I don’t know about you, but if that were true I wouldn’t admit it.

We all know about the drawbacks of the internet.  We have all read books like The Circle (well, I didn’t finish it) and The Shallows:  What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains. Politicians and plutocrats love our internet diversions.  One, the internet keeps us indoors so we won’t panic about the environment (we’re not polar bears!), and, two,  (some) people learn to respect the ill-informed online chat of idiots.

The internet is free. It has destroyed newspapers, but it is absolutely fr-e-e-eee!  Our blogs are free, Netflix and Hulu are free (during week-long trials), Facebook is free, fake news is free, Goodreads is free,  The New York Times is free for 10 articles a month, and the Literary Hub is  free.  Amazon has the best free book website anywhere, complete with book descriptions, short Kirkus reviews, and consumer reviews.  (If you buy the books, as I do, it’s not quite free, though.  Still, it is the best place to shop online.)

We bloggers curate our blogs endlessly.  We are not paid.  How many people are we actually writing for?  Well, obviously I enjoy blogging.  And yet I doubt that my readers will care if I spend two hours or ten (which I’ve never done!) on  a post. Droves of Lawrence Durrell fans visited my blog when I posted on The Alexandria Quartet, and I admit it was an excellent post.  But when I wrote another excellent post about the little-known Argentine writer Angelica Gorodischer’s 1983 classic, Kalpa Imperial, translated by Ursula K. Le Guin and published by Small Beer Press, hardly anyone noticed.  But it’s there for my book-journaling experience, and I admit that’s why it’s important to me.

For paying book pages the internet is a harder world. The New York Times is one of my favorite sources of reviews. Recently I bought a copy of Catherine Lacey’s stunning novel The Answers on the basis of Dwight Garner’s review.  After I read Sarah Perry’s  The Essex Serpent, I read and admired Jennifer Senior;s splendid review.

The Guardian now asks for money.  No subscription necessary yet, but at the bottom of each article it announces, “Unlike many other, we haven’t put up a paywall–we want to keep our journalism as open as possible.  Support us with a one-off contribution.”

Oh, dear, I’m not English, but I appreciate  the  book page. I do plan to subscribe to The New York Times but how about The Guardian?  I read a review of  The Essex Serpent at The Guardian before it was published in the U.S. (In fact, I bought the book in England.)  And right now I m reading an American novel, Patty Yumi Cottrell’s Sorry to Disrupt the Peace, published by McSweeney’s.  Bizarrely, I read an interview with Cottrell at The Guardian.

At The Millions, in the  essay “Why Literary Journals Don’t Pay,” M.R. Branwen writes ,

In the age of the Internet, people are loath to pay for content — in print or online. The decline of the print publishing industry and the constant near-collapse of the news industry has seen publishers of all stripes frantic to monetize a readership that continues to dodge online advertising and refuses to pay for any form of subscription.

Meanwhile, print periodicals — including, and perhaps especially, literary journals — are extremely costly to produce and continue to lose subscribers as readers increasingly move online. Which is not to say that literary journals have ever been financially viable. Even the illustrious Harvard Review, my literary alma mater, would disappear were it not for generous donors. This is true of all but maybe two or three journals.

It seems to apply to publishing I’m general.

Sarah Perry’s The Essex Serpent

Last summer we weathered the first heat wave in air conditioning. This summer we are sitting in front of fans and drinking bottles of water. We are environmentally correct, but it’s just a matter of time before we turn on the AC.  Perhaps we should build a windmill in our yard to generate electricity.

And what did we read this weekend?

Longlisted for the Baileys Women’s Prize this year,  Sarah Perry’s The Essex Serpent   was the Waterstones Book of the Year in 2016.  Just published in the U.S., it is dazzling, witty, pungent, and almost magical.   Set in 1893, it chronicles a year in the lives of a group of eccentric characters who search for, or are affected by, the mythical Essex Serpent.  Part traditional narrative, part epistolary novel, it is beautifully crafted.

The  heroine, Cora Seaborne, a feminist widow, reads Darwin and scientific journals.  Relieved that her sadistic husband is dead (and she has the scars to prove it), she is  fascinated by the myth of the Essex Serpent, first spotted in Essex in 1699. When the serpent is rumored to be haunting Colchester, she and her companion, Martha, a passionate socialist, and Cora’s young  son Francis (who probably has Aspergers), move from London to a hotel in Colchester where Cora gathers fossils and searches for the monster.  She hopes to find an antediluvian beast that survived extinction.  And as you can imagine, such a beast will cause havoc.

Love and sexual triangles are meshed in with the serpent myth.  Charming, spiky, sexy Cora is surrounded by romantic acolytes. Luke Garrett, a brilliant surgeon of short stature, nicknamed the Imp, and Martha, who sleeps with Cora, are both in love with her. And Martha has her acolyte, too:  Garrett’s friend Spencer, a wealthy doctor, is so smitten that she persuades him to fund a new housing project in a slum.

Sarah Perry

But what of the Essex Serpent?  It is wreaking havoc, they say, in  Aldwinter, a village near Colchester.  Cora falls in love with the fetching vicar of Aldwinter, William Ransome, who is married to a beautiful, fairy-like woman with tuberculosis.  You can feel the heat between Cora and William, but one cannot help but pity Stella.  Something about romantic heroes…I’m beyond them, even if they are not that romantic, and personally preferred Luke Garrett.

In the village, an unhappy girl, Naomi, jealous of her best friend Joann’s friendship with Cora, starts a rumor that Cora has brought the serpent to the village.  And Naomi causes mass hysteria among schoolgirls in the classroom; they all laugh and can’t stop and snap their necks like eels.  One girl falls down and breaks her arm.  It is The Crucible all over again.  But the adults prevent a witchhunt. There’s that.

This historical novel with its spiky, willful characters, reminds me of John Fowles’ The French Lieutenant’s Woman rather than of actual Victorian novels. And that is intentional: it is a 21st century interpretation of 19th century novels.  Cora is more independent and hands-on in her quest for knowledge than, say, Dorothea in Middlemarch, who must work second-hand through her old-fashioned scholarly husband’s study of mythology. On the other hand, both Cora and Dorothea may be New Women, but don’t have a shot of being taken seriously as scholars. It takes George Eliot herself and Sarah Perry to achieve that;  their heroines fall a little behind.

Truly a lovely, lyrical book.  Am so glad I read it.