Archive for August, 2008

The Woman in the Dunes (1962) Suna no Onna

By Kobo Abe

Penguin Modern Classics, 240pp

With an Introduction by David Mitchell

My first introduction to the work of Japanese author Kobo Abe was through the films of Hiroshi Teshigahara – who collaborated with Abe and composer Toru Takemitsu four times, on Pitfall (1962), Woman in the Dunes (1964), The Face of Another (1966) and The Ruined Map (1968). Woman in the Dunes is a film that has always impressed me but until now I had not read the novel, and I approached it with a certain trepidation. Whenever I have held a film in high regard the book has always been something of a disappointment. I know Teshigahara’s film well and could not see how it would play out on the page – much of the films potent power is in the shifting sands that envelope the shack the Man is imprisoned in. Teshigahara filmed the sand as if it were water, undulating, amorphous, dangerous.

What is surprising is how faithfully Teshigahara filmed Abe’s novel – and therefore more surprising that Abe’s novel gripped me as tautly as Teshigahara’s film did the first time I saw it, for although they are the same story, Abe’s razor-sharp prose bought another new complex level to the fore. One of literary fictions strength’s is the ability to be omniscient, to allow the reader insights into the characters thought-processes. Cinema does not allow such luxury. So whereas Teshigahara’s Man is developed through his actions on screen, Abe’s Man is allowed introspection, consideration, analysis. There are things in Abe’s novel that struck a deeper resonance because they were written rather than filmed.

Entymologist Niki Jumpei (the Man) searches the scorching desert for a rare beetle; a new breed that will give his name permanence in the scientific field for it will appear forever more in a catalogue of insects. He has not spoken of his trip to his wife or his colleagues, and as the day wears on he discovers he has wandered far from civilisation. He meets an elderly man who tells him the last bus back to the city has left, and that he shall have to find shelter for the night. He is led to a shack that is at the bottom of a sand pit. Descending into the hole little does he realise that he has fallen into a trap, and that when he wakes in the morning the rope ladder will be gone, and that he is forced to spend the rest of his days fighting the encroaching sand with a female companion (the Woman).

By refusing to name his characters (we learn the name Niki Jumpei only through an imagined missing persons report), Abe’s novel takes on the form of a parable. Much of Abe’s fiction has taken this form – usually in his work symbol and idea take prime place over such considerations as plot or characterisations. That The Woman in the Dunes has such international acclaim and regard is indicative of Abe’s skill at combining his usual literary tropes successfully with plot and characterisation for perhaps the only time in his career. The Man has a psychological depth, an inquisitiveness that resonates back into the plot of this book. At no point does the plot of this novel become unbelievable, despite its presumed absurdities. It is the astuteness of Abe’s writing that holds this work together, that stops the metaphorical sands from consuming his hard work.

“One day in August a man disappeared. He had simply set out for the seashore on a holiday, scarcely half a day away by train, and nothing more was ever heard of him. Investigation by the police and inquiries in the newspapers had both proved fruitless.” (p.3)

So begins Abe’s novel. His matter-of-fact tone, and the elegant simplicity of his prose, gracefully conceals the depths running under its surface. The reader is dragged by these undercurrents into the dark, malevolent, erotically charged heart of the sandpit. Though the Woman makes no deliberate move to seduce the Man, his attraction to her is immediate, if undesired. She very quickly causes him to doubt what he thinks are certainties of life, perhaps deliberately at times, so his sense of order is unbalanced. The Man becomes discombobulated by the experience of being isolated and trapped. Knowing this and seeing this, the dénouement of makes perfect sense.

Entymology provides one of the clues to unlocking the deeper secrets of this narrative, and reveal Abe to be a truly clever trickster. The pit in which the Man is contained is but one of many in a village. The Man is being treated like one of the insects which he wishes to contain within a box – though the Man does not see this. The insects he seeks battle against the sand, just as this Woman does. The Man has gone there looking for new forms of life, what he has found is a new form of existence, where the will of all is dedicated to the preservation of life. Even when confronted with this, and the reality of the outside world clashes against it. The Woman goads him and reveals her reality to him:

“Why should we worry what happens to others?” (p.223)

The only battle that is worth fighting, is she saying, is the battle to save oneself, the battle against the sand, the completion of this Sisyphean task. Like all good parables there is the deeper, more personally resonant strain. For we are reading about every man, every life – everyone of us, everyday, goes to work, fights to stay alive – we are all in our own way, trapped in the sandpit, fighting the flow. The ending of the novel can be read a multitude of ways, depending on the reader then. If you think we are trapped, then it is submission. If you do not, then the Man has found liberation.

Abe the novelist retreated from such simple tales with his later works. The Face of Another, his second novel, is available in the Penguin Modern Classics range, and will be reviewed shortly. Abe preferred literary games, and became successful at them, but if the purity of The Woman in the Dunes is anything to go by, one wishes he could have written more.


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Hindoo Holiday: An Indian Journal (1932)

by J.R. Ackerley

Revised 1952

Forthcoming in Penguin Modern Classics (2009)

Reviewed from Chatto & Windus Edition 1952, 276pp

The first thing to strike a modern reader is that curious spelling. The double O, not U as is accepted. The double O takes us to another time and place, to a view of India from not that long ago, but distant enough now to be another world. Only the double O was not Ackerley’s. He spelt it Hindu. The misspelling was down to the publisher, who felt that it gave the book another charm. And he was right, for this journal of Ackerley’s five months in India is the British social comedy transplanted to the Indian subcontinent. In the heat and dust of Chhokrapur Ackerley introduces us to a cast of characters as vivacious and alive as anything in Forster, only Ackerley’s cast is real. But the reader has need to be cautious, for in this journal not everything is as honest as it seems.

In his preface to the second edition Ackerley explains himself thus:

“When this journal was first offered for publication it was thought necessary to make a number of omissions. Nearly twenty years have passed since then, and the State of Chhokrapur, if indeed it ever existed, has dissolved away in the new map of India.”

(Preface, P.i)

This second edition is still an incomplete text. The forthcoming Penguin Edition will see the complete unexpurgated text for the first time in the UK. That is the first lie. The second is with the State of Chhokrapur – Ackerley almost admits that the state is a fabrication – it is. The name means “City of Boys”, Ackerley’s private joke as an openly homosexual man during the decades when it was still unacceptable to be so. The events of Hindoo Holiday take place in Chhatrapur, where the Maharajah, also a homosexual whose biological connection to his heirs was in doubt. The first publication of Hindoo Holiday in 1932 saw these facts omitted from the text. The 1952 edition reinstated some of them, but only will the forthcoming text contain them all. The final, major error of Hindoo Holiday is the mistakes Ackerley makes regarding Hindu and Indian customs. These errors are passed away with this comment:

“This journal then, which developed day by day out of almost complete ignorance, and for whose accuracy in fact, since I was depending solely upon my memory I cannot therefore vouch.”

(Explanation, P.iii)

So why should a book whose honesty can be so easily dismantled, be hailed as a modern classic, and deserve reprinting? For Ackerley’s interest is not to be a chronicler of India or its customs, but to be a profiler of men. What remains when one finishes Hindoo Holiday is the portrait of his Highness the Maharajah Sahib of Chhokrapur (to grant him his full title), one of the most comically complete characters in the fiction of India. For that is what Hindoo Holiday is: a fiction based upon the truth. The truth is Ackerley visited Chhatrapur upon the behest of his friend, E.M. Forster, and stayed for five months. It is probably also true that many of the events contained within did happen, but Hindoo Holiday is constructed as fiction and must be read as such.

If Hindoo Holiday were a travelogue or an anthropological investigation, there would be details that are simply missing from Ackerley’s text. We gain no insight into how or why Ackerley is there, no descriptions of the temples, such as Khajaraho which was nearby, that he must have visited, or of his sojourn to Benares that bridges Part One and Part Two of this book. All we have is this portrait of the Maharajah and his peculiar state of Chhokrapur. And what a portrait.

From the outset Ackerley is getting it wrong. A miscommunication summons the Maharajah to Ackerley’s house at the most inopportune moment:

“I had spent several months in corresponding and arranging this meeting with His Highness; I had travelled over six thousand miles to accomplish it; he might at least have managed better than to catch me in this state of unreadiness.” (P.5)

The comedy of errors continues as Ackerley, unconscious of Indian custom, makes many social blunders, and ends up eating “leathery buttered toast” that he does not even desire (P.7). This is the tone for the bulk of Hindoo Holiday, but very slowly this visitor begins to become accustomed to Indian ways, and before long is joining them in major ceremonies, and discussing Indian customs and debating ethics.

Where Hindoo Holiday falls apart is towards the end of its second part, where the Maharajah disappears from view, and Ackerley is taken up with his petty squabbles with his tutor, Abdul. Very quickly these petty feuds become tiresome, and though they last but a short while, they became a little repetitive. But it is in this second half where Ackerley also faces up to the issues that have been simmering beneath the surface of his life and his companions in Chhokrapur. The savaging of a fly by some ants evokes memories of the First World War, in which Ackerley fought and lost a brother, and his kiss with Narayan, the guest house clerk, which highlights some of the discordances Ackerley sees in Indian society:

“What does my friend, the Dewan, think of all that, I wonder, with his squeamishness about dirt and germs, his disgust with other people’s mouths, his dread of sputum in the tea-cup, his repugnance to the kiss upon the lips. With all his shrill prejudices against European customs, how does he fare in his own land? Indians are great expectorators. Hawked-up phlegm, streams of red betel-juice saliva, are shot about incessantly as they walk. I noticed it when I landed in Bombay, the patches everywhere of bright red spt. I thought it must be blood, until I was forced to the conclusion that, in that case, everyone was bleeding… give me the unhygienic customs of Europe! Give me the loving-cup! Give me the kiss!” (P.247)

And that is also why Ackerley fails in India and returns to Europe. His attitudes cannot be reconciled with the Indian. Ackerley leaves India after five months, returning to Piccadilly, to city life, to a life where his homosexuality cannot be restrained.

While it lasts Ackerley’s portrait of this community and its people is fascinating and comedic. Ackerley has an eye for detail, and time and again it is the small portraits, the descriptions of moments, that ring the truest, in this journal of a holiday in India.

J. R. Ackerley’s name is used annually for the J. R. Ackerley Prize for Autobiography.

Hindoo Holiday will be published by Penguin Modern Classics in 2009.

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Esther (1884)

by Henry Brooks Adams

Penguin Classics, 208pp, Out of Print

Henry Brooks Adams was a preeminent historian, great-grandson of John Adams, the second President of the United States of America, and grandson John Quincy Adams, the sixth President. He wrote only two novels – Democracy (1880) and Esther (1884) – the first of which was published anonymously (Adams was revealed as the author in 1909) and Esther under the nom de plume Frances Compton Snow. His reasons for doing so are not entirely clear, but perhaps he felt they might detract from his epic histories – the nine volume The History of the United States During the Administrations of Thomas Jefferson and James Madison 1801 – 1817 (1889 – 1891), the biographies The Life of Albert Gallatin (1879) and John Randolph (1882) and his other work collecting and collating material on New England Federalism (1877). What would the author of such austere histories be doing writing a frothy romance novel about a young woman falling for Episcopal minister?

Esther appeared in the Penguin Classics range relatively recently (2000) but has very quickly fallen out of print, perhaps an indicator of Adams’s obscure status in American letters. Very little of his work is available in commonplace editions, and though the majority of his work can be found between Project Gutenberg (whose text of Esther I used to review) and The Million Books Project, it is clear from download counters at the MBP that few people are interested in what Adams has to say. In conjunction with my reading of Esther I have been reviewing his History of the United States, and it is abundantly clear that Adams is a forgotten genius. His monumental History is a masterpiece of nineteenth century intellectual thought, unafraid to face up to the challenge of seeing the bigger picture of American development in the early part of that century. The chapters that deal with cultural and social life in the key American cities of the day are superlative and should be read by anybody with even a passing interest in this period of history. Through reading the History it is also clear that Adams has a novelist’s eye for the story, which makes his move to fiction unsurprising.

The publication of the anonymous Democracy became a publishing sensation, with many illegal copies of the novel being sold as people tried to work out the identity of the author and who the characters in the novels political scandal were based upon. Adams would later remark, ironically, “”The wholesale piracy of Democracy was the single real triumph of my life.”

When Esther appeared in 1884 there was nothing to connect Frances Compton Snow to either Democracy or Henry Adams, other than Adams resorts to satirical wit. Esther, as already noted, tells of one woman’s love for an Episcopal minister, Stephen Hazard. Adams decision to publish under a female nom de plume made Esther’s decisions in this novel seem all the more valid to contemporary readers.

When reading Esther today ones first thought is to those 1930s screwball romantic comedies of which this seems to be an antecedent. The plot line seems obvious, but it is the clash of personalities and opinions that will provide the tension. Esther is going to meet the handsome Hazard, they will fall quickly in love but obstacles will be placed in their way and at the end, after a pursuit, Esther will marry Hazard. And indeed they do meet, there are obstacles (of an intellectual and religious kind, but obstacles nevertheless), there is a pursuit from New York to Niagara, and at novels climax, as the waters of the Niagara tumble over the Falls, Henry Adams manages to confound all expectation with a last line of such devastating impact, that you are sure the power of has been felt all the way back to New York.

In the screwball comedies the obstacles would have been of a physical pratfall nature, but in Adams world they contain arguments about religion, science, art, and poetry. It is over art that Esther Dudley first truly becomes intimate with Stephen Hazard, as she is employed to paint a mural within the church. Along with her confidant, Catherine, a sassy southern woman who dreams of owning her own ranch in Colorado – and one you believe most certainly will for Adams seems adept at creating strong, confident women – they paint not iconography, but themselves and the men they love – Catherine with Wharton.

“By our lady of love!” said Wharton, with a start and a laugh; “now I see what mischief you three have been at!”

“The church would not have been complete without it,” said Esther timidly.

For several minutes Wharton looked in silence at the St. Cecilia and at the figure which now seemed its companion; then he said, turning away:

“I shall not be the first unworthy saint the church has canonized.”

Ch. 5

Even through their serious discussions there is the comedic undertow, always this urge from Adams to undermine his characters, afraid that without the gentle mocking their solemnity would become oppressive. Almost at the end of the novel does it become so:

Hazard’s solitary thoughts were not quite so pointless. The danger of disappointment and defeat roused in him the instinct of martyrdom. He was sure that all mankind would suffer if he failed to get the particular wife he wanted. “It is not a selfish struggle,” he thought.

“It is a human soul I am trying to save, and I will do it in the teeth of all the powers of darkness. If I can but set right this systematically misguided conscience, the task is done. It is the affair of a moment when once the light comes;–A flash! A miracle! If I cannot wield this fire from Heaven, I am unfit to touch it. Let it burn me up!”

Ch. 9

The one reason I can see for this novels lack of popularity is the long central argument in the middle where Esther and Hazard and others discuss religion and science, and where Adams’s agendas seems to subsume the story he is telling. There are, it has to be said, some erudite thoughts here, but they sit disconcertingly next to a dry wit of a story.

Along with fellow New York chronicler, Edith Wharton, Henry Adams is interested in the lives of women, particularly of independent women who buck the societal norm. Esther is a truly independent woman who refutes the status quo, and whose decision at the end of this novel will affect her totally. It is unclear whether Esther will find happiness in her decision, but she is willing to stand by her beliefs. She is a frighteningly real character, based upon Adams’s own wife, Marian, who just a year after the publication of this novel, committed suicide, following the death of her father.

After Esther and his personal loss, Henry Adams retired from novel writing. He took to travelling the world with his friend, the artist John La Farge, and Adams’s produced a few more works, histories and biographies mainly, published privately. His two final works, Mont-Saint-Michel and Chartres (1904) and The Education of Henry Adams (1907), for which he is now remembered. Both were published in the Penguin Classics series and will be reviewed shortly.

The Gutenberg text of Esther is available here.

The Million Books Project is here.

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How German Is It (1979)

by Walter Abish

Penguin Modern Classics, 252pp

Literary trickster, Walter Abish, was a late bloomer. His first novel, Duel Site (1970), did not appear until Abish was turning forty. His second novel, Alphabetical Africa (1974), cemented his reputation. Each chapter of that book played pseudo-alliterative rules: the first chapter began with each word beginning with the letter a, the second would add the letter b, the third c and so on, until chapter 27 when a letter was taken away until chapter 52. A brief flurry of publishing through the 1970s was followed with relative silence through to the present day. So far Abish has only published three novels, three collections of short stories, one book of poetry and one autobiography.

How German Is It is perhaps his most celebrated novel, and certainly his most complex. It is a novel that probes Germany’s recent past through the brothers Ulrich and Helmuth Hargenau, whose father defected against Hitler in the last days of the Second World War and was killed by firing squad. As the title infers, Abish is interested in the question of how uniquely German the Holocaust was, and how its people could have committed such an act. But this is not a novel wholly interested in Germany’s past – it is interested in its present, with the rise of a terrorist group, whose activities mirror the Red Army Faction.

As in Abish’s former works, How German Is It is enamoured with verbal tomfoolery, of which the cumulative effect is to constantly wrong-foot the reader, making us as wary of modern German as both Abish and his characters seem to be. Ulrich Hargenau, the novels ‘hero’, is a successful writer, estranged from his wife, Paula, a female terrorist, whom he saved from prison by testifying against the other members of her group. Ulrich, returned to Brumholdstein (named after Ernst Brumhold, a Heidegger-type philosopher), begins to suffer occasional death threats and attempts are made on his life. His brother, Helmuth, a successful architect who designed the police station in Brumholdstein (only to see it blown up by the terrorist group operating in the area), begins to suffer from similar concerns. The Hargenau’s – a very Americanised family – represent modern Germany, in a very old German town. Brumholdstein was the site of a notorious gas chamber and concentration camp, now buried beneath the modern facade.

About half way through this novel teacher Anna Heller is discussing with her primary school students the concept of familiarity. What is familiar? What qualities is it that makes something familiar? This is a question Abish’s novel returns to frequently, with the word ‘familiar’ a recurring motif. In the end it seems that nothing is what it seems and that the familiar can pave over deep secrets – just as the paving stones outside the familiar bakery conceal a mass grave – and just as the familiarity of marriage can hide seething resentments.

“Sunday: This is the introduction to the German Sontag. This is an introduction to the German tranquillity and decorum. People out for a stroll, affably greeting their neighbours. Guten Morgen. Guten Tag. Schönes Wetter, nicht wahr? Ja, hervorragend. A day of pleasant exchanges. A day of picnics, leisurely meals, newspapers on the sofa. Franz sitting in their small garden, reading his Sunday paper, his back to the noisy neighbours next door, his back to the familiar scene of the neighbours playing cards, his back deliberately turned to their Sunday.” (P.156-157)

Only those who have embraced knowledge of Germany’s past and reached some form of reconciliation with it – as Franz the waiter, who is building a scale model of the concentration camp has – can see the hypocrisy under the surface of the familiar. Their only reaction is to turn their back on it. Only the present will not let them.

Ulrich, the subject of death threats, is shot in the arm, but has the mayor of Brumholdstein tell him to “forget it.” The mayor also panics that there will be bad publicity for his town when news of the bodies breaks, and wishes he could simply forget they were there. Towards the end of the novel Ulrich is witness to the terrorists biggest act to date – the blowing up of a bridge (the second bridge blowing in the Penguin Classics so far, and I’m only eight books in!) that connects the mainland with the island town of Gänzlich (or the two faces of Germany, the modern mainland and the remote islands that still cling to a past, wary of strangers, united against them. This act forces Ulrich to face up to his responsibility and to himself, and leads to the devastatingly satirical end.

For Abish, How German Is It is a novel that questions the very identity of a nation in transition, trying to face up to its troubled past. As Abish writes of the naming of the town:

“Without access to the intricacy, the nuances, the shades of meaning in our language, the visitor’s ability to understand and appreciate the complexities of our customs or the manifestations of our creative impulse will be severely limited…. In adopting the name of Brumhold we have also, in all seriousness, embraced his lifelong claim to the questions: What is being? What is thinking?” (P.170)

The answers Abish finds to these questions are not always satisfactory, if only because Abish himself was uncertain of them. In 2004 he published Double Vision: A Self Portrait which speaks of his time in Germany following the publication of How German Is It. He asks himself, “At what stage in the reconstruction of Germany, at what point in this tremendous effort will the turbulent past fade, enabling the visitor to Germany to once again view the society with that credulous gaze of a nineteenth-century traveller?”[1] If Abish, with the novelists gaze, cannot reconcile the two faces of twentieth century Germany, what hope has the country of rebuilding the familiar? More recent novelists have turned their attention to this question with equally unsure conclusions: Christa Wolf with Das Bleibt (1990) Rachel Seiffert in The Dark Room (2001), or Bernhard Schlink with The Reader (1995). But then questions of how to comprehend the atrocities of the Third Reich will trouble novelists for eternity. To this conundrum Abish adds much with his cinematic prose, prefigured by the quote from Jean-Luc Godard that opens his book: “What is really at stake is one’s image of oneself.” The very image of a nation is at the heart of this work.

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