Book Review: Skylark, by Dezső Kosztolányi

Dezső Kosztolányi’s Skylark is pure delight. It depicts a week in the life of a provincial Hungarian town at the fin de siècle, when the unassuming protagonists, a Father and Mother in their late fifties, are deprived of the company of their homely daughter, Skylark, who goes to visit relatives. The town’s aristocratic bourgeoisie supplies the supporting cast and completes the book’s charm.

In a smart introduction, contemporary novelist Péter Esterházy quotes Kosztolányi’s diary:

I have always really been interested in just one thing: death….For me, the only thing I have to say, however small an object I am able to grasp, is that I am dying. (pp. xiii-xiv)

The result, quite logical if you think about it, is a “love of life” (Esterházy’s phrase) that permeates Skylark’s every page. No one dies in the course of the story. However, it brims with what the Japanese call aware, a sense of the impermanence of all things, felt most acutely when it emerges from a feeling of pleasure, sweetening it by cutting it short. In Skylark, the aware is on one occasion, an evening of cards at the club, made explicit:

One game spilled into another, with Ákos [the Father] shrewdly holding his own, uncovering every plot and scheme, averting every ambush. It was a long, long game.

But not for Ákos or the other players. What did they know of time, since falling captive to the magic of the cards? For all card players enjoy the intoxication of complete forgetting, and enter a separate universe whose every contours are defined by the cards….

Ákos gave them all a thorough thrashing. Only then did he glance at the clock ticking away on the wall before him. It was already after half past nine. He was suddenly seized by an inexplicable melancholy.

For a moment he hung his head, crestfallen after his unaccustomed frivolity. (p. 140)

A few pages later, Kosztolányi drives the point home:

Ákos suddenly picked up a tumbler full of schnapps they had set before him and downed it in one. The alcohol warmed its way through his body and lifted him to his feet. There was an enormous knocking in his old brain and he felt such delight that he really wouldn’t have minded in the least if there and then, in this moment of giddy ecstasy, when he felt his whole being, his whole life, was in his grasp, he were to fall down and die on the spot. (p. 147)

Et voilà: Life and death are yin and yang, ever-present in equal measure, at the taroc table, in a glass of schnapps, in everything.

Rounding out his study of cosmic paradox, Kosztolányi inserts exquisite portraiture of the oddity of human behavior, as in:

They met secretly in their lodgings, scoffing at everything, disparaging everyone, especially one another. An amber-tipped cigarette holder or a silver cigarette case could fill them with such unspeakable envy, and the good fortune of one of their number with such loathing, that they would immediately conspire against him and (remaining within the bounds of friendship, of course) contemplate causing him fatal injury, denouncing him in an anonymous letter or simply wringing his neck. (p. 19)

and:

In the end, he did what he always did in such situations: the opposite of what he’d originally intended. (p. 22)

Again, pure delight.

Book Review: A True Novel, by Minae Mizumura

As is known, Minae Mizumura’s A True Novel is a retelling of Emily Brontë’s Wuthering Heights that takes the form of a narrative within a narrative within a narrative, triangulating on the character of Taro Azuma, the racially impure pauper who makes the best of the various table scraps the world throws to him and becomes a millionaire. As such, it illustrates the triumph of the middle class over residual aristocracy, a theme that is developed on other levels as well, outside the main storyline. Secondarily, it draws attention to the process of novelization itself by, among other things, impugning the reliability of the chief narrator.

I loved losing myself in A True Novel’s 854 pages and seldom put it down. The pace does drag in one or two of the middle chapters, which provide the background of the aforesaid chief narrator, but it picks up again.

The cover blurb promises “an examination of Japan’s westernization and the emergence of a middle class,” although its treatment of westernization is muted (it is more explicit in Mizumara’s Inheritance from Mother) and its depiction of the middle class, while not exactly triumphalist, is certainly not an indictment. In this respect, A True Novel is representative of postwar Japanese literature in its mostly happy adjustment with bourgeois, middle class life. The sense of angst and malaise, the criticism and satire that would accompany any American novel set in the middle class, is entirely absent. While A True Novel makes ample mention of squalor, failed marriages, and office drudgery, these occurrences never warrant a rejection of the bourgeois ethos in toto; no alternatives are considered. When its characters enter a hotel, restaurant, bookstore, or supermarket, they are comfortable in such places and participate unselfconsciously in the consumption that occurs therein. They refrain from mocking the decor or caricaturing the clientele, activities de rigueur in America. In short, these bourgeois settings are not enemy territory, through which its unassimilated characters trespass.

The lack of any snark directed toward the middle class may be explained by the simple fact that most Japanese are pleased to identify themselves as members of it. (For that matter, Japan’s racial and cultural homogeneity also ensures that the ethnic, religious, political, and cultural strife that dominates American novels has no parallel in Japanese ones.) In fact, A True Novel may be read as a middle-class epic, with Taro Azuma as its hero.

But does Taro find love? And if he does, is it of the aristocratic or the bourgeois kind?

The answer, of course, would be a spoiler.  

Book Review: Kafka on the Shore, by Haruki Murakami

I’ve theorized that Japanese literature seems to be the best adjusted to modern life. A singular lack of angst distinguishes novels such as Haruki Murakami’s Kafka on the Shore, in which I take vicarious delight as its protagonists go about their lives at such places as diners, noodle shops, convenience stores, bus stations, bookstores, museums, and other mundane oases. Of course, Murakami’s characters aren’t simply going about their lives but are engaged in quests that are of great consequence to themselves if not to the universe as a whole. Isn’t that what we’re all doing: adventuring through the turnpike rest areas and shopping malls, like Don Quixote without the satire, discovering meaning wherever it is to be found?

Japanese fiction doesn’t abstract itself from the humdrum environment that produces it. Rather than to imagine more exciting times and places via historical fiction, say, Japanese writers make do with where and when they are. Or as Mr. Hoshino says in this book:

“We’re all pretty much empty, don’t you think? You eat, take a dump, do your crummy job for your lousy pay, and get laid occasionally, if you’re lucky. What else is there? Still, you know, interesting things do happen in life – like with us now.” (p. 306)

As a matter of fact, Mr. Hoshino is addressing his remarks to a man with the ability to talk to cats and to make it rain leeches.

But this book, like all of Murakami’s books, isn’t really about the paranormal. It’s about those not supernatural but nonetheless magical things that give our modern lives meaning: music and books and libraries.

A deserted library in the morning – there’s something about it that really gets to me. All possible worlds and ideas are there, resting quietly. (p. 313)

A library, even in the middle of a boring place like Takamatsu or Tacoma (or Taipei, as in the photograph), gives us all the magic we need. The same could be said of this dream of a book.

 

Book Review: Inheritance from Mother, by Minae Mizumura

Inheritance from Mother is a two-part novel: Part I is almost entirely a flashback, describing protagonist Mitsuki’s mother’s prolonged decline and intercutting scenes of their relationship; Part II takes place at a resort hotel, where Mitsuki has gone to figure out what to do about her unhappy marriage (and it also contains many flashbacks). Part II was more pleasant for me to read, since I like hotel settings and internal dialogue in which characters figure out what to do.

The latter part contains one of the best portraits of relationship disappointment I’ve ever read:

As she sang, she felt enveloped in the peculiar bliss of singing – the sense that, at least for that fleeting moment, the world is in harmony.

She was halfway through the first verse when Tetsuo quietly left her side and walked slowly off to the pier.

The ship’s whistle sobbing, a flutter of cherry petals.’ She sang on alone, watching his figure grow smaller.

Why?

That was the first ‘why’ of her married life.

She herself was fond of hearing others sing at the chansonnier. Her past boyfriends had enjoyed hearing her sing. And Tetsuo was her husband – shouldn’t he listen gladly? This precise thoughts had not come to her at the time, but she had felt a voiceless cry tear through her, like an echo from the bottom of a deep well. (275-276)

Like Haruki Murakami, Mizumura includes copious references to Western music and literature, yet she also, without becoming nativist or reactionary, expresses resentment at the general degradation and sense of trauma that has accompanied Westernization.

Of course, culture flows both ways, and for every Mizumura character reading Madame Bovary, there is a Westerner like me reading Mizumura. On the subject of world literature, it seems to me that Japanese writers best capture the essence of modern bourgeois life: culturally amalgamated, materialist, and reflective, if not spiritual. Perhaps I am reading different literatures in search of different facets of the human experience in time. If Japanese novels are the best representations of the present, it is in European (especially Hungarian) literature that I find the most homesick remembrances of the past. American literature is where I turn for liberating visions of the future – which seem, ironically, to have been most vivid in the past.

(Maybe this last observation explains why I set my great American novel in seventeenth-century China.) At any rate, I will enjoy reading all of Mizumura’s books.