Jun’ichiro Tanizaki: 春琴抄 (The Story of Shunkin; later: A Portrait of Shunkin)

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The latest addition to my website is Jun’ichiro Tanizaki‘s 春琴抄 (The Story of Shunkin; later: A Portrait of Shunkin). This is another novella from Tanizaki about delving into the past and about sex, though the sex is decidedly lower key than the last two Tanizaki novellas I reviewed. This tells the story of Shunkin, born into a prosperous family selling pharmaceuticals. She is beautiful, intelligent and graceful. She starts dancing when young and soon shows a lot of promise. However, tragedy strikes and, when she is eight, she goes blind. She takes up music, playing the koto and samisen. She soon shows that she is considerably talented. Initially, she is taken to her lessons by a maidservant but then she asks for Sasuke, an apprentice in her father’s shop, to take her. Soon, he is not only taking her every day to her lessons but also acting as her servant. Hearing her playing tempts him to learn and he saves up and buys a cheap samisen and practises at night. When he is discovered, he is forbidden from practising but Shunkin, her sisters and mother ask him to play. They are so impressed that it is decided that he can continue and that Shunkin will given him lessons. This continues for some time, with Shunkin proving a hard teacher but Susake clearly has talent. When they are in their late teens, it is suggested that they marry. Shunkin firmly rejects the idea, thinking of him only as a servant. However, when Shunkin becomes pregnant a year later, her parents naturally suspect Susake. Both deny it but Susake eventually admits that he is the father, only to withdraw his confession. The child is put out for adoption. The couple remain together, with Shunkin working as a teacher and continuing to treat Sasuke as a servant, though she has three more children. She is later attacked, possibly by a pupil whom she had criticised, and, soon after, Susake goes blind, though the causes are ambiguous. It is a fine story of a relationship whose basis is as a teacher/pupil, mistress/servant and lovers, all strangely working together.

Fiona McFarlane: Night Guest

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The latest addition to my website is Fiona McFarlane‘s Night Guest. This book is on the shortlist for the Australian Miles Franklin Award. It tells the story of Ruth, a seventy-five year old woman who lives alone in what had been the holiday home of her and her husband, Harry. Harry had died of a heart attack around a year previously. Ruth’s two grown-up sons live abroad – one in Hong Kong and the other in New Zealand. One day she gets a visitor – Frida Young – who says that she has been sent by the government to look after her. Initially, Frida only comes for a day but is very helpful, cleaning and making Ruth’s lunch. However, she starts coming for longer.

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During this period, we learn about Ruth’s early life. Her parents were a doctor and nurse respectively but also very religious and they set up a clinic in Fiji, so Ruth passed most of her childhood there. As a young woman, she fell in love with a doctor who worked with her parents in the clinic – Robert Porter. As he kissed her once or twice, she was convinced it would lead to something but on the ship to Sydney, on which they travelled together, he told her that he was engaged to a Japanese widow and had kept quiet about it, so as not to offend Ruth and her parents. Though they kept in touch by Christmas card and postcards, they did not see each other again. However, Ruth now decides to get in touch with him again, as she has learned that his wife has died shortly before Harry. He comes and stays and she still feels a strong affection for him. This seems to be reciprocated, as he asks her to come and live with him. Ruth has had some mental issues – she continually imagines there is a tiger prowling around the house, as the two covers shown at left above and right indicate – so, as we start to wonder what Frida is doing and whether she is genuine, we are also aware that Ruth does imagine things and has also become very dependent on Frida. McFarlane gradually builds a story of Frida who seems to be very caring and helpful and for which she is either not getting paid or getting paid by the government, as she states, and Ruth who is increasingly dependent on Frida and feels a strong attachment to her. It is a well-told story that keeps us guessing to the end.

Jun’ichiro Tanizaki: 蘆刈 (Ashikari; later: The Reed Cutter) and 少将滋幹の母 (Captain Shigemoto’s Mother)

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The latest addition to my website is two novellas by Jun’ichiro Tanizaki: 蘆刈 (Ashikari; later: The Reed Cutter) and 少将滋幹の母 (Captain Shigemoto’s Mother), both published in English in the same volume. The first is a short novella telling the tale of a man (the author) who decides to visit the Minase Shrine, site of an old palace. While there, he goes to the river where there is a splendid and famous view, to see the moon over the river. He meets a man there, who tells him a story about coming every year to see the moon with his father. The father would stop and look into a rich man’s house and tell him to remember the Lady Oyu. When he was bit older, the father told his son the story of Lady Oyu. He, the father, had remain unmarried till his late twenties. One day he went to the theatre with his sister and her husband and they sat in a box next to Lady Oyu and her sister. Lady Oyu had married an older man at a young age but her husband had died when she was only twenty-two. As she had a son, her husband’s family would not allow her to remarry but she was very much pampered. The story-teller’s father immediately fell in love with Lady Oyu but could not marry her. However, her sister, Oshizu, aware of the situation suggested that he marry her in name only, so he could continue a relationship with Oyu. This decidedly odd ménage-à-trois continued for a while till Lady Oyu’s son died, partially through her neglect. Things, of course, went wrong, though the whole scenario is, as is usual with Tanizaki, charged with eroticism. Both the narrator and the reader also want to know who was the story-teller’s mother – Oyu or Oshizu? Inevitably, there is something of a twist in the tale.

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少将滋幹の母 (Captain Shigemoto’s Mother) also has a strong erotic element. It is set at the beginning of the tenth century and features various historical and legendary Japanese characters. Heiju is a notorious womaniser. He is also on good terms with Fujiwara no Tokihira, an important and powerful man in Japan at the time. Heiju visits Fujiwara no Tokihira not just to gain influence but also because, nearby, he can have access to the very beautiful Jiju. However, Jiju spurns him though it appears that, later, they do have some sort of relationship. Meanwhile, Fujiwara no Tokihira also finds out about Jiju and also reveals that she is married to Fujiwara Kunitsune, his uncle. However, his uncle, though in his seventies, is of a much lower social status than he is, so Tokihira concocts a plan to visit his uncle and trick him into handing over Jiju, a trick which is successful. Jiju remains as Tokihira’s wife and her son by Fujiwara Kunitsune is separated from his mother. This is something the son, the eponymous Captain Shigemoto, bitterly regrets all his life but, once again, Tanizaki comes up with a clever twist to the tale. Though not his greatest works, these are both excellent tales, superbly well-told, erotic and with Tanizaki’s inevitable surprises.

Jorge Franco: El mundo de afuera [The World Outside]

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The latest addition to my website is Jorge Franco‘s El mundo de afuera [The World Outside], the winner of the prestigious Spanish Alfaguara Prize this year. This is an excellent novel, mainly set in Franco’s home town of Medellín, Colombia and mainly involving the kidnapping of a rich man, Don Diego Echavarría Misa. Don Diego is a keen lover of Germany and all things German. This love includes the country, Wagner but also Hitler’s way of doing things. When visiting Germany in the 1950s, he meets and falls in love with Benedikta Zur Nieden, whom everyone calls Dita. They return to Colombia (via an expensive European shopping trip) and Diego has a fairytale castle built in Medellín, based on La Rochefoucauld Castle. They have a daughter, Isolda, who is treated like and behaves like a princess. She is generally kept in the castle and its grounds, with her own (German) governess. However, she has been seen in the woods next to the castle by some of the locals. One of the locals is an older man, Mono, who has fallen in love with her. He plans to kidnap both father and daughter but this goes wrong and he ends up kidnapping only Diego. Much of the novel is about his relationship with Diego – he makes no attempt to conceal himself – and the activities of his fairly incompetent gang. Fortunately for them the police are equally incompetent. To the surprise of the gang, no ransom is forthcoming and they are starting to get worried. While this is going on, we are following Mono’s external life – his love for Isolda, his young, gay lover and Twiggy, a young woman who thinks she is Mono’s girlfriend. He also still lives with his mother, who seems to be blissfully ignorant of her son’s full but haphazard life. Dita then brings in a Belgian psychic who thinks that he can determine whether Diego is alive or dead and track down where he is kept. It certainly is an enjoyable novel. While it has not been translated into English, two of Franco’s earlier novels have been, so there is some hope that this one might be.

Elena Quiroga: Presente profundo [Profound Present]

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The latest addition to my website is Elena Quiroga‘s Presente profundo [Profound Present]. This is a very intelligent novel on death, time and life. Rubén is a doctor and comes across two Galician women who both kill themselves. Neither are in any way connected, apart from their sex and nationality. Indeed, while he knew one well during her life – Blanca – the other – Daría – he never knew during her life. Daría was a baker’s wife and had had a relatively hard life, working in the bakery and bringing up her children. When, at the age of fifty-nine she finds that her husband has gone off with a younger woman and her children have drifted away, she simply walks into the sea one day. Blanca has been twice divorced and her son, whom she misses very much, lives with his father in Switzerland. She cannot find her place in life and when in Amsterdam with her latest man, Theo, a rock singer, she deliberately overdoses on LSD. As Theo said, Tenía derecho a su muerte [She had a right to her death.] Rubén speculates and philosophises on these two women (and, by extension, on women in the region), dabbling with Hegel and thinking about time. This is an excellent novel which has not, as far as I can tell, been translated into any other language, though it is recognised in Spain as one of Quiroga’s finest novels. Indeed, none of her novels has been translated into English. What a shame.

French literary prizes

Winner of this years' Goncourt
Winner of this years’ Goncourt

We have already had the Prix Femina – Haitian novelist Yanick Lahens won with Bain de lune, and the Prix Médicis – Antoine Volodine won with Terminus radieux and today we got the Prix Renaudot with David Foenkinos winning with Charlotte and the Prix Goncourt with Lydie Salvayre winning with Pas Pleurer.

Winner of this year's Renaudot
Winner of this year’s Renaudot

None of these is available in English (yet). However Yanick Lahens has two books in English La couleur de l’aube has been translated as The Colour of Dawn and Tante Résia et les dieux has been translated as Aunt Resia and The Spirits, Antoine Volodine’s Des anges mineurs has been translated as Minor Angels, Nom des singes as Naming the Jungle and Ecrivains as Writers, several of Lydie Salvayre’s works are already in English translation and David Foekinos’ La délicatesse has been translated as Delicacy and Le potentiel érotique de ma femme as The Erotic Potential of my Wife. I am afraid that I have not read any of them but may well do so sometime in the future. My predictions were, inevitably, completely wrong.

Irène Némirovsky: David Golder (David Golder)

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The latest addition to my website is Irène Némirovsky‘s David Golder (David Golder). It tells the story of a ruthless businessman in 1920s France, who specialises in oil. We see him outwitting, often by devious means, his competitors but also his colleagues. He has a large house in Biarritz, where his wife, Gloria, and daughter, Joyce, spend much of their time. When he joins them, they are only really interested in his money and keep asking for more, all the while complaining of poverty. Joyce has as her boyfriend an impoverished Russian prince and wants to go to Madrid with him, and wants her father to buy a car for her to do so, though she already has a car. When he falls ill, his wife is worried that he might die but her worry is not because of his well being but because he might not have left enough money for her old age. She persuades the doctor to lie about his heart problem, so that he can go on working and make enough money for her old age. However, soon after he recovers, things go drastically wrong and he is left almost bankrupt. His wife goes off with her lover and his daughter, who has persuaded her father to buy a car before he went bankrupt, has gone off to Madrid with her prince. But now he has a chance to make a killing in a negotiation over Soviet oilfields but there is a risk that, if he does so, the stress might be too much for his heart. It is a well-told story with virtually no-one coming out of it in a positive light. In short, virtually all the characters are greedy and will do whatever it takes to get money

Carmen Amoraga: La vida era eso [Such Was Life]

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The latest addition to my website is Carmen Amoraga‘s La vida era eso [Such Was Life]. This is another book in my reading of this year’s literary prize winners/shortlisted books. This book won Spain’s Nadal Prize. It tells the story of Giuliana di Benedetto, an Argentinian of Italian origin who lives in Spain. At the beginning of the book, her husband, William, dies of cancer. The book tells of how she copes with this, using social media, particularly Facebook, to express her grief. The book is divided into five sections, each section corresponding to the traditional five stages of grief – denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance. We follow her struggle to belong to a support group, her mixed memories of William, generally good, but sometimes bad, her inability, at times, to cope, how her daughters seem better able to cope than she does and even memories of her old boyfriend from before she met William. While it is certainly a poignant novel, well-written and does not descend into the mawkish and trite, as it could have done, I did not feel that this was a great book, worthy of winning a major literary prize. Of course, loss of a loved one to cancer is devastating and, of course, the survivor (survivor, not victim, as Giuliana is told) is going to go through a very mixed set of emotions but this does not, in my view, make for great, original literature.

Lucia Etxebarría: Beatriz y los cuerpos celestes [Beatrice and the Heavenly Bodies]

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The latest addition to my website is Lucia Etxebarría‘s Beatriz y los cuerpos celestes [Beatrice and the Heavenly Bodies]. This is the story of a young Spanish woman, Beatriz de la Haya, and her life at around the age of twenty. For a while she lives with Mónica, in the house of Mónica’s parents, who are, at the time, absent, he having moved permanently to Argentina and she a successful fashion journalist who is often travelling. Living there with the two women is Coco, a drug dealer. He provides the drugs, Mónica provides the accommodation and both Beatriz and Coco provide the sex for Mónica. Mónica gradually gets dragged into the lifestyle of the other two, delivering drugs for Coco, which, on on one occasion, turns out to be disastrous, selling drugs and even witnessing Coco steal at knife-point. It all goes horribly wrong and, for once, Beatriz’s father comes through, and ships her off to Edinburgh to study. But there she soon gets involved in a similar lifestyle, living with Caitlin (known as Cat), who is also heavily into drugs. She even manages a brief and not very successful relationship with a male student. She runs away from Edinburgh back to Madrid, sees Mónica who is now in a clinic for recovering heroin addicts and is left wondering what to do with her life. This is not a fun story, with Beatriz clearly struggling with finding out who she is and what she wants to be and not succeeding, living with her parents’ disastrous marriage and her own very poor relationship with her mother, but it clearly shows a young woman struggling with life in the modern drugs age. This novel won the Planeto Prize in 1998 and has been translated into seven languages. English is not one of them. Indeed, none of her works has been translated into English. I find that I keep saying this about the novels I read. I shall say it about the next novel I read, also a novel by a Planeta-winning Spanish woman writer.