The Makioka Sisters by Jun’ichirō Tanizaki (translated by Edward G. Seidensticker)

Jun’ichirō Tanizaki is a writer I associate very strongly with a kind of claustrophobic, highly charged, erotic, chaotic, madcap kind of fiction. I’ve read both Diary of a Mad Old Man and The Key and both novels are quite similar in tone and theme, both in diary form, both exploring the strange paths that love and desire can lead us upon. I admired both books, though they both left me feeling somewhat exhausted. Which is my excuse, really, for leaving The Makioka Sisters, at 500+ pages, sitting on the shelf for so long. Yet it could not be a more different book.

The Makioka Sisters follows the fortunes of four sisters from an aristocratic Osakan family whose status is on the downturn, in the period just before Japan’s entry into WWII. The eldest sister Tsuruko is married and her husband Tatsuo has become the head of the family following the death of the girl’s father. The second sister Sachiko is the main sister around whose life the story revolves. Sachiko too is married and she lives in Ashiya with her husband Teinosuke. Whilst her unmarried sisters Yukiko and Taeko should live with their elder sister in the main house, in practice they tend to spend most of their time at Sachiko’s, preferring to live away from Tatsuo with whom they do not have a good relationship. The ‘main house’ as Tsuruko’s household is known, tolerate this though the situation is unusual. The pressing challenge for Sachiko is to arrange a marriage for her sister Yukiko. In traditional terms, Yukiko must be married before Taeko can be married. However, Taeko is the ‘wild child’ of the family, already having been embroiled in a scandal which has harmed Yukiko’s chances of being married. She is more westernised in her approach, preferring western dress and being quite enterprising having started a business making dolls and with aspirations to become a dressmaker. This all sounds very ordinary to the western ear, but given the family status the idea of Taeko becoming a working woman is quite unpalatable to the family.

Yukiko herself is somewhat of a problem to her family. Very traditional in her outlook, being quite shy and introspective, she also has a stubborn streak which is the cause of many failures in prospective betrothals. She is getting well past the age where she should have been married and the continued delays leave Taeko at a loose end which proves problematic for the family. When Tsuruko’s arm of the family move to Tokyo things become even more uncomfortable. Technically both Yukiko and Taeko should go to Tokyo with them, but in practice only Yukiko complies yet her reluctance and her depression over the move are a constant source of dismay to the others. Reasons to return to Osaka are engineered, largely revolving around increasingly abortive attempts to get her married off. It’s unclear if it is the Makioka’s exacting and, perhaps, over-ambitious standards, or Yukiko’s own stubbornness that is the root of the problem.

Meanwhile events continue to unsettle the Makioka’s. There is a terrible flood in Osaka which threatens both Taeko and Sachiko’s husband Teinosuke. War looms. The German neighbours return home and there’s trouble in Manchuria. Yet there’s also a sense that these events only trouble the periphery of the Makioka’s lives. Instead they are clinging on to a kind of way of being which is doomed to end. Taeko is, perhaps, the most ahead of it but her family conspire to chain her to the past. In some respects this is quite amusing, the stuffy provincial nature of the Makioka’s fails to acknowledge how the world is changing, as Sachiko’s musings here reflect:

“For one thiWP_20171222_09_53_28_Prong, Taeko’s appearance, her manner, her facial expressions, her dress, her speech, were changing. Of the four sisters, Taeko had always been the most open and direct – to put her case favourable, the most modern – but lately that directness had been strangely transformed into a certain rudeness and vulgarity. It bothered her little to display herself naked, and sometimes even before the maids, she would bare her bosom to the electric fan, or she would come from the bath looking like a tenement woman. She seldom sat with her feet tucked properly under her. She preferred to throw them out to one side, or, worse still, to sit with her legs crossed, her kimono coming open at the skirt. Quite indifferent to the prerogatives of age, she would start eating or go into or out of a room ahead of her sisters, or take a place higher at the table. Sachiko was left wondering what horror might be coming next when they went out or had guests.”

The horrors!

For a book which is largely centred around the efforts to get one sister gainfully married, The Makioka Sisters is a compelling and fascinating read. It has a kind of gentleness to it, perhaps the gentleness of life lived by slow routine – the cherry blossom viewings, the festivals, the small dramas of everyday life when things don’t quite fit to the template we’ve come to believe they should. I found myself growing increasingly fond of the sisters, Sachiko in particular, with their small worries and routine lives so easily unsettled by a world which is changing quite drastically around them. Their problems are petty, by modern standards, and the slow decline of the family, the decay which comes from without and within, is steady and almost unobtrusive until close to the end when their fortunes both rise and fall quite unexpectedly. The main house with Tsuruko and her husband Tatsuo remain distant throughout, largely due to the move to Tokyo which seems to have been both a boon and a disaster for the elder sister. In the end it is Sachiko’s life whose is the least changed, yet her sisters lives have changed immeasurably. Not a great deal happens, and perhaps I miss something in not being completely au fait with the nature of Japanese society in that era, but there is drama and intrigue, the pressure of social expectations which weigh heavily on a family like the Makioka’s, and an ever-present sense that times are changing yet the Makioka’s are clinging onto a status which is as ephemeral as the cherry blossoms they visit each year. Yet it is an amusing, sweet and humane read. It is hard not to grow fond of these somewhat parochial yet very personable sisters. They have only care for each other, a desire to be seen to be behaving appropriately and an attachment to the expiring Japanese society. It could be a novel by Thomas Hardy, minus the heavy tragedy. I thoroughly enjoyed The Makioka Sisters. It is a gentle and uncomplicated read, quite different, indeed, to Tanizaki’s other more invigorated works.

Advertisements
Posted in Classics, fiction, Japanese | 4 Comments

Reflections on a year of reading less

I’ve read a total of 50 books this year, 51 if you count the Tao te Ching (and somehow I never do); it’s still a lot, perhaps more than most read, but as a life-long bibliophile, and obsessive-compulsive book hoarder it’s been a light reading year for me. When I embarked on this change in January I knew only that I needed to slow down, that my brain was not capable of absorbing everything I was reading, that I hadn’t been giving books the time and attention they needed to generate a ‘deep reading’ experience. I’d become a superficial reader, always thinking about the next book and the next, not enjoying the one I was reading but instead ‘getting through’ it. That wasn’t the kind of reader I wanted to be.

Like many others, as the year end approaches I find myself naturally drawn to reflect, to draw some conclusions, about the experiences of the year. I suspect there is something inherent in paying attention to a start and end timeline, whether that’s a day, a week or a year, that forces a beginning and end mentality upon us. If I have learned anything over the course of the last year, it’s that such beginnings and endings are entirely false, self-created limits which shape how we experience and interact with the world. Thinking endlessly about when the book I was reading would end, and the joy of a ‘new beginning’ of the next book, was a large part of what was driving a rather unsatisfying reading experience. And it wasn’t just reading, many of my life experiences followed a similar pattern. I looked forward to the ‘end’ of work, the ‘beginning’ of weekend, the ‘end’ of one job and the ‘start’ of another, the ‘end’ of the day and a ‘fresh start’ of another. Always looking at either side of what was right in front of me. Beginnings and endings are the classic form of a fairy tale, a story, a novel. But those stories, the messages they give us, what they teach us about the world, about each other, about human nature and inter-relationships and science and ideas and hatred and love, are timeless. And by paying attention, focusing on what was in front of me rather than what had already happened or what was ahead, I began to experience that sense of timelessness in my reading. It didn’t happen straight away, and it wasn’t and isn’t a straight path; I can’t even say that I will still feel this way tomorrow. But as I allowed myself a certain uninhibited space in which to experience the current book, I stopped thinking about the next book. Suddenly reading became a continuum, time became a continuum. There was no rigid start or end, arbitrary lines against which to measure progress and achievement. One minute moves seamlessly into the next, into the next, and then the next. In fact there are no minutes there is only time, an endless flow of immediate experience that we can choose to pay attention to or ignore. Thinking about yesterday and tomorrow are really effective distraction techniques, but just because we think about them doesn’t mean they really exist.

Reading was, perhaps, the first manifestation but this perception of time, of life, as an ongoing present has leaked out of reading into other things. Perhaps I came to recognise that I didn’t want to just ‘get through’ life either, just looking ahead to the next part and the next part, all these false stops and starts, wishing for something amazing to happen or hoping nothing terrible did. Perhaps I came to realise that clinging on to how I hoped things might be, instead of acknowledging how they are, was slowly ripping me apart. Giving myself space in which to think, to allow the slow blessing of the present moment to seep in, the undemanding void, has allowed me to begin to unpick the complex nexus of what I need, what I value, what has meaning to me and how I want my life to be. I thought what I wanted was to be able to break the cycle of impulsive book buying and that was true. I thought I wanted to really appreciate what I read, and that was true too. But there was much more to it than that. I’m not sure I’ve ever really thought about it before. I mean, I’ve thought about it – I’ve thought about wanting a nice house and a rewarding job; a happy, healthy family, the usual things we’re conditioned to think about – but I’ve never really thought about how those things relate to me, the person I am with the values I have. I never thought to question if I was really living the life I have chosen, or just the one that’s been made available or suggested to me. I’ve buried myself so deeply in reading the words of so many others that I haven’t really stopped to listen to myself, to think about why I need those words (or don’t), what it is I’ve been searching for or how I might actually go about finding it. Taking time over the words of others is somehow, perversely, helping me give voice to my own.

This life, this experience, is not a series of interconnected moments however much we narrate it that way. Rather it’s like a wave, an oscillating wave to whose fluctuations we are either attentive or inattentive. There is ebb and flow. Sometimes I know what I want, sometimes I don’t. Sometimes I’m focused, sometimes I’m not. Reading less has been both very easy and extraordinarily difficult. I still feel the push and pull of desire, of impulse, of the conditioning to which I had submitted so effortlessly and without thought. I haven’t ‘mastered’ myself, my relationship with reading or any of that guff. Instead I am trying to pay more attention. I am trying to challenge my impulses and desires. Sometimes I do, and sometimes I don’t. It ebbs and flows.

Reading less began, if you can call it beginning, as an experiment, something that I thought I might try for a year and then go back to the way I was. I know, now, that there’s no going back. Going back implies linear progression, one of those false narratives I am sure I must give up. I will continue taking things one book at a time. Perhaps I will read even less, perhaps I will read a little more. It doesn’t really matter. One thing I do want to do is to try to unpick my book acquiring habits. Over the years I have acquired a massive collection of books entirely because I purchased the book to read eventually rather than to read immediately. It is a way of being entirely predicated on the nebulous promise of the future. I have spent a lot of my life, my resources and my energy thinking about this future, planning it and imagining it. But it never really does arrive. Instead I find myself accumulating stuff I wanted once, but are no longer sure that I do. And that’s okay too, though I know it is not a practice I want to continue. The advantage, perhaps, to thinking of life, time, experience in a less linear fashion is that it also frees us from being bound by the past. There is the life we have lived, and all the experience we’ve gained from doing so, and the choices that we’re making right now. Those choices can be informed by the life we’ve lived, but we’re not bound by it. There is nothing to stop me from changing everything right now if I wanted to. Of course I cannot do so without consequence, but every choice I make has consequence. Nothing about my remembered past or imagined future can alter that. Neither do I have to think of anything I have done as a mistake. There are no mistakes, only choices that lead us one way or another. Maybe I had to acquire a lot of books, feel the burden of them, to begin to understand who and how I want to be.

That I’ve read a total of [ennumerate value] books this year is a statement I don’t intend to make again.

Posted in personal reflection | 10 Comments

Gift from the Sea by Anne Morrow Lindbergh

“I believe that true identity is found, as Eckhart once said, by ‘going into one’s own ground and knowing oneself.’ It is found in creative activity springing from within. It is found, paradoxically, when one loses oneself. One must lose one’s life to find it.”

Sometimes you accidentally happen across a book, maybe you can’t even remember exactly how, and somehow this book is like reading into your own life, seeing yourself – perhaps calmer, more balanced, more objective – looking back on your own life through the lens and wisdom of another’s. And it’s soul-stirring, a little frightening, perhaps, and yet extraordinary. Gift from the Sea was like that for me, a book that washed over me like a series of waves, its quiet wisdom soothing and inspiring me. Anne Morrow Lindbergh was an author and an aviator, perhaps most famous because of her husband, Charles Lindbergh who was also a rather famous aviator, and the kidnapping and death of her infant son. A Gift from the Sea was written some time after these events, when Anne had five other children and was spending some time alone on an island, refreshing herself from the daily trials of life as a woman and mother.

Image result for gift from the sea anne morrow lindbergh “But I want first of all – in fact, as an end to these other desires – to be at peace with myself. I want a singleness of eye, a purity of intention, a central core to my life that will enable me to carry out these obligations and activities as well as I can. I want, in fact – to borrow from the language of the saints – to live ‘in grace’ as much of the time as possible. I am not using this term in a strictly theological sense. By grace I mean an inner harmony, essentially spiritual, which can be translated into outward harmony.”

There’s a sense of recognition almost immediately as Lindbergh expresses her desire to achieve a kind of harmony in her life, an end to desires that push and pull and obscure our intentions and values. As she describes, she desires to live ‘in grace’ or, perhaps, in a state of ‘wu wei’ which I read about earlier this year as part of the Tao te Ching and which expresses, as Lindbergh does in slightly different language, a form of effortless action, or ‘non-action’ in which we are entirely at one with our purpose and our environment. It is the reason I retracted from social media, from reading endless news reports and watching the television news, because I found myself so pushed and pulled by the emotional demands, though they were not necessarily directed specifically towards me, that these media outlets place upon us. Though Gift from the Sea was written in 1955, it is clear that Lindbergh understands what I mean, perhaps due to her unique experience following the kidnapping of her son:

“For life today in America is based on the premise of ever-widening circles of contact and communication. It involves not only family demands, but community demands, national demands, international demands on the good citizen, through social and cultural pressures, through newspapers, magazines, radio programs, political drives, charitable appeals and so on. My mind reels with it. What a circus act we women perform every day of our lives.”

In fact there are a number of occasions where she mentions this widening circle of contact and the way it encroaches on our ability to be effective, to act effectively. Lindbergh recognised that the ever-widening circle of information placed specific demands upon women who, perhaps largely thanks to social conditioning, are more prone to caring and trying to solve the horrors the world seems to have an endless capacity for, as she describes here:

“The inter-relatedness of the world links us constantly with more people than our hearts can hold. Or rather – for I believe the heart is infinite – modern communication loads us with more problems than the human frame can carry. It is good, I think, for our hearts, our minds, our imagination to be stretched; but body, nerve, endurance and life-span are not as elastic. My life cannot implement in action the demands of all the people to whom my heart responds. I cannot marry all of them, or bear them as children, or care for them all as I would my parents in illness or old-age. Our grandmothers and even – with some scrambling – our mothers lives in a circle small enough to let them implement in action most of the impulses of their hearts and minds. We were brought up in a tradition that has now become impossible, for we have extended our circle through space and time.”

There’s a strange timelessness to Lindbergh’s observations, though the book was written over 60 years ago, like the Meditations of Marcus Aurelius, she seems to tap into something universal, something fundamental to the human experience. Unlike Aurelius, she was not concerned with matters of governance or leadership, but the smaller yet equally challenging lot of a woman. She recognises how women are spent and spent, how they are required to give of themselves and behave like an ever-refreshing well that everyone can drink from at will, that is supposed to have no life or desires of its own. Yet she also recognises that a woman of her era, living in the United States, the problem is not necessarily one of want but of abundance. She has an abundance of desires, an abundance of desires are thrust upon her by advertising, by social mores and expectations, by the need to do everything:

“When I go back will I be submerged again, not only by centrifugal activities, but by too many centripetal ones? Not only by distractions but by too many opportunities? Not only by dull people, but by too many interesting ones? The multiplicity of the world will crowd in on me again with its false sense of values. Values weighed in quantity, not quality; in speed, not stillness; in noise, not silence; in words, not thoughts; in acquisitiveness, not beauty. How shall I resist the onslaught?”

Yet her time by the sea is a tranquil one, and in this small space of time she is able to live simply and explore her creative self. In many ways you could argue that Gift from the Sea is a natural successor to Woolf’s A Room of One’s Own, because Lindbergh is an example of someone who has a room of her own, economic freedom has been established and rights for women have been hard won. Yet having won those rights, women, Lindbergh argues, don’t know what to do with that room, with that time. Instead they fill it with activity – with socialising and voluntary work, plus the general burden of housekeeping. She argues that having won the room of your own, women still need to fight for the time to use it. Women, she says, are the only workers who never get a day off, who can take time to go to the hairdressers or a coffee with friends, but not to have an hour or so to oneself, to refresh themselves with down time. Women must always be doing and doing. She argues that the focus has been on mechanics, woman as a function and an object, but little progress has been made in satisfying the woman’s soul. She saw that as the next battleground for women, the right to do nothing, to be alone, to refresh ourselves with creative enterprises which grow out of lack of other expectations.

There’s a sense, much like I found in the work of Marcus Aurelius, that Lindbergh is exploring her own demons. She explores the necessity for isolation and time to oneself along with the ways in which inter-relationships, particularly between husband and wife, change during life. She also expresses some interesting thoughts on middle-age, a time she would have been in the grip of during the writing of this book. She used the ideas, the experiences she’d had on the island to inform her thoughts about many of these things. Principally she uses the concept of the shell to express the various stages of life.  Middle-age, she decided, was a time to shed our shells and protections, to let go (Taoist links, again) of our illusions, our armour, our petty and useless possessions:

 “Perhaps middle age is, or should be, a period of shedding shells; the shell of ambition, the shell of material accumulations and possessions, the shell of the ego. Perhaps one can shed at this stage in life as one sheds in beach-living; one’s pride, one’s false ambitions, one’s mask, one’s armor. Was the armor not put on to protect one from the competitive world? If one ceases to compete, does one need it? Perhaps one can at last, in middle age, if not earlier, be completely oneself. And what a liberation that would be!”

Gift from the Sea was an extraordinary read, a book which came like an unexpected gift, some flotsam washed up on a beach, at just the right time. It expresses with such balanced clarity many of the thoughts and feelings I’ve been trying to explore over the course of this year, precipitated by my plan to read more slowly. I could have pulled from every page a quotation that spoke to me. With space in our lives, we can learn what it is that we need to refresh us, to keep us feeling purposeful and intentional, to keep us in that state of oneness with our actions. Lindbergh recognises that retreat from the world, a hermitage, is not a viable choice for most of us, that we may have families to care for, people we love, jobs to do and things we desire. But she also recognises that sometimes we need time away from those things both to remind ourselves why they matter, and also to restore ourselves so that we have something still to give when it is needed. It might just be an hour blocked out to be alone, a weekend walk or, if we’re lucky, a little beach hut to ourselves by the sea. It’s not selfish, it’s self-care. In this world of instantaneous communication, when there is endless TV and online distractions, it is harder than ever to justify time spent alone, quietly, not doing anything. But this may be exactly what we need. I know it’s what I need, and Lindbergh’s lovely book has emboldened me to seek it out more openly, to not feel guilty for wanting to be permitted a life of my own.

Posted in gender, non-fiction, outwith, personal reflection, self-help | 4 Comments

Dreaming of Babylon by Richard Brautigan

Image result for dreaming of babylonI was searching for a gift for a friend in my local branch of Waterstones when I noticed the shiny new versions of Richard Brautigan’s books, gorgeously packaged by Canongate, looking shiny and new and very impressive on the shelf. I was admiring them (I admire Canongate a great deal), how pretty they look, how well produced, when I noticed this little volume which I didn’t even know existed and in my astonishment and semi-horror I’d taken it over to the counter and paid for it before the words ‘holy trout fishing in America!’ had chance to escape my mouth. It’s an age since I last read anything by Brautigan and I knew I would have to read it basically straight away because a book by Brautigan is like finding yourself in your favourite treat shop: it’s sweet, it’s sickly, you know it’s not going to do you any good, but you can’t help gorging yourself anyway.

Dreaming of Babylon is badged as a private-eye novel, set in 1942. The private-eye in question is C. Card and he’s just about the most unsuccessful private-eye you can imagine. He has no office, he had to let his secretary go (but she wouldn’t sleep with him, so he didn’t see that as a bad thing), he had to sell his car, he owes money to just about everyone including his landlady, his mother, his friends, the other tenants in the building, the people who run the shops thereabouts, the guy in the morgue, a guy on the police force. Everyone. But his luck is going to turn, he’s sure, because he’s got a new client and all they want is for him to turn up in front of the radio station at 6pm and to bring a gun. He’s still got a gun, but no bullets. He’s pretty sure the client isn’t going to be happy with a private-eye with an empty gun, so he’s on a mission to scrounge some bullets from someone before turning up for the appointment that’s going to change his luck for sure. So long as he can keep from dreaming about Babylon.

Dreaming about Babylon is Card’s biggest problem, but he just can’t stop himself from doing it. In Babylon, Card can be whatever he wants to be. He can be the best private-eye in Babylon with a gorgeous secretary who admires him (but doesn’t like his violent tendencies). In Babylon, Card can indulge his imagination. There’s a woman there – Nana-dirat – who is his constant companion. She’s just about the best woman that exists and she’s sure better than any real woman he’s ever dated. His life in Babylon is the polar opposite of his life in the real world; no wonder he can’t stop dreaming about it. Card started dreaming about Babylon just after he left school. He’d tried out as a baseball player, sure he was going to be the best baseball player in the world. But rather than being the best baseball player in the world, he became the best baseball player in Babylon. Because he got hit in the head by the baseball and knocked out, and that’s how he found Babylon. Babylon was a revelation, as he describes:

“It was really beautiful in Babylon. I went for a long walk beside the Euphrates River. There was a girl with me. She was beautiful and wearing a gown that I could see her body through. She had on an emerald necklace.

We talked about President Roosevelt. She was a Democrat too. The fact that she had large firm breasts and was a Democrat made her the perfect woman for me.

“I wish that President Roosevelt was my father,” she said in a husky voice like honey. “If President Roosevelt was my dad, I’d cook breakfast for him every morning. I make a very good waffle.”

What a gal!

What a gal!

By the banks of the Euphrates in Babylon.

What a gal!

It was just like a song being played on the radio in my mind.”

In the real world, Card hunts around for some bullets to scrounge whilst exercising extreme control over thoughts of Babylon. He takes a bus to the police station to see his friend Sergeant Rink. Card and Rink both tried out for the police force at the same time, and Card could’ve been a kick-ass police officer too except he didn’t pass the exam because he started dreaming about Babylon and didn’t answer all the questions. Rink will only lend him 50 cents, so Card tries his other friend, known only as Peg-leg, who works in the morgue. Peg-leg keeps a gun in the morgue in case any corpses rise up and try to strangle him. He isn’t willing to give Card any money either, but he does lend him his gun and the bullets. Card sees his prospects looking up.

They look up even further when he runs into an old compadre from the Spanish Civil War and stiffs him for five dollars. Why was Card, who has dodged the draft for WWII, fighting in the Spanish Civil War? The answer always comes back to the same thing:

“The Spanish Civil War was a long way off but I was glad that it was able to yield five dollars years later. I hadn’t really been a political enthusiast. That wasn’t the reason I’d joined the Abraham Lincoln Brigade. I went to Spain because I thought it might resemble Babylon. I don’t know where I got that idea. I get a lot of ideas about Babylon. Some of them are right on the money and others are half-baked. The only trouble is that it’s hard to tell which is which, but it always works itself out in the end. Anyway, it does for me when I’m dreaming of Babylon.”

Card meanders about before his appointment. His landlady dies, and he takes this as another sign his luck is on the rise. He meets his client: a beautiful, rich woman who drinks beer after beer and doesn’t need to pee. She asks him to steal a body from the morgue and Card, being unscrupulous and desperate and also well-connected enough to pull it off, agrees collecting 800 bucks in the bargain. Sweet. Here the novel turns into more of a caper. Some other guys try to steal the body too, but steal the wrong one. Card gets his body, but a bunch of other guys try to steal it from him. The beer drinking woman is somehow in the middle of it all. And all along, in between vaguely trying to figure it all out, Card is dreaming of Babylon.

Dreaming of Babylon is a Richard Brautigan book. It’s trashy about women, it’s ironic and deadpan, it has the feel of early 1960s America, counterculture, and a happy-go-lucky attitude. It’s a private-eye novel, without much in the way of private-eyeing. Instead Card wanders around dreaming and dodging doing anything meaningful, finding himself almost by accident in the middle of a madcap situation that somehow involves all of his friends. It’s not deep or meaningful, in many respects it’s a bit silly, but it’s also entertaining and more than a little bit nuts. In other words exactly what I expected it to be. It’s not my favourite of Brautigan’s works, I think, though it’s a while since I’ve read any of them, that would be The Hawkline Monster, but it is an entertaining read and whilst I felt a little sickly afterwards, and in need of something more sustaining, it was pleasureable while it lasted.

Posted in fiction | 2 Comments

Women and Power by Mary Beard

I am a great admirer of Mary Beard, I love how she is so willing to take on the Twitter trolls with humour and aplomb. I’ve seen her present tv programmes on the BBC and she’s engaging, generous and interesting. I wish I could be more like Mary Beard. She has the kind of balanced, open attitude which is so often missing in current political interactions, particularly on internet forums, newspapers and social media. Who else could have a conflab with the paymaster of UKIP, Aaron Banks, and apparently end up having such a great time of it? She embodies the spirit of debate; perhaps because her deep classical knowledge gives her benefit of seeing the long view, both the positives and negatives, and how the events and stories from classical history can tell us so much about how we behave today. I really wanted to read SPQR which she brought out last year, but found myself a little over-awed by its size and weightiness, though I suspect if I could swallow that awe for a moment I would find a book that is personable, humorous and relatable. But instead I picked up this slim little volume, barely a sliver of a book, and boy was I pleased I did.

Image result for women and power mary beard“You cannot easily fit women into a structure that is already coded as male; you have to change the structure. That means thinking about power differently. It means decoupling it from public prestige. It means thinking collaboratively about the power of followers not just of leaders. It means, above all, thinking about power as an attribute or even a verb (‘to power’), not as a possession. What I have in mind is the ability to be effective, to make a difference in the world, and the right to be taken seriously, together as much as individually. It is power in that sense that women feel they don’t have – and that they want.”

Women and Power comprises two lectures that Mary Beard delivered on the subject of women, and how classical history can help us to unpick the social conditioning that leads to the inequality that women experience in their daily lives. The first lecture deals with the question of women and speech, specifically public speech, and the way women are silenced. She begins with the story of the Odyssey, drawing on the way in which Penelope, Odysseus’s wife, who is waiting for Odysseus to return and fending off an array of suitors who bring unwanted chaos to her home, is silenced by her son Telemachus when she expresses an opinion about the music being played in her home. Though Telemachus is her son, and not a grown man, he sends his mother off with a churlish reminder that speaking is the domain of men. Using this story as a jumping off point, Beard identifies the many ways in which Greek and Roman societies sought to silence their women, excluding them from public speech by a combination of exclusion, derision and ridicule. She shows how women are visibly silenced in literature – using the stories of Io and Philomela as examples – and public life. Common themes like the way women’s speech is referred to as whinging, screeching or compared to the sounds of animals, the ‘put up or shut up’ silencing on social media, or the association of women’s timbre, the higher pitched tones of the female voice, with weakness and cowardice, all have their roots in classical culture. She points out that those few women who did speak publicly in Roman life were either described as androgynous or unnatural unless, of course, they were defending ‘women’s issues’ in which case their voices were acceptable, as she describes here:

“Women, in other words, may in extreme circumstances publicly defend their own sectional interests, but not speak for me or the community as a whole.”

How little has changed. Sigh. The second lecture is on the subject of women and power, and how women continue to struggle to push themselves into spaces which are seen as male dominated. Again, here, she explores the question of silencing, the way in which women are subjected to especial approbation, bullying and aggressive behaviour. Here Beard has unique insight because from the moment she appeared in public life she has been subjected to barrages of abuse via social media and newspapers, something she makes mention of here:

“In this crude, aggressive way, this is about keeping, or getting, women out of man’s talk. It is hard not to see some faint connection between those mad Twitter outbursts – most of them are just that – and the men in the House of Commons heckling women MPs so loudly that you simply cannot hear what they’re saying (in the Afghan parliament, apparently, they disconnect the mics when they don’t want to hear the women speak). Ironically, the well-meaning solution often recommended when women are on the receiving end of this stuff turns out to bring about the same result the abusers want: namely, their silence. ‘Don’t call the abusers out. Don’t give then any attention; that’s what they want. Just keep mum and ‘block them’ you’re told. It is an uncanny reprise of the old advice to women of ‘put up and shut up’, and it risks leaving the bullies in unchallenged occupation of the playground.”

As she identifies, the block and ignore approach seems to lead to the exact silencing that the abusers want, that for women in public life, taking public roles, the only certainty is that people will try to shut them up, that if they err or fail they will be held up as an example of why women should not be permitted in public spaces, and in the meantime they will be subjected to intense scrutiny and criticism. But she goes further than just examining how women are treated in public life into the question of power itself, how we see power and why we see it that way. As she explains here:

“I also suspect that we are not being quite straight with ourselves about what we want women in parliament for. A number of studies point to the role of women politicians in promoting legislation in women’s interests (in childcare, for example, equal pay and domestic violence). A report from the Fawcett Society recently suggested a link between the 50/50 balance between men and women in the Welsh Assembly and the number of times ‘women’s issues’ were raised there. I certainly do not want to complain about childcare and the rest getting a fair airing but I am not sure that such things should continue to be perceived as ‘women’s issues’ nor am I sure that these are the main reasons we want more women in parliaments. Those reasons are much more basic; it is flagrantly unjust to keep women out, by whatever unconscious means we do so; and we simply cannot afford to do without women’s expertise…”

She also explores some of the ways that Hillary Clinton was treated – e.g. the beheaded Medusa pictures – in what were perceived as being quite normal and acceptable terms in the Presidential campaign, and Beard and Clinton have since met up and conducted a mutual love-in which was lovely to read.  And short though they were, the two lectures that make up Women and Power were lovely to read too. Beard has a very personable approach, her writing (and speaking) is humorous, open and generous of spirit. She doesn’t just make a point, she explores it and you can tell that behind whatever she’s exploring there’s a vast well of deep knowledge and a hell of a lot of considered thought. She admits what she does not know (how rare), when she does not have answers, yet she is always exploring and trying to unroot the mechanisms that bind and direct social thought. She recognises that it is both too easy and too lazy to dismiss everything as misogyny, but she also recognises that women trying to push into spaces perceived as masculine – whether justified or not – will suffer an unnecessary and unwarranted level of dismissal and abuse and that something fundamental about this must change. It’s an intelligent, balanced exploration with a humorous edge and a very personable style which helps this non-classical reader relate to how the tropes of the classical world continue to shape our judgement today. Whilst it’s only a slim read it leaves the reader with a great deal to ponder which, to me, is always the sign of a good book.

Posted in equality, essays, gender, non-fiction, philosophy, politics | 4 Comments

Mokusei! A Love Story by Cees Nooteboom (translated by Adrienne Dixon)

I have never really been able to explain what it is that I love about the work of Cees Nooteboom, it falls into the genre of those things which evoke an inexplicable feeling, something so nebulous and delicate that I can barely think about it without causing it irreparable damage. Yet the feeling persists, even when I doubt it. I think it may be best expressed by the Japanese expression mono no aware which means something like the pathos of things, the bittersweet emotion that is evoked by the beauty of impermanence. It is an apt reference because this brief, insubstantial novella has mono no aware lingering around it like the mists around Fujiyama.

Image result for mokusei cees nooteboomMokusei tells the story of Arnold Pessers, a Dutch photographer who visits Japan to take some photographs involving Fujiyama and a Japanese woman in traditional costume for a brochure. He embarks on a love affair with the woman who models for him, a woman who, to him, has three names: Satoko, which is her actual name, Snowy Mask which is a secret name and Mokusei which is the name of a scented Japanese flower which she introduces him to the morning after their first night together. As the story opens there is a sense that this affair has ended, that Arnold is looking back on his time with her, his time in Japan with mono no aware, the bittersweet knowledge of what had been, how brief it was, how astonishing, how devastating. Alongside his affair he reflects upon his relationship with Japan, largely through reflections of his conversations with a friend, De Goede, who worked at the Belgian embassy in Japan and who was instrumental in Pessers meeting his Mokusei.

“Then he turned to the purple flowers again. The leaves were long and narrow but the flowers themselves had a crumpled look, drops like quicksilver adhered to the green sepals. There was a curious oneness in everything, the sound of the water, the darkness that slowly fell upon the world, making the mist intenser, more sombre in colour; it all seemed to be one thing. And then there was the sound of the crickets, even now in October, and that was what they cried, October, October.”

The bulk of the story covers the time during which Pessers met Mokusei. Pessers was a novice to Japan, he was still enrapt in the ‘idea’ of it (as De Goede refers to it), the aesthetic and spiritual ideal of Japan as a place of purity and self-sacrifice. By meeting Mokusei he begins to learn about the duality, but more than that the mask beneath the mask. Like the woman, Japan has three faces. He will meet them all in his time there. As a photographer, Pessers is alert to the restlessness, the hidden energy that lies behind any image. Despite his intense focus on Mokusei, he is never quite able to penetrate her image. Their affair is doomed to end; something which he knows deep down but cannot allow himself to admit.

“…and this was exactly what the picture showed, a grey, leaden, old-fashioned plain in which prairie and water seemed to merge into each other without distinction. The horizon was a straight line; above it hung an equally desolate sky of a lighter grey, without any nuances. Two fields of grey, in fact, one darker, one lighter. And yet, when you looked longer, something like movement began to appear in those dead expanses of grey, a fraction of the light in the upper area had imparted itself to the darker area below, so that something of the light which had shone on that sombre river that day had been preserved; a few streaks, a few patches, a flicker, just as the light of the stars tries to speak of something that happened before there were people and would try to do so even if no people had ever come into existence, although in that case the question arose: Why or, rather, for whose benefit?”

Mokusei is an extraordinarily beautiful story, it is lightly told and yet layered with meaning and depth. It is a book which benefits from more than one reading. In fact, on my first reading I found myself a little frustrated; the story was so insubstantial, so delicate, that I felt almost cheated by its brevity. However, on my second reading it pulled me firmly in. I noticed the captivated beauty of the writing, the way in which Nooteboom creates space and slows time as he writes. It is a quality about his writing which I have long admired, the way in which he can seemingly write with intense clarity and yet create a nebulous uncertainty, a sense of a space opening inside in which anything and everything is possible. He evokes emptiness, transcendence, with nothing more than a description of a photograph, or a fruit dropped on a pathway, or the sound of the crickets. And he reflects, constantly, on life’s meaning, observing the way the mind works, how it challenges and tricks us. Like here, in a description which made me think again of that strange middle section of DeLillo’s Zero K:

“Long ago, and at the same time a sort of yesterday. For that kind of time no verb tenses exist. Memory flows this way and that between the perfect and the imperfect, just as the mind, left to itself, will often prefer chaos to chronology.”

And I wondered if the two writers, both predisposed to analyse the questions of language and memory, are somehow on the same wavelength, making the same connections and asking the same questions, and I also wondered if this is why I so admire both of their works. Nooteboom remains a firm favourite, a writer who has the strange capacity to evoke mono no aware, a beautiful kind of melancholy, whether he’s writing about Japan or the Australian outback or a suicidal man in Amsterdam. Mokusei may be slight and delicate, but it is also strangely affecting and it left me thinking about it for several days, rturning to a phrase or passage such as those I’ve posted here, wondering what it is that makes them feel so extraordinary.

With thanks to thebookbindersdaughter whose post alerted me to the existence of this previously untranslated novella by Nooteboom.

Posted in fiction, translation | 6 Comments

Meditations by Marcus Aurelius

For those of you who have seen the movie Gladiator, you may recognise the name Marcus Aurelius as being the old emperor who offers Maximus the stewardship of Rome, only to be assassinated by his own son, inadvertently condemning Maximus to a butchered family and a life battling tigers in the Colosseum. None of those exciting events occur in the Meditations, but the vision of Aurelius as a benevolent, thoughtful emperor threads through his writings and this, rather than the Hollywood movie, is what Aurelius is rightfully remembered for.

I have, for a long time, been attracted to the philosophy of stoicism. This is the first time I’ve read it directly, in all other respects I have read about it referenced in other works or heard of its similarity in tone to many of the books and articles which have most stirred my admiration or struck an emotional chord. In recent weeks it has been calling to me from the shelf, but I have put off reading it knowing it would need a certain amount of focused attention which I had not been in a position to give. Then after all my travels, all the work pressures and the woozy-fug of seasonal tiredness and jet lag, it just felt like the right time. It was the right time.

The Meditations are a series of reflections, thoughts and ideas which Marcus Aurelius collected over his lifetime. Each meditation is a short passage, maybe a paragraph or two at most, and reflect Aurelius’s musings on his life, behaviour, the ‘right’ way to live and interact with others. The reflections are split into twelve books, and the whole selection is no more than around 150 pages long. In some respects the structure reminded me of Maggie Nelson’s work, though considerably less poetic and with fewer references to the works of others.

“If you are doing your proper duty let it not matter to you whether you are cold or warm, whether you are sleepy or well-slept, whether men speak badly or well of you, even whether you are on the point of death or doing something else: because even this, the act in which we die, is one of the acts of life, and so here too it suffices to ‘make the best move you can.’”

There’s a sense when reading the meditations that they weren’t intended for anyone other than Aurelius himself. It reads like a journal, actually a little like my own journal if you strip out some of the self-pity and the plotting and organising and add a massive dose of thoughtful philosophy. Aurelius appears to be self-coaching, reminding himself of what he finds admirable, the people and the behaviours he has admired and, perhaps more crucially, what he does not. Each passage is quite beautiful in its own right, but as the meditations build you begin to see a picture of the man and the kinds of ways of being which can lead to a life filled with meaning and value. He is modest, or tries to be modest, not puffed up with self-importance or the luxurious trappings of holding a throne; he believes in maintaining a constant mindfulness of the brevity of life, how fleeting and how soon forgotten (however important the individual); he talks of gratitude, of valuing what you have and not being consumed by desire or grief for what you do not. His is a philosophy of acceptance, but also one which strikes at its centre a core of steely self-determination, of living by ones own values and sticking to them rather than being pushed and pulled by the views and expectations of others. Self-control is an important trait, because only by knowing your own soul and being in command of it can you live a life of intention and purpose.

“Finally, then, remember this retreat into your own little territory within yourself. Above Image result for meditations by marcus aureliusall, no agonies, no tensions. Be your own master, and look at things as a man [or woman…my insert], as a human being, as a citizen, as a mortal creature. And here are two of the most immediately useful thoughts you will dip into. First that things cannot touch the mind: they are external and inert; anxieties can only come from your internal judgement. Second, that all these things you see will change almost as you look at them, and then will be no more. Constantly bring to mind all that you yourself have already seen changed. The universe is change: life is judgement.”

There’s a certain amount of repetition in the meditations, perhaps not surprisingly Aurelius returned to certain themes over and over. Yet they were also themes I needed to hear, to be reminded of. That I should be grateful for the things, the many wonderful things, that I have, that I should accept the things I cannot change, that when I feel angry it is because I have allowed outside entities to upset my equilibrium, that nothing outside myself can touch me except if I allow it.

 “Do not dream of possession of what you do not have: rather reflect on the greatest blessings in what you do have, and on their account remind yourself how much they would have been missed if they were not there. But at the same time you must be careful not to let your pleasure in them habituate you to dependency, to avoid distress if they are sometimes absent.”

Despite the fact that I knew I needed to give the meditations focused, uninterrupted attention I still found myself struggling to do them the justice they deserved. It is not a book which can be read quickly or superficially, though it does lend itself to being dipped into and out of at need. There were certain passages I read over and over because there was something within them I both needed to understand and remember. That life is brief, that if you take the long view very little matters at all; and I was reminded of a time, once, when we were having some ridiculous argument at work about a cupboard and people were getting heated and unkind and out of the blue I recalled a strange little piece of information – that it took 50,000 years for a photon of light to make its way from the centre of the sun to the surface, and a further 8 ½ minutes to make its way to my eye – and something about the fact that the light I was seeing was so ancient and the thought that if a photon of light was created that minute by the time it reached the Earth even the idea of a cupboard would probably be dead and gone, that suddenly it became so clear to me that what we were arguing about didn’t matter, nothing that we did mattered, and it was so easy, then, to let it all go. Letting things go is something Marcus Aurelius understood so well and so beautifully, and it in such a way that you know letting go is not so terrible, that we will die and be gone and forgotten and it’s okay because that’s how Nature is intended to work and all we ever lose is the present moment. We cannot lose the past or the future, because we’re in possession of neither. In some ways it is bleak, but it is also extremely comforting. I can’t explain why that is. I know it is not a philosophy that speaks to everyone, but it speaks volumes to me.

“You should avoid flattery as much as anger in your dealing with them: both are against the common good and lead to harm. In your fits of anger have this thought ready to mind, there is nothing manly in being angry, but a gentle calm is both more human and therefore more virile. It is the gentle who have strength, sinew and courage – not the indignant and complaining. The closer to control of emotion, the closer to power. Anger is as much a sign of weakness as is pain. Both have been wounded, and have surrendered.”

I have read the Meditations and I know I will read them again. I am frustrated that I could not quite yet bring myself to devote my entire attention to them. Perhaps not this time, but perhaps in the future, maybe not even the too distant future, I will read them again and perhaps then, and perhaps over the course of whatever remains of my life, I’ll learn the acceptance that Marcus Aurelius spent his life convincing himself he had to attain.

Posted in Classics, comfort books, non-fiction, philosophy | 7 Comments