The Ideal Reader Book 12: Germinal by Emile Zola (translated by Leonard Tancock)

“While Etienne lingered by the fire warming his poor raw hands, Le Voreux began to emerge as from a dream. He could now pick out each part of the works: the tarpaulin-covered screening shed, the headgear, the huge winding-house, the square tower of the drainage pump. With its squat brick buildings huddled in a valley, and the chimney sticking up like a menacing horn, the pit was evil-looking, a voracious beast crouching ready to devour the world.”

It’s taken me a month to read Germinal, not because it is overly long or difficult or boring or any of those things. No, I have been rather distracted, occupied, work has been difficult and I have been studying for an exam and it has all combined into a kind of depressive fug amongst which confronting this harsh, but exceptional, book has been something I could only take in small doses. But oh! it is exceptional, dense and beautifully written and stirring and awful. A reminder of what literature can achieve. I have spent the last month with a sick feeling in the pit of my stomach, just as the pit itself is sickening, swallowing families whole and giving them back nothing but black lungs and a hunger which cannot be sated.

Image result for Germinal bookGerminal tells the story of Etienne, a worker who is expelled from his engineering job on the railways due to an angry outburst who finds himself wandering, starving, looking for work. His wanderings take him to Le Voreux, the menacing pit described above, and through a happy (or not) accident he is able to secure himself a job as a haulier – someone who pushes the container of coal to be lifted out of the pit. This is usually a job for girls (surprise! women also worked down the pits) but a policy change means that Etienne is given the role. Here he meets Maheu, a man whose family have worked in the pit for generations, his own father working his last days before receiving his meagre pension, who befriends Etienne and eventually takes him in as a lodger. Maheu’s own family work in the pit: his daughter Catherine, who Etienne desires, his son Zacharie, his other son Jeanlin. At home Maheu has a wife Maheude, a disabled daughter Alzire, twins Lenore and Henri and a baby Estelle. His  father, Bonnemort, also lives with them. With so many mouths to feed, the pittance the family bring home leave them in perpetual debt, barely scraping by.

The poverty of their lives, the destitution and the difficulties of their working conditions are contrasted heavily by the lives of the bourgeoise who live off the backbreaking work of those down the pit. The Gregoires live a comfortable, placid life with full stomachs, warmth, the pleasure of knick knacks and leisure. The contrast is stark. At the time Etienne joins the pit workers, a recession is driving the price of coal down with the result that the pit owners want to cut costs. With a potential cut in wage coming to the already desperate and destitute miners, the conditions are ripe for revolt, which is exactly what happens with violent and unexpected consequences.

“With great difficulty Catherine made herself fill the tub, and she pushed it off. The gallery being too wide for her to get a purchase against the timbers on each side, her bare feet caught in the rails where they tried to get a hold and she moved along very slowly, with her arms held out stiff in front and her body bent double. When she reached the stretch along the corroi, the torture by fire began again, and sweat poured from her in great drops like heavy rain. Before she had gone a third of the relay she was streaming and blinded, and covered with black mud like the men. Her tight-fitting shirt seemed to be soaked in ink, and it clung to her skin and crept up to her haunches with the movement of her thighs; it tied her up so painfully that she had to stop work again.”

Meanwhile Etienne finds himself enamoured with Catherine, Maheu’s daughter. Catherine, however, takes up, accidentally it seems, with another worker Chaval. Chaval is violent, abusive, a situation which Catherine accepts as all she has ever seen is violent and abusive relationships. Catherine’s life is harsh, too harsh. Etienne, in his jealousy, takes up a political education. Etienne is already prone to violence himself, an idealist who is caught in the ideals of communism without the understanding of what it really means. With his mangled concepts he fashions himself as a political leader, leading his fellow miners into a destructive strike. Needless to say, things don’t work out well for anyone concerned.

“Yes, all you French workers have that one idea: you want to dig up a treasure and live on it for evermore in selfish and lazy isolation. You make a great song against the rich, but when fortune gives you some money you haven’t the guts to give it back to the poor. You will never deserve to be happy so long as you have personal possessions, and your hatred of the borgeouis simply comes from your mad desire to be borgeouis yourselves in their place!”

The violence and destitution, the miserable lives of the miners is exposed with pitiless clarity by Zola’s exceptional work. It reads as though it is a documentary, displaying the bare facts and the mistaken thinking of those on both sides, how this leads to inevitable conflict with disastrous results. Consequently Germinal is a stirring but harsh read. Nothing good comes of the strike, but the desperation of the workers’ lives, the sheer lack of hope, of a buffer zone in which the people could breathe, coupled with the wilful ignorance of the pit owners means the action is all but inevitable. Whilst Germinal was written 60 years ago it feels as fresh as though it was written yesterday, and it holds currency too. In some places in the world, workers are still exploited in this way, their lives are small, tight and miserable and perhaps here, in the West, our bellies grow fat on the back of those workers. Perhaps because they are now so far away, we do not see it. And here too the lives of those in poverty are merciless and tight and without hope. Revolution is not the answer, that it clear from Zola’s work, but empathy, compassion, seeing each other as people and not enemies, tools or animals, is perhaps our only hope.

Germinal is a difficult, sorrowful read. I found it hard to read it in long stretches. Fortunately the chapters are short so it is possible to encounter in small doses. But it is also an important book, an exceptional book, beautifully written. It is considered Zola’s most significant book and I can see why; I have read Therese Raquin previously and this, too, is a brilliant book but Germinal is next level. Zola is truly a great writer, though a pitiless one. Or perhaps not. Perhaps his unflinching approach is exactly what it takes to help us all see each other as human, living our different lives as best we can.

Posted in Classics, The Ideal Reader | 9 Comments

Travels with Myself and Another, Five Journeys from Hell by Martha Gellhorn

“What has politics to do with real daily life, as real people live it?”

Why have I never heard of Martha Gellhorn before?

I’ve taken a short break from Ideal Reading having become a little worn out after the epic Story of the Stone, struggling to commit to something else from those hefty tomes. This is rubbish, of course, I’m sure I could have read any one of them, but the fact is I came to this stunning realisation that reading from my selection of books that weren’t bought for idealistic purposes wasn’t actually breaking any rules. When my objective was to stop impulse buying and commit to reading from my existing stock, it was utterly permissible to read from any of my stock whether I’d read it before or not. Thus I cheerfully snagged this book off the ‘non-ideal’ shelves; a gift from a friend who made a kind and judicious selection from my wishlist though I cannot recall how or why this book ended up on it except it is by Eland (who I love) and it sounded interesting.

Why have I never heard of Martha Gellhorn before?

GellhornThe book is Gellhorn taking a little backwards view at five of the many journeys she’d taken in her life which stood out in her mind as being particularly awful. Gellhorn was a prodigious traveller, famous (although not with me. I am fuming that her name is not as household as the once-upon-a-time husband whose name I won’t mention) for her journalistic activities in places of conflict and war: the Spanish Civil War, WWII, Vietnam. That these trips stood out against those others, which must have been hellish in the extreme, says something for the depredation suffered, the complexities of the awfulness of these specific journeys. She begins in China during the war. China was a place she dreamed of going ‘the Orient’ as she describes it having developed a longing ‘mooning on streetcar travels and stuffing [her] imagination with Fu Manchu and Somerset Maugham’. The reality was somewhat different, as she describes:

“Mashed bedbugs on the walls, bedbugs creeping over the board beds, peering from the wood floor. Bedbugs smell apart from their bite. Two bamboo chairs, a small table, a kerosene lamp, a bowl of dirty water without spittoon for emptying it in. Down the corridor, a fine modern porcelain toilet in a cement cubicle but not geared to modern plumbing; the bowl overflowed across the floor. The sight was more appalling than the stench though the stench was superlative. I flung Keatings powder everywhere until our room looked as if it had been hit by a powdered-mustard cyclone. We argued as to whether sleeping on the floor was safer than on the board beds.”

Ostensibly she was in China reporting on the war, looking for the mythical Sino-Japanese front, which turned out to be something far less dramatic than she’d imagined (or hoped, I suspect). Still she gleefully describes all the horrors – the boredom, the smells, the terrible poverty, the noises (farting, burping, coughing, hawking – only the last of which made her feel physically sick), the horrors and difficulties of getting from one place to another. Her descriptions of the CNAC air service put my meagre difficulties, the minor delays and overcrowding, on what is the now legendary Northern Rail service into sharp relief as I contrasted the smelly warm crush with the unheated, unpressurised flights, flying in the dark invisibility of fog to avoid the Japanese fighters which Gellhorn still describes as being “never a dull moment. Glowing with adrenalin and high spirits, I would gladly have started again on the next flight.” I begin to feel like an over-pampered, sulky white western princess conflating even the most minor discomforts, which is in fact exactly what I am.

From there Gellhorn moves to the Caribbean where she spends a not very fun time in boats, skipping from island to island trying to get sunk by a German U-boat. I kid you not. It was a trip in which she suffered great boredom and little peril, though it was clear the idea was considered more than a little crazy:

“Word of my scheme got around and resulted in a visit from a burly Texas Major in charge of guarding the island. He brought me a miniature pearl-handled silver plated derringer. It looked just the weapon for a crackpot wearing a negligee trimmed in ostrich feathers who planned to shoot her lover. He gave me four bullets, blunt-nosed 32s, showed me how to load this lethal toy, told me earnestly that it would cut a man in half and not to hesitate to use it. ‘You don’t now what can happen, all alone out there,’

I said I could not accept his expensive pistol, had never used a handgun and was never anxious about my honour. He insisted until finally I thanked him, wrapped the pretty thing in Kleenex, put the bullets in an airmail envelope and the lot at the bottom of my suitcase. Somewhere during the journey, I must have given it away.”

Not a U-boat seen, though she rescued a cat and learned to hate the sea. By now I was enjoying myself immensely, and though it is evident Gellhorn did not her wry, droll sense of humour shines through and what might be a tragedy in other hands is light comedy in hers. From all the horrors, the mistakes, the bad food and perilous journeys, you get the impression Gellhorn is in her element.

From the glistening Caribbean to the wilds of Africa and what becomes the longest section of the book, a self-funded trip to West and East Africa which Gellhorn describes in great detail. It is evident that Africa had a significant impact on Gellhorn, in fact she built one of her ‘several’ residences there and wrote about it more extensively afterwards. Did that mean she had a great time? Of course not! These are journeys from hell after all and perhaps the hell of Africa was not Africa itself but the fact of it coming out from under ‘civilised’ European rule:

“I lay under the mosquito net and thought white people were boobs, Africa has nothing to do with us and never will have. I also thought of politics: Cameroun has a black gentleman in European clothes representing his nation at the UN in New York. The naked pagans and the barbaric chiefs will be spoken for, in French, by an African who has learned the European tricks, and will be a black copy of the other gentlemen gathered in that glass palace on the East River. African politicians outside Africa, must represent their people even less than politicians generally do; or else they represent how their people might be a hundred years from now.

It is all mad and a joke. We are fools; we believe in words, not reality which the words are supposed to describe. Politics – the bungling management of the affairs of men – is a game played among themselves by a breed of professionals. What has politics to do with real daily life, as real people live it?” 

And this is what I also loved about Gellhorn, for all the comedy of her trips she had a keen insight and really saw the lives of the people she encountered. They were not a battlefield statistic, an idea, a section of coloured blobs to be moved around a board. They were real, physical, soulful people; real in every sense, with all the senses high tuned to their glories and miseries (and smells, definitely smells). Gellhorn gets to the root of the matter. Africa was not for Europeans, the Caribbean was slower but better off (culturally, if not financially) before American money transfigured it into a pleasure palace. Gellhorn had been out into the world, really lived there, and seen it change. Her final journey was to Russia, a place did didn’t want to go and hated for all the right reasons and some unexpected ones too. I wonder what she would say if it now?

I adored this book, adored and admired it. Of course I want to read everything by Gellhorn now, though I’m restricted to this one little volume for the moment. I feel like I’m late to the party, yet her name is not one I’ve heard from any corners and when you search for her she appears most frequently in relation to her brief marriage to that other, more famous, writer and I find myself livid that we still live in a world in which female achievement is eclipsed, female experience erased, except such as it appears as a footnote in the lives of men. I suspect it is a scenario which would make Gellhorn herself equally livid, and yet I think she would also breezily ignore it and get on with whatever it was she had in mind to do, which is an excellent example I intend to follow. But in the meantime I’ll sing her name from the rafters along with those other extraordinary women – Dervla Murphy, Christiane Ritter, Jenny Diski, Svetlana Alexievich – who too have gone out into the world and played it as they chose, seen it in their own way, regardless of this odd social construct which spins around us, trying to control and erase our lives.

Politics the bungling management of the affairs of men: what has it to do with us, after all?

Posted in Eland, non-fiction, travel | 9 Comments

The Ideal Reader book 9: The Story of the Stone by Cao Xuequin volumes IV and V (translated by John Minford)

“When grief for fiction’s idle words

More real than human life appears,

Reflect that life itself’s a dream

And do not mock the reader’s tears.”

One of the difficulties of reading the same book for 6 weeks is how it leaves you once it’s finished, where you go from there. I imagine it’s why people continue watching soap operas, because the characters seep into your daily life. They become real. In my life the characters of The Story of the Stone have become real and now my journey with them has finished, I miss them. And perhaps that’s the point; all along the book trips in these little reminders: fiction and truth overlap; if we think the story is a dream then we must remember that life, too, is a dream. A story we tell ourselves.

The last 2 volumes of The Story of the Stone took a turn for the dramatic. I think I mentioned that in volume 3 there were pre-figurings of a downturn in fortunes to come; in volumes 4 and 5 those downturns happen at speed. All is not well with the Jias. Their lives lived large come crashing down as one thing after another goes wrong. Meanwhile our hero – Bao-yu – and his sickly cousin Dai-yu grow ever closer while his family have very different ideas about his future bride, his more level-headed cousin Bao-chai. Needless to say this doesn’t turn out well for any of them, a message, perhaps, that interfering in heavenly matters is not for the unenlightened. Bao-yu loses his stone. Uncle She is charged with misdemeanors and loses his title. Even the upright Jia Zheng (Bao-yu’s father) is brought down by scandal. Deaths deplete the Jia numbers. Even the best are lost.

Meanwhile, Bao-yu is beginning to realise that enlightenment is his path. He has always been attracted to the tellings of the Taoists and Buddhists – Chuang Tzu, Lieh-tzu – a habit which has been a significant source of dismay on the part of his father and the people around him who expect a more practical life – passing exams, doing the family credit, having children and so on. I found the juxtaposition fascinating – the way in which the people around him try to deter him from meeting his spiritual needs and focusing on the practical elements of life. Can they prevent him from achieving his destiny? You’ll have to read the book to find out.

Despite my uncertainties during volume 2 and 3, overall I found The Story of the Stone a wonderful read. When I finished reading I felt like I ought to go back and start again, picking out the warning signs about how the Jia’s fortunes would ride out, enjoying those moments of poetry. And I felt a little bereft. I missed Bao-yu, Aroma, Dai-yu, Bao-chai, Xi-feng who comes to a sad end (though she probably deserved it). At the beginning of volume 1 Bao-yu has a dream in which he reads the fortunes of the ladies of the Jia family and I found myself turning back to it as those lives unfolded, beginning to understand how their destinies were predicted. It made me realise that there was much hidden between all those parties, those delicacies eaten and games of ‘guess fingers’ played. There was a depth I had missed, distracted by the dream of life.

So where do I go from here? I finished reading The Story of the Stone about a week ago and I’ve flopped between one book and the next feeling dissatisfied and unsure. What is all this reading for? I can’t say I know. And that passage above springs to mind – am I dreaming my life away caught in a fiction? Perhaps that’s the key message of The Story of the Stone, woven in gilt and embroidered luxury, that however adeptly we disguise it our lives are stories we tell ourselves and the lives of others are too. Maybe that’s the only way we think we can live, but then Bao-yu shows us otherwise. Accepting our fate and living with the ‘flow’ (or the Tao) of life may be the surest way of buffeting ourselves from the trials and the joys on which we might otherwise depend. A deep book after all, yet and entertaining one.

Posted in Chinese, Classics, The Ideal Reader | 5 Comments

The Ideal Reader book 9: The Story of the Stone by Cao Xuequin volumes 2 & 3 (translated by David Hawkes)

Yes, I’m still working my way through The Story of the Stone, though I’m beginning to feel like I’m on the home strait. I’ve been reading for nearly 5 weeks now, which is an age, and I’ve got through about 1,650 pages so far and don’t have a great deal to say about the book itself. The story continues much in the same vein as the first volume: Bao-yu continues to live in the gardens with his various young cousins; he spends much of his time with his maids, loafing around and avoiding his studies; there are arguments and intrigues, many parties, many gifts exchanged, poems written. People live, fight, love. People die. It is life in a microcosm, there are few notable events but lots of inter-relations. Bao-yu’s relationship with Dai-yu is growing, both in intensity and awkwardness. Meanwhile we begin to receive hints that perhaps all is not well with the fortunes of the family – harvests are short and money grows short too.

Rather than focus on the story, I want to take a moment to reflect on the experience of reading this book. More than once I have been reminded of my previous experiences of attempting to read Don Quixote, a book I never finished and could not quite pinpoint the reason why. When I was reading I found the book enjoyable, interesting, yet when I set it aside I didn’t feel any urge to continue. I couldn’t account for it, and eventually gave up entirely. There was nothing at all wrong with the book, I just didn’t need to read it anymore. Towards the end of volume 2 of The Story of the Stone, I started to feel the same way. Perhaps it is the episodic nature of the story, the limited ‘action’ and seemingly trivial details – all the parties, the ‘delicacies’ consumed, the brocade and embroidered robes, the tears, the offences, the little spats and admonishments – which lend a lackadaisical tone to the book and challenge shortened attention spans. Perhaps this is why chunkster books are less prevalent these days. They take patience. Stories develop slowly. We’ve become used to action, points, meaning, developments. But what The Story of the Stone is is a soap opera, perhaps the first of its kind, in which the day to day challenges of an aristocratic family are gently picked over. And perhaps these days such stories are told via TV shows like Meet the Kardashians, but without quite the same level of drama.

Irrespective of this restlessness I continued on, though not before giving myself a little coaching on the need to keep going, to let the story unfold and give it the attention it deserved. And there were hints of something deeper to come. Bao-yu begins to grow dissatisfied with his purposeless life. The family fortunes seem threatened. The cousins are growing up – some are being betrothed or married off, others suffer with delicate health which suggest a premature end. Familiar characters die. And then there’s Wang Xi-feng. I’m not sure if I would have continued if not for Xi-feng. Xi-feng is married to Jia Lian, she is Bao-yu’s cousin by marriage (though referred to as ‘Aunt’ throughout) and she acts as principle housekeeper, purse-keeper and tyranny of servants for both the houses. Xi-feng is quite a character. She is sharp, difficult, tough on the servants, she is avaricious, usurious, grasping and manipulative. Xi-feng’s storylines are the light relief from all the boring parties, the poetry (and I like poetry, but there is sure a lot of it), the refined behaviour. Her storylines are often shocking, her behaviour appalling and yet you find yourself rooting for her because she is simply so entertaining.

I also realised, as I moved more deeply into volume 3, that whilst Bao-yu is the lens, this is largely a story of the lives of girls. Men figure, but they’re often making fools of themselves, being harsh, drunk or seducing the maids. Older women, barring Grandmother Jia, are often behaving pettily or shrewishly. Yet the girls – their lives are cloistered  but still rich and they care for each other and Bao-yu ever so carefully. None of the girl’s lives, from the most aristocratic to the lowliest maid, is deemed too small to examine, and they are presented as principled, caring, thoughtful and generally hardworking, whilst also being forthright, honest and often sharp-tongued. Their lives can be harsh, but they get on with it the best they can.

Overall, I’m glad I kept going. I don’t think I could have done it if I hadn’t gradually slowed my reading and also focused on reading the books I own rather than the books I covet. And as volume 3 drew to a close I sensed a melancholy turn – so much is changing in the lives of the children and I sense that adulthood will strip away that carefree ‘live every day as it comes’ feel that the story has engendered so far. Meanwhile the Jias have become like an extended family to me. People are sharp, witty, vicious, caring, thoughtful, principled, intelligent, reprobate. They come to blows and they do idiotic things. They have wormed their way gently into my affections. I’m looking forward to reading on.

Posted in Chinese, Classics, The Ideal Reader | 4 Comments

The Ideal Reader book 9: The Story of the Stone by Cao Xuequin volume 1 (translated by David Hawkes)

Image result for the story of the stone volume 1The Story of the Stone, perhaps more recognisably known as The Dream of the Red Chamber, is an epic work of Chinese fiction, my copy in five volumes weighing in at a massive 2480 pages long. I bought it ages ago intending to read it over a Christmas holiday but always balked at the length and the commitment to one book of such epic proportions, knowing how easily I get bored and knowing I would burn to move on to the next book, something different, something unknown. In my former book gnashing state, I would never have got around to this book. I may have held onto it, or I may have decided to get rid of it. In my quest to read all those ‘ideal reader’ purchases, this was an obvious choice for the list.

I have a full 3 weeks off work this summer and I’ve been reading a lot about Buddhism and Taoism recently and I was thinking about maybe tackling War & Peace when my eye chanced upon this set and I thought ‘well, how about it?’ and it didn’t feel too terrifying. This felt like a real mind-shift. In slowing down my reading, and focusing on the books in front of me, I have achieved a state of greater calm, of greater endurance, or lesser distraction perhaps. It may help that I’ve been meditating daily for a month and a half, I’m not sure. Whatever it is, the idea of absorbing myself in a book of such unthinkable size has actually grown quite appealing. It doesn’t matter that it will take a long time to read.

I feel like I have turned a corner (knowing, of course, that corners are illusory).

So, what is The Story of the Stone about? In the beginning when the goddess Nu-wa was repairing the sky she created a great quantity of building blocks. One of these blocks was left discarded, unused, at the foot of Greensickness Peak. There it lay in its shame and misery until along came a Buddhist monk and a Taoist monk. They picked it up, recognising its magical properties, and inscribed words upon it and promised to send it on an enlightening journey. And so the stone is born as a piece of jade in the mouth of Bao-yu, a son of the wealthy Jia family. Bao-yu is a constant disappointment to his father, being rather dreamy and more interested in hanging around with the girls than in submitting himself to the study of Confucianism. So the story of the stone is the story of a boy, living a transient human life with no recollection of his former status.

Alongside Bao-yu is a bewildering cast of characters, hundreds (it certainly feels like) sharing the daily trials of life in eighteenth century China. The principle characters surrounding Bao-yu are his cousin Dai-yu, a wilful, sorrowful orphaned girl with whom Bao-yu shares a strong emotional connection, and another cousin Bao-chai who is the epitome of the ideal woman: beautiful, restrained, gracious. There is his Aunt Xi-feng who runs the households, his father Jia Zheng who Bao-yu is terrified of, his various helpers and maids – Aroma, being the principle one, with whom Bao-yu loses his virginity – and a billion and one family members. At first the vast array of character is quite overwhelming, not helped, of course, by my ignorance of Chinese names. But as the book develops, this bewilderment becomes less pronounced and by about halfway through I was beginning to more easily recognise the various parties to the story.

Bao-yu himself is fortunate to be born into a wealthy family with all benefits and opportunities available to him. The Story of the Stone follows a relatively conventional narrative arc, recounting the experiences of Bao-yu’s days, along with those of the principle characters that surround him. Despite its enormous size, the book is surprisingly easy to read; it has an easy-going nature, pleasant and often quite funny. It chronicles the daily comings and goings, the ordinary intrigues, the sorrows, tragedies and the virtues of a traditional, though wealthy, Chinese household. There are plays and poems, games, fallings out and assignations. A lot if it is extremely amusing, like here where Nannie Li is having a moment and it all spins out of control:

“Xi-feng happened to be in Grandmother Jia’s room totting up the day’s scores for the final settlement when she heard this hubbub in the rear apartment. She identified it immediately as Nannie Li on the rampage once more, taking out on Bao-yu’s unfortunate maids some of the spleen occasioned by her recent gambling losses. At once she hurried over, seized Nannie Li by the hand, and admonished her with smiling briskness:

‘Now Nannie, we mustn’t lose our tempers! This is a New Year holiday and Her Old Ladyship has been enjoying herself all day. A person of your years ought to be stopping other people from quarrelling yourself. Surely you know better than that? If anyone has been misbehaving, you have only to tell me and I’ll have them beaten for you. Now I’ve got a nice hot pheasant stew in my room. You just come along with me and you shall have some of that and a drink to go with it!’

She proceeded to haul her off the premises, addressing a few words over her shoulder to her maid Felicity as she went:

‘Felicity, bring Nannie’s stick for her, there’s a good girl! And for goodness’ sake give her a handkerchief to dry her eyes with!’

Unable to hold her ground. the old Nannie was borne off in Xi-feng’s wake, muttering plaintively as she went:

‘I wish I was dead, I really do! But I’d sooner forget meself and make a scene like I have today and be shamed in front of you all than put up with the insolence of those shameless little baggages!’

Watching this sudden exit, Bao-chai and Dai-yu laughed and clapped their hands:

‘How splendid! Just the sort of wind we needed to blow the old woman away!’

But Bao-yu shook his head and sighed:

‘I wonder what had really upset her. Obviously she only picked on Aroma because she is weak and can’t defend herself. I wonder which of the girls had offended her to make her so…’

He was interrupted by Skybright:

‘Why should any of us want to upset her? Do you think we’re mad? And even if we had offended her, we should be perfectly capable of owning up to it and not letting someone else take the blame!’

Aroma grasped Bao-yu’s hand and wept:

‘Because I offended one old nurse, you have to go offending a whole roomful of people. Don’t you think there’s been enough trouble already without dragging other people into it?'”

This was not one of Bao-yu’s better days!

Volume 1 of The Story of the Stone has proven a gentle, fun and playful read which explores the growing relationships between Bao-yu and his cousins, as well as the daily goings on in the Jia family. In some areas I grew a little tired of the voluptuousness of the family life – the endless delicacies and taels of silver, the shining brocades and jewellery – but I suppose I have to appreciate that in the era in which it was written the extravagant lives of the aristocracy would have been of interest much as the extravagant lives of celebrities holds interest today, and it’s a minor niggle in what has otherwise been a surprisingly compelling read. And I half wonder if it’s leading up to something which will take the book in a different direction. Either way, I don’t mind. This book was not quite what I expected, but I’m intrigued enough to continue to volume 2 and if it continues in the same vein I’m still going to be happy. It’s fun, humane, often silly and very entertaining. Whatever is in store for innocent (or not so innocent) Bao-yu. I’m on board.

Posted in Chinese, Classics, Epic, fiction, The Ideal Reader, translation | 3 Comments

The Ideal Reader Book 5: The Three-cornered World by Natsume Soseki (translated by Alan Turney)

“I wonder how it would be if, while I am on this short journey, I were to regard events as though they were part of the action of a Noh play, and the people I meet merely as if they were actors. Since this trip is concerned fundamentally with poetry, I should like to take the opportunity of getting near the Noh atmosphere by curbing my emotions as much as possible, even though I know I cannot disregard them entirely.”

A while ago I was heavily into reading Japanese writers, exploring a wide range of books from that country from The Tale of Genji to In the Miso Soup. I discovered a great love of Japanese fiction. There’s a sparseness to it, even in its most glorious excess (Miso Soup is extremely violent) which allows the reader space to reflect. Themes of loneliness, isolation; the unspokenness of life. These are all themes that draw me in. No wonder I still feel a frisson of connection when I see a Japanese name on a book.

I bought a lot of books by Japanese writers, borrowed more, and I read most of them but there are still a handful languishing on my shelves unread. For some reason The Three Cornered World was one of them. I’m not sure why. I’ve read Kokoro by Soseki and thought it delicate and under-stated, yet somehow I never managed to get around to this one. Perhaps I had to be in the right mood. I was definitely in the right mood. In the blurb on the back of my copy the book is described as an ‘exquisite word painting’ and I can’t think of a more appropriate description. It is at once beautiful, strange, delicate and bold. It is like a work of zen art – simple, bold brushstrokes suspended in empty space. It is entrancing.

 “I suppose you could say that an artist is a person who lives in the triangle which remains after the angle which we may call common sense has been removed from this four-cornered world.

 Because of this lack of common sense, the artist is not afraid to approach those areas, both in the natural and the man-made world, from which the average person shrinks back, and in consequence is able to find the most exquisite pearls of beauty. This portrayal of beauty where it is commonly believed none exists, is generally called ‘poetic embellishment’. It is nothing of the sort. There is, in fact, no need for embellishment, since in all things there lies beneath the surface an intrinsic beauty which is a reality and which has always existed in all its brilliance merely waiting to be discovered.”

 There is not so much of a story in The Three Cornered World, rather I would describe it as a series of encounters. A young man, an artist, goes on a trip to stay at a mountain hotel intending to create art in the process. Along the way he muses about art, how art is formed, the bones of its creation.

Image result for the three cornered world“Approach everything rationally, and you become harsh. Pole along in the stream of emotions, and you will be swept away by the current. Give free rein to your desires, and you become uncomfortably confined. It is not a very agreeable place to live, this world of ours.

 When this unpleasantness increases, you want to draw yourself up to some place where life is easier. It is just at the point when you first realise that life will be no more agreeable no matter what heights you may attain, that a poem may be given birth, or a picture created.”

The hotel he chooses to stay in is empty, a little run down, not expecting guests. During his time there he becomes intrigued by the owner’s daughter, a divorced woman with a bad reputation, who behaves in an unseemly way which, as it turns out, is just one of those uncomfortable situations in which art can be formed. His encounters with her are strange, filled with a mysterious significance, always unsatisfactory and brief. He sees her at a distance in her wedding dress. In his notebook he writes a series of poems inspired by her, and she replies. She joins him, briefly, in the bathhouse. There is no sense of romance, rather it is more of a recognition – the daughter is a strange, artistic soul seeking expression. She may be lost in the emotional current herself, but as fodder for the artist she is perfect.

Aside from the daughter our protagonist spends time with her father – a man who collects beautiful objects – and a zen Buddhist monk. There is also a nephew who is being sent to fight in Manchuria, and whilst his story is brief and barely touched upon it serves as an interesting counterpoint to the artistic mind, the man who wafts with no object, barely touching his paints, juxtaposed against this boy who is likely going to his death, willingly and without doubts.

The Three Cornered World is a strange and exquisite book. It reads almost like a diary, the musings of Soseki on the subject of art. At times there is a sense of superiority – the idea that the artistic mind is the ultimate elevation – and these moments jar a little because in all other respects this is a delicately drawn book, subtle and expansive. Yet these jarring moments do not spoil the book, they make it more real. There’s a sense that there’s a real person, a bold force, behind these haiku-esque musings.

When I finished reading The Three Cornered World I was left with a sense of something unspoken, difficult to articulate. It is a gorgeous read. There is great beauty in it, but also a great deal of philosophical thinking. It left me with a great deal to think about. Each line feels crafted, but not in a unsettling way. It is like looking at a painting and then looking at it again and finding something different each time, something you hadn’t noticed. There’s a gentleness to it, and a boldness. It is many things and no things. Like mist over mountain landscape, it obscures and reveals. I keep lingering over that description ‘an exquisite word painting’ and I think it is definitely true. Yet it is more than that. It is not just a painting, it is life.

Posted in Art, fiction, Japanese, The Ideal Reader | 11 Comments

The Ideal Reader book 3: The Snow Leopard by Peter Matthiessen

“Amazingly,we take for granted that instinct for survival, fear of death, must separate us from the happiness of pure and uninterrupted experience, in which body, mind, and nature are the same. And this debasement of our vision, the retreat from wonder, the backing away like lobsters from free-swimming life into safe crannies, the desperate instinct that our life passes unlived, is reflected in proliferation without joy, corrosive money rot, the gross befouling of the earth and air and water from which we came.”

 I read The Snow Leopard and I read it again. I had heard it was a transcendent book, a ‘must read’ both for the seeker in the world and the seeker of the inner world, and it’s all true. Yet it’s more complex than that. On the one hand, Matthiessen’s journey is one focused on the mundane, the difficulties of daily life – eating, moving, sleeping, being cold and wet, being tired, being cross, being impatient. On the other hand it is a journey to inner discovery, an exploration of someone seeking something beyond themselves. In the physical world Matthiessen is seeking both the Crystal Mountain monastery, a fabled buddhist temple in a remote area of Tibet and the fabled, elusive snow leopard. In the spiritual world he is seeking a resolution, a deeper kind of buddhist experience and a reconciliation with the death of his wife – Deborah Love – a woman with which he had a tumultuous relationship. He left behind his children to go on this journey. Perhaps it was worth it.

“But when I came across these cautionary words, I already had what Kierkegaard called “the sickness of infinitude”, wandering from one path to another with no real recognition that I was embarked upon a search and scarcely a clue as to what I might be after. I only knew that at the bottom of each breath there was a hollow place that needed to be filled.”

Image result for the snow leopard peter matthiessen vintageThe book is split into four sections each representing a period of travel: Westward, Northward, The Crystal Mountain, The Way Home. His travelling companion is George Schaller a naturalist who is seeking insight into the bharal – the Himalayan blue sheep. Schaller may be familiar to those who have read Gorillas in the Mist as the man who influenced Dian Fossey to deepen the research into the mountain gorilla, amongst other accomplishments. Along with Schaller there are a troupe of various porters and scherpers, some of which stay for the whole journey and others which fall away. One in particular, Tukten, has a profound impact on Matthiessen. He feels a connection he cannot explain, though Tukten is believed to be unreliable.

The book takes the form of a diary which includes details of the journey as well as Matthiessen’s reflections on his buddhist experience as well as his late wife. It is a strange blend: part expedition diary, part naturalist diary and part spiritual journey, with some of the history of Buddhism, particularly Tibetan Buddhism, woven into the blend. It makes a compelling tapestry, perhaps less so for those disinclined towards any religious exploration, but even taking this element out the book remains compelling. What ensues is something greater than the journey alone. Whilst the principle hunt, on Matthiessen’s part, is for the leopard, this element fades into the background as he discovers the greatness of what is already there in front of him: the treacherous and magnificent landscape, the strangeness of the goats, the hunting behaviour of wolves, the delicate yet resilient wildflowers, the resilience of the people that live in this difficult landscape, the darkness of night, the wonder of a lone voice singing. There is a strong parallel between the life of a naturalist and the inner life of a committed buddhist which centres around the importance of observation, the attention raised on the here and now, not inserting the ego but simply watching, seeing what actually happens rather than imposing the human will. It brought to mind the wonderful Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, the way Dillard observed and allowed herself to be absorbed into the landscape. Matthiessen struggles here to do the same thing. He is more revealing of his challenges – the moments of anger that he submits to, the difficulties of interrelationship and how this impedes his progress towards the inner peace, the negation of self, that he so desires.

“The search may begin with a restless feeling, as if one were being watched. One turns in all directions and sees nothing. Yet one senses that there is a source for this deep restlessness; and the path that leads there is not a path to a strange place, but the path home. (“But you are home,” cries the Witch of the North. All you have to do is wake up!”) The journey is hard, for the secret place where we have always been is overgrown with thorns and thickets of “ideas”, of fears and defences, prejudices and repressions. The holy grail is what Zen Buddhism calls our own “true nature”; each man is his own saviour after all.”

 The Snow Leopard is one of those books I have had extreme difficulty expressing my thoughts about. It has made me think a great deal and I think I could read it over and over and each time absorb something a little different. There’s an echo, a reflection perhaps, of my own experience though I am not embarking on an epic journey in which I will suffer privations and difficulties, in my interior life I sense similarities between where Matthiessen found himself and where I now reside. I have, I have had for a long time, that restless feeling. I encountered that same sense of recognition that Matthiessen makes reference to when I first read the Tao te Ching and I have been seeking something ever since. I have considered embarking on a spirit quest, odd as that sounds, which involves a period of isolation and fasting and in which everything that sustains and contains us is stripped away, revealing only whatever is left. Matthiessen’s journey expresses that experience in a very visceral way with all the difficulties and the errors, the everydayness of emotions piqued by lack of oxygen or hunger. What I realised as I read this extraordinary book is that there’s no need to go anywhere to explore these feelings, we can do it here and now. Because, for all of these experiences:

 “The ground whirls with its own energy, not in an alarming way but in a slow spiral, and at these altitudes, in this vast space and silence, that energy pours through me, joining my body with the sun until small silver breaths of cold, clear air, no longer mine, are lost in the mineral breathing of the mountain. A white down feature, sun-filled, dances before me on the wind: alighting nowhere, it balances on a shining thorn, goes spinning on. Between this white feather, sheep dung, light, and the fleeting aggregate of atoms that is “I”, there is no particle of difference. There is a mountain opposite, but this “I” is opposite nothing, opposed to nothing.”

 Eventually we have to return to daily life and daily life will intrude wherever we are, unless we take ourselves away forever, live off-grid, outside society for all time:

“The part of me that is bothered by the unopened letters in my rucksack, that longs to see my children, to drink wine, make love, be clean and comfortable again – this part is already facing south, over the mountains. This makes me sad, and so I stare about me, trying to etch into this journal the sense of Shey that is so precious, aware that all such effort is in vain; the beauty of this place must be cheerfully abandoned, like the wild rocks in the bright water of its streams. Frustration at the paltriness of words drives me to write, but there is more of Shey in a single sheep hair, in one withered sprig of everlasting, than in all of these notes; to strive for permanence in what I think I have perceived is to miss the point.”

So: does Matthiessen find the snow leopard? I’m afraid you’ll have to read the book to find out for yourself. And if you do I hope you found, as I did, that the experience was worth it whatever the outcome; because that, I think, is the core message that Matthiessen is trying to convey, the truth his Buddhism leads him to, that it is the experience of the journey that counts; the outcome, for us all, is always the same.

Posted in philosophy, religion, The Ideal Reader, travel | 8 Comments