Classics Club: East of Eden

John Steinbeck, East of Eden (1952)

East of Eden is one of those books that I’ve seen mentioned by many readers as an all-time favorite (though there are a few haters as well). When the Folio Society did a poll to gather suggestions for publication, it was at the top of the list … and they duly published their beautiful edition this year. Somehow I had never gotten around to reading it earlier in my life, but now seemed to be the perfect time.

And so it proved to be. In this time of chaos and confusion, Steinbeck’s exploration of the mystery of evil and the transforming nature of love is rich, complex, and powerful. It’s also simply a compelling story, which one can enjoy without thinking much about the deeper layers. But even if these do not come fully to consciousness, they will reverberate in the soul and have their own transforming effect.

Steinbeck weaves together many elements into this tapestry: a snapshot of a particular time and place, the Salinas Valley in California at the turn of the century; people and tales from his own family history; images and themes taken from myth and religion; invented characters including a terrifying psychopath; and commentary directly expressing the author’s philosophy. It’s a big, ambitious novel, and though there are weak points and a certain loss of narrative energy toward the end, for me Steinbeck succeeded in his stated goal of making me feel as though I were not reading a book, but living it. The people and places he created will continue to live within me and play their part in the drama of my own life. What greater claim to immortality could an author have?

A fascinating companion book is Journal of a Novel: The East of Eden Letters. As he was writing, Steinbeck simultaneously wrote a journal in the form of unsent “letters” to his editor and friend, Pascal Covici, on facing pages of the manuscript. It’s an unusual and perhaps unique glimpse into the writing process, into the usually invisible realm where an artist struggles to grasp and give form to what wants to be expressed through him. In many ways this struggle remains obscure — Steinbeck often tells Covici that he’s trying to do something without saying clearly what it is — and there are also passages that are repetitive and dull, such as recurring musings about pencils and pencil sharpeners. But even this is interesting in what it reveals about how the mundane and the extraordinary combine in a writer’s mind, and how he negotiates that balance in the heat of creation.

A few times, Steinbeck states in the letters that the creation of a novel is everything to him; once it’s finished it’s like a dead thing, and it’s time for him to move on to the next. This seems to me to express so well the sacrificial role of an artist, who gives all his mind and heart and soul to the process of creation, shaping a work that represents both something universal and something of its creator’s unique perspective, and then must leave it free to have its own life — which it does, within us.

And it’s clear to me from certain passages that Steinbeck and I are “kindred spirits,” as Anne Shirley would say. Here for example is his response to the contemporary trend towards pessimistic and misanthropic writing, which many would still consider the only serious kind:

If the written word has contributed anything at all to our developing species and our half developed culture, it is this: Great writing has been a staff to lean on, a mother to consult, a wisdom to pick up stumbling folly, a strength in weakness and a courage to support sick cowardice. And how any negative or despairing approach can pretend to be literature I do not know. It is true that we are weak and sick and ugly and quarrelsome but if that is all we ever were, we would millenniums ago have disappeared from the face of the earth… — Journal of a Novel, p. 107

His credo is amply demonstrated in East of Eden, which unflinchingly portrays the depths of evil and misery to which mankind can descend, without ever losing hope in our ascent. This is the kind of book it always gives me joy to discover, and that indeed gives me strength to carry on living. I truly don’t know what I would do without these beacons on the way.

Classics Club list #30


Classics Club: Excellent Women

Barbara Pym, Excellent Women (1952)

As I read Excellent Women, the best-known work by the once-neglected, now widely praised English novelist Barbara Pym, I was reminded of another acclaimed comic novel that I read not long ago: Lucky Jim by Kingsley Amis. On the surface, Amis’s hard-drinking, buffoonish misogynist Jim Dixon may seem to have little in common with Pym’s un-effusive, church-going “excellent woman,” Mildred Lathbury. But the two books shadow and reflect each other in a fascinating way.

Jim is an exercise in how uncongenial one can make a main character, while still attempting to elicit our sympathy for him. An English professor who apparently despises English literature, he goes on epic benders when he’s supposed to be giving a lecture, leaves cigarette burns in the sheets when he’s a houseguest, and is unable to disentangle himself from a woman he doesn’t love or respect — she’s marginally better than no girlfriend at all, it seems, in his “woman-as-object” universe. Some readers find him so awful, he’s adorable; I just found him awful.

Mildred, meanwhile, is about as self-effacing as a character presented in the first person can be. Set in postwar London, the book opens with new neighbors moving in upstairs, and as Mildred becomes a witness to and sometimes participant in their disordered lives, so much more glamorous and seedy than her own, we find us asking ourselves what she really thinks about all this. Other characters in the novel are always eager to tell her what she should be feeling, seeming to find the sensibilities of an unmarried woman over a certain age to be public property; she quietly expresses annoyance at this, while baffling us with sideways expressions and half-uncoverings of her true self.

In both books, though, the opposite sex is a total mystery. The masculine Jim approaches this riddle with bluff and bravado, the feminine Mildred with puzzlement and a sort of understated obstinacy. And both stories left me with a sense of melancholy, a sadness that human beings must so often miss and misunderstand one another. This was in many ways the source of the comedy, as in a screwball plot where everyone is running in circles after each other, and yet there was an undercurrent of tragedy in spite of the guardedly optimistic endings. Can either Jim or Mildred ever find a satisfying relationship that gets beyond the surface differences which separate us? I’m not so sure.

Interestingly enough, the two authors had a friend in common — the poet Philip Larkin, who both provided the model for Amis’s antihero, and had a warm admiration for Ms. Pym, whom he called one of the most criminally underrated writers of our time. This connection seems most suitable, as she helped me to see poor old Jim in a different light, and maybe even forgive some of his excesses. I’ll certainly be seeking out more of her novels, continuing to ponder her subtle perspective on men, women, the gulf between us, and the fragile bridges that we try to build.


Classics Club: The Return of the Native

Thomas Hardy, The Return of the Native (1874)

This was one of the first nineteenth-century classics I ever encountered in school — in my high school freshman class on British lit, along with Hamlet, Wuthering Heights, Great Expectations, and The French Lieutenant’s Woman (a rather odd assortment, now that I come to think of it). But my memory of it was dim — I remembered the lengthy descriptions of the heath, and the funny names like Eustacia and Diggory, but not much else. Definitely time for a reread.

As you are probably aware, Hardy is known for his plots which range from mildly pessimistic to incredibly tragic. On a scale of depressing-ness of 1 to 10, I’d give Native about a 7. Some of the main characters are still alive and functional at the end, and two of them even get to marry each other (though in a note Hardy says this was done against his will, due to circumstances of serial publication).

But none of these characters ever really change or learn anything. They’re like mechanical figures, set in motion by Hardy only to march inevitably over the edge of a precipice, while the reader watches helplessly as they do the very things they obviously shouldn’t. It’s a frustrating experience; though life is no doubt often like this, I usually look to literature to give me more hope for human agency and capacity for transformation, even if it’s only a glimpse at the end of a tragedy (as in Hamlet, for example). And yet, there’s a strange fascination in watching the story unfold, and marching with these people to their doom.

The background against which they operate — the ageless landscape of the south-western English counties to which Hardy gives the ancient name of Wessex — is in some ways more lively than they are. Barely touched by civilization, it embodies the natural cycle of birth and growth, death and rebirth that continues to bring forth life and regeneration in our decadent modern age. Old customs like autumn bonfires, a mummer’s play, and singing to a new-married couple, and less benign superstitions like the creation of a wax figure, show how human beings over the years have evolved their own responses to these cycles of nature. All of this is depicted in thoroughly observed, lovingly described detail, so that the heath becomes almost a character in itself.

The conflict in the novel arises between characters who appreciate and value this cyclical existence, and those who rebel against it and want something more: chiefly Eustacia Vye, the proud, beautiful woman who was raised in a nearby watering place and finds the heath an unutterable bore. Given the limitations of being female in her place and time, though, the only way to escape seems to be through attaching herself to a man, vivifying herself with the emotion she calls “passionate love.”

This so-called love is merely a form of self-love; any slight impulse of care or concern for the men she brings under her spell is far overpowered by her own wish to get away to a brighter, more artificial life. When she marries the “native,” a local man who has returned from the dazzling city of Paris, she completely ignores his express wish to re-integrate himself into the rhythms of the heath, and only sees him as her ticket out of there — a willful self-delusion that leads to the inevitable disaster.

It’s not amiss for one of the other characters to call Eustacia a witch, for though she doesn’t technically practice witchcraft, her self-centered use of feminine power is a form of black magic. She has not consciously given into the lust for evil power over others, however, only failed to realize that unless she herself quells her pride and reaches out beyond her narrow self, she will be imprisoned in that self forever. And so she is herself a victim of this magic, rather than truly its agent. This is aptly symbolized when the other woman maliciously creates and destroys a wax figure representing Eustacia, an act that accompanies and corresponds to her downfall. The only way out for Eustacia is not a flight to Paris, but dissolution into death, and that’s what she receives.

And so the heath rolls on its ancient way, after these puny human creatures have played out their small drama, leaving us to ponder on questions of power and love, fate and freedom. Can we truly say that we would be able to march differently, once set in motion?

Classics Club List #74

My Heritage Press edition features beautiful woodcuts by Agnes Miller Parker, some of which are shown above. For the source and more images click here.


Classics Club: Frankenstein

Mary Shelley, Frankenstein (1818)

Frankenstein is one of those stories that everyone knows, even if you haven’t read it. Except once you do read it, you realize that the version in the popular imagination has little to do with Mary Shelley’s actual creation. There, you will find no mad scientists robbing graves for body parts; no lightning striking a ruined castle to the sound of cackling laughter; no grinning henchmen or spark-emitting machines. Shelley’s vision is much subtler and more psychologically astute than that. Though there are dramatic external events, of course, what’s really interesting is what is going on inside Frankenstein and his monstrous “child,” the ways in which they mirror one another, and their tragic inability to connect.

To get into this story that everybody knows (but doesn’t), you have to first wade through all the narrative layers in which Shelley has wrapped it. An explorer trying to reach the North Pole — which at the time was thought to be a sort of Earthly Paradise, warm and fertile if one could just get through the ice — writes letters to his sister, in which he describes how he has picked up a dying man, found in pursuit of a strange figure who eludes him and races off across the ice. This is Victor Frankenstein, who proceeds to explain how he created and then resolved to destroy this being (who, in another layer, also gets to tell some of his own story).

It’s a cumbersome and roundabout way of getting at a tale that could seemingly be told in a more straightforward way, but it also reflects one of the main themes: the loneliness and isolation that keep us from one another, the way we are “wrapped up” in our own ideas and ambitions. To break through this icy covering would require a leap of imagination and empathy that Frankenstein, groundbreaking scientist though he is, is tragically never able to make.

Once he has brought his creature to life (in a way that, in contrast to the dramatized versions, is left vague and unexplained), he takes one look at it and is unutterably repelled. He simply wants to ignore it, to pretend it doesn’t exist. Until he nears the end of his journey, he doesn’t speak about it, doesn’t even want to think about it. Out of sight, out of mind, he thinks — a very human, yet very ineffective response to an overwhelming situation.

He does not tell anyone what he has done, even once he becomes convinced that the creature has begun to murder his friends and relations. Isn’t this because, frozen by his own egotism, he is unable to take responsibility and own what he has done, what he is? He says he fears that people will think him mad, but he is worse than that. When the “monster” kills and destroys, he is only doing outwardly what his creator is doing inwardly. This brilliant thinker with stunted emotions is unable to live up morally to what he has achieved intellectually.

His nameless creation, meanwhile, states that he simply wants to be loved, to find connection in a world that repels him at every turn. His rage and vengefulness is a reflection of how he has been treated, an externalized representation of Frankenstein’s own inability to love and to create true, living connections. Even when Frankenstein decides to marry, it’s to an adopted sister whom he has known from childhood, who does not threaten him with unfamiliar ideas or perceptions. He speaks of her in terms of ownership, as one who belongs to him by right. To him, she is a thing, not a person, just like the being he has created and then run away from in terror.

And so, it’s inevitable that the Frankenstein-monster should destroy this marriage. No human being who has never confronted the demons within himself, who has never humbly confessed his weaknesses and woken to the independent reality of the other person, can enter into the true marriage of opposites.

In Shelley’s novel, Frankenstein dies without ever coming to this recognition, but the explorer who has embraced him as a friend — and his surrogate, the reader — may have a chance to go further. As he turns his ship back from the ice to save his crew, there is a hope that he (and we) might have learned something about relationships, about love, about realms that purely cold, heartless research will never attain — but which we must pursue in the service of a truly human future.

Classics Club list #52


The 1951 Club: My Cousin Rachel

Daphne Du Maurier, My Cousin Rachel (1951)

The 1951 Club is the latest in a series of events put together by Simon of Stuck in a Book and Karen of Kaggsy’s Bookish Ramblings, which encourages us to read books published in a particular year. Please visit Simon’s blog for links to other 1951 books — this builds up a wonderful picture of a particular moment in time, through the combination of famous and obscure choices.

My Cousin Rachel is a masterfully ambiguous novel of psychological suspense, one that begins with the question “Was Rachel innocent or guilty?” It ends with the same question, but adds to it the question of the narrator’s own guilt and complicity in the final tragedy. Much more than a simple “who done it” in the external sense, this is a story that delves into the secrets of the human heart and that may make us think about the complex sources of our own motivations and actions.

That narrator is Philip Astley, who has been raised by his much older cousin Ambrose on their family estate in 19th century Cornwall. When the seemingly contented bachelor Ambrose ventures abroad and there marries another cousin, the half-Italian widow Rachel, Philip immediately is consumed with jealousy; later, upon receiving some cryptic notes from Ambrose, he becomes suspicious. He journeys to Florence but finds that Ambrose has suddenly died and his widow vanished.

Philip is determined to seek revenge upon Rachel, but before he can do so, she arrives in Cornwall and turns out to be nothing like the demon of his imaginings. In fact, he is soon completely entranced by her himself. As he descends further into passion, Rachel becomes even more of an enigma. What are her true intentions and feelings? Who is she?

Rachel may indeed be a manipulative and greedy woman; but what the first-person narration masks, and the reader slowly comes to realize, is that Philip may be more than a match for her. Having grown up without a mother, and even without a nurse — Ambrose sent the last one packing when Philip was three years old — and apparently never having recognized sexual love or desire, he has remained stunted in his own emotional life. (As a sign of this, he is incredibly callous and insensitive toward the neighbor girl who obviously is in love with him.) When Rachel bursts upon Philip with all her feminine wiles he is utterly unable to cope with them in a mature way, and the worst kind of unrecognized feminine qualities rise up within him: jealousy, possessiveness, pettiness, impulsiveness, and finally violence.

The result is to shatter them both, and leave Rachel a question forever, an image seen through Philip’s fractured mind. Who is the villain of this piece? Perhaps both, or neither. The Gothic shadows are never dispelled.

Back to the Classics Challenge: A Gothic or horror classic
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The 1951 Club


To be a king: Mary Renault’s Theseus books

Mary Renault, The King Must Die (1958)
Mary Renault, The Bull from the Sea (1962)

What is a true king? That question runs throughout the two historical novels that Mary Renault wrote about Theseus, the legendary ruler of Athens. As the young hero grows up, from mysterious beginnings, through trials that test his strength both in body and mind, to an ultimately tragic end, he struggles to discern and accept his moira, his fate. A king, Theseus suggests, is one who is willing to sacrifice his personal destiny for the good of the people — “the king must die,” as ancient rituals demand, so that new life can arise.

Yet even as he accepts this age-old role, Theseus wrestles with a decadent matriarchal culture to bring about a new individual consciousness, transforming it into something less primal and more forward-looking. This view of clashing cultures may not be supported by current scholarship, but it was based on the theories and research available to Renault at the time of writing, and something about it still rings true. The quest of Theseus for kingship is the quest of each human being to understand and rule the warring factions within us, and to bring them into a dynamic balance that gives birth to new potential.

(c) Geoff Grandfield – illustration for The Folio Society’s edition of Mary Renault’s The King Must Die

Renault comes up with many ingenious and plausible solutions to the riddles posed by trying to place the legends into a historical context. How could Theseus be fathered both by Poseidon and Aigeus? Why did he leave his bride Ariadne on the island of Naxos? What really happened during the four years he supposedly spent in the underworld after trying to steal Persephone out of Hades? Most famously and fascinatingly of all, what was the connection between the mythical Minotaur and the bull-dance revealed in the artwork of the excavated Knossos palace? Renault weaves these incidents and many others into a convincing, inwardly integrated picture of an ancient world that feels both foreign and familiar. There, customs and beliefs may be very different from ours, and yet basic human concerns remain eternal.

The language of the books is admirably pure, clear, and strong, as befits the subject, with not a word extraneous or out of place. The story is told by Theseus himself, who seems at the end of his long life to be reflecting on his many deeds and misdeeds, his triumphs and mistakes. There is no an attempt to rationalize this storytelling — it’s not portrayed as a letter to a young heir, or a diary in which Theseus works through his painful past — but simply floats between narrator and reader, a thread connecting us to a past that perhaps never was, but that during the time of reading seems utterly real.

(c) Geoff Grandfield – illustration for The Folio Society’s edition of Mary Renault’s The Bull from the Sea

Theseus is not always a likeable or admirable character. His obsession with replacing matriarchy and subjugating it to masculine rule is sometimes tiresome to a modern sensibility, and his behavior to various consorts, mistresses and children is not always as well-judged or compassionate as it could be. Yet in this deeply flawed, very human hero I also find much that speaks to me across the gulf of years and cultures. His joy in the bull-dance, the community of life he forms in the midst of death, the bright flame of a remarkable personality that burns not for itself alone, but to kindle others and bring them further than they ever imagined they could go — these are the images that will stay with me. In the second book, most memorable to me is the melancholy, doomed love story of Theseus and his Amazon queen Hippolyta, perfectly matched warrior spirits who could not long remain together against the more mundane, workaday pressures of the outside world. When Hippolyta falls, so does the better part of Theseus, as he himself recognizes; and this sad disintegration leads to the ultimate tragedy.

The new two-volume edition from the Folio Society is a splendid way to experience this mesmerizing tale. The striking illustrations by Geoff Grandfield, with their dramatic silhouettes that echo ancient vase paintings, frescoes, and other artwork, perfectly complement the classical strength and beauty of Renault’s language. If you have already read and loved the books, you will want these gorgeous volumes to cherish forever, and if you haven’t yet read them, I urge you to do so. You’ll find excitement and beauty, philosophy and action, danger and fulfillment — all the very best qualities of a myth retold.

Click here for information on The King Must Die
Click here for information on The Bull from the Sea
Click here for information on The Folio Society


Back to the Classics Challenge: Classic set in a place I would like to visit (Athens and Crete)

Stagecraft and swordplay: Scaramouche

Rafael Sabatini, Scaramouche (1921)

After watching the 1952 movie of Scaramouche, with its brilliant fencing matches between Mel Ferrer and Stewart Granger, I became curious to read the book. How would the author deal with these exciting action sequences? And would the book give more context and background for the historical and political aspects of the plot? I had seen several swashbuckling films based on the works of this well-known historical novelist, but never read any of his books. How would they hold up today?

I was pleased to find that Scaramouche is not only just as exciting on the page as on the screen, but also features some wonderful bits of dialogue that didn’t make it into the film, and has a much more sensibly constructed plot. Where the movie mixes up and muddles the three aspects of hero Andre-Louis’s life — as a lawyer in the French province of Brittany, as a member of a traveling Commedia dell’Arte troupe, and as a swordsman working to improve his art and confront his aristocratic nemesis — the book divides these into three sequential parts and focuses on one at a time. The initial conflict, in which the evil Marquis kills Andre-Louis’s friend makes much more sense too, as do his relationships with the two women in his life. And the ideas and events of the historical setting, during the years leading up to the French revolution, are naturally able to be developed more fully in a full-length book. The result is a historical romance that is entertaining without being empty, an adventure that might also make you think.

Four Commedia dell’Arte figures – Claude Gillot

Andre-Louis is the kind of character who can easily become annoying, a person who seems to be good at everything he does. First he’s a successful, if somewhat cynical, provincial lawyer; then when he makes a seditious speech in honor of his friend, he goes on the run, falls in with a troupe of traveling players and not only suddenly becomes an excellent comic actor but guides the whole company to new heights; and then, when he has to go on the run again, he takes a job as a Parisian fencing master’s assistant (though he’s only had a few lessons himself) and becomes outstanding at that as well.

Yet somehow he didn’t annoy me, and I think it may be because his success comes from the wholehearted way he throws himself into everything he does. He has no desire to impress anyone with his superiority, or to evade responsibility for his mistakes, but simply takes his fate as it comes and does the best he can in each new situation. This is the quality that is most heroic about him, not any particular ability or skill that he demonstrates.

He also combines thought and action at each stage of his life, identifying what needs improving in the acting troupe and making it happen, and then reading books about fencing as well as practicing ripostes and thrusts, in order to find a more efficient and intelligent way of defeating his opponent. As his journey progresses, he moves from mouthing revolutionary ideals only as an homage to his dead friend, to truly believing in and fighting for what he believes is right, showing that his initial cynical detachment has moved into a more integrated personality. And at the end of his quest for revenge, he finds the need for mercy and forgiveness, and sees his own motives more clearly.

Throughout, his signature role of Scaramouche (a clever rogue who is one of the stock characters in the Commedia dell’Arte), informs his approach to life, even though he acts it on the stage for only a short time. He never loses his ironic view of the world, and at the most dramatic moments tends to break into laughter or make a humorous remark. And yet, this “gift of laughter” never becomes bitter or rancorous, and more often than not he is poking fun at himself. “To understand is always to forgive,” he says at one point, quoting Montaigne. As we human beings bumble through life with our ridiculously partial and incomplete understanding, sometimes laughter can be the most appropriate response of all, restoring perspective and wholeness to our imbalanced view.

I do recommend watching the movie — the slapstick scenes in the theater are fun, and the fight scenes are truly amazing. But I also recommend reading the book for a fuller and richer experience of Sabatini’s adventurous spirit.

Back to the Classics: Twentieth Century classic
Classics Club List

When all times become one: A Fugue in Time

Rumer Godden, A Fugue in Time (1945)

Rumer Godden’s storytelling style often involves shifts in time and point of view, sometimes within the same paragraph or even the same sentence. In A Fugue in Time, she made time-shifting the whole basis of the narrative, telling interwoven stories of three different generations within the same London house. (The complete title was originally Take Three Tenses: A Fugue in Time).

We start with the “present” of the book (told in the past tense), when the elderly Rolls is reluctantly facing the end of his family home’s 99 year lease, when he will be forced to leave. The past inhabitants and events of the house appear (told in the present tense) in shifting waves that gradually build up a tragic legacy of misunderstanding. When two young relatives from different branches of the family come to the house, there is the potential to change that trajectory and move into a better future — which we also briefly glimpse from time to time.

If it sounds confusing, it is rather — but after I got used to the device, it was fairly easy to negotiate the different story threads. Having read Mrs Dalloway and To the Lighthouse not so long ago, the book reminded me of how Woolf also mixed up time and memory and point of view into a sort of kaleidoscopic impression. However, Godden’s language is more conventional than Woolf’s, aside from the frequent shifts that break it up into shorter or longer chunks.

The character of Griselda, Rolls’s mother, who quietly and futilely rebels against the constraints of her traditional female role, also reminded me of Woolf. I wonder how conscious these references may have been.

Not exactly a ghost story, more complex than a straight historical novel, this was an interesting experiment that didn’t completely take off for me. I understand that later Godden tried to do the same thing with China Court, perhaps more successfully, and I’d like to give that one a try. Have you read either of these? What did you think?

Classics Club List #21
Back to the Classics Challenge: Classic by a Woman Author


A Dance with Tradition: The Makioka Sisters

Junichiro Tanizaki, The Makioka Sisters (1943)

makiokasistersI’m not very well-versed in world literature, and when I do read works in translation they tend to be from Europe. But I really want to do something about that, and as I looked for great novels from other continents to broaden my horizons, The Makioka Sisters kept coming up. As I started reading, it struck me as a strange mixture of familiar and foreign; the family of sisters, the marriage-centered plot, the importance placed on family and social class, all invited comparison to the novels of Jane Austen or Anthony Trollope. But though the story is set in the 1930s, not the 1800s, these Japanese sisters are even more heavily bound by centuries of tradition than Austen’s heroines, who at least are allowed to marry for love.

The central dilemma is simply stated: of the four sisters, the older two are married, the youngest is champing at the bit, but the third sister has been unable to find a husband, and custom dictates that she must marry before her younger sister does. The proud but no longer prosperous Makiokas started out by rejecting candidates as unsuitable, but as Takiko ages she undergoes the humiliation of being the one rejected, and her next-oldest and closest sister, Sachiko, suffers with her. Takiko doesn’t protest the system of arranged marriage (unlike the youngest, Taeko, who is starting to cause scandal and unrest with her unconventional behavior), but stoically goes through the rituals of presentation and withdrawal, approach and retreat, as the years pass.

In spite of the superficial similarities there’s not a trace of Austen’s wit and humor here, or of Trollope’s biting satire, unless I’m missing something that was lost in translation. Instead, we have a narrative painstakingly constructed of small domestic details and everyday routines, with the occasional lyrical passage that evokes the Japanese sense of beauty: the annual cherry blossom pilgrimage, a firefly hunt in the country, a set of poems written to an absent sister. There are some major upheavals, including a devastating flood that really did hit Osaka, but mostly there are just small hopes and disappointments, a round of ordinary concerns that some might find dull, others true-to-life. (It’s telling that we are able almost to forget the impending war, as the characters themselves seem to do, seldom referring to it except in brief comments about “the China problem.”)

The iron-clad tradition of the order of marriage is only one of the customs that define the sisters and their world. There are also lucky days and unlucky years that must be taken into account, funeral observances, subtle variations of dress, makeup and hairstyle, the finer points of arts like calligraphy and dance, and much more. To a western mindset, it feels extremely confining, but is also fascinating in its elaborate attention to rules and rituals. In my ignorance before starting the novel I had assumed the author was a woman — but Tanizaki’s gender doesn’t prevent him from creating a highly convincing and finely observed picture of a very feminine world. By the end, I felt as though I had truly experienced something of what it meant to be a Japanese woman in that time and place.

The contrast between traditional Osaka, where the Makiokas have their roots, and the brash new urban center of Tokyo, where the elder branch of the family has been obliged to relocate, is a major preoccupation for the Japanese that is somewhat lost on the outsider; the translator has to tell us when Osaka dialect is being used, for example, while a native reader would be able to simply experience the difference. One can’t help regretting the inability to appreciate such facets of the original language, but also appreciating how much Tanizaki in translation is able to convey the essence of Japan and its people.

Classics Club List #32
Japanese Literature Challenge
Back to the Classics Challenge: Classic in Translation


Tea and Philosophy: Diary of a Provincial Lady

E. M. Delafield, Diary of a Provincial Lady (1930)

dplI’ve seen this book mentioned as a favorite by many, and lauded as a comic classic, and when a Folio Society edition came my way at a very reasonable price, I couldn’t resist. So I finally got to encounter the “provincial lady” and see what she had to say.

From the title alone, one can tell this is a very British book, with its slightly derogatory “provincial” (as opposed to fashionable London society) and the class-conscious “lady.” It’s a “diary,” though, so the lady is defining and perhaps poking fun at herself, another very British activity. In her entries, she chronicles a series of upper-middle-class concerns and woes: worrying over the best way to grow flower bulbs; brief, taxing encounters with her energetic children, who are normally taken care of by governess or boarding school; run-ins with the odiously superior Lady B.

I found these mildly amusing rather than hilarious. Many of the episodes revolve around financial troubles — pawning jewelry to pay off debts, being scared to tell the husband after buying too many clothes — which frankly annoyed me, coming from someone who thinks nothing of employing a live-in French governess, a parlourmaid, and a cook. This is not a purely British phenomenon (I had a similar response to Mr. Blandings Builds His Dream House) but it did smack of a certain class and era to which I simply do not belong.

To me, the funniest and most enjoyable parts were when the Lady addressed the more philosophical and existential questions that confront her in ordinary life:

“Arrival of train, and I say good-bye to Robert, and madly enquire if he would rather I gave up going at all? He rightly ignores this altogether.

[Query: Would not extremely distressing situation arise if similar impulsive offer were one day to be accepted? This gives rise to unavoidable speculation in regard to sincerity of such offers, and here again, issue too painful to be frankly faced, and am obliged to shelve train of thought altogether.]”

Who hasn’t had a similar experience with one’s spouse or partner — without being able to put it into such perfectly absurd terms?

Delafield’s humor is often compared to that of P.G. Wodehouse, and they certainly have a sort of family resemblance, but the latter holds more appeal for me personally. The Provincial Lady is constantly reminding me of all the ways in which I am not like her, while Wodehouse somehow manages to make me forget that I’m not a rather dim young bachelor with a valet of unusual mental brilliance. He also plays with the English language in a more exuberant way, running rings around Delafield’s more restrained prose. Some find her style subtle and deceptively simple; to me, it too often induced yawns rather than amusement.

But taken on her own terms, the Provincial Lady does provide some quiet chuckles, and I’m glad to have met her at last. Have you? What did you think?

Classics Club List #50