Friday, November 7, 2014

Antonia Lively Breaks the Silence

Antonia Lively Breaks the Silence is David Samuel Levinson's first novel (He published an earlier collection of short stories, Most of Us Are Here Against Our Will.) It is set in small fictional college town in upstate New York. The plot involves three main characters:

—Catherine Strayed, the 40-something-year-old widow of Wyatt, a promising writer whose first novel was mercilessly savaged by the famous critic Henry Swallow. Catherine works in a bookstore in town and is slowly recovering from Wyatt's accidental(?) death. She seems to be drifting through life and to be terribly passive.

—Henry Swallow, a late 50s professor and critic who was Catherine's lover when she was his student. He has become the head of the college's writing program and, although it was his review that apparently destroyed Wyatt's writing career, Catherine rents the cottage on her property to him. He seems to be randy old goat on which age, lust, and liquor are taking a terrible toll.

—Antonia Lively, a 23-year old writer who is Henry's current squeeze and protégé who has followed him to the town. Antonia has written a best-selling book presented as fiction but based closely on her family's history. Antonia insinuates herself into Catherine's life because she would like to plunder it for her next shocking best-seller. She is a bright young thing escaping a disfunctional family.

Because this is a novel about writers, writing, and critics, Levinson has some interesting things to say about the subject. For example: "Good fiction lies to get at the truth," Wyatt used to say. "Good journalism tells the truth to gae at the lies. It's only great literature that does both. It presents a world in which the two aren't just intertwined, they're inseparable."

Here is Henry speaking to a writing class: "If I can see the writer in the work, then it's clear to me this writer is more involved with his own story than with imagining a fictional one. This is a fiction class, where you will share and evaluate one another's stories. Notice the use of the word 'stories,' because that's what I expect from you—stories, not journal entries or personal essays or chapters from your Great American Novel that also double as your autobiography. Fiction is about character. Fiction is never about you."

As a writer, I find all this—and especially Henry's long (too long to quote) indictment of contemporary publishing—fascinating, but I wonder how many readers who are not writers care.

I also wonder how many readers will be put off by the way Levinson tells the story. He begins with a first-person narrator who sets the scene. The next 100 pages are told in third person as the narrator reports the thoughts and words of the characters, thoughts and words to which the narrator could not have had access.

Which is why I was jarred when, on page 108, a paragraph begins, "I myself wasn't at Leland's to hear Henry's denunciation...." Who is the "I" here? Who is telling this story? (We eventually find out, but I was more put off by Levinson's tying up the loose threads than satisfied.)

One curious contradiction within the novel is Henry's view of fiction quoted above and Antonia's (and the stated position of the novel itself; i.e., this really happened). Antonia's seems to be that fiction is only thinly disguised fact. If Antonia cannot learn the facts about Catherine and Wyatt's marriage, she cannot write her book. She cannot make anything up. What does she think of Henry's pronouncements?

So although I had problems with some of the characters and their motivations, and in general do not respond well to novels set in made-up places, I think Antonia Lively Breaks the Silence is a very creditable first effort and well worth reading.

Wednesday, November 5, 2014

Adventures in Japanese - III

To slowly, slowly improve my ability to read Japanese, I have been translating a book of short stories that my conversation partner bought me on one of her trips home. This is not "literature." The author, Hirao Okuda, is appealing to a popular audience. Nevertheless, the book contains sentences that are well beyond my ability to turn into English. For example:

絵里 は 鼻 の 奥 が つんときた。

Stick with me for a moment, and we'll go through it. 絵里 is a girl's name, Eri. 鼻 means "nose." 奥 means "inside," so 鼻の奥  means "inside [her] nose." つんときた  means "to become irritated" or "struck by a pungent odor."

So, my translation, which made some sense in the context (Eri is talking to her brother in his hospital room): "A pungent odor was in Eri's nose."

Google Translate's version: "Eri the back of the nose was Tsunto come."

My native-speaking Japanese conversation partner says the sentence means, "Eri felt she was about to cry." (The irritation in her nose is the precursor to crying.) Who knew? 

Notice that the only word in common between the original and my partner's translation is "Eri."

What all this means is that not only am I slowly learning to read, I continue to increase my respect for the scholars—Donald Keene, John Nathan, Ted Goosens, Philip Gabriel, Jay Rubin, Juliet Winters Carpenter, and more—who are able to translate Japanese into lively English. What they are able to do is astonishing.

Tuesday, November 4, 2014

Let's hear it for more reality!

On one of the groups I follow, a member wrote, "Those who say ghosts do not exist and anything paranormal is the product of a fanciful mind should really think again. Chances are you will eventually have an experience that you cannot chalk up to perceived normal reality." She went on to cite an anecdote that made her point that there are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in our philosophy.

I agree with Shakespeare, but I exclude the paranormal, and said so. She asked why I was so skeptical about the paranormal, adding, "I would say it is because no truly paranormal event that you could not explain has ever happened to you. However, for me it has. I have seen spirits on a number of occasions throughout my life, not to mention other paranormal happenings."

In my defense, I said I find reality so rich, to interesting, so rewarding that I'm not interested in the unreal—other to be curious why so many people find the paranormal so rich, so interesting, and so rewarding.

I know that many people believe they have seen spirits on a number of occasions. They have had a genuine experience and assigned meaning to it. I do not doubt, I do not question the experience. I believe the experience is real. I do question the meaning they have assigned to the experience—that what they have seen (experienced) is a ghost or a spirit.

One might respond to my skepticism by asking, "But what else could it be?"

I have no idea. There is far more to reality than I can understand or explain. But a paranormal experience by definition cannot be explained by logic or science. All that says to me is that logic and science are, in certain situations, limited; we do not know everything.

But we do not have to drag in ghosts, spirits, or the supernatural to explain the experience. We simply have to say, "We don't know."

Saturday, November 1, 2014

How Freud Became Freud

Adam Phillips, an English psychoanalyst and general editor of the new Penguin Modern Classics translations of Sigmund Freud, has written a concise biography, Becoming Freud: The Making of a Psychoanalyst, which follows Freud up to the age of fifty.

Interestingly for someone whose life work was explicating a patient's biography, Freud was against anyone writing his. Indeed, when he was 30 he wrote his fiancee that he had destroyed all his notes, letters, scientific excerpts, and manuscripts of his papers to frustrate future biographers. This, Phillips points out, from a man "with no distinctive professional achievements . . . a man [who thinks he] will be worthy not of one biography but of many."

Phillips does his best to put Freud into his place and times. Although Freud was a secular Jew, he was conscious of his Jewishness (and a sister died in the Holocaust) and worried that psychiatry would be seen as a "Jewish science." He was trained as a doctor, but had little interest in medicine. He was far more interested in language, in the stories people tell about themselves, and in writing his books. He presented himself as a scientist, but his books—Interpreting Dreams (1900), The Psychopathology of Everyday Life (1901), Fragment of an Analysis of a Case of Hysteria, Three Essays on the Theory of Sexuality, and Jokes and Their Relation to the Unconscious (1905) and others—are hardly scientific.

However, as Phillips writes, "[t]he facts of a life—and indeed the facts of life—were among the many things that Freud's work has changed our way of thinking about. Freud's work shows us not merely that nothing in our lives is self-evident, that not even the facts of our lives speak for themselves, but that facts themselves look different from a psychoanalytic point of view." I found it interesting that while Freud listened to his patients for hidden meanings, symbols, buried fears, unacknowledged lusts, and more, working on the theory that these existed, he seems to have been arrogant enough to believe he himself was exempt from them. That, indeed, he could successfully analyze himself.

Yet, the psychoanalyst, Phillips writes, "is a historian who shows us that our histories are also the way we conceal the past from ourselves; the way we both acknowledge it and disavow it at the same time (to disavow it is, one way or another, to simplify it; to acknowledge it is to allow complication)." Freud showed modern people "how unconscious they were, how removed from a clear sense of their own intentions, how determinedly ignorant they were about their own pleasure." As a result, Freud argues, we are fundamentally divided against ourselves. We no longer know what is in our best interests—or even what our best interest might be.

For a short book (162 pages), Becoming Freud is both expansive and profound. Because Freud and his ideas have had such an impact on 20th century thought, Adam Phillips has done us a service by writing about the man and his thought so effectively.

Monday, October 27, 2014

Adventures in Japanese - II

Once I was stationed in Japan and leaving the Army camp on pass most weekends, I was able to pick up enough Japanese to function with phrases like: "Where is the . . .toilet . . . train station . . . bus stop?" "I would like . . . a coffee . . . a beer . . . a check." "How much is it?" "How do you say this in Japanese"? (pointing to an object). Asking for directions to the train station in acceptable Japanese sometimes meant of course that the answer came back in rapid and incomprehensible Japanese. So I learned the phrase "Do you speak English?"

But while learning useful phrases was not hard, written Japanese seemed impossible. I was told that while Japan has something like a 99-percent plus literacy rate, the written language is so difficult that school children cannot read an ordinary newspaper or a magazine until middle school.

Written Japanese uses hiragana, katakana, kanji, and occasionally the alpahbet. The hiragana and katakana characters represent sounds. Hiragana is used for verb endings, grammatical markers (like English prepositions), and certain common words. Katakana is used these days for foreign words and for emphasis. Kanji are the originally Chinese characters that may be used for their meaning or their sound (or both). So the word "Japan" can be written four ways: にっぽん、ニッポン、日本,  and Nippon.

I wanted to learn to sound out hiragana because train station signs, which included the name of the station, the last station, and the next station, were in hiragana. If I could read that the train was stopped at しもあかつか and the next station was なります, I would know to be ready to get off.

The letters across the top show the sounds, so the characters in the second column from the right are pronounced ka, ki, ku, ke, ko.
The hiragana and katakana syllabaries each have 46 characters. The chart above illustrates the hiragana. One Saturday afternoon, I took the train from camp into Tokyo, parked myself in a favorite coffee shop where I could sit all afternoon for the price of a single cup of coffee, made up flash cards, and spent more than four hours memorizing. Because these only represent sounds, and because characters are similar (め、ぬ、れ、ね、わ、ろ、る) it was not easy, but by the end of the day I could read and write almost all 46 characters.

Once I could, I began sounding out everything I could read. Being able to sound the hiragana out did not mean I could understand the words, but it was a start. And on the way back to Ikebukuro Station, I spotted a bus poster advertising 味の素. I could not of course understand the two kanji characters, but beside them were small hiragana (called furigana) that gave the pronunciation—あじ の もと, or "Ajinomoto," the brand of monosodium glutamate, a word I did understand. I can still vividly recall the shock of recognition, the sense that it was possible to grasp what had been incomprehensible. What a rush of delight!

Sunday, October 19, 2014

Haruki Murakami's evasive fiction

Haruki Murakami, perhaps the contemporary Japanese novelist best-known to Western readers, has a short story, "Scheherazade," in the October 13, 2014 issue of The New Yorker. It begins (in Ted Goossen's translation), "Each time they had sex, she told Habara a strange and gripping story afterward."

Habara, 31, seems to be under house arrest or internal exile in a provincial Japanese city. The woman with whom he has sex is 35, "a full-time housewife with two children in elementary school (though she was also a registered nurse and was apparently called in for the occasional job)." It's not clear whether bringing Habara groceries twice a week and servicing him sexually is part of the job. Nor do we learn her name. Habara calls her Scheherazade because she tells him stories that always break off before the end, as does Murakami's own story here (another reason for my frustration).

We don't know why Habara is stuck in the house. He watches DVDs and reads all day—no newspapers, no internet, no television, and presumably no radio. We know nothing about his earlier life, his family, even his feelings for the woman. "Scheherazade" takes place entirely within the house, giving a claustrophobic feeling.

On The New Yorker's website, Deborah Treisman says, "If Scheherazade is a lamprey eel, dependent on other creatures for her survival, Habara refers to himself as a desert island, isolated and self-sufficient. Do you see him that way? Could he survive with no human contact?"

Murakami responds, "Habara is a man who has experienced an irrevocable turning point in his life. Was the turning point moral, or legal, or was it a metaphorical, symbolic, psychological kind of thing? Did he turn the corner voluntarily, or did someone force him? Is he satisfied with the results or not? I don’t know the answers to any of these questions. The instant he turned that corner, though, he became a 'desert island.' Things can’t go back to the way they were, no matter what he does. I think that is the most important aspect of this story."

The reaction of this reader however is a feeling of being cheated. It seems to me that an irrevocable turning point in a life is a story and to evade it is to evade the artist's responsibility to say something meaningful about the world. Treisman asks, "These two characters’ lives intersect seemingly at random—or at the whim of some unnamed person. What made you think of throwing them together in this situation?"

Murakimi responds, "I occasionally think that, in our heart of hearts, we all may be seeking situations like this one—where our free will doesn’t apply and (almost) everything is determined by someone else, where each day must be lived according to the conditions that someone else has laid down. There are people who may already be living that sort of life, to a greater or lesser extent, without even knowing it." In fact, as a volunteer teacher in prisons, I've met hundreds of people who must live each day according to conditions that someone else has laid down. For most of them, it's not a lot of fun or very interesting.

I did not believe for a moment that Habara or his "Scheherazade" embodied anything "real." I thought the situation was interesting (I thought it was a writer's wet dream: be alone to read, watch DVDs, write, and have a complaint woman provide the groceries and regular sex without any responsibility), and I thought the story Scheherazade tells about a youthful infatuation interesting, but (and this may well be my lack of imagination and bias) I found the story irritating and ultimately meaningless.

Adventures in Japanese - I

A Kyoto yakitori chef prepares a meal.
I have been engaged in (interested in? consumed by?) the Japanese language for a long time. Although I doubt I will ever return to Japan, I continue to meet weekly with a Japanese conversation partner and continue to learn slowly, slowly the characters with a goal of eventually being able to read a magazine or newspaper. I will never be fluent. I cannot, for example, understand a news broadcast. But my spoken Japanese is good enough to function as a traveler in Japan.

Because I have been learning and using Japanese for a long time, and because I find the language so interesting, I plan to write about Japanese and some of my experiences with it in a series of periodic blog entries, this being the first. I hope that if you have observations or questions, you will take a moment to comment.

Like many Western visitors to Japan, I was disoriented when I got off a troop ship in Yokohama harbor years ago and discovered that, while Japanese shops, posters, and billboards were a riot of writing, I was entirely illiterate. I might also have been deaf and dumb because everything I heard was only noise. On the one hand, it seemed impossible to learn enough to, as a friend said, "exchange ideas." On the other, Japan is filled with children who have learned the language, so it cannot be impossible.

Indeed, I learned almost immediately how to say "hello," "thank you," and "how much?" As a GI, I didn't need much more; the Japanese I came in contact with spoke (some) English. While the Japanese education system requires several years of English study (and did so right through WWII)—and I have a story about English instruction in a moment—in my experience, few Japanese are comfortable in English and appreciate the foreigner who has bothered to learn some of their language. The Japanese are not, generally, language snobs unless or until you gain native fluency, which will never be my dilemma.

The story: One time in the 1950s was on a train somewhere in the countryside. At a stop, a group of schoolboys and their teacher came into the car. I was an American in civilian clothes, fairly unusual at that time and place. The boys crowded around me and dragged their teacher over to sit across from me. He was clearly embarrassed by what the boys insisted. Because I spoke virtually no Japanese, I could not help him much. Finally, by consulting the pocket dictionary I always carried and the dictionary he had in his brief case, were able to establish that (a) he was the boys' English teacher, and (b) I was the first person he had ever met for whom English was his native language.

While I know that the level of English-language instruction in Japan has improved dramatically in the last 50 years, I also know that for many Japanese English is a trial and a burden. An American who is able to speak some Japanese, even poorly, therefore has an enormous advantage in gaining access to the "real" Japan, whatever that is.