Thursday, March 21, 2013

The Gate by Natsume Soseki (Part 2)

The new (2013) translation of Natsume Sōseki's Meiji-era novel, The Gate, has an exceptionally useful introduction by Pico Iyer, who lives in Japan and has written his own book set in Japan, The Lady and the Monk. He begins by saying, "Japanese literature is often about nothing happening, because Japanese life is, too . . . [T]he individual's job in public Japan is to keep his private concerns and feeling to himself and to present a surface that gives little away. That the relation of surface to depth is uncertain is part of the point; it offers a degree of protection and makes for absolute consistency. The fewer words spoken, the easier it is to believe you're standing on common ground."

This does not make Japanese literature easy for Western readers. As one person commented about The Gate on Amazon, "I just couldn't understand where the author wanted this story to go."

It's not much of a story. Here's the jacket description: "A humble clerk and his loving wife scrape out a quiet existence on the margins of Tokyo. Resigned, following years of exile and misfortune, to the bitter consequences of having married without their families’ consent, and unable to have children of their own, Sōsuke and Oyone find the delicate equilibrium of their household upset by a new obligation to meet the educational expenses of Sōsuke’s brash younger brother. While an unlikely new friendship appears to offer a way out of this bind, it also soon threatens to dredge up a past that could once again force them to flee the capital. Desperate and torn, Sōsuke finally resolves to travel to a remote Zen mountain monastery to see if perhaps there, through meditation, he can find a way out of his predicament." I don't think it's much of a spoiler to say he doesn't.

Among the challenges for the Western reader: Indeed, almost nothing happens in the 114 pages. Sōsuke seems congenitally unable to make a decision. The fact that Sōsuke and Oyone marry without the families' blessing not only means they are cut off from their relatives, but Oyone's brother—and Sōsuke's best friend—has to drop out of college (as does Sōsuke) as a result. The web of obligations Sōsuke feels is much more extensive and heavy than any constraints most Americans feel.

All that said, I think it's an interesting and convincing picture of Japanese life and Meiji-era (1868-1912) Japan. Sōsuke and Oyone are scraping by but they still have a maid. Sōsuke's cousin has a number of get-rich-quick schemes. Sōsuke's aunt and uncle (apparently) sold his patrimony and kept the money; Sōsuke accepts this the way he would accept a snow storm or an earthquake. As Iyer writes, "It takes a while for a Western reader, perhaps, to realize that in Sōseki's novels, as in Japan, external details are not just decoration; they're the main event. It's as if foreground and background are reversed, so that it's the ads in the streetcars, the sound of laughter from a neighbor' house, the talk about the price of fish that are in fact the emotional heart of the story."

Once you realize this really is a different culture and open yourself to its possibilities, I think the rewards are well worth the effort.

Saturday, March 16, 2013

The Gate by Natsume Soseki (Part 1)

Because I translate Japanese fiction for my own edification, I have a more than idle interest in the subject. One of the things I think about is to wonder whether my English reflects the style of the original. It is difficult enough for me to capture the literal meaning of the Japanese. My knowledge of the language is not good enough to know how high or low to set the piece. That's why I was interested in a new translation of The Gate ("Mon") by the Meiji-era novelist Natsume Soseki.

Here is the opening paragraph from the 1972 translation by Francis Mathy:

Sosuke had brought a cushion on to the veranda and plopped himself on it, cross-legged, and was now basking in the midafternoon sun. After a time he tossed aside the magazine he held in his hands and stretched himself out full length on his side. It was a beautiful Indian summer day. The rhythmic clip-clop of geta in the streets of the hushed town fell pleasantly on his ears. Raising himself up on his elbow, he looked out beyond the eaves of the house at the beautiful, clear sky, blue all over. Viewed from the tiny veranda, it seemed extremely vast. It made quite a difference, he reflected, to be able on an occasional Sunday to gaze leisurely at the sky like this. He looked squint-eyed directly into the sun, but only for a moment. The light was too blinding, and so he turned onto his other side till he faced the shoji behind which his wife, Oyone, was at work sewing.

Here is the same paragraph from the 2013 translation by William Sibley:

Sosuke had been relaxing for some time on the veranda, legs comfortably crossed on a cushion he had set down in a warm, sunny spot. After a while, however, he let drop the magazine he had been holding and lay down on his side. It was a truly fine autumn day, the sun bright, the air crisp, and the clatter of wooden clogs passing through the quiet neighborhood echoed in his ears with a heightened clarity. Tucking one arm under his head, he cast his gaze past the eaves at the expanse of clear blue sky above. Compared to the tiny space he occupied here on the veranda, this patch of sky appeared extremely vast. Thinking what a difference it made, simply to take in the sky in the rare, leisurely fashion afforded by a Sunday, he squinted directly at the blazing sun for a few moments, then, averting his eyes, rolled over to his other side and faced the shoji. Beyond its panels his wife was seated, busy with her needlework.

The choices the translators have made are interesting. Mathy has Sosuke "basking"; Sibley has him relaxing. Sosuke tosses the magazine aside in Mathy, drops it in Sibley. It's an Indian summer day in Mathy (an identification that did not exist in Soseki's Meiji-era Japanese); it's simply a fine autumn day in Sibley. Mathy uses the Japanese word "geta" with a footnote to explain it; Sibley calls them wooden clogs. In Mathy, Sosuke looked beyond the eaves; in Sibley, he cast his gaze past the eaves. In Mathy, Oyone is at work sewing; in Sibley, the wife, not immediately named, is busy with her needlework.

I'm sure both translators could defend their choices here. After all, both paragraphs say essentially the same things. I suspect without looking at the original that Sibley's version is closer in style and feeling to Soseki's. The jacket claims it "captures the oblique grace of the original while correcting numerous errors and omissions that marred the first English version." Be that as it may—and I could not possibly identify the errors and omissions myself—Mathy's version seems to me to be more lively, more engaging. I'll talk about the novel itself in another post.

Tuesday, March 12, 2013

"From Up on Poppy Hill"

The New York Times has reported that Studio Ghibli is about to release a new animated film, "From Up on Poppy Hill." Studio Ghibli was co-founded by Hayao Miyazaki who was responsible for "Spirited Away," "Howl's Moving Castle," "My Neighbor Totoro," and other wonderful movies. His son, Goro Miyazaki, has directed the new film.

"From Up on Poppy Hill," which is based on a 1980 graphic novel, is set in Yokohama in 1963, a significant time and place—the year before the Tokyo Olympics and at the very beginning of the Japanese economic boom. The story concerns a "budding romance between high school students."

I want to see the movie for several reasons. The Yokohama of 1963 is not that different in sights and sounds from the Yokohama I knew in 1957/58. One reason I like visiting the Shin-Yokohama Rarmen Museum because it reminds me of a Japan now long gone. I suspect that Japanese audiences of a certain age will watch the new film awash in nostalgia.

I have friends in Yokohama. One of my best memories is simply walking around their neighborhood, seeing the local temple where their then pre-schooler went to class, having dinner at their house. The last time I was in Japan we spent time in Yokohama's Chinatown (the largest in Japan, and pictured above) and went to a Yokohama Bay Stars baseball game. Friends and I had a picnic lunch on the entirely modernized bayside park and visited the new art museum. I have a sense that Yokohama suffers by being so close to Tokyo, but it offers its own pleasures.

Saturday, March 9, 2013

The Round House by Louise Erdrich

I am always interested in the one-star reviews on Amazon because I assume they are usually honest spleen. With a positive review—especially when a book has attracted relatively few comments—it is sometimes difficult to know whether the raves are those of the author's best friend or an enthusiastic stranger.

Browsers who look at the five-star reviews for Louise Erdrich's National Book Award-winning novel The Round House should not try to make that distinction. At this writing, the book has more than 530 positive reviews and I am sure virtually are the author's enthusiastic fans.

Which makes the 21 people who gave the book a one-star rating that much more interesting to me.

Several of these critics could not follow the story. A typical comment: "There are gaps in the story, nothing makes sense, nothing comes together."

And from another, "it was the most disjointed book I have ever read. The author failed to introduce the characters properly."

And, "I read about 30% of the book and found I couldn't go on any more because I simply didn't care enough to keep reading. The book started off pretty well but then it just dragged and dragged and dragged with too much detail that I just didn't feel was bringing anything to the story."

Some complained about the language: "The supposed great writer rambles on in circles and uses constant toilet talk between adolescent boys for no apparent reason." (Except possibly that it's the way adolescent boys talk.)

Another issue bothered some readers: "Also hideous is the total absence of quotation marks. We are left to wonder who is talking and, indeed, whether we're reading narrative or dialog. I'm not sure if this is a stupid literary gimmick or just plain laziness, but either way, it's annoying and unacceptable. Another reviewer advises us to 'get used to' this ridiculous gimmick because writers are increasingly using it. Well, no thanks . . .And if some authors can't be bothered to delineate dialog with quotation marks, I won't be bothered to buy their books."

Another reader noted, "On top of the foreign words on every page, the author uses no quotation marks for spoken's actually quite frustrating to figure out after an entire page that there was a conversation going on."

They felt story was difficult to follow: "The four boys were so interchangeable that it was hard to keep them straight." There were unnecessary digressions: The story the narrator's grandfather "told in his sleep was entirely pointless. It had absolutely nothing to do with the plot, and only served to throw in a little Native American folklore. Again, who cares?" Finally, "The book seems like it contains much more information than needed and could be cut down to two hundred pages or less."

I am, as you probably guessed, in the five-star camp. The Round House is narrated in the first person by an adult male Native American lawyer recalling incidents in his 13-year-old life on a North Dakota reservation. Because he is 13 years old, and because we never see events from the point of view of another character (not an easy trick to pull off in a novel), things do not always make immediate sense. True, the novel could have been cut (what novel cannot?) but it would not have been the rich, satisfying work of art it is. I feel sorry for the one-star critics who were not able to find the pleasure the book offers.

In my writing, I like quotation marks because they immediately distinguish between direct and indirect quotation. I worry about how to introduce characters properly—when they should be introduced, how much does the reader need (or want) to know about them, how important are their physical characteristics? Clothing? What details add to the story and which ones are extraneous distractions? The stories I tell in my fiction are never unnecessary digressions—at least not in my mind. A reader may argue otherwise, but everything on the page has a reason for being there. I can only hope that most of my readers understand (and agree with) my reasons.