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review 2017-03-01 11:00
An Author’s Fictionalised Experiences: The Novels of Ōe Kenzaburō by Yasuko Claremont
The Novels of Oe Kenzaburo - Yasuko Claremont

All his life Gustave Flaubert claimed that only the story counted and that its author should disappear without trace behind it, but however passionately a writer may assure that her or his work has nothing whatsoever to do with her or his life, such complete objectivity is an illusion. It’s impossible to achieve because nobody’s soul is an empty slate. Every word that a person jots down, be it on the spur of the moment or after long thought, be it in fiction or non-fiction, inevitably mirrors past experiences, education and views. To truly understand a literary work it can therefore be helpful to know the biography of its author, notably when the writings are complex or full of symbolism. In her critical study The Novels of Ōe Kenzaburō Yasuko Claremont from the University of Sydney analyses the literary oeuvre that the recipient of the 1994 Nobel Prize in literature produced between 1957 through 2006 and links it with important events in the Japanese author’s private life beginning in his childhood.

 

As Yasuko Claremont illustrates, the writing of Ōe Kenzaburō – like every author’s – isn’t static but changes over the decades and often mirrors events that had a more or less important impact on him as a person, on his family or on society altogether. She also demonstrates by several examples that the works of the author, notably early ones like Nip the Buds, Shoot the Kids and award-winning Prize Stock, clearly show the marks of his partly traumatic, partly spiritual experiences as a boy in a remote village surrounded by dense forests during and shortly after World War II and then as a young man in war-shattered Tōkyo where he studied French literature. According to the scholar these formative years quite naturally account too for the more constant elements in his opus, above all for Ōe‘s themes that are generally depressing as well as full of violence and despair in all their (cruel and destructive) manifestations. She states as well that his entire literary oeuvre is permeated with humanistic moral views that are clearly influenced by Western literature and philosophy, notably Jean-Paul Sartre, C. G. Jung, Wilhelm Reich, Mikhail Bakhtin and the Bible. Moreover, Yasuko Claremont finds the roots of the mythical abstractions that he uses throughout his career in the ancient legends that he heard in his childhood and that he internalised. The most obvious changes in Ōe’s writing the scholar sees in his approach to themes and characters. The three big stages of development that she identifies in the author’s long as well as successful literary career are a deeply Sartrean existentialism that saturates his rather bleak early work – e.g. the story Nip the Buds, Shoot the Kids or the novella Seventeen – on which follows a more positive phase surrounding the principle of atonement – as in the novels A Personal Matter and The Silent Cry – that eventually leads the author to the concept of salvation in daily life – like in the novel Somersault.

 

Having read so far only one novel by Ōe Kenzaburō (»»» read my review of The Changeling on Edith’s Miscellany), it was difficult for me to follow the literary and spiritual path that Yasuko Claremont traced in such detail. It’s true that she integrated summaries of all the author’s important works into her study (not least because several of them aren’t available in English translation), but naturally it wasn’t the same as knowing the full text. Certainly, her target audience were other scholars and fans of the author with a comprehensive knowledge of his work. Nonetheless, this critical study of The Novels of Ōe Kenzaburō was an interesting and as regards the novel that I read and reviewed also an enlightening experience that made me curious about the en-NOBEL-ed writer’s other works, above all the later ones that seem to be less bleak and less overtly violent.

 

The Novels of Oe Kenzaburo - Yasuko Claremont 

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review 2017-01-03 11:00
A Teacher’s Struggle For Happiness: The Professor by Charlotte Brontë
The Professor - Charlotte Brontë,Sally Minogue

To read the first work of a much adored writer can be either a revelation or more likely a deception, sometimes even a big one because not many succeed in producing outstanding literature already in the very first try. Writing like any other occupation needs practice. And experience of life usually isn’t a disadvantage, either. Quite a lot of the great men and women of literature that we know today saw their first novels (poems, short stories,…) rejected by publishers, often by more than just one, as show their biographies. In the Victorian age this wasn’t any different from today. Charlotte Brontë, for instance, never saw her first novel in print. The Professor was first published under her pen name Currer Bell in 1857, i.e. only two years after her premature death, and to this date it’s less widely read than her masterpieces Jane Eyre and Villette or even Shirley.

 

In fact, The Professor can’t compete with the literary quality of Charlotte Brontë’s later success novels although it shows already her extraordinary talent for storytelling and her liking for an action-driven, not to say melodramatic plot. Also the world that she describes in powerful images and with the sometimes annoying verbosity characteristic of her time is one that she knew well from own experience and that would be the setting of her more famous novels too: all her protagonists are in one way or another involved in teaching the children of the well-to-do, be it at their homes or in a school. For her first novel, however, the author chose the point of view not of a young woman and governess as would be expected, but of an orphaned young man – William Crimsworth – who received an elite education at Eton College thanks to the financial support of his aristocratic and condescending maternal uncles. William defies their wish for him to become a clergyman and sets out to follow in his late father’s footsteps as a tradesman accepting the petty job as a clerk that his much older brother Edward offers him in his mill business. Unfortunately, things don’t turn out as desired because Edward is a tyrannical boss and he is jealous of his brother’s good education. With the help of his unusual friend Hunsden Yorke Hunsden, William obtains a job as a teacher in a boys’ boarding school in Brussels, Belgium. His skill in class soon attracts the attention of the headmistress of the neighbouring girls’ boarding school, Mademoiselle Zoraïde Reuter, who offers him to give lessons to her students and to earn a small, though very welcome extra. What follows seem to me the typical tribulations of a Victorian romance without great depth. William gets a crush on Mlle Reuter who is charming and kind to him, but he contents himself with dreaming because he knows that he has neither the looks nor the financial means to win her. Moreover, he soon learns that she is engaged to his headmaster M. Pelet and from then on his behaviour to her becomes even more formal. It’s then that Mlle Reuter begins to really flirt with him and despite her she even falls a little in love. To make him come over to her school more often, she suggests that he gives English lessons to one of her young teachers. He accepts and passes much time with the half-Swiss, half-English girl called Frances Evans Henri who is orphaned like himself and shows extraordinary talent. Of course, teacher and student fall in love to the great dismay of Mlle Reuter who interferes at once. But this wouldn’t be a Victorian romance if their story ended so unhappily...

 

I agree with other reviewers that The Professor isn’t Charlotte Brontë’s best work, but the short novel certainly has its merits. As regards the plot, I actually prefer it to Jane Eyre because it’s a little less sentimental despite taking a turn from the coming-of-age story of a penniless and (almost) friendless young man who needs to make a living to a rather ordinary story of two lovers who have to cope with all kinds of difficulties. Maybe this is because the point of view is male. Overall, I enjoyed the read and can recommend it without bad conscience although it’s a Victorian novel including to a certain degree all that I don’t like about them.

 

The Professor - Charlotte Brontë,Sally Minogue 

 

»»» read also my review of Agnes Grey by Anne Brontë on Edith’s Miscellany

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review 2016-12-06 11:00
A History of the Book Trade: The Yellow-Lighted Bookshop by Lewis Buzbee
The Yellow-Lighted Bookshop: A Memoir, a History - Lewis Buzbee

However much we love reading, we seldom think about the book trade in general or about bookshops in particular. We take both for granted until something unexpected happens: the one-man bookshop around the corner that has been there ever since you can think closes because sales have constantly gone down and costs up; a small local publishing house files bankruptcy because it can no longer compete with transnational media companies swamping the market with cheap books; the middle-aged writer whose career you’ve been following with interest and something bordering on awe for many years sells hot dogs in the street because literary magazines don’t pay for short stories and revenues from her books are low thanks to pirated copies multiplying like rabbits on the internet. But none of this is new. The book trade has always been tough for everybody involved as shows The Yellow-Lighted Bookshop by Lewis Buzbee.

 

In his book first published in 2006, the author from California alternates at relatively quick pace reminiscences of his own experiences as a passionate reader, as a bookseller, as a publisher’s sales representative, and eventually as a writer with musings about the pleasures of reading and with a general history of the book trade from its beginnings in Ancient Egypt and China to twenty-first-century USA and Europe. Spanning a period of no less than several thousands of years, it’s inevitable that The Yellow-Lighted Bookshop only gives a brief survey of the history of books highlighting its most important milestones. Thus it turns out that the first bookseller and publisher of the western world happened to be an Egyptian… undertaker! He provided everything needed for a funeral following the religious rules including The Book of the Dead to secure the deceased’s smooth passage into eternal life in the other world. Of course, then a book was a papyrus scroll. That for nearly a thousand years the world’s largest library was in Alexandria in Egypt is common knowledge although not everybody will remember its shameful end. The rival library in Pergamum in Asia Minor, on the other hand, paved the way for bound books as we know them today because Egyptians forbade the export of papyrus and the book trade was forced to find a material to replace it – parchment. In China they already knew paper and block printing. Much later paper made its way from China to Europe, Gutenberg invented movable type and literacy rose to unprecedented heights. Every rise in literacy increased the demand for books, just as (for a long time) easier availability of books meant more literacy. The book trade split up into different professions: bookseller, publisher, writer. And here we are today in the author’s own life story that has been told along the way.

 

All things considered, The Yellow-Lighted Bookshop by Lewis Buzbee is a skilful as well as entertaining blend of personal memoir and historical essay. As a passionate reader, I could relate with much that the author said about his obsession for books and how it began. Most of all, however, I liked his very personal and charming way of relating the history of books and of bookshops. It’s a delightful read that I warmly recommend.

 

The Yellow-Lighted Bookshop: A Memoir, a History - Lewis Buzbee 

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review 2016-09-06 11:00
The Variety of Standards of Human Behaviour: Patterns of Culture by Ruth Benedict
Patterns of Culture - Ruth Benedict

Confronted with other cultures or just life-styles we all tend to be rather judgemental classifying the one as primitive, the other as aggressive, yet another (usually our own) as civilised, and so forth. Moreover, we use to think in the categories of good and evil like we who were born into an environment marked by Christian-European customs and values have been taught from early childhood. However, what seems perfectly normal behaviour to us may look completely absurd or even immoral in the eyes of a person socialised in a different culture... and vice versa. For many centuries Westerners – almost as a rule – looked down on other cultures. Not even scientists exploring all corners of the world were free of this arrogance. It is thanks to anthropologists like Ruth Benedict (1887-1948) and her likes that today we seek a wider and less biased picture. In her 1934 book Patterns of Culture she brought the then relatively new approach to the attention of the public.

 

Considering that we have entered the second millennium already more than a decade and a half ago, it may seem strange to read an anthropology book first published in 1934. On the other hand, in everyday life there can’t be much left today of the cultures of the Pueblos of New Mexico, notably the Zuñi, the Dobu of eastern New Guinea, and the peoples of the American North-West Coast, above all the Kwakiutl of Vancouver Island (now known as the Kwakwaka’wakwa) that Ruth Benedict presented in her book. Already when she did her research, much of their cultural heritage had been lost in the process of continuing evangelisation and assimilation to a western life-style. Also for another reason Patterns of Culture keeps being a relevant work of cultural anthropology. Using the societies of Zuñi, Dobu and Kwakwaka’wakwa as extreme examples and pointing out the huge differences to each other as well as to European civilization, the author succeeded in showing how wide the range of culture actually is. She certainly made a good choice to demonstrate that no culture is better or worse than another, just different because the society came to attach value and importance to different things. Or to put it in Ruth Benedict’s own words:

“The three cultures of Zuñi, of Dobu, and of the Kwakiutl are not merely heterogeneous assortments of acts and beliefs. They have each certain goals toward which their behaviour is directed and which their institutions further. They differ from one another not only because one trait is present here and absent there, and because another trait is found in two regions in two different forms. They differ still more because they are oriented as wholes in different directions. They are travelling along different roads in pursuit of different ends, and these ends and these means in one society cannot be judged in terms of those of another society, because essentially they are incommensurable.”

As proves this quote, the language of Ruth Benedict is strikingly modern and accessible for that of a scholar. In fact, her descriptions are so rich in powerful, sometimes even poetic images that it’s almost a literary pleasure. I enjoyed reading Patterns of Culture very much and already put another one of her anthropological works, namely The Chrysanthemum and the Sword. Patterns of Japanese Culture from 1946, i.e. from right after World War II, on my list of books to read. I wish that more would read her books to widen their horizons and to discard their arrogance toward other cultures.

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review 2016-07-07 11:00
The Woman Who Re-Invented Herself: Bombay Anna by Susan Morgan
Bombay Anna: The Real Story and Remarkable Adventures of the "King and I" Governess - Susan Morgan

Nobody will deny that Anna Harriette Leonowens (1831-1915) was an impressive woman who led an extraordinary life for a woman in the Victorian Age. Nonetheless, nobody would still remember her, hadn’t her memoirs gotten into the hands of a Presbyterian missionary called Margaret Landon who wrote the biography of the English governess at the Royal Court of Siam in the 1860s. Anna and the King of Siam (»»» read my review on Edith’s Miscellany) quickly became a best-seller in 1944 and has been adapted for the stage as well as for the screen many times since. But how much of this story is true? In her biography Bombay Anna released in 2008 American scholar Susan Morgan ventures at telling The Real Story and Remarkable Adventures of The King and I Governess.

 

The biggest surprise is to find in a chapter dedicated to the ancestors of Anna Harriette Leonowens, née Anna Harriett Emma Edwards, that her origins aren’t as noble as she herself made believe even her closest family. While her maternal grandfather William Glascott in fact belonged to the minor English gentry, the woman he married or just lived with in India is a phantom who seems to have left no traces in written sources. Like other scholars, Susan Morgan assumes that she must have been Indian or of mixed race – “a lady not entirely white” as Mrs. Sherwood aka Mary Martha Butt put it in the nineteenth century – as was common with soldiers’ wives in India in the early nineteenth century because marriageable Englishwomen were extremely scarce. As the author points out, Anna Harriette Leonowens took great care to hide her maternal grandmother pretending to have been born in Wales of pure English blood almost three years later than in reality. From existing sources Susan Morgan draws the plausible conclusion that in fact she must have grown up in the camps of the Sappers and Miners Corps, in which her late father and her step-father had served. With vivid imagination supported by nineteenth-century reports the biographer reconstructs the life that Anna Harriette Leonowens must have led as a child in the camps attending the regimental school, but none of it is based on established facts about her person because historical sources lack. In the following Susan Morgan reveals still more biographical information that isn’t in line with reality until the moment when she became governess at the Royal Siamese Court in 1862. The later life of Anna Harriette Leonowens is better documented and her biographer confines herself to outlining the most important stages and to putting them into relation with her real as well as re-invented past.

 

In my review of Anna and the King of Siam I said that “there is much that can make somebody tell a story in one way rather than another”. This is certainly true for Anna Harriette Leonowens who changed and stretched the truth because she wanted to climb the social ladder and to be recognised as being of pure and noble English descent. It is also true for Susan Morgan who merged the information from historical sources, her background knowledge of the time and her imagination to bring to life the person Anna Harriette Leonowens as she believes her to have really been. It’s not for me to judge if her biography is state-of-the-art from the scientific point of view, but in any case it’s well-written and gripping portrait of an extraordinary woman.

 

See also the long review of Bombay Anna by Susan F. Kepner in the TLC/New Mandala book review series on Mainland Southeast Asia and the many expert comments there.

 

Bombay Anna: The Real Story and Remarkable Adventures of the "King and I" Governess - Susan Morgan 

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