Books of 1916: Part Three: Natsume Soseki and James Joyce
Light and Darkness by Natsume Soseki
This unfinished novel, which was serialized in a newspaper, was Natsume Soseki’s last work, as he died of an ulcer in 1916. As the story begins, the main character Tsuda is going to have an operation on his intestines that sounds incredibly unsound and unclean. Think of the horrible and bizarre medical care we get today and then imagine it 100 times worse! So I was really worried about what was going to happen to Tsuda and felt that he was putting his head in the sand by worrying about his money troubles and his relationship with his wife, etc. But it turned out that the book really was about those things. Tsuda’s illness and operation ended up seeming more metaphorical than an important plot point.
I’m sorry to say that I really struggled to get from one end of this book to the other. I adored Natsume Soseki’s other books Kokoro and Grass on the Wayside. They were so lovely and brilliant. But he didn’t get a chance to edit this book and get it into shape, plus it sounds like he was sick and worried the whole time he was writing it. The afterword said that some critics consider this novel a “postmodern masterpiece” precisely because it is unfinished. But it wasn’t the lack of ending that did me in, it was the whole middle of the book, which dragged and was hard for me to focus on. I liked hearing from the point of view of Tsuda’s wife, O-Nobu, except that it went on and on without resolution. I also liked seeing all the period details of Japanese life, especially now that I’ve actually been to Japan.
Tsuda was a little bit like the main character in Grass on the Wayside in that he didn’t have very good social skills and tended to say things that made people feel bad without meaning to. The story really picked up at the end, when we finally learn Tsuda’s secret, that he has never gotten over the woman he used to love, and he goes to see her in a sanatorium, sort of like the one in The Magic Mountain except Japanese of course. His pretext is that he’s recovering from the surgery and he wants to take the waters, but naturally I was wondering if his pretext would turn out to be the truth and he would never leave. This was the section that I enjoyed the most but of course it came to an abrupt end.
Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man by James Joyce
When I think of James Joyce, I always think of three people in my life who felt very strongly about him. First was my mother, who was a big James Joyce fan and talked to me a lot about him. Second, a boyfriend I had who was also a big Joyce fan, and we used to read bits of Stephen Hero and Ulysses out loud to each other. Third, my wife Aine, who had been forced to read some Joyce in secondary school in County Clare and absolutely hated him, and all other Irish writers she read in school (except Oscar Wilde.) She said they were all pretentious wankers. Early on, I had to work hard to convince her that James Joyce was not a Protestant, as she had lumped him together in her mind with Synge, Yeats, Shaw etc. In fact, just now when I read her this paragraph to see if she endorsed my characterization of her views, I had to persuade her once again that Joyce was not Anglo-Irish.
I read Portrait of the Artist As A Young Man in 2002, sure that I was going to love it as much as I loved everything else I’d read by Joyce. And indeed I was hooked by the opening page (“When you wet the bed, first it is warm and then it gets cold.”) I loved reading about the childhood of this sensitive boy Stephen Dedalus, and how his family argued at the dinner table about Parnell, and all about the scary priests who ran everything. But then I got to the part where Stephen starts going to prostitutes at around the age of fifteen, and I was completely bewildered and grossed out. Then he catches religion and becomes devout. Then he starts rabbiting on about art and aestheticism.
I had utterly lost sympathy with the protagonist and the author. Not only that, this Stephen Dedalus character began to remind me incredibly strongly of the Joyce-worshipping boyfriend, whom I had just broken up with weeks earlier. They were both totally pretentious and couldn’t keep it in their pants! (This is the same boyfriend who would get me so angry, the one I mentioned earlier in my review of These Twain. He’s certainly getting a harsh edit in these book reviews. Who knew he was so inextricably linked to 1916? He did have many good qualities, which were not at the forefront of my mind when read Portrait of the Artist.)
I ended up despising this novel. I bet if I re-read it now having had more life experience, I would have a more gentle and forgiving eye, but I probably never will. (Also, what kind of person likes Stephen Hero but not this one, when Stephen Hero is just an earlier draft of the same book? I think it’s pretty clear that the problem was mainly me, or mainly the ex-boyfriend.) I do get another chance to give James Joyce a fair shake in 1918 with his play Exiles.
I inherited my mom’s copy of this novel. It’s all marked up with notes, including D.H. Lawrence’s assessment of Joyce—“too terribly would-be and done-on-purpose, utterly without spontaneity or real life”—to which I say, people who live in glass houses shouldn’t throw stones. Much more magically, this copy contains photographs of me and my mom and Aine. Look at how happy we all were back then! These were from my birthday, in 2010 or even earlier.
While this is technically a reread, the last time I finished this book was around...oh, perhaps thirteen years ago or so.
I'm actually glad I'm getting the chance to read the series now, rather than having gone through it when I was younger; I feel I can appreciate and understand a lot of the themes being presented in it much more strongly.
While I've owned my copies for a very long time without having actually read the majority of them, these books hold massive sentimental value for me. They had a place of honour on my shelves when I was a kid, survived a move from Canada to Ireland, and are some of the last original possessions I own from back home (regardless of the fact that my mum mailed me them from Ireland as a gift). I honestly have no idea why I put off reading them for so long, but I'm glad I pulled its slip of paper from my random reads jar so early in the year.
The Senyaza series has a very rich and detailed world with a huge number of different and complicated forces attached. We have the fae of various courts all with their own agendas. We have kaiju, we have angels, we have half-angels, we have beings I can’t even begin to label. On top of that the whole sense of the other world is one that is so alien, so creepy and spooky and surreal that it takes a lot of thought
Then we have the books to date each of which manages to cover so much of this world because every last book has a different story and a different focus with a different protagonist and segment of the world.
That means in 3 books we have had a huge cast of characters, a vast world and a whole lot of development and complexity. Which is what I love so much about this series
Except… this is an issue for me with the short story anthology, exacerbated by me not having read the books, especially the earlier books, for some time. I don’t recognise enough of the characters in the early short stories to really understand what is happening or what is relevant. I don’t mean they’re bad stories – I really liked the feel of Other Reasons – for example. In fact, not only did I love it I was desperate for more – because it felt like I had missed most of the story and came in half way. I wanted to know the rest of this story because there wasn’t enough there for it to stand alone for me. I feel much the same forWicked Stepself, I really like this story (despite the second person format which I really hate) – a wonderful, powerful surreal session and a really powerful core for a whole new story which I really really want to follow more. But I’m just not sure how this relates to the rest of the series - can feel it, but with my fuzzy memory it feels like a new story in this world. One I really really want to read – but not one I find connected to what is currently there.
Stainless was much better at standing alone. A beautiful, surreal story of a woman in a sexist society, being abandoned and shamed for having a child – finding strength and purpose in a really creepy and terrifying setting. Surreal, powerful – but slightly disconnected from the rest of the book, and the series. It felt like something completely separate.
I think the same can be said for Winter War – again I have to stress I liked this story and it did add so much to the surreal nature of the world and a beautiful snippet into this wild and wonderful world… but not exactly connected to anything else. I say the same about Her Daughter, Pinned to the Sky again awesomely shows off the world, the surreal nature, the amazing powers being raised. Same statement again with the Endless Silence of Forgotten Things and the Far City Cheer Squad.
Eden Falls would almost be the same except I do kind of remember Simon – so I think this is more stories for this character who may not be a major character yet but is definitely heading that way. I wouldn’t be surprised if the next book in the series is his book. It also (broken record time but it’s true) addresses the surreal, creepy, morbid and beautiful nature of this world: and Simon saving people from a prison of their own making, a prison they want to be part of, a prison that they will tragically miss.
Children’s Game was much better for me since it took the story of Marley and the kids she looks after. I loved this story – it was so much fun and I still don’t know how real it was. It was fun, real, surreal – and slightly tragic and spooky as well. Really that kind of ideally thematically summarises the whole series.
Branwyn and the Stone also takes one of the main characters – Branwyn. This book also contains wonderful keys to future stories with this new challenge of creation. And I really loved loved loved her interactions with her activist grandmother who is awesome. I love the lesson she has – of course you fight for justice. But why? What are you fighting for? What do you intend to achieve? Are you just bashing your head open against a brick wall?
Similarly, I liked Etiquette of Exiles for not just continuing the story of one of the characters from the main story – but also by clearing up loose ends. We never really knew what happened to Penny and this was an excellent continuation of her story. I really like the fact we followed the story of a victim, we followed her path and she didn’t just magically recover – she needs to heal and grow and learn. There is no magical cure. It also brings us a nice little snapshot into the world after the fae went public and the consequences of that. Which is why I also really liked When Yeracha Trembles - the fae have gone public, fae power is now very much effecting the human world, so how is that navigated? And how do the fae navigate this with their more chaotic cousins