Saturday, July 1, 2017

Mount TBR #32

I read this book for the Mount TBR Reading Challenge hosted over at My Reader’s Block from January 1 – December 31, 2017. The challenge is to read books that you already own.

Modern Japanese Stories – edited by Ivan Morris

This is a collection of 25 longish stories that give an excellent overview of Japanese fiction in the first half of the 20th century. They were carefully selected by premier scholar Ivan Morris, known for his 1967 translation of The Pillow Book of Sei Shōnagon and The World of the Shining Prince: Court Life in Ancient Japan. The translators were luminaries of the Post-WWII group of scholars such as Morris himself, Edward Seidensticker, Howard Hibbett, and Donald Keene.

Published in 1962, obviously the title is, in our year of 2017, a misleading one. Modernist, perhaps, since the writers were born in the early 20th century, educated before Japan went mad with nationalism and xenophobia, and influenced by movements such as naturalism, decadence, nihilism, and Marxism.

"On the Conduct of Lord Tadanao" by Kikuchi Kan is an example of pop historical fiction that the Japanese enjoy but is rarely taken on by snooty translators who see little literary merit in genre fiction. "Tattoo" by Tanizaki Junichiro also has an Edo-era setting, but its concerns – the thin line between pain and pleasure, between dominance and submission – are decadently and creepily 20th century.

Plenty of Japanese writers struggled with the perennial issue of “western knowledge, eastern spirit.” "Under Reconstruction" by Mori Ogai explores the tangled relationship of Japan and the West through the broken romance of a Japanese intellectual and the German woman who loves him but doesn’t know when to be quiet about it. "Hydrangea" by Nagai Kafu makes the point that although Japan changes on the outside, in its spirit the Japanese discover that they must be themselves.

The extreme realism of naturalism is evidenced in many stories. "Seibei's Gourds" by Shiga Naoya is about an unloved child. "Brother and Sister" by Muro Saisei explores an abusive and violent relationship. "The Handstand" by Ogawa Mimei and "Letter Found in a Cement-Barrel" by Hayama Yoshiki are about the hard lives of working people. "The Charcoal Bus" by Ibuse Masuji is a story about how exhausting life is when people must deal with poverty and ignorance every day. A harsh look at prison life is in "A Man's Life" by Hirabayashi Taiko. No cherry blossoms or tea ceremony or games of go in these stories.

The Pacific War is the backdrop for various stories. "Downtown" by Hayashi Fumiko shows us the life of a poor war widow who struggles to get by and reluctantly lets another man into her life. "The Idiot" by Sakaguchi Ango is a rough story of the effect on civilians of the mammoth Tokyo bombings in April, 1945. In "The Hateful Age" by Niwa Fumio, the dementia of an elderly mother causes chaos for a family already emotionally and economically hard-pressed by being bombed out of their Tokyo house. "Nightingale" by Ito Einosuke is set in the country, with cunning farmers reacting to change with their usual conservatism and duplicity.

Fantasy is well-represented with "The House of a Spanish Dog" by Sato Haruo. The Chinese influence on writers educated in the late Meiji era is found in "Autumn Mountain" by Akutagawa Ryunosuke and "Tiger-Poet" by Nakajima Ton. "Machine" by Yokomitsu Riichi is a curious experiment in narration which will work for you or not. "Morning Mist" by Nagai Tatsuo is either an essay with fictional elements or a short story that Nagai daringly jams into an essay. Who knew a short story would have the space?

Well-known writers writing in their familiar styles with familiar themes are well represented: "The Moon on The Water" by Kawabata Yasunari, "Shotgun" by Inoue Yasushi, "The Courtesy Call" by Dazai Osamu, "The Priest and His Love" by Mishima Yukio.

I can recommend that this is worth the time for readers into this kind of story. My usual way is to read short stories one a time, usually on weekends. So I started this in January and finished the 25th story this June. That seems to be the right pace to read, think, return, let it sink a little more.

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