Wednesday, 31 December 2014

Book review: Bookmarks - Various (1974)

Bought at the Waterloo Bridge second-hand book market

Twenty eight writers talk about the books that influenced them (in 1974). Most of them mention having started off with Treasure Island; one or two mention it in order to say they've not read it. Shakespeare is mentioned only positively; Dickens, Chaucer and Hardy get more of a mixed reception. Two people I hadn't heard of, Ivy Compton-Burnett and the Greek poet Cavafy, are praised by many. Also mostly praised are many I had heard of: Proust, Conrad, Lawrence, Austen, Waugh, Plato, Freud. I should have read Bookmarks with a memo pad in hand to note down authors and books, but as it is I take away the general reminder to keep reading, broadly and well. And the knowledge that nobody agrees on everyone. Except Shakespeare and Proust in French.

Sunday, 28 December 2014

Book review: Kokoro - Natsume Soseki (1914). Or: The frustration of poor editions

The Peter Owen (2007) edition of Kokoro, very kindly lent to me by a friend. 

In Damian Flanagan's introduction to the 2007 Peter Owen edition of Kokoro, by Natsume Soseki - translated by Edwin McClellen - he refers to Kokoro as a masterpiece and warns the reader to brace themselves for a roller-coaster ride. I read the introduction after reading the translation of the novel that follows, and my first thought on beginning the introduction was that there could be few more inappropriate metaphors for the novel than that of the roller coaster, with its implied ups and downs and changes of pace. Not that the novel is without drama or the power to move, but I remembered no such dramatic swings.

However, shortly afterwards it became clear that Flanagan's introduction, unhelpfully, was based on a different translation of Kokoro to that which it precedes. Flanagan refers to quantities of analysis of Kokoro "beyond imagining", including two "ferocious" debates about a couple of short passages in the novel. One of these he says is located in the first paragraph: we are told that the narrator refers to the central character as "sensei" because he cannot bear to use a cold letter of the alphabet to represent his name, the significance of which becomes clear later. But the first paragraph of the translation that follows includes no mention of a single letter, nor the word "cold". We are simply told that the use of "sensei" is found "more natural" than use of a name.

Furthermore, the second of the two debates apparently revolved around a sentence that I can't find in the Peter Owen translation - nor can I find any sentence that distantly approximates it.

Perhaps even more crucially, Flanagan also says that the opening of the novel is "imbued with a striking homoeroticism", and quotes two parts in support of this.

First he says: "When they first meet the narrator writes, "Sensei had just taken his clothes off while I was exposing my wet body to the wind"".

In the translation that follows, this is rendered as: "Sensei had just taken his clothes off and was about to go for a swim when I first laid eyes on him in the tea house. I had already had my swim, and was letting the wind blow gently on my wet body."

And second he says (quoting the novel to begin with): ""It is a step towards love. As a preliminary to embracing the opposite sex, you have moved towards somebody of your own sex like me. [...]Because I am a man I simply cannot give you the kind of satisfaction you are looking for." That word "satisfy" is a key word in Kokoro, occurring with startling frequency."

In the translation that follows Flanagan's afterword, we are given: "But it was a step in your life towards love. The friendship that you sought in me is in reality a preparation for the love that you will seek in a woman. [...] But being the kind of man that I am, I cannot help you to rid your heart of that feeling of want."

Hardly as satisfactory.

In the final sentence of his introduction, Flanagan says that some critics of Kokoro "miss the point entirely", and that far from being about the end of the Meiji era, it is about a man who is prepared to give up his heart in order to transfer it forever into the breast of another man. Having been deprived by Peter Owen of the translation that Flanagan refers to in that very edition, I can't help but feel that I might have missed the point myself.