18 April 2016

Iris Murdoch character names

Hugo Belfounder, a fireworks manufacturer and film magnate
Annette Cockeyne
Rain Carter
Toby Gashe
Martin Lynch-Gibbon
Randall Peronett
Pip Lejour
Otto Narraway
Barnabas Drumm
Octavian Gray
Julius King
Ludwig Leferrier, a young American historian
Arnold Baffin
Blaise Gavender
Hilary Burde
Cato Forbes
Meredith, the son of Thomas and Midge McCaskerville
Marcus Vallar
Alfred Ludens

10 January 2015

Murakami 3

[Written in April 2014]

After a long gap, I'm trying again with Murakami. This time it's Kafka on the Shore. It looks like I'm going to like it more than Norwegian Wood but already I'm a bit frustrated by the clunky construction.

There are two main threads in the book so far: Kafka's own story of running away from home, and a sans-serif, quasi-documental account of a mysterious incident that took place during the Second World War.

Kafka is the name the central character, and first-person narrator, has adopted for himself. Just as with the Magic Mountain references in Norwegian Wood, I can't help feeling clobbered by the signposting. And while we don't yet know how the two threads will be linked, we can be sure they will be. It's not an unusual technique, of course, but just seems a bit mechanical here.

And then there's this, at the end of chapter 7:
But on the evening of the eighth day - as had to happen sooner or later - this simple, centripetal life is blown to bits.
With crushing inevitability, chapter 8 then picks up the story of the war incident. Again, not an unusual technique to create suspense, but it feels tired, and the manipulation is so obvious that my initial response is to resist it.

A bit further on, and I'm beginning to be quite annoyed by the philosophical discussions that keep popping up. To take a short example, here's one from page 261. Kafka is discussing a song with Oshima:
"The lyrics, though, are pretty symbolic" I venture.
"From time immemorial, symbolism and poetry have been inseperable. Like a pirate and his rum."
This really isn't the worst example, not by a long way, although the "pirate/rum" simile is a bit odd. It's a kind of exposition, I suppose. Like the Kafka name (and various other literary references that are strewn around) it's guiding us rather too obviously. If you want a full-length example of what I'm talking about, read page 262 in full.

I'll finish this book but I don't think I'll read another Murakami. At risk of being patronising and superior, they seem likely to appeal to readers with less experience of narrative construction, which, objectively, is most other people compared to me (ie - simply - I've read more novels than most people.)
Well, reader, I finished it, though it felt like a bit of a chore towards the end. It's obvious from early on that the book won't deliver the simple closure of a more conventional narrative, so there's no turn-the-page imperative. In the end one is left uncertain of how much of the story is to be taken at all literally, and maybe that's the point, at a metaphysical level: literature, and life, are constructions and "literally" is, as always, a slippery concept. At the simplest level, we can think of the book as depicting Kafka's mythical journey in forgiving his mother. Neither of these seem sufficient. The metaphysical meaning is hammered home, but still vague, while the personal story is too lightweight to fill 508 pages (656 in the hardback, apparently. 656!)

What is its appeal? From time to time I was reminded of John Fowles' The Magus, a book that similarly captivated an earlier generation of adolescents, including me. In terms of content there are similarities: ghosts of the second world war interacting with an over-sexed younger version of the author in woods. But maybe it's more to do with the mysteries or gaps in the book. Both leave enormous scope for speculation and discussion. I've read that Murakami's Japanese publishers invited questions to their website. Thousands were posed but Murakami's only (canny) answer was that the book is full of riddles and you have to read it a few times. But essentially, I suppose, the questions would largely be about "what really happened", and what was dream/fantasy/deception.

In the end, but it took a while, I grew angry at Fowles' manipulation. I think it's just taken me a lot less time for that to happen this time.

23 November 2013

Le Bourgeois Gentilhomme (2)

... of course, the answer might simply be that all their fine words about artistic value are almost immediately undermined by their panicked reaction when there's any kind of threat to their gravy train.

But the purpose of this post is to note a contribution to the debate on vraisemblance. In Act 1 Scene 2, the Dancing Master proposes a musical sketch featuring shepherds and shepherdesses. Why is it always shepherds? Jourdan asks.

Lorsqu’on a des personnes à faire parler en musique, il faut bien que pour la vraisemblance on donne dans la bergerie. Le chant a été de tout temps affecté aux bergers ; et il n’est guère naturel en dialogue, que des princes, ou des bourgeois chantent leurs passions.

which is obviously a parody of  a certain theory of theatre. But it's basically true in recognising that what is accepted as realistic is very changeable.


Since writing the above, I've finished the play and what has struck me most is the slightness, the inconsequentiality of the plot. Jourdain's clumsy attempts to woo Dorimene come to nothing, as do his attempts to marry his daughter to Dorante. It all falls apart much too easily, with very little real peril. Jourdain is made to look a bit of a fool, but is materially pretty much unaffected. As with Amphitryon, it's as if the narrative itself gets bored and calls a halt. Perhaps that's why I found I had little memory of the story, but just recognised a few smart phrases. I don't even remember being upset by the lack of plot-complication: didn't we notice it?

If you were to compare this play with The Alchemist for example, you'd see exactly what I mean. Clearly a French 17th century comedy was a quite different thing to an English one. Perhaps it's just intended to be a series of amusing scenes, interspersed with music and dance, and we shouldn't expect anything else. So any coherent "plot" is a bonus, or even a distraction. Maybe, too, there's an influence of the orthodox 17th century French view that tragedy and comedy don't mix.

11 November 2013

Le Bourgeois Gentilhomme (1)

Again, I'm reading this online, here.

And already I've got something to go on. The first scene is peculiar. The Music Master and the Dancing Master have an unnecessarily long discussion about their patron. Partly it's exposition: we're told that Jourdain
 ...est un homme à la vérité dont les lumières sont petites, qui parle à tort et à travers de toutes choses, et n’applaudit qu’à contre-sens

and that he is driven by his pretention to be quasi-noble.

But the two Masters also have a brief debate on where the real reward for their work is to be found. Both recognise that Jourdain pays them well, which is important, but they agree that informed, educated appreciation of their work is the highest reward. The Dancing Master puts it most clearly:
Pour moi, je vous l’avoue, je me repais un peu de gloire. Les applaudissements me touchent ; et je tiens que dans tous les beaux arts, c’est un supplice assez fâcheux, que de se produire à des sots ; que d’essuyer sur des compositions, la barbarie d’un stupide. Il y a plaisir, ne m’en parlez point, à travailler pour des personnes qui soient capables de sentir les délicatesses d’un art ; qui sachent faire un doux accueil aux beautés d’un ouvrage ; et par de chatouillantes approbations, vous régaler de votre travail. Oui, la récompense la plus agréable qu’on puisse recevoir des choses que l’on fait, c’est de les voir connues ; de les voir caressées d’un applaudissement qui vous honore. Il n’y a rien, à mon avis, qui nous paye mieux que cela de toutes nos fatigues ; et ce sont des douceurs exquises, que des louanges éclairées.

It doesn't take up long, this discussion, but I'd bet it gets cut out of a lot of productions. The question is, why is it there in the first place?


Clearly, there was something wrong with my education, in that it failed to spoil French literature for me. Despite studying Candide for A level, I can still read it for enjoyment, and now I've started reading Molière's Amphitryon, a play I've never read before. It's one of those random readings. Petroc Trelawney on Radio 3 played Lully's overture the other day, and pronounced it in a way that I thought couldn't be correct. So I looked it up, and he was wrong (he had put the stress on the penultimate syllable, and rhymed it with lie on, the fool!) So a link or two led me to an online text of the play.

And what's really sad is that I can laugh at an exchange like this, where Sosie has been out-argued by Mercury, disguised as him.

L’action ne vaut rien.
370 Tu triomphes de l’avantage,
Que te donne sur moi mon manque de courage,
Et ce n’est pas en user bien.
C’est pure fanfaronnerie,
De vouloir profiter de la poltronnerie

Sosie was apparently played by Molière himself; of course he gets the best lines.

In another act of disguise, Jupiter is pretending to be Amphitryon, driven by lust for Alcmene. He says to her:

590 Vous voyez un mari ; vous voyez un amant :
Mais l’amant seul me touche, à parler franchement ;
Et je sens près de vous, que le mari le gêne.
Cet amant, de vos vœux, jaloux au dernier point,
Souhaite qu’à lui seul votre cœur s’abandonne ;
595 Et sa passion ne veut point,
De ce que le mari lui donne.
Il veut, de pure source, obtenir vos ardeurs ;
Et ne veut rien tenir des nœuds de l’hyménée :
Rien d’un fâcheux devoir, qui fait agir les cœurs,
600 Et par qui, tous les jours, des plus chères faveurs,
La douceur est empoisonnée.
Dans le scrupule enfin, dont il est combattu,
Il veut, pour satisfaire à sa délicatesse,
Que vous le sépariez d’avec ce qui le blesse ;
605 Que le mari ne soit que pour votre vertu ;
Et que de votre cœur, de bonté revêtu,
L’amant ait tout l’amour, et toute la tendresse.

While this is clearly a transparently cynical lotharism, I can't help but wonder if there's a general meditation going on, about duality of people, possibly also about theatrical representation. And of course, Amphi...  Duplicity. More to follow ...

Act 2 scene 2

Si sa bouche dit vrai, nous avons même sort ;
Et de même que moi, Monsieur, vous êtes double.

In Act 2, both Amphitryon and Sosie find that the actions of their doubles have damaged their relationships with their wives (Alcmene and Cléanthis). Jupiter has been playing as the lover, not the spouse, while au contraire Mercury has been cold with Cléanthis. The word transports is used a lot. Amphitryon thinks Alcmene has been unfaithful - but who with?


So, having finished reading, what of it?

The play ends quite abruptly. Jupiter and Mercury both tire of the imposture. Jupiter tells Amphitryon that Alcmene will bear a heroic son, Hercules. The gods return to the heavens. That's it.

It seems more like an entertainment than a real play, because of this ending. The intrigue unravels too quickly and easily.

Can we still see it as mythologised psychology? Amphitryon needs to learn to express the amant within: the result will be Hercules. In an imaginary staging, I'd like to see the two doubled characters played by actors who have very little physical resemblance, to stress the fantasy of it, the feeling that a blinding power is being exerted, not necessarily by the presumed gods even.

But I'm finding hard to have a definite view. Let's read some more Molière, and why not start with Le Bourgeois Gentilhomme, another school set text, which I'd expect to still enjoy.

16 October 2013

Bad typography

Famously, you can't judge a book by its cover.

 But if you could, I'd probably think this was a good un. I like reading about translation, and this promises to be a light, non-technical study, although I think calling it an "amazing adventure" is optimistic. And I also don't like the review quote  - "Please read David Bellos's brilliant book". It's just too needy, where I'd prefer nerdy.

I'm also not crazy about the design: the way the translated titles are crammed in, requiring one of them to be printed upside down. I can also tell you, dear reader, that the titles on the left aren't continued on the spine of the book.

In all, it's a decent idea that wasn't very well executed. But compared to what's inside, it's excellent.

Here's the table of contents.

What the hell is going on here? Random italicisation and size changes make it a very uncomfortable page to look at. And there doesn't seem to be any point to it. Charitably one could consider it illustrates the way in which the same meaning can be conveyed in different renderings, but that, presumably, is what the whole book is going to be about.

And here, finally, is the first two-page spread of Chapter 1. Again, the random variation between upright and italic, but also that horribly ugly initial capital D. The right hand page, however, shows that the book designer isn't unskilled: within fairly tight space limits, it's lovely. So why the nonsense?

You can't judge a book by its cover or by its typography, but you can feel ill-disposed towards it. I'll probably enjoy this book, but it'll take me some time to forgive the whimsical, annoying design.

Murakami 2

I wanted to do a post on typography, but I see I've left a Murakami discussion hanging in the air. So I did finish Norwegian Wood, and found it less wowful than I expected. It's not giving much away to say it's a story of adolescent love and suicide, and probably also more generally about modern Japanese society. I've very little idea where it fits in to modern Japanese literature; all the idea I have comes from the translator's note placed helpfully at the end of the text.

It seems that the book was Murakami's first big commercial success. Published in 1987 it seems to have caught the imagination of young Japanese like little else, and I suspect that's because it treated sexuality with a frankness that was new. Perhaps this was the first time young Japanese had seen themselves portrayed in a way that reflected the changes in society since the second world war, or since the unrest of the 60s.

My big problem was the main characters are defined by the other characters estimation of them. It's a cliche for fictional characters to take time, probably early in the book, to look at themselves in a mirror and think about what they see, so that we, the reader, get to know what they look like. Here we are told what each character is like by what the other characters say about them. They all keep telling Watanabe, the narrator, what an unusual person he is, for example, and even with Naoko, the central tragic character, we largely have to rely on Watanabe's evaluation of her. I kept feeling that he must be seeing things in her that we don't.

In the previous post I mentioned that there's a lack of foreignness in the translation and I suppose I also feel let down that the form of the book is unchallenging. I'm not sure what I'd expect. As I've said, I don't know anything about Japanese fiction, but in its form, Norwegian Wood could have been written at any time since Flaubert. And also, nearly all the cultural references in the book - music, literature - are western. It would be stupid and presumptuous to attack Murakami for not being Japanese enough, of course. Presumably this is a fairly accurate reflection of the concerns of young Japanese in the period.

I suppose what I'm saying is that when I read a foreign book, I expect some kind of difference. If there isn't any, there's no point in looking through the misty window of a translation. Norwegian Wood is not that dissimilar to many an equally competent modern Bildungsroman. But, oh yes, it is extremely competent. And I'd have to admit I'm probably much too old to be swept up in the emotions of it. And the butterflies never turned up.

Should I try another book by Murakami? If this blog had any readers, I'd ask them for advice, and if, by chance, you've stumbled aghast upon this blog after a Murakami search, and you're a fan of his, please let me know what to try next.