Inspired by Miss Happiness and Miss Flower

This writing blog got diverted and may seem more like a travel blog, so let me, Japanese fashion, impose some order. (Travelling followers picked up recently, please do stay on board: I think our interests coincide.) Hiroshima was so striking I wanted to deal with it first, but now back to what I read to complement my trip.

Why did I go to Japan? My fascination arose from childhood, and a book called Miss Happiness and Miss Flower by Rumer Godden. A small girl receives a present of two Japanese dolls, and her cousin models a house for them to live in.

Of course it’s dated now. Girls may design and work with wood as much as boys; children, sadly, no longer go to the high street by themselves to find information at the bookshop (so few local bookshops remain, for one thing). But nevertheless it was a delight to reread, thirty or more years later, the night before leaving for Japan.

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Geiko dancers on stage in Kyoto

Rumer Godden deals, with a light touch, on culture shock and homesickness and efforts by both sides to integrate. The children Nona and Tom understand the dolls need a home different from British homes, where the walls slide and discrete areas may be screened or opened up according to temporary considerations. Everything must be polite and ordered, and there is beauty in small, humble moments – one flower in a tiny vase, a scrap of silk for a pillow. The dolls have very human characteristics; Miss Happiness is optimistic and can accept hardship;  Miss Flower is nervous, can’t believe a foreigner can understand her and is so grateful and gracious when the foreigner attempts to do so. In a bonus for those with a talent for carpentry, the book includes instructions on how to make a Japanese doll’s house.

Dolls and puppets are important in Japanese culture, and feature in the next novel I read. Junichiro Tanizaki is a classic Japanese author, and Some Prefer Nettles was published in 1928. I returned to Tanizaki after another absence of thirty years, having as a teenager adored his epic The Makioka Sisters, about a family of sisters living in Osaka (It’s comparable, perhaps, with Lorca’s House of Bernarda Alba, Chekhov’s Three Sisters and any number of green spined Virago Modern Classics. Or even Jane Austen). 51jqirzmz2l

I wasn’t disappointed. Here again was the clear prose; the economical, poetic images conveying in one line as much as a page of Western description; psychology rendered through gestures, clothing, or choices of food and drink. Tanizaki’s characters think carefully about the design of every object they use, in order to enhance the experience in anticipation, during use, and and in memory. It’s a centuries old Japanese trait that continues today- think of Japanese technology, or think of a Zen garden.

In Some Prefer Nettles, a couple are preparing for divorce. There is no animosity between Kaname and Misako, they are simply tired of each other, but they have a child and an elderly father to consider. And so they proceed with care, with resignation, almost hoping to be denied the pleasure they seek, if it will help diminish the shock to the order of things. Meanwhile there are doll festivals and puppet theatre outings in which their situation is reflected through age old Japanese culture. (The puppets are life size and operated by up to three puppet masters at a time: I saw the one below at the theatre in Kyoto.)

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The husband, Kaname, was brought up in old Tokyo “before the earthquake” (of 1923) and harks increasingly towards tradition; the wife seeks modernity but remains adept at selecting his kimonos and arranging  flowers for the shrine. “He looked down on her, a sort of mute regret rising in him, without fear of meeting her eyes…..The early cherries were just coming into bloom.” It’s a beautiful, elegiac portrait of a society and a marriage, with a surprising number of echos for the contemporary Western reader.

41uvfhb2pslI considered reading Murakami, having found the same simple, limpid prose quality in Norwegian Wood, but felt I should explore a wider range of Japanese novelists and discovered Strange Weather in Tokyo by Hiromi Kawakami. Where Tanizaki told a story of modern marriage in a traditional society, this book, set in contemporary Tokyo, tells of timeless romance under modern conditions. A youngish woman meets her old teacher by chance, and he’s now retired and a widower. As with Tanizaki, you can open any page at random and be sure of finding elegiac, gentle prose, a yearning quality: the teacher’s name is Sensei and the narrator murmurs and repeats it just for the joy in the sound of the name. There’s the design commitment again: practical details investing everyday items with a touch of poetry. “The hot spiciness of the crackers really did go quite well with saké…I heard a faint chirping and then the sound of the leaves on the branches rustling for a moment, and then it was quiet again.” I suspect this simple beauty is a quality of the Japanese language, or it may be something that happens in the interface when Japanese is translated into English. But both novels – in which not a huge amount happens – are immensely clear, readable, universal and moving despite the significant cultural differences between us.

I read these two novels on my return. While I was in Japan, I read Motions and Moments, the third essay collection by Michael Pronko, an American professor who has made his home in Tokyo. At first I found these illuminating: as we moved around Tokyo I recognised quirks that he (affectionately) identifies. I was helped to understand certain customs through his intermediary insights; I enjoyed his descriptions of Japanese gardening (they use tiny secateurs like nail scissors to clip their shrubs with minute precision) and understood what he meant by getting lost in Tokyo “vertically as well as horizontally”. The first two parts of the book (Surfaces and Miniatures) were well written, witty and informative. Part 3, Constructs, could have used some editorial help with, er, construction (and I’m aware he acknowledges the help of Newsweek editors at the end). Perhaps by then I was too immersed in the spare beauty of Japanese expression to enjoy American verbosity and repetition. But it’s worth a read if you are going to Tokyo.

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Tokyo street scene

© Jessica Norrie 2016

 

“Exposure” by Helen Dunmore

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I’ve admired Helen Dunmore for a long time, for the lucidity and fluency of her writing. Her deceptively simple style can be read so easily that the story seeps effortlessly into your mind and you gather detail about the characters and settings almost incidentally. Then a particularly beautiful sentence stops you in your tracks and you begin to appreciate the poetry of what you are reading as well. “Each time the wind slams against the glass, her nerves crisp, but she works on calmly.” We’ve all experienced wind slamming and our nerves crisping at a sudden noise, but few of us can express it so economically. Only once in the whole book does she(or her editor) go wrong and the reason this jars so much is because of the overall perfection: “Julian Clowde’s eyes were like lizard’s.”
This story resonated for me because I am the age of the youngest child in the story; I too grew up in North London; my friends were the children of Jewish refugees, and the Cold War hung threatening in the background. We played English vs Germans in the school playground; my parents had been on CND marches; there was talk on the news and in the fiction I read later of spies, references that I didn’t understand (and still usually don’t) and that at the time were menacing and sinister. As the years pass those stories have become cartoonish, but in the 1960s spy activity represented the interface between civilisation and the Eastern Bloc, with nuclear annihilation the penalty if the delicate balance were to be disturbed.
Helen Dunmore writes of spies and suspicion, but without bringing in too much minutiae. The document and photographs to which the characters’ fate is hooked are not described in detail. Their bearing on world events, if any, is not clarified at all. That fits too, with my general incomprehension of espionage. What is clear is the effect on ordinary lives when they happen to become caught up: domesticity, not the world stage, is under threat here: home comforts, personal security, well being. Any child of the 60s can relate to inadequate heating in a Victorian villa and then a seaside cottage, a temperamental coal boiler and single glazing that rattles. More positively, any teacher (as I now am and as Lily is in the book) can dream with nostalgia of paperwork which went no further than a pile of marking, and of a time when junior school children walked home from school in sole charge of their younger siblings. This book abounds with such details that pinpoint an era as definitively as any set of dates.
Exposure is a clever title, for the exposure here gives another clear glimpse of the period, a time when homosexuality was as disgraceful, or more so, than betraying your country. Youthful sexual experiment that can now shrugged off even by top politicians, was then a criminal offence, individuals, households, governments could be brought down by the scandal. My parents had gay friends who lived openly together: it took many years for me to understand how brave that was. Helen Dunmore and her characters quote Oscar Wilde to haunting effect, before some of them are exposed in a different sense, on the freezing North Kent coast, scrabbling for sea coal at low tide. Throughout the book, objects, feelings, and facts are buried, consciously or subconsciously, for mistaken or sensible reasons, and the fear is that they will be exposed like the roll of film on the crucial Minox camera. None of this would be so necessary in a different society or a different story.
Dunmore references “The Railway Children” too, in an unlikely literary juxtaposition that works brilliantly. This time the children know a little more, the country dwelling and the train are not so friendly, the mother seen as more vulnerable and not always right. But the repeated reminder of a children’s book (in fact two because Dunmore also refers to another classic that I loved as a child, “The Children who lived in a Barn” by Eleanor Graham) is comforting for the reader: children’s stories involve passing through trials to a happy ending, so maybe everything will turn out fine for the Callington family too. After all, “No one will come at this hour, and those are only shadows under the lamp posts.”
It’s for the reader to judge the happiness, actual, potential, fragile or disguised of the ending, or whether a sequel would spell doom. This is real life in the way that only a cleverly constructed fiction can present it, and the consequences of hidden events may not be so simple as they were for the original Railway Children.

copyright Jessica Norrie 2016

Review of “The Noise of Time” by Julian Barnes

noise-of-timeAs so often, Julian Barnes has created an intriguing, beautifully written novel full of trenchantly expressed universal truths.  His subject is music and conscience.  To write great music, providing you have the necessary talent, should be a process involving the composer, his or her inspiration, psychology and external influences.  For the Russian composer Shostakovich, it also had to involve avoiding the displeasure of the authorities, an impossible feat given that they were headed by Lenin, Stalin and Khrushchev. One moment he was feted, the next he had become an enemy of the people. If he wrote what he wanted to write, he was accused of formalism, revisionism, the cult of the individual. If he wrote what the NKPD or the KGB wanted him to write, his friends, colleagues, the Soviet public and the foreign press questioned his integrity. But he had little choice in the matter as the potential price of not complying with the authorities was death and banishment for his family. Time and again he had to compromise, to sign speeches he had not written, produce music he despised and swallow being used by the Soviet machine as an ambassador for Soviet values and practices.

Barnes, in the composer’s voice, calls the authorities Power. His only weapon against Power is irony, and yet if people do not recognise what he produces as ironic, he will just appear Power’s  stooge. This book is full of striking images – the composer one of many Soviet citizens who, expecting at any moment to be arrested in the night, wait fully clothed with a bag packed by the lift instead, rather than put their families through the horror of seeing them seized from their beds. He sits at meetings carefully applauding at the right time, but not listening, and accidentally one day claps loud criticism of himself. When this is pointed out by a friend, he just shrugs. His self disgust has become so great that he agrees with the criticism, he says.

I was reminded of “The Sense of an Ending” by the number of times I came across statements, half composer’s voice, half that of Barnes, that encapsulate a universal truth with elegant, simple precision. It was chilling, too, to find so many of these could be applied not just as Barnes does to life under Stalin and Khrushchev, but to the diktats of our own democratic governments too (we’re obviously not under the same level of threat, but nonetheless the description is familiar):

“Bureaucrats assessed musical output as they did other categories of output; there were established norms, and deviations from those norms.”  (p.26).  “…yes, things did get easier and some filthy secrets emerged; but there was no sudden idealistic attachment to the truth, merely an awareness that it could now be used to political advantage.” (p130).

This novel is written in short, stand alone paragraphs, each representing a point in Shostakovich’s thinking, for example, thinking about his first love, his vulnerability, his musical legacy, his relationship to authority and so on.  It’s a short book, but takes a while tor read as the ideas and implacable nature of the composer’s predicament are so intense. It would be an insensitive reader who could race through without putting the book down frequently to take in and digest all the implications and wisdom (or resigned bafflement) of what has been said. This format suited me, though I seem to remember some critics not appreciating it when the book came out.

Finally, it’s a portrait of the interface between genius and an ordinary life lived as best it can be under prevailing conditions.  Very much recommended – for more details visit The Noise of Time.

© Jessica Norrie 2016