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

 

Harry Potter and the Athenian Quest

My children were the same age, more or less, as Harry Potter, and grew up with him, their interests and concerns maturing alongside his. It was Harry Potter who got my son Robert – for years more into cartoons and articles about football – to grips with reading long, unillustrated texts, paving the way for Philip Reeve and Philip Pullman later on.

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In 2007, Robert and I went away, to join a group, none of whom we knew yet, on an activity holiday with plenty to offer both of us. I never went on holiday without lots of reading matter, and took what I thought were “good” books along for him as well, but without much hope that he’d read them. In pre Kindle days it was a heavy, bulky labour of love.

Rob seemed sad in the days before we left. He liked the holiday idea, but was upset because the final Harry Potter book was due out the day after we were to leave. When he returned all his friends would have read it, and he anticipated having to hide himself away until he’d finished it too, or they’d tell him what had happened. Rumour had it this was going to be a thick book, so he’d be hidden away a long time. Even if he avoided  friends and the media, how would we stop his sister spilling the Bertie Bott’s every flavour beans?

There was no way to get it before we left. Bookshops had strict confidentiality agreements, stocks were locked up at secret locations, copies couldn’t be pre-ordered for dispatch to a remote Greek island, reachable only by several coaches and two ferry trips after flying to Athens. Rob was philosophical, but by taking us out of the UK on such an occasion, I had blundered, and I felt guilty. He packed the other books in silent, dreary politeness.

At Heathrow there was the usual dull hanging about after check in. HP bpopks 1-6Harry Potter posters popped up everywhere. News on the terminal monitors showed children and adults queuing up outside bookshops due to open at midnight, being interviewed about how excited they were. The airport shop windows were swathed in paper, ready for a grand unveiling – just after our plane was due to leave. You could buy the other six – but those we’d read already.

A delay was announced. Hope glimmered: we might be able to buy a copy. But we were called to the departure lounge. There we sat, bored and frustrated, in no man’s land, away from the bright lights of the shopping concourse, but not airborne yet either. My son grew quieter and quieter. I felt more and more guilty.

The plane was called, over five hours late. We arrived in Athens, trailed miserably through customs and got to our hotel as dawn was breaking. There was to be a late morning ferry from Piraeus, and the tour operators postponed breakfast so we could get an hour of sleep in the rooms we’d paid for and expected to use all night. Rob crashed out straight away, jaded and fed up. It was very, very hot.

I thought hard. My father had been a bookseller, and I knew about big events in the publishing world. Here we were in a European capital – there had to be a bookshop somewhere eager to conjure euro treasure from a pile of pristine Harry Potters. Leaving Rob asleep, I went to try and find one.

After my sleepless night, my eyes felt gritty and my tummy wasn’t quite behaving. I had rather a large sum of cash on me that I should really have left in the bedroom safe but I was too exhausted to think straight. I wandered away from the hotel, whose name I instantly forgot. After one block I realised all the street names were written in the Greek alphabet and I’d have no idea how to get back unless I noted some landmarks. Ah – SEX SHOP! screamed huge red readable capitals on the corner. That would have to do. I was just off Syntagma Square, but I’d never been to Athens before and didn’t realise. I’d left my 13  year old son sleeping, oblivious to my absence in a foreign city, we had to be at breakfast within an hour or we’d miss the coach transfer, and I’d prioritised a lone quest in a strange place for a book from another country… It’s not what the parenting manuals advise.

I crossed to a more salubrious side of the square and chose a road at random. Abracadabra! There was a bookshop, the owner just opening the shutters! In the window – two different editions of the new Harry Potter, child and adult. I rushed in, I gabbled, I almost kissed the man, I explained my son’s narrow escape from being marooned on a Harry Potter-less island! He was a serious chap and didn’t respond with due appreciation of the miracle he’d wrought. That would be 33 euros and would I like it gift wrapped? 33 euros! But I didn’t hesitate. I paid, fairly danced back to the hotel and woke Rob, who was very grumpy.

“We have to go to breakfast,” I said.”Can you fit another book in your case, I’ve no space?”

“I’m not hungry and I don’t want more books, we’ve got loads already.”

“OK,” I said. “I’ll see if someone else wants it then, it’s ever so big and I can’t carry it myself.” I let him catch a glimpse.

It was one of those moments that sum up what motherhood is about. Rob shot up from the bed, yelling: “HARRY POTTER!” Later on the ferry, someone saw him reading it and word travelled. “How did you get THAT?” An English crowd gathered in wonder.

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Robert had immediate kudos on that holiday. Some savvy people were having it flown out from the UK, but it wouldn’t be there for at least five days and he had a head start. They queued up to persuade him to pass it on to them when he’d finished it. They pestered him to know what was happening until he pointed out that if they left him to it, he’d be able to pass the book on sooner. In the end, he chose a pleasant, mild man, perhaps in his mid thirties, for his successor, buried himself in HP emerging only to swim, wind surf and eat and steadfastly refused to divulge any secrets.

Back in London, two months later, a large parcel arrived out of the blue. It contained a generous selection of recent feature film DVDs. There were hours of entertainment for the whole family as the nights drew in and wind surfing became a distant memory. With the gift was a note: “To Robert. Thank you so much for making my holiday so special by choosing me to read your Harry Potter book after you. Wishing you and your family well for the future. Yours, D.”

Wishing you well too, D, wherever you are. What a great time we all had in the end. It was our first holiday without his father and sister, so it could have been disastrous. There was that delayed start, and the teenagers I’d expected would be company for Rob all turned out to be toddlers. Instead the adults with their shared Harry Potter interest helped him to grow up and he’s now a singer songwriter, telling his own stories in his wonderful voice, while the setting inspired my own first novel too.

 

© Jessica Norrie 2016