Edna O’Brien ‘splains Jame Joyce

The greatest living Irish writer Edna O’Brien’s (b 1930) brief (179 page) biography of James Joyce was aimed at people like me who are curious about Joyce’s life, but not curious enough to undertake Richard Ellman’s definitive but massive biography. O’Brien venerates Joyce’s writing, but recognizes the high cost to most everyone who had any contact with Joyce. As a vainglorious, insanely jealous, epically condescending, boozing spendthrift he does not strike me as a very good husband, but he was a worse son and father and brother, ruthlessly exploiting anyone he could, including various younger writers (the most notable of whom was Samuel Beckett) he enlisted as publicists and treated like serfs, and a series of patrons (one of whom, Miss Weaver, over time gave him what would be more than a million dollars in today’s currency) whom he hated for helping him but exercised cunning flattery to keep funds flowing his way.

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There is certainly a sense in which the increasingly blind expatriate Irish writer was a martyr to his art. But weighing the price of his achievements against the human costs involves the hurt and misery he inflicted on others. Perhaps because she values the achievements more highly than I do (indeed, as “immeasurable”), she is more willing than I am to suggest that the result was worth the suffering inflected on others. In his treatment of his mother O’Brien justly calls him “monstrously indifferent” and I would extend that label to many of his other relationships, particularly with his son.

O’Brien does not attempt to defend Joyce from being viewed as a monster; instead, she answers her question “Do writers have to be such monsters in order to create? I believe that they do.” (I doubt that she is such a monster, though no doubt pilfering in the privacy of those she knows to stockpile material for her fictions.)

She does challenge the view that Joyce was misogynist. This despite noting that the young man chose as his confirmation name Aloysius, a Catholic saint who (like Mohammed Attah) feared any contact with women. O’Brien argues that “in all the stories [in Dubliners] the women, despite being victims attain a moral superiority,” and that after carrying off Nora Barnacle the women in his writings are “temptresses and sorceresses.” The idolization of primitive life force in those he considered s-l-u-t-s and idealization of asexual, indulgent patronesses seems to me a very familiar, very Catholic Madonna/w-h-o-r-e dichotomy with an unoriginal delight in pulling the madonnas down into the “filth” that is sex in this worldview. (I am not sure what O’Brien means in writing that “if he depicted women as sexually primitive he was more prescient than anyone before or since. It probably says more about her than about Joyce, but the “pre-” may be a cunning annulment of the seeming praise.)

After the celebration among the cognoscenti of Ulysses and letting Finnegan’s Wake loose on the world, the world was swallowed up by war (WWII). Joyce got out of occupied France and died in Switzerland. A problem of biography, even one so novelistic as O’Brien’s, is that the endings are often anti-climactic. In this instance, the climax was also smudged between the triumph of Ulysse and the dragged out excesses of Finnegan’s Wak. For me Ulysse pushes the boundaries of readability (I greatly doubt I could reread it and am not even sure I could read Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man a third time) and Finnegan’s Wakis far into gibberish.

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O’Brien makes some sense out of Finnegan’s Wake and provides interesting responses to Joyce. Hard-core Joyceans will already have processed Ellman’s biography—regarded by some as the best biography of any writer ever written. The somewhat curious have a fine guide in O’Brien. She sometimes indulges in Joycean wordplay and some of her sentences lack verbs, but her book is generally readable, and I am inclined to trust her sense (as a novelist, as an Irish novelist) of what in Joyce’s fiction is autobiographical. (Very little is invented, but much amalgamates experiences and characteristics of multiple models).

 

The volume is an excellent match of biographer and subject, like Edmund White’s Marcel Proust that began the series of Penguin Brief Lives, a welcome antidote to the mountains of details that make so many biographies exhausting or too daunting to undertake.

 

©2002, 2018, Stephen O. Murray

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Spying on Bertolt Brecht in East Germany

Jaques-Pierre Amette’s 2003 novel La maîtresse de Brecht became the hundredth book to win the Prix Goncourt. It was translated into British English in 2005 not as Brecht’s Mistress, but as Brecht’s Lover. The young and beautiful actress Maria Eich at no point in her assignment by the KGB (The German Democratic Republic’s Ministry of State Security [Stasi] was only officially formed in 1950, though continuing to co-ordinate with the KGB until 1990) to spy on Bertolt Brecht (1898-1956), who has come to communist East Berlin after 15 years pereginations to Scandinavia and Hollywood is in love with Brecht, nor he with her. He uses her sexually and, for a time, promotes her career in the theater company, the Berliner Ensemble that he heads with his wife (used to his philandering with younger actresses) Helene Weigel. Maria’s KGB/Stasi handler, Hans Trow, is grateful for her zeal at copying every scrap of paper Brecht writes, including those he throws away. That Hans is in love with Maria is more plausible to me than that she is in love with him, but he is determined not to have sex with one of his agents, especially one whose assignment centers on keeping the sexual attraction of the most prominent cultural star of the East German state’s otherwise fairly dim firmament.

The novel opens with Brecht’s return to German soil in October of 1948. The “lovers” have little in common, including one-way (old to young) sexual attraction. “For Maria EIch, Germany was a new country, a series of green hills lined by birch forests, ruined motorways, clouds; for Brecht, it was a country to be rebuilt with money. A field for experimentation, a laboratory for an ideological revolution aimed at the younger generation. Neither of them had this country in common…. They would both eat at the same table, sleeping the same bed and never think the same thing at the same time.”

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(1988 German Democratic Republic stamp with Galileo, the subject of Brecht’s last major play, written and performed in his LA exile not in the GDR/DDR)

 

When that delight waned, by 1952, Hans Trow provided the funds for Maria to go to West Berlin, where her tubercular daughter and mother had been all along. She becomes a celibate teacher of German, most enamored of earlier German poets, Hölderlin and Heine, not paying much professional attention to the German poet she had lived with for four years. Brecht’s best-known plays other than the musicals with Kurt Weill were written in LA; he theorized and directed plays after returning to Germany, but wrote mostly poems and no major plays.

The novel captures the grayness of East Berlin and the dread of the whims of Stalin in his final years that even the secret police in far-away Berlin constantly felt. The title character is Maria, who is not an intellectual.

Though doubts have been cast (especially by John Fuegi) on how much of Brecht’s oeuvre was actually written by him, he was a gruff intellectual and an avowed Marxist, though of the heterodox Karl Krosch variety rather than a communist subservient to Moscow. Brecht’s most notorious support for the German Democratic Republic’s suppression of dissent came after the period covered by the novel, the GDR crushing of 1953 rebellion using Soviet military force. (He praised the regime for “safeguarding the socialist achievements,” even while living a life of relative privilege that included subscription western publications generally banned in the GDR.)

The characters in Amette’s novel are attempting to understand what Brecht really thought, especially about Stalinist communism. He chose to live (in comfort denied most residents) in the Soviet zone, but had an Austrian passport and Swiss accounts accruing his royalties. Many have considered him a hypocrite. I think that in a bipolar world he managed to prosper as a heterodox (usually) Marxist capitalist, and if he was a sexual predator, much of the prey, including Soviet-sponsored spies was willing to work with and submit to sex with him.

©2016, Stephen O. Murray

A delirious love story disguised as a police procedural novel

The first novel by Higashino Keigo (1958-) translated into English (in 2011)* is the 2005 Yōgisha X no Kenshin (as The Devotion of Suspect X), which won the Naoki Prize (the Japanese prize for genre fiction) and several Japanese mystery novel prizes. In that it starts with the gruesome slaying by his ex-wife Hanaoka Yasuko and her teen-age daughter (by another man) Misato gruesomely slaying Togashi, there does not seem to be a mystery. There are protracted attempts by Tokyo policemen to prove that Yasuko murdered her ex-husband. I have doubts about labeling the killing “murder,” since Yasuko was defending her daughter, but that issue never comes to trial.

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Indeed, the novel ends before any trial, with some definite surprises revealed along the way.

In that the suspect is Yasuko’s neighbor, mathematician Ishigami, I don’t know why the title has a “suspect x.” The only uncertainty on he part of the police and Ishigami’s former Imperial University friend, physicist Yukawa (who sometimes aids the police, who have dubbed him “Dr. Galileo”) is how many people committed the murder, more specifically if Ishigami was involved before Togashi was strangled. (The police are skeptical that a woman ten centimeters shorter than the “victim” could physically have strangled him).

I’d say that the key word in the title is “devotion,” not “suspect,” and that rather than being a mystery novel, or even a police procedural one, it is a love story. The measure of devotion is astounding, and more troubling than the initial strangulation.

For me, the pace is slow, especially since the police don’t investigate anyone else who was associated with Togashi, a quite nasty character whom I can imagine multiple people wanting to eliminate.

 

* Since then, Alexander O. Smith has also translated Salvation of a Saint and Midsummer Equation (and another five Hagshino novels not in the “Dr. Galileo” series have appeared in English).   “Suspect X” has also been filmed twice, once in Japanese, once in Korean.

 

©2018, Stephen O. Murray

Contemporary Chinese Limbo

[Rating: 4/5]

Pros: father/adopted-son relationship

Cons: not much of an ending

Born in 1960 in Hangzhou, Zheijiang, the son of two physicians, Yu Hua is the living Chinese writer best known outside the PRC. Though some of his work has been unpublishable there, others have sold substantially, including the 1992 Huózhe (To Live) that was the basis for the 1994 Zhang Yimou movie starring Gong Li that was not only banned by led to a two-year ban on Zhang making films. IMO, Yu’s work is more deserving of a Nobel Prize than the two writers in Chinese who have received the award (Gao Xingjan and Mo Yan).

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(Yu, ca. 2005)

Yu’s novel Diqitian, published in Chinese in 2013, translated by Allan H. Barr and published in the US by Pantheon in 2015 as The Seventh Day. Though quite melancholic and satirizing many aspects of PRC governance and society, it is gentler than some earlier Yu books, e.g., Shí Gè Cíhuì Lǐ De Zhōngguó (translated and published in English in 2011 as China in Ten Words) remains banned in the PRC.

On the first day, Yang Fei wakes up dead… and perplexed by instructions to go to a crematorium, recently euphemized as a “funeral home.” Once there, he finds that he/his sentient corpse cannot be processed, because he has neither a burial site nor an urn into which his ashes can be put.

He soon starts to meet others in this Chinese limbo, including his ex-wife, his birth mother, and a woman whose suicide he witnessed hours before his own death (caused by an explosion in a burning restaurant in which the family of proprietors was blocking the doorway endeavoring to collect payment for orders). “Mouse Girl” (so called because she lived underground in what was built as a bomb shelter) leapt off a tall building (after online discussion of sites for her suicide) because her boyfriend, who prevented her from making money in casual prostitution, gave her a knockoff iPod.

There are a group of embryos following the skeleton of a woman who saw them floating down a river and made a scandal of the hospital dumping and another group who died in a fire that officially had a death toll of only seven so that the cause would not be fully investigated (as any catastrophe in which more than nine died would have to be; two remain alive in critical condition), and a couple who died when the building in which they lived was demolished.

Those with burial plots awaiting them receive VIP treatment with padded seats rather than the plastic ones for ordinary corpses.

There is also the black comedy of a pair of recurrently bickering chess players with a macabre backstory and the tragic case of Mouse Girl’s boyfriend who sold a kidney to buy a burial plot for her.

I guess Yang Fei, who lived 41 years, could be said to “get closure” during his week of hanging out with the unburied/unburiable dead, who are more genial and kinder than the living and seem better off and more content than the traditional vision of dangerously “hungry ghosts” (Chiunese èguǐ,/ Buddhist preta).

Both Yang Fei and his father and the neighbor who breastfed the infant would seem more “self-sacrificing” to the reader if they had more self (or sense of self). I wouldn’t say they are “place-holders” in the Chinese Dante’s schema, but they are not very individuated (and less numerous than those Dante encountered in his visits to hell and purgatory).

In a 2004 interview while he was at the University of Iowa (http://u.osu.edu/mclc/online-series/yuhua/). Yu said: “What I had written in the 1980s, my attitude was that the writer knows everything, the writer is god and can create everything. So, these characters were more abstract, like signs. But later, in the 1990s, I suddenly discovered characters could actually have their own voices, that they could talk for themselves. When I first started writing, I knew what I would write next, and next, and what would follow after that, and would know that—well this part will be difficult, and this part will not. This all started to change when I began to have a different attitude toward the characters. I found that the characters could lead themselves. The story would lead itself. That is when I found the difficult parts were not so difficult anymore since the characters had control, and they would lead. I would give up a lot of control and let them take me through the story themselves. After this realization, I’ve noticed these characters have become more alive.”

It seems to me that the construction of a limbo in which skeletons with empty eye sockets can see (and even cry) and the contrivance of connections between Yang Fei and most everyone among the living dead is willed in the way Yu says he has abandoned. The devotion of Yang Fei and the railroad employee who found the newborn, raised him, and gave him his family name is touching, and that of his ex-wife whom he granted a divorce to pursue a business liaison strikes me as wish fulfillment even more than as sentimentality. But, then, Dickens is one of Yu’s favorite writers. (“There are a few writers I really like … Shakespeare, Dickens … I really like nineteenth century writers … Hawthorne … and of twentieth century Americans I like Faulkner the best. Among American writers still living, I like Toni Morrison the best.”)

I don’t think a novel needs to “add up” to anything in particular, and a lot of loose strings in the lives of Yang Fei and others are tied up, but the novel does not have much of an ending. Like a typical New Yorker story, it just ceases.

I think the novel would better have been titled “Seven Days” than the stress being on the “Seventh Day” (the “seventh” rather than “seven” is the choice made in the Chinese title); “Seven Days in Limbo” or “Seven Posthumous Days” would have been more informative. (And I prefer the Chinese cover design to the American one.)

Philip Roth’s Zuckerman Bound and Shop Talk

Before the recent death of Philip Roth (whom I consider an important writer, but not before his death “he greatest living American writer”),

Claudia Pierpont Roth’s biography inspired me to read the Zuckerman trilogy (plus a novella), starting (and seemingly finishing!) by rereading The Ghost Writer (1979), which I read somewhere was a Philip Roth novel for people who don’t like Philip Roth novels. I don’t really understand that assertion, still less CPR’s claim that the novel is “seamless.” For me it has glaring seams between its three parts. I feel that the burned out martyr to fictive art E. I. Lonoff was more than a slap (a pummeling?) of Bernard Malamud, who was still alive. The shots of Saul Bellow are fine with me.

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Turning Lonoff’s student/assistant/mistress into an Anne Frank who had survived is tasteless at best — and a cheat to beat. The part I like best is the middle, titled “Nathan Daedalus,” not that it is any more a portrait of a young Jewish writer than the other two.

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I thought  Roth was a splendid essayist, especially about other Jewish writers. Most of Roth’s miscellaneous Shop Talk interesting, but nothing in particular sticks out in my memory of reading it, though I appreciated the opening chapter about conversing with Primo Levi (whose collected works just appeared in English). The chapter on Malamud is as merciless as the fictional portrait. And I certainly agree that Bellow went from comic to rancorous, though I’m not sure Humboldt’s Gift is the turning point. Perhaps my memory of it is faulty. I remember it as my favorite of Bellow’s big books (I liked Henderson, the Rain King when I read it in high school, but doubt I would now; I recall liking the shorter novels, Dangling Man, The Victim, and Seize the Day, but if I reread them, who knows?). I liked the interview of Edna O’Brien. Another female writer is included in an exchange of letters between Roth and Mary McCarthy (spurred by The Counterlife and charges of that Roth insists are the character’s not his of claiming that all Gentles are anti-Semitic in her New Yorker review of it). The (1976) discussion of Poland in the 1930s (centering on Bruno Schultz) with Isaac Bashevis Singer is interesting. I wish that Roth, ca. 2001, had provided epilogs to his pieces on Klima (from 1990) and Kundera (from 1980) about what those Caech writers becamesfter the fall of the Soviet EMpire. The more overtly self-centered Reading Myself and Others is more valuable, but I welcome the second collection, too.

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I resumed Zuckerman Bound after Roth’s demise —with Zuckerman Unbound (1981)—but far from free..

In fact, he is very bound by the notoriety and riches of a novel entitled Carnovsky, which, like Portnoy’s Complaint, featured a lot of masturbation in Newark. Zuckerman is not free of the hostility of Jews for his work, including his younger brother (this is not autobiograpichal, and Roth’s father lived longer than Z’s).

There is nothing misogynist in the book. The one sexual encounter is with an Irish actress who is carrying on an affair with Fidel Castro (Z learns after their night of reading Kierkegaard and an off-the-page copulation). (OK, there is his righteous most-recent wife, Laura, and his sister-in-law, Carol, whom Nathan urges his brother to leave, but neither is treated with any contempt by Z.)

There is a comic (if threatening) version of Herb Stempel , the six-week Jewish ex-Marine celebrity fed answers and then forced to lose to Charles van Doren on the game show “21” in 1956.

“Making fake biography, false history, concocting a half-imaginary existence out of the actual drama of my life is my life,” Roth wrote.

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If not Roth himself, Nathan Zuckerman had tired of doing that by his next outing.

I liked The Anatomy Lesson (1983) the least of the Zuckerman Trilogy. Indeed, I like each entry less than the previous one. Zuckermann is still the much-resented author of Carnovsky, a mega-best-seller like Portnoy’s Complaint, but, unlike Roth, he has not been able to write anything since it. He has excruciating neck pain and decides he wants to go to medical school (at age 40 with none of the science prerequisites), actively discouraged by a childhood friend Bobby who went to the University of Chicago at the same time he did and is a physician. The physician’s widower father is an even more major character.

NZ borrows the name of his harshest critic (Milton Appel standing for Irving Howe) and makes him the publisher of a porno magazine as he tries to hire a female chauffeur originally from Minnesota, working in Chicago. She is not interest in working for him (let alone sleeping with him). Not a rounded character, but not a wet dream of a misogynist either. She tells him “t’s your honesty that stinks the most. You think because you’re honest and open about it, that it’s acceptable. But that doesn’t make it acceptable. It only makes it worse. Even your honesty is a way of debasing things.” (648)

Anatomy Lessons prefigures Roth’s eventual (much later retirement after returning as more the focus of his last novels):

“All I’ve got to go on, really, is my inner life—and I can’t take any more of my inner life. Not even the little that’s left. Subjectivity is the subject, and I’ve had it.” (602)

“I’m sick of raiding my memory and feeding on the past…. I’m sick of channeling everything into writing I want the real thing, the thing in the raw, and not for writing but for itself.” (610)

“The burden isn’t that everything has to be a book. It’s that everything can be a book.” (687)

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Olga in “The Prague Orgy” (1985) keeps demanding that NZ fuck her before she will surrender the Yiddish Aspern Papers (stories by Olga’s husband’s father; her husband Sisovsky, has fled Czechoslovakia for New York, from whence Zuckerman goes to Prague, visits the Jewish cemetery, and deals with Olga and the ubiquitous secret police who have half the population spying on the other half). The depression of the populace and justifiable concern about surveillance fit with my own observations of even later-communist Prague, where there was no conversation on the subway, everyone staring straight ahead. But NZ at least gets what he orders (poached eggs) in a restaurant.

In Prague, NZ gets outside himself, and he will be narrator rather than focus of later books (as well as the 1988 The Facts: A Novelists Autobiography), so “The Prague Orgy” seems to me to be a breakout/breakthrough, though not altogether lacking in masochism. As he wrote of Kafka (specifically “The Burrow”), “Touched by a spirit of personal reconciliation and sardonic self-acceptance, by a tolerance of one’s own brand of madness…. [He] no longer seeks to resolve itself in images of the uttermost humiliation and defeat.”

 

©2018, Stephen O. Murray

“The White-Boned Demon: Madame Mao”

I was fascinated by Ross Terrill’s Madame Mao: The White-Boned Demon, the revised and expanded 1999 version of the 1984 The White-Boned Demon: Madame Mao. Her first given name was Shumeng (Pure and Simple). The historical name of the wife of Mao, would-be empress during and after the Cultural Revolutio, and defiant leftist who refused to confess as good communists always had at show trials was Jiang Qing (Green River).

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Her childhood was so terrible that the reader has to feel sympathy for her clawing her way into drama school (fixated on Nora in “The Doll’s House,” and restive in the 1950s when she was reduced to being a housewife of the promiscuous Mao) and manipulating men to get into movies in Shanghai (her stage name was Lan Ping).

It remains mysterious to me how she captivated Mao. None of the photos makes her seem beautiful or glamorous to me, but she played the part of a revolutionary while remaining an individualist, a very opportunistic one. And outlasted Lin Biao, Luis Shaoqi, and Zhou Enlai. She was allied to the first and last of these, and for a time had Den Xiaoping not only demoted but nearly expelled from the Chinese Communist Party. She defended herself as “Chairman Mao’s dog. I bit whomever he asked me to bite,” and bemoaned that “Chairman Mao exterminated Liu Shaoqi, but not Deng, and the result of this omission is that unending evils have been unleashed on the Chinese people and nation.”

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(at her trial)

She lacked knowledge of economics and statecraft, and failed to become empress, one of the many successors to Mao who fell. She had been vindictive toward many who disappointed her and was plenty delusional, but stood up to the absurdities of her show trial, and hung herself only when convinced she would be imprisoned for life.

I think that Terrill pounds away a bit to much at the influence of Nora and the Tang Dynasty Empress Wu (624-705) too much, and there is a large cast of characters, including Mao’s children by four wives, including the daughter by her. The case shows how important personal relationships (not least grudges) were in Mao’s China.

 

©2018, Stephen O. Murray

A pair of Japanese poets tour Manchuria and Mongolia in 1928

Not finding the book I was looking for on the library shelf, I picked up and then read Yosano Akiko’s (1878-1942) account of a 1928 visit to Manchuria and Inner Mongolia as guests of the (Japanese owned and operated) South Manchurian Railway Company. Political unrest made it unsafe to go to Beijing, and a warlord (Zhang Zuolin) whose wife had entertained her was blown up with another official a few miles from where they had gone. The encounter with the warlord’s wife is practically the only encounter with anyone Chinese. She did note that Mongolians were being pushed out by Chinese. And opined that the Chinese merchants worked harder thta the Japanese.

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(with her husband)

Akiko deplored the generally low opinion Japanese of her time had for the Chinese and the Chinese language (even as her husband, Yosano Tekkan Hiroshi) wrote some Chinese verse) and after touring a Russian cemetery in Harbin asked “Why was is that in Japan and China where we practice ancestor worship, we generally show so little attention to graves?” (102). That surprised me, because as in Taiwan and the cemeteries I saw (in Hokkaido) seemed well-tended.

The narrative gives no clue that the author was a feminist, and not much that she was a poet (though occasionally she writes one, her husband’s are quoted more often).

She was very precise about city walls and appreciative of sunsets, mostly taking for granted hospitality, and mostly associating with Japanese working in China before the annexation of Manchuria by Japan.

I’m not sure the book even provides much insight into the feminist poet author, or Yosano Tekkan, or Japanese pre-colonialism (pre Great Asian Prosperity Sphere). It has to be one of the most minor translations from Japanese (in this case by Joshua Fogel of UCSB, author of The Literature of Travel in the Rediscovery of China, 1862-1945).

 

©2018, Stephen O. Murray