Book Review: An Angel Walks Through the Stage and Other Essays by Jon Fosse

I wouldn’t recommend anyone start with Jon Fosse here. Although he is a famed playwright, novelist and poet in Norway, he’s never been renowned for nonfiction. He actually published two books of essays totaling something like 600 pages early in his career before giving it up, and the present volume is a selection from those with one or two speeches that he gave later on. The pieces aren’t bad, in fact I really enjoyed them and gave the book 5 stars on Goodreads. It’s more that unless you’re already acquainted with Fosse’s work, you won’t get much out of them.

A lot of the essays here are about theory, but none are so dense as to be bogged down in academic prose. Instead, Fosse comments on philosophy and figures like Derrida, discussing more their impact on his thinking than any scholarly interpretations. There are also flashes of his biography here and there, like his schooling or his music-loving teenage years, nowhere hear anything comprehensive but, given the lack of information on Fosse in English, fans should delight in what’s here.

Many of the essays here are short, small thoughts rather than comprehensive arguments, just a page or two, with topics ranging from plays to Beckett to Bernhard.

If you already like Fosse and enjoy Literature with a capital “L” (I can’t imagine there are many from the first category that don’t fall in the second), then this is another great addition to Fosse’s oeuvre available in English. If you’re looking for a good place to start with him and neither Morning and Evening or I Am the Wind appeal to you, don’t worry, more reviews of his novels and plays are forthcoming.

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Book Review: Hiroshima Notes by Kenzaburo Oe

This is an incredibly Japanese book. At times it makes statements few outside of Japan can relate to, like saying the atomic bombs and their aftermath were worse than the Holocaust (it’s not a pain Olympics, guys). It also dedicates about 1/3 of its size to Japanese conferences on the A-bomb back in the 60s and the factions behind it splitting up, something I don’t think many people nowadays have an interest in. A lot of the other sections feature Oe throwing around vague terms like “dignity” and “courage” liberally; to his credit he does try to define them and the reader does get a sense of what he means by these terms, but the explanations are never truly satisfactory (though Oe himself also admits this).

Still, the sheer power and intensity of these essays outshine those problems. After some talk about the conferences, the rest focuses on the victims and doctors of Hiroshima who struggle to go on living everyday existences, and provides glimpses at those who fail to look past the horror of their condition and those who succeed. It’s very moving, and those who know Oe’s biography know the effect meeting with these people had on him, a feeling Oe manages to condense down on to the paper and transfer to readers.

I wonder how much is lost in translation. At one point, Oe, while highlighting how odd the Japanese word for “dignity” is, writes, “That boy is full of dignity,” noting how odd it sounds in his language and how it sounds translated from a western one. And, reading this book in a western one, it really doesn’t sound too out there. Oe is known for messing with syntax and producing sentences that appear as though they’ve been translated from some European tongue. While translators have been able to reproduce his knotty style with great success in novels like A PERSONAL MATTER or THE SILENT CRY, here the translators attempted no such feats and in the introduction admit that whenever something sounded weird and western in the original they opted for a simple version of the sentence. Too bad, I wonder how this book read in Japanese.

I’m a bit disappointed so few of his essays are available in English. Oe’s role as a spokesman for the new generation in 60s Japan was apparently more for his essays than his fiction. All we have are three small books: this one, a collection of magazine pieces about life with his son, and a short collection of lectures, including the one he gave at the Nobel ceremony. While the beginning of this one is bound in time to the 60s and as a result a bit dated, the middle and end transcend time and are a must read for any one who can get their hands on the collection.

If I remember correctly, Oe once said this was his most important book, and it’s not hard to see why. A must-read for anyone, but power through the first third if you’re not digging it.

Book Review: Mishima A Vision of the Void by Marguerite Yourcenar

On November 25, 1970, Yukio Mishima, one of the most acclaimed Japanese writers of all time, was part of a group that stormed a military facility and held a prominent officer hostage. Mishima then appeared on a balcony and gave a speech urging soldiers to return to the view that the emperor was a god, but the military men only mocked the author. He returned inside and then committed seppuku—ritual suicide—with his male lover.

Theories on why Mishima did this abound: some say he was delusional and his attempt at a coup d’etat was serious; others have made the argument that this was only to give the suicide obsessed Mishima the context for a death he had dreamed about. This odd incident served as inspiration for Marguerite Yourcenar, a fan of Mishima’s writing, and the result is this essay.

This is an odd book. Yourcenar knows no Japanese and thus relies on translations, which she herself admits and seems to recognize the folly of it, but then goes ahead and writes this essay anyway. It is primarily concerned woth the relations between Mishima’s written work and his life, specifically his suicide, which she treats as a work in itself. It’s a mixed bag.

When discussing Mishima’s books written before the Sea of Fertility (ex. CONFESSIONS OF A MASK; SOUND OF WAVES; TEMPLE OF THE GOLDEN PAVILION), she doesn’t go into too much detail, but her analysis does a lot to illuminate the western influences on Mishima and how these manifest themselves in his novels and plays. Perhaps it is the brevity of this section that lends it its strength, because the next section, devoted to the tetralogy, suffers from the plot summaries.

Finishing up, she goes into his politics and his seppuku, and here the essay as a whole ultimately felt like it does not cohere as much as Yourcenar hoped it would. She sums up the Japanese author who created art out of his own life, a man whose suicide was as poetic as his books, but her analysis of his fiction makes this conclusion appear more as if she came up with the ending and then worked backwards. Cherry picking abounds, and Yourcenar is hastily dismissive of some of Mishima’s works for unsatisfactory reasons.

The biggest problem with this work, though, is that in order to get something out of it, you need to be a fan of Mishima, but if you are such a fan of his that you sought out this volume, it doesn’t offer too much new. Any biography of him offers most of the same information, but in a much more informative and context-laden way. Yourcenar’s writing is stellar but not enough to save this. If there’s nothing else of Mishima’s to read, you might as well go for it, but don’t expect big things.