A Young Yukio Mishima

Yukio Mishima is one of the most famous Japanese writers from the 20th century. Although he authored numerous acclaimed works and was even nominated for the Nobel Prize, he is probably better known for his ritual suicide at age 45 (and was also the subject of Marguerite Yourcenar’s MISHIMA: A VISION OF THE VOID). He burst out on to the Japanese literary scene with his semi-autobiographical CONFESSIONS OF A MASK, detailing a gay man coming of age in war time Japan and hiding his feelings behind a mask, and from there wrote a number of novels (34 in total), plays, short stories, poems, and nonfiction, many of which are still read 50 years later. Often times his first drafts required little revision. Though he was a little messed in the head, he was clearly a genius.

But, although he clearly had some talent, Mishima worked very hard to get to where he was. In fact, he may be the hardest working writer I’ve ever read about. As a teenager, he focused a great deal on poetry and was capable of churning out enough material to fill a chapbook in a week. But his interests soon shifted and he began writing prose. He read the dictionary to pepper his pieces with obscure and beautiful kanji at a time when I would have failed SAT vocab tests. It’s not clear just how many short stories he wrote at this point in his life, but the number must have been rather high and he also worked on a few novellas and novels. He also produced around 9 full-length plays during these years.

At 17, some teachers at his school were so impressed with his short story “The Forest in Full Bloom” that they published it in their magazine and offered to publish it in book form, a feat all the more amazing because it happened during World War 2 when paper shortages were common. The story, written in an elegant classical Japanese, tells the story of a boy reminiscing about his ancestors. There were a couple other stories to round out the collection.

Soon after Mishima began publishing other prose in various magazines, making a decent amount of money from his writings. Another short story collection soon followed, as did his first novel, BANDITS, about aristocratic lovers with suicidal preoccupations.

Keep in mind, while he was producing all this work, he also held a full time job at the finance ministry and would only write at night, staying up late and averaging four or so hours of sleep each night. When his father began to see the toll this lifestyle was taking on Mishima, he allowed his son to quit to focus on writing—right around the same time Mishima was offered a book deal for his next novel.

Mishima spent the next three months working on his novel, finishing in early 1949. This was CONFESSIONS OF A MASK. Published that summer, it received warm reception. But did not sell well. Mishima got nervous about his decision to resign from his finance post. He could still make a bit of money from his other writings, but would it be enough?

CONFESSIONS, which is now viewed as the work that cemented Mishima as a notable writer, was far from a sensation when first released. It was only in December, when it appeared on a number of critics’ “best of” lists, that the public started to take note. And take note they did. Mishima would enjoy fame for the rest of his life.

So, he was far from a genius figure who could effortlessly produce amazing manuscripts. He spent so much time writing as a teenager that it is quite likely he had written over a million words before BANDITS (often listed as the amount of practice needed to produce something great). And even then, it still took a while for him to find popular success.

To any wannabe writers feeling down because they’ll never be good enough, remember all the writing Mishima had to do before the public took note. Sure, he was 23 when that happened, but by that time he had also written more than most people do over a lifetime. And to anyone who thinks NaNoWriMo is a waste of time because people just shovel words on to a page, remember that Mishima practically did that every single day of his life.

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Book Review: I am the Wind by Jon Fosse

I have previously written about Jon Fosse and his skills as a prose writer, but this is the first play I have read by him. He is the world’s most performed living playwright, and translations of almost all his plays are available in English, but for whatever reason, he has never caught on in the English-speaking world.

With sparse dialogue reminiscent of Beckett and Pinter, this is not a play for everyone. It features two characters, The One and The Other, in a small boat in an unnamed body of water, and most of the play consists in just them talking. Their talk, ridden with pauses and unfinished thoughts, might frustrate those who want them to come right out and say what is on their mind, but that is one of the play’s big themes: the inadequacy of language.

Readers more action-minded will be pleased to know that the characters do not sit around waiting for the whole play. There is a chilling event that brings the short text to its conclusion, which, to avoid spoilers, I will not say much about other than it puts a new light on the preceding dialogue.

I must emphasize again that this is not for everybody, but for anyone who ever enjoyed Beckett or a similar writer, this is a real treat. Most of Jon Fosse’s plays are collected in volumes containing 5 or 6 plays; this is one of the few standalones. For those who want to try out Fosse but do not want to commit to a handful of works, this text is great. It is a shame Fosse is not more well known over here, although with him now being mentioned as a possible future Nobel laureate, perhaps that will soon change.

Book Review: The African by J.M.G. Le Clezio

If you go on the Nobel website, click on the winners, and look at “About the Nobel Prize in Literature ____ (insert year here),” you’ll find something called the bio-bibliography, which gives an account of the many books each laureate wrote and the themes. Often times the sections dedicated to individual books varies in length, and here lies the interesting part: the books with the longer paragraphs or parts are the books that helped get the authors the Nobel. Usually these are the books you would expect (ex. Le Clezio’s DESERT), but occasionally it is one that has flown under the radar, that has been passed off in the public eye as a minor work. This is exactly the case with Le Clezio’s THE AFRICAN, a novella length memoir that gets as much space as DESERT, which has been described as the writer’s masterpiece.

Le Clezio was virtually unknown in the English-speaking world when he won the Nobel; now, a few years down the line, he still does not get talked about much. Which means THE AFRICAN, which has been summed up as a minor work over here, is rarely if ever mentioned. This is a shame, as it’s quite the book.

The focus is on Le Clezio’s strict father, a doctor who spent most of his adult life working in a very rural area in Africa. After the war, the author, his brother, and his mother all went to live with him (and, in the boys’ case, to meet him). Le Clezio’s descriptions of the landscape, the plains, the termite mounds are as always poetic, and this section is filled with dreamy memories of him and his brother playing around, gritting their teeth at the strange man everyone calls their father.

The book then shifts in time, moving from memories to reconstruction based on the stories Le Clezio was told. How his father wound up in Africa when he could have settled in England. How he and his wife first traveled there. How the couple was separated during the war and how the father abandoned his post to make a mad journey across the Sahara to try to be reunited with his family.

The book is incredibly slim and can be finished easily in two hours. While not a real negative, at times the book does not go into satisfying detail about various anecdotes and recollections. But this is still a very heartfelt book. By the end the father has gone from a strict figure, the bane of rambunctious youngsters, to a complex, tragic figure torn from having a normal family life due to circumstances beyond his control.

This book never really took off in the English-speaking world, and as Le Clezio recedes into a forgotten figure, another example of the Nobel picking a nobody instead of some living legend like Kundera, it seems unlikely that it will ever get a resurgence. This is a shame, as THE AFRICAN unexpectedly confirms Le Clezio as a worthy winner.

Book Review: Catherine Certitude by Patrick Modiano

Not the definitive Modiano novel, but my library had it so I thought why not. This is Modiano, chronicler of the dark Occupation, reporter of the Holocaust, and speaker for those who no longer can, doing a children’s book. And it has nice, whimsical pictures, like something out of Roald Dahl. (Plus the short length doesn’t hurt!)

The story, if you can call it that, is about a grown ballet teacher reminiscing about her childhood in Paris, after her mother had immigrated to the US and it was just her and her father. Her father and his snobbish partner run a shady company that Catherine doesn’t know much about. All she knows is that various loose ends with it are the reason they can’t join her mother. So her days mostly consist of her going to school, going to her dance class, and doing homework in her father’s warehouse.

And, heads up, the rest of this review will have spoilers, as most of my problems with this book are there.

For fans of Modiano, this is a decent outing, with some memorable characters and scenes. However, in typical fashion, he answers very few if any of the questions he asks. This is less a narrative than a series of memories, few of which build on each other, and as a result, it’s missing something, some impetus to drive things along. There is hardly any conflict in the book. Sure, her and her dad want to go to America and Catherine would like to see her mother again, but so little of the mother is seen it takes a backseat to the relationship between Catherine and her father. And between them there is no conflict. At a party where her father is trying to make business contacts that he thinks will finally get them to America and fails, Catherine feels bad for him, but other than that, it’s smooth sailing between them.

Catherine herself does very little. She has her dance classes, and at one point she makes a friend who invites her and her father to the party mentioned above, but that whole arc just reads like it’s there to remind readers they want to leave France. The friend soon moves away, the people the father meets do not help them, and it is never mentioned again after. One day the father is suddenly free to leave and they then leave.

That’s it. Nothing is answered, which Modiano can pull off in his adult books, but here for a book meant for kids…well, I can’t see any kid being happy with this book. Even girls into ballet might find the dancing bits fun, but would definitely think the rest of the story an enigma. The lack of narrative-drive hurts it. Although the main conflict should be about them getting to America, it reads more like a meditation about her father’s mysterious job, but Catherine herself doesn’t actually dedicate too much time pondering over what it might be he does—it’s tough to imagine a child getting invested in this.

I’ll give this book two ratings. I’m not super well-versed in children’s lit, but I did spend a summer at a children’s fiction publishing firm, so this first rating is for kids. I really can’t see too many kids liking it for the story itself, although, again, those pictures are awesome. One star for kids.

As a fan of Modiano, I’ll be a bit more generous. It has all the hallmarks of his writing, and while they end up being much less satisfactory here than in his other books, it’s still decent fare. If you’re a fan of Modiano’s writing, it is worth a look. You can blaze through it in 45 minutes, so you’ll be done long before you decide you don’t like it. Three stars for fans.

A Young William Golding

As a wannabe writer, I find nothing as motivating as learning about famous writers when they were just starting out. What were they like before they were well known, before they knew they had made it?

Today, the focus is on William Golding, best known for LORD OF THE FLIES. The information comes from John Carey’s excellent biography, THE MAN WHO WROTE LORD OF THE FLIES. Though now viewed as something like a one trick pony, Golding wrote a number of other novels (many of them have fallen in stature since release, but in his lifetime later works such as DARKNESS VISIBLE and TO THE ENDS OF THE EARTH received wide acclaim), a couple nonfiction pieces, some plays, and exactly one collection of poems.

That collection, aptly but boringly entitled POEMS, came remarkably early in his career, with the book published when he was 23 and most of the content written during his college years. His next published work, LORD OF THE FLIES, would not be released until 20 years later.

What happened in the interim?

Golding was still writing, mentioning in a letter from the late 1930’s a novel he was at work on, though it is unknown if he ever finished the draft. Short stories and poems also flowed from his pen, but few if any were picked up.

Golding began to work on larger projects after the war. The first, SEAHORSE, was a nonfiction account of sailing while also training for D-Day. While his other nonfiction works are mostly collections of essays, lectures, or travelogues, this is a straight biographical account.

His next two would be novels, though still drawing on his life experience. CIRCLE UNDER THE SEA features sailing as a prominent theme in the story of a man trying to discover treasure on an island. And, although he wrote in the evenings, Golding needed a day job, settling on being a teacher. His next novel, SHORT MEASURE, is a drama set in an English boarding school, and was considered by publishing houses before ultimately getting rejected. None of them have been published, even posthumously.

For anyone doubting themselves, just remember, Golding wrote at minimum three and a half extended prose pieces, along with a good amount of poetry and miscellaneous works before his first novel hit the market. He was 43 years old. Whatever one thinks of Golding, whether he is a one trick pony or a stain on the Nobel (I disagree with both thoughts), it is impossible to deny that he let rejection halt his dreams.

Book Review: Radish by Mo Yan

Mo Yan, controversial Nobel Prize winner, started writing soon after enlisting in the Chinese army in 1976 and published A TRANSPARENT RADISH, here simply titled RADISH, in 1984. It is one of his first published works, and it does feature some flaws typical of early books, but fans will see the writer who would soon publish RED SORGHUM stepping up to bat here (a classic he published just two years later).

Already Mo Yan’s unbridled prose energy is present here (though slightly more reigned in than in later works) and the usual themes of food and hunger waft through the text. The plot centers around a scrawny, sickly mute boy, Hei-Hai, trying (and usually failing) to perform the tasks assigned to him by a work brigade. The other main characters are the blacksmith he works under, a mason, and the maiden Juzi, who meet each other through Hei-Hai and become embroiled in a love triangle.

The novella is mostly character driven, and for that it suffers. In a book of this length it’s difficult to fully describe characters, leaving the main characters more archetypes with one or two distinguishing details than fully formed, and some side characters are one dimensional and don’t appear nearly enough. Those new to Mo Yan, beware that he does not have a kind view of humankind. His fiction is a cruel world where miserable things happen to almost everyone and even the characters the reader is supposed to root for have awful qualities. If you need a sympathetic character (or an uplifting ending), Mo Yan might not be for you.

Still, the plot never flags. I was never on the edge of my seat but I also ever wanted to put it down. I have heard that after the Nobel Prize, some high school students in China are now required to read this, and after reading, despite the flaws, it is not hard to see why. English readers, however, might get less out of this than a Chinese reader, due to cultural differences. The descriptions of the work brigade would obviously resonate more with those familiar with Chinese culture.

Interestingly, little of the magical realism that Mo Yan is famous for is present here. Other than a brief appearance by a “transparent radish,” there is nothing, and those not expecting it might be thrown off by the sudden appearance of a see-through vegetable. By the end of the text, though, the metaphor of the radish makes sense. I highlight this not because it is a negative, but rather because it hints at an early Mo Yan more grounded in reality than his later metafictional, mystical works. Considering a lot of his novels revolve around those elements, what would a realistic Mo Yan be like?

Overall, RADISH very obviously an early work, but its pros outweigh its cons by a good margin. It is probably not the best place to start exploring Mo Yan or his country’s literature, but with its cheap e-book price, anyone already acquainted with those will find something interesting here.

Book Review: Suspended Sentences by Patrick Modiano

I’ve heard Modiano is an acquired taste, and after reading a number of his books, it’s not hard to see why. Take this collection. I wouldn’t call these stories so much as reminisces, meditations on a memory from long ago and seeing what else it conjures up, following the memories to their ends, which are usually brought about more by forgetting the rest or time wiping away any other clues about people the narrator once knew. Despite this unorthodox approach to story telling, I loved it. But it’s not for everyone (the reason it has so many votes on Goodreads and Amazon is that for a few months after his Nobel prize win this was the only book of his widely available in English, not because this is one of his major works).

Still, for anyone who wants to get into Modiano, this is a book that should not be missed. For anyone curious about him, I recommend reading either DORA BRUDER or MISSING PERSON first, as they’re probably his best books, and then either this or THE OCCUPATION TRILOGY, to get a sense of the cumulative effect that pervades his writing.
As others online have said, the first two novellas are quite good. At first they might seem disappointing, as they raise a lot of questions and then end with hardly any of them answered. But these stories linger in your mind. They also slowly build up, adding to each other to form a powerful cumulative effect. After the first story, AFTERIMAGE, about a man trying to recollect and gather everything about a photographer who wanted to be forgotten, I was left thinking, “That’s it?” After the second one, about two boys who are raised by a suspicious group of their parents’ friends while their guardians are off exploring the world, left me with a similar feeling, but also a desire for more.

And the last one, entitled FLOWERS OF RUIN, seems to be the least popular of the bunch, but I liked it a lot. What starts out as an investigation into a double lovers’ suicide that happened some years ago instead becomes a reflection of all the old sites in Paris: all the history they’ve seen that links people together and how these buildings are being torn down to make way for McDonald’s and other such chains. This is where the cumulative effect starts to show, as characters and events that occurred in the other novellas bleed into this one—I’ve been told that each Modiano book could be said to be a chapter in one large book, and after these I’d have to agree. I can see why some might dislike Flowers of Ruin, and there is a lot about it that shouldn’t work, but Modiano’s crisp prose style, understated yet poetic, filled with descriptions and phrases as fleeting as memories, keeps it all fresh.

Final thoughts: if you’re hesitant about Modiano, start with DORA BRUDER or MISSING PERSON. If you’ve read one of his better known works and are intrigued, then go for it. Modiano only gets better the more you read by him. If this is your first and you’re not hooked, give him another chance if it doesn’t strike your fancy. I didn’t think much of him after reading just this collection, but after DORA BRUDER, I wasn’t only a fan of Modiano, I rethought these stories and appreciated them more.

And I’ve only gained appreciation as I read his other books.