December 2013 Reading Recap

My progress through Herman Hesse’s novel Narcissus and Goldmund has slowed, so I thought to write this post up a bit early. Sometime in January I also plan to revisit my top novels post I did once before.

  • Lucky Jim, Kingsley Amis – Reviewed here, Lucky Jim is a comedy of errors. On some level, James Dixon is alienated from teaching at the university because he is surrounded by insane people, but on another he is a college instructor who is wholly unsuited for the position. I had a particularly strong negative reaction to this novel, which is reflected in the review, but the more I reflect on it the funnier the story is and it is likely to appear on my updated list of top novels–even if I still have misgivings about the moral presented about people in academia and what contingent faculty should do with themselves.
  • The Secret History of the Lord of Musashi, Junichiro Tanizaki – reviewed here, Tanizaki “explains” on the basis of several fictional sources the rumored, but unknown, sexual desires that drove the eponymous Lord of Musashi to become a successful warlord. I enjoyed the book, although I did note that it seemed to be a solid addition to a secret history genre, rather than a great novel in its own right.
  • Scoop, Evelyn Waugh, a novel satirizing news media, public consumption of news, journalism, and foreign correspondents. John Boot, an author, pulls some strings to get a job as a correspondent in Ishmaelia, an African country on the brink of civil war, so that he can escape a persistent women. But the newspaper hires the wrong Boot, William, a homebody whose writing consists of stories about country fauna. William does take the job and goes to Ishmaelia, where he is a fish out of water. Waugh has some wicked insights about what news is and the absurdities of journalism.
  • The Stranger, Albert Camus – Mersault works hard, he is seeing a woman from work who he might marry, and he gets to go swimming. His mother has just died, but other than that his life could be described as good. Mersault might not say so, though. Life is. His pattern of life changes drastically when he shoots an unknown Arab man on the beach.
  • The Garden of Eden, Ernest Hemingway – One of Hemingway’s incomplete posthumous novels that was heavily pruned from the manuscript form (something like 2/3 of manuscript was cut to create the story in its published form). David Bourne and his wife Catherine are on their honeymoon along the Mediterranean coast of France. The couple is in love and, in typical Hemingway fashion, most of their time is spent eat, drinking, and swimming, sleeping, and having sex. The erotic games really begin when Catherine begins to alter her appearance to more resemble her husband and take control of their relationship and then when she brings a new woman into her marriage. There is an emptiness to this story that is more pronounced than usual, probably because the story was incomplete and because it was so thoroughly trimmed. There are still some things to recommend The Garden of Eden–Catherine is a fuller, more powerful female character than most Hemingway created, he creates a powerful sense of place for a beautiful setting, and the story that remains has some rich irony given the background of manuscript.

As noted above, I will finish Narcissus and Goldmund in the next few days, and after that I don’t know what I will read. As of this writing, tomorrow is a new year and the possibilities are endless.

The Secret History of the Lord of Musashi, Jun’ichiro Tanizaki (T. Anthony Chambers)

Perhaps the easiest way to explain Tanizaki’s 1935 novel, The Secret History of the Lord of Musashi, is to posit the existence of a “secret history” genre, that, if loosely defined could be expanded to include alt-earth or even roughly contemporary mystery-thriller novels such as Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code, the “American Treasure” movies, the Men in Black, or superheros. More narrowly, this genre blurs the lines between fiction, rumor, and history in order to explain how the world was (or is) at a particularly point in time beyond the historical record. The author or narrator of the text usually takes a stance that the record is flawed (at best) or manufactured (at worst), but, thanks to previously disregarded sources, this secret history will fix the oversight.

One frequent trope in this genre is that beneath an honorable facade and commendable actions lie paraphilia–sexual depravity and unspeakable behavior. For instance, Procopius, a sixth century historian from Caesarea, records that the Empress Theodora would exhaust up to thirty young men at a single sitting and lament that she was unable to have sex through her nipples, finding her other orifices insufficient (9). Now, Theodora probably did nothing of the sort and Justinian was almost certainly not a plague-bearing demon intent on destroying mankind (12), but these appear as the causes of suffering during Justinian’s reign in a text that a later Latin title appropriately calls “The secret History.”[1] As a historical record, Procopius’ work is problematic (though not useless), but it is an entertaining read. For the purposes of this discussion, though, this style of narrative, replete with conspiratorial stories and a declaration that the stories will set the record straight are particularly well-suited to fiction.

In Tanizaki’s tale, the author purports to be telling the coming of age story of the lord of Musashi, which, he says, will also reveal the origins of the lord’s peculiar brand of sadistic sexual proclivities that do not appear in the official record and exist only as rumor. According to the author, the official story about the lord is that he was a fearsome warrior and commander during the period of Japanese civil wars in the 16th century, but at the start of the 20th century he has “discovered” two memoirs written by people who were close to the lord and set the record straight. Unlike Stendhal’s The Abbess of Castro, which Tanizaki translated into Japanese in 1928, both the characters and the sources The Secret History are works of fiction.[2]

I cannot say that I loved this novel, but it was short and eminently readable, with enough tension and characterization, particularly with the juxtaposition of the increasing depravity of the lord of Musashi and the aspirations to purity of the people around him, that I was entertained. Despite its content, or perhaps because of it, The Secret History possesses a subdued humor that emerges from the absurd lengths the young man goes through to achieve satisfaction. Moreover, Tanizaki portrays Japanese culture at the time–something I know little about–as obsessed with decorum, which heightens the tension between the Lord of Musashi and everyone else. And yet in the preface, the author says that he sympathizes with the lord because everything he did, including bring peace in a time of civil war, was caused by an overwhelming passion for a beautiful and refined woman who did not reciprocate his feelings. He sympathizes with this man, while simultaneously recording precious little that is actually sympathetic.

Here I am being deliberately vague. The central conflict in the narrative, exacerbated by his introduction to the beautiful and refined woman, is the awakening of his arousal by a particular scene when he was twelve and how the desire evolves over the next decade his life. The changes in his life cause his fetish to change and the pursuit of his fetish changes his ambitions in life, and the author suggests that it is the latter half prompted the actions that would be recorded in the official histories. He concludes by saying that the Lord of Musashi continued seeking a sexual partner who would satisfy his bizarre stimulus after the events in the historical novel, but declines to continue the account because it would detract from how the lord is perceived. Further, in this novel about outlandish sexual proclivities, there is no sex, though, as a warning for the squeamish, there are a few violent episodes. The point of the story–as in historical accounts–is to explain how some state came to be. The Secret History of the Lord of Musashi is not a tabloid tell-all, but is meant to explain how this man was able to bring about peace, with the explanation to be found in his thwarted desire.

The Secret History was a good book, but it also felt to me as though it was a quality addition to a genre rather than a brilliant original piece of literature. The faint praise here may also stem from my limited experience with Japanese fiction and culture, thereby rendering a deep appreciation for the cultural messages impossible. I enjoyed The Secret History well enough that I am going to read another of Tanizaki’s novels, Arrowroot that was translated in the same edition. Anthony Chambers’ translation was smooth and clear and the prose was measured and subtle, but there was also no one aspect of the novel that jumped out as exceptional. For all the adjectives that could be used to describe the story–graceful, elegant, subtle, funny, etc–it is not a book I would emphatically demand people read, but it is one that has my recommendation. As noted above, this was a quick read, only about 130 pages, and if there is anyone looking for something relatively short to read over a weekend, you could do much worse than The Secret History of the Lord of Musashi.

[1] The Greek title is merely anecdota, or “unpublished things.”

[2] This information is in the translator’s prologue. Tanizaki published The Secret History some seven years after his translation.