Two Short Reviews: The Buddha in the Attic and Journey into the Past

The Buddha in the Attic – Julie Otsuka

I wasn’t sure what to expect with this book, but one of my favorite slices of literature recently has been books written by Japanese-American women, so I picked it up on a whim. The result was somewhat surprising, but not disappointing.

The Buddha in the Attic is a group biography of Japanese picture brides—women who left their families in Japan and crossed the Pacific Ocean to marry men in California who they had never met in the early 20th century. In succession the book follows these women from their voyage to the meeting, to their relationships, children, lives, and departure to the internment camps in 1942.

Some of the women receive names, but rarely individual personalities. Instead, this is a true group biography that captures diversity within their collective experience. As a group they were transplanted to a new world, married men who were not like the pictures they saw, and were rejected by their new country. Individually, they had affairs, dreams, and heartbreaks, leaving mementos behind.

The result is a poignant slice of lives, with a highly specific spotlight on a fundamentally American story of acceptance and rejection.

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Journey into the Past – Stefan Zweig

Ludwig is an ambitious young German scientist taken into his employer’s home as a secretary and confidant. There he falls in love with his employer’s wife, a feeling she reciprocates. They delay their feelings, first out of a sense of propriety and then because he departs for a two year stint in Mexico, only to be trapped there by the outbreak of World War One. When their communication falters, Ludwig marries and has children in Mexico, but when he is able to return to Germany after the war he attempts to recapture that moment he lost from his youth.

On the one hand, I was put off by the triteness of the sexual cliches at the heart of Journey in the Past, both in the arc where a young man falls in love with the wife of an employer or other authority figure and in the arc where the slightly older man ignores any loyalty to his family in order to complete the conquest of a woman he thought was his due from an early age in his life. The first is an issue I have had with Zweig before, notably in Confusion, while the latter is a toxic fallacy regarding the relationship between men and women.

The problem is on the other hand. Zweig does not wholly exonerate Ludwig’s behavior even while couching it in terms that seem designed to make them understandable. Both characters have changed and the period of young love has left them both behind, and this, ultimately, is the message.

I appreciate Zweig’s observations on a number of fronts, some of which hit close to home. For instance:

Outwardly his title of Doctor, cheap but impenetrable armour, made up for his low social status, and at the office his fine achievements disguised the still sore and festering wounds of his youth, when he had felt ashamed of his poverty and of taking charity. So no, he was not going to sell the handful of freedom he now had, his jealously guarded privacy, not for any sum of money.

I just wish that Zweig’s plots offered a less problematic vehicle to explore these issues.

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I am now reading Elif Shafak’s The Architect’s Apprentice.

Confusion – Stefan Zweig

Editorial note: there will be spoilers in the penultimate paragraph of this post as it is impossible to express my concerns with this novella otherwise. With the understanding that some people disapprove of such reveals even in a ninety year old book, I have kept these until the very end..

This was the first real shock that, at the age of nineteen, I experienced—without a word spoken in anger, it overthrew the whole grandiose house of cards I had built during the last three months, a house constructed out of masculinity, student debauchery and bragging.

Zweig’s Confusion—not a direct translation of the original title—is a novella published first in 1927 that I am of two minds about, one that deeply appreciates some of its psychological observations and graceful structure, and one that is deeply troubled by its politics. In form, Confusion is an eminent professor reflecting on his intellectual life on the occasion of his Festschrift, a publication that memorializes and celebrates his career. Far from the parade of successes that the accompanying biography records, Roland, the professor, recalls a time when he was far more interested in women than in his studies and how he ended up attending a rural university away from the temptations of Berlin. Thus he says:

Everything it says is true—only what genuinely matters is missing. It merely describes me, it says nothing real about me.

It is at this rural university that Roland is mesmerized by the passion of an old English professor who awakens his intellectual curiosity.

Soon, the professor helps set Roland up in the building where he lives with his wife and Roland offers to help the professor by taking dictation on his magnum opus: a history of the English drama in the age of the Globe Theater. The two begin to work on the project diligently, but Roland finds the professor difficult to work with; some days the professor is hale and strong, other times distant and cruel, while still others he is absent altogether. It is during one of these intervals that Roland ends up involved with the professor’s wife.

The heart of Confusion is the relationship between Roland and the couple who live below him, that is, the professor and his wife. The former is Roland’s intellectual father, while the latter takes on the roles of mother, lover, and reminder of his past insecurities.

Zweig’s greatest strengths unfold in the turns in Roland’s relationships. He shows how a student might have limitless potential and how a teacher can (in some cases) change a person’s trajectory, but, even more importantly, Zweig builds into the structure the idea that an intellectual career does not unfold in terms of linear successes. Confusion in this regard is an excellent, subtle coming of age story.

And yet, I had deep reservations about Confusion that far outweigh any I have had about his other work. The dramatic climax in Confusion comes when Roland is tearing himself up over his transgression with the professor’s wife, only to discover that his advisor professes to have no control over what she does, just as she has no control over him. Far from a modern sense of an open marriage, the professor reveals in so many words that he is gay. This revelation fills in the gaps as to the snide comments people had been making about Roland’s relationship with the professor, but my problem wasn’t either this or the suggestion that he was working in oblivion at a rural school because of his sexual tendencies. My issue came in how the professor describes himself to Roland, in that he talks about both the joys and the challenges of constantly being surrounded by young, attractive, and vibrant young men and that it was for this reason that he sometimes went absent. As a plot device it worked well-enough, but it was both a regressive representation of homosexuality and troubling in terms of how it linked intellectual and sexual relationships. Moreover, I found it distasteful because of how it would have played had it been a male professor and female student, which is already a topic in the realm of troubling issues of gender politics on campus.

I don’t want to diminish Zweig’s accomplishments in Confusion. From the outset, I often found myself nodding appreciatively at his observations, but, as the trajectory of the plot became increasingly clear, I became increasingly soured on the entire story.

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I also recently finished N.K. Jemisin’s The Broken Kingdoms, the second book in her Inheritance Trilogy and am currently reading Glen Weldon’s The Caped Crusade.

Chess Story – Stefan Zweig

And, actually, isn’t it damn easy to think you’re a great man if you aren’t troubled by the slightest notion that a Rembrandt, Beethoven, Dante, or Napoleon ever existed? This lad has just one piece of knowledge in his blinkered brain–that he hasn’t lost a single chess game in months–and since he has no idea that there’s anything of value in the world other than chess and money, he has every reason to be pleased with himself.

Zweig’s posthumous novella, Chess Story is a tight little story about a casual chess match to pass the time on a twelve-day voyage from New York to Buenos Aires that develops into a deadly game between two masters, one professional, one amateur. The succession of chess games on the cruise, first between the narrator and the Scottish engineer McConnor, then between the mass of amateurs and the world champion Mirko Czentovic, and finally between Czentovic and an amateur bystander Dr. B. provide the structure for analyzing the psyches of the different characters, but much of the dramatic weight in Chess Story comes from explaining the how the two masters developed their skills.

Czentovic is the epitome of a prodigy, having been a peasant child without any particular skills or interests until he sees adults playing chess. Disinterested in the formal or abstract aspects of the game, Czentovic only plays whatever game is in front of him and does not lose to the same opponent twice in a row. Having beaten all comers in Europe and New York, he is now going on a world tour, convinced of his own genius and assured that his wealth makes him superior to everyone else.

In contrast, Dr. B. is an Austrian lawyer whose family managed the estates for the Hapsburg family and various German monasteries. He had played, without much interest, in grade school, but whose life involved being a discrete, quiet, and upstanding member of Austrian society, whose world is upended when he is turned in to Nazi authorities and arrested. Dr. B. returns to chess only by chance, but comes to use the abstract critical thinking of the game as a defense against interrogation…even if it eventually causes him to crack and be released as useless.

These two contrasting styles collide on this otherwise quiet cruise from New York to Buenos Aires.

Chess Story is a thoughtful and moving study of these characters that does not try to do too much. What I mean by this is that Zweig layers in important humanistic observations about the problems of a fascist regime and dangers of being utterly obsessed by money, but, even though the book was published after his death in 1942, it does not become a polemic. As a result, the story is universalized without being another story of horror and drudgery about Nazi oppression.

I did not like Chess Story as much as The Post-Office Girl, but I think that this is mostly a personal preference for the fuller story rather than the spareness of a novella. Chess Story is beautifully constructed and well-worth reading, making me even more excited to read Beware of Pity, which is sitting on my to-read shelf.

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I finished making my way through Steven Pinker’s, The Better Angels of our Nature and will have reactions to it later in the week. Next up, I am currently reading Dashiell Hammett’s classic noir, The Thin Man.

The Post-Office Girl – Stefan Zweig

And when at eight in the morning Christine sat down, she was tired–tired not from something achieved and accomplished, but tired in anticipation of everything ahead, the same faces, the same questions, the same chores, the same money.

“Yes, my friend, from down in the muck the world doesn’t look that delightful.”

Christine, the eponymous Post-Office Girl, is an Austrian civil servant in the years after World War One. Her brother died in the war, her father is dead, and her mother dying, and even her married sister’s family is struggling to make ends meet. Christine is fortunate that she has a job, one that is monotonous and regimented, but even allows for moments of stolen relaxation. It does not allow for a life outside of the job and Christine has never had a suitor in all her years, but she keeps her ambitions limited and can take pleasure in those stolen moments. Then her aunt, who left home and eventually married a wealthy Dutch merchant and now lives in America, inviting her to vacation at a resort in the Alps and she is swept into a world of money, luxury, and desire.

Christine arrives at the resort looking like a peasant girl, but mountain air, soft clothing, and attentions of men revitalize her and set her spinning in a world of her dreams. Her innocence of the world nevertheless awakens dormant fears and jealousies, and these forces conspire to eject her back to the drudgery of her job, painfully aware of every slight and every ache. She is somewhat saved when she meets Ferdinand, a bitter, frustrated, and injured war veteran, whose desire fulfills her and who can relate to being down in the muck of society. However, their relationship rubs dirt into her wounds since it reveals how far money corrupts every aspect of human interaction and she feels constant shame at their circumstances. Needing to take care of themselves before they can fix the world, Christine and Ferdinand concoct first one and then another plan to revolt against the society that beats them down.

The Post Office Girl is formally divided into two parts. The first details Christine’s awakening to the world of money. She starts with little, but quickly adapts to the wonders of nice clothing, good food, soft beds, and, importantly a freedom from want. More than that, though, the trip to the resort and the world of money awakens her interest in being desired. Money facilitates a range of human relationships, all of which she embraces. For Christine, money is a heady experience, but her appearance is refreshing to some people, while disturbing the social relationships already in place. For instance, after the initial delight in her niece wears off, Christine’s aunt becomes increasingly worried that her own modest background and questionable means of entry into society will be discovered, ultimately leading to cutting off her family once more. Similarly, Christine interrupts the courtship between a German engineer and a character known as the Mannheim girl, the latter of whom jealously observes this intruder, determining that after “ten or twenty gaucheries like that and it was clear she was poorly versed in the lore of the chic.” The first experience with capitalism does not itself change Christine’s personality, but the brief experience with money and then having it suddenly ripped away leaves her bitter and frustrated.

There are echoes of George Orwell and Joseph Roth in this critique of post-war Austria. (There is also some Kafka, but the bureaucracy does actually reply.) The times are particularly difficult for a host of people whose lives were broken, stolen, according to Ferdinand, by the war and the people are aware of these difficulties. But the major critique of post-war capitalism emerges first and foremost in the contrast between the mountainous land of the gods and the muck of the towns and cities where everyday people live.

I liked The Post-Office Girl a lot, though, admittedly, it falls into a sweet spot for my particular reading tastes and it was not without its problems. Christine is an effective narrator whose arc is easy to follow, but she is also something of an empty vessel reacting to desires who gets swept up in whatever situation she finds herself in. She is not a flapper, who are accounted by the novel as members of the wealthy, and there is a little bit of denigration of her as a woman, sometimes in the first person, sometimes in the context described by Zweig. Christine’s emotional roller-coaster contributes to the raw power of the novel and Zweig contributes canny observations about all of the interactions between people as they struggle through a world that does not care whether they live or die. The revolution is not going to be forthcoming and it seems that only the wealthy have the luxury to enjoy life or to play political games. There is something despicable about the behavior of some, though not all, of the wealthy people in their idyllic retreat, but there is also enough delight that leads Ferdinand to ask the most important of questions:

“I don’t mean ‘why not me instead of him’…Just ‘why not me too.’”

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Next up I am reading The Day of the Owl by Leonardo Sciascia, a murder mystery set in a small Sicilian town where the only honest architect in the region is gunned down in the street on the opening page.