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Friday, 12/11/2015, 10:30 a.m. to 12:30 p.m.

Timur Vermes, LOOK WHO'S BACK (2015)




Friday, 1/8/2016, 10:30 a.m. to 12:30 p.m.

George Eliot, DANIEL DERONDA (1876), part one

Friday, 1/22/2016, 10:30 a.m. to 12:30 p.m.

George Eliot, DANIEL DERONDA (1876), part two

Friday, 2/5/2016, 10:30 a.m. to 12:30 p.m.

George Eliot, DANIEL DERONDA (1876), part three

Friday, 2/19/2016, 10:30 a.m. to 12:30 p.m.

George Eliot, DANIEL DERONDA (1876), part four


Friday, 3/18/2016, 10:30 a.m. to 12:30 p.m.

Haruki Murakami, KAFKA ON THE SHORE (2005)

Friday, 4/8/2016, 10:30 a.m. to 12:30 p.m.

Elena Ferrante, THE STORY OF THE LOST CHILD (2014)

Friday, 4/29/2016, 10:30 a.m. to 12:30 p.m.


Friday, 5/20/2016, 10:30 a.m. to 12:30 p.m.


Friday, 6/17/2016, 10:30 a.m. to 12:30 p.m.


Friday, 7/15/2016, 10:30 a.m. to 12:30 p.m.


Friday, 8/19/2016, 10:30 a.m. to 12:30 p.m.



The Hottest Narrators, Tartar Or Not

Since this book has such a mouthy narrator, I thought it might be a good opportunity just to remind you of the five sorts of narrators that exist in the European/American literary tradition:

1. First-person limited perspective narrator. This big talker, of course, tells the story as an "I" (that is, using the grammatical first person pronoun). Almost all "I" narrators are first-person limited perspective ones, meaning that the "I" of the story sees things only through his or her own eyes (and thus doesn't know everything that's going on). Think Huck Finn or Holden Caulfield. Think of the first three chapters of THE SOUND AND THE FURY (we are going to read that book some day). Think of almost any memoir or autobiography you could read. However, this stance doesn't have to be an "I" narrator. The first-person limited perspective can be a "we." Think of that glorious book about Japanese brides in America we read last year, Julie Otsuka's THE BUDDHA IN THE ATTIC.

2. First-person omniscient narrator.  
This is far rarer, an "I" narrator who sees, hears, and knows everything. Imagine writing a book from God's perspective with God telling the story. Or imagine some of those horrid political autobiographies or memoirs that come out every election season. This storytelling stance is far harder to pull off since it frequently becomes turgid, overblown, or downright insufferable. However, this stance is frequently used in religious texts in which the diety speaks directly. One of the most amazing things about the Jewish narrative tradition (from which the Christian one springs) is that God is never the title character. God is a character in a narrative which claims to report his speech.

3. Third-person limited perspective narrator. Henry James is said to have perfected this art: a story told in the third person grammatically (he or she did this or that) with the perspective strictly limited to that character's eyes and ears. In other words, nothing happens that he or she wouldn't see or experience. THE PORTRAIT OF A LADY is one example. But an imperfect one because there are chapters throughout that happen without Isabel's presence (Gilbert and Madame Merle have a talk fireside, for example). A whole novel in third person strictly from the main character's perspective is a tough act to pull off. Once you start writing about a character in the third person, it's hard to control it to just his or her eyes. Some modern novelists, however, do it quite well--like Ian McEwan in ENDURING LOVE or Richard Ford in CANADA (wow, I loved that book). Colum McCann works at it in LET THE GREAT WORLD SPIN, except every chapter is a new perspective from a different character's point of view.

4. Third-person omniscient narrator. This is the most common narrative stance in the Western tradition. For example, with the exception of a couple of Chaucer's characters, almost every pilgrim in THE CANTERBURY TALES tells a tale from an omniscient stance: in other words, the narrative is about a "he" or a "she" (not an "I") but the narrator behind the scenes knows everything, even what the character doesn't or can't know. George Eliot is often caught on this dilemma: she wants to write a third-person limited perspective story (only from her character's eyes) but she also often feels compelled to step back and offer a wider perspective. (Wait until DANIEL DERONDA this winter!) Most films are told from this omniscient perspective with the camera taking up "God's eye" so that it sees beyond what the characters could see. (Watch out--the bad guy is right behind that door!) One of the things that makes THE CLASH OF CIVILIZATIONS OVER AN ELEVATOR IN PIAZZA VITTORIO such a bad film is the way the camera has to collapse all those first-person limited narrators into a third-person omniscient narrator--and then it just becomes a sad murder mystery.

5. Second-person narrator. Rare. Very. Basically, the whole thing is told as "you." You do this and you do that. There are some postmodern narratives written this way. David Eagleman's SUM: FORTY TALES OF THE AFTERLIVES pulls it off: after death, you go here or you go there. (Remember that book?) It's an odd stance but becoming increasingly popular with experimental writers--as if the reader is a character in the tale being told. I know an experimental writer in New York who wrote a 1200-page (!) memoir entirely in the second-person: it's his life but told it as it were about me, the reader. On this day, you have lunch with your grandmother who tells you. . . . Almost by definition, the second-person technique is a limited perspective stance: since you, the writer, are writing me into your story and telling me what I'm doing, you can only see it from my (that is, your) perspective.

So that's the run-down. There are finesses, of course. One could write a third-person plural narrative: "they." I don't know any that are successful but it's theoretically possible. And one can combine techniques, a frequent move in Victorian and post-Victorian novels. For example, Dickens' BLEAK HOUSE uses both third-person omniscient and first-person limited perspective narratives in alternating chapters: first a chapter in Esther's "I" voice, then one in the narrator's voice, then back to Esther's "I" voice, and so on. We really should read that one, too.


True Taisho

A Taisho printOn page 675, the three sisters are discussing how and why Peter Jansen would have bought the properties and allowed the families to live on the land for so long. Fuyue claims it all makes no sense. "A company's main motive is profit making, isn't it?"

Harue and Natsue respond with a bit about Taisho Romanticism:

"You can't imagine what it was like," [Natsue says,] "when there was some Taisho romanticism in the air, before the country became so militaristic." 

"Taisho romanticism would mean nothing to a Westerner," [Fuyue responds.] "They wouldn't even know what the Taisho period is."

"Oh, you just don't know. Westerners too were much more romantic back then."

It's a complicated point that takes into account Japan's history in the early part of the twentieth century.

Emperor TaishoThe Taisho period is named for Emporer Taisho, a sickly, weak man who held the imperial seat from 1912 until his death at the end of 1926. Because he was physically unable to handle much work, the reins of power slowly slipped out of his and the oligarchs' hands, coming more and more to rest in the Diet, the Japanese legislature. The preceding period (the Meiji Period) and the following period (the Showa Period) were marked by an aggressive militarism. By contrast, the Taisho period was one of relative calm.

The sisters' claim that the West was somehow "more romantic back then" is patently absurd. The West was in the middle of World War I. True, Japan sided with the allies and so won some unprecedented peace on the international front during those years. But the Russian and Chinese revolutions roiled Japan and its foreign policy, leading directly to the warmongering that culiminated in World War II.

And yes, Japan was sliding more toward a modern democracy as control fell away to the Diet.

A Western woman in a Taisho kimono and obi (sash)But the famed romanticism of that period is mostly seen as a constructed ruse, a palliative, a flimsy illusion. Inflation was at run-away levels. Westerners were moving into Japan, even buying up vast tracks of land in unforeseen numbers. The national debt soared. Student unrest--particularly communists, seen as another "Western" influence--was at an all-time high.

A Taisho schoolgirlNevertheless, the Japanese even today have a hankering for the period. Entire festivals still feature young women parading down the street in Taisho fabrics. They look back in fondness on Taisho schoolgirls, so innocent and young. On Taisho geishas, the height of their craft. On Taisho architecture, so delicate and spare.

Those buildings weren't made to last. And they didn't. In 1923, the 7.9 Kando earthquake, centered just off the coast near Tokyo, devastated the countryside, destorying ports and entire towns, killing over 140,000, and causing unsanitary conditions that allowed a typhoid epidemic to kill tens of thousands more. Japan could be said to have never recovered from the earthquake--until late in the 1930s.

And by then, of course, it was too late. That vaunted Taisho romanticism is partly what allowed Hirohito to rise to new heights of power. 


True Karuizawa

As you know by now, much of the action of A TRUE NOVEL takes place in and around Karuizawa, a popular weekend destination for those wishing to escape the excessive summer heat and humidity in Tokyo, much like Litchfield county is for those in New York City. Karuizawa lies in the Nagano prefecture, a little over 100 miles west-northwest from Tokyo. Karuizawa also lies near the very center of the main island of Japan. The town is dominated by its views of Mount Asama, a fairly active volcano that has erupted often in modern history, as recently as 2009. Asama is still categorized by the Japanese Meteorological Agency as a Rank A volcano--that is, more eruptions are imminent.

Mount AsamaThe central shopping district of Karuizawa--its "ginza"--is lined with old-school shops, many of them fostering nostalgia for a "lost" Japan. Fine ceramic tea cups, bits of antique lace, and even rice paddy shoes can be found among the stalls. In fact, many Japanese still consider Karuizawa to be an oasis from modernism, as opposed to other locales nearby in Nagano which include many industrial towns and some collapsed agrarian enclaves, no longer viable.

Karuizawa's ginza.

That said, Karuizawa has been repeatedly rebuilt until much of it looks about like a tourist town in the United States--say, Estes Park, Colorado, or Woodstock, Vermont. As you can see by this photo, there's been a concerted effort over the years to "Westernize" the town, adding architectural features that look distinctly disjunctive in a place that celebrates its connection of an older, lost Japan.

Karuizawa was "discovered" in the nineteenth-century by Christian missionaries, as they moved out from Tokyo into the countryside. They themselves set up small chapels and homes here to seek a cooling climate from the beastly summer weather of Tokyo. Soon, Western bankers and merchants followed, building more lavish homes, many of them in the style of Swiss chalets or American Western "cabins." The grandeur of these residences contrasted sharply with the poorer, more downscale surrounding towns.

 After World War II, any Western ownership (but perhaps not its influence) waned considerably. Today, the area has been revitalized as wealthy Japanese families purchase land to build newer, even grander homes or as development groups buy up sets of home to tear them down for upscale condominium developments.

Here's a vacation home for sale today in Karuizawa.

Even the Prince Hotel has undergone a renaissance. It has now sprawled out into several, large, luxury hotels. They cater to the the winter sports crowd who come for the new ski runs in the area. In fact, Karuizawa has morphed into an all-year resort.

One of the Prince Hotels

And yet it remains what it has been for over a century: an odd amalgam of West and East, a representative of the way Japanese culture can assimilate foreign ideas and concepts. Take, for example, this shot from the edge of town.



Crimson Petals

The title of Michael Faber's novel, THE CRIMSON PETAL AND THE WHITE, comes from a poem by Alfred, Lord Tennyson, published in 1847, a smaller part of his satiric work, The Princess.

That longer poem concerns a heroic princess who swears off men and founds a women's university where men cannot enter. Her betrothed does indeed gain access with his friends, all disguised as women. They are discovered and escape--but then fight a battle for the women and are severely injured. The Princess nurses them back to health and returns to the world of men by finally marrying her betrothed. The larger poem is the basis of Gilbert and Sullivan's light opera, Princess Ida.

But for now, here's the smaller poem itself that lends its line to Faber's title:


Now sleeps the crimson petal, now the white;

Nor waves the cypress in the palace walk;

Nor winks the gold fin in the porphyry font:

The firefly wakens: waken thou with me.


Now droops the milkwhite peacock like a ghost,

And like a ghost she glimmers on to me.


Now lies the Earth all Danaë to the stars,

And all thy heart lies open unto me.


Now slides the silent meteor on, and leaves

A shining furrow, as thy thoughts in me.


Now folds the lily all her sweetness up,

And slips into the bosom of the lake:

So fold thyself, my dearest, thou, and slip

Into my bosom and be lost in me.


Danae is the women who Zeus rapes by falling on her as a shower of gold. Her son by that union is Perseus, a legendary hero.

The poem is well-known for its subtle but very evident erotic . . . no, pornographic images. Ahem.

It's also been set to music by quite a few. Here's Paul Mealor's version:


Ferrante: Fiction and Autobiography

Ferrante's novels about Naples force us into a corner: how much is autobiography? After all, her (or his) identity remains a secret. We know nothing about the writer who pens under the name Elena Ferrante. What if "Elena Ferrante" really is her name and she's just reclusive? No matter: we're left with the novels themselves--which force us into the corner of intention and interpretation (I would argue, by design).

On the one hand, we can read the novels as (lightly) veiled autobiographies. In fact, we might even think they're "truer" than a more standard novel since we know next to nothing about the author. After all, she has claimed in an email interview that she had a friend like Lila.

What's more, the author wants us to move in the direction of seeing the novels as autobiography. For example, the criticism of Elena Greco's novel in THOSE WHO LEAVE AND THOSE WHO STAY is exactly the sort of criticism that could be directed at the very book in your hands: obsessively personal, vulgar, unfair, too revelatory, too easily based on the character's own life, etc. With hints like these, we're tempted to read the author into the novel in the very absence of said author.

On the other hand, we're also tempted to divorce the novels from the author. Elena Greco cannot be Ferrante, whose actual first novel bears little resemblance to the novel that Elena Greco has written. And if Ferrante were married into a public, intellectual family in Italy as Elena Greco is, we'd certainly know who she is. So perhaps the novel in your hands has nothing to do with Ferrante's identity.

Here's where it gets tricky. Those two poles--"it's about the author" and "it's not about the author"--are in fact the poles that hold up the interpretive debate about any piece of art: literature, painting, sculpture, music, and even architecture.

When I went off to college in the late '70s, the dominant critical theory was called the "new criticism," popularized by certain English professors at Vanderbilt and Cambridge. The main tenet was, to put it baldly, that the artist's life had nothing to do with the work created. In fact, even the historical context of the work didn't matter. Instead, you are confronted with a poem, a painting, a piece of drama in your own moment--right now. You don't have access to the past moment's the author lived. You can't know them. You can't even construct them. To do so is to engage in what was called the "intentional fallacy." How can you know what an author intended? You can do little more than guess. You only have your current moment. It's all that matters in understanding the piece before you. (Thus, new critical professors would pass out Shakespearean sonnets and Bob Dylan songs together because both are "ahistorical" works of art.)

But such a stance seems too rigid, too bound by its theory. Don't we need to know something about English-European relations to understand Chaucer's Canterbury Tales? Don't we need to know something about the Civil War to read Emily Dickinson's poems?

Yes to both. But with reservations. It can all go too far. Does it matter that Henry James was a closeted homosexual when you read THE PORTRAIT OF A LADY? Does it matter that Faulkner was a drunk when you read his novels?

I would say "no" to  both. Yet nuance is important. Does Beethoven's deafness alter our understanding of the last symphonies? Yes and no. Does Rembrandt's use of his wife and children in his paintings deepen our understanding of the works? Yes and no. Does Eudora Welty's left-wing politics alter the discussion of her short stories? Yes and no.

Where do you draw the line? Can you read Virginia Woolf without reading her biography? Absolutely. Do her personal struggles show up in her novels? Absolutely. Does knowing about them make the novels clearer? Here I would add a controversial "no." In fact, reading Woolf's novels through her own depression throws out a dreaded red herring. MRS. DALLOWAY is not a veiled suicide wish. It is a complex and befuddling piece of art about how we experience the passing of time.

Art both escapes its creator and remains enmired with her or him. It's a muddle that Ferrante is forcing us to experience at every turn.