A masterpiece of Japanese literature

As my job allows me to catch up on my reading list and add more titles to it – sigh – I recently and completely by chance laid my hands on Keiichirô Hirano’s latest novel, Compléter les blancs (kûhaku wo mitashinasai). Sorry for the non-French speakers, but I wasn’t able to find the English equivalent – is it possible that Corinne Atlan did her work before any anglophone translator? It would be extremely surprising but nevertheless plausible. I think. Anyway.

Like Haruki Murakami, Hayao Miyazaki, Isao Takahata, Takashi Hiraide, Joe Hisaishi and many more, Japanese floklore and reality interweave in order to create that indiosyncratic atmosphere Japan lovers from the Western world like me are particularly attracted to. We can feel it through the words they use, the way they think, the notes they choose, the sounds and images that reach us. It’s more than a feeling actually; the essence of their culture resides in their text, their music, their drawings – their art. And it powerfully takes possesion of your senses. That’s where you let go and let yourself be in the moment, with the characters and their (hi)story.

The instant – the here and now – is an important notion in Asian doctrines and medicine, and throughout Compléter les blancs you understand how efficient yet disturbing growing up with this thinking becomes. Maybe the concept is too frightening, too BIG to be grasped by the human mind. However I think it’s spot-on. Yesterday when I turned the last page, read the last words and closed the book, I was moved but in a way I couldn’t really describe. I was joyous and disconcerted, flabbergasted and light, relieved and anxiously pondering at once. And to be fair, it’s exactly what I take great delight in when the reading is over. Because it goes beyond the pleasure you took while unravelling the plot; it continues some time after you’re done with the book as an object. The sensation is that of a cloud full of ideas floating around you. I experienced being wrapped in a captivating brainstorming fog. That’s what a great piece does to me – like Gaël Faye’s Petit pays and Shan Sa’s La joueuese de go I spoke of in a previous post.

Pic post Compléter les blancs

I know I’m always (more than) a bit vague when I review books, but I just want to tempt you through the explosion of emotions they provoke in me. See if they will do the same for you – although it is kind of unlikely since I’m a highly emotional person at all times. I wasn’t expecting anything from that book when I picked it up – nothing but to encounter that poetic Japanese art and spirit through Hirano’s writing. I did find it indeed. The problem of suicide in Japan adjoins the overwhelming joy of some quality time spent with one’s family, and the writer gives us clues as to the potential solution one may find in either of these sources of serenity. Do we choose one of those paths? Do we have to or do they impose their will on us independently, influencing our actions inconsciously? Many answers to even more questions in this psychological novel that leads you… Well, I don’t know where, but it must be somewhere!

P.S.: a lovely article on Japanese folklore.


The rightful right to be right – masterpieces by Shan Sa and Gaël Faye

I have recently read two powerful books thanks to my new job – nearly a month has passed since I’ve become a member of the bookshop staff and I’m at my fifth reading, great! (And I just got extra-work from a customer – she is an adorable old lady – who lent me one of her favourite books, L’épervier de Maheux by Jean Carrière, the winner of the 1972 Goncourt Prize!) Among my readings then, two books have deeply imprinted my memory. I’d love to say that they are wonderful, but I can’t. They are, they truly are, but ‘wonderful’ is too positively connoted to be used here. These works are poignant, poetic, brutal, enchanting, violent, tender… So many paradoxical adjectives can serve the purpose. And they rely on one another to fully describe the atmosphere the reader discovers when penetrating into the narratives; they are interdependent.

The books I was so moved by are Shan Sa’s The Girl Who Played Go and Gaël Faye’s Petit Pays. While the first was published years ago (2001), the latter is recently published (2016), and they both won the ‘Prix Goncourt des Lycéens’. What those two fine works have in common is the accurate knowledge of their home countries – China (Manchuria) for one and Burundi for the other – and their insight into the horrendous incessant fight between neighbouring countries and races – Japanese vs. Chinese in Manchuria in the 1930’s and Hutus vs. Tutsis in Burundi and Rwanda in the 1990’s. The aforementioned conflicts lead to deplorable consequences – the killing of so many Chinese civilians by the Japanese army before the Second World War was triggered and the Rwandan genocide of 1994.

They are and they are not easy readings altogether. The allegorical writing of the authors allows the eyes to behold the words and explore the metaphores with a certain ease. When we look at the texts, there is no apparent difficulty. But the content hits you with full force. The reader is powerlessly witnessing hatred and violence taking over love and reason. Passions are no longer conceivable, slaughter turns into a harsh daily reality. Is there hope left for any of the protagonists? For their contries, their races? Is there anything to believe in that won’t be destroyed in the end? Is pluralism a bad thing and shall we all conform to a unique way of seeing, imagining, being? We don’t know. Even after closing the book, we are still unsure. Wondering is our only option – both for us readers and for the paper beings we commiserate with.

After all that’s happened and carrying a forever haunting past, is there anything rightful? Shall we listen – but to whom? Shall we act – to do what? Shall we dare think – to what end? Maybe simply (that’s definitely not the right adverb) read for now. Who knows which truth will unfold for you?

Working in a bookshop

‘Ah, now that you work in a bookshop, you must know so much more about books, mustn’t you?’

Depends on how you define ‘knowing’ there. If it means I can more easily associate a name with the content of a book, then yes, I know more now that I work in a bookshop. But if you mean being able to advise someone on which of these works he/she should try according to his/her specific taste, then no, I’m not there yet.

‘But you’ve only been there a week.’ Half a week, to be precise – thank you wisdom teeth.

True, and there is so much to know! Good news is I can learn. Yay!

What I can already do with my personal little knowledge is to give advice on classic literature if anyone wants to discuss his/her inclination. However no one besides me is into classics, except for those who make school programmes for students to hate it. Therefore I have very thin chances to be useful at present. And yet the other day – my first day – I had the pleasure to have a say in a customer’s request as for which classics she should have read by now that she hasn’t. She was what I will call a ‘blank page’ and it was an absolute delight to share with her my sincere opinion about this play by Shakespeare, that masterpiece by Flaubert or Stendhal, etc. Being of a realistic nature, I am not likely to succeed in bringing people to reading more classics. This lady happily proved me wrong. She ended up buying Boris Vian’s L’écume des jours – Vian’s work is just as mad and poetic as Joyce’s and they’re both now considered ‘classics’ within the scope of literature, may we like it or not. It’s a start. A wild one, but it’s a start. We’ll see if she ever comes back. Haha.

Time will be my best friend in this job since it takes you a lifetime to gather information about so many works – and believe me, there are many many many many many… of them. I can read when the shop’s empty, which is a duty I am more than happy to perform, and the team is adorable and helpful. So far so good.

‘I’m looking for a book that’s just come out. About politics. You know, it’s all over the radio and on every TV show. You see which one, right?’

‘Uh… See my colleague over there?’

What’s in a tale?

A tale? Like a fairy tale? A fable, a moralistic story, a preachy narrative with extremely naive characters on the one hand and know-it-all saviours on the other, right?

Well, not necessarily, not always, not all of them. Tales are old. The written tradition came to replace the oral tradition in the western culture through them. Therefore an entire period of our history and a substantial piece of our culture hinges on them. Since their creation they have become more than genuine bedtime stories – children’s literature is rarely just for kiddies.

Tales for adults? How ridiculously controversial! Grown-ups have stopped believing in fairy lands and imaginary creatures long ago, haven’t they? Well, not necessarily, not always, not all of them.

The English language adds another dimension to the word ‘tale’. A tale can be a lie, a rumour – we would use a different substantive in French for that. Hence maybe its lack of credit within the narrow-minded world of grown-ups. Tales struggled to gain recognition from literary circles, but they finally managed to do so thanks to, I suppose, creative, fanciful, whimsically-built people.

Simply those who don’t forget – History, their history. If you remember being a child, if you remember going through several phases of life until you became of age, you must locate fairy tales, folktales, stories somewhere in your memory. If you can’t, I’m just sorry for you. Yet I discover things everyday I wish I had known a while back. And perhaps those who apprehend tales today, who didn’t get a chance to appreciate them as kids, will make the most out of them – more than those who think they grabbed their content, their implied meaning through a first and last reading. We’re often more astounded when something surprises, pleases, bewilders us as adults than it might have when we were younger – because we know how much harder and rarer it is.

However I want to believe that all adults aren’t destined to transform into sourpusses. Again, not necessarily, not always, not all of them. And this is a fancy I refuse to let go whatever happens, whoever I meet, even though counter-examples are more visible in our world of reason, pride, and seriousness.

Read tales people, believe it or not it’ll do you good! And believe is a key word here…

On Victorian fairy tales

Not very surprising, since I am an eager reader of nineteenth-century literature. And Children’s Literature is a genre you cannot just ignore. You acknowledged it growing up, and dealing with fairy tales and nursery rhymes as an adult means winking at your inner child. And it feels so good! Sometimes the content of the tales may sound too moralistic or too simple, following more or less the same patterns, using the same characters (princes and princesses, witches, kings and queens, etc.), ending up well… But having a closer look at them, you realise there is something for everyone – children and grown-ups, sceptics and believers.


In the introductory section of Victorian Fairy Tales, The Revolt of the Fairies and Elves, Jack Zipes tells us that Victorian England came to a point where it needed fairy tales as a means to put things into perspective. The genre was resorted to in seventeenth- and eighteenth-century Europe by writers who wished to express their opinion about the regime, customs and traditions, the evolution of their social environment. It didn’t reach England at that time but when it did in the nineteenth century, it was to condemn, for instance, the strictness of the codes of the Victorian society towards young girls, who are to behave properly in society – Cinderella by Anne Isabella Ritchie, published in 1868, and A Toy Princess by Mary de Morgan, published in 1877 are perfect examples. The condition of women and the praising of female intelligence is a common theme to many of the Victorian fairy tales – as in The Magic Fishbone by Charles Dickens (1868) and The Ogre Courting by Juliana Horatia Ewing (1871) – just as the denunciation of the devastating consequences of the gold rush on the human mind and heart, brought about by the British imperialism, and exposed in The King of the Golden River, or The Black Brothers by John Ruskin (1841), Heinrich; or, The Love of Gold by Alfred Crowquill (1860), and The Prince’s Dream by Jean Ingelow (1872).

And yet besides all moralistic input, some of the tales from Zipes’ compilation seem to purely feed buried imaginary worlds. I did get that feeling through George Macdonald’s The Day Boy and the Night Girl (1879). First, Macdonald’s writing is detailed, gracious, enchanting, spot on. I could sense the magic of the tale through the author’s choice of words. His talent starts before the story is told, before the reader can figure out what the plot is about. The first magical elements are found within the black letters against the white page, within the form of the text before appearing in its content. Macdonald’s poetic description of the “night girl”’s apprehension of the world through her ceiling alabaster lamp is simply magnificent:

“And besides the operation of the light itself after its kind, the indefiniteness of the globe, and the softness of the light, giving her the feeling as if her eyes could go in and into its whiteness, were somehow also associated with the idea of space and room.” (181-182)

Second, this tale is peculiar because it gives you the impression of having no purpose, which is rather rare as we have seen so far and so, very much appreciated. It feels like we are simply witnessing the encounter of a boy that is only familiar with the day, and a girl that lives exclusively in darkness. That moment is the actual point of the whole story. But what a magical climax! Macdonald’s power resides in his ability to create a macrocosm in a microcosm. The whole world is contained within their two personalities, and life becomes meaningful to them both – and the tale to the reader – when they finally acknowledge one another. No preachy discourse, no other pleasure in reading than that of going back in time and being children again. The aim of the narrative: to be splendid, overwhelmingly grand. Well, that’s what I want to believe because that’s what I perceived, what I enjoyed in this text. I am sure academics will find more concrete ends than the fate of the two protagonists, but I am happy with my gullibility!

Reading for the love of it… So good!

The Russian experience

Bulgakov's The Master and Margarita

My cousin, who has become an eager reader over the past few months, gladly announced the last time we met that one of her last readings had proved particularly worthy of concern, since the discovery of the content of the book had led to its proud election as the most wonderful work she had so far laid her hands on – not that she wasn’t interested in books before, she simply is more greedy now than she has ever been. Knowing my cousin’s taste quite well, I decided to follow her advice and to dive into the universe of Mikhail Bulgakov (1891-1940) through his last work of prose, The Master and Margarita. My dad told me he had read it years ago and that he couldn’t get all the fuss people had made about the book. For him, it was good, full stop. I can understand how general excitement can ruin one’s reading of a book, as it forces the reader to have expectations he didn’t plan on having then (i.e. the world’s extraordinary infatuation with Harry Potter books and films, or the spreading enthusiasm for the longed-for release of a likely disappointing sequel). The Master and Margarita had been excluded from the Russian literary landscape at the time it was written, and was rediscovered some thirty years after the author’s death, hence the critics’ fervidness to study that new old masterpiece.

My mum, whose affection for and attraction to literature goes far beyond understanding, could, of course, remember reading the book in question, and was incredibly efficient in finding it among the hundreds of books that inhabit the tens of shelves dedicated to her passion. How she can still figure out where this or that piece of work is hiding is an ability of an uncanny character, if you ask me. (I know, the whole thing sounds like a family affair, but it kind of is after all.) It had been a while since I had read anything in French – and in fairness, I hadn’t missed it – when I started reading that novel by a Russian writer who had been wiped out from the literary scene, and whose name I, personally, had never heard of. (I must confess that my own obsession encompassing almost exclusively artworks from the Victorian period, I have wrongly left aside literary achievements from other times and countries.) That was my chance to add a foreign touch to my thin knowledge of nineteenth-century classics, and the fact that I read it in French added an enjoyable dramatical dimension to the novel; I believe French people, and that obviously includes myself, have an innate yet denied craving for drama. And this we share with Russians, apparently!

Ivan, Stan, and MichaIn The Master and Margarita, Le maître et Marguerite in French, I found a striking resemblance of – of what? to be honest, I’m not sure… of style? of… I don’t know – something with one of my favourite French authors, Guy de Maupassant (1850-1893). Although Bulgakov and Maupassant can’t be regarded as contemporaneous writers, I could have easily believed someone who had lied and told me the book was by Maupassant. The only doubt I would have had would have concerned the deep knowledge and therefore justified satire of the Russian culture, and Bulgakov’s rather “light” supernatural compared to Maupassant’s dark, bitter, and clinging mix of intoxicating fear and alienated reality. The book can be summed up in one line: it’s the fascinating story of the Devil who visits Moscow. It’s the Moscow I had imagined, the one from the early twentieth century, colourful and unreal. In my eyes the Devil and his entourage perfectly fit the setting, even though I can’t say I know much/enough about post-tsarist Russia to explicitly develop the idea.

I can see that post is rather fuzzy and confused but that’s exactly what prevails in the book. I couldn’t write a neat and organised review about The Master and Margarita because it wouldn’t reflect Bulgakov’s peculiar gift to lead us towards the unknown that he knows well enough. We follow unexpected pathways that are even a mystery to those who take them, meet cats and witches (but not the one we are accustomed to see), and behold hilarious, grandiloquent, ridiculous, foretold scenes. I deeply loved that book, and I think it can appeal to anyone from any generation anywhere in the world. And the Red Moscow we found in the story but which is no more echoes the powerful but subtle impact of the supernatural on our present lives, as we are (dis)agreeably stuck with that inchoate feeling of undefinable regret. Well, maybe I’m the only one to feel that way because I usually express far too much sympathy for the past – Nostalgia should be my second name. So I agree with my cousin, but I nevertheless understand my dad. Again, I’ve got weird taste in terms of books, so I suppose I would recommend that one to “intermediate readers” if such thing exists, as you have to adhere to a universe you’d better have been introduced to before.

Cat, Koroviev, and Satan
Drawings by Andrei Nabokov

Ignored revelations

I am a twenty-first-century girl transported by nineteenth-century literature. And I think I have finally figured out why that is. Last month I finished my second reading by D.H. Lawrence, The Rainbow, which obviously is a modern piece of work since its author’s years of activity began in the early 1910s and lasted until his death in 1930. Therefore it is a rather unusual reading for a shameless Victorian addict. Yet, as I had to work on D.H. Lawrence’s ground-breaking approach to the novel for my end-of-year thesis until last September, I thought I could bother to read more than one of his books. And in the end, that’s how I discovered why such a passion for the Victorian period and its art animated me.

The Rainbow isn’t a bad book. It is skilfully written in a simple but fascinating manner, has a progressive evolution that we follow from the start (it tells the story of three successive generations, of their differences and common points), and ends, like many of Lawrence’s pieces, with a question mark. D.H. Lawrence is well known for his Lady Chatterley’s Lover – which, I must confess, I haven’t read yet – and, more especially, for his daring, suggestive style – which is also, let’s be honest, why modern and postmodern literary figures are so much interested in his work. Besides some lengthy and somehow clumsy passages, what really bothered me was the frankness that makes The Rainbow a great book. This is where I find that I am a bit Victorian myself, as knowing the truth doesn’t necessarily mean to publicly acknowledge it (which is, I must say, the principle of hypocrisy).


My Victorian side then revealed itself to me when I realised that what we feel doesn’t need to be expressed in another way than through the appropriate emotional demonstrations to the people concerned only. I am not saying that I am proud of that prudish version of myself; I just recognise its existence and its connection to the nineteenth-century vision of how the world should be. Again, the description and analysis of nascent feelings alongside the awakening of the senses in The Rainbow is spot-on, and it is this very truthfulness that makes me uncomfortable. It is way too close to reality! So I can’t completely agree with D.H. Lawrence’s art because he is right (isn’t that controversial??).

What I want to say here, although I am not sure clarity is with me on this, is that what can be suggested may not always come out. We do that every day; we understand things that aren’t spoken out per say, and we nevertheless are able to grab their meaning. But one can argue here that this is where misunderstandings come from, and I can do nothing but to agree. And yet I maintain that some things, without being hidden, could as well remain implied. Not concealed, but not too obviously exposed either. I am not pro-deception, but I am a bit concerned about the private and the public merging into one. It is hard to explain, but words may not always be used. Body language exists for a reason, and there are beautiful, subtle ways to make one’s intentions noticeable.

On the other hand, I believe that what has to be said should be said. But this may mostly encompass negative feelings like resentment, anger, sadness, fear… I think letting these out allows them to become of a positive influence and contributes to one’s healthy development. Here again, a valid argument would be that it may be a good way out for you, but what about the person in front of you who has to put up with your moodiness? Do we have a right to openly SAY to someone he/she is a mean, aggressive, unpleasant know-it-all? Personally, I’d say YES!