Dante in Translation

9780199535644      9780199540655

I’m still getting on slowly with Proust, but in the meantime, I’ve ventured into new territory with Dante. And MOOCs – free online courses from institutions like Yale, Stanford and Harvard Universities! The main lectures/resources I’m using to read Dante are from an open course at Yale: ITAL310. But there’s also a fine compilation of readings at Saylor.com’s ENGL409 (though I find it odd that they classify this Italian classic as part of the English literary pantheon. Western, fine. European, fine. But English?). Haven’t started reading yet, as I’m still deciding between reading the eBook version at Gutenberg, or getting the Oxford Classics translation (pictured above) by Mark Musa… Decisions, decisions.

The Yale ITAL310 course is taught by Professor Giuseppe Mazzotta, and a side-by-side English/Italian edition is used. No need for knowledge of Italian language to get by though. All the lectures and readings are in English, hence the name of the course: ‘Dante in Translation‘. Mazzotta goes briefly through Vita Nuova as a preamble to the Divine Comedy before diving into the latter work. Here’s a Youtube playlist of the whole set of lectures; I’ve listened to the first two and they’re great. I can’t wait to start reading! If you’re anything like me, and you’ve put off reading Dante for years, take it in easy doses with Professor Mazzotta. He explains everything in a very straightforward and accessible way, I promise.

EDIT: I’ve gone from blogging every two/three months to once a month – hooray! If I keep this up, I’ll be updating every fortnight again, like I used to back in the day…


In a Grove (藪の中), Ryūnosuke Akutagawa


Akutagawa’s 1922 modernist tale, Yabu no Naka or In a Grovetells the story of seven varying accounts of the murder of a samurai, Kanazawa no Takehiro, whose corpse has been found in a bamboo forest near Kyoto. Each section “simultaneously clarifies and obfuscates what the reader knows about the murder, eventually creating a complex and contradictory vision of events that brings into question humanity’s ability or willingness to perceive and transmit objective truth.” Okay, that was pulled straight from Wikipedia. But sometimes Wikipedia really does describe things best.

In a Grove is a playful, elegaic look into the human psyche. I read it as part of a Penguin collection, Rashōmon (羅生門) and Seventeen Other Stories, of which In a Grove was certainly the most memorable contribution. Jay Rubin’s English translation was wonderful: delicate, striking and gruesome at times. I’ll strive to improve my Japanese until I can re-read this in the original, but until then I’ll have to assume that Rubin’s done an accurate job for us Anglophones.

As for the story itself, I was impressed most by the sheer freshness of it. Though it’s just a decade short of being a century old, the twists and turns and hair-raising humanity of each character’s account leaves the reader wanting more. Who dares call literary fiction dry, and all about characters sitting in rooms and gardens thinking about the past for pages and pages (to roughly paraphrase something Junot Diaz once said)?

The seven accounts include those of a woodcutter, a travelling Buddhist priest, a constable or magistrate type, an old woman, a notorious criminal, the murdered man’s ghost (as conveyed through a medium), and the murdered man’s wife. It’s crime fiction, but it’s not crime fiction. Akutagawa merely presents seven subjective truths; in the end, it’s not made clear which is the absolute truth. Nor do I think it should be expected that any single one of the narratives is absolute truth. Each probably contains elements of fact and truth, which have been distorted not only through deliberate deception, but also through the haze that obscures our recollections – whether it be through fear, time, trauma, or simply poor short-term memory.

Though, again, I can’t comment much on the prosaic, stylistic elements of it (having not read the original Japanese), I think it works well on the brilliance of the premise alone. On such a level, it succeeds simply by probing into our understandings of truth and objectivity. As a piece of fiction, it challenges conventional methods of storytelling and narrative construction.

> In a Grove was read as part of Bellezza’s Japanese Literature (7) challenge. It can be downloaded here (in PDF or ePUB/Kindle format), or read online here.

A Year of Proust: Some Musings

When it’s all said and done, I’ve failed my year of Proust. I’m now only halfway through Within a Budding Grove, the second volume. It’s taken me half the year to get through less than two volumes. Though it’s only the end of July, and there are still five good months left in the year, I have no intention of racing through the remainder of Remembrance of Things Past – nor do I think it’s humanly possible to truly appreciate this masterpiece while ‘racing through it’.

To be fair, I’ve been through a lot of tough personal circumstances this year regarding health, relationships, and career decisions. Reading has been slow as a result. I’ve noticed, sadly, that literature takes a back-seat when the going gets tough. It was one of those years where I felt as though I was watching sequence after sequence of a horror movie, helpless to do anything but watch as my own life fell apart. But I’m slowly picking up the pieces, and with that, my love of literature is slowly recovering itself as well.

At this rate, it’ll probably be more a decade of Proust than a year, but I don’t mind. Why? Because I enjoy delving into that idyllic, dreamy world of his to keep myself in check. Proust allows me to dream, and to hope, and to indulge in a little beauty when life seems grim. It has a pleasant hum that I like to get lost in every once in a while when things wear me down. And so I’ll keep plodding on, without time restrictions and silly deadlines that I try to set for myself.

But I don’t feel all that silly about it, seeing as it’s what got me started in the first place. If I hadn’t set that project earlier this year, I would have continually pushed it back to make way for other books, and I would never have discovered the wonder of  À la recherche du temps perdu.

Yan Geling: The Flowers of War and The Uninvited


Yan Geling is one of China’s most promising contemporary writers. Earlier this year, while I lay in bed recovering from an a bad case of the flu, I did a lot of reading – and I happened to have two of her novels on my bedside table: The Flowers of War (also: 13 Flowers of Nanjing) and The Uninvited (also: The Banquet Bug).

That these books differ so greatly in terms of not only content, but voice, style, characterization just proves that Yan is a force to be reckoned with. The Flowers of War is a slim, spare novel – elegantly written, poignant, and attempts to capture a difficult time in Chinese history: the Japanese occupation/WWII. In this particular novelYan keeps the writing pared back and minimal in order not to sentimentalize or overdo what are potentially some horrifying scenes.

It is completely unlike the gory, graphic [non-fictional] account of the war by Iris Chang (The Nanjing Massacre). In a way, exploring the brutality of war is not her primary motive; rather, she uses the era as a backdrop to tell the stories of the ‘flowers of Nanjing’. Yan steers the reader away from the bloodshed by creating an enclosed world within an abandoned church, where a group of stranded schoolgirls are being looked after an American priest, Father Engelmann. Things become interesting when thirteen courtesans climb across the walls, seeking refuge in the church. (Side note, but I also highly recommend Zhang Yi Mou’s film version, starring Christopher Bale as an Oskar Schindler-type figure, who becomes an unwilling saviour for these schoolgirls/courtesans).

The Univited, on the other hand, is a tour de force through the corrupt, rambunctious, often dazzlingly dynamic paradoxes of modern China.  I would’ve been very dismissive and skeptical of Yan’s writing ability had I not picked up this second novel. It follows the life of a disgruntled factory worker who takes on a fake identity as a journalist in order to attend state-funded banquets.

Here, being unrestrained by a ‘heavy’ topic which has historical significance for thousands of Chinese citizens who suffered during the wartime era and their descendants, Yan takes on a playful approach, indulging us with decadent descriptions of gourmet dishes and taking her characters through a world spun with irony and black humour. Despite this lighter touch, and the wry comedy of it all, The Uninvited pokes fingers into some pressing concerns about what some would call the disease of contemporary China – i.e. the rat race for wealth/prosperity and development, and the moral vacuum at the heart of it all.

We can try to understand China by keeping up with the news/media, and all the speculation by Western intellectuals (Martin Jacques, Fareed Zakaria, yeah we’ve heard it all), but perhaps we should also be listening to the voices coming from China itself. It doesn’t always need to be so politicized. There’s a lot to be learnt from the nation’s literature if you only look closely enough.


Swann’s Way: First Impressions

9780099362210Proust. How I adore thee. I was timid when I started out, afraid that I might dislike you – and your intimidating chunky several-volumed “novel”. But only a few pages in, I fell prey to the magic you weave in Swann’s Way. I even succumbed to the temptation of madeleines. I don’t normally bake things like madeleines; in the kitchen I’m more of a green tea lamington or coconut and pandan ice-cream kind of girl. Madeleines just seem so prim and plain.

How wrong I was to have neglected madeleines, and how wrong I was to have been intimidated by Proust. Swann’s Way is definitely a little nuttier than I expected. It’s every bit as meandering and off-tangent and wildly dreamy as I thought it would be, but there’s an irony; a real barbed wire sharp edge to Proust’s voice underneath all the musings. And oh God, how the musings go on. I’m just about nearing the end of Combray, the first section, and if I try to recollect what I’ve been reading about, it’s just really hard – to remember exactly what went on. There is no (detectable) solid form to this thing. And the characters, they’re so bizarre. The world they inhabit is like a madhouse, as much a work of surrealism and farce as The Master and Margarita in a way. The characters just don’t make sense; in real life, they’d be absolute caricatures of themselves, but they just work. They’re utterly believable and loveable.

Do I love it? Yes. Is it crazy? Completely. He’s just nuts. Am I going to read the next one? Probably! Why? Because it’s not sappy and sentimental, as you would assume from a mere ‘summary’ of the plot of this book – if one can even presume to summarize this baggy, loose-ended monster of a novel. There’s more to Proust that meets the eye, and I’m determined to get to the bottom of it all. Swann’s Way is really only the tip of the iceberg. Next up: Within a Budding Grove.

The Garlic Ballads

Mo Yan weaves together a tale of  ’brutal honesty’ and sheer poetry in his story of the garlic-farming peasants of Paradise County. The novel centres around the arrest of Gao Ma, Gao Yang and Fourth Aunt, who have been imprisoned for participating in a mass riot against the local government. But interspersed with this main narrative is the tragic love between Gao Ma and Jinju, as well as the stories of former landlords and the struggling garlic farmers, based on the villagers of Mo Yan’s hometown in Shandong Province.

I have to say that this was a welcome respite from the Proust’s dreamy voice/narrative style in Swann’s Way. Mo Yan is sharp, in both his language and observations, and such a powerful writer. Having formed an image of him as the Chinese Communist Party’s poster boy, I was surprised to see that he writes with such unnerving frankness. He never once shies away from telling the difficult truths, nor does he sugarcoat the actions of corrupt government officials. Several of his books, including this one, are banned in the mainland because of their non-government approved stance on certain issues.

While (as with Barnes’ recent Booker winning The Sense of an Ending), I don’t want to detract from the merits of this book by making this post about politics, I want to just point out that Mo Yan is hardly a friend of the CCP for “failing to speak out” about the imprisonment of writers such as Liu Xiaobo. It’s like the P. G. Wodehouse and the Nazi radio broadcast all over again. I’m not the one to say whether he deserved the Nobel Peace Prize or not. But let’s not allow some of his poor choices or his personal right to act or not act in a certain situation to discolour our view of his writing itself.

For instance, Salman Rushdie has dismissed Mo Yan as a “patsy” for the Chinese government for not speaking out, but do we all need to conform to Rushdie’s standards? He might think he has the right to point fingers at others so easily, because he’s had his life put on the line as a result of one of his works. We can’t deny that Rushdie has been through a hell of a lot for the freedom of literature he believes in. But would Rushdie himself, having the benefit of hindsight, choose to publish The Satanic Verses all over again, knowing the ordeal he’d have to face – or want anyone to face a similar ordeal? We aren’t talking about signing any old petition against whaling or something – censorship and freedom of speech is a deeply political issue in China. And Mo Yan has the right to choose whether or not he wants to get himself deeply involved in those things as a writer. 

Key word: writer.

I thought a writer’s primary role was to write. Anyone who has read Mo Yan’s work closely will find it hard to accuse him of being a ‘patsy’. Knowing that this generation of writers have emerged from a culture of fear and persecution during the Cultural Revolution, it’s a big step that writers are gaining the courage to write with honesty and conviction again. There is a vibrant literary scene in China at the moment – Yan Lian-ke, Mo Yan, Yan Geling – all these writers are speaking out against social injustice/corruption. Let’s not crush that momentum by pointing fingers. We in the West are too hasty, always expecting things to transform the way we want them. Why isn’t China a democracy yet? Why is there such a wealth divide in China? Why are artists and intellectuals still imprisoned for speaking out? Well, guess what? Change doesn’t happen overnight. You have to look at the bigger picture to see that yes, there is a lot happening.

“A writer should express criticism and indignation at the dark side of society and the ugliness of human nature, but we should not use one uniform expression,” Mo said in a speech at the 2009 Frankfurt Book Fair, “Some may want to shout on the street, but we should tolerate those who hide in their rooms and use literature to voice their opinions.” Mo Yan is not a human rights activist, he’s not a spokesperson for some liberation movement – he’s a writer. And he’s done his job by writing powerful works about injustice and the plight of ordinary people in contemporary China. In his own words,  ”For a writer, the best way to speak is by writing. You will find everything I need to say in my works. Speech is carried off by the wind; the written word can never be obliterated.” I, for one, agree with him.

A Year of Proust


Blogland is a little like Narnia: once you stray away from it all, you have no sense of how much time has passed when you return. Though three months is hardly my longest hiatus, it’s still a long time to have been away from books. And in this time, I’ve been mulling over things and concocted up this crazy idea that I’d like to tackle Proust this year. It’s crazy, because honestly speaking, I have less and less patience for books which require concentration. It’s not so much that I resent the effort, but I simply don’t have time to devote hours and hours to reading anymore, and I know I’ll get stuck somewhere along the way. I’ll probably put it down, get back to it a few weeks later, then lose interest and not pick it up again. As I did with Middlemarch. And with Portrait of a Lady. Speaking of that particular Henry James novel, I’ve stuck it onto my February reading list too. Seems I’m a stickler for torturing myself.

Inspired by the film Julie & Julia, I want to try get through one book every two months – which may not seem very ambitious at all, only that as we all know very well, Remembrance of Things Past (a title more reflective of its nature than Time Regained) is a dreamy, hazy, meandering sort of thing. And judging with my past experiences with stream-of-consciousness writing, narratives that are dreamy and hazy and meandering actually require more effort. You’ve got to catch the wave, and then ride with it, keeping with the rhythm, and once you lose that rhythm, you’re just lost. Lost. Not lost in the pleasant sense of the word either. Lost, as in you’re swimming against the current and trying so hard not to drown that you can’t make any sense of what’s going on around you. Anyway, no point fretting about that now. It’s too late to regret anything, because I’ve just ordered my copy of the first volume, Swann’s Way – in the Moncrieff translation published by Vintage Classics. Wish me luck! :)