Gary Guinn

Literature of the Ozarks

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Review: An Artist of the Floating World, by Kazuo Ishiguro

Introduction: Ishiguro

Memory and the heart. Such fragile things on which to build our notion of ourselves. As the old prophet Jeremiah said, “The heart is deceitful above all things . . . Who can understand it?” And memory is surely at least as deceitful as the heart. Both memory and the heart seem to function at the mercy of the transient, ephemeral world of human life. And they are central to the fiction of Japanese writer Kazuo Ishiguro, who  just won the 2017 Nobel Prize for LiteratureKazuo Ishiguro photo

An Artist of the Floating World is a beautiful emotional set piece. Following World War II, an aging Japanese artist struggles with his experience of post-war Japan. In time, he regrets his role in the rise of empire that ended in the destruction of the old world.

Comparison: Remains of the Day

Remains of the Day film still Emma Thompson and Anthony Hopkins

Emma Thompson and Anthony Hopkins in Remains of the Day.

It may be that most people know Kazuo Ishiguro for his novel The Remains of the Day and its film adaptation, with Anthony Hopkins as the butler Stevens and Emma Thompson as Miss Kenton. In fact, there are significant similarities in tone and theme between the two novels. In both cases, the main character looks back on a career in which he devoted his life to a cause that was later shown to be horribly mistaken and in which he turned his back on a path that would have resulted in a different, and probably more fulfilling life. Mr. Stevens, in The Remains of the Day,  does not marry Miss Kenton. In An Artist of the Floating World, the artist Masuji Ono turns his back on “fine art.” Fine art focuses on the fleeting beauty of this world. Ono  makes his art serve the empire of the “New Japan.”

Both novels come from a perspective not long after the war. The protagonists look back on a time prior to and during the war, blended with their current lives. The tone of both is nostalgic, beautiful. In An Artist of the Floating World, Ishiguro’s use of an unreliable narrator, whose growth in the novel is toward self-realization, is masterful. Numerous times in the narrative, the artist Ono says it is entirely possible that his memory of an event or conversation is not accurate, that things might not have happened exactly as he presents them. These admissions become part of his growth in awareness of self. They are some of the elements that make him sympathetic and human, and very like all of us.

Conclusion: CatharsisArtistOfTheFloatingWorld.jpg Cover

A reader who identifies with Ono, and feels compassion for him, may experience in reading this novel what Aristotle called catharsis in his Poetics, a vicarious purging of guilt and fear, the impetus toward self-understanding. (See Aristotle on Character)  Ishiguro seems to be saying that as we grow older, we come to realize how much of our image of ourselves is dependent on feeling and memory, and we come to understand how fickle, how deceitful, those things can be. If we are to live in peace with ourselves, we must see ourselves honestly and forgive ourselves. We have all committed well-intentioned errors in our pasts. Only with honesty and forgiveness can we live with integrity and dignity.

Review: Sun and Shadow, by Ake Edwardson

Overview Cover photo of Edwardson, Sun and Shadow

Sun and Shadow, the first Detective Erik Winter novel by Swedish writer Ake Edwardson to be translated into English (1999), is a dark psychological mystery that chronicles two grotesque double murders and the exhausting investigation that follows. The plot is complex, and it delivers the build-up to a suspenseful ending.  (See review of The Preacher, by Sander Jaboksen)

Edwardson’s Style: Dialogue, Description, Verbs, Filtering

Dialogue-

Edwardson’s style is literary. The writing is strong, especially the descriptive language and the dialogue. After Detective Winter visits his father, who has just had a heart attack and with whom Winter has had a strained relationship, he tells his lover, Angela, about it:

“ What was it like, seeing him again?”

“As if we’d been chatting only last week.”

“Sure?”

“Depends what you mean. We spoke about safe subjects.”

“Everything takes time. He has to get better first.”

“Hmm.”

“Are you tired?”

“Not so tired that I can’t indulge in a glass of duty-free whiskey. What about you?”

These spare conversations, circling around a subject like a dance, are common. In effect, dialogue carries the narrative.

Description-

Edwardson avoids extensive descriptive passages that tend to slow the narrative movement. Yet often the descriptive language is strong. Here is an example of a strong and spare description:

“It was night in the apartment, no lights burning anymore. A standard lamp had been on all day, but the bulb had gone. As dawn broke, autumn sidled in through the venetian blinds and a roller blind in the bedroom let in patches of light.”

I would quibble with a couple of things (pet peeves of mine) in Edwardson’s style. (I should add here that it’s entirely possible that the first of these problems results from translation and may not exist in the original.)

Verbs-

First, Edwardson works the poor, overused verb “to be” to within an inch of its life, both as the main verb in a sentence and as the helping verb used with a main verb in the “–ing” (progressive) form. I’ll italicize examples in the following short paragraph to demonstrate:

“Winter was walking along the Ricardo Soriano. It was evening again. He went into the cerveceria Monte Carlo and ordered a glass of draft beer at the bar. The place was full of men watching a football match on a large screen. Real Madrid versus Valladolid. He drank his beer and felt comfortable among all the shouting. There were no women inside the bar. They were sitting at tables on the pavement outside, waiting for the match to end and the evening to begin.”

Five “to be” verbs in a short paragraph. The problem: All these “to be” verbs kill the immediacy of the reader’s experience of what happens. Compare the following possibilities: “Winter walked along  . . . “ or “The bar overflowed with men watching . .” or “All the women sat at tables on the pavement outside . . .” Revising “to be” verbs into action verbs is a staple of good writing.

Filtering-

My second quibble: Edwardson tends to filter sense experience instead of giving it to the reader directly. Here’s what I mean. Detective Winter goes into a bar, and the narrator tells us: “Winter could hear people speaking Norwegian, Swedish, and German.” The readers should experience the bar, not have Winter experience it for them. It would be easy to revise this passage to say, “People at the tables around him spoke Norwegian, Swedish, and German.” That way the reader experiences the polyglot with Winter instead of being told that Winter experienced it. This kind of filtering is too common in the novel.

Summary

Okay, with all that said, this book was a good read. I recommend it, especially for fans of Scandinavian crime fiction. It’s a strong example of the genre. The complex plot builds slowly and in the end delivers a powerful, driving finish.

 

 

The Great American Eclipse: What’s in a Name?

What’s in a Name?

Juliet tells Romeo that nothing’s in a name. “That which we call a rose, by any other name, would smell as sweet,” she says. And even Hamlet seems dismissive in his “words, words, words.” But after the Great American Eclipse, I must rebuff the beautiful maiden and challenge the churlish prince. Au contraire sweet Juliet. And as for Hamlet, well, a noble mind o’erthrown, and so forth.

The Great American Eclipse

Monday afternoon, August 21st, my friend George and I watched the moon creep through those final degrees toward totality. The two of us and our wives were on a quest. Thousands of people rested in lawn chairs or lay on blankets before the capitol building in Jefferson City, MO. On the stage, set up on the capitol steps, the Fort Leonard Wood military orchestra performed. Kids tossed footballs, played in the fountains, chased each other through the obstacle course of resting adults. Clouds drifted lazily by, bringing with them some unease about missing the Great American Eclipse.  photo of totality in the great american eclipse

But when the final seconds ticked into totality, all eyes stared at the clear blue sky, and a roar went up from the multitude. Then just as quickly, the roar died into silence. Awestruck, we listened to the cicadas wailing in the mid-day dark. The bright corona flared around the black ball of the sun. It was an eclipse, but suddenly that word, which had been mundane, even common, was charged with mystery and awe. It had put on a stunning new mantle.

Words, Words, Words

A few minutes later George asked, “What word would describe the eclipse? What word would best communicate something beyond the ordinary, beyond the natural?” We rejected the word “supernatural” immediately as far too tired and burdened with the clutter of history. A dictionary reveals the problem: Supernatural: of or relating to an order of existence beyond the visible observable universe; especially, of or relating to God or a god, demigod, spirit, or devil; departing from what is usual or normal especially so as to appear to transcend the laws of nature:  attributed to an invisible agent (such as a ghost or spirit). Nope, just doesn’t fit. What we had seen was governed entirely by the laws of nature.

The term preternatural offered itself, and we thought perhaps it would work. Preternatural: beyond what is normal or natural, extraordinary, exceptional, uncommon, singular, unprecedented, remarkable, phenomenal, abnormal, inexplicable, unaccountable; strange, mysterious, fantastic. That was more like it. All these words accurately apply to the eclipse. In fact, when taken together, they are, as a whole, a good summary of an abstract description of what happened in the sky above us. But our experience was not abstract in the least. Preternatural would not do.

The Spiritual

Each of us had experienced the eclipse as something spiritual (not supernatural), something natural that seemed to stop time, to pull us out of ourselves. And the response of thousands of people gathered there revealed that the immediate, shared human response was not just awe, but joy. A shout, clapping, and laughter erupted. We were all drawn totally into the moment, and in that moment there were no democrats or republicans, no liberals or conservatives, no northerners or southerners, no believers or atheists. There were only human beings sharing an experience of totality, an experience of total self-forgetting, of good will and unity. It must have been what the ancient Israelites felt when they saw God in a whirlwind or pillar of fire.

And Flannery O’Connor

Looking back now, those so-brief two-and-a-half minutes of totality, and the response that followed, tempt me to a bizarre comparison. Forgive the incurable English professor in me, but I think of the words of The Misfit in Flannery O’Connor’s short story “A Good Man Is Hard to Find” after he kills the meddling, bossy grandmother: “She would have been a good woman,” he says, “if it had been somebody there to shoot her every minute of her life.”

Perhaps you can see where this is headed. In some future aeon, after humanity has destroyed itself, I see a cosmic Misfit, sitting on an asteroid, looking down at earth and shaking its head. “They would have been a good species,” it will say, “if it had been a Great American Eclipse to strike them with awe and wonder every minute of their life.”

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