Dedicated to classics and hits.

Friday, June 20, 2014

Rashomon & Other Stories (1915) by Ryunosuke Akutagawa

A still from the film version of Rashomon, which is here called In The Grove- Rashomon is a different story.  Aren't her hands freakishly large in this picture?

Rashomon & Other Stories (1915)
 by Ryunosuke Akutagawa

  This group of short stories does, in fact, have the inspiration for the famous film, Rashomon (1950) by Akira Kurosawa, but confusingly that story is called In The Grove, and the story Rashomon in this book is something entirely different.  Akutagaw was an avowed modernist who killed himself at the age of 37- you wouldn't necessarily pick up on that from the settings of these stories- from the samurai/middle ages portion of Japanese history.

  This is in contrast to Kokoro (1914) by Natsume Soseki, a real Japanese novel that takes place in the present in a modernizing Japan.  Akutagawa had a sly wit and wry sense of humor- something utterly lost in the translation between Japanese and English.  His language has a spartan/economic quality that might either be a real characteritistic of Japanese literature OR just something I'm projecting onto my idea of Japanese literature.  I'm still waiting to read my first verbose Japanese book or watch a single expansive Japanese film.  Only 120 pages, you can read Rashomon & Other Stories in a sitting- a good entry point to modern Japanese fiction alongside Kokoro, which is a must.

Thursday, June 19, 2014

The Albigenses (1824) by Charles Maturin

The Albigenses: This is what they did to heretics in the Middle Ages.  Notice the mountains as a key scenic backdgrop for this story- near the border of the then kingdom of Aragon, which was an Albigenses/Cathar refuge.

The Albigenses (1824)
 by Charles Maturin
Four Volumes
Volume one: SDSU library copy 5/29/14
Volume two:
Volume three:
Volume four:
Arno Press edition 1974

 The Albigenses is BY FAR the toughest get yet encountered among the 1001 Books to Read Before You Die.  The 1001 Books summary doesn't hide the ball either, stating, "Never re-printed after 1824, The Albigenses is only in a few research libraries world wide."  So how the hell does a book that is essentially impossible to find one of the 1001 Books I need to read before I expire?   I would argue that its very unavailability makes it NOT one of the 1001 books I need to read before I die.

  I finally tracked down a copy using the San Diego Public Libraries "San Diego Circuit" inter-library request form.  When I went to pick it up, I got only volume one of what is by all accounts a four volume set, which means I believe I may need to request each volume separately, and frankly, I'm in no particular hurry to complete The Albigenses having already gone 420 pages in.  Does that mean it's 1600 pages total?  YIKES.  No wonder it hasn't been reprinted.

  To me, putting The Albigenses on any "must read" list is a cruel trick. Bear in mind, there is no Ebook version- free or otherwise, whatsoever.  Buying a reprint copy will cost you 20 dollars a volume.  Annnnddd most importantly it is not that great a book- I can tell that one volume in.  It's not bad- the 12th century historical setting among the Crusaders persecuting the Cathar heresy, is one of the more intriguing historical/romance/gothic settings out there.

   But between it being essentially unavailable, expensive to purchase when it is available, and 1600 pages long, it is frankly hard to imagine what the editor of 1001 Books was thinking when he "Oked" this recommendation.  I mean, you'd have to be mad.

  I will say that the foreward by James Gray and the introduction by Dale Kramer- both penned for this Arno Press 1974 edition- are worth reading independent of the book itself.  Being as The Albigenses is a book that is simply unread, accurate, insightful commentary is difficult/impossible to find.  One important fact I gleaned from the introduction is that The Albigenses is one of the first novels to use a werewolf- unfortunately he didn't appear in volume one.  Maybe volume two. I WILL UPDATE THIS REVIEW AS I READ ADDITIONAL VOLUMES, but I'm not promising anything.  It took me three years just to get volume one- volume two could plausibly be another three years away.


Wednesday, June 18, 2014

Story of the Eye (1928) by Georges Bataille

The Story of the Eye: Want page views? Write about pornography and have pictures of pornography.

Book Review
 Story of the Eye (1928)
by Georges Bataille
City Lights Press Edition 1987

   Here is a concrete fact about writing about literature on the internet: write about pornography.  It's not an easy thing to do- the list of acceptable, literary pornography is short and sweet: the works of Marquis de Sade, particularly 120 Days of Sodom and Justine. Lady Chatterley's Lover by D.H. Lawrence. You could argue the Beats had pornographic elements: Ginsberg in his poetry, Burroughs in his prose.   But the concept of literary pornography is almost an Oxymoron.   But I think a common, failing, if you will, in this area is a failure to be actually pornographic.  In other words, a single graphic sex scene doth not pornography make.  According to the obscenity standard laid out by the United States Supreme Court is that a work is NOT obscene if it has redeeming literary value.

  So Story of the Eye is for REAL pornographic.  A solid fascination with urine as a source of sexual pleasure. Multiple scenes of graphic violence coupled with sexual depravity. Bataille plugs in to a truly deep and disturbing current of thought linking the pleasure of sex and the pleasure in death.   It is a key literary theme of the 20th AND 21st century and Story of the Eye is hugely influential in that regard.

  Story of the Eye is also a key surrealist text, independent of its status as a classic of literary pornography.  Surrealism, which very much embraces the sex/death connection as a key constituent theme has common roots with literary pornography in the development of psychology/psychiatry as a science.  Though Story of the Eye is surreal by definition, it is not the familiar non-nonsensical imagery of the Dadaist wing of Surrealism, rather this is the realistic surrealism inspired by de Sade.  There are many, many throbbing cocks and ejaculations in the 80 pages of Story of the Eye.  Sooooo many throbbing cocks.

Monday, June 16, 2014

Passing (1929) by Nella Larsen

 Mariah Carey might have "passed" if she had lived a century ago.

Book Review
Passing (1929)
by Nella Larsen
Penguin Twentieth Century Classics Edition 1997
Introduction by Thadious M. Davis

  The phenomenon of "passing" originally used specifically to describe when a "Black" American was accepted as a "White" American by other white people, has expanded to resonant in minority communities of all sorts, notably in the LGBT community where "passing" can refer to LGBT people passing as straight.  In a world of bi-raciality and wide spread interracial relationships, the original black-for-white meaning may have lost some of its power, but the larger concept remains interesting and relevant.

    Larsen herself was someone who could "pass" but generally chose not to. Passing the novel is about two women: Irene Redfield- a light skinned African American married to a darker skinned African American, and Clare Kendry- an even lighter skinned African American married to a white dude who doens't know she is black. Redfield and Kendry rekindle their acquaintance in New York City after a decade apart, a decade in which Kendry has managed to pass over to the white world (through her white Aunts) and marry a man who is not only white, but also racist, a fact which becomes painfully, excruciatingly clear when Kendry's husband walks in on on Redfield, Kendry and another passing African American woman having tea and uses his term of endearment with Kendry.  That term of endearment is "Nig." Which he jokingly tells Redfield is appropriate because Kendry keeps getting "darker and darker" so much that he thinks she may "turn into a nigger."

 That one scene- excruciatingly painful and darkly funny at the same time, is a highlight of Passing, though there is a conversation between Redfield and Kendry about the perils of a lighter skinned woman having a dark baby because "the dark is liable to pop out" unexpectedly, that is close in terms of its ability to evoke disquietude in the reader.

  Larsen, trail blazer that she was, does not comport with the "black and proud" ideology of the 60s onward.  Her mixed-race, African American world is a place of shame and discomfort, and her books- and her life (Passing was her last novel and she spent 30 years as a nurse, living alone, after it was published and her marriage split up.) elegantly bring the reality of racist 20s America home to a modern reader.  The ending of Passing: Kendry throws herself out a 20th story window when her husband walks in on her socializing with other African Americans- is a trifle melodramatic, but it does nothing to negate the power of the rest of the book.  Well worth reading.

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