April 11, 2014

Consider This Classic: Elena Recommends

Consider This Classic is a monthly feature where bloggers highlight and recommend their favorite classic. They'll tell you when they first read it, why they love it and where to go from there. If you'd like to participate in Consider This Classic, click here to sign up.

I'm seriously so excited to have Elena from Novel Sounds here mixing it up this month. Instead of recommending just one book, Elena offered to write a little "Introduction to Japanese Classics" post. She's highlighting five books to get you started! From the amazing graphics to her unique perspective, there's so much I love about her blog. I can't tell you how happy I am that she's bringing something so new to Consider This Classic.

ELENA'S AWESOME PREAMBLE: 

I'm an East Asian Studies major which means I'm deeply interested in doing anything with China, Japan, or Korea. I love modern Japanese literature but I've also read my fair share of classic Japanese literature too. So here's a short guide to get you started!


The Tale of Genji by Murasaki Shikibu

Publication Date: 1008
Originally Published In: Japan
Amazon | Goodreads

Summary (from Goodreads)
The exact origins of this remarkable saga of the nobility of Heian Japan remain somewhat obscured by time, although its author, Lady Shikibu Murasaki, presumably derived many of her insights into court life from her years of service with the royal family. The novel centers on the life and loves of the prince known as "the shining Genji." Far more than an exotic romance, however, the tale presents finely drawn characters in realistic situations, set against a richly embroidered tapestry of court life, Moreover, a wistful sense of nostalgia pervades the accounts of courtly intrigues and rivalries, resulting in an exquisitely detailed portrayal of a decaying aristocracy.

The Pillow Book by Sei Shōnagon

Publication Date: 1002
Originally Published In: Japan
Amazon | Goodreads

Summary (from Goodreads)
Written by the court gentlewoman Sei Shōnagon, ostensibly for her own amusement, The Pillow Book offers a fascinating exploration of life among the nobility at the height of the Heian period, describing the exquisite pleasures of a confined world in which poetry, love, fashion, and whim dominated, while harsh reality was kept firmly at a distance. Moving elegantly across a wide range of themes including nature, society, and her own flirtations, Sei Shōnagon provides a witty and intimate window on a woman's life at court in classical Japan.

Kokoro by Natsume Sōseki

Publication Date: 1914
Originally Published In: Japan
Amazon | Goodreads

Summary (from Goodreads)
No collection of Japanese literature is complete without Natsume Sōseki's Kokoro, his most famous novel and the last he complete before his death. Published here in the first new translation in more than fifty years, Kokoro - meaning "heart" - is the story of a subtle and poignant friendship between two unnamed characters, a young man and an enigmatic elder whom he calls "Sensei." Haunted by tragic secrets that have cast a long shadow over his life, Sensei slowly opens up to his young disciple, confessing indiscretions from his own student days that have left him reeling with guilt, and revealing, in the seemingly unbridgeable chasm between his moral anguish and his student's struggle to understand it, the profound cultural shift from one generation to the next that characterized Japan in the early twentieth century.

Confessions of a Mask by Yukio Mishima

Publication Date: 1949
Originally Published In: Japan
Amazon | Goodreads

Summary (from Goodreads)
Confessions of a Mask is the story of an adolescent who must learn to live with the painful fact that he is unlike other young men. Mishima's protagonist discovers that he is becoming a homosexual in polite, post-war Japan. To survive, he must live behind a mask of propriety.

Norwegian Wood by Haruki Murakami

Publication Date: 1987
Originally Published In: Japan
Amazon | Goodreads

Summary (from Goodreads)
Toru, a quiet and preternaturally serious young college student in Tokyo, is devoted to Naoko, a beautiful and introspective young woman, but their mutual passion is marked by the tragic death of their best friend years before.  Toru begins to adapt to campus life and the loneliness and isolation he faces there, but Naoko finds the pressures and responsibilities of life unbearable. As she retreats further into her own world, Toru finds himself reaching out to others and drawn to a fiercely independent and sexually liberated young woman. A poignant story of one college student's romantic coming-of-age, Norwegian Wood brilliantly recaptures a young man's first, hopeless, and heroic love.


THE TALE OF GENJI
Like the summary says, this is considered the world's first (psychological) novel and what what, it's written by a WOMAN. Fun fact: most of the early Japanese classical literature are written by women because they wrote in Japanese (the women's language) instead of Chinese (which was the language of men). 

ANYWAY! The summary also is not kidding about "a very long romance" because it clocks in at over 1k and spans PAST Genji (the main character's life). You can probably stop after he dies though (spoiler alert??? but I mean, I am pretty sure this passes the spoiler limits) because the story after that is not as exciting and people speculate maybe Murasaki Shikibu didn't even write the second part. Genji basically sleeps with a lot of ladies (including his stepmother who reminds him of his dead mother, YEAH IT'S THAT KIND OF NOVEL). It deals a lot with court politics, yukari (which means sexual substitute. oh this girl reminds me of the girl I can't have? LET ME HAVE HER), more politics, and a ghost or two thrown in.

THE PILLOW BOOK
This is a memoir and the text is surprisingly accessible! Like, you won't snooze after reading it because she's pretty engaging. The Heian period was kind of the Rococo of Japan in that people were obsessed with all things art & pretty. So Sei talks about that and rarely about anything else that's really going on during that period but you can find glimpses if you really look (there was a big thing about the emperors in that period). Also, huh, it was made into a 1996 film with Vivian Wu and Ewan McGregor!

KOKORO
Don't be fooled by this slim novel, it packs quite a punch. Japanese literature basically owns the word "nuance" because it is such a heavy, thought-provoking book. It's definitely a quiet book and one you have to sit on which is why I am going to quote Wikipedia on this, it's about "interwoven strands of egoism and guilt, as opposed to shame. Other important themes in the novel include the changing times (particularly the modernization of Japan in the Meiji era), the changing roles and ideals of women, and intergenerational change in values, the role of family, the importance of the self versus the group, the cost of weakness, and identity."

BASICALLY: YES, A LOT OF LAYERS. Easy to read, hard to fully understand.

CONFESSIONS OF A MASK
First of all, I so wish I could read this book in Japanese because apparently Yukio Mishima is a GENIUS in prose but alas, I can only read it lost in translation.

I know we are suppose to talk about the BOOK and not the author but I can't help it in Mishima's case. He was a radical right-wing person and committed seppuku after trying to overthrow the government. Umm, do you know what seppuku is? It's a ritual suicide and YOU NEED TWO PEOPLE TO DO IT because it means you're slicing through your abdomen by sword and you're usually dead before finishing it so the other person has to do it. 

He may be quite the figure but he's also really good with words. Confessions of a Mask is maybe sort of semi-autobiographical in terms of Mishima's sexuality (WHO KNOWS THOUGH, he was v obsessed with the idea of masculinity). 

NORWEGIAN WOOD
It's a MODERN classic, okay. It's the quintessential Japanese coming of age novel and apparently every young'un has read it. Norwegian Wood has been likened to Japan's Catcher in the Rye, which is a good or bad thing depending on how you feel. 

It is my favorite book though by my favorite author and I don't know, I JUST REALLY LOVE IT? I love the way Murakami writes because his passages are so universal and beautiful to human nature. I mean, my life motto is this quote from the book, "Don't feel sorry for yourself, only assholes do that." 

I think it deals with grief (there is a lot of suicide too, just so you know) in such a specific and aching way, I DON'T KNOW. How do YOU talk about your favorite book??? 

(although I mean, I can totally understand why people aren't keen on this. Murakami isn't! He wrote this to prove he can write commercial fiction, hahahaha. If you haven't read his books before: they have a lot of cats & jazz & magical realism & ears a lot and his work just SPEAKS TO ME)



THE TALE OF GENJI
Ummm. One of those long novels where the protagonist bangs every lady and has issues???

THE PILLOW BOOK
I kind of want to say it's the eleventh century Bridget Jones' Diary.

KOKORO
Um, like one of those books you want to dissect.

CONFESSIONS OF A MASK
I am really awful at this, in case you couldn't tell.

NORWEGIAN WOOD
See above. Probably The Catcher in the Rye, I guess!!

4 comments:

  1. thanks so much for having me, hannah!!! XOXO

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    1. Thanks so much for participating! xox

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  2. I am so happy I found this because it is AWESOME. I've never even considered reading classic Japanese literature (I was pretty much unaware that such a thing even existed), but now I want to read EVERYTHING. Especially Norwegian Wood because Elena is so hyped up about it and it sounds fantastic.

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    1. RIGHT?! I didn't even think about classic Japanese lit until Elena asked if I'd like her to recommend some. I was pumped to post this because I thought it was so cool to introduce people to something they likely weren't familiar with! I'm right there with you on wanting to read these now :)

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