Sunday, 22 February 2009

Update: February

# of books read in February: 2
Cumulative total: 6

1. You Are Here (Bremner, Bird and Fortune)
2. Le Dossier: How To Survive The English (Sarah Long)
3. Du phonographe au MP3 (Ludovic Tournès)
4. Where Angels Fear To Tread (E. M. Forster)
5. Born on a Blue Day (Daniel Tammet)
6. The Tale of Genji (Lady Murasaki; tr. Arthur Waley)

Average number of books per month: 3

% by male authors: 66.6% (recurring)
% by female authors: 33.3% (recurring)

The Tale of Genji (Lady Murasaki; tr. Arthur Waley)

--The blurb--
"One of the world's oldest novels and the greatest single work of Japanese literature, this 11th-century romance centers on the lives and loves of an emperor's son. It offers a vast tapestry of the intrigues and rivalries of court life, as well as an exquisitely detailed portrayal of a decaying aristocracy."
blurb from

--The review--
In the world of ancient epics, three are usually given prevalence: the Iliad, the Odyssey (both presumed to be by Homer), and the Aeneid (Virgil's Roman version of the Iliad). These are usually quickly followed by Dante's Divina Commedia, which is more modern. It is pretty rare to hear about anything coming from further east (Homer's epics are Greek, Virgil's is Roman/Italian, and Dante's is also Italian). This was until The Economist gave the Tale of Genji, the main Japanese player on this particular sports field, probably its most public airing recently, prompted by the epic's 1000th birthday. I decided to give it a try, although being unfamiliar with the conventions of Japanese literature and society at this point may have made this a baptism of fire. There are only three main translators who have attempted to translate this entire work, which still wasn't finished at the author's presumed death: Arthur Waley in 1929, Royall Tyler in the early 2000s, and Edward Seidensticker (somewhere in between). Based on The Economist's analysis, I plumped for the Arthur Waley translation - just the first book of the epic to begin with (the complete epic is massive, and while abridged and paperback versions are available at reasonable prices, larger hardback unabridged copies with illustrations can cost in the region of £150-£200). The Economist hails it as the first modern novel, and this is arguably true, with all of the aforementioned epics being written in verse. Perhaps the nearest English equivalent, Chaucer's The Canterbury Tales, is also written in verse, while The Tale of Genji is undoubtedly written in prose (assuming it was not just rendered into prose by the translator for the sake of convenience).

The Tale of Genji is overwhelming to begin with, largely owing to the ancient Japanese literary custom of not referring to characters very often by their first names, often opting for appellations of rank instead (e.g. Heir Apparent, Chancellor), which, somewhat alarmingly, change as the characters progress through the aristocracy. While this does not preclude understanding completely, particularly given the fact that many translators try to remedy this themselves with more frequest inclusion of first names, this is a factor making the tale worth rereading, as with the deeper understanding that comes from subsequent reading comes greater appreciation.

Waley's translation is skilful, although I understand from The Economist's article that it is in some way abridged, while Seidensticker's translation is more faithful. It is tremendously eloquent to read, though not inaccessible, and the writing's prevalent beauty is accentuated by Lady Murasaki's use of poetry, as quoted by the characters, throughout. While riveting, the complexity of the story (as further added to by the names issue described above) means that if possible, it is probably better to read this in stretches for as long as you can manage, getting through it in a short and intense period of time, rather than drip-feeding it over weeks.

Along with skilful writing and good pace (even if the plot is a little slack or vague at times), successful characterisation is generally also achieved, with many likeable female characters appearing in the part of the Tale that I was able to procure (part one, also called The Tale of Genji). The characterisation of Genji himself is also strong, although he appears quite the opposite to how Lady Murasaki wants us to see him: the author insists that he is charming and gallant, but his actions show him as a rash, naive womaniser with little regard for others, who also happens to be a paedophile on the side. Nice.

However, with time on your hands, this doesn't stop you galloping through the story at breakneck speed, and leaves you wanting to read it again. While it may be an acquired taste, and certainly requires patience, I can't wait to get my mitts on the rest of the tale (though may plump for Royall Tyler's translation, as Waley translated all but one of the chapters and I'd prefer something that sounds a little more modern on the ear).

other works by Lady Murasaki
The Diary of Murasaki Shikibu
The Murasaki Shikibu Collection (poetry)

Friday, 13 February 2009

Born on a Blue Day (Daniel Tammet)

--The blurb--
"In this, his first book, Daniel writes about his life from severe epileptic seizures in early childhood to his growing awareness of being somehow different, frequently absorbed in his own world, often confused and frightened by the world of people. From an early age, Daniel remembers numbers as his ‘friends’ each with its own shape and personality. He describes how he sees the world around him through his unique numerical prism, counting to himself whenever he feels anxious or afraid. He recounts his schooldays, learning skills most people are able to take for granted such as maintaining eye contact and knowing when to laugh at a joke. There are also chapters on falling in love, his remarkable language abilities (he speaks nine languages including Icelandic, which he learnt in a week) and his meeting with fellow savant and the inspiration behind the ‘Rain Man’ movie, Kim Peek."

--The review--
The arrival of my highly belated order from Amazon last week, bought in December with a voucher given to me for Christmas(!), meant that my reading of Seth's The Golden Gate was soon put paid to when Born on a Blue Day made it into my hands. As a linguist, I had long been intrigued by this autistic savant who, alongside his dexterity with numbers, is also able to easily absorb languages that were previously unknown to him while still developing and maintaining passion for these things and balance in other areas of his life. Some might consider a gay man who has autism and once suffered with epilepsy as someone who got a bit of a raw deal in life; however, this sensitively-written and lucid memoir should serve to quickly dissipate any false preconceptions. The author is clearly at peace with himself, his life, and his abilities, and despite his display of superhuman abilities, appears modest and 'human' (this modesty and honesty together with his articulate writing style makes him an endearing narrator).

The autobiography's layout is almost strictly chronological, which is soothing and clear rather than boring, and the feats of memory when it comes to Tammet's early childhood in particular are arguably the book's greatest strength. He perhaps labours the mathematical points for a little too long for those of us who are not mathematicians, but this only enables further insight into his general world view. The only other minor 'blip' in this opus is the occasional grammatical errors, mostly punctuation-related, that litter various pages, which I suspect to be the fault of an over-zealous copy editor rather than the fault of the clearly meticulous Tammet.

It is also psychologically and scientifically interesting, providing a valuable insight into child development, and Tammet admits freely that he doesn't mind being used as a guinea pig by scientists in order to discover more about the human brain. Despite the mathematical, scientific, linguistic and psychological content, however, Born on a Blue Day is still accessible; it is easy to read and this, combined with the book's various compelling qualities, mean it can be whizzed through by fast readers in a night. The book ends on a high note and a sense of accomplishment slowly becomes prevalent, while still being devoid of arrogance. This is an inspiring read while being free of the slush and soppiness that seems to plague many allegedly 'inspiring' stories, and contrary to the notion that this is a man potentially disadvantaged by autism, epilepsy and his sexual orientation, the impression is left of a man who really does have it all after all.

Other works by Daniel Tammet
Embracing The Wide Sky: A Tour Across the Horizons of the Mind (2009)

Sunday, 1 February 2009

Update: January

# of books read in January: 4
Cumulative total: 4

1. You Are Here (Bremner, Bird and Fortune)
2. Le Dossier: How To Survive The English (Sarah Long)
3. Du phonographe au MP3 (Ludovic Tournès)
4. Where Angels Fear To Tread (E. M. Forster)

currently reading: The Golden Gate (Vikram Seth)

% by male authors: 75%
% by female authors: 25%