Saturday, July 31, 2010

"Labour & sorrow & learn & forget, & return"

In my long novel The Contemporary Game, I named the patriarch who comes back to life time after time "Man who deconstructs." In this fallen, contemporary world which corresponds to Blake's real world, the body of Man who deconstructs has been separated into small pieces and is buried in the forest; in a passionate and painful dream, a young boy gathers up the pieces one by one and attempts to bring them back to life and to restore the Age to life as well but is finally unable to accomplish his task and grieves.

This post is rambling and disorganized. I didn't like this book and had a hard time thinking of what to write. I probably should've scrapped everything and started over but I had already spent too long on it and just wanted to end it already.

This month's selection for the Unstructured Reading Group was Kenzaburo Ōe's A Personal Matter (1964). Unfortunately, our local library system didn't have a copy so I had to choose another Ōe work. (Although they did have The Book Which Henceforth Shall Not Be Named in several locations!) I decided on the fictionalized memoir Rouse Up O Young Men of the New Age! (1986), about the relationship between a renown author, K, and his brain-damaged son nicknamed Eeyore. In fact, Rouse Up. . . can be thought of as the sequel to A Personal Matter. Both books are translated by John Nathan.

K has returned from an international trip to a tense family situation. His wife explains to him that nineteen-year-old Eeyore had been exhibiting violent behavior made even more threatening by his large, powerful build. When told that his father would hear of this when he got back, Eeyore shocked his mother by declaring that "Papa is dead!" It occurs to K that Eeyore lacks a definition of death, as he has never had it explained to him in a comprehensible manner. With Eeyore's limited capacity in mind, K had long intended to write a book of definitions that would be accessible to handicapped children. But in attempting to start the project, K found that he could never grasp the easily evocative language that such an undertaking would require, and that furthermore, such a thing would be ultimately subjective anyway. Rouse Up. . . can be thought of as a book of definitions for K/Ōe himself. It is a non-linear collection of seven loosely-connected chapters that detail a father's attempt to accept his disabled son and understand their relationship. The language K chooses for himself is the poetry of William Blake; hence the title, which comes from Milton.

Blake's poetry had been a profound influence on K since college, when he inadvertently stumbled across the following lines from The Four Zoas:
That Man should Labour & sorrow & learn & forget, & return
To the dark valley whence he came to begin his labours anew.
Having grown up in a valley which he left as a young man, K often pondered how these verses could be applied to his own life. From this starting point, he gradually builds up a perception of human bonds based on Blake's "tree of life." Similar to Emerson's Over-soul, K perceives each individual human as a fragment detached from the World of Eternity and fallen to the mortal realm for a brief physical existence. Kathleen Raine, a Blake scholar K reads, calls this "divine humanity" and links it to Blake's conception of Imagination as "Infinite & Eternal." K/Ōe refers back to another one of his novels, The Contemporary Game, and his use of the metaphor of The man who deconstructs, "a corpse dismembered but still pristine, undecayed" (which also has overtones of Osiris, Dionysus, and Orpheus). The attempt to reassemble the scattered body is an attempt to touch eternity by bringing together what belongs together.

Entering into old age after a lifetime with a disabled son, K moves ever closer to that transcendental unification in the immortal plane from which we all came. Eeyore will be there as well and their relationship will be renewed.

That's Rouse Up. . . in a nutshell. The bulk of K/Ōe's metaphysical ruminations occur in the last chapter which shares its title with the boo and is intended as an intellectual climax to twenty years of struggle, hardship, success, and setbacks. Though marketed as fiction, Rouse Up. . . probably fits better in the memoir genre. Names are either unchanged or shortened to a single letter and every event in K's life comes from Ōe's life. K's other novels are Ōe's other novels. "The first time I quoted Blake was in a novel I wrote just after Eeyore was born with a handicap and which I based on my actual experience at the time, A Personal Matter," he says at one point.
From the so-called Proverbs of Hell in The Marriage of Heaven and Hell, I took the line, "Sooner murder an infant in its cradle than nurse unacted desires. . . ." The fact that I replaced the period that belongs at the end with an ellipses, as if I were abbreviating a passage that followed, suggests to me that I had not actually read The Marriage of Heaven and Hell. Moreover, in translating the line, shifting responsibility to the young woman in the novel by having the translation come from her, I rendered it appropriate to my story. "Better kill the infant in its cradle! Rather than ending up nursing unacted desires. . . ."

Looking back from my more comprehensive vantage of Blake's work today, I understand that unrealized desires represented a mode of living that Blake condemned violently, and that his emphasis was accordingly on the second half of the line. Clearly I should have rendered it as an impassioned appeal: "Compared to nurturing unrealized desires, even murdering an infant in its cradle is the lesser evil." There is no question that my translation is incorrect; what is unclear to me all these years later is whether I twisted Blake to meet the requirements of a scene in my novel, giving the line to the young woman in the story, or whether the experience of the birth of a son with brain damage was controlling my reading of the line.
Emily's post on A Personal Matter discusses the violent, forbidden fantasies indulged in by main character Bird, which also include killing his mistress and then raping her body. This motif of repressed rage continues in Rouse Up. . ., usually in response to some cruelty directed at Eeyore, such as the time he was kidnapped by a radical who hated K/Ōe's politics, and then abandoned at a distant railroad station. The radical in question had previously accused K/Ōe of being too stuck on his disabled son to contribute anything meaningful to political discourse, a position which, despite his anger, K/Ōe nevertheless admits to finding some truth in. Japan's atmosphere of alienation and disillusionment, as depicted in A Personal Matter as a response to the loss of World War II and the subsequent bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, has evolved into K/Ōe's preoccupation with anti-nuclear proliferation.

(The mistress A Personal Matter, it is later revealed in Rouse Up. . . is actually a Korean-Japanese woman nicknamed Ki-ko, with whom K/Ōe continues to have a contentious but platonic relationship. Of their past, K/Ōe recalls that sex with her always felt "incestuous," as though she was his sister, which unleashed something "grotesque" in him "that resembled, in the poet Homei's words, 'a desperate savageness.'" When Ki-ko wonders aloud what K/Ōe will do when Eeyore "goes must," he comes close to violence yet again.)

Rouse Up O Young Men of the New Age! is the first Ōe book I've read and quite frankly, I'm not sure if I'll be reading Ōe again for some time. It was mentioned somewhere that Japanese literature tends to blur fiction and memoir/autobiography more than we're usually comfortable with in the West but I don't think that had much to do with it. I think my mostly negative reaction was a combination of little interest in the subject matter and a dislike of Ōe's prose (or Nathan's translation thereof), which felt awkward and convoluted and seemed to lack any aesthetic value. The publisher's copy describes K as "a highly cerebral man who often retreats from real life into abstraction," and I think therein lays the problem. The prose is . . . left-brained, more like Ōe was writing an academic article than a story. The aspects dealing with Blake and metaphysics were certainly interesting and I got a lot out those parts but unfortunately, that still doesn't make up for the rest.

Kenzaburo Ōe's A Personal Matter (for which I substituted Rouse Up O Young Men of the New Age!) was our Unstructured Group Read for the month of July. Please feel free to join us at any time! You can find a complete book list here.

Other July participants include:


Past selections:

March: Tennessee Williams, The Night of the Iguana
April: Georges Perec, Life: A User's Manual
May: Margo Lanagan, Tender Morsels
June: Gabriel Josipovici, Moo Pak


Richard said...

Even though Claire and Emily raved about Oë titles, E.L. Fay, your post here and my own experience with A Personal Matter leave me with little interest in reading anything else by him. He strikes me as the type of author who's trying too hard to make a splash with his writing rather than just delivering the goods. Bah!

Richard said...

Oops: That should read "other Oë titles" above (my bad).

Iris on Books said...

I haven't read this. In the end I felt I didn't feel like I wasted my time on A Personal Matter. It was challenging to read, for me, and if I hadn't committed to joining the discussion I might have abandoned it halfway, but I'm glad I didn't. However, like you, I don't think I will pick up anything else by Oe anytime soon.

E. L. Fay said...

Richard: For me, it wasn't that his prose was overwrought or overwritten. It was just so . . . non-engaging. Too stiff and awkward.

Iris: I probably wouldn't have finished Rouse Up. . . either if it wasn't for the book club.

Emily said...

From what Claire says, I think the prose here is probably closer to the other Oe book I've read, A Quiet Life than to A Personal Matter - Oe's "later style," I suppose. I agree that it's left-brained, but I really liked it (at least in A Quiet Life) - it resonated with me in a way that Rouse Up... doesn't seem to have done for you. Part of that, though, is probably due to the substitution of Oe's daughter for himself as narrator. I genuinely loved her & felt so tender towards her, and the Oe/Bird character was removed to a cypher in the background. Rouse Up does sound even more abstract than A Quiet Life, but I'm still kind of intrigued!

E. L. Fay said...

. . . but I'm still kind of intrigued!

*sigh* Well, good luck then. It'll be interesting to hear from someone who may actually like it.

Amy said...

I'm thinking I'm going to skip this one. ;-)

claire said...

As you already know, I really loved this. It's so interesting how differently we react to certain books. Like, the whole time I was reading your review, I was agreeing to all the descriptions of the book you mention, but in a positive way. You disliked those aspects of it, and those were the reasons I loved it.

I get why you would think Japanese writing convoluted. But it just feels natural to me. A lot of Japanese writing feels like this when translated to English. I like the simplicity of it, in fact.

P.S. By the way, I cannot comment here using my WordPress id. Weird.

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