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‘Days & Nights: Stories of classic Japanese women’s literature’ by Hayashi Fumiko

Japanese literature, and especially by female authors, has certainly been on the rise these past few years, with authors like Yoshimoto Banana (Kitchen), Kawakami Mieko (Breasts and Eggs, Heaven), Ogawa Yoko (The Memory Police), and Murata Sayaka (Convenience Store Woman, Earthlings) to name just a few, becoming more widely popular. While I’ve read and loved the work of these contemporary authors, I’ve always felt there was a lack of slightly older, more classic female Japanese authors being published in English.

Luckily, there are still some books that can start to satisfy my appetite for more obscure (in English at least) and classic Japanese literature by women, and today’s book, Days & Nights by Hayashi Fumiko and translated by J.D. Wisgo is one such example.

Hayashi Fumiko was born in Japan in 1903, published widely and prolifically throughout her life and is considered one of the most important female writers of 20th century Japan. My first contact with Hayashi’s work was through her story ‘The Accordion and the Fish Town’ (tr. Janice Brown) which is included in The Oxford Book of Japanese Short Stories, edited by Theodore W. Goossen, and I’ve been very curious to read more of her work since.

Days & Nights is a collection of 9 short stories, perfect for those who wish to become acquainted with the author’s work. As the translator very aptly mentions in his introduction, the title, ” “Days and Nights” […] alludes to a theme running through many of these works: long term human relationships than span across months, if not years. Often, those whom we spend our days and nights with we would consider family, at least in some form” (p. ii). Indeed, Hayashi’s stories are largely about human relationships and their complex nature, about characters who are flawed human beings and make questionable choices, and about 20th century Japan in all its dreary glory.

A bleak atmosphere permeates most of the stories, as the author perfectly captures the precarious living conditions after the war and the urban working-class life of the time. The second story of the collection, ‘Downfall‘, is definitely the most somber and harrowing one, describing a man’s life right after the war, having lost everything and trying to go through life – it left me with a very heavy feeling on my chest and I am truly amazed at how deftly Hayashi describes these unfortunate moments of one’s life. War and poverty have affected the country as well as its inhabitants, and that is reflected on Hayashi’s characters as they seem to go through life as “in a daze” (p. 85), with “each day [being] like a terrible hangover” (p.20).

Hayashi doesn’t shy away from tackling even feminist themes and sensitive topics or from creating characters that are rife with flaws – illegitimate children, women in extramarital affairs and men that seek a second chance after life has dealt heavy blows on them are only some of the themes and characters that populate Hayashi’s stories.

The author also very skillfully manages to insert musings on life in her stories, such as the following passage from ‘The Tryst‘, a story about a woman who ran away with her lover and is now pregnant with his child, which illuminates the dark side of humans:

“I think that upon seeing a person’s downfall, what can be considered thoughtless misconduct, a surprising number of us would secretly harbor feelings of spiteful delight. For I have seen countless people watching someone suffering in a pit of despair and yet make no effort to toss them a lifeline, only criticize as they please…” (p. 80)

Quite often, the characters in Hayashi’s stories have a deep-rooted desire to escape, to run away and start building a life much better than the one they can imagine themselves in staying at the town or country that they are. ‘Employment‘ is a story about youth and this often inexplicable yearning to get away and make a better life abroad. Unfortunately, not everyone is able to make such a step, and those who are left behind can still harbour sour feelings of disappointment and abandonment. Hayashi manages to express all these complicated feelings so eloquently.

“It wasn’t simply the capriciousness of youth – there was some great surge of emotion compelling his young heart. Rather than stay here in the tiny country that was Japan, clinging to a small chair, he yearned to travel to a distant land and work to his heart’s content.” (p. 60)

Youth is often juxtaposed with old age, as some of the characters in the stories, such as ‘The Master of the Wanderer’s Tavern‘, the very first story in the book, are not at their prime yet they still want to make a fresh start and live the rest of their lives in a satisfactory manner (whether they achieve this or not, though, is something to discover while reading the stories). A quote from this story that particularly struck me is the following about the urgent manner things seem to get as one gets older:

“Young people, brimming with self-confidence, haven’t the slightest fear of unfinished business, but once you reach age fifty the unfinished becomes the ultimate source of anxiety, a vacuum bereft of even the slightest value.” (p. 1)

Overall, there is not a single story in this collection I didn’t like, although I did have my favourites of course (‘The Tale of the Seishukan Guest House‘ was my favourite one, as it combined humour, wit and the follies of youth in equal measure). Some stories might be darker than others, but I believe they all perfectly capture the uncertainty and at times dreariness of 20th century Japan. Hayashi’s writing is a real treat and the translation manages to convey the author’s talent quite successfully, too.

I would definitely recommend trying out Hayashi Fumiko’s works if you’re interested in more classic female authors from Japan, or if you simply enjoy reading about the 20th century in your literature. This particular edition also features some notes about the currencies of the time and some details about Hayashi’s life which might prove very illuminating, especially if you’re not very well acquainted with Japanese culture at the time.

Have you read Hayashi Fumiko or any other classic Japanese female writers? I’d love to hear your thoughts and/or recommendations! ūüôā

A copy of this book was very kindly provided to me by the publisher, Arigatai Books.

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Women on the Page: Then, Now, and Next

I often find blogging inspiration at unlikely times. ¬†The idea for this post – Women on the Page – came when I was researching Virginia Woolf’s essays for my dissertation, and stumbled across the aforementioned pages on the Penguin website. ¬†I thought that I would take the opportunity to note down the books suggested (all Penguin publications, it goes without saying), and then ask your fine selves which books by women would make¬†your¬†lists of Then, Now, and Next.

Then:¬†exploring and rediscovering the classics from some of our most revered, erstwhile scribes…

  • Orlando¬†by Virginia Woolf
  • A Pair of Silk Stockings by Kate Chopin¬†cover-jpg-rendition-242-374
  • The Garden Party and Other Stories¬†by Katherine Mansfield
  • Collected Stories¬†by Clarice Lispector
  • Memoirs of Hadrian¬†by Marguerite Youcenar
  • The Collected Dorothy Parker
  • Frankenstein¬†by¬†Mary Shelley
  • Northanger Abbey¬†by Jane Austen
  • Goblin Market¬†by Christina Rossetti
  • Tove Jansson: Work and Love¬†by Tuula Karjalainen
  • On Photography¬†by Susan Sontag
  • The Life of Charlotte Bronte¬†by Elizabeth Gaskell
  • Love in a Cold Climate¬†by Nancy Mitford
  • French Provincial Cooking¬†by Elizabeth David
  • A Vindication of the Rights of Woman¬†by Mary Wollstonecraft
  • Heroes and Villains¬†by Angela Carter

 

Now:¬†from modern classics to contemporary favourites, explore some of the most inspiring female writers around…

  • cover-jpg-rendition-242-3741How to be both¬†by Ali Smith
  • Is Shame Necessary?¬†by Jennifer Jacquet
  • Women in Clothes¬†by Sheila Heti, et al.
  • The Unloved¬†by Deborah Levy
  • The End of the Story¬†by Lydia Davis
  • This Changes Everything¬†by Naomi Klein
  • Various Pets Alive and Dead¬†by Marina Lewycka
  • Swimming Studies¬†by Leanne Shapton
  • Age Sex Location¬†by Melissa Pimentel
  • The Embassy of Cambodia¬†by Zadie Smith
  • Hour of the Star¬†by Clarice Lispector
  • The Stone Gods¬†by Jeanette Winterson
  • Looking Glass Girl¬†by Cathy Cassidy
  • The Woman Who Stole My Life¬†by Marian Keyes

 

Next:¬†looking to the next generation of fantastic, pen-wielding women…

  • Our Endless Numbered Days¬†by Claire Fuller¬†cover-jpg-rendition-242-3742
  • Elizabeth is Missing¬†by Emma Healey
  • Made in India¬†by Meera Sodha
  • Man at the Helm¬†by Nina Stibbe
  • Etta and Otto and Russell and James¬†by Emma Hooper
  • Gretel and the Dark¬†by Eliza Granville
  • Half Wild¬†by Sally Green
  • Half Bad¬†by Sally Green
  • Gods and Kings¬†by Dana Thomas
  • Thrown¬†by Kerry Howley

 

 

Which of these have you read, and which would you recommend?  Which books by women would make your lists?

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Three Recommendations

I have not had much time to read of late, and my blogging time has been close to zero hours per week; not ideal, but as I am sure you’ll understand, I need to prioritise my studies. ¬†That said, I thought I would take the opportunity to recommend three standout books which I have very much enjoyed reading over the last couple of months.

1. Nightwood by Djuna Barnes (1936; one of the first novels to portray homosexuality) 9780571235285
– ‘A masterpiece of modernism’ (The Washington Post Book World)
– ‘To have been madly and disastrously in love is a kind of glory that can only be made intelligible in a sublime poetry‚Äēthe revelatory and layered poetry of Djuna Barnes’s masterpiece,¬†Nightwood.’ (Dorothy Allison, author of Bastard Out of Carolina)

Nightwood is not only a classic of modernist literature, but was also acknowledged by T. S. Eliot as one of the great novels of the 20th century. Eliot admired Djuna Barnes’ rich, evocative language. Barnes told a friend that Nightwood was written with her own blood ‘while it was still running.’ That flowing wound was the breakup of an eight-year relationship with the love of her life. Now recognised as a twentieth-century classic, the influence of Djuna Barnes’s novel has been, and continues to be, exceptional.’

2. Passing by Nella Larsen
9780486437132
– ‘Absolutely absorbing, fascinating, and indispensable’¬†(Alice Walker)
– ‘A work so fine, sensitive, and distinguished that it rises above race categories and becomes that rare object, a good novel’ (The Saturday Review of Literature)

‘Married to a successful physician and prominently ensconced in Harlem’s vibrant society of the 1920s, Irene Redfield leads a charmed existence-until she is shaken out of it by a chance encounter with a childhood friend who has been “passing for white.” An important figure in the Harlem Renaissance, Nella Larsen was the first African-American woman to be awarded a Guggenheim fellowship. Her fictional portraits of women seeking their identities through a fog of racial confusion were informed by her own Danish-West Indian parentage, and “Passing” offers fascinating psychological insights into issues of race and gender.’

3. Herland by Charlotte Perkins Gilman
9780486404295

‘In “Herland, ” a vision of a feminist utopia, Gilman employs humor to engaging effect in a story about three male explorers who stumble upon an all-female society isolated somewhere in South America. Noting the advanced state of the civilization they’ve encountered, the visitors set out to find some males, assuming that since the country is so civilized, “there must be men.” A delightful fantasy, the story enables Gilman to articulate her then-unconventional views of male-female roles and capabilities, motherhood, individuality, privacy, the sense of community, sexuality, and many other topics. Decades ahead of her time in evolving a humanistic, feminist perspective, Gilman has been rediscovered and warmly embraced by contemporary feminists.’

 

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