Of Dogs and Walls by Yuko Tsushima *** (#43)
I must admit that I find Japanese fiction a little hit or miss. A lot of the stories which I have read have been a little too obscure for my taste, and even sometimes when I have enjoyed a particular plot, I find the writing, or the translation of it, rather too simplistic. Regardless, I came to the forty-third Penguin Modern with an open mind. These are described as ‘luminous, tender stories from one of Japan’s greatest twentieth-century writers, showing how childhood memories, dreams and fleeting encounters shape our lives.’
This collection is made up of two short stories, ‘The Watery Realm’, and ‘Of Dogs and Walls’. The first was published in 1982, and the second in 2014, and this is the first time in which both tales have been translated into English, by Geraldine Harcourt. ‘The Watery Realm’ begins in rather an intriguing manner: ‘It was in the middle of the summer he turned five, as I recall, that my son discovered the Western-style castle in the window of the goldfish shop in our neighbourhood.’ I found this tale engaging throughout, and the narrator and her son both felt like realistic creations. I didn’t enjoy ‘Of Dogs and Walls’ anywhere near as much, unfortunately. Whilst on the whole both stories were interesting and kept me guessing, and neither was overly obscure, I do not feel inspired to read the rest of Tsushima’s work.
Madame du Deffand and the Idiots by Javier Marias **** (#44)
Javier Marias’ Madame du Deffand and the Idiots sounded like such an interesting concept. This volume presents ‘five sparkling, irreverent brief portraits of famous literary figures (including libertines, eccentrics and rogues) from Spain’s greatest living writer’. All of these sketches are taken from Written Lives, which was published in Spain in 2009, and all have been translated by Margaret Jull Costa.
The essays here are written variously about Madame du Deffand, Vladimir Nabokov, Djuna Barnes, Oscar Wilde, and Emily Bronte. I was particularly interested to read the final three, all writers whom I adore. This is the first time which I have read Marias’ work, and I found it rather amusing and intriguing. The first essay, for instance, begins: ‘Madame du Deffand’s life was clearly far too long for someone who considered that her greatest misfortune was to have been for at all.’ On discussing the unusual names used in Djuna Barnes’ family, ‘which, in many cases, do not even give a clue as to the gender of the person bearing them’ he writes: ‘Perhaps it is understandable that, on reaching adulthood, some members of the Barnes family adopted banal nicknames like Bud or Charlie.’ All of these pieces are rather short, and quite fascinating – and sometimes enlightening – to read. Marias seems to really capture his subjects throughout, and shines a spotlight on a handful of quite unusual people. Madame du Deffand and the Idiots has certainly piqued my interest to read more of Marias’ work, and soon.