viernes, 30 de julio de 2010

A Personal Matter

A Personal Matter [Kojinteki Na Taiken] (Evergreen, 1982)
by Kenzaburo Oë [translated from the Japanese by John Nathan]
Japan, 1964

A Personal Matter is 1994 Nobel Prize winner Kenzaburo Oë's feverish exploration of a first-time father's struggle with ethics and personal responsibility when confronted with the birth of a hideously deformed baby diagnosed as unlikely to grow up "normal."  Great premise for a novel.  Laughably bad execution.  While some of the blame for the letdown probably lies in John Nathan's memorably erratic translation (no offense, but it was kind of hard not to laugh like a high school kid each time Nathan described how erected [sic] lead character Bird was when he should have just said that the character had an erection, was aroused, etc.!), Oë's definitely to blame for the lion's share of the problems here.  To be more precise, the quality of his writing didn't measure up to the quality of his themes for me.  A couple of telling examples.  Early on in the novel,  Bird meets his newborn baby and looks away in shock and disgust at the sight of the two-headed "monster" apparently born with a brain hernia.  "My son has bandages on his head and so did Apollinaire when he was wounded on the field of battle," Oë writes (24).  A remarkable image, truly powerful here, that would then lose its appeal for me after the fourth or fifth time that the novelist referred to it in quick succession.  Aside from such unnecessary repetition, A Personal Matter is also full of over the top bad writing masquerading as clever wordplay.  Bird "found himself caught in the claws of a formidable lobster of fatigue," we read at one point.  Poetic?  On its own, maybe.  But Oë follows this up in the very next paragraph with Bird's out and out loopy confession to his adulterous girlfriend: "I guess I'm scared.  I have this feeling a disgusting goblin of misfortune is waiting for me just outside" (109).  In the face of such frequent and grandiloquent howlers, I lost interest in whatever grand thematic statement Oë was trying to make and the dimestore psychology of throwaway lines like "Bird's moral mechanism had been broken since he had abandoned his baby in the hospital" (116).  "Moral mechanism"?  Really?  Even making allowances for the state of desperation that the writer might have been trying to evoke with his envelope-pushing prose and subject matter, I didn't connect at all with his tone, the monochromatic characters, or the conveniently pat ending in the last two pages of the novel that resolves everything with a nice little moralizing bow.  In other words, maybe not as full-on dopey as Tender Morsels but a huge disappointment nonetheless. 

Kenzaburo Oë

A Personal Matter was Claire's July pick for the Non-Structured Reading Group and friends.  Next month we'll be tackling another one of Frances' selections, William Carlos Williams' In the American Grain, with the discussion set to take place on Friday, 8/27.

15 comentarios:

  1. Wow, interesting! I really liked the writing. The repetition of the bandages phrase, for example, struck me as Bird's shocky brain just fixating on that particular image (it is the one thing that kind of stimulated actual grief for him over the lost/malformed baby) - it sort of reminded me of that scene at the mental hospital in 2666 that Sarah (I think) wrote about, when the speaker is obsessing on everyone's different shoes. And the weird imagery struck me as fitting, too - emphasizing how grotesquely "off" Bird perceived the world around him to be.

    I do see your point about the ending, but I processed it as more intentionally creepy (Bird just "giving in" to social pressure) than clean & pat. Too bad the book as a whole didn't work out for you, nonetheless!

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  2. YES. I couldn't stand Oe's prose/Nathan's translation of Rouse Up. . ., but for different reasons than you mentioned. To me, the language felt needlessly convoluted and I kept having to reread sentences.

    the conveniently pat ending in the last two pages of the novel that resolves everything with a nice little moralizing bow.

    The ending of Rouse Up. . . can be thought of that way too.

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  3. *Emily: I'd thought about the possibility you mention re: the Apollinaire/bandages motif while I was reading the book, but it just annoyed me after a while regardless of what Oë's real intent was. In any event, suffice it to say that there were a number of other examples of schlocky technique and/or language that got in the way of Oë and me ever hitting it off. To me, your wonderful essay on A Personal Matter gets at the novel that Oë wanted to write but didn't--which bummed me out because I was all excited about the first two chapters. Oh, well, I guess it'd be a boring world if we agreed all the time, eh? Cheers!

    *E.L. Fay: I'm really glad to have your input here because it seems like everybody else was either blown away or felt really challenged by Oë's prose. And while I look forward to your post on that other Oë title you read, I'm already ready to lump him in with Sigrid Undset in that "Nobel Prize Winner, WTF?" category regardless if you know what I mean!

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  4. Oh thank God! I put off posting thinking I would be the only one that did not care for the novel. (Not the brave "hater" you are, friend!) Had the same issues with language as you. Was absolutely annoyed coming up to the finish of the book and then the ending sealed the deal. As I mentioned at Sarah's, this could have been a full-on examination of post war alienation but waffled in parts and blew the whole thing by end. Disappointed.

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  5. The invocation of Apollinaire, and the repetition, especially the repetition, makes me wonder if something else is going on here.

    Is this actually, whatever the subject matter, a language novel? Is "erected" bad translation, or good translation of "bad" Japanese?

    The WCW fits right ino my current reading, so I plan to join in with the next book.

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  6. I'm confused.

    Is it Ōe (me, Wikipedia), Ôe (Claire), or Oë (you)?

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  7. *Frances: "Oh, thank God!" to you as well! Ha ha. I like to think of myself as more of a timorous hater [cough], but other than that, I agree with everything you said in your comment. By the way, did you get your own 10-paragraph e-mail complaint from a miffed Oë fan yet? Just kidding, not to worry! :D

    *Amateur Reader: I loved the Apollinaire reference the first time. A wonderful surprise! Not so much the subsequent times. Emily wrote a persuasive post about the link between postwar malaise and the alienation of the characters in Oë's novel, but I'm not sure that justifies the repetition for me (esp. given what I saw as other hamfisted moves by the author). On the language front, I wouldn't call this a "language novel," no. I suspect the translation is "off" in some ways (the guy uses "coition" instead of "coitus" for example), but I couldn't tell you if the often wooden dialogues are really the translator's fault rather than Oë's. The translator does mention that Oë has a difficult style to work with b/c "it treads a thin line between artful rebellion and mere unruliness." Not sure what to make of that, I'm afraid. P.S. Very happy to hear you'll be joining us for the WCW discussion!

    *E.L. Fay: I took my spelling of Oë from the paperback I used, but I know absolutely zilch about Japanese grammar/spelling/transliteration rules other than that. Maybe someone else will step in and provide an explanation for us all!

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  8. The quotes you provide to proof your point made me think about how differently I read this book compared to you. Somehow, these passages slipped by without really looking at them, now that I see them on your blog it makes me wonder why I didn't cringe at them before. There were passages that I did not care for and passages that I enjoyed, but somehow the kind of passages you quoted didn't stand out to me. They are exactly the kind of passages that I dislike though. Hm.. This comment probably makes no sense.

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  9. While I didn't have many issues with the language or writing style, I didn't particularly like the book. I hated the ending, although I'm more inclined to Emily's creepy interpretation. Loved your post though - you always come in from a different direction, and I really appreciate your thoughts here. It's hard for me to comprehend how much of an impact the translation has on the apparent "style" of the writing...

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  10. I found this a haunting book and wonderful insight into tha japanese psyche ,also how parents cope when the child is bor with a disablity ,having worked with people with a learning diablity for over 20 years I found it a real insight in to how bird accept this news and dealt with it ,all the best stu

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  11. *Iris: Your comment actually makes total sense to me because I think we all notice (or focus on) different things when we're reading depending on what kind of response the text is provoking in us overall. By the way, I should note that I did enjoy some passages in A Personal Matter--I just concentrated on the negative things because there were way more minuses than pluses for me all in all in Oë's writing. In any event, thanks for the visit and thanks again for reading along with us this month!

    *Sarah: The ending was so sudden and so preachy that it'd be hard for me to appreciate it even if I did see it more the same way as you and Emily did, but it would be nice to get a chance to ask Oë what he intended with it, wouldn't it? And thanks for the kind words about the post! It's always fun to compare notes with you and the rest of the non-structured group, and I also look forward to seeing what topics people will choose to bring to the table with a given book. Always a surprise or two somewhere!

    *Stu: I got glimpses of what I think you're talking about emotionally and psychologically, but that only made it all the more disappointing to me that Oë's writing didn't connect with me. However, it's been fun seeing what others liked and disliked about the novel for sure. Thanks for the visit and for sharing your opinion!

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  12. Wow, I'm so sorry you hated this book! While I was disappointed with it, because I really thought I'd love it (based on premise and first few pages, haha), I didn't hate it like you and Frances! I feel neither here nor there for it. Middling.

    While I didn't particularly feel anything special about the writing, it didn't bother me. I thought it was so naturally Japanese-y. It has a quality of tone that a lot of Japanese novels I've read have and was as expected.

    Overall, the book fell short of my expectations. I felt a lot of the things in it so juvenile. Maybe I don't know how to sympathise with a 20-something character any longer, lol. If I hadn't had my previous positive experience with him, I would probably not pick up anything else by him as well. But as I really loved Rouse Up (which EL hated), am very intrigued by the progression as I said in my post, because the two books are polar opposites, considering that they were written by the same person and of the same theme to boot. Fascinating to me.

    I also felt the ending so disconnected with the rest of the book. Oe's mistake was to place himself so concretely in the book that he had to resolve it with the way he resolved it in real life. He could've gone further with it if he had experimented with an ending with a road he didn't take.

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  13. *Claire: Thanks but no problem--I was glad to have the kick in the pants to read Oë even though it didn't work out in the end. And the discussions about the novel have been very interesting to me at least! Although I don't know enough about Japanese literature to question what you say about Oë's writing being typical in some way, the last Japanese novel I read (a mystery by Miyuki Miyabe) was not at all the same. I found A Personal Matter super mannered, though as I mentioned I think the translation was part of the problem. Anyway, I think what you say about Oë the writer resolving the novel's ending like he did in real life is very intriguing. At least, it would certainly explain why the ending feels so totally disconnected from the rest of the work!

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  14. As I read your (as always fascinating) review, I wondered if I'd read the same book. I guess for me, as a teacher of many children with special needs and a parent myself, I was so overcome with the theme of this book that I didn't notice the quality of the writing so clearly. The whole idea of being the parent of a special needs' child, of coping with all the trials and disappointment which one wouldn't even want to admit, just consumed me. I didn't like Bird. I didn't like the quick and pat ending thrust upon us so abruptly, but I did like thinking about the concepts.

    Perhaps I'm just a sucker for Japanese literature no matter how poorly it's translated. Or, written? ;)

    Then again, maybe not, as I abandoned Oe's novel The Changeling after the first tortuous hundred pages.

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  15. *Bellezza: Sorry for the delay in getting back to you, but thank you so much for your comment! It's hard for me to say for sure because I had such a negative reaction to Oë's writing that it would be impossible for me not to be biased about it, but I had the sense that a couple of people (i.e. not just you) responded to his theme/subject more than his writing. Other people loved his writing, though, which I'll have to chalk up to differences in tastes. Sorry to hear about your bad luck with The Changeling, though!

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