Sunday, May 21, 2006

Yukio Mishima - 'The Temple of Dawn'

I had trouble getting through this. Why, it's hard to say. It could be a bad book; I might just have taken too long to read it (I started it not long after finishing its predecessor 'Runaway Horses', a month ago); it might be the translation. Whatever the cause, from the moment I went back to it after the John Peel book I just wanted it to be over, to get on to the next thing.

'Runaway Horses' contained a text-within-a-text, 'The League of the Divine Wind' ('divine wind' being the translation of 'kamikaze'), which gave Isao the inspiration to form his little group of terrorists. It told of a doomed attack by a previous generation's idealists upon the Imperial forces, armed only with swords (the use of guns was something they were protesting against). The survivors all committed seppuku, a form of ritual suicide whereby the stomach is slashed open and a dagger thrust into the throat. After the first few suicides, this got pretty tedious to read about, like an 'a begat b begat c begat d' passage from the Bible. All very interesting to someone looking for a cause, doubtless, but it made for poor literature. It was over soon enough, though, and the rest of the book was bloody great (see below).

'The Temple of Dawn' spends quite a lot of its time investigating the theology / 'history' of reincarnation, or samsara. This is just as boring as the list of suicides, a good deal less comprehensible, and takes up a far larger portion of the novel. I got so fed up with this strand of the 'story' (it's really outside the story, research for a novel rather than something which should be inserted into it whole) that the rest of it lost much of its interest. From what I can remember though, it goes something like this.

It's 1940, eight years after Isao's death. Honda has become a prosperous lawyer, and on a business trip to Thailand visits Princess Chantrapa (or 'Moonlight'), the eight year old daughter of Prince Pattanadid, named after 'a fiancée who died long ago' (p. 33). This last is recounted in 'Spring Snow': Pattanadid receives the news whilst staying with Kiyoake Matsugae. He also loses an emerald ring on this trip which turns up again here. Princess Moonlight is, appropriately, a loon, who constantly babbles nonsense to her elderly carers. To Honda, she babbles:

Mr Honda! Mr Honda! How I've missed you! You were so kind, and yet I killed myself without telling you anything. I have been waiting for this meeting to apologise to you for more than seven years. (p. 40)
Honda, once the commotion has died down, puts two questions to the Princess, one relating to Isao, the other to Kiyoake: she gets both right without stopping to think. Peculiarly, for one so easily convinced that Isao was Kiyoake reborn, Honda (in the face of such incontrovertible evidence) spends most of the rest of the book trying to work out whether the Princess (later Ying Chan) is really the reincarnated Isao. The proof of this rests on the presence or otherwise of the three moles which appeared identically on the sides of Kiyoake and Isao. So he spends his time trying to see her nude, and even goes to the extent of building a swimming pool in his garden for the purpose.

This interest in Ying Chan's body is far from innocent. Meeting her again when she's nineteen, Honda becomes besotted, and rather hopes she isn't Isao so that he can... sleep with her? It's never really clear that this is what he wants. Indeed, in a reversal of the usual dictum that one most wants what one can't have, he actively wants her to be unattainable in order that he can remain besotted. This is the youthful infatuation he never had as a youth, unlike his more headstrong, more glamorous friend Kiyoake. He is remarkably self aware about this:

Falling in love was a special privilege given to someone whose external, sensuous charm and internal ignorance, disorganisation, and lack of cognizance permitted him to form a kind of fantasy about others. (p. 261)
And so Honda (though he knows he is doing it) cultivates disorganisation, forgets respectability. He becomes a peeping tom, sneaking off to a wood at night where young lovers kiss against trees and get it on amongst the pine needles. He has his villa built with single thickness walls (even though this means there can be no proper heating) in order that he can use peep holes to spy on guests at night. Unforgivably, he gets the nephew of his neighbour, the pretentious and spoiled Katsumi, to attempt to seduce (rape?) Ying Chan while he looks on from the next room, but he botches it, being not nearly so experienced as he pretends, and she sends him packing with a cut cheek from the emerald ring which Honda has tracked down and given to her.

Ying Chan herself is never a character in the way that Kiyoake and Isao were: she is the mere object of Honda's interest, and only appears infrequently and unpredictably. She has no mission, as Isao did, and as for Kiyoake's passion and contrariness... perhaps she does share these, but we see them at far more of a distance, and by the end of the book we have learned more about the shape of her body than the bent of her mind. After that outburst as an eight year old, she barely speaks (at least, her speech is barely recorded).

By the end, it is unclear what has been achieved, what the story arc has been driving at. In 'Spring Snow', Kiyoake achieves a surrender to his passion, at the cost of his life, preserving the infatuation of youth in aspic. Similarly in 'Runaway Horses' Isao demonstrates his purity and ensures that it can never be sullied by killing himself (though 'The Temple of Dawn' suggests that his penultimate act and his supposed crowning glory was, like Katsumi's cack handed conquest, botched). Shortly before the fire that ends the book, Honda sits with his wife Rié, who has caught him peeking at Ying Chan and Keiko going at it hammer and tongs in the spare room, and they both feel peace for the first time in a long time. Rié because she no longer has to worry about an affair between Honda and Ying Chan, and Honda because he has at last spotted the three moles on Ying Chan's side. This proves that she is Isao reborn, that Honda is still part of a narrative beyond his control and that he doesn't, after all, have to enter into history on his own behalf.

(Quotations from E. Dale Saunders and Cecilia Segawa Seigle's 1973 translation, Vintage International 1990)

Saturday, May 13, 2006

John Peel and Sheila Ravenscroft - 'Margrave of the Marshes'

The day John Peel died, I was sitting in a small office in Duncan of Jordanstone art college, temporarily given over to the demonstration of my M.Sc. project. A slow trickle of students and lecturers came to see this and other students' work (my favourite was an exercise bike hooked up to video clips filmed in Paris, on a genuine cycling trip and in a lift, in which the playback speed altered as you pedalled faster and slower, and the scene changed if you pedalled backwards), and in the time between demos I looked hopefully at job websites, eventually ending up on The Guardian's site, to be confronted with the news. 'John Peel dies'. Oh my God. Earlier this week, discussing Grant McLennan's untimely death, a friend said he was 'not as upset as when Joey Ramone died. That's my benchmark.' I think perhaps John Peel may be mine. Not, shamefully, from a dedication to his Radio 1 show, but from a more nebulous sense that he loved music and was fighting the good fight, a national treasure, an institution as permanent as the BBC, or The Fall. (Who I've also neglected to listen to for long periods, but a recent re-awakening of interest was stirred by the 'Complete Peel Sessions' box, which is more or less the most exciting record in rock). I did listen to 'Home Truths' though (don't any more - how dare they continue it?), and he was the warmest, most down to earth of broadcasters. You felt as though you knew him, that his silliness was the wisest possible position to take. His death felt more akin to losing a family member (an uncle, obviously) than that of any other celebrity I can think of. He was loved, I suppose, is what it amounts to.

Peel's half-finished autobiography (completed by Sheila), is a rather wonderful memorial. There can't be many people reading it who aren't intimately familiar with his latter day persona, the all round good bloke who kept his finger on the pulse of pop music practically from the time it was invented. And how strange an achievement this is: to be identified with era after era (they come around quickly in pop), when most get stuck in the first which brings them recognition. Little of this is recounted by John himself: though the narrative isn't strictly linear, by and large it's true to say that he stops at some stage in his seven year American sojourn of the '60s (Shelia notes wryly that he stops just outside a brothel - a proper cliff hanger). Sheila gets to tell of the years at Radio 1, the home life, the unpromising beginnings to their relationship (he picked her up at 5 PM for their first date, swung by the doctor's on the way, got diagnosed with jaundice, and insisted she accompany him home to play nursemaid). There are great friendships with the Bolans (which T-Rex's massive success did for), the Walters and The Faces, of which the dinner parties with the Walters are particularly amusing: they'd have themed evenings on a Saturday, the theme depending upon the film shown that evening on TV. E.g. cranking up the heating and turning off the water the night 'Ice Cold in Alex' was on, to simulate a desert. 'For "The Three Musketeers", an assortment of vegetables and baked potatoes were skewered on to a fencing rapier' (p. 250), and so on. Sheila's half of the book is less event-packed than the first - understandably, as they settle down to raise a family, and John gets on with playing records, records and yet more records. It struck me how much more endearing this was than a biography I read last year, Robert McCrum's 'Wodehouse', in which the subject, similarly, is of a shy temperament and simply gets on with his job for the bulk of the time. Always another radio show, always another novel. Peel, despite the shyness, was far more about real-life contentedness than Wodehouse, and although Sheila points out how unrealistic his expectations were of what fatherhood would actually be like (he could get terribly upset if a child wasn't affectionate enough), his life in the country with her was a manifestation of strongly held beliefs in the value of family, company, home, people, being nice. Simple things.

Peel's own reminiscences cover far more ground, though fewer years. He does badly at school, sees the threat of not going to university if he doesn't raise his game as more of an opportunity than a reason to apply himself. He defines his trajectory in terms of failure: to go to university; to become an officer whilst on national service (almost unheard of for a public school boy, he maintains); to adequately deflect his father's intent to deport him to America to get ahead in the cotton trade; to disabuse 'geographically challenged' Americans of the idea that because he came from Liverpool he must therefore know The Beatles. Of course this is disingenuous, but it makes sense too. Once he'd fallen through the first three safety nets, he was free to pursue his love for records, and the radio stations were there (thanks in part to the records he had, and in part to the Beatles thing) to pick him up. If he'd been a competent scholar, soldier or cotton trader this couldn't have happened. My favourite instance of Peel being a crap soldier is when he marches a troop through a flower bed - he thought it was this which marked him out as not being officer material. Once out of the army, it's off to Dallas and cotton, and a JFK drive-by in 1960 in which the presidential candidate chats at surprising length to Peel and poses for some pictures. He discovers sex, and has lots of it with Beatlemaniacs before making a disastrous choice of wife, but now I'm skipping ahead again to Sheila's section. By the end of John's, he's ready to hit the world: young, single, sexually liberated and with a burning passion for Elvis and Gene Vincent. The rest was, it's hard not to believe, inevitable.

Thursday, May 11, 2006

The Rev. W. Awdry - 'The Railway Series'

There is undeniably a fascination in re-reading books from childhood. Remembering who you were before you made the decisions or non-decisions which took you away from the person who originally read them, got you where you are today. It's a way, too, of stretching across time, as far as it is possible to stretch within the frame of direct experience. A photo can show what things looked like in 1982 (or whenever you were first able to read), but it fails to jog the memory in quite the same way as reading the same words and looking at the same pictures 24 years later. Doing this can also, of course, demonstrate how unreliable direct experience can be.

As a young boy (Six? Seven?) I used to read Thomas the Tank Engine stories, in common with most young boys of my and preceding generations (and succeeding generations? An awful lot of them are out of print now). I didn't have anywhere near all of them, but the four or five books I did have provided the requisite doses of comfort and excitement, and I was fond of them. Confronted recently with a stream of spin-off toys from the TV series which S. has been buying for a nephew and a godson, I wanted to see the books again, if only to reclaim the characters from the tiny tot day glo version which incorporates helicopters and doesn't in the least reflect the muted colours and self-effacing stories of the books I remember. 'Self-effacing' is wrong, since they are neither autobiographical nor first-person, but... modest, moral tales in which mischievous engines get their comeuppance.

I bought the modern edition of 'The Three Railway Engines', blanching slightly at the bright orange cover, and was surprised at how different it seemed from its former self. The stories so short, the writing so big! As for the pictures, they were scruffy and clumsy, not at all the precise depictions of twenty-four years ago. Yet they were certainly the same pictures: Henry's face, half hidden behind the wall built to keep him in the tunnel from which he'd refused to emerge whilst it was raining (not one of the series' most plausible plots), has its eyebrows raised in consternation as before. I subsequently found that this edition does the pictures a disservice by enlarging cropped sections and missing out the rest, so of course they appear less detailed.

Coming across some more of the books in a Shelter shop (laid out right across the window, as though to make sure I didn't miss them), I suffered the further disappointment that Douglas and Donald, the twin engines and old favourites of mine, actually have pretty awful Scottish accents. 'Ye wadnae be makkin' fun o' uz wad ye noo?' and the like. The illustrations here (by John T. Kenney) were a vast improvement though: beautifully muted blacks, greys and greens, and the clean lines I remembered.

Apart from 'The Twin Engines' and 'Gordon the Big Engine', most of the books in the display were unfamiliar to me, so I picked them out according to how pretty their covers were. It wasn't until I'd left the shop that I noticed that the three books thus chosen were all late on in the series, and all illustrated by Gunvor and Peter Edwards. These represented a departure from Kenney's almost photographic paintings, a general livening-up, a move from oils to watercolours, and from the 19th Century to the 20th. The stories take place across a rich landscape which has little in common with the idyllic but dull green fields of earlier volumes such as 'Toby the Tram Engine' (my other old favourite, alongside 'The Twin Engines'). There are hills, streams, ploughed fields, horses and farm labourers: the countryside buzzes with activity and visual interest. Toby himself re-appears in 'Tramway Engines', and is far more of a physical presence than previously. He's almost burly. As with the TV series, these illustrations are a move away from the modesty of the earlier books - although the stories continue to revolve around upstarts and the pricking of pride - but the move is in a more interesting direction, at least from an adult's perspective.

Tuesday, May 09, 2006

Allen Ruppersberg - 'One of Many - Origins and Variants' (exhibition, Dundee Contemporary Arts, until 28th May)

This isn't a book, or it's not just a book. There are lots of books here, stacked as though in a shop, with more copies under the tables. There's a complete photographic recreation of a study, lined with book cases stuffed to bursting point. There are high brow books and fifty cent thrillers (the latter in wire carousels, as though on sale). There are film canisters and box files, LPs and posters. There's a PowerBook box, and in the centre, for real, is a trestle table, on which stands a five foot long set of matching red hardback books. The 360° panorama overlaps itself many times, and in one corner there are three or four instances of the place on the shelf where Proust rests, in three proud volumes, a small disk on the ledge in front which reads 'the best of all possible worlds'*. Another room has a whole wall filled with small neon posters, mostly containing parts of a phonetic transcription of Allen Ginsberg's 'Howl', others have the kinds of ads such posters normally carry ('FATHERS DO YOU WANT... CHILD CUSTODY ● DIVORCE ● VISITATION ● (323) 2968816' or 'TREE SERVICE 310 930 1540'). The yellows, reds, greens stretch up almost as far as you can see, and are complemented by a black and white tiled floor, which on closer inspection spells out the life dates of several people (Robert Mitchum, Willem de Kooning, William Burroughs) who died in 1997. It hurts to read these large letters, white on black, black on white; the combined effect of floor and wall on the eyes is like stepping on to the moon.

There's a picture of this room (or one like it, in Düsseldorf) in the exhibition catalogue, but it's not as good there. It's something which relies on its scale and physical presence more than most non sculptural art. Into the main room and it gets actually sculptural, with items scattered all about, some labelled, some just there. A red stand which reads 'Donut Tree'; a concrete head; a collection of overlaid black and white items (framed posters, printed projector screens) at which I caught my second scent of a clue: copied out notes from Ezra Pound and Arthur Miller briefly apologising for having barely known Nathaniel West. 'Ah-ha!' went something in my head, '"The Day of the Locust" and "The Dream Life of Balso Snell", which was less good.' And this seems to be the intention of a lot of the pieces: to prompt a reaction in terms of the viewer's personal relationship with the books (or the types of books, or even just the presence of a lot of books) referenced. They aren't referential for the sake of it, the attitude is rather 'isn't stuff great?!' than a boastful 'I know about all this stuff which is great'. You'd think it'd be stuffy, all this bookishness, but on the contrary, it overflows with generosity and has an immediacy which is pure Pop. There are some stupid visual puns (a fish tank containing a glove with some straw in its grip, the aforementioned concrete head, from a larger - hilarious - piece entitled 'Heads Roll'), and enough uses of the artist's name to make you feel right at home. My first scent of a clue was from 'Where's Al?', a large mounted board containing lots of holiday snaps in rows, interspersed with typed cards on which the people in the photos ruminate on where Al might have got to. Al doesn't appear from start to finish, for the simple reason that he's taking the photos. There's more than just the joke at work here though: a person is defined by the things (the people, the books) around him.

The idea of a collection of books conferring an identity on a person (or a generation) is made most explicit with 'Siste Viator (Stop Traveller)', a 'pre war wooden workman's trailer' filled with books which were likely to have been read by the Polish, Dutch, British and German soldiers who died at the battle of Arnhem. It amounts to a shrine, an act of remembrance, for the dead men as defined by the best seller lists in the years when they would have been active readers. 'Ah-ha' I thought again, 'My grandpa fought at the battle of Arnhem. He was taken prisoner there. He later escaped and was shot in the leg, and put up with the boredom of hiding out in a barn by reading a copy of "Bleak House" which had been ripped in half, so that two of the fugitives could read it at once.' There was no 'Bleak House' in the hut that I could see. There was a poster for the movie of the battle, 'A Bridge Too Far', and I wondered about that, because from what I've seen of it (not the whole thing, admittedly) it seemed an uninteresting blockbuster, too star-studded by half.

For the following week I was ensconced in the exhibition catalogue, trying to figure this man out. I knew I had a new hero on my hands. Art doesn't usually do this to me, especially not conceptual art. Wolfgang Zumdick's essay puts it well:

...a new poetry that could consist of anything that represents the world: from the banal to the sublime, the terrible to the admirable, from the everyday to the unique, in short, from everything that represents the world and any material that one might catch sight of to the left and the right of the path on our short journey though it. (Exhibition catalogue, p. 94)
On a return visit the next weekend I noticed a few things which had escaped me the first time around. A few of the smaller pieces were definitely dishes from 'Al's Café', an installation on a real street in Los Angeles where people could come and buy plates with peculiar things on them (i.e. original art) for café food prices. There was a three sided public sign of the kind which would usually hold a useful tourist map, but instead, or rather overlaid, was a decidedly unhelpful maze, on one side, and a yellow spiral on another. Ruppersberg's friendly comment on the impenetrability of the side streets of Basel, in Germany, where the sign was originally placed. Above the entrance to the exhibition, a large 'The Best of All Possible Worlds' / 'Die Beste Aller Möglichen Welten' sign from another German outside installation. A little further out, another lighted sign, declaring 'Evening Time is Reading Time'. A blind pulled halfway down it. A gentle manifesto, but none more important.

* There is an online version of 'The New Five Foot Shelf' which is well worth a browse.

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