The Diary of Lady Murasaki [Lady Murasaki with introduction from Richard Bowring]

So the Tale of Genji brought me to this, I haven’t read it yet, but it’s on the list, and a diary by it’s author, Lady Murasaki – ‘an intimate picture of her life as tutor and companion to the young Empress Shoshi‘ was enough to entice me.

It’s a slim volume, and indeed in the introduction by Richard Bowring, it is general consensus that the diary as I was holding in my hands is fragments of what it was.  Which is a shame because it would have been a beautiful piece of history as a whole.  Instead we are left to mere speculation for a lot of parts, including as to why the tone changes from a journal style to that of a letter written to an intimate.

Indeed the theories for this are expounded in the thorough introduction which covers Japanese names and dates, cultural background, language and style, poetry, religious background, architecture, dress and women’s titles.
The biography of Murasaki’s life is interesting and does it’s best to patch together the little of what is known about Mursaki (her real name, for example, is not known).

The diary itself is given extensive analysis, in it’s structure, evidence of additional parts, and it’s date of composition.
All this means by the time you reach the diary itself, you are wondering just what it will contain, even after glimpses of it given as examples.  In some cases, certainly for a casual reader, you would be forgiven for wondering if it was worth it.

There is no doubt that historically the diary is crucial, but while reading it it is difficult not to get bogged down in Names, titles (I particularly liked Yorimichi’s – Commander of the Gate Guards of the Left), footnotes ( a necessity, given the word play on some of the witty poetry exchanges) and the flicking to the appendix to see the ground layouts during the different days festivities.
However, when the diary switches to that of a letter, there are some fascinating insights:

“It is very easy to criticise others but far more difficult to put one’s own principles into practice, and it is when one forgets this truth, lauds oneself to the skies, treats everyone else as worthless and generally despises others that one’s own character is clearly revealed”
(About the women in the High Priestess’s household)

The poetry is beautiful and I delighted in the sparring nature of their composition

“The sight of him, so magnificent, makes me conscious of my own dishevelled appearance, and so when he presses me for a poem, I use it as an excuse to move to where my inkstone is kept

Now I see the colour of this maiden-flower in bloom
I know how much the dew discriminates against me

‘Quick aren’t we!’ says he with a smile and asks for my brush

It is not the dew that chooses where to fall
Does not the flower choose the colour that it desires?” 

 There is a strong melancholy running through the diary that Mursaki hints at

“As day dawned, I looked outside and saw the ducks playing about on the lake as if they had not a care in the world.

Can I remain indifferent to those birds on the water?
I too am floating in a sad uncertain world.

They too looked as though they were enjoying life but must suffer greatly, I thought”

At the end of the two years covered by the diary, an important son has been born and festivities and ceremonies have been observed and documented, including details of the colours worn by the women at court and the roles played by different nobles and servents.  However it seems that a full diary would have put this into context of Murasaki’s own life, which despite being written by her hand, seems just out of reach.

Still I believe any inadequacies in the book will have been brought by myself, indeed it seems a bit silly wishing for more of the diary, when we are indeed lucky to have what we do, but perhaps it’s not something for a casual reader, or perhaps if I had a much stronger interest in Japanese history and culture I would have enjoyed it much more than I did.
It has however encouraged me to read the Tale of Genji sooner rather than later, so it looks like I will be following Murasaki’s hand once more.


Ghost Train to the Eastern Star [Paul Theroux]

“A sign on one tree said, THE KILLING TREE AGAINST WHICH EXECUTIONERS BEAT CHILDREN – and it explained that these children, the offspring of the despised privileged class of doctors, lawyers and teachers, were swung by their heels and their skulls smashed against the tree”

I looked up, into the blue sky.  Around me were families with children playing, couples strolling, tourists posing for photos in front of Tower Bridge.  The book hung from my hands, as if it had not realised it had been discarded.  It nearly was.  This was the most horrific thing I had read since a scene in Mario Vargas Llosa’s The Feast of the Goat.  Long after I have forgotten the passage, I will always remember the jolted feeling I got when I read it.

But how could I complain.  I was reading Ghost Train to the Eastern Star because I love Paul Theroux when he’s travelling.  Perhaps more so now he’s older, slightly more grouchy, but still determined to see a country from his own perspective.  Cambodia was part of that trip and Theroux is not one to shy away from peering under a country’s carpet.
Despite retracing his route from the Great Railway Bazaar there were some new countries, others that were no longer safe or possible.  His descriptions are as prosiac as they are practical and I am used to them, I draw comfort from Theroux’s monologue, from the way he reveals what he wrote in his notebook, his insistence on seeing the seedy side to each society, his revelling in the pleasure of travel for the journey itself rather than the destination.  Even now his trip is one that inspires me, and pulls me away from my longing to travel down Central and South America.

Like the railway bazaar I found myself flicking back to the front to check  the map, partly because my geography anywhere east of Greece is pretty crap, and partly to make sure I wasn’t near the end.
From his seemingly insatiable, almost childlike, interest in Turkmenbashi, his heartwarming delight at being fondly remembered in Pyin-Oo-Lwin, his unease at the skewed growth of India and it’s teeming masses that prompts him to start a story while travelling. There seems to be a level of honesty with Theroux’s travel writing, he reveals if he doesn’t like somewhere and wants to leave, and if he enjoys somewhere and starts “to consider every spot as the possible site of a house” as he quotes from Henry T.

There are a few points where he reveals to people that he is the author of the book they are reading or are selling, and their reaction.  He constantly talks to people, asking them questions,teasing information out of them that allows him to paint his own interpretation of the place.

“Travel is at its most rewarding when it ceases to be about your reaching a destination and becomes indistinguishable from living your life”

One of the highlights are Threoux’s interactions with other authors, and in Japan he meets up with Pico Iyer and Haruki Murakami.  Whilst the conversation with Murakami was a highlight, my favourite travel author and one of my current favourite authors in the same book, it is the fact that  Murakami himself is like a ghost in Japan, not recognised even in his home country that makes the passage even more intriguing.  However the couple of days that are spent with Pico are fascinating, as the two authors converse while sightseeing, before discussing other authors and opinions on their books.

The return leg is painted far more pleasantly than the original journey, indeed Theroux alludes back to his personal situation at the time as he slowly became more unhinged on the Trans Siberian Express.  This time it is a more pleasant journey, barring his stopover in Perm, where he visits the Perm 36 Gulag.  There are no vodka drinking sessions this time, only reflection brought on by the endless expanse of snow and note taking and story writing in his plush train compartment.

The narrative takes us right back into the Garden of England and as the last page was turned I find myself wandering if and where Theroux will go next, and if he has convinced me enough to take the great railway bazaar myself. here

Verse from the Diary of Lady Murasaki

A couple of verses from the Diary of Lady Murasaki, which I have just finished reading, and a review to follow.  I’ve included a footnote from the book.

“I was in the midst of composing a reply to a note sent by Lady Koshosho, when all of a sudden it became dark and started to rain.  As the messenger was in a hurry, I finished it off with: ‘and the sky too seems unsettled.’ I must have included a rather lame verse, for that evening the messenger returned with a poem written on dark purple cloud-patterned paper:

The skies at which I gaze and gaze are overcast;
How is it that they too rain down tears of longing?

Unable to remember what I had written, I replied:

It is the season for such rainy skies;
Clouds may break, but these watching sleeves will never dry.”

“In particular I missed Lady Dainagon, who would often talk to me as we lay close by Her Majesty in the evenings.  Had I then succumbed to life at court?
I sent her the following:

How I long for those waters on which we lay,
A longing keener than the frost on a duck’s wing, 

To which she replied:

Awakening to find no friend to brush away the frost,
The Mandarin duck longs for her mate at night.*”

*Mandarin ducks were supposed to always go around in inseparable pairs

Picasso Prints – The Vollard Suite

So it was my first members evening at the British Museum, and 3 exhibitions that I wanted to see.  I carried on up the steps, past the exhibition on the Horse, the restaurant, through the eerily quiet Mummy room and into room 90 for the evenings choice, the Picasso’s prints.

The Vollard suite contains 100 etchings produced by Picasso between 1930 and 1937.  Picasso himself did not number the etchings or suggest an order, but the have been grouped together after a fashion.  At the beginning of the exhibition there are some classical etchings, thin drawn lines in an expanse of white, such as Masked Figures and Bird Woman.
The Paris painter Roger Lacouriere introduced Picasso to sugar aquatint which introduced tonal effects into the etchings.  These are displayed beautifully in Fawn Uncovering a Sleeping Woman, where the light in the window highlights the simple, classical lines of the womans face, contrasting with that of the detailed fawn.  Based on Rembrandts Jupiter and Antiope (displayed nearby), it is one of 3 such scenes, the others being Man Uncovering Woman and Minotaur Uncovering Woman. All these scenes show a certain tenderness riding on an undercurrent of lust, or is it lust held back by tenderness?

The Sculptors studio is the most predominant theme and Reclining Sculptor Before the Small Torso is one of many  where the lines are classic and crisp and the whole evokes a tranquil contemplation, while the discreet inclusion of a vase of flowers indicates the presence of Marie-Therese Walter, Picasso’s then muse, model and mistress.  In almost all of these etchings Picasso shows the sculptor  in the style of  classical greek sculpture complete with curly beard, reminiscent of Hercules, who features in some of the etchings, his virile masculinity taunted as he reduced to a dislocated head that other sculptures rest on.

The Battle of Love theme includes the Rape series, all of which show a broad Herculean man on top of a smaller woman in differing styles, but almost all with violent curves drawn over and over again.
Marie-Therese, whose sexual exploits with Picasso possibly inspired the rape series, figures in the only etching in the collection with cubist lines – Seated Nude Woman with her head resting on her hand.

If all the ways i have been along were marked on a map, and joined up with a line, it might represent a minotaur” (Picasso)

In the Minotaur theme the sculptures,  earlier of classical nudes, metamorphose into minotaurs, firstly toasting the sculptor, before replacing him and reclining with, and caressing the models.
The etching of this time seem to soak in the emotional turmoil from Picasso’s personal life.  His affair with Marie-Therese (who was pregnant at this time) was causing the break up of his marriage to Olga Khokhlova, while he had started gaining interest in another woman.  Minotaur Attacking an Amazon, Wounded Minotaur and Female Bullfighter and Vanquished Minotaur, the first one shown in the public arena of a bull ring.  Dying Minotaur, again in a bull ring but where the crowd have all become Marie-Therese seems to be Picasso making his final appeal to his muse to stick with him.

The most interesting prints for me were the Blind Minotaur series, based on the Blindess of Tobit by Rembrandt in 1651.  Blind Minotaur Led by a Little Girl I features The Death of Marat crossed out in the top left corner.  At first glance I thought I could see a hint of Guernica, the lines and horses head an echo of the horrific masterpiece that Picasso would paint a few years later.

The etchings are broken up by sculptures, such as a beautiful statue of Venus, a marble group of a Nymph Escaping From a Satyr, busts of Hercules and Aphrodite of Knidos, as well as Estruscan mirrors and sketchings by Goya and Rembrandt.

But the etching that caught me on the way in and the way out was the tender Blind Minotaur Led by a Little Girl in the Night, that inspired and captivated me on so many levels, and I thought of a reworked Greek classic, Theseus finding the centre of the labyrinth to see the other sacrificed youths either dead dying of hunger, while the remaining few help a little girl tending the blind Minotaur.

After the exhibition I grabbed a bite to eat and a cold beer, before leaving with a beautiful lullaby from Kalia floating out down the steps behind me.

British Museum website with info on the Vollard Suite exhibition here

Wild Swans [Jung Chang]

So Wild Swans got a reprieve.  After failing to get passed page 416 last time, I discovered my mum had actually been reading it on her kindle, which I believe she actually loves more than anyone else in the family at the moment.

“I know you said you were going to read it on my kindle, but if you borrow it I can’t use it”

So mum bought be Wild Swans in paperback.
As I was already in the middle of Ghost Train to the Eastern Star I slotted Wild Swans into my bed time reading slot, and kept Theroux for the tube, it seemed apt.

So I carried on from where I left off, just as the horror of the cultural revolution was starting to sink in.  I can’t conceive that if this book had not been real, that someone could have made it up.

At first I thought Mao was loony, but slowly I realised he was actually quite clever, a Diabolical Genius in fact.  He controlled millions of people by constantly changing the rules and put himself above them in an almost God like status.  hmm, maybe not clever, Manipulative.  He as ably assisted my Mme Mao, who seemed to share his controlling vindictiveness, sharpened with the cunning and pettyness of an insecure woman.
As I read more the estimation fell further, he was driven, but remarkably short sighted.  Issueing orders and decrees that would either be mis-interpreted or taken to extremes that he would then have to ignore, as much as he could, the consequenses of.
His Machiavellian approach of removing anyone whose power could potentially threaten his own not only asserted his vice like grip on the country, but also kept the population constantly unbalanced, turning people from good revolutionaries one week, to capitalist roaders the next.

He also ordered the extermination of grass, which killed off my genius theory.  He was just diabolical.

“The more books you read, the more stupid you become” (Mao, June 26th 1965)

Mao’s fear and mistrust of what he didn’t know or hadn’t had was dangerous in the hands of someone with absolute power.  He tried to create a nation of peasants that would do his bidding, attacking each other as they bid to please him, while never challenging his authority.  Had he succeeded fully, it is difficult to see what his long term aim was, unless he somehow believed he would live forever, it’s hard to see what he wanted or thought would happen after his death.  In the end it was Mme Mao and the gang of four who goaded the masses into a leaving Mao’s era behind.

But to be fair concentrating on Mao would be missing the point of the book.  Jung Chang’s family are remarkable.  Her Grandmother seems to be around for hundreds of years, but barely makes it to her sixties.  Her mothers indomitable spirit is matched by her fathers rigid principles and Jung’s own realisations about how she feels about Mao, a constant in her life, despite coming slowly, offer bits of drifwood to cling to as you read, awash on a sea of incomprehension and horror.

It is while you are adrift on the waves of vindictiveness, denounciations, relentless suicides and indoctrination that kindess shown to Jung and her family are beacons of hope.  That while others will use any situation as a means to their own ends, the are still those who will retain their humanity and will stubbornly hold onto it, no matter the cost.

It is Jung’s father who perhaps travels the most in his life.  A firm believer in Mao and the party, his rigid principles push up a barrier between him and his entire family, that he himself eventually tears down as he is worn down by the Cultural Revolution, although, even though it caused him great pain, and perhaps to the credit of his character, he never fully relinquished his principles.  If her father travels the most it is Jung’s mother who is the home, the nest.  Virtually unsupported by her husband, it is her resourcefullness and Herculean strength that help the family when his principles threaten the well being or future of the children.

It is portrayed as a rarity in the book, but it is through the strong family bond that they survive as well as they do, and it was touching to read that it was Jung’s mother desire to talk about her life, that enabled Jung to write what is an incredible memoir on a closed world.