Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Summer of the Re-Read #2: The Catcher in the Rye

The Catcher in the Rye
by J.D. Salinger

You may be wondering (and I say this because I'm sort of wondering the same thing myself) why I would bother writing about a novel that most likely you have read. And honestly, I don't know. You think I plan these things as I go along? 

Enter Holden Caufield, our hapless, teenage narrator who does everything as he goes along ("What I thought I'd do was..."). Never thinking anything through, always shooting off his mouth: you know, your average, self-centered yet self-clueless teenager.

Maybe reading The Catcher in the Rye at the same age as the narrator is necessary to fully appreciate the book. At the time, although I loved the book and thought that Salinger "got it" (to my memory, at least) I didn't fully embrace Holden as an extension of me, nor did I fully relate: even I didn't want to associate myself with someone so annoying (of course, I probably was just as annoying too, and didn't realize). But still, I would be hard pressed to find anyone who read it as a teenager, like actually read it, and not skimmed through the important parts in class for major plot points (hey, I was a high school student too), and couldn't relate.

The most obvious example of Salinger's perfect distillation of teenage-ism is Caufield's inherently contradictory nature. Everything he says is taken back, or qualified, or qualified in a way that basically is a negation. The only exception, of course, being his dead brother Allie. 

Granted, death in the immediate family will fuck anyone up. So it's easy to see why Holden's behavior is a sort of worse-case scenario of a moody teenager, which I think is why even at the time I thought Holden really acted more like a little kid than a theoretical peer of mine. But looking back on him now, I can see maybe with clearer eyes that in essence, I really was a Holden, because I was a teenager too. 

So why did I want to read The Catcher in the Rye now? Well, for one, I saw an English copy at a Book Off while in Japan and I think it made me nostalgic and a little homesick. I also think it's interesting that it's one of the books Haruki Murakami (boy, it always comes back to him, doesn't it? I gotta institute a No-Murakami month or something) decided to re-translate it into the Japanese. But I've known that for a long time, and it wasn't until about a month ago that I knew I wanted to re-read it. Maybe I had a conversation with a friend about it. Hah, hope you enjoy my non-answer, hapless reader. I really should just delete this whole paragraph. 

Things that surprised me about the novel: The similarities between now and 1950s-America. Somewhere in our American tapestry of culture or education is this brainwashed notion that 1950s-era America was somehow more wholesome than any other era. Something about that post-war era (and the now-we-Americans-try to-ignore-it start of the Cold War) keeps propagating this notion and manifests itself in our movies and TV shows (whether as pastiche or cliche) as the squeaky-clean America. I don't know why we Americans see the 1950s as the purest slice of Americana in our history, but there it is.

And obviously this is not the case, but it was still surprising to see that even kids in the 1950s were scratching "Fuck You" in the walls of their schools or to read about the high school kids having sex (or lying about doing it) or that a 1950s 16-year old would be trying to get away with underage drinking at bars and paying for a prostitute. Obviously it's all the same and always will be, but it was weird how I too unconsciously bought this weird stereotype that pervades our national conscious.

My question to you, readers, especially the non-Americans, is your relationship to The Catcher in the Rye, if you've read it, and how relatable it is to your own teenage experience. We consider it now (despite the protests that continue even today by weirdo parents who can't honestly communicate to their kids about sex and swear words) to be a paragon of American literature, a solid member of the literary canon, so I'm curious to see what non-Americans think. 

Anyway, that's about all I have to say on the matter. It was definitely worth the re-read, and I think in another 10 or 20 years it'll be worth another re-read. And then forcing my teenage kids to read it, if the novel has somehow fallen out of favor when my kids are in high school. I wonder how relatable it will be to my kids then, considering how different we can assume our culture will be in another 25 years.

[Next up on Summer of the Re-Read: F. Scott Fitzgerald's The Great Gatsby. Another indisputable (and deservedly so) member of the American literary canon.]

Friday, July 23, 2010

The Kurodahan Press Translation Prize

Fellow translators,

I direct you here, information on the Kurodahan Press Translation Prize.

I was interested in doing it last year, but I was too lazy. This year I'm definitely giving it a go. It's only 1700 characters (which, in an average paperback, assuming the page was a solid block of text, would be less than 3 pages, so probably like 6 or 7 more realistic pages, tops?), which is quite short, honestly.

The winner gets 30000 yen, publication, and something like an additional 15000 upon publication.

Kurodahan Press seems to specialize in science fiction, as this piece (and the last two year's pieces) comes from a SF anthology, best of 2007 collection. The piece is called 忠告 by 恩田陸 (Onda Riku), who according to Wikipedia, is the pen name of women's lit writer Kumagai Nanae, which is most definitely a name I've seen/read about before.

Deadline is September 30, which seems to me to be plenty of time, then again I haven't looked at the piece yet so maybe it's super hard.

Another (and to me, mindblowingly) interesting thing is who's judging: Meredith McKinney, who did the most recent translation of Natsume Soseki's Kokoro (and who also seems to be Penguin Classic's go-to translator of Japanese literature), Juliet Winters Carpenter, who has translated a couple books by Kobo Abe, the tanka poetry collection Salad Anniversary, and is a member of the JLPP, and ALFRED BIRNBAUM, translator of Haruki Murakami's A Wild Sheep Chase and other works.

So I'm pretty much geekin' out right now, you guys.

On a side note, when I told my girlfriend I was going to write this post, she said, "Are you dumb? Stop making more competition!" To which I said, "...Oh well. I'm not going to win anyway."

But I swear to god if any of you guys win because I told you about it...

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Summer of the Re-Read #1: Sayonara, Gangsters

Sayonara, Gangsters
by Genichiro Takahashi
Translated by Michael Emmerich

I wish I could remember how I discovered that this book existed. I know I first read it in the spring of my first year of college. I was so into it that I read it during my physics class in the very, very back of the lecture hall (although to be fair, I either slept or did other work during most of those physics lectures). I know I took it out of the school library. But did I discover it through aimless browsing? Or was it a title I was interested in after looking through Vertical Inc (the publisher)'s back catalog, who describes it as a "postmodern novel...from Haruki Murakami's way-more-out-there cousin"?

If the Murakami comparison really was the reason I picked up the novel, at least the description was somewhat apt. In many ways, Sayonara, Gangsters does seem like Murakami with the post-modern bizarreness cranked up to 11. But after re-reading Sayonara Gangsters and exploring more of Takahashi's work in the Japanese, the comparison (like all authorial comparisons, honestly) is somewhat diminishing.

First of all, there's no good way to even summarize Sayonara, Gangsters, which at least can be done for Murakami's work. To grossly simplify matters, Sayonara, Gangsters follows a poet who teaches at a poetry school in some sort of bizarro-world where people choose their own names, which in turn can take a life of their own, and where on the sixth floor of the building that the narrator works is a river of some unknowable length. Even "dream logic" doesn't quite convey the sense of un-reality that pervades the novel:

I think about many different kinds of death.
I'd seen something horribly sad at the amusement park. "The Giant Ferris Wheel" had on a big black ribbon, and it was folding itself up.
The owner of the amusement park must have decided it would cost too much to call in the workers whose job it was to dismantle the rides, and hit on the idea of ordering "the Giant Ferris Wheel" to dispose of itself.
I sat on a swing and watched "The Giant Ferris Wheel" commit suicide.
"The Giant Ferris Wheel" kept rotating its circular frame, yanking off the little carriages where its riders used to sit. It removed one, then another, then another. Every time it pulled off a carriage it bled and cried out in pain. "Oh, it hurts!" it yelled, "It hurts!" Once the circular frame had removed the last carriage, it set about cutting away the circular frames at the center; after that the concrete supports struggled to sever the axle.
Splattered with blood, "The Giant Ferris Wheel' continued to dismantle itself, and at every step along the way it screamed so awfully that the entire amusement park trembled.
"The Merry-Go-Round," which was just next door, sat there shaking with its eyes squeezed shut, covering its ears with its hands.
Finally only the concrete base remained. Its breath came in gasps. Nothing but this block of concrete indicated that "The Giant Ferris Wheel" had ever existed: the block was "The Giant Ferris Wheel"'s ego, its self.
I wondered how the base would finish the job.
There wasn't anything left to do.
"Eat shit and die!"
Leaving these bitter last words, the concrete base put an end to it all.
It did this in a way no human would ever think up. 

The novel is divided up into three parts, and each part has its own major plot and focus. Part 1 establishes the setting and the narrator's life. Part 2 describes the Poetry School and his work with the students. Part 3 is about the narrator's experience with the dangerous gangsters of the novel's world.

Reviews of Sayonara, Gangsters tend to praise Part 1 as the most compelling and well-written part of the novel (speaking of, our friend Nihon Distractions has a review here), but I find myself more drawn to Part 2. After reading more of Takahashi's other work, it is clear that Takahashi is a writer concerned about writing, and despite this bizarre, post-modernist world that Takahashi created, the novel itself, at its core, is really all about writing:

My teaching here isn't focused on knowledge.
If you want to know about poetry, read books. You'll find all that in books.
My knowledge of poetry is both fragmented and fuzzy. It can't be trusted.
I don't teach people how to interpret poetry or any of that stuff either.
I'm not so good at interpreting poetry.
When I read a poem, I respond to it in one of two ways: "Wow, this is great!" or "God, this is awful!" I have no other responses.
Having eliminated those possibilities, we are left with "How to create poetry." Surely that must be what the man teaches! That's what you're all thinking, right? Hell, that's what I'm thinking myself.
But the truth is that if there really were some technique that permitted everybody who knew it to write wonderful poems, I'd want to be the first to know.
If I had a a technique like that, I'd keep it all to myself and produce one masterpiece after another, setting my sights on the Nobel Prize for Poets.
I'm a poet, but even now I have no idea how to write my poems.
I really doubt there is a technique to writing poetry.
We poets spend the eyeblink of time granted us until we slip away forever into the eternal dark composing poems, never having the faintest idea how we out to go about writing them, or what we ought to be writing.
I do almost nothing at all here.
Pressed to explain, I might say that my job is CONDUCTING TRAFFIC.
The students who come here all want to write poems. But none of them have any idea what kind of poems they should be writing.
You mustn't tell them to "Write what you like."
I may be incompetent as a poet, but I don't shirk my responsibilities.
I talk with my students. Or, to make it sound hard, I counsel them.
Actually, for the most part all I do is listen.
Writing poetry is a fairly morbid thing to do. Of course, that doesn't mean all morbid people are poets. It is here, you see, that the difficulty lies.

All irony aside, and despite the fact that this really is more or less exactly how I feel about poetry (being absolutely terrible at it), in a true post-modernist fashion, Takahashi explores almost all aspects of the experience of the written word, including but not limited to the relationship between literature and the author, the relationship between literature and the reader, the act of reading/writing itself, literary criticism, and the power of words.

The first time I read Sayonara, Gangsters, I loved the bizarre world and imagery that Takahashi created. But the second time around, I found myself more drawn to the ideas about literature and the power of the written word that Takahashi has built the world around, a theme that Takahashi will continue to explore throughout his career.

As Takahashi's debut work, it really is amazing that he was able to produce something so original and compelling. Sayonara, Gangsters is still one of my favorite books, but the second time around, I can see some of its flaws. The prose is jarringly fragmented and vignette-y, similar to Murakami's Hear the Wind Sing. (I guess this is a problem that plagues many an author's debut/early works.) Translator Michael Emmerich had his work cut out for him, and though I'm so grateful that he was able to get a publisher to take a chance on this work, I occasionally find the translation a little awkward.

To which I mean no disrespect; I went to a translator's round-table about a year ago that Emmerich was a part of (as in, when I saw that he was a part of it, I immediately knew I was going), and he's pretty young, early 30s, if not late 20s, I'd say. This book was published in 2004, which means he was probably working on it around seven or eight years ago, when he was in his mid-twenties. So nothing but respect for him. I sincerely hope that I can achieve the same thing at that age. Also, he's got great taste in J-lit and was just a really interesting and funny guy to listen and talk to. So whenever I see he has a new translation out, I always pay attention.

At this translator's round-table I went to, I asked Emmerich if he would ever translate something by Takahashi again. He said he definitely would like to, but it's all about finding a publisher, and apparently this novel didn't make a real splash, which makes it a hard sell. But now that I've been able to explore more of his works, I really feel that Takahashi is a great author that deserves to be translated. And I hope to be the man to do it.

Expect many Takahashi-related posts in the future, including a forthcoming short story translation and a look at his (well, to me) fascinating Twitter account.

 [Next on "Summer of the Re-Read": The Catcher in the Rye by J.D. Salinger. Let's see how a novel about a teenager that one reads as a teenager holds up when one is no longer (quite) a teenager.]

Friday, July 16, 2010

Introducing: Summer of the Re-Read

Now that I'm back in the States again, I have a lot of free time until school starts back up. A LOT of free time. And besides the time I've wasted since discovering my family started using Netflix (instant streaming...fuck and yes), I've started really reading again.

This summer I have a massive reading list I want to but ultimately will fail miserably at completing, which can be divided up into three sections: (1) new, unread books, (2) unread "classics", and (3) stuff I want to read again.

The thing is, I don't often re-read books, besides Murakami (surprise, surprise). Some fun facts: Sputnik Sweetheart is probably the most read at 3, possibly 4 times, and Hardboiled Wonderland... is the one that I've started and put down the most times, though I have finished it once and thoroughly enjoyed it; for some reason, it's just the unluckiest book in that I just start it at bad times or get distracted by something newer and shinier. I have a pretty good memory, so I more or less remember what happened and how I particularly felt about any particular book, and there's just so much out there to read I usually give preference to something unknown (except in the cases where I find myself in an irrepressible Murakami mood). Contrast this to my TV habits, in which my favorite shows are constantly being cycled through and re-marathoned, though this is usually done in conjunction with something else, since I don't have to be focusing on it 100% to enjoy it. In fact, the only book in semi-recent memory that I recall re-reading is Koushun Takami's Battle Royale. (Oops, wait, that's a lie; the last Harry Potter was also re-read, though only just a month or two after I had initially read it in the first place.) And books have to be particularly crappy for me to give up on them before the end (i.e. Higashino Keigo's "Naoko". For such a fucked up concept, boooooooooring.)

But this summer, I really want to re-read a bunch of books. Maybe it was because I was in Japan and didn't have access to my collection, or maybe because I didn't have easy access to English-language books. Not really sure. And since I like doing book reviews on this blog anyway, I thought I'd chronicle my exploits.

Here's the list so far:

1) Genichiro Takahashi - Sayonara, Gangsters
2) J.D. Salinger - The Catcher in the Rye
3) F. Scott Fitzgerald - The Great Gatsby
4) (tentative) Ryu Murakami - Coin Locker Babies
5) (tentative) George Orwell - 1984
6) (tentative) Haruki Murakami - South of the Border, West of the Sun
7) (tentative) Albert Camus - The Fall

I guess in general, I want to see if each of these books still "hold up" since the last time I read them, though the reasons for why I want to see depend on each book. For example, South of the Border, West of the Sun was by far and away my absolute least favorite Murakami book when I read it, but paradoxically, it also has one of my favorite quotes by any author ever. So on and so forth.

I'll talk about all this stuff more specifically for each book when I get to it. Anyway, that's something that you can look forward to (I originally wrote "one more thing" you can look forward to, but I haven't written anything in months, so you haven't been looking forward to anything for a while) very soon, since I've already finished reading Sayonara, Gangsters and am halfway through The Catcher in the Rye.

(P.S. New books will be reviewed either separately or, more likely, in a "Recently Read Round-up" column.)

(P.P.S. That translation I'm working on that's non-Murakami? Totally starting to work on that again. I spent most of my time in Japan just trying to read as much Japanese as possible, and practicing the art of getting as much out of a text as I can without checking the dictionary every 10 5 seconds, which was actually really awesome. Newest record: 40 consecutive pages that I can  thoroughly summarize to you, that I did with little dictionary-consultation. Very proud of this.)

(P.P.S. I'm now on The Twitter. There should now be a doohicky on the side of this here thing-ama-blog.)

Saturday, July 10, 2010

I live!

Tomorrow I return to America. The study abroad is over.

I wanted to keep up with regular posts over the last few months, but I decided (unconsciously really) that I wanted to use the time I would've spent organizing posts and writing them with going out and experiencing Japan as much as possible.

So, expect new content coming very soon and much more regularly. I have a few translations lined up, and I'll go back to explore my experience as well as other things about my time here that I enjoyed too.