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A Few Thoughts on Sofia Coppola’s The Beguiled

Sofia Coppola’s The Beguiled is set in 1864, three years into the Civil War, as a helpful subtitle instructs us at the beginning of the movie. The entirety of the film takes place at a secluded girls school in the Virginia wilderness, and there is a quality of Southern gothic here. This is one of those movies that, like Lars von Trier’s Melancholia, mostly abstracts away the outside world to focus on the interiority of its small cast and the drama that they confront.

Things get started when the young Jane (played by Angourie Rice), out picking mushrooms in the nearby woods, comes across a wounded Yankee soldier. He has been immobilized by a gunshot to his lower leg, and he will surely die if Jane does not bring him back to the school. She of course does, tipping off a series of events that will comprise the meat of the movie.

Immediately, Miss Martha Farnsworth (played by Nicole Kidman), the middle-aged, authoritative doyen of the school, takes charge of Corporal John McBurney (Colin Farrell), secluding him in the music room and ministering to his wounds. There are some gory shots here of Farnsworth stitching the Corporal up, and she is immediately established as the powerful, worldly, gritty woman opposite Kirsten Dunst’s much more softer, more naive Edwina, who teaches in the school as Farnsworth’s sort of second-in-command.

Coppola wastes no time in getting to the crux of the matter: this is deep in the Confederacy, where a Yankee soldier is certainly not welcome, but it’s been ages since Farnsworth and Edwina have seen a man, particularly a striking, muscular one like the Corporal. After tending to his wounds, Farnsworth declares her intent to wash the Corporal’s body (he is still passed out from his injuries), and predictably her hands continue gravitating toward a certain part of his anatomy.

There is also the young and sexy Alicia (Elle Fanning), a student in the school who is a young woman on the verge of sexual discovery and who is clearly intrigued by the arrival of a man in their midst.

For his own part, the Corporal realizes how precarious his position is, that Farnsworth can hand him over to passing mobs of Confederate soldiers at any time, so he contrives to stimulate the women’s fascination with him. Of course, part of his interest here is in his own sexual desires are clearly coming into play, even as he works to ingratiate himself with the woman as a act of pure survival. Part of the intrigue of these early scenes of the movie is to watch as these characters all strive to define their aims: they are all beguiled to an extent by the ripe sexuality that has suddenly appeared in their lives, but they also have other prominent motives that shape their acts.

It is in the movie’s first half that Coppola’s directing, which netted her the Cannes Film Festival’s Best Director award, is at her best. Virtually none of the film’s communication is done out in the open, instead coming across through doubled meanings, facial expressions, gestures, small acts, and the like. Coppola brilliantly teases out these threads, defining the principal characters’ traits and motives, all while giving an evocative sense of Southern manners and the complex situation of the Civil War. The movie is suffused by a profound aura of femininity, and one very much feels that Farrell’s Corporal is injecting alien elements into the school’s female realm.

On the whole the cast counts seven women all at differing ages form pre-teen to Farnsworth (which I would guess at about 50). Coppola puts together a fascinating and satisfying composite picture of girlhood and womanhood, and there are many small touches throughout that work together to construct a complete picture of femininity, particularly the sense of femininity that existed in the middle of the 19th century amid Southern antebellum culture. Clearly there is some revisionist intent to such a project, as one can’t but help compare the lives of these women to the lives of women today (there was much knowing laughter in the screening I saw), but one also gets the sense of constructing its own world, and one that is not typically seen on the silver screen.

In this way the movie proceeds toward its inevitable crisis point (spoiler alert). For motives that are not entirely clear, the Corporal has been leading Edwina on, to the point where he promises to come into her bedroom after a lush dinner that is meant to be the Corporal’s send-off out of the school and back into the world. Yet, it is obviously Alicia that he wants to bed. And this is where Edwina discovers him in one shocking moment of outrage and hurt, even as she has made herself beautiful and prepared herself to be taken by the Corporal. In the ensuring chaos the Corporal is thrown down a flight of stairs, and he freshly healed leg is broken open again. Farnsworth declares that the only way to save him is to amputate the leg, which she does. When the Corporal next awakes, he flies into a rage, taking the amputation as an act of revenge for him not choosing to come to Farnsworth’s bedroom.

It is in the concluding 30 minutes that follow this scene that Coppola’s The Beguiled begins to break down. The characters that have been so lovingly tended by Coppola now revert to types, caught up in the straightjacket of Farrell’s extraordinarily overwrought rage. So too does the plot, which had been ambiguous and alluring, and now becomes something along the lines of a thriller. The movie concludes with a fairly predictable trajectory, and we are left with something that, fortunately, ends before it does mortal damage to that beautiful first hour, but which still leaves us disappointed that a movie with such promise did not find a better end.

More than anything else, this concluding half hour feels too rushed, the mixture of motives and gestures that made the pre-amputation parts so rich are absent here, and the plot seems to move mechanically toward its solution. The great pleasure in watching The Beguiled is in trying to figure out just what everybody wants, what they are admitting to themselves and to each other, what they are hiding, how much of what they want they’re going to manage to get, and how this weird interlude that has taken control of all their lives will be solved. This is the brilliance of the film, and at its best it is truly great filmmaking. But all of that comes to an end once the Corporal turns into a rage-fueled caricature, where the nuance and mystery and balance of competing emotions is turned into a clear and obvious need to get rid of him by any means.

Coppola’s The Beguiled is something along the lines of a feminist reclamation of the 1971 film of the same name, starring Clint Eastwood. Instead of basing the film around the male character, as the Eastwood The Beguiled does, in Coppola’s the women become the stars, and the world evoked is a feminine one, not a macho one. This is a fascinating idea, and one appreciates the many touches that turn this film from a male point of view into a female one, but ultimately the ending of Coppola’s The Beguiled feels too over-determined to leave a viewer with a lasting impression or a final conundrum to take with you out of the theater.

During my viewing of The Beguiled, the film often reminded me of a couple of movies that left this one weak by comparison. The first is Kelly Reichardt’s Meek’s Cutoff, about a pre–Civil War band of naive settlers who are somewhat captive to their macho leader, Meek. As with Coppola’s film, this is something along the lines of a feminist reclamation of a Western macho narrative—the world of women definitely dominates Reichardt’s film, and there is a strong female character who comes to define its plot. But, notably, Reichardt goes much further, engaging the historical narratives that surround Meek’s Cutoff to a much greater degree, and never letting the film resolve into a clear sense of right and wrong.

The Beguiled also made me think of Robert Altman’s 3 Women, a film very much about feminine identity and solidarity, and one whose three principle female characters are set against a male interloper. As with Coppola, Altman very creatively uses the landscape in 3 Women to open up the characters and their traits, and he is also able to open up the female world to the eyes of the viewer. Where Altman overcomes Coppola is in the ending, which opens up the film’s possibilities instead of concluding them, never reverting to type or convention.

On the whole I would probably recommend The Beguiled. There is very much to like and discuss about it, and the visible texture of the film is magnificent. I only wish that Coppola had let her film find the ending that it wanted, instead of assigning it a conclusion that follows typical Hollywood convention.

Quarterly Conversation Issue 48

Features


The Rules of Attraction: On Roger Lewinter

The Rules of Attraction: On Roger Lewinter

Arriving in elegant, bilingual editions beautifully translated by Rachel Careau, The Attraction of Things and Story of Love in Solitude are the first two books by Roger Lewinter to be published in English. Although written in the 1980s, these works seem anything but dated. Instead they feel immune to literary fashion. They exert the fascination of something done carefully, even exhaustively, for its own sake rather than to please anyone else. Each book is composed of a number of short sections: you could call them vignettes, or anecdotes, or prose poems. The ones in Story of Love in Solitude stand by themselves; those in The Attraction of Things cover various periods in the narrator’s life.


The Apostles of The Culture Industry: Grand Hotel Abyss by Stuart Jeffries

The Apostles of The Culture Industry: Grand Hotel Abyss by Stuart Jeffries

Initially, the Frankfurt School set out to understand why the communist revolution had failed among the rank-and-file of Germany’s working class. Their project would grow to encompass the root causes of fascism, the authoritarian underpinnings of capitalist ideology, and the cultural machinations of commodity fetishism that would engulf the Western world in the twentieth century and beyond. The task of crafting an engrossing, rigorous historical biography about a group of notoriously difficult Marxist philosophers, social theorists, and cultural critics is no small feat. That is precisely the task Stuart Jeffries set for himself in The Grand Hotel Abyss, which serves as a sort of group biography of a very specific time, place, and elusive cultural moment that many (outside of graduate philosophy programs) are not aware even existed.


(Re)reading Don DeLillo in Dark Times

(Re)reading Don DeLillo in Dark Times

DeLillo speaks powerfully to American obsessions: our anxiety at being alive, our fear of death, the way in which our efforts to transcend ourselves in some meaningful way are stymied by a culture that both engenders and entraps us. The question now, in 2017, is whether his work can help us analyze the unprecedented political situation we find ourselves in today. I’ve been living in Berlin for over thirty years. Live outside your native culture long enough, and you begin to see it as a sort of double exposure in which your sense of family and identity and belonging is overlaid with a strange, shape-shifting disturbance pattern in which everything seems normal until it suddenly doesn’t, and you begin to see the country from a foreigner’s point of view. For as long as I can remember, America has enjoyed its superpower status, exporting the products of its creative industries around the globe, often through aggressive means, and showing little sustained interest in the cultures of other countries. Lawrence Venuti, the translation theorist, has spoken of “a trade imbalance with serious cultural ramifications” resulting in “a complacency in Anglo-American relations with cultural others, a complacency that can be described—without too much exaggeration—as imperialistic abroad and xenophobic at home.”


The Uncanny Self : On Sarah Manguso’s 300 Arguments

The Uncanny Self : On Sarah Manguso’s 300 Arguments

“Aphoristic thinking is notebook-thinking,” Susan Sontag observed in her journal in the spring of 1980, “produced by the idea of keeping a notebook.” She had been kicking around the concept of the notebook-as-form for awhile, as well as attempting to locate the defining characteristics of aphoristic literature, while working on an essay about the writer Elias Cannetti, whose aphoristic style she very much admired. That year was punctuated by the death of Roland Barthes, another fiercely epigrammatic writer whom Sontag held in high esteem. In the essay she would eventually publish on Barthes, she wrote: “It is in the nature of aphoristic thinking to be always in a state of concluding; a bid to have the final word is inherent in all powerful phrase-making.” The aphorist, for Sontag, is always moving towards the last word, and the aphorism itself an attempt to say all there is on a subject in one fell motion. Aphorisms are effective precisely because they seem to contain the truth in hard, diamond-like kernels; a good aphorism can’t be parsed.


Zipping Up the Elephant Suit: Jonathan Lethem’s Latest Quartet

Zipping Up the Elephant Suit: Jonathan Lethem’s Latest Quartet

With A Gambler’s Anatomy, Jonathan Lethem has written yet another quite ambitious novel that challenges American fiction’s low tolerance for thinking-as-art. This now makes four in a row that have either risked sinking from bravura and scope or have appeared too light and clever on the surface to be matched seriously with earlier feats. For instance, rather than Chronic City being a kitschy map for traversing Web-dominant culture, it tries to salvage what’s left of the literary and humane while honoring skeptical avant-garde traditions that inherently distrust the novel form. Up until The Fortress of Solitude, admirers could content themselves, to a degree, with parodied tributes and deconstructions of old styles without having to imagine the positive role Lethem charted for novels in the future. As described in his essay on White Elephant and Termite postures attempted as a novelist, his books in recent years puzzle through this dialectic of positive and deconstructive values, and A Gambler’s Anatomy continues the course.



Reviews

Compass by Mathias Énard

Compass by Mathias Énard


It’s with no small amount of urgency that Mathias Énard’s Compass, an engrossing meditation on the cultural and historical tension between Europe and the Islamic world, arrives from New Directions in a gorgeous translation by Charlotte Mandell. Winner of the 2015 Prix Goncourt, Compass is a post-Orientalist novel of ideas that locates the Western canon—Flaubert, the sentimental, if reckless, traveler detailed above, but also Borges, Liszt, Heine, Hugo, Goethe, Balzac, and many more—inside an intricate tableau of Eastern cultural influence and exchange. I call it “post-Orientalist” in the sense that Énard’s characters, a group of aging academics, are all working in the shadow of Said’s screed, in search of the theory’s new critical horizon.


Fever Dream by Samanta Schweblin

Fever Dream by Samanta Schweblin


Despite its fervid storyline, Samanta Schweblin’s Fever Dream is the product of clear calculation and restraint. The narrative is tightly packed, the cast of characters narrow, and the logic addictive. From the first lines the reader enters into a murky alternate reality, pursuing that sublime moment of clarity that constantly eludes capture.In fact, the book feels more like a protracted short story than a novel. This is unsurprising, given Schweblin’s immense talent for the short form. Before the 2014 publication of Distancia de rescate—Fever Dream’s original Spanish title—Schweblin published two short story collections, El núcleo del disturbio (2002) and Pájaros en la boca (2009), for which she won the Casas de las Américas Prize. Through short stories, Schweblin established herself as a writer of the strange and eerie.


Hemming Flames by Patricia Colleen Murphy

Hemming Flames by Patricia Colleen Murphy


With “Losing our Milk Teeth,” the opening poem of Patricia Colleen Murphy’s award-winning collection, Hemming Flames, the author announces from the outset that we’re in for a thrilling ride—thrilling as in thriller as much as the acute pleasure of reading masterful poems. Hemming Flames is by turns terrifying, uncanny, and sometimes lunatic, in the ways lunacy charts (if it does chart anything) the unpredictable and uncanny. There is also a wry and blunt humor here, a consciousness latching onto what will carry it through the traumas of an imploding family.


On Gabo Conquering the World

My latest column is up at Lit Hub this week, “Why is One Hundred Years of Solitude Eternally Beloved?

I found this an interesting question to ponder, as One Hundred Years of Solitude turns 50 this year (apparently it happened right on May 30), and it has had astonishing success in terms of translation and sales, success which far outstrips the other Latin American authors García Márquez is typically classified with (Carlos Fuentes, Mario Vargas Llosa, and Julio Cortázar).

I get things started off with a possibly apocryphal anecdote about García Márquez. The more and more I’ve thought about this bit since I published the article, the stranger and stranger this seems as a thing to do:

There is an oft-told anecdote that cuts to the heart of this writer’s greatness. As he wrote One Hundred Years of Solitude, he would regularly meet with his fellow great Colombian author Álvaro Mutis, updating Mutis on his progress by narrating the latest events from his novel. There was just one problem: none of what García Márquez told Mutis actually occurs in the book. He had effectively made up an entire shadow-novel while in the middle of writing one of the most imaginative and jam-packed books in the history of modern literature. This is a measure of how many competing realities existed in García Márquez’s voracious mind.

And, as always, the column ends with some reading recommendations. As much of the column deals with how One Hundred Years is a narrative that could only have come from Lain America, the reading list covers other narratives that I feel are particularly Latin American in nature and that have contributed much to our world’s collection of necessary stories.

Love in a Time of Cholera by Gabriel García Márquez (tr. Edith Grossman)
The Passion According to G.H. by Clarice Lispector (tr. Idra Novey)
The Invention of Morel by Adolfo Bioy Casares (tr. Ruth L. C. Simms)
Thus Were Their Faces by Silvina Ocampo (tr. Daniel Balderston)
Kiss of the Spiderwoman by Manuel Puig (tr. Suzanne Jill Levine)
Seeing Red by Lina Meruane (tr. Megan McDowell)
Fever Dream by Samanta Schweblin (tr. Megan McDowell)
Bonsai by Alejandro Zambra (tr. Carolina De Robertis)

Some Thoughts on Anna Rose Holmer’s The Fits

Anna Rose Holmer’s directorial debut, The Fits (2015), is one of those movies wrapped around an impossible-not-to-speculate-about mystery that seems to destine it for cult status.

Sitting comfortably between realism and allegory, the movie is negative capability at its finest. It starts with Toni, a tomboyish 11-year-old girl who is seen training fiercely with her older (but still teenage) brother to be a boxer. They are inside a gym that seems either to be part of a school or a community center, and they are both Africa-American (as is virtually every character in this movie).

One day Toni becomes intrigued by girls training to be dancers in an adjacent gym room, and when she decides to try out for the dance team. She is not a very good dancer at first, and she is clearly intimidated by the slightly older girls, who in addition to being much better dancers are also much more accomplished in the ways of hair, makeup, fashion, and other forms of beauty that make up a big part of the adolescent female identity. Toni is clearly intrigued (and even begins making some attempts to emulate the older girls), but she also feels the pull of her brother as role model, and still very much feels more at home in the boxing ring than n the dance floor.

The Fits seems to be headed in a clear trajectory: it will map the push/pull of masculinity and femininity in a girl’s life as she discovers her adolescent identity. And indeed, just as this movie seems to be slipping into complacency, Holmer throws us for a loop: in the middle of practice, one of the dance team’s leading girls is suddenly thrown into a seizure. 911 is called and she is carried off on a stretcher.

As Toni and some other girls her age continue to battle the questions that come with incipient adolescence, the outbreak of what is termed “the fits” continues. One by one, each of the older girls experiences her own seizure. Toni and her young friends can only surmise that they are next, and, right on schedule, one by one they experience their own fits. The movie concludes with an eerie, musically choreographed, slow-motion, and quasi-first-person point of view scene as Toni—who is last of all—finally succumbs to the fits.

If I have abandoned my usual rule of avoiding spoilers and summarized the general plot of The Fits, it is only because I have little doubt that knowing what happens in this film cannot undermine the strangeness and mystery of seeing it and the pleasure of attempting to figure it out. One likely explanation for these seizures—mass hysteria—is the one that Holmer herself said intrigued her to originally create this film. Of course there are many other plausible explanations, and part of the fun of the film is mapping its allegorical surface onto whatever you are bold enough to argue for. Ultimately, what makes The Fits such a success is that this central mystery is in service to expanding the film’s interpretation of Toni’s life and the situation of herself and her friends. Holmer put it well in an interview with Vogue:

You were inspired by real examples of these fits of hysteria. Any in particular?

I was doing research, and one of the stories that came up was about a more recent case. I started to think back on historical cases, like the dancing disease. As I researched, a pattern emerged. It was not exclusively female or adolescent, but that was the trend. I started to think about why.

What was the dancing disease?

It was in the Middle Ages, I think in mainland Europe. Hundreds of people were struck by this mania. It was really fascinating to think about dancing, which is such a powerful intentional release, being something uncontrollable, from this other area of consciousness.

I think that the dancing disease may have actually been poisoning. But some people who weren’t poisoned also came down with symptoms, because of how we look to each other. It’s why we smile when we see someone else smiling. We want to belong. There’s something really powerful and simple in that.

This is not a horror movie, but you co-opted horror tropes (movies like Carrie came to mind).

Why lend that element of creepiness to what is ultimately, I thought, a very good-hearted movie?
We’re saying that there is power in collective identity. And it should not be conflated with conformity. There is that fear, though, and it’s real. What Toni is struggling with is fear of herself. Not knowing her own body, desires, insecurities, limits. That’s what adolescence is about. It’s pretty scary.

The entire film is really about putting the audience in Toni’s headspace and physical bodily space, and that’s fraught with anxiety and tension.

In other words, to only imagine this film as a sort of poetic allegory would be to shortchange it. The Fits has a very strange texture: for one thing, it almost exclusively takes place at the gym. Although a few parents are mentioned, we never see any of the children’s family or authority figures (there are one or two shots of administrators, but that is it), and any vestige of life outside of the gym is almost totally effaced. In addition to that, the dialogue here is very minimal, in particular Toni’s dialogue (she is a remarkably shy, quiet girl), and what replaces it are the beautifully kinetic movements of her and the other children’s bodies throughout the movie. This is all toward creating Toni as a fascinating and singular character, one that is intriguing enough to hang the movie on and that defies the stereotypes that film generally brings to child stars (particularly ones who are members of disadvantaged minorities). While the film does not ignore these aspects of Toni’s character, it also does not reduce Toni to them, letting the talented Royalty Hightower instead inhabit Toni as an individual person who communicates her character with her entire physical presence.

The film also has a very pleasing visual texture. For a movie that largely takes place in a handful of rooms and hallways, Holmer manages to keep the imagery fresh and surprising. She gives Toni rich spaces to maneuver through, and her camera manages to let her and the other characters define these spaces with their movements without over-embellishing what is happening on the screen or otherwise getting in the way.

The “talked about” central aspect of The Fits will, of course, be the titular fits, but there is very much else here to see this central mystery through. And it is these other layers of complexity that ultimately make this movie more than a typical, B one-trick-flick and that make these 72 quick minutes watchable again and again.

The Fits was made on a very tiny budget—reportedly just under $170,000—and one could very easily see this film alongside such other minimalist cinema, such as Richard Linklater’s Slacker (budget: $23,000 in 1991), that allowed original, quirky, and idiosyncratic directors to establish their name in film circles and gain access to greater and greater sums. I very much look forward to seeing Holmer work on a larger and larger canvas, and I will greatly anticipate what she does next.

Two Views of Richard Diebenkorn: From Figuration to Abstraction

In the spring of 2015 I was in London, where I had a few days to aimlessly stroll, browse the bookstores, and examine the world-class art that is all over the city (and still largely free, even in these austere times). One of the things I discovered entirely by accident was a retrospective of the American artist Richard Diebenkorn.

I don’t recall where I first heard of Diebenkorn, but the name and work had stuck, for as soon as I saw the name I could conjure up one or two of his figurative canvasses. I immediately went in to see the art, spending a couple of hours. At that point I thought of Diebenkorn as a figurative artist, the landscapes being the images that had most stuck in my mind.

I also knew that he had done some portraiture that I enjoyed very much.

What I did not know about Diebenkorn was the painting in the “Ocean Park” series, which were to make his biggest reputation internationally, and which were wholly abstract. These I came to at the end of the exhibit, and stare and stare as I might at them, they left me cold.

I didn’t know what to make of them, although recently—two years after I first viewed Diebenkorn’s late abstractions—I had the opportunity to try looking at them again.

Diebenkorn was known for having three major periods to his work: an early abstract phrase, a middle figurative one, and then the late work, which again became abstract. When he was a young artist, Abstract Expressionism was the dominant form, so it was natural for him to start there. But he grew disenchanted with what he felt was a straightjacket on his work, so in the 1950s he abandoned it for figurative work, by no means an each decision at the time.

Diebenkorn was a California artist, living almost his entire life in various parts of the state, and he was deeply influenced by the work of Edward Hopper and Henri Matisse, among others. It is said that Hopper’s influence can be seen in his figurative work—I see it most in the mood of the pieces, the deep contemplation that his subjects generally seem immersed in, the somewhat distanced feel that the viewer has from the scenes.

It was in 1966, after a move form the Bay Area to Santa Monica, that Diebenkorn abruptly became an abstract painter once again. In an interview quoted at the MOMA exhibit, he explained it, “Maybe someone from the outside observing what I was doing would have known what was about to happen, but I didn’t. I didn’t see the signs. Then, one day, I was thinking about abstract painting again. . . . I did about four large canvases—still representation, but, again, much flatter. Then, suddenly, I abandoned the figure altogether.”

As he returned to abstraction, he became most famous for his Ocean Park series. These are said to be in part influenced by Matisse’s French Window at Collioure, which the painter pushed into an abstract direction when he blacked out the view through the windows, leaving four rectangles of color.

Looking at Diebenkorn’s entire body of work last weekend at the SFMOMA’s major retrospective (which brings in several paintings of Matisse’s to better show the influence), I had a chance to survey Diebenkorn’s entire body of work in an hour and a half. To my surprise, I found myself pulled in most powerfully to the late abstractions, although my appreciation of the middle-career figurative work very much remained. Clearly the desire to resolve the geometry and the palette of the figurative work remains (you can almost see a Diebenkorn landscape in the one below), but this is also clearly very different work form the figurative paintings.

I wonder what had changed in my mind in the two years between my first experience with this work and my second. What I was struck by when I viewed these works a second time are their clean lines: the outlines of the shapes have none of the Impressionistic fuzziness that characterized Diebenkorn’s figurative phase. Also it seemed that the angles of the lines—always on the sharp side—here grow most refined and dynamic of all. What can’t really be seen in these images is the texture of these paintings, which is very rich and again highly refined, especially when considered against the texture of the middle works. They seem to me to be communicating in a very cool, controlled, quietly elaborate, ascetic language, a feel not that different from the minimalist work pioneered in the 1970s. For instance, something like this:

As to myself, I can say that my life in the space between spring 2015 and spring 2017 corresponded to some significant (although gentle) identity shifts, as well as new directions in my work as a writer and in the sorts of books that I most admired and enjoyed reading. The shift from Diebenkorn’s middle to late work makes sense to me, even if I can’t give a very satisfactory explanation of it right here in this small space.

8 Questions for Jeffrey Angles on The Book of the Dead by Orikuchi Shinobu and the Yomiuri Prize

I recently received a mysterious and very fascinating book: The Book of the Dead by the great Japanese modernist Orikuchi Shinobu, published by University of Minnesota Press. Though written in the 1930s, the book draws from the history of 8th-century Egypt, and it is a short, allegorical, surrealistic work, definitely one of the strangest and most striking titles that I have seen in a while.

To learn more, I reached out to the book’s translator, Jeffrey Angles, who is very well-respected in the translation community for his translations of such authors as Itō Hiromi and Takahashi Mutsuo. In addition to containing the text of The Book of the Dead, this edition also contains a very lengthy introductory essay by Angles, as well as numerous other essays by Japense critics and scholars, making it a really nice edition.

I also spoke to Jeffrey about a recent honor of his: Japan’s prestigious Yomiuri Prize, for his original Japanese poetry. This is a major, hugely prestigious award that any Japanese author would be happy to receive, and it is even more remarkable that Jeffrey, an American, has received it, a this is a very rare occurrence. In the interview we talk about what it’s like to write a such a high level in a foreign language.

Jeffrey kindly answered my questions over email.


Scott Esposito: In your introduction to this edition, you note that The Book of the Dead is “provocative and open-ended” and has been the subject of very much critical interpretation. You later describe it as a “writerly” text in Barthes’ use of the word. I would also add that this is not a terribly long work—just under 100 pages in this edition. What are some of the things that make this book so broad?

Jeffrey Angles: Orikuchi’s novel is a dreamy, mysterious, and exquisitely wrought novel. The main plot features an unusual romance between a woman and a dead prince who suddenly finds himself waking up, resurrected from the dead inside his own tomb. From the very first lines of the novel, we find ourselves in a seemingly magical world, in which myth and reality are constantly intermingling, characters are having mysterious visions, and language is transforming reality in mystical ways. Yet as the novel progresses, our understandings of what is happening to the characters changes as we gather more information.

One of the reasons that readers have found it so provocative is that the novel is extremely open-ended. The plot subtly suggests why things are happening but rarely explains anything directly. Moreover, the plot does not unfold along chronological lines. It moves backward and forward in time, juxtaposing scenes that do not occur at the same time. Also, important characters might appear for a few scenes, then vanish from the story, leaving the readers to figure out what happened to them through small hints dropped in other scenes. In a sense The Book of the Dead is like a big modernist, experimental mystery that only makes more and more sense through multiple readings.

SE: Although this book was written in modern times and first published in 1939, it takes place in the 8th century, and its title and other elements reference the Ancient Egyptian Book of the Dead. Why do you think the author, Orikuchi Shinobu, chose to set his book in such a far away time and invoke such ancient tropes? Is there any particular relevance to the dates he has chosen for this book?

JA: In addition to being a prominent poet and novelist, Orikuchi was also a scholar of Japanese literature and specialized in the ancient Japanese past. Orikuchi once wrote that novels provided him with a way to bring the ancient past to life in a vivid, emotionally complex way that would supplement his more scholarly work.

Orikuchi was especially interested in the eighth century because that was really the time that Japan was emerging as a coherent nation for the first time. During the eighth century, Japan established its first permanent capital in the city of Nara. Buddhism, which had been introduced from China in the preceding centuries, was finally taking root among the Japanese population, and the Japanese were busily developing their own writing system and recording the very first books in the Japanese language. In fact, one of the main characters of the novel is Ōtomo no Yakamochi (ca. 718-785), a statesman and poet who compiled the first-ever collection of poetry in Japanese: a massive compendium known as the Man’yōshū (The Collection of Ten Thousand Leaves). In other words, this was a time that the Japanese state and Japanese sensibilities were being born for the first time, and Orikuchi wanted to explore what that era of so change was like for people who were living in it.

Orikuchi’s own studies of ancient Japan reveal that he was believed strongly that in ancient societies, language (and by extension, storytelling) had a mystical power that could shape the experience of real people. He seems to have been drawn to the Egyptian Book of the Dead, not only because it is the most important literary product of one of the world’s earliest civilizations, but because the Egyptians believed the text had a mystical power that could imbue the dead with new life and usher them into a new existence. This is an idea that he addresses in many forms over the course of the book.

This is a bit of a tangent, but one additional thing I should mention is that Orikuchi wrote the first edition of his novel in 1939, then revised it in 1943. This was the era that Japan was trying to refashion itself into a pan-Asian empire. There are subtle parallels between the eighth century when Japan was first emerging as a nation, and the mid-twentieth century when Japan was developing into a militaristic empire. Some scholars, including me, find in the novel a subtle commentary on the rising militarism of Orikuchi’s own era, but because it was set so far in the distant past and involves so many supernatural elements, the novel made its way past the scrutiny of imperial censors without any trouble.

SE: Although Orikuchi is a venerated figure in Japan, he will likely be new to most Westerners, even those seriously interested in translated literature. Can you tell us a little about him and what made him so special?

JA: As I mentioned a few moments ago, Orikuchi is a well-known poet, so famous in fact, that one of the most important prizes for tanka poetry (the short form of traditional poetry in which he excelled) is named after him: the Shaku Chōkū Prize. (Shaku Chōku is the pen name that he used when publishing his poetry.) He had a strong poetic sensibility that shows up in every chapter of the novel, both in the creative, open-ended, and evocative ways that he shaped the material and also in the richly textured language he used.

Another thing that makes Orikuchi special is that he wrote about his homosexual feelings in an era when most authors who preferred members of the same sex kept their preferences hidden. Unlike some of his other novels and poetry which currently remain untranslated, The Book of the Dead never overtly features love between members of the same sex. However, at the end of his own life, Orikuchi admitted that the main plot of The Book of the Dead was inspired by his own love for a deceased man whom Orikuchi had loved. In the book, I include my own introduction and a translation of a commentary by the Japanese scholar Andō Reiji. Both of us touch upon the ways that the novel seems to reflect Orikuchi’s own sexual history.

SE: What were some of the pleasures and challenges of translating this book?

JA: Because Orikuchi was a scholar of ancient Japan, he had a voluminous knowledge of the distant past, which infiltrates every paragraph—or perhaps every sentence—of the original. He writes in modernistic, fragmentary sentences, but sprinkles in countless words and expressions from classical Japanese. Moreover, he makes frequent reference to people, places, and things that are not necessarily even familiar to modern Japanese readers. Orikuchi often quotes poems and remarks upon historical events without referencing his sources or providing much explanation.

Tracking down some of those things was a real headache! As a scholar who specializes in modern Japanese literature, I had to spend a huge amount of time reading about ancient Japanese history and culture to try to represent the world of ancient Japan as accurately as possible. To help out Anglophone readers, I added an explanatory introduction, footnotes, and a glossary of people and places mentioned in the text.

SE: What are some works of world literature that you might place alongside The Book of the Dead, and what contemporary Japanese authors has Orikuchi influenced?

JA: One might compare The Book of the Dead to Gustave Flaubert’s 1862 novel Salammbô and Oscar Wilde’s 1891 play Salome. This comparison might seem odd at first, since they were all written at different times and in different genres, but all three of these works are set in formative moments in the ancient past when new sensibilities were emerging. Plus, all three authors hoped to explore of the distant past to suggest new aesthetic directions for their own eras. Andō Reiji, the scholar who wrote the commentary also included in the same volume as my translation, believes that Orikuchi shares a common sensibility with André Breton, who also was writing about the same time as Orikuchi and who also drew upon the myth of Isis and Osiris for inspiration.

I have to say, however, that Orikuchi is a distinctly unique author. He died in 1953, before his most important novel The Book of the Dead had earned its rightful place as one of the masterpieces of twentieth-century literature. During his life, his work did not foster a new generation of Japanese novelists directly. (He was better known as a scholar and a poet while alive.) Those influences came posthumously.

The prominent, contemporary avant-garde poet Yoshimasu Gōzō counts Orikuchi, and the avant-garde experimentalism of The Book of the Dead as one of his greatest influences. Asabuki Mariko, a genius young author who has not yet been translated into English, also bears traces of Orikuchi’s influence. I’ve never heard Murakami Haruki reference Orikuchi, but I think that there are some parallels there. Both authors feature strange, illogical plot twists, but describe them in relatively realistic ways.

I should note that Orikuchi has also influenced people working in different media. Kawamoto Kihachirō did an absolutely gorgeous stop-motion animation version of The Book of the Dead that won critical attention around the world upon its release in 2005. And in 2015 and 2016, the graphic novelist Kondō Yōko did a wonderful manga adaptation of the novel that I’m hoping to translate into English.

SE: I also wanted to ask you about your own creative writing, as you recently received the extremely prestigious Yomiuri Prize for Literature in the poetry category, the first American to ever be awarded this poetry prize. Your winning book, Watashi no hizukehenkōsen (My International Date Line), was written in Japanese. Can you tell us a little about how long it took you to develop your Japanese language skills to a level suitable to do this kind of literary writing, and how you came to begin writing poetry in Japanese?

JA: I have been studying and reading Japanese for thirty years, but even so, every time I sit down to write, I have to admit I feel the interference of my first language, English, acting upon my second language, Japanese. I think and write directly in Japanese, but nonetheless, there is still a quirkiness in my Japanese that comes from having learned it as a second language when I was a teenager, thirty years ago.

I have always loved to write—stories, diaries, poetry. In graduate school, however, I learned that there are many first-rate, world-class poets in Japan haven’t yet been translated, so I turned my literary aspirations toward translation. For more than a decade, I translated poets like Tada Chimako, Itō Hiromi, and Takahashi Mutsuo, but at the same time I was translating, I was also studying their stylistics and methods. However, it was after I earned tenure and was living in Japan doing research that I finally felt the freedom to take the time away from the demands of the scholarly life and try writing my own poems.

To my surprise, the poets whom I showed my earliest poems were stunned. They all seemed interested in the fact that although I was using Japanese, I didn’t necessarily use it quite the same ways as a native Japan-born author would. In one of my recent readings in Japan, Takahashi told me that my writing had an unusual, quirky logic to it that a Japanese author couldn’t imitate even in they tried. Of course, that’s perfectly okay with me. After all, I feel like I live between two nations and languages, and it only makes sense to use a language that reflects that!

SE: What sorts of poetic forms did you use for this book? Did you attempt to work within the forms of the Japanese tradition, or did you use more Anglo forms, or some combination thereof, or something entirely different?

JA: All the poems in the book are in free verse. I have experimented with writing in traditional Japanese poetic forms such as haiku and tanka, but both of those have such a long, weighty history with so many conventions, set phrases, and ritualized modes of expression that I feel much freer and happier when unconstrained by meter and form. There are lots of poets who write in free verse in contemporary Japan, and so I am more akin to them to figures like Orikuchi, who drew upon the classical traditions in their poetry.

SE: As someone who has long translated from Japanese to English, you must be sensitive to the differences between the languages and their relative strengths and weaknesses. Are there certain things that you feel you are better able to express when writing poetry in the Japanese language, in contrast to working in English, be it as a poet, essayist, or translator?

JA: I don’t know if this is a direct answer to your question, but as a translator, I’ve always been intrigued by expressions that differ between the two languages, and those differences often form the point of inspiration for my poems. For instance, in one poem, I drew upon the fact that the simple English word “return” has many possible different translations depending on context. A return to the start, a return of an undeliverable letter, and the return key on a keyboard are all different words in Japanese, and so I weave some of those different words together to make a poem. Another poem was inspired by the fact that the words for bedroom and for ventricle (the chamber of the heart, that is) are homonyms in Japanese: shinshitsu. I don’t think that these are things that a monolingual Japanese person necessarily pay a lot of attention to, but those things make my imagination race.

I think it was because of this interlinguistic play that the prominent novelist Ikezawa Natsuki, one of the judges for the Yomiuri Prize, selected my book for the award. In his comments, he wrote, “This book of poetry taught me that there are special territories that only people who have two languages embedded deeply within themselves can reach.” When I read that comment, I couldn’t have been happier.

New Acquisitions: Two From Japan, John Berger, Argentina, Michael Wood

Here are some of the latest books that I’ve added to my stacks.

The Invented Part by Rodrigo Fresán. Fresán first came to my attention when I published this piece in the Quarterly Conversation, approximately 10 years ago. He’s been a writer of interest ever since. This latest, just out, is a major release of some 750 pages. If you like Pynchon, DeLillo, Bolaño . . .

And Our Faces, My Heart, Brief as Photos by John Berger. One of Berger’s stranger, more poetic books.

The Book of the Dead by Orikuchi Shinobu. A short, allegorical, modernist classic from Japan. Along the lines of Kafka and Bioy, maybe even a little Borges. It’s amazing that this book has never been translated before.

The Face of Another by Kobo Abe. Kobo Abe’s book about a face transplant. What more is there to say?

The Road to Delphi by Michael Wood. As much as I love Michael Wood’s critical essays, I’ve never read a book by him. I’ve just started this one, and it’s pretty good. It’s all about the Oracle at Delphi and the role that oracles play in our civilizations, past and present.

Interesting New Releases — May 2017

Here are some new releases I’ve got my eye on this month.

As always, this list is taken from my Interesting New Books page, where you can find many more of the 2017 releases I’m watching out for. And you can follow me on Twitter for even more book recommendations.

Notes of a Crocodile by Qiu Miaojin. May 2. Her other book (Last Words from Montmartre) got deserved comparisons to Lispector.

40 Sonnets by Don Paterson. May 2.

Hadriana in All My Dreams by René Depestre. May 2. An icon of Haitian literature who has been underappreciated in translation.

Milena, or The Most Beautiful Femur in the World by Jorge Zepeda Patterson. May 2. I would definitely check out anything Adrian Nathan West translates.

Men Without Women: Stories by Haruki Murakami. May 9.

House of Names by Colm Toibin. May 9. A new novel by Colm Toibin. That’s a big fucking deal.

General Intellects: Twenty Five Thinkers for the 21st Century by McKenzie Wark. May 9. A lot of thinkers to know about in here.

The Invented Part by Rodrigo Fresán. May 16. Fresán is a huge talent, and this is a huge book.

Prose Architectures by Renee Gladman. May 16.

Broken River: A Novel by J. Robert Lennon. May 16.

Wolf Hunt by Ivailo Petrov. May 16.

Nest in the Bones: Stories by Antonio Benedetto. May 23. Never-before-translated stories by the author of Zama. Need I say more?

The Illustrious House of Ramires by José Maria de Eça de Queirós. May 23. Eça de Queirós was a god, and this is a translation by another deity (Margaret Jull Costa), so make sure to take a look.

The King in the Golden Mask by Marcel Schwob. May 23.

The Table by Francis Ponge. May 23.

The Little Buddhist Monk & The Proof by César Aira. May 30. More Aira.

Recent Acquisitions: Long Essays, Bolivian Literature, an Italian Discovery, Paz’s Poetry

While I was traveling in Texas, and then upon my return home, I picked up many books, as I tend to do generally, regardless of where I am or why I’m there. Here’s a rundown of the latest.

The Collected Poems of Octavio Paz — having long been a fan of the essays of this Nobel laureate and major Mexican author, I decided to fully embrace his poetry. This book was purchased at Deep Vellum Books in Dallas, which packs a remarkable collection of indie press literature into a compact space.

A Vittorini Omnibus — this was a new discovery made in Deep Vellum. Vittorini was famously admired by Ernest Hemingway, and he discovered Calvino as an editor. Vittorini was himself discovered by James Laughlin, during his legendary run as the publisher of New Directions. If the first of the three novels in this omnibus is an indication, Vittorini is a force to reckon with.

Thomas Bernhard: 3 Days — found at Moe’s Books. An account of the irascible Austrian’s experiences with a film made about himself, with photographs. What fan of Bernhard could resist this beautiful book?

The Transit of Venus by Shirley Hazzard — Also found at Moe’s. So many trusted friends have told me that this is an absolute masterpiece that I must finally check it out.

Wild Goods by Denise Newman — also at Moe’s. Denise is a colleague and the masterful translator of, among others, Naja Marie Aidt. Knowing what wonders she has worked with Naja’s prose, I obviously had to eventually read her poetry.

Affections by Rodrigo Hasbun — I was fortunate enough to meet the Bolivian author Rodrigo Hasbún during my time in Texas. People there spoke very highly of this book (and in his short career Rodrigo has received enough honors to equip a trophy room). His translator is the very estimable Sophie Hughes, another good sign. Pictured above is the Pushkin Press edition of his book. Simon & Schuster will release this title in the U.S. soon.

Junkspace with Running Room by Rem Koolhaas and Hal Foster and Mentored by a Madman: The William Burroughs Experiment by A.J. Lees — two Texas acquisitions from UK press Notting Hill Editions, one of the great homes of the essay to come about in recent years. Soon its titles will be distributed in the U.S. from NYRB Classics. I can’t wait to dig into these.

THE SURRENDER

The Surrender is Scott Esposito’s “collection of facts” concerning his lifelong desire to be a woman.


LADY CHATTERLEY'S BROTHER

Two long essays of 10,000 words each on sex in—and out of—literature . . .

The first essay dives in to Nicholson Baker’s “sex trilogy,” explaining just what Baker is up to here and why these books ultimately fail to be as sexy as Baker might wish.

From there the book moves on to the second essay, which explains just why Spaniard Javier Marías does right what Baker does wrong . . .


THE LATIN AMERICAN MIXTAPE

5 essays. 2 interviews.

All in all, over 25,000 words of Latin American literary goodness.

3 never-before-published essays, including “The Digression”—a 4,000-word piece on the most important digression in César Aira’s career.

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