Sunday, January 31, 2010

Bees and sailors, or, Tolstoy's metaphors

As a descriptive writer, Tolstoy is rich in metaphor; readers quickly get used having characters compared to animals compared to plants compared to ideas themselves. But his metaphors are at their best when they are extended, when he draws out a comparison to the point that what he's really doing is not simply describing something, then mentioning something else to which it's similar, but rather drawing two completely different, fully detailed scenes, joined only by his purpose of showing us how they illuminate one another.

My favorite example from War and Peace is his comparison of Moscow, abandoned by almost all its inhabitants in the face of the French advance, to a beehive that has lost its queen. It's far too long to cite here, but you can find it in Volume Three, Part Three, Chapter XX (page 874 in the Pevear and Volokhonsky translation); his description is creepy and convincing on both fronts, depicting a sort of living death exemplified by pointless, habitual activity.

Another example that's short enough to share comes much earlier, when the Russian troops are marching to the doomed battle of Austerlitz:
A soldier in movement is as heed in, limited, and borne along by his regiment as a sailor by his ship. However far he may go, whatever strange, unknown, and dangerous latitudes he gets into, around him--as for the sailor always and everywhere there are the same docks, masts, and rigging of his ship--always and everywhere there are the same comrades, the same ranks, the same sergeant major Ivan Mitrich, the same company dog Zhuchka, the same superiors. A soldier rarely wishes to know what latitudes his whole ship has gotten to; but on the day of battle, God knows how and from where, a stern note is heard in the moral world of the troops, the same for everyone, which sounds the approach of something decisive and solemn and arouses in them an unaccustomed curiosity. On days of battle, soldiers excitedly try to get beyond the interests of their regiment, listen intently, look about, and greedily inquire into what is going on around them.
That passage is also a good example of the constant richness of detail, of attention to the world--and the petty, even risible interests through which we attempt to understand it in our daily lives--that fills and animates the novel, giving it a constant liveliness and spirit that, until you've experienced it, is hard to believe can be sustained for 1,200 pages.

Friday, January 29, 2010

"Fair field, clear course!" or, Hunting for good translations

One minor hope I had for the recent Pevear and Volokhonsky translation of War and Peace was that it would remove a source of silly, but real, irritation in the first translation I read, Ann Dunnigan's 1968 translation for Signet Classics. When the Rostovs lead a hunt at their country house, they're joined by a distant relative whom they address as uncle, and in Dunnigan's translation he is always referred to as "Uncle," with the quotation marks around the name to remind us that he's not really their uncle. As you can imagine, the repetition of those quotation marks is incredibly grating--almost fingernails-on-a-chalkboard painful--by the end of that scene.

Fortunately, Pevear and Volokhonsky dispense with the quotation marks, but they make another change to that scene that is frustrating in its own way. Uncle is an enthusiastic hunter, and, like an incidental character in Dickens, he is distinguished almost exclusively by a verbal tic, a constantly repeated favorite exclamation of delight--which, in Dunnigan's translation, was rendered as "Fair field, clear course!"

Pevear and Volokhonsky render Uncle's favorite phrase much more simply, as "Right you are!"--which offers some of the same tone, but none of the individuality or memorability of "Fair field, clear course!" Constance Garnett (who also dispenses with the quotation marks around Uncle), I find, translated it as, "All's well and quick march," which seems somewhere in between the two approaches. I don't have Anthony Briggs's 2005 translation at hand to consult, but I recall it being criticized for making the Russian soldiers sound too British, which makes me suspect his version probably falls closer to "Fair field" than "Right you are."

Not knowing Russian, I don't have any real idea which of these versions is closest to what Tolstoy intended, and their sheer range suggests a certain untranslatability at the core of the phrase. But I'll happily admit to still being partial to "Fair field, clear course!" There's an unquestionable tinge of the English countryside in that phrase, but it's memorable and effective nonetheless--when I idly think of War and Peace, as often as not I find myself thinking, "Fair field, clear course!"--and it succinctly conjures up a picture of a hearty, bluff, hail-fellow-well-met sort of character in a way that I imagine Tolstoy, a fan of Dickens, must have intended.

Any readers of Russian want to weigh in with their own translation?

Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Tolstoy's zoo

{Photo by rocketlass.}

At one point in War and Peace, Natasha--her surfeit of energy having temporarily trapped her in that odd state common to teens of being simultaneously listless and frenetic--orders her maid, almost inexplicably, to bring her a rooster. By the time the rooster has been located, Natasha has already considered and discarded several other thoughts and activities, and has as little interest in the rooster as would a person brought one out of the blue:
During this conversation, a maid stuck her head in at the back door of the sitting room.

"They've brought the rooster, miss," the girl said in a whisper.

"Never mind, Polya, tell them to take it away," said Natasha.
But the rooster did serve a purpose: it got me thinking about the animals of War and Peace. My notes make it:
A bear
Hunting dogs
A wolf and her cubs
A hare
The bear, of course, is the greatest of these, costarring with Pierre and Dolokhov in one of the novel's--and Tolstoy's--finest scenes, the debauched night that begins with the bear dancing and ends with it tied to the back of a policeman, floating in the Moika.

I can't bear--sorry--to refer to that scene without quoting Pierre's rationalization for being there in the first place after promising his good friend Prince Andrei mere hours before that he wouldn't go near the party:
"It would be nice to go to Kuragin's," he thought. But at once he remembered the word of honor he had given Prince Andrei not to visit Kuragin.

But at once, as happens with so-called characterless people, he desired so passionately to experience again that dissolute life so familiar to him, that he decided to go. And at once the thought occurred to him that the word he had given meant nothing, because before giving his word to Prince Andrei, he had also given Prince Anatole his word that he would be there; finally he thought that all these words of honor were mere conventions, with no definite meaning, especially if you considered that you might die the next day, or something so extraordinary might happen to you that there would no longer be honor or dishonor. That sort of reasoning often came to Pierre, destroying all his decisions and suppositions. He went to Kuragin's.
Quite. As someone who does not generally give in to impulse when it contradicts earlier plans*, I find myself loving Pierre more at that moment than at any other in all 1,200 pages of War and Peace.

The bear, meanwhile, brings to mind another, later bear, this one in Penelope Fitzgerald's strange, beautifully written novel of Russia, The Beginning of Spring (1988). I turned to the scene with the bear in that novel tonight and was immediately impressed by how Tolstoyan the bear's backstory feels:
Frank . . . asked her, out of civility, what Mitya's present was. It was a tame bear-cub, or perhaps not tamed, sent dow from the North. The prices of ordinary brown bear fur, for rugs and coats, had gone down terribly since they had put proper heating into the Trans-Siberian railway. Still, this one's mother had been shot for sport by one of Arkady's business contacts and generously he had ordered them to box up the cub and put it on the train for Moscow.
Still, I was surprised when later on that same page Fitzgerald made her reference to Tolstoy overt:
Frank had never been much amused by the dancing bear [he recalled from his childhood], nor, as far as he could see, was anyone else. This was only a cub, though. When he got back to Reidka's he told Selwyn what he had arranged, largely for the relief of repeating it aloud. At least he can't make it have anything to do with Tolstoy, he thought. But it turned out that at the New Year Lev Nicolaevich had himself taken the part of the performing bear, wearing a skin which had been lined with canvas. According to Selwyn, this enabled him to give a more spiritual turn to the whole occasion.
After reading that I found myself imagining Tolstoy as the author of Bambi . . . oh, what drama he would bring to the forest fire!

Monday, January 25, 2010

"His books move; they show mankind's way of thinking in those times," or, Some reflections on Tolstoy

{Photo by rocketlass.}

I'm deep into War and Peace now, making a concerted press to get through the last twenty percent--but I took a break tonight to turn to some of my favorite writings on Tolstoy, and I found a couple of pieces well worth sharing as a follow-up to last week's post on General Kutuzov.

First, from Isaiah Berlin's The Hedgehog and the Fox: An Essay on Tolstoy's View of History (1953), an account of his role and his evolution as a character through Tolstoy's innumerable drafts:
Such heroes as Pierre Bezukhov or Karataev are at least imaginary, and Tolstoy had an undisputed right to endow them with all the attributes he admired--humility, freedom from bureaucratic or scientific or other rationalistic kinds of blindness. But Kutuzov was a real person, and it is all the more instructive to observe the steps by which he transforms him from the sly, elderly, feeble, voluptuary, the corrupt and somewhat sycophantic courtier of the early drafts of War and Peace, which were based on authentic sources, into the unforgettable symbol of the Russian people in all its simplicity and intuitive wisdom. By the time we reach the celebrated passage--one of the most moving in literature--in which Tolstoy describes the moment when the old man is woken in his camp at Fili to be told that the French army is retreating, we have left the facts behind us, and are in an imaginary realm, a historical and emotional atmosphere for which the evidence is flimsy, but which is artistically indispensable to Tolstoy's design. The final apotheosis of Kutuzov is totally unhistorical, for all Tolstoy's repeated professions of his undeviating devotion to the sacred cause of truth.

In War and Peace Tolstoy treats facts cavalierly when it suits him, because he is above all obsessed by his thesis--the contrast between the universal and all-important but delusive experience of free will, the feeling of responsibility, the values of private life generally, on the one hand; and on the other the reality of inexorable historical determinism, not, indeed, experienced directly, but known to be true on irrefutable theoretical grounds.
Which leads nicely into this complementary passage on Tolstoy's method of revision, from Viktor Shklovsky's Energy of Delusion: A Book on Plot (1981), a collection of oblique, pithy, idiosyncratic, piercingly acute observations that should always be close at hand for anyone who is reading Tolstoy:
I'll repeat what's important for me: Lev Nikolaevich Tolstoy said that he didn't know how to draw a circle; he had to close the line and then correct it.

He knew how to think by juxtaposing words, by awakening them, in a way.

When he wrote his major novels, he would begin with something plotted, i.e., something that was happening or had already happened, and sought the relationship between the incidental and the inevitable.

He studied the thoughts of a child and how cunning emerged at its first stages.

The so-called draft version is not an adaptation of a text to the norms, not sorting through gems, like jewelers do when making necklaces and crowns.

Drafts weigh the essence of events. The scenarios, which the hero of the work goes through, they should be called "hypothetical circumstances."

This is the analysis of how man was created, i.e. his sensation of the world, and how through the movements of scenarios, experimented and tested hundreds of times in fiction, the truth becomes clearer.

This work is like that of a captain who navigates by the stars and moon, using his chronometer to verify and make sure of their hypothetical place in the sky. The captain is testing the ship's course.

The book I'm writing is still moving in front of me, swaying on the waves. I'm cutting away at my subject with words--the way a stonecutter or sculptor works. I'm searching for meaning.

The purpose of my search is art.

The world moved in front of Tolstoy. He was near-sighted and never wore glasses, so as not to introduce yet another convention into his vision. His books move; they show mankind's way of thinking in those times.
Tolstoy's drafts are like parallel universes whose tiny initial differences lead to wildly different outcomes; I like to imagine a different, parallel Tolstoy in each of those universes who was satisfied with, and published, each of those variations. For decades after Kutuzov's death, we lived in a universe in which he was a sycophantic voluptuary--until Tolstoy, to suit his vision, shifted us into a different, one where Kutuzov's resignation in the face of fate was the mark of a hero.

Saturday, January 23, 2010

Tolstoy the animist

{Photos by rocketlass.}

When I'm trying to describe Tolstoy's seemingly inexhaustible, uncontrollable, overflowing, enthusiastic empathy (which, frankly, I find myself doing strangely often, an indicator, I suppose of both my personality and the circles in which I tend to run), I tend to tell people about the moment in Anna Karenina when, in the middle of a hunt, he unexpectedly delves into the consciousness of a dog. When Levin orders the dog, Laska, to flush a quail, she thinks,
"But I can't flush anything. . . . Where will I flush it from? I can sense them from here, but if I move forward, I won't be able to tell where they are or what they are." Yet here he was nudging her with his knee and saying in an excited whisper, "Flush it, Lasochka, flush it!"

"Well, if that's what he wants, I'll do it, but I can't answer for myself any more," she thought and tore forward at full speed between the hummocks. She no longer smelled anything, but only saw and heard, without understanding anything
But this time around with War and Peace, I noticed a passage that may trump that one. It comes at a point when, between the wars, Prince Andrei is spending most of his time managing his estates. One day, as he is riding in a carriage through one of them, he sees a tree:
At the side of the road stood an oak Probably ten times older than the birches of the woods, it was ten times as thick and twice as tall as any birch. It was an enormous oak, twice the span of a man's arms in girth, with some limbs broken off long ago, and broken bark covered with old scars. With its huge, gnarled, ungainly, unsymmetrically spread arms and fingers, it stood, old, angry, scornful, and ugly, amidst the smiling birches. It alone did not want to submit to the charm of spring and did not want to see either the springtime or the sun.

"Spring, and love, and happiness!" the oak seemed to say. "And how is it you're not bored with the same stupid, senseless deception! Always the same, and always a deception! There is no spring, no sun, no happiness. Look, there sit those smothered, dead fir trees, always the same; look at me spreading my broken, flayed fingers wherever they grow--from my back, from my sides. As they've grown, so I stand, and I don't believe in your hopes and deceptions."
A tree! A centuries-year-old tree! And Tolstoy makes its haughty voice reasonably convincing!

Andrei, at least, is convinced:
"Yes, it's right, a thousand times right, this oak," thought Prince Andrei. "Let others, the young ones, succumb afresh to this deception, but we know life--our life is over!"
Oh, but Andrei, it could always be worse: you could, after all, be deeply mired in yet another Chicago January, where even the false promises of spring would seem like a gift from the gods!

Thursday, January 21, 2010

Tolstoy's general

In his introduction to the translation of War and Peace that he made with his wife, Larissa Volokhonsky, Richard Pevear, in the course of pointing out a paradox that is obvious to readers of the novel--that
the most real and even, in Tolstoy's sense, historical figures in War and Peace turn out to be the fictional ones; and the most unreal, the most insubstantial and futile, the historical ones.
--notes that the one important exception to that rule is the supreme commander of the Russian forces, Field Marshall Kutuzov, "who for Tolstoy is 'historical' in both senses of the word and thus becomes a touchstone figure in the book."

Kutuzov--old, half-blind, tired of both the trappings and the reality of war--is a character who has stood out in each of my readings of the novel. His weariness, if not his lack of resolve, is familiar from photos and accounts of Ulysses Grant,the reluctant destroyer. Before the battle of Austerlitz, Kutuzov sleeps through a high-level council of generals, knowing its pointlessness; only at the end of the meeting,after various impossible alternative battle plans have been proposed, more for the glory of their designers than for any hope of their actual implementation, does he rouse himself:
Kutuzov woke up, cleared his throat loudly, and glanced around at the generals.

"Gentlemen, the disposition for tomorrow, for today even (because it's already past twelve), cannot be changed," he said. "You have heard it, and we will all do our duty. And there's nothing more important before a battle . . . " (he paused) "than a good night's sleep."
General Grant comes to mind again when Prince Andrei reflects on a meeting with Kutuzov in the early days of Napoleon's invasion in 1812:
How and why it happened, Prince Andrei could in no way have explained, but after this meeting with Kutuzov, he went back to his regiment relieved with regard to the general course of things and with regard to the man to whom it had been entrusted The more he saw the absence of anything personal in the old man, in whom there seemed to remain only the habit of passions, and, instead of intelligence (which groups events and draws conclusions), only the ability to calmly contemplate the course of events, the more calmed he felt over everything being as it had to be. "He won't have anything of his own," thought Prince Andrei, "but he'll listen to everything, remember everything, put everything in its place, won't hinder anything useful or allow anything harmful. He understands that there is something stronger and more significant than his will--the inevitable course of events--and he's able to see them, able to understand their significance, and, in view of their significance, is able to renounce participating in those events, renounce his personal will and direct it elsewhere."
But the moment when Kutuzov most fully comes to life as a character is in a quiet moment with Prince Andrei earlier that day. The general, "flabby and swollen with fat," tired from a day in the saddle, dismounts:
He straightened up, looked around with his narrowed gaze and, glancing at Prince Andrei, obviously without recognizing him, strode towards the porch with his dipping gait.

"Phew . . . phew . .. phew," he whistled and again glanced around at Prince Andrei. Only after several seconds did the impression of Prince Andrei's face (as often happens with old men) connect with the remembrance of his person.

"Ah, greetings, Prince, greetings, dear boy, come along . . ." he said wearily, looking around, and went heavily up the steps, which creaked under his weight. He unbuttoned his jacket and sat down on a bench that stood on the porch.

"Well, how's your father?"

"Yesterday I received news of his passing away," Prince Andrei said shortly.

Kutuzov looked at Prince Andrei with wide-open, startled eyes, then took off his cap and crossed himself: "God rest his soul! His will be done with us all!" He sighed deeply, with his whole chest, and fell silent. "I loved and respected him, and I sympathize with you wholeheartedly." He embraced Prince Andrei, pressed him to his fat chest, and did not let go of him for a long time. When he did, Prince Andrei saw that Kutuzov's swollen lips were trembling and there were tears in his eyes. He sighed and took hold of the bench with both hands in order to stand up.
The mix of sincere emotion and ritual performance, the sense one gets of Kutuzov calling up and deploying reserves of genuine sadness generated by other, more important losses--it all serves to make Kutuzov believable and memorable in a way that Tsar Alexander and Napoleon simply can't ever be.

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

"A Russian is self-assured precisely because he does not know anything and does not want to know anything."

{Photo by rocketlass of me saying, "Have you read War and Peace? I think you'd really like it."}

I first read War and Peace at age twenty-two, in a white heat that saw me do nothing for ten days but go to work and read. It was my first encounter with Tolstoy, and I was most impressed by his more philosophical passages, the reflections on history in which his narrative voice takes on the confidence and timbre of a god's. The second time I read it, not even five years later, was prompted by my first reading of Anna Karenina, and, still under the spell of that book, I found myself responding to those parts of War and Peace that were most like it--the quotidian social fussing and emotional turmoil that Tolstoy depicts so well--while finding Tolstoy's disquisitions on history almost intolerable.

Now, at thirty-five, I'm reading it again--brought back to it by Adam Zamoyski's wonderful book on the Congress of Vienna, Rites of Peace--and, somewhere in the middle of the book, I find myself . . . somewhere in the middle. While I'm still most drawn to the Tolstoy of the small detail--Bilibin's deep wrinkles, which "always looked as neatly and thoroughly washed as one's fingertips after a bath"; the old woman knocked down while trying to catch a biscuit from Tsar Alexander's hand who "did not consider herself defeated, though she was lying on the ground"; the way that Andrei, reunited with Pierre,
spoke eagerly and quickly, like a man who has not spoken for a long time. His gaze became the more animated, the more hopeless his opinions were.
But I also find that my patience for Tolstoy's big-picture narrative voice has increased. Oh, I still find those passages a bit tiresome, their irony too often of the heavy-handed, "Ha! See!" variety, their certainty about our uncertainty reminiscent of all the contradictions and stubbornness that seem to have made Tolstoy such an impossible person to deal with. Yet this time around I no longer see them as a rupture, a distraction from the story, at least when they're at their best: for the first time, I think I'm seeing War and Peace whole, finally see Tolstoy's vision of the quotidian and the epic truly intertwined, indistinguishable, both simultaneously out of our control yet impossible not to obsess over. I have long thought of Tolstoy's approach to his characters being god-like in its empathy; the philosophical passages, in a sense, remind us of just how a god, knowing better, might try in vain to talk himself out of once again being sucked into actively caring about the petty foibles and aspirations of his creation.

That lack of frustration, that willingness to accept Tolstoy's inclusive, syncretic, capaciousness, has freed me to enjoy the combination of assurance and irony in a passage like this one, which last time through would have driven me up the wall:
Pfuel was one of those hopelessly, permanently, painfully self-assured men as only Germans can be, and precisely because only Germans can be self-assured on the basis of an abstract idea--science, that is, an imaginary knowledge of the perfect truth. A Frenchman is self-assured because he considers himself personally, in mind as well as body, irresistibly enchanting for men as well as women. An Englishman is self-assured on the grounds that he is a citizen of the best-organized state in the world, and therefore, as an Englishman, he always knows what he must do, and knows that everything he does as an Englishman is unquestionably good. An Italian is self-assured because he is excitable and easily forgets himself and others. A Russian is self-assured precisely because he does not know anything and does not want to know anything, because he does not believe it possible to know anything fully. A German is self-assured worst of all, and most firmly of all, and most disgustingly of all, because he imagines that he knows the truth, science, which he has invented himself, but which for him is the absolute truth.
Which also makes me wish Tolstoy had lived long enough to grapple with Americans--what would he have said about our self-assurance? An American is self-assured because he knows that everyone else has had the same chance he's had, and if he's come out on top it's through his own hard work and skill? Oh, to hear Tolstoy's thoughts on Melville!

Saturday, January 16, 2010

If I knew the Japanese word one uses for "two" when counting small, digital things, I'd use it here, or, Two notes on Tokyo Vice

Before I leave Jake Adelstein's Tokyo Vice behind, I have two more brief notes to share, little bits of insight into cops and yakuza:

The cops on The Wire seem to spend all their time drinking shitty beer

In the course of describing a meeting with an odd, shaven-headed cop known as Alien Cop, in a bar that Adelstein describes as "so dark that when I lit my cigarette it seemed as if I were setting off fireworks," he explains how to drink with a Japanese cop:
Rule number one of drinking with cops: you are permitted to order only (1) sake, (2) shochu, (3) beer, or (4) whiskey. Tiki-tiki drinks are not allowed. A dry martini may be acceptable since 007 drank them. Order a Blue Hawaii and you might as well pack your bags and start covering family affairs.
Fortunately, one of the few things I can say in Japanese is "I would like two beers, please," and I didn't do too badly getting martinis when were were in Tokyo, either . . . so maybe I should go meet some Japanese cops?

Even the yakuza are victims . . . of nostalgia!

Late in the book, Adelstein, looking for information, visits a yakuza in the hospital. The yakuza, who is dying of cancer, says,
Maybe I had pride in being a member of the organization once upon a time. But you get loser to the end you question things. You begin to wonder if everything you took for granted is so good. The organization I entered isn't the same as it was. When things become too big, they get out of hand, things go bad. A lot of the yakuza have no rules anymore, they don't respect ordinary citizens, they don't respect anything. They're involved in all kinds of really bad shit.
All of which may be true, but at the same time it makes me wonder: is there any group of people other than professional historians that doesn't unthinkingly believe that the good old days really existed?

Thursday, January 14, 2010

"What are you?" or, Beware the tengu!

{Photos by rocketlass.}

One thing that surprised me and rocketlass and our traveling companions when we visited Japan last winter was how few obviously non-Japanese people we saw. Even in Tokyo, an absolutely enormous, internationally important and connected city, we would frequently be the only non-Asian faces in sight, even in huge crowds. Obviously, many of the Asians in the crowd could easily have been Korean, Chinese, etc., but even allowing for that, and for a more homogeneous base population, the contrast with major cities like London and New York was striking.

In the course of telling about his years as a crime reporter in Japan, Tokyo Vice, Jake Adelstein writes quite a bit about how people reacted the fact that he obviously was not Japanese, despite his job and his command of the language. The most amusing response comes when he meets the children of a cop who later becomes an important source, and, eventually, a friend. The two young girls start by asking, "What are you?", and it gets better from there:
"You're obviously not human."

"He might be human," her sister said.

I didn't know how to respond to this line of conversation. "Why do you think I'm not human?"

The little sister answered immediately. "You have pointed ears and a nose so big that you can't be human."

"Well, then," I asked, "what am I

Little Sister came closer and stared up at my face. "You have a big nose and pointed ears and big round eyes too. You are pretending to speak Japanese like a human being. You must be a tengu."
A tengu is a demon--but, the older sister points out, tengu have red skin rather than pink, which ultimately leads the girls to decide that their visitor is merely half-tengu, half-human.

All of which, I suppose, is better than being mistaken for a mujina.

{I don't think the statue above is actually of a tengu, though he does seem to be stomping on some sort of demon, whom he has defeated somehow by writing.}

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

"Do you randomly visit cops in the morning?"

{Domo-kun is not a yakuza. He's far too kawaii for that. Photo by rocketlass.}

On the recommendation of the ever-reliable Sarah Weinman, last weekend I read Jake Adelstein's new book, Tokyo Vice: An American Reporter on the Police Beat in Japan (2009). It's got pretty much everything you want in true crime: danger; drama; appalling behavior; and a narrator who is easily obsessed, heedless of his own health and well-being, and prone to dangerous ethical compromises.

Adelstein, an American who went to college in Japan and stayed there as a reporter on the Yomiuri Shinbun, a prominent Japanese-language newspaper, offers a fascinating account of the seamier side of Japanese life. One great strength of the book is Adelstein's odd position: while he dives fully into the punishing three-deadlines-a-day, drinks-after-work, never-take-a-vacation life of a Japanese reporter, and thus comes as close as seems possible to being a part of and understanding this segment of Japanese life, at the same time he can't help but remain an outsider--which enables him to understand just which parts of Japan's treatment of issues of sex, gender, power, and crime will perplex, shock, or horrify American readers.

One of the least sordid, yet nonetheless most surprising aspects of the book for me was its depiction of the relationship between crime reporters and the police they cover. In order to cultivate police sources, reporters are expected to routinely visit cops at home--and bring gifts! Adelstein quotes at length from a memo one of his supervisors once sent to the paper's police reporters:
It's really sad that I have to write the ABCs of being a police reporter down for your losers. . . . If you just aimlessly visit cops at their homes during the evening, you won't get them to say anything. Anybody can get the addresses of detectives from their senpai [senior reporters] and go to the house, wait a couple of hours, and then, when they come home, butter them up and occasionally prime the pump with tickets to a Giants baseball game. . . . What are you doing to distinguish yourself from other reporters? Take a moment to reflect on your efforts.

Do you take care of the cop you want to crack? . . . Do you ask the cops to get food or something to drink with you? Do you make efforts to get the police to ride in the hired limousine with you? On a rainy day or when the snow falls, this is the perfect opportunity to send them from their house to the train station or vice versa.

Do you randomly visit cops in the morning? . . . If one of your cop buddies is sick, do you take the time to visit him in the afternoon? If you just go visit him in the evening, that's about the level of a first-year reporter for Yamagata [Hicksville] Television. If the wife or kids of the cops have a cold, buy some cold medicine, some orane juice, and take it to the house. . . .

Hanging out with your family and their family at the same time is the ultimate way to cultivate a source. Families that play together, stay together.

Have you ever taken your wife and kids with you on a Saturday and just stopped by "because you were in the neighborhood?"
What I find most stunning about this approach isn't the ethical questions it raises for both sides, or the demands it places on the reporter's time: it's the idea that the police would welcome it. It just seems insane that a cop, home from a long day at work, would want a relative stranger showing up at the house for a chat, no matter what gifts he might be bearing.

Clearly, between my preference for regular hours and for privacy in my home, I ought not to think of going into either reporting or policing in Japan. Which, given that my Japanese extends only so far as to apologize for my lack of Japanese, is probably for the best anyway.

Sunday, January 10, 2010

And they lived happily ever after. Any more.

{Photo of our two nieces by rocketlass.}

Other responsibilities are pressing today, but I thought you might enjoy a brief note that ties together two recent threads: childhood reading and opaque, obscure writing.

Over Christmas, we learned that our two-year-old niece loves to read books out loud. Of course, she can't quite read yet, so instead she flips the pages and yammers to herself in a mix of English and baby talk--but without fail, she ends every page by saying, "Any more" in a declarative, end-of-story tone of voice.

Her parents have no idea where she picked it up, but it's very entertaining to watch. Any more.

Friday, January 08, 2010

"OMG-can you believe she wore that to the Congress of Vienna?"

As I promised Wednesday, today we return to the Congress of Vienna, with the ever-entertaining Adam Zamoyski as our guide!

Because so much of the activity surrounding the Congress was, let's say, extra-ministerial (the countless balls, dinners, hunting parties, and wild love affairs) it's no surprise that some of the most fun material in Zamoyski's Rites of Peace involve fashion--and, in particular, cattiness about fashion.

The British come in for the worst of it, which is understandable: because of Napoleon, they had been cut off from the continent--and thus from changes in fashion--for nearly twenty years. And the Europeans were cutting them no slack. Metternich, after writing to his wife that "It is raining Englishmen," told her that the ladies' dress appalled him. "You have to see it to believe it," he wrote, while Jean-Gabriel Reynard jotted in his diary that
Their separation from the Continent over twenty years has turned them into savages.
The ladies come in for the worst of it:
A somewhat unkempt if dashing, short-skirted look appeared to prevail, even amongst the older women. Schwarzenberg was astonished by Lady Castlereagh's dress sense. "She is very fat and dresses so young, so tight, so naked," he wrote.
Elsewhere, Lady Castlereagh is merely one victim in a broadside aimed at all the English ladies:
"Lady Castlreagh," Roksandra Sturdza wrote, "also amused the crowd by her colossal figure, which was rendered even more extraordinary and more gigantic by her dress; she wore ostrich feathers of every colour of the rainbow." According to Nostitz she "was always dressed up in ridiculously theatrical ways, colossal and graceless, plump and talkative, the joke of society." In this she was no different from the many other English women in Vienna. "The English women stand out by their ridiculous costumes," recorded Baroness du Montet, who complained of "the extreme indecency of their dress; their dresses, or rather sheaths, are so tight that their every shape is exactly drawn while they are open in front down to the stomach." Eynard was greatly amused by one English aristocrat who "came into the room in a dress tightly pulled in over her bottom which went down no more than a couple of fingers below the knee," adding that "this wealthy noblewoman looked like a tightrope walker, or even like one of the ladies of the Palais-Royal."
Lord Castlereagh himself seems to have been no more up on current fashion than his wife:
His appearance at Bale caused something of a sensation. He was kitted out in a curious blue tailcoat covered in braid of a kind not seen on the Continent since the 1780s, a pair of bright scarlet breeches, and "jockey boots." One of his attendants was decked out in what looked like a hussar uniform, and "appeared to have put his shirt on over his coat." . . . Humboldt wrote to his wife the following day, greatly amused by the contrast between the Austrian, Prussian and Russian diplomats, all uniformed, booted, and dripping with decorations, and Castlereagh, who in his gold-braided blue coat, red waistcoat and breeches and white silk stockings, "resembled nothing so much as a footman."
And all this at the same time as Beau Brummell was revolutionizing men's fashion back in England! There's really no excuse, your Lordship!

That's not, however, to say that all was well with the Europeans: even the English could enjoy looking down on Tsar Alexander, who
was far less socially experienced than most of those with whom he was mixing, as it was the first time he had spent much time in society. According to one lady he understood neither hyperbole nor irony, which resulted in misunderstandings and occasional offence. . . . He mostly dressed in the uniform of Colonel of one of the Russian Guard regiments, which no longer suited him, as he had grown a little plump over the past year, and the tight coat made his arms hang in front of his body like an ape's, while the skin-tight breeches stressed the outline of his fattening bottom. Yet he continued to affect the dash of a young buck His envy was aroused when Frederick William appeared at one ball in a hussar's uniform, and he decided that he must have one too. "I found him today trying on eight or nine pairs of hussar's breeches, and inconsolable to find them all too tight or too short," reported Anstett, adding that a courier was sent off to St Petersburg to fetch his aide-de-camp General Ozarowski's hussar uniform for the Tsar to try.
It's important to remember that this was a man who took himself and his role in the world so seriously that he soon took to leaving an empty place at the dinner table each night for Jesus.

Though kings and conquerors may come and go, the rule of the Fashion Police never falters, and as both men and women have come under their eternally withering fire in this post, I'll close with an account of a contest between the sexes, one of the many time-killing pastimes invented at the Congress that in themselves are enough to render the whole enterprise absurd to modern eyes:
On 15 February, at Countess Zichy's, Alexander and Countess Wrbna-Kagenek got into an argument about whether men or women took longer to dress, and decided to test the issue. Bets were laid as each retired to a nearby room with a witness and undressed, and when time was called they both dressed again and reappeared.
The Countess won. Ridiculous as it is, you did want to know, didn't you?

Wednesday, January 06, 2010

The show must go on!

I'll return to Napoleon and the intertwined absurdities and glories of the Congress of Vienna later this week, but for now I want to pause for a note on professionalism.

Our lesson is drawn from a footnote to Claire Tomalin's keen investigation of the life of Dickens's mistress, Nelly Ternan, The Invisible Woman (1990). Dickens met Ternan in the course of one of his adventures in semi-pro theatre with Wilkie Collins (and, Tomalin argues convincingly, he hid her away for years afterwards in part because of that connection to the still-disreputable stage), and the note below is appended to Tomalin's description of a production in which Ternan acted earlier in her career:
The Keans paid Ellen Terry* 15s. a week for her Puck until one night when her toe was caught in the trap and Mrs Kean promised to double her salary if she would stop screaming and finish her speech. She did stop screaming, and she did have her salary doubled.
Ah, declaiming Shakespeare for hazard pay while one's foot is being crushed by a trapdoor--how often do you get the English commercial spirit and the stiff upper lip wrapped up in one anecdote?

Monday, January 04, 2010

Metternich's alarm clock

One of the most arresting moments in Adam Zamoyski's Rites of Peace: The Fall of Napoleon and the Congress of Vienna (2007) comes in the early morning hours of March 7, 1815. Metternich, Austria's foreign minister, is woken "at the ungodly hour of 6 o'clock" by his valet, who has brought him a despatch marked "urgent." Metternich, tired equally by diplomacy and amours, chose to let it lie until 7:30, when he felt more like waking, at which point he opened it to find:
The English commissioner Campbell has just sailed into the harbour to enquire whether there has been any sighting of Napoleon, given that he has disappeared from the Island of Elba. The answer being negative, the English frigate put to sea without delay.
Though the note came from the Consulate General in Genoa, I can't help but hear a certain British faux-casualness in it, something like, "Say, old chap, have you seen that fellow Napoleon? No, no--no reason to worry: we've just lost track of him for a bit, that's all. I expect he's just popped round the corner for a spot of tea--I'm sure he'll turn up any minute now."* In one sense, such a momentous event seems to cry out for such downplaying, but I'm astonished nonetheless: this was the event that all Europe had feared, and the dread Napoleon soon proved those fears justified, parlaying his mere 1,000-man force into control of all of France.

Thoughts of Napoleon leading, as they inevitably do, to War and Peace, soon after finishing Zamoysky's book I turned to Tolstoy's letters, where I found this striking response to an inquiry about Napoleon from novelist Alexander Ivanovich Ertel, sent on January 15, 1890:
I can't tell you anything about Napoleon. No, I haven't changed my opinion, and I would even say I value it very much. You won't find any bright sides; it's impossible to find them until all the dark and terrible sides this person presents have been exhausted. The most valuable material is Memorial de Sainte-Helene. And his doctor's memoirs about him. However much they exaggerate his greatness, this pathetic fat figure with a paunch and a hat, loafing around an island and living only on the memories of his former quasi-greatness, is pathetic and nasty. I was always terribly agitated reading about this, and I very much regret that I didn't have to touch on this period of his life. The last years of his life when he plays at greatness and sees himself that it's no good--the period when he is shown to be a complete moral bankrupt, and his death--all this should be a very big and important part of his biography.
That letter offers an additional, unexpected pleasure: that defining phrase, "terribly agitated." It's how I always think of Tolstoy the man: fingers tightly gripping a book as he shakes it in anger and frustration, his lips atremble, his mind racing in counterattack. It could hardly have made him a comfortable spouse or father or even friend, but good god am I glad for it nonetheless.

Friday, January 01, 2010

“Even so, I go my own way, following the drifts of the hourglass,” or, Striding, blindly but happily, into the new year

A new year is upon us, a time for good wishes and advice and resolutions and trenchant thoughts on new beginnings and old endings.

But you can find plenty of that elsewhere on the Internet (to say nothing of the Self-Help/New Age/SpiritualityMemoir section of your local bookstore). Here, I opt to ring in the new year with an acknowledgment that what we don’t know still far outweighs what we do, and that inscrutability, intentional or otherwise, can sometimes--especially amid the foggy heads and fugitive regrets of January 1st--be more fun than clarity.

So first, I give you the only surviving writings of the ancient pre-Socratic philosopher Archelaus, in a brief account from Simon Critchley’s endlessly diverting The Book of Dead Philosophers (2008):
Archelaus was the pupil of Anaxagoras and the teacher of Socrates. He is usually seen as the bridge between Ionian natural philosophy and Athenian ethical thinking. The cause of his death is unknown and his writings are lost apart from the following enigmatic words: “The cold is a bond.”
Hard to beat that for gnomic obscurity, no?

And then there’s this, from Jenny Boully’s The Body: An Essay (2002), a book that consists entirely of footnotes to a missing text:
51. Underneath the covers, the message would always be different: the white bird flying overhead would reveal itself as an emblem of hope; a sigh would be a sign of white flowers held while wearing a white dress; a shiver would be interpreted to mean a shaking of spring leaves, blossoms, or rain; her name, sounding from his mouth, would mean whatever the dream wished it to mean.
Consider yourself launched into 2010.