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For today’s Sunday Salon I would like to share some thoughts about part 2 of Natsume Sōseki’s classic novel I Am a Cat, published in 1906. You’ll find other bookish news at the end of this post.
There comes a day when, unexpectedly, the first cool wind of autumn blows through the gaps torn in the sleeves of one’s kimono, making one feel a sniffling cold is surely on its way.
Although I enjoyed reading part 1, I am more enthusiastic about volume 2. The author seems to have gotten better at gripping attention from his readers and the chapters are better balanced.
In the beginning I got quickly immersed in the story and was pretty fascinated. Only towards the end I became a bit disinterested again; when the cat started a lot of ‘name-dropping’. Especially characters from Japanese culture, supposedly to give the story depth: “since Genzaemon warmed the room for laypriest Saimyoji,” “you just try to come down from a pine tree like a wolf on the fold in the headlong Yoshitsune style,” or “as pointless as Yoritomo’s gift of a solid silver cat to the unworldly Saigyo” (etc.).
Obviously the book was written for a Japanese audience; to me, being a Westerner, these references only have a superficial meaning. Worse is that I didn’t feel encouraged to google any of them — just because there were too many. Of course ‘Neko’, nor Natsume, wouldn’t have minded: both have not much regard for Westerners anyway — even ridiculing us, together with the way their fellow Japanese copied foreigners after bakumatsu (the ending of Japan’s isolationist foreign policy).
And why, while they’re about it, don’t they and their families stroll around Ueno Park in no more than that nakedness they so affect to love? It can’t be done, they say? But of course it can. The only reason they hesitate is not, I bet, because it can’t be done, but simply because Europeans don’t do it. The proof of my point is in their dusk behaviour. There they are, swaggering down to the Imperial Hotel, all dolled-up in those crazy evening dresses. What origin and history do such cockeyed costumes have? Nothing indigenous. Our bird-brained ladies flaunt themselves in goose-skinned flesh and feathers solely because that is the mode in Europe. Europeans are powerful, so it matters not how ridiculous or daft their goings on, everyone must imitate their daftest designs. [p.244]
Of course it occurred to me that the name-dropping I found tedious could be meant as satire — in real life I am bored accordingly by people who do so as I was now in I Am a Cat ;) And thankfully my patience was rewarded. After the tiresome bit came a lively scene in a sentō, a Japanese public bath house, that was much fun.
Of course, I can’t be sure that it actually is a bath, but I make the wild surmise that it can’t be anything else.
So, while I posited in my review of book 1 that I was only interested in the cat(s) of the story (finding the narrative about people regularly boring), I now really liked to read about human activities. How different!
When I wrote about my first graphic novel Coraline I spoke about ‘reading synchronisity’ with I Am a Cat. Whatdoyaknow? It happened again! Relating to part 1 as well as 2. Together with Coraline I bought The Best of Mutts for the 24 Hour Readaton and I only started reading it recently. Remember the scene about Neko getting his mouth stuck with mochi in I Am a Cat 1? Meet Earl & Mooch at Halloween!
Then I saw this gag where Mooch’s equilibrium is ruined by Earl.
It reminded me of another enjoyable story, in part 2 of I Am a Cat where our feline protagonist is exercising on the garden fence.
I was just about halfway home on my fourth time around when three crows, gliding down from the next-door roof, settled on the fence-top, side-by-side, some six short feet ahead of me. Cheeky bastards! Quite apart from the fact that they’re interrupting my exercise, such low-born, ill-bred, rain-guttersnipes have no right whatsoever to come tresspassing, indeed seemingly to start squatting, on my fence-property. So I told them, in terms of hissing clarity, to get lost. The nearest crow, turning its head toward me, appears to be grinning like a half-wit. The next one unconcernedly studies my master’s garden. And the third continues wiping his filthy beak on a projecting splinter of the fence bamboo. He had all too evidently just finished eating something rather nasty. I stood there balanced on the fence, giving them a civilized three minutes grace to shove off. I’ve heard that these birds are commonly called Crowmagnons, and they certainly look as daft and primitively barbarous as their uncouth nickname would suggest. Despite my coureous waiting, they neither greeted me nor flew away. Becoming at last impatient, I began slowly to advance; whereupon the nearest Crowmagnon tentatively stirred his wings. I thought he was at last backing off in face of my power, but all he did was to shift his posture so as to present his arse, rather than his head, toward me. Outright insolence! [..] I do not greatly care for the idea of being stuck here while a trey of brainless birds waits for whatever impulse will lift them into air. For one thing, there’s my poor tired feet. Those feathered lightweights are used to standing around in such precarious places so that, if my fence-top happens to please them, they might perch here forever. I, on the other hand, am already exhausted. This is my fourth time around today, and this particular exercise is anyway no less tricky than tightrope-walking. [..] I had just decided to hop down when the arse-presenting savage offered me a rudery. ‘Arseholes,’ he observed. His immediate neighbor repeated this coarse remark, while the last one of the trio took the trouble to say it twice. I simply could not overlook behavior so offensive. [..] I began slowly to advance. The crows, oblivious to my action, seem to be talking among themselves. They are exasperating! If only the fence were wider by five or six inches, I’d really give them hell. But as things are, however vehemently vexed I may feel, I can only tiptoe slowly forward to avenge my honor. Eventually, I reached a point a bare half-foot away from the nearest bird and was urging myself onward to one last final effort when, all together and as though by prearrangement, the three brutes suddenly flapped their wings and lumbered to hang a couple of feet above me in the air. The down-draught gusted into my face. Unsportingly surprised, I lost my balance and fell off sideways into the garden.
Kicking myself for permitting such a shameful mishap to occur, I looked up from the ground to find all three marauders safely landed back again where they had perched before. Their three sharp beaks in parallel alignment, they peer down superciliously into my angry eyes. [p.235-237]
I must say that I noticed some inconsistency in the cat’s views about tresspassing, like in the quote above or in the scene about Rickshaw Blacky that I transcribed in my earlier post. In volume 2, there’s a whole paragraph about the impossibility of tresspassing in Neko’s philosophy. It comes down to this (p.120):
What right, then, do human beings hold to decide that things not of their own creation nevertheless belong to them?
[..] there can be no possible justification for them prohibiting others from innocent passage in and out of so-called property.
But of course cats will always reason in their own advantage ;) I wonder what surprises volume 3 will bring. It needs to be read in the new year (!), before January 15th. For now, as promised, I present to you Kahimi Karie’s version of I Am a Kitten.
Since I Am a Cat is a Japanese Classic I’ve also admitted it to Bellezza’s Japanese Literature Challenge.
Other Bookish things
- The Best of Mutts, Patrick McDonnell
- Zijde (Silk), Alessandro Baricco
- The Gargoyle, Andrew Davidson
In the mail
- The Rapture, Liz Jensen (I loved The Ninth Life of Louis Drax)
- The Savage Detectives, Roberto Bolaño (recommended by Kazuo Ishiguro)
- Crime School, Carol O’Connell
December, the last month of the year has arrived! Only 25 days left to finish up all 2009 challenges… Got to hurry! Actually, I think I am going to stretch my personal 2008-2009 challenge into 2010 ;)
A more difficult problem to tackle will be reviewing the books I’ve read :\ At the end of this Sunday Salon you’ll find a list of all books I still need to post about…
But first: something wonderful happened this week! Natakiya from Bentoanarchy has given me the Kreativ Blogger Award! Unfortunately I am not too good at the memes which seem to accompany awards, nor very good at passing them along. So instead of really picking it up I will just announce my extreme gratitude here!
Book reviews written in November
- Coraline, ‘my first graphic novel‘. What do you consider to be a graphic novel?
- I Am a Cat (part 1) for the Japanese Literature Read-a-Long. I seem to be more interested in the cat part than the human satire.
Right now I am reading the second part of I Am a Cat. Waiting for me on the shelf is The Gargoyle, this month’s Boekgrrls read — and I’ve been looking forward to it for a year now!
Books read in November
- In Cold Blood, by Truman Capote
- The Old Capital, by Yasunari Kawabata
- Persuasion (audio), by Jane Austen
Books waiting to be reviewed
In order of priority.
- The Old Capital ~ Yasunari Kawabata
Japanese Literature Book Group, JapLit Challenge, Classics Challenge
- In Cold Blood ~ Truman Capote
Classics Challenge, What’s in a Name Challenge, Boekgrrls
- The Grapes of Wrath ~ John Steinbeck
Classics Challenge, Bookcrossing book, personal 2008-2009 challenge
- Brideshead Revisited ~ Evelyn Waugh
Classics, What’s in a Name Challenge, Boekgrrls
- Revolutionary Road ~ Richard Yates
Classics Challenge, Boekgrrls
- The Remains of the Day ~ Kazuo Ishiguro
What’s in a Name Challenge, personal 2008-2009 challenge
- Be With You ~ Takuji Ichikawa
I am a cat. As yet I have no name. [p.5]
I started reading I Am a Cat (Wagahai wa Neko dearu) during the 24 hour read-a-thon and finished part 1 on October 31st. I’m reading this classic from 1905-1906 for the Japanese Literature Read-along. I wish I had the edition shown on Wikipedia, because I absolutely love that cover! But the picture on my ‘complete edition’ resembles my own cat Juno, so I am happy with that as well :)
What do I think of the book so far? Unfortunately I read the preface first, so there wasn’t much to find out for myself :\ This way I knew beforehand that the first chapter had been written as a short story, to be published in the journal Hototogisu. Originally it was not meant to be a book at all! But one of the the magazine editors persuaded the author to expand it into a novel because of its success.
I’ll let the introduction introduce the story ;)
[..] though Sōseki’s total book is held together by the continuing theme of a nameless cat’s observations of upper-middle-class Japanese society of the Meiji period, the essence of the book resides in the humor and sardonic truth of those various observations, not in the development of the story.
The preface also gave away that the voice of the cat gets more and more human. I recognized that in the following quote from the 3rd (and last) chapter of volume 1:
The more that humans show me sympathy, the more I am inclined to forget that I am a cat. Feeling that I am now closer to humans than to cats, the idea of rallying my own race in an effort to wrest supremacy from the bipeds no longer has the least appeal. [..] Moreover, I have developed, indeed evolved, to such an extent that there are now times when I think of myself as just another human in the human world.
Reading that, a relation to the song I Am a Kitten became apparent. Momus wrote the piece of music originally in French for the Japanese pop star Kahimi Karie. The booklet of his 20 Vodka Jellies cd even acknowledges that it owes something to this “excellent novel”.
The song is about a cat falling in love with a human being (= impossible love). I don’t think that’s going to happen in Natsume’s story, but you never know ;) Here’s Momus singing I Am a Kitten (in English), while you read along. We’ll save Kahimi’s performance for another time ;)
And though I’d love to be loved
The gods ordained it that
You were made a human being
And I turned out a cat
(I am a kitten)
Back to the novel. I’m not really sure what to think of it. Of course it’s interesting to read about Japanese intellectuals and their surroundings in early 20th century — seen through the eyes of a cat. But how realistic is it? And what is there to ‘learn’ about Japan it if I can’t determine that? Okay, I admit to not having a taste for satire. And yes, I’m embarrased to say so; it’s like confessing to not having a sense of humor — in other words being a sourpuss :\
Anywho. Aside from the above, I am not able to identify with the cat, even though it is portrayed lifelike (that is to say: the way we humans perceive feline characters). And this time it can’t be designated my shortcoming because in Barbara Gowdy’s book The White Bone I actually imagined I was the elephant Mud.
Am I not enjoying the read-along of I Am a Cat? Oh yes I am! :)
I really had to laugh about a scene where ‘the cat’ — I am going to baptize it Neko here and now — gets its jaw stuck in a rice cake. I transcribed part of it for a mini challenge in the 24 hour read-a-thon, but it actually goes on for several pages and it is very evocative.
I guess this novel, for me, is about cherishing specific quotes; I’ve jotted many down in my notebook. In my blogpost about the graphic novel Coraline I have already talked about reading synchronisity on the basis of some similar quotes. But I was also affected by a scene in which ‘Neko’ finds Rickshaw Blacky sunbathing in his garden. This part reminded me very much of our belated tomcat Jumbo (who was HUGE and named Jumbo because of that by the animal shelter when he was only a few weeks old). He was a shy guy btw, not some bully like the cat of the rickshaw owner ;)
[..] and there I saw an enormous cat fast asleep on a bed of withered chrysanthemums, which his weight had flattened down. [..] there he was, stretched out at full length and snoring loudly. I was amazed at the daring courage that permitted him, a tresspasser, to sleep so unconcernedly in someone else’s garden. He was a pure black cat. The sun of earliest afternoon was pouring its most brilliant rays upon him, and it seemed as invisible flames were blazing out from his glossy fur. He had a magnificent physique; the physique, one might say, of the Emperor of Catdom. [p.9-10]
In conclusion I just think the cat(s) in the story interest me, and not so much the storylines about the people. Yes, I am a cat person :)
For surely even humans will not flourish forever. I think it best to wait in patience for the Day of the Cats. [p.7]
Part 2 of I Am a Cat needs to be read (and reviewed) before December 15th and the final part in the middle of January 2010. To be continued…
Note: I had a hard time deciding whether I should write Natsume Sōseki or Sōseki Natsume. The Western way would be Sōseki Natsume, since Natsume is the writer’s last name. But the Japanese put their family names first. In the end I considered decisive that 1) in my museum profession author and creator names are usually documented in the way the person presents him-/herself publicly and 2) that is probably also why I know the author by the name Natsume Sōseki best myself.
During Dewey’s 24 hour Read-a-Thon I read Neil Gaiman’s book Coraline as a graphic novel (adapted by P. Craig Russell). Technically it might not have been the first graphic novel I’ve read, but it certainly was the first one I bought myself, knowing it to be one!
About 15 years ago, shortly after I had met Mr Gnoe, I read the Pulitzer Prize winning work by Art Spiegelman: Maus, a Survivor’s Tale — an autobiographical story about Jews (depicted as mouses) surviving the World War II Holocaust. At that time I also got acquainted with the (just as grim) comic books of Tardi. Both I did not consider to be graphic novels at the time, because the term seems to be in in vogue only since the last few years.
So what is a graphic novel exactly? Well, there’s no real consensus about that :) Some consider it to be a posh term for all kinds of comic books provided they’re bound in a durable format like printed books, others believe there’s a distinction in artistic quality (which of course is a subjective matter).
Neil Gaiman himself — yes, I will get back to Coraline in a short while — considers it to be nothing more than a marketing term, a sales category.
[..] there’s no meaningful difference. For some reason the term “big thick collected or original comic published in book form” has never really caught on, while “Graphic Novel” did.
Myself, I am still in doubt whether or not to distinguish graphic novels from ‘ordinary’ comics. It just doesn’t feel right to call the collected Best of Mutts (Patrick McDonnell), that I bought along with Coraline, a graphic novel as well — even though it is a beautiful hardcover ‘coffee table book‘. I think I would like to hold on to the idea that a graphic novel is a story or collection of short stories in comic format (a balanced combination of narrative art and dialog or explanatory text), that holds something more than plain, popular entertainment. Like: could it be a novel without the image art? Does the story have some sustenance? I know I’m walking on thin ice here ;)
Do you have an opinion about graphic novels?
Back to Coraline now. It’s the fantasy/horror story of a girl moving with her family to a huge house that’s divided into four apartments. Exploring the house, Coraline finds a door into an ‘other world’, where her ‘other mother and father’ live. These parents tempt her with things that are all better than at her real home, because they want her to stay.
Doesn’t that immediately make you think of Alice in Wonderland? It does even more when you read about the neighbours persisting in mispronouncing Coraline’s name as Caroline in the first pages (think Lewis Caroll). It’s been too long since I read about Alice’s adventures (I must have been a child of about 9), but it would be fun to compare the stories.
Another book Coraline reminded me of is the classic Japanese novel I was reading for the read-a-thon as well: I Am a Cat, by Natsume Sōseki (from 1905). It begins as follows:
“I am a cat. As yet I have no name.” (p.5)
And here’s when Coraline meets a cat at the new property (p.41):
And it explains to us on the same page:
“Now, you people have names because you don’t know who you are. We know who we are, so we don’t need names.”
Or, when Coraline first sees the cat on ‘the other side’ (p.39):
Cats naturally being wise, it has a theory about it on the next page (p.40):
“You people are spread all over the place. Cats on the other hand, keep ourselves together. If you see what I mean.”
Back to I Am a Cat:
“Cats are truly simple. If we want to eat, we eat; if we want to sleep, we sleep;” (p.26)
I guess the fact that Coraline reminded me of these classics helps in making it more of a reading experience than simple entertainment. Although it was also just plain fun to read Coraline ;)
Like Maus, the graphic adaptation of Coraline by Russell has won an important prize: the 2009 Eisner Award (an ‘Oscar’ for comics) in the category of Best Publication for T(w)eens. Er.. that’s not my age group! And since I’ve grown up I don’t really like reading YA or children’s books. But it didn’t bother me now ;) At least it’s obvious that a targeted audience of adults is not a condition for being called a graphic novel (as some argue).
Russell, who’s some sort of god in the graphic novel world, says about his adaptations:
“The appeal of an adaptation is in starting a piece secure that there’s literary worth in the source material. If it fails, I can’t blame it on that. I’ve always been fascinated by the challenge , the puzzle-solving challenge of taking a piece apart line by line and reassembling it into an entirely different art form.
[..] It’s the beautiful writing. It also helps that Neil has a huge following so I know all the effort I put into the work will actually be seen. I’ve done plenty of work that left me feeling I’d thrown it down a well. Doesn’t happen with Neil’s stories.”
I bought my comics for the read-a-thon following advice from veteran participants. Next to Coraline and The Best of Mutts I ended up with Persepolis and Persepolis 2 by Marjane Satrapi. But during my 24 hours of reading I only got to read Coraline! Which indeed made a nice change of palate. And as you notice I’ve come to learn some things about the graphic novel world at the same time ;)
Now that I’ve crawled out of my familiar reading nook I might also try one of Gaiman’s actual fantasy books — next year. For the rest of 2009 there’s something else to consider: with my other graphic books on Mt. TBR I might join the Graphic Novels Challenge… I would only need to decide on two more before December 31st to make the minor level of six books. Why not reread Maus volumes I & II?
It’s Sunday 2:45 and even my hamster is fast asleep… So I guess it will be alright for me to go take a cat nap? But not before I’ve answered the Mid-event Survey:
1. What are you reading right now?
I Am a Cat, by Natsume Soseki (yes, still).
2. How many books have you read so far?
I finished 1 (The Piano Man by Bernlef) and started my current read after that.
3. What book are you most looking forward to for the second half of the Read-a-thon?
My graphic novels :) And Her Fearful Symmetry by Audrey Niffenegger — that wasn’t on my readathon pile but Mr Gnoe finished it and it seems like a real pageturner!
4. Did you have to make any special arrangements to free up your whole day?
Yes, prepare Mr Gnoe for my bumming around!
5. Have you had many interruptions? How did you deal with those?
Not really, just that I need to eat etc. ;) And sleep…
6. What surprises you most about the Read-a-thon, so far?
I underestimated it! It’s much harder than I thought to read continuously. I usually don’t have a problem with that — it’s the community aspect that I don’t want to miss out on!
7. Do you have any suggestions for how to improve the Read-a-thon next year?
I know it’s up to myself to participate in challenges, but as far as I’m concerned a challenge an hour is a bit much…
8. What would you do differently, as a Reader or a Cheerleader, if you were to do this again next year?
I have to figure out a way to actually read more… Spend less time behind the computer. But I feel I’m already doing that! :(
9. Are you getting tired yet?
Yes. Definitely. Totally.
10. Do you have any tips for other Readers or Cheerleaders, something you think is working well for you that others may not have discovered?
I’ll have to get back to you about that!
Now, off to bed. Wouldn’t it be great if I could cheat and pretend daylight saving time won’t stop tonight? I could put the clock back and read an hour longer, it still being from 2 PM – 2 PM ;) Not too tired to think up a scheme like that! :P
I know the correct spelling of Dewey’s 24 hour read-a-thon, but from now on I’m going to write it without the negative signs: readathon — because it is so much quicker to type! I’m really exited because I’ve got less than an hour to go before the readathon starts at 14:00 Amsterdam time. Last minute preparations have started! And some last minute additions, as you can see in the picture…
And yes, that includes the side table! We’ve had our eyes on this for a long time now but today I really really need it! :) So I went by the furniture shop this morning, after I had my hair cut. I als picked up another book: Silk by Alessandro Baricco (in Dutch: Zijde). I already told you that I liked to add it to my pile of readathon books and I had to go to the bookshop anyway… because I had lost the bookmark I wanted to use for my current read: I Am a Cat (Natsume Soseki). I got so frustrated by it that I decided to buy the exact same bookmark again: a Japanese white-eye bird made by Hiroshige. But then I found an even better marker of a black cat in autumn! It is by Hishida Shunso — I have not heard of the artist before, have you?
I hate losing favourite bookmarks, but this proves it can be a good thing too ;) Have you heard of our adventurous bookmark from Cappadocia?
Well, I’d better stop blogging and get the rest of my preparations done… See you in a bit!
Booking Through Thursday dares us this week to organize our books in a different way, using titles as a guideline.
Although I wouldn’t actually dream of doing this IRL on my book shelves, it was sure fun being challenged to think about it! So I’ve got 3 title stories to share with you (saving the best for last).
It was hard getting all titles readable in the picture, so I got a little help with the first one ;)
After the quake
Dance with death
Through the green valley
In the country of men
Servant of the bones
In cold blood
Through the green valley
Everything is illuminated
Eindelijk hebben we dan een bezoekje gebracht aan het Berenbos in Ouwehands Dierenpark. Dankzij stichting Alertis krijgen circus- en dansberen hier een vrij leven, zonder kunstjes. En dus ook zonder ring in de neus, stokslagen en andere onmenselijkheden.
Ik had me een groter terrein voorgesteld, maar de beren leken niet ontevreden met de hun toebedeelde ruimte. In het wild hebben ze een groot gebied nodig om voldoende voedsel te vinden, maar hier worden de dames en heren dagelijks op hun wenken bediend. En verdiend, wat mij betreft; zij hebben hun ‘herendiensten’ al verleend.
Toch zou het leuk zijn als ze naar een heus natuurreservaat konden. Zoals de dieren die Stichting Aap repatrieert, of de olifanten van Bring the Elephant Home. Hier in het Berenbos vormen de beren immers nog steeds een soort entertainment (dat liefst zelfs geld moet opleveren, uit medelijden of als beloning voor het goede werk). Maar het is een milde vorm van exploitatie én niet het doel van de organisatie. Bovendien is er voldoende plek voor de beren om zich te verstoppen als ze geen zin hebben in pottenkijkers. Sommige deden dat dan ook, maar de beer op de foto vond het duidelijk showtime. Hij kwam aangesjokt en drapeerde zich heerlijk op de stenen naast het water – om naar óns te kijken, leek het wel. Ik had de naam van deze charmeur graag geweten maar helaas ziet iedere bruine beer er voor mij hetzelfde uit. (Hm, waarom klinkt deze zinsnede me bekend in de oren? :\ )
Igor was daarentegen de enige kraagbeer en daardoor heel herkenbaar :) Wij waren nogal weg van hem omdat-ie lijkt op Ringo! Sowieso is Ringo net een beertje vanwege zijn ronde oortjes en hobbelende huppelloopje. Na het Berenbos hoefden wij eigenlijk niet zoveel meer te zien van Ouwehands omdat we prompt heimwee hadden naar onze eigen beestjes.
We gingen dus weer huiswaarts in de wetenschap dat de beren best gelukkig zijn in ons veilige kikkerlandje. Want Ouwehands Dierenpark zal vast niet worden geplaagd door stropers, zoals in reservaten in arme landen nog wel gebeurt. Het zou fijn zijn als de beren daarbij niet te kijk hoefden te worden gezet, maar als dat Alertis in staat stelt haar kunstje te blijven uitvoeren dan is het een small price to pay.
Our handsome guy :)
And already so at home!
We’re just not happy with how he’s exercising on the OUTSIDE window sill :(
Living three stories up you see! :-0
We decided to call Remy Ringo, because we love the song by Stereo Total (Ringo, I love you)! And he’s such a funny happy little guy ;) A bit clumsy too… Dropped off the window sill twice already :\
Why rename him? We’ve got this family law that cats should have two syllable names that end on ‘-o’… Not my idea, but when we don’t obey you can rest assured my brother finds a more appropriate name and everybody will start to call him that. But well, we’ve managed it again! :))
Also, we didn’t particularly like the reference to Hector Malot’s 1878 novel Sans Famille (Nobody’s Boy). Ringo has got us now!