Yin Minus Yang

Haruki Murakami – Men Without Women (Philip Gabriel and Ted Goosen trans., Vintage, 2018)

I’m not exactly sure when I became one of the Men Without Women. I don’t recall a specific transformation. One arrives at it slowly. Barely notices it until, suddenly, it’s there. You’re one of them.

Murakami’s latest short story collection (published in Japan in 2014, the US in 2017, and now in the UK) concerns this strange breed in all of its many shapes. From Kafuku the solitary thespian, to Dr Tokai the bachelor with many fleeting partners, to the lovelorn, recently divorced Kino; all are men defined in some way by their lack of an other half. They are single, if not in terms of their relationships, at least in terms of their identity, their self-contained natures.

It is tempting to draw some easy moral from Murakami’s choice of subject matter. Urban living, as the great paradox dictates, isolates us from others. The internet too seems to have made love valueless through sheer overabundance. In oft-quoted statistics and polls, Japan leads the world in producing a “sexless” generation of young people who find dating a bore.

As the diversity of these stories shows, however, the idea that Men Without Women can be reduced to an anonymous mass of incel losers does an injustice to the variety of lives that are to be lived by unattached men. True, each story contains an undertone of sadness, but there is also hope and conviction.

Murakami’s writing is narrative-driven. This excuses the sometimes static language of the translations, as it is action and observation that bring his characters to life, not language itself. The eccentric Kitaru whose presence lies at the heart of the story “Yesterday”, for example, speaks, we are told, in a rough Kansai dialect; a dialect he has adopted after long study as he finds it more interesting than the popular Tokyo dialect in which he was raised. No attempt is made to provide an English language equivalent – it is the mere fact of his attempt that marks him out as an eccentric, pushing against the grain of linguistic standardization.

Kitaru has a girlfriend, but he feels too close to her emotionally to be interested in her physically. He sets her up with the protagonist of the story, Aki, whose more stereotypical and ritualized dating habits are the inspiration that Erika, the girlfriend, needs to finally leave Kitaru. Kitaru, as a Man Without Women, has his own life organized to best fit his personality. For Erika, a normal girl with conventional aspirations, the process of maturing depends upon her casting off the guy with the strong personality in favour of the flexible man who is willing to abide by social convention.

Social conventions lie at the core of each story. The Men Without Women are largely defined by a core stubbornness that keeps them from regular dating, or a happy marriage. The same stubbornness is seen at a distance in the corresponding world of Women Without Men. Kafuku’s chainsmoking driver who would rather sit in silence than make idle conversation. Scheherazade, the woman for whom sex is only foreplay compared to the thrill of telling stories about her former lovers. These women too are self-contained. Their universes too are solitary.

A notable thing about the collection is that, despite its focus, there are no men within it who are entirely without women as companions and lovers. The phenomenon Murukami is addressing is more complex. The Men Without Women and the Women Without Men are creatures defined by their intrinsic separateness even during moments of intimacy.

In some ways the people who Murukami is writing about are ideal adults. They have grown habitually independent, or non-dependent, free of reliance upon others. Dependency, by contrast, is a trait associated with emotional immaturity, with cloying sentimentality and with childishness. Yet, such is the paradox, the very independence of these characters also inevitably seems sad, lonely, and perhaps itself immature; indicative of an unwillingness to compromise and bend.

The final message is ultimately ambiguous. Murukami’s stories wander around a lot. Their structure is loose as if to accommodate his character’s obstinacy and unwillingness to follow a pre-ordained path. With the exception of “Samsa in Love” (a retelling of Kafka’s Metamorphosis that, although intriguing, is a poor fit with the rest of the stories), each tale is a slow unfolding of one or two characters. One is left with a sense of overall unity. Not just stories brought together, but a whole picture constructed of seven fragments.

This is my first time reading Murukami and I can understand why he is such a global phenomenon. The balance between the literary and the popular in his writing guarantees that you will read quickly and forget slowly. Much like the relationships of our solitary protagonists it will pass all too quickly, but the memories stick will with you long after.

– Joe Darlington

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An Englishman’s home is his castle

Elisabeth Blanchet and Sonia Zhuravlyova – Prefabs: A Social and Cultural History (Historic England, 2018)

Up and down the country, in between areas of traditional brick housing and shiny new builds, it’s still possible to see the odd row of small, single-story rectangular cottages made of concrete and corrugated metal. Whilst they often look unassuming and sometimes shabby, these dwellings are remarkable survivors from the years following the First and Second World Wars, when there was a pressing need to provide housing quickly, cheaply and on a mass-scale. One solution, as a new book by Elisabeth Blanchet and Sonia Zhuravlyova shows, was prefabrication.

Prefabrication, either of entire buildings or of particular components, has a long history, being applied to everything from the construction of the Crystal Palace, to ready-to-assemble houses which were exported to residents setting up home in the colonies, to dormitory housing for factory workers. Over time, materials changed with technological advancements, from timber to corrugated iron to steel and concrete, as did designs. Prefabs situates British prefabs in this historical context, as well as within a wider international survey of approaches to prefabrication, driven by varying circumstances and ideologies.

When prefabrication really came into its own in the UK was immediately after the Second World War, when hundreds of thousands of new homes were needed to house a boom in newlyweds, as well as those who had been bombed. Prefabrication was regarded as a quick and temporary solution to this need, at a time when both materials and labour were in short supply. Factories which had previously produced aircraft as part of the war effort were repurposed to create components for housing. Rubble from bombed houses were used for foundations. Furthermore, construction didn’t require skilled labour – sometimes prisoners of war were put to work erecting prefabs.

Although they were meant only as a temporary solution, these houses often vastly exceeded residents’ former living conditions, offering a self-contained (if small), detached house with front and back garden at a time when many families, especially in the inner cities, were still crammed into rooms in houses shared with several others.

As the book shows, these houses not only offered a roof over residents’ heads, but changed their ways of living. In many ways, prefabs were at the forefront of modernity, incorporating then-innovative features such as built-in furniture and storage space, indoor bathrooms, electric appliances, and labour-saving devices such as refrigerators. They also offered self-sufficiency, with space to grow food; the book describes a Women’s Voluntary Service scheme which distributed plants and seeds to the prefabs from gardens in country areas. This goes some way to explaining their popularity, and the fact that some continue to be lived in today, extending their predicted life-span by more than half a century.

Of course, prefabs weren’t without their problems. They suffered from issues such as damp, and it was sometimes difficult to regulate the temperature inside; early designs, demonstrated at experimental show homes on prominent central London sites such as the land behind the Tate Gallery, were improved and refined as their faults became apparent.

The book goes on to show how elements of prefabrication, such as cast concrete and the use of mass-produced, machine-made elements, were applied later in the post-war reconstruction effort to housing intended to be more permanent. By the 1960s, the low-rise bungalow of the immediate post-war years was replaced with the high-rise block of flats as the preferred choice for meeting the need for mass housing; many of these proved less popular and durable than the apparently temporary prefabs, and turned out to have design flaws with far more serious consequences.

Prefabs brings these homes to life, incorporating testimonies from past and present residents as well as illustrations of their construction and their changing place in the housing market as the areas around them have been redeveloped; controversially in the past couple of years Catford’s Excalibur Estate, one of the last major areas of prefab housing, has been largely cleared by the council to be replaced with high-density (and higher-cost) housing in the name of regeneration, despite the objections of residents.

The authors even suggest that prefabs might have a role to play today, in addressing issues such as the shortage of affordable housing and homelessness. Updated with new materials and methods of construction, prefabs benefit from being portable, cost-effective and eco-friendly, and can be easily slotted into the existing city fabric – attributes that made them attractive to planners and councils more than seventy years ago.

Natalie Bradbury

Not the Same Old Old

Gaius Valerius Catullus – The Book of Catullus (Carcanet, trans., Simon Smith)
Sextus Propertius – Poems (Carcanet, trans., Patrick Worsnip)

This Catullus translation, by Simon Smith, is incredible. It moves the material right out of the romanticised eroticism of the Roman love poets and into the real, colourful but dirty world of the Romans.

Catullus bangs on about who he’s fucking, animal, vegetable, mineral. It is very direct and the translation amplifies that directness by making it scan for our own time.

Here we have a world where for some the post- of gender was never a question, as long as they could get up it like a rat in a lead Roman bath house pipe.

But the raw sex is often a metaphor for swindling, monetarily, or in terms of reputation:

Oh Memmius, you really fucked me over,
buggered me completely and without concern.
So, the pair of you are stuck, as I see it,
long suffering a similar giant prick,
shafted.

Propertius rubbed up against Octavian – later Caesar Augustus – for rejecting marriage in verse. Ovid would be exiled by Augustus later.

Augustus switched to the old ‘family values’ rhetoric to try to make Rome respectable again. Propertius celebrated Cleopatra, where Augustus wanted that episode to be as over as Anthony: The Tories are much older than the Tories, you know.

A band I admire greatly, Bablicon, recorded a track called ‘Augustus Syphilis’, it plays in my head now.

I have no idea why I feel the need to leave that incidental thought in this review, but I do. And there it is. You could translate it as ‘AIDS to Family Values’.

The Catullus in this translation comes on as just as punk as that:

Nob of Knobs fucks. Fucking nob of knobs? That’s for sure
  the saying goes: If the roof fits, pot it.

Congratulations are due to Simon Smith. But despite surface similarities and a shared epoch, Catullus and Propertius are like oil and vinegar. The former accessible, the latter completely hidden under multiple masks.

Propertius provided a surface that has a very strange relationship with the self of the poet, and the audience – in any time – and rhetoric. It is now viewed as an almost ironic postmodern discourse, but that’s far too facile a reading.

Most people will know the name of Propertius via Ezra Pound’s ‘Homage to Sextus Propertius’, after which come a thousand thoroughly overcooked debates.

I’m not going to get into whether Pound’s translation is sloppy or modernist genius again, but this volume of Propertius shows how appropriate it was for Pound to pick Propertius, and not, say, Catullus.

The ‘I’ in Propertius is already completely unstable, it only takes a little push for it to crumble and slide down the hill. Pound was not just freely daubing the substance of an old masterpiece, he targeted that substance – honed in on it – and amplified it.

I would recommend getting both these books and reading them simultaneously. Together they provide a great lesson in different modes of poetical discourse, different approaches to translation, and a rich meditation on what it is to be – or not to be – contemporary.

But I have long held the opinion that today’s polite littérateurs are so inappropriate in their mode of discourse that they could be considered mentally unstable.

In these two poets – and in Smith’s translation – we might find two opposing rhetorical strategies via which we might begin all over again, in 2018. I believe it is possible to fuse them together proceed.

– Steve Hanson

Some Old Modern (part one)

William Carlos Williams – Collected Poems Volume 1: 1909-1939 (Carcanet)

William C. Williams. It’s a name to ponder. There’s a Sociologist called Mike Michael. Either he was named Michael Michael, or he changed it by deed poll.

Both explanations seem equally strange, but in a time when the lid of naming has blown off to the skies, just mentioning this feels old-fashioned.

It is the name of a poet though, William Carlos Williams, it is already formal, W-C-Ws.

Mirrored, singular in the first instance, plural in the second. This is appropriate, as Williams worked steadily up to 1939, at which point he broke through into a different version of the same poet.

There are two Williams’ existing at either side of the break, although this book gives the lie to that story somewhat, a story that clusters around the publication of Paterson after the war.

The key dimension of this book then is not the content – although the importance of that content for poetry cannot be understated – but the linear development of Williams’ craft.

If even mentioning the double Williams feels old-fashioned, prepare yourself for his very first published poems. Here is a taste:

O, prayers in the dark!
O, incense to Poseidon!
Calm in Atlantis.

Hmm. But Williams’ trajectory goes upwards quite steadily. Unlike, say Ginsberg, who admired Williams greatly, the development seems gradual for much of the climb.

Ginsberg’s Collected Poems tick over for a short while, then explode into time and space.

These poems move across thirty years of intensive testing and experiment, the development of craft, to a form that will displace Poseidon’s fishy vapour forever.

At the end of this phase the ground is then cleared for Ginsberg – whom he mentored – and other American poets to follow.

When the grand romantic themes are gone, imagism falls into place: Words deployed as a painter might. His second book was published in London, with assistance from Ezra Pound.

Across the many pages (579+) the evidence for Williams’ questing, testing, consolidating and rejecting intelligence is laid out and proven. Carcanet put the poems and books back in order of publication for this volume, rejecting Williams’ own revised 1951 collected early poems, in order to place the emphasis on his development as an artist.

It might be tempting to play down this volume, focusing on the Williams that comes after the break, like Coltrane after Love Supreme. But there is a very rich seam of poetry in this period, although I do gravitate to the latter stages of this volume.

The Descent of Winter, 1928, is worth the price of the volume alone. It is still unexploded, a powerful seam of poetic energy and form. It switches between prose and verse, the critical, poetic and fiction voices mesh.

The numbering alone is genius. A simultaneously short and vast masterpiece, like modernity itself, a painterly work full of dazzling grey light. It is under-explored and exemplary.

A section switches, like a rail, to ‘freight cars in the air’. In the air?! Those heavy things? But modernity was experienced on many levels, below your feet, above your head, and as light, a giddy gas high.

It calls in all the other work pushing at the edges from the decade before it, Cendrars, with his Profound Today from just five years before it, teeth replaced with the clacking typewriter, the roads and rails leave the ground and head into space.

I have no idea if Williams’ read Cendrars’ Profound Today, a Williams scholar might know, but they are in the same zone, and of Zone by Apollinaire, and those who know those pieces will know that is high praise.

Williams’ Introduction to The Descent of Winter comes in the middle. Like a cubist painting, it takes all the angles and recombines them in a kind of Rorschach blot.

Then at the end he proclaims that ‘There are no sagas now – only animals, engines: There’s that.’ Note the lack of trees.

This section seems like a final rejection of the conjuring of the gods in his first published work too, and that should give hope to all budding poets, although in its time it might be seen as a harbinger of the horror to come.

Read, look and learn. This is an essential book for anyone who is serious about poetry.

– Steve Hanson

Like a Wasp in a Jam Jar

John Sutherland – The Good Brexiteer’s Guide To English Lit (Reaktion, 2018)

Sutherland explains that Brexit is marked by its lack of depth. It has no thinkers. So he tries to put the syllabus back into Brexit with what he claims is a single undergraduate year’s worth of reading list and guidance relating to the current ‘geist‘.

Sutherland starts with the Danegold as a kind of Viking tribute or taxation, and Malory’s Death of Arthur, which contains a curt fuck-you to Papal (i.e ‘Johnny Foreigner’) tax collectors.

Then he moves on to Norman taxation and the Wakefield Mystery Plays as two fingers up to the corrupt squires. This rotten gentry is reincarnated in modern day cads such as the sadly still Sir Philip Green. The Brexiteer supposedly rises up against these awful, rotten ‘elites’ with a confused inconsistency and possibly a pinch of bleak antisemitism.

There’s something a bit 1066 and All That about Sutherland’s book, but it is infinitely funnier and richer. It is very accessible, but he demonstrates – without ever having to say it directly – that our cultural landscape is certifiably nuttier than a container ship full of Snickers. And now, with extra nuts.

Sutherland raids even the tiny details. He explores ‘Jack’ as a name loaded with Englishness. The giant is killed by Jack, the giant that ‘smells the blood of an Englishman’ and this fairy tale re-appears in King Lear, as Edgar recites it, pretending to be Poor Mad Tom. Then there’s Jack-be-nimble, the Jolly Jack Tar, Jack the Ripper, et al. Although Sutherland doesn’t explain why Jack is short for John, which makes absolutely no sense at all.

Yes, Sutherland takes you to the place where this thing that gets called ‘our culture’ seems either a bit mad, quite whiffy, or both. ‘English Literature’ always sounded a bit jingoistic already to me and when you learn that a lot of good Welsh stuff got nicked by the English – Sutherland doesn’t go into this, but he could have – you realise that it essentially is.

Brexit isn’t directly linked to specific bodies of literature, it is true, but it is linked to what I call ‘the tropescape’ – when talking to myself in my own head – a thin fleshy membrane that appears to connect any subject to its deeper structures. The tropescape is always there, and Nigel Farage knows how to call it forth with a single signifier, a photograph of himself in the papers wearing a Battle of Hastings tie, or a union jack hat.

John Crace coins ‘The Maybot’, Prime Minister Theresa May as a faulty droid, and it sticks. Here is the tropescape in action. On the other side of the political argument, May is characterised as steely Boudicca, defender of her people under attack from foreign influence. The tropescape is the mythical landscape at the other side of reality, accessed through the shibboleth of connotations in objects with meaning.

Sutherland explains the bizarre restoration of Boudicca in the nineteenth century, re-loaded with all kinds of meanings, and the obvious link now is the ‘repelling of foreign parasites’. In Boudicca’s times this meant the literally rapacious Roman Empire. Now, it is the terrible European Union with its savage imposition of slightly weaker vaccum cleaners.

What the EU has done to the European south goes way beyond electrical appliance regulation of course, but this never appears in the Brexiteer critique, as that would mean a leftist defence of border policing and refugee crises. However, Sutherland’s skill is to take the subject some distance into comedy, but not all the way, and to structure the results as a guide book. This is much more effective rhetoric than the blunt line I deployed at the start of this paragraph.

Sutherland claims to be scoring an own goal as a remain voter, giving the ‘Good Brexiteer’ a guide to literary heroes, but his secret mission is always near the surface, even if it only appears as a single periscope eye, occasionally winking.

These figures are given to the ‘Good Brexiteer’ as plain awful, or just stuffy. Here, have Larkin. Jane Austen is presented as English to the core: ‘Miss Austen was bottled up in England like a wasp in a jam jar’, he says. The odd historical Remainer is parachuted in, for instance Dickens is included as an anti-Brexiteer Francophile.

‘Get your damn clammy hands off Dickens’ he seems to be saying, and I’m right behind you John. Although Dickens did support, along with Carlyle and Ruskin, the Governor of Jamaica Edward Eyre, over the Morant Bay Rebellion. Eyre had slaves flogged and killed. But this just seems to prove Sutherland’s broad argument all the more, most British literature before post-colonial inclusiveness carries the whiff of amorality along with it, only to greater or lesser degrees.

Nigel Farage’s favourite book is The Thirty-Nine Steps and Sutherland skewers this book along with Rider Haggard’s awful racial superiority. Sutherland reminds us what a thoroughly loathsome Powellite Farage is. He describes him as genuinely witty, but also shines a light on his awful, grimy nationalism. That he does this and keeps us laughing and learning all the way through is beyond the merely commendable. The hidden agenda is human, measured and executed with humility and great humour.

But this is not just a throwaway holiday read: I think what bleeds out from under the later sections of the book – Rider Haggard, Buchan – is the Empire and its crisis in WWI. Here is Paul Gilroy’s ‘post-colonial melancholia’. This is the unconscious hangover of the Brexiteer and this is why fictions such as Haggard’s and Buchan’s could easily wrap around these mournful figures.

But what is interesting to me about this is that there is a double movement involved now, as people seem to simultaneously retrench into the island and bemoan the loss of expansionism and triumphalism in one.

There are far too many examples to cover here, Sutherland moves through the history of Eng. Lit. up to Martin Amis’s London Fields. He covers Dracula as the Vampiric Romanian at a time when tens of thousands of Romanian workers labour in London. The joy of this book is in exploring it and I don’t want to ruin that.

What Sutherland’s secret critique also seems to say is ‘look, even I can do your cultural rhetoric for you’, the stuff the Brexiteers don’t have the imagination for.

So he sets it up for them like a little toy train set, only to derail the whole thing with satire right in front of their eyes. It’s a kind of very long ‘duh!’ only using words such as ‘supranational’ and ‘galliambic’.

Maybe we shouldn’t be laughing. But Kafka once said something along the lines of ‘in the office always smile, it is the only good work done there’. I have shifted this advice away from the office and onto Brexit (how would Kafka have voted?)

To quote another so-called ‘literary’ figure Sutherland might have included in the Brexit canon, Steven Patrick Morrissey, ‘I can smile about it now but at the time it was terrible’: Sutherland has moved the subject on into humour; Brexit will still provide aftershock after aftershock, but I’m hanging out with the joker in the pack, it’s much more fun there.

– Steve Hanson