The Ladies' Paradise by Émile Zola

The Ladies' Paradise - Brian Nelson, Émile Zola

I imagine a bewildered Emile Zola wandering into the crowds populating that new phenomenon that took Paris merchandising in the 19th century by storm - mass production and the birth of the superstore. He enters through the widely opened arms of polished French doors, having to blink tearily at the brilliantly lit chandeliers. Immediately, he is choked by perfumed mists diffusing the air and is submerged in whispers of fine French lace and ribbons, rows of rainbowed textures and fabrics on display, corsets and lingerie accosting his libido. He raises his gaze to the vaulted ceiling and catches the shrewd eye of Octave Mouret, hovering watchfully at the balcony of the second floor and nods a gentlemanly greeting. With this brief upward glance, Zola becomes distracted, shuttled through the cogs of this enormous commercial machine, through its undulating channels, eventually misplacing his wife in the melée - the latter having spied a lady friend in the direction of the fine dresses salon, where time becomes lost and space is infinite.

This is The Ladies' Paradise: the department store where all the whimsies of a woman are catered to in one majestic place; where romance, excitement and fantasy materialize through the latest in fashionable outerwear and underwear, notions, potions, novelties, household goods and other en vogue excesses not wholly necessary for ordinary life, are sold. (Ok, it's Macy's on steroids on 'discount day'!).

Eleventh in Les Rougon-Macquart cycle, the novel is about modern consumerism and utopian fantasy, a 19th century rags- to-riches story. Denise Baudu is a humble and impoverished shopgirl who finds work in the flourishing department store, The Ladies' Paradise, trying to make ends meet to support her two brothers, but colliding with the worst of human flaws. The novel chronicles the struggle between the traditional shop, the Old Elbeuf (the declining establishment owned by Denise's uncle), and the monster department store owned by the innovative Octave Mouret. A habitual seducer of women, Mouret's own insatiable passion is to conquer the 'woman', to hold her at his mercy, to intoxicate her with unwavering attentiveness and manipulate her desires within his establishment. The art of the seduction is not in the boudoir but in the caresses of silk and lace finery found at the most efficient of merchandising mechanisms, with the unique ability to offer national brands at substantial reductions.

Zola is a mesmerist when describing the scene of the crowd which takes on a protagonist role of its own. He details economic reinvention and capitalism fueled by consumers' neurotic impulses to shop, the system of mass production and the consequences its development had in revolutionizing the retail industry, in a story decked out in illusion, seduction, luxury, romance, class division, obsession and greed.

Any criticism I might offer would be Zola's neglect in providing reasons for Denise's rise in the department - what merited such promotions? In the BBC series, a very sketchy interpretation of the novel by the way, Denise is shown as an astute, bright and quick thinking sales girl whose original ideas won her elevation in the store. In the novel, however, Denise remains a mousy innocent, extremely mindful of her virtue, afraid of her own shadow, promoted not by any skill of her own, it appears, but by Mouret's regret that her reputation was often tarnished by her peers; secondly, by his own desire to conquer her, which eventually, more deeply turns to love. 

The Ladies' Paradise is one of Zola's lighter novels in Les Rougon-Macquart series, yet gives some pause for reflection, to take stock of one's wants, needs and their intrinsic values: truthfully speaking, what price is a lady's satisfaction?

Married to Stefan Zweig by Friderike Maria Zweig

Married to Stefan Zweig - Friderike Zweig, Helen Epstein, Erna McArthur
  Lonely is the man who understands

Lonely is vision that leads man away
John Drinkwater, Lincoln

A published writer, accomplished journalist and teacher Friderike Maria Burger von Winternitz (1882-1971) wrote this part-autobiography, and part-biography of Stefan Zweig, to preserve her husband's extraordinary personality, to highlight the image of a man of worldwide fame who, nonetheless, appeared disassociated from ordinary life. I personally wanted to know more about the author whose work I highly admire, including the unique woman who stood in his shadow.

She was still married and had an infant daughter when she first noticed Stefan Zweig in 1908: a young poet and playwright with a bright future, just making his mark in the world. Their chance encounter four years later seemed like kismet to Friderike, who initiated and maintained a correspondence with Zweig thereafter, confessing that her marriage was suffering an early death. Friderike switched to third person narration in this section relating to their romance, strangely detaching herself to the borders of the memoir, inadvertently giving it the context of a work of fiction. 

She admits in nearly imperceptible, self-aggrandizing tones of being a mediator of sorts, mending the rift between Zweig and his mother: "It seemed unnatural that Stefan should still remain critical and resentful of this deaf, old woman, thus robbing himself of the joy of having a mother. After being reunited through my efforts both became gentler and happier. For this she was ever grateful to me." Such suggestions were later contradicted by Zweig's brother, Alfred.

Zweig's entire works are thoroughly chronicled by Friderike in the book, adeptly catalogued by theme. She sheds some light on the famous author's contradictory personality ( an aspect of himself I felt he intentionally neglected in The World of Yesterday ); reviews his travels and significant friendships, describes his hardened work ethic, explains his obsessive collecting of famous literary and musical manuscripts; provides rationalizations for his pacifist stance on the escalating unrest that developed into full-out war around them: a detached viewpoint which many of his peers harshly criticized. "Zweig breathed the life of a monomaniac fully immersed within himself and ignoring a war that shook the world," who deeply felt "the confrontation of one still dwelling in peace with a world at war." 

Friderike describes her primary role as one to assure the strict quiet the genius demanded, the "task to protect his security in everyday life and pacify his unrest. As guardian to his inner world, I was to keep the outer world away, pregnant as it always was with disturbances." She was his 'helpmeet', assisting in research, translations, letter writing; a companion and partner through his undeniable restlessness and wanderlust.
                     photo imagejpg1_zps2b76b9ae.jpg
Sometimes his enormous fame and popularity overwhelmed him, invaded the solitude and quiet he required, encroached on his privacy and his work, leading to weariness, depression, outbursts of anger, abnormal attacks of over-excitability, fluctuating mood swings, irritability and increased smoking; referring to this as his sensitive emotional apparatus which she was usually able to assuage.

Friderike shows herself to be a rare wife, one entirely unselfish and enamored of her husband. Her description of their fairytale relationship holding court in their Salzburg 'castle', mixed with my personal belief in loyalty to the spouse, leaves me flummoxed when she overlooked his many indiscretions. It is perplexing to me that she turned a blind eye when she 'caught' Stefan and Lotte Altmann - the young secretary she hired - dreamily gazing, trance-like, at each other in their library. 

Lotte's passiveness, silent, childlike adoration and devotion of an unpretentious girl were the qualities Zweig appraised in her. To the more exuberant first wife: "I found her somewhat too sober, a quality possibly due to her bad health"suggesting her chronic illness with asthma depreciated the tone of her entire life. Friderike was certain that the example of "this young girl driven by illness into an isolation without hope of marriage or motherhood" urged Zweig to write his novel Beware of Pity.

Irony or twist of fate shadow the tragic ends of the disabled Edith of Beware of Pity, and Lotte. Friderike wonders at Zweig's foresight in choosing that book's theme. More curious to me is what might Lotte have been thinking when she typed up Beware of Pity?

One might imagine hidden, unspoken feelings of a scorned, broken hearted woman. In the last chapter Friderike wrotebetween the lines, alluding that Lotte's passive, meek and unprotesting nature might have been another weak link that failed to rescue her husband from his ballooning despondency, ultimately ending in tragedy.

Perhaps future psychologists will be able to demonstrate that insufficiency of the joy of life may lead to mortal illness. When seized by fatal depression, my beloved friend had at his side neither an intuitive physician nor the old trusted nurse. A submissive woman, immersed in her service to him and weakened by physical debility, lived with him in a loneliness she acquiescently shared in spite of her youth. Stefan who had always sought occasional isolation, always fled from it in haste when the emptiness around him filled itself with images of too somber a nature.

Through separation and eventual divorce, Friderike remained Zweig's most constant friend, confidant and correspondent. She showed herself to be a generous, warm and caring person, deeply and spiritually devoted to Stefan. She always addressed herself as 'Mrs. Zweig', and he, her 'husband', up to her own death in 1971.

Married to Stefan Zweig was a good assessment from a wife who idolized her husband, but obviously a biased one. I have since found The Impossible Exile by George Prochnik to be a more complete, unprejudiced biography.

The Outlaw Knight by Elizabeth Chadwick



Chadwick builds on an argument over a chess game between Prince John and Fulke FitzWarin, a story that some scholars suggest probably holds some truth. After John becomes king and underhandedly strips him of his family's lands, Fulke with judgement clouded by black distrust and blinded by raging tempers, turns renegade to wreak havoc along the Welsh borders ( ergo inspiring the dearly loved Robin Hood legend ).


You're a king's son by birth, but just now I would accord a gutter sweeping more respect than you!

Chadwick created an exciting historical setting with interesting characters - heroes and foils, both lovable and despicable. I have been reading Chadwick's stories for a long time, and always marvel at how expertly she handles the details and choreography of her battle scenes.


I was completely immersed in the novel from the start: a blend of historical facts ( the Magna Carta is introduced ) and fiction ( a little something to make you weep), yet the tale as a whole was so believable, I often felt the dialogue was real. I shan't betray much more, except to say that I quickly blew through this novel with eagerness..I think you would, too.


In her author's note, Elizabeth Chadwick cites J. Meisel's Barons of the Welsh Frontier, and Two Medieval Outlaws by Glyn Burgess ( among others ) for those who wish to separate truth from myth regarding King John and FitzWarin. Readers of Chadwick's novels can always depend on her to relay historical events accurately. Recommend highly for all medieval historical fictionistas.


Confusion by Stefan Zweig

Confusion - Stefan Zweig, George Prochnik, Anthea Bell


We live through myriads of seconds, yet it is always one, just one, that casts our entire inner world into turmoil.

Roland, a well respected, older professor who holds an honored place in the ivory towers of academia, recalls his life as a young student, and his relationship to his own professor and mentor at that time-- a man whom he admired, obsessed over and wanted to emulate. He replays memories of his situation as a university student, having had a horrific grievance with his father, renting a room in his teacher's home and becoming his amanuensis. 

Roland discovers that being in such close proximity to his professor and his wife, deeply checked secrets become increasingly difficult to suppress. His confusion is borne from the innocence of a youth whose direction is often ambiguous in the face of inexperience: too naive to comprehend a sideways glance; too unsophisticated to decipher a muffled conversation or to interpret the slightest change of demeanor. This living arrangement becomes one of anxiety, mixed emotions, tension, and misunderstanding. 

What place had I reached? I had sensed the secrets quite close, its hot breath already on my face, and now it had retreated again, but its shadow, its silent, opaque shadow still murmured in the air, I felt it as a dangerous presence in the house..

While his wife manages the game of secrets with a deft hand, Roland's mentor lives in constant fear of his secret being revealed, especially in a society that keeps the 'perpetrator's' name on a 'certain list'. 

It isn't right, not a young student and his teacher, do you understand? One must keep one's distance...

Such restrained passions do not fit comfortably in the conventional form of the period, and must be kept hushed up, closeted, hidden behind closed doors. The relationships between the three feverishly entangle into a discombobulated love triangle.

It will soon be cleared up because I'm not letting him play with you and confuse you like that anymore. There must be an end to all this. He must finally learn to control himself. You're too good for his dangerous games.

Zweig takes the reader into a turbulence of high-strung emotions, as crossed messages become haphazardly layered one on top the other. He portrays Roland's fiery confusion as a pathogen, taking over the thoughts of one person who spreads its virulent toxins to the other.

Nothing however is more arousing and intriguing to a young man than a teasing set of vague suspicions; the imagination usually wandering idly finds its quarry suddenly revealed to it, and is immediately agog with the newly discovered pleasure of the chase.

Confusion's plot isn't a contemporary one - outlooks have changed since the period this story was set; and by today's standards, it is basically nothing to be shocked by. For that reason, it wouldn't completely excite the reader. However, it is another wonderful gem from Zweig's observations into human affects and relationships. It may be a bit disorienting and frenzied, but that was the whole purpose.


Here's a little reggae ditty:

We all got something to hide,
We're all livin' a lie...

What goes on behind closed doors?
Nobody knows, nobody knows for sure

by Lionize -

Black Rain by Masuji Ibuse

Black Rain - Masuji Ibuse


Thundery black clouds had borne down on us from the direction of the city,

and the rain from them had fallen in streaks the thickness of a fountain pen.



Ibuse's documentary novel Black Rain is his widely acclaimed masterpiece about the aftermath of Hiroshima, expressed through the diaries of two survivors, Shigematsu and his niece, Yasuko. Shigematsu uses the diaries to try to prove that Yasuko is marriage-worthy, untainted by any poisonous fallout. Ibuse's tale recounts the lives of innocent, ordinary people irreparably altered by the dropping of the bomb; the immediate death of many; the chronic illness and subsequent discrimination that the survivors endured within the Japanese community. Shigematsu's journal makes up a large portion of the novel and is a record of an actual person; Yasuko's memoir is the author's invention.

I washed my hands at the ornamental spring, but even rubbing at the marks with soap couldn't get them off. They were stuck fast on the skin. It was most odd. I showed them to Uncle Shigematsu, who said, " It could be the oil from an oil bomb, after all. I wonder if it wasn't an oil bomb they dropped, then?"

Ibuse uses a matrix of themes that include violent natural and historical forces, estrangement and ambivalence, the sufferings of war, the strengths of victims cast aside, the traditional spirituality in commemoration of the dead. His novelistic values are rooted in Japanese tradition, depicting village lives with their unpretentious mix of customs, prejudices, and peculiarities; he smoothly contrasts humor with horror, dystopia with hope. 

Reading Black Rain had the surrealistic effect of an apocalyptic science fiction - the construction of a natural world annihilated by a cataclysmic event that, had the reader been 'born yesterday', and therefore not privy to this world's history, would have suspended all ideas of reality and the belief in humanity. 

...the correct name for the thing that had caused the monstrous flash-and-bang over the city.. An 'atomic bomb'... It gives off a terrific radiation...They say nothing'll grow in Hiroshima or Nagasaki for another seventy-five years.

Ibuse measures his storytelling with understatement and elusiveness, but despite this deceptive muteness and almost emotionally leveled prose, the depiction of the effects of the aftermath on the survivors is acidic. It is precisely from this unsettling degree of 'soft-spokeness' that the power of Black Rain, to evoke the horror of a nuclear event, is drawn. Noticeably, too, is the absence of the author's own point of view of the bombing, making the scope of the tragedy even greater when left to the reader's personal interpretation.

Wouldn't it have been possible to surrender before the bomb had been dropped?
I hated war. Who cared , after all, which side won? The only important thing was to end it all soon as possible: rather an unjust peace, than a 'just' war.

Even after realizing the inevitable cycle of death around him, Shigematsu whispers words tainted with a small spark of hope:"If a rainbow appears over those hills now, a miracle will happen," he prophesied to himself. "Let a rainbow appear- not a white one - but one of many hues- and Yasuko can be cured."

That is the spirit of the survivor!

I highly recommend this subtle, evocative novel. Also see its film adaptation Kuroi Ame (1989)


From Pools of Water Pillars of Fire The Literature of Ibuse Masuji by John Whittier Treat, p.208:

Ibuse wanted to make sense out of Hiroshima, to find a way to make it fit into some greater truth, but : "I asked myself: Why did this happen? Everything seemed senseless... There was no justice, no humanity, no anything in what happened. Everyone died... it was too terrible."

The Bird Eater - Ania Ahlborn
Deep into that darkness peering, long I stood there wondering, fearing, doubting, dreaming dreams no mortals every dared to dream before...-- Edgar Allen Poe,The Raven 

The Bird Eater is an effective measure of horror and suspense, opening with a potent first chapter describing the gruesome background of the 'haunted' house that could, if anything, be merited a five-star all on its own. 

Ahlborn uses iconic psychological bits from well-loved Hitchcockian thrillers like 
The Birds-

She screamed against the onslaught of beaks jabbing at her arms, her breasts, her legs, back of her head. 

--and Psycho-

Soft whispers sounded from behind the shower curtain, like someone fluttering their fingers against the draped plastic that hung from the rod...There was someone behind the curtain; he was certain of it. 

--and blends in a traumatized protagonist whose mental stability is as questionable as the unnamed narrator in Fight Club-

--to create an effectively chilling concoction.

We all go a little mad a little... 

Plotlines aren't purely original nor over-the-top gory, although some scenes do have their share of sanguineousness. Ahlborn keeps an even-handed exchange between supernatural beliefs and the reality of hereditary mental illness, while controlling suspense at a strongly pulsating pace.

This was my first read from this goth-promising author whose other works I would definitely consider. Excerpts from her previous book The Shuddering follow my kindle copy of The Bird Eater and seem worth pecking at.


The Royal Game and Other Stories by Stefan Zweig

The Royal Game & Other Stories - Stefan Zweig, Jill Sutcliffe
The Royal Game and Other Stories
These exceptional novellas are creatively structured psychological battles, set to challenge Zweig's protagonists. Zweig's specific strength is his psychological narrative, often embedding himself in his stories as a narrator as observed in The Royal Game (aka Chess Story) and Amok. Apart from The Royal Game, all the other stories presented here involve women falling in love with male strangers and keeping "dirty little secrets." 

The Royal Game
"A man reveals his character in a chess game...I know well enough from my own experience the mysterious attraction of 'the royal game', that game of games devised by man, which rises majestically above every tyranny of chance, which grants its victor's laurels only to a great intellect, or rather, to a particular form of mental ability."

Zweig pairs two unusual subjects he labelled as 'monomaniac' in the great game of chess to examine the psychological effects of "brainwashing" (a technique which fascinated Zweig because of his interest in Psychology) brought about: (1) as a result of nature, and (2) by torturous treatment. 

Czentovic, a peasant simpleton "who couldn't put three sentences together correctly", challenges Dr. B., who had once been held in solitary imprisonment in severely sensory-deprived conditions. Dr. B. emerges from the abuse and brutality of the Nazis not a 'whole' man psychologically, whereas his opponent was created intellectually less developed by the hands of nature. The agonizing and strategizing over the chessboard was a nail-biting experience and would wear out even the most conditioned of men. 

"All at once a new element had sprung up between the two players: a dangerous tension, a violent hatred. They were..two enemies who had sworn to annihilate each other."

The final pages of the story prove Zweig's brilliance; it comes about so subtly that if you don't read it carefully you just might miss it.

'Amok' is a cry of warning uttered by Malays when one of their number becomes violently insane and runs amok: "A paroxysm of murderous, mindless monomania which isn't comparable to any alcoholic poisoning.. It seems to be something to do with the climate, with that sultry, oppressive atmosphere that plays on your nerves like a thunderstorm until they snap."

This story centers around a young doctor stationed in a remote district in the Dutch East Indies. He becomes obsessed with a married English woman who seeks his help with a discreet situation, but who contemptuously rejects his crass pursuit, causing his complete lapse of self control and leads him to run maniacally amok. 

"I had no influence over myself... I didn't understand myself anymore. I was totally consumed by my obsession with an objective."

The doctor tries to make amends for his behavior by attending to the woman's last wishes, but fails at that, too. Zweig planted himself in this story, serving as narrator of the doctor's dramatic, morbid tale, weaving psychological suspense with all the human flaws of "the wrong and the wronged."

The Burning Secret
Zweig uses the theme of the sexual awakening in a twelve year old as he witnesses a growing relationship between his mother and an idle baron while on vacation. Zweig experiments with broken innocence in a coming-of-age situation, using Oedipal undertones between Edgar and his mother; as well as the boy's youthful admiration and obsession with the adult male character. 

They're hiding something. They have a secret they don't want to share with me. I must find out what it is all costs.. I'm going to snatch this terrible secret from them...

Emotions of suspicion, jealousy, humiliation, and disturbing passions are revealed through the points of view of each character in this triangle.

Nothing sharpens the intelligence more than emotional suspicion. Nothing awakens the imagination more in an immature mind than to be following a trail in the dark. Sometimes there is only one single, flimsy door separating children from the real world, as we call it, and a chance puff of wind will blow it open.

A married woman is blackmailed over her secret love affair, sending her into a spiral of nervousness and anxiety. When thoughts of being found out run in a heated cycle of paranoia then regret, I felt the pounding of fear in my own veins. 

"All limbs felt restless and heavy, filled with the leaden weight of fatigue that made them almost hurt but nevertheless prevented her from sleeping. Her whole existence was undermined by gnawing fear, her whole body poisoned, and in her heart she actually longed for this ill health finally to break out and some obvious pain, some really tangible, visible, clinical disease for which people had sympathy and understanding." 

Fear was the first Zweig story I'd ever read; a marvel of psychological insight into a desperate woman's mind that instantly made me put his name on the read-more-of-this-author-list.

Letter from an Unknown Woman
"I will reveal my whole life to you, a life which truly began only on the day I first knew you".

An unidentified woman sends a letter to her former lover, a famous writer so self-absorbed that he doesn't even recollect the woman with whom he once had a passionate affair. She starts her lengthy letter with the telling of a death, and proceeds to pour out her memories of their encounters with love and melancholy. As he reads it, he shows only the dimmest and most muddled memory of her. Zweig's story of passion, pain and self-sacrifice against cold aloofness and emotional detachment is deliciously melodramatic and sorrowful. This is quite possibly my favorite piece in the collection.

Further Stefan Zweig works, read and highly recommended:

Beware of Pity
The Post office Girl
The World of Yesterday
Twenty Four Hours in the Life of a Woman


A Personal Matter - Kenzaburō Ōe, John Nathan
You and I exist in alternate different forms in countless other universes...
At each of those moments you survived in one universe and left your own corpse behind in another.

- Kenzaburo Oe: A Personal Matter

Bird, the protagonist, is confronted by a grave problem, a problem that threatens his future freedom in life - a deformed baby. He is devastated by a sense of shame since he has just fathered a monster baby and feels trapped with unforeseen, unwanted responsibilities. In the face of his grotesque tragedy, envisioning his future destroyed, his continuity broken, and freedom denied, Bird goes through a pattern of decline that reveals all the vileness and ugliness of a man. He plummets into a series of debauched actions, self-loathing and self-destruction. He sees a monster reflected in himself as repulsive as his neo-creation. 

Through the course of the narrative, Oe moves his personal matter subtly with political, social and existential thoughts concerning man's being, his fear, dread, suffering, alienation, anguish and death. There is the suggestion that the deformity is possibly caused by radioactive contamination. 

In this age of ours it's hard to say with certainty that having lived was better than not having been born in the first place. 

Bird himself finds his own nature distorted and poisonous, blaming himself personally for bringing a severely deformed child into a world where there would be no acceptance of him nor an acceptable place for him.

Under what category of the Dead could you subpoena, prosecute, and sentence a baby with only vegetable functions who died no sooner than he was born? 

Oe explores moral and philosophical themes as Bird has to make a choice to take responsibility or run away, to face or look away from the atrocity; to make the decision that would result in his 'vegetable' baby dying with dignity, or being killed in shame - a decision that eats away insidiously at his sanity.

A Personal Matter's themes of deception and escape, authentic life and self-identity, raises the novel to a more universal concept. Oe explores how the individual in confronting life's tragedies, in choosing his ideals and finding his "meaning," overcomes humiliation and shame, gains self-definition, finds his destiny: to eventually "get on with life;" and in so doing, finds personal dignity and a sense of responsibility to his fellow man.

And to Bird, from another parent of a disabled child: I hear you, I feel you. The only direction you need to take would come from the one who truly, personally matters -

I chose you, dear father, to hold my hand, 
Let's walk the same road.
Be brave...follow me, 
I'll show you who you can be. 


Oe's childhood years occurred during wartime, an important fact that shaped his writing.

His first son, Hiraki, was born in 1963 with brain hernia; his fate rested solely on Oe's decisions. It forced him to reflect on the meaning in his stories which up to that point, in his mind, amounted to "nothing." The central theme of his writing since then has been the way his family has managed to live with, and care for a handicapped child.

While in Hiroshima reporting on an anti-nuclear rally, an event that occurred soon after Hiraki's birth, Oe met survivors of Hiroshima's bombing, and had conversations with Dr. Shigeto, himself a survivor, who had devoted his career to caring for victims of the A-bomb atrocity. Oe found inspiration in confronting his own heartbreaking tragedy through the dignity and courage of the survivors, and from Dr. Shigeto's dedication to "a hopeless cause." The Hiroshima visit was the transforming experience that forever changed his view of what it means to be human.
It ultimately led to, in his own words, a rebirth of his writing style. This renewed outlook swayed him to 'rescue' his son.

Living with a disabled family member, we come to know despair, but "by actually giving it expression we can be healed and know the joy of recovering." - Kenzaburo Oe

Hiraki Oe has composed and recorded 2 distinctive works to date:

Oh, yeah- highly recommend.


Patriotism (Second Edition) (New Directions Pearls) 2nd (second) Edition by Mishima, Yukio published by New Directions (2010) -

The Sino-Japanese tradition was very important to Yukio Mishima (January 14, 1925 – November 25, 1970), who held strong ideals of the militaristic glory days of old Japan. 

In Patriotism(1960), Mishima uses the love-death theme executing the ancient ritual suicide, viscerally playing it out through a recently married couple. Lieutenant Takeyama returns home following the failed coup d'état of 1936, the Ni NI Roku Incident. Rather than following orders to execute the rebels- his friends, the young army officer decides to commit suicide- his farewell note would read: "Long Live the Imperial Forces--," revealing his own true ideology. 

The story unfolds in a timeframe of a few hours, in an unsettling and evocative mix of contrasting effects, of sexual and gruesomely graphic scenes, as Mishima manages skillfully and poetically to balance sensuality with darkness.

The lieutenant drew his wife close and kissed her vehemently. As their tongues explored each other's mouths, reaching out into the smooth, moist interior, they felt as if the still- unknown agonies of death had tempered their senses to the keenness of red-hot steel. The agonies they could not yet feel, the distant pains of death, had refined their awareness of pleasure.....

At the touch of his wife's tears on his stomach the lieutenant felt ready to endure with courage the cruelest agonies of his suicide.

Takeyama considers his final act with the courage of a soldier entering battle, to "a death of no less degree and quality than death in the front line." For Reiko who, almost in a dreamlike state, would bravely follow him, honoring their death pact like the dutiful spouse: "The day which, for a soldier's wife, had to come, has come." 
The last moments of this heroic and dedicated couple were such to make the gods weep. 

Mishima's obsession with death was bewildering from a young age, if not plainly disturbing. Death themes frequently appeared even in his earliest works. In Patriotism, the melding of self-annihilation and erotic pleasure is expressed with deep feeling: it is absolutely apparent to this reader that the story was a rehearsal for the plan he had in mind as his own final act on November 25th, 1970. 
See Mishima: A Biography
and wiki on Mishima

In the movie adaptation, Yūkoku- the Rite of Life and Death, Mishima dramatically (over)played the lead with considered intensity and vigor - his emotional investment in the act of the ritual itself seemed so well-thought out, and so very personal.

My copy of Patriotism is from Death in Midsummer and Other Stories, an extremely worthy collection showcasing Mishima's mastery of the short story form.

I Am Livia - Phyllis T. Smith

The history of ancient Rome, in general, has cloaked the women of the Caesars in shadows and obscurity. Undoubtedly, these women are worthy of greater attention; their stories are fascinating in their own right, and rife with intrigue and scandal.


Livia Drusilla (58 B.C.- 28 A.D.) was extremely charitable to the cause of orphans and provided relief support to victims of disasters. She was privy to affairs of state and had the ear of "the ruler of the world."  She has been viewed as the most powerful woman in the history of ancient Rome and was deified as a goddess after her death.


Livia was described by her grandson in I, Claudius (1934) as: both "remarkable and abominable," and one of the worst of the ancient Claudian family of Rome. Robert Graves's Claudius leaned to the beliefs that she was shrewd, cunning and responsible for poisoning many who crossed her path to power. Contemporary historians dispel this idea, finding these accusations baseless - a fair sentiment which Smith achieves in I am Livia by portraying her in a more judicious light.


To be appreciated as a woman, and also to be appreciated as a creature with a mind --what more could I have wanted?


The novel's similarity to I, Claudius is its autobiographic-fictional device, used in this case, to tell the historical events starting from the murder of Julius Caesar to the last Civil War. Smith's work however, skims the surface of historical details and their significance in shaping the Empire, focusing more on the characters' relationships, specifically, the woman behind the man.


Any woman who says she does not want to guide the actions of the man she loves, is in my opinion, lying.


Readers get to see the developing inner machinations of an astute, intuitive woman, viewing Livia as a young, out-spoken daughter of a nobleman, as a teen-bride, a wife to a Caesar and mother to a dynasty- a woman who could capably exercise influence over Caesar Octavianus, in her mind, "for the good of Rome"; whose political savvy and sound advice were probably her husband's greatest assets.


I can't claim to know much of ancient Roman history (a paucity I regret and look forward to remedy), so it was a little confusing for me with all the key figures (who bred like rabbits), their offspring, extended family members and/or adopted heirs with same or similar names. It is for this reason that I would have liked to see a genealogy map. Trust me, this is important! In the mean time, for those of like-mind, I am Livia is an enjoyable prompter to pulling out those ancient history books.


Generous marks to Phyllis T. Smith's I am Livia for a very good start (there's a follow up in the works).


Mishima: A Biography - John Nathan
The Last Samurai

Two months short of his 46th birthday, on November 25, 1970, Yukio Mishima with a handful of followers and dressed in full uniform, entered the compound of the Japan Self-Defense Force,
gagged and tied up the commander of the JSDF, demanding the assembly of the entire Eastern division ( a gathering of 800 soldiers) to listen to his planned speech: "an appeal to repudiate the post war democracy that robbed Japan of its identity; to restore Japan to her true form, and in the restoration, die."
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When his speech went unheard, muffled by the noise of his audience's jeers, Mishima engaged his final bloody concept,seppuku. His "second" then completed the ritual by beheading him with a long sword. The sequence of events played out dramatically and undeniably like something out of a violent motion picture.

Biographer John Nathan knew Mishima professionally and personally, having translated The Sailor Who Fell From Grace With The Sea. His analysis of Mishima's private life and novels led him to believe that his suicide was primarily about his erotic lifelong fascination with death. Mishima wanted passionately to die all his life, and consciously chose "patriotism" as a means to his fantasized, painful "heroic" end.

Mishima was born on January 14, 1925, and birth-named Kimitake Hiraoka (Yukio Mishima would become his pen name). At only 50 days old, his paternal grandmother Natsu Nagai took him away from his mother, Shizue, and moved him into her dark room downstairs of the family home. Natsu was noble born, a highly unstable woman who suffered fits of hysteria as a child. She held Kimitake "prisoner" until he was 12 years old, jealously and fiercely guarding him. She kept rigid control over his upbringing until 1937, when she became too ill to take care of him, paving the way for him finally to live in his parents' household. Nathan insightfully suggests that she possibly hoped to ingrain in her first grandchild the values she believed were the birthright of the noble Nagai.

Natsu exposed Kimitake to Kabuki theatre, and might have contributed in this way to his creative development: taking him to his first play, Chushingura--the Tale of the 47 Ronin --a celebration of feudal allegiance, said to be the most exciting of the great Kabuki classics. Nathan also alludes to her afflicting this impressionable young boy with constant mournful lamentations of a "lost distant past, an elegant past, a past beauty," fueling a romantic longing for "purity and beauty and a fierce impossible desire to be other than himself."

A loner and rarely seen without a book, Kimitake spent time writing poetry and fantasy stories as young as 12 years old, reading works by Oscar Wilde, Rilke, and Tanizaki. His adolescent writing sensibilities were influenced by the Japan Romantics, evolved with an aesthetic formula in which "Beauty, Ecstasy and Death are equivalent." Later, his ideology became ultranationalistic, exalting traditional convictions "worthy of dying for."

Nathan submits Kimitake's latent homosexuality was unintentionally the result of the hostile domestic environment he grew up in, however, this notion that a person's sexual preference is a product of living in a dysfunctional environmentdid not sit well with me - that's a whole 'nother debate! As young as 16, he showed anxiety and disgust at what he sensed was an "unwholesomeness," apologizing for his masquerade of normalcy. This is later reflected in the novel that catapulted him to stardom- Confessions of a Mask

In Februrary 1945, Mishima welcomed the draft into the army, but when Japan surrendered on August 15, and the Emperor called for his subjects to lay down their arms, Mishima, Nathan assumes, might have convulsed with the "existential horror" of being cheated and deprived of that morbid destiny, gleaning from his postwar essays and novels: "The war ended. All I was thinking about, as I listened to the Imperial Rescript announcing the surrender, was the Golden temple. The bond between the temple and myself had been severed. I thought now I shall return to a state in which I exist on one side and beauty on the other. A state which will never improve so long as the world endures."

Mishima found it difficult adapting to postwar reality in the atmosphere of labeling, blacklisting and enforced isolation of "literary war criminals." It was the older, established writers who were being sought and many routes were closed to getting his manuscripts sponsored. His first novel, Thieves, was violently lyrical and in spite of a glowing preface by his new mentor, Yasunari Kawabata, the novel was ignored. Even with some guidance and editing, his stories went unnoticed and "no one who mattered was impressed."
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The autobiographical novel Confessions of a Mask, was a book he felt he must write in order to survive. It was a therapeutic effort, a process of self-discovery for Mishima, who finally validated within himself a suppressed homosexuality, and who was incapable of feeling alive or of showing passion, except in sadomasochistic fantasies which stank of blood and death. "This book is the last testament I want to leave behind in the domain of death where I have resided until now.

His decision to join the Army Self Defense Force (ASDF) in 1967 was partly for patriotic concern, and partly to feed his need for glory - of the hero, not the writer. In his mind, he had taken his first step in becoming a warrior, a samurai- a persona he obsessed over.
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"The samurai's profession is the business of death. No matter how peaceful the age in which he lives, death is the basis of all his action. The moment he fears and avoids death he is no longer a samurai."

Rumors of a nomination for the Nobel prize ( for the third time) buzzed around Mishima in 1968. However, the prize went to his old mentor, Yasunari Kawabata. Many close to Mishima suspected this disappointment about the Nobel prize had a significant impact on his decision to end his life.

Mishima was a man who felt less real in this world than in the realm of his poetry and novels; a deeply tortured man who yearned for his eroticized, violently lyrical literary work to be acknowledged; but his brutal, unheard last words were the veritable final blow. Clearly, he was more suited to the bygone feudal days of Japan-- an accomplished swordsman loyal to the empire, who grabbed at the romantic hero's painful death he had longed for all his life. Nathan thoroughly probed Mishima's psyche through his novels; his conclusions into this tragic life lead him to hope finally that "he found what he expected to find inside and beyond the pain."

Shizue, his mother, summed it up best at his memorial, "Be happy for him.. This was the first time in his life Kimitake did something he always wanted to do."



A King's Ransom by Sharon Kay Penman

A King's Ransom - Sharon Kay Penman

Your Pride Will Be Your Undoing, Lionheart 

A King's Ransom is the sweeping, adventurous sequel to Lionheart , a masterfully spun novel of the last seven years of Richard I's life: 1192-1199, focusing on the period of his capture, imprisonment, and ransoming by Heinrich Hohenstaufen, the Holy Roman Emperor. It is a homeric epic that retells the life of this legendary hero in "IMAX" detail. The author takes great care to keep historical veracity while weaving well thought-out strategies and motives, clearing a few myths and misconceptions along the way of transporting us on a grand medieval journey.

Sharon Kay Penman is well-known for her detailed, insightful characterizations, and in A King's Ransom, that skill is shown at its peak. Historical figures became flesh and blood, living, breathing 3- dimensional people: I felt the searing pain of burnt flesh, the fear and mania of being in solitary imprisonment; I smelled the musty, moldy dankness of the chilled dungeon; the putrefying odor of the suppurating wound; felt the heartbreak of a neglected wife; tasted the sweetness of love's second chance. 

Her characters' personalities are well-conceived and fitting - I saw Richard I as a restless and impulsive adventurer, quick to flare up with that "notorious Angevin temper," more suited to aggressive military life than to contemplating law, governing a kingdom; or to committed marital life. 

It couldn't be all swords and crossbows in Ms. Penman's novels, so it was a pleasure to see the women of court take active duty: Eleanor of Aquitaine, Joanna, Berengaria. Their roles and perspectives brought deeply heartfelt, emotional dimensions to that dangerous, often tragic medieval life.

History is never so entertaining as in a fictionalized version, and Ms.Penman pulled it off in imaginative scenes - sieges, battles, betrayals, political drama - the dangerous 12th century game of Monopoly . The amazing sea adventure, Richard's capture and especially his incarceration will stay in my mind for a long time. 

I particularly got a thrill by old King Henry's cameo appearance as Richard lay feverish in his dungeon: "There is something else you need to remember whenever this new reality of yours becomes more than you think you can bear. You cannot gain revenge from the grave. Trust me on this; I know." 

Ms. Penman brings spirit and passion to the life of the Coeur de Lion, whose legend will carry on in A King's Ransom -the last of the Angevin Trilogy, much like what Homer did for Odysseus... and you know how successful that was.

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Richard I (8 September 1157 – 6 April 1199). He was known as Richard Cœur de Lion, or mainly Richard the Lionheart, even before his accession, because of his reputation as a great military leader and warrior.


Closely Observed Trains - Bohumil Hrabal

Closely Observed Trains or Closely Watched Trains (1965)


The coming-of-age story of Milos Hrma - a young, naïve railwayman - unfolds in a small lethargic train station, set in North Bohemia, Prague during the last two weeks of WWII, 1945.  Milos narrates the tale which covers a timespan of 48 hours, comprising a series of flashbacks where it is revealed how his family name had come to be besmirched by three generations of Hrma men; including the mysterious origins of the gashes on his wrists.


Milos's day is spent dreamily watching military trains pass through to the front transporting the injured and dying; displaced refugees who had lost their homes in bombings; even dead or dying animals - evoking a clear picture of the chaotic period as a result of the impending German collapse.


The plot moves surrealistically, from a natural to humorous manner: the daily lives and interactions of the townfolk; the histrionics of his forebears; the German Occupation and movement of Nazi troops from the front; Milos's humiliating 'first time' with his girlfriend that later prompted a suicide attempt; the licentious scene with dispatcher Hubička, inkstamping the derrière of the female telegraphist. I found such ribald scenes and periodic, foolish, digressive banter to be quite amusing, highlighting Hrabal's skill at veiling human drama with his distinctive sense of humor. About Milos's grandfather who thought himself a "hypnotist":

In this tank waist-deep in the cabin stood an officer of the Reich, with a black beret with the death's- head badge and crossed bones on his head, and my grandfather kept on going steadily forward, straight toward this tank, with his hands stretched out, and his eyes spraying towards the Germans the thought: 'Turn around and go back!'


And really, that tank halted. The whole army stood still. Grandfather touched the leading tank with his outstretched fingers, and kept pouring out towards it the same suggestion: 'Turn around and go back, turn around and...' And then the lieutenant gave a signal with his pennant, and the tank changed its mind and moved forward, but grandfather never budged, and the tank ran over him and crushed his head, and after that there was nothing standing in the way of the German army.

Milos's youthful idealistic view of Hubička, and a personal, perhaps subconscious, drive to remove the stigma from his family name- particularly his grandfather's doomed effort - lead him to accept a dangerous mission that culminates in a dramatic heroic deed, as he mercilessly exclaims:


                              "You should have sat at home on your arse..."

War fictionistas who have read All's Quiet on the Western Front would note echoes of a similar fateful and humanistic scene.

Bohumil Hrabal's short, postwar novel is a stunning blend of humor, humanity, tragedy and heroism, justifiably earning the appellation of "masterpiece." Highly recommend. 


Bohumil Hrabal (Czech pronunciation: [ˈboɦumɪl ˈɦrabal]) (28 March 1914 – 3 February 1997) was a Czech writer, regarded by many Czechs as one of the best writers of the 20th century. During the war, he worked as railway labourer and dispatcher in Kostomlaty, near Nymburk, an experience reflected in one of his best-known works Ostře sledované vlaky (Closely Observed Trains).

The Man Who Watched Trains Go By - Luc Sante, Marc Romano, D. Thin, Georges Simenon
Those who leave by night- trains leave for ever 
- Kees Popinga from 
The Man Who Watched The Trains Go By

Kees Popinga is a dull man who lives in a well-ordered existence, where everything including his wife is admirably above-board,"one might have said of her..that she was the ' best make' of Dutch wife;" his house the "best planned;" his neighborhood in the "healthiest and most attractive part in Groningen." He is Simenon's psychologically marginal archetype - "a middle-aged man, after years of conformity to the standards of society, who flees his milieu." *

Popinga's habit of watching night trains affords him a glimpse of another life, of adventures which he often only dream about - a yearning for escape.
"There was something that had an appeal for him in trains, especially in night- trains, which always put queer, vaguely improper notions into his head- though he would have been hard put to it to define them. Also he had an impression that those who leave by night- trains leave for ever - an impression heightened the previous night by his glimpse of those Italians piled into their carriage like emigrants."
After his employer, Julius de Coster, confesses to have defrauded his firm to the level of immediate liquidation, Popinga realizes that, not only will he lose his job, but he'll be penniless, for he had invested all his savings in the firm. De Coster's deception and impertinent, harsh put-downs spur Popinga to seek a way out from facing responsibility. At the age of 40, he chooses to do as he pleases -no restraints, no laws or rigid conventions. A chance to escape from the routine of life is grabbed, freeing himself from the nets of domesticity and duty, fleeing the judgments, the daily desultory remarks and opinions from "cocksured ignoramuses who think they know everything." 

He enters a new, sinister world, flexing for the first time, a wiliness that is uncharacteristic yet seems natural to him. His adventures lead him to felonious encounters in the world of prostitutes, pimps, auto thieves, murder and madness. Now an elusive criminal, he feels a sense of pride and a thrill at being called the 'Thug of Amsterdam', enjoying his anonymous movements amongst the police, taunting and teasing the "cocksure Superintendent" in a suspenseful, psychological game of 'checkmate me if you can.' On a semiconscious level, he seems to want to prove that he is cleverer or more resourceful than them all.

Popinga's need for escape, his desire to do as he pleases, to exercise his free will and the resulting destructive actions eventually take their toll. Guilt-ridden, he looses control, begins to fall apart and progressively descends into insanity at a stealthily subtle pace that showcases the brilliance of this author.

When finally in the asylum, Popinga decides to write the 'Truth about the Kees Popinga Case,' to convince himself that his experiences were not insignificant, he produces only blank pages. The 'truth' that evades him is that, in reality, he achieved nothing by his running away. 

The Man Who Watched the Trains Go By is part of Simenon's extensive romans durs psychological-noire oeuvre -hard novels that consistently portray an estranged, modern antihero always fleeing, who lacks lucidity and is moved by forces he's too weak to control; a man who lacks positive values and ambitions. The violent actions of his characters are "tragic consequences of life, that for many men and women, are unendurable." *

For Kees Popinga, the inability to take responsibility, his lack of ambition and the monotonous, drudgery of the life he led proved his inevitable downfall.

I've read a few of Simenon's works - Act of Passion, The Train, The Strangers in the House, Pietr the Latvian- have enjoyed the psychological insight and narrative style of these novels, and I'm sure I'll be busy for years to come feasting on them all. That's my ambition.

* Lucille F. Becker, Georges Simenon. New York, Twayne, 1999


The Winter People - Jennifer McMahon









There are doorways, gates, between this world and the world of spirits through which the dead can return. Not just as spirits, but as living, breathing beings-- Sleepers.





The Winter People is a preternatural, gothic classic; a feral, feverishly suspenseful tale of those who exist outside the known world, on the fringe --



 The story of a little girl named Gertie who died. 

Whose mother loved her too much to let her go.

So she brought her back. 

The world she came back to wasn't the same. 

She wasn't the same.....


What she longs for is human blood.

I was truly impressed with how well the author was able to blend the typical otherworldly elements of a ghost story, without crossing the line into triteness: it was simply a phantasmagoric read.

And, I think the portal was left open for a sequel?..sequel...sequel!

The Color of Light - Helen Maryles Shankman



YA generally may be a little off my reading zeitgeist, but it's good to try different genres; it makes me feel that I'm openminded (although this might be a delusion). The Color of Light got my attention for the supernatural and gothic themes. At first, I was a little worried about the charred, overdone vampire stories bursting out of a gloaming pop culture. However, this novel had a deeper variation to its dusky predecessors, and proved to be an interesting historical fiction: weaving not only WWII and present day plot lines, but uniquely taking the reader into the colorful world of Renaissance art. 

This was a treat. It's a testimonial to the punch of a novel when the reader in offered something new and exciting to explore. 

In The Color of Light, the protagonists, Tessa and Rafe (Raphael), are at opposite ends of the spectrum: light is contrasted by dark; good battles the forces of evil; beauty is in the company of the beast. In a similar vein, old struggles to survive in a modern world: the technique of Renaissance artwork is dying, being replaced by avant-garde abstractions.

The themes of the bond of friendship and a love that comes full circle were cleverly painted (pun). There was a strong sense of friendship throughout the book, especially when Tessa flounders, or Rafe loses his direction. Always, always the circle of friends would create an unbreakable ring, providing unending support. This 'circle of light' keeps moving through the story, illuminating the shadows and casting glows as the characters develop. I lost count of the number of times "circle" was mentioned in the novel, but hey, it had the subliminal effect intended.

I'd have to say The Color of Light had a positive influence on me. From it, I revisited an interest in Renaissance art, the period and the artists, specifically in Raphael Sanzio whose Madonna and Child played a significant role.
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