A Small Amount of Catching Up – Part 1

After a horrible bout of RSI and/or nasty neck pain (which made it very painful to both type and read), I am slowly getting back to fairly normal health – yay 🙂  So, it’s time to catch you up with a little of what I have managed to read recently: slowly…

Of course, it’s good to start the way you mean to go on, so my first mini-review will be a slating of Henry James’ The Wings of the Dove.  Yes, yes, he’s very clever, wonderful psychological treatment etc etc, but Henry James is everything that non-readers imagine classic literature to be – impenetrable, over-wordy, meandering and (most importantly) completely up itself.  I’ve tried with Mr. James, I really have, and there were times where I thought I was glimpsing the good in his writing; however, these few moments of enjoyment were drowned in the sludge of words and lack of momentum.  The story?  Sick rich girl has money, and everyone else wants it (but never actually says it of course).  Apologies to all James fans, but it’s three strikes and out for old Henry – I just don’t like his style…

Now someone whose style suits me a little better is Jun’ichiro Tanizaki, and after reading the wonderful Quicksand, I immediately snapped up a two-book edition on the Book Depository, the first of which was The Key (translated by Howard Hibbet).  This is a he-says-she-says novel with a difference as it is entirely constructed of extracts from the diaries of a man and his wife.  The extracts show the somewhat perverse turn their marriage takes when the husband decides to spice up their sex life with some rather unorthodox measures.  While both the husband and wife become aware of their spouse’s diary, both strongly deny that they would ever actually look inside, thus violating their partner’s privacy, but how much can we trust what they are telling us – and who are they really writing their diaries for?

The Key is another wonderful, slow-burning, sexually-charged story, and the idea is an intriguing one.  However, it’s not as good as Quicksand and suffers a tad in comparison  The ending is definitely very similar, and it does appear to run out of steam a little, surprising for what is a fairly slim book.  I would also warn potential readers that it does contain a storyline that is actually quite shocking to…  Look, I’m getting onto very dodgy moral ground here, and I don’t want to start any kind of cultural debate, so I’ll tread lightly and just say that many people will find some of the actions the husband takes ever-so-slightly disturbing.  Let’s move on…

Now, I do love a bit of Dostoyevsky, and Devils (translated by the famous Constance Garnett) is a lot more than a bit of Dostoyevsky.  Another rolling epic tale, it depicts events in a small rural town where a group of young anarchists is stirring up the locals, confusing the authorities and preparing for a particularly unspeakable crime.  It’s based on a real event, and the novel is every bit as good as some of his more famous works, another wonderful combination of tight plotting, psychological suspense and well-written crucial scenes.

It’s funny though that when people talk about Dostoyevsky, it’s always as a brooding, masterful writer, someone who writes books to be waded through, akin to walking across a vast river of treacle, yet his books are often a joy to read.  As well as being real page turners, his novels can contain wonderful scenes of humour – yes, Dostoyevsky is funny!  The first part of Devils is especially amusing, culminating in a meeting where about a dozen of the main characters meet under unexpected and confusing circumstances, reminiscent more of Oscar Wilde than Tolstoy.  Of course, with the subject matter being what it is, things do take a turn for the more serious later, but never let it be said that Dostoyevsky neglected the lighter side of the art of literature…

So that’s the first of my mini-catch-up pieces; there’ll be more to come when I can bring myself to return to the computer.  Forgive the brevity and the shallowness of the reviews – hopefully there’s something there to make it all worthwhile 🙂


9 thoughts on “A Small Amount of Catching Up – Part 1

  1. Ooh, Tanizaki and Dostoevsky are two writers I love but I haven't read the books you've mentioned. Must go look for it. I'm planning to start reading Henry James next year (as part of my read more American lit drive). I'd seen the film version of Wings of the Dove which I really liked but never read the book. So looking forward to the challenge.


  2. Totally agree with you about James. So wordy and dull! Have not read the Japanese author, but he sounds interesting. Dostoyevsky is not a favourite, but maybe I should read this and experience his lighter side? Can't imagine him being funny! He's always seemed like such a miserable person who wrote miserable books. Didn't Lawrence describe him as a sewer rat? Anyway, glad to see you back!


  3. Welcome back! What were James first two strikes? I really liked both Daisy Miller and The Portrait of Lady, but haven't read his later work.

    I put Tanizaki on my to read list after your review of Quicksand, and will get to Dostoyevsky one day….


  4. Ooh I've actually read the Key and really enjoyed it. It was my first Tanizaki (and only so far) and made me want to read more of his works. Quicksand is on my to-read list as a couple of bloggers have sung high praises for it. Glad to know that his other novel is even better! I've been eyeing Naomi for a while too.

    I've only read a short story by Dostoyevsky, and enjoyed it as well. I have yet to try Henry James. The Turn of the Screw is on my shelf.


  5. Sakura – You may want to get some James recommendations because I haven't had a a good time with him so far 🙂 Challenge is definitely the right word…

    Violet – Obviously Dostoyevsky is often very moody, but I find his novels incredibly enjoyable and entertaining: maybe it's just me though 😉 Tanizaki is also a good find.

    JoAnn – I have read 'The Bostonians' and 'What Maisie Knew' in addition to this one (there probably won't be any more to join them!). Another Tanizaki review coming up shortly too 🙂

    Mee – 'Quicksand' is brilliant, and 'The Makioka Sisters' is good, if slightly different to the others I've read. Now Dostoyevsky should be on every bloggers to-read list…

    All – Thanks for the warm welcome back; it's nice to know that there are still people out there waiting to read my scribblings 🙂


  6. *clutches James to chest* All the more for me! 😉 (I often feel like a bit of a freak for being a Henry James fan but ah well…can't choose who we love!)

    You have me curious about the shocking storyline of The Key! The only Tanizaki I've read is Naomi, in which the main character definitely had a different moral compass than my own. 😉

    And I really need to read more Dostoevksy!


  7. Em – Thanks; it's very good to be back in the world of the blogging 🙂

    Eva – Maybe Americans are introduced to James at an earlier age (like Dickens and Shakespeare for us)! I can enjoy most of the classic authors, but he's one who just does not do it for me 😦

    Tanizaki (or his characters, at least) definitely does have a different moral compass. However, some of it is also down to cultural differences – something which is very difficult to address in a blog post without causing offence. Japan is a mainly non-Christian country, which means that some of the morals which are norms in the West are not necessarily important, or even practical, in the East. As I said, it's a very delicate area to write about…


  8. Writing about cultural differences is quite tricky on blogs, isn't it? I read quite a bit of international lit, but I hesitate to bring some of it up too. Which is why sometimes I just end up not talking about a book!

    I never had to read James for school, and I know a lot of Americans who can't stand him, so you're not alone. 🙂 I just love ridiculous wordy sentences, I suppose! I haven't read Wings of the Dove yet though.


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