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The View from Here: What to read from Japan

BellezzaContinuing The View from Here series on literature from around the world, we travel to Japan with the help of Meredith who blogs as Dolce Bellezza. From her home in the suburbs of Chicago she keeps a close eye on Japanese fiction and hosts a Japanese fiction challenge each year to share her love of literature from this part of the world. 

Let’s meet Meredith

I have been an elementary teacher for 32 years, and it is one of the great joys of my life. But, another passion of mine is the love for literature. When blogs were first coming into existence I found a few related to books, and I knew I wanted to be a part of that. Discussing books with fellow readers was such a rare thing for me, because while there are book clubs, so many of my friends and acquaintances did not want to read translated literature as I do. So, my blog has leaned more and more toward toward that genre.

Q. You are the host for a Japanese literature challenge. Why does fiction from this pat of the world appeal to you so much? 

I have hosted the Japanese Literature Challenge for ten years, which surprises even me. It was most popular in its second year, during which I “met” many of the people with whom I still blog. But even today, those who love Japanese literature still look forward to the event which begins in June and ends in January. I have always held a fascination for Japan, particularly with origami which I use constantly in my class for lessons and rewards. I wanted to learn more about Japan’s authors, and through my own challenge and its participants, was able to expand my knowledge of Japanese literature.

Q. What was the first book by a Japanese author that you can recall reading and enjoying? What made it so special?

The very first book I remember  reading was Kafka on The Shore by Haruki Murakami. I loved it so much, I have since read it three times. But, I do not presume to know all of what he’s saying in that, or any of his other, novels. I love that Murakami suggests, in his own words, that readers should be “wide open to possibility”. To me that means there is not just one interpretation of the life lessons he so ingeniously writes about.

Q. Authors like Huruki Murakami and Banana Yoshimoto have done a lot to bring Japanese writing to the attention of people around the world. What about writers from an earlier phase in the country’s history – are there some ‘classic’ works of fiction we should look at? 

Some of the books that I would term classic Japanese literature are by authors such as Yukio Mishima, Yasunari Kawabata, and Junichiro Tanizaki. I have particularly enjoyed Naomi by Tanizaki, and The House of Sleeping Beauties by Kawabata.

Q. One comment often made about Japanese fiction, is that plot development and action have often been of secondary interest to emotional issues. Has that been your experience or would you say that’s a fairly simplistic assessment?

One of the most difficult things about coming to Japanese literature, for me, was that there often wasn’t the  beginning-middle-end I had come to expect from western literature. Once I could suspend my disbelief, and look at the writing more as a “slice of life”, I could enjoy the books much more. It was a necessary change of mind set for me, otherwise I felt rather lost in a Japanese novel. Unless it was a crime thriller, of course, of which the Japanese are so stupendous at writing.

Q Which contemporary Japanese authors do you think we should be paying more attention to?

I wish that I knew more about the contemporary authors outside of the crime/thriller genre. I have a great passion for the young writers of this genre, particularly Keigo Higashino and Fuminori Nakamura.

Has this whetted your appetite?

If this has given you an enthusiasm to discover more about  Japanese literature, there is still time to join in the Japanese Literature Challenge because it runs until January.  The idea is that participants would read at least one work of Japanese literature – be it classical or contemporary, mystery or thriller. See the introductory post here  If you are looking for inspiration there is a recommended reading list available too.

The View from Here: Good reads from Denmark

viewfromhereContinuing The View from Here series on literature from around the world, we travel to Denmark with the help of Marit, who blogs at boegernekslabyrint  and at latinamerikalitteratur (both are in Danish). Until retirement she worked at the central library of Aarhus, the second largest town in Denmark. Six months ago the lucky residents of this town got a completely new library on the waterfront.

Let’s meet Marit

My name is Marit Haugaard, and I am 65 years old. I retired in 2012 after having been a librarian for almost 40 year; the last 20 years in the fiction department of Aarhus Central Library the last 10 years involved in building up the public libraries’ online-magazine, www.litteratursiden.dk, being part of the editorial team.

I started my private blog on books and literature in February 2011, intending it to consist mainly of reviews of books I had read.  However, in the summer of 2014, I started making a monthly list of what will be published in the following month, and the number of visitors immediately soared.  I see my blogging activities as an extension of my former job; I always enjoyed being in the library with the readers. Working on Litteratursiden taught me that it is possible to communicate the love of literature online.

My literary taste is pretty wide, I read everything from children’s books to crime fiction to prize-winning authors, my only demand is that the books are well written/translated. I don’t often read poetry or drama, but I go a lot to the theatre. I’m not too keen on experimental or weird books, I prefer a good story.

Q. What books are creating a buzz right now in Denmark?

I have just returned from the annual Copenhagen Book Fair. Unlike other years it wasn’t dominated by huge moneymaking writers with egos to match, so it was a rather relaxed affair. The big name was Carsten Jensen, who published his latest novel just before the fair, ‘Den første sten’ [The First Stone]. The author has a long standing in Danish literature, but he is now also a controversial debater being very critical towards Danish foreign politics, specially our engagement in Afghanistan and Iraq. His latest novel is about Danish soldiers in Afghanistan, but he insists that there is a sharp division between his roles as a fiction writer and debater.

Other authors worth mentioning this fall is Ida Jessen, who contrary to her earlier fiction takes us back 100 years to a small provincial town. Her latest novel is a small masterpiece, ‘En ny tid’ [A new Era].  Anna Grue is mostly known as a crime novelist, featuring “the bald detective” Dan Sommerdahl. She, like most Scandinavian crime writers, is extremely popular in Germany, but not translated into English – yet. However, her latest novel ‘Italiensvej’ [Italy Road] is a love story and a wonderful description of life in the late 1950s.

‘Afgrunden’ [The Abyss] by Kim Leine will probably be translated soon, as you already have the first part of his Greenlandic trilogy in English, ‘The Prophets of Eternal Fjord’. ‘Afgrunden’ is, however, a digression as it is about the lives of two Danish twins from their participation in the Finnish civil war (1918) to the Second World War.

On November 2nd, Morten Pape, published his first novel, Planen [The Estate], a week later he received the annual prize for the best first work of fiction of the year. A fast mover, who will be interesting to read.

If I take a general view of the Danish literary scene today, I should say that the women hold a very strong position. There are three generations:

  1. The young and upcoming: Ina Munch Christensen, Olga Ravn, Amalie Smith, Stine Pilgaard, Pernille Abd-El Dayem, Emma Elisabeth Nielsen – just to mention a few
  2. The established writers: Ida Jessen*, Pia Juul*, Helle Helle*, Katrine Marie Guldager*, Henriette Rostrup – and many more
  3. The “oldies”, but still going strong: Kirsten Thorup*, Jette Drewsen, Dorrit Willumsen* – and probably a few more

Crime fiction is a major genre in Danish literature, popular names are Jesper Stein, Elsebeth Egholm*, Sara Blædel*, Anna Grue, Michael Katz Krefeld, Jussi Adler-Olsen* – and more…. Biography is extremely popular, as is narrative non-fiction with top writers Tom Buk-Swienty* and Peter Øvig Knudsen*

Q. Out of the Danish classics what would you say is “required reading”?

There are six titles that spring to my mind, when I think of classics, books that are generally referred to, and people are expected to know.

Herman Bang (1857-1912): Tine, 1889 (Tina, 1984)

Johannes V. Jensen (1873-1950): Kongens fald, 1901 (The Fall of the King, 1933)

Martin Nexø Andersen (1869-1954): Pelle Erobreren, 1906-10 (Pelle the Conqueror, 1913-16)

Tom Kristensen (1893-1974): Hærværk, 1930 (Havoc, 1968)

Martin A. Hansen (1909-1955): Løgneren, 1950 (The Liar, 1954)

Inger Christensen (1935-2009): Alfabet (Alphabet, 2000)

Other authors:

Apart from Hans Christian Andersen* (1805-1875), who in Denmark is known as H.C. Andersen, you are expected to know Adam Oehlenschläger* (1779-1850), Steen Steensen Blicher (1782-1848), J.P. Jacobsen* (1847-1885), Amalie Skram* (1846-1905), Henrik Pontoppidan*(1857-1943) – and many more.

Photo courtesy of Marit

Photo courtesy of Marit

Q. Why is Nordic literature so popular now?

I suppose that the boom of Nordic or Scandinavian literature is partly owed to Nordic Noir, as it is called abroad, and made internationally known through tv-series like The Killing, The Bridge and Borgen. It followed in the wake of the Scandinavian crime fiction-wave, where Sweden is in front with Henning Mankell’s protagonist, Kurt Wallander, as the prototype. A policeman with personal problems and a social conscience. He and other Scandinavian crime writers, including very modern and European Arne Dahl, are heirs to Novel of a Crime, vol 1-10 by Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö, social realistic novels written as police novels. They were published 1965-75 in Swedish and widely translated.

Scandinavian literature is probably as varied as our seasons (summer nights with no sunset, autumnal melancholy, winter gloom and hopeful spring) and our very different cities and landscapes.

Q. Any authors you think deserve more attention than they’ve had so far?

It is close to a national trauma, that the poet Inger Christensen did not get the Nobel Prize for literature. She had the potential and was far better than many, who received it as a political statement. And now it is too late.

Q. Differences between literature in Denmark, Norway and Sweden?

Whereas Denmark, as I stated, at the moment is very strong in the field of women authors, it is my impression that Norwegian male authors hold the fort north of the Skagerak. Everybody knows Karl Ove Knausgaard, but names like Tomas Espedal, Erlend Loe, Lars Saabye Christensen and Jan Kjærstad spring to my mind, not to forget unforgettable Jon Fosse, who won The Nordic Council Literature Prize 2015.

In Sweden I see two tendencies, one is that they seem to be stronger on immigrant literature, the other a hybrid literary genre that seems weird, but works well: a combination of traditional Swedish social realism combined with the vampire novel, the main author here is John Ajvide Lindqvist, who I believe has been translated into English.

Norwegian and Swedish bloggers may totally disagree, but that is the view from where I stand.

Q. Why don’t we see more Danish fiction available in translation? 

The Scandinavian countries are small language areas, so we depend on translations to be able to read literature from other countries. It is therefore of paramount importance that we have good literary translators. Denmark has a number of good ones, but unfortunately also some bad ones, who believe that a dictionary and a six months’ stay as an au-pair abroad is enough to qualify.

To be a literary translator in Denmark, you have to be very enthusiastic, as very few can earn a living wage by translating.

End Notes

Authors translated into English are marked with an asterisk*, titles with a square brackets [ ] have not been translated, the title in brackets is Marit’s translation of the Danish title.

If this has given you an enthusiasm to discover more about  Danish literature, Marit recommends you take a look at Danish Literary Magazine.

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