Category Archives: Reviews

Book reviews by Frederick Glaysher

Woman in the Dunes. Kobo Abe.

Kobo Abe

Kobo Abe

The Woman in the Dunes. Kobo Abe.

The Shifting Sands of Modernity…. June 24, 2000

Shortly after the Meiji Restoration of 1868 narrative writing became heavily influenced by Western literature. Although there are many excellent early fiction writers and those who, like Junichiro Tanizaki and Yasunari Kawabata, tend to reflect more traditional aesthetics, or those of the “I-novel,” Kobo Abe (1924-1993), a Marxist, is the first significantly modern Japanese novelist. His childhood in Manchuria helped him to look harder and more objectively than other writers at modern Japanese life, particularly in Tokyo, where Abe lived the rest of his life, while his growing up in Manchuria surely added to the sense of alienation that pervades his work. His early stories following World War II already express a profoundly existentialist angst and absurdity that has often led to his being compared to Kafka, Camus, Sartre, or Samuel Beckett. To my mind, though, it is precisely the fact that Abe is Japanese that is important and to view him as a mere imitator of the West would be a mistake. Rather than casting his experience into Kafkaesque terms, he is responding to his own experience of modern Japanese life. I believe Westerners need to think deeply about what that means for modern Japan, especially those dreamy Westerners who romantically idealize the traditional image of medieval Japan, as though it still exists.

In the short story “Magic Chalk” (1950), Abe tells the tale of “a poor artist named Argon.” Flat broke and starving, Argon discovers in his shabby apartment a piece of red chalk with which he mindlessly draws pictures of food and dishes on the wall. Falling asleep, he groans, “I’ve got to eat!” Suddenly, he is awakened by the sound of food and crockery crashing to the floor: “The pictures he had chalked on the wall had vanished.” Seeing food all around, he eats his fill and reflects, “the laws of the universe have changed.” He then draws a bed, since he lacks one, as well as other furniture and food. The realization hits him that he can create an entirely new world and spends four weeks contemplating just how to do it. Driven to despair by the burdensome responsibility, he finally decides merely to draw a door to the new world, but upon opening it finds, “an awesome wasteland glaring in the noonday sun.” He would have “to draw the world all over again” and begins with Eve, “stark naked,” to whom he identifies himself as Adam and “also an artist, and a world planner.” Eve, however, borrows his chalk, draws a gun, and shoots him. Other people in the building hear the gunshot: “By the time they ran in, Argon had been completely absorbed into the wall and had become a picture”:

“After everyone left, there came a murmuring from the wall. ’it isn’t chalk that will remake the world . . .’ A single drop welled out of the wall. It fell from just below the eye of the pictorial Argon.” (tr. Alison Kibrick)

Writing shortly after World War II, Abe understands modern Japan has lost something of immense value, and a mere artist can not replace it.

In Kobo Abe’s masterpiece The Woman in the Dune (1962), the protagonist Niki Jumpei, an amateur entomologist, travels to the seaside to collect specimens. He happens on a village built in the midst of the dunes with houses at the bottom of huge craters or cavities of sand. Peering down into one of the cavities at a small house “submerged in silence,” he muses, “no matter what they did . . . there was no escaping the law of the sand.” This “law” soon becomes clear when village men trick him into going sixty feet down in a cavity to spend the night at an old woman’s house. Before long, he realizes that there is probably no way to get back out. The “ceaselessly flowing sand,” “this shapeless, destructive power,” which “had no form” of its own, was continually pouring down on the little house threatening to destroy it and bury its occupants alive. Every night the woman shovels sand into baskets which the village men haul up by rope and carry away, just enough to prevent their suffocation. Watching her, Niki Jumpei remarks, “you’ll never finish, no matter how long you work at it.” Later, the narrator explains, “the only certain factor was its movement; sand was the antithesis of all form.” Despite his many appeals for help from the village men, the village benefits from the sand being fought back and they refuse to permit him to leave.

The men, however, are careful to provide the woman and man with the necessities of life as long as they continue to perform the nightly work of clearing back the everdrifting sand of reality, for the sand is manifestly symbolic. Upon his request, they even give Jumpei a newspaper. Reading the usual headlines of political, business, and domestic crimes and intrigues, Jumpei thinks,

“There wasn’t a single item of importance. A tower of illusion, all of it, made of illusory bricks and full of holes. . . . And so everybody, knowing the meaninglessness of existence, sets the center of his compass at his own home.”

This “illusion” is not the illusion of Buddhism, the floating world of Genji symbolizing a world of spiritual import. It is the illusion of everyday life through which the nihilist sees “the meaningless of existence,” at last confronted, the real truth of human experience. “The world,” Abe has Jumpei say in a simile, “is like sand.” Modern Japanese writers have found the transition easy to make from the illusion of samsara to the illusion of nihilism which is quotidian reality. Similarly, the old woman turns out not to be so old after all, and Jumpei learns social customs are merely illusions too, as he rapes her brutally and repeatedly while she at times enjoys or submits to it. When the opportunity for escape finally comes, drained of all inner meaning, strength, and purpose, he no longer has the will to leave.

In the story “Beyond the Curve” (1966), Abe writes about a man who, while climbing up a hill, comes to a halt before a curve in the road:

“For the life of me, I couldn’t visualize what lay beyond the curve. . . . I knew perfectly well that beyond the curve was the town on the hilltop where I lived. My temporary lapse of memory in no way altered the fact of its existence.”

He stands there agonizing in his mind about what might or ought to be around the curve until he is overcome by anxiety, fearing “the town’s very existence would fade away and then vanish.” He considers, “I myself was no longer myself, but some mysterious other.” Nausea overtakes him. He manages to turn around and walk back down the hill. His “old confidence was gone.” Taking refuge in a coffee shop, he wonders, no longer sure, who he is since he has forgotten his name and where he works. Frantically fumbling with the contents of his wallet and pockets, looking for clues, he realizes, “I had mislaid . . . myself.” Abe expresses here not only the universally modern sense of existential void but especially the Japanese fear of the loss of traditional identity under the onslaught of modernity. Abe’s persona significantly and desperately says, “Until I found that town beyond the curve, there could be no resolution.” And so it is for modern Japan. He takes a taxi up the hill, beyond the curve:

“Spatially, the town had a solid physical existence, but temporally, it was a vacuum. It existed–yet horribly, it had no existence whatever . . . the town I knew was gone.”

Though seeking answers from others, he “alone was lost, uncomprehending.” Physically, materially, like the West, Japan exists; in terms of social or psychological time, the “vacuum,” quintessentially the same as in the West, has swallowed everything: “The town I knew was gone.” What lies beyond the curve, if anything, remains to be seen.

Frederick Glaysher


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Vendor of Sweets. R. K. Narayan.

R. K. Narayan

The Vendor of Sweets.  R. K. Narayan.

India’s Kali Yuga…. December 21, 2000

The novelist R. K. Narayan (1906-2001) was born into a Tamil-speaking, Brahmin family. For several years he attended Christian schools in Madras, where he was raised by his grandmother, a devout Hindu who taught him the traditional songs and prayers. His fiction often presents a persona who undergoes a crisis that drives him back in some way to a resolution suffused with an evocation of the Hindu past. Often portrayed as a simple pious Hindu, R. M. Varma, of the University of Jodhpur, more insightfully observes, “Cultural ambivalence is a marked characteristic of Narayan’s fictional technique and he hovers between his Hindu faith and lack of it. He merely uses it as a landscape in his fiction.”

In his brilliant The Vendor of Sweets (1967), Narayan presents a character named Jagan who owns a small shop that sells sweetmeats. Presented as somewhat of a religious crank, he is a follower of Gandhi who still works his spinning wheel and sits in his shop reading the Bhagavad Gita in between customers. Jagan lives in an idealized traditional India of long ago incongruously conflated with the modern present.

Jagan’s only son Mali fully lives in the modern world, not only of India but of America as well. Dropping out of college, as Jagan had as a young man out of misconstrued loyalty to Gandhi, Mali, without consulting with his father, enrolls in a creative writing program in Michigan and helps himself to Jagan’s attic stash of rupees in order to pay his expenses. Narayan consistently portrays Mali as a son who has lost all the traditional Hindu virtues while Jagan spoils him and makes excuses for him.

After three years in America Jagan abruptly receives a cable announcing Mali’s return with “another person” whom upon arrival at the train station he introduces as his wife, Grace. Jagan suffers a severe shock. His son has not only gone to America, where he in fact does begin to eat beef, but married there without informing his family. Further disoriented because the girl is a Korean-American, Jagan thinks she is Chinese and reflects, “Don’t you know that one can’t marry a Chinese nowadays? They have invaded our borders. . . .” Having stopped reading the Bhagavad Gita while receiving letters he believed were from Mali in America, but were actually from Grace, Jagan starts reading it “becoming mentally disturbed once again.” Narayan subtly dramatizes his reading of the Gita as linked to his disturbed relationship with his son and thereby with modern India. Before long Grace, his new daughter-in-law, begins to take charge of the house and care for Jagan, his wife having died while Mali was in America. Soon she transforms the part of the nineteenth-century house in which she and Mali live with modern Western paintings and furnishings.

In one of the few revealing statements by Mali, “with a gesture of disgust,” he says to his father, “Oh, these are not the days of your ancestors. Today we have to compete with advanced countries not only in economics and industry, but also in culture.” Satirizing the trash creative writing programs churn out in America, Narayan underscores simultaneously the gulf between father and son, traditional and modern.

Shock upon modern shock rolls over Jagan. His son not only lived unmarried with a foreign woman of mixed descent in his ancestral home but shamelessly concealed it from his father. As Jagan explains to the cousin, “Even my grandfather’s brother, who was known to be immoral, never did this sort of thing.” His “dirtied” home, “which had remained unsullied for generations, had this new taint to carry.” Since all of Jagan’s traditional, conventional relations have already “ostracized him” over the “beef-eating Christian girl for a daughter-in-law,” Jagan realizes they would “remove themselves further” should they learn of the “latest development.” In a significant moment of honesty, Jagan observes he “felt grateful for being an outcast, for it absolved him from obligations as a member of the family.” Jagan sits in the dark by the Sir Frederick Lawley statue, a relic from the British past, and meditates on his own arranged marriage in a richly embellished chapter that brilliantly evokes the traditional marriage customs of the joint family system in India and devastatingly insinuates the decayed state of his own house and modern India.

Jagan awakens in the dawn from his night of memories, fantasizing again of entering “a new janma.” In regard to the traditional ceremony marking a man turning sixty, the narrator honestly concedes again that Jagan himself “had had his fill of these festivals.” In his own way, the narrator frequently intimates, Jagan has picked over and repudiated various customs from the past. So one relative is imagined as saying how could the son Mali be different with “a father like Jagan.” Narayan suggests a subtle, logical, and culminating connection of decline between father and son.

The values of the Ramayana and other sacred texts have no resonance for Mali. Jagan, lost and faltering, unable to cope fully with the clash of his traditional values with the modern world, resolves absurdly to retreat across the river, taking his bank book with him, after agreeing to pay for a lawyer for Mali and offering an airline ticket for Grace to return to America: “It’s a duty we owe her.”

V. S. Naipaul has remarked of Narayan’s The Vendor of Sweets that it is “a novel in which his fictional world is cracked open, its fragility finally revealed, and the Hindu equilibrium . . . collapses into something like despair.” In his “On Alternative Modernities,” Dilip Parameshwar Gaonkar has similarly observed, “Everywhere, at every national or cultural site, the struggle with modernity is old and familiar.” Narayan has so thoroughly undermined and complicated Jagan with the tensions of twentieth-century life, deep within the structure of the narrative voice itself, only the most shallow or tendentious reading can fail to perceive the scathing critique of both the antedated and bankrupt, traditional and modern, values of India and Western civilization.

Frederick Glaysher

My epic poem, The pp_150Parliament of Poets, is partly set in India, at Kurukshetra, the Himalayan Foothills, Fatehpur Sikri, and elsewhere, with Vyasa, Valmiki, Tagore, Kabir, Lalan, and many other Indian poets and sages as characters, on Earth and on the Moon…
Read a free chapter online at Amazon, India.

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Saul Bellow. Ravelstein. Allan Bloom.

Saul Bellow

Saul Bellow. Ravelstein. Allan Bloom.

The Closing of the American Soul.
November 23, 2009.

When Saul Bellow’s novel Ravelstein was published in 2000, I did not rush out and buy a copy but closely followed the many reviews that began to appear. I had read almost all of Bellow’s work up to his last novel but felt for some reason that the time was not right to readRavelstein, despite my having ravenously devoured Allan Bloom’s The Closing of the American Mind when it had been published in 1987, and anything related to it. I trusted my intuition and attended to other interests, while more reviews continued to come out. Occasionally, I would stumble on one and read it, thinking Ravelstein was a book that I’d have to read someday. Then in 2005 I bought a copy when I happened upon it in a bookstore, but I didn’t read it. I put it on a shelf, waiting for the right moment. This fall, a year and a half into working on writing an epic poem, I realized I needed Saul Bellow’s help. I needed to know how things really stood with the Jews. Even more thanCommentary Magazine, I knew I could count on Saul Bellow to tell me the truth. He never lied to me in the past. I remembered Ravelstein and retrieved it. The right moment in the life of my soul had come….

Now available in

The Myth of the Enlightenment: Essays
Forthcoming, September, 2014.

See my review of Bellow’s Him With His Foot In His Mouth and Other Stories (1984), in the Saul Bellow Journal (summer 1985) and my essay “Saul Bellow’s Soul” in The Grove of the Eumenides: Essays on Literature, Criticism, and Culture.



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To My Opposite Number in Texas.



Daniel Rifenburgh

Daniel Rifenburgh


To My Opposite Number in Texas. May 2, 2010

A Review of Daniel Rifenburgh’s Advent: Poems. The Waywiser Press. London, 2002.

Daniel Rifenburgh studied with Donald Justice and Richard Wilbur, with the latter providing an Introduction to Rifenburg’s only book of poems, Advent. Though not mentioned on the book flaps or in Wilbur’s introduction, Rifenburgh, whom I’ve come to know through Facebook, was, he tells me, a student of the poet Robert Hayden, when he was a visiting professor of poetry at the University of Louisville during the spring semester of 1969. Since I myself had been a student of Hayden’s at the University of Michigan a decade later, I was delighted to communicate with someone else who had also studied with him. We exchanged a number of messages. I ordered a copy of Advent and he mentioned he had ordered a copy of my book, The Grove of the Eumenides, which includes my essay “Robert Hayden in the Morning Time.” He remarked “Hayden got me a creative writing scholarship,” but he had never bought his Collected Poems, which seemed odd to me. If I had studied with anyone of Hayden’s ability, though I don’t know who that would have been, I would have at least read all his work and chosen to own his books. It’s a pity that Rifenburgh didn’t. He might have found much that would have helped in both form and content.

Though I have never cared for most of the poetry of either Richard Wilbur or Donald Justice, finding them small academic poets, campus poets, writing usually on narrow, personal, limited subjects, I thought I’d not hold that against Daniel Rifenburgh and tried to give an impartial reading to his poems, when Advent arrived. The Note on the Author informed me that Rifenburgh had spent three years in Vietnam after his study at the University of Louisville, which made me recall Hayden’s bemoaning in poignant poems and prose his students “brutalized” in that conflict, wondering if he might have had Rifenburgh in mind among them. Wilbur’s introduction didn’t impress me at all, nor did his citing some lines from Rifenburgh, which included, “Wandering between the Word and its infinite extension.” I can respect a poet who believes in Jesus Christ and whatever historically evolved denomination or persuasion he or she chooses, or dissents from. I am not entirely unsympathetic at all. I stem from a long line of Christians of many denominations. Christianity is a humane, spiritual, and true vision of life, when not corrupted by human beings, which is the problem, since we seem to have the capacity to vitiate everything. I even find Christianity infinitely preferable to Marxism, capitalism as a religion, and the other endless substitutes for transcendence that modernity has and does produce. I’m well aware that by saying all of that I’ve violated numerous sacred doctrines, religious and secular, but must be honest before my own conscience, and what I actually found and think about Rifenburgh’s poems.

Getting past the first poem was the problem. I can’t even take it seriously in terms of what it’s saying. “To My Opposite Number in Samarkand” is in epistolary form, addressed to someone in the East, who hears, “The gong inside the old Buddhist temple,” and the call to prayer from “The high towers of the mosques.” Nearby, the reader is told, stands “the lone orthodox church, unevangelistic.” One senses there’s a severe judgment in the word “unevangelistic,” less than full sympathy with Eastern Christianity. Rifenburgh, I should explain, lives in Texas, perhaps known more for evangelism than the high church style, and maybe that influences his word choice. After allusions to Dante, Virgil, and Parmenides, the persona seems to take refuge in poetry, which is a thoroughly modern gesture, time honored for over a hundred and fifty years. What poet can quibble with that? Yet, an ersatz, nonetheless, and even Matthew Arnold knew and understood it as such. To his credit, so does Rifenburgh. He soon turns to the lines quoted by Richard Wilbur, after remarking on the overwhelming experience of reading Montale,

Or, so it seems, in the afterglow of such reading,

As if light had an enduring stepchild in the world

Wandering between the Word and its infinite extension,

Finding play in the interstices and lacunae

Where even breath must pause

In its tally of declensions

And what enters then by a grace

Commands our strictest reverence.

His “strictest reverence,” for the Word, is further implied in the closing stanza, in which he writes to his “Opposite Number,” to speak in the ear of the Boddhisatvas, by implication all the Ways of Opinion, “Parmenides.” The subordinate clause, “if you’re able,” slips in a derisive note, sticking the interlocutor right in the guts, if he hasn’t gotten it by now. In another poem, Herman Melville receives similar treatment, which I think constitutes a misunderstanding of Melville’s complexity: “call it a lack,” “a bible would do him little good.”

“To My Opposite Number in Samarkand” and the last one in the book are clearly intended as “bookends,” if you will, that frame the poems in between of mostly much broader range, with many on Rifenburgh’s experiences in Texas and South America. His sequence of poems titled “Andean Music,” for instance, explores his time working as a newspaper reporter in Latin America and Peru. I was struck in particular with the poem “VI. El Condorito,” about “Che Ernesto,” not the Marxist hero, but a local person known for flying down from the mountains of Machu Picchu in a hang-glider. Later, together, they “headed, in the dark before the dawn, up to the sacred city.” Such poems are the best of his work, involved with life. In terms of other poems, Aristotle in his Poetics emphasized one of the crucial abilities of the poet was to choose the right material to work with. Rifenburgh often seems to me to lack such a sense of decorum, though our times may tend not to like that old tag. It is something poets forget and neglect at their peril. And it is always a temptation for the poet to write with his or her doctrine in mind and not the heart.

The last poem of the book is the title poem, “Advent,” and the reader is meant to feel the weight of the book leading up to it, emphasizing its importance to Rifenburgh. After describing a rainy day and the material decay of various leaves, he writes,

The mind, too, sheds a tattered cloak

And recalls elements of the old story:

The hoop round the omphalos of Christ, Marian,

The cold coin imprisoning Caesar,

A tocsin of alarm dilating the pupils of Herod,

And now the heart shunts the oil

Of incarnation out of its chambers again

In time with the last drumbeats of the rain.

We defeat the world through surrogates, and but briefly,

While placid beasts feed in drizzling pastures,

Building strength for the flight into Egypt,

Yet the son must be born in us, says the Father,

Or wither, when new oil floods the ventricles

And we become, however briefly, His surrogates

Or betrayers.

And for this, in Winter’s dead zero,

We must sing, sing Hallelujah.

The choice laid before the reader is the exclusivism of truth, for, from whatever perspective, this truth is the Truth, either we are “His surrogates / Or betrayers.” Some Muslims, Jews, and others might say essentially the same thing about their own religion. Influenced by the commonly shared Old Testament, the Western world, especially, has a penchant for this kind of approach to whatever the word “religion” means. Not a new idea, nothing tricky about it, just straight out in your face. I like that. Some Christians enjoy it as “scandalous.” That’s fine. That helps me know where I stand. And I respect Rifenburgh’s conscience, conviction, and interpretation. I stand with his “Opposite Number in Samarkand,” and I am proud of it. Rifenburg’s subject is as fit for poetry as anything else, and I don’t find it offensive, just out of touch with all of human history and religious experience, especially the last five-hundred years. Both religious and secular exclusivisms do that to people. They can keep people isolated from other equally valid traditions of the meaning and purpose of life, often not that different at the core from Christianity or an enlightened humanism, if one can be fair and open about it, make the brotherly effort to understand. Rifenburgh exhibits no such openness but continues along the line of what he had stated in the first poem, “Parmenides was right, / None of this exists!” Many Christian denominations have wisely moderated their thinking and teaching beyond caustic, dismissive either/or’s.

Writing off the history and religious experience of much of the world is perhaps not an entirely efficacious approach for any human being, especially a poet, who must be open to all that is human, if he is truly to serve the Muses, the daughters of Zeus, the sacred servants of All. Had Rifenburgh read Robert Hayden’s poetry years ago he would have found a much more open and universal perspective on life than he has spent his minor talent on. Toward universality, not exclusivism, is where the Divine Being, the Lord of history, has been guiding, and continues to guide, humankind. All peoples are able. In the light of the fullness of the literary tradition, which includes all nations and peoples, poets should encourage humanity to choose to travel together and be tolerant of their fellow human beings. We are all human, fallible, and not a one of us has ever had, or ever will have, the entire Truth, though it is human to think otherwise. At a time when it can seem some people in the United States and elsewhere are pushing toward religious fascism or secular utopia, it might help to step back from the brink and reflect on the healthy effect that pluralism and tolerance have had on civilization. People around our small planet need to value pluralism and universality more, not less.

Now available in

The Myth of the Enlightenment: Essays
Forthcoming, September, 2014.

Frederick Glaysher


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