Friday, June 20, 2008

Land of the Morning Calm

I've been doing some themed reading recently - it didn't start out particularly intentionally, but that's what seems to have happened. The most significant has been the incredible number of books I've read about Korea recently.

It started when I decided to finally read The Koreans: Who They Are, What They Want, Where Their Future Lies by Michael Breen. How it's taken me the best part of three contracts to get around to reading the book that everyone reads, I don't know, except that if you've spent any time around me or reading this blog, my distaste for being told what to read or feel any compulsion to read things is strong. It was an interesting book - it's one of those books that people say explains Korean people for them. As someone who had already been around a fair amount of time, I found that it basically just repeated an awful lot of truisms, in a fairly easy read, that could I can see be useful for Newbies. I thought the most thought-provoking comment was on the fact that Korean people who lived through the horrors of WWII and the Korean War almost never talk about it and when they do, it is in a fairly emotionally-detached way. That hadn't occurred to me, but in my experience it has been fairly true. Something that really is so recent in history, that has such an impact on the reality of Korea today and yet it is so seldom spoken of - to foreigners anyway.

I then moved on to The Aquariums of Pyongyang: Ten Years in the North Korean Gulag by Kang Chol-Hwan and Pierre Rigoulot which tells the life story of a young man whose family repatriated to North Korea from Japan and after a fairly privileged childhood, gets sent to a labour camp. He is released and then flees North Korea via China when he thinks he's going to be sent back for listening to banned radio. It was fascinating - who knew how functionally-capitalist the North Korean communism was? This book interested me a lot as I'm pretty sure it was after reading this that my ex-coworkers made the rather extreme statement that they'd never visit North Korea and hence support the regime there in any financial sense. Considering that two of the three involved in that particular discussion had worked in China previously, I had assumed it would be an extremely horrifying read - perhaps I read far too many depressing books about this sort of subject, but I didn't find the story exceptionally horrifying. I don't mean to make light of it, but I have read accounts of Siberia aimed at children (The Endless Steppe by Esther Hautzig) that were as affecting and more than a few Holocaust books that were far more indescribably awful.

I moved on next to a couple of novellas/short stories: The Snowy Road by Yi Chong-jun and Three Days in That Autumn by Pak Wanseo. The Snowy Road is about a son's strained relationship with his mother, told through two visits, one present and one past. The family lost a beautiful house due to the gambling of an older brother and his mother stayed behind to give her son one last night in his childhood home and then walked him to the bus back to the city. In the present, the son visits his mother and immediately wants to return to Seoul:
"I had told my wife the history of this dresser several times. If my wife understood it's meaning, I was confident she would understand how I felt about it. Moreover, if she knew I could overhear their conversation near the room, she would surely be even more sympathetic to my feelings. Even so, I found myself so tense that I nearly resorted to my old habit of picking my nose to calm myself. I was seized with tension. I was afraid of suddenly encountering a debt popping out of nowhere. My mother might attack in her shameful way, cornering me with the dilemma of admitting this old debt.
The son feels that he has no debt of assistance to his mother, which is well illustrated in this quote, though to be honest what struck me about it was the nose picking, which happens on a level amongst my students that I feel in unparalleled in North America. Three Days in That Autumn was disappointing. I had hoped the subject matter, a woman raped during the war who becomes an abortion doctor, would make it a fairly feminist read, but as the doctor is actively judgemental about the women she serves, it wasn't at all.
What would be the point of constructing a nice villa in a seamy shantytown? Nobody feels enough of an attachment to the neighborhood to do something so foolish. And so, in this neighborhood, talk of the affluence and abundance of the rest of Korea is little more than hearsay. But how fortunate to be able to hear such rumors.

Outwardly, everyone appears to be living a comfortable enough life. Having heard the hearsay, each knows how to simulate a life of comfort. Just as Mandeok justifies his lavish spending by quoting his company's export revenues, and just as some people dance at the first sound of a drumbeat without caring why it is beating, they all live well with no practical worries. First and foremost, just noticing the the underclothes an private pars of housewives have become as clean as those of prostitutes makes me realize how much the standard of living has improved over the years.
I had great hopes. It was still fascinating and well worth a read, just wasn't quite what I was hoping for.

Next up was Contradictions by Yang Gui-ja and it was odd. Just odd. It's about a young woman with a father who is, well, odd and a brother who is some sort of low-level gangster/wannabe and two men she is dating and trying to choose.
Still, not everyone in their twenties, no matter how sparkling they are, has a dramatic tale of love to tell. Especially someone like me, unexcitable and sarcastic about everything. Even if a moemtn of drama came hunting for me, I 'd probably kick it away and grumblea bout it afterwards: "I didn't expect this sort of childish stuff to happen."...

That's the age to be swept away by something: love, work - as long as somthing captivates you, your life will be suddenly richer.
I just couldn't wrap my mind around anything this novel was about and couldn't decide if it was a cultural gap, the fact that I am so far from the perspective of a life that is about choosing between two men to marry, or what exactly, but the whole thing felt incomprehensible and rather juvenile. And that might just be it. Perhaps I am too old for stories about 25 year olds finding themselves. Certainy any substantive discussions with Orin leave me shaking my head and feeling that the age gap between us, him at 24 and me at 30, is of such importance.

Months ago, I read the Tower of Ants by Choi In-ho. Like The Snowy Road, it was part of an airport buy - I was in Incheon airport, far too early, waiting for my sister. They are in the same series, The Hollym Modern Korean Short Stories series, and contain both English and Korean text and a series of artwork that are at least a significant part of the charm of the books.
He just could not understand why these ants, which should be outside gathering dirt to block the entrance of their nest at the approcach of a storm or storing sap, dead insects, or crumbs from a picnic in the maze they formed below the earth, were in his new apartment. The had not intruded by accident, but were making his living space the very site from their struggle for existence and harassing him by forming pakcs and targeting the fragrant, sweet juice of the half-eaten apple.

Although this was the first time that he sensed the existence of the ants, they may well have been crawling all over his aprtment, discovering fodd and using their collective srength to move it into their own quarters somewhere deep. The very thought made him uncomfortable.
What an interesting articulation of the way modern society draws such a firm line in its collective notion of wilderness and civilization, of outside and inside. We really do feel like the one should just not intrude upon the other. From a feminist standpoint, very annoying: "Women have this inexplicable tendaency to take pleasure in doing household chores for men, even for those they have just met. For example, even at first aquaintance, they instrinctively enjoy washing a man's socks or shirt, or get excited about cooking a meal or making coffee." Um, no? I may well have a bit too much of myself intwined in the notion of being thought of as a person with a clean, pleasant living space, but I can tell ya right now, you won't find me cleaning other people's places! Anyway, the narrator starts to feel that the ants are invading his apartment on purpose, which is amusing. Certainly, it can be easy to take an insect infestation personally.

Somehow my first apartment with the cockroaches bothered me so little that I couldn't even be bothered looking into roach motels, but I am presently engaged in some sort of battle with fruit flies that I most certainly have become emotionally involved in. All of this is tied to his job in advertising, which he sees as a war to trigger people to do basic things. Apparently I was supposed to have connected the ants with modern society, which I admit I didn't do, though the afterward about it was fascinating. Apparently the protaganist trying to rid his world of ants was about resisting the modern human culture and being chained to a job, existing only to work. Whatever - I was too concerned with the insects to be interested in symbolism.

The final book I read was by Margaret Drabble, The Red Queen. It was interesting, but the parts just did not work together for me. The first part tells the story of a princess whose husband, the Crown Prince, whose behavior is increasingly erratic until he is left in a rice chest to starve to death by his father. The second part is about an academic who goes to Seoul for a conference and reads the book. She does indeed visit some of the locations she has read about, but the focus of the story for me was her affair and her past history. Then there is a short third part, where the wife of the man she slept with adopts a Chinese child and she acts as a sort of second mother to the child. This all seemed a lot less bizarre when I was reading it, actually. Anyway, the individual parts were fine, interesting enough, but the book as a whole didn't really work for me.
Bab's mother is an intelligent woman, born in a generation that thout it smart to dissimulate intelligence. Her daughter Barbara is an intelligent woman, born in a competitive generation that needs to display and exaggerate intellgence.
I found the insights into the academic world more interesting than anything else, really. I vaguely recalled that Drabble was the sister? half sister? of A. S. Byatt, whose Possession really entranced me. I found this article about their sibling rivalry. Little sisters are just so annoying sometimes, aren't they?

Sister act

They are two of our most celebrated novelists, but for 50 years they have also been bitter rivals. Now Margaret Drabble is writing a novel about their family life, and A S Byatt doesn't like it one bit...

By John Walsh
Friday, 7 April 2000

In 1850, Charlotte Bronte contributed a curious introduction to a new edition of Wuthering Heights. She had just re-read the book, she said, and, for the first time, had a clear grasp of its "faults". To people who didn't know her late sister Emily, she observed, the novel "must appear a rude and strange production". She wouldn't be surprised, she went on, if the manners and language and behaviour of the characters were, to most readers, "unintelligible and - where intelligible - repulsive". Charlotte felt she should explain that Emily knew about the outside world only through tragic myths and terrible events. "I am bound to avow that she had scarcely more practical knowledge of the peasantry among whom she lived, than a nun has of the country people who sometimes pass her convent gate..."

In 1850, Charlotte Brontë contributed a curious introduction to a new edition of Wuthering Heights. She had just re-read the book, she said, and, for the first time, had a clear grasp of its "faults". To people who didn't know her late sister Emily, she observed, the novel "must appear a rude and strange production". She wouldn't be surprised, she went on, if the manners and language and behaviour of the characters were, to most readers, "unintelligible and - where intelligible - repulsive". Charlotte felt she should explain that Emily knew about the outside world only through tragic myths and terrible events. "I am bound to avow that she had scarcely more practical knowledge of the peasantry among whom she lived, than a nun has of the country people who sometimes pass her convent gate..."

Well, thanks a bunch, sister dear, you can hear Emily seething from her last home under the heath and the hare-bells; and we are surprised to read such a silken posthumous sisterly put-down from one fine novelist to another. Where would you find such a delicate piece of literary sororicide today?

One answer is: somewhere between Dame Antonia (A S) Byatt CBE and her sister Margaret Drabble. The two writers have rarely commented on one another's work, but there seems to exist between them a constant, low-level hum of irritation. In a century full of sisterly spats - Virginia and Vanessa Bell, Joan Fontaine and Olivia de Havilland, Jackie and Joan Collins, Jane and Anna Campion - their dispute, whatever the exact nature of its provenance, outclasses the rest. It has become, in one commentator's words, "a sibling rivalry which over the years has taken on the dimensions of a public contest".

This week, the contest moved into a higher gear when Ms Drabble announced that a three-year project was nearing completion: a new novel, her first since The Witch of Exmoor in 1996, will be published early next year. It's called The Peppered Moth and will amount to a fictionalised life of her mother, Kathleen Marie Bloor, a tragic and domineering figure. Ms Drabble said her novel was an attempt "to exorcise all the old ghosts which have festered inside. It's a very difficult therapy, but through it I hope to put the past to rest and find some sort of peace."

Antonia Byatt was put out. She feared, she said, that Margaret's account would be "one-sided", adding, "I would rather people didn't read someone else's version of my mother... That is her [Drabble's] experience. Mine belongs to me. I wish her every good luck with it."

Back to Ms Drabble: "It's got nothing to do with her," she retorted. "I don't read my sister's books, and for all I know she's written about my mother herself. She's got nothing to worry about." Note the combination of politesse and irritation; the way your sister is called "someone else", and the mother you share becomes "my mother"; the insistence that your experience "belongs" to you, as if someone were trying to take it away; and the suggestion that a work of fiction might be "one-sided" and so untrue, when, of course, all fiction is a calculated untruth.

The sisters' dispute has been going on for more than half a century. They grew up in Sheffield during the war. Antonia is the elder; she was born in 1936, Margaret in 1939. Their father, John, was a barrister who became a circuit judge and instilled into them a sense of life's seriousness. What their mother, Kathleen, gave them, by contrast, was a sense of trauma, an expectation of unhappiness. She had a Cambridge degree and was able to teach during the war (when the rules that forbade married women to teach were relaxed) but after it she went back to housework and hated the waste of her talents. Her husband filled the kitchen with labour-saving devices. She cooked pies, cakes and spaghetti dishes and seethed with frustration.

When the family moved to Sevenoaks, Kent, the mother's pent-up storms burst out. "She'd get out of her mind with rage, always about nothing," Drabble recalled. "I realised it wasn't us she was shouting about, but it was a torrent of unhappiness. We were constantly living with uncertainty, not knowing when it was going to happen." In such an atmosphere, the asthmatic Antonia spent much of her early life in bed, reading classic works of literature. Margaret remembers being allowed to wander the Sheffield streets alone, aged seven, where she was pinched by dirty old men in Woolworths. Her mother alternated between neglecting the children and requiring them to be brilliant. She praised their cleverness but expected great things of them, the kind of achievements she couldn't have herself. Margaret was left, she said later, with a chronic fear of letting people down.

Her mother also fostered a growing rivalry between the girls. "She displaced a competitiveness on to us," Margaret reported. "I felt everything Antonia did I had to do better."

Those looking for the key reason behind the sisters' disaffection often locate it in the girls' teenage years, when Margaret worshipped her elder sister, envied her boyfriends and high heels and lipstick and tried to be just like her. Some look further back, to the nursery, where the toddler Maggie would trail whiningly after Antonia, demanding she play with her. It was when they hit university, however, that the competition became intense.

As the press has never been able to let Antonia forget, she gained a first-class English degree, while Maggie, three years later, got a starred first. Springing to fame like a whippet from the traps, Margaret Drabble published her first novel in 1963, was reviewed with enthusiasm and instantly became a Sixties face at 21. The book was A Summer Bird-Cage; it opens with the bright, sassy Sarah and her "lovely, shiny, useless new degree" returning from Paris for the wedding of her sister Louise. "My sister, I should say, is an absolute knock-out beauty," confesses Sarah. "Louise has a real old aristocratic, predatory grandeur. As tags go, she is grande dame while I am jeune fille."

The book was about their rivalry. At the time, the real grande dame was teaching in London, raising children and writing her own fiction. Her debut, Shadow of a Sun, came out in 1964, followed three years later by an extraordinary follow-up, The Game, in which Cassandra, an Oxford don, and Julia her sister, a best-selling novelist, are thrust into remembering their peculiar childhood and their rivalry. It ends with Cassandra killing herself after being satirised in one of Julia's novels.

Antonia returned to academe, teaching at the Central School of Art and Design, then at University College London, until the Eighties. Margaret's novelistic star rose and rose, but took a dive with the publication of her "social conscience" trilogy, The Radiant Way, A Natural Curiosity and The Gates of Ivory - the right-wing press had her down as a typical chattering-class complaining leftie. Meanwhile, Byatt's reputation was growing as the nation's foremost exponent of the densely charged novel of ideas. The Virgin in the Garden and its sequels, Still Life and Babel Tower, investigated the old theme of sibling hostility through Byatt's alter ego, Frederica Potter. The sisters were now competing (though neither would admit it, just as neither admits to reading the other's books) for fiction's highest prizes - Margaret as politically engagée social anatomist, Antonia as intellectual polymath and subtle symbolist. (You could see them as competing in literary criticism, too, when Margaret published her Oxford Companion to English Literature in 1985.) Then Antonia won the Booker Prize in 1990 for Possession, sold 75,000 copies in hardback alone and spent her prize money, triumphantly, on swimming pools for her homes in Putney and Provence.

And that was that. Antonia had won, hadn't she? The older sibling, the teenage fighter for her rights, the brilliant academic, the "difficult" novelist, she was triumphantly vindicated. Margaret had had the more striking début, sure, and got marginally the better degree, but she hadn't had the stamina for the long haul...

Ten years after the Booker, is that how it stands? Think again. The prospective publication of The Peppered Moth has opened up a whole new vat of snakes. Look at the words the sisters used when they talked about incorporating the mother into a novel; then cut to a similar discussion, four years ago, when Margaret told an interviewer that she had put off reading Antonia's Possession for six years. She was glad she hadn't read it before, because Byatt "uses a great deal of the place we used to go for our childhood holidays, which I'd never have been able to use if she used it". She was also afraid of reading Antonia's short-story collection, Sugar, because one story described their father's last illness - and "I just didn't want to read about my father's illness unless it had been written by me - and I wasn't going to write about it".

The lifelong dispute between two supremely talented and competitive sisters is being rekindled over the flesh-and-blood equivalent of "intellectual copyright". After the academic striving and the creative brinkmanship, they are locked in a final, terminal dispute about the biggest things of all - about who owns the rights to their father's death, their holiday pony-rides in Filey, their mother's howling misery. Margaret and Antonia are not just competing to be Top Literary Brain. They are fighting for possession of the life they once shared.

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