Saturday, 2 January 2016

Celebrating the Life of Lafcadio Hearn

One of my resolutions last year was to diligently write my blog and until September it was going swimmingly, but then a general tidal wave of business washed over me and things rather went adrift. Now it's time to row back and catch up...

I was really pleased last September to be invited to participate at a Lafcadio Hearn (pictured above with his wife) symposium at Durham in England. I spent four nights up at Durham Castle and was thrilled to see each evening a beautiful, misty moon hang each evening over Durham cathedral. I felt as though caught up in a gothic fantasy, particularly as I descended each morning to the dining room at Durham Castle, a Hogwartian dream of what a Great Hall should be. It's quite some place to eat your breakfast.

I felt slightly apprehensive however about giving a one hour talk on Lafcadio Hearn (1850-1904), the Irish critic and essayist who is best known today for his voluminous writings on Japan. Truth to tell, as I candidly admitted at the beginning of my talk, during my years studying modern Japanese literature as a graduate student at Kobe University and for many years afterwards,  I had never been particularly interested in Lafcadio Hearn. After all, despite living in Japan for 14 years, Hearn could not read (or even fluently speak) Japanese so his grasp of many detailed aspects of Japanese culture was tenuous. 

If you really wanted to know about Japanese literature and culture, I used to think, why would you read Hearn when you could be reading Japanese authors themselves (preferably in Japanese)? Hearn seemed to me as the sort of cliched 'Japanologist' whom people in the West turned to for essentially trite and stereotypical depictions of Japan. 

I was certainly given pause for thought by knowing that Hearn's writings on Japan had all been translated into Japanese and were treasured in Japan as some of the most acute cultural insights ever written. But couldn't this all be dismissed as the Japanese desire to be told of their own cultural uniqueness by a Westerner? 

What changed my attitude to Hearn was, firstly, realizing that Japan for Hearn was not some sole point of obsessive interest (the quintessential 'Japan bore') but rather part of a lifelong odyssey of worldwide exploration that had taken him from Greece to Ireland, from England to America, from the Caribbean to Japan. In Japan, where he is much better known by his Japanese name 'Koizumi Yakumo', Hearn tends to be regarded as someone who so loved Japan that he entirely assumed Japanese identity. In fact, Hearn was very reluctant to give up his British citizenship (he had clung on to it tenaciously during two decades in North America and only assumed Japanese citizenship to ensure he could pass on property to his children) and had he not died prematurely at the age of 54, he would have almost certainly continued his worldwide travels to other destinations (he was considering a return to London and the US in the final year of this life). 

Secondly, what is truly fascinating about Hearn, is the impact on his writings of his own disturbed, inner psychology. Hearn was abandoned as an infant by both parents, yet enjoyed a patrician upbringing in Ireland and attended a boarding school at the Catholic seminary Ushaw College outside Durham. He passed summer holidays in the resort town of Tramore and in the wilds of Mayo, where he was regaled with ghost stories by his Irish maid. Disaster struck as an adolesecent when he was blinded in one eye by a freak accident and when his entire inheritance, due to be passed to him from his great aunt, was lost. Hearn reached adulthood as a scholarly and literary man suddenly crestfallen in his expectations, alienated from the country and religion in which he was raised, forced to emigrate and hustle for a living as a journalist to make his way in the world. 

I had not fully appreciated until reading Paul Murray's 1992 biography the connection between Hearn's inspirational retelling of Japanese ghost stories in his masterpiece 'Kwaidan' (1904) and the Irish gothic imagination in general. Paul has subsequently gone to write the biography of Bram Stoker, the author of 'Dracula', who was Hearn's fellow Irishman and his almost exact contemporary, and who was similarly infused with a love of the supernatural and other-worldly. 

Yet a further reason why Hearn fascinates me is because, through his position as lecturer in English literature at Tokyo University between 1896 and 1903, he had a crucial influence on an entire generation of Japan's literary elite.

I was pleased to meet at Durham not only Paul Murray himself and the delightful Ayako Nasuno (pictured with me, below), curator of the Lafcadio Hearn Memorial Museum in Yaizu, Japan, but also learn about the Lafcadio Hearn Museum recently created on the Ionian island of Lefkada in Greece where Hearn was born. 

The symposium at Durham was appropriately held in the Lafcadio Hearn Centre created by Teikyo University at Durham. On the 111th anniversary of Hearn's death in 1904, an excellent memorial service was also held - including readings from his books - in the sumptuous surroundings of the chapel at Ushaw College, a few miles outside Durham, where Lafcadio studied for several years as a boy. 

The conference was then rounded off with a candlelit dinner in the regency splendour of Hatfield College where the President  of Teikyo University in Durham played Pachelbel on his guitar; the President of Ushaw College took off his dog collar and sang amusing Lancashire ballads; and the wonderful Professor Stephen Regan of the English Literature faculty serenaded us with James Joyce's favourite Irish songs, while reminding us that the great man had once aspired to be a singer.

Suddenly I had caught the Lafcadio Hearn bug and by chance round two of the Lafcadio Hearn celebrations were about to break out all across Ireland with the arrival of the 'Open Mind of Lafcadio Hearn' tour, sponsored by the fascinating Greek (or 'Hellenic' as he prefers to be called), New York-based art dealer Takis Efstathiou. Takis has assembled a formidable collection of Hearn artefacts and memorabilia, many of which he has lent to the museum in Lefkada, and has already promoted 'Open Mind of Lafcadio Hearn' tours in Japan, the US and Greece. Now, it was Ireland's turn with an exhibition at the newly created Liitle Museum in Dublin, plus events in Waterford City, Galway City and Mayo. 

A large delegation arrived from Japan as part of the celebrations and were greeted by the President of Ireland and a commemorative event was held at the newly opened, beautifully landscaped 'Lafcadio Hearn Memorial Gardens' in Tramore, Waterford. 

At first I thought I was too busy to attend, but woke up one morning and felt Ireland calling to me....I booked a ferry online and threw some things into a bag, then got caught in traffic and panicked as my Sat Nav told me I would arrive for my boat five minutes after it left. But the North Wales roads opened magically and I caught the boat in time, booked a hotel on board, then drove in the dark to Kilkenny. I checked in at 9.30pm, then went down to John Cleere's pub and heard some of the best Country and Western since last time I was in Billy Bob's Honky Tonk, Fort Worth and then danced in the back room until 2am. At 2.30am the streets were still thronged...

It was great to meet Professor Bon Koizumi (pictured with me, above), great grandson of Lafcadio Hearn in Waterford City, Ireland, and I also enjoyed a terrific readings of Hearn's works in Japanese by actor Shiro Sani accompanied by Kyoji Yamamoto on eerie electric guitar. (The show is called 'Maraudo - Voices from the World Beyond'). Back up in Dublin, I was pleased to meet up again with Paul Murray for a performance of his own play, 'The Dublin Haunting of Lafcadio Hearn' at the Little Museum. (Pictured with me below with some of the cast from the Dublin Shakes.)

Since being drawn into the orbit of the 'Lafcadians', I've published a couple of articles in the Japan Times on Hearn, including this piece back in September:

I was also pleased to meet fascinating publisher Brian Showers of Swan River Press and be sent a copy of his new collection of essays by Hearn, Insect Literature (my review to appear soon). To round off completely these ongoing celebrations, I have been delighted to accept an invitation to give a speech (in Japanese) on Hearn at the Lafcadio Hearn Museum in Yaizu next June. 

You may truly regard me then as a signed up member of the Lafcadians....Here's looking forward to more Hearnian explorations in 2016. 

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