Monday, 29 December 2014

New Year in Japan

Two weeks ago I arrived back in my gaff in Kansai, Japan. My memory grows ever hazier but I think it's about nine years since I was la
st in Japan at this time of year, having settled into a confirmed pattern of biannual spring and autumn visits. My impression of Japan in winter is not necessarily the best. As a student in 1989, my most miserable Christmas ever was passed alone in a tiny, shanty town-esque single room by a railway track in Tokyo, an experience of solitude compounded by the arrival on Christmas morning of a large box of presents, all wrapped in loud colourful paper, from the folks in England. The unpleasantness of that experience taught me to never again spend Christmas away from home; and also that I urgently needed to get out of Tokyo. On New Years Day 1990 I loaded all my belongings onto a shaky bike and cycled to Kamakura, continued on down the Izu peninsula and from there peddled to Kansai, not looking back. Those magical New Year's days of cycling in brilliant winter sunshine with mikan oranges hanging from trees, opened a world of happiness unknown in Tokyo. In the intervening 25 years I have been back, briefly, to Tokyo only twice. 

But still, New Year and Japan were not necessarily the best mix. With a genius for timing, I flew in again at year end 1994 just in time for the massive earthquake in Kobe. The building containing my couple of tatami mat rooms in Rokko, not far from central Kobe, narrowly avoided complete collapse. Or again, in 2004, I flew in from Dubai the day after the Boxing Day tsunami, serenely oblivious of the scale of disaster which had just occurred in South East Asia. But then there were the good times too: being kidnapped by a friend whose home I visited in Sakai, south Osaka, at New Year and who kept me there for three days inisting that I meet all his friends and visit all his favourite places; or the bonenkai (end of year party) I was invited to by a super rich benefactor at his Atami villa - worthy of a James Bond set - with the most sumptuous foods and sakes laid on. 

This time round, coming back as a family of five with three small children, things seem a little more prosaic, and indeed after reaching our little home after an 18 hour journey, we discovered to our horror the floors in the kitchen and lounge were completely covered with black cockroach droppings, which either in the winter cold or summer heat, had cemented onto the woodwork. Finding yourself horribly jet-lagged and down on your hands and knees scrubbing floors before your barefooted children walk all over it, you do for the briefest of moments question whether it is really worth the 6000 mile pilgrimage.

But of course it is. For one thing, if you were not in Kansai in December, you could not go and see the Kaomise Kabuki in Kyoto and for me the journey is more than worth it just for this pleasure alone. If you live in Tokyo I guess you pretty much have Kabuki on tap at the glittering new Kabuki-za, but if, like me, your entire world is Kansai, then you need to watch the Kaomise in Kyoto if you wish to see top class Kabuki in the Kansai area. The 10.5 hour performance, split into morning and afternoon shows, comprises parts of the Kabuki repertoire dating from the early 1700s to the post war era, and is a peerless theatrical experience. What makes it extra special however is the unique atmosphere of the Minami-za in Kyoto, built at the actual site where Kabuki was invented in the 17th century. The ritual of reading through the exquisite programme guide, listening to the earphone commentary, enjoying a quality bento lunch box and a variety of other delicacies during the various breaks while the odd geisha bustles about you, is the type of magical, immersive experience you simply cannot achieve in England. The closest comparable in Europe is perhaps the wonderful evenings in the opera houses of Munich and Vienna where during numerous breaks the tuxedo-ed theatre-goers dine in style or quaff glasses of champagne. 

My only minor disappointment this year was that the Kaomise programme did not include my favourite play <a href="ō">Kanjincho (The Subscription List)</a>. I jump with excitement whenever I get the chance to view Kanjincho which for me is as great a piece of theatre as has ever been written, more intensely dramatic than anything in Shakespeare, as protean and powerful as Aeschylus' Oresteia. Never mind, this year we were treated instead to two acts from Kanadehon Chushingura (The Loyal Retainers), the most popular play in Japanese dramatic history and surely also the longest. These two acts alone took 2.5 hours to perform and I was reminded that there are another NINE acts in the play as a whole, meaning that its complete performance would consume an entire day. 

On the train to Kyoto from Osaka, it was gently snowing and the usually fairly drab suburbs suddenly appeared quite beautiful framed against the snowy mountains in the distance. On this trip too I have come to rediscover the hidden delights of Kyoto, not least due to following some of the walks suggested in John and Phyllis Martins excellent book, 'Kyoto: 29  Walks in Japans Ancient Capital'.

Once having got back into the swing of being in Kansai - recovering from jet lag and taking shelter from the cold for a few days in the self-enclosed worlds that are the vast shopping malls of Grand Front Osaka and Nishinomiya Gardens - the list of delights to squeeze in is seemingly endless. There have to be strolls around Kitanoku and Harbourland in Kobe; there have to be nights out in Shinsaibashi, Osaka; there has to be lunch at


my favourite Dojima restuarant in Osaka followed by a tour of the exhibition at Osaka City Art Gallery. If Christmas Day was a little underwhelming this year - I dined on mushrooms on toast for Christmas dinner - there was the rare pleasure of a Boxing Day lunch in the opulent surroundings of the Oriental Hotel, Kobe (picture of me, above) followed by a tour of the excellent Ancient Egypt exhibition at Kobe City Museum next door. 

I'm not quite sure how my children have taken it all - they did suspiciously enquire how Santa Claus would be dropping off their presents since our house has no chimney - but all in all I think I am now a convert to the pleasures of Japan at New Year and may have to do some re-scheduling of the annual calendar. The good lady of the house however - having lugged over from England 44kg of baggage containing endless boxes of mince pies, Christmas puddings, bottles of sherry, blue cheeses, enormous amounts of butter (don't forget there is a butter crisis in Japan), all mostly uneaten so far - may perhaps have other ideas...

Sunday, 28 December 2014

Japan Times Review

Very nice review today in The Japan Times of my biography of Yukio Mishima.

Thursday, 11 December 2014

Penetrating the Occult

I know an elderly gent who is into the supernatural in a big way. He lives in a four-storey house on the next street and rarely goes out. He has a large library of books on mysticism, the occult and the black arts. He’s an expert on the subject. His shelves bristle with tomes on the I Ching, Tibetan sutras, Sufism and the Kabala.

He only lives nearby, but when I've been round to see him, it’s like entering another world, or perhaps another dimension. He's retired and lives a simple life, eating porridge for breakfast and very often the same thing for dinner night after night.

As a young man, he and his brother worked in the navy and travelled to every corner of the world, arguing with each other as to who had been to the most remote island. Later on he married and worked in a laboratory, but was forced to retire after narrowly surviving an accident, which left him walking with a limp. Afterwards he became interested in property, renting out rooms in houses.

But these days, his world has shrunk to the ground floor of his own home and he spends most of his time reading the Bible in Hebrew and has an armchair in a corner of his vast lounge where he ensconces himself for most of the day. The interior of the house is painted in very dark colours – navy blue and mahogany. He takes snuff and always has his snuff box by the side of his armchair.

The first time I visited him, he started talking about the Devil. Somehow or other we were talking about gambling and he informed me that he had special powers which allowed him to win at gambling, but he didn’t like to use them. He said he was in a casino once and he saw the Devil standing behind him, but he decided not to invoke his powers.

Whereas many of us live in a world governed by issues such as the performance of the economy or technological change, to this retiree the chief thing is the eternal battle with the Masons. It's the Masons who have all the power, he tells me, but only a very few understand the mysteries of their organization. None of the lower-ranking Masons have an insight into the huge power of those at the top – you have to go very, very high up before you can break into their inner sanctum, he says.

He views the Masons as the agents of world evil and himself as a great anti-Masonic force. He tells me that the Masons know who he is and can instantly sense his powers when they are in his presence. Once he showed me a very secret sign that must be used with great care. He suddenly stood up out of his armchair and bent his chest forward while raising a couple of fingers into a strange crooked shape as if doing shadow art on the wall. This represents the horns of the evil one, he said, and the Masons were terrified by it. If you were to make this sign towards one of them, you had virtually signed his death warrant. It must be used with great care.

Sometimes he will talk to me as a complete novice and once lent me an introductory book on the dark arts. But another time when I was seated opposite him on the sofa he looked at me suspiciously and said,

‘You pretend not to know much about these things, but it’s easy to see that you too have some powers. Are you sure you’re not a Mason?’

Looked at from one point of view, it might be said that this person is at best a little eccentric. Yet on the other hand, talking to him is quite fascinating. It offers a way of looking at the world from an entirely different perspective, of offering access to a dark chamber of knowledge I have never entered.

The more you listen to him, the more you begin to think he might have a point. After all, a visit to the Freemasons’ Temple in London (pictured left, image courtesy Eluveitie) is a salutary experience. It is an enormously sumptuous building worth several hundred million pounds. It is adorned with all the weird paraphernalia of Freemasonry – the all-seeing eye, the bizarre juxtaposition of Greek mathematicians and Biblical prophets, of men dressed in aprons and giving secret handshakes, and has details of the Masonic lodges spread out in their hundreds across the world.

But it is not just the Masons. I know so little of the mysteries of the Kabala, of Sufism, of Tibetan sutras – you could spend an entire lifetime looking into such things. Clearly some people find an awful lot of truth in such esoteric mysticism.

There seems to me nothing odder in this than an attachment to any of the mainstream religions. After all, if you believe in the Bible, you can hardly object to there being anything strange about seeing the Devil. The Bible is full of stories about the Devil’s appearance and his taking possession of people.

Of course personally I don’t believe any of it. I don’t believe in God, never mind all the paraphernalia of religion and mystical sects. But I do think there is much of interest to be discovered about some of the very odd societies in the world and that these things all connect in quite intriguing ways.

If I had the time, I would love to look into the subject more and have promised to one day write a book with the old man as hero, pitted in a grand battle against the dark Masonic forces. You never know, it could just be that everything he has been telling me is the absolute truth.

After all, his favourite phrase when explaining these matters to me is to say,

‘And these things are in no way imaginary. They are very real.’

Saturday, 22 November 2014

'Who Killed Yukio Mishima?': Talk at University of Manchester and University of Cambridge

I am going to be giving a talk 'Who Killed Yukio Mishima?' at the University of Manchester (University Place 6.208) on 8 December 4pm. The event is absolutely open to all so why not come along and hear about Mishima's extraordinary life and spectacular death? I'll be speaking for an hour after which there will be a Q and A followed by book signings and drinks etc.

For those of you in the East Anglia area, I will also be speaking at the University of Cambridge on Monday 26 January at 5pm in the Faculty of Asian and Middle Eastern Studies. Hope to see some of you there.

Saturday, 15 November 2014

El Cid Rides to London

It's been an interesting week...I picked up a virus on the flight back to the UK from Spain and by Saturday I was bedridden. On Tuesday eve I was due to give a talk at my own book launch in London - surely I'd get better in time? Instead with every passing day I felt yet more exhausted. Finally on Tuesday morning I strapped my dead body onto a horse and proceeded El Cid-like towards London. Just so long as they didn't realize I had already died until the battle was over!

Yukio Mishima was pursuing me everywhere. With a few hours to spare and feeling slightly revived after getting off the train, I thought I might look round the Ming exhibition at the British Museum. Exhibitions are not the best if you are feeling weak so I soon plumped for sitting on a bench and listening to the dulcet tones of Michael Wood guide me while I looked at the audioguide's digital images. The exhibition is partly divided into 'bu' (military) and 'bun' (cultural) pieces exemplifying the age-old maxim that enlightened rulers had to be both warriors and cultured men, a theme picked up by Mishima in his pursuit of 'bunbu ryodo' (the path of both the pen and sword): that he would be both writer and warrior.

And so to the event at the Daiwa passed off well I think. Not having had time to script anything I spoke off the cuff for what was supposed to be 30 minutes but somehow ended up being 1 hour 10 mins. My main theme was Mishima's obsession with time, time-keeping and time symbols (by a nice irony, my mother and sister arrived 10 minutes late - time keeping has never been as scrupulously observed in the Flanagan household as in Mishima's). In the Q and A afterwards, the first question I was asked was the one question I hoped noone would ask: what happened to the silver watch Mishima was given as an award by the emperor in 1944? I really must find out the answer to this (which may be a very simple answer) before I give my next talk at the University of Manchester on December 8!

It was great to see old uni muckers like UBS master-of-the-universe David Soanes (who looks exactly the same as he did 25 years ago) and to meet Wiesia Cook Bownas, the widow of Geoffrey Bownas, a Japanese literature scholar who had collaborated with Mishima. Many thanks to one and all for coming and to the superb staff at the Daiwa Foundation for hosting the event. Afterwards I enjoyed a wonderfully entertaining dinner with Jason James, the effortlessly charming director of the Foundation. Having been unnerved to see my hand weirdly shaking as I attempted to sign copies of the book, I found I considerably revived after a couple of glasses of wine and enjoyed startling my dinner companion with the news that I hadn't actually eaten anything since yesterday lunchtime.

The following day I took in the exhibition at the Royal Academy of the works of the great, but largely forgotten Italian Cinquecento painter, Giovanni Battista Moroni, a master of realistic portraiture. I was particularly taken by this picture of a cocksure Spanish noble (Gabriel de la Cuela, later governor of Milan) with the inscription by its side: Aqui esto sin temor y dela muerte no he pavor (Here is a man without fear who does not flinch at death). Is it just me or is there something intensely Mishima-esque about this fellow as well?

Good luck to them. As for me, I'm just hoping to make a full recovery soon...

Saturday, 8 November 2014

What Happens in Barcelona

Tomorrow (November 9) is D Day in Catalonia, when the region goes to the polls in a supposedly illegal vote on independence denounced by the central government in Madrid. I'm really fascinated by the link between personal psychology and political beliefs (of which much more in some later blogs), but today just wanted to muse on some aspects of my own psychology.

A few days ago I happened to be in Barcelona (Image of Placa Reial above, courtesy of Josep Renalias): it was my third time...or was it my fourth? That's where the trouble began. No matter how much I thought about it I couldn't quite work it out. I know for example that I was definitely in Barcelona as a teenager on my first big solo trip around Europe in July 1987. I can remember clearly the room in the centre of town with plantation shutters and street-side balcony I paid 600 pesetas (£3) a night to stay in. I can remember a couple of Japanese guys I met at the Sangrada Familia who wrote the characters 'Hissho' ('We Must Write to Each Other!'), which I still have somewhere, though I never did write to them. (Someone suggested I could look them up on Facebook with a 'I know it's been a while but...')

And then I'm very clear I was back again in March 1998, when I was visiting a friend and when I stayed at the wonderful Hotel Jardi in the middle of the Bari Goti and opened my windows to allow spring-like warmth to flood my being as I marvelled at the heavenly, tranquil square below. I also enjoyed one of the best St. Patrick's Nights ever in the multitudinous Irish pubs of Barcelona.

But then things start getting increasingly murky. For example I'm sure I've been to the nearby town of Tarragona, but can't place it on either of these trips, which leaves me wondering whether I made a third trip. To forget about a single day is one thing, but to mentally lose an entire trip seems like carelessness... Perhaps though I've actually never been to Tarragona at all and am just dreaming that I have...I'm increasingly coming to the point where I have to recognize that my memories and my dreams are becoming fused and ever more difficult to disentangle.

And then, even more worryingly, there's the Olympics. If there's one thing I was very clear on it was that I was first in Barcelona the year before they held the Olympics in 1988. (I had hardly even heard of this sleepy town called Barcelona at the time and then, a year later, bang, it was suddenly the coolest city in the world.) I have a very quirky habit of often travelling to places with guide books that are nearly 25 years out of date (I once acquired a set of travel guides in a competition and, Scrooge-like, am forever trying to squeeze drops of use out of them). So there I am in Barcelona with my 'Fodors Spain 1991' and I marvel that on the front cover it offers a 'preview to the Olympics'. Preview?! How could it be a preview? The Olympics happened there 3 years before...I briefly considered that they might have happened in 1992 but that of course was the year they were in Seoul - I remember that because I was travelling in Japan at the time. Just to be sure, I googled and discovered that the Barcelona Olympics were indeed in 1992 and that my memories were simply all over the place...

You might conclude from this and the fact that I keep going back to Barcelona, that I really love the place. What's not to love? The former home of Picasso, Miro (pictured left) and Gaudi; the last redoubt of noble Republicans and Anarchists; the best football in the world; the beach. Yet, whisper it quietly, I've always been very indifferent to Barcelona. The Picasso Museum? Once was enough. Sangrada Familia? Not still building that, surely? The Miro Museum - yes, well I would go back to the Miro Museum because I really like Miro, if I could find time to go up Montjuic...I feel guilty for admitting it, but I'm actually much more interested in Madrid than Barcelona. My idea of pure, self-indulgent heaven would be to sneak off for a week and spend every day commuting like a banker to the Prado to commune with Velasquez, Goya and El Greco before passing blissful evenings in Madrid's busy squares.

Alarmingly, this places me on the wrong side of Spain's interminable psychological civil war, on the side of the government and the establishment, on the side of the former fascistas, on order at all costs. Spiritually, I feel I should be in the trenches with Barcelona and the Republicans, copy of Orwell in my knapsack.

Finding then that my memories of Barcelona were in such tumult and disarray, that the Anarchists had completely taken over, I finally decided it was pointless trying to impose any order upon them and ordered my fascist columns to retreat. It was time to yield at last to Barcelona. What had happened to me over the years in Barcelona? Only Barcelona knew.

As for the Catalans and their independence debate, well of course I hope they will have some chance to decide for themselves. Though I don't think that anyone would see Catalonia as more or less of a nation if they assumed all the paraphernalia of a state. To me, first and foremost, Catalonia is a state of mind. It's not so much that Madrid is better or worse than its great Catalan rival, the truly wonderful thing is that they are so different and play off against each other so inspirationally. While logic, vigorous process and analysis have their place so too has the mental creativity engendered by the fusion of fact, surrealism and fantasy. When you put them all together, whether in the space of a single head, or in an ongoing national schism, you end up with something like the creative tension of an El Clasico.

Monday, 27 October 2014

Hunted by Mr. Hunt

I was watching on TV the other night Simon Schama on the subject of Rembrandt's late paintings, a kind of trailer for the Rembrandt exhibition just opened at the National Gallery. Schama, with his camp, quirky gestures and idiosyncratic intonation, has invited much parody of late, but when he is on form, he really is unbeatable. These days he comments on too many subjects for his own good, but Rembrandt is very much his home turf, and he was wonderfully well-informed, insightful and opinionated. At one point he informed us that Van Gogh was so obsessed with Rembrandt's painting The Jewish Bride that he declared he would give up the rest of his life if he could but spend ten days standing in wonder before it. Really? I guess Van Gogh knew what he was talking about but I can't think I would give The Jewish Bride (pictured below) more than 10 seconds if I was whizzing past it in an art gallery.

This is I suppose the embodiment of the pros and cons of art criticism. A great critic can truly make you see something in a new light and reveal a wealth of meaning you would never discern on your own. But does that necessarily change the impact that the art work has upon you? I'm not so sure.

Schama spoke about how as a youth he had been utterly transfixed by the sight of a Rembrandt self-portrait on display at Kenwood House in London. Was all his subsequent art criticism a means to somehow make sense of why that particular painting had affected him?

Many notable critics have Rembrandt down as just about the best painter of all time, and though I understand why, I can't say his paintings have the same impact on me. When it comes to fine art, I've long felt guilty about the works that actually do obsess me as they are supposed to be utterly uncool and pretty much in the bottom division of world art criticism. For example, I am really, really interested in the paintings of the Pre-Raphaelite William Holman Hunt (self-portrait at top). Admitting that you are fascinated by the Pre-Raphaelites is bad enough, but plumping for Holman Hunt in particular is (to paraphrase T.E. Lawrence) like pitching your camp on a 'sideshow of a sideshow'. Yet me personally? You can keep your Rembrandts; I would take Hunt's The Hireling Shepherd (pictured above) ahead of virtually any painting in the world.

For a long time I thought I was in a minority of one on this subject. After all, the Pre-Raphaelites, those purveyors of gaudy Victoriana, have been dismissed decades ago by influential art critic Ernst Gombrich as a 'blind alley', and even within the group, Hunt was supposed to be the clumsiest, in painterly terms the ugly sister to pretty boys Millais and Rossetti. Just about the only person who has had anything good to say about Hunt in the last century or so is the novelist Evelyn Waugh, who while noting that his works were 'ugly' also praised them as 'great masterpieces' and referenced them in Brideshead Revisited. But then Waugh was perhaps biased, as his father was the first cousin of Hunt's two consecutive wives, the sisters Fanny and Edith Waugh.

'Ugly' though is the wrong adjective to describe Hunt's work. There is an indisputable painterly beauty to them, though they are probably not the type of thing you would want hanging on your wall at home. 'Sumptuously unnerving' or 'gorgeously disturbing' are the adjectives I would use to describe them. They disturb me far more than a Francis Bacon does. They have got inside my head and won't let go.

By the end of his long lifetime (1827-1910) - which saw the rise and fall of Impressionism and the beginning of Cubism - Hunt's outmoded paintings, such as the picture The Light of the World had become some of the most popular art work in the world. When The Light of the World went on a tour of the British Empire in 1907, seven million people crushed into the galleries to see it. Never mind Van Gogh standing enraptured in front of The Jewish Bride, people stood for literally hours utterly mesmerized by this painting. It was reproduced and hung in millions of pious Christian homes around the world until it became synonymous with the stiff, religious Victorian world new generations wished to sweep away. Evelyn Waugh referred to a kind of cataract descending on the eyes of the world preventing them from seeing the import of the pictures.

But it's really fascinating how art works take on a life of their own and just when you think they are dead start bursting into vitality in completely unexpected places. Read just about any 20th century history of art criticism and you will be told that Pre-Raphaelitism was a withered branch on the tree of art, old-fashioned, outmoded, going nowhere. Where was its 'influence'? We can draw a line from Cezanne to Kandinsky to Jackson Pollock, but from Holman Hunt? Do me a favour.

Actually Holman Hunt was inspiring new art work, such as Arthur Boyd's The Australian Scapegoat (1987), but it's his literary influence which is the most fascinating. 20 years ago I was amazed to discover just how much the great Japanese novelist Natsume Soseki had become obsessed with the art of Holman Hunt and how he repeatedly featured it as a motif in his stories. Exploring the boundaries and interconnections between the visual and literary arts was a Soseki obession in the first half of his short writing career (1904-1916) and he would do what can perhaps best be described as 'literary recreations' of famous paintings in his stories. A key painting to Soseki was Holman Hunt's Lady of Shalott (pictured left) - itself a famous contemplation on the meaning of art - which Soseki 'recreated' in his story 'The Shallot Dew'. In his 1906 novel The Autumn Wind (Nowaki), Soseki even has one of protagonists, an aspiring writer, advised by a friend to go home and study the paintings of Holman Hunt.

But it's in Soseki's masterpiece Sanshiro (1908) that Hunt finally moves to centre stage. You really can't get to grips with this novel unless you understand that Hunt's iconic paintings The Hireling Shepherd and Strayed Sheep are at the beating heart of it. The words 'Stray Sheep' are indeed constantly repeated in English and are first uttered by the central character Mineko in a scene which is a sly Sosekian reproduction of Hunt's The Hireling Shepherd. The name 'Mineko' incidentally is also a Sosekian play on words - Hunt's painting was accompanied by a rhyme from King Lear referring to the hireling shepherd's 'minikin mouth'.

Ten years ago, I was so fascinated by the Soseki-Hunt link that I did everything I could to promote it. I hoped to get Sanshiro - out of print in English at the time - back into publication and accompanied with an introduction that would boldly explore what the novel was all about. For reasons that escape me, Penguin ran with my idea but came out with an edition with a banal introduction by some obscure novelist called Haruki Murakami. What a wasted opportunity...Instead I implored Manchester Art Gallery - which holds The Hireling Shepherd - to promote the Soseki link. I even gave a lecture there on the subject. Result: complete indifference. Natsume who? Never heard of him and the critics don't think much of Hunt either.

I decided to retreat back into my default position of being in a minority of one when it came to Holman Hunt appreciation. (Actually it's a minority of three: me, Soseki and Evelyn Waugh, which isn't a bad club to be in). But then I was jolted out of my habitual mental hibernation by happening to watch the 2011 BBC adaptation of Michel Faber's critically lauded novel The Crimson Petal and the White. The story is a very clever reworking of many favourite themes in Victorian fiction. Utterly central to it is Holman Hunt's painting The Awakening Conscience (pictured right), depicting a Victorian gent with his 'kept woman' on his lap, compared to the cat playing with a mouse underneath the table. It's no exaggeration to say that the whole plot of The Crimson Petal and the White seems to fan out from this picture, imagining the different worlds of the respectful gent and the sex worker. From this central point Faber spans out a visceral, excruciating vision of Victorian London as sprawling, extreme and interconnected as Dickens' magnificent Bleak House. Just for good measure, there is also a wonderful inversion of Jane Eyre when the prostitute-turned-governess is moved into the attic room of the prosperous gent while his 'mad wife' (actually suffering from a brain tumour) lives in the house downstairs. The gent when he visits the prostitute in the first place actually assumes the identity of a 'William Hunt'.

If you could choose just three works that define Victorian London then Jane Eyre, Bleak House and The Awakening Conscience seem to be about the best picks you could possibly have and I suddenly became interested to learn more about Michel Faber. I was surprised by his sci-fi writings. As many of you will know, his earlier work Under the Skin about aliens on earth was turned into a recent film and his latest novel (The Book of Strange New Things, purportedly his last) is a return to the sci-fi genre.

How do you go from a contemplation of a painting by William Holman Hunt to writing science fiction? Easily it seems because Faber, I discovered, is not the first to do so. I was fascinated to read that the prolific science fiction writer Brian Aldiss - who wrote the book on which the Spielberg film AI was based - had back in 1967 penned an experimental sci-fi classic called Report on Probability A in which Hunt's Hireling Shepherd is of central importance. Indeed it seems that Aldiss actually rewrote and reissued the novel so that Hunt's picture hangs in the room of each protagonist. The novel, inspired by Heisenberg's Uncertainty Principle, questions the possibility of ever attaining 'objective truth' because everything depends on the stance of the observer. (Presumable Hunt's picture is in the mix because it too is open to a multiplicity of radically different interpretations). The novel has been compared to the work of Beckett and Borges.

Having got this far in my investigations, I'm having to revise yet again membership of my exclusive Holman Hunt club and say there are now five of us: me, Soseki, Evelyn Waugh, Michel Faber and Brian Aldiss. More and more, I'm liking the look of this club. For any art historian who wants to tell me - honorary secretary of the club - that Hunt's art is a 'dead end', I can only say that there is now a heck of an appreciation club that says differently.

And as for Mr. Hunt, he just won't leave me alone, I feel hunted by him all the time. What's the meaning of all his work? Can't you see? From The Scapegoat to The Triumph of the Innocents, he's the world champion of the victims and the oppressed. And that, my friends, is the most universal and modern theme you will ever find.

Tuesday, 21 October 2014

Mad About the Girl

SEX, SCANDAL, SEVERED HEADS...with special guest stars Oscar Wilde, Al Pacino and Yukio Mishima... My latest article 'Mad About the Girl' is on the Reaktion Books website. Click right here.

Saturday, 18 October 2014

Yukio Mishima Launch Event

Just a heads up to let everyone know that the launch event for my new book Yukio Mishima will be taking place on the evening of Tuesday 11 November at the Daiwa Foundation near Regents Park in London. The event will start at 6pm when I will be giving a talk about Mishima for 30-40 minutes, then there will be a Q and A followed by a drinks reception and book signings. The event is completely free and everyone is welcome so why not come along? (Please do let the Daiwa Foundation know if you are hoping to come though). You can find more details about the event on the Daiwa Foundation website here:

Look forward to seeing you all there.

Tuesday, 14 October 2014

A Critic's Life: From John Ruskin to Breaking Bad

I've been reading of late some of the mixed reviews of the new Emma Thompson-scripted movie, Effie Gray, about the young wife of Victorian art critic John Ruskin (pictured right). The eponymous heroine abandoned her loveless, unconsummated marriage in favour of running off with dashing John Everett Millais, co-founder of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood and most famous for his painting of Ophelia. Famously Ruskin was said to have been fatally turned off his young bride upon gazing at her pubic hair (there are lots of fans of the Hollywood out there who would sympathize) and is apparently depicted in Effie Gray as the stereotypical sexually-repressed, stiff (or rather, not so stiff) Victorian, a depiction repeated in the 2009 BBC series Desperate Romantics, with Tom Hollander playing Ruskin.

Clearly Emma Thompson was angling for a feminist vote of sympathy for poor old Effie Gray who soon settled down into tedious domestic harmony with Millais, producing eight children. Interestingly however, the film has had an unexpected reaction - the depiction of Ruskin has led to many voices calling for a re-appreciation of his genius.

I won't pretend for a minute to be any expert on Ruskin - I once did a brief skim through the volumes of his Modern Painters, at one time the cutting edge of art criticism, though now firmly belonging to the domain of mid 19th century history-of-art scholars. I've never read his Stones of Venice and am not sure I ever will. But even so, what's undoubted about Ruskin is how enormously influential he was throughout the nineteenth century, whether as the champion of Turner or the man who saved the incipient Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood from critical oblivion or indeed his extraordinary social vision, which inspired and anticipated many of the later achievements of the welfare state. A little bi-annual pilgrimage I like to make is to the Ruskin House at Coniston in the Lake District and I've happily sat through the documentary film of his life a few times.

Ruskin was clearly the critic's critic, a man who saw that the only worthwhile way to live your life is with a critical eye, constantly reassessing the value of things, whether he was appraising fine art or the society around him. He understood that while art is essential in a society so is the critical appreciation to that art and that one cannot fully operate without the other.

It's tempting sometimes not to over-think things and park one's critical faculties in neutral. I was attempting to watch the other week the classic Akira Kurosawa film Ikiru (1952). Having seen virtually all the Kurosawa films, somehow Ikiru had slipped through the net and I had kept meaning to watch it sometime. Many have proclaimed it a great classic, but when I started watching it, I simply couldn't get into it and paused it twenty minutes in. I tweeted at the time that it seemed so old as though it had been made in 1852 rather than 1952. A couple of weeks later I watched another half hour and paused it again. Sure, I'd get back to it sometime but truth to tell I'd really rather be watching the box sets of series two and three of Breaking Bad, which I have been consuming at a rate of an episode a night. The gripping tale of illicit crystal meth production in present day Albuquerque seemed a whole lot more engaging than a slow-moving story set in postwar, black-and-white Tokyo.

Imagine my surprise therefore when I happened to read online - this is very old news indeed but I am only just catching up - that the creator of Breaking Bad, Vince Gilligan, had been inspired by the plot of Ikiru. In Kurosawa's film, a humble clerk is given a terminal diagnosis for stomach cancer and only then begins to break out of his humdrum existence. In Breaking Bad, Gilligan takes this idea and transforms it into the tale of a downtrodden chemistry teacher given a terminal diagnosis for lung cancer who begins criminal activities to pay for his medical bills and leave something behind for his family. Both film and series are acute satires on the societies in which they are set: in Kurosawa's case, he is satirizing the bureaucratic rigidity of Japanese society and the blind conformity of the employees; in Gilligan's case, it is the nation's lack of universal healthcare, the rapacity of its lawyers and businessmen, and the poor rewards of educators amongst many other things at which he levels his satirical vision.

How could I have not seen the connection, especially as I was watching both at the same time? Although I am well aware that Kurosawa was inspired by the Westerns of John Ford and that Kurosawa's films in turn inspired a slew of classic Westerns, somehow I had failed to see that there was a straight line between New Mexico and Tokyo.

Having taken a leaf out of Ruskin's book and turned back on my critical vision, Breaking Bad resonates in ever more fascinating lights. I can appreciate for example how in the virtuoso episode in series three The Fly - a two-hander set entirely in the meth lab and concerned with the capturing of a fly - we have a set-up inspired by Sartre's famous play Les Mouches (itself a reworking of Aeschylus' classic Oresteia) in which the fly becomes a potent symbol of the guilt felt by the protagonist Walt White. Would the real-life fly be killed before he made a full confession to his young accomplice? It was all brilliantly done.

Note to self: Keep your critical faculties switched on at all times, you never know when they might come in handy. As Ruskin taught us so well, from lady gardens to Renaissance buildings to pensions schemes, nothing is beneath the analytic scrutiny of a finely-tuned critical eye.

Friday, 10 October 2014

Freedom and the Middle East

(Image: Syrian children in Lebanon, courtesy Trocaire)

It's said that in the last days of the Third Reich, Hitler and Goebbels nestled down in the bunker and, as the walls shuddered around them, thumbed through an edition of Carlyle's biography of Fredrick the Great. Hitler took solace from the fact that the King of Prussia had once found himself in a hopeless position, holed up in a ruined palace in Breslau, with the armies of the world around him, but had been miraculously saved by his enemies turning one upon the other. Might this not happen again? When the advancing Western allies met the Soviets might they not too turn upon one another and allow the Reich to be saved?

Hitler may have seemed extraordinarily delusional, but if you examine what is currently going on in Syria, you soon see that such outcomes are by no means impossible. Two years ago, who would have given President Assad and his crumbling regime a chance of surviving given the grand alliance marshalled against him? The US, Israel, Turkey, Britain, France and others were all united against him and the Syrian rebels found huge numbers of arms being provided for their use. Only the Russians stood by the beleaguered president, whose grisly end, in the manner of Gaddafi, seemed only a matter of time.

But now, in a veritable Frederick the Great-style turnaround, the Grand Coalition is attacking the very rebels it once so eagerly armed. Debate rages as to whether the alliance should also still be attacking Assad (but would this not, some claim, create a huge political void that more religious extremists would quickly fill?). Assad was once portrayed as the butcher of the Syrian people, a modern day Hitler. Now attacking his regime seems like an enormous mistake, a pandering to the Israeli obsession with the Hezbollah-Assad-Iran alliance arrayed against it, that has created infinitely more trouble than if Assad had simply been left in place.

On the day of the 9-11 attacks on the Twin Towers, when the British Government got word that the perpetrator was a group called 'Al-Qaeda', it seems everyone looked at one another with a blank face. Eventually someone was dispatched to Waterstones in Trafalgar Square to buy a book on the Middle East to find out who exactly this 'Al-Qaeda' were. How times have changed. These days, you would need a PhD in Terrorist Studies to keep up with it all. There is ISIS (or IS or ISIL) of course, a breakaway reconfiguration of Al-Qaeda in Iraq. Then there is Al-Nusra, the Al-Qaeda affiliate in Syria, who were at loggerheads with both ISIS and Hezbollah, though they may now have patched things up with ISIS as both groups are being bombed by the Grand Alliance. There may be another group called Khorasan, who might be about to launch an attack on the West - though this group might not exist at all and may just be a wing of al-Nusra. Turkey does not like ISIS, but fears the Kurdish PKK more, and so will not provides arms or support for the Kurds to attack ISIS lest the PKK gain in strength. Confused? You will be.

In the midst of all this, there is supposedly the 'Free Syria Army', though some people claim this doesn't even exist any more (assuming it actually existed in the first place). It's a shame that this is the army which, in the midst of the melee, we are all hoping will win.

Whatever else you can say about the mess which currently exists in Syria and Iraq, there seems little doubt that even in the miraculous event that a 'Free Syria Army' should prove triumphant, what will emerge will not be a 'Free Syria'. Foreign powers will be pulling the strings. But then 'freeing Syria' was never the point. The intention was simply to make Syria more compliant and complicit.

What's currently going on in Syria and Iraq is actually a textbook example of what has been going on in the Middle East over the last century. There is a choice between secular dictatorship on the one hand and frenzied theocracy on the other - there seems to be no space whatsoever for secular democracy. Faced with the threat of militarized theocracy, Western governments - concerned about oil supplies and Israel's security - invariably plump for propping up secular dictators, doling out billions of dollars of military aid, just so long as they keep their peoples acquiescent. Meanwhile all types of compliments are dispensed to the virtues of 'moderate Islam', encouraging the mullahs to support the system and keep the extremists in check.

The great Egyptian author, Naguib Mahfouz (pictured right, image by Misr2009)
who wrote some 34 novels over a career spanning seven decades was once asked to define what his life's work was all about. 'Freedom', he answered, bringing it all down to a single word. What exactly did 'freedom' mean? Two things. Firstly, freedom from foreign control. Mahfouz's novels span the five millennia of Egyptian history and tell the story of the Egyptian struggle to regain control of their own land from Hyksos invaders in the 16th century BC down to modern history and the attempts to throw off the shackles of the Turks, the British and the Americans. The story of the twentieth century, which Mahfouz so adeptly describes, is repeated national revolutions designed to wrest the nation from quasi-colonial control, only to discover that every time the colonial overlords crept back in. Egyptians youths laid down their lives in the 1919 Revolution to remove the British, but discovered that the British were still surreptitiously running things in the 1920s. Nasser's 1952 revolution did not bring true liberation either. And we all know what happened in the aftermath of the 'Arab Spring' of 2011. After the inevitable lurch towards the Moslem Brotherhood, it was back to business as usual with a secular dictatorship supported by hefty American military aid.

For Mahfouz though, 'freedom' meant not just liberation from foreign control, but liberation from the oppressions of religion too - and for him personally, this was by far the more dangerous path to attempt to pursue. In his masterly religious allegory, Children of the Alley, Mahfouz provides an incisive account of the development of religious faith from Adam to Moses and from Jesus to Mohammed. Throughout history, people were looking for liberation from their oppressors, whether Moses leading his people out of captivity or Jesus resisting the oppressions of the Romans. In many ways, Jesus is the key figure. He is the great prophet and hero of the downtrodden, but the crunch is that Jesus is brutally murdered. Where do you take the struggle for freedom to from there? In Mahfouz's telling, there were two options. The Christians come along and invent a myth that Jesus didn't actually die at all, but was resurrected and saved us all. Or you take the Muslim path that, yes, he was murdered and sadly that's where meekness gets you in this world, so next time around you had better make sure that your campaign for liberation comes armed - we have entered the age of 'Mohammed and the sword'.

Children of the Alley is an extremely perceptive and sympathetic account of the reasons for Islam's success, but it doesn't stop there - how could it? It also introduces us to a modern world of science, of atomic bombs and the Theory of Evolution, a world where the word on the street is that God is Dead.

The thanks that Mahfouz got for writing this masterpiece about the quest for human freedom was to see his book banned throughout the Arab world and, after The Satanic Verses controversy later flared up tensions, he was attacked by an Islamic fanatic who, incited by the mullahs, plunged a dagger in his neck. Mahfouz narrowly survived. Bizarrely what troubled the mullahs was not the implication at the end of the book that God is Dead, but some of the minutiae concerning the life of Mohammed, which for all but Islamic scholars would be unlikely to be even noticed.

After all the controversy Mahfouz not surprisingly kept religion at a respectful distance in his writings. He still claimed he was a Moslem (he would, wouldn't he?), but the Islam that engaged his interest tended to be Sufism, the mystical wing of Islam, an area where contemplation of the 'oneness' of things was all. When you get this far away from dogma and organized religion, the barriers between 'spirituality' and enlightened atheism become indistinct.

For Mahfouz - so far the only winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature in the Arab World - the struggle against foreign colonialism and religious dogma represented the central narrative of five millennia of Egyptian history. The same could be said to be true of virtually every country in the Middle East. One could become depressed at the inability of the Arab World to shake off the endless cycle of vastly corrupt dictators and fanatical theocrats. And yet there is another way of looking at the equation. Firstly, Mahfouz understood that attempts at foreign control are only ever transitory: world powers wax and wane but the true Egypt flows on like the Nile eternally.

Secondly, Mahfouz saw that it is not the ultimate fate of the Middle East to be merely 'Muslim countries'. Being Egyptian meant being heir to the first great civilization in the world, to being connected to three millennia of civilization before Islam had even been invented. The same is true of all the countries of the Middle East. Syria and Iraq have a vastly greater cultural hinterland beyond the fathoming of shrill-voiced fanatics calling for a new caliphate as if history began in the seventh century.

As Europe was liberated from the shackles of religion and absolute monarchy by an enlightenment that harked back to a pre-Christian classical age, for me true freedom for the Middle East will only come when a dogged commitment to secular education lifts the shroud of religion and reveals the possibilities of a technologically sophisticated future lit by the glories of a classical past.

Tuesday, 30 September 2014

Natsume Soseki and World Literature

A few of my comments on the position of the great Japanese writer Natsume Soseki in world literature appeared in yesterday's English language version of the Asahi Shinbun. The translation of the original article (which appeared in Japanese in the Asahi in July) is slightly clunky to say the least and quite weird to find myself coming out with phrases like 'Soseki makes readers think about the credibility of the stories and analyze oddball psychology'...Now I understand how others must feel when the English translation of their words comes out very strangely indeed.

Monday, 29 September 2014

The Great Panda vs. Big Charlie

As we hold our collective breath to see whether restraint will rule the day in the face of the heroic student protests for democracy in Hong Kong, I note the predictable clamp down on information by the censors in Beijing. On social media, euphemisms are deployed: the big question is how will the Great Panda react?

In its state censorship and propaganda China shows alarming signs of similarity with Tokyo in the 1930s. In the early Showa period, the Japanese emperor Hirohito was a figure so divine that the eyes of onlookers had to be firmly cast down to the ground when his celestial majesty passed by. One dare not speak a word of criticism against him and to do so in public or private was to put one's liberty in peril. But the foreign correspondents in Tokyo had a neat trick up their sleeve - Hirohito became known as 'Big Charlie' and about 'Big Charlie' you could say pretty much anything you pleased.

It's incredibly important I think that The Great Panda knows that the eyes of the world are upon him and that his attempts at repressing information will not - can not - work.

If the regime moves to deploying the army against the students, then it is an entirely different matter. The police are the instrument of internal civilian order; the army are the means by which a regime defends itself and attacks others. If the army are deployed, then it is entirely legitimate for the international community to become engaged also. I'm pleased by the statements from around the world calling on restraint from Beijing and condemning excessive force against pro-democracy campaigners.

Thursday, 25 September 2014

Scotland and the Union

Now that the dust is beginning to settle on the extraordinary Scottish Referendum, I am taking stock of what exactly went on over the last few weeks.

There seems a supreme irony that this all occurred in the year when we have been commemorating the centennial anniversary of the outbreak of the First World War. Oh, how we marvelled at the folly of our ancestors as they sleep-walked their way over the course of a balmy summer into absolute disaster.

While we were all reading such articles, Britain nearly sleep-walked into oblivion. When on Friday of last week I got up at 2.30am to watch the referendum results come in, I seriously wondered whether the country would still be around in four hours time. What the Germans didn't manage in 1914, the British Government made a much better attempt at in 2014.

Rarely can a government have made a bigger shambles of a referendum than the UK's coalition managed over Scotland. Just about every aspect of the referendum had been weighted in favour of the Scottish National Party (SNP) by David Cameron's deplorable lack of negotiation skills over the Edinburgh Memorandum which defined the terms of the referendum. Assuming that there should have ever been an all-defining referendum over independence in the first place (the SNP had never achieved a majority of votes in Scotland), all the terms of the referendum turned out to be to the SNP's advantage.

Most savvy children know that a question is best phrased to elicit a 'yes' response and that the phrasing of a question radically alters the likely response. If there was going to be a referendum, then the question should have been, 'Should Scotland stay in the UK?' Agreeing to a referendum question of 'Should Scotland be an independent country?' was a bit like asking a disgruntled partner 'Do you wish to be free?' rather than 'Do you wish to keep hold of what we have?' It was a fundamental tactical failure of the British government to ever agree to this.

As if that wasn't bad enough, the British government then agreed to having 16 and 17 year-olds vote in the referendum, who were intrinsically less likely to feel long-standing ties of affection for the Union. They agreed to the 800,000 Scots living in other parts of the UK - and thus most likely to keenly feel both Scottish and British - to having no say in the referendum. If this was a battle, it was like handing your opponent all the high ground and sending home your best divisions before a single shot had been fired.

Behind these disastrous decisions was of course a vaunting over-confidence that the outcome would a be clear backing for the Union no matter what the terms of the debate. The British government were not so much sleep-walking as they had been in 1914, but were sound asleep and snoring heavily.

Then the campaigns began. It was painful to watch. The SNP, once a fringe party who had turned off voters with virulently anti-English rhetoric, had long since worked out that the way forward was not to attack 'the English' but 'Westminster politics'. Their greatest coup was arguing, preposterously, that in nationalist hands Scotland would be a land of 'social justice' (yeh, right).

Such an opponent should have been routed comprehensively with a broad, inspirational vision of what it means to be British, but instead the 'No' campaign could only muster an utterly vision-less Alistair Darling, whose sole thrust of argument was to warn of economic turmoil and the difficulties of settling on a currency after separation. Cameron, having set in place the disastrous terms of the referendum, was then terrified to hardly set foot in Scotland lest his Old Etonian ways turned off the natives. The leader of the 'Yes' campaign, Alex Salmond (pictured right in Scottish Govt. image) rang rings round both of them, proving himself in strategy and bearing by far the most able political operator in Britain.

The UK's head of state was unable to make any comment as the imminent disappearance of UK apparently had nothing to do with her (could someone remind me what her purpose is again?) , though we later learned that she 'purred' with happiness at the result.

Many people in the media now tell us that the referendum was a wonderful exercise in democracy in action because of mass participation, with voting in some areas at nearly 90%, though there has been the rather unfortunate consequence of a constitutional crisis precipitated by the desperate promise of maximum devolution powers to Scotland in a last ditch effort by the No campaign to sway the vote.

Cameron was overheard saying to Michael Bloomberg that the referendum should have never been so close. Indeed it shouldn't. If it hadn't been for the government's sheer incompetence, the result is likely to have come in at least 70-30 in the favour of the Union and without the constitutional mess Cameron has now engendered.

I too found the referendum inspirational though for different reasons to those widely reported. Firstly, it revealed the ways in which many issues when put to the vote can move in directions radically different to those which pollsters initially suggest (Think Britain can never become a republic? Let's put it to a referendum, I say). Secondly, it showed the government and the opposition to be so staggeringly inept, visionless and bungling that it underlined the importance of each individual becoming politically active. If a government can take a country to within a few hours of not even existing, you really can't afford to close your eyes and let them lead you as they sleep-walk their way into disaster.

Wednesday, 17 September 2014

Everything about Mishima

My new book Yukio Mishima came out this week so I thought I might give my blog readers an exclusive behind-the-scenes tour of where the book came from and what it's all about.

For anyone not familiar with the name today, Yukio Mishima was arguably the most internationally famous Japanese celebrity of the last century. A dazzlingly prolific author who wrote over 30 novels, 70 plays and seemingly countless volumes of short stories, memoirs and essays, he also found time to be a movie actor, martial arts devotee, body builder, political campaigner and world traveller. He also conducted an orchestra, flew a F104 jet and formed his own private army. He was described by Yasunari Kawabata, the first Japanese winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1968, as the kind of genius who comes along every 300 years. In Japan his tentacles of personal association spanned from the prime minister to business leaders to film directors and taxi drivers. On his world travels, he hung out with Christopher Isherwood, Greta Garbo, Margot Fonteyn and Jean Cocteau amongst many others. When he died in Tokyo at the age of 45 in the most spectacular death imaginable on November 25 1970, the entire Japanese nation came to a standstill. In that never-to-be-forgotten JFK moment, every Japanese over the age of 10 at the time still remembers exactly where they were when they heard the astonishing news that Mishima with a handful of cadres had taken hostage a general at the Eastern Headquarters of the Japanese Self Defence Forces, appeared on a balcony to give a frenzied speech to the army, been shouted down and subsequently committed ritual suicide. No man ever lived out a life in more dramatic fashion.

Mishima was also the first Japanese writer I ever read. At the age of 16, I was passed by a schoolteacher his novella The Sailor Who Fell From Grace From The Sea (translated by John Nathan, of whom more below). Later at the age of 19 I was reading his Confessions of a Mask, a copy of which rested on my university desk with a cover depicting Mishima in a typically sado-masochistic pose (prompting a startled visitor to note my 'esoteric tastes'). By the time I was 20 and hitchhiking around the island of Shikoku in 1990, I was asked at a youth hostel who were the most famous Japanese people in Britain. 'Yukio Mishima', I instantly responded. I might have added that, at the time, this was pretty much the only Japanese person anyone in Britain had heard of thanks to his positioning as an unlikely counter cultural college room poster boy.

From the above, you might imagine that I have long been a Mishima devotee, but actually I was ambivalent about Mishima. There was no denying his literary talent, but the bulging muscles, the triumphing of Japanese traditions, the whole samurai shtick combined with the right wing politics were simply not for me. At his worst, Mishima seemed to embody just about every cliche of Japan. So I placed him at a respectful distance and quietly shook my head at those, like the great Japanologist Donald Keene, who seemed to think that he was the best modern writer Japan had to offer.

But then I was asked if I wouldn' t like to pen a new take on Mishima? Yes, yes, would love to write the book, but did it have to be on Mishima...couldn't we do someone else? No, it had to be Mishima.

Once, at a dinner in Cambridge back in 1999, my old college mucker Andrew Rankin informed me that he was writing a biography of Mishima and ever afterwards I always kept an eye out for the appearance of his mighty tome on Mishima. Though Andrew has gone to produce books on a variety of other subjects, such as his book on seppuku (ritual suicide) with Mishimaesque connections, his definitive word on Mishima has not yet appeared.

But gradually, semi-reluctantly I was drawn into research on the subject. The first task was to read as much of the Mishima canon as possible (his complete works comprise some 42 volumes each of which are around 7-800 pages long). Where to start? For me, what transformed my understanding of Mishima was reading his final tetralogy The Sea of Fertility, his self-declared 'life work' which took over five years to write and quite literally killed him. (Mishima committed suicide on the same day as the final installment was handed to his editor, having declared that he could not imagine any life after this book was finished). Reading this book changed my entire view of Mishima and made me convinced that he had been largely misunderstood.
So baffling has The Sea of Fertility been to critics that they either tend to mostly ignore it and claim that early works such as Confessions of a Mask were Mishima's finest achievement, or else they tend to force analogies between the contents of The Sea of Fertility and the playing out of Mishima's own life. Specifically, the suicide of a young nationalist at the end of volume two is nearly always dovetailed (as at the end of Paul Schrader's otherwise superb film Mishima: A life in Four Chapters, pictured right) with Mishima's own demise. But if this was really the meaning of his 'life work', why did he write another two volumes?

Although he was most famous for his posturing dandyism, nationalism and kinky homosexuality (though he was also married with kids), I began to realise there was an entirely different Mishima with profound ideas on the nature of existence. This was the man I wanted to explore.

When turning to existing biographies of Mishima, we really are spoilt for choice. In 1974, four years after Mishimas death, two comprehensive biographies of Mishima appeared in English and both have fascinating backstories. The first of them was by Mishima's erstwhile translator John Nathan. Well over 6 foot tall and standing nearly a foot taller than Mishima himself, Nathan was not just any translator, but a brilliantly talented and fresh-faced American - in fact the first American graduate of Tokyo University - whose translation of The Sailor Who Fell From Grace From The Sea won such high praise from its American publishers Knopf that Mishima believed that in this young man he had found the means by which he would capture Japan's first Nobel Prize. He pumped weights with Nathan, invited him to his house parties and hearing of Knopf's high praise for him, invited him out to the Ginza so they could chink sake cups together and raise toasts to the great task of winning the Nobel Prize.

If Shakespeare was alive today he would undoubtedly pen a play called Mishima and this scene with Nathan would be a crucial moment in Act 2. (In Julius Caesar fashion, I fantasise that Mishima would die not in Act 5, but in Act 3 and the rest of the play would be taken up with Mishima's legacy and ghost). Shortly after the toasts to the Nobel Prize, Nathan had to awkwardly declare that he did not want to translate Mishima's next novel, which he thought untranslatable, and wished rather to switch his services to Mishima's great rival Kenzaburo Oe instead. Mishima never spoke to him again. It was this moment which set Mishima on an inexorable path to death five years later: it also set Oe on the path to the Nobel Prize which he claimed in 1994 with Nathan at his side.

Nathan's subsequent biography of Mishima, complete with interview material with Mishima's own parents, is an extraordinary piece of research which was translated into Japanese before being suppressed by Mishima's widow and only finally released after her death.

An equally fascinating biography was also provided in 1974 by Henry Scott Stokes, a journalist at the Japan Bureau of the London Times. Mishima had befriended Scott Stokes in the last years of his life, had stayed with Mishima at his holiday retreat during Mishima's final summer and actually rushed to the base on the day of Mishima's death.

Biographies and memoirs of Mishima in Japanese are of course legion, but special mention might be made to the biography published by the recent governor of Tokyo, Naoki Inose, which delved in particular into Mishima's intriguing family history (Mishima's grandfather was governor of the Japanese province of Karafuto (modern day Sakhalin) and was tipped for a cabinet post before scandal engulfed him). Two years ago a much expanded version of this book prepared in cooperation with Hiroaki Sato, a notable Mishima scholar and translator based in New York, appeared in English. Persona runs to some 850 pages and is exhaustively comprehensive. After reading Inose's Japanese original, I read the English version of Persona twice: it is a quite terrific work of scholarship.

In the illustrious company of men who personally knew Mishima and ate and drank with him, or in the face of colossal biographies by authors who have devoted half a lifetime in scholarship on the subject, what can my book hope to achieve? I'm hoping it might serve firstly as an up-to-date introduction to one of the most extraordinary lives of the twentieth century, but I'm also hoping it will reveal Mishima's obsessive, incisive ideas about the nature of the world itself. I have paid particular attention to Mishima's masterwork, The Sea of Fertility, and hope my dose of literary criticism will encourage a re-evaluation of this tremendous tome, Mishima deserves to be remembered and appreciated for his writing, and not just for his spectacular death.

For me personally, having arrived at Mishima a little late and sceptical, I must declare that this book is but the first of a trilogy of interconnected books on Mishima. How the other books will take up the theme is a subject to which I shall return. Watch this space.

Tuesday, 16 September 2014

The Mahdi and the Islamic State

I've been watching over the last couple of evenings the 1966 flick Khartoum about the Mahdi Rebellion in Sudan in the early 1880s. The film has some small interest in cinema history - famously Charlton Heston was supposed to have taken the role of General Gordon because Laurence Olivier was playing the Mahdi though they actually only share two scenes together. It also boasts a nice turn from Ralph Richardson as a hesitantly conniving Gladstone. It's not exactly cinema gold (although there is an intermission and 'entr'acte') and while there are moments where a blacked-up Olivier's performance as the Mahdi reminds you of his wonderfully stylized Othello, there are also quite a few when he seems more like Bernard Bresslaw out of Carry On Up The Khyber.

It's intriguing though how many similarities there are between the current crisis created by the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria with what was going on in Sudan in the 1880s. Then, as now, the creation of such a radical Islamic State committed to sharia law took the West entirely off guard. The Mahdi crushed an Egyptian army of 10,000 men under Western leadership sent to quell his uprising and subsequently, armed with their abandoned weapons, proved unstoppable in his determination to take over the whole of Sudan, beheading all those, such as General Gordon himself, who stood in his way. Sound familiar? This was in a country where Britain felt it had already made some civilizing contribution with Gordon rooting out the slave trade when he had been governor in the 1870s.

One of the most fascinating aspects of the story is the pitting against each other of two extraordinary individuals: the fascinating General Gordon and the Mahdi. Gordon (pictured right)
too was a self-possessed religious zealot with an incredible life story already in place. As 'Chinese Gordon' he had been instrumental in putting down the Taiping Rebellion in 1860s China. In one intriguing, entirely fabricated scene in the film he even offers the Mahdi a sumptuous jacket presented to him by the Emperor of China only for it to be turned down by the Mahdi as the emperor is 'an infidel'.

The curious Western habit of sending out 'men of faith' to tackle religious fanaticism in the Near East seems to continue to this day. The modern equivalent of General Gordon is surely a man like Tony Blair, another self-possessed religious 'visionary', dispatched to the region and, blithely oblivious to the contradictions of his faith and those of the peoples around him, achieves nothing at all, though as the script of Khartoum acutely points out 'vanity was always mixed up with visions'.

Much as I might briefly enjoy the idea of a Blair of Baghdad being holed up with the armies of the Islamic State swirling around him, the grimmer reality is that these days the victims of such blood-thirsty rebellions are those deeply humane and humanistic souls attempting to alleviate, or report on, the distress of the local population. One of the saddest aspects of the horrifying images of the two American journalists killed was learning what profound lovers of Arabic culture they were.

In the 1880s, as now, the initial response to the Islamic State was to avoid military intervention or at least for military intervention to be surreptitious. It took the stranding of Gordon in Khartoum, and his inability to be saved from a grisly death, to galvanize public opinion.

What lessons can be drawn? In Khartoum, Laurence Olivier as the Mahdi grits his teeth and pronounces 'holy war' as if he is talking about some archaic concept from a long time ago destined never to return. The producers in 1966 surely never dreamed how big 'jihad' would be in 2014. 'Jihad' it seems is clearly not going to go away and is likely to periodically explode.

The best we can do I think is not, in the mould of Gordon and the Mahdi, to match intense faith with intense faith, but rather match frenzied religion against a dogged, open-minded secularism that refuses to be displaced.

Tuesday, 28 January 2014

The Embassy Gig

With a New Year comes, in Star Wars-esque fashion, a new hope, and so, after a fallow period, I am looking forward to some new events for the diversion and entertainment of my many millions of blog readers. We are kicking off in some style with an event next Monday evening at 5pm at the Japanese Embassy in London (on Piccadilly, slightly down from The Ritz) when I will be giving a tour round the Soseki exhibition then leading a discussion about my 2005 book The Tower of London. Afterwards there are rumours of a sake tasting at the embassy rounded off, I dare say, by some wanderings around notable watering holes of the West End.

More details on the event are here:

Membership of the Japan Society (£45 a year for singles; £60 for families) is required, but this event, and many others besides, are free thereafter.