Thursday, 20 April 2017

George Sand's Comical Evisceration of Mallorca

Over Easter I spent two weeks travelling around the Mediterranean island of Mallorca. For many British people, this is the very first place they visit when they venture overseas, but it took me a few decades to make the pilgrimage.

Unquestionably the most famous couple to have ever resided in Mallorca were the French novelist George Sand (1804-76) and her lover, the pianist Frederick Chopin (1810-49) who visited the island between November 1838 and March 1839. They eventually moved to the monastery in the beautiful mountain top town of Valldemosa, today a mecca for tourists. Sand's account of her travels, "A Winter in Mallorca" (1842), is sold throughout the island in a variety of languages.

Such vintage travel books can often be a considerable bore, but I thought I would give George Sand - whom I knew little about - a go and I am glad I did: "Winter in Mallorca" is a gem, a true travel classic. However it is considerably different to what you might expect. For one thing, Chopin (pictured right) is never actually mentioned, only obliquely referred to as Sand's sickly companion. Secondly, Sand is corruscating and often hilariously rude about the Spanish in general and the Mallorcans in particular, about whom she has scarcely a kind word to say.

In Sand's depiction, the Mallorca of 1838 is a savage, primitive place where the locals can be sniffed before they appear as they reek of olive oil and garlic and where the only thing that is cultivated properly on the island are the pigs (the only livestock allowed to be exported). There are no lodgings at all to be found in the capital Palma (population 36,000) because tenants have to provide their own windows which take six months to make.

The Mallorcans are depicted as keen to fleece foreigners of every penny they have and very reluctant to offer any hospitality, despite constantly pretending otherwise. Sand caustically writes,

"One cannot look at a picture, touch a piece of material, or lift up a chair, without being charmingly told: 'Esta a la disposicion de Usted.' [It is at your disposal'] But beware of accepting so much as a pin, for that would be an intolerable indiscretion."

Arriving at the hill-top monastery (pictured from approach road, left), Sand's most complimentary words are reserved for the housekeeper who she remarks "had once been good-looking". But the chambermaid is "the arch-witch of Valldemosa" and another young girl "a dishevelled little monster".

At the beginning of this book - which is today enthusiastically promoted in tourist outlets across the island - Sand tells us that, "The Spaniard is ignorant and superstitious; consequently he believes in infection, fears illness and death, lacks in faith and charity. Being miserable and overburdened by taxation he becomes greedy, selfish and deceitful in his dealings with foreigners."

As for Mallorca, the whole island is riven with corruption, cronyism and the psychological imprint of medieval practices. "When one asks on what a rich Majorcan spends his income in a country lacking all luxuries and temptations, the answer is to be found in a specially set aside wing of the house, filled with good-for-nothing loafers of both sexes, who after spending a year in service to their master, have the right to be lodged, clothed and boarded for the rest of their lives."

From the above, it might sound as if Sand simply rucked up in Mallorca and spewed out invective in all directions, but in fact there was a greater architecture of ideas at work. Sand believed passionately that France had evolved through the Revolution and the Napoleonic years into a socially advanced state that was far superior to Spain, still striving to free itself from the oppressions of the Inquisition, which had been abolished only a few years earlier. She saw France as a land of forward-looking art and industry, and Spain as a land of peasant superstition and corruption. Her greatest contempt is reserved for the unthinking or venal servants of the Catholic church in Spain, the hypocrite monks or blood-thirsty priests.

From a historical perspective, it's extremely revealing to understand what a cultural and developmental chasm divided France and Spain back in 1840. When we think today of European colonialism of the 19th century, we tend to think of the European nations as imposing themselves on other continents by virtue of industrial technology. But if you read "Winter in Mallorca", then it's plain to see that huge "development gaps" existed at the heart of Europe itself - Sand regards the large island of Mallorca, only 250 miles off the French coast as an uncivilized, savage place.

But instructive as Sand is about history, she is also insightful about so many universal constants of life. When Sand asks herself, "Why travel?", she provides this response: "Who amongst us has not, at some time, selfishly dreamed of forsaking his affairs, his habits, his acquaintances and even his friends, to settle in some enchanted island and live without worries, without responsibilities, and above all, without newspapers?"

Sand was of course a most extraordinary woman. Married and with two children, she left her husband and embarked upon some "wild" years, before hooking up with Chopin (statue of Chopin in front of the old monastery at Valldemosa, above). She sometimes wore men's clothes and smoked cigars. Her affair with Chopin came to a nasty Woody Allen-Mia Farrow style end ten years later when she accused Chopin of having long been in love with her daughter (Sand had travelled to Mallorca with her two children and Chopin). In her life she found time for affairs with a host of famous artists including Jules Sandeau, Prosper Merimee, Alfred de Musset, Pierre-Francois Bocage, Charles Didier, Felicien Mallefille, Louis Blanc...

But what would Sand (pictured left) have had to say to our current age, as we often shy away from criticizing ignorance and superstition for fear of offending sensibilities, even if the result is chronic social oppression? Sand was quite happy to have the grandest historical monuments torn down if it meant that in doing so people were eternally freed from the tortures - both of body and mind - of the Inquisition. We perhaps in the world today need more fearless free-thinking women like her.

Monday, 17 April 2017

The Man Who Came After Soseki

The wonderful Dr. Laurence Williams, who teaches English Literature at Tokyo University, posted an intriguing picture a couple of days ago of the grave at Zoshigaya Cemetery of his name-sake predecessor at Tokyo University, "Dr. John Lawrence", together with an amusing commentary. It seems that Tokyo University still lovingly tend the graves of their former professors, which is touching.

I hope Laurence won't mind if I write a few words of my own about "Dr. John Lawrence" who taught English literature at Tokyo University from 1906 until his death in 1916.

John Lawrence may today be an almost completely obscure figure, but he played a fascinating role in Japanese literary history. It's fairly well known that in early 1903 the great Japanese novelist Natsume Soseki (1867-1916) - having been groomed for the position with two years study in London - took over as lecturer in English Literature at Tokyo University from the renowned Lafcadio Hearn (1850-1904). The appointment met with vociferous opposition of Hearn's students, who were hugely disappointed that the popular Irish writer was being forced out.

Despite being initially regarded with suspicion, Soseki soon turned things round and began to attract his own devotees at Tokyo University, even if his lectures were dauntingly analytical compared to Hearn's more artistic approach. Yet Soseki found his teaching burdens at the university increasingly onerous. He was also a lecturer at the First Higher School (a kind of proto-university and feed college for the super-elite Tokyo University): indeed his first wish had been to be a full professor at the First Higher College, but instead he was merely offered lectureships at The First Higher School and Tokyo University.

Soseki taught at Tokyo University alongside a foreign lecturer called Arthur Lloyd and, in a more minor capacity, a precocious literary scholar and poet called Ueda Bin, a Hearn protege brought in to quell the resentment at Hearn being released. The Japanese government's masterplan to replace Western scholars like Hearn with native talents like Soseki and Ueda Bin appeared to be working fine.

But soon everything started falling apart. For one thing, Soseki was increasingly turning against teaching and being an academic: in July 1906 he turned down a professorship at Kyoto University. Soseki wanted to be his own man and speak with his own voice and began pouring out creative works. He wanted out of Tokyo University, but since Soseki had been sent as a government paid scholar to England for two years, he felt rather guilty to just abandon his position. But if some distinguished foreign scholar on a full professorship was to come in to take his place...

At this point, the faculty decided to appoint John Lawrence, an associate of Professor Ker at University College, London, an expert on Medieval Lecture whose lectures Soseki had attended while in London in 1901 (Soseki did not think much of them). When Lawrence arrived in Tokyo in September 1906, he was 55 years old and spoke no Japanese. He had a wandering academic career that had seen him study and work in Paris, Berlin and Prague. He was taking over teaching duties from the greatest intellect of modern Japan: Soseki formally quit in February 1907.

More than that, Soseki's colleague Ueda Bin also quit in November of 1907 to go and study in Europe. The English faculty suddenly had no Japanese teachers at all and the chief responsibility for teaching lay with Japan-rookie, John Lawrence.

Just to add to the mayhem, it turned out that John Lawrence wasn't actually any good at literary criticism, indeed didn't do criticism at all. Lawrence belonged to the "old school" who believed that teaching about literary works consisted not in analyzing them with a fresh eye, but rather in drowning oneself in the minutiae of linguistic and historical details. (I think we all know a few scholars like that today...)

If you enter the world of Soseki's 1908 novel "Sanshiro" (pictured left), in which a student from Kyushu comes to Tokyo University to study English literature, there are clear references both to the fuss surrounding Soseki taking over from Hearn against student protest a few years earlier, and to the current style of classes under John Lawrence. Soseki indeed parodies Lawrence in a description of a class in which Sanshiro learns the Anglo-Saxon etymology of the word "answer".

Lawrence's speciality was such matters as Gothic (an extinct Germanic language) and Icelandic. There is a hilarious account in Nogami Toyoichiro's novel "Mina" of a character based upon him reading a Robbie Burns poem with his students and being asked what the Scots word "stroan't" meant. To his mortification, Lawrence had to explain it meant "urinated".

Unlike Hearn and Soseki, Lawrence published very little, but although he was not particularly admired by his undergraduate students, he was free of the occasionally abrasive personalities of Hearn and Soseki, whose creative impulses were at odds with the strictures of academia. Lawrence by contrast was perfectly suited to university life. He introduced seminars to the English Faculty, though students were required to pass exams to participate in them and only the most linguistically gifted students were accepted into his inner circle. But he would be treasured by a generation of top flight scholars of English literature, such as Saito Takeshi, who would go on to dominate critical studies over the following half century.

The genius short story writer Akutagawa Ryunosuke and playwright Kume Masao - two of Soseki's closest later disciples - were also graduates of the department under Lawrence. They are pictured here, Kume left and Akutagawa second right, alongside their fellow Tokyo University students future novelist Matsuoka Yuzuru second left - who went on to marry Soseki's eldest daughter - and the future writer Naruse Seiichi on the right. The four of them founded a literary magazine, "Shin-shicho" (" A New Trend of Thought") together.

The calibre of the teaching staff at the English Literature department of Tokyo University - boasting figures like Hearn, Soseki and Ueda Bin - was unsurpassed anywhere in the world. It was an extraordinary poisoned chalice for John Lawrence to be asked to take over from such huge talents.

Touching as it is that Tokyo University still tend the graves of their former professors, I can't help thinking the university should take greater pride in its exceptional literary heritage. Might I suggest it sometime run a symposium when it both celebrates and explores the story of English literature at Tokyo University and how it transformed the literature of modern Japan?