Monthly Archives: May 2013

On Going to Japan and Not Reading German

I’ve lost German. I’ve lost French a bit too, but not as much, mostly the accent. I can still read in French. My German was never as good, never really good enough for nineteenth-century novels, with the foolish result that I have read almost no German literature. I knew I ought to read it in German. I knew it would be mere laziness and self-indulgence to use a translation. I wanted to be like the Bronte sisters, like the Rivers women in Jane Eyre, gathering around the fire with Goethe and a German dictionary night after night until they could do it, not because they needed the GCSEs but just for the love of the thing. For self-improvement. I worked my way through the French canon along approximately those lines but my German just wasn’t really there, not enough for Thomas Mann. And I’m a literary critic by training and translations just won’t do. You’re reading for the plot, with a translation, or for the cultural and historical context, or even if the translator’s done a lovely job and you’re reading for the beauty of the thing, it’s not the original beauty. It’s not authentic. (And yes, I do know fairly exactly how problematic is the idea of authenticity.) So German literature, bar a bit of poetry, had to wait until I could read it in German. Twenty years later, it’s still waiting.

Meanwhile, I’m writing this on the train to London on my way to Japan. I haven’t pulled myself together. I haven’t risen like a phoenix from the ashes of my seventeen-year-old self, the one disabled by self-consciousness and the haunting fear that one day someone would see through me. I’m still afraid of making a fool of myself. I’m still scared by the idea of a world in which there are no words for me. But I’m also, now, writing a novel in which someone bigger and braver than me goes to Japan. I’ve gone back to my fascination for the wood-block prints. And while I might have got away with writing Cold Earth without ever going to Greenland because I knew other North Atlantic landscapes pretty well, I don’t think I could write about Japan without ever having set foot in Asia.

There is a solution for people who want to go somewhere but don’t want to be alone in a foreign land. I thought the history of tour groups began with Thomas Cook at the end of the nineteenth century, but on reflection I recall that almost all European travellers in Asia had guides from the very beginning, and usually they took along their own servants as well, to do the laundry and make sure they had nice food and that the sheets were aired and the towels clean. The idea that one could or wish would to travel unescorted and unmediated is a very modern one. I was not brought up to join tours, or indeed groups of any kind. My parents were fully independent, intrepid travellers. We found roads that weren’t on the map and drove along them through the mountains. We camped because we could carry our own tents and sleeping bags and be dependent on and beholden to nobody. (I am reminded of Pa in Little House on the Prairie.) We scorned crowds, tourists, translators. The highest praise for a landscape was that it held no trace of human occupation and that we had it to ourselves.

All that seems pretty misanthropic to me now. Humans are, by and large, sociable animals. Most of us need company as well as solitude. I despise the rhetoric of independence in relation to politics because I am certain that we all have the responsibility of caring for others and the right to be cared for ourselves. I don’t want to live in a society that fetishes independence but one where ordinary human weakness meets with ordinary human mercy and compassion, not because the world is divided into the weak and strong but because we are all weak and strong. Well, I’m a weak traveller, at least according to the definitions with which I grew up. Isolation drives me mad, quite quickly. I worry a lot. I see catastrophes coming from far away. I dislike being unable to communicate. But I would still like to go to Japan, not because I need to prove anything along the lines of independence, intrepidity or general moral worth but because I am a writer and I want to write about it. So I’ve found people who will do the difficult and arduous bit for me so I can concentrate on looking really hard and writing really hard about what I see. I’ll be walking the Nakasendo Way with a company called Walk Japan, staying in interesting and comfortable guesthouses chosen by people who know what they’re doing, having my bags taken ahead by taxi so I can tread lightly without being impeded by impedimenta. They’ve chosen and booked a traditional inn in Kyoto for me, because I reckoned I’d rather rely on someone’s professional expertise than on vindictive or simple-minded Tripadvisor reviews and I want to be well looked-after so I can get on with seeing and writing. And I’ve got The Magic Mountain to read on the plane, in a perfectly adequate English translation.

Growing up is hard to do. But it means I get to go to Japan.

On not going to Japan

As a teenager, I spent several summers in Germany, staying with a family near Dusseldorf. The arrangement began as a language exchange and went on as a friendship. From the age of fourteen, I used to fly from Manchester to Paris, cross Paris on the metro and continue by train to a small village outside Le Mans, where I spent several weeks speaking French, and then back to Paris and on to Dusseldorf to speak German. I thought I was tasting my future as a citizen of Europe, equipping myself with the languages I’d need for the adult life I had all planned out. I fear I may have taken myself even more seriously than most teenagers do.

I finished school as a confident and independent traveller, comfortable with my ability to get myself around pretty much anywhere in western Europe, to read newspapers, watch films and discuss my ideas in three languages. The disadvantage was that my competence depended entirely on words. I’d never had to cope with a place where I couldn’t explain myself, ask for what I wanted and talk my way out of trouble.

One of the museums I visited in Germany was the Museum of East Asian Art. My mother was an art historian and I’d grown up reasonably well educated in the European tradition, but I’d barely seen art from the rest of world. I remember spending the whole day there, fascinated by Japanese woodcuts. I didn’t understand how they could be so compelling without the kind of depth and perspective I was used to, but they kept calling me back. I’d like to say it was the beginning of an amateur expertise, a day that started my development as a connoisseur, but it wasn’t. I bought two prints to take home and went on with my summer.

I put those prints on my bedroom wall when I went home, and they became the inspiration for a series of stories on which I worked, on and off, for a couple of years. I don’t have them now, the stories or the prints, and I doubt the writing was any good, but the experience of looking really hard at something and writing really hard about it, over and over again, might have been the beginning of something recognizably like my writing practice. I read a bit about Japan, admired a silk kimono my grandfather had inherited, and thought how much I’d like to go one day if only I could do so invisibly. I knew I would never be able to cope with finding myself illiterate, clueless and ill-mannered. My fear of my own vulnerability was so very much greater than my desire to see Japan that I knew I’d never go, however much it appealed. That was that.