Burdens and unburdenings

Literature is no longer powerful and thus no longer dangerous. But the conformist agency that Rousseau ascribed to literature in his First Discourse (arts and letters, Rousseau wrote, “lace garlands of flowers over the iron chains with which men are burdened”) is still abroad in the world. Television is the first art today. Is the collaborative nature of the medium accelerating the conformity? Is the fact that TV is written in “rooms,” that is, by groups, making our culture more “groupy” and less heroic? The few heroic moments that appear in the culture now, I would argue, are almost always sentimental and deliberately false, meant to stand as symbols, not to be believed in as actions possible in the world. We are meant to believe only in moments when the hero bows to the group. In Sincerity and Authenticity, when Trilling wrote, of Rousseau’s vision of literature of literature, that

the individual who lives in this new circumstance is subject to the constant influence, to the literal in-flowing, of the mental processes of others, which, in the degree that they stimulate or enlarge his consciousness, make it less his own,

he was inadvertently describing our social-media–mediated world, more than half a century later. There are many things that it has become de rigueur to believe, in my social world, that I don’t happen to believe, and sometimes I’m afraid to say I don’t believe. It’s impossible to say this without sounding a note of self-pity and grandiosity. Perhaps the strangest aspect of the compulsion here is the pressure to say anything at all about controversial topics, but it seems more difficult now to feel peaceful merely knowing that I disagree. It seems incumbent on me either to conform or to express disagreement—out of the hope of triggering a new conformism but this time in my favor, or my team’s favor. The independent mind who doesn’t tweet is the new unheard tree falling in the forest.


The reproach that serious art makes to the audience’s wish for something merely pleasant has become in our day a class marker—a sign that the artwork in question is a fit vehicle for the display of wealth, which has to please no one.


“Atman and I continued living in this huge railroad flat on Fell Street that had practically no heat, and the plaster was literally falling off the walls. It was cold and empty, and falling apart, like the world. I liked it.” —the story of Aaron, qtd. in Walt Odets, Out of the Shadows


“There are some original authors whose least daring gives rise to disgust because they haven’t flattered the public’s taste first by serving it the commonplaces that it’s used to; Swann outraged Mr. Verdurin this way. For Swann, as for these authors, it was the novelty of his language that caused belief in the blackness of his intentions.” —Marcel Proust, Swann’s Way


“As for the pleasure that Italy was capable of bringing Oswald, the sorrow that consumed him put less of obstacle in his way than the count of Erfeuil’s actual cheerfulness: the regrets of a sensitive soul can make an alliance with the contemplation of nature and the enjoyment of the fine arts; but frivolity, in whatever form it presents itself, takes away from attention its force, from thought its originality, and from feeling its depth.” —Germaine de Staël, Corinne


All the difficulty of writing autobiographical fiction is in the trouble that Odette has when she tries to enhance her lie with a bit of truth:

She detached a little piece, unimportant in itself, telling herself that after all it was better this way, because it was a verifiable detail that didn’t present the same dangers that a false detail would. “That, at least—that’s true,” she said to herself; “that’s always something gained; he can research it, he’ll have to admit it’s true; that’s never going to be what betrays me.” She was mistaken; that was what betrayed her; she didn’t realize that the true detail had angles that only fit with the contiguous details of the true fact from which she had arbitrarily detached it, and which, whatever the invented details were in between which she positioned it, would always reveal, by the excess matter and by the gaps not filled in, that it was not from in between them that it originally came.

—Proust, Swann’s Way


“Art demands of us that we shall not stand still.” —Beethoven, qtd. in Laura Tunbridge, Beethoven: A Life in Nine Pieces


“There has never been anything I cared to express more, than I cared for the act of expressing it. (This sentence, clumsy and ambiguous, may be considered an exception.)” —James Merrill, 1959 January 15, in A Whole World


“Are you calling the dispatch with which I make my observations lightness?” the count of Erfeuil said. “Am I less correct because I’m correct faster?” —Staël, Corinne

Toby, 2008–2021

From a journal entry, dated 11 March 2008:

On Friday morning, Peter and I threw productivity to the winds and drove out to North Shore Animal League to find a puppy. We had to walk through an arcade of older, problem dogs to reach the puppies, who, when we found them, seemed groggy and amiable. Peter was taken with a couple of the black lab mixes, though we had intended not to adopt a dog similar to Lota [our previous dog], and I by a sharpei mix with a sweet disposition and a dark, absurdist collage of a face. Then I spotted, in the kitten room, a golden puppy with a brown muzzle, who was quarantined there because he was recovering from parvo. The name on his cage was Frost, and he was purportedly a 10-week-old shepherd mix. The volunteers caged the cats in the room so we could let him run loose, which he did, sloppy-leggedly. He had high spirits; he was a little saucy; he warmed up to us quickly. I think we fell for him because he seemed to have more personality than the dogs in the other room, but after we filled out the application, and while we waited on a bench for them to call our references, I began to worry that maybe he was too alpha, too independent, wouldn't listen to us, wouldn't bond with us. I went back into his room to visit with him, and he turned and wagged his tail as if he recognized me, so I was reassured. I had to repeat the encounter a few times to calm myself before our application was approved.

We parked at a nearby Whole Foods, so Peter could buy us some lunch, and while Toby and I were waiting—Toby was the boy's name we'd picked out, Daisy the girl's—one of the grocery staffers, an overweight man in a uniform, paused in his collection of stray metal carts to ask me to roll down the window so he could pet Toby. "He's a heartbreaker," he said. This, it turns out, is what everyone says upon meeting Toby.

I mean, look at him:

"This one seems so alert," became a joke between Peter and me for years afterward. A few days after we brought him home, Toby swallowed a chunk of mortar in our downstairs neighbor's backyard, which an X-ray at the vet was unable to locate. He ate the upper of one of Peter's boots. Once he ate a Shakespeare play that I had been reading. The first night, we tried making him sleep in a crate in the kitchen, which ended with me in the crate beside him, consoling him from three to four-thirty. He wanted too badly to be near us. We tethered him to a bedpost the next night, and he slept curled up on the floor beside me from then on. To this day, the bedpost has his toothmarks on it.

"What if we got the wrong dog?" became another household joke. Because of course he was the wrong dog, especially for me. What was a pensive, finicky, melancholic middle-aged homosexual doing with a brash, sunny puppy who liked nothing so much as swaggering up to ladies? Which was also, of course, why he was so great for us. I used to joke that Lota, our previous dog, had been like the quiet girl who sits in the back of the classroom wearing all black and writing poetry in her notebook, and that Toby was the captain of the football team—a bruiser. Affable, athletic, and blond. With a heart of gold. 

He was the fastest animal I was ever friends with. I used to think, as I watched him swoop in wide, easy circles around me in the park, that it must be from watching animals move that the idea of superpowers came to the writers of comic books. When I threw his favorite toy for him, a squeaky plastic squiggle with a knotted rope tail, he and the toy reached the spot where it was going to land at the same time. Once he grew into himself, he was all legs, and he always made a point of greeting greyhounds, which made me wonder if he had greyhound in him. People asked if he was a Carolina dog, which according to myth (but not, alas, genetic analysis) is the only surviving aboriginal dog breed in North America. His coloring matched the breed, as did his personality: restless, fast, an aptitude for pursuit. When he was young, I let him chase squirrels, until one day he overtook one. He lay on top of it for a moment, looking at it, puzzled, not sure what to do next. I called Toby, and the squirrel got away. That was the last one I let him chase. 

Little Toughie was one of our nicknames for him his first year, because he walked like a palooka and for months he seemed to accept room, board, and toys from us without feeling obliged to grant us any special recognition in return, or even much eye contact. That changed abruptly after we boarded him at a free-run kennel upstate while on a trip. We got him back covered in bite wounds. From then on, whenever we came home, he wanted to kiss our ears and jump up on the couch beside us and snuggle. Peter came to call this "couch time." (We never boarded him at a kennel again.) 

The morning after Obama's victory, he woke us up at 7am, agitated. Did he have to relieve himself? Before we could get him downstairs—before I could even get pants and shoes on—he started barking at the top of his lungs—screaming, really—and twisting in circles, spraying pee and poop as he turned. Vets pressured us to spend thousands of dollars on an MRI and a cerebrospinal fluid tap, to rule out a couple of very rare conditions—brain tumors and malformed blood vessels in the brain—that would have been almost impossible to do anything about. Once these were ruled out, we did the much less expensive thing we should have done in the first place: start him on epilepsy medications, trying different doses and medications until we found a combination that worked. 

That took more than a year. We learned his early-warning sign: looking around nervously at, and snapping at, flies that weren't actually in the room. (Really existing flies also made him anxious, I think because he associated them with the anxiety that accompanied the imaginary ones.) Twice he had a seizure while off leash in Prospect Park, and before I could grab his collar, as soon as he stopped twirling, he bolted—out of the park. I chuffed behind as in a dream where you're running as fast as you can but don't seem to be going anywhere. He crossed two busy roads alone, at top speed. By the time I got to our stoop, Peter, who had heard him howling downstairs, was letting him in. For more than a year after the second seizure in the park, all his walks were on leash. He was still able to run a little thanks to a really long training leash, and I brought a tennis ball that he jumped for when I tossed it, as we walked. I never measured, but he seemed to be able to jump higher than six feet with ease. Because he was restricted to the leash, he missed most of the developmental window for play with other dogs. In his whole life, there were only a handful of dogs he felt comfortable enough to play with. 

His focus, instead, was on people. One of his favorites was Jimmy, a retired cook who sometimes worked as a security guard at Yankee Stadium. Jimmy watched the women's softball games for years from a bench in the corner of Prospect Park's ballfields, with his own dog and a few friends, and Toby always insisted on stopping to visit with them. A nurse who saw us from afar while walking her and her wife's dog came up one day to confess she had a crush on Toby. Among his earliest friends were a dancer, his husband in finance, and their son, who must have been in preschool when we met and is finishing high school now. The boy changed so much over the years that I sometimes had trouble recognizing him but Toby never did. In his last years a woman who owned two chihuahuas used to give him homemade sweet-potato-and-flaxseed treats. I can't list all Toby's friends, because there were just too many. It sometimes felt as though Toby were a celebrity, and Peter and I were his entourage. Which is making a joke of it: it also felt as though Toby was a gift that we were giving to everyone we met, because when we walked through the park with him, it felt like we were distributing happiness. He literally smiled. "He's smiling at me," people often said aloud, as if they found it hard to believe. They also often said, "Those ears." He was especially gentle with children. He would let them do anything. The only concern I ever had was that he would waggle his enormous tail so hard that he would inadvertently topple one over (which never happened). I would tell him to lie down, and he would let them rub his belly. Usually he gave them a kiss on the face or hands.

You shouldn't think he was an angel, however. When young, he stole other dogs' toys. I once had to pay a miffed owner five dollars, because he wouldn't come back with it and the owner wanted to go home. Another time, he trotted into the dog pond with a stolen toy, only to release it once he got in over his head. (He was so afraid of getting in over his head that it wasn't until he was eleven that he almost accidentally discovered he could swim. If I went swimming, he would race back and forth on shore, yipping short, sharp barks of terror and concern.) As the toy floated away, helplessly, I rolled up my pants and walked in after it. Rats swim in that pond, by the way; I've seen them. Toby disliked male dogs that hadn't been fixed and dogs with very big hair and would try to scrap with them. The fights were mostly display—he never bit another dog—but he did topple and wrestle to the ground a few, which was rattling. I came to think of him as a dangerous weapon, which I had to treat with the appropriate respect. We trained for years. In his prime he knew sit, down, stay, come, leave it, drop it, heel, and fetch. I was so proud of him. Once we found the right dosage, he walked by my side through the park off leash almost every morning. 

I can't write down everything. Peter reminds me that when we watched the third season of Twin Peaks, which Toby found a little scary, he would come over to the couch, stick his snout under the blanket covering us, and, when we lifted the blanket, climb up and sleep under the blanket, between us. When he was still very young, it was his habit, whenever I took him running with me, to pick up the largest stick he could find, practically a log, and carry it balanced in his mouth all the way around the park. It was steadying for him, like a security blanket. I used to think that when we got home, I should tweet, "I'm the guy you just saw running around the park with a dog carrying a stick as big as the dog."

In July 2018, he tumbled while running after a toy and cried, unable to get up. I carried him home, almost a mile. A frankly incompetent vet insisted that one of his hip bones had come out of its socket, even though she took two X-rays that showed the hip bone in place. A day and a thousand dollars later, a vet at a second clinic advised that his hip was fine, but that his gait was "ataxic," that is, uncoordinated, probably, in her opinion, because he had canine degenerative myelopathy, a progressive form of paralysis, similar to ALS in humans, that begins with the extremities and is not only incurable but untreatable. After diagnosis, time to death is typically between six months and three years. It is a cruel disease, because the dogs remain very much themselves, and in Toby's case, in cheerful spirits, even as they lose sensation in, and command over, their bodies. 

We supported his back legs with a sling for several months, and the sprained muscles in his back legs healed almost completely. He wobbled, but he was able to walk on his own again. After a while he stopped being able to raise his tail, however, and some time after that, he stopped being able to wag it. He started to drag his back paws, which we protected with Pawz rubber booties, which are ordinarily used to protect dogs' paws from the salt that's put down to de-ice roads in winter. In late spring 2020, we began to support his walking with a Help-’Em-Up harness. Sometimes we were able to take it off, though, and get by without it. His bark started to become higher in pitch. He started having accidents in the house, which we minimized by doing some arithmetic and, after some experimentation, setting up a new schedule for mealtimes and walk times, which we had to keep to rigidly, and even then didn't always work. A blood test in September 2020 showed anomalies, suggestive of something new wrong inside, that we decided it didn't make sense to investigate. In December 2020, the owner of Slope Cellars, a wine store in Park Slope, recognized Toby's gait as characteristic of the illness and hailed Peter and offered to donate a Walkin’ Wheels dog wheelchair that a dog of hers with the same illness had used. He tore around our apartment with it as soon as we rigged him into it, and until his last day he went on two long walks in the park with it every day. Almost all the bird and nature photos on my blog were taken in his company. About a week ago he became sick, in a way that didn't respond to the usual home and over-the-counter remedies but only got worse, and after a lot of agony, we decided it was time. After his last walk in the park, on Wednesday afternoon, while I was waiting on the sidewalk with Toby for Peter to pick us up in our car, a dozen schoolchildren came up and asked to pet him, and he licked their fingers while they stroked his head and told me about the dogs and cats they knew and had known. "I like that dog," one of the little girls said, in a tone of voice suggesting that not all dogs met her standards. 

The Translation Game

Thomas Mann and Du Fu

In The Three-Cornered World, a novel by Sōseki, the Japanese novelist I wrote about last week, a painter aims to “separate and discard the scratchy sand of human emotion to discover the pure gold that lies beneath it.” In an endnote, Sōseki’s biographer relates this principled aesthetic detachment to a similar idea put forward by the hero of Thomas Mann’s story “Tonio Kröger”:

For the fact is: all healthy emotion, all strong emotion, lacks taste.
     —Thomas Mann, “Tonio Kröger,” tr. David Luke

The observation has some truth in it, and I like the astringency, even if it’s also true that no great art can be made without strong emotion. It’s the sort of insight it makes sense to put in the mouth of a fictional character. I think what I like in novels is strong emotion that’s resisted, frustrated, constrained, or otherwise dragged against. In any case, the quote prompted me to think that I should really read “Tonio Kröger” one of these days, and I took down off the shelf the copy we have in the house, which turns out to give a different translation of the passage:

For a strong and sound feeling has no taste—and that's that.
     —Thomas Mann, “Tonio Kröger,” tr. Joachim Neugroschel

This didn’t quite land, to my ear. It almost sounded as if the person sampling strong feeling had come down with COVID-19 and lost the use of his taste buds. “And that’s that” seemed a little flip, too. I was wandering into what my husband and I call the Translation Game, which is when you become obsessed with which version of a classic text is the one to read. Ideally, one player tracks down parallel passages and reads them aloud while player two, eyes closed or averted, renders a verdict. (On my ancient blog, I once played multiple solo rounds on the various translations of Turgenev’s Fathers and Sons.)

I was able to find two more renderings of the sentence:

For every healthy and strong emotion, that is beyond doubt, is tasteless.
     —Thomas Mann, “Tonio Kröger,” tr. Bayard Quincy Morgan

Slightly awkward. “That is beyond doubt” is supposed to be an interjection, judging by the way it’s rendered in the rival translations, but where it’s placed here, it could easily be mistaken for a clause qualifying “strong emotion,” that is, as saying that strong feelings that are beyond doubt are tasteless. Another problem: “is tasteless,” in English, approaches in meaning “is offensive,” and saying that emotion gives offense seems to me a less subtle argument than saying it lacks taste.

For sound natural feeling, say what you like, has no taste.
     —Thomas Mann, “Tonio Kröger,” tr. Helen Lowe-Porter

This doesn't quite work, either, because it seems possible that what's being argued is that strong emotion is flavorless, which hardly seems likely to be what Mann (or Kröger) meant. I award this round to David Luke (which doesn’t necessarily mean that Neugroschel, Morgan, or Lowe-Porter wouldn’t win on another passage).


A couple of months ago, a review in the New York Review of Books by Madelein Thien led me to David Hinton’s translations of the classic Chinese poet Du Fu (or Tu Fu). As Thien explains, translating Chinese poetry into English is more or less impossible because of “the incommensurability of Chinese (logographic) and English (alphabetic) written systems.” Between the ideograms that make up a verse of written Chinese poetry, visual resonances are possible that just can’t occur in English. “The dimensionality of the Chinese writing system itself is akin to a forest we walk through (where the trees keep grouping and regrouping as we move among them), rather than a series of twigs arranged on a surface,” Thien writes. Chinese verbs don’t have tenses, and Hinton claims that the pronoun “I,” in an English translation of a classic Chinese poem, is almost always a translator’s interpolation. It seems that translators have to prune away some of a classical Chinese poem’s ambiguity to have any hope of making English out of it—which means there can be radical disparities, from translation to translation, in what the same poem seems to mean on a literal level.

To suggest the polysemy that can’t be translated, Hinton deploys an elliptical, compressed English that sometimes left my prosaic mind stuck on the problem of what exactly was happening. Here, for example, are the closing lines of his version of a poem by Du Fu that he titles “New Year’s Eve”:

Dawn, the fortieth year of my flight 
into dusk light's over. Who changes,
who even slows this dead dazzling
drunk in the wings of life we live?
     —Tu Fu, "New Year's Eve," tr. David Hinton

Hinton explains in an endnote that in China, a person’s age ticks up at New Year’s rather than on his birthday. So the feeling of renewal that people around the world associate with the New Year may be combined in China with the regret about lost youth and the pride in survival that an American usually associates with birthdays. That clarifies the mood, a little. But is the “drunk” in the last line a drunk person or an episode of drunkenness? What are the “wings of life we live”? Why is someone thinking about changing or slowing down a drunk (or an episode of drunkenness)?

In my puzzlement, I put down the book and went online, where I found an essay about Kenneth Rexroth’s reworkings of Chinese poetry that printed both a 1945 Rexroth version of the same poem and Rexroth’s probable source (he didn’t know much Chinese), a more literal translation by Florence Ayscough in 1929. Here’s Ayscough’s rendering of the lines:

At bright dawn my years will bridge four tens; 
I fly, I gallop towards the slanting shadows of sunset.  
Who can alter this, who can bridle, who restrain the moments? 
Fiery intoxication is a life’s career. 
     —Tu Fu, "A New Year Vigil at Tu Wei’s House," tr. Florence Ayscough

Though “my years will bridge four tens” seems pointlessly quirky, the line “Fiery intoxication is a life’s career” is heady and absolute. And Ayscough conveys the emotional logic of the closing lines more clearly than Hinton does: in her version, the poem’s speaker sees himself as in decline, as falling—the setting sun has put him in mind of this—and there’s a parallel between his wish to halt the setting of the sun, which will mark him as a year older and that much more of a lost cause, and his wish to halt his own decline. Thus the exhilaration of the last line, which damns the torpedoes.

Here’s Rexroth, meanwhile:

                                   Soon now 
In the winter dawn I will face
My fortieth year. Borne headlong
Towards the long shadows of sunset
By the headstrong, stubborn moments,
Life whirls past like drunken wildfire.
     —Tu Fu, "New Year's Eve," tr. and adapted by Kenneth Rexroth

I like this a little less than Ayscough, actually. Her bridge of “four tens” is more sensibly rendered as “my fortieth year,” but the whole question of whether to halt, or try to halt, the sunset and/or one’s own decline has been lost in translation. Rexroth’s version of the poet has made up his mind to a future of ecstasy and decay. He’s almost looking forward to it.

The most scholarly translation I could find is by Stephen Owen:

Tomorrow I pass my fortieth year, 
evening light slants too low for a meteoric rise. 
Who can continue to stay so constrained?— 
utter drunkenness will be the rest of my life. 
     —Tu Fu, "New Years Eve at Du Wei’s Home," tr. Stephen Owen (poem 2.11)

In his notes, Owen argues that Du Fu’s reference to his fortieth year “echoes Confucius’s dictum that one should get established in one’s thirties,” and that the opposition between the slanting evening light and a now-impossible meteoric rise in the second line here is a symbolic way for the poet to convey that “it is too late in my life to rise swiftly.” I didn’t get any of this career anxiety from Hinton, Ayscough, or Rexroth. All versions, however, seem to oppose the sun’s downward setting to an upward motion that the poet has been attempting. Tomorrow morning the sun sets on forty years of my upward striving, is maybe the paradoxical idea.

It’s striking how completely Owen’s understanding of the rhetorical question in the penultimate line reverses that of the other translators. Their versions ask who wants to (or can) halt the decline of the sun and the poet; Owen’s asks who can bear to be held back from decline. There must be an ambiguity about subject and object in the original. Or maybe a touch of humor? Something like, Drink up, fall down—who will stop, or could even stand to stop, the career of a lifetime?

Owen is also chaster with imagery than the other translators. There’s a sunset in his version, as there is in everyone’s, but there’s a bird in Hinton, and there’s fire in Ayscough and Rexroth. Are they reading the Chinese characters differently, or emphasizing different resonances in the same characters? The answer is probably yes, and my final verdict on this round of the Translation Game is that the best translation of Du Fu is two or three of them.


News: A new short story of mine, “Massachusetts,” is published in the spring 2021 issue of The Yale Review. If you’d like to read it, you can get just the spring 2021 issue of The Yale Review for $15, or you can get a year’s subscription (four issues) for $44, along with a coupon for 50% off some of Yale University Press’s books.

Life and unhappy novels

“In spring everything becomes drowsy. The cat forgets to chase the mouse, and men forget that they have debts.” —Sōseki, The Three-Cornered World


I’ve been interested in Sōseki since reading, a few years ago, a Penguin translation of his 1914 novel Kokoro. Something about its plainspoken, depressive, somewhat crypto-gay view of the world spoke to me. A month and a half ago, I read his 1915 novel Grass on the Wayside, his only novel drawn directly from his life. It’s about a man in early middle age who has returned to his wife and children in Japan after a long sojourn abroad. The bonds between him and his young family seem damaged, and both he and they seem ambivalent, even reluctant, about letting the bonds heal. The bickering between him and his wife is fierce. He’s having trouble finding his way back into his professional life—money is a problem. And then his former adoptive father shows up, saying he wants to adopt him again. It’s a confusing request. The older man may only be asking for a handout, now that the protagonist has secured a place for himself in the world, however tenuous.

Their relationship is a little hard to explain, I think even to Japanese readers. Like Sōseki himself, the protagonist of Grass on the Wayside was given up for adoption by his natural parents at a very young age, for reasons unclear, and the placement was in many ways an unhappy one. “He did not mind so much being owned physically,” Sōseki writes, of the protagonist’s feelings about his adoptive parents, “but even his childish heart grew fearful at the thought of becoming emotionally enslaved to them.” The placement hadn’t lasted. After his adoptive father left to live with a new girlfriend, the child was returned to his biological parents, who took him back only grudgingly. It’s understandable that the novel’s protagonist wishes for the dispiriting, humiliating story to stay in the past. He owes nothing to the man, everyone around him repeats. To protect his finances, to keep his emotional balance, he really has no choice but to turn the man away. The problem is, some of the most vivid memories of his childhood are associated with this adoptive father.

The two of them often went out boating, accompanied by a boatman dressed in the traditional straw skirt. When they were some distance from the land the boatman would cast his net, and Kenzo [the protagonist] would watch the gray mullet with their silver scales dancing frantically as they were brought to the surface. Sometimes the boatman would take them three or four miles out and catch gilthead. On such occasions the boat rocked so much that Kenzo could hardly keep awake. He enjoyed himself most when a swellfish was caught. As it puffed up in anger Kenzo would tap it with a chopstick as though it were a drum.

If the protagonist has any pleasant childhood memories associated with his biological father, in the novel they go unmentioned. Turning his adoptive father away, therefore, is an act of mourning, made more bitter and more complex by a perceived social obligation to deny that there is anything to mourn.

The character takes out some of his bitterness on his very young daughters, whose appearance he disparages. “One ugly child after another, and to what end?” he complains. The outburst seemed a little shocking to me, in such an openly autobiographical novel—didn’t Sōseki worry about what his actual daughters would think?—and last month I read John Nathan’s 2018 biography of Sōseki, in part because I wanted to know more about the relationship here between fiction and reality. It seems that Sōseki struggled with mental illness all his life and went through periods of believing that those closest to him were persecuting him. Several of his children were to recall him as irritable, unpredictable, and violent. Though Nathan’s inclination as a biographer seems to be to honor his subject, he seems thrown by the cruelty that Sōseki showed his family. In letters to his wife, for example, he reprimanded her harshly for what he perceived as her baldness and bad teeth. Perhaps the best that can be said is that Sōseki did not leave much of his own moral ugliness out of the portrait that he drew of himself in Grass on the Wayside, in which the husband is decidedly not more sympathetic than the wife (confusingly, Sōseki did omit from his novel the paranoid delusions that he experienced, which might have extenuated the moral ugliness), and that it and Kokoro still feel to me like groundbreaking, moving works, despite my knowing more about his personal shortcomings.


“There is not a single Western dish, with perhaps the possible exception of salad and radishes, which could be said to have an attractive color. What the nutritional value is I am unable to say, but from the artistic point of view, their food is extremely uncivilized.” —Sōseki, Three-Cornered World


There is more pathos, though again much sorrow, in the episode in Sōseki’s life just prior to the unwanted return of his foster father. In 1900, after Sōseki had become a successful professor of English literature, popular with students despite his rigorous demands on them, his employer, the Japanese government, ordered him to study English-language pedagogy for two years in London. Perhaps sensing that he lacked the psychosocial wherewithal to thrive on his own abroad, Sōseki tried to get out of it, but the ministry of education only relented to the extent of allowing him to study literature rather than language pedagogy. “The two years I spent in London were the most miserable time of my life,” he later wrote. “Among the English gentlemen, like a stray dog mixing with a pack of wolves, I eked out a pathetic existence.” He contacted and studied with several English dons but did not make a meaningful connection with any of them. His stipend from the Japanese government was inadequate, and in search of quiet, clean lodgings, he moved many times. He socialized little. Perhaps in an attempt to justify his isolation, he complained repeatedly in his diary that his command of English language and literature was better than that of native English speakers around him. “I mostly stay alone and lose myself in my reading,” he wrote to his wife. He bought four hundred volumes of English literature, including Spenser, Burney, Austen, Meredith, and James, and read incessantly, almost self-punitively, as if trying to cram into himself a knowledge of all English literature in just two years. Two landladies of his told a visiting Japanese colleague that he “stayed in his room for days on end, weeping in the darkness,” Nathan writes. Reports reached the Japanese ministry of education that he had gone insane.

Upon his return to Japan, Sōseki was so unwell, psychologically, that his wife took the children and moved in with her parents for two months, for safety. This was the period fictionalized in Grass on the Wayside. Despite his illness, he was able to keep up a public front, and he taught Johnson, George Eliot, and Shakespeare to great acclaim at a higher school and then at Tokyo Imperial University. But what was he looking forward to? It must have seemed to him that he was condemned to spending the rest of his life teaching and studying the literature of a country where he had been deeply unhappy. But then, in late 1904, inspired by Laurence Sterne, he began a satirical novel told from the point of view of a cat (which, full disclosure, I haven’t read yet). It was a hit. Two more novels quickly followed, and in 1907, Japan’s largest-circulation newspaper offered to pay him a monthly salary to print his future novels in serial format. He left the academy and spent the rest of his life not studying English literature but remaking Japan’s.

Oh L'Amour

Peter and I thoroughly enjoyed the HBO Max show It's a Sin this weekend. Set in London in the 1980s, it follows a group of young gay men as they come out of the closet and are beset by AIDS. Not every character in the show is gay. Parents play key roles, and much of the action is seen through the eyes of a young woman, apparently straight, who is a friend and roommate. I think my favorite character in the show was Colin, a phlegmatic, responsible, incontrovertibly gay but decidedly unflashy young man from Wales, who works as an intern at a Savile Row haberdashery and seems too cautious to act on his sexual impulses. Most of the characters are types rather than individuals, in the way of TV shows, but Colin was a type I hadn't seen on screen before, so I never knew what he was going to do next, which I liked. The show hits a few wrong notes (which I'll get to), but I laughed and cried and at times found it almost overwhelmingly evocative.

The soundtrack has a lot to do with how evocative. Soft Cell, Yazoo, Erasure, Wham, Kate Bush, the Eurythmics, and of course PSB: in my recollection, these were in fact the songs that we were listening to. "Music was so much more fun then," I muttered to Peter, early in the first episode, as the middle-aged are wont to do. Artificial, calculated, trivial, effeminate, decadent songs. More pleasurable than songs should have been, and pleasurable to a part of me that I felt I probably wasn't supposed to be indulging. Since a few of the show's actors speak with strong British accents and a certain amount of British slang, to us impenetrable, Peter and I watched with the subtitles on, which meant that when the closed-captioner mislabeled a cover of the song "I Feel Love," Peter muttered, "That's not Donna Summer. It's Bronski Beat." And when the closed-captioner characterized the intro to a Pet Shop Boys song as "melodramatic music," I harrumphed. (I mean, yes. But . . .) Peter effortlessly remembers the release dates of almost all these songs and reports that the songs keep pace with the imagined moment of the TV show's story with an almost military rigor.

That imagined moment doesn't exactly match the timing of my own debut into gay life. The show begins in 1981 and ends in 1991; I came out in 1989. Some amateur, armchair sociology: apps have probably changed everything now, but in the old days, gay bars were the stage for the public drama of our lives, and my sense back then was that as a general rule, one got to tread that stage from roughly age 20 to 35, making a gay man's generation a rather short fifteen years. I overlapped a little with the generation portrayed in the show, and I knew many people who were in that generation, but I wasn't quite in it myself. And in terms of the history of AIDS, the half-generation separating us was crucial. Before I came out, I knew that AIDS was a lethal sexually transmitted disease caused by HIV, and I knew that I could lower my risk significantly by using condoms or modifying what I did in bed. When the characters in the show started having sex with one another, on the other hand, not even scientists knew any of that. My gay generation lived in the shadow of AIDS, and it shaped nearly everything about our romantic and sexual lives, but we did not bear as heavy a burden of illness and death as the men who preceded us.

Which doesn't mean we bore no burden, nor does it mean we weren't completely petrified. When the central gay character in the show, a charming, fey, bumblingly but also ruthlessly narcissistic aspiring actor named Ritchie Tozer (played by Olly Alexander, who in real life is a pop star who has collaborated with the Pet Shop Boys), neurotically examines himself for spots and sores, I identified, uncomfortably. Also, sitting in a clinic waiting for one's name (or pseudonym) to be called, terrified to hear the results of one's HIV test: twenty-five years later it's still a little too real and maybe also too soon? Not all the memories that the show brought back were grim. I also recognized the way some of the characters went to bed with each other as a way of becoming friends, a lighthearted aspect of gay life that the HBO show Looking largely overlooked in its focus on the drama of Finding the Right Man. I hope that in the age of apps, hook-ups still sometimes undergo that kind of evolution. It would be regrettable if the freemasonry of pleasure were to give way to an assortative rationalization of it (he says from the safe, ignorant harbor of middle-aged monogamy).

To add a little amateur history to the amateur sociology: The hinge for my gay generation came in 1996, when researchers proved that treating HIV with three different antiretroviral drugs at the same time boxed the virus into a metaphorical corner that it couldn't mutate itself out of. In a wealthy country like America—or, rather, in zip codes in a wealthy country like America where people could afford healthcare—everything about AIDS changed once this treatment became available. Life expectancies dramatically lengthened, and the reigning social understandings of the disease were transformed. From the virus's perspective, unfortunately, the new treatment figured only as a speed bump, if that. The rate of HIV infection in the U.S. population has only declined moderately since triple-drug treatment debuted. Given current rates of infection, one out of six gay or bisexual men in America will still contract HIV during his lifetime. Meanwhile, AIDS remains the leading cause of death in several countries in sub-Saharan Africa and death rates from the disease also remain high in Russia, Thailand, and parts of the Caribbean and South America.)

The show ends, as I said, in 1991, so that, medically speaking, it depicts a world where the cavalry never arrives. (It's thus a big weepie, be forewarned.) It's maybe irrecoverable now how potent the fear of death combined with the centuries-old stigma around homosexuality then was. A few instances of ostracization are dramatized in the show, but what maybe can't be put on screen is the subsonic rumble of silence, the rarely voiced distaste of the larger society. (It wasn't until June 15, 1987, for example, that the New York Times allowed the use of the word gay as a value-neutral synonym for homosexual. In the mid 1990s, a boyfriend of mine kept on his wall a front page of the New York Timesthat he had had framed because it used the word three different times, which impressed him as a milestone.) Many times, in the past twelve months, I have had the morbid thought how much nicer it is to go through a plague that straight people are dying in larger numbers from, too. It's a relief not to have to worry about upsetting them if one fails to hide or downplay sufficiently one's fear or grief. It has been liberating to listen to them loudly and confusedly arguing about what matters more—the meanings and pleasures available through human contact, or the safety that can be afforded by isolation. There’s an enjoyable perversity in noticing that people who prioritized safety over contact during the AIDS epidemic were tagged as conservative, while those who prioritize safety during COVID-19 are thought of as liberal. In It's a Sin, a distraught mother exclaims that society would react very differently if there were a disease killing as many straight men as AIDS was killing gay ones. The claim isn't speculation any more; as of this past year, it's proven historical fact.

I seem to have got distracted from the criticism that I was going to make, but maybe in the end it's more an observation. The generation who hit the gay bars in 1981 was to a startling extent wiped out. If you were to try to sell a nostalgic TV show just to them, you'd have almost no audience. The scriptwriters of It's a Sin have understandably made a few adjustments. One is putting at the center of the story not a gay man but a young woman named Jill, who ends up being more dedicated to AIDS activism than most of her gay male friends. That in itself isn't a distortion of the historical evidence. There were many such women in real life, many of them lesbian (Jill's sexuality is left undefined). (Full disclosure: though I had friends in the activist movement, and felt sympathetic with it, I never took part myself.) Another modification is a shift in political sensibility. In one scene, when a somewhat dotty neighbor volunteers that she thinks AIDS victims are angels in disguise, one of the gay characters is so outraged that he throws a traffic barrier through her shop window. That felt like an off note. The movement's displays of anger were almost always directed toward authorities and institutions—government, churches, pharmaceutical companies—and they were strategic, planned carefully in advance. To meet misguided sympathy with violence seems more a Twitter kind of mood—a retrojection. Similarly, in another late scene, a character berates a dead gay man's mother, blaming on her all the shame and stigma that gay men dying of AIDS have been made to carry. I'm afraid I cringed. It sounded to me like something a teenager might wish he could say—or something a TV producer might imagine a teenager wishes to say—but not like the sort of thing that one grieving adult would say to another, no matter how misbegotten the other person's understanding of sexuality might be. It's a common move nowadays on social media to write people off, but one of the brilliant tactics of the AIDS activist movement was to engage with opponents, win their respect, and sometimes turn them into allies. (Cf. Larry Kramer and Anthony Fauci.)

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