Category Archives: Nagai

Three old friends

The other night I re-read three old friends.

The gentleman.

The first was Nagai Kafu’s “The Peony Garden.”  I re-read this story every few months.  I read it the first time in 1999 or 2000, if memory serves.  I think it is probably my favorite short story of all time.  If I could write a short story this good, I would be satisfied.

It is pitch-perfect in every respect.  Simple and elegant, yet a portentous aesthetic achievement.

I once had a goal of doing a new translation of this story from the Japanese.  But then what with all my and then my family’s nomadism these last years, my copy of the Japanese volume got lost somewhere.  Also, my Japanese has slowly ossified and I don’t know that I’d be up to the task any longer, not without lots and lots of help from a dictionary, which no doubt would render the translation not an improvement over the one we’ve got.

Anyway, even in current translation, as fine a short story as exists in my known universe.  I re-read it every few months just to see where I’m trying to get, one way or another.

Speaking of nomadism, moving into our own house has finally allowed me to free a few shelves of books from dusty boxes in the basement out at the farm in Nebraska.  Among them was Best American Short Stories 2001, which I bought somewhere along the line.  Read all the stories faithfully that year, I’m sure, then promptly forgot them all.  Except for “Labors of the Heart,” by Claire Davis.

The lady.

The utterly unsentimental tale of a very fat man in love with a very thin and bitter woman stuck with me for years, even after I’d forgotten the title of the story and its author.  Last night some googling around revealed that I had the story back in my possession.  So I sat down and re-read it, for the first time in, what, 9 years.

I’ll admit, I was inwardly cringing a little, afraid that the story would not measure up to my memories of it.  Not to worry.  If anything, I appreciated it all the more for the years of writing and living since the last time I read.  A story packed to the gills with wisdom, packaged as a wonderfully orchestrated sentences.

I think I’ll be re-reading this one every few months from here on out, too.

The rock star.

Lastly, Sherman Alexie’s “What You Pawn I Will Redeem”, which, like Brad Watson’s “Visitation,” managed to get into the New Yorker despite not being composed of sleeping pills masquerading as sentences.  It’s the only one of these three available online; read it here.  I did, again, last night.

Like “Labors of the Heart,” it’s been some years since I’d read this piece.  I must have read it in Best American Short Stories 2004, possibly while I was first in Thailand, or maybe one time when I was back for Xmas or something.  I can’t remember.  Anyway, it was another of those stories that stuck with me through the years, the image of the homeless Indian heroically wandering the streets of Seattle trying to get back his mother’s pow-wow regalia.

Quirky and fantastic, not a word out of place.

Old friends.

I think Nagai would have approved of The Road

Doubtless Nagai Kafu was being sarcastic in his envisioned movie plot, but I think he would have approved of Cormac McCarthy’s earthshattering uber-post-apocalyptic The Road being made into a film.  After many long delays, it is evidently set for US release on November 25, according to Imdb.  Evidently they’ve hewed closely to the plot, meaning the movie has a chance to follow in the book’s footsteps and become possibly the darkest and finest production of the 21st century. cmccarthy_theroad

The trailer seems to indicate as much.  I was stunned into a state of despondency by the book, yet I immediately turned back to Page 1 to re-read.  Anticipating the movie, I’ve never been excited to be made so gloriously unhappy.

Technical difficulties prevent me from embedding the trailer in this post.  You can watch it here.

On the popular arts

“Once I was asked by a certain person to suggest a plot for a movie.  I was able to reply immediately.

How about having some poor, impoverished old man run down by a rich man’s automobile, I said.  He dies and his son goes to work in a factory, but, involved in a strike, he is arrested, charged with a crime he did not commit.  The poor old mother, left behind, is ill and has no money to buy food, much less medicine.  The daughter, Miss Something-or-other, gives up the piecework she has been doing, pasting boxes together, and sells herself as a geisha.  While she is thus caring for her mother, she acquires syphilis and loses the sight of both eyes, and so the whole family dies of starvation.

How would that be? I asked.  You would have them wailing in the aisles.

He looked at me with wide eyes, said that I seemed to have dangerous thoughts he had not suspected me of, and did not come again.”

– Nagai Kafu

nagai kafu

Nagai Kafu