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November 13, 2012

Two Good New Books

They're new to me, at any rate, and probably to you, though they were first published a long time ago. Both are part of the NYRB neglected classics series, which consistently unearths treasures that our inconsiderate publishing industry has allowed to go out of print.

 The first of these two books, Natsume Soseki's The Gate, was originally published in Japanese in 1910. I have only read one other novel by Soseki, Kokoro, and it too was terrific. The Gate is one of those gripping works in which nothing much happens. It chronicles the daily life of a mid-level civil servant in turn-of-the-century Tokyo: his marriage, his money troubles, his relations with his relatives and his landlord.  There are crises and, in some cases, resolutions, but it is all very quietly done. The language (in William Sibley's translation, newly commissioned by NYRB) is as delicate as a haiku; at the same time, the psychological depth of the novel is as powerful as anything I've read in Japanese literature.

 The other book is Dorothy Baker's Young Man with a Horn. If you're a fan of the NYRB series, you've probably already read Baker's Cassandra at the Wedding, her masterpiece (though it's a masterpiece I had never heard of before NYRB rediscovered her). That novel conveys, in a very complicated and penetrating way, the interrelated lives of two sisters who live in the California foothills. This earlier novel of hers, first published in 1938, is completely different, though also great in its own way. Loosely based on the life, or at least the music, of Bix Beiderbecke, Young Man with a Horn has the best descriptions of music I have ever read in any work of literature. It also describes with unerring tact the relationship of a white jazz musician to his mostly black companions during a period when racial segregation was extreme. As with The Gate, the language is tremendously important, but in a completely different way:  it is the American vernacular deployed as music.

November 13, 2012 10:33 AM | | Comments (0)

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