Sunday, 21 November 2010

Missed Connections

The first time I met a French person, I could hardly wait to talk to her about de Maupassant. I'd struggled through Camus's L'Etranger in French and yawned my way through the English translations of a few French novels, but when I discovered de Maupassant's short stories, I couldn't get over how wonderful they were. I was thrilled to finally be able to tell a French person this. I was sure she'd be proud and happy to be from the country that had produced one of my all-time favorite writers.

Boy, was I wrong. "De Maupassant?" she sneered, examining her fingernails. "Yes, I have heard that he is very popular abroad."

At a party in Tokyo, I was delighted to meet a man from Trinidad, the first Trinidadian I'd ever talked to. At the same party, I'd just met a Korean man born and raised in Kamchatka, which had been a huge thrill, but although I don't know of any writers from Kamchatka, I was going through a V. S. Naipual phase and was eager to talk to a native of Trinidad about the man who is arguably the country's most famous author. But at the very mention of Naipual, this man sighed deeply and all but rolled his eyes. "Ah yes, our Vido," he murmured, then "I take it you are a fan?" My jaw dropped, but I admitted that I was. "You aren't?" I asked. His lip curled. "Well, I suppose he has helped to put us on the map," he said grudgingly. After that we discussed the difficulty of finding a good international school in Japan.

One day at work, a Japanese colleague pointed to my copy of Haruki Murakami's Norwegian Wood. "How do you like that?" he asked. I told him I was enjoying it very much. "Hmph," he said, "I guess it's true." I narrowed my eyes. "You guess what's true?" He tapped my book. "Foreigners like this guy's books," he practically snorted.

I've since met plenty of Japanese people who love Murakami's books, but my colleague's snarky comment has stayed with me all these years.

In Cyprus, I reread Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie's Half of a Yellow Sun. By coincidence, I had a copy of the book on me when I went with a friend to visit a young Nigerian woman who had just had her first baby. I knew that this woman was an Igbo, like Adichie, so I was sure she'd be happy to know that I was reading this world famous international best-seller written by her countrywoman. While my friend and I were admiring her new baby, I pulled out my book to show her, anticipating a lively conversation about the book and its author.

To my great dismay, she had never heard of the book and she had no idea who Adichie was. In fact, although she glanced at the cover politely, she was far more interested in the episode of Gossip Girls she was watching on T.V.

When I was teaching Turkish students English, it took me over a month to find one person who admitted to reading any of Orhan Pamuk's novels. Likewise, a Chinese woman I met shook her head and smiled when I told her how much I'd enjoyed Jung Chang's Wild Swans. She'd never heard of Jung Chang or Wild Swans, she said. And for what it's worth, my British husband does not like Jane Austen, Elizabeth Gaskell, or the Bronte sisters, and he is not a fan of D. H. Lawrence. He has never read anything by Virginia Woolf.

Now, I know that all of these authors are read and loved in their own countries -- I am convinced of it. What drives me half crazy is that I don't seem to meet any of their fans in my travels. It would be wonderful to talk about these famous authors with natives of their countries, but I have seriously begun to think that they all stay in their own countries instead of finding their way to wherever I happen to be. And there is a certain irony in the fact that I keep running into people who are big fans of Hemingway, Thomas Pynchon, and Henry James.

And then one day, one of my colleagues, a Russian woman, asked me if I'd ever read any Russian novels.

I regarded her warily. "I absolutely love Chekhov," I said. "In fact, I don't think it's possible for anyone to write better short stories than his."

Her smile lit up her face. "Oh, I completely agree!"



Robert the Skeptic said...

I wonder how many foreigners enjoy Vonnegut or Tom Clancy which are quickly dismissed by American readers?

Friends visiting us in Oregon from France were completely enthralled with the idea of visiting Hollywood. The young lady we eventually took there was surprised to see the porn shops lining the street and homeless people on the sidewalk. Most Europeans know nothing of Oregon.

The Japanese visitors though LOVE Oregon. For a number of years there was a long-running TV show in Japan called "From Oregon with Love", about an orphan Japanese boy who moved to Oregon to live with his uncle on an Eastern Oregon wheat farm. Oregon is (was) a destination point to Japanese tourists.

Got a bit off-topic here, but loosely stuck to the point.

angryparsnip said...

Really enjoyed your post today.
You seem to have the luck to meet people who for whatever reason are not impressed with their countries famed writers.

Maybe what any foreigner read is based on more of what they what to see ? A pre-disposition to enjoy something were we see it as everyday and completely overexposed.
Gosh I am not quite explaining this right.

High School killed me for Hemingway and James.... I use to run the other way screaming if I heard their names. At lest now I hope I wouldn't be as rude and could carry on a conversation without pulling my hair out !

cheers, parsnip

e said...

I am not at all surprised by reactions when you bring up famous writers or literature. From what I have observed, few adults venture past what is popular once they are out of school, though the elderly are sometimes drawn to the authors and literature of their youth.

Anonymous said...

Yesterday was my book group meeting, and it was my turn to propose the next book. Two of the authors you mentioned in this post were among my proposals, Pamuk and Jane Austen.

My first choice, First Person (a series of interviews with Vladimir Putin) was greeted with a round of silence. My second choice and third choices, Pillars of the Earth, by Ken Follett and Snow, by Orhan Pamuk, were dismissed as being either too long or too depressing.

So we're reading Northanger Abbey for the February meeting, which is fine with me, but I do think it would have been great to read a book titled Snow during December and January. Still, it worked out; only one person besides me had read Jane Austen before and the goal is to read out of one's comfort zone.

Vijaya said...

Heh-heh ... but you should know that a writer or artist is not often appreciated in his own hometown ... "pshaw, it didn't really happen like that, or the rebels weren't rightly portrayed, or some such." We're all such critics of our own fellow-country-men. I'm guilty too.

In fact, I've been accused of airing dirty Indian laundry ... "why do you want to write about such things?" See ... you never can win.

But Chekhov -- yes, even Russians agree he writes the best shorts.

Mary Witzl said...

Robert -- In our town's library, it's tough to find the classics, but you can almost guarantee there'll be two copies of Danielle Steel's latest book. And I've had a few people tell me they're huge Sidney Sheldon fans. But come to think of it, I can't remember whether I've read anything by Tom Clancy.

I didn't watch a lot of t.v. in Japan, but I did see a few episodes of 'From Oregon with Love'. It seems that once something is shown on t.v., it will almost definitely be loved and appreciated in Japan. I've had many Japanese people express shock and dismay upon hearing that I never watched any episodes of 'Little House on the Prairie'. The fact that I'd read the books didn't seem to count at all.

AP -- I couldn't agree more about Hemingway and James! High school pretty much ruined Hemingway for me too, but Henry James ruined Henry James for me. He took good themes and then ran them right into the ground with those interminably long, repetitive passages and never a paragraph in sight. And yet so many people here think he was the greatest American writer that ever lived. I could weep!

e -- It just seems wrong that a country could produce a famous writer and then not manage to make sure that his or her books are read and respected. But having said that, I definitely don't like every American author there is.

AnneB -- Until I met my husband, I imagined that most educated people had read Jane Austen, and that if they'd read her, they must like her. And I was certain that if they were British, they would have to be fans.

I like the idea of reading outside your comfort zone. I did that for my first year in Japan: I read whatever I could get my hands on in English, and ended up finding half a dozen writers I still love and otherwise would never have discovered. But I haven't read outside my comfort zone for some time and quite frankly, I'm long overdue. Maybe I'll poach from my husband's science fiction collection one of these days.

Vijaya -- When we lived in Japan, I had a good friend from India. I felt bad telling her that I didn't like Salman Rushdie -- my husband is a huge fan, but I never could get past the first chapter of 'Midnight's Children'. But she just smiled and said she couldn't stand him herself. Still, at least she'd READ him!

Chekhov rules, doesn't he? I first read his stories decades ago and loved them; I can reread them every year and still be as moved and awed and overwhelmed by his humanity and the loveliness of his prose (or in my case, his translator's prose).

Kim Ayres said...

I confess to having pretty much the same attitude to the British authors you mention as your husband does. However, I'm not going to dismiss my countrymen entirely - I am a great fan of Terry Pratchett and Douglas Adams - infinitely better than Shakespeare :)

Dale said...

I was delighted to meet a British man, in grad school, who had read Chesterton's poems. I'd never met anyone else who'd read them. So I was crestfallen when he made that pained face. Yes, he'd been made to read them in school and he'd loathed them ever since.

Anonymous said...

Sooo funny! I suspect that most of it is because kids are forced to read classics in school and hate the authors ever after. My own kids DESPISE Saint-Exupery's "The Little Prince," which I think is a lovely story, simply because to them it smacks of schoolwork.

ditdit said...

Recently, I was at a restaurant in Aix en Provence with an Anglophone bookclub (discussing a book about South Africa). The French owner, seeing what we were doing, sat down at our table and asked us about an American author that he loved, Dos Passos. Sadly, none of us had read any of his books.

Just last week for school, my fifth grader had to memorize part of Maupassant's poem "La chanson du rayon de la Lune." It was hard work for her. Maybe too many nights spent memorizing his poems turned off a few French people. I hope not my daughter :)

Mary Witzl said...

Kim -- What makes me sad about Jane Austen and the Bronte sisters is that there appears to be a gender divide. I can't help but think that men just don't know what they're missing, but I imagine you've heard that one before.

Terry Pratchett is a huge favorite in this household and gets quoted a lot. Douglas Adams too -- he is sorely lamented.

Dale -- My mother was a fan of G K Chesterton, but the only poem of his I'm familiar with is 'Elegy in a Country Churchyard'. It's sad that more people don't realize what an incredible thinker and influence Chesterton was. In Japan, his work is routinely taught to university students, but I can't imagine that most kids there really understand it. Mark Twain always said he didn't want any of his books to become classics because classics were books you wanted to HAVE read, not read. I think that's what happened to G K Chesterton's writings, and it's a crying shame.

Elizabeth -- I'm not a big fan of The Little Prince either -- we had to read part of it in French and I have unpleasant memories. On the other hand, we also had to read The Yearling, Tom Sawyer, and a few John Steinback stories, and I love them still. But it does seem like a great way to get kids to hate literature is to force them to study it.

Ditdit -- I've never read anything by DosPassos either, perhaps because the only thing I can remember hearing about him was that he admired Senator Joseph McCarthy. (I hope he had good reasons.) I feel bad whenever I meet people who are passionate about American writers I'm not at all familiar with but should be, like John Updike, for instance. I've hardly read anything of John Updike's and one of these days I'll have to do something about that.

I can't imagine having to memorize any of deMaupassant's poems as a nine-year-old, but I'm sure it would have put me off him!

Charles Gramlich said...

A prophet is least understood in his own country perhaps. Or, perhaps the very things that attract foreigners to a work of literature are things the locals are not proud of or don't feel the need to be told about.

Carole said...

Great story. It was encouraging to know that at least most of them at heard of the authors. Sometimes I think reading is a lost art here in the states.

Pat said...

I can't remember the exact quote but the gist is one is never a hero in one's own back yard.
The French reaction with sneer is so typical.
I learned my lesson when - on a holiday in Paris - I attempted to find the atelier where everybody who was anybody in the Arts visited Gertrude Stein in the twenties. Quel disillusion:)

Mary Witzl said...

Charles -- I think you're absolutely right. The reason a lot of Japanese people don't like Yukio Mishima's work is because some of it seems to glorify war, blind patriotism and the sort of fanaticism many would rather not be reminded of. What is quirky and fascinating about a foreign book might just be yawn-worthy and cliched in its country of origin -- or plain old embarrassing.

Carole -- Reading and writing don't seem to be alive and kicking here either, though I'm always happy to occasionally see book stores doing a thriving business. I wish people would at least give books a chance, and it's always good to know something about your own country's writers. (Says the woman who reminds herself it's high time to read more Updike and Vonnegut.)

Pat -- I had a funny professor of English literature who went to visit the house D H Lawrence grew up in. It was inhabited by people who were sick of D H Lawrence tourists and he left with a flea in his ear -- and a great story to tell.

Whenever anyone here praises some American writer or cultural feature (I don't count geographical features like Niagara Falls or the Grand Canyon), I always feel such warmth and gratitude. On the other hand, whenever I've praised anything French to the French, I get the impression they've heard it all too often. But remember: the French are the people who believe that Jerry Lewis is a comic genius. Whenever I hear that, I can always return the sneer and scorn. They can have Jerry Lewis. DeMaupassant is all mine.

MG Higgins said...

This is fascinating! I wonder if it's a matter of becoming habituated to what's closest to us. Makes me think of my cats and how bored they become with their wonderful toys. Suddenly a fly on the window? Nirvana.

Angela Ackerman said...

Ha, at last! This post might have illustrated a lot of sneerdom, but at the same time it amazes me just how many languages you know, and how many countries you have visited. :)

Angela @ The Bookshelf Muse

Mary Witzl said...

MG -- You might be right about that. My mother used to teach kids who were terribly deprived. She always remembered one who sat in the middle of a pile of expensive toys and played endlessly with a paper clip. Our cats came with two large plastic bags filled with fake mice, catnip sachets, elastic strings, and bouncy balls. They vastly prefer the bag these things came in any day, and if there's a fly in the room too, so much the better.

Angela -- No!! I speak Japanese very well if I do say so myself, and I can read, write, and generally understand it. I can read French to some degree, but I make myself a laughingstock every time I try to speak it, and my Spanish is not as good as my French. In Turkish, I'm fine with fruit, vegetables, simple foodstuffs, numbers, days of the week and month, and a few basic pleasantries, and I can tell people they're lazy. Sigh... The only language I ever found easy was Japanese, and it's the only one I'm confident in. If I've made myself sound like a linguist here, shame on me!

Falak said...

This was hillarious. Its nice to know that there still are people out there who actually read.

Anonymous said...

Just came by to see your blog. Thanks for stopping by to read my interview with Julia Karr.

About V.S. Naipaul - his book, A Housr for Mr. Biswas is one of my favorites. But I know he has a very controversial personality, and there are very strong feelings against him in India. Sometimes we have to separate the author from his or her work, perhaps!

Nice to meet you - I love the voice of your blog!

Mary Witzl said...

Falak -- The only people I've ever been around who really didn't read much were my last students, and even among them, there were dedicated readers. It's sad to meet people who never read at all. I can't help but think their lives must be less interesting, but I'm sure they feel the same way about us readers.

Sheela-chari -- Thank you for that interview -- it was interesting. I really didn't realize that Julia was a vegetarian.

V S Naipaul didn't mince his words and his books can be gratingly opinionated. But his ideas are so well expressed and his language is so beautiful. I didn't like everything of his that I read, but I remember being entranced by the eloquence of his prose and the richness of his life experience. I liked Shiva Naipaul's non-fiction too and was sad there wasn't more of it.

Robin said...

I am such a low brow reader, that I'm sure I could find tons of people from foreign countries that would share my literary tastes. "Did you read the newest episode of Manga? Do you really cut each others' heads off all the time in Japan? Who cleans it up?"
Oh, the fascinating conversations we'd have!