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The Interpreter

By J. Thomas Rimer

Chronicles of My Life: An American in the Heart of Japan
by Donald Keene
(Columbia University Press, 196 pages, $27.95)

Academics in the field of the humanities expect to disappear behind the material they explicate, summarize, or translate. Donald Keene ’42CC, ’49GSAS, ’97HON is an exception. He has, in the best sense of the phrase, led a double life. In the United States and elsewhere in the West, he is known as a distinguished scholar and translator. (At Columbia he is also Shincho Professor of Japanese Literature and University Professor Emeritus.) In Japan he is a celebrity, perhaps the only American with an interest in Japanese culture who is known to most Japanese. The fact that his memoirs were serialized in Japan’s biggest newspaper gives us a hint of this. It is this double Keene that Chronicles of My Life: An American in the Heart of Japan reveals to us, artlessly, and with considerable tact and enthusiasm.

I was a student of Donald Keene at Columbia more than 30 years ago, and I was particularly interested in the first few chapters of this brief and disarming memoir since I knew relatively little about his early years. He describes his upbringing in New York and his time as a Columbia College student, where he took Humanities with Mark Van Doren. “Van Doren had little use for commentaries or specialized literary criticism,” Keene writes. “Rather, the essential thing, he taught us, was to read the texts, think about them, and discover for ourselves why they ranked as classics. Insofar as I have been a success as a teacher of Japanese literature, it is because I had a model in Mark Van Doren.”

Keene arrived at Columbia in September 1938, a few weeks before the Munich Agreement was signed. His dread of war and his acceptance of its growing inevitability during his undergraduate years are movingly told, as is the epiphany late in 1940 that led him toward a lifelong encounter with Japan. “[A]t the worst point of the conflict within me between my hatred of war and my hatred of the Nazis, a kind of deliverance came my way,” he writes. He was browsing in a bookshop in Times Square and picked up a remainder copy of Arthur Waley’s translation of The Tale of Genji. Keene was bitten. “Until this time I had thought of Japan mainly as a menacing militaristic country,” he recalls. The 11th-century novel became a “refuge from all I hated in the world around me.”

The world he hated closed in on him with the attack on Pearl Harbor. Keene attended the Navy Japanese Language School in California and spent the balance of the war in the Pacific translating documents found on captured Japanese soldiers. He managed by subterfuge to get to Tokyo at the end of the war, where he spent a week among the bombed ruins and, remarkably, tried to find the families of some of the prisoners he had interrogated.

These first encounters with Japanese citizens — not the highly educated and sophisticated friends he would come to make later — help us to understand one secret that has given Keene his ability to penetrate so deeply into Japanese culture. Although he never says so, it is obvious that he treated these prisoners with the same kind of consideration and respect that he would any other fellow human being. That kind of democratic spirit can be quickly felt, conveyed across cultures, even without words.

 

For some readers in the U.S., the memoir may seem at first to lack some necessary detail about Japan’s postwar cultural background that might provide a context in which to place Keene’s observations. But even a cursory reading of the text suggests a number of aspects of Japanese history and culture that were important during the period Keene describes. The first of them is the fact that, in Japan from the 1950s through the 1990s, at least, literature was still regarded as a central means to convey important aspects of Japanese culture from one generation to the next (although I would hesitate to say that assumption can be carried on into these days of manga and anime).

The second assumption concerns the need of Japanese artists and intellectuals to rejoin, and with honor, the larger artistic and intellectual worlds from which they had been cut off for some many years by the war. Japanese readers and writers, whatever their political persuasions, strove to reassert themselves and be taken seriously by their peers in Europe and the U.S. Given the complexities of their history and the difficulties of the Japanese language, Keene, with his taste, linguistic skill, and knowledge, was to prove a superior and even-handed interpreter of Japan to the West. Without compromising his own artistic and cultural convictions, he quickly came to know the realities and challenges of contemporary life in Japan, and he was able to identify and explicate for his readers both in Japan and in the U.S. some of the contributions of the Japanese tradition as he saw it.

Chronicles of My Life suggests the presence of still another narrative as well: the discovery of Japanese literature by American readers. At the end of World War II, there was relatively little Japanese literature widely available in English, other than Waley’s Tale of Genji and his version of the Pillow Book of Sei Shônagon, both written in the Heian period, about 1000 years ago. By the early 1950s, Keene had produced translations of two of the most important novels written in the early postwar period, both by Dazai Osamu, and Keene’s two anthologies of Japanese literature, one classic, one modern, revealed to the reader for the first time the range and richness of the long Japanese tradition. Many other translators, quite a number of them trained by Keene himself, have since made available a wide variety of texts from every period. Because of such efforts, it was possible by 1968 for a Japanese writer, Kawabata Yasunari, to win the Nobel Prize in Literature, followed by Kenzaburô Ôe in 1994.

Readers familiar with the novels of such now well-known modern masters as Kawabata, Tanizaki, Mishima, Kôbô Abe, and Ôe will enjoy Keene’s memories of these men. Thanks to Keene, and others, Japanese literature entered a wider world.

Chronicles of My Life is a beautifully produced book. Most striking are the charming illustrations by one of Japan’s top younger artists, Akira Yamaguchi, which were commissioned by the Yomiuri Shimbun, the newspaper in which Keene’s memoirs first appeared in weekly installments. Yamaguchi’s paintings bear close and repeated inspection in order to savor the artist’s subtle attitudes toward Keene’s account. The book should have included some information about Yamaguchi, as he has a considerable reputation in Japan.

J. Thomas Rimer ’71GSAS is Professor Emeritus of Japanese Literature and Theatre at the University of Pittsburgh, and held the Paul Terasaki Chair in U.S.-Japan Relations at UCLA from 2006 to 2008.


 
  Kiddie on the Keys

By Paul Hond

Note by Note: A Celebration of the Piano Lesson
By Tricia Tunstall (Simon & Schuster, 214 pages, $24.00)

Early in Note by Note, veteran piano teacher Tricia Tunstall ’04GSAS asks, “What is the appeal of the piano lesson as a basic ritual of American childhood?”

The question implies two dubious premises: that most American children take piano lessons and that there is something as distinct and culturally definable as an “American childhood.” But whatever postcard nostalgia resides in the sentiment (Tunstall teaches in pleasant Maplewood, New Jersey), it’s nice to know that there is still a place where clever middle-class children can receive caring, sensitive instruction in a warm parlor brightened with jelly beans and a friendly beagle named Joey (and on a Steinway grand, no less).

Most people I know never took piano lessons. I did, and my own teachers ranged from a strict old widow with hairpins and warts (“Curl your fingers!” she’d demand, banging a ruler on the top of the piano) to a pale, gothic gentleman who had what I was too young to appreciate as liquor breath to, years later, a detached, ethereal jazz pianist whose teaching method boiled down to “Try it like this,” followed by some amazing riff too complicated to mimic.

In that light, Tunstall’s maternal, psychologically astute persona is a welcome tonic. She is kind, patient, and wise, and a canny observer of child behavior and development, a kind of musical cross between Glinda the Good Witch and Jean Piaget. Note by Note is a celebration of piano lessons as they should be, not as they often are.

The book is divided into seven chapters, with titles like “Beginnings,” “Emerging,” “Mastery,” and “Recital.” This progression suggests the unfolding drama of a child competition story, but Note by Note owes more to memoir and personal essay than to character-driven narrative. In her observations and reflections, Tunstall engagingly demonstrates Mark Van Doren’s maxim that “the art of teaching is the art of assisting discovery.”

Yet purists might take issue with Tunstall’s teaching approach. As we meet her young students — tiny Jenny, round-faced Maggie, slow-blossoming Willie, squirmy Ella, hip-hop-loving Damian, soccer-playing Sara, rapturous Haley, and many others — we are introduced to the material they study, and not all of it seems kosher. Amid the Mozart sonatas and Chopin waltzes are “We Are the Champions” and selections from Phantom of the Opera. It’s a balancing act that Tunstall is at some pains to justify.

“Am I dealing with the devil when I entertain pop music within the walls of my musical sanctum?” she wonders, with a sense of her own childhood teachers peering down from lofty pedagogical heights. But Tunstall, a classical-music lover who also grew up listening to the pop music of the 1960s and ’70s, is open-minded and resourceful enough to turn the songs on her students’ iPods, however unpianistic, into teachable moments. Indeed, when she is inevitably asked to teach “Stairway to Heaven,” she discovers that, phrase by phrase, “there are sonatas that are not so well constructed.”
The learning, then, flows in both directions. But knowledge has its price. Recounting the brave progress of beginners as they decipher the “elegant and intimidating code” of written notes on a staff, Tunstall writes, “Here is what I find hard: knowing that sometimes the acquisition of a musical skill comes at the expense of a musical impulse.” We share the teacher’s unease at facilitating this necessary trade-off; the burying of spontaneity is no small thing. When Tunstall adds, “Unless I remember to dig for it now and then, it may never reemerge,” we feel she is talking about something as essential as memory, or the ability to love.

Of course, the benefits of learning invariably outweigh the risks. As her students advance, Tunstall shepherds them into realms of beauty previously unimaginable. But how to explain this beauty? When little Debbie listens to an E7 suspended chord in a song and calls it “pretty,” Tunstall endeavors to explain to her the mechanics of tension and resolution, but “the truth is that neither I nor anyone else can begin to answer the age-old question of why a displaced note and an unsettled chord can render her wide open to tenderness, sorrow, joy.”

With lessons learned and pieces practiced, we are ready (or are we?) for that perennial nerve-rattling ritual: the piano recital. Tunstall ratchets up the palm sweat and defends, on character-building grounds, her decision to expose her students to what can be a terrifying and potentially crushing event. Thankfully, there are no major disasters (though there are, always, some minor ones), and in the end, Tunstall is confident that “each of my students has passed through a distinct and somehow formative experience.”

Throughout Note by Note, Tunstall displays the insight and lyricism of a gifted novelist. Writing descriptively about music carries a high risk of falling into clichés; there are only so many cascades, ripples, and plunges that the page can bear. But Tunstall consistently finds new ways to express the inexpressible. Here she comments on the surprised “whoa!” of a student who has encountered a sudden shift in Beethoven, from B-minor to B-major: “She has heard it, the way the plangent desolation of B-minor is cracked open by that D-sharp; she has felt the abrupt stab of joy, like an unearned blessing, of the move from minor to major. Whoa, indeed.”

There are moments in the book when the reader senses the author’s desire to free her narrative impulses and push the sensuality of her language. In the final chapter, “My Last Piano Teacher,” Tunstall does just that: as in the recital’s final piece — a Debussy Arabesque that veers suddenly from E-major to C-major — Tunstall also changes key, taking us deeper into her own history and, it seems, into the book she really wanted to write. What happens when Tunstall, fresh out of Yale, enlists a teacher named Donald Johnston to teach her jazz piano, is for the reader to discover, but suffice it to say that the harmonic shifts of a sonata do not always prepare us for those of life.

Tunstall states that she is a “community piano teacher,” not a university or conservatory teacher, and that most of her students will not land in the concert hall. This might explain “We Are the Champions.” It also makes her case for the piano lesson all the more universal and compelling. “What I do know,” she writes, “is that piano lessons are not only about music but also about trust and confidence, chaos and order, spontaneity and discipline and patience, sometimes even about love.”

Much of which, of course, has to do with the teacher.


 
  Clerical Error

By Ari L. Goldman

The Bishop’s Daughter: A Memoir
By Honor Moore (W.W. Norton & Company, 365 pages, $25.95)

I have my heroes and the Right Reverend Paul Moore Jr. was — and remains — one of them. I covered Moore in my previous career as a religion reporter for the New York Times. He was charming, colorful, quotable, accessible, and, at times, larger than life. He stood six foot five and commanded attention with his words and deeds. When he died in 2003, at the age of 83, I was already teaching at Columbia, but I returned to the Times to write Moore’s obituary, which was given considerable prominence in the paper. I called him “the most formidable liberal Christian voice in the city” and recalled how he helped bring New York back from the fiscal crisis of the 1970s, how he fought for equality in church life for women and gays, and how he revived the seat of the Episcopal Diocese of New York, the massive Cathedral of St. John the Divine, right in Columbia’s backyard.

But now comes a book that reveals that Moore was far more complex than even those who knew him well imagined. In The Bishop’s Daughter, Honor Moore, his eldest child, reveals that he had a secret and active homosexual life even as he carried on as a family man and reared nine children.

I’m a pretty good reporter, so this is a book that leaves me wondering how this side of Moore’s life escaped my purview. I also wonder, perhaps naively, how a prince of the church could so wantonly violate both church law and the sanctity of marriage. And I puzzle over why his daughter would publicly reveal a secret that Moore himself labored so hard to hide.

The Bishop’s Daughter might best be classified as a “sexual memoir” of a father and daughter, who each in his and her own way — and, I hasten to add, quite separately — struggled with sexuality. Let me state at the outset that Honor Moore is a meticulous reporter and an eloquent writer. She researched her subject thoroughly, delving into her father’s past and talking to the major players in his life, including his friends and lovers, both male and female. Honor Moore is a poet with three published collections to her credit and the author of The White Blackbird: A Life of the Painter Margarett Sargent by Her Granddaughter. She has a brilliant eye for detail and often writes with emotional power. Moore also is an adjunct professor of writing at Columbia.

“My father’s extreme height made him seem even more distant,” she writes in one typically incisive passage. “I thought his tallness had to do with the brocades, with the music, the candles, and the gold crosses that preceded him down the aisle, that it rendered him closer to God.”

But let me also state that she is an angry, confused, jealous, and vindictive daughter, a child of privilege who lives the high life and seems not to count her blessings, only her emotional wounds. She writes far too much of the cocktail parties she attends, the restaurants where she dines, and the birthday presents that she gets, all of which, inevitably, disappoint her. But at the core of this book are her sexual exploits. She details the male lovers of her youth, her awakening as a lesbian, and then her return to heterosexual relationships.

Infidelity is part of this life. For example, although she is in a longtime relationship with a man 20 years her senior named Venable, she goes off to a writers’ retreat where the first day – at breakfast, no less – she meets and beds a Parisian named Daniel.

For a book with so much sex, The Bishop’s Daughter is strangely unsexy. The cavalcade of lovers and bedroom scenes quickly becomes a sad spectacle.

Perhaps the saddest relationship of all is the one Honor Moore has with her father. Even here, there is an undercurrent of sexual tension. When she is in her heterosexual phase, she brings home men nearly her father’s age. When the bishop marries a year and a half after his wife dies, his second wife is not much older than his daughter.

Hints of Paul Moore’s double life are sprinkled throughout the book, but the final confirmation comes well after the obituary I wrote of him in the Times was printed. When Moore’s will is read, a gift is left for a man no one in the family can identify. Upon investigation, Honor seeks out and meets the man who had a 30-year gay relationship with her father.

One of life’s bitter lessons is that our heroes are human. Paul Moore certainly was. He championed many good causes and led a life of service. My fear is that too many of his good works get lost in this book. He deserves better.

Ari L. Goldman
, a professor at the Graduate School of Journalism, is the author of The Search for God at Harvard.


 
 
  The Narcotic Farm’s dairy herd, with the massive prison buildings looming in the background.
Down on the Pharm

The Narcotic Farm: The Rise and Fall of America’s First Prison for Drug Addicts
By Nancy D. Campbell, JP Olsen ’95JRN, Luke Walden (Abrams, 208 pages, $29.95)

From the late 1940s until the mid-1960s some of the best jazz players in the world performed in Lexington, Kentucky. You just couldn’t get in for the concerts. And the players couldn’t get out. The musicians — including Chet Baker, Elvin Jones, and Sonny Rollins — were being treated at the federal government’s Narcotic Farm, a New Deal–era prison facility that had been established to rehabilitate drug addicts humanely and scientifically rather than just to punish them.

It really was a farm, a massive hospital/prison on 1000 acres of land where incarcerated patients were weaned off heroin and other drugs and put to work in the fresh air milking cows, growing tomatoes, and baling hay. If they preferred, patients could learn how to repair cars or to tailor a suit. Sports and games were encouraged, as were art and music and, in the ’60s, various kinds of group therapy. The facility had such a good reputation that many addicts made their way there voluntarily.

In the end, it was the farm’s Addiction Research Center that doomed the enterprise. The center, with funding from the CIA, performed experiments on all-too-willing inmates with “every abused drug known to man.” But as this book’s authors, and congressional hearings, concluded, “prison research is inherently coercive.” The farm was closed in 1975.

The Narcotic Farm: The Rise and Fall of America’s First Prison for Drug Addicts is a strangely beautiful book, illustrated with hundreds of period photos chronicling four decades of America’s changing attitude to addicts and addiction. (Many of the earliest pictures were taken by the Farm Security Administration photographer Arthur Rothstein ’35CC.)

The authors have also produced a film about the Narcotic Farm, which will be shown on PBS this fall.

 
 
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