This Week in Literary History: Jan. 11-17
Recognizing the birthdays of Haruki Murakami, The Bell Jar, and more
Welcome to a new edition of This Week in Literary History from Bidwell Hollow. Below are stories and notable literary births and events for Jan. 11-17.
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The Novelist Who Gave Up Writing to Fight Against Apartheid
By Andria Kennedy
"[Liberalism] is a devotion to the rule of law. It's a belief in the rights of man against the state, a distaste for authoritarianism," Alan Paton said. "You could say a hatred of totalitarianism. It's also a tolerance for otherness and other people. A true liberal doesn't think everybody should be the same or think the same, whereas if you're an ideologist, you do."
Speaking in one of his final interviews, Paton maintained the political stance that set him against the ruling majority in South Africa during apartheid. The author of Cry, the Beloved Country remained a firm opponent of his country's divisive segregation until the moment of his death in 1988 - a few short years before apartheid crumbled.
Paton served as a pioneer for the country through his writings. "Cry, the Beloved Country was the first novel that spilled South Africa's racial guts to a huge worldwide audience. He was our Harriet Beecher Stowe," David Welsh, a political scientist at Cape Town University, stated proudly. "Here is a man who spent forty years fighting for human rights."
The novel emerged from a moment of homesickness as Paton traveled through Europe, touring prison systems. Yet, it opened the world's eyes to the injustices in his country. And rather than taking inspiration from the bloody conflict surrounding him, he pleaded for reconciliation, drawing on his Christian upbringing. "[I believe] in the rule of law and a tolerance for others and otherness in general. It's not a creed, but certain values," Paton admitted.
In 1953, Paton chose to end his career as a novelist to help form the multiracial Liberal Party, founded upon that principle. And in 1964, he stood as a character witness during Nelson Mandela's treason trial. He glimpsed hope when the Dutch Reformed Church spoke out, stating, "It was a mistake to support apartheid and to think that apartheid was the will of God for this country."
Unfortunately, the Party ended up dissolving in 1968 when confronted with the requirement to expel all non-white members. The new government had passed a regulation banning mixed political parties as a further action of segregation, and the Liberal Party refused to comply. Dissolution felt more faithful to their beliefs. The blow felt harsh, and in 1983, Paton despaired, making the brittle comment, "I do not expect to lay my hand on my heart and to say before I die, 'I am proud to be a South African.'"
Paton's political work helped lay the foundation for the end of apartheid, though. His persistent speeches, given in a temperate voice, broke through to many influential people. Even the opposition found little to fault. P.W. Botha, president of the left-wing in 1988, expressed sincere condolences upon hearing of Alan Paton's death. "Although he was a noted critic of the government, he was respected for his sincerity, never failing to temper his criticism with a recognition of positive developments and the realities of the situation."
While unpopular, Paton understood the gradual process required to bring down the horror of apartheid. He preferred to see the destruction appropriately undone rather than dismantled with abrupt haste. Above all, Alan Paton was a man of hope. It feels a cruel irony that he never saw that optimism rewarded in his lifetime. Apartheid ended in 1994.
And, yet, Paton stated so clearly, "In this country, one has to distinguish very sharply between white suffering and black suffering. White people have never suffered in the way Black people have had to suffer." The vision and words of Alan Paton helped collapse the evils of apartheid - a genuine hero.
Born on Jan. 11, 1903, in Pietermaritzburg, South Africa
Died on April 12, 1988, in Outer West Durban, South Africa
Haruki Murakami: Celebrated Abroad, Criticized at Home
By Andrew Sanger
71-year old Haruki Murakami is the living literary equivalent of an international superstar. His works have been translated into over 50 languages, he's a recipient of the Franz Kafka Prize, the Jerusalem Prize, and has had his name tossed around for the Nobel Prize many times in recent years. His work is discussed, researched, analyzed, and adored worldwide. So it's more than a little ironic that the one place where he's had to fight to achieve that level of enthusiastic acceptance in the literary community is in Japan, his own home country.
Murakami's novels feature a unique blend of magical realism, historical fiction, the spirit or dream-world, and the appearance (or disappearance) of one or more mysterious felines. While this seems to be as much of a winning formula for Japanese readers as it is for those worldwide, Japanese literary critics and academics have not been so easily won over. This questioning of Murakami's literary value has ranged from simple dismissal to outright aggression, some going as far as publicly denigrating him as a fraud and leading rising Japanese writers towards creative stagnation.
Among Japanese critics, the core issue that seems to always come up concerning Murakami's work is whether he is sufficiently "Japanese" in his writing. His work lacks a sense of Japanese tradition, some say, and his work is Westernized to the point of pandering to a global audience. In the past, Murakami has been labeled with the Japanese pejorative term for those seen as overly sympathetic with Western culture, batakusai, which translates to "Stinking of Butter."
One of Murakami's harshest critics over the years has been Nobel Laureate Kenzaburo Oe, one of Japan's leading voices in novels, short stories, and essays. Oe's bemoaned Murakami's "failing to appeal to intellectuals with models for Japan's future." Another Japanese literary critic, Kazuo Kuroko, has written that Murakami's work shows "a total lack of an active attitude in dealing with society as a whole, but showing a passive willingness to be influenced by certain facets of popular culture."
Murakami commented on his complicated relationship with Japanese academia in a 2014 interview with The Guardian, saying, "I'm a kind of outcast of the Japanese literary world. I have my own readers … But critics, writers, many of them don't like me… I have been writing for 35 years, and from the beginning, up to now, the situation's almost the same. I'm kind of an ugly duckling. Always the duckling, never the swan."
Perhaps this is also in part due to his choice of literary idols. When asked about his biggest influences, Murakami is quick to name successful American and European authors. He often mentions Raymond Chandler, Cormac McCarthy, Fyodor Dostoevsky, and Franz Kafka, citing their universal appeal to human nature as a continuing inspiration in his work.
It can be hard to imagine how a writer commonly held to be one of the greatest of our era can achieve such heights of critical and commercial success without being seen as a valuable contributor by his home country's cultural elite. To his credit, Murakami has never really seemed to let his detractors get to him, mostly content to shake their comments off and write according to only his, and no-one else's, artistic vision.
Later in that same interview with The Guardian, Murakami went on to say, "I think, in a sense, we are playing different games…" The "we" being Murakami himself and the Japanese literary establishment. "The equipment's different, and the fields are different. Like tennis and squash." It's not the first time Murakami has acknowledged the fact that he has never tried, nor even wanted, to write the kinds of books his critics seem to expect from him.
Murakami has stuck to his guns despite having had the criticisms of his peers piled on his head for decades, continually projecting an air of a writer who's unwilling to engage in a protracted academic war over style. He continues to deliver his signature mysterious, dreamlike work. He has managed to garner a rabidly loyal global readership (including, it should be noted once again, in Japan, where his books still sell millions of copies on release).
Murakami's most recent novel, 2017's Killing Commendatore, got an English-language translation in 2018 and has since received translations into dozens of other languages. Throughout his writing career, Murakami has tried to prove that his identity is not just a modern Japanese culture writer. Why? "Because I wanted to write something international," he said. "I still do."
Born on Jan. 12, 1949, in Kyoto, Japan
When Death Becomes Art: The Bell Jar Traps the Two In Its Putrid Air
By Christine Kingery
Trigger warning: The following story discusses mental illness and suicide. If you need support at any time, please call the National Suicide Prevention Hotline at 1-800-273-8255 or visit suicidepreventionlifeline.org.
Content warning: The following story discusses the ending of Sylvia Plath’s The Bell Jar.
When The Bell Jar was first published in England on Jan. 14, 1963, it was done under the pseudonym “Victoria Lucas.” England and the literary world knew of Sylvia Plath; she was the wife of the famous and much beloved English poet and playwright, Ted Hughes. Publishing with a pseudonym gave Plath some anonymity and protected Hughes in case the book was not well-received.
The Bell Jar didn’t come out in the U.S. until 1971—more than a decade after its original publication and the death of its author. Part of the delay was that Plath’s mother fought the additional publication, claiming that the book showed “the basest ingratitude” to Plath’s friends and family. However, Plath’s husband wanted to buy a country house; he needed the money, and he was the executor of Plath’s estate.
Sylvia Plath died by suicide in Feb. 1963, a month after the book’s original publication. At the time of her death, Plath was separated from Hughes after learning he’d had an affair with a poet named Assia Wevill. Plath likely knew Wevill was pregnant with Hughes’ child, and Plath also had to bear the embarrassment of a play Hughes wrote about the obsession and fear the protagonist has for his mistress’s body. With two small children to look after and a failing marriage, one night in her little London flat, Plath tucked her children into bed, turned on the stove, and gassed herself in the kitchen.
Plath’s suicide left a legacy of sadness and death in her wake. The weight of Plath’s death hung heavily on Wevill’s shoulders. She chose to abort the baby she was pregnant with at the time of Plath’s death, later giving birth to another baby she conceived with Hughes, a daughter named Shura.
In 1969, Wevill dragged a bed into her kitchen, drugged Shura and herself, and gassed them both—terminating their lives the same way that Plath died. Nearly half a century later, Ted and Sylvia’s son Nicholas Plath hung himself in his Alaskan home. Tragically, he could not escape the legacy of one of the most famous failed relationships of the 20th century.
Plath’s suicide has given critics pause because it’s impossible to review the book without considering the author’s suicide and the parallels to the story. In the month between when the book was first published and Plath’s death, reviews were lackluster and indifferent. As Anne Stevenson wrote in the Plath biography Bitter Fame, Victoria Lucas “would be patted on the head for good writing, scolded for weak plotting, and passed over.” Hardly the kind of review her husband, Ted Hughes, would receive. The Bell Jar’s disappointing reviews may have contributed to Plath’s mental state at the time of her death.
And critic Howard Moss wrote in The New Yorker in 1971, at the time of The Bell Jar’s U.S. release, “For reasons for which we are not wholly to blame, our approach to the novel is impure; ‘The Bell Jar’ is fiction that cannot escape being read in part as autobiography.”
It’s easy to see the myriad of ways that the story and author’s life overlap: protagonist Esther Greenwood undertakes a college internship as a guest editor of a prominent magazine, as Plath herself did while in college. Esther is an overachieving, straight-A student like Plath herself. Both women received treatment for mental health issues, including hospitalization and electric shock therapy. Both women experienced the loss of their father at a young age—Esther when she was nine and Plath when she was eight.
Despite these similarities, a significant difference remains. As critic Robert Scholes wrote in 1971 in The New York Times, “It is shock therapy which finally lifts the bell jar and enables Esther to breathe freely once again. Passing through death, she is reborn.”
The book ends on an uplifting note, with Esther entering a room for an interview, which will decide whether she can leave the hospital and resume everyday life. Electric shock therapy cured Esther, but it did not do the same for Plath. Plath’s personal story did not have a happy ending.
What, then, is the metaphorical bell jar to Esther, and what is it to Plath? From a feminist view of expectations in 1950s society to a medical analysis of mid-20th century mental health care, we can read the book with many different analytical lenses. The latter was certainly a stated goal of Plath’s in writing the book, writing in her journal that “there is an increasing market for mental-hospital stuff. I’m a fool if I don’t relieve, recreate it.”
Whether she intended it or not, in the half-century since The Bell Jar was published, the book has secured Plath’s place in our history as a feminist martyr and tragic heroine. We present-day readers of the novel are left with questions. Is the book art, or is the real art Plath’s death? Are we as readers complicit in her suicide by elevating her to the status she sought and failed to achieve in her lifetime, the way that modern-day mass shooters seek fame? Is the price she paid for what she has given us worth the death that has followed in her wake?
The Bell Jar
First published in the U.K. on Jan. 14, 1963.
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"Remember the Beloved Country." Terry Philpot. The Guardian. Nov. 15, 2003.
"South Africa's Alan Paton, 85; Author Fought for Human Rights." Tom Masland. Chicago Tribune. April 13, 1988.
"Alan Paton's Beloved Country Still Cries." Paul Van Slambrouck. Christian Science Monitor. Aug. 30, 1984.
“The Harkurists, Disappointed.” Roland Kelts. The New Yorker. Oct. 16, 2012.
“Haruki Murakami: 'I'm an outcast of the Japanese literary world'.” Steven Poole. The Guardian. Sep. 13, 2014.
“Haruki Murakami: Literary lightweight or global superstar?.” Damian Flanagan. The Japan Times. March 24, 2018.
“Murakami may never win the Nobel Prize — and that's OK.” Kaori Shoji. Oct. 15, 2016.
“Japanese writer Haruki Murakami's prescient fiction.” Roland Kelts. The Christian Science Monitor. Oct. 12, 2011.
The Bell Jar
“’I Realized Sylvia Knew about Assia’s Pregnancy—It Might Have Offered a Further Explanation of Her Suicide.’” Elizabeth Sigmund. The Guardian. April 22, 1999.
“Dying: An Introduction.” Howard Moss. The New Yorker. July 10, 1971.
“The Bell Jar: Context.” Spark Notes.
Notable Literary Births & Events for Dec. Jan. 11-17
Oswald de Andrade
J.K. Rowling finishes final Harry Potter book (2007)
Clark Ashton Smith
Isaac da Costa
John Dos Passos
Sylvia Plath's "The Bell Jar" published in the UK (1963)
Ernest J. Gaines
W. R. Mitchell
Don Quixote first published (1605)
Oswald Mbuyiseni Mtshali