No. 11: A Cup of Sake Beneath the Cherry Trees, Kenko

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This is undoubtedly my favourite opening quote from the Little Black Classics series thus far.

During these sticky summer months, however, it’s arguably more wonderful to lie in a hammock in shorts and a T-shirt, with a book and a glass of fruity Pimm’s to hand, as was my situation when reading this Little Black Classic. It was genuinely idyllic.

Nestled in this situation, I soon become absorbed in Kenko’s social commentary, punctuated with anecdotes and observations.

Kenko takes readers through life’s experience – friendships, relationships, death, and more specific events and factors, like inheritance, the weather, annual festivals.

These are, at times, rather disjointed – rather like Hebel’s fables last week they vary in length and don’t have much continuity or flow.

Fortunately, I enjoyed this classic so much more than last week’s.

These musings are beautifully translated. Take the line: “there is something dreadfully lacking in a man who does not pursue the art of love.” Pure poetry.

This once more made me think of my friend Hafez. Like The nightingales are drunk, the writer’s life dances across the pages in A Cup of Sake Beneath the Cherry Trees. He’s full of opinion and humour and honesty and is forever contradicting himself.

One of my favourite sections begins “The changing seasons are moving in every way.”

I relish the changing seasons and we are lucky to have such distinct seasons here in the UK.

As much as I love Christmas, the long months of winter we suffer throws a constant black cloud over me, which my friends and colleagues can confirm. It’s winter blues with an attitude problem.

Similarly, summer leaves me somewhat disenchanted. I like the BBQs, and lighter evenings and aforementioned Pimm’s, but we all seem to forget the hay fever, heat rash, bug bites and sweaty train journeys until the day of arrival.

Like Kenko, it’s Autumn and Spring that I really relish. Autumn for it warm hues and crisp decay and family traditions. And Spring for new it’s new life and bursting green. It’s a charming reward after the bleak British winter.

Kenko perfectly describes my emotion after enduring winter and seeing spring: “Until the leaves appear on the boughs, the heart is endlessly perturbed.”

In February 2016, when a colleague comments on my slumped shoulders and cranky attitude I will quote this. No doubt giving more reason to call me a grumpy and protentious git.

Kenko’s musings aren’t all so profound and evocative.

Take his advice to readers on choosing friends:

“There are seven types of people one should not have as a friend. The first is an exalted and high-ranking person, The second, somebody young. The third, anyone strong and in perfect health. The fourth, a man who loves drink. The fifth, a brave and daring warrior. The sixth, a liar. The seventh, an avaricious man. The three to choose as friends are – one who gives gifts, a doctor and a wise man.”

Alas I have many friends that fit into the first category of seven, excluding one or two that I leave you to identify. I am lucky enough to have many wise friends and a doctor friend is moving into my flat in just a couple of weeks. Kenko would approve.

This is not to say that everything Kenko writes strikes home or is, at the very least, amusing.

His description of death left me cold and lonely – surprising for a buddist monk. They’re too chilling to record here – if you’re intrigued, please read yourself.

Similarly, there are various sections which have a definite underlying misogyny.

Early on he says man:

“shouldn’t lose himself to love too thoroughly, or gain the reputation of being putty in women’s hands.”

Not a great start but I was willing to give Kenko the benefit of the doubt.

Sadly, Kenko continued:

“It is depressing to watch her bear children and fuss over them, and things don’t end with his death, for them you have the shameful sight of her growing old and decrepit as a nun.”

Where to start?! Aside from the heinous remark about her appearance as an old woman (how did Kenko look in his old age, I wonder?) and the fact that I’m sure if she didn’t run the house well it would be cause for complaint, why is it depressing to “watch her bear children” when Spring is so celebrated?

Despite this misogyny, I really enjoyed this Classic, particularly Kenko’s view on friendships.

He celebrates the surprise of a letter from a friend and recalls specific relationships with friends that he mourns for. He articulately writes:

“What happiness to sit intimate conversation with someone of like mind, warmed by candid discussion of the amusing and fleeting ways of this world. But such a friend is hard to find, and instead you sit there doing your best to fit in with whatever the other is saying, feeling deeply alone”

With this in mind, I texted my dear friend Naina, who chose this week’s Classic, and asked if she would join me in a cup of sake.

Naina grew up in Hong Kong, and first tried sake on a trip to China. We met on a library tour at uni (yes, we were those people) and it was instant love.

She recommended we head to Hare & Tortoise, a short walk from the British Library, for a bottle of sake and some sushi.

My friends told me a bit about what to expect beforehand, and kindly corrected my pronunciation (I showed my naivety here).

As previously discussed, it’s rather warm and muggy in the UK and so Naina and I decided upon a cold bottle of the Japanese rice wine as opposed to hot.

It was served with tiny glasses that you essentially shot and it was delicious – perfectly cooling and sweet, and without the acidity of a grape wine. I’m smacking my lips at the memory.

This was accompanied with some delicious sushi and a hearty catch up, which Kenko would probably have approved of to a point, before making a generalisation about women gossiping.

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We walked off our sushi, strolling toward Naina’s bedsit, which is the epitomy of how I imagined London life as an adolescent.

Hidden behind a Leaky Cauldron-esque door, a winding staircase lined with botanical prints, hanging crookedly, leads the way to Naina’s front door. Every time I mount those stairs I am reminded of the staircase landlady Mrs Crupp leads David Copperfield up to his first rented London accommodation.

Naina’s home overlooks a small public garden, which is conveniently lined with cherry trees. She sung of their blossom, which sadly fell a month or so ago.

Some cherries still cling to the branches, thus far undiscovered by peckish birds.

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After looking for the last clinging fruits, we settled under a horse chestnut tree, which had a low hanging canopy, making the perfect shelter for a light rain shower. Typically unpredictable British weather.

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Here I told Naina of Kenko and she read a few extracts, agreeing the opening quote it perfection.

In the words of Kenko, I so enjoyed sitting with this book spread before me, communing with someone from the past.

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Thank you so much, Naina, for choosing A Cup of Sake Beneath the Cherry Trees, and for letting me mercilessly point my camera at you.

Next week I will be reading My Dearest Father by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart.

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No. 22: How a Ghastly Story Was Brought to Light by a Common or Garden Butcher’s Dog, Johann Peter Hebel

You might have noticed I’ve been rather quiet of late which, if you know me, is out of character. Life has been busy. Having returned from Plymouth, as discussed in the last blog post, I nipped home for a couple of weekends and spent an idyllic few days in Paris, nibbling on crêpes and winding around the stocked shelves of Shakespeare and Company. Utter bliss.

A Little Bit Bookish took a bit of a backseat. But here I am, at last, in the fine company of a Penguin. My friend Emma chose this week’s Classic – How a Ghastly Story Was Brought to Light by a Common or Garden Butcher’s Dog, which I am shortening to A Ghastly Story from hereon.

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A collection of fables, translated from German, these short stories offer moral warnings and advisories for adults, highlighting the perils of stealing, arguing, arrogance, trickery and trusting vagrant salesmen.

They make for a very different and varied reading experience. They’re classic German Gothic – castles, ghostly apparitions, murders – all the staples of a spine-chilling read.

Some of my favourite classic writing is Gothic, but I didn’t relish these tales. They are entirely readable, and they vary in length (some are over five pages, some are just a paragraph) making them easy to dip in to. But I found them disjointed – just as a began to settle into a tale it would end.

And whilst they were Gothic, they lacked real art and drama, the qualities I love in Gothic writing (think of the Brontës, think of Heathcliff and the mad woman in the attic… and what a pair they’d make! No one has thought of this before?! *quickly jots down a novel idea).

Although not subtly Gothic, these are spooky nonetheless.

A Ghastly Story, which this classic takes its name from, is not to be read before bedtime, even by a twenty-something-year-old.

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A husband and wife kill a butcher for his purse of money, before killing and seemingly eating a child who witnessed the atrocity. The butcher’s dog saves the day, sniffing out his owner’s corpse and alerting the neighbours. The closing image is of the sentenced murderers:

“their villainous corpses bound to the wheel, and even now the crows are still saying, ‘That’s tasty meat, that is!'”

This isn’t Aesop’s The Tortoise and the Hare.

Then, in ‘A Secret Beheading’ an executioner is forced to behead a young woman, without clarification of her identity or her crime. The tale concludes:

“No, nobody found out who she was, what sin she had committed, and nobody knows where she is buried.”

Incredibly morbid, and I couldn’t really make sense of the point here, other than I understand never to travel to Landau on my own.

Another tale, simply entitled ‘A Curious Ghost Story,’ begins in a similarly eerie vein. A gentleman, looking for refuge on a long journey, spends the night in a closed up mansion, rumoured to be occupied by ghosts. Sure enough, he is woken by an apparition, only to realise these ghosts are a group of forgers, taking advantage of the resources the mansion has to offer while the Lord of the Manor is away. The gentleman promises to keep their secret, and does so, receiving parcels of jewellery and new pistols in thanks.

I enjoyed this story more than A Secret Beheading and A Ghastly Story. I liked the fact it was a ghost story without ghosts, and the gathering of ‘baddies’ wuss out of murdering the gentleman, instead deciding that showering him with gifts is an appropriate course.

These really are a miss mash of stories and I’m not confident why they’re pitched as fables, with Hebel offering us idioms and warnings.

Take the closing line of The Cheap Meal: “Remember: Someone will always stand up for what is right.” And the close of Patience Rewarded: “Remember: Other people’s property can eat into your own just as fresh snow swallows up the old.”

And my favourite conclusion of any of these stories is that of The Lightest Death Sentence, which ends “This little story comes from our mother-in-law who doesn’t like to let anyone die if she can possibly help it.”

I was keen to swap notes with Emma, who read the stories in tandem. We were quaffing drinks at a garden party when the subject arose. She agreed she couldn’t quite settle into them, although she has since lent her copy to a friend who is really enjoying them.

Emma made several interesting points, including that they have been translated from German – some of the subtleties that I felt were missing could have been lost.

She interestingly pointed out that fairy tales by Hebels contemporaries also strikingly include character that just aren’t particularly pleasant to one another. Inn keepers trying to get one up on the other, murderous couples, dentist con artists. This was an excellent point. Think Rumplestiltskin, wanting first-born children for payment of magic, and Hansel and Gretel being threatened by a cannibalistic witch.

These are the realities of European fairy tales before Disney and Pixar adopted them and gave them a glossy finish.

Fairy tales, whether for adults or children, are dark and it seems I’ve been living in a rose-tinted, theme park with candy floss clouds and doe-eyed characters.

I left with Emma’s comments and, for some reason, Hafez and his eloquent, tragically optimistic poetry tickling my brain.

Like Hafez I needed a tipple to lighten the mood. A frighteningly alcohol-dependent statement, I am aware.

I visited The Fable, a bar not far from the Monument, London.

Upon entering this establishment is a table surrounded by a book wall, protecting it’s occupants from cheating villains and deceptive ghouls. I knew I’d just found my new local.

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Here I had a much needed drink, dubbed an Aperol 1919 (Aperol, gin, rhubarb syrup, apple and prosecco – all the best things).

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As I sipped on my fruity cocktail, in a Carrie Bradshaw way, I couldn’t help but wonder whether Hebel was just having a bit of a laugh, and possibly poking fun at those stories of a similar ilk.

If he was, I’m not confident he passed this off. I’ve felt pulled and tugged by these so-called fables. It would be interesting to read them along side Aesop and the Brothers Grimm, who are both on the list of Little Black Classics.

Whatever, musing over the fables with a glass in hand was an excellent way to conclude the journey. Thank you Emma G for choosing this one – I’m pleased we really were reading from the same page!

Next week I will be blogging about A Cup of Sake Beneath the Cherry Trees.

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