Review of Confessions by Jean-Jacques Rousseau

I only plan to read a few autobiographies in my life.

I would consider reading Mark Twains and Casanova as well. Rousseau’s reputation is immense. As soon as I began listening to the audiobook I felt at home in the author’s style. It was a long and rambling account of his life, going over his loves, his financial woes and his artistic ambitions with a fine-toothed comb.

Rousseau was also accomplished in the field of music and produced a couple novels as well. His status was not easily won, coming as he did in the wake of Voltaire and Diderot. by hook or by crook Rousseau was determined to succeed in a life of letters or through his musical compositions. He does not beat around the bush about his goofing off, lack of direction and focus, and describes troubling medical afflictions which beset him most of his life.

The value of this classic, I think, lies in its uncanny ability to give the reader a sense of life during that time. I’ve always enjoyed accounts of travel and hard luck stories, and the Confessions has a little of everything. During that time it was rare to find anything as personal and intimate as this written about oneself. Rousseau could have easily disguised all of his adventures and hopes and dreams as a novel, but chose to more boldly represent the facts of his life and convey to the reader the unfiltered sensory details of his times.

The writing mingles straightforward narrative with philosophical musings. He includes few caricatures of family and friends, instead tending toward balanced portraits of individuals. More than once he was met with various forms of adversity, whether by not selling a piece of work he had labored over or losing a precious connection in his circle of friends through some political or personal squabble. But just as often he is beset with good fortune and lands at the right place at the right time.

In some ways his life reminded me of Goethe. he sought after something sublime in the human spirit, but struggle to articulate it in a number of forms. Goethe, ultimately, was more successful, but Rousseau gave it a fair shake and turned out a classic or two in the process. By reaching toward perfection in one’s art, one must crash against the established norms, and pursue a personal definition of artistic perfection without regard to transitory critical assessments.

This is a valuable and fun-to-read book containing much wisdom. It exudes the air of a classic but is far more approachable than I expected.

Review of Grass on the Wayside by Natsume Sōseki

Droll and heartbreaking by turns, this so-called autobiographical novel was as easy to read as a series of newspaper articles and only slightly more varied in subject matter.

Soseki excels at bringing to life realistic situations. Making use of a fragmented style, the book is reminiscent of serial novels. He has some of the qualities of Balzac but is not as concerned with detail. He is considered the king of Japanese literature, though I can’t help thinking that Bakin could crush him in just about every way. Soseki proved that he could write with eloquence and style. But his brand of literature was more akin to the psychological involvement one finds in Akutagawa. He lacks some of Akutagawa’s precision as well as some of Toson’s razor-sharp clarity, not to mention Tanizaki’s breathtaking flow. He does have a good consistency though, and this novel is saved by the short chapter segments, in which the characters enact their private tragedies upon each other, quibbling over pennies until they’re bleeding tears until, as a reader you grow truly sad that Soseki, the artist, the sensei of a generation, had to put up with such trivial nonsense.

The family he grew up with, and the authenticity of those family members are explored, along with financial and family politics in general, but in a very dramatic way. Soseki didn’t shy away from depicting his hurt and anger, though this book was one of his last major works.

If you enjoy novels about struggling writers, definitely read this book, along with the story collection: Rosy Glasses and Other Stories by Kazuo Ozaki. What Soseki started was a blend of Western and Eastern ideals and styles which led to a burgeoning of the I-novel in Japan, which is similar to the confessional novel, and which often involves a first-person narrator. This doesn’t seem very revolutionary to us, but Japanese literature sorely lacked the psychological flexibility he brought to the table in that time.

Soseki’s achievement only becomes clear through deep reading. Finishing his complete novels (minus The Poppy which inexplicably remains untranslated) is like getting to know a teacher and friend so intimately that it leaves a permanent impression in your mind. At least, it makes me glad I set out to discover his wry, subtle humor, and his easygoing, polished style. This particular volume is not quite of the same quality as his masterworks, but you would be hard-pressed to find any other Japanese authors who will prove so consistently that they deserve their critical fame. His insights are always affecting and rewarding.

Review of Born a Crime: Stories From a South African Childhood by Trevor Noah

Trevor Noah’s autobiographical “stories” read like reminiscences. There are moments of wit, and some startling descriptions of life under apartheid.

 It is an especially brilliant audiobook performance from the author as well. There would’ve been no one more qualified or better able to read his work aloud than himself.

There is very little reportage but plenty of storytelling in this book. It is a sort of rags to riches story, but it focuses on what was important in Noah’s memories, rather than what the reader might expect. Raised by his mother in the unbelievable environment of South Africa at the time. I was more interested in the setting than I was in his awkward years, trying to talk to girls, go to dances, and get in with the crowd at parties and school. But he is relating the details of his life to reveal the incredibly valuable perspective he has gained. I had very little understanding of apartheid and didn’t even know who Trevor Noah was until someone recommended this to me. I guess I need to watch more television???

The vivid depictions of his mother, the communities he interacted with and the most complicated race politics I’ve ever read about combine to forma memorable picture of another part of the world most Americans can gain from exploring. It is an easy read, but challenging in the difficult circumstances it confronts you with. Sure he is witty, but his sense of humor wouldn’t have been enough to engage me without the unfamiliar territory he described. I am not a nonfiction reader by nature, and this still appealed to my thirst for literary entertainment. It’s hard to imagine true poverty, living in America, where our brand of poverty is having to eat at McDonalds because the other restaurants are too expensive. In this memoir, McDonalds WAS the expensive restaurant.

Trevor Noah has obviously gained a following. I only hope that my review, buried under thousands of ecstatic, more qualified reviewers, converts a few more people into trying this important book.