Friday, February 18, 2022

Two Reviews and a Skating Commentary: Natsume Soseki's "The Gate," Geraldine Jewsbury's "The Half-Sisters," and The Loneliness of the Long-Distance Skater


Tonight I am posting two book reviews and a commentary on the women's figure skating at the Olympics (and, yes, the doping scandal). 

1.  My favorite novel of the year so far is The Gate, by Natsume Soseki, translated by William Sibley.  This graceful, understated, gently comic Japanese classic, published in 1910,  focuses on a couple who enjoy their quiet life of mediocrity.  Sosuke is worn out by his mindless civil servant job ("I wonder if it's my nerves again" ), while his soft-spoken wife Oyone coaxes him to take a stroll outdoors, or at least walk to the baths to unwind. But he goes to the baths less and less often, and he postpones his visit to his uncle and aunt, who have clearly cheated him out of his inheritance. And then, after Sosuke's younger brother, a student, comes to live with them, and a rich neighbor befriends Sosuke, things begin to change. Suddenly Sosuke wants to find meaning in life, though his quest doesn't quite turn out as he expects.  The prose is beautiful, it is often comical, and it  reminds me slightly of  the Russian writer Goncharov's masterpiece,  Oblomov, which is named after its exhausted hero.


2.  The Half-Sisters, by Geraldine Jewsbury.  I had high hopes of the Victorian writer Geraldine Jewsbury, simply because this book was published by Oxford. And I was keen, as we all are,  to discover a "neglected" writer.  Born in 1812, Jewsbury lived most of her life in industrial Manchester, where her father owned a cotton factory. She was well-connected in the arts world, too, an acquaintance of Elizabeth Gaskell, Jane Carlyle, and some of the most famous actors and actresses of her day.

I wish I could recommend The Half Sister. This ultimately trashy book descends from awkward prose into full-blown melodrama.  Two half-sisters, one English and middle-class, Alice, and the other Italian and illegitimate, Bianca, do not know of each other's existence.  Alice is a dull middle-class woman who mopes and reads books and marries an industrialist, while Bianca takes a job as a circus mime after her mother has a nervous breakdown on a trip to England.  Eventually, Bianca goes on the stage and becomes the leading actress of her day, and she remains kind, unspoiled, and hard-working. She is fond of  Alice, who helped her when she was a struggling actress. Unfortunately, Alice is too timid and fearful of her husband to pursue the friendship with Bianca, who figures out that they are half sisters but never tells Alice.  The two women are connected not only by blood but, later, by their love of the same man.  Let me tell you now, because spoilers don't matter here, one of the women dies in the end!  Which do you think is expendable?  I don't believe in either one of them.  The death scene is completely absurd.

This book is terrible! 


 The women's free skate at the Olympics ended in tears. A doping scandal has dominated the coverage of the women's figure skating  since it was revealed on Feb. 8 that Kamila Valieva, a 15-year-old Russian figure skater who helped her team win a gold medal,  tested positive in December for the banned heart drug trimetazidine.  And yet the judges have broken all the rules and permitted her to continue in the competition. 

The sports commentator Tara Lipinsky, who won a gold medal for figure skating in 1998, is indignant about the breach of ethics and the ramifications for the sport and the Olympics.  On Tuesday, Valieva was allowed to skate in the short program and, unbelievably, came in first. Lipinsky and the other two American commentators were in despair, because  it was unfair for the other competitors.  But today, during the free skate, things went very differently.   Valieva was clutzy, wobbly, falling, sometimes striking an elegant pose, then seeming to sink into complete indifference.  "I've never seen Kamila make so many mistakes," Tara said. 

And of course Valieva left the floor in tears.  And the coaches gave her no comfort.  They sternly rebuked her.  She came in fourth.  I couldn't believe that performance was so highly ranked.  There were some beautiful skaters there. 

I wondered if she'd thrown the performance because of the pressure of the scandal.   I thought of Alan Silitoe's The Loneliness of the Long-Distance Runner.  Was I seeing The Loneliness of the Long-Distance Skater?  (No one has suggested that, so probably not.)

It was a very teary event.  The three medalists were also in tears. The Russian silver medalist, Alexandra Trusova, with her mascara running into her mask, said, "I won't go to the podium." I thought it was out of solidarity for her disgraced team-mate, but according to the news,  she was angry that she hadn't won the gold.  The gold medalist, Anna Shcherbakova, sat forlornly holding a stuffed animal, while the coaches dealt with her fussy teammates. And the Japanese bronze medalist, Kaori Sakamoto, wept in someone's arms and then leaned over the barrier and wept. Perhaps it was relief, but there was no joy to be had on the ice at Beijing.


  1. Good for telling hard truths about the Jewsbury's Half-Sister. It's pretty bad. I like your review of Soseki - and what a beautiful cover. The NYRB classics has a good cover illustration editor. And I'm glad to seed candid remarks on what has happened to this Russian female ice skating group -- no one is emerging looking decent or sensible or even moral ... The sport is being

    1. If only I'd liked Jewsbury! I was hoping for another Mrs. Oliphant. Absolutely loved The Gate, from cover design to gorgeous prose. The American commentators at the Oympics were very open about their distress over the scandal, but it was very disturbing, especially last night, to see excellent, artistic skaters overlooked. NOT the best Olympics!