A metropolis can transform, and even die, with little warning. Alone in an apartment in an unnaturally stilled New York City, I found it eerie to read about Tsuneno, a woman from Japan’s provinces who settled in the administrative capital, Edo, and died, aged forty-nine, in 1853, not long before the city began to collapse. Late in STRANGER IN THE SHOGUN’S CITY (Scribner, $28), the historian Amy Stanley describes how Edo was ravaged over the next fifteen years by an earthquake, predatory foreign traders, and samurai uprisings. Finally, in 1868, after the last shogun had resigned, Edo Castle was surrendered to the emperor to avoid a civil war. Tokyo, the imperial capital that stands in Edo’s place, retains few physical traces of its predecessor. Today, Stanley notes, even world-famous aspects of Edo culture, like geisha and Kabuki theater and Hokusai’s woodblock prints, tend to be recognized only as vague, eternal symbols of Japan.
Through Tsuneno, a woman with no remarkable talents or aspirations, Stanley conjures a teeming world. As the daughter of the head of Rinsenji—the Buddhist temple of a small village in a snowy, mountainous region—Tsuneno is married off at twelve to a priest from her father’s sect. But it doesn’t take, and her next two marriages fail as well. That isn’t fatal—the divorce rate seems to have been no lower than it is now—but when she refuses other suitors, pawns what’s left of her trousseau, and scampers off to Edo with an unreliable male friend, her family starts to lose patience. Tsuneno’s restlessness and bad luck make her a rewarding subject. As she bounces around from one social context to another—here landing a cushy job as a famous actor’s maid; there scrabbling to make rent, nearly naked in her threadbare robe—you see how things work in crowded tenements and theaters, in the courts (where an informal network of “fingertips,” criminals turned snitches, help supply the accused), and in the heavily indebted households of the samurai. Bad harvests and accidental fires ripple through the economy. In the early 1840s, the shogun’s chief adviser—though he himself “drank like a whale and ate like a wild dog . . . and never went out for the night without waking up in a brothel”—introduces the draconian Tenpo Reforms: no silk crepe or velvet, no dolls more than nine inches tall, no pricey potted plants. A woman could get arrested on the street for an overly elaborate hairstyle; female balladeers were shackled, their instruments chopped up and set on fire.
Stanley’s primary materials are letters from Tsuneno and her relatives, which are delightfully frank. “As you probably know, she’s a very selfish person,” her brother Giyu writes to Hirosuke, the man she’s chosen as a fourth husband, “so please return her to us if things don’t go well.” (Their mother chimes in, a year later, from her deathbed: “Her essential nature isn’t what one would hope, and it pains me. I’m sorry. Still, I’m so relieved that you’ve married her.”) Alas, Hirosuke isn’t much of a catch, either: “If I’d even known the slightest bit about his character, I would never have married him, no matter how he tried to convince me,” Tsuneno writes. “I know I have a terrible temper, too, but I’ve never met anyone who is as bad tempered as he is. Really, there can’t be more than one in a thousand people this bad.” The couple squabble, divorce, and remarry, and Tsuneno’s fortunes continue their erratic, fascinating fall and rise and fall.
At the end of the book, Stanley imagines Tsuneno telling her own story, inverting time so that Tokyo melts and shrinks back into Edo:
As the tall buildings fell to earth, the old wooden fire towers would climb, and the alleys would expand, mazelike. The peddlers would appear, singing all the old songs, the patrolmen and fingertips would come by on their rounds, and the women gathered by the well would scrounge for old copper coins.
This sped-up reversal of the city’s demise is like a magic trick, the same one Stanley has accomplished over the previous two hundred pages, where a lost place appears to the reader as if alive and intact.
How a mind interprets an environment is among the central questions addressed in A. S. Barwich’s SMELLOSOPHY (Harvard University Press, $35), “an unapologetic declaration of love to olfaction” that seeks to banish entrenched prejudice against the nose. Barwich, whose academic research has involved both philosophy and neuroscience, argues that we could discover far more about consciousness if we would only relinquish our old-school fixation on sight. She reports with horror that a 2011 survey of millennials—those reliable scapegoats—found that more than half would rather lose their sense of smell than their smartphone. And she quotes vintage dismissals from the likes of Charles Darwin and Immanuel Kant. “Which organic sense is the most ungrateful and also seems the most dispensable?” the latter wrote.
It does not pay to cultivate it . . . for there are more disgusting objects than pleasant ones (especially in crowded places), and even when we come across something fragrant, the pleasure coming from the sense of smell is fleeting and transient.
Barwich’s riposte: “It remains unclear to me what makes Kant an expert on pleasure.”
The biology of smell, she explains, was largely mysterious until the early 1990s, when Linda Buck and her colleague Richard Axel succeeded in locating the olfactory receptors, on cells high up in the nasal epithelium, by identifying the specific gene family that codes for them. Buck and Axel eventually won the Nobel Prize for their work. Since then, nasal studies have bloomed, and Barwich incorporates interviews with neurobiologists, chemists, psychologists, and perfumers, all of whom share her frontier enthusiasm for the intricacies of smelling.
Her most striking arguments reverse the stereotype of smell as the brute of the senses, a crude instrument of titillation or revulsion, without much relevance to our higher mental capacities. The same ambiguous qualities that have led people to underestimate the olfactory system, Barwich claims, are what signal its richness and sophistication. Take the way a substance’s perceived odor can vary wildly from person to person, or for the same individual at different times, depending on any number of contextual cues, and on one’s mood and physical state. Then there’s the difficulty of pinning down precisely when you began to notice a particular smell, or what role it’s playing in your impression of a place. And there’s the fact that a single odor can encompass so many disparate elements. To Barwich, smell scrambles any simplistic understanding of the boundary between conscious and unconscious thought, objective and subjective perception. Rather than mapping the external world and constructing an accurate representation of it in the brain, our sense of smell seems to involve a continuous, ever-shifting negotiation between our interior and exterior lives.
At one point, Barwich quotes a neuroscientist who describes losing one’s ability to smell as “a kind of constriction of time and space.” It could make you feel trapped, whereas, for instance, the moment you smell seawater, the world seems to open up around you. In the poet Alice Oswald’s “rhapsody to Homer,” NOBODY (W. W. Norton, $25.95), time and sea and land and fragile human minds and bodies warp and invade one another. Where her 2011 book Memorial responded to the Iliad, this new work departs from the Odyssey. Characters, unnamed but intermittently recognizable, emerge and vanish: Agamemnon making his way home from battle to be murdered in the bath; the poet meant to guard Clytemnestra’s chastity banished to a scrap of rock by her seducer; Odysseus weeping for an escape from Calypso’s island. “Fate has its needle in him nothing can stop him draining away,” Calypso observes bitterly.
Elsewhere in the poem, Fate appears as “that great failure of the will.” And Calypso, or another unwanted lover, waits onshore
the way a spider when it wishes to travel simply lets out a silken
electrostatically alert through every hair
to the least shift of the ionosphere
at last it lifts on tiptoe and lovely to behold
like a bare twig it begins to blow
wherever the wind will take it but the wind
is the most distracted messenger I know
Our desiring thoughts are the fastest form of transport but the least reliable. Oswald’s precision in capturing moving targets is ravishing: the way a story drifts from its course or an intention misses its mark.
People and scenes shapeshift and resemble one another. A passage evoking Menelaus’ account of escaping the Old Man of the Sea (with the help of some rank-breathed seals) seems to blur into Odysseus, stormblown on the Mediterranean, where he must elude Scylla and Charybdis before floating for days on his broken mast toward Calypso’s sanctuary:
the wind with a swivelling sound began to rise
and here I am still divided in my decision
whether to heave-ho or keep going under half-sail
but the water is in my thinking now
I remember the mast-pole broken by a gust
severed my two minds separate
and my body flopped like a diver over the side
Greek myth never loses its immediacy: gods and goddesses (along with all the contradictory versions of the same stories and characters) dramatize the split, embattled psyche and animate the workings of fate, elusive when you try to control it and inexorable when you hope to escape. Oswald taps into that source of power. The stranded poet “making up poems about us patchwork unfinished” recalls Penelope, weaving and unraveling her work as she waits. Penelope and Clytemnestra, good wife and bad, require and imply one another—and adulterous Clytemnestra, of course, is keeping the faith in her own way by punishing Agamemnon, who sacrificed their daughter for a good wind. (In a brief preface, Oswald juxtaposes Odysseus’ return to a loyal wife with Agamemnon’s to a faithless one, and writes that her poem “lives in the murkiness between those stories.”) It’s Odysseus’ devotion to home, meanwhile, that makes him the serial abandoner he is. Oswald offers a chorus of nobodies, their voices, deformed by rumor and accident, continually redefining one another.
There is, Andrew Durbin writes, a place on the tiny Greek island of Lipsi “where Homer is said to have shacked up with a woman who inspired his portrait of Calypso.” Such teases fill SKYLAND (Nightboat Books, $12.95), Durbin’s pleasantly slight and slapdash diary of a journey he and a friend, Shiv, made to Patmos, the next island over, in August 2017. Durbin’s stated purpose is to locate a painting of the prolific French writer and photographer Hervé Guibert, who died at thirty-six and is best known for his 1990 autobiographical novel about AIDS, To the Friend Who Did Not Save My Life. The fact that this painting, by Yannis Tsarouchis (also long dead), may never have existed is—Durbin makes clear—essential to its appeal.
Durbin’s is the kind of lackadaisical trip where you drink retsina for breakfast, chase patchy internet to cruise men on the apps, meet a French stranger on the beach and take him up a nearby hill to fuck in private (which is to say, amid a crowd of chickens), and wait around to visit the Cave of the Apocalypse, only to find you’ve chosen the day it’s closed. The few harsh intrusions from the wider world feel particularly disturbing by contrast, as when the two young men are detained by local soldiers who assume that Shiv, the only non-white person to be found for miles, must be a refugee trying to bypass the overcrowded camp on nearby Samos. “Where did you find this man?” they ask Durbin.
The book revels in its loose, unfinished quality, weaving tidbits from Guibert’s life and work together with more immediate impressions and anecdotes. Durbin sketches the relationship between Guibert and his lover Thierry Jouno, who had two children with a woman named Christine. Guibert eventually married Christine to ensure that the proceeds of his late masterpieces would go to her and Thierry’s children. While trying to patch together “a sort of literary map of [Guibert’s] personality” from the accounts of loved ones, Durbin seems keen to be as unprofessional as possible, as if that will help him get closer to some essential thing that can’t quite be reached. “When I met Christine in Paris,” he writes, “I asked her what had attracted the two men to one another. She hated the question. It was the worst question anyone had ever put to her” about Guibert and Jouno. “How can you ask this?” Christine responds. “How can I tell you how it was? How could I know?” The only answer she will give him is to quote Montaigne: “Parce que c’était lui, parce que c’était moi.”
Durbin’s is a fleshy, drunken introduction to Guibert, which is fitting. Anyone who reads it will want to seek out Guibert’s work for herself. Luckily, a new collection of his short stories has been edited and translated by Jeffrey Zuckerman. WRITTEN IN INVISIBLE INK (Semiotext(e), $17.95) is crammed with deaths and resurrections, violent excretions and riotous sex, and twisting, treacherous sentences. Here again, mind and world tangle and slip their supposed bounds. One story, “Posthumous Novel,” envisions unwritten fictions spilling over the landscape, words and sentences colliding and recombining, “hanging like clumps off of trees . . . broken and sown over the ground.” The vision culminates with the final mental images of a young novelist who has jumped from a moving train: they lie there “on the side of the railroad, sixty-three kilometers from the V. train station, a pile of particularly condensed and enduring thoughts, untouched.”