The Dream of Lafcadio Hearn by Roger Pulvers

Review by: Susan Meehan

Talking about The Dream of Lafcadio Hearn at the Oriental Club in London on 24 October 2011, its author, Roger Pulvers, gave a measured account of Lafcadio Hearn, crediting him for his incredibly well-written yet fairly unknown journalistic work carried out mainly in the USA, his extraordinary insights into Japan and his role as a pioneer ethnographer and anti-elitist while pointing out that none of the stories he wrote in Japan were original. They were all well-crafted re-tellings of Japanese stories and myths.

Pulvers referred to Hearn as a “true cosmopolitan if an outsider.” Hearn was born to a Greek mother and Irish father, schooled in England, Ireland and France and ventured out to the USA at the age of 19. Not quite Greek nor British nor Irish, diminutive and with a blind globular eye, Hearn felt alien amongst his own and more readily accepted by the Japanese who probably expected all foreigners to be a little strange anyway. Not the best of writers on Japan, the Japanese nevertheless have cherished Hearn for his lack of arrogance and superciliousness.

It is this aspect of being on the periphery that I imagined had attracted Pulvers to Hearn as Pulvers himself, born and bred in the USA, admitted to not being able to live in the country of his birth and to have felt instantly at home in Japan on setting foot there in 1967.

In The Dream of Lafcadio Hearn, Pulvers writes an intriguing and absorbing account of Hearn’s life in Japan from the perspective of this Japanese chronicler, describing Japan as it was in the 1890s before it underwent massive change. Pulvers pulls it off with aplomb, expertly mimicking Hearn’s prose as it appears in Glimpses of Unfamiliar Japan or Exotics and Retrospectives, to name a couple of his books with which I’m familiar. Preceding the narrative is an extremely helpful and comprehensive biography of Lafcadio Hearn allowing readers to engage with Hearn’s life story before reading ‘his’ account of his years in Japan.

Pulvers’s characterisation of Hearn is marvellously done providing a well-rounded impression of this flawed, socially awkward, cantankerous, peculiar, shy, macabre misfit who managed to gain great respect and acceptance in Japan. His love of all manner of pipes, the affection which he garnered from his students in Matsue and Tokyo and the difficulty he had in connecting with people are palpable.

Unlike the many pontificating Western professionals who were invited to Japan after its opening to the West in 1853, Hearn arrived in Japan in the spring of 1890 aged 40 as, Pulvers so concisely puts it, “…to learn, to scavenge, to discover what his temperament had taught him was beautiful, potent and bizarre human spirit.” Ironically, he wrote about aspects of old Japan which he was distressed to witness fading while the Japanese, in their embrace of everything Western, were loath to be reminded about. Initially on a contract with the magazine Harper’s Monthly he soon severed links with Harper and Brothers feeling that they had mistreated him. He was found a teaching post at the Shimane Prefectural Common Middle School and Normal School in Matsue thanks to the efforts of Basil Hall Chamberlain, an eminent British Japanologist and Professor at Tokyo Imperial University.

Hearn spent the last 14 years of his life in Japan. Though there were aspects of Japan which he despised such as thoughtless copying of the West, imperial ambitions and Kumamoto, which he loathed, he admired the Japanese and felt that their art was superior, as Greek art was superior to early European art-groupings. “I only wish I could be reincarnated in some little Japanese baby so that I could see and feel the world as beautifully as a Japanese brain does,” quotes Pulvers, remarking that Japan could not resist “such blatant adoration.”

Though Hearn is shown to adore Japan throughout the book, he is also portrayed as having pet peeves and being irritated by certain aspects of the Japanese. He is critical of the Japanese giggle and false embarrassment as it “could turn to arrogance at the drop of a coin.” On another occasion he talks about irritating obligatory mores and regulations and I wondered whether there was also an element of Pulvers projecting his own frustrations with Japan onto Hearn.

Pulvers serves up some interesting insights into Hearn’s unconventionality; in the book he is seen to add salt to his coffee rather than sugar, avoid the telephone, leave restaurants before being served having completely forgotten that he’d not yet eaten and, most perversely of all I thought, to love the tall, hard wooden pillows used in Japan while finding Japanese food bland.

Pulvers also introduces some startling episodes into the narrative – Hearn is portrayed on one occasion as a peeping tom watching his friend’s sister having intercourse with a monk. On another, two of his students play an incredibly nasty trick on him during a trip to the hot spring resort of Hakone. Suspending disbelief and reading the book as Hearn’s autobiography, as intended, I imagined these experiences of Hearn as providing material for his books on eerie and strange Japan.

While Pulvers gives us a real overview of Hearn down to his negative traits, I sensed a warmth for this man and felt that Pulvers recognised in him a kindred spirit.

Someone in the audience at the talk referred to the way Hearn seemed to treat his wife Setsu with little love. In the book Hearn refers to her being no beauty and admits that he wanted a wife to look after him and to give him peace and quiet. Pulvers defended Hearn by pointing out that he was a man of his time and that women were often treated with contempt in the19th century. The role of the husband was to support his family and Hearn, with extremely well-paid teaching jobs and high status, ensured his family and his wife’s family a comfortable and enviable lifestyle. In Setsu’s account of life with Hearn, Reminiscences of Lafcadio Hearn, she is frank about her late husband and admits to having been embarrassed by him on occasions.

Like Hearn, Pulvers also feels that he will always be considered a foreigner in Japan no matter how good his Japanese and understanding of the country. As the monk Nakagawa, says to Hearn, “But of course, you foreigners will never truly understand Japan …” “…even if you become Buddhist yourself, even if you become Japanese yourself, even if you take a Japanese wife.” For contrary Hearn, this makes his quest to understand Japan all the more pressing.

The Dream of Lafcadio Hearn touches on Hearn’s life in Matsue, Kobe and Tokyo. I wondered why his stint in Kumamoto hadn’t been included and Pulvers mentioned this at the talk. Hearn detested Kumamoto and felt miserable there so Pulvers left it out of the narrative – in character with Hearn’s churlishness I thought.

Hearn’s last years in Tokyo were not happy and, given the chance, he would have left Japan. Tokyo was in stark contrast to Setsu’s small hometown of Matsue and was alien to Hearn’s sensibilities. He came to detest the place finding it “hellish.” In the meantime his eye and heart condition worsened.

In his talk Pulvers remarked that after his death Hearn became the most widely read interpreter of Japan outside Japan. This changed after the First World War, however, when he began to be seen as an apologist for nationalistic Japan. Hearn increasingly became discredited by the West as being outdated – a lover of fireflies and ancient stories. He would not have condoned Japanese wartime aggression, seeing it as yet another mistaken imitation of Western imperialism.

The Japanese continue to consider Hearn a foreigner who profoundly understood Japan and an irresistibly fascinating character. Despite his erratic behaviour he continues to be affectionately held in high esteem. That such a slim book can conjure up such a multi-faceted impression of the man is tribute indeed to Roger Pulvers.

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