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The Thousand Autumns of Gene Smith

Next March I’m heading to Japan and the Pacific to research Gene Smith’s work during WWII and the time he spent documenting Hitachi (1961-62) and Minamata (1971-74).  Iwo Jima is opened to civilians only one day per year and the next time will be March 16 so I’m planning around that.

In preparation for that trip I’m reading David Mitchell’s new novel, The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet, which concerns a young man from Holland who seeks his fortune in a vibrant Japanese port city in 1799.

There is a fascinating interview with Mitchell by Adam Begley in the current Paris Review in which Mitchell talks about a Westerner’s first visit to the East.  He says:  ”(Joseph Conrad’s) story ‘Youth’ has this beautiful passage about your first landfall in Asia and how it haunts you for the rest of your life – how everything is downhill afterward.  There’s something like that in the end of Thousand Autumns. We all romanticize our youth, but when East Asia is intertwined with youth, the wistfulness and the sense of loss are amplified – for reasons which Edward Said might have scorned, and who knows, maybe justifiably.  But Conrad wasn’t lying about what he felt, and neither am I, so perhaps we just have to take the flak.”

Gene Smith was haunted for the rest of his life by Japan and the Pacific.  He was twenty-four, only seven years removed from his father’s suicide and his high school graduation in Wichita, Kansas, when he went to Asia for the first time to photograph the War.  Smith’s second wife, Japanese-American, Aileen Mioko Smith, told me recently that Gene felt like he had been from Japan in a former life.

One good, well-meaning writer friend urged me to not waste my time and money on this expensive trip to follow Smith’s footsteps in Asia.  He said that Smith’s photographs told the essential story.  Another friend and supporter told me, “If you and Laurie (my wife) want to go to Paris for two weeks, I’ll give you the money, but going to Iwo Jima, Okinawa and all those places is going off your rocker.”

If somebody wants to argue that I should move on to another topic (Joseph Mitchell, David Mitchell, Sonny Clark, Sonny Bono, Bono, anything ) after logging nearly fourteen years researching Smith’s life and work to date, then I might listen.  Eight months ago, in the early days of Jazz Loft Project post-partum, I might have volunteered that view myself.  But I’m committed to telling a good story about Smith and this trip is obligatory.  My wife and editor agree and that’s really all that matters.

After reading Mitchell’s interview I went to the used book store in Chapel Hill and picked up The Portable Conrad, which contains “Youth.”  In the book’s Introduction Morton Dauwen Zabel quotes Fitzgerald:  ”So many writers, Conrad for instance, have been aided by being brought up in a metier utterly unrelated to literature.  It gives an abundance of material and, more important, an attitude from which to view the world.  So much writing nowadays suffers both from lack of an attitude and from sheer lack of any material, save what is accumulated in a purely social life.”

There’s no date on Fitzgerald’s quote but he died in 1940.  If he were still around he might like a comment made by Dave Hickey last year.  Hickey said there are three kinds of novels by writers who teach:  1) Novels about what they did in their youths.  2) Academic novels.  3) “Sabbatical” novels about lonely people traveling the world.

“Youth” is an interesting story.  It runs forty pages in this edition.  It opens in the voice of a first person narrator, then there are thirty-eight pages of continuous quotation from the narrator’s comrade, Marlow, the same Marlow from Heart of Darkness, who tells this story of the sea-going visit to Asia twenty years earlier.  Then the narrator returns at the end.  I’m reminded that the structure of “Youth” is not unlike Heart of Darkness, using long quotations to tell the story.  It is also similar to the narrative structure used by Joseph Mitchell and Whitney Balliett in their non-fiction pieces in the New Yorker, which I wrote about here.  It’s a structure that may have been thwarted by the advent of the portable tape recorder which made verbatim transcripts possible and, maybe falsely, ideal.

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