EPS Review #20 - The Breath of the Gods

by Sidney McCall, Little, Brown & Co, Boston 1905

Sidney McCall is the pen-name of Mary McNeil Fenollosa, wife of Ernest Fenollosa.

Ernest Fenollosa worked with Ezra Pound on Cathay, which is how I first heard of him. He is also famous for Epochs of Chinese and Japanese Art. His art collection is at the Boston Museum of Fine Arts.

I have another book by Mary, The Dragon Painter, about the Japanese painter Kano (I remember his screens in Nijo castle, Kyoto). In the back is an advertisement for "The Breath of the Gods", with some reviews, like: "A great American novel, if not *the* American Novel" by the New Orleans Times Democrat. Meretricious reviews never change, I guess.

The first thing you notice about the prose is its density:

The jinchokei (called by foreigners Daphne Odora) rose in waxen masses of white or arbutus pink. Azaleas heaped formless hillocks with Tyrian hues, and the long yellow sprays of the yama-buki, to which Gwendolyn had so often been compared, poised waiting for the breeze, or else tossed in bright indignation at the sudden desertion of a bird.

There are a lot of colors, a lot of flowers, and a lot of talk about what dresses everyone is wearing. Surprisingly, I enjoyed that. I personally remember jinchogei from jogging around the Outer Palace in Tokyo, and I have planted some by my house in Radlett, for its strong lemony smell. The writing is way over the top, and the adoration of Japan is evident (no world wars yet). The book is dedicated to "Yamato damashii", and there is a speech on Japanese long-termism vs Western short attention spans. It is a love story, with nicely balanced tension with western and oriental concepts of the right thing to do. At 431 pages of ornate prose, not everyone's cup of tea.

Fenollosa's crowd seems interesting.