Donald Keene: Review in Bookforum and Meeting Greta Garbo!

Donald Keene, Chronicles of My Life: An American in the Heart of JapanWe were doubly fortunate yesterday to both receive our new issue of the always excellent Bookforum, which is again chock-full of interesting articles and reviews and is fully accessible online, and to find Roland Kelts’s glowing review of Donald Keene’s new work, Chronicles of My Life: An American in the Heart of Japan.

Here’s an excerpt from the review:

The book’s … episodic feel, combined with Akira Yamaguchi’s detailed color illustrations, lends the memoir a picaresque quality. We follow Keene’s rise to prominence as a translator and scholar in both Japan and America and experience his increasingly intimate access to eccentric literati. His failed attempts to persuade the Nobel Committee in Sweden to award his friend Mishima the Nobel Prize are both comical and heartbreaking. Keene flies frenetically between Europe, America, and Japan, only to eventually witness the winner, Kawabata, stop writing, and the passed-over Mishima commit suicide.

Owing to a flight delay during one such travel jag, Keene arrives in New York a day too late to have a final conversation with his dying mother, who has lost the capacity to communicate by the time he reaches her bedside. Her death shakes him, and his mixture of grief and guilt is palpably rendered. He recovers through the support of his friends in Japan, which he now calls “the center of my world,” a country he departs sadly with each passing year, wondering whether he will ever be able to return. The pathos at the heart of Keene’s lovely and gracious memoir, and perhaps of his extraordinary life, emanates from this very human limitation: We cannot live in and love two worlds at once.

Greta Garbo meets Donald Keene And Greta Garbo? Well, in addition to meeting and becoming friends with some of the great postwar Japanese writers, Donald Keene also had the chance to meet Greta Garbo (thanks to

The most memorable celebrity I met was undoubtedly Greta Garbo. She was a close friend of Jane Gunther, the wife of the famous journalist John Gunther….

Garbo had been in retirement for many years, but she was still remembered as the greatest of the film actresses. One day I had a telephone call from Jane asking if I would take Garbo to the theatre. Of course I eagerly accepted. The play was “The Diary of Anne Frank.”

Before the play Garbo hardly spoke and during the intermission she covered her face with the program. We left just before the play ended to avoid being noticed. After emerging from the theatre, we waited briefly for a taxi. The drivers of passing cars halted their vehicles for a better look at the famous face.

I saw Garbo once again, at Jane’s house. Another guest was R. K. Narayan, the great Indian writer. Garbo sat at the end of a sofa not saying anything. Looking at her I could not help but be aware that she was no longer beautiful. I remember particularly that her lipstick was smeared. (Jane told me that Garbo could not bear looking at her face in the mirror.)

But when Narayan began to speak of his conversations with his late wife in the world of the dead, Garbo’s interest was awakened, and for a while we saw again the face that had captivated the world.

For more on Donald Keene.

Leave a Reply