‘Mister Timeless Blyth’, by Alan Spence

Front of Mister Timeless Blyth: A Biographical Novel. Background is a pink-beige colour with an illustration of a cherry blossom branch in front of a moon.

Mister Timeless Blyth is a book about an important literary Japanophile by an important literary Japanophile. Reginald Horace Blyth (1898–1964) was an English writer who is best known for sharing with the English-speaking world his reflections on Japanese culture and literature, especially haiku. His four-volume Haiku was a significant contribution to the study and practice of haiku in the West. 

Blyth’s published works influenced E. E. Cummings, Roland Barthes, and J. D. Salinger, among many others. Blyth is buried at Matsugaoka Tōkei-ji, a Zen temple in Kamakura, beside his mentor and friend, the well-known scholar, author, and Nobel Peace Prize nominee D. T. Suzuki (‘He taught me everything I don’t know’, said Blyth1). Alan Spence (born 1947) is a novelist, short story writer, playwright, and poet. Among his works are some of the finest haiku yet written by a Scottish poet, haiku which have won both popular and critical admiration. In 2018 Spence was awarded the Order of the Rising Sun from the Japanese Government.

Mister Timeless Blyth is not Alan Spence’s first historical novel with a Japanese affiliation, but his third and best. The Pure Land2 tells the story of Aberdonian Thomas Glover, who was a major figure in the worlds of commerce and politics in nineteenth-century Japan; his epic story is believed to have inspired Madama ButterflyNight Boat3 dramatises the life of one of Zen Buddhism’s most influential figures, Ekaku Hakuin (1686–1769).

Spence now brings to life a very different character. Blyth was an accomplished man – a scholar, musician, linguist, and writer. Spence succeeds in creating a very human Blyth – gifted, intriguing, and fallible.

Blyth’s life-trajectory is compelling. Born in Essex, raised in England, he spent a decade in Korea and then lived in Japan from 1936 until his death in 1964. He expressed some sympathy for Japan during the Second World War but was interned as an enemy alien, where conditions were better than those in the English prison in which he had resided for a time due to his being a conscientious objector. It was in an internment camp in Kobe that he wrote his first book, Zen in English Literature and Oriental Classics.4 Following the war, Blyth worked with both American and Japanese authorities to help smooth the transition to lasting peace. He even became private tutor to the Crown Prince, subsequently Emperor, Akihito (born 1933). Blyth was a provocative, characterful writer:

I have followed what felt like an inner destiny…The list of my books is long and I believe, in their own way, they have been influential, although my critics have accused me of being a mere anthologist, lacking proper scholarship … I have also been called problematic and terminally eccentric. I would accept either as a compliment!5

Spence’s 380-page novel is written with a lucid, eloquent, conversational flow, and as such is a fluid and pleasurable read. The tone is engaging, whether mediating prison anecdotes or the nuances of senryu (haiku that illustrate human foibles, often amusingly).

I have been writing this after the fashion of some of the modern novelists, in the first person, meandering here and there as the fancy takes me, as memory dictates. And if I cannot remember exactly, I shall make it up to the nearest approximation.

Was it like that?

Yes, it was exactly like that. More or less.6

Sometimes it feels that Spence’s own slightly mischievous humour interjects, as if he is unable to resist engaging in wordplay:

Music. Mu-sic. Mu (sic).7

Or:

Sometimes too – even after all these years – she would balk at having to cook me separate vegetarian food. (A fishbone of contention, as it were!)8

If the reader feels that the Blyth we encounter is palpably refracted through Spence’s own perspective, perhaps there is something honest and authentic about that – a lively mind being filtered through a lively mind. Identity itself is an integral theme in the novel:

My face in the mirror was gaunt, haggard, the eyes desolate.

Who is it that can tell me who I am?9

As befits a poet of Spence’s calibre, one of the book’s finest attributes is the way it illuminates living moments:

I slid open the door and stepped inside. In a way I could not quite understand, I was overwhelmed with a sense of familiarity. The dark wood of the pillars and beams, the polished floor, were all imbued with the ancient scent of pine incense, ingrained down the centuries. To breathe it in was itself an act of meditation.10

Here, Spence demonstrates that he is simultaneously aware of the instant and of history, the particular place and its larger resonance, resulting in the kind of textured, persuasive, and immersive evocation that is wholly appropriate for a novel so deeply associated with haiku. This is no accident and is one of the novel’s most appealing qualities. The reader hereby feels quietly yet deftly assured that the best person to write a novel about R. H. Blyth is someone who genuinely understands haiku. 

Allusions to Mahāyāna Buddhist ideas, stories, and poems are frequently dovetailed (rather than crowbarred) into the narrative. These tend to be unintrusive and offer an additional, knowing dimension to readers familiar with Zen literature.11 Elsewhere, Zen attributes are explicated in edifying, rather than clunkily expositional, fashion:

… I drew up a list of what I considered the characteristics of Zen in relation to the writing of haiku.

Selflessness. Loneliness. Grateful acceptance. Wordlessness. Non-intellectuality. Contradictoriness. Humour. Freedom. Non-morality. Simplicity. Materiality. Love. Courage.12

You could write a series of lengthy essays about each of those elements and how they do or do not relate to contemporary haiku and to poetry writing more generally. 

Mister Timeless Blyth often provides advice (‘Act, but surrender the fruits of your actions’13) or viewpoint (‘True craftsmen, he said, work without ego to create a kind of natural beauty’14) or insight (‘But real greatness, he said, lay in humility. This was not negating individuality but transcending it’15). Some of the proclamations are contestable, even, and especially, to a Buddhist (‘The poetry lesson is the most important part of schooling. If it is neglected, if it is a failure, all is lost and God created the world in vain’16); like his mentor Suzuki, Blyth seems to appreciate that Zen has no creator god while nonetheless disregarding this fundamental tenet.   

On the topic of difficult truths, one subject which the novel rather sidesteps is Blyth’s misogynistic attitude towards women. For one thing, he did not give women haiku writers due credit. ‘Haiku poetesses,’ Blyth claimed, ‘are only fifth class.’17 This is egregiously and demonstrably untrue. Blyth’s chauvinism is not substantially explored in the book, a puzzling omission that will frustrate some readers. Women, it should go without saying, are every bit as talented at writing haiku as men are. Consider the following haiku by Chiyo-ni (1703–1775):

mosquito net
a corner untied
– ah, the full moon

The story told in relation to this poem is that Chiyo-ni was challenged to write a haiku that was subtly informed by different shapes. The haiku which she composed in an instant features three different shapes within its trio of compact lines (respectively, a square, a triangle, and a circle).

Satisfyingly, Spence’s novel includes many fine (pre-existing) haiku:

The light through the window
tells me it’s evening,                                          
tells me it’s autumn.18

Or this classic from Ryōkan :

The thief 
left it behind – 
the moon in the window.19

Two men emerge from this novel. First, centrally and distinctly, arises a man who was intricately layered and flawed, but who understood what it was to live the moment deeply, ‘breathing the clear air, uplifted by birdsong’.20 Behind him, hazily, stands an observant author whose impressive oeuvre is like a haiku: deep, expansive, and focused all at once. Alan Spence has written fine novelisations of other people’s lives, and it is natural to hope that as astute and entertaining a mind as his will compose, also, the story of his own life, that of the Glaswegian kid who grew up to be Scottish Writer of the Year, Edinburgh’s Makar, and one of Scotland’s most accomplished of contemporary writers.

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End Notes

  1. Alan Spence, Mister Timeless Blyth (Vermont: Tuttle Publishing, 2023), p. 9.
  2. Alan Spence, The Pure Land (Edinburgh: Canongate, 2006.
  3. Alan Spence, Night Boat (Edinburgh: Canongate, 2013).
  4. R. H. Blyth, Zen in English Literature and Oriental Classics (Tokyo: Hokuseido Press, 1942).
  5. Spence, Mister Timeless Blyth, p. 11.
  6. Ibid., p. 38.
  7. Ibid., p. 42. ’Mu‘ is a word with many Zen connotations. It means ’no’, ’nothing’, ’no thing’, ’without’, ’un-’, ’emptiness’, ’impossible since lacking in reason or cause’, etc.
  8. Ibid., p. 346.
  9. Ibid., p. 88.
  10. Ibid., p. 103.
  11. For example, ’Ten bulls in ten china shops’ (p. 113) references the ten bulls or ten ox-herding images often invoked in Zen to represent the ten stages of progress towards enlightenment.
  12. Ibid., p. 234.
  13. Ibid., p. 117.
  14. Ibid., p. 311.
  15. Ibid., p. 312.
  16. Ibid., p. 213.
  17. R. H. Blyth, A History of Haiku, Volume I (Tokyo: Hokuseido, 1963), p. 54.
  18. Spence, Mister Timeless Blyth, p. 360.
  19. Ibid., p. 181.
  20. Ibid., p. 131.
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