Is it your desire to be born into this world, or not? Think seriously about it before you reply.

From Ryunosuke Akutagawa’s Kappa, the tale of a man, now housed in an asylum, who claims to have fallen into the land of the kappas and lived among them for some time. At the surface it is a very Swiftian rollick but a little below is a darker thread connected to the author’s life – the story being completed only a few months before a suicide prompted largely by fear of onset inherited mental illness (thought to be schizophrenia).

But there is the other side of the picture; for, by all human standards, nothing could be quite so ludicrous as the processes of Kappa childbirth. Not very long after this conversation with Chak, I went to Bag’s cottage to watch as his wife gave birth to a child.

Just as we would, the Kappa calls in a doctor or a midwife to assist at the delivery. But when it comes to the moment just before the child is born, the father— almost as if he is telephoning—puts his mouth to the mother’s vagina and asks in a loud voice:

‘Is it your desire to be born into this world, or not? Think seriously about it before you reply.’

Bag followed this regular practice; kneeling on the floor so as to bring his mouth on a level with his wife’s vagina, he asked the question a number of times, after which he rinsed his mouth with a liquid disinfectant that lay handy on the table.

Then came the child’s reply from inside its mother’s womb; it seemed to be having no small amount of scruple, for the voice was weak and hesitant.

‘I do not wish to be born. In the first place, it makes me shudder to think of all the things that I shall inherit from my father—the insanity alone is bad enough. And an additional factor is that I maintain that a Kappa’s existence is evil.’

The natural sequel of an unnatural beginning

From Jane Austen’s Persuasion.

How eloquent could Anne Elliot have been! how eloquent, at least, were her wishes on the side of early warm attachment, and a cheerful confidence in futurity, against that over-anxious caution which seems to insult exertion and distrust Providence! She had been forced into prudence in her youth, she learned romance as she grew older: the natural sequel of an unnatural beginning.

It’s a bit close for comfort to the passages someone at Penguin always chooses as the back-cover blurb but is redeemed in interest because there’s a surviving copy from Austen’s family where someone – believed to be her sister Cassandra – has added in the margins here, ‘Dear, Dear Jane! This deserves to be written in letters of gold.’

I’ve always liked Persuasion best of Austen’s novels. There’s something so curious about a romance in which the romancing pair never meaningfully speak to each other until the final pages. There’s also a delight in how unredeemed the other Elliots remain through the end.