Jonathan E. Zwicker
Early in 1942, Nakajima Atsushi (1909—42), then teaching Japanese at an elementary school in the occupied territory of Palao, published a short story set in ancient Assyria (669—633 BCE): “Mojika” (“The Curse of Letters”), centers on a scholar who comes to discover the accursed nature of writing. “As he stared at length at a single letter,” Nakajima writes, “that letter would, without his noticing, dissolve and he could only see it as a tangle of individual lines with no meaning. And he could no longer understand how a simple grouping of lines had come to have a particular sound and a particular meaning” (123). And this is essentially how it is with the Japanese novel: the more one looks at it, the less sense it seems to make and the more artificial it seems, based purely on convention.
The Problem of the Japanese Novel
To understand the problem posed in writing the history of the Japanese novel, consider the following anecdote. In 1968, Kawabata Yasunari became the first Japanese writer to be awarded the Nobel Prize for literature, and toward the end of his Nobel lecture he briefly remarked upon Genji Monogatari (early eleventh century CE, The Tale of Genji), describing it as “kokin wo tsjite Nihon no saik no shsetsu” (the pinnacle of the Japanese novel past and present). Kawabata continued: “gendai ni mo kore in oyobu shsetsu wa mada nakute. Jseiki ni, kono y ni kindaiteki demo aru chhen shsetsu ga kakareta no wa, sekai no kiseki toshite, kaigai ni mo hiroku shirarete imasu” (1968b). [No Japanese novel has ever equaled it. That such a modern novel was written in the tenth century is thought to be a miracle even abroad] (my translation). But the official English TRANSLATION of Kawabata's speech reads rather differently, and the word “novel” does not appear in the text of the lecture. Rather, the English version describes Genji as “the highest pinnacle of Japanese literature” and continues: “even down to our day there has not been a piece of fiction to compare with it. That such a modern work should have been written in the eleventh century is a miracle and as a miracle the work is widely known abroad” (1968a, my emphasis).
The discrepancies between the Japanese and the English texts are minor, but they are also suggestive of a problem central to the history of the Japanese novel: do we treat the Genji as a “novel,” and thus begin the history of the Japanese novel in the eleventh century? Or is the Genji something else entirely? And if the Genji is a novel, then does that imply that the history of the novel as such also begins in Japan—and not in Europe? And how do we account for the fact that Japan seems to have produced a fully formed modern novel eight centuries before anything similar was accomplished anywhere else in the world? Or that nothing really like the Genji would be produced again in Japan for the better part of a millennium?
The translation of Kawabata's lecture stands as a reminder of how complex and how contentious these issues are. So where do we begin? What counts as a novel and who decides (see DEFINITIONS)? To anyone interested in the HISTORY of the novel the case of Japan presents both a problem and an opportunity. The problem is one of beginnings. Do we start the history of “the novel” in Japan with the Genji, often described as the world's oldest novel? Or do we start at the end of the nineteenth century, when the concept “novel” was first translated into Japanese and a long and tendentious process began in which Japanese literary history would come to be understood through the lens of a normative conception of Western European literature? The answers to these questions have implications not just for the history of the Japanese novel but for the history of the novel as a GENRE. And in this sense, the question of beginnings also presents the student of the novel with an opportunity to take seriously the problem of origins: to think again about the now too comfortable narratives of the emergence of the novel in Spain and England in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, about the relationships posited between the novel and the EPIC or the ROMANCE, between the novel and a particular form of capitalism, or between the novel and print (see TYPOGRAPHY).
Though the composition of the Genji is of uncertain date, 2008 was decided upon as its millennial anniversary and the anniversary occasioned both a great deal of ceremony and some thoughts on the long arc of the history of the Japanese novel and its future. Indeed, many commentators have noted the unlikely trajectory that the novel has taken in Japan, from the Genji to the newest narrative form, the cell-phone novel, now an established literary genre accompanied by literary prizes and works of literary criticism.
But for anyone interested in the history of the novel all of this raises a question: can the idea of the novel provide a way of thinking about texts ranging from the Genji to postmodern novels read on a cell phone? Or, asked differently, is a concept which can comprehend such a diverse range of objects still a useful concept? Can an object so broad and so ill defined, encompassing the classical courtly tale, the avant-garde, and the commercial, an object written by brushes on scrolls, printed on pages by block or by type, or emitted by electronic signals—can such an object be said to have any existence at all?
Like Nakajima's Assyrian scholar, we have come to the point where that seemingly simple object, the Japanese novel, has dissolved before our eyes, and we can no longer see it as anything more than a grouping of objects, artificial but—like Nakajima's accursed letters—no less powerful for that fact. And Nakajima's story raises another important problem facing anyone interested in writing the history of the Japanese novel. So far we have focused exclusively on the second term in “Japanese novel.” But the Japanese novel is a problem in another way as well: what are the outer limits of “Japanese”? Nakajima's own works were largely written during his time in the colonial bureaucracy in the South Seas. During the first half of the twentieth century, Japan was a large empire and novels were written—and published—in its territories, both by Japanese writers and by colonial subjects. The Korean novelist Yi Gwangsu, one of the most important writers of the modern Korean canon, wrote his first story in Japanese while a student in Japan, and the critic Kim Yunshik has suggested that the modern Korean novel really begins in Japanese. Thus Yi Gwangsu's “Ai ka” can be thought of as part of the history of modern Korean literature, but it has also been taken as the first work in the literary history of Japan's minority of resident Koreans and, simultaneously, as one of the early works of colonial “Japanese language literature”: works written in Japanese by subjects of the Japanese Empire (Kurosawa).
Many of Japan's postwar writers were born or grew up in colonies like Korea and Manchuria and would maintain a problematic relationship to an uncomplicated idea of Japan. Abe Kb spent most of his early life in Manchuria, and his first novel, Kemonotachi wa koky mezasu (1957, The Beasts Head for Home), is an explicit meditation on how strange the idea of Japan as a “home” would be for the returnees of the decolonizing Empire. In the first half of the twentieth century, and in some cases still today, Japanese-language literatures existed in emigrant communities in North and South America, especially Brazil.
Which of these works belong to the history of the Japanese novel? And can the same work belong to the history of the Japanese novel and the Korean novel? Or to the history of the Japanese novel and the Asian American novel or, indeed, the Brazilian novel? Or can we replace the idea of the “Japanese novel” with the “Japanese-language novel,” as some critics have suggested in an echo of the emergence of Anglophone and Francophone literary histories, and will this solve all of the problems or simply mask them?
The “Japanese novel” is a messy category, but in certain respects it is a more productive category the messier it is. If we try to bring the object of our inquiry too clearly into focus we will lose something by treating the category as natural, even inevitable. Like all concepts, the category of the “the Japanese novel” is useful to the extent that it illuminates certain problems, either historical or theoretical, and we should be wary of becoming too comfortable with it. “Its task,” to borrow from Wittgenstein, “is to portray a colorful, blurred reality as a pen-and-ink drawing....To believe that therefore [it is] useless or in any case doesn't match up to [its] purpose is like saying ’The light of my lamp is useless because one doesn't know where it begins and where it ends’” (56).
The Japanese Novel in the Age of World Literature
The (mis)translation of Kawabata Yasunari's Nobel lecture also brings to the fore the fact that the history of “the Japanese novel” is always also a history of translation, that at one level the whole idea of a “Japanese novel” only becomes thinkable with the translation of Western generic and literary terms in the late nineteenth century, premised on a “hypothetical equivalence” between genres that developed independently of each other until that very moment in the nineteenth century when a world literature seemed possible, even desirable. Thus in the late nineteenth century, the decades following the Meiji Restoration in 1868, the importation and translation of Western works of literature assumes a place of particular importance in thinking about the history of the Japanese novel, for during these decades two rather important changes occurred. First, European and American novels began to influence the development of the novel as a form in Japan (see INTERTEXTUALITY). But just as significantly, Western conceptions of literary history began to shape how Japanese literary history was understood and continue to this day to govern the historiography of the Japanese novel.
At the end of the nineteenth century, at the moment when Western novels were first being translated into Japanese and Japanese works into European languages, the idea of “the Japanese novel” seemed anything but a problem. That problem would come later, in the wake of MODERNISM. In the age of “world literature,” those decades following the first uses of this term in German (Johann Wolfgang von Goethe in 1827 and Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels in 1848), nothing seemed more natural than to discover among Japanese writers a native Charles Dickens or Walter Scott. History was being written from the perspective of normative Western examples, and literary history would be no different. When the work of Kyokutei Bakin, one of the most productive and popular writers in nineteenth-century Japan, first appeared in English in 1885, it was widely and enthusiastically reviewed and the reviewers had no doubt that what they were reviewing was a novel (“Japanese Novel,” 1885, New York Times, 9 Dec.).
To an American reviewer at the end of the nineteenth century, Bakin's work was quite clearly a novel and just as clearly an example of a mode of REALISM. Over the course of the century that followed, both of these things would become increasingly less clear for Japanese readers and for literary historians interested in the history of the novel. Whereas Bakin once seemed to exemplify “the Japanese novel” to his earliest American readers, his place within the history of the novel is now complex and contentious: can we consider works written before Western conceptions of the novel arrived in Japan as “novels” in any meaningful sense? Is there not an important break between a genealogy of “indigenous” fiction that runs through the middle of the nineteenth century and “the modern novel” that has been shaped by Western works of fiction and literary criticism? The effect that these questions have had—of essentially writing figures like Bakin out of the history of the novel in Japan—suggests how a certain set of disciplinary assumptions have shaped the way that Japanese literary history has been crafted, both in Japan and abroad, by a historiographical tradition wedded not only to particular formations of the canon or to particular narratives of periodisation, which artificially structure the shape of the very histories of which they are meant to be a part, but also to ossified understandings of generic or critical concepts which account only in a trivial way for how these concepts were actually used in the past.
In the late nineteenth century, the idea of an “essence” of the novel that could encompass both the European and Chinese traditions—and that could provide a framework for an even more wide-ranging discussion of narrative spanning the Genji through the Iliad, as did Tsubouchi Shy in Shsetsu shinzui (1885—86, The Essence of the Novel)—seemed entirely plausible. In the century that followed, this idea would become increasingly problematic, as what was understood to define the nature of the novel changed in response to the narrative experiments of the early decades of the twentieth century, experiments that seemed to stand traditional narrative strictures on their head.
The reception of the Genji in the West is a good example. When a partial translation appeared in the late nineteenth century, it seemed essentially incomprehensible to Western readers: “curious rather than interesting,” it was “if not precisely impossible, then difficult to appreciate” (1898, “Japanese Romance,” New York Times, 16 Apr.). Four decades on, however, the Genji was no longer so difficult to appreciate. In a 1938 review Jorge Luis Borges would describe the work as “what one would quite precisely call a psychological novel” (187), arguing that such a novel would have been unthinkable in Europe before the nineteenth century. It was only with Arthur Waley's six-volume translation (1925—33) that a framework would be found for comprehending the Genji not as a historical curiosity but as a peculiar form of the modern novel avant le lettre and as a masterpiece of world literature.
For readers of Waley's translation, the Genji seemed to represent an uncanny anticipation of the narrative experiments of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries: an attention to style over plot and character, an attention to PSYCHOLOGY over action and suspense. As a review of the second volume of Waley's translation in 1926 put it, “Curiously enough, for the modern reader Murasaki's style carries with it a suggestion...of that of Mrs. Virginia Woolf” (“Tale of Genji”). Woolf had just published Mrs. Dalloway (1925), and while that novel won critical acclaim, it is not difficult to imagine a contemporary reader finding the book similarly “if not precisely impossible, then difficult to appreciate.” Modernism had essentially changed the way in which the nature of what was considered novelistic was understood and so provided a way for the Genji to be reevaluated: it was no longer a historical curiosity but a most uncanny example of the modern novel.
Woolf herself wrote a review of the first volume of Waley's translation in which she made a similar point. Woolf saw in the Genji a narrative form which seemed very much at odds with the history of the novel as it developed in Europe between the beginning of the seventeenth and the end of the nineteenth centuries. For Woolf, the history of the novel in the West until her own time was primarily a history of storytelling; viewed within that framework—compared with Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra's Don Quixote (1605, 1615) or with Leo Tolstoy's Voyná i mir (1865—69, War and Peace)—the Genji is a very strange kind of “novel” (1986, 142). What the Genji offers is something rather different, which Woolf hints at when she conjures for her readers the Genji's original audience: “They were grown-up people, who needed no feats of strength to rivet their attention, no catastrophe to surprise them” (1986, 167). There is an unmistakable echo here of Woolf's famous appraisal, written that same year, of George Eliot's Middlemarch (1871—72), which she described as “one of the few English novels written for grown-up people” (ibid., 165). With this echo we can see how, as was the case with George Eliot, modernism provided an interpretive lens through which the narrative ambitions of the Genji could be understood; modernism, in other words, allowed the elevation of the Genji from a historical “curiosity” to an important work of literature. The novel was no longer seen primarily as a vehicle for storytelling, which relied on feats of strength and catastrophes—broadly “the melodramatic imagination”—rather, the novel was now a “serious” genre, a genre for “grown-ups” (Moretti).
The modernist appreciation of the Genji as a kind of fully formed modern novel had profound implications for the ways in which Japanese writers came to understand the genre of the novel and its possibilities. Such a modernism would profoundly shape both the production of novels in twentieth-century Japan and the construction of a literary history which came to see narratives of action and suspense as something other than fully formed novels. And just as to late nineteenth-century Western readers the works of Bakin seemed quite naturally “novels” while the Genji appeared to be essentially incomprehensible, so too for readers from the middle decades of the twentieth century on would the Genji seem quite improbably a “modern novel” written in the eleventh century while Bakin's work, so typical of the melodramatic mode, would seem peculiarly non-modern, an example of an indigenous form of romance rather than part of the history of the novel (see MELODRAMA).
And just as European modernism was discovering in the Genji an uncanny avatar of a mode of prose that forgoes storytelling, Japanese writers were discovering modernist experiments with eliminating narrative and rethinking the very grounds of novelistic aesthetics. When Kawabata described the Genji as a “modern novel” in his Nobel lecture, he was remarking upon the ways in which this work seemed to anticipate the move away from storytelling that would become one of the hallmarks of modernism. But Kawabata was also using the Genji itself as a way of defining what is “modern” about the novel: precisely its resistance to what Woolf called “feats of strength,” the Genji's seriousness, its grown-upness.
Kawabata's own career must be understood within this broad history through which the novel became identified—from the 1920s on—with an anti-narrative tendency. Indeed, Kawabata began his career in 1925, the year that the first volume of Waley's Genji appeared and one of Kawabata's earliest endeavors as a writer was to work on the script for the avant-garde film Kurutta ichipeiji (dir. Kinugasa Teinosuke, 1926, A Page of Madness), a film that “completely rejected the established modes of narrative in Japanese film and attempted to establish a new filmic expression” (Sat, 267). Just as the pure film movement was rejecting narrative as a sort of literary remnant in favor of pure visual expression, writers too were attempting to grasp what a novel without narrative would mean.
In 1927, the novelist Tanizaki Jun'ichr even felt compelled to write an apologia for plot. “I think that in general,” Tanizaki wrote, “it is perhaps felt that there is no artistic value in how interesting a plot is.” But plot, Tanizaki argued, was “the great privilege that the novel has as a form” and had its own value, “the interest of structure” (1981, 76). Tanizaki's essay was quickly answered by Akutagawa Rynosuke, who wrote that while he did not feel that a “novel without a story-like story is the highest form of the novel,” there should never the less remain a place for this kind of work which eliminated “popular appeal,” by which he meant “an interest in events” (1997, 149).
Akutagawa had in mind something like a modernist painting which eliminated design—he mentions Paul Cézanne (1839—1906)—but the novels of Woolf or James Joyce, whose major works would remain untranslated until after WWII, would have served just as well.
The debate over the relationship between the novel and plot did not begin in 1927; the question of plot loomed large for writers of an earlier generation who had begun to intuit the problems that narrative would face during the twentieth century. Two decades earlier, Akutagawa's mentor Natsume Sseki had written a brilliant dialogue in his novel Kusamakura (1906, The Three Cornered World) on just this subject:
“What's wrong with reading a novel from the beginning?”
“Because if you start reading from the beginning, you have to read to the end.”
“That seems a peculiar reason. What's wrong with reading to the end?”
“Nothing at all, naturally. I do it myself when I want to read the story.”
“But if you don't read the story, what else is left?” (122—23)
In the novel, this final question goes unanswered, and it would continue to haunt the history of the Japanese novel across the twentieth century.
Natsume Sseki's own work, especially the late novels Kokoro (1914) and the unfinished Mei An (1916, Light and Darkness), can be seen as an attempt to explore a possible answer to the question of what a novel not dependent on plot might look like, and these narrative experiments have given Sseki a special place within the history of the modern Japanese novel. In 1993, a year before he became, after Kawabata, the second Japanese novelist to win the Nobel Prize (in 1994), e Kenzabur described Sseki as “revolutionary” and remarked, “It is no exaggeration to say that Sseki and Sseki alone represents twentieth-century Japanese literature” (1995, 319). Sseki, e suggested, had understood a set of problems with which Japanese writers would grapple for the better part of a century: “Even today many Japanese are unable to resolve those very problems Sseki foresaw” (320).
A century after his death, it is sometimes difficult to see how revolutionary Sseki's writing was in the opening decades of the twentieth century and why he came to occupy such an important place in the history of the novel in Japan. Like his contemporary Franz Kafka, there is an odd disjuncture between the formal, even bureaucratic, man and the experimental nature of his prose. But while Kafka's literary persona has completely eclipsed his image as an insurance lawyer, almost the opposite has happened to Sseki.
Yet there is an uncanny connection between Sseki and Kafka, two writers who lived half a world away from each other and who could not have known of the other's existence. In 1914, each would write a novel with a central character known as “K,” and each novel, Sseki's Kokoro and Kafka's Der Prozeß (The Trial), would explore the themes of modern man's alienation from the world through recourse to a narrative mode that expressly rejected conventional realism in favor of a kind of figurality. That both Sseki and Kafka should have chosen the letter “K,” is a sort of fantastic coincidence, but it is a coincidence that reveals a shared rejection of the inherited conventions of mimesis and the representational limits those conventions imposed. Just as the names of Kafka's characters in Der Prozeß are evocations of their archetypicality, so too proper names are almost entirely eliminated from Sseki's Kokoro in favor of figural sobriquets which denote the character's function: Sensei, the teacher; Okusan, the wife; Ojosan, the young woman.
At a time when Japanese literary output was dominated by an attention to minute description as the hallmark of realism and literary modernity, Sseki embraced an entirely different aesthetic which rejected description in favor of what he once described as the simple and the naïve. Yet even as Sseki's work became increasingly defined by a move toward simplicity at the level of description—Kokoro is marked by an almost total lack of description—the structure of Sseki's work evolved a remarkable complexity that stands in contrast to the modes of NATURALISM that dominated the Japanese novel in the first decade of the twentieth century. Kokoro is composed of two overlapping narratives—each of which is itself quite simple—arranged into a structure in which both stories move at different rates (because they cover different lengths of time) toward a shared moment at the end of the novel in which the narrator of the first half is reading a letter composed by the narrator of the second half, just as the temporal sequences of the novel merge at a shared moment of the Meiji Emperor's death. The first half of the novel ends with a kind of tableau, with the “I” of the first half (the young narrator) reading the personal confession of the “I” of the second half (the character known only as “Sensei,” the mentor), and the entire second half of the novel transpires at a moment anterior to the final scene of the first half.
Toward the end of Kokoro, there is a remarkable scene in which K confesses to Sensei: “I can't decide whether to take a step forward or to turn back,” to which Sensei responds with a question: “Tell me, can you really turn back if you want to?” (213). This question reverberates throughout the novel and continued to haunt Japanese novelists across the twentieth century—it is in a sense what e was referring to. In the tableau that ends the first half of Kokoro, the narrator has boarded a train back to Tokyo in a vain attempt to see Sensei once more before his mentor's suicide, leaving behind his own dying father in the countryside. The narrator is in a state of suspense and yet he is also being carried forward once more, away from home and towards the city. The deliberately open ending of Sseki's novel suggests an open future, an ending yet to be written and entrusted to authors of the next generation. And yet it seems as if the terms within which Sseki imagined this future helped structure the very way in which it would be imagined, even experienced. In one of his last, autobiographical, works, Sseki's closest student, Akutagawa Rynosuke, recalls Sseki's own death in terms that eerily parallel Kokoro: “In the wind after the rain, he walked down the platform of the new station....’Master near death,’ read the telegram he had thrust into his coat pocket. Just then the 6:00 a.m. Tokyo-bound train began to snake its way toward the station, rounding a pine-covered hill in the distance and trailing a wisp of smoke” (1997, 192).
Different writers and different generations of writers would frame, and attempt to answer, Sseki's question differently. Some would see this as primarily a question of turning back to the past understood as tradition; others, the writers of the postwar period in particular, would understand the question of orientation differently. When an outright return to tradition seemed finally impossible, the question became rather one of political engagement, a push outward as an embrace of political commitment versus an inward turn that spurned engagement with the real world. All of these writers—ranging from Sseki to Tanizaki Junichir, from Kawbata Yasunari to Dazai Osamu, and forward to e Kenzabur, Mishima Yukio, and Murakami Haruki—shared a concern for where the nation seemed to be heading, how fast, and whether there was any hope of changing course. That attempts to answer these questions have so often been framed in terms of actual movement suggests how powerful this governing metaphor of movement had become within the modern Japanese canon.
Viewed as part of this genealogy, Tanizaki Junichir's Chijin no ai (Naomi), written a decade after Kokoro in 1924, can be read almost as a kind of perverse sequel to Sseki's novel. Whereas the narrative SPACE of Kokoro is divided almost equally between the city and the country (with the narrator finally suspended between the two poles), Chijin no ai is a novel entirely of the city. Over the course of the novel, Jji gradually sells off his family's property in the country to support a life of consumption without production. Indeed, as the consumptive appetites of Jji and especially of Naomi grow over the course of the novel, Jji does progressively less work and he relies more and more on the disposal of property to support their life in the metropolis. Whereas Sseki's young narrator has yet to make his final choice (though his direction back toward the city is clear), Jji enacts a final break with the past: at the end of the novel, his inheritance has been completely sold off and transformed into capital. It is almost as if the city is swallowing up the countryside, and this is heightened by the descriptions of space and distance in the novel: the city is expanding even as distances are shrinking due to the speed of the train and the automobile. “Just because I come every night,” Naomi says at one point, “doesn't mean I live in the neighborhood. There are such things as trains and cars” (214). The metropolis, gradually growing outward along the railroad line, plots the spatial development of the novel, consuming the countryside and turning the once rural into the suburban landscapes that would play such an important role in the iconography of late 1920s and 1930s cinema. What we have here is no longer the country as something outside of and beyond the city, but an extension connected by the ever-present railroad.
But if Chijin no ai seemed an effort to settle Sseki's question—no, we cannot go back, we have sold off our patrimony in favor of a life of modern consumption—the late 1920s and 1930s would see this question resurface in a number of ways. Tanizaki himself began to advocate a return to tradition, an impulse that would be given its most enduring voice in Hagiwara Sakutar's essay “Nihon he no kaiki” (“Return to Japan”), published in 1938. And two of the most important cultural works of the 1930s, Kobayashi Hideo's “Koky wo ushinatta bungaku” (1933, “Literature of the Lost Home”) and Kawabata Yasunari's Yukiguni (1937, Snow Country), would each open with the image of a train emerging from a tunnel, though the trains were headed in opposite directions, with very different implications. Kobayashi's essay is an embrace of the present and a skeptical rejection of any call to return, while Kawabata's novel is a complex meditation on the themes of return in a world void of authenticity.
As the train pulls through the tunnel at the opening of Yukiguni, Shimamura sees the world around him as if reflected in a mirror (7). This sense of inversion governs the novel, and in many ways Yukiguni is a sort of inverted mirror image of Naomi: whereas Tanizaki's novel is set entirely in the city and the country remains abstract, here the opposite is true, with the narrative taking place in the provinces and Tokyo remaining a spectral presence. But just as the country continues to play an important structural role in Naomi, the city plays a similar role in Yukiguni: it is the space to which Shimamura retreats when he can no longer maintain control over the world of fantasy that he projects onto the Snow Country of the title. Twice Shimamura returns to Tokyo, but only following a drunken outburst by his lover Komako, as if this intoxicated intrusion of the real forces him to confront his inability to become master of this aestheticized space. Yukiguni may be an attempt to answer the question “can we go back if we want to?” but its answer is ambivalent. Return is always precarious, predicated on a kind of crude suspension, or suppression, of reality.
Both Chijin no ai and Yukiguni can be read as variations on the iconic ending of Sseki's novel, the former following the train forward along its vector to Tokyo, the latter a sort of “return” to the countryside. However, the countryside here is no longer that of doting mothers and dying fathers, but one of nostalgic return in which even the markers of labor and bondage become aestheticized as icons of the authentic. Chijin no ai and Yukiguni represented two possible visions of a resolution to Kokoro's suspended ending, and both of these possibilities were explored at length, and in various guises, between the Meiji period and the end of WWII.
After the war, the terms would change but many of the questions would remain the same. Indeed, Dazai Osamu's Shay (1947, The Setting Sun), is an extended meditation on the question of what the idea of a home might mean in the aftermath of war, and whether any sort of return might be possible or desirable. One of the most striking features of Shay is that the very terms of city and country, modernity and tradition, have been inverted. At the opening of the novel, when the petty aristocratic family of Kazuko and Naoji is forced to leave Tokyo following the war, they are leaving their “home” for “somewhere in the country” (17). But this “somewhere” is not a place of nurturing or of tradition or of some sense of authentic Japanese identity but a strangely exotic “Chinese-style house” (16). Indeed, in the novel, the country becomes a place of artifice and decay, with the dislocated family “playing house” (35).
In Shay, there is no longer an authentic past to which to return, and rather than return, the novel turns instead, as so many other works of postwar fiction would, to the theme of rebirth. The child that Kazuko conceives at the end of the novel—the illegitimate child born out of a carnal desire almost devoid of sentiment—is suggestive of what Dazai could imagine as the only way forward during “a transitional period of morality” (173): rebirth through being brought low, the overturning of hierarchies, and the discarding of the sense of CLASS that had continued to mark modern Japan. The child in Kazuko's womb at the end of Shay prefigures one of the great themes of postwar Japanese culture: the promise of rebirth and regeneration, with the cry of a newborn very much marking the soundscape of the postwar.
Birth and rebirth became dominant themes in the work of the two writers who defined the history of the Japanese novel in the 1960s and 1970s: e Kenzabur and Mishima Yukio. e's 1964 novel Kojintekina taiken (A Personal Matter) is itself an extended meditation on the question of personal responsibility centered on the birth of a child. Over the course of the novel, the protagonist, Bird, struggles over reconciling his sense of responsibility toward his wife and child and his dream of traveling to Africa, finally choosing practical commitment over utopian visions. When Bird returns to his wife and child in the hospital, he remarks: “I kept trying to run away. And I almost did. But it seems that reality compels you to live in the real world” (1969, 164). In the emblematic gesture with which the novel ends, Bird crosses out the word “hope” and replaces it with “forbearance.” The novel ends with an embrace of living in the real world and of forbearance over hope; or, perhaps more accurately, e suggests the possibility of forbearance as a kind of hope, a hope marked not by daydreams and utopian visions but by engagement and hard work, whether in the realm of the personal or the political.
Mishima Yukio's final cycle of novels, suggestively titled “Hj no umi” (“The Sea of Fertility”), press in a direction opposite to e's Kojintekina taiken. Mishima's novels explore the themes of birth and rebirth, sterility and fertility; as the cycle progresses, from Haru no Yuki (Spring Snow) in 1965 to Tennin gosui (The Decay of the Angel) in 1970, it becomes increasingly clear that for Mishima forbearance leads nowhere; that, indeed, the entire history of modern Japan can be rendered as a kind of grand passion play of the struggle to act in the face of the overwhelming pull of inaction. In one of the iconic scenes of the third novel of the cycle, Akatsuki no tera (1970, The Temple of Dawn), the lawyer Honda, entombed in books, is watched by his barren wife, as he himself watches the two women he most desires engaged in an act of sexual indulgence completely freed from any specter of utility: passion and sexuality liberated from procreation (chap. 44). In Mishima's cycle, modern Japan becomes the victim of a sterile rationality, and it is in “Asia”—an Asia of fantasy represented by Thailand and India, and above all by Theravada Buddhism—that Honda sees glimpses of freedom: the non-rational, the erotic, the sensual, and openly sexual. If e had offered an idea of hope renewed through forbearance and a commitment to the real, in Mishima's late novels this idea seems to be parodied as but another capitulation to barren reason. Action is displaced by viewing, passion by reason, as if to say, here is what happens when we cast our lot with forbearance over hope—we can only watch as others act. Mishima's own life would come to end in a single almost mad attempt to act, though Mishima's own action was almost emblematically sterile. His suicide in 1970 did not provoke an uprising or a revolution but was an empty spectacle which played out for the vicarious viewers the seductions of passion and unreason.
Both e and Mishima are deeply political writers, and the work of each can be read as an attempt both to diagnose what had gone wrong in the postwar decades and to offer a way forward. For e this was a broad commitment to a liberal humanist vision over and against calls for revolution. For Mishima, e's stance seemed but another iteration of the failure to act that had haunted modern Japan. In the 1980s, this political and politicized moment of the late 1960s and 1970s would itself become a novelistic subject in the work of Murakami Haruki. Indeed, for Murakami, both the left and the right seem equally guilty of turning action into spectacle. In Noruwei no mori (1987, Norwegian Wood), politics smells “fishy” (12) and revolutionaries are “total phonies” (179). But if Noruwei no mori seeks to be apolitical, or post-political, it is still deeply indebted to the themes that have informed, at times seemingly governed, the Japanese novel for much of the twentieth century. Indeed, it is hard not to read the opening of Noruwei no mori—the narrator “strapped in [his] seat” as his airplane touches down in Hamburg—as but another iteration of Sseki's narrator suspended between the future and the past, the home and the world, the promise of the future ahead of him but haunted by memories of the past. What is meant by “home” and what is meant by “the world” have shifted, but Noruwei no mori is, no less than Kokoro, an exploration of the possibility of return.
In the decades that have followed the emergence of the “Murakami phenomenon,” the Japanese novel has seemed perpetually at a crossroads, not unlike Sseki's narrator, unsure how to proceed. When e Kenzabur received the Nobel Prize for literature in 1994, he suggested that the novel as a form had perhaps reached its limits. The global success of Murakami once seemed to provide the model of a possible future in a new age of world literature, but the path eluded those, like Banana Yoshimoto, who seemed poised to follow. At the same time, critics have emerged, like Kawanishi Masaaki, writing elegiacally of “the end of the novel,” but new forms like the cell-phone novel and the GRAPHIC novel have once again brought to the fore the difficulty, even impossibility, of defining and delimiting the genre.
When Kawabata Yasunari spoke of the Genji as a novel during his Nobel acceptance speech, he was suggesting a conception of the novel as a genre not bound to a particular material form. And when we come to reflect upon the novel and its electronic future we would do well to remember the fact that the form has undergone equally profound changes in the past, as Kawabata himself suggests in a scene from Utsukushisa to kanashimi to (1965, Beauty and Sadness) in which his narrator reflects on the different forms the Genji has assumed over the centuries: “[H]e had always read The Tale of Genji in the small type of modern editions, but when he came across it in a handsome old block-printed edition it made an entirely different impression on him. What would it have been like when they read it in those beautiful flowing manuscripts of the age of the Heian Court?” (34). The remarkable growth of the electronic book industry in Japan and the equally remarkable success of the cell-phone novel as a form suggest that the history of the novel in Japan is likely not at its end but at a new beginning. That this new beginning will be born of a materiality very different from the printed books that have shaped the history of the modern novel in Japan perhaps ought not give us too much pause. Indeed, if “the Japanese novel” is to be a useful category for rethinking literary history, perhaps its greatest value is as a way of linking together very different texts stretching across a millennium of history from scroll to screen.
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