Tuesday, March 31, 2020

The Makioka Sisters flows - Would she be able to stand the ordeal of a permanent wave?

The Makioka Sisters (1946-8), Junichiro Tanizaki’s UNESCO-stamped novel, was a puzzler.  It has two conceptual levels.  One of them took me quite a while to figure out.  The other was clear early on.

The stuff of the novel is not the ordinary life of the bourgeois Osaka family in the title, but the events of ordinary life.  Holidays, restaurant meals, trips to Tokyo, the terrible Kobe Flood of 1938, illnesses, that sort of thing.  This novel has more variety of illness – beriberi, dysentery, gangrene, scarlet fever, and many more – than any novel I can remember, yet not implausibly so.  It is all perfectly plausible.

The narration is distant and the prose is fairly flat.  There is little description, little metaphor.  What struck me the most was the most was the evenness of the tone.  Every event is told with the same emphasis.  The flood, a natural disaster that killed hundreds, receives more pages but the same rhetorical weight as a meal at a favorite sushi restaurant.  The sushi chef gets two long paragraphs, and is never seen again:

She first gave them a description with gestures: he looked like the dwarf with the enormous, mallet-shaped head one sees in illustrations to horror stories; he turned customers off most haughtily, and he attacked a fish with his carving knife as though it had insulted him.  (2.30, p. 293, tr. Edward Seidensticker)

Hey, that has description and metaphor!  I know, it is not a typical sentence.  How about this:

He always used white Kobe vinegar, never yellow Tokyo vinegar, and always a thick soy sauce not seen in Tokyo.  He offered only fish taken before his very eyes, so to speak, here along the shores of the Inland Sea.  (293)

A list of fish follows.  The writing is precise and thick with stuff, counting etiquette and customary behavior as a kind of “stuff.”

Here, this passage is more typical:

To forget the sadness [of the younger sister moving out], they would go to Kobe every other day or so and search out old movies and new movies, and sometimes they even saw two movies a day.  Among the movies they had seen in the last month alone were Bagdad, Das Mädchen Irene, Hélène, Burgtheater, Boys’ Town, and Suez.  (3.12, 383)

As much as I enjoyed the list of films from around the world, the word “among” shows how this narrator works.

How about some interiority, while in line at the beauty shop:

Sachiko looked nervously at her sister, silent and dispirited.  Might Yukiko faint with hunger?  Would she be able to stand the ordeal of a permanent wave?  (3.30, 491)

Tanizaki has a powerful sense of anti-climax.  Here is the end of a chapter where something almost melodramatic has happened:

Then, as if she remembered something, she opened her cosmetic case – she tried not to let [her daughter] see – and poured the cap of the pocket flask a third full of brandy.  (2.18, 239)

One more:

Sachiko had been taking down [from a radio broadcast] recipes said to be good for the season.  Now someone was reciting a Nō play.

“Would you turn it off, please, Koi-san?”

“Wait.  Look at Bell.”  Taeko pointed her jaw at the cat, asleep by Sachiko’s feet.

Bell was drowsing happily in the warmth from the stove.  Taeko had noticed that its ears twitched at each drum beat.  Only the ears were affected, it seemed, by a reflex of no concern to the rest of the cat.

“What do you suppose does that?”

“Very strange.”

They watched, fascinated, as the ears twitched an accompaniment to the Nō, and when the Nō was finished Taeko turned off the radio.  (3.12, 385)

And the novel just moves on like this, for five hundred pages.  Donald Keene, in Japanese Literature: An Introduction for Western Readers (1953) wrote that “Here, then, is a true roman fleuve, a slow and turbid river of a book, which moves inevitably and meaninglessly to its close” (108).

Meaninglessly!  To a reader interested in Japanese culture, many episodes – the sushi restaurant, the cherry blossom festival, the firefly hunt, you name it – are deeply interesting.  Are they more interesting than the equivalent passage in, say, an oral history of 1930s Japan?  Does fiction of this type have any advantage over non-fiction?  I have some doubts.  But tomorrow I will try to undo “meaninglessly” by looking at the Big Irony.

Monday, March 30, 2020

Big Ironies with Musil, Roth, Mann, Tanizaki, and Gide - he says nothing but stupidities, speaking loudly, wrongly, and incessantly, all day long

Lately I have read a number of novels that depend on Big Historical Ironies.  The Big Irony is a big part of the point of the novel.  I mean “irony” in a simple sense – “I know, you know, the author knows, the characters do not know.”  As for “big,” I mean something like the line at the end of the last paragraph of The Man Without Qualities, the first volume published in 1930: “It was a fine day in August 1913” (tr. Sophie Wilkins).

The reader of September 1913, encountering that line in some other story, would not think much of it, but the reader of 1930, the Austrian reader, is immediately engulfed in a shadow that never lifts.  And Musil rubs it in, puffs it up.  Much of the action of the book takes place in a committee that is planning a jubilee celebration for the 75th year of the reign of Emperor Franz Joseph, in 1918.  The themes they pick are “Emperor of Peace” and the “Global Idea of Austria.”  Musil is not being subtle.  He wants Huge Irony.  The Biggest Irony.  He seems to want his reader to wince frequently.

Franz Joseph died in 1916, while the whole notion of an Emperor died in 1918.  There was also a major war.  The non-Austrian reader of 2020 may have to look up the former, but surely few readers pick up The Man Without Qualities who do not read “a fine day in August 1913” and think “Oh no.”

In The Radetzsky March (1932), Joseph Roth moves his cavalry officer protagonist to the frontier, right in the middle of the bloodlands, just in time for the war.  Occasionally, in a barracks scene, Roth notes that everyone in the room will be dead in a few months.  When war is declared, a bolt of lightning strikes the house where the officers are having a party.  Big, big, big irony, and no hiding it.

Thomas Mann began The Magic Mountain (1924) before the war.  The joke was on him, this time.  He did not know, and then he knew, and once he knew, there was really only one way for the novel to end.

I will save Junichiro Tanizaki’s The Makioka Sisters (1946-8) for the next couple of days, but I am pretty sure that the same kind of Big Irony is at the center of that novel.  Look at those publication dates, then guess when it is set.

André Gide creates the same kind of effect in what passes for real life, in his Journal for summer 1914.  For context, first, The Vatican Basements has just been published, and Gide’s journals often take an odd turn post-book publication; second, Gide is realizing that his recent trip to Turkey was mere tourism and thus not going to give him anything to publish; and third, it is June 1914 and he reads the newspapers.  However, in the Journal he utterly suppresses #3 and writes extensively about his attempt to turn a foundling starling into a pet.

I had tried to put him in a cage, but he would die there; letting him have the freedom of the room, he dirties everything; within ten minutes, he leaves it does not matter where little liquid and corrosive droppings.  I give him bread crumbled in milk mixed with the yolk of a hard-boiled egg to eat, or some little earthworms, of which he is fond.  He flies form the table to my shoulder as soon as he sees me return.  (June 22, tr. mine, is it ever)

The experiment of keeping the starling in the house only lasts a couple of days.  On July 3, Jean T. arrives for a long visit.  He is a little boy who is related to Gide somehow.  Journal entries now alternate between the sparrow and the boy, who drives Uncle André insane.

I believe him to be intelligent; very intelligent even; but he says nothing but stupidities, speaking loudly, wrongly, and incessantly, all day long… (July 5)

All of this culminates in the amazing sitcom-like episode where little Jean the Menace locks Gide in the little aviary (July 8, a comic highlight).  I don’t know when Jean goes home.  The poor starling is finally “torn apart by the cats” on July 19.  Austria and Serbia mobilize for war on July 26, and the Journal shifts to a wartime footing, relieving my tension.  What was Gide supposed to do about the imminent war?  So he writes about his tame bird.  The war comes soon enough.

Wednesday, March 4, 2020

Yoko Ogawa's The Memory Police - “And what will happen if words disappear?”

Yoko Ogawa’s The Memory Police (1994, tr. Stephen Snyder 2019) is a conceit-heavy fantasy about a novelist who lives on an anonymous island where entire categories of objects occasionally “are disappeared,” after which the island’s citizens systematically destroy the things in the category, after which the memories of and word for the thing disappear.  Ribbon, bell, emerald, stamp…” (Ch. 1, 5).

It is a multi-step conceit, which is part of its strangeness.  Sometimes, as with novels and photographs, the human destruction is central, with bonfires that evoke totalitarian horrors.  And sometimes:

The disappearance of the fruit was much simpler.  When we woke in the morning, fruit of every sort was falling from trees all over the island.  A pattering sound could be heard everywhere, and in the northern hills and the forest park, fruit came down like a hailstorm.  Some were big as baseballs, some small as beans, some covered in shells, some brightly colored – fruits of all kinds.  (Ch. 12, 95-6)

Part of the fun of the novel is trying to figure out the rules, but be warned that there are none, or anyways they are fluid.

“And what will happen if words disappear?” I whispered to myself, afraid that if I said it too loudly, it might come true.  (4, 26)

The Memory Police is a novel about semiotics, about the functioning of language, with strange constraints put on ordinary human capacities.  I mean, if the words disappear, we make more words.  If we all forget the word “emerald,” we start using “greenstone” or something.  But these poor people can’t do that for some reason, maybe genetic manipulation, the only hint of science fiction in the novel.  Ogawa wants to watch it all – everything – disappear, not eventually, but quickly.

The narrator is herself a surrealist novelist, and unfortunately Ogawa includes generous abstracts from the dull novel in progress, which features a mute typist imprisoned, by her sadistic typing teacher, in a clock tower filled with broken typewriters.  Her captor sews her clothes made from metal and fruit peels.  My impression is that contemporary Japanese literature features a fair amount of this kind of quirk.  The important thing, as far as I can tell, about the novel-within-the-novel is that the novelist keeps using words that she has supposedly forgotten.  Clues, but to what?

Early in the novel, birds are disappeared.  Later in the novel, the characters eat chicken.  Here we approach a novel I would have enjoyed, where characters successfully outwit the semiotic entropy by shifting signifiers.  A chicken is a bird, but chicken is meat.  The meat comes from – who cares, it is, linguistically, a separate issue.  The final disappearances take a hilarious Dada turn that move towards the novel I was imagining.

The conceit of The Memory Police created a curious Oulipo-like effect for me, where the most banal list of objects – “The rest of the tools of his trade were close at hand – files and cards, a bottle of correction fluid, a letter opener, a stapler” (13, 103-4) – becomes full of significance.  Unlike almost all other novels, I cannot assume anything about this history-free, disintegrating world.  I have to imaginatively populate it item by item.  Weird.  It is a little like the moment in Titus Alone (1959) when the “car” appears.

The prose is pretty flat.  There are many banal lists of objects.  But the conceptual justification is clear enough.  Maybe the novel had more interesting words that disappeared.

I liked Peter Gordon’s review of The Memory Police in the Asian Review of Books.  He thinks the whole thing is “an allegory on aging and mortality,” which is plausible.  I myself was strongly tempted to allegorize, but I resisted.