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.


  1. It is so true about the evenness of tone, catastrophic flood receiving the same attention as the sushi restaurant. I find along with the evenness, a sort of flatness, too. No one seems to be very upset about anything! There is no drama of an outward nature; if any emotion is to be found, it is within the characters themselves, not around them.

    I think Donald Keene’s word “meaninglessly” is absurd. There is a lot of meaning, about family dynamics for one thing, and a lot to ponder. Just like all famous families, the Oblonsky’s, for example, or the Buddenbrooks, for another, they become part of my mental landscape...another marker for my board on how this game of life is played. It was all the more fascinating to me because it was Japanese.

  2. Would a different family have any different meaning, though? Or is it all arbitrary? That's what Keene is wondering, and me, too. Would different choices of incident matter much?

    The oral history I imagine also contains lots of sociological meaning about family dynamics, and is full of interesting Japanese cultural detail. What is Tanizaki doing that the sociologist is not?

    1. You ask such good questions, Tom, which I do not really have an answer for. However, Stephen left a quite insightful comment on my blog post, and leaves us with his thought as to the purpose of the novel as this: “That life is full of suffering and tragedy and failure, but without beauty we are nothing.” Any thoughts?

    2. He meant that as a summary of the purpose of the novel? I had not taken it that way. I do not really see the argument that Makioka is making that argument. If I ever get this next post written, the argument will not have anything to do with beauty. This is one weird novel to justify on the grounds of beauty. See that last sentence (which will be in my post, once I write it).

      He does say the line you quote "says everything," which would be a lot. The statement, on its own, is not something I believe is true. We are something with beauty, but we are also something without beauty.

      If anyone wants to see what I am babbling about, scroll down to Stephen's comment. I don't get it!

  3. “That life is full of suffering and tragedy and failure, but without beauty we are nothing.”

    That is not a novel, that is pop philosophy. Novels are about language and the world and characters and their connections and how the novelist arranges them and the figurative language used to tie things together (and therefore language and more language). The importance of beauty is a chess piece that can be played by one of the characters ("I say, Quimby, life is full of suffering and tragedy and failure, but without beauty we are nothing!") but, like any other abstract idea, is fatal as an actual driver of a novel.

    As for Stephen's comment, I don't like this at all: "Since I’m a man I wasn’t thinking of the four sisters in terms of identification; I was thinking of each woman’s attractiveness..." That's a terrible way to read and a terrible way to approach half the human race.

  4. The beauty argument fits badly with this novel. It is more Zola than Flaubert, so to speak. The frequent descriptions of disease are more or less clinical. No attempt to beautify or romanticize.

    I have wondered if the practice of "identification" is one of the great divides between types of readers. I am not much of an identifier, and never have been.

    1. I am a huge identifier, so to speak, able to connect with well-written characters as if they were real. It’s a wonder we can communicate so well about literature, although sometimes when I read your posts, and others’ comments, I feel I’m in a bit over my head. Nonetheless, I enjoy trying to grasp all you and your blogging buddies say.☺️

      I am still thinking about the beauty comment, and while it is not a comprehensive summary of the novel, there is some validity to it on a certain level. The Japanese, from my reading, and my time there, are very occupied with “beauty.” Not in a commercial type of way I often see in America. I mean, in their presentation of food on a plate, the tying of a kimono, the spareness of architecture, bonsai, or haiku. It’s almost anywhere you look. So, to me, the idea of beauty carries some weight as it pertains to this novel and to the Japanese culture.

    2. Oh you don't have to tell me about the Japanese obsession with beauty. I loved it. I think that's the most direct thing I ever wrote about Japanese aesthetics - also linked to a Japanese Literature Challenge.

      I have been to the same Kabuki theater (rebuilt) visited by the characters in the novel. Oh yeah!

      The surprising thing about Makioka, what needed some interpretation, was the various ways it avoided beauty, or was even deliberately ugly. But that is part of the strategy Keene identifies: "Tanizaki sees to it that every dramatic moment is followed by its natural let-down" (108). He is working against the tendency towards beauty in some ways, in part because its all about to be bombed out of existence.

  5. Plenty of folks expect art (or the world generally) to be a mirror, when it's really usually a window.

    Regarding Keene's claim, a lot of the Japanese fiction I've read maintains one tone through the length of the piece, which in a way makes it "flat" in that there are no--in terms of prose--changes in intensity, but certainly that "flatness" of prose is not a gauge of the actual content of the book. Kawabata's Snow Country is an intense read, full of emotion, expressed in gentle and even waves of language.

    I've begun to think that a lot of Japanese fiction from the first 3/4 of the 20th century uses some of the same rules as Henry James: the most important actions are subtle and easily missed, and a good deal is elided, the reader expected to sense that something is missing and ask himself what that is. I don't know enough about Japanese culture to know if this elision is normal in other art forms.

  6. I've begun to think that a lot of Japanese fiction from the first 3/4 of the 20th century uses some of the same rules as Henry James: the most important actions are subtle and easily missed, and a good deal is elided, the reader expected to sense that something is missing and ask himself what that is.

    I haven't read much Japanese lit (shameful for someone who was actually born in Japan and spent a fair number of years there), but that's a very perceptive observation that fits with what I have read and that I will bear in mind in future. Thanks for that.

  7. That particular Keene book is good - a punchy 110 pages - but it is 95% about pre-20th century literature. My understanding is that at that point Keene, one of the few real Western experts, had read almost no 20th century Japanese fiction! The section on Makioka, which he calls by another name (it's another Snow novel!), is the introduction of the novel to the West.

    I presume he changed some part of his opinion over time. I was hoping someone readalonging would have a copy of Dawn to the West, published thirty years later, but I guess not.

    I have hardly read any Japanese fiction. That crazy Modernist Kawabata novel from 1930 was in no way flat. Yukio Mishima is not flat. Lots of changes in intensity. The movies I have seen from the period or a bit later - again, not many, but I mean Kurosawa, Ozu, and Mizoguchi - have lots of variety of tone and intensity.

    Still, this is a giant "I don't know." Most of the important Japanese writers of the 1950s and 1960s, for example, are just names to me, if that.

  8. Which Mishima? I think of him as pretty restrained. I'm comparing him to writers like Dickens or Lawrence, Nabokov or Dostoyevski or Woolf, folks who are always performing.

    Most of the Japanese films I've seen have Godzilla in them. "Seven Samurai" seems very stagey and mannered to me. What do I know about film.

  9. I had to remind myself of the Mishima. It's been a while. I'm sure I've forgotten one. The Sailor Who Fell from Grace with the Sea - completely insane. The Temple of the Golden Pavilion - full of shocking things, treated as if shocking. Spring Snow - more snow titles - restrained, yes, but hardly flat. Some events are more important than others. Plus its not 530 pages long.

    Maybe my emphasis has failed. The Makioka Sisters is way, way more avant-garde in its flatness than you think. It is a cousin of Mr. Bailey, Grocer. Sitting motionless for hours can also be a performance.

  10. Insane and shocking, yes. Lots of murder and assault in Mishima, but I don't see the prose--the narrative tone I mean--responding to the events in the novels. That boy in Sailor is a nasty piece of work, but I don't recall the narrator getting excited about any of it. I haven't read the Makioka Sisters yet, so no comment. Nor have I read, Mr B, Grocer. But I agree about motionlessness being a performance sometimes.

    I guess we can say that Japanese literature of the 20th century is varied and has different effects on different readers. Not so much of a surprise.

    1. I suppose that means we'll have to actually read all the novels and discuss them, not just make sweeping generalizations, which ups the degree of difficulty for lazy thinkers like me.

  11. Or just read Dawn to the West or something. Use Keene's generalizations. That's what I would do, if I or anyone had a copy handy.

    I flipped to the last page of Sailor not exactly randomly. I am just saying, look at the verbs - "surging," "teeming," "seething" - "majestic, acclaimed, heroic death unfurled its rapture across his brain" - "The tropical sun blaring across the sky..."

    Nothing in Makioka seethes, teems, or blares.