Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Futabatei Shimei's Ukigumo - He went back upstairs to wait.

Futabatei Shimei's Ukigumo or Drifting Clouds (1887-89) is the first modern Japanese novel. Meaning the first to successfully incorporate novelistic techniques like interiority, colloquial language, and psychological realism.

It's a strange, almost inevitably disappointing, category, "first X novel." I read another example earlier this year, Mendele Mocher Sforim's "The Little Man." It was quite good - Ukigumo is quite good - but I could not help but marvel a bit that this is the source of all the fuss.

The literary ideas, the literary possibilities, that are now historically attached to Ukigumo or "The Little Man" have been completely absorbed, explored, undermined and rebuilt by other, greater, writers and books. The linguistic innovations, such as the colloquial conversations, are even worse, hard to discover in translation. So it would be strange if the "first" novel did not seem a little pale.

Futabatei's models were English and Russian. Bunzo, protagonist of Ukigumo, is a Turgenev-like Superfluous Man. We meet him just as he has been laid off from some vague government job. His plans to marry his young cousin are disrupted. Passive to begin with, he is reduced to something close to inactivity and silence. A rival bureaucrat moves in on his cousin, with the connivance of his status-seeking aunt (a first-rate character, the best thing in the book). The novel ends in stasis and irresolution. In all likelihood, Futabatei left the book unfinished, but the ending, although unsatisfying, is fitting (the last sentence is in my post's title).

If it sounds like the sort of thing one has read before, it is. The Japanese setting generates interest, though. We're in modernizing Meiji Japan. The novel begins with a description of office workers and their weird mix of Western and Japanese beards and clothes. The ethos is definitely not that of a Turgenev novel.

To my knowledge, Ukigumo is only available in English as part of Marleigh Grayer Ryan's Japan's First Modern Novel: Ukigumo of Futabatei Shimei (1967), Columbia University Press. Half of that book is the translation, half is annotation and apparatus. It all seemed pretty good to me.

How I need to go fill in the paperwork to register my completion of the Japanese Literature Challenge.


  1. Your posts are always enriching and filled with such wonderful history.

  2. Thanks - you should enjoy the rest of the week, too, the first Wuthering Expectations posts on a Hebrew writer.

  3. Congratulations on finishing the challenge~will you read another, or stop here? I'm always intrigued by the books for which you post reviews.

  4. interesting post-do you see the work as of interest mainly as piece of literary history?-

  5. Good question. Ukigumo is a good novel that has additional interest because of its place in literary history. That's what I'd say.

    It wasn't as good as Koda Rohan's The Five-Storied Pagoda, for example, just to stick to the 19th century. That Rohan story was somethin' else.

    Hmm. Will I read more? How about I find some space this year for The Book of Tea?

  6. I agree; it's always an odd experience to read a work that's been so thoroughly eclipsed by its own descendants. Hard to imagine yourself back to a time when its innovations were new and remarkable. This sounds interesting, though, if only for the setting and the knowledge of its historical role.