Wednesday, April 1, 2020

The Makioka Sisters implies another novel - You can imagine how we suffered.

The Makioka Sisters begins in late 1936 and ends on April 26, 1941.  It was published in three parts from 1946 to 1948.  The beginning was serialized in 1943 and then censored, suppressed – I would love to know what happened there.  Imagining an original reader, the novel begins seven years in the past, and by chance ends seven years in the past.  Some of those intervening years were all-too-eventful.

Japan is at war during the entire length of the novel, in Manchuria at the beginning and then more broadly when Japan invades China in 1937.  All of this is at a great distance from the events of the novel.  I see why Tanizaki wanted a family of sisters.  Just the homefront here.  An unknowing reader might think that the “ordinary life” of the Makioka family in the beginning of the novel is just preparation for the extraordinary, almost unimaginable, except that every reader of 1946 had just survived it, life during the war with the United States.

But no.  The entire 530 page novel – in the original edition, 1,400 pages! (Keene, 109) – is just preparation.  The catastrophe is always coming but never comes.  Donald Keene notes that the novel’s “continuous movement of life is not interrupted by the ends of chapters” (108).  It is not even interrupted by the end of the novel!  This is the famous last line:

Yukiko’s diarrhea persisted through the twenty-sixth, and was a problem on the train to Tokyo. (3.37, 530)

That is a perfect Makioka sentence, with the interesting event, the illness, and the date.  The only strange thing is that no sentence or chapter or page follows it.  The next five-hundred page novel, the one where there is no longer such a thing as ordinary life, the one containing the bombing of Osaka (March 13, 1945) and the American Occupation, is not written but entirely implied.

I could see that the implied novel existed.  Imagine those first Japanese readers.  What novel did they see?

Tanizaki builds towards the war.  Outside events are mentioned rarely, then occasionally, then frequently.  The 530 pages are justified.  Time has to pass; the outside world has to impinge in a way that feels natural.  By the end of the novel, Tanizaki even, finally, shifts his tone, allowing a more direct ironic effect.  A chapter about Sachiko’s vacation, a “second honeymoon,” is unique:

Perhaps she was too tired, however, for there had been an air-raid drill that day [first mention of this!] and she had found herself in a bucket brigade.  In any case, she would doze off and dream of the air-raid drill and wake up only to doze off and dream the same dream again…  Coffee cups and beer steins and wine glasses and wine and whisky bottles would be snapping and cracking in the dining room too.  This is just as bad – she would lead them upstairs, where they would find all the light bulbs exploding.  (3..25, 462)

The explicit symbolism (drinking vessels from around the world) and violence of the dream are clear enough.  A couple of pages later, when I read that the lake “had until recently been noisy with refugees from the heat” (464) the innocent metaphor takes on another meaning.  A few pages from the end of the novel, Tanizaki reprises the theme.  The Makiokas receive letters from their German friends, now back in Germany.  One is from Hamburg (“Here in the city we all live in caves,” 3.36, 522, remembering that this is merely 1941), the other from Berlin:

It has been very cold, but from now on it will be warmer, they say.  In January it went down to zero.  You can imagine how we suffered.  We have steam heat, however, and it is pleasant and warm indoors.  German houses have double windows and are far better built than Japanese houses.  We are not bothered by wind through the cracks!  (524)

This passage, to rub it in nominally written by a child, is excruciating.  Vladimir Nabokov ends his 1947 totalitarian fantasy Bend Sinister by looking away from his own pages as his story becomes too cruel to bear.  Tanizaki seems to be doing something similar, except more radical.  You know, he suggests, what happens next.

Dolce Bellezza hosted this readalong of The Makioka Sisters for her long-lived Japanese Literature Challenge, may it last forever.


  1. Well, I’m not sure about lasting forever, but I appreciate the sentiment.

    Overall, are you glad you read this 530 page classic? Or, would you rather you had not?

  2. Yes! With me, it is fair to assume that I have enjoyed everything I have read, and thus we can move on to more interesting issues. Enjoying books, I have found, is one of the easiest things in life to do.

  3. Tanazaki's final novel has recently been translated. The Maids focuses on the live in help of families very much like the Makioka sisters but very a very different perspective. If it becomes available in a Kindle, for sure I will read it. I hope this lockdown period finds you and your family well

  4. Thanks for the kind thoughts. The same to you.

    Tanizaki had such a long career. He must have periods and whatnot. I hope to go backwards next, to Nettles and some of the novellas of the 1930s, see what he is up to there.