We’re in 1930’s Japan and one of the main themes of the book is how the people, the upper middle business class, anyway, feel torn between modern Japan with all its new western influence and traditional Japan. The author tells us that to be foreign is to court unhappiness. A ferry boat the main character travels on has a “western deck” and traditional Japanese deck. The house of the main character has a traditional Japanese wing and an “American wing.” The main character goes to a house of prost
The story is one of a terribly unhappy marriage between two people who do not interest each other sexually and who feel a tormenting uncertainty over what to do about it. They consider divorce but they have a school-aged son, greatly complicating things. The woman often cries herself to sleep but the husband feels paralyzed to even reach out to her. Yet he feels they could be “good friends” if they weren’t married. He doesn’t mind that she has taken a lover and in fact has encouraged her to do so.
The main character is the King of Indecisiveness; he wants to delay any action, postpone making any decisions. He’s crazy enough to want to keep involving more people in the divorce decision process to get their input: a male cousin who is friends with his wife; his father-in-law, and even his wife’s lover! As he muses at one point: “It was as though he married her to become obsessed with the question of how can I get away from her?”
Just as he is torn between leaving his wife or staying with her, he reflects the book’s larger theme by being torn between the two competing cultures. Despite his western predilections, he starts to admire his father-in-law, who, in his old age, has turned back to traditional Japanese culture. The father-in-law has taken up with a young geisha. He starts collecting traditional puppets used in plays and insists on drinking sake only from ancient wooden lacquerware cups.
Here are some good quotes related to the father-in-law:
“I read somewhere the other day that men who are too fond of the ladies when they are young generally turn into antique-collectors when they get old.”
“He was always careful to cultivate in his dress and his manner an impression of advanced years.” He believed “Old men should act like old men.”
The main character thinks “…the regret at divorcing his father-in-law might be somewhat stronger than the regret at divorcing his wife…”
Speaking of puppets, one chapter in the book talks quite a bit about traditional Japanese puppet plays. This must have been a theme in Japanese literature at the time: pick a traditional Japanese theme and expand upon it. I’m reminded of the discussion of the special Japanese fabric called chijimi in the novel Snow Country by Yasunari Kawabata.
There is also a theme, touched on several times, of regional variation in Japanese culture: Tokyo “reserve” vs. Osaka “openness and probing by asking brash questions even of strangers.”
The author also tells us about what he sees as the phenomenon of “woman-worship” in western culture, going back to the Greeks and epitomized in the modern era by Hollywood always seeking new ways to display womanly beauty.
The prose is interesting. We are told in the introduction that the author is a stylist who aims at a dreamy, floating prose, suspicious of too vivid a choice of words, too clear a view, too conspicuous a transition from one figure or idea to another. The author is quoted in the introduction as writing “Do not try to be too clear; leaves some gaps in the meaning” and “…we consider it good form to keep a thin sheet of paper between the fact or the object and the words that give expression to it.” And of course, for English readers, the translation adds another filmy layer of gauze to the words.
One more quote I liked: “Japanese food is meant to be looked at and not eaten…”
A good read about pre-WW II Japan.
photo of Tokyo in 1930’s from rakugoleon.wordpress.com
Japanese puppets from jigsaw-japan.com