What Makes a “True Novel”?

J. Keith Vincent

Minae Mizumura’s A True Novel is an utterly absorbing love story set against the broad backdrop of pre- and postwar Japan. It tells the story of Taro Azuma, who grows up as an orphan in grinding poverty. As a young child he comes into the orbit of two grand families, the Shigemitsus and the Saegusas, whose wealth and Westernized manners, dazzling in his eyes, are iconic of the pre- and postwar Japanese bourgeoisie. Taro falls in love with Yoko, one of the Saegusa granddaughters, and although he goes on to accumulate vast wealth doing business in the United States after the war (as does Japan itself), the class difference is too great for him and Yoko to marry. Loosely modeled on Emily Brontë’s Wuthering Heights, A True Novel works both as a page-turner of a romance and as a richly detailed narrative of the profound and often traumatic historical transformations that marked 20th-century Japan. But what are we to make of its title? 

Until not so very long ago, the phrase “true novel” (honkaku shōsetsu) was common in Japanese literary criticism. More often translated as “genuine novel” or “orthodox novel,” the term refers to what we might think of as good old-fashioned Victorian triple deckers: lots of well-described characters, masterful (if not always reliable) narration, and above all a good fictional story. Mizumura’s A True Novel more than lives up to its name. But by choosing the phrase as her title, she also points ironically to the fraught history of the novel form in 20th-century Japan, where “true” (i.e., “orthodox”) novels by the likes of the Brontës, Austen, Dickens, and Flaubert stood as the genuine article against which Japanese writers, caught in the glare of European power, tended to judge their own productions, and harshly. One measure of this can be found in the fact that for many decades there was only one novel written in Japanese that Japanese critics could all agree deserved the appellation. This was Natsume Sōseki’s 1916 masterpiece, Light and Dark (Meian), a novel that has also recently appeared in English, in a pitch-perfect new translation by John Nathan.

The publication in English of these two novels is a great event. Their almost simultaneous appearance is especially intriguing because Mizumura has deep connections to Sōseki. Her untranslated debut novel, Light and Dark, Continued (Zoku-Meian), was an attempt to “finish” Sōseki’s masterpiece, a book he died just before completing, and she has written some of the best criticism out there on Sōseki. A True Novel, like all of Mizumura’s work, has a lot of Sōseki in its veins as well. Simply put, Mizumura is great to read alongside Sōseki, and these two new translations pair especially well.

But before I say more about the novels individually, I want to linger a bit on the concept of the “true novel” in Japanese. Mizumura’s translator, Juliet Winters Carpenter, has presumably chosen to render the Japanese word honkaku in Mizumura’s title with the English word “true” in order to harvest the latter’s double meaning: both “true” in the sense of “genuine” or “orthodox,” and “true” in the sense of “verifiable.” Although, strictly speaking, honkaku means only the former, both work perfectly well as modifiers of the Japanese word shōsetsu. Neither the phrase “true novel” nor “genuine novel,” however, sound quite right in the Anglophone ear. That’s because the word shōsetsu, although it is conventionally used to translate “novel” (and vice versa) means something slightly (but importantly) different.

Always changing and always on the move, the novel, we are told, is so protean and diverse in its forms that no single example can ever be exemplary, let alone “genuine” or “orthodox.”

Novels are fictional by definition. So if we read the phrase “a true novel” as meaning “a novel that tells a true story” it can only be an oxymoron. The shōsetsu, by contrast, can and does tell true stories—and its readers often expect exactly that. In the I-novel, in particular—the dominant form that the novel has taken in modern Japan—truth telling is a key ingredient, often involving cringe-inducing details about the author’s sex life and familial relations. For Japanese readers raised on I-novels, then, there is nothing oxymoronic about the notion of a novel (or rather, a shōsetsu) being described as “true.” Of course, as many critics have pointed out, the “truth” of the I-novel is as much the rhetorical effect of certain novelistic techniques as the result of the author’s truthfulness, and the I-novelist’s much-vaunted “sincerity” is itself a kind of pose. For example, I-novels tend to be short on plot and characterization and long on fragmentary and impressionistic accounts of the author’s private experiences. This fragmentary character makes them seem artless, which implies factual honesty. As Mizumura’s first narrator, Minae (who is herself a novelist), explains, “what readers look for in this genre is the absence of the authorial will—of the intention to create, through words, an independent universe.” The “true novel,” by contrast, reeks of artifice. Mizumura is a writer who thinks a lot about genre and explicitly positions herself between the Japanese and the Euro-American traditions. Her second novel, Shishōsetsu from left to right (An I-Novel from Left to Right), was just that—an autobiographical I-novel, that most Japanese of novelistic forms, but printed horizontally on the page like an English novel. A True Novel is also an attempt to fuse together the two traditions of the “true novel” and the I-novel while reflecting critically on both, raising fascinating questions about what it takes, in different literary-cultural contexts, for a work of literature to feel true.

Like Wuthering Heights, A True Novel uses multiple narrators. But unlike Brontë, Mizumura opens her novel in the voice of a narrator much like herself, a woman named Minae who, like Mizumura, grows up in both Japan and the US, goes to graduate school at Yale, and ends up teaching Japanese literature at the University of Michigan and, later, Stanford. We learn all this in a long prologue that reads a lot like an I-novel and in which Minae explains that she is having difficulty writing her third novel. The prologue also explains how Minae briefly knew Taro Azuma herself in the 1960s, when he first moved to New York to work as a chauffeur for a wealthy friend of Minae’s father. Taro (the novel’s Heathcliff) is extremely handsome, if a bit gruff, and the young Minae is intrigued by him. But he is also older than her, and extremely ambitious. They lose touch as his career takes off. Toward the end of the prologue, Minae encounters another young man named Yusuke who relates to her the story of Taro’s further adventures. Yusuke himself has heard Taro’s story from a housemaid named Fumiko who once worked for Yoko’s family. After Yusuke meets Fumiko one dark and stormy night in the fashionable Japanese resort town of Karuizawa (where much of the story takes place), the narration switches to Fumiko’s voice. Mizumura’s novel, then, is best described as a “true novel” in the mode of Wuthering Heights (Yusuke and Fumiko structurally parallel Brontë’s Lockwood and Nellie) wrapped in an I-novel narrated by Minae. The long I-novel-like prologue works as a launching pad into the fully realized fictional world, the independent universe of Taro and Yoko. Thanks to this complex structure, A True Novel is not the pale imitative tribute one might expect upon hearing that it is “loosely based on” Brontë’s novel. Instead, Mizumura seems to have swallowed Brontë’s masterpiece whole, appropriating it as one of many layers in her own metafictional takes on the history of postwar Japan, her own history as a reader, and the Japanese novel in relation to its Euro-American cousins. 

The Brontë sisters. Photograph by Nuwandalice / Flickr

Which brings me to the second meaning of “a true novel”: one that is “genuine” or “orthodox,” in the tradition of the European ideal. In English, these adjectives are just as odd as “true” (in the sense of “verifiable”) as descriptors for a novel, a medium Marthe Robert once described as “undefined and virtually undefinable.” Always changing and always on the move, the novel, we are told, is so protean and diverse in its forms that no single example can ever be exemplary, let alone “genuine” or “orthodox.” But while this is often said of novels in the European context, things look different in colonial or pseudo-colonial situations, like early 20th-century Japan, where the European novel was understood as a high rung on the ladder of civilization. This made it less a radical and open-ended “genre to end all genres” than a sort of merit badge of modernity. By the late 19th century, when the country began its race to catch up with Europe and America, the newly imported novel came vested with all of the authority of Western “civilization,” and the appearance of a “true novel” in the local vernacular was a much-awaited sign of modernity achieved. If adjectives like “genuine” or “orthodox” make more sense as modifiers of the shōsetsu in Japanese than they do of the novel in English, this has to be read as a lingering aftereffect of Japan’s pseudo-colonial obsession with the West.

Mizumura’s title winks at this obsession. “I thought it would be fun,” she has written, “if a woman writer claimed with a straight face that she has finally come up with the ‘true novel.’” The reference to herself here as a “woman writer” might sound ironically self-deprecating (as if she were saying, “even a woman writer … ”), but her perspective on gender incorporates the ability not just to “come up with the true novel,” but to rethink the category itself. This may come as a surprise to some readers of Sōseki, for whom he is a sort of paragon of the modern male intellectual, but what links Mizumura most intimately to Sōseki is a shared preoccupation with gender relations in and around the novel. What Mizumura and Sōseki have in common, moreover, is an ability to take what techniques they needed from the “true” European novel, without being distracted by the glare of its prestige, and combine them with native Japanese techniques to their own critical ends.

 


 

Almost everyone in Japan reads Sōseki; until just a few years ago, his portrait appeared on the ¥1000 bill. But despite his immense popularity at home, he remains scandalously under-read outside Japan. There are signs, however, including Nathan’s Light and Dark and a number of other new English translations of his works, that one of the greatest writers of the 20th century may finally be getting the wider readership his work deserves.

Born in 1867, the year before the Meiji Restoration toppled the Tokugawa Shogunate and put the emperor on the throne in Tokyo, Sōseki was just old enough to remember the old Japan and young enough to understand the new. His first work, I Am a Cat (1905), is a gleeful satire of the Japanese intelligentsia’s superficial Westernization at the dawn of the 20th century. Its feline narrator (“as yet I have no name”) offers arch commentary on the habits of his owner, a Sōseki-like professor, and the crew of blowhards who gather in his study. A motley mix of genres, I Am a Cat blends Japanese oral storytelling traditions with a self-reflexive narrative complexity that rivals Laurence Sterne’s Tristram Shandy, a book that Sōseki knew well and loved.

In the two years following I Am a Cat, Sōseki wrote at an astonishing pace, producing a string of novels each utterly different from the last: from the Huck Finn–like Botchan, to the “haiku novel” Kusamakura, to The Miner, which reads like a cross between Kafka and Camus but was written before Kafka had published a word or Camus was born. In 1907 he quit a prestigious teaching post at Tokyo Imperial University to take a position as a novelist in the employ of the Asahi newspaper. Over the nine years before his death in 1916, he would serialize nine more novels, offering intricate and increasingly dark views of the daily lives and quiet miseries of Tokyo’s bourgeoisie. The last of these was Light and Dark.

Sōseki was the first Japanese professor of British literature at Tokyo University, and knew it better than any Japanese of his generation. But he was also fiercely critical of the racialist discourses at the time that suggested the “greatness” of British literature sprang from Britain’s advanced stage of civilization. In one essay, he famously predicted that Shakespeare would one day go out of style—not because he did not appreciate Shakespeare’s work, but to illustrate the changeability of literary taste, and to clear room for the possibility of greatness emerging in places other than Europe. This combination of deep knowledge and deep ambivalence about the British and their literature was part of what made a novel like Light and Dark possible, which took what it needed from Austen and Eliot to produce perhaps the most clear-eyed depiction in all of modern Japanese literature of the mixed bag that the newly invented “love marriage” offered to young Japanese, and especially to Japanese women, in his time.

An advertisement for a radio station in Kumamoto borrows Sōseki's likeness. Photograph by ageo_akaihana / Flickr

The two protagonists of Light and Dark, Yoshio Tsuda and his wife, O-Nobu, are a young, recently married couple, struggling to establish psychic and economic independence from a suffocating web of obligations to their extended family and others. The book’s first half centers on Tsuda, a deeply uninteresting narcissist, whose secret thoughts of returning to a former lover keep him emotionally unavailable to O-Nobu even as he puts on a show of marital bliss to get his family off his back and curry favor with his boss. Tsuda’s pathetic “vacillations between moral scruple and self-interest” are a riveting train-wreck in Sōseki’s unsparing hands. But the novel really comes into its own after the halfway point, when the focus shifts to his wife. O-Nobu is determined to crack Tsuda’s shell and claim his love for herself; not because he is loveable, or even because she loves him, but because doing so is the only way she knows to establish her own autonomy. At one point O-Nobu expounds her philosophy to an uncomprehending younger female cousin who is just entering marriageable age. In order to be happy, she explains,


Just love the person you’ve decided is the one for you. And make him love you no matter what … It’s the same for everyone. A person may not be happy now, but all it takes is her intention and there will be happiness in her future. She will be happy. She will be happy and show everyone. Do you see, Tsugiko? Do you agree?

In the end, if Light and Dark is a “true novel,” it owes that status to its depiction of O-Nobu. In a historical context where the “love marriage” had only just been invented, monogamy for men was a freakish rarity, and the demands of the extended family took precedence over the marital bond, O-Nobu’s desire to have Tsuda all for herself strikes those around her as “selfish” and even transgressive. This is certainly how it looks to O-Nobu’s sister-in-law O-Hide, the representative in the novel of traditional family relations. “You two think of nothing in this world except yourselves!,” she tells the couple. “So long as the two of you are doing well, it doesn’t matter how distressed or confused someone else may be, you can turn the other way and pretend they don’t exist—that’s it.”

As Reiko Abe Auestad has argued, Sōseki had to break a few rules (not unlike O-Nobu herself), and even invent an entirely new novelistic language, to represent in Japanese the kind of autonomy that O-Nobu wants and that O-Hide is complaining about here. Because the Japanese language tends to avoid subject pronouns, and verbs do not conjugate according to person, the thoughts and feelings of different characters, and those of the narrator, can easily blur into one another. The resulting difficulty of distinguishing one voice from another may help explain the dominance of the I-novel in Japan. As Edward Fowler has argued, the I-novel features a kind of “single consciousness narration” that tends to color everyone in it with the subjectivity of the author. As Auestad points out, however, in Light and Dark Sōseki uses a “he” (kare) or a “she” (kanojo), and sometimes several, in almost every sentence, in an attempt to keep the voices from merging. It is an effort that both parallels and represents the struggle of his characters to maintain their individuality against the collective. While this consistent use of pronouns sounds bizarre and unnatural in Japanese, translated into English it is of course perfectly normal. So what may strike English readers as just another novelistic story (however compelling) appeared nothing short of revolutionary in Japanese. It is this technical innovation, shining a bright light on the private consciousness of these very different characters while keeping them so clearly in the dark about each other, that may account for Light and Dark’s reputation in Japan as a “true novel.”

 


 

Mizumura has written of Light and Dark as evidence of Sōseki’s “keen perception of the novelistic as the very space in which men and women engage in dialogue.” She attributes this to his “unique familiarity with 18th- and 19th-century English literature,” and specifically the work of women writers like Jane Austen, the Brontës, and George Eliot. This was a hard-won achievement for Sōseki, who, like all Japanese of his generation, grew up in a society where men and women lived in very separate worlds. He was also keenly aware of what it cost: the heterosocial intimacy that O-Nobu desires sometimes seems to come at the expense of everyone else in her life, hence O-Hide’s perception that O-Nobu wants to “turn the other way and pretend that other people don’t exist.” If O-Nobu wants to live in a romantic “true novel,” Tsuda, in his obliviousness to her and everyone else, is the “I” of his own I-novel.

In Light and Dark, men and women may engage in an unprecedented amount of dialogue, for Sōseki’s time at least, but they remain fatally cut off from one another.

A True Novel’s Taro and Yoko, on the other hand, inhabit the same novelistic space. As the “I” and the “he” and the “she” are all layered into a dense weave of voices, the old dichotomy between “true novel” and I-novel fades away, and the characters come to life as they travel back and forth between Japan and the United States. Sōseki would have loved it.