Friday, 22 May 2009

Some Prefer Nettles

I have been intrigued by Japan of late; some friends have or are planning to go travelling there and it has heightened my desire to one day visit. I love the food, the culture, the cinema. A few books I have read recently have had Japanese elements to them as well as reading some Haruki Murakami (Sputnik Sweetheart), although his books are so surreal and the setting can be so non-descript that they could almost be set anywhere... is that just me? To me Murakami is almost quintessentially un-Japanese.

It was for this reason that I thought I would read Some Prefer Nettles by Jun'ichiro Tanizaki, which is considered one of Japanese literature's great novels, without being a typical example. I am curious to know what then constitutes as a classic Japanese novel, classic in the sense of standard; I have I am a Cat by Soseki Natsume and Out by Natsuo Kirino on my bookshelves so perhaps one of those fit this elusive sense of Japanese.

The synopsis of Some Prefer Nettles intrigued me:

The marriage of Kaname and Misako is disintegrating: whilst seeking passion and fulfilment in the arms of others, they contemplate the humiliation of divorce. Misako's father believes their relationship has been damaged by the influence of a new and alien culture, and so attempts to heal the breach by educating his son-in-law in the time-honoured Japanese traditions of aesthetic and sensual pleasure. The result is an absorbing, chilling conflict between ancient and modern, young and old.

The prose is elegant and to begin with I was caught up in the emotional turmoil of the marriage break-up and the rendering of Japanese culture but, in the end, I was disappointed. The ending was abrupt and inconclusive and the passivity of Kaname and Misako irritated me. The descriptions of Japanese drama (puppet theatre with traditional dolls) were lengthy and over-bearing; I was interested in the outset but the frequent and dry history lessons bored me.

What I have taken from the text though is an ongoing interest in Japanese culture and a desire to read more Japanese literature. Coincidentally, the lovely Nymeth has just informed me that I have won her prize draw for a copy of The Fox Woman by Kij Johnson, which she kindly had dispatched to me today. I am very excited as I have been wanting to read this since reading her review of the text; it could not have come at a better time as I find that after a reading disappointment it is best to jump right back on the horse, in this case the horse is Japanese literature.

Don't get me wrong: Some Prefer Nettles wasn't awful, by any means, but it did not live up to my expectations. As mentioned above I took other things from it, including the fact that I love reading literature in translation and yet can be unconcious of doing so (it surprises me how many different books in translation I have read this month -Icelandic, French, Japanese- almost unintentionally) and I am going to endeavour to read more.

The meditation upon Japanese culture also provided me with a new-found understanding of Angela Carter's short story collection, Fireworks, which I re-read earlier this year. The stories collected in Fireworks are mostly set in Japan, written -and influenced by- Carter's time living there; insight into Japanese tradition and aesthetic from reading Some Prefer Nettles allowed me further appreciation of these stories and the vivid rendering of the culture that Carter achieves. I may even go back sooner than planned and re-read some again, especially "The Loves of Lady Purple" about a life-size Japanese puppet manipulated to life at the necromantical hands of the puppet-master.


claire said...

I read a lot of translations quite unintentionally, too. They're just overall very appealing to me, the subject matter, usually. I really liked Tanizaki's The Makioka Sisters. It's a little dry as well, but have you noticed a lot of Japanese lit are like that? I love them, too, though. The style is essentially spare and quiet. My favourite is Kenzaburo Oe. Also Yasunari Kawabata.

Paperback Reader said...

I completely agree about the dryness, but there is also an identifiable sublimity.

The Makioka Sisters appeals to me, as does The Key.

I will keep your recommendations in mind; I have seen Snow Country but Kawabata mentioned around often.

claire said...

You described them perfectly: sublime.

Cornflower said...

I'm very interested to read what you write about Some Prefer Nettles as it was suggested as a possible for the book group and I was quite keen to try it. We also had a Murakami on the list, but "a trusted critic" thought it would put a lot of people off!

Paperback Reader said...

Cornflower, you may like it but it is so dry that I'm not sure if it would generate much discussion...

I personally love Murakami but he is an acquired taste; very surreal writing.

Nymeth said...

I can't wait to see what you think of The Fox Woman :)

Fireworks is a book I'd love to revisit. It's been long enough that I only remember a few of the stories, and even though I really enjoyed it then, I have a feeling I'd appreciate it a lot more now.

Paperback Reader said...

I'm SO looking forward to reading it!

My appreciation for Fireworks and what Carter achieved has definitely deepened from reading this.

mel u said...

I found the ending to be unexpected-maybe I am off in this but I quite enjoyed the descriptions of the Puppet theater-I found the passivity of the characters to be logical in the context-based on my limited reading of Tanizaki's work I would start with The Secret History of the Lord of Musashi and Arrowroot (both published in the same book by Vintage-thanks for your very interesting post-

Paperback Reader said...

Mel, I did enjoy the descriptions initially but then found them tedious. I'm not sure that I would agree that their passivity was logical in the context although I can see and appreciate their reluctance in officially dissolving their marriage; I found it altogether too unfair on their son.

Thank you for your recommendations!